[AUDIO] Cultural anthropologists assess the information/communication revolution thus far, in 2012; And how it is altering our behaviour and the way in which we relate to one another

Transcript from the radio program ‘Future Tense’ on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

First Broadcast:Sunday 9 September 2012

[listen to audio version here]

Antony Funnell: Hello, this is Future Tense, I’m Antony Funnell, and welcome as always.

Today on the show we’ll hear from two prominent internet scholars, Ethan Zuckerman and Genevieve Bell.

Both were in Australia recently to deliver the inaugural James Tizard Memorial Lecture at the Science Exchange in Adelaide. The lecture was entitled ‘Many Internets, Many Lives’.

James Tizard died last year. He was the CEO of SABRENet, a collaboration between the South Australian state government, the Australian federal government and South Australia’s universities. SABRENet is a high speed broadband network connecting a variety of teaching institutions and research institutes.

Let’s hear first from Genevieve Bell. Regular listeners will know that we’ve had Dr Bell on the program before. She’s an Australian-born cultural anthropologist who now lives in the United States and heads the Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research Lab.

I’ve said this before, but what we like about Dr Bell’s work is that she’s interested in discovering how people are actually using and engaging with technology, not how she or her corporation think they should be.

Here’s Genevieve Bell:

Genevieve Bell: For me there is something wonderful about realising that even as we talk today about the fact that the internet is a global technology and it is a technology of huge potential, it’s still not everywhere and it’s still not everywhere in places we think of as already being hyper connected.

So thinking here about what it means to imagine a technology that is all-pervasive is in fact to deceive ourselves because the technology is also tied up with people. It’s tied up with the rhythms of our lives, it’s tied up with buildings, it’s tied up with structures and the fact that people take Sundays off. And what it means to imagine a technology that is all-pervasive is in some ways to imagine a world that is not populated by people.

And so what it means for me to think about the present of technology is to think about a technology that is always going to be uneven. Not that it won’t be present but that it will be a layering effect. In some places it’s going to be 3G on a cellphone, in some places it might be an iPad and a tablet, in some places it will be a cybercafe you will visit, and in other places it will be a really pretty boring Nokia feature phone where you connect to the internet and the internet is textbased and, by the way, it only works when you’re in town. So imagining that what it means to talk about the internet is never to talk about a system where everything is going to be evenly distributed but will always be unevenly distributed is for me as a researcher actually what makes it an interesting world, and it’s something I know Ethan will talk a lot more about momentarily.

It’s also the case I now spend my time in many strategic conversations in American industry, and everyone has been talking about the fact that the PC is dead, I’ve heard this phrase, that now we’re in the post-PC era, the PC is dead. I realise this is a bit like saying we’re in a post-paper period or the end of cash. It turns out that the PC is remarkably stubborn. People may not think it’s sexy anymore but it hasn’t gone anywhere. Much like some of the things we have called dead well ahead of time, like paper and cash, it turns out they persist in important ways. The tooth fairy doesn’t take credit cards, it’s really hard to leave post-it notes digitally because no one can see them, it turns out there are things that paper and cash and, one will argue, PCs are always going to do.

So as we think about the future and the present, I often think as a scholar we need to be careful about the stories we tell and about how real they really are, and about the kind of catchphrases that move across the boundaries between policy and marketing, to imagine what the realities really are. And as we think about what it means to imagine a world of connected people, again, it’s not all going to be…in a post-PC world there are still going to be these kind of huge infrastructures that are incredibly important, and all the other ways we know that people are going to connect to technology are part of both the present and the future of the internet and of broadband and of all the legacy of things that are interesting.

It also means that there is an increasing conversation going on both in Australia and I would say on the global stage about what we’re doing with all this technology. I spend a lot of time in people’s homes around the world and I hear a persistent and lingering anxiety about what it means for people to be constantly connected, and whether it’s an anxiety manifested in ‘my child has turned six, should I get them a mobile phone’, ‘I want to take the iPad away but then they scream in the back of the car’, ‘I’m really worried my child knows how to use the iPad and I don’t and she’s two’, ‘what will it mean for our language that everyone is now speaking in text messaging and emoticons’. We manifest this incredible anxiety about what the technology will bring forward.

