New publication on sonar

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I’m thrilled to have contributed a chapter entitled “Ping and the Material Meanings of Ocean Sound” to Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker’s impressive volume, Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment (Routledge, 2016). Go to my Publications for the full citation information and link to my chapter.

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Quebec Austerity Smells Like Tear Gas

I’m attending the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Montreal at the moment. As I was returning to the conference hotel (Fairmont Queen Elizabeth) around 9:30 pm, hundreds of demonstrators marched peacefully down Blvd. Rene-Levesque in protest of the Quebec government’s austerity plan. Suddenly, riot police ran past me and fired a barrage of tear gas canisters into an intersection crowded with demonstrators. I could have missed something of course but it seemed to me to be a strange response to very peaceful protest, particularly given the recent news of a student protester in Quebec City who was hit in the face by a police tear gas canister.  I asked a man standing close by who told me he lives here what had happened, and he advised me that the police sometimes need to respond when “protesters get too close the buildings.” Seems like a rather high price to pay for walking near buildings. Austerity smells a lot like tear gas tonight in Montreal.

Scrubbing the future with Bill C-51

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, centre, promised CSIS would not use new powers to target lawful protest or artistic expression.
One of the key themes in the literature on law and policy in network or information societies is the idea that governments and private institutions are increasingly preoccupied with preventing unwanted behaviour. In addition to the traditional mix of after-the-fact prosecution through sanctions and deterrence of future transgression through the threat of sanction, the contemporary regime of governance, what Jack Balkin calls the “national security state,” adds technologies of prediction and prevention. As anticipated in many science fiction narratives, such as Minority Report, the target of regulation is gradually shifting from past behaviour to future behaviour, from behaviour that has already occurred to behaviour that may occur. While this trend isn’t new, it is becoming more pronounced in many areas of law and policy as digital and genetic techniques and the discourses surrounding them prop up the dream of perfect prediction and prevention.

This week, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney is asking Canadians to believe him that has looked into (or “scrubbed,” to use the Minority Report term) the future and it is marked by the rise of “radical jihadists.” Bill C-51 is packed full of preventative features, criminalizing the “promotion of terrorism” for example, which has alarmed the Privacy Commissioner and many academics looking into the proposed legislation. The idea here is that there is causal relationship between speaking about hurting or killing people and actual violence. As Blaney puts it, “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words.” A crude analogy, even by the often low rhetorical standards of Blaney and company, but Blaney at least makes his point clear: by preventing speech that could be interpreted as promoting harm to Canadians, C-51 will prevent actual harm to Canadians. This is Minority Report-style governance at its finest.

The problem that Blaney faces now is persuading Canadians that the future really is full of radical jihadists – that this threat is so great that it is worth granting tremendous new powers to the security and law enforcement organizations with reduced public oversight of those organizations. Three people died in “terror”-related attacks in Canada in 2014; while this is of course a tragic loss of life, the mobilization of new security measures in anticipation of a rising tide of jihadist terrorism in Canada likely seems ill-advised to many Canadians who know that there are far greater threats right now that aren’t being properly managed the current government. Asbestos, for example. The federal government continues to support the asbestos industry and its products despite 368 asbestos-related deaths in Canada in 2013. Terror-related deaths would need to rise by well over 300 percent in the future to even begin to compete with asbestos as a cause of death in Canada.

JS

Gmail and the engineering of choice

New-Gmail-Inbox-for-Android

The secret of Google’s success isn’t so secret. As documented by countless news stories, including this documentary on CBC, the recipe for Gmail’s success includes the following:

Ingredient #1: Hot Sauce (the algorithm that ranks websites by links rather than by other measures of popularity).

Ingredient #2: the “clean” and uncluttered look of the Google search website (in comparison to Google’s competition in the 1990s) as well as many of its other services, such as Gmail.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt likes to tell the story of he learned that Google’s slogan — DON’T BE EVIL — can actually play an important role in decision-making within the company. The story goes that one day a number of high-ranking Google employees were discussing certain forms of advertising that could be incorporated into Google’s services. At one point, an engineer pounded his fist on the table and said, “That’s evil!” Schmidt says that this generated a discussion which led the group to decide that they shouldn’t make the change in advertising.

The details about what sort of changes in advertising Google was considering at this point aren’t a part of the official narrative. But it seems to me that, since then, Google has gradually waded into territory that at least one Google engineer considered to be “evil.”

