Archive for Technology

Farewell to Facebook. Mostly.

Goodbye Facebook

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few months.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been gradually drifting away from Facebook. Lately, the drift has become a decisive move. Last month, I downloaded my Facebook data — in order to better see precisely what Facebook was collecting.  Then, I removed Facebook from my phone and tablet.

There are many reasons for my move — most recently, Facebook’s pursuit of treason for cash. But, more generally, I am stepping away because — like so many “free” platforms — Facebook is a parasitic business that monetizes your attention and personal data. I don’t feel comfortable supporting Mark Zuckerberg’s reckless, lucrative, criminal enterprise. So, I’m on his platform less often.

But I haven’t yet closed my account. Two groups with which I am affiliated have Facebook presences; I feel a professional responsibility to maintain an account in order to manage those. It’s possible that I may occasionally pop in to post birthday wishes. I suspect, though, that my infrequent engagement with this predatory platform means I’ll miss a lot of Facebook friends’ birthdays. I’m sorry about that: I really enjoyed posting a different song each year.

Note to Self podcastMy move away from Facebook began with Manoush Zomorodi’s Note to Self podcast, which I started listening to at the beginning of 2017. Its “Bored and Brilliant” series (2015/2017) introduced me to the Moment app, which allows you to monitor your use of your iPhone or iPad. (If you have an Android phone, it recommends the BreakFree app.) Moment showed me how often I was using my devices, and helped me cut back.  Subsequent series — its “Infomagical” series (2016) and its “Privacy Paradox” series (2017) — also helped. I deleted apps I wasn’t using. I turned off notifications. I tidied up my apps into little folders.

If you wonder whether your use of technology may be hindering or even harming you, I highly recommend these three Note to Self series. If you have already noticed the ways in which apps and social media ensnare and prey upon your attention, then perhaps you have already taken the necessary steps to reclaim your life. Whatever you ultimately decide to do, I recommend reflecting on your relationship to technology. Not coincidentally, such reflection is the focus of the Note to Self podcast.

I used to make the effort to, say, check Facebook only twice a day — an effort at which I did not always succeed. However, in the past month or so, I have found it quite easy to stay off of Facebook. I actually find myself putting off checking Facebook. I’m simply not comfortable being there. Its willingness to aid Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is a major catalyst — selling Trump ads at much lower rates than Clinton ads (because Trump ads got more clicks), taking Russian money (in Rubles, even!) to fund pro-Trump propaganda & fake news, or allowing Cambridge Analytica to harvest its users’ data (again, in support of the mendacious traitor who currently occupies the White House… well, when he’s not at one of his golf courses).

Mark Zuckerberg in Washington, DC, 9 Apr. 2018. Photo by AP

In his testimony yesterday, Mr. Zuckerberg said his slow response to Russian meddling is “one of [his] greatest regrets,” and promised to ban apps that are “doing anything improper.”  Earlier that day, he said he will make sure Facebook is “a positive force in the world.”  There is zero reason to believe him. First, he has made promises like this before — as in this 2009 interview, below.

Second, there is no regulation that would compel him to keep these promises. Third, and as Tim Wu points out, the flaws of Facebook are not a bug but a feature. Facebook is designed to surveil its users:

The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.

Exactly.  If you sign up for Facebook, you’re donating your personal data and time to an enterprise built on manipulating you and selling others whatever you tell it about yourself. Because that’s what Facebook is.

Beyond the obvious fact that I don’t want to continue enriching Mr. Zuckerberg or supporting his poisonous enterprise, I simply don’t like being on Facebook. It feels like a sinister, perilous place to be.

I know, of course, that social media has always been far more dangerous for women, people of color, gay people, the trans community, and all whom society renders more vulnerable. And I am aware that many daily behaviors implicate all of us in injustices of various kinds. (How much child labor went into making your cell phone? Who made that chocolate and under what conditions? How much money does Twitter make from Russian bots or the traffic generated by Herr Twitler?) I realize that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle ourselves from all dubious products and practices. But Facebook is one that I can step back from.

I’ll miss knowing what’s going on in people’s lives, and I may well miss useful professional information. But I won’t miss the misinformation, the clickbait, the amplification of outrage, or that queasy, soul-sucking feeling of being on Facebook.