We talk about what it means for people to be connected, to be hyper connected, we worry about what the nature of that connectivity is, what people are connecting to, and to whom and under what circumstances. In some ways those are remarkably persistent anxieties. We were worried about the same things when the telephone came along and when electricity came along and when television came along and when radio came along, and even when electricity came along.

And it turns out I think there is something about the moral anxiety that accompanies technology. And any technology that threatens to do three things always invokes that anxiety. If it threatens to rearrange our relationships to time, our relationships to space and our relationships to other people. And as soon as a technology has that potential we immediately imagine nothing good will come of it. And it is usually followed by phrases like ‘it will be the end of our society’, ‘it will be the death of our culture’, ‘have you seen what the young people are doing’. It’s never good.

What’s fascinating to me is the persistence of this anxiety and the fact that you can read the accounts of electricity and rock ‘n’ roll and the internet and hear exactly the same anxiety running through all of them. Because what they are is technologies that rearrange social relationships, and they rearranged our relationships to each other and to the places we were from. And of those are powerful forces and they are always accompanied by fear. So for me, playing through those anxieties is always an incredibly important part of the puzzle of both the present and the promised future.

It is also the case that I think the world is very different than it was when SABRENet was first imagined back in 2002. Starting in 2000 and really by 2002 about 70% of the world’s population that was online was in America. By today less than 15% of the world’s internet users are in America. The fastest growing languages online are Bengali and Arabic and Hindi and Spanish and Chinese. The biggest sites of internet production are happening in places far from here, about things that aren’t necessarily in the languages we read.

It is also the case that when SABRENet was first getting going, the most obvious way to connect to the internet was through a desktop or a laptop. Now there are a myriad of devices that connect us to the internet and the internet is different on each one of those. Whether it is as a delivery pipe on the Kindle or as a back-end in a smart electrical meter, whether it is what the internet looks like on your phone or a tablet or a computer or arguably in your car or in smart signage, the internet has become many things.

The technology industry, however, stubbornly clings to the notion there will be one device. It’s like the Tolkien fantasy; one device to rule them all. And if we can just find that one device, it will be great. And every time a new device turns up they go, ‘This is it, everyone is going to abandon everything else.’ And in my lab I sit there going, ‘Really? Have you unpacked anybody’s handbag recently?’ It turns out we didn’t abandon it, we just stuffed it in our bags along with everything else.

And the reality is when you unpack the handbags and backpacks and cars and houses of many places on this world, you find lots of technology, all of them being used to connect to the internet, all of them for different reasons and different experiences. And imagining that there’s one right away anymore gets really pretty complicated. And for most people there are lots of different choices people make about whether it’s a touch-based interface they like or something that doesn’t need certain kinds of virus protection, or if it’s a phone because you don’t have to share it with your parents. There are lots of different ways that we are connecting. And what that means for regulation, among other things, is incredibly complicated. This is no longer a single beast anymore, it is many.

And of course last but by no means least for me is the fact that we’re now talking about new models of engagement. About eight months ago a piece of video turned up on YouTube. This is a little 47-second video, really of great happiness as far as I’m concerned because what it is is a Furby, which is the large digital toy in the background. You may remember these are from the 1990s, they were hateful. They squeak a lot, they rolled their eyes, they fluttered their eyelashes and wiggled their ears and attempted to engage in some form of communication, most of it atonal.

In the foreground of this image is an Apple iPhone with Siri, a personal digital assistant, running on top of it. In this 47-second clip someone starts the Furby up and the Furby goes [squeaks], and Siri says, ‘Would you like me to call Shell Oil?’ And the Furby says [squeaks] and Siri says, I don’t think I understand.’ And the Furby goes [squeaks] and it says, ‘Would you like me to call Graham?’ And this goes on for 47 seconds of bliss and happiness of miscommunication.

Clearly the person who put this together thought this was quite funny and indeed it is, but for me it said something really interesting, which was here we were at this moment where something had really happened powerfully. When I saw this…and as an anthropologist I couldn’t help but see this as a genealogy of things that talk. So there’s the Furby as the first generation of talking digital stuff, and there’s the Siri, the most recent generation of talking digital stuff. And I’m sure the person who put it there was basically trying to say these were equally unhelpful talking digital things.

