Connectivity, privacy, porn and the generational shift

by Andy Polaine on November 27, 2004

I thought I’d post a new entry in response to the comment by Euph about not having any personal space any more with regards to the Sound Pryer post. So, just to clear up a more or less technical question first, Euph asked:

“how do you tune in to another channel if you are picking up what every one else if listening too ?”

Well, from reading the blurb about Sound Pryer, you would obviously be able to switch it on and off. But, hey, even with 10,000 songs on your iPod, you might get bored. So they describe Sound Pryer thus:

“The metaphor used to guide the design of Sound Pryer is that of a “collaborative” MP3 player. A user can play his or her own music, but also tune into rear mirror”

Euph also mentioned that porn is what all connectivity boils down to. Well, yes and no in my opinion. Porn, or rather sex, has always been a major driver of new technologies, almost all of them when you think about the biological imperatives that living beings have. Now, aside from the morality of porn and your opinion of it (which is a different discussion), one thing the porn industry understands is human nature and they understand it in a way that is way more sophisticated than most industries. They were way ahead on rich media content online, secure access and billing, video-conferencing, etc. Partly this is to do with the easy economics of it – people will always buy it, so investment is a pretty safe bet. Also, there are few industries that tailor their offerings to customer tastes as much as the porn industry. In general, the globalised company wants customers to buy into whatever they are selling and use their marketing to try and change the customer (because that’s much cheaper than making lots of different things).

All of which has had a lot of positive trickle down (no pun intended – well, okay, maybe a bit of one) into other areas of contemporary culture, many of which aren’t so controversial and which benefit a lot of people. In essence, the porn industry is a testing and proving ground for a lot of technologies because they can afford to try things out.

There’s another, really complex can of worms that Euph mentioned too:

“It’s getting to being at the point of being able to know what everyone is thinking just by waking past them “I really don’t want to know what everyone is thinking or what music they are listening too unless I choose too and the other person has given me permission and not just electronic permission (and yes we know today people don’t give permisison and they still take stuff but) “It’s becoming way to close to having no personal space “Yes conectivity is good but don’t forget the human……you can get to much connectivity “Ask any mother who has looked after kids all day there comes a point where silence is needed and you can’t even cope with any more touch. How do you get this if everyone keeps tuning in to you”

Now I completely agree about the need for moments of silence. Personally, I practice Iyengar Yoga fairly regularly as well as write. Both of which are my moments of silence, both internally and externally. Perhaps it is because I’m currently in Australia and all my family and old friends are in Europe, but I really enjoy the relatively connectivity of instant messaging, SMS, etc. Presence technologies such as ICQ and AIM, which tell you when people are away, busy, available, where they are, etc. can be slightly “stalker-like”, but on the other hand it is comforting to feel like friends and family are only a quick message away.

When I had my first mobile phone back in 1994, I remember thinking that I really needed it for all those important offers of freelance work. I soon realised I used it like everyone does, for trivial little things, often sending a text message to a loved one just to let them know what I’m up to and that I am thinking of them. So I think there can actually be more of a human connection, not less. I certainly feel less distanced from my family thanks to email.

The other thing here is permission. Presumably if you let people tune into you, you’ve given your permission. It’s like a blog, people are free to read what they like and, if commenting is turned on, free to leave their comments. The same deal applies to the Sound Pryer. However, presence technology has an unintended downside, as anyone with a mobile phone knows. When you’re not available, people get suspicious. “Why didn’t you have your phone on? Where were you?” Etc., etc. Spamming on a mobile feels much more offensive than via email (which, I hate, but feels less personal). I think this is because the mobile is one of the few pieces of technology that feels like an extension of our personal space. The only other item that I think really feels like that is the car. It’s something I’ve written about at length elsewhere. I think this is probably a transitional period as we become more accustomed to this kind of connectivity – technology moves much fast than society and culture’s ability to assimilate it.

It takes a generational shift for the real change to happen. I’m of the TV and videogame generation – I grew up with them, they were always there (just about, I remember our first videogame console, a Prinztronic Tournament from when I was about 7 years-old). So I treat them differently to my parents generation who can remember, gasp, a time before TV. So the thing is, any child under 10 now, will have always known the Internet and mobile phones. My niece, for example, finds it odd when she sees a phone with a cable; she’s grown up in a household of mobiles and cordless phones. We think it sounds like a shocking indictment of the future and the world going to seed at a fast pace, but it has always been the way, my grandparents used to tell me about ducking in and out of horses around Piccadilly Circus in London. The under-tens generation will no doubt make some interesting things with all this new technology precisely because it will no longer be new technology to them. It will hold no novelty for them so they’ll use it in different ways. I’m looking forward to seeing what artists and designers will do. It’s something that Mark Pesce goes into in some fascinating detail in his book, The Playful World.

Lastly, the idea that you can know what someone else is thinking, or at least into, just by walking past them is already underway. Cute Circuit in Italy plan to do exactly that with their Identity Service. Basically it boils down to a wearable device which is plugged into a massive database of your personal information, which you choose to share elements of and filter, etc. I interviewed Francesca Rosella a while ago and she said that the idea was about reclaiming your own personal data that is harvested by corporations and authorities anyway, largely without your explicit permission (it’s in the small print of your credit card contract that you never read). The Identity Service allows you to connect with people you might be interested in but would otherwise miss. Fora simple example, if you have either bought flights to Italy or registered in some way that you are into Italy or speak Italian and you walk past someone with similar interests, then you get an alert (in your ear probably) that they share your interests. Of course, you could ignore it, but then I wondered what kind of social etiquette would be required if the other person also got the alert and saw you ignore them.

