Losing our humanity – homeless & internet elites
Posted by shannonclark on January 29, 2009
photo by Flickr user Franco Folini taken Aug 3rd, 2006 in San Francisco
I have lived in big cities for roughly the past two decades, since I left the comfort of the Village of Oak Park to go to college at the University of Chicago in 1991. In Oak Park there is great economic diversity, families on welfare and families who buy every child a Rolls Royce as a 16th birthday present, but while there is some homelessness it is relatively speaking quite limited and for the most part unseen.
Since moving to the big city, however, every single day of my life since I have been solicited for a handout at least once, usually many more times than that. Sure, the occasional day I never venture forth is an exception, but it all averages out, other days I’ll be asked for change a dozen times in a few blocks.
Here in San Francisco there is a vastly larger, more visible homeless population than in Chicago. Chicago has many homeless, however the sheer brutality of Chicago’s winters as well as the stifling heat of the worst of Chicago’s summers combine to limit the numbers of year round homeless in Chicago, though there are many and they find ways to survive. In San Francisco, however, it seems that most doorways in the relatively flatter parts of the city are claimed by a homeless person, plus there are encampments (I’ve been told) in many of the parks and water reclaimation districts. In part this is probably due to the relatively better weather in San Francisco, sleeping outside here while certainly not pleasant is less lifethreatening than in Chicago.
But this post is not about the problem of homelessness – though it is serious problem – for that I encourage anyone in San Francisco who can make it to attend Homeless Connect Camp on Feb 11th, 2009 at the Billy Graham Auditorium here in San Francisco, if I’m in town I’m going to try to attend to lend my support and help.
Rather this post is about how the impact of pervasive homeless on city streets has an impact on everyone walking by which parallels how people interact with others online.
Observing myself the constant presence of homeless has made me colder, less open to engaging with a stranger in conversation, my eyes and body try to avoid contact, I seek to minimize confrontation in countless small ways as I walk down the street and when I am confronted, when I am approached I turn cynical, cold and being brutally honest with myself rude. I make gestures, look away, walk away, try to disengage.
This does not make me proud, in my better moments I try to check myself, to make eye contact, to see my fellow humans, to at a minimum smile, nod, acknowledge their presence and existance, to show regret that I can’t give money, to give what I can when I can (leftovers, food, money if I can spare it). But with often dozens of encounters in just a few short minutes of walking through San Francisco, these are exceptions.
Many days I walk 3-5 miles or more over the course of my day, like the homeless my walks tend to avoid the many hills of San Francisco, so I likely see even more homeless than many here in SF.
Online this week there has been a lot of discussions about behavior, behaviors which have gone beyond crass comments or snarky posts. Michael Arrington has announced he will be taking a month off from blogging. The reactions have been mixed and in many cases include some attacks on Michael (couched at times in the form of advice).
I met Michael not long after I moved to San Francisco in 2006 (may have actually met him in the fall of 2005, I’m not exactly sure). Though we are not extremely close, I consider him a friend. In fact since moving to San Francisco I have gotten to know many of the people who are considered “a-listers” online in an offline capacity, though I may not always agree with them, I consider most of them friends, have and would invite them over for dinner.
Not because I want to pitch them, but because I like them as people and value their intellect and conversation.
But for far, far too many of us, the “a-listers” online, from Michael Arrington at TechCrunch to Dave Winer, become akin to the homeless, they become “the other” whose humanity we find all too easy to ignore, whose individuality we forget, whose personal feelings we don’t consider as we go about our actions online.
I have been blogging for a long time, since mid-2002, but for the most part my blog is little read, primarily by people who know me who read my recent posts and a bit over 50% of my daily traffic who come here to read a couple of my posts which rank highly on Google and other search engines as solutions to some common tech problems. But on occasion I have left a comment on a thread at a more popular blog, such as TechCrunch and there I have gotten a very small taste of what it must be like to be Michael Arrington or another a-lister.
I was once told “Shannon has her panties in a twist” (hint – I’m male, but assumptions about my gender have happened to me all of my life) and the thread degraded from there.
This week as well Jason Calacanis sent out an email about the end of Empathy, his alternative to blogging though he has now also posted it to his site. In it he too discusses the loss of empathy which seemingly occurs with ease online. It terms of “Internet Auspergers Syndrome” as a way of defining it, the hyper focus on getting ahead, on winning, on seeing everyone else online as objects not other humans which makes it all too easy to write posts putting people down, to leave trolling comments, to lower the standards of decency.
I would argue that there is some relationship between our modern world where most of us walk past but do not see our homeless brothers and sisters and the online world where far too many of us treat life online as seperate from offline and with the worst aspects of a game.
I do not know what can be done about either problem, but I do know that every small act of human connection – offline and online – helps. It helps the other to whom we reach out, but it also as importantly helps to defrost our own heart, to warm us up a bit, to remind us to engage positively with others, to seek out the good, to help not to hurt.