Reflections on Random Encounters for #engageMOOC

I first started wandering online back in the days of Archie and Veronica and Gopher, everything was text-based and I hadn’t heard of the World Wide Web. Back then, most of my encounters seemed random. Perhaps that is because I didn’t have a concept of what online was and what was possible so I was often surprised by what I found.

The very first time I ever went online I found myself looking at a list of the holdings in a library in Australia. I realized that I had no use for the information I had found but that night a barrier crumbled for me. It was so cool that somehow from a dumb computer terminal at work in the middle of the night in Banff, Alberta I had made a connection with Australia.

A year or two later I somehow found about Phil Agre’s Red Rock Eater’s News Service. I had no idea who Phil was and many of the things he wrote about didn’t interest me but enough of it did that I stayed subscribed to his mailing list for a while. He talked about what interested him, politics, his work, books he liked, and pens; he talked about pens a lot.

One of the things that has stuck with me was a series of first-hand accounts from Belgrade, Serbia in December, 1995. Phil may have shared a few first hand accounts, or maybe just one which led me to subscribe to another mailing list, I don’t remember anymore. But reading those first-hand accounts of civilians under attack from their own government crumbled another barrier for me. This was way before CNN and the 24-hour news cycle and the extreme connectedness of the world today, so having that kind of insight into something happening around the world that from a perspective that was not getting covered on the evening news was thrilling and intense. I don’t think I could effectively explain to my teenage kids, who have always lived in a hyperconnected world, why reading those reports from a real person on the other side of the world was so transformational for me. I guess it was my first taste of the power of the internet to connect us and my first exposure to what Henry Jenkins calls Participatory Culture.

Another barrier fell for me as I watched the 2005 London subway bombings unfold in almost real time via social media posts. It was such a dramatic contrast to the speed at which the news unfolded on 9/11 when I was glued to the TV after the twin towers fell, hoping for updated information that came very infrequently amidst the repeated footage of the towers falling and people stumbling away under clouds of ashes.

Now that we have access to more information that we could ever consume, I think the tendency most people have is to insulate themselves in a cocoon in order to manage their exposure. Much has been said and written about the echo chamber effect of social media and the impacts it is having; so I will not add more here.

However, despite the way our world and our interconnectedness have evolved, I do believe that is is still possible to have random encounters that break down barriers and open up worlds, online and in real life. Perhaps this is because of my optimistic nature or because I limit my use of social media and news consumption and make a point of connecting with people and ideas that are different than my own.

The barriers that break down don’t seem to transform my world as much as they did thirty years ago. That could be a function of age or or how the world has changed.

But barriers still crumble for me. Five years ago I participated in my first connectivist MOOC, #etmooc, and it forever changed how I approach learning and how I show up online. Two years ago I tagged along to a workshop on design thinking with a colleague that blew open my world and led to a graduate certificate in Social Innovation and connections with others who are passionate about using new approaches to solving some of the wicked problems facing society today.

This evening, it didn’t take me very long to learn way more about Phil Agre than I ever knew when his news updates arrived in one of my very first email inboxes. I had no idea about the extent of his publications or that he was considered missing for a time.

I wonder if being missing was his way building a cocoon and disconnecting from the world that has changed so much since he first started publishing his Red Rock Eater’s News?

 

This post is my response to the Topic 1 Challenge in the Engagement in a Time of Polarization MOOC:

Topic 1 Challenge:

“It’s not that there’s anything particularly healthy about cyberspace in itself, but the way in which cyberspace breaks down barriers. Cyberspace makes person-to-person interaction much more likely in an already fragmented society. The thing that people need desperately is random encounter. That’s what community has.”

– John Perry Barlow, 1995, from http://www.lionsroar.com/bell-hooks-talks-to-john-perry-barlow/

Maybe Barlow was wrong? Discuss.

How does Barlow’s idea of random encounter – in a positive, world-opening sense, online or offline – operate today? 24/7 news feeds and social media mean we’re constantly bombarded with messages reducing the Other – and often ourselves – to political positions. Can we approach the Other with an open mind? Should we? What are YOUR stories of random encounters, on or offline? When and how have they broken down barriers for you? When and how have they not?

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