Targeted Ads

The talk of the algorithms often used with both social media and ads from the readings reminded me of all the instances in which I have been ‘attacked’ by targeted ads.  Almost daily, and I’m sure every student in the class could attest to this, my phone seems to ‘spy’ on my conversations and actions, later gearing the ads on my feed accordingly.  For example, I can Google places to eat breakfast in the morning and find an ad for McDonald’s breakfast on my Instagram feed minutes later.  While not particularly something encouraging, it does make logical sense for my phone/laptop/etc… to use my browsing history in order to get a clearer picture of my wants and desires.  This is sadly what happened to the woman who was constantly reminded about the loss of her daughter and many others like her.

The more sinister and invasive means of algorithmic cruelty, as seen in the other article, seems to stem from the targeted ads that are attained by the algorithm spying on our real life.  People are ready to accept their moves being monitored while online, but draw the line when that same monitoring carries over to life away from the screen.  We are told to believe that our ads do not listen to our conversations, but I can assure from experience that more people believe it to be true than not.  How else can I explain the time before I studied abroad when a friend and I were talking about Marmite, something I had never previously heard of, and later open my phone to find an ad for the very same product?  I don’t know how Mark Zuckerberg is going to defer that one, but ‘advanced algorithms’ do not seem to be a possible answer.

My lack of computer and programming expertise will probably prevent me from ever knowing for certain.  But the way it stands now, and as the articles have suggested, people seem to be fed up of the pervasive and downright distasteful nature that ‘advanced algorithmic ads’ seem to be trending towards.

Is happiness the presumed/required emotion shown online?

The titled question raised in my head when I read the following sentence in Gillian Brockell’s letter to the Tech companies: “when we millions of brokenhearted people…even answer your “Why?” with the cruel-but-true “It’s not relevant to me”…It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result.” In class, we have discussed how cyberspace becomes a place for people to mourn. And in my experience, I have also read lots of posts and comments sharing depression, frustration, anger or even, occasionally, suspected suicide notes. However, as we see the happy design of Facebook “Year in Review” in Eric Meyer’s article, joy may still be the presumed dominant emotion on social networking sites.

This issue reminds me of a discussion on Weibo (a Chinese social networking site similar to Twitter, with more serious censorship though) some time ago (I am sorry I didn’t save the post so I cannot show it here). The topic is about Weibo deleting posts involving anger and negative emotion towards the authority. Accounts spreading “rumors” and arousing panic will get frozen. I am not going to discuss the controversy about censorship and public safety here. However, this Weibo policy definitely makes some people think that they are not allowed to express any negative emotion (although I don’t think this is the main intention of the law-makers). In the comment area, many users write sarcastically that from now on, you can only post happy lives online or else you are spreading panic/negative emotion because increasing happiness of all Chinese citizens is one of the nation’s policies. Too many negative emotion is a problem that needed to be controlled. Even now, when some people post some depressed or suspected suicide notes, there will always a few trolls who comment e.g. “yep you’re a loser, why don’t u just jump quickly. I have been waiting for you to jump for some hours.” I don’t know any of these trolls so I cannot tell why they say so. But I think the issue here is, for some reason, when we go online, we expect to see happy posts and comments, while negative posts will be seen as attention-seeking by some people. Therefore, although social networking sites are a private place to express our emotion freely, both positive and negative emotions, why do the tech companies and even users expect to see happiness online?

Social Media Lost Loved Ones

The readings for today address the way that the algorithms used by many of the free websites and services used can victimize individuals by forcing traumatic memories and experiences back on them. While the depth of how much the experiences mentioned in the articles hurts is not something most of us as readers can sympathize with it is easy to understand why people like that need a way to opt out. As a male I cannot even come close to how a stillborn child would feel. The closest I have come to experiencing part of that is that I am friends with two unmemorialized accounts of dead loved ones on Facebook. One belongs to a dear childhood friend that I see on certain anniversaries and the other is a friends deceased grandmother who’s living daughter uses her account to make posts and messages as if she were still alive. Seeing both of these things aren’t the result of ad algorithms but I will never want to willingly not see those posts despite the fact the former makes me tear up while the latter makes me incredibly frustrated as I want to remember them but can’t ever cut out anything of whatever’s left and unfollow them which is simple because I want to remember them.

