Reading In All Media

There is no end to people complaining about technology and new media. It isn’t limited to luddites and other varieties of reactionaries. One hears all kinds of views why the world is going down the crapper, from high-minded critiques from academics to your mother’s nagging about her grandchildren. Recently, Michael Harris wrote about this on a personal level:

“For good reason. It’s embarrassing. Especially for someone like me. I’m supposed to be an author – words are kind of my job. Without reading, I’m not sure who I am. So, it’s been unnerving to realize: I have forgotten how to read – really read – and I’ve been refusing to talk about it out of pride. […]

“For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was. […]

“For many writers, this is the new wisdom. A cynical style of reading gives way to a cynical style of writing. I’ve watched my own books become “useful” as they made their way into public conversation. I never meant them to be useful – in a self-help sense – but that was how they were often read. I say this with less reproach than surprise: Almost every interviewer has asked me for tips and practical life advice, despite the fact my books offer neither.

“Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get” (I have forgotten how to read).

There is some truth to it. I can’t deny that. But I can’t fully agree either, at least not for me personally. My brain doesn’t operate normally, something I know because I have the official tests from when I was diagnosed as learning disabled in childhood to when I was sent off to a psychiatric ward in my early 20s. I’m fully documented as ‘special’.

I don’t give a flying fuck if a book is written and presented in a linear manner. I never have been prone to linear thought, much less linear reading. It’s long been my habit to read dozens of books simultaneously. I skim books and I flit around them like a drunken butterfly. I often read the conclusion first and impressively will then proceed to read the text backwards, paragraph by paragraph. No linear cultural expectation is going to keep me confined. Fuck that!

All of that was true for me long before the internet. It’s why I hated formal education, to such an extent that I learned to read late, almost flunked out of 7th grade, only graduated high school by cheating on tests, and dropped out of college twice. Schools don’t teach the way my mind works. I remember when I first started spending much time on the world wide web. It was mind-blowing! For the first time in my freaking life, I was experiencing something in the larger society that operated the same way as my ‘abnormal’ brain. If I was abnormal, then all of the internet was abnormal and it was my kind of crazy.

I still love to read. And I feel little conflict or competition between literary media as a physical book and electronic media as the internet. I simply have different contexts in which I immerse myself in any given media. It’s all good.

I like to go for long walks in the morning and that is when I find the best time for concentrated reading. My reading-while-walking habit also began long before the internet, maybe back when I was in high school. I typically walk out to my parents’ house at the edge of town and it takes about an hour-and-half, allowing me to read a couple of short stories or maybe a few chapters of a book. I also like to snatch some time to read while riding in a car/bus or sitting around waiting for something, including free moments at work. I always keep a physical book nearby for any occasion with my ever present backpack usually containing many choices of reading material.

There are hundreds of books I’ve read that I never would have discovered if not for the internet. I’ve probably spent thousands of hours reading book reviews and perusing Google Books. On the other hand, I admit that social media can be addictive and pointlessly distracting. I had to learn to avoid much of social media or at least avoid the worst elements of it. I don’t have any doubt that I’m being subtly influenced in ways that I’m unaware. But I seem to have a certain amount of immunity that others lack, as it doesn’t feel unnatural or foreign to me. I love all the vast info available on the internet, as I love books. Media whore that I am, I love it all. I devour all forms of media. And after a while, they all blend together in my mind and experience.

Bring it on! Let the world be transformed by media. It will be a fun social experiment. Anyway, physical books are more likely to survive climate change than is the human species. For the last remaining humans huddled around fires as civilization collapses, there will still be plenty of physical books left in old decaying libraries. The survivors will have plenty of time to read, in between fighting off packs of mutants and evading zombie hordes. But until then, may media bloom like a thousand flowers.

“…we can’t pretend they don’t exist anymore.”

James Bridle (from YouTube transcript):

But the other thing, the thing that really gets to me about this, is that I’m not sure we even really understand how we got to this point. We’ve taken all of this influence, all of these things, and munged them together in a way that no one really intended. And yet, this is also the way that we’re building the entire world.

We’re taking all of this data, a lot of it bad data, a lot of historical data full of prejudice, full of all of our worst impulses of history, and we’re building that into huge data sets and then we’re automating it. And we’re munging it together into things like credit reports, into insurance premiums, into things like predictive policing systems, into sentencing guidelines. This is the way we’re actually constructing the world today out of this data.

And I don’t know what’s worse, that we built a system that seems to be entirely optimized for the absolute worst aspects of human behavior, or that we seem to have done it by accident, without even realizing that we were doing it, because we didn’t really understand the systems that we were building, and we didn’t really understand how to do anything differently with it.

There’s a couple of things I think that really seem to be driving this most fully on YouTube, and the first of those is advertising, which is the monetization of attention without any real other variables at work, any care for the people who are actually developing this content, the centralization of the power, the separation of those things. And I think however you feel about the use of advertising to kind of support stuff, the sight of grown men in diapers rolling around in the sand in the hope that an algorithm that they don’t really understand will give them money for it suggests that this probably isn’t the thing that we should be basing our society and culture upon, and the way in which we should be funding it.

And the other thing that’s kind of the major driver of this is automation, which is the deployment of all of this technology as soon as it arrives, without any kind of oversight, and then once it’s out there, kind of throwing up our hands and going, “Hey, it’s not us, it’s the technology.” Like, “We’re not involved in it.” That’s not really good enough, because this stuff isn’t just algorithmically governed, it’s also algorithmically policed. When YouTube first started to pay attention to this, the first thing they said they’d do about it was that they’d deploy better machine learning algorithms to moderate the content.

