Steampunk reveals three relationships that people want with their technology. First, they want their technology to have a sense of humor. Humor and jokes give us a way to connect with and understand each other. Also, humor is a great cultural indicator that we understand each other. Studies show that if I can make you laugh, you not only think I’m smarter but also feel a deeper human connection to me. If we want to have a closer relationship to these technologies that are filling our lives, it makes sense that we would want them to get our sense of humor and make us laugh.

Second, people want their technology to have a sense of history. History is the on-ramp to the future. Only by understanding where we have come from can we make sense of where we are going. It might surprise you to realize that a pocket watch is a lot like an iPhone. We carry both around in our pockets. Both give their owners an advantage over other people who may not have them. But there is one difference: a pocket watch was designed to be handed down from generation to generation. An iPhone is designed to be refreshed from generation to generation. For an increasing number of people this doesn’t work. They want their devices to have grounding in history, a connection to the past so we can have a clearer view of our future.

Finally, people want their technology to have a sense of humanity. They want their devices to understand them as individuals. If you sleep with your smartphone next to your bed you want it to know who you are when you wake up in the morning. As our devices become increasingly smarter and central to our lives, we want these devices to understand us as individuals, not as consumers.

Intel Futurist Brian Johnson on Steampunk, Technology and Culture

A Thin Line Between Documentation + Surveillance

In the wake of the PRISM leaks, I’ve been a bit perplexed by the responses of some of my Facebook acquaintances. A number of them have openly expressed their disdain for PRISM (and its implications), which given their general critical and political dispositions is no surprise. And to be clear, I don’t begrudge them for their (or mine for that matter) disdain.  But what has fascinated me is how some of those individuals who express their anger for the US Government’s PRISM practices-citing it as an invasion of privacy and state sponsored surveillance-also behave in similar, boundary crossing ways: documenting strangers to publicly (via FB) shame for a good laugh. What confuses me is trying to understand what, if anything, distinguishes documentation in this instance from surveillance. Humor me here as I think aloud.

What I am seeing in my FB feed is basically trolling: people taking pictures of strangers on the bus or at restaurants who are dressed “funny” or have some other aspect about their behavior that these acquaintances find humorous or worth sharing with their “networked public” (see: danah boyd + alice marwick’s paper) via FB.  It’s usually a post via FB with a caption that reads something like “Look at this sap” or “Maybe we need to gay makeover this tired queen’s outfit” (I’ll save my thoughts for the overuse misuse of “shade” for another post). A more popular example of this kind of behavior is the People of the CTA Facebook page, where people post pictures of the people they see on Chicago’s public transit and followers troll their asses off. You get the gist: see someone who looks ‘funny,’ document them and distribute to your friends. 

So when people do this on a micro level, they are documenting, collecting what they deem odd when they deem it so for their personal archives. And at any time, anyone could become an object in this personal or potentially public collection. And when said object is posted, people laugh and maybe even share with their friends. Things only get ‘real’ when we are confronted with someone we know in one of these pictures. But I’d argue that in our culture of ubiquitous documentation (via Instagram and the like), are we not already accepting a certain level of surveillance from our peers? Aren’t we already at the point where we risk being ‘watched’ by someone, somewhere? And why is it okay in the interests of humor and bullying to tolerate this behavior but openly voice our disdain when it’s done in the name of ‘national security’? 

 I am interested in trying to understand where the boundaries between surveillance and the above form of documentation are located. Moral? Epistemic? Cultural? For me, PRISM and snapping pictures of strangers to ridicule are disturbing. But why do we not read something like “People of the CTA” as a kind of surveillance? It seems silly and frankly too simple to reduce it to just a difference of state power or individual power, though I think the distinction is one worth making. I suppose one could argue that what constitutes public and private information differ greatly in those two examples, which is a fair point as it raises issues of consent.

To me they seem like different manifestations of a similar kind of logic.That it’s okay to take what we want without consent because we’re amused, because we can. And for me, this attitude of taking what we want because we can is no different if it’s coming from the state or our friends. It’s dangerous in every instance. Maybe it’s an indication of my cynicism that I am not as bothered by the prospect of the state watching me, as I am by the prospect of someone deciding they don’t like what I have on and deciding to subject me to public shaming on some social network somewhere. This isn’t to say that I think one is worse than the other but rather, to see surveillance play out in the guise of humor or trolling or whatever creates troubling norms. It trains us to stop seeing each other as beings who demand respect and empathy. This training at the hands of peers is what scares me more than anything. 

