Introducing “iGen.”

From Jean M. Twenge’s recent essay in The Atlantic:

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Twenge supplies a lot of correlated data that strongly link smartphone use to a number of generationally-distinct patterns in what she calls “iGen.” Among the more worrying data, she documents the rise of cyberbullying among young people, especially among girls. Then this:

Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”

At no time in human history have we possessed tools more finely-attuned to the art of manipulating the psychology of masses of people. These tools are supremely scalable. The same platforms that can target a demographic of heterogenous millions can individualize their content to reach, perhaps, a niche demographic of dozens. Taken in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s utopian manifesto from earlier this year, the existence of the “boost” document ought to give us serious pause.

Allow me to go one step further. Scientists based in Portland, Oregon, recently succeeded in using the gene-editing program CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the DNA of embryos to eliminate the development of a genetic mutation that would cause hypertrophic cardiomyapathy. This is an incredible victory for medical science. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. You should, too.

We have the tools to shape and reshape the human experience on a very literal level. On the genetic level, CRISPR is but the first feeble step toward technology whose power will enable us to program our own genetic makeup on scales previously imagined only in science fiction. Similarly, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook have the potential to shape their users’ desires, feelings, and perceptions in ways that are simultaneously microscopically managed and macroscopically unpredictable. I strive to make these observations not in a spirit of alarm or histrionics but in the mindset of sober assessment. If, despite my attempts at sobriety, you feel alarmed… well, good.

Advertisements

From “The Mark Manifesto”

With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.

–Mark Zuckerberg, Building Global Community [via Recode]

There’s so much in the manifesto that smarter people than me will hash over, but this stood out to me, appearing as it does about three-quarters of the way through a polemic advocating for Facebook’s centrality to the building of a truly global community. I’ve no idea how this claim will be translated into algorithmic practice. The general tenor of that section of the manifesto gives the impression that what Zuckerberg means is that individuals will still (sort of) control what they see, but those settings will be refined by Facebook’s programmers to set regional norms for community standards. But in a global community, how are locality and region going to be defined? In a digital space where people choose their associations, how will Facebook determine boundaries? To what extent will cookies, likes, and reposts determine new forms of subcommunity identity? If Facebook is successful in its global agenda, will nation-states morph into digitally-facilitated forms of groupthink? Zuckerberg seems determined not to contribute to the atomization of society via his particular social media platform (and it’s clear that he’s wrestled with this issue pretty extensively), but what checks and balances do Zuckerberg and his army of programmers intend to build into the code? Zuckerberg also intends to grow the Facebook community; if 2 billion makes it “less feasible to have a single set of standards,” what happens when Facebook hits 3 billion? Zuckerberg claims at the outset of the manifesto that the goal is “building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” I feel like there’s a lot of slippage between terms like “community,” “government,” “standards,” and “infrastructure” throughout–as there tends to be in any extended political conversation–but very little acknowledgement of who or what comprises this infrastructure. It’s fine and dandy to insist that the sociability of people is the nucleus of Facebook. And that’s sort of true. But it’s also true that Facebook remains a private company whose product is a patented digital system whose language is known only to Zuckerberg and his employees. Facebook is infrastructure, even social infrastructure in a capacious sense of the word. But Zuckerberg seems to entertain seriously the idea that it’s the users who are driving the formation of the community even as he promotes the role of the Facebook corporate entity in giving it shape and function. What does locality look like in a global village whose infrastructure is house in Silicon Valley, yet whose fiberoptic materials and electronic signals remain almost literally invisible to the eye of the people who “live” there?

The medium is the memory

Rumsey draws a powerful analogy to underscore memory’s materiality. The greatest memory system, she reminds us, is the universe itself. Nature embeds history in matter. When, in the early 19th century, scientists realized that they could read nature’s memory by closely examining the Earth and stars, we gained a much deeper understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Geologists discovered that the strata in exposed rock tell the story of the planet’s development. Biologists found that fossilized plants and animals reveal secrets about the evolution of life. Astronomers realized that by looking through a telescope they could see not only across great distances but far back in time, gaining a glimpse of the origins of existence.

Through such discoveries, Rumsey argues, people both revealed and refined their “forensic imagination,” a subtle and creative way of thinking highly attuned to deciphering meaning from matter. We deploy that same imagination in understanding and appreciating our history and culture. The upshot is that the technologies a society uses to record, store and share information will play a crucial role in determining the richness, or sparseness, of its legacy. To put a new spin on Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, the medium is the memory.

