Image Credit: “Spinoza in a T-Shirt” – The New Inquiry
Image Credit: “Spinoza in a T-Shirt” – The New Inquiry

While listening to a techie podcast the other day, one of the hosts, who happens to be the designer of a popular podcast app, got into a discussion about his design approach. New features in a forthcoming version necessitated new customization settings, but introducing them was complicated by a paradox he affectionately dubs the “power user problem.” He describes the problem (at 26 minutes in) as this:

If you give people settings, they will use them. And then they will forget that they used them. And then the app will behave differently from the default because they changed settings and they forgot that they changed them. And then they will write in or complain on Twitter or complain in public that my app is not working properly because of a setting they changed.

For this reason, the designer defends his inclination to keep user customization to the minimum necessary.

Through iteration, user feedback, and intuition, the designer had arrived at what seemed to him a reasonable compromise between customization and simplicity. Yet, in accomplishing this goal, the design inadvertently leaves some users, even so called power users, out of the loop. (And, in fairness to the designer, he is hardly the first to make this point.) more...

American Beauty computer prison

Otherwise productive conversations on online harassment hit a brick wall when it comes to enforcement. Community enforcement does not always work because community standards are often the reason harassers feel comfortable harassing in the first place. Appeals to external or somehow impartial moderators or enforcers might work really well, but then what do we do with the offender; especially the really bad ones that might follow through on their threats and need to be isolated or restrained in some way? This is a perennial problem of societal organization and we are just now starting to come to terms with how this old problem manifests through digital technologies. Exacerbating this issue is the state of our current law enforcement and judicial process and the renewed attention to its very basic flaws thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and allied progressive and radical communities. It is difficult if not impossible for anyone that considers themselves left of progressive to unthinkingly prescribe police enforcement and jail time for someone that breaks the law, no matter how much we agree with that law. How then, do we deal with today’s news that a Kentucky county clerk is now in federal prison for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples? more...

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The American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting last week featured a plenary panel with an unusual speaker: comedian Aziz Ansari. Ansari just released a book that he co-wrote with sociologist Eric Klinenberg titled “Modern Romance.” The panel, by the same name, featured a psychologist working within the academy, a biological anthropologist working for, Christian Rudder from OkCupid, and of course, Ansari and Klinenberg. This was truly an inter/nondisciplinary panel striving for public engagement. I was excited and intrigued. The panel is archived here.

This panel seemingly had all of the elements that make for great public scholarhship. Yet somehow, it felt empty, cheap, and at times offensive. Or as I appreciatively retweeted:

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My discomfort and disappointment with this panel got me thinking about how public scholarship should look. As a person who co-edits an academic(ish) blog, this concern is dear to me. It is also a key issue of contemporary intellectualism. It is increasingly easy to disseminate and find information. Publishing is no longer bound by slow and paywalled peer-review journals. Finally, we have an opportunity to talk, listen, share, and reflect on the ideas about which we are so passionate. But how do we do this well? I suggest two guiding rules: rigor and accommodation. more...

"Lone Hacker in Warehouse" by Brian Klug
“Lone Hacker in Warehouse” by Brian Klug

The hacker label is, as Foucault might say, a “dubious unity.”  The single phrase can barely contain its constituent multitude. Even if every single person that self-identified as a hacker had a stable definition, the media would warp, expand, and misunderstand the definition to include all sorts of other identities, tactics, and personas. We cannot know what is in the hearts and minds of every person that feels an allegiance to the hacker brand but this past week’s Ashley Madison hack, where deeply private information was leaked supposedly in the name of consumer protection, forces a conversation about the politics of hacking. Are hackers fundamentally conservative if not in intention, then in deed? more...

Image Source
Image Source

Bioethics—the code by which scientists are bound in the conduct of their research for the human good—have been a major field of contention among experts for most of a century. The latest topic to divide this community is also the oldest: Are bioethics ultimately doing more harm than good?

That was the question posed by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker in an editorial published in the Boston Globe earlier this month. Pinker couches his piece in a discussion of CRISPR-Cas9, a recent and much-hyped advance in genomic mapping and editing. Experts have suggested that this technology could allow doctors to “fix” DNA sequences for any physical ailment. For biotechnologies like CRISPR, it seems as though the sky’s the limit.

“Indeed, biotechnology has moral implications that are nothing short of stupendous,” he begins. “But they are not the ones that worry the worriers.”

Fair enough. No one has ever argued against a technology because of the “stupendous” implications it offers the world. The speed of development worries them, sure, as does the lack of concurrent political and cultural progress. Unintended consequences are always terrifying. But not the moral improvements themselves.

But Pinker continues:

Biomedical research… promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous—and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.”

A lot to unpack there. more...

