Connectivity and Status Anxiety

Virginia Heffernan, writing in the Times magazine, takes Bruce Sterling's SXSW talk about connectivity and poverty mainstream:

Bruce Sterling, the cyberpunk writer, proposed at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin that the clearest symbol of poverty is dependence on "connections" like the Internet, Skype and texting. "Poor folk love their cellphones!" he said.

In his speech, Sterling seemed to affect Nietzschean disdain for regular people. If the goal was to provoke, it worked. To a crowd that typically prefers onward-and-upward news about technology, Sterling's was a sadistically successful rhetorical strategy. "Poor folk love their cellphones!" had the ring of one of those haughty but unforgettable expressions of condescension, like the Middle Eastern gem "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."

"Connectivity is poverty" was how a friend of mine summarized Sterling's bold theme. Only the poor -- defined broadly as those without better options -- are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl -- original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.

I think the emphasis on material goods, like fine wine and expensive art, that can't be translated into HTML misses the deeper link between connectivity and poverty. My own experience of the internet is almost certainly warped by being a writer - I produce words, which then enter the maw of the web - but I'm nevertheless convinced that the online world magnifies and exaggerates social anxieties and insecurities. Who hasn't googled their name? Searched for ex-girlfriends on facebook? Read snarky comments about themselves on twitter? The internet has given us a library of Borgesian proportions - we can find just about anything at anytime from anywhere - but people remain social primates, primarily concerned with their place in the tribal hierarchy. And so we end up jealous of people with higher Amazon rankings, more Twitter followers, extra Facebook friends and additional google links. We quantify visits to the blog and zealously monitor what others are saying about us. We are exposed to a brave new world of rumor, criticism and anonymous disapproval.

What does this remind me of? The stress of being poor, or at the very least the stress of being unpopular in middle school. The web has, in part, turned our social world into a positional good. Consider a fancy watch. When someone wears a Rolex, they don't get a more accurate sense of time. Instead, they get an object that signals their social position. At the same time, they effectively raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. The perfectly effective watch has been diminished by the perfectly useless positional good. This is part of the unhappiness of being poor - you constantly want what you can't afford, if only to raise your social status.

A similar thing is happening with social networks. We're always noticing the person who has more of what we crave, be it friends or followers or page views. The end result is a surfeit of insecurities, which approximate the stress of being broke and walking on 5th Avenue. I'm not saying a little insecurity is a bad thing - if I didn't want more page views or more book sales I might not be writing this post - but, like anything else, it's crucial that we're able to turn off the insecurities when we need to, that we maintain some confidence in our social world and our place within it. And that's the kind of confidence that comes from being able to afford a Rolex or having lots of twitter followers or being more interested in googling Romanee-Conti than your own name.

To summarize: being connected isn't a bad thing. It's a glorious thing. But it can be stressful, because it constantly exposes us to people who have more of what we want.

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I just finished reading Mimi Guarneri, MD's The Heart Speaks about growing up poor in a close-knit urban Italian neighborhood and how studies of such communities found that they were protective against heart disease. However when people became more affluent and could move away and afford homes in the suburbs,etc. this protection was not there.
I also remember growing up without the internet, cell phones, and People magazine and its many clones. The only thing that came close to allowing one to check out the life styles of people one might envy were a few movie fan magazines which my parents frowned on as being lower class.

Right on the spot with the comparisons to junior high school!

BTW, it may be true that a Rolex doesn't give a more accurate sense of time, but a stainless steel watch doesn't react to sweat, either, which is a problem for many, especially of the sweating classes.

I don't know anyone who doesn't love their cell. Although I don't know any wealthy people either. I do have a better-off uncle who is fond of not answering his phone and then saying, "My phone is for me." I guess that comes close.

Not being dependent on high tech forms of connection is a sign of a healthy amount of self confidence; someone who doesn't need a constant exchange of good vibes on fb to affirm their worth.

It's like everyone's favorite classmate from high school who refuses to update his facebook page as if it's beneath him and it just serves to increases our worship of him--He must be some kind of God if he doesn't need to show us pictures of his family so we can tell him how cute they are. That kind of attitude isn't necessarily a luxury of wealth it's more an indication of a 'strong soul.' And I have to say, the life of the 'strong souled' man, as Sterling describes it, sounds wonderful! (Much better than sulking over pictures of my x's and their better lives).

