Computer Programs and Humans in the movie “Her”

Computer Programs and Humans in the movie “Her”

by Gabriel Muniz

her-movie-poster

Machine-mediated modes of communication like emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, among others, have done much to depersonalize the way we communicate in the 21st century. The ease with which users can share information, post pictures, and update profiles has, with the assistance of ever-advancing smartphones, laid the groundwork for a world where humans can live dual lives—their public person and their online persona. Social networking sites and online gaming are two arenas where this phenomenon is especially clear to see.

Both allow for the careful creation of a unique personality—games allow for avatars, figures representing particular persons in computer games, while social sites allow users to craft a more socially acceptable image. In both instances, the more users remain enchanted with earning upgrades for their avatar, or the most Facebook “likes” among friends, the more the line between the real world and online amusement becomes blurred. Human relationships, said to be enlivened by the constant communication with significant others, instead suffer. Users end up as the title of Sherry Turkle’s book puts it: “Alone Together, expecting more from technology and less from each other.”

The recently-released film “Her” explores such a theme. A science-fiction romantic comedy drama chronicling the life of a man who develops a relationship with an intelligent computer operating system (OS) that has a female voice and personality, the film explores the degree to which technology can bring reassuring comfort, and at the same time, unintentionally cause self-alienation and relational friction. A New York Times review says the following about the movie: “At once a brilliant conceptual gag and a deeply sincere romance, “Her” is the unlikely yet completely plausible love story about a man, who sometimes resembles a machine, and an operating system, who very much suggests a living woman” (Dargis).

In the movie “Her,” the protagonist Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), while working for a business that composes heartfelt, intimate letters for people who are unwilling or unable to write letters of personal nature, is himself a lonely introverted man. In private, like a recluse in the real world who creates an alter personality with which to use online, Theodore spends most of his time at home playing a 3D video game projected into his living room where he can do what he fails to do in public: explore and interact with others. Theodore is later driven to purchase a newly-released operating system with which to curb his loneliness and heartache (he is in the midst of tragic divorce as well). An irony worth noting is the fact that Theodore cannot do what the OS he falls in love with can do; namely, adapt and evolve. Theodore fails to confront the changing and challenging circumstances in his life, instead finding refuge, and eventually love, in an operating system that names itself Samantha.

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Gabriel Muniz – Research Assistant

GabrielGabriel Muniz is a Junior at Southern Connecticut State University with academic interests ranging from Philosophy and Political Science to English and Music. He has a special interest in the American legal system. Thus, Gabriel has interned in the Connecticut State Senate; and in Spring 2014, he will be interning in New Haven’s Public Defender’s Office. Continue reading

Empowering Patients through Mobile Patient Education Systems

AUTHOR
Dezhi Wu , Rob Robertson and Eric Freden

ABSTRACT

Mobile technologies have enabled people to access information anytime and anywhere, which makes our lives more convenient and efficient. Mobility has been greatly enhanced due to the implementation of cutting-edge mobile communications and networks. It is now common to see people on the go using their iPhones, iPads, and Android smart phones to check email, play games, and connect with friends and coworkers through the mobile version of social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

The rapid advancement of mobile technologies has made a large impact on our society; in particular, it has started to benefit the healthcare field, which is generally called mHealth. The mHealth area covers prevention, screening and diagnosis, disease management, rehabilitation and physical therapy, decision making, and so on. It creates a new emerging business model for the healthcare field through delivering care anytime and anywhere. Nowadays, the role of patients is being changed from a traditional passive receiver to an active partner with their doctors to make decisions concerning their health situations. Mobile technologies used in patient education programs empower the patients to be more knowledgeable on their health issues and to be more engaged in communicating with their doctors (Charles et al., 1999; McNutt, 2004). Mobile patient education software is playing a key role in this interactive process, creating more cost-effective, personalized, and convenient patient experiences, which improve the quality of patient care.