What I realised, however, was the really powerful thing about this was that what it was was that the Furby was making noise, and the Siri, it wasn’t that it was talking, it was that it was listening. And the listening is the really interesting thing, because however imperfect it is, what it promises is the prospect that you might be listened to by an object, not that it is talking at you but listening. And the listening is the promise of something quite different than we’ve had in our relationships with technology in the past. And I think the listening is the promise of a shift here from a moment where we’ve interacted with technology to a moment where we will have relationships with technology.

Whenever I say that to my American engineering colleagues, they immediately say to me, ‘When the machines are smart enough to have a relationship with us, they’ll kill us.’ Persistently. I’m like, ‘Really?’ They’re like, ‘Yes. The Terminator.’ I’m like, ‘That’s a movie. How?’ ‘Space Odyssey.’ I’m like, ‘Also a movie based on science fiction.’ They’re like, ‘Blade Runner.’ I’m like, ‘Based on a short story, also fiction.’ They’re like, ‘But that’s what will happen.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes.’

So I go to my colleagues in Japan and I’m like, ‘So, you have robots.’ They’re like, ‘Yes.’ I’m like, ‘Do you think they are going to kill you?’ They’re like, ‘Why would we think the robots were going to kill us?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, because they do in America.’ They’re like, ‘That’s just a movie.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, good.’

So my Japanese colleagues and I got into a conversation about what would it mean to imagine that objects might take care of you, and they looked at me and said, ‘But they already are. We have robots in our nursing homes, we have robots in our schools. We can fully imagine a world in which there is a relationship between people and technology. The future that you’re talking about is already here.’

And for me what I’m fascinated by is what comes next. And I’m fascinated by thinking about the world that James built, the broadband that he built and the promise that he was making about what comes next. And for me this notion that we are moving from a world of technology that we have to do all the work for, we have to plug in, we have to update them, we have to give them passwords and networks, and it’s just a lot of palaver looking at these machines. And imagine when they can start to look after themselves and start to look after us (and not kill us), is this promise of a remarkably different way of thinking about what we might be with technology as we move forward.

For me it’s about how we empower everyone, where that empowerment is going to look like different things for different people. In some places it’s about citizenship, in other places it’s going to be about consumption and consumerism, for some people it’s going to be about creativity, for other people it’s going to be about political resistance. But whatever it is going to take, it’s about how we build a system and sustain a system that makes those things possible. And for me that is not just about the technology, it’s about how we capacity-build in our citizens, it’s how we create the possibilities and the prospects and also the imagination to think about how it might be different. Thank you.

Antony Funnell: Dr Genevieve Bell, the head of the Interaction and Experience Research Lab at Intel Corporation. And out of interest, Dr Bell is a native of South Australia even though she now resides in the United States.

Now, as I indicated earlier, the inaugural James Tizard lecture was a double act; Genevieve Bell and Ethan Zuckerman. Ethan Zuckerman is the director of the centre for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. He’s also a former researcher at the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard and the co-founder of the website Global Voices.

Zuckerman has long focussed on our perceptions of the internet, exploring the reality between our idea of the digital world and our actual day to day usage of the web and social media.

Here’s Ethan Zuckerman:

Ethan Zuckerman: There was a lot of illusion very early on in the internet. When we go back into this past, when we go into, say, the late ’80s, the early 1990s, there’s this sort of naive belief that once we had networks then some fundamental changes to society would come about. The first change was that information would just be incredibly pervasive, we’d have access to whatever we wanted to know anywhere in the world at any moment in time. That suddenly, because everyone could be on these networks and it didn’t matter where you were, where you are coming from, what your background was, you could participate in the conversation, that we would have this incredible wealth of deliberation, and that we would be connected to everybody on the planet, that eventually we’d hit the point where you could reach out and have a conversation with any other person out there.

We’ve now hit a point where it’s very reasonable to look at these questions and ask ourselves; how are we doing? And I would argue on the first score we’re actually not doing badly. I think if you look at the combination of crowd sourced things, like Wikipedia, and you look at commercial solutions like Google, which in a very strange way is actually a crowd source thing, Google helps you find things, but what it’s actually helping you find is something that someone else has already written.

