Orwellian future it depends on you

While most of society seems to have swung in a different direction. We seem to be more subdued by hedonism and triviality but none the less it is important to remember we are never far from this final warning from Orwell, and in particular “…don’t let it happen. It depends on you”.

This is a dramatization from the BBC documentary Orwell: A Life in Pictures. In the film’s final dramatized scene (complete film here), the re-created Orwell himself makes the following ominous prediction:

Allowing for the book, after all, being a parody, something like 1984 could actually happen. This is the direction the world is going in at the present time. In our world, there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. The sex instinct will be eradicated. We shall abolish the orgasm. There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the Party. But always there will be the intoxication of power. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who’s helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.

Via Open Culture

Posner on Privacy: A privileged old white wealthy man’s view

Judge Richard Posner’s (quoted by PC World) during a conference privacy and cybercrime has said some very sad things about privacy. First off he says “I think privacy is actually overvalued,”

he developed this with

“Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct,” Posner added. “Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.”

This is a very narrow minded and underdeveloped view of privacy. It reflects the Judge’s privileged social, economic and political position.

Privacy – like other social protection – is supposed to protect the weak. In the same way that Free Speech is not necessary to protect those who politely parrot the status quo and consumer protection is not there to protect the corporation against the consumer. Privacy is there to protect those who are in a weaker position, or those who risk physical, social, political, or economic harm.

Even though homosexuality is no longer illegal in most countries, it does, in some cases, still carries social stigma, and even physical harm (see gay bashing). Therefore, someone who faces threats of physical harm and social discrimination may want to keep their sexuality private in certain situations. Posner cannot mean that they are then concealing disreputable parts of their conduct.

This kind of argument would apply to most persecuted minorities in history. Would anyone argue that hiding a Jewish identity in countries occupied by Nazi’s in WWII is “trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct”?

The ability to ignore weakness stems from the privilege of not being weak. Not seeing the injustice that is around is comes from the perspective of those who are not subjected to the harmful effects of lack of privilege. As a white, over-educated, economically sound, male in Western society Posner has no need of these protections. They do not protect him or his. However, it is short-sighted at best to therefore argue that privacy is overvalued.

Society needs to protect its minorities. But by shifting the blame onto them, and attempting to blame the victim Posner is acting as an instrument of social repression. Privacy is not about hiding, it is about being able to create a fair society where all can participate as equals.

Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Based in the city of Umeå in Northern Sweden, P. O. Ågren is an interesting thinker who often writes interesting thoughtpieces.  In a recent op-ed explains how social media leads to an increased self-censorship. In this piece he is discussing the PEW report Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Naturally he writes in Swedish but I wanted to take part of the argument and present it here. This is a translation but it isn’t my goal to make it a great translation – for this I apologize in advance. My goal is to capture the idea.

Social Media users tend to have a good idea about which opinions their friends and followers have. It has been shown that the user who holds an opinion that clearly differs from that of his friends and followers tends not to put forward or discuss these ideas.

The more people who disagree with me, the higher the chance that I will censor myself in social media.

The study goes further and shows that this attitude spills over into other arenas and affects our desire to discuss topics outside the web (for example at work or other places). Both Facebook and Twitter users are reluctant to discuss a controversial questions offline if they know that many of their online followers and friends hold a contrary opinion.

The overall results of the study point to the theory of the “the spiral of silence“, a term from the 70s, which entails that we are unwilling to express our opinions if we already believe (or know) that we are in a minority.

The study shows that the spiral of silence is identifiable online, and that it may also lead to an increased self-censorship offline.

A conclusion that may be drawn from this study is that social media does not have good preconditions to contributing to a deliberative democracy. Social technology which restrain rather than promote discussions on politics and society do not lead to an increased democratic participation.

I found several parts of this text interesting and while I have no real beef with the general thrust of the arguments I have questions.

The first question refers to the understanding that we are aware of the opinions of our friends and followers. On one level I would readily agree with this, but at the same time I have to ask: do we really? A couple of points on this: (1) this idea builds on the idea that social media is… well… social. Most interactions on social media are (obviously in my limited experience) not that social. We lurk, we peek, we look at links but do we really discuss?

This is also enhanced by the filter bubble effect (Pariser) where algorithms present us with the “right” information and the “right” friends. The differences are eradicated. When our online friends and followers get to a certain point (Dunbar number, maybe?) people (and opinions) disappear in the crowd.

Then there is the issue of self-censorship. Again I have no issue with the spiral of silence theory. But I think something is missing. For me, it isn’t enough to talk about people self-censoring online because they are in a minority online. There needs to be another element. What’s missing is power.

