Category Archives: commentary

Fact Check: Your Demand for Statistical Proof is Racist


This past December, most major American news outlets ran a story about police shooting statistics and race. No matter where they were situated on the political spectrum, journalists, pundits, and researchers tried to answer the question: Are American police disproportionately targeting and killing black people? The answers were universally supported by data, statistics, claims of objectivity, and a rhetoric of uncomfortable truths. Their conclusions, however, were all over the map. (more…)

The Problem With Je Suis Charlie

image courtesy of Elya

image courtesy of Elya

The problem with Je suis Charlie is that I’m not.

Going back for a second.

The hashtag/slogan that started in the wake of the massacre at the offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo has proven to possess an undeniable power – not because it’s meant in any literal sense (obviously) but because of what it means in every way that isn’t literal. It rose out of intense horror, outrage, and the things that intense horror and outrage do – it prompted correspondingly powerful feelings of solidarity. What happened was abhorrent, obscene. Of course this is how we respond when people are killed for what they say, what they write, for the art they create. We know what kind of world that kind of violence leads to, and that’s not a world in which people who value the right of free speech want to live. Of course we’ll fight to protect that right, however we can.

But there is a problem with Je suis Charlie, and it is that I’m not.


Beats Listens Back


This post is co-authored with Justin D Burton.

File under “not at all surprising”: we are pretty sure Beats Music is sniffing users’ Gmail and feeding that info into their “Just For You” recommendations. A few weeks ago I (Robin) mentioned to Justin that I thought this was happening to me, and then he discovered that it’s likely happened to him, too.

Justin: I found a most welcome message in my inbox a few days ago. I teach popular music at Rider University, and a friend who knows 1). winter break is hyper-writing time and 2). I’m always on the lookout for writing and thinking music (you know, a friend) was recommending a recent Hot Since 82 mix I might try. I wrote back to coolly express my gratitude (“OMG! Thanks so much for this!!!”), made a mental note to download it when I was back from traveling, and went back to thinking of snarky things to say about year-end music lists. A few days later, as I scrolled through my Beats “Just For You” section, hoping to find the perfect soundtrack for my morning coffee (*not* The-Dream), there was Hot Since 82’s 2014 album, Knee Deep in Sound. I’ve only been using Beats for a couple of months, so my “Just For You” list is culled from my listening habits in recent weeks (mostly Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, and Rihanna…okay, fine, also Drake) and music I may or may not much like but play in the classroom to critique with my students (this is how The-Dream and most of my rock recommendations find their way to being “just for me”). In other words, I’m very interested in Hot Since 82, but it’s not likely Beats would know that yet. Unless, of course, Beats had peeped my email. I like that Hot Since 82 is part of my profile now–Data Claus stuffed some much-appreciated variety in my JFY stocking. But I have this feeling that maybe Beats reading my Gmail isn’t always going to work out so well…

Robin: I made the mistake of hate-watching an episode of Dave Grohl’s HBO series “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways,” and then I made the further mistake of emailing someone about how awful it was, the Rock Dads and the nationalism and the interview with President Obama, like he was a musicology Ph.D. not a J.D. I mentioned Dave Grohl by name in the email, and then within a few days, the Foo Fighters–who I have never listened to on Beats (nor have I listened to Nirvana…L7 or Ministry are about as close as I get)–were all over my “Just For You” recommendations. It felt almost like the algorithmic version of the U2 album appearing in my iTunes: here is some music that I really, really don’t want in my digital space, crowding up my music feed. (I mean, it’s probably not coincidental that Apple is behind both the U2 album and Beats.) It also felt a bit like a Rickroll: I was surprised with unwanted music where I least expected it to show up. (In retrospect, the old internet meme of Rickrolling seems like it foreshadows late 2014’s series of unwanted media objects dropped in users’ feeds or libraries.) More importantly, Beats’ recommendation algorithm seems to be weighing my emails more heavily than my actual behavior in the app itself (my favoriting, my searches, what I actually listen to)–but I’d need to know more about it before saying anything more definitive.


