Fallout 4 tells me that I am special.

At the start of the game, I am prompted to assign point values to Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck (yes, that spells SPECIAL) as an initial step towards the crafting of my customized protagonist. These statistics form the foundation of my character’s abilities, skills, and know-how. I will build on them and further specify them in the course of my play.

But Fallout 4 tells me that I am special in other ways, namely through the ways that it positions my protagonist within its narrative. My character is the lone survivor of a fallout shelter following a devastating nuclear war. She is cryogenically frozen, but wakes from her sleep long enough to witness her husband murdered and her infant son kidnapped. When she emerges from the vault 200 years after first entering it, she’s on a mission to find her son, despite having no knowledge of when the kidnapping happened.

Somehow, though, the local populace of wasteland Boston quickly determines that she exhibits exceptional leadership and combat skills. So they name her General, task her with the responsibility of restoring a floundering militia group, and put her at the head of rebuilding a new settlement and ultimately uniting the Commonwealth. Thus, immediately after emerging from a 200-year sleep during which time the world as she knew it was destroyed, my affluent-professional-suburban-Boston-wife-mother character is able to navigate a hostile irradiated wasteland, find resources on her own, master a particular fighting prowess, and then convince a straggling group of survivors to make her their leader. Soon enough she’s binding other settlements to her cause and gradually seizing power over the Commonwealth.

It’s absurd. Yet, it’s a setup that will likely be familiar and unquestioned for many players of video games. It’s a persistent trope: the player-character abruptly thrust from ordinariness into extraordinariness. At first, a humble and unassuming civilian—moments later, a military commander, a leader, a hero, the one hope for world salvation. Video games use this scenario very, very frequently. Especially AAA games like Fallout 4.

It’s a trope that, understandably, has come under some criticism. Nick Capozzoli’s comment sparked a conversation on Twitter that illustrates a number of concerns with this narrative model, as well as other similar coddling from the AAA industry. In the replies, Capozzoli noted that AAA games allow players to become anything they want and reward them for doing so. Others that took part in the conversation griped that the ability to get what one wants, do what one wants, and become what one wants is infantilizing. They accused games of treating these situations immaturely and in ways disconnected from reality.

Inanity and childish wish fulfillment aren’t the only criticisms leveled at the archetype of the unassuming-yet-exceptional player-hero. There’s also ideology at work. For instance, as Mattie Brice has remarked,

To put it frankly, gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world. Many games try to evoke the qualities of play most commonly associated with boys and men. Many games envision their average player to be white, a man, heterosexual, American, and a whole list of other privileged qualities. Meaning, they act much like our reality set up to have a particular group of people feel good about their lives as long as they are complicit with the system.

As Brice indicates, these storylines can be read as enshrining and reproducing hegemonic American cultural values. Fallout 4, for example, could be interpreted as embracing rugged individuality; the capacity to rise to power through hard work; masculine potency; peace enforced through armed combat; and a will to leadership, among others. One could also read this narrative of specialness as an attempt to appeal to the sensibilities of millennials, if one buys into the myth of their entitlement and narcissism.

While ideological critiques such as these are invaluable for uncovering the assumptions of many video games, I think many of them overlook their own starting point: a prevailing male-centric outlook. Such androcentrism is not only at the core of much of game design, but also in the angles and approaches of games criticism itself. A great deal of games criticism assumes that, since games are made with a male audience in mind, the values that they sanction are those with a specific appeal to men. Although Capozzoli’s comment comes from his male subject position, it also evinces the notion that a game like Fallout 4 is speaking to special boys. Likewise, Brice examines and condemns the ideologies of games from the assumption that their players are male.

But do these narratives and mechanics have the same implications when experienced from the perspectives of women or marginalized identities? Are the game’s only meanings those that apply to a presumed target audience?

For me, Fallout 4’s narrative of specialness provides opportunities to experience subject positions that I am not able to enjoy outside of its confines. While the game’s story and character development are utterly unrealistic, there are aspects of this unreality that are empowering to me. The game places my character—a woman, of my own choosing—into a leadership position that is not once called into question on the basis of her gender identity or her body. There are no misogynistic comments that cast her worthiness into doubt. No one tells her that she is not fit for combat. Only nameless enemies dare to call her a bitch—only to meet their messy deaths moments later.

I don’t entirely care about the game’s poor storytelling. I have every opportunity to ignore the quest to find my character’s lost son and even the shallow conflict about humanity’s abuses of technology. Instead, I can explore, build my settlements, and craft the world to my own liking. I can overlook the lack of explanation behind my character’s formidable capabilities and map a story of my own liking onto her: She is a woman who has gone through unimaginable tragedy and turmoil. But she has picked herself up and found a strength of her own that is answerable to no one. She goes it alone, with her dog as her only companion—and she not only survives, but thrives and conquers.

Through the woman character that I have created and that I embody in my gameplay, I can feel in possession of opportunities that do not exist for me, a woman, outside of the game. I can be a direct, firm, confident leader, a ruthless combatant, a cunning negotiator that makes alliances with competing factions to consolidate her rule. I can be a benevolent dictator who provides for settlers even while investing scarce resources in the creation of her own giant mansion in the middle of town. I don’t have to be nice. I face no pressure to perform in the feminine ways expected of me in my lived reality. No one holds against me that I am not maternal, nurturing, pliant, or agreeable. I don’t feel like I must apologize for my successes or my power. So I don’t care if Fallout 4’s narrative of specialness is disconnected from reality—sometimes, I want to experience subject positions for which my reality refuses to allow or that may be in direct contradiction to the kind of person I usually try to be.

Certainly, these appeals still fall into those narrative tropes and ideological issues that so many critics find distasteful. Everything that I have said could also just as easily be said by a white male who believes himself to be disempowered and who wishes to also have the experiences of being an indomitable fighter and a selfish, capitalist tyrant. However, that does not prevent my experience of Fallout 4 from being meaningful to me in ways that criticism often overlooks, due to my position as a woman and the opportunities afforded to me by playing as a woman protagonist of my own determination. Thus, even as they may appear to reproduce patriarchal structures from some angles of criticism, many video games nevertheless may offer opportunities for experiences outside of or in opposition to the oppressive binds that shape the daily lives of many players.

While we could dismiss the hackneyed and overused special-hero structure, condemn it, and call for its absolute eradication from the gaming landscape, I don’t think that this would be an entirely thoughtful approach (although this doesn’t mean that the AAA industry couldn’t cut back on its use). Instead, I think we could reevaluate the potentialities of these experiences for those that occupy marginalized positions. We should continue calling for the further blasting-open of these subject positions in video games, to allow them to be experienced by those who are often denied power. One way of approaching this goal is to not limit our criticisms of these structures to the import that they may have for hegemonic subjectivities. We must open our criticism to the possibilities for alternative, resistant forms of play and experience.

Stephanie Jennings is a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She can be found on Twitter @stephaniejngs.

image credit
image credit: Darwin Bell

Sometimes it is worth it to follow a bad idea down, as far as it goes, and pull back up the contorted, gross, and contradictory thing that it has latched onto. That’s important because sometimes that bad idea is attached to a value or belief that you yourself hold. It’s just worth knowing what your values and beliefs are capable of, when applied in extreme degrees or to cases you would not necessarily apply them to. This week dozens of state governors and Republican presidential candidates have come out to say that they, even though they have no legal standing to do so, would not allow Syrian refugees into the states they govern. They usually couch their declarations in terms of risk evaluation. For example, Florida governor Rick Scott told reporters he couldn’t possibly let Syrians into the state “without an extensive evaluation of the risk these individuals may pose to our national security.” If we were to put aside the obvious –that this is nothing more than naked xenophobia dressed up as national security concern trolling– and draw out a cost benefit analysis, (the only language bureaucracies understand) could we possibly find a suitable “good enough” scenario?

First we have to look at the current system that they claim is inadequate. From Slate,

It takes anywhere from 18–24 months for a Syrian refugee to be cleared to live in the United States. First he or she must be registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. This agency interviews refugees, conducts background checks, takes their biometric data, and establishes whether they belong to one of roughly 45 “categories of concern” given their past lives and work history in Syria. Typically, the applicants are women and children. If anything looks amiss, they are pulled from consideration. Then the U.S. government begins its own vetting. The applicants are interviewed again, and their names and particulars are run through terrorism databases. They receive additional screening when they arrive in the United States and then again after their first year in the country.

