Tag - ethical questions

Let’s Talk about Talk
Open Scholarship: Accessible to Whom? [#CuriousCoLab]
Teaching Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore [#tbt]

Let’s Talk about Talk

I ordered Sherry Turkle‘s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age after having read an excerpt in the New York Times Sunday Review titled “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.”—a piece I enjoyed so much that I used it in a class I was teaching the very next week. Her previous book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011) is a masterpiece that I’ve referenced repeatedly. Because I needed some nonfiction to take with me during my holiday travels, I didn’t page through a copy of the book before deciding to purchase it. I hate to admit that I could have done without reading Reclaiming Conversation in full. Nearly all of its main ideas are previewed in the NYT excerpt as she sketches out her answers to the question motivating her recent research: “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?” There she describes two often unacknowledged social conventions that illustrate what she calls “the flight from conversation” (the title of her earlier New York Times opinion piece from 2012): the “rule of three” (roughly half of one’s group needs to be paying attention to one another, leaving the others to drop out for a while and check their phones) and the “seven minute rule” (the time it takes to for a true conversation to take off, which otherwise will never happen if interruptions cut it short).

But I read every last page of Reclaiming Conversation because of the richness of the examples that Turkle shares from her conversations with people of all walks from life. She analyzes their statements to reveal latent preoccupations and unsaid concerns that are we as a culture should recognize then address. These are the same qualities that made Alone Together so compelling. But Turkle’s new book isn’t written for me, whereas Alone Together was still quasi-scholarly. Reclaiming Conversation is targeted squarely at parents, educators (mainly K-12), and white-collar professionals. In retrospect, it’s easy to appreciate how this book naturally follows her 2012 TED talk (with over three million views) and NYT opinion piece that year. I wouldn’t even say that Turkle is tailoring her message to a general audience so much as wanting to facilitate bottom-up change by helping people understand how to address the dissatisfaction they feel as technology has assumed such a prominent role in their lives.

I appreciated in particular Turkle’s unapologetic defense of the value of empathy and reflective solitude, both displaced by our technologically mediated interactions. She focuses on interpersonal exchange—or a withdrawal from it in order to converse with oneself—because of her training as a psychologist, no doubt. (At one point in Reclaiming Conversation she explicitly defends talk therapy.) But this is important to hear instead of, say, “reading novels builds empathy.” Of course there is messiness in real-time interaction, though we need to experience that to derive value from sustained conversation. And solitude is not as an escape from ourselves but an escape to a space of reflection, a pause before returning to building our relationships.

That way of seeing sets up an unexpected but fascinating discussion of the quantified self. The problem she sees is that devices for personal data tracking provide people with a “number without a narrative”: “Numbers are an element in a narrative process, but they are not just an element. When we have a number, it tends to take on special importance even as it leaves to us all the heavy lifting of narrative construction. Yet it constrains that constructions because the story we tell has to justify the number” (93). Hence the importance of conversation: the data is a conversation starter, a means of discussing possible change, not a line to a foregone conclusion that may be recognized by the individual alone. This is especially important, she notes, because algorithms that crunch these numbers are not made transparent to users.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Reclaiming Conversation was harder for me to enjoy was because I thought that Turke had left aside a discussion of artificial intelligence. A study of attitudes toward robotic companions actually occupies a half of Alone Together, the half not addressed in her TED talk.1 I was surprised to find it was the focus of the very last chapter of Reclaiming Conversation, which seems to relegate her question “What do we forget when we talk to machines?” to the status of appendix. I believe it’s here where the subject of “treating machines as people; treating people as machines” (to quote a subheading in the chapter) clearly surpasses the matter of conversation. “Nurturance turns out to be a ‘killer app.’ Once we take care of a digital creature or teach or amuse it, we become attached to it, and then behave ‘as if’ the creature cares for us in return” (352; italics hers). Not only are our exchanges with artificially intelligent robots not real conversations, but these are fundamentally displaced investments. It would be a real challenge to take up a sustained investigation of this important insight for a general audience, to be sure, and maybe that’s where Turkle ought to direct her next project.

  1. See also “Authenticity in the Age of Digital Companions” (2007) in Interaction Studies 8.3 (p. 501-17) and “In Good Company?: On the Threshold of Robotic Companionship” (2010) in Close Engagements with Artificial Companions, edited by Yorick Wilks (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, p. 3-10).

Open Scholarship: Accessible to Whom? [#CuriousCoLab]

George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons’s article “Assumptions and Challenges of Open Scholarship” provides an excellent overview of the ways that open scholarship is poised to transform academic research. Yet it doesn’t really consider open scholarship from a community partner’s point of view. This was something I had to consider when teaching a service-learning course and having students blog about their experiences. There are obvious arguments against having raw reflection publicly available, though on the other hand there are benefits to sharing one’s working thoughts with others and collaborating online. Should there be—or can there be—limits on whom the preliminary work reaches? While incremental open scholarship upholds transparency, community partners may have qualms about discussing in a public forum difficulties their clients face and the difficulties of addressing those needs. So in some cases, it may be better to hold off until there are final outcomes from CEnR so that everyone involved can weigh in on how those results might be presented. It would be important, too, that these outcomes are not expressed only in discipline-specific or academic discourse. Open scholarship demands that large audiences be able appreciate the value of the work.