In practice, it was reported that over half of young medical doctors were using mobile devices in their clinics (Martin, 2003). A recent news item from 2011 (http://www.pwc.com/ ) indicates that a two-year study by the Mayo Clinic Department of Family Medicine shows mHealth systems enabled e-visits to eliminate 40% of in-office visits in 2531 cases. On average, about 40% of physicians said that using mobile health technologies such as remote monitoring, e-mail, or text messaging with patients greatly enhanced their work productivity and saved them time and money. In Europe, a mobile health application was designed for aging patients to undertake their self-diagnosis (Ahmad et al., 2008). The US army has started to design and implement mobile patient care systems for their soldiers using smart phones (Poropatich et al., 2010). Therefore, it is clear that the trend to adopt mHealth is rising, but there are still many technical barriers (www.ama-assn.org ), e.g. integration with the existing healthcare infrastructure or the capability to communicate with patients through a variety of mobile devices etc.

This paper reports a recent mobile patient education project conducted in the United States. We employed a user-centered design approach to develop and implement cross platform mobile patient education software, which is projected to greatly benefit patient care through cutting-edge mobile technologies. The mobile device technologies will enable expanded patient interaction with their doctors. All patient records and their privacy are protected according to the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (i.e., HIPAA), using cryptographic technologies through point-to-point encryption, secure protocols and secure Web servers in a private cloud.

Two focus groups with real patients were conducted in determining the design and content for this mobile patient education system. The first focus group included six patients who helped us identify the key design features, such as the interface design layout, color scheme, possible interactive content delivered through multimedia elements, such as text, images and videos, and the patient preferred navigation patterns. The second focus group, consisting of eight pregnant mothers in a local OB doctor’s office, was invited to attend a video lesson which was in line with the current stage of pregnancy. The educational videos instructed the mothers on the development of the baby/fetus and changes that occur in the mother’s body. The videos also highlighted specific weeks of baby/fetus development and what pregnant women could expect during that time frame. The mothers especially enjoyed the personalized educational content delivered in the videos, expressing that it helped them learn and better manage their own and their babies’ health during the pregnancy period.

Currently, the initial prototype developed for the iPad is working. We plan to complete the implementation of this mobile patient education system in the next six months. We will also conduct further usability studies to test and evaluate this system. In the meantime, a theoretical research framework is being developed to measure the system effectiveness, perceived patient learning outcomes, perceived patient control in terms of the users’ interface, security and privacy concerns, perceived enjoyment using the system, and potential patient behavior changes which improve their health. Research methodologies we propose to use in order to evaluate this mobile patient education system include a few longitudinal field studies in selected local physicians’ offices utilizing real patients, field observations in the doctors’ exam rooms, and a large survey in the doctors’ offices and hospitals which have adopted our system. We speculate that the mobile patient education system will greatly enhance the healthcare field, and empower patients to be more knowledgeable and capable in making better decisions to manage their personal health.

REFERENCES

Ahmad, D., Komninos, A. and Baillie, L. (2008) Future mobile health systems: Designing personal mobile applications to assist self diagnosis, Proceedings of the 22nd British HCI Group Annual Conference on People and Computers: Culture, Creativity, Interaction, Vol. 2, published by the British Computer Society.

Charles, C., Gafni, A. and Whelna, t. (1999) Decision-making in the physician-patient encounter: Revisiting the shared treatment decision-making model, Soc. Sci. Med. 49 (Sept, 1999), 651-661.

Martin, S. (2003) More than half of MDs under age 35 now using PDAs, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Oct. 28.

McNutt, R. A. (2004) Shared medical decision making: problems, process, progress, J. Am. Med. Assoc. 292, Nov., 2516-2518.

Poropatich, R., Pavliscsak, H. H., Rasche, J., Barrigan, C., Vigersky, R., and Fonda, S. J. (2010) Mobile healthcare in the US Army, Proceedings of ACM Wireless Health Conference, Oct. 5-7, 2010, San Diego, CA, USA.

www.ama-assn.org (Accessed on Jan. 30, 2011)

http://www.pwc.com/ (Accessed on Feb. 2, 2011)

The usefulness of the stakeholder theory in an analysis of the Internet-impacted business environment of contemporary organizations.

AUTHOR
Janusz Wielki, Ph.D.

