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 right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Undue interference with individuals' privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas. An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.'

From "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue*”

Via The United Nations General Assembly

Note: Link points to a PDF of the report.

(Image from the story linked above)

"Launched in 2010, the app was initially only available to iPhone users and those with iOS software. Its popularity became instant, and within a year, it had over ten million users. In April 2012, Instagram debuted their Android version of the app on the Google Play store, thus opening up its user base to those with Android smartphones. With this launch came an unexpected backlash from the original iPhone users, and a new form of class warfare began to arise on the internetDigital inequality can become even more persistent as well because it ensures “that people’s socioeconomic status influences the ways in which they have access to and use information and communication technologies” (Hargittai 2008: 939). Even though Instagram was launched in 2010 through the iTunes store, Android users didn’t get to access until 2012. This two-year gap created a distinct user base and sense of entitlement amongst the iPhone Instagram community. The user base was even further isolated through the way in which Instagram acts as a social network. There is no online access to the app or photos through their website. The only way users can browse and share photos is through their cellphone. Therefore, Android users couldn’t access this “gated community,” allowing them to be further alienated and seen as unwanted intruders storming the gates of the sacred iPhone community.”

Two notes:

1. I can’t believe the above tweet. How can you tweet that statement and not realize you are being an over-priveleged, whiney racist techie asshole? To be fair, I don’t have the full context for that tweet but nonetheless I’m finding it difficult to not read it as offensive and classist if nothing else.

2. If you don’t read the Cyborgology blog, you are really missing out. 

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.

Rejecting Materiality for the “Authentically Digital,” Or a Note about Windows 8 New Logo

Certain corners of the web seem to be all aflame, debating the aesthetic merits of the updated Windows 8 logo. Some, like Venture Beat, deem it ugly, denouncing it as as Microsoft’s “Gap Moment” and declaring that it looks like it was made in “MS Paint.” Others aren’t sure what to make of the new, Pentagram-approved design. If Michael Beirut and Paula Scher are behind it, it can’t be all that bad, right? I enjoy its minimalism and think it does a nice job of conjuring up the Metro UI of Windows 8. I do, however, hate the non-font font that is Segoe UI. It reminds me of a knock off helvetica, akin to a “brada” or “jucci” bag. Debates about whether it looks like a window or a flag aside, there’s something else about the logo I’d like to focus on: it’s representation of the “authentically digital.”

On a Windows Team blog post, Principal Designer of User Experience Sam Moreau wrote that the new Metro inspired logo not only invoked the new Metro UI of Windows 8 but also represented the “authentically digital”:

It was important that the new logo carries our Metro principle of being “Authentically Digital”. By that, we mean it does not try to emulate faux-industrial design characteristics such as materiality (glass, wood, plastic, etc.). It has motion – aligning with the fast and fluid style you’ll find throughout Windows 8.”

There is something intriguing to me about rejecting design characteristics that invoke materiality for something that conjures motion and fluidity. It suggests that it is possible to reject the materiality of the device hardware from the operating system. As a marketing ploy, it’s actually quite clever, especially given that Windows 8 is being positioned as a game changer of an operating system that combines platforms, apps and hardware. And what I’ve seen of the fluidity of Windows 8 across multiple devices, it’s enough for me to think that this approach might actually resonate with consumers. It’s slick and minimalist enough to get people thinking a little more about the system rather than the device. But is it enough to get people to fetishsize the system over the device? Let’s face it, no company has cornered the market on commodity fetishism quite like Apple has. 

Now in full disclosure, I work as a global search account planner and strategist for an agency that handles Microsoft’s commericial and consumer accounts. I work with our sister agencies to plan media strategy for all of Microsoft’s major business units and yes, I’m working on Windows 8 planning (don’t ask for any information because I will not provide any; I’m disclosing my client relationship because it’s the ethical thing to do). Even more disclosure, I am a user of Apple products. Disclosure out of the way, this phrase “authentically digital” has haunted most of my planning documents. It’s sort of rubbed me the wrong way, mostly because years of critical theory have trained me to cringe every time I hear the word “authentic.” Moreau’s post is as close to a definition of the phrase as I have seen yet. 

But can anything be truly authentic when it comes to discussing digital anything? Moreover, can we conceive of anything digital without the materiality of the devices that allow entry points and access? Personally speaking, I can’t have a conversation about the digital web without talking about the devices that allow me access or how my environmental context shapes my use of the devices which then shapes my digital access and experiences. Arguably the metaphors of materiality (e.g., space,borders, boundaries, etc) have allowed theorists and casual observers alike a language to discuss the complexities of the internet, digital ecosystems, software, etc. Will the phrase “authentically digital” resonate, will it become a way to demarcate digital experiences? If it is the turning point for the ‘authentically digital’ then what will become inauthentic, the falsely digital?  

P.S. Some interesting, smart responses to my post can be found here and here. 

If one concedes the point that a Sabbath for restorative reasons need not proscribe technology, it may seem pointless to argue against the digital sabbath. What’s the harm?

