Monday, October 27, 2014

Not Quite An AboutFace(book)

So, back at the beginning of this month, I was quoted in TechNewsWorld on the subject of Facebook's announcement of new guidelines regarding how they should go about manipulating and experimenting on their users. You may remember that I was previously quoted on the subject in the Christian Science Monitor back in July, as discussed in my previous post, Facebook Follies. So this serves as something of a follow up to that post, so maybe you want to go read that one first if you haven't already?

Either way, this post concerns a story by Erika Morphy published on October 3rd, entitled Being Facebook Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry. And the subtitle/blurb for it reads as follows:

Facebook may seem apologetic about the way it manipulated users in a study to gauge their emotional responses to certain types of posts, but it stopped short of actually making an apology. It also didn't quite say it wouldn't do it again. In fact, the guidelines Facebook has promised to follow in conducting future research are general, vague and, well, they're guidelines.

The article then begins in earnest with a brief summary of the most recent installment in Facebook's soap opera relationship with the public:

Facebook on Thursday announced it had developed a framework for conducting research on its 1.3 billion or so users.

Although Facebook so far has revealed only the general outlines, this framework clearly is a response to the onslaught of criticism the company received this summer, when it blithely reported the findings of a study about how News Feed content affected a user's mood.

In carrying out that research, Facebook withheld certain posts and promoted others to see how users would react.

And then on to how Facebook's actions were received by most of us:

When its methodology became public, reactions were immediate and harsh.
"While all businesses of this scale constantly experiment with the factors that influence their customers and users, there's something especially spooky about the idea of being experimented on in our digital lives," said Will McInnes, CMO of Brandwatch.
Facebook apparently was caught off guard by the vitriol. 

At this point, a new section begins with the heading, "A Look at the Framework":

The new framework includes giving researchers clearer guidelines and, in certain cases—such as when dealing with content that might be considered deeply personal—putting the project through an enhanced review process before the research begins.

Further review is required if the work involves collaboration with someone in the academic community.

Toward that end, Facebook has created a panel comprised of its most senior subject-area researchers, along with people from its engineering, research, legal, privacy and policy teams to review projects.

Facebook also will put its new engineers through a six-week training boot camp on privacy and research related issues.

Now that all of the basic information is established, it's time for some discussion, analysis, and evaluation, and this begins a new section under the heading of "Informed Consent?":

Facebook's new guidelines appear to be missing some fundamental ingredients, starting with actual policies on what will or won't be permissible.

For instance, it is unclear whether Facebook would repeat this summer's study under the new guidelines.

The company has not exactly said that it shouldn't have tinkered with users' News Feeds—just that it should have considered other, perhaps nonexperimental, ways to conduct its research. Facebook acknowledged that its study would have benefited from review by a more senior group of people. It also owned up to having failed to communicate the purpose of its research.

And now it's time to hear from the peanut gallery, aka moi:

Facebook has not promised to inform users the next time it conducts a research project, noted Lance Strate, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University.

"Instead, Facebook is in effect saying, 'I'm sorry, I made a mistake, I won't do it again, I can change, I promise—just trust me,' while giving their users absolutely no concrete reason why they should be trusted," he told TechNewsWorld.

The irony is that Americans usually are very willing to participate in consumer research and divulge all sorts of personal, private information in focus groups, interviews, surveys and opinion polls—as long as they are asked whether they are willing to take part in the study first, Strate pointed out.

Indeed, asking permission to conduct such studies goes beyond privacy and business ethics to common courtesy and basic human decency, he said. "It's the sort of thing we teach children long before they enter kindergarten—to ask for permission, to say, 'Mother, may I' and 'please' and 'thank you.'"

Facebook's apparent sense of entitlement regarding the collection of user data and the violation of user privacy is one reason for the extraordinary amount of buzz surrounding the launch of Ello as an alternative social network, Strate added.

It is funny how there seems to be an overall decline in civility in American society that correlates to the rise of new media, and first starts to appear in relation to the electronic culture of television. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Facebook would be a part of this trend, and it would be reflected in the ways in which Facebook treats its users.

Thinking about the term user itself, it does suggest what Martin Buber would call an I-It relationship. And while the alternative, an I-You relationship, is based on a sense of mutual respect between participants, a mutual recognition of each other as entities, the I-It relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical. And calling us users suggests that we are the I in the relationship, and Facebook is the It. But Facebook's behavior indicates that they see the situation as quite the opposite: The users are the It, and Facebook is the I.