Among those changes are the strange “categories” (or “tabs”) that keep popping up at the top of my Gmail inbox: Promotions and Social.

Today, I tried to removing them from my Gmail app on my Android smartphone. I consider myself to be relatively good at these things but there simply was no straightforward way of removing these “categories” from my inbox. I can go into Settings and unselect them, but there’s no “save” button. So if I unselect these categories and return to my inbox, voilà, the unselected categories are still there.

Fortunately, there are plenty of fixes to this problem, none of which seems straightforward.

My first thought as I began going through the steps to remove Promotions and Social was that Google seems to moving away from Ingredient #2 in its recipe for success.

My second thought was about an article by Ian Kerr et al. about “engineered consent” and its many uses in government and industry to persuade people to get in line with the organization’s interests and objectives.

A few examples:

1. You go to the airport and you are given the “choice” of either a backscatter x-ray (i.e., body scanner) or a pat down (which would take longer and which involves a person touching your body in such a way that likely result in a memorable but awful experience). By not making a spectacle of yourself, holding up the line, and requesting to have  the “traditional” pat down, you are “volunteering” and consenting to have your body virtually stripped of clothing and inspected by someone you can’t see.

2. You call your bank and are notified that your call may be recorded. By waiting to speak to someone, you are “volunteering” and “consenting” to have your call recorded.

In both examples (and one can think of countless others), there really isn’t much of a choice. “Consent” is acquired by making one of the two choices the only realistic option for most people seeking a particular goal (e.g., catching a flight; speaking to a human).

Drawing on the literature on decision-making, Kerr et al. argue that this type of engineering of choice is becoming widespread and is accompanied by a wide variety of justificatory discourses (public health, profit, national security, etc.). It is also based on some provocative research that suggests people are not as rational as they often think they are. The “subjective value” of costs and benefits decreases the further that they occur in the future. Moreover, “losses become less bad the further away they are in time, while gains become much less good.”

In other words, when confronted with the annoyance of Gmail Promotions and Social categories taking up a quarter of my inbox screen, the rational part of me will try to weigh the benefits against the costs of this annoyance. The costs might include things like giving away personal information and other privacy implications, the screen “real estate” that these chunky categories require, and my own desire to have some semblance of control over my inbox (not to be underestimated).

One important benefit is that if I decide to allow these categories to clutter my inbox, I don’t have to spend time figuring out how to get rid of them. That’s an immediate benefit (I don’t have to spend 5 – 10 minutes searching around for a fix), which, if I’m the rational actor that rational choice theory supposes I am, I weigh against the costs of keeping these annoyances at the top of my inbox.

The trouble is that these costs, particularly in regards to the privacy implications, are mostly unknown to me right now and probably won’t affect me immediately. Thus, I find myself weighing the immediate benefit against future costs — costs that I am liable (according to Kerr et al.) to perceive as “less bad” then they really are.

So Google seems adept at engineering my choices. What this means is that Google is neither “good” nor “evil.” Google is utterly ordinary. Like thousands of other organizations around the world, Google is doing whatever it can to make control seem like choice.

JS

A week of conflict in the global struggle over copyright

January 18-26 was a very busy week (well, eight days) for those of us following copyright reforms around the world. In just eight days, there were at least three widely-publicized conflicts between copyright owners, Internet firms and copyright reform activities. Here are three piracy stores that caught the attention of most major news outlets around the world:

wikipedia blacked out page in protest against proposed US laws to stop online piracy

January 18: Large copyright owners were disappointed when a pair of proposed anti-piracy laws in the U.S. became the target of an online “blackout” protest by Google, Wikipedia and other websites. The House of Representatives’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) were hailed by copyright owners as effective tools for, among other things, eliminating the threat of “rogue” websites based in foreign countries, which are allegedly responsible for flooding the web with pirated material.  Google and other opponents of the legislation largely succeeded in framing the proposed legislation in terms of censorship, and U.S. politicians were soon clamoring for a chance to show the media and the public how opposed they are to the legislation. The protest was remarkably successful, leading the Senate and Congress to postpone debate and discussion until the bills are amended to address the concerns raised by critics.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia have shut down one of the world's largest file-sharing sites, Megaupload.com, and charged its founder and others with violating piracy laws.

