I have been struggling to blog for a while now which was making me miserable as I like nothing better than to get a large cup of tea, swizzle round on my chair and tippety-tappety-talk into my computer.
So to wrestle back some sort of control over my writing, I began to talk tech over on YouTube and now I have embedded it here on a specially created Broadcast page. Ta daaa! The result is that I am feeling much happier.
The first time my girls caught me watching myself on TV and transcribing what I said, they thought it was really amazing and wanted their own channels but after a minute or so they started doing impressions of me falling asleep saying: I am very excited about technology. And, they have a point. I do sound a bit monotonous in What am I doing? but that is better than the video Our human experience on social media I seriously look like I am about to cry. It seems that I am not a natural in front of the camera.
My original idea was #broadcastsfrommybooth as I film myself in an old fireplace in my bedroom – my one fabulous go at interior design, even the carpet fitter thought I was mad – but it is a bit long to say in each video, and every word counts.
I use a Google Pixel phone. The camera is fabulous but doesn’t sound brilliant since the Pixel doesn’t allow you to use a plugin microphone, and if you change to a different camera app, the sound doesn’t really improve enough to make it worth the diminished video quality. Apparently, Pixel 3 will fix this problem but they said that about Pixel 2 and when I tested one, it didn’t seem to use the external mic. So, I will just use what I have.
I tried filming on my laptop with one of those headphone mics plugged in lying across the keyboard. It had great sound, but a terrible picture, I look like Voldemort (take a look – 1st Broadcast from the booth) so I turned off the softbox to get my nose back but then I looked like a guest on Most Haunted (check out Privacy and technology) although thankfully you can’t see up my nostrils. What is it with filming and noses? Softboxes are fabulous but it has taken ages to position them just right.
YouTube Creator Studio has lots of editing tools so you can trim your uploaded video, add notations and helpful graphics which I will do once I get my story straight. Currently, I don’t script my videos which I should do – it is a YouTube rule – but it’s a bit tricky talking about my own ideas in a couple of minutes. I just need to practice.
I manage to wear a lot of black even though that is a big no-no and try to follow the other YouTube rules like put face powder on to so as to not be shiny and distracting. I also stare right into the tiny lens and bring my energy to no one in particular which is easier said than done, believe you me.
Speaking into a tiny lens for a maximum of five minutes is very different from lecturing to computer scientists in a purpose built room for at least an hour where I get moment-by-moment feedback. However, I am enjoying the challenge. I gurn a lot and sometimes my hair looks a bit crazy though I bought a hairbrush this morning. This afternoon, I was drinking tea in between takes so my lipstick is all over the place. Yes that’s right, I look like I don’t know how to put on lipstick.
What can I say? YouTubing is much harder than it looks and I am in awe of those who make it look so great but now I have my first real subscriber over on YouTube who is not a member of my family and thinks I have useful things to say, I am inspired to talk more to my audience.
Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development. – Julie E. Cohen
Writer Muriel Spark kept her own archives. Every bus ticket, theatre ticket, diary, shopping list, cheque stub, etc., she kept and stored in boxes for years until she sold the lot to the National Library of Scotland.
When I first read about Spark’s archive, I loved her chutzpah. But, in Appointment in Arezzo, Alan Taylor explains that the archive was far from her having one eye on posterity. Spark kept it so that she had irrefutable proof of who she was and the experiences which had shaped her. She could use that archive to know the truth about herself and her past especially when people she had known and loved wrote about her unfavourably.
Nowadays we all have similar archive, online. It boggles my mind how Google has recorded every journey I have ever made when using its maps. Elsewhere I am in databases in the workplace, pension plans, the doctor’s, the dentist, the TFL Oyster card system, and so on. My offline archive is just a mountain of old diaries.
Personal information, like the fields found in a database, wasn’t really collected until after WWII, and even then it didn’t become a commodity until much later on when businesses began to collect it to sell us things. Before that, there wasn’t much anyone didn’t know about you in your community say like your village. I know where I grew up everyone knew everything about me. But there is a massive difference between the facts that are known about me by neighbours and the journals I have kept.
