Where’s the line?

Between paying bills and taking pills, it’s hard to keep up with life sometimes. We set alarms and reminders for something as simple as “call mom.” Our constant state of distraction means that tasks – especially the small ones – are left to rot, forgotten in the face of so much internet.

Some don’t have the luxury of hitting snooze on an alarm though. For diabetics, missing or doubling up on an insulin injection is a serious matter.  So Timesulin came up with a solution: a cap that goes on most insulin pens that tells the user the last time they took a shot (“Timesulin,” 2014). It has all the makings of a good invention. It’s simple, affordable and potentially lifesaving.

I caught sight of it on Gizmodo, and I think it’s a much-needed device. But it got me thinking about how often we outsource our memory. It’s not a new fear or theory. It is, however, more prevalent than ever in our society. And the more we rely on other devices to hold our memories for us, the more we need to question the definition of  a memory and the parameters of our retained thoughts.

CC BY-NC-SA Giulia Forsythe, Flickr

CC BY-NC-SA Giulia Forsythe, Flickr

We capture moments on a smart phone or camera. Some keep diaries or online blogs. Those things all contain bits and pieces of our lives, but do they mean anything without the context of a memory behind them?

Last year, scientists at MIT managed to implant a false memory into a mouse’s brain (Mehta, 2013). The implications of this is vast; in the future, Alzheimer’s could be solved with by replacing the forgotten information. Car keys may never be lost again. One scientist even joked that we could upload the vacation we never had a chance to take.

Memory is unreliable, subjective and deeply personal. As technology advances, the definition of memory begins to blur. It moves from the dictionary classification of something stored in the mind and into this realm of something that is invented and potentially kept for safe keeping elsewhere.

So I’m left wondering, where’s the line? How do we distinguish an authentic memory from an outsourced or uploaded one? Does the distinction even matter?

For many, this will be a non-issue. The future will hold what it will. But for researchers, philosophers and communicators, our understanding of memory will shape our careers. A story holds power because it drudges up an emotional response from us. We connect to an issue through our own experiences. But what happens if we’re no longer drawing from our own experiences?

It could very well lead to a better place. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions, however.

References:

Liszewski, A. (2014, March 20). an insulin pen cap that reminds diabetics when their last injection was.Gizmodo, Retrieved from http://gizmodo.com/an-insulin-pen-cap-that-reminds-diabetics-when-their-la-1547977996

Mehta, P. (2013, August 8). Question your world: Can we plant fake memories?. National Public Radio, Retrieved from http://ideastations.org/science-matters/question-your-world/question-your-world-can-we-plant-fake-memories

Timesulin – making your diabetes insulin pen smarter..finally in the u.s.a.. (2014, March 10). Retrieved from http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/timesulin-making-your-diabetes-insulin-pen-smarter-finally-in-the-u-s-a

 

Private Matters

Jokes about the NSA reading your email are pretty common place today, but most of us assume that the government agency would have no interests in our daily lives. The numbers beg to differ.

Several web and telecom service providers released reports on the number of user accounts that have had their contents sent to government agencies for investigation, Mashable reported Thursday.

The numbers are a little different for Verizon, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Tumblr, Microsoft and AT&T. All of the data was collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As Mashable explains:

“The act allows for extensive electronic evidence to be gathered about people suspected of being involved in terrorism or espionage, and requests are made through a special court whose findings are generally secret” (Orcutt, 2014)

And with such high numbers, it raises the question of what it takes to be suspected of being involved in terrorism or espionage? Just how many terrorist attacks will this privacy invasion prevent?

MIT Technology Review

MIT Technology Review

MIT Technology Review

MIT Technology Review

MIT Technology Review

MIT Technology Review

Seeing these numbers means that the nature of privacy is changing. To be fair, it changed the moment that the internet became widely accessible, but now we can see that there is little people  can hide from the all-seeing federal government without paying a hefty price.

ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin ventured to say that privacy is now a luxury good in the opinion pages of The New York Times this month (2014). Angwin focused more on the data mining aspect of the internet, but still her point stands: privacy is important to Americans but not a reality.

