Postdigital Apocrypha; Or the Augmented Future is Already Here

At the end of a press conference in January, Microsoft announced HoloLens, its vision for the future of computing.

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The device, which Microsoft classifies as an augmented reality (AR) headset, incorporates a compilation of sensors, surround speakers, and a transparent visor to project holograms onto the wearer’s environment, a sensory middle ground between Google Glass and virtual reality (VR) headsets like Oculus Rift. Augmented and virtual reality headsets, like most technology saddled with transforming our world, reframe our expectations in order to sell back to us our present as an aspirational, near-future fantasy. According to Microsoft’s teaser site, HoloLens “blends” the digital and “reality” by “pulling it out of a screen” and placing it “in our world” as “real 3D” holograms. Implicit in this narrative is that experience as mediated with digital screens has not already permeated reality, a possibility the tech industry casts perpetually into the future tense: “where our digital lives would seamlessly connect with real life.” (more…)

#TtW15’s Anti-Harassment Statement and You

For last year’s iteration of Theorizing the Web, we took a new step in our development as a conference and produced an anti-harassment statement.

We felt it was important, for a number of reasons. It’s not a matter of feeling; it is important. It seems like – fortunately – this is an issue to which more and more conferences and conventions are paying attention. There’s more in the way of an ongoing discussion than there once was. There’s a growing recognition that these kinds of stands need to be taken and these kinds of explicit guidelines need to be established in order to make spaces safe for all attendees – or at least to try to make those spaces as safe as possible.

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Exclusionary Algorithms: Jobaline’s Voice Analyzer

job search

A couple of years ago, I was enjoying dinner at a family gathering, loudly chiming in between bites of salad and veggie burger. In a quiet moment, my Nana’s significant other leaned in and looked at me closely. ‘I can’t pinpoint your accent,’ he said. Surprised, I wondered out loud if I had developed some strange hybrid of Virginia and Texas—my home state and the state where I was attending graduate school, respectively. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s more like California.’ He then faux flipped his hair, batted his eyelashes, and repeated something I’d said earlier using exaggerated uptalk. The table broke into laughter, jokes about nail chipping and mall shopping, and ironic air-quoted references to “Dr. Davis.” It was funny because this particular speech pattern—deeply classed and gendered—connotes  “ditziness,” which sits in (apparently comedic) contrast to my position as an adult in general, and an academic in particular. And indeed, my speech patterns growing up, like those of many girls I knew, followed the stereotypical “valley girl” inflection and cadence. I have learned to temper this over the years, but in relaxed moments, the excessive “likes” and statements-that-sound-like-questions slip back in.

I was not offended by this dinner table exchange. On the contrary, I put my gender activist hat away for a bit and  joined in, asking people to pass various food items in my best Alicia Silverstone (from clueless, obvi) voice. It was totally funny!! It would be less funny, however, if I found myself unable to get a job because of these speech patterns. (more…)

Killing NPCs and Rethinking “Fun”

aaaaah so fun

aaaaah so fun tho

One of the more frankly disturbing things I’ve read about video games recently wasn’t about sexism/misogyny but was instead about the NPCs (non-player characters) inserted into a game for a player to murder.

The piece in question was on the game Battlefield Hardline, and it contained quotes from the game’s makers regarding the thought that went into the presence and creation and – in particular – the dialogue of enemy NPCs in the game. As games have become more complex and voice acting has become more of a thing on which some focus is placed when a game is in development, there naturally arises the question of what these people are actually going to be saying. This leads to additional questions: Is the dialogue going to be more informative than anything else? Will there be any actual characterization of these people who are, after all, there largely to be killed by the player and whose lives will therefore be cut (tragically) short? Are these mustache-twirling villains, or are they just people?

And what do those decisions end up meaning for player experience?

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Digital Technologies Drive Adjunct Labor Movements

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Academia is in the midst of a labor crisis. With two-thirds of instructional faculty made up of contingent workers (i.e., adjuncts) a critical mass of dissatisfied—and often hungry— advocates are joining together to decry the unacceptable working conditions within historically sacred institutions of higher education. And with new adjunct unions forming regularly, the movement is taking on undeniable prevalence.

But it is more than just a growing quantity of under-paid, over-burdened, college educators that has fostered a national movement, it is also the availability of digitally mediated platforms through which these workers can connect, aggregate data, and share personal and collective stories with a larger public. That is, digital media has been instrumental in creating this particular counter-public.

Contemporary social movements are inevitably augmented, with digital and physical inextricably tied. In the case of adjuncts, however, digital media plays an especially crucial role. Of course I can only engage in informed speculation, but I don’t believe the adjunct movement would be a movement at all (or at least not much of one) without Internet technologies. This has to do with the material and social realities of contingent labor within higher-ed. (more…)

How do Smartphones Affect Human Thought?

Ecology of thought

My feeds this week kept popping up with a bothersome headline, stated in a variety of ways: Smartphones are Making Us Stupid, Technology is Making us Lazy, Does Smartphone use Decrease Intelligence?

The University of Waterloo released a paper this week that was originally published in Computers in Human Behavior back in July. Titled The Brain in your Pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to Supplant Thinking, the authors find a negative correlation between cognitive functioning and the use of search engines via smartphones.

The authors refer to smartphones as an “extended mind,” and make causal claims about the effects of this technological extension upon the current and futures state of human cognition. Namely, they predict that increased use of smartphones to gather information will indulge the human tendency towards lazy thinking, and we will become increasingly reliant upon devices. That is, the authors predict an outsourcing of critical thought. It’s kind of scary, really.

But before the phone stackers triumphantly proclaim that they told us so! Let’s look more closely at the research and the underlying assumptions of the research question.    (more…)

Augmented Mobilization at the People’s Climate March

Waggle

(Image from the People’s Climate March Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/peoplesclimatemarch)

When it comes to data analysis, sometimes non-findings speak louder than findings. Particularly when non-findings shine a light on questions that aren’t being asked.

 On 21 September 2014, UMd Professor of Sociology Dana R. Fisher took a small army of friends and graduate students to New York City to survey demonstrators at The People’s Climate March (PCM). The PCM survey is part of a longer thread of Dr. Fisher’s research, which surveys protestors to get a better understanding of who protests, how they are mobilized, and how their participation in protests relates to other forms of civic engagement they may partake in. Nate Silver’s data-nerd playground FiveThirtyEight.com sent a film crew to follow us to make a short documentary of our experience. The doc is part of their series The Collectors, a look at how scientists can apply rigorous research methods to a variety of unique settings outside of the laboratory.

The PCM’s greatest appeal—the thing that got us all up before dawn on a Sunday to take a bus from DC to Manhattan—was the sheer volume of potential data it made available to us. While more conservative estimates put the number of demonstrators at around 100,000, PCM organizers themselves suggest that it was closer to four times that. In any case, 350.org, who planned the march in collaboration with a long list of partner organizations, trumpeted the event as the “largest climate march in history.” By all accounts, they were right; the PCM was the brightest star in a constellation of nearly 2,600 simultaneous climate protests happening all over the world that day.

This thing was big, it was global, and it mobilized a lot of people.

Part of 350.org’s plan was to arrange protesters into neat blocks, according to where they fit along a spectrum of participant identities and organizational affiliations. Their hope was to organize participants into city-block-sized sections that would each represent a single unified ideological or social position. The map below details what these blocks were supposed to look like, and who was supposed to fill them during the assembly period before the march began. (more…)

Demands from the Margins

Ferguson Protest, NYC 25th Nov 2014

Statistics are never objective. Rather, they use numeric language to tell a story, and entail all of the subjectivity of storytelling. Indeed, the skilled statistician, like the skilled orator, can bring an audience into the world of their creation, and get the audience to buy fully into the logic of this world. Numbers, like words, are tools of communication, persuasion, connection, and dissent.  Statistics are not objective. But my goodness, statistics can be powerful.

Check out this particularly compelling statistical story about Ferguson Missouri: (more…)

Player Engagement and Shared Space (ugh, there are people here)

THE HELL IS THIS

WHAT THE HELL IS THIS

So I’m basically destroying my gamer cred here – to the extent that I had any, which is probably precisely not at all – by admitting that until this week I hadn’t yet played Destiny.

Look, I just hadn’t, okay? Leave me alone.

(Don’t worry, it gets a lot worse.)

Anyway, I had some free time so I dove into the demo. Many of the more critical (in the more academic sense, not the “this sucks” sense) reviews I had barely skimmed said it was both beautiful and ultimately pretty soulless, which I found – at least from the demo – to be true. But I can get behind a soulless game. I can even get behind a “walking simulator with stuff”. Sometimes I want to Not Think About Things in a fairly aggressive fashion.

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Would if… Nah it’ll never happen.

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I started writing something about funding community media houses using fees extracted from cable companies, something that local governments will have more political leverage to do with this recent FCC ruling, but as I look back at the dissenting opinions from the Republican commissioners, and the palpable fear of claiming anything close to regulation in the final FCC order, I feel pretty deflated. Don’t get me wrong, its good that net neutrality was preserved, but we should also call it what it is: holding ground. This wasn’t a step forward, it was a lot of work and campaigning just to keep a not terrible status quo. (more…)