The online world is filled with countless examples of people behaving badly. People online being openly racist, misogynistic, antagonistic, impolite and downright threatening. Many of these examples are not voices from behind a veil of anonymity but openly and frighteningly from easily discoverable identities. Some are trolls, doing it for the lulz, but many are sincerely and openly assholes.

Of course the theory of groupthink is a good one. We shut up for fear of making waves. This self-censorship is worrisome because, as PO argues, it does little to support the development of democracy. When we recognize we must be far less optimistic about the role that technology (in particular social media) plays in the political debate.

However, the self-censorship in the spiral of silence theory may have been a trait among users before social media. Added to this is the problem of power relationships. If we fear social, economic, political or other reprisals censorship may be a virtue. This is obviously the same as saying the cowardice is a virtue. But don’t lets forget the Steven Salaita affair. Would you tweet openly in a similar position today?

Those who can be hurt avoid being punished, those who feel impervious tweet to an obnoxious degree. The former isn’t cowardice and the latter isn’t bravery.

Humor as Disobedience

The class today was on the use of humor in political protest. Last week we discussed the fundamentals of civil disobedience and this week the students presented different examples of the uses of humor.

So the basics of disobedience are usually described as having different components to differentiate them from “just” lawlessness. For example H. A. Bedau argued in Civil Disobedience in Focus that in order for disobedience to be legitimate it should be

“committed openly…non-violently…and conscientiously…within the framework of the rule of law…with the intention of frustrating or protesting some law, policy or decision…of the government.”

As the examples of humor show, they fail many of these components and do not pass as civil disobedience. In most cases they are either not breaking any rule, regulation, policy, or social norm and in other cases they are not protesting the ruling authority or government.

However, the examples demonstrate the complexity of society by realizing that it is not only the government that regulates and that disobedience need not only be the breaking of rules.

The presentations today included The Pink Chaddi Campaign where Indian women sent pink underwear to the leader of an orthodox Hindu group to protest it’s misogynistic worldview. The De Grote Donor Show ashocking critique of popular culture intended to raise awareness about organ donation. The John Howard Ladies Auxiliary Club, a group of performance actors who adopted characters parodying 1950s Australian housewives and claimed to be the Prime Minister’s fan club. They would use his own conservatism against him in their parodies.

In The Snatchel Project the goal is: “Let’s make a uterus or VJJ* for each male rep in congress! If they have their own, they can leave ours alone!”. Participants knit or crochet female reproductive organs and send them to legislators. The Barbie Liberation Organization hacked talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls and switched their recorded messages. This would make Barbie say “vengeance is mine” while G.I. Joe would exclaim that “The beach is the place for summer.” The goal was to show that gender stereotypes are just that – stereotypes.

The sheer variation of these activist campaigns ensured that we had interesting and lively discussions ranging from fears connected with organ donation to misogyny in Australia. A lively class indeed.

An interesting aspect of looking at these studies was to refer them back to the theories. Where they political actions since they were aimed at non-political players? Where they disobedience when they were not breaking any rules? What we could see was that the activists (even if they may not all have defined themselves as such) set about non-conforming to social norms and protesting the message of a dominant player.

Disobedience Technology: Notes on a lecture

This lecture had the goal of introducing theories and methodologies behind civil disobedience in order to give the class the tools to identify legitimate acts of civil disobedience compared to lawlessness.

We began with the example of Socrates whose principled stand was that the law must be obeyed. In Plato’s text Crito we find Socrates in jail awaiting execution. His friends argue that he should escape.

But Socrates argues that the Laws exist as one entity, to break one would be to break them all. He cannot chose to obey the rules that suit him and disregard those which he doesn’t approve of.

The citizen is bound to the Laws like a child is bound to a parent, and so to go against the Laws would be like striking a parent. Rather than simply break the Laws and escape, Socrates should try to persuade the Laws to let him go. These Laws present the citizen’s duty to them in the form of a kind of social contract. By choosing to live in Athens, a citizen is implicitly endorsing the Laws, and is willing to abide by them. (Wikipedia)

This principled stand cost Socrates his life. However, most proponents of civil disobedience argue that there must be a way of following some rules while disobeying others. This disobedience must find legitimacy in other sources.

Greek mythology dealt with this issue in the story of Antigone where at one stage after a battle King Creon decreed that the dead were not to be buried. Antigone defied the law and buried her brother. She knew of the law and defied it knowingly arguing that she was bound by a superior divine law.

Continuing on this theme we looked at some of the classics of disobedience. Thoreau’s arguments that we are sometimes obliged to defy the government, Gandhi’s belief that we have a duty to disobey the unjust leader (and the example of the salt march), and Martin Luther King’s words that an unjust law is against God’s law.

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’…We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’…One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust…One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” (King Letter from Birmingham Jail)

These positions all argue that there is a higher moral authority that would make it legitimate to disobey rules. Indeed, King underscores that disobedience in such cases is a moral responsibility.

