The Double-edged Sword of Cyberdemocracy

February 16, 2011 at 11:50 am (Class Post, EMAC 6361, Government, Internet)

In his work “Cyberdemocracy: The Internet and the Public Sphere,” Mark Poster remarks that in order to think and discuss democracy and the public sphere in regards to the internet, we must be more open to new possibilities and to think beyond our traditional views of what democracy is and what the public sphere is. One of his critics, Gary Hall in Digitize This Book (specifically the chapter called “HyperCyberDemocracy”), remarks that Poster is being a hypocrite in that despite Poster’s call to think outside the box, he does not do so himself:

Even though he encourages or even pushes us toward taking the risk that is implied by his argument–that the Internet may require us to think beyond current conceptions of the public sphere, democracy, politics, and even scholarly authority–he stops short of taking this risk himself (p. 184).

While he does make a good point, this is the double-edged sword of talking about cyberdemocracy. It is true that our traditional views of defining democracy and the public sphere limit and prevent our understanding of how they have changed or evolved when they become involved with the Internet. We do need to break through these limits and notions to really open up how we can view this “new” democracy. But herein lies the problem.

In order for any of us to understand what the other is talking about, we must give examples and use definitions that we already know and have learned. This holds true for any new concept, not just democracy. When describing something new, we relate it to something we already know. A teacher builds on the knowledge a student has already learned by showing the connections between the two. Jesus Christ taught in parables because it helped his audience understand the concepts through telling stories that related to things they already knew.

Even Hall himself points out that it is practically impossible to have a new theory without relating it to past concepts and restrictions:

In fact, if politics on the Internet were absolutely new, it would be unrecognizable, since (as we know from chapter 3, and Derrida and Weber’s work on iterability) in order to be able to cognize something, we already have to be able to re-cognize it, that is, re-peat it, see or take it again, to be able to compare and assimilate this “new” object to that which is already known and understood. … [A]ny such responsible, hospitable opening to the political other would challenge the very modern, hegemonic, technologically determinist, and democratic ideas we depend on for our sense of the political (p. 180-1).

With that said, I think Hall is criticizing Poster for something that is beyond Poster’s control. In order for Hall to even be able to understand and criticize Poster and then explain why he thinks that way about Poster’s argument, Hall has to use and rely on the reader’s knowledge of democracy, the Internet, and the public sphere. Hall himself is guilty of the hypocrisy that he criticizes Poster about, but like he said it is “impossible to simply invent a new theory of politics” (p. 180).

And so is the double-edged sword of cyberdemocracy. We know we need to come up with something new and have a more open view and concept to define the internet and the public sphere and it’s connection and relation with democracy; however, we have to explain and develop this new concept using our old traditional views and definitions or else no one would understand what the heck we are talking about.

Man, if only we could hook up to the Matrix and instantly know everything.

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Superman Is You

February 16, 2011 at 10:06 am (Class Post, Clicktivism, EMAC 6361, Internet, Technology)

While looking around us at the state of the world and what society has become, many of us wonder why it’s so crappy. We wish and long for someone to come along and rescue us from the destruction and chaos that we have inflicted upon ourselves. We want a superhero to come and clean up our oceans like Captain Planet, or stop all of the corporate goons and villains from ruining and corrupting our Gotham like Batman, or maybe even reverse time like Superman. Unfortunately these superheros aren’t real, and no one person can swoop in and fix all that is wrong with the world.

But, what we need is not some stranger to come in and save us. What we need is us to realize that together we are stronger and together we can be the superhero that puts the world back together. Impossible you say? I disagree.

Perhaps the problem is that we have good intentions to make the world a better place, so we do things online like give to charities or become fans of nonprofit organizations on Facebook, but when it comes down to real, physical action on our part we flake out. We make up excuses because the work isn’t easy and we like the easier option of just clicking on something online because it makes us feel better about ourselves without having to put forth any real effort.

Or perhaps the problem is that our idea to save the world is too broad for us to formulate a plan and actions to produce that result. We cripple ourselves by thinking that because we can’t save the whole world, why should we bother doing anything at all? We don’t know how to get from where we are now to where we want to be, so we stay where we are. We need someone or something to show us the little steps that we can all work on together to help us achieve our ultimate goal.

