The Freedom to Unplug

Photo by the author.

Today, I live in a somewhat economically homogenous community, but back in the 1990s, when we still lived in the financial mosaic of Manhattan, I made a note in a journal somewhere that it seemed to me that people wanted to succeed in contemporary, technological society in order to win the reward of living more as organic beings separate from technology.  Put another way, we live our lives and do our jobs by plugging into systems in order to earn the freedom to comfortably unplug from as many systems as we can.  Why else do leisure-time pursuits so often involve dirt, water, sun, fresh foods, silence, conversation, and a general embargo on high-tech gadgets?

I was thinking about those days while reading an article int he NY Times by Nick Bilton titled Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent.  Beginning with an anecdote about Jobs’s own kids not being allowed to use the iPad when it was first released, Bilton cites several examples of top executives in the computer tech industry who place some rather strict limits on their own children’s time spent with various devices.  He wonders if these digital executives teaching analog values to their kids might “know something the rest of us don’t,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right.  It is tempting, of course, to calls these tech-industry parents hypocrites for selling their wares to our children while sheltering their own, but I suspect that many of us know exactly what these parents know — that too much screen time is probably unhealthy.  As such, I would not be surprised to learn that households headed by parents who work in the upper echelons of other industries are likewise rigorous about restricting iPads and such for their kids as well.  I really think it’s about economics.

It should be stipulated here that post Boomer parents do have an apparently endless supply of theories about child raising.  We Gen Xers knew two things as our firsts were born:  1) that we had a rapidly increasing wealth of information being made available to us; and 2) that our parents were unflinchingly wrong about everything. (It’s a wonder we lived, really.) Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of these converging phenomena is the conspiracy of parents who still refuse to vaccinate their children, literally bringing hideous diseases back from extinction, thus representing one of the greatest failures of the so-called information revolution.  Certainly, the data are less clear regarding the effects of tech toys on children than, say, pertussis; yet I haven’t encountered too many parents who don’t at least make conscious choices, pro or con, with regard to how much screen time they feel is too much.

Back to economics, though, let’s face it — a contemporary middle-class household is a hectic environment, consistently pressured by the reality that many of life’s basic needs (e.g. medical care) continue to rise in cost outpacing our ability to earn.  Add a couple of kids and their divergent, asymmetrical, and at times unreasonable, demands and we rely increasingly on own devices to achieve that elusive work/life balance they keep talking about in the magazines.  The balance, of course, is the tricky part, isn’t it?

After all, it’s good news/bad news that we can read a client’s email during dinner that got off to a late start because somebody had martial arts practice; but if you are in fact the client (or boss) in that equation, you are unquestionably freer to ignore that email and engage in conversation with your kids just like low-tech Steve Jobs reportedly did.  In turn, the parents’ freedom to unplug models the behavior they want to instill in the child for whom they have set related limits.  But in the frenetic, middle-class household today, patterns or rituals can be very difficult to maintain, and all of our many “helpful” devices and their apps are not designed in any way to complement human rhythms or cycles; they much prefer us multi-tasking, always on, and a bit jittery.  At what point we become extensions of the technology rather than the other way around is an ontological question I won’t attempt to answer.

So, do these tech-industry parents mentioned in Bilton’s article imply a measure of responsibility on the part of manufacturers?  Should we expect Apple to provide warning labels on iPads?  Caution:  Extended time playing Minecraft may make your child a pain in the ass at home and a lousy student.  We probably shouldn’t hold our collective breath for that one or anything like it; and I don’t personally think it is the makers of these technologies who bear that responsibility any more than heavy metal bands are responsible for anti-social behavior in teens.  Nevertheless, these digital tools/toys are unquestionably having both positive and negative effects on kids, and the most important feature for parents, regardless of the promises in every new release, will probably still be the Off button.

Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Nation of Reddit

From Redditor yishan:

“…we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.”

