Freedom in the Digital Age

How do digital knowledge, memory & learning affect our freedoms?

There are limits to human knowledge and memory. Biologically, we do not store abstract knowledge knowledge well.This type of knowledge would include numbers, letters, and complex ideas that do not relate to us. Although we have about 100 billion neurons, we are limited to the synapses between active ones. Each neuron could be connected to 10,000 other ones, which leads to and the possibility of contamination between various memories and explains why we may not remember a fact or event accurately. For a memory to be committed to long-term memory, according to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, “our brain uses multiple levels of processing and filtering before committing information to long-term memory.” 1In a sense, we are not free to be factual and robotic, but rather free to be expressive and reliant on our own interpretations of the real world.
Due to a need for recording this information, we started to use various mediums (cuneiforms, paper, and now digital inscription) as a response to our biological limits in memory. Like Socrates mentioned, we no longer needed to remember because the information was available 2.

Because digital inscription has been so good, I’d argue that it has affected our freedom to forget, and our freedom to be creative.

There has been a culture created in which we are not allowed to forget. Forgetting can encompass a broad range of definitions, including the loss of information, the removal of information, or the process of change. Living with Complexity is a book by Donald A. Norman that delves into how new technological advances must remain complex by mirroring the complexity of our everyday lives. Digital inscription has led to an oversaturation of information and data that has tried to free us from looking at the small details by categorizing people, but our individualism has suffered. It is ironic how we are creating complex technology to simplify processes. The inability to lose aspects is seen in the video game medium as well, in which console developments and new games had to always “add” to what existed previously. The book Delete has explained how we “would be overwhelmed quickly if we committed to memory every stimulus we receive.” 3
The cliche “don’t reinvent the wheel” is both a blessing and a curse.” This phrase is used regularly in entrepreneurial or educational settings that push people to produce something new. The assumption is that nothing should be repeated because copying and pasting is considered taboo. The freedom to be creative is now extremely dependent on previous knowledge, and puts future generations at a disadvantage in which they must create just for the act of doing so. I think we are entering a stage in the Digital Age in which we are afraid to waste resources and want them to use shared, basic knowledge to innovate within specialized fields.

 

Therefore, for us to remain “free” in the digital age, we must introduce and refine three types of freedoms:

(1) Academic/Research freedom,
(2) Artistic/Expressive freedom, and
(3) Identity freedom.

These three types of freedoms are addressed via three broad principles that will guide us into the Digital Age: Agency of Digital Presence and Information, Active Expression and Creativity that is enabled by technology, and the Ability to Forget and simplify.

 

Agency of the Digital Presence and Information

In response to the power relationships that are being established between individual and software accessed publicly, providing users a level of agency in their digital presence and information is critical to enabling identity freedom. The trust is thus shared between the individual who has power over what information is released/published about him/her and the software that dictates that some information must be publicly accessible in order to represent an authentic profile of the individual. As collective intelligence inevitably rises, we must redefine what intelligence means. DeepMind is a company whose mission is focused on “solving intelligence” 4 although their focus is geared more towards developing artificial intelligence (AI) that reflects and imitates the decisions a human user would. I think that we tend to repeat ideas more than we expect or want to believe. AI best understand us through patterns and habits. They are programmed to reflect who we are, and it could be argued that we reinvent the wheel more often than it seems. Sometimes, that’s ok because that’s how we make sense of the world. We must be free to allow ideas, opinions, and digital presences to show patterns and repetition. Psychologically, habits are how we best identify any single person. 

We place trust in machines because “humans are generally biased and there needs to be a robot to provide an impartial opinion.” 5 What is not well advertised is that robots are not exclusive – they are a direct product of human decisions and algorithms. As collective intelligence increases and our society moves from a orality to textuality (possible even to visuality), Ong would argue that authority no longer is defined in a conservative manner 6Information is accessible to everyone, but authority has moved to specialized technology that has become to complex too understand. Malte Rehbien is a digital humanities scholar who still encourages us to criticize authority in the digital age because “technology is not value-free” 7, cannot consider contexts, nor are individuals made aware of the full extents of technology usage on them. That is why I partially agree with the “Right to be Forgotten,” which is an agreement developed by the European Union that allows users to request information to be removed from the internet if it damages their digital presence. The authority is removed slightly and returned back to the individual through this agreement.

Active Expression and Creativity that is enabled by technology

Because we are able to engage more with texts and the people who create content, the digital age is becoming one that thrives on emotional contexts (a combination of Ong’s 4th and 5th quality). People are more selectively empathetic and participatory, but are more engaged in those discussions that are directly related to them.

