Monthly Archives: March 2008

Dancing with technology

DancingI am now working on a paper about the histories of the “digital divide” for the upcoming ICA pre-conference. While re-reading some of the articles and organizing my own thoughts, I got stuck with the following image in my head. I tend to view our interaction with technology as a dance, sort of a passionate tango where the partners are competing for lead. As users we can take a step forward in this dance (embracing more technology) or a step back (dropping technological practices and devices). But we are not limited just to that back and forth motion. We can also step aside, turn around, spin our partner, let them spin us, and basically be both creative and innovative in what we do.

At the same time, it is a pair dance, so our decisions of what we do, or even an appreciation of what we can do, is a function of cooperation between us (users) and our partner (technology). We plan our next steps based on the feedback from our partner. The partner can limit our options of being creative and innovative, or even to move in a certain direction, and yet they can improve our dance, making us realizing unprecedented abilities. We are very attentive to our partner and respond to each little movement of their body, to every clue about how comfortable and/or excited they are about the next move. There is constant tension and continuous pressure between you two, because it is only through this interaction that your dance is born and this what makes it so exciting.

Although we, as a pair and each one of us as an individual, have a lot of agency in shaping the dance, it is also guided by the surroundings. If we are to participate in an official ballroom dancing competition there is a plethora of formal rules and convention we’d have to fit our innovation into (using technology at work). However, even we are just dancing for fun, the settings in which it happens encourage certain behaviors and discourage others (talking on phone in public). We may be more willing to innovate when we are among friends who share our passion to dancing, and be more reluctant to perform extravagant moves among strangers. In some cultural settings we might not be able to dance at all.

We also learn. The experience matters, and the more we dance and spend time analyzing this dance, the better we get to know our partner and work out little dancing routines within the limitations of our joint abilities. At the same time, being on the dance floor and observing other people dancing, we pick up steps and we allow ourselves trying new moves. As times goes by, as a pair we also learn to interact with the social settings, understanding the limits of extravaganza we can follow on different occasions and with different audiences. The more experience and knowledgeable we are getting (both about each other and about the different settings) the more confident we fill to stretch the boundaries and challenge the conventions. It works exactly the same with technology.

So, whether it is a tango or a dance with media and communication technology, this interaction is complex, dynamic, multidimensional, and constantly evolving. This is probably it is so fascinating to watch. Don’t you think?

Compartively speaking

Thanks to Digital Inspiration I came across this interesting project that visualizes the geographical focus of selected mainstream media outlets. One of the interesting comparison you can do is that to the blogosphere. When you go to the website, feel free to click on the menu, because it is clickable even though at first it may look like a picture.

Online activism week

Updated: March 28, 2008

CyberRightsIt seems to me that this week can be easily titled as the online activism week.

Online deliberative spaces continue gaining further recognition in the global political discourse. In Europe, the blogosphere is gaining weight as an innovative political voice. In the States there is a rather creative “battle” unfolding between raining McCains, quite arrogant ObamaGirls, and others. However, all it pales compared to the last week developments surrounding the violence in Tibet.

A recent post from a blog tracking Alexa shows that jumped into the top three online “movers and shakers” this week. Avaaz is a civil rights organization with a “simple” aim “to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want.” The peak in traffic came as a result of them winning a YouTube contest in the political video category. However I got exposed to their name a few days earlier when the blogosphere got practically swamped with calls to support an Avaaz-led petition to end the violence in Tibet.

All this is taking place on the background of Chinese government issuing rules that shut down “unfriendly” online video websites and blocking YouTube and Yahoo for their coverage of Tibet. Similar action was taken by Burmese government during the violence that took place last year.  This time, however, i also see some grassroots anti-Tibet expressions as well.  Here is a link to a video that I got through the international mailing list here at Cornell.

These and other instances suggest that grassroots reporting from conflict zones matters and potentially has some impacts. However whether or not the ability of online activist to raise public awareness can be translated into tangible action, especially in these situations, remains an open question in my mind.

Opening up

DimaInSouthPark Quoting Ostap Bender, the main character of an outstanding soviet satirical novel, “The ice has moved, honorable members of the jury!”. Well, it actually started moving some time ago, but now it is getting an additional push. While some media and information industry players work day and night to make our lives harder by creating artificial difficulties, there are others who understand that things have changed. South Park are making their episodes available online and it is free and supposedly legal. They do have short commercials spread throughout the episodes, but those are bearable and the overall quality of video is decent.


In the meantime, in a kingdom far, far away…

While the Israeli legislators are passing laws for big-brother-like censorship of the Internet, the “developed” world is taking more complex, yet more thoughtful steps towards the same goal – online safety for children. For example, the EU is going to spend 55m Euros on educational efforts in the next four years to promote online safety. In the US there is a similar initiative fighting its way through the Senate, even though with some difficulties. Even Google is partaking in the educational effort, even though they are perfectly fine with promoting safety through better algorithms. It seems like everybody, but the Israeli lawmakers (together with their colleagues in other Middle Eastern countries and in Asia) realize that in order to keep the balance between openness and safety we need education.  We can definitely create a very limited version of the internet, hoping it will be safe, but it is that openness of this platform that drives the internet as we know it today.  Education may be a more expansive and a more demanding solution, but it appears as the most substantial one

It seems like there is a great distance between the rhetoric employed by proponents of the law and their action. If you read the linked articles you will see that even the definition of threat to the children is different. While the Israeli MK see their role as protectors in preventing the children from viewing naked bodies online, everybody else are actually concerned with more tangible issues such as utilization of online resources for child abuse. Maybe I am missing some highly philosophical part of an argument that suggests that child abuse originates in corrupted minds of those who consume porn (or any other sex related content for that matter), however I doubt that.  There is actually a real threat for children actively participating online and it has to be addressed.

