Why “Bubble?!” – 10 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

It’s tough to come up with a device that reasonably simulates the relationship of an individual to the rest of the world. When I was thinking it through a year or so ago, it seemed like I was coming up with a computer game. It’s been hypothesized – and being a Computer Engineer it is pretty natural for me to accept – that the human consciousness amounts to a program running in the human brain. We have at least 5 (probably more, but these 5 describe things pretty nicely) senses with which we interact with the outside world. There is no direct physical contact between our program and our world. Our consciousness seems to be able to encompass things – like our bodies, our cars, … – and be able to have a sense of where those things we have encompassed are in the world in relation to other things for navigation, collision avoidance, etc. We seem to build a 3D model of the world in our brains and move ourselves (whatever we are encompassing at the time at least) through that world. As we do this, we are running ourselves through scenarios to determine where we will be safe, where we will be in trouble, how we will reach our objectives, etc. The last time I read on the topic was The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger – I considered this to be an excellent and revealing discussion. Metzinger calls consciousness our Phenomenal Self Model, or PSM.

If this all sounds complicated, that’s good. If it doesn’t, then unfortunately you are probably vastly underestimating what you are going through as a human being. Our program of consciousness is far beyond anything we scientists and engineers have so far been able to imagine – at least as an implementation.

Take this a big step further. What we’ve been discussing in these essays is understanding and managing relationships with other human beings. What this implies is that you are attempting to create a model in your brain for how people will respond to your actions – hopefully in a manner that will meet your objectives. Evidently our brains and the programs they run are built for these sorts of things. While these essays are not really ABOUT relationships, relationships are central to good things and bad things, so we must attempt to understand them. Our approach might be:

  • Objective – have my neighbor “like” me
  • Possible Plan – act “fun,” smile, say nice things, show interest in their interests
  • Empathize – Attempt to put yourself in your neighbor’s shoes, and figure out how your neighbor might react to your possible plan
  • Modify – If you can’t empathize with reacting as your neighbor the way you wish them to react, then go back to “Possible Plan,” rethink, and try again
  • Implement Plan
  • Integrate – Take the reactions you’ve observed and use them to change your objective if needed, and start back at “Possible Plan” repeating as necessary

This process of reflection and running yourself through scenarios and making/executing plans is highly likely to be rewarding, and seems to be ignored more as we continue to be inundated with information. I just watched Amber Case’s TED Talk “We Are All Cyborgs Now:”

She presents a very interesting perspective including a reference to the fact that we do NOT take enough time to reflect on our actions since we have an almost limitless number of things we can “check” if we are so inclined. The act of checking things is likely just easier than taking some time to reflect upon what is important to you and then making/executing a plan.

There are several reasons why I chose the bubble analogy. The most important is that your relationships have no direct connection to your body, and yet, if you chose, it is at least possible to try to encompass them in your Phenomenal Self Model (PSM). Trying to predict, much less to productively influence, someone else’s opinions and actions toward/about you is no mean feat. Add more people and actions that can occur that are removed from your direct experience by one or more levels and it can become truly complex.  Bubbles are also interesting because they at least seem at times to defy the laws of physics (of course they don’t, but that’s another discussion).  Using bubbles as a device to discuss the properties of relationships seems like a reasonable fit.  You might wish to attract another person or group, repel, increase your value in someone’s eyes, make yourself (seem) fun to be with, make yourself seem like a solid business partner, make yourself seem like you can’t do something so that “they” won’t ask you to do it, etc., etc. Of course, you can do this with or without the internet.  The internet primarily gives you more volume to encompass with your PSM, and more opportunities to influence. Maybe this is where the sixth sense argument I referenced earlier applies.

