Category Archives: Social Informatics

The use of social media in Syria

In this entry, I will write about the use of social media by Syrians, and mainly the use of Facebook [1]. Why is this interesting? I find it so because Syria and the Middle East are largely importers of digital technology, and still remain relatively under-studied by those who design and make technology. The other obvious reason is that due to the conditions and the events that Syrians are going through, looking at their use of social media for personal and public matters is one way to talk about the different motivations, actions, and circumstances that frame their lives, and a way to think about what that means for designing technology. Finally, in social informatics, and especially in community- related research, we are interested in “localities” where technology is used [Taylor 2004]. After all, as Howard Becker argues, every particular case has general implications [Becker 1998].

To write this post, I spent a couple of days looking at how people I could reach from my Facebook account use the platform. This includes Friends and personal connections, pages I follow or those I could reach because one of my connections referred to them, and activists who are usually individuals with extended social reach with a large audience base. My account is rather personal and I do not aim to be exhaustive or general [2]. I do try to be politically unbiased, although it is a particularly challenging matter to which I don’t think I can fully comply. Although there are atrocities committed by all sides, the sequence of events and the numbers do not put equal responsibility. I present these observations within themes, showing examples when possible [3], and I further use them to provoke questions about the design of social media. So, there we go.

Themes of Facebook use in Syria

1. News, events, and activism

Facebook is a main aggregator of various sources of news: news of family and friends, of the local town, of national events, and of world politics. This is supported both by the various possibilities for social connection (person-person, person-group, person-page, page-page) as well as its ability to curate various types of other media (photos, videos, and generic URLs). Facebook is therefore an important way for many Syrians to get news about local, national and international events. Although anybody can be a source of news, specific people (media activists), public figures, local groups, and media agencies dedicate special effort to follow the news and report on it (often with political commentary). Volunteers and local media groups often specialize in certain areas (a town or a region), and are almost always politically affiliated. The news can cover anything: the locations of bombings heard early morning, the state of repair of power and water lines, the condition of roads and the possibility of travel, the progress of combat on the front lines, the names of those killed in a recent strike, prices of vegetables, the elections in USA, and media statements made by politicians, activists, or military leaders.

A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

— A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

— A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

After the recent killing of "Father Frans"; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: "Bassel Shehadeh", who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist "Razan Zaitouneh" who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

— After the recent killing of “Father Frans”; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: “Bassel Shehadeh”, who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist “Razan Zaitouneh” who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

2. Personal connection, friends and family

The direct straight-forward theme is using Facebook to communicate and keep-up with friends and family. Syrians are becoming increasingly displaced. Large numbers of refugees continue to flood into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, while those better-off economically manage to leave to Egypt, the gulf states, or Europe. Browsing the Facebook feed has therefore became a primary way to get news and commentary about the whereabouts of friends and family, either inside or outside of Syria. My connections have mentioned often that browsing the “green dot” that indicates that somebody is online on Facebook chat was a way to know that they are doing OK. With the increased absence of electricity and Internet the whole city of Aleppo can go offline for several days, and even weeks. It is then common to have a wave of “online cheering” and exchange of greetings when the city gets reconnected with friends and family appearing back online.

A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

— A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

3. Nostalgia towards left places and sorrow over destruction

Numerous homes, villages and cities have suffered immense destruction, largely due to the use of heavy artillery and air bombing, and due to clashes taking place among inhabited areas. In Aleppo, the line of clashes goes right through the city center and the old city. You can often find posts of photos and Youtube videos with compassionate comments showing destruction in civilian areas, infrastructure, and historic sites, while comparing the condition of those places with photos and videos taken before 2011.

A Facebook page dedicated for celebrating local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with words of nostalgia: "Good morning o peace of my aching heart".

— A Facebook page dedicated for local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with the words: “Good morning, O peace of my aching heart”.

4. Solidarity with the missing

With Syrians detained by the government (estimates of 200,000), and also increasingly by various militant groups, it is common to use Facebook to report of missing Syrians. Friends and activists would spread posts explaining the circumstances of those detained or kidnapped, and Facebook pages would be opened to follow their news and to remind people with their disappearance. Sometimes, the family of those missing asks for no fuss to be made online, fearing that this will bring further hardship.

