This article was published on October 2, 2011

How our online connectivity is making us better human beings

How our online connectivity is making us better human beings
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Technology isolates us. We end up with our faces glued to our computer or smartphone screens, and miss what’s going on in the world around us. It makes us antisocial and lazy. And if we’re not careful, it could take us on a one-way trip straight into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

That’s what some people might have you believe. I, for one, don’t agree. Not entirely.

A little over a week ago, I came across a video in which a Mongolian family experienced seeing their photos for the first time. The video was the perfect reminder, not only of the things that we take for granted in our lives every day, but of the positive effect that technology can have on our lives. It’s easy to complain that our teenagers spend far too much time texting each other using their fancy smartphones, and like Louis CK once said, our sense of entitlement to that technology can be obnoxious, but there is good to be found in that technology too.

Louis CK’s diatribe is hilarious but there’s a lesson to be learned, and remembered – and that is the incredible opportunities that technology has afforded us.

Watching a little Mongolian boy look at his photo, sniff the Polaroid, and hand it back to the photographer, it’s hard not to feel some sense of emotion, it’s hard not to smile.

Technology creates miracles

I know that sounds cheesy but after watching a video of a woman who was able to hear herself speak for the first time, it’s hard not to think of technology itself as a miracle. With the help of technology, a 29-year-old woman who was born deaf can now hear the sound of her own laugh. It wasn’t long before the video went viral (it’s racked up over 3 million views in under a week) – and it’s the epitome of how technology can be good for our sense of humanity.

Of course the video wasn’t without its detractors, questioning the science, poking holes in the video and calling it fake. But set that aside, and you are able to share in Sloan Churman’s intensely private moment. This video is the epitome of how technology and humanity collide to create something significant, something life-changing and something beautiful.

“Machines are helping us to be more human”

In her TED talk, anthropologist Amber Case brings up several important points about the use of technology, social media and the Internet, and its effect of our humanity. She explains that we each possess what is called ‘Ambient Intimacy’ simply by owning a cell phone. In that tiny little device exists the ability to connect with hundreds, if not thousands of people, simply at the touch of a button.

There is, of course, the need to be able to detach ourselves from that at times, and resist looking down at our smartphone screens, and instead, make eye contact with a person as we speak to them. Achieve the right balance and you suddenly have an incredibly powerful, intimate and above all ‘human’ tool in your hands.

Just because the connection is made through a phone line, or a chat program, or even through a tweet, it is an expression of our humanity, of our desire to connect with people, and to be heard.

Twitter is a wonderful example of that sense of humanity. Yes there’s a lot of mundane what-they-had-for-breakfast tweets, or complaints about traffic, and many other tiny little moments of your day that in reality, no one is concerned with but you.

But then there is also the communal experience of coming together for a good cause.

Can we get Maikel Nabil to trend on Twitter?

This morning, when I logged on Twitter, I tweeted an article I posted on The Next Web, exchanged a few tweets about the state of Egypt’s tourism, and tweeted an article about a pair of Iranian bloggers whose suicides are shrouded in mystery.

Then one tweeter I follow began to tweet exclusively about Maikel Nabil. If you’re not familiar with Maikel Nabil – he is the first Egyptian blogger to be sentenced to prison after the toppling of former Egyptian president, Hosny Mubarak’s dictatorship. He was sentenced to three years for insulting the military. The insult was in the form of a blog post in which he documented the military’s human rights violations in Egypt since February 11th 2011. Maikel turned 26 while in prison.

For the past 40 days, he has been on hunger strike. Already suffering from a serious heart condition, and denied medical treatment, his condition is said to be quickly deteriorating and he could be the first political prisoner to die in Egypt’s military prisons since the uprising in January – that we know of .

It was one tweet in particular that caught my eye – a call to get his name to trend on Twitter.

In the grand scheme of things, does a trending topic on Twitter really matter? Maybe not. After all, it’s often over-run by Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga fans who can make pretty much anything trend if they want. Trending topics are more often than not the furthest thing from a noble cause you can imagine – and that’s fine.

But when people come together to express sympathy, to express outrage, to express a sense of understanding, collectively over one thing – it becomes a beautiful expression of humanity. It sounds silly without examples, but when Troy Davis‘ name was trending on Twitter it was a symbol of a collective consciousness standing up and speaking out against injustice. Yet, it’s not enough. People need to go out and take effective steps to make sure that no more innocent men are met with Troy Davis’ fate – but a trending topic can be a spark to let that happen.

Maikel Nabil is another perfect example of that. An outpouring of expression is taking place on Twitter – with tweets supporting Maikel Nabil’s cause, speaking about him, speaking about his history, his beliefs and who he is as a person.

My timeline was instantly filled with tweets about Maikel, and it felt natural to join. Some people questioned what good a trending topic is to Maikel, and some of you may be asking the same question.

In the past, public outcry has proven to be all that is needed to pressure the release of activists, and Twitter has played something of a role in that task in the past few months. The expression of solidarity using technology is often a powerful tool. It is a tool of public awareness, and as a result of just the mere attempt of getting his name to trend, many people are finding out about Maikel Nabil for the first time.

Sarah’s request to get Maikel Nabil’s name to trend under the hashtag, #MaikelNabil, is an expression of her humanity, and by extension, an expression of the humanity of each and every single person who joined. It is a statement that we will not let Maikel Nabil disappear in silence. And is there anything more human than standing up for a person, whether or not you share the same beliefs, ideologies, or even language? Standing up for him is the ‘human’ thing to do – and the technology we have in our hands makes it possible for each and every one of us to stand up for humanity, right this minute.

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