Posts tagged with ‘nathan jurgenson’
via Nathan Jurgenson
I recently stumbled upon an October 17 2011 jeremiad by Nathan Jurgenson calling for public intellectuals to regain the lost ground in technology writing that has been yielded to business-oriented writers:
Nathan Jurgenson, The Rise of the Internet (Anti)-Intellectual?
My goal in this short piece is to encourage the reader to take a look at these two essays in tandem to suggest a further conversation about the need for public intellectuals, the role of academics in framing theories of new technologies and what the consequences are when we leave this discussion to be dominated by business folks.
Jurgenson’s post uses Larry Sanger’s Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism? and Evengy Morozov’s The Internet Intellectual as a two-lane point of departure, and as a result Jurgenson winds up commenting on Jarvis’ techno-utopian views on the privacy-publicy debate (which Jarvis calls publicness, and Jurgenson calls publicity). That debate is actually a side track to Jurgenson’s actual point:
My problem is really not with Jarvis, but the fact that these “books that should have remained a tweet”, as Morozov states, have dominated the conversation about what the rise of new and social media means. I do not care that these fun little books exist, but that they are dominating the public conversation.
Perhaps the fault lies with the more rigorous intellectuals, both in and outside academia, who have made themselves largely absent from the public conversation about new technologies? Where is the Marshall McLuhan of social media? Why is it that Jeff Jarvis is setting the public conversation on publicity, Andrew Keen on amateurism, Tapscott and Williams on prosumption, Siva Vaidhyanathan on the impact of Google on society or Chris Anderson on abundance economies and “free”? To be clear, I think it is good that these folks hit on important topics in a catchy way. But they cannot be the whole picture, nor should they even be at the center. None of them provide a rigorous historical or theoretical treatment of their topics. (We called out Siva Vaidhyanathan on this blog after attending his a-theoretical talk at a public university).
If we can indeed convince more scholars to take on these topics, and there are many who are doing so already, do they have any chance at being public intellectuals? That is, can the ideas be delivered in a way that engages those interested, regardless if they have a degree in any specific field? For intellectuals to be public intellectuals they will need to be as engaging of writers as those authors listed above.
Or maybe the blame for the Sesame Street level books that dominate tech-writing is that publishers simply are not allowing public intellectuals to publish their ideas? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has insights into this area.
In the meantime, I think the two essays linked to above are an important pairing to start a conversation over who gets to frame how new technologies are understood. Will it be a-historical, a-theoretical, non-rigorous business folks or can we inspire a new wave of technology-centered public intellectuals?
I consider myself a public intellectual, I guess. And I agree with a lot of Jurgenson and Sanger are saying (less so Morozov). However, I don’t side with the Nick Carr and Andrew Keen that the web is making us stupid, any more than Tapscott’s argument that Google makes memorization passé, or Shirky’s arguments that books like War and Peace are no longer worth the effort.
But this is just another example of the extremes dominating the discourse, which is a game that the media are happy to play, and sells lots of fun, little books. But then again, didn’t Marshall McLuhan write a lot of fun, little books?
[Returning again to the proximate cause — the privacy-publicy debate — I agree that no contemporary book pulls together all the threads well. All I can do today is offer a sampler of some of my writing on the subject, which I confess has not been smoothed into a single long form piece, although I would like to do so. For those interested, see A Publicy Reader.]
- Mike Bulajewsli, cited by Nathan Jurgenson, Against TED via The New Inquiry
Jurgenson excoriates TED, making me finally feel like I wasn’t the only one:
The way TED talks fuse sales-pitch slickness with evangelical intensity leads to perhaps the most damming argument against the TED epistemology: It necessarily leaves out other groups and other ways of knowing and presenting ideas. As Paul Currion tweeted, TED seems “unaware of its own ideological bias.” Let’s take one example. Take a wild guess which gender is massively over-represented as TED speakers (answer, via Tom Slee @whimsley). And TEDxWomen stinks of tokenism. Hint: It is better to be more inclusive through and through than to segregate marginalized groups into their own token corners. But the TED style aligns much more easily to articulating ideas that sell than ideas that concern power, domination, and social inequalities. Real cutting-edge ideas also come from the margins. TED’s corporate-establishment voice and style aren’t without their uses, but they are certainly not innovative or cutting edge.