January 23: Copyright owners won a minor victory when New Zealand authorities arrested Kim Dotcom, the founder of cyber-locker MegaUpload. The arrest demonstrates that U.S. copyright owners appear to be able to mobilize police forces far beyond the United States. The arrest also seems designed to “send a message” that cyber-lockers or cloud storage sites are not immune to anti-piracy policing. This is also a test case for New Zealand’s new copyright legislation, which provides stronger protection for copyright by treating infringement as criminal activity. But it is a minor victory in the sense that there are many other similar sites which are still in operation and which will quickly fill the gap left by MegaUpload.

Protesters in Warsaw on 24 January, 2012

January 26: The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) — a proposed international agreement designed to clamp down on the global circulation of pirated and counterfeited goods — was met with opposition in Poland, where thousands took to the streets in protest. As Michael Geist notes, ACTA’s provisions for digital locks and its criminal sanctions for non-commercial infringement suggest that ACTA extends elements of the notorious U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to the international level.

What does this series of events suggest about the ongoing struggle over copyright reform?

For many years, copyright owners have lobbied governments around the world for national legislation and international agreements which suit the interest of owners, and these efforts were extremely productive in the 1990s. Key 1990s international agreements such as the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, the WIPO Copyright Treaty, as well as national legislation such as the DMCA, all catered to the interests of copyright owners in “stronger” protection of intellectual property.

The online and offline protests, as well as the considerable news coverage devoted to them, suggests that copyright owners are finding it difficult to dominate lobbying and public debate about copyright. Scholars, activists and journalists can take some of the credit for raising public awareness of what is actually at stake in this formerly obscure area of law. But the “game-changer” appears to be the rapid expansion of Internet firms like Google, and their ability and willingness to use the many means at their disposal to shift public opinion on copyright reform.

In my view, the delay of SOPA and PIPA is largely the result of Internet firms’ recognition of their shared economic interests in distancing themselves from overly-protective copyright regimes. In this context, copyright owners needed a small fish to fry, and MegaUpload (for which there are many legitimate uses and users) appeared to fit the bill.

John Shiga

Blogs: A Self-Motivating Medium?

After having a few years to think about blogging, I’m finally ready to give it a try. But as a researcher and instructor in communication studies, I’m writing a lot anyway. So why would I add this blog to the list of things to write, especially since, according to a Pew study conducted last year, the perceived importance of blogs relative to other media is declining, at least among younger Internet users. So, why blog?

One might find inspiration in the idea that, as a form of social media, blogs are contributing to the transformation of media production, especially news production. For some writers, like clay shirky, bloggers (along with micro-bloggers and Facebook users) are a key part of the vanguard of the social media revolution.

And shirky has many examples of blogging and other forms of digital content creation which had a significant impact on politics and the news media.

For proponents of the view, which could be called “social media optimism,” social media have a democratizing effect on societies, and it’s clear that blogs are helping to open up journalism and other types of media production to “everybody” (i.e., non-professionals).

Social media optimists often point to the Memogate scandal in 2004 as an example of the way blogging can effectively challenge mainstream news media in the U.S. There is no shortage of more recent examples of bloggers who have successfully used blogs to challenge the official media in authoritarian regimes (and there are many such regimes around the world). This includes the Iranian-Canadian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, as well as Hamza Shargabi in Yemen.

 

In all of theses cases, blogging was an important source of information about political conflict and worked as a catalyst for organized political action.

For those who believe that (1) social media are inherently more democratic than mass media and that (2) a more democratic media system will inevitably lead to a more democratic society, these blog success stories seem to be early indications of a major historical shift in media and politics.

But according to other media theorists, the impact of blogging on politics and the mainstream media tends to be vastly overestimated. Jodi Dean, for example, argues in her 2010 book, Blog Theorythat blogging is a part of a fantasy of “communicative capitalism” in which bloggers believe that “circulating messages” (posting, sharing, etc.) is an effective form of political participation. Political and economic elites are happy to let bloggers think along those lines because blogging diverts dissent safely away into cyberspace.

It’s a rather somber view. But after a decade of blog-topian rhetoric, Dean is correct to point out that it’s time to critically evaluate what blogs actually do in particular political, social and cultural conditions rather than assuming they are agents of democratization.

Setting aside the “big picture” issues of blogging for a moment, there are perhaps some less revolutionary but nonetheless important motivations for blogging.

Most bloggers can probably answer the question, “Why blog?” without hesitation. They do it because they enjoy it.

For cognitive psychologists, enjoyment is an “intrinsic motivation.” An intrinsic motivation comes from the activity itself. If I enjoy blogging because it gives me some degree of pleasure or gratification, then my blogging is intrinsically motivated. The engine for action comes from the activity itself. In this case, blogging is like a locomotive which propels itself and the blogger.

 

Extrinsic motivations come from outside the activity. These motivations may refer to outcomes of the activity, but not to the activity itself. Extrinsic motivations include obligations and responsibilities as well as the desire for money, recognition and other kinds of reward which motivate activity. The engine for action comes from other people or things. In this case, blogging rolls along, but it is being pushed (or pulled) by someone/something else. The blog and the blogger become passenger or cargo cars.

Does this give me a better sense of why I am blogging?

A bit.

Many actions have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, so it’s no surprise that I am writing this post because I enjoy it (so far) AND because there’s a possibility (even if it’s remote) that I will eventually get some feedback which will reinforce the value I perceive in blogging and act as an extrinsic motivation to keep me writing and posting.

The intrinsic/extrinsic dualism seems to be cognitive psychology’s way of talking abut the individual and the social levels of action. If that’s true, then there’s plenty of overlap between the two categories. How do you categorize the pleasure of writing? Is that pleasure purely “intrinsic,” or is the pleasure of writing (and the desire to write) shaped by social norms about the value of certain kinds of writing over other cultural practices?

What I’m suggesting is that the intrinsic/extrinsic dualism can gloss over the social origins of desires and gratifications. That’s a pretty significant downside to these categories. But with some tweaking, they can still be useful for understanding why bloggers blog.

In this short inquiry into the raison d’être of my blog, I read an interesting study of bloggers’ motivations. The study builds on the intrinsic/extrinsic categories but goes further by outlining how motivations change over time.

In a 2010 article in New Media & Society, Brian Ekdale, Kang Namkoong, Timothy K.F. Fung and David D. Perlmutter examined the reasons why political bloggers blog. They built on the intrinsic / extrinsic categories of motivation, but the researchers developed 13 motivations that are specific to political blogging (see below). Then they asked 154 of the top political bloggers to rate how much influence of each motivation had their blogging, using a 0 (not at all) to 10 (very much) scale. 66 of the bloggers responded and completed the survey.

Extrinsic motivations

  • To provide an alternative perspective to the mainstream media
  • To help society
  • To inform people about the most relevant information on topics of interest
  • To influence public opinion
  • To help your political party or cause
  • To influence mainstream media
  • To serve as a political watchdog
  • To inform people about the most recent information on topics of interest
  • To critique mainstream media
  • To critique your political opponents

Intrinsic motivations

  • To formulate new ideas
  • To keep track of your thoughts
  • To let off steam

The researchers were interested in how the motivations for blogging change over the course of the “blogspan,” that is, the lifespan of a blog. So they asked the bloggers to give each motivation a rating for the influence it had on their initial blogging and on their current blogging.

The results of the survey are a bit surprising. The researchers expected extrinsic motivations to become stronger over time, and I can understand why. One might assume that the more time, energy and money invested into a blog, the more one will be motivated to maintain reputations, generate income, keep one’s career going, etc. It might also be assumed that such extrinsic motivations would become stronger over time particularly for writers who have made careers out of blogging, like the top political bloggers in the NM&S study.

Interestingly, the results suggest a different picture of blog motivation. All motivations (both “intrinsic” and “extrinsic”) for blogging increase in influence during the “blogspan.”

(There is one exception to this rule. What the researchers called the “Let off steam” motivation decreased over time. The more experience the bloggers acquired, the less “letting off steam” was the key motivation for blogging.)

Another interesting finding in this study is that the most significant increase in ratings between initial and current blogging occurred in the two categories of motivations related to the mainstream media:

“To influence mainstream media”

“To critique mainstream media.”

Over time, the desire to influence and critique the mainstream media became increasingly strong motivations to continue blogging. These political bloggers began with a fairly jaded attitude about the potential of blogging to affect mainstream media. One blogger told the researchers that, early on, it seemed to him/her that most political blogs were “vanity projects” dressed up as challenges to the media and political systems.

Gradually, the more that they worked on their blogs and paid attention to other blogs, the more the bloggers viewed blogging as way of contributing to alternative ways of thinking about issues in the news media and drawing attention to events and issues that are left out of mainstream news media.

The study was done on the “top bloggers.” These are bloggers who have successfully established a reputation and perhaps even a career in the political blogosphere. So, the findings of the study – that blogging increases motivation to blog over time – probably shouldn’t be generalized to all blogs or all bloggers.

But it’s short-term motivation for this post at least.

John Shiga