Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Want International Respect? Unwrap a Mummy

"I want this work to be perfect so the world will respect us."
- Zahi Hawass, Egyptologist and Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (Unwrapping King Tut)
I took a break from the Olympics to tune into the Discovery Channel special concerning the work Dr. Zahi Hawass and his team have been doing with Tutankhamun's mummy. Researchers have determined that Tutankhamun's death was likely due to malaria and a degenerative bone disorder. Using DNA testing, hieroglyphs, and artifacts, Hawass and his team set out to fill in the missing chapters of the boy king's life. The documentary proved to be more a testament to Hawass' authority more than anything else, showing us how media can be mobilized to establish ownership and authenticity. [Right: Tutankhamun's funeral mask. Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.]

Throughout the program, Hawass demonstrates extraordinary care and thoroughness that surely even non-archaeologists can appreciate. His persona is pensive, analytical, and deeply immersed in the world of Egyptian antiquities. Though he's a rather controversial character, with every carefully crafted scene that made it past post-production, he demonstrates that Egypt is more than ready to take control of her antiquities and manage her past. The leading quotation for this post represents this sentiment beautifully. Hawass has commanded the attention of the international community, and he will not sit idly and let this opportunity pass.

Discovered in 1922, Tutankhamun's tomb was an amazing archaeological find. The pharaoh was surrounded by riches that revealed much about ancient Egypt, but little evidence has been found regarding his family. Hawass and his team painstakingly assess archaeological and genetic evidence to determine likely candidates for Tutankhamun's relatives from a a number of unidentified mummies. Hawass is shown hustling through the desert to the old tombs, he pours over cartouches for clues about King Tut's family—he's a hands-on guy, still very much involved in the day-to-day of managing Egypt's cultural resources. He has to do it all because he previously rejected requests for DNA testing from other research groups. Why? Tutankhamun's mummy is fragile, having been broken and pieced together by the archaeologists who found him (as Hawass makes it a point to note). In Tut, as Hawass leans over him ever so reverently, the question of who is best suited to care for Egypt's history is most poignant. It wasn't Egypt that damaged Tutankhamun. Hawass, as the representative for Egyptian antiquities, makes it clear that he takes responsibility for the welfare and status of the mummies. [Left: The mummified feet of Tutankhamun. Credit: Ben Curtis/AP.]

Most of the first installment of the documentary dealt with establishing Hawass as an authority capable of managing cultural resources. It was a bit dry, and seemed a bit like a video job application. I nearly didn't tune in for the second installment, which was more of the same except that it featured two additional experts who enthusiastically supported Hawass' findings. The documentary adds to the publicity surrounding Hawass and his work, and while the man can appear contentious, I do admire his single-minded resolve to reclaim his national heritage. He's on Twitter and Facebook, and he's utilizing all available channels to get his message out. What are your thoughts about how academics can utilize social media to make research more accessible to the public? By employing popular social media applications, Hawass has been able to tap into an entirely new "fan" base—he's speaking to any and all Egyptian enthusiasts and done away with the hierarchy that knowledge management sometimes imposes. [Right: The mummified face of Tutankhamun. Credit: Ben Curtis/AP.]

Not all academics have the ability (or budget) or need to utilize these methods of self-marketing, but it might be useful in connecting their research to a larger audience—and popularity could potentially translate into funding. Is there something to be learned from Hawass' methods? As for the documentary, it was interesting, but I wouldn't sit through it again. It will give you a nice overview of some of the challenges researchers encounter when working with DNA material from ancient sources, but it was clearly edited for a specific purpose.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Digital Reflections in Everyday Life

Two items in the news have caught my attention recently:
  • First, Fisher Price has announced a computer for the Sesame Street viewer: The iXL opens like a book, has fat, colorful icons on the right side and buttons and a speaker on the other side, and—wait for it—it has a touch screen! The apps available for the device so far include Story Book, Game Player, Note Book, Art Studio, Music Player and Photo Album software. It's being touted as an iPad for preschoolers. 
  • Second, Barbie's next career path will be as a computer engineer. Indeed, Computer Engineer Barbie carries a hot pink lap top and sports matching hot pink glasses. Her other accessories include a Bluetooth headset and a smart phone. Barbie has entered the digital age.
This is the age we live in, and honestly, it's not so surprising that we're prepping kids at an ever younger age to live digitally. The comments were particularly interesting though [note: to view the full comment, click on the link]:
- My two-year-old wants to know if [the iXL] has WiFi and a browser with video codes so she can watch YouTube. And maybe a video camera so she can Skype with her grandparents. If so, she's sold. If not, she's going to continue to beg for my phone.

