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It’s Complicated

I have two jobs and two internships, none of which have provided me with a policy outlining how I can use my personal social media networks. Perhaps this is because, as Robert Howard discusses, social networks are ‘new participatory forms’ that are not yet fully understood. He outlines how the Internet has welcomed the notion of ‘self-produced media’, and how such participatory media has transformed the once simple structure of public discourse, into something quite unconventional, and into ‘complex new communication processes’.

However, social networks have been around since the 1970’s. While Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are currently the most popular; they did not birth the idea of social behaviour between computer users.

The seventies welcomed CompuServe, a business-oriented communication solution. BBS then became popular as an online meeting place where users could download files and games and post messages to each other. Then in the late 80s America Online, the ‘true precursor to today’s social networking sites’, was born. Known as AOL, the site became a hub for social interactions, allowing users to make ‘Member Profiles’, to chat anonymously via instant messaging.

Given they have existed for over 30 years, why aren’t social media policies a standard contract within the workplace? Possibly for the same reasons that there are no policies regarding use of your phone, or your email account: people believe they should have complete freedom of expression, and companies think their employees will behave with common sense online.

Cisco, a leading IT company, has released their social media policy that excels where most companies fall short. It respects their employees’ freedom of expression, and rather than outline strict prohibitions, it offers specific disclaimers for individuals who do want to express their opinion on a matter relevant to the company.

The policy also protects Cisco when employees, inevitably, lack common sense in their online discourse. CEO of Mashery explains that ‘people tend to interpret having the ‘right’ to express themselves online as implying a lack of consequences when they say stupid things’. Of course this isn’t the case, so giving employees such disclaimers ensures people don’t automatically assume the stupidity of one employee reflects the entire company.

So while many companies argue that social media are too complicate to regulate, Cisco proves there is no excuse to not implementing an effective social media policy.

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The Power of Anonymity

Anonymity has always been a loophole to gain power. Throughout history we see women writers who, in an attempt to make greater success, write either anonymously (Jane Austen’s first published novel was ‘By a Lady’) or under a male pseudonym (Nelle Harper Lee discarded her first name when publishing ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’).

Unfortunately, the ability to remain nameless has also resulted in faceless crime and harassment, with evidence suggesting anonymity can make people meaner. Such anonymity has helped progress the art of trolling, whereby a game is played ‘about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players’.

Trolls obtain power by their ability to deceive other online participants. If they are successful in convincing people that what they are saying, no matter how outrageous, is true, they gain the upper hand. This type of power is often criticised as trolls can threaten the reputation of the victim, and particularly when celebrities are the victims, trolls are known to point out their victim’s flaws, for example the Twitter trolls who criticised Pink for her weight.

However, while the work of many trolls might be defamatory and considered as harassment, such power can be attained by anyone. Unlike Hollywood celebrities who promote ‘narcissism and self-inflation’, ‘superstar professors [who] command high salaries’ or sports ‘players [who] rake in obscene salaries’, anonymity gives way to power that is not rooted in fame-seeking behaviour. A former Anonymous troll explains such a basis as being the success of anonymous communities like 4chan as the ‘primary ideal of Anonymous’:

‘The posts on 4chan have no names or any identifiable markers attached to them. The only thing you are able to judge a post by is its content and nothing else. This elimination of the persona, and by extension everything associated with it, such as leadership, representation, and status, is the primary idea of Anonymous.’

As Miller concludes, ‘it leads us back to the realisation that what counts as abuse, and what counts as lulz, may just depend on which end of the stick we have grasped’. While many playing the victim of trolls may not agree that trolling is a fair and intelligent pursuit of power, we mustn’t forget that the basis of their action is to eliminate any status or position of power they had to begin with. Judgements are to be made on intelligence, humour and personality, not on a prestigious title.

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Artificial Intelligence vs. Human Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence is not something limited to science fiction. It exists in our world today. This is because we live in a heavily ‘technocultural’ environment. That is to say, we live in a world where technology interacts deeply with politics and culture. Such a word reminds me of what I discussed in Optimize Your Identity, a blog that explored technicity: the notion of technology improving us, and forming a part of our identity.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is ‘an area of computer science that emphasizes the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans’. Therefore, AI works in a way almost opposite to technicity: it imparts human-like knowledge into technology, rather than technology being fused into the human body.

Ted Mitew discusses ‘Brad the toaster’ as a clear example of the possibilities that Artificial Intelligence welcomes. ‘Brad’s capacity for sociability is relentless; yes, he speaks with the voice of his maker, but he can also initiate agency independently, as well as communicate with other things and his human interlocutors’. Mitew explains that through the Internet of Things, Brad the toaster can gain not only a personality but also power.

What I find intriguing about Artificial Intelligence is that it attempts to replicate the human mind, and strives to give machines human skills such as speech recognition, learning, planning and problem solving. This draws a connection between people and computers. There is a two-way relationship between the user (human) and the machine (computer). Both work harmoniously to produce a specific result, and each must keep up with the other (Chesher, 2003).

While Mitew looks at the potential of objects gaining power, Chris Chesher explores how technology can be submissive and gentle. ‘When a computer addresses users, it doesn’t’ speak as an authority… It doesn’t demand that I write, but offers support if I want to write. ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ doesn’t command Sam to dance’. He writes, ‘all that invocators want in return for the powers they offer is that we become users’.

