The Amish: Making the most of life at the margins

In our field of study, many of us want to know how technologies can be used for the social good. As professional academics (someday), we may wear cloaks of scientific objectivity, but deep down, many of us are motivated by a desire to figure out how communication technologies can be used to improve [all] lives. This trend can be traced back to the countercultural origins of personal computing; to 1960s California, The People’s Computer Company (PCC), the Homebrew Computer Club, The Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL, etc. The mantra was “information wants to be free.”

During that time, it was thought that social structures could be made more egalitarian if access to information via new communication technologies was more open. And many people today might agree that this has been the case. Because of information seeping into places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria (among other issues, of course), authoritarian regimes have (s)tumbled. We know, however, that the (s)tumbling of dictatorships does not necessarily mean that the people living in their wakes are better off. In many (maybe all) societies, where new technologies proliferate, surveillance exists– giving state and corporate entities often more (or, at least an additional channel of) power than they had before.

The media we receive through state and corporate controlled media channels trains us to behave in profitable and predictable ways and we are monitored to ensure this is working. The egalitarian social structure envisioned by early computer revolutionaries never quite materialized. Although, (at least in relative terms), the technology is there, it has more or less just made the hierarchy invisible (See Sennett).

Going off the grid (I use ‘grid’ to describe today’s global, social, technical and economic structure to which we are all currently plugged in.) entirely is virtually impossible today. For young people, it is the equivalent of social suicide. For adults, it’s professional or financial suicide. It sends up serious red flags to the powerful who watch us. For example, his compound’s lack of an Internet connection is what gave Bin Laden’s hideout away to the U.S. government.

For these reasons we may now be entering a phase where living at the margins of the grid is where the sweet spot is. This is not such an easy thing to do, though because the grid is so difficult for us to perceive. It has both technical and social components which, depending on context and materiality, can be used by an individual or group to empower itself or by others to enslave or bully the same folks.

A diverse collection of people operating at the margins of the socio-technical-economic grid, taking from it only what they want and rejecting what they don’t, are the population of Amish people living in the United States today. The Amish are a conservative religious group dedicated to living a simple, (rather) old-fashioned way of life in the hopes of pleasing God. In their community, deference to God and each other are one and the same. Along with God, community and family are everything.

The relationship the Amish have with new technologies is quite complex and not actually anti-technology, as is commonly thought. Their parsimonious approach to adopting technologies is a designed feature of social life that is meant to maximize community and limit corporate and governmental interference. Economic activity is not about individualism, it is an activity in community building. Amish decisions about technology use privilege a strong family and community that lasts generations. For them, the material allures of modern capitalism, short attention spans and mobility are threats to the way of life they want to live. The Amish make decisions about how to use technologies because they are guided by specific values. And it is specifically these values that make the grid visible to them.

Today, new technologies like cell phones, the Internet, social media and solar/wind power are taking hold in various ways in different Amish communities across the country. Still, cars, electricity from power companies, modern clothing, television and radio are generally off limits. These are not haphazard decisions, they are decisions that the Amish hope will protect their community and their values for the long term. So far by the way, it is working. Their population is currently growing exponentially. Approximately 90% of Amish youth, after being allowed to experiment with the outside world, decide to come back and join the Amish church and adhere to their simple way of life.

The Amish live at the margins of today’s global social, technical, economic power structure. They have built an enclave that is safe from the kinds of surveillance the rest of us are subjected to daily. They are not living in the dark ages, though. They see the grid and use it to survive financially. Their businesses have websites and Facebook pages. Yet they erect walls where they feel their community is vulnerable to outside influence. They don’t drive cars or allow phones in the house because these make it easy for community to dissolve and family time to be interrupted.

Perhaps we can learn from them. If a future anthropologist were to study your use of technologies today as an artifact, what would they determine your values to be? Efficiency? Individualism? [Self promotion?] Compassion? Generosity? Perhaps by consciously deciding how to adopt and use our technologies, starting with the values that are important to us, we would be better at seeing the grid and living our lives (more) freely at the margins of it.

