Thursday, 30 August 2007

Of Fleas and Elephants

Elephants and Fleas: Not something that one always associates with one another, and neither a fiddler on one's roof. Having seen a production of this much acclaimed play recently at the Nelson Mandela Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, I recalled Charles Handy writing about progress and change -- a recurring theme throughout his works. By allowing us a glimpse into his own life, which he describes as a portfolio consisting of various categories, he reminds us that no new technologies will alter the dilemma we have with progress. In fact it might get more difficult.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us in The Art of Happiness that change is part of life. While change is fraught with difficulties which is necessary for growth, one needs to leave room for vantage points, perspectives and perceptions to decide how difficult we perceive our existence to be. For many, however, capitalism and the modern world have not delivered on its promise for "the good life". Surely the culminating effects of upbringing and background, health, age, gender, class, skills and abilities, adaptability, geographical location and citizenship amongst others, affect peoples' ability to live successfully in the world of the elephants or as fleas, an analogy Handy uses. (See Deepa's blog for an explanation of this analogy).

In a seemingly borderless world where some elephants, following Handy's analogy, are worth more than the GNP's of certain countries, profound changes are inevitably impacting on individuals. However, the historical roots of the current wave of change brought about in part by the spread of technologies such as the Internet and Web 2.0 should not come as a surprise, hinting and a continuation of events along a historical continuum. At what point changes represent a break in history is open for discussion.

One problem Handy explores about his portfolio life away from the elephants is that of being disconnected. Is it possible that online social networking has become an integral part of people's lives for the very reason that so many feel disconnected? Or has the concept friend broaden to such an extent that more or less anybody can request to be included? Danah Boyd remarked on the problem with this state of affairs. In the past identity, status, security and social interaction were part and parcel with one's employment in a company; detachment from the safety and confines of a company necessitates new forms of expression, connection and confirmation.

Participation in social networks stems from our ability and need to belong -- a prominent characteristic of human nature. Since places of work fulfil a very definite social role too, living as a flea has the real potential to be isolated. Without an ability to adapt or find new ways to stay connected, a flea-like existence can easily lead to a state of non-belonging, something I would like to equate to being an invisible citizen. However, Handy makes an apt statement in The Elephant and the Flea: " What is true for me is true for every flea, young or old. The tension between wanting to belong and needing to be free never goes away" (p 156).

Clearly people's social skills and requirements differ. In recent years changing needs (amongst many other reasons) have led to a redefinition of relations between employer and employee. This has inter alia manifested in new forms of social interaction too with the introduction of flexi time, more time away from the office and working from home. In general, however, grasping the potential brought about by technologies and planning our lives accordingly necessitates a strategy which in turn brings into question the very reason for being.

In many respects, the manner in which the Internet affects every aspect of our existence and the new forms of participation it enables require careful thinking about its impact, possibilities and threats. This is pertinent, especially if one considers that the bricks and mortar part of our lives can become an infitesimal part of our existence.

Powered by Qumana