We are more free to use various forms of media to express ourselves, and not just textual formats. We still run into the issue of time as an abstract concept. “Snapchat” is a social sharing app that is based on creating temporary, visual stories. I am an inconsistent user of the app, and an even more hesitant user of the time filter. It is too abstract to know exactly at what time I was studying, for example. That is why a guiding principle should remind us of our ability to interpret and be emotionally cognizant of the situation. Time is still an abstract concept, and is even more abstract during the night when we don’t have the sun to gauge how late it is in the day.

The greatest enemy to expression is data and evidence. In the CMPD Report on Machine Learning, the earlier systems were “easily gamed,” so they retrained the data by adding more features to make the “parameters sufficiently complex.” 8 Because there is so much trust put into machine learning and digital inscription, personal expression is disabled by evidence. As we advance further into the digital age, we must work with data and evidence to provide opportunities for interpretation, agreement, and disagreement.

The freedom to forget and simplify

In the third episode of Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You,” there is an advertisement for the “good life” when you are able to remember every memory you have had, as you had a DVD player hooked to your mind’s eye all the time. I don’t agree with this as the “good life,” and Jorge Luis Borges wouldn’t either. In his short story, “Funes, el memorioso” a man named Itero Funes lives miserably because he is not overstimulated by remembering everything, but instead has almost lost a sense of meaning in life. I think that digital inscription must work in the same way that human memory does: we automatically filter out memories and details unless they are worth engraving into long-term memory 9. Technology should reflect how we naturally strive for privacy and selection of positive memories, and the “right to be forgotten” addresses this issue well 10.

Information overload and continuous production of “chatter” is a pattern that Herman Husse identified in his book The Glass Bead Game 11.  This “chatter” is the only recognizable characteristic of an oral society that still exists within the current digital society. We must strive for a new meaning of complexity and simplicity. Most importantly, we and technology must learn how to forget. 

 

 

References:

Borges, Jorge Luis, Samuel César Palui, Ernesto Lowenstein, and Mirta Ripoll. Funes, El Memorioso.

Carton et al., “Identifying Police Officers at Risk of Adverse
Events”

Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game. S.l.: Penguin Books, 1943.

Jack Goody and Ian Watt. The consequences of literacy. In Jack Goody (ed.) Literacy in traditional societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1968.

Johnson, Evan. “Beauty.AI Announces the First International Beauty Contest Judged by a.” PRWeb. 2015. Accessed September 25, 2016. http://www.prweb.com/releases/2015/11/prweb13088208.htm.

Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

Norman, Donald A. Living with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Plato Phaedrus, Oxford World’s Classics

Rehbein, Malte. “On Ethical Issues of Digital Humanities.” Accessed August 19, 2016. http://www.phil.unipassau.de/fileadmin/dokumente/lehrstuehle/rehbein/Dokumente/OnEthicalIssuesPreprint.pdf.

Rowan, David. “DeepMind: Inside Google’s Super-Brain.” WIRED UK. Accessed August 18, 2016. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/deepmind

Toobin, Jeffrey. “The Solace of Oblivion,” The New Yorker, September 29, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/29/solace-oblivion.

Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, New Accents (London ; New York: Methuen, 1982)

Notes:

    Being questionably awake

    I chose to work with a friend who did not know about the activity’s premise to prevent any previous priming. During the second round, we both agreed to keep our eyes closed to rely less on our surroundings.

    What was initially seen as a random array of words turned out to be what we considered “snippets of our lives.” Each word related to a moment in our lifetime because they would evoke our memories. We agreed that these memories were multi-sensory, with sight and touch being the most dominant senses at use.  

    Word list - results

    There was great difficulty in (1) forcing a connection between abstract words or thoughts and (2) trying not to repeat a word. At times, we hesitated to return to a subject, as if “refreshing” the memory was taboo unoriginal (Hermann 86). Although the active process of creating artificial memory is to revisit the past, there was a constant urge to think ‘forward’. Both Ong and Socrates would blame this culture on how we have fetishized texts as a trustworthy source of intelligence which requires a continuous slew of new, original productions (because otherwise, it’s seen as copying, cheating, or simply stupid).

    I argue that this immense, abstract collection of “chatter” has allowed our memory to become a tool for making sense of it all and create meaning for ourselves (The Glass Bead Game). As my partner and I reviewed the list to better understand our word choice, we discovered that all the words had been imagined in action and enacted by either a close family member or friend. Although Hermann explains how “artificial memory includes backgrounds and images” (87), we are now entering a generation that has an artificial memory full of ‘movies’ and moving moments that embed not only various senses but emotional connections.

