Category Archives: commentary

Digital Divide in Action: Lessons from a Canceled Flight


“You are talking to me like I don’t understand what you are saying. I understand what you are saying, I don’t accept what you are saying,” shouted the bespectacled woman who would soon have tears running down her indignant face. “I’m not from this country. I don’t have a phone. I have kids with me. What am I supposed to do!?” The customer service representative at the airline desk spoke slowly and explained again, as if to a spoiled child, that all of the hotels were full and customers were now responsible for finding and booking their own, but not to worry, customers would be reimbursed after going online and submitting the necessary information with a paid receipt. The woman stared blankly at him, and stepped aside to wait for a supervisor. Now she would cry.

***** (more…)

Big Data & the ‘Physics’ of Social Harmony


I want to think about the relationship two recent-ish articles draw between big data and social “harmony.” Why is big data something that we think is well-suited to facilitate a harmonious society? Or, when we think about applying big data to the control and regulation of society (which is something distinct from, but which can overlap with, the legal control and regulation of the state and its citizens), why is “harmony” the ideal we think it will achieve? Why is a data-driven society a “harmonious” society, and not, say a just society or a peaceful society or a healthy society? Why “harmony” and not some other ideal?

Last month in Foreign Policy, Shane Harris wrote about Singapore’s Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) project. This project is already in place, sniffing out possible terrorist or public health threats. But, in response to recent election results in which the ruling party received less than near-unanimous support (which is interpreted as a sign of social discord), the government has extended the reach of this program

to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to “gauge the nation’s mood” about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest. In other words, Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society. [emphasis mine]

This isn’t just about predicting unruly and disruptive behavior, like bombing a public event. It’s about tuning the general mood to minimize social discord. The aim is to temper everyone’s temper, to monitor and influence not just what people do, but how they feel. And “harmony” is the metaphor Harris and others use to describe the status of a society’s affective temperament, its “national mood.” (Why is harmony the preferred metaphor for affect? Well, I’ve got a paper about that here.)

Harris emphasizes that Singaporeans generally think that finely-tuned social harmony is the one thing that keeps the tiny city-state from tumbling into chaos. [1] In a context where resources are extremely scarce–there’s very little land, and little to no domestic water, food, or energy sources, harmony is crucial. It’s what makes society sufficiently productive so that it can generate enough commercial and tax revenue to buy and import the things it can’t cultivate domestically (and by domestically, I really mean domestically, as in, by ‘housework’ or the un/low-waged labor traditionally done by women and slaves/servants.) Harmony is what makes commercial processes efficient enough to make up for what’s lost when you don’t have a ‘domestic’ supply chain.


This situation of scarcity–indeed, austerity after the loss of mothers’s work, mother nature’s work in providing food, water, and energy–is exactly what’s depicted in the much-thinkpieced film Snowpiercer. There, the whole human species is stuck on a train that circles the frozen, sterile earth. Everything–food, water, energy–must come from the train itself, because the earth can no longer be exploited for resources (so instead, the train exploits people more explicitly than when we’ve got nature and people to exploit). In order for this setup to work, everything, especially and including the population of humans, must be curated in a careful balance. This isn’t just population management, but the carefully curated balance among different parts of the population. As the film repeatedly emphasizes, the train will work only if everyone stays in their assigned place and does only what that station requires. In other words, social harmony exists when all the parts of the community are in proper proportion.

This idea of social harmony as proportion among parts is straight outta Plato’s Republic: remember the myth of the metals, the division of society into gold, silver, and bronze? The ideal city, for Plato, was one that embodied the proper proportion among its parts. Not coincidentally, ancient Greeks thought musical harmony was also the expression of proportional relationships among the parts of a musical instrument. So, in Plato as in Snowpiercer, social harmony was a matter of proportionality. But Snowpiercer implies that this idea(l) of harmonic proportionality is something much more contemporary than Plato. With Tilda Swindon’s obvious Margaret Thatcher cariacture as this ideology’s main mouthpiece, the film implies that proportional social harmony is the idea(l) that informs Thatcher-style neoliberalism.