There are still questions to be answered and cultural practices to adjust to, but they can happen surprisingly fast when the technology is something people find fills a gap. In the short life of mobile phones (really not more that about 12 years in mainstream culture) we’ve become quite used to seeing people talk on phone publicly, a far cry from the old phone booth. We’ve even become fairly used to people talking into thin air with handsfree headsets. One thing is for sure, none of this technology is going away and my feeling is that it is, in general, getting better at fitting around what people want to experience, but it takes time. I would argue that we actually get a sense of just how connected we really are with these technologies, far from losing the human connection. Perhaps it is just quite a scary revelation.

1 Euph November 30, 2004 at 8:22 pm

Thanks for the comments – some other comments (disclaimer here some of the comments made might seem hypocritical since I am actually responding to a Blog and doing the opposite to what I am saying)

“The metaphor used to guide the design of Sound Pryer is that of a “collaborative” MP3 player. A user can play his or her own music, but also tune into rear mirror”

General question about collabrative technology where is line drawn between collabrative and Group think ?

Euph also mentioned that porn is what all connectivity boils down to.

It has developed technology – Ok lets get away from porn say the main thing streamed was about green tree frogs. There is always the popular culture which will dominate – what happens if green tree frogs are popular and most people are listening to this ? How do you get away from this ? How do you tune out from this if you can’t even tune out in your own head space ? What happens once people start tuning in and you have no choice e.g there is no off button or diconnect button anymore ?

“I really enjoy the relatively connectivity of instant messaging, SMS, etc. Presence technologies such as ICQ and AIM, which tell you when people are away, busy, available, where they are, etc. can be slightly “stalker-like”, but on the other hand it is comforting to feel like friends and family are only a quick message away.”

Is there a difference between connectivity with people you already have established relationships with and those that you don’t. Yes people have developed relationships and friends for life on line but in some way I have always found the idea of chatting, commenting on blogs, icq, msn , yahoo and the endless list two dimensional is this real connectivity or a kind of a pseduo analysis and insight in to human laziness ? and if this kind of connectivity is lost will we lose that third element of connectivity with new people

One thing is for sure, none of this technology is going away and my feeling is that it is, in general, getting better at fitting around what people want to experience, but it takes time. I would argue that we actually get a sense of just how connected we really are with these technologies, far from losing the human connection. Perhaps it is just quite a scary revelation.

Not scary just as you mention it is a generational shift but I wonder at the pivotal decisionswhen things are designed for humans etc….. as we shift generation will we lose aspects of humaness like certain aspects of the way we connect, how we do things – this has probably happned before for example moving through the industrial revolution we probably lost things because we changed to fit circumstance. I just wonder in these changes are there essential elements of humaness which are lost – that ultimately may prove that we really do need

2 apolaine November 30, 2004 at 9:42 pm

Yes, you’re quite right in one sense – there is the complete possibility of popular culture dominating, though there is a difference, I feel, with personal media spaces.

Popular culture tends to dominate TV and Radio (to use two easy examples) because it is economically skewed that way. Commercial radio stations play top 20 hits because it’s easiest way to get listeners and therefore advertising dollars. Even if they start out “different” they tend to gravitate towards the top 20.

Personal media spaces (blogs, iPods, bitTorrents, etc.) allow for something else to go on. I can write about green frogs, for example, all the time on here because I don’t advertise and don’t do this for the money.

The interesting thing about blogs is the fact they are mainly opinion and, sometimes, pseudo analysis. That’s what makes them not popular culture – TV news, of all flavours, tends to follow the same stories, the same press releases, etc. Mainstream news reporting tends to follow the same pattern, the same analysis. Blogs, on the other hand, tend to be much more opinionated – and it’s interesting to see newspapers letting their columnists run blogs that are not quite editorial (they usually have disclaimers) and not quite content. They’re also interactive in a way that mainstream media simply isn’t. Sure, you can write to the letters page, but the chances are slim that it will get published and it’s unlikely the author of the column will reply to you.

So, I would argue that all of this increases our connectivity and often introduces me to new people (like you for example). I’m not sure that we are right in priviledging real-time or face-to-face communication over online or non-realtime. Not that I am advocating only spending time online, but rather that a lot of our relationships are mediated in all sorts of other ways by other technologies and even people.

When you say that you wonder if, in these changes and generational shifts, the essential elements of humanity are lost, I would suggest that it is through change that the essential elements of humanity exist. Change is life and stasis is death really, it’s just perhaps that we can see it so much more clearly than we used to be able to now that we are all connected together. We can see beyond our own backyard and our own lifespan in ways we never used to be able to.

3 euph December 2, 2004 at 8:13 am

“Personal media spaces (blogs, iPods, bitTorrents, etc.) allow for something else to go on. I can write about green frogs, for example, all the time on here because I don’t advertise and don’t do this for the money.”

Question though could these spaces (blogs, iPods, bitTorrents, etc.) and personal connectivity eventually go the way the internet searching has sort of gone e.g the phenomen of some people thinking now that if you can’t find it by google it dosen’t exist.

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