So maybe, rather than referring to us as Facebook users, we should be called the Facebook used?

Anyway, here's how the article ends:

That thought surely has occurred to Facebook's executive team, which might have been one factor behind the release of the guidelines, McInnes told TechNewsWorld.

"Facebook's greatest fear and business risk is a user exodus, and so it knows that the trust of users is crucial," he said. "This move represents Facebook stepping up and looking to close down the risk of such a backlash again."

So, how about we set up a pool to see when the Facebook exodus will actually occur? I'm thinking some time around 2019, but it could be as soon as 2016. I guess it all depends when the New Media Moses arrives to part the Web(2.0) Sea...

Anyway, just for the record, here's the original comment that my quotes were taken from:

The essential ethical principle for research involving human subjects is informed consent, and that is exactly what Facebook has failed to address, or apparently to accept. Instead, Facebook is in effect saying, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake, I won't do it again, I can change, I promise, just trust me," while giving their users absolutely no concrete reason why they should be trusted. The irony is that Americans by and large are quite willing to participate in consumer research and divulge all sorts of personal, private information in focus groups, interviews, surveys and opinion polls, as long as they are given a choice, as long as they are asked whether they are willing to take part in the study first. This goes beyond issues regarding privacy and business ethics to common courtesy and basic human decency. It's the sort of thing we teach children long before they enter kindergarten, to ask for permission, to say "mother may I" and please and thank you. Facebook's apparent sense of entitlement regarding the collection of user data and the violation of user privacy is undoubtedly the reason for the extraordinary amount of buzz surrounding the launch of Ello as an alternative social network, and for this reason we can expect to see continued erosion of Facebook's near monopoly over the social media sector.

Not much different from the article, Morphy did a good job with it I thought, but this way you can see my complete thought. And since then, aside from Ello, I've heard a little about another alternative, MeWe. And no doubt there are dozens of folks out there working on alternative social media platforms, hoping that theirs will be the next one to catch fire and take over as the internet's burning bush.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Jewish Time

Back on September 19th, the Jewish Standard published another op-ed by me, just in time for Rosh Hashanah. With the Jewish new year just a few days away, the piece entitled, Jewish Time, seemed very, well, timely. And of course, it is altogether fitting to include this piece here on Blog Time Passing. The subtitle ran, "Where memory, nature, and history combine," and here is how it went:

Have you forgotten that the seasons have no regard

for the sovereignty of the sun

and instead attend upon

the grace and glory of the moon?

have you forgotten that the day begins

with evening’s song

and ends with shadow’s conquest of the hills?

I never heard any talk about “Jewish time” until I moved to New Jersey. When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Reform temple in Forest Hills, New York, and maybe it still retained a strong sense of its German-Jewish origins. Punctuality is a value, some say an obsession, present in powerful form in British as well as German culture, and by extension the Anglo-Saxon-dominated culture of the United States. And it was marginalized groups that were known to possess a different sense of time from the mainstream.

That’s why, back when I was a college student in the ‘70s, I heard references to stereotypes about “Indian time” for Native Americans, “Spanish time” for Latinos, and “Black time” for African-Americans. But back then, I never heard anyone talk about “Jewish time” or “Hebrew time” to explain why, for example, services scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. might not actually start until 8:15 or 8:20.

I’m not sure if it’s because the times have changed, or because New Jerseyans are different from New Yorkers, or because of a different mix of ethnic influences, but the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that it’s possible to have more than one sense of time. Just as there can be many different times, so that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” there can also be many different senses of time. We may think of clock time as the time, but it is a form of machine time, and there are alternatives that are forms of natural time and human time.

As an undergraduate, learning about intercultural communication, I recall hearing that in many non-Western cultures, if someone asks you for help and you respond with, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” it would be considered an insult. To us five minutes is a very short time, and the point is to emphasize a speedy response. But in non-Western cultures, that response is taken to mean that you consider those five minutes, however short a time that may be, to be more important than the other person who is asking for help. Instead, the reply should be, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” By not quantifying time, we instead are providing quality time. And true quality time is about making human relationships our priority.

Mircea Eliade, a scholar of comparative religion, argued that there are two different senses of time, which he referred to as sacred and profane. Profane time is what we experience in ordinary, everyday life, and clock time is one example of it. Sacred time, on the other hand, is the sense of time that is associated with religious, spiritual, and mystical experience. During sacred time, we depart from the ordinary passage of time and stand outside of history, connecting instead to eternity. And sacred time often is associated with an act of creation or foundation. The exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai are examples of sacred times that cut across all of our history. That is why we say that every generation of the Jewish people participated in these events.

