Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reality - How screens seem to change it for us

Evolution has not prepared us for using technology to communicate. So it is no surprise that we say and do things using technology that we would never do face to face. How bad could that be? A lot worse than you might think, maybe even bad enough to make us hurt or kill.

I’m not talking about computer games where we spend endless hours slaughtering people shaped pixels.   What I am really talking about is the way interacting with the world through technology helps or allows us to do things we would otherwise never do. Like ‘kill’

Taking another life is against most peoples core values. Even soldiers faced with the prospect of going into battle for the first time are as worried about killing as being killed. As one World War 2 soldier put it: “Here I am brought up a good Christian, obey this and do that. The ten commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill’…”

Killing is an extreme and rare event, not something that is easy to study. But there was one experiment that looked at how far people would go to obey orders.

The Milgram paradox, or why machines may make us killers

Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments, which involved people, who thought they were working as ‘teacher’s’ using a machine which they believed was administering electric shocks to a ‘learner’ in another room–to improve the learners memory. As the experiment progressed the ‘teacher’ is instructed to increase the level of the shocks, up to fatal levels, by an ‘authority figure’. You can get a flavour of the experiment in this, at times uncomfortable to watch, YouTube video of a BBC re-creation of the experiment.

The paradox is in the results.

With the authority figure in the room, and the ‘learner’ in a different room about two thirds of Europeans and Americans will continue pressing switches on the machine up to what they believe is a fatal level. They will act even though they feel uncomfortable, and that what they are doing is against their values.

The aim of the Milgram experiment was to determine peoples level of obedience to authority. So where is the paradox?

Compare the two thirds of Milgram subjects willing to administer fatal electric shocks with the experience of soldiers in combat for the first time.

Here is a summary of Colonel Jim Channon’s account of leading fresh troops in Vietnam. Advancing, past the bodies of other American soldiers who had been killed days before, his troops came under fire. After about twenty seconds he thought ‘Why is nobody shooting?’ Channon ordered his men to fire, they all missed. If Milgram is only telling us something about obedience to authority then two out of three of the soldiers should have been shooting to kill.

Yet Channon’s experience mirrored research from World War 2 which suggests that four out of five troops in combat avoid shooting to kill. Soldiers are subject to strict conditioning to prepare them to obey orders in combat situations. They are acting under the direct command of a significant authority figure, the are in among friends, fellow soldiers, whom they expect to follow orders, yet the majority obey their instinct not to kill.

That is the paradox. Using Milgram’s machine two out of three men seem prepared to kill. Yet using gun’s in combat only one in five men is prepared to kill.

Either a majority of people are obedient to authority to the point of taking another life or something else is going on. Where we get two different sets of results we have to look at the situations. In both cases people were responding to a direct instruction from an authority figure. In the Milgram experiment the subjects were not looking at the person they might kill, while Channon’s soldiers had to look directly at their enemy, in order to aim.

Competing Realities

While there are other interpretations about the level of obedience to authority involved in the Milgram experiment I wonder to what extent the results are influenced by the competing ‘realities’ involved. In other words if, in part, the outcome could be weighted by the ‘authority figure’ in the room being more real for the ‘teacher’ than the learner who is only contacted using technology.

I am not suggesting that the ‘teacher’ is not influenced by what they perceive of the ‘learner’ as a person. Simply that we are not equipped, as humans, to make judgments based on remote contact with another person. So because the ‘authority figure’ in the room is part of the same environment and providing much more sensory input–seen and heard directly with the eyes and ears–the ‘teacher’ takes more account of them.

One way to test  if this intuition is true or not is to look at how results of variations of the Milgram experiment change if the proximity between the ‘authority figure’ or ‘learner’ and teacher is changed. Indeed these show that lower proximity to the ‘authority figure’ reduce compliance, as does closer proximity to the ‘learner’.  That could be seen as indicating that the technology, the ‘apparatus’ itself was a significant factor in the reasons ‘teachers’ were more likely to 'kill'.

Us and them

Many of us have had the experience of looking back an e-mail we have sent and been a little shocked at how we expressed ourselves. Or maybe you have received a text or e-mail that caused an argument with a friend.

We know that what, and how, we communicate using technology is different from how we communicate face to face. Why do we say things differently–and say different things–using e-mail and text messages than in a conversation. One of the big differences is in how we make judgements about other people.

There is a wealth of research to explain the de-personalisation and dis-inhibiting effects of using technology to communicate. Using a phone or computer we miss all of the subtle interaction with the people we are communicating with. Because we are missing all the little clues that help us understand people we fall back on using stereotypes, simple pictures of our world and the  people in it.

