Social media and your survival?

I’m reading a book called Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out for my library school class on makerspaces. The book is a compilation of studies of how today’s youth navigate, use, play, and grow up in virtual spaces in tandem with their interactions in physical space.

Early on, the book refers to “media ecology,” a new term for me. After some online investigation, I determined that it seems to refer to the study of how [communication] media facilitate interactions between people (an “ecology”). The wikipedia article on media ecology goes into far more depth on this, noting that the term was coined by Neil Postman in 1970. He wrote:

“Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival.”

How does your use of Facebook facilitate friendships? Does Twitter trigger new ties? Does email elucidate and edify? But it’s not just about communication and reflection; Postman used the word “survival.” Well, consider: if people use new media to form new relationships, those networks can indeed play a role in survival: friends, romantic partners, support networks.

McLuhan, another media ecologist, proposed the media tetrad as a framework in which any medium (or technology) might be analyzed. It asks you to brainstorm about what the medium enhances or improves, what it renders obsolete, what it retrieves (brings back from the past), and what it does in reversal (bad effects, in the limit). I found that rather abstract; it makes much more sense if you consider some examples.

I practiced by making my own tetrad about in-car navigation systems, which

  • generally improve the speed with which you reach your destination,
  • render paper maps (and back-seat navigators) obsolete,
  • retrieve confidence in finding places and not getting lost, and
  • with frequent use may reverse into a degraded personal sense of direction and location.

But going back to the media ecology concept, the main idea is that of connections and interactions. I thought this observation from the book was particularly astute:

“One of the important outcomes of youth participation in many online practices is that they have an opportunity to interact with adults who are outside of their usual circle of family and school-based adult relationships” (Ito et al., 2010, p. 7)

That is, it’s not just about other youth they might connect with, but adults as well, who might become mentors, instructors, friends, or protectors. I wonder how many youth make online connections of this kind (yes, not the creepy kind). How might my teenage years have been different, with the Internet to hand? There’s a tetrad to be sketched, right there.

This library wants you to play

Imagine a public library, and what comes to mind? Perhaps: a collection of books neatly arranged on shelves, wrapped in silence. Of course, most libraries offer far more than just books (CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, magazines, etc.) and services far beyond just access to physical volumes (storytime, literacy tutoring, lectures, book signings, Internet access, reference services, etc.). As a canonical stereotype, however, the static archive of (possibly dusty) books persists.

But now there are efforts to turn libraries into places where you can create, not just consume. One example is the Idea Box at Oak Park Public Library. This is a glassed-in space with a different design each month that lures visitors in to make their own mark. For National Poetry Month, the room was coated with magnetic paint and patrons used magnetic word tiles to assemble their own poems. For National Novel Writing Month, patrons were invited to write short stories about Oak Park and pin them to a map based on where they took place. Another month, patrons were given a book that had been covered in blank paper and invited to decorate it as if it told the story of their lives.

What an opportunistic take on creativity! Many of us may think that writing poetry or short stories or creating art is something that you must set aside a specific time for, and that kind of planned-out creative time may never actually happen. But, drawn in by a moment’s curiosity, you may discover that, given the chance to play with words or chalk or golf tees, an author or artist or composer lives inside you, too. The barrier to entry is so low that you unwittingly step over it as you enter the room. How many patrons, in creating such an ephemeral work of art, walk away with a memory that will linger well beyond the next renovation of the room?

My favorite Idea Box to date is one in which you are encouraged to create your own constellation. Brilliant!

Libraries exist to facilitate learning. Reading is one way to gain knowledge, and active, creative play is another. I’m delighted to see libraries experimenting with a broader view that engages people and enriches their experience of learning.

Power to the rovers

China’s Chang’e 3 mission means that we (humanity) once again have an active rover on the Moon, Yutu. It’s been a while since the Russian Lunokhod 1 (1970-73) and the Apollo LRVs (1971-72) were roving around on the surface!

And now we have some beautiful pictures from the Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu, which pointed their cameras respectively at each other. Delightful!

