Category Archives: essay

When the Medium Outruns the Message

I love speculative fiction, especially when it includes a mystery. So imagine my excitement this past Saturday when I learned that Netflix released the new original series Between, premised on a mysterious illness that kills everyone over 21 years old. Blue skies could wait, this day was for binge watching. Or, as it turned out, for watching a single episode and then taking the dogs for a walk. Contrary to their usual season-dump format[i], Netflix is releasing Between on a weekly basis.

This got me thinking about how release schedules affect television for both producers and consumers, and wondering why Netflix would revert to the more traditional model. (more…)

Ghosts of the Future

Photo by Bill Ohl

Photo by Bill Ohl

There has been a lot of talk about magic lately in critical, cultural and technological spaces; what it does, who it is for, and who are the ones to control or enact it. As a way of unpacking a few elements of this thinking, this essay follows on from the conversations that Tobias Revell and I, and a whole host of great participants had at Haunted Machines, a conference as part of FutureEverything 2015 which examined the proliferation of magical narratives in technology. With our speakers we discussed where these stories and mythologies reveal our anxieties around technology, who are the ones casting the spells, and where – if possible – these narratives can be applied in useful ways.

As an ex-literature student, I’m quite interested in ghost stories as analogy, because they can reveal, or be an interesting way of exploring, these anxieties; where the voices in the static are coming from, where the pipes are creaking, and what they tell us about what our technology is doing or can potentially do to us.

I’m going to use a load of slightly ham-fisted contemporary narratives to signpost the anxieties that come out of two personal and increasingly algorithmically mediated spaces: the social network and in the home. Where does the role of narrative in magic, the supernatural, and the unknown allow us to get a better grasp of technology’s power over us?  Where are the uncertain terrains of our technologies creating the capacity for hauntings, and where can techniques used to imagine future scenarios better equip us for the ghosts to come? When we think of a haunting, we think of the unseen forces acting upon our domestic space, and when considering technology, a reappropriation of Clarke’s third law that Tobias Revell summoned with his work on Haunted Machines can apply– Any sufficiently advanced hacking is indistinguishable from a haunting. But where else are we haunted? (more…)

404 Error: Big Confusion—What Is An Interface Hack, Anyway?

Editors Note: This is based on a presentation at the upcoming  Theorizing the Web 2015 conferenceIt will be part of the Protocol Me Maybe panel. 

InternetSlowdown_Day

I’ve been researching hacking for a little while, and it occurred to me that I was focusing on a yet unnamed hacking subgenre. I’ve come to call this subgenre “interface hacks.” Interface hack refers to any use of web interface that upends user expectations and challenges assumptions about the creative and structural limitations of the Internet. An interface hack must have a technical component; in other words, its creator must employ either a minimal amount of code or demonstrate working knowledge of web technologies otherwise. By virtue of the fact they use interface, each hack has aesthetic properties; hacks on web infrastructure do not fall in this category unless they have a component that impacts the page design.

One of the most notable interface hacks is the “loading” icon promoted by organizations including Demand Progress and Fight for the Future in September 2014. This work was created to call attention to the cause of net neutrality: it made it appear as though the website on which it was displayed was loading, even after that was obviously not the case. It would seem to visitors that the icon was there in error; this confusion encouraged clicks on the image, which linked to a separate web page featuring content on the importance of net neutrality. To display the icon, website administrators inserted a snippet of JavaScript — provided free online by Fight for the Future — into their site’s source code. A more lighthearted interface hack is the “Adult Cat Finder,” a work that satirizes pornographic advertising in the form of a pop-up window that lets users know they’re “never more than one click away from chatting with a hot, local cat;” the piece includes a looping image of a Persian cat in front of a computer and scrolling chatroom-style text simply reading “meow.” The links to these, and other interface hacks, are included at the end of this post. (more…)

Postdigital Apocrypha; Or the Augmented Future is Already Here

At the end of a press conference in January, Microsoft announced HoloLens, its vision for the future of computing.

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The device, which Microsoft classifies as an augmented reality (AR) headset, incorporates a compilation of sensors, surround speakers, and a transparent visor to project holograms onto the wearer’s environment, a sensory middle ground between Google Glass and virtual reality (VR) headsets like Oculus Rift. Augmented and virtual reality headsets, like most technology saddled with transforming our world, reframe our expectations in order to sell back to us our present as an aspirational, near-future fantasy. According to Microsoft’s teaser site, HoloLens “blends” the digital and “reality” by “pulling it out of a screen” and placing it “in our world” as “real 3D” holograms. Implicit in this narrative is that experience as mediated with digital screens has not already permeated reality, a possibility the tech industry casts perpetually into the future tense: “where our digital lives would seamlessly connect with real life.” (more…)

Digital Technologies Drive Adjunct Labor Movements

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Academia is in the midst of a labor crisis. With two-thirds of instructional faculty made up of contingent workers (i.e., adjuncts) a critical mass of dissatisfied—and often hungry— advocates are joining together to decry the unacceptable working conditions within historically sacred institutions of higher education. And with new adjunct unions forming regularly, the movement is taking on undeniable prevalence.

