Thursday, December 18, 2008

Photographs on the Internet



That's Alex the cat. She lives with us and often sits on my lap while I'm surfing the Internet. I adore Alex. I've never had a cat that would hug and nudge me so. If that weren't enough she's made my father adore her too. That he's got her to worry over and love makes me love her all the more.

There's another cat here whose name is Barney. Barney is a wonderful companion cat, and I love him for somewhat different reasons. He's got a great work ethic and is gregarious. He's a buddy, but surprisingly shy; where Alex will look at me with her big eyes and let me look back, not so much for Barney.

One of the reasons I've got a photo of Alex is that despite her affectionate nature, she's always sure to make herself unavailable when people come to visit. Many have heard tell of Alex, but few have actually seen her. Right now she's laying a little distance from me and giving me a look that says: "You're up to something, and I'm not sure I approve." I really am not sure she'd approve of my posting a photograph of her, because she takes such effort to protect her anonymity.

Phil Jones posted a link to a talk by Kevin Kelley, Predicting the next 5000 days of the Web along with an essay Phil had written a while back. Kelley observes, from the perspective of one who was paying attention right at the beginning of the Web, that what's emerged in the first 5,000 days is really surprising. And he notes we're not surprised by it. It's become all so second nature to us. But he offers that if past is precedent our predictions about what the Web will look in the next 5,000 days probably won't be what we think.

My last post was seen by some as an argument for the legalization of marijuana. I really didn't intend to make that argument, mostly I was surprised that a respected intellectual like Juan Cole was making the argument and pointed to that. Then using the subject of hemp to jump off into a little talk about natural fibers. The deal with the Internet is all these links. Links to me linked back to my last post which was considered inappropriate for young audiences. Quite honestly, the last thing I want to do is lead. I most certainly do not want to lead young people astray. So it was no problem to remove my little icon that I was following a particular blog, so to make it less likely young people would see this blog. But it did get me to thinking about young people on the Web today.

First of all it seems to me the fears were a bit overwrought because even if a young person were to stumble upon this blog, my tendency to prattle on pretty much assures their visit will be quick. Secondly, kids involve themselves differently from people like me whose life experience is overwhelmingly weighted to times when there was no Internet.

I was looking at photos family members have put up at Facebook the other evening. Sometimes the Internet can provide and overdose of cute. I was enjoying the photos so much, studying the faces of babies and pets I'd never met. As you most certainly know, you can't really look at a picture of a baby's face without your own face taking on the shape it would if you were looking at the child face to face. So my face wore a big smile even as a few tears were rolling from my eyes.

A few of my friends' children have friended me at Facebook. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it may have something to do with keeping loosely tethered to their pasts as they chart their independent lives away at university. Managing the privacy settings at Facebook really isn't as obvious as it ought to be. It's easy for everyone using Facebook not to realize how stuff can travel in ways you don't expect. I suspect that many of these young people do know how to set privacy levels to keep stuff they want private but just don't bother to most of the time. Anyhow, in my Facebook newsfeed I can sometimes see photos in sets put up by friends of friends. I almost never click on those photos to see them in context. Even most of the photos my friends' kids put up I don't rush to see, because I'm not the intended audience. The point is that many young people today have long experience with the Internet and take their exposure more easily than old folks like me do.

Kids expose themselves more easily and are exposed to all sorts of stuff online. John Husband reports today on research, Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast. Husband helpfully collects some of the quotes, and there's this one:
"Children will grow up with the knowledge that their every move is being watched. This is a recipe for killing the kind of independent thinking that creates innovation."
That sounds ominous, and I'm not sure it's necessarily so.

Ethan Zuckerman's blog is as far as I'm concerned is a "must read." On the righthand side is a list of categories and his category labeled xenophilia offers a whole bunch of posts about how the Internet can stunt the development of independent thought and what we can do to prevent that. Zuckerman introduces the sociological concept of homophily which boils down to "birds of a feather flock together." Xenophily is sort of the opposite number to homophily and means love of the different or foreign. In a wonderful post from this spring, Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia he makes a good case for how homophily makes us stupid. I think the warnings about children growing up knowing they're being watched and that inhibiting independent thought is related to the problems of homophily. Zuckerman acknowledges that xenophily is hard; it's just hard to care about another part of the world. That's where serendipity comes into play, people can be surprised to discover the unfamiliar yet interesting.

Zuckerman's writing on the subject is very much worth checking out. My sense is that many young people who have grown up with the Web are rather primed to expect serendipity. Although, Zuckerman has been busy building bridges that allow for serendipity right from the start of the Internet, so when he says it's hard to do it, I'll take him at his word. But his insights do present a dilemma and challenge for adults concerned for the future of our kids. There's so much we'd like to protect them from, yet to prevent their following bridges, to quash serendipity, is to put them at a disadvantage as they move forward.

The last quote Jon Husband culls from the research about the Internet is this:
"It is better to be actively, thoughtfully and humanly adapting technology than to be creating inertia to resist it."
Yep, the Internet means "we'll have to rethink a few things" as Michael Wesch said in his famous YouTube video The Machine Is Us/ing Us. For those willing to watch an hour long video, Wesch's address at the Library of Congress this summer, An anthropological introduction to YouTube is just great. What the Internet will look like in the future is hard to predict, even while smart people all over seem to be making predictions lately.

It's not always easy to read a photograph. One of the fundamental problems is that a photograph represents such a tiny moment in time. Yet we tend to impute more meaning into photographs than we should. People have been looking at photographs as far back as the 1820's and they're ubiquitous now. Yet after all this experience we still have a hard time reading photos. But I think most people know this and hold a bit of skepticism in reserve. The stream of exposure our lives and creations online present is perhaps something our experience with photographs can inform us. BAGNews Notes is a blog dedicated to analysis of news images and support of photojournalism. Up at that site is a picture of young Barack Obama during his Occidental College days. The photo will be in this week's Time and I'm sure we'll see it around quite a lot. I won't be surprised if the photo is used as a sort of cautionary tail for the kinds of photos kids shouldn't put up at their MySpace or Facebook pages. I don't think that will serve much purpose; the kids are already exposed.

3 comments:

Daisy said...

She is just beautiful, and yes, looks shy. She also looks like she is smiling!

Cats are the most special creatures on earth, except for monkeys. (But monkeys never come to me and cuddle up. I would love that, though!)

Daisy said...

My last post was seen by some as an argument for the legalization of marijuana.

You mean me? Ohhh, sorry! I was just expressing my own opinion, actually! (I'll be careful about that kind of thing from now on!)

John Powers said...

LOL, Daisy you don't have to be careful about stuff like that here.

My opinion is "The War on Drugs" is a disaster. But I'm not so clear about what to do. The way I read Juan Cole is that legalizing/decriminalizing pot is one way to begin to shrink prison populations so states can have more money to support higher education. Shrinking prison populations is good goal.

His idea seems fine by me, although I'm not in favor of making marijuana legal like tobacco is legal. I'm more of the opinion that some sort of stamp like people buy so they can hunt ducks is in order, where holding the stamp allows people to grow a certain number of plants for their own use. I don't know, I just don't like the idea of a marijuana industry along the lines of a tobacco industry.

I do like the idea of some sort of legal way for people to have pot if they want it. And I think figuring out that way would help to get the hemp industry going again. There is a strong legacy of technologies for making useful products from hemp. The application of those technologies should enable more development of other natural fiber crops like Kenaf. I feel quite certain that natural fibers will be more important in the future for a wide range of useful products.