For a little over a decade, those researchers and visionaries originally involved in establishing the infrastructure for the World Wide Web have set their sights higher. While hyperlinking Web pages has been pivotal to creating a Web of documents, the more recent goals to establish a Semantic Web involve hyperlinking data, or individual elements within a Web page. In attaching unique identifiers (in the form of Uniform Resource Identifiers or URIs) and metadata to data points (rather than to just the documents where those data points appear) machines are able to interpret, not just what the browser should display, but also what the page is about. The hope is that, in providing machines with the capacity to interpret what data is about, it will be possible to drastically improve Web search and to allow researchers to perform automated reasoning on the massive amounts of data contributed to the Web. There are numerous examples where this infrastructure is already having impact (albeit largely behind-the-scenes). For instance, the New York Times has already “semantified” all of its data and created a Semantic API where researchers can query its database. Facebook’s Graph API, which employs Semantic Web infrastructure to structure user profile data, has been the foundation for several studies attempting to make sense of human behavior and interactions through the platform’s “big data.”
Inherent in the project of structuring meaning are philosophical questions about sameness and difference. How do we define and formalize identity – when one thing is exactly the same as the other? Semantic Web engineers are well-attuned to these questions; in fact, many have degrees in Philosophy. Yet, questions about sameness are difference are not just philosophical; they are also deeply political. There are social repercussions to formally marking two things as the same or two things as different. We need to be attuned to how the digital infrastructure built for the Semantic Web reflects and projects political commitments – how it shapes a politics of representation. This has serious implications for how identity can be organized, and how we (and machines) understand what the world is about as we access Web knowledge bases for information.
It is notable that establishing the infrastructure needed to meet the vision of a Semantic Web involves engineering a shared language between a content creator and a machine. What happens when language is literally engineered – when digital infrastructure deliberately structures the meaning of content on the Web?
There are several layers to the infrastructure of the Semantic Web; the most important layers are arguably schemas, semantics, and ontologies. ” Schemas provide a range of properties for describing data. For instance, a schema may provide properties such as ‘restaurant telephone number’, ‘event start date’, or ‘gender’, which can be referenced to describe a piece of data. Semantics establish the structure for how these properties and their values can be attached to data points. Semantic data is most commonly structured in “triples” of subject, predicate, object; the data point (subject) is linked to a schema property (predicate), and a value is attached to this property (object).
Finally, ontologies formalize how researchers mark the relationships, hierarchies, and differences between pieces of data; they offer a formal way for representing knowledge. For example, an ontology may be applied to show that Miley Cyrus is a child of Billy Rae Cyrus, or a carnivore is a subcategory of an animal. Schemas, semantics, and ontologies all become machine-readable through different coding languages and standards.
As you can imagine, building these languages and establishing these standards is quite a contentious endeavor; it involves delineating the boundaries of meaning around just about anything in the world. Tedious discussions arise as Web engineers engaged in establishing this infrastructure, in collaboration with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), attempt to formalize the way data should be described and ontologically represented.
Consider, for instance, “OWL:sameas”, a property in OWL (an ontology coding language) that was established to codify when two pieces of data on the Web (with two different URIs) refer to the same thing, or have the same identity. The W3C documentation outlining this property offers the following example, showing how OWL:sameas would describe a reference to William Jefferson Clinton to be the same as a reference to Bill Clinton:
As more and more webmasters take advantage of Semantic Web infrastructure to describe their data, many Web researchers and engineers have lamented how OWL:sameas is being used and (ab)used. What happens when ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star’ are both described as being the “same as” ‘Venus’? Should the automated reasoners that attempt to make inferences from this data then assume that they are the “same as” each other? Is the time of day that Venus is seen (or “sensed” in the words of Gottlub Frege, a logician and philosopher inspiring much work in Web ontologies) a difference that makes a difference? Notably, formalized logic breaks down when OWL:sameas is applied more loosely; automated reasoners produce tangled results. The stickiness of difference keeps getting in the way of clean ontological depictions of the world.
The controversial politics of representation becomes apparent as soon as OWL:sameas is applied to contested data points. Take, for example, DBpedia, a crowd-sourced project aiming to semantify data that has been contributed to Wikipedia. As of July 2015, DBpedia still has no entry for Caitlyn Jenner. But it does have an entry for Bruce Jenner. Scroll through the metadata at this URI to the OWL:sameas property, and you will find several URIs – all of which link to Web pages on Caitlyn Jenner. Other examples illustrate international naming politics. DBpedia has no entry for Myanmar, but it does have an entry for Burma. Scroll to the OWL:sameas property, and you will find that the US-based and UK-based URIs marked as being the “same as” this entry all refer to Burma, while those based elsewhere in the world refer to Myanmar – the name change the US and UK refused to recognize due to the reported human rights abuses that led to 1989 regime change.
Should automated reasoners assume that a reference to Bruce Jenner is the “same as” a reference to Caitlyn Jenner, or that a reference to Burma is the “same as” a reference to Myanmar – that the two have the same “identity”? And more importantly, who gets to decide? What happens when this sameness organizes how we see data on the Web? Or when it becomes the basis of research conducted on the Web?
Attempts to iron out these differences, or even to nail down when and how differences make a difference, discount the importance of permitting difference to remain sticky – of allowing data to sit comfortably and uncomfortably in a conflicting ontological space of sameness and difference. In this sense, there are not just technical and philosophical difficulties to semantifying the Web; there are also political difficulties – considerations that are often ignored as Web researchers attempt to engineer vocabularies and ontologies that capture a consistent depiction of the world. This can be thought of in terms of what postcolonial and feminist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “worlding the world.” “Worlding” refers to the way colonizers inscribe new worlds – worlds they assume were previously uninscribed. It is with this “worlding” that certain forms of meaning become salient – that the “Third World” comes to be recognized as the “Third World” and that the countries that constitute it are homogenized to sameness. We need heightened awareness of how the worlding of the Web – the engineering of semantic infrastructure – shapes what we know and can know – what can be made meaningful in a world full of sticky differences.
Reddit’s co-founder Steve Huffman, who is currently taking over CEO responsibilities in the wake of Ellen Pao’s resignation, has started doing these Fireside AMAs where he makes some sort of edict and all of the reddit users react and ask clarifying questions. Just today he made an interesting statement about the future of “free speech” in general and certain controversial subreddits in particular. The full statement is here but I want to focus on this specific line where he describes how people were banned in the beginning of reddit versus the later years when the site became popular:
Occasionally, someone would start spewing hate, and I would ban them. The community rarely questioned me. When they did, they accepted my reasoning: “because I don’t want that content on our site.”
As we grew, I became increasingly uncomfortable projecting my worldview on others. More practically, I didn’t have time to pass judgement on everything, so I decided to judge nothing.
This all comes at the heels of some interesting revelations by former, former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong saying that Ellen Pao was actually the person in the board room championing free speech and it was Huffman, fellow co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and others that really wanted to clamp down on the hate speech. So that’s just a big side dish of delicious schadenfreude that’s fun to nibble on
But those quotes bring up some questions that are absolutely crucial to something Britney Summit-Gil posted here a few days ago, namely that reddit finds itself in a paradox where revolting against the administration forces users to recognize that “Reddit is less like a community and more like a factory,” and that the free speech they rally around is an anathema to their other great love: the free market. What structures this contradiction, what sets everyone up at cross-purposes, also has a lot to do with Huffman’s reticence to ban people as the site grew. After all, why would Huffman feel “increasingly uncomfortable” making unilateral banning decisions as the site grew, and why was his default position then be “to judge nothing”? Why does it, all of a sudden, become unfair or inappropriate to craft a community or even a product with the kind of decisiveness that comes with “I just don’t like it”?
