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].

The drone is a sonic paradigm grounded in neoliberal values and conventions

Blurring the lines between machine and organic humanity, Haraway-like, shows that those lines are in fact blurrable

Replicants are obsessed with photographs

the visual regime of the drone, its will to omniscience and precision

A Predator drone stays aloft for 18hrs & the pilots were pushed to be as tireless as the technology they controlled

they had not yet grown comfortable playing themselves before the camera

Soft Culture is hard for some to look at

a grocery shelf that comes equipped with sensors to determine the age and sex of passing customers

Tinder feels like a stopgap solution

the question of whether or not something is digital is no longer really important

Apple announcements are the opposite of a guilty pleasure; they are a burden that I take on with pride

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

Lewis Powell (1865)
Lewis Powell (1865)

Go read “Dead And Going To Die”, a beautiful essay by Michael Sacasas posted today at The New Inquiry on the subjectivity expressed by people in old photographs. Part of why subjects look different in these images is they are expressing a different subjectivity to the camera lens. As the photographic gaze went from novelty to ubiquity, we’ve collectively oriented our selves to the camera differently. As Sacacas writes,

There is distinct subjectivity — or, perhaps, lack thereof — that emerges from most old photographs. There is something in the eyes that suggests a way of being in the world that is foreign and impenetrable to us

Specifically, he looks at the famous photographs of Lewis Powell that had previously interested Roland Barthes in his great study of photography. Powell was one of the co-conspirators of the Lincoln assassination and was tasked to kill the Secretary of State. Injuring many people, he failed and was captured. Before his execution, a series of photographs were taken that are famous for depicting a young man seemingly out of time, a snapshot of the past that looks disturbingly contemporary. Sacacas’ essay describes what is so hauntingly current about his image, and it goes beyond his hair style or clothes, but to how he has positioned himself in modern familiarity to the camera lens, which ultimately requires something a bit deeper: how one is concerned with oneself as a self.

To understand these photographs of Powell one must know their context. Powell attempted to resist photographic documentation by moving around (shutter speeds were slower then), and was threatened with a sword. In a moment of resignation, a profound and telling moment, Powell’s image was made as a fortune for the future. Bracketing the recent emergence of temporary photography, every photograph is a time capsule, a slice of the present frozen as past for the future. The content of this photographic time capsule hints at what subjectivity would become in the emerging era of visual documentation.

Specifically, Sacacas writes that what Powell learned to do is something subversive in his resignation to being photographed,

Powell could not avoid the gaze of the camera, but he could practice a studied indifference to it. In order to resist the gaze, he would carry on as if there were no gaze. To ward off the objectifying power of the camera, he had to play himself before the camera

What reads as modern indifference to the camera in an era otherwise noted for photographic performativity is instead a double-performance, the performance of indifference, the performance of the self as a self, of Lewis Powell as Lewis Powell.

While I agree with Sacacas that this is a profound moment, I think it’s profound in a very different way. While Sacacas maintains this is a new form of subjectivity, I would instead argue that it is a profound moment of revealing in explicit form what subjectivity has always been. I’m going to read into Sacacas’ essay what I think is presupposed but not explicitly stated, which is always a dangerous task, so I hope he can join in here and correct me where I’m bound to be wrong. Perhaps Sacacas’ account is more nuanced than the common understanding of the photographic self-performativity: at the invention of photography people learned to pose for the camera instead of just being themselves, and as documentation became more ubiquitous, posing and not-posing became confused and now we always act as if we’re on camera even when not.

I disagree with the fundamental assumption behind this story, however. Sacacas seems to assume there is some non-posed self that is “surrendered”, but what if we instead understand the self itself as a surrender, regardless of the adding or peeling away of reflexive and ironic layers of self-awareness? For instance, Michel Foucault argued, from the end of The Order of Things through his study of the History of Sexuality, that the self itself is not natural but instead a historical invention the product of modernity. If so, the process that Sacacas describes Powell undertaking isn’t a “watershed” moment of new subjectivity but instead what the self has always been.

But Sacacas and Barthes are right, the way Powell oriented himself to the camera was indeed novel. Instead of claiming this was a moment of an emerging new subjectivity but still retaining Sacacas’ general point, we might say that photographic, and now social media, self documentation mean an intensification of an existing trend, an intensification of our own relationship to ourselves, as I previously argued elsewhere in longer form.

The self, the intensity of identity as an omnipresent filter through which we experience, is not a given. It is something cultivated or not, to different degrees, in different ways, at different times, for different purposes. And identity is always a morality, not just a series of truths about who we are and what we do but also a declaration of what we won’t do; the ultimate expression of the self is always who we are not.