As I have argued before, this neoliberal upgrade on Plato is also, as Jacques Ranciere argues, the ideal that informs data science. He argues:

The science of opionion…this process of specularization where an opinion sees itself in the mirror held up by science to reveal to it its identity with itself…It is the paradoxical realization of [Platonic metaphysics and archipolitics]: that community governed by science that puts everyone in their place, with the right opinion to match. The science of simulations of opinion is the perfect realization of the empty virtue Plato called sophrosune: the fact of each person’s being in their place, going about their own business there, and having the opinion identical to the fact of being in that place and doing only what there is to do there” (Disagreement 105-6).

Data science (what Ranciere calls the “science of opinion,” i.e., the science of opinion polls, which we can also call the science of the “national mood”) is the tool that allows us to listen for, measure, and maintain a particularly neoliberal kind of social harmony. Not harmony as proportion, but harmony as dynamic patterning. Dynamic patterning is how contemporary physics understands sound to work: sound is the dynamic patterning of pressure waves. Dynamic patterning is also what data science listens for–the patterns that emerge as signal out of all the noise.

So, what I want to suggest is that what Alex Pentland calls “social physics” or, “the reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow…and people’s behavior” (2), is modeled–implicitly–on the physics of sound. Instead of a geometric mathematics of proportion, social physics is a statistical mathematics of emergence or “dynamic patterning,” to use Julian Henrique’s definition of “sounding.” For example, Pentland says “there are patterns in these individual transactions that drive phenomena such as financial crashes and Arab springs” (10); the role of social physics is to find these patterns, “analyzing patterns within these digital bread crumbs” (5) to find the signal amid a bunch of data-noise. “Social Physics” updates the idea of the “harmony of the spheres” for the 21st century: this harmony is just statistical not geometric, grounded in contemporary acoustics instead of ancient philosophy.

I’m still working my way through Pentland’s book, but for now I want to turn to Nicholas Carr’s review of it. Carr’s review consistently relies on sonic metaphors to describe the “social physics” Pentland theorizes. For example, in the introductory paragraph, Carr notes that Marshall McLuhan “predicted that the machines eventually would be deployed to fine-tune society’s workings” (emphasis mine). Or later, summarizing Pentland’s argument, Carr writes:

If people react predictably to social influences, then governments and businesses can use computers to develop and deliver carefully tailored incentives, such as messages of praise or small cash payments, to “tune” the flows of influence in a group and thereby modify the habits of its members.

What’s getting tuned? As above in Singapore, people’s moods and affects are what social physics listens for and tunes. As Carr notes, Pentland’s studies “measure not only the chains of communication and influence within an organization but also “personal energy levels” and traits such as “extraversion and empathy.””

As Carr reports it, tuning these affects and moods–people’s ‘opinions’ rather than just their actions–is what leads to a harmonious society: “group-based incentive programs can make communities more harmonious and creative. “Our main insight,” [Pentland] reports, “is that by targeting [an] individual’s peers, peer pressure can amplify the desired effect of a reward on the target individual.””


Positive or negative reinforcement of behavior through peer pressure…hmmm…this sounds a whole lot like what JS Mill advocates in Chapter 4 of On Liberty. This chapter is about the “limits of the authority of society over the individual.” Here, Mill argues in language that should clearly resonate with the above discussion of Plato & Snowpiercer:

Each [individual and society] will receive its proper share, if each has that which particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part that chiefly interests society (69).

So what interests the individual, and what interests society? Well, the individual is interested in things that affect him and nobody else (that’s what the first three chapters argue); society is interested in optimizing its health. According to Mill, laws protect individual liberty; they limit individuals and the government from interfering in things in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested. However, as Mill notes, “The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going to the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law” (69).  Opinion is how society manages behaviors it cannot and ought not prohibit or require, but nevertheless needs to encourage or discourage: “In these modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others for faults which directly concern only himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they are the natural and, as it were, spontaneous consequence of the faults themselves, not because they are personally inflicted on him for the sake of punishment (72). Arguing that the negative consequences of being out of synch with dominant mood or opinion are the direct effect of discordant behavior, Mill rationalizes his way out of the liberal principle of non-interference by blaming the victim. Society can regulate individuals in this way because they were asking for it, more or less. He concludes, “Any inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavorable judgment of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interests of others in their relations with him” (72).