It is the same today. I mean I don’t care if you know where I go, or what I buy, or how old I am. I don’t publicise these things and definitely not online, but even so, if you asked me I would probably tell you. However, if you were to come round my house and read my diaries I would be mortified. They are private.
Privacy is a social construct. Historically people lived closely together so there was no privacy. It was only in the US in 1980, it came to mean the right to be let alone as defined in Samuel D Warren and Louis Brandeis’ article titled The Right to Privacy.
There might be lots of personal information about us in databases or in other people’s heads where we fit demographically, but that is not the same as our hopes, our dreams, or our irritating habits, which is why when someone shares that sort of information about us or indeed reads it in a diary, without our permission, especially if it is something we wouldn’t want the whole village or indeed Internet to know, it can feel like a horrible betrayal and a violation of our privacy.
That said, our everyday lives are a constant trade off between privacy and intimacy, between sociability and creating relationships. Privacy is not an absolute state and it can be doubly difficult to figure out where we are, when we are the individuals who have offered up our private space in the first place, which is what we do when we put up pictures of our houses, or our lunch, or ourselves, online.
Knowing yourself in the face of others
Knowing what to keep private can be a hard call and can change from day to day. With people online, whom we chat to, we tend to fall into an immediate trust and share more readily because trusting and sharing is what builds intimacy, and as we have little to go on with a virtual someone else, we may violate our own privacy to drum up a sense of intimacy and trust, and if the other person turns out to be not what they said they were then we may feel a bit foolish, that’s if we are lucky!
[pullquote]We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin. – André Berthiaume[/pullquote]
But it is not our fault. Laurence Scott says in The Four Dimensional Human, that the modern message is that we are fundamentally isolated from each other and that when we get online we have the abstract promise of going home, it has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a sign or word elsewhere.
In other words, connection gives our lives meaning and we will readily trade some privacy for the promise of not feeling socially excluded. And, if Scott is to be believed, then technology has trained him to be permanently online hoping for some connection.
The hoped for self
And, if that is true, it is no wonder that Scott remains frustrated that people do not share the things which he feels really need to be shared and instead curate their lives carefully to makes themselves look like they are having a life well lived. In his words: We gentrify our web presence and describes social media as a bit of a stage performance.
But how else are we to behave? Being honest and vulnerable online or off takes courage, so if the person or indeed the whole gang of people with whom you are sharing don’t understand or empathise, and in a worst case scenario, let you know, you can feel crushed and ganged up against. It is only with a strong sense of self can you recover.
Privacy provides you with a space in which to discover that sense of self but if you are never offline then how can you cultivate one? You cannot do it online if you are wanting randomers to satisfy your painful yearnings for connection.
I read something today that the optimum number of friends of Facebook is 300. Anymore and you look like you have no friends. Elsewhere, like Twitter or LinkedIn, lots of followers makes you look fabulous. Connectedness is a commodity and we work hard to keep our numbers up. We cannot win. Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman has said that we are under siege in this pervasive digital culture and there are a lot of rules made up by social media experts for us to manage and succeed online. We need to be authentic, unless of course we are not very nice then we have to hide that and pretend to be nice, authentic, and the same as everyone else.
In Cave in the snow author Vicki MacKenzie, describes how Buddhist monk Tenzin Palmo moved into a cave up the Himalayas so that she could meditate in peace:
She could begin to unravel the secrets of the inner world – the world that was said to contain the vastness and wonder of the entire universe.
More and more I am beginning to think this aptly describes privacy. We could all do with a bit of solitude to build our emotional and digital resilience. The Internet is fabulous as it compresses time and space, great for maintaining friendships, keeping in touch with loved ones, running businesses, and so on. But if all we do is constantly look online to find meaning,connection and validation then we will never give ourselves that time and space to give those things to ourselves.
We don’t have to go mad like Tenzin Palmo and sit in a cave for 12 years or indeed emulate Christopher Knight the man who lived alone in the woods for 27 years and experienced deep transcendental moments in nature. We don’t even need to delete our social media accounts as Jared Lenier warns us we must. But, we need to protect our inner world, our privacy, so that if we never unravel the secrets of the entire universe, or transcend ourselves watching the fog lift at sunrise, we know enough to love and respect our own dear selves, so that we are able to connect with love and respect to our fellow human beings, by transcending the painful yearning we sometimes get when our needs are not being met.
