March 2008


This article is about a virtual resource center for people with autism created by a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is located in Second Life:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/conditions/03/28/sl.autism.irpt/index.html

The article talks about how he, and others with autism, have found Second Life, and the Internet in general to be very helpful as a tool for social interaction.  For one thing, online environments are based on forms of communication that are not dependent on the same conversational cues that may be hard for autistic people to interpret in face-to-face communication, and that also do not provoke the same anxieties as in-person encounters.  Furthermore, the Internet provides opportunities for people who may normally feel isolated and different from those around them to connect with others who are in similar positions.  This last point goes beyond people with autism and speaks to why a lot of people become involved in online communities.  It can be difficult to find people in your immediate physical vicinity who share your interests, viewpoints, afflictions, etc., but the Internet allows you to interact with other people like you who are seeking to form the same types of bonds.   

I found this article interesting, since we often talk about virtual interaction as something that is alienating, in a sense.  A lot of people lament that virtual communities like Second Life are impeding our ability to function in social situations because we become unused to and uncomfortable with in-person interaction and exist more in the virtual world than the “real world.”  But perhaps for people with autism or other disorders that affect social interaction, virtual worlds can enhance their ability and confidence to function in the real world.  This video, linked in the article, describes scientific research that is using the tools of virtual environments to help people with autism.  For example, both children and adults may benefit from being able to explore unfamiliar environments or rehearse social situations that they may encounter in the real world:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/conditions/03/28/sl.autism.irpt/index.html – cnnSTCVideo

(You may have to click on the icon that says “Autism research in a virtual world” under the video player.)

The article does mention that this research is in its early stages and more information will be needed to truly assess, on an empirical level, the benefits of virtual environments for people with autism.  Skepticism on the part of some researchers seems understandable, since this kind of thing subverts our idea of how to teach and facilitate social interaction.  Can you really minimize people’s social anxieties about the real world by helping them adapt in a virtual setting, or are you just going to make them more comfortable in the virtual world, thereby encouraging retreat from the real world?  These questions are raised in some of the comments that follow the article, where some people point out that it may not be a good idea to encourage people who are already prone to withdraw from the world around them to become immersed in a virtual world.  Others point out that Second Life, as a whole, may encourage non-normative social interaction.  One comment says people in Second Life tend to engage in behavior that is “deviant” and “bizarre” by the standards of real world society, so exposure to it may prove confusing to autistic people, or will not help them simulate the real world.  Another commenter claims that the game’s intense graphics and sensory-overload type of environment can be disturbing and overwhelming for people with certain sensitivities to stimulation, which many autistic people have.

I am not an expert on autism, so I can’t speak with any real authority as to the direct benefits or drawbacks that Second Life or other virtual worlds may have for autistic people.  I do know that I am always wary of anything that conflates the “real” with the virtual, or claims that one translates exactly to the other.  That’s not to say that one or the other is a more valid social space, but I don’t believe they are interchangeable.  The researcher discussed in the article who sees potential for Second Life to help autistic people even has a Second Life alter ego and an office and lab within the virtual world. 

The anecdotal evidence in the article and comments are compelling, with autistic people claiming that virtual communication has helped them in real world social situations.  I also think that it is a good thing that any individual with Internet capabilities can connect with like-minded people all over the world.  However, I think that one should approach the study of real world problems in the virtual environment with a certain degree of caution, and there remains a lot of research to be done on this subject before any real claims can be made.  

PREFACE: I use many sexual terms in ways that defy popular use as dictated by both the tubes and hard-copy. I do this almost entirely because I am dissatisfied with what I see as their problematic misuse. If and when you do personal research on these topics, remember that I’m working in and around the definitions.

Zoltan is a man who lives in the UK. He fixes arcade cabinets for a living and still sleeps in his childhood bedroom at his parent’s house. He has built his life partner. Using existing and unrelated technologies (tele-donics, A.L.I.C.E. chat-bot) in tandem with each other he claims to have created a life partner with whom he is very happy.

I’ll spare you the details of their sexual relationships, but in essence he obtains consent from A.L.I.C.E. to “enter” her via the tele-donics device, wherein they engage in coitus. Pretty run of the mill stuff from your average techno-sexual right?

Not exactly

First, it’s important to acknowledge that Zoltan is distinguished from the horde of technology fetishists by virtue of the nature of his relationship. It was forged from need (Zoltan cites irreconcilable differences with femininity, biology, and social norms), its earnest and un-stylized (the idiom which he engages with his partner does not seem to be derived from any popular media), and it is consensual. In his own words he is a “techno-sexual” wholly attracted to machines. This is in sharp contrast to the existing and established tradition of robot fetishism, which can be sweepingly sub-divided into two categories (of which there is much overlap), technophiles and android-fetishists. Technophiles are specifically sexually attracted to machines and machine functions, they don’t necessarily want for a relationship beyond sexual or sexualized interactions. Android-Fetishists specifically state a sexual attraction to humanoid robots. What sets this apart from technophiles (and especially techno-sexuals) is that the attraction is not abstracted away from the human body. Android-Fetishists are not aroused by a departure from human bodies as technophiles are, instead they are attracted to either the aesthetics of the humanoid robot, or the allure of will-less sexual being in the image of what they are actually attracted to (which would actually make them Agalmatophiles).