Mill has recognized that the liberal principle (the law can interfere with individual liberty only in matters that have an affect on society), if followed strictly, would lead to social upheaval. So, in order to maintain the status quo–e.g., white bourgeois standards of behavior, taste, comportment, gendered behavior, etc.–the law (“reprobation which is due to him for an offense against the rights of others” (73) needs to be supplemented by opinion, by the “loss of consideration a person may rightly incur by defect of prudence or personal dignity” (73).

But how does Mill relate to social physics and the science of opinion? Well, it seems like data science, in tracking and tuning people’s moods and affects, it’s doing the work of opinion-regulation that Mill thinks is necessary for ‘social harmony.’ Indeed, as Carr points out, social physics “will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.”

In both Harris’s article and Pentland’s book, concepts of individual liberty are seen as things that impede this harmony, or rather, they impede our ability to listen and adjust for this harmony. According to Harris, “many current and former U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they’d build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren’t standing in the way” (emphasis mine). Similarly, Pentland argues that, given what a more Marxist theorist would call the current relations of production, i.e., the current state of material-technical existence, “we can no longer think of ourselves as individuals reaching carefully considered decisions; we must include the dynamic social effects that influence individual decisions” (3). So “harmony” is a way of describing the overall behavior of a population, the concord or discord of individuals as they intertwine with and rub up against one another, as their behaviors fall in and out of synch.

Mill has already made–in 1859 no less–the argument that rationalizes the sacrifice of individual liberty for social harmony: as long as such harmony is enforced as a matter of opinion rather than a matter of law, then nobody’s violating anybody’s individual rights or liberties. This is, however, a crap argument, one designed to limit the possibly revolutionary effects of actually granting individual liberty as more than a merely formal, procedural thing (emancipating people really, not just politically, to use Marx’s distinction). For example, a careful, critical reading of On Liberty shows that Mill’s argument only works if large groups of people–mainly Asians–don’t get individual liberty in the first place. [2] So, critiquing Mill’s argument may help us show why updated data-science versions of it are crap, too. (And, I don’t think the solution is to shore up individual liberty–cause remember, individual liberty is exclusionary to begin with–but to think of something that’s both better than the old ideas, and more suited to new material/technical realities.)


Big data, social physics, Snowpiercer, Plato, JS Mill–on the one hand this post is all over the place. But what I’ve tried to do is unpack the ideals that inform and often justify/rationalize data science forays into social management, to show just what kind of society data science thinks it can make for us, and why that society might be less than ideal.

[1] Harris writes, “Singapore’s 3.8 million citizens and permanent residents — a mix of ethnic Chinese, Indians, and Malays who live crammed into 716 square kilometers along with another 1.5 million nonresident immigrants and foreign workers — are perpetually on a knife’s edge between harmony and chaos.”

[2] “It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the full maturity of their faculties…We may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage…Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians” (14).

The Privilege of Disconnection

image by Elvert Barnes

image by Elvert Barnes

I sort of wish this thing could be longer. But I also think maybe it shouldn’t be. I’ve spent a great deal of the last two weeks watching the world scroll by on my Twitter feed and weighing the relative merits of saying things against not saying things, but mostly I’ve just been watching, because what else can you really do? A lot of us can and do do a great deal more, but a lot of us just seem to be watching. And retweeting. The amplification of voices is, I believe, a worthwhile thing in itself.


I Fought the Laws of Economic Rationality, & I Won

This is a cross-post from Its Her Factory.



The neoliberal subject is supposed to make economically rational calculations about how she spends her time, her money, and her energy. Do I spend my time working, or would it I get a better return doing something else, like sleeping or going out? Partying hard and going gaga might be a good investment if it helps you work smarter and more efficiently, if it builds your brand, if you need a release, and so on. But the effect of this is that every decision–even the decision to have fun, or the decisions you make about what is fun, while having fun–is now work. It’s not that you’re choosing to do have fun instead of do work, but that having fun its own type of work. If you’re lucky, you get the return on that investment. If you’re less lucky, that return goes to someone else (e.g., I’ve talked about the way clubbing has become a type of outsourced labor here at Cyborgology).

