How to “Reclaim Conversation”

“When we think about putting children in the care of robots, we forget that what children really need to learn is that adults are there for them in a stable and consistent way.”

– Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

This is almost a throwaway line by Turkle, buried in the final pages of the book, but for me it holds the key to “reclaiming conversation.”

Turkle poses many problems throughout the book, but not too many solutions. She points out the growing dependence on technology and the increasing tendency to confide in machines rather than other people, but provides no real plan to buck those trends. The exception is this one, simple line.

Parents need to be held accountable when it comes to teaching their kids how to handle technology appropriately. If you are going to give your 4-year-old an iPad, you had best ensure it does not impede the child’s development in any way.

Some of the anecdotes from Turkle’s book are a bit perplexing. Thomas’ story, for example, demonstrated how his dependence on video games to guide his real-life decision-making. Inspired by a video game character that returned stolen property, Thomas did the same after his friend gave him a stolen collector’s card.

Would Thomas really have kept the card had it not been for playing that video game? If so, that raises serious concerns about parenting. Though Turkle did not mention anything about Thomas’ parents, the fact that his conscious turned to the actions of a pixelated nonentity rather than morals instituted during his upbringing seems to indicate that something is wrong there. As a voracious video game player throughout my childhood, I don’t believe I ever once relied on a game to decide an ethical dilemma.

So, how will this generation of parents enable children with technology? While the concept of “digital natives” may be clearly hyperbolic, it’s clear that this generation is the first to grow up being so technologically dependent. Logically, it follows that parents would be more willing to equip their children with tech because it is so engrained in the parents’ lives.

But that may not be the case. As Turkle makes clear, millennials are not oblivious to the fact that technology affects their social lives. Many of the teens and young adults Turkle spoke to expressed discontent with their face-to-face interactions with friends, knowing that cell phones were the cause of the distraction. Perhaps these experiences will inspire parents to stress the merits of face-to-face human interaction and teach their children how to put their phones aside during these moments.

The parents, however, are not with their children all the time. As the value of technology to society increases by the day, a didactic component of ‘technological literacy’ becomes more and more necessary. Schools could implement courses that teach kids not just how to use technology, but how to manage it in a responsible way. This course is NOT like computer class in grade school (which, in my experience, consisted mostly of trying to type quickly and playing solitaire). School’s can teach kids basic things like how to limit your cell phone usage in certain situations.

To summarize, this trend is not irreversible; if anything, I think it will likely plateau, if it hasn’t already. As I said in last weeks post, I do not believe machine interaction can ever replace human interaction. There is something to be said about the empathy that is present when speaking to a “fallible” human being, as opposed to an “infallible” machine.


Is Technology Killing Conversation?

“Your own Self-Realization is the greatest service you can render the world.”
― Ramana Maharshi

These days, who really knows themselves? People–especially the younger demographic—tailor their social media accounts to present themselves in the perfect light; discernment occurs regarding every picture posted, every Tweet sent, and every Snapchat story to ensure that the world sees what you want it to. It seems that although most people are aware of the performative nature of this social media age, everyone still buys into it. We know what we’re seeing is idealistic, but unless you are very close to a person part of us just accepts it because we don’t have any better means of evaluation. But what is worse than a false sense of others, as Sherry Turkle points out in Reclaiming Conversation, is a false sense of self.

Consider the quote from, Maharshi, the Indian sage who spent most of his life meditating in search of self-identity. Turkle discusses the importance of solitude, something which our digital lives inhibit. Quoting Louis C.K.’s reasoning for why he won’t let his daughters have cell phones, Turkle illustrates how people hardly ever just sit in silence; watching TV, being on the phone or surfing the web happens instead because we seek to fill in the “boring bits” of daily life. While C.K.’s soliloquy may have been a tad bit morose (even by his standards), his point of lacking a moment to think is undeniable. Anytime a moment of boredom rears its ugly face, we check Facebook, Twitter or email.

But even worse than checking these things to alleviate boredom, people do it out of compulsion. Every teen or young adult has experienced the phenomenon of pulling out your phone and realizing there was absolutely nothing to check; that falls right in line with the explanation that our fill in the moments in life when nothing is happening. It’s gotten to a point where our phones dictate our face-to-face interactions. Turkle cites study findings that the presence of a cell phone, even if the phone is off, impacts conversations, limiting them to matters that are light or trivial.

Digital distractions are prevalent, but there is another side to the argument. If desired, smartphones can promote self-reflection. YouVersion’s Bible app—according to the company—is on over 180 million devices worldwide. There are numerous free meditation apps. If using smartphones to fill a void, it’s very feasible to fill that void with something self-beneficial.