This idea of buying privacy isn’t exactly new. Sprawling estates, guards and advances security systems are something familiar only to the elite. The less fortunate are stuck with flimsy walls and cramped quarters, which are hardly conducive to a secretive lifestyle. But Angwin raises some good questions in her op-ed. The internet is often seen as an equalizer. In America, there is a fairly good chance for all to access it. But, as Angwin explains:

“As more privacy-protecting services pop up, we need to consider two important questions: Can we ensure that those who can afford to buy privacy services are not being deceived? And even more important, do we want privacy to be something that only those with disposable money and time can afford?” (2014).

Angwin said she spent $2,200 trying to protect her privacy last year (2014). And after wading into the ethical dilemma of paying for privacy, she cites government food regulation as a potential model to this question. But what do we do when our traditional outlet of protection is one of the biggest privacy violators?

Now is the time to act. The internet is still fairly new. While regulation isn’t always the answer, we need to take a serious look at how our data is collected, why it is collected and to what end it is used. If we discuss these problems now, we have a chance to lay a good foundation for the future. Privacy concerns are only going to get stickier from here.

References:

Angwin, J. (2014, March 3). Has privacy become a luxury good?. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/opinion/has-privacy-become-a-luxury-good.html?_r=0

Orcutt, M. (2014, March 13). Tech companies reveal national security data requests. Mashable, Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2014/03/13/tech-companies-national-security-data-requests/

 

Bros 4 lyfe

Relationships are time-consuming. Phones make them even more so.

Gone are the days of blissful, uninterrupted bro time. Significant others expect hourly updates of where you are and what you’re doing. But bros, fear no more! The BroApp has come to rescue the day. This nifty little wingman sends out automated text messages to your S.O. so you don’t have to be bothered while you’re hanging with your dudes (Molloy, 2014).

Or at least that’s what the creators of BroApp say. The app allows users to program No Bro Zones so the messages don’t send while he is in the company of his S.O. It even comes with a “girl friend lock down mode” which “directs “inquisitive” girlfriends to a list of gifts that her boyfriend was ‘planning to buy’ her, rather than the automated messages, the Independent reported. Finally, the annoying aspects of relationships can be programmed away.

The Android app costs $1.99 to download.

The Android app costs $1.99 to download.

In an op-ed piece on WIRED, Evan Selinger takes issue with the BroApp. He explains that technology that advances and improves is good. BroApp, however, is technology that demoralizes and debases (Selinger, 2014).

Founders Tom and James (they provided no last names) believe that their app is a relationship enhancer. They see it as a way to keep their girlfriends happy while continue to focus on the other aspects of their lives. But that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Human relationships are founded on trust. Two people in a relationship have agreed that they will make time for each other. There’s mutual respect and investment by both parties that creates a sense of equality in the relationship. The BroApp undermines that. As Selinger said:

Ultimately, the reason technologies like BroApp are problematic is that they’re deceptive. They take situations where people make commitments to be honest and sincere, but treat those underlying moral values as irrelevant — or, worse, as obstacles to be overcome. If they weren’t, BroApp’s press document wouldn’t contain cautions like: “Understandably, a girl who discovers their guy using BroApp won’t be happy” (2014).

Services like Skype, Whatsapp? and other free communication tools have allowed loved ones to talk across continents. In many ways, changing technology has aided relationship building. But the use of technology to deceive undermines the foundation of a relationship. Using the BroApp, while seemingly considerate, is sending the message that your partner isn’t worth your time.

According to Selinger, Tom and James argued that new technologies are often met with adversity (2014). Humans find change uncomfortable at first. But some tech changes don’t take root. When something offends on a moral level, the majority will often shun it. Things that intentionally violate our privacy and trust leave a bad taste is our mouths, as we’ve seen with the NSA revelations.

BroApp will have its proponents, and its uses won’t be limited to scumbag players. There is, however, little need to fear that we’ll see fully automated relationships developing over the next few years. For those who make real, honest commitments, the desire to engage in a conversation with his or her S.O. will trump the convenience of an auto-text. We live in a digital age, but we all still desire human contact. An app can’t do that.