In this context, Katy Perry’s new single “This Is How We Do” sounds like a defense of the wanton disregard for economic rationality. In the bridge (and sounding like she’s doing her best to channel P!nk), Perry praises a bunch of economically irrational activities in the form of shout-outs to

The ladies at breakfast…in last night’s dress

All you kids who still have their cars at the club valet…and its Tuesday

All you kids buying bottle service with your rent money

All you people going to bed with a 10, and waking up with a 2

The last two–spending money on overpriced booze rather than housing, and sleeping with someone who is quantitatively inattractive–really resonate with the idea of economic calculation. All of these decisions are economically irrational because they give you diminishing returns. Imagine the disappointment (and, perhaps, shame or self-disgust) of waking up next to that person you realize you’re not attracted to at all.

There’s also a musical representation of miscalculation at the end of the song. The last iteration of the chorus sounds like it’s going to conclude with a fade-out. But at about 2:56 in the YouTube video posted to Perry’s official account, Perry says “Wait, what? Bring the beat back,” and we get about half a minute more of instrumental coda. In bringing the beat back, the song goes past the point of diminishing returns–it’s really likely, IMO, that this last 30 seconds will get cut in radio airplay. Even in the video this section feels like filler–Perry walks to the background and lies down in the dark as animated ice cream cones twerk in the foreground. So, both the lyrics and the composition give examples of economic irrationality, that is, of pushing something fun past its point of diminishing returns.

Instead of arguing for the benefits of such irrationality, for its positive contributions to individual or social life, the song argues for its normalcy, for its lack of perceptible effect. It doesn’t treat over-the-top partying like something that’s ecstatic or extraordinarily pleasurable, but something that’s mundane. In effect, “This Is” defends economic irrationality as non-disruptive, either to society or to “our” ability to function in it.

You can hear this defense strategy in the song’s music. Especially with the slowed-down sample of the song’s title, “This Is How We Do” sounds like Perry’s answer to Miley’s sizurpy “We Can’t Stop.” Perry’s song has a similarly muted soar, and what I’ve argued here is its concomitant first-person-plural perspective. But what’s really interesting is what Perry sings over that muted soar: she repeats the phrase “it’s no big deal” four times. The song phones in its soars because they’re no big deal. While such irrationality might feel overwhelming to people who don’t “do” like us, from “our” perspective we’re so habituated to it this irrationality barely even rises to the level of perception. What some think is irrational excess is, for us, just another day.

The song’s structure reflects the regularization of otherwise irregular excess. The two NBD soars aren’t even the song’s main climax–they’re just the chorus…a regular, repeated part of the song. The biggest musical moment is at the end of the bridge, when Perry finally puts some support behind her voice and wails “RENT MO-NAY”; this is followed by some sounds of a cheering, whistling crowd (and, um, a really puzzling picture of Aretha Franklin singing at the first Obama inaugural. I get the R-E-S-P-E-C-T analogy, but, um, otherwise the video’s use of this image just seems gratuitous and racist). There’s like a hyper-abbreviated soar in the last few beats of the bridge to lead us back to the final iteration of the chorus, a sort of pale echo of the earlier soars.

Such economic irrationality is “no big deal” only when it’s performed by specific kinds of bodies in very particular circumstances. Just think for a minute about the absolutely huge deal made about “welfare queens”–implicitly black women who make supposedly economically irrational decisions like buying alcohol, beauty services, or even junk food. According to this anti-welfare perspective, such purchases are bad returns on taxpayer investment because they are wasteful–they bring enjoyment and relief to black women, rather than the (generally white) ‘taxpayer.’  This Jezebel post shows plenty of examples of these anti-welfare memes, and does a decent take-down of them.

The ability to fuck up and not be punished is like the definition of privilege (e.g., men getting away with rape, whites getting away with murder, “I Fought the Law and I Won,” etc etc). So perhaps what “This Is How We Do” is really about is affirming the privilege of those whose economically irrational behavior passes as “no big deal”?

Oh, and p.s.: don’t even get me started on the racist appropriation in the video.

“Break. Them.”: The weaponization of emotion


just because

Yesterday David Banks did a fantastic job outlining the technical issues at work in the matter of the ongoing comment harassment in Jezebel’s comments sections and Gawker Media’s inability/refusal to deal with it directly (though to their credit, as of yesterday they disabled image posting until a better solution can be found). I want to use that as a jumping-off point to talk about the discursive aspect of this, how gendered spaces are explicitly being made unsafe for certain kinds of people, and about how those tactics at once obscure what’s going on and justify it.


