Your Facsimile World

Image courtesy of Wikiart, copyright Enrico Donati, sculpture “Evil Eye” 1946

There’s nothing wrong with experiencing facsimile. But facsimile is not a substitute for experience.

The forthcoming edition of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017) prophesies a “World Without Why“; but that is not the end of it: We are entering a “facsimile world” with the introduction of smartphone virtual reality.

In introducing a smartphone with a built-in virtual reality camera, Tech Worm  states:

You’ll probably never go to Mars, swim with dolphins, run an Olympic 100 meters, or sing onstage with the Rolling Stones. But if you own a Virtual Reality headset, you can do all the above things without leaving your sofa.

As the author of  the first edition of Interpersonal Divide (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005),  I have been tracking the facsimile world for more than a decade. For instance, I wrote several pieces  about avatars in Second Life, one of the first virtual reality worlds on the web. Many colleges were conducting classes on the platform, and that worried me. My focus was not on new experiences, such as the vicarious feeling of flying from one location to the next, but on deviant behaviors that students could encounter landing on an unknown site and encountering strangers there.

In this piece, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote:

We have enough trouble dealing with violence, assault, and sexual harassment in the real world, but few of us — even campus lawyers — know how the law applies in virtual realms vended by companies whose service terms often conflict with due process in academe.

In a follow-up article, again in the Chronicle, I recommended all virtual reality games create terms of service to mitigate the incidence of avatar harassment, assault, racism, homophobia and other inappropriate content.

In another article titled “Avatar Rape,” published in Inside Higher Ed, I argued that avatar harassment and sexual assault remain controversial issues because educational institutions hosting virtual worlds are not accustomed to dealing with — or even discussing — digital forms of these distressing behaviors.

Now, with a VR headset and a smartphone, the future of graphic encounters–including all forms of illicit behaviors–will change, along with our psyches.

Users will move from vicarious characters manipulated by keyboard and mouse to facsimile ones that have the feel, if not the substance, of real life.

Case in point: Tech Radar reports that the free site “Pornhub” is creating a new category for every conceivable form of sexual behavior. According to the post, “Pornhub has such faith in VR that in addition to launching the new category, the site is also giving away 10,000 headsets to get early adopters on board. ”

The addictive quality of smartphone VR has yet to be measured. But society may be moving from digital marijuana to heroin in record time.

My concerns transcend sex and violence. With a VR headset, you can dream of all the things you had hoped to experience in your bucket list. Swim with dolphins. Climb a mountain. Visit the Sistine Chapel, Mount Olympus, Yellowstone National Park … and never actually do anything. And these are only tourist-type facsimiles. You can imagine the range of personal experience–the good, bad and ugly–in which consumers are going to indulge.

This is not to say that facsimile cannot enlighten us. A colleague of mine who teaches virtual reality at Iowa State University notes that a person might take up the cause of a social issue, such as civil rights, by experiencing what it is like to part of a protest. All that is true, of course.

But the reality, or virtual reality, I should say, can just as easily seduce us from the difficult work of actual achievement and participation. The machine is the grand enabler. Gratification theory will have to be rewritten.

Finally, all of this is not new. Technology has always provided facsimile. Consider this analogy from the literary era of the 1970s when photocopying machines replaced mimeographs. (Here’s a link for those who never heard of mimeographs.) Teachers, in particular, felt that they had read an article simply because they had photocopied it.

Now, with VR technology, people will have felt that they have lived a life simply because they donned a headset.

Tweeting Accountant Delivers Wrong Oscar Envelope


We’ll the country is abuzz with a mistake made at the 2017 Oscar show during which a PriceWaterhouseCoopers accountant handed actor Warren Beatty the wrong envelope for the “Best Picture” Award. The envelope was for Best Actress in a Leading Role, an award just presented to Emma Stone for La La Land. The Best Picture was Moonlight.

According to Reuters,  Accountant Brian Cullinan had been tweeting backstage before giving presenters Beatty and Faye Dunaway the unfortunate envelope.

This is a great example of how technology overtakes the human mind (or thumbs, as the case may be), no matter what fail-safe rules ares put into place. In this case, two accountants with secret winning ballots in briefcases and who had to memorize winners in case the briefcases were lost–and this is only a small part of the procedures–still faltered because of the allure of the event and the proximity of the machine to tell others about it.

For more about the mix-up, click here.

Again, though, nobody died (although some came close from embarrassment). Now factor the same allure of the pinging smartphone in your purse or pocket while you are driving and the dangers associated with that.

The only way to live with the machine is to understand its nature. It changes everything it touches without itself being changed much at all. In other words, to use technology effectively, we need to know when, where and how to use it.

In this case, the Oscar accountant didn’t.

This Amazing Video Shows Just How Distracted We Are

The first edition of Interpersonal Divide was among the first books to warn about distracted driving caused by cell phone use. Researchers at the time (2001) were in the process of documenting how dangerous distracted driving was becoming, with some reports stating that cell phone use was as dangerous as being drunk behind the wheel. One study, conducted by researchers at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and at the University of Michigan, was among the first to support the banning of cell phone use by car drivers.

However, in the early part of the century, technology companies and advocates were claiming that cell phones saved lives–a marketing gimmick that continues to this day whenever new gadgets or apps are introduced.

The first edition of Interpersonal Divide cited media hype of buying cell phones for safety reasons, publishing stories of car drivers surviving natural and man-made ordeals because of the phones in their pockets. Of course, as more and more drivers purchased cell phones for safety reasons, that also increased the numbers of drivers who became distracted using them.