On Shabbat, we enter into a sacred time that connects us to the origin of the world according to Genesis. In keeping the Sabbath, we ritually re-enact God’s resting on the seventh day, following the completion of Creation. And we also connect to the sacred time of “in the beginning” every year during the High Holy Days, reflecting the ancient idea that God is continually renewing the act of creation.

Rosh Hashanah provides us with a different sense of time as well, because the Jewish New Year, which we sometimes refer to as the birthday of the world, begins at the end of summer, not the dead of winter. Admittedly, there are good reasons to start the year in January, after the winter solstice, as the days begin to get longer. But you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the fact that there is a different sense of time associated with the “school year” that begins every September. It’s a sense of time that teachers, students, and their parents all are quite familiar with. And it’s a sense of time that Rosh Hashanah fits in with quite well. There is something at least as natural (if not more so) about beginning the new year at a time when summer vacation and summer doldrums have come to a close.

We follow different senses of time in celebrating both the Jewish New Year and the secular New Year, and we may also observe (but probably not celebrate) one or more fiscal new years for any businesses or organizations with which we are associated. Of course, the idea of having several new years rather than just one is nothing new for us; traditionally, the Jewish calendar has four different new years days. Each new year represents a somewhat different sense of time.

For most of us, the secular calendar is the calendar, and therefore the time, in the same sense that clock time is the time. It’s how we think about and experience time. And that’s why you always hear people commenting about how the holidays are coming early, or coming late. Some years ago a colleague of mine observed that Chanukah was coming early that year, and I replied that, no, it was Christmas that was coming late. He did a double-take for a moment, and then nodded in understanding.

When we talk about the holidays coming early or late, we mistake the measure of time, the calendar, for the phenomenon it measures, the passage of time. We confer upon the secular calendar an authority it does not deserve, as if it were itself an absolute time, and not a human invention. Religious beliefs aside, the solar and the lunar calendar are different ways of keeping track of the days, providing different senses of time, neither more or less correct than the other.

I can’t help but conclude that Albert Einstein’s encounter with the sacred time of the Jewish calendar, juxtaposed to the profane time of the secular calendar, played a role in his arriving at the theory of relativity, that the passage of time is relative to the speed at which you’re moving, and there is nowhere in the physical universe where anything is at rest. In other words, there is no place in the physical universe where time is absolute.

And then there’s the different sense of time that comes from living in the year 2014 and the year 5774. On the plus side, come Rosh Hashanah we won’t have to get used to dating our checks and the various forms we fill out with 5775 instead of ‘74. On the minus, we lose something very significant in not following our traditional way of counting the years, and following a numbering system that originates from a religion other than our own. It makes perfect sense in Christian theology to bifurcate history into before and after periods. And Jewish scholars adapted to the practice of the majority by adopting the alternative terms, “Before Common Era” (abbreviated as BCE) in place of BC, and “Common Era” (abbreviated as CE) in place of AD. That terminology has been adopted widely in the scientific and scholarly community.

Even so, the division of calendar years makes it difficult to talk and think about events that occurred before the Common Era. Consider the awkwardness of the statement that King Josiah reigned in Judah from 641 to 609 BCE. How many years would that be? More importantly, this division of history serves as a subtle form of delegitimation of most events that happened in antiquity, including the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the enormous intellectual achievements of ancient Greece, the extraordinary military accomplishments of Alexander the Great, and the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and its transformation into the Roman Empire, as well as most of the history of the Jewish people before the diaspora.

Of course, saying that we are about to embark upon the year 5775 naturally leads to the question, 5,775 years since what? The traditional answer is, since the creation of the world, which relates to Rosh Hashanah as a sacred time of eternal return. But science has shown that that estimate is more than a little bit off, the planet Earth estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, and the universe itself clocked in at 13.8 billion years. If ever there is cause to marvel at the glory of Creation, isn’t that cosmic time scale reason enough?

But if our calendar does not stretch back to the origin of the world, the question remains, 5,775 years since what? An easy answer would be, since someone began counting. And that’s not such a far-fetched response. We trace the invention of the first writing system, cuneiform, to somewhere around 5,500 years ago. That only puts us off by approximately 275 years, and often these dates are pushed back after new archeological finds. But more importantly, the introduction of the written word by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia was the product of a slow evolution of various systems of notation, dating back about 10,000 years ago, to the beginnings of the agricultural revolution. In other words, dating back to what we understand to be the beginnings of civilization, as opposed to nomadic, tribal, hunter-gatherer ways of life. These systems of notation were used to keep track of property, so that numerical notation came first, before the development of a complete writing system. Writing was invented by accountants.