In comes IfWeRanTheWorld.com to the rescue! Here’s how it works:

With the help of this website to bring us together, we can click on things that help us see the steps from point A to B. We can see these microactions and think to ourselves, “Yeah, I can do that. That’s pretty easy.” But the site helps us get away from our clictivist/slactivist tendencies because for some microactions it will require work–not so much it will be overwhelming, but just enough that we will rise to the challenge. I’m hopeful that the more of us that help and contribute to each other’s microactions and ideas, the closer we reach the goal of saving the world.

Because after all, you are our Superman. Save us.

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Panoptimism Today

February 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm (Class Post, EMAC 6361, Government, Internet, Privacy)

When I was in high school, all of my friends and I used to joke about how much our school felt like a prison. It was probably was because we felt constrained as teenagers, but a great deal of it had to do with the building. Almost all of the classrooms were on the inside of the building without windows; it was very rare to have a class that did. Then every classroom had one door to enter and exit into the hallway, but each room was separated from each other. Most times, the door had a window right next to it looking out into the hall for other teachers and administrators to look into the room. In the center of our school was the cafetorium, and right next to it was the principal’s and other administrator’s offices. While it wasn’t exactly a tower in the center of our school, and it was only two stories, in many ways it resembled this:

Panopticon used in an Illinois prison

This is a panopticon, originally designed by Bentham, that is used, mostly in prisons, as a way to keep surveillance over the inmates. Michel Foucalt in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison describes the design and use for the panopticon in greater detail and how it invoked a sense of “panopticism” that has been infused in our current governmental and disciplinary systems.

The key to the panopticon is that everyone is in their individualized cells, separated from each other, and can clearly be seen by those who are in the center tower. However, the individuals in their cells cannot clearly see those in the tower, so they are never sure if they are being watched or not. The important principle that is instilled in these prisoners is the fact that they can be watched at any time.

Now, we have progressed away from the physical building, to that of a society in which holds these same principles in the theory of panoptimism. Today, especially with the greater use of the internet, we have made ourselves more individualized, and made it easier for others to see our daily interactions and goings on. However, we still have a notion that someone, be it our friends, others in society, or the government, may also be viewing our information. We don’t know if they are looking at it right that minute, but we know they can. For the most part, we are encouraging this. We want others to see our status updates, where we check-in, and what links we share, but we are never really sure who’s viewing the information and when or if there are other people we don’t know about viewing it as well. And, because we never know when they are or aren’t viewing the information we are putting out there (and because our data is stored forever), it is an ongoing feeling of being watched, Fouccault’s ideal scenario:

An indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed…. The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures.

Panoptimism has penetrated all of our institutions and principles and discipline have become instilled in us. It helps maintain order and makes us more productive. But, being observed is a natural extension of that system, because it ensures that we remain productive and in order. The problem is it makes us all feel like we are in prison: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

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Playing Devil’s Advocate

February 2, 2011 at 1:08 am (Class Post, EMAC 6361, Government, Internet, Social Media)

Unless you avoid all news like the plague, or live under a rock completely unconnected to the world, you’ve heard about the social unrest, protests, and government upheaval happening in Egypt. You may have also heard that all of the protesters have been using the Internet and text messaging etc. to communicate with each other and organize themselves. You may have also heard that the government of Egypt shut the entire country’s internet down to put it to a stop.

Wait, you didn’t hear about that? Watch this, please:

Now as far as I’m aware, the Internet is still not back on for most of Egypt (someone correct me if I’m wrong). But, clearly, the shutting down of the Internet did nothing but annoy, aggravate, or delay the people using it to communicate with each other. Like what was said in the clip, they are still using other ways to get their message out.

As I started thinking about the situation that the Egyptian government has now put themselves in, I played devil’s advocate and wondered if they could have done it differently. By turning off the Internet, they just added more fuel to the fire not only with protesters, but other media outlets and foreign correspondents, which then caused other countries to be upset with them as well.

