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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]

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.

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.