[For more on this, stay tuned. Your’s truly is currently in the process of writing a dissertation on this very topic. :) #shamelessselfpromotion]


The Quantified Self; The Partial Self

This is a post I posted to the Social Informatics Blog on 3.27.12:

A few months ago, in an effort to start eating better, I began using an iPhone app to count calories. For four months, I diligently entered every precisely portioned amount of food I consumed into my smartphone. I was also running a lot. I kept track of how far I was running, for how long, at what pace, etc. For the most part I engaged in this bookkeeping adventure alone– praising myself when I landed below my weekly calorie goal and berating myself when I didn’t. I soon realized, however, that there was a whole world of people out there doing the same thing I was and that we formed this thing called ‘the quantified self movement.’

I quickly learned that self-tracking, bio-data or personal analytics, as it is sometimes called, is a growing area of interest for smartphone users, data-philes, journalists, marketers, the tech industry, the health, industry, etc. There are articles circulating from the Economist on the topic, there was a 2012 SXSW competition using personal data generated by BodyMedia, a TED talk on the subject, websites, a Facebook page and daily Twitter conversations all about the quantified self. Also, there’s an annual international conference dedicated to understanding and capitalizing on the quantified self. It’s embarking on its third year (the first two were sold out).

One of the founders of the quantified self-movement, Gary Wolf, suggests that bio-tracking devices and the social practices that accompany them help to change our sense of self in the world. In his TED talk, he says that these tools are mirrors that tell us about who we are and that they should be used help us improve ourselves. “They are tools for self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge,” he says. Used in this way, according to Wolf, we also see our “operational center, our consciousness and moral compass” more clearly.

This is true, of course, of all media. Facebook, and before it, TV, radio, magazines, theater, literature, oral histories, hieroglyphics, etc. have always shown us who we are by showing us abstracted depictions of ourselves. These media portrayed the peasants, the aristocracy, the moral citizen and the outcast. The obvious difference is that over time, mediated depictions of ourselves have become more and more individualistic and personal.

As months went on in my own self-tracking experience, I began to grow tired of the constant bookkeeping. As I entered my default breakfast into the program morning after morning on the bus ride to school, I began to realize that I was becoming somewhat obsessed with life decisions that amounted to very small amounts of food. However, I also noticed I was changing my life to maximize exercise opportunities whenever I could. As I became more and more obsessed with the numbers my iPhone app was generating every day, it seemed I was making healthier life choices. In addition, I realized that I was gaining more and more emotional satisfaction, happiness and excitement from the hobby. I started feeling like I was becoming hedonistically yet healthily addicted to consuming the numbers my life was producing.

The student of socio-technical studies inside of me couldn’t get over the contradictory feelings I was having about all of this. I wanted to understand it better. After bludgeoning many of my loved ones and friends by imposing lengthy conversations on these topics and thinking and reading about the role numbers play in our lives (and have only played for a relatively short part of human history) (oh, and I should mention that I’m enrolled in my first statistics course ever at the moment. ☺). It occurred to me that the thrill derived by self-tracking behaviors can be traced back to fundamental pedagogical advice Plato gave to Socrates: “know thyself.” Plato advised Socrates that only after one knows himself, can he then begin trying to know “obscure” things. Furthermore, then one also has a better platform from which to understand others and human beings in general. The numbers, then, that our bodies create – like all previous forms of media— are a part of a fundamental quest for humans to help know ourselves better.

So, if it is the case that we use these new biometric tools to extend, yet again, our quest to know ourselves, as a society, we land in one of two places. 1.) after thousands of years we still do not know ourselves but we are now closer to doing so or 2.) we may need to realize that we can never know ourselves completely through fixed abstractions like numbers (or media). Personally, I’m partial to the later conclusion.

