Category Archives: essay

Open (Source) for Business

The Tower of David (Image Source)

The Tower of David (Image Source)

I was scrolling through Tumblr the other morning (like I do) when I came across “the world’s tallest slum.” Located in downtown Caracas, an unfinished 45-story skyscraper that was supposed to host Venezuela’s business elite is now home to an estimated 3,000 squatters. The “Tower of David” (named after finance tycoon that started and abandoned the project) is now owned by the state but there are no government-provided utilities. The building is, in essence, not much more than an immense concrete frame, upon which the residents have begun to build a community. They pool money to pay for building security, there are bodegas on every floor, and water and electricity reach as high as the 22nd floor. This is no small feat of engineering or human organization, but it isn’t comfortable living either. I don’t think it would be romanticizing the living conditions of these people to say that they (and no one else) have made something that is both modest and remarkable for themselves. Abandoned by both private industry and the government, some people pooled their limited resources and made their lives a little more livable.  Zulma Bolivar, a Caracas City planning official in an interview with the New York Times described the situation in one sentence: “This tower is a perfect example of anarchy.” (more…)

The Feminisms of Laser Hair Removal

Laser 4

On 25 February 1940, an officer with the San Francisco police department’s homicide detail reported a “rather suspicious business” operating in the city. At 126 Jackson Street sat an old, three-story rooming house, recently leased by Dr. Henri F. St. Pierre of the Dermic Laboratories. As Assistant Special Agent J. W. Williams later described the scene, “women had been seen entering the place from the Jackson Street side at various times of the day, subsequently leaving by … an alley at the rear of the building. Following the arrival of the women, cars would arrive with a man carrying a case resembling … a doctor’s kit. They would also enter the building for a short time, come out, and drive away. . . .” At first sight, the medical kit, the furtive departures, and the seedy locale all signaled to Williams that St. Pierre was running a “new abortion parlor.” As it turned out, however, “the so-called ‘Dr.’” was offering a somewhat different service to these women: the removal of their unwanted body hair through prolonged exposure to X rays (quoted directly from Rebecca Herzig’s Removing Roots: ‘North American Hiroshima Maidens’ and the X-Ray).

Body hair. Humans have it. Where they have it, how much they have, and what color it is, holds moral connotations tied to cultural norms of both gender and race. In the simplest sense, men should be hairy. Women should be hairless.

The good and moral woman has little to no body hair, and the body hair she does have is only on her legs, and all of those hairs are blond and fine. For those of us who fail to naturally achieve this bodied moral norm, the medical-cosmetic market offers an array of technologies to help hide, temporarily or permanently, our moral failing.  laser

 

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Can Facebook Be Governed?

Image Credit: Marco Paköeningrat

Image Credit: Marco Paköeningrat

Ugh. I hate the new Facebook. I liked it better without the massive psychological experiments.

Facebook experimented on us in a way that we really didn’t like. Its important to frame it that way because, as Jenny Davis pointed out earlier this week, they experiment on us all the time and in much more invasive ways. The ever-changing affordances of Facebook are a relatively large intervention in the lives of millions of people and yet the outrage over these undemocratic changes never really go beyond a complaint about the new font or the increased visibility of your favorite movies (mine have been and always will be True Stories and Die Hard). To date no organization, as Zeynep Tufekci observed, has had the “stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams.” When we do get mad at Facebook, it always seems to be a matter of unintended consequences or unavoidable external forces: There was justified outrage over changes in privacy settings that initiated unwanted context collapse, and we didn’t like the hard truth that Facebook had been releasing its data to governments. Until this week, it was never quite so clear just how much unchecked power Facebook has over its 1.01 billion monthly active users. What would governing such a massive sociotechnical system even look like? (more…)

Triggered: An Ethic of Collective Forgetting

 

Trigger warning 1

Over the summer I began supervising a student for an independent study of BDSM and Kink communities. To begin, this student created a list of academic articles, books, and blog posts relevant to the question of study. I will be reading along with the student, and am currently making my way through the blogosphere. In doing so, I’ve been struck by the prevalence of “trigger warnings” attached to blog posts, many of which deal with safety, abuse, and rape culture. Many readers are probably familiar with the trigger warning. Posted in front of potentially upsetting content, the trigger warning gives potential readers a heads up about the nature of the text, sound, or images that follow.

