A Standard Deviation ....

I drove to New Orleans yesterday, and on the way, I had a funny thought. My girlfriend was with me and as we picked and cut our way through the traffic (apparently most New Orleaners do not believe in regulating their speed even moderately close to the posted limit), she mentioned that she had made a fundamental decision: her next car would be an automatic.

Now, I drive an automatic Jeep Grand Cherokee. She drives a standard Honda Civic (you know the little cars that get twice the gas mileage as mine and probably 10 times the mileage of those hulking Hummers you see go by?). She has often commented about how much she prefers driving her vehicle and having “the control.” I drove her vehicle once in an emergency, and it was quite an entertaining event for those in traffic behind me (they graciously expressed their appreciation for the entertainment by honking their horns as they approached me and passed me by. Some apparently were VERY amused and expressed a LOT of horn-mediated appreciation).

But back to the trip. I feigned shock at my girlfriend’s comment and made a quip about her yielding ground on her position. “Honey? But if you got an automatic, you would no longer be ‘standard.’ Is that what you really want?”

We joked and laughed about that for a while. Then our jokes got me thinking.

As I looked around at the vehicles around us, I started noticing that by a fairly large margin, most appeared to have automatic transmissions. After paying attention for about 10 minutes or so, I saw an Acura streak up at frightening speed (I myself was traveling at a velocity 15 miles over the speed limit and this little car passed me like I wasn’t moving at all). As the young man in his bluish-purple blur of a vehicle flew passed me, I chuckled at the thought that his car was the only standard transmission out of the dozens of cars I had been paying attention to.

But that’s the funny thing. From my personal observation (and I’m sure I can find motor vehicle statistics to back this up), there are far more automatic transmission vehicles on the road than there are standard transmission vehicles. So which transmission is the real “standard” here?

I’m sure at one point in the history of the automobile (and I’m sure both my parents will be rolling their eyes at my ignorance on this point), that it was quite unusual to own a vehicle with an automatic transmission. And I’m sure at that moment, the “standard transmission” really was standard. But that point in history seems to have passed us by. Now, automatic transmission seem much more standard than “standard transmissions.”

In today’s world, identifying a technology as a “standard” is a political and economic triumph for the firm that owns the rights to it. In fact, in the ever-changing information technology marketplace, some of the fiercest battles are waged over whose platforms or technologies are adopted as the official “standard.”

Standards are also more important to us. As our culture increasingly values homogenization (preferring Starbucks and McDonald’s to an unknown establishment where one could risk having to consume “substandard” products), common denominators and shared expectations have become increasingly integrated into our social consciousness.

However, in contrast to the automobile transmission, the designation of official standards is far more ephemeral. Is this because standards are displaced more quickly today than in times past or is it because for us the term “standard” is by definition less permanent?

I’m not quite sure (though I suspect it’s a bit of both). What I am sure of is that I see little reason to become familiar with a standard transmission. The likelihood of my having to drive a standard transmission vehicle is decreasing each year, and I have more pressing concerns before me. You know, the standard concerns … ;-)

Gender, technology, and the future of us

I came across a recent Business Week article concerning the ratio of men to women in technology industry. Although the disparity of gender success is prevalent in most industries, the technology industry is often touted as a meritocracy, where skills and knowledge matter more than politics or favoritism.

The article cites a study (“2003 Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors”) by Catalyst, a national woman’s advocacy organization. And the findings are rather damning: women only occupy 9.3% of corporate board seats in tech firms (versus 12.4% in non-tech firms) and only 11% of corporate officer positions (versus 15.7% in other industries).

The report does show some progress: both totals are increases from the last survey period. And from 1995 to 2003, the number of CEOs in the tech sector has risen from two to six. But these increases are small, and smaller than the increases in other industries.

And lest we relate the slowness of this growth to sexism or blatant discrimination, consider that according to VentureOne, a venture capital tracker, the small business startup market is experiencing similar trends.

