Monthly Archives: November 2009

information wants to be expensive

My previous post centered on the implications of Google’s dominance in internet search. However, subsequent major news provides the possibility of a major restructuring of the internet search market. It also has implications on how “flat” and “open” the web really is.

One of the basic things all users of the internet do is search. Search is what makes the abundance of information usable. We assume that our search engine has access to the relevant information on the web. Most of us simply use Google to do this. These last two statements are impacted by recent news that Microsoft and Newscorp are in talks to have Newscorp’s online content (e.g., The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Times of London, The Sun in Britain, etc.) removed from Google and be hosted exclusively on Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

The magnitude of this news becomes clear given some of the possible implications:

1-While Google can well-afford to purchase exclusive content of its own, the very possibility of users having to go to different search engines for different types of searches so drastically changes the face of search that Google’s dominance could be unsettled. Will the users that so far have used Google out of habit continue to do so when they have to think about what engine to use depending on what they are searching for?

2-We may see a search engine arms race, where different engines gobble up different content, spreading information all around and making it far less usable for the rest of us. This creation of barriers to information and access is opposed to Friedman’s “flat world” hypothesis or the idea that “information wants to be free” (hypotheses that sociologists should be skeptical of in the first place). Whether this deal between Microsoft and Newscorp happens or not, we should remember that interested parties want information to remain expensive. ~nathan

News Corp. Weighs an Exclusive Alliance With Bing

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Googlization of Everything

Cyborg Systems: Sociology's Proper Unit of Analysis

The increasing centrality of the Internet in our daily lives has precipitated a spate of theorizing about how we – as humans and as a society – are changing (or not) due to the constant technological mediation of our most basic interactions and activities.  Let’s face it: This sort of theorizing is populated mostly by men of considerable privilege (with some very notable exceptions).  A cynic might hold that the problems concerning human techno-social interactions are relatively insignificant compared to more pressing issues of race, class, gender, age, etc.  One cannot but be sympathetic to such charges.

However, I would posit that a complicated set of processes are at work in causing many to view theory surrounding the Internet and its ever-expanding litany of technical terms (e.g., Web 2.0, prosumption, produsage, playbor, or sousveillance) as largely irrelevant to the salient social issues of our day: 1.) The theorists of the Web, tending to work from a position of privilege, perhaps, simply lack awareness of feminist and other situated discourses, thus failing to acknowledge their relevance.  2.) Privilege may also account for a willingness to be satisfied by grand theoretical projects that produce political objectives couched in inaccessible language, too impractical to be actionable, altogether irrelevant, or simply nonexistent.  3.) Disciplinary specialization is such that the theorists from Marxian, post-structuralist, and/or science and technology studies traditions who are studying similar phenomena may not be in dialogue with one another. (more…)

The Presentation of Self…in Dating

Eva Illouz, in Cold Intimacies asks us to consider how technology changes notions of the body and of emotions.  One of the forced rearticulations occurs in the realm of the presentation of self.  As Illouz notes, when technology (specifically in the form of the Internet) mediates relationships we are simultaneously displaying our innermost private selves in an extremely public way.  The subjects of our own experiences and author of what we choose to reveal yet increasingly vulnerable to the scrutiny and objectification of others.

New technology enables individuals to do background checks on potential partners, looking into financial status, marriage and divorce histories, and criminal records (see article below).  One of the reasons given to support this technology is the claim that people do not always accurately represent themselves.  While that is certainly true in today’s world of online dating (and has always been true), we need to think about both the consequences of such technology and interrogate whether any representation of self on the Internet is “true.”

The beauty of online self-representation is that individuals can misrepresent themselves, they can omit their negative traits, use catch phrases that may not describe them but garner attention and seem more likely to attract a mate, and can even doctor photos.  Granted that this kind of misrepresentation is distinct from lying about one’s marital status but we do need to take seriously the notion that the presentation of self is always a partial truth.

The background check technology only serves to exacerbate the blurring of public and private, our simultaneous subject-object position, and allows the Internet (and consumerism) to mediate intimate relations.  As Illouz notes, “the Internet radicalizes the demand that one find for oneself the best (economic and psychological) bargain” (Ilouz 2007, 86).

CNN “Is Your Date a ‘Stud’ or a ‘Dud?’ Ask Your Phone”

 

 

Editor's Highlights: Reality Television as Small Screen Documentary?

This fall’s lineup in the United States featured fewer reality programs, but they are still a dominant part of network TV.  Jelle Mast’s September 2009 article in the Communication and Media section of Sociology Compass challenges sociologists to think about the form and function of reality television programming.  Beginning with a critique of the academic community’s acceptance of the term “reality television,” Mast then compares this form to documentary television.  Whereas documentary television seeks to inform, educate, or connect viewers, reality television seems to merge these goals with that of popular genres which seek to entertain.  Challenging the “reality” of such programs, Mast examines many theoretical traditions to discover how reality television can be conceptualized based upon what we know about existing forms of entertainment.  The ethical dimensions of reality television are also explored, for both the the subject and the viewer, along with research on the production of such programs and their audiences.  Future research might yield a better understanding of both documentary television and reality television forms.

