Monday, July 16, 2012

Unforgettable: Maria Bustillos' article Not Fade Away

Thanks to the fantastic walllace-l listserv I was recently made aware of Maria Bustillos' excellent article Not fade away: on living, dying, and the digital afterlife. 
There's a bunch of good stuff in this article but the aspect of memory and online activity is really interesting to me. "When someone dies nowadays, we are liable to return to find that person's digital self — his blog, say, or his Flickr, tumblr or Facebook‐entirely unchanged. I knew a young man who passed away suddenly last October. His Facebook page/wall became a digital memorial and people have continued to post photos and remembrances to it as recently as today. Until Facebook takes it down or it is removed for other reasons, it is likely to stay available, almost infinitely. The same technology that can get people fired for posting "inappropriate", however defined, images/video/text, in its unforgetting also, as Bustillos points out, does not forget the dead. There is no relief to be found in the forgetfulness of human memory in regards to a individual's online presences unless steps are deliberately taken to remove that presence. (Even the way we talk about being online, as being a "presence", suggests a false physicality or even a projection of "a second self". See Sherry Turkle.) Corey Doctorow has made the point of creating a means of access for all of his online accounts as part of his will so that his data and his body will be accessible by his loved ones upon death. Online content is a loop that is started the first time one logs in and posts something, anything. That rendering of code  as text, video,blog post will then remain for as long as the server/ISP/browser/Wayback Machine recognizes it. The loop continues on. If you'd like to add to it, great, but the original content doesn't get tarnished in the sunlight or faded with age. "Entropy is our enemy, but also our friend; it defines that part of us that is changing, coming into bloom and then, because we are mortal, fading." Entropy can not be seen in its inevitable progress online. There is no sense of time in the digital world. Once recorded, once captured we continue on. This is dangerous because it seems that we have no need for memory or that all memories can be committed to this much greater brain which does not suffer from Alzheimer's. Not to say that there are not advantages to this but the ability to forget and remember is a significant part of our humanity. It must not be forgotten however that to remember should be a conscious act, not merely a keyword search.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Internet made me write this

The latest issue of Newsweek features an article entitled iCrazy: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is rewiring our brains by Tony Dokoupil. Currently the whole article is available to read on the site.
My own reaction to this sort of thinking is mixed. On one hand it seems to fall into the general this-really-big-thing-is-really-bad-for-you while on the other, there may be some points to consider. There's probably a good chunk of truth to the fact that the way we think about life has been radically altered by the use of the Internet. Being "always on", to borrow the title of a 2008 book by Naomi Baron, surely has consequences. However, I hesitate, because correlation is not causation. Or to quote Baron " David Hume taught us long ago, constant conjunction has no necessary relationship to causation." (p. 227)
Additionally, discussion(s) of the Internet as a very large, disembodied entity that makes conscious decisions on its own, demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what technology's role is. For an example from the Newsweek article: "But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed."
Please note words like "creating", "state of nature", "becomes" and "survive". While this article is decrying the brain rewiring work of the Internet it still speaks the language of technological determinism. To quote Baron again "The way we use a technology is always a joint product of the technology's affordances and of the cultural milieu in which it plays out." (p. 234) Jaron Lanier, for all his crankiness, makes this point throughout his book You are Not a Gadget.
The discussion of "the Internet" throughout the article is confusing. It seems to substitute for a discussion of social media rather than the wide breadth of activities that a full use of the medium of the Internet enables. I'm pretty sure no one is going crazy because they are reading too many articles from a library database, or at least no one is studying, or is interested, in those people. When Dokoupil mentions the Internet I would suggest he largely is referring to social media.
My biggest issue with this article is not the presentation of the Internet as a cause of anxiety, depression and psychosis. My issue with this article is its attempt to only present the Internet as a cause of anxiety, depression, etc. For example "And don’t kid yourself: the gap between an “Internet addict” and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent. One of the early flags for addiction was spending more than 38 hours a week online." Dokoupil does not give any current flags for what defines "Internet addiction". Also one of the reasons that 38 hours a week seemed excessive was that typically the user was paying per hour. It was not only time, it was money that was being spent.
The Internet represents/offers a mass amount of people the ability to engage in repetitious, rote behavior that, either truly or falsely, offers a sense of connection. Sherry Turkle is right. We are alone together and changes in behavior are necessary. But to blame it all, or much, of it on Internet usage sees correlation without causation.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tallking about TED: Nathan Heller's Listen and Learn (New Yorker)

