or just get new friends
…or just get new friends?

The easiest, laziest, most click-baitiest op-ed, trend video, or thing to scream at a bar right now is how, with today’s technologies, we are more connected but also more alone. Ooh. Zuckerberg has 500 million friends but it was never really a spoiler to say that Sorkin’s The Social Network ends with him sitting alone at a computer. Ooh. The Turkle-esque irony is just too good for it not to zeitgeist all over the place.

That argument should not be altogether dismissed but I am quite skeptical of where it’s so often coming from and how it’s articulated. This trend might be largely disingenuous, and by that I do not mean intentionally insincere but instead a sort of cultural positioning: we-are-connected-but-alone not only drips with that delicious ironic juxtaposition, it simultaneously props the person making the case as being somehow deeper, more human, more in touch with others and experience. more...

This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). See the conference website for information as well as event registration.

This panel consists of four presentations that exhibit a theoretically rich range of approaches to understanding theory of mobile technologies in contemporary contexts. Jason Farman’s “The Materiality of the Mobile Internet: An Object-Oriented Approach to Mobile Networks” uses the path of a single mobile phone signal to illustrate the importance of considering both human and non-humannodes in digital networks. Katy Pearce’s “Is your Web everyone’s Web? Theorizing the web through the lens of the device divide” considers the social implications of accessing the Internet via mobile vs. traditional interfaces. In doing so, she casts a much-needed theoretical spotlight on a notion many of us grasp intuitively: that the quality of one’s online experience depends critically on the device(s) used to get online. Along similar lines, David Banks’ “Finding it ‘Otherwise': Culturally and Geographically Situating The Practice of Texting” takes a sociotechnical approach to mobile phoneuse in Ghana, discovering how residents use their phones to move about their world. In a laudable instance of research informing real-world practice, data from the project will inform the deployment of a regional condom distribution network. Finally, Jim Thatcher’s “MobileGeo-Spatial Devices: a theoretical approach to the GeoWeb” critically interrogates the mediation of geographical knowledge-gathering through mobile devices. Applying a critical Marxist understanding oftechnology, he develops a radical reading of ostensibly innocuous “apps” that may serve to reinforce offline inequalities.

[Paper titles and abstracts after the jump.] more...

What Facebook knows about you, via the Spectacular Optical tumblr (click for more images)

Rob Horning has been working on the topic of the “Data Self.” His project has a close parallel to my own work and after reading his latest post, I’d like to jump in and offer a conceptual distinction for thinking about the intersection of the online/data/Profile and the offline/Person.

The problem is that our online presence is too often seen as only the byproduct of our offline selves. Sometimes we talk about the way online profiles are passive reflections of who we are and what we do and other times we acknowledge our profiles are also partly performative adjustments to the “reality” of the person. However, in all the discussion of individuals creating this content what is often neglected is how the individual, in all of their offline experience, behavior and existence, is simultaneously being created by this very online data. We cannot describe how a person creates their Profile without always acknowledging how the Profile creates the person.


628x471Why is it that authorities are so quick to fear, blame and entirely eliminate electronic communications in the face of unpredictable gatherings of people?

Hosni Mubarak pulled the plug on the Internet during the Egyptian uprising in an attempt to do away with the protesting masses. After the recent riots in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron blamed social media and pondered shutting down electronic communications. And, most recently, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (or BART) subway system turned off mobile coverage because there were rumors of protest. Authorities large and small across the globe are worried about people being more connected than ever.

Putting aside the important issue of free speech, I want to ask why BART officials feel that communication technologies are making people less safe in times of confusion? Is it part of a larger knee-jerk reaction to not understand social media and thus be scared of it? Ultimately, disrupting communications in a time of potential crisis to make people more safe is a fallacy; it does just the opposite.


David Carr recently wrote a piece in the New York Times where he states,

Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude.

Has it?

The article is about how people are increasingly gazing into little glowing screens when in physical space. Carr views this as a “mass thumb-wrestling competition” where we are “desperately” staring at devices instead of making “actual” connections. And it is his usage of “actual” here that tips us off on why he has such a negative view of people looking at screens: he, like so many others, suffers from digital dualism. I’ve critiqued Amber Case, Jeff Jarvis and others on this blog for failing to make the conceptual leap that the digital sphere is not this separate space like The Matrix but instead that reality is augmented. I’ve been through the argument enough times on this blog that I’ll just refer you to the links and move ahead.