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Relationships and the Internet – 9 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

For our purposes in these essays, I’ll define relationships to you as encompassing people who know you, or know of you and can influence aspects of relationships that are important to you. You might find it useful to graph your relationships on a 2X2, with one axis representing increasing importance of a relationship to you, and the other axis representing your level of overt efforts to influence that particular relationship – either directly or indirectly. This process of discovery as you determine which relationships matter and why is, depending up the complexity of your situation, one of the more important and perhaps difficult you can perform. There are lots of articles out there discussing relationships, connectedness and things like degrees of separation.  I encourage you to seek them out as they are interesting and sometimes relevant to this discussion. Remember that you do not need to have intentional or direct contact with someone to have a relationship with them, and even these indirect relationships can be quite important to you.

If you are closely managing your relationships, this probably means that you are actively trying to influence people to think what you want them to think about you and their relationship with you. This can be quite complex, and can involve understanding not only the relationship you are trying to influence, but the relationships that person has with others that will influence how they view their relationship with you. Recall in an earlier post that “I went out on a limb just a bit” and made the following statement:

“I submit to you that all of the good things and all of the bad things” that happen to us “in this world happen to us because we are social.”

For purposes of this particular portion of the the discussion, I should probably replace “because we are social” with “because of or as a result of our relationships.”  Relationships are central and crucial, whether we recognize/admit it or not.

I’m making the argument that the central discussion of Internet Use, then, is about how it affects your relationships and how it helps or hinders you from getting what you need and avoiding what will harm you. If you are able, please consider your relationships with, and then without the Internet. Please consider and answer the following poll:

Since you found this series of essays, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the Internet. You likely know that regardless of whether or not you use the technology, there will be things about you here. Public records are available – some freely and some for the determined among us. There may be things mentioned about you by friends, relatives, enemies, news organizations, volunteer organizations, etc. You might put your head in the sand and ignore it, but the fact is that there are likely things here about you. Effort you put into understanding what is said about you – with and without the Internet – and that you put in to managing how that information affects your relationships can pay dividends for you (if you are at least somewhat adept). Unless you are a hermit – which you can’t be if you are reading this – you are busily affecting the relationships others possess and may be trying to manage (By the way, please feel free to affect my relationships by clicking “Like” on these essays and making (hopefully nice) comments!).

While arguable, I believe that the most significant impact of the Internet on relationships and knowledge is to accelerate the process of acquiring information (as an Engineer, I could argue that this in the ONLY direct impact, and the rest is consequential). For the most part, the information made available about people on the Internet is something that, with time and persistence, could have been acquired elsewhere. I say could have been. I don’t say would have been. The time compression concept is a game changer in many ways. Just like digital photography is creating an explosion of (digital) photographs, the Internet has created an explosion in the availability of information – some of it about you, and some of which would have never been “said” without the Internet. In fact, the internet seems to encourage people to say things that perhaps should never have been said. And what is said might be true, half true, or complete fabrication from any given source at any given time.

At a fairly basic level, what this means to your relationships is:

  • Significantly more opportunity for indirect relationships
  • More opportunity for relationships in general
  • Many more sources of problems and solutions
  • Things that are said, with or without attribution, that can be very difficult if not impossible to control and can gain exposure to a wide audience very quickly
  • More opportunities to occupy time that causes you to withdraw from important relationships
  • Possibly spending too much time passively checking “things” and not enough time spent on active relationship planning and implementation of those plans
  • Exposure of enough (sometimes seemingly unimportant) information to give “Bad Actors” what they need to cause you harm

The list can go on.