The recent copy of the New Yorker has a fascinating, well-written article on video phenomenon known as the TED Talk(s). The first page is available here and Heller has a web-only introduction here. There's several points that Heller raises or makes that are worth noting.
The first is the extent to which the online videos are shot, using 8 cameras (p. 72),  and edited to create what is an almost entirely different experience from physically attending the event. This is not necessarily any different than the dichotomy between attending a professional sporting event and watching it on TV. The screen offers a much closer, if not better, view of the field in a very dynamic, almost constantly changing series of views that the producer feels best exemplifies the action on the playing surface. The video viewer benefits though from the dynamic views that the changing camera angles offer in a way that the physical attendee does not. However, physically attending allows one to be physically present, "I was there" for the event which grants a particular status (bragging rights) to the observer. I wonder if the TED talks would not be as successful w/o the audience just as the excitement/deflation of the observing physical crowd drives excitement levels at sporting events. The presence of the audience responding enthusiastically is necessary, note the reference to "more than half of Long Beach talks end in standing ovations" (p. 74). I would suggest that the audience response drives the emotional connection on the part of the viewer. Malcolm Gladwell's talk on spaghetti sauce or Ken Robinson's talk on education lack certain poignancy w/o the audience to respond in real-time.
Knowing that the edited versions are streamlined versions of what actually happens in a TED Talk raises, in my mind, some questions of what the purpose of the TED talk is. In conjunction with the editing is the inclusion of narrative over stats/data. Stories are way more interesting than graphs, hands-down. But stories can be left as vehicles unto themselves which is somewhat dangerous because the narrative emotional effect can reduce the story to a emotionally moving moment. Back to this in a second. Robert Krulwich delivered a commencement speech at Columbia University back in 2008 which the Radiolab podcast offered up as a short entitled Tell Me a Story. This is one of my favorite speeches as Krulwich makes an incredible simple argument for the discussion, in this case, of science as story. It's brilliant. He's addressing a rang of incredibly bright science students who are going to go home and when their relatives ask what they've been doing for the past four/five years and what are they going to do now, Krulwich suggests some sort of story to explain the fairly complex scientific thing that the students have been/will be working on. Not because the relatives are dumb but because well-told, well-formulated stories clarify where esoteric language. Krulwich's point being that if these graduates really want to help people get science they need to tell quality stories about that science to help the listeners connect with the ideas.
Which is probably what the point of the TED talk is, particularly the video version. It's a story that the viewer is supposed to connect with. But to do what? Feel good, make a change, submit their own application for a TED talk, play around with TEDEd to make their own version? What's the point of TED? Is it simply edu/infotainment or something more? Does it kick back to the Enlightenment principles of humanism and the cheering-on of what we have accomplished?
I think Heller addresses the most poignant, if unintentional, point of TED, as it currently stands.
"The TED talk is today a sentimental form. Once, searching for transport, people might have read Charles Dickens, rushed the dance floor, watched the Oscars, biked Mount Tamalpais, put on Rachmaninoff, put on the Smiths, played Frisbee, poured wine until someone started reciting "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond." Now there is TED. "I got all inspired and my hair stood on end and I got weepy-like and energized and enthused," wrote a participant in an online TED-discussion forum. (The talk that brought on such delirium was about education.) Debby Ruth, a Long Beach attendee, told me that she started going to TED after reaching a point in her life when "nothing excited me anymore"; she returns now for a yearly fix. TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel." (p. 73) (emphasis mine)
Perhaps the true contribution of the TED Talks is an excitement about ideas. Exiting ideas are good. Isaiah Berlin once stated that "an intellectual is a person who wants ideas to be as interesting as possible." I'm not convinced, however, that the goal of TED is an excitement about how interesting ideas can be, as opposed to a repackaging of that idea in an easily palatable, bite-sized tidbit. There is/can be a place for this type of interaction of ideas but the plastic-wrapped emotionalism of an exciting idea should not replace the messiness and struggling that a truly interesting idea requires.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The night each plows

The night each plows
A furrow of death
In the field of stars
Who calls?
I am nothing
But one with the one
That makes the nothing All.

- Charles Bell