So, that’s why you have been seeing much less of me on Facebook — and will see even less of me in the future. I have yet to delete my account, but that day may come, too. We’ll see.

Twitter bird logoIf you need to reach me, email and Twitter (@philnel) remain more reliable ways of doing so. Those who know me know that Facebook was never the best way to reach me (though I once had the app on my phone and tablet, I never installed Facebook Messenger). But for those who weren’t aware, now you are.

Be safe out there.  Take care of yourselves.  And drop me a line if you need anything, OK?


Image sources: “Goodbye Facebook” from Anusha Sachwani’s “Facebook to Pull Support from These Devices!” (BrandSynario, 29 Mar. 2017); Note to Self logo from Note to Self podcast (WNYC); AP photo of Zuckerberg in Washington DC from “Mark Zuckerberg plans to tell Congress that as long as he’s CEO, advertisers won’t take priority over Facebook’s users” (Business Insider, 9 Apr. 2018); Twitter button.

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Setup Wizard

Setup WizardAttention Harry Potter Fans! While you await Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (script to be published July 31), check out The Setup Wizard, the “Daily Accounts of a Muggle I.T. Guy working at Hogwarts.”  Its premise is that, at Hogwarts, “students and staff alike have finally caved and demanded that their cell phones work on school grounds.” The muggle they hire, Jonathan Dart, having “learned through the grapevine that other magical schools are planning on making the same jump,” decides to write a blog in the hope that his “experiences can help other outsiders down the road.”

This offers him many opportunities to venture into unexplored areas of the Potterverse and consider one of its curious absences — muggle technology. Here’s a sample post:

Have you ever tried to set up wifi under a lake? The damn Slytherin kids almost refused to even let me into their common room until I explained to them what Spotify is and how, with the magical power of the internet, they can stream all the emo music their little hearts could ever desire.

And here’s one more:

If my “improper” spelling of the word ‘color’ hasn’t cued you in, I am originally from the other side of the pond from Hogwarts. Let me tell you, you cannot find a decent cup of coffee anywhere in Hogsmeade. I’m cool with tea, but sometimes a man needs a taste of what singlehandedly got him through his early 20s.

Luckily, I was able to work a Keurig into the budget this month. The Headmaster asked what the device was for and I insisted that it was a flux relay needed to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and maintain the balance of the force of the server’s matrix capacity. Long story short he thinks I’m a technical genius and I have a cup of hazelnut flavored happiness.

To get a sense of the full narrative, I recommend reading the series in order.

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Upgrade Vortex

abstract black-and-white vortex

upgrade vortex, n. The hidden temporal, cognitive, and/or financial costs of getting a new electronic device (tablet, smart phone, computer, etc.).

We need a term to describe the experience of obtaining a new technological item, and then the (guaranteed but never mentioned) troubleshooting and cost that inevitably follows. I propose “upgrade vortex” — upgrade both because this is the catalyst that precipitates the condition (“I need to upgrade my smartphone”) and because spending time in this vortex is an inevitable part of getting the upgrade. I use the word vortex because the problems and tasks whirl around you, threaten to engulf you, but you can ultimately escape them. For example, with the latest iteration of your smart phone, you now need to buy a (more expensive) new plan. Or, you cannot simply transfer your old data and apps to the new tablet because first the new tablet’s system must itself be updated; so, set it up as a new tablet, install the update, and then move your old tablet’s information over. Or the set-up instructions turn out not to work, and so you end up troubleshooting its problems yourself, either via help discussion forums, or the company’s help line.  Or you realize you’ve been sent a dud, and need to return it and try again.*  And, quite possibly, all of the above. But, eventually, you leave the vortex and enjoy your new piece of technology. Hooray!

Until it’s time to upgrade again.  Then,… you re-enter the upgrade vortex.

_____

* If anyone loved Logitech’s ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad (as I did), let me warn you against getting a Logitech ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad 2 Air… because it doesn’t work.

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I Love the ’80s: Dystopia, Nostalgia, and Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player OneKansas State University’s “K-State First” asked me to talk to undergraduates about Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011), this year’s “First Book,” at a “Beyond the Classroom” event.  So, this past Tuesday (Oct. 1st), I did.  In case it may be of interest to others, I’m posting my (admittedly somewhat hastily assembled) talk here, along with some of the images and videos.

