I Spy

History TableclothIn 2007, researchers at the University of London developed a flexible screen-printed tabletop called the History Tablecloth. When objects were placed on the Tabletop surface, its electroluminescent material formed a grid of glowing, lace-like patterns. The longer an object sat on the table, the further the halo expanded; upon removing the object, the halo would slowly fade to nothing.

Scientists create inventions like the History Tablecloth in order to evoke a higher level of interpretive recognition. Traditional roles in human-to-object interaction are always in flux; if we can better understand the social dynamics of ubiquitous computing, we might gain insight into the use of such technologies to enhance our person-to-person relationships.

The opinion here is that the History Tablecloth has greater metaphorical significance in the marks that remain after something has been removed. We suspect this is why people carve their initials into trees and public park benches. Everyone wants to gain a small degree of immortality by leaving some sort of imprint on the world. The temptation to commit is irresistible, for some people, even if they know the act itself is fundamentally wrong.

Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook). From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take Part.
Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook. From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take PartTake Part).

Last week, a family vacationing in Oregon were publicly shamed on social media for carving their names into a metal railing overlooking Tumalo Falls Park. Hiker Brett Nelson documented the incident on his Instagram account and Facebook page, getting more than 53,000 people to share the image. This was enough to gain the attention of the U.S. Forest Service, who as of this writing have threatened the alleged vandals with steep penalties (a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in jail).

child in dunce cap

The past few years have produced a number of studies to determine whether we are born with a fundamental understanding of moral ethics. Abigail Tucker writes that the factors influencing our cognitive bias between right and wrong can seem quite arbitrary, and they fluctuate wildly under observation:

“Day to day, babies can seem unfeeling and primitive, or at the very least unfathomably bizarre, afraid of donkeys one minute and the moon the next, their prismatic minds beaming nonsense and non sequiturs instead of the secrets of our higher nature. No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies.”

One thing we do know: the digital realm has fully encroached into our personal space. We no longer have to make a conscious decision to interact with transmitted data, and much of it is received via nondeliberate events. Computers are increasingly part of our environments: toys, home appliances, books, clothing, furniture, jewelry, shopping malls, airports, hospitals, schools, office buildings. Devices are carried, sensors are worn, chips are implanted.

It’s possible that one day, the act of carving one’s initials on a metal railing will initialize a virtual network of national park activists. Whether that delights or frightens us probably has a lot to do with how we feel about Nelson’s conviction in doing what he felt was right, as well as the ease by which a transgression can be catastrophized by 53,000 people.

To be fair, it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for someone who intentionally vandalizes public property (especially in full view of a parent) and justifies the act by petulantly claiming “We can do what we want.” At the same time, moral imperatives are fleeting, like those haloes in the History Tablecloth, but their digital footprints remain long after the event that inspired them is forgotten.

Inevitable Accidents

Lisa McElroy, Drexel Law Professor

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”

So says Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. England has developed a mathematical formula that he believes explains the fundamental components of how life begins and evolves. Put simply, when an external source of energy is applied to a grouping of matter, under certain conditions the matter will gradually restructure itself in order to disperse more energy.

Which bring us to the story of a Drexel University law professor, her careless job of copying & pasting a simple URL, and the crucible of public judgment. Lisa McElroy, teacher and professor at Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, used the University’s network earlier this month to share a link with her students about writing legal briefs. Unfortunately, the link took students to a Pornhub video, which (as one can detect from the name) streams explicit sexual content for free.

Email sent by Lisa McElroy to her students

A number of McElroy’s students allegedly complained about the email, which McElroy insists was delivered in error. Some of McElroy’s supporters suggested that her system was hacked. Still, Drexel administrators felt compelled by the incident to conduct an investigation to determine if McElroy’s actions should result in sexual harassment and misconduct procedures. As of this writing, according to a Drexel spokesperson, McElroy has been “cleared to continue her academic and research responsibilities” and still holds her teaching position at the University.

Lisa McElroy on MillionaireLisa McElroy is no stranger to the public spotlight; you might recognize the name from her appearance as a contestant on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? She is also well regarded in her profession, having earned a doctorate from Harvard Law School and authoring several children’s books about Supreme Court justices. And she knows how to use the media. In an op-ed piece appearing in the Washington Post last week, the professor says she was “mortified” upon discovering what she had sent to her students, yet called the incident “pretty trivial” compared to the public shaming she received when the story went viral:

“I was sure I had lost my dignity forever. Unsurprisingly, some students spread word of the incident through social media and anonymous e-mails to the media. Everyone was talking about me … still, no one questioned the dignity of those who forwarded the unintended post. No one asked why, if they found it so offensive, students opened the link, with its unmistakable Web address, and watched the video long enough to know what it contained. No one publicly questioned the dignity of the so-called journalists who wrote salacious stories [and] called my unpublished cellphone number.”

