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~Thursday~  I caught the #9 Greek Village Wolfline bus up at Gorman and Avent Ferry this morning, and when we boarded the first three seats on the right were taken by that man who was on a week or so ago that made the comment to all the students on the bus, "I hope y'all didn't party too much last night."

He'd obviously gotten on at the (only) stop before this one, which is at the Food Lion grocery store, as he had three very full bags of groceries in his lap and across the two seats to his right. At the next stop, so many students got on that he had to pick up the bags that were on the seats and hold them.

At the next stop, the aisle filled up with students standing, and after the bus started moving again, there was a commotion up front. I looked through all the people to see the man bent over and scavenging around on the floor for groceries that had tipped out of one of his bags. A very stubborn 3-liter bottle of soda kept rolling between people's feet while he tried to grab it without re-spilling the retrieved groceries in his lap. Drama.

This situation made me think about the differences, and in some cases trade-offs between riding the city buses and the university buses:

City BusUniversity Bus
Runs every half hour in the morning hours and evening hours, but changes to once an hour mid-dayRuns much more frequently more of the day
There is more variation in arrival time due to the longer time between busesThere is less variation in arrival time, because they're running so often
Both talking and cell phone communication tend to be loudMuch less talking even though the ridership is usually more, and the talking that does get done is quiet overall
There is rarely eye candy on the busThere is almost always eye candy on the bus
You can exit either door of the busYou must enter the front door of the bus and exit the rear door of the bus
Close pick-up to my house, and longer walk to the office going in; close pick-up to my office and close drop-off at my house going homeQuite a walk or a short drive to pick-up and close drop-off at work going in, close pick-up coming home from work and somewhat of a walk or short ride at drop-off

I attended three meetings during my work day today, two were interviews related to the hiring of an IT Accessibility Coordinator for the university and the other was a professional development type seminar given by Dr. Sherry Turkle called, "Alone Together: New Intimacies and Solitudes of the Digital Age."

The first interview meeting was a Q&A with the candidate, who is able-bodied, and I asked him this question: "How would you respond if you were challenged by someone who uses assistive technology about your ability to empathize with their experience." The second meeting was after the Q&As, where the candidate did a presentation about his philosophy regarding accessibility and what he hopes to focus on and accomplish if he gets the position.



What follows is a lecture I attended tonight along with my notes. Dr. Sherry Turkle is someone I studied a little bit about during my Master's in Technical Communication degree program, and I was very excited to learn she was going to be the keynote speaker at this event at NC State University.

Engineering, Policy and Society Seminar Series
Computing and Communications Technologies: The work/life connection

Stewart Theater @ NC State University
Thursday, November 04, 2010, 4:00-5:30


Dr. Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, a center of research and reflection on the evolving connections between people and artifacts. Her latest book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Dr. Turkle started off her keynote with a memory of a meeting she attended in the 70s when it became obvious that it was just a matter of time before personal computers were going to become widely available to everyday people.

A bunch of very, very bright people at Harvard were gathered together to brainstorm on the question, “How can we keep technology busy once we get it?” They came up with such profound things as tax preparation and teaching children to program the computers.

No one thought that anyone but academics would want to write on them, as it was going to make writing a two-step process, first having to type it and then having to print it. Who would want to do that when with a typewriter you write and print at the same time? Somebody suggested possibly doing calendaring on the computer and someone else said that that was a dumb idea. However, everyone agreed that there’d be games to play on the computer.
“And now, they keep us busy. It’s as though we’re their ‘killer app.’” Once computers connected us to each other, we became tethered. When we misplace our mobile devices, we become anxious, impossible. We archive our lives now.

"Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies." A paraphrasing of the promise of Second Life (a virtual world) is: “Finally a place to love your body, love your friends, love your life.” And in general people’s avatars there are richer, thinner, younger, and better looking than in “first life.” Technologies are offering us the possibility to experiment with identity.

Today, if we can have each other at a distance, in amounts we can control—like some kind of Goldilocks, not too close, and not too far—we prefer that. We use the ability to "hide" from each other even as we're constantly connected. We’d rather text than talk.

Then she told a story about looking for a nanny, though I can't remember if she was looking for a nanny herself, or if she was telling the story about someone in her research that was looking for a nanny, but no matter. This was the gist of it:

I needed to find a new nanny. When I interview a nanny, I like to go to where they live to see them in their environment. I showed up at "Ronnie's" house and her house mate answered the door. She's young and she's texting on her BlackBerry, even though both her thumbs have bandages on them. She has tiny thumb splits in, but she is still able to text.