It is perhaps unsurprising that trigger warnings are common among bloggers writing about rape, consent, and sex-positive encounters. These are sensitive topics and the authors (the ones that my student and I have been reading) come at these topics from a conscientiously critical feminist perspective. But what about all of those trigger warnings outside of this explicitly conscientious space? Although unscientific, I’ve noticed an abundance of trigger warnings throughout my Twitter and Facebook feeds as people share content with one another.  The phenomena has even spread to higher education, with students and universities calling for the integration of trigger warnings into class syllabi (though this is not without critique). (more…)

Saving the Wearable

Image From Jeremy Brooks

Image From Jeremy Brooks

The wearable is going through an adolescence right now. Products like Google Glass, Oculus Rift, or the Pebble smartwatch are a lot like teenagers: They’ve come into their own, but still aren’t sure about the place in society. They are a little awkward, have problems staying awake when they need to be, and they attract derision by the New York Times. And just like human adolescence, this phase probably has a horizon. People could warm up to the idea of face computers, battery life will get better, and (eventually, hopefully) the public will learn to ignore Ross Douthat. But for right now, the wearable is in a precarious situtation. Are wearables like Glass relegated to the same fate as Bluetooth earpieces and the Discman, or can they be saved? Is the entire category irredeemable or have we yet to see the winning execution? (more…)

Autism and the Internet

Several months ago, the CDC released a report on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). They found that as of 2010, 1 in every 68 U.S. children are on the ASD spectrum. This is up from 1 in every 150 children just ten years prior. This means that rates have more than doubled. The reasons for the large increase are fodder for some wonderfully interesting conversations and heated debates about biology vs. environment vs. culture vs. the Medical Industrial Complex. Putting these debates aside for another day, however, I instead want to talk about how new technologies can serve this ever growing population. As a quick caveat, I should say that I am a person who dabbles in disability studies research. My hope is that those who know more than I—through personal experience and/or professional expertise—will add nuance to the ideas I present below and help guide the discussion into all of the complex places I know it can go, but don’t quite know how to take it.

autism_data_graphic2012-copy (more…)

(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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Seminal is Still Sexist: A Response to the Critics

seminal response

Last week, I posted a short PSA for Theorizing the Web participants regarding the word “seminal” as a metaphor for foundational ideas. I linked seminal with the masculine “semen” (i.e., sperm) and argued that its use in intellectual discourse is sexist. The backlash on the post itself, as well as on Twitter and Facebook, was quite strong. I therefore want to take this opportunity to respond to some thematic critiques and challenge those who continue to so vehemently defend the term. (more…)

Democracy comes to Mozilla

Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, was CEO of Mozilla for exactly 11 days before stepping down. Image c/o Wikicommons.

Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, was CEO of Mozilla for exactly 11 days before stepping down. Image c/o Wikicommons.

Last week Brendan Eich, the newly appointed CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, had to step down amid backlash from his fellow board members, Silicon Valley elites, and the public at large for his $1,000 donation to supporters of California’s Prop 8 anti-marriage equality bill. In the grand scheme of things, a $1000 contribution from a guy that is I-invented-JavaScript-wealthy to a $38.7 million campaign, probably didn’t change much. But the headlines were never about Eich secretly bankrolling Prop 8; it’s been about what kind of person should be allowed to lead the best-known open-source organization that makes the third-most-installed browser on the planet.

There’s lots of people who say that even if you disagree with Eich, this shouldn’t be grounds for him to step down because his beliefs have no bearing on how you build a browser. I deeply disagree, and it isn’t a matter of ideological opposition, but of observable fact: technology always has a bit of its creator in it and technology is never politically neutral. Moreover, I don’t think, as many have claimed, that Eich’s departure was a failure of democracy. In fact I see it as a leading indicator for the free software community’s maturing legal and political knowledge. (more…)

Some Thoughts on Location-Based Dating Apps

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been interviewed twice about location-based dating apps. These are mobile applications that connect people with others in their geographic proximity, often in real-time. Popular examples include Tinder, Grindr (and its counterpart, Blendr), and SinglesAroundMe.  The apps are largely photo based, and offer an opportunity for serendipitous meet-ups, in which users can potentially find love, sex, or general companionship.

The fact that I was invited to take part in these interviews is a bit odd, since none of my own empirical research pertains specifically to dating or dating technologies. I did, however, write a post for Cyborgology about race and online dating sites, which got some attention, and I do (obviously) maintain research interests and projects in new technologies more generally. So anyhow, I agreed to fumble my way through these two interviews, offering the interviewers caveats about my knowledge gaps. In the end, I’m glad that I did, as their questions—much of which overlapped—pushed me to think about what these applications afford, and how they intersect with the realities and politics of love, sex, and gender relations. (more…)