Well, machine learning, as any expert in it will tell you, is basically what we’ve started to call software that we don’t really understand how it works. And I think we have enough of that already. We shouldn’t be leaving this stuff up to AI to decide what’s appropriate or not, because we know what happens. It’ll start censoring other things. It’ll start censoring queer content. It’ll start censoring legitimate public speech. What’s allowed in these discourses, it shouldn’t be something that’s left up to unaccountable systems. It’s part of a discussion all of us should be having.

But I’d leave a reminder that the alternative isn’t very pleasant, either. YouTube also announced recently that they’re going to release a version of their kids’ app that would be entirely moderated by humans. Facebook — Zuckerberg said much the same thing at Congress, when pressed about how they were going to moderate their stuff. He said they’d have humans doing it. And what that really means is, instead of having toddlers being the first person to see this stuff, you’re going to have underpaid, precarious contract workers without proper mental health support being damaged by it as well. And I think we can all do quite a lot better than that.

The thought, I think, that brings those two things together, really, for me, is agency. It’s like, how much do we really understand — by agency, I mean: how we know how to act in our own best interests. Which — it’s almost impossible to do in these systems that we don’t really fully understand. Inequality of power always leads to violence. And we can see inside these systems that inequality of understanding does the same thing. If there’s one thing that we can do to start to improve these systems, it’s to make them more legible to the people who use them, so that all of us have a common understanding of what’s actually going on here.

The thing, though, I think most about these systems is that this isn’t, as I hope I’ve explained, really about YouTube. It’s about everything. These issues of accountability and agency, of opacity and complexity, of the violence and exploitation that inherently results from the concentration of power in a few hands — these are much, much larger issues. And they’re issues not just of YouTube and not just of technology in general, and they’re not even new. They’ve been with us for ages.

But we finally built this system, this global system, the internet, that’s actually showing them to us in this extraordinary way, making them undeniable. Technology has this extraordinary capacity to both instantiate and continue all of our most extraordinary, often hidden desires and biases and encoding them into the world, but it also writes them down so that we can see them, so that we can’t pretend they don’t exist anymore.

We need to stop thinking about technology as a solution to all of our problems, but think of it as a guide to what those problems actually are, so we can start thinking about them properly and start to address them.

Proteus Effect and Mediated Experience

The Proteus effect is how our appearance on media results in mediating our experience, perception, and identity. It also shapes how we relate and how others relate to us. Most of this happens unconsciously.

There are many ways this might relate to other psychological phenomenon. And there are real world equivalents to this. Consider that how we dress influences how we act such as wearing a black uniform will increase aggressive behavior. Another powerful example is that children imagining themselves as a superhero while doing a task will exceed the ability they would otherwise have.

Most interesting is how the Proteus effect might begin to overlap with so much else as immersive media comes to dominate our lives. We already see the power of such influences by way of placebo effect, Pygmalion/Rosenthal effect, golem effect, stereotype threat, and much else. I’ve been particularly interested in the placebo effect as the efficacy of antidepressants for most people are no more statistically significant than that of a placebo, demonstrating how something can allow us to imagine ourselves into a different state of mind. Or consider how simply interacting with a doctor or someone acting like a doctor brings relief without any actual procedure having been involved.

Our imaginations are powerful, imagination of both of ourselves and others along with the imagination of others of ourselves. Tell a doctor or a teacher something about a patient or student, even if not true, and the individual will respond in such a way as if it is true with real world measurable effects. New media could have similar effects, even when we know it isn’t ‘real’ but merely virtual. Imagination doesn’t necessarily concern itself with the constraints of supposed rationality, as shown how people will viscerally react to a fake arm being cut after they’ve come to identify with that fake arm, despite their consciously knowing it is not actually their arm.

Our minds are highly plastic and our experience easily influenced. The implications are immense, from education to mental health, from advertising to propaganda. The Proteus effect could play a transformative role in the further development of the modern mind, either through potential greater self-control or greater social control.

* * *

Virtual Worlds Are Real
by Nick Yee

Meet Virtual You: How Your VR Self Influences Your Real-Life Self
by Amy Cuddy

The Proteus Effect: How Our Avatar Changes Online Behavior
by John M. Grohol

Enhancing Our Lives with Immersive Virtual Reality
by Mel Slater & Maria V. Sanchez-Vives

Virtual Reality and Social Networks Will Be a Powerful Combination
by Jeremy N. Bailenson and Jim Blascovich

Promoting motivation with virtual agents and avatars
by Amy L. Baylor

Avatars and the Mirrorbox: Can Humans Hack Empathy?
by Danna Staaf

The Proteus effect: How gaming may revolutionise peacekeeping
by Gordon Hunt

Can virtual reality convince Americans to save for retirement?
by The Week Staff

When Reason Falters, It’s Age-Morphing Apps and Virtual Reality to the Rescue
by David Berreby

Give Someone a Virtual Avatar and They Adopt Stereotype Behavior
by Colin Schultz

Wii, Myself, and Size
by Li BJ, Lwin MO, & Jung Y

Would Being Forced to Use This ‘Obese’ Avatar Affect Your Physical Fitness?
by Esther Inglis-Arkell

The Proteus Effect and Self-Objectification via Avatars
by Big Think editors

The Proteus Effect in Dyadic Communication: Examining the Effect of Avatar Appearance in Computer-Mediated Dyadic Interaction
by Brandon Van Der Heide, Erin M. Schumaker, Ashley M. Peterson, & Elizabeth B. Jones