ABSTRACT

The business environment in which every organization operates and the changes taking place in it are extremely important elements of an organization’s success. It is a collection of numerous entities, factors and forces which are more or less predictable in their behavior and which give an organization a chance to establish a competitive advantage and to develop further development. Conversely, these entities can also threaten the existence of an organization. As a result, the ability of an organization to analyze, understand and assess its business environment and the associated dynamics is essential.

As the contemporary business and economic reality becomes more and more complicated and decreasingly unambiguous, as compared to before the wide scale use of the Internet, an analysis of the business environment as conducted in the traditional way and also operating in this context in typical categories such as suppliers, customers or competitors, decreasingly fits in with the emerging new reality. The dynamics of the changes taking place are so big and the state of belonging to the above mentioned groups is so fluid and imprecise that it has become necessary to look at the forces influencing organizations through their business environment in a far wider and unconventional way. Additionally the whole “picture” is complicated by various entities which have either emerged with the development of the electronic space or have grown in power in the new reality.

This new marker situation provides an opportunity for analysis using the stakeholder theory, with considerations in its scope, beyond “traditional” stakeholders, entities and forces operating in developing around the Internet electronic space (understood as a global computer network based on the TCP/IP protocols). There are numerous important aspects which determine its usefulness and accuracy with reference to the contemporary economic and business reality. They include such issues as utilization, in the context of entities influencing functioning of organizations; a very broad-ranging and flexible notion of “stakeholders”, and a holistic view of an organization and its business environment connected with conducting an analysis from the systems theory point of view.

The paper is composed of four parts. In the first part an overview of the situation connected with the changes taking place in the business environment of organizations as a result of the Internet’s arrival within the contemporary economy is provided. The next part is focused on a review of the most common approaches used to analyze an organization’s business environment and the reasons for a particular usefulness of the stakeholder theory in this context. The following part is the core of this paper. It is devoted to the utilization of the stakeholder approach in the analysis of the Internet-impacted business environment of contemporary enterprises. First, a brief overview of its development and areas of utilization in management are provided. Also, a definition of stakeholders is proposed, in the context of the analysis conducted in the paper. Next, a review is made of the most important groups of stakeholders from the organization’s point of view. In this context, particular attention is focused on SIGs (special interest groups) as the influence of these groups has been rapidly growing in the new business reality. Their revised definition is also proposed.

Further analysis is conducted from the three-layered approach proposed by Donaldson and Preston including descriptive, instrumental, and normative aspects. Referring to the first layer, a division of stakeholders from the point of view of organizations using the Internet in their business activities is proposed. Next, referring to the instrumental layer and based on practical examples, various aspects connected with stakeholder management, including both real and potential ones, operating in electronic space in the context of organization’s performance and accomplishment of its goals are analyzed. Finally the focus of the attention moves to the normative point of view and an analysis of the potential social and ethical challenges emerging in the Internet-impacted business environment of contemporary enterprises. Particularly careful analysis is given to this in the context of this paper.

This three-layered analysis is conducted taking into consideration the changes taking place in an organization’s business environment with the evolution of the Internet and development of the Web 2.0 phase. In this context, the consequences of the access of stakeholders to new types of internet technology-based tools and the development of social computing are included in the analysis.

In the final part of the paper, the most significant conclusions and suggestions are offered.

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Colle S., Freeman E., Harrison J., Parmar B., Wicks A.: Stakeholder Theory: The State of the Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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Donaldson T., Preston L.: The Stakeholder Theory of the Corporation: Concepts, Evidence, and Implications. „Academy of Management Review”. Vol. 20. No. 1, 1995.

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Freeman E., Harrison S., Wicks A.: Managing for Stakholders: Survival, Reputation, and Success. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007.

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Australia and the question of Internet Control

AUTHOR
Matthew J. Warren and Shona Leitch

ABSTRACT

Introduction

Australia as a part of the Global Information Society will have to deal with a number of ethical issues in relation to the Internet; particularly, the distribution of illegal material and the impact of Web 2.0 on Australian society. In the Oceania region of the world there are 20.8 million Internet users, which represents 60% of the regions population (InternetWorld, 2009), this identifies the strong impact of the Internet in Australia.