Jelle Mast on Documentary at a Crossroads: Reality TV and the Hybridization of Small-Screen Documentary

Muslim Identity, Cultural Trauma, and the Racialized Backlash

Jeffrey Alexander writes that “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (2004). With this basic definition in mind, can we call the shootings that took place at the Fort Hood army base a “cultural trauma”? In this case, the identity of the United States military may have been terribly complicated. Military leaders have made many statements in the media decrying this incident as the work of a deranged individual, and have stated repeatedly that Muslims serving in the military have made sacrifices as great as those belonging to any other religious group.

However, there have been reports of growing concern in some areas of the media (such as Fox News) that directly blame the alleged shooter’s faith for the incident. Such commentators blame a climate of “political correctness” for ignoring the “warning signs” that Nidal Hasan was becoming “radicalized.” A more nuanced analysis of the situation might place Hasan in the same group of other military men and women who have been experiencing strain related to eight plus years of armed conflict in the Middle East. Although Hasan had yet to be deployed, his work as a military psychiatrist counseling the victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome made him an asset that the army could not afford to lose, and some believe that this fact above all else was the main reason that the command structure overlooked or downplayed his past disciplinary problems.

Whatever the eventual outcome of Hasan’s trial may be, the identity of the U.S. military has been thrown into a state of flux. By extension, the concept of who is a “real” American has been dealt another blow. This incident, in conjunction with the racialized discourse surrounding the birth origins of President Obama, has added to the cultural trauma of Muslim and American identity in the U.S. that has plagued the 21st century so far.

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Will the Right Islam Stand Up? by Amitai Etzioni

Wikipedia’s ‘increasing focus on quality and referencing’

Many lecturers and teachers will recognise the feeling of disheartenment when confronted by an undergraduate essay containing multiple references to Wikipedia. Despite regular exhortations for students to resist its charms, its appeal seems almost overwhelming. Although the site is loved by many, its major selling point of completely open access (i.e. ‘anyone can contribute to or edit’ its entries) is precisely why academics shake their heads in frustration.

However, in a recent interview with Emma Barnett of The Telegraph, Jimmy Wales (co-founder) appears to suggest that things are about to change at Wikipedia. Most noticeable is the creation of new measures, described as “flagged revisions”. In essence, this will mean that all new submissions and edited content, which relate to a living person, will have to be authenticated by one of Wikipedia’s editors, prior to online publication. Despite criticism that the whole ethos of the Wikipedia site will be degraded by the introduction of pre-publication censorship, Wales is convinced that this is the way forward. He points to a slowing of growth amongst new articles on the English version, suggesting that contributors are now concentrating on ensuring the articles already available are accurate, rather than simply adding more and more new material.

Whether the promise of ‘an increasing focus on quality and referencing’ will be able to sway the academic community, remains to be seen. However, the sheer volume of information and the speed with which it is checked and uploaded, makes it unlikely that Wikipedia is anywhere near reaching the stringent standards required for academia and education.

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Allison Cavanagh on ‘From Culture to Connection: Internet Community Studies’

Portable pornography in the public sphere: Convenient, offensive or hazardous?

By Rachael Liberman

It’s one thing to experience the pornification of culture through public advertising (billboards, subway adverts), among other mediated formats. But what if someone sitting next to you on the subway is watching pornography on their iPod? In a recent Washington Post article, Staff Writer Monica Hesse questions the acceptability of portable porn, also known as “secondhand porn” to those experiencing forced exposure. Due to technological (portable) advancements, the consumption of digital pornography has moved from the domestic to the public. Instead of being subjected to pornography by your “slobby” college roommate, Hesse reports that exposure has permeated public transportation, among other venues. She writes, “But the increasing popularity of laptops and handheld devices, and the prevalence of wireless Internet success, means there’s a greater chance of becoming a bystander to a complete stranger’s viewing proclivities. Like being exposed to the cigarette smoke of a nicotine addict on the street, people are inhaling secondhand smut.”

In her article, Hesse does not maintain that “secondhand porn” is a plague infecting the public sphere. Instead, she writes that it is a steady phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent –during flights and professional basketball games. She also does not make this a moral issue. Instead, Hesse frames this phenomenon around the public/private debate and cultural dependence on personal technology. (more…)

Consequences of terror trials in NY: Re-traumatization and Revenge

The announcement that several terror suspects, including Khalid Saikh Mohammed, implicated in the 9/11 attacks, will have their day in New York City courts was released last week. This news sparked fervent debate both between and within political parties for a range of reasons. Why civilian courts? Why in New York City? And what will the ramifications be? One of the possible consequences that has been relatively overlooked is how the incessant coverage of these trials will affect New Yorkers who, eight years ago, were arguably most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks due to the number of deaths and level of damage to the city. What will bringing these trials to New York, where many people still suffer psychological consequences of the events of September 11th, do to the New Yorkers who lived through the destruction, chaos and utter fear eight years ago? More specifically, there is a possibility that some New Yorkers will be re-traumatized by the trials and perhaps anger and even a renewed desire for revenge will surface.

