Society & culture

Non-specific gender

One of the first questions people usually ask pregnant woman is: “girl or boy?” Some parents can’t wait to find out while others make sure it’s what they want before it’s born. In some US fertility clinics, staff check an embryo’s sex before it’s even implanted in the womb while, in other countries, embryos are terminated if it’s the ‘wrong’ sex.

It is possible to change sex (reassignment surgery) but, what if an individual is born with neither gender? Hermaphrodites are born with both sets of reproductive organs but, what if an individual rejects both choices or isn’t happy being known as a man or woman?

The Australian High Court recently ruled that Norrie May-Welby (51) could register on official forms as ‘nonspecific’. Norrie was born a man, but was drawn to being a woman and underwent reassignment surgery in 1989. But this didn’t work out. As Norrie put it: “I am both a man and a woman; I am not simply one and not the other.”

This decision, and more specifically the legal status, is troubling on many practical levels. How do laws and language deal with someone who refuses to be known as a man or a woman? Which schools do you join and which bathrooms can you use if you are neither male nor female?

Ever since Adam and Eve, society has split people into two distinct gender groups. Men who want to be women and vice versa can be accommodated reasonably easily, but what if someone is neither or both? Some people argue that what’s termed the ‘global third gender movement’ is just a natural progression of gender diversity and personal choice. Others insist it’s a clear case of human rights and individualism going too far.

We suspect that, with the advent of major advances in both biotechnology and computing, body hacking and modification will become a hotly debated issue. It may ultimately result in debates, not about male versus female, but about what it means to be human.

Ref: International New York Times (US) 8 April 2014, ‘Neither female nor male’ by J Baird.
Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 2 April 2014, ‘Neither man nor woman: Norrie wins gender appeal’ by P Bibby and D Harrison.
Search terms: gender, transgender, ‘global third gender movement’, human rights, biotechnology, male, female, reassignment surgery, embryo, abortion.
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The outsourcing of opinion

Is Lady Gaga really gaga? Is Vladimir Putin mad, bad and dangerous to know? Most people have opinions about both of these people, but increasingly these opinions are factoids based upon little knowledge. This is because, while there is social pressure to be informed, there is also too much information: too much access to information results in too many instant opinions.

Before the internet and mobile computing, information was expensive. Information cost money to create, distribute and consume. The result was that people relied on a handful of generally trustworthy sources and tended to use that information over an extended period.

Bitcoin is a perfect example of people knowing more and less. Most people have heard of Bitcoin, but hardly anyone has taken the time to understand it.This is because we survive on a 30-second soundbyte, which enables us to appear intelligent for a short time.

What matters is not knowledge itself, but knowledge of the fact that something exists or is happening - it has never been easier to appear intelligent. Consuming information first hand, which takes time, is less important than simply being aware of the right Twitter feeds.

According to an American Press Institute study, almost 60 per cent of Americans admit they only read news headlines. Online commentators use the letters DR and TL (Didn’t Read and Too Long) before they offer an opinion on the news they haven’t read. As Tony Haile, CEO of web traffic research company Chartbeat, recently admitted, there is “effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.” By that he meant, when people share something, it does not mean they read it first.

True knowledge is effectively being replaced with knowledge of the zeitgeist. Our cultural canon is turning into a giant echo chamber where so-called ‘knowledge’ is endlessly regurgitated - whatever is most ‘liked’ or most re-tweeted is somehow ‘right.’

Of course, this could be wrong too. Every new communication technology changes how we consume information and, up to a point, how we think. But the difference this time is surely ubiquity. It is becoming harder to reject new ways of thinking, because it’s like admitting you can’t cope with a data stream that never ends and can never be shut off.

Ref: International New York Times (US) 27 May 2014, ‘The end of cultural literacy’ by K. T. Greenfeld.
Search terms: knowledge, culture, technology, news, Chartbeat, Bitcoin, information, opinions.
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Old game, new rules

What is love? According to scientists, the answer is an endorphin rush. According to PEW research, it’s also a computer. One in 10 Americans now use online dating sites, including Tinder, which can induce a ‘Tinder high’.

Tinder is a location-based dating app that matches people based largely on age, looks and proximity. Other cursory information is imported from Facebook user profiles. Users swipe their screen right for ‘like’ and left for ‘nope’. When two individuals like each other and get a match, users can send a message or keep playing. Dating has always been a game of sorts but, with Tinder, it is a form of entertainment too.

Dating sites such as e-Harmony and work on the principle that users narrow down a large number of potential matches to find the perfect match and then exit the game. Tinder is different. With Tinder, the idea is to keep users constantly stimulated with endless potential matches. Tinder is in some ways a Millennial’s fantasy, offering instant connection and constant affirmation. Rejections are conveniently dealt with because they instantly disappear.

But interestingly, the more opportunities people have, the less likely they are to act on any of them. The game is a fantasy that can quickly be ruined by the intrusion of reality (a physical date). As with many of our other digital distractions, such as online music, the sheer volume of choice means we never quite settle on anything.

Early consumer research has found that the more choice people were offered (of FMCG goods) the less likely they were to buy anything. People cannot handle too much choice because it overwhelms them. In spite of this, companies continue to bombard us with endless varieties of everything. The online world simply creates more choice on an enormous scale. No wonder we can’t settle.