Drawing on media materiality scholarship, I would argue that each mediated reflection of ourselves has its own advantages and shortcomings in its ability to show us who we are. Numbers, offer us a clean, neat, easily digestible packet of information about who we are. I’ve seen many self-quantifiers refer to numbers as beautiful. My heart rate is 107/64. I consumed 1543 net calories yesterday. I walked 2.1 miles, mowed my yard for 33 minutes and did yoga for 60 minutes. These data are precise, clean, digestible.

What numbers do not- and cannot- capture are the chaos that is an inherent part of the human condition. Humans are messy. Emotions drive us to do things we would never expect. We dance, cry, laugh, sing, kiss and fight when we least expect it. The unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March in the warm sun (when the plan was to do statistics homework in the library) is memorable where the bar graph on my iPhone that tells me I’ve met my weekly caloric intake for the past 4 weeks in a row is not. These unknowable surprises, one might argue, are the most beautiful aspects of being human and are only weakly depicted through abstracting them into fixed mediated form (especially numerical form).

I think numbers are helpful. However, I hope there is never a time when that unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March comes and I decide to go solely based on how those beers will impact the weekly bar graph on my iPhone.

Travis Ross & Jared Lorince on social psych in interactive environments

Travis Ross, a graduate student in IU’s department of Telecommunications spoke to an audience of students and faculty today about his research on how social norms influence people in games. He says this approach is important because game designers often do not think in terms of social norms. He asks whether game designers can use social norms in their game designs to influence gamer behavior. Perhaps social norms could influence gamers to behave prosocially and enable game designers to increase their profit on their games.

Jared Lorince, a graduage student in the Cognitive Science department, also presented his work on information seeking behaviors. He asks whether the foraging seeking behavior of animals might inform the ways in which we search for information online. He says that especially exploratory search, where people don’t have one thing they’re looking for, can be informed by this type of research. The aggregation of people’s trajectories through the search space can help inform individuals as they set out on exploratory searches.

Katherine Sender (U Penn) & Brenda Weber (IU)

Katherine Sender, a professor at Penn, visited IU’s Department of Telecommunication today to discuss her new book, The Big Reveal: Makeover Television, Audiences, and the Promise of Transformation. Her work focuses on makeover television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear. She says, a true inner self is a concept that is at the heart of an audience analysis of these shows. Being reflexive and recognizing who this inner self is is important to the process of producing ourselves in an “authentic” fashion, Sender says.

Brenda Weber joined professor Sender in discussing her new book, Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. She suggests that Pimp my Ride has as much gender in it as What Not to Wear. She rejects the notion that makeover shows are simply toxic cultural wastelands. Instead she says they are worthy of in depth analysis because they are “smart, banal & hurtful and lots of interesting elements are built into them.”

Weber suggests that the makeover expresses anxiety about the lack of selfhood. She says there is deep anxiety on a larger social level about the ambiguity of self. The self, she says, is our greatest economic asset. If we make poor choices about the self, we may harm our earning potential. Makeover shows lead us to believe that we have to harness our selves so that we can compete through global networks.

Thoughts on Socio-Technical Structures and Ethics

Last week, I came across an article which reported on the fact that Google regularly receives requests from the US government to remove information from the Internet and complies with their requests most of the time. In particular, they recently asked Google to remove embarrassing videos from YouTube portraying police brutality on the Occupy protesters in Oakland, California.

For a generally optimistic young media studies grad student, this news was incredibly disheartening. Actually, to a person with even a small semblance of morals, this probably should be disheartening. We have been taught to think that in our new new media world, we all have a voice and can express it through tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries, photos and videos. This report suggests that this is all just an illusion.

It also shows how closely the government and corporate media giants work together. It illustrates perfectly the trouble everyday people face when the government and those who create social reality (See Colbert on Wikiality) in today’s world are in cahoots. Though, there is danger in the serious concentration of media ownership and political power in society today, the ubiquity of cameras and new media technologies and the decentered structure of the Internet, allow us to observe these abuses of power like never before.