References

Molloy, A. (2014, February 28). Broapp: New app enables busy boyfriends to send pre-programmed text messages to their girlfriends. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/broapp-new-app-enables-busy-boyfriends-to-send-preprogrammed-text-messages-to-their-girlfriends-9160556.html

Selinger, E. (2014, February 26). Today’s apps are turning us into sociopaths. WIRED. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/opinion/2014/02/outsourcing-humanity-apps/

TWComcast. A monster is born.

Today brought bad news on the cable company front. Comcast has proposed to buy Time Warner Company for $45.2 million. While the merger needs federal approval before it can go through, it looks like the marriage between the two cable giants is all but official.

Company mergers are dry. The whole darwinian model of business doesn’t exactly captivate the minds of young TV watchers, but this is big news. According to an article on Gizmodo, Comcast has the largest number of customers of any broadband company  in the US, clocking in at 20 million subscribers (Barrett, 2014). TWC is half the size, but by joining forces with Comcast, the two cover huge parts of the East Coast and Midwest and have a solid core along the Pacific. As Brian Barrett explains, that’s “half of all paying cable-TV-phone customers in the United States” (2014). TWC and Comcast want to double up their reinforcements to reassert their power.  Online streaming is both a threat and an opportunity for these companies. They may be losing viewers to Netflix, but we pay them for the streaming capabilities. Joining forces just means these companies can rake in more money. 

Photo courtesy of Steve Garfield, Flickr

Photo courtesy of Steve Garfield, Flickr

As soon as I heard this news, my red flag went flying. I was ready to cite the 1996 Telecommunications Act in any way possible. Except, as Barrett pointed out, the FCC may not be my savior this time (2014). The two cable companies don’t have overlapping coverage, so they’re not monopolizing the market in any specific area (just the country). The FCC doesn’t have to act and most likely won’t  because one of their former board members was a top lobbyist for the cable industry (Barrett, 2014).

But the thing that frightens me the most is what this all means for the recent net neutrality ruling. A month ago, a federal appeals court struck down an FCC regulation that forced internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally. Comcast as been sued over this before, but this time, Verizon made the case that the FCC was over regulating (Hu,2014). With the the potential Comcast/TWC merger, customers have a bit of a grace period. Comcast signed an agreement in 2011 to uphold net neutrality until 2018 (Siner, 2014). But then what happens? We could have fewer cable and broadband companies to choose from, and on top of that, they could be limiting our access to various websites. 

At the heart of all this is us, the lowly internet users and cable watchers. This merger could change nothing. Or it could mean that our variety vanishes. With less competition, at least from a capitalist view point, Comcast and TWC have no reason innovate. There’s no push for lower prices or better customer service. The new mega-company can get dirt-cheap content to the determent of our creative community. So we’re left with a smaller media diet and a more homogenized society. We’ve become used to the freedom of information provided by the internet. It’s scary to think that big money may mean another bit of our personal freedom has been chipped away. 

References:

Baker, L. (2014, February 13). Comcast take over of time warner company to reshape us pay tv. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/13/us-comcast-timewarnercable-idUSBREA1C05A20140213

Barrett, B. (2014, February 13). Why the comcast-time warner cable merger is worse than you think.Gizmodo. Retrieved from http://gizmodo.com/why-the-comcast-time-warner-cable-merger-is-even-worse-1522096469

Hu, E. (2014, January 14). Fed can’t enforce net neutrality: what this means for you. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/01/14/262454310/feds-cant-enforce-net-neutrality-what-this-means-for-you

Siner, E. (2014, February 13). How the big cable deal could actually boost open-internet rules. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/02/13/276453747/how-the-big-cable-deal-could-actually-boost-open-internet-rules

Good Guy Open Source

Do we shape new media, or does new media shape us?

Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know the answer. One thing I will admit, however, is that social media has changed the game.

It didn’t do it alone. Innovations were developed across the board before and alongside social media that spurred it to its superstardom. But as a recent article in Wired pointed out, Facebook not only branded the like, wall and timeline, it also laid down the foundation for many of its contemporaries’ data centers (Finley, 2014).

