Netizens in Dialogue


© Egor Orlov

Seo Yun Son identifies as a mumbler.

Marissa Yardley Clifford identifies as a documentarian.

Together, they make Karen Eliots, a multi-media collaborative project that focuses on technol-ogy, human impulses, and narratives otherwise unheard. Podcasts forthcoming.

10:00 pm | June 1, 2015
Pico-Robertson | Seo Yun’s living room, her cat Dooly plays with a ball of foil on the floor.

Dialogue has been edited for clarity and lucidity.

Marissa: We are in the middle of a massive, sort of like, cultural shift and revolution, and I think that creating a dialogue about it from the perspective of those who aren’t always given a platform to voice their opinions on is important. I think sharing these incredibly academic, but truthful things with people in a way that is accessible and [engaging] is important. I think that’s why I want to record everything. It’s such a moment, and it isn’t going to last forever. It’s ephemeral, and I know that’s such a buzzword.

Seo Yun: Yeah, shared dialogue is definitely important because we undermine things too much in society. I think that’s why it’s important to have a conversation though, because we are so bombarded by information. And it’s like - OK we have this information, but what do we do about it?

MC: Yeah, let’s talk about it. Yeah, in the midst of all these changes — there doesn’t seem to be a pervasive, larger conversation about it, about the ethics of these technological changes in par-ticular. There’s biomedical ethics…but even in journalism, there’s one guy who published a book about how journalism was irrevocably altered in the digital age, but like, no one is writing about these changes. I feel like there’s a lack, there’s a dearth of like, cultural critics.

SS: Exactly — cultural critics, anthropologists, humanists. In the tech world such as Silicon Val-ley/Silicon Beach, they often don’t bring in those people who can contribute different perspec-tives, to talk about the human aspects of things.

MC: For something interdisciplinary.

SS: Yes. Yes, we have tech geeks and creatives who work on marketing and stuff but why don’t we have like, sociologists coming in who are like um, — well, how is this going to impact our society?

MC: Exactly.

SS: How is this going to affect how we socialize with other human beings?

MC: What are the repercussions?

SS: Yeah!

MC: And that’s what, I think, freaks me out about it too — is that we are so blindly following this idea of progress. And I think we’ve always been doing that, but now it’s happening so rapidly that like, I think it is — not dangerous, but so much is changing our consciousness as a culture. And life is getting so fast.

SS: Fast lane!

MC: Fast lane.

Lawless Waves of Cyberspace

MC: Let’s see…well, when did you first become aware of information studies? What’s your his-tory with it?

SS: Studies?

MC: Yeah.

SS: I think…well…we’re also in that generation where we’ve kind of eased into the digital and information age, whereas our parents were sort of at the forefront, the advent of it. It was a smooth transition for me so I never really thought about the convergence of different technolo-gies, or thought critically about it and its effects on society. I honestly didn’t think about it until I took Safiya Noble’s info studies class at UCLA. And um, as with all click bait headlines — I was like, “OK this class syllabus has a lot of buzzwords regarding social media and information sci-ence, and how much power they have. Sounds relevant.” And also I was curious — Silicon Val-ley is the hot thing right now, and there’s a bunch of people pursuing these jobs as developers or as IT dudes, but is there room for historians, artists, educators? Like, where does humanities fit into all of this, and um, I feel like that’s the most isolating aspect of all this. It’s kind of an anxiety of mine, actually — that there’s all this information and technology that’s supposed to help us connect, communicate, and help us become more intimate but actually, you know, it’s really leaving out the human factor. That’s what’s eerie to me. Like, huh, what can we do about this? And I feel like information studies was like, the first glimpse into that.

MC: Yeah. That’s such a beautiful, succinct concept — I love that.

SS: This is like word vomit right now. We definitely have to edit this.

MC: Do you think your vision of technology and that kind of stuff has been drastically altered after taking Safiya Noble’s class?

SS: Definitely. Like, I didn’t use to think critically about these things. I thought, “How can this affect me, really? I can act just like any other consumer and consume all this technology on a daily basis and not really think too hard about it because it makes everything more convenient and accessible so why give two shits?” I still use Google Maps on a daily basis, I use Uber—I just dropped a pin for my Uber driver 3 hours ago. I’m a good person, I don’t do anything suspicious. I go to work. My location doesn’t really incriminate me, but at the same time your cellular provider has all this information about you and they’re handing it to the government —

MC: Well, and they’re profiting from it, right?