I. Dystopia

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a dystopian novel.  Can a dystopian novel be nostalgic?

For those unfamiliar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopiaUtopia comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name, and it imagines an ideal society.  This Utopia is the ideal republic towards which we should all strive.  And, as such, it offers a commentary on what’s wrong with society — it points to what should be improved or changed. How can we make society better?

M.T. Anderson, FeedDystopia has that same improving impulse, that same wish to comment critically on contemporary society, but it goes about delivering that message by imagining the opposite of an ideal society.  A dystopia is a thought experiment that isolates and exaggerates certain social trends in order to highlight their most negative qualities. The most famous examples are probably George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. In other words, a dystopia offers a critique of society by imaginatively extending the logic of already extant tendencies. Margaret Atwood goes after right-wing attacks on women’s rights in the 1980s, and imagines a modern America where women are valued primarily for their ability to give birth. M.T. Anderson imagines a world where you’re always on-line because you’ve had the feed implanted in your brain; this changes our ability to think, to have complex thoughts. His characters are constantly bombarded with information, commercials, entertainment… and enjoy that… but get precious little time to actually think.

utopia vs. dystopia

A dystopia is a dark place.  You don’t want to live there.  You want to change your society so you don’t have to live there.

Reagan: Government is the problem.Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One presents a dystopian future, in which the widening gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else — a trend which begins in the 1980s, and has continued since then — has grown so wide that the U.S. is now a Third-World country.  In this world, neglected infrastructure, underfunded schools, social services have continued their decline.  This trend also begins in the 1980s, as President Reagan and his “government is the problem” acolytes start going after spending on infrastructure, schools, and other social services. It’s going on right now, actually, as the allegedly “conservative” Republican Party has decided that it’s better to shut down the government than allow more people to access health care.  Relaxing laws that regulate corporations — another ’80s phenomenon that has continued under presidents from both parties — has given the companies in Cline’s world much more power, so much power that instead of just enslaving people in other countries, they can enslave them in this one.  You don’t want to live in Cline’s vision of the future.

II. Nostalgia

Or do you?  Cline’s novel also evinces a deep nostalgia for the same period in which these trends begin: the 1980s.

Zaxxon

The videogames.

Family Ties

The television shows.

Duran Duran

The music.

The Breakfast Club

The John Hughes movies.

Of James Halliday, whose will initiates the contest that our protagonist pursues, Cline’s narrator tells us: “He had an extreme fixation on the 1980s” and “Halliday seemed to expect everyone to share his obsessions” (55).  To win the contest that grants the lucky winner control of Halliday’s corporation — the one that created and manages the OASIS, an on-line virtual reality where everyone spends most of their time — contestants must become experts in 1980s trivia.

I turned 11 in 1980.  Ernest Cline turned 8 in 1980.  James Halliday turned 7 in 1980.  (I figured this out because Wade’s name appears on the high-score chart in 2045, “After five long years” of no one solving the contest, initiated at Halliday’s death, … and Halliday died at age 67.)  Anyway.  My point is that Cline, Halliday, and myself are contemporaries.  We’re all members of the 1980s generation.

And, as a member of that generation, I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgia.

Especially the music. 1983 was the zenith of my pop-music consciousness. Name a song released that year, and I’ll tell you who the artist was and I can probably describe the video.

I then showed the students excerpts from a few 1980s music videos. For the most part, they laughed.

Billy Idol‘s “Rebel Yell” was a hit in 1983.  (It’s referenced on p. 184.)

They laughed the loudest at this, especially at Mr. Idol’s fist-pumping.

Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” was a no. 3 pop hit in 1982.  (See p. 180.)

To my surprise, some students recognized this one.

And, yes, before there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there was “Rock Me Amadeus,” a number one hit in 1985. Sung in German, by the Austrian performer Falco. (On p. 200.)

To my surprise, “Rock Me Amadeus” was less familiar to them.  Or so it seemed from their reaction.

They Might Be Giants‘ “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986) was not a big hit, but the book quotes this line from the song: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (199). Also, they’re my favorite band. So, indulge me for a moment, won’t you?

Thanks.  The band’s biggest hits were probably on their 1990 record Flood: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They would go on to sing “Boss of Me,” the theme to Malcolm in the Middle.

