Thursday, August 30, 2007

135 Big Brother is Watching; The Eye in the Sky; Environments of Control

Message no. 135 Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Saturday, January 27, 2007 10:05pm Subject: Big Brother is Watching; The Eye in the Sky; Environments of Control

Hi y'all,

Here are some things for you to think about vis a vis our learning environment on-line:

Many of you noted the eerie feeling you got knowing that anybody on earth with a computer and internet access can google map your home or workplace or recreation space and peer down upon you. It may comfort you to know that for security reasons (to prevent attacks on our strategic arsenal or politicians for example) the satellite photos released for use by the public are usually as much as six months to a year old. This gives plenty of time for resources and capital goods and weapons and key personnel to be moved out of harm's way. And then there are places (Bahrain is one) that will not let the computers connect to google maps (the Bahrainian elite got upset because average citizens were beginning to see just how luxuriously the upper class live -- they were seeing all the Mercedes and Swimming Pools and grassy gardens that are usually hidden by big walls, and they could see the spatial size difference between what the rich owned and the rest of the population had to put up with. So the government shut down Google Maps this year!!!!)

Mapping can be a tool for war or peace, for tyranny or democracy, for ill or good.

My own feeling of course, as an educator, is that everyone should have access to the same technologies and tools and ideas so that no dictator or small elite group can control the rest of us. But free access to things carries its own risks, as parents in particular know!

The computer revolution has brought many other forms of environmental control to bear in our lives and I want to let you in on a few of the secrets so you are fully aware of what kind of environment you are operating in in an online class, and think about how it affects the psychology of your behavior:

For one thing, attendance and grading are a completely different phenomenon on-line. Did you know that we can see every time you log into WebCT? Did you know that we have access to records that show exactly which pages you visited, how long you stayed on them, how many posts you've made, even how many keystrokes and clicks you make? The computer records all.

Many on-line teachers use this to great advantage and it helps the students -- we know if you haven't been visiting for a while, we know what times you generally come on line and how much time you spend there, and we can help out students who haven't been active, and get an estimate of who is putting a lot of effort in the course and who isn't.

To get around this, we are told that some students log in frequently and click around alot to make it look like they are active, but actually read little or nothing. We are told that we must be careful of this. I find this amusing, because it shows me that there is some carry over from the old days when school was seen as a prison. In those "hardscape" days of bricks and mortar schools, when the industrial revolution was occurring and we were trying to build a labor force of factory workers who wouldn't question authority and would do boring repetitive tasks over and over and over, we emphasized attendance and rote learning. We ruled student's lives by bells to get them ready for factory whistles.

In the information age, I can't for the life of me see why anybody cares about "punctuality" and "attendance" except in so far as human beings agree to get together for meetings and need to arrange schedules so they can all be together at the same time. Assignments have deadlines now only because we have busy lives and have to set aside certain times for certain tasks -- after a deadline we need to move on to other things, so we can't easily go back and look at things that come in "late". But beyond that, we are very rarely ruled anymore by clocks and timelines in the external environment.

As you probably know, schools generally started at 7:30 because they evolved in an agrarian society and the whole family had to get up in the morning to feed the animals. Factories followed the agrarian pattern and we all got hooked into getting up at first light and getting our work done before nightfall. After all -- it got dark! And before electric lights it was very difficult to work in the dark!

Nowadays we can work anytime we want. The environment of "nature" or "the farm" no longer dictates our schedule. The limitations of sunrises and sunsets no longer affects our productivity. We are detached from our earlier environments and are now ruled by virtual landscapes that have their own demands. We work when we can get online. If the wifi goes dead or the phone lines die or there is a power failure, we can't work. If the hard drive crashes, we can't work. We organize our schedules around these new environmental affordances.

Here in the on-line world, you could say that big brother is watching, but the real question is "watching what?". What good (or bad) is all this control we now have over our learning environment? And what role is there for anonymity in society?

I look at the graphs of your attendance and postings and which pages you visit and find it fascinating feedback, but I'm not sure what to do with the information. Except share it with you. Yes, as environmental psychology students I think you should all be aware of this new environment. Then we can work together to explain and understand the trends that we see. We can explore questions such as "why is this page of content or this discussion topic more interesting or more frequently attended than that?". "What makes this particular idea environment more threatening than that one".

Let me return to the subject of anonymity. I notice that as you work on your "getting to know each other" assignment, nobody has so far put up any pictures of themselves. Fascinating!! Why is that? Is it because we want to be liberated from the tyranny of the flesh? Is it because we enjoy the sudden non-judgemental aspect of the internet where age, gender, race, creed no longer matter, and we prefer to wait to share our current phenotypic selves until we are sure it is safe? In a real world class the first thing we would notice are the physical bodies of all the students sitting in the room. In an online class we have no obligation to be seen at all. Isn't that interesting? This is the one thing that "big brother" cannot observe about us without our consent (yet!! -- we don't know how invasive surveillance technology really is -- our president has been allowing the use of phone-tapping and other spy technology on American citizens... we don't really know how far they have gone! Recently I worked with the composer BT on a music score for a new film called "Surveillance" about the mis-use of surveillance technologies. And last summer in Great Britain I noticed that every street corner in the town I was in had a video camera mounted on a pole that swiveled and followed you as you walked down the residential street!)

Take a look around you and see how many cameras are pointed at you all the time these days, taking pictures of your liscence plate as you cross an intersection, videotaping you as you walk through the shopping mall or the parking lot... somebody is watching us all the time!

Could that help explain why we are all reluctant to post our pictures or videos of ourselves as we start to get to know one another?

Or is it merely technological -- no camera, unfamilliar with how to post pictures etc.? Are not people constantly putting videos and pictures of themselves on their blogs and on youtube and myspace? Didn't Andy Warhol say we all want our 15 minutes in the sun?

These are questions for you to ponder and explore.

When you get into Second Life and other virtual environments, how faithful do you make your avatar to your current phenotypic self? Do you change your hair, your colors, your shapes, your looks? Do you change your gender? Your species? Some people transform into hobbits, others into foxes and rabbits, some into robots. What do you do? And why? How does your environment affect your behavior when it comes to appearance?

And, returning to the Learning Environment, think about this -- what is it we want our "professors" to "see" when they are "grading" or "judging" us? Who is the "YOU" you want to be assessed? On what merits, on what basis?

We shall discuss this more! I look forward to your thoughts!


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