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September 23, 2014
Technology and the Future of Being Human
Hope College Critical Issues Symposium
Holland, Michigan

October 26, 2014
Media Literacy in the 21st Century
Queens College Homecoming 2014
LeFrak Hall
Flushing, NY

November 17, 2014
Keynote
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Hamburg, Germany

 

Blog

Wednesday
Feb192014

Social Media and the Perils of Looking for 'Likes'

Living for likes makes a teen's social career a whole lot easier, in some respects. Now there's a number letting kids know how popular they are, how well a photo is resonating with their friends, or whether their video stands a chance of vaulting them into the professional world of singing, skateboarding or twerking.

What they may not understand, however, is that this game of likes is not taking place on a level playing field. It was constructed by companies whose multibillion-dollar stock valuations are depending on little more than generating traffic -- more likes, follows and favorites -- and then selling the data that can be gleaned from it.

In a sense, major parts of our economy (or at least the inflated valuations on the NASDAQ exchange) are now depending on the social media activity of kids. I'm not sure that's a pressure worth putting on them

On the surface, it all looks pretty empowering. For the MTV generation, changing the channel via remote control was about as interactive as mainstream media got -- and that only brought a kid from one corporate media conglomerate's commercial programming to another’s.

Clearly, the social media universe, with its countless Facebook pages, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and Instagram photos, offers a whole lot more choice. Instead of watching a TV channel, today's teens get to watch each other. That in itself amounts to power, freedom and agency, right?

Maybe. For while all these clicks and keystrokes and photos and videos may be free, they come with a price. Kids aren't paying with money, but with their attention and their hours of meticulous profile tweaking. They're paying with their likes, their favorites, and their follows. And they get paid back with a new path to popularity or even fame.

Sometimes, the exchange is explicit. Brands from soft drinks to automobiles ask kids to like an ad or promotion, all for the chance to be liked back or re-tweeted by the brand to its millions of followers. The teen gets more of those coveted likes. The companies get a real-time portrait of their potential customers and influencers, as well as all their friends.

And this isn't just some virtual game. Likes really do matter out here in the real world, too. New musicians and new writers alike must demonstrate that they have social media followings in order to find distribution and sponsors.

A new kind of talent agency, The Audience, has arisen to help young up-and-comers cultivate a social media presence, and then sell that network of followers to the appropriate advertisers.

It's actually a science. Thanks to the immense data pools created by social media users, a firm like The Audience can find the overlaps between fans of a certain pop star and those who have interacted with particular brands. That little venn diagram is marketer's gold. And, to be fair, The Audience is helping young musicians build careers in a landscape where there are no record labels left willing to develop talent -- and no one buying music, anymore, anyway. By pairing talent with sponsors, The Audience creates a new revenue stream for artists, or at least the ones with the most viewed selfies.

But it does create an oddly circular culture: Kids develop social media audiences in order to become "stars," which really just means having enough social media followers to sell out to a brand for sponsorship. Perhaps more amazingly, none of them seem to mind. When I asked kids what they thought about "selling out" for my PBS documentary on social media, none of them could even tell me what "selling out" meant. They thought it had something to do with there not being any tickets left for a concert.

The language barrier aside, young social media users today draw no distinction between art and commerce, culture and advertising. While kids engaged with social media have the ability to express themselves and their values to pretty much the rest of the developed world, they seem unaware of the extent to which these platforms shape the values they choose to express.

As I learned from a 13-year-old skateboarder who calls himself Baby Scumbag, you get fewer likes for making videos of board tricks than you do for getting gorgeous girls to pose for you in the near nude, or just doing crazy antics in the street. He's a massive success on YouTube, where his videos often generate more than a million views.

Another teenager, a girl from near San Diego, started making videos of herself singing, but is quickly learning that shots of her in her bedroom, or full body, or in a bathing suit, get her more attention. Her videos no longer include her vocals.

That's the part I don't think most teens grasp. Nor do most adults have enough of a handle on this whole social media universe to fully articulate our misgivings. We know something is amiss, but saying it out loud feels so, well, out of touch.

The reality here, however, is that it's our young social media users who are out of touch -- or at least painfully oblivious to the way the tools and platforms they're using in turn use them. They grew up with this stuff in their lives, and they accept these tools at face value, as features of the natural landscape. Not so. They were made by companies whose interests go far beyond helping kids express themselves and make friends. Our kids are not the customers here; they are both the product and the unwitting labor.

