Don’t Opt Out, Take Back


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...

Merriam-Webster Adds New Words: What Took So Long?


The Merriam-Webster College Dictionary announced on Monday its addition of 150 new words.  Many of these are technologically derived. Selfie, hashtag, tweep, and catfish (false identity—not the sea creature) are all included. Many media outlets reporting on this are interested in how new technologies continue to influence language through the addition of informal terms first utilized by teen populations.

However, many of the words are not, in fact, technologically rooted. There are additions in food (e.g., turducken), geography (e.g., ‘yoopers), the environment (e.g., cap and trade) etc. My question is less about why these particular words—technological and not— were added, but rather, why so late? I  ate turducken my first Thanksgiving in grad school (before vegetarianism won me over), talked about cap and trade as an undergraduate, and have been ridiculed for referring to my Twitter network as “tweeps” for years. Where have you been, Merriam-Webster? more...

Death and Mediation


Hello, Cyborgology…it’s been a while. I’ve missed you, but I haven’t quite known what to say. Which is weird, right? Strangely enough, I’ve got half a dozen half-finished posts on my computer—twenty-thousand someodd words of awkward silence waiting to be wrapped up and brought into the world.

Writer’s block happens to the best of us, or so I’m told. What’s been strange for me is looking back and realizing that the last thing I posted was my piece from the beginning of #ir14, the 14th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers. I say “strange” because I had an amazing experience at #ir14, and left it feeling so excited about my field and my work and what I imagine to be possible. And yet, in the two months since, something’s been off. I’ve managed to submit to a couple of important abstracts, and I continued sitting in on a really cool seminar, and I’ve plunged into the work of helping to organize this year’s Theorizing the Web (a conference about which I’m passionate, to say the least). But my words went somewhere, have been gone.

I realized recently, however, that it’s not about some kind of post-#ir14 crash. It’s actually about what happened after.


Sensory Co-Presence


A couple of months back, I wrote about an informal meeting of the Cyborgology Crew in which we began to hash out some of the vocabulary issues that currently muddle up theorizing about technology and society. In that post, I interrogated the words “online” and “offline.” This online/offline discussion took up the better part of our day. A second issue also arose, however, and this was one that we never fully resolved. With bellies full of pizza and leg-shaking levels of caffeine, we duked it out over the term “physical co-presence.” Today, I want to put forth our (mostly?) agreed upon critique of the term physical co-presence, and offer an alternative which, on the day of the meeting, I probably articulated poorly. Like the interrogation of online and offline, this is far from a definitive statement. Rather, it is a starting point and a widespread invitation for critique, suggestions, and participation in the construction of a useful theoretical vocabulary. more...

Of Bots And Humans


what’s a bot and what’s human and where do we draw the line and should we draw that line

Yesterday, we learned that the most infamous Weird Twitter account, @Horse_ebooks, wasn’t a algorithmically-programmed “bot” but instead the product of a person tweeting as if. The revelation was accompanied by a live performance of the account in a Manhattan art gallery. While much is being written about the account, I’d like to share one thought about the live performance and what this all says about what is real and virtual, “bot” and human. In one day, @Horse_ebooks went from bot to human, and as I’ll argue, embodied in an art gallery, right back towards bot. more...

Smell Ya Later: Somatic Work in the Digitized Library


This week, the Bexar County Bibliotech Library opened in Texas. This library is unique in its all-digital format. It is a library without physical books. Instead, patrons have borrowing access to thousands of “e-books” and digital media materials, along with cloud space on which to store them. The library does have a physical building, which houses computers, laptops, kindles, and other hardware that people can borrow, or use on site. Patrons can also attend story time and literacy events at the library.  This is not the first library of its kind, but may be the first one to remain fully digital. In 2002, the Santa Rosa Branch Library in Arizona got rid of bound books. However, in light of consumer complaints, the SRBL—like most libraries— now offers texts through both bound books and digital media.

Perhaps now the timing is better. If so, a library such as this poses a host of questions. How will a digitatized library interact with the digital divide? Will this exclude the less tech-savvy, or act as a means of spreading digital literacy? How will the library continue to support itself without late fees? Why did they choose to eliminate books entirely?

Mostly, though, I want to know what this library will smell like, and how this will shape the intellectual somatic experiences of a new generation. more...

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...

The Problem With The “I Forgot My Phone” Video

or just get new friends
…or just get new friends?

The easiest, laziest, most click-baitiest op-ed, trend video, or thing to scream at a bar right now is how, with today’s technologies, we are more connected but also more alone. Ooh. Zuckerberg has 500 million friends but it was never really a spoiler to say that Sorkin’s The Social Network ends with him sitting alone at a computer. Ooh. The Turkle-esque irony is just too good for it not to zeitgeist all over the place.

That argument should not be altogether dismissed but I am quite skeptical of where it’s so often coming from and how it’s articulated. This trend might be largely disingenuous, and by that I do not mean intentionally insincere but instead a sort of cultural positioning: we-are-connected-but-alone not only drips with that delicious ironic juxtaposition, it simultaneously props the person making the case as being somehow deeper, more human, more in touch with others and experience. more...

Netflix doesn’t count as watching TV




The folks at eMarketer just released a study which projects that this year, adults will spend over 5 hours consuming digital media, as compared with about 4.5 hours watching television.  This makes for a nice headline. It also makes for a wonderful example of the social construction of knowledge, and relatedly, the embeddedness  of digital dualism.

A root assumption of Science and Technology Studies (STS) is that both science and technology, though billed as objective, are anything but. Knowledge systems, and methods of knowing (i.e. epistemologies), are necessarily based in human values, cultural norms, power structures, and historical context. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar famously deconstruct the notion of scientific objectivity in their 1979 anthropological study of Laboratory Life. In this vein, Emily Martin illuminates the gendered ways in which biologists depict the egg-sperm relationship within the reproductive process.  And a few months back, I argued that to be a Quantified Self requires quite a bit of qualitative interpretation and decision making. In short, Big Data, statistical techniques, and laboratory procedures produce knowledge that is equally as biased as storytelling or ethnographic interpretation. Sorry, Enlightenment. more...

Blame The NSA, Not Exhibitionism


One problem with taking social problems and re-framing them as individual responsibility is that it ends up blaming victims instead of pressuring root causes. This mentality creates a temptation to, for example, respond to the NSA scandal involving the government tapping into Internet traffic with something like, “well stop posting your whole life on Facebook, then”. Or less glib is the point raised many times this month that the habit of constant self-documentation on social media has made possible a state of ubiquitous government surveillance. The brutality of spying is made both possible and normal by the reality of digital exhibitionism. How can the level of government spying be so shocking in a world where people live-tweet their dinner? Perhaps we should stop digitally funneling so much of our lives through Gmail now that the level of surveillance is becoming clearer. Sasha Weiss writes in The New Yorker that, more...