Monthly Archives: February 2012

Patterns of Use

Ashen CrossDid you give something up for Lent this year? This is that time of year when many Christians choose to give up something in order to sharpen their attention in preparation for Easter. I’ve observed this tradition haphazardly in the past, but this year I decided to experiment with giving up something that I have lately been feeling a little to addicted to: Facebook.

I’ve been spending way too much time on Facebook lately. Google’s Chrome web browser shows you a list of your most-visited web sites when you open a new tab, and Facebook has been at the top of that list for some time now. Like many people, I tend to check Facebook several times a day, whenever I’m feeling bored or have a little time to kill. I enjoy being able to keep up on the lives of my friends, many of whom are scattered far away from my little corner of the world. I love reading their pithy comments, seeing pictures of their kids, reading what they found interesting, and laughing along with them at the never-ending stream of funny pictures that quickly spread through the social network.

But I’ve noticed over the years that the way I use Facebook has changed a few times. When I first joined in 2007, I mostly used it to reconnect with old college and high school friends. I would run across someone I used to know, friend them, and then exchange a few private messages to find out how their life turned out.

That worked well for a while, but then I had to figure out what to post on my own profile. Early posts were scans of old photos and bad attempts at being witty, but I soon settled into posting what I was making for dinner that night, and providing the corresponding recipe as a note. My profile quickly became a sort of cookbook, and some of my friends started to reciprocate.

I eventually ran out of recipes, however, and as I became friends with more and more people from various peripheral areas of my life, I began to pay attention to how my posts would make me look to these people who were really more like acquaintances or work colleagues than personal friends. In our social lives, we tend to project slightly different versions of ourselves to different groups, wearing costumes and projecting personalities that allow us to fit better into those contexts. The same is true on Facebook, which is why they’ve been trying to make it easier to group your friends and post some things to one group, but not to others. But it’s still way too easy to make a mistake and post something you’d rather not share with that prospective employer or those highly-conservative relatives.

Since Facebook’s grouping features have been fairly difficult to use so far (this is one area that Google+ really did much better), I chose instead to restrict my posts to only those things that I felt comfortable sharing with everyone. Now I tend to share only news articles that I found particularly interesting (and not too controversial), and links to my own blog posts.

When I reflect on all of this, I see something interesting. Through my usage, I’ve made Facebook into three different kinds of tools: a global directory for reconnection; a social recipe exchange; and a mechanism for shameless self-promotion. When I look at what my friends tend to post, I see even more distinct kinds of use: asking for advice; recruiting volunteers; communicating with students; organizing events and reunions; and providing space for dialog about a current issues (though that last one rarely seems to go well).

Notice that all of these patterns of use go beyond the shallow forms of sharing and socializing that critics of Facebook assume is the only possible use of the service. While it is true that Facebook might encourage its customers to use the service in a particular sort of way, it does not completely determine how any particular person might use it. The distinction is important. It is the difference between thinking of technologies as unstoppable forces that have one-way impacts on culture, and thinking of them as having a certain degree of “interpretive flexibility.” If that flexibility exists, humans are surprisingly good at taking advantage of it, bending the technology towards their own values, desires, and intentions.

Admittedly, some artifacts have very few possible patterns of use: atomic weapons and birth control pills are interesting examples. Although their underlying techniques might be used for multiple purposes, these finished artifacts almost dictate their own usage, and carry with them a particular set of values. Atomic weapons can be used to deter or attack, but they cannot reasonably be used for demolition or tunneling like dynamite can. And lest we not forget, dynamite is also a really effective tool for fishing!

So how do you use Facebook? Have you found ways to use it that go beyond sharing and socializing?

Efficiency and Ellul

Glass Half Full/EmptyThere’s an old engineering joke that goes like this: an optimist looks at the glass and says, “it’s half full”; the pessimist looks at the same glass and says, “it’s half empty”; and the engineer looks at the same glass, consideres it for a moment, and declares, “that glass is twice as big as it needs to be!”

Anyone who is an engineer, or who has known an engineer, or better yet is married to an engineer, probably at least chuckled knowingly at that joke. Although the joke plays on a stereotype, it’s really not that far off. Engineers do tend to have a certain obsession with efficiency, much to the chagrin of those non-engineers who have to live with them.

My wife can attest to this. Before I returned to graduate school, I was a software engineer for over a decade, and I still dabble in programming when I’m not teaching. All those years spent designing and implementing software systems have given me a certain sensitivity towards the relatively efficiency of doing something one way or another. When walking somewhere, I’m always seeking out the most direct yet safest path. When running errands, I carefully plan out my route in order to minimize the time they take. I even sort my grocery list by store aisle so that I can get everything in one pass. This sort of efficient, in-and-out approach to shopping certainly frustrates my highly-creative wife, who would rather wander and explore, taking delight in the surprises she finds along the way. Neither of our approaches is better than the other—we just think differently, and although we might annoy one another at times, we also find our differences refreshing.