Historically the initial focus of the Internet was the distribution of information in a static manner, but over time and through the development of technology the Internet has now developed into Web 2.0. The Web is no longer a collection of static pages of HTML that describe something in the world; increasingly, the Web is the world. Everything and everyone in the world casts an “information shadow,” an aura of data which, when captured and processed intelligently, offers extraordinary opportunity and mindbending implications (O’Reiley and Battelle, 2009).

In recent years the emergence of Web 2.0 and related internet sites such as Facebook have had a major impact upon the Internet in recent years. One of the interesting aspects of Facebook is the use of third party applications and the interactions that this allows. This means that individual Facebook pages now act as a web page, blog, instant messenger, email system and the use of third party applications allows for real time functionality (DiMicco and Millen, 2007; Shuen, 2008).

Australia Government Strategies

One of the proposals put forward by the Australian Federal Government to deal with the concerns of the Internet is the introduction of mandatory Internet filtering. The aim is that Internet service providers will run the mandatory Internet filtering system on behalf of the Federal Government. The overall aim being to remove access to Australians to information that is considered illegal in an Australian content.

As part of the process, in 2010 the Australian Federal Government via the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy sought public views regarding dealing with illegal content via the Internet. This paper will analyse the public feedback that was obtained and determine current trends that exist within that data.

Structure of the paper

The structure of the paper will be:

1) A discussion of how Australia is dealing with the issues posed by the Internet and the associated new technologies;

2) The paper will discuss the strategies developed by the Australian Federal Government and in particular discuss the proposed mandatory Internet filtering;

3) An analysis of the public findings submitted to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy will be presented. The submission will be analysed and data trends will be discussed within the paper in particular the issues raised (for and against) in regards to mandatory Internet filtering.

4) An assessment of the next stage of the Federal Government proposals and the impact that it could have on Australia.

5) The paper will conclude by comparing Australian Government initiatives with initiatives from other countries around the world.

REFERENCES

DiMicco, J. M. and Millen, D. R. (2007) Identity management: Multiple presentations of self in Facebook. Proceedings of the 2007 International ACM conference on Supporting group work, Florida, USA.

InternetWorld (2009) Global Internet Statistics, URL: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm, Accessed 25th September, 2009.

Shuen, A. (2008) Web 2.0: a strategy guide. O’Reilly Media, Inc.

O’Reiley and Battelle (2009) Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On, Proceedings of Web 2.0 Summit, San Francisco, USA.

Political blogging in Northern Ireland: A post-conflict society in the virtual world

AUTHOR
Ciaran Ward

ABSTRACT

The socio-political landscape of Northern Ireland has changed radically and rapidly over the course of the last 15-20 years. This period has seen the emergence and rapid growth of the online social media phenomenon, which has exercised a considerable influence over the politics and wider society of the region.

In 1998 devolved government returned to Northern Ireland in the form of a legislative assembly for the first time in 26 years following a prolonged period of civil unrest during which time direct rule was administered from London.

After an uncertain beginning including two periods of suspension and temporary return to direct rule the assembly was reconvened in 2007, since which time it has functioned continuously with a two-party coalition. The assembly’s existence has coincided roughly with the advent and development of blogging or citizen journalism. Since the birth of the first weblog dedicated specifically to Northern Irish politics “Slugger O’Toole” in 2002 dozens of blogs encompassing a vast spectrum of political views and party affiliations reflecting both the left/right and the unionist/nationalist divide have sprung up. These blogs are written by a wide range of actors including politicians, academics and journalists as well as private individuals and have become a significant addition to the input of the mainstream media. The ownership status of these blogs also varies considerably in that some are fully or partially independent of external influence, while others are linked to broadcasting organisations, newspapers, political parties, lobby groups and think tanks throughout the UK as well as in the Republic of Ireland. The tone of such blogs also varies from serious analysis to whimsical satire. It is also significant to note that not all actors within the Northern Irish blogosphere are physically based within the region. Participants, including authors, commenters and readers form a large online community whose members are based all over the world.