SS: Yeah, they’re profiting from it. And they’re in this binding contract. What happens when that relationship is terminated? We lose out. We are the victims in the end, because we gave this information willingly and now it doesn’t belong to us. And it’s like sure, the government won’t know what exactly that appointment at 8am was for, but they can track the building — oh, you were just at your AA meeting, or your local dispensary. Even your browsing history says so much — and this endless storage of data can come back and bite you in the ass later on. And at the same time, I’m still thinking why can’t I be apathetic about it? I’m not trying to be a politician or work in the government sector. But, even if you don’t think you’re going to raise the suspicion of the feds because you did nothing wrong, ignoring these issues is like, um, granting the gov-ernment permission to impose upon your freedom and privacy. I feel like I have things to say and government organizations like the NSA threaten your ability to engage in critical discussions on internet forums, and may threaten our ability in the future to publicly assemble and voice our opinions, especially as activists and scholars. Tracking our meta data for “terrorist threats” and shutting down protests with scary surveillance weapons, or partnering with corporations such as Google who are logging and tracking our every move truly prevents us from exercising our first amendment.

MC: Yeah, I think the biggest thing for me is these issues of freedom and privacy. What does privacy even mean anymore? And, is freedom privacy? How can we really be free if we’re letting this body of people be privy to our lives in a way that they’ve never been privy before? Like, they have this constant flow of data, these images, this information about us that makes it so easy to quell any sort of risings up against the status quo, to monitor us in a way that takes away our agency and ability to really have opinions about our world —

SS: That’s true.

MC: And then to feed us exactly what we want to see and what we want to hear.

SS: That sounds very, fucking, like — this is terrifying.

MC: It’s 1984.

SS: And as cliche as it is to bring up, you know, Orwell — that’s what it is. Big brother is watch-ing. And being watched, I feel like that’s stifling our creativity, and just makes humans compliant and obedient. National surveillance with the use of CCTVs and IP tracking — it’s almost like a world-wide panopticon, a tyrannical structure, because it’s a form of control.

MC: And also to control us in the most insidious way, via consumerism, and satisfying people’s “needs” before they think of them, and taking away our ability to communicate with people of different interest groups and perspectives. And I think you see that inability to have discourse with individuals of different belief systems in our government, which isn’t functioning well.

SS: Yeah, that’s true. In Korea, surveillance is at an all-time high. I have this convo with my dad all the time: Oh, the crime is not so bad in Korea, cops don’t have guns, no one is allowed to own a gun — it’s great! And he says, no, it’s because of our surveillance system. He says there are at least 10 CCTVs at a crosswalk. I looked this up and there’s 7,300 cameras installed in the city of Seoul itself, and in America we don’t see that.

MC: Wow, yeah. England too.

SS: Yeah, and they’re trying to pass this law to get cameras in schools, to prevent bullying —

MC: But that’s the problem is that it doesn’t work.

SS: It doesn’t work. That’s what some reporter said— crime rate will stay just as it is. There’s no evidence that mass surveillance will improve that rate drastically. I feel like Seoul, South Korea is an example of what America could become like — just mass surveillance for no other reason than to benefit the government. But what about the people? That’s the thing, going back to the human aspect — this isn’t freedom. If we are being watched all the time, like, if I was conscious-ly aware that the government knew I was going to a public rally to protest against a policy or whatnot, I would purposely not go there, knowing that they’re tracking me. It’s the fact that the government, through their surveillance, is physically controlling and affecting how we behave, how we mobilize, act and even think.

MC: I think that in a more scaled down model of that, that attests to this techno-panopticon phe-nomenon, is the way your behavior changes when you’re living alone versus living with someone else.

SS: Humans are social people. We try and conform.

MC: Exactly, but if you’re aware that your actions, even harmless interactions, can be observed and are potent with repercussions, then you change them for people. So how can you sit there and say that the government surveying me isn’t going to do anything? Of course it will.
*Dooley interrupts, 3min pause*

MC: It is dehumanizing. The other side, intimately connected though, is that we’ve created these unrealistic and performative expectations for life — it’s this awfully curated vision of life.

SS: Yes it’s dehumanizing because, and I quote Glen Greenwald here, “surveillance makes people act not based on byproduct of their agency but through shame; human shame is a strong motivator” and this, ugh, is exploited as hell. And so we think we have nothing to hide, but it’s like, yes you do. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even think twice about leaving your laptop open next to a friend who has access to your browsing history? Even though it’s so harmless, it —

MC: It’s vulnerability.

SS: Shame and vulnerability.

