Council Interview with Sally Applin

Sally A. Applin is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, in the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (CSAC), where she is researching the impact of technology on culture, and the consequent inverse:  specifically the reifications of Virtual Space in Personal Space. At Kent, Sally is developing the framework and descriptive theory of PolySocial Reality (PoSR) with Dr. Michael D. Fischer. PoSR describes the condition of synchronous and asynchronous, multiplexed, individuated data creations and their cultural impact.

Council: Can you briefly go back to the first moment when you felt this 'ambient', this 'internet of things' as it is called now, was something that really hit you as important?

Sally Applin: Probably around 2006 or so. I realized that cell phones were basically the first step towards "getting the environment to have a conversation with us" and that gradually that technology could become attached to elements within our environment.

Council: An ontological change is one that questions the very fundaments of our social and cultural socialization. Are we facing one, or are we instrumental in forging one or are the changes that we see and feel not that dramatic?

Sally Applin: In general, human culture has historically changed very slowly. It may seem with the current technological advances that the changes are coming faster. I would say that we are in the midst of a change. It may be a large change, but feels like a small one because from day-to-day we experience incremental changes. However, when we see where we are now, just with mobile phone behavior and use, and compare that to where we were even five years ago, we can see dramatic change--particularly with regard to Social Media and geolocation based apps. The aggregate of change over time is significant. Social Media and geolocative apps have effected behavior in both a general day-to-day sense, and also by galvanizing the social organization and change as we've seen in Tunisia (Arab Spring), Libya, and potential change, as we've seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  They've also increased our ability to respond in disasters, as we've seen with the Crisis Commons and disaster response movements.

Council: What can we 'do'? Is agency possible and if so, where?

Sally Applin: I think that some agency is still possible--for the moment. We certainly choose to what extent we wish to engage with sensor devices (mobile phones) for the most part. There are some things that are excluded from agency. For example, if you are driving in the United States, your car will stop on a sensor pad to impart information about the fact that your car is stopped at that intersection. The traffic lights are regulated in part, by that sensor network. If you are very careful to stop around the sensor, or are always behind several cars at a light, you have "agency," but most people don't seem to care about agency in that way--if it helps them. Automatic opening doors are a forfeited "agency" of a sort as well, but aren't complained about. They may have been early on--and less so now. I see other things encroaching agency and I refer to this phenomenon as  "forced compliance." "Forced Compliance" is the forfeit of agency we have for many things that we do within our daily lives that may be against our desires but are required to live in the groups that we choose to live in. Maybe people don't want to use computers, but so much of what they do requires it within their community system that computer use (not necessarily ownership yet, but usage) has become a "forced compliance" for daily behavior.

As for agency to change, it is nested, isn't it? We use mobile phones, which is a free-agency of sorts, but the networks and data patterns about our behavior while using them are owned by the corporations making the devices available. The government controls the spectrum, but it's sold and leased to corporations. We have the "agency" to participate in use, but we lack the "agency" to control the information about that use--or how the aggregated data is analyzed.

What is the "spectrum" of agency? Is there one?

Council: In one of your articles you write:  "With the advent of pervasive technologies, ubiquitous mobile devices and the like, new capabilities and lived experiences are leading to a convergence of those views. Many people believe that this will increasingly draw us towards a common world culture. We posit that unmoderated this will reinforce fragmentation: the  convergence of views of time and space reinforces local cultural logic by removing many of the constraints imposed by these views in a global context. However, fragmentation need not be negative, indeed it is likely to be positive if one values individual agency while retaining group values."

Is that possible and how?

Sally Applin: People increasingly cling to their group, however defined, and have less need to directly interact with other groups. So rather than groups coming together within a single culture, we have a network mediated environment where groups can become even more extreme. When we talk about "no man (or woman) is an island," we mean it. We humans are so interdependent on each other for the systems that sustain our living, that we have to work together. That said, retaining the values of the group for collaboration and problem solving does not mean exclusively that one has to forfeit one's own cultural views, one just needs to put them in perspective when collaborating with others. With this fragmentation, it becomes a more difficult idea in practice.

Council: because that maybe the key to stop a breakdown from happening (evergrowing more sensor literate individuals organizing on mission critical services - energy, mobility, health - causing the current institutional powers to start more disciplining leading to even more  evasive and parallel action from individual citizens).

Sally Applin: Eventually that will flip. Humans created institutions and many of us work within them. Institutions are made up of human beings who can make and remake those organizations. If enough institutional powers create enough "discipline" that angers enough people either inside or outside of the institution, we will continue to see what we've been seeing with all of those other socio/political/economic social change movements. To go back to your earlier question, I think the change is that we are in the middle of that flip in the power structure. Power is moving from centralized institutions to being distributed amongst many people. The aggregate of that "many people" will soon be larger than the institutions.  Is it harder to organize? A bit. Will it impact our mission critical services? Yes. Will they reform into other things that can work for us? I think yes.

Council: You say: "As the technology of blending multiple realities improves, the capacity for people to make substantive changes to the world will be greatly enhanced. It is important to note that this condition is true only if the new and future technologies increase peoples’ capacity to continue to make and share rather than simply depend upon these for consumption."

It seems that this is exactly what we are facing now: Facebook and Apple versus Open Data and Open Source.  It feels like a bit of a draw at the moment, although in terms of money and resources the consumpionist model is winning.  What is to be done?

