Tech’s Silicon Tower

I was just reading Cathy O’Neil’s (@mathbabedotorg) New York Times piece on the tech industry and academia, which argues how academics have not done enough to study issues caused by recent technology, including filter bubbles and big data. Others have already critiqued some of the tone and oversights of the piece, with varying degrees of sass, but I want to look at it as a rallying cry. While I think the piece could give more credit to current researchers, it recognizes a dangerous gap between this research and the tech industry.

A few of O’Neil’s points are especially key. For one, she notes how big data is often cloistered in companies, reducing access to academics. She also notes how private companies hire academics, and she describes how funding that drives engineering and computer science programs may not include more humanities-tinged concerns for the ethical, social dimensions of technology.

More contentiously, O’Neil also says, “There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives.” While a distinct field of study may be harder to name and locate, plenty of sub-fields and inter-disciplinary work hits at this exact issue. For example, in rhet-comp, Kevin Brock and Dawn Shepherd discuss algorithms and their persuasive power and Jessica Reyman has analyzed issues of authorship and copyright with big data. Beyond rhet-comp, danah boyd continues to write on these issues, along with work from the University of Washington.

But a gap remains to some extent, despite this research.

Personally, I see two potential reasons: hubris and tech’s failure to consider social media more critically. Regarding hubris, George Packer’s “Change the World” (2013) explores Silicon Valley’s optimism and their skepticism of Washington. After describing how few start-ups invest in charity, for instance, Packer writes:

At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable. One of the mottoes posted on the walls at Facebook is “Move fast and break things.” Government is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.

After Russia’s propaganda push and amid ongoing issues, like Facebook’s role in genocide, this optimism seems naive and dangerous. Zuckerberg’s trip to the Midwest , hiring more fact checkers, and increasing  government scrutiny seem to point to a change. But I’m not sure how much is actually changing in tech–or larger structures like education and law.

This leads me to my second thought. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger distinguishes between the ready-at-hand and the present-at-hand. The former refers to how we normally go through life, interacting with objects without much reflective thought, while the later refers to the way a scientist or philosopher may look at stuff. In his hammer example, Heidegger says that we normally use a hammer without much second thought, but once the hammer breaks, we reflect on what it is or does.

Similarly, with the ugly realities of social media surfacing more, we are more apt to examine and reflect. Before it “broke,” we used it as a neutral tool to communicate and pontificate digitally. As long as we continue to see social media as a neutral tool, or a tool just needing tweaks or fixes, we miss considering what social media is within a broader context of culture, economics, and society. We may be waking up to these deeper questions now, but we can’t fall back on present-for-hand approaches to use and design.

As Lori Emerson (2014) argues, companies rush to intuitive designs and ubiquitous computing, but we must consider how these trends blackbox the values and potentials of our tools. As Emerson and others argue, we can challenge these trends with firmer technological understanding, more democratized development, and the resistance of hackers and activists.

But with tech having so much power, I am not optimistic for change without a broader attitudinal shift in tech and elsewhere. I only see incremental changes coming, like increased fact checkers and algorithmic tweaks. These are good and may lead to significant change in time, but fundamental outlooks in tech–what philosophers may call instrumental rationality–will likely stay the same. Many critique the Ivory Tower for its obsession with present-at-hand abstraction, but the Silicon Tower seems just as dangerous with its present-for-hand reduction.

[Image: “Hacker” by the Preiser Project, via Creative Commons]

 

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CCR 633: Anderson, Publics, and Simultaneity

One of the main things that struck me about this reading was the importance of simultaneity. Anderson discusses this through literature, then newspapers, and even connects it to the practice of naming places like “New Orleans” after places from the old world. Essentially this connects to the “empty time” of a situation and the sense of community, that other people–people in a community or country, in Anderson’s example–are going about their daily lives as I do.

Coupled with this, one has the printing press and newspapers. For newspapers, Anderson notes how it represents “the secular, historically clocked community” (35), and creates a daily or half-daily ritual, which again is connected to simultaneity, the paper acting as a technology of synchronizing.

For printing, Anderson stresses a few elements. “First,” he writes, “they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernacular” (44).  Similar to what Thorton says about print v. handwriting, printing creates a public connotation, and though it’s been a while since I’ve read Habermas, I imagine a link with his public sphere as well. Along with these “unified fields of exchange,” print technology, argues Anderson, creates fixity, much as Eisenstein notes. And third, it created “languages of power” (45), privileging some forms of language over the other.

I was thinking about how digital technologies connect to these similar qualities, i.e. how internet publics connect to their own technology.

