Official Promotional Poster for the Talk
Jasmine Rand, lawyer for Trayvon Martin’s family, came and spoke at my university last week. I held my breath as she walked out on stage. She began with the emotional announcement that we were on the eve of what would have been Trayvon’s 20th birthday. Along with a crowd full of students, professors, staff, and members of the community, I settled on the edge of my seat and listened eagerly for what this woman, in this moment of racial upheaval, had to say. As I tweeted just before the talk: this was a big deal.
“If it weren’t for all of you I would have lost my mind at my job.” Its a familiar refrain that I hear at lots of small conferences and, occasionally, on Twitter backchannels. Its an amazing compliment to hear that your weak tie with someone means so much, but its also an immensely troubling prospect. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of highly trained professionals have serious misgivings about their professional associations, their home institutions, and maybe even their life’s work. I had heard variations on this theme most recently this past week when I helped out at the (really, really cool) Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference hosted here in Troy, New York. The conference was attended by an array of people: engineers, educators, activists, and social scientists like myself. Some people worked in industry, others in academia, and a significant portion worked for NGOs like Engineers Without Borders. And again, I just want to reiterate: No single person said the exact phrase above, and I certainly don’t want to (mis)characterize any of the attendee’s personal feelings about their jobs or work. Rather, what I witnessed at ESJP is more accurately characterized as a feeling of “coming home.” Think of it as the positive side of the same disaffected coin. This anecdotal trend was in my mind when I read this Seattle Times article about social scientists finding new and inviting homes in tech companies. Are social scientists finding better intellectual homes in industry than in academia? Or am I connecting two totally separate phenomena? Is it just the pay? More to the point: can social scientists do more and better things for the world working in Silicon Valley than the Ivory Tower?
It’s as if a TED conference smashed headfirst into a hackathon and then fell into an NGO strategy summit. CEOs sit next to non-profit employees and eat boxed lunches as a dominatrix (@MClarissa) presents a slide on teledilonics followed up by a garage hacker-turned-million dollar project director quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. It is a supremely uncanny experience that all happens within the confines of a movie theater (and, later, a sushi bar). This is what one can expect when they attend the Freedom to Connect conference (#f2c) held in Silver Spring, Maryland. The conference is meant to bring “under-represented people and issues into the Washington, DC based federal policy discussion…” I left the conference feeling generally good that there are people out there working to preserve and protect open infrastructures. I just wish that team were more diverse.
Since Sarah posted on Kony yesterday, I though I would throw in my two cents on the matter. I would like to discuss claims that the Kony 2012 is a hipster movement.
Why are people claiming the movement against Kony is a hipster movement? I think it is because of three main reasons. 1) people are using social media to spread it; 2) Invisible children plays into the whole Toms shoes, suburban college student social justice movement; and 3) individuals are claiming allegiances to this social justice movement as a form of social distinction. (more…)
From June 27-29 I will be hosting (throwing?) the Technoscience as Activism Conference in Troy, NY. We are currently accepting abstracts for conference presentations and workshop proposals through March 15th. The conference is sponsored, in part, through Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 3Helix Program funded through the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 fellowship. The conference will focus on community-situated design and look for new approaches that interweave social justice and science/technology. Participants are also encouraged to submit full papers for potential inclusion in a special theme issue of the open-access journal PscyhNology. Conference participants will be expected to participate in both moderated panel sessions on the PRI campus as well as hands-on workshops held throughout the Troy community. There are two goals of this conference: 1) To facilitate the free exchange of ideas across multiple boundaries on the topic of technoscience as activism and; 2) offer an experimental alternative to the traditional role/format of academic conferences. This new experimental format includes active collaboration with the geographically-defined community that hosts the conference. (more…)
A Review of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants
Usually, I would not bother reviewing a book that has been out for over a year, but Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants complicates this blog’s ongoing discussion of public intellectuals and the translation of social theory into popular press books. Kelly claims to have read “every book on the philosophy and theory of technology.” If we are to take him at his word, and if we assume his own conclusions are based on (or are at the very least- informed by) that reading, we should seriously consider the overall quality of the corpus of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and related fields. As social scientists we must ask ourselves: If Kelly’s work can legitimately connect itself to the likes of Nye, Winner, and Ellul, and still produce a politically and morally ambivalent conclusion, are we failing to provide theoretical tools that lead to a better world? (more…)
Is this an Oxymoron?