The US’s own vetting process requires crosschecks between the Departments of defense, state, and homeland security. Refugees’ names are compared to the ever-expanding and secret lists of terrorists that is maintained and checked by 19 intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Once in the United States a recent immigrant is subject to all of the typical agencies that monitor and harass the poor, all the way down to local police. All of this, according to many elected officials, still presents unacceptable levels of risk.

If we are to come up with something better, we’ll have to find some sort of model security procedure and make the kind of crass cost-benefit comparison bureaucrats make all the time: How much are we willing to spend to protect future human life from potential terror threats? The U.S.’s Office of Management and Budget, since 2004, has told the rest of the federal government that they should value human life somewhere between one and ten million dollars. That fairly wide range is used to justify everything from the cost of FAA-mandated airplane part replacement schedules, to the methods the FDA requires for drug testing trials. The higher the “value of statistical life” (or VSL as it is called in actuarial circles), the more an agency is justified in demanding. It is no surprise then, that while the Environmental Protection Agency is busy defending its $7.4 million figure from loopholes, the department of defense is barely tethered to such a calculation.

Computing a VSL is fairly complicated but the general idea is fairly simple. The University of Pennsylvania’s law school maintains a blog on regulations (fun read) and describes VSL calculation this way:

When the purported goal of a new rule, such as one addressing worker safety or the environment, is to save lives, the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) recommends measuring that rule’s benefits by using the value of a statistical life (VSL). OIRA defines the VSL as individuals’ “willingness to pay for reductions in risks of premature death.” For example, if people are willing to pay $10 to reduce their risk of death by one in a million, the VSL would be $10 million.

Statisticians back in 2012 claimed that after looking at the frequency and distribution of terror attacks since the 60s ”the likelihood of another 9/11 is between 20 and 50 per cent” by 2022. At the low range is an assumption of increased stability in the region, but we get closer to 50 per cent as power vacuums open up and resources like food and water get tight. If we were to assume that campaigns like the War on Terror help us increase stability (I don’t think this but plenty of government officials do and we are trying to stay internal to their own logic here) then how much more money do we need to add to what is already a $1.6 trillion price tag?

For the sake of argument lets use fiscal year 2008, the most expensive year of the War on Terror, as our VSL. That makes sense given that so many conservative politicians blame our relatively reduced military presence in the Middle East for the rise of ISIS and the whole point of the War on Terror (among other more abstract goals) is to prevent Americans from dying at the hands of terrorists. It also seems likely that any increased costs of screening refugees would get passed through defense spending so that such a system would avoid intentional government shutdowns and austerity measures. Despite the alramingly high probability of another major attack within a decade, the likelihood of an American dying from any kind of terrorist attack (and this includes domestic white supremacist terrorists!) is about 1 in 20 million. Presumably this is not good enough so lets say we wanted to decrease that likelihood to the level of bee and wasp sting deaths: approximately 25 million to 1. That would mean people would have to be willing to pay $39,000 to decrease odds that are already substantially lower than all assaults by firearms (24,974 in 1) or literally just walking (54,538 to 1).

Of course, just as we do not hand over a specific amount of money to the EPA for statistically-less-likely-to-kill-you air and water, no one will actually pay this $39,000 figure. Instead, it will be used to justify increased taxes and decreased spending in other departments. I will admit that, as a qualitative social scientist, I may have gotten this wrong but I am certainly in the ballpark. Even a trained economist who does these sorts of calculations for a living would have to add an asterisk about all of the factors that complicate their VSL calculations. The depreciating value of war machines, the relative effectiveness of any given campaign or program, and many other things could cause the VSL to rise or fall. In any case it is safe to say that given the high absolute price we have paid in the past for anti-terror tactics, and the relatively insignificant likelihood of dying in a terrorist attack, we are more than willing to spend ourselves to ruin. And this is precisely the stated, long-term tactic of non-state combatants. While terror is the existential weapon they wield, their blows always lead to a bleeding of money.

We tend to think of acts of terror as unique, discreet events that we might foil through gathering intelligence on specific plans carried out by identifiable individuals. Social scientists that study disasters and risk call these “discreet accidents” and, in the words of prominent disaster studies scholar Charles Perrow [paywall], casting accidents as discreet means that they can be prevented in the future by dissecting exactly what went wrong and correcting it. The 9/11 Commission report did just that: it pointed to a failure in intelligence sharing among several agencies and now those organizations circulate information more than ever before. But critics of that report, from presidential candidates to conspiracy theorists, continue to define 9/11 as a discreet accident: Someone is to blame, something went wrong, and ultimately 9/11 was preventable.

The terrifying truth is that politically motivated violence is inevitable given our present condition. Terrorism is what Perrow would call a “normal accident,” one that “emerges from the characteristics of the systems themselves.” Normal accidents are unavoidable not only because all human endeavors are prone to error (e.g. someone won’t catch the bomb in the suitcase or a crucial piece of intelligence won’t make it to the right desk in time), but also because the complexity of systems always produce an infinite combination of errors that are not recognizable as dangerous until the accident occurs. Perrow calls this “negative synergy” because the accident is always worse than the sum of the errors that produced it. The only solution Perrow provides is replacing complex, “tightly coupled” systems with decentralized “loosely coupled” systems so that when errors inevitably occur, they cannot spread, iterate, and produce a cascade effect that leads to disaster. This seems imminently applicable to things like electrical grids (e.g. smart grids of decentralized solar panels instead of nuclear power plants) but less imaginable when it comes to geopolitics. That is, of course, if you cannot fathom a world without borders.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.

The Storming of the Bastille
The Storming of the Bastille

Why don’t we ever talk about taking over social media companies? We will boycott them, demand transparency measures, and even build entire alternative networks based on volunteer labor but no one ever seems to consider taking all the servers and data sets away from the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and putting it all in the hands of the users. Even if a company was doing a bang-up job making their products easier to use, freer from harassment, and more productive in creating a better society, there’s still something fundamentally creepy about users having no democratic control over such an important aspect of their lives. Why is there no insistence that such important technologies have democratic accountability? Why are we so reticent to demand direct control over the digital aspects of our lives?

History is full of examples where customers revolted against companies that abused their customers’ trust. One of the more colorful examples comes from turn-of-the-century Chicago where a fairly strong network of anarchists, socialists, labor activists, and other like-minded people were busy formulating the demands to their employers that would later be picked up by the federal government as the basics for the New Deal. Other than wages and guaranteed time off, meat packers and steel workers had something in common: they all took the train. The owner of just about every train in the city was Charles Yerkes and in 1897 he sought to keep it that way by buying off the relevant city officials. When word got out that Yerkes was in city hall sealing the deal a mob of commuters surrounded the building and demanded Yerkes’ head and a change in administrative control over the network. He ended up fleeing the city shortly thereafter and the streetcar system went into receivership for several decades before it was eventually made public in the 1940s.

Some may feel that the resignation of Ellen Pao earlier this year as the interim CEO of Reddit amidst outrage over the banning of some hateful subreddits and the firing of beloved employees, is our modern day Yerkes but that’s only partially true. While the Chicago activists were fighting against an unfair system Redditors didn’t achieve anything more than a palace coup: removing one leader in favor of another who may make some minor changes to quell the organizers of dissent. The Reddit revolt was also extremely conservative: it reasserted a brand of extreme free speech that alienates more people than it attracts. The revolt has also instigated an exodus to a rival service that as far as anyone can tell, does not have any more democratic control mechanisms than Reddit ever did. In short, the #redditrevolt was never interested in demanding control over value production, they merely wanted to renegotiate the terms of their labor extraction.

What if users really did want to revolt and take over the networks that sell their attention? The coordination needed to take over every office and find every server would require the sort of decentralized collaboration that these companies’ services provide. And while a factory can still be easily run by its workers alone (such a thing has happened hundreds of times with great success), part of the business model of tech companies is keeping their means of profit production a secret. Even if thirty percent of Google’s employees (the amount needed to call for a union election in the United States) were to join some sort of user revolt and depose the top leadership, they are not likely to have the requisite information to keep all of Google’s services running. Or maybe they would? The point is that too few people know how any of this works.