But it is more than just a growing quantity of under-paid, over-burdened, college educators that has fostered a national movement, it is also the availability of digitally mediated platforms through which these workers can connect, aggregate data, and share personal and collective stories with a larger public. That is, digital media has been instrumental in creating this particular counter-public.

Contemporary social movements are inevitably augmented, with digital and physical inextricably tied. In the case of adjuncts, however, digital media plays an especially crucial role. Of course I can only engage in informed speculation, but I don’t believe the adjunct movement would be a movement at all (or at least not much of one) without Internet technologies. This has to do with the material and social realities of contingent labor within higher-ed. (more…)

#Hashtag Liberation

Official Promotional Poster for the Talk

Official Promotional Poster for the Talk

Jasmine Rand, lawyer for Trayvon Martin’s family, came and spoke at my university last week. I held my breath as she walked out on stage. She began with the emotional announcement that we were on the eve of what would have been Trayvon’s 20th birthday. Along with a crowd full of students, professors, staff, and members of the community, I settled on the edge of my seat and listened eagerly for what this woman, in this moment of racial upheaval, had to say.  As I tweeted just before the talk: this was a big deal.

Rand2 (more…)

pplkpr: Creating a Data-Us

pplkpr

We’ve all been there. Sweaty palms, racing heart, left eye that winks at involuntary intervals. You’re emotionally fraught and having a physiological response. It could be an upcoming exam, a big presentation, or that one friend who can’t stop telling you about their fantastic job/spouse/kids/new shoes while wondering out loud how you manage living in such messy quarters.

Our bodies are key sources of information and guidance. Bodied reactions, coupled with culturally situated reflexive analyses, help us make sense of day-to-day events and make behavioral decisions. Feel like you’re going to vomit every time that colleague stops by your office? Maybe they’re toxic. Maybe you’re in love. The bodily response prompts you to do something, and how you interpret that response tells you what that something is. (more…)

Yikkity Yak, Please Talk Back

silhouette of a man standing alone.

“Have you been on Yik Yak?”

My graduate student friends can attest to the fact that I ask this question of almost everyone at some point. Sometimes more than once, like when you’re excited about something and can’t help but tell the story over and over again to the same audience. Annoying, I know, and I’m sorry to all my friends.

But it’s just because I find Yik Yak absolutely fascinating. I’m drawn to it because, for at least some users, it serves as a sort of technologically cultivated hive-mind therapy session. For the uninitiated, Yik Yak is an anonymous social media app available on Android or iOS mobile devices. Users can post, vote on, and publicly reply to “yaks.” Users collect “Yakarma” based on how many votes their yaks receive and how often they vote on other yaks. Once a post receives more than five down votes it is removed. Rather than following other users or adding friends, Yik Yak shows posts from others within a ten-mile radius of your location, so when you visit the Yik Yak stream you are seeing the anonymous posts of other users in your area. As such, it is particularly popular among college students—a place to gripe about classes you hate, snoring roommates, bad cafeteria food, and attractive people that won’t give you the time of day. Of course, it’s also a place for inside jokes and celebrating particularly rowdy parties, but to be frank, there’s a lot of complaining. (more…)

Attention Topographies and Small Town Protest

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Every year my little city of Troy, New York holds a kind of Dickensonian Renaissance festival called The Victorian Stroll. The Stroll has been going strong for over 30 years and it affords an opportunity for lots of white people to dress up in period clothing that matches the surrounding buildings and ––as some have recently demonstrated–– their retrograde race politics. Even police officers don those funny dome-shaped hats and long wool coats that make it seem as though they’re ready to beat someone up over taking too much gruel. A few really great activists in the area organized a #Shutitdown solidarity event at The Stroll and I was there to capture video. The video above is a nice summary of what we were able to accomplish. (more…)

Facebook Remembers

Facebook remembers

Facebook announced this week that it will add a new search feature to the platform. This search feature will, for the first time, allow users to type in keywords and bring up specific network content. Previously, keyword searches lead to pages and advertisements.  Now, it will bring up images and text from users’ News Feeds. Although search results currently include only content shared with users by their Friends, I imagine including public posts in the results will be a forthcoming next step.

Facebook, as a documentation-heavy platform, has always affected both how we remember, and how we perform. It is the keeper of our photo albums, events attended, locations visited, and connections established, maintained, and broken. It recasts our history into linear stories, solidifying that which we share into the truest version of ourselves. And of course, the new search feature amplifies this, stripping users of the privacy-by-obscurity that tempered (though certainly did not eliminate) the effects of recorded and documented lives.

The search feature also does something interesting and new. It aggregates. For the first time, users can take the temperature of their networks on any variety of topics. Music, movies, news events and recipes can be called up, unburied from the content rubble and grouped in a systematic way.

Perhaps because I’ve been able to think of little else lately, I immediately considered what this new feature means for how we will remember the events of Ferguson, Staten Island, and the parade of police violence against young men of color. And relatedly, I considered how we will remember ourselves and each other in regard to these events. (more…)