MC: Yeah, because I remember being in 8th grade and still even now — it’s like, oh, would you give your partner your phone? So, I think even before we were aware of what that meant, you know, there was this impulse to protect the digital evidence of relationships, and there was all this emphasis on privacy, privacy, privacy —

SS: Because I would find solace in the fact that this was my information for me to read and keep. And, regardless of its content, if it’s read — there’s a sense of violation.

MC: And you were all of a sudden at the whim of their interpretation of it.

SS: And, I think that’s the thing — shame and vulnerability involves judgement?

MC: And social media capitalizes on judgement. That’s the issue. It’s restructuring the values of our society. It de-moralizes society — and I feel weird saying this, because I don’t want it to sound too conservative — but it makes everything about who can profit from you, and how much clout you hold, what kind of niche environment can you create. It’s about influencers and the influenced instead of people just engaging organically, without the direct intent and the promise of impending reward.
SS: I feel like it’s a big metaphor for capitalist society.

MC: Yeah. We exist in a capitalist paradigm. And I think shooting the shit is actually very im-portant.

SS: It’s the danger of the pre-curated experience.

MC: We’re living in this world where we are getting this validating, quantified response from people, saying: yes, you’re attractive; yes, your life is fun; yes, I’d look at this again. But that’s actually distancing us from the very people that we’re having those experiences with. It’s this recursive thing — if we don’t have a reward for something, we don’t want to do it.

SS: I think we all are guilty of engaging in this curated experience. I’m guilty. I look forward to things on the weekend and think, “Oh, this will probably make for a good Instagram.”

MC: Same. And the interesting thing is that sometimes I actively disengage from that. I will pur-posefully not care about what I’m wearing or will refrain from taking out my phone and in the end, I feel remorse. Even when I’m really protecting myself because, as a woman, I think this curated, photographic experience is particularly charged.

SS: Well, and I feel like we have a human tendency to share and have shared experiences, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

MC: Yes, but what about stories? I feel like people don’t sit around as often and just tell stories about their lives and their experiences like they used to.

SS: Looking back, tradition was passed through generations through oral storytelling. That was the basis of human connection, and we lack that because we are at some kind of tech vortex right now. And we make so many apps to connect with people, but it’s like, just go over there and make dinner with people. And that’s why Miranda July’s app “Somebody” was really interesting to me. I was really excited because I thought it would get people to speak with people of different demographics and subcultures, cross boundaries, get out of their comfort zone. But it didn’t. It was disappointing. But it’s a shame we have to make apps to get out of our comfort zone and meet people. The app — “Cuddlr” — seeks out other people within your radius who might be needing a hug. It’s this artificial experience — it’s incentivizing it. It’s commodifying hugs.

MC: I feel like this ties into the fact that rules and manners in society today don’t really exist. And I don’t think it’s good to have a monolithic society —

SS: Of course not.

MC: But it’s important to be able to understand what people are trying to communicate nonver-bally. To have that social context delivered by an app, to allow that kind of technology to mediate social interactions, instead of “naturally-derived” social constructs — whatever that means…

SS: And so where’s the lived life experience from curated interactions?

MC: There isn’t one. Maybe it’s in reclaiming our roles as mediators. © Frances Stark

Are We All Karen Eliots?

SS: Well, and that’s the thing — we quantify everything in life by being relative to something else. So, if we don’t experience failure, awkward mishap, and fear, then how do we progress? I sound cynical but like, obviously we need technology. And we are talking about this because it is, without a doubt, going to change the way we think in the future.

MC: Yes, and I think recording how we used to think before technology and if people are noticing these changes in this moment, and what those changes are — I think that’s what’s so important for the future, as we move into this new paradigm.

SS: So, I feel like what we are doing in a way. This is a chronicle. This is the beginning of a chronicle.

MC: I like that.

SS: So, that’s what we are trying to do. We are trying to track —

MC: Track, and comment on, and understand in every sense.

SS: Yeah! That’s our goal. That’s why we inform ourselves, seek out non-dominant narratives, and look at the parameters of these issues in a way that is ignored by the mass because well, as Audre Lorde puts it, we know the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
MC: So punk rock!

SS: This is our active practice, as netizens — that minority voices are actively speaking out in this new language to address the issues of the information age.

MC: To infiltrate the system in a way. To be fluent in this language of technology.

SS: This recently constructed language. The beautiful thing about technology is that it does allow us to be global citizens. And as netizens seeking info on the web, it poses a threat to the government and you can see this through the increasing attempt at regulating the internet. Because the day when we cannot freely voice our opinions, even and especially in cyberspace, is the day that we don’t have freedom.