I’ve been thinking about my attitude towards efficiency lately because I’ve been re-reading Jacques Ellul’s classic book The Technological Society. This book is a favorite among Christian critics of technology, and it’s not all that surprising why: Ellul is a brilliant and perceptive thinker, and his book provides a very insightful analysis of the ideology that he thinks underlies all of modern culture.

Despite the title, though, Ellul isn’t really talking about ‘technology’ in the sense that we commonly use the word today. This is where I think many people can easily misread Ellul. He is not really concerned with the products of technological practice—those shinny electronic gadgets and media that consume our attention. Instead, he is concerned with what he calls in French “la technique.” This is more of an attitude, a way of relating to the natural world and to each other, that prioritizes efficiency above all other values. It is the attitude of modernism and progress, the attitude of those who advocate for the “one best way” of doing a task, the attitude of those who see nature and people as merely “resources” to be used as efficiently as possible.

When we adopt this attitude, Ellul cautions, we quickly start confusing means with ends. When technique takes priority over ethics, we become obsessed not with how to live well, but with how to get the highest return on our investment. We begin to see the natural world and human society like machines that can and should be tuned to deliver the best possible performance. And when those machines create problems, we develop new techniques to correct them, never considering that those new techniques will probably create new problems of their own.

Ellul’s “characterology” of technique is certainly interesting and compelling, but this time through the book, I started to notice certain assumptions that Ellul makes that raised red flags in my mind. His understanding of efficiency stood out the most. He consistently characterizes efficiency as something that is completely objective, cold, and rational chiefly because it is measurable. This is true to an extent, but it presupposes two things which are not objective at all: choices about which of the many possible things you  choose to measure; and choices about the context in which one conducts the measurements.

For example, how would you measure whether one car is more ‘efficient’ than another car? Focusing on the performance of the motor seems like a reasonable thing, but the motor is only one of many subsystems in a modern automobile that one might care about. Even if you do focus on the motor, what makes one motor more efficient than another? Fuel economy, for which the EPA offers standardized ratings, might be one consideration, but torque and pulling power at various RPMs might be another. Even if you choose fuel economy as your only concern, there is a second assumption buried in those EPA numbers: the driving conditions under which they determined those measurements. The EPA can tell you relative differences in miles-per-gallon based on their particular tests, but those results could easily come out differently under different conditions. In other words, what you choose to measure and how you measure it are not always obvious and forgone conclusions. Someone makes those choices, and they do so for specific reasons.

The truth is that measuring ‘efficiency’ in practice is never quite as simple nor objective as a philosopher might imagine. When one looks closely at how such measurements are constructed and communicated, one often sees quite a lot of assumptions being made that are then effectively hidden from the final results. In science and technology studies, we refer to this as “black boxing,” where the methods and assumptions used to construct a particular “fact” are stripped away as that fact travels away from it original source (see Latour, Science in Action; or Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision). You can see this all the time in news articles about recently published scientific studies—the original paper will make explicit most of the assumptions and caveats, but these are typically stripped away as the findings are reported by the press. Suggestive correlations quickly become causations, and tentative findings become “proofs.” Similarly, MPG ratings or other kinds of efficiency measures always have stories behind them that are stripped away when they are compressed into a few numbers on a window sticker. Consumers may use them as if they were solid objective facts, but they are born out of a context, and are less objective than one might think.

When I worked in the software industry, we had similar sorts of standardized benchmarks that were supposed to reveal the efficiency of one program over another. For example, spreadsheet programs were measured for recalculation speed based on a particular set of complex models that bore little resemblance to the models used by our actual customers. Relational database management systems were measured based on the execution of a particular set of transactions over standardized schema and data, but that was only one possible way of using these highly-flexible storage engines. Although these tests were supposed to help consumers and developers determine which program to buy, they really couldn’t tell you much about how these programs would actually perform in your particular context of use. It was also widely rumored (and probably true) that software vendors specifically tuned their products to perform the standardized tests as quickly as possible, even if those tunings ran counter to what was needed under more real-world conditions.

Regardless of how we measure efficiency, do you think that Ellul is correct in assuming that efficiency is the thing we value most in our culture? Do you make your decisions solely based on efficiency, or do other considerations come into play as well?

When Religion Meets New Media (A Review)

One thing I find troublesome in the Christian commentary on technology is a lack of systematic, empirical study of how people are actually using technology in practice. I think this stems from the fact that most of this commentary is based on the ideas of only a few thinkers, and most of those thinkers come from philosophical traditions that favor theoretical rumination over empirical research. When they do employ contemporary examples to back up theoretical claims, they typically rely on alarmist articles in the popular press, or hold up extreme and unusual cases as if they were representative of the norm. As that witty but difficult to attribute aphorism goes “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”

When Religion Meets New MediaIn her book, When Religion Meets New Media, communications professor Heidi Campbell begins to rectify this problem by examining in detail how “people of the book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are actually engaging with new media technology (mobile phones, computers, and especially the Internet). But this is actually only half of the book’s value: as she presents her findings, she also articulates a new analytical method for future studies in this field to follow.

Her method, which she calls “the religious-social shaping of technology approach,” builds upon ideas from the social shaping of technology (SST), and in particular the social construction of technological systems (SCOT) approach developed by Pinch, Bijker, and Hughes. Much of older media studies, including those works of Marshall McLuhan that are often cited by Christians, assumes what is known as a “technological determinist” approach, where technology is seen as an autonomous force that “impacts” the adopting culture in deterministic ways. The SCOT approach, in contrast, argues that new technologies are just as much shaped by the adopting culture as the other way around. Over the last three decades, SCOT researchers have documented a rather large set of historical cases that demonstrate this mutual shaping of technology and culture, and Campbell’s work adds yet more examples to the set.

Campbell particularizes the SCOT method for the purpose of studying a religious group’s engagement (or disengagement) with new media. She suggests “four distinctive areas that  should be explored and questioned in order to fully understand a religious community’s relationship towards new forms of media” (17). First, the history and traditions of a community need to be mined to discover previous interactions with newly-introduced media, which tend to influence contemporary negotiations. Second, the social values of the community must be revealed, as well as examined in practice, to determine why the group reacts to the new medium or device the way they do. Third, the community’s method of social negotiation must be examined in order to understand how they will work out whether the new medium is allowable or not, or under what particular circumstances and in what contexts one may use it. Fourth, special attention must be paid to the way members of the community talk about the new medium (their “communal discourse”), as this tends to influence the way members think about the medium, and thus decide if it is appropriate or not.

Campbell also identifies three factors that shape the religious response to media in general: how religious groups define their social boundaries; how they relate to their sacred texts; and how they understand religious authority. Because these factors obviously differ from group to group, the corollary is that there is no one, monolithic religious reaction to a give new medium. Boundaries and authority have some obvious influences, but her focus on relationship to sacred texts is intriguing. She notes that this relationship forms the basis of an implicit philosophy of communication, and thus establishes rules by which new media are evaluated (20).

Campbell then illustrates the application of her method by describing and analyzing the responses of various religious groups to mobile phones, computers, and the Internet. Two of these examples stood out to me. The first was the way the Anglican church has actively engaged the virtual reality world Second Life. After a group of Anglicans and Episcopalians met informally in the game, they decided to build a virtual cathedral and host online worship services, which they have been doing consistently since 2007. Instead of eschewing this online group, the offline church responded by setting up a new “online diocese,” known as the “i-church,” and fast-tracking the leader of this new online congregation into the diaconate. There are of course issues to be resolved surrounding the efficacy of bodily sacrements and the forming of true community in a non-material, virtual environment, but the point is that the Anglican church is not sitting back and pretending that virtual worlds like Second Life don’t exist, or that their members aren’t already spending time in them. Instead, the church is taking an active role in establishing their presence there, considering the implications, and ministering to the inhabitants of this new online “parish.”

The second example I enjoyed reading about was the creation of a “kosher mobile phone” for the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Mobile phones, especially those with texting and web browsing capabilities, were initially banned by rabbinical authorities, as they feared the devices would expose members of the community to “dubious, unmonitored secular content” (163). The mobile networks noticed the bans and responded by negotiating with the rabbinical authorities on the design of a phone that could be considered kosher (i.e., acceptable under religious law). The result was a device and corresponding service that was explicitly reshaped to align with the community’s religious values: texting, web browsing, and video/voice mail are all disabled on the handset; a special regional dialing code was created for these phones; calls to numbers outside that code are checked against a blocked list before connecting, and charged higher rates; and only emergency calls are allowed to be placed on the Sabbath. To ensure that members of the community know which phones are acceptable, the handsets are labeled prominently with the standard kosher symbol.

Academics studying this area will no doubt find this book essential, but non-academic readers may find the writing style to be a little too opaque at times. Media studies, like any academic field, has its own set of loaded terms and jargon, and Campbell makes use of them frequently. Her focus on method may also turn off casual readers, but those who make it past the first two chapters will be richly rewarded with a detailed look at how many Jews, Christians, and Muslims are actively engaging with new media.