The Yutu rover is subject to some interesting operational constraints. It is powered by solar panels, which means that it can operate during the lunar day, but not the lunar night. Each of these lasts for two Earth weeks, so the rover operates for two weeks and then hibernates for the next two. It landed on December 14, 2013, and operated until December 25. It hibernated until January 11 and then woke up to resume operations. In a few more days, the sun will set and it will again go into hibernation. During the long, cold night, it relies on radioisotope heater units to keep it sufficiently warm for the wakeup to work.

In contrast, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which is also solar-powered, operates on a different timescale. It enters deep sleep each Martian night and wakes up each Martian morning, but the Martian day (sol) is much closer to an Earth day: 24 hours, 40 minutes long. This sleep is, indeed, deep: the rover disconnects its batteries from its Power Distribution Unit so nothing can draw any power. In the morning, sunshine on the solar panels causes the rover to reconnect its batteries and start running again. This mode of operation wasn’t part of the original plan; it was implemented after the rover’s first 100 sols when a stuck-on heater threatened to drain the rover of all battery power overnight. Forcibly disabling the heater by disconnecting the battery every night has kept the rover going for an additional 3450 (!) sols (to date).

The Mars Science Laboratory rover (Curiosity) has no solar panels and therefore, in theory, can operate at any time. In fact, it has done some nighttime surface imaging because it is unaffected by the position of the sun (and shadows) at night. It has also done some stargazing and collected images of the two moons of Mars at night. However, the rover has no headlights, so night driving would be risky; to my knowledge, it hasn’t been attempted. And nighttime operations require that more energy go into the heaters to keep the electronics warm enough, so they’re more costly from a power perspective. Still, it must be nice to be free of a forced hibernation. For maximum flexibility: carry your own power source!

Relationship benefits from pornography

Today I came across a mention of an interesting study, titled:

Female Partners of Men Who Use Pornography: Are Honesty and Mutual Use Associated With Relationship Satisfaction?

Annoyingly, only the abstract is available; the article costs $39. But from the abstract, we have:

“Participants reporting more honesty showed higher satisfaction and lower levels of distress, and participants disclosing mutual use showed lower levels of distress, although no differences were reported in satisfaction.”

… from which Scientific American concluded that being honest about your porn use leads to more relationship success. But it seems the study only interviewed heterosexual women about their male partners’ use of pornography. A bunch of questions crowded into my brain, like:

  • What if more honesty about anything leads to more relationship success (because you feel there’s more communication or whatever)? Where’s the corresponding study on honesty about something that isn’t porn?
  • Why is there an assumption that only men use porn, or that only women would be distressed by their partner’s use of it? Where’s the corresponding study on men’s opinion of their female partners viewing porn?
  • Why the restriction to heterosexual women? Clearly they really wanted to focus on male use of porn. Or there’s some assumption here that it’s a male-only thing. I don’t think that’s true?

So then I browsed around and found this article (of course we only get the abstract again):

Pornography Use: Who Uses It and How It Is Associated with Couple Outcomes

which looks at porn use by both men and women. However, it concludes that “overall results from this study indicated substantial gender differences in terms of use profiles” (I’d be interested to know what they were) and that:

“Specifically, male pornography use was negatively associated with both male and female sexual quality, whereas female pornography use was positively associated with female sexual quality.”

Here I think “sexual quality” means something like “sexual satisfaction.” Or does it mean the quality of the sex one has? It’s also not clear whether “associated” means “what these couples report thinking about it” or “what we actually measured in these couples,” and I’m curious about what the negative associations were. And if any of that $39 were to go to the authors of the paper, I’d be tempted to pay it and find out.

Instead, I was able to find someone else’s summary of this article, which clarifies:

“Specifically, the men in the study were more likely to view pornography alone than the women, and this led to lower levels of sexual desire and lower levels of sexual satisfaction for both the men and the women.

By contrast, the women in the study tended to only view pornography when they were sexually aroused, and do so in the company of their partners. This increased the sexual satisfaction of both the men and the women.”

This suggests that porn viewing as a couple activity can be beneficial. Is there room in our society’s generally negative, condemnatory, and narrow view of pornography to accommodate these findings?