Events like these, where the objectives of governments and corporations clash with those of freedom seekers and libertarians, offer social analysts an interesting place to focus their observations. Because of the nature of our communication tools today, sociology, I think, becomes easier. We see social structures and individual and institutional motivations more clearly fixed in various configurations of content, people, technologies and actions.

Last Friday I attended a symposium on digital ethics and policy at Loyola University Chicago where exactly this topic was explored by a number of really innovative and insightful scholars and media practitioners. Leading the charge was opening keynote speaker, New York Times best-selling author and game designer, Jane McGonigal. In her presentation, she suggested that games should empower their players. She described her game Evoke which gave its players, who were mostly, young people in South Africa, an opportunity to make positive changes in their (mostly offline) communities as well as build a professional portfolio (resume) for themselves while they’re competing and having fun playing a game. Many of the players started businesses as a result of their involvement in the game. Her talk, along with others I heard there, restored some of my hope in the state of our socio-technical world.

Another really thought-provoking speaker, Julian Dibbell described two general socio-technical structures: one authoritarian (imagine Facebook where a designer like Mark Zuckerberg sends down software and rules of engagement to users from on high) the other federalist (the users each own their own part of the structure and make their own rules). His argument was that the concentration of power in authoritarian structures is problematic because a certain ideology and moral (or lack thereof) considerations are forced onto the users. In an egalitarian system, each user is in control of his or her own portion of the system. This is generally, a very humanist proposal. However, because many people do not have the skills, know-how and/or motivation to maintain their part of the system, in many cases this solution has pitfalls too. Dibbell’s lecture really made me think though and ultimately, it occurred to me that there might be a socio-economic lesson to take from his enthusiasm for the egalitarian, federalist approach. It seems to me that it is very useful to identify these two kinds of structures but that solutions to many complex socio-technial issues require a layering of these two approaches.

Though this is certainly a multi-faceted problem, let’s take the current jobs and economic crisis as an example. The creation of more jobs might occur if government were to help decenter certain areas of industry like energy production (solar, wind, etc.) and farming (local growers & markets). Though, it would take a strong central government to make these decisions and put these ideas into effect, it would I think make better economic and humanitarian sense. This solution is obviously a complicated and a multi-layered one. We can’t think in terms of one kind of structure being better than another. Both may be necessary to achieve the changes our society needs.

What is clear in these examples, is that the individual morals and ethics of powerful individuals are at the heart of making decisions like these. Today more than ever one’s individual ethics and morals are visible for the world to see, though they have always driven such social and institutional decisions. Perhaps, it was naïve of me to be disheartened when I learned that the government censors the Internet. Perhaps it’s even more naïve of me to have hope that those in power aim to improve lives other than their own. But in some sense I do and I hope they will- whether by force due to the ubiquitous and open nature of media today or just because it’s the right thing to do.

Paul Wright: “U.S. males and pornography, 1973-2010: Consumption, predictors, correlates

Today in IU’s Department of Telecommunications brownbag series, new professor, Paul Wright discussed his work on males and pornography. Driving his inquiry were questions about whether there has been an increase in % of adult male consumers over time, whether there are reliable demographic predictors for pornography consumption, and whether consumption is correlated with attitudes/behaviors of concern to conservative moralists and/or public health officials?

He noted that historically there have been three perspectives on pornography in the academic literature: libertarian, moralist and feminist. Today there is also a public health perspective which is concerned about the transmission of STIs and unplanned pregnancies. Most of the literature on the soccializing effects of pornography comes from the libertarian and feminist perspectives. There is relatively little from the moralist or public health perspectives.Wright’s work seeks to help fill this void.

Using General Social Survey data Wright asked whether certain demographic and personal identifying variables, help to predict whether males will be more likely to emulate (or learn) behaviors observed in pornography. Theory suggests that there is a general socializing effect of pornograpy.