All of this leads me to wonder where our contemporary Lewis Powell’s are? Whose image today will be hauntingly familiar tomorrow? Or, perhaps instead a contemporary Powell would start somewhere different, perhaps where the self itself is understood as not natural or necessary. Perhaps it is subjectivity itself that is as doomed as the vacuous gaze of most early photographs. Perhaps in the future the very question of past subjectivies won’t even make sense.

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

Again, go read Dead And Going To Die, it’s wonderful. 

Raw video of the quadcopter drone flight and crash on the streets of Manhattan

you cannot take a picture without involving an act of selfishness

The anxiety some people feel over the mass advent of digital is not unreasonable but their response to it often is

the Bluetooth RoboRoach, the first cyborg to be commercially available to the general public

TV has gotten a lot more intimate, more entwined with our subconscious, closer

Facebook’s temporal orientation puts undue pressure on its users to conform to its system

Technology has made it extremely easy to save data but it is increasingly difficult to lose things deliberately

Anton Menlo not only encourages the dissolution of the work/play divide, it capitalizes on it

Silk Road used the Tor Network, but nothing about the bust suggests Tor has been broken

Broad but shallow (like the social media Eggers lampoons), The Circle is dark comedy for this moment in history

There’s a real brutality to the way Tinder turns people into merchandise

the telephone existed both inside and outside Wever and Bray’s cat and, by extension, people

If you deny sexism in tech, you’re either ignorant or a fucking liar. Neither is acceptable

the Malala Yousafzai interview on the Daily show is just too fine a distillation of what is wrong with Upworthy

The gaze of a drone is intrinsically penetrative. The gaze of a drone burrows

The percentage of female Internet video viewers claiming to watch porn online has grown exponentially

Our augmented reality is far more malleable. Truth and perception are as elastic

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

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damn girl are you horse_ebooks because so many dudes got upset when they found out that you are a real human being

the Horse e-books fiasco suggests that we are more than ready to mistake bots for humans and vice versa

Why is it so much easier to blame Facebook than look at the misogyny & hatred it reflects?

the ipad pathetically asks: “Do you still think I’m pretty?”, shifting the gendered allusions into full culmination

by blending it with a more Victorian medium of calligraphy, the texts became more substantial in effect

people conceptualize the world into online and offline, which makes for a lot of very awkward experiences

an implicit assumption that any space characterized by digital media must somehow be less real than one that isn’t

Surface, however, is like the Gaga, Ke$ha, or perhaps even Miley of tablet computing

the consistency in online iterations of the travelers’ gaze

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

The fact that the Supreme Court itself has links to its own Web site that no longer function shows the depth of the link rot problem

In some circles, being inaccessible is a status symbol

the intention behind the looking matters the most

clothing that does not move, rigid materials that force a body into an idealized appearance

romance was alive and well in the Instagram iteration of their marriage

“That’s boring,” thought BuzzFeed, deciding to place photographs of five nipples above that explanation

Guys who try to hit on you by asking if you want to try on their Google Glass

Jesse Pinkman’s Roomba Starting bid: $200

The hypothetical Horse-bot is, I think, a Kantian genius working in a neoliberal world

Even if YouTube miraculously manages to defeat you, you’ll always have Reddit

Texting with your crush is about as “disembodied” as quill-to-scroll love letters were

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

 

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what’s a bot and what’s human and where do we draw the line and should we draw that line

Yesterday, we learned that the most infamous Weird Twitter account, @Horse_ebooks, wasn’t a algorithmically-programmed “bot” but instead the product of a person tweeting as if. The revelation was accompanied by a live performance of the account in a Manhattan art gallery. While much is being written about the account, I’d like to share one thought about the live performance and what this all says about what is real and virtual, “bot” and human. In one day, @Horse_ebooks went from bot to human, and as I’ll argue, embodied in an art gallery, right back towards bot.

I’ll defer to the many other pieces about the history of @Horse_ebooks and the deeply emotional reactions people are having after learning things aren’t as bot as they seem. In fact, my favorite explanation for this came from Sarah just this morning on this blog, arguing that when horse was a bot, we got to supply the meaning, that made us feel good, and when the noise turned out to be signal, we lost our the credit for creating the signal. But let’s also bring the live-performance into this discussion, and I think it complicates things a bit in an interesting way.

