SHOW NOTES :
WORD OF THE WEEK :
Object - Anything that is visible or tangible and is relatively stable in form
THANK YOU / FIND US :
Mindful Cyborgs - Contemplative living in the age of quantification, augmentation and acceleration, with your hosts Chris Dancy and Klint Finley.
KF: Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs Episode 13. This is Klint Finley and Chris Dancy couldn't be with us this so we’re joined instead by Alex Williams who’s a journalist for TechCrunch and a longtime colleague of mine. Hey, Alex, how’s it going?
AW: Great, Klint. Thank you for having me on the show.
KF: Thanks for coming on in short notice and subbing for my wayward co-host.
AW: He’s a guy who gets around so I welcome the opportunity.
KF: He gets around. I think maybe even more so than you. You’re pretty nomadic yourself.
KF: So we’re joined by a guest today as well. We have Amber Case who is with ESRI Technology and is a cyborg anthropologist. Hi, Amber.
AC: Hi, how are you doing?
KF: Good. Amber, if we could just start off by having you explain just what a cyborg anthropologist is.
AC: Sure. A cyborg anthropologist simply steps back from the general sphere of society that we’re existing in and tries to look at things a little bit more over time specifically looking at tools. So, a traditional anthropologist might go to a field site in another country and look at the anthropological other, look at what these people use for tools, look at their kinship relations and then go write up a report on that.
The idea behind cyborg anthropology is that we’ve always been cyborgs since the first tool, since the first writing, since the first symbols but that we have things that are increasingly extensions of our mental self that aren’t necessarily seen and the fabric of how we interact with technology is changing very rapidly, so rapid that Douglas Rushkoff came out with a book called “Present Shock.” We’re no longer in a future shock, the future is here and we’re presently quite shocked by it. So, stepping back and looking at these things that we have in our pockets that cry and we have to pick them up or we have to plug them into the wall at night is important.
In cyborg anthropology you look at the technology as actors on an actor network. So, you basically look at technology as being its own thing, instead of just looking at it as a tool you look at it with something with a lifetime, something with a personality I guess and see how that affects culture and people over time.
KF: When you say an actor you don’t mean necessarily like Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger? What is an actor in this context?
AC: In this case I mean Bruno Latour’s idea of actor network theory that there are actors on networks. One of my professors went to one of the two anthropologists on the human genome project and she was very interested in seeing how information was transferred from one person to another. You can look at kind of Bruce Sterling’s concept of social objects and things like that where you suddenly have data being this thing that can be given from one person to the other and tracked and that’s one of the things that she was working on doing.
KF: An actor in this case would be someone or something that performs an action or can act in some way?
AW: There is a context too that we all play where the actor is kind of in this cyborg [unclear], so to speak, as well. Is there something to that as well in terms of what the actors are presenting?
AC: Yeah, there’s a book by Erving Goffman called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” and it’s a sociological perspective on how for some person they might be a dad in one moment and then a professional person on the other moment and it depends on your context and your situation you are part created by your environment and you also create your environment and so somebody say creating a company is creating a series of products that have never existed before usually from a story and using the society around them to help bring it to life.
There are some papers that have been written of course cheekily called the “The Presentation of Self in Digital Life” which says we do the same thing online. We have our Facebook voice and we have our LinkedIn. We have our email voice and there are all these standards and norms in our society that we just transferred to the digital space and when something happens where that gets disrupted, where it doesn’t fit what happens in real life they become these big issues. So, one example was when a bunch of parents started joining Facebook previously inhabited by a bunch of people under a certain age that were a certain type of person.
In real life a parent doesn’t often walk into a kid’s conversation and if so, the kids immediately be quiet. In this case, parents were joining Facebook as if they were just walking into a conversation that was very awkward and so all these new social norms and groups and behaviors had to be developed in order to deal with that, in order to deal with the fact that something that was formerly not open in the regular world suddenly opened up in real life and the line started to blur and that’s where the Google + circles came from and things like that where it was trying to go back to what this actually was like in real life in the same way when future phones started having cameras the same thing happened. There was this schism. People had to figure out what to do. Same thing is happening with Google + right now.
