The ‘Me’ Culture at MIT (and Beyond)

The “You” of YouTube is beautiful (who is immune to a bit of attention?), and the “We” of wikis and the like are everywhere. But make no mistake, at the end of the day, it’s still the “Me” that matters.

By this, I mean that despite operating in a “global digital village” and hearing on every corner that “community” is cool, it’s still very much a self-centered, ego-conscious “me-first” culture that we live in.

Judging by the scarce conversations on the economic crisis and its implications among MIT staff and students over the past month, with only a few echoes of it reaching campus and classrooms, one would think that all is well — for us at MIT and beyond our walls.

It could be argued that the unique, enclosed world of academia and the peace and quiet it engenders, required to produce great research and innovation, is the reason for this problem. But I also see a disconcerting distance and lack of concern among the average person in the “world out there” — that is, most of the people in this so-called connected planet.

As I listened to a girlfriend’s teary account of a failed first date in its most minute details for the third time this week, I could not help but notice that at least she doesn’t seem worried by events out there in the bigger world. A general, simplistic conclusion, I admit. But things add up when a graduate student at the Sloan School of Management tells you at a recent house party that students at MIT and other colleges probably don’t think and talk too much about the mortgage, credit and banking crisis because they are not active participants in the market yet, and therefore are not directly affected by these events. Never mind that they will be in a few years’ time …

Apparently, unless Trouble knocks on your door, it doesn’t exist. And to many on campus, those on whose door it is knocking right now don’t seem to exist either.

On campus, I never feel the disconnection from the souls outside of our cocoon more sharply than when we discuss in our classes and research groups the concepts and values of the latest cool tools or ideas for making our own high-end technologies.

We seem to assume that the 15-year-old disadvantaged teenager has the money to buy and keep the latest super-smart cell phone and that the working mother of three has the time to sit and blog all night about her views, likes, and dislikes.

The term “Digital Divide” pops up now and then in these class discussions and other lectures, as if thrown in for good measure, then disappears.

We seem unable (or unwilling?) to imagine socio-economic conditions different from our own, or our own circle. Shall I dare take it further and suggest that we subconsciously project our own tastes and status onto the people out there and selfishly assume they will readily embrace them?

Maybe that is what it takes to be the intrepid leaders, pioneers, and innovators that MIT is famous for, and it is dictated by the laws of progress and development … but such a self-centered, elitist attitude also jars with the current culture of communal love, care and cooperation that the shared digital spaces of our times, such as social networks and blogging initiatives, claim to foster.

For all the “friend” focus and sociality of Facebook, MySpace, and their kin, the somewhat narcissist self-display and self-promotion they offer is now common knowledge. Call it a “me-centered,” personalized relationship with the community, or what Manuel Castells, professor of communication technology and society at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (and a visiting professor at MIT), calls “networked individualism.”

Perhaps, when navigating the plethora of opportunities for participation and cooperation that the Internet and new media technologies present us with, it is important that we actually take the time to know and care about whomever we interact with, so that this participation doesn’t end up being an exercise in self-promotion, or serving pure personal leisure purposes while proclaiming otherwise.

To cite just a few cases at the top of my head: Many Americans’ inability to place the nation of Georgia on a map (following the crisis with Russia) and Europeans’ shock at discovering the social inequalities and poverty in Louisiana (following Katrina) speak volumes about how disconnected and ill-informed we still are as members of what is supposed to be a community of engaged, knowledgeable global citizens.

We pepper our speech with words like “culture,” “community,” and “multiculturalism” … but a quick walk through Central Square is all it takes to see that in reality cultures don’t mix as much as they do in our imagination.

I could cite plenty of cases where concerted online and offline efforts have yielded tremendous good in local, national, and global communities. Grassroots rescue efforts during Katrina and the London public transport bombings come to mind as some of the most obvious examples.

Computer-moderated social organization has produced a form and level of public mobilization and activism unimaginable only a few years ago, sparking heightened personal responsibility in the civic sphere and new political practices. Barack Obama’s success in mobilizing his country’s youth via the Web and engaging it in participatory democratic discourse is what e-democracy is all about.

Let us hope that such a progressive approach will help cement these young people’s nascent interest and action in political processes. I suspect, though, that such engagement is still sadly minimal. Statistics repeatedly show that the public’s engagement with the Web and mobile technologies is still largely for entertainment purposes, not to better the world.

Busily Twittering and text messaging our friends are not going to turn us into Mother Theresas. Behind the beeps and rings of our tech tools one can hear the subtle message that using (read: buying) these technologies will make us kinder, more philanthropic, better human beings. The big push for sharing is but one proof of this.

But as we Twitter, chat and share, somebody is getting richer …

The commercial motives behind the digital activities on offer are evident. The rules of viral marketing seem to be orchestrating the global outpouring of brotherly online love and communal all-sharing compassion more than our hearts do.

The logic behind what MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Director Henry Jenkins calls in his book Convergence Culture “affective economics” — the close, cooperative relationship between product/service providers and consumers that extends to include friends and family as part of a branding strategy — is being used by a whole range of market players, from soft drink and video games makers to social networks and TV shows producers.

As Convergence Culture’s insightful, eye-opening account of the mechanics behind new media trends shows, some very inventive new media models have emerged as they engage fans and users to contribute to the product/service’s design and development in a wiki-style, open source manner. But it also risks, as it did for me, throwing a bucket of cold water on one’s initial enthusiasm for Facebooking and other forms of online social engagement.

I cannot help but notice that these inventive collective commercial initiatives often intensely focus on individual consumption, such as when friends in a network chat about the latest iPhone apps and gadgets — and thus seem rooted in a material, individualistic culture.

Which brings us back to my initial point that the “Me” still matters and the little self-focused “I” is alive and well.

Perhaps our cut-throat competitive world is partly responsible for all our me-first actions.

But I also think that these “You,” “We,” and “Me” phases come and go in cycles, like trends and fashion styles. Just spread the meme, and watch it grow. Give it another couple of years, and the lone lab rat-researcher may be the coolest person on the planet. Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly’s “Quantified Self Wiki” — “a catalog of resources for self-measurements of all types,” may plant the seeds of a self-tracking spree. Its purpose is “to better understand ourselves, in body and mind.”

So perhaps the “Me” matters more than ever — we might as well acknowledge it. And as Kelly suggests, nurture these selves.

After all, empathy and care for the community, offline and online, start at home.

Florence Gallez is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Media Studies.