Love-Hate Technology Narratives

‘And just as the medium obeys the voice that takes possession of him from beyond the grave, I submitted to the first proposal that came my way through the telephone’. – Walter Benjamin (1932)

In the early 1930s the German essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin penned a weirdly prescient piece about technology simply titled ‘The Telephone’. Alongside other essays about his childhood in Berlin at the turn of the 20th Century, Benjamin depicts the sometimes haunting but oftentimes animated dynamics surrounding the family’s landline telephone.  First, the phone was relegated to the darker recesses of the house, but later ‘the apparatus, like a legendary hero once exposed to die in a mountain gorge, left the dark hallway in the back of the house to make its way into the cleaner and brighter rooms that now were inhabited by a younger generation’. In another succinct paragraph he writes that,

‘Not many of those who use the apparatus know what devastation it once wreaked in family circles. The sound with which it rang between two and four in the afternoon, when a schoolfriend wished to speak to me, was an alarm signal that menaced not only my parents’ midday nap but the historical era that underwrote and enveloped this siesta’.  – Walter Benjamin (1932)

Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin, 2006, Harvard University Press.

Eight decades after Benjamin’s essay and it seems not much has changed about our relationships with the phone or technology in general. While phones are now mobile and almost ubiquitous, they’re still sites of contestation and ambiguity.

In 2010 when I conducted ethnographic interviews about intimacy in mobile communication between couples, almost all the interviewees reported mixed feelings, at one time cursing their mobile for being a socially corrosive element in their lives and in another instance describing the phone as an ‘absolute lifeline’. Michael Arnold calls this ambiguity the Janus-faces of mobile phones, that is, that mobiles ‘perform in ways that are ironic, perverse and paradoxical.’  In research Arnold calls for ‘foregrounding uncertainty’. A few other titles make similar points about ambiguity as part of phone culture, like Rich Ling and Scott Campbell’s Mobile Communication: Bringing Us Together and Tearing Us Part (2010) and Sherry Turkle’s paradoxically titled Alone Together (2011).


Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, 2011, Basic Books

It’s perhaps the ambiguity that is the most interesting dimension of phone culture, as compared to the dominant oppositions that often present in popular discourse. By extreme oppositions I mean that typically we are presented with narratives of how technology SAVES THE WORLD. Evidence of this is littered all over the web. See Quartz’s piece: Here’s how mobile technology is saving Africans from humanitarian disasters or How Mobiles Phones Are Transforming Africa. But, the most entertaining examples of techno utopianism are best exemplified by industry captains who just remind us that technology ROCKS!

The opposite presents in persuasive narratives about the dystopian effects of technology, look no further than Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror series.

Or, for a more academically inclined version of dystopia, check out any of Adam Curtis’ documentaries, HyperNormalisation (2016) and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), that expertly petrifies and persuades us of the sinister psychodynamics that prevail in society, often mediated by technology.

These extreme oppositions – Techno Utopia and Techno Dystopia – feel a little blunt, even simplified, considering how ambiguous we feel about our personal technologies.

It’s not easy navigating the somewhat weird in-between space of feeling both delighted and repulsed by technology (or what new technology enables).

To address this issue, the brilliant Amsterdam-based Next Nature Network present a compelling counter narrative, one filled with provocation and trepidation. They seem to be perpetually asking WHAT IF? Like, what if you could order a shoe made from your very own genetically modified stingray? The answer lies in their mockumentary titled The Rise and Fall of Rayfish Footwear.

Or, what if meat wasn’t animal based but rather grown in a lab?  Check out their In Vitro Meat Cook Book

What emerges from Next Nature is a playful gesture to this in-between space of technology narratives that doesn’t spell disaster or enlightenment, but provocatively kickstarts your imagination about our relationship with technology. Rather than present a clear cut answer, their projects playfully illicit a reaction about the outer-limit possibilities of nature and culture.

Nostalgic narratives: the last of a generation

Author Adam Alter, launched his book titled Irresistible (Super Verslavend in Dutch)  amongst a panel discussion of internet critics and commentators in Amsterdam recently. There are similar antecedents for some of Irresistible’s key narratives — I’m thinking of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicolas Carr –offering a dystopian and unnerving perspective on technology and our relationship with devices. There’s definitely enough evidence to support Alter’s claims on mobile phone addiction, look no further than the statistics scattered throughout his book like, “75% of people can reach their smartphone without moving their feet”.  But, as I commented to Alter and the panel during this lecture, these kinds of narratives, that suggest that technology impacts us in ways that somehow corrode social cohesion, denies elements of human agency, while also supposing that using your phone doesn’t constitute a viable emerging form of sociability. Alter’s seems like a nostalgic narrative at best, one that even he admitted will disappear with our current generation (I think he’s referring to Generation X).

