Night modes and the new hue of our screens

Information & Culture just published (paywall; or free pre-print) an article I wrote about “night modes,” in which I try to untangle the history of light, screens, sleep loss, and circadian research. If we navigate our lives enmeshed with technologies and their attendant harms, I wanted to know how we make sense of our orientation to the things that prevent harm. To think, in other words, of the constellation of people and things that are meant to ward off, prevent, stave off, or otherwise mitigate the endemic effects of using technology.

If you’re not familiar with “night modes”: in recent years, hardware manufacturers and software companies have introduced new device modes that shift the color temperature of screens during evening hours. To put it another way: your phone turns orange at night now. Perhaps you already use f.lux, or Apple’s “Night Shift,” or “Twilight” for Android.

All of these software interventions come as responses to the belief that untimely light exposure closer to bedtime will result in less sleep or a less restful sleep. Research into human circadian rhythms has had a powerful influence on how we think and talk about healthy technology use. And recent discoveries in the human response to light, as you’ll learn in the article, are based on a tiny subset of blind persons who lack rods and cones. As such, it’s part of a longer history of using research on persons with disabilities to shape and optimize communication technologies – a historical pattern that the media and disability studies scholar, Mara Mills, has documented throughout her career.

 apple night shift

Continue reading “Night modes and the new hue of our screens”

Beyond bugs and features: A case for indeterminacy

spandrels-of-san-marco
Spandrels of San Marco. [CC License from Tango7174]
In 1979, Harvard professors Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin identified what they saw as a shortcoming in American and English evolutionary biology. It was, they argued, dominated by an adaptationist program.[1] By this, they meant that it embraced a misguided atomization of an organism’s traits, which then “are explained as structures optimally designed by natural selection for their function.”[2] For example, an exaggerated version of the adaptationist program might look at a contemporary human face, see a nose, and argue that it was adapted and selected for its ability to hold glasses. Such a theory of the nose not only ignores the plural functions the nose serves, but the complex history of its evolution, its shifting usefulness for different kinds of activities, its mutational detours, the different kinds of noses, and the nose’s evolution as part of the larger systems of faces, bodies, and environments.  So how should we talk about noses? Or, more importantly, how do we talk about any single feature of a complex system? Continue reading “Beyond bugs and features: A case for indeterminacy”

New anthology on media technologies, bringing together STS and Communication perspectives

I’m thrilled to announce that our anthology, Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, edited by myself with Pablo Boczkowski and Kirsten Foot, is now officially available from MIT Press. Contributors include Geoffrey Bowker, Finn Brunton, Gabriella Coleman, Gregory Downey, Steven Jackson, Christopher Kelty, Leah Lievrouw, Sonia Livingstone, Ignacio Siles, Jonathan Sterne, Lucy Suchman, and Fred Turner. We’ve secured permission to share the introduction with you. A blurb:

In recent years, scholarship around media technologies has finally shed the presumption that technologies are separate from and powerfully determining of social life, seeing them instead as produced by and embedded in distinct social, cultural, and political practices – and as socially significant because of that. This has been helped along by a productive intersection between work in science and technology studies (STS) interested in information technologies as complex sociomaterial phenomena, and work in communication and media studies attuned to the symbolic and public dimensions of these tools.

In this volume, scholars from both fields come together to provide some conceptual paths forward for future scholarship. Two sets of essays and commentaries comprise this collection: the first addresses the relationship between materiality and mediation, considering such topics as the lived realities of network infrastructure. The second highlights media technologies as fragile and malleable, held together through the minute, unobserved work of many, including efforts to keep these technologies alive.

Please feel free to circulate this introduction to others, and write back to us with your thoughts, criticisms, and ideas. We hope this volume helps anchor the exciting conversations we see happening in the field, and serves a launchpad for future scholarship.

ToC and Chapter 1 – Introduction (Media Technologies)

Challenges for Health in a Networked Society

In February, I had the great fortune to visit the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of their “What’s Next Health” series. I gave a talk raising a series of critical questions for those working on health issues. The folks at RWJF have posted my talk, along with an infographic of some of the challenges I see coming down the pipeline.

They also asked me to write a brief blog post introducing some of my ideas, based on one of the questions that I asked in the lecture. I’ve reposted it here, but if this interests you, you should really go check out the talk over at RWJF’s page.

….

RWJF’s What’s Next Health: Who Do We Trust?

We live in a society that is more networked than our grandparents could ever have imagined. More people have information at their fingertips than ever before. It’s easy to see all of this potential and celebrate the awe-some power of the internet. But as we think about the intersection of technology and society, there are so many open questions and challenging conundrums without clear answers. One of the most pressing issues has to do with trust, particularly as people turn to the internet and social media as a source of health information. We are watching shifts in how people acquire information. But who do they trust? And is trust shifting?