The reason is that if we allow ourselves to blame the technology for distracting us from our children or connecting with our communities, then the solution is simply to put away the technology. We absolve ourselves of the need to create social, political, and, sure, technological structures that allow us to have the kinds of relationships we want with the people around us. We need to realize that at the core of our desire for a Sabbath isn’t a need to escape the blinking screens of our electronic world, but the ways that work and other obligations have intruded upon our lives and our relationships.

We can begin by mimicking the Sabbath in small, by recognizing that by dedicating time to one activity or one person, without interruption from gadgets, work, or other people, will help us slow down and connect. We can use our gadgets to do this — a long talk on the phone is the most obvious way — or we can leave them out of it

From We Don’t Need a Digital Sabbath, We Need More Time,”

Via The Atlantic

TED attempts to present itself as fresh, cutting edge, and outside the box but often fails to deliver. It’s become the Urban Outfitters of the ideas world, finding “cool” concepts suitable for being packaged and sold to the masses, thereby extinguishing the “cool” in the process. Cutting-edge ideas not carrying the Apple-esque branding are difficult to find.

From "Against TED"

Via The New Inquiry

That is, our consumption, especially of information, is a mode of production. The general intellect is the sum of all that information circulation.

Google, then, is the reification of the general intellect. It manages to take human curiosity and turn it into capital.

The consequences of that are profound. Our curiosity is no longer a sign of our leisure; it’s an enormously important economic factor. To a degree this has always been true. Our willingness to pay attention to things is at the root of consumer demand. But it is now far more productive of informational goods in and of itself, thanks to ubiquitous online surveillance and data-storage capabilities. Much of the way we express our human curiosity can now be recorded and fed into algorithms and plotted on graphs of connections to generate more information, stimulate more curiosity, produce more demand. That’s why, as Gibson points out, Google’s Eric Schmidt claimed that people “want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” Google doesn’t end lines of inquiry; it gives users momentum. The point of Google is to try to keep you Googling.

From "Google and the Production of Curiosity"

Just got my batch of Moo’s free Facebook business cards. It pains me to admit this but I actually kind of love them. I think they’re pretty neat. My use of “$trategy” and quoting Kanye West on the cards amuses me to no end as well. 

Get yours here.

Baym’s comment on an article about Spotify’s recent change in policy requiring all new users of the service to create a Facebook account. 

This quote from, Ethan Kaplan, a former of SVP of Emerging Technology at Warner Music Group is pretty spot on as well: 

I don’t think its hyperbole to say I was reminded of this (video of Steve Jobs in 1984) when I was watching f8. It seems simple: verbs.But it’s also a statement: Identity is now externalized, completely and holistically.And it will reside on Facebook. And you are either a part of this, or you are not.We’ve now reached our red pill/blue pill moment on the Internet and this will not be as easy of a decision as Mac or PC.”

I recommend Baym’s article, Embracing the Flow for a nice introduction to the impact of emerging technologies on music distribution and the industry at large. 

The first time I laid eyes on the forthcoming Facebook Timeline feature, I immediately thought of Gawker. And then of TV. And then of how Gawker was trying to become TV and how apparently now Facebook was, too. I think going mass, and — better — becoming a mass of infinitely individualized niches is probably good business, but I don’t enjoy it. That’s about the time I start looking for the door. I might just be an early-product-life-cycle consumer, if there is such a thing. (In the early days of alt rock, I think we used to call these people pretentious assholes.)

Why might that be? Where do they lose me? I think part of it might be that what I’m really interested in is writing. I say that in the lowest-brow way possible. I like snarky writing. I like informal writing. I like long writing. I like short writing. I really don’t care, but my expertise — and thus my fandom — lies in the written word. And there’s a point in the life of every website where it makes business sense to go beyond writing, to other, more expensive, supposedly more compelling media. This is the idea behind enhanced ebooks — that books really contain platform agnostic stories that can be elaborated in a dizzying variety of other media

From The Gawkerization of Facebook

Dave Winer wrote a timely piece this morning about how Facebook is scaring him since the new API allows applications to post status items to your Facebook timeline without a users intervention. It is an extension of Facebook Instant and they call it frictionless sharing. The privacy concern here is that because you no longer have to explicitly opt-in to share an item, you may accidentally share a page or an event that you did not intend others to see.

The advice is to log out of Facebook. But logging out of Facebook only de-authorizes your browser from the web application, a number of cookies (including your account number) are still sent along to all requests to facebook.com. Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit. The only solution is to delete every Facebook cookie in your browser, or to use a separate browser for Facebook interactions.

Read this. 

From "Logging out of Facebook is Not Enough"

It’s unclear if Facebook has responded to this, but given FB’s history of disrespecting user privacy and experience, the assertions made in the above article do not surprise me in the least. Frictionless sharing seems to benefit Facebook and only Facebook because I don’t know a single person who finds value in the onslaught of banal bullshit streaming on the righthand side of the homepage.