Perhaps instead they should have used the Internet to their advantage, rather than shutting it down completely.*

*Important note: I am in no way advocating or siding with the Egyptian government or it’s decisions. However, I think it is good to investigate what they could have done instead as a way to be prepared for the future. This same situation may happen again somewhere else, and those in that situation need to understand the enemy in order to defeat them.

Instead of shutting down all Internet communications, the Egyptian government could have used the Twitter hashtags and Facebook events to create their own protest events and locations under the guise of being a protester. The government could have created a protest meeting place and time where all of the citizens they are trying to control would show up to find police and security waiting and ready to arrest them.

Or they could have found out times and meeting places already set up just by following the Tweet stream or seeing the Facebook events and prepared accordingly.

Turning off the Internet for the country was a rather quick and rash decision on the part of the Egyptian government, but perhaps it was better they did that than what they could have done. I do think, however, the protesters have one thing going for them: willpower.

I wish them luck and hope and pray that most of them come out of this alive, living in a better time than now.

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The Blending of Public and Private Spheres

January 26, 2011 at 10:43 am (Class Post, EMAC 6361, Internet, Privacy, Technology)

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Jurgen Habermas bemoans the fact that the public sphere disintegrated because the separation between the public and private spheres dissolved and could not be distinguished from each other and together became a new social sphere. Habermas blames it on the fact that private families became consumers and they lost their connection to writing. While I’m not disagreeing with his reasoning, I think the real tragedy is not the creation of a social sphere so to speak, but of the loss of intimacy we used to have when the public and private spheres were separate.

The private sphere was mostly comprised of one’s family, and occasionally others were invited in to salons to discuss, but for the most part the public sphere pertained to the state and was kept away from the private domain or the home. However, once the two spheres started blending, “the intimate sphere, once the very center of the private sphere, moved to its periphery to the extent that the private sphere itself became deprivatized” (p. 152). Once the intimate sphere started becoming less and less intimate, there was and is a loss of connection and a disintegration of relationships with one another.

With the loss of the private and intimate sphere, it began to be replaced with a “sphere of pseudo-privacy” (p. 157). This is much worse than the disintegration alone of the private sphere. With this illusion, we are only deluding ourselves into thinking we have privacy, when in actuality, we do not:

The shrinking of the private sphere into the inner areas of a conjugal family largely relieved of function and weakened in authority–the quiet bliss of homeyness–provided only the illusion of a perfectly private personal sphere; for to the extent that private people withdrew from their socially controlled roles as property owners into the purely “personal” ones of their noncommittal use of leisure time, they came directly under the influence of semipublic authorities, without the protection of an institutionally protected domestic domain (p. 159).

We only create an illusion when we believe that by retreating into our home, away from the public, we have an intimate private sphere. This is even more true today than it was perhaps at the time when Habermas wrote this book. We go to work and school and have a public persona that we display while we discuss things with others. Then, we go home to where we can be ourselves and be private, only we do not have privacy because for most of us, we have a television (a connection to the public sphere within our private one), or access to the internet. Even more so, we have online identities that we can either use in the public or private sense. But, as we put more and more of our private lives online either with blogs, videos, or social media profiles, we no longer have an intimate sphere in which to go about our private lives. No matter how secure our privacy settings, no matter how few connections we make between our public and private lives, we still have blended our public and private spheres to a point where we are only fooling ourselves if we are convinced we have privacy and intimacy.

The question is not “Will it blend?” but rather “Can we un-blend it?”

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From Online to Offline

January 25, 2011 at 4:33 pm (Class Post, Clicktivism, EMAC 6361, Government, Internet, Social Media, Technology)

"Crosshairs" Map on Sarah Palin's Website

Recently, there has been much debate and controversy over the fact that the following map (to the left) provided on Sarah Palin’s website was the inspiration, for lack of a better term, behind the tragic shooting in Arizona.

While it remains to be seen on whether or not the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, was actually using this map as the reason for his attack, if it is true, it would make a rather strong case against those who wish to incite their fellow online protesters to action. Granted, I realize this is a terrible example, but I find the concept of using the internet and social media to produce real-life change intriguing. I’d just rather use it for good rather than for evil.

