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Dossier: Should we Be Afraid of the Digital Revolution ?

The Digital Revolution empowers us
Interview with Nilam Ram


The digital world is the product of mutual transactions between technologies and humans. It produces innovations and knowledge gains that empower citizens and their ability to contribute to a more egalitarian science.

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Nilam Ram is a Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Communication at Stanford University. Nilam’s research grows out of a history of studying change. After completing his undergraduate study of economics, he worked as a currency trader, frantically tracking and trying to predict the movement of world markets as they jerked up, down and sideways. Later, he moved on to the study of human movement, kinesiology, and eventually psychological processes – with a specialization in longitudinal research methodology. Generally, Nilam studies how short-term changes (e.g., processes such as learning, information processing, emotion regulation, etc.) develop across the life span, and how longitudinal study designs contribute to generation of new knowledge. His current projects include examinations of age-related change in children’s self- and emotion-regulation; patterns in minute-to-minute and day-to-day progression of adolescents’ and adults’ emotions; and change in contextual influences on well-being during old age. He is developing a variety of study paradigms that use recent developments in data science and the intensive data streams arriving from social media, mobile sensors, and smartphones to study change at multiple time scales. Nilam was a CASBS fellow in 2013-14.

Books & Ideas: The continuing flow of technological innovations in the aftermath of the Internet revolution has progressively transformed the way we navigate the world today. From high-speed traveling information to over-abundance of content, from cookies to perpetual behavioral monitoring, from on-line banking to bitcoins, from on-line work to prospects of an all-encompassing virtual reality world, it seems that the frames and structures of the world we live in today are undergoing radical transformations. How would you characterize this specific moment of history we are in?

Nilam Ram: Absolutely exciting and absolutely urgent! In ancient times, indigenous peoples all over the world often considered how their decisions and actions would impact the next seven generations. Long-term health of fisheries and herds of buffalo was considered as a matter of course. My grandmother told us stories, with sparkly shine in her eyes, about the wonder she felt when they first got a rotary phone and when they first got a phonograph! She noted both the scientific progress that supported the innovations and how the devices transformed their lives. We’ve got the same – at a lecture earlier this week I learned how much progress has been made since 2012 in design and performance of the GPUs supporting training of new foundation models in AI. Also amazing! The discoveries that these computational models will support – in everything from the molecular patterns of DNA to the structure of galaxies far out in the universe – will come increasingly fast. As we figure out how to use these new technologies, research problems we thought might take 15 years to solve will get solved much faster, perhaps in only 5 years. That is absolutely thrilling!

This week I will experience the thrill of the new tech first-hand. The battery on my iPhone 7 (2016) no longer holds its charge. I urgently need a new device. However, I’ve been hesitating because I am not sure whether to try for a less expensive and perfectly suitable iPhone 12 or the more expensive fancy new cameras on the 13 Pro. Should I deal with the frustratingly inconvenient daily decays in energy resources by jumping 5 generations or 6 generations? No way can I consider waiting for a 7th generation that is probably less than 10 months away. My need to upgrade to a shiny new device that keeps me connected all night long is much too urgent.

Alongside my adolescent excitement about a new device, about new algorithms, and about the exciting scientific discoveries we are experiencing at this moment in history, however, is concern about how the technological innovations and knowledge gains are and will be used. We are seeing more cases where well-intentioned deployments of a new innovation have gone awry – where the initially exciting changes in interpersonal and social exchange are evolving into thorny quagmires with unintended consequences. The excitingly rapid gains in scientific and social progress now sit hand-in-hand with existentially horrific threats to our planet, our social structures, and our well-being. This specific moment of history is a time filled with urgency. We are moving fast and will continue to move fast – climate change is happening now, peace is needed now – not seven generations from now. The need for thoughtfully considered technology change is urgent.

Books & Ideas: Structural anthropology has classically posited the hypothesis of a homology or a correspondence between, on the one side, the physical built-in world in which we live and, on the other side, the layout of social groups and the ‘forms of classification’ through which we view ourselves and the world. Would you go as far as extending this analogy to the architectural design of our digital structures? To what extent would you say computer systems, the internet, social media, smartphones, etc. transform the way we make sense of the world we live in and transform the way we try to act within it?

