Rogue Rolex Reviews & Social Trust

While snark is apparently the official language of the Internet, for better or for worse, it’s not very often that you come across random acts of sarcasm in places you don’t expect…like Amazon. In my husband’s aimless browsing, he recently found a treasure trove of sarcastic reviews of ridiculously expensive watches: a $34,000 Rolex, an $81,779 Zenith (has anyone heard of this brand before?), and another Rolex. Need to even out that table on your yacht? Don’t overlook the functionality of a Rolex.

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Aside from providing some surprising laughs in an unexpected place, I thought these reviews raised some interesting questions about how we think about online reviews. 

I’ve become a recent devotee of Airbnb – for anyone living under a rock for the past year – this site allows anyone to rent a spare room or their entire house or apartment out to travelers and tourists. The site relies on an elaborate system for verifying users “real” identities via social networking profiles as well as requires a “real” telephone number for hosts or potential renters to contact each other. But, the true beauty of this site is in the reviews. Hearing about a potential host’s hospitality, the complimentary bike borrowed to tour the city, the homemade iced tea on offer in the fridge, these are the touches that soothe my nerves when I’m considering shelling out hundreds of dollars to people I’ve never met in a city I’ve (usually) never visited. These kind of reviews are the norm on airbnb, where users seem to really take care to represent their experiences. As a renter, I rely heavily on these reviews and take their authenticity for granted. 

Obviously we rely on online reviews for a lot these days…but for me, it’s only when faced with a significant financial investment that I start to realize how fragile this system is, and how much it relies on trusting absolute strangers. This kind of social trust is easier to swallow when picking a restaurant or learning about hiking trails in your new town. But, for many people, trusting one’s vacation plans (or luxury watch purchase) to the “wisdom of the crowd” is too much to ask. 

The crowd wisdom theory is based on a statistical phenomenon that occurs when, in great numbers, individual biases cancel each other out and can end up accurately guessing an ox’s weight at a fair (according to Sir Francis Galton) or other more useful things. However, according to recent research, being informed about other’s choices when making your own choice actually screws up the statistical magic at work that underlies the “wisdom of crowds” hypothesis. So, obsessively reading through the reviews of a restaurant may bias my opinion of their marionberry pancakes*? Perhaps all of this sharing of our opinions online has more of an effect than we ever imagined…especially on our Rolex purchases.

 

*Portlandia reference…it’s streaming on Netflix, get watching! 

 

“Addicted” to our devices?

I came across this great study done by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA),and the University of Maryland the other day. They asked college students from 12 universities on 5 continents to go without media for a day, keep a diary about it, and then send it to them (the irony that this project wouldn’t have been possible without these same media, I hope, is not lost on the investigators!). They’ve made a great blog about their findings: http://theworldunplugged.wordpress.com/

This is a largely descriptive study. While they’ve grouped reactions by type of emotion and type of media, they’re not attempting to explain the WHY of the global reactions, but to typologize what’s going on in people’s heads. One of their most striking findings is the prevalence of “addiction” language to describe the sensation of being without one’s media devices. The group found that this language was salient across the world. They found that the students described not only missing the functions of the devices (delivering e-mail, filling up time waiting in lines) but the physical devices themselves. The feeling of being without the thing (especially cell phones) that one touches more time in any given day than perhaps any other object, was powerfully framed by this addiction language.

In doing the research for my dissertation project, on the effect of “personal” technologies on people’s most intimate relationships, the language of addiction has come up time and again. I always wonder…what is this language doing for people? What is it expressing that other kinds of language can’t? The way many of us talk about our mobile devices, especially when we first get them,  is in terms of convenience. But, after our contact with them deepens, something changes in the way we think about them.

Addiction is usually conceived of as a problem that stems from the way our brains are wired for motivation, pleasure, and memory. There have been lots of attempts at explaining the deep connection we have with our mobile devices through neurobiology. Writers like Nicholas Carr Emily Yoffe, and Sherry Turkle, as well as countless others have made the connection between the way our human brains respond to dopamine and the way our devices feed into our drive to love them. But, being a sociologist…this is all very unsatisfying. If our relationships with our smartphones could be explained only by the chemicals sloshing around in our brains then I’d be out of a job…so, naturally there must be something else.

To be clear, I believe there is merit in this explanation. But, I don’t believe that it’s the end of the conversation. These devices are technologies of relationship, and the neurobiology explanation only gets us as far as the relationship between human and device. Dopamine might explain the way every ding and buzz of our cell phone commands our immediate attention, but it doesn’t get us to and understanding of the ways they affect our relationships with our friends, children, colleagues, and families. To think about them in a way that limits their effects on our lives to the stuff going on inside of our heads, without our conscious deliberation, is to eliminate the most important and interesting part of the story.

I think that the use of addiction language by people talking about their relationships to various kinds of media does not mean we should only look at the brain to figure out what’s going on. Instead, we need to think about the ways that the instituions of work and family have changed, and the ways that the landscapes of our emotional lives have changed right along with them. Perhaps those who use this language are pointing at the fact that their behavior feels as if it’s not under their own control, but instead shaped by forces much more powerful than their own wills. Instead of looking within to the brain, it’s time to look outward to society.

 

The Machine in the White House: Obama’s techno-arrogance

I’ve been noticing that, in the run-up to next month’s election, the candidates haven’t been talking about technology as much as they did during the last time around. While Obama kept up the rhetorical support for science and technology throughout his tenure, he’s been suffering attacks for his support of Solyndra (and other high-tech green start-ups), so ramping down the use of technology as a “keyword” for economic development might be a smart response to this policy failure. Personally, I’m a fan of a lot of what Obama stands for, but academically, I’m skeptical about much of his exuberant praise for technology and innovation as a magic bullet for economic growth.

Konstantin Kakaes recently reflected on the tendency of politicians to over-promise and under-deliver in their technology rhetoric on the fantastic Future Tense blog. Kakaes chalks this up to a lack of science and engineering training in our country’s political elites. This argument rings of C.P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures argument in 1959 (Kakaes quotes Snow in the article, and is undoubtedly aware of this similarity), where Snow critiqued the British education system for valorizing the study of the humanities and de-valuing science and engineering, creating a class of elites who were unprepared for a Post-WWII world where this kind of knowledge was becoming more and more important.

I think the lack of science/technology expertise is important, but not the most interesting thing at work in the invocation of “technology” in presidential rhetoric. Earlier on in Obama’s presidency, I noticed a striking convergence of opinion on the relationship between innovation in technology and economic growth.

In a recent nationwide poll, Americans ranked technology companies as having a more positive effect on the way “things are going today” than churches & religious organizations, colleges & universities, and (not surprisingly) Congress.  Even critics of Obama’s technology policy have affirmed the role of technology as an agent of change and a potential force for economic growth (Brooks 2011Thiel 2011Stephenson 2009). This convergence in opinion between the President, his critics, and the public signals shared underlying assumptions about the way technology works in society, and the power it has to propel us from the gloomy present into a much brighter future.

The current recession is not the only time that technology has become the subject of political discourse and policy prescriptions. At the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration debated the merits of technology to encourage economic growth. F.D.R. and Obama were both facing down catastrophic economic crises during their presidencies, and they both expressed unbridled optimism for the role of technology in pulling us out of economic trouble. This similarity was too good to not dig a little deeper…so, my sociology instincts kicked in and I started sifting through some digital archives.

What I was hoping to find was evidence of what technology scholars call “technological determinism,” or the belief that technology automatically leads to social and economic progress. I was not disappointed…both Obama and F.D.R. put a lot of faith in technology to solve their respective financial problems. But, while each President made several direct references to “progress” in their discussion of technology and economic growth, the relationship between technology and society was more often framed by stories about our shared past and hopes for the future.

While each of the Presidents used the past and future to frame their explanations of technological policy in a way that emphasized a common past and pointed toward an optimistic view of the future, there were striking differences. Overall, Obama addressed technology more often than F.D.R. (in 50% of his total speeches, compared to F.D.R.’s 14.2%). Obama framed his policy in terms of the future much more often than the past (54.7% of the mentions of technology were connected with the future, while 32.1% of them involved the past). In contrast, F.D.R. was more likely to frame his technological policy in terms of the past than the future (46.7% of the references to technology involved the past, compared to 33.3% involving the future).

