Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hey Bangalore! Are You Listening?

When our daily lives become hyper-personal

From The Statesmsn

ND Batra
Google knows whether a person is a dirty trickster, an older man trying to seduce a younger woman; a gender-swapping woman playing with big boys in a cave in Second Life; or a teenager posing as a medical expert.

Google is becoming the keeper of surfers’ personal history, well, at least for 18 months after which it makes it anonymous, or so it promises. The idea behind surf & search record-keeping is to create patterns that anticipate the searcher’s behaviour and provide the information quickly next time he looks for an item. More than that, based on searching patterns, Google, according to CEO Eric Schmidt, could answer hypothetical questions, for example: Where should I invest my bonus, in mutual funds or a savings certificate? Freedom in cyberspace is becoming “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice in Wonderland would have cried. The more you have it, the more you lose it.
The Internet has created a new media environment that not only enables people to communicate, discuss and exchange information, give and receive feedback, but it also provides an interactive collaborative experience, doing things together, when words become deeds and speech becomes 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 cyber-environment that can be designed to be persuasive, and can motivate people to disclose personal information and change their social behaviours. Social engineers, especially those who serve authoritarian governments, know the potential of the Internet for creating an illusion of boundless freedom only to entice people in digital chains.

The next challenge for software programmers whether they work for Google, Yahoo or some authoritarian regime is to build a network architecture that enables the designing of virtual environment to motivate people, for example, to buy, sell, invest; obey the supreme leader; or even induce good social and personal habits such as not to drink and drive, not to have unhealthy sexual behaviours. Computer codes have the potential force of law, according to Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessing, and programmers could bypass the government and, in a manner of speaking, take law into their own hands. Or the government could also use programmers to stifle dissent. Give the monks of Myanmar computers and free access to the Internet. They may not come out of cyberspace to protest in the streets. But the rhetoric of software design, the persuasive code that entices, builds relationships, arouses and fulfills desires and keeps the users coming back, has not been fully explored in areas other than cybersex and virtual reality Internet games. There is a great fortune in developing codes that persuade the user to change his attitude, behaviour and actions.

Hey Bangalore! Are you listening?

The strength of the Internet is its interactive immersion, its ability to respond and give instant feedback and gratification. Feedback not only regulates the flow of communication but also gives some of the control back to the receiver of the message, in fact an illusion of freedom. Two persons in conversation establish a dynamic relationship to create shared meanings, of which a Web portal might keep a record. Human communication is essentially a transaction that takes place effectively if people have or can create a common field of experience. Internet communication can transcend face-to-face communication, can be very enticing, and in certain circumstances is even more desirable as many patients and therapists are finding. Lack of face-to-face cues, physical appearance and vocal inflections, which might arouse skepticism are absent in Internet communication, especially when it is time delayed (asynchronous) such as 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. But Google, Yahoo and the ilk keep digital footprints of what is going on in your hearts and mind. Even in chat rooms and instant messaging, communication can become what JB Walther, a professor at Michigan State University, calls as “hyper-personal,” that’s, 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 so seductively persuasive ~ and dangerous. So many teenagers go astray in cyberspace because it lets them assume fake identities and gives them freedom to pretend what they fancy themselves to be. Some of them become victims of con-men and predators, who too assume identities desirable for their teenage victims.
An Avatar can be very deceptive.
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 in control of our environment that real life might deny us. Those who spend too much time in Second Life might forget what real life is. In search of a fake identity, we are in danger of losing our real identity.

(ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom is professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University. He is working on a new book, This is the American Way: An Intellectual Travelogue)

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