Nilam Ram: I think that the technologies are absolutely transforming how we make sense of the world – in the same ways that printing presses, books, and growing bodies of scientific knowledge and social exchange are continually reshaping what we know, think, and do. Humans are curious and dynamic. Change is the norm, not the exception. When we stop changing, we die, literally. Much of my own scholarship has followed from and attempted to contribute to knowledge of lifespan development – where individuals’ development is viewed as a life-long process (cradle to grave) that proceeds on and is influenced by many levels of action (cells to society) at many time-scales (milliseconds to millenia). Development proceeds through on-going interplay between the individual and their environment. Change is transactional and relational, complex, and dynamic. From this perspective, and perspectives core to computational physics, chemistry, biology and so on, both we and our world are constantly transforming. To the extent that computer systems, the internet, etc. are part of our world and our imagination, there is a dynamic exchange.

Lately, I have become interested in the structure of networked systems and innovations in network dynamics. Since their emergence in the 1970s, the meta-theoretical paradigms at the core of developmental science, and lifespan development in particular, have highlighted the influence that five layers of context (e.g., family, neighborhood, society, culture, time) have on individuals’ function and growth. The models, usually presented as a set of concentric circles are inherently hierarchical – with the individual at the center of the circular arrangement influencing and being influenced by the surrounding layers of context. These hierarchical models have been used to frame investigations of context and individual development for the past 40 years. Meanwhile, network models and technologies have emerged in force. Beautiful diagrams with many nodes connected together by edges and arrows have spurred major innovations in computation and communication including massive parallel processing, social media, and the internet itself. Network-computational models provide insight into the full span of human function – everything from the composition of our microbiome to how that new iPhone will travel from the factory to my mailbox. Following those innovations, and inspired by composer Christian Wolff’s piece Changing The System (1973), my research group is exploring how knowledge of human growth and decline might be transformed when we can replace the classic concentric circles models with modern network models. When performing Wolff’s piece, the members of the ensemble – each node in the network – are explicitly interdependent, each are asked to listen for particular notes produced by others before playing notes that others may be listening for. When no one plays the sounds someone else is listening for the piece stalls. By design, each node contributes to and pushes the piece forward by both listening and playing – all have equal agency and responsibility. The uniquely beautiful music that emerges from the fully connected ensemble – parallel to the information gains that emerge from the highly interconnected nodes of the worldwide internet – impels us to consider whether the old hierarchical theories can also be replaced with more egalitarian network theories. We are eager to know if changing the fundamental organization of the meta-theory – from concentric circles to networked nodes – will transform how and what we learn about lifespan development.

Books & Ideas: Does the materiality of the “old” world becomes obsolete as a consequence of our new ways of experiencing the world? How do you address the fears of those who foresee a danger of going all virtual and of becoming alienated from reality?

Nilam Ram: The question highlights change – from old to new. Given that my research program is focused on study of change and change processes, I suppose that I tend to value change more than stability – else I would probably change (pun intended) my research program. In our work on Screenomics – where we observe and analyze all the content that appears on individuals’ smartphone screens, we’ve drawn inspiration from study of microbiome – the large ensemble of organisms that live in our gut and on our skin. This work highlights how the relative proportions of different species in the microbiome shift in accordance with diet, health, and other factors. When the host-environment changes, some species in the microbiome might proliferate while others dwindle; or all species might proliferate; or all might dwindle. Perhaps those who fear the change from the “old” to the new have the most to lose when the status quo is gone. In zero sum games, one person’s gain is another’s loss. No matter what kind of change is on the horizon, there are some who fear it – often those in power. They fear revolution. Poor people throughout the world know that one person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. In win-win situations, change is not feared but welcomed because everyone gains. I’d rather explore that view. Already in 1971, we knew from Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics that “The revolution will not be televised … The revolution will be live.” I’d rather ask the question, can we replace the material disparities and alienation so present in our current reality with diversity and equality? The need for social change is urgent.

Books & Ideas: Can you tell us how your research helps understand or navigate the consequences of these transformations? What does it tell us about the impact these changes have on our daily lives?

