Author Archives: lindsayems

The Amish: Making the most of life at the margins

In our field of study, many of us want to know how technologies can be used for the social good. As professional academics (someday), we may wear cloaks of scientific objectivity, but deep down, many of us are motivated by a desire to figure out how communication technologies can be used to improve [all] lives. This trend can be traced back to the countercultural origins of personal computing; to 1960s California, The People’s Computer Company (PCC), the Homebrew Computer Club, The Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL, etc. The mantra was “information wants to be free.”

During that time, it was thought that social structures could be made more egalitarian if access to information via new communication technologies was more open. And many people today might agree that this has been the case. Because of information seeping into places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria (among other issues, of course), authoritarian regimes have (s)tumbled. We know, however, that the (s)tumbling of dictatorships does not necessarily mean that the people living in their wakes are better off. In many (maybe all) societies, where new technologies proliferate, surveillance exists– giving state and corporate entities often more (or, at least an additional channel of) power than they had before.

The media we receive through state and corporate controlled media channels trains us to behave in profitable and predictable ways and we are monitored to ensure this is working. The egalitarian social structure envisioned by early computer revolutionaries never quite materialized. Although, (at least in relative terms), the technology is there, it has more or less just made the hierarchy invisible (See Sennett).

Going off the grid (I use ‘grid’ to describe today’s global, social, technical and economic structure to which we are all currently plugged in.) entirely is virtually impossible today. For young people, it is the equivalent of social suicide. For adults, it’s professional or financial suicide. It sends up serious red flags to the powerful who watch us. For example, his compound’s lack of an Internet connection is what gave Bin Laden’s hideout away to the U.S. government.

For these reasons we may now be entering a phase where living at the margins of the grid is where the sweet spot is. This is not such an easy thing to do, though because the grid is so difficult for us to perceive. It has both technical and social components which, depending on context and materiality, can be used by an individual or group to empower itself or by others to enslave or bully the same folks.

A diverse collection of people operating at the margins of the socio-technical-economic grid, taking from it only what they want and rejecting what they don’t, are the population of Amish people living in the United States today. The Amish are a conservative religious group dedicated to living a simple, (rather) old-fashioned way of life in the hopes of pleasing God. In their community, deference to God and each other are one and the same. Along with God, community and family are everything.

The relationship the Amish have with new technologies is quite complex and not actually anti-technology, as is commonly thought. Their parsimonious approach to adopting technologies is a designed feature of social life that is meant to maximize community and limit corporate and governmental interference. Economic activity is not about individualism, it is an activity in community building. Amish decisions about technology use privilege a strong family and community that lasts generations. For them, the material allures of modern capitalism, short attention spans and mobility are threats to the way of life they want to live. The Amish make decisions about how to use technologies because they are guided by specific values. And it is specifically these values that make the grid visible to them.

Today, new technologies like cell phones, the Internet, social media and solar/wind power are taking hold in various ways in different Amish communities across the country. Still, car lot, electricity from power companies, modern clothing, television and radio are generally off limits. These are not haphazard decisions, they are decisions that the Amish hope will protect their community and their values for the long term. So far by the way, it is working. Their population is currently growing exponentially. Approximately 90% of Amish youth, after being allowed to experiment with the outside world, decide to come back and join the Amish church and adhere to their simple way of life.

The Amish live at the margins of today’s global social, technical, economic power structure. They have built an enclave that is safe from the kinds of surveillance the rest of us are subjected to daily. They are not living in the dark ages, though. They see the grid and use it to survive financially. Their businesses have websites and Facebook pages. Yet they erect walls where they feel their community is vulnerable to outside influence. They don’t drive cars or allow phones in the house because these make it easy for community to dissolve and family time to be interrupted.

Perhaps we can learn from them. If a future anthropologist were to study your use of technologies today as an artifact, what would they determine your values to be? Efficiency? Individualism? [Self promotion?] Compassion? Generosity? Perhaps by consciously deciding how to adopt and use our technologies, starting with the values that are important to us, we would be better at seeing the grid and living our lives (more) freely at the margins of it.

[For more on this, stay tuned. Your's truly is currently in the process of writing a dissertation on this very topic. :) #shamelessselfpromotion]

Qualifying exam revelation: A new methodological genre emerging(?)

If we’re lucky, one of the many little triumphs we get to celebrate in graduate school is passing our qualifying exams. A few weeks ago my committee declared me ABD. Weeks after the exam defense, I remain humbled and simply giddy about having passed. The process was nerve-racking, stressful and involved months of preparation. Now that I’ve had a month or so to rest and reflect on the experience, I’ve started to see some lasting benefits to all that studying. In the lines that follow, I will share a particular revelation (this is but one of many I had throughout the quals process) I had during my exam prep and pose a related question to the larger qualitative social informatics academic community.

