Category Archives: commentary

Listening to Data: on Phantom Terrains

This is a cross-post from Its Her Factory.

Frank Swain has a hearing aid that sonifies ambient WiFi signals. A Bluetooth-enabled digital hearing aid paired with a specially programmed iPhone (and its WiFi detector), the device, named Phantom Terrains, “translate[s] the characteristics of wireless networks into sound….Network identifiers, data rates and encryption modes are translated into sonic parameters, with familiar networks becoming recognizable by their auditory representations.” The effect, Swain says, is “something similar to Google Glass – an always-on, networked tool that can seamlessly stream data and audio into your world.” (I’ll leave the accuracy of this comparison to people who have thought more about Glass than I have.)

Why would anyone want to do this? What’s the point of being able to sense, to detect and interpret, the flows of data that are transmitted in your environment? For Swain and his collaborator Daniel Jones, data transmissions are just as much a part of the material, engineered, designed, and planned environment as roads, pipes, and buildings are. We exist in a “digital landscape,” and just like all landscapes, this one has a social meaning and a politics. “Just as the architecture of nearby buildings gives insight to their origin and purpose, we can begin to understand the social world by examining the network landscape.”

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Shadows in the Gaslight

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image courtesy of Carmen Jost

There are moments when we’re taught to mistrust ourselves, to regard our own feelings with high suspicion, where we learn that we are not our own friends or companions, where we do not lead ourselves well through the world but instead point the way toward traps, pits, quicksand. We learn to view ourselves as enemies.

Don’t pretend this isn’t true of some more than others.

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Call for Papers- Theorizing the Web 2015 #TtW15

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#TtW15

April 17–18 in New York City

Venue: the future home of the International Center of Photography, in lower Manhattan

Abstract submission deadline: 11:59 pm (EST), January 18, 2015

To theorize the web is to theorize the self, society, and the world. Although digital social technologies are relatively new, the web is hardly a “virtual reality” or a “new frontier”; rather, it is a deeply embedded part of our existing social world, which has been described in multiple traditions of social thought. Yet mainstream conversations about digital social technologies tend to emphasize the technological at the expense of the social and result in partial understandings of the web, disconnected from questions of power and social justice—and from public discourse. Useful, nuanced thinking about the web is too often hidden behind paywalls and academic jargon, while technology journalism too often fixates on stories of progress and personal triumph without examining underlying ideologies or structural conditions. (more…)

Attention Topographies and Small Town Protest

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Every year my little city of Troy, New York holds a kind of Dickensonian Renaissance festival called The Victorian Stroll. The Stroll has been going strong for over 30 years and it affords an opportunity for lots of white people to dress up in period clothing that matches the surrounding buildings and ––as some have recently demonstrated–– their retrograde race politics. Even police officers don those funny dome-shaped hats and long wool coats that make it seem as though they’re ready to beat someone up over taking too much gruel. A few really great activists in the area organized a #Shutitdown solidarity event at The Stroll and I was there to capture video. The video above is a nice summary of what we were able to accomplish. (more…)

“Communities” are not Communal: fandom, capitalism, and contact zones

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I should preface this by saying that I originally came out of what is generally referred to as “fandom” but I haven’t been part of one for a long time. Recently, though, I dipped a toe back into the water – specifically, the fandom around the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead – and I noticed some things I think are worth considering.

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Mediating a Torture Report

photo of George W Bush smiling wearing a cowboy hat with text overlaid that reads "The CIA's record keeping was so shoddy, "they lost track and they didn't really know who they were holding."

Earlier this week the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, more commonly known as just “The Torture Report” was declassified and made public and like many people I downloaded it. But given that it is a 525-page behemoth of documented state violence, most people are going to understandably look for summaries and analyses, letting other people do the hard work of pulling out important passages from the heaping pile of passive voice and bureaucratic jargon. While the report is deeply disturbing, the mainstream attention it has been getting is somewhat heartening. What might have dominated, but ultimately fallen out of, a couple of rapidly shifting news cycles has exploded over my Tumblr dashboard and Twitter feed in a constant stream of tiny, comprehensible bites of war crimes. Consuming national disgrace in small pieces isn’t necessarily new, it is the primary way the public learns about abuses of power. (more…)

Facebook Remembers

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Facebook announced this week that it will add a new search feature to the platform. This search feature will, for the first time, allow users to type in keywords and bring up specific network content. Previously, keyword searches lead to pages and advertisements.  Now, it will bring up images and text from users’ News Feeds. Although search results currently include only content shared with users by their Friends, I imagine including public posts in the results will be a forthcoming next step.