The argument against disobedience remains in the area of the social contract and the question about who could legitimately argue for the rules to be held or broken? In his Theory of Justice, John Rawles agreed that that there are situations where laws should not be followed and attempts to prevent “simple” lawlessness by stressing that disobedience is:

…a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to the law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.

H. A. Bedau argued in Civil Disobedience in Focus that in order for disobedience to be legitimate it should be

“committed openly…non-violently…and conscientiously…within the framework of the rule of law…with the intention of frustrating or protesting some law, policy or decision…of the government.”

While Peter Singer stressed

…if the aim of disobedience is to present a case to the public, then only such disobedience as is necessary to present this case is justified…if disobedience for publicity purposes is to be compatible with fair compromise, it must be non-violent.

These positions can be summed up with the idea that certain acts of disobedience are necessary in order to bring a minority position to the attention of the majority. However, in order to maintain its legitimacy, acts of disobedience must be carried out openly, non-violently, purposely, aimed at a specific rule or policy, by people prepared to accept the consequences.

Despite this, there are still critiques aimed at groups that attempt to disrupt via acts of civil disobedience. Often the arguments against disobedience are:

  • CD is not defensible in a democracy as the social contract is established and maintained by the people for the people.
  • CD is illegitimate as it subverts the equality embedded in the democratic process itself.
  • CD can only be acceptable if ALL other (democratic) methods have been exhausted

These critiques are easily enough met if we look at the American civil rights movement. The activists chose not to entrust the democratic process since the process is an endless one and does not necessarily promote change, but can be used to re-enforce established ideas. As King writes: ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ The outlook for social change, brought about from within the system was bleak. By challenging the rules it became more and more clear to the majority that the rules were harmful and needed to be changed.

We then spoke of moving disobedience online. Discussing the ways in which technology can be used to support activism. At the same time our technology use has also created a system in which our activism has been trivialised and subverted. Social media is efficiently used to promote and spread information about injustice. However, social media is also used to trivialize political acts. We click on LIKE icons, re-Tweet links, and share videos but what does it all mean?

Is this Postman‘s dystopia (Amusing ourselves to Death) in action?

The slides

Regulating Online Public/Private Spaces: Notes from a lecture

The presentation yesterday dealt with moving regulation from the physical world to the digital environment. My goal was to show the ways in which regulation occurs and in particular to go beyond the simplistic “wild west” ideology online – at the same time I wanted to demonstrate that online behavior is controlled by more elements than the technological boundaries.

In order to do this, I wanted to begin by demonstrating that the we have used tools for a long period of time and that these tools enable and support varying elements of control. And since I was going to take a historic approach I could not resist taking the scenic route.

In the beginning was the Abacus. Developed around 2400 BCE in Mesapotamia this amazing tool for extending the power of the brain to calculate large numbers (which is basically what your smartphone does but much much more…). The fascinating thing with the abacus is that despite the wide range of digital devices it remains in use today (but it is in deep decline).

The decline of the Chinese abacus the Suanpan

Suanpan arithmetic was still being taught in school in Hong Kong as recently as the late 1960s, and in Republic of China into the 1990s. However, when hand held calculators became readily available, school children’s willingness to learn the use of the suanpan decreased dramatically. In the early days of hand held calculators, news of suanpan operators beating electronic calculators in arithmetic competitions in both speed and accuracy often appeared in the media. Early electronic calculators could only handle 8 to 10 significant digits, whereas suanpans can be built to virtually limitless precision. But when the functionality of calculators improved beyond simple arithmetic operations, most people realized that the suanpan could never compute higher functions – such as those in trigonometry – faster than a calculator. Nowadays, as calculators have become more affordable, suanpans are not commonly used in Hong Kong or Taiwan, but many parents still send their children to private tutors or school- and government- sponsored after school activities to learn bead arithmetic as a learning aid and a stepping stone to faster and more accurate mental arithmetic, or as a matter of cultural preservation. Speed competitions are still held. Suanpans are still being used elsewhere in China and in Japan, as well as in some few places in Canada and the United States.

Continuing on the story of ancient technology pointed to the Antikythera Mechanism an analogue computer from 100BCE designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses. The knowledge behind this machinery would be lost for centuries.

In the 17th century Wilhelm Schickard & Blaise Pascal developed mechanical addition and subtraction machines but the more durable development was that of the slide rule

The Reverend William Oughtred and others developed the slide rule in the 17th century based on the emerging work on logarithms by John Napier. Before the advent of the pocket calculator, it was the most commonly used calculation tool in science and engineering. The use of slide rules continued to grow through the 1950s and 1960s even as digital computing devices were being gradually introduced; but around 1974 the electronic scientific calculator made it largely obsolete and most suppliers left the business.

