I was talking to my college students a couple weeks ago about their favorite TV shows.
Turns out that most don’t actually watch TV but, among those who do, The Walking Dead emerged as a must-see show. And this from a couple of the brightest kids in the room.
Curious, I thought. What is there about the undead that young people today find so inviting and mesmerizing? Is it a leftover fascination spawned from reading Twilight books in middle school and high school? Is it a feeling that all zombies look like Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson? Is it disillusionment with the real world? Or is something else going on?
In the online world you can commune with lovers of the undead all you want. There are even index sites which take you to the Web’s best vampire sites. Of course some of these indices take you to only their affiliated sites, but that’s another matter. On one index I found, the site garnering the most votes seems to be from Transylvania (why not?), but there are plenty of ones in English. For example:
* Adrian’s Undead Diary
* Diary of a Runner
* Todd the Zombie
* Zombie Day
And the list goes on and on.
Here’s what Adrian’s Undead Diary says about itself:
“Welcome to Adrian’s Undead Diary. Adrian Ring is our intrepid hero here, having just barely survived a world consuming apocalypse of the undead. Adrian’s Diary chronicles his battles with the zombie hordes and his ongoing struggle with survival. Read and understand exactly how he completed his hero’s journey, avoiding starvation, zombies, injuries, fellow survivors, and sickness, as well as sharing in his humor and his horror.
“We are not only attempting to share some high quality zombie, undead and horror genre fiction, but also to build a friendly community of like minded folks!”
Next follows a standard online disclaimer that the site contains cussing and crude stories, always guaranteed to lure in the under-18 crowd who is “warned” stay away.
However batty it seems, zombies have made a pretty good comeback over the decades. Not surprising for the undead, though, right?
When I was a kid growing up in Midwest City, there was a late-night Saturday program called Shock Theater, and it often featured Bela Lugosi as Dracula, the best-known (before Pattinson and Stewart) zombie. Our neighborhood gang loved it, and we would hold “Shock Parties” in each other’s homes to watch the human bats suck the marrow from life. Not exactly what Robin Williams had in mind in The Dead Poet’s Society, but it worked for us.
A few years later came the classic zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, and the bats were on the wing again.
Then the bat caves turned silent for a long time, unless you count the Batman phenomenon but, again, that’s another story. A few years ago, however, the stirrings of the undead arose once again as the Twilight saga hit the big screens after a sizeable audience of teens had been primed for it through the series of book
TV finds the undead
And then AMC unleashed The Walking Dead and it found a huge audience. All of a sudden, parents were wondering what was happening to their kids and grandkids, forgetting (as grown-ups usually do) that they were fascinated by the same vampire genre when they were kids.
Actor Brad Pitt will bring even more attention to the zombie craze in the upcoming World War Z as he races to save the world from a zombie apocalypse.
Recently, Terry Mattingly who writes a religion column for Scripps-Howard News Service, took a look at the current zombie craze among young people. He quoted the editor of Good News, a Methodist magazine, as saying the following:
“It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you’re going to run into some kind of zombie comment,” said Steve Beard. “Someone will say something like, ‘When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we’re all at so-and-so’s house so we can stick together.’ It’s all a wink and a nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time.”
Beard believes that the fascination is not actually about zombies at all, however, but actually points to something deeper.
“Truth is, The Walking Dead is not about zombies,” he says. “It’s a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living. How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane in a world that has gone crazy?”
So, if I’m following this logic correctly, young people may be feeling that zombies have found a way to do what many in my generation did when they decided to turn out to LSD and drop out of the establishment for awhile. Joining hands with the undead may be a way to live in the world, yet not be a part of the world. It’s another attempt at human-made spiritualism, and its results will probably be as predictable as that which came from LSD.
Or, Beard’s framing aside, perhaps the zombie craze is just another way of featuring buckets of blood and violence on the screen without having to believe real people are being hurt in the process.
Or, back to my earlier speculation, there is something to be said for feeling as if you look like Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart …
Tossing technology into the mix, what makes the current fascination with the undead different from previous eras, is that now young people cannot only commune with other lovers of the undead, but they can do it in the unliving world of the Web. It’s another way of living with fantasy in a place of fantasy.
Good escapism maybe, but one wonders if that’s really what the world needs more of today.
I’ve been talking with my students this week about how companies maintain or lose customer satisfaction with consumers, and the topic always brings up good and bad personal experiences.
On the negative side (and there are more of these than positive ones), I wrote in this blog two summers back about how Capital One had declared me dead, causing me all kinds of credit problems at the exact time I was trying to get a home mortgage.
Even after I finally got a human voice (albeit from a foreign call center) to admit he believed I was alive, he told me “the computers are in charge, however,” and they had from 30-45 days to investigate and resolve the problem.
On the up side — and this may sound ironic given the stereotype of this government agency — I have found the IRS to be extremely helpful over the years. It’s easier to get a human and knowledgeable voice on the other end of the line with the Internal Revenue Service than with United Airlines, even when all you’re trying to do is buy their service.
