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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.