Personal Information: When Less is More

As I’ve continued to read The Circle by Dave Eggers, I’ve gotten progressively more freaked out by the idea of such an all-inclusive social network. Although this comes from last week’s reading, the scene where Mae is accosted by a superior for not activating her social circle had me sweating, as did her meeting with an offended employee.

This week’s reading (I think; I’ve overlapped somewhat) introduced LuvLuv, an extremely creepy search engine that allows users to (in the world of The Circle, of course), pinpoint another user’s preferences regarding dating. The common theme that these fictional technologies share seems to be the idea that all information about each other must be shared to ensure efficiency, and indeed, this is the company’s predominant slogan: “All that happens must be known.” Sure, in the novel, LuvLuv can only search for information already provided for by the user, but our intentions when posting statuses surely cannot be to have them meticulously combed. As Mae points out in the book, what’s wrong with simply asking someone in person? She, understandably, hates having her information sifted through, and states that perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want her personality to be boiled down to her presence on social media.

The catch-22 is that The Circle wants this to happen, for everyone, but is it truly possible? Can social media effectively convey who someone is through photos and text on a computer screen? Unfortunately for Mae, this is what her company requires, and later, her ex-boyfriend expresses his opinions on the subject, saying that social media only clouds legitimate relationships. I wholly believe this to be the case. Sure, perhaps these websites can offer a small glimpse of someone’s hobbies and interests, but that seems to be about it. This doesn’t even take into account that (thank God), we still have a choice, no matter how thinly veiled, in terms of what we decide to post. As a result, we only post what we want to be illuminated. I can’t imagine a world where everyone knew everything about me. Give me the shadows, because when I decide to let myself out, it will mean that much more.

Hypocrisy at the Circle

One of the most notable themes that can be identified between pages 102 and 205 of The Circle is hypocrisy.  As Mae continues incorporating herself more and more into the Circle and immersing herself in its culture, it seems that she loses a sense of who she is and what she stands for.  Her interactions with both Francis and Mercer highlight this development.

When LuvLuv was introduced at Dream Friday, Mae was horrified to find herself named publicly as the subject of Francis’ affection during a preview of the new service.  Mae was caught off guard and unprepared for the entire experience.  Ultimately, everyone in the audience was given a detailed look into her life, including her allergies, names of restaurants she frequents, rankings of her favorite foods, movie preferences, favorite locations, and more.  LuvLuv was able to take advantage of the data trail she had been unwittingly leaving for years and turn it into a search engine for people who were interested in knowing about her.  Mae, understandably, is furious and finds herself wondering why Francis couldn’t ask her himself what he wanted to know about her.

One day later, however, Mercer repeats this same question to Mae when he criticizes her work at and association with the Circle.  Mercer take issue with how Mae interacts and communicates with him, essentially unhappy with how she uses social networks to interact, prioritizing online engagement over personal engagement.  He has problems with how the Circle encourages people to participate online in what he understands to be a system that perpetuates untrue information by way of comments, posts and reviews on businesses.  Mae had believed one of the false reviews about his business that was nothing more than rumor, and he is frustrated that she became instantly angry with him instead of asking him personally to verify the claim.  As a reader its frustrating that Mae can’t see the ironic parallel between her own frustration and Mercer’s. She had been wishing for the exact same thing only a day ago, that Francis ask engage with her personally.  Yet when speaking with Mercer, she decries him as an underachiever for being unwilling to participate and buy into the necessity of an online presence.  If she really believed in the importance of this online presence then she would have no issue with LuvLuv.

Maybe its my natural tendency to distrust things I don’t completely understand (in this case the Circle’s incongruous image as an overlord yet extremely convenient and necessary for social life), but Mercer’s interaction with Mae was the first time during my reading that I wasn’t on Mae’s side.  He advocates for an offline lifestyle and refuses to buy into the Circle’s dominance over communication and interaction, which is refreshing after reading about Mae being blindly enthralled by the Circle’s capabilities and technologies.  She refuses to acknowledge the dangerous side of these technologies, even after she is upset about the LuvLuv incident.  Mercer, I think, provides a needed respite from the Circle and its culture, and at least proves that some characters are immune to it’s powerful influence.

Looking For Love In all the Wrong Places

In this week’s reading of The Circle, an app called LuvLuv is introduced. The app makes all of the data surrounding an individual available for the lover in question to use in order to make wise decisions on dates and ultimately, win over the individual.

I immediately compared this fictitious app to present dating sites including Eharmony and Match.com. I personally do not have much experience with the sites, but they do expedite the process of matching people with similar interests. The main difference between these sites and LuvLuv is that people can edit their profiles on today’s dating sites. This ability often leads to people altering some (Read: most) of their details in order to seem more attractive; in this sense forming an artificial data double. The classic example leads to profile pictures that are taken at a way earlier date or of a completely different person. Additionally, it is questionable whether a perfect match of interests leads to a happy couple (See Video). The saying, “Opposites attract obviously does not apply to dating sites.