For the purposes of this blog, however, I am most interested in the intersection of communication technology and customer satisfaction. It’s no stretch to say that the inability to talk to a human being, and the dehumanizing experience of talking to a digital signal, is probably the No. 1 cause of customer dissatisfaction in America.
A popular topic
Author Laura Penny has even written a book about this, appropriately called, Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bull—-.” The cover features a large shovel, and the first chapter is called, “You’re Soaking in It.”
More than any other lie that corporate America would spin onto consumers, “Your call is very important to us,” is the one that sends most consumers through the roof. We know a long delay awaits and — even then — we will be handed a digitized voice to talk to.
The dehmanizing side
This whole dehumanizing concept of requiring customers to talk to robots, or at least a voice from a call center on another continent, was dramatized in the George Clooney film, Up in the Air. In that film’s most tragic and poignant scene, we see a veteran, dedicated company employee being fired by a detached voice from a computer screen. He starts to weep; the computer is unable to mimic of even register that emotion.
We know that technology is very important to customer satisfaction. If a business doesn’t avail itself of Web 2.0 communication technology, that can — in itself — become a cause for disgruntled customers. We want multiple access points to a company we deal with, starting with Web access.
NBRI weighs in
As one of its ten tips to customer satisfaction, The National Business Research Institute (NBRI) lists the need to give customers Web access to your business and to make it easy for them to place their orders. It explains:
“Technology means more than a fancy Flash website. In order to satisfy customers, companies have to keep up with the latest technological advances or suffer the consequences. Change is never easy, but business as usual isn’t a viable alternative anymore. Technology can help small and mid-size companies look like big companies by improving the quality of the purchasing experience without adding staff to the payroll.”
Twisting its use
But taking that same technology and turning it into a demeaning obstacle to the goal of customer interaction … therein lies the rub.
Turns out, I’m far from being alone in my assessment. Wall Street Journal columnist Gary Hamel penned an entire column about this, entitled, “Your Call is Important to Us. Yeah, Sure.” He writes:
“What irks me most, though, is when companies barricade their customer support staff behind a near impenetrable wall of multi-level telephone prompts. I mean, golly, you’d think I was trying to get through the White House switchboard rather than obtain a part number for my broken dishwasher.
“I get the fact that companies are trying to keep their call center costs to a minimum—but I wish they’d at least be honest about that. (But) Instead of telling us: We are experiencing unusually heavy call volumes . . .
“They should say: Even more of our underpaid and overworked staff called in sick than usual.
“Instead of telling us: You may be able to find what you need on our Web site . . .
They should say: There are 10 people in the world who still haven’t heard about the Internet and we want to make sure you’re not one of them.”
Thanks Gary. You think the decision-makers at Capital One and United Airlines ever read columns and blogs?
One can only hope. A call from one of them, about this issue, is one I would wait for.
Every semester I face this same problem.
I am a university professor of mass media, and the challenge I face is threefold:
- Should I focus on the new media delivery systems, or on the nature, purpose, and impact of the media on news and entertainment consumers?
- If I focus on the delivery systems, how can I be sure my 20-year-old students don’t already know more than I do about them?
- Is anyone really paying attention to the kind of content we are getting from the media these days and, if not, shouldn’t I focus on that?
The challenge of time
The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that I have less than 48 total contact hours with these kids over three months time. In that time I must try and detail the traditions of the news and entertainment media since Day 1 while also going over the sea changes occurring just over the past decade alone.
Can I have a lifeline?
Speaking in tongues
Oh yeah, and add this problem to the mix: Few people have the same idea of what the following terms even mean, at least operationally, today:
- New Media
- Media Convergence
We’re not talking textbook definitions here, although even those change from generation to generation. We are talking about the nature, purpose, and impact of these terms.
Remember the old song lyric, “You say tomato, I say tomahto.” Just substitute any of the above media terms and you get the Tower of Babel scenario existing on college campuses existing between student and prof in talking about the media.
A relic from the past
A couple years ago, for example, I was talking about newspapers in a media class, and I held up an ink-on-paper copy of the Los Angeles Times.
A hand shot up in the back of the class and a student, who acted like he’d never seen one of these artifacts before asked: “Where do you get one of those things?
I’ve become used to what others might perceive as a startling phenomenon, so I suggested simply that the student walk just outside our building and buy one from the newspaper rack. I have no idea what he thought that sidewalk structure was for, since he had undoubtedly passed it several times a day.
The first chapter in the media text I’m using is called, “Media Literacy,” and I’ve come to understand why the author put that topic front and center. It simply means becoming literate about the most powerful institution in our lives today.
Not only is it important, given the huge influence the media have on how we run our daily lives, but it is also something a lot of young people have not thought much about.
Adrift at sea
Here’s what author John Vivian says about this in his book, The Media of Mass Communication.:
“We swim in an ocean of mass communication, exposes 68.8 percent of our waking hours to media messages. So immersed are we in these messages that we often are unmindful of their existence, let alone their influences.”
I mean, they know how to use the technology better than most of us. But what that technology can do for — and to – them is another matter that often escapes their attention.
A loaded weapon
In another realm, one might ask what kind of society we would have if everyone understood how to shoot a gun but gave no thought to how one should behave with that gun.