The answer to all of this comes out of two philosophic ideas: One is the Enlightenment model of reason that we still use to undergird our concepts of legitimacy and rhetorical persuasiveness. That big decisions that effect lots of people should be argued out and have practical and utilitarian reasons and not be based on the whims of an individual. That’s what kings did and that sort of authority is arbitrary even if the results seem desirable. The second is relatively more recent but still fundamental to the point of vanishing: the idea of the modern society as being governed by bureaucracies that have written rules that are followed by everyone. The rule of law, not of individuals. Bureaucracies are nice when they work because if you look at the written down rules, you have a fairly good idea of how to behave and what to expect from others. It’s a very enticing prospect that is rarely fully experienced.
Huffman doesn’t say as much but this is essentially how we went from fairly common-sense decisions about good governance to free speech fanaticism: not choosing to ban is the absence of arbitrary authority. When you have a site that lets you vote on things it feels like a decision to stop imposing order from the top is making room for democratic order from below. But this is closer to the kind of majoritarian tyranny that even the architects of the American constitution were worried about. Voting in the 1700s was something that only aristocrats were qualified to do. Leave it to rabble and you would have chaos. That’s why they built a bicameral legislature that originally featured a senate with members appointed by state governments.
It should also be said that one of the oldest laws in the United States is that Congress can’t make laws that specifically target a single individual or organization. That’s why those efforts to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011 were immediately dismissed as unconstitutional. Laws have to apply to everyone equally.
And so what Huffman is presently faced with is a problem of liberal (lowercase L) and modern state governance. How do you write broad laws that classify r/coontown without just saying “I ban r/coontown”? Unfortunately, this is also the biggest fuel line to the flames of fear that banning even detestable subreddits are a threat to free speech in general. This is, fundamentally, why it even makes sense to argue that banning an outwardly and explicitly racist subreddit can threaten the integrity of other subreddits either in the present or sometime in the future. Laws apply to everyone equally.
So if Reddit wants to get itself out of this paradox, I say dispense with liberalism all-together. At the very least come up with some sort of aspirational progressive vision of what kind of community you want to have and persuade others that they should work to achieve it. This sort of move is the biggest departure that anarchist political theory takes from mainstream liberalism: that communities can agree on the features of a future utopia and govern in the present as if you are already free to live that future utopia. Organizing humans with blanket laws forces you to explain the obvious, namely that hateful people suck and should be persuaded to act otherwise if they wish to remain part of a community that is meaningful to them.
Right now Huffman and the rest of the reddit administration have come up with some strange and inelegant ways of dealing with the present problem. They make all these dubious distinctions between action and speech; between inciting harm and just abstracting wishing it on people; and lots of blanket “I know it when I see it” sorts of decency rules. Under liberalism redditors would be right to demand very specific descriptions of the “I know it when I see it” kinds of moments. But if prominent members were to just be upfront in stating what sort of community they would like to see and then acting as if it already existed, discontents would have to persuade admins that they were acting against their own interests and propose a more compelling way to achieve the stated utopia. If they don’t like the utopia at all, then those people can leave for Voat and new users who like that utopia might come to replace them. At the very least, reddit were to take this approach, users might actually start answering the question that is at the heart of the matter but is rarely stated in explicit terms: who gets to be a part of the community?
In May of 1999 two people filed a lawsuit against AOL. They were volunteers in the company’s Community Leaders program which encompassed everything from chatroom moderation to teaching online classes. You had to apply to be a Community Leader and once you were selected you had a minimum amount of hours you needed to work every week, a time card to keep track of those hours, and reports that needed to be filed with administration. It had all the hallmarks of a real job which is precisely what those two people claimed in their lawsuit. Their argument was that their role constituted an “employee relationship” but I think it is more accurate to say they were creating value for a company that didn’t even feel the need to provide some kind of subsistence wage.
This story has been told countless times as a jumping off point for arguments that labor has left the factory or that even those companies like Amazon or Uber that have been leaders in the contractor / sharing / worse-than-capitalism economy are not paying enough. Some are even calling for “platform cooperativism” which sounds super cool. But there is another, very big, reason why social media companies (in particular) should be paying their moderators and other community leaders: it helps with diversity.
A similar realization came to the fore during the Progressive Era in the United States. In an effort to weed out corruption and machine-style politics at the municipal level many reformers adopted non-partisan elections (no parties), strong city councils, and very weak mayors. Some towns got rid of them all-together and instead hired a professional city manager. The idea was as simple as it was radical: towns and cities should be scientifically managed not politically organized.
That process of reform was flawed and incomplete but it hit upon a fundamental barrier to community leadership: the unequal distribution of free time. City managers were and still are full-time employees with benefits and a healthy salary. Anyone with the right credentials can be hired to be a city manager. City councils on the other hand, especially in smaller cities and towns, are part-time positions. Whereas the independently wealthy and retired can take a time-consuming job with little-to-no pay, workers and even middle-class folks cannot reasonably run for, let alone do all the work of a political leader. That is, of course, unless they took lots and lots of bribes.
The inability for anyone but the well-off and morally corrupt (lots of overlap in that venn diagram) to run for city councils has actually led to a raise in the wages of council members and even the inclusion of health insurance. This quote from the LA Times sums up the situation nicely:
Some experts said the move to provide healthcare benefits occurred as city councils became less a bastion of white men, many of whom owned local businesses or were executives in local companies. With diversity came a need for better compensation to make public service possible, said David Mora, an analyst with the International City/County Management Assn.
“A health insurance benefit was something that would make it a bit more manageable for the incumbent, so that more people might be able to run for office,” Mora said. “It’s generally accepted practice.”
The responsibilities of a Reddit moderator or Facebook group administrator, like a city council position, can run the gamut from a few hours a month to a full time job. Some people will do these jobs no matter what the personal cost because it means a lot to them and they are willing to absorb substantial opportunity costs. For a vast majority of people however, this is simply not the case. Lots of passionate people can’t take leadership roles in online communities because they cannot afford to give away their labor. That is a good a reason as any to pay people even a few dollars an hour to check for spam and ban some trolls.
Of course, if we were to calculate out the value of all that volunteer labor that makes many of our social media platforms possible, and give that money directly to workers, even accounting for server costs, we’d arrive at some pretty lavish salaries. Consider for example, this back-of-the-envelop math on reddit moderators:
Reddit’s estimated value is about $500 million. Let’s say the stingy corporate types are only willing to spend a quarter of that value on the labor that makes reddit even remotely possible. There are 10,114 active subreddits as of today and while I can’t seem to find the estimated number of active mods, let’s just go with 30,000. Some big subreddits have over 15 mods and most have one or two. There are some complicated arguments over which mods should get paid but let’s just simplify the whole thing and pay each one a flat rate. $125 million (a quarter of reddit’s value) divided by 30,000 is $4,166.
No one can live on $4k a year but consider how conservative we were with the amount going to salaries and how liberal we were with who gets them: sure each moderator of r/pics is going to get far less than what they are owed but collectively that team of 23 will get over $95,000. Perhaps that team could split that money up in some sort of progressive way where a successful and retired photographer can forgo their salary and pass it on to a young upstart. Meanwhile the moderators of small and obscure subreddits like r/Troy (local news for my city of 50,000 people) with only 514 readers would get a relatively sizeable amount of money for a small amount of work.
Just as reformers of the turn of the 20th century realized that paying officials actually reduced corruption, we might do well to start turning volunteers into part-time employees if for no other reason than to encourage a more diverse pool of community leaders. We should be paying them anyway, given that they generate so much value, but even if you are not convinced by the Marxist value-creation argument you can at least get behind improving communities.