When I told her I was there to speak to Ronnie about the nanny job, she started texting Ronnie, who was no more than 15 feet away in another room. "You could just call out to her," I suggested, to which she replied, "Oh no, I wouldn't want to interrupt her."
Later in the talk she revisited this "new state of hiding," or "fleeing from the voice," by sharing comments from another person she interviewed in her research who said he never interrupts his colleagues at work any more. He doesn't call them, talk to them or ask to see them. He sends them e-mail, because he doesn't want to "interrupt" them.

When questioned why he thinks that what was once considered collegial is now considered an interruption. "I think it's because people are busier now," he said. And then after some silence he added, "I'm not being completely honest; it's actually that I don't want to be interrupted by people, so I don't interrupt them."

Another interesting topic touched on by Dr. Turkle was about privacy. She shared a couple of compelling comments from adolescents that she has interviewed for research:

  1. A 16-year-old boy told her that when he really wants privacy he uses a pay phone. "But I look for the kind that takes coins," he clarified. "And that's no easy feat in Boston," Turkle added.

  2. A young adolescent girl she interviewed when asked, "Are you concerned about your privacy?" responded that—no, she didn't—she felt safe, because, "Who would care about me and my little life?"
She also spoke about what psychologically, makes us discontent. We get discontent when we miss what we hold dear, what we don't want to lose, what we find precious.

She's concerned about this lack of concern in our youth about losing your privacy. "What is intimacy and democracy without privacy?" she asked. And then she related a story about her grandmother, an immigrant, taking her mother to a post office in Brooklyn when she was a girl, and showing her that their were post office boxes there that no one but you could look in, your own private place that not even the government could look in. That's what makes this country a democracy, she related.

And then she wondered aloud, "Where can I take my daughter [in this new connected, access anywhere, always on] world to say, 'This is your own private space,' and be sure that that's true?"

Dr. Turkle said that this new tethered environment has introduced "a new state of the self itself," which includes these three new ways of being:

  1. New confusions (What's a friend? When, why to phone? Who am I?)

  2. Anxieties of disconnection (Where's my phone? What's happening in "my life?" How long will I have to be disconnected?)

  3. The anxiety of always on (I need to get back to my friends. Erase and delete are metaphorical on the Internet; things never really are erased or deleted, they're just archived. How long can I keep this up?)
Dr. Turkle said that what's scary to her is when living within an electronic channel starts to feel so natural that it disappears.

She injected another short story about one of the adolescents she studied. After talking with him for about 30 minutes, during which his smartphone was turned off, he turned it back on and sighed that he over 100 texts come in during that time. She said he wondered aloud, "How long can I keep this up? I hope I'm not still doing this when I'm older."

Dr. Turkle's concluding thoughts included, "After 15 years of interviewing adolescents, I've seen them move from, "I have a feeling; I want to make a call." to "I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text." She illustrated this with an example of a girl she interviewed who told her when she has a feeling, she want to share it and she sends a text out so she can get some feedback on it from a friend. If she sends it to one person and they don't respond, she sends it to the next friend on her list, until someone texts back, even if it's just to say, "That's great." Basically she doesn't seem to know how to feel about something until she gets external feedback on it.

What's significant here is that she is not having the feeling first and then sharing it. She wants to have a feeling, and she has to share something with someone first to get it. Technology that facilitates feeling in this way does not nurture being alone with your own thoughts.

Dr. Turkle is trying to get people to think about loneliness as failed solitudes. “If you don’t know how to be alone, you can only be lonely.” And many of these technologies do not cultivate being comfortable with being alone.

I found that ending very, very interesting, because I am a person who never gets lonely, and I'm totally happy being alone with myself.

After her keynote, three people were brought up on stage and each given ten minutes to follow-up on anything she'd said, pose any of their own research and questions

  • Dr. Victoria Szabo is assistant research professor of art, art history and visual studies and program director for information science and information studies at Duke University.

  • Dr. David Roberts is assistant professor of computer science at NC State. His current research interests are generally in the area of machine learning and artificial intelligence and their applications to the design of interactive technological experiences such as computer games or training scenarios.

  • David Gruber is a third-year doctoral student in the Ph.D. program in communication, rhetoric and digital media at NC State. His research interests are in the rhetoric of science and technology, media history, and visual rhetoric.
Mr. Gruber posed an interesting question, "Could it be that the technologies are red herrings?"