It is precisely this organized lack of knowledge that, according to legal scholar Frank Pasquale in his book The Black Box Society, allows technology and finance companies to get away with as much as they do. Not only are market forces too complicated to be regulated, so the argument goes, but the proprietary databases and algorithms used to make money only provide a competitive advantage if they remain secret. This leaves both would-be regulators and disgruntled users in an impossible, position: the really useful technologies only seem economically or technically plausible if everything stays just the way that it is. No one outside of the owners of the technology know enough about it to impose democratic control.

Even if a user revolt were to successfully topple the leadership, and enough employees stayed on to keep everything running, our aspiring revolutionaries are still stuck with the fact that serving billions of page views a day is not cheap and the only thing that makes money is the very thing that caused the revolution in the first place: the accumulation and selling of proprietary (and secret) troves of data. It won’t be enough to seize the servers and the code. We will have to come up with a new business plan.

Sites like Ello, commercial ventures that make money through the sale of new features to users rather than selling users’ attention to advertisers, are enticing but rarely bare fruit. One could argue that switching an already popular platform to this new business model has a better chance of succeeding than a new startup, but even if that were the case, is that really what revolutions are fought over? Are our sights set so low that we will fight only to gain the dignity of a customer? There has to be a better alternative.

The CEO of DuckDuckGo, a search engine built around privacy and an explicit promise to not track its users, says that his company is already profitable without tracking. This is promising but DuckDuckGo is a fairly small company compared to Google. There are more servers and more branches of Google (even after the Alphabet reorganization) that are capital intensive and rely on search ad revenue.

Again, it is important to remember that we have been here before. Postal, railroad, telegraph, and telephone companies all have three things in common: 1) they help people overcome the separations of space and time and communicate with one-another, 2) their utility was deemed so important that laws were enacted to make sure everyone had reasonably easy access to them, and 3) they all eventually turned into either wholly owned subsidiaries of governments or are heavily regulated private monopolies. Social networks (and the internet providers they rely on) have been remarkably good at convincing us they do the first thing better than anyone and that the other two are unnecessary precisely because they are in stiff competition from competing technologies. It is the kind of doublespeak that can only come from the most powerful.

While I am not interested in having a government-controlled Facebook, I do think we should take some cues from the railroad commissions that were set up to bring a bit of democratic control to private railroad companies. These were appointed officials that would field requests for service or general complaints from the public and have the lawful authority to impose fines or require railroads to build new lines within certain realistic constraints. These commissions made it possible for smaller towns to petition for a stop on the railroad (incidentally this was the first time people would start to refer to themselves as “online”), or even require trains to stop all-together for such a time that passengers would disembark, eat and shop in the town, and get back on for the rest of their journey.

There are lots of ways we could choose to go about building public oversight commissions but here is one of my favorites: Set up a lottery system where active users are selected to serve for six months on a committee. Pay them for their part time labor, give them some basic tools to communicate with each-other from wherever they live, and put them to work collecting user complaints and requests for features and put those into some sort of standardized document that the company must comply with in another six months. This will probably send shivers down the spines of designers and venture capitalists alike, since it means giving up a fair amount of control to laypeople with no financial exposure to the company. This should not surprise anyone since democracy has always posed a threat people that feel like they are better than everyone else.

 David is on Twitter and Tumblr

Zombie cyborg
Image credit

The New York Times editors, as Claude Fisher wrote yesterday, “have their meme and they will ride it hard.” That meme is Sherry Turkle, the MIT psychologist that has built a cottage industry (a far away disconnected cottage on the shores of Cape Cod no doubt) around pathologizing the bad feelings people get when everyone around them are on their phones. Fisher does a really supurb job of laying out what is wrong with this latest round of Turkle fanfare so you should go read his piece on his blog, but I want to draw out and add to one point that he makes about the “death of conversation” being an evergreen topic for decades.

I have an article coming out in First Monday in about a month but there is a section that I want to quote from just because I think it is especially relevant to this issue of conversation, attention, and their vulnerability to new technologies. The article argues that online/offline states should be seen as social relationships among groups and not the binary states of an individual. To that point I show how cultural, political, and economic reactions to railroad lines mirror the experiences we have with the Internet today. What follows is a small section about what sorts of social and cultural effects were attributed to railroads:

How online/offline states ––or even their mere availability–– affect one’s mood or behavior shows that control over online and hence offline states is not necessarily just about having or refusing access to a network. Exercising one’s agency can mean gaining control over the digital networks that intersect one’s life, but it can also mean feeling in control over each other’s documentary vision. Research on social (Tokunaga, 2011) and liquid (Lyon, 2006; Bauman, 2013) surveillance has shown that even those individuals who do not intend to appear online can find themselves or their data available to the network without their consent. And as Tufekci (2014) and Pasquale (2015) have shown, we have little way of knowing to what degree our experiences and decisions are the result of networked data acquisition and organization.

The isolation and individuation in both networks at their respective times of early adoption also contributed to exaggerated fears of predation by murders, rapists, and thieves (Schivelbusch, 1986; Fisk, 2011; boyd, 2014). Two high-profile suspected murders inside private train cars led to increased fear that trains were sites of particular vulnerability. Similarly the social action online, particularly when it comes to youth, is often viewed in mass media as shot through with predation and illicit activity (Fisk, 2011; boyd, 2014).

Both technologies oddly enough, have also been cast as sites of misandry. Men  reported avoiding sharing private cars with women they did not know, not because of decorum but out of fear of unfounded accusations ranging from improper conversation topics to sexual assault (Schivelbusch, 1986). Whereas the train was a setting for such accusations, the Internet is a stage upon similar fears can not only be realized, but collected, curated, indexed and shared. The burgeoning “Men’s Rights Movement” has found a home in, and is mainly composed of “a loose but loud collection of Internet blogs sites, [and] policy-oriented organizations,” frequented by “a legion of middle-class white men who feel badly done by individual women or by policies they believe have cheated them” (quote from Coston and Kimmel, 2012, 375; also see Kimmel, 2013).

Given this history trains as agents of disorientation, danger, disruption, and removal from the topography of travel, it is remarkable that the American passenger rail service Amtrak announced in late 2014 a pilot writers’ residency program premised on the fact that trains: “don’t just connect small towns to big cities, they connect families, friends and loved ones. They offer a chance to connect with other travelers, experience the American countryside” [10]. This total reversal of what a train strongly suggests that the pronouncements made by critics like Carr and Turkle are a kind of cultural atavism: a retelling of [Popular early 20th century cultural critic John] Ruskin’s handwringing about illegible views and parcel-like passengers. Their claims to authenticity or states of nature miss a larger historical perspective that suggests such concerns are cyclical and arise out of legitimate fears over one’s agency in a rapidly changing world. Such approaches miss a forest of social, economic, and political power dynamics for the trees of a romanticized technological past.

What’s important to recognize here is that technologies make large and intangible forms of systematic oppression, visible and recognizable. What is dangerous about the work of Turkle (and others) is that it takes the latest physical instantiation of oppression and treats it as the cause. This dooms us to never get at the root of the problem while also disengaging from very useful technologies that we might appropriate and use for more liberatory or egalitarian purposes.

Image source
Image source

The ad is a fantastic invention. It has the uncanny ability to transform use value into a kind of crude exchange value. The useful or fun thing draws attention and that attention is then monetized by offering people with money the chance to put a message in front of some eyeballs. It is an exceptionally elegant solution to something that Karl Marx predicted would be a near-insolvable problem for capitalists: finding new frontiers to privatize and profit off of. Back in 2006 the Economist went so far as to proclaim that the Internet was “The Ultimate Marketing Machine.” Not only can it serve up more eyeballs than any newspaper or gridlocked highway, it provides tools to let the advertiser know if the ad was noticed. This innovation has provided a solid revenue source for everything from brand new things like social networking to very old institutions like journalism. If you invented a thing, but have no idea how to turn it into a living, the quickest and easiest way to start earning money is to slap an ad on the thing.