AW: Yes, that’s interesting. The way you talk about parents and children, it’s opened up these new dimensions and opened up new potential responsibilities, so for the parents and the children with the responsibility of the parent to feed behavior online knowing that the internet really is a notion and you can [unclear], you can do a lot of other things in it but it also has its big waves, it can pull out of water. There’s lots of responsibilities that go with being online. The children, on the other hand, are thinking like, “Wow, this is a whole new dimension of freedom for me.” So, as a parent, for me, it opened up all kinds of different perspective on how we live in this world.
AC: Yeah, on the one hand, you can be on the internet and be more free. People in other countries without worrying about going through borders, but on the other hand I think there is a constriction of free time in the physical space that modern children may be having where people are more and more growing up in condos, apartments, not having a large backyard, not being allowed to run a mile down the street and play with the other kids on the block.
A lot of people are in different districts. The idea of that neighborhood in suburbia is not necessarily there perfectly anymore and when you think about the early part of last century lots of people having entire fields where you have this exploration of the physical world and often that’s why you get more and more of these books where there’s a children’s world and the children have to take charge like with catching fire and some of these books that have become very popular. Children against children and the whole idea behind it is that because people might not have the physical space that they can go explore, they now have a digital backyard or they have a backyard into a book that they can go into and still feel that creation of identity that you get when you’re a child when nobody else is around that’s an adult.
KF: That’s an interesting issue too. In general, it seems that we’ve gotten more and more afraid of the world even as the world gets safer. My friends that grew up in large cities like New York City, they said when they were kids they didn't have backyards or whatever because it was New York City, but they ran around the neighborhood, they went and explored parts of Queens, and that parents these days just don’t let their kids do that sort of thing in New York. Parents don’t even let their kids do that sort of thing in small suburban communities as they’re terrified with their kids being kidnapped or murdered.
AW: I grew up in Brooklyn.
KF: Oh, you grew in New York, didn't you?
AW: Yes, I grew up in Brooklyn in the seventies. I took the public bus to school, I took it home. When we lived and moved to other neighborhood I walked to school and walked home. I could really go anywhere I wanted to. Like there were definitions to places where I could go and I could not go and that’s probably the most upsetting aspect of having in this day and age where they don’t even want to go anywhere, right? We have created this invisible fear that is kind of like imprinted into their everyday life that they could not go these places, they could not go down the blocks, they have to have their phones. If they don’t have their phones, they’re going to be in danger. This is the new reality.
AC: I think there’s also a restriction on . . . instead of running around now you have planned activities. You’re going to do soccer and then you’re going to do this and then you’re going to do that. So, these are structural activities where you perform a certain function in a certain period of time but it’s not freeform exploratory in the physical sense, right? So, I think that early childhood is about exploring the physical sense so now you’re exploring the two-dimensional sense on the screen and what are you losing you might be losing some of the exploration capability.
Also, people are learning that statistically that people are learning to drive later. The incentive to learn how to drive is not what it was in the past especially with high gas prices the inability to save up quickly to get a vehicle and it’s not as much of a car culture anymore it seems for me. Adolescence, I can get a lot of what I need to do on the internet. Do I necessarily need to drive across town to visit my friend?
KF: It’s much harder to get a part-time job for young people now too, like getting even a minimum wage fast-food job for a teenager is much harder now than it used to be because there’s so many people out of work competing for these jobs.
You were talking about the structured activities and the other thing about those I think, if I’m not mistaken, is that there’s always adult supervision so there’s no that kids world element if you’re at soccer practice or debate club practice or whatever, there’s the chaperone as the adult supervision so that the sort of agencies that would come with being just alone with your peers sort of evaporates when you’re constantly supervised.
AW: Video games, aren’t they like that one place where kids can escape in many ways because most of them have no idea what’s going on inside those video game worlds and there’s lots of communities that have this video game culture. Do you see that and all, Amber?