- Kids out grow clothing fast. They outgrow technology faster. This is a toy that the parent desires not the child. The kid would on short order want their own ipod, cell phone, desktop computer, laptop computer, and iPhone before they graduate elementary school!
Barbie got her share of comments too:
- This job would have been cutting edge 20 years ago. Now, she's doomed. Why wasn't social media expert one of the choices?

- I'm for anything that'll open up options for girls. Plenty of females would probably prefer a work environment that has more interaction between people. But of course there are young women who would enjoy a work environment where 1) results are easily measured by actual results (your software works!) and 2) where the work is very well paid. I know women computer engineers who became millionaires before they hit the age of 40. How many careers can boast these advantages?

- Will we ever get past the sexism of pink?
Do these products realistically have a place with the younger market? Can they honestly expect to engage the interests of a group that is probably more comfortable with their parents' smart phones than the parents themselves? Regardless of their success, these types of products do serve as a reminder of the age we live in. Barbie in particular, has taken us through the ages as a babysitter, cheerleader, fashion model, paleontologist, army ranger, NASCAR driver (10 years before Danica Patrick took to the track, FYI), presidential candidate, and last but not least, an American Idol winner. Gradually, she has helped broaden the career dreams of little girls who may look to her as a role model, even while coming under fire for a too tiny waist and too large bust. But she also reflects a particular aspect of life—our infatuation with reality game shows/competitions, for example. [Above: Computer Engineer Barbie © Mattel.]

These items may wind up in the toy bin after a few uses, but they're also indicators of the mainstream. What examples of technology being marketed to younger users have you encountered recently?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Looking for a Dial Tone? The Unglamorous Life of a Public Pay Phone

These days it seems that everyone has a cell phone. Most of us walk by public pay phones without a second glance in their direction. I definitely do—until Wednesday, when I stumbled upon a couple actually using a pay phone! Yes, they were likely tourists (I made that assumption based on their attire), but hey, it turns out that those ugly, dirty booths, kiosks, and stands actually do work. Well, sometimes. 

Once prevalent throughout New York City and the rest of the country, the rise of cellular technology has meant the decline of the public pay phone. The first public pay phone was installed in 1889 in a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. Meant to provide a measure of convenience, by 1902 there were 81,000 pay phones throughout the country. The outdoor phone booth made it's appearance in 1905, and by 1925 New York City boasted ownership of 25,000 phone booths. According to the NYC Department of Technology and Telecommunications, as of July 2009 there were 18,090 active public payphones available throughout New York City. Though unfortunately, the vast majority of those available don't work—you can count on a dial tone for only one in four of those in the subway, not that you would want to encounter the grime and germs that call them home. The fact is that the maintenance costs associated with these once popular service providers are no longer offset by the revenue they bring in from actual calls. According Verizon spokesman Jim Smith, "on average, a Verizon pay phone should handle at least 150 calls per month in order to cover its individual operating costs. Based on that 150-call minimum, a pay phone requiring 50 cents for a local call would need to earn $75 a month to financially justify its existence." [Right: A couple use a NYC public pay phone. Feb. 2010]

In all the time I've worked at this particular location, I have never seen a single person use the pay phones on the corner. I myself couldn't tell you the last time I placed a call from a public phone—any public phone. Are pay phones still necessary? Well, yes. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, hard wired phones were the only phones that worked. People stood in line to use them. Nonetheless, the public pay phone continues to be overlooked and possibly looked down upon. How does the public perceive an individual who needs to use a public phone? Is it a mark of lower status to not have a cell phone? Of course, there are still individuals who rely on public pay phones—individuals who don't own a cell phone (17.6% of the US population did not own a cell phone as of Nov. 07, which seems to be the most recent data available) and international visitors are the ones who are most likely to look for a public pay phone. Still, these groups don't use phones often enough to meet Mr. Smith's projections. Nonetheless, I doubt they will ever completely vanish. For one, it's estimated that public phones generate $62 million in advertising, of which the city gets about a third. Think about it—for the cost of a billboard in Times Square, an advertiser could cover the city with her message via phone booth and kiosks. But this doesn't mean that working phones are located where people most need them. Advertisers want their messages in highly visible, high traffic areas, which doesn't necessarily include some lower income neighborhoods. Is this another element in the technology divide?