Carr’s digital dualism begins in his description of people looking at phones while at South By Southwest this past spring, something he then uses as evidence for the larger problem of increasing disconnectedness. He argues, more...

Protesters charge their mobile phones in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

In my previous post on “Digital Dualism Versus Augmented Reality,” I lay out two competing views for conceptualizing digital and material realities. Some view the physical and digital as (1) separate, akin to the film The Matrix, or (2) as an augmented reality where atoms and bits are increasingly imploding into each other.

I prefer the latter, and want to apply this augmented paradigm to the revolutions occurring in the Arab world that have been taking place this winter as well as the subsequent debate over the causes. I, like many others, am equally frustrated by those who give either all or none of the credit for these uprisings to social media tools and argue instead that what is occuring is an augmented revolution.

On one side there are those that promoted the phrase “Twitter revolution” during more...

The power of social media to burrow dramatically into our everyday lives as well as the near ubiquity of new technologies such as mobile phones has forced us all to conceptualize the digital and the physical; the on- and off-line.

And some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.

In a 2009 post titled “Towards Theorizing An Augmented Reality,” I discussed geo-tagging (think Foursquare or Facebook Places), street view, face recognition, the Wii controller and the fact that sites like Facebook both impact and are impacted by the physical world to argue that “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.” This is opposed to the notion that the Internet is like the Matrix, where there is a “real” (Zion) that you leave when you enter the virtual space (the Matrix) -an outdated perspective as Facebook is increasingly real and our physical world increasingly digital.

I have used this perspective of augmentation to critque dualism when I see it. For instance, more...

While many write about the various ways that the Internet makes us less safe, namely cyberbullying or being attacked by someone you met on Craigslist, it is also important to look at the new possibilities the web creates to ease suffering occurring in the physical world. When the Cyborgology editors recently spoke to WYPR about cyberbullying, we also discussed cybersupport, as is the case of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better YouTube project. The folks at WYPR also pointed us to another interesting example, the Egypt-based Harassmap created by a group of volunteer techno-activists. According to this report [.pdf], 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of female travelers to this country report being harassed. Given the very limited legal recourse for women in Egypt, this online tool is one way to provide voice to the vulnerable.

The map above is a screen-shot from the Harassmp site. Women in Cairo can report incidences of sexual harassment from their mobile phones via text message. The incident that occurred in the physical world is then digitized as a plot on the map using the phone’s GPS. This provides the masses a reality now augmented with a digital layer that seeks to “act as an advocacy, prevention, and response tool, highlighting the severity and pervasiveness of the problem.” The story of social media is not just how it harms people, but also how it helps.

View the map here. More information here (scroll down for English).

We frequently discuss how young people (i.e., “digital natives”) use technology on the Cyborgology blog.  Today, I have compiled and interesting graph illustrating the age at which today’s minors got their first cell phone.

More data  on this topic is available at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

photo by John Hill

For all those folks whose only impediment to climbing Mount Everest has been their inability to Tweet updates while on the journey: your excuses are now dried up. Representatives from Ncell, Nepal’s main mobile network, announced recently that they have installed cellular service that reaches all the way to the top of Mount Everest, the world’s highest point. According to the Reuters report:

“The installation could help the tens of thousands of mountain climbers and trekkers who visit the Mount Everest region in the Solukhumbu district every year. They have to depend on expensive satellite phones to remain in touch with their families as the remote region lacks proper communication facilities.”

This development has interesting implications for the Cyborgology blog’s ongoing discussion of augmented reality and the limits of material experience. When we think about the material world being augmented by virtual content, we tend to think about it in an urban context, usually in tandem with marketing or networking efforts. But how do we begin to think about augmenting the reality that exists in the remotest and most dangerous of regions, like the summit of Mount Everest?

The statistics aren’t entirely clear, but best estimates say that the number of climbers who have successfully reached the summit of Everest only goes into the low two thousands, and at least two hundred of those who have attempted the climb have perished. Most of those who the mountain has claimed remain where they died, frozen into the rock for all time. Some of those bodies are plainly visible from established routes up the mountainside, mummified by the dry air and harsh wind at that altitude. That’s some pretty real reality right there. So how augmented could it get? more...