Saturday, September 12, 2015

What we've got here is failure to communicate

If you have ever watched America's Funniest Home Videos, you know that towards the end the studio audience votes for the top three by using the clickers they have been handed.  Those clickers made their way into higher education, too.  Of course!  I did not ever want to use them in my classes.  It is a wonderful tool, no doubt, but it depended on the sincerity of students to use that in order to advance their own learning.  I was afraid that without that sincere interest in learning, well, the disaster that education is will become a catastrophe.

Clickers and bubble-in answer sheets are machine-friendly, unlike oral and written communication. Can you imagine the complexity if a machine has to read essays that students turn in, provide comments, and finally determine letter-grades?

Hey, what if we could do away with the complexity of communication itself?  Nicholas Carr writes that a few weeks ago "Mark Zuckerberg offered a peek into the future of interpersonal communication":
One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.
This is where you need to pause and think whether Zuckerberg's future is what we really want.

Did you think about it?

Carr then provides this interpretation:
But there is another, less frequently articulated reason why Silicon Valley wants to replace speech. One characteristic of verbal languages is that nobody can own them. Meanwhile, emoji characters are copyrighted, and software can be patented. The machinic capacity to measure emotions via the face or tone of voice is in the possession of businesses, and currently being rapidly capitalized by private-equity investment. Industrial capitalism privatized the means of production. Digital capitalism seeks to privatize the means of communication.
Do you see where this argument is going?  You need to pause and think.

Did you think about it?

Let me bring in Carr:
The best solution, if you have a need to get computers to “understand” human communication, may to be avoid the problem altogether. Instead of figuring out how to get computers to understand natural language, you get people to speak artificial language, the language of computers. A good way to start is to encourage people to express themselves not through messy assemblages of fuzzily defined words but through neat, formal symbols — emoticons or emoji, for instance.
 Now do you see what the worry is?  No?  Come on, already!
When we speak with emoji, we’re speaking a language that machines can understand.
People like Mark Zuckerberg have always been uncomfortable with natural language. Now, they can do something about it.
Of course, using emojis today will not literally change the world tomorrow.  But, what we need to recognize here is this: we are slowly changing our daily behavior in order to make them increasingly computer-friendly.  We change our behaviors in ways that make it easier for algorithms to understand what we do, what we say, where we go, what we eat, ... Meanwhile, we willingly feed those machines continuous data on our walking, breathing, blood pressure, pulse, thumb-print, ... Remember this from a while ago:
 Apple is building a world in which there is a computer in your every interaction, waking and sleeping. A computer in your pocket. A computer on your body. A computer paying for all your purchases. A computer opening your hotel room door. A computer monitoring your movements as you walk though the mall. A computer watching you sleep. A computer controlling the devices in your home. A computer that tells you where you parked. A computer taking your pulse, telling you how many steps you took, how high you climbed and how many calories you burned—and sharing it all with your friends…. THIS IS THE NEW APPLE ECOSYSTEM. APPLE HAS TURNED OUR WORLD INTO ONE BIG UBIQUITOUS COMPUTER.
Have a good weekend ;)


Ramesh said...

I would not be so depressed by the direction of language. I am sure when the written word (and printing) was invented, perhaps the same sentiments were articulated. But that hadn't resulted in the death of the spoken or personal interaction. Ditto with computers and the internet.

Human need personal and face to face contact. In the business world, the invention of video conferencing, email and every other mechanism was supposed to eliminate the need for travel. Instead it has done the opposite - it has increased business travel. You cannot do a business deal over machines - you have to do it in person. I don't think humans would get away from the trait all that soon.

By the way the argument you present against clickers in classrooms is precisely the same I use against Twitter. I would like to express myself in more than 140 odd characters, thank you very much !

Your blog is a very good example of the point you make. I never read your tweets. I always read your blog.

And, go and eat a real apple and dissolve a little bit of the anger against the business one :)

Sriram Khé said...

Typically you business people are uber-optimists. Thus, you are not even a tiny bit worried about the trends that concern people like me who are not gung ho about business.

As I noted in my post, it is not merely the use of emoji, but its use along with a whole lot of trends that are increasingly in the direction of making machines smarter.

The use of Twitter is like the use of clickers, yes. It depends on the sincerity of the user to use the tool. In my case, I put Twitter to wonderful use. For instance, without Twitter I might not have known about an essay, which triggered the post that I just published.

Anne in Salem said...

Machines are not getting smarter. That is a physical impossibility as they do not have brains. They are being programmed to recognize, interpret, analyze and calculate more, but they are not smarter.

The fault lies in consumption and narcissism. Consumers want newer, better, faster. They want to be the most hip, with it, up-to-date so they can be "better" than their friends, neighbors and coworkers. Consumers want instant gratification, not small talk in the elevator or over the bank counter. Get me more faster so I can get on with earning more so I can afford all the gadgets. Consumers voluntarily submit so much data to their computers - their steps, heartbeats, communications, the time to turn on the lights and heater before reaching home, that the mind reels.

And consumers are narcissists. They think everyone wants their information, wants to know what they do every minute of every day, because they think they really are that important. How else do you explain most of the use of Facebook (certain professors excepted, of course), Twitter, Instagram, etc.? Consumers think their 486 "friends" really want to know that Blanche from Golden Girls is their 90s TV alter ego so they willingly participate in myriad data collecting activities daily.

If we stopped the voluntary submission of such excessive and irrelevant pieces of data, the big bad corporations wouldn't create more machines to collect said data.

I agree that real communication is not in danger, though it is certainly changing. Of my four children, exactly none of them would prefer a phone call to checking store data online. All of them would prefer to communicate via text rather than a phone call. Thankfully my archaic phone doesn't have emojis, so we are forced to use punctuation marks to express emotion. Despite ample evidence to the contrary from me, they see little value in face to face communication. I have to hope and pray they will outgrow this as they move out of the student world into the real world.

So we shall have to soldier on in our efforts to be countercultural, holding on to our old-fashioned ways of reading, writing and speaking real words with all their letters present. I accept my own challenge. Anyone else?

Sriram Khé said...

I agree with everything, except one thing. Before I get to that one thing ...
Yes, it amuses me to no end when I find that people have hundreds of "friends" on Facebook. Seriously, do they even know the last names of all those friends? And then they seem to love participating in the stupid things like find out who is their alter ego, without pausing for a moment to think about how all those are nothing but data-collecting "fun" things ...

All those data do make them machines smarter. That is where I disagree with you. When I write machines, I don't refer to physical machines that we interact with everyday. I almost always refer to algorithms. The algorithms are getting immensely smarter everyday and we have ample indisputable evidence on that.