What are people’s thoughts on the matter? 

The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school. The band delivers certifiable Quality-with-a-capital-Q, a perfect product of the English and music departments—the way that Lady Gaga is a perfect product of the semiotics department and an MBA program, though I definitely prefer Lady Gaga.

Carl Wilson, on why he hates The National

Wilson wrote a fantastic book on music and taste, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.  Wickedly fun and smart. 

H/T To Andrew for that recommendation

I like The National well enough but their whole sad-faced Americana white male malaise is exhausting after awhile. We know, Matt, dreams die and it sucks sometimes.

As an industry, coolhunting explicitly turns on this production of authenticity and legitimacy. The transaction between brand and employee is one of social—and increasingly, multicultural—capital. My own misgivings about these dynamics, however, soon gave way to more practical constraints of time and money. Or so I told myself. Really, what I would be selling was not my time, but something that I realized—albeit with cringey trepidation—was far more valuable: my own multicultural capital and connections. My wasta.

"A Spy in the House of Hip": Trendspotting in the Middle East

We put them in places where we can see, and easily return to them. Watching something twice becomes a radical act; reading something twice is one of love. Yes, you can download things to read later, but the ultimate problem with the Internet, in his estimation, is that it has no album view. Put another way, the problem with the Internet is that it is difficult to build a library.”

Futurist John Smart, president and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, recalled an insight of economist Simon Kuznets about evolution of technology effects known as the Kuznets curve: “First-generation tech usually causes ‘net negative’ social effects; second-generation ‘net neutral’ effects; by the third generation of tech—once the tech is smart enough, and we’ve got the interface right, and it begins to reinforce the best behaviors—we finally get to ‘net positive’ effects,” he noted. “We’ll be early into conversational interface and agent technologies by 2020, so kids will begin to be seriously intelligently augmented by the internet. There will be many persistent drawbacks however [so the effect at this point will be net neutral]. The biggest problem from a personal-development perspective will be motivating people to work to be more self-actualized, productive, and civic than their parents were. They’ll be more willing than ever to relax and remain distracted by entertainments amid accelerating technical productivity.

“As machine intelligence advances,” Smart explained, “the first response of humans is to offload their intelligence and motivation to the machines. That’s a dehumanizing, first-generation response. Only the later, third-generation educational systems will correct for this.”

From Pew’s Study "Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives"

In a survey about the future of the internet, technology experts and stakeholders were fairly evenly split as to whether the younger generation’s always-on connection to people and information will turn out to be a net positive or a net negative by 2020. They said many of the young people growing up hyperconnected to each other and the mobile Web and counting on the internet as their external brain will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers who will do well in key respects.

The long-form responses to the questions are worth reading and considering. Or if you are particularly nerdy, get your smartest friends together to drink and talk about the survey questions, responses and implications. Tell them to turn off their smartphones.

It’s not hard to imagine how the less confident students, despite moving in a forum that promised connections galore, might grow more isolated, revving the cycle all over again.

I find these results oddly heartbreaking. It seems an irony typical of the Internet that the people who feel safest expressing themselves online actually damage their social standing when they do so. Not because they’re somehow opting out of the real world, as Facebook critics like to insist, but because they are lulled into relaxing their facades. Cheery icons and a shiny, sanitized format make it easy to project the friendliness of a diary onto the Facebook community. Yet the site doesn’t “change” your audience so much as disguise it. Those with low self-esteem may treasure Facebook because it eliminates situations in which social feedback is inevitable (whereas you can’t help seeing your friend’s aggrieved expression when you slip up in person). But you need live feedback to teach you to navigate relationships with grace.

We’ve heard how Internet anonymity—or the illusion of it—can give people license to act like boors. Yet it seems we’re less attuned to the dangers of seeing other Internet users as anonymous or unreal. Social networking sites, with their endlessly personalized apps, can sometimes feel less like meeting places than giant mirrors (Facebook for me has always had the echoey effect of a mansion that a crowd of partiers has just vacated.) Amanda Forest’s study should remind us that when we’re online, for better or for worse, we’re not alone.

From Slate’s If You Think Your Facebook “Friends” Don’t Like You, They Probably Don’t”

"But you need live feedback to teach you to navigate relationships with grace." I don’t think I could like this sentence more if I tried. Real time social dynamics, especially negative ones, can be incredibly powerful catalysts for individual growth. But more importantly, having opinions, even ones that are perceived as unsavory, are what make you interesting and worthwhile as a person. That being said, someone who is constantly negative in their FB updates may be perceived as trying to gain attention or deliberately trying to be provocative which, in turn, can incite more people to dislike them. There is a fine line between being opinionated and being a whiny jerk. 