TargetHeadlineDisclaimer: Nothing I say in this post is new or theoretically novel. The story to which I’ll refer already peaked over the weekend, and what I have to say about it–that trolling is sometimes productive– is a point well made by many others (like on this blog last month by Nathan Jurgenson). But seriously, can we all please just take a moment and bask in appreciation of trolling at its best?

For those who missed it, Target recently announced that they would do away with gender designations for kids toys and bedding. The retailer’s move toward gender neutrality, unsurprisingly, drew ire from bigoted jerks who apparently fear that mixing dolls with trucks will hasten the unraveling of American society (if David Banks can give himself one more calls it as I sees it moment, I can too).

Sensing “comedy gold” Mike Melgaard went to Target’s Facebook page. He quickly created a fake Facebook account under the name “Ask ForHelp” with a red bullseye as the profile picture. Using this account to pose as the voice of Target’s customer service, he then proceeded to respond with sarcastic mockery to customer complaints. And hit gold, Mike did!! For 16 hilarious hours transphobic commenters provided a rich well of comedic fodder. Ultimately, Facebook stopped the fun by removing Melgaard’s Ask ForHelp account. Although Target never officially endorsed Melgaard, they made their support clear in this Facebook post on Thursday evening:  more...



I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me…It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision…It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful… ~Ralph Ellison (1932), Invisible Man

In what follows, I argue that the Black Lives Matter movement is a hacker group, glitching the social program in ways that disrupt white supremacy with glimpses of race consciousness. It is a group that combats black Americans’ invisibility; that “bumps back” until finally, they are recognized.  As Ellison continues:   more...

Content Note: This post deals with the trigger warnings, the belittling of people who ask for them, and embarrassment in the classroom.

Image Credit: Alan Levine
Image Credit: Alan Levine

I have been lucky enough to get professional advice from some truly wonderful people and many of them have told me that the key to a productive and fulfilling academic exchange of ideas is to give others the benefit of the doubt and be generous in your reading of their work. Assume that everyone wants to make the world a better place through the sharing of their ideas and if you disagree with them it is because you more or less disagree on what that better place looks like. I am going to continue working on that but today I am going to gift myself one last moment where I truly believe there are people that are out there who want to make life harder for millions of people.

If you shared that last Atlantic article about trigger warnings in college classrooms, and you have nothing to do with higher education, I think you are a hateful person. more...

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my car

The New York Times has a bad habit of uncritically replicating mainstream opinions about technology and society, for instance this piece from Sunday that states,

Much of the research on selfies reveals that (surprise!) people who take a lot of them tend to have narcissistic, psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits — which may explain why they are oblivious when they bonk you on the head with their selfie sticks. This is not to say that everyone who takes a selfie is a psychopath, but it does imply a high need for self-gratification, particularly if they are posted online for social approval.

For at least the past year, this narrative that selfies equals narcissism has been deeply challenged in popular and academic work. Perhaps the “research” should have included this really terrific special issue of the International Journal of Communication on selfies, edited by Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym (scroll to special sections and click the + more articles). Especially the paper by Anne Burns, who continues to be the strongest critic of the selfies-as-pathological narrative (read her paper and also see her present part of this work at Theorizing the Web 2014 here). Indeed, the concerns over pathologization, especially by dismissing the selfie as narcissistic, is a powerful thread through the entire issue. Hopefully this critique will soon be less necessary, but as the New York Times makes evident each weekend, it’s still a much needed intervention. By my count, more than 2/3rd of the papers in the issue explicitly mention and are rightly critical of the narcissism frame.

If you read Cyborgology you might have already seen and read this issue, but in case you haven’t, I just just want to briefly use this space to highlight terrific work being done on the topic of selfies (I especially loved the stand-out papers by Jenna Brager and Elizabeth Losh). It’s quite good, and open access, so download away. more...

Would if this were true?
Would if this were true?

The Facebook newsfeed is the subject of a lot of criticism, and rightly so. Not only does it impose an echo chamber on your digitally-mediated existence, the company constantly tries to convince users that it is user behavior –not their secret algorithm—that creates our personalized spin zones. But then there are moments when, for one reason or another, someone comes across your newsfeed that says something super racist or misogynistic and you have to decide to respond or not. If you do, and maybe get into a little back-and-forth, Facebook does a weird thing: that person starts showing up in your newsfeed a lot more.

This happened to me recently and it has me thinking about the role of the Facebook newsfeed in inter-personal instantiations of systematic oppression. Facebook’s newsfeed, specially formulated to increase engagement by presenting the user with content that they have engaged with in the past, is at once encouraging of white allyship against oppression and inflicting a kind of violence on women and people of color. The same algorithmic action can produce both consequences depending on the user. more...