Modern Techno-Maladies

The latest issue of New Scientist has a little tongue-in-cheek piece about bad habits people develop online.  The full article is available free online, along with a few "confessions."  Here’s a glossary from one of the sidebars:

Modern maladies

Blog streaking Revealing secrets or personal information online, which for everybody’s sake would be best kept private

Crackberry The curse of the modern executive, not being able to stop checking your BlackBerry even at you grandmother’s funeral

Cyberchondria A headache and a particular rash at the same time? Extensive online research tells you it must be cancer

Egosurfing When "just checking" gets out of control

Infornography You’re beyond being a healthy "infovore": acquiring and sharing information has become an addiction for you

You Tube narcissism Not even your closest family want to see hours of your holiday videos

Google-stalking Snooping online on old friends, colleagues or first dates

MySpace impersonation Many of us pretend to be someone we’re not when we are online, but some will pretend to be a well-known figure

Powerpointlessness One too many flashy slides

Photolurking Flicking through a photo album of someone you’ve never met

Wikipediholism Excessive devotion to a certain online collaborative encyclopedia. You can test whether you’re an addict at

Link: Just can’t get e-nough – tech – 20 December 2006 – New Scientist Tech.

More About “You”

I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks Time’s selection of "You" as person of the year is ridiculous.  Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming book The Cult of the Amateur, writes:

It’s the logical conclusion of our consumer centric culture — what Huxley, Adorno, Lasch, Postman, Habermas, Zizek and, most recently, Thomas Frank, have been warning us against. […]

Anyway, I’m keeping my physical issue of Time for Dec 25th 2006/January 1, 2007 — the one that awarded its person of the year to YOU. With its mirrored, iMac style computer screen, it has anachronism, stupidity and farce written all over it.

One day, in the not too distant future, people will look back at this self-congratulatory issue (in the midst of the single most disastrous foreign war in the country’s history — welcome, indeed,to your world) and think…

what the hell were those idiots thinking?

Link: The Great Seduction: Welcome to your world.

Christian Vachon at CJR Daily, speaking of those also-rans Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chavez, writes:

it or not, this year the "greatest impact on the news" came from this
hydra that threatens American power, prestige, and economic stability.
Still, the editors of Time would have us believe that this is less
consequential than the novelty of Internet users who "mash up 50 Cent’s
vocals with Queen’s instrumentals," and "turn on a computer and make a
movie starring a pet iguana."

Instead of living up to the high mandate of its own editorial
policy, Time responded with a non-choice, awarding the Person of the
Year to an abstraction. By giving the award to "You," it effectively
gave the award to no one. In dong so, it has insulted its readers with
the assumption that they are too vain and gullible to know the

Meanwhile, in an effort to outdo Time’s stupidity, some of the would-be leaders of this Web 2.0/user-generated content revolution are unhappy that Time didn’t bow down low enough.  Apparently "you" is condescending; it should have been "us", and us the people don’t need the MSM Gatekeepers to tell us we’re the most important people in the world.  Dan Gillmor wrote:

But there’s a tiny bit of reality in the fact that the cover didn’t
say “Us” instead of “You” — in part because it was a vestige of the
magazine’s traditional, royal thinking wherein they told us everything
they thought we needed to know (and what to think about it). Our role:
We bought it or didn’t.

If the people of the year are all of you out there somewhere, that
leaves “we the deciders of what is news” still inside the gates.

Link: Center for Citizen Media: Us, not You.

Jeff Jarvis (in a blog post accompanied, apparently without ironic intent, by a picture of himself on the Time cover) wrote:

So the Time person of the year is you. Otherwise know as us.

I suppose I should give Time some credit for recognizing the power of
the people. Only thing is, there’s no news here. This is nothing new.
We have always been in charge. It’s just that the people who thought
they had the power now have no choice to but hear us and recognize that
we are, and always have been, the boss.

Link: BuzzMachine: It has always been us.

Privacy Online: Is Anything Fair Game?

The AP reports today on the increasing concern over the lack of privacy online, particularly on social networking sites.  This isn’t a new issue, but it’s getting more attention, as it should.  The gist of their recommendations is that if you get into trouble it’s your own fault, but I think that’s only half of the story.  Some excerpts:

“Everyone at this point — even if it hasn’t happened to them — has heard about someone who’s gotten in trouble at school, with a parent, a coach, because of something that’s been posted online,” says Susannah Stern, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego who studies young people’s online habits.

“They’re now more conscious that information they post online can be used in ways they didn’t intend it to be,” she says. “And I think this awareness is healthy — for adults or kids.”

Today, the rule of thumb is: If it’s in the public domain, it’s fair game.