The solutions to conversation with others are not so simple. Sure, if everyone just agreed to keep their phones off and out of sight when at dinner or just hanging out in the living room, conversation could thrive. But that’s a tall order considering how enmeshed we are by our phones.

Still, while conversation is stagnant, it’s not dead. One issue Turkle discusses is about the desire to build machines that we want to talk to, so much so that we may end up preferring those conversations to ones with actual human beings. These concerns are understandable, but are unlikely to ever be realized. Humans have the capability to recognize when they are interacting with something that’s artificial. Even if a machine emits all the same characteristics of the average human, just knowing that it’s a machine is enough to leave a void. Turkle talks about Siri and how Apple marketed “her” as a friend, not a machine. And who really enjoys talking to Siri? It was fun for about 10 minutes at first, but the experience does not come close to actual face-to-face, human interaction.

Again, conversation is stagnant, but it’s not dead. While technology has caused conversation to evolve—and you can debate whether its evolved for better or worse—human interaction is a basic necessity, and an irreplaceable one at that.

Big Data: How Big is too Big?

Much like other phrases beginning with “big,” (e.g., Big Brother, big business), big data hints at idea there is a puppeteer pulling at our strings.

As more and more information about everyday citizens becomes available, organizations can more easily target individuals with specifically tailored messages. The allure of big data to companies, campaign managers and political groups is that these organizations can use computational analyses to figure out exactly whom they should target and how to reach them.

As a result of big data proliferating, major privacy concerns have arisen. As Tufekci notes, a main issue is that those holding the information know a lot about the people, but the people know next to nothing about those holding the information, a circumstance known by the term asymmetrical information. This aspect of big data is what leads to a Big Brother effect.

Not everyone believes that big data will be the downfall of society; writer Kevin Kelly posits the idea of “coveillance,” a structure where information is completely transparent from all parties, rather than large conglomerates holding all the cards. In this scenario, people would be able to benefit from the information about themselves. But just how feasible is that idea? It seems unlikely given there would be little incentive for large companies to be so transparent.

These privacy concerns, however, raise another question: aren’t people releasing this information voluntarily? In today’s social age, people are sharing more information about themselves and on a bigger platform that at any point in human history. But there is a catch, which is that most people only want to share information with certain people (usually, their friends).

Nathan Jurgenson’s concept of the “Facebook fan dance” provides an interesting perspective on the dynamics between privacy and publicity. These two things are not mutually exclusive, as Jurgenson points out. Rather they coexist, and a threshold exists that determines whether a person will be willing to share. The statistics from this article regarding privacy settings speak to this point; a 2012 study showed that 81 percent of people who knew how to manage who sees their data did so.

That argument is why I question Kelly’s assertion that “the human impulse to share trumps the human impulse for privacy.” While that statement partly bears truth, it does not consider the fact that most people have a limited scope for desired sharing.

Circling back to big data’s daunting ubiquity, what is socially desirable in terms of using this information? In agreement with what Edward Bernays said 70 years ago, a “responsible leader” can act in the public interest by using information for the benefit of society. While that logic is understandable, I think many of today’s concerns stem from the belief that this data is not always being used responsibly.

When campaigns, for example, use big data to make their positions salient to some individuals while hiding them from others, is that acting responsibly?

Big data is not necessarily a bad thing—in theory it helps to make society better. The question is whether the insidious side of big data will one day outweigh the benefits it yields.

The sentimental nature of Twitter

Twitter, by its inherent nature, is ephemeral, connective and, as Affective Publics focuses on, affective. What tends to spread and become viral on Twitter almost always has some measure of an affective component. While this aspect gives the social medium an expressive identity, it also raises issues about Twitter’s, and other types of social media’s, ability to empower networked publics to create a discourse and effect change.

Even with a 140-character limit, Twitter is a storytelling medium. While compiling together the experiences of individuals that are mostly organized by hashtags, Twitter amalgamates these experiences to form a collective story. In many cases, it is specifically used to begin movements, whether deliberately or spontaneously. In the case of the Arab Spring, protesters coordinated using social media to stage a movement against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This instance revealed the emotive nature of Twitter, as citizens gave firsthand accounts of the unfolding events throughout the revolution.

Twitter also grants an opportunity flip traditional methods of reporting revolutionary events on their head. In the case of both #egypt and #ows, tweets from traditional news outlets were on the periphery. In other words, those creating the main discourse seen on Twitter hesitated to share the messages crafted by the news outlets. These are examples of how Twitter can be an unmediated (or with as little mediation as possible) indicator of public sentiment.

