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Michael Kleiman’s ‘Web’ Explores
Technology and Connectivity
By Erin Whitney
When immersed in the constantly evolving world of technology and the Internet, it’s difficult to fully realize the pros and cons of it all. In Michael Kleiman’s documentary, WEB, author and professor Sherry Turkle says, “We’re at a fundamental change in the way we communicate, and it’s time to step back and see where things have gone right and maybe where things haven’t gone right.”
WEB, which made its world premiere at this month’s DOC NYC festival and won the SundanceNow Audience Award, gives us that chance to step away. Weighing the benefits and dangers of technology and the Internet, the documentary analyzes the affects these advancements have on our lives. In a phone interview, Kleiman said, "WEB, for me, is really about the potential of recognizing the commonalities that we share, what role technology can play in fostering that type of cultural exchange and cultural understanding.”
As a New Yorker surrounded by millions of digital devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, Kleiman knew he could only capture a true image of modern-day connectivity by also representing those without technology. Once Kleiman learned about the One Laptop per Child program, which brings laptops and Internet to children in rural parts of the world, he set off to Peru to see how technology could impact those who never had access to it before. He spent time in the Peruvian villages Antuyo and Palestina, living with families, experiencing their slow-paced and simple lifestyles, and watching how they responded to computers for the first time.
The children, many who don’t have running water, electricity, or a road in their village, received their own laptop with a camera, games, and programs. What caught Kleiman by surprise when watching the villagers was that they were not so much concerned with their new, unlimited access to information, but with the many ways they could use the Internet to connect with one another. “Immediately it was all about communicating with relatives, the ability to share pictures with other people, and email and chat,” Kleiman said.
In the film, a group of young girls sit by a soccer field with their laptops, giggling in excitement as they send their first emails. Later, one young boy marvels over the ability to take a picture of his face on the computer, and shows it off to his parents. In Palestina, a young girl transcribes her mother’s message to her sister in an email.
These villagers, people who know everyone they live around and who uphold cultural traditions, could have done anything they wanted with the Internet, and the one thing they used it most for was to connect to each other. Technology enabled them to stay in frequent communication with their small, but already close-knit community.
“It really changed my perspective on what connectivity means,” Kleiman said. For him, and for the majority of us who have had access to the Internet for the past two decades, connectivity and community mean different things than the Peruvian villagers know them as. The idea of community, according to New York University professor Clay Shirky in the film, is something that has become lost in our tech-driven society. We do not interact face-to-face as much, instead using our screens as our main mode of communication. The film points out the not-so-shocking statistics that 51% of Americans use at least one social network, but only 19% of Americans know most of their neighbors by name.
Besides differences in community, WEB also uncovers how the notion of friendship varies between those with technology and those without it. When Kleiman asks a young Antuyo boy what a friend is, he says, without hesitation, “Someone you tell everything to. Like a brother.” Yet in Kleiman’s interviews with tech moguls such as Dr. Vint Cerf, aka “Father of the Internet,” Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, and Dennis Crowley, CEO and founder of Foursquare, the question is much harder to answer.
Some of the puzzled responses range from, “A friend on Facebook, or a friend in reality?” to “Used to be someone you knew really well.” Shirky said as a result of Facebook, “the word ‘friend’ has become damaged because it now stretches to cover all kinds of connections.” For Kleiman, however, this possible erosion of friendship isn’t as striking as our inability to define what one is. “The fact is that when someone asks a simple question about this important word, your first instinct is to wonder what sort of friend they’re talking about. We just have so many different versions of what a friend could be, and it does sort of take away what that would mean from a very basic level.”
Now that WEB allows us to take that necessary step back to look at technology from both sides, what does it all mean? Will the little boys of Antuyo soon resemble the iPad-addicted children of New York City? Should our connected society strive toward a community like that of the villagers, lessening our dependence on digital devices?
First of all, those boys aren’t changing much any time soon. One memorable scene from the film, Kleiman’s favorite, shows two brothers in Antuyo flying homemade kites in an open field. Keep in mind that these boys left their Wi-Fi-enabled laptops at home to play outside instead. “I can’t remember the last time I saw people playing with kites in New York City,” Kleiman said, “but that also has to do with where we live and our lifestyles.” Kleiman believes that it’s not simply technology that sets the Antuyo boys apart from city kids of the Internet age, but that the pace of their lives.
While he agrees that technology does chip away at the slow pace of life, Kleiman thinks that it’s too soon to tell how technology will change these villagers’ way of life. “I don’t think it’s something that just happens, like you give a kid a laptop and all a sudden the trees come falling down and they’re only staring at the screen all day. I think it’s a longer process towards where they are to where we are, but I hope that that doesn’t change too much.”
Although it may seem like WEB concentrates on the detriments of the Internet, it also reveals the many wonders and benefits it offers. In one scene, students in a Palestina schoolhouse use their computers to help create the first Wikipedia page about their village. Later, Robert Wright, author of Nonzero, cites technology’s ability to preserve ancient languages, and thus preserve cultures. Besides these examples, it can’t be denied that new digital tools are constantly being developed to offer new ways for us to connect. Even if such connections aren’t as rich and deep as they once were without LED screens, we must try to remember to only use technology to take us so far.
In the film, Crowley of Foursquare and Scott Heiferman, CEO and founder of Meetup, both explain their digital platforms as a mere starting point for making in-person connections. Crowley described Foursquare as a way to bring people together at certain locations, and that from there they should “put the screens away to go out and discover things they actually haven’t discovered before.” Heiferman similarly branded Meetup as a digital portal to connect people with common interests, but that “a real sustainable community” can only come from face-to-face interaction.
While WEB shows that technology can divide us, it also demonstrates the overall beauty of the Internet - no matter where we are from or how often we use it - it can still bring us together. The important thing to strive for however, as our lives fuse more and more with digital innovations, is to try to find a middles ground. “I think it is possible to strike a balance, and I hope that [is] one of the things that people reflect on after seeing the film.”
To learn more about the documentary, WEB visit their website.