Sunday Seven: screens, structures and goats

Some articles of the past week that I found moving:

Fear of Screens – by Nathan Jurgenson for The New Inquiry

This review of Sherry Turkle’s premise in Reclaiming Conversation ends up being a passionate defense of our individual right to define and choose our forms of real conversation.

“How do you look at everyday people using digital devices to communicate with one another and suppose that they may not even know what conversation and friendship are?… Why this presumption of doom?”

The claims that our interactions are less meaningful because we use screens presume to define what is “human” as good, and what involves electronics as not so good, while reality is not so black-and-white.

“To prescribe one form of media — to privilege speaking over writing over texting — would require deep description and analysis of the context: who is speaking, to what ends, and why. Turkle too often assumes screen-mediated communication comes in only one flavor, which cannot grasp the complexities of our always augmented sociality, to say nothing of how screens are differently used by those with different abilities.”

Who says that conversation through a screen is not conversation? Why can’t digital communication also be human?

“Each time we say “IRL,” “face-to-face,” or “in person” to mean connection without screens, we frame what is “real” or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness — variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. “Face to face” should mean more than breathing the same air.”

Jurgenson points out that the very act of worrying about what type of communication we are engaging in stilts the conversation itself, and forces us to worry more about the medium than the message. That in itself detracts from the connection.

The article contains insightful and refreshing refutations of the “personal connection is good, screen connection is bad” philosophy that ends up positioning those who disconnect as better human beings than those who don’t. But at the same time it is also guilty of over-simplifying. The enhanced opportunities for communication that our devices offer, as well as the emergence of new customs and even language, is an extension of our culture that sparks and breathes life into connections. Meeting people and keeping in touch have never been easier. But screen-mediated conversations are not the same as physical ones. Tone gets misunderstood, words are stronger than intent, and the non-verbal cues that subliminally tell us so much are strikingly absent. For deep, soul-building connection, you still need to look into someone’s eyes, without a screen in between.

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The Useless Agony of Going Offline – by Matthew J. X. Malady, for The New Yorker

Continuing with the theme, The New Yorker magazine has a deeply amusing and beautifully written essay on the joys of constant connection. It’s all about being better informed.

“At the end of the experiment, I wasn’t dying to get my phone back or to access Facebook. I just wanted to get back to being better informed. My devices and the Internet, as much as they are sometimes annoying and frustrating and overflowing with knuckleheads, help me to do that. If getting outside and taking walks, or sitting in silence, or walking dogs, or talking with loved ones on the phone got me to that same place, I’d be more than happy to change things up.”

It’s true that those of us with smartphones have become used to whipping out our devices in public to look something up. It’s true that link jumping can suck up hours much more productively than sitting in front of the television. But even the self-confessed need to be better informed begs the question “why?” Or rather, since the answer to that is quite self-evident, “why so much?”.

Speaking as a complete knowledge junkie that usually ends the day with 48 tabs open on my browser, I can attest to the pull of mental stimulation. And I, too, have done the “pulling the plug” experiment a few times, although never for more than a day. But unlike the author, I totally love those offline days. I’ve weaned myself off my information addiction, and can happily indulge my knowledge addiction with (gasp!) paper books and magazines. The idea of three sunrises in one day sounds like bliss. And if I thought that the days actually would go slower if I didn’t “connect”, I’d be tempted to do it a whole lot more often.

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Billowing lightbulbs that it would be a crime to put a lampshade on:

by the Czech designer Petra Krausová, via Dezeen

by the Czech designer Petra Krausová, via Dezeen

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What world are we building? – by danah boyd, via Medium

A wake-up call by the technological anthropologist danah boyd (her name is intentionally without capital letters), this article is an adaptation of a talk that she gave in October, which is well worth repeating, redistributing and adapting some more.

Her absorbing book “it’s complicated”, published in 2014, brought to light the conflicted relationship that young people have with the opportunities, the threats and the pressure that social media brings to their lives.

“While social media was being embraced, I was doing research, driving around the country talking with teenagers about how they understood technology in light of everything else taking place in their lives. I watched teens struggle to make sense of everyday life and their place in it. And I watched as privileged parents projected their anxieties onto the tools that were making visible the lives of less privileged youth.”

This essay extends that to include the obligations of social responsibility, and goes into more depth about the racial and social divisions that spontaneously divide online territories. It talks about the development of social media and the social divisions that it can unintentionally cause.

“Teenagers weren’t creating the racialized dynamics of social media. They were reproducing what they saw everywhere else and projecting onto their tools. And they weren’t alone. Journalists, parents, politicians, and pundits gave them the racist language they reiterated.

And today’s technology is valued — culturally and financially — based on how much it’s used by the most privileged members of our society.”

The power of algorithms to shape our opinions and decisions – through the recommendation engines in our favourite stores, through the ads displayed when we search for something on Google, through the information that Facebook chooses to show us based on what they think we want to see – is now a subject of increased study. Which is a relief, and fascinating – if we’re going to be manipulated, it’d be nice to understand how. But what we’re discovering is disconcerting, and showing us aspects of ourselves that we’d rather not face.

