Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Saturday, January 26, 2013
My spouse and I are doing research on emotional responses to a variety of 19th and 20th century communication technologies. While doing that, we've naturally been thinking about how past responses compare to contemporary ones. There are a lot of interesting comparisons. But one that is particularly topical is the Manti Te'o incident which resonates with a 1971 Readers Digest article titled "An Affair By Phone"(1) (which is a condensation from the book Another Self) by James Lees-Milne. The Readers Digest article is only three pages long and I'm tempted to copy and paste it straight into this blog. But given the copyright restrictions, a short summary and a quote or two is all I can offer:
In September of 1941, Mr. Lees-Milne was recovering from a bombing raid in London and was trying to telephone a friend but accidentally got connected with a woman with whom he started chatting. As Lees-Milne recalled:
"She was enchanting. The late hour and our anonymity broke down all those absurdly conventional reserves which usually hedge two people during preliminary meetings after an introduction. But when I suggested that we ought to introduce ourselves, she would not have it. It might spoil everything, she said."
That chat turned into an extended telephone relationship that was predicated and enhanced by the medium in which it was conducted:
"Never a night passed when we were both in London that we did not telephone, no matter how late. I would look forward to our next talk the whole preceding day. If I went away for the weekend and was unable to telephone she complained that she could hardly get to sleep for loneliness."
In spite of this dependency, Lees-Milne never persuaded the woman to meet in person because she thought that if they met in person and "found we did not love, as then we did, it would kill her."
The affair continued for some time until one night the woman's phone line went dead. Lees-Milne investigated and found out that the woman had been killed in a direct hit during the London bombings.
Ok, it's not quite the Manti Te'o story but the narratives are similar enough to evoke comparison: both relationships take place entirely over a network, the network, in turn, simultaneously enhances and limits the relationship. And of course, both stories end in tragedy (although one tragedy may be true while the other is imaginary).
There are other more recent historical precedents to the Manti Te'o's including the 2010 film Catfish. But "An Affair By Phone" serves to remind us that online relationships are not of recent vintage: they've been around for some time--and some embody genuine emotion.
Footnote 1: "An Affair by Phone" (Readers Digest, August 1971. Vol 115, p54-56)
Sunday, January 20, 2013
I used it last night while watching Django. All Cinemode seemed to do was dim the screen and send me a coupon for a free drink after the movie ended. Oddly, I mistakenly used it at a non-Cinemark theater so my guess is that it's not location aware. Here are some observations about it:
1) I like Cinemode's carrot (rather than stick) approach toward encouraging disconnection. It encourages particular behaviors by giving away free drinks rather than by kicking people out of the theater. In contrast, in my storyboards I envision students logging into the app to recover a lab fee. But that is sort of a stick-masquerading-as-a-carrot. And another problem with the lab fee approach is that I doubt that many universities would allow instructors to impose such a fee even if it was ultimately redeemable. Following Cinemode's model, maybe a better approach is simply to make my app function as an attendance taker: The student logs in at the beginning of class and if they stay logged into the app for the whole class (or a good portion of the class) then that counts as a day of attendance (which could then be counted as part of their grade). Another advantage of doing it this way is that my app would then double as an attendance taker.
2) One paradox of building attendance-taking into a mobile app is that one then needs to figure out how to accommodate the students who don't have smart phones. In my C.S. department that's a diminishing group of people (about 85% of our students carry them). But it's still a cohort of users that need to be catered to. I guess one can still pass around a piece of paper or provide a web login if the classroom is computer equipped. But I'm open to other suggestions.
3) A common question raised when I peddle the app is that students with offspring want to stay in touch with their kids even when in class. My reply is that a Walden-zone app isn't a device that is meant to be an enforcement mechanism so much as a mechanism that gently encourages disconnection to counter the way that most apps (and Web business models) gently encourage more connection. To accommodate parents, the app would have a variety of disconnection settings that they could choose from. Fully enabled, the app would dim the screen and disable the audio and the vibrating mechanism. But users could choose what level of disconnection they prefer. The point of the app is to encourage mindfulness about one's connections and to encourage practices that counter the digital-maximalist philosophy that is embedded in most of our apps. It isn't meant as a draconian device that stamps out disagreements about digital practices or denies people their freedom to choose.
4) Speaking of disagreements, emerging technologies are fertile ground for arguing about what constitutes proper social etiquette. In building a Walden zone app, my intention is to raise greater mindfulness about these disagreements. Cinemode seems already to have had that desired effect in the following exchange in the comments section of the its web site:
A lively exchange! (Hopefully an academically oriented Walden-zone app can encourage a slightly more amicable and nuanced discussion).`
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Walden Zone App 1 (Time based app)
Walden Zone App 2 (Location based app)
At tomorrow's AHA THATCamp we hope to be able to peddle these apps while at the same time broaching a set of related philosophical questions.(Footnote 1) What do you think? Are either of these story-boards compelling to you? How might they be modified so that they are compelling?
