Category Archives: guest author

In Praise of the Counterpunchers

"Please, Sir. I want some more."

“Please, Sir. I want some more.”

The humanities are in retreat. For years science and technology have been running roughshod over the arts in the nation’s colleges and universities, a thrashing turning now into rout.

This is hardly news. For years a consistent string of news articles and commentaries have documented the humanities’ decline. An especially robust burst of coverage greeted the release last summer of “The Heart of the Matter,” an earnest series of recommendations and equally earnest short film produced under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (more…)

Movie Review: The Updated Moral Agenda of Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game

Alert to fanpeople: The film version of Ender’s Game is not the sprawling political epic Orson Scott Card created in the Ender series. Alert to those unfamiliar with the story: The film is, however, a lean and contemporary plunge into questions of morality mediated by technology, and in order to tease out various issues, I’m gonna spoil the heck out of both book and film.

If you’re watching hoping to have your heart yanked out and shaken, you’ll probably be disappointed. Asa Butterfield’s guileless face makes a plausible approximation of the story’s world-weary protagonist, Ender, but he struggles to bring emotion to an over-trimmed, manically paced story. Minor conflicts are presented in expository dialogue and resolved before we have a chance to parse Harrison Ford’s (aka Colonel Graff’s) cranky barks. Minor characters are sketched in a single phrase, and the world appears divided into cute children who drift inevitably into Ender’s circle, and less typically-bodied children whose essential malice leaves them beyond redemption. Hood does a decent job of not Hollywood-izing the story beyond recognition: Here is Ender, cerebral, tormented, pubescent strategic genius in a world where children’s minds are employed as the best military defense against an alien enemy. Ender is taken from his home to Battle School in space, subjected to increasingly grueling battle simulations, and, in his final moment of victory is devastated to learn that the simulations were actually the real war. Without realizing, he has annihilated the aliens’ home planet. (more…)

Home or Frontier? On the Ambiguity of “Gravity”

aaa -- sandra

The film Gravity is having an especially strong run at the box office, and it seems to be having an especially powerful impact on those who have seen it. It’s certainly a beautiful movie, visually, and an unusual one, as far as big-budget Hollywood attractions go. For anyone who thinks a lot about technology, as I do, the film has some interesting, though somewhat ambiguous, messages.

Be forewarned: What follows is all spoiler.

Technology gone wrong plays a central role in Gravity. The film also resonates with a theme that’s central to the technological project: the drive to open new frontiers. This is not to say that either of those subjects is the principal concern of Gravity’s director and co-writer, Alfonso Cuarón. His interests lie elsewhere, as I’ll explain. Still, when you make a saga about human beings in space, questions of technology and frontiers are hard to avoid. (more…)

Destabilizing Digital Dualism

A digital heap.

A digital heap.

In a previous post for Cyborgology, I attempted to take what has been called “digital dualism” and repackage it into a slightly new shape—one that would bring into focus what I considered to be the concept’s most significant features. Specifically, I posited that digital dualism should be understood to include—and be limited to—any instance where a speaker establishes a normatively-charged hierarchy of ontological categories, at least one of which is technological. Thus, were a speaker to carve up the world into the “digital” and the “physical” while suggesting the former is somehow ontologically inferior to the latter (or vice versa), she would be instantiating digital dualism, as I defined it.

I next sought to situate digital dualism within a broader set of views that I characterized as “conservative.” Conservatism, I argued, is a cluster of ideologies unified by an effort to justify and further social hierarchy. I argued that ontological hierarchy of the sort that characterizes digital dualism often plays an instrumental role in the conservative project, as it serves to legitimate perceived differences in status. (For more exposition of this point, see my previous Cyborgology post). Indeed, I contend that digital dualism is very often deployed for conservative ends by those who seek to elevate themselves above technophillic masses.

If one accepts these premises, it becomes possible to formulate generalized strategies for critique, beginning with contestations of (conservative) digital dualism and then abstracting to arguments that might be directed against other conservative ideologies that rest upon hierarchical ontologies.

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Digital Connection, Language, And Family

This was a lead image in a story from the New York Times titled, “Your Phone Versus Your Heart“. Let’s break this image down, shall we?

Becoming a parent has inflected how I see everything in the world, including the practice of “being online.” I apologize for using scare quotes so soon into this essay, but it feels necessary. “Online” contains several types of possible connection, as Jenny Davis and others at Cyborgology have argued. And the “being” part is what needs to be at stake: how does the way in which we exist change when that existence is networked and distributed? The anthropology of “being online” therefore includes a consideration of the ontological effects on people as much as empirically measurable effects of using iPads and Facebook.