Maybe that’s a little flippant. Ads aren’t necessarily easy to do right. You can break or severely hobble a great new thing if you keep interrupting a person’s interaction with it. The best TV show will suck if it is punctuated by commercials every thirty seconds. You have to strike a balance and that balance is hard to find now that lots and lots of people have gotten a taste of ad-free living. And of course people have different tolerance levels. I have a hard time writing without music in the background but I absolutely cannot abide lyrics or words because I’ll actually start writing them down. So while lots of my friends put up with the free version of Spotify I have always paid for the premium version. An ad-supported Spotify would be useless to me.

Pay for the product yourself, or let advertising do its magic have been our only two choices for a long time even before the Great Magical Eyeball Corralling Device expanded the boundaries of capitalist accumulation to the most intimate moments of construction and performance of self. “Media has always compromised user experience for advertising,” writes The Verge’s Nilay Patel, “that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long.” Patel warns that anyone smaller than the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google will become collateral damage in an all-out war to undercut each-other’s revenue streams and grow their own. “It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.”

This is largely true, although “always” and “bloodbath” are exceedingly strong words. The Society Pages (that’s us) and The New Inquiry do not advertise on their sites. Jacobin advertises minimally and most of their advertisers are other magazines and book publishers. Wikipedia also seems to fly in the face of this narrative. It is not radical, in fact it is distinctly plausible in the here and now, to produce content with little-to-no advertising. Striking a balance between making something and making that something profitable is an issue of organizational mission, not technical ability. It is at once a design choice and a political decision. That is what I was getting at when I tweeted this last week:

A universal basic income is a kind of ad blocker. If I could be guaranteed 30k a year and health insurance I could spend a long time fiddling around with an idea until I got it just right, and then start to supplement my base income. That is essentially what venture capital does now, but with much higher stakes and too-short of a time scale. Companies that get millions of dollars have to make millions more to satisfy their investors. Doing things differently, not taking VC, building slowly and steadily, is a necessary but not sufficient condition (hi Ello) for building successful organizations outside of the VC rat race.

The ad blocker should not be seen as a selfish technology. It is a socialist cudgel—something that forces otherwise lazy capitalists to find new and inventive ways to make their creations sustainable. Ad blockers are one of the few tools users have to fight against the need to monetize fast and big because it troubles the predictability of readily traceable attention. Sure none of us are entitled to all of these things for free, but we should also be talking about the entitlement of venture capitalists who horde enormous sums of money so that they may play kingmaker and demand even more money in return.

Historians of this time will probably gawk in awe at the supremely strange economics surrounding what has been branded the “sharing economy.” They will describe immensely talented people groveling for piles of cash from sociopaths so that they may make intangible goods that are only compelling because they provide fun or structure social action that is only barely (and maybe even begrudgingly) shoehorned into a larger ideology of profit production.

Economics journalist Paul Mason has argued that this completely bizarre scenario is actually the playing out of Marx’s theories about the end of capitalism. Information technology may be offering up new frontiers to privative but it is also, “corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly.” The response by capitalists have been centralization and monopoly. The leftist response prescribed by Mason is to form dual power institutions, “alternatives within the [capitalist] system” that let lots of people decamp from profit-driven action and instead work on meaningful things in a collaborative manner.

Mason’s full argument has yet to be published (I am citing only the first chapter published in the Guardian) but however he fully articulates this postcapitalist future, it will have to contend with not just monopolist organizations like Google, but with venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Fidelity. In fact, VC has a much stronger position to keep all of this sharing and nonmarket activity firmly within capitalist logic because the companies they buy a stake in must turn a profit. Monopolies, on the other hand, contain one of the many contradictions of capital: once you win in the market it actually behooves you to stop acting quite like a profit-seeking enterprise and instead look to increase marginal returns. That means a project at Google or Apple can run at a short term loss so long as it contributes in the aggregate to long-term gains or as a PR campaign to keep up appearances.

For Example, take the humble note keeping tool Evernote. I was an early adopter of Evernote. I used it in 2009 for my thesis in college and it holds the notes for every graduate class I’ve ever taken. When I go into a meeting I have Evernote in full screen where I write down sentences that I later stare at and wonder: what the hell does that mean? (I am bad at note taking.) I’m starting to rethink this six-year-old relationship though, now that Evernote has started to deliver ads for their premium service at a rate of about once or twice a month on every device. It’s a fairly standard freemium business model and it sucks. It sucks because it gets the balance of attention wrong, especially given that a note-taking app has to respond quickly to a user who wants to record what someone said or refer back to their notes in the midst of a writing frenzy.

Moreover, it sucks because it feels like a bait and switch. All of my notes are stored in this service, many of them when ads in Evernote were relegated to a tiny box in the lower left. Now I have to make a decision based on sunk costs: do I pay for the premium service, deal with the intrusive advertising, or spend a significant amount of time migrating to a new service? This is a definitely a design problem because it is all about the relationship between humans and a built object and how one another functions. But this is also a problem of economics and overall mission. The design would have more time to incubate if Evernote’s creators were able to sustain themselves on a guaranteed basic income and hadn’t had to immediately seek out the profit and growth possibilities of a VC firm. It is worth noting that many of Evernote’s competitors (Microsoft’s OneNote, Google Docs and Drive) are run by companies that have a monopoly in something that gives them the ability to give away these products as part of a larger profit-making ecosystem.

All of which is to say that discussions of blocking ads, paying for music, native advertising, and whatever weird thing Facebook is doing with news are really about one’s willingness to advance an idea (whether that be a think piece or software) by any means necessary, or if we are willing to at least acknowledge that means by which we achieve our ends are consequential. In the same way The Verge might yawn at another photo sharing app that duplicates the function of Instagram, so too should we yawn and roll our eyes at organizations that promise to grow and finance themselves through venture funding, exhortative forms of freemium upgrading, and ad revenues. These worked imperfectly in the past and new ones are needed now.

I know I am not the first person to find startup funding problematic. The meteoric rise of Ello let us know that lots of people care about how information technology funds itself. The trick now is to build something that is compelling outside of its own stated manifesto. Something that stands on its own merits, not just on its overtly stated politics no matter how laudatory those might be. I suspect that whatever it is that breaks us free of this unwinnable debate between using ad blockers or succumbing to increasingly intrusive advertising, will be the product of a social program and not a technological breakthrough.

If we want small, creative, and responsible organizations that make cool things for us all to play with, we are going to need to open up many more opportunities for people to have that kind of life. Capitalism, as it turns out, never gives you that opportunity without a hefty price. Sometimes that means working inside of an enormous company that has its own pernicious kinds of self-interest that undermine the idealism of the smaller group. Sometimes it means working under the deadlines of VCs. Anyone that does not want to compromise themselves like that has to already be living the kind of charmed life that comes with luxury bicycles or inherited wealth. In short, it is socialism and compelling feature sets for the rich, capitalism and ads for the rest of us.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr

Ahmed Mohamed, 14. Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas News.
Ahmed Mohamed, 14. Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas News.

On Monday, August 14, a 14-year-old ninth grade student, Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to Irving MacArthur High School, his school in Irving, Texas.

Dark-skinned and a Muslim, Mohamed was clearly singled out on the basis of his ethnic and religious background. Of course, the school and police officials reject this assertion, but Mohamed’s family and many thousands of social media users aren’t buying it. The rapid, nationwide attention to Mohamed’s case provides an opportunity. Not only have charges been dropped against Mohamed, but it is unlikely that his detention and arrest will produce the negative reputation they otherwise would have. When applying to colleges, his Islamic name and the box checked indicating that he has been arrested would otherwise be cause for rejection. Instead, the details of his arrest are widely known and assessed as illegitimate. That’s great news for Mohamed, and this alone is a laudable outcome of his willingness and courage to fight this injustice so publicly while being backed up by others’ social media activism.

This case not only provides an opportunity for justice for Mohamed. It exposes the pernicious and often racist outcomes of zero tolerance policies, school policing, and their contributions to the school-to-prison pipeline. But I’m not so sure it will play such a role.

More likely, this case will demonstrate the pervasiveness of respectability politics. Wearing a NASA shirt while arrested for his electronics “maker” project, Mohamed is likely to be used as a model for respectable children of color and observant Muslims. His case won’t be generalized to represent the evil of school policing precisely because he will treated as exceptional. And, in treating him as such a symbol, those celebrating his cause will implicitly reproduce the same symbolic violence that allowed him to be selected by police on the basis of his skin tone and religion in the first place. He will be a symbol of what dark-skinned persons and Muslims ought to be in order to earn support when they are victimized by police and zero tolerance policies. If he were wearing a thobe instead of a NASA t-shirt, or in possession of a common pocket knife instead of a homemade clock, Mohamed would unlikely be known to many. If he were, his arrest would provoke widespread justification.

Mohamed’s respectability as a “maker” and an especially gifted young man has produced his public innocence. Now that many Americans know about him in his specificity, they will not see him as the variety of person the security apparatus is designed to guard against. He was one of the innocents caught in the net. The phenomenon of innocent people being mistakenly harmed by the very systems of security the same people otherwise promote commonly provokes broad anxieties, but especially those of suburban, middle class American whites, particularly in a time when they are distrustful of government.

Nearly all discourse about privacy and fears of surveillance is grounded in this phenomenon. When policing and its unjust or brutal outcomes generates much controversy, most concern is centered around the innocence of the aggrieved individual. Any bit of information that is construed as evidence against innocence is certain to result in a loss of public concern for the victimized person—and often generates open support for the injustice the person experienced.

If we are to challenge the school-to-prison pipeline, we must recognize that it was a net designed in part to fabricate the very terms of innocence and guilt. Those who are only concerned about those widely considered as innocent being mistakenly caught in that net are ultimately legitimating the net itself, and therefore the inextricably racialized terms by which innocence and guilt are established.

Much well-meaning activism appropriated specific symbols associated with Mohamed while neglecting others. Twitter and Facebook posts proliferated depicting users posed with clocks, NASA memorabilia, and electronics. Certain aspects of Mohamed’s identity became generalized—and fetishized—to represent all knowledge workers or all makers. Through highlighting specific qualities, those nominally declaring their solidarity reproduce problematic terms for innocence. It would be hard to imagine were Mohamed arrested with a pocketknife that social media users would be posing with cutlery. Also through this selection, other aspects of Mohamed’s identity—as a Muslim, a dark-skinned person, a child—were minimized or erased. The troubling consequence of this is that the terms for solidarity were not about crossing persisting lines that divide populations. Instead, it relied on Mohamed’s demonstration that he did not fit prominent stereotypes. The solidarity flowed because Mohamed was treated as an exceptional Muslim.

What we should take away from the Ahmed Mohamed controversy is that Mohamed is the tip of the iceberg. Unlike those real iceberg’s this civilization is rapidly melting to perpetuate itself, this metaphorical iceberg is increasing in size and for the very same reason. While we should celebrate that this particular case will have a happy ending, we should also be redoubling our commitment to ensuring that one day no 14-year-old will be cuffed at school and absorbed into the criminal justice system.

Ben Brucato is a critical scholar of police, surveillance, and technology. He is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Amherst College and holds a Ph.D. in Science & Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Another version of this essay originally appeared at Benbrucato.com


“How long were you gone?” Jason asked. His face was screwed up into a look of confusion with just a hint of judgment.

“I wasn’t even gone a full day! I left for Carol’s at 8 and came back before noon today. It looked fine when I left!” Nicole raised her hand to her brow and rubbed. “At least I think it did.” She looked down at the hard brown knot of sticks and leaves that had once been a brilliant purple ficus benjamina-style plant. She stared at it and moved her hands from her head to the soil around the stem, half believing that a clue to its sudden death would reveal itself. Nothing of the sort happened.

“Maybe it was aphids? Or a fungus or something. The leaves look weird.” Jason reached for a leaf and it fell into his hand as soon as he touched it along with four others that littered the table. He inspected it with the care and precision of someone that has more concern than facts to contribute to the matter. The leaf was dark brown and dry as parchment. It was shriveled like a used juice pouch, its edges crumbled toward the center.

Nicole pulled her finger out of the soil and wiped off the clinging dirt on the side of the pot. “Its still wet in there! I don’t get it.”

“Yeah that’s weird as fuck. I’d go back to Grow and see if they’ll take back custom jobs. I’m really sorry, I know how excited you were to get one of these things.” Jason felt a little guilty. Not only had he insisted that she splurge for a custom color, but he had been the first person to show her the trendy new plants popping up in windows across the city.

They had been walking to lunch when Nicole pointed to a ruby read ivy plant growing in the flowerbed of a brownstone.  “Look at that! It’s not even October and that ivy is already turning.”

“No that’s one of those plants with all the weird colors or whatever.”

“The what?” Nicole tried to sound like a curmudgeon but she scared herself when the words came out like an infomercial host.

“It’s that company that sells these plants in wacky colors, they breed them that way. You can get almost anything if you’re willing to wait a few hours and pay extra. They grow super fast too so you can prune them into the shape of a goose or whatever and it’ll grow back out in a week and you can do something else. I think the company is called Grow, just about everyone in my building has one of their plants.” They both studied the permanently red ivy and agreed that it detracted from the uniqueness of fall and wondered if it turned blue or some other weird color before the leaves fell off in the winter. They also agreed that if Grow started making anymore more than ornamental house plants they would finally go to one of those Back to Earth First rallies that their friend Ray kept inviting them to, so long as they were drunk when they did it.

The ivy leaves, in fact, turned a dark purple in autumn. At least that was what the tag said on the Grow store’s floor model. Jason had dragged Nicole there after work despite her insistence that she’d probably order one online when her insomnia kicked in later in the week. “You know I’ll do it!” It was no use, as Jason practically pushed her through the doors of the store and into the bright full spectrum light that kept the floor models alive. Her eyes had barely adjusted to the light before a tall man in a polo shirt approached her and asked if she was ready to take home her new favorite plant. She murmured something like “I think so.”

His hands came together in an awkward gesture that looked as though his left side was shaking the hand of his right. “Let me show you what’s been popular in your area. You live in the park neighborhood, correct? Man, could you imagine what an entire park of Grow Plants would look like? Rad right?.”

“Yeah…” Nicole almost asked how he knew where she lived but quickly remembered she had reset her phone the other day and forgotten to reinstall AdBlock. The stupid thing probably tattled on her as soon as she walked in the door. She made a note of the tiny black device in the tall man’s left ear. “But you don’t do that right? You only sell house plants.”

“Yup! Just house plants and we rent Christmas trees starting in October. Its really too bad the FDA won’t let us plant anything in uncontained soil. If you make a purchase today we hope you also agree to sign our petition to start trials for agricultural research.” Nicole made a face that caused the tall man to change the subject, “So what are you interested in? Someone just around the block from you bought this beautiful red ivy—“

“No, I don’t think I want something that looks…” Nicole hesitated as she threw out the first word that came to mind, searched for another, but reluctantly decided that the first word was the right one, “Um, real?”

“Totally! That’s cool. Well we have some that detect your mood and change colors based on how you’re feeling –very retro—but that’s probably not something you want using your phone’s battery all day, right? Doesn’t look like you keep those ambient sensors running, I get it, I don’t want my phone telling me how long I’ve been standing here all day!” Nicole realized that the tall man had subtly shifted from the usual overly-familiar conversation of a customer associate to the mild flirtations of the newly single. It was annoying. She made a nod of agreement and excused herself to a touchscreen that advertised custom plants. Jason was already poking at the screen and he beckoned her to joined him.

The options were almost overwhelming. She played with sliders and color palettes, selected “no” each time there was an offer to add some sort of functionality that required permissions to access her phone’s ambient sensors. “Why would I want a plant that glows when my pizza delivery arrives?” Jason made several convincing arguments but none of them justified the extra twenty dollars she would have to spend. The plant she walked out with was blind, deaf, and beautiful, just the way she wanted.

But now that plant was dead and Nicole’s sadness surprised her. Intellectually she knew it was just a plant but she had taken such joy in sampling the leaf color from a purple in her favorite dress she’d worn that day and she loved the way the eggshell white branches formed a smooth trunk that went into the black soil contained in a fat round pot with a matte teal finish. It was art as much as it was nature but the loss felt more like having a pet die than ruining a decoration.