Jeff Krakauer, human resources director for the legal services company Juriscape in Pasadena, Calif., says he recently began looking at social-networking profiles — especially for candidates for whom he’s “on the fence.”

So far, what he’s seen hasn’t swayed him one way or another.

“But if something was really wild and way out there, it would cause me some concern,” he says.

Hearing more stories like those prompted career counsellors at the University of Dayton to survey employers in their database about their use of Facebook. They found that 42 per cent of the 326 who responded said they would consider factoring a Facebook profile into their hiring decisions. Some of those employers also said they’d already rescinded offers because of things they’d discovered online.

“I do think it’s an invasion of privacy,” says Melissa Bush, a business major at the University of Dayton. “But when you think about it, anything you post online is open season.”

When she interviewed for an internship last summer, her interviewer told her upfront that they’d be checking her Facebook profile. She didn’t worry because she’s careful about what she posts — but lately, she’s been deleting messages from friends that she deems inappropriate.

“If you don’t want people to read it, don’t post it,” Bush says. “If you don’t want people to see a video, don’t post it.”

Link: A little too public?.

I’m surprised that employers are so quick to admit that they search for personal information about applicants online.  In the US, anti-discrimination laws are very strict — there are many things you can’t ask about an applicant, such as marital/family status, age, national or ethnic origin, religion, and disabilities (source: Yahoo HotJobs).

What are these employers looking for?  When they search on Facebook, MySpace, or even Google, they’re more likely than not to find personal information.  So unless the job is related to online services or media, for example, then what relevant information are they hoping to find?  And aren’t they setting themselves up for claims of discrimination by conducting undisciplined searches like this?  I would expect employers to start being more careful about this by limiting the searches they allow, or by allowing only third parties to do background checks so that irrelevant information doesn’t factor into hiring decisions.

It’s certainly unwise to put embarrassing information about yourself online, and we all bear responsibility for this, but not everything online should be fair game to employers.  We need to develop guidelines to respect privacy and discourage discrimination online in hiring practices.

George Monbiot Exposes Greenwash

The always interesting and provocative columnist George Monbiot has a new book out called Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning.  On the book’s website he is also compiling information about "greenwashing"  — the public relations campaigns that corporations use to green up their image:

On Greenwash Exposed I’ll tell you the truth behind the fudged figures, dodgy claims and empty public relations campaigns by corporations and celebrities who wrongly claim to be cleaning up their carbon emissions.

Link: Greenwash Exposed (

You can also submit your suggestions.  The site and book appear to have a UK focus, but hopefully the book will become available in the US as well.

Lying is Easier With Gadgets

From Reuters:

More than four out of five people admit to telling little white lies at least once a day and the preferred way of being "economical with the truth" is to use technology such as cell phones, texts and e-mails, a survey on Thursday said.

The research by UK pollsters 72 Point found that "techno-treachery" was widespread with nearly 75 percent of people saying gadgets like Blackberrys made it easier to fib.

Just over half of respondents said using gadgets made them feel less guilty when telling a lie than doing it face to face, the study on behalf of financial services group Friends Provident found.

Link: Gadgets seen as best way to tell white lies�

Via Wired.

The Ethical Imagination

I’ve been reading Margaret Somerville’s 2006 Massey Lectures, The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit, which I picked up when I was in Toronto last week.  Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s blurb for the book:

In this timely, topical, and cogently argued book, Somerville asks: What does it mean to be human today, when mind-altering scientific breakthroughs are challenging our fundamental ideas of ourselves, how we relate to others and the world around us, and how we find meaning in life?

Some of the controversial topics Somerville touches upon are our growing acceptance of new reproductive technologies, and our conundrums over the genetic modification of plants and animals. She eloquently proposes that it is only through our willingness to undertake a journey of the human imagination — by heeding our stories, myths, and moral intuition — that we can truly see, understand, speak about, and relate to the world around us, and thereby develop an ethics to guide us.

Somerville has taken some controversial positions that I don’t agree with, such as her opposition to same-sex marriage, but I find her writing and thinking to be very educational and stimulating.  She discusses the theory and practice of ethics and how we might find a "shared ethics" based on what she calls the "secular sacred."  She believes we must start with a presumption in favor of the natural.  Technologies that break with nature should have the burden of showing that they are not doing harm.  The position is similar to the "precautionary principle."

The Massey Lectures are broadcast yearly in Canada on CBC radio and published by the excellent House of Anansi press.  The 2005 and 2004 lectures are also well worth checking out: Stephen Lewis’s Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa and Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress.

