Archive for the 'Life' Category

Liberty vs Privacy: the US & EU's Ideological Internet Collision

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In 1863, Alexandre Dumas, famed French author of The Three Musketeers (and known for his love of women) , and Adah Isaacs Menken , a well-known Texan actress, posed for what then qualified as scandalous photographs. The photographer, an aspiring paparazzo, attempted to profit from the photographs, and was sued shortly after by Dumas.

Privacy Picture NYTimes

A graphic provided to convey differing opinions on privacy by the The New York Times in its 'Week in Review' Section on February26, 2010.

Contrary to most contemporary intuitions about media treatment of stars like Tiger Woods, the court ruled, as related in an article by MSNBC‘s Bob Sullivan, that:

“…posing for the photographs did not mean Dumas and Menken had surrendered their rights to privacy and dignity, even if they consented to do just that during a heady romantic moment. These rights trumped any commercial property rights the photographer might have claimed, the court said.”

For most Americans, this ruling, along with the recent ruling against three Google executives in Italy for passively allowing ‘privacy-infringing’ videos to be posted on YoutTube, is troubling.

Beyond the need to fine-tune Google’s passive distribution policies for offensive content, this case highlights a deeper ideological divide, which Dumas’ case also exemplified. As The New York TimesAdam Liptak writes,

“… it called attention to the profound European commitment to privacy, one that threatens the American conception of free expression and could restrict the flow of information on the Internet to everyone.”

In the  abstract (no, I didn’t read the entire paper) of Yale law professor James Whitman’s paper ‘The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity versus Liberty,’ Whitman (or, more likely, some editor of the Yale Law Journal) clearly describes the issues and implications at stake:

Privacy advocates often like to claim that all modern societies feel the same intuitive need to protect privacy. Yet it is clear that intuitive sensibilities about privacy differ from society to society, even as between the closely kindred societies of the United States and continental Europe. Some of the differences involve questions of everyday behavior, such as whether or not one may appear nude in public. But many involve the law. In fact, we are in the midst of major legal conflicts between the countries on either side of the Atlantic–conflicts over questions like the protection of consumer data, the use of discovery in civil procedure, the public exposure of criminal offenders, and more. Clearly the idea that there are universal human sensibilities about privacy, which ought to serve as the basis of a universal law of privacy, cannot be right.

The article (achem…abstract) later argues:

European privacy norms are founded on French and German ideas of “personal honor.” Continental “privacy,” like continental sexual harassment law, prison law, and many other bodies of law, aims to protect the “personal honor” of ordinary French and German folk. American law takes a very different approach, protecting primarily a liberty interest. The Article traces the roots of French and German attitudes over the last couple of centuries, highlighting the French experience of sexual license in the nineteenth century and the German experience of Nazism…

Throughout, the Article argues, American law shows a far greater sensitivity to intrusions on the part of the state, while continental law shows a far greater sensitivity to the protection of one’s public face. These are not differences that we can understand unless we abandon the approach taken by most privacy advocates, since such differences have little to do with the supposedly universal intuitive needs of “personhood.” Instead, they are differences that reflect the contrasting political and social ideals of American and continental law. Indeed, we should broadly reject intuitionism in our legal scholarship, focusing instead on social and political ideals.

For those of you still reading the post after reading through that quote (it might be a bit dry for some), I tend to disagree with Whitman’s rejection of the notion of some universal concept of ‘personhood’, though I also (unsurprisingly) lean toward sympathizing with American ideological and, hence, policy decisions.

The differing opinion lies in what I believe to be a false dichotomy that Whitman presents: between ‘dignity’ and ‘liberty.’ The value of ‘liberty,’ I think, draws its compellent force, like ‘privacy,’ from an intuitive notion of ‘personhood’ or ‘human dignity.’ And so, the dichotomy instead lies between ‘liberty’ and ‘privacy.’

Like most talk of ‘rights,’ however, these discussions are muddled by differing foundational concepts, not to mention differing laws (premised on those differing concepts) across national boundaries.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, we must weigh the value of ‘liberty’ against ‘privacy,’ knowing that that the results will vary by situation. I wouldn’t, for example, value a voyeur’s autonomous choice to spy on someone through a window over the watched person’s desire not to be watched while changing. More broadly, it’s understandable, too, that there should a sliding scale for the threshold of what constitutes tolerable infringements of either value across different cultures and national boundaries.

