Thursday, July 16, 2015

A New Way of Thinking Science: Video Games

A New Way of Thinking Science: Video Games

A new computer game, Foldit, recently helped scientists unravel the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme, helping scientists get closer to a possible cure (CNN, 2011). Unlocking the structure of the enzyme was a quest going for a decade in the scientific community until Foldit finally put a stop to it. The game may help find cures for other protein-related diseases as well such as cancer and Alzheimers by helping scientists understand the shape and function of proteins. 

Proteins, composed of any combination of 20 amino acids, are key components to cell functions. DNA in the cell determines the type and sequence of the protein, which carries out the vital functions in each cell such as muscle movement, digestion, and defense against infections. Creating and joining amino acids, however, are not enough. To carry out their task, proteins must fold into a complex three-dimensional structure ( And, this is pretty much what the video game builds on. Foldit, as the name suggests, is a protein-folding game. After a 20-minute instruction session in the beginning of the game, each player can become a Foldit scientist and start wiggling, pulling and stretching proteins in 3D to give them meanings and functions.  As the first law of thermodynamics suggests, energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The same goes for protein folding. In a process that requires energy, Foldit players get awarded when they make proteins that use the least amount of energy. And, this is how, in only three weeks, Foldit players modeled the structure of the retroviral protease and contributed to the design of antiretroviral drug development to cure AIDS.

What does this development mean for science communication?

First of all, it confirms that the field of journalism and communication need to recruit more scientists in the digital media era. In my previous blog on Social Media Week, I agreed with Dan Gillmor, the author of Mediactive, that we need more computer science majors in the field. In today’s evolving digital environment, we are seeing more effective communication tools that are increasingly being designed by computer scientists. Video-game examples support the view that we need to keep encouraging more communicators to work with scientists and vice versa.  

Second, it illustrates that videogames are encouraging a new way of thinking. By playing video games, we can now think more productively not just about science, but also about policy, art, and education as Ian Bogost (the author of How to do things with videogames) suggests. In science, videogames do something that textbooks cannot always accomplish, and that is teaching the scientific method. Instead of memorizing science, we now get to practice the  scientific method by asking questions and seeking answers. The new way of thinking applies to policy issues as well. In Fate of the World, players jump through the scientific, political, and economic hoops to mitigate the impacts of global warming. Check out the YouTube trailer for Fate of the World!

Third, digital era is not a threat to journalism unlike those who argue that the web will kill the newspaper. If anything, it increases the democratization process by incorporating everyone’s input. No matter how sophisticated technology might be, the human brain is still the driving mechanism for computers. Videogames, in that sense, simply provide the platform where humans’ puzzle solving abilities can find answers to unknown scientific problems. Isn’t this what journalism is about in the end: asking questions and investigating answers? 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Facebook, Privacy, Surveillance Society

Wired magazine’s most recent issue featured a piece this month on the country’s biggest spy center that is currently under construction. The spy center, located in a valley in Utah, will be watching all sorts of communication including “complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter (Wired 04/ 2012).” The $2 billion facility is being built by the National Security Center, which, according to Wired, became the largest and most intrusive intelligence agency ever. And, it is not just governments, but also any average citizen with computer access will be under surveillance. A senior intelligence official says

“Everybody with communication is a target (Wired 04/ 2012).”

And, Wired, on the same issue, warns its readers: “Watch what you say”

Going back to the article, Social Networking in the Surveillance Society, the author suggests that as citizens are also subject to, what he calls, “economic surveillance.”  In a typical business model, corporations that own social networking sites, provide free access to users. Over time, as networking sites accumulate information on personal data and user behavior, data is eventually sold to advertising clients (Fuchs, 2010). In the same study, students say that better public information and discussion on privacy issues would improve their understanding of the surveillance society. Even though this sounds like a good idea, protest and consumer groups took similar actions in the past, but they rarely accomplished anything solid. Before the “news feed” function, users would only receive very general notifications from Facebook about their friends' updates. For instance, if friend X updated his “quotes” on his profile, Facebook would tell you to go to that friend's profile for details about the update.When “news feed” was launched, many users protested, as they perceived constant feed of detailed updates as a threat to privacy. A number of protest groups were created on Facebook at the time with titles such as “Facebook takes stalking a whole new level.” Well, over the following months, all those efforts only led to more invasive features such as the new “Timeline” or “Ticker,” which updates stories in real-time on the right side of the screen. My overall argument is that solely vocalizing the problem does not solve the problem. Protest groups and consumer groups need to take a more effective action, if they want to make a difference. They should partner with computer scientists or with people with related technical expertise. If they want to put up a good fight, they need to speak the same language as Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon speak, and that is the language of computer science.

I agree with the articles that support the notion that people care about their privacy more than some might assume. However, it should not be measured by the number of people who read privacy agreements. One problem with privacy statements is that they are hard to understand! To me they could as well be in French, a language that scares me even from a distance. Several times I attempted to read such privacy terms, but the result was failure. The second problem is that, corporations make you feel entitled to “agree.” For example iTunes, if you do not agree, it will not give you access. You can't pick which statements of the term you would like to agree. It is an all-or-nothing deal.  So, why bother reading, if you have to agree in the end anyways?

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