‘Disconnected’ by Carrie James

I’ve just finished reading ‘Disconnected: Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap’ by Carrie James. James has taken a ‘glass half empty’ approach to how the internet is reconfugiring ethics in this crazy, mixed up world.

I have to say, the book is largely empirical – James directly describes the ethical dilemmas and work around that their research subjects – preteens to young adults – are generally employing from 2008-2012. James writes clearly and confidently and the real strength of the work is in its observation of how ethics is negotiatied (or not) online.

A few things struck me while reading it. Firstly, there is some really putrid behaviour online, and the nature of the internet seems to actually be eliciting putrid behaviour offline. Two cases that struck me were the Stuebenville rape case and the rise of ‘creepshot’ sites/pages/subredits. In each case the possibility of sharing degrading images seems to have actually provided the incentive for committing acts of assault and molestation. I won’t go into detail here but what I found weirdest about this was that the tech (anonymous, or psudo-private sharing) seems to be opening up ‘new’ ways of victimising people.  I guess that sounds like a ‘duh!’ statement, considering the breadth of information about cyberbullying that is out there. However, I’d previously considered these instances to be simply ‘amplified’ versions of offline behaviours. Here we’re seeing the development of specific bullying to suit the media d’jour.

James explains how this has become possible – there is a growing gap between how we understand ethics in our ‘real life’ and how this is understood online. Teenagers (and others) tend to regard online ethics and morality only in terms of personal consequences; a problem exacerbated by education programs and parents that are focused on protecting ‘the children’. This doesn’t encourage thinking of others and there is a tendency for the internet to appear as a distinctly different space to real life. Given that it is a pretty vile place for most people – they develop a view that it is completely ‘virtual’ (in the traditional, not Deleuzean sense) and thus don’t necessarily approach it as moral agents.  James finishes up the book by naming a few things that can be done to force a reconsideration of online actions as an extension of real communities and relationships (and also constituted by real ‘others’ who deserve respect).

This brings me to what I see as the key oversight of the book – that it brackets and disregards a lot of the broader normative arguments that surround this research program. For instance to what extent are horrid ethical (and moral) choices a sign of the broader social and cultural times and not something directly related to technology use? At a few points James raises this question, or at least points out that this is a possibility which she is not focussing on. But for me, she could have well reflected on this more meaningfully. She clearly states that it is difficult to know how much of the ‘self interest/self concern’ attitude that dominated her research group was a consequence of technology and how much was a pure reflection of the parents pre-existing attitudes. Because she does state that this attitude of self interest was the defining feature of parents approach and educational explanation of ethics. So, the book left me wondering how much we can blame technology for declining ethical standards, when the same decline in care for others has been evident in the voting patterns and social attitudes of the last few generations.

and finally, a note on realisability:

James’ solutions all involve getting the online ethical world to relate more directly to the offline world. Here she is challenging the fundamental problem of ‘disconnect’ as described in the book’s title. In an engaging passage in the last chapter she describes a ‘conscious connectivity’ and ‘roles and responsibilities’ thinking which can help people think through the real world implications for their online behaviour.  The roles and responsibilities angle (that you should consider the ramifications of your online actions in light of all facets of your character) was particularly provocative for me, as it seems to imply a semi-repressive disciplinary subjectivity which would be the opposite of other-regarding or connective ethics. Surely, one of the things that makes the internet interesting is that you can escape your ‘roles and responsibilities’ and experiment with different subject positions? It seems to me that doing so (experiencing something like being someone else) is actually one of the best opportunities to broaden your ethical perspective.

In the face of this, I’d like to advance the concept of ‘realisability’. Its actually an idea developed by Elliot Delys in his 2010 Honours research which he did with me. ‘Realisability’ is an added dimension to digital ethics which describes the possible implications of an online action. Simply put an online action which has direct and clear offline effects has a high degree of realisability whereas an online action which has no clear effect on an other has a low degree of realisability. With this concept as a moderator upon ethcial judgement, it possible to judge the actual moral and ethical implications of online behaviour without completely restricting the experimentations that online space offers.