LuvLuv ultimately cuts out this flaw entirely, by using truthful data out of people’s everyday lives, leading to a pretty accurate depiction of an individual. Although useful, I think there is another weakness in this system. By making this information known to the general public, it makes dating into a somewhat rigged game rather than real life. If I knew all of a person’s interests before meeting them, I could artificially make myself exactly like them. I could take her to her favorite restaurant, put on her favorite music, and ultimately connect with her using the power of information. The problem the person on that date would not be “me.” I would be just as fake as the 80 year old using an Eharmony profile picture from the 1970s.

Although both methods attempt to precipitate relationships, I think love is something that cannot be created with wires.

Incompatibility of Dataveillance and Relationships

Eggers highlights the complications arising from dataveillance in relationships, seen when Mae’s personal information is revealed to Francis through a search program called LuvLuv. This program utilizes an algorithm to search for Mae’s interests and dislikes, while “[analyzing] for relevance,” in order to create a virtual profile for suitors (Eggers 123). LuvLuv only turns up information that Mae “openly offered” or that was collected through her use of TruYou, highlighting her active role in producing the data LuvLuv aggregates. Understandably, Mae is uncomfortable with “having a matrix of preferences presented as [her] essence,” which she notes is not completely accurate (126).

This passage highlights the benefits of having a certain level of initial ignorance when in a relationship, as personal information must be learned through getting to personally know someone. Even though she provided this information publicly, it seems as though forgoing the process of becoming close with someone is unnatural. Moreover, simply collecting information about someone does not equate with truly getting to know that person, which requires time and trust. As Mae’s ex notes, Circle creates programs that “manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs,” highlighting how this technology is overstepping the bounds of normal dating behavior (134). Although one could argue that people use dating websites today, which essentially reflect LuvLuv’s goals, I would say that the active collection and creation of an online profile by the individual differs from an external source doing so for you.

Disintermediated Existence

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Distraction becomes all too easy as we are awash in the cornucopia of advancements spurred by the digital revolution. With eyeballs fixed to headlines about the next iPhone or pictures of crushes on FaceBook, existential questions can tacitly seep into the shadows. It is often said that nothing can hide in the watchful eye of the NSA in today’s database-driven world, but a few new things are born when the entropic force of time is abated even slightly. Death is a fundamental element of human existence, but it would seem that even the dissolution of existence into the sands of time can be partially abated.

While a best friend may pass away in the real world, their FaceBook profile, emails, game avatars, and other digital paraphernalia continue to live on in cyberspace. The mourning process is also evolved. Joyce Walker notes that,

Not only did the Web allow for the creation of both public and private spaces for the activities of mourning, it also allowed these spaces to exist in direct cohabitation with sites developed to meet other rhetorical goals (i.e., information sharing, news, and political discussions).

In other words, with a transformative medium of information exchange and culture creation comes a new paradigm for existence, mourning, and death. Cultural cross-politinaton takes place between political and personal spheres. These new modes of sociocultural interface were brought to the forefront by the events of September 11, 2001. For the first time, news and images of these events were disseminated globally over a medium that not only allowed for democratized consumption but also democratized creation. Lee Manovich considers this new form of interaction as “telepresence” describing it as

one example of representational technologies used to enable action, that is, to allow the viewer to manipulate reality through representations.

The key element of this new reality lies in its negotiability. People don’t have to experience these events and mourn them through one-way channels like television and radio (transformative in their own right), but they are able to actively participate in defining the life, death, and memory. Because this cultural exchange itself takes place over digital mediums in databases, these processes can themselves be studied and evolve understanding over time.

 

Choosing Data Visuals

I found Johnathon Harris’ choice in portraying the timeline of the photos of his work “The Whale Hunt” to be very interesting. The pulse-like structure was certainly very misleading. When I first was on the site, I thought the the spikes in the timeline, similar to the spikes of a heart beating, represented exciting things happening in the series. This was enforced by the large amount of spiking at the end of the timeline, which I assumed coincided with the actual killing of a whale. However, I started to question this notion when I arrived at the large lone spike in the middle of the timeline.

Eventually, I realized that the spikes represented a larger amount of photos taken at the same time. In a way, this still did reflect my original thoughts, as a spike in photos would suggest an event worthy of lots of photos, more than likely more interesting than the events that were given only one photo. In this way, Harris’ timeline is a clever way of portraying the events, as the pulse line does in away suggest which events are more interesting then others, like the whale butchering vs the men standing around at camp.

Seeing this work made me think on what authors take into consideration when choosing a type of visual to represent something. Audience surely has to be the main factor- I thought back to how confusing the Kissinger visualizations were before I had a more thorough explanation. Those were meant for people more experienced in fields trying out different visualizations to gain new insights into something. Harris, as a photographer, was most likely looking at his work as art, and the pulse-like timeline added an extra element of creativity to his work.

Physical Mourning and Online Mourning

In Joyce Walker’s article on narratives in the database, specifically focusing on memorializing September 11th on the Internet, she concludes by comparing how the process of mourning online and then through photographs she took when she visited the memorial site are similar and different, especially in regards to the passing of time. Her navigation of various websites allowed for the fluidity of time because of the sense of participation in viewing the expressions and thoughts of individuals and groups. A photograph, on the other hand, is a closed “emanation of past reality” that does not permit the viewer to experience an awareness of time passing.

