Author Archives: nathanjurgenson

Double Future: Ex Machina wasn’t Her

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“I just wanted to hear your voice and tell you how much I love you” –Samantha, Her

“Is it strange to have made something that hates you?” –Ava, Ex Machina

2001: A Space Odyssey is memorable for more than its depiction of artificial intelligence but also its tranquil pacing and sterile modernism. Ex Machina plays the same, taking place somewhere almost as deeply isolated as space. The remote IKEA-castle of a compound is itself mostly empty with soft piano notes echoing off lonely opulence. The mansion is cold and modern but incorporates the lush nature outside. The film moves from windowless labs to trees and waterfalls to a living room that’s half house half nature. The techno-bio juxtaposition and enmeshment clearly echo the film’s techno-human subject matter. But the wilderness reminds of death as much as life.

The nature here is more than natural but is isolation, is the constant implication that there is no escape, is vulnerable dependence, and ultimately is a reminder that you are under the control of a violent, clever, scheming drunk. (more…)

Facebook: Fair and Balanced

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The most crucial thing people forget about social media, all technologies, is that certain people with certain politics, insecurities, and financial interests structure them. On an abstract level, yeah, we may all know that these sites are shaped, designed, and controlled by specific humans. But so much of the rhetoric around code, “big” data, and data science research continues to promote a fallacy that the way sites operate is almost natural, that they are simply giving users what they want, which then downplays their own interests and role and responsibility in structuring what happens. The greatest success of “big” data so far has been for those with that data to sell their interests as neutral.

Today, Facebook researchers released a report in Science on the flow of ideological news content on their site. “Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook” by Eytan Bakshy, Solomon Messing, and Lada Adamic (all Facebook researchers) enters into the debate around whether social media in general, and Facebook in particular, locks users into a so-called “filter bubble”, seeing only what one wants and is predisposed to agree with and limiting exposure to outside and conflicting voices, information, and opinions. And just like Facebook’s director of news recently ignored the company’s journalistic role shaping our news ecosystem, Facebook’s researchers make this paper about minimizing their role in structuring what a user sees and posts. I’ve just read the study, but I already had some thoughts about this bigger ideological push since the journalism event as it relates to my bigger project describing contemporary data science as a sort of neo-positivism. I’d like to put some of my thoughts connecting it all here.

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What Was Ello?

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2014 Ello was in with the new and by 2015 it became out with the old. It’s New Years Eve and I want to look back on a thing that came and went this year, which leaves me feeling bummed. You can only be really disappointed if you start with high hopes, and lots of people for lots of reasons wanted Ello to work. It became quickly clear that the site didn’t have a strong vision. Neither its politics or its understanding of the social life it set out to mediate were inspired or clever enough to be compelling.

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short comment on Facebook as methodologically “more natural”

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No doubt of interest to sociologists, Facebook is throwing a sociology pre-conference on its campus ahead of the annual American Sociological Association meetings this fall. When the company is interested in recruiting sociologists and the work we do –research of the social world in all of its complexity– their focus, as shown in the event’s program, is heavily, heavily focused on quantitative demography. Critical, historical, theoretical, ethnographic research makes up a great deal of the sociological discipline, but isn’t the kind of sociology Facebook has ever seemed to be after. Facebook’s focus on quantitative sociology says much about what they take “social” to mean.

My background is in stats, I taught inferential statistics to sociology undergrads for a few years, I dig stats and respect their place in a rich sociological discourse. So, then, I also understand the dangers of statistical sociology done without a heavy dose of qualitative and theoretical work. Facebook and other social media companies have made mistake after mistake with their products that reflect a massive deficit of sociological imagination. The scope of their research should reflect and respect the fact that their products reach the near entirety of the social world. (more…)

Panopticon For whom?

Sometimes it feels that to be a good surveillance theorist you are also required to be a good storyteller. Understanding surveillance seems to uniquely rely on metaphor and fiction, like we need to first see another possible world to best grasp how watching is happening here. Perhaps the appeal to metaphor is evidence of how quickly watching and being watched is changing – as a feature of modernity itself in general and our current technological moment in particular. The history of surveillance is one of radical change, and, as ever, it is fluctuating and rearranging itself with the new, digital, technologies of information production and consumption. Here, I’d like to offer a brief comment not so much on these new forms of self, interpersonal, cultural, corporate, and governmental surveillance as much as on the metaphors we use to understand them.