In addition to the difference in level of the relationship shared by the mourning and lost individuals a key difference in why the algorithmic injustice is more frustrating is that I have only observed other people’s interactions and grieving process while the algorithm acts on the authors of today’s readings. My role is an observer looking back rather than a person who is literally having my personal life targeted for commercial gain.

I do recognize the injustice performed by the ad algorithms but I also understand that efficient tracking algorithms that predict wants and need are part of why we can use services for free so that the firm running it can operate. Both authors mentioned that there were ways to manually tell the algorithm you are not interested but is it possible that’s the best we can get? A pregnancy might have dozens of posts made about it over its duration but a serious complication would likely get one or none. If the program that tracks consumers is overly sensitive would it lose efficiency and therefore value?

Cold Cruel Code

After reading the two articles on algorithmic cruelty I came to the realization that code is cold. The code doesn’t feel, the code doesn’t think, the code just does. A code will follow its directives, accomplish its task and then repeat. But codes didn’t just appear randomly. Codes and algorithms aren’t a natural part of this world; they’re man-made. So the truth is that it isn’t the code that’s cold but it’s us, humanity.

More specifically, the cold ones are the creators of the codes and algorithms and the corporations that allowed this code to exist. They created programs that were efficient but focused on the masses instead of the individual. They created programs that were centered around the living because the harsh truth is the dead don’t matter to these tech companies. The dead can’t use social media or buy products. The dead serve no purpose for the company and that’s why they weren’t considered in the algorithm. The company also doesn’t care how death can personally affect the living.

I wonder if this generation is really as distanced from death as we think. Sure we live longer on average but death is all around us. Just recently we heard about the tragic shooting in New Zealand, and while it was terrible it isn’t anything new unfortunately; gun violence is something that happens on a daily basis in America. I wonder if we’ve reverted to Victorian times where death is so apart of our daily lives that we are desensitized to it. Maybe that’s why these codes were written the way they were. Maybe the programmer and the people in charge didn’t even acknowledge the dead because it doesn’t happen as often and because it’s apart of our daily lives.

Our generation is more complicated than others because while we can live longer we can die just as easily. Unlike the Victorians we read about where death at a young age was a virtual certainty, we have a longer life expectancy. But because of our technological advancements, we’ve built tools that make it easier to live and save lives but also easier to die and take them. Death is close and far at the same time which puts us in this weird middle-void space where we’ve become cold towards death as a result. I believe this thinking has influenced our subconscious and now it’s showing. The cold cruel code is just one example.

An Immortal Obsession

While reading the article on Thomas Edison’s spirit phone, I came to a realization; humans are obsessed with death. Death is the one certainty we all can agree on but it is also the thing we know virtually nothing about. We seek out the dead to gain clues about the afterlife and to get reassurance that it’s not so bad on the other side. In today’s world we use mediums, ouija boards, digital versions of ourselves, seances, etc… to reach the dead.

This article proves that we’ve had this obsession during Edison’s time as well. Even Edison was curious about the afterlife and believed that he could contact the dead with his “spirit phone.” With the rapid growth of technology Edison, like everyone else, got confident and felt that they were closer to reaching immortality; that they could finally cheat death.

I think at the core of all of these methods to contact the dead is a desire to achieve immortality. We contact the dead to gain clues about the afterlife and even though we’re curious about what comes next we also fear what comes next. Fear is stronger than our curiosity. What we really seek is immortality. We fear death and what comes next and constantly seek ways to subvert it; even if we only achieve that immortaltiy through the digital world. In the modern world we are further removed from death than in Edison’s time so  as we continue to advance technologically we will continue to seek immortality until the day we die.

Fear: the combination of the known and unknown

Mark Fisher’s article categorizes the nature of eerie into two types: “a failure of absence” and “a failure of presence”. Both of the types include the sensation of unknown. However, what makes us feel the eerieness is not only what we do not know, but our speculation. In order word, I think eerieness is generated from what we think we know. Take Fisher’s example of a bird’s cry. We may know nothing about the bird, but we personify it with our human subjectivity, limited knowledge and culture. We always demonize the things that are unknown or exotic to us, thus the sensation of eerie is a combination of quasi-known and quasi-unknown.

