Since we’ve come this far…

22 Mar

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When pondering on the future of new media and ICTs, my mind automatically slipped to the theory of “path dependency” which applies in the economic, social and political fields and might just as well, as far as I’m concerned, apply to technology. Shortly, this theory entails that the decisions one is taking are dependent and highly influenced by the ones taken in the past which have preconfigured a pattern for decision-making, a direction to be followed. Therefore, since the new media has reached even the remotest corners of the world and is still furiously expanding, not to mention taking undeniable control over every society that has the economic and social means to afford it…there is no turning back now, is there?  When it comes to technological progress, mankind only knew one way and that’s forward, otherwise we wouldn’t call it evolution and we’d still be painting cave walls for fun instead of, for example, illegally downloading music and videos from the internet.

Men are innovative creatures easily  passing as obsolete most objects and experiences and consequently thriving for new ones to overcome the past, to reach the “next level” as many like to put it. True, we never really seem to settle. Nothing seems to be permanent…except for change, that is. Therefore, we could argue that it was in our nature and completely predictable that we embraced and accommodated the new technologies with such unshakable faith and held on tightly. The argument most often put forward with which, just to be clear, I do agree is that since humans are creative by nature, they are bound to keep on inventing and improving whatever falls in their hands . Science is probably the most at hand example and the technological progress is a standing proof of how humans put their never-resting minds at work pushing ever further the barriers reached by their predecessors. As a result, our lives are made easier and more comfortable one technological breakthrough after another. That’s all fine and dandy, but there’s a risk to it: while the men behind the progress are constantly challenging themselves to present us with the new must-haves and their minds and senses are kept alert by the drive to create, the others, the ones on the receiving end, are pushed more and more into a comfort zone where mostly everything is done for and not by them, or at least ridiculously facilitated. As I have already mentioned in a past post, the technology empowered us in many areas and changed our perceptions on human limits forever. On the other hand, the comfort and countless opportunities came with the cost of us tending to pick the easy way out by cutting the journey short, to look for appliances that do most of the job for us so we don’t have to bother. While we’re standing back and relax, are the machines supposed to live our lives?

Following these grim thoughts, since we’re waiting on the next last-hour tech trend anyway, how about we wait for the de-digitalization to catch on? Better yet, how about we make it happen? It would be naïve and quite useless to believe that new media and its means aren’t here to stay. Because they are and they’d better be; they’ve opened some windows there’s no point in closing. What I’m talking about is gathering all our efforts into trying to thicken the line between what is necessary and what is easy. The future of new media sounds all bright and promising and there’s clearly going to be one, but what about our future? The way I see it, there is an indirectly proportionate relationship between the technological progress and the humans’ abilities to perform: the more the former enhances, the more the latter decreases. If you have the time to grab a cup of coffee, why not do just that instead of lazily Skyping? If you get the chance to write a birthday card, why not writing one instead of sending an email or dropping a Facebook line? Technology will make it more and more appealing to do less and let the robots handle it, it’s not their future we need to be questioning, it’s ours.

I do not wish to live behind my time. I do not wish to deny my time and condemn it, constantly placing the past one step above on the hierarchy of “how it’s supposed to be”.

I want to be part of it, but I want to like what I’m being part of.

Click here for democracy delivery

18 Mar

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I have not met one single person in my entire existence who told me “I am satisfied with the politics back home”. Not once. Not even when I was dreaming. Of course, we may put the blame for that on the ever aspiring nature of humans, our continuous tireless search for perfection and our thirst to always strive for progress and never settle in mediocrity. It could also be that we simply hate politics and everything around it. It’s despicable; we might as well speak our minds and call it a day. Therefore, two questions pop into my mind almost simultaneously. The first one is “How is it possible that no nation is ever, if not fully at least mostly pleased with their governing system? “closely followed by “ So then do you have an idea that might actually, realistically change things for the better?”.  Sincere congratulations if you do and I hope you’ll make it in the “jungle”.