Shh.  I won’t say anything right away. Just let those words tromp around in your mind for a few moments.  Let the hubris of them get mud all over the carpet and sticky Cheetos fingerprints on the door frames…

 Okay.  Here goes…

In a blog post entitled Every Man is Responsible for His Own Soul, paraphrasing a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Redditor yishan wrote the blog post explaining why Reddit removed a subreddit called TheFappening, making sure to point out that the decision was not based on the content of the thread, which unambiguously refers to masturbating while viewing stolen nude photos of the female celebrities, who were victims of the recent hacking.

In case anyone is confused as to exactly how self-aggrandized social media site owners can be, the managers at Reddit, it seems, perceive their enterprise to be a new form of government.  The Nation of Reddit, if you will, founded not so much on ideas or achieved by blood or steel, not by men (or women) who signed their names to a declaration and risked their lives, but by avatars who speak with the courage of anonymity and wring their virtual hands over the moral implications of profiting from exploitative jerking off.  What exactly will the flag of this new sovereign society look like?  Crossed swords, I suppose.

Though Reddit is a young nation, Ambassador yishan, exhibits the diplomatic nuance of a veteran stuffed suit when he proclaims, “Virtuous behavior is only virtuous if it is not arrived at by compulsion.  This is a central idea of the community we are trying to create.”  Once again, perhaps we should pause and just let the big idea resonate for a moment…

Right.  Moving on…

It’s true, of course.  Virtuous behavior can only be called virtuous when it is altruistic.  But failing that, sometimes we have to tell the assholes to knock it the hell off.  You know the ones — the guys who stand up and go for the luggage compartment while the plane is still taxiing.  Yeah, even in the freest of countries, that clown has to be told to sit back the fuck down in case the pilot has to step on the breaks and thus turns him into a 180-pound idiot projectile.  In a similar way, The Nation of Reddit could certainly choose to support free expression, even of the most puerile gibberish, while drawing a fairly clear line that it will make every effort to avoid benefiting from someone else’s misery.  Professional news organizations draw lines between coverage and exploitation all the time, and free speech manages to survive, but I guess that’s elitist.

As pointed out in this excellent piece by Ellen Seidler, The Nation of Reddit is actually a satellite state of the empire CondeNast Publications, and its wealth, like most web nations, comes from tourism (i.e. advertising).  As such, stolen celebrity nude pictures unquestionably bring the visitors in profitable numbers, but apparently, the government of Reddit feels it would be morally objectionable to refuse this windfall, which is nothing more than a byproduct of its absolute defense of free expression.  But as Seidler also points out, non-celebrities, usually women, who don’t have the resources of movie stars are frequent, un-reported victims of misappropriation of their images that are then exploited by stateless nations like Reddit and the rogue 4Chan.

The actual quote from Henry V comes in the scene when Harry walks cloaked in disguise among his men on the night before the battle at Agincourt.  A soldier, Williams, opines that the virtue of the war and the inherent sinfulness of death in battle is the sole moral responsibility of the king.  But within in the ensuing monologue, Harry replies, “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but each man’s soul’s his own.”  It is poetry, but it is also a poor reference for a modern, free, and democratic society far removed from ancient monarchy.  Because our more enlightened view is that we do blame the leadership and not the soldier for entering into a bad war.  And we do hold business owners, the ones who make the real money, responsible for the manner in which they earn their revenues.

But here’s the main message we might send The Nation of Reddit:  If you’re apologizing for shutting down a thread called TheFappening, at least spare the world your ideological bullshit as if we’re supposed to think you’re doing something important.

Posted in Digital Culture, Free Speech | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Big Tech Still Full of BS on Piracy

Following the loss of Robin Williams, my kids were in the mood to re-watch Disney’s Aladdin.  We thought we had a VHS copy of the film, but I bet mine is not the only household with a few VHS jackets containing the wrong tapes inside.  (See kids, this is why we put things back…) Anyway, not so much with the tape, I never did get around to buying a DVD; and so I checked Netflix and iTunes, neither of which had the film in its libraries.  I’ll order a DVD or something the next time I think of it, but I share this otherwise unremarkable anecdote because it seems to me that many very serious people would have us believe that what happened to my kids as a consequence of this postponed desire is quite extraordinary.  They lived!  They even shrugged off the deferred desire to watch that particular movie and resumed their otherwise normal lives.