F.D.R was more likely to reference the past in explaining the necessity of his proposed policies, most often drawing a difference between the “good days” and the ways that the present situation had led the U.S. astray from long-held sacred values, like freedom. For example:

F.D.R’s 1936 speech at the DNC:

  •  In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy…it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought….Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.

F.D.R. framed his policy as an adjustment to the largely external changes that technological development had imposed onto the economic landscape of the U.S. and also illustrates his understanding of the problems that these developments could bring.  Obama does not reference the ways in which technology has changed the U.S., but the ways in which it could improve our economy, if we are able to implement his proposed policies. For example:

Obama’s 2011 State of the Union:

  •  Thirty years ago, we couldn’t know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.

So – what’s the point? Why does it matter that F.D.R. talks about technology in terms of the past and Obama the future? This is a consequential difference. The difference between Obama and F.D.R.’s political rhetoric has an important effect on their policies to govern the relationship between technology and society, and furthermore, what that relationship should look like.

F.D.R.’s acknowledgement of the problems that come along with technological development is noticeably absent in Obama’s rhetoric. This is not surprising given their different ideas about how technological development happens. For F.D.R., technological development was something the government could only hope to control and perhaps mitigate some of its worst effects, so his rhetoric expressed the tension between the benefits and costs of this autonomous, external force. Obama’s view of technological development emphasizes the necessity of public investment in technology in order to reach the heights of past achievements, so the acknowledgment of technology’s possibly negative effects is largely moot, because it’s under human control.

These two Presidents are important because they represent different epochs of America’s relationship with technology. Those in F.D.R’s administration were old enough to remember the jarring and displacing experience of industrialization in the late 1800s, while few of those in Obama’s administration are old enough to remember the horrific consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Living through the consequences of technological change shapes the way we think about the relationship between technology and society. The brash and confident words of Presidents (and Presidential candidates) may decide the fate of elections, but Obama’s comparative arrogance is a dangerous precedent, especially in a time when Americans are hungry for economic recovery and the Oval Office is up for grabs.

 

Is “nomophobia” real?

The LA Times recently reported that a California addiction treatment center has begun treating its clients for “nomophobia” or “no-mobile-phone phobia.” Someone who is nomophobic might go to great lengths to avoid being without their cell phone, such that their relationships, health, and work deteriorate as a result.

The term was coined in 2008 when the UK Post Office commissioned an extensive survey of the anxieties of mobile phone users. Out of a sample of over 2,000 people, they found that almost 53% of mobile phone users get anxious when something goes awry (they lose their phones, run out of battery, or have no coverage).

 

There has been some push-back from the media questioning the reality of this new phobia. Much of the news coverage takes a sarcastic tone, like this one from the LA Times, that lists a series of questions that many would have a tough time saying “no” to. After describing the typical warning signs of this condition, the author asks, “Sound familiar?” Presumably hoping this will cause readers to relate their own experiences with those described by the treatment center’s psychologist.Doctors have also entered the fray, like Dr. Keith Ablow, who appeared on Fox News defending the reality of this diagnosis.

As a sociologist, the definition of a new phobia by medical professionals is a signal of broad cultural change. The creation of new psychological categories associated with cell phones suggests that old categories are no longer adequate to describe the problems that users encounter. I’m not qualified to say whether this phobia really exists or not in a medical and/or psychological sense, but does it matter? The tone of the news coverage says that many readers will recognize the symptoms of this phobia in themselves, and the (non-academic) study cited large numbers of people worried about being disconnected. Maybe the interesting question isn’t -is nomophobia real? But why do so many people seem to relate to the symptoms?

If 66% of people in the U.S. were suddenly diagnosed as depressed, would we ask – is this disease really real? Or would we ask, what the heck is going on in the U.S. to make this happen? Certainly, more empirical research on the distribution of these anxieties needs to be conducted. But more importantly, we should stop asking if these kinds of technological anxieties are real and start asking about how and why these technologies have affected our lives so deeply.

 

Finding the road home (without GPS!)

When I started this blog I had an idea that, on my annual road trip back home to upstate NY, I would attempt to drive the 487 miles without using any GPS technology. I would look at maps, plan my route, and drive without any idea of my estimated time of arrival and then write about it here.