So in that sense of the internet putting out enormous amounts of human knowledge and making it accessible, we are growing up with a generation of people who never have that moment of saying, ‘Gee, I really wish I could know this.’ And if it’s a simple fact that we don’t have at hand, we always have it at hand. And that experience of that cocktail party conversation or the conversation over the beers of how big is this, how large is this, we’re never going to have it again. So as far as simple fact, we’re there. As far as complicated knowledge, still getting tricky, but I would say on this score we’ve done fairly well.

The liberation side of this we’ve done dismally. It turns out that being more connected to one another, more people having voices probably makes it worse rather than making it better. It may actually make it harder to come to consensus. You’re trying to listen to everybody, everyone wants a turn to speak, all sorts of dynamics, who’s ever loudest, who’s ever the most passionate ends up having more power. That turns out to be a deeply human problem, not a technological problem.

The third problem is the one that I am obsessed with, which is the question of who we are connected to and really who we’re not connected to. Even in a digital age we are much more connected to the people that we know, the people in our local communities, the people in our home countries than we are connected to people elsewhere, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. If you think about what happens when you join Facebook, the first thing it says is who do you go to school with, who have you worked with, who do you already know? Let me help you connect to those people that you already know. The internet becomes that the way to stay in touch with people that you know from the real world.

This is a crazy change in about 20 years. When I found myself getting online, the internet was never going to connect me to the people of the small college that I was at because none of them were on the internet. It was to connect me to the crazy people who were only online, who cared about these things that I cared about and that I had the chance to reach out to and encounter. But we’ve completely changed that assumption over the course of about 20 years, and now we assume that what this technology is really good for is connecting us to the people that we know and that we’re closest to and most familiar with.

There has always been the role of technologies in telling us about the rest of the world. Historically we get our knowledge about the rest of the world through curated media. So whether that is through newspaper, whether that’s through television broadcast, someone goes out and says here’s what’s out there and what is important in the world. And historically this has been a really difficult, expensive, dangerous thing to do. It has required physically putting people out there with cameras and shooting film and shipping it back and developing it and putting it on the airwaves, and all of that has changed.

And what’s funny about it is that despite the fact that reporting on the rest of the world has gotten so cheap and so easy that you can do it from a mobile phone, you can hold it up and be live to the internet immediately, we actually get much less international news in our media. And this is a trend that we’re seeing in a number of different countries. We’re seeing it in the UK where the four major newspapers have actually decreased the amount of international coverage that they’ve had, 45% over the last four years. In the US the amount of a newscast that’s international has gone from about 40% to about 12% over the last 30 years.

The internet makes it better a little bit. I can go and I can read Ghanaian newspapers and say, well, that’s great, if you’re not going to tell me about Ghana, at least I can go there directly. But I’m a rounding error. And if you actually look at what media people look at, even in a digital age, the vast majority is local. We might go online, we might look at the Times of India, we might look at the New York Times, we might look at the BBC. You don’t, and I have the numbers. You guys are actually better than the US and the UK. The US and the UK are about 95% domestic, it’s about 84% domestic in Australia, but it’s predominantly looking to the local.

So again, we have more and more connectivity, but we also have more and more interest in what is in our backyard. So fortunately now we start having search, we have the ability to pick exactly what we want, go out, find exactly whatever information you want to know. If you come out of this and you’re fascinated by Ghana, you want to know more, you can go out and do it. But then the responsibility is on you. How do you decide what you want to know about the rest of the world? You can go to the salad bar and put whatever you want on your salad, but it is your responsibility to choose, and that’s what search is. Search essentially says you know what you want to know, you know what you need to know about the rest of the world, go out and get it. And you get to select it, and you’ll be more free and you’ll be more happy because you have the choice. But you also now have the responsibility.

So when you see the rise of things like Facebook, it really has to do with many of us essentially saying I’m not sure this is working. I don’t necessarily want that responsibility all the time. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to know. And so what we do instead is that we ask our friends, hey, what do you know? Maybe if I knew what you knew I would discover something novel, I would discover something really interesting. And so we go on to these social networks and we say what is new, what’s fun, what can you tell me about the world. And we get some interesting information but we get some limits to that information. And the reason there are limits to that information is that the people that we’re finding on these networks tend to be a lot like us. They tend to be from the same country as us, they tend to speak the same language that we do, they tend to have the same religion, they tend to have the same ethnicity. We end up falling victim to what sociologists call homophily, which is basically a fancy way of saying that birds of a feather flock together.