As problematic as TED is in itself, its popularity is more troublesome, coming to dominate the social conversation about what new technologies mean. Not that TED should be barred a role in the conversation. Because of the conference, some complex ideas get wider exposure than they otherwise would (as Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal pointed out in a Tweet). But TED and the larger TED-like world of Silicon Valley corporatism have far too much importance, as Evgeny Morozov points out when criticizing the “Internet guru.”
There are consequences to having this style of discourse dominate how technology’s role in society is understood. Where are the voices critical of corporatism? Where is there space to reach larger publics without having to take on the role of a salesperson, preacher, or self-help guru? Academics, for instance, have largely surrendered the ground of mainstream conversations about technology to business folks in the TED atmosphere.
Can a new wave of technology thinkers produce a fresh outlet for smart ideas not (yet) co-opted as badly as TED? If so, it won’t come from the well-financed centers of Silicon Valley but from the margins, the actual cutting edge.
To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses. “I am real. I am the thoughtful human. You are the automaton.” I am reminded of a line from a recent essay by Sarah Nicole Prickett: that we are “so obsessed with the real that it’s unrealistic, atavistic, and just silly.” How have we come to make the error of collectively mourning the loss of that which is proliferating?The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online.
In great part, the reason is that we have been taught to mistakenly view online as meaning not offline. The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online. If we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected. That is, disconnection from the smartphone and social media isn’t really disconnection at all: The logic of social media follows us long after we log out. There was and is no offline; it is a lusted-after fetish object that some claim special ability to attain, and it has always been a phantom.
Digital information has long been portrayed as an elsewhere, a new and different cyberspace, a tendency I have coined the term “digital dualism” to describe: the habit of viewing the online and offline as largely distinct. The common (mis)understanding is experience is zero-sum: time spent online means less spent offline. We are either jacked into the Matrix or not; we are either looking at our devices or not. When camping, I have service or not, and when out to eat, my friend is either texting or not. The smartphone has come to be “the perfect symbol” of leaving the here and now for something digital, some other, cyber, space.
But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say “IRL” to mean offline: Facebook is real life.
Facebook doesn’t curtail the offline but depends on it. What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media. The photos posted, the opinions expressed, the check-ins that fill our streams are often anchored by what happens when disconnected and logged-off. The Web has everything to do with reality; it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics. It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real.
Duhigg notes the efforts Target must make not to “spook” customers with obvious behavioral-based targeting. Since the company wanted to target pregnant women who haven’t explicitly notified Target about their pregnancy, they had to use informational camouflage:
“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.
“And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons…. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.” … As long as Target camouflaged how much it knew, as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold.
As with political scandal, what’s so bothersome about this less the targeting itself — though that is bad for reasons Turow details, more on that below — but the cover-up. Retailers don’t want transparency in their attempts to manipulate your behavior; they want to control how your habits evolve. They understand that the more you know about their techniques, the less effective they will be. And they try to justify themselves with the idea that they know better than us what we really want and their marketing techniques allow us to get out of our way to indulge ourselves how we really want and become who we really want to be. Thus Duhigg concludes with this quote from Target’s targeting guru: “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.” We’re supposed to think that is a good thing. We’re not supposed to think that the company is using the data it has collected on us to shape the possibilities of what we can become, to control the context in which we make our lives and understand ourselves.
- Nathan Jurgenson, Predictive analytics and information camouflage – The New Inquiry
Jurgenson coins the term ‘information camouflage’: companies that mine data about us, discern a pattern they can exploit, and then conceal that knowledge by randomizing the torrent of ads and promotions they send our way so they can conceal that they are on to us, since if we knew we’d change our mental filters.