Category Archives: essay

Jezebel’s Harassment Problem Needs More than Comment Moderation

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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…)

Exposed: Constitution through Contradiction

Contradiction

Last week I wrote about the curious case of traditional love narratives in the face of online dating. In short, the profiled format, pay structure, and overall bureaucracy of online dating throws into stark relief the constructed belief in a fateful meeting of souls. And yet, the narrative persists. Here’s a brief snippet:

…[T]he landscape has drastically changed but the narrative, not so much. The maintenance of romantic love as a cultural construct, personal striving, and affective embodied response to courtship rituals speaks to the resiliency of normative culture and its instantiation through human action. Even as we transact and negotiate romantic relationships; even as we agree upon terms; even as we screen partners and subject ourselves to screening; we nonetheless speak of butterflies and hope for magic.

In the case of love and online dating, the narrative is both highlighted and strengthened through its empirical contradiction.

This idea sparked an interesting conversation among the Cyborgology team about how this principle—constitution through contradiction—is theoretically useful in understanding the relationship between technologies and culture. Technologies reflect cultural realities, but can also expose the constructed nature of these realities, threatening their taken-for-granted logic and concomitant guidance over behavior and interaction. In the face of such a threat, however, the logics remain, and even strengthen. (more…)

Don’t Opt Out, Take Back

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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…)

An Extremely Brief History of Science and Technology Studies

Image source

Image source

Having just uploaded the final document of an NSF grant proposal (for this project) I feel like going “back to basics” and revisiting the big picture of my field. Unlike most of my fellow Cyborgology contributors, I don’t hold a degree in sociology and I’ve never been to the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. My department is an interdisciplinary social science called Science and Technology Studies. Similar departments call themselves Science, Technology, and Society (helpfully, both can be called simply “STS” and that’s what I’m going to use for the rest of this post) but other departments have slightly altered listicle names: MIT’s History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society probably wins for longest department name. (True Story: went to a grad conference there once and they handed out pint glasses that said “We put the HA in STS. Funny kids over there.) What follows is, in some really broad strokes, the contours of this little-known but growing intellectual tradition. I’m going to cover a rough history, and the field’s major projects and subfields that emerged from that history. As the title suggests, I’m going to make a lot of generalizations in service of brevity so… just be prepared for that. My hope is that this is somewhat helpful around this time of year for people who might just be getting into STS departments (congrats!) and for recent undergraduate degree holders who are considering going back to school. One final caveat: like all histories, this one is confined by its author. My friends at the Cornell STS program would write a different history, and the folks that study STS policy at Georgia Tech would write something different as well. (more…)

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

 

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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…)