Category Archives: reviews

#review: Facebook’s Archival Subject

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#review features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books.

Today, guest contributor Rob Horning reviews: Life on automatic: Facebook’s archival subject by Liam Mitchell. First Monday, Volume 19, Number 2 – 3 February 2014 http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4825/3823 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i2.4825

If, like me, you are skeptical of research on social media and subjectivity that takes the form of polling some users about their feelings, as if self-reporting didn’t raise any epistemological issues, this paper, steeped in Baudrillard, Derrida, and Heidegger, will come as a welcome change. It’s far closer to taking the opposite position, that whatever people say about their feelings should probably be discounted out of hand, given that what is more significant is the forces that condition the consciousness of such feelings. That approach is sometimes dismissed as failing to take into account individual agency; it’s implicitly treated as an affront to human dignity to presume that people’s use of technology might not be governed by full autonomy and voluntarism, that it’s tinfoil-hat silly to believe that something as consumer-friendly and popular as Facebook could be coercive, that the company could be working behind users’ backs to warp their experience of the world for the sake of Facebook’s bottom line.

Mitchell is not so overtly conspiratorial in this paper; (more…)

#Review Actor-Network Theory’s Approach to Agency

#review Features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books. This week, I’m reviewing:

Sayes, E. M. “Actor-Network Theory and Methodology: Just What Does It Mean to Say That Nonhumans Have Agency?” Social Studies of Science (2014) Vol. 44(1) 134–149. doi:10.1177/0306312713511867. [Paywalled PDF]

Update: The author, E.M. Sayes has responded to the review in a comment below.

Image from You as a Machine

Image from You as a Machine

A few weeks ago Jathan Sadowski tweeted a link to Sayes’ article and described it as, “One of the best, clearest, most explanatory articles I’ve read on Actor-Network Theory, method, & nonhuman agency.” I totally agree. This is most definitely, in spite of the cited material’s own agentic power to obfuscate, one of the clearest descriptions of what Actor-Network Theory (hereafter ANT) is meant to do and what it is useful for. Its important to say up front, when reviewing an article that’s mostly literature review, that Sayes isn’t attempting to summarize all of Actor-Network Theory, he is focused solely on what ANT has to say about nonhuman agents. It doesn’t rigorously explore semiotics or the binaries that make up modernity. For a fuller picture of ANT (if one were making a syllabus with a week of “What is ANT?”) I suggest pairing this article with John Law’s chapter in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory (2009) entitled “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” Between the two you’d get a nice overview of both of ANT’s hallmark abilities: articulating the character of nonhuman agency and the semiotics of modern binaries like nature/culture and technology/sociality. (more…)

#review: Technologically Mediated Embodiment

This is the first post in a new Cyborgology series we call #review. #review Features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books. This week, I’m reviewing:

Goodings, Lewis and Ian Tucker. 2014. “Social Media and the Co-Production of Bodies Online: Bergson, Serres, and Facebook’s Timeline.” Media Culture & Society 36(1):37-51. [paywalled PDF]

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Goodings and Tucker work to understand the difficulties of embodiment in light of pervasive technological mediation, and in particular, Facebook’s Timeline. They do so using data from 8 focus groups, with a total of 25 participants.

The authors refer to technologically mediated embodiment as that embodiment which exists in light of, and conjunction with, pervasive electronic and digital media. Through the work, the authors identify two key problems or difficulties of technologically mediated embodiment. First, technologically mediated embodiment troubles communicative boundaries, as multiple networks, with varying expectations, converge together in shared social spaces. Second, technologically mediated embodiment stifles the fluid nature of personal biography, cementing the past in ways which inhibit future re-interpretations of the self. (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…)

Film Review: Elysium, Dystopia, and Class Conflict

Elysium Movie Poster

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Elysium was trashy action flick. It sacrificed any pretense of plot or character development to maximize the number of fight sequences and explosions. It’s clearly geared toward the X-Men 7/J.J. Abrams crowd. However, Elysium does accomplish a few things worth considering:

  1. It injects a class narrative into an action movie—a genre that has been intellectually moribund in recent decades.
  2. It offers a revolution (as opposed to reform) narrative.
  3. It envisions a dystopia arising more from state neglect than from state control.
  4. It avoids technological reductionism.