That’s not such a far-fetched analogy. Just ask the families of those young people like Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi who committed suicide after a sensitive video of him was uploaded to the Web. Or ask the families of the 25 passengers killed on an L.A. commuter train in September, 2008. The driver of that train was texting when he crashed head-on into another one.
Thinking back to my opening dilemma, I recall a saying that suggests we should always play to our strengths. That makes sense to me.
I’ll assume the students know how to pull the trigger of their iPad.
As for me, I’ll focus on gun safety.
Picture this: Hollywood unleashes an unknown actress in a film, she becomes an international star, and it dawns on you that this woman is perfection personified.
Therein lies the rub: She is not a person. She is a digital creation of a down-and-out director who has nowhere else to turn but to fantasy.
Such is the plot of the visionary – yet largely forgotten – 2002 film from New Line Cinema called simply, Simone. As it turns out, though, it’s not so simple because this Simone stands for “Simulation One.
To be utterly clear, the movie is actually called, S1mOne, but that would be anything but clear to most moviegoers. Nevertheless, Al Pacino plays director Viktor Taransky, and Canadian model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts plays Simone.
The dramatic tension in the film arises from the thing Taransky doesn’t tell the world, or even his ex-wife studio head, about Simone: That she is not real. To make it work, Taransky uses the cover story that Simone is reclusive, prefers to act alone and have her screen parts digitally inserted into the film by Taransky.
Can we back up a sec?
Left unanswered is exactly how this would work, even in the GGI-crazed world Hollywood.
The point of dredging up a decade-old movie is that right now, in Japan, fiction has become fact. In this case, the digital phenom is a pop singer and not a film star, but that may not be far off, given the popularity of this creation.
The virtual pop star taking Japan by storm is called Aimi Eguchi. She is the latest addition to the popular all-girl band AKB48. But, in 2011, fans of the band were surprised to learn — after a week — that Aimi is not real. She is a computer-generated avatar, made for a commercial touting the band and Japanese technology in general.
And she is made up from features of six of the other 58 girls in the band that is responsible for eight chart-topping hits in Japan. Fans had become suspicious about Aimi before her management revealed she is a digital creation, because she bore such a striking resemblance to some of her band mates.
Aimi has her own web site, and in 2011 stated she was just a normal 16-year-old girl living in a town north of Tokyo and liked sports — especially track and field events. No hint that she is a digital creation.
Like Simone, Aimi is is someone her fans thought was real. The fact that she is still a phenom, after the Wizard’s curtain has been raised revealing her as fake, raised questions about whether “real” matters to fans, or what that term means today, especially to young people.
“She is real,” CNN quoted one avid fan of Aimi. “She exists in our hearts.”
The bottom line, at least to the digital masters of these stars is this: Does reality really matter if consumers are buying it?
Aimi joins Hatsune
Aimi is not the only virtual pop star in Japan. Miku Hatsune is a digital creation who performs on stage in giant hologram form at concerts that attract thousands of adoring fans.
Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, wrote this about Hatsune in a March article:
“She never misses a beat, fluffs a line or messes up a step. But then she doesn’t really exist.
Hatsune Miku is computer generated, based on a voice-synthesizing program developed by the company Crypton Future Media that allows users to create their own music.
Her image was produced by the company, but her music is a creation of her fans, Her best songs – the ones headlined at her concerts – have emerged from more than 20 different people.
The fans know what the fans like.
All 10,000 tickets for the digital diva’s four shows in Tokyo – two on Thursday and two on Friday – sold out in hours despite the $76 ticket price.”
And it’s not just the pink bubble-gum groupies, for whom Miley Cyrus is over the hill, who are chewing up what Hatsune belts out. Again The Globe and Mail notes:
“Hatsune Miku (surnames are reversed in Asia) was projected onto the stage at the shows while thousands of other fans packed into 24 cinemas to watch live.
‘It was absolutely amazing, it’s like my heart is still dancing. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep,’ 21-year-old Yuya Ofuji said as she came out of a concert.”
The lure of unreality
For those wondering how any teen or young adult could get so worked up over a CGI image who they know exists only in the virtual world, the answers lie in this strange new era we are now exploring.
Even a casual observer of the changes in Hollywood films would notice that virtuality has replaced reality on the screens, and that the biggest films are those that incorporate digital characters.
What began with the benevolent watery creature in the 1989 film, The Abyss, has morphed into standard fare in today’s films like Battleship, Prometheus, and the recent Avatar.
And then there’s Ted
And, for those grown men who find a private solace in still having a teddy bear for a nighttime pal, there is the
upcoming Mark Wahlberg film, Ted, which is about just that. Only this teddy bear has come to life. But hey, don’t they all?
What is working in digital Hollywood has not necessarily worked so well in the music industry, digital as it is as well. In the music world, some purists still exist. Several years ago, for example, critics took a music producer to task for digitally inserting the voices of pop singers to create a couple duet albums with Frank Sinatra.
Return of the king
But that wall seems to be crumbling as well, as witnessed by the recent announcement that Elvis may be returning from the dead, courtesy of Digital Domain Media Group Inc., the CGI studio that developed the visual effects for such films as Tron: Legacy, and Transformers.
