Reflection

Writing a blog about my digital life experience has been both rewarding and enlightening.  At first I was worried that I have nothing to write about my digital life as I don’t know much about computers besides surfing the net.  And then I realized after writing the first blog post that almost every aspect of my life is mediated in a thorough way and I do actually have different materials to talk about.

Out of my four blog posts, I consider the fourth one “Multitasking? No, doesn’t work for me” to be the most effective one.  The first reason is because our attention is the foundation of all learning and social interaction; everything we do or think has to do with giving our attention to something else.  With all the new gadgets blossoming in the market and almost everyone has a cell phone or a laptop or easy internet access anywhere, it will be interesting to find out whether people can actually multitask or is it just an urban myth that people fool themselves to believe in. And the results or answers are clearly illustrated by the two videos I embedded in the blog post.  I like the combination of these two videos because the first one is a hilarious and vivid portrayal of an ordinary office worker’s attempt at multitasking, while the second one is a more serious and detailed description of what multitasking is and whether people can really multitask.  The ideas presented in these two videos coincide with what I learnt in class, for instance what Gloria DeGaetano says that “Computer use distorts brain development, causes hyperactivity, reactivity, lack of impulse control and the general shortening of attention spans in children”.  This matches what the second video asserts that “no one really shares attention between two tasks, we are all switching attention between two tasks”.  Because multitasking essentially means switching our attention from one task to another in a swift manner, for people to engage in multitasking would mean a shorter attention span for each task we are focusing on.

The second reason is the use of graphs and comics.  The first graph I embedded is a clear and powerful display of what do people usually do when they multitask.  The data is a powerful one because 86% of people multitask while using their cell phones, and most people can relate to the results, for instance using the Internet and watch TV.  This piece of data can be related to some new literacies in digital media, for example the attention problem, where people need to learn how to get attention, give attention, manage and distribute attention.  I think that having all the gadgets around also creates one sort of polyfocality, that as long as my cell phone is within my reaching distance, I will always reach for it and check the messages as long as there’s a flash of light or a notification “beep”.  In this case, I am the player (as in a video game), the TV in front of me, my cell phone within reaching distance, and my laptop on my lap are the multiple foci where I have to distribute my attention to.  This further proves the graph’s usefulness in depicting a day in the life of an ordinary cell phone user, and the multiple foci he or she distributes attention to.

Here is a comic I would like to add to support this point, and it is an illustration of what I just said about multiple foci in real life:

100themes-multitasking

One can see from the picture that because of the proximity of all the gadgets and distractions, it is impossible for people to ignore any incoming calls or messages or newsfeed, even if most of them are not urgent or important.

In my third post, “Fantasy, Reality, and Identity: Why I Love Playing the Sims“, I talked at length why I love playing The Sims.  The main reason is that by playing The Sims, I can submerge into a fantasy land based on reality, and I can have full control of my Sims, how they look like, what tasks are they engaging in, what kind of house they live in etc.  Also, as James Paul Gee mentions, playing The Sims allows me to create more identities, namely real identity, virtual identity, and “projective” identity.  To me, the most attractive function is indeed the “projective” identity where I can put my own aspirations onto the Sims and achieve what I cannot in the real world.

I still think what I said in the blog post is true, because that was exactly how I feel when I started playing The Sims FreePlay.  Here is what i wrote in the blog post:

‘Jane McGonial says “In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy”.  In the Sims, while I fulfill the Sims’ needs by feeding them, making them take a shower, or telling them to go to work, I’m not just fulfilling their needs.  Instead I am also fulfilling my needs, my desire to live in a fantasy world where I can have control of every aspect of my life, which is the most satisfying part of my Sims experience.’