What this means is that it’s been 5,775 since the origin not of the world, but of civilization. Our calendar marks and celebrates the beginnings of civilization, the first steps on the long road forward from tribalism, a journey that takes narrative form in the story of Abraham as God tells him to go forth from the Mesopotamian city of Ur “to the land that I will show you.”

We say that Rosh Hashanah and all our holidays begin the night before, but that too does not recognize the special quality of Jewish time. In our tradition, the day begins at sundown, not at some arbitrary point in the middle of the night. And of course that follows again the archetype of Creation, in which first there is darkness, and then God brings the light into being. The 24-hour day is derived from the Earth’s rotation, but the point when one day ends and the next begins is also relative, the product of different conventions. Similarly, the concept of the month is based on the cycles of the moon, even though the naming and days allotted to various months can vary in different calendar systems. And likewise, the year is associated with the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Of all our calendar categories, only the 7-day week is more or less arbitrary, having the least to do with any natural phenomena. We therefore can understand that the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work,” does more than direct us to observe Shabbat, as well as engage in labor on the other six days. And it does more than ask us to take part in a ritual re-enactment of creation, and act as a means of separating and thereby sanctifying the sacred time of the Sabbath from the profane time of the other six days. The fourth commandment also establishes the 7-day week as a unit of measurement. There was no need to turn to God’s authority for the day, the month, the year, or the seasons for that matter, because they are based on the observable cycles of nature. But the 7-day week required outside legitimation to gain popular acceptance. And while we were not the only people of the ancient world to use this time measurement—don’t forget the Babylonians of Mesopotamia—it’s due to its appearance in Jewish tradition that the 7-day week is now in use throughout the world.

Jewish time is different from secular time. Jewish time is not homogenous, not like clock time, and not like our contemporary movement towards a 24/7/365 society. Jewish time is a sense of time that distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, and that measures the days, the months, and the years in its own way. Jewish time includes a sense of relativity, whether it’s Einstein’s theory, or a rabbi waiting 10 more minutes before beginning the evening’s prayers. It follows that Jewish time emphasizes relationships, and especially I-You rather than I-It relationships, as a human time, a natural time, and a sacred time, and not a machine time. Jewish time is historical time, looking backward through the history of civilization, and looking forward in hope and in faith for better days to come.

And Jewish time is above all else a sense of time based on memory. The repeated commandment to remember goes to the heart of our sense of time. Without memory, there is no history, no sense of the past, nor any anticipation of the future. Without memory, there is no knowing, no understanding, no learning. Without memory, there is no keeping time, there is only serving time, becoming servants of the monolithic time of our clocks and calendars. How do we achieve our exodus from our bondage to these instruments of our own design?

Through the miracle of our memory, by remembering to treasure and embrace our own special sense of Jewish time, in this season of renewal, and all year round.
I should note that the unnamed colleague I mention in this piece is my friend Ed Wachtel, just as it was in one of my previous op-eds, Jewish Movie Marvels. And in case you're wondering where those lines of poetry that open the piece are from, I took them from a rather long poem I wrote some time ago, entitled "Sand" (which otherwise remains unpublished for the time being).  I had an interesting exchange with the editor over whether there should be some note following them explaining their origin, my own preference being to leave it unstated and perhaps adding a bit of mystery to their appearance, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out (although I was hoping that someone would ask about where those lines came from—oh well).

Friday, October 10, 2014

Presiding for the Congregation Continued

So, I've been meaning to make a note of this here on my official blog of record, and it's time that I do. As you may recall, if you've been following my activities very closely (ha ha), back in 2012 I was elected as president of Congregation Adas Emuno, a small temple following the tradition of Reform Judaism, located in Leonia, New Jersey. If you somehow missed it, you can read the entry I posted about it back then: Presiding for the Congregation.

So, anyway, my two-year term ended as of July 1st of this year, but back in May I was elected to a second term as president. I want to be clear that this was in no way a function of personal ambition, but rather was due to the fact that there wasn't anyone else willing and able to step in, and because I have not done a completely horrendous job at it, I was asked to continue on in that role.

And I realize that another thing I neglected to share on this blog was the new logo we developed for our congregation. I know you may be saying, logo???? Isn't that a bit too profane and commercial? And what about that thing in the Ten Commandments about graven images? 