Jezebel’s Harassment Problem Needs More than Comment Moderation


image source

The editors of Jezebel did a really brave thing yesterday and called out their parent company, Gawker Media for not dealing with a very serious and persistent abuse and harassment problem. For months now, waves of violent pornography gifs have been posted to Jezebel stories using anonymous accounts untied to IP addresses or any other identifiable information. That means it’s effectively impossible to stop abusive people from posting to the site. Instead, Jezebel writers and editors have to delete the posts themselves, hopefully before too many of their readers see them. People higher up on the Gawker masthead have known about this issue and have, through inaction, forced their co-workers to look at this horrific and potentially triggering content instead of dealing with the problem. This is precisely how spaces and tools meant for everyone, turn into alienating environments that foster homogenous audiences and viewpoints. Gawker needs to help their editors defend against harassment –and fast– but they should also be thinking more comprehensively about the culture of comments. (more…)

Listening To The Visual Microphone

YouTube Preview Image


Sound happens when things vibrate, displacing air and creating pressure waves that fall within the spectrum of waves the human ear can detect.

Researchers at MIT, working with Microsoft & Adobe, have developed an algorithm that reads video recordings of vibrating objects more or less like a microphone reads the vibrations of a diaphragm. I like to think it turns the world into a record: instead of vibrations etched in vinyl, the algorithm reads vibrations etched in pixels of light–it’s a video phonograph, something that lets us hear the sounds written in the recorded motion of objects. As researcher Abe Davis explains,

We’re recovering sounds from objects. That gives us a lot of information about the sound that’s going on around the object, but it also gives us a lot of information about the object itself, because different objects are going to respond to sound in different ways.

So, this process gives us info about both the ambient audio environment, and the materiality of the videorecorded objects–that’s a lot of information, info that could obviously be used for all sorts of surveillance. And that will likely be people’s primary concern with this practice.

But I think this is about a lot more than surveillance. This research reflects some general trends that cross both theory, pop culture, and media/tech:


Anti-Harassment statements – you don’t know until you know


It seems like the science fiction and fantasy community is at a point where every month or so we have some kind of dust-up regarding harassment at conferences and conventions. Some of these have actually stretched over many months, and watching them both from the inside and the outside is always an interesting experience, in part because I’m intimately and personally interested in the outcome, but also because it’s like a giant master class in what not to do, as a conference, when dealing with harassment.


Don’t Opt Out, Take Back


Imagine you live at the end of a cul-de-sac in a subdevelopment that is only accessible by a single gate that leads out to a large, high-speed arterial road.  Your friends, your job, your kids’ school are all outside of this development which means life is lived through and on the road that connects your subdevelopment to the rest of the world. Now imagine that, without warning or any kind of democratic process, the company that maintains that road (private companies are subcontracted to do regular maintenance on public roads all the time) decides to add trees on either side of the road to reduce car speed. It’s a relatively benign design intervention and it works. In fact the trees work so well that the company’s engineers publish in a few journals which directly benefits the company financially, through prominence within the truly boring world of road maintenance. When the residents get wind of this experiment, and demand to know why they weren’t even notified, the owner of the road maintenance company says, “if you don’t like it use a different road.” That mind-bending response actually makes more sense than what has been coming out of OKCupid and Facebook these last few weeks. (more…)

Online Dating and the Bureaucratization of Love

Online Dating2

Romantic love occupies a significant amount of space in both popular culture and, often, the human psyche. It is the muse of artists, musicians, and poets; the downfall of great characters; the impetus for sheer giddy joy, deep comfort, and the sharpest most debilitating pain. Truly, what else matters when you’re in the arms of a lover? What else is of import after a lover breaks your heart? Of course, romantic love, as  conceived in the contemporary West, has an end game: marriage and/or life partnership along with the formation of a family.

This has not always been the case, and is not the case everywhere. The notion of romantic love began with knights and ladies of nobility and had nothing to do with marriage, or even sex, while arranged marriages and dowry agreements have little to do with romantic love.  That is, the coupling of love with marriage is not compulsory, but culturally constructed as such. And it strikes me, when I think about it, as a bit of an odd couple. (more…)