Despite its almost 3 centuries of dominance few of us today even remember the slide rule, let along know how to use one.

While the analogue calculating devices were both useful and durable most of the machines were less so. This is because they were built with a fixed purpose in mind. The early addition and subtraction machines were simply that. Addition and subtraction machines. They could not be used for other tasks without needing to be completely rebuilt.

The first examples of programmable machinery came with the Jacquard loom first demonstrated in 1801. Using a system of punch cards the loom could be programmed to weave patterns. If the pattern needed to be changed then the program was altered. The punch cards were external memory systems which were fed into the machine. The machine did not need to be re-built for changes to occur.

The looms inspired both Charles Babbage and Herman Hollerith to use punch cards as a method for imputing data in their calculating machines. Babbage is naturally the next famous point in our history. His conceptual Difference Engine and Analytical Engine have made him famous as the father of the programmable computer.

But as his devices remained to the largest part theoretical constructs I believe that the more important person of this era is Ada Lovelace who not only saw the potential in these machines but, arguably, saw an even greater potential than Babbage himself envisioned. She was the first computer programmer and a gifted mathematician.

Few scientists understood Babbage’s breakthrough, but Ada wrote explanations of the Analytical Engine’s function, its advantage over the Difference Engine, and included a method for using the machine in calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

The next step in this story Hollerith’s tabulating machine. While the level of computing is not a major step the interesting part is the way it came to be and the solutions that were created. The American census of 1880 took 8 years to conduct and it was predicted that the 1890 census would take 13 years to conduct. This was unacceptable and the census bureau looked for technical solutions. Hollerith built machines under contract for the Census Office, which used them to tabulate the 1890 census in only one year.

Hollerith’s business model was ingenious. He did not sell the machines, he sold his services. The governments and corporations around the world that came to rely on his company had no control but had to pay the price for his technical expertise. Hollerith’s company eventually became the core of IBM.

The point being that Hollerith positioned his company as holding the key role between the user and the data.

The progress in machinery and thoughts around machinery moved forward at a steady pace. Then making rapid progress during the second world war with names like Bletchley Park, the Colossus (the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer) and Alan Turing.

While most people could hardly comprehend the power of a computer, Vannevar Bush wrote his famous article on the Memex As We May Think in 1945. Here were visions of total information digitization and retrieval. Ideas that are now possible after half a century of modern computing history.

And with this we leap into the modern era, first with the Internet, then personal computers, and the advent of the world wide web.

The fascinating thing here is the business model becomes more clearly what Hollerith envisioned it. It was about becoming the interface between the user and the data. This is where the power lay.

When IBM was at it’s height Bill Gates persuaded them to begin using his operating system. He also persuaded them to allow him not to be exclusive to them. The world realized that it wasn’t the hardware that was important – it was what we could do with it that counted. Other manufacturers came in and IBM lost its hold of the computer industry.

When Tim Berners Lee developed the web and the first web browser and released them both freely online he created a system which everyone could use without needing licenses or payment. The web began to grow at an incredible rate.

Windows was late in the game. They still believed in the operating system but the interface between the user and the data was shifting. No matter which operating system or hardware you used it was all about accessing data online.

With Windows95 Microsoft took up the fight for the online world against the then biggest competitor Netscape. Microsoft embedded their browser Internet Explorer in the operating system and made it increasingly difficult for users to remove it. This was the beginning of the browser wars, a fight for control of the interface between the user and the data.

The wars eventually lost their relevance with the development of a new type of company offering a new version of a search engine. When Google came on the scene it had to compete with other search engines but after a relatively quick battle it became the go-to place where Internet users began their online experiences. It had become the interface between the users and the data. It didn’t matter which hardware, software, or browser you used… everyone began with Google.

At this point I introduced the four modalities of regulation used by Lawrence Lessig and presented in his work The Code from 1999.

modalitiesContrary to what many believe, regulation takes many forms. We regulate with social norms, with market solutions and with architecture (as well as laws). Naturally none of these modalities occur in isolation but we often tend to forget that much of our regulation is embedded in social, economic and physical contexts. If any of these contexts change then the law must adapt to encompass this change.

Using the offline problem of slowing down traffic I pointed to the law which hangs out speed signs, the market regulation of the price of a speeding ticket and the time it takes to negotiate its payment. Social attempts to slow traffic occur when people in the neighborhood hang signs warning drivers of children in the area. They are appealing to the drivers better nature.