Well, you see, what we have been using previously was some fairly generic kinds of symbols and clip art. So, I wanted something distinctive to represent our congregation as letterhead, on flyers, and online. And one of the special things we do is during Sabbath services, when we include a prayer for healing, on behalf of those who are physically, psychologically, or spiritually ill.  And unless there are too many people in attendance, we all hold hands and form a circle to sing the version of the Mi Sheberach prayer composed by the late Debbie Friedman. It's a beautiful song, so let me share that as well:

So, I had this idea about a logo that connected the six-pointed Star of David with six people holding hands, forming a circle (as I recall, Carl Jung identified the Star of David as a variation on the mandala archetype, which usually takes the form of a circle, and denotes wholeness and community). Not being an artist myself, I couldn't quite visualize it, and could only provide a vague, verbal description to one of our board members, Lauren Rowland, a gifted artist and graphic designer, who came up with this image:

Here's another version:

And there are more variations, but you get the idea. I really love it, because it so well captures what our congregation is all about. So, anyway, this was adopted early in my first term, and then came Hurricane Sandy that October, and fortunately our buildings were spared, the only major damage being to the sign outside of our temple:

Far from being a tragedy, the sign was old, unattractive, not in great shape, and in a style that was no longer current, so we were in fact talking about replacing it anyway, which we did early in 2013, and I was so pleased that our new sign was able to incorporate our new logo:

See it up there in the upper left hand corner? 

So, anyway, I don't mean to imply that this is all that went on over the past 2 1/4 years, but this seemed like one item that would be particularly appropriate, being about communication and all. And if you want to know more about my role and about our temple, you can check out our congregational blog (which I set up, as mentioned in my previous post, Adas Emuno Now Blogging, and has so far has been mostly maintained by me), and our website, which we are in the process of updating).

And with that, let me take this opportunity to say, Happy New Year—5775, where does the time go? Me, I'm feeling kinda nostalgic for the 5750s...

Monday, October 6, 2014

Screening Aaron Swartz

So, I happen to be the adviser to a couple of clubs at Fordham University, one of them being the REACTtoFILM club, which is affiliated with a nonprofit organization called React to Film.  Here's how they describe themselves:

Through film, we inspire young people to engage in the real issues of today.

Leveraging the best issue-based filmmaking to promote social responsibility and spark civic engagement, REACT to FILM is a platform of educational programs in high schools and colleges.

Our full-semester, for-credit REACT to FILM elective course is taught in high schools across the country.

The REACT to FILM network of college chapters aims to educate, inspire, and be a call to action for collegiate audiences on a monthly basis during the school year.

Every month, REACT to FILM hosts pre-theatrical screenings of the best issue-based films—at locations such as the Museum of Modern Art, Soho House (West Hollywood, New York and Miami), the Museum of the Moving Image, and Capitol Hill—to start a dialogue to arm the audience with the requisite information to REACT positively to each film/issue, and help encourage them to share REACTions across social networks to drive for broader change on the issue.

They started up last year, and this year's first film screening is one of particular interest to communication scholars and new media mavens: The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Here's the club's flyer:

What isn't mentioned in the flyer, however, is that the whole point of the REACTtoFILM club is to react, that is, to follow the screening with a discussion. Which is what we'll be doing, with the discussion led by me and my new colleague here in our Department of Communication and Media Studies, Jessica Baldwin-Phillipi. I'm looking forward to it, and I'll report back to you on how it went afterwards.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

On Binding Biases for General Semantics

So, this coming Monday, October 6, I'll be doing my "On the Binding Biases of Time" talk for the New York Society for General Semantics.

The NYSGS is offering free membership to anyone interested in joining them, and the event itself is free of any registration or admission charge, so come one, come all.

Here's my brief description of the talk:

A talk about Alfred Korzybski and the concept of time-binding, and Harold Innis and the concept of time bias, on general semantics and media ecology, on human culture and human progress, on our relationship to the past, present and future, on where we've been and where we're going.

The event begins at 7 PM, and it will be held at The Albert Ellis Institute, 145 East 32nd Street, 9th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

As you may know, the talk is based on, and originally was the basis of the title essay of my book, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.  

Ironically, this will be the first time that I give this talk at an event sponsored by an organization devoted to general semantics. I first gave the talk as a keynote address at a New York State Communication Association conference, and also presented it at a meeting of the Media Ecology Association, and as public lectures at Grand Valley State University and St. Mary's College. I look forward to an encore performance here in New York City, to an audience schooled in general semantics.