Our social media platforms are embedded with values that shape our perspectives and our behaviors. If we live in the social media landscape without an awareness of what it really wants from us, no one is really being empowered at all.

Thursday
Jan162014

Politico: How Technology Killed the Future

Presidents—and the rest of us—can’t get anything done anymore.

The crises arrive from everywhere, and all at once. The responses do, too. New allegations about NSA eavesdropping, for instance, pop up on Twitter before the White House has had a chance to fully spin the last set. A Cabinet secretary is presumed ripe for firing over a botched health care website even before the site’s problems are fully diagnosed. The pauses between an event and a response to it—the space in which public opinion was once gauged—is gone, and now the feedback is indistinguishable from the initial action. The verdict, the takeaway, the very meaning behind what is happening is more elusive than ever before. We cobble together narratives and hunt for conclusions. Millions of social media posts per minute are parsed and analyzed as if those vast bits of opinion, conjecture and fancy somehow coalesce into a story.

But they don’t.

Welcome to the world of “present shock,” where everything is happening so fast that it may as well be simultaneous. One big now. The result for institutions—especially political ones—has been profound. This transformation has dramatically degraded the ability of political operatives to set long-term plans. Thrown off course, they’re now often left simply to react to the incoming barrage of events as they unfold. Gone, suddenly, is the quaint notion of “controlling the narrative”—the flood of information is often far too unruly. There’s no time for context, only for crisis management.

Sure, the rate at which information spreads and multiplies has accelerated, but what’s taking place now is more than a mere speeding up. What we’re experiencing is the amplification of everything that happens to be occurring at the moment, and a diminishment of everything that isn’t. It’s not just that Google search results favor the recent over the relevant; it’s that suddenly an entire society does.

I feel myself chasing the “now” all the time. Last June, on my way to the stage to speak about the phenomenon of present shock at the Personal Democracy Forum, the NSA scandal hit the wires and CNN began pinging my phone for me to appear on air. Sensing a kind of meta-moment, I switched the approach for my talk and wove the emerging news story into my remarks, reading live updates from my phone as I talked about our urge to be caught in the now. Using any other example of a fast moving news story would have felt past tense. My talk became more of a demonstration: an example of present shock about present shock, on a day of present shock.

It wasn’t always like this. As recently as the end of the 20th century, the zeitgeist was animated by a kind of forward-leaning futurism. There was a sense that we were accelerating toward a big shift fueled by new technologies, networks and global connectivity. Today, that shift may have finally occurred, but rather than encouraging us to look further ahead, it has instilled in us a pervading “presentism.” Our old obsession with the pace of progress has been drowned out by the onslaught of everything that is happening right now. It’s impossible even to keep up, much less to look ahead.

This new paradigm is fundamentally scrambling our politics. Our leaders’ ability to articulate goals, organize movements or even approach long-term solutions has been stymied by an obsession—on their part and ours—with the now. Unless we adapt to this new presentism, and soon, we may edge more dangerously close to political paralysis.

***

As you might expect, we can blame our current condition, at least in part, on digital technology. Consider the remote control, DVR and even YouTube, which in their own way have each eroded the traditional storytelling functions of television, rendering instead a deconstructed landscape of independent memes. The typical story arcs on which both news and entertainment used to depend no longer function when the audience can dart away—or move forward and backward—with the press of a button. Traditional stories with beginnings, middles and ends just don’t work anymore. The looping mini-movies on Vine, for instance, don’t even attempt to adhere to them. And when we’re not engaged with disjointed mashups like that, we gravitate toward epic, endless sagas—such as “Game of Thrones” or even “Breaking Bad”—which move more like fantasy roleplaying games than the TV shows of old.

Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t be able to rally people to realize his great dream today. He would be as desperate for hourly retweets as the rest of us, gathering “likes” from followers on Facebook as a substitute for marching with them.

Our relationship with social and political movements is changing much the same way. Gone are the days when we could follow a charismatic leader on an ends-justify-the-means journey toward a clear goal. A person like Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t be able to rally people to realize his great dream today. He would be as desperate for hourly retweets as the rest of us, gathering “likes” from followers on Facebook as a substitute for marching with them. Imagine John F. Kennedy attempting to rally national support for a decade-long race to the moon? The extreme present is not an environment conducive to building lasting movements.