A few years ago (I don’t really remember when) someone on this blog (don’t remember who) [edit: it was nathan] lamented the fact that the increased visibility of our childhood indiscretions, thanks in no small part to Facebook, had never resulted in a change in how we forgive one-another for our past-selves. That instead of saying, “eh I was a kid once too” we continue to roll our eyes, clutch our pearls, and even deny each other jobs based on the contents of timelines, profiles, and posts. Today I’m starting to feel like such forgiveness might have to begin with ourselves because –as many of us might be experiencing at this moment—I have started a free trial of Apple Music and I am confronted with my old iTunes music purchases. I need to forgive myself for the purchase of A Bigger Bang when it came out in 2006. This is hard.
Apple doesn’t make it easy. There’s all this album art staring at you under the words “My Music.” It’s all there, in alphabetical order as if my decision to spend actual US currency on Madeleine Peyroux is the same kind of decision to let iTunes think I had “purchased” a Dead Prez CD and ripped its contents to the massive 80 gig hard drive that once inhabited my Macbook G4. Then there are all of these personal one-hit wonders that, for the life of me, I cannot remember from the album art (probably because it didn’t have any) but now stare at me like old friends who don’t look anything like they did in high school but their voice is unmistakable. Oh! You’re THAT track. Wow Magenta Lane’s Wild Gardens, I totally forgot about you.
Why do I have not one but two MC Hammer albums?
Remember that time Stephen Colbert has the Swedish-language hip-hop swing fusion band Movits! on his show and it was better than something like that has any business sounding? I’m not saying my decision to use half of the value of my fifth night of Hanukah iTunes gift card on that album was a good decision, but I suppose that’s just how we learn.
So now I’m wondering if the fact that I was one of those people that first heard Modest Mouse via Good News For People Who Love Bad News is the reason I fell so hard and completely into hating hipsters in the early 00s. I dunno, Building Nothing out of Something is an excellent album but, nine times out of ten, I’ll still choose to listen to Dashboard when I’m driving. I don’t know what that says about me.
Oof, Major Lazer is bad writing music.
Was anyone ever into Birdmonster in 2007? Pitchfork’s William Bowers in August of 2006 says that there were some “bloggers” that really liked them but he only gave No Midnight a 5.6. I remember them (sorta) as one of those British pop punk bands that had a moment in that time. The Fratellis, The Futureheads, Kubichek! All sound virtually interchangeable, now (and probably then).
If Spotify is the gabby friend that likes to tell all of your other friends that you listen to bad psytrance at the gym, iTunes is the parent that recommends The White Stripes “deep cuts” because remember all The White Stripes you listened to, don’t you like The White Stripes I thought you really liked them. The former is a performance, but the latter is a kind of meditation. Neither is more or less authentically “you” but both do sort of belie a misunderstanding on the part of designers and engineers, about what we do with our music and why.
The impulse to recommend is always already context collapsed. Recommendations come from paying attention to you and only you, regardless of context or co-present audience. No platform has yet mastered the when, how, or with whom of music listening and so we end up forced to explain Squarepusher to our aunt who we’re driving home from the airport as it comes up on your finely tuned driving Spotify radio station. That’s a good thing. Those moments should never be smoothed over by wearables that will report the audience to some onboard car computer designed to play the “perfect” Bruce Springsteen track off of Nebraska that everyone will tolerate.
We tend to think of them as sooth sayers, but algorithms meant to suggest “more that we love” are also products of what Carl DiSalvo calls adversarial design. Adversarial relationships are characterized by disagreement, but never in the Hegelian one-must-be-destroyed-to-realize-the-other sort of way. Adversarial relationships produce productive tensions that do useful political work through the juxtaposition and shifting relationships of individual actors. We come to understand how we relate to other people and the material world around us in moments where things don’t fit quite right. When that one Billy Joel track you like comes on when you’re with someone you are trying to impress, when a particularly raunchy song comes on during a dinner party. These are moments where we learn a lot and they might not be comfortable but that doesn’t make them important.
Maybe then, the increased mutual understanding, the forgiveness that we were expecting to arrive with the ubiquity of the timeline, is still in the works. Maybe we will still get that, but it will take a lot more uncomfortable moments. In that time, unfortunately, social inequities will make the adversarial moments designed by and through algorithmically-induced context collapse more consequential for some and not for others. Gregarious algorithms can and have gotten people into serious trouble, I only have to worry about defending my purchase of that one Citizen Cope album from 2004.
David Graeber has republished his popular essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit in his new book Utopia of Rules with some small changes that go toward supporting the book’s over-all argument that the hallmark of American neoliberalism is not dynamism and a freeing up of individuals to peruse “creative class” jobs but rather a bureaucratization of every aspect of life. This total bureaucratization (almost literally) papers over the structural violence that supports capitalism. Of Flying Cars specifically argues that the utter failure to deliver on the implicit promises of Jetsons-level automation by the 21st century is not necessarily a matter of market forces (no one actually wants a flying car!) or technical impossibility (Moore’s law hasn’t delivered thinking computers yet!) but is in fact a product of both squashing the imagination through bureaucratic devices, and the immense devaluing of labor and elimination of corporate profit taxation that leads to paltry civilian research and development. In essence, capitalism in its present form, is anathema to the future it once promised.
Graeber states in the beginning of the essay that he is puzzled by the near silence from those people who saw the moon landing on their televisions but today do not, themselves, live on the moon (or can easily teleport there, or take a drug that might extend their life to the time that both of those things are available). “Instead,” he writes, “just about all the authoritative voices—both on the Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that a world of technological wonders had, in fact, arrived.”
Graeber relatively quickly drops the issue of how our collective expectations of the future could be so quickly and completely re-aligned (his answer is postmodernism) and goes on to explain why such an alignment has become necessary (capitalism’s secret love of bureaucracy) but I want to dwell on the “how” question a little bit longer by offering up a corollary to Of Flying Cars. The argument that follows is also a reprinting of my own work, an article published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Engineering Social Justice in Peace, co-authored with Arizona State University’s Joseph R. Herkert. I want to argue that our expectations for the future are purposefully managed through a circulation of imagined threats to capitalism, the popularizing of narratives that flesh out that threat, and the re-articulation of those imagined threats as real ones that must be met with massive government funding. I will demonstrate this process using a beloved and uniquely American franchise: Die Hard.
The original article, available in full here, argued that the top-down technocratic perspective exemplified by Robert Moses’ demolishing of vast swaths of New York City are still alive and well today, but are repackaged in Silicon Valley platitudes of disruption and hacking that circulate in popular media so as to 1) provide the technocrat’s view of the world as an inevitable future, 2) drum up support for a clearly unethical approach to technological development by establishing narratives that reaffirm the need for the technocratic view, and 3) establish popular touchstones that make small areas of research that benefit an elite few appear to be global needs on the scale of clean water or sanitation.
We argued that in past iterations of this process, companies like GM and Ford offered positive views of the future through (among other marketing campaigns) their exhibits at the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs that gave out pins to visitors that read “I have seen the future!” Today’s expectation management is different in that rather than plainly state “this is the future we will create” our media describes future development as merely a response to seemingly uncontrollable events such as terrorism or resource scarcity. This is where my previously published work on Die Hard comes in.
The Die Hard franchise is notable, among other reasons, for the variety of its source material. The first two movies were based on paperback action novels published in the mid to late 1980s. The third installment, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, was adapted from an orphaned screenplay titled Simon Says. The fourth movie, Live Free or Die Hard, however, is a radical departure from the prior three. Live Free is based on a WIRED Magazine article, “A Farewell to Arms,” in which John Carlin describes the U.S. military’s preparations for “I-war”. Carlin quotes the Chinese military newspaper, Jiefangju Bao, for a summary of I-war. It reads, in part:
After the Gulf War, when everyone was looking forward to eternal peace, a new military revolution emerged. This revolution is essentially a transformation from the mechanized warfare of the industrial age to the information warfare of the information age. Information warfare is a war of decisions and control, a war of knowledge, and a war of intellect. The aim of information warfare will be gradually changed from “preserving oneself and wiping out the enemy” to “preserving oneself and controlling the opponent.”
