May the bubbles pop

There is one contender in the Democratic presidential race who made a recent statement that struck me as important. I do not support his candidacy, nor am I suggesting that his manifesto is deserving of better reception by American voters. That is not the purview here – the statement [shown below] rather serves as an introduction to the theme I will be covering in this last post of this series.

“Let’s stop tearing each other down, let’s stop drawing artificial lines. I’m tired in this election of hearing some people say, ‘Well if this person gets elected, I can’t support them,’ and then other people say, ‘If this person gets elected, I can’t support them.’ Are you kidding me?” – Cory Booker 

Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump’s second viral confrontation

What Cory said pertains to political discourse, but that’s not the only discourse that has become prone to such polarization. Having grown up in Pakistan, I noticed that a political take on the United States often diverges from the Republican view [which is seen as antagonistic to our country]. However, back in 2011-2012, I had the remarkable opportunity of going on an exchange program where I spent a year with an American conservative family. My host brother John, whom I first met at school before moving into his room, held strong libertarian views about government and society.

Almost seven and a half years later, this personal experience makes me realize the value of learning how to [a] understand perspectives that differ from your own, and [b] factor in this understanding to make yourself a more nuanced person who does not strike down other people for what they have to say. It would suffice to say that we should all be worried about a crisis of not listening, except when residing comfortably inside our filter bubbles made up of homophily & our own narcissism. A term from the literature which encapsulates this tendency well is echo chambers; we shout, and we want to hear people shout back the same things we said (Andreassen et al., 2017; Colleoni et al., 2014).

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who in my opinion employed polarizing rhetoric in a similar vein to Trump before winning the 2018 general election

A prime consideration in the context of political discourse, which I’m focusing on for this post, is the relocation of debate from interpersonal to digital means. The Pew Research Center has previously measured that 62% of U.S. adults rely on social media platforms as a source of news (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016). In their study of homophily on Twitter, Colleoni et al. found that usage of the platform revealed different styles of denoting political leanings for Republicans & Democrats – but both had high levels of homophily [0.94 and 0.88, respectively] (2017, pp. 326-327). Such reinforcement can not just inhibit, but rather eradicate, the possibility of opposing perspectives to be heard. Does such polarized political discourse percolate into what we see on our TVs, or rather generally in real life? That’s a question we definitely need to be asking ourselves.

I conclude by touching upon a couple of considerations that may be construed as either causes or implications of polarization at large. The first is that the design of platforms, for example Twitter [a micro-blogging site with a character limit of 140 per tweet], may be exacerbating the problem at hand by encouraging and [because of the scale] normalizing simple, impulsive and uncivil speech (Ott, 2017). And the second is whether the positive association between higher use of social media and higher levels of narcissism (Andreassen et al., 2014) further compounds the likelihood that we continue to reside in our bubbles. Food for thought, perhaps?

A sociological take on the Black Mirror episode ‘Smithereens’ – 2/2

In part 1/2, we talked about how Smithereens calls our attention towards the implications of an addiction economy [though the consequences depicted in the episode were rather extreme and tragic]. I now turn to another major theme which I could pick up from watching the episode – power relations in the digital context. Let’s begin by recalling Michel Foucault’s prediction on a forthcoming shift in the economy of power from a disciplinary to a security apparatus, which to me strikes a noticeable resemblance to the present. He posited that the dominant Panoptic mode of exercising power, aimed at producing ideal behaviors [‘normation’], was now transforming into a newer apparatus which aimed instead at swaying cumulative trends of *autonomous* interests and behaviors [‘normalization’] in directions favorable to the capitalist system. This attempt at navigation was termed ‘governmentality’ (1995; 2009).

The Panopticon,’ by Jenni Fagan – The New York Times

Let me briefly simplify the aforementioned shift. In the industrial era, disciplinary mechanisms engendered conformity of interests and behaviors to [instituted] ideal types. But no more. Now, our proclivities move freely and individuals are no longer regulated. It is not the individual that is the object of power, but the sums of individual behaviors [patterns] that emerge from him/her (Foucault 1995; 2009).

CEO Billy Bauer speaks to Chris on the phone towards the end of the episode

Relocating this to digital spaces, the liberating character of social media may resemble an autonomy of our interests and behaviors. Nevertheless, the Big Data paradigm’s simultaneous resemblance to the governmentality process cannot be discounted. Reigeluth termed this latest trend ‘algorithmic governmentality’ (2014). By turning over data to the likes of Facebook & Instagram [latter now owned by the former], we are giving up the very impetus that allows for the discernment of our cumulative interests, albeit in a consumerist sense. What is most striking however is the invisibility of power, and there being no explicit disciplinary surveillance or gaze [as was the case in the Panoptic/Big Brother era] (Foucault, 1995; Orwell, 1990). For me, Chris’s desperate attempt at reaching out to a distant CEO of a social media company that affects the lives of millions [to try connecting with yet another such person] was reflective of the same.