What I’m saying might seem obvious to the average reader, but it turns out highly-paid, fully-grown professionals would equate the mundane experience I just recounted with deprivations like hunger, thirst, or disease in order to justify media piracy as though it is the only rational response to whatever barriers stand between the consumer and 90 or so minutes of entertainment.  The self-righteousness with which this premise is consistently proclaimed and repeated — and taken seriously by lawmakers — is nothing short of an embarrassment in a world where an estimated billion people don’t have access to safe water.

Recently, TorrentFreak reports that Google, Facebook, and Microsoft rejected Australia’s anti-piracy proposal, and as usual, the CCIA is playing another variation on the familiar theme that piracy is a consumer reaction to producers’ failures to deliver unfettered access at a “fair price.”  To quote:

“…CCIA director Jakob Kucharczyk says that any new scheme should employ a “holistic end-to-end approach” and be coupled with efforts by content providers to give customers the content they need at a fair price.”

First of all, as a former corporate communications guy, let me say for the record that when someone employs a redundancy like  “holistic end-to-end approach,” he’s blowing smoke straight up your ass.  These are words used by people who either have no solution to a problem or do not seek a solution to a problem because they don’t acknowledge that there is a problem.  That’s what’s happening here.  The CCIA, speaking on behalf of Silicon Valley, is saying piracy is a) not a problem, and b) if it is a problem, it’s the producers’ fault because consumers aren’t getting what they want.

The funny thing is I agree prices aren’t fair.  They should actually be considerably higher in most cases.  $1.29 for a song in 2014 is equivalent to $2.35 in 1990 just before us Gen Xers — yes, we were actually the first adopters of all this stuff — got online.  Has the cost of living for the several people who made that song possible gone down? Of course not. Granted, prices and wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living across many sectors, which is why we’re seeing a shrinking middle class, but it isn’t going to help if the next generation of consumers buys into this ridiculous narrative that they’re getting a bad deal on discretionary purchases that are widely available and already quite cheap. Spotify for music is just one way the consumer is certainly not getting hozed; unfortunately, though, songwriters and artists are; so there’s a problem that needs a “holistic” solution and fair pricing that’s legitimately fair to the next generation of musical artists.  But of course, that’s not what Mr. Kucharczyk meant.

It’s understood that this is how big, corporate interests play hardball.  The Internet and consumer electronics industries have a financial stake in continuing to reduce the value of professionally produced media until the musicians and filmmakers and other creators around the world are left with no choice other than to make deals with the only devils left standing.  Now, I personally think these guys are straight up pigs, but the only way they’re going to get away with owning the universe is if the consuming public allows them to do so by believing this story.  But I actually don’t believe people are quite that cynical or naive.  Sure the short-term lure of instant gratification without cost is tempting, and it becomes easy to rationalize; but bit by bit, people begin to understand that it is patently absurd to love iPods and HD TVS without any media to play on them.

Posted in Copyright, Piracy | 51 Comments

Neuroscience of the Gist

If I hadn’t given up regular TV watching about 20 years ago, I’d probably still be channel-surfing into oblivion.  You’ve been there, right?  Whatever you’re watching can’t possibly be as good or important as whatever you’re missing.  With hundreds of available channels, this is just mathematically reasonable in a very frustrating way.  Maybe, but it’s also an example of how technological access to more can make a person so distracted that he winds up investing time in nothing.  Thankfully, on-demand options for home viewing of filmed media have obviated the need for me ever to channel-surf, but then the Internet and social media came along and brought a whole new ADD-like experience to our lives.

Enter the Facebook feed and Tweetdecks and all those stories of great interest shared by people you love, trust, admire, etc.  There’s no way any of us is reading all of those stories unless we have nothing else to do, so do we pick and choose among them? Or do we just gloss over nearly all of it?  And is all this glossing — my friend calls it “gisting” — better than ignoring the apparently substantive content altogether and sticking to a favored news source. Is skimming over fragments of stories actually changing our brains?  According to cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, all this gisting may be harming our ability to engage in what she calls “deep reading.”