Beyond a desire to cause ridicule or suffering, there is nothing ideological about the way digital mobs organize themselves at the first hint of a public figure’s downfall. The digital mob’s most distinctive attribute is the speed at which thousands of participants can be spontaneously whipped up into an irrational frenzy. Once released, the ensuing tidal wave of damage is nearly impossible to contain. In the days before social media, such activities would take place within the geographic constraints of a street corner, city park or town square. Today it takes only a single, well-timed tweet or an anonymous blog comment to publicly eviscerate someone’s reputation.

SocratesLisa McElroy’s piece in the Washington Post resembles a latter-day version of Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates declares that the wisdom of all philosophy begins with a sincere admission of ignorance. Her most poignant statement is one she never makes: how or why she had access to that link in the first place. Perhaps that’s not the point, as some journalists have suggested, if we choose to believe that what happens in the privacy of one’s own home or IP address is nobody else’s business. Still, we can always expect conjecture to play a strong role in identifying why and how these things happen. David Lat of Above the Law offers an interesting hypothetical: perhaps McElroy’s gender and personality contributed to the story becoming a bigger spectacle than originally warranted:

“One can’t help wondering whether the schadenfreude surrounding ‘Beadgate’ reflects student antipathy towards a less-than-popular professor, whether ‘tough’ women professors get a bad rap, and whether students would have tattled to the administration about a more well-liked member of the faculty … we all have our private vices and we all make mistakes.”

At worst, one could argue that McElroy’s “mistake” was to reveal herself as a sexual human being with poor proofreading skills. One could also argue that McElroy’s piece in the Post smacks of self-righteous opportunism. (Comparing the recovery periods of public humiliation and cancer, while well-intentioned, may not solicit favorable empathy from all members of her audience.) That said, these supposed transgressions certainly don’t position her accusers on a higher plane of moral immunity. Wrong behavior should be punished; however, the consequences of wrong choices worsen inexorably under heightened examination and scrutiny. The fairness of that social dynamic is as questionable as the acts that inspire it.

entropyLike all forms of energy, the attention surrounding Lisa McElroy’s email will disperse in time. Physicists tell us that energy is more likely to diffuse into the atmosphere than be concentrated into one location; they call it “the arrow of time.” They also tell us that entropy occurs naturally, allowing for a degree of randomness in terms of how and where thermal energy will next be collected. This is an overly scientific way of saying that what happened to Lisa McElroy could potentially happen to anyone. At least she had the benefit of being part of an academic community, limiting the field of propagators to an identifiable group. This was an opportunity that Socrates did not enjoy:

The main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought … all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.


The Words Bounce Back

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Portrait of William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare’s famous lines from The Merchant of Venice are a reminder that our emotional response to trauma is a natural part of being human. Our nervous systems use feelings of regret and despair as learning signals, helping the prefrontal cortex of our brains frame the best solutions to problems from multiple options.

We like to think in terms of everyone following a moral compass: the inherent understanding that the world around us operates according to a general sense of fairness and doing what is right. As a result, we delicately balance our levels of trust according to the social situation before us. A conversation we have with a longtime friend will have a different weighting than one with our employer, for example, and we expect a certain degree of reciprocity in return.

Rollo MayThe problem is that compasses break. In his book Man’s Search for Himself, Rollo May wrote that “the person who feels weak becomes a bully, the inferior person the braggart; a flexing of muscles [and] cockiness are the symptoms of covert anxiety.” We can take this a step further by stating that bullying is a compensatory exercise, often committed in isolation from the accepted standards of right and wrong in which we believe to reside.

Cyberbullies operate in a sort of anonymous netherworld, whereby they feel unaccountable for the consequence of their actions. Perpetrators of online harassment see themselves from a distance, almost as benign observers psychologically shrouding themselves from personal repercussion: I’m just someone on a computer. Usually, the only way to bring any sense of fairness to the cyberbullying equation is to expose instigators on a public or legal platform.

The good news is that victims of cyberbullying are taking strong steps to reclaim their lost dignity in the digital ecosystem. Consider the case of Cassey Ho, a physical trainer who this week released a video in which she edits her body according to nasty recommendations she received online about her physique:

Or this revealing segment produced by the Canadian Safe Schools Network, showing students reading messages criticizing their weight, appearance, ethnic background and more:

The Canadian example above is indicative of the creative ways in which schools are removing the veneer around cyberbullying. In North Sydney, Australia, a group of touring high school students performed a musical called Connected, which has already been staged at ten schools across New South Wales. Lana Nesnas, a vocal coach and director of the program, reinforced Rollo May’s assertion that insecurity is the root cause of all forms of harassment:

“A cyberbully will pick on everything you don’t like about yourself. They are cowards who think they are anonymous and won’t be held accountable, and while you stay afraid in your room and don’t tell anyone, the bully has the power. You can tell the students that have been dealing with it by the way they react to the show.”

Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph
Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph.

