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S04 E02 – Civic Society

We talk about identity, civic society and how Twitter isn’t a public square.

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Find all of our guests’ reading recommendations at our The Tao of WAO book club.



Important note: this is a lightly-edited AI transcription of the conversation. If you require verbatim quotations, please double-check against the audio!

Laura Hilliger: [00:00:23] Hello and welcome to the Tao of WAO, a podcast about the intersection of technology, society and internet culture with a dash of philosophy and art for good measure. I’m Laura Hilliger.

Doug Belshaw: [00:00:35] And I’m Doug Belshaw. This podcast season is currently unfunded. You can support this podcast and other we are open projects and products at open We have though got one person, Laura, who is supporting us in our endeavours. Did you see this?

Laura Hilliger: [00:00:53] Is it a new person?

Doug Belshaw: [00:00:55] It’s actually two people. So Adam Proctor, who has been on this podcast, has supported the Tao of WAO, which is a very kind of him. Thank you, Adam. But also we’ve had a new one. Tim Ecclestone, has started contributing monthly to this podcast and he is an independent data consultant trying to make technology, the economy and government all work for all people equitably and inclusively. So thank you, Timothy.

Laura Hilliger: [00:01:19] Yeah, that sounds like our kind of person. Thanks, Tim.

Doug Belshaw: [00:01:24] So it’s been a while. We’ve released one podcast episode so far, and that was Caileigh Walsh from Outlandish about Restorative Justice. If you missed that, go back and have a listen. But I’ve been away on holiday. You’ve been working. You’re about to go away on holiday. Let’s just catch up on all that kind of stuff and then we’ll dive into some things about information environments, civil society, and maybe even mention the Elon Musk and Twitter words.

Laura Hilliger: [00:01:53] Yeah. So how was your holiday?

Doug Belshaw: [00:01:57] Well, I had three weeks off because I am a firm believer that after the after the second week is only when you get properly into non-work mode. So the first week I walked Hadrian’s Wall, sadly, the person I was going to work with walked with got covid, so I did it myself and then I decided to walk it as quickly as possible, end up doing in 72 hours, which I was very proud about. Took me a week to recover and then did some DIY, and then we went to Croatia and in Croatia we experienced amazing, wonderful weather and sights, but also an earthquake. Hadjuk split fans setting up so many flares in their match against Dynamo Zagreb that we couldn’t see the pitch. And the Bora winds, which I think you’re familiar with, which rattled the house. So yeah, it was kind of a roller coaster, but back now and all refreshed.

Laura Hilliger: [00:02:49] That sounds like you had a number of adventures. You want to tell our listeners a little bit about Hadrian’s Wall, what it is, how far you did it in three days. That’s amazing. How were you have to.

Doug Belshaw: [00:03:01] Stop me at this point? So. Hadrian’s Wall. Right. So imagine it’s like 200 AD and you’ve conquered most of Europe and then you’ve got these really unruly caledonians, what we would call Scottish people now causing problems for the edge of your empire. They decided sic these people was going to build a wall and kind of retreat. That’s what they decided to do. So they actually built two walls and I’ll borrow that detail. But the first the most one that’s most important and most famous is Hadrian’s Wall. It goes from Bowness on Solway, which is near Carlisle in the northwest of England, and it finishes coincidentally in a place called Wallsend in Newcastle, 84 miles of wall, quite thick in most places, and lots of remains left in the middle. So I walked at west to east because of the prevailing winds. Um, usually it takes about 4 or 5 days to walk, but hey, I decided to walk as quickly as possible and I couldn’t really walk by the time I got to World’s End. But that was all right. And the start is very flat. The middle is hilly as hell and then the end is quite flat as well. So it was one of those things where it felt like a personal challenge and I felt like I stepped up to it. So that was good. And also, I’ve seen a lot of those sites before because I used to be a history teacher and I grew up in that area. So there we are.

Laura Hilliger: [00:04:22] And is that the first time that you’ve done a multi day hike?

Doug Belshaw: [00:04:27] I’ve done like, yeah, a two day hikes don’t really count as multi day do they.

Laura Hilliger: [00:04:31] Yeah. Well three isn’t that much more than two. But you were supposed to take five which was like if.

Doug Belshaw: [00:04:36] You walk and then you camp and then you walk again that’s just like. It’s not the same as like, doing three days and you’re coming twice. Maybe.

Laura Hilliger: [00:04:47] I don’t know.

Doug Belshaw: [00:04:48] Three nights as well. So 72 hours was 10 a.m. on Monday until 10 a.m. on Thursday. So it actually included three nights. Yeah. So, yeah. What do you do?

Laura Hilliger: [00:04:58] Yeah. And when you say it took a week to recover, what do you mean by it? Did you just, like, sit around the whole second week of your vacation?

