Big Data Cheer!

While I still learn to understand the magnanimity of big data, this one was hard to ignore.



A social network for the dead

Is it ever possible that the social network you use frequently will contain profiles of more dead people than that of living ones? And what challenges does it pose for someone who is trying to study the user behaviour of people on that social network? Is it ethical? Does it adhere to the basic tenets of doing ethnography? Your social network can afford to keep all our pages and data indefinitely. Living users will always generate more data than dead ones, and the accounts for active users are the ones that will need to be easily accessible. Even if accounts for dead (or inactive) people make up a majority of their users, it will probably never add up to a large part of their overall infrastructure budget. More important will be our decisions. What do we want for those pages? Unless we demand that the social network deletes them, they will presumably, by default, keep copies of everything forever. But there are a lot of questions surrounding passwords and access to private data that we haven’t yet developed social norms for. Should accounts remain accessible? What should be made private? Should next-of-kin have the right to access email? Should memorial pages have comments? How do we handle trolling and vandalism? Should people be allowed to interact with dead user accounts? What lists of friends should they show up on? T

hese are issues that we’re currently in the process of sorting out by trial and error. Death has always been a big, difficult, and emotionally charged subject, and every society finds different ways to handle it. In every place, culture, and technological landscape, we develop a different set of behaviour around these same activities. And it is this evolving behaviour, which poses great challenges when someone is trying to do study users on digital platforms. Death may appear to be an easier issue to deal with, if you keenly observe the different cultural sensitivities that come into play when people are expressing their opinion on religion, politics or other complex matters of the society. There are also issues related to user anonymity and state control. To add to the complexity, the ethnographer faces many methodological challenges like playing the dual role of participant-observer, contextualizing and arriving at normativity while conducting the research.

To pause, to ponder, to tweet or to move on

Sherry Turkle:

A 14-year-old girl tells me how she gets her device-smitten father to engage with her during dinner: “Dad, stop Googling. I don’t care about the right answer. I want to talk to you.” A 14-year-old boy reflects: “Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that.”

John Dickerson:

When you pause to write about something—even if it’s for Twitter or Facebook—you are engaging with it. Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you’ve got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the larger world.

Sounds & Notes from London

It may just sound weird but I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the woman who sells The Big Issue outside the Waterstones on Gower Street. Not that I am unsympathetic towards the cause of The Big Issue but there is something eerily scary about her voice. I even avoid going to that part of the Waterstones but still every visit to Waterstones is full of reminiscences of that sound. This gets me to think if there is a hierarchy of senses in a way that we end up remembering more visual experiences or associate sounds with visuals and then in a similar order may be taste or smell or touch. In most cases it is the visual experience that one recalls most often or if there is a visual associated with a sound or a smell or a taste or touch it becomes easier to remember. Is this the reason we take more pictures than we record sounds or has the medium somehow adopted itself to a hierarchy of senses which perches vision right at the top? Is this the reason we have more apps or platforms that make it easier for us to take pictures, record our visual experiences and share with others?

I think about sound as a photographer. I’m not a “good photographer” but I do it enough that when I’m out in the world I see things in terms of what I would like to see again or that I would like someone else to see from a particular perspective. That’s my guiding principle with pictures. I wonder why exactly we have such a different relationship with sound as compared to how we relate to images. We have music, of course, but that’s not like photography at all. Music is the brush of a paint on canvas or a sculpture or graceful curve of an atrium. But music is not photograph of sounds.

I found this group on Soundcloud, Sound Art, that advertises itself as interested in ambient recordings, but in practice it looks more like another place for people to post their sick jams. What I want is a place to hear things that people record in the spaces around them. This seems reasonable to me: An app with just one button to record and another to share. I’d have fewer “friends” than on Instagram, in the realm of sound, but there would surely be some. And some who use the app would be pushed to find better and more interesting sounds, and to appreciate those sounds in new and different ways.

It’s worth discussing why this audio-sharing network would be so much smaller than the visual ones and why there would be less interest. For starters, vision is the dominant sense. All I really need to prove this is to ask which sense you would rather lose, but it’s still important to look a bit closer than that. Research has shown that up to 85 percent of our perception, learning, and cognition is mediated through vision. Just think of absolutely anything you enjoy: “running,” “chocolates,” “plants,” or “cats.” If you’re an average person, you saw those things in your imagination. (Possible exceptions, like “sex,” are an interesting digression, however.)

On Instagram people share subjects. In my experience, they don’t share very much ambience. There is very little to be found in the sense of a place on photo sharing sites. Rarely do I get a chance to “like” a photo of a room or some field. This is a shame. I’d like to be better able to share environments and ambience in general. We’ve reached a particular point in evolution and technological advancement that we don’t need to dote on vision anymore to survive or at least not as much as we used to. We have a vision-based internet and given that the internet itself doesn’t exist as an actual space, in the sense of needing to be spatially navigated, perhaps sound just needs a better advocate than websites that autoplay horrible music.

So: a sharing network for sounds. Someone build that. I’ll be your first member.



Flickr image via

So I moved to London to study Digital Anthropology

It does not happen too often that you walk a few feet around a place and you see a house which was once home to Charles Dickens and another one whose inhabitants included George Bernard Shaw and Virgina Woolf. And then you see someone ‘almost flipping pages’ of supposedly, a book on their Kindle, as they sit by the sides of these historic but still functional precincts.

This is the leafy Bloomsbury in London. How good are the chances that one of them is reading a Great Expectations or a Pygamalion on those reading devices? It makes me wonder if they already had one of those books in paper and downloaded an e-copy so that they can read one as they move around. Or what else can be the reason that they decided to ‘consume’ (which has a lot of deeper meaning than what we usually associate it with) or read the book on their e-devices? And once they finish reading the book will they recommend the book to someone in their different social circles – friends, family and workspace colleagues? And if they do recommend how will they do, on Facebook or WhatsApp or walk up to a friend and talk about it? Will they Instagram the cover of the book because they liked the cover art and share it on their digital social networks?

What I realise quite as much is aspects of consumption of new media have been growing beyond physical media into bits and stream and clouds of data, and beyond the largely one-way conventional distribution channels to a more social experience. And this is why I find myself in London spending the next year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). The programme is (arguably) the only one of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, “locating the field of digital communication and digital media on a global context using field-based methods” is important. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you talk to people, contact your family, look for information, conduct business, and (special to Instagram) take pictures with a hint of nostalgia. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organisation. We need to derive new methods to study how our behaviour and relationship with entities around us is changing because of technology.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, society, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. As we experience wearable devices and smart watches around us, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about. And then I wanted to steer my experience in digital marketing and business of over the last six years into something more grounded in inter-disciplinary social sciences theory and critical analyses so that it gives me new perspectives to think or evaluate business problems once I go back to work after the course.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard to go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online group, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

Tailpiece: It is highly unlikely that you come across a statue of Mahatama Gandhi in close proximity with a statue of Rabindranath Tagore anywhere in India. I feel extremely chuffed almost every morning, walking past their statues in Bloomsbury, both of whom studied in UCL.

Who owns the content?

While I was aware of the recent proposed litigation by some newspapers asking Google to pay for indexing and displaying their links in the search engines, I was flabbergasted when I read about the case of Irish newspapers on Monday Note.

Try googling the following French legalese: “A défaut d’autorisation, un tel lien pourra être considéré comme constitutif du délit de contrefaçon”. (It means any unauthorized incoming link to a site will be seen as a copyright infringement.) This search get dozens of responses.

This is not all. In the recently concluded ‘failed’ discussion at the WCIT meeting in Dubai there was an attempt to own the content(read data) by many a parties.

And couple this debate with Twitter not allowing Instagram to show pictures or another platform snapping connections with the rest of the ecosystem to not give away benefits of user data to the other.

To add to this is the complexity of two-sided markets where If you use a service and it’s free, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold.

When you sign up on a platform and click on ‘I agree’, you enter a legal contract talking about who will ultimately have the rights to the content you post on a platform. So suppose you write a passionate post about the recent public protests on Delhi on Twitter or Facebook, it is you who has created that post but it does not stop the platform bots from mining the content to show you related ads.

As I write this there are new platforms popping up to support your content, pictures and videos. I think there is a need on the part of the platforms to communicate to the user about how they are going to use the their data more lucidly. Taking in user feedback or allowing to users to vote for the policies on the platform should help remove some of the vagueness associated with such issues but then I assume everyone’s on a learning curve.

While reading up on this topic I chanced upon Wikipedia’s rules of content ownership and they say – Since no one “owns” any Wikipedia content, content should not be signed. The exact contributions of all editors are seen with their names on the page history.