Monday, November 25, 2013

Panel Discussion in the News

Our panel discussion on internet security and privacy was written up in the Standard Examiner and the Signpost.

Here by the way is the list of questions I brought to the panel in my capacity of moderator.  I didn't actually get to ask all of them of course:

1) Are we being watched?  What precisely is the substance of Edward Snowden's revelations?

2) How much do we need to temper our hopes that the internet can be a positive force for democracy and freedom?

3) Is the problem we are discussing a technological problem or a political one?

4) Is the choice between privacy and security always a zero sum game?

5) What historical abuses exist that might scare people who arent very concerned by the amount of govt. surveillance that is happening today?

6) Is privacy over-rated?

7) Have we absorbed the lessons from 1984?

8) Is the NSA abusing it’s surveillance prerogatives?

9) Is the rule-of-law being abrogated? Do we have an independent judiciary and an open and accountable government?

10) What over-sight or checks and balances exist to ensure that our surveillance agencies are abiding by the law?

11) What is a reasonable amount of privacy?

12) What surveillance actions, in the name of national security is it reasonable for the govt. to take?

13) Should our expectations about privacy evolve as our technology evolves?  Should privacy rights be determined by technological context?

14) Technology is always in the position of making the legal system play catch up.  New forms of surveillance emerge that the law and the courts haven’t anticipated.  Can the public be assured that surveillance wont be used for fishing expeditions, that surveillance data wont be stored in perpetuity, and only accessed as needed?

15) Given the abuses that Snowden/Greenwald have unveiled, is it reasonable for the public to demand a very high threshold for the gathering, storage, and use of surveillance information?
----put in audit mechanisms to sanction and uncover abuse.  But don’t put in place front end barriers
----fantasy that more info leads to greater clarity

16) In eastern european nations regimes looked at the telephone and said, oh, here is an opportunity to find out who is against us!  and then proceeded to put taps on their phones.  Don't we want to reject that?

17) Why should anybody who is not a criminal be worried?  "I have nothing to hide. So why worry?"

---A sensible answer if we could assume that govt. doesn't make mistakes, is always accurate, is always honest, and isn't full of Hoover types.  But are they?

18) Are we allowing our fear of terrorism to trump our desire for privacy?  Conversely, are we allowing our desire for privacy jeapordize our security?

19) Is the choice between privacy and security always a zero sum game?

20) Should we be more concerned about the way govt. is surveilling us, or the way private corporations do?  From whom do we have more to fear?

21) Is it effective to gather all this data?  Is more data necessarilly better?

22) Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?

23) Would a public conversation about the powers of the NSA happened anyway in spite of Snowden?  Hadn't Obama asked

24) To what extent should we expect to see the powers of the NSA curbed (or at least more broadly audited) in the wake of Snowden's revelations?  Does the presidency have a very strong incentive to reform govt. surveillance?  Google and Amazon claim that they are experiencing serious losses due to customers who are uneasy about the Americans govt. power to tap into these services.  Will those losses incentivize the govt. to curtail surveillance more?

25) What can we do as citizens and or hacktivists to uphold the imperatives of security, privacy and the rule-of-law?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Panel Discussion on Security and Privacy in the Digital Age

Here are posters for the upcoming panel discussion I'm organizing for the Technology Outreach Center. The official poster is the top one. I actually prefer the bottom one but people I talked to found the title too obscure:

The second one:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sanctuaries for the Mind in the Digital Age: A Conversation With William Powers

Below is an interview I did of William Powers when he visited our Weber State University campus. The interview is published in the Fall 2013 issue of Weber: The Contemporary West.

Your web browser doesn't have a PDF plugin. Instead you can click here to download the PDF file.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Public Intellectuals, Tech Intellectuals and Evgeny Morozov

Henry Farrell, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, has just published an incisive article about tech intellectuals that is framed around Russell Jacoby's 80's lament about the decline of public intellectuals.  It's also an interesting (albeit somewhat one-sided) take-down of Evgeny Morozov.  There's a whole slew of interesting comments about the piece on the Crooked Timber blog from the likes of Steven Johnson, Nicholas Carr and Zeynep.  Here's my own comment:

Now that Evgeny Morozov is enrolled in grad school I wonder whether that indicates that he harbors some of the same doubts that you have about the quality of his work. And if I was one of the many authors he has trashed I’d probably be pretty sympathetic to the portrait you draw of him in your review: Perhaps he does unfairly skew the arguments of his opponents. Still, I wonder if all of that might be forgiven given the fact that your essay is inspired by Russell Jacoby’s laments about the decline of public intellectuals. Jacoby might have written his work in the 80′s but I doubt things have changed much in academe, or specifically in political science, since its publication. My bet is that the American Political Science Association and its associated journals are still producing desiccating works that are unreadable by anybody but the most dedicated wonks. Which is too bad because politics, and the politics of technology, should hardly be the province of political science alone. It may currently take the agonism (and imprecisions) of Morozov to spark a public conversation about power and how power is redistributed by technology. But that’s a better outcome than relegating those debates to professionals inside academe. (from: )

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Solutionism, Adversarial Design, and the Politics of Usability

Note: The following review of Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything Click Here explores the intersection between UX and political theory.  For a shorter review that is targeted at a larger group of educational technologists see my review on Instructure's Keep Learning blog.

In To Save Everything Click Here, Evgeny Morozov, is, by his own admission, the take down artist par extraordinaire.  Do you have a passing regard for Clay Shirky’s belief that the internet triggered the Arab Spring and that the architecture of the internet might serve as a model for government?   Do you perchance think as Nicholas Carr does in The Shallows that browsing the Web diminishes our capacity to think deeply?  Were you largely persuaded by Tim Wu’s history in the The Master Switch?  Do you think that technology actually does exhibit autonomous behaviors as Kevin Kelly argues in What Technology Wants?  I know I do.  In my view they are canonical thinkers on the Web.  But after reading Morozov, I’m a little less sure about their status because he does his compelling best to turn them into hollow idols who have fallen prey to internet-centrism (the belief that the Internet has an essence which gives legitimacy to certain forms of justice) and, to some degree, to solutionism. 

Solutionism, as Morozov describes it, is the attempt to impose tech fixes on social practices that may not need fixing, as well as the concomitant effort to restrict the spaces in which we exercise moral choices.  Morozov best illustrates this by contrasting the Berlin subway system to the New York one.   In Berlin, there are no turnstiles or other machinery that enforce the purchase of a ticket.  Of course, passengers are still expected to buy tickets.   But if you don’t you can still get on the metro and ride it (assuming the risk that a conductor might apprehend you if you can’t show him one).  In contrast, in New York there are turnstiles.  And these are there to prevent you from boarding unless you’ve already purchased a ticket.  Morozov argues that in Berlin the design ensures that you have a moral choice to make (to pay or not to pay?) whereas in New York that choice has already been made for you.  The New York design, is more “frictionless” and efficient since you can’t break the rules.  But Morozov questions whether this efficiency is actually a desirable design since we need to exercise moral choices to be truly human.  

Similarly, Morozov questions Google’s attempt to give us driverless cars. And in a recent Slate essay  he also asks the same thing about personalized maps.  While both of those technologies may help us get to our destinations in greater comfort and with less effort, he thinks that in diminishing our chances of getting lost or taking a wrong turn we’ll be less likely to confront difference. After all with a driverless car who needs to enter the public sphere or take public transportation?  And with a  good map who needs to stop and ask for directions from a stranger?  While confronting difference and experiencing a moment of discomfort or disorientation might not be something that we desire as much as efficiency, Morozov argues that those experiences are worth preserving because they turn us into more civic beings who are better prepared to live with the tensions and differences that are inherent in a democratic society.

Solutionist designs, whether they be turnstiles, driverless cars, or customized maps, may improve efficiency and increase order.  But in Morozov’s view they limit the situations in which we are presented with choices that have moral consequences.  Against solutionist designs, Morozov suggests that we preserve some disorder and turbulence in our lives as a way to expand our opportunity to meet cultures and people who are other than ourselves and to expand opportunities to grapple with moral choices.

The attack against solutionism is made well enough in To Save Everything.  But the relationship between design and solutionism is brought into even better focus in Morozov’s New Republic review of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs.  Jobs, as most of us know, was not a particularly likeable character and didn’t have the civic dispositions that, for example, Bill Gates has displayed in recent years in his efforts to cure malaria.  But that didn’t mean a political conscience was wholly absent, and Morozov makes note of this conscience.  It’s illustrated in the following passage from Isaacson’s biography where Jobs reflects on the laborious process his family went through in buying a washing machine:

We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. (From Walter Isaacson’s Biography Steve Jobs)