Jason suggested they investigate her return options over lunch in the park. They put the dead plant in a big plastic bag and headed out. The day was hot and bright and anything that could emit an odor, did. The park was only half a block away, the entrance visible from the front door of Nicole’s building. They could see city workers gathered by the entrance’s main gate, their heads bowed down and their arms outstretched pointing to something on the ground. It took a few paces to see what it was that was wrong and a moment more to realize the problem ran the whole length of the block. Meters of hedges, brand new ones by the look of the freshly laid mulch, were completely dead.

As Jason and Nicole got closer they could hear the workers. Two young but big men were pleading with someone that looked to be their boss. They argued over water, driving habits, and the finer points of mulch spreading. One was already digging up the dead plants and throwing them into a truck bed.

The line for the park café was surprising long for so late in the day but there was no sense in rushing, it only gave them more time to look up the return policy. Nicole tapped at her phone with one hand and shielded the screen from the sun with the other. “It looks like I can return it because its so new but they don’t say specifically for custom colors. The page for custom stuff doesn’t say anything about returns which makes me think—Jason, what?”

Jason was staring intently at his own phone, his head shaking slightly with disbelief. He looked up briefly when Nicole said his name before his eyes went back down to the screen and he started reading aloud, “Biotech firm Grow has released a statement saying they detected mysterious activity in one of their datacenters in Minneapolis.” He looked up and handed his phone to Nicole. “And now apparently the feds are there or something. Like it’s a bigger deal than just credit card info.”

The search for a return policy was quickly forgotten as talk of the datacenter breach was cut off by having to order, and then finding a place to sit. Nicole looked across the soccer field to the tall evergreens and watched their sparse tips wave gently in the midafternoon breeze. It was just as she returned her gaze back to her plate that a flicker caught her eye. She squinted and tried to make out what she was seeing. “Jason what the hell is that?”

She pointed to the edge of the field where it met the evergreens. The trees cast a jagged shadow but somewhere in the shadow something moved, or at least it seemed like motion. It looked kind of like flickering. Pieces of the field seemed to go dark for a moment then lighter again; as though countless bugs had crawled out of the ground for a fraction of a second and then buried back in. Then the bugs stayed out longer and in bigger patches. It was only when the flickering extended out from the shadows did Nicole understand what she was looking at. In perfect squares the bright green grass flickered yellow and then to brown. Like a warehouse ceiling’s fluorescent lights the green grass was dying right before her eyes in rapid succession. The field was halfway dead before most people in the café started noticing. Several people stood up from their chairs and started walking backwards incase death itself was coming for all things, not just the soccer fields.

Only once the field was entirely brown did Nicole move her eyes back to Jason. He had been filming the whole thing on his phone and was already waiting for it to upload. “This is fucking nuts.” He said as he tapped out the video’s title: Entire soccer field goes TOTALLY BROWN INSTANTLY!!!

“Do you still have that Grow story on your phone? Did they update that story?” Nicole was starting to look too but Jason already had the story back up.

“Apparently there’s a media blackout around the whole datacenter, no one can broadcast from there.”

“Where does it say that? I can’t find the story.”

“Umm, its. Wait, shit. I can’t get it to reload again. I think they took it down.” Jason looked out at the dead field with an expression that looked way too excited for Nicole’s taste. She was horrified. Then Jason’s phone buzzed. “My video was taken down.”

“No way, really? Does it say why?”

“Says its an IP violation.” His fingers started scrolling up and down before stopping suddenly. “Take a look at this. Probably won’t last long.” Jason held up his phone to Nicole and she took it. The video was shaky but what it captured was very clear. The sky was grey and rain was pouring heavy. Whoever was filming was under a porch and the water was sliding off the roof in sheets. Out past the falling water and under the vast grey sky as far as the horizon were long rows of brown. The camera panned to the left and to the right, showing more rows of brown in all directions. Nicole turned up the volume on the phone to hear what she already saw. Rain falling on acres of dead corn, dry as a bone.


David is on twitter and tumblr 

[Also if you could help me find the original creator of the image at the top please let me know so I can give credit. I found it here.]

American Beauty computer prison

Otherwise productive conversations on online harassment hit a brick wall when it comes to enforcement. Community enforcement does not always work because community standards are often the reason harassers feel comfortable harassing in the first place. Appeals to external or somehow impartial moderators or enforcers might work really well, but then what do we do with the offender; especially the really bad ones that might follow through on their threats and need to be isolated or restrained in some way? This is a perennial problem of societal organization and we are just now starting to come to terms with how this old problem manifests through digital technologies. Exacerbating this issue is the state of our current law enforcement and judicial process and the renewed attention to its very basic flaws thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and allied progressive and radical communities. It is difficult if not impossible for anyone that considers themselves left of progressive to unthinkingly prescribe police enforcement and jail time for someone that breaks the law, no matter how much we agree with that law. How then, do we deal with today’s news that a Kentucky county clerk is now in federal prison for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples?

Mike Huckabee (of course) is already crowing that Christianity itself has been criminalized, and to some degree he is correct. Parts of how he (and millions of people) define Christianity are now in conflict with federal law. I think this is a good thing, but I also do not wish American jails on anyone. My own political stance on the abolition of police as they are presently organized and the judicial systems’ complacency in the systematic oppression of people extends to everyone. There are definitely people who wish harm on others (not as many as fear-mongering fascist want you to believe, but there are enough) and they need to be dealt with in some way: whether they are making credible threats of violence over social media, or using their bureaucratic roles to withhold essential government services. But if we as leftists are to take our own basic and fundamental critiques of the police and their prisons seriously, what do we do with these people in the here and now?

We can characterize this problem in a lot of different ways and each characterization can lead us to radically different conclusions. We can decide to make do with our massively imperfect bureaucratic tools and hope that enough laws get passed that just the right people are put in prison (anything short of a radical change in society necessitates that some people are imprisoned), or communities can invent new institutions without waiting for government to catch up. This is essentially the decision white supremacists made in the American south during segregation: they formed lynch mobs. The same may be said of today’s “Oath Keepers” and vigilante boarder patrollers. The far right has never had a problem with setting up their own institutions for enacting their warped sense of “justice.”  Obviously (at least to my mind) neither upholding a system that necessitates prisons, nor organizing vigilante justice is a particularly good answer for leftists seeking answers to the question of what do communities do with people who transgress.

All of which is to say I do not think anyone benefits from the imprisonment of Kim Davis. I think lots of people in Kentucky would benefit from Kim Davis being fired from a position where her hateful and bigoted worldview is contained as much as possible, but I do not wish prison on (almost) anyone.

One of the many effects of digital dualism is that very old problems appear as new and strange when mediated through digital interfaces. This can actually be beneficial at times because it can free up the mind to think radically about established social institutions. Sometimes this has bad effects, as when employers looking at your Facebook profile is seen as “controversial” and not on par with asking employees to bring in old college photo albums for an annual performance review. But I also hold out hope that renewed creative thinking about dealing with online harassment could yield new methods of community governance in general.

To be super clear: I do not want Facebook consulting on how to reform the federal Justice Department. Rather, I hold out hope that the kind of organizational design thinking that goes into harassment mitigation and prevention in social networks might also spill over into more radical prison abolition movements. Perhaps the two could learn from one-another and we can solve several problems at once.

Image Credit: NASA

As we approach the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans, it is almost impossible not to draw connections between Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as the storm exposed long-standing patterns of institutional neglect and structural racism that had typically been overlooked by the white American mainstream, so too have the uprisings across the country against police brutality drawn renewed attention to institutionalized racism in America this year. As Jamelle Bouie put it, “Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

But what does such memory look like? What tools are available online besides simply Googling old news articles? What history do we have at our fingertips, beyond returning to the heavily criticized mainstream media coverage, which at the time was limited at best and, at worst, trafficked in harmful racial stereotypes? For instance, in one heavily publicized example, photos of African American storm survivors were captioned as showing “looting,” when nearly identical images of white survivors were captioned as simply “finding food.” This, too, is part of the memory of Katrina, but it is a part in which survivors were not allowed to speak for themselves.