“Our cultural prejudices are deeply embedded in countless datasets, the very datasets that our systems are trained to learn on. Students of color are much more likely to have disciplinary school records than white students. Black men are far more likely to be stopped and frisked by police, arrested for drug possession or charged with felonies, even as their white counterparts engage in the same behaviors. Poor people are far more likely to have health problems, live further away from work, and struggle to make rent. Yet all of these data are used to fuel personalized learning algorithms, to inform risk-assessment tools for judicial decision-making, and to generate credit and insurance scores. And so the system “predicts” that people who are already marginalized are higher risks, thereby constraining their options and making sure they are, indeed, higher risks.

This was not what my peers set out to create when we imagined building tools that allowed you to map who you knew or enabled you to display interests and tastes.

We didn’t architect for prejudice, but we didn’t design systems to combat it either.”

Powerful. And something that we should all think about, especially those of us who take access for granted and who participate in the creation of online culture and information. Society is complex. Technology is complex. The intersection of the two is where the future is being constructed, in ways we cannot at this stage predict. Interactions rarely happen as we think they will, especially when people are involved. And yet the parameters we create today will affect the society of tomorrow. So we do need to think about what we want that to look like. And we need to think about the perspectives that the main group of technology creators, with its well-documented lack of diversity, is subconsciously embedding in the tools we use. Most importantly of all, we need to decide what we want to do about it.

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The big myth Facebook needs everyone to believe – by Caitlin Dewey,for The Washington Post

More on the power of algorithms. A fuss kicked up in my home country of Spain over Facebook’s handling of bull fighting images (labelling them, together with those of prostitution and nudity, as potentially offensive topics) highlighted the difficulty of making things “nice” across cultures.

“As Facebook has tentacled out from Palo Alto, Calif., gaining control of an ever-larger slice of the global commons, the network has found itself in a tenuous and culturally awkward position: how to determine a single standard of what is and is not acceptable — and apply it uniformly, from Maui to Morocco.”

In even attempting to filter, Facebook is assuming the role of moral arbiter, deciding on our behalf what is appropriate and what is not. Obviously some filtering is better than none, but too much encroaches onto cultural identity and personal freedom. Who draws the line, and where?

“And yet, observers remain deeply skeptical of Facebook’s claims that it is somehow value-neutral or globally inclusive, or that its guiding principles are solely “respect” and “safety.” There’s no doubt, said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in New England, that the company advances a specific moral framework — one that is less of the world than of the United States, and less of the United States than of Silicon Valley.”

So where is this heading? Increasing cultural uniformity? Or social media fragmentation? Even pronouncing that neither is good is itself a cultural bias. Yet the debate highlights the incongruency of asking private companies to police a public forum, and the apparent impossibility of a diverse world living under uniform rules. It also brings up our misaligned expectations of the businesses that aim to connect us. They are businesses, and as such have the right to implement the policies that they see fit. Yet our interaction is their main product, and they stand to lose it if we don’t feel understood. Is it possible to be all things to all people?

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Why goats are the internet’s new cats – by Kristen Brown, for Fusion

Instagram image, via Fusion

Instagram image, via Fusion

And speaking of diversity, with no intention whatsoever of trivializing it, goats are butting into (he he) cats’ territory as the queens of cuteness. Apparently the rising popularity of goat memes, photos and videos is to do with internet’s increasing diversity.

“Lauricella suggested that the goat’s present popularity has to do with the backlash against urbanized life and the allure of farmers’ markets, hobby farming and DIY-culture. Lauren Berliner, a digital culture scholar at the University of Washington-Bothall, agreed. Goats, she told me, are a link between the suburban and rural, between the developed world and everywhere else. Sure they’re popular in Uganda, but maybe your hip neighbor in suburban Seattle has one, too.”

Google Trends indicates that our searches for goats on the internet are increasing, even in urban areas. In part because they remind us of grass. In part because goats can be easily anthropomorphised. In part because it’s time we had something new to obsess over. And, they’re cute, in a bleaty sort of way.

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The next generation of journalism students have no idea what they’re getting into – by Erica Berger, for Quartz

I’ve been seeing a lot about “peak content” recently, about how the vast amount of information available is burning us out. This article comes at it from the journalist’s perspective rather than the reader’s.

“The constant pressure of deadlines and the realities of the journalism economy can lead to feelings of disempowerment. And when journalists feel disempowered, they not only lose their ability to do their jobs well–they also stop caring about whether they do a good job.”

Is journalism now a zero-sum game? If someone reads my article, they’re not going to read yours? Has the amount of reading our audience can do reached a plateau? And where to from here?

“If the media continues to be created and spread at such a rapid rate, we know the effects are unlikely to be positive. Fact-checking already has a troubling tendency to fall by the wayside. The need to churn out constant content also means that editors often lack the time to do more than proofread. Then there are the intangible things we’re losing: the art and joy of writing; the ability to leave the office in search of interesting people and stories begging to be told. Most worrisome of all, we could lose journalists’ ability to act as watch dogs on behalf of the public.”

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Two things I particularly enjoyed this week:

  • One of the many reasons I love living in Madrid:


  • The movie Red. Stellar cast (Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary Louise Parker, Karl Urban, and I could go on). Excellent script. Whimsical production. Good soundtrack. A lot of fun.

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