Category Archives: commentary

Indecent Exposure: Breasts as Data, Data as Breasts

Earlier this week, I became aware of an art piece called “x.pose,” which is intended to make a statement about the data exhaust we generate and what large companies may or may not be doing with it. x.pose is a collaboration between two artists, and the first paragraph in a description of it on one of their websites reads as follows:

x.pose is a wearable data-driven sculpture that exposes a person’s skin as a real-time reflection of the data that the wearer is producing. In the physical realm we can deliberately control which portions our bodies are exposed to the world by covering it with clothing. In the digital realm, we have much less control of what personal aspects we share with the services that connect us. In the digital realm we are naked and vulnerable.

First, yes: digital dualism. I’ll set that point aside and come back to it later. Right now, I want to focus in on that first sentence, particularly where it says “exposes a person’s skin.” A person—sure, that could be any of us.[i] The sculpture exposes “skin” belonging to a person, a wearer. Data exposure is like bodily exposure. That’s not gendered, right?

Actually, it’s quite gendered. While x.pose draws attention to some important issues, it also starts from a number of problematic assumptions and reinforces some of the most sexist and patriarchal strains of privacy critique. Just in case you had any doubt, here’s what the piece looks like:

Newsflash: We can’t all wear that.

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Wait, do people think I’m a dude? On digital microcelebrity and gender

 

…but people still address me as Mr. Robin James *sigh*

Women’s expertise is constantly undermined and trivialized. For example, holding pop music in low regard (thinking it can only ever be frivolous, ideologically overdetermined, or sold-out) is one way of trivializing a field in which women, especially black women, have made hugely significant artistic, cultural, and economic impacts.

Women academics, writers, and journalists also face constant challenges to their expertise. There’s the calling someone “Mrs.” instead of “Dr.” microaggression. There’s mistaking someone for staff, or, as is often the case with me, for a student. This latter example is, in my experience, common to face-to-face interactions: every time I can remember having to respond to the “What are you writing your dissertation on?” or “Will you get a Ph.D. after your MA?” question with “Umm, I have tenure” has been IRL.

Tressie Cottom’s new piece “Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? Academic Engagement, Microcelebrity, and Digital Sociology from the Far Left of the Matrix of Domination” breaks down the different ways white women and women of color are discredited when they engage digital publics. Or, put differently, Cottom shows some of the different ways that women’s expertise, epistemic credence, and legitimacy are challenged on digital media.

The tl;dr of Cottom’s report is: White women are sexually harassed. Women of color are treated as frauds. She writes, “whereas white women tend to report a significant number of rape threats when they write publicly, I find that the overwhelming threat issued in my comment section and inbox are threats to my academic credibility.” Rape threats tell white women they’re not allowed to be in academic spaces as experts; rape is about power, and these threats are a way of telling women they’ve overstepped their power. Fraud threats tell WOC that they’re not legitimately allowed to know things, or to affiliate themselves with “legit” academic institutions. This is different than pushing back against someone who oversteps her power; these fraud threats assume that WOC have no “power” (knowledge, affiliation) to assert in the first place.

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Animating the Ladies: Ubisoft fundamentally doesn’t get it

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Always fun when a game publisher doesn’t appear to know anything about games. Or gamers. Or publishing games. Or making games. Or stories. Or history. Or much of anything pertinent to what it’s actually supposed to be doing.

Yesterday, Ubisoft technical director James Therien commented on the lack of a playable female lead character (and before I continue let me note that I reeeeeeally don’t like how binary/trans-exclusionary this discussion has been) in the co-op play for the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity with the explanation that it’s just too much work to do all those extra lady animations and voices. The Internet, as one might imagine, did not respond well.

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(Almost) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Net Neutrality

on-every-internetI was working recently on a short essay about net neutrality and, in the process, ended up writing a much longer piece about net neutrality. My aim in writing that longer piece (below) was twofold: I wanted both to demonstrate that net neutrality isn’t too technical and complicated for normal people to understand, and also to trace out how a trio of closely related issues—net neutrality rules, regulatory classifications, and the push to convert all voice traffic to digital—fit together, as well as what their combination might mean for the so-called “open Internet.”

SPOILER: You need to pressure the FCC to adopt strong net neutrality rules, and then you need to do a bunch of other stuff. Net neutrality isn’t enough, and neither Big Telecom nor Big Digital is talking about the pieces that will have the greatest (and most unequal) impact on Internet users.

Without further ado, here’s my attempt at a guided tour through roughly 18 years of Internet-related regulatory history:

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short comment on Facebook as methodologically “more natural”

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No doubt of interest to sociologists, Facebook is throwing a sociology pre-conference on its campus ahead of the annual American Sociological Association meetings this fall. When the company is interested in recruiting sociologists and the work we do –research of the social world in all of its complexity– their focus, as shown in the event’s program, is heavily, heavily focused on quantitative demography. Critical, historical, theoretical, ethnographic research makes up a great deal of the sociological discipline, but isn’t the kind of sociology Facebook has ever seemed to be after. Facebook’s focus on quantitative sociology says much about what they take “social” to mean.