Irresistible Adam Alter

 

Chatbot helps refugees claim asylum

This article first appeared on The Guardian. theguardian.com

Robot lawyer chatbot

The creator of a chatbot which overturned more than 160,000 parking fines and helped vulnerable people apply for emergency housing is now turning the bot to helping refugees claim asylum.

The original DoNotPay, created by Stanford student Joshua Browder, describes itself as “the world’s first robot lawyer”, giving free legal aid to users through a simple-to-use chat interface. The chatbot, using Facebook Messenger, can now help refugees fill in an immigration application in the US and Canada. For those in the UK, it helps them apply for asylum support.

The London-born developer worked with lawyers in each country, as well as speaking to asylum seekers whose applications have been successful.

Browder says this new functionality for his robot lawyer is “long overdue”. He told the Guardian: “I’ve been trying to launch this for about six months – I initially wanted to do it in the summer. But I wanted to make sure I got it right because it’s such a complicated issue. I kept showing it to lawyers throughout the process and I’d go back and tweak it.

“That took months and months of work, but we wanted to make sure it was right.”

Browder began working on this project before Donald Trump’s election as US president but he said he feels it’s more important now than ever. “I wanted to add Canada at the last minute because of the changes in the political background in the US,” he said.

The chatbot works by asking the user a series of questions, in order to determine which application the refugee needs to fill out and whether a refugee is eligible for asylum protection under international law.

After this, it takes down the necessary details required for the appropriate asylum application – an I-589 for the United States or a Canadian Asylum Application for Canada. Those in the UK are told they need to apply in person, and the bot helps fill out an ASF1 form for asylum support.

Browder says it was crucial the questions were in plain English. “The language in these forms can be quite complicated,” he said.

These details are used to auto-fill an application form for either the US, Canada or the UK. “Once the form is sent off, the details are deleted from my end,” said Browder.

The 20-year-old chose Facebook Messenger as a home for the latest incarnation of his robot lawyer because of accessibility. “It works with almost every device, making it accessible to over a billion people,” he said.

Browder acknowledges Messenger doesn’t come without its pitfalls. Unlike some other chat apps, it’s not automatically end-to-end encrypted. Browder says there is, however, end-to-end encryption between his server and Facebook. He added: “Ideally I would love to expand to WhatsApp when their platform opens up, particularly because it’s popular internationally.”

Once the application is sent, the data is destroyed from his servers within 10 minutes of someone using the bot.

The next step is making the service available in more languages. Browder is currently working on translating it into Arabic.

Immigration lawyer Sophie Alcorn welcomed DoNotPay’s latest venture. She said: “As an immigration attorney, I can see the major benefits that leveraging sophisticated chatbot technology will have in the asylum application process.

“It will be easier for applicants to submit their applications and it will empower legal aid organisations to assist a larger numbers of clients.

“Asylum seekers want to follow the laws and do everything properly, and this technology will help them do so.”

DoNotPay was initially a free service that guided people with parking fines through the appeals process.

The chatbot was later programmed to deal with other legal issues, such as claiming for delayed flights and trains and payment protection insurance (PPI). As of August 2016, it also helps with housing issues. The homelessness bot has had more than 3,000 users, with more than 240,000 messages sent and received.

Browder runs DoNotPay alongside his studies at Stanford University. He said: “My degree has become a bit of a side project these days.”

Your phone is now a refugee’s phone

Watch  it on your mobile phone.

If you had to flee your country, what’s the one piece of technology you would take with you?

This striking film, designed to watch on a mobile phone, helps the viewer to experience with immediacy the confusion and fear facing refugees making a perilous journey by boat. Your phone is now a refugee’s phone. Text messages arrive from your family. Suddenly someone contacts you on WhatsApp warning you to turn back. But are they right? Your lifeline is a phone with no signal that’s rapidly running out of battery.
The film is based on research conducted by BBC Media Action, in partnership with DAHLIA, to help humanitarian agencies be aware of the communication issues of refugees in transit. It found that access to internet, mobile networks and social media are critical in helping people feel more informed and better connected. For more information, visit: http://bbc.in/2amio0P

This article first appeared on BBC. bbc.com

Mobile Bodies

“strange bodies are produced through tactile encounters with other bodies: differences are not marked on the stranger’s body, but come to materialise in the relationship of touch between bodies…. it is the very acts and gestures whereby subjects differentiate between others that constitutes the permeability of both social and bodily space”
– Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters (2000, page 15.)

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Emoji Gender Bender

This article first appeared on Tech.Mic, written by Sophie Kleeman. mic.com

female emojis

This year, Oxford Dictionaries got creative with its Word of the Year. Instead of picking an actual word, it chose a familiar little yellow face. Upturned mouth, tears of joy streaming down its cheeks, eyebrows tilted in laughter: an emoji, precisely the one you’d add to a retweet of something that was so funny you cried. The decision was yet another example of how commonplace the small digital characters created by Unicode have become in daily life.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, use of the word emoji more than tripled between 2014 and 2015. Their ubiquity is undeniable. They’re popular with grandparents and teenagers, in Bangkok and Bel Air. There are pages and pages of them on smartphones, enough to suit a broad range of everyday texting situations. Yet despite their abundance, there’s an area of life that isn’t properly represented.