The first step was revealing that the bot was human. Of course, a bot is always partially human, programmed by a person with a body and feelings and politics and standpoint and interests which is dumped into a world where it is (mis)understood by other humans. But a bot is very differently human because what it produces can diverge greatly from the human intentionality behind it. This massive difference in degree becomes, for practical reasons, a difference in type; bots aren’t devoid of humanity, but they are still very different, and that’s why the revelation that @Horse_ebooks wasn’t that different matters so much to people. So, yes, the technical is always deeply human, but the live-reading yesterday made the reverse point, that which is normally described as human is also deeply technical, virtual. Things like social norms, language, identities are technologies. Standing in the gallery watching the reading yesterday was to me an effort to make @Horse_ebooks algorithmic again.

If the fun of the Twitter account performance piece was that it queered the machine/human line by passing a sort-of reverse Turing Test, the live-reading of @Horse_ebooks played with that line in a different way. It was an intentional failing at the traditional Turing Test by purposefully taking that which is human and perform it as bot.

My critique of digital dualism is not just that what we call “virtual” is very real but also what we call “real” is also always highly virtual. The art gallery is a good example: The idea of a gallery is to create a tool premised on delineating what is and isn’t art, an architecture that deeply structures our actions, the intense performativity of us-actors in that space all create a highly simulated environment.

After revealing the bot to be human, @Horse_eBooks was mechanistically performed in a space more virtual than Twitter. Phones placed on a desk rang and our actors pretended to answer them, robotically reading the short tweets. The performance amplified the inhuman, the monotone reading, the lack of emotion shown despite the crowd’s laughter, the extra-human feat of sitting there and reading the tweets all day like only web-crawler bots usually do.

No one cares about my opinion if this is “good” art or not, but I will say that it at least arrives precisely at the question of how we should understand humans and technology. It plays within the framework of digital dualism by pushing at this assumed boundary, troubling its foundations, or at least making them more visible. A Twitter account robot does little to subvert the socially-constructed line between the human and technical but physically embodying such virtuality certainly does. If a bot is human, than a human is bot. For me, the @Horse_ebook revelation and performance at first seemed like the triumph of the human over the bot — and concluded as anything but.

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

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gif of a gif

‘Like’ Is Protected Speech, Appeals Court Says

Since the promise of money is broken, far out of reach, young people’s currency is attention

The imagined traces of my would-be scrobbling seemed like photographs for sound: scrobble, or it didn’t happen

The organisms are probably not alive, but, excitingly, probably do contain DNA

“Work” trains us to pay special attention to tempo, and this habit follows us into our leisure time

Social media, of course, is both a mirror and an audience at once

War on Instagram: Framing conflict photojournalism with mobile photography apps

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

toward an understanding of being human that contains being online

it’s mind-boggling that Business Insider hired a CTO who doesn’t even understand that the Internet is real life

Titstare got “very loud applause.” Bros are pack animals

a larger project to make Facebook’s public interactions not just public but visible

Siri might not want to be like you. Siri might want to be Siri

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

This was a lead image in a story from the New York Times titled, “Your Phone Versus Your Heart“. Let’s break this image down, shall we?

Becoming a parent has inflected how I see everything in the world, including the practice of “being online.” I apologize for using scare quotes so soon into this essay, but it feels necessary. “Online” contains several types of possible connection, as Jenny Davis and others at Cyborgology have argued. And the “being” part is what needs to be at stake: how does the way in which we exist change when that existence is networked and distributed? The anthropology of “being online” therefore includes a consideration of the ontological effects on people as much as empirically measurable effects of using iPads and Facebook.

A common narrative, and one Cyborgology has consistently disputed, is that “technology” or “social media” or “the digital” have impinged on an authentic mode of life that previously existed and which we retroactively call “offline.” This narrative relies on constructing images that can quickly code as “authentic,” as in this video that Nathan Jurgenson has dissected. The graphic above, from a New York Times essay, crystallizes this narrative as it makes us of family and child-rearing as an icon of authentic offline living. Devices and the information they present come between a parent and the child. They blot out the child’s pleading face. Tellingly, the phone is represented as blank–the viewer is not asked to make a judgment about the value of what the person is doing with the phone (checking Twitter? responding to an email? calling 911?), they are asked to condemn its vacuity.

There is a grain of truth to this story, but one that leads us to a more complicated account of networked devices than we would find in a digital witch hunt. Speaking anecdotally, it is my experience that interactions with an infant require me to minimize the use of electronic supplements. I think this is because the capabilities of an infant cannot be meaningfully supplemented by what those platforms offer. My main forms of interaction with my 3 month old are eye contact, gesture, touch, warmth, food, and sound. Those are not types of information that current electronics are especially good at storing or transmitting.