University of Michigan Internet law professor Susan Crawford also cautions against cagetorical thinking in the aforementioned NYTimes article:

Privacy is a broad enough concept, and Europe and America are varied enough, that it is easy to find counterexamples. Britain, for one, is only slowly moving toward the Continental model.

Something tells me, however, that the ideological divide will continue and deepen as online media continues to proliferate. I wonder how French courts would feel about the sale of copies of of Dumas’ and Mencken’s photos on this NY state-based site.

The Buzz Around Google Buzz

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Google Buzz Logo

Beyond Status Messages: Google's push into social sharing of updates, photos, videos & more.

Leaked yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, Google announced the deployment of Google Buzz, its exciting foray into providing its own real-time social media platform.

Other Google Social Media Endeavors

To say, however, Buzz is Google’s first social media venture is not quite right. In 2004, Google launched Orkut, its proprietary social network, to little fanfare and minimal Stateside impact to this day. According to demographic reports, over 50 percent of users hail from Brazil, roughly 20 percent from India, and a measly 17 percent from the US.

Interestingly, Google’s nascent real-time social media search has received considerably less media coverage (largely obscured by its release of Google Goggles on the same day and the existence of rivals like Collecta and Bing Twitter), although its ultimate impact on the largely untamed social media landscape, I think, could be tremendous. Echoing Michael Arrington’s sentiment, social media now feels like search did a decade ago. Perhaps Google can be the transformative force in real-time media, as it was in taming the vastness of the internet. Arrington writes:

A decade ago most of us were using AltaVista or something similar for search. No one was really complaining very much about the huge amount of spam and other noise that cluttered the results because we didn’t know there was a better way. Then Google came along with Page Rank, and had a profound effect on the quality of Internet search. Suddenly (and it really was that sudden), we couldn’t imagine going back to AltaVista and searching pages of results for the thing that Google gave us immediately.

The online social landscape today sort of feels to me like search did in 1999. It’s a mess, but we don’t complain much about it because we don’t know there’s a better way.

Google Buzz

Google Buzz may very well be the piece of social media that “unites the clans,” so to speak. While Gmail has allowed its 146 monthly million users (as of July 2009) to update Gchat statuses, this functionality lacked the timeline-view that allows one to view her friends’ update history, akin to viewing friends’ feeds on Facebook and Twitter. While Buzz links to external sites like YouTube and Picasa (which it owns), it also links to Twitter but doesn’t link to Facebook.  After a brief look at some of its other features and factors like competing ID systems, it becomes clear, I think, that Google is taking a big swing at Facebook with Google Buzz.

Multimedia sharing and viewing interface. A demonstration of Google Buzz’s multimedia viewing and sharing tools (see the video posted below) reveals moderately superior tools to Facebook’s. With roughly 15 billion photos (and adding 100 million/mo.) Facebook is quickly becoming the front-runner of user-generated online photo repositories (second only to ImageShack, which is growing at a much slower rate). It’s Facebook’s game to lose, and integration of Picasa into Buzz, which will ride Gmail’s coattails, will breathe new life into Google’s picture-posting positioning (say that three times fast).

Sharing privately and publicly & integration into Gmail. Unlike Facebook or Twitter (I think), Buzz will allow users to share updates with specific users (and only them, if the user so chooses), and will send responses immediately into one’s e-mail inbox. Beyond the benefit of automatically signing up users for Buzz, utilizing its integration into Gmail places Buzz updates in a much more interesting space than a mere update — part broadcast, part e-mail, part private message, all multimedia. A Google buzz communication may altogether become a new medium for communicating content-rich  messages to one or many users.

And further, the demographic ubiquity of Gmail versus the relatively older crowd of Tweeters may make it the preferred broadcasting medium over Twitter, placing it in direct competition with Facebook.

