"Life is still. It is we who are racing by" Yann Martel (on his webpage What is Steven Harper reading)

Yin/Yang of raw data

Tim Berners-Lee is an evangelist for the step towards Web 3.0 – the Semantic Web, where he says it is no longer about putting in a search term and getting a list of documents and web links that might have the answer, it will be about getting your question answered. He has discussed the positive benefits of this new web where access to Raw data (his term) provides opportunities to recombine and use it in positive ways. His examples, provided during a Ted Talks, include setting up safer bicycle routes, demonstrating racism in access to water in an American suburb and mapping refugee camps in Haiti. It’s about taking one set of data and mashing it with other data to create new information.

However, with everything that is good, there is also a dark side. This was illustrated in a COMM 506 class where the example was of an IPhone App that used the same process to create something that has a much more disturbing result. The Girls Around Me app was designed to help guys meet attractive women (and apparently avoid ugly ones). The developers took data from Facebook and mashed it with data from FourSquare to create an app that not only lets men (or maybe gay women) find out what clubs women have checked into, but also see what they look like and learn a little something about who they are, their interests etc. This provides great “data” for conversation openers and social capital builders should these men/gay women/dangerous stalkers want to make a connection.

As someone mentioned in our class, the data itself is neither good nor bad, and the mash-up itself breaks no laws; it is how the data could be used that is the problem. Is this the same argument that gun lobbyists make? It’s not guns that kill people…

It’s the proverbial yin/yang situation, where what is good in one instance is completely the opposite in another or as a proverb illustrates…

Hold fast to the words of your ancestors.
Wise men make proverbs and fools repeat them.


During my 501 class this morning, we were studying various forms of unstructured research – the ambiguous kind that is hard to replicate or verify – and ethnographic research came up for discussion. This research method strives to capture the “native point of view.” It was very popular during the Victorian days when England was a major colonial power and it was a way, as one classmate said, “of finding out about their property.” Margaret Mead and  Gregory Bateson are two famous ethnographic researchers of the time.

As the discussion flowed along I couldn’t help but think of the plethora of reality shows which document the lives of  different “cultural groups” within western society. For example, there’s Little People Big World that follows the lives of individuals who have dwarfism, the Duggers with their 20 children (at last count); celebrity families like the Family Jewels, or the tatooed world of Kat Von D or 7-up which follows several boarding school students at seven year intervals. Then there’s the disturbing documentaries that follow the lives of drug addicts in downtown Vancouver or prostitutes in Vietnam where viewers become voyeurs into a dark culture far removed from their manicured lawns and matching deck furniture.

It’s not research in the regular sense, where an academic paper will be produced with literature reviews and recommendations; but is it not a form of ethnographic study that makes all viewers an observer of these cultures? In class today, our classmate mentioned missionaries in the early 19th century who would visit the wild men in the new world and then return home to “civilized” society, where they would make a comfortable living travelling to speaking engagements about their experiences. It seems to me that this fascination with studying natives from different “cultures” has simply moved into a new medium where we can become ethnographic observers with the click of a remote.

The article The Hive Mind is an interesting exploration of why insects (are they insects?) such as ants, bees and wasps display such incredibly altruistic tendencies; taking care of someone else’s babies until their own reproductive organs shrivel up, foraging for food for thousands of individuals, cleaning all your neighbours (Yuck – who would want that job? ). The authors present the  theories of respected scientists (some of them Pulitzer Prize winners) on the biological evolution that resulted in this sophisticated social structure: superorganisimic societies where thousands of individuals perform functions as a single organism.

These scientists have spent years peering into the lives of  ant colonies and bee hives to explain how duties, such as cleanliness, foraging and parental care are passed, genetically, to workers from the queen, although she does not exhibit these traits herself. The most well-known and widely accepted theory is one of group level selection where the Darwinian process of natural selection happens at the group level, rather than within an individual. However, E.O. Wilson (a big wig in the study of ants), who once supported this theory, recently adopted a different stance, one where selection (evolution) occurs on many levels including the gene, individual, group and even the entire ecosystem.

According to the author, this is a hotly contested topic but it’s hard to imagine that respected researchers are “at each throats” over the inner workings of an ant colony. The scientists focus their hypothesises on biological causes for this specialization of labour and search for the hidden genetic distribution that leads to the altruistic traits in Hymenoptera such as ants, wasps and bees. Why do they care for the young of the queen instead of procreating? And why are there generations of ants who perform the same specialized functions even though they are sterile? Kinship selection, nutrition available to the young, and good and bad parenting (who knew there were bad termite parents) are offered as  explanations for the passage of traits and characteristics from one generation to the next. I found it fascinating to think that altruism is somehow a genetic manifestation.

It is also possible, I think, to overlay the theories of social networks on an ant colony, for example, to explain some of these phenomenon. I shudder to think how horrified these purely scientific-based researchers would be at my audacity. However, forging forward I think we can see two elements of social networks at play in the colonies/hives  – homophily where individuals with similar characteristics are more likely to group together and by being in the group will develop similar characteristics; and propinquity, where individuals join groups that are geographically close to them. Caregiver ants raise the young who are then absorbed into the social organism. If these young ones are introduced into the caste of worker ants, then is it really beyond the bounds of reason to assume that they would be more prone to develop characteristics of that group? The article didn’t elaborate about how these castes are differentiated in a colony but it might also be reasonable to assume that worker ants are geographically linked inside the nest, just as caregivers would be in the “nursery” area, reinforcing the type of activity expected of the individual. It is common knowledge that when women live together, their monthly cycles will eventually synchronize. Why not the patterns of these insects? I’m not a bug biologist but I wonder if these scientists have ever thought to apply social science to their biology? Human social structures might not be that far removed from the ant hill …or versa vice…except that the ants are nicer people.