Wright reports a .3% increase in pornography consumption from 1973 to 2010. Pornography consumption over time, according to GSS data, has remained fairly constant. Religious people view less porn than non-religous, non-whites consume more (though barely more) porn than whites, education today is not a predictor of pornography consumption, according to Writght.

Males who consume pornography, were more likely to use condoms, engage in paid sex behavior, approve of adult premarital and teenage sex, and approve of extramarital sex.

Billionaire Steve Jobs, an Inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street Campaign?

Note:  This is a post I originally wrote for on October 12, 2011.

A week ago we lost a leader in the field of social informatics. Though Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was not a scholar, he was keenly aware of how important people, their desires and mental frameworks were to the design of computer technologies. In the design process he consistently resisted collaborators who designed with code and machinery in mind instead of actual, human users. Like most social informaticians, he called for design principles to reflect culture and make communication, work and entertainment more efficient, intuitive and beautiful.

His passing happened at an interesting economic and cultural moment as so many people today are out of work (some might even argue that this is due to the success of technology developers like Apple and Steve Jobs) and political tensions have never been higher. A growing number of activists who lament the US government’s apathy toward wealthy corporate entities has emerged also in recent weeks. In just under four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) campaign has quickly spread all over the country and has observers around the world taking note.

In the OWS protesters’ mission statement, they say, we organize “at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Their efforts are to express animosity toward corporate greed and the US government’s apathy toward this greed. Furthermore, they feel the government should be more active in correcting this problem. Namely, they call for the taxing of the richest one percent of the population so that the other ninety-nine percent might face less financial uncertainty.

Protester holds a sign that reads JobsProtester’s Mourn Jobs’ Passing

It occurs to me that the passing of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the OWS campaign intersect in an interesting way. Jobs, worth about 7 billion dollars, was undoubtedly in the one percent of people the protesters are asking the government to tax. In spite of this, many groups of protesters took time away from the protests to mourn his passing. A tweet from Twitter account @OPWallStreet on the night of his death said, “Sad to announce the death of Steve Jobs.”

While some may see this as an inconsistency in the message of the OWS, perhaps noting the genealogy of certain core values of the OWS campaign will help illuminate why OWS protesters, and so many others, feel a sense of grief at Jobs’ passing. Jobs was not just an innovator of technical artifacts. In many ways he also created new ways for communication to occur, new ways for entertainment to happen, new ways to work, to travel, to fall in love, etc.

One can easily trace the ideology and socio-technical structure that the OWS relies upon to share information and establish their movement back to innovators like Steve Jobs.   First, Jobs is a product of the sixties. He was a flower child and hung out with anti-war protesters and activists while he was beginning to develop his desire to work with computers. This influence impacted the design of Apple technologies and made past and present underdogs fall in love with him. In the world of conservative tech companies, Jobs was almost always on the lunatic fringe. He fought for the things his artistic, and humanistic intuition told him were right. OWS protesters see themselves in Jobs’ shoes: They are fighting against the status quo in an effort to put the human back in the center of the system’s design.

Second, Jobs developed technologies that were networked. His masterpieces the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, etc. are windows into the social world. Social informaticians know that these technologies bear a certain internal structure which predetermines a certain kind of use, requires certain skills, etc. The structure of a computer network is at the heart of both the OWS campaign and Jobs’ most influential Apple technologies. As information is exchanged, the OWS campaign is replicated across the country. It’s copied and pasted. A new instance emerges in a new location because people have seen pictures of others, read stories, watch videos and are inspired by others through their iPhones & iPads. The OWS information structure, which is the heart of the movement, is itself an instance of the computer network Steve Jobs envisioned in the design of his most influential Apple technologies.

The protesters aim to upset the government’s apathy. They, like Jobs, suggest that the system should reflect today’s socio-technical culture and empower users by giving them more tools to make life easier and more beautiful.

