Joho the Blog » [berkman] Kate Crawford on mobiles and noise

[berkman] Kate Crawford on mobiles and noise

Kate Crawford of the University of New South Wales i giving a talk called “Art of Noise: Mobile Social Media and Attention,” which she calls a work in progress.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins in 1741 with a Hogarth engraving called “The Enraged Musician.” It shows a musician furious about the street noise outside his window. These days, we are concerned about noise that comes at us from our social mobile media. There are limits to our listening, she says.


She talks about a study she’s conducting under an Australian research grant, on the use of mobile media by 18-30 year olds. We are in a critical period in which mobiles are becoming a portal for connecting to other kinds of mobile media. The first question the study asks is “youth culture and its imaginaries: how is youth culture represented in the media? What are the panics and the lived realities? How are mobiles a critical element of friendships? Is it an “emotional container” and a conduit for reaching emotional spaces?

In 2009, they did 339 interviews of men and women in much of Australia, across town sizes. The results were in line with other studies. The mobile is seen as critical infrastructure, integral to how you stay in touch and coordinate. Also, the phone is a “constant network presence, always on.” That was true across the entire sample. In one case, a woman recounted her surprise at being asked to turn off her mobile while on a flight; she did not know how to do that. Telephoning is the least popular way of communicating via a mobile.


This puts pressure on their attention.

[I missed a few minutes. Check Ethan's blog, which you should be reading anyway]


We are quite conside3r about “info overload,” abn idea that has been around for a while. We have a myth of an earlier time when there wasn’t overload. “Ther4e’s hno such thing as info overload, just filter failure,” s Clay Shirky says. We are evolving new ways of being efficient. The founder of 42 folders talks about “productivity porn” — people wasting time going to productivity sites.


But the myth of the golden age of attention is false. We’ve been overloaded since the library at alexandria and before. In fact, Kate says, it’s not desirable to be in total control. She talks about 1906’s “The Society for the Suppression of unnecessary Noise,” which advocated for quiet “productive circles” around schools and hospitals to keep the brain from “jerking around.”


Today two thinkers have similar ideas: Adam Greenfield (‘zones of amnesty’) and Genevieve Bell (‘spaces of reusal”). Greenfield jokes he wants to create cafes with Farraday zones where there’s no electromagnetic reception.


In the arts, there’s much positive we can say about noise. In 1919 there was the “antisymphony concert,” introducing noise into music. Noise can be intrusive or a catalyst of growth.


So, how do we think about this in regard to mobiles? First, since the 17thC,. we have tried to engage with noise in creative ways, especially when noise is seen as a “shared problem with collective solutions.” Second, we should recognize how quickly mobiles and social spaces have emerged, making it difficult to develop complex social norms. This is not so much a difficult moment as an evolutionary movement.


Her study showed we are adapting to high levels of info while changing our definitions of focus, attention and productivity. This is not a technological problem to which there is a technological solution. Tech is only a means to an end And the tools and social norms are developing together.


Q: b[me] Does thefact that we are now aware of all that’s filtered out change our ideas about noise?
A: The filters are often social, through yoru friends. There are also filter elites — people who really know how to use these tools. Some of them are obsessed with productivity, and they are personal, individualistic.


Q: Noise is context-sensitive. A weed is a flower to some. Your filters can wall you in.
A: The weed operates in a wider ecology. We should be thinking about wider information ecologies.
Q: Privacy vs. disclosure?
A: It’s important to know when and what you’re disclosing.


Q: We negotiate noise collectively. In the Quiet Car on the train, there was a norm not even to type. But it was completely different on the way home in rush hour: you were simply not allowed to talk.
A: Beautiful example of collective engagement.
Q: I had the same experience in a library bathroom. Someone had her cell phone out, her laptop…
A: Yes, compare this to smoking. We’ve had decades to figure out the norms around smoking, but we’re only just beginning with noise.


Q: Is noise reduction is an inherent property of this sort of network interaction? People in the real world don’t come with labels, but they do at social networking sites. That reduces the noise, while increasing the information.
A: In the real world, there are cues. But, look at Twitter. People complain it’s all noise. So, then you use a noise reduction device, negotiating a filter.
Q: People use cues to pigeonhole people.


Q: [from the Web] Is it different in Australia? And the balance between social regulation and norms.
A: Yes, there are real cultural differences. I’ve been working with scholars in China and India. It’s about geography: Urban users have more in common with other urban users in other cultures than with rural users in the same culture.

A: There is a fashion currently that favors multitasking. Now the fashion is shifting to single tasks and high focus. There is brain research that suggests that that’s best, although I question the romanticism of the idea that we can focus on one task.


Q: The technology seems to be giving this generation a way to back away from more verbal communication and resolution of conflict.


Q: Would you join the society for the suppression of noise? Do you find value in noise?
A: No, I wouldn’t join. Signals are noise depending on context. My interest is in how you navigate noise.
Q: Signal is in opposition to noise. Favoring noise is rather Dada. A: I'm very interested in how noise is changing within info theory. E.g., "zero knowledge proofs": you may know how to distinguish between identical proofs. You don't want to tell people what the mark is. But you could still prove that you can distinguish by choosing correctly among them with statistical significance. For cryptographers, this is very very interesting.


Q: How do class issues define noise? The musician is annoyed by the riffraff outside the window, we worry about the quiet car…
A: The info overload debate is coming from the educated classes. There are political issues around workspaces and noise…


Q: Is noise the right metaphor? E.g., Benjamin Walken’s Too Much Info podcast recently was on noise as violence —e.g., in the 1970s kids of color with boomboxes intruding on your space. But it may be different with the noise you’re talking about, which is more like danah over-tweeting me.
Q: Over-sharing is so gendered — feminine chattering, etc. The media over-genders it.
A: And yet boomboxes became the start of a new musical signal…


A: These questions are intensely interdisciplinary. Computer scientists and cognitive scientists can’t resolve them by themselves.


Q: Don’t we have to worry about over-filtering?
A: Yes, we need to be open to noise from different fields in order to get innovation.


Q: Maybe we should look at mobiles as part of us, and ask what we want from them?
A: McLuhan agrees that media are extensions of our bodies. Mobiles are already part of our affective environments.

One Response to “[berkman] Kate Crawford on mobiles and noise”

  1. [...] Weinberger blogs about a talk by Kate Crawford at the Berkman Center Her study showed we are adapting to high levels of info [...]

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