There is still reason to question sentimentality on Twitter and other social media platforms. As author Zizi Papacharissi points out, sentimentality has traditionally been viewed as secondary to logic and is thought to cloud judgment and reason. It is impossible to exclude affect from any storytelling media, including Twitter. As displayed in the #egypt case, Twitter can combine sentiment, opinion and fact to render stories. When considering politics, however, the sentimentality on Twitter seems to verge into the realm of irrationality. While the medium clearly offers great potential in terms of coordinating and starting movements, many questions remain about the veracity of the information divulged by Twitter users.

The questions about factuality on Twitter are more relevant now than ever. With sentimentality and politics so intertwined, Twitter is ripe for purveying misinformation. Rampant concerns over fake news and propaganda underscore the idea that sentiment has the potential to pollute a news sphere.

Papacharissi also brings up an interesting point about how Twitter uses algorithms to organize information. While she does not dwell on this point too much, this brief mention raises question about how the use of algorithms impacts affective publics. As a for-profit company, incentives still exist for Twitter to organize information in a certain way.

Can digital media give voice to the voiceless?

Not far into Indian Country: Telling a Story in a Digital Age, the purpose of the book becomes clear, and it is twofold:

  • Examine the digital media landscape within the scope of the American-Indian community
  • Juxtapose American-Indian media with the mainstream media and exploit the latter for its shortcomings.

While the authors, Victoria and Benjamin LaPoe, present data and anecdotesregarding the communities Victoria connected to, the argument often shifts to how the mainstream media could stand to improve. For example, the book cites a news report by a popular national newscaster that covered the plight of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The report displayed Natives suffering within the reservation, which has the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. This report is used to illustrate how the mainstream media reports on Native Americans; the images of suffering bring no real understanding or genuine learning about the reservation.

Sadly, I don’t believe this lack of contextual reporting only occurs when covering minorities or often-spurned segments of society. Rather, the mainstream news routinely fails to conduct proper research to bolster its coverage because of the nature of the contemporary news cycle: who has the time to “understand the history of the reservation, examining the deeper contextual issues” in the case of the Pine Ridge report?

This issue lays out a more holistic concern for having Native American, and minority voices in general, heard via the mainstream media. Peggy Berryhill, the general manager of a California Native American radio station, puts no faith in the mainstream media in this regard, saying “If we don’t tell them [Natives’ stories], who will?”

While Native American media outlets seem to do a great job of serving a community with its coverage—which the authors also critique the mainstream media of failing to do—they lack the scale to penetrate the national consciousness by themselves. There needs to be some sort of effort by the mainstream media to not only cover these communities, but also cover them accurately and in depth.

But how does the digital element fit in with the discussion of bringing Native American voices to the surface? The authors point to the ability of outlets to target sources via social media in order to provide an actual Native-American perspective to their coverage. Producers can also use social media to display content, as Jeanie Greene does with her show, Heartbeat Alaska.

What we know about the Internet, however, tells us to be wary of the illusory nature of digital media. While easy to see social media as an equalizing, democratizing means of broadcasting, online dynamics are not so different from those of traditional media. Mostly the same voices are being heard through digital media platforms as with television, radio and newspapers. While the digital media landscape offers potential for American Indians to change the way their communities are covered, there are many obstacles for a group that comprises just over one percent of the American population.

Study Ideas:

One of the parts about this book that jumped out was the issue of how American Indians are portrayed in the media. This notion begs the following questions:

  • How does coverage of American Indians vary across different types of news platforms? (Commercial vs. nonprofit, TV vs. radio, national vs. local, etc.)
  • What sorts of images are typically displayed in news reports of American-Indian communities?
  • What changes, if any, have occurred in coverage of American Indians since digital media were introduced into the communication landscape?

The Digital Divide: More Complex than it Seems

The results are convincing – the Internet has not leveled the playing field quite like many had hoped. Though it has undeniably revolutionized the nature of sharing and producing content, a divide still exists in terms of who can utilize the Internet’s full potential.

While the digital revolution aimed to form a more egalitarian society where all voices would be heard, it seems like the same voices as always are present, just on a different platform. Hargittai’s findings hammer home the presence of a divide and the importance education plays in how one uses the Internet; although her study’s whole sample contained individuals with the same level of education (first-year college students), even parental education predicted skill, Internet accessibility and time spent on the Web for the participants.