Doug Belshaw: [00:05:05] No, it did. Like I painted the fence and looked after the kids and stuff, but not in a very active way. Like I think I either pulled or maybe even slightly tore. I’m not sure the top of my left calf muscle because I wasn’t really looking after myself on the last day. I was just going for it. And then I did something which caused a massive flare up around my ankles, something to do with like the rubbing of it or whatever. But in general, that’s all I had to deal with. And I thought, you know, I’m 41. I felt like I did okay and looked after myself a bit. So yeah, cool. Yeah. Planning some more kind of walks and hikes and that kind of thing, That’s a good thing to do. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Laura Hilliger: [00:05:44] Yeah. And do you have any particular insights to the nature that you saw in your nature? Walk in the walk in the wall.

Doug Belshaw: [00:05:53] My main insight were that Romans were fascists. Okay, but I mean it in a very literal way. So the the word fascist comes from a bundle of sticks. And I can’t remember the exact kind of derivation, but it comes from the Roman word for this bundle of sticks that was used in their process. So if you think about it, really, the Roman Empire was a dictator then a bunch of oligarchs, a bit like Russia, I guess, and then just going conquering loads of countries and then, yeah, providing some infrastructure, but also like just commandeering all of the, the local people and extracting money from them. So I had a lot of time to think about that kind of stuff on the walk. And I realised that although the Romans are held up as this amazing thing, it wasn’t like a it wouldn’t have been an awesome place necessarily to live in. For example, this podcast going off on a tangent. For example, when the Romans left, none of the people left behind in England knew how to maintain the roads and stuff, so like they just nicked all the stone and built buildings and whatever. So were they a force for good? Who knows?

Laura Hilliger: [00:07:04] Well, certainly not for anybody that was not, you know, in Roman high society and a dude because, you know, women and slaves now didn’t really have any sort of a.

Doug Belshaw: [00:07:16] I see you say that. But there is one there is one emperor. Who was it He basically built split in Croatia. He started off as a slave and ended up an emperor. Constant or Constantine. The one before Constantine, I can’t remember his name.

Laura Hilliger: [00:07:37] I couldn’t tell you. Not without looking it up.

Doug Belshaw: [00:07:40] Anyway, what are we talking about? You’re going on holiday next week, and hopefully you won’t experience the Bora winds as you’re sailing.

Laura Hilliger: [00:07:45] Yes, I. We are going to sail in Sardinia. I’ve never been to Sardinia, so I’m really looking forward. I’ve heard it’s very beautiful with I’ve heard there’s pink beaches and just like pure, pristine, clear waters, it’s probably going to be a bit cold. It’s pre-season. We never go during the sailing season because there’s other people. So we you know, I mean, like sailing. It sounds like such a luxury thing, but actually it’s just camping on the water. So, you know, you basically don’t shower for a couple of weeks and well, you can jump in the ocean. It doesn’t matter. Yeah. You know, like I was sailing a couple of years ago and I literally did not take a shower for two weeks and it did not matter. I didn’t stink. My hair looked amazing. I was like, I’m never showering again. But then I came back to, you know, not the ocean and realised that, yeah, you can’t actually maintain a level of cleanliness if you’re not swimming three times a day in the ocean.

Doug Belshaw: [00:08:47] So yeah, that is a very nice segway between two. No, no, no, no, no. Hear me out. This is a nice segway. From re-entering society to talking about democracy and civil society.

Laura Hilliger: [00:09:00] There we go. Good. Yeah, that was. That was pretty good. Smooth.

Doug Belshaw: [00:09:04] So, um, I read a book and it was good. And I want to talk about it. And you wrote some stuff in yours writing things, and we thought we’d weave this together. So, dear listener, though, some of these episodes where we talk to other people. So we’ve got some more lined up like that, but we thought we’d weave in ones where law and I just have a bit of a chat about things we’re interested in and things we’re thinking about at the moment, and this is one of those episodes. So if you’re hoping that a guest is magically going to appear like some kind of genie, you might want to stop this podcast now. But otherwise we’re looking forward to talking for another 20 minutes about some stuff.

Laura Hilliger: [00:09:45] About some stuff. Well, specifically, we’re going to dive into, you know, what we say in our little opener, a podcast about the intersection of technology, society and Internet culture with a dash of philosophy and art. Although I didn’t put any art in, I would argue that some of the intellectual ideas were going to be discussing today are art. Knowledge is, I think knowledge can be pretty arty.

Doug Belshaw: [00:10:11] So when we started this podcast, like series one, the very first episode, the idea was to keep them kind of evergreen so that you could listen to them at any time. Now we’ve already very much situated this podcast episode in a particular time period in April 2022, given that we’re talking about our holidays. So we might as well mention that, you know, Elon Musk has basically just bought Twitter and that is kind of the spur for some of these conversations. Um, because you know, it’s not just about him, but it’s about like the entire space and society and technology and, and stuff like that.

Laura Hilliger: [00:10:48] Yeah. Well, I thought that you were a blog post that you wrote, I think this morning about Twitter and Musk buying Twitter. I thought that that had some really good points. I mean, I wasn’t surprised by any of them. But I think it’s really interesting how people people might think that it’s no big deal. It’s just a new private private owner, whatever. Twitter was always a private company. What’s a big deal? But what we know about Elon Musk and the fact that he’s so rich, he can just decide to kind of mess with the fabric of society in in some ways. I think it’s a really interesting place to start. If we want to talk about information environments, the Internet as a civic space and, you know, some of the stuff around identity and how we as human beings behave because of or in spite of the Internet.

Doug Belshaw: [00:11:41] So maybe we should just skirt over the fact that billionaires shouldn’t exist. Um, and get kind of straight into what he said about the purchase and what is meant by the words that he used that seemed on the surface as being unproblematic.

Laura Hilliger: [00:12:01] Yeah, I think, I mean, I think that the term free speech is quite an interesting thing to to wrap our heads around because in the last five, ten years, the term free speech has come to mean something very different. And I think the Internet has a lot to do with that. Um, so, you know, in analogue society, we kind of have the right to, to walk away from people who are saying things that are harming us in some way and on the Internet. I don’t think it’s quite that easy. You have to be a lot more vigilant in order to sort of hone your information environment to being something that is not maybe harmful to to you.

Doug Belshaw: [00:12:43] So he said free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. And Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. That seems unproblematic, but I was reading someone. I’ll not be able to find it again quickly. But they were saying basically I think it was like the founder of Reddit. So I’ll see if I can find him on the show notes. And he was saying, Look, Elon Musk comes from old school libertarian like original Internet is a Wild West kind of culture where free speech is like, Hey, we can do whatever we want on the Internet. It’s a whole new frontier. But actually, he’s now bought a company where there’s culture wars happening between the left and the right, and they both mean different things by free speech. Um, so you know, the right are free speech is I can say whatever I want without there being any consequences, which, you know, I was thinking about this earlier. We wouldn’t have laws around incitement to violence. If you could say anything you wanted or defamation. Right, exactly. And on the left, there’s like free speech, as in like, I can be who I want to be in a space and represent myself and speak my truth. And whereas people on the right are like, well, no, there’s there’s only two genders and, you know, there’s, there’s all that kind of stuff happening. So the culture wars are using similar language to what Elon Musk is using, but I think they’re all meaning separate things, which is going to lead to some interesting clashes.

Laura Hilliger: [00:14:23] Well, I think I mean, the other point that you made in your post that I think is really interesting is about the idea of Twitter as as the digital town square and the fact that Twitter is not a public space. It does not include all of the public. It is not owned by the public. And the sort of the rules and regulations around how social media work are not the same as how a public space should work or would work in civic society. We don’t have an input into.

Doug Belshaw: [00:14:48] The analogue of that is if you go to big shopping centres these days, they can sometimes be massive and look like or even present themselves as being like a town square. But there were security guards there and if you started protesting or if you started doing something which wasn’t cool, you’d be kicked out, which isn’t what we mean by democracy. So yeah, it’s quite interesting. And my my prediction it’s not a radical one, is that even though Donald Trump has said, oh, yes, I’m sticking on truth social, he will be back on Twitter before the end of the year.

Laura Hilliger: [00:15:24] Yeah, agreed.

Doug Belshaw: [00:15:25] The other point I made on that post was that Twitter isn’t as big as people think it is. It hasn’t even got as many users as Pinterest. Never mind Instagram or Facebook.

Laura Hilliger: [00:15:34] I was actually, I was really surprised by that because Pinterest doesn’t strike me as a big social network for whatever reason. I mean, maybe.

Doug Belshaw: [00:15:44] I’ve got my numbers wrong, but I found this on a reference, a third party post. I also found that if you believe what I’ve quoted, people on average use seven different social platforms on average, and that would include, you know, telegram, signal, WhatsApp, whatever. So yeah, it it’s not the town square, it’s a town square. And I think that maybe, again, it’s only me sitting in my office in the north of England, who cares? But I would say that peak Twitter has gone like. Yeah. It’s only going to dwindle in influence.

Laura Hilliger: [00:16:23] Yeah, well, I think, you know, the other I think this hooks into the book you read the Internet is not what you think it is in that book. You also had a blog post which we’ll link to in the show notes, but it was talking about that there’s sort of four charges. And the second one around the idea that social media is shaping our lives through an algorithm. I think that I think that that is that’s a really interesting hook into what Twitter is and why it’s not a town square or why it’s not a good example of democracy, because the algorithm is it is controlling and it’s the same for all the social medias, but it’s controlling what you see when and why.

Doug Belshaw: [00:17:05] Yeah, so this book is the Internet is not what you think it is. A history of philosophy. A warning by Justin E.H. Smith. And my understanding is that he wrote a he wrote a blog post which went viral, and then he ended up writing a book out of it. And at and he. I don’t. Exactly. He lives in New York. He’s background’s philosophy, and he spends a lot of time talking about God. Gottfried Leibnitz Um, but it’s a really good book and it might just be because I’m a philosophical bent, as I know you are as well, Laura. Um, when I see reviews of it which are negative, it’s like, oh, he’s not, he hasn’t. He says the Internet is not what you think it is, and he hasn’t told us what it actually is. It’s it’s a nuanced book like he’s, he’s doing philosophy so there’s that. But yeah that second point he says second, the Internet runs on algorithms and shapes human lives algorithmically. And human lives under the pressure of algorithms are not enhanced, but rather warped and impoverished. To the extent that we are made to conform to them, we experience a curtailment of our freedom.

Laura Hilliger: [00:18:12] Yeah, and when I read that, I was reminded of a book I read a while ago and could not summarise for you, but it was called Mindware An Introductory Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science by Andy Clark. And that book was really talking about how technology is a cognitive extension and always has been. So not just the Internet, but books are a cognitive extension, a pencil is a cognitive extension. It’s a way to sort of help human beings process the complexity of their own cognition, these tools. And I, you know, in thinking about shaping life by an algorithm, Mindware talks about what what is a good model of human intelligence, because a model is just a model. It’s not it’s it’s not the real thing. And so when you’re thinking about algorithms and how they influence behaviour or how they influence cognition, I think there’s something really interesting there around the fact that these are always going to be models and so they like using the same sort of cognitive model for multiple people. Is basically impossible, which you also touch on in that post when you’re talking about the fact that things like unconscious bias or our history, our experience influences the way that we see certain things. And so this and.

Doug Belshaw: [00:19:36] Yeah and this reminds me of a book which I’m holding up to the webcam and you can’t see listener, But I’ve referenced this to Laura lots of times before. Um, when I was doing my postgraduate studies, someone we had to study this book by Gareth Morgan called Images of Organisation, which is a book from the 1980s. Um, and the point that he makes in it is that the way that people see the organisation in which they’re working changes their behaviour. So for example, if you see it as a machine, you will act in a certain way. If you see it as a brain, you’ll do it or as a, I don’t know, as a, as a culture or as an instrument of domination or whatever. So it matters what the CEO thinks, but it also matters what the people inside the organisation thinks. And if you think about that more widely, that’s what you’re saying in terms of, well, if you see society as being, I don’t know, a machine or algorithmic or whatever, it shapes what you do. And in this book he says. Which is what I think you’re saying. Like the Internet is not this massive rupture with what’s gone before. It might feel like that because we’ve lived through it or the change, but actually it’s not that different. And in fact, he says, um, the Internet is still not what you think it is. For one thing, it’s not as nearly as newfangled as the previous chapter made it appear. It does not represent a radical rupture with everything that came before, either in human history or the vastly longer history of nature that precedes the first appearance of our species. It’s rather only the most recent permutation of a complex of behaviours that is as deeply rooted in who we are as a species as anything else. We do our storytelling, our fashions, our friendships, our evolution as beings that inhabit a universe dense with symbols. So he’s talking about kind of us exchanging stories and symbols. To help understand who we are and what we’re doing and how the Internet is just like. That on steroids. It’s not like massively new.

Laura Hilliger: [00:21:36] I think that my favourite class when I was an undergrad was a class called Art, Media and Technology. I don’t know what the number was, but I was an undergrad still and the professor was amazing and he started his class talking about art and technology, at the point of which when humans developed writing and symbols, because what we were doing is to come back to this mindware thing. We were creating an extension of our cognition to make ourselves understandable to other people. So a symbol was simply a way for us to take a shortcut. We carved symbols on our vase of rice. What are those? Urn, the giant things that we use to store rice on and, you know, and we would mark it so that other people would know what was inside without having to open it up. It was a shortcut. And he was able to to start there in this in this class and go all the way to the invention of the Internet. He covered, you know, from writing to, you know, the telegraph, which was a way for us to take a shortcut, you know, and communicating across long distances. And, you know, one of my favourite examples of how media actually influences us as a society is the Titanic. The reason that the Titanic is a, you know, a story and a history that is really well known is not because it was a big boat that sank. Lots of boats sink, boats sank all the time. That was no big deal. What was different was that it was the first time that it was happening in real time because of the Telegraph. It was the first time that people in New York knew what was happening in real time because of Morse Code and the Telegraph. And the reason it was such a big story was was because the media was there to provide us with that sort of real, real time impulse. And people came along.

Doug Belshaw: [00:23:29] Yeah, and I think if we look into the past, which is why I love history so much, we see that although things might look on the surface as being different underneath the the intention is the same. So there’s a book which I listen to on audiobook, Robert Macfarlanes Underland, where he goes under in like caves and all. And in this he goes to this really remote cave in Greenland. I think it is. And there’s handprints and it’s red okra that has been like put in the mouth and someone’s put their hand on the wall and they’ve like spat this red ochre around it, which if you think about it, is kind of the closest they can get to doing a selfie like this hand was here and you could, you know, you could put your hand and say, I have been here before, you know, that kind of thing. So the intention behind it is, is the same, even though the the means of expression is.

Laura Hilliger: [00:24:23] Is and if you’re spitting okra on your hand, you’re also doing a duck face, which is still common today in our selfies.

Doug Belshaw: [00:24:34] That’s awesome. Oh dear. Well, I would highly recommend reading the books that we’ve mentioned. I haven’t read the one that you mentioned, Laura, so I’ll have to add that to my list.

Laura Hilliger: [00:24:44] Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s really interesting. It’s quite dense. I think that it’s actually used as a textbook in like introductions to neurocognitive philosophy and stuff. So it’s, it’s, it’s pretty dense, but there’s a lot of really interesting, interesting things about technology mimicking cognition or its inability to do so. And I think this ties really nicely into sort of the conversation around AI and how people in technology think about AI versus how maybe a layperson might think about AI. Like there’s a lot of fear around AI that, you know, it’s going to take over the world and, you know, full Terminator mode.

Doug Belshaw: [00:25:25] You know, Elon Musk saying, oh, we’re going to open source the Twitter algorithms as if and then everything will be okay. And we’re going to authenticate all of the humans as if that will make it okay. And so the second one of those authenticating everyone, that doesn’t really solve anything because there’s actually studies showing that it makes no difference whether people use their real name or not as to how they kind of like troll like behaviour. But it makes a big difference to people who have a vested interest in hiding their identity because, for example, they’re doing some kind of transition in life or they might experience violence if they release their real name or whatever it is. So there’s it seems like a common sense thing, but actually it’s not true. And then open sourcing stuff, you’d think because we’ve got a carb called we’re open, I’d be all over that. But actually just because you can see something doesn’t mean you understand it. It’s not like the algorithms going to be saying, Oh, boost all of the things which are Republican and hide everything that is. Democrat like these are very technical things with long numbers and coding and stuff, and they don’t necessarily intend to do what they end up doing. So it’s going to be interesting to see when it is open sourced how people react to that.

Laura Hilliger: [00:26:51] Yeah, I think we did an episode last season about Mis and disinformation and sort of talking about the way that information kind of can diverge from the original truth and meaning. And I think that the thing about social media algorithms and the complexity of them is because they’re using a very complex data landscape, that means that when you are seeing through the eyes of the algorithm, you’re seeing in all of these different tiny little facets that the algorithm then pulls together to sort of create a profile of what you might be interested in. It’s the, the spaces between the facets are not covered. And so the algorithm is also taking shortcuts, big shortcuts, and it’s making assumptions about about people and about what you might like with these huge gaps in spaces. And it’s one, you know, it’s like using different data sets for different people, but it’s still the same sort of processing so that the holes between, um, that’s, you know, that’s where the identity question comes in and who you are as an individual and as a human. And that’s, you know, open sourcing. It isn’t going to mean that it’s somehow magically, you know, a better serving, better content or.

Doug Belshaw: [00:28:13] Some of them are products. So I saw on Mastodon, Mastodon, Mastodon, Twitter accounts got quite feisty recently given all of the Elon Musk stuff. And one of the things that they pointed out, which is so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning, but it is a big difference to what went before. Um, so 2014, I wrote a post which we’ve referenced in the show notes called Curate or be curated via information environment is crucial to a flourishing democracy and civil society. Like you could see what was coming with Twitter introducing an algorithm. But one of the decisions that they made, it wasn’t accidental, was that people would be able to see what you liked and would have it promoted in your timeline. So Laura likes something. I seem to like, interact with Laura a lot. Therefore they’re going to show me what Laura likes, even though Laura hasn’t retweeted it or actually doing anything else with it. So it the point that this the must on account was using was that or making was that when you use a service. You have to understand what’s what it’s doing and there has to be an intention behind it. And they were making the point that the algorithm isn’t working with the best intentions of users because, yeah, because of all the things I’ve just said. So I thought I thought that was interesting because there’s a lot of stuff, there’s a lot of appeals to common sense here when actually there’s not a lot of common sense in the day to day usage of the product and the platform.

Laura Hilliger: [00:29:47] Yeah, because, you know, if I, if I like something, you have absolutely no context to why I liked something and.

Doug Belshaw: [00:29:57] People like stuff to come back to it when they don’t agree with it.

Laura Hilliger: [00:30:01] Yeah.

Doug Belshaw: [00:30:02] Which is why they started wearing bookmarks and whatever. Anyway, I thought you made a good point in our show notes about the link between potentially this book. The internet is not what you think it is and Marshall McLuhan. So let’s just recap what those four things, those four charges are that Smith makes about the Internet. He says, First, the Internet is addictive and thus incompatible with our freedom. And second, the Internet runs on algorithms, which is what we’ve just been talking about, which they kind of what does it say? The Internet was algorithms and shapes human lives algorithmically. Third, there’s little or no democratic oversight regarding how social media works. And then finally, oh, so I’m trying to skim through this this quotation here. A fourth Internet is now a universal surveillance device. So it’s incompatible with the preservation of our political freedom. So, yeah, addictive runs an algorithms, no democratic oversight and a surveillance machine.