5. Loss, death, and grief

With 9 million displaced Syrians, many Syrians have experienced loss in one way or another over the past three years: losing home, losing a family member or a friend, or losing work and savings. As military action escalated in late 2011 and onward, it is rare to find a Syrian who does not have a family member or who did not personally know someone who was killed, either because of participating in combat, or as a result of detention and torture, or because of being a civilian under fire. It is almost a custom now that Facebook pages would be opened in memory of those who passed away, for friends to write elegies and words of condolence, and for the public to become aware of the reasons and circumstances of their death. The personal profiles of those who passed away would also become a place of mourning where friends would write words of farewell.

A Facebook page created in memory of "Waseem Abu Zenah", a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem's friends.

— A Facebook page created in memory of “Waseem Abu Zenah”, a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem’s friends.

6. Fight, debate, and violence

I would argue that it is next to impossible to remain neutral in light of the events in Syria. Debate (or simply online flaming) therefore takes place on any type of a shared post or a comment. Also, violent content is abundant in the Syrian online social sphere. Photos and videos of the aftermath of bombings, airstrikes and front-line fighting (which are extremely graphic and violent by any measure) are very common in the daily stream of content on my Facebook wall. Along this, it is common to find comments on these pieces of content that are inflaming and calling to exterminate and defeat the “other side” and calling for justice and revenge.

A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

— A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

-- A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

— A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

7. Collaboration and thriving local communities

Many Syrians use Facebook to collaborate, communicate and learn. This includes local activist groups connecting over Facebook groups to coordinate for covering the news of localities, relief and charity groups coordinating online fundraising campaigns, and potentially militants who communicate to coordinate some of their operations (this last one I have not observed personally, but activists mentioned that it happens). In my own work, I have worked for a prolonged period (over two years by now) with a community of learners (mostly university students) who use Facebook, blogs, youtube and custom wikis to learn about cutting-edge technology, hold public talks and presentations, and organize collaborative workshops. Social media helps them to find alternative places to collaborate and publish content as well as to spread the word about their events and grow the community by reaching to new members online.

8. Charity and relief

The cyberspace, and on top of it the social layer, has allowed Syrian groups and organizations to sprout and coordinate for the benefit of a certain activist agenda without having to establish official associations going through complex procedures (which are often unclear and subject to corruption and authoritative government control). Today, countless groups and organizations dedicated for the relief of Syrians use Facebook and other social media, sometimes as media outlets to announce their activities and publish reports, or even to coordinate the work between their members and to announce their need for volunteers and donations.

A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

— A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

-- A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

— A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

Meta. A word on marginalization and non-use

Internet access in Syria before 2011 has been gradually increasing with more private users, internet cafes, and public institutions getting connected. I have not found an informative report, but it is common sense to expect that those better off economically had better Internet access. This is also true after 2011. Government-controlled areas still have better access to electricity and Internet, and those better off economically have stronger voices online. News about areas outside of government control come mainly from media activists or from online media outlets (Facebook pages, Youtube channels) of oppositional armed groups. This heavily questions the non-proportionate representation of Syrians online, where those who access the Internet can deliver their point of view, while the weakest and the most vulnerable are photographed and studied by activists, media agencies, and relief associations instead of speaking for themselves. A Syrian researcher has an insightful report of his visit to Syrian refugee camps in northern Syria and Turkey where he comments on issues relevant to the marginalization of Syrian refugees from the possibility to take initiative in actively controlling their circumstances [Idlbi 2013]. In addition to that, with the escalation of military action in Syria, the voices of civil and peaceful activists have gradually faded out of the picture, and news of armed attacks became the more dominant content.

On the role of Social Media

After this quick overview of different existing uses of Facebook, I find it quite uninformative to claim that social media has a positive or a negative effect on the Syrian situation without being concrete and in relation to a particular case. Few months ago, I have attended a talk by Kentaro Toyama, who made the compelling argument (and I paraphrase), that by looking at the historical impact of technology, we can see that technology is an “amplifier” of human intentions, motivations and desires [Toyama 2011]. I find this accurate in the use of social media by Syrians, where people use it for family connections, relief efforts, collaboration, activism, news, war, and flaming. It is a question then on how to design social tools to enable certain forms of interaction while discouraging others. This  is a task that is neither easy nor politically-neutral (it will always come associated with a political agenda). On this note, I will close with deriving questions from the above themes on the design and making of social media in the context of the lives of Syrians.