While it is true that playing The Sims satisfy my needs to escape and live in a fantasy world where I can play god and have control of all aspects of (Sims’) life, still it cannot entirely replace genuine human needs.  I find that I cannot just sit here and play The Sims for hours without sending a text to someone or visit the washroom, even when I am directing my Sims on my mobile phone to talk to each other or go to the washroom.  It is just not the same, and no matter how satisfying it gets at first, eventually the game starts to get boring.  The constraints of the game become obvious once I have played for several weeks: the first one is that the tasks are growing monotonous to me.  I have to feed the Sims, tell them to go to work, make them engage in conversations with one another, go to the washroom so they don’t pee on the floor etc.  And I have to repeat these processes to eight different Sims each and every day, as if taking care of my own real life needs is not boring enough, in all seriousness.  At first being realistic is a fascinating aspect of the game, as if I can control the Sims or even make them my friends who share the same experiences.  Now it is just turning into a kind of nuisance, me having to fulfill extra responsibilities for them.

The second constraint is that once the principal goals and tasks have been fulfilled, there seems to be nothing left for me to do, no motivation to go on, because there can be no new breakthrough or advance in levels.  The most frustrating example is that the fictional town that I place my Sims in can never expand like those in real life, and the rules are set that players must build certain architecture (e.g. schools and supermarkets) in designated spaces.  In real life one can never stop fulfilling responsibilities and advancing in life (e.g. getting a promotion, or getting good grades in school), or there will be consequences.  However, even if I get bored and abandon the game for a week, the Sims are not going to die like normal people in reality; they just slowly wander around with a deficit in each bar indicating their needs.

After several weeks of playing The Sims I started to realize that the constraints in the game is more influential than the affordances of the game.   So while I think the game is fun, it only lasts for a week and afterwards it is not as fun as it seems, and it frankly does not benefit me in any way possible.  I would now say that playing The Sims cannot actually satisfy genuine human needs in the long run, that the game is for short term pleasure only.

In my second blog post “Information Overload: Why Would We Know Stuff We Don’t Even Want to Know“, I discussed some possible reasons why many people are suffering from information overload, namely tagging and extensive exposure to hypertexts and links on different websites.  Now that I have learnt more about our attention structure and multitasking, I would like to add another reason to the cause of information overload.  Again it has to do with our prolonged exposure to various types of gadgets, namely our mobile phones, laptops, TV etc.  What Linda Stone describes as continuous partial attention applies here perfectly, that it is because we do not want to miss anything, any news from our friends and family, therefore we had our electronic devices switched on at all times and kept within reaching distance.  As a result, we are paying partial yet continuous attention to the communication devices; it is inevitable that we may get more data than we intend to, and because we are only paying partial attention to it and not thinking it through, judging whether it is useful enough, we tend to turn it all into information first and decide later, thus resulting in information overload.

By discussing different issues in digital media and relating them to different theories, I realize that many useful theories can be derived from our daily practices and explained in ways I have never thought of before, for instance our attention structure, tagging, and multimodality.  Next time I indulge myself in a new video game or the next time I check my messages while doing homework, I will have more to think about than merely using the gadgets.

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Multitasking? No, doesn’t work for me

The notion of miltitasking seems simple enough and easy to achieve for most people.  On the MTR every day I see fellow passengers reading their Facebook newsfeed from their smartphones, while having their earphones plugged in, and trying to hold the handle in case the train stops abruptly (happens all the time).  I call this an example of multitasking, passengers doing three things at a time and mastering it.  Another example I can think of is me right now: as I am writing this exact blog post, I am listening to music, checking my Tumblr dashboard every ten minutes, drinking a cup of coffee, chatting with my friend via whatsapp, and trying to come up with a decent idea for this blog.  However, there is one thing I can tell you: I am not good at multitasking.  In fact, I stopped doing all of the above after fifteen minutes because it is simply not working for me.  Before I elaborate, here is a video depicting an office worker trying to multitask:

As you can see from the video, the guy is not very successful at multitasking.  Although the situation may be a bit exaggerated in his case, still it is impossible for me to multitask.   In the video, the man explains that multitasking “is a myth” and that people are less efficient and more distracted when they are multitasking.  He further quotes that our error rate goes up 50% and the work takes twice as long to finish the same task.  He then invited Tim Jenkins, a co-founder of a business consulting firm to talk about multitasking further: Jenkins says that multitasking is a fallacy and when people are always online, they are always distracted, thus entering a very unproductive mode.  Although the video is a promotion for a new book called “Brain Rules”, I think the facts and situations discussed in this video are quite accurate, at least in my case.