Whether through cave paintings or Facebook posts, we humans have always been eager to record our experiences. But, as Rumsey makes clear, we’ve been far less zealous about safeguarding those records for posterity. In choosing among media technologies through the ages, people have tended to trade durability for transmissibility. It’s not hard to understand why. Intent on our immediate needs, we prefer those media that make communication easier and faster, rather than the ones that offer the greatest longevity. And so the lightweight scroll supplants the heavy clay tablet, the instantaneous email supplants the slow-moving letter. A cave painting may last for millennia, but a Facebook post will get you a lot more likes a lot more quickly.

–Nicholas Carr, When our culture’s past is lost in the cloud

A minor quibble: Carr ends his column by advising, “We should make sure that there’s always a place in the world for the eloquent object, the thing itself.” I know what he means by that, and it’s a point I agree with. At the same time, his definition of “materiality,” in this particular column, is a bit limited in scope. True, the “digital” record of a Facebook timeline is not the same as the “physical” record of, say, a diary. Both are still material. The difference is that the materiality of a Facebook timeline is scattered–into the code that structures a web site or whatever browser a person is using, into whatever hard drives or servers are tasked to archive the timeline and call it up on demand–whereas the materiality of a diary is self-contained: the book, the “thing itself.”

Electronic signals, we should remember, are material things, if we understand “materiality” to refer to anything with atomic substance. But Abby Rumsey’s point about the fragility of digital stuff is well-taken. Those digital archives are not only fragile in their material state (as anyone can attest whose computer has suddenly died before she could save the document she was writing), but they are, as noted elsewhere in the column, eminently mutable (as anyone can attest who has accidentally deleted the document he was revising before saving the latest change).

All of this is to emphasize the point Carr/Rumsey makes in that third paragraph: digital media are more immediately transmissible, but the meaning and form of communication are (perhaps) not as adequately preserved. The physical chassis of my laptop will likely outlive me in significant respects. The digital world housed within or accessed through it likely will not. Not in its current form. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that this very blog post does, in fact, physically exist. The electronic signals that sustain and transmit it literally exist; the codes for it are stored somewhere. But these various physical materials only come together in the form of this commonplace blog when the vast machinery of the Internet (including your machine and mine) is mobilized to make it so, for the fleeting moments of access. Not unlike the various chemicals and biological materials that house me for the scant few decades I–as in I Me Myself, the being whose history belongs to this body and mind–exist on this planet.

When I die, these materials will disperse, never to come together in precisely the same form again, never housing the particular meaningfulness or resonance of my life, as I have lived it. What I think Carr and Rumsey touch on, whether they know it or not, is whether the resonance of a human soul can be housed by media. If it can, it is less likely to be in digital form. Looks like Ray Kurzweil still has his work cut out for him.

Spectral epistemology

Davidson’s messianic hopes as well as Nichols’s cultural despair mistakenly suppose that there can somehow be a vacuum of epistemic authority. But, in truth, forms and functions of epistemic authority, be they the disciplinary order of the research university or Wikipedia’s fundamental principles or “Five Pillars,” are themselves filtering technologies, helping us to orient ourselves amid a surfeit of information. They help us discern and attend to what is worthwhile. Google searches point us in the direction of some resources and not others. Technologies are normative, evaluative structures to make information accessible, manageable, and, ultimately, meaningful. It is not a question, then, of the presence or absence of epistemic authority; it is about better or worse forms of epistemic authority. Expertise and cultural authority are still with us. But now it might be more spectral, embodied not in the university don but in the black-boxed algorithm.

Chad Wellmon, “Algorithms Rule”

People of the (Face)book

A few juxtapositions. First, Michael Case in a recent Verge article:

Imagine a single, central website that could answer any question you had about government and whether it can help you. One portal where you could log in, and with a tool as familiar as Google search, ask: “how can I apply for a passport?” “is it illegal to fish without a license in Washington, DC?” “where do I vote?” “what do I do if my disability claim is taking too long?” “what forms do I need to establish my business?” No matter your query, you are met with an actionable answer, or a way to contact a human being who can help you with your request.

[…]

Now imagine you’ve gotten a useful answer from that website, but you need to sign some forms, have a photo taken, or take a test. For one reason or another, you need to interact with a human being face to face. What if there was one place in every community that could deliver all government services? Post offices are ubiquitous across America — what if they could be retrofitted to also be Social Security offices and DMVs and passport offices and polling locations? What if folks who aren’t comfortable with fancy, modern websites could walk into their post office and have any question about government answered for them? Yeah.