While Jobs was thinking in a manifestly political way about his use and purchase of a technology, Morozov argues that most commodities that Silicon Valley produces don’t provoke similar ruminations.  Apple was an exception to this since in their 1984 commercial and their classic “Hi I’m an Mac and I’m a PC” there’s a distinct—if ultimately duplicitous—attempt to associate the brand with a revolutionary counter-culture.  But Apple’s focus on functional and “pure” design that “just works” (to use Job’s and Jonathan Ive’s own wording)  tend to privilege and highlight the relationship between the user and the commodity rather than the relationship between the user, the commodity, and a larger world fraught with political and social tensions.  As Morozov puts it:

Worrying about usability – the chief concern of many designers today – is like counting calories on the sinking Titanic.  This obsession with usability, with making technology invisible and unobtrusive, has created a world where we are hardly aware of how much energy our households consume.  It won’t take long until we discover that our smartphones, in their quest for usability, also hide an equally disturbing reality: that massive toxic dumps of electronic waste usually find their way to cash-strapped countries. (To Save Everything, p. 336)

In his essays and in To Save Everything Click Here, Morozov goes through a litany of situations where the solutionist ethic (and it’s tendency to obscure and contract the political) is present.  He talks of predictive policing that is making the spectre of Minority Report a reality, automated digital parking meters that fail to help drivers ruminate on the philosophy and politics of parking, and turnstiles, which we’ve already talked about above.  But I think Morozov’s critique is at its sharpest when he eviscerates Kelly McGonigal’s book The WillPower Instinct (Kelly is the twin sister of Jane McGonigal who wrote Reality is Broken).  Like nudge theorists  such as Cass Sunstein, Kelly McGonigal would like to reduce the numberof moral challenges we face as we go through life, and whenever possible, turn them into situations where we make the right choice on the basis of self-interest rather than on abstract moral principles.  As Morozov notes:

In her analysis of willpower, McGonigal, much like her twin sister in her analysis of gamification, completely sidesteps all moral questions and simply treats them as irrelevant.  She argues that we need to stop talking about behavior in moral terms, using words like ‘virtue’ and instead focus on how our individual actions make us feel.  ‘We idealize our own desire to be virtuous and many people believe that they are most motivated by guilt and shame.  But who are we kidding? We are most motivated by getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want.  Moralizing a behavior makes us more, not less likely to feel ambivalent about it.’ (To Save Everything, p. 342)

Morozov’s critique instantiates a familiar archetype and one that is his mortal disciplinary enemy precisely because it shirks virtue:

The growing appeal of self-tracking, nudges, gamification, and even situational crime prevention…can only be understood in the broader intellectual context of the last few decades. The sad reality is that philosophy, with its preoccupation with virtue and the good life, has been all but defeated by psychology, neuroscience, economics (of the rational choice variety)…..instead of investigating and scrutinizing the motivations for our actions, trying to separate the good ones from the bad, policymakers fixate on giving us the right incentives or removing the option to do the wrong thing altogether.  (To Save Everything, p. 343)

Morozov is also alluding to a larger ideological difference that separates him from his many enemies.  He doesn’t use the term himself, but Morozov is sympathetic to that strain of American thought known as civic republicanism.  Civic republicans hold that people are not strictly motivated by self-interested, market-oriented actions, and that many people like to spend their time thinking about virtue and realizing it through civic and political activity.   Like Morozov, they stand  in contrast to Americans who live by a classical Liberal ideology (with a large L) in contrast,  and who see humans as largely redeemed through activities in the marketplace, through actions that promote self interest, and through a life that places little or no emphasis on what virtue is.  

In a vision that evokes Aristotle and Hannah Arendt, both of whom harbored civic republican sentiments and regarded political action and thought as the apex of human activity,  Morozov wants to combat the Liberal anti-political ideology that is embedded in much of solutionism.   And, as he makes clear in his closing chapter, he sees the best weapon  for this battle in “adversarial design,” a term coined by Carl DiSalvo,  that favors technological solutions that deliberately strive to create spaces for political contestation over ones that simply emphasize usability, efficiency, and frictionlessness.  

Adversarial design is the heart of of Morozov’s answer to solutionism and its discontents.  And it’s appealing to Morozov because it allows the practice of politics to be reinserted into the space that geeks have created to escape politics.   It is a way of injecting state-craft back into the craftsman activities many developers have retreated to. 

I’m thrilled by Morozov’s advocacy of adversarial design because it lends substance to a type of development work that I strive to do and that others are doing.  For example, right now I’m building software that helps students grapple with smart phone etiquette and the social and political consequences that attend its use in different contexts.  Versions of this software  have some nudge effects built into them that reflect my own vision of the good life in a digital age. So I confess that its design (and software like it which include Freedom and Pause ) is not completely politically neutral.  However, its larger purpose is to help student reflect on the way that digital technologies foster connection and sociability and the contexts in which we should use these powers of association.  And it’s fulfilled this purpose within the confines of class since students have appreciated the way that the software provokes them to think about their relationship to technology and to each other.  