Problematizing social media in Syria

  1. Spread of hate-speech: how can social media be designed to encourage mutual understanding or peaceful debate instead of increasing rift between people?
  2. Spread of graphic violent content: Facebook and Youtube frequently delete content that is deemed to be violent or offensive. The policies that these platforms follow to moderate content posted by their users remain unclear, but one of them is mass reports made by other users. For example, Syrian pro-government and pro-opposition pages often lead “reporting campaigns” in order to shut the opponents’ pages down. The question that I raise here is around regarding the nature of “violent content” and the effect of its posting and the discussion that goes around it. It is, on the one hand, a fundamental right to know about atrocities. On the other hand, this content is never neutral and is often interpreted and re-purposed for emotional charging and calls for in a war-torn Syria.
  3. Ownership of data and Facebook’s monopoly: a relevant issue is Facebook’s ultimate control over its content. Several activists and pages have reported the suspension of their accounts at one point or another, and content deletion is common due to mass reports. This has raised some concerns and suggestions to find an alternative, possibly federated, social platform where the ownership of data does not belong to one central authority. Such platforms do exist, but the immense popularity of Facebook where “everybody is there” makes such platforms less appealing.
  4. Security of data and cyber intelligence: when somebody gets detained or kidnapped (especially an activist or a charity worker), I have seen in many cases that their friends would swiftly write to Facebook administration to close their account. Even more, activists often leave their account passwords with people they trust such that those friends would change all passwords if the activist is detained or kidnapped. This is to prevent the leak of sensitive insider data (connections, personal messages, online social interactions, political affiliations) from being exposed, and thus further endangering the kidnapped and their social circle. Further, it is common among activists to be aware of suspicious account of people they do not know personally for they might be following them for the sake of tracking them down. This raises the questions on how we can protect private data and quickly lock-down accounts to protect against malicious access.
  5. Role in escalating or dampening violence: it is a big question whether social media in the case of Syria has actually contributed to reducing or escalating the violence. On the one hand, whenever an atrocity is committed, tweets, Youtube videos, and Facebook posts flood the media sphere. This somewhat enables people to become moral supervisors of each others. However, due to the flexibility of engineering your own connections online, I have seen several of my friends mentioning that in Facebook you can end up completely isolated within a similarly-minded group of people. This, in turn, might encourage extreme identities and a closed-world view where it is easier to dehumanize the other.
  6. Design for collaboration and for rapid small groupings: Facebook is being used by collaborative and volunteer groups to communicate, coordinate action, collect donations and announce events. However, I have seen concerns around the lack of possibility to organize and retrieve content on Facebook, which is linear and “decays” with time. Could there be alternative structuring for a social platform where there is the possibility to structure how information are created and retrieved? Further, could we think of providing small charity and voluntary groups with tools that help them express their needs and find resources? There are even local efforts by Syrians to create alternative social platforms that aim to address these very issues [4]

In the case of Syria, social media tools and platforms need to take into account radically new contexts and use cases. The current tools have provided a promising space, and their relative neutrality contributes significantly to their wide adoption and adaptation by various groups with diverse views, however, looking at how they are used within the Syrian context provokes various questions of the current status and alternative possibilities to work out. My final word here is to encourage others to provoke and suggest what I have omitted, where social media is surely being used by Syrians in ways far more diverse and complex that what I have listed in this post [5].

……………………………………………………………………………..……

Notes

  1. Facebook is what is mainly addressed here. However, due to connectedness of social media, it is a melting pot. On Facebook you can see references and discussions around videos, blog posts, news articles, photos, and statements made by public figures or activists. It is therefore fair to consider it as the social platform where most other social media are referenced, shared and discussed in the Syrian sphere.
  2. To clarify my position:  I am currently  located in Switzerland, working at the University of Fribourg, and with good contact with a local community of Syrian volunteers (mainly in Damascus) as well as with people working in charity and relief. I have spent the time between June 2011 and February 2012 in Aleppo. Since Aleppo is my home town, my connections and attention is naturally biased to it. Also, what I see on Facebook is only what my personal social & professional circles enable me to reach and what I tend to follow due to my political views. This post should therefore be read as a single account.
  3. In the screenshots taken, I have anonymized personal information, including personal names and profile pictures. In the case of public pages, I have left the snapshots un-blurred.  I have translated all content except for the one case where content was written originally in English (I noted that explicitly).
  4. MicroCommunity” is a project lead by Syrians for creating a social platform for encouraging the formation and collaboration of small-scale communities, particularly in the Arab world.
  5. The topics that I omitted include the use of social media for: fun and humor; history and documentation; political activism and popular mobilization; political propaganda; cyber war; and also, for connecting and recruiting foreign fighters, apparently mostly by the Islamic State of Iraq And Al-Sham (ISIS) and Al-Nusra front [ICSR 2014]. For more information, there is a number of media articles on the use of social media particularly in relation with the Syrian uprising, mentioning recruitment of fighters; fund-raising for humanitarian aid as well as for weapons and supplies; artistry; news and activism; cyber intelligence; debate and flaming; and media campaigns [MediaMeasurementMitchell, Reuters 2011Baker 2014].