Mashable’s Adam Ostrow, however, makes an interesting point:

… Gmail has historically added people to your contacts based on e-mail interactions. Hence, this contact list often varies significantly from your friends on social sites where relationships need to be made explicitly.

In other words, your Gmail contacts aren’t necessarily the same people you want to share status updates, photos and videos with. This is an issue that shouldn’t be overlooked in evaluating the new features Google is soon to unveil.

True story, Adam — but neither Facebook nor Twitter allows updates to reach a specific group of people (as I said, I could be wrong; it seems that the closest thing is Facebook’s multi-user messages). Separately, it’s oftentimes the case that Facebook users don’t want all of their Facebook friends (which include, in many cases, family members, co-workers and others who you’d prefer not to see the “less professional” side of you) to see their updates, and so end up not posting their updates altogether.

That’s my two cents on Google Buzz thus far. Please feel free to send/share thoughts and other articles as the subject gains more media traction. Until then, bask in the glow of Buzz’s demo video below.

The iPad: 3 Reasons Why a Built-In Camera Will Make It a Must-Have Device

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Steve Jobs and Apple's new product: the iPad

Steve Jobs holding up the iPad, to be released in April 2010.

Rumors that Apple’s highly anticipated iPad will ship with a webcam gives me reason to believe that Steve Jobs’ tablet from on high is, indeed, the must-have item of the next decade.

A webcam not only adds value to the iPad’s functionality, but it also can potentially transform how we communicate with one another, interact with the real world, and convey our identities through social media.

1. As a Portable Video Replacement for the Cell Phone. Imagine a world in which people replace cell phones with iPads. Looking into the face of callers on a 10-inch color screen replaces audio-only communication. Not only that — instead of paying for the minutes and data plan for your smart phone, you only pay one flat fee for unlimited iPad 3g/4g service.

Skype on iPhone – click to Learn more about its limitations.

2. Augmented Reality Viewer. Imagine pointing your iPad at an object and/or place and immediately receiving a wide array of information about the object, which is overlaid on the image. Imagine you’re an anatomy student looking at a cadaver. Now a person in a mall. Now an art lover in a museum. The possibilities are endless.

3. The Ultimate Social Media Device. Imagine a world of mobile video journals, equipped with what is effectively a 10-inch mirror. Narcissistic video bloggers will have an even better tool to give on-the-go, content-rich updates of their thoughts and physical appearance at any given moment. Enabling mobile, video-rich social media updates may also empower a new level of citizen journalism, beyond video snippets and mobile tweeting.

Assuming both strong networks to support iPad and that Apple will leave these features unlocked — admittedly “ifs” — these features (enabled by another big “if,” the webcam) can alter the communications landscape even more so, I think, than the reader features will immediately affect the old media landscape.

The Counterculture of Our Future: 'Jacked In' versus 'Checked Out'

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It’s appropriate, I think, that the first post of this blog covers a subject characterized by all four categories of the blog’s tagline —  “media, technology, culture and life.” The idea for the post — the emergent counterculture of those who reject a world in which outward-facing identities are increasingly characterized by social media — arose from two very different conversations I recently experienced.

An image pulled from DeviantArt by CrapsY (username).

The first was with an old friend, Michael P. (whose facebook profile I took the below quotation from), who forsook the life of  a Harvard-graduated consultant to work in a coffee shop and live as a Central Square hipster. Our conversation, which ranged from ‘catching up’ to ‘big issues,’ gravitated toward Michael’s thoughts on an emergent counterculture that he termed ‘the unplugged’ — that is, those who refuse to subscribe to a lifestyle that increasingly depends on modern technology. A proponent of this lifestyle, Michael made significant efforts in the last couple years to reduce his online footprint, pare down his digital interactions, and do things like increase the size of his record collection and work on a screenplay about an 80’s record producer.

As I understood them, Michael’s views (and those of ‘the unplugged’) are premised on the notion that technology detracts from our lives’ experiences by drawing our attention away from our real-world experiences and interactions. Michael posits that those who are ‘plugged in’ misguidedly reify technological advances as ‘progress.’ While technological artifacts seemingly make our lives better, they actually distance us from one another and definitively human activities — e.g., expressing ourselves through art and engaging the world through our tactile senses (sound familiar?).