— Michael Case, “Our future government will work more like Amazon”

Étienne Balibar, from 2003:

Surely freedom of movement is a basic claim that must be incorporated within the citizenship of all people (and not only for representatives of the ‘powerful nations,’ for whom this is largely a given). But the droit de cité (rights to full citizenship) includes everything from residential rights as part of having a ‘normal’ place in society to the exercise of political rights in those locations and groupings into which individuals and groups have been ‘thrown’ by history and the economy. Let’s not be afraid of saying it: these citizenship rights include the manner of their belonging in state communities, even, and indeed especially, if they belong to more than one such community. Given the above, the right to full citizenship is indissolubly linked to freedom of movement.

— Étienne Balibar (trans. Frank Collins), “Europe, an ‘Unimagined’ Frontier of Democracy,” Diacritics 33.3/4 (Autumn/Winter 2003): 36-44

Via an io9 article on governments of the future, a review of Zach Weinersmith’s “thought experiment in distributed government”:

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

— Sword of Science, “Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government”

John Gall’s quasi-panarchist polemic from 1975:

“Under Free Choice of Territory, a citizen of any country is free to live in any part of the world he chooses. He remains a citizen of the government he prefers, to which he pays taxes and for whose officers he votes. However, as the term Free Choice of Government implies, he may at any time change his citizenship and his allegiance from his present government to another government that offers more attractive tax rates, better pensions, more interesting public officials, or simply an invigorating change of pace (Common courtesy would seem to require two weeks’ advance notice; the standard notice any employer would give an employee.)

With these two new Freedoms in effect, one would expect that after a short period of equilibration, citizens of any nation would be distributed amongst the citizens of all other nations – not necessarily at random, but sufficiently so for our purpose, which is to remove them effectively from the grip of their own government. A government can hardly put any large number of its own citizens in jail if it has to send halfway around the world for them, one by one, and persuade other governments of the justice of the proceedings. Raising armies would become administratively impossible. Furthermore, wars of any government against another would become impractical, since large numbers of the “enemy” would be distributed all over the world, including the territory of the home government.

The net result of the two new Freedoms would be to break up the Concentration of the Governed, to divide and distribute them throughout other governments, a principle which we shall call the Comminution of Hegemony. If practiced on a world-wide scale it could lead to revolutionary changes in the relationship of citizens to their governments, reversing the traditional polarity and making governments fearfully dependent upon the favor or even the whims of their citizenry rather than vice versa.”

— John Gall, “Systematics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail” (1975)

Leonidas Donskis on the relation of the Facebook “community” to the Jewish diaspora:

“The diaspora was once the unique fate and curse of the Jews, but now we are all living in the diaspora. So that we might recognize ourselves as exiles and emigrants or, alternatively, reject these descriptions, there must exist a territorial nation along with the territory that collects and defines that nation and gives it meaning. But the nations of today are, increasingly, extraterritorial and global formations, collecting themselves in the distribution zone of virtual reality and information (of that of symbolic power and social prestige, which nowadays coincides with the attention gained and the number of ‘likes’ earned). All of us have more or less become people of the global diaspora. Nowadays we are all global exiles. Thus, the diaspora becomes a normal, legitimized, recognized, and practically routinized form of life. Who is abnormal? Only someone who pines after a territorial or local past.

[…]

There was a time when secret services and the political police worked hard to extract secrets and get people to reveal the details of their private and even intimately personal lives. Today, these intelligence services should feel simultaneously exhilarated and unnecessary. What can they bring to the table when everyone is telling everything about their own business themselves? Even if people don’t disclose what they’re doing, whom they dislike, and how they got rich, they still reveal with whom they communicate and whom they know. And it’s impossible not to participate in this orgy of sharing and disclosing. If you don’t participate or if you withdraw, you lose your sense of past and present; you sever contact with your classmates and your colleagues; you get separated from your community. In virtual reality and on Facebook, what vanishes is a fundamental aspect of real freedom: self-determination and a free choice of association. You have entered this new realm of friendships, of cyberconnectedness, because technology — and its hard-to-discern masters — have convinced you that you cannot live a civilized life otherwise. Or elsewhere.” — Leonidas Donskis, “Facebook Nation,” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 94-101