Ref: Time (US) 17 February 2014, ‘The new dating game’ by L. Stampler.
Search terms: choice, dating site, distraction, game, variety, match, fantasy.
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Digital property

Most of us make a Will setting out who will manage and distribute our physical accumulated assets after we die. But what about virtual property, which people have been accumulating at astonishing speed of late? Digital property might include music, photographs and documents, digital currency accounts, or air miles, and virtual property may include things, such as Rolex watches and Wrangler jeans, bought in virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft.

Indeed, many previously ‘physical’ possessions, such as wedding albums, now only exist online and ‘diaries’ and ‘notebooks’, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, have no physical manifestation whatsoever.

A few US states have passed laws relating to the treatment of ‘digital remains’, but they remain the exception not the rule. As for the tech companies themselves, few make much of an effort, which can hurt grieving families and relatives who cannot access or remove data.

Yahoo, for instance, says all its data are “non-transferable’. Privacy settings can be useful when someone is alive, but what happens when they are not? Who gets control of a person’s images and data? (their identity and historical record of their existence essentially).

In time, how people deal with virtual property will probably mirror how we deal with physical property. Until then, we may have to invent digital executors to retrieve or delete information. Most tech companies mention little if anything about what happens to data after a user’s death, although Google has introduced Inactive Account Manager, which allows user material to be deleted after a specified period of inactivity.

But even here there’s a snag. Google may be around for a long time, but what is the lifespan of other more ephemeral tech companies and what happens to their data (our data) after they’ve been bought or gone bust?

More challenging of all is what friends and relatives should be allowed to do with someone’s data once they pass away. Should we allow relatives or friends to edit data, making someone look better or worse than they were or should data be set in stone upon someone’s death? Indeed, should digital remains pass away, be buried or remain in the open for all to see?

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 16-17November 2014, ‘Dead man’s data’ by A. Dembosky.
Search terms: Will, death, assets, physical, virtual, tech companies, Google, Facebook, data, privacy, deletion.
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What happens if we record everything?

Mr Gurrin is a ‘life logger’ at Dublin City University and, for the past five years, has been recording his field of view every minute, indexing the recordings and making them publicly available. So far Mr Gurrin has built up an archive of 12 million images and produces a terabyte of data every year. A terabyte is more memory than was available in the whole world 50 years ago. Why is he doing this and what happens if everyone starts doing the same?

In 2012 about 1 billion cameras were sold as part of phones or tablets, so increasingly everyone has the ability to record what happens to them. With cheaper storage comes the ability to snap, not just what’s interesting, but what’s not, which might turn out to be valuable over time.

For example, if you have a bike and a pair of running shoes both connected to the internet you can work out how often you use them. If you use the shoes more often than the bike, Amazon might suggest you sell the bike to buy more shoes. Or what if a digital record of physical possessions could be used as collateral for a loan?

In other words, as more of our activities and belongings become virtual, or can be translated into digital data, bigger slices of our lives will become searchable or valuable - and open to manipulation.

Police officers in the US wear cameras to gather evidence and record behaviour (including their own). As a result, there are fewer complaints from the public and less force being used by the police. Anyone in a customer-facing role may soon be wearing similar cameras or wearables, containing cameras and even voice recorders.

Recording everything could also be useful for a forgetful ageing population. If you mislay something, you can simply rewind your day until you find it. If you recorded your whole life and made it searchable, you could ask daft questions, such as “show me when I’ve been most happy.”

Wearables, such as Google Glass, could help bridge the gap between real life and virtual reality. But there are creepy downsides too. Using a wearable device as a ‘teleprompter’ in relationships or customer service roles could lead to insincerity. Individuals would not know whether you really knew them or not. Honesty and authenticity, so essential for human communication, could be in jeopardy.

There are other elements of creepiness. Google has already applied for a patent for a camera that tracks eye movements reacting to adverts and links this with emotional responses to individual ads. Currently facial recognition is banned in Google Glass, but an app that recognised gender could be used to determine how many women a man looks at each day or vice versa. Governments could use similar technology to see who had negative feelings towards people from a particular race.

Police already use cameras to identify people in demonstrations so how long before not only facial recognition CCTV but lip-reading CCTV results in silent, masked demonstrations? If camera and recording devices make their presence felt (cameras making a shutter click noise are mandatory in South Korea and Japan) this may be acceptable. But is it OK for technology to allow every stranger to instantly know who you are?

Maybe personal data recorders and black boxes are the way forward and Mark Zuckerberg is right that privacy is no longer a social norm. But the freedom a technology gives one person or group can often reduce it for another; surely freedom must include some right to privacy. What happens in a world where absolutely everything everyone does is recorded, made searchable and kept for posterity. Who should have control of such data and at what cost?

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 11 January 2014, ‘This is your life, on the record’ by H. Hodson. New Scientist, (UK) 11 January 2014, “When crowdsourcing meets lifelogging, magic happens’ by C. De Lange.
The Economist (UK) 16 November 2013, ‘The People’s panopticon.’ See also The Economist (same issue) ‘Every step you take.’
Search terms: identity, privacy, life-logging, surveillance, Google Glass, Facebook, personal data, tracking, police, wearable computing.
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