In this interview, Wolf talks to Robin Young, co-host of the NPR program Here & Now.  To quote:

YOUNG: You had a great line. You said TV produced soundbite culture; online reading is producing eyebite culture.

WOLF: Yes, I’m afraid that what we’re becoming is so inured to seizing the most salient word that we are literally eliminating the music, the thoughts in between those words, some of the most precious aspects of written language.

Wolf wonders if we are not evolving what Young summarizes in her intro as “digital brains.”  And I think this is more than just a generic term for our times, but is rather an appropriate reference for precisely what Dr. Wolf feels may be lost if what we’re witnessing is really a stage in evolution.

If you think about what any audiophile will tell you is wrong with digital music, it’s that all sorts of nuance no longer exists for the contemporary listener to a typical MP3, for example.  Overtones, undertones, and various other sounds are far too subtle to be captured by mass-production, digital sampling; and in a very similar way it seems to me, Wolf is concerned that our own habit of sampling disparate text might make us deaf to the music of written language or at least impatient with it.  Wolf describes her own experience after a period of 5 to 8 hours of screen-reading per day and being unable to return to a favored novel by Herman Hesse.  She states that it took two weeks of purposeful effort to reform those temporarily dormant connections in her brain.

Wolf is less concerned with adults than with children who have yet to build that neurological foundation, which  enables us not only to engage with richer texts, but even to enjoy them.  To hear the whole symphony, if you will.  She is quick to say that she does not advocate turning back the clock and cutting kids off from technology.  “We have to equip our children with 21st-century skills. But at the same time, we must know how to form those reading circuits that allow what I call deep reading. It takes years to form in a child, and it takes milliseconds in us to use. And those milliseconds don’t just come naturally; we have to learn to use them.”

Posted in Digital Culture, Lit/Pub | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Talking Cybercrime with Leandra Ramm (Podcast)

As most people know, we are this week watching a developing story after some as yet unidentified hacker, or hackers, gained access to naked photos of a handful of celebrity women and published them on the web.  As that investigation unfolds, especially into what appears to be a failure in the security of Apple’s iCloud server, many of us non-celebrities are naturally wondering how safe our information is, but we are probably still underestimating just how dangerous it can be to become the target of a hacker with the right skills and too much time on his hands.  The lines between hacking, identity theft, and stalking can get blurry very fast, and my guest on this podcast has some insightful, first-hand experience with that frightening reality.

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Photo by Melissa Hamburg.

In her early 20s, Leandra Ramm had her life and career derailed by a cyberstalker operating halfway around the world in Singapore.  It was about ten years ago when Leandra was an aspiring opera singer, living and working in New York City, her career just taking off, when she appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper to talk about her origins from the Genius Sperm Bank.  A Singaporean named Colin Mak Yew Loong saw the broadcast on CNN International and from that moment on, he made Leandra one of what turned out to be his many projects in stalking, harassment, and threats of violence.  The experience cost Leandra many professional opportunities, made her terrified for her safety, and left her in a continued state of anxiety.

Pressing a case of international cyberstalking is extremely difficult because laws vary nation to nation, and some countries have no cyberstalking laws whatsoever.  Nevertheless,  Leandra pursued her stalker aggressively along with the help of digital forensics examiner, A.J. Fardella, and as of last December, Mr. Loong is serving a three-year sentence as the first person ever convicted in a case involving cyberstalking across borders.

Leandra also wrote a book about her experience called Stalking A Diva, in collaboration with attorney D. Rocca. Today, these two women, along with Mr. Fardella,  represent the founding members of the Alliance Against Cybercrime, a new organization designed to address stalking and other forms of Internet-based crime through international advocacy, policy initiatives, and public outreach.  Leandra’s case and this new alliance were instrumental in helping to pass Singapore’s Protection from Harassment Act in March of 2014.

I am also happy to report that Leandra’s singing career resumed after her ordeal.  She continues to work in a wide range of genres, both recording and performing live.

Visit Leandra’s music website here.

Buy the book Stalking A Diva here.

Visit the Alliance Against Cybercrime here.

Posted in Digital Culture, Law & Policy | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments