Category Archives: guest author

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. 

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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…)

Sex Toy Liberation, The Taboo of Replacement, And the Inner Animal: A Review of Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

Chick Palahniuk's Beautiful You

Chick Palahniuk’s Beautiful You

Penny Harrigan is perfectly average and she’s never had an orgasm. She is the leading lady in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book Beautiful You, in which C. Linus Maxwell, CEO of MicroDataCom releases a line of sex toys so potent that women literally recede from society, preferring to stay home to masturbate incessantly. Remember the 1998 episode of “Sex and the City” in which Charlotte became addicted to her rabbit vibrator? It’s like that, but global. The book is a quirky cross between a motivational anecdote about a woman’s journey to sexual empowerment, and a grim critique of dystopian industrialized society, just with painful details and boring writing.

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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…)

Augmented Mobilization at the People’s Climate March

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(Image from the People’s Climate March Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/peoplesclimatemarch)

When it comes to data analysis, sometimes non-findings speak louder than findings. Particularly when non-findings shine a light on questions that aren’t being asked.

 On 21 September 2014, UMd Professor of Sociology Dana R. Fisher took a small army of friends and graduate students to New York City to survey demonstrators at The People’s Climate March (PCM). The PCM survey is part of a longer thread of Dr. Fisher’s research, which surveys protestors to get a better understanding of who protests, how they are mobilized, and how their participation in protests relates to other forms of civic engagement they may partake in. Nate Silver’s data-nerd playground FiveThirtyEight.com sent a film crew to follow us to make a short documentary of our experience. The doc is part of their series The Collectors, a look at how scientists can apply rigorous research methods to a variety of unique settings outside of the laboratory.

The PCM’s greatest appeal—the thing that got us all up before dawn on a Sunday to take a bus from DC to Manhattan—was the sheer volume of potential data it made available to us. While more conservative estimates put the number of demonstrators at around 100,000, PCM organizers themselves suggest that it was closer to four times that. In any case, 350.org, who planned the march in collaboration with a long list of partner organizations, trumpeted the event as the “largest climate march in history.” By all accounts, they were right; the PCM was the brightest star in a constellation of nearly 2,600 simultaneous climate protests happening all over the world that day.

This thing was big, it was global, and it mobilized a lot of people.

Part of 350.org’s plan was to arrange protesters into neat blocks, according to where they fit along a spectrum of participant identities and organizational affiliations. Their hope was to organize participants into city-block-sized sections that would each represent a single unified ideological or social position. The map below details what these blocks were supposed to look like, and who was supposed to fill them during the assembly period before the march began. (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…)

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…)

Fact Check: Your Demand for Statistical Proof is Racist

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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…)

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”

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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…)