One alternative resource at our disposal is the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, a site devoted to “collecting and preserving the stories of Katrina” and Hurricane Rita as well. Created in 2005 by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the University of New Orleans, it is a digital archive where members of the public have uploaded their stories and images of the storm. I have critiqued these sort of digital archives in the past for privileging a kind of cathartic, inner-directed self-help, but in the present moment this one seems particularly valuable.

A decade on from the devastating collapse of the levees, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank provides vivid examples of the storm’s impact on particular individuals. Of course, some would argue that returning to these stories is simply gawking: disaster porn, ten years removed. But the fact that the authors of these memories went online in order to preserve and share them, to me, suggests otherwise. Refusing to engage with others’ traumas, when they have shown the bravery to write them publicly, risks transmuting one’s own sensitivities into callousness. Such a gesture is also a cruel reenactment of the American public’s initial loss of interest in Katrina, when news readers, politicians, and pundits began complaining of “Katrina fatigue” just a few months after the storm hit. In this context, the need for remembrance is clear.

Here, then, are a few of examples of the memories collected on the site. We begin with an excerpt from one of the most heart-wrenching entries in the memory bank:

As the sun was going down on August 29, 2005, my 95-year-old, invalid mother died in my arms as we tried to escape the rising flood waters coming into our house by climbing the fold-down stairs into the attic of our house. The next morning, August 30, at about 9:30 AM, I had to leave her body behind in the bathroom of the house so I could swim to a neighbor’s house to let him and his wife know that I was okay. Men in a flatboat who came to rescue me and other neighbors would not let me return to my house to rescue my two dogs… Without going into exhaustive detail, I will simply say that my past life died that day with Mother and my dogs. I now wish to devote my life to living my life to be a blessing to others.

A younger storm victim shared the pain of leaving her parents behind during the evacuation:

Monday the storm hit and my family and I were glued to the television in the church mission we were staying in. When the news anchor said that all of New Orleans was underwater I started to cry because my parents were still there and I couldn’t get through to them on the house or cellphones. One of my uncles hugged me and told me that my father was a survivor and not to worry… I spent the next few days trying to get in touch with my parents and watching the horror unfolding on the news and wondering where my older siblings were and if they were safe. One of my older sisters lived in the East and the other in the lower 9. Finally I talked to my parents and I started to cry and thank God for protecting them.

And users like this one merely commented on what it was like to view the storm from a distance:

I was watching the news on how a destructive hurricane was headed towards New Orleans and thinking how are the people with who are barely getting by going to get out to safety? And are there enough buses to carry everyone out? When the storm hit and cleared I thought there would be some type immediate help just like the tsunami disaster, but when I saw the total disrespect towards people of color, it kind of reminded me that as far as we have made progress we have digressed just as much… Then I thought maybe this rebuilding process is where Bush would empathize and start rebuilding the city of New Orleans, but what happened? The city of who used to people mostly black is now just like every other city in America it is now mostly white… This really showed me how worthless our lives [are] to America.

Those who directly experienced Katrina could surely never forget even if they wanted to. But for those of us who watched from a distance, in relative safety, the question of what it means to remember the storm is a slightly more ambiguous matter. If remembrance simply means “to learn from” Katrina, then those lessons ought to clearly translate into direct support for the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements that struggle against the forces of structural and institutional racism.

But perhaps remembering means something more than learning. Empathy, compassion, and care are, after all, also important takeaways from remembrance projects. So perhaps it means spending time with the memories that Katrina’s victims have shared with us. Making use of the tools that digital culture provides to try to understand the suffering of others. Sitting with those memories, in sympathy and in discomfort. Not because we can ever fully understand what it is like to survive such a trauma. And not because I, as a white person, will ever completely understand the physical and psychic burdens imposed by racism. But because knowing the inscrutability of others’ pain, the ever present distance between others and ourselves, is precisely what impels us to try to understand. It is, in a way, the least we can do for those who have suffered—to take their pain seriously.

The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has already begun to generate a significant amount of news coverage. No doubt there is more to come. But such commemoration in the mainstream media is likely to peak with this milestone, and decline precipitously thereafter. Indeed, the temptation to forget Katrina is great for an American mainstream that is deeply uncomfortable with the deeply rooted racism that the storm laid bare.

This is all the more reason to return to the few online spaces that have preserved these memories exactly as they were recorded by those who lived them. To browse through these remembrances—some painful, many mundane—is to receive a fleeting glimpse of the full social and psychological impact of the storm, and simultaneously, to grasp the inadequacy of our attempts to fully recall it.

In the end, memory can only do so much, and social movements are necessarily rooted in the present. But the injustices of the past, the trauma of survivors, and the losses of the victims are reason enough to remember.

Timothy Recuber is a sociologist who studies how American media and culture respond to crisis and distress. His work has been published in journals such as New Media and Society, The American Behavioral Scientist, Space and Culture, Contexts, and Research Ethics.


"Lone Hacker in Warehouse" by Brian Klug
“Lone Hacker in Warehouse” by Brian Klug

The hacker label is, as Foucault might say, a “dubious unity.”  The single phrase can barely contain its constituent multitude. Even if every single person that self-identified as a hacker had a stable definition, the media would warp, expand, and misunderstand the definition to include all sorts of other identities, tactics, and personas. We cannot know what is in the hearts and minds of every person that feels an allegiance to the hacker brand but this past week’s Ashley Madison hack, where deeply private information was leaked supposedly in the name of consumer protection, forces a conversation about the politics of hacking. Are hackers fundamentally conservative if not in intention, then in deed?

Such a question requires a working definition of hackers. One that, at the very least, identifies who and what is a hacker and hacking respectively. I can’t think of a better source to turn to than Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy because not only is it a book-length meditation on what it means to call yourself a hacker, but her own work is deeply enmeshed in the boundary policing of hackerdom itself. This merits a fairly long block quote taken from her chapter on LuzSec, but this quote speaks mainly to her initial interaction with the information security community. It starts on page 256 if you want read around this quote, which I recommend:

Hacking they [members of the information security (InfoSec) community] would tell me, is digital trespass: breaking into a system, owning it hard, doing what you want with it. I had recently published my book on free software “hackers,” Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, and it seemed that these InfoSec word warriors thought I had a narrow understanding of the term, one that omitted their world. But, my understanding of the term is much more nuanced than they realized. My definition includes free software programmers, people who make things, and also people who compromise systems—but that doesn’t mean they have to all be talked about at the same time. My first book was narrowly focused.

Interestingly, while each microcommunity claims the moniker “hacker,” some always refute the attempts of other microcommunities to claim the term. So when InfoSec people started yelling at me that free software “hackers” weren’t “hackers,” I wasn’t surprised.

Policing of the term “hacker” could be read as a kind of proxy war over what hackers should do. That is, should the gravitational pull of the desirable (to some) hacker brand be used in service of communitarians dedicated to building free software or should it be a banner for libertarian free speech warriors (and everything in between)? For the purposes of this essay I’m going to focus on the assortment of people and ideas that orbit a Guy Fawkes mask. That is, those people who hack to break, “own hard”, and trespass.

In light of this definition and many qualifications we should be asking three questions to determine hackers’ political ambitions: What sorts of systems are generally broken by hackers? To what ends are they broken? What arises from the broken code? In the AH case, hackers were upset that the service was full of fake female profiles and that it charged $19.99 to deactivate accounts. There also seems to be a certain kind of desire to see cheaters exposed. Past high-profile hacks include the Sony leak that was done in protest of poor security surrounding users’ account information, and the Stratfor hack that mainly served as retribution for years of corporate espionage.

The motivation for the Ashley Madison hack seems, at best, confused and contradictory. If your stated aim is the well-being of consumers, then threatening to expose their information seems like a bad bargaining chip. Its like threatening Shell oil by holding a gun to the head of a polar bear. The same could be said about the Sony hack and, at first, the blowback said just as much. Here is part of Coleman’s recounting of the immediate aftermath:

Very quickly, the operation went south. DDoSing Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) did not earn Anonymous any new friends, only the ire of gamers who foamed with vitriol at being deprived of their source of distraction. Amidst the DDoSing, a splinter group calling itself “SonyRecon” formed to dox Sony executives. This move proved controversial among Anonymous activists and their broader support network.

