Category Archives: commentary

Designing for Timelessness

This essay is cross-posted with TechnoScience as if People Mattered

A Swiss-made 1983 Mr. T Watch. Timeless. (Source)

A Swiss-made 1983 Mr. T Watch. Timeless. (Source)

Micah Singleton (@micahsingleton) over at the Daily Dot has a really great essay about one of the biggest problems with the Apple Watch. You should read the whole thing but the big takeaway is that really great watches and mainstream tech have a fundamental incompatibility: nice watches usually become heirlooms that get handed down from generation to generation, but consumer technology is meant to be bought in product cycles of a only a couple of years. A really nice watch should be “timeless” in a way our devices never have been. Compared to the usual 2-year contract phone purchase, the technological evolution of high-quality watches moves about as fast as actual biological evolution. Is it possible to deliberately build timelessness into electronics? (more…)

When a Gift is Really a Data Breach

Can a gift be a data breach? Lots of Apple product users think so, as evidenced by the strong reaction against the company for their unsolicited syncing of U2’s latest album songs of innocence to 500 million iCloud accounts. Although part of the negative reaction stems from differences of musical taste, what Apple shared with customers seems less important than the fact that they put content on user accounts at all.

u2-apple-eventWith a proverbial expectant smile, Apple gifted the album’s 11 songs to unsuspecting users. A promotional move, this was timed with the launch of the iPhone6 and Apple iWatch. And much like teenagers who find that their parents spent the day reorganizing their bedrooms, some customers found the move invasive rather than generous.

Sarah Wanenchack has done some great work on this blog with regards to device ownership—or more precisely, our increasing lack of ownership over the devices that we buy. That Apple can, without user permission, add content to our devices, highlights this lack of ownership. Music is personal. Devices are personal. And they should be. We bought them with our own money. And yet, these devices remain accessible to the company from which they came; they remain alterable; they remain—despite a monetary transaction that generally implies buyer ownership—nonetheless shared. And this, for some people, is offensive.   (more…)

The iPod Classic is dead, but it lives on in theory


In addition to launching the watch & new iPhone, this week Apple also discontinued the iPod Classic–the touch-wheel iPod. To be honest, I’m really sad to see it go. What will I do when my currently 7-year-old 80g iPod Classic goes kaput? I use the thing nearly every day. It’s my second iPod; I had an 8g second-gen that I scrimped and saved for as a grad student. I still remember buying my first iPod at the Mac store on Michigan Avenue. Obviously this thing had a huge impact on me.

Because it (and iTunes) had such a huge impact on how people related to music, the iPod also had a huge impact on how people think about sound and music. The iPod featured in theories of listening, of aesthetics, of the music industry, of subjectivity, and plenty of other things. So, though the iPod Classic may be dead, it lives on in theory.

I thought it would be helpful to make a crowdsourced bibliography of scholarship and criticism on/about/inspired by the iPod. Here’s the gdoc. Please contribute!

#WhyIStayed: Shifts in a Moral Battleground

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The sociologist Kai T. Erikson says that boundaries are made and reinforced on the public scaffold. In the Ray and Janay rice case, Twitter is that public scaffold.

To briefly recap, Ray Rice is a (now former) NFL football player for the Baltimore Ravens. He was originally suspended for two games after part of a video surfaced of his abusive behavior towards his then fiancé, Janay. His suspension from the NFL was made indefinite following TMZ’s release of the entire video[i] in which he punches Janay, and then drags her unconscious body out of a hotel elevator. Though Ray was punished by the NFL, Janay maintained their relationship, marrying him and then releasing a statement in Ray’s defense.


While the public outrage over Ray Rice makes him an object of boundary reinforcement—“violence against women is wrong”—Janay Rice is the object of a boundary war.  (more…)

Not a REAL Gamer: Identity and conspicuous consumption

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If anything halfway decent can be said to have come out of the embarrassing horror that is GamerGate, it’s that it’s generated some useful – in many cases necessary – discussions. Regarding culture and misogyny and the ways in which spaces are carefully and intentionally made hostile for certain groups of people identified as undesirable, but also in terms of consumer capitalism and the ways in which the game industry essentially created the contemporary definition of “gamer” as an identity to market to after the game industry crash of the mid-1980s (Brendan Keogh has a great summary of exactly how and why this happened).