A bit more discussion of Bad Actors is likely worthwhile. It is possible to underestimate this problem just as it is possible to overestimate it. Public records provide lots of revealing information. Some localities protect this sort of thing more than others, but in many places I can figure out your home value for tax purposes (along with your address), and pretty good estimate of your home’s market value, contact information, and if I’m persistent enough, a whole lot more. Recall, though, that this information was already available – the Internet simply makes if faster and perhaps simpler to access it. Unless our government legislates more privacy on the Internet, there is likely not much you are going to be able to do about this issue. Remember – this is PUBLIC INFORMATION. You can try if you like. In my opinion, it is likely better to know what is said about you, and protect yourself much as you would without the internet. Be VERY private with your social security numbers, credit card numbers, driver’s license numbers, etc. When banks ask you to use your mother’s maiden name or brother’s middle name or anything like that, you might do well to have a secret response to this type of question rather than using the actual information since these things are discoverable. Be very cautious about using publicly available wifi for internet access. Don’t use a financial service that isn’t https – the “s” at the end tells you it is an encrypted service and it is very difficult for anyone to determine what is being communicated between you and the service in that case. If you are on a public wifi and using http (not https), it is possible for someone skilled and also on the same network to see what you are doing and even access the service you are using and pretend to be you. They likely won’t be able to change/access your passwords, etc., but they would be able to change information you post, and likely be able to see things about you that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. The probabilities are at least somewhat in your favor on this, but be aware that bad actors are out there and be as prudent as you are able to be. You should also be very careful about sharing settings on your computer when using this type of network. Since the information people can get about you can be very timely, you will want to consider that giving someone your location in a Tweet or Facebook entry can give a Bad Actor information that will help him/her cause you harm. This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive treatment of computer security. Just recall that as in your non-Internet life, you are certainly no less vulnerable in your Internet life and in some ways likely more so. Share on the Internet only what you are willing to share in your non-Internet life, and know that you run a higher risk of reaching an unintended audience than you would without the Internet. If you have questions about this topic, please feel free to ask them in comments.  I can not assure you an answer, but will try to at least help you in your research on the topic.  Just keep in mind that people are more likely to find information that has been shared about you by you and others, and the information they find about you has a better chance to be timely information.

The Relationship Bubble – 8 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

I briefly introduced a device – “The Relationship Bubble” – in the introduction to this series of essays. I did this immediately after discussing what it MIGHT have been like as a baby inside your mother’s womb. At that point, that was your life. You had few if any needs that weren’t automatically satisfied. You could interact with the world, but only in very limited ways. At certain points along your journey as a fetus, you began to sense things. You began to touch, taste, hear, and probably smell. You interacted with your mother in various ways, including how you moved, what you touched/pushed/prodded/kicked, etc. You were developing your first relationship, and for the more sensitive families your mother was probably helping you develop other relationships as she described your actions – either real, imagined, or created by her.

In this context, you could say your mother’s womb was your first relationship bubble – fairly literally in fact. That said, even as early as this, your family and perhaps others were likely creating a more figurative but no less important relationship bubble for you. This relationship bubble is made up of things like your family relationships with the rest of the world, your family background, aspirations, limitations, etc., etc. These castles in the sky that others create about you (intentially or otherwise) become what I’m planning to term your relationship bubble. Over time and as you begin to be more adept at communications through your own actions, you adopt more and more of your own bubble and then over time you begin to control more significant portions of it. You are never in complete control of your relationship bubble, and it lives on even after you die.

Your relationship bubble is bounded by the things that any other individual is exposed to about you that influences their beliefs about you. It starts out with a life of its own – since it is initially created in the context of our situations – and then we have opportunities to influence it until we die and then it lives on in people’s heads and evolves as others want it to evolve until what is left is largely what you and others recorded about it and what others choose to record about it posthumously. I choose not to for purposes of these essays, but you might call this bubble your identity. It is really how others perceive you, and how they choose to influence how others perceive you – which becomes a part of your bubble just as much as, and sometimes more than your own actions.

Comprehending the concept of a relationship bubble and attempting to exercise some level of control over it is highly significant and challenging. Please take a moment to read the story about “Blind Men and an Elephant.”  Now consider that, while not something the observer can touch (unless you are in physical contact with the observer – totally unnecessary to the development of perceptions about you), the part of your relationship bubble that is exposed to any given observer is dependent upon their frame of reference, the information that is made available about you from any source, etc. This will be different – sometimes dramatically different – from one observer to the next. It might even be useful for you to consider your relationship bubble to be separate for different people and/or constituencies in your life.