Since the end of the civil conflict of 1969-94 and the gradual normalisation of political life international news coverage of the region has markedly declined. This gap has been filled in part by the advent of the blog and related online media in that bloggers now chart news events on a daily basis, giving rise to extensive debate and commentary.

Although the practice of blogging is often panned by critics as little more than vanity publishing, its influence in forming political thought and provoking debate should not be underestimated. Unlike mainstream media sources blogs are not restricted by editorial control or neutrality policies and can therefore accommodate a vast range of views ranging from the moderate to the extremist ends of the spectrum. Other restrictive factors within conventional journalism such as time, space and money are largely irrelevant within the blogosphere. Similarly, blogs lack the hierarchical and often dictatorial culture often present in the more traditional media. Blogs alongside Freedom of Information legislation can contribute to government transparency and accountability. However one major flaw is the lack of veracity or authority in reporting purported facts, which as well as being ethically questionable can lead to the possibility of legal action. Furthermore the lack of regulation and the free-for-all nature of the medium means that quality can vary immensely. Comment threads can often alternate between mature political debate and abusive exchanges like a virtual wild west or school playground, in which the infamous “Godwin’s Law” is often invoked.

In more recent years the blog has been supplemented by other interactive social media phenomena such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all of which feature prominently in the socio-political developments within the region and further afield.

The regional Assembly has had to face many challenges during its relatively short existence, such as the impact of the Freedom of Information Act and the financial crisis, the ongoing threat from dissident terrorism, devolution of policing and justice and financial misconduct by members, all of which have been covered extensively within the local blogosphere.

Important events such as elections, budgets, incidents of civil unrest and ministerial resignations can be discussed and debated on an instantaneous basis within these online communities. The blogosphere thus permits interaction on an unprecedented scale which would have been impossible in the pre-internet era.

Although blogging in Northern Ireland, a relatively liberal democratic society does not have the same radical impact as it would in countries with restrictions on democracy or freedom of speech it nevertheless plays a crucial role in the flow of information, the formation of opinions and the empowerment and organisation of political activists. This is aided in part by the small size of the region and its close-knit political community.

This paper examines and sets out to quantify the impact of the blog and related social networks within Northern Ireland’s socio-political landscape through empirical research comparative cases, source material and anecdotal evidence, charting both the negative and positive effects as well as the unintended consequences of the phenomenon.

Brain-Computer Interfaces: a technical approach to supporting privacy

AUTHOR
Kirsten Wahlstrom, Ben Fairweather and Helen Ashman

ABSTRACT

Introduction

Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) facilitate communication between a brain and a computer and can be categorised according to function: interpretation of neural activity, stimulation of neural activity, and interpretation-stimulation. Warwick’s self-experiments with implants in the interpretation-stimulation category (Warwick and Gasson, 2004) demonstrate the technical feasibility of extending the human nervous system beyond its biological limits to other systems, and to other people, via the internet. Furthermore, there have been recent advances in interpreting passive neural activity (Coffey et al., 2010) and also in concurrent interpretation of visual and motor intentional neural activity (Allison et al., 2010). A future BCI (fBCI) integrating these technical features would concurrently interpret both intentional and passive neural activity in order to communicate information to systems and other people via the Internet.

In addition to these research advances, BCIs interpreting intentional neural activity via electroencephalography (EEG) are available to consumers (Emotiv Systems, Intendix). Should fBCI be commercially viable, an ethical and legal obligation to support privacy will exist.

Privacy emerges from a society’s communication practices (Westin, 2003). Although acculturation plays a role in shaping privacy expectations, the extent to which one person requires privacy may differ to that required by another (Gavison, 1980). In addition, a person’s perception of privacy is dependent on context (Solove, 2006). For example, I am likely to openly disclose details related to my health to my father, judiciously disclose these details to my friends, and withhold them completely from strangers. Thus, privacy requirements are diverse and susceptible to change.

