2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Professor, Claremont McKenna College; Past-president, American Psychological Association; Author, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities
Professor, Claremont McKenna College; Past-president, American Psychological Association; Author, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities

How Technology Is Saving the World

I was going to be modest about it, but the congratulatory messages have been slow to arrive, so I will have to toot my own horn. The exciting news is that I have been named Time Magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year. It is true that this is an honor that I share with every other user of technology, but I share well, and I hope that you are as flattered as I am with this well-deserved recognition. In past years, Time Magazine has bestowed this honor on such well-known luminaries as Bill and Melinda Gates, George W. Bush, Rudolph Giuliani, and Ayatollah Khomeini, so we are in good company. All users of technology received this (unfortunately) nonmonetary award as an acknowledgement of the work we have done to change the world in dramatic and unexpected ways. It would be difficult to imagine a more diverse group of award winners. I am writing this article from London, where the Queen just announced that her annual Christmas message, which according to official Royal sources is anticipated by millions (I did not independently verify these data), will be available via pod cast for downloading onto I-Pods and other MP3 devices. In fact, all of her past Christmas messages are now available in multiple viewing formats. Although the Queen refused to respond to questions about whether she personally owned such a device, the younger Royals were quick to add that they did. As illustrated in this momentous news, which is just one example of the radical changes in how we are communicating, there is ample evidence that users of technology are changing the world.

In just the last year, bloggers destroyed some political careers (e.g., Mark Foley) and launched others (e.g., Barack Obama). Technology has changed the way we get information, compute and pay our taxes, keep diaries, do homework, stay in touch, read books, learn almost anything, conduct research, make purchases, compose music, find mates, run businesses, diagnose diseases, and more. At the click of a mouse, I can listen to rap music from Poland or find an organ donor. Technology has enabled all of this and more. I believe that it will also profoundly change how we think about each other and that, for the most part, the change will be for the good.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios in which technology depersonalizes our relationships and makes war more efficient and propaganda more believable. But I am a teacher, and teaching is, at its heart, an act of optimism. If you scrape the crusty veneer off even the curmudgeonliest of professors (yes, "curmudgeonliest" is a real word), you will find a core (sometimes it will be a small core) of optimism. Optimism is a way of viewing possible futures with the belief that you can affect it for the better.

A colleague recently lamented that there are no unexplored places left on earth.  As our daily lives have become increasingly international, there are also fewer strange foods to be tasted, exotic locations to visit, or social customs that are entirely foreign. One reason for the loss of opportunities for adventures into the unknown is that international foods can be found in every city and people from every region of the globe are shopping, eating, studying, and working in even small Midwestern towns in the United States and their equivalent in many countries around the world. Although most of us are still far too uniformed about the lives of people in other regions of the world or in other neighborhoods in our own city, it is also true that we now know more about each other than at any other time in history. Like the other users of technology, I have come to know much more about the lives of others who are "not like me" than I would have even a half generation ago. We are not even close to obtaining global citizenship, but it is at least an idea that people can comprehend and debate.

Along the billion or so other award winners, I can and do communicate with people all over the world at cable speed. Consider for example, the international gaming community that plays together on line and, at the same time, shares their political views and professional and personal lives. They engage in a prolonged social intercourse that spans continents. Their heroes are the gaming experts who come from many countries and backgrounds. The strangeness of "foreigners" that used to define the relationship between people of different religions, customs, races, and regions of the world is disappearing as the rapidly increasing numbers of users of technology connect over time and space in ways that were only available to members of the same clan or village a few decades ago.

Social and political psychologists study "in group" favoritism, which has been a root cause of most conflicts throughout time. The term refers to the tendency to believe that members of one’s own group are more deserving than members of other or "out-groups." Those undeserving others, whom we perceive as being more similar to each other than members of our own group are (they all look and think alike), pose a threat to our own group’s right to whatever is scarce and valued—land, good jobs, clean water, and so on. Think of any conflict, past or present. Whether it is the Bloods and the Crips, Shiites and Sunnis, Tutsis and Hutus, African-Americans and Hispanics, or the hundreds of years of the Crusades with Catholics against Muslims, these are all examples of "us against them" or in-group—out-group conflicts. Pessimists will readily point out that these conflicts have existed since the dawn of time and only a pie-eyed optimistic could believe that intergroup conflict could be reduced by making "the other" seem more like "us." But, there is evidence that we can.

Psychologists in Northern Ireland found that when people in divided societies come into contact in nonthreatening ways, they are in a better position to understand the other group's perspective, and come to regard "them" as equally as human as members of their own group. This contact can lead to greater intergroup trust and even a measure of intergroup forgiveness for past wrongs. Similar approaches are being used by Turkish psychologists who believe that the "Turkish-Armenian conflict has been suffering from a lack of real relational space." They are approaching this long-running conflict by finding ways that members of these two cultures can relate to each other, and the virtual world may be the safest place for these meetings. Psychologists in Israel and Palestine have been assisting teachers and students from both sides of this divide to write joint history books that incorporate narratives from the lives of all of the people who are living contemporary Israeli-Palestinian history. It is the ability to "come together" that is forcing each side to recognize the humanity of "the other." Although these projects are a mix of face-to-face and technology assisted meetings, the role of technology can be used to expand these peace-waging efforts.

Technology is bringing people from diverse backgrounds together, with most of the meetings are taking place in the virtual world. The challenge is to bring in those who are still excluded from the technology revolution, which includes the poor of the world and those whose governments are engaged in futile efforts to restrict access to information from the rest of the world. There will always be "in" and "out" groups, but these categories are becoming more fluid as we identify with a variety of different groups instead of defining ourselves along traditional demographic variables.

Allegiances now extend beyond national borders. I feel as distressed about the loss of the innocent lives of Iraqi citizens as I do about the loss of the innocent lives of the women and men in the U.S. military. I can view the suffering of each any time, night or day, by logging onto the "local" news in any part of the world. I can read the uncensored thoughts of anyone who wishes to share them on their personal blogs and watch the home videos they upload to YouTube and other public video sites. Government censorship is virtually impossible and the ability to hear directly from ordinary people around the world has caused me to see our connectedness. We have only just begun to realize the profound ways that technology is altering our view of the "other people" who share our planet. The use of technology to make the strange familiar will have an overall positive effect on how we think about others in our shrinking world. We are becoming more similar and connected in our basic "humanness." And, that is a good thing.