When the Medium Outruns the Message

I love speculative fiction, especially when it includes a mystery. So imagine my excitement this past Saturday when I learned that Netflix released the new original series Between, premised on a mysterious illness that kills everyone over 21 years old. Blue skies could wait, this day was for binge watching. Or, as it turned out, for watching a single episode and then taking the dogs for a walk. Contrary to their usual season-dump format[i], Netflix is releasing Between on a weekly basis.

This got me thinking about how release schedules affect television for both producers and consumers, and wondering why Netflix would revert to the more traditional model. (more…)

Double Future: Ex Machina wasn’t Her


“I just wanted to hear your voice and tell you how much I love you” –Samantha, Her

“Is it strange to have made something that hates you?” –Ava, Ex Machina

2001: A Space Odyssey is memorable for more than its depiction of artificial intelligence but also its tranquil pacing and sterile modernism. Ex Machina plays the same, taking place somewhere almost as deeply isolated as space. The remote IKEA-castle of a compound is itself mostly empty with soft piano notes echoing off lonely opulence. The mansion is cold and modern but incorporates the lush nature outside. The film moves from windowless labs to trees and waterfalls to a living room that’s half house half nature. The techno-bio juxtaposition and enmeshment clearly echo the film’s techno-human subject matter. But the wilderness reminds of death as much as life.

The nature here is more than natural but is isolation, is the constant implication that there is no escape, is vulnerable dependence, and ultimately is a reminder that you are under the control of a violent, clever, scheming drunk. (more…)

If I’m Writing This It’s Too Late: belated reflections on the TtW15 music keynote

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 7.45.45 AM

School’s out for the summer, as they say (well, sorta–I’m still teaching a little), which means I’m back here regularly. I’m really excited to be back! It’s been about a month, but I still wanted to post my reflections on the TtW music panel.

The music panel was so much fun–Sasha was a fantastic moderator with interesting and thoughtful questions, and all my co-panelists had such insightful things to say. The audience questions were also fantastic.

One thing I really, really appreciated about the panel was that we stayed largely away from questions of distribution. It can feel like most discussions of music and the web focus on the web as a location or method of distribution: downloads, streaming, piracy, and so on. Both music critics and tech writers have been talking about  this  for nearly two decades. The topic gets a lot of attention because it sits right at the center of two of our biggest social institutions: capitalism (how to make money with music) and the state (intellectual property, law, etc.). Though there are still important conversations to be had about this (Eric Harvey’s work is a good example), this approach can sometimes feel tired and overplayed, on the one hand, and like it eclipses other, equally important questions about music and the web, on the other. We don’t just use the Internet to distribute music.

So instead of focusing on the web as a platform for distributing music, the panel focused on music and the social web. We talked about tons of stuff, but here are the questions that stood out in my mind (and its admittedly imperfect memory):

  • Music making, listening, and fandom are necessarily and inherently social. How does the sociality of social media impact the way music and music fandom works? How does the sociality of social media impact the work of being a celebrity artist?
  • Is music just fungible content designed to generate interaction, which is the real point?
  • How does social media appearance of a musician impact the interpretive contest for their songs? Or are songs just part of their online portfolio/brand?
  • Someone raised the issue of text-based memes based on song lyrics. From a songwriting and composition perspective, has the lyrical meme replaced the sonic hook as the focal point of a pop song? Sasha pointed out that the lyrics can recall a sonic memory, but it’s not the sonic part that’s driving the spread/loop/virality. Is there a difference between an earworm and a viral meme? (Does the parasite vs viral metaphor get us anywhere with this question?)
  • The social web is focused on interactivity (because that’s what generates sellable data). How does the interactivity of social media manifest in, say, the composition of songs? The relationships between fans and artists? The business model of the music industry?
  • Though we didn’t talk about distribution, we did talk  about labor. How are the labor practices of digital social media adopted/incorporated by the music industry? How is fan labor monetized? What are the ethics of that? One audience member asked about the role of labels nowadays, and I suggested that labels are for labor–they do the secretarial grunt work of making and marketing and promoting a record. Like secretarial work, participatory interaction is historically feminized labor (e.g., wives and daughters playing piano in the parlor). Looking back, I wonder about the gendering of musical labor on the social web. Is it all feminized, in line with the broader feminization of labor under real subsumption? Or is more ‘expert’ work–I’m thinking especially of annotation here, but maybe also some kinds of curation–masculinized (in that it’s more prestigious and might bring more benefits)?
  • There was another question from the audience about cell phone bans at concerts. I argued that this has a social rather than an aesthetic function: concert etiquette has always been way of establishing status distinctions among different audiences, and cell phone bans are, I think, part of this tradition. More elite audiences eschew the use of cell phones at concerts.
  • I wish we talked more about gender and race. Especially because race (ok, white supremacy) is fundamental to both the economics and the aesthetics of pop music in the US, and because we’re starting to understand how race is a factor in the economics, aesthetics, and dynamics of social media, the “race/music/social web” conversation really, really needs to happen.