My background is in stats, I taught inferential statistics to sociology undergrads for a few years, I dig stats and respect their place in a rich sociological discourse. So, then, I also understand the dangers of statistical sociology done without a heavy dose of qualitative and theoretical work. Facebook and other social media companies have made mistake after mistake with their products that reflect a massive deficit of sociological imagination. The scope of their research should reflect and respect the fact that their products reach the near entirety of the social world. (more…)

Amazing Speculative Tales of Labor! A request for more of them

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image by Klaus Burgle

When I was in Madison (Wisconsin) during Memorial Day weekend for WisCon (a long-running feminist science fiction and fantasy conference), I was approached after a panel by a man – Mark Soderstrom – who wanted to talk to me about labor in SFF. Specifically, he wanted to mention a short story of mine that I was talking about on the panel that used the Lattimer Massacre as a backdrop, and to note that while SFF seems perfectly content to deal with robots and elves, it has a history of shying away from any sort of rich or meaningful examination of what literatures of the fantastic can teach us about labor, capital, and social change.

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The Financialized Girl: more thoughts on hyperemployment, human capital, and Lean In culture

This is from the Girl Scouts website.

 

This is cross-posted from Its Her Factory.

In an earlier post, I asked what happens to femininity when the kind of second-shift care work traditionally assigned to women is increasingly a feature of all work, especially conventionally masculinized jobs. This post picks up where that one left off. Here, I’ll use Michelle Murphy’s concept of “the financialization of girls” to help me argue that “femininity” is something that distinguishes unpaid care labor (which is feminized, or girl-ized) from the kinds of profitable self-investment in one’s human and social capital required, nowadays, for success.

Analyzing NGO promotional videos, reports, mission statements, and the like, Murphy shows that the figure of “The Girl”–the so-called “Third-World” or otherwise poor, victimized, “thoroughly heterosexualized” young woman–has become the primary focus of international development discourse and practice. This “abstract and universalized girl-child” is one huge stereotype: it’s how the global elite thinks poor girls in non-Western liberal democratic societies are. This girl is always undereducated and undervalued.

Because of her lack of formal education and her situation in a “traditional” society (a society that seems, to the global elite, more misogynist and regressively patriarchal than Western liberal democratic societies), The Girl is seen as a risk, and in her personal risk hangs the balance of the entire planet’s future. If she has an “unproductive life”–one with many children and little economic contribution–then the world’s environment and economy will only suffer. If she has a “productive life,” however, we all win. Basically, The Girl is human capital ripe for flipping–if we invest a little in her, we’ll get back huge returns. [1]

The Girl is human capital. This is absolutely fundamental to Murphy’s analysis. It’s what distinguishes this type of patriarchy from more traditional types which treat women not as capital, but as private property–not something to invest in, but something to exchange (I’m thinking about Gayle Rubin’s famous piece on “The Exchange of Women” and Luce Irigaray’s reading of Marx in “Women On the Market,” for example). When women are treated as private property, patriarchy focuses on regulating women’s reproductive capacity. This is because reproduction and the family form are about the transmission of private property (from father to “legitimate” children). But, as Murphy explains,

A focus on human capital moves the point of intervention and adjustment from fertility itself to education; from distributing contraception to “women” to producing the conditions for higher rates of return on “girls,” a change that has come to dominate World Bank and UN-affiliated programs in the last decade. Since the 1990s, the figure of the racialized, “third-world girl”—typically represented as South Asian or African, often Muslim—has become the iconic vessel of human capital.

The Girl is the effect of viewing gender through neoliberal lenses that turn everything into a financialized market. Or, in other words, financial capitalism has altered gender roles, on the one hand, and the techniques by which one assumes or is assigned a role, and The Girl is one prominent example of a financialized gender role.

In the 70s, feminist theory (most famously the Rubin and Irigaray pieces I mentioned above) explained how commodity capitalism structured patriarchal gender roles and relations: “men” were the people and institutions in the position to exchange and profit from exchanges of “women”; “women” were the people and institutions in the position of being exchanged, whose circulation generated profits for others. I talk a bit about that model of gender as exchange here and here.

But in financial capitalism, nothing gets exchanged–investment directly compounds the value of money, seemingly growing money right out of, well, money. In this model, girls are what are financialized–they’re low-value, relatively low-risk ‘stock’ that “men” invest in. In financialized capitalism, “men” are the people and institutions in the position to invest in and profit from The Girl; “women” are the people and institutions who are or have been invested by others, and who do not get the profits/surplus value from their own human capital. Having the surplus (human, social) capital to invest, for example, in service labor is the effect of being a “man”–that is, of occupying the position of structural dominance in a patriarchal system. Lacking the surplus capital to invest in oneself, let alone in others, is the effect of being a woman or a Girl–that is, of occupying the position of structural subjection in a patriarchal system.