OK.  So.  That was fun.  For me, anyway.

III. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 1

So. What do we do with the novel’s nostalgia?  Here are two possible readings.

One is that a typical dystopian novel — or film, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is referenced in Ready Player One — isn’t nostalgic.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)

One reading, then, is to argue that nostalgia is the opposite of dystopia.  It’s a looking backwards with very selective memory.  You’re remembering the past’s greatest hits — or the parts that you like the best.  You remember fondly weird trashy pop from the 1980s, primitive computing technology, The Breakfast Club, Family Ties, and think: ah, a simpler time.  A happier time.

Perhaps you, who are at least two decades younger than I am, look back fondly on the pop hits of 2003: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  I don’t know.

So, if we pursue this reading of nostalgia, we might remember what Laine Nooney said in her talk here last Friday, which was that Ready Player One has a vision of the 1980s “in which the popular was never political.”

The problem is that the actual 1980s popular culture was political.

Family Ties, a television show mentioned in the novel (14), starred Michael J. Fox as conservative teen-ager Alex P. Keaton in a liberal family.  It presented him sympathetically, and Fox is a likable actor, but the tension between liberal parents and conservative son was the main source of that show’s humor.  In this sense, it was a political television show.

In the world of popular music there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star hit single from 1984, that raised money for famine relief in Ethopia.

(I didn’t actually show this video; I’m just putting it here for you. And yes, lines like “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” or even the notion that the people of Africa should celebrate Christmas are, at best, problematic.)

USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” an album and single from 1985 also for famine relief in Africa.

(I didn’t show this one either.)

That same year also brought us Live Aid, an all-star concert in Philadelphia and London, broadcast live on MTV.  And then there were the Farm Aid concerts, the first of which was in 1985.  And the best all-star “benefit single” to come out of that period was Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” (1985) — masterminded by Little Steven, a.k.a. Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s band, though you may also know him from The Sopranos).

(I did show some of this video… because it’s quite an effective piece of agitprop.  And the song is great.  RUN-DMC! Lou Reed!  Bruce Springsteen!  Kurtis Blow!  U2!  Miles Davis!  Bob Dylan!  Joey Ramone!  Bonnie Raitt!)

There was also Nena’s “Red Balloons” (1983), a pop hit about stray balloons that accidentally trigger a nuclear war. The song hit number one across Europe, and number two in the U.S.  Originally recorded in German.

(I showed some of this one, too.)

And those are just the ones that got the most publicity.  There’s also:

  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from his third album (1980) — the song that inspired Van Zandt to write “Sun City.”
  • The Clash, “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock (1982).
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1982)
  • Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” (1988)
  • The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

While we’re on the subject, who was the best-selling artist of the 1980s?  Indeed, whose album was the best-selling record of the 1980s?  And is the best-selling album, period?

At first, no one responded.  After some encouragement, one student said, “Well, I would say Michael Jackson. Thriller.” 

Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

Right!  Michael Jackson.  Thriller (1982) had an unprecedented 7 top-10 singles: “Beat It” (featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar), “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl is Mine” (featuring Paul McCartney), “Thriller” (with guest vocal by Vincent Price).  It won eight Grammy Awards in 1984.  It’s sold about 30 million copies in the US, and another 20 million abroad.  Today, it still sells 130,000 a year.

Michael Jackson is missing from the novel.  As are a lot of artists of color.  Where’s Prince?  Purple Rain was huge.  “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were both top-10 singles.  And then there’s 1999, which included the title song and “Little Red Corvette.”  Where’s Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine?  Her Primitive Love had three top-10 hits in 1985, and her 1987 record Let It Loose had even more, including “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”  For that matter, where’s the ground-breaking collaboration and hit single from RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”?

Where is hip-hop in general?  For that matter, where is Madonna?

So, one reading of the book’s nostalgia, then, is that’s regressive.  It’s nostalgia for a very particular, apolitical, very white culture.  It’s a 1980s without politics.

IV. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 2

But here’s another reading of nostalgia — reading that’s progressive instead of regressive.  It’s also possible to look back to another time in order to imagine a better future.  For example, you might write about the 1930s — in which unions in the U.S. won workers a 40-hour work week and a living wage — in order to remind people of the power of organizing.