The man in the woods’s observation of the mobile phone is fascinating: Why, he wonders, would a person take pleasure in using a telephone as a telegraph machine? “We’re going backwards,” he says.
Privacy is the space in which we come on home to ourselves. There’s no need to camp out online in the hope of making a home in a stranger’s photo album.
At school pick-up one day, I walked over to a mum whose kid plays with mine. She was staring at her mobile phone not typing or speaking so it didn’t feel like I was interrupting anything when I said Hi. She looked up at me and immediately looked back down at her phone. I stood awkwardly wondering what to do next. Then another mum came over and said: Hi. Mobile phone mum looked up, immediately put her phone in her pocket, and began an animated conversation with the new mum.
Sociologist Sherry Turkle says that even a silent phone disconnects us, it indicates that any conversation can be interrupted at anytime as the phone has an equality with the now. In this way, Turkle believes that mobile technologies erode our empathy for other people.
I find this an old-fashioned view. Turkle and others are basically saying that technology is a thing outside of us, an unstoppable force over which we have no control and which carries us away to places we don’t want to go.
I beg to differ. Like Marshall McLuhan, I believe that technology is an extension of us and how we behave. And, more importantly, we can choose how to use it and we just must take responsibility for our actions. Mobile phone mum is a perfect example. She knew exactly what she was doing when she wordlessly wielded her phone at me and then put it away for the next mum.
The smartphone in and of itself is an amazing invention. It is a mini-computer which is all people could talk about wanting back in 2007 during some usability research I did for Orange. It thrills me everyday, I kid you not, to hold so powerful a device in my hand (see Augmenting Humans and Travels without my phone).
I think this is because I was fifteen years old when my parents first got a phone in our house and I’d barely gotten used to the excitement of it ringing when I went off to university to not have a phone number to give to people. I would go to the phone box if I wanted to phone someone. As a student in France I could only make a phone call if I had money and if I had remembered to go to the tabac to buy a phone card. I wonder how different life would have been, and indeed how different life is for students today, with a mobile phone and instant access to anyone.
Back then, I wandered around the world unreachable. Unless you knew my address and wrote me a letter, or you came to visit, you couldn’t contact me. Sometimes I was lonely. I spent all my time in shared spaces indoors and out, private and public (like parks and cafes, flats and universities) alone and with people, friends and strangers. In fact one time I was sat in the park in Chambéry and a friend I hadn’t seen in weeks who had moved to the Dordogne, wandered across and said: Thank God, you’re here. I was running out of places to look and was worried you’d gone away. I’ve nowhere else to stay tonight.
Feeling at home in shared spaces can be difficult and so designing public spaces to make them seem more friendly and safe and accessible remains a fascinating area of research. In Jane Jacobs’s classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Bill Hillier’s Space Syntax, the question often is: How do we make the public more sociable?
Many people think that the mobile phone is an invasion of the public by the private. Dom Joly’sI’m on the phone sketch is as funny today as it was when mobile phones were new. Similarly, last summer in the Louvre, I couldn’t get near the Mona Lisa because it had a billion people in front of it taking selfies.
Today, as I write this I think, well why not? Why not have a Mona Lisa selfie? Why not talk really loudly on your phone in public? Why not take up space and behave like you belong?
It can be hard to feel like somewhere public is familiar and friendly, but with easy connection to the Internet anywhere and anytime, people can use their phones to engage with their location by reading restaurant reviews, historical information, the locations of other people nearby, and of course by taking a selfie. There is much research into how we can redefine public spaces with mobile technology so everyone can feel familiar in a new or intimidating place but already the phone helps.
In my time as a student, wandering about Europe, I didn’t have such a luxury and as such was always at the mercy of strangers and exhausted by trying to figure out how things worked. Strange men would come and talk to me and give me their addresses if I sat in the park or on trains or when I wandered down the street. I have fond memories of the French farmer who used to jump out when I cycled past on my way to or from Bourget du Lac. He wanted me to come to his farm and meet his son: Venez, venez, madamoiselle. My mother always warned me about strange men, she was worried I would end up behind someone’s wallpaper. (Funnily enough strange women never approached me with their pockets full of written addresses. Would I have responded differently if they had?)