So, for instance, posting hate speech on a marginalised group’s facebook page has a high degree of realisability – the hatred is subjectively experienced by a large number of people who each internalise the message with specific ramifications. Compare that to trying to inhabit a different subjectivity in an online chatroom where the only possible ‘realisable’ effect is the discovery of your disengenousness… well while the latter may be unethical, it could be considered only so if the effects are realisable.

And for those of you having trouble with the notion that there are always implications for online actions, you can think of ‘realisability’ to think through those implications (and the other assumptions you’re making about our relationship to the virtual). To what extent is any online action realisable and why?

What I think of Ryan Holiday’s ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’

I’ve just finished what I have to get done before tomorrow and both my kids are still having their afternoon nap. Gold.

After the last post about identity politics I have reflected more on that topic and decided that I’d like to write more about it, as a way of exploring my own ideas and also as defense against anyone who might think I’m not a consistent feminist and/or defender of the marginalised. However, that will have to come later. In this post what I want to do is talk about the work of Ryan Holiday, which I’ve been reading lately as part of my research and teaching in digital media.

In his two books I’ve read thus far Trust me – I’m lying, confessions of a media manipulator and Growth hacker marketing Holiday discusses his own experiences as a strategic communicator for American Apparel and various other brands, authors and movie producers. The former book ‘Trust me’ is a sort of tell all mea culpa that describes how easy it is to leverage status and page hits into the media stratosphere for contemporary media manipulators… it is by far the better book and includes some nicely cynical insights about the state of online news and publishing at the moment. The latter book is more of a ‘how to’ guide for people who want to grow their online presence. It is much shorter, much more ‘instrumental’.

So yes, Holiday has, in one book, decried the easy and lasting corruption of digital media platforms and in the other, he’s written about how to make the most of it. He doesn’t come off as too hypocritical, in Trust me, he goes out of his way to identify the actual harm that comes from media manipulation and owns up to damage that he himself has caused… but as he himself notes in the introduction to the updated edition, his exposure of everything wrong with digital media hasn’t changed a thing.

So I think that book is a worthy read for anyone interested in moving into ‘strategic digital media’. It has enough reference to media theory and actual instructive lessons to make it valuable. It is not as good on media theory as something like Pariser’s ‘Filter Bubble’ and it doesn’t really explore the full ramifications of the problems Holiday is uncovering… (which you can read more about in my New Media and Society article on ‘The big data public and its problems’) but it does present some pretty insightful and easy to understand lessons about the digital media industry.

The top thngs I’ve learned from Holiday? That RSS and other syndication models are being phased out of new browsers and operating systems because publishers and editors want you to have to check back on their site all the time (rather than receive notification when something you are interested in has been added – in this way, you create more pageviews and more revenue for the site owner). While this probably won’t seem remarkable to anyone else, I find it a really interesting shift… I’ve always thought Aaron Schwartz (inventor of RSS and reddit) was a visionary and if there is a hope for the internet it comes from the deliberation that engaged communities can generate. The book was also great for outining the economies of supply and demand on websites, which generate the banal and baffling content that you find therein.

It’s also clear that the tail is wagging the dog of public interest and debate… but that’s been true for some time now. Reading Holiday made me more fond of public broadcasting systems and more determined not to use tauel.com to chase traffic but rather to explore important ideas that do not get explored elsewhere.

Introduction: Why a website?

This year I’ve started teaching a masters unit in digital media for strategic communciation. I have a massive research interest in the are having written a number of books and academic articles on the issue. However, in order to bring real insight to my teaching and research I thought I ought to re-engage with the practical aspects of maitaining a web presence. When learning the ins and outs of Google Analytics, for example, there is nothing better than having your own account, your own TLD and your own vested interest in doing so!