Live Free is about control: the control of people, resources, institutions, and (most importantly) infrastructure. The plot revolves around a spurned government cyber-security official named Thomas Gabriel, who carries out the mythical “fire sale” cyber security breach. The “fire sale” is named as such because, just like the eponymous inventory clearance event, “everything must go.” Mass media, financial systems, and infrastructure are all compromised and brought under the control of Gabriel’s small army of hackers and mercenaries. They are only able to accomplish such a feat by anonymously soliciting outside hackers to write viruses under the auspices of a corporate computer security firm. Once the viruses have been written, Gabriel orders all of the hackers killed. John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) saves one of the hackers, Matthew Farrell (played by Justin Long), just as the assassin team arrives at his apartment. The rest of the movie follows Farrell and McClane as they attempt to thwart the massive attack on America’s computer-run infrastructure.
The two characters’ perspectives on technology are representative of mass media’s imposed narratives on the “generation gap” between so-called millennials and baby boomers. Technology, as it appears to Farrell (the millennial), improves individuals’ lives; society is an afterthought. McClane (the boomer) has come to recognize that there is no technological white knight that will end hunger or disease. His technological optimism-turned pragmatic idealism is representative of his fellow baby boomers who, just as they are reaching retirement, find the social safety net in tatters. Institutions are corrupt and inept, and technology is just as alienating as it is tragically flawed. This tension is perfectly demonstrated in two scenes.
In the first scene, McClane is escorting Farrell to a police precinct just as the “Fire Sale” begins. Gabriel calls McClane and offers him a tradeoff similar to actual U.S. fiscal policy: by sacrificing the millennial, McClane’s debt will be eliminated and his own millennial children will be “set for life.” Gabriel makes this offer only after emptying McClane’s retirement fund as a demonstration of his power. McClane declines the offer and (by way of machine-gun-equipped black helicopter) is immediately denied by Gabriel the relative safety of his cop-filled SUV. This makes for an interesting comparison to the 90s era installment With a Vengeance, wherein an equally decade-appropriate offer is made to McLane: a dump truck full of inflation-resistant gold bullion stolen from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The second scene comes just as the full effects of the Fire Sale have become clear. Farrell, recognizing his own latent desire for wanton destruction of “the system,” prompts a frank discussion of what is at stake:
Farrell: This is virtual terrorism.
Farrell: You know, first time I heard about the concept of a fire sale . . . I actually thought it would be cool if anyone ever did it. Just hit the reset button and melt the system just for fun.
McClane: Hey, it’s not a system; it’s a country. You’re talking about people, all right? A whole country full of people. Sitting at home alone scared to death in their houses, all right? So if you’re done with your little nostalgic moment and think a little bit and help me catch these guys, just help me. Just put yourself in their shoes.
This exchange between McClane and Farrell mirrors the Faustian bargain demanded by technocrats and bureaucrats: if you take any interest in technological development that does not conform to the grand narrative of progress (such as hitting the “reset button”), you are co-signing your fellow Americans to a short life of Hobbesian terror. The young radical and the skeptical citizen alike pose a danger to everyone’s collective livelihood simply by making rhetorical room for alternative conceptions of progress. Meanwhile, the “old national faith in the advancement of technology as a basis for social progress,” to quote Leo Marx, not only keeps McClane (and the sympathetic audience) loyal to this sociotechnical regime, but it translates a system of pipes and cables into a nation.
Graeber concludes his Of Flying Cars chapter by observing that:
…ultimately, claims for the present-day inevitability of capitalism have to be based on some kind of technological determinism. And for that very reason, if the ultimate aim of neoliberal capitalism is to create a world where no one believes any other economic system could really work, then it needs to suppress not just any idea of an inevitable redemptive future, but really any radically different technological future at all.
What I have provided is a very specific mode by which our expectations of possible technological futures are managed through popular culture. There is a pervasive notion, exemplified by the scenes in Live Free or Die Hard that I just described, that any rebellion against these expectations are immature desires that could lead to collateral damage. But how, specifically, does this sort of culture work influence actually existing research and development?
The article Herkert and I wrote was part of an issue dedicated to critiquing the National Academy of Engineer’s Grand Challenges For Engineering, a document meant to set the tone for future investment in applied science and technology research and development. It lists several major areas of future research that grant writing institutions should fund if society is to meet some of its biggest 21st century challenges. For the most part it is a fairly stern and dry document until you reach the section titled “secure cyberspace” which reads in part:
Electronic computing and communication pose some of the most complex challenges engineering has ever faced. They range from protecting the confidentiality and integrity of transmitted information and deterring identity theft to preventing the scenario recently dramatized in the Bruce Willis movie “Live Free or Die Hard,” in which hackers take down the transportation system, then communications, and finally the power grid.
Rarely is the cycle of imagined threats, popularized threats, and constructed futures so blatant but I’m sure there are hundreds more examples lurking out there. This sort of dynamic makes it difficult to remember that our expectations of what the future will look like, and what sort of planetary social order will provide that future, are of our choosing. It also means that pop culture, as many before me have argued, is far from trivial. It is, perhaps, our best hope for steering the future course of technological development.
Note on authorship: The section between the two horizontal lines are a slightly altered reprint of a section of Herkert, Joseph R, and David A Banks. “I Have Seen the Future!: Ethics, Progress, and the Grand Challenges for Engineering.” International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace 1, no. 2 (2012): 109–22. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License that allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work’s authorship and initial publication in this journal. Full text available here: http://library.queensu.ca/ojs/index.php/IJESJP/article/view/4306
Visual technologies continue to play an increasingly key role in strategies for monitoring and surveillance in modern capitalist societies in crime prevention and detection, and the apprehension, recording, documenting and classification of criminals and criminal activities. Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.
The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.
Unlike oil painting and other forms of art, the camera required minimum human intervention and was therefore deemed to be free from the vagaries of human interpretation. Prior to the invention of photography and the wider availability of cameras, the criminal justice system relied heavily upon eye-witness accounts and written descriptions largely based on memory for the detection, identification, apprehension and sentencing of criminals.
The mid-nineteenth century was an era that was profoundly preoccupied with classification and order as evidenced by the application of the scientific method to occupations that were once considered more of an art than anything else. “The drive to produce taxonomies of race, social deviance and insanity so as to identify distinguishing ‘characteristics’ and thus predictable and recognisable social types was greatly aided by photographic technology.”1 The widely held-belief of the truth value (or factual nature) of the photographic image quickly slotted into the social and political regulatory systems of the time with newly emerging state bureaucratic and administrative networks of surveillance, power and authority. Photographic technology aided in the positivist reorganisation of knowledge 2.
The ascendant theories of criminology in the nineteenth century posited that an individual was born criminal and that criminal tendencies could be identified by physical indicators. This logic was underpinned by the use of criminal portraits which served the dual purpose of both the identification of criminals and to further support dominant theories about crime and criminality.
One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens3. On the basis of post-mortem examinations of dead convicts and the extensive measurement and documentation of the distinguishing features of prison inmates, Lombroso proffered a form of explanation that attempted to establish a causal link between the physiological features of individuals in prisons and the types of crimes they were said to have committed. Such knowledge, Lombroso claimed, could offer a means of predicting criminality in the general populace.
Lombroso’s approach also combined phrenology (the study of the contours of the head) and the identification of anatomical stigmata (physiological features deemed to be ‘abnormal’) which came together in a general theory of biological determinism wherein physiological differences were assumed to be strong indicators of criminality or the propensity for deviant / criminal behaviour.