By contrast, I find interactions with other adults via computers to be very satisfying. That shouldn’t be a surprise–we are in a golden age of consumer electronics designed to facilitate communication between adults. With most adults, I want to exchange words or images quickly, and computers are very good with words and images. In some cases it even helps me communicate to have my voice stripped down to bare text. I’m comfortable as a writer but not as an actor, and always doubt that my voice will sound the way I mean it to (part of the reason IM and SMS are good platforms for flirting). I can imagine people on the other side of the fence might find that frustrating, but we also have Facetime and Skype–technologies that provide better fidelity for conversations between adults but do not begin to touch the haptic channels that are so important for connecting with an infant.

Starting with that observation–that online communications have higher fidelity with adults than with babies or children–it is tempting to map a division between “online” and “offline” onto other, older methods for describing how adult humans are a unique type of being. Online and offline take on the ontological textures of language or even “world” in the Heideggerian sense: full blown humans have it, animals and lesser humans are poor in it or have prototypical/degenerate/facsimile versions of it, and brute matter is without it. “Online” would then provide a curiously historical-material metaphor for the mysterious relationship between humans and language. Whereas inspired language uses the Muses as the go-between with the realm of the divine–in the beginning was the Word–those of us who are online have electronic clients that can quickly send and receive large amounts of data to and from distant servers. A description of the mode of activity where we are online is not too far from a concretization of the mystical theory of language. On one hand, the online represents an historical rupture–being online requires technology and infrastructure that have never before been possible–but insomuch as they are geared around the transfer of certain types of information they reinscribe a concept of the human that is very old.

To the extent that such an ontological-anthropological account of language works–and we need to inject some heavy caveats for it to work– it also helps us understand onlineness. Many, many people have criticized the use of language to separate humans from animals. The two broadest arguments are that humans are neither as much masters of language as they would like to think, nor are animals as bereft of it. (Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway have probably made these arguments as well as anyone, if you are interested). But if we accept that different types of beings have access to different communicative systems, and that how a being communicates with itself and its environment is part of what constitutes its way of life, then we can add the “online” mode to our analytic toolbox for describing those ways of life. Some beings are rich in online and some are poor in it. (The important step to avoid is correlating communicative abilities with ethical standing. Humans, for example, are extremely poor in the communicative system of scent, but that doesn’t mean our suffering is less morally relevant than a pig’s).

While animals are not posting pictures of themselves online, the internet is full of animal pictures. With the rise of social networks, cute animal pics may someday account for more views than porn. Babies, also unable to access the internet, command considerable attention online. They are what Michel Serres call quasi-objects: objects in the sense of not exercising agency but subject-ish in that they compel and organize the activity of subjects acting around them (Serres’s example is the relationship between soccer players and the ball).

To the limited extent that my daughter can be represented within the online order, I am glad that she is. When I look at that New York Times graphic, my first thought is that the adult is taking a picture of his or her child to send to a relative. When I went back to work, my wife would send me pictures every day to make it easier for me to be apart from my daughter. Now I have a video of her giggling that never fails to make me smile. My daughter’s capacity to be rendered in the types of media that exist online are increasing as she enters the linguistic order that has informed the construction of the online. And while my daughter might not like that my phone comes between us when I’m taking her picture, that’s a small price to pay to keep my mom, who lives across the country, connected to her. Before cell phones–way before them–we were already social creatures living in networks. It might be confusing for children that they can’t fully exercise themselves in the online order but to categorically pit digital media against family connectedness is facile and untrue. That has been said before–the online does not lack for advocates–but when we take a side in a dichotomous debate about internet connectedness we miss the ontological effects of the online as a constant modality of our being.

Saying that “online” is a modality means, as many at Cyborgology and elsewhere have argued before, that “being online” is not something that is either on or off, true or false, but always there in varying degrees of attention, intensity, and praxis. It also means that being online is not zero sum with being offline. Pulling out your phone doesn’t flip you over from offline to online. The phone was sending and receiving data while out of sight. Your brain was also aware of the potential for digital communication at a background level. Engagement with the digital modality can be more or less or intense, and regulating that modality of being is not a bad thing–it is probably a necessary practice in the care of the self, just as other modalities have been in the past.

For my part, it also allows me to think of my child’s growing engagement with her environment in terms that are more flexible than a dichotomy between online/offline, and less laden with a metanarrative of transgression and guilt than digital abstinence. Online is not a bewitched place to treat with mystical apprehension. Like other modes of human experience–sex, the sacred, memory–one should develop a relation to it that is intentional and empowering rather than overwhelming and addictive. One step is to redefine the debate away from its current dilemma and toward an understanding of being human that contains being online.

Greg Pollock is a game designer and writer in San Jose.

Lead image via.