Similar to the example of the spirit phone, we do not yet know many things, if not nothing, about the afterlife, yet we try to use what we know a little bit more, science, to explain the unknown. That is the reason nowadays “ghost hunters” are still using auditory methods, such as “spirit phone” apps and spiritual recorders, to capture the proof of spirits. It is because our cultural concepts of the proof of spirits still maintain as that in Thomas Edison’s era. As one of the greatest inventors in the world, Thomas Edison and his theory of afterlife particles and phonograph are more like a cultural symbol of truth and solution to unknown than an actual scientific basis to supernatural phenomenon.

Another element of the sensation of eerieness, according to Fisher, related to an unknown agency. Our concern of the presence of an agency (god, demons etc.) shows the fact that, although human has been explaining “eerie” events with scientific knowledge, at the end of the day, we have to accept our powerlessness.

The Eeriness of Ouija Boards

Humans have an innate desire to want what they can’t have.  When a close friend, family member, or lover passes away, we tend to possess this same desire–to remain in contact with those that have left us.  As Natalie Zarrelli’s article we read for class shows, even the brightest minds in history, like Edison, have sought ways to contact the deceased.  Countless practices, traditions, and beliefs regarding a connection between the living and the dead have existed across varying religions, belief systems, and cultures.  A staple of American spiritualism, which has since transcended into cult status, is the Ouija board.Image result for ouija board

Ever so present within American lore and horror, the Ouija board is believed to have origins just as mysterious as the boards themselves.  Most are familiar with the simple board and totem that is supposedly capable of contacting spirits.  I myself own a Ouija Board and have tried to contact spirits on several occasions with friends.  Though I’m not entirely convinced of their efficacy, the experience is still highly eerie and potentially downright scary.  Sitting in a pitch black room with the intention of contacting the spirit will put anyone on edge.  As Fisher mentioned in their article, the ‘eerie’ stems from either “a failure of absence or by a failure of presence“.  In either case, a Ouija board is clearly certain to invoke a feeling of eeriness.  If the board piece does not move, aka a failure of presence, a sense of eeriness is created by the anticipation of movement or hope that a spirit will, in fact, respond.  On the other hand, a failure of absence–i.e., a spirit communicating through the movement of the board piece–seems just as, if not more, eerie.  While the hope of using a Ouija board is to engage with ghosts/spirits/the dead, when such engagement actually occurs, we fear the existence of these spirits since it reverts our general assumptions about life and death.  It also creates a sense of curiosity about the spirits themselves, like who they are, why there are contacting us, and what their intentions are.

Either way, a Ouija board is an interesting relic of both spirituality and horror.  If we can’t contact the paranormal through this game, then our assumptions about death seem to be confirmed.  But if the board cooperates (even if it is just a friend moving the piece on purpose), we are then filled with an anxious wonder about our very own place within reality and doubts about our own mortality.  Until someone like Elon Musk decides to abandon his aspirations for SpaceX and dedicates his efforts towards improving the Spirit Phone, we may just have to remain in eerie uncertainty.

The Importance of Appearance

Dead Set appears at first glance to me to be just another zombie show that does not deviate heavily from the already popular trends with a group of unlikely and unprepared survivors coming together to try and survive against a mass of man-eaters, while providing commentary on society.

One thing that stood out to me in particular is the zombies seem to have an obsession with not just living humans, but also the image of humans, indicated by their frequent attachment to television screens and mirrors but do not attack. Zombies having strong attachments to the human image is possibly a comment about society today, as people often have inclinations to be focused on the way in which themselves and others are presented. Conveniently most of the characters are actors within the show already and easily presented as justifiably strange or interesting characters. When the group first observes the mass of zombies one character goes so far as to ask if they’re not on television and one implies that wifi is at fault for messing with your molecules. Comments like these indicate that the speakers struggle to observe the world outside of themselves and are shallow to a comical degree. Thoughts did not turn to friends, family, or loved ones, but to irrational and unhelpful conclusions that gives them an excuse to talk. It is unclear how much personality remains within zombies as a zombie did show hesitation by not immediately attempting to eat her when faced with one it had been physically involved with. However this does indicate that zombies might be able to differentiate between people and are not so simple to only care about food.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: We are all zombies

As a fan of the AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombie is no longer a scary or innovative theme for me. However, Dead Set definitely gives a new meaning to the zombie theme, that TV viewers and producers are all zombies in this era of entertainment.