AC: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the places that people can go, that kids can go. I sat down with a kid who wasn’t really doing well in school. He wasn’t talking to his dad and I asked his dad I was like “Well, how do you hang out with your kid?” and he says “Well, I don’t really know.” So, I saw the kid on a laptop and I said, “Hey, what are you doing?” and he said, “Well, I’m playing a game” and I said “What game?” and he said, “Club Penguin”. So, I logged on to Club Penguin on my laptop, got myself an account and I said “What’s your username?” and I literally just went in and joined the game with him. And of course I couldn’t show that I never played the game before so I had to catch on really quick. So, initially, what the kid did was, he didn’t really necessarily want to show me around. He just wanted to show me that he was really fast in it and kind of leave me in the dust, so I had to catch up.
And so I caught up and I got control of my virtual self so to speak and then I was comfortable and then at that point I had proven myself and then he started showing me around. He said hey, let’s go over here and let’s do this and then we started doing all these activities together like sliding down a mountain or mining for gold, for instance. We could get upgrades which was difficult for me to watch and also participating.
All these different things we ended up doing and then after a while he started telling me about school that day and how frustrated he was with students and just started spilling everything, just everything came out. It was the equivalent of me in the past being his dad and throwing a softball, a baseball to him. Doing something where you’re walking with somebody. You’re doing something tangential and suddenly all the information comes out.
I later sat down and told his dad. I was like, he’s having trouble in school. Here’s why. If you want to hang out with him . . . you’re in computer software you should be able to figure out how to play Club Penguin. This is not an excuse but go to where your kid is and if your kid is in a global backyard go to that backyard even if you can’t go to your own backyard. And we were discussing how it’s hard often for some parents to participate with their kids. And sometimes it’s not liked over a certain age that would be mortifying for somebody’s parent to come in and join them on like some chat room. It wouldn’t make any sense but if the kid is young enough and you’re just building something with them or helping them with something, playing Minecraft with them, for instance, I think it’s a little bit different because it’s something that you’re creating together like your parents helping you build them all a rocket or play with Legos.
AW: Apps have become kind of this crossover medium too, haven’t they? Marshall Kirkpatrick, a friend of ours, I had lunch with him this week and he was [unclear] about the South Park app that he saw and in South Park this app has become very popular that’s called something like Murder Porn or something like that and these parents kind of go out of control. There’s one parent like kills the spouse and the kids are like, “We’ve got to do something about this, this is crazy.” And they create this other app that blocks the parents from actually using this Murder Porn app and the only to get access to the Murder Porn app is if they’ve got the password and the only way that they can get the password is if they know how to tame a horse in Minecraft, but sometimes the parents don’t know how to tame a horse in Minecraft.
AC: That was great.
AW: So what do you think of these apps, kind of like this crossover medium between these different worlds as they relate to kind of how we interact with our colleagues, our parents, our children, whatever?
AC: Personally, I feel like they’re a great placeholder for when you can’t be with somebody but I use Facebook to chat to maybe two people so that I can make plans with them for Friday night. I don’t actually use it to consume data about other people. It makes me depressed. It’s not a great interface for improving one’s self-esteem I suppose and there has been studies done on this lately.
I like to order because it’s more informative people are sharing things that are a little bit more upbeat. It’s not self-centered. And then of course there are people sharing politics which is really annoying. So, I honestly don’t read it very much but I use it as a placeholder or when I meet somebody great at a conference I can add them to my rolodex and it’s like a living rolodex. You can see what they’re up to, engage with them to keep the relationship going because you can’t see them until maybe next year and I think that’s a nice fulfilling part of it. In terms of just using that I would definitely prefer in real life. That’s why so many people are going to conferences and so many people are making meet-up events.
But the thing is I think people nerdify over time. They become more savvy especially as they create and as they get slighted if their data goes away four or five times in a row they’re going to say, oh, I don’t know if I want to try this third party, is it all alternative. If somebody gives them an alternative and there’s a one click install on some server that they run and it’s made easier, then they can run something and at least get somebody to help them maintain it but it leads to something that they own, right?
