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The Absence of Presence and the Presence of Absence

by Joe Loong on October 21, 2009

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The Washington Post last week had an article looking at several Facebook refuseniks (people who’ve taken a stand against joining Facebook or similar online social networks), and investigating their reasons for (and consequences of) non-participation.

This, by itself, is only slightly interesting; as with any technology — dishwashers, automobiles, air conditioning, telephones, TV, cell phones — there are always folks who’ll find reasons not to use it, for reasons ranging from the pragmatic, to the quixotic, to the perverse. And inevitably, those refusers will diminish as the technology evolves from novelty to utility to necessity.

(Also, I note that some of the Facebook refusers profiled were merely lazy, since instead of taking a principled stance and quarantining themselves from the people and information transmitted via online social networks, they simply relied on their non-boycotting friends to relay the information for them.)

To me, the interesting bit is the idea that people who aren’t on Facebook exist in a kind of un-person / non-entity state of being, and how that represents a radical change in attitude from the pre-computer era — a paradigm shift, sea change, or gamechanger (depending on which era’s jargon you prefer), brought about by the dominance of digital media and interconnected networks in general, and the ubiquitious convenience of online search in particular.

My thinking goes a little something like this:

Previously, if something didn’t have a physical presence, it didn’t really exist. Now, if something doesn’t have an online presence, it doesn’t really exist.

Consider: In pre-Internet days, the only presence was physical, so we only really thought we knew someone or something if we could see, talk to, and touch it directly. Anything outside that model — early virtual relationships  like BBS, amateur radio, telephone party line, or pen pals — wasn’t quite “real.”

Nowadays, knowing something really means the ability to find, store, and send it online.

Looking at the example of the Facebook refusers, we see people who don’t participate don’t have presence, even in those platforms where the online interactions are strongest when reinforcing offline relationships. (I’ve mentioned a related theme before, “When you don’t post, you don’t exist.”)

More importantly, it holds true for goods and knowledge that exist as physical items in the real world — say, old books that haven’t been scanned in yet; a property record that isn’t in an accessible database; or an antique that hasn’t been documented online: Because they’re not findable via Web search or interlinked database, because they don’t have presence online, we can’t know then or even know about them unless we venture offline, so they don’t really exist.

Now, sure, there have are plenty of things that didn’t and don’t really “exist” — economies, trust, reputations, patriotism, love, etc. — but have always been convenient for us to act like they do. But here I’m talking about things that actually do exist as physical items in the real world, but because we’re cut off from them in our daily, digital, online lives, they’re out of the loop.

This is, of course, not due to any changes in intrinsic value (to the extent that such a beast exists), but represents a shift in attitude — it boils down to what we consider “visible” and “knowable.”

Anyway, just a thought. Please leave a real comment below.

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    • http://twitter.com/ninjaclectic @ninjaclectic

      interesting thread. will think about this some more. feel like there's some zen kōan to glean. gonna forward to my coworker who's definitely not on facebook.

    • http://twitter.com/ninjaclectic @ninjaclectic

      interesting thread. will think about this some more. feel like there's some zen kōan to glean. gonna forward to my coworker who's definitely not on facebook.