Take for example all of the websites and Facebook pages that various non-profit organizations have. They might have thousands of people flocking to their site or “liking” their page, but are they seeing any real results from those people? For example, the American Red Cross has a Facebook page in which 234,355 people “like” it, but of those 234,355, how many have donated blood or money or time for the American Red Cross? It’s easy to like a charity page on Facebook; it makes you feel good knowing that you are supportive, at least online, of that group, and more importantly that all of your friends can see how charitable you are as well. But, becoming a fan of an online page is not the same as donating your time, money, or resources to further the cause of that organization. This takes real effort, real-life effort.

More than likely, a majority of the people who like the American Red Cross page have donated in some way to the cause, but we can never really be sure. Making sure people know about your organization and advertising what it is that you do is important. Many organizations are all about creating awareness for their cause. But when do you stop creating awareness and start doing something about it? When do you transition from getting people to stop clicking and start volunteering? How do you get people to abandon their clicktivist attitude and adopt an activist one?

Using the internet and various social media tools are great to rally troops for your cause, but how can you then get those troops to step away from their computers (or various technologies) and go out into the real world to continue to do good. I sure hope that it will be easier to call people to action for good causes than for radical, extremist causes

All I want is,  both online and offline, world peace.

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Bit Hoarders

January 19, 2011 at 9:44 am (Class Post, Data, EMAC 6361, Government, Privacy, Technology)

After getting a few pages into Blown to Bits: Your Life Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Explosion by Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis, I couldn’t help but think of the TV show Hoarders. The show goes to people whose homes  are filled to the brim with things. It varies on what those things are, sometimes it’s wrappings of all kinds, or old appliances, or reams of paper, or clothes. Most often, these people have kept these things over several years, just letting it pile up and not being able to give up anything or throw anything out. The show’s therapist and crew tries to find out why they have kept these things and tries to help them, as the show website states, “start on the road to recovery” to clear away everything they have hoarded. Many times, the hoarders do not even know or remember what is in the piles of things they have kept, they just know that it’s important to them in some way, so it gets stored.

While there are other psychological elements that go into how and why the hoarders on the show are the way they are, I would argue that we have become digital hoarders. Our data storage capacities on our computers have grown larger and larger over the years because all of our data needs to be kept. It’s important to us (or to others) in some way, so we have to store it. Take a look at your email box. If you use Gmail, or something similar to it, you don’t ever have to delete an email ever. You can archive every email you have ever gotten. How many do you have? I’m not a very heavy Gmail user, so I’m only using 17% of my storage. Only 17%! I can save so much more and not even worry about it!

However, it’s not only what we look at and keep that gets saved. Think of all the “bits” that are recorded and saved in various memory banks and storage devices around the world about you that you don’t even know about. If you have a credit card, a bank account, a cell phone, etc. all of the information that can be obtained from those things gets stored, and “the data will all be kept forever, unless there are policies to get rid of it” (pg. 11). The difference between the Hoarders on the TV show and us digital bit hoarders, is that it is rather difficult to search through and keep track of the things that the real-life hoarders have held on to. For bit hoarders, though, it’s incredibly simple to search through, keep track, see trends, and research all of the data that is kept by us or about us.

Maybe it’s time we have an intervention and get help in clearing away our data and demand that policies are in place that allow us a little more privacy when it comes to our digital bits.

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Twitter Revolution

January 18, 2011 at 8:04 pm (Class Post, EMAC 6361, Facebook, Government, Internet, Social Media, Twitter)

Have you ever read the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card? If not, you really should because it is not only entertaining but despite having been written before I was born (1985) it is highly relevant to the world we live in today. Without going in great depth, the world in Ender’s Game is a futuristic one in which there is a war between humans and “buggers” (aliens), but much of the technology used and described in the fictional novel is almost identical, different in name only, to what technology we have now. All of the students have “desks” that contain their textbooks, homework, notes, etc. and are portable (much like an iPad). All of the desks can be connected to the “Nets,” and depending on the person’s access (student, civilian, official), they can communicate with others around the world that have that same access (our internet now, depending on access, allows the same thing). While the book also delves into interstellar travel and starfleet ships that we don’t have now (or do we and we just don’t know about it?), for the most part the technology translates easily from book to life.