Here is another video elaborating on multitasking, raising a number of intriguing questions, for example are young people better at multitasking than old people, is multitasking really necessary, and does multitasking come with a cost.

From the video, we can see that multitasking is not as glamorous as it seems: no one really shares attention between two tasks, we are all switching attention between two tasks.  And from the video, it concludes that multitasking comes at a cost, that everytime we switch attention, we forget where we were in the first task and what our goals were.  This sounds really convincing to me, as if I have been through all that already.  Sometimes when I listen to music while I revise, I will suddenly snap out of daydreaming, and find that I am just sitting there idly listening to music without paying any real attention to the words, even though I have been staring at the same lines for nearly half an hour.  If I really want to get something done, I cannot have any distractions, not even the TV playing in the background or classical music, which some people claim to help them finish their work (I tried, didn’t work).

The video raises one interesting question worth looking into: do people these days need to multitask?  I am not talking about Wall Street businessmen or any other high pressure jobs in the city, but normal teenagers and young adults, who seems to be very good at multitasking on the surface, and are multitasking all the time.  I think we are all prone to what technology consultant Linda Stone describes as “continuous partial attention”, where people are constantly, but only partially, attending to the information from their communication devices, motivated by the fear of “missing something”.  Or perpetual contact, a similar concept where people continuously aware of what their friends and contacts are doing.  The picture belows depicts what people in the US are simultaneously doing while using their mobile phones:

Over half of the respondents listen to music or watch TV while using their mobile phones, other options like surfing the net and watching movies also gain almost half the votes.  So what do they use their mobile phones for?  What is so important that they have to use it while reading a book or watching a movie, where you are supposed to be paying full attention to it?  My guess is that they are probably just chatting with friends online, using mobile applications like Whatsapp.

Whatsapp itself has its own affordances and constraints when a person is multitasking.  For example, it has a clear list of people we are talking to, creating attentional tracks that we can clearly distinguish from one another.  Also, the chat history is saved automatically, so if we lose track of what we are talking about, we can simply scroll up and read all the previous conversations.  It helps us to focus our attention on this particular conversation we are having with this particular person.  Furthermore, the use of one-word responses and emoticons can help us appear like we are paying attention when we are actually not, just like the picture below:

There are constraints, though.  With the aforementioned perpetual contact at work, we are continually receiving information about our friends and contacts, whether we want to or not.  It is true that we can “mute” our whatsapp chat groups, but only up to one week only.  Since our mobile phones probably stay with us within reaching distance 24 hours a day, constant whatsapp alerts can be very annoying, and more importantly, damaging to us when we are trying to focus on our tasks on hand.

I think most people nowadays are under the illusion that they can  multitask when they actually cannot.  Quality of the work will be compromised when one multitasks.  I think different people can find different solutions regarding multitasking, but I for one cannot.  Multitasking is not one I am good at, sadly.

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Fantasy, Reality, and Identity: Why I Love Playing the Sims

Many people have played the Sims before, or any other so-called “escapist” or “alternate universe” games where you get to be another person.  The Sims I play is not the advanced Sims 3, but the Sims FreePlay for mobiles, because it is free.  Nonetheless, it is a very satisfying experience for me and frankly the perfect tool for procrastination.  Before I talk in-depth why I love this game so much, let’s watch the launch trailer for the Sims FreePlay below:

From the trailer, we can see that screenshots of the entire fictional town, giving the viewers a sense of control and prosperity.   There are also scenes where several Sims socialize by dancing together to stereo music.  Its purpose is to imitate real life, or rather for some users to experience something they cannot enjoy in real life much.  The trailer also promotes to idea to play free, catering to users’ every need and fantasy, as proved by the taglines in the trailer, “But most of all…the Sims are free!  Free to play!  Free to live…the way you want!  Live free!  Play free!  Play with life’.  The last three words “play with life” are significant because normal people like us cannot play with our lives, every decision we make are carefully calculated and thought of, whereas in Sims we can do whatever we want, we can literally “play” with the Sims’ lives, ordering them to do whatever we want them to do.

