Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Digitally Seductive

What digital paradise makes of us

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The Internet has created a new media environment that not only enables people to communicate, discuss and exchange information, give and receive feedback, but also provides an interactive, collaborative environment in which words can become deeds and speech can become action.
Networked computers, the building blocks of the Internet, are much more than mere productivity tools and informatics systems. Unlike the traditional media, they are capable of creating a cyber-environment that can be designed to be persuasive, that can motivate people to act and change their social behaviours.
Stanford University researchers call this rhetorical concept Captology, which according to BJ Fogg: “Focuses on the planned persuasive effects of computer technologies.” It may be the next challenge for software programmers to design virtual environments to motivate people, for example, not to drink and drive, to have healthy sexual behaviour, to avoid pregnancy, to become entrepreneur.
Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School has argued the view that computer codes can be a great source of power in society for the simple reason that most of our activities are taking place in cyberspace nowadays. But the rhetoric of software design, the persuasive code that entices, builds relationships, arouses and fulfils desires and makes the users come back has not been explored in areas other than cybersex and virtual reality Internet games.
There may be a fortune in developing codes that persuade the user to change his attitude, behaviour and actions. The strength of the Internet is its interactivity, its ability to respond and give instant feedback. Feedback not only regulates the flow of communication but also gives some of the control back to the receiver of the message.
Two persons in conversation establish a dynamic relationship to create shared meanings. Human communication is essentially a transaction that takes place effectively if people have or can create a common field of experience. Islamic jehadists, for example, share one another’s mental model of the Islamic paradise, and for them suicide becomes a door to that mental image of everlasting beauty.
Persuasion works through sharing of mental models. The Internet makes it easy to share mental models whether they are of instant entrance to paradise through suicide bombing, buying and selling on a virtual platform such as e-Bay, or sharing intimacies as companies such as MySpace allow members to do.
Internet communication can transcend face-to-face communication, can be persuasive, and in certain circumstances is even more desirable. The absence of face-to-face cues such as how a person looks and sounds vocal inflections, which might arouse scepticism, are absent in Internet communication, especially in e-mail or question-answer Websites.
Selective self-presentation makes it possible for people to open themselves up to others, which they would hesitate to do in face-to-face conversation for fear of contradiction and lack of control.
Even in chatrooms and instant messaging, communication can become as what one researcher, JB Walther, called “hyperpersonal”, that is, socially more desirable than we are likely to experience face-to-face. It allows the play of fantasy partly to compensate for the absence of aural and visual information that gestures and voice create in interpersonal encounters. Fantasy lowers our guards and makes cyberspace seductively persuasive and dangerous.
So many teenagers go astray in chatrooms because cyberspace lets them assume fake identities and gives them freedom to pretend what they fancy themselves to be. Some of them become victims of conmen and predators, who too assume identities desirable for their teenage victims. The playfulness of virtual environment, an environment of “Be what you want to be”, creates a pleasurable experience, a sensuous flow, in which we feel as if we are in control of our environment, something that real life might deny us.
As the legend goes, on the Internet nobody knows whether a person is a dirty old man trying to seduce teenagers; a gender-swapping woman playing with big boys in a virtual game room; or a teenager posing as an expert. As a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner quipped: “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”
At least for some time, that’s what a California teenager Marcus Arnold had tried to do a few years ago. Probably using his knowledge gained from television programmes such “Judge Judy”, and taking advantage of the pseudonymous freedom that a newly started knowledge sharing company had provided, Marcus turned himself into a legal expert and began to dole out free legal advice. His simple, direct, non-legalese approach to puzzling legal questions had a great appeal. Soon people began to call him at home, seeking his legal advice. But the burden of fakery became too heavy for the 15-year-old boy and one day, he said: “I am not what I have been telling you.” Real lawyers poured scorn but the public rallied around him and he continued to give his non-expert, common sense expertise on legal matters for sometime. Although the free Website (AskMe) closed a few years ago, at its height about 10 million registered visitors posted questions and answers on everything from Armageddon to Zen.
There is so much appetite for knowledge. The seductive power of the Web (and the codes that make it possible) presents one of the greatest challenges to knowledge-creating companies and venture capitalists.

No comments:

Post a Comment