Another interesting finding from Hargittai indicates mere access is not what determines how a person dictates Internet use, but the digital skills that individual possesses. In her study, Hargittai finds that within her sample African Americans spend more time on the Web per week than any other race despite having the lowest number of locations to access the Internet. Conversely, African Americans are significantly less digitally skilled than are White or Asian-American Internet users. This data set implies some major complexities tied to why there is a digital divide.

Going a step further, these factors also determine whether individuals will produce content for public consumption (e.g., blogging). Schradie finds that the more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to produce digital content. When considering why education is so important in this regard, you can see how the human psyche affects whether individuals produce. More educated people will feel enabled to use the Internet in ways to contribute to society, whereas a less-educated person may feel uncomfortable doing so. Hoffman studies this notion by examining how people’s “online self-efficacy” impacts their likelihood to produce social, skilled (such as blogging) and political content. The results showed that self-efficacy positively affects production of all content.

While numerous factors have been linked to the digital divide, including gender, race and age, education clearly appears to be the most influential cause of the gap. The importance of education leading to online participation supports the concern that not all voices will be heard. The dilemma is not as simple as who has access and who does not; more schooling affects people on a cognitive level, making them more apt to produce content that will contribute to society.

There is reason, however, to be optimistic about these findings. While education seems to lead to more online self-efficacy, alternative means of boosting efficacy could lead an increase of producers. In other words, education is not necessarily the end-all-be-all for getting heard online. There is a possibility of providing a remedy to make less-educated sects of society feel more comfortable participating online, such as a campaign encouraging content production.

One issue the readings do not address concerns the motivations for producing content. We know that education predicts whether a person is likely to create digital content, but what is it that drives this group to contribute?

Future research questions: 

  1. What sort of motivations drive educated people to produce digital content?
  2. How does a person’s belief that they can make a difference impact likelihood to produce digital content?
  3. How does this factor relate to education?

What is our attention really worth?

The Attention Merchants implies something slightly insidious: that we are not as in control of our lives as we may think.

As coined by author Tim Wu, attention merchants are in the business of converting eyeballs into profit, essentially selling a product to an audience at a loss and then repackaging that audience to sell to advertisers. While we take for granted today’s standard revenue model for most news media, this plan to profit from attention flipped the world on its head after Benjamin H. Day first dreamed up the idea with his paper, The New York Sun. These attention merchants look to amass a giant audience “by any means necessary,” which leads to the main problem of this industry.

Often, capturing people’s attention requires some form of embellishment. Day certainly stooped to that level with the Sun at times, which once reported life on the moon in the form of winged, humanoid creatures. The patent medicine industry, which arose at the turn of the 19th century, garnered an audience with pure fraudulency. Making outlandish claims that these medicines could cure any disease known to humanity, merchants suckered people into buying these bunk products.

Today the competition for eyeballs is incessant, and advertisement has become intertwined with daily life. The average American will spend around four years of his or her life watching commercials.

The vulnerability of youth to advertisers is definitely worth discussing. Wu notes the desire of advertisers to gain access to kids and young adults, who are often more susceptible to persuasive messages. Furthermore, a brand achieving a positive connection with a person while they are young could result in a lifetime consumer.

This gets back to Wu’s question regarding how much the lives we lead are actually ours. If we buy a Coke instead of the cheaper Pepsi, has the brand really “undermine[d] the concept of choice?” Was that choice really made by the advertiser and not us, the consumer?

This logic could go down a rabbit’s hole leading to the conclusion that none of our decisions are actually ours. For example, if you make a purchasing decision because of something your mother taught you as a child, say to always buy a name-brand product over the generic, does that mean it was not you who made that decision, but your mother? While Wu would probably argue that parents determining behavior is natural while advertisers determining behavior is dangerous, the point is that lots of outside factors have always influenced human behavior.

The key takeaway from this book, as it usually is concerning advertising, is that individuals can and must use their “incredible, magnificent power to ignore” when necessary. The extent to which advertising depreciates our lives is debatable, but its potential to do that is not. No one wants to waste life away watching infomercials. Yet it seems commercialization has taken a firm, irreversible place in contemporary living. A combination of self-awareness, media literacy and the power to ignore can help mitigate some of advertising’s negative impact and help a person to determine their own life experiences.

Possible research questions stemming from this book

  1. How much trust do consumers have in certain types of advertisements and in certain types of environments (e.g., ads in schools vs. billboard ads)?
  2. What relationship exists between trust in advertisements and the impact of those advertisements?
  3. What sort of internal or external factors mitigate the influence of advertisements?