Investing in Girls generates surplus human capital for the investor, not for the Girl whose capital is vested. Investing in Girl-capital is fundamentally different than feminized care/affective labor. Care and affective labor are often investments in others–for example, I’m investing my time and my talents in my students when I mentor them on the weekend over Facebook Messenger as they scramble to finish an application before a deadline. However, I don’t get the surplus value back from that investment–my students do. In this example, I’m investing in others, in others human capital, but in a way that doesn’t return profits to me. You might say my investment of human capital is alienated from me. That’s feminized care labor. Investing in Girls, on the other hand, generates human capital value for me–for example, doing white saviorist-y volunteer work boosts my human capital, and my own self-esteem (which is a kind of human capital). In both cases, the feminized position–that of the care worker, the Girl-as-finance-instrument–is the one in which investments reap profits for others.

When I perform the traditionally feminized work of hyperemployment, it doesn’t feminize me, it doesn’t turn me into a Girl. I am investing in myself, in my future success. I am my own capital. The Girl is feminized because she is capital for others–others invest in and profit from her. So, the financialized Girl is a necessary complement to hyperemployent and the generalization of care/affective labor: it’s how we mark gender roles now that everybody’s supposed to do the things conventionally regarded as “women’s work.”

This idea of the financialized Girl has a few more important implications that, though don’t have time to develop here, I would like to pursue in the future.

1.  Earlier this week on Facebook, Erin Tarver (@drtarver) and I were talking about the trend of using “Football 101” to market college football fandom to women. Erin brilliantly observed that these type of events include women in football fandom as inherent, eternal novices–as needing a “101” course because whatever knowledge they may have of football isn’t the “right” knowledge. Including women via remedial education both expands the market for football and maintains the normative masculinity of football fandom, football fan discourse, and so on. So, it’s a way to include women while maintaining male/masculine dominance. This moves strikes me as similar to the financialized Girl, b/c Girls are included in capitalism as sites of remediation: girls need to be educated, improved, ‘flipped,’ etc. This Football 101 example makes me think that middle-class, college-educated, Western–that is, more privileged–women are still financialized, but in more subtle ways. Isn’t this what “Lean In” culture is?

2. Along these lines, what about our dominant narratives about women in technology? ….“Girls Learn To Code” programs which treat girls as sites of investment for the future of technology (i.e., the future profits of tech venture capital)? Also, what’s the gender politics of crowdfunding sites? How does the financialized Girl fit into David’s critique of Upworthiness?

3. This is a nerdy theory point: The financialized Girl model suggests that Tiqqun’s Young Girl is, as they claim, not a gendered concept. If the YG is their metaphor for mainstream Western human capital, then structurally the YG is masculinized–the YG reaps the profits of her investments in herself. The YG is the opposite of the financialized Girl. This means that Tiqqun’s gendering of YG as feminine, then, is really just a way to use a ton of implicit misogyny to critique dominant discourses of human capital–that is, it’s a way for them to transfer the negative associations we have about women and femininity to this concept of human capital.

 

 

[1] Murphy argues: “Her rates of return are so high precisely because her value begins so low. The girl is an undervalued stock for global finance and for future global economic recover precisely because she is constituted as the “poorest of the poor.”” The Girl is the cheapest stock available, so with just a small investment it’s possible to sell quite high what you’ve bought quite low.
[2] In fact, human capital theory was largely a rejection of the Marxist idea of alienation–treating oneself as capital means that you reap the profits from your labor, not your employer.

Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj.

The Subtle Tyranny of Vacation Responders

Okay, maybe the title is a bit dramatic, but hear me out. Vacation responders, those automatic emails that tell would-be correspondents that you are away from your inbox, are contributing to unrealistic work demands. The vacation responder directly implies that if it is not activated, the response should be prompt. It sets up a false binary wherein we are either working or on vacation. Its easy to tell that the work/vacation split is dubious because these two states of being that are in increasingly short supply. Lots of people are out of work, and those who do have jobs are working longer hours than ever before. Obviously vacation responders aren’t the cause of our economic woes (that can be found here) but they do enforce the worst parts of late capitalism’s work ethics.

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Social Media, Because Neoliberalism?

 

from the daily mail, take with appropriate grains of salt

What sort of ideological context would make the emergence of social media, as we know it today, both possible and likely? What background ideals and institutions would motivate the development of what we now know as social media? In other words, what theory of society would help us understand why today looks like it does, why media technology and culture developed in the ways that they have, why, out of all the uncountable possibilities the internet offers, we have Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and Instagram, and not something else?


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Recognizing the digital uncanny

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When news stories started popping up around the mysterious YouTube account Webdriver Torso, more than one person noted that the truth behind it would almost certainly turn out to be nowhere near as interesting as all the speculation about what that truth might be. More than one person suggested that it might be better if no one find out the truth at all, because mysteries are pleasurable, no matter how much we might think we want them to be solved.

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