Technology and taboos redefined

Recently I met with some friends after a considerable hiatus. Meanwhile they had had a baby. I have kept up with the news and have watched the baby grow up through the pictures and updates the friends share on Facebook. Several times in the conversation, we all made casual references to what we know about one another’s lives through Facebook updates. Indeed they showed me some pictures of some big moments in the baby’s life that I had missed. It made me wonder about the role of pervasive technology in challenging behaviours deemed taboo before. In the pre-all-pervasive-tech world, we gossiped, got news through common friends, or phoned or wrote one another. Even so the signal called “life” was sampled quite infrequently and the transmission of the information could suffer fidelity issues.

But now that people themselves put out information about themselves, it has likely greater currency and respectability than gossip, which may have travelled through others. Indeed it is no longer taboo to know ambient information about the life of a friend or indeed, anyone who chooses to use the “global” setting on Facebook or indeed update on Twitter.

Has technology made other taboos acceptable too?

Like many others, I now know a fairly large number of people through my blogging and my use of social platforms such as Twitter or Quora. Often the opportunity arises to meet some of them too. It seems to me that checking someone’s background – using Google or LinkedIn – before meeting them for the first time is now deemed normal. I hasten to add though that my experience suggests it can still freak out the “non-intertubes” people, who are less frequent or less prolific users of the web. This needs to be used abundantly but talked about with caution. I sheepishly admit to not being able to maintain this caution myself. A friend recently invited me to dinner with a friend of his called R. Waiting for our table, R and my friend kept talking about cooking and eating fabulous meals. Then R turned to me and asked if I could guess what he did. Having checked out his profile on LinkedIn in advance, of course I knew he specialised in sanitation. When I said so, both R’s and my friend’s faces fell. I had committed a massive social boo-boo and I have never recovered from it. R never accepted my Facebook friend request, and the less said about the earache my friend has given me since then, the better.

Then there is the idea of flexibility. While in some cultures, it is still not uncommon to plan to meet friends way in advance, making last minute arrangements as well as last minute changes to a rendezvous seem to be common and acceptable now. This has been made possible by mobile phones, of course. And location based services such as FourSquare, where you may be able to locate friends in the vicinity.

This next point may resonate with those who live many time zones away from their parents or siblings. Rationing communication between time zones is a thing of the past. Earlier, when phone calls were expensive, we scheduled calls once a week or fortnight. Now with iMessage and Whatsapp on the one hand, and GTalk, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype etc. on the other, continual and richer communication is possible at almost zero cost. It helps people keep in close contact, regardless of how far apart they may physically be.

As I write this I am aware that the most important social taboo that has been removed or modified beyond recognition is our expectation of privacy. Mainly because we ourselves now put out a lot of information about our lives out there for consumption by friends, families or strangers (the last one is that global setting on Facebook status messages).

The second social taboo that seems to have been removed is exhibitionism. There is now a blurred line between sheer exhibitionism, and self-promotion and advertising of one’s skills for professional gain. Accordingly, persons such as Katie Price in the UK and the Kardashians in the USA have “careers” deemed mainstream and bona fide, although they still successfully shock some in my parents’ generation (and mine).

Of course, individuals themselves are curating and broadcasting this information, portraying themselves not just in favourable light but also sometimes engaging in outright fabrication of a life that looks glamorous and glittering when the reality may be vastly different. Seeing all this, some have argued we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. In evidence are vanity and attention-seeking. How else do we comprehend the need for daily changing digital avatars? And their handmaiden, a feeling of entitlement. “You didn’t like my holiday photos on Facebook”. Then there is blame-storming and rages that follow.

We have probably only just seen the tip of the iceberg called technological intersubjectivity. Hopefully it will not sink the Titanic advances that can also be made with technology.

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