Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Who Uses That?

As the year wraps up I'm going over unpublished drafts of posts.  Came across this one from September that hints at (or at least resonates with) the posts on "infermation."

In our bathroom stands a toothbrush stand and in that toothbrush stand stands a gum stimulator.  It is/was mine, but I rarely use it.  It's basically abandoned property -- to the point that I sometimes look at it and wonder whose it is.

I was looking at it today and had a "take the role of the other" moment.  I wondered what other members of my household made of the gum stimulator.  I felt pretty sure that they (OK, I'm talking about one person in particular, so "she") took it to be mine;  she knows it as "Dan's gum stimulator."  There is no way she can detect the change in the object's status -- the fact that it's become an abandoned artifact, that I look at it and don't know whose it is (but at some level I remember because I haven't yet thought it was hers)  -- because if it is used, or rather when it was used, it was used in private.  Her access to the object is the same as it ever was: "not mine, only one other person routinely uses this bathroom, must be his.").

This started me thinking about the general category of things that are in plain sight, but about which one has no direct, experience based knowledge of who uses them or what they are used for because they are used by whoever it is that uses them out of our purview.

Those keyboxes at various locations in office buildings.  The number tags on utility poles.  Spray painted numbers on streets.  

This brings up a series of related socio-epistemological categories.  Equipment that's used out of sight and generally kept out of sight, is closely related to the above.  Perhaps we need a distinction between the mysterious (stuff that you just don't know who uses it how for what) about which one could become curious, but usually does not, and stuff that you presume is used by particular others for perhaps known purposes (though, in fact, like my gum stimulator it might be used for nothing by no one).  Then there are the things that I know are yours but I have no idea what you do with them (tools, perhaps) and am just comfortably ignorant.  Another category might be things that are superficially shared but that embody some of the secret side of the other.  And so on.

The point, I think, is related to Simmel's observation that one can never know the other entirely.  That's one of his a prioris of the human social condition.  This extends to objects which we know (or suspect) to be objectifications of subjectivity (made by, used by, related to) without fully grasping the subjectivity they embody.


Information about Infermation

Alas, it turns out that I (and my Bangalore colleague) may not be able to claim coinage of the term "infermation" as introduced in a recent post.  The term shows up in 2004 in LexiconWiki, a wiki for playing a variant of the Lexicon Game.  The initial definition there is different from ours:
Infermation is what we can know about something from reports of that thing.
since our definition distinguished three categories: (1)  information derived from experience,  (2) information derived from the experience of others (and reported to us and taken as the case because of trust in the provenance), and finally, (3) that which can be inferred from either of these by the application of some sort of logic -- infermation

But they add an interesting twist as their definition continues:
Infermation is most commonly available about long lost texts, and the pattern of human history means that many sources of Infermation are several generations removed from the thing under examination.
You may rightly be getting suspicious of this source as it is starting to sound odd (and it gets odder), but, let's do note that there are some things that would fit both definitions.  Two examples that come to mind are proto-languages and "ur-texts."  For historical linguists, known languages and the logic of linguistics allow us to infer the existence of proto-indoeuropean, even though no examples have ever been found.  Similarly, we sometimes posit the existence of a never found "ur-text" that must have preceded some known text.  So far so good, but their definition starts to head off into other directions after this,  progressively verging on nonsense (in the conventional, not Wittgensteinian, sense):
Sources may, obviously, vary a great deal, ranging from direct assessments, both academic and popular, of the thing in question, to notes and references, index lists, bibliographies, catalogues and assorted general remarks. The acceptance of Infermation as valid and valuable has allowed academics to make many advances that would otherwise have been impossible. The Infermatic industry, which first flourished on Alphas, has grown throughout the academic community, promoting and assessing the use of Infermation and producing dedicated Infermatics for both academic and general consumption. [read more]
From there the 2004 source veers more and more off the road.  After intense scrutiny, my confidence in our (re-)coinage has returned.  Maybe I should have typed "infermation tm"

Stop! What's going on in your head right now??

Noted with interest: "Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves*."  A UNLV psych professor, R. Hurlburt, tries to do some systematic phenomenology by having research subjects report on their "inner states" at randomly chosen moments.

His critics say you can't expect research subjects to be honest, that they "twist" responses to conform to their biases or what they think the researcher's expects, and that the problem is you can't capture these inner state "as they happen" but only in retrospect (even if relatively short amounts of retro).  The most illuminating comment was "The experience sampling work is a reasonable first step, but only that; the claims need to be followed up and backed up by objective studies."

Objective studies these days usually means brain-imaging studies.  Another expert interviewed for the article noted "[t]he brain imaging setting is very sterile." 

What's in it for us as sociologists of information?  Nice concrete example of the epistemological clash between objectivity and introspection and question of "know-ability."  One scientist quoted in the story noted that there might be "no good way to study [the] question [of inner experience content]." Hurlburt himself notes that he may be up to what William James described as "turning up the gas to see what darkness looks like."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Infermation : A New Concept

My tracking software tells me that a reader from Bangalore arrived here this morning from a google search for cricles and infermation. After a chuckle at the misspellings, I was intrigued by the fact that one of my posts was the second search result until I noticed that I'd engaged in a bit of SEOing by introducing the same typo into that post's title last February :"Notificational Webs in Cricles of Friends".