The Sims looks attractive enough from the trailer, but how can its attractiveness be explained through the point of view of digital media usage?  I think the reason is that the Sims itself is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, making the users feel impossible to separate from it.  First let’s talk about fantasy.  The Sims has everything I have dreamed about: big mansions, fancy cars, and people I can get married to.  Below is a picture of a mansion I built in Sims:

Imagine how much such a mansion in Hong Kong is going to cost…

I am currently playing with seven Sims, and they are all characters from the same movie.  I start out by creating the Sims to look like the characters, ranging from hairstyle, eye color, skin color to personality.  Then I slowly build their relationships as it is depicted in the movie.  It is surely one of the constraints of the game that I can only choose from a range of honestly ugly hiarstyles and equally unflattering clothes to fit my Sims, but it also offers me affordances.  Now with all the Sims at hand, I can play out the movie in whatever way I want, I can recreate the story, or make amendments to it, or add completely new storylines.  It is similar to people writing fanfiction except that I write using Sims.  What I just decribed fits with James Paul Gee’s “embodied stories”, that the way the game progresses is “embodied in the player’s own choices and actions in a way they cannot be in books and movies”.  Although they are minor constraints while playing Sims, as the game player I can still decide how the story progresses.

The Sims offers me a chance of playing out my fantasies, but what also attracts me to play the game is the feeling of reality in it.  I think anybody who plays the Sims are also looking for a hint of reality in it besides the fantasy aspect, or else they ought to play World of Warcraft or Assasin’s Creed instead.  For instance, goals must be satisfied in the Sims before I can move on with the next task.  A Sims must get married with another Sims before they can have a baby (doesn’t necessary apply in every case but it is close to reality).  Another example is that the Sims will refuse to get engaged if the daimond ring is not glamorous enough (much to my distress).  Also, one of the Sims must stay at home with the baby to take care of it while others go out to work to earn Simoleons.  here is a picture of my Sim planting idly while the toddler sleeps:

These examples are painfully close to reality, and it reminds me that I am playing a imitation game, that even in the game world there are still rules to abide by and I am not the absolute god in this game universe.

Another theory I agree with James Paul Gee is that games provide a range of new opportunities for the construction of identity.  He describes three different identities that come into playing video games, and I find that I can fully experience all three of them while I play the Sims.  The first one is real identity, which in my case is a 20-year-old university student in Hong Kong.  The second one is virtual identity, the characters I create can be some 30-year-old men and women, a baby (took four hours of construction in Sims world), and the adults can be artists and politicians, and they live in a town that looks American.  The third one is “projective identity”, where I can put my own aspirations, values and hopes on them.  I can choose one of the Sims to become a Science teacher, something I have always wanted to try but could not, because I studied Arts in high school.  Quoting the digital media textbook, the game “provides opportunities for individuals to take on roles that would not be possible in the real world”.

Jane McGonial says “In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy”.  In the Sims, while I fulfill the Sims’ needs by feeding them, making them take a shower, or telling them to go to work, I’m not just fulfilling their needs.  Instead I am also fulfilling my needs, my desire to live in a fantasy world where I can have control of every aspect of my life, which is the most satisfying part of my Sims experience.

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Information Overload: Why Would We Know Stuff We Don’t Even Want to Know

Information is everywhere.  Or rather, data is everywhere, from a pop-up advertisement on our computer screen to various street signs we encounter on our way to school/work.  We tend to receive data willingly and automatically changing it into information in our minds.  Our phones are on vibrate every day, so even when we are attending a class or working, we never miss a single message or phone call from anyone, because our settings on the phone will automatically notify us, with a message alert, a ringtone, or a vibration.

Here is a video clip about information overload which reveals some interesting and astonishing figures concerning the topic:

This video shows just how much information we receive every day, yet how little those information actually retains on our minds.  (If you have watched this video, think immediately how much you remember of the statistics and data given in it…)  The example in the video where students open way more entertaining or miscellaneous web pages on their computer than actual useful web pages is an accurate and vivid example to show just how much we suffer from information overload every day.