KF: Ward Cunningham actually said something that gave me some hope in that regard. He pointed out that a while back the idea that people would want to have their own websites was not necessarily accepted, it wasn’t clear that people would, but Facebook proves that everyone wants to have their own website, that they want to have their own feed. I guess MySpace proved it before that. So we now know that people would want to have websites, they want to have activity feeds so now it’s mostly a matter of giving them a way to host it themselves but a while back having a website at all, whether it was a geocities page that you built from a template or if it was something that you hosted yourself on a web server, either way it was fairly geeky because not everybody saw the point of having a webpage. So, yes, people are getting geekier.
I would also mention a company called Cozy Cloud. Their entire cloud platform is open sourced. It’s all built on a node I think, Node.js. But their business models have a hosted version of it but if you wanted to you can just run it anywhere else you wanted to. The other thing that they’re working on is creating little hardware versions of it that they could sell. I don't know if it would be based on raspberry pie or something else.
AC: Great. So, then you have your own server that you bought.
KF: Right. The cool part is that they’re trying to partner with Telcos. They’re French companies mostly talking to European telcos right now. But the idea is that when you sign up for DSL or cable or whatever that you would get your cable modem set up and then you would get your Cozy Cloud set up, so it would just sit there right next to your modem, connected into the modem, and it’s all set up right when you get your internet. If you change internet providers, it’s fine, because it’s the same little box.
AC: Great. Yeah, that makes more sense. Then there can be an online service that backs up your data from that if you need to, if you want to have another backup but on the other hand it teaches people here’s your data, it’s sitting right here unless there’s a flood but there are plenty of natural disasters that can have the data stored elsewhere anyway, so that’s great.
KF: Thanks a lot for taking the time.
AW: Amber, great to talk to you and as usual your insights are fantastic to hear and I look forward to talking soon.
AC: Yeah, great to catch up. All right. Thanks a bunch.
KF: Alex, did you have any tweets of the week that you wanted to share?
AW: I didn't have any specific tweets of the week. I think a lot of the tweets about issues related Twitter I think were some of the most interesting to me, kind of the reactions that people have. There is one actual tweet that I do remember very clearly and it was a picture taken from behind of the three founders of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams, and it was a picture of them sitting on a podium and all you see is the back of their heads and it was obviously at an employee meeting.
To me, that was just very interesting and showed kind of the history of Twitter since those three essentially gathered in a playground one day when they were still running Odeo, the podcasting company that they had started after Blogger, and were thinking through things and Jack had this background in St. Louis of developing systems for taxicab companies and thought of the relativity with something they could do to the point today where everyone in the world . . . Twitter may be one of the highest online brand in the world and those three individuals were the ones who started it.
To me, that’s just so interesting for me personally as well because in 2007 I interviewed Jack and Biz at SouthbySouthwest and it really took off and it was such a funny conversation because they were kind of awkward, I was kind of awkward and asking questions with them and we talked about the role of Twitter and how it can become potentially a real provider of SMS message, and being an SMS message network it didn't take that turn at all, it can did become something else. But just to see those people, now looking at their faces and looking at behind, to me it said a lot about where we’ve been.
KF: Great, cool. I just wanted to mention a few events before we sign off. There’s Defrag in Denver, Colorado in November 4-6 and it will be a chance to actually catch all of us. Alex, you’re speaking there, Amber is speaking there, I’m speaking there and our usual host Christ Dancy is speaking there so it will be a great big Mindful Cyborgs party. And then I also wanted to mention the Buddhist Geeks Contemplative Technology Conference in San Francisco, April 11-13, so I wanted also to thank all of our listeners and thank you, Alex, for subbing in this week. Thank you to Aaron Jasinski who created the art for Mindful Cyborgs, Ross Nelson of Brown Hound Media for mixing. Talk to you next time.
AW: Thanks, Klint.