Here is a quote from the first edition in reference to the hype. But it still qualifies today as one of the most powerful marketing gimmicks to hawk new technologies:

“We bought mobile phones for safety reasons and then use them for trivial reasons, putting lives at risk. That is why this device in particular illustrates how we are manipulated by the optimal level of fear–the marketing message that prompts us to purchase an item. Once we do, marketing touts convenience over utility. Convenience, however, often trespasses on common sense.”

The question now, more than 15 years later, is how convenience not only trespassed on common sense concerning cell phone use; it trampled it, along with hundreds of thousands of lives lost because of texting, phoning or gaming while driving.

The National Safety Council estimates a 6 percent rise in traffic fatalities. More than 40,200 people lost their lives in U.S. car crashes last year. That’s a 14 percent rise in two years.

The Council notes a dramatic rise in distracted driving due to use of apps such as Google Maps, Facebook and Snapchat.

Valentine’s Day in the Age of the Machine

This video has been making the rounds, noting how algorithms can choose a mate for you on Valentine’s Day. It’s worth watching to know how love evolves in the machine age:

What bothers me about machine matches based on survey responses is the marketing aspect of partner-pairing, objectification on a grand scale. Even the photos, videos and other data on these corporate sites compel registered users to market themselves like products, and when they do, how certain can we be about the “truthiness” of those shared replies?

When I saw my mate for the first time, the mirror neurons–the ultimate algorithm synchronizing brain and heart–clicked, and I pursued her until we married. The real story is much more romantic than that, but this was the feeling and phenomenon. Does the same thing happen when a person peruses a potential partner on, or do we see images there through the flat-world lens of the smartphone screen, which captures a facsimile of reality?

So I wanted to know more about the latest news involving Valentine’s and machines, and found this post by NBC News, about asking Siri love questions and even possible language for the love card to a partner:

It turns out that Apple’s Siri is a big softie when it comes to Valentine’s Day.
Whether you’re looking for some love advice or want to probe deeper into Siri’s own love life, you can now ask the trusty assistant a number of love-related queries.

Okay, I thought, I would test it by download a Siri-like app on my smartphone, called Andro Siri. Here’s a screenshot of our Valentine’s Day conversation:


I’m not sure what I did wrong or how I offended the app in some way. Actually, the response was so vile that I can’t reprint it here.

Well, I might have checked the reviews before installing it on my phone. I guess human reviews–in love as well as algorithm–still can be trusted.


Orwell’s 1984 and Journalism 2017: “Talk of Iowa”

Photo by Charity Nebbe, Talk of Iowa


For Michael Bugeja, director and professor of Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, his concern lies with seeing the Orwellian ideas of “doublethink” and “Newspeak” in today’s society.

“Doublethink is the ability, according to Orwell in the book, to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. That’s what’s going on in many corners of the media right now,” Bugeja says. “We do make a distinction at the Greenlee School between media, which is everything – social networks, newspapers, television – and journalism, which is the practice of disseminating, to audience, fact and analysis. And 1984 does speak quite eloquently about this.”

Newspeak is the language of the regime in 1984. It consists of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, a linguistic design meant to limit the freedom of thought and self-expression.

“I’m seeing a lot of Newspeak in the texting that goes on, and in the lack of reading,” says Bugeja. “Nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year, and the number of non-book readers has nearly tripled since 1978…So what we’re losing by not reading of course is the ability to think critically.”

Daycare Notice on Parental Use of Phones Goes Viral

daycareThe description in the notice tugged at hearts of many who read it:

“We have seen children trying to hand their parents their work they completed and the parent is on the phone,” the sign added. “We have heard a child say ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy…’ and the parent is paying more attention to their phone than their own child. It is appalling.”

But the fact is, parents at functions from dance recitals to little league games are texting or viewing cell phones rather than their offspring. What interpersonal message does that convey?

It very well may send a message,  psychologists say. A new study shows that distracted parenting can have long-term deleterious effects, including children’s ability to experience joy and pleasure.

In another study, researchers spied on 55 parents and caregivers eating or interacting with children, from infants to 10-year-olds, in restaurants in the Boston area. According to NBC News, “Of the 55, 40 used a mobile device during the meal.  Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal.”

Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine devotes a chapter to the effects of technology on children, including how parents use and abuse devices, instilling life-long lessons and, perhaps, problems.

More Selfie Than Shark Deaths

Last year Rolling Stone ran a story titled Death by Selfie: 11 Disturbing Stories of Social Media Pics Gone Wrong covering fatal shots that ranged from falling down the steps of the fabled Taj Mahal to succumbing to a lethal walrus. Yes. Walrus.

The magazine also reported that in 2015, selfie deaths outnumbered shark deaths, adding, “Tourist destinations such as Mumbai have gone so far as to designate selfie-free zones.”

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has an updated list of selfie deaths, categorizing them. Falls, electrocution and “transport”–taking selfies while on moving objects, like a train–lead the fatal pack. We used to be concerned about distracted driving. Now we’re concerned about distracted portraits.

You can view “last photos” online or even on YouTube, as in this video (replete with “Jaws”-like background music):

The “selfie” phenomenon is covered in Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine, as this except illustrates:

The selfie is a sign of one’s social media prowess with the solitary ego as cultural centerpiece. People have died taking selfies, losing footing on ledges; some have shot themselves, taking selfies; and some risked their lives, taking selfies with grizzly bears in the background. We so trust our machines and their virtual environments that we are oblivious to dangers of physical environments. The more machines document and surveil every moment of our lives, the more they have metamorphosed into lives of their own, with users unable to assess where the gadgets end and their real existence begins.

Of course, selfies are only one example of interpersonal ignorance. A more lethal phenomenon is using apps like Snapchat while driving. More on that in a future post.