That studio has inked a contract with Core Media Group to create and produce a series of virtual Elvis images for a string of different entertainment projects. Included will be Elvis “appearances” in stage shows, films, and TV specials.
As a closet Elvis fan, I have to admit I find this idea entertaining. I saw a concert in Memphis marking the 25th anniversary of the death of the king and loved it. Live members of his backup group accompanied a big-screen audio-visual image of Elvis performing, and you could swear the king had returned.
And that, plus the fact I can’t wait to see Ted, shows where my own dividing line exists between reality and the virtual unknown.
Ever feel like you’re addicted to your cell phone?
If so, you’re not alone. A recent study shows nearly 2 million Americans find it hard to leave home without these devices; worldwide, the total leaps to more than 1.5 billion.
Quite an acceptance curve for a product that is less than three decades old.
As for me, the newest media ritual occasioned by my own Droid obsession is staying abreast of the NBA playoffs, usually at times when I should be doing something else. But hey, it’s the Thunder, right?
Still, a dinner conversation with your significant other can be undermined pretty badly by a Droid-delivered NBA game.
If you’ve seen the AT&T “romantic dinner” commercial, you know what I’m talking about. Here’s a guy with this attractive woman and he is trying to balance his interest in her and the game on his iPhone. Operating in what he thinks is a stealth mode, he shoots glances to the phone on his lap while holding hands with his date.
A state of angst
While women viewers feel for the date, male viewers identify with the guy. He’s operating in what communication researchers call “a state of cognitive dissonance” or what most of us just call tension. He wants to score, but he also wants the score.
Despite what he thinks, he’s not doing a very good job. His date is onto him, and you get the feeling the question isn’t far off: “Okay, so what’s it gonna be? Me or the game?”
And the answer, of course, is …
The great debate
On a related note, I teach a university course in interpersonal communication, and this commercial always produces a spirited debate in class about a dating scene that is obviously a common one. And, in a larger vein, it goes to the question of how much we want to commit to the virtual world of the pixels as opposed to the attractive person sitting right in front of us.
This blog has addressed this real-world/virtual-world tension before. But before, it was usually the laptop that produced the tension. Now it’s the cell phone. After all, you can’t set up a laptop in front of you when you’re out on a date. Well, you can, but good luck getting a second one.
But who needs a laptop when we have the smart phone? Remember, though: just because that device is smart in what it can do, we still have to be smart in when it should make an appearance.
Texting while what?
I mean, there are times when that preoccupation can be downright dangerous to our health, right? The big one is texting while driving. But how about texting while just plain walking?
Some of you may have seen the video of a woman falling into a mall fountain while texting as she strode along, oblivious to the watery hazard in front of her.
If you think that’s absurd, how about Bonnie Miller, from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who walked right off the pier into Lake Michigan while texting a friend on her cell phone?
According to a recent study in the journal, Gait & Posture, texting while talking has a definite disruptive effect on our gait, setting us up for similarly embarrassing, if not dangerous, moments like these. An article in Men’s Health News discusses it.
In that study, a group of 20-somethings was randomly selected to walk while texting or talking on a cell phone. Researchers discovered that these twin concurrent activities caused the subjects to stride toward a target much more slowly than normal, and that they veered off course by 61 percent. Many actually walked beyond the target without realizing it until it was too late.
Hence, Mrs. Miller, the woman who wound up needing rescue from Lake Michigan. Her 15-year-old son said she had time to utter, “Oh God!” and then he heard the splash.
A watery rescue
She was rescued by her husband, Greg, and she is now speaking out to anyone who will listen about the dangers of texting while trodding.
This crazy kind of activity is how vital we believe our cell phones to be. We will actually risk our lives to update a friend on what we’re doing right now. Like swimming in Lake Michigan.
Dare one say we’re drowning in our addiction?
“As someone who has dabbled in multiple social networking sites, I have to say, Facebook seems to be losing its allure, at least for me … At the moment, Instagram is my choice for social networking.”
This comment comes from Senior English major Tara Donavanik, writing in the student newspaper The Clause,at California’s Azusa Pacific University.
She is uttering what some are wondering about Facebook and Myspace: Are they losing their allure, at least to young people?
Some 2010 data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Social Network Site Survey indicates the answer is yes. The answer seems clearer that college students have moved away from MySpace (only 12% of undergraduates and 6% of grad students use it), but the data for Facebook shows declines, too.
For a site that was started by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg as a way for college students to connect, fewer students appear to be using Facebook.
According to the Pew results, only 1 in 5 undergrads regularly uses Facebook, while only 15% of grad students use it.
Data for both MySpace and Facebook seem stronger at the high school level, with more than 1 in 3 (35%) of high school students using MySpace, and 26% using Facebook).
A possible reason
Offering up her own take on the data, Donavanik notes, “Maybe as we get older, time becomes of essence and curiosity about an ex or an acquaintance becomes low on our priority list.”