References

  • Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (p. 232). University of Chicago Press.
  • Idlbi, A. (2013). On a Mission to Learn – My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp. Field report. Link
  • Taylor, W. (2004). Community Informatics in Perspective. In S. Marshall, W. Taylor, & X. Yu (Eds.) Using Community Informatics to Transform Regions (pp. 1-17). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.
  • Toyama, K. (2011). Technology as amplifier in international development. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference on – iConference ’11 (pp. 75–82). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.

“Neverland” or “networked publics”? : A review of “It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens”

A few months ago, I started collecting data for my Ph.D dissertation. Since I study interpersonal and group behavior in multiplayer online games, I got quite involved in the online forums of my studied game. I also interviewed many gamers via Skype text chat. As I expected, most of these gamers are teens (aged 14 to 17).

Their stories are not so different from my assumption: They love their parents but they want to escape from the “boring” family lives; they crave for friendships but they struggle with finding “true friends” in school; they look forward to love and romance but they are afraid of responsibilities; they expect to grow up but they are scared of the “cold” adult world.

What is out of my expectation is how Internet and social media have become a “natural” part of teens’ social lives. Many of these teens described how disappointed they felt with their offline lives but how wonderful those friends they made online; and how they felt restricted at home and at school but how much freedom they enjoyed in social media platforms. Those “cool” places – Facebook, Youtube, Tumbler, Snapchat, Instagram, online games, etc.— become Peter Pan’s “Neverland” where they can fly and “never grow up.”

But teens are not trying to live virtually or escape from the real world. Instead, Internet and social media compensate their living world and extend their social lives. Their social lives are more complicated than we, as adults, assume. They are also, sometimes, more self-conscious than we expect. I am very impressed by those teens’ stories. So I read danah boyd’s new book It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens.

This book is definitely a good work to help adults understand the “mysterious” teens in the Internet Era. Its main goal is to depict young people’s experience of using social media, and the role of social media in shaping their lives. boyd’s work is based on two essential understandings: First, teenhood is an awkward period “between childhood and adulthood, dependence and independence” (p. 17), and the penetration of social media into many aspects of teens’ lives makes contemporary youth more complex than before. Second, many adults worry about youth engagement with social media, but few listen to teens’ stories or understand them from teens’ own stance. How teens use social media to make sense of the world around them may be very different from adults’ imagination.

Thus, one of the most important contributions of this book is its focus on the teens’ own voice. Drawing on rich qualitative and ethnographic material that she collected from 2003 to 2012—and interview data con­ducted from 2007 to 2010, boyd provides vivid images of the old and new impacts of social media on teens’ lives, and the quality that social media add to or take away from teens’ social lives. Based on detailed quotes from interviews and in-depth analysis of teens’ true stories, audience can better understand why and how teens use social media from teens’ own perspective.

boyd’s another focus is “networked publics,” a main concept throughout the whole book.  boyd explains this concept at the very beginning: “[s]ocial media has become an important public space where teens can gather and socialize broadly with peers in an informal way. Teens are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond their bedrooms. Social media has enabled them to participate in and help create what I call networked publics” (p.5). Networked publics is related to Ito (2008, 2010) ‘s work on digitally networked media and on “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” as boyd mentioned in notes on page 222.  But boyd uses networked publics here in a broader sense: Networked publics represent a complex interaction between technological affordances (i.e., networked technologies) and networked people. “Through engagement with publics, people develop a sense of others that ideally manifests as tolerance and respect.”

Based on this understanding, this well-researched book is organized into eight chapters that address seven important issues concerning youth engagement with social media, including identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, and literacy.  As a conclusion, the last chapter summarizes the impacts of networked publics on contem­porary youth: To create a world of their own (not shaped by parents and teachers), teens use social media to seek networked publics. Teens both construct and participate in such networked publics in their everyday lives, “to see and be seen,” to belong to a broader public world, and to “build networks of people and information” (p. 201).

As a researcher, I appreciate boyd’s endeavor to let us, adults who “have power over the lives of youth” (p. 28), better understand teens’ actual social lives in the networked era. boyd expresses her hope that adults and youth collaborate together to create a networked world that we all want to live” (p. 213), which is also our hope. As an adult who had teenhood not long time ago, this book makes me think about my own teenhood and how important it is for my life experience. Charles Dickens’ words may still be appropriate to describe how complicated someone’s teenhood can be in today’s network society:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. 