But without a guiding narrative to make sense and create purpose, we end up relying too much on whatever happens to be happening in the moment. When it occurs, we over-respond to the latest school shooting. But over the long term, we lack the resolve or attention span to do anything to stop others from occurring. Terror and rage replace our ideological goals; we end up reacting only to the latest crisis. And, because of what we can find (and what we can say) on the Internet, we react with a false confidence in our command of the facts. Just because we can all blog in the same size font doesn’t mean all of our opinions are equally valid or informed.

Consider the movements that have gained the most attention so far this century. The Tea Party may have originated as an almost libertarian anti-tax movement, but it gained steam the more it became characterized with an impatience for action. As a movement, it has focused on seeing direct results, now. Better to shut down the government in the present, as proof of what can be done, than to quietly persist without knowing whether one’s action are having an effect. Create a plot point, no matter the outcome.

 

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Occupy Wall Street movement began, similarly, as a protest against financial excesses, but it quickly morphed into a new style of political activity. Where the Tea Party yearned for results, the Occupiers seemed almost allergic to them. Process mattered as much or even more than product. The “general assembly” protocol that the demonstrators instituted required total consensus. When asked by reporters about their demands, occupiers insisted these would emerge at some point in the future, if it all. The Occupiers saw the movement not as something that would end, but as a new normative state. A permanent revolution.

Neither of these movements may augur the emergence of a third political party, but they both point to a hunger for a new way of doing things—and they suggest approaches that fit with the modern presentist landscape. People are willing to try something new. Are their leaders?

***

As I see it, the very technologies that brought us into this state of present shock offer two contrasting ways to contend with it in our politics. The first is simply to ratchet up the polling, the metering and the analysis we’ve been using to probe voters. Politicians have been doing this since the late1990s, adapting computers, social networking streams and big data to home in on evermore granular shifts in opinion on evermore minuscule issues. Technology is giving us the ability to have something like the “people meters” that measure audience responses and attitudes during television debates up and running perpetually. Pursuing this approach, our politics takes on the qualities of the Home Shopping Network, where television salespeople can adjust their pitches in real time based on the number of people placing orders.

Of course, access to continuous and instantaneous feedback is addictive—and quite counterproductive. We’ll demand that our politicians have clear answers to, say, the latest fracking disaster, lest they risk being seen as removed and non-responsive. Yet forcing them to engage at every bump in the road, however minuscule, will encourage them to lose their sense of direction and discourage them from taking in new information and making adjustments in thinking. For instance, as new revelations about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi make the incident less useful as a talking point against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Republicans double-down in real time and dispute new revelations, rather than wait until more evidence is revealed. There’s just no time to work with facts; opinions are being formed right now.

This relegates the processes that actually matter to the back room. The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iran over nuclear weapons occurred out of public view, lest the din of the digital reaction confuse or forestall whatever progress was being made. Unlike the Camp David accords of the Carter era, where proceedings were daily news, the public wasn’t privy to diplomatic history-making. As a result, the public has responded with more fear and suspicion than it might have otherwise. That’s the liability of expecting constant pings from government the same way we expect text messages from our spouse throughout the day.

Instead of amplifying the effects of present shock—using digital technologies to gather for themselves more data—our leaders could work to adjust our expectations by taking new cues from digital culture. For example, most forms of interactive engagement, such as video games, abandoned the structure of the traditional narrative long ago. Video games, like the fantasy role playing games on which they are often based, are not always contests that one wins and ends. Things like massive multiplayer games are more successful the more people get to play, and the longer the game is kept going. In our new presentist reality, those looking to rally support for causes or candidates would be wise to think about similar kinds of open-ended approaches.

Things that actually matter in our politics are being relegated to the back room, lest the din of the digital reaction confuse or forestall whatever progress is being made.

Take the White House rollout of the Affordable Care Act. The troubled debut of the HealthCare.gov website was less about bad Internet programming than about creating the kinds of expectations that accompany a Broadway opening, not a website. Online launches—the White House perhaps now knows—should be thought of as a permanent beta-test wherein engineers are iterating toward improvement in a present that’s never quite perfect. The finish line is never quite reached.

Operating within today’s presentist political landscape, the administration is at the mercy of a world without an organizing story. Often it takes a real disaster—a Boston bombing or a chemical weapons deployment in Syria—to generate a plot point capable of sustaining a narrative for a few days. But then it unravels again. Instead of imposing a narrative on this new, open, never-ending story, leaders must develop strategies to solve problems that are resistant to easy declarations of victory. Gone are the days when America could plant a flag on the moon and declare the space race won. Modern obstacles are more often chronic ones to be managed and mitigated over time. Greenhouse emissions, child hunger, mutating bacteria, drug abuse and even terrorism are not wars one wins.