The most likely rationale for these trends is the imposition of indirect controls on the corporate culture. It’s not so much that men in the technology sector set out to bar women from competing for jobs, but rather that the demands on the employee at such jobs cause the disparity.

However, I didn’t write this to get into corporate gender politics (I’ll save that for a future post). What interests me is what this finding infers about what the tech industry is doing to ALL its employees.

In my experience, women appear to be much more in tune to when their lives are getting out of balance than men are. I don’t like reinforcing gender stereotypes (particularly since I usually get the short of the gendered stick when I do), but the women I am close friends with are often much better judges of where the personal and the professional boundaries of life should not conflict.

What I was thinking about when I wrote this post was how the cited articles and studies seem to suggest that technology as an industry seems to be pulling us further and further from nature. If the “kids vs. career” is the most simplistic dynamic behind the gender divide, what does it say about the future of our children if the technology sector is a model of business innovation (as is so often stated)?

Or if women, who again seem to me to be better in tune with their physical and emotional health, are struggling to achieve success in the industry of tomorrow, doesn’t that suggest the industry of tomorrow is likely to have some drastically negative effects on the society of tomorrow?

My research has suggested that technological advances have increasingly led us to take nature for granted. We acknowledge our attempts to insulate ourselves from the effects of nature (that is, after all, one of the core components of the justification for technology), but I think we rarely examine the effect this insulation has on us as individuals and as a society.

Maybe women ARE the smarter sex, and they simply know when to call it quits and listen to nature?


In a New York Times article yesterday (I have archived the printer-friendly version if the actual link has already passed into the NYT archives), Warren St. John wrote about five New York university graduate students spent a day running around Manhattan playing virtual Pac-man.

Connected to players via cell phones, the players communicated with players back on campus, who coordinated the game board and delivered information to the ground players about the other players’ movements.

“Virtual Pac-man” is, of course, a novel concept, since Pac-man is a video game and what the students were actually doing was translating the forms and rules of the game into real space. This form of real space gaming, which has been big in Europe and is slowly being imported to America, challenges the definitional boundaries of “virtual” in a new way. For the players are performing “virtual” tasks in real space that originally only exist in a “virtual” environment. You might even say they were plan “UNvirtual Pac-man” in some respects, although the “pellets” Pac-man was “gobbling” did not appear in real space.

In my TLC331 class, I recently taught a session on the impact of video-gaming on society. As you can imagine, the students in my class were engaged in this class discussion more than on most topics, and we raised some interesting questions about gaming and violence, the “nerd subculture” and even whether video gaming is beneficial to human development.

The class was divided on this last argument, some arguing that a certain amount of fine motor skill dexterity was encouraged by game play and others arguing that the same skills could be developed playing more socially interactive sports.

The news media has produced arguments to support both positions. Most recently, I came across an ABCNews article that suggests a correlation between video game play and surgical precision. Another interesting article found in MIT’s Technology Review suggests that playing video games develops “continuous partial attention needed for today’s society." And of course, there are hundreds of books and magazines decrying the evils of video game violence and isolation, on example being the John Naisbitt book “High Tech/High Touch” that I had my students read for class.

The Pac-Manhattan example is intriguing to me. Not only does the marriage of real space and virtual space push the boundaries of technical development (the inability of the players to use GPS because of building interference should raise a few eyebrows), but there are also some very useful navigational skills being developed.

In short, I’d be willing to bet that whether one played the role of Blinky or Pac-man, game players would certainly be more likely to be fluent with the directional ins and outs of Manhattan after the conclusion of the game. Having to make fast and frantic decisions about how to avoid capture (or better, how to trap someone) would certainly push a player to develop a new understanding of the urban geography the game board was transposed upon.

In fact, this sounds like a fabulous way to learn how to get around. Maybe we should commission a series of games for new residents or visitors under the objective or forcing people to learn the lay of the land in one day. It’d be like a crash course in local geography.

And since not knowing one’s way around seems to contribute rather heavily to traffic congestion and even accidents, I think city councils could be persuaded to buy in to such an event. And funding? What cellular provider wouldn’t line up for the rights to provide Pac-man and his pursuing ghosts with their brand of cell phones and wireless communication devices?

