Here, there be spoilers.
For Christmas in 2004 I received every episode of the original series on VHS. Each tape contained two episodes separated by the kind of cheesy music you might expect from a local news daytime talk show in 1992. I watched all 30 or so tapes, multiple times, sometimes with my high school English teacher during lunch after he had finished sneaking a cigarette in his beat up Civic. I have fond memories of eating turkey sandwiches and laughing at William Shatner’s fighting style. But what was more important (to us anyway) than the unchoreographed fight sequences were the literary parables. I see no exaggeration or hyperbole when people describe Star Trek as a philosophy or a religion, but I see it much more as a political orientation. The crew might go where no one has gone before, but the show rarely strayed from the very basics of the human condition. Star Trek holds a mirror to the society that produced it, and J.J. Abrams’ trek is most certainly a product of the Endless War on Terror. (more…)
I don’t recommend doing it, but if you search for “Charles Ramsey” on Reddit, something predictably disturbing happens. First, you’ll notice that the most results come from /r/funny, the subreddit devoted to memes, puns, photobombs, and a whole bunch of sexist shit. Charles Ramsey, in case you don’t know, is the Good Samaritan that responded to calls for help by Amanda Berry- a woman that had been held captive for 10 years in a Cleveland basement, along with Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. The jokes on Reddit are largely at the expense of Ramsey, poking fun at his reaction to a police siren or his reference to eating ribs and McDonalds. As Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) said on Slate: “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.” (more…)
It is pretty easy to mistake most technologies as politically neutral. For example, there is nothing inherently radical or conservative about a hammer. Washing machines don’t necessarily impose capitalism on whoever uses one, and televisions have nothing to do with communism. You might hear about communism through television, and there is certainly no shortage of politically motivated programming out there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that says the technology itself has a certain kind of politics. This sort of thinking (combined with other everyday non-actions) is what philosopher of technology Langdon Winner (@langdonw) calls technological somnambulism: the tendency of most people to, “willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence.” It is difficult to see the politics in technology because those politics are so pervasive. The fact that technological artifacts have politics is kind of like Call Me Maybe, once you’re exposed, it is hard to get it out of your head. (more…)
The very fact that your eyes rolled (just a little bit) at the title tells you that it is absolutely true. So true its obnoxious to proclaim it. Perhaps cable news died when CNN made a hologram of Jessica Yeller and beamed her into the “Situation Room” just to talk horse race bullshit during the 2008 election. Or maybe it was as far back as 2004 when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire and shattered the fourth wall by excoriating the dual hosts for destroying public discourse. The beginning of the end might be hard to pinpoint, but the end is certainly coming. Fox News had its lowest ratings since 2001 this year, but still has more viewers than CNN & MSNBCNEWSWHATEVERITSCALLEDNOW combined. Even if ratings weren’t a problem, credibility certainly is. Imagine if CNN stopped calling themselves the “Most Trusted Name In News” and used the more accurate, “A Little Over Half of Our Viewers Think We’re Believable.” By now it is clear that the zombified talking heads of cable news are either bought and sold, or just irrelevant. Cable news channels’ hulking, telepresent bodies have been run through and left to rot on the cynical barbs of political bloggers and just about anyone at a comedy shop’s open-mic night. This last series of screw-ups in Boston (here, here, here and unless it was avant-garde electronic literature, here) begs the question if cable news channels can even tell us what’s going on anymore. Cable news is dead, but something keeps animating the corpse. (more…)
Cartoon by Alex Gregory. Published in The New Yorker, a Condè Nast Publication.
At the beginning of the year, rumors were going around that the popular but relatively small citation software company Mendeley Ltd. was going to be purchased by the publishing giant Elsevier. TechCrunch ran a story and there were a few others but not much else came out of it. When I heard these “advanced talks” were taking place, I wrote an essay in which I said,
“When our accounts of reality are owned by profit-seeking organizations and those organizations control the very tools that help us exchange those accounts, we are in danger of losing something fundamental to the institution of science. Ideas should not end up behind prohibitively expensive pay walls, especially when so little of that money goes towards new scientific discovery.”
Today, Mendeley announced on their blog that their purchase by Elsevier was official. They also reassured existing users, “Mendeley is only going to get better for you.”