Walker’s perception that looking through photographs while she was physically present and also viewing information and pictures online continuously shapes her memories of the experience reaffirms the belief in psychology that our memories are constantly changing. The very act of recalling a memory alters the memory itself, as over time we may emphasize certain scenes, forget details, or hindsight may create different perceptions. But, browsing online perhaps, to a greater extent, permits one to more accurately recollect the memory and recreate the narrative of the event because of the fluidity of time on the Internet. However, the Internet, more so than other modes of communication, enables people to only peruse sites and information that supports their points of view, and, as Walker explored in her article, wildly different viewpoints are accessible from Google searches from “Remembering 9/11 as a Queer Muslim” to U.S. government sources. Overall, mourning through physical presences and  online mourning offer opportunities to explore the greater identity of web users today.

 

Constraints on the Narrative

One issue Joyce Walker discusses in Narratives in the Database involves the constraints society places on the information available on the Internet. Walker states:

“In spite of the seemingly endless diversity of the elements contained within the network of the Internet, we are nevertheless constrained by the norms of our society as to what is created and what elements are recombined.”

Walker illustrates this using the powerful, but extreme, example of how the memorial photographs of the victims of 9/11 where contrasted against the ‘mugshots’ of the terrorists involved in the attacks on the legacy.com website. The pictures chosen to represent and juxtapose the two different groups illustrate how the author of the webpage has limited the narrative of 9/11 to our cultural experience of the attacks. Walker attempted to find similar memorial sites for the terrorists of the attacks, sites that could have easily been formed by any religious extremist with access to the Internet, but she could not find such a site. The Internet and its search methods have presented this story in a way that reflects the cultural norms of society.

This idea can be worrisome when considering other stories or narratives of the past that we create from our Internet sources. Are we building these narratives, or have they already been formed by the authors of webpages, culture, or even by the database-hyperlink structure of the Internet? It is interesting to consider how our knowledge of past experiences is formed by following the hyperlinks presented by others, especially when using a search engine such as Google.

Foundations of Virtual Interaction

Joyce Walker examines the increasing inclination to incorporate “real world” interactions and events into the virtual world by studying the attempts to mourn the attacks of 9/11 in online communities and memorials. This idea of renegotiating physical connection by redefining the way we interact with time and space begs the question of: what constitutes a social connection or relationship? Walker would argue that, today, connection does not necessitate  a face to face conversation. While I understand the social transition of community from the physical to the virtual, I would urge us to examine how this transition changes the way we percieve the purpose of human interaction and what this adds to (or takes away from) our collective memory and communities.

My first recollection of a physical custom’s transition to online was with Neopets. When I was in elementary and middle school, everyone had a Neopet. This was an online, fantastical breed of a pet which you could feed, pet, play with, send on play dates, build houses for and so much more. I loved Neopets, but I remember thinking even then: “This is a game, it isn’t like having a real pet.” It was meant, however, to constitute the relationship between a person and their pet.

What I questioned about Neopets then reflects my questions about Walker’s analysis of 9/11 online mourning and Jonathan Harris’s The Whale Hunt. As I interacted with the The Whale Hunt, I discovered the customizability of the experience using the various filters and the heartbeat monitor. This concept of conveying memory is fascinating, however, what would it be without our preconcieved understanding of the physical? Without having pet our own dogs, we would not understand the concept of petting our neopets. Without grasping what it feels like to have our heartbeat speed up, we would not be able to effectively interact with Harris’s interface. Our virtual interactions are fundamentally build upon our understanding of the physical. The question society must now wrestle with is: In our negotiation of relationships and memory, can we move past the physical or will it always form the basis for our concept of connection? If we can indeed move past it, what comes next? What is the step of human interaction that is beyond the virtual?

Data about Ourselves

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John Foreman’s article about data surveillance and machine learning as a means of gaining information about consumers took a unique approach to a topic in which we have previously discussed in depth. I personally really liked the article and the approach hat Foreman took, and his perspective on the issue.

When he started out with the example of the Disney World tracking device, it seemed as if he was trying to ease in to his argument with a somewhat funny and more lighthearted example. However, it divulges into one of his main points of corporations using data for profit. When Disney can track the different time and places that people do activities, it allows them to use this data to best attempt to maximize their profit and work to the needs of the consumers.

I also really liked how he differentiated between businesses using and NSA using personal data, and how he argued that we should prefer the NSA’s use, as he views the NSA of giving citizens more credit than the businesses. This was an interesting perspective, as the NSA spying my seem less obtrusive than simply tracking shopping habits at first glance.

Overall, I believe that extreme use of machine learning will begin to threaten humanities creativity. Speaking for myself, I am a creature of habit. I tend to frequent the same restaurants, vacation spots, and am a very routine oriented person. Will machine learning tracking everyone habits to the T, it will even lower the probability that people will branch out and push their creative boundaries. Although this can be very useful for company market campaigns, I believe that humanity must continue to evolve in a natural way.

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