During our class discussion about online versus offline mourning, my table came across a post on the 9/11 memorial website in which someone claimed that their three year old son was very much impacted by the fall of the World Trade towers, since just a day before he had built two towers out of food cans. This strange posting on the website led to discussion at our table about the lengths people seem to go to in order to connect themselves to a tragic event during times of mourning, and how online mourning can facilitate this desire.
Several months ago, one of my high school classmates was killed by another of my high school classmates. The event certainly shocked many people of the community, including not only those who were close friends with the victim, but also acquaintances who may have only met him a few times. His Facebook page became a type of memorial, where people posted about the great guy he was and memories they shared with him. It was strange to see people who barely knew the victim making long, mournful posts on his Wall. I even remember pondering whether I too should post something. Though I had not spoken to him for several years, I felt that I wanted to be a part of mourning. Ultimately, Facebook provided a platform for me to publicly be apart of this shocking community event even though I barely had any kind of connection to it.
This summer, I saw a documentary on Netflix called The Woman Who Wasn’t There about a woman who desperately wanted to be a part of not only the 9/11 mourning, but also the event itself. Though most of the story took place in an offline environment, I feel that this documentary captures the feelings I have attempted to express in this post. I found it a fascinating tale, and would highly recommend it. Below, I have embedded the movie trailer.
This week I collected data to see what clothes people who participated in class chose to wear. Continued collection of data like this could investigate to see if there is a correlation between the clothes people wear and whether or not they participate frequently in class. However, I only collected the data for Tuesday due to the workshop nature of Thursday’s class, so it will only provide a snapshot of class participation.
Tuesday, March 17:
5 people wearing pants –> 6 participations
21 people wearing shorts –> 13 participations
Shirts 9 people wearing long-sleeves –> 6 participations
15 people wearing short-sleeves –> 7 participations
2 people wearing no-sleeves –> 5 participations
In Mejias’ chapter on “Computers as Socializing Tools” he sites the critique of social computing, a field focused on the modeling of social behavior, that in some way it simplifies human behavior by “dumbing it down” to a level which a computer can understand it. The creation of artificial intelligence or games like the Sims demonstrate attempts to recreate human life in the digital realm. These attempts so far have fallen short in recreating a 100 percent realistic picture. Therefore, the question remains can computerized algorithms, however complex, ever truly model how we behave? The answer depends who you ask. Critiques such as those mentioned by Mejias might challenge the plausibility. However, some physicists may argue otherwise. Theoretically, if a unified theory of physics such as string theory were ever to be proven, any concept of free will would be nullified. This would mean our brains operate no differently than computers, collecting stimuli and working through algorithms to arrive at an appropriate action. If this is truly the case, then there is no reason computers could not accurately model human behavior. The only obstacle to this goal would be understanding the complex algorithms of the human mind, which is certainly a daunting task.
Much like Winston Smith, we are all very aware that we are being surveyed in one way or another. Every time we use the internet or a credit card, data pertinent to our lives is automatically entered into massive databases under control of both government and private agencies. I even know several people who keep tape over the webcam on their computers, making the comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four and its two-way television even more clear and relevant. However, Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s model of “Big Brother” falls short of modeling the current surveillance of American society. One such weaknesses of Orwell’s model is its lack of covertness. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, citizens were made well aware of their own surveillance. And while today we are very well aware that the government and other agencies are keeping watch, the day to day ways in which we are surveyed are often not even realized. A subtle Google search may seem insignificant enough, but every search can easily be cataloged into massive databases accessible by the powerful few. It wasn’t even until Edward Snowden’s leaks that this type of surveillance has become common household knowledge or discussion. Therefore, we could be classified as much more naive than the citizens of Oceania with regards to surveillance.
Dataveillance is a word which captures the spirit of today’s massive surveillance efforts. The term suggests not only a visual surveillance such as Orwell envisioned, but a surveillance of data in general. The thought that massive databases which collect wide varieties of different data types are now being used to characterize and model our lives is quite sobering, and a reality which we’ve already witnessed in this class.