Facebook’s data center wasn’t trail blazing, Finley reports (2014). In fact, Zuckerburg’s team of engineers were  lopping behind net giants Google and Amazon. And yet, in its usual weasel-like way, Facebook found a way to improve upon what other companies had already done. Rather than lock the database codes away in a tower, the social media company made them open-source. By allowing others free access to their formulas, Facebook facilitated an organic innovation process; others could improve and refine their codes, and Facebook could reap the benefits. The supercomputers Facebook uses in its data centers even pull on outside air to cool their servers, which is better for the environment than keeping the rooms at icy temperatures (Finley, 2014).

Photo courtesy of Pete Erickson/WIRED

Photo courtesy of Pete Erickson/WIRED

All this sharing means that Facebook has dramatically shaped how online organizations retrieve and store mass amounts of data. They’ve had a hand in which popular programs are used to develop websites. The idea that Facebook has changed our social climate isn’t surprising, but the realization of how far it has stretched its enveloping arms is a bit shocking.

In a way, this is all empowering. With open source codes and a little background knowledge, we can learn more about the website. There is potential to suggest changes and outfit Facebook to our lives. Sites like Netflix and Digg based their data centers off of Facebook’s. In a way, this evolution process is going through a distinctly Darwinian phase; the best bits of code get passed on and added to, making our web browsing experience even better.

Those qualities, however, have a dark edge to them. If we don’t take advantage of open sourcing, then we let the creators morph our experiences. This is David Rushkoff’s argument about either programming or being programming in the flesh (or should I say “in the code?”). Facebook takes up a big chunk of many people’s lives already. The more innovations are refined, the harder it could be for us to shed social media. 

Recently, the Techland section of Time put out a Facebook calculator. By sifting through your posts (which is slightly alarming), the calculator estimates the amount of time you’ve spent on the website since you joined. The number can a strange wake up call, reminding some of us just how much time we’ve wasted over the last ten or so years since the technology first came out. While there have been repeated false alarms over the demise of Facebook, I wonder if this open source technology will keep the social mogul going for far longer than any of us ever foresaw and what that means for us.

 

References

Finley, K. (2014, February 7). 10 ingenious hacks that helped facebook take over the internet. WIRED, Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2014/02/facebook-hacks/

Wilson, C. (2014, January 27). How much time have you wasted on facebook?. Time, Retrieved from http://techland.time.com/2014/01/27/how-much-time-have-you-wasted-on-facebook/

Reshaping culture from behind a pair of glasses

Google Glass looks and sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi dime novel. Its sleek, futuristic design tucks a slim webcam-like device away on the top right corner of a pair of glasses. Fittingly, it comes in colors with names like shale, tangerine and sky. Glass allows its owner to take pictures and videos, ask for directions, send a message – all without lifting a finger. According to Google, Glass will even give “answers without having to ask” (Google, Glass).

And it looks absolutely ridiculous.

At least for now.

On Wednesday, On the Media blogger PJ Vogt posted a short reflection on a Google Glass and a 33-year-old NPR story. Vogt admits that he thinks Glass looks “pretty silly,” but after hearing an interview with one of Glass’s designers, he started to wonder about other portable technologies that seemed ridiculous at first (Vogt, 2014). So Vogt dug up a 1981 NPR story about Walkmen. The parallels are uncanny. Interviewees told the reporter that Walkmen are “obnoxious” (Profitt, 1981). Others said that the new technology “causes people to isolate themselves from their experience,” that they are like “putting blinders on” (Profitt, 1981).

Today, it’s a different story. I look around on the L, and most of the riders have tuned out the world with their iPods and iPhones. There’s nothing new about a personal music player we carry with us. Wearable technology, however, is still untamed territory. A personal assistant that perches on your glasses seems a little too 1984 for some of us.

As technology evolves, our society evolves with it. Those on the forefront introduce a new idea, and as it is adopted, culture crafts the etiquette surrounding it. This week’s class reading had a prime example of this: a California driver pulled for speeding over while wearing Google Glass was cleared of charges (Watson, 2014). There was reasonable doubt that the device was in use when the driver was pulled over, the judge ruled. The lingering question, however, is whether Glass will be treated like any other type of screen used while driving.

With new technological strides, social norms and legal statutes try to keep up. Julie Watson, the reporter who wrote the AP article covering the Glass case, questions where responsibility lies when devices and humans clash(Watson, 2014). What legal precedent do judges fall back on when a driverless car crashes into a 16 year old’s 1999 Subaru Forester? Is Google Glass a dangerous distraction or a useful GPS system?