Writer-Creator vs. Gamer Consumer-King: an addendum


Earlier this week I wrote about what’s become known as GamerGate (can we please call a moratorium on affixing ‘gate’ to things? Just a personal request) wherein I compared the science fiction and fantasy community – in which I’m a writer – to the gamer community – in which I’m a consumer. I drew parallels between the two, mostly concerning the creation of an identity that begins in defiance of perceived “mainstream” culture and then becomes an identity perfectly situation to be marketed and sold to.


“Good” vs “Bad” Technology: An Unproductive Debate


Latest in the arsenal of moral-panic studies of digital technologies is a recent article published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, written by psychologists and education scholars from UCLA.  The piece, entitled: “Five Days at Education Camp without Screens Improves Preteen Skills with Nonverbal Emotion Cues,” announces the study’s ultimate thesis: engagement with digital technologies diminishes face-to-face social skills. Unsurprisingly, the article and its’ findings have been making the rounds on mainstream media outlets over the past week. Here is the abstract: (more…)

“The Consumption Palace”: Gamers, misogyny, and capitalism


I had a lot of thoughts, watching the ugliness that’s been going down regarding what people perhaps misleadingly refer to as the “game community”, but my primary one was probably just “well, this sure is familiar.”

That might be easy to miss in some of how it’s been talked about: we’ve seen this before, and it’s not uncommon. This kind of cultural toxicity is a sort of ever-present background radiation that sometimes spikes into greater visibility, but something I’ve seen a number of trans and queer folks and people of color saying is Slurs and smears and threats to your personal safety? Yeah, welcome to most of our lives. This isn’t at all to minimize the horror of what Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn have been going through but to point out that for some categories of identity this kind of thing is often normalized into invisibility.


On Twitter’s Gender Metric

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Twitter recently made analytics available for free to all users. One of the free metrics is the gender distribution of your followers. This metric is flawed in a lot of ways (most obviously because it’s binary: there are only men and women). Most puzzling, however, is how Twitter determines a an account-holder’s gender. Users don’t have to self-identify–in fact, there’s not even an option to do this.

As both this post about the gender metric and this post from Twitter about its gender-targeted marketing show, Twitter treats gender as an emergent pattern of behavior. As the latter explains, users are thought to send “signals”–such as “user profile names or the accounts she or he follows”–that “have proven effective in inferring gender.”

Classically, one’s body (physiology, phenotype) was the ‘signal’ from which one inferred gendered (or raced) behavior: vagina = nurturing, scrotum = likes video games. In this model, gender is a fixed characteristic inherent in sexed bodies. The kind of body you had determined the patterns of behavior you exhibited.

Twitter’s approach to gender is an example of a broader shift in our understanding of gender (and social identities more generally): genders are not fixed characteristics, but emergent properties. This understanding of gender is different than the traditional one, but it’s not clear that it’s any better. For example, we only recognize something as a pattern if it resonates with other patterns we’ve been habituated to recognize as such (what Reich describes here as “rational” moments). Twitter isn’t crunching numbers to figure out what different kinds of gender patterns people follow; rather, they’re listening for users who fall in phase with already-set “masculine” and “feminine” vibes. (As they say, “where we can’t predict gender reliably, we don’t.”) To count and be treated as a full person/user, you have to exhibit legibly gendered patterns of behavior. Otherwise, you’re effectively non-existent, just irrational noise.
To close with an aside: Has anyone written about the relationship between these gender-predicting algorithms and the parlour game on which Turing based his test? The game was about determining whether or not one’s interlocutor was a woman.

Cameras on cops isn’t the same as cops on camera


The murder of Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson has catalyzed an already fast-growing national conversation about outfitting police officers with cameras like the one shown above. These cameras, the logic goes, will keep officers on their best behavior because any abuses of power would be recorded and stored for later review. Officer’s behavior, much like an increasing amount of civilian behavior, will be subject to digital analysis and review by careful administrators and impartial juries. This kind of transparency is extremely enticing but we should always be critical of things that purport to show us unvarnished truths. As any any film director will tell you: the same set of events recorded on camera can look very different when viewed from different angles and in different contexts. (more…)