In the beginning, Dead Set first brings us to another reality TV show, the Big Brother. Although the Big Brother contestants will definitely be the major characters of this show, they are not the only “contestants”. We see the staff behind the making of the famous reality show before, not long, the zombie outbreak. At this moment, the production staff also becomes the contestants in a reality show named Dead Set, in which we the audience root for Kelly and boo at Patrick (or vice versa, or both) when they are cheating and swearing and later running and fighting for their lives. And more ironically, the show does not try to hide this sarcasm: when Kelly runs into the big brother house covered in blood, the others all think that she is a new contestant. 

In the era dominated by entertainment business, everyone involves in the culture are trapped and gradually become numb about society. When there is a riot in London, the only thing that the production team cares about is whether their show can on air; When people are dying and screaming outside, the Big Brother contestants only thinks that they are crazy for them and get drunk for celebrating their fame; And the supporters outside the studio, despite an obvious crisis in the country, care about a TV show over their society. The show presents this problem explicitly by Joplin’s first line: “What is TV anyway? It’s just a big fat arrow pointing away from the problem”. And the producer’s attitude to the riot also proves this view, as he says “why don’t they (protesters) just watch TV”. Yet, pathetically, though being aware of the problem about media, Joplin’s, who wants someone to hear his voice, only choice is to be on the TV so that he will get attention. It is so ironic that both the production team and the contestants believe that they control the show and the audiences until the audiences – the zombies that are produced by them and the entertainment industry – get back to them.

Just like many scenes shot from the glasses outside the big brother house and depict the contestants like being trapped and watched in a box, everyone – producers and receivers – are all trapped in the entertainment culture, not only television but all forms of social media. That is the reason why we see Kelly tries to escape the studio but eventually has to go back into it, where I believe they would never get out in the entire season and at the end die in. In the present day that we are surrounded by entertainment culture, we are also surrounded by zombies that are numb about every other thing, and may eventually turn into one of them. And this is exactly the horror we should be afraid of in the postmodern age.

Surrealism of Death through a Digital Medium

Dead Set presents reality shown through different mediums (reality tv show/news/reality of the tv room) by exemplifying postmodern horror with the zombies disrupting everyday life. There’s irony/self awareness in Dead Set from the fact that there is a reality tv show within a tv show, using different mediums to mock digital culture and the blurred lines of what is perceived to be “truth” and what is curated to look like the truth. The first appearance of the zombie in the show seemed almost ironic from a 2019 perspective because of the abundance of zombies in our digital culture (from The Walking Dead to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – which is a clash of modern lit with postmodern horror) that in my perspective, the sudden appearance of zombies coupled with its self-awareness that the viewers are watching a tv show of a tv network producing a reality tv show made it quite unbelievable due to its overloaded with its digital mediums and elements of postmodern horror.
What I found the most fascinating was how rules are created and changed depending on the different simulations of reality the characters are in. In the tv network building, the horror of that space is the uncomfortable gaze of the male tv network producer and the significance of eviction night that ensues chaos from people. In the reality tv show, “getting a red card” is the worst case scenario, and being evicted is the horror. In the news, the horror is the uncertainty of the reason behind the riots and the fact that people are getting killed. All three of these simulations are then encompassed by the “true” reality of zombies roaming about and attacking people, and this truth literally clashes into the space of the tv network and the reality tv show, illustrating how different simulations create different realities. When Kelly bursts into the house where Big Brother happens, the people in the tv show clap thinking she is a new guest. Even the attack of the zombies is ridiculed and seen as a Big Brother challenge due to the fact that these people are trapped in the “reality” of this tv show and this is their world. There is a surrealistic element when death is presented through a digital medium as it distances people from recognizing the truth of circumstances or to be in touch with their reality, removing empathy and violating the boundaries of rationality and irrationality.
My favorite quote that stuck out to me from the first two episodes was when one of the characters, with disappointment that there are actual zombies and they’re not being filmed anymore, states,  “Does this mean we’re not on telly anymore?”
Dead Set downright mocks pop culture with that quote.