Category Archives: commentary

Apple’s Emojis and the Problem of White Logic

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Apple rolled out a new line of racialized emojis last week through their iOS 8.3. Originating in Japan, emojis are popular symbols by which people emote via text. Previously, the people-shaped emojis appeared with either a bright yellow hue or peach (i.e., white) skin. The new emojis offer a more diverse color palate, and users can select the skin tones that best represent them. It’s all very United Colors of Benetton.

While many applaud the new emojis— such Dean Obeidallah writing for CNN who announced “Finally, Apple’s Emojis Reflect America”—this has been far from a win for racial equality. (more…)

Faxlore: Memes down the line

Editors Note: This post is based on a presentation at the upcoming Theorizing the Web 2015 conference. It will be part of “The Feel World” panel.  

From the book: 'Still More Folklore from the Paperwork Empire' by Alan Dundes and Carl Pagter. Via  http://www.spacestudios.org.uk/exhibition-programme/xeroxlore/

From the book: ‘Still More Folklore from the Paperwork Empire’ by Alan Dundes and Carl Pagter. (Via http://www.spacestudios.org.uk/exhibition-programme/xeroxlore/)

Internet memes are arguably the most recognisable form of online vernacular; a proliferation of expressive pictorial and / or textual compositions, frequently characterised by running jokes expressed via informality and intended errors. The pervasiveness of humour within memes might make it easy to dismiss them as trivial, but this would be an oversight. In fact understanding the function of humour within memes discloses much; illuminating the relationship between memes and their antecedents, as well as the ways in which web-enabled social dynamics and vernaculars develop. Memetic behaviour is not novel but its current prevalence, as supported by networked culture, is remarkable. This post, a historicisation of meme usage as a communicative practice, attempts put into relief their idiosyncratic characteristics, and address the role memes may play in cultural analyses. (more…)

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…)

The Failure was Not Journalistic

rape on a college campus

 

The past year has brought strong awareness to problems of sexual assault in general, and sexual assault on college campuses in particular. Victims, allies, and activists are naming assailants and holding university administrations responsible for their treatment of both victims and the accused. Simultaneously, campuses are building task forces, holding meetings, staging rallies, and constructing policies to prevent and deal with incidents of sexual non-consent.

In the midst of this, Rolling Stone told one woman’s story. This woman, who identified herself as “Jackie,” shared the gut wrenching if all-too-familiar tale of a fraternity party gone wrong. As they do in the age of social media, Jackie’s story went viral. In excruciating detail, we read of Jackie’s sexual violation at the hands of several men on UVA’s campus, followed by gross mishandling by those in charge. Links spread, along with petitions, open letters, and thought pieces ranging from 140 characters to several thousand words. We were up in arms. Until, that is, the story came under suspicion.     (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…)

Exclusionary Algorithms: Jobaline’s Voice Analyzer

job search

A couple of years ago, I was enjoying dinner at a family gathering, loudly chiming in between bites of salad and veggie burger. In a quiet moment, my Nana’s significant other leaned in and looked at me closely. ‘I can’t pinpoint your accent,’ he said. Surprised, I wondered out loud if I had developed some strange hybrid of Virginia and Texas—my home state and the state where I was attending graduate school, respectively. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s more like California.’ He then faux flipped his hair, batted his eyelashes, and repeated something I’d said earlier using exaggerated uptalk. The table broke into laughter, jokes about nail chipping and mall shopping, and ironic air-quoted references to “Dr. Davis.” It was funny because this particular speech pattern—deeply classed and gendered—connotes  “ditziness,” which sits in (apparently comedic) contrast to my position as an adult in general, and an academic in particular. And indeed, my speech patterns growing up, like those of many girls I knew, followed the stereotypical “valley girl” inflection and cadence. I have learned to temper this over the years, but in relaxed moments, the excessive “likes” and statements-that-sound-like-questions slip back in.

I was not offended by this dinner table exchange. On the contrary, I put my gender activist hat away for a bit and  joined in, asking people to pass various food items in my best Alicia Silverstone (from clueless, obvi) voice. It was totally funny!! It would be less funny, however, if I found myself unable to get a job because of these speech patterns. (more…)

Killing NPCs and Rethinking “Fun”

aaaaah so fun

aaaaah so fun tho

One of the more frankly disturbing things I’ve read about video games recently wasn’t about sexism/misogyny but was instead about the NPCs (non-player characters) inserted into a game for a player to murder.

The piece in question was on the game Battlefield Hardline, and it contained quotes from the game’s makers regarding the thought that went into the presence and creation and – in particular – the dialogue of enemy NPCs in the game. As games have become more complex and voice acting has become more of a thing on which some focus is placed when a game is in development, there naturally arises the question of what these people are actually going to be saying. This leads to additional questions: Is the dialogue going to be more informative than anything else? Will there be any actual characterization of these people who are, after all, there largely to be killed by the player and whose lives will therefore be cut (tragically) short? Are these mustache-twirling villains, or are they just people?

And what do those decisions end up meaning for player experience?

(more…)

Digital Technologies Drive Adjunct Labor Movements

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Academia is in the midst of a labor crisis. With two-thirds of instructional faculty made up of contingent workers (i.e., adjuncts) a critical mass of dissatisfied—and often hungry— advocates are joining together to decry the unacceptable working conditions within historically sacred institutions of higher education. And with new adjunct unions forming regularly, the movement is taking on undeniable prevalence.

But it is more than just a growing quantity of under-paid, over-burdened, college educators that has fostered a national movement, it is also the availability of digitally mediated platforms through which these workers can connect, aggregate data, and share personal and collective stories with a larger public. That is, digital media has been instrumental in creating this particular counter-public.

Contemporary social movements are inevitably augmented, with digital and physical inextricably tied. In the case of adjuncts, however, digital media plays an especially crucial role. Of course I can only engage in informed speculation, but I don’t believe the adjunct movement would be a movement at all (or at least not much of one) without Internet technologies. This has to do with the material and social realities of contingent labor within higher-ed. (more…)

How do Smartphones Affect Human Thought?

Ecology of thought

My feeds this week kept popping up with a bothersome headline, stated in a variety of ways: Smartphones are Making Us Stupid, Technology is Making us Lazy, Does Smartphone use Decrease Intelligence?

The University of Waterloo released a paper this week that was originally published in Computers in Human Behavior back in July. Titled The Brain in your Pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to Supplant Thinking, the authors find a negative correlation between cognitive functioning and the use of search engines via smartphones.

The authors refer to smartphones as an “extended mind,” and make causal claims about the effects of this technological extension upon the current and futures state of human cognition. Namely, they predict that increased use of smartphones to gather information will indulge the human tendency towards lazy thinking, and we will become increasingly reliant upon devices. That is, the authors predict an outsourcing of critical thought. It’s kind of scary, really.

But before the phone stackers triumphantly proclaim that they told us so! Let’s look more closely at the research and the underlying assumptions of the research question.    (more…)

Demands from the Margins

Ferguson Protest, NYC 25th Nov 2014

Statistics are never objective. Rather, they use numeric language to tell a story, and entail all of the subjectivity of storytelling. Indeed, the skilled statistician, like the skilled orator, can bring an audience into the world of their creation, and get the audience to buy fully into the logic of this world. Numbers, like words, are tools of communication, persuasion, connection, and dissent.  Statistics are not objective. But my goodness, statistics can be powerful.

Check out this particularly compelling statistical story about Ferguson Missouri: (more…)