Privacy is a component of freedom, autonomy and identity. When using technologies, people assert independence and autonomy by declining to participate, or by using anonymity or misinformation to create and maintain privacy (Lenhart and Madden, 2007, Fuster, 2009). When people opt out, adopt anonymity or engage in misinformation, the effectiveness of any technology reliant upon accurate and representative data is compromised.

The conceptualisation of privacy as culturally shaped and unique for each person and their immediate context is well understood, long-standing, and widely applied by law- and policy-makers. It forms the basis for legislative and other regulatory approaches such as the Australian Privacy Act, the EU’s Privacy Directives and the OECD’s Guidelines. These legal obligations, and further ethical obligations (Burkert, 1997), mandate support for privacy with respect to technologies. In addition, if technologies support privacy, people are more likely to provide accurate information, adding value to the technology itself. However, to the authors’ knowledge, there have been no investigations of technical approaches to supporting privacy in BCIs. This paper presents a conceptual model for consideration and critique.

BCI technology

BCIs identify and measure the electrical activity associated with activating specific neural pathways (Berger et al., 2007). These measurements are then applied to the control of external systems (Hochberg et al., 2006). With respect to BCI technologies, the identification and measurement of neural activity has been achieved with surgically invasive and non-invasive approaches. While surgical BCIs identify and measure neural activity with a higher level of accuracy, non-surgical approaches carry fewer health risks. Thus, there has been interest in improving the accuracy of non-surgical BCIs (Allison et al., 2010).

BCIs have neural networks which must be trained to identify a person’s neural activities and then to map specific neural activities to specific intentions. For example, consider a scenario in which Ann has purchased a new BCI to use with her mobile phone. She must spend time training the BCI to recognise the unique pattern of neural activity that matches with imagining each person in her mobile phone’s address book and to recognise neural activity corresponding to the ‘call’ and ‘hang up’ commands.

Conceptual model

If BCIs can identify and measure neural activity, then they can also identify and measure a person’s privacy perception and requirement. The person’s privacy requirement can then be applied to any information they may be sharing. For example, consider a scenario in which Bob is using a BCI to interact with his mobile phone. He is calling Charlie but does not want the call logged in the mobile phone’s memory. First, he thinks of Charlie and the mobile phone retrieves Charlie’s number. Then Bob thinks of not logging the call and the mobile phone saves this privacy requirement in its working memory. Finally, Bob thinks ‘call’ and the mobile phone places the call without logging it.

This scenario is a binary situation: log the call or don’t log the call. However, privacy requirements are much more diverse than this. If this conceptual model can be refined to support a diversity of privacy requirements, a technical prototype will be designed, implemented and tested.

The full paper will further conceptualise privacy with a view to informing a future prototype. Then the paper will describe the technologies underlying BCIs. These conceptual and technical descriptions will enable the proposition of technical conceptual model for the prototype which offers flexibility with respect to privacy and interoperability with respect to existing BCIs. Conclusions will stimulate consideration, discussion and critique.

REFERENCES

ALLISON, B. Z., BRUNNER, C., KAISER, V., MULLER-PUTZ, G. R., NEUPER, C. & PFURTSCHELLER, G. 2010. Toward a hybrid brain-computer interface based on imagined movement and visual attention. Journal of Neural Engineering, 7, 026007.

BERGER, T., CHAPIN, J., GERHARDT, G., MCFARLAND, D., PRINCIPE, J., SOUSSOU, W., TAYLOR, D. & TRESCO, P. 2007. International Assessment of Research and Development in Brain-Computer Interfaces.

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FUSTER, G. 2009. Inaccuracy as a privacy-enhancing tool. Ethics and Information Technology.

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SOLOVE, D. 2006. A Taxonomy of Privacy. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 154, 477-560.

WARWICK, K. & GASSON, M. Extending the human nervous system through internet implants – experimentation and impact. IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 2004 The Hague, Netherlands. 2046-2052.