Facebook, as a documentation-heavy platform, has always affected both how we remember, and how we perform. It is the keeper of our photo albums, events attended, locations visited, and connections established, maintained, and broken. It recasts our history into linear stories, solidifying that which we share into the truest version of ourselves. And of course, the new search feature amplifies this, stripping users of the privacy-by-obscurity that tempered (though certainly did not eliminate) the effects of recorded and documented lives.

The search feature also does something interesting and new. It aggregates. For the first time, users can take the temperature of their networks on any variety of topics. Music, movies, news events and recipes can be called up, unburied from the content rubble and grouped in a systematic way.

Perhaps because I’ve been able to think of little else lately, I immediately considered what this new feature means for how we will remember the events of Ferguson, Staten Island, and the parade of police violence against young men of color. And relatedly, I considered how we will remember ourselves and each other in regard to these events. (more…)

The Importance of Being Kim Kardashian

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Reflecting on this brouhaha about Kim Kardashian’s recent callipygian escapades reminds me of KK’s powerful role as an image-maker.  In case, somehow, you were able to remain blissfully unaware, earlier this month Kim Kardashian posed for Paper magazine and shared the images on social media under the hashtag #breaktheinternet. The poses consisted of KK in various stages of dishabille.  We first see Kim side view in an evening gown, holding a bottle of champagne. A burst of bubbly arcing over her head to fills a glass tottering on her backside, echoing a 1976 photo in the same pose by the same photographer, Jean-Paul Goude. Next we see Kim happily sliding her gown off, then, smiling disingenuously over one shoulder, pin up style, revealing her famous rump’s rounded orbs. In the final shot, Kim goes the full monty, or, as Entertainment Weekly breathlessly had it, “Kim Kardashian Goes Full-Frontal Naked, Shows Off Boobs and Everything Else In Paper magazine.” (more…)

Anti-Consuming Ferguson

A tweeted picture of predominantly white faces with their hands up in a mall. Tweet reads: Back in #macys "hands up, don't shop" #blackoutblackFriday #boycottblackfriday #blacklivesmatter. tweet by @seanick_

This one time I got to meet Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir. They’re fun people with a knack for spectacle. The Reverend dresses up in all white to match his brilliant, platinum pompadour, and leads people into a mall or a busy street corner to preach and sing about the evils of consumer society. A small group of us exorcised a Bank of America ATM which was a great diversion for reaching around and unplugging it. All in all it was a lovely afternoon but today I’m nervous about the way people who look like me (white) are organizing around this topic. Given that it is prime time for shopping, it also means it is an excellent opportunity to protest the intricate tapestry of social norms and institutions that make up present-day consumerism. It is certainly true that lots of people should probably consume less than they do, but the activism around consumerism is often tin-eared and tone deaf when it comes to issues of class and, as we are seeing this year, race. (more…)

Ferguson: White Bodies Bearing Witness

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The mobile phone camera has become an embedded tool of protest. It has given rise to the citizen journalist and is a key mechanism by which surveillance is countered with sousveillance. In a New Media & Society article earlier this year, Kari Andén-Papadopoulos names this phenomena citizen-camera witnessing. This is a ritual through which bodies in space authenticate their presence while proliferating images and truths that contest with the stories told by The State.  The citizen camera-witness is not merely witnessing, but bearing witness, insisting upon articulating, through image, atrocities that seem unspeakable. Indeed, as W.J.T. Mitchell compellingly claims: Today’s wars and political conflicts are to an unparalleled extent being fought on behalf of, against and by means of radically different images of possible futures.

The failure to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown and the protests that continue to follow, set the stage for drastically different futures. The way we tell this story will guide which future is most plausible, most logical, and most likely.   (more…)