Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Of iPhones and Cultural Signaling
I'm writing this piece while riding the subway in a different country. Two Indian girls are sitting next to me looking over my left shoulder. Generally, I'd get annoyed but their curiosity is childhood-informed, innocent. In this setting, I don't mind that they have access, albeit limited, to my computer.
The democratization of the internet medium and the flourishing of Web 2.0 have turned online users into potential powerhouses. As my friend Polly noted to me a few days ago in a conversation we had over text messaging, Web 2.0 has enabled average users to a degree never before seen and the reason behind its boom is the immediacy factor. If you have an idea, you can publish it. Granted, some get more traffic than others, but anyone can publish if one so chooses. Naturally, it's also tough to find quality out there as a lot of qualitatively questionable material manages to creep in. Ergo, being able to discern quality is yet another sign of cognitive and experiential maturity.
Julian Sanches asks some interesting questions about the future of cultural signaling and how it informs/relates to sociality and privacy. Obviously, the lines between virtuality and reality are getting blurrier by the day and I'm not even sure that phrases like 'word of mouth' can quite manage to maintain the kind of literal meaning they once did. 'Word of mouth' in this day and age could easily be a text message, a news feed, a 'poke', forwarded email, a recommendation from an iPhone app user to another, and on and on.
Of course, information is out there for the taking and fabulous advancements in technology have expedited the birth of so many incredible applications. And I love so many of them. I rely on many of them daily. For instance, as an iPhone user, I find myself loudly praising its many applications which seem to do everything for me but the dishes and picking of the mail. However, I can't help but think of the private/public lines. I often talk about this in other projects of mine as well as my podcasts and the question I always ask is how do users know when enough information is enough/appropriate?
One of my closest friends sent me a gripping email in which he said that he had run across a personal site of one of his former college flames and despite his many temptations to read through it, out of respect for the person and their privacy, he chose not to.
"It was tough, dude. I really, really wanted to but then I didn't. Somehow, in hindsight, I feel more adult, though."- he writes. He continued to explain that he did so not because he is so much more self-controlled than most or because he suffered a hit of sainthood, (as I tend to say when joking about certain acts of kindness), but because he felt discomfort at the thought of other people out there potentially expressing an interest in his own life and routine when it's none of their business. He ended the email by saying, "...lurkers annoy the crap out of me so I wasn't about to turn into one myself."
Not being able to escape hints of condescension and a small dosage of self-righteousness I said what I've caught myself say a few other times: "There's a reason you're my pal."
Very soon Smart phone users will have access to fellow Smart phone users wherever they happen to find themselves and without knowing the first thing about them, they'll have access to their iPods selections, their most favorite apps and so forth. As much as I like technology, I find this access a tad privacy-evading. Of course, this does not mean that I don't wonder sometimes about what kinds of music people around me are listening to on their iPods, especially if I've already grown tired of my selections.
If I had a dime every time I've rolled my eyes when I hear things like, 'yeah, I know so-and-so, I friended them on MySpace and I read their blog.' Or, 'I know we'll hit it off. We have the same taste in music. I read it in your profile,' I'd have unlimited access to Starbucks. Online communication tends to render one's sight slightly off-focus when it comes to evaluating the true nature/essence of things. It is rather difficult to 'size one up' outside physical reality. As a result, intimacies based on delusion are more easily spawned in virtuality.
Consider what Sanches writes below. The question he raises at the very end is congruent with the questions I've been pondering as well.
"We’re at most a few years off from broad adoption of augmented reality applications in widely-used smartphones, which will have all of us radiating reams of data to anyone in our physical proximity who actually cares. Your Facebook profile will dog you like one of those floating Sims icons. You won’t just know what the girl sitting across the coffee shop is blasting on her iPod, you’ll be able to listen in. All the tech is actually here already, if not in quite the fancy form it’s implemented at the link above. All it would take is for someone to integrate the location-sensitive functions of an app like Loopt into the apps for Facebook or Last.fm, and you’ve got a point-and-profile system. The real question is whether people actually want to signal that much in the physical context. Some of us are chary of giving every stranger in ping-shot a pretext for striking up a conversation."
In sum, just because one has so much access to others' selections, doesn't mean that one place one's self in one's virtual space without being conscious of appropriate boundaries. Or, as a favorite reply sums it up:
"Yes, your iTunes library is comparable to mine and we both like Curtis Hanson, however, interest is still a missing ingredient."
graph per brisbanetimes