I will mainly focus on the first question and address it from the other end…not the receiving one, but the giving. In regimes where legitimate governing has the slightest of importance, that is, in non authoritarian, proclaimed democratic ones which ensure fair elections, the standing motivation and ultimate goal of politicians of being re-elected has been the source of quite some diverse modes of reaching and connecting with the voter. They needed votes, the citizens each had one, borderline the quest is to collect as many of those as possible. Along the timeline of campaigning, politicians and their consultants proved out to be quite resourceful and creative. Their methods varied from good old canvassing, TV, radio or boards advertising the latest electoral promise, stumping, to robocalling and the list goes on. However, another form of campaigning may consist in the increasing usage of politicians of new media, not only before the elections but on a more permanent basis.

There are more sides to this story and it’s only fair that I also expose the less cynical goal-oriented one. Public figures engaged in policy-making may consider the tools that social media offer as precious platforms for discussion and deliberation where citizens voice their preferences, bring suggestions and complaints; in other words, are active members of the society building the dream of participatory democracy. Research was carried out in this direction in the Finnish project Somus where public institutions are challenged by citizens wishing to interact and co-decide the fate of their society. Therefore, citizen participation is encouraged and promoted beyond the narrow borders of simply casting a vote once in a blue moon. Granted that the decision-makers were truly interested in sharing this job with the communities, the findings in the project above mentioned state that : “Continuous self-organization is possible in small groups, but large crowds need gluing elements or tools to compensate for the lack of formal organization that is normally used to organize such activities. This is particularly relevant when the action requires more time to be completed and the aim is to have an impact outside the online world.”  While the optimists are quick on spotting the advantages of a more open, horizontal relationship between the masses and the governing elite that the new media promises, how many of us are still optimistic? Theoretically, the future sounds really bright within the merging horizons of politics and citizens, meeting somewhere in the middle and resulting in a clear blue sky that democracy is. But then again, how many of us out there are left with enough resources (of any kind) to buy it?

Meanwhile, in the more skeptical cloudy and rainy horizons, the new media and its usage by politicians may just as well be the same old trick disguised under new shiny showy tools. After years and years of games and charades, many electorates are genuinely hard to convince that their leaders’ intentions hide nothing but pure concern for the democratic deficit and the increasing gap between politics and its addressees. So then, how do we know when the façade stops and the all-you-ever-wanted-from-politics begins? Is the new media a convenient way for bilateral communication or are the politicians merely trying to wash off the original sin and prove themselves worthy of our votes, and even more, confidence?

As an optimist “wanna be” I do like to believe in the possibility that politics open up through new media. Having the opportunity to speak up and voice my opinion, being consulted and involved in the policy-making and even implementation, shaping policies that truly answer our needs and keeping an always open alert eye on what, where and why public money is spent- yes, I do like the thought of all that, it’s simply majestic. But that’s where realism kicks in. Whenever politics were too good to be true…they were not (true, that is). To be clear, I do not advocate for a constantly skeptical cynical society closed to reform or interaction, shutting down propositions even before they were made because in the past things rarely went as promised. I do, however, advocate for a society who chooses to think and judge for itself, not jump at conclusions that are convenient to be drawn and that is not fed by the upper-hand in who and what to believe.

And even if we let ourselves be fed from time to time, let’s take it with a pinch of salt on top.

Shall we just…play along?

11 Mar

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I decided to be cheesy and start my article with a well-known quote by G.B. Shaw : “ We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”. We can all relate to that up to some point and feel ashamed for having lost the excitement and curiosity we once had as children. However, we have also heard the arguments of how “kids these days” don’t know how to play anymore and are simply “wasting their childhood” on video games and other meaningless activities. And yet, apart from the classics (hide and seek, hopscotch, jump-rope, etc) each generation of children had their own specific games closely-related to the economic level of development of their country and their time and also the technological intrusion. It may vary from teddy-bears, board games to Barbie dolls or action figures, you name it, but the truth is, childhood has been revolutionized over and over again and something tells me that each generation of parents attached to those children have viewed the new toys with skepticism and the “that’s not how we grew up and we turned out just fine” frowns.