And the architecture of the road. If we want to slow down cars it is much more efficient to change the road than to hang up a sign. Make it curvy, make it bumpy, change its colors there are an array of things that can be done to limit or slow access. The problem with using technology (or architecture) is that it is absolute. If we put speed bumps in the road then not even someone driving with good cause can speed. Even someone attempting to drive a heart attack victim to the hospital must slow down.

triangle The more we move from the analogue into the digital world the less control that is afforded through the law and the more ability we have to change the realities in which we live. Architecture or technology is more pliable as a form of regulation.

In closing I asked the class to list regulatory examples which occur when attempting to access information online via their smartphones. The complex interface between them and the data included new levels like the apps they use, the apps that their phones allow, their payment plans, social control online, social control offline and a whole host of other regulatory elements.

And here are the slides I used:

Public/Private Spaces: Notes on a lecture

The class today was entitled Public/Private Spaces: Pulling things together, and had the idea of summing up the physical city part of the Civic Media course.

But before we could even go forward I needed to add an update to the earlier lectures on racial segregation. The article The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black is fascinating and not a little sad because of its implications.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black. Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

The actual beginning of class was a response to the students assignment to present three arguments for and three arguments against the Internet as a Human Right. In order to locate the discussion in the context of human rights I spoke of Athenian democracy and the death of Socrates, and the progression from natural rights to convention based rights. The purpose was both to show some progression in rights development – but also to show that rights are not linear and indeed contain exceptions from those the words imply. The American Declaration of Independence (1776) talks of all men

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

but we know that this was not true. Athenian democracy included “all” people with the exception of slaves, foreigners and women. So we must see rights for what they are without mythologizing their power.

In addition they cannot seen in isolation. For example the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) came as a result of the French Revolution include many ideas that appear in similar rights documents

  • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
  • Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.
  • Law is the expression of the general will
  • No punishment without law
  • Presumtion of innocence
  • Free opinions, speech & communication

The similarities are unsurprising as they emerge from international discussions on the value of individuals and a new level of thought appearing about where political power should lie.

The discussion then moved to the concept of free speech and the modern day attempts to limit speech by using the concept of civility, and interesting example of this is explained in the article Free speech, ‘civility,’ and how universities are getting them mixed up

When someone in power praises the principle of free speech, it’s wise to be on the lookout for weasel words. The phrase “I favor constructive criticism,” is weaseling. So is, “You can express your views as long as they’re respectful.” In those examples, “constructive” and “respectful” are modifiers concealing that the speaker really doesn’t favor free speech at all.

Free speech is there to protect speech we do not like to hear. We do not need protection from the nice things in life. Offending people may be a bi-product of free speech, but a bi-product that we must accept if we are to support free speech. Stephen Fry states it wonderfully:

fryAt this point we returned to the discussion of private/public spaces in the city and how these may be used. We have up until this point covered many of the major points and now it was time to move on to the more vague uses. Using Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance by John Parkinson we can define public as

1.Freely accessible places where ‘everything that happens can be observed by anyone’, where strangers are encountered whether one wants to or not, because everyone has free right of entry

2.Places where the spotlight of ‘publicity’ shines, and so might not just be public squares and market places, but political debating chambers where the right of physical access is limited but informational access is not.

3.‘common goods’ like clean air and water, public transport, and so on; as well as more particular concerns like crime or the raising of children that vary in their content over time and space, depending on the current state of a particular society’s value judgments.

4.Things which are owned by the state or the people in and paid for out of collective resources like taxes: government buildings, national parks in most countries, military bases and equipment, and so on.

and we can define private as:

1.Places that are not freely accessible, and have controllers who limit access to or use of that space.

2.Things that primarily concern individuals and not collectives

3.Things and places that are individually owned, including things that are cognitively ‘our own’, like our thoughts, goals, emotions, spirituality, preferences, and so on

In the discussion of Spaces we needed to get into the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) which states that individuals all act out of self-interest and any space that isn’t regulated through private property is lost forever. This ideology has grown to mythological proportions and it was very nice to be able to use Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom to critique it:

The lack of human element in the economists assumptions are glaring but still the myth persists that common goods are not possible to sustain and that government regulation will fail. All that remains is private property. In order to have a more interesting discussion on common goods I introduced David Bollier

A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise

We will be getting back to his work later in the course.

In closing I wanted to continue the problematizing the public/private discussion – in particular the concepts of private spaces in public and public spaces in private. In order to illustrate this we looked at these photos:


Just a Kiss by Shutterpal CC BY NC SA

The outdoor kiss is an intensely private moment and it has at different times and places been regulated in different manners. The use of headphones and dark glasses is also a way in which private space can be enhanced in public. These spaces are all around us and form a kind of privacy in public.