In the classroom, educators have learned to be highly innovative in mixing entertainment with learning. Perhaps our city planners and social engineers can take a page from this book.

Small Media Effects?

As I was driving in to work this morning (northbound I-35 through Austin, TX), traffic was particularly bad. So bad, I thought “there must have been a traffic accident.”

As it turns out, there wasn’t. As far as I can tell, the traffic seemed to be slowing as it passed under an overpass just north of downtown (I believe it was the 11th Street overpass, but I could be mistaken). Glancing up, my attention was drawn to a small crowd of people. In the center of a crowd was a news cameraman who appeared to be shooting those morning scenes you see on the early morning news talking about what the traffic are like. He was surrounded by maybe half a dozen people whose function there was unknown and flanked by two police officers on either end of the overpass.

Immediately after the overpass, traffic loosened up and the flow returned to the speed limit. On the Southbound side, which had been relatively free-flowing south of the overpass, there seemed to be a coagulation of vehicles building up.

Now, it’s entirely possible that there had been some accident at that location earlier, one that had been cleared before I arrived on the scene. Or maybe the downtown exits were particularly busy and causing a chain reaction of brake lights (I drive that route every day, and the normal constriction of traffic usually occurs south of that particular area).

But it appeared to me this morning that people were slowing down as a direct result of the camera crew on the overpass. Whether this was just the normal slowdown that occurs when someone takes their eyes off the road to glance around or whether it was actually people recognizing that they were on television is an interesting (and unknowable) question.

I found this apparent phenomenon interesting. In reporting on the traffic conditions, the camera crew appeared to be having an adverse effect on traffic. For once, I literally WAS seeing an example of news media creating the story being reported.

All my media effects (not to mention my research methodology material about observer effects) came rushing back to me. I began to wonder two things:

  1. Theoretically, if traffic was being affected by media presence, it would make for an interesting consistent local source of news each morning. “Traffic is bad this morning” could become a consistent theme. Packaged with the broader social themes of an expanding population, the politics of public transportation (such as the desire for light rail), or any of a dozen issues surrounding the environment or the local economy, these images can serve as a powerful form of visual evidence that Austin is becoming more crowded or busier. But are these images a valid representation of these issues if the presence of a cameraman is contributing to traffic conditions?

  2. Practically, if this phenomenon was not a product of coincidence (that there was a relationship between the individuals on the bridge and the traffic behavior), wouldn’t a far better solution for gathering this information be through a stationary, unmanned camera source? I understand the logistical implications of public surveillance (to say nothing of the concerns over civil rights, which was one of the issues addressed in my dissertation), but would it simply not be cheaper for the city to install a camera in this location that provided a feed to media outlets (or even Internet users) who wished to use it? Wouldn’t this be cheaper than having a cameraman with truck and gear stationed there (and the two police officers assigned to him)?

Two interesting areas of inquiry based on one glance in traffic this morning. I’m reminded how salient sociological research can be, once you pull it from its classroom delivery room.

Dissertation thoughts

And now for something more personal.

I just completed my Ph.D. in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. I defended my dissertation on April 29, 2004 and turned in all of my paperwork on May 3.

My topic was a historical look at how advancements in technology have affected society's need for control on privacy. I wound up with an interesting relaization: far from the assertion of technology destroying privacy (as so many current books and articles conclude), the advancement of technology actually CREATES the norms and controls we call "privacy."

Privacy is not something we sit around thinking about. It's a concept we usually invoke (or create, as I'm arguing) in response to some threatened change in the social order. In other words, privacy is created as a form of social resistance to unwanted technological changes.

Because privacy is created in response to changing circumstances and conditions, I realized that how privacy is expressed says a great deal about the people and times in which the claims to privacy are generated. People create privacy in order to claim that technology is destroying it. As such, privacy reflects less about the universality of man and more about specific moments in history and culture.

More on this later.