We can experience other peoples thoughts, expressed online, almost as if we are talking to ourselves. If we reply in as if we are talking to ourselves we may be much more open than in normal conversation.  On the one hand this may lead to a strong sense of bonding, if the conversation is positive. On the other hand if we don't like what we hear, and the communication method lacks the instant feedback and correction we use to smooth day to day conflicts, it can feel like emotional hit and run.

In an online group situation just a little positive feedback helps us feel the other people in the group are like us. And, without all those subtle clues to personality,  we are more likely to go along with the groups opinions.

Using technology we often, for the flimsiest reasons, assume that either the person we are ‘talking’ to has the same values as we do, is one of us: Or we picture them as an outsider, the other, one of them.  We are more willing to go along with the people who we think of as ‘us’ and more willing to go against ‘them’.

Behaving in a changed world 

The import point to understand is that we think and act differently when faced with a screen rather than a person.

This should not be a surprise. We have only had a generation or two to get used to remote communication.. We may try to develop etiquette for it, but we have not had time to understand how the technology makes us think differently about the people we are communicating with.

Looking at the Milgram experiment with fresh eyes gives just a glimpse of how great those changes might be. Our tools change how we see and shape the World.

I would hesitate to go so far as to say that our screens–our phones, our gadgets–might make us more likely to hurt or even kill someone. But then again research shows one in five young people have received messages threatening violence, one in twenty has gotten a message encouraging them to harm themselves.

Hiding behind a camera could just get you killed, but the screen could just make you a killer.


Milgram, Stanley ‘Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View’ HarperCollins, 1974

Ambrose, Stephen E.  ‘The Victors’ Simon & Schuster, 2004

Ronson, Jim ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ 2004 Picador.

Online Disinhibition Effect
John M. Grohol,

A new perspective on de-individuation via computer-mediated communication
Russell Haines and Joan Ellen Cheney Mann

CyberPsychology & Behavior. June 2004, 7(3): 321-326. 
John Suler.

Associated Press-MTV  Digital Abuse Survey August 2011
Knowledge Networks

Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey, May 2009
Cox Communications

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reality - and how to miss it

Sometimes not even a stick of dynamite will make you see the reality hidden beyond our cameras and screens.

Fooled by our Senses

There are a couple of ways in which our senses fool us all the time when we are using technology, cameras and screens.

Seeing the picture, and missing what’s in front of us

I once had the task of photographing a Caribbean Carnival. My pictures showed it was a fun day out. So I decided that next year I would be back without a camera. Why? Because I have learned that a camera often blocks you from experiencing the reality of what you are photographing.

September 11th 1974 - Bombing of Blacklion, Cavan, Ireland
Let me explain: When I was a student, interested in cameras but with no idea which way my career should go, I got a golden opportunity to take some news photos. I was in Blacklion in1974, when a car bomb was driven there in one of the little reported UVF (pro British) terrorist attacks on Ireland. Here are a few of the pictures I took the following morning:

A bomb disposal officer had set off a controlled explosion which blew up the car without detonating the bomb. To get the first shot I ran in ahead of the fire brigade.

While the car was still burning, the EOD officer came in to recover four pounds high explosives and a ten gallon drum filled with homemade AMPHO explosives, which had been thrown onto the street by the blast.

And yes that is a gas station, next to the burning car, where the explosives landed.

Capt. Boyle was both skillful and brave; he knew that there were enough explosives there to destroy the whole village; he was there to make it safe for the clean up to begin.

When I was taking these pictures I was neither brave nor clever. Because I was looking through a camera, framing pictures, I was blind to the danger to myself and others. At least as soon as I saw the pictures I had the sense to realise that news photography was not the career for me.

Also at the time I was taking the pictures it did not register with me that people I knew, had grown up beside, had come close to being killed, had been evacuated from their homes and now had to put right the damage.

View from McNean house after bomb explosion, 1974
Among the people who had to try to put their businesses back together on this occasion were the parents of celebrity chef Nevin Maguire. Three months before he was born they had this scene outside their front door. MacNean House, and all the other businesses in the Black’, had to live with troops and sandbags to protect them for the next twenty years before a return to some normality.

Seeing the screen but not getting the picture

The other way that we are often fooled by our senses is that when we see images, like these of destruction, they are framed by our TV’s, our computers, our rooms our homes. The reality we are seeing is not part of our reality—we don’t put on a coat when we see pictures of snow.

Some of us can be fooled by cameras some of the time. But we’re all fooled by the screens we see the pictures on. But that is another story.


A report of the 11th September 1974 bombing of Blacklion is contained in the Barron Report see Interim Report on the Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Bombing of Kay’s Tavern (p167).