Where the hell, we ask, are all the emojis for professional women?

What options exist? As it stands, women who want to use something other than a neutral female emoji have the following options to choose from: a princess, a bride, twins that resemble Playboy bunnies, a dancer in a red dress and a series of “information desk person” characters.

Male emojis, on the other hand, have the following non-neutral forms: Santa Claus, a man wearing a turban, a man wearing a gua pi mao (a type of hat), a policeman, a guardsman, a male detective, a male construction worker and a male angel. There’s also a series of male athletes: a male horseback rider, a man bowing, a man walking, a man running, a man golfing, a man swimming and a man floating.

Ambiguously gendered figures with long hair and visible sideburns can be found playing basketball and surfing.

Besides the sheer difference in numbers, the occupations of these characters is telling. Men get the “serious” professional roles, and women get the “girlie” ones. Even the “information desk person” emojis have become better known for their seemingly sassy behavior: The woman holding out her hand, for instance, has been re-imagined as the hair-flip emoji.

“Every day we’re seeing this subtle message that there are these emojis of men doing jobs, but women are just dancing and getting their hair cut,” Niniane Wang, CEO of Evertoon and a former engineering manager at Google, told Mic. “It [has] an effect.”

Before men’s-rights types start screaming about political correctness gone haywire, no, this isn’t the most pressing feminist issue of our time. We shouldn’t necessarily throw all other causes to the wind and spend their days and nights fighting for equal emoji representation. There are myriad problems for women around the globe – violence, sexual assault, pay inequality and access to reproductive services, to name a few — that are far more threatening to women’s lives.

The lack of emoji options for the working woman is worth examining because it’s a small yet clear example of a social scheme that still manages to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes at every turn — even when the issue is as seemingly innocuous as a tiny digital face.

“I think it’s a symptom of a detrimental system — the patriarchy — that reinforces stereotypes (the bride, the princess, the dancer) that don’t represent the many layers of what it means to identify as female,” Kendall Mackey, 28, told Mic. 

Wang first noticed the lack of professional women emojis while developing Evertoon, an app that allows users to create avatars. “Emojis are a huge part of our product, and I’ve spent many hours of the last year of my professional life staring at [them],” she said.

Kelly Byrd, 29, theorized that the lack of emoji ladies in professional roles comes from a fear of representing women badly.

“They didn’t want them to come across as being totally stereotypical,” Byrd told Mic. If Unicode had chosen traditionally female-dominated — and thus easily identifiable — jobs, like nurses, teachers or secretaries, the backlash likely would have been powerful. Wang agreed, noting that it was possible Unicode didn’t want to do “the wrong thing.”

Still, both said they were dissatisfied with the emoji universe’s inadequacies.

“I’m definitely disappointed that there’s a big discrepancy,” Byrd said. Though she said she won’t be beating down the door of her local congressperson over the issue anytime soon, she emphasized that it’s still important to see herself represented properly.

“[Emojis have] become part of our cultural language,” Wang said. “That’s why I don’t think it’s silly. Lots of people communicate with emojis, and texting is such a pervasive part of how we communicate with each other. If we’re all texting, and all using emojis, then doesn’t it make sense that they should represent us?”

It doesn’t have to be a giant shift right away. Unicode can’t represent every single profession out there. But it should be aware, as Mackey put it, that there are different layers to what it means to be female — and that means acknowledging that women make up roughly 40% of the global workforce.

They could start, for example, by adding female versions of the male professions, and vice versa. That means including female construction workers, grooms, male information desk people, and so on. (They could also stand to experiment with more genderless figures.)

Eventually, other occupations — businesswomen, doctors, housekeepers, scientists, singers, cooks — should have a place. (As well as some other key roles.) Wang said she’d like to see a female engineer or a female CEO.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Though Unicode can seem like an impenetrable and distant fortress from the outside, recent updates to the emoji catalog have proven that change certainly isn’t out of the question. Although BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel describes Unicode as “a deeply technical and somewhat secretive organization.” (Unicode has not responded to a request for comment for this story.)

Racially diverse emoji finally made their way into Unicode’s updates in 2015, and on Friday, a Kickstarter campaign to add a dumpling emoji surpassed its goal. Jennifer Lee, the co-creator of the campaign, previously told Mic that beyond getting the dumpling emoji approved, she wanted to use the Kickstarter funds to help diversify Unicode’s voting bodies and make the proposal process more inclusive to the public.