My first day in France, I cried on the bus. I didn’t have the right ticket because the bus worked differently to what I had expected. The driver let me on free and the next day when I was on another bus going the other way he stopped his bus when he saw me, beeped his horn and waved at me. It never occurred to me he was waving at me so half a dozen people on the bus tapped me on the shoulder to let me know it was me. Mortified, I waved back and cried again and a couple of old ladies comforted me whilst saying Oooh-la-la as I remembered how I had gotten off at the wrong stop, gotten lost, and gave up, at which point I let some random bloke take me to my home in his car. With a phone, I would have known how the ticket system worked, where to go exactly, which stop and so on, and I would have cried a lot less. Without a phone, I saw just how kind people can be to a lost and lonely girl.
In the book Mobile interfaces in Public Spaces, the authors consider the social and spatial changes in our society which have come about with mobiles phones by comparing it to the book, the Walkman and the iPod. These are all things we have used in the past to feel more at home say on a train, in a cafe, or in the park. They allows us to be present and yet go elsewhere as I have pondered in the blog Where do we go when we go online?That said, when I used to read the English paper in the park in Chambéry, it was always a day old, a male Jehovah’s Witness would regularly appear. He wanted to check the football scores in the Premier League.
There is the worry that phones are disconnecting us from the world and people around us because these interactions will no longer happen if we are too busy staring into our screens and everyone has access to the same information. But the authors above argue that mobile devices work as interfaces to public spaces and strengthen our connections to locations.
But what about our connection to people? Well! There are times when you just don’t want to be sociable or you require a different sociability, that of strangers, say who are enduring a long commute and need to carve out a space of their own whilst in a public space.
In July, I went to a talk given by Alastair Horne aka @pressfuturist at the British Library on ambient literature, in particular Keitai shousetsu, the first mobile phone fictions or Japanese cell phone novels in the noughties. They were written by young women, in the same way that they were read, on a small screen using text language, in serial form, during a commute. It was an intimate form of storytelling which led readers to give suggestions as to how the story should continue. The phone was often an integral part of the story because the writer and reader were both writing and reading in similar circumstances, exploring the story as it unfolded, and their commute became an exciting shared experience.
Interactive fiction and text adventures are not new, but their transfer to a mobile phone was and the immediacy it offers. Ten years later with better connectivity, ambient fiction is the next step. Stories are heard in a particular place and location and the phone again becomes part of the story, the shared experience and the connection.
Shared experiences and connection give our lives meaning. But, sometimes the reality of a moment or a person in a public space – like mobile mum – can really let us down, which is why I love the power of the mobile phone in my hand. It can interrupt my reality and get me through a difficult moment and onto the next. Not all strangers are kind, but from experience, especially the ones which I have shared here with you today, I can definitely tell you, the unkind phone wielding ones are absolutely in the minority – an amazing thought which will make me cry with gratitude every time. My mother always told me that I would never get through life if I cried like that all that time. I am pleased to report I have gotten through life exactly like that, yes, crying all the time. And can say, I have been shown many kindnesses and I am immensely grateful.
Knowledge is only a rumour until it is in the muscle – Huli Wigmen
For me, the main difference between being social online and offline is, to be social online we have to be active. Offline, we can be passive. We can be involuntarily social in real life just by showing up. We don’t even have to talk. In fact, sometimes it’s better if we don’t.
Online, social computing refers to the systems which support humans who share and use information such as teams, communities, organisations, and markets. Some ways like photos or status updates on social media platforms are obviously social especially if we have our family and friends online with us, less obviously it may be bidding on eBay or writing a blog – we are doing it, because we presume we have an audience, we have other people in our minds. Recently, I wrote about Virtual Presence, and then The Sustainable Academic wrote a response which turned my monologue into a dialogue. How fabulous is that?
Technology like RSS and permalinks, bridges people’s blogs and then on Amazon or Argos, content generated by social interaction is used to produce new functionality and value for their users. So, we have the most helpful favourable review, and the most helpful critical review. This helps users get a summary of reviews quite quickly and for those who like to review the chance to be seen as a top reviewer which of course encourages reviewers to write more reviews.