My qualifying exam committee was kind and thoughtful enough to write my questions in a way that would help me prepare for breaking ground on my dissertation: An ethnographic inquiry of the ways that Midwestern Amish use new communication technologies like cell phones, social media and the internet. In preparing for the exam, my committee asked me to think about the methodologies I might use to do this inquiry. So, I looked to a number of other social informaticians who had done ethnographic studies of socio-technical phenomena and examined their methodological approaches.

Those that I drew specific inspiration from were Diane Umble Zimmerman’s (1996) Holding the Line, Mary Gray’s (2009) Out in the Country, Celia Pearce’s (2009) Communities of Play, Illana Gershon’s (2010) Breakup 2.0. and Virginia Eubanks’ (2011) Digital Dead End. Each of these authors examined a particular problem space and then assembled their methodological toolkit in order to best understand that problem space.

Socio-technical Ethnographic Books

Diane Umble Zimmerman focused on the role that new technologies (the telephone in this case) played in the changing of culture in Amish communities. Mary Gray examined the ways LGBT individuals in rural areas complicate established ideas about “the good gay life” playing out exclusively in urban areas and the role that new technologies played in this process. Celia Pearce documented her involvement in a virtual community where her informants only knew her through her online avatar. Gershon studied the ways that new technologies were used by college students in intimate moments, like break-ups, and what these mediated moments meant to them. Eubanks examined what technologies meant to underprivileged women in Troy, New York and how they used or rejected technologies in an attempt to make their lives better.

In studying these books, I realized that an identifiable genre seemed to be emerging in qualitative empirical socio-technical scholarship of which I had not previously been aware. Perhaps, there is already a name for this genre? Certainly, these are not the only books to fall into this category; they are simply the only ones I know well. These (and other authors) seem to me to be opening the door for a new branch of scholarship within the socio-technical and ethnographic arena to begin gaining traction. I find each of these projects to be very innovative and unique at one level and, at the same time, similar to one another on a more general level.

My question for the larger social informatics community is twofold. First, do you agree with the observation that this group forms a distinct genre in our field? Is it a new one? And, second, if so, what other projects fall into this genre besides the ones listed above?

The Quantified Self; The Partial Self

A few months ago, in an effort to start eating better, I began using an iPhone app to count calories. For four months, I diligently entered every precisely portioned amount of food I consumed into my smartphone. I was also running a lot. I kept track of how far I was running, for how long, at what pace, etc. For the most part I engaged in this bookkeeping adventure alone– praising myself when I landed below my weekly calorie goal and berating myself when I didn’t. I soon realized, however, that there was a whole world of people out there doing the same thing I was and that we formed this thing called ‘the quantified self movement.’

I quickly learned that self-tracking, bio-data or personal analytics, as it is sometimes called, is a growing area of interest for smartphone users, data-philes, journalists, marketers, the tech industry, the health, industry, etc. There are articles circulating from the Economist on the topic, there was a 2012 SXSW competition using personal data generated by BodyMedia, a TED talk on the subject, websites, a Facebook page and daily Twitter conversations all about the quantified self. Also, there’s an annual international conference dedicated to understanding and capitalizing on the quantified self. It’s embarking on its third year (the first two were sold out).

One of the founders of the quantified self-movement, Gary Wolf, suggests that bio-tracking devices and the social practices that accompany them help to change our sense of self in the world. In his TED talk, he says that these tools are mirrors that tell us about who we are and that they should be used help us improve ourselves. “They are tools for self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge,” he says. Used in this way, according to Wolf, we also see our “operational center, our consciousness and moral compass” more clearly.

This is true, of course, of all media. Facebook, and before it, TV, radio, magazines, theater, literature, oral histories, hieroglyphics, etc. have always shown us who we are by showing us abstracted depictions of ourselves. These media portrayed the peasants, the aristocracy, the moral citizen and the outcast. The obvious difference is that over time, mediated depictions of ourselves have become more and more individualistic and personal.

As months went on in my own self-tracking experience, I began to grow tired of the constant bookkeeping. As I entered my default breakfast into the program morning after morning on the bus ride to school, I began to realize that I was becoming somewhat obsessed with life decisions that amounted to very small amounts of food. However, I also noticed I was changing my life to maximize exercise opportunities whenever I could. As I became more and more obsessed with the numbers my iPhone app was generating every day, it seemed I was making healthier life choices. In addition, I realized that I was gaining more and more emotional satisfaction, happiness and excitement from the hobby. I started feeling like I was becoming hedonistically yet healthily addicted to consuming the numbers my life was producing.

The student of socio-technical studies inside of me couldn’t get over the contradictory feelings I was having about all of this. I wanted to understand it better. After bludgeoning many of my loved ones and friends by imposing lengthy conversations on these topics and thinking and reading about the role numbers play in our lives (and have only played for a relatively short part of human history) (oh, and I should mention that I’m enrolled in my first statistics course ever at the moment. ☺). It occurred to me that the thrill derived by self-tracking behaviors can be traced back to fundamental pedagogical advice Plato gave to Socrates: “know thyself.” Plato advised Socrates that only after one knows himself, can he then begin trying to know “obscure” things. Furthermore, then one also has a better platform from which to understand others and human beings in general. The numbers, then, that our bodies create – like all previous forms of media— are a part of a fundamental quest for humans to help know ourselves better.