The organizing body she intends to use to see this goal through, Emojination, will help tackle problems like the lack of professional women emoji, and it will start by adding to the ranks of people who participate in the process in the first place. Emojination is a “nonvoting associate member” of Unicode.

Engineers, for example, make a good portion of the membership, which Lee believes needs to change. “The skill set of engineering is not robust enough to address the demands the emoji world is putting on the system,” she told Mic earlier this week. “You need someone, ideally, who understands how to plug in to systems to gauge desire. The emoji subcommittee itself would benefit from a richer range of skill sets.”

Then again, there’s a much simpler solution to all of this. As Mackey put it, “Can’t we just have an emoji that’s of a woman smashing patriarchy?”

A excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s review of Sherry Turkle’s new book titled ‘Reclaiming Conversation’

Our digital technologies aren’t politically neutral. The young person who cannot or will not be alone, converse with family, go out with friends, attend a lecture or perform a job without monitoring her smartphone is an emblem of our economy’s leechlike attachment to our very bodies. Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute.

 

Mobiles, Memories and Image

Captured in a searingly real and beautiful photo essay, photographer Grey Hutton (vice.com) shows how memory, migration and mobiles are entangled. In the context of the migration crisis in Europe, mobile phones embody mobility on a massive scale – across oceans not just cities. And with mobility comes memory, travelling as mobile background images. Vice.com

Embedded in the captions are significant narratives about cultural integration: “Nobody wears jeans there”; surveillance “At night, the police could see the light” and affect as a motivator “It’s a reminder of a great moment”.

Smartphones and refugees

 “This is a picture of me and my Christian friend fishing in Kurdistan. It’s a nice memory and I like to have it with me.”

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 “This is a photograph of my wife’s mother. She was killed by IS in Libya. I’ve had this phone for 10 years. I only use it for important things, really.”

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“The journey would never have been possible without this phone. I used it all the time, both on land and at sea.”

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“I used the GPS to navigate the boat to Greece. Only during the day, though. At night, the police could see the light.”

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“This is the son of one of my friends. The photo was taken in Hamburg at a camp we stayed in. It’s a reminder of a great moment.”

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“This is the traditional dress of the Pashtun. It reminds me of where I’m from in Pakistan. Nobody wears jeans there.”

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“We used balloons and tape to protect our phones from the water.”

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“I lost my smartphone in the ocean on the journey. I’m going out buy a new one as soon as I have money.”

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“This is my four children. The phone was really useful for teaching them a few German words and keeping them busy with games while we were travelling.”

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“This picture was the background on my old phone. I don’t know how to transfer it to the new phone my mother gave me. It’s a picture of my brother, who was killed by IS. My other brother was killed by Assad’s forces.”

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“This is my daughter. She’s still in Syria, but we talk every morning, evening and night.”

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“This is a Lebanese pop star called Elissa. During my trip, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to music. Now that I’m in Germany, I feel like it again.”

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“Our phones are extremely important to us.” (Somali couple)

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“I chose this background because it reminds me of my mother. I’m 16 years old and this photo is my only way of staying in touch with my family and friends.”

Migration & Mobiles

Disturbing but not unexpected narratives are circulating about migrants and refugees traveling to Europe, centered on nationalist fears, job losses and worst of all – skepticism about the severity of refugee plights. Some narratives find expression in social media memes circulating on Twitter and Facebook like this one…

Australian Body builder not refugees

Vice.com

Props to writer Philip Kleinfeld and Vice.com for exposing the paranoid bullshit content of these memes – which are often blatantly falsified.  The image above has nothing to do with European refugees, in fact it were taken in 2013 on Christmas Island in Australia.

Some narratives have centered on the crippled logic that smartphones are a sign of prosperity and are in conflict with refugee life. While the veracity of memes cannot be trusted, the content of these narratives – specifically the relationship between people and technology and what this signifies – are still incredibly interesting to analyse, succinctly done by the blog Everyday Analysis:

Migration Meme

The horrible meme makes out that fleeing a war zone and the traumas associated with that is not enough to deserve our sympathy if you have a Samsung phone. Possess a symbol of capitalist success and modernity, manage a smile of relief and, in our unforgiving political climate, a traumatised refugee is be deemed a fraud….in the eyes of the British right, why should a refugee not have a mobile phone? …why should a refugee not take a selfie?

In the end this meme shows us three things. First, it quite simply and obviously shows how much hateful fascism there is in our society. Second, it shows how these structures are still supported by a colonial ideology that sees the passage to modernity as the natural course of events and does not want to admit that this trauma and devastation is a modern problem that our own brand of modernity is responsible for. Third, it warns us of the danger of our preconceptions and expectations when it comes to refugees and shows us how deeply ingrained in right wing ideology some of our assumptions may be.

everyday analysis See the full feature on Everyday Analysis.