Monday, September 27, 2004

Winnipeg Man Dies, Becomes Cyberghost (or, just when you thought it was safe, the cyber-idiots strike again) | Top Stories | Technology | A High-Tech Ghost Story:
So here's how it goes: a reclusive fifty-three-year-old man, estranged from his family and living alone in an apartment in Winnipeg, goes to bed one night and dies of natural causes. Nobody knows, and because his medical condition keeps his body from decomposing, he isn't found for two years. Afflicted with MS, he has been receiving a disability pension that is deposited directly into his account. Likewise, his bills are paid automatically from his account, so all the databases and programs assume he's alive and keep chugging away depositing and deducting the whole time until a relative somewhere thinks, "Gosh, it's been at least two years, maybe even three or four (where does the time go?): maybe someone ought to check up on the guy."

Interesting tidbit, yes. A little creepy, mildly disturbing, perhaps, to imagine those neighbours in the condo living next door to the mummified remains. A little sad to think of this man so reclusive and alienated that no one notices he's gone. It's not a new story, really. Lots of people are alienated from their families - in fact people have been alienating families and friends throughout the centuries, sadly enough, and lots of people have had members of their families disappear. They never know what happens to them. It's not nice, but it's the way of the world.

But hold on there! That's not all there is to it, not at all. The "chilling fact" is "that new technologies like electronic banking have created a system in which it's possible to become so physically disengaged from the day-to-day administration of your own affairs that your life can effectively go on without you, perhaps indefinitely." You become a ghost, virtually alive, says Lianne George of Ha ha. That's a good one.

Oh wait. This person is being serious. Terence Moran, professor of Media Ecology at New York University is the quoted authority: according to Moran, a) the man's life was virtually extended by technology (in the McLuhanesque sense of extension) and, moreover, b) the media critic Neil Postman would've said that "what you have here is a lack of community." To a) I say: horsefeathers! Poppycock! I'd even go so far as to say: bulltweedle! To b): well DU-U-UH.

This is exactly the sort of pseudo-analysis I am referring to when I say that reactions to technology have to be read in terms of a history of literary resistance to it in fiction and film. The "proof" is embedded in dystopian stories. This article is informed by literary tropes (psst! hey! The guy died, he had an unfortunate (and truly sad, possibly tragic) rift with family and society. He was not a ghost in the system. Technology didn't cause his lack of community; he did. The guy did.) News flash! This man did not die alone because his bills were automatically being paid.

And of course, we now get further evidence from...what? Some intellectuals who the writer at least acknowledges are crackpots of despair (oops, sorry, I meant "prophets of despair"). OK, fine. What else? Oh, right: books and movies. I quote:
"What you also have is Exhibit A for techno-skeptics -- the artists, intellectuals and other prophets of despair (most notably McLuhan, U.S. cultural historian Lewis Mumford and French philosopher Jacques Ellul) who've long warned that too much reliance on technology will result in a whittling away of human virtues and freedoms in ways we can't begin to understand. The dark, inevitable and unforeseeable consequences of technology were an inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as well as Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy. This is what Postman called technology's Faustian bargain. 'It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect,' he wrote. 'Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.'"
Quite aside from the fact that it's debatable whether Shelley was making a point about the unforeseeable consequences of technology or about the abandonment of a "child" by its parent, there is a real problem with presenting fiction (and here I include McLuhan's fantasies) as some sort of definitive evidence.

There is an attempt, however, to be empirical about all this. Two studies have concluded that "frequent Internet use leads to a decline in social support, family communication and the size of one's social network, and an increase in depression and loneliness." We are informed that this means people are connected electronically and virtually, but in actuality they're home and they're alone and they're anonymous. This is just so much horseshit. So were monks or hermits alone in their cells silently memorizing the word of God. So are solitary readers communing with Sylvia Plath and contemplating death by gas oven. And what evidence is there? What proves that Internet use leads to depression and loneliness? In what cases? How do they know it's not the other way around: i.e. people who suffer from depression and loneliness tend to spend more time using the Internet? Were these studies quantitative or qualitative? Interpretive, or backed by solid evidence?