Here’s where we also need to consider dissemination venues. One assumption Veletsianos and Kimmons discuss is the role of Internet technologies in open scholarship, which is thought to be “an emergent scholarly phenomenon that is co-evolutionary with technological advancements in the larger culture.” But is access to the technologies we’re using for open scholarship limited for the underprivileged communities and less established organizations that may be involved in our CEnR? For example, my service-learning students last semester at first thought social media would be the perfect way to get the word out about an initiative, only to realize that the community didn’t use the web as much or in the same ways as they did. Veletsianos and Kimmons note that “scholars need to develop an understanding of the affordance of the participatory web for scholarship and consider the implications of online identity and digital participation.” For CEnR, I argue that this requires thinking about how the community you collaborate with actually engages with these technologies (or what alternative technologies it prefers to use). Otherwise, what difference is there between a blog post and an article in a small journal if the post doesn’t reach and engage the community it is speaking about?

Teaching Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore [#tbt]

Throwback Thursday blog post: I wrote this two years ago for a now defunct personal blog. I thought about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore frequently while reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle, which was VCU’s summer reading selection for 2014. I thought my colleagues in Focused Inquiry and their students would be interested in this novel of ideas that also considers the consequences of rapidly changing technologies.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
It had been too long since I read a book for fun. Remembering NPR’s quirky interview with Robin Sloan, I picked up his novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I excused myself for taking the time to read Sloan’s book because I thought that maybe it would prove useful as a teaching tool in courses on new media or the digital humanities. (While reading I was reminded of the time I taught Matt Beaumont’s e: A Novel, which I just learned has a sequel.)

To an extent, Mr. Penumbra is a novel of ideas, but the kind that I wanted to keep reading to see what would happen next. I was reminded of the humorous books of that type by Aldous Huxley (especially Chrome Yellow, which I’ve also taught). Huxley also excels at exploring the intersection of the aesthetic with the ethical.

The New York Times‘s review of Sloan’s novel is right to point out that the plot moves along swiftly thanks to some implausibly simple resolutions to problems that stand in the characters’ way. I think that’s beside the point, though. I believe Sloan offers up convenient and fast solutions made possible by new technology in order to show the limitations of such breakthroughs, more obvious in retrospect. Unfortunately, the novel itself doesn’t encourage readers to circle back to some of these moments and examine them more closely. Or maybe it’s a good thing that Sloan hesitates to offer direct cultural commentary, which risks making his fiction seem didactic. The book is all the more readable for it, and fun.

But class discussion could dwell on the ethical questions that are left unanswered. I identified two issues that could be readily explored via Mr. Penumbra. (I’ll try to avoid dropping any spoilers!)

1. The Work of Data Processing: There are three moments when the main character Clay and his friends engage in swift data crunching. In the first, Clay’s love interest Kat uses Hadoop, a distributed computing system where users volunteer their spare processing power. The second requires actual manpower: the Mechanical Turk, which “instead of sending jobs to computers, like Hadoop, it sends jobs to real people. Lots of them. Mostly Estonians” (120). Clay describes Hadoop and the Mechanical Turk as armies on the march, a loaded metaphor certainly. Any allusion to outsourcing and its ills are glossed over, however. The last data crunch is performed at Google, whose corporate structure allows for these ventures, hyped as experts at work.

It is clear that collaboration is required to pull off these feats, despite the fantastic technology, and these plights may be easily contrasted with the individual quests that punctuate the novel. Compared to the analog methodologies that require careful investment of energy, one character (the corporate villain) believes that by simply processing data researchers “don’t take the work seriously” (152). Penumbra himself is at first ambivalent about computer models, telling Clay when he cracks a code, “You cheated—would that be fair to say? And as a result, you have no idea what you have accomplished. … And yet … you did it all the same” (97). And moreover, maybe that’s the point: with new technologies, we may not know what we are able to produce until we actually set them in motion.

2. Intellectual Property: In order to scan a book vital to Clay’s project, his team must create a convincing fake volume to put on the shelf in its place. It requires that he pirate a font, since he refuses to pay the exorbitant licensing fee: “TLC Type Foundry is probably somehow a subsidiary of Time Warner. Gerritszoon is an old font, its eponymous creator long dead. What does he care how his typeface is used, and by whom?” (79). In Sloan’s fictional world, the font is similar to a default typeface on a number of devices, including the iPhone. Clay’s irritation may be partly due to the fact that he can’t rely on the almost good enough version to replicate the book cover; he knows better. (Any typeface will do for data crunching.)

Later Clay finds out that he does have a connection to TLC Type Foundry. In fact, his “salary is paid by font licensing fees and copyright infringement cases” (142). This arrangement is all the more strange considering that the company uses the moveable type for printing while licensing a digital copy, and worries that it will break all its exemplars because the original punches were stolen. How does TLC own a font, exactly? Is it really eponymous?

There are plenty of other topics that the novel brings to light. Most, like these examples, run through the entire book, so a discussion can compare situations at various points.

Sometimes even very straightforward narratives can contain a remarkably dense set of thematic connections, and I would regard Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as one of them.

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