Nilam Ram: I study change and change processes. In one line of work, Denis Gerstorf and I are examining how technological innovations and, more generally, social changes over the last 50 years (e.g., in education) are (re-)shaping age-related growth and decline across adulthood and into old age. Generally, we find that later-born cohorts are cognitively fitter than earlier-born cohorts. As technological advances proceed, today’s older adults’ report feeling more in control for longer than older adults in the 1990s, having higher well-being and less loneliness. Although all quite positive and portending of bright futures, the rate of typical age-related declines have not changed. Cognitive declines still occur, they just start from higher levels. If the past is predictive of the future, this line of work generally suggests that technology-induced transformations will lead to continued improvements in developmental trajectories that individuals travel through adulthood and old age.

Another line of work dives deep into the moment-to-moment dynamics of digital life. Following from our serendipitous placement in neighboring offices during our year at CASBS, Byron Reeves and I have been developing, along with Tom Robinson, the field of screenomics. We’ve elaborated a paradigm wherein we observe the full spectrum of human behaviors that study participants engage with on their smartphone and laptop screens. These data provide a comprehensive and detailed record of digital life and all the activities and experiences that unfold there – information seeking, expressions of irritability and agitation, conversing with friends and spouses, attending business meetings, shopping, reading news articles, playing games, and watching cute cat videos. We can now observe in detail how some of these behaviors foster human resilience (social engagement), while others prolong cycles of despair (doomscrolling). Similar to how (epi)genomes and metabolomes describe biological function, screenomes describe the structure and cadence of the actual tasks individuals encounter and engage in their daily lives – the specific stimuli + responses that shape and are shaped by individuals’ health and well-being. Making use of a variety of AI tools to extract physiologically-, psychologically-, behaviorally-, socioculturally- and environmentally-relevant features from the digital record, we are able to see first-hand how individuals’ use digital technology to accomplish their goals, are influenced by the digital environment, and how they contribute to shaping that environment, moment-by-moment and week-by-week. We are creating a screenome repository that will facilitate study of behavioral changes manifest at multiple time- scales – seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years – and that may be usefully linked to other levels of analysis. We will discover, for example, how biological omics manifest or are changed by life experiences, and how cultural or environmental context might moderate or be changed by individual experiences. In grand form, the Human Screenome Project can facilitate discovery of complex behavioral dynamics, testing of adaptive personalized interventions, and the real-time optimization of individuals’ health and well-being.

Books & Ideas: Does the fact that big Tech companies and States have access to a sort of panopticon creates a real threat to democracy? Do you see ways in which these new technologies could rather empower citizens and consolidate democracy?

Nilam Ram: I’m not sure that, in and of itself, access to data creates a threat to democracy. More and more, the conversations I am involved in suggest that what really matters is what is done with those data – whether they are used for good and/or for evil. All the conversations surrounding observation and monitoring of individuals’ behavior, data collection and curation, and analysis are now leveraging existing and newly emerging ethical frameworks – with thoughtful care being given to privacy and beneficence issues, fairness/representativeness of the benchmarks guiding algorithm development, how to mitigate potential dual use of AI augmentations in individuals’ lives, and how to promote inclusion and equity. We are all actively working out how new (and old) technologies can be used and how they should and should not be used. The depth and pointedness of the questions being asked in both public and private forums gives me hope.

In our own work, we are designing data delivery systems that would allow individuals to learn from their own data (behaviors) and support their achievement of near-term and long-term goals. We’ve taken a purposively person-specific approach that acknowledges that each individual is unique and idiosyncratic. Rather than attempting to find one-size-fits-all answers and interventions, we model each individual separately and design supports that match their specific needs and that empower them to reach their idiosyncratic goals. We believe this fundamental change – from group-based models to person-specific models – will simultaneously reshape how we make discoveries and how those discoveries are translated back into people’s lives. Traditionally, we were forced to tradeoff the accuracies obtained when using frightfully expensive idiographic study designs with the modal generalizations obtained when using logistically convenient nomothetic study designs. Nomothetic, group-based (and often cross-sectional) designs were always easier and cheaper. Now, however, new innovations in network and mobile technology and the pervasive and ubiquitous adoption of these technologies changes the calculus. We are now able to engage large-scale idiographic research that is both accurate and generalizable. This change in practice will itself empower citizens and their ability to contribute to and benefit from a more egalitarian science that truly treats each person and their data as uniquely important and informative. The future is now and its cool!

by Jules Naudet, 12 June

To quote this article :

Jules Naudet, « The Digital Revolution empowers us. Interview with Nilam Ram », Books and Ideas , 12 June 2022. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : https://booksandideas.net/The-Digital-Revolution-empowers-us.html

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