Insights on the addiction economy [outlined in part 1/2 of this review] can further elevate our Foucauldian understanding of contemporary power relations. We must pay heed to those mechanisms around us that sustain these relations. For instance, previous work has highlighted that in the course of maintaining a presence online, we may develop ‘affective ties’ to the data (Oxlund 2012, 50; Ruckenstein 2014; Rooksby et al. 2014). Such ascription of meaning, or appreciation of being ‘seen’ (Rettberg, 2014, p. 87),  is one of these operant mechanisms. If the post-Panoptic power apparatus was a company, then we ought to be its shareholders – except that we aren’t [in spite of contributing its very capital i.e. data].

Despite some misgivings, I remain a believer in the promise of technology. Its notion of progress must, however, be made less obscure. Along with a few other Black Mirror episodes, Smithereens serves as a reminder that as inhabitants of the tech ecosystem, we must demand the opportunity to participate in the making of the terms of service [ToS] contracts that define our participation.  If this sounds utopian, then maybe a more pragmatic take I would support is that Big Tech cede total control over how these ToS are forged. Precedent tells us that this has been done before to industries that had assumed a monopolistic character [e.g. see United States v. American Tobacco Company, 221 U.S. 106 (1911)]. It is high time for such devolution to be replicated today.

A sociological take on the Black Mirror episode ‘Smithereens’ – 1/2

If you follow Black Mirror like me, I hereby confess that I find it to be one of the most intriguing series I’ve consumed on Netflix. For those who haven’t seen the episode Smithereens, a quick synopsis is given below [though I absolutely recommend watching it instead]:

A middle-aged person by the name of Chris kidnaps a young intern of a social media company [whose app was commonplace in the world depicted] to force its CEO to make a plea to another social media behemoth. The objective of this forced arbitration for Chris was to get Hayley, someone he’d had a one night stand with, the password to the social media account of her daughter who’d committed suicide. However, we learn that it was also an act of [partial] redemption for Chris moments before he is shot by the police. Why? Because he’d previously lost his wife to a car accident that [he believes] was caused by him checking his phone to see if a new Smithereens notification had turned up, and his life had been in a downward spiral since.

Image result for black mirror smithereens poster

I thought this two-series blog post would be an excellent opportunity to synthesize some sociological themes that emanate from this episode now that I look back on my experience of watching it closely. In this first part, I will explore the addiction economy and how it constitutes part of the business model of Instagram/Facebook, our real life synonyms for Smithereens.

How does previous literature account for the compulsive character that the episode ascribed to social networking service/SNS use [by showing Chris as pretty much helpless when it came to the urge to check his notifications]? I will start with a psychological study by Casale et al. on whether FoMO [Fear of Missing Out] along with a set of other apprehensions play a significant role in making us repetitively check our phones throughout the day i.e. problematic social media use. This was explored in conjunction with the how the extent of certain positive metacognitions [i.e. your take on useful *social* purposes served by using Facebook] mediates these relationships. I’m sure you’d be wondering by this point what the results were. To summarize, yes, high FoMO measured through the Fear of Missing Out scale (Przybylski et al., 2013, cited in Casale et al., 2018) led to higher levels of problematic SNS use, both on its own as well as by way of positive metacognitions – thus confirming their indirect association to compulsive SNS use (2018).

I’ll now proceed to connect the aforementioned study, serving as groundwork, to scholarship in sociology and media studies that further illuminates our understanding of why Chris, like so many of us, was unable to beat the inhibition of control over our use of social media. Siva Vaidhyanathan aptly writes:

“Facebook engages us like a bag of chips…offers frequent, low level pleasures…responds to us in subtle ways, offering us the possibility that our next interaction…will be more pleasurable than the last. Now we are drawn back in. How many likes did my joke get? How many insightful replies did my political post generate?…Do I matter?” (2018, pp. 35-36)

The underlying mechanism in play here is the design of the interface, which we can relate to the remarkable scholarship of Natasha Schüll on how the design of casinos and slot machines leads to an immersive experience [and consequent amplification of gambling activity]. In her own words:

 “…repeat players are drawn further into the feedback loop of design and experience.” (2014, p. 138)

And that folks, is a gist of what magnifies into the addiction economy we live in. For more on this episode, stay tuned!

Apathy towards privacy in the digital realm

Living in the 21st century has had some markedly distinct features. Among them is one which at least I personally have become immune to recognizing – an assumed dependency on certain products hosted on the cloud [e.g. Google Maps & Google Drive] that have become prerequisites of the ability to get by in everyday life. After graduating from college in 2018, my first job was as a Consultant for a SaaS company remotely selling an asset-tracking software to North American clients that ranged from sole-owners to representatives of corporate giants like Nike.  Looking back at my conversations with these clients, I realize that dependency on cloud-based products not only pervades our private lives but is also affecting businesses across the globe [despite ensuring real time tracking of their data]. As sociologists, how may we comprehend these developments and the implications they beget?

I begin this discussion with Stephen Luke’s concept of the third dimension of power; this entails the ability of actors possessing power to shape the subjective interests of those without it, effectively precluding any form of conflict (2005). The outcome in this case is that subjects assume interests conducive to those of powerful actors – whether this is an actual convergence or a disguise has been a subject of debate among sociologists who have evaluated the concept. I nonetheless propose that it can prove useful in interpreting the pervasiveness of technological dependence diffused by a handful of US multinationals. Let us tie this concept to some insights from recent literature in digital sociology.

In expounding upon our limited capacity of relying on the tech ecosystem without sacrificing privacy, Jill Rettberg (2014) points to research by Angwin (2014, cited in Rettberg, 2014, p. 82) which identified money and technical knowledge as handicaps. When I was a Consultant for EZOfficeInventory, the most expensive plan you could sell was an Enterprise Private Cloud plan seldom chosen by [even large] potentials due to the cost as well as the technical acumen needed to get it up and running. If privacy was not a viable investment for these businesses, can individuals be expected to prioritize it? There are also other costs to be wary of, such as how encrypting your personal data [if you’re savvy enough] may lead to you getting flagged as a criminal (Vertesi, 2014, cited in Rettberg, 2014, p. 81).

As Vaidhyanathan argues [and I concur], we are now more or less aware that using technology at no/low cost is equivalent to turning over personal data that is then monetized in different ways; he uses the words ‘don’t seem to care’ (2011, quoted in Rettberg, 2014, p. 85) to denote our response to omnipresent surveillance. While we do not fully know the varieties of this guileful process and the outcomes it supports, the NSA leaks and more recently the Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrate that we continue to learn more. Yet looking around, I feel that this [mere] awareness is a long way from materializing into a coordinated resistance against the Big Tech oligopoly’s covert exercise of the third dimension of power, which influences not only the extent of regulation against it but also the framing of our digital interests in terms of a simple trade-off we cannot escape: the inexpensive convenience of [online] products versus an abstract ideal of privacy whose true value we cannot see. No surprise then, that we opt for the former.

The following words of Edward Snowden sum up the absurd times of today:

Image result for edward snowden the people are still powerless

‘The people are still powerless, but now they’re aware’

To drive the message home, I’d invert his saying as follows: the people are now aware, yet they are still powerless.

Can US President Donald Trump’s serial lies be explained by a ‘crisis of attention’?

I often wonder how US citizens process the statements made by their President. Back in 2011, when Obama was President, I was living in Michigan and recall the limited media exposure afforded by his administration. In this respect, Trump is certainly more accessible to the public sphere. From his regular conversations with reporters before boarding Marine One [‘chopper talk‘ is a standalone segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert] to tweeting multiple times a day, he has set a bar of direct engagement that definitely dwarfs Obama’s.

That said, let us also consider that he has made 13,435 false or misleading claims over 993 days of his tenure according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Yet his latest approval rating on Gallup remains equal to Obama’s at the same point in his presidency. Against a constant high tide of incoming information, how is it determined what becomes a recurring theme in the media [the Mueller probe] and what gets lost in translation [‘Sharpiegate‘]? The President’s adeptness at countering one controversy by quickly creating follow up stories that will steer attention in a different direction is no secret. But why is this strategy so effective?

In today’s ‘Information Age’ (Castells, 2009), while there certainly is an abundance of information, we cannot assume that it equals greater transparency or awareness. Sociological discourse has thoroughly apprised us of the dangers of acceding to technological determinism; we must never forget the social character of how technology unfolds (MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1999). To make sense of the puzzle illustrated by the Washington Post Fact Check example above, it may be helpful to place the consumption of [increasingly digital] news in the framework of the attention economy.

Image result for donald trump cambridge analytica

Just like individuals on social network sites, media outlets seek out the maximum possible attention income (Franck, 2019) from their readership which can thereafter be monetized. Prior work on social network sites has demonstrated that in order to sustain social capital composed of attention income attained online, individuals must regularly contribute content, or bear the brunt of ‘rank decay’ (Faucher, 2014, p. 44).

Apply the same underlying constraint to media outlets online, and you see a plethora of information being churned out on a regular basis. But in a tech ecosystem designed for users like me who stay up-to-date with current affairs through a cursory scroll of Facebook or/and mobile apps like The Guardian or NYT, making contact takes precedence over absorption. Terranova has outlined the social-psychological effects of this phenomenon, most importantly the ‘degradation of attention’ (2012, p. 4)  through a shifting of neural activity from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex (Carr, 2010, cited in Terranova, 2012). In very simple terms, this signifies a shift away from the capacity for comprehension and towards the ability to do multiple tasks that require little of it. Other scholars would consider this ‘degradation’ to be the latest exacerbation of an ‘ongoing crisis of attention’ perpetuated by the many faces of capitalism ever since the advent of industrialization (Crary, 1999, cited in Terranova, 2012, p. 6).

Considering that consumption of news via online channels (including social media) continues to further cement its place as the norm nowadays, we cannot understate the impact of the aforementioned shift.  It is therefore of the essence that social scientists follow scholars like Terranova who take an interdisciplinary approach to it in order to shed light on any loopholes that may be allowing powerful actors to game the system to the detriment of others. I conclude here by sharing a 2016 video of Donald Trump proudly proclaiming how ‘I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters!’ – a joke to ponder upon.