Having a rather unique name meant that tauel.com was available as a top level domain name and rather than invent some strange portmanteau it seemed logical to get tauel for myself. I’ve been told all my life of various meanings for the word tauel and I thought that the word should have its own space. If you have any ideas about what tauel might mean, I’d love to know.

Of course, the only problem with having a site is that you need to have something on it. So far, that has meant including a few of my favourite photos and a brief run down of things that I’d like to promote to everyone (sort of scream from the rooftops good stuff) and things I’d like to warn people about. I’ve also imported some old html pages from my first attempt at web building in the year 2000. A lot of that content has gone missing but I included everything I could find with minimal effort :).  One of the better parts of that site (and its raison d’etre) was my travel diary from my year of travelling through Asia, Europe and the Americas in 1999… at the time it was the only way of allowing friends I met overseas to keep up with what happened in my travels (no facebook/instagram/flickr back then).  So that’s there too, along with a large pdf file of my first big solo trip in 1996, where I started out going to Thailand and then ended up hitching around Britain and Ireland. On that trip the world didn’t even have internet cafes – and travellers had to talk to each other and make stories instead of constantly updating friends back home. The world was a very different place in 1996.

Back to now, there are, of course, a number of reasons that academics should have a public profile and part of me fantasises about the potential of blogging and sharing information over the net. So I’ve also resolved to blog occasionally to get things off my chest and play around with ideas for research and writing. The hope is that people will engage and respond but if nothing else, it is a space for some venting. While I can’t always guarantee my ideas will be well thought out or articulate, I can promise to be at least as reasonable and informative as Andrew Bolt.

Finally, I’ve set up what I call ‘the ideal speaking space‘ simply as a little experiment. The ideal speaking position is a theoretical concept that establishes the conditions that allow a conversation to be reasonable. I have always wanted to play with that concept on the web, so there it is. As I’m still learning the ins-and-outs of forums it is definitely a work-in-progress… but I hope one day someone will ask a question in that space and we can see how it works.

That’s it really. Hopefully not too conceited and painful. Please let me know if there’s anything you’d like to discuss, or questions we can find the answer to together.


Zombies and Smart Phones

My next book is going to be about critical theory, the internet and smart phones but I intend to also make it about Zombies.


I’ve always been fascinated by Zombie narratives and I’ve made it a bit of a tradition to immerse myself in Zombie films as I grade papers every semester. I enjoy the tropes of Zombie narratives; such as:

  1. The evil corporation or insidious corruption that leads to the development of the Zombie plague
  2. The new materialism of the post apocalypse
  3. The failure to resolve what happens next

As I wrote in a recent article (currently under review) the Zombie narrative is inherently political and gives us a chance to experiment with other ways of living.

So, when I say that I’m writing about zombies and smart phones, I don’t mean this:

Or at least, not only that.

I read once in a National Geographic article that a number of parasites in nature turn their hosts into zombies in order to achieve reproduction. For instance an intestinal parasite that can only reproduce inside a cat’s gut latches onto a mouse or rat and then shuts down the parts of their brain that respond to danger cues (such as the smell of a cat). This makes the mouse so much more likely to be eaten and thus the parasite uses the stupified host for its own purposes.

It’s that sort of relationship I’d like to investigate in terms of smartphones, targeted media, the filter bubble. I have a couple of starting questions to think through:

  1. If smart phones are encouraging us to act in the interest of something other than ourselves, what is that thing? (is it capitalism? consumption? or is it community and social circles?)
  2. What would be the distinguishing features of zombie media use? Alternatively is there a prescritpion for a particularly ‘human’ use of a cell phone?

If you have ideas about the answers to these questions, please let me know.

If you also enjoy Zombie media, I’d recommend ‘Zombies ate my podcast‘ for a very likable podcast focused on discussions of ‘The Walking Dead’ but including coverage of all other zombie media.