Laura Hilliger: [00:31:09] I think I mean, I think that we could do a show on each one of those four charges and fill up all of the time. That could be season five. We just pick apart one specific book. Yeah, no, I put in McLuhan’s four laws because for anybody who doesn’t hasn’t read Marshall McLuhan, he was an academic and a scholar between. He was very, very active between 30, 1930 and 1960, and he died in 1980. But he so, I mean, for context, he was talking about media before the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is in our lives today. But a lot of a lot of people who spend a lot of time online or who are involved in educational technology have time and time again referenced some of McLuhan’s work in thinking about how the Internet actually does influence society and how it influences us as human beings. And so I just dropped in into the show notes, which we’ll publish for you, the four laws that McLuhan documented about how media or technology affect society. And what he did was he came up with four questions to help you sort of pick apart what does this particular technology mean? And I think it’s really interesting if you if you apply these questions, you could apply them very broadly to the Internet as like a thing that exists, but you could also apply them to specific products. And that’s kind of what I was thinking about in reference to Musk buying Twitter and reading your post. And I was just thinking like, what? What actually what changes with Musk buying Twitter and with his intentions there? And if we look through McLuhan’s four laws, what is the conversation become?

Doug Belshaw: [00:33:03] Yeah. And these, these four laws, I mean, initially we were thinking, oh, do these map onto those four things from, from Smith. But I think it’s just a different frame for, for thinking about what’s what’s going on. So you know as you say it’s what what does this new technology so it might be the Internet or it might be mobile phones or it might be Twitter or whatever. But what does it enhance? Like, what does it improve? What does it retrieve? So what original idea is being brought back? So this is what Smith’s talking about. Like these aren’t necessarily new ideas, but they’re coming across. And these these two things are known as figure qualities. And then there’s two things about which are ground quality. So when people are talking about figure and ground, which my thesis supervisor used to say all of the time, the reverse is bit is like what happens when it’s pushed to its limit? Like, what’s the reductio ad absurdum of this? Like if you take it all the way to its logical conclusion, what, you know, what happens then? And then the other one is obsolescence. Like what? What is made obsolete by this technology. So you mentioned the telegraph before. No one’s sending telegraphs anymore. Why? Because we have, well, telephones, we have instant messaging and chat apps and all that kind of stuff and video calls. So it’s an interesting thing to think about just even with Twitter and like if you applied. Mcluhan’s tetrads to Twitter as opposed to Mastodon, for example, which is a federated social network or bonfire, which is something I’ve been working on, which is kind of slightly different to Mastodon. Like what are the differences between them? And I think McLuhan’s stuff is quite useful for that.

Laura Hilliger: [00:34:49] Yeah, I think, I mean, in reference to the four charges, I think that you could potentially apply those four questions to each of the charges, like to sort of deconstruct what, what this book is saying around the internet being addictive and influencing behaviour. Et cetera. Et cetera. You could look at these four questions from McLuhan and essentially say, okay, well, if we’re going to talk specifically about how the Internet influences behaviour, what kind of behaviours are we no longer as humans performing because the Internet exists and we don’t we don’t need them anymore or what what kinds of communicative actions have come back because of the Internet, which I think is also a really interesting lens because, you know, there’s I don’t know if you’ve read a lot about like the elderly in the Internet, but like Facebook is it’s not I hate Facebook. I don’t use Facebook. Everybody knows that. But Facebook as a as a platform for people who are otherwise disconnected or living in rural areas is a godsend. I mean, it’s it’s a hugely beneficial and it has retrieved their ability to actually connect with with people around them or connect with live people, you know. So it’s not I think it’s really interesting the way that Internet culture today has like, I feel like there’s a lot of damming of the Internet lately because it has become kind of a corporate cesspool. But the.

Doug Belshaw: [00:36:24] Yeah, and the things which are being criticised, it’s not like what they’re not criticising isn’t, you know, the TCP IP protocol, they’re criticising, as you say, the corporate takeover of social spaces. And just on that bit about Facebook, I was reading about Japanese care robots while I was on holiday and I’ll not be able to find the cookie, but they were basically saying that at first, look, you think, oh my goodness, we’re outsourcing care to humanoid machines. But actually, if people have if it’s. If people are getting the kind of response like as opposed to nothing, they’re getting some kind of empathy or whatever, is that not okay? And it’s the same with like Amazon Alexa, Again, for elderly people, if you can talk to something and it applies to you and gives you information and is kind of funny and whatever, it’s a machine. It’s been programmed. But is it better than nothing? Probably like it. Where the boundaries are here is quite problematic.

Laura Hilliger: [00:37:28] It’s it’s interesting because, you know, interacting with technology also allows us to interact as humans in a very different way. Like you just brought up Alexa and I remember a time, I think it was a mars fest, I’m not sure, but I was at an event with a number of colleagues and there were like four or 5 or 6 of us and we were all staying in an Airbnb together and it had a what’s the Alexa name, the Google Alexa. Is there a name for that thing or is just, hey, Google.

Google Autonomous AI: [00:37:58] The mics off.

Laura Hilliger: [00:38:00] Oh, the mic is off. Yeah, well, Google’s version of Alexa, which I guess is just called, Hey, Google and doesn’t have its own name.

