Tag Archives: social theory

Notorious Learning

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I learn a lot on Tumblr. I follow a lot of really great people that post links, infographics, GIF sets, and comics covering everything from Star Trek trivia to trans* identity. I like that when I look at my dashboard, or do a cursory search of a tag I will experience a mix of future tattoo ideas and links to PDFs of social theory. Invariably, within this eclectic mix that I’ve curated for myself, I will come across a post with notes that show multiple people claiming that the post taught them something and so they feel obligated to reblog it so others may also know this crucial information. If you’re a regular Tumblr user you’re probably familiar with the specific kind of emphatic sharing. Sometimes it is implied by one word in all caps: “THIS!” In other instances the author is ashamed or frustrated that they didn’t know something sooner. For example, I recently reblogged a post about America’s Japanese internment camps that contained a note from another user who was angry that they were 24 when they first learned about their existence. I want to give this phenomenon a name and, in the tradition of fellow regular contributor Robin James’ recent “thinking out-loud” posts, throw a few questions out there to see if anyone has more insights on this. (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…)

A Social Critique Without Social Science

After seeing today’s XKCD (above) I sort of wish I had written all of my digital dualism posts as an easy-to-read table.  I generally agree with everything on there (more on that later), but I’m also pretty confused as to how Randall Munroe got to those conclusions given some of his past comics. I can’t square the message of this table with the rest of Monroe’s work that has maligned the social sciences as having no access to The Way Things Are. The table is funny specifically because the social scientists he pokes fun of, did a lot of work to make those answers plainly (painfully?) obvious. How does someone with an obvious resentment for the social sciences, also make a joke about how we were always already alienated?  (more…)

The Brilliance of Silver Spring #f2c


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.

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A Genealogy of Augmented Reality: From Design to Social Theory (Part One)

Image credit: Audrey Penven, “Dancing with Invisible Light”

Once upon a time in Winchester, VA, a nurse and a psychologist wondered what to name their second child (a newborn boy). This little boy would one day grow up to be a famous politician, so it was important to give him a good name. Eventually they settled on Richard (which means “powerful leader”) for a first name, and John (which means “God is gracious”) for a middle name; they gave him his father’s last name, because that was the custom at the time. Yet today, when someone says “Santorum,” do you first think of the former U.S. Senator? Or do you maybe think of columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage?

Much to the former Senator’s likely chagrin, “santorum” is an excellent example of how words (and objects) that were not originally intended or designed to be “political” can take on new meanings–as well as new politics–once out in the world. (more…)

Pure Dualism and Pure Integration: Take Two

Last week, in response to Jurgenson’s earlier typology of dualist theorizing,  I typologized empirical/experiential reality upon a porous continuum between pure digital dualism and pure integration. Each of these poles represents a problematic and unrealistic ideal type. The intervening categories, however, represent theorizable empirical situations. In an effort to explicitly link my argument to Jurgenson’s,  I labeled these intervening categories using the language of his typology. Jurgenson critiqued this linguistic choice, and I agree.  Having driven home the connection, and diagnosed the “slipperiness” of theory that Jurgenson decried,  I now re-work the language of my typology to more precisely represent the meaning behind each categorical type. Although the adjustments are slight (I change only two words–but very important ones), the meaning is far more lucid. Below is the original post, with my typological categories reworked linguistically. Changes are indicated by red text. Further suggestions/critiques are welcome. 

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Overcoming Tote Bag Praxis

TtW12 twitter backchannel

The TtW12 Twitter back channel. Photo by Rob Wanenchak

Theorizing the Web 2012 was great. Everyone involved did a bang-up job. I certainly learned more in a single day than I usually do at weekend-long establishment conferences. I have said a lot about conferences (here, here, and here) as have fellow cyborgologists (Sarah, Nathan, and PJ). All of these posts have a common thread: academia