Some people manage their relationship bubble carefully and extensively. Others pretend that it doesn’t exist. The rest of us are on a continuum between these extremes. The essence of this series of essays is to discuss how internet use influences the management of our relationship bubbles.

Good or Bad? – 7 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

I hope you will accept that human beings are social.  Unless you are totally self-sufficient you depend upon interaction with other humans (1). Going out on a limb just a bit, I submit to you that all of the good things and all of the bad things in this world happen to us because we are social.  Our goal in life is to maximize the good things and minimize the bad things that happen to us.  Unless you like bad things.  But then doesn’t that make them good things to you?    I think “there is the rub.”  An example of this going on in the world might be one person making light of the prophet of another person’s religion – it’s free speech, right?  Then the person with the Prophet threatens the person making light – it’s blasphemy, right?  Each person is attacking something fundamental to the other and each is very likely willing to defend their position.  Which is good and which is bad?  It depends upon your social group.  This example is pretty “out there” but also quite real.  Versions of this scenario – hopefully much milder – happen all the time within and between social groups.  This book is not about identifying the good good and the bad good and the good bad and the bad bad.  It is about recognizing what is going on around you and self-assessing your part in it.

(1) I’m not quite sure how total self-sufficiency would be accomplished now-a-days, but it seems at least possible and I hear some people try – which is quite interesting in itself if you really think about it since if they are actually self-sufficient then why do they feel the need to tell someone about it?!  Maybe they didn’t mean THAT kind of self-sufficient.  Also, if they are THAT kind of self-sufficient, then you would never hear about it so I guess we don’t know, do we?  Okay, I’ll stop – for now.

Why Relationships? – 6 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

Hopefully my brief introduction to the topic of relationships was enough to pique your interest to stay with me through the communication section.  Communication is near-and-dear to my heart and I find it intriguing, but then I made it through an Electrical Engineering degree and when I look back on it I think it might have been fun too… Communication is basically why the Internet (and a lot of other things) was initially so successful (and perhaps why it was invented, but I won’t try to apply limits to or impute motives to these brilliant people).  Making information available quickly, simply and widely made the Internet explode and continues to be a major source of attraction.

There are elements of the Internet now that were either there early on and took a while to notice or have been developing and have been adding dimensions that weren’t really there at first – for most people anyway.  Email was there to tell people things.  It was better than snail mail but was modeled more along those lines – writing letters and sending them electronically vs. ink/paper/stamp/envelope/post office.  This did make the process faster/easier/…  It changed some things regarding interpersonal communication, but not profoundly (at least relative to things that have happened since and seem to be happening at an accelerating pace).

Many moons ago when my son was much younger I successfully passed the geek virus along to him by helping him build his own IBM compatible computer (the infection process started sooner, but I think we agree that this is when it really TOOK).  One of the things he found and started to successfully use with his friends while they were collectively learning (read squandering huge amounts of their time in non-geek social circles) were IRC chat channels.  These were the precursors to what we call instant messaging today.  They were sort of like a party line telephone, and they could hop like a party sometimes.  I don’t actually know who started the familiarization process and won’t offend any of his friends by trying to speculate (and also won’t suggest that it started with his group of friends), but I view this as the beginning (arguable I imagine) of the social phenomenon that is – yes I’ll say it – “sweeping the Internet.”

IRC – Internet Relay Chat – was a program that ran on a central computer connected to the internet to which you could then connect (through your telephone modem – yes, you remember) using a program that you installed on your computer and then painfully set up.  You could set up your own channel and tell your friends about it, and then assign each other names/handles (10-4 good buddy) and then they could all send comments to be included in a stream-of-consciousness chat among your friends.  The administrators had options for rules of interaction.  I’m sure they used it to help each other through disasters, work through problems, arrange other entertainment, and arrange/discuss all sorts of shenanigans.  Our phone lines would have been busy anyway, so…

From my perspective, this was the beginning of something BIG.  It showed the promise that the Internet was not just about providing more/better/faster information, but it could change the way people interact in dramatic fashion – at least it seemed pretty dramatic at the time.  Things have changed a lot since then.  Every new twist and turn reinforces the fact that we are implementing and then experiencing a revolution in the options people have and the way in which people relate to each other.