In the wired world of Web 2.0, geographic distance from family, lovers, and friends no longer entails the heartbreaking absence of a kindred soul, a cherished companion; where we stare longingly at a faded picture damp with lonely tears, counting the seconds until his/her/its return….

But enough of the saccharin sentiment…

As Benkler eloquently expostulates, the effects of the web are first and “most robustly” (I loved that word) “a thickening of pre-existing relations with friends, family and neighbors, particularly with those who were not easily reachable in the pre-Internet-mediated environment (cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/10._Social_Ties:_Networking_Together p 357).” He goes on to compare the sociability of the internet with the “deep-fried dough (p. 375)” one-way communication of television.

I have personally experienced this closer connectivity to my peeps and posses and can provide a somewhat interesting comparison of the pre and post internet experience for parents of travelling children.

When I graduated from university in the mid-80s I strapped on a backpack and spent five months wandering through China, Thailand and Hong Kong. To illuminate just how long ago this occurred let me say that I was in Tiananmen Square six months before the student uprising and the famous stand-off between the man and the tank. During that time my communication to and from loved ones was a bit of a logistical nightmare. My travelling companion and I had mail forwarded to the embassy in Hong Kong, which was fine as long as we were in Hong Kong, which wasn’t often. To make a phone call required finding a phone in a special call centre or rare phone booth and then arranging either a collect call or having a lot of change handy to feed the phone. Weeks and even months would go by when I would have no contact with anyone from home.  I found out years later that this was an extremely unnerving time for my parents who sometimes didn’t have any idea in what country I was travelling at a given time.

Sometimes the internet provides opportunities for more information than a mother really needs to know!

Now compare that to my son and daughter, both of whom travelled after they graduated. My daughter headed off to South America by herself for six months while my son spent seven months in Australia. Throughout both their journeys I was able to text, call, and even Skype them on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, depending on the circumstances. While my son was travelling he applied for and was accepted to university, and both kids shared photos and videos of their adventures. I was even able to Google some of the hostels where they stayed and the landmarks they visited.

A less personal example of the power of the internet is the experience of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada. These workers come to Canada on four-year contracts and must leave their families behind. I recently completed research on immigrant integration into rural communities and learned, in interviews with employees at a immigrant services office, that these workers will spend hours on Skype with their families watching their children play and participating in day-to-day decisions. So, while they may be working in Canada, they are able to retain ties to their communities of origin and, most importantly, to their families. This transnational immigration is becoming more prevalent and my research indicated that supporting this will help to smooth immigrants’ integration into their new homes.

I have provided only a couple of examples that support Benkler’s position and I’m sure that everyone in our class could share a story of how the internet, far from isolating individuals, is providing the means to retain close-knit ties to the ones we love. No more soggy photographs. Now if we could  just get the cowboys to stop singing about it….

The Magic Number

As we work through year two of our MACT program I am constantly surprised (pleasantly) by the connections between previous courses and other life experiences and what we are discussing now. It is becoming easier to perceive the wider implications of social media and communication in all facets of life, as well as the evolutionary element that has brought us to Web 2.0 (and the cusp of 3.0).

For example, in Chapter 5 of  Kadushin’s text, he makes reference to Dunbar’s number of 150, which refers to the ideal size of a network that humans can manage. This is not the first time I’ve read this. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Tipping Point, has also written about this, illustrating the point with the example of a company that has divided itself into working units of no more than 120 people (can’t remember the company) as a highly efficient and effective organization. Hutterite colonies are another good example of this. Once they reach a population of 120-150 they split off and build a new colony. Apparently, if the colony is allowed to grow beyond this, factions develop and the social fabric is compromised. Now I would hazard a guess that not too many Hutterites are familiar with the theory behind their decision – they are motivated by experience and history. Yet they demonstrate the theory in real life. The Harvard researcher in the study on the Hadza doesn’t mention the population size of each tribe that she was studying but I would guess that it falls within this magic number.


As I was waiting ‘patiently’ for an hour in the chilly May evening for my bus to arrive, it afforded me time to finish Chapter 3 of Kadushin’s book, which focuses on social networks, the power of weak links, sociograms, density and structural holes among other points.

In his discussion about the mulitplexity of networks and the power of weak ties  to bridge connections and “facilitate the flow of information from otherwise distant parts of a network (p. 31)” Kadushin uses examples of business organizations, a karate club, the spread of disease and even computer viruses to illustrate his point. I was particularly interested in the computer generated representations of the connections (sociograms) in a network and the disparity of control over information between nodes that had very dense connections and those on the periphery, whose link was tenuous.

Perhaps it was the group of young adults hanging out a few feet from where I was waiting for the bus, making me feel particularly vulnerable, but I started wondering if anyone had created a sociogram for terrorists…and wouldn’t you know it, here’s the link:


The sociogram in this study is slightly unnerving in how it demonstrates the inter-connectivity between different groups and how much harder it has become  to weaken an organization by eliminating the leaders. Thinking about our discussion on Latour’s Actor Network Theory and that each node is itself another network, the possibility of seriously weakening terrorist activity seems depressingly unlikely.

Web 2.0 has strengthened the weak links so that organizations can continue to function even when key influencers are taken out of the network. It makes me wonder how much the military uses these types of systems to determine the best strategies for dealing with terrorist networks.

And on that cheerful note, I’ll head off with a cup of tea to finish this evening’s readings.