More importantly, though, this little bit of synergistic finger slippage has led me to (collaboratively, I'd have to say) formulate a new concept: infermation.

What is "infermation"? All that I know about the world that is neither from direct experience nor from reports from trusted sources, but is implied by all that stuff when operated on by whatever tools of logic and entailment I have at hand. These of course, will be context dependent (framing) and "mood" dependent (am I feeling hyper-rational just now?) and so on. Gives us a nice taxonomy of "my world": experience based information, received information, a set of inferential tools, and all of my "infermation."

Still lots to work out on this (and some hard thinking to do about what existing concepts it recapitulates) but it looks promising. So, thanks to that provocative mis-typer on the other side of the world.

Sexting: New Info about an Info Behavior

Pew Internet and American Life Project came out with a new report on "sexting" today. The basic findings: prevalence of sexting "ever" among teens overall is in the 10-20% range. Sexting seems to be an evolving element in teen "courtship behavior."

I was disappointed, though, with the "just-this-side-of-moral-crusading" feel of the report. The tone is not explicitly alarmist, but it is a soft ball pitch to those who will turn it into media hoo-ha.  Expect a number of misleading articles to appear in the media to be followed by researchers decrying media distortion.  But whose fault: consider the flaws in just this one report in terms of what we give the media to work with.

A Hesitance to Criticize Previous Research
As background they describe previous surveys, done by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and others. One found ~20% of teen participants had sent and ~30% had recieved a sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves to someone via email, cell phone or by another mode. In another 9% had sent, 3% had forwarded one, and 17% had received. All of these surveys seemed to have some methodological problems that would put wide-error bars on these numbers but the report just hints at these.

Slightly Fuzzy Numbers
This report is based on a survey of 800 young people plus focus groups.In the new study, the acknowledged margin of error for the full sample of 800 is about +/- 4%. For subgroups, it will be higher -- for the 1/6 sample of each age year, for example, it's about +/- 8%.

And then the report says
4% of all cell-owning teens ages 12-17 report sending a sexually suggestive nude or nearly-nude photo or video of themselves.... [among t]he oldest teens in our sample – those aged 17 – ... 8% ... hav[e] sent one, compared to 4% of those age 12.....
But given the margin of error, all we can say is that somewhere between 0 and 8% of all teens and somewhere between 0 and 16% of 17 year olds have sent a suggestive picture of themselves.  The authors do a great job of including background on the survey and footnoting margins of error and such but they leave it up to the savvy reader to make something of these.  All these numbers are pretty small -- this reader, at least, thinks responsible researchers should do a little more to drive home this point than this report does.

A Missing "Network" Angle
The authors don't make much of the fact that the number of folks who have sent is consistently lower than the number who have received. This implies, and their qualitative data seems not to deny, that the practice is not informally controlled by a norm of "just between you and me babe" and that the ease of distribution and the difficulty of detection and potential for sheer high volume make the transaction costs of informal control prohibitive.  Obvious, but important.

Percentaging in the Wrong Direction
The media pitch is furthered by doing percentages in arguably the wrong way. Consider this paragraph:
Teens who receive sexually suggestive images on their cell phones are more likely to say that they use the phone to entertain themselves when bored; 80% of sexting recipients say they use their phones to combat boredom, while 67% of teens who have not received suggestive images on their phone say the same. Teens who have received these images are also less likely to say that they turn off their phones when it is not otherwise required – 68% of receiving teens say they generally do not turn off their phones when they do not have to, and 46% of teens who have not received suggestive images by text report the same “always on” behavior (page 6).
As is, it risks being parody: those who receive naughty pictures are more likely to use their phones to combat boredom than those who do not! But presumably the point here is to compare types of cell phone users and so the percentages should be done the other way round: among boredom combatters, what percent get baudy pictures? A quick, back of the envelope recalculation* suggests it would look like this:

Use vs.
Not vs.
Received ~108

No Received ~445


That's actually a little more compelling (and certainly easier to make sense of). The rate is twice as high among the "I use my phone to combat boredom" group. But both are relatively low.

A similar methods 101 error is made when reporting what interventions make sense:
One parental intervention that may relate to a lower likelihood of sending of sexually suggestive images was parental restriction of text messaging. Teens who sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images were less likely to have parents who reported limiting the number of texts or other messages the teen could send. Just 9% of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28% of teens who didn’t send these texts had parents who limited their child’s texting (page 12).

It is unlikely that the authors are thinking that sexting causes parental restrictions -- the sense is just the opposite -- and so the percentaging should be within the categories of parental behavior and comparison across these.  This should look like this (again, based on quick, back of the envelope, calculations*).

No Parental

Ever Sent ~3

Never Sent


Again, this doesn't overturn the take-away -- it might even be argued that it strengthens it: lack of parental cell phone restriction associated with a 3 to 4 fold increase in the behavior -- but we researchers should put our best practices forward to as we dump our results and findings into the information environment around us.