It is a study in user participation. Rather like Napster was. Instead of a central database of songs, it had every downloading user become a server, and thus grew a network.
Amazing really since the main question with the birth of the WWW was: Who would put information up for free? Turns out not just information, but songs and bandwidth too. We feel better when we connect and share. Indeed PageRank based its ranking of the importance of pages on how many connections (links) a page had, which can be good and bad depending on who is doing the linking and why. However, writing Wikipedia entries as well as debating the policies and guidelines to improve an infrastructure has led to great accurate pages. Open source software works the same way, people are absorbed coding and teaching in their spare time to make better software for everyone free of charge.
Writing this, I feel all warm and fuzzy, the Internet is a lovely place to be, but then, we get the not so loveliness, the trolling, the prejudice, the awful videos of violence and crime uploaded and left online which once seen cannot be unseen. Apparently, terrible behaviour happens more easily online because offline in our communities we have strong institutions, social norms and laws/comeback from the people around us. Online we only have the weak institutions of social media so people feel freer to say and do whatever they want to as there is very little comeback. And, these people are not behaving like that online or offline I presume in front of family and friends, they are faceless and fake-named, and might be quite different in real life.
A recent article on the BBC talked about how child abuse videos on Facebook have remained online even after many complaints. One Facebook employer is quoted as saying that they can’t censor too much as people will leave the platform, and they don’t want that as: It’s all about making money at the end of the day. Don’t be fooled by the word social.
This was demonstrated in a BBC interview last year with Theresa Hong who led up Trump’s social media campaign HQ to get him elected:
Interviewer: What were Facebook, YouTube, and Google people doing here? Hong: They were helping us… They were basically our hands on partners.
Trump spent $95m alone on Facebook ad campaigns so Facebook sent over loads of people to help with A/B testing and trialling of colours and buttons and ads to persuade people to vote for Trump. He bought time and skills from Facebook. Hong also wrote Trump’s Facebook entries saying that it was easy for her to write in Trump’s style because: He was authentic, he was refreshing.
I saw a thread on Twitter yesterday wondering about Hong as a person: Is she nuts? In her job, I guess it is rare to meet someone who is saying exactly what they think, when the rest of the time many people who want to be leaders and crave power lose touch with why they wanted to be leaders and will do and say anything to gain influence over other people who stop being people and are viewed as mere commodities. History is full of examples.
It is insidious. Let’s take a look at the language used around social media and social computing. We have community and tribes. What? Marketing guru/racketeer (see I am trialling labels) Seth Godin likes to talk about tribes as people who already want what you have to sell, you just have to find them so you can authentically fit into their experience. What? In business speak, a tribe is a group of people who go the extra mile, who know their why, and who share values as well as objectives. Gah!!!!! Really though this sort of language is empty because the bottom line is really just money and power, and tribes are led by leaders, Godin says so, he says tribes need leaders to guide them i.e., sell them stuff. Basically if you go on enough and target accurately enough you can be a leader. I’ve said it before the most persuasive person wins.
I got email today about Saving the Earth and whilst it suggested that we pick up rubbish and recycle, the point of the email was to sell me a meditation kit. A perfect example of Slactivism which is present everywhere online. Yep I could go outside and make a difference or I could sit indoors, buy this kit, share its purchase and my deep feelings of angst about Saving the Earth on Facebook. Job done. Aren’t I a worthy person?
It is so easy to like a page or retweet a tweet to make ourselves look moral and socially aware. It takes no effort at all. It is much more time consuming and emotionally difficult to write letters or visit people in detention centres. I have a friend who does this. She is amazing. She picks up rubbish on the beach, she campaigns for change socially and politically. She lights the fire by living a good life. She is a leader. She is authentic and makes the world a better place with every action she takes. She is refreshing.
But, it is not easy to be as brave and committed as my friend. We have a powerful need to belong not least of all because social exclusion throughout history has led to disastrous consequences so it is difficult to question social norms for change (not just for a laugh like these odd social norms). To question authority and ask: Why are people being detained indefinitely when they haven’t done anything wrong? And to bear witness, well that takes courage.
