Hitting the End of a Warhead with a Hammer
During my cold, winter travels in the heart and fringes of the European Union, an odd transformation happened to me and my travel mate Pod. We felt immersed in the transmigration of real to digi-real, and overwhelmed by the power of corporate, online social networking tools. Using a term that a philosopher gave me in Prague, Pod and I are digital immigrants, folks from the era of rotary dial phones, pre-1984 Apple, and rabbit ears for TV reception. We have seen the birth of the computer, the cell phone, and now Web 2.0. The latter development sparked Brendan Smith, et al. to surmise in their article Social Movements 2.0 that “the web is increasingly looking like the invention of the printing press, which radically changed the lives of even those who could not read, by spurring the Protestant reformation and scientific revolution.”
I began to realize that I am not that as comfortable with this transformation as the digital natives, those folks who only know a world of digital innovation and seem to celebrate every last bit of it as progress for humanity. Thinking a bit deeper, and noticing that many of my Facebook friends are my age, I realized that the digital immigrants seemed to not mind going online daily to click out status blurbs on sites like FaceBook, Twitter, and MySpace. But, like I mentioned in a mini-essay for Stencil Nation, technology has become easy to use, especially online via the Web 2.0 tools. So, even those who clunked around with floppy disks back in the day could easily create blogs, upload photographs, and type those brief Tweets.
But something still doesn’t feel right. Though the most important invention since the printing press is online and in process, I couldn’t help feel an unease about the rage to social network.
Palo, the Slovak philosopher who gave me the terms digital immigrant and native, was only 25 years old. But he too was a digital-immigrant. Having grown up in the Soviet Czechoslovakia, he remembers a pre-computer age. Being a Westerner, I had forgotten that there were younger people who felt awkward with all the latest and fastest technology. Quite refreshing after Pod and I noticed that we’d begun to think Facebook-speak between our conversations about Facebook.
The EU book tour brought up many interesting topics, ideas, urges, and discussions. But one thing prevailed as an undercurrent throughout the travels: “Are you on Facebook?” Facebook helped book out tour stops, connect us to great people, and grow our network of thinkers, activists, and artists. We promoted the shows on Facebook, sending out invites and generating buzz about Stencil Nation and the XLt after-party. After my presentations, in the bars, on the streets, and at the kitchen tables, “Are you on Facebook?” constantly came up as a point of connection.
Pod has spent several years creating a poetic discourse on the transmigration of humanity to the digital realms. Though humans organize like never before via sites like Facebook, and get instant news on serious events from Twitter, we seem to be slowly leaking our reality into these hyperreal spaces. The recent Super Bowl commercial, showing Second Life avatars in the real world speaks to this movement away from our world. What will the outcomes be if our future is heading towards this move to digi-real? Though amazing tools that are changing the way humans interact, what is our celebrating the digi-now going to mean for the real-future?
Most people use this amazing technology without any connection to what resources are going into creating the structures that connect us to the virtual sites. All the machines, cables, and energy that we use to connect like this, maybe to groups that are trying to save the environment, are destroying the environment to get built and powered. As IBM employees protest on Second Life, probably for a valid reason, IBM eats the earth’s resources to build newer and better systems to host Second Life, Facebook, etc. And where do those old systems go? How much coal or nuclear energy do we use for these activities?
As the tour progressed towards Vienna, I began to rethink my online habits, especially my online information data streams. Up until last year, I didn’t even use my last name online, giving a buffer to all the great artists I worked with on the Stencil Archive project. I have worked with people like Hao, A1one, Herzog, TXMX, guasikunst, Adam5100, etc., along with folks who use their names. The book changed my online habits, so after being Russell H for almost 10 years, I began to use my last name.
I’ve been blogging for almost 10 years here on HappyFeet, but have always taken care to keep the personal out of most of my posts. You’d have to dig deep to find out anything about me beyond my politics, dreams, and creations. But that might be too much in the age of info scooping. Along the tour, I met hackers and tech geeks who have a strong disdain for the Internet. They still use it, but these sophisticated users know that nothing is secure online. The architecture that was created decades ago is outdated and broken. And since information is power, corporate marketing tools have the funding and power to literally find out who you are with what little information you put online. “I can’t believe you use your real name on Facebook,” one hacktivist told me in Vienna. For the record, he doesn’t have any social networking sites and doesn’t trust the corporations who run them.
In Vienna, I took a two day “Facebook Fast” and haven’t been on it as much as before all this thinking and discussion began. An article came out on the Guardian UK while in Vienna, with the journalist telling a tale of catching her new husband cheating via Facebook. What caught my eye was something that Pod and I were dealing with: “Most infuriating is my near-constant Facebook-style method of internal communication that I cannot switch off. Whenever I do something, I narrate internally… ‘Georgie is….'” Not only is the ease of sharing information “as natural as having a cup of coffee in the morning” (Greenville Journal, “Isn’t That Tweet?”, 1/30/2009), but the Facebook brand itself gets lodged in one’s simplest way to thinking! How brilliant and totally dystopian.
As Pod and I continued to overhear people saying “Facebook” in the middle of many dialects and conversations, we mused that Facebook could take over the Google empire. What does a search engine brand have over an addictive social networking site? I’d wake up in the morning and one of my first thoughts would be “Russell is……” I also couldn’t wait to post “Russell is not going to miss the coal furnace in Berlin” as my first status update in the USA, but didn’t do it. Pass the Facebook SOMA please!
Since my return to the USA, I have stewed over the “Facebook suck” that keeps spiraling out over the networks of my current, new, old, really old, and not really friends. I posted a few negative Status Updates on the site, and had one high school friend comment “I can’t figure out if you like FB or not.” I replied that I do and don’t like Facebook. While enjoying the ease of connecting with friends from all over, I refused to post personal and detailed information.
And I have a good reason to be weary of giving my data stream up to the Facebook brand.
I began to do a bit of digging, and got a link from Pod titled “Facebook aims to market its user data bank to businesses.” The lead sentence states: “Facebook intends to capitalise on the wealth of information it has about its users by offering its 150 million-strong customer base to corporations as a market research tool.” That sounded disturbing.
So I looked into FaceBook’s user agreement and found this:
You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content
And I looked into Flickr/Yahoo!’s user agreement to get another perspective of the “amazing” Web 2.0 movement, and found this:
Yahoo! does not claim ownership of Content you submit or make available for inclusion on the Yahoo! Services. However, with respect to Content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Yahoo! Services, you grant Yahoo! the following worldwide, royalty-free and non-exclusive license(s), as applicable:
With respect to photos, graphics, audio or video you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Yahoo! Services other than Yahoo! Groups, the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Yahoo! Services solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available.
I can only assume that YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, etc. can use ALL the content you give them as well, for many purposes that you’d maybe be surprised about. That is, if you even care about your online data.
Maybe I’m just experiencing Facebook Fatigue at this early point (7 months) in my experience. I must admit that I’ve grown tired of hearing about people’s minutiae Status Updates, looking at unrotated and uncropped photos, and vintage photos of long lost friends. But I’ve also become aware of how easy it is for me to see what and who these people are, which scares me when you think about the motives behind the BOD and CEO of Facebook. They’ve gotten a huge influx of cash recently so need to start making money. How will they do this? By using all of our data to create well-rounded profiles of us as consumers, users, etc.
I’ve also wondered if people even think critically about sharing their data? What have you put on these sites? What can be used to develop your online, consumer personality? Like the Guardian UK writer, what kind of personal traps lay in wait for you when you post your information? Yesterday, I became friends with someone in the UK. Soon after seeing her photos and reading her profile, she posted “…. is now engaged” in her relationship status. A friend, who I assume knows her better, commented “WTF?” The status was soon changed to “no longer listed as engaged.” How often are these small data blips happening on this site? Other sites? And let’s not get into the newest form of cultural anxiety, unfriending.
At the same time, I do love to get updates online. I’ve been on the road since June, and have found Facebook to be a place to ground, connect, and get a feel of home. But something still tells me that this ease of communication isn’t really healthy in the long run. Back in 2001 Ray Kurzweil envisioned a world where technology hits a singularity. A tech utopian, Kurzweil sees a future where “a symbiotic society of human and computer minds becomes a booster rocket for progress.” This Wired article also quotes Kurzweil as saying that this singularity will “‘move at a pace beyond what we can now comprehend. People may not even notice it, because in its wake it will leave a very good facsimile of the real world.'”
A fax of the real world! Is this what we really want and are heading towards? Has Web 2.0 and the Social Networking explosion realized part of this eight-year-old futuristic concept? As our reality shifts from the real to the digi-real, what will be left behind? Is my desire to see a healthy ecosystem for the earth ridiculous? Will the death of the oceans be a non-starter since we’ll all be brain-scanned avatars on Second Life?
I just can’t buy this Western way of thinking about technology. In the developed countries of the world, we are creating a mess thanks to our digi-fetish. Take Somalia for example. Somali fishermen lose their means of existence and turn to piracy. Why? Because their waters are unprotected, over-fished, and toxic from our tech garbage. This is only one example of how our migration to digital realms is creating havoc in the flesh world. I’m living with the paradox that our great advances are also destroying our commons, but I’m not using the technology lightly.
So, troubled, I join the revolution by devolving my flesh existence. I can’t bare to go to Twitter or LinkedIn and doubt I will. Do you really want to know about my museli breakfast or my sore hip? Or what I did 5 minutes ago, in 140 characters or less? I won’t post “25 things about me,” which I see as EVEN MORE information for Facebook to sell to the highest marketing firm. I haven’t been on MySpace much either recently, and I guess you can tell that I’ve backed off a bit on the blog.
My philosophy for posting online has always been a simple one. Keep it focused on the following subjects: stencils, puppets, sound, politics, creations, and dreams. You won’t see anything else about me on here or anywhere else. And I have very little posted on Facebook. Just enough to round out the Stencil Nation project. And finally, I have posted my last name, which I gave up when the Library of Congress registered me as an author.
But what else will I give up along this supposed road to progress? And as freedom tweets from the tree tops, what is being lost to get this freedom of Web 2.0? And when is critical thought more of a waste of time and critical action a much needed reality to save reality? Too many questions! But at least some of us are wondering……..