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IST 700: Interview Angst

When it comes to interviews, I come back to my journalism background. My first interview was as a freshman writing a profile piece about a tennis player for the sports section–a mysterious assignment, as I don’t really like sports.

I talked to the player and a few of his teammates for a few minutes, recording the conversations in a tape recorder and making meaningless notes in a spiral notebook.  I was terribly nervous, nervousness only matched by gawkiness, gawkiness only matched by social anxiety.

Overtime, I got good at interviews. I got better at putting people at ease with small talk, at taking short notes, quoting accurately. I built a whole ecology of interview practice–of ritual and method. Most of these interviews were face-to-face, short, with one or two meetings, often in a public place, and with largely innocuous conversations. For some stories, I did need to be careful, and often had long interviews that I transcribed. Some were outside and on the run. Others were behind closed doors. Some were relaxed. Others tense.

So when I started to prep for interviews this semester, I was confident. But, oh, experience is an unwieldy beast.

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IST 700: Sentiment, Affect, and Twitter

This week’s readings brought me back to my time teaching in Egypt, during the election of Morsi and the coup the following summer that put him out of power. Though my Internet access was limited both summers–largely relegated to communal computers and one dodgy PC in the prep room–I often tried to check in with Twitter.

My second summer, the day of the military takeover, a few tweets entered the stream about tanks in Cairo and the Presidential Palace. I saw journalists and activists positing frantically, while others were trying to get confirmation. No one knew what was happening. For a few days, protestors for Tamarod had taken to the streets against Morsi. Meetings both with and without Morsi went on amid these protests. For my part, the seminary where I was teaching was on lock down, preventing anyone from coming or going without approval. So beyond the nightly sounds of protestors gathering for nearby hot spots, Twitter was my only window–or “stream”–on the action.

I felt surreal during the take sightings. Seeing the news pour in on “real time.” None of the networks had anything, but across Twitter, people were mobilized and locked in.

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IST 700: Ecologies, Spheres, and Messy Research

“We conceptualize a web sphere as not simply a collection of web sites, but as a site of dynamically defined digital resources spanning multiple web sites deemed relevant or related to a central event event, concept or theme, and often connected by hyperlinks.” -Steven M. Schneider and Kirsten A. Foot

“That the web arrived as infrastructure awaiting content, as opposed to content awaiting infrastructure, is often not appreciated.” -Richard Rogers

I was feeling a lot of synthesis with this week’s readings. Not just among texts but also with past reading–especially the readings on bounding–and readings from my other classes, like this piece by Jody Shipka on lower-case “a” archiving. These notions of archive and “websphere” also connect to my larger interests in networks, authorship, ambience, and intertextuality.

Rogers’ distinction between “infrastructure” and “content” captures one of the elements of Internet research that fascinates me: the role in the the ever-changing infrastructures in this ever-changing content. For example, Rogers as well as Schneider and Foot point out the role that linking has or advertisements in composing a website, and archiving a page as pure content–basic texts, images, sounds, etc.–does not capture this infrastructure.

Early on in my interest in composition and rhetorical studies, the “ecological” thinking of Marylin Cooper, Sidney Dobrin, Thomas Rickert, Nathaniel Rivers, Jody Shipka, Jenny Rice, etc., proved particularly illuminating. Especially Rice’s piece on rhetorical ecologies. The way texts circulate, get re-purposed, get buried or dug up, acted on by different authors in different genres with different exingencies and audiences–all of this ecological richness spoke to my outlook on the complex ontologies of textuality, digital or otherwise.

More concretely, I think that fanfiction has a dynamic websphere surrounding a given fandom, ranging from site-archived pieces, fanwiki pages, author pages and social media outlets, the texts themselves, the comment section. Both context (text, artwork, and Podcasts) and infrastructure (links, searches, folksonomies) inform practice and community, which is likely why many studies take an ethnographic approach. One can study texts and artifacts (through content, rhetorical, or discourse analysis), but these are entwined with fan practice. The artifacts have hand prints and metadata, and the users with these hands and metadata are part of this ecology, along with the nonhuman structures.

These fascinating linkages and the social practices they bolster and bound, like the 9/11 Memorializing, challenge the potential boundary between users, content, artifacts, offline, online, time, space, etc. I think this is why a clear question–and a well-steered method–are worth thinking over as much as the potential results. Phrased another way, the hows, the whats, the whos, and the whys of research need to be in close communion.

This complexity, as Jason might say, is messy.

IST 700: Using Ethnography to think through my own project

The main thing I took away from these ethnography readings in light of my own project(s) centered around fanfiction is my positionality as a researcher and the role that ethics plays in that. I guess I can largely think on this along three main lines: access, position, and representation.