Just to see what I can find out, I google the name of one of the researchers, Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University. What do you know? He is in fact doing some very interesting research on every-day use of the Internet in The HomeNet Project. He has indeed discovered that in some circumstances loneliness and depression are associated with increased use of the Internet (note "associated with" not "caused by"). And, he concludes, "These declines are especially strong during the first years online, but may drop or even reverse with time or as the services available on the Internet improve." In addition, he specifically states that the effects of Internet usage vary depending on what it's being used for. Many people use it, for example, to communicate with friends and family. Using the Internet to try and meet people, however - not surprisingly - is associated with symptoms of depression. He has also found that "using the Internet for entertainment is associated with declines in depressive affect," though this fact is mysteriously missing from the technoghostie article.

There is, to George's credit, one paragraph suggesting that new technologies might do just the opposite, that is, encourage social ties and strengthen relationships. The author's conclusion, of course - we could see it coming a mile away - is that the downside of technology is undeniable and this poor guy's lonely death attests to it.

No. This lonely guy's death attests to the fact that MS is a pretty awful disease. It attests to the fact that when you estrange yourself from your family and friends, you are putting yourself at risk.

The funniest part of the article is the conclusion. We're told the heartwarming story of two of the poor lonely fellow's condo neighbours who now realize the importance of "more direct human contact." They now phone each other every day.


Blogger Meshon said...

"Hi Bob!"
"Hi Ellen! Still alive, hey?"
"Yup, you?"
"Alright then, talk to you tomorrow."
"Okay, bye."

A friend of mine was getting some slack from her parents about having too many on-line friends and she made an interesting point. The relationships she has online are based solely on communication, something she often finds lacking in her "real-world" acquaintances. Another friend plays multiplayer online games that connect hundreds of players, through virtual personas, in a shared virtual experience. I've seen some of the dialogue that goes on between these people and I get a strong sense of community. There's ties there that go back along ways, built on shared experiences and common interests. The medium of interaction is just different. And often very exciting visually:, I tried but couldn't make the links open in a new window, so if you right click you should be able to do that manually)

And a point of clarification: Is McLuhan good or evil? Umm, in your view I mean. I have to admit I know almost nothing about the guy except that he said some famous things and was "before his time." Maybe he was right in his time and he's old hat now. Hmmm. I'm gonna go look...

Sorry, I realized this may have gotten off topic, maybe someone can see a way to bring it back?

5:00 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

[This is a re-posting of the deleted comment, with revisions of the horrifying travesties of late-night grammar and logic]

Yes - there's the problem of automation as alienation, and there's also the assumption that no matter what the experience is, if it's technologically mediated there's something alien about it. This question of "community" is a very interesting one and I confess to sitting on the fence a bit: you simply cannot deny the lived experiences of ordinary, as-happy-as-the-rest-of-people people participating in online communities, but on the other hand I've no evidence to prove that it's healthy. What is really the problem in my view is the tendency to present speculation (especially in popular media such as newspapers and news magazines) as substantiated fact.

Many theorists, journalists, and parents alike have tended to want to assume that online communications are alienating, but I have trouble with this: the early Christian practice of monks going off to be celibate and contemplative in the dessert was alienating; reading itself is alienating. In fact, the beautiful Camelot screenshots you link to seem evidence to me that the old literature is still strong, just evolved (like the oral transition of the story of Beowulf being sung in different ways to different audiences, to the written form of <i>Beowulf</i> preserved by scribes, to the beautifully rendered poem by Seamus Heaney. The media changes the form, but the desire for stories - old traditional stories in new guises - remains.

On the other hand, I guess, if you're alienated already, the artificial community (in the sense of being brought about by constructive skill) might be an escape from perceived "natural" interactions. But so might reading, which is also an artificial practice of storytelling. I also have difficulty with arbitrary distinctions between "natural" and "artificial," of course (so much is imposed on our interpretations and understanding by the arbitrariness of language, it seems). Well. Who knows?

On McLuhan, however, I can state an opinion: he was "before his time," yes, but if you read Harold Innis, the U of T political economist who wrote The Bias of Communication (1951) and The Strategy of Culture (1952) just over a decade before McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), you'll see that McLuhan was making pithy and accessible older and more complicated theories of how media influence communications.

That's fine: theories get recycled, all the time. And he was admittedly good with language: "The media is the message" and "global village" are still evocative and important phrases today. What's troublesome about McLuhan is that he was making so many pronouncements that were ill-informed, unresearched, illogical, and in fact quite biased.