The concept that failure to have situational awareness, as a photographer, can cause problems is widely recognised. Only looking through the camera and not around you can lead to falls, walking in front of moving vehicles, or other dangers.

We never get a clear, true, and full picture of reality. We humans are constantly getting through—making sense using whatever scraps of information we have.

Often we get things wrong. The marvel is how far we’ve come, and that we keep going.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Keep talking…

Reed's 2nd Law: on communications
(An Elaboration)

Reed’s 3rd Law on Group Forming Networks is widely known. His 2nd Law was invented to explain a paradox he observed: most communications channels spend most of their 'bits' conveying 'information' already known to the receiver. In information theory these ‘bits’ are redundant. Human factors explain why we need them.

This is David Reed’s 2nd Law: Communications media exist to confirm the prejudices of their audience.

And this is my elaboration of the law: The more open the communications loop the higher the level of information restatement as senders: compete for Focus, need to demonstrate Agreement on meaning, and must establish Trust, with the receiver.


David Reed wrote: “This law was invented to explain a paradox that troubled me for a long time: why do most communications channels spend most of their 'bits' conveying 'information' already known to the receiver.

In information theory, a bit of information is defined to be the distinction between two equally likely possible states, where the actual state is unknown to the receiver, but known to the sender. Sending a bit of information from the sender to the receiver allows the receiver to reach the same state of knowledge as the sender. If the information is actually known to the receiver already, it is, of course, unnecessary to transmit anything to ensure that the receiver knows what the sender knows.

The paradox appears when we look at any of the dominant communications media, such as television broadcast news. Stories are repeated over and over again, commentators make the same, entirely predictable comments, etc. When you think about it, it's quite easy for any member of an audience to simulate or satirize the content on almost any communications medium. If so, why do we need to waste the expensive bandwidth to deliver to the audience what it already knows is coming?

Thus we must look beyond information theory to explain why we need all those television bits, or radio bits, or newspaper bits, etc.

Looking beyond information theory—something I often do—I see there are a few significant factors which come into play when communicating with people. These can be summarised as focus, agreement and trust, and the more remote the communication the more important these factors are.

Broadcasting messages to a human audience, is perhaps the most open form of communications loop.  Focus, agreement and trust are, I believe, are the key factors which promote re-statement in human communications.


Firstly humans are limited communication devices; we can only accept and process a limited number of bits at any one time. Even when we appear to be attending to a message our focus may be elsewhere. Perhaps the most common experience of this is when we see a favorite movie or painting again and notice something we had missed previously. Psychologist George A. Miller demonstrated that, in tests, humans can attend to roughly seven distinct simple stimuli. Most communications are complex and could easily overload us as receiver if we did not filter out irrelevant information. More recently neuroscience suggests that in order for our brains to work quickly and efficiently we also need to forget what our brains judge irrelevant.

Thus many, perhaps the majority, of information ‘bits’ received by humans will be discarded. So for a ‘bit’ to get through it may need to be resent many times.


Secondly humans communicate using tokens which encode the meaning of events and data. Sender and receiver will often not have an agreed shared meaning for a new bit of data. If agreement on meaning could be taken as a given then all phone calls to help desks would be answered simply and easily! In reality human communication is plagued by differences in meaning. We see these communications differences clearly when we look at learning styles. There are many different theories about learning styles. All suggest that to get a group of people to learn a piece of information it may need to be repeated in different ways to get a closer match with each learners preferred style of receiving communications. Some people need the detailed spelled out, some need to see the big picture first.

Repeating known information in slightly different ways can be used to build up shared agreement.


Thirdly, in information theory all bits have equal value, because information theory does not look at quality of information. In human communications quality can be vital. (For example: Can I trust this person to tell me the safest way across the desert?)  The issue of trust is most acute where the data has programmatic effect, in other words accepting the data as valid will cause us to think differently. (For example: They are telling me that white birds landing on that tree mean that it is going to rain. Should I act accordingly in future?).

So how do we know who we can trust? Usually by association—can we rely on what they have told us before, are the contradicting themselves, does someone we respect agree with them.
Information about the identity of the sender, consistency of message and authoritative support can help ensure that new ‘bits’ of information are accepted as trustworthy.


The old saying that ‘half the money spend on advertising is wasted, you just don’t know which half’ may in fact be missing the point. It can be essential to ‘waste’ resources on communicating with people in order to get your message through.

If you need to get your message through then:
  • Keep getting the message out there, so that you catch the audience’s attention.
  • Use different ways of getting the message across. Not everyone will respond to tightly worded text. Some people need to see the picture to understand.
  • Be consistent and reliable if you want people to trust your message. Even better show that the message is supported by someone the audience already sees as an authority.
 If you want to be heard, keep talking..