When put side by side, both types of efforts apply the same rhetoric for defining the goal. However when one is aimed at addressing a real problem rooted in contemporary issues, the other is taking advantage of people’s prejudges and fears in an attempt to promote one way of life at expanse of another.  This later part is really warring and it results in different types of action with different types of broad repercussions.  While following the censorship route brings with it limitations on creativity, openness, etc. thus hurting the long-term technology driven innovation, I cannot foresee similar difficulties with the education route.  On the contrary, i believe that following the education route would bring additional benefits in terms of capacity building for the society and its economies.  I hope that MKs will do some research before they register their votes in the second and the third rounds of hearings for the internet censorship law.

Israel is not alone

It is believed that people who spend a lot of time together, tend to acquire characteristics of each other. It seems like countries that spend a lot of time side by side, tend to acquire similar policies. Here is a recent update about Iranian government now demanding the internet cafe users to register (including their ID numbers and specific times of using the cafes). Reminds me of earlier attempts of Shas to do practically the same in Israel and seems perfectly in line with the internet censorship initiative they are (unfortunately) successfully leading.

Going mobile…

The “Pew Internet and American Life” project just published an interesting report about the use of mobile access to data and information. According to this report over 40% of the adult Americans have used mobile Internet access and almost 60% used non-voice services on their mobiles.

They show some interesting trends in people’s readiness to give up information technologies. If in 2002 only 38% said it would be very hard to give their mobile phone, in 2007 this number jumped to 58%. At the same time the percentage of people who find it very hard to give up television went from 47% in 2002 down to 43% in 2007. Even more interesting is the percentage of people who think that it would very hard to give up a land-line. That went down from 63% in 2002 to 40% in 2007, which actually is consistent with notions that more and more people are giving up land-lines. Also interesting is the willingness to give up email. The percentage of those finding it very hard to give up their email went from from 35% in 2002, to 34% in 2006, to 37% in 2007. Although there is no clear trend here, it seems like email is keeping a rather stable position in the communication lives of adult Americans using email. I wonder thought, if the situation with young Americans is any different though. The Pew report does not survey people younger that the age 18, yet, there are some trends noticeable even in the available data. The summaries presented in the report clearly show that the younger people are more willing to experiment with technology. For example the difficulty to give up internet and mobile phones grows as the age goes down, while the difficulty to give up land-line and television is growing with the age. I find this fascinating!

The interesting aspect of this increasing mobility however, is the actual type of activity. According to the report text messaging is leading the way with 31% of the users performing this activity on a typical day. The next most popular activity is picture taking with 15% of the users reporting doing so. To me, the latter point is particularly interesting in light of my recent post on digital photography. Pew data shows that 58% of the users tried taking a picture with their mobile device (same percentage as that of people who tried sending a text message), but only 15 view that as part of their typical day (as opposed to 31% mentioned above). It seems to me that my intuition about mobile photography was right.

When it comes to the types of activity, the younger people are really standing out. As i mentioned earlier, they are more willing to experiment with technology. Yet, they are also using more technology in general. Here again, text messaging is the leading activity (60% of 18-29 years old reported it to be part of their typical day) with taking pictures (31%), playing music, playing games (both 16%), and consuming news (14%). I find the last point particularly interesting from the societal point of view and also because this activity seems to be really distinct for this age group (only 7% of 30-49 years old, 3% of 50-64 years old, and 1% of 65+ years old reported that kind of activity as part of their typical day).

There is more demographic and especially racial specifics discussed in the report. Very interested and rather concise read.

When the virtual and the real converge…

Two separate articles found their way into my RSS reader.

The first told a story of 26-year-old Fouad Mortada of Morocco, who was sentenced to three years in prison and $1300 US fine for creating a FB profile in the name of King Mohammed’s brother. As absurd as it sounds, something that can be considered a harmless joke in the virtual space, has very tangible repercussions for a real person (and i am not talking about the King’s brother here who, as i understand, was actually presented in a very favorable light in that FB profile). That may be an extreme example, but there are many other stories when online activity, particularly on FB, cost people careers or other tangible expenses. It appears that developments in the virtual world are deeper and deeper weaved into our real lives bringing in not just intended, but also unintended consequences.

The second story is about a US government project called “Reynard”, which is aimed at monitoring WoW in order to detect suspicious behavior and identify potential terrorists. Of course it will be based on data mining and will look at behavioral patterns (thus raising the obvious privacy questions. ) Yet, while the idea of an Elf and an Orc planning the next 9/11 while fighting giant spiders or collecting magical blueberries is somewhat surrealistic, it is another mind stretching example of how converged the virtual and the real are becoming now days.

One thing i completely disagree with in the latter article is that: “the cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied”. Just last October i was at the AoIR conference, a significant portion of which was explicitly dedicated to this. But that highlights a totally different issue. My guess is that the primarily qualitative research presented at AoIR considered to be of limited use by data-mining quantitative people of “Reynard”. Well, one can only hope that at the end people will benefit from combining the strengths of different approaches to research.

To summarize this rumbling on virtual and real, i would like to bring it back to the idea of perception of media and information technology and its role in constituting social fabric. Apparently the view of Moroccan authorities of FB activity is different than that of people actually using the platform and who are immersed into this culture. If WoW is used for conspiring terrorist activities, it is again another example of different perceptions of the platform and what it could/should be used for. Similarly, if there is nothing of this kind is going on in WoW, than the entire “Reynard” project is fueled solely by perceptions of what WoW could be. I find it really interesting, because these supposedly abstract perceptions have very tangible impacts on the very real societies and individuals.