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.
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. ᔥ Vice.com
Embedded in the captions are significant narratives about cultural integration: “
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…
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:
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.
“Hello Barbie” was released on 14 February at a toy fair in America- she’s wi-fi enabled and records kids conversations to develop authentic, real-time responses to them. While the tech press and others are dubbing her “eavesdropping Barbie” and “creepy” she’s not the first doll to be internet enabled. See Cayla, a talking doll that uses speech-recognition and Google’s translation tools, that was subsequently hacked. Besides the obvious questions around privacy and safety, what does this mean for the future of play?
I didn’t go looking for grief on Christmas Eve, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.
I know they’re probably very proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed, and deservedly so — a lot of people have used it to share their highlights of 2014. I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by various friends, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” Which was, by itself, a little bit unsettling, but I didn’t begrudge my friends who’d had a good year. It was just a weird bit of copy to see, over and over, when I felt so differently.
Still, it was easy enough to avoid making my own Year in Review, and so I did. After all, I knew what kind of year I’d had. But then, the day before Christmas, I went to Facebook and there, in my timeline, was what looked like a post or an ad, exhorting me to create a Year in Review of my own, complete with a preview of what that might look like.
Clip art partiers danced around a picture of my middle daughter, Rebecca, who is dead. Who died this year on her sixth birthday, less than 10 months after we first discovered she had aggressive brain cancer.
Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my Little Spark. It was still unkind to remind me so tactlessly, and without any consent on my part.
I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them a selfie at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.
But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or foreclosure or job loss or any one of a hundred possible crises, we might not want another look at this past year.
To show me Rebecca’s face surrounded by partygoers and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring. It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate. These are hard, hard problems. It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of Likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.
Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs. To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.
Where the human aspect fell short, in this case, was in pushing the preview image into my Facebook timeline without first making sure I wanted to see it. I assume Facebook only showed the ad to users who hadn’t already created a Year in Review, in an attempt to drive more adoption. So the Year in Review ad kept coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds but always showing Rebecca, as if celebrating her death, until I finally clicked the drop-down arrow and said I didn’t want to see it any more. It’s nice that I can do that, but how many people don’t know about the “hide this” option? Way more than you think.
This whole situation illuminates one aspect of designing for crisis, or maybe a better term is empathetic design. In creating this Year in Review ad, there wasn’t enough thought given to cases like mine, or friends of Chloe, or really anyone who had a bad year. The ad’s design was built around the ideal user—the happy, upbeat, good-life user.
It didn’t take other use cases into account. It may not be possible to reliably predetect whether a person wants to see their year in review, but it’s not at all hard to ask politely—empathetically—if it’s something they want. That’s an easily solvable problem. Had the ad been designed with worst-case scenarios in mind, it probably would have done something like that.
To describe two simple fixes: First, don’t prefill a picture into the preview until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year. And second, instead of pushing a preview image into the timeline, maybe ask people if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no. If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again. And then, of course, honor their choices.
As a Web designer and developer myself, I decided to blog about all this on my personal Web site, figuring that my colleagues would read it and hopefully have some thoughts of their own. Against all expectations, it became an actual news story. Well before the story had gone viral, the product manager of Facebook’s Year in Review emailed me to say how sorry he and his team were for what had happened, and that they would take my observations on board for future projects. In turn, I apologized for dropping the Internet on his head for Christmas. My only intent in writing the post had been to share some thoughts with colleagues, not to make his or anyone’s life harder.
And to be clear, a failure to consider edge cases is not a problem unique to Facebook. Year in Review wasn’t an aberration or a rare instance. This happens all the time, all over the Web, in every imaginable context. Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that Web design does poorly, and usually not at all. If this incident prompts even one Web designer out there decide to make edge cases a part of every project he or she takes on, it will have been worth it. I hope that it prompts far more than that.
In a double loop-de-loop of weirdness, you heard it right: a Ugandan pop star, Desire, has to contend with naked pictures of herself floating around the interweb machine (thanks to her ex) and the State Minister for Ethics & Integrity in Uganda wants to arrest her. Yes, Uganda has a State Minister for Ethics & Integrity (Simon Lokodo) in case you thought that was a joke – this stuff’s for realz mafreendz!
A sweet-looking young boy sits in the park unpacking a picnic basket and waiting for someone to arrive. Along comes a burly older man, fresh from his outdoor gym routine and stops in front of the boy, bending on one knee. For a moment the man checks his phone and then asks for the boy by name. Then, in an awkward and surprisingly emotional performance the man breaks up with the boy. Well, to be more accurate, the man breaks up with the boy on behalf of his girlfriend.
Scene 1 of actress/artist Miranda July’s quirky new film project, Somebody. Part social experiment, part commentary, the tongue-in-cheek tagline says it all: “When You Can’t be There, Somebody Can”. Think of it like the high-tech version of a singing telegram. The project contains a short film (beautifully shot) and a mobile application for free download.
I love Somebody’s witty parody of “routine” digital experiences. Specifically I love the extreme scenarios of mediation. In a sweet, musing kind of way, it makes you wonder how far you would go. Take this scene: A woman is seated in a restaurant, a waitress walks over with her phone, asks for her by name and then proposes marriage on behalf of an errant partner – brilliantly performed by July herself.
Another scene: two women have a catfight. It look irresolvable until a passing pensioner pedestrian “messenger” delivers a reconciliatory note.
Beyond the cute parody (it’s light), this is a very nicely packaged (beautiful wardrobe courtesy of the film’s commissioner Miu Miu) commentary on our posthuman selves. In the best scene of the film – one with clever cybernetic overtones – a pot plant asks its owner for water via a proxy: the man’s lover. Things get nicely twisted, when the pot plant’s missives turn into sort of techno erotica (much funnier than it sounds). Potplant: “Test my soil, deeper!”
Running with the posthuman theme, feminist technoscience writer Donna Haraway might call this notion of distributed consciousness: living intimately ‘as’ and ‘in’ a biological world. Haraway’s work interrogates the divisions of nature/culture and human/machine. She refutes these so-called divisions, preferring “enmeshment” instead. She coined the term “natureculture” to explain the concept. The point is: drawing a dividing line between us, mobiles (and even thirsty pot plants) is irrelevant anyway. July’s film delivers the same message in a good-humoured parody.
Somebody is a brilliant hack of technology; in the project’s own words: “The antithesis of the utilitarian efficiency that tech promises, here, finally, is an app that makes us nervous, giddy, and alert to the people around us.” In visualizing affect – nearly all the scenes are real heart-wrenchers – the film tries to humanise technology. It introduces us humans back into our own technological exchanges in a speculative way. Naïve? Probably. Damn entertaining? You bet.
Somebody app is available for download via iTunes. No proxies needed.
Parody, playful, tongue in cheek: Invisible Girl/Boyfriend.
Created during a StartUp Weekend, according to the site: “Finally. A girlfriend your family can believe in. Invisible Girlfriend gives you real-world and social proof that you’re in a relationship – even if you’re not – so you can get back to living life on your own terms.”
Seems the invisible boyfriend was an afterthought, click far right in the corner for that option. No guessing the gender of the project initiators then 🙂