According to the Pew data, age influences the choice of an individual’s social networking site. For example, Linkedin is a popular network site that people use to develop and maintain career connections, although it is also used to exchange social information as well. But because it is more career-oriented (and even career-enhancing), some 37% of undergrad college students and 38% of grad students were using it in 2010. One would assume those numbers are even higher today.
Twitter accounts for 21% of college student use, while other SNS sites like Instagram, account for another 14% of college usage.
Although Facebook logs a smaller percentage of college students than Linkedin, the Pew study does show FB to have the largest share of daily visits by its users, while LinkedIn users visit the site once a month or even less.
35 and older growth
Indeed, the growth among users of social network sites has been in the post-college generation of older adults. The Pew Center study summarizes this as follows:
“Internet users of all ages are more likely to use a SNS today than they were in 2008. However, the increase in SNS use has been most pronounced among those who are over the age of 35. In 2008 only 18% of internet users 36 and older used a SNS, by 2010 48% of internet users over the age of 35 were using a SNS.
“This is about twice the growth experienced by internet users 18-35; 63% of whom used a SNS in 2008 compared with 80% in 2010. Among other things, this means the average age of adult-SNS users has shifted from 33 in 2008 to 38 in 2010. Over half of all adult SNS users are now over the age of 35.”
Usage still strong
Overall, the Pew Research Center data shows the following about the demographics of all Internet users, as per its August 2011 survey:
* Percent of all adults who use the Internet: 78%.
* Men outnumber women slightly (80 to 76%).
* White, Non-Hispanics outnumber Black, Non-Hispanics, 80-71%. Some 68% of Hispanics use the Web.
* Ninety-four percent of those 18-29 use the Web; 87 percent of those 30-49; 74% of those 50-64, and 41% of those 65 and older.
* For household incomes over $75K, Internet usage is almost 100%; for household incomes less than $30K, usage is at 62%
* For those with no high school diploma, Internet use is at 43%; for high school grads, it is 71%; for college grads, usage is 94%.
The tone of comments
The Pew Center has also studied the overall “tone” or mood of comments on social networking sites (SNS) and has found the following:
* 85% of SNS-using adults say their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind.
* 68% say they have had an SNS experience that made them feel good about themselves.
* 61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person.
* 39% say they frequently see acts of generosity by other SNS users.
Nevertheless, Pew says that “notable proportions of SNS users do witness bad behavior on those sites and nearly a third have experienced some negative outcomes from their experiences.”
For example nearly half of SNS-using adults say they have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others at least occasionally.
When it comes to teenage SNS-users, Pew discovered that 95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now online, and that 80% of those online teens use social media sites.
Further, the experiences teens have concerning the tone of the comments posted on the site is different from adult experiences. For example, only 69% of teens think their peers are mostly kind to each other on social network sites. Another 20% say peers are mostly unkind. Only 5% of the adult SNS-users reported people to be mostly unkind.
Cruelties on the sites
Further, Pew says 88% of teens using social networks have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on an SNS, and 12% reported those incidents to be “frequent.” Only 7% of adults reported seeing this kind of treatment frequently.
When it comes to the sensitive subject of bullying, nearly 1 in 5 teens (19%) said they have been bullied in the past year, often online or via text.
According to Pew, teens who use social networks say, “People most often appear to ignore the situation, with a slightly smaller number of teen saying they see others defending someone and telling others to stop their cruel behavior.”
Other Pew studies have revealed the following effects of SNS-sites on users, which go toward balancing the scales some from last week’s post on this site. That post discussed the isolating effects of the social media, but Pew data show there is also a socializing effect as well.
Some of these conclusions are:
* Facebook users are more trusting than others.
* Facebook users have more close relationships.
* Facebook users get more social support than other people.
* Facebook users are much more politically engaged than most people.
* Facebook revives “dormant” relationships. (22% of those are from high school years, in fact.)
Suppose you are one of the diehards spending a couple hours browsing through the stacks of a bookstore and come across the following titles: Life on the Screen, The Second Self, and Alone Together. You might reasonably assume that you have stumbled into a section on movies and, maybe more specifically, what it’s like to be a Hollywood actor.
In some ways, you’d be right if you consider each of us to be actors on the world’s stage as we go about living our lives, interacting with others, and trying to project a self that rings true — or not.
Yet each of these three books is not about movies, but about what has happened to our lives in the age of computers, the Internet, and the Web 2.0 media.
The books are about how we go about defining ourselves, to ourselves and others, in the age where RL meets VR in the MUD.
For the yet-uninitiated, that means Real Life meeting Virtual Reality in the Multi-User Domain.
The books are all written by Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor of Technology and Society, and they span the years of 1997-2011. Taken individually or together, they show how our current age is different from any previous era humankind has ever encountered.
A nicely written excerpt from Publisher’s Weekly presents the gist of Turkle’s latest work, Alone Together, which has the provocative subtitle, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
“Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other.
“She encounters dissatisfaction and alienation among users: teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration but by how they are perceived by the online collective, mothers who feel texting makes communicating with their children more frequent yet less substantive, Facebook users who feel shallow status updates devalue the true intimacies of friendships.”
