Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology, Technology

The New Media: In Your Head and in Your Body All the Time

Originally published May 16th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

The early days of commercial TV are aptly characterized as “appointment media.” One had to make specific “appointments” as it were to watch one’s favorite shows since they were broadcast only at precise times and rarely repeated. With the advent of cable TV, we moved to “destination media.” Certain channels offered 24 hours of programming that was targeted at specific groups such as kids, gardening enthusiasts, news junkies, etc. Today, we have “always on media.”

A personal experience, but one which is all too common, illustrates the nature of “always on media.” More than once, our out-of-state niece has stayed with us. She literally sleeps with her cell-phone next to ear, which of course is “always on” lest she fail to be instantly “in touch” with all her friends. Anything less is cause for great shame and humiliation.

In a word, we’ve moved from fixed TV screens to small portable ones that are integral parts of our every waking moments, and unfortunately for teenagers everywhere, when they should be asleep.

The psychological and social effects are enormous. Parents report great difficulties in getting their children to turn off their cell-phones, iPads, etc., and to engage in meaningful conversations at the family table, assuming of course that families still have regular mealtimes at which they eat together. When families do get together, parents report that heated arguments often break out over getting kids to turn off their “screens.” But more than this, occupational therapists report that today’s children do not have the necessary core strength to sit and walk properly because too much time is spent slouching in chairs glued to their “screens.”

Yes, we know that there have always been complaints over new technologies that have both improved and disrupted our lives. Thus, when air-conditioning came into widespread use, it was feared that it would destroy a sense of community because people would no longer congregate on their steps on hot nights. Instead of talking with one another, and thus getting to know their neighbors, they would retreat to their homes where they would be isolated. Of course such fears were overblown.

Nonetheless, we feel that something is very different about today’s media and technologies. Today’s technologies are not only disrupting old established businesses (think Uber and Airbnb), but they are disrupting our lives even more. In part, this is because those who develop such technologies have little if any training, and hence even less interest, in human, and especially, child development. Instead, what happens is that the latest, great technologies are largely dumped on society, and more often than not on the most fragile and vulnerable members, without any forethought given to their potential deleterious social effects.

Take Facebook. If one had deliberately set out to intentionally design a perfect mechanism to bully young children relentlessly 24/7, one couldn’t have designed a better platform coupled to cell phones! Ideally, parents, child psychologists, and even kids themselves should have been involved before the launch of Facebook to talk about possible ways to curb cyber-bullying.

While not perfect by any means, enough is known about the history of technology such that there are no valid excuses for not having historians, psychologists, and sociologists involved from the very beginning in the development of new technologies. In the case of cell-phones, the genie is already out of the bottle. It will take a concerted effort by parents to band together politically to push for greater controls.

If you think that cell-phones have bad effects, stay tuned. Even more worrisome are technologies on the horizon. We already have clothes and gloves that are full of sensors that “meld” seamlessly onto one’s body, “sense, “and relay all kinds of data to interested parties for their personal gain. The day is not far off that we will have implants such that we won’t need external cell-phones. They’ll be integral parts of us by literally being in us.

If there are any doubts whatsoever about whether such concerns are overblown, then consider that recently Carnegie Mellon announced that engineers have developed new technologies whereby a person’s skin essentially becomes a “touch screen.” Talk about “being always on and literally ‘in’ one’s body!”

Who’s thinking about the effects, both positive and negative, of such “developments,” if we can truly call them that? If we don’t start thinking about them now, it’ll be too late.

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Blog, Technology

Big Data ≠ Big Wisdom: Mismanaging 21st Century Problems with 19th Century Thinking

Originally published May 8, 2015 on Huffington Post

Today we are witnessing the unparalleled explosion of technology. But the sad fact of the matter is that Big Data and more technology alone have not improved the quality of our thinking and the ways in which the majority of people and organizations make important decisions. By themselves, Big Data and technology do not help people avoid what are known as Type Three Errors: Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely!

There is no doubt that technology enhances, magnifies, and improves the senses, but it does not necessarily improve our sensibilities. Thus, technology allows to see and to travel farther and faster, etc., but it does not necessarily make us wiser.

Lest I be accused of being anti-science and anti-technology, let me point out that I have a BS in Engineering Physics, an MS in Structural Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering, all from UC Berkeley. The thing, however, that changed my thinking forever is the fact that when I was studying for my Ph.D., I deliberately chose to take a 3 ½ year minor in the Philosophy of Science. Furthermore, the particular kind of Philosophy of Science that I studied was deeply interdisciplinary. Accordingly, no single discipline has a monopoly on The Truth or The Way to study Reality. In short, interdisciplinary inquiry is the only guarantor of which we know for minimizing and avoiding Type Three Errors!

Expert Consensus
One of the primary ways for acquiring knowledge in Western societies is by means of Expert Consensus. In this system of inquiry, “truth” is that with which a group of experts agrees strongly. Alternately, it is also the average of a set of tightly bunched data, observations, scores, etc.

Consider global warming. The “body of ‘reputable scientists worldwide'” is now in strong, if not overwhelming, agreement that human activities are mainly responsible for global warming. This fact which is based on enumerable scientific studies is taken as “strong evidence” that the debate whether humans are or are not responsible for global warming is essentially over even if all the mechanisms for the phenomenon are not understood completely.

The point is that agreement is as important in science as it is in any field of human activity. One could in fact argue that agreement is even more important in science because so much is riding on the outcome of scientific knowledge.

Big Data
The latest incarnation of Expert Consensus is Big Data. The hope is that by compiling enough data from different sources, it will reveal, say, the “underlying, true buying habits and preferences” of a selected group of consumers. However, writing in The New York Times, Alex Peysakhovich and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz note that for Big Data to actually work one is dependent on Small Data. That is, one needs old-fashioned interviews and surveys to understand in-depth why people give the numerical responses they do. In other words, by themselves, numbers are never enough.

The biggest downfall of Expert Agreement is that it assumes that one can gather data, facts, and observations on an issue or phenomenon without having to presuppose any prior theory about the nature of what one is studying. In other words, it assumes that data, facts, and observations are theory and value-free. It’s not just that one can’t interpret anything without a theory of some kind, but even more fundamental, one can’t collect any data in the first place without having presupposed some theory about the that underlies the data, certainly why the data are important to collect and how they should be collected such that they accurately reflect the “true nature of phenomenon.”

In contrast, the philosophical school known as Rationalism assumes that theories are free or independent of data, facts, and observations. In principle, the formulation of theories is dependent only upon pure thought or logic alone. In reality, theories are dependent upon the background, experience, and life history of the one person or small set of persons formulating the theories.

In sum, I’m extremely critical of Big Data. It’s not because the concept makes no sense at all, or that I’m fundamentally opposed to collecting data. Instead, as it’s currently conceived, the concept is deeply flawed. If all data are dependent upon some underlying theory or theoretical concepts before the data can even be captured, let alone analyzed, then what does it mean to put all kinds of data indiscriminately into larger and larger pools?

Unless one knows a lot about the different theories that underlie different sets of data, and how they can be reconciled and integrated, then one is literally squishing together apples and oranges.

Mush is the inevitable result!

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