Entangled in our social networks

A popular new film and a tragic suicide remind the Monitor's language columnist how the power of communications technologies needs to be tempered with humane values.

Let me start with a little frisson of local enthusiasm: It's not every day that one goes to the cinema to see a major motion picture whose opening scenes were shot within a few hundred feet of where one is sitting.

OK, now that's out of the way.

"The Social Network" is a fictionalized account of the launch by Harvard students of the wildly successful Facebook website. The film opened the same week as many people were sobered by the tragic suicide of a Rutgers student. He was apparently victimized by another use of technology, by fellow students who were too clever by half but not at all wise.

These two threads together make for a vivid reminder of the need for humane values to temper technology.

Facebook is about pictures, to be sure, but also about words. Early in the movie, the main character strikes back at the girlfriend who has just dropped him. He says ungentlemanly things about her in his blog, and within what seems like seconds, all of undergraduate Greater Boston has read it. And all this, by the way, is before Facebook; this "news" travels over communications networks already in place.

Technology amplifies the power of language; humane values are needed to constrain the power of technology. And those values are expressed in words.

Somewhat later, when our hero (if that's the word) tries to make it up to the girlfriend he has badly mistreated, she quietly stands firm, using her own powers of language to refuse to engage with him.

After the movie I found myself thinking back to my study of the organ in high school. I had my lessons at the large church where my teacher was music minister. Any wrong notes I hit on the splendid instrument there would trumpet forth from enormous ranks of pipes at the back of the church.

It was a vivid lesson about how a slight action on my part – a stray finger on a key here or there – could have a powerful effect some distance away.

It's a lesson people keep having to learn. In some cases the powerful effects are disastrous, and they're on people not all that far away. In the case of the Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after fellow students streamed a private encounter in his bedroom live over the Internet, the alleged perpetrators lived right in his dorm.

Network goes back to 1560, to refer to a "net-like arrangement of threads, wires, etc.," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. A net is essentially "something knotted." Around 1840 network began to refer to an interlocking system of rivers, canals, and railways. "Broadcasting network" goes back to 1914. (Broadcasting originally referred to sowing seed. Note how what was then very high technology cribbed terminology from two of humanity's oldest occupations, farming and fishing.)

Network in the sense of well-connected group of people goes back to 1947, further back than I would have guessed. Network became a verb used with reference to computers in 1972, and a verb for people (I network, you network, he or she networks) in the 1980s.

We think of using networks today to facilitate our own success, as we hop from one connection to another. But let's remember that before networks were made up of cables or rail lines or even canals, they were made up of rope or cord or twine. And they were intended to trap things.

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