A common narrative, and one Cyborgology has consistently disputed, is that “technology” or “social media” or “the digital” have impinged on an authentic mode of life that previously existed and which we retroactively call “offline.” This narrative relies on constructing images that can quickly code as “authentic,” as in this video that Nathan Jurgenson has dissected. The graphic above, from a New York Times essay, crystallizes this narrative as it makes us of family and child-rearing as an icon of authentic offline living. Devices and the information they present come between a parent and the child. They blot out the child’s pleading face. Tellingly, the phone is represented as blank–the viewer is not asked to make a judgment about the value of what the person is doing with the phone (checking Twitter? responding to an email? calling 911?), they are asked to condemn its vacuity. (more…)

Dead or Not Dead? Technology, Media and Death

Image credit:

Image credit: ~Ninetailsgal on deviantART

Russian Internet giant Yandex posted a press statement on July 25th about the death of their co-founder Ilya Segalovich. Segalovich, 48 years old and a father of four, was a billionaire and a philanthropist, loved by many for his kindness and hard work to better the Russian Internet and software development field. He reportedly had stomach cancer and had been ill for some time.

News of his death quickly went viral – it was shared on Twitter, Facebook, and many news websites. But hours later, Yandex retracted the press-release to say Segalovich was not actually dead, but was in a coma & on life support, with no signs of brain activity.

Flabbergasted, RuNet users exploded in a new wave of discussion: was Segalovich dead or not?

All this has me thinking about how modern medicine, science, technology and media are changing the conventions of reporting on the deaths of public figures: when is someone really dead? (more…)

Annals of Childish Behavior (Technological imperative edition)

aaa -- minnesota bridgeI remember hearing somewhere that one of the most important things you can teach a child is to delay gratification.

Give a five-year-old a choice between a cookie on the table in front of him right now and two cookies 15 minutes from now, and chances are he’ll take the one cookie right now. Maturity is about learning to live within your means. You want something nice, you save up for it. You resist blowing your entire paycheck on bling so that when the first of the month comes you have enough money to cover the rent.

It’s obvious that the consumer economy wants us to ignore these basic principles. (more…)

You Know Nothin’ HBO: Remediation and Violence Against Women in Game of Thrones

This post discusses the HBO show Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire. There will be spoilers up until the events of season three’s finale, as well as a discussion of physical, emotional, and sexual violence against women.

khal&khaleesiI admit it—I am one of those insufferable people who read the books. I’m the worst kind of Game of Thrones viewer—the one who can’t watch an episode without pointing out how “in the books, x happens this way instead.” I love telling fellow GoT viewers that Tyrion Lannister actually led the vanguard in the battle between Stark and Lannister, rather than being knocked unconscious before the fighting began. I get a sick pleasure from describing how Daenerys’ hair is completely burned away when she survives Drogo’s pyre funeral. And yes, it still chaps my ass that the show denies Samwell Tarly the triumph of sending out the ravens after the battle with the White Walkers at the Fist of the First Men. (more…)

Wibbly-Wobbly Women for a Timey-Wimey Universe

Laurie Penny’s great new piece about Manic Pixie Dream Girls (MPDGs) has me thinking about the role of women/femininity in the compositional structure of music, film, and other media.  Penny uses a narrative metaphor to explain the subordinate role of MPDGs in contemporary patriarchy: patriarchy expects and encourages women to ghostwrite or be, as Penny puts it, “supporting actresses” in men’s stories.  When women (such as Penny) craft their own autobiographies with themselves as the protagonist, this upsets both patriarchal conventions, and our aesthetic sensibilities, which have been trained to expect and enjoy these conventions.

But, especially in light of the finale of this past season’s Doctor Who (so, uh, need I say it: spoilers) I think the MPDG supports men’s/masculinity’s centrality–in other words, patriarchy–in specific ways, ways that are uniquely appropriate to the compositional logic of contemporary media.

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Anxiety Dream

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The British Channel Four series, Black Mirror, tells a series of disconnected stories taking place in what might be parallel worlds, in which technology is resolutely familiar, but always a bit uncanny. It is a show of this epoch, and of the insecurities and fears which tag along as we watch history unfold itself in front of us. In the same way that The Twilight Zone screened our nagging questions about Mutually Assured Destruction, space flight, and the lurking Other inside the suburban facade, Black Mirror delves into our doubts about social media, ubiquitous computing, surveillance society, and the justice of consumerism, as we struggle to comprehend the growing, always glitching, network around us. The show is, according to Wikipedia, quite popular in China, which might be all that you need to know. (more…)