The Isle is Full of Noises: Digital Exile in the Play “Privacy”

Last month, I saw Privacy, a play by James Graham about the consequences of living our lives mediated by the internet and mobile technology.  Called a “magic show” by the New York Times review, it used Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a window into the pathos of this brave new digital world of ours.

At its core, the play is about how technology places us in exile, in which we struggle with feeling alone and cut off even though we are always connected with others, struggle with understanding our emotions even though we constantly express ourselves. One of the most interesting things to me about the play was that it included one of our era’s great exiles, Edward Snowden, who makes an appearance via a previously recorded Skype video. He and the protagonist of the play, The Writer (played wonderfully by Daniel Radcliffe) together recite a monologue from The Tempest:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

the isle is full of noises
from oxfordplayhouse.com

 

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.

In The Tempest this monologue was spoken by Caliban, the drunken, semi-human, despised but magical offspring of a witch who is explaining the mysterious and enchanting music of the island upon which all the characters in the play are trapped. The main protagonists of The Tempest are the magician Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, who were sent into exile and stranded on an island by Prospero’s jealous brother Antonio. Prospero, being a magician, has conjured a storm (the tempest) and set in motion a shipwreck and a series of events designed to gain back the throne for his daughter, the rightful heir.

Is Mr. Snowden Caliban, both despised and magical? Edward Snowden is certainly vilified by some – in exile in Russia after leaking NSA documents revealing the scope of secret surveillance carried out by the US government on its own citizens and on other governments. Others, of course, consider him to be a martyr and a hero. Mr. Snowden has said, “People say I live in Russia, but that’s actually a little bit of a misunderstanding. I live on the Internet.” To hear him recite “The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears ….“ made me think about what it must mean for him to “live” on the internet, never escaping its ceaseless music, the chatter and flood of words, images, facts, attacks, ideas, pings, clicks, alerts, notification, requests, and likes.

It also made me think about what Mr. Snowden gave up in order to shine a light on the underbelly of all this noise. “When I waked I cried to dream again.” This is the sting of being a citizen of the internet, unable to forfeit the joys and miracles of our shared, cyberspace dream, but knowing that we are being used by others for their own purposes, our privacy no longer sacred, but instead a pawn in the game, an asset to leverage and sell. Most of us accept this. Mr. Snowden does not.

Privacy leaves us with the feeling that our digital lives are a form of exile in an enchanted, cacophonous realm, a place where the technology we are dependent upon seems both magical and menacing.

 

 

 

Keep Your Friends Close…: Technology and the Politics of Fear

Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) 2016 was one of those paradigm-shifting conference experiences for me. Before PDF, I tended to hear technophilic, almost Pollyannaish narratives about how technology can make our lives- and our civic lives – better. I was clearly behind the times because I now see the narrative shifting and morphing into a much more challenging, questioning viewpoint that might be best described by the saying “keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

In almost every talk I heard, technology and the digital economy was described as a double-edged sword, as a way to ignite change, but with high potential costs, and full of booby traps. Those who create technology? A mixed bag at best. Anil Dash didn’t mince words when he called the technocrats and Silicon Valley billionaires liars and the new robber barons. Kentaro Toyama compared the digital economy to The Matrix, in which our personal data is the lifeblood of same Silicon Valley billionaire evil robot overlords.

I have to admit that I take grim pleasure in the aptness of these metaphors, and have uttered identical words myself. However, it is also clear that these ideas are polarizing and, like extremism in politics, privilege emotions above logic to drive more fractious and divisive discourse. Luna Malbroux’s hilarious talk about “EquiTable,” a faux app she developed to create dialogue about social justice and equity, is a nice example of how to break away from bitter recriminations and instead to use humor as a powerful weapon for change.

But if technology is a very sharp double-edged sword, how do we wield it without cutting ourselves?  How do we, as Yvette Alberdingk Thijm described in her talk about using technology as civic witnesses, harness technology for good without allowing others to use it against us.

Keep your friends close…

PDF yielded many ideas and solutions. I mention only a few below (including mine). I was particularly interested in those ideas and solutions demanding that technology serve humanistic goals and that the well-being of people be part and parcel of how we design and build technology. To do this, we have to open our eyes and take a cold, hard look at how our romance with technology has caused us to take our hands off the wheel (no pun with driverless cars intended).

My talk (text can be found here) centered on technology and mental health. I argued that the psychological and emotional nature of the tech we build is not peripheral or ancillary – it is fundamental to shaping how we use tech for healing. Right not, technology and digital culture is precisely and relentlessly designed to high jack our attention and our emotional brains for the economic benefit of its creators – this is the basis of the attention economy. To gather, mine, and sell our personal data, technology needs to be addictive, keeping us looking, clicking, buying, eyeballs on the screen, swiping, checking, clutching our devices, hoping to hear the next best thing, to feel connected, soothed, and understood. This is counter to health promotion, and creates imbalance instead of balance, weakness instead of strength. The notion that technology is designed to high jack our brains was beautifully and compelling described in a blog post just a few days after PDF by Tristan Harris.