A sobering thought
The disturbing conclusion is, “Turkle ‘s prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.”
On several levels, that seems so. Anytime we see two people who are presumably on a date at a restaurant, yet there they sit more engaged in their I-phones or Droids, we get the picture.
Indeed one of the funnier commercials on television depicts two of these individuals. The woman is trying to have a real conversation with her date while suspecting he is more involved in checking game scores on his smart phone. And the reason it is so funny is because it is so true. We’ve all been a part of this scene, no?
Things that aren’t real
Carl Hays, a writer for Booklist, notes the following irony found in Turkle’s examination of the interface between humanity and technology:
“Turkle suggests that we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.
“In her university-sponsored studies surveying everything from text-message usage among teens to the use of robotic baby seals in nursing homes for companionship, Turkle paints a sobering and paradoxical portrait of human disconnectedness in the face of expanding virtual connections in cell-phone, intelligent machine, and Internet usage.”
When we are in the presence of a friend or loved one yet choose to focus our attention on the machine in our hand, we are in fact treating the machine with more respect; treating it as if it is more real than the person sitting next to us.
What makes Turkle’s observation more intriguing is that she has been making them for so long. Life on the Screen was published in 1997. How computer-savvy were you fifteen years ago? Did you even have an Internet connection in your home then?
Still, in that book Turkle posited that the Internet, with its bulletin boards, games, virtual communities, and private domains where people meet, develop relationships or emulate sex, is a microcosm of an emerging “culture of simulation” that substitutes representations of reality for the real world.
What we had in 1997, Turkle said, was a new way of developing an identity. This new pathway was “de-centered and multiple,” meaning it was created outside of our beings; that we used multiple Internet means and models for creating a sense of who we are as unique individuals.
If it was true then, especially for the more malleable minds of the young, how much more true might it be today as the Web has gone through mega-changes since 1997?
As one college student put it, “RL is just one more window, and it’s usually not my best.” The haunting thing here is that he is considering the worlds he inhabits through his computer as real life. He is discussing the time he spends as four different characters – avatars – in three different MUDs. Add in the time he spends doing his homework on his computer, and he lives more of his life there than apart from it.
This kind of life requires people like this student to split themselves into different selves, turning on one self and then morphing into another, as he cycles from window to window on the screen. He believes it allows him to explore different possibilities of who he might be.
Some simply say, “The Internet lets you be who you pretend to be.”
A 2001 flashback
And, in an unsettling flashback to older generations of scenes from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we seem to be losing our self-control to computers. As those space travelers did, we no longer give commands to our computers; we have dialogues with them.
And often, the computers seem to have the last word.
In another era, WWF stood for the World Wrestling Federation. Still does, I suppose, although today those initials are more commonly known by online gamers as Word with Friends.
Somewhere around Thanksgiving I got hooked into this addictive game which, along with other games like Hanging with Friends and the (non-interactive) Angry Birds are taking up a lot of people’s times these days.
With its ubiquitous accessibility, via terminal, laptop, notebook, or smart phone, Word with Friends seems, indeed, to be everywhere. And with its links to Facebook, many of the moves you make show up on your wall, thereby advertising its presence to many others and the many others who have befriended those many others.
Who wouldn’t want it known that their best achievement of the day was scoring 131 points by their adroit playing of the word “djebel?”
A domino effect
It’s the well-known domino effect, and it now has more than 3 million Facebook users “liking” this game, and probably wasting a lot of otherwise productive hours playing it.
Those prone to finding their glasses to be half-full as opposed to seriously leaking, would point out that you can increase your vocabulary with such word games as this thinly-veiled version of the classic game of Scrabble.
I suppose my reaction would be, True if you think any of the following kinds of words will be useful for you in the conversations of life:
Qi, qat, xi, vodoun, oedemas, yegg (egg with an extra-large yoke?), quin, jeux, nixe, nae, qua, tael, ratel, eclat, recta (2 rectums?) and quean.
Or how about rec, rem, urd, mae, ecu, kex, kae, and jauk?
All these and many other wonderful words are legitimate parts of the King’s speech, according to your friends at Words with Friends. And of course we use these gems all the time in our everyday chats. These are the words that come tripping off our tongue when we are confronted with six consonants and a vowel (or, worse yet, the opposite). Right?
Well, only right if we are using a handy-dandy word unscrambler. Or is that descrambler? Neither seems to find favor with the text program I’m using now.
These descramblers bring up a serious ethical issue, of course, to players of WWF: Is it cheating to
use a crutch like that? Or is a descrambler really a crutch? Might it merely help you to unclutter all the knowledge of universe you already possess so that you can get right to these words that you already knew so well?
The tree and the thud
And, like the tree no one ever saw or heard falling in the wilderness, does it matter if no one hears it? Would Aristotle or Immanuel Kant insist that you come clean and tell your opponent you’re using a descrambler before starting the match? And if BOTH of you use that aid, does that negate the ethical quandary and create an even and virtuous playing field? Or is it that you are both now cheating?
But if you’re both cheating, why play the game at all?
The game of life
The backers of WWF would say that playing this game allows each of us to come face to face with deep and important ethical principles which can only help us out in the rest of the game of life.