This weekend, CNN, MSNBC and FOX News all featured stories about the possibility of trials in NYC and each one of these channels broadcast at least several scenes of the events of 9/11. Aside from on the anniversary, the images of 9/11 have relatively faded into the background – they are still part of the collective memory, but not anywhere near as salient as they were just several years ago. Bringing these suspects to New York opens the door for increased attention to be focused on the events of 9/11 and for Americans and particularly New Yorkers to be re-exposed to much of the footage that many people find hard to witness even though almost a decade has passed.

Another worry might be that, while the initial experience of 9/11 was horrific, traumatizing and frightening, it also yielded some positive unintended consequences. New Yorkers and Americans more broadly were reminded of the need for pro-social behavior and often reported feeling an increased sense of kindness from their neighbors. People felt compelled to engage in helping behavior and connected to others around them in new ways – a sense of kinship emerged. However, in bringing the terror suspects to trial in New York, one might wonder if this will have the opposite effect and bring out antagonisms and possibly even violence and hatred. There is the possibility that these suspects will be seen as martyrs by their fellow extremists both in the US and abroad, which could fuel anti-American sentiment. There is also the possibility that the American feeling of the need for revenge will re-emerge and could create serious ethnic tensions at home and abroad. In sum, the possibility for re-traumatization and a resurgence of the desire for revenge will be unfortunate outcomes if the trials do indeed take place in New York.  The article below on the social benefits of collective trauma indicates that there can be unexpected positive outcomes of even the most shocking and awful events. However, bringing these trials to New York seems as though it has the potential to re-ignite some of the negative sentiments surrounding 9/11, but very few of the pro-social or positive social outcomes of the actual traumatic event itself.

Accused 9/11 Mastermind to Face Civilian Trial in N.Y.

Finding social benefits after a collective trauma: Perceiving societal changes and well-being following 9/11

conference summary part 2: the internet as playground and factory

500px-Google_wordmark.svgFollowing PJ Rey’s excellent summary of the Internet as Playground and Factory yesterday, I offer a few additional observations from the conference this past weekend, focusing on Web 2.0 capitalism, and Google as the primary target. The roughly 100 presenters were not joined by Google, as the company said that the conference content seemed “slightly anti-capitalist.” Much of the content, indeed, took the corporate ownership of our productive labor online to task.

A common theme was how to discuss Marx’s Labor Theory of Value with respect to Web 2.0. Clearly, companies are exploiting our free labor, but they do not have to coerce us. Julian Kucklich argued that we now have exploitation without alienation. That is, our unpaid labor is used for corporate surveillance and profit, even if the labor is not alienating or “foreign to ourselves.” Simply, we like using Facebook, Twitter and so on. However, Kucklich further argues that we are taught to think Facebook is fun, that companies use the “ideology of play” to seduce us into producing (or better, prosuming). Martin Roberts, in, ironically, perhaps the conference’s most entertaining presentation, also took to task the culture of “fun”, arguing that we have been trained to see our work as “fun”, making us more productive for the capitalist system. Christian Fuchs most forcefully argued for a communist Internet, stating that exploitation on Web 2.0 is infinite because users are not being paid material wages. A good Marxian, he downplayed the importance of immaterial value gained through sites like Facebook because we live in a capitalism system based on the material. And Ulises Mejias takes Web 2.0 to task for the creation of corporate Monopsonies, where we have seen Facebook, Amazon, eBay, YouTube, Google and so on become corporate titans of Web 2.0 capitalism. He argues that using these corporate Monopsonies is dangerous and irresponsible, calling for open-source and public versions of these types of services.

Thus, it is clear to see why Google was reluctant to join this conference. Frank Pasquale forcefully called on Google to be more transparent. Given what was discussed above, as well as Google’s central status in our day-to-day knowledge-seeking life, Pasquale leaves us with questions to ponder: should its page-rank algorithm be public? Should Google be allowed to up-rank or down-rank links based their relationship to the company? Should Google be able to simply remove pages from its listings? Should Google be forced to let us know when they do these things? ~nathan

The Googlization of Everything

Conference Summary Part I: The Internet as Playground and Factory

The New School held a conference last week that may be of interest to many Sociology Lens readers, so I have decided to devote this week’s entry to sharing some notes from the conference.

The implosion of work and play was the most recurrent theme in the panels that I attended.  The term “playbor” was frequently used to describe the product of this implosion.  Panelists generally seemed to assume that playbor was a relatively new and increasingly prevalent phenomenon.  However, one dissenter, an artist named Stephanie Rothenberg, argued that play and productivity have coincided from the earliest days of capitalism.  She explained that hobbies (e.g., collecting, handicraft, parlor room singsong, gardening, and animal raising) are voluntary forms of play that produce objects with no intent to exchange them on the market.  These activities often have significant social aspects and some hobbies, like music or quilting, are even done collaboratively.  Given the resemblance to hobbies, Rothenberg urges that we view playbor as the latest instantiation of a historical trend, rather than newly emerging paradigm.  In fact she claims that online environments like Second Life mimic the world so hyperbolically that they offer an unprecedented opportunity for us to turn a critical eye on ourselves.  In our distanced view of these “simulacrums,” we find our own distanced reflections.

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