So, in Ready Player One, we might argue, the book expresses a longing for a particular kind of gaming experience, a particular kind of technology, a technology that embraces slowness and collaboration.

Zork I

One of the keys to the puzzle in this book is the text-only adventure game Zork.  As a 13-year-old, I and my friends played Zork on an Apple IIe. We also drew elaborate maps for Zork.  And Zork II, and Zork III.  We solved them all, working together.

That was slow, but so was the technology itself.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, with cassette

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (1977-1981)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984).

Apple IIe

The Apple IIe.

Back in 1980, when my parents bought our family’s first computer (a TRS-80), we would buy a book of programs (in BASIC), type them in, save them to a cassette tape, and then load them in when we wanted to play them.  Loading a program could take up to half an hour!  The 8-inch floppy disk was a huge leap forward in data retrieval technology.

Slowness gives you time to think, time to reflect on what you’re doing. It is not about instant gratification, but about rewards built up over time. We played these games off and on for weeks, months — for a long time.

I’ve found Zork via Frotz, a free app for the iPad and iPhone.  Let’s play it.  I’ll post the screen up here, read it to you, and you tell me what you want to do.

We played Zork.  Students discussed what they wanted to do, and called out sentences for me to type in. Here are a couple of screenshots.

Zork: screenshot (via Frotz)

 

Zork: another screenshot (via Frotz)

They laughed, and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I couldn’t have predicted it, but playing Zork was definitely the highlight of my presentation.  After we’d played for about 10 minutes, I then asked:

Have any of you ever played a text-based computer game before?

No one had. So, I asked:

What was it like?  How does the experience differ from a contemporary videogame?

One student told me that it was indeed, much slower-paced, and very unlike the typical first-person shooter games — though that wasn’t the precise term he used.

I ask, in part, because I played video games between 1980 and 1984.  Apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds, I have not played video games since that period.  And so I’m wondering if my reading of a video game like Zork — that it invites slowness and collaboration — is correct.

Perhaps they were just being polite, but students told me that the experience was indeed much as I’d described it.

Zork is, in a sense, what would also be called “interactive fiction” — something else that emerged in the 1980s, with novels like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), which you bought on a disk, ran the program, and then decided which paths of the narrative you wanted to take.

To conclude, I posed the following questions for them to discuss.

V. Concluding Questions

Ready Player One: Questions

As I told them, that last question was cribbed from Laine Nooney’s talk. We had a lively discussion, and then as we packed up, I played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video as our concluding music.

And that’s it!

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Google’s Brave New World: The Feed Is Here

M.T. Anderson, FeedBut the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. It can tell you how to get them, and help you make buying decisions that are hard. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and OnFeed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you, and then they give it to their branch companies, or other companies buy them, and they can get to know what it is we need, so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.

— M.T. Anderson, Feed (2002), p. 48

Presumably, the people at Google have not read M.T. Anderson‘s Feed.  Or, if they have, they misread his dystopia as a utopia.  Either way, Google’s new “Project Glass” is eerily familiar.

Nearly all of the comments on Project Glass’s Google Plus page are enthusiastic.  “Count me in for a beta test group!”   “Future can’t get here fast enough!”  And, of course, “Glasses are nice, but how soon can I just plug them straight into my brain?”

Google's Project Glass (photo from Google)As in the imagined future of Anderson’s novel, this earliest incarnation of the feed is external — but, as technology improves (in the book), people have it implanted.  And, as Anderson’s novel suggests, being plugged into the feed all the time exacerbates the effects of, say, being on Facebook or Twitter all the time — remarkably prescient, given that his novel came out two years before Facebook, and four years prior to Twitter.  Dramatizing the experience of always being bombarded by the feed, the novel’s main characters lack an attention span, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to use language with any sophistication.  These deficits make them easy targets for advertisers and politicians.  As Violet says,  “They’re also making you want things. Everything we’ve grown up with — the stories on the feed, the games, all of that — it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to” (97).  And: “No one with feeds thinks about it, she said. When you have the feed all your life, you’re brought up not to think about thingsBecause of the feed, we’re raising a nation of idiots” (113).

So, Google, before you lead us further into this brave new world, consider for a moment.  Read Anderson’s novel.  Are you sure this is such a great idea?

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