In the book, two of the characters, both brilliantly smart and devious children, are able to use their father’s civilian access to create fake (several in fact) identities in various political chat rooms. After several months of creating their own online presence under these two differing pseudonyms, their sayings and opinions start catching on and are soon being repeated by other public officials. They are offered news columns to write these fake opinions and are invited to participate in more prestigious forums and discussions, eventually becoming the voice and standard battle cry for the rest of the world, with one side agreeing with one child and the other with the other child, inciting more than just heated debates (sorry I got to be vague so I don’t give it away!).

Now think for a moment what these two children were able to do using what we think of as the internet to the world in a fictional novel. Think something like that could be done in our world right now?

Just recently, there has been an ongoing revolt in Tunisia against the current president, which this last week was successful in removing President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power. According to the New York Times article I just linked to, the protests were spontaneous and occurred 4 weeks ago and were spread via Facebook and Twitter. While these protests were backed up by physical, real life protests (the videos of which were then shared online), it was spread through social media.

While the protests in Tunisia and the example from Ender’s Game differ in many ways, how the internet was used in Tunisia is almost like a primitive version to something like in Ender’s Game.

Which begs the question, if given enough time and enough resources, could there be an online only protest/revolution that would result in a physical change/repercussion?

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My Digital Thanksgiving

November 30, 2010 at 10:24 pm (Attention, Class Post, EMAC 6300, Internet, Movies, Skype)

Like most Americans, I spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my family eating delicious turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, green beans, and pie until we can’t anymore and then only do it all over again later in the day or the next day and the next till we run out of leftovers. This year, it wasn’t going to be any different, well, except for one thing.

My brother who is currently going to Utah State in Logan, UT was not going to be able to make it home for Thanksgiving. Flights were too expensive, he had to work, and frankly, coming home for Christmas three weeks later is a little more important, in my opinion, than coming for a long weekend for Thanksgiving. So, because my brother would be stuck in Logan alone with no friends or roommates to offer their house for some good eatin’, my mother (yes, my mom) had the brilliant idea to have us each (us and my brother) make their own respective Thanksgiving meals and then we would Skype each other while we ate so we’d still be eating “together.”

This is my brother through Skype waiting for the rest of us to sit at the table.

The family (minus me since I'm taking the picture) getting ready to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

Granted my brother isn’t much of an ambitious chef, so he had store bought rolls, just add butter and milk potatoes (although he forgot the butter, so he didn’t have potatoes) and a store bought rotisserie chicken as his turkey. But, we all ate together, with my brother even saying the prayer through Skype. After our dinner, we even attempted watching a movie together, but more on why that didn’t really work later.

Ok, enough of the background, let’s get to what really bugged me/I found interesting during this whole exchange. I thought it was awesome, first of all, that we could be together through the internet. Because the volume and picture were on, despite having one glitch/moment where it froze, it really felt like he was there in the room with us. Well, mostly. Because the webcam was built-in to my mom’s laptop, we constantly had to turn the computer from side to side so that he could see all of us instead of just staring at one person the whole time.

Also, because my brother was connected through the internet, I felt like I had to constantly keep up the conversation and communicate with him. Not that that’s a bad thing, but what I mean is that if he had actually been there in the room with us, I think we probably would have been content just enjoying the food and not really saying much. But, at least for me, I felt like because he was on the computer I had to keep him interacting with us. If we weren’t always talking to him, communicating via Skype would have been a bit of a waste. We might as well have had a framed picture of him there on the table then.

Then after the meal was over and we put away food/dishes etc., we decided we’d do what we normally do as a family, watch a movie. So, we put in the movie Elf and set my mom’s laptop on a barstool in front of the TV. Only… then my “brother” was blocking the view for the rest of us. So, we positioned it at an angle near one side. Only… my brother couldn’t really see the screen. We did the best we could, tilting the laptop, maneuvering the chair etc. Until… about 15 to 20 minutes or so into the movie, my brother gave up, got bored, and told us he was logging off and he’d call us later.