(Note: Spoilers to follow) (more…)

First Impressions of Graph Search

Facebook just enabled its new Graph Search for my profile and I wanted to share some initial reactions (beyond the 140 character variety). Facebook’s new search function allows users to mine their Facebook accounts for things like: “Friends that like eggs” or “Photos of me and my friends who live near Chuck E. Cheese’s. ” The suggested search function is pretty prominent, which serves the double role of telling you what is searchable and how to phrase your search.  More than anything else, Graph Search is a stark reminder of how much information you and your friends have given to Facebook. More importantly however, it marks a significant change in how Facebook users see each other and themselves in relation to their data.. You no longer see information through people; you start to see people as affiliated with certain topics or artifacts. Graph Search is like looking at your augmented life from some floating point above the Earth. (more…)

[Book Review] Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking


Coding Freedom cover image

E. Gabriella Coleman’s new book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2012, Princeton University Press) is an ethnography of Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) hackers working on the Debian Linux Operating System. It is a thorough and accessible text, suitable for  someone unfamiliar with open source software or coding. It would make an excellent addition to an IT and Society 101 course syllabus, or a reading group on alternative work organization. Coleman’s greatest achievement in this text, however, is not the accuracy of her depiction, but the way in which she dissects the political and economic successes of the open source community. By claiming absolute political neutrality, but organizing work in radical ways, contributors to F/OSS “sit simultaneously at the center and margins of the liberal tradition.” (p. 3) Coleman argues that while F/OSS, “is foremost a technical movement based on the principles of free speech, its historical role in transforming other arenas of life is not primarily rooted in the power of language or the discursieve articulation of a broad political vision. Instead, it effectively works as a politics of critique by providing a living conterexample…” (p. 185) (more…)

Theater Review: R.U.X. (Rockwell Universal Sexbots)

R.U.X. (Rockwell Universal Sexbots), written by Maurice Martin and directed by Sun King Davis, was first written and performed as a charity effort to raise money for HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive); it ran as a five-part serial in Arlington’s October 2011 Hope Operas. It was rewritten as a full play for DC’s 2012 Fringe Festival, where it took the award for best comedy. The show just finished up a brief encore at Fall Fringe. While this comedy has already been widely and positively reviewed by DC theater critics, it deserves a piece that engages its rather weighty themes.

The story takes place in near-future America (similar in setting to the spate of early twenty aughts robot films such as Bicentennial Man, A.I., and I, Robot), where anthropomorphic robots have become a common consumer product. Louis Rockwell Jr. (John Tweel) has just been made acting CEO of the Rockwell Universal Carebots company, after his father (Frank Mancino) fell into a coma. Louis Jr. has a new vision that would transition the company away from producing robots designed for childcare and, instead, move it into designing robots for—you guessed it—sex.  After rebranding the company “Rockwell Universal Sexbots,” he hires Dr. Callie Veru (Aubri O’Connor), a young and romantically inexperienced software expert to program the robots with the capacity to fulfill human desire. To program robots to respond to human desire, however, the characters must first understand it, and this interrogation of human desire becomes the axis on which the entire plot rotates. (more…)

[Book Review] Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana

The theory and policy of Internet connectivity has not kept pace with the increasing diversity of network access. The full variety of access points, social practices, and meaning created by networked individuals has not been critically engaged by most authors.  Jenna Burrell’s new book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafe’s of Urban Ghana is the start of a major corrective in the social sciences’ treatment of the Internet. For “nonelite urban youth” the internet café provides an opportunity to extend one’s social network outside of the zongo (colloquial term for slum) that they grew up in, and gain access to resources and contacts they would otherwise never acquire. A majority of Burrell’s work takes place in these cafés but we are also treated to a discussion of global ewaste streams, international consortiums on the “information society” and the collective reputation and shared meaning of Ghanaians  on the Internet. Burrell provides a broad, but at times penetratingly deep look at the Internet from the margins.  (more…)