We tend to accept without question any data presented to us.  And, because there is too much data  available to us (messages, emails, TV advertisements), we cannot decide what is worth turning into information and what is not.  So what do we do?  We turn them all into information in case we might need it someday (though that rarely happens).

I think one reason of information overload has to do with tagging.  Tagging is putting different labels onto the items, so that we can search for them later by using one or more of the tags we tagged on it earlier.  An example would be people tagging their photos extensively without really thinking whether the tags are relevant to the photo itself; either they don’t want to think about specific tags, or they want to get a far wider exposure and audience for the photo.  I find it really frustrating when something irrelevant turns up on my Tumblr blog search tags.  I think Cory Doctorow (2001) has a point when he says that collective tagging does not necessarily result in better classification systems, because people either lie, or they are lazy, or just stupid.

Here is an example of an instagram user tagging his/her photo:

We can see that the photo is features a cute baby drinking something.  This Instagram user used a total of 30 tags to describe this photo, some relevant like #cute, #curls, #yummy, #food; some not so relevant to the content of the photo like #photooftheday, #dailyphoto, and #igaddict.

Another reason for us to suffer from information overload is the extensive exposure to hypertexts and links on different websites.  Theodor H. Nelson (1992) descirbes hypertext as “non-sequential writing-text that allows choices to the reader…a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.”  Almost every website we look at every day contains one or more hyperlinks to different websites.  One example would be the homepage of Wikipedia, where you have numerous hyperlinks that offers you a choice to learn more about the linked hypertext.

Here’s a screenshot of Wikipedia’s English homepage:

There are so many links on this page that our information-overload eyes hurt.  How does Wikipedia link internally?  The page uses a mix of hypertextual structure and hierarchical structure.

A hypertextual sturcture means parts of the doument are linked to other parts of the docement or other documents on the internet, as seen by those hyperlinks within a paragraph of texts.  In the above example there are a total of 81 hyperlinks represented and linked in a hypertextual structure.

A hierarchical structure means that hyperlinks are arranged like a menu or a tree-like outline, as represented by the table of contents on the left hand side of the homepage.  The table of contents itself is made up of 13 hyperlinks.  All the hyperlinks are presented to us through a one-click action, however not every piece of data are useful to us.  My personal experience with Wikipedia is that once I clicked on the page I intend to look at, I will be attracted to all the other links presented to me and will spend more time to look them over.  I seem to think that it will not do me any wrong to click on a few more links to learn a few more things, regardless of the information’s actual usefulness.

I always think that surfing the web is like me entering a forest and climbing on a tree (which means me finding an interesting topic), then I will jump from one branch to another (through hyperlinks I will find lots more related information, opening more new tabs as I go), then once I am no longer interested in the topic I can climb down rhe tree (close all the tabs).  Lastly I will climb another tree (starting all over in search of new information).

Despite many reasons contributing to our information overload phenomenon, I still think we human beings can overcome any potential problems caused by it.  Pinker (2010) states that the distractions to (people’s) information processing have always existed, and people have always developed strategies to deal with them.  I agree with his viewpoint because since evolution, humans have been doing nothing but constantly adapting to the environment, creating tools to help themselves survive.  I firmly believe that in the end, computers, the internet, and all the information it offers people will fail to control them, but rather enhance and strengthen their survival.

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A Day in My Digital Life

Here’s an account of a normal day in my life, which I am sure many people share the same experiences, if not more.

It’s Thursday.  At 6:30 am, I am woken up by the alarm music on my iPhone.  After turning it off I check if there are any notifications from whatsapp, line, or messages.  During breakfast I check my Tumblr dashboard, excited to see any new posts concerning my favourite celebrities.  Before I talk further I think I should explain what Tumblr is, in case anyone still hasn’t got himself/herself one (It’s absolutely worth it!).