What's the status of public pay phones where you live? Are they disappearing? When was the last time you used one? I know you're out there—post your comments below!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Diminishing the Double Digital Divide

To wrap up my notes on Social Media Week, I thought I would pursue a comment made by Meebo CEO and co-founder Seth Sternberg during the Social Graph Optimization panel. He suggested that without proper education on the use of digital tools, we would see the a growing divide between two technological classes increase: those with access to information would be at a greater advantage than those without without. Having the means to access information on the Internet goes just beyond access to the hardware; it also depends on the individual's ability to understand how to use the tools at her disposal. And as digital technologies become prevalent, individuals who can successfully manage digital media will be at an advantage in terms of accessing and processing information, managing networks, and sharing data. As we begin to tentatively discuss issues of netiquette and privacy, we should also be actively considering the double digital divide—not only do we need to bridge the gap in access to technology, but at the same time, we need to educate users on how to utilize digital tools to their fullest potential. Digital agencies, including social media and digital advertising firms, are in a position to mobilize this initiative via CSR programs—with surprising benefits if they do.

To examine disparities in people's abilities to use digital media, researchers assigned search tasks to a random sample of Internet users, and found a considerable difference in whether people could find various types of content on the Internet and how long it took them to find it (Hargittai 2002). These studies used socioeconomic and demographic measures to determine understanding of digital media, and while it is true that these factors may hinder access to technology, social environment can also influence an individual's Internet use. Researchers propose that when socioeconomic and demographic characteristics were held constant,
the social environment (higher interactions with others regarding giving and receiving Internet-related help; proportions of family and friends who use the Internet) and the technological environment (having a computer at home, the number of places for going online, and length of experience with the Internet) were significantly associated with higher Internet connectedness (Jung 2008).
"Internet connectedness" in this case refers to the individual's ability to use the Internet and digital media to satisfy "digital goals" (i.e., the ability to find specific information being sought, to connect to specific groups). The first step in overcoming the double digital divide—realistically, as equalizing socioeconomic and demographic statistics is a larger social issue—is to increase access to technologically-oriented environments. It seems logical that this could most easily be pursued via schools, but they clearly need help to get the tools they need to build a technologically-savvy generation. Data suggests, internet users were twice as likely as nonusers to report that most people they know use the Internet; and just 4% of users compared to 27% of nonusers reported that none or very few of their acquaintances go online (Lenhart et al., 2003). This suggests that understanding of digital media can be socially spread. For example, an individual from a lower socioeconomic status who becomes technologically savvy can become their family's link to the digital world—as is already happening. We know that in "developing" countries, mobile communication technology is often shared between groups. While the cell phone usage rates are likely higher in the United States than elsewhere in the world, there are still groups that have limited access to this and other digital media. As increased knowledge and access to technology filter through a community, messaging through digital media can become more effective—and will follow once the issue of access is resolved.

How can digital agencies help? By assisting to build on-site computer labs either at schools or at major agencies, bringing digital technologies to local communities—and demonstrating that digital media is a viable career path. As our society shifts toward digital media use, and businesses move to digital media to help cut costs and increase their reach, effective messaging will mean working with an educated audience. Yes, there are expenses involved, but they are offset by the benefits gained. Digital agencies need to seriously consider their role in our new technological society. Are they interested in working with consumers to increase satisfaction with the experience and product, or are they merely interested in dictating the development of digital technologies and messages?

ResearchBlogging.orgHargittai, E (2002). Second-level digital divide: Differences in people’s online skills. First Monday, Peer-reviewed journal of the Internet, 7 (4).

Jung, J. (2008). Internet Connectedness and its Social Origins: An Ecological Approach to Postaccess Digital Divides Communication Studies, 59 (4), 322-339 DOI: 10.1080/10510970802467387

Lenhart, A., Horrigan, J., Rainie, L., Allen, K., Boyce, A., Madden, M., et al. (2003). The ever-shifting Internet population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project.