This all, of course, presumes that people are actually playing WWF and not just logging on to use the chat box, which is one great way of getting around paying for a text package on your cell phone, especially since you can access WWF on that very phone and text until your heart’s content — or until you run out of words — for free.
A serious side
Proving once again, however, that there is an upside to everyone wasting time on the Web, consider the following story posted just today by CBS News:
“Beth Legler, of Blue Springs, Missouri, began playing Words with Friends more than two years ago on her cell phone, reports KCTV CBS 5 in Kansas City. That’s when she met an Australian couple named Georgie and Simon Fletcher of Queensland, Australia.
“One day during a game, Georgie told Beth that Simon was feeling under the weather, so Beth asked her to describe his symptoms, since Beth’s own husband, Larry, was a doctor.
“When hearing that Simon was experiencing fatigue so severe that he couldn’t walk to his mailbox and burning in the back of his throat, reports MSNBC, Dr. Legler had some words of advice for his wife’s online friends: get to a doctor immediately.
“Legler thought Simon was experiencing angina, a condition that occurs when your heart doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. That causes pressure or squeezing in the chest, but could cause pain elsewhere in the body like in the shoulders, arms, neck, or back. What usually causes angina? Heart disease.
“Simon was reluctant but went to the doctor, and as it turns out, Dr. Legler was right: Simon had a 99 percent blockage in his artery and was on death’s door.
“Simon had two stents implanted through emergency surgery, and has recovered. ‘I owe Larry everything,’ Simon told KCTV. “I’m really lucky to be here.”
“Said Beth, ‘It’s been a wonderful experience to have had made some great friends and know that Simon is well because of a word game.’”
Wow. I’m speechless. Or is that aphonic?
One of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove, that neo-classic tale of the West by Texan Larry McMurtry.
Although he has a passion for writing westerns of both period and modern vintage, McMurtry explodes the stereotype of what a writer of westerns is all about. That’s one of the reasons I like his books so much.
Books in his saddlebags
I’ve never been in McMurtry’s home but, I bet that in place of a Winchester rifle and crossed branding irons above a massive fireplace, you would find rows of books packed into wall-to-wall shelving.
I get that image because Larry McMurtry is a guy in love with books.
How do I know that? Because the guy owns one of the larger antiquarian bookstores around, called Booked Up, that comprises four buildings and contains some 400,000 books. That’s bigger than a lot of college libraries, and it’s not found in Houston or Dallas but way out in Archer City, Texas. If that town sounds vaguely familiar, go check out McMurtry’s breakthrough novel, The Last Picture Show or its sequel, Texasville.
This is one literate cowboy.
A vexing question
Because I admire McMurtry the author so much, I plopped down $6.95 plus tax for the current issue of Harper’s Magazine at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the other day. The article catching my eye was one by McMurtry asking the provocative question, “Will Amazon kill the book?”
Since this is one big-time bookseller asking the question about another, I thought McMurtry might just be the right guy to answer that question.
He did, and the answer is no.
This, despite the Amazon CEO’s apparent desire to see books go to the back of the shelf. Keep in mind we’re talking about the kind of printed book that the world has known for the past 500 years or so, ever since Johannes Gutenberg started cranking them with his movable type.
Reviewing Richard L. Brandt’s book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, McMurtry is quick to give credit to Amazon’s founder as a creative genius. In fact, his review begins by noting the following:
“If the late Steve Jobs was the Thomas Edison de nos jours, perhaps the ever-present Jeff Bezos of Amazon is our Henry Ford. Both Bezos and Ford had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.”
The Kindle: Year 4
McMurtry is referring not only to the creation of the gigantic online flea market we know as Amazon.com, but also to the new kind of electronic book reader that Amazon launched in 2007 that we know as the Kindle.
But McMurtry disagrees with Bezos that the e-book is going to render ink-on-paper books obsolete as we all migrate to the e-screen of Kindle and – although Bezos might not acknowledge it – the Barnes & Noble version called the Nook.
I wrote about these new technologies a couple years ago in this blog, asking the question, “Will the e-book catch on?” Certainly the sales that Amazon is touting of Kindle seem to indicate they are indeed catching on. But my own personal observations, made over the past year on my college campus of 5,200 undergrads, indicate otherwise. I just don’t see that many students sitting under the trees reading e-books.
Doubting the worst
McMurtry, doubts that e-books will wipe out traditional tomes. Keep in mind, however, he has a financial interest in the health of the printed book. He does have to pay the utilities for all that bookstore space out in Archer city. Nevertheless, he writes:
“Less attractive about Bezos is his obvious irritation at the continued existence of the paperbound book, which provides, still, serious competition to sales of his e-book device, the Kindle.
“He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks it’s time for those relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”
Bubbles can burst
Acknowledging the opening-weekend kind of success the Kindle is having, McMurtry cautions, “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever. It might be a bubble.”
Those of us who have felt the deep satisfaction of taking our time to browse through a bookstore – large or small – and walking out with more than we expected to buy, can appreciate where McMurtry is coming from.