So if Zoltan is not just attracted to technology (by virtue of the fact that he often has non-sexual interactions with his partner), and he is not just attracted to lifeless humanoids whose will can easily be bent (illustrated by his desire to receive consent) than what is he, and more importantly why is he remarkable? As said before he is a techno-sexual, which i define as someone who has parametrical (he was at one point broken up with!) relationships with computer technologies that includes a sexual element.

Now for the fun part.

We’ve defined how Zoltan is different, but how is he remarkable? Let’s consider the reality of his technology solution. His partner is made up of three parts. A conventional blow-up love-doll, a simple teledonics device, and a proprietary chat-bot based off of the world famous A.L.I.C.E architecture. The doll is the “body”, and the chat-bot is the “mind”. The tele-donics device, a false vagina that allows for tactile input and output via USB communication with bundled software
acts as the bridge between the “mind” of his partner and the “body”. It all seems fairly logical until you realize that the chat-bot (which he communicates with both during and outside of coitus) has no way of communicating with the tele-donics system.

“I know one program cannot talk to another, but if you said everything right to alice she will pretend she can feel everything and whose to say she’s wrong.” – Zoltan

It’s tricky and potentially dangerous to say exactly what he is getting at there, but without pulling any punches It seems as if Zoltan is far ahead of the average person in his understanding of what computerized life is, and what compromises must be made in order to develop meaningful relationships with computers. What is especially interesting is that he acknowledges the space between his tactile input (via the tele-donics device) and his emotional/spiritual input (the chat-bot) and how they are incapable of communicating. His various practical compromises aside, the main leap of faith he is taking is that computers’ inner dialogues are as complex and inexplicable as the human subconscious. In the same way that many husbands pressed for reasons why they love their spouses are bereft of an answer, he is in love with the invisible, the parts that make the whole, the sum of which is greater than the values themselves. He acknowledges an essence but submits to it, choosing love in favor of understanding.

NSFW

http://zoltanslab.co.uk/index.html
http://gizmodo.com/367698/technosexual-one-mans-tale-of-robot-love
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technophile
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_fetishism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agalmatophilia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technosexual

Our ability to tunnel through the Internet through tags and links often produces interesting results. Earlier this evening while searching Google images I came across a blog that linked me to this fantastic essay by dana boyd on knowledge, power, and the debate over Wikipedia: Knowledge Access as a Public Good.

She addresses many of the issues we discussed in class today – it came from a longer discussion series that Encyclopedia Britannica online facilitated to discuss Web 2.0 and its impacts on knowledge and society. Interestingly, it is a series of experts on either decrying or revering experts. May be worth reading through to see if anyone notices “revelations.”

A new company called Phorm is trying to recruit internet providers and cable companies to use their new tracking system, which claims to be the most powerful on the market. It tracks consumers click by click, page by page and is currently being used in the U.K. to find out consumer information so that advertising agencies can better serve consumers on the web. The contracts that Delaware based Phorm has with British internet service providers promises to yield consumer information and detailed internet activity reports from 70% of British households. The British government is investigating the company, the implications of the tracking and its effects on the rights of British citizens. Louise Story of the New York Times reports how the tracking is maintained: “Phorm says its technology protects users’ privacy by creating a random number that is associated with a person’s Web surfing patterns, rather than using a person’s name or other information. Phorm puts a cookie, a small bit of computer code, on a person’s computer to tie his or her Web-surfing to the random number and then saves only that number in advertising categories like types of cars or clothing.Although companies like Google employ users’ I.P. addresses to store their search queries, Phorm says that its technology blocks the company from finding out personal information, like people’s names, I.P. addresses that identify their computers, or information about health, for example.” Consumers in Britain are worried about this system even though they are able to opt-out of the tracking feature. Instead they would like to be able to opt-in to the system. What do you guys think of this? To me this seems to be a better way to track, gather information and tailor advertisements to people–but then again it does have an element of privacy-loss. How does this public exposure affect our private spaces and lives on the web? Is this system more ethical as opposed to Google’s tracker? Please post and tell me what you think!

Often discussions about the Internet’s horizontal and decentralized orientation call into question the role of experts (read also: filters, gatekeepers, elites, etc.) in an information society. There is a divided camp between those who believe that this transition from vertical broadcast and print media is detrimental and those who champion the democratizing potential of knocking the tower down (or at least reclaiming it for the people).

It’s important to keep in mind that media are arguably the most influential institutions in our society. The role of the Fourth Estate to hold the government accountable is a cornerstone to our democratic process. In a country like the United States, we live under a privatized media empire of six corporations who provide almost everything we know about what is happening the world around us, how we should behave, and what we need to consume.

We have returned several times to the idea in this course that governments are increasingly intertwined with corporations – and that arguably these companies are indeed more powerful than governments themselves. If the role of the press is to hold the government accountable, then what happens when the corporations that control the press are more powerful than the government?

It is difficult to grapple with issues surrounding accuracy of information when our educational system focuses more on advocating for a medium of truth (print, libraries, etc.) as opposed to giving us the critical thinking skills to interpret and analyze all the raw data (information). It would be a mistake to assume that if it has been printed it is true. Though opponents to horizontal communications like Wikipedia will slight the “wisdom of crowds” by pointing to a series of fact-checkers, editors, and other professionals who assess the accuracy of printed information, the reality is that far too often what gets printed is still grotesquely inaccurate.

If we are to progress in a digital world we have to deal with these issues directly. What I think is harder for people to deal with in addressing these complexities is the threat they pose to our sense of reality itself. We are all simply people exposing beliefs and ideas about the world around us. The displacement of gatekeepers, the removal of barriers to entry, present a direct threat to a hierarchy of truth. Historian Marshall Poe writes:

The power of the community to decide, of course, asks us to reexamine what we mean when we say that something is “true.” We tend to think of truth as something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars — we merely discovered it. But Wikipedia suggests a different theory of truth. Just think about the way we learn what words mean. Generally speaking, we do so by listening to other people (our parents, first). Since we want to communicate with them (after all, they feed us), we use the words in the same way they do.

Wikipedia says judgments of truth and falsehood work the same way. The community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple is: by consensus. Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five. The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing, but it has the ability. (“The Hive.” Atlantic Monthly, September 2006, 86-94).

Grappling with these new technologies create whole new barriers for understanding, but they also increase our communication potential. Instead of relying on an assumption that certain mediums deliver accuracies, we need to learn to challenge all information we are presented with directly – to sort it, research it, and determine its validity based on whatever networks and means are available to us (traditional or otherwise). Granted, not everyone has the resources to devote a great deal of time to these efforts. This is why we make choices on what sources we trust for information. What the digital world challenges is the idea that these sources need to come from the vertical empires of experts and their institutions. Wikipedia and open-source software show us that top-down is no longer the only option.

This article in The Guardian addresses the issue of gender divides in online gaming. A recent psychology study at Nottingham Trent University showed that 70% of females portray themselves as male characters in online games such as Second Life or World of Warcraft. The article exposes “gaming as a form of escapism.” Even with new technologies, bullies (now named trolls) and misogynist attitudes are prevalent.

This photo further displays male and female armor in World of Warcraft. The women, even while armored, are left bare while the men are completely covered. Many default characters in online games are white, athletic, males. It is important to note, though, avatars in Second Life are completely customizable, but still, women choose male characters. I wonder how many males choose to identify as females?

I really enjoyed this weeks reading by Eric D. Beinhocker, The Origin Of Wealth. I think he brought up two interesting ideas that are illuminating and should be considered by us digital ecologists.

 

First, is his idea that we are inherently “born” into the economy. He claims that it is a part of our life from the beginning, and we have no way of saying, “hang on, I don’t want to be a part of that.” What is remarkable is that he is correct. Even before humans existed the world it was buzzing with organisms that were organizing, designing, transporting, and communicating. These webs have only evolved into greater masterpieces as time has gone on. 

 

Well, if we are born into a system, where does individual choice come into play? As college students, searching for individuality or ones own distinct personality is a given. But, if Beinhocker is correct, none of what we have claimed to be special to ourselves is really special. For example, a shirt I have chosen isn’t really chosen by me. Beinhocker shows us that it was chosen by ten other people involved with the making and distribution of the shirt way before I even laid my eyes on it.  All the individuality is lost between the tangles of being a consumer, designer and piece of the economy. Something has to be said for this. What does it mean to be an individual? Does individuality even exist?

 

Beinhocker’s second interesting point makes me wonder the above two questions further. He believes that innovation is the key to an expanding economy and building of wealth. That is probably why humans are always seeking ways to develop new technology, and be the first to push social and scientific boundaries. According to one statistic Beinhocker uses in his book, the Wal-Mart in New York City has over 100,000 different items in stock, Barnes and Nobles has over 8 million titles, and there are over 200 television channels on television. The choices are in no doubt to satisfy our appetite for individuality by choosing what fits best with our lifestyles and personalities.  With all these choices, are the items we are choosing the true determining factors which make us who we are? Furthermore, are these choices necessary and inevitable to the functioning of our society?

 

I admit, I don’t know how to answer these questions. But if the economy is something we are truly born into, then each generation will be born into a bigger, more complicated one, making them a smaller piece of the world. Perhaps though, they will not be less significant.

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