Nicky Lewis & Evan L. Frederick Talk Virtual Sports in IU Dept. of Telecom

IU Telecommunications graduate student Nicky Lewis discussed her masters thesis today on fantasy sports in the department’s brown bag seminar series.  In her talk she said that the number of fantasy sports players is the same as the popluation of Texas. She said, “Fantasy Football is the Dungeons and Dragons for guys who used to beat up the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons.” In her study she asked questions about what motivates people to play fantasy sports. She noted that traits like extraversion, competitiveness, Machiavellianism, sensation-seeking and impulsiveness impact one’s level of participation in fantasy sports. She also noted that people are motivated to play fantasy sports for social reasons, competitive reasons, social-identification and financial gain. Her study involved doing a survey of 457 people. 177 of those participated in fantasy football. She found that fantasy football players are more competitive and less impulsive than those who did not play.

Evan L. Frederick presented his work on Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) blogging. He found that most MMA blog users were male, white and had at least a college degree. Blogs were used to find information about fighters and fights that they couldn’t get elsewhere. One of the major reasons for consuming this content is to feel associated with a particular group (athletes and fans). Users also reported using blogs to engage in conversations with others in the group. If one considers MMA to be a niche sport, Evan suggests that MMA blog users could be similar to those of other niche sports in that users go to blogs in order to get information about the sport and athletes since it does not receive much traditional mass media coverage.

Erick Janssen visits IU’s Department of Telecommunications

In Erick Janssen’s brown bag discussion in the Department of Telecommunications today he introduced the Kinsey Institute to our band of communications and media scholars and students. Located in Morrison Hall on the Bloomington campus, the Kinsey Institute is an international center for the study of human sex and sexuality.

According to Janssen, there is a still void in academic research when it comes to work on emotions and sexual arousal. This, Janssen says has more to do with culture than it does science. He says the Kinsey Institute’s grants have been voted on and debated in Congress many times. It is a challenge to maintain funding and convince politicians and administrators that sex research is important, Janssen says. Part of his job is knowing how to negotiate doing research and pleasing the NIH. He says, if you put the phrase ‘sexual arousal’ in a grant title, you will not get funded by the NIH. NSF has also told him that they are not that interested in sexual arousal research. He has had to figure out how to still do his work while also maintaining a favorable relationship with these governmental entities. Janssen says that in his experience this is a particularly American problem as he did not have face this challenge in his work in the Netherlands.

Interestingly, Janssen has noticed that the pornography that they often use as stimuli in research studies has had increasingly weaker affects on the sexual arousal of research subjects over the past 15-2-0 years. He says researchers do not yet understand why this is the case. It may be that the context surrounding the sexual experience is becoming more arousing to research subjects (often undergraduates).

Graduate student Lelia Samson also discussed her research at the Kinsey Institiute and informed the group that there are funding opportunites for graduate students who are interested in doing interdiciplinary research on sex at IU.

Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito Visit IU

Last Friday we graduate students in IU’s Department of Telecommunications were spoiled as famous media scholars Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito treated us to one of the most amazing brownbag discussions I’ve witnessed. Though they had events planned across campus all day, including individual talks in the afternoon, they sat together in the morning in front of a packed room full of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and even some staff members and discussed the series of events leading them to accomplish the professional successes both of them have had. Both Mimi and Henry are self-described outsiders in various institutions they’ve worked in in the past and enjoy the freedom that they have now to do work without worrying much about pressures that institutional or diciplinary forces can often apply. They cautioned us though, suggesting that the path they took is not necessarily for everyone. Ito, especially, offered great advice stating that when you go outside of the safety of the usual academic professional trajectory, you must be very careful to maintain professional relationships. They are what sustains you, she says. She pointed to the importance of building a solid, widespread and diverse professional social network. Ito also advised us to be helpful and participate in conversations where you have something to add. Being nice to people is important, according to Jenkins, especially when you’re making public comments.

In short, hearing about their careers and philosophies about managing life and work pressures was reinvigorating. They are both surprisingly down to earth, helpful and it was easy to see from them that they are just being themselves, doing what they love to do and doing it very, very well.