But, a day before my trip…I chickened out. I’ve never been a confident motorist, even in the most familiar terrain, and I feared that with the bathroom breaks demanded by my exceptionally gifted puppy (who would be my only companion on the road), I would get hopelessly lost in the middle of Pennsylvania without the slightest idea how to get back on track. So, on the morning of the trip, I sheepishly plugged my GPS into my car’s cigarette lighter, feeling like a failure, and set out for NY.

About 2/3 of the way to NY, I had gotten into a comfortable rhythm. I had my GPS settled into the console next to me, my cruise control on, and some very engrossing podcasts (on cd) to listen to. After a couple dozen miles on I-81, I reached over to check my progress on the little device and saw that the screen was off. After a moment of panic, I slid the on/off button back and forth a few times, and the screen flickered to life.  Comforted, I returned my eyes to the road and waited for the (once-jarring, now comforting) digital voice to tell me about my next exit…but the voice never spoke.

The screen was off, and no amount of toggling the switch, poking the touch-screen, or unplugging and re-plugging could turn it back on. I ran through a list of people I knew were reachable by phone and would likely be sitting near a computer, I then eliminated everyone that I knew would laugh at me and refuse to stay on the phone while I drove the rest of the way home, the only name left on the list was my Dad.

My Dad,  while driving me around as a child would ask me questions like, “Julia, which way is North?” or, sometimes, “Which way is Syracuse from here?” and, being confronted with my blank stare in return, once enrolled me in an orienteering course. So, it was only appropriate that he was present (telephonically) for this important geo-spatial moment in my life.

I confirmed my current route with him, inferring from road signs (which I now had to actually pay close attention to) that I was going the right direction, and had only a few more moves to make before I was home-free. After hanging up, I felt two things at once.

  • I missed the instant feedback loop I was used to participating in with my GPS. It constantly reassured me I was headed in the right direction, and would immediately notify me if I had strayed from the path. I missed the security provided by seeing the car icon plodding along the bright green path, more so than the directions themselves.
  • I immediately felt pulled to visit every odd-ball roadside attraction featured on the intrastate highway signs I passed. Funck’s homestyle Amish diner, voted best road food in PA? The scenic overlook with promising views of the Susquehanna River? I imagined veering off the road without the GPS’s disappointed voice letting me know it was busy “recalculating” to account for my every whim, then imploring me to “Make a U-turn” whenever I could. But I didn’t stop. I had come too far to put off seeing my parents any longer, even for the best roadside food in PA.

Now, safely at my parent’s place in NY, I wonder about the unintended consequences of constant contact with feedback loops like the one I was in with my GPS. It makes me wonder, in this era of big data and increasingly sophisticated analytic algorithms, if we’re getting used to constant reassurance that we’re making the right choices.

Candidates for political office can now calculate which slogans, campaign theme songs, and website designs will encourage supporters to donate more generously, consultants encourage businesses to offer customers products that they haven’t even created to test their marketability, and Netflix tells subscribers which movies they’re most likely to enjoy watching. So, where’s the risk? I’m glad that Netflix pointed me toward that show I’d never heard of, but I know that it would also make me a little peeved if the site asked me to sign up for a new audiobook service (that it hadn’t created yet) and that might never get created because it didn’t test well. Is being in the loop worth it?

Google makes us stupid…or does it?

In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote a hugely influential piece in The Atlantic – Is Google Making us Stupid? Carr argued that using search tools like Google, and the abundance of information available is changing our brains. We’re unable to deeply engage while reading and spend less attention on understanding complicated analytical arguments, which has contributed to a profound shift in our approach to knowledge. Carr turned his article into a book which was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2011. Clearly, this book and Carr’s argument about the effects of information technology have touched a cultural nerve.

More recently, Chad Wellmon, a faculty fellow at UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC, where I’m a fellow too!), wrote a wonderful piece of historical and cultural analysis for the IASC’s Hedgehog Review. In this piece, Wellmon argues that there are two narratives that have characterized America’s cultural comprehension of the Internet:

  • The optimistic view: “Our information age is unique not only in its scale, but in its inherently open and democratic arrangement of information…Digital technologies…will deliver a universal knowledge that will make us smarter and ultimately liberate us” (68).
  • The pessimistic view: The abundance of information available and the technologies we use to manage it have created a “culture of distraction” that encourages “quantity over quality” and discourages reflection, reading in-depth, and remembering what we’ve read (68). Nicholas Carr’s argument belongs in this camp.

Wellmon argues that these two narratives are mistaken representations of the relationship we find ourselves in with our information technologies. They obscure the “forms of human agency particular to our digital age” (67). More simply, these two narratives make it hard for us (the users of tech) to see the ways in which we actually interact with this technology stuff. Wellmon also makes an inspired historical comparison with arguments of some Enlightenment-era intellectuals about the ways that too many books were seen as degrading true knowledge. Through this comparison, he demonstrates convincingly that the two views described above have been expressed many times before, about every kind of information technology in history…and it’s always been an inaccurate description of what’s actually going on when people use these technologies. The real relationship we’re in is better described as a digital”environment” or “ecology” (77).

While I completely agree with Wellmon’s argument and also his impulse to historicize and contextualize what seems so “new” about “new technology,” his argument makes me wonder if there’s something about these two narratives – that info-technology X will finally set us free, or finally put the nail in humanity’s intellectual coffin – that is worth looking into. Why have these two kinds of arguments persisted for so long? Why do they come up every time a new information technology (and I would argue, other kinds of tech too), becomes widely used in the U.S.?

Sociologically, I think it’s important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly, these overblown, oversimplified explanations of how technology “impacts” humans obscure the ways we actually interact with this stuff, so then why do these two explanations still hold so much cultural salience? Why do they keep coming back?

“Although all culture originates and is rooted in the subjective consciousness of human beings, once formed it cannot be reabsorbed into consciousness at will…the humanly produced world attains the character of objective reality….For instance, a plow, though obviously a human product, is an external object…. the plow may compel its users to arrange their agricultural activity, and perhaps also other aspects of their lives, in a way that conforms to its own logic and that may have been neither intended nor foreseen by those who originally devised it.”

Peter Berger (1967) The Social Construction of Reality, pg.9

Berger (1967) argues that while technology (like all kinds of culture) is the product of humans, once it’s made into a material form, it can act back upon people in unanticipated ways that make us (the users) forget that it was our idea in the first place. In this way, technology shapes the very way that we think about the world, and is not simply a tool with which we encounter it. I easily forget, while swiping my fingers across my iPod, that the thin piece of metal and glass laying in my hand was the result of countless ideas made into material reality…to me, it’s the thing that keeps me entertained while I walk my dog. I experience it as an inhuman, external object, not the product of Steve Jobs’ “subjective consciousness.”

So, in this way, Carr’s argument (and the countless others who use these narratives) is not an inaccurate description of reality, it’s an accurate picture of the ways we humans experience our own interactions with objects that seem as if they are external and somehow alien to us. Sociologically, I think it’s important to understand not only “the way things really are” in our human-technology interaction, as Wellmon does in his great piece, but also the systematic ways that we “misunderstand” and “misinterpret” our relationships with the technologies around us…because there’s something true about these “mistakes” as well.

The name…

Last week my boyfriend Dan and I were walking our exceptionally gifted puppy and something strange (or maybe not so strange) happened. Dan had a particularly hectic week managing his work from our home, which involves A LOT of phone calls, and was ready to “unplug” from the office and run around with our dog. He took his Blackberry out of his pocket and was about to hand it off to me, when he realized he didn’t know how to turn it off. Dan has had this phone for a year and some change, and had never turned it off. He turned the device around in his hands for a few seconds, and I went over to see what was up. Together, we found the tiny “power” icon on the “end call” button and he held it down until the brightly colored screen went grey-green.

Dan is not a work-a-holic, he is known to leave his phone in the car during important events, and went without internet connectivity in our home with less angst than I did for the first few days of living in our new apartment. But somehow, after owning this phone for over a year, Dan had neglected to figure out how to turn off his work phone. What’s going on here?

After this incident, I went looking for some corroboration of our experience. It turns out that the online support forums for Blackberry phones are chock-full with people who have no idea how to turn their phones off. Powering down the iPhone has even inspired a few instructional videos. Not to mention Alec Baldwin’s recent meltdown over having to power down on a flight.

How then, do people take time out from their phones? Do you have things that you do? How often do you do them?