That’s the real problem with attempting to make sense of 9/11 using social media: The former requires deep thought while the latter feeds on immediacy. Ten years and millions of articles after 9/11, we’re still trying to come to terms with what happened that day. We’re still sifting through the debris and our collective emotions in order to find whatever it is we lost, or to explain why things are the way they are now. I have a hard time believing 9/11 tweets or Facebook updates would have changed any of that for the better. And by now they’d be forgotten anyway, buried under 10 years of more shouting into the abyss.

From I’m Glad We Didn’t Have Facebook or Twitter on 9/11”


triciawang:fyi - I love Christina Dennaoui’s blog Modern and Im/Material Things. I don’t know her personally, yet , but it feels like we would be good friends if we ever met. She’s super geeky intellectual, crisp, no bull-shit, & silly.

Tricia has me all figured out. It’s nice to know that my personality actually comes across in my writing. And based on the breadth of her blogs (including her awesome blogs about digital culture and urbanism) and her penchant for photos of Pho (see what I did there?), I also think we’d be friends. So go read Tricia’s blogs (all of them)!

The Egyptian people have proven time and again that they are leading digital activism innovation, that they are heroic stewards of their own revolution and their own freedom. We in the West need to learn that there is not always a role for us and if our help is needed we must act with humility and in subordinate roles. It doesn’t matter if technology efforts like Wathiqah make us in the West feel good or helpful or part of a moment in history. When the creation of these projects draws attention and potential resources away from home-grown efforts, when it causes fragmentation, we need to have the humility to step back. Because, in the end, it’s not about us.

From "The Revolution is Not a Branding Opportunity"

Via OWNI

This is as interesting to read as it is well-designed. It’s beautifully laid out. 
Note: Link points to a PDF.  

Gary Small and colleagues carried out a novel study of how the brains of middle-aged and older participants respond when using an internet search engine. Compared with reading text, they found that internet searching increased activation in several regions of the brain, but only amongst those participants with internet experience. Based on the regions involved, the researchers suggested that internet searching alters the brain’s responsiveness in neural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning (in frontal regions, anterior cingulate and hippocampus). However, because an uncontrolled task was used, it is difficult to know what cognitive processes the participants were carrying out. This is a problem when attempting to draw conclusions about neural differences. It is possible that, even when they were supposed to be searching, less experienced users were spending more time reading text while their ‘savvy’ users who had learnt how to use search engines were using sophisticated search strategies. After five days of training for an hour a day, the internet-naïve participants were producing similar activations as their more experienced counterparts… . Changes in neural activation in different regions can be expected when learning any task for the first time. For example, after adults learned to carry out complex multiplication, the brain activity produced by carrying out this task shifted from frontal to posterior regions (suggesting less working memory load and more automatic processing).

We can use computers to simulate some of the intimacy of tribal life, but we need humans to evoke the shame that leads to cooperation. The emergence of new tools— language, writing, the Internet—cannot completely replace the eyes. Face-to-face interactions, such as those outside Trader Joe’s stores, are still the most impressive form of dissent.

Read this immediately. It’s absolutely worth your time.

Most of narcissism’s critics, however, do not evince much concern for its sufferers, whom they regard with more Schadenfreude than pity. They just find all this expression of ego to be grating, gauche, and borderline immoral—like wearing tights as pants, talking during movies, or being ­Snooki. This is our new cultural mini-­monster, somewhere down the scale from terrorists and pedophiles, in the general vicinity of Charlie Sheen and those people who go nuts during American Idol auditions: the Raging ­Narcissist. Press coverage of that music study conveys the sense that a song like Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock”—whose refrain runs, “Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful”—is a substantial threat to the nation’s soul.

From Nitsuh Abebe’s "We Must Be Superstars"

Via NY Mag

Such a Pretentious dig, but I Still Laughed at the Snooki comment.

Re: Netflix

I’m almost 99% sure that my Netflix queue is more aspirational than anything else. It’s a gesture toward the heady, cultured film viewer I wish to be than the consumer I am. What’s that Christina? You don’t want to watch Goddard’s Notre Musique for a third time? Shut up. Wait, what? You want to watch crappy horror movies from Netflix Instant instead? Oh girl…