As a political theorist and software developer I particularly appreciate Morozov’s attempt to battle solutionism by injecting politics back into tool building.  However, I’m also cognizant of its limitations.   Pace Morozov and and others who hold up the civic republican tradition,  I’m less inclined to think of politics and morality as concerns that confer the deepest meaning on human life.  And since I work in the company of other developers I know that they display similar dispositions.  Call me a philistine,  but most of the time I’d rather be doing something else than being a political being.   Morozov, in his erudition, summons media theorist Michael Schudson to describe this sensibility as the plight of the “political backpacker.”  Backpackers like to go into the wilderness and spend some time cooking and camping for themselves.  But soon enough most backpackers emerge from the wildernesss and are happy to relegate cooking and sheltering to other entities than themselves.  Political backpackers feel analogous sentiments.  Occasional forays into politics make us feel good because they help us to grow as political beings.  But most of us would consider it a curse to spend all or even the majority of our lives in that realm. ( Even Steve Jobs, who obviously got a jag from his very public Apple presentations reported that he was happiest when he wandered into Jonathan Ive’s  private workshop and spent time handling Apple product  prototypes. ) 

We want our technologies to do the same for us as well.  For a better and richer life we want--and have a duty-- to confront our relationship to our technology and consider how it constructs our relationship with others and the world around us.   So our technologies shouldn’t be frictionless all the time.  They shouldn’t permanently shield us from politics.   But most of the time we just want our technologies to exhibit the same behaviors that Job’s and Ive’s have glowingly attributed to Apple’s products:  “it just works!” This then is the design dilemma we face in a nation that wants to be faithful to both its Liberal and Civic Republican traditions:  How do we develop technologies that enlarge our capacity to be political beings while at the same time catering to our more pedestrian and commercially oriented selves? 

Morozov would answer that we should embed a little more of our civic republican traditions into our technologies.  I know from experience working as a software developer that the prospects for doing so are limited.  Morozov, with uncharacteristic humility, knows this too when he says in his postscript:

As confident as I am in my ability to take down unworthy ideas, I don’t think I can do much about solutionism – at least, no more than I can do something about utopianism or romanticism. …all three have a long history of abuse…we can’t rid the world of people who want to ‘fix’ politics….we can’t rid ourselves of solutionism. (To Save Everything, p. 355)

So solutionism is here to stay.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to counter its effects by developing adversarial technologies that enlarge possibilities for political agency.  Whatever Morozov’s faults (and the people on whom he levels his withering criticism say he has many) he deserves accolades for giving compelling intellectual credence to this initiative.  Tool-builders  --even Jobs--  shirk the political. And people involved in statecraft rarely venture into programming craft.  But in a democratic society we can’t afford those divisions. Morozov provides one interesting avenue for bringing these activities a little closer together.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Walden Zone App

A few months ago I drew some storyboards of a digital app that would help develop mindfulness about digital etiquette and how best to coordinate our digital and less digital selves.  Since then I've coded a first iteration of this app.  Below are some screenshots of what the app looks like currently.  I hope to write more iterations of this in the coming months.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Before MOOCs "Colleges of the Air"

Our article titled Before MOOCs, "Colleges of the Air" has just been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here's an excerpt of the beginning:

In 1937, as she lay ill in bed, Annie Oakes Huntington, a writer living in Maine, thought of ways to spend her time. She confided in a letter: “The radio has been a source of unfailing diversion this winter. I expect to enter all the courses at Harvard to be broadcasted.” Huntington was joining in an educational experiment sweeping the country in the 1920s and 30s: massive open on-air courses.
As educators contemplate the MOOCs of our day—massive open online courses—they would do well to consider how earlier generations dealt with technology-enhanced education.
We are not the first generation to believe that technology can transcend distance and erode ignorance. Nearly a century ago, educators were convinced that radio held that same potential. The number of radios in the United States increased from six or seven thousand to 10 million between 1921 and 1928. Many universities explored the possibility of broadcasting courses across the country and allowing anyone to enroll. Some onlookers believed those courses would transform higher education and eliminate lecture halls and seminar rooms. One observer noted, “The nation has become the new campus,” while another celebrated the “‘University of the Air,’ whose campus is the ether of the earth, whose audience waits for learning, learning, learning.” Read more.....

Saturday, March 30, 2013

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?"