During this Q&A session someone asked Dr. Turkle (who also joined the panel) her thoughts on the ubiquity of connections to the Internet on campus and in the classrooms.

"Pedagogically, I think we’ve wired our universities a little too much. There’s no reason why in a lecture room there should be wi-fi access. It's a proven fact that multitasking does not improve our productivity. Multitasking releases a neurochemical that makes us feel like the masters of the universe even while our performance deteriorates."

There was also an interesting discussion about cruelty to strangers online, framed around the recent rash of GLBT suicides resulting from online events. She said that she saw this outing activity as people giving themselves permission to do things online that are not acceptable in real life.

And it's not because the people are anonymous. In many cases they're not anonymous, but it's as if because there is something mediating their actions (i.e., "the computer" or "the Internet") people somehow see that as a layer of protection, or that they're "safe" because they're one step removed or something. But that's a fantasy, and it's not just the outings. It's things that people wouldn't normally say out loud or in public, but say for instance in a voicemail message or texting, citing the example of Tiger Woods, as if because the phone is mediating a conversation it changes things. Again, that's a fantasy.

A question from the audience, actually from my friend and colleague, Henry Schaffer, Professor Emeritus at NC State, asked if she didn't think some of these technologies were "dumbing down" our communication.

I liked her answer, which essentially was, "Yes," but she went on to explain, "As we demand velocity, we start asking each other simpler questions. For example, a reporter asked me, "Is the Internet (or the computer) good or bad," as if there are no answers that could be given other than good or bad. But he only had five seconds for my answer, so I gave him a five-second answer."

And one final thing that I captured was about what makes things "significant enough" or "newsworthy enough" to "Facebook status update" or "tweet" about. What's popular is being conflated with what's legitimate. Really when something is popular, the news is that, "This is something people are talking about," it's not that whatever they're talking about is true or not, or newsworthy or not in, and of itself.



The irony is not lost on me that as I finally got around to editing these notes for my blog, my friend Joe and I were in Port City Java in Wilmington sitting across the table from each other, both on our laptops (and instant messaging to each other about the people sitting around us), we both had our BlackBerrys on the table just in case a call or some e-mail came in, and we both had our iPods on the table with earbuds in listening to music. That's a lotta stuff.

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Nov. 7th, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
ironic ending (not from Chapel Hill)
Fascinating topic and notes, John. We could make this into about 3 salon topics, I think. I love love love the ending...for all its pitfalls, I certainly get a lot out of technology.

Thinking thinking,

anna
dailyafirmation
Nov. 7th, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)
Re: ironic ending (not from Chapel Hill)

OMG, I so adore you Anna! E-mail me and tell me what your adjective was and where you ended up?
(Anonymous)
Nov. 7th, 2010 04:38 am (UTC)
in the competition for attention, your blog won tonight!
John -- Thanks so much for sharing this. Damnit, you write excellent field notes. My notes consisted mostly of particular turns of phrase that Sherry Turkle used, for example:

- We are computer's killer apps.
- Technology has become like a phantom limb.
- The architect of our intimacies.
- Technologies, affordances, and our human vulnerability.
- We'd rather text than talk.
- Where do we live and what do we live for ... (Thoreau) in our new tethered lives.
- Ethnographer's rule: never use a great story that doesn't have other back up stories supporting it.
- A new state of hiding.
- Rapid cycling becomes a second self.
- Multi-lifing: the notion of the life-mix (virtual and real).
- living with an electronic shadow seems so natural that it seems to disappear.

Your notes were actually thoughtful SENTENCES!

Enjoyed joining you at the talk, separated though we were by our laptop cases :-).

Brad.

ps: Yes, indeed, Anna, what WAS your adjective? Eleanor suggested "evanescent" and then suddenly worried that it would be most inappropriate in your particular context! My pick was "delectable!"
dailyafirmation
Nov. 7th, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)
Re: in the competition for attention, your blog won tonight!

Brad, rest assured my notes didn't come out in full sentences; that was an editing job for sure. :-)

I rather like your terse notes, and a couple of them are gems that I missed, but remembered once seeing them, and I'm grateful you caught them. (Two of them being: "Technology has become like a phantom limb," and "Ethnographer's rule: never use a great story...")

Good observation/irony catch about the laptop bags; that one hadn't surfaced to my consciousness. :-)

And FWIW, your summary would do much better in a "rapid velocity" interview/conversation about the talk.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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