    I recognized this same pattern in the memory palace activity. Using the three lists (a list provided by Dr. Kabala, one I made in English, and one in Spanish) I created three different palaces. Unlike Foer, who created a memory palace full of crazy, bizarre objects, my memory palace had a narrative form that built off of imagined conversations between myself and people I knew very well. Some memory palaces included more than one building or city. In fact, there was some overlap in which two lists would share some parts of the same building but they would never get confused for the other. The abstract list of items were transformed into realistic, relatable moments that I believed in. Some moments were so ‘real’ that I found myself laughing out loud. My memories could not be called a memory palace, but a more appropriate label would be ‘a day in the memory.’ In Kirschenbaum’s Grammatology of the Hard Drive, he defined “motion-dependent” as a necessary aspect for inscription (Mechanisms, page 94). Unlike digital inscription, in which bits remain static after magnetic encoding, the data in human memory is in motion and usually embeds meaning into it. My ‘days in the memory’ were so realistic and possible that three days later, I still have to remind myself that it was just a dream.

    References:

    Herrmann, Douglas J., and Roger Chaffin, eds. Memory in Historical Perspective: The Literature before Ebbinghaus. Recent Research in Psychology. New York: SpringerVerlag, 1988.

    Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi). Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1943. Print.

    Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008.

    Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New Accents. London ; New York: Methuen, 1982.
    Plato Phaedrus, Oxford World’s Classics

    Time is of the essence

    The first critique I will make about the exercise is the conditioning that we received. I would have preferred that the activity be done in a way that we would have not known about the second step (rewriting) during the transcription phase. While doing the exercise, I found myself very conscious of my word selection and sentence structure, which is not a bad nor good thing. During the speaking process,  I did not do much verbal “editing” but instead I would clarify a thought by continuing the story. Unlike speaking, writing gives us the ability to edit our thoughts by erasing and modifying until we are satisfied with what is written. We impose more filters on our written work than we do our oral presentations because editing is seen as an opportunity to refine our thoughts. As a writer, I find myself in high pressure situations whenever I have to write an essay or written piece because although editing is an opportunity, it can also be draining to know that I should take advantage of it to produce a work of high quality. The same pressure exists in an oral presentation, because the audience expects the presenter to come having already rehearsed the presentation until it has been mastered. Plato’s conversation with Phaedrus is a great complement to Walter J. Ong’s chapter in his book because it focuses more on the spontanaiety of the moment. How do we judge a presentation that is simultaneously being created at the same time? How does our judgement differ from reading a draft to reading the 5th draft from the same author? Does the ability to edit create a new meaning of text engagement?

    Time is a very important concept that provides the underlying framework for oral and written work. In my AntConc results, my word count in the written piece was 20% higher than in the transcribed one. A written piece does not have a time constraint, and that allows us more time to use a wider range of vocabulary. I was not surprised to see that both I had the top 15 recurring words from both texts were almost the exact same: many pronouns and conjunctions were used. This was partly due to the fact that I was trying to rewrite the transcription word by word. The written part of the exercise was much more difficult because I did not want to be redundant nor could I remember well what I had said previously. Any repeated thought in the same written work is be considered taboo, because it doesn’t show progress in intellectual thought. Both Ong and Plato explored the concept of reputation in oral rhetoric and how that is an accepted form of communication. While looking at my data results, I was shocked to see how many more times the pronoun “I” apppeared written piece [Figure 1]. Using that pronoun in writing can give the piece an informal tone yet encourage more participatotion and not agonistic, which does not align with the Ong’s five qualities of a written text.

    Figure 1
    Figure 1

    Although he wrote Orality and Literacy in 1982, I would add the transition from text to visuals as a new part of the chapter. Ong compared the art of oral rhetoric to the change of literary text. All of these forms requires a medium as its vehicle (oral: human voice :: text : paper or electronic text :: visual : paper or pixels). I think that orality is making a comeback by accompanying the growing dominance of visual communication. We see this trend in the remaking of books into movies, in which it is considered easier to transmit a message visually than textually. How does this change the demand for text? Does the word “multimedia” encompass this new transition? But most importantly, what is lost in translation?

    REFERENCES:

    Walter J. Ong, “Writing Restructures Consciousness” in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, New Accents (London ; New York: Methuen, 1982)

    Plato Phaedrus, Oxford World’s Classics