The study of these spaces is known as Proxemics: the study of nonverbal communication which Wikipedia defines as:

Prominent other subcategories include haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time). Proxemics can be defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture”. Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who coined the term in 1963, emphasized the impact of proxemic behavior (the use of space) on interpersonal communication. Hall believed that the value in studying proxemics comes from its applicability in evaluating not only the way people interact with others in daily life, but also “the organization of space in [their] houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of [their] towns.

The discussions we have been having thus far have been about cities and the access and use of cities. How control has come about and who has the ability and power to input and change things in the city. Basically the “correct” and “incorrect” use of the technology. Since we are moving on to the public/private abilities inside our technology I wanted to show that we are more and more creating private bubbles in public via technology (our headphones and screens for example) and also bringing the public domain into our own spaces via, for example, Facebook and social networking.

We ended the class with a discussion on whether Facebook is a public or private space? If it is a private space what does it mean in relation to law enforcement and governmental bodies? If it is a public space when is it too far to stalk people? And finally what is the responsibility of the platform provider in relation to the digital space as public or private space?

here are the slides I used:

Digital Divides & Net Neutrality: Notes from a lecture

As today is the last week before the Scottish referendum which will decide whether Scotland will become an independent country I could not help but begin the lecture with a shout out to this coming monumental date. I find it hard to believe that the world is talking about anything else.

But the real point of today’s class was to talk about digital divides and net neutrality. To begin this I began by explaining how the Internet became this amazing thing it is today. We tend to take it’s coolness for granted because it is so cool (I recognize that this is circular reasoning but that is the way it is often explained).

One of the unexplained reasons the Internet became cool depends on the business model that is used. In the early days we paid for the time we were connected. This pay-as-you-go model is great but it does have a dampening effect. Since you are constantly paying the impetus is to be quick. Being quick means that the content will be light and fast to be usable.

This business model is the same as the telephone model has been for most of it’s history. We paid per minute and by distance. We were taught to be brief and idle chatting was discouraged. This is also because the infrastructure was originally highly wasteful and could only serve one user per line.

If the telephone had developed into a monthly charge instead, we could have seen a great deal more innovation and use of the system we could have created the Internet much much earlier. This counterfactual is not totally strange. The early ideas for the telephone included such oddities as dial-up concerts. Such as the one reported in Scientific American, (February 28, 1891):

In a lecture recently delivered in the Town Hall at Newton, Mass., Mr. Pickernell described the methods employed in the transmission of music by telephone. His remarks were very forcibly illustrated by the reception in the lecture hall of music transmitted over the long distance lines from the telephone building, at No. 18 Cortlandt Street, New York, and our engraving, made from a photograph taken at the time, shows the arrangement of the performers.

Scientific American, February 28, 1891

Scientific American, February 28, 1891

But as we all know this was not the way the telephone evolved. The Internet on the other hand did move in that direction. Rather quickly we moved from dial-up modems to fixed connections. Speed was important – but even more important was the fact that the user never had to worry about the time she was online. Downloading large files, streaming, idle browsing and most all of our online lives stems from the point where we stopped worrying about the cost of access to the Internet.

Another point that needs to be stressed is that we often confuse the Internet, the Web and what we do on our mobile devices. Put very simply the Internet is the cables and servers the infrastructure upon which several applications (such as email, netflix and the Web run upon). What we do on our mobile devices is mostly using apps which run on the Internet (but not necessarily the web).

So while the web which was developed by Tim Berners Lee became huge because he chose to give the system away without trying to patent or close it. It is now shrinking because we are becoming more dependent upon our mobile devices. For the longest time we said “the Internet” when we really meant “the Web” and now we say “the Web” when we really mean “the Internet” (via apps on our devices).

This may seem to be pedantic distinctions but they are important as each of these technologies have different strengths and weaknesses and different affordances and control mechanisms.

Once this was established we looked at this map illustrating:

What you’re looking at is a map of nearly every device that was connected to the internet on August 2. Or, at least, a map of ones that responded to a ping request from John Matherly, an internet cartographer. Motherboard

When we say everybody uses the Internet this is the everybody to which we are referring. The large dark areas are those without this, for us, basic technology. Additionally there are small places with more connectivity than the areas we would normally see as technology dense. The map also raises interesting questions about divisions created by culture and language and the problems of measurement when countries such as China are behind a firewall.

We also looked at an array of charts illustrating OECD statistics on broadband penetration per capita, average monthly subscription price, and average download speeds.

broadbandThe USA has an average broadband penetration among OECD countries but it also has the highest number of total internet subscribers by far seen in absolute numbers.

In order to have some form of consensus for our discussion on the digital divide I put forward this description:

… a gap between those who have ready access to information and communication technology and the skills to make use of those technology and those who do not have the access or skills to use those same technologies within a geographic area, society or community. It is an economic and social inequality between groups of persons.

The factors that are persistently pointed to as being the root causes of the digital divide are

  • Cost (technology and connection)
  • Know-how (how to connect, how to use devices, what to do when something goes wrong, overcoming cultural divides etc)
  • Recognizing the benefit

The latter is very interesting as most users do not need to explain why they benefit but non-users manage to make their lives work without access. It is difficult to demonstrate to non-users that they would benefit from using the technology. Indeed that they would benefit so much that it is worth struggling to overcome the barriers of cost and know-how.

Then we moved the discussion over to the Pew research report African Americans and Technology Use, which showed

African Americans trail whites by seven percentage points when it comes to overall internet use (87% of whites and 80% of blacks are internet users), and by twelve percentage points when it comes to home broadband adoption (74% of whites and 62% of blacks have some sort of broadband connection at home). At the same time, blacks and whites are on more equal footing when it comes to other types of access, especially on mobile platforms.

All things being equal there should be no difference in technology use. And yet there is a gap of seven percentage points. Considering most countries desire to transfer more business and services online this is a worrying number of outsiders. Remember, both groups should have users who don’t see a need for the technology – this gap is not about them.

When it came to smartphone ownership the difference was not significant (53% of whites and 56% of blacks) but I found this interesting taken in conjunction with the earlier numbers. Were some users choosing mobile devices over broadband? What were the consequences of this? Stephanie Chen was interviewed in Salon

“You can’t do your homework on a smartphone; you can’t help your kids with their homework on a smartphone; you can’t write your résumé on a smartphone. You can’t do any of that on a smartphone… As a test, I went through the process and tried to apply for a job at Walmart on a phone. It was an arduous process.”

Once again it is vital to remember that each device has it’s affordances that enable and discourage behavior.

Following this we touched briefly on the concepts of digital natives, digital immigrants and digital tourists. I can only refer back to an earlier rant of mine on the subject:

During the discussions one of the topics that came up was the digital divide which is claimed to exist between young and old (whatever do these epitaphs mean?) and then it was only natural to bring up the horrible term digital natives, digital immigrants and digital turists. All these terms were popularized by Marc Prensky and are completely horrific. And of course very popular. There were voices of reason among the crowd but at the same time the catchy phrase seemed to win over intelligent discussion.

There are several problems with the metaphor, not to mention the built in racism. In most languages, calling someone a native smacks of arrogance, a touch of racism and good old fashioned colonialism.

Who is the native? So who is the native and how does one become one? Obviously the idea here is that the youth of today are all tech-savvy and understand technology while the older generation is good at saying stuff like “I remember when…” and handling analog technology. Seriously what a load of dog doodoo. The fact that we lack common areas of interest is not a digital divide. Young people tend to have different tastes in music, love, hobbies, work, films, books than older people. Even Beethoven’s father probably complained at his sons taste in music.

Are they a group? The young are not a homogeneous group, but then again the question could be put forward if homogeneous groups actually exist at all? Does the Englishman really exist? What is it the natives are supposed to understand? This is the biggest problem with the metaphor. Yes, there are hoards of young folk who can easily send hundreds of text messages per day but does that identify them as digital? Does this mean that they are fundamentally different from those who can hardly use the mobile telephones?

The problem is that the idea of the digital native seems to be that they are (1) comfortable using all digital technology and, (2) understand all digital technology. This is most obviously wrong. The ability to be on Facebook does not prepare you for editing wikipedia, blogging or twitter. The ability to use wikipedia has nothing to do with being popular on twitter. And none of these abilities have anything to do with the ability to use the most of the functions in the simplest word processors.

The understanding of technology, how it works, what it means – in addition to its social, economic and cultural impact is quite often totally lost on these so-called natives. I mean no disrespect (even though saying this usually makes things worse) but being an enthusiastic user has no relation to understanding technology.

Metaphors are supposed to exist to help us understand complex ideas. When they do not fulfill this basic purpose they are useless or worse harmful to our understanding. A misguided metaphor is worse than no metaphor at all. And the concept of digital natives does not aid understanding –  it only creates barriers.

It was then time to deal with net neutrality and in order to do this in a more entertaining manner I showed a part of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Net Neutrality (HBO) 

And finally closed by appealing to them to go and read up on net neutrality, and in particular, check out the website Battle for the Net since there is still time for those who feel it to be important to react and to show politicians that the open net is something ordinary people are passionate about.

Here are the slides I used for this presentation:


Laughing or crying at Le Corbusier: Every action has consequences

Le Corbusier is one of those names: many have heard of him but few know why. (This is based on a totally unscientific poll I took at a party. It reflects the poor quality of knowledge among my chosen friends, and bad science on my part to generalize it in this way) Anyway, we vaguely associate him with something to do with design and architecture.