Doug Belshaw: [00:38:08] Well, this is the thing. So Google had a real problem with. It was called the Google assistant. But then you used, hey, Google to activate it. So they just went with what people use. So it’s called, hey, Google now.

Laura Hilliger: [00:38:18] Okay. Well, in any case, there were 5 or 6 of us standing in a room and one of us asked in the Airbnb, Google a question. And Google gave a very not kosher answer. And I can’t remember what the question was, but it was obvious that, like the the algorithm answering the question was a little bit biased in a bad direction. And then we were like, what else could we ask Google and what kind of answers will we get? And we, you know, and then we stood there for a good I’ll admit we had beers in our hands. We stood there for probably a good 30, 45 minutes trying to figure out how many weird biases, sexist statements, racist statements could, you know, could we with innocent questions get Google to to answer. And it was that that the the situation was accidental and interaction with technology. But what happened was that 5 or 6 people had actually quite an intense conversation about what diversity in the Internet means, how, you know, how algorithms are programmed to reflect their programmers.

Doug Belshaw: [00:39:26] Right. But also to reflect you as a person, right? So, for example, we’ve used the Internet for long enough, as probably of most people who are listening to this, to remember a time where when you search Google, you, everyone got the same results. If you were in the same country, you and you searched Google. Oh, with the third result on Google would be a legitimate thing to say because everyone got the same thing then obviously you now get personalised results, you’re signed in, whatever. And that’s like an obvious thing for companies to do to personalise the results to the people who are asking for them. Which is why when people saying, Oh, no one goes beyond the first page of Google these days, why would you need to when all the results are personalised to your search history and whatever. So there’s that. But then you like, well, that’s what we want. We’re giving people what we want. And this is what Smith actually talks about in the book as well. But if you just give people what they want, you end up with, you know, drug users gambling and not looking after themselves potentially because you’re just feeding them stuff like dopamine all of the time. And people stop showering for three weeks.

Laura Hilliger: [00:40:42] It was only two weeks. It was only two.

Doug Belshaw: [00:40:44] In a bad way. In a bad way. Not in a good way. Like yours.

Laura Hilliger: [00:40:47] Yeah. I don’t know where. Um.

Doug Belshaw: [00:40:52] Well, the other post I wanted to bring in here was your one which has the German title, and I can’t say it.

Laura Hilliger: [00:40:59] Um, cyberspace, cyberspace and the Virtualitätslagerung.

Doug Belshaw: [00:41:04] Right. And what does Virtualitätslagerung mean?

Laura Hilliger: [00:41:08] Virtualitätslagerung literally means the virtual the virtual storage facility. Okay, so for listeners who do not know my background, I as a very smart person, thought that it would be a good idea to earn my master’s at a German university with a program that was in German. I had only been speaking German for about a year, so that was a bit of a interesting. It was it was an interesting way to learn the language. I will tell you that academic master’s level media education and pedagogies in German, so they have a lot of words.

Doug Belshaw: [00:41:49] So well done.

Laura Hilliger: [00:41:50] Yes, I got through it, but I have a post that I’ll put in the show notes from 2011 where it was kind of making fun of some of these words. I was just trying to process what what does this mean? And really what this post is about or what the the virtual, the virtual storage facility or penetration relationship. What it’s all about is it’s it’s about how our again, how our cognition is displays itself in a virtual environment versus in an analogue environment. And it’s about the idea that we are we are complex human beings and we have multiple facets of our identities and our identity and who we are as people displays itself in different ways depending on how you’re interacting with the world. So this goes back to what you said in your post about the idea that being anonymous is is not necessarily meaning that people are more honest and that there’s data to show that. And so there’s there’s there’s basically there’s multiple social worlds that we live within. We live in a world where we are in a virtual environment, but we can see other people. We live in a virtual environment where we can’t see other people and don’t even know who they are but can still communicate with them. We live in analogue realities where there’s no technology and how we.

Doug Belshaw: [00:43:17] Well, those four things you put in, I think are. Really useful because people in general, I would say, you know, you can see it in Musk’s thing about like, we just need to authenticate all humans. They assume that you have your online persona and you have your offline persona and that’s it. But as you point out here, there’s those interact with one another. So. But yeah, the real virtual, you say, which is your online persona separate from your offline persona. So that’s kind of the common sense model. So you might be anonymous online, you know, use or pseudo anonymous. So I use death fish with ones and threes and whatever as my gamer tag. Um, then you’ve got the real in virtual your online personal kind of version of you which is related to your offline persona. Um, so I’m getting tied up here, but you know what I mean. Like you’ve got. Can you explain it? I’m doing a bad job.

Laura Hilliger: [00:44:20] So. So this is this is from an educational theory that I that I read about in reference on the on the post. And so the four are the real virtual is, you know, you in an online space independent from your offline space. So this is when you’re anonymous online you’re still you but you are anonymous online and you can actually pull out facets of your personality that you might not feel comfortable doing if you’re. Quote unquote, real name was attached. The second one, the real in virtual as opposed to the real virtual. The real in virtual is your you online as yourself so related to your offline identity, meaning that you’re using your real name or your you’re a non anonymous user. So you.