So we’ve gone from this world where much of our information is coming through curators, through someone who is basically saying here is what you might need to know about the world. We’ve gone into search where we basically say you know best, go figure out what you want to know about the world. And now we’re going through this phase of social where we basically say, well, maybe my friends will help me figure out what’s going on in the rest of the world. And the problem is that none of these necessarily prepare us to live in a world that’s as connected as the one that we actually live in.

This matters. And the reason that I care about this is that at least three-fold. One is that it is potentially dangerous to live in a world where we are deeply connected and we don’t know what all those connections are. You suddenly find yourself worrying about things like avian flu, you find yourself asking questions about what do people eat in Singapore because it turns out that people in Singapore get on aeroplanes and suddenly you have the possibility of a disease that might have been incredibly localised and could have been really devastating for one particular population suddenly becomes a global crisis. If you don’t have a way of looking at pandemic, if you don’t have a way of looking at international terror networks, if you don’t have a way of looking at very complicated financial flows from a multinational perspective, very, very bad things can end up happening.

You also have the possibility that if what we’re mostly getting is information from people who are like us, that we end up getting highly polarised. There’s a pair of books that are very helpful. One is put together by a constitutional law scholar in the US named Cass Sunstein. He put forward this book that basically offers a theory called the echo chamber. He says that if you’re only getting information from people who agree with you, you tend to become more polarised in your views. And this is a phenomenon called confirmation bias. If everyone over and over and over says, well, this point of view is the right one, eventually it becomes very hard for you to think about the fact that there might be another point of view. You put people who are politically to one side of the spectrum together with other people in a room and they actually all gravitate further to the right or further to the left. When we hang out with people who think the way we do, we get more like them. And there’s an argument that in societies that are getting more politically polarised, this is part of what’s going on.

My friend Eli Pariser went ahead and wrote a book that argues that this is getting even worse because the technologies are making it easier to do it. So it’s not just that we can choose to hang out with people on the left, it’s not even just that Google News can suddenly say ‘let me only give you news from the left’, it’s that even if you go out and try to look for people who have another point of view, Facebook is going to fight you, and it’s mostly going to give you information from the people that you pay attention to and that you care the most about and you’re going to get even more polarised from it.

These guys are both right but they are missing the point in some ways. This isn’t just about left/right, the filter bubble is three-dimensional. We have bubbles in terms of where we are from, what we think, whether we are identifying as Australians or identifying as Americans, we end up getting trapped in that identity, and it’s very, very hard for us to see the perspective of someone who is from a different country, who speaks a different language, who views the world in a very, very different way. So we end up getting polarised in terms of how we see ourselves as a nation rather than how other people are seeing themselves as citizens of the world.

The third reason that I think we ought to care about this is that historically connecting to other cultures, other points of view has been one of the most amazing sources of inspiration. Before Picasso was Picasso he spent an enormous amount of time hanging out in African art museums in Paris. And if you read about his time there, he really didn’t like them, he actually writes about how scary and how smelly and how foreign they were and how he didn’t want to encounter them, but something ended up speaking to him and he became an incredible collector of masks, mostly from Benin.

And shortly after he starts collecting these masks, his style changes radically and you start seeing these faces in Picasso that have these flat surfaces. And it’s very clear where it’s coming from. It’s referred to as his African period, is basically where Cubism starts emerging. It turns out that creativity is basically an import/export business. Creativity has a lot to do with finding ideas in a different part of the world and bringing them into a different context. And so if we’re heading towards a world where we are not able to go out and find those other ideas, not because we can’t but because we don’t remember to, we have this incredible possibility of missed potential.

Antony Funnell: Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Centre for Civic Media at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you can find the full James Tizard Memorial Lecture on the Future Tense website.

Future Tense, new ideas, new approaches, new technologies, exploring the edge of change.


Ethan Zuckerman
Director of MIT’s Centre for Civic Media and co-founder of Global Voices.
Dr Genevieve Bell
Intel Fellow, Intel Labs Director, Interaction and Experience Research

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