Do you suppose not using technology to connect will become a status symbol, no one wants to be the cellphone loving poorman? But how will we twitter about not twittering! I think Sterling is just messing with our insecurities a bit.

RE: "turn off the insecurities when we need to" there good a reason to have them "on"?


By Charles Upton (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

Nice post! straight to the point.

But psychoneuroendocrinology does not offer an argument for the opposite.

Having more connections (either ethereal like those of social networks) is not better for your health.

The Internet certainly does breed anxiety. I personally have found myself limiting the access that other people have to me, in whatever ways possible, lately, as well as not paying attention to what happens when they DO access me.

I am continually reminding myself of my childhood and trying to capture its spirit vis a vis the Internet. The things I did were totally offline. The commercial Internet didn't yet exist.

As with everything, we should filter our Web experience. We should hang out with the types of people online that we would hang out with offline. It shouldn't be any different.

Sounds to me like Sterling is just getting old and can't keep up with the hyper connectivity! ;) Kidding a bit. My interest in exploring online connections, seeking optimal digital synchronicity and redefining my ability to connect to people and information is healthy for me. Even if I do it at the expense of some offline experience. To say being so connected makes me more or less of a person is ridiculous. It is ivory tower tripe. However, to suggest that understanding the value of and relationship with your connections is important makes sense. Although it is something so obvious that popular press writes about it regularly. McLuhan also pointed this out long ago. "First we shape out tools and then our tools shape us." Be smart about your connections and your relationships. Don't fall for that MTV Super Sweet 16 outdoing your neighbors crap. Don't let follower counts and page views shape you in bad ways.

I think the point you are making is a very fine one. But I do wonder: Isn't there more evidence of people feeling worse when they lose something they don't have as opposed to not having something at all? In essence: That envy doesn't feel as bad as loss? In that sense, aren't the wealthy more anxious about status (especially now) because they know they can lose it all -- as opposed to the poor, who in many cases have so little they have nothing to lose?

I don't mean to romanticize the pain of poverty. I just wonder if anxiety is something like a luxury for those with relative wealth, as the poor don't have time to worry, just to live day to day?

Awesome article. It's so ironic that I JUST read a friend's status message on facebook begging for more comments. I'm posting this on my facebook.


Read sci-fi novelist Ian McDonald's books about India in 2047 (River of Gods OR Cyberbad Days) or Brasyl in 2032. The author masterfully explores technology's impact on relationships, social change, sexual identity, culture and cast structure in 3rd world nations. In many of his imagined worlds, as technology rapidly advances, connectivity doesn't elevate individuals up from favelas or slums, but simply acts as temporary escape from their current impoverished reality. For the rich, their dependence/obsession of always being connected makes their lives poorer for it. It's an interesting perspective on connectivity's future in a non-Western world.

I'm a former Psy/Special Educ major who has yet to graduate with an undergraduate degree. I'm hoping to re-enter school and continue studies in the social sciences. I plan to do graduate work in Anthropology, and I have a strong interest in aesthetics and neuroscience. I heard Jonah Lehrer on Terri Gross's "Fresh Air"/NPR station KWGS last week. I was fascinated! I'm currently downloading several J. Lehrer articles, and I plan to blog upon perusal of these. I was completely enthralled w/the findings that Mr. Lehrer had talked about concerning psychopharmacology and parkinson's disease and how the side-effects of certain drugs were implicated in "addictive" behaviors--especially "gambling addictions". Applied anthropology has lead me to deal w/many diverse populations, so I may have stumbled upon a gold mine finding a science writer (Mr. Lehrer) who can open the mind of the lay person into the extremely complex--and still VERY NEW--field of neuroscience. Also, who in the field of aesthetics could ignore such a great title as "Proust was a Neuroscientist"?. I was immediately hooked into asking my husband to purchase this book for me. Earlier this year, I was talking with a young art therapist about the recent developments in Neuroaesthetics--another VERY NEW AND PROMISING FIELD. Mr. Lehrer--are you and your colleagues cross referencing psychopharmacology w/aesthetics and the wider range of neurosciences? And, if so, can you recommend further research so that I may also investigate these? Other bloggers--if you have information concerning these areas, please respond as well. Thank you all, and keep up the lively discussions and research.

By Michelle Cox-A… (not verified) on 24 Jan 2010 #permalink

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