For instance:

"Only the phonetic alphabet makes a break between eye and ear, between semantic meaning and visual code, and thus only phonetic writing has the power to translate man from the tribal to the civilized sphere, to give him an eye for an ear. The Chinese culture is considerably more refined and perceptive than the Western world has ever been" (The Gutenberg Galaxy 27).

McLuhan said we're returning to the tribal state in the electric culture of the global village. Our age is "connatural, as it were, with non-literate cultures," he said. "We have no more difficulty in understanding the native or non-literate experience, simply because we have recreated it electronically within our own culture." (The Gutenberg Galaxy 46). The problem is, I know "native" people, Cree people, who would argue instead that the "white" literate Gutenberg galaxy has a lot of difficulty understanding traditionally "non-literate" cultures (even the term "Gutenberg galaxy" seems presumptuous, as if the entirety of important culture in the universe is print-based).

McLuhan also describes a study by John Wilson of the African Institute of London University, saying "For literate societies it is not easy to grasp why non-literates cannot see in three dimensions or perspective" (36) under a section titled "Why non-literate societies cannot see films or photos without much training." Basically, the evidence he uses to demonstrate that writing sets up new kinds of perception is a study where a film was shown to people in "a primitive African village." The film demonstrated (slowly, so everyone would get it) various ways to get rid of standing water - by draining pools, picking up empty tins, etc. The film showed asanitary labourer slowly, carefully, picking up a tin, and slowly and emphatically emptying it of water, and "very carefully" putting it in a basket on the back of a donkey. The ideas was to demonstrate how to get rid of potential mosquito breeding grounds (just like you get rid of rubbish by picking up pieces of paper with a sharp stick, the writer describing the event says. Now really, the obvious connection of these two activities is beyond me, unless their juxtaposition is to emphasize just how meticulously bossy and worried about contamination literate cultures can be).

What's apparently remarkable to McLuhan is that when the investigators ask what the people viewing the film had seen, they reply that they had seen a chicken (which the erudite folks doing the study didn't even know was in the film). The chicken appeared for a very short time, flapping across a lower corner of the screen. "Didn't you see a man," the investigators ask. When they were questioned further the people being studied said, well yes, we saw a man.

Interpretation subsequently quoted with approval by McLuhan: Unlike "a sophisticated audience" the "primitive" people didn't focus on the whole frame at once and therefore became distracted by details rather than scanning the whole picture and taking it all in. McLuhan says: "Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of an image so that we take in the whole image or picture at a glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way" (37). The question is, why didn't the smart literate people see the chicken? At all? Even when questioned, they hadn't seen a chicken. They had to study the film again. Theories abounded about the "primitive" viewers: did they comment only on the chicken because of the sudden movement of the chicken? Was the bird more "real" for them? Did the fowl have religious significance (this last theory they abandoned, not surprisingly)?

How about this? Maybe the smart African people thought some dorky boring guy showing them ever so condescendingly how to dump water out of tin cans was simply less worthy of interest than a chicken suddenly startled and flapping across part of the screen (I assume that such an asinine demonstration could only be condescending but I may be wrong here.)

My point is, the assumption is that there is some significant cultural difference that has to do with the effects of literacy but McLuhan's claims are simply very poor approximations of clear and logical analysis.

Compare that study with a more recent one done by Dr Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Dr Daniel Levin of Vanderbilt University. They asked their subjects to view a video of two teams playing basketball and count the passes made by one of the teams. About half of the (literate) subjects didn't see the woman dressed in a gorilla suit who walked slowly across the scene for nine seconds, passed between the players, and stopped to face the camera and thump her chest. Maybe perception simply has to do with what you're interested in. Maybe McLuhan's perception was distorted by what he wanted to "see" too.

There's more; I could go on... Shoddy media studies are a subject close to my heart...

People want terribly to point fingers at technology, to say it changes perception, social interaction, for the good or the bad. It's frustrating when the scholarship is so shoddy, which is why I tend to call McLuhan a crackpot. Innis made some similar conclusions, but he was smarter.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Meshon said...

mcluhan mediaxxors 4tehlooz
m35h0n = pwned111

4:02 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

Just a followup on the gorilla-suit video research: Daniel J. Simons, associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Harvard University researcher Christopher F. Chabris won this year's Ig Nobel prize for psychology for their study. (Now this has to be just about the ideal research project).

11:15 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home