1 "Are our present concerns about "information overload" and "digital distraction" and the need for "Walden zones" and "digital sabbaths" simply a form of “moral panic?” Are they simply the latest iteration of longstanding fears about the new and unknown? Didn't earlier generations' worry about the way that movies, or rock and roll, or television, were affecting America's youth? Or are our present worries something to be taken seriously? What insights can the humanities bring to bear in answering these questions?"
I think our differences are exaggerated. The Sabbath advocates understand the virtues of the digital age and the way it enhances other parts of their life (heck I code Web apps for a living), and the digital dualists (some of them anyway) know that an occasional recess from the connected life can be a good thing. But whatever one's philosophical take on this issue, it's clear that the connected life is hard on the wallet. For example, up until a few months ago my internet cable bill was 88 dollars a month. I know that's not a lot compared to what other people pay for T.V. and internet. But to me it was a hard bill to pay for a number of reasons:
1) It's more than some of my friends paid for similar services.
2) Growing up I didn't have to pay for any kind of T.V. - it came in free.
3) Internet is much cheaper in other countries.
4) I was being held hostage to a monopoly interest.
Many of these woes are detailed in a Slate article titled Cable Companies, Annoying Price Discrimination, and the Case for Regulation. So I was disheartened. And given my digital Sabbath sympathies, the bill seemed even more confounding. If I was so much a proponent of living a less connected life why then was I falling so easily prey to a monopoly interest that was promoting a far different way of living?
It was a hard thing to do from an entertainment perspective but as a way of mitigating my above laments I've finally dropped cable. Instead I've signed up with Qwest and my bills and bandwidth have dropped. I now pay 25 dollars a month and have pretty slow upload and download speeds:
What about you? How well does your Internet spending accord with your professed partiality or impartiality to digital Sabbaths? What happens when you "follow the money?"
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Sunday, December 9, 2012
If your browser doesn't render the above audio tag listen to it here.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
The book goes over ground that is familiar to many of us. Like that moment in the fall of 1993 when I first heard about the Mosaic browser. Or the time in 1994 when I downloaded Netscape and began surfing the Web. It’s often only in retrospect that we recognize what moments hold import and for me anyway this was somewhat true then. To be sure I marveled at Netscape and the way it had contracted the world. For example I distinctly remember being awed that I could instantly read a Web page that has been served up by a computer half way around the world. But I don’t think I recognized the moment’s true weight and how ubiquitous the internet would become in my life. For instance I’m sure I had no idea that I’d spend a significant portion of my working day interacting with the Web. At the time it was something I dialed into through a modem and used during one or two discrete moments of the day. In other words, I liked it. But it wasn’t yet an ambient presence that I followed (or maybe better put , followed me) everywhere and at every hour.
And that is what is interesting about Berners-Lee’s history. While he too hadn’t recognized the entire import of his creation in the early 90s, he was a lot more prescient about it’s consequences than most of us. And while he wasn’t entirely in control of how his creation would be adopted (what inventor is?) his history is important because the texture of so many of our lives have been defined by events and visions that he was closely associated with.
One way to historicize our present online life is to simply mark our current surfing selves as the present and skip back to the moment Berners-Lee launched the first Web page at CERN in 1991. That first Web page is a historical monument which deserves a place in our collective memories as much as say, the joining of the transcontinental railroad or the first telephone communication by Alexander Graham Bell. But what’s left out, and what Berners-Lee’s book helps to illuminate is that our present online life doesn’t just rest on that achievement alone but is also contingent and the product of a myriad of other successes, failures, and ongoing battles. What is often lost when we merely think of Berners-Lee as the inventor of the Web and the first person to post a Web page is that the Web wasn’t just a technological invention but an evolving set of communication practices and agreements that Berners-Lee was instrumental in forming. Berners-Lee, after all, wasn’t the first to provide a clickable GUI that people could use to get information off the internet. Those achievements were preceded by companies like Prodigy and AOL. What Berners-Lee really did was to persuade a threshold number of user to adopt a set of communication protocols that no one company (as yet anyway) has been able to monopolize and make solely their own. Today we can jump on the Web with a large number of browsers owned by a variety of different companies in large part because of Berners-Lee’s work and his belief that this was the right thing to do.
There were times in the early days of the Web when it looked like a particular company’s browser might become so ubiquitous and successful that it’s functionality would drive and define Web protocols. And Berners-Lee, had he decided to form his own browser company, or join an existing one, might have crystallized such an outcome. But Berners-Lee (at least as he recounts his story) didn’t have the same inclinations as a Marc Andreeson or a Bill Gates. His primary interest was in making the Web into a thriving ecosystem rather than in the profit and success of an individual company. It was this reason why, instead of creating a company, he decided instead to form and direct the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that would maintain and expand on the Web standards he had introduced through the introduction of his first Web site. As he puts it: