On the Internet, no one knows you’re human

Posted on 18th February 2012 in digital identity, media, philosophy, technology and society

Our digital identity crisis never ceases to astound me.

Remember that old cartoon with the caption: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”?
Nowadays just substitute: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re human”.

We are constantly mistaken for robots, for machines.
Or rather, we are presumed machine until proven human.
It seems everytime we click these days, we have to squint our eyes to decipher alphanumeric characters often too cryptic even for human retinae.

Please confirm your password: you must include at least one number, one non-alphanumeric character, one capital letter, one ancient greek alphabet, and one ounce of memory loss… where will it end? Good thing my password is the same for everything:

     2 ∞ & →



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On the twelfth day of Christmas, my Facebook gave to me…

Posted on 11th December 2011 in media, technology and society

Variation on a theme: the 12 days of Christmas for a Facebook Age.
On the 12th day of Christmas my Facebook gave to me:

12 dudes I’m blocking,
11 friends just watching,
10 corny topics,
9 guys a-gawking,
8 friends complaining,
7 stalkers stalking,
6 party invites,
5 Drama Queeeeeens!
4 game requests,
3 photo tags,
2 poking friends…
And a creep who won’t stop friending me!

Here’s the version I wrote en Francais:

Le Douzieme Jour de Noel
J’ai recu de mon Facebook:
12 Evenements
11 Ex Tarres
10 Photos Moches
9 Commentaires
8 Mises a Jour
7 Messages Nuls
6 Harceleurs
5 Egoiiiiistes….
4 Faux Profils
3 Idiots
2 Bons Amis
…. et 1 con qui cesse pas d’me draguer!

                     Joyeux Noel a tous!


Digital Darlings: Episode 2 of our Technology and Society Podcast

Episode 2 of our Digital Dyspeptic podcast is now out! Sticking to our alliterations, the topic we’ve chosen for this podcast is “digital darlings” (love and relationships in the digital age).

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(You can also access it directly here).

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Distance of Another Kind?

Posted on 19th April 2011 in digital identity, media, philosophy, technology and society

In many respects, the always-on digital world has brought us closer together. It facilitates distance communications, in particular, and helps maintain and build relationships. But in other respects, are people as close as they seem?

Online interaction lacks many of the clues offered by face-to-face interaction; many of the unsaid, visual and tactile clues necessary to effectively communicate and form judgments are missing. This leads to greater potential for misunderstanding and affects the level of intimacy between people.

In addition, the use of digital gesturing (like emoticons, pokes or likes) has introduced a certain ambiguity in human interaction online, due to the difficulty in interpreting these uni-faceted signs in what is a multi-faceted context.

Moreover, it would seem that people have become more guarded in some ways. With all the mobile gadgets around to use, some have somehow become harder to reach: there is more call screening, more email or text rather than face-to-face or voice interaction. Many people have become increasingly weary (if not wary) of picking up the phone and talking to someone. The expansion of communications across borders has certainly led to greater social interaction and community building. But has the so-called (physical) death of distance led to a distance of another kind?

Online “asynchronicity” and the illusion of intimacy

Posted on 28th February 2011 in digital identity, gadgets and apps, media, technology and society

Much of human relationship today is mediated through some form of technology.

So how much do we really know about those we interact with, when it is our devices that have become our eyes and our ears, in a faceless and nameless digital world?

Take for example the disbelief of the Naperville man who sent $200’000 to a fake online girlfriend. Although the relationship continued for over two and a half years, there had never been any face to face interaction. Police confirmed that the girlfriend never existed. But clearly, the man had felt a certain intimacy and complicity. Quite apart from questions of fraud or misrepresentation, the story did get me thinking about the effects of online interaction on our understanding of people and relationships.

Distant and remote interaction between people, especially those unfamiliar with each other, can create a deluded sense of intimacy. This is the consequence of a number of factors:  e.g. the ambiguity of “digital gesturing” (pokes, nudges, smiley faces), digital multitasking, and the sheer quantity of posted information online (some of which is verifiable some of which is not).  But what I think most affects the illusion of intimacy online is the overwhelming amount of “asynchronous” or “pre-rehearsed” communications.

More often than not, there is today a contrived expression of thought or feeling. Many people first text or chat before engaging in a “live call”.  People somehow prefer to be forewarned.  In addition, many prefer to limit their interactions primarily to text, even to essentially non-reciprocal broadcast text (tweet, status update etc..). So gut reactions and spontaneous expression of feeling seem to be less and less prevalent.

It seems, therefore, that an important set of clues or signs that enable people to build relationships and trust have gone missing. And this affects the authenticity of all communications.  For it is difficult, if not impossible, to expect human beings to make choices in social relations based solely on quantity rather than quality, on prepared text rather than spontaneous expression, on tactile screens rather than tactile handshakes, on emoticons rather than emotions.

When I first heard the story a couple of years back of the Japanese gamer who married his virtual Nintendo girlfriend, I thought that it reflected just this sort of illusion. But whatever you might say about the quality (or intimacy) of that virtual relationship, the gamer may be better off (and more ensconced in reality) than that poor fellow in Naperville who just couldn’t see the difference.

Digital Attention Deficit: What’s happened to the here and now?

Posted on 22nd February 2011 in digital identity, gadgets and apps, media, philosophy

The pressure for continuous presence online has reached new levels: updating profiles regularly, scheduling multiple tweets (so one always seems to be saying something), and responding to emails or chats at lightning speed.

It is no surprise that people feel the need to apologize when they are off-line, even if only for a brief time. And even less of a surprise that we are all suffering from some form of attention deficit disorder. Our children are finding it increasingly difficult to focus on just one thing at a time. After all, the capacity to watch a video while chatting, downloading mp3s and updating your facebook profile and all this at a social event, is rather empowering. It is a way to control time and space. But it also creates a lot of noise – noise that is taking its toll on our ability to relish in every task, on our ability to learn and to self-reflect.

And that begs the question: has the always-on nature of the internet been taken to far? Should we as humans be expected to emulate the 24/7 task-driven machine?

It is important for us as individuals and as a society to make room for digital absenteeism. Why apologize?

After all, we not only have a responsibility to the world at large but also to those we engage with directly, those co-present, if you like. So when out for dinner or at a social gathering, why not focus on the here and now, the conversations in the air, the person sitting across the table…

“What might be” is not always more attractive than “what is”.

If we try and find the beauty in the here and now, the future will be all the brighter. And our brains less full of clutter.

Technology and Society @ the WUG Research Symposium

Posted on 14th February 2011 in digital identity, philosophy, privacy, technology and society

Last Friday, I gave a talk as part of the Webster University Research Symposium, on the effect of technology on society, and in particular on the tensions we face today in our transition from the old to the new.

In the digital world, we re-invent ourselves, re-write ourselves into being over and over again.  But isn’t that what we have always done? Try to re-invent ourselves, improve on who we are?

So that begs the question: how does technology help us do that? How does it hinder us?  And in today’s digital world, a world at the same time bound and freed by the internet, what are the tensions that we must recognize in order to build a better world?

I chose six such tensions to present: 1) Reflection,  Illusion 2) Inversion, Distortion 3) Multiplicity, Fragmentation
4) Presence, Absence 5) Visibility, Invisibility 6) Reciprocity, Voyeurism.

Have a listen to the podcast below:

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(You can also listen to it here)

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Technology, identity and being human

Posted on 7th February 2011 in digital identity, philosophy, technology and society

Last year, I was invited to speak at a conference at Universite Laval in Quebec City on technology and philosophy. The exact title of the conference was “Between Wisdom and Ignorance: The impact of new technologies on our understanding of what it is to be human“. I think the title works much better in French: “Entre la conscience et l’inconscience: l’impact des nouvelles technologies sur le sens de l’humain”.

As I am just trying to finish up my article on this, I have been thinking about the reference I made at the time to a “house of mirrors” when talking about digital identity – you know the kind they have at carnival and fairs. On the internet, people offer up multiple identities (either consciously or accidentally) – some are partial reflections, some illusions, some complete inversions… Navigating our own digital identity and those of others is a bit like walking through a house of mirrors. It’s entertaining… but there is something disturbing in it. As we write and re-write ourselves into existence online, our identities are perpetually adrift: mirrored and reflected, distorted and fragmented…

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