We also have a powerful need not to lose our jobs so that we can pay our bills so we behave differently at work. Often we don’t even acknowledge that we have kids ‘cos it might impact how people see us, less committed. In fact, most jobs doesn’t recognise that kids come out of school at 3.30pm and make their parents work until 6pm. Completely nuts.
And, yet a lot of us think that things are fairer online because a computer is in charge. It is an automated authority, doesn’t have emotions, it won’t have a sudden rush of blood to the head and make some biased decision which helps its pals. But, people are running these networks, just look at all the jobs and terminology in this overview of social media: The goal is to create content compelling enough that users will share it with their social networks. Not to serve anyone but to use them. It is like a weird variation of a pyramid scheme. We are back to the idea of customers and competitors, and user or used.
Theoretically, social media could be fair as according to Marx the two necessary components of a public sphere are political communication (equality of voice) and political economy (equal access to resources). And perhaps it was until businesses got on board and wanted to advertise in every last space. It is not equal now, is it? Not when one person can spend $95m on Facebook advertising and buy up all the skills and time on offer to design ad campaigns with the sole goal of persuasion conversion aided by the technology which never gets tired of repeating and tweaking the same thing over, and over, and over again.
And, even if we are suspicious, we are still taken in by positive culture talk. The lack of a dislike button on Facebook is not about creating a positive feel good culture, but more about preventing users from disliking a product or service which has paid for advertising. The well-designed newish emoticons of happy, sad, ha-ha, angry are perfect for data mining. Look at the emoticon and then the comment and figure out the language: Happy =Ease of Use, Angry= low battery life, and so on. It is another form of analytics like the web beacons Facebook created off Facebook to collect which sites users liked and where they went, so they could target these users with similar websites back over on Facebook.
In his book, Social Media: A Critical Introduction, Christian Fuchs talks about social media from a Marxist and neo-Marxist point of view looking at the slave-like labour necessary in the creation of technological goods from the knowledge worker elite (software engineers) who get paid to the prosumers (producer consumers) who fill up the social network with free data and connections to other people, who don’t get paid, and then their personal data name, age, address, personal likes, dislikes, etc., is sold to whoever wants to sell to them. The user/prosumer is a commodity.
That said, when I was reading the reviews on GoodReads (another great example of social computing, purchased in 2013 by Amazon, whose policy changes caused many reviewers to leave), someone said about Fuchs’ book:
This book is crap.
Which made me laugh. But, it doesn’t even come close to my favourite review, to date, about a crime thriller on Amazon (and I don’t even read crime thrillers) which says:
I really didn’t enjoy this book at all. The writing is not to my taste; it is written like an audio description you get on the TV for vision-impaired people, or like a computer dictating sentences on auto-pilot.
I laugh every time I read this. To be absolutely fair I will add that, both books have good reviews too thus, demonstrating the democracy of the Internet.
I have seen social computing described as collective intelligence and also as the lowest common denominator. It is both and everything else on the continuum between these binary extremes.
I love social computing and after wading through all the pages I did to write this blog, I hate it too. Whatever it brings us, it also robs us, leaving us feel grubby and used. There is much we can do online but so much we cannot and wouldn’t want to. So, it is good to step away now and again and experience our humanity. As, Steve Pavlina says:
As humans, we are looking for a change of state. It is how we make sense of the world, as in semiotics, we divide the world into opposites: good and bad, light and dark, day and night. Then we group information together and call them archetypes and symbols to imbue meaning so that we can recognise things more quickly.
According to the binary-brain theory, our neurons do too. They form little communities of neurons that work together to recognise food, not-food; shelter, not-shelter; friends, foes; the things which preoccupy us all and are classed as deficiency needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Over on researchgate, there was discussion about moving beyond binary which used this example:
Vegetarian diet vs Free Range Animals vs Battery Farmed Meat
If it was just vegetarian diet v battery farming it would be binary and an easy choice but add in free range and we see the complexities of life, the sliding continuum from left to right. We know life is complex but it is easier in decision making to just have two options, we are cognitive misers and hate using up all our brainpower. We want to see a change in state or a decision made. It also reflects the natural rhythms of life like the tide: ebb and flow, the seasons: growing and dying, it’s not just our neurons its our whole bodies which reflect the universe so patterns in nature resonate with us.
