Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Manti Te'o Story set in London, 1941

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

Cinemode: A Walden Zone App For Movie Goers.

As a way of following up on my Walden-Zone app storyboards I've been looking at other apps that do similar things.  One that came to my attention recently was the Cinemode  app which is advertised at the beginning of movies in Cinemark theaters:

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:

Anyone who texts during a movie does not love film. End of discussion. They’re only there to see “what’s happening,” not caring at all for mood, or the wonderful spell that a movie is supposed to put you in. Cell phones have all but ruined the moviegoing experience.
Comment by Jack — Wednesday November 14, 2012 @ 5:23pm EST  
  • I love film. I also love my kids. And sometimes they text me during a film. My daughter will write, “Going to bed now, XXOO” and I’ll text back, “OK. XXOO.” Which apparently makes me a jerk for not caring for the mood and wonderful spell that the movie is supposed to put me in. However, it does make me a good father. Which is more important to me. End of discussion.
    Comment by Jerk — Wednesday November 14, 2012 @ 5:40pm EST 
    • I think you are the exception. People who constantly text are annoying. Not people who just respond once or twice. I think they are targeting those audience members who think they are in their living room.
      Comment by Allen Iverson — Wednesday November 14, 2012 @ 5:47pm EST  
    • Dear Jerk – If it’s so important, go home and have that conversation w/ your kid in person, instead of ruining the experience for other people who also paid to be there & are, unlike you, being considerate. Texting your kid doesn’t make you special. Neither does being a parent.
      Comment by ben h. — Wednesday November 14, 2012 @ 5:55pm EST  
      • Anyone who states their point of view and signs off with “end of discussion” is by definition, a jerk. Really, there’s no argument but yours? How about you say goodnight to your kid before the movie starts? Period, end of, say no more.
        Comment by Distracted by bright screens. — Wednesday November 14, 2012 @ 6:14pm EST  
    • Not caring about the mood and wonderful spell that the movie is supposed to put you in doesn’t make you a jerk. Texting during a movie and annoying the other viewers makes you a jerk.
      Comment by Jerk Clarifier — Wednesday November 14, 2012 @ 6:54pm EST  
    • We don’t care about your kids going to bed. You do, as you should. Your phone can be off 2 hours. Do you text them from your work while they are at school during every 2 hour period. You’re inconsiderate self-righteous world is all you care about. Keep your phone off or stay at home and tuck your kids in.
      Comment by Jason — Thursday November 15, 2012 @ 12:46pm EST  
    • If you think you are a good parent by “texting” good night to your child from a movie theater then perhaps we are getting to the root of the problem.
      By the way. Why the hell does a child have a cell phone? Why didn’t you tell said child “im going to be in a movie, so I wont be answering anything other than an emergency because its not nice to mess with your phone in a movie theater. Its kinda like smoking in an elevator. Good night now honey”
      Comment by the caretaker — Saturday November 17, 2012 @ 9:26pm EST  
    • You’d be a better father if you stepped outside the theater, like as if you were getting concessions or going to the bathroom, and then texting from there.
      Comment by Andy — Friday December 7, 2012 @ 5:34pm EST  

A lively exchange!  (Hopefully an academically oriented Walden-zone app can encourage a slightly more amicable and nuanced discussion).`

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Some Walden Zone App Story-Boards

Last year we developed a Concentration Browser which was intended to help students develop greater mindfulness about their digital connections and the contexts where those connections encourage (and sometimes discourage) learning. As a follow-up to that project I continue to think of digital apps that breed this mindufulness about digital connections. Here are two story boards that illustate some "Walden Zone" apps I'm thinking of developing. Both help to mute a cell phone during particular junctures in the day and the basic difference between them is that the first is time based whereas the second is location based:

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?"

Just Say No To Cable: A Proponent of Digital Sabbaths "Follows the Money"

For a while now people have been arguing about the virtues and demerits of unplugging from the internet. Following William Powers and other proponents of digital Sabbaths, I'm partial to them, while others, like Jason Farman in The Myth of the Disconnected Life, Rebecca Rosen in We Don't Need a Digital Sabbath, We Need More Time and a slew of anti digital dualists have argued that Sabbath advocates don't properly acknowledge the ways in which digital devices enhance our connections with others.

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:

Sadly now I can't stream Netflix, watch cable T.V. or play Call of Duty multiplayer version (at least not without getting killed quick by faster, more connected players). Still, I'm basically ok. I'm no longer a victim of monopoly, I'm walking my digital Sabbath talk (or at least doing it a little better than before), I watch better movies (since Netflix CDs offer far better selection than Netflix streaming) and I can still do most everything else I need to do on the Web.

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?"