Author Archives: davidbanks

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

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

What Can Feminism Teach Facebook Researchers? A Science Studies Primer

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Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson

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

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

Baltimore Uprisings: A Communicative Act

Cartoon by Matt Lubchansky (@lubchansky) original posting can be found here.

Cartoon by Matt Lubchansky (@lubchansky) original posting can be found here.

A few editorial cartoons offering a counterpoint perspective to the cultural sentiments and media portrayals that denounce the Baltimore “riots” as politically unproductive, ethically unjustifiable hooliganism have achieved viral status.  One particularly prominent cartoon illustrates alternative histories in which once denied freedoms and equities were achieved without systemically disruptive uprisings (see image above).  In one panel an 18th century Haitian slave cordially informs a French Imperialist that he and his fellow slaves would rather be free.  The receptive overseer responding in an equally kind fashion decides to abolish the system of slavery that legitimizes his very authority.  In another panel an 18th century French revolutionary asks King Louis XVI to abdicate his power as well as dissolve the monarchy to make way for democratic rule and, like in the previous example, history is comically rewritten to suggest that the powers that be were enthusiastically and progressively responsive to such a request.  (more…)

A Few Notes on #TtW15

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Photo By Aaron Thompson

I was happy to see Theorizing the Web go so well for so many people. The committee has been getting a lot of positive and constructive feedback and we’re reading all of it. If you feel so moved to write your own reflections on #TtW15 please send them our way. Last year, my post-conference thoughts were all about labor and the dangers of doing what you love. That’s still a problem ––TtW relies almost completely on volunteer labor–– but this year I’m thinking more about the institutions that prop up the typical Hilton-hosted conference model and make it difficult, if not financially impossible, to have more events like Theorizing the Web.

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How Databases Will Change the 2016 Presidential Race

Image Credit

Image Credit

The 2016 presidential race has already started and it’s easy to get caught up in the horserace and forget about all of the technologies and tactics that campaigns employ to get their message out. The 2008 Obama campaign was the first to take full advantage of social media and eight years later these tactics seem to have become the new normal. It is now possible to deliver precisely tailored messages for key demographics and even individuals. American presidential campaigns have never been models of democracy but with the help of private databases and corporate collusion, the 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be a very murky process. (more…)

Good Encryption Doesn’t Make Good Government

Image Credit: Kris Krüg

Image Credit: Kris Krüg

When someone starts talking about privacy online, a discussion of encryption is never too far off. Whether it is a relatively old standby like Tor or a much newer and more ambitious effort like Ethereum (more on this later) privacy equals encryption. With the exception of investigative journalism and activist interventions, geeks, hackers, and privacy advocates seem to have nearly universally adopted a “good fences make good neighbors” approach to privacy. This has come at significant costs. The conflation of encryption with privacy mistakes what should be a temporary defensive tactic, for a long term strategy against corporate and government spying. It is time that we discuss a new approach. (more…)

Would if… Nah it’ll never happen.

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

Why Do Many Reasonable People Trust Science?

I have a secret to tell all of you: I kind of don’t care about teaching evolution in science classes. Put another way, I’m less than convinced that most people, having learned the story of species differentiation and adaptation, go on to live fuller and more meaningful lives. In fact, the way we teach evolution ­­––with a ferocious attention toward competition and struggle in adverse circumstances–– might be detrimental to the encouragement of healthy and happy communities. I also see little reason to trust the medical community writ-large, and I cringe when a well-meaning environmentalist describes their reaction to impending climate change by listing all of the light bulbs and battery-powered cars they bought. I suppose –given my cynical outlook– that the cover story of this month’s National Geographic is speaking to me when it asks “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” Good question: what the hell is wrong with me? (more…)

The Conspicuous Absence of Solidarity

The slain, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha

The slain, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha

My small city of Troy, New York is drawing up a new comprehensive plan. Lots of towns and even universities do this from time to time as a way of coordinating and re-aligning the institutions and organizations into some kind of general direction. These sorts of moments encourage individuals to be reflective as well as divisive. There’s a lot at stake (or at least it feels that way) and people feel the need to protect what they see as threatened by change, or go on the offensive and try to root out what they see as a long-standing problem. More than anything, these sorts of comprehensive planning efforts force us to confront our everyday lives as a set of conditions and decisions that exist outside of our control but are ultimately steerable if enough political will can be leveraged, if enough organizing around a particular issue gets done. Last night, a wide variety of people came together to discuss what they thought was working and what was needed attention in our city. (more…)

The Tyranny of Small Town Internet

The Albany New York Town Hall

The Albany New York Town Hall

 

It is certainly good news that the Obama Administration has come out strong for net neutrality. The President recently made an announcement that his office would help promote local broadband competition as part of a broader effort to improve the country’s data infrastructure. More specifically, the federal government plans to help municipalities develop their own data networks, fight state laws that prevent municipal governments from offering public broadband options, and help small businesses compete in local markets with companies like Verizon and Time Warner. The chairman of the FCC followed suit by announcing (in WIRED Magazine…?) yesterday that he would be circulating a proposal to apply Title II to telecom companies and mobile phone carriers, effectively making it illegal to throttle connections based on what sorts of services you are connecting to. This is all good news but I’m also hesitant to trust local authorities with my internet connection. Aren’t these the same governments that defend murderous police forces and cooperated with the federal government to shut down political dissent? Why should these organizations control the network? While I am definitely not a fan of huge telecom corporations, I don’t trust my local government either.  (more…)