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…)
I’d like to start off with an admittedly grandpa-sounding critique of a piece of technology in my house: My coffee maker’s status lights are too bright. My dad got it for my partner and I this past Christmas and we threw-out-the-box-immediately-wanna-keep it, but the thing has a lighthouse attached to it. We live in a relatively small (and very old) place and our bedroom is a small room right off the kitchen. The first night we had the coffee maker I thought we had forgotten to turn off the TV. We don’t really need alarm clocks anymore either, because when it finishes brewing it beeps like a smoke detector. Again, we love the coffee maker (Dad, seriously we love it.) but sometimes it feels like wearing a shoe that was designed for someone with six toes. (more…)
The Planned Headquarters of Apple Inc.
The year is 1959 and a very powerful modern art aficionado is sharing a limousine with Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands. The man is supposed to be showing off the splendor of the capital of what was once —so optimistically— called New Amsterdam. His orchestrated car trip is not going quite as he had hoped and instead of zipping past “The Gut” and dwelling on the stately early 19th century mansions on Central and Clinton Avenues, Beatrix is devastated by the utter poverty that has come to define the very center of this capitol city now called Albany, New York. The art aficionado, unfortunately for him, cannot blame some far away disconnected bureaucrat or corrupt politician for what they are seeing because he is the governor of this powerful Empire State and he has done little to elevate the suffering of his subjects. He resolves, after that fateful car trip, to devote the same kind of passion he has for modern art to this seat of government. Governor Rockefeller will make this city into a piece of art worthy of his own collection. (more…)
#Friendsgiving on Instagram
Airports suck. They suck the worst on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving: some nearly a sixth of all Americans travel for the holiday and most of them are taking to the sky to get to leave their homes and go “back home” to some dining room that’s larger than their own. Every airport is full of government-groped travelers anxious over the possibility of missing their flight to a Thanksgiving table. For the 20-30 year-old set, Thanksgiving out of town usually means a paycheck’s worth of plane ticket plus a couple days of missed work or precious class time needed for a final exam. For many more, the prospect of taking an extended weekend is completely out of the question because most of us work in retail. As my friend Lisa wrote on her Facebook yesterday: “To fellow retail employees this holiday: Godspeed, we can do this.” Thanksgiving isn’t a time to relax, its a time to either gear up for a 12-hour work day or spend as little as money as possible to make up for the remarkable food bill you just racked up. To leave town on Black Friday’s Eve is near-impossible, and so many millennials plan for a Friendsgiving: the thoroughly post-modern holiday that celebrates a paradoxical mixture of just getting by, the excesses of late-capitalism, and the infinitely negotiable non-familial ties that make up young peoples’ lives.
I don’t recommend doing it, but if you search for “Charles Ramsey” on Reddit, something predictably disturbing happens. First, you’ll notice that the most results come from /r/funny, the subreddit devoted to memes, puns, photobombs, and a whole bunch of sexist shit. Charles Ramsey, in case you don’t know, is the Good Samaritan that responded to calls for help by Amanda Berry- a woman that had been held captive for 10 years in a Cleveland basement, along with Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. The jokes on Reddit are largely at the expense of Ramsey, poking fun at his reaction to a police siren or his reference to eating ribs and McDonalds. As Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) said on Slate: “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.” (more…)
About this time last year I asked our readers, “why we don’t criticize other things like we criticize the internet?” It seemed like a fitting topic for the season; we utilize some of the most resource-intensive technologies at our disposal so that we may enjoy egg nog with old friends or taste grandma’s famous Thanksgiving day turkey. Everyone wants to be near their loved ones for the holidays, and so begins a massive effort to transport ourselves in cars, trains and planes until we arrive at our optimal holiday season arrangements. It is a wonder, then, why we spend so much of our lives outside of this optimal arrangement. What kind of relationship do we have with our immediate surroundings? Not just the people, but the technologies and the patterns. There is a lot of excellent work on carbon footprints, local food movements, and walkable communities but I hear comparatively little about who is capable of making this transition. What does opting out of the status quo truly entail? (more…)
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…)
The IBM System/360 was the clock tower of its time.
I want to spend a few hundred words today, considering the geographic dimensions of digitally augmented/mediated social action. I am not only talking about GPS-enabled smartphone apps (Foursquare, Geocaching, SeeClickFix, etc.) but also the sorts of practices and habits– the kind that most people barely notice– that make up one’s daily Internet usage. Just as there are different car cultures in different parts of the United States (and the rest of the world), are there different “Interent Cultures” based on geographic region? Does where you connect, have any impact on how you connect? In some respects, yes– speed, availability, and stability of a connection matters; nations put up firewalls to prevent their citizens from accessing dangerous ideas; and you wouldn’t (or can’t) do the same things on your work computer that you could do on your home computer. All of this leads to a common provocation: can we utilize the properties of scale, place, and community to create radically new kinds of augmented realities. Can communities utilize a shared Internet connection to deal with local issues? Can we deliberately work against the individualist ethic of the Internet to revitalize public life? (more…)
This post combines part 1 and part 2 of “Technocultures”. These posts are observations made during recent field work in the Ashanti region of Ghana, mostly in the city of Kumasi.
Part 1: Technology as Achievement and Corruption
An Ashanti enstooling ceremony, recorded (and presumably shared) through cell phone cameras (marked).
The “digital divide” is a surprisingly durable concept. It has evolved through the years to describe a myriad of economic, social, and technical disparities at various scales across different socioeconomic demographics. Originally it described how people of lower socioeconomic status were unable to access digital networks as readily or easily as more privileged groups. This may have been true a decade ago, but that gap has gotten much smaller. Now authors are cooking up a “new digital divide” based on usage patterns. Forming and maintaining social networks and informal ties, an essential practices for those of limited means, is described as nothing more than shallow entertainment and a waste of time. The third kind of digital divide operates at a global scale; industrialized or “developed” nations have all the cool gadgets and the global south is devoid of all digital infrastructures (both social and technological). The artifacts of digital technology are not only absent, (so the myth goes) but the expertise necessary for fully utilizing these technologies is also nonexistent. Attempts at solving all three kinds of digital divides (especially the third one) usually take a deficit model approach.The deficit model assumes that there are “haves” and “have nots” of technology and expertise. The solution lies in directing more resources to the have nots, thereby remediating the digital disparity. While this is partially grounded in fact, and most attempts are very well-intended, the deficit model is largely wrong. Mobile phones (which are becoming more and more like mobile computers) have put the internet in the hands of millions of people who do not have access to a “full sized” computer. More importantly, computer science, new media literacy, and even the new aesthetic can be found throughout the world in contexts and arrangements that transcend or predate their western counterparts. Ghana is an excellent case study for challenging the common assumptions of technology’s relationship to culture (part 1) and problematizing the historical origins of computer science and the digital aesthetic (part 2). (more…)
Facebook Inc. and researchers from the University of Milan recently released a study showing that Facebook users are linked by only 4.7 degrees of separation. This is a significant decrease from the 6 degrees of separation found in Milgrim’s 1967 study, from which the common conception of our degree of networked connection (and the Kevin Bacon game) stems.
Here, I examine what these findings mean in terms of social relationships in the contemporary era.
These findings point to three main things: In the most basic sense, these findings show that Facebook is a highly pervasive and global platform through which interaction takes place. Relatedly, those who interact on Facebook connect to large and diverse networks. Finally, as we increasingly interact on a shared platform, with a wide and diverse group of others, these findings indicate that we are increasingly connected through weak ties. It is this last point that I will expand upon (more…)