Spurred by the operation’s immediate unpopularity, Anonymous released the following statement: “We realized that targeting the PSN is not a good idea. We have therefore temporarily suspended our action until a method is found that will not severely impact Sony’s customers.” They hoped that this would put out the fire.

Just to recap: It is okay to destroy something that lots of people pay for and rely on to entertain themselves, and it is okay to release sensitive information about millions of people, but doxxing millionaires is “controversial.” This is not an isolated case either. Even the Stratfor hack, which was an undeniably anti-corporate act (which incluided stealing emails, donating to the Manning support fund with stolen corporate credit cards, and replacing the company’s website with a manifesto about communal living brought about through armed insurrection) never treated the executives of Stratfor the way they might treat a kid that owned a Playstation. Unless a CEO says something brash about Anonymous itself (as was the case with HBGary Federal) hackers seem to hit customers hard, but treat executives about as harshly as a retiree writing an angry letter about sub-par cable programming.

There’s no doubt that the operations that lead to security breaches at corporate espionage firms like Stratfor and HBGary Federal required bravery, skill, and contained within them a revolutionary spirt. But for all of the ostensible machismo and trickster joviality, there is an underlying respect for the security state.  If any motivation (outside of “the lulz” which is more of a means than an end when you think about it) can be attributed to hackers it is the following: more and better security, deference to millionaires, and the sacrifice of immoral people for the future common good. That sounds an awful lot like Republicans.

To be really clear here: even if every person that has ever called themselves a hacker hated millionaires and believed in a borderless utopia, the effects of their actions produce a more battle-hardened police state. Of course many hackers would say that security is to meant to keep the government and corporations out of the business of individual citizens and the release of sensitive information would happen anyway given the poor security measures they are protesting in the first place. Such defenses actually brings to light another conservative attribute: the fear of a looming and malignant outsider waiting to prey on hapless victims who don’t seem to appreciate how hard it is to keep everyone safe.

How does the hacker, despite frequently stated anti-authoritarian leanings, end up fighting for things like traditional marriage arrangements and national security? The easy answer is that many hackers are, in fact, socially conservative libertarians who actually harbor animosity for adulterers regardless of reason or context. This might very well explain some hackers but what about the avowed anarchists? What about the people who work in solidarity with Kurdish social ecologists or Tunisian fighting for free elections? How are these people unwittingly acting in a conservative way?

Back in April I wrote “Instead of handing over our trust to organizations like professional associations, governments, or corporations, hackers would have us move that trust to algorithms, protocols, and block chains.“ I argued that the rationalization for encryption and automation –humans cannot be trusted so we must replace them with code—is no different than progressive era activists’ insistence that essential services like municipal government should be depoliticized and turned over to professionals and bureaucrats instead of elected politicians. Bureaucracy, like code, is supposed to act predictably and equally for everyone. The technologist’s solutions are no different that the reforms that gave us city management experts. (Perhaps this is why hackers secretly love CEOs, because they are at once both the very top management expert and the person that totally owned the system. The fact that they are now the system, is the only reason why the CEO’s business must be hacked at.)

This brings up a fundamental paradox: the hacker and the bureaucrat are polar opposites in terms of means –the former is trickster incarnate while the latter plots along as predictably as humanly possible– but they advocate for similar solutions to difficult problems. Even though the bureaucrat seeks and fosters smooth operation of a system, and hackers are motivated by a goal and are animated by chaotic destruction, they both share a fundamental distrust of humans as political entities. Hackers may embody the opposite of bureaucracy, but they ultimately desire the same thing as bureaucrats: technologies that obviate trust.

In the final chapter of Utopia of Rules David Graeber concludes that we all secretly love bureaucracy because it promises stability and predictability in an otherwise uncertain world. That while play can be creative and generative, we know it can also be destructive and disruptive. We cannot build complex systems like universal healthcare administration or nuclear missile launch systems atop ever-shifting human desire. Instead we have to make bureaucracies as Weber described them: hierarchical organizations with written rules staffed by trained (but ultimately and imminently replaceable) professionals. Bureaucracies date back to Mesopotamia but remain the least worst organizational solution we’ve come up with thus far for tackling big projects. And while it has let us accomplish a great deal, bureaucracies are still incredibly alienating, frustrating, and boring for everyone that interacts with them. The perfectly-functioning bureaucracy has never existed. Incompetence, nepotism, and all sorts of human foibles (and values) get in the way of true and complete bureaucratic predictability. It is no surprise then, that political actors get lots of traction by hating on bureaucracy.

The right, Graeber argues, came up with a critique of bureaucracy early on, and have benefited greatly. They peg public organizations as bureaucratic and private entitles as dynamic problem-solvers even though private firms are just as bureaucratic as governments. This has let them create bureaucracies with impunity: an ever-increasing military-industrial complex and oligarchic state wrapped in the glitzy paper of dynamism. The left, he argues, has yet to come up with an equally rhetorically effective critique of bureaucracy. I disagree. Hacking has risen as the heir-apparent for people that are as critical of corporations as they are of governments. The problem is that while the rhetoric is provocative, hackers are still as bureaucracy-loving as the Progressive Era reformists mentioned above. There may be a fix though.

The hacker critique of bureaucracy is simple: states and corporations are greedy and careless and you have to threaten them with destruction in order for them to behave. Ultimately we should replace bureaucracies –that try to make humans emulate robots– with actual robots and algorithms that will be invented through the creative destruction of existing institutions. It is a tantalizing argument, but right now it fails in practice because (and here I go back to agreeing with Graeber) it is still far too easy and cheap to exploit workers. All the free software created (and allowed to be used by corporations) by volunteer labor, cannot overcome the power corporations and states wield in steering R&D money towards profit-seeking behavior. When you attack a company for not safe-guarding sensitive information, the result is more security, not less possibility of theft. Or even better, a world where theft is unnecessary because everyone has what they need.

The hacker, for all its drawbacks, is still a helpful post-capitalist imaginary. That imaginary is instructive of a desirable future, as all utopian thinking is, but in the present historical moment the behavior of the hacker has conservative and authoritarian results. This happens in spite of all of the grandiose claims to libertarianism and trickster unpredictability because underlying all their actions is a deep-seated distrust of humans’ ability to work together at a grand scale. This cynicism manifests in a willingness to expose people engaging in all sorts of non-monogamous relationships and a desire to go even further than than early champions of bureaucracy by inventing things that obviate trust rather than require it.

Perhaps then, the way to bring practice in line with rhetoric is to (counter-intuitively) expand the common definition of hacker. The hacker imaginary should include, as my fellow editor Jenny Davis argued last week, social movements like Black Lives Matter. Davis argues that such a redefinition will also require a move away from anonymity and towards speaking from a situated identity:

Because of this insistence upon centrality, Black Lives Matter refuses to be Anonymous. They do not disrupt the system quietly. The hack is their presence. The hack is their voices. The hack is their faces. It’s not about discourse or even policy, but an insistence upon visibility; a refusal to remain unseen.

This shift in tactics from invisibility to obvious visibility does two things. First, as Davis notes, it forces power centers who otherwise benefit from quiet dominance to admit and show the violence that is quietly wielded every day. Such blatant violence and and often does push otherwise “moderate” people to adopt an antagonistic stance against oppression. Second, it breaks something fundamental that bureaucracies need to function properly: standardized objects. By refusing to act anonymously –and thus uniformly— BLM hackers make it difficult for bureaucracies to continue doing their work. By refusing to treat people (like Bernie Sanders) as equals at the moment of protest, they display how they have been treated historical as less-than equals.

More than anything, the hacker has to pick a side. He or she has to come into the light of politics and, instead of hiding in the shadows of unmarked categories, be an ostentatious and confusing thing willing to make alliances with people based on their living histories, rather than rallying around a single bad apple worthy of defacement. Hackers have long benefited from propaganda by the deed: winning adherents by acting as if their political agenda was already hegemonic. That should continue but with more clarity and resolution. Future hackers would do well to put aside masks, trust-less encryption technologies, and unpredictability, and instead act ostentatiously, with no regard for boundaries, and do so predictably and repeatedly until something breaks. That something, with enough tenacity and time, could very well be capitalism.