The ‘unplugged’ view, I think, tends to overly romanticize the past and a (purportedly) simpler way of socializing, expressing oneself, and interacting with the world. Though I understand the love for and actually tend to prefer activities that more intimately (in a physical sense) connect me to the product of my work, I (and, I think, many others) view technological artifacts as just another set of tools we can use to interact with the world — e.g., a paintbrush, a pencil, a pair of glasses. In other words, technological advances most directly affect media, not expression. Or, more simply, technological advances most directly affect the tools we use, not how we use them.

That said, the forms of expression undeniably change as a result of the given media through which they are expressed. The notion of ‘friendship,’ for instance, has changed dramatically. In a world where roughly 30 percent of the facebook friendships of those between 18 and 24 are people whom they have never actually met, ‘friendship,’ it seems, certainly means something less substantial than what it perhaps once did. For photographers, the development of Adobe’s Creative Suite has changed how they view their craft.

In this light, I think the dichotomy between ‘unplugged’ and ‘plugged in’ is misguided. The analogy implies a reliance upon a sort of technological energy for functionality. But technology is more than that–at least for me. It enriches, enhances and augments my reality; it creates opportunities to share information, connect with others and learn about things I never would have been able to otherwise. In many ways, my subscription to a life filled with technological artifacts is more akin to the Matrix’s ‘jacking in’ — that is, it’s a choice to participate in a whole other experience of reality (I recognize the negative implications that this term may hold. My use of this term is also an admission that there is certainly something lost in exchanging the simplicity of more immediate physical interactions with the world for a view shaped by a world in which technological advances are a given). In contrast, a life without technology, I think, is a rejection of participation in this world and its benefits — and so, I will term it ‘checking out.’

This distinction leads me to think of the second conversation I had on this subject. During my final interview presentation with Jack Morton Worldwide, where I now work in business development, Liz Bigham, the Director of Brand Marketing, asked me if I perceived a pull-back reaction to a world saturated with social media — a desire for real, physical connections with other people. During the interview, my first response was that the nature of interactions is being transformed by media and the capabilities of technology. That is, the line between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ experiences would continue to erode as time progressed, and any desire for ‘physical’ experiences could eventually be entirely satisfied by virtual ones.

But thinking back on this question, I’m not certain this is the case. I anticipate that the ideological divide between ‘jacked in’ and ‘checked out’ peoples will only increase as technologies transform our experiences of reality more dramatically. Michael’s disdain for technology isn’t fading quickly, and there’s something intuitively appealing about his rejection of the ‘jacked in’ life that evokes sympathy. Don’t I also enjoy it when I get out to nature, leave behind my cell phone and computer, and cut myself off from the technological world? But my memory of the practicality of using technology always seems to win out. I like having a world of information at my fingertips, the people I know available at the touch of a button, and the host of possibilities technology provides me. I suppose, though, that’s the divide–some people don’t.

But perhaps there is something to my initial intuition in my conversation with Liz, and the ‘checked out’ counterculture will ultimately have less ammunition to fuel its ideology. At the core of disdain for technology, I think, is disdain for ‘the complex,‘ a purportedly enhanced reality in which our actions must conform to the constraints placed upon them by the limitations of technology. What this disdain fails to recognize is that accompanying the trend of technological complexity is an ever-increasing tendency toward simplicity in design. User interfaces are becoming more elegant and intuitive, despite increasingly complex back-ends. Physically, technological artifacts — e.g., televisions — are also becoming less cumbersome and streamlined. This tendency toward design simplicity will only become more apparent as  futures waves of technological artifacts reach us.

My guess: ‘checked out’ people will resist until Apple comes out with a strong enough ad campaign for its iTablet.

“As I look around the contemporary American scene I am puzzled by what seems generally to pass for a historical object or monument…With us the association seems to be not with our politically historical past…what we cherish are mementos of a bygone daily existence without a definite date. Archie Bunker’s armchair will recall–at least to the present generation–not only the many hours agreeably spent watching television, but also the environment, the setting, of a popular program, though not necessarily the program itself.”
– J. B. Jackson

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