Doug Belshaw: [00:45:09] Thsi is what Elon Musk’s talking about and what the common sense view that this would solve trolling in any problems online.

Laura Hilliger: [00:45:15] Yeah, Elon Musk is essentially saying that as long as you are whoever you say you are both offline and online, then that’s the best model. But our identities are more complex than that. And there is a reason for people to be anonymous online. A lot of really easy to understand reasons, particularly marginalised communities or activist communities or, you know, people that need to be able to interact with the rest of the world without actually, you know, putting their real life identities at risk. And the third one is the the virtual and real. I think this is really interesting. And for people who have been on the Internet for a really long time, this is certainly happened when somebody has interacted with you in a virtual environment and then you meet them in real life. So for for people who, you know, you are in a online forum or a space and then you go to a conference and you meet people who were also in that online forum and you’ve never met them before. This is really interesting. This is why people always say things like, Oh, I thought you were taller, you know, because you only saw them on the Internet. So you don’t know how tall they are, which every time I see Doug in real life, I’m like, Geez, you’re a lot taller than I remember. Even though I’ve met him in real life before, I just forget because you’re my size on the screen, you’re.

Doug Belshaw: [00:46:32] Interacting with an avatar. So I used to use Cary Grant as an avatar, and people literally thought I looked like that, or I had a South Park character and people thought I was like a this is when I was in my 20s thought I was like a 45 year old fat man. Um, so yeah, it’s it’s kind of the opposite way round from usual in scare quotes.

Laura Hilliger: [00:46:51] Yeah. And this, this is called the, the spill-over effect is the way that this is, is described because people learn about you in the virtual and then they meet you in real life. And then the, the last sort of facet that this particular theory goes into is called the virtual real. And this is essentially when you’re a victim of identity theft. So somebody else is acting like you. In the real world. So if somebody were to steal your papers, your passport and your whatever, Social Security card or tax ID number or whatever, and then pretend to be you to open a credit or to travel or whatever.

Doug Belshaw: [00:47:35] Or like catfishing.

Laura Hilliger: [00:47:36] Yea, catfishing, same thing. Well, same sort of identity level. Social world. Yeah.

Doug Belshaw: [00:47:46] So it’s much more complex than just. Oh, and Mark Zuckerberg thinks this as well, because I’ve read this, that you just need to use your real name and then everything will be cool. And of course, governments who are very much in conversation with big tech. Also love this. And so that kind of spirals round and round and round. And as I said in my post about the Twitter Musk thing, some of the best conversations, interactions I’ve had with people have been on Twitter, Mastodon online forums with people who don’t know what their real names are, and I don’t know where they live.

Laura Hilliger: [00:48:25] Yeah.

Doug Belshaw: [00:48:26] It doesn’t really matter sometimes.

Laura Hilliger: [00:48:28] See, the thing is, is that identity is so much more complicated than your name. It’s so much more complicated than your number. Like what you’ve said in a couple of the posts that we’re sharing in the show notes, you know that our experiences and behaviours make up our identity. Our identity is not just a series of symbols that mark who we are. And the idea that you can authenticate identity is problematic for a lot of reasons. And authenticating using a real name in a space where we finally figured out how we can connect and safely interact on all kinds of subjects and themes. And it’s just I mean, it’s all about control. And I don’t know, I think, you know, if you can only.

Doug Belshaw: [00:49:15] It’s really authoritarian. So someone on our Slack channel shared a link to counter social and it I just laughed when I saw it, to be honest.

Laura Hilliger: [00:49:28] Is it a parody or.

Doug Belshaw: [00:49:30] It’s not a parody. It’s a it looks like it’s kind of a mastodon instance, but they’ve marked it as like, you know, everyone is authenticated. There’s no child porn, There’s no overseas actors. It says no trolls, no abuse, no ads, no fake news, no foreign influence ops. And you’re like. Great, but that feels quite authoritarian.

Laura Hilliger: [00:49:55] My first reaction is. Want to bet?

Doug Belshaw: [00:49:59] Exactly. Exactly. So, yeah. Anyway, we have spent quite a lot of time talking about this. So just to kind of summarise, you should read the books that we have talked about because if you’re interested in this podcast, you’ll probably interested in the books. We’ll put them in the show notes. If you haven’t read Marshall McLuhan stuff, at least read the Wikipedia article about him because he was a fascinating guy. Some people accused him of being a charlatan, but actually he was quite he could see the future basically, so he could see where things were going. And also read Laura’s post definitely about the the German word, which I can’t say, and the four different types of identity because it might be useful when you’re talking to the people about verified identity on platforms and stuff like that.

Laura Hilliger: [00:50:45] Okay. That was fun. It went by really fast.

Doug Belshaw: [00:50:49] It did, it did. So I hope you have a great holiday and you don’t get the bora winds and you get a nice relaxing time and then we’ll record another episode with a guest when you come back.

Laura Hilliger: [00:51:01] Great. Thanks for listening, everyone!

Doug Belshaw: [00:51:03] Cheers for now!