Context collapse and context restoration


Facebook has a problem. Its members aren’t sharing as much as they used to. At least they’re not sharing firsthand the way they used to. Instead of posting notices about what they’re doing or thinking, or where they are, or whom they’re hanging out with, they’re just recycling secondhand stuff — news stories, songs, other people’s photos or tweets, YouTube videos, etc. The nature of what they share on the network is changing from the personal to the impersonal, from the informal to the formal, from the subjective to the objective. To put it into media terms, which would seem to be the appropriate terms, they are shifting their role from that of actor to that of producer or publisher or aggregator.

To the extent that people still post reports on their firsthand experiences, they’re tending to use more selective networks, like Snapchat, that offer more precise audience control. People are retreating from public displays of experience to more private displays. They’re shifting from mass media to narrower media that, in their intimacy, more closely resemble traditional social settings.

Because Facebook feeds on personal sharing the way a vampire feeds on blood — the more intimate the information you publish, the more Facebook knows about you, and the more precisely it can tailor ads and other messages — any decline in personal sharing is ominous for the company. It’s no surprise that Facebook is now trying to figure out some interface tweaks and tricks that will, as a company spokesperson puts it, “make sharing on Facebook more fun and dynamic.” It’s hard not to hear a hint of desperation in that statement.

Facebook employees, according to a Bloomberg story, refer to the curtailment of personal sharing as “context collapse.” But that’s completely wrong. Context collapse is a sociological term of art that describes the way social media tend to erase the boundaries that once defined people’s social lives. Before social media came along, your social life played out in different and largely separate spheres. You had your friends in one sphere, your family members in another sphere, your coworkers in still another sphere, and so on. The spheres overlapped, but they remained distinct. The self you presented to your family was not the same self you presented to your friends, and the self you presented to your friends was not the one you presented to the people you worked with or went to school with. With a social network like Facebook, all these spheres merge into a single sphere. Everybody sees what you’re doing. Context collapses.

When Mark Zuckerberg infamously said, “You have one identity; the days of you having a different image for your work friends or your co-workers and for the people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he was celebrating context collapse. Context collapse is a wonderful thing for a company like Facebook because a uniform self, a self without context, is easy to package as a commodity. The protean self is a fly in the Facebook ointment.

Facebook’s problem now is not context collapse but its opposite: context restoration. When people start backing away from broadcasting intimate details about themselves, it’s a sign that they’re looking to reestablish some boundaries in their social lives, to mend the walls that social media has broken. It’s an acknowledgment that the collapse of multiple social contexts into a single one-size-fits-all context circumscribes a person’s freedom. There’s only so much fun you can have if you know that your mom, your boss, and your weird neighbor are all watching. The protean self, we’re rediscovering, is a more comfortable self than the uniform self. Being forced into “one identity” is a drag.

There’s something else going on here, too. We’re learning how difficult and exhausting it is to sustain a mass-media presence. The problem with broadcasting everyday experience is that everyday experience is inevitably repetitive, and repetitiveness is, in a media context, the kiss of death. To remain interesting when viewed at a distance, when viewed through media, a person has to display continuing novelty — novelty of experience, novelty of thought. Very few of us can do that for very long. I imagine that, on Facebook, even Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker would have worn out their welcomes after a while.

The repetitiveness of our lives remains interesting to our family and our close friends, but outside that intimate context it gets boring. As reality TV stars, we all face declining ratings and, in the end, cancellation.

Photo: Justin Pickard.

The internet of watchful things


Twenty years ago, as the commercial internet took form, the web’s default setting was switched to “surveillance” when it might have been switched to “privacy.” As is often the case with defaults, no one much noticed at the time. Today, with the Silicon Valley surveillance complex set to expand further through the Internet of Things, we have another opportunity to think carefully about digital surveillance and its consequences for how we live. That opportunity, as I argue in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, probably won’t be open for long. A new default setting is about to be established.

“Americans live their lives on their phones now.” So wrote 15 prominent technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Snapchat, in a legal brief supporting Apple in its now-moot fight with the Justice Department over unlocking the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone. Our phones have become “an extension of our memories,” the companies argued, and “to access someone’s cellphone is to access their innermost thoughts and their most private affairs.”

Although the companies are right, their earnest defense of privacy is deeply ironic, if not hypocritical. They are, after all, in the business of surveillance. They collect personal data on a scale that would make most law enforcement agencies blush. The very existence of firms like Google and Facebook hinges on their ability to monitor our innermost thoughts and our most intimate affairs, to tap into our digital memory pretty much continuously. . . .

Read on.

Image: JLS Photography.

HQ California


Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light.

Who would have guessed that the Eagles would prove our most reliable prophets?

Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, traces the planned new headquarters of Google and Apple — Googledome (above) and Mothership Apple (below) — to their origins in what’s been called Hippie Modernism. The aggressive futurism of the two campuses “is in fact rooted in the past,” Saval writes. “It comes, transfigured, from the wrecked dreams of communal living, of back-to-the-land utopias, of expanding plastic spheres and geodesic domes that populated the landscape of Northern California around the time (and around the same place) that the first semiconductors were being perfected.” It’s Bucky Fuller all over again.


