Sunday, September 04, 2005

When Old Rules Don't Apply

I recently was invited to participate in a panel discussion for the State of Play: Social Revolutions Conference, which is being sponsored by a number of organizations, including the New York and Yale Law Schools. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend, but I wanted to mention here how interesting the conference looks.

The major topics include legal issues, the stock market, architecture, property, and (one of my all-time favorite topics), psychological identity in cyberspace. It seems like an eclectic set of issues, yet the overarching question is this: Is cyberspace such a radically different environment than the "real" world that many of our traditional rules no longer apply?

The basic psychological features of cyberspace defy many aspects of in-person interactions we humans have taken for granted. Time, geographical distance, sensory stimulation, social connectivity, recordability of events, and social status are either enhanced, radically altered, or virtually eliminated. The results are new spaces that force us to rethink old standards about law, politics, finance, property, and social relationships.

We also need to be cautious. The challenge for us social scientists - as well as for thinkers in other disciplines - is to realize when we need new theories to explain what is happening in cyberspace, and when our old theories still apply. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is never a good idea. When do we need entirely new paradigms, as Kuhn discussed in his analysis of scientific revolutions, and when should we modify and build upon the old?

The unique features of cyberspace are interwoven with how fast cyberspace is changing. In his book The Evolution of Consciousness, Ornstein argues that the human brain and its basic functions have not changed much over the past 20,000 years. And yet, especially within the past century, the environments we have created are changing rapidly. Ornstein warns us: Will the human mind be able to keep up and adapt?

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