The age of present shock is, it seems, forcing Americans to realize that our journey is less about reaching a conclusion than it is about sustaining ourselves for as long as possible. Our politics may come to have less to do with triumph than endurance—a shift in perspective that, while born out of an obsession with the present, wouldn’t be so bad for the future.

Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and author of the new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.


Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/01/how-technology-killed-the-future-102236.html#ixzz2qYymGx6w

Wednesday
Jan152014

Wild West Web Needs a Sheriff

(CNN) --  This week, champions of the "open net" are decrying a U.S. Court of Appeals decision striking down an FCC ruling that required Internet service providers to be neutral in their restrictions on bandwidth.

The idea here is that giant bandwidth users, like Netflix or YouTube, will be required to pay access providers, like Verizon or Time Warner Cable, for all that video they're streaming to the likes of us. Maybe they'd even be able to buy themselves a special faster lane on the Internet for their traffic.

Of course, "open Web" advocates see in the court decision the beginning of the end of a free and egalitarian Internet. By striking down the provisions of what the industry calls "net neutrality," the court has also struck down an Internet provider's obligation to let all content through its servers. In theory, they can now legally pick and choose whose media makes it to its subscribers. Which would stink.

But this whole issue, and the instantaneous outcry associated with every move by a court or agency, is more complex than it looks on the surface. By casting this issue in such stark terms, those who would defend Internet freedom from the evil corporations may just be playing into the hands of other corporations whose designs on the Internet are no better.

In fact it seems like just yesterday when nearly all the Internet's champions were telling government to stay away from the net. The Web was home to the revival of Ayn Rand and a new spirit of techno-utopian libertarianism. The idea was: The free market will cure any glitches along the way, as technology firms simply compete to bring us the best.

The 1997 Wired cover story, "The Long Boom," argued that the only impediment to technology-fueled economic growth would be the regulation of the marketplace. "Open good, closed bad. Tattoo it on your forehead." This became a credo of Silicon Valley and the net in general.

People acted as if the Internet just emerged out of culture, like a technological extension of the collective human nervous system, rather than a network that was meticulously planned and built by government and, yes, Al Gore.

Instead the main metaphor for the net would be the Wild West, out of the reach of government meddling.

But as anyone who has studied the Wild West (or even watched "Deadwood") has learned, gold rushes get messy at the end. Eventually a big, corrupt gold mining company starts exploiting all that lawlessness, and all of a sudden it's the formerly independent law-haters turning to the sheriff for help.

And so the defenders of the net now go running for assistance to an FCC that has been systematically excluded at every turn and diminished in its power by some of these very same parties. Slammed down as if it were burning books whenever it considers protecting kids from pornography or interfering in some affair that is being fought out in the marketplace, the FCC has become a derided and timid agency.

That's why the FCC was destined to lose this case. It never even defined the Internet as a "common carrier" -- like a road or telegraph wire -- which would necessarily be regulated in a neutral fashion, permitting passage by all. Yet in its ruling this week, the court even made it clear that the FCC has the ability to define the net as it chooses -- opening the door for the agency to claim the Internet as its domain and enforce net neutrality.

No doubt, Google (which owns YouTube), and Netflix will be encouraging all free citizens of the Internet to push the FCC in this direction. After all, they're the ones whose videos make up a majority of Internet traffic, and who would be forced to pay the tolls -- that is, until they passed them down to us, which would likely lose them some business.

In such an environment, an "open" Web really just means open to corporations, who maintain their monopoly on bandwidth by technological superiority. None of us will have the streaming capability of a Google or Netflix off our home servers -- unless, of course, the FCC regulates things that way. I, for one, would less like to see net neutrality than net favoritism: It's the transmissions between real people, schools, artists and nonprofit organizations that need a special lane on the net if anyone's going to get such a provision.

So before we start shouting about what government and corporations should do to make the Web "open," we'd better remember that one person's "open" may as well be another person's "closed."

If we want a better, freer net, we have to stop responding so impulsively to every action taken in one direction or another -- particularly when there are multibillion-dollar corporations paying handsomely to make us think they're on our side. We have to remember instead who we did hire to protect our interests.

Yes, it's time to go get the sheriff (in this case the FCC), apologize for having stamped on his badge, and tell him he has the authority to regulate this space

Monday
Dec232013

Rushkoff Live: audio collection

BetterListen just put out an audio collection of my talks - one for each of the last three books. Steve Stein puts together some good collections, so I'm interested to listen to these, myself. 