 

It may have become obvious from my previous posts that I am positively confused and completely undecided whether the sudden technological boom has made for a better, simpler, worries-free life or whether it has overly-complicated our existence, turning us into hopeless tech addicts. Frustratingly enough, the same judgment applies to the new forms of entertainment available to children. On the upside, many of the video games proved to be quite educational and instructive by, for example, faithfully recreating major historical events or creating contexts that stimulate strategic thinking and planning. Others pave the way to social inclusion by forming networks and communities where many otherwise socially excluded persons find themselves at ease to communicate, share and actively be a part of something. However, as always, there is a darker side to the whole story. Many of the video games are obviously inclined towards unjustified violence and force, inhuman treatment and mainly shedding a nonchalant light on immoral behaviours and attitudes. Yes, it’s a fantasy world and one should be able to fantasize within the freedom of expression and choice. Now tell that to young impressionable children and misunderstood teenagers and, in extreme unfortunate cases you might get a sticky situation like this on your hands: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOzF5ec6B_k . As anything else in this world, in cannot be seen in black and white. I believe humans are more easily distracted by negative results and undesirable outcomes, are more prone to spot the odd pieces out of a puzzle or simply place the unknown that scares them into the “this is bad” category. It is one of the explanations why many are so quick to refuse this new form of activities or judge the ones who welcome it into their lives.

 

Personally, I can’t not feel sad or disappointed when I roam the parks and notice how ever fewer kids run and jump around happily, playing the old games we all did once or inventing new ones for the fun of it, because (even in the “real world”) anything is possible in that blissful innocent ignorance of the young imagination. I see many of them walking around talking into their mobile phones with slang I’ve never heard of, or listening to music in expensive players instead of singing those songs themselves with their friends…and the thing that strikes me most is the “I know it all” look, empty of curiosity and surprise, which the way too open and informative “information era” doomed on them. So…call me nostalgic, but as an early 90s kid I had a way too good of an outdoors childhood and therefore can’t get excited at the thought of children engaged in video games while missing out on..everything. However…sometimes during a rainy day…not even the early 90s kids said no to a good old game of Mario😉. 

 

Robocop and the poodle

4 Mar

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The digital divide may be viewed as any other sort of issue regarding access (to food and water, freedom of choice, expensive medication, good schools, well-paid jobs etc) which caused a more or less clear dichotomy in society and created conflicting opposites : black/white, male/female, rich/poor, Western/Eastern, upper class/lower class, *insert religion here*/*insert another one over here* and the list may endlessly go on because we, humans, have proved ourselves to get creative and resourceful in matters of discrimination and inequalities. This, we’re good at! The following argument I have heard/read and with which I agree with is that this lack of access (whichever sort of access) to ICTs does create stark divisions within communities and the whole world actually and also since it’s information we’re talking about, the non-liners may be faced with exclusion and be left behind their own society since they fail to keep with its (ridiculously) fast pace. Yes, this I know and I agree with, I see the danger the digital gap poses and I, at least try, to fully acknowledge the seriousness of it.

However, this is not what truly bothers me at the moment and the theme I will babble about today is concerned with something else: dependency. No matter what sort of dependency we are talking about, it still gives me uncomfortable shivers thinking that as humans we are so exposed to it and we might walk straight into the trap, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, KFC or, predictably, technology. To get something out of the way from the beginning: by this I do not also mean technologies in the medical field which are most welcomed and appreciated and dependency on which, even if it does worry me a little, will not be covered in this discussion.  Yet, comparing ICTs for example with the above mentioned addictions I would add that to some extent the technological devices have a less personal-choice nature attached to them and many of us have been pushed into using them by the shifting socio-economic context and the reliance on them on which the new type of “information-based society” and new economic order are built. We’ve been fed increasingly larger portions of technology day in day out till we learnt how to feed ourselves and plunged directly into the cyber pool of opportunities laid before ourselves. But after taking the swim, how many of us stopped on the buoy to wonder how beneficial and truly necessary this actually is? Nope, many of us kept on swimming to find ourselves deeply immersed in an addiction, ultimately, of our own making.

For those wondering, yes, there is a point behind the bizarre title. I am considering the valid point of technologies used to enhance our abilities, extend our knowledge and continuously surpass our condition. To that end, technology is dead useful. The ones who have no access to them or reject them altogether will stand no chance to become the super-humans who are able to discuss with other super-humans from thousand of km away, find unimaginably large quantities of information online, get ridiculously explicit driving directions through most of the places on earth and so on. It empowers us, it surprises us with every breakthrough and tickles our ego because we keep expanding our “now I can do this, this and this!” field behind limits we once thought fix. That’s all fine, but maybe the non-users, the outsiders of the world of “space of flows”, “network society” and basically “use 5 different technological devices to make an omelet”  have something up their sleeve, the ace that counterbalances cyborgs and their continuous victory against human limitations. I cannot not wonder: where is this all going and how much further are we still to call ourselves humans? The optimists will see in technology the means to a simpler, much more comfortable life which, dependent on machines as it is, is completely desirable. And yet, as humans, we have been naturally endowed with rationality, the need for affiliation, social skills, intuition, coping mechanisms and many others. When is the last time you found your way by using the sense of orientation you’ve been offered and a paper map, not electronically given directions which cuts the journey short and spares you the trouble?  How about the last time you actually put some effort in sending a letter or manufacturing a hand-made gift for the ones you care about? How about the last time you actually let your body to naturally deal with a headache rather than popping an aspirine on your way out? Looking at it from this angle, the super-humans matter flies right out of the window and we’re left with…are we humans at all? Maybe the ones so unfortunately placed on the non-tech part of the barricade or the non-user side of the access spectrum are actually conveniently isolated and protected from losing their selves in favor of something we call “progress”…but can just as well constitute the beginning for complete humanity loss. Once we’ve started relying on “progress” to do it all for us, can we go back and regain some of our initial naturally provided strengths?

It has been scientifically (of course…) proven that the Broken Heart Syndrome actually exists and causes severe traumatic experiences on ones heart after undergoing a stressful situation such as the death or departure of a loved one. Some died from it. It is addiction to the loved one that caused such a major disruption in their daily routine that it became physically unbearable. Regarding our other great love…how much would we be able to stand our own 2 feet without the involvement of ICTs or advanced technology altogether? How many of us would embrace it and appeal to our own capabilities and how many would be hopelessly lost, as if denied a vital sense through which we only incompletely perceive the world? Our dangerous deceitful lover has us under its command, and for many of us it’s too late to even pretend we can go back to being single.

Separate togetherness: you, me and the PC

25 Feb

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We all heard the overly-used argument of how technological breakthroughs and the career-oriented world we live into are completely to blame for the low moral standards, failures to commit and maintain relationships, superficiality altogether in our social encounters and the overall decadence of our society. Yes, we all heard that and maybe even used it preceded by the key introductory line “back in my time” and followed by something nostalgic and only partially true.

But then, why do we call it the “information society” or the “communication era”? Probably because there’s more to it then some like to admit. The history of communication goes way back, to the times of sticks and stones and ever since it has been fluidly developing along the human kind, never to leave our side (primitive or sophisticated as we may be). Speech, body language, smoke signals, symbols carved or painted onto rock surface, drums and horns, the alphabet(s), pigeon post…as early as one can go it is obvious people have gone out of their way to communicate and make themselves heard. Then why the (unnatural, I daresay) denial and rejection some profess against the modern virtual ways of socialization? Do we need tangible physical context to make communication, or at least the illusion of it, genuine? I believe not, and so do the millions of users online each day searching to connect to social networks and achieve a sense of belonging, of social recognition and maybe, if lucky, actually spark up relationships that surpass physical limitations – and by that I don’t only mean geographic position or different time zones; it goes much further into gender, appearance, ethnicity and social status that often raise barriers between people and restrict their self-esteem and willingness to face the “real world”. But here’s another thing that bugs me. Why do we insist so much on vehemently separating the two identities by calling the existence outside our computers the “real world”? It forces me to give a seemingly childish example which I, however, find most relevant in this case and therefore I shall quote a fragment of a conversation from Harry Potter : “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head? -Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” If our ancestors maintained connections with their own ancestors through paintings and symbols on the walls of caves and found this mean of communication trustworthy and authentic, we should think twice before shutting down the eventuality of a fulfilling relationship with an actual human being sitting on the other side of the screen just because that’s not how your parents met or how your younger self forged friendships.

No matter how hard we fight the instinct of group belonging and voluntarily or not seclude ourselves, the vast majority of us cannot help it. Online or not, we’re still group animals. Typing, texting or shaking hands, Maslow had it right in prioritizing human needs and including love, belonging and esteem (specifically respect of others) in the middle of his famous pyramid. We could survive without them, but you can’t call it a life. Therefore, the digital era leaves us (not even the shiest or the busiest) with no excuse for the lack of socialization in our lives and almost shames us into it. You can choose your own name, create an avatar to resemble the self you always to be, experience much further than other situations might let you to and basically create an alternative existence to complement the one you already have, with the comforting thought that the your virtual self is enjoying much more liberty than you’d normally do and yet has a firmer grasp on his/her fate. It’s still you behind the whole “masquerade” if you wish to call it that, but it’s a welcomed refreshing change of scenery that I wouldn’t recommend you to say no to.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw

So, since we delude ourselves anyway, why not spicing it up?

Pardon me, I have a revolution to attend to!

18 Feb

Social media may safely win the prize for the best communication tool protests, campaigns and revolutions have ever seen. Mazel tov! The head-turning speed with which information is exchanged, shared and reaching the “consumers” makes new media an undeniable instrument in the organization of such an event, not to mention its horizontal characteristic making the users both producers and clients in this online information market. However, is it about the numbers of a turnout or the conviction behind them?

The social movements have sparkled interests among the youngsters for political, social and environmental issues our society faces every day, in an intrusive user-friendly manner. Whether you intended it or not, social networks found a way to keep you up to date on major (and not only) events on our old globe or local settlement and therefore getting information became not only easy and effort-free…it’s trendy! I will not go as far as to generalize the phenomenon, there is no need for that. And yet, I can’t help but notice how social movements have another side to their success and raising attendance. The side I’m referring to has virtually nothing or very little to do with the genuine conviction that is supposed to be the motor behind a passionate protest. It has nothing to do with the rage and sense of injustice firing up a revolution. Not even sympathy for the activists and their cause? Nope! If you’re out of guesses, I’ll spare you the trouble: it’s simply fashionable! Campaigning and mass manifestations are back in style (just in case they were ever out). It is, I agree, crude to view popular turnouts in such a manner but actually many do, so we might as well acknowledge it. Teenagers and not only decide to join social movements with their peers because it’s simply too much of a good opportunity to boost their popularity and create an image for themselves as the rebel, the cool one who strutted the streets up in arms protesting about…uhm…well, there are tens of photos on Facebook if you’re really interested in what it was all about. They have T-shirts, they hold banners, the scream just as loudly as the guy three rows behind who dedicated his entire career to promoting animal rights/ saving the environment/ diminish gender inequality etc. Technically, they are part of the “the more, the better” crowd and just as technically, they actively participate. So, I suppose the question here is, is it about quantity or quality?

And yet, as repulsive as the thought may be, aren’t we too quick to pass judgment? The “public sphere” is an inclusive open space for views, ideas and principle formation as well as voicing your thoughts as a more or less concerned citizen. In principle, everybody is welcomed and even encouraged to take part in setting the cornerstone of a participatory democracy.  However, it is purely idealistic to imagine that the hundreds of participants in one of the above-mentioned movements share the exact same agenda and reasons for joining the protest. What makes sense to assume is a convergence of these reasons into a common denominator to which everybody can relate to. And then come the ones who are there for reasons outside the common agenda and form a sparkling category of their own: the posers. We are here because we want to stop animal mistreatments in corporation owned farms! What we are actually here for is for how cool this will look on my profile and how we will become those people to look up to on the highschool corridors (could be any other institution).  Now, looking more in-depth at this sort of behavior for the sake of my “let’s not pass judgment too quickly” argument and also bearing in mind the role of the public sphere, even though these people do not adhere to the common purpose of the movement, they do, nonetheless, find social inclusion, attention and support in them, means to validate their belonging to a certain community. They also look for understanding; they also look for collaboration, shared interests and fulfilling relationships. As “group animals”, we all do.

Considering both sides of the story, I wonder: are you a truly efficient participant in the social movements if your heart’s not in it but your arms and lungs are? And furthermore, social media is continuously trying to make sure the information reaches as many as possible, but is there such  thing as too many?

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To rule or not to rule?

11 Feb

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One may argue that technological progress has overcome the “impossible” just to reach the outcome of an increasingly individualistic society where “me, myself and I” are the priority and the rest can wait (or carry on with their busy self involved selves).  We can go even further into stating that since the IT era, relationships and interactions between people have been deteriorating at an alarming pace and we seem to have fallen in a comfort zone where we expect everything to be served to us on silver…tablets.

I tend to disagree on a few levels. I will not deny the paradox of a communication era where communication seems to be the main deficit of our society and that through the millions of available communities (on or off line) it is genuinely difficult to forge meaningful relationships. And yet, let’s have a look at the full half of the digital glass, with emphasis on the opportunities the new media offers us, the simple every day citizens to mobilize in massive turnouts and ask for our rights, changes in the governance or protests against unwelcomed political decisions (or for others’ rights, who may not have the possibility to speak up and ask for them themselves).  Honestly speaking, this sort of mass mobilization usually takes place when protesting against certain issues (such as disrespect for human rights in underdeveloped or developing countries, disregarded animal rights, ecological disasters etc) rather than other reasons. Nevertheless, the new social networks empowered the little people with the ability to easily and quickly create integrative communities based on shared interests (may those be goals that require implication over months or even years or simply responding to today’s morning event)  and the possibility of a quick, prompt response to world’s events. Sure, the world has seen uprisings, parades and protests long before the age of Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, there’s no doubt about that, so what’s all the fuss about? True, it has been done before…but not quite the same. Space, time and the number of participants seem to dissolve and lose all relevance. Therefore, deterritorialized communities consisting of members who may have never seen one another before, living hundreds and thousands of miles away from another and going to sleep when the other wakes up need now not to worry about these previously challenging logistical obstacles. They may just as well create the public sphere, the forum where ideologies and desire for involvement in local, national, global politics and governance flourish, taking form in an almost mythical manner comparable to the ancient Greek democratic ideal.

The rise of the global civic society – threat or ally in worldwide political and diplomatic affairs? Facilitating factor in the decision making process or annoyingly loud popular opinion? From my completely biased point of view, as one ordinary citizen with disappointingly little power in the national political arena ( the once in a blue moon elections of leaders I know virtually next to nothing about does not get me even close to the “rule by, for and with the people”  grounding principle of democracy) I believe in the potential for popular participation the new media so willingly serves us. For the sake of the argument, I will take one example that I find most relevant for my above stated frustration: in January 2012 the Romanian public reacted through massive turnouts during 3 tumultuous weeks as a response to a suggestion of health reform which compromised the well-functioning of the emergency service and the public nature of health care. The social networks exploded with angry posts and opinionated users decided to take matters in their own hands and give the politicians a piece of their minds by organizing protests against the detrimental law project. The movement soon evolved in an anti-governmental manifestation since the economic situation of the country became unbearable to many and the government was blamed for inefficient, even destructive policies and reactions to the crisis. Can you force participatory democracy? Apparently you can, since the manifestations resulted in the creation of a new cabinet and the withdrawal of the legislation. The people have spoken…even though no one really bothered to ask.

Therefore, I perceive social media as a tool which changes the power balance within a state. The dynamic of policy making is no longer from upwards, the high political class downwards to the citizens. It has been proven in countless examples. Of course, it’s needless to feed ourselves with dreams and fantasies of a fully empowered society no longer at the mercy of our governments and fool ourselves into believing our work here is done but still, we have discovered an instrument to voice our preferences jointly, unite in a shared attitude towards the same issue and could I daresay, partially control the way in which governance is performed?

The tricky part is, how do we use it wisely?