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IST 700: Locating and Drawing the Boundaries of Research

A few things struck me from the reading, in particular the messy boundaries (and lack thereof) between online and offline and the difficulty of mapping and bounding digital projects. These pose significant implications for conducting online research. For now, I was mainly thinking about how some of these readings are impacting how I look at my own research project.

A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.
A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.

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(Post)Demographics and Trends

Until this semester, I had not encountered the term “postdemographic.” First hearing it, I assumed it referenced the more individuated way that data collection could take place, putting less emphasis on the demographic that one belonged to and more emphasis on individuals themselves and what they did. In a sense, this understadning approaches the term, but Rogers completes it: “Postdemographics could be thought of as the study of the data of social networking platforms, and in particular, how profiling is or may be performed” (153).

Rogers also stresses the shift from the “biopolitical” to the “info-political,” explaining a shift from embodied attributes, like age and race, to the information that these bodies generate and consume. This explains a shift in focus on the data. Though the sites of data collection are not necessarily limited to “social networking platforms,” these sites tend to abound and automatically collect the sorts of data that postdemographics focuses on: taste, pop culture influences, political leanings, groups, associations, and the way that these may line up with people that you know or interact with.

These are the curated ads and Amazon book recomendations. The “you-might-also-likes” and “people-who-liked-this-also-likeds.” In my case, an odd mix of books on wine, Zen philosophy, critical theory, composition theory, and research methods.

Rogers also notes that many of these spaces, particularly in platforms like Facebook,  the space itself reaches out for us to detail our preferences and network our contacts and interests through pre-set categories like books and movies that we like or more open-ended notes. It wants our data, takes that data, and constructs our experience accordingly.

That, very roughly, introduces postdemographics.

Contrasting the postdemographic with demographic, I see a complication: how do demographics impact postdemographics? As the Pew research reports note, demographic issues, like age and gender, connect with who uses a platform. For example, Pinterist users tend to be women: 42% of women online users, compared with 12% of men. Also, wealth and access still play a role in usage, which are again traditional demographic categories.

These potential considerations have both ethical and practical implications. On the more ethical side, I think it forces us to look at the dangers of essentialism and the issues of representation. Demographics may have a link to postdemographics–with certain demographics tending to prefer certain media–but this trend does not necessary make a truism. It is just a trend. And when value judgements and hierarchies enter the equation, as the often do with taste, attention to the fragility and complications of trends becomes more important. One must check assumptions and sloppy reasoning all the more, as more potential connections get put on the table and our pattern-pushing brains have more to work with.

This points to larger issues of big data and postdemographic data more generally. Though “the garbage in garbage out” caveat is common when it comes to the data itself, it also has some connection to our interpretations. When making claims and synthesizing findings, research requires self-critical analysis of our own thinking and transparency in our reasoning. One can easily see connections that a correlation may draw, but as often noted, correlation does not equal causation.

In a similar way, similar interest does not mean similar postdemographic–or demographic. Just because I like Doc Martin doesn’t mean I like Dr. Who. And just because people who like classical music may have similar browsing habits, values, or memberships does not mean I do.

On the one hand, this is obvious. But its obviousness should not detract from its importance.

Accessible Materiality

Accessibility can be defined as the ability to use, enjoy, perform, work on, avail of, and participate in a resource, technology, activity, opportunity, or product at an equal or comparable level with others. Separate is not equal and before or after the fact is also not equal. In the context of technology and systems, accessibility at the interface level, not as a retrofit or add-on, is true accessibility; all other options are fixes and are intrinsically inferior to the primary access available to the able-bodied.” –Sushil K. Oswal, “Multimodality in Motion.

Continuing the topic of space from my last post, I was considering the role that the “material” or “materiality” more generally factors into the construction and engagement of digital space. In particular, I’ve been increasingly thinking about how disability gets constructed by the material, embodied, and social.

As I increasingly look at the assumptions implied in the material, I consider how the material constitutes certain practices and ways of being. For example, I think of Selfe and Selfe’s 2004 piece about the “politics of the interface” or Oudshoorn et al.’s case studies in “Configuring the Everybody” in which design goals, design teams, and assumptions–whether innovation or male experience–exclude people from the “everybody.”

The design of a digital space–how its constructed and organized–inform the how and the who of use. And though space gets encountered at an individual level, I argue that space can also order the larger systems and societies that engage these spaces. The same is true of technology and the other materials. As Arnold Pacey argues, for example, “technology-practice” involves “the application of scientific and other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organizations, living things and machines” (6; emphasis in original). These “ordered systems” are not just algorithms and circuitry, but social practice and potential practice are closely bound up in the possibility space of the material.

This connection can have important impacts for people with disabilities in our generally nondisabled society.

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