And that kind of customer satisfaction, especially of finding the unexpected volume that had long eluded us elsewhere, is not always such an accident. Again McMurtry writes, “Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
Is older better?
Every time I cast my lot with traditionalists who say the older is better than the newer, I know I run the risk of sounding my age. In fact, the older is not always better. As a writer and a college professor, I know what research used to be like in musty old libraries vs. what it is like now with the library sitting on my lap as those needed references appear in seconds rather than hours.
Still I hasten to add that reading from the printed page in a nicely bound book that you can keep as a reminder in plain sight after you’re finished, is nothing to write off so easily.
At least it doesn’t require a battery or a frantic call to the Geek Squad if the e-reader refuses to waken from its zzzzzzz’s.
Leave it to a New Yorker cartoon to prod our thinking into reality, fantasy, and the online world of communication.
In this cartoon a terrier is having a conversation with another canine and says: “The thing I like about the Internet is that, online, no one knows you’re a dog.”
Wait for it.
Reality and the Web
Murray Gordon, who has merged the worlds of psychology, philosophy, and computer science in his academic and professional careers, tells us what most of us already know about how the Internet stacks up against what we normally know as reality. BTW, the latter is a fuzzy concept at times, no?
“I have found … that there is a recurrent theme which spontaneously arises concerning the body and mind when people begin reflecting on their experiences in the online world,” Murray writes. “In the everyday world, we can see each other, and make judgements and evaluations of others, consciously or unconsciously, based on their physical appearance.
” What sex are they? What clothes are worn? Neat or messy? Young or old? Am I attracted to her or him? Do I appear attractive to him or her? But online these usual evaluations and judgments are turned on their head. One young woman tells me that what she really likes about internet chat rooms Is that ‘online, you can be whomever you want to be.’”
I have discovered this to be true myself. In my single years I ventured into the world of online dating and actually found Ms. Right waiting there for me. We’ve been married 11 years now, so the experience can definitely work.
However, as most online daters have found, the search is not always an easy one. Sometimes finding your soulmate is more like navigating a maze rather than following a clearly marked trail.
A year before meeting my wife Anne, I struck up an online relationship with a nice woman, half a continent away. Our online conversations seemed to bring out the best of us both as writers. Since our “relationship” was totally text based for several weeks, that was important, plus the fact we could make each other laugh pretty easily. Everything seemed to be clicking. We were both journalists and our love of words and well-turned phrases flourished in our exchanges.
You’ve Got Mail
It was like the scenes in You’ve Got Mail when Joe and Kathleen couldn’t wait to get home to their respective computers to read the other’s e-mail. And when two people who have never met can feel that way, fantasy must be playing a role in those expectations.
Finally, we faced the moment of decision that all online daters face: whether to risk what was a pretty satisfying fantasy, made up of daily online exchanges, to meet face to face and see whether fantasy matched reality. So I hopped on a plane and she met me at her airport.
Within the first five minutes I knew it was a mistake.
The fantasy-sinker was the non-verbals ,which aren’t part of the online experience. She laughed too hard and too quickly at things I said; sometimes even before I said them. The way she physically moved seemed out of synch with the way I thought she would. Something about the eye contact wasn’t quite right. Then there was something else: she just didn’t smell right. I was back on the plane the next morning, headed home alone.
Reminds you of the nitpicking way Seinfeld evaluated his endless parade of dates, right? Maybe so, but all these nonverbals were real to me. And about the smell — what’s up with that? Not as strange as you might think, and I actually have some backup for that assertion. In addition to some recent studies done on how a person can actually sniff out a similar or opposite DNA, there is the following from Psychology Today:
“Psychologists Rachel Herz and Estelle Campenni were just getting to know each other, swapping stories about their lives over coffee, when Campenni confided something unexpected: She was living proof, she said, of love at first smell.
“‘I knew I would marry my husband the minute I smelled him,’ she told Herz. ‘I’ve always been into smell, but this was different; he really smelled good to me. His scent made me feel safe and at the same time turned on—and I’m talking about his real body smell, not cologne or soap. I’d never felt like that from a man’s smell before. We’ve been married for eight years now and have three kids, and his smell is always very sexy to me.”
And about that DNA sniffing? From Discovery Fit & Health, there is word of this study:
“In several studies, researchers have had women smell men’s used T-shirts and rank them according to how attractive the smell is. In the past, women have indicated that the most pleasurable shirts belong to men with different major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes than they do, so scientists believe that women can subconsciously smell a man’s genes. MHC genes, which affect the immune system, have been determined to play a role in everything from sexual attraction to marital happiness.”
When’s the last time you smelled anything or anyone on the Web?
A test will follow
OK, I agree this is starting to sound weird, but my points remain:
1. Fantasy is alive and well in communication exchanges happening in the virtual world.
2. While fantasies provide a welcome escape from a harsh reality at times, they also provide a weak foundation for relationships that must enter — at some point — the world of reality.
3. Nonverbal communication often is the litmus test to measure whether fantasy matches reality for two people considering a relationship together.
And don’t forget the question inherent in that New Yorker cartoon: How do you know the person on the other end is really human at all?