Most of our interactions with technology are rather mundane. We flip a light switch, buckle our seat belts, or place a phone call. We have a tacit knowledge of how these devices work. In other words, we have relatively standard, institutionalized, ways of interacting with familiar technologies. For example: if I were to drive someone else’s car, even if it is an unfamiliar model, I do not immediately consult the user manual. I look around for the familiar controls, maybe flick the blinkers on while the car is still in the drive way, and off I go. Removal of these technologies (or even significant alterations) can cause confusion. This is immediately evident if you are trying to meet a friend who does not own a cell phone. Typical conventions for finding the person in a crowded public space (“Yeah, I’m here. Near the stage? Yeah I see you waving.”) are not available to you. In years prior to widespread cell phone adoption, you might have made more detailed plans before heading out (“We’ll meet by the stage at 11PM.”) but now we work out the details on the fly. Operating cars and using cell phones are just a few mundane examples of how technologies shape social behavior beyond the actions needed to operate and maintain them. The widespread adoption of technologies, and the decisions by individual groups to utilize technologies can have a profound impact on the social order of communities. This second part of the Tactical Survey will help academics, activists, and activist academics assess the roll of information technology in a movement and make better decisions on when and how to use tools like social media, live video, and other forms of computer-mediated communication. (more…)
A modern day panopticon. Photo by Nathan Jurgenson.
The first post I wrote for Cyborgology concluded that many of the dominant socio-technical systems in our world look and behave in a similar fashion. The entertainment industry, advanced military surveillance, search algorithms, and academic reference tools are swapping hardware and best practice in such a way that the carrying out of a military invasion, or the Super Bowl begins to look disturbingly similar. Around the time that I wrote that post, USAToday ran a disturbingly cheerful story about police departments’ desire to acquire similar technology. Miami’s police department acquired the Honeywell’s T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) a few moths later. The only regulations that prevented the MPD (or any police force) from acquiring such technology were FAA regulations about where and how it could be flown. Such acquisitions have gone largely unquestioned by the media as well. In fact, local coverage of the purchase was supportive. A local CBS affiliate led with the headline, “Dade Cops Waiting To Get Crime Fighting Drone Airborne.” This all seems very bleak, but just as powerful actors have increased their abilities to engage in surveillance, the individual has more tools than ever to watch the watchers. (more…)
This brief essay attempts to link two conceptualizations of the important relationship of the on and offline. I will connect (1) my argument that we should abandon the digital dualist assumption that the on and offline are separate in favor of the view that they enmesh into an augmented reality and (2) the problematic view that the Internet transcends social structures to produce something “objective” (or “flat” to use Thomas Friedman’s term).
Instead, recognizing that code has always been embedded in social structures allows persistent inequalities enacted in the name of computational objectivity to be identified (e.g., the hidden hierarchies of Wikipedia, the hidden profit-motive behind open-source, the hidden gendered standpoint of computer code, and so on). I will argue that the fallacy of web objectivity is driven fundamentally by digital dualism, providing further evidence that this dualism is at once conceptually false, and, most importantly, morally problematic. Simply, this specific form of digital dualism perpetuates structural inequalities by masking their very existence. (more…)
The original work described in this post was done in collaboration with Audrey Bennett and Ron Eglash and funded by the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 grant-funded Triple Helix Program. You can read all of the dispatches from Ghana on the3Helix fellows’ blog.
Cell phone towers are a constant site in Kumasi, Ghana.
Alternate universes can be a lot of fun. We can make Superman land in the USSR, put goatees on normally clean-shaven cast members, and revisit moments in history and play the “what if” game. It is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. But there is much more to be said about the various parallel universes that might exist. At least, that’s what a lot of social theory has us believe.
At the end of the 20th century social scientists released dozens of books and articles with the words “social construction” in the title. Social constructionism became a very useful tool for the post-modern author who wanted to deconstruct such difficult topics as organic chemistry or high-energy physics. Their premises were rather straightforward and were unceremoniously summarized and simplified by Ian Hacking in his book “The Social Construction of What?” (2000). Hacking writes: