New Job, New Teaching

The beginning of term is just around the corner and I am really excited to begin my new job at Fordham where I am starting as Associate Professor in Digital Technology and Emerging Media. My teaching this semester is one of the reasons for my excitement as I will be offering two courses: One is the Introduction to the Digital Technology and Emerging Media major (syllabus here) and the other is the endlessly thrilling Digital Cultures (syllabus here)


Aside from this cool teaching I get to work at Fordham, a university that is ridiculously gorgeous with open spaces and classical buildings in New York.

Aldous Huxley on Technodictators

I like this – but I don’t believe that technology is neutral since it is created, embedded, and used in a setting.

“All technology is in itself morally neutral. These are just powers which can either be used well or ill, it’s the same thing with atomic energy. We can either use it to blow ourselves up, or we can use it as a substitute for the coal and the oil which are running out.” -Aldous Huxley


Would Warren and Brandeis be Luddites?

Last week I taught “The Right to Privacy” by Warren and Brandeis. Their article was published in 1890 but is filled with sentiments and quotes that could be addressing technology today. The language is a bit aged but the ideas are still clear.

This could be about social media…

The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.

And their fear of technology

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ” what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”

There is lots more. Their work reflects ideas found in The Shallows by Nicholas Carr or any of the later books by Sherry Turkle. People who we generally see, to a varying degree, as anti-technology. Usually when people go against the current technology we throw about the pejorative term Luddite!

And Warren & Brandeis may have faced similar criticism in their time. The article was well received. For example an article in the 1891 Atlantic Monthly wrote (from Glancy The Invention of the Right to Privacy Arizona Law Review 1979):

…a learned and interesting article in a recent number of the Harvard Law Review, entitled The Right to Privacy. It seems that the great doctrine of Development rules not only in biology and theology, but in the law as well; so that whenever, in the long process of civilization, man generates a capacity for being made miserable by his fellows in some new way, the law, after a decent interval, steps in to protect him.

But an interesting social critique comes from Godkin writing about the Right to Privacy article in The Nation in 1890

The second reason is, that there would be no effective public support or countenance for such proceedings. There is nothing democratic societies dislike so much to-day as anything which looks like what is called “exclusiveness,” and all regard for or precautions about privacy are apt to be considered signs of exclusiveness. A man going into court, therefore, in defence of his privacy, would very rarely be an object of sympathy on the part either of a jury or the public.

He also wrote about how their ideas were interesting but maybe belonged to a certain class of individual… (from Glancy The Invention of the Right to Privacy Arizona Law Review 1979)

” ‘privacy’ has a different meaning to different classes or categories of persons, it is, for instance, one thing to a man who has always lived in his own house, and another to a man who has always lived in a boardinghouse.”


Its much too easy to look at the past and judge it from the perspective of the present. But I wonder if I called Warren & Brandeis luddites if I had been around at the time?

Digital Ethics in Chicago

I’m looking forward to participating in the Sixth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics which will be in Chicago on Friday, November 4.

The keynote speaker will be Lilie Chouliaraki, author of The Spectatorship of Suffering and Professor of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.

Featured Speakers:
Whitney Phillips | Assistant Professor, Mercer University | Author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture
Ryan Milner | Assistant Professor, College of Charleston | Author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. Co-author with Whitney Phillips of a new bookBetween Play and Hate: Antagonism, Mischief, and Humor Online.
Max Schrems | Privacy Activist | Founder of Europe v Facebook | Author of Kämpf um deine Daten (Fight for your Data) and Private Videoüberwachung(Private Video Surveillance Law)

Meg Leta Jones | Assistant Professor in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology Program | Author of Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten.

Julie Carpenter | Author of Culture and Human-Robot Interaction in Militarized Spaces: A War Story.

Digital Ethics Symposium
Friday, November 4, 2016
Loyola University Chicago
Lewis Towers | Regents Hall | 16th Floor
111 E. Pearson
8:30 a.m – 5:00 p.m

Jaywalking – who owns the city?

This thoughtful quote comes from the thoughtful essay The End of Walking by Antonia Malchik

Making jaywalking illegal gave the supremacy of mobility to those sitting behind combustion engines. Once upon a time, the public roads belonged to everyone. But since the ingenious invention of jaywalking we’ve battered pedestrianism in one of those silent culture wars where the only losers are ourselves.

After reading this you may enjoy reading The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of “jaywalking” by . And the great podcast 99% Invisible’s has an episode on jaywalking.

In the end it’s about what our public space is for. Who has the right of way. Of course we need to prevent people from getting killed but how much space should the road take from us?

Keep Calm and Just Block

It doesn’t happen often but today it happened again. I was suckered into tweeting with someone on Twitter and the endless back and forth began. I recognized it early as baiting but I tried to continue a bit further, explain my views and be polite but clear in my points. I know it’s pointless but I tried.

When I finally had had enough I informed the other that I was stopping and thanked him (?) for the discussion. Predictably he continued to bait me by “calling out” my hypocrisy. I was going to reply (I know, I know – don’t feed the trolls). But I stopped myself and I checked his profile.

It was – unsurprisingly – yet another anonymous account. Active but unnamed. Nothing in the user name or the profile gave any clue about a real identity.

I am all for anonymity and psuedonymity online. And given the right circumstances I would have not minded a discussion. But when I attempt to politely withdraw and my interlocutor is both anonymous, persistent, and baiting. I get the impression its a troll. So I have created a rule for myself. If I am arguing with an anonymous person on Twitter and they will not let me leave the argument – then it is OK to block them.

While it is perfectly OK to be anonymous online. It is also OK for me not to invest my time and energy in someone who is anonymous and disrespectful of my time and opinions. We do not have to agree, but we do have to be respectful. In particular respect is important if you are attempting anonymity.

So far I have only blocked three accounts on Twitter based on these principles. And still it makes me feel like I am doing something wrong by preventing the free flow of discussion. But there is a time when arguing with anonymous accounts must stop. It’s just not fruitful.

Tragic hitchBOT and Camera Surveillance

The hitchhiking robot and social experiment called hitchBot came to an end in Philadelphia this week. It had survived crossing Canada and being in Germany and Italy. But it turns out the US was not friendly enough for it to survive. Message from the family:

hitchBOT’s trip came to an end last night in Philadelphia after having spent a little over two weeks hitchhiking and visiting sites in Boston, Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and New York City. Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalized overnight in Philadelphia; sometimes bad things happen to good robots.

The bot was a relatively simple device with a vaguely human shape – or more like a rough robot shape; two arms and two legs a torso and a screen for eyes.

The robot was able to carry on basic conversation and talk about factoids, and was designed to be a robotic travelling companion while in the vehicle of the driver who picked it up. It had a GPS device and a 3G connection which allowed researchers to track its location. It was equipped with a camera which took photographs periodically to document its journeys. Wikipedia

It’s sad that the robot was destroyed and it could probably have happened anywhere – even if it did happen in Philly. The interesting part for me is that a couple of days later this surfaces: Here’s Video of the Jerk Who Killed hitchBOT talk about surveillance society.

There is always a camera somewhere. The question is: are we doing anything that makes it worth the effort to find the footage?

Shooting Down Drones

A man in Kentucky man shot down drone that was hovering over his property. He has been arrested and charged with first degree criminal mischief and first-degree wanton endangerment. News story here. The Kentucky man was quoted as saying:

“Our rights are being trampled daily,” he said, the station reported. “Not on a local level only — but on a state and federal level. We need to have some laws in place to handle these kind of things.”

So what is the position on drones? And in particular what is the position on preventing other people’s drones from entering private property?

The right to property does not include an unlimited right to the airspace above the property. Therefore flying objects are not violating your property when they fly above it. This makes a lot of sense in relation to airplanes and helicopters. It would be strange if they needed permission to fly above individuals property – also it would be very dangerous if individuals could take pot-shots at them for violating airspace.

Actually there are most probably several laws and ordinances that deal with shooting a firearm in an urban area. And also shooting at aircraft. But this isn’t the first time someone shot down a drone a New Jersey man was arrested and charged with “possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and criminal mischief” for  shooting down his neighbor’s drone.

The FAA has guidelines in place for unmanned aircraft systems and has partnered with industry associations to promote Know Before You Fly. The latter has provisions about respecting privacy.

I want to read again, slowly, carefully

It may be sad when a long time blogger decides to stop, but this is a well written reason for doing so:

…I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me… Andrew Sullivan of The Dish stops blogging


Sullivan is a writer, whether he chooses to record it on paper or a blog is a choice. But this is yet another example of the technology seen as a problem. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. It reminds me of the slow reading movement (Examples here, here and here).

Screens & Maps: Is seeing believing? Notes on a lecture

The idea behind today’s class was to begin to explore the concept of reality as it is presented via screens. The fact that we believe anything we come across on our screens is really strange when we think about the many, many things that will influence what is presented there.

There are some things that are accepted despite we know them to be false (Columbus discovered America), some things are warped through advertising, some are limited by technology and (theoretically) someone could be manipulating my screen. Not to mention all the false information but out by trolls and jokers online. Despite all this, we have developed an ability to discern truth from fiction online (sometimes it fails).

In order to focus the presentation and to illustrate how falsehoods and politics change the information upon which we build our reality I decided to focus on maps as the example of this presentation. It turned out really well (everyone seemed to enjoy the discussion and minds were blown!).

I began by asking three questions:
Which country has the worlds largest proven oil reserves? Which country has the largest Muslim population? and where is the largest democracy? (Answers: Venezuela, Indonesia, India). The point of these questions were to show that the answers we tend to associate with oil, Muslims and democracy are most probably wrong. To add to this I asked the group to point to the countries on a blank world map.

By establishing that some of the things we “know” about the world are inaccurate I then introduced them to Jerry Botton (author of A History of the World in 12 Maps)

“All cultures produce a world map that puts their own interests and concerns at its heart. Even Ptolemy said any world map must make decisions about what it includes and what it leaves out. Some of those can be sinister decisions, but more often they’re simply practical ones. Do you need to show the North and South poles if you don’t think you’ll ever go there? Probably not.”

1024px-Ptolemy_Cosmographia_1467_-_world_mapPtolemy’s map in a reprint from 1467

The interesting thing is that the map is recognizable. The known world is there. But the middle i.e. the center of power is not what we are used to. Western Europe is in the periphery and the center of the world is focused on Asia. The map is both a representation of what is around us and a representation of what is important to us.

In order to better demonstrate the ways in which representation and politics are connected I showed a picture of the world as represented by the Flat Earth Society

Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim.

Earth’s day and night cycle is explained by positing that the sun and moon are spheres measuring 32 miles (51 kilometers) that move in circles 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the plane of the Earth. (Stars, they say, move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Like spotlights, these celestial spheres illuminate different portions of the planet in a 24-hour cycle. Flat-earthers believe there must also be an invisible “antimoon” that obscures the moon during lunar eclipses.

There are other ways in which the power of representation can be discussed, and in order to get everyone in the discussion mood I showed a series of maps which we briefly commented on:

worldwide_driving_orientation_by_country-1Countries driving on the left or right

paid-maternal-leave-by-countryPaid Maternity Leave

map-of-countires-that-use-metric-system-vs-imperialCountries not using metric system

enhanced-buzz-wide-7224-1361483168-3Google Autocomplete

There are several interesting collections of maps online this and this and this are probably the best.

Following this I handed out a blank map of Europe and asked them to try to identify as many states as they could. Naturally, I apologized for this and reminded them that I could not name most of the American states and that I am easily confused by all the straight lines making up the “square-sies”. This exercise was enjoyed by most and the point was to help them understand that they could identify many of the countries which are of little or no importance to them. This is because we are now still in an Euro-centric world view where many minor European countries are given more attention than several larger countries in the world.

In order to develop the discussion of politics, social equality and maps, I introduced the Mercator Projection and juxtaposed this with the Gall-Peters projection. This can neatly be illustrated by a clip from The West Wing (season 2, episode 16)

Aside from the incredible nerdiness of the fictitious Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality I think the best bit is in the end when the cartographers flip the world upside down and the White House staffer says:

You can’t do that!
Why not?
Because it’s freaking me out.

The map they are looking at at the time is:

map-of-world-upside-down-south-pole-on-topEurope is most definitely in a minor position, in the bottom right corner, and the whole concept of the world is redefined. Sure political power does not follow representation but a world that does this brings much of our per-established norms into question.

Of course today it is not only the political players that get to decide what is up and what is down. Our technology has begun to support (or distort) alternate world views. Take for example the app that is designed to help people avoid “sketchy” neighborhoods. This raises so many questions as to what it means to be a good/bad area and whether or not these apps create the areas they define as bad?
A recent example of the ways in which geography could be used to present a version of reality is the so-called catcalling video. The video purports to show a woman spending 10-hour walk in Manhattan and being harassed by men. The video has been criticized for what it shows – and more importantly – for what it does not show.

“The filmmakers claim to have shot this video while walking the streets of Manhattan for 10 hours, but over half of the shots in the video are actually taken from just one street, namely 125th St. in Harlem. It makes one wonder whether the filmmakers intentionally chose to concentrate their filming on a couple of neighborhoods, or if, out of many locations, these are the only places where harassment occurred.”

In a more practical use of geography I moved on to the way in which political parties to distort representational elections using Gerrymandering. Wikipedia has an interesting illustration for this where we see three districts where the blues are all in the majority. If the districts were allowed to vote in this way then the government would have an all blue politics. However, if the voting districts are redrawn in either of the other examples then we see that the blues are in a majority but the parliament is not without reds.

For the penultimate part of the discussion I wanted to introduce the concepts of nationhood and orientalism. It is sometimes conveniently stated that the nation state was “invented” by the peace of Westphalia and along with this the nation as a special interest group was established. With the nation state came the concept of the continent and the ability to establish a greater level of them and us. Naturally all these things did not simply spring into being but the progression can be said to have been accentuated in this way.

On the invention of Europe and continents in general we had an interesting aside attempting to position in which continent the countries of the Middle East lie. Is Turkey European? Is Israel Asian?

When the nation state was established as a primary organizational form (with rights and duties) it became important to establish what a nation state was. For example today there are around 30-35 million ethnic Kurds. They do not have a nation state and therefore they do not have a voice in international affairs. The Vatican City has a population of around 800 mostly (all) celibate people and they do have a voice (and a vote) in international affairs. So when deciding on conventions on the rights of Women or Children the Vatican gets to vote, but does not reproduce while the Kurds can reproduce but cannot vote.

The creation of nation states is a matter of history and tradition. Therefore despite the noble words of statesmen such as Woodrow Wilson

“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action. . . . ”

the reality is that nationhood is not granted to peoples but, more often than not, to established western nobilities and their allies. An example of this is the Sykes–Picot Agreement where interestingly straight lines were drawn to define French and English spheres of interest over the needs and hopes of the peoples who lived there. Africa is a similar case. The lines drawn by European imperialists are one of the primary reasons for the conflicts that remain in these states.

In a discussion on perspectives and interests I used the example of the Gaza strip to demonstrate how some conflicts are the focus of huge interest “worldwide” (i.e. in the West) while other conflicts are easily and regularly ignored. Who remembers the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh? Or many other conflicts that only appear as brief blips on our media radar (if at all). It surprises many to see the size of the Gaza strip. When superimposed over recognizable cities the impact of this region is understood in a different manner. Examples here.

Naturally this discussion would not be complete without a further discussion on the role of technology.

While the analogue map places us either in the center or in the periphery depending upon where we are from an artificially chosen spot. This spot is usually the space where we are supposed to see the most important place in the region. A digital map, in particular the one in our smartphones, places us in the center of the map. No matter where we are geographically – we have now become the center of the universe.

In order to create this, our technology has worked a great deal with the personalization of technology. The world has to be arrayed around us and according to our needs or interests. We have to recognize that we are in the middle of a filter bubble (Eli Pariser) where the Internet shows us what it thinks that we want to see – not what we need to see. The “it” in the last sentence is naturally the organizers who provide our technology.

So we go back to the words of the people who provide our technology. For example former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt who talks this way about personalization:

“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them”

Or even more strangely from Mark Zuckerberg:

A Squirrel Dying In Your Front Yard May Be More Relevant To Your Interests Right Now Than People Dying In Africa

The people providing the technology are not interested in an objective reality. Since we have created an Internet model where many services are based on marketing which in turn is based on surveillance and giving users incentives to remain online – we have created systems which are not necessarily about objective geographical truths but variations of the same.

In an interesting exchange about geolocation a Google representative is supposed to have explained:

Google Maps search results are based primarily on relevance, distance, and prominence. These factors are combined to help us find the best match for your search. For example, our search technology might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer.

Seriously! Look at that last part again: our search technology might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer.

Geography is not about distance, its about politics and power. And Google just redefined distance to suit its needs.


The slides I used for the presentation are here