Not long after the publication of Lombroso’s work, French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon employed photography as a means for classifying and recording criminals combining visual documentation with the precise measurement of distinguishing bodily characteristics (distance between the eyes, length and width of the nose and so on) whilst Francis Galton developed (a then quite innovative) technique of exposing multiple portrait negatives which were then combined to form a single image highlighting shared characteristics displaying the inherent similarities between supposed criminal types. It is this sort of work, identifying composite criminal types and not just individuals, which forged the link between photography and the criminal justice system. Before long there were entire established professional disciplines (e.g. physiognomy and physical anthropology) that aimed to demonstrate the ways in which particular physical attributes indicated the propensity for criminality4.
As the nineteenth century progressed, official institutions of various kinds realised the value of the photograph for all kinds of purposes of classification and identification. Photography became increasingly deployed across a range of human, physical and biomedical sciences producing a unique fusion of knowledge, information and visualisation which assisted various state authorities in the power they exercised over citizens, making photography complicit in these new networks of administrative and bureaucratic power5. Initially, the uses of photography by the police varied considerably in terms of framing, composition and distance but through the work of Bertillon and Galton (amongst others) photographic practices quickly became refined and standardised.
By the twentieth century, the insights of Lombroso (and others working within these fields) were largely discredited on the grounds that far from offering objective evidence much of this work did nothing more than put a veneer of science on structural oppression. Many of the claims made about abnormality, pathology, deviance and criminality were deeply racist, classist and sexist in their implications6. Today, the work of Lombroso (and his contemporaries) now looks profoundly ethnocentric and androcentric, but an enduring and perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work is its visual legacy in the familiar and ubiquitous ‘mug-shot’ which is still widely used to this day.
In the twenty-first century, there is much talk about the death of photography or the notion that with digitalization we are now living in the post-photographic age. This argument does not seem to hold water, given that the relationship between the photographic image and the criminal justice system remains remarkably strong. The association between photography and criminal identification and apprehension firmly established in the nineteenth century is still alive and well today7.
But while the criminal portrait (or mug-shot) still occupies a prominent place in modern policing, these images no longer solely reside in the official domain of the archives of state authorities. As a form of visual evidence, the criminal portrait has not changed much over the years but digital networks have radically altered the means of their dissemination and circulation. This has prompted some critics to speculate these images have to some extent transcended their forensic roots.
Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.
As David Banks’ article on Sousveillance reminds us, in an era where increasingly sophisticated digital and mobile tools and platforms have opened up the field of human communications in ways unimaginable 150 years ago, the boundaries between those with the power to observe and those who are the observed are increasingly subject to contestation and struggle. Power is never absolute or total and there will always be micro-pockets of resistance, counter-struggles and challenges to that power. The disempowered may become empowered in unintended or unanticipated ways.
According to the media scholar John Fiske8, in socially divided capitalist societies, dominant social groups use various forms of control to maintain their power which is reinforced and reproduced through the legal, political, educational and cultural systems. But this power can never be total, absolute, or complete – it is an on-going struggle between what Fiske terms the power-bloc and “the people”. Semiotic resistance (the interpretive power of “the people” to subvert, challenge, evade or resist dominant meanings and values which support the power-bloc) arises out of semiotic productivity – the interpretive ability to produce different or new meanings from the discourses, texts, resources and commodities produced by those in power. Rather than dismiss these instances of semiotic resistance as irrelevant, Fiske sees them as important (albeit minor) victories of the subordinate against a system that constantly seeks to socially divide, dominate, monitor and exert forms of control over them.
Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation. It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.
Liam French is a lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John.
References & Further Reading
1 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris
2 McQuire, S. (1998) Visions of Modernity. London, Sage Publications.
3 Smith, M.J. (2003) Social Science in Question. London, Sage Publications.
4 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris
5 Tagg, J. (1988) The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. New York. Palgrave MacMillan.
6 Klein, D. (1996) The Etiology of Female Crime, in Muncie, J., McLaughlin, E. & Langan, M. (eds) Criminological perspectives: a Reader. London, Sage Publications.
7 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris
8 Fiske, J. (1989) Reading the Popular. London & New York. Routledge. See also Television Culture (1987) and Understanding Popular Culture (1989) by the same author.
An unfortunately predictable thing happened on Reddit last week. Reddit’s corporate administrators announced that they would be shutting down “five subreddits that break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals.” These were fairly small subreddits, except for r/fatpeoplehate which had 150,000 subscribers at time of banning. The primary mission of r/fatpeoplehate was to find pictures of fat people, make fun of them in the comments and –if at all possible—find these people and harass them for being fat. [If you’re unfamiliar with the structure and vocabulary of Reddit I’ve provided a primer at the bottom of this page.]
The administrators were careful to point that they were “banning behavior, not ideas.” That is, while they know that there are dozens of subreddits devoted to white supremacy, tactics for violent raping women, and doxxing young women for espousing feminist beliefs on Tumblr, (yes, all of those exist and they are a lot bigger than you or I want to believe) those communities should rest assured that they will be safe so long as moderators make overtures to discouraging collective behavior that goes beyond reaffirming each other’s dangerous and hateful thoughts.
One could be forgiven for thinking that banning such disgusting behavior from a small minority of people would be met with some “that makes sense” head nods and any sort of outrage would be directed at the failure to ban more subreddits, not less. What in fact happened was quite the opposite: within the day there were dozens of new subreddits playing host to the kind of content and behavior that characterized r/fatpeoplehate. What’s more disturbing though, is that the content from these new subreddits were making it to the frontpage with thousands of votes. There were also countless posts calling for Reddit’s CEO Ellen Pao to do everything from resign to defile herself. As of writing, a full four days after the announcement, there’s an “Ellen Pao Must Resign” subreddit with over seven thousand subscribers that are still able to get links to the front page.
What happened here? How and why would the banning of such a despicable and small community cause such outrage? The answer comes in three parts: 1) the site’s features obscure more than they reveal about the social relationships that undergird the site, 2) the destructive and contradictory politics of extreme “free speech” rhetoric fan the flames of hate and 3) voting systems, as I have argued twice before (1 and 2), tend to reassert hegemonic discourse.
1) Social Relationships
Subreddits are administered by volunteer moderators that have wide-ranging discretion over the behavior of the community and set the tone for acceptable behavior. Their presence on the site however, is somewhat limited to their own submissions and comments, and a small box on the right-hand side that announces their handle. If a moderator is also a charismatic leader, or even just an influential voice, there are no indicators of their outsized influence on the group. From the outside, without spending a lot of time reading the comments, a subreddit that does a lot of infighting looks exactly the same as one that shares a very particular viewpoint.
Also, if subreddits work anything like other groupings of humans (and there’s no reason to assume otherwise), then smaller subreddits will act more like small towns than bigger subreddits that act like cities. Small towns might have squabbles, cliques, or even total schisms but there’s something that holds them together. Cities on the other hand, have a lot of people just passing through and while there can be devotees, everyone might not have the kind of loyalty that smaller places garner. Therefore, when small, tight-knit communities are threatened, they can act quickly and decisively with a unified front.
2) Extreme Free Speech
It is really important, speaking in the most general terms possible, that people get to express themselves in a way that they feel heard and their arguments considered. This is an ethical position that is shared, in varying shades and colors, by just about every political thinker since the Enlightenment. What makes Redditors’ free speech politics so destructive is their belief that “freedom” is synonymous with “no consequences” and that “community standards” are tantamount to “censorship.” This gets even more ridiculous when they invoke the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution which only states that the government –and not your preferred social media company––is prohibited from retaliating against political speech acts.