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#review: Facebook’s Archival Subject

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#review features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books.

Today, guest contributor Rob Horning reviews: Life on automatic: Facebook’s archival subject by Liam Mitchell. First Monday, Volume 19, Number 2 – 3 February 2014 http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4825/3823 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i2.4825

If, like me, you are skeptical of research on social media and subjectivity that takes the form of polling some users about their feelings, as if self-reporting didn’t raise any epistemological issues, this paper, steeped in Baudrillard, Derrida, and Heidegger, will come as a welcome change. It’s far closer to taking the opposite position, that whatever people say about their feelings should probably be discounted out of hand, given that what is more significant is the forces that condition the consciousness of such feelings. That approach is sometimes dismissed as failing to take into account individual agency; it’s implicitly treated as an affront to human dignity to presume that people’s use of technology might not be governed by full autonomy and voluntarism, that it’s tinfoil-hat silly to believe that something as consumer-friendly and popular as Facebook could be coercive, that the company could be working behind users’ backs to warp their experience of the world for the sake of Facebook’s bottom line.

Mitchell is not so overtly conspiratorial in this paper; (more…)

Healthcare Dot Gov

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The debate over the ACA is carried out in ideological dogwhistle, waged with words barely capable of pointing to the concepts they are supposed to grip. While this well-oiled chatter is par for the course in American politics, it is doubly fruitless in the case of healthcare dot gov. The object of inquiry is a website, a kind of thing that is newer than our daily interactions would have us remember, and it has different ontological and anthropological qualities than our political commentators have learned to address. It is a kind of thing less suited to the language of communist bogeyman and other imaginary evils than the technics of networks and the processual language of software project management– topics where most of our politicians sound clueless and should follow Wittgenstein’s advice (“hey, shut up a minute”).

At the most basic syntax of domain naming, the phrase “healthcare dot gov”, repeated as much by its detractors as by its proponents, is a statement about the relationship of these two things: healthcare and government. (more…)

In Their Words

cachemonet.com

sites that rely heavily on simple voting have much higher percentages of male users

an ideology that sees every person as a potential threat & every communication as potentially worth surveilling

How does someone that with an obvious resentment for the social sciences, also make a joke about how we were always already alienated?

ViralNova does not exist. Those who speak of ViralNova miss the point of ViralNova

the gruff man taking drags from the e-cigarette may also have conceivably traversed the space-time continuum(more…)

In Their Words

Computer Virus TV News Report 1988

a prior exposure on Facebook will lead to increased arousal during a face-to-face encounter

we have to build the community as an online audience and hold it together by performing for it perpetually

I cursed the gendered nature of tech design that has written out women from the group of legitimate users

The billionaire-to-be co-founder of Twitter is a regular at Wisdom 2.0 events and began meditating just over a year ago

The cruel trick is that “the internet sucks” is a self-fulfilling prophecy

everyone who has ever masturbated understands the limitations of the [openness] paradigm

misogyny doesn’t come from the internet, it comes from contemporary culture. It won’t be fixed by the internet & it wont be fixed by women

seeing yourself do something to make yourself become something(more…)

In Their Words

Franzen’s 6,400-word piece in The Guardian may be the last cry of the last dinosaur going down for the last time in the tar pit

the Internet is where we live. It’s not a place we go to anymore; it’s a layer over everything

Unsolved Mysteries injected a sense of the enchanted in an otherwise mundane suburban landscape

the tools used to make film, the science of it, are not racially neutral

why must a photo of my face be justified when a photo of my bookshelf is not?

selfies suggest the world we observe through social media is more interesting when people insert themselves into it

Week 5: Feedback: Bruno Latour comments on your blogs

the “government as a platform” agenda assumes that private industry is the best way of delivering public services

The problem with the relentless “search for meaning” is that it extinguishes all meaning in favour of pure emotion

the Internet is producing more extreme forms of modernism than modernism ever dreamed of

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [nathanjurgenson.com].