Of course, there are more traditional methods of dealing with cyberbullies: lock them up. This week, Robert Campbell received a six-year prison sentence for creating fake social media profiles of people he believed had slighted him in the past. Campbell also sent emails of a crude sexual nature to his victims, sometimes twisting personal details of their lives to portray them as racist. “He studied his victims to find their vulnerabilities,” said Judge Ann Alder during sentencing. “He made it very personal and very real.”

Lest we applaud the use of revenge to get back at cyberbullies, we should remind ourselves that personal vengeance is often the inspiration that drive this behavior from the start. “Revenge porn” cyberbully Kevin Bollaert was sentenced to 18 years in prison for running a website featuring explicit photographs of his victims, which he removed only after extorting money from their accounts. Bollaert’s primary targets were ex-lovers who had rejected him; the website was his way of getting back at them. As with all matters related to the heart, there is a deliciously Shakespearean theme to be unearthed:

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit.

Most Will Get This Wrong

Rubik's CubeReaders of a certain age will recall a period in the early 1980’s when Rubik’s Cube was all the rage (back when people still said things like “all the rage”). For a brief time, it was nearly impossible to go anywhere or do anything without being confronted with some reference to the puzzle or the Hungarian professor who invented it. The item has sold 350 million units to date and is easily the world’s top-selling toy of its kind.

LinkedIn is the largest professional social network on the Internet, currently reporting more than 260 million users worldwide since its launch in 2003. The first tentative steps into the world of business-oriented social media came with a set of expectations for participation, not unlike those dictating one’s professional conduct at an in-person business function. For those who wished to expand their circle of contacts beyond conventional networking channels, the platform was a godsend.

"solve if you are a genius" puzzle, with the answer being an upraised middle fingerToday, these two seemingly disparate streams have converged. As the lines between business and social networking have become increasingly blurred, the typical LinkedIn user can expect to see at least one puzzle of some sort in their daily feed. On Monday, it’s a mathematical equation with the headline “Solve This If U R a Genius” affixed to the top. On Wednesday it might be a word search puzzle, inviting us to join the 2,703 commenters who previously discovered the inspirational message hidden within. Some puzzles attempt to pry into the psychological makeup of the user, operating as a sort of abridged version of the Myers-Brigg indicator. Other puzzles attempt to predict what sort of career we should pursue based on our first name.

Although seemingly innocuous fun, the choice to participate in a puzzle on someone’s LinkedIn feed does raise hypothetical questions. Are we naturally conditioned to think better or worse of a co-worker who didn’t know that 7+7/7+7×7-7=50 (or is it 14)? If a prospective employer researches a candidate’s background on LinkedIn, do her chances of landing the job decrease or increase because she located the word “universe” in a word search puzzle? Have our professional standards relaxed to the point where I could bring a Rubik’s Cube to a job interview?*

cartoon with caption "I would have hired you if you didn't post math problems on LinkedIn"LinkedIn is now such an accepted component of doing business that we are constantly besieged with articles telling us what behaviors to avoid when using the product. Anything can be considered LinkedIn taboo, from failing to include a profile picture to having not enough (or too many) personal recommendations. Still, there is little in the way of journalistic guidance when it comes to online puzzles. We want to believe (and the research seems to indicate) that a fun working environment is a more productive one. Most of us recognize that there’s a time and place for frivolity, however, and a time and place to be serious and get things done.

LinkedIn has experienced its share of backlash in recent years. Some users have cited the platform’s increasing failure to properly qualify prospective connections, a by-product of the “broad and shallow” recruiting model often employed by mass networking agencies. Others have accused LinkedIn advertisers of flooding inboxes with spam messages, saying the platform offers too little value for the cognitive investment. Kendra Eash of the New Yorker recently published a column of honest LinkedIn recommendations which, like all satire, hits just close enough to home to be brilliant:

“How can I sum up Judy in just one paragraph? I can’t, because she will probably rewrite it. A brilliant micromanager and leader of team anxiety, she never met a project she didn’t want to take over. Judy has inspired thousands of eye rolls during her time here, and anybody that’s going to work with her deserves to be warned in advance.”

LinkedIn is an easy target because we expect better from a professional networking website. The inclusion of puzzles on our feeds increasingly risks distancing us from our purpose for being there, disguising digital pablum as meaningful engagement. That said, the viral attraction of puzzles might have business value as a mechanism for screening talent. Already, headhunters have begun posting arithmetic problems (“If you can solve this, I might be interested in hiring you”) as a way to thin the field of prospective job candidates.

This is where things get uncomfortable: the realization that important, real-world decisions might be made on the basis of someone’s performance on a simple (almost stupid), diversionary task. It’s akin to hiring a finance manager because they can beat your top salesperson at Monopoly. How long before such tactics of dubious intention are widely repurposed by principled organizations, and what effect might this have on the future of business interaction?

*Personal caveat: I solved Rubik’s Cube when I was in sixth grade, but for some reason my clients and employers haven’t been impressed by this achievement.