If we were to ignore his impact on a generation of architects and urban planners, we can also turn to the furniture line created by himself and his designers and introduced in the 1920s and 1930s. Gorgeous creations of chrome tubes and leather cushions that have been featured in magazines and films for decades, usually signifying luxury or the future but not always. Here is an example of one of his chairs in The Big Lebowski (Ethan Coen, 1998).

Screen capture from The Big Lebowski

For designers, hipsters, and furniture nerds this is all great. But for us copyright geeks, it takes a lot longer before it all begins to get interesting. Le Corbusier died in 1965, but naturally his designs and thoughts are still influential several decades on. We think differently about design because of him. This is all well and good.

The part that makes it difficult to know whether to laugh or cry is the news that Le Corbusier’s heirs (and the holders of his copyright today), after discovering that some of their relative’s work was included in Getty Images enormous photo collection, have sued Getty for making the images available online. The copyright holders won the case: Fondation Le Corbusier v. Getty Images (Paris Court of Appeals, Pole 5, 2nd chamber June 13, 2014). Read more about it over at The 1709 Blog.

Copyright is important and the images involved in the case were not pictures of other things with some furniture in the background. They were clearly identifiable as Le Corbusier, and in the foreground. Additionally the photos did not make any reference to Le Corbusier as having anything to do with the chairs!

So the Le Corbusier family gained some money and can argue that they defended the family honor. But to what expense? Since Getty Images has 80000 images online, will they have to act in some way to prevent other families eager to profit from the remains of their dead ancestors?

Will cases like this scare other archives away from digitizing images and making them available online? The aftereffects of this sort of thing has the potential to drag us back from the cultural bonanza of online archives. Today we go online and find what we want – should the relatives of dead designers have the power to prevent this?

Does sharing the same DNA as a creator make you well suited to decide the fate of her creations?

This post originally appeared here.

Control by design: Notes from a lecture

It’s Murphy’s Law! There always seems to be something that occurs just after a lecture that reminds me: Oh I should have included this or that. Almost as I walked out of this lecture I remembered a podcast that I should have mentioned. It was 99% Invisible (episode 126: Walk this way). Well at least I get to include it in this post. The interview with wayfinding expert Jim Harding was fascinating in the ways in which subtle cues are used to ensure that people walk in the correct direction in public spaces. For an interesting article on Harding and wayfinding check out How You Know Where You’re Going When You’re in an Airport.

Enough about what I should have included.

I began with examples where people have been overly reliant on technology mainly through examples of people ending up in accidents by using GPS for car navigation (see here and here). It could be easy to say that the people who ended up trusting technology beyond what is recommended – or even despite clear signals to the contrary – are stupid. But this seems to minimize the role of technology.

So in a discussion of control via design I began by using Jeremy Bentham and his dream of the model prison Panopticon. Apparently he would argue against the trend to send prisoners to Australia by pointing to the

‘failures’ of colony: that the society was immoral; that transported convicts were not reformed; that transportation was unjust and borderline illegal; and that the convict system was inefficient and hugely expensive. New material – Panopticon versus New South Wales

Apparently he also cherry picked his arguments and ignored facts that didn’t suit his theory. This man really wanted to build his prison. But the Panopticon becomes more relevant to the modern discussion when we bring in Michel Foucault who saw it as a metaphor for the way in which control in society (not only in prisons) was being internalized and the freedom of the individual was being subverted.

In language the discussion of control is seen through the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which questions whether our language controls our thoughts. Would we be able to think about freedom if we lacked the words for it? This example comes from George Orwell‘s 1984 where society was being controlled by several means but not least the ability to speak of injustices.

All this was a lead up to present the work of the urban planner Robert Moses. He was highly influential in creating cities and suburbs in New York and he also was responsible for downgrading the importance of public transport.

In his article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Langdon Winner pointed to a biography of Moses where a co-worker hinted that Moses had made some New York bridges purposely too low to prevent buses from passing underneath them. These bridges effectively blocked buses from driving to the New York parkways and therefore excluded all those who didn’t have cars from enjoying them. Winner’s argument was that Moses’ politics were embedded in the bridges. This argument has been refuted by Bernward Joerges in his article “Do Politics Have Artefacts?”.

The question is not whether or not Moses was discriminating against a group but rather that design builds on the designers ideal of how a thing should be used. To illustrate this I used the anti-homeless design that has become a growing part of our public spaces.

My favorite image demonstrating this trend is from Yumiko Hayakawa’s essay Public Benches Turn ‘Anti-Homeless’ (also recommend Design with Intent)

With this simple design homeless people cannot sleep on this bench. At the same time nobody can be accused of discrimination since everybody is welcome to try to sleep on the bench. Most people with homes will go home to sleep. Homeless people will go elsewhere – this is control by design.

Here are the slides I used.