Tumblr is a microblogging and social networking site which allows users to post photos, videos, texts, and at the same time reblog other people’s posts.  Users can follow other blogs and check what the users from those blogs have posted recently by visiting their own dashboard.  I think Tumblr’s intentional purpose is to provide a platform for people to share interesting photos, videos, or ideas online, much like the function of Facebook and Twitter.  I consider myself a bit of a movie geek, so I use Tumblr mostly to reblog other people’s posts featuring my favourite actors, movies, and TV shows (please don’t judge me).  Tumblr is also extremely efficient in spreading news because I can follow anyone from anywhere with no time zone limitations.  An example would be that I learnt about the Aurora shooting tragedy of The Dark Knight Rises midnight premiere in July almost immediately after it happened and certainly faster than my local Hong Kong TV news, because I happened to be scrolling down my Tumblr dashboard at that time.

Here’s an interview of Tumblr’s founder, David Karp, talking about why he founded Tumblr and what makes Tumblr different from many other social networking and sharing sites, e.g. WordPress, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Karp mentions in this video that he wants to create a more “free-form” kind of platform for users, in contrast with websites that you have a title and several paragraphs as a post.  He states that he aims for offering a platform for users to deliver their “limitless creative expression” that’s not limited to simply posting a music video on YouTube.  It is more about how many different things you can do on the website that makes Tumblr so attractive and addictive to people like me.

Here are the top comments of this video I find amusing:

Let’s go back to my account of a Thursday morning.  On my way to school I have to do something: sometimes I read a book (on Thursdays it would be the Digital Media textbook), but most times I just listen to songs on my iPhone during my one hour commute trip.  Once I arrive at CityU and secure a wi-fi connection, I use my phone to check the blackboard app, to see if there is anything new I should print out.  After the morning class, I use my phone to text or call my friends for lunch.

Almost everything I do involves my iPhone to a certain extent, even though I only got the phone this January.  Before I succumb to Apple’s advertisement and my Apple-loving friend’s peer pressure, I wonder why everyone wants a smartphone or why everybody’s holding one and looking at it intently on the MTR.  Now that I am an owner of a smartphone for almost a year, I cannot imagine what life would be without it.  It is not just a simple phone where you call and receive calls anymore; it is my alarm clock, journal, phone, instant messenger, computer, mp3 player, and Gameboy all rolled into one.  My life is so mediated through digital technologies, that if I don’t visit my Tumblr blog or have my phone in hand wherever I go, I develop anxieties and find it really hard to concentrate on everything else I should be doing.

I think Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan has a point when he called media “the extensions of men”.  What social networking sites have achieved in this world is phenomenal to me, and using Tumblr as an example, I can now chat and reblog whatever I am interested in from anyone in anywhere.  I can chat with a blogger I follow who lives in Australia, like a text post made by a blogger from America and reblog a photo from a blogger in Britain in a matter of seconds, and I don’t even need to know them to be brave enough to do it.

Here’s a text post I reblogged from a blogger living in America:

From my Tumblr dashboard, one can see what Karp means by “limitless creative expression”: I can easily begin a text post, chat, quote someone, link a video or audio by one click.

This is an example of me reblogging a gif set made by a blogger about my favourite movie Inception:

McLuhan (1964) explains it like this, “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex”.  The whole idea of building a relationship with other people is changed, and I don’t need to actually sit in a room full of people and try to introduce myself and communicate with them; instead I can just go online and chat with people whom I’ve never met and get rid of the time and space constraints posted in reality.  Social networking sites offer affordances on how we can relate to others, and I can publish anything and have a great number of audiences if the post is tagged properly.  Tumblr also has missing persons posts often and people reblog those posts to give it a signal boost and help to find the missing persons sooner; Tumblr being an online community actually brings people around the world who have similar interests closer regardless of time and space.

Another example is the use of smartphones.  By using whatsapp, we can talk to several people at the same time without much effort or delay, while it is impossible to talk to different people using just the phone.  However, as McLuhan points out, while new technologies extend certain parts of us, they amputate other parts.  Using a smartphone as an example, because of all the instant messaging devices created for convenience, most people text each other more than actually having a face-to-face conversation.  It would be exaggerating to say that personal relationships are under attack because of new technologies; nevertheless we really observe less of our surroundings, something we would have appreciated should we not have smartphones in our hands.

Human beings have created multiple tools to help them survive and achieve civilization since the beginning of time.  I think the way our lives are mediated by various digital technologies is a way to help people further develop their potential, and to better understand each other through the use of social networking sites.

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