Thirty-three years from now, as some new technology is pushing society’s limits, a new generation might look back and laugh at our attempts to fit this whole new frontier into existing societal constraints. The Glass driving bans being introduced right now in New Jersey, West Virginia and Delaware may be repealed or tightened. We don’t know just yet. But as Pingree and Gitelman pointed out in New Media 1750-1915, part of the appeal of new media is the ability for a culture to claim and cultivate it. This is our chance to tame Glass or move aside and let it take over. The consequences are as unpredictable as the Walkmen’s three decades ago.

 

References

Vogt, P. J. (2014, January 29). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.onthemedia.org/story/google-glass-dorky/

Watson, J. (2014, January 17). California motorist cleared in google glass case. Associated Press. Retrieved from http://bigstory.ap.org/article/woman-testify-against-google-glass-citation

Google. (Producer). (2013, February 20). How it feels [through google glass] [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1uyQZNg2vE

Google. Glass. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.google.com/glass/start/

Optimizing Romance

In terms of the cutting edge, online dating isn’t particularly new. It’s been nearly 20 years since the first lonely hearts turned to the web for a chance at true love. But over those two decades, online dating and the cultural perceptions surrounding it have changed.

Recently, the nerd-centric magazine Wired posted an article about a UCLA math professor who hacked the popular dating site OkCupid. Over the course of a year, 35-year-old Chris McKinlay picked apart the website’s algorithms in order to optimize his profile for the type of women he wanted to attract. McKinlay, like other social media users, tweaked his online profile to reflect a pseudo-reality. He presented himself honestly but selectively like all internet users, except he had the math to back it up.

"Online Dating for Bears" by joeywan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“Online Dating for Bears” by joeywan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The fascinating thing about McKinlay’s quest for love isn’t so much that it actually worked, but how it worked. Using data scraped from 20,000 women’s user profiles, McKinlay was able to lump them into seven groups based on similar qualities. He picked two groups from the seven and created two separate profiles to appeal to each group. McKinlay didn’t lie on his profiles, he just presented the data differently. The mathematician turned the mating game into a numbers game.

With their endless multiple choice questions, supposedly foolproof formulas and fill-in-the-blank percent matches, all online dating sites play at the trust modern daters put in data. They take something that seems nearly impossible to boil down to numbers like attraction and turn theoretical algorithms into physical relationships. And according to a Pew Internet study, a quarter of the time, it works. With one in ten Americans using dating sites and apps, it seems like these sites are on to something.

In an excerpt of her book The Husbands and Wives Club featured on Slate, Laurie Abraham dissected a 1998 relationship study that tried to predict the success of a marriage based on a filmed fifteen minute conversation between newlyweds. Psychologist John Glottman, who conducted the study, said he was able to predict whether a couple would remain married for at least six years with 83 percent accuracy. As Abraham went on to show, that number is worthless. She consulted Richard Heyman, a psychology researcher at State University of New York, who said that while it would be nice to have concrete factors which predict whether a marriage will last, there are none that will top all the other influences on the success of a relationship.

Everyone wants to know the secret formula to a perfect relationship. But attraction and communication are only two pieces of the puzzle. A successful life built together after that initial contact is what we’re all searching for. As online dating becomes more prevalent in Americans’ lives, it is possible we’ll see more successful online-generated relationships. In all likelihood, however, there are just certain things we can’t digitize. We can try to keep up with technology, but unless we fundamentally change human relationships, numbers and romance will never be fully compatible. Statistics can be enlightening, but piles of data can’t pin down what makes relationships work a whole lot better than any of us can.

References

Abraham, L. (2010, March 08). Can you really predict the success of a marrige in 15 minutes? Slate, Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2010/03/can_you_really_predict_the_success_of_a_marriage_in_15_minutes.2.html

Poulsen, K. (2014, January 21). How a math genius hacked okcupid to find true love. Wired, Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2014/01/how-to-hack-okcupid/

Smith, A. (2013, October 21). Online dating & relationships. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Online-Dating.aspx