The central building of Googledome is wrapped in “a sinuous glass membrane, a protective bubble or amniotic sac,” Saval notes. “In aerial renderings it looks like larvae, incubating a new and possibly terrifying future.” It’s always the same: The more utopian an artistic portrayal of the future, the creepier it seems.

The feeling has something to do, I think, with the absence of angles — all those soft and welcoming curves, undulating like the coils of a snake. There’s also the Panopticon effect. The transparent enclosures of both Googledome and Mothership Apple can be read as monuments to a surveillance culture. You’re being watched, they whisper, but you need not fret — the watcher is benign, generous, loving.

“Relax,” said the night man. “We are programmed to receive.”

Memories aren’t made of this

I have a review of When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Will Shape Our Future, Abby Smith Rumsey’s meditation on the fragility of cultural memory, in the Washington Post. It begins:

In the spring of 1997, the Library of Congress opened an ambitious exhibit featuring several hundred of the most historically significant items in its collection. One of the more striking of the artifacts was the “rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence. Over Thomas Jefferson’s original, neatly penned script ran edits by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers. Words were crossed out, inserted and changed, the revisions providing a visual record of debate and compromise. A boon to historians, the four-page manuscript provides even the casual viewer with a keen sense of the drama of a nation being born.

Imagine if the Declaration were composed today. It would almost certainly be written on a computer screen rather than with ink and paper, and the edits would be made electronically, through email exchanges or a file shared on the Internet. If we were lucky, a modern-day Jefferson would turn on the word processor’s track-changes function and print copies of the document as it progressed. We’d at least know who wrote what, even if the generic computer type lacked the expressiveness of handwriting. More likely, the digital file would come to be erased or rendered unreadable by changes in technical standards. We’d have the words, but the document itself would have little resonance. . . .

Read on.

Peak robot?

Given our current obsession with the possibility of an economic or even existential robot apocalypse, the news this week that Google is backing away from its aggressive robotics program has received surprisingly little attention. I’m wondering if the company’s retreat might be a signal that, for the moment, we’ve hit peak robot.

Google, according to press reports, is eagerly seeking a buyer for Boston Dynamics, the most vaunted of the robotics companies that it purchased in a wild buying spree a couple years back. Boston Dynamics is famous for making telegenic humanoid and animaloid robots. I’m not sure what practical use the creatures have been put to, but on YouTube they’re superstars:

There’s a certain S&M quality to the Boston Dynamics videos that makes them particularly compelling. Hitting ambulatory robots with hockey sticks and long poles appears to be deeply satisfying.

A strain of sadomasochism also seems to have run through the relationship between the West Coast Googlers and the East Coast Boston Dynamics crew. “The ethos they have and the ethos we have weren’t super-compatible,” Astro Teller, the head of Google’s X lab, told the Wall Street Journal. “They are some of the most talented roboticists in the world, but in order to be here … you have to sign up for our way of doing things.” Ouch.

The problem, though, seems to go a lot deeper than a clash of personalities. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has dissolved its standalone robotics division, called Replicant, and moved its robotics engineers into X in hopes of “defining some specific real-world problems in which robotics could help,” according to a company spokesperson. That’s hardly a ringing long-term endorsement. The company’s enthusiasm over the practical applications of robots, particularly those with legs, appears to be much diminished.

It may be that we’re about to enter a robot winter, similar to the AI winters of the past, in which a bubble of optimism about technological progress bursts, leaving everyone disenchanted and grumpy. Progress slows until some new breakthrough ignites a burst of new interest and innovation, and sunniness returns. “The core issue we are dealing with here is the realization that making robots that actually do things in the real world is much more difficult than what we had envisioned,” the distinguished French roboticist Jean-Christophe Baillie told IEEE Spectrum. “I tend to believe that we cannot brute force our way to solve the complex problems of interaction with the environment or, even more difficult, with people.”

I’m not saying robots are dead meat. I am saying that an adjustment in expectations may be in order, particularly when it comes to robots operating autonomously or semiautonomously in the real world. Progress in many areas of robotics will probably go slower than we’ve been led to believe. I really hope, though, that Boston Dynamics doesn’t go under. Those videos are great.

The real New Economy?

“The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying,” writes Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff in an incisive, disquieting essay in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. We’re seeing the rise, she argues, of “a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism.”

Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative surveillance project that subverts the “normal” evolutionary mechanisms associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.

The product, which once formed the foundation and the boundary of the customer-company relation, becomes an excuse for the surreptitious collection of behavioral data. The product becomes the loss leader for surveillance. The money’s in the data.

Zuboff limns what she sees as the path of modern capitalism:  “once profits from products and services, then profits from [financial] speculation, and now profits from surveillance.”

This latest mutation may help explain why the explosion of the digital has failed, so far, to decisively impact economic growth, as so many of its capabilities are diverted into a fundamentally parasitic form of profit.

Zuboff’s is an ominous vision of a drift toward “a disfigured capitalism” that, facilitated by the public’s “ignorance, learned helplessness, inattention, inconvenience, [and] habituation,” ends in “an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.” Is she overstating the case? Maybe. Maybe not. At the very least, she tells us a truth we seem eager to avoid: the most valuable things in the internet of things are the things formerly known as people.

The people’s campaign

white walker

The funny thing about gatekeepers is that you never appreciate their value until they’re gone.