Category Archives: commentary

We Are More Than Our Brains

an outline of a human head and a brain inside of it made from neon lights.

image source.

NPR launched a new show this month called Invisibilia that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” The show’s hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller are great personalities and the show is beautifully edited in a way that doesn’t reach the Reggie Watts-esque soundscape of Radiolab nor does it stick closely to the dry public radio persona that has been lampooned countless times. I was, however, really disappointed when I learned that the huge topics under investigation in this show would only be understood through “psychological and brain science.” There are a lot of different disciplines that can be brought to bear on huge topics like “ideas” so why are we getting another show that confuses humans for brains? (more…)

Announcing Bad News–now on Facebook

A recent New York Times opinion piece by Hannah Seligson has declared “the unhappy marriage” to be “Facebook’s last taboo.”  As a scholar of Facebook, I found the singling out of marriage rather odd. For years now, critics have been decrying the general lack of unhappy anything on Facebook, arguing that the level of self-monitoring typical on the site strips it of authenticity and relational value. While it’s true that most people try to limit the amount of negativity they display on Facebook (as in any semi-public social space), and the interface itself privileges good news, Facebook users are leveraging the medium specifically for the delivery of “bad” (or uncertain) news.

That Facebook is a semi-public space with most, if not all, social norms for public spaces carrying over from face-to-face interaction is now a commonly accepted definition of the platform.  In fact, Seligson touches on this a number of times, comparing Facebook, for instance, to cocktail parties for which the married couple hosting must put aside private squabbles and present a united front.  That the space is now theoretically visible to hundreds or even thousands of Facebook “friends” certainly reflects a change of scale. (more…)

Cultural Studies of New Media Syllabus

cultural studies

For those of us in the Academy, mid-January is bittersweet. As Winter Break turns into Spring Semester, we  shrug off the Gross that comes along with 12 hour Netflix marathons, rush to meet conference/journal deadlines, and prepare for a new set of students. For me, this means finally starting my Cultural Studies of New Media course–what I not so humbly announced as the Best. Class. Ever!!

Some regular readers may remember that upon this announcement, I asked for content suggestions. Those suggestions were wonderful and I spent many hours sorting through the comments on that post, as well as threads that proliferated on Twitter. Seriously, you guys are the best. Below I’ve copied a link to the final version of the syllabus. (more…)

#OpCharlieHebdo is a Terrible Idea


On January 9th, people donning the symbols of Anonymous promised a “massive reaction” to the shooting deaths of over a dozen people in Paris. Posted to YouTube and Pastebin under the hashtag #OpCharlieHebdo, Anonymous proclaimed, “It’s obvious that some people don’t want, in a free world, this sacrosanct right to express in any way one’s opinions. Anonymous has always fought for the freedom of speech, and will never let this right besmirched [sic] by obscurantism and mysticism.” Obviously what happened in Paris was a despicable act and I have little sympathy for the perpetrators but their actions weren’t random. What happened in Paris is the beginning of a fight between fanatics who hold polar opposite views on free speech and the battle lines being drawn are dangerously close to the ones that outline the War on Terror.  (more…)

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.