Notice here that I say extreme and not radical. Radical free speech would interrogate the very root of what freedom and speech acts mean and how they behave. This might require some critical thought about consequences, a study of the history of who typically gets to speak, and a thoughtful analysis of how one person’s freedom from abuse or harassment balances with others’ freedom to say and do certain things. Extremism doesn’t interrogate anything. Instead, it seeks to take things as they are to their most illogical conclusion. The sort of free speech extremism espoused on Reddit in the days after the announcement of the banned subreddits, posits that even the most reprehensible speech must be left alone because to silence even the worst among us is the beginning of a slippery slope towards… well, that’s sort of vague. Sometimes it’s the calcification and slow death of Reddit, sometimes it’s a more general indicator of fascism.
The irony here is that free speech extremism opens the door for fascism. It demands that hate, whether it is directed at fat people or anyone else, is somehow part of a spectrum that also contains more agreeable ideas: one of many things to be considered on their own merits. Lots of people upvoting derogatory posts about fat people may fancy themselves a one-man-ACLU: they don’t agree with the posts, but they’ll defend the right to post it. It is the kind of logic that could only come from someone with no skin in the game: people with enough privilege that decisions about what sort of speech should be tolerated are thought experiments and not matters of literal life and death.
3) Voting Systems
I would understand if voting seems somehow antithetical to extremism. We typically think of voting as a democratic mechanism that helps us arrive at commonalities, not divisive extremes. Generally this is the case. As I argued back in 2013:
Voting-oriented sites are often billed as exercises in crowdsourcing: Thousands of Reddit users take the place of Buzzfeed editors, and the hundreds of Quora users answering a question about the relative merits of Android over iOS replace the technology reviewer. But voting doesn’t foster virality so much as it encourages Redditors to play on well-worn tropes and memes to ensure a better chance at making the front page. The never-ending elections and karma hunts incentivize Redditors to try to craft perfect social media content just as canned and constrained as typical politicians. Users have begun to notice this uniformity in the sites’ comments, link titles, and even the content itself but there isn’t much that can be done. While using common phrases (Reddit’s are compiled here) are one of the more basic methods of forming and performing in group status, the karma-driven voting system asks the Redditor to wield cat GIFs and Xbox stories as a presidential speech writer might wield God and family.
This sounds like an argument for commonality, not extremity until one remembers that norms need not be neutral or all-inclusive. Reddit’s ability to deliver fat shaming is akin to a Texas legislature banning abortion providers. Voting can be a highly efficient delivery mechanism for violence, especially against marginal populations. Without mechanisms and features to actively and continually fight structural oppression, the same old violence will reassert itself. Just as a relative few people espouse explicitly white supremacist views in a country that benefits from and implicitly forgives structural white supremacy, so too can the banning of a relatively tiny hateful subreddit spur a massive backlash from a once-silent majority.
Voting mechanisms are particularly good at supporting this sort of social dynamic because it is so easy to register your support (no one asks you to defend your position) and the entire enterprise is meant to anoint definitive winners and losers. In that way, Reddit not only asks its users to be extremist, they are also zealots in the way Joel Olsen uses the term [paywall]. Zealotry is a kind of political tactic that draws clear lines of winners and losers, friends and enemies. Moderate positions are intentionally and forcibly removed as an option. Such tactics, according to Olsen, have been incredibly effective across the political spectrum, having been indispensable organizing tactics for both slavery and abortion abolitionists.
Voting doesn’t deliver the best, most important, or even the most popular content. Instead, voting asks that we adhere closely to established community norms, whether that be extremist free speech, hateful bigotry, or both. What we are seeing on Reddit is the same social phenomenon that drives the sort of community harassment that the smartphone-based social network Yik Yak is constantly fighting. When I wrote about Yik Yak back in April I warned, “Implementing a voting system as an information filter signals that group cohesion is prioritized over most other outcomes, including justice or equality for all members.” Voting, whether it is on content or candidates, asks us to double down on abstracted convictions so that we may achieve specific things later on.
When you live in a society that hates fat people it shouldn’t be surprising that one’s right to continue harassing and degrading them be used as cannon fodder for an extremist free speech crusade. Ellen Pao is also currently embroiled in a fight with her previous employer over fair hiring practices, making this an easy proxy war for the Mens’ Rights crowd as well. All this shows just how much work social network administrators have cut out for themselves. Unfortunately we have yet to find a mix of features and standards that help in actively discouraging structural oppression and not just individual bad behavior. Once we figure that out, we all might have the luxury of being surprised when something like this happens again.
The main features of the site are minimal, almost elegant: a user submits links or short pieces of text and other users vote that submission up or down based on “importance.” Discussions are hosted on a fairly standard commenting system. The site is organized into “subreddits” which can be anything from vague categories’ like “pictures” all the way down to the more obscure “Where did the soda go?” which asks users to submit out-of-context gifs of infomercials. Subreddits are usually referred to by the unique portion of their URL. For example Where did the soda go? is r/wheredidthesodago. Users subscribe to subreddits which populate their custom frontpage. Individual profiles are sparse and contain not much more than a username, a history of things you’ve submitted and said in the comments, and a “karma” number that represents the net up and down votes you’ve received across the entire site. If all of that didn’t sit right you can check out the Reddit’s about page.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that all banned subreddits were under 5,000 subscribers.
Yesterday Apple announced something many of us were expecting: a streaming service to rival Spotify and possibly expand/destroy the services provided by recently acquired Beats Music. At first glance the recently announced service seems to be not much more than an also-ran for streaming: Apple Music lets you stream the iTunes catalog, make playlists, and provide a radio service for a reasonable monthly subscription. Unlike other services however, Apple is claiming to keep some of the human-curated playlists that gave Robin James’ 80 gig iPod classic a run for its money.
At the center of this “we’re not just Spotify” pitch are not only ad-free stations with real DJs playing music available to a global audience, but a kind of global radio brand that is something much more than Spotify’s pre-made playlists. The inaugural station “Beats 1” will be available in 100 countries when the service launches at the end of this month and even though, at time of writing, most of the world has known about this service for all of half an hour there’s still a lot gleam from the introductory demo. Apple is interested in not only shedding its U2 Dad Rock Albatross (someone photoshop a literal visual representation of that please), it wants to do so by establishing itself as the arbiter of global pop.
Cultural literacy, a term coined by E.D. Hirsch, refers to a sort of comfort with a group or community. Apple is both putting on a display of its own “cultural literacy” by eschewing U2 in favor of artists like Drake and The Weekend, and setting itself up to be a platform for popular music curation. Of course Apple has played a huge part in music since the first iPod but now they will be paying actual human beings to select music that can be heard in 100 countries 24/7.
Internationally synchronized pop music is nothing new, but a single company broadcasting a single playlist of “what is hot right now” is certainly a categorically bigger beast. In some ways it is completely predictable. The DJs that select the music for Beats 1 are in three global cities: LA, New York, and London. Saskia Sassen has convincingly argued [PDF], these cities have much more in common with each other than the countries that surround them. Apple is further solidifying the Global City phenomenon by broadcasting one single common cultural artifact to anyone with a smartphone (Apple Music and Beats 1 will be available on Android as well). Similar efforts with different technologies, like satellite radio, have failed miserably at doing this but perhaps they hewed too closely to traditional radio rather than iTunes playlists.
Practically, I doubt Beats 1, even if it is listened to by millions of people every day for years to come, will have a profound homogenizing effect on the music listening habits of most people. The Internet has made it easy to share a common cultural literacy even without a common language (cat videos) for decades. What’s different is the overtures to professional curation and selection. By definition Beats 1 isn’t creating viral hits, its making old school triple platinum music superstars. This time though, platinum status is instantly global. The music played on Beats 1 has to be appeal to (literally!) billions of potential listeners. The very existence of Beats 1 as a viable business model necessitates the idea that a single song can resonate with that many people. This is made possible through the mutual shaping of global distribution platforms and the shared cultural literacies of people in global cities.