How can both be true when they sit on opposite sides of the spectrum?

Artificial Intelligence imparts power into once passive technologies, and computers give way to further human intelligence. The truth is that both coexist. Without one another, progress regarding both human and machine intelligence would simply stop.

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The Threat of Anonymity

The Internet has been a major game-changer for globalisation. While there are miles of distance between nations on opposite sides of the world, the boundary-crossing nature of the Internet has allowed for unprecedented global interconnectedness. However, problems arise when opposing parties interpret and analyse situations, messages, and images in contrasting ways.

Tomoko Koda investigated the cultural differences in avatar expression across Japanese and Western avatar designs, and found that those living in close proximity of one another could interpret avatars designed by those near them, while those not living in close proximity of one another had different interpretations of such avatars. Although the Internet seems to be compacting parts of the world together, clearly it is also highlighting many of the misinterpretations that occur across different cultures.

We see this misinterpretation in Julian Dibbell’s ‘A Rape In Cyberspace’ where an individual who gets raped in the virtual world, becomes overwhelmed by the emotional anxiety of the event. The victim, while only having been the victim of a virtual rape, feels a very real sense of trauma regarding the situation, however the rapist, Mr Bungle, does not sympathise with this. For what was an investment of time and life on the victim’s behalf, was merely a form of entertainment for the culprit. It turns out that Mr Bungle was not a single individual, but a group of young students encouraging an impressionable controller to have some ‘fun’ and engage in such an act.

Mr Bungle’s actions were a result of immature peer-pressure, however, this was more serious than pushing your mate to have a beer or cigarette- while there may have been no physical repercussions for their foolish virtual actions, the victim found herself with genuine emotional and mental distress.

Cyberspace allows for this sort of misunderstanding, and misalignment of perspectives, however it is not the Internet itself to blame, rather the anonymity it facilitates. ‘With respect to cyberspace, identities are easily cloaked in anonymity’ (Chawki, 2006). The ability to present ones self as a faceless and nameless character on a screen often causes individuals to feel invincible. This invincibility then manifests itself in the form of thoughtless and idiotic behaviour, like that of Mr Bungle. While privacy and security are significant factors to consider when being active online, individuals using an anonymous username for purposes more sinister than these pose as a threat to the cyberspace community.

‘Criminals who wish to use a computer as a tool to facilitate unlawful activity may find that the Internet provides a vast, inexpensive and potentially anonymous way to commit unlawful acts’ (Chawki, 2006). Anonymity aids the processes of criminals, and often makes it hard to ever find culprits. This is concerning because beyond the typical cybercrimes of fraud and distribution of child pornography are the crimes that appear to be no more than virtual, but actually affect their victims in a way that real life rape, abuse and personal violation would.

So don’t be like Mr Bungle and become a part of the threat of anonymity.

References

Optimize Your Identity

I felt as though I had a brief existential crisis after reading the Johnny Mnemonic short story by William Gibson. The main protagonist, Johnny, is a data trafficker who undergoes cybernetic surgery in order to have a data storage system implanted in his brain. The entire story entertains the world of cyberpunk, with surgical technological implants being a contemporary trend, and cybernetically enhanced dolphins being a somewhat norm. This genre is something I had never really stumbled across, however it has caught my attention!

David Tomas wrote a thorough commentary/analysis of the Johnny Mnemonic work, addressing 3 main observations, the third of which I will focus on; the ‘social regeneration of ethnic identity under the influence of cyborg-governed process of technological differentiation in marginal late-capitalist creolized technocultures.’

Technology is altering our sense of self. It causes individuals who had once belonged to a specific social class or ethnical background to be identified by their level of technicity. We can see this in our current society, just look at the ongoing segregation of Apple and Android users. We no longer strongly associate with our gender, race, political views and/or religious affiliations as people traditionally have, but rather with what extends beyond just us. “In Gibson’s world cryogenic processes and enhanced digitalised senses redefine identity” (Coker, 2011).

Plastic surgery is one of these ‘extensions’, and is now quite an established means of customising ones own body. It, along side medicinal implants such as pacemakers and hearing-aids, have catalysed the process of ‘technologizing’, ‘in which bodies are reassembled so that they can function more optimally’. Identity is now imparted in technology that optimizes us.

Mikey Sklar, is one of a small but growing group, who have had a Radio Frequency Identification computer chip implanted into one of their hands. This has enabled Mikey to replace his door locks with an electronic system and replace any other traditional password-lock system, such as his computer and credit card, with a simple swipe of his hand.

Mikey is optimizing his own self, and therefore optimizing his own concept of self. While I am apprehensive about the movement of implanting computer chips and other technologies straight into the physical skin, I can understand the admiration of technical virtuosity, and the desire for it’s excellence to morph itself into our own identity.

References

  • Gibson, W 1984, Johnny Mnemonic, Burning Chrome
  • Tomas, D 1989, The Technophilic Body: On Technicity in William Gibson’s Cyborg Culture, The Cybercultures Reader, no. 8, pp. 175-89, Routledge, London
  • Coker, C 2004, The Future of War: The Re-Enchantment of War in the Twenty-First Century, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, pp. 77