That’s why.

Communication Wrap Up – 5 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

I could go on and on about the history of communications (some would say I already have).  There are a few other things I’m going to mention before moving on.

Art deserves a prominent place in any discussion of communication.  It pre-dates writing (and it seems reasonable that in some form it pre-dated language) and was likely the key mechanism for transmitting culture from generation to generation until writing became rich enough and could be preserved long enough to be useful for this purpose and then they both became tools to this end.    Each of Art’s many forms (and sub-forms) seems to be a language, and hopefully you have some Art forms that speak to you.  It is an important and powerful mode of communication.

Control and the practice of writing was likely (invented and) quickly consolidated with those who had the necessary resources.  It would have been difficult and time consuming and therefore expensive.  The invention of simpler writing instruments and better quality “paper” makes the process simpler, but still very time consuming and expensive.  The invention of printing processes started to dilute the concentration of control of writing from the ruling and religious classes to the somewhat less wealthy and the business classes.  More and more people started learning how to read, and the ensuing intellectual development has tended to decentralize power to varying degrees over time.  Once enough people learned how to read, Newspapers, pamphlets and books afforded the opportunity for more people to gain increasing levels of knowledge.  Electronic communications – telegraph, telephone, radio, television – provided a progression of new ways to reach people quickly.  What we call progress seems to accelerate with the introduction of each new communication technology.  These are a few of the many major shifts that I will only mention as we get ready to move on to relationships.

Writing Beginnings – 4 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

We’ve covered a lot of ground with regard to communications.  Most of it has been inherently transitory.  You speak a word and it is gone from the world in an instant.  It lives on in the minds of the hearers and the speaker, but making that word live on for others takes a great deal of effort and only the most important can then be carried forward from generation to generation.  A large amount of information can be carried forward, but there are certainly limits.  There are also many things in the world that aren’t transitory – the human form, the landscapes, the sky/stars/sun/moon, etc.  Ideas, stories of our rulers and ancestors, etc. didn’t persist unless we made them persist.  Since persistence is good…

If we consider what written language probably started out like, it is most likely with people trying to draw objects in the sand/dirt to help them get their message across regarding something that needed to be accomplished or a narrative that someone needed or wanted to convey.  “I can’t seem to make a sound or gesture that gets my point across – wait, there’s a shape in the sand that looks kind-of like where I’m trying to go.  Let me just round out that corner and add/delete this detail and voila!”  And then “Wait, I could just start from a smooth plot of sand and draw my own!”  And.  The.  Rest.  Is.  History.  That said, though, what we’re discussing was all by definition before what we call recorded history so we can’t really know what transpired with any high degree of certainty.  The development of writing could have and probably did take many paths (and I suppose you could say it still does).

People – Steven Pinker comes to mind due to the currency of his writings – have written volumes on the subject of language.  Speaking or writing about language at length seems a bit odd when I think about it.  It’s a bit like standing in between two mirrors and adjusting those mirrors until you start to see yourself repeated again and again to what looks like infinity.  It is not infinity primarily because you can’t see that far, but it really is similar to trying to see back to the beginnings of language and writing (in part because you also can’t see that far).  I guess that showcases some of the versatility of language and writing.  The idea that you and I  or you and Steven Pinker can be somewhere “together” separated by who knows how much time and space considering this or any other topic is a truly amazing idea.  Honestly, I think it is every bit as if not more profound than the internet, but it is certainly not as timely – which is why we are sitting down together “here” to discuss the internet and not writing.  The spoken word is up there too, but writing is what really kicked language and many other things into high gear – over time at least.