It makes sense then, that in a minute-long product video for Beats 1 the audience is presented with a wide range of human forms and actions spanning what looks to be nearly every continent. It is the kind of multicultural diversity that springs up in university promotional materials: carefully curated but in the service of a sort of orientalism: a single Pharrell track is somehow universally applicable to lives in (what might be) an LA loft, a Pakistani suburb, and a Malay river. This display of vastly different people is not as an invitation for inclusion into any decision-making role, it is a statement on the reach of a single cultural milieu.
We know that this video is about dominance, rather than inclusivity because about halfway through this video we see several young people of color dancing in the middle of what looks like a New York City subway car. It is an energizing and fun scene that only lasts for a moment but is enough to conjure up any pre-existing memories of big city busking. Using public transit as a stage is both the lowest barrier to entry into grabbing a sizeable audience, and the best way to get arrested for practicing an artful craft. The fact that Apple would take that image and wrap it up in their product is the semiotic equivalent of gentrification: packaging up something unique, colorful, and exciting so that it is easily consumable in standardized units for a purchasing public.
Lots of well-known authors including David Harvey and Jane Jacobs have made a similar point about traditional gentrification: that well-financed firms can reverse-engineer the intangible things that make a place desirable –the weirdness of Austin, the painstakingly refined cuisine of New York boroughs– and change it ever-so-slightly so that it is inviting to anyone willing to pay for it. You standardize the form and sand down the rough edges so that Brooklyn becomes a recognizable flavor and Austin a desirable interior design aesthetic. Each vignette in the product video is available to well-heeled consumers the same way the edge of a gentrified neighborhood is: something pretty to look at but not worthy of spending any real time interacting with.
Of course this process mines the marginal for its most valuable parts and leaves the original inventors and innovators high and dry. New York City buskers face some of the harshest law enforcement in recent memory and yet Apple is still able to successfully leverage their image in their efforts to remake their music brand. These buskers are dancing to a relatively safe artist that is not Bono but still one of the handful that could be recognized by an audience as big as Beats 1’s could be. These are all places and times that are literally muted in favor of a track that appeals to the widest possible audience capital can deliver. If the progress of urban gentrification is any kind of bellwether to this business model I’m sure there’ll be lots of subscribers.
(un)mask is a short film about the near future of affective, immaterial labor. Cameras—owned by advertisers and the state—pervade our physical spaces. Hypersensitive to facial expression data, corporations and government entities capture and exploit it, offering new modes of biopolitical control through a commodity we cannot help but give away.
Drawing on discourses about immaterial labor and the increasingly sophisticated face-tracking technologies embedded in surveillance systems and tools to measure the effectiveness of advertising, (un)mask suggests that every facial expression is a valuable piece of data—affective labor that advertisers and government agencies can use to make inferences about us and make recommendations to us, algorithmically anticipating our actions and more deeply enmeshing themselves in our daily lives. The film aims to question what avenues of resistance are available to us, and suggests that by over-emoting and thus overflowing the databases of facial expression recognition data with a flood of affect, we can confuse those aiming to exploit this data and devalue it as a commodity.
About the filmmaker: Zach Kaiser is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Experience Architecture in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University. A designer and music producer, he earned his MFA from the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2013. He has exhibited and lectured both in the U.S. and internationally, including recent appearances at the IMPAKT Festival in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and Relating Systems Thinking and Design 3, in Oslo, Norway. When he’s not worrying about the algorithmic mediation of daily life, Zach can usually be found opining to the nearest passerby on why his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, is the greatest city in the world.
Two weeks ago Zel McCarthy published a story in Thump about a mysterious infographic that’s been making the rounds lately. The infographic purports to show which drugs are popular at various music festivals by scraping Instagram for references to different drugs. Anyone that knows a thing or two about research design would already raise an eyebrow but it gets worse. According to McCarthy:
this intentionally-opaque study was conducted and assembled by a Florida-based content marketing agency Fractl, which works regularly with DrugAbuse.com. While at first glance the site appears to be a credible resource for those struggling with addiction and abuse issues, it’s actually a redirect for for-profit rehab and addiction centers, mainly ones that bankrolls the site.
To help dig deep into the issues of research design, online performativity, and substance use I sat down over Skype with Ingmar Gorman, a clinical psychologist at the New School for Social Research who was quoted in the Thump article saying that this “study” was not only poorly constructed, it was also indicative of an archaic, “moralistic approach” to substance abuse research. What follows is edited to make us both sound more articulate. You can listen to the whole interview (warts and all), using the SoundCloud embed at the end of the interview. The recording, along with the sound of a computer fan and me saying “uhh” a lot, also includes something I’ll call “bonus content” about a study that used the Watson supercomputer to tell if someone was on psychedelics. Enjoy.
David A Banks: You are interviewed in Thump regarding research that was done by a treatment center that used Instagram tags to study drug use at festivals, or at least that’s what it billed itself as. Could you start by describing the basics of this study and why wasn’t it the best science it could have been?
Ingmar Gorman: From a methodological standpoint what this study consisted of was going through a large number of Instagram posts and looking to identify when words associated with substances appear along with the names of a festival or a photo from a festival. And essentially what they did was say, “in X percentage of these posts from this festival, this percentage mentioned this drug.” But now we have to get into the nitty-gritty of it a little bit. They used words like cocaine or marijuana which clearly mean a drug however they also use words that could be potentially more ambitious. For example, crack could mean someone spoke about cracks in the playa at Burning Man. When you design this study looking at the use of language and these words, yeah they’ll probably get a “hit” —what you’re looking for— but there will also be a substantial number of false positives. The issue with the study, really if I can go into it, is transparency.
It’s interesting because it is sort of an example of the democratization of science. Maybe you could think of it this way: do scientists and researchers have to be the only people that produce “scientific knowledge”? I don’t know very much about the background of the people who developed this study because well, it isn’t really available! I think in the Thump interview the reporter was able to contact the person behind the research and ask them questions, but in a peer reviewed publication we would see who the authors are but in this case we don’t even know who the person is. The first thing to do would be to speak to this person and ask what their methodology was.
Depending on how you design your study, the methodology you use, the data you collect, the quality of the data, how you ensure the quality of that data, and most importantly the question that you ask —what is your hypothesis— it will set you up for a result that you can deduce some sort of understanding from.
The main issue with the study was that well, all parts of it were poor. The design was poor, the data quality was poor, we have no idea of the quality checks that were in there, so its not that we can’t draw conclusions its that we don’t really know what it means! The best conclusion that we could make is that these words coincided with these festivals.
DAB: Some of the other words that struck me as, at the very best, ambiguous were, “coke”, “spice”, “pills”, “yellow jackets”, “white girl” and references to prescription drugs that could be totally legal! These could be prescribed to these people and no one has to defend why they are taking an Instagram photo of them having to take their medication.
IG: I could see someone responding to this, to play devil’s advocate here, saying “oh c’mon guys, we know when people use these words they are talking about drugs there’s no need to make excuses about it.” And we could concede to that sort of argument and say yeah let’s take [this study] at face value and everything is completely accurate, [but] the next issue is that —and this is where things get very tricky and very clever— this does not translate into behavior. The data showed something like 3% of Instagram messages had mentioned Burning Man and crack cocaine. So what does that mean? Do 3% of festival goers use crack at Burning Man? That’s highly unlikely. But we can’t know [from the data in this study].
The clever piece about this is that the clinic never made that claim. So, if you had a peer-reviewed journal and you made a statement that said this is the data we collected and this is the conclusion we’re drawing, 3% of Burning Man attendees take crack we could argue against that. But what this group did, which is interesting, is they said “we’re just going to look at this data,” which we might call a convenience sample, “and we just make an infographic.” Which wasn’t really all that obfuscating, but then they ask you to draw your own conclusions. So what happened was the EDM festival community of web sites picked up on this and started spreading these infographics around. And then all sorts of claims are drawn from these. “These sorts of drugs at these festivals.” Which is a logical leap, there’s no indication of that.