So, if it is the case that we use these new biometric tools to extend, yet again, our quest to know ourselves, as a society, we land in one of two places. 1.) after thousands of years we still do not know ourselves but we are now closer to doing so or 2.) we may need to realize that we can never know ourselves completely through fixed abstractions like numbers (or media). Personally, I’m partial to the latter conclusion.

Drawing on media materiality scholarship, I would argue that each mediated reflection of ourselves has its own advantages and shortcomings in its ability to show us who we are. Numbers, offer us a clean, neat, easily digestible packet of information about who we are. I’ve seen many self-quantifiers refer to numbers as beautiful. My heart rate is 107/64. I consumed 1543 net calories yesterday. I walked 2.1 miles, mowed my yard for 33 minutes and did yoga for 60 minutes. These data are precise, clean, digestible.

What numbers do not- and cannot- capture are the chaos that is an inherent part of the human condition. Humans are messy. Emotions drive us to do things we would never expect. We dance, cry, laugh, sing, kiss and fight when we least expect it. The unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March in the warm sun (when the plan was to do statistics homework in the library) is memorable where the bar graph on my iPhone that tells me I’ve met my weekly caloric intake for the past 4 weeks in a row is not. These unknowable surprises, one might argue, are the most beautiful aspects of being human and are only weakly depicted through abstracting them into fixed mediated form (especially numerical form).

I think numbers are helpful. However, I hope there is never a time when that unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March comes and I decide to go solely based on how those beers will impact the weekly bar graph on my iPhone.

Billionaire Steve Jobs, an Inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street Campaign?

A week ago we lost a leader in the field of social informatics. Though Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was not a scholar, he was keenly aware of how important people, their desires and mental frameworks were to the design of computer technologies. In the design process he consistently resisted collaborators who designed with code and machinery in mind instead of actual, human users. Like most social informaticians, he called for design principles to reflect culture and make communication, work and entertainment more efficient, intuitive and beautiful.

His passing happened at an interesting economic and cultural moment as so many people today are out of work (some might even argue that this is due to the success of technology developers like Apple and Steve Jobs) and political tensions have never been higher. A growing number of activists who lament the US government’s apathy toward wealthy corporate entities has emerged also in recent weeks. In just under four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) campaign has quickly spread all over the country and has observers around the world taking note.

In the OWS protesters’ mission statement, they say, we organize “at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Their efforts are to express animosity toward corporate greed and the US government’s apathy toward this greed. Furthermore, they feel the government should be more active in correcting this problem. Namely, they call for the taxing of the richest one percent of the population so that the other ninety-nine percent might face less financial uncertainty.

Protester holds a sign that reads Jobs

Protester's Mourn Jobs' Passing

It occurs to me that the passing of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the OWS campaign intersect in an interesting way. Jobs, worth about 7 billion dollars, was undoubtedly in the one percent of people the protesters are asking the government to tax. In spite of this, many groups of protesters took time away from the protests to mourn his passing. A tweet from Twitter account @OPWallStreet on the night of his death said, “Sad to announce the death of Steve Jobs.”

While some may see this as an inconsistency in the message of the OWS, perhaps noting the genealogy of certain core values of the OWS campaign will help illuminate why OWS protesters, and so many others, feel a sense of grief at Jobs’ passing. Jobs was not just an innovator of technical artifacts. In many ways he also created new ways for communication to occur, new ways for entertainment to happen, new ways to work, to travel, to fall in love, etc.

One can easily trace the ideology and socio-technical structure that the OWS relies upon to share information and establish their movement back to innovators like Steve Jobs.   First, Jobs is a product of the sixties. He was a flower child and hung out with anti-war protesters and activists while he was beginning to develop his desire to work with computers. This influence impacted the design of Apple technologies and made past and present underdogs fall in love with him. In the world of conservative tech companies, Jobs was almost always on the lunatic fringe. He fought for the things his artistic, and humanistic intuition told him were right. OWS protesters see themselves in Jobs’ shoes: They are fighting against the status quo in an effort to put the human back in the center of the system’s design.

Second, Jobs developed technologies that were networked. His masterpieces the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, etc. are windows into the social world. Social informaticians know that these technologies bear a certain internal structure which predetermines a certain kind of use, requires certain skills, etc. The structure of a computer network is at the heart of both the OWS campaign and Jobs’ most influential Apple technologies. As information is exchanged, the OWS campaign is replicated across the country. It’s copied and pasted. A new instance emerges in a new location because people have seen pictures of others, read stories, watch videos and are inspired by others through their iPhones & iPads. The OWS information structure, which is the heart of the movement, is itself an instance of the computer network Steve Jobs envisioned in the design of his most influential Apple technologies.

The protesters aim to upset the government’s apathy. They, like Jobs, suggest that the system should reflect today’s socio-technical culture and empower users by giving them more tools to make life easier and more beautiful.

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