Kinda cool to see a package like this, though. It's the closest I'll get to seeing myself in the bins at Bleecker Bobs.

Here's a sample:

 

Thursday
Dec192013

CNN: Google Sees No Evil

 


(CNN) -- "Do the right thing; don't be evil. Honesty and integrity in all we do. Our business practices are beyond reproach. We make money by doing good things"

So goes the sixth point in Google's official statement of core values years ago, often condensed to the informal company motto, "Don't be evil."

It's supposed to make us feel better about trying new technologies from Chrome notebooks to Google Glass. Don't worry -- we're not going to screw with you. So when it comes time someday to inject our brains with nanobots that give us the ability to speak new languages, we can rest assured that Google won't change the user agreement on us after the fact and plant advertisements into our dreams while we're asleep. That is, if the company judges such practices to be truly evil.

Well, some of Google's recent forays are waking people up to the fact that evil is in the eyes of the beholder. The company just acquired military robot maker Boston Dynamics, leading to great consternation in the Twitterverse. As @BrentButt put it this week in a tweet that caught fire:

Google motto 2004: Don't be evil
Google motto 2010: Evil is tricky to define
Google motto 2013: We make military robots

Truth be told, the robots Boston Dynamics makes are pretty cool. Based on animal physiology, they can run, jump, balance and even chase stuff. As something of a technogeek myself, I can see why a bunch of engineers would want to play with this technology.

What we have to ask, and keep asking at every turn, is: To what end? What real purpose are we serving?

Not doing evil is actually a pretty low bar to begin with. Is this really a high aspiration? To avoid embodying Satan in silicon?

Even if we accept avoiding evil as the mantra of the digital age, the presumption here is that evil is like a line of code that can simply be excluded from the overall program. Oops! Line 45 of that app has some evil in it. Better change it.

We can't employ an entirely programmatic approach to human affairs. However well we think we might be embedding our technologies with the values we hope to express, more often than not we also get unexpected consequences.

Cars lead to pollution and oil to wars. Smartphones lead to distraction and car accidents. Big data leads to coercive marketing and government to massive surveillance. Something awfully close to evil is quite a common side effect.

Google seems aware of this, at least from a public relations perspective. Likely concerned about what it looks like for the company to be developing military hardware, the company recentlydonated $5 million to the World Wildlife Federation for drones to track down rhinoceros poachers in Africa. It's as if they're out to prove that drones are not necessarily evil.

Still, we can't help but do a bit of evil when we build technology upon technology, without taking a pause to ask what it's all for.

New technologies give us the opportunity to reevaluate the systems we have been using up until now, and consider doing things differently.

But the stock-market-fueled culture of Silicon Valley too often focuses on efficiency of execution rather than clarity of purpose.

The result is that our best Stanford computer science graduates end up writing algorithms that better extract money from the stock market, rather than exploring whether capital is even serving its original purpose of getting funds to new businesses.

Or the engineers behind Bitcoin develop a brilliant new digital currency without evaluating the purpose of money in our society. The problem to be addressed is that too much cash has ended up stuck in the coffers of the speculators. Instead of thinking about how to encourage peer-to-peer transaction, Bitcoin's developers simply built another speculative currency, only this time on digital steroids.

Likewise, war is not a great approach to conflict resolution. Adding robot soldiers to the mix merely improves the efficiency of killing. How might robots be used to reduce conflict instead of enact it?

When we develop technology in a vacuum, disconnected from the reality in which people really live, we are too likely to spend our energy designing some abstract vision of a future life rather than addressing the pains and injustices around us right now. Technology becomes a way of escaping the world's problems, whether through virtual reality or massive Silicon Valley stock options packages, rather than engaging with them.

But the don't-do-evil mandate doesn't even ask Google's programmers to evaluate the purpose of a technology -- only to perform a basic "checksum," or error correction, for evil itself. How pathetically binary. This is not enough for a company that appears dedicated to uploading human consciousness to the cloud, no matter how many robot warriors we have protecting our virtual reality servers from the people we leave behind.

I'm not arguing against technology or that we do less with it. Quite the contrary. I'm arguing we do more. It's not enough to computerize and digitize the society we have, and exacerbate its problems by new means. We must transcend the mere avoidance of the patently evil and instead seek to do good. That may involve actually overturning and remaking some institutions and processes from the ground up.

That's the real potential of digital technology. To retrieve the values and ideas that may have seemed impossible before and see whether we can realize them today in this very new world. 

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