Binary Being Symposium

"Binary Being: Staying Human in the Computer Age" is a symposium being held July 27-29, 2007 at UC Berkeley and looks very interesting.  The schedule includes lectures, discussion groups, and artistic workshops.  It’s sponsored by the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training.  From the website:

Most of us use computers everyday and would be
hard-pressed to imagine a world without the productivity,
accessibility, and ingenuity these machines seem to bring into our
lives. But, do we really know what we are doing with this technology?
Do we know how this technology is affecting us? The purpose of the
conference is to create an opportunity to consider this topic; where
participants, inspired by the keynote speeches and the dramatic
presentations and engaged in artistic activities can contemplate these
and other related questions, and start a dialogue leading toward to a
more conscious relationship with the computer.

Link: Binary Being Home.

Bryan Appleyard Reviews Crichton’s Next

Bryan Appleyard is one of my favorite science writers.  I’ve enjoyed two of his books, Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in the Genetic Future, and Understanding the Present: An Alternative History of Science (subtitled "Science and the Soul of Modern Man" in the UK), and several of his Times columns.  Appleyard now has a website, a blog, and a new book coming out in January called How to Live Forever or Die Trying: On the New Immortality.

In a recent column he reviewed Michael Crichton’s new novel, Next:

The satire of Next is focused not on a single delusion, but
on what Crichton sees as the outrageous state of the law and the
science of genetics. “I was just astonished at the state of knowledge
and how it was being interpreted in the courts, which clearly seemed to
require revision.” The main plot line is about a man whose cells have
unusually potent cancer-fighting properties. His cell line becomes
company property and, bizarrely, that seems to allow the company’s
agents to seize him or members of his immediate family and take cells
from any part of their body. That does seem to be a technical
possibility in American law, though Crichton admits that no judge would
be likely to uphold it.

“But it’s a close call, and it’s not as clear as one would wish. Such things should not be legal.”

[…] apart from invented villains and future fantasies such as
chimp- and parrot-human hybrids, the general atmosphere of the book is
an accurate reflection of the fevered state of the genetics industry at
the moment.

Crichton contrasts this with an earlier, healthier
condition of science. “It’s not so much a satire on corporate America,
because the academic institutions have the same mentality,” he says.
“I’m old enough to have grown up in an era when science was not seen in
this corporate way and when people did still have the idea that they
were doing research for the betterment of mankind. That now seems to be
quaint almost beyond imagining. If you were reared in this other
tradition, then the changes that have occurred seem repellent.”

Link: Genetic disorder – Newspaper Edition – Times Online,
Via Genetics and Health.

I may just have to read the book now, despite my earlier misgivings.

Coming Soon: Food from Cloned Animals

Despite insufficient testing, the FDA is expected to go ahead and approve the sale of meat and dairy products from cloned animals.  From the Center for Food Safety’s press release on the subject today:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected later this week to release a preliminary safety assessment that clears the way for marketing of meat and dairy products from cloned animals for human consumption. The assessment and the agency’s expected endorsement of cloned food comes despite widespread concern among scientists and food safety advocates over the safety of such products. The move to market cloned milk and meat also flies in the face of dairy and food industry concern and recent consumer opinion polls showing that most Americans do not want these experimental foods.

"Instead of doing its job, the Bush FDA has ignored the science and fast-tracked this decision for the benefit of a few cloning companies,"said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director for the Center for Food Safety (CFS). "This is a lose-lose situation for consumers and the dairy industry."

Link: The Center for Food Safety – Despite Lack of Science and Strong Public Concern, FDA Expected to OK Food From Cloned Animals.

Time’s Lame-o Person of the Year

I never pay much attention to Time’s gimmick "Person of the Year," but this year’s choice — "You … citizen of the new digital democracy … You control the Information Age" — is just lame. 

I don’t have time to explain why I think this (and to do so would be a bit contradictory), so I’ll leave it to the professional journalists like Nicholas Carr, who made this nice observation:

With exquisite timing, Google today released its year-end Zeitgeist
report, revealing "our collective consciousness" as expressed through
our searches. The list
of our top-ten news searches of the year provides a delightful preview
of what we can expect when those dastardly news editors finally stop
filtering the news and let "us" decide what we need to know:

1. paris hilton
2. orlando bloom
3. cancer
4. podcasting
5. hurricane katrina
6. bankruptcy
7. martina hingis
8. autism
9. 2006 nfl draft
10. celebrity big brother 2006

You might have been under the impression that there were big stories
coming out of places like Iraq and Darfur this year. That only shows
how brainwashed you’ve been by the mainstream news media.

Links: Rough Type: What us wants, You — Yes, You — Are TIME’s Person of the Year — Dec. 25, 2006.