 

References

boyd, d. (2014). It’scomplicatedThe social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ito, M. (2008). Introduction. In K. Varnelis (Ed.), Networked Publics (pp. 1–14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ito, M., et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

 

Impossible (?) Expectations of Overlap between Different Types of Mediated Interactions: Why Technology Has Not Yet Reinvented the Government “Wheel”

Ubiquitous participation in an inescapably digital society has led to well established norms of mediated interactions and socially mutual expectations for mediated environments, in terms of factors such as immediacy of feedback and constancy of accessibility. Panic ensues when Gmail services experience (brief) outages, for example, and Is it down right now? is commonly referenced when problems are experienced. Commercial services provide increasingly high levels of service and support, thus when online services and processes do not meet this comparative standard, they are disparaged. Public services frequently fail to meet the comparative standard. Discussion of healthcare.gov and other e-government initiatives often emphasizes disappointment and criticism upon evaluation of systems and implementation strategies.

Now assume the following to be true: ICTs and their contexts are mutually shaping, external factors affect interactions with information systems, and ICTs have social, technical, and institutional natures. Each of these precepts are individually supported within the corpus of social informatics literature and, given implied consistency of the paradigm, these general rules can be taken in concert. If technologies have social, technical, and institutional facets, each facet impacts and can be impacted by the context in which the technology is used and constructed, as well as by and with social actors using technologies.

Couple this with knowledge of policy implementation, bureaucracy, and complexity of government, and there is an indication that popular narratives of e-government and expectations for digitally mediated delivery of services simply are not grounded in the reality of citizen government interaction, but rather in something else entirely. Complexity is intuitively descriptive government bureaucracy. It has long been understood that the size of bureaucracy is directly related to complexity and differentiation of the social system, as context, in which it is situated (Noell, 1974). Furthermore, bureaucracy in the United States represents an increasingly complex environment as decision-making is both centralized in decision making and highly decentralized in implementation in many domains of government (Chen, 2013; Rice, 2013), yet centralized, direct management of e-government is extremely valuable to both the implementation and operation of complex e-services (Chen, 2013).

In this sense, the question ought not to be why can’t the government provide the same level of e-service as thousands of business are able to achieve, but rather: how has the complexity of bureaucracy in America impacted and been impacted by technology, and can technology be designed in such a way as to anticipate bureaucratic complexity so as to provide e-services in a way compatible with government? Given the healthcare deadline earlier this week, the complex interplay between policy and technology in the case of the Affordable Care Act presents an opportunity to examine how and why collective expectations are not met. A combination of knowledge about complex government sub-contracting regulation and cutting-edge technological expertise is relatively rare, yet the struggles of the online components of health insurance overhaul did not doom the project, as the goal of 7 million enrollees was met, but rather illustrated disconnects between bureaucracy and technological capacity.

Looking globally, e-government is often touted as a mechanism to increase access to government in attempts to spur development (Ahmad Mousa, 2012), yet the complexity of these contexts, and in particular the levels of social differentiation in non-democracies and ethnically diverse states implies that technology cannot radically transform government without parallel structural adjustments. Rather generally, e-government and digitally mediated citizen-government interaction must be thoughtfully integrated with the bureaucratic, and political, context to change government, with the expectation that it will be reciprocally impacted by government.

 

References

Ahmad Mousa, O. (2012). E-Government in developing countries: Framework of challenges and opportunities. Journal Of Theoretical & Applied Information Technology, 46(2), 1013.

Chen, Y. (2013). Improving transparency in the financial sector: E-Government XBRL Implementation in the United States. Public Performance & Management Review, 37(2), 241-262.

Noeli, J. J. (1974). On the Administrative Sector of Social Systems: An Analysis of the Size and Complexity of Government Bureaucracies in the American States. Social Forces, 52(4), 549-558.

Rice, D. (2013). Street-Level Bureaucrats and the Welfare State: Toward a Micro-Institutionalist Theory of Policy Implementation. Administration & Society, 45(9), 1038-1062. doi:10.1177/0095399712451895

A Technological Deterministic Crash: The case of the flight MH370

On Saturday March 8th, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed at 12:41 a.m. local time and was due to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. on the same day. The flight was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers. 20 days later, the only thing we can precisely say about this flight, as obvious as it may sound, is that the airplane went missing and its whereabouts is still unknown. But the puzzling question on everyone’s mind has been left answered: how could an aircraft like the Boeing 777-200ER simply vanish off the face of the Earth?

The motivation behind such a disquieting question is due to the trust and reliance on the Boeing’s Triple Seven. The aircraft is built with state of the art science and technology and, according to aviation specialists, is considered one of the world’s safest jetliners with a near-perfect safety record. The 777 has transponders, sensors and communication equipment that, even if it’s not triggered manually, still send data periodically and automatically. Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant who serves on India’s Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee, said it was “very, very rare” for an aircraft to lose contact completely without any previous indication of problems. “The 777 is a very safe aircraft – I’m surprised,” (The Guardian, 2014). The situation becomes even more intriguing in light of the fact that the last known location of the airplane was the Strait of Malacca, which along with the area flown / to be flown by MH370, is one of the most radar monitored and busiest airways.

Knowing that the event was so heavily surrounded by technology adds to our frustration: “how could the best technology out there have failed us?” It is not surprising that people turn to technology looking for answers. Technology gives us single cause with a single effect and it is also predictive. Since the pieces of technology – the airplane or any debris – have not been found, no answers could have been given, and because our society is so strung up on this inexistent precise science, we pressure authorities for proper answers. The Malaysian authorities, seeking a scientific answer and trying to look progressive, released a statement saying that everyone on that flight is dead based on a complicated and confusing math theory. Unfortunately, the family members of the MH370 passengers got such uncomforting answer through a text message on their mobile phones.

I’m not here to discuss the possible theories out there to explain the plane’s disappearance, or to say whether the passengers are alive or not. I’m trying to stress that our technological deterministic hunger had led us to situations of absurdity, discomfort and frustration, just like what is happening to the MH370 event. Such mind set, made us find, in a mathematical formula, the answer for a very complex social situation. The answer given by the Malaysian authorities is causing international and political tensions since China is demanding Malaysia to hand over all relevant satellite data analysis on the missing plane. If these frictions keep happening, it could compromise the efforts done by the international search team since nations that are not happy with the way things are handled could leave the team.

Up to this point, the MH370 case is a clear example of technological determinism, to the point of being presented at “Introduction to Social Informatics” lectures along with WIRED Magazine statements. It is too soon to make any precipitated conclusions, but in such case we can already notice a suspension of ethical judgment and the unintended consequences caused by “naïve science”. From now on, I hope the passenger’s family find better comfort and the authorities involved in this case be less technological deterministic, even if society demands them to be so. As David E. Nye (2007) stated: technologies do not drive change. They are the product of cultural choices and their use often has unintended consequences.

The Guardian (March 8th, 2014). “Malaysia Airlines: experts surprised at disappearance of ‘very safe’ Boeing 777”. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/08/malaysia-airlines-experts-surprised-at-disappearance-of-very-safe-boeing-777

Nye, D. E. (2006). Technology matters: Questions to live with (pp. 194-198). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

An Afternoon Exploring Tivoli: the construction of cameras, tourists, and theme parks

During my short stay in Copenhagen last week I visited Tivoli, the world’s second oldest theme park. I am a big fan of Disney theme parks, though I would not necessarily consider myself a fan of theme parks in general. I hadn’t been planning to visit Tivoli, but once I heard it was open especially for Halloween and boasting more than 1500 pumpkins (I harbor a great love for pumpkins) scattered around the park I decided that I should stop by.

It was midafternoon before I made it to the park and as I joined a decent sized group to cross the street, I thought about how crowded a Disney park would be on a weekday in October midafternoon. Tivoli was indeed quite crowded. It is a charming park, full of festive décor and an exuberant atmosphere. But there is one thing that really stood out to me as different, perhaps even odd, about this park.

I was the only person taking pictures.

I was surrounded children, teenagers, and adults who all seemed to be having a good time. I’d heard rumors of a national holiday in Denmark and had thought that might be the reason that there were so many people in the park that day. And yet no one else was documenting their visit via photographs?

Admission to Tivoli is fairly inexpensive (less than $17 for an adult) and I know my Danish hosts said that they have season passes, so it is possible that a trip to Tivoli is a regular occurrence for many of the people in the park. However, when I think about all of my trips to Disney parks, people are snapping pictures all the time. Even the locals who I know visit the parks pretty regularly take pictures or use their phones to check in to their favorite places online so that their Facebook friends can be appropriately jealous.

I understand that picture taking is a markedly touristy thing to do, but isn’t it usually acceptable to be a tourist in a place such as a theme park where ostensibly everyone is a tourist? I am curious why it is that I didn’t see any other photographers that afternoon.

What are the elements of visits to Disney parks and Tivoli that perhaps differentiate the role of cell phones and cameras in the park going experience? Is it a difference between the notion of theme park as an entire vacation destination in itself (Disney) versus the theme park as an attraction embedded within a city context (Tivoli)? Is it the difference between an American based park and a Danish park?

I don’t really have answers here, but I thought it was fascinating to see such a difference that might speak to the social construction of cameras in travel/tourist experience. This was my first trip to a theme park outside of the United States, so I am not well experienced with the theme park experience in other cultural contexts. I am curious to see if anyone else has any insights as to the lack of picture taking activity in Tivoli.

If you find yourself in Copenhagen, take some time to visit Tivoli; it is delightful, full of whimsy. Whether or not you take pictures is up to you.

Ontology of Students in Interdisciplinary Programs

I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy for Heather’s posting. I thought it would be more interesting if we have the following discussions. For me, the difficulty of interdisciplinary studies stems not only from the daunting challenge of designing a research framework by ourselves, but also from our daily ontological questions as students in an interdisciplinary program.

Regarding questions of who you are

Two years ago, I was in a long queue waiting to pass U.S. immigration processing. The immigration officer wants to know who I am.

  • Immigration Officer: So, what are you studying?
  • Me: I’m coming here for PhD program in Social Informatics.
  • Immigration Officer: I’m sorry, what?
  • Me: oh…Well…I mean…It is Computer-science-ish stuff. I will be PhD student in CS-ish study.
  • Immigration Officer: oh, now I got it. Sounds cool. Good luck.

I knew that was the fastest way to escape the situation, but I didn’t know it was just the very beginning of endless identical questions that I would face. Even within this small Informatics building, I have often encountered similar questions asking to explain what (the hell) is Social Informatics. Of course, I used to reply plausibly that ‘Social Informatics is interdisciplinary studies of the relationship between ICT technology and society’ as we used to teach in undergraduate course. That answer would be full mark in their final exam. Unfortunately, however, it is never good enough for me. Weirdly I felt I kept wandering into a maze while I tried to answer the questions. It was not just the matter of social recognition, but rather matters of fundamental issues regarding the ontology of students in an interdisciplinary program.

According to the report by NSF, 24%-30% of PhD dissertations were written on interdisciplinary research during 2001 to 2008 academic years in United States. The Indiana University, Bloomington campus is ranked third  in the nation, followed by MIT and Boston University, with an average 38.1% of doctoral dissertations being interdisciplinary. Though the statistic was based on a simple survey that has a considerable possibility of bias, it still means not a small number of doctoral students here have struggled in identifying themselves in academia. The question of the immigration officer became my lingering question: how can I know who I am.

Regarding questions of what you are doing

I’m interested in development of communication infrastructures in 21st century South Korea,  which has been considered as ‘the most successful Internet nation’ (though I don’t know what exactly that means). Almost 8 years ago, I had a chance to sit in a meeting with bureaucrats from Southern Asia. They asked, ‘How did Korea have that amazingly rapid development in building communication infrastructure?’ One officer from Korean government barely replied, “I’m not sure how we did it, we just did it.” It was ‘the moment’ for me. Later, I realized there is not much convincing research that answers or deals with those issues. There are missing links between the success of Korea in the statistical numbers and causal explanations of its success. I started seeking the way to understand development of the infrastructure and its dynamics relationships of global and local technological competition and cooperation as it is situated within political, social, cultural arrangements. Hopefully my research will contribute to demystifying the incredible development of communication infrastructure in Korea.

My academic journey in higher education travels through computer science, history of science and technology, science and technology studies, policy studies and Social Informatics. When I was in the master’s program for history of science and technology, I was getting tired of reading materials about history of science in 18th century England. Moreover, I realized that the discipline of history does not consider the social phenomena in recent ten years as a ‘history’. History was not a good methodology kit to illustrate these issues. While I spent a couple more years in science and technology policy research field after my master’s years, I also realized policy analysis might just provide a partial explanation if I narrow the problem space enough.

In that way, Social Informatics program opened wide window for me as fully opened interdisciplinary program. Our faculty members always say “Whatever you want” with their generous smile. In IU, there were numerous opportunities to be exposed to related fields of research in and outside of the school, like HCI, complex systems, information science, telecommunications, history, political science, sociology and so forth.