I suppose watching movies via Skype isn’t very practical. You don’t really get the same experience as you would had you been in the room. Instead you have to watch a smaller screened and somewhat pixelated/blurry version of the movie with bad sound. But, again, because we weren’t engaged in conversation with my brother, there was no real “he’s here with us” type of feeling because we were focusing on the movie and the laptop was facing away from us. He could have logged off without ever telling us, and we probably wouldn’t have noticed. I could see why my brother got bored and left. If I had been in his position, I could have watched my own copy of Elf on my own TV and it would have been the same and/or better.

So, this is what I’ve determined: The two parties must be actively engaged and interacting with each other via Skype to really make use of the technology and achieve the togetherness and “he is here with us” feeling. Without this participation on the part of both users, there is no real purpose and it would be just as easy to have a picture of the person there.

Skype is an excellent tool (and I kind of wish I had known about it when I was stuck in Utah over Thanksgiving during my undergrad, then I could have avoided awkward Thanksgivings with extended family). But, it’s only truly excellent when you use it in its fullest extent/range. To leave one side or the other of the conversation static, the other side no longer feels needed or feels the togetherness. When this happens, it is not the technology that fails, but the user/s.

The experiment, for the most part, was a success. My only other complaint is that my brother couldn’t help with the dishes through Skype. Skype should really work on fixing that problem.

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Facebook “Email”: The Future of Letter Writing

November 17, 2010 at 1:16 am (Class Post, EMAC 6300, email, Facebook, Internet, Social Media, Technology, TV shows)

Recently, I’ve been hearing radio commercials for a new show that started tonight that intrigued me. It’s on TBS, and it’s called Glory Daze. After having watched it, I will say, it’s not my type of show and I won’t be putting it on my DVR schedule, although I will say it’s mildly funny. It’s basically like an Animal House set in 1986, only not as funny or great. But, here’s what piqued my interest while I heard the radio commercial: One of the main female leads tells the main male lead that she has to go to the technology building “to learn about the future of letter writing. Something called electronic mail.” To which the male lead replies, “What? That sounds retarded! More like retarded mail!” And she responds, “I know!”

Yeah, this was the only scene I really liked in this episode. I’m just not the right audience for this show (read teenage boy). Now, the reason I thought this scene was so great is because I’m sitting in 2010, not 1986, knowing that “electronic mail” is definitely not retarded and has definitely become the future of letter writing (letter writing? people still do that?). In fact, email may become a small component of what may soon be the new future of “letter writing.”

Facebook has now unveiled it’s new “social inbox” in which your Facebook messages can be combined with texts, emails, IM/chat, all in one place so it’s faster; because according to the “young people” Mark Zuckerberg talked to, “email is too slow.”

Wow… email is too slow? Remember that thing we started to call “snail mail”? What are the kids calling email these days? “Sloth mail”?

I jest, but I really am intrigued by this new Facebook “Not email” system and how it will catch on (despite my ever increasing fear that Google and Facebook are trying to take over the world). I kind of like many of the features that are available, and you know what it was that made me like it? The explanatory video by Facebook:

At the end, he explains that he wants his box of letters like his grandmother had. I, too, have always wondered how I’d show my future children about how their dad and I  got together/fell in love etc. through love letters (like my parents have with me) because I know that the majority of these love “letters” wouldn’t be letters at all but texts, chats, emails, FB posts/messages and the like. I love the idea of having it all in one place saved in a chat history, much like the “conversation” emails are set up on Gmail. In fact, it reminds me a little bit of the new Google Voice platform that rings all of your phones so you’re always reachable with just one phone number. Apparently we’ve fragmented ourselves so much that we need things like Google Voice and Facebook’s social inbox to put us back together again in one piece place.

Speaking of Google… apparently there’s some controversy between them and Facebook involving this not email thing. Hopefully they’ll work things out so the kids can play with these new toys. Perhaps we should suggest marriage counseling?

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