Sally Applin: Again, I think it goes back to the other points in that some people are using consumptionist models (in the spirit of "agency") to create that change.  Open Source isn't a necessarily a "free" movement. There is a range of how people make money to sustain Open Source products. Wikipedia on the one hand is free, but asks for donations. Other Open Source companies offer a free product but make money on the "professional services" supporting those products. What has been interesting to see is the institutions begin to offer free software. For example,  MySQL was free, then was bought by Oracle. But, it's still "free." It can be free because of the institutional ownership. It's a hybrid model that helps Oracle seem less "closed" and Oracle earns revenue on other products.

Apple makes lots of money on iPhones. An unanticipated outcome of iPhones usage is that they can help people to organize against institutions that make and keep what's considered by those people to be an "unfair" amount of that profit. Apple may be considered to be one of those companies to some--even to some who are using iPhones in their protest. The situation may seem like a draw at the moment because the institutions and those who are against them may need each other. If iPhones didn't allow people to organize and see geolocation and use Social Media, would Apple sell as many of them? In other words, if Apple, as an "institutional power" starts "disciplining" iPhone users by restricting access or changing terms of Social Media and geolocation information, would they still have as many loyal users? Or would that tip the "agency issue" towards abandonment of the devices in favor of those that enable more agency?

Council: You say: "Within a cultural group, people practice blended reality.Blended because they share general and specific knowledge not available to other groups which changes the way they classify and interpret sensory data."

This is a very productive concept because it shows that we do not need digital systems to presuppose any kind of blending, it is here and always was in the granularity of what makes up our 'reality'.

The real positive aspect of an IoT might lie in its function to be a neutral kind of middleware between cultural groups.
What do you think?

Sally Applin: I see the IoT as a way to enable the environment to "have a conversation with us."  What is critical is who is programming that environment and will it be a conversation or an observation? At its best, yes, a neutral middleware that facilitates communication would be wonderful. At its most dangerous, a data gathering surveillance network to better control the population and remove agency.  Who gets control? Those who manufacture and place sensors? Let's take the Smart Grid concept for example. Who gets control of that IoT LAN? The power company routing power to every appliances' IP address? The company who made the appliance? The person wanting to benefit from their own IoT network, in their own home-- how do they do that without forfeiting "agency" to one of those institutional players?

Council: You say: "The problem becomes compounded when we consider that once we  have truly dual realities, these will in fact rapidly become compounded, as people begin to simultaneously engage in multiple dual realities, or introduce sub-dual realities within a virtual world. The latter case introduces new development concerns, because only one aspect of the sub-dual reality can be represented in the virtual world or we find ourselves having to implement both the virtual aspect and a virtual representation of the other-local physical aspect.

Are you not describing some form of 'psychosis' here?

Sally Applin: Well, it could be. In that particular paper, Mike Fischer and I are describing what we refer to as PolySocial Reality (PoSR), the multiplexed, asynchronous or synchronous individuated data creations that we are all making constantly to each other and which have been increased by the rapid popularity of Social Media, geolocative apps and the combination of people wanting to attempt to do more than one thing at one time. When you see a person walking down the street and they are talking on a Bluetooth headset and you cannot see it, does it look like they are talking to themselves? Is that not perceived psychosis?  With the case of PoSR, we feel that people practicing PoSR within their own personal frame, do not perceive it to be psychosis, but to others, it breaks the social boundary and marking rules, which could be considered by definition to be psychosis.

Council:  Do you think that  issues on mental health and different forms of consciousness will become  more frequent and apparent in dual reality?

Sally Applin: We do not think that there is dual reality. We primarily believe that there is one reality, and within that, we use the concept of PolySocial Reality (PoSR) to describe the phenomena and behavior we are seeing by continual, synchronous or asynchronous, individuated, multiple and multiplexed, time and space shifted communications.

PoSR has both positive and negative aspects. The positive side of PoSR is that it increases our capacity to extend ourselves socially to many more people, ideas and potential and real collaborations. The negative is that  because more and more of PoSR  takes place through network communications, which are currently accessed through mobile devices and other types of computers, there is a fragmentation and individuation that can be a result of being connected to many in micro, multiplexed communications, who are not present. The continuous connection to those who "aren't there," meaning present in grounded reality, requires reliance on the network, which tethers them to a single person usage case device and pulls their consciousness away from their current physical space (grounded reality).

A hopeful outcome of the IoT is that by moving sensor information to grounded reality, it will shift at least part of the PoSR need to collect environmental data through the individual sensor, back to the grounded reality environment where it can be shared. A simple example of this is the London bus systems that uses sensors to correspond to scheduling times. The buses' sensors trigger sign information that enables bus riders to see the schedule in the shared grounded reality environment. This removes one aspect of n number of bus riders at each stop multiplied by individual phones pinging the network for schedule data. 

We'd also like to see the IoT create the ability for new models of interaction and new ways for humans to socialize.

Sally A. Applin is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, in the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (CSAC), where she is researching the impact of technology on culture, and the consequent inverse:  specifically the reifications of Virtual Space in Personal Space. At Kent, Sally is developing the framework and descriptive theory of PolySocial Reality (PoSR) with Dr. Michael D. Fischer. PoSR describes the condition of synchronous and asynchronous, multiplexed, individuated data creations and their cultural impact. Sally holds a Masters degree from the graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (NYU/ITP) within New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and a BA in Conceptual Design/Fine Art from SFSU. She has had a 20 year career in the science museum design, computer software, telecommunications, and product design/definition industries as a Senior Researcher and Consultant, Senior UX Designer and ethnographer.

Interview date:  October 28, 2011


Material © Sally A. Applin (Answers) and Council (Questions). All rights reserved.


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