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Lurking: finding one’s self while remaining hidden

AUTHOR
Richard Volkman

ABSTRACT

“Lurking” refers to the online behavior of gathering information from interactive resources like forums and social networking sites without participating in the interactivity that generates the online content and without disclosing one’s self as a consumer of that content. I propose to explore the ethical significance of lurking as it specifically relates to social networking sites like Facebook. This focus will reveal the deep relativity of the ethics of lurking to its particular context and motivations. In the context of social networking sites like Facebook, lurking and its compliment in the public disclosure of personal information are expressions of the particular characters of particular social animals situated in a particular social circumstance. Phenomena like lurking indicate the ethical significance of deliberations that cannot be readily undertaken in the language of impersonalist ethics, since lurking takes place at the vague and overlapping boundaries of self and other, friend and stranger, this community and that community. To deliberate effectively about such matters we do better to operate in the personalist language of character, self-discovery, and self-realization than the impersonalist discourse of overall consequences, moral rules, and political rights that characterizes so much of academic philosophy in ethics.

By “personalist” discourse, I mean ethical discourse that admits the relevance of particular persons and circumstances in properly judging what there is most reason to do or want or be. Aristotle’s virtue ethics or the heroic individualism of Emerson and Nietzsche are personalist in this sense. “Impersonalist” accounts of ethics strive for a level of impartiality and universality, whether in the form of some agent-neutral specification of the “overall good” in consequentialism, or in the specification of universal rules to govern conduct for “persons as such” in the deontology of Kant’s moral theory or Locke’s account of natural rights. The point of the essay is not to establish the absolute superiority of one or the other of these modes of discourse but to indicate the extent to which one’s account of the ethical universe will be impoverished if one altogether eschews personalist ethical discourse on the grounds that it is insufficiently impartial or universal in its application.

While there is a considerable literature on the ethics and motivations of lurking, there is relatively little investigation of it in the context of social networking and even less that reflects on the ultimate particularity of good judgement in that domain. There are many articles on the ethics of lurking in the context of formal research such as ethnography, and there are several articles examining the values of lurking versus more active participation in online learning communities. These are appropriate issues for academics to study, since they directly touch the pedagogical and policy concerns that shape our vocation, but we generally do not evaluate our everyday conduct in the terms of policy or professionalism. Meanwhile, treatments of lurking that focus on the free riding it may entail are appropriate to the investigation of the flourishing and success of online collaborative projects like Wikipedia or Slashdot or Reddit, but they do not seem particularly relevant to the motives or the consequences of lurking on social networking sites. In fact, one of the purposes that people bring to such sites is to disclose information about themselves, and this purpose would often be frustrated or at least undermined if there were no lurkers. This indicates a complimentary relation between “lurkers” and “disclosers” that may be present in other venues but which I will argue is an essential feature of social networking. Finally, analysis that focuses on hacking, violating terms of service, or other straightforward breeches of contract or policy is not directly relevant, since these issues are adequately addressed in impersonalist modes of discourse. It will be shown that lurking on social networking sites has obvious and profound privacy implications, but they are not the sort that can be neatly captured by an impersonalist discussion of privacy or the policies and social norms that attend it.

To orient the discussion, it is helpful to describe concrete cases in which lurking on a social networking site has plain ethical significance that cannot be easily captured without explicit reference to the particular person embedded in her particular circumstance and relations. This is a daunting task that cannot be neatly summed in an abstract, since it cannot proceed in the usual manner of “situated action ethics,” such that the story pumps an obvious intuition that is leveraged as evidence for or against some account of the rules or policies appropriate to the case. The point is that the particular facts matter, and this cannot be illustrated by leaving out the particular facts; nor is it possible to tell a story short of a novel that would include all those relevant facts. Instead, the cases will illustrate how many salient details are invariably left out of any such description, while also showing the case is an instance of real ethical significance and not a matter of mere taste or whim. The paper will proceed from a detailed investigation of such particular cases to illustrate that ethics is not simply a matter of evaluating actions or rules. One’s situated character matters.

In the end, it will be revealed that lurking on social networking sites cannot be categorically judged to be good or bad and that crude political tools for balancing privacy and the flow of information shed little light on the phenomena. To engage these matters, we need to engage the concrete realities of our particular lives in their full particularity. Ultimately, if we are to navigate the ethics of real life in the information age, we shall each need to engage our selves.