DAB: Do you know any that could use social media to study these sorts of claims or do you think that this might be a fool’s errand: to attach what we say online to actual action?
IG: You might know more about this than I do but the first thing that pops into my mind is “how we present ourselves online, is that necessarily accurate of who we are and how we actually behave?” I think you and probably most people would argue that we present a persona, so that is an issue in interpreting data like this. The other question about whether this is a fool’s errand: you know, no. On some level I would even applaud this group who did this study… I even hesitate to call this a study because I don’t even know if that’s what they would call it, but the people that collected this data and presented it— I applaud them for using a novel method. But I think there’s a little aspect of it that’s disingenuous when— we have science and we present our methodologies and look for controls and confounds so that… we’ll never get a 100% accurate, objective picture of reality but we’re trying to sort of do the best we can.
DAB: I think that while everything we’ve already discussed definitely indicates problems with this study in particular, the beginnings of the privatization of social data in general in science is also at play here. Would you say that this study starts to reify or make stronger our long-standing beliefs of what you described in that Thump article as the moralistic approach to treating issues related to substance use?
IG: So is there a connection between my statement about the moralistic approach and the privatization of data?
DAB: The structure of the data that is already available to us, and the people that hold the keys to this data, are probably not as versed as you in what it means to do a good study on drug research. So then, is all of this data in the wrong hands? Is it fixable? Can this data ever be used for good research in your field?
IG: There are several things that come to my mind. First of all the data that they accessed in this study, this project that they did, was available from people’s feed.
DAB: They used the Instagram API which almost anyone can get, where in their very tiny methodology section, they said over March 2015 using the Instagram API they collected all of that data. [Editorial Note: while I said “anyone can get” it is also totally within the discretion of parent company Facebook to withdraw a person or organization’s access to the API for any reason.]
IG: Right, so I want to be fair to that group and not misrepresent what they did, however clearly there is data privatization that exists which is an issue! So the question is an interesting one. Yeah, how you execute a proper study is important. But also the deeper question is “how do the questions that we pose reflect our biases?” When I spoke [in the Thump article] about the moralistic approach to substance abuse treatment, that was a response to a statement made by the group that generated the data for this project. The article reads, “One of the report’s authors, Michael Genevieve, tells THUMP the study was conducted with the intention of ‘[raising] enough awareness to scare readers into a sober festival experience, in fear of being arrested.’” My response was that that quote itself represents a moralistic approach to substance abuse treatment.
Now the reason why I said that –and this really goes into the area of substance use that’s outside of the social media question– is because historically the early perspectives of why people misuse and become dependent on substances was thought to be because they lacked moral character. “You are a bad person. There is something wrong with you. You are sinful. Therefore you are weak and you engage in these behavior because you lack self control.” The next movement was the disease model which is still prevalent and is difficult to unpack. Some people have a very strict, narrow scope of the disease model which is, “Substance addiction is a disease, an illness, you have it for your entire life, there’s nothing you can do, you’re allergic to alcohol [for example] and you can never touch it again.”
What is beginning to come into our conversation is a kind of model of self medication, a model of harm reduction. Which is an idea that encompasses the bio-psycho-social perspective. Yes, there are biological components, so it takes that piece of the disease model but it also has to do with a person’s psychology. Meaning, the way they see the world, the way they view themselves, histories of trauma, things like that. And then the sociological, which is the broader culture that perpetuates use or the context for the person’s use.
So when I talk about this “moralistic approach” to say “oh well we’re just scaring people” essentially what this person is communicating is “we looked at Instagram, we can associate festivals with drug use, therefore if you’re posting about the drugs that you’re using or you’re using drugs at these festivals, we know about it and you better not do it otherwise you’ll get thrown into jail.” It’s a fear tactic. It is unfortunately a dominant perspective in this country about why people use drugs and how people who use drugs should be treated, but in my opinion it is an archaic perspective that will be replaced by the newer perspectives on substance use. That’s why I made that statement.
DAB: I would like you to actually go a little deeper into why this new bio-psych-social perspective might be said to be better on lots of different axes. It could be more efficacious in helping people lead lives that allow them to flourish, or it could be a better explanatory model for why people engage in drug use at all. Could you do a little more unpacking on why it’s a better model. Then —given what we discussed earlier about how a lot of social media is performative— if there is any compatibility in doing better work in the bio-psycho-social perspective using big data analytics.
IG: Our approach to data analysis, and our approach to asking questions, whether it is big data or [conventional] scientific research, reflects our biases and that is something we have to own. And if individuals who are responsible for data analysis and big data have a moralistic attitude towards substance use, then they will very likely find what they are looking for because of how they structured their questions or analysis. What’s almost more important than developing a better study is having a different understanding of substance use and why various people use. An issue in this country is that people outside of the mental health field is that the dominant cultural perspective of why people use drugs —whether they have a problem or not— is set in this moralistic “you have a weak character” kind of approach. So that’s where I see those two things coming together.
Moving to your first question, the bio-pyscho-social model has been around for quite a while, a few decades at least, so that’s not necessarily new. What I believe is newer, and to be transparent I am a big fan of this, this is one of the models I use when I do psychotherapy as a clinician, is called the harm reduction psychotherapy model.
You’ll be familiar with harm reduction in terms of needle exchanges and safe sex education, there’s a whole host of things you can do. Harm reduction psychotherapy applies that perspective to the psychotherapeutic process in terms of dealing with substance use. And this is what I think is more novel and which is gaining steam is this idea that people who use and have a problematic relationship with a drug are doing it because it works for them and it helps them, or it did at one point and now it is a sort of residual behavior that is difficult for them to let go of. That idea kind of blows people’s mind.
By looking at the bio-psycho-social model through the harm reduction lens you can say, “there are reasons and motivations for substance use drugs.” Its fantastic because it includes everything. Biology is essential. I’m a materialist. I think some experiences which are hard to pinpoint in biology are important, ‘meaning’ is really important, but I’m a materialist and everything as far as I know is in the brain or somewhere in the body. That is essential especially when you’re altering your brain chemistry with a substance, that’s very biological.
The psychological piece, to speak more to that: the co-morbidity among substance use issues, what we call personality disorders, and trauma is enormous. Studies vary but I’ve heard something between 30 and 60 percent overlap [among these categories]. And this bears out. I was recently at a psychiatric emergency room and, this is anecdotal, but I’d say 95% of cases that were there at that moment all had a history of substance use and mental illness. There’s a lot of crossover, so understanding psychology is really important.
And then, the most important thing to talk about from a socio-cultural perspective, is the incarceration rates of black individuals and marijuana and other drug-related crimes. That’s the critical perspective. However, from a perspective of clinicians, [we ask ourselves] why do we not think twice about alcohol and caffeine ––or at least think minimally about it–– and there are minimal consequences for using these drugs. That’s a cultural context.
So this model is important for research because we are looking at causes and roots, but it’s also important in terms of treatment. What we look at in a clinical, psychological context is how a person derives meaning and understands their behavior. You need that insight, but there’s more than that. If someone comes from a disease model and I ask them “what’s behind this problematic, repeated use” they’ll say “well I’m an addict.” That closes off all exploration. No, you’re not just an addict! You’re a father, you have had a difficult childhood, you have issues becoming employed because of your criminal history, there’s so much there that makes someone depressed or upset that will drive them to their use. So really, what’s really important in this model is understanding the complexity that exists in the person.
DAB: I think we can leave it at that. Thanks so much for doing this.
IG: This has been really great, and thanks for having me.
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.