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Van Zelst Speaker Delves into Internet’s Changing Landscape

The early days of the Internet were considered by many to be a free and unrestrained place, but new media theorist and 2015’s Van Zelst speaker Wendy Hui Kyong Chun says it has since become a “wonderfully creepy” and “leaky” one.

Chun, professor and Chair of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, has devoted much of her academic life to the observation and analysis of online human behavior. The author of several books has written that as a collection of “poorly gated, highly interconnected communities,” the Internet’s potential for democracy stems not from promises of individual empowerment, but rather from how it exposes us in ways we cannot control.

Drawing from her systems design engineering background and two degrees in English literature (her master’s and PhD are from Princeton University), she posed provocative questions on how we “inhabit the Internet” to a packed audience of students, faculty, and alumni at her hour-long presentation at Northwestern University’s France Searle Building on November 10.

Examples of the Internet’s vast reach into our private lives are numerous, Chun argues, highlighting news and popular culture headlines that illustrate how closely what we do, more than what we say, is being monitored.

“It’s our actions over words,” she explains, “devaluing language, as if your actions never lie and your body tells the truth.”

Among her examples: data from Kindle on how long a reader remains on a page; algorithms used by Netflix and Target about shopping habits; and an adaptation of a 1993 New Yorker cartoon in which two dogs sit by a computer and one says to the other, “On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog.”

In other words, we once considered our online identities to be equal but anonymous.

Back in the mid-to-late 1990’s, Chun says, we imagined that our media was personal and private, but “new media are leaky.” She adds: “Your online friend is a potential leak, which is wonderfully creepy. We have to embrace this wonderful creepiness.”

“We need to stop thinking of creepiness in terms of virality or contagion,” Chun says, “and instead think about its publicness in a different way. We need to call for public rights, to treat [the Internet] as a public space, a place to loiter. We are fighting for the right to loiter.”

Chun was welcomed by Dilip Gaonkar, professor and head of the Center for Global Culture and Communication, and was introduced by Ariel Rogers, assistant professor of Radio/Television/Film. The annual lecture is made possible by the generosity of Louann Van Zelst (C49, GC51) and the late Theodore Van Zelst (McC45, GMcC48). Son David Van Zelst and daughter Jean Bierner joined their mother at this, the 33rd such event.