I ended my talk with a call to action, that we must reclaim the technology culture to serve and amplify humanity and well-being, rather than serve the attention economy. We must further anchor this new culture in key values, including the value that our attention is sacred and valuable,  not just the coin of the realm. We must own and be responsible for how we spend our precious attention.

Sherry Turkle observed how our excitement over the rapid pace of technological advances makes us forget some fundamental, common-sense things we know about life. For example, after research suggesting that self-reported declines in empathy among millennials could be caused by growing use of social media and digital communication, one researcher’s solution was to build an “empathy app.” Why would we ever think that technology could make us more empathic, that the thing that might have caused declines in empathy could also be the solution? Dr. Turkle described how many aspects of digital technology actually allow us to effectively hide from the challenges of feeling and expressing emotions in our relationships, to “sidestep physical presence” and seek “frictionless relationships.” Solution – we need to reclaim common sense and realize that we are the empathy app, as Dr. Turkle quipped.

danah boyd called our attention to the immense ethical disconnect in how the digital infrastructure of our civic lives – code – is constructed.  This is an industry in “perpetual beta” and thus there are few if any standards, audits, or inspections of code. There also is little consideration of the resources taken up to maintain the immense glut of data generated every day, and little awareness of how bias and inaccuracy are built into data analytics.  These questions are of the utmost importance because an increasing number of decisions in our personal and civic lives are being made based on algorithms and digital profiling.  She exhorts us to be careful of how and what we code.

…but keep your enemies closer

As in everything, knowledge is power. I felt that we at PDF, speakers, participants, and audience alike, implicitly but universally agreed to keep our eyes open, to look our crush, technology, in the face and see that she may not be on our side anymore but to hope that it’s not too late. Technology is empowering, BUT…. We all agreed to spend more time on the “buts,” as well as on the when, how, and under what conditions we can reclaim technology for humanity. In his PDF talk, Kentaro Toyama evoked the great Isaac Asimov and the First Law of Robotics from Asimov’s “I, Robot” (A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm). In Asimov’s universe, the powers of technology are at their fundamental core designed and harnessed for the benefit of people. I believe that we must and can insist that our technology conform to this higher standard, and that with this as a guiding light, we can wield the double-edged sword of technology for more good than ill.

The Ultimate Empathy Machine

Chris Milk TED TalkI just watched Chris Milk’s recent TED talk about virtual reality. He calls virtual reality the ultimate empathy machine. I see the vast potential of virtual reality – its use in therapy for psychological conditions like PTSD, gaming, education, and as a tool to help people create beautiful experiences. But I have to admit, my gut also has told me that virtual reality has more costs than benefits, more risks than payoffs. Perhaps I’ve read one too many future dystopia sci fi novels, but I have often thought that the temptation to reside in an artificial, constructed world of our own choice and design is too tempting for most of us; that eventually, when virtual reality is sophisticated enough, it will keep us from engaging in the “real” world in the ways we need to in order to have have substantial and lasting happiness. Think the creepy, organic virtual reality game consoles called “game pods” from the 1999 David Cronenberg film eXistenZ, and that’s where my mind goes.

treachery of sanctuaryBut Chris Milk might have just convinced me to question my gut, to think more of the artistic and humanitarian potential of virtual reality. Watch the talk to hear more about the amazing work he’s doing with the UN to vividly portray the plight of refugees to policy makers and the public through virtual reality. He also showed a film of the interactive art installation he created called The Treachery of Sanctuary. A boy stands in front of the piece, becoming a bird on the screen that he is viewing ….until all of sudden he takes flight to join the flock. I have to ask myself, why did that bring me to tears? Chris Milk believes that virtual reality is a machine that makes us more human. Perhaps the benefits could outweigh the risks.

The Future of Medicine is in Your Smartphone

Picture by Helen Weinstein

A great essay from the Wall Street Journal on the promise and challenges of the smartphone revolution in healthcare – from mobile physical exams, to merging day-to-day health data from wearables with medical records. A key – and underdeveloped – innovation here will be to integrate health tracking with mobile therapies. This transformation of healthcare – both physical and mental – is going to happen, and it is up to us, as patients and professionals, to make sure that it is done right, with the privacy and well-being of the individual as top priorities.

I’ve been interested in some emerging companies, like Mana Health, that are on the cutting edge of this revolution because they are solving the problem of how to effectively merge clinical data with health data collected in the daily lives of patients, and directly empowering patients to have a clear voice in their healthcare and greater collaboration with doctors.