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Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Myth of Knowing

A recent e-mail correspondence has once again reminded me of a certain myth that we humans all too easily believe in: that we can get to know a person simply by knowing certain things about them.

And in this age of the Internet, where we are more than ready to bare our souls to a multitude of strangers online, getting to "know things" about people has never been easier.

The Social Networking Revolution

The rise of the Internet has shown us that the future belongs to the uninhibited. With the forest of arms waving cell-phone cameras at concerts, the MySpace pages blinking pink neon revelations, Xanga and Sconex and YouTube and Lastnightsparty.com and Flickr and Facebook and del.icio.us and Wikipedia and especially, the ordinary, endless stream of daily documentation that is built into the life of anyone growing up today, everyone knows that the revolution is here.

The phenomenon known as "social networking", something that I have purposefully shied away from, has allowed people to participate in "ratings communities", like "nonuglies", where people would post photos to be judged by strangers, or pimp themselves up at MySpace or diarise themselves at Livejournal.

The distinctions between private and the public are blurring all the time, and right behind, as it always does, follows our language. I have touched upon it in my article on the stories behind words, while for those interested researcher Susie Dent in her article delves even further into this new lexicon.

You can see the evidence of this "new-speak" everywhere, from the rural 15-year-old who records videos for thousands of subscribers to the university students texting come-ons from beneath their laptops. Even 9-year-olds have their own site, Club Penguin, to play games and plan parties.

Today the Internet can bring you to to New York, to London, to Istanbul - friendships forged via tubes, rather than traditional channels. We have virtual friends instead of real ones. We talk in illiterate instant messages.

And though we may get less personal over time, our life on the Net in the form of postings will only be a Google search away - we'll be able to go back, Googling ourselves in 25 or 30 years to read a documentation of our lives. And included in the online world's capacity to create a whole new vocabulary, Dent is perceptive enough to realise the small signs of a burgeoning taste for creating a whole new us at the same time.

In my opinion, the most revelatory thing we'll find is not how our stories scroll down the screen in raw and affecting detail, but that candid and unstylized, like a macro shot of a butterfly, we will have focused ourselves out of recognition.

Who Am I?

In effect, as we fall victim to the myth of knowing, we start to feel we know that person by simply having read something about them, even though in all honesty we'll know nothing about them at all - and they might be unrecognizable in real life from their cyber one. It's as bad as thinking we know someone by believing the statements of others, but this time we are succumbing to the hearsay of the electronic screen.

For however much we may expose ourselves, no one is ever as they may appear on paper, cyber or otherwise. The truth is, to get to really know a person takes a lifetime of investment and energy, filtered through experience and an open mind. If we skip this important procedure in our judgements on people, then our views will be based on a myth, locked in our own biased and distorted interpretation of events.

And as I publicly archive a small section of my life away for the son I want to have one day, even as I promote the ideal to be open and honest as I possibly can be on my blog, I am just as much a conundrum to myself as I will be to others. But I aim for the truth, because this blog is a key part of learning who I am.

If I am open and honest about the issues and the facts that interest me, and have the courage to be honest enough about myself, it could be that if a reader where to meet me they would not find themselves completely thrown off. However, my blog will never be an instruction manual about me.

For this is a major flaw in the myth of knowing: while we might say everything as we believe it to be, it will never tells us everything as it will be.

Read more: About words | My Say | My Life >>

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