Listening back to the panel, you might be excused for thinking it was actually a panel about Drake. He was the central reference point for just about every idea and question we talked about. After the panel I told my friend “so, uh, I think I need to write about why this ended up being the Drake panel.” Why does pop music + the web = Drake? (‘Scuse me while I Drake that for myself). In 2013, one study found that Drake was the most talked-about rapper on social media.

Is there something about Drake that makes him distinctively appealing to various web media (viral memes, hashtags, lmdraketfy.com, etc)? Or, is there something distinctive about Drake that makes his spread through web media more visible, more appealing to the kind of people who are at TtW? (Ie, why Drake not Beyoncé or Rihanna?) At the level of stereotypes, Drake is “the black guy with feelings.” Is there something about social media that just resonates with the kind of artist Drake is? Given the importance of affect and interpretation (annotation, ‘explainer’s, thinkpieces, etc.) on the social web, is there something (something racialized and gendered) about Drake’s emotive, feelings-y persona that makes him meme-able, annotate-able (to white people)?

5 Things That Have to Be In the New X-Files


Fox has decided to renew X-Files, a series that aired its last episode over thirteen years ago, with a “six-episode event series” that begins this January. I don’t know what an “event series” is but I’m pretty excited. Of course, there’s a lot of new things to distrust the government about, so one has to wonder: from the burning temperature of jet fuel to the Facebook algorithm, what will the writers decide to focus on? I couldn’t help myself and made a listicle. (more…)

CFP: Cameras and Justice

cameras and justice

Dear Cyborgology Readers, we want you to write for us!! In our first ever thematic CFP, we invite guest posts about Cameras and Justice. This theme is broad in scope and we encourage you to put your own spin on it.

If you have an idea, pitch us. If you have a full post, send it our way. We will be taking submissions on this theme until mid June.

Posts are generally between 500-1500 words. Authors should write in a clear and accessible style (think upper-level undergraduate or well read non-academic). We welcome traditional text based essays, image based essays, and art pieces.

To get the brain juices flowing, here are a few pieces on Cameras and Justice from the Cyborgology team:

Cameras on Cops Isn’t the Same as Cops on Camera

ACLU Mobile Justice App: Channeling Citizen Voices

Sousveillance and Justice: A Panopticon in the Crowds

Surveillance from the Clouds to the Fog

Other riffs on this theme could include children’s privacy, tourism, unsolicited dick pics, structural oppression aided by the rhetoric of authenticity, and much, much more.

For submissions, questions, and proposals, email co-editors David Banks (david.adam.banks@gmail.com) and Jenny Davis (jdavis11474@gmail.com) using the subject line “Cameras and Justice.”

Remember that Cyborgology (for better or worse) is an all volunteer effort and we cannot pay for writing.



Headline Pic: Source

Ghosts of the Future

Photo by Bill Ohl

Photo by Bill Ohl

There has been a lot of talk about magic lately in critical, cultural and technological spaces; what it does, who it is for, and who are the ones to control or enact it. As a way of unpacking a few elements of this thinking, this essay follows on from the conversations that Tobias Revell and I, and a whole host of great participants had at Haunted Machines, a conference as part of FutureEverything 2015 which examined the proliferation of magical narratives in technology. With our speakers we discussed where these stories and mythologies reveal our anxieties around technology, who are the ones casting the spells, and where – if possible – these narratives can be applied in useful ways.

As an ex-literature student, I’m quite interested in ghost stories as analogy, because they can reveal, or be an interesting way of exploring, these anxieties; where the voices in the static are coming from, where the pipes are creaking, and what they tell us about what our technology is doing or can potentially do to us.

I’m going to use a load of slightly ham-fisted contemporary narratives to signpost the anxieties that come out of two personal and increasingly algorithmically mediated spaces: the social network and in the home. Where does the role of narrative in magic, the supernatural, and the unknown allow us to get a better grasp of technology’s power over us?  Where are the uncertain terrains of our technologies creating the capacity for hauntings, and where can techniques used to imagine future scenarios better equip us for the ghosts to come? When we think of a haunting, we think of the unseen forces acting upon our domestic space, and when considering technology, a reappropriation of Clarke’s third law that Tobias Revell summoned with his work on Haunted Machines can apply– Any sufficiently advanced hacking is indistinguishable from a haunting. But where else are we haunted? (more…)

Moving Beyond the Binary of Connectivity

What does it mean to have access to the internet? It’s an apparently simple question that gets complicated when we consider the wide variety of ways people access the web and products from the web. Indeed, the question is wrapped up in recent debates about zero rating, net neutrality, “the next billion” and numerous initiatives designed to bring people from the developing world online.

At Theorizing the Web this year, I presented research that combined my fieldwork and personal observations in developing world internet contexts like rural northern Uganda, urban China and rural Philippines with emergent research and journalism on the use of sneakernets–the physical transfer of data using devices like USB sticks or Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones–in places like Mali, North Korea and Cuba. These latter formed the basis for my talk and a recent paper in The New Inquiry, in which I draw from Jan Chipchase’s writing on binary thinking about connectivity and how this ultimately overlooks the vast diversity of ways that people do access the web and its products. (more…)

ACLU Mobile Justice App: Channeling Citizen Voices

Via https://www.mobilejusticeca.org/

Via https://www.mobilejusticeca.org/

At the beginning of this month, the ACLU in California released a free mobile app that monitors police violence. The app, called Mobile Justice CA, preserves users’ footage of police encounters.  Available on both Apple and Android devices, the user pushes a large “Record” button to document their own and others’ interactions with police. The content automatically transmits to the ACLU servers. The point is to preserve recorded content even if police destroy the recording device and/or delete the video. For instance, the ACLU would have maintained documentation of police detaining residents in an LA neighborhood, even after an officer smashed the cellphone of a witness recording the events.

The ACLU treats transmissions through the app as legal communications and protects the anonymity of the sender. Legal action is only taken upon the sender’s request, but the ACLU maintains the rights to the footage, meaning they can distribute it to media outlets as evidence of injustice. Branches of the ACLU in in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, and Missouri have released similar apps.

These apps are significant in their reflection of an increasingly central mode of activism: Sousveillance. They are also reflective of the structural embeddedness of the sousveilling citizen. (more…)

What Can Feminism Teach Facebook Researchers? A Science Studies Primer


Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson

Science, to borrow a phrase from Steven Shapin, is a social process that is “produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.” This simple fact is difficult to remember in the face of intricate computer generated images and declarative statements in credible publications. Science may produce some of the most accurate and useful descriptions of the world but that does not make it an unmediated window onto reality.

Facebook’s latest published study, claiming that personal choice is more to blame for filter bubbles than their own algorithm, is a stark reminder that science is a deeply human enterprise. Not only does the study contain significant methodological problems, its conclusions run counter to their actual findings. Criticisms of the study and media accounts of the study have already been expertly executed by Zeynep Tufecki, Nathan Jurgenson, and Christian Sandvig and I won’t repeat them. Instead I’d like to do a quick review of what the social sciences know about the practice of science, how the institutions of science behave, and how they both intersect with social power, class, race, and gender. After reviewing the literature we might also be able to ask how the study of science could have improved Facebook’s research. (more…)

Facebook: Fair and Balanced


The most crucial thing people forget about social media, all technologies, is that certain people with certain politics, insecurities, and financial interests structure them. On an abstract level, yeah, we may all know that these sites are shaped, designed, and controlled by specific humans. But so much of the rhetoric around code, “big” data, and data science research continues to promote a fallacy that the way sites operate is almost natural, that they are simply giving users what they want, which then downplays their own interests and role and responsibility in structuring what happens. The greatest success of “big” data so far has been for those with that data to sell their interests as neutral.

Today, Facebook researchers released a report in Science on the flow of ideological news content on their site. “Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook” by Eytan Bakshy, Solomon Messing, and Lada Adamic (all Facebook researchers) enters into the debate around whether social media in general, and Facebook in particular, locks users into a so-called “filter bubble”, seeing only what one wants and is predisposed to agree with and limiting exposure to outside and conflicting voices, information, and opinions. And just like Facebook’s director of news recently ignored the company’s journalistic role shaping our news ecosystem, Facebook’s researchers make this paper about minimizing their role in structuring what a user sees and posts. I’ve just read the study, but I already had some thoughts about this bigger ideological push since the journalism event as it relates to my bigger project describing contemporary data science as a sort of neo-positivism. I’d like to put some of my thoughts connecting it all here.