But soon, I need to make my choice of which critical lens is the ‘proper’ lens to illustrate my research issues. It was obvious that I cannot use all the methodologies from a wide range of research disciplines in the limited time offered. At the same time, I need to find the audiences who might be interested in my research. CFPs for ‘related’ journals and conferences in my mailbox have stacked up, but I haven’t known what are ‘proper’ journals and conferences exactly. I have realized that I face the chaos of interdisciplinary openness. One more question is added up on top of the identity problem. Where is a good place for me to be?

Regarding questions of where you will be

From last year, we in the Social Informatics crew have been excited to get a new faculty member. During the job talk process, one of the candidates talked to us about the difficulty of finding a ‘proper’ academic position as a researcher with an interdisciplinary background. The candidate said that there are numerous opportunities to pursue, but there are limited places to stay in a stable position.

Science and Technology Studies, also called STS, had similar institutionalization problems. In recent thirty years, STS scholarship has contributed to seeing techno-scientific society practically and academically. Too few universities, however, had made long-term commitments to STS, and the STS as academic disciplines remains institutionally fragile.  STS scholars are scattered in a diaspora across diverse departments. Here, after identify myself as an STS scholar, I might still be asked for a long time: where will I be?

Exhilarating, or terrifying, or both

There is a painting I keep seeing in my mind these days. The image is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Historian John Lewis Gaddis started his book, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past with interpretation of this painting. He explains that this painting is “suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it’s impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both. (p. 1)”

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818),
Caspar David Friedrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Social Informatics is young studies and a discipline still in a process. But ontological questions of the discipline are not our sole concern, as they also might somewhat overlap with the ontological questions facing all doctoral students. For us, suffering under this chaos of ontological problems might be even more inevitable. It could be part of our job that began when we joined this wonderful academic project in the formative stage. Thus, doing Social Informatics is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both.

The difficulty of interdisciplinary narratives

This post is also cross posted on heatherwiltse.me.

Interdisciplinarity is a concept that is frequently lauded but notoriously challenging to realize. Practical realities like publication and tenure requirements and conceptions of what counts as valid research in established fields tend to push even the best-intentioned academics toward more well-trodden and recognizable paths, despite the potential benefits of interdisciplinary perspectives and collaborations. There is also the intellectual challenge of bringing possibly quite different intellectual traditions into conversation with each other in substantive and non-dilettantish ways.

This last challenge in particular is one that I have been wrestling with in framing my dissertation research. I have been for the last few months working on my dissertation proposal, with my literature review chapter being inordinately irksome. My research deals with the ways in which interactive technologies can mediate engagement with the world in our everyday lives, and aims to develop grounded theoretical frameworks and critical perspectives that can inform technology design and critique. I am actively trying to bridge Social Informatics/STS, HCI design, and philosophy of technology in order to consider social implications of technologies in ways that can speak to their design.

My work is thus suspended in the middle of these three areas, with a number of others being potentially relevant (e.g., media studies, cultural studies, critical theory, information and information society studies, infrastructure, etc.). Just identifying which literatures and theoretical perspectives I should engage with, and how, and why, has been a daunting task. But now that I have this more or less pinned down and have been trying to corral it all into some manageable structure for my literature review I have discovered another, perhaps more basic but still vexing, challenge: that of crafting a narrative to provide the theoretical backdrop for my research.

My Informatics colleagues and I have joked about wishing we were doing something easy, like theoretical physics, because then at least we would have a fairly well-defined problem space (or an established paradigm, in the Kuhnian sense). A scholar working in such an established discipline is able to present (or assume) a boring, predictable setup for her research: the history of her discipline, its intellectual traditions, questions, and progress made toward addressing the problem at hand. Included in this nifty paradigmatic package are also shared conceptions of what count as acceptable problems, methods, and solutions. Of course, even research that fits this pattern has its own significant challenges that I do not mean to trivialize. But at least framing and rhetoric can be fairly straightforward.

When choosing to take a fundamentally interdisciplinary perspective, however, these things cannot be taken for granted. If the problem/question is not well set up (and sanctioned qua problem/question) by any single discipline, one can be left to at least some extent appealing to the audience’s intuitive and practical sense of something being a real problem in the world that requires such a newfangled approach. And one person’s interesting question is often another person’s uninteresting assumption.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that the issues I am wrestling with require multiple perspectives to understand and address, and that understanding and addressing them is important. So I’m going to keep wrestling, and if I figure out this whole interdisciplinary narrative thing I’ll let you know.

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