Consider the recent American presidential election, which is snarkily referred to as “post-factual.” The presidential candidates spoke past one another, refusing to be pinned down. News agencies went into overdrive to fact-check each statement made by each candidate, but the process became so absurd that folks mostly just gave up trying to get clarity. Instead, they focused on more fleeting issues like whether or not they trusted the candidates.

In a world where information is flowing fast and furious, many experience aspects of this dynamic all the time. People turn to their friends for information because they do not trust what’s available online. I’ve interviewed teenagers who, thanks to conversations with their peers and abstinence-only education, genuinely believe that if they didn’t get pregnant the last time they had sex, they won’t get pregnant this time. There’s so much reproductive health information available online, but youth turn to their friends for advice because they trust those “facts” more.

The internet introduces the challenges of credibility but it also highlights the consequences of living in a world of information overload, where the issue isn’t whether or not the fact is out there and available, but how much effort a person must go through to manage making sense of so much information. Why should someone trust a source on the internet if they don’t have the tools to assess the content’s credibility? It’s often easier to turn to friends or ask acquaintances on Facebook for suggestions. People use the “lazy web” because friends are more likely to respond quickly and make sense than trying to sort out what’s available through Google.

As we look to the future, organizations that focus on the big issues — like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — need to think about what it means to create informed people in a digital era. How do we spread accurate information through networks? How do we get people to trust abstract entities that have no personal role in their lives?”

Questions around internet and trust are important: What people know and believe will drive what they do and this will shape their health.

The beauty of this moment, with so many open questions and challenges, is that we are in a position to help shape the future by delicately navigating these complex issues. Thus, we must be asking ourselves: How can we collectively account for different stakeholders and empower people to make the world a better place?

Addressing Human Trafficking: Guidelines for Technological Interventions

Two years ago, when I started working on issues related to human trafficking and technology, I was frustrated by how few people recognized the potential of technology to help address the commercial sexual exploitation of children. With the help of a few colleagues at Microsoft Research, I crafted a framework document to think through the intersection of technology and trafficking. After talking with Mark Latonero at USC (who has been writing brilliant reports on technology and human trafficking), I teamed up with folks at MSR Connections and Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit to help fund research in this space. Over the last year, I’ve been delighted to watch a rich scholarly community emerge that takes seriously the importance of data for understanding and intervening in human trafficking issues that involve technology.

Meanwhile, to my delight, technologists have started to recognize that they can develop innovative systems to help address human trafficking. NGOs have started working with computer scientists, companies have started working with law enforcement, and the White House has started bringing together technologists, domain experts, and policy makers to imagine how technology can be used to combat human trafficking. The potential of these initiatives tickles me pink.

Watching this unfold, one thing that I struggle with is that there’s often a disconnect between what researchers are learning and what the public thinks is happening vis-a-vis the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). On too many occasions, I’ve watched well-intentioned technologists approach the space with a naiveté that comes from only knowing about human trafficking through media portrayals. While the portraits that receive widespread attention are important for motivating people to act, understanding the nuance and pitfalls of the space are critical for building interventions that will actually make a difference.

To bridge the gap between technologists and researchers, I worked with a group of phenomenal researchers to produce a simple 4-page fact sheet intended to provide a very basic primer on issues in human trafficking and CSEC that technologists need to know before they build interventions:

How to Responsibly Create Technological Interventions to Address the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors

Some of the issues we address include:

  1. Youth often do not self-identify themselves as victims.
  2. “Survival sex” is one aspect of CSEC.
  3. Previous sexual abuse, homelessness, family violence, and foster care may influence youth’s risk of exploitation.
  4. Arresting victims undermines efforts to combat CSEC.
  5. Technologies should help disrupt criminal networks.
  6. Post-identification support should be in place before identification interventions are implemented.
  7. Evaluation, assessment, and accountability are critical for any intervention.
  8. Efforts need to be evidence-based.
  9. The cleanliness of data matters.
  10. Civil liberties are important considerations.

This high-level overview is intended to shed light on some of the most salient misconceptions and provide some key insights that might be useful for those who want to make a difference. By no means does it cover everything that experts know, but it provides some key touchstones that may be useful. It is limited to the issues that are most important for technologists, but those who are working with technologists may also find it to be valuable.

As researchers dedicated to addressing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, we want to make sure that the passion that innovative technologists are bringing to the table is directed in the most helpful ways possible. We hope that what we know can be of use to those who are also looking to end exploitation.

(Flickr image by Martin Gommel)

Reflections on Fear in a Networked Society

I’ve been trying to work through some ideas on how fear operates in a networked society. At Webstock in New Zealand, I gave a talk called “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?!” Building on this, I gave a talk at SXSW called “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics.” While my thinking in this arena is still relatively nascent, I wanted to make available what I’ve thought through so far in the hopes that you have feedback and critique.

Enjoy!