I’m very skeptical. Back in January, I raised the question, “what is Elsevier going to do with Mendeley that warrants uninstalling it from you computer?” and hinted that the kind of criminal charges faced by the late Aaron Schwartz could become commonplace, if not easier to prove and litigate. I also noted that Elsevier has been so malicious and aggressive in their search to control and subsequently monetize knowledge that it has inspired over thirteen thousand academics to sign a pledge saying they will not support Elsevier’s journals. They have supported SOPA, PIPA, and used to support the Research Works Act as well. Oh, and they support CISPA too. None of that has changed, and there’s still plenty to be done if Elsevier wants to gain the respect their new property once had. (more…)
I just left my department’s colloquium lecture series where Dr. Virginia Eubanks from SUNY- Albany was giving an excellent talk on the computer systems that administer and control (to varying degrees) earned benefits programs like social security, Medicaid, and Medicare. The talk was really fascinating and a question from Dr. Abby Kinchy during the Q&A really stuck with me: How do we study different (and often long-outdated) versions of software? Particularly, how do we chart the design of software that runs on huge closed networks owned by large companies or governments? Are these decisions lost to history, or are there methods for ferreting out Ross Perot’s old wares? (more…)
“The primacy of contemplation over activity rests on the conviction that no work of human hands can equal in beauty and truth the physical kosmos, which swings in itself in changeless eternity without nay interference or assistance from outside, from man or god.” –Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition
I’ve been thinking a lot about methods lately. I want to spend a few paragraphs considering the current state of affairs for social scientists interested in science and technology as their objects of analysis. What kind of work is impossible in our current universities? What kinds of new institutions are necessary for breaking new ground in method as well as theory? Think of this post as an exercise in McLuhan-style probing of institutions of higher learning. I’m going to play with a lot of “what-ifs” and “for instances.” None of this is particularly actionable, nor am I even interested in proposing anything that would be recognized as “realistic” or even “pragmatic.” Mainly, I’m interested in stepping back, considering the state of our technosociety, and asking what kinds of questions need asking and what kinds of science is being systematically left undone. (more…)
Note to readers: This article and its corresponding links discuss rape, victim blaming, “slut” shaming, and rape culture generally.
The disturbing events in Steubenville, Ohio have spurred some insightful reporting and analysis (collected by Lisa Wade at Sociological Images) that, one would hope, raise awareness about rape culture. As a social scientist that studies social media, I am particularly interested in how privacy and connectivity have been framed within the context of the case. I cannot help but notice the sloppiness with which many reporters write about the “dangerous mix of alcohol, sex and social media that many teens navigate nowadays.” Studying the role of social media in everyday life may appear as trivial or superficial: something fun or novel to study. But Steubenville shows us exactly why writers and scholars need to understand social media better. (more…)
It’s as if a TED conference smashed headfirst into a hackathon and then fell into an NGO strategy summit. CEOs sit next to non-profit employees and eat boxed lunches as a dominatrix (@MClarissa) presents a slide on teledilonics followed up by a garage hacker-turned-million dollar project director quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. It is a supremely uncanny experience that all happens within the confines of a movie theater (and, later, a sushi bar). This is what one can expect when they attend the Freedom to Connect conference (#f2c) held in Silver Spring, Maryland. The conference is meant to bring “under-represented people and issues into the Washington, DC based federal policy discussion…” I left the conference feeling generally good that there are people out there working to preserve and protect open infrastructures. I just wish that team were more diverse.
In the beginning, there was nature. And in spite of the obvious lack of humans to give names to the animals and to categorize the trees, it all basically looked and felt like it does now: Leaves were green and rocks were heavy. Over time, humans (those natural tool makers!) developed a plethora of explanatory concepts and ways of knowing that gave their universe a discernable order. At different times and in different regions of the world, the universe took on vastly different shapes and personalities. There were the four humors, animism, Feng shui and by the mid 1660s some white guys had developed something called experimental philosophy. Today we just call it the scientific method. One of those white guys, Robert Boyle, was particularly vocal about the benefits of the scientific method and objective observation. He believed deeply that if enough men of reputable repute watched something happen, you could call it true. No monarch or bishop required. Thomas Hobbes was skeptical. Not because he believed truth had to come from an authority figure, but because he was, among other concerns, suspicious that by observing effects one could derive the underlying physical causes. While both men had strong and informed opinions about society and the natural world, today we remember Hobbes as a political philosopher and Boyle as one of the first modern scientists. The separation of society and nature didn’t have to look the way it does, but historical and social circumstances encourage us to separate these two realms. (more…)