Neither Here Nor There

image credit

image credit

Just seven days in and 2015 has already given us two tough events to deal with: the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado Springs, Colorado and a shooting in Paris that seems to have targeted the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Out of what seems to be sheer luck, no one was killed in Colorado but 12 people are reported dead from the shooting in Paris. Both events are tragic, scary, and infuriating, but only one seems to be getting front page mainstream news attention. (more…)

On the “Loudness War” In Music & What It Tells Us About “Loud Voices” On Social Media

Recent shifts in the aesthetic value of audio loudness is a symptom of broader shifts in attitudes about social harmony and techniques for managing social “noise.” Put simply, this shift is from maximalism to responsive variability. (“Responsive variability” is the ability to express a spectrum of features or levels of intensity, whatever is called for by constantly changing conditions. You could call it something like dynamism, but, given the focus of this article on musical dynamics (loudness and softness), I thought that term would be too confusing.)  It tracks different phases in “creative destruction” or deregulation–that is, in neoliberal techniques for managing society. In the maximalist approach, generating noise is itself profitable–there has to be destruction for there to be creation, “shocks” for capitalism to transform into surplus value; the more shocks, the more opportunities to profit. However, what happens when you max out maximalism? What do you do next? That’s what responsive variability is, a way to get more surplus aesthetic, economic, and political value from maxed-out noise. (To Jeffrey Nealon’s expansion→ intensification model of capitalism, I’d add → responsive variability. He argues that expansion has been maxed out as a way to generate profits–that’s the result of, among other things, globalization. Intensification is how capitalism adapts–instead of conquering new, raw materials and markets, it invests more fully in what already exists. But once investment is maxed out, then, I think, comes responsive variability: responsiveness and adaptation are optimized.)


What Was Ello?


2014 Ello was in with the new and by 2015 it became out with the old. It’s New Years Eve and I want to look back on a thing that came and went this year, which leaves me feeling bummed. You can only be really disappointed if you start with high hopes, and lots of people for lots of reasons wanted Ello to work. It became quickly clear that the site didn’t have a strong vision. Neither its politics or its understanding of the social life it set out to mediate were inspired or clever enough to be compelling.


Facebook’s Structure of Compulsory Happiness


The end of a year is an introspective time. We reflect on the past 365 days and lay plans for the year to come. This is a time of remembering, analyzing, hoping, and figuring. Helping us through this introspective process is Facebook’s Year in Review.  This app compiles the “highlights” of each user’s year through images, events, and status updates. It then displays this compilation for the user, and gives the option to share the review with Friends.  The default caption reads: “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being part of it[i].”

Quickly, the app garnered negative attention when web designer Eric Meyer blogged about his heart wrenching experience of facing pictures of his 6 year old daughter who passed away not long ago. There was no trigger warning. There was no opt-in. There was simply an up-beat video picturing his daughter’s face when he logged into his Facebook account. He aptly attributes this experience to “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty.”

Although the cruelty was indeed inadvertent, it was none-the-less inevitable. It reflects a larger issue with the Facebook platform: its insistent structure of compulsory happiness. This insistence is reflected in a “Like” button, without any other 1-click emotive options; it is reflected in goofy emoticons through which sadness and illness are expressed with cartoon-like faces in cheerful colors; it is reflected in relationship status changes that announce themselves to one’s network. And as users, we largely comply. We share the happy moments, the funny quips, the accomplishments and #humblebrags, while hiding, ignoring, or unFriending those with the audacity to mope; to clog our newsfeeds with negativity. But we do not comply ubiquitously nor condone/censure unanimously. Sometimes we perform sadness, and sometimes we support each other in this. (more…)

“Here’s 2014!” “…Really?” – Facebook’s algorithmic storytelling


promise I’ll be just as fabulous

I did Facebook’s “year in review” thing. I did it because it kept showing up on my feed and because I saw my friends doing it, and somewhere in his secret volcano fortress Mark Zuckerberg rubbed his fingertips lightly together and hissed “Eeeeeeeeeeexcellent.”


We Don’t Have Data, We Are Data


Does anyone else feel like the terms ‘cyber-attack’ and ‘cyber-terrorism’ should always be accompanied by cold-war style red flashing lights?  Maybe I’m just watching too much mainstream news. In any case, I argue below that the ‘cyber’ prefix is not only dated and dualist, but imprecise. I suggest ‘data’ as an alternative. This relies on the assumption that we don’t have data, we are data; an attack on our data is therefore, an attack on us. (more…)

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.”