I began this series with an end in mind. As human-computer interaction (HCI) is an ever expanding subject, I wanted to pin it down and answer this question: What am I thinking these days when I think about human-computer interaction?
For me, HCI is all about the complexities of the interaction of a human and a computer, which we try to simplify in order to make it a self-service thing, so everyone can use it. But with the progress of the Internet, HCI has become less about creating a fulfilling symbiosis between human and computer, and more about economics. And, throughout history, economics has been the driving force behind technological progress, but often with human suffering. It is often in the arts where we find social conscience.
Originally though, the WWW was thought of by Tim Berners-Lee to connect one computer to another so everyone could communicate. However, this idea has been replaced by computers connecting through intermediaries, owned by large companies, with investors looking to make a profit. The large companies not only define how we should connect and what are experience should be, but then they take all our data. And it is not just social media companies, it is government and other institutions who make all our data available online without asking us first. They are all in the process of redefining what privacy and liberty means because we don’t get a choice.
I have for sometime now gone about saying that we live in an ever changing digital landscape but it’s not really changing. We live the same lives, we are just finding different ways to achieve things without necessarily reflecting whether it is progress or not. Economics is redefining how we work.
And whilst people talk about community and tribes online, the more that services get shifted online, the more communities get destroyed. For example, by putting all post office services online, the government destroyed the post office as a local hub for community, and yet at the time it seemed like a good thing – more ways to do things. But, by forcing people to do something online you introduce social exclusion. Basically, either have a computer or miss out. If you don’t join in, you are excluded which taps into so many human emotions, that we will give anything away to avoid feeling lonely and shunned, and so any psychological responsibility we have towards technology is eroded especially as many online systems are binary: Give me this data or you cannot proceed.
Economic-driven progress destroys things to make new things. One step forward, two steps back. Mainly it destroys context and context is necessary in our communication especially via technology.
Computers lack context and if we don’t give humans a way to add context then we are lost. We lose meaning and we lose the ability to make informed decisions, and this is the same whether it is a computer or a human making the decisions. Humans absorb context naturally. Robots need to ask. That is the only way to achieve a symbiosis, by making computers reliant on humans. Not the other way round.
And not everything has to go online. Some things, like me and my new boiler don’t need to be online. It is just a waste of wifi.
VR man Jaron Lanier said in the FT Out to Lunch section this weekend that social media causes cognitive confusion as it decontextualises, i,e., it loses context, because all communication is chopped up into algorithmic friendly shreds and loses its meaning.
Lanier believes in the data as labour movement, so that huge companies have to pay for the data they take from people. I guess if a system is transparent for a user to see how and where their data goes they might choose more carefully what to share, especially if they can see how it is taken out of context and used willy-nilly. I have blogged in the past how people get used online and feel powerless.
So way back when I wrote that social media reflects us rather than taking us places we don’t want to go, in my post Alone Together: Is social media changing us? I would now add that it is economics which changes us. Progress driven by economics and the trade-offs humans think it is ok for other humans to make along the way. We are often seduced by cold hard cash as it does seem to be the answer to most of our deficiency needs. It is not social media per se, it is not the Internet either which is taking us places we don’t want to go, it is the trade-offs of economics and how we lose sight of other humans around us when we feel scarcity.
So, since we work in binary, let’s think on this human v technology conundrum. Instead of viewing it as human v technology, what about human v economics? Someone is making decisions on how best to support humans with technology but each time this is eroded by the bottom line. What about humans v scarcity?
Lanier said in his interview I miss the future as he was talking about the one in which he thought he would be connected with others through shared imagination, which is what we used to do with stories and with the arts. Funny I am starting to miss it too. As an aside, I have taken off my Fitbit. I am tired of everything it is taking from me. It is still possible online to connect imaginatively, but it is getting more and more difficult when every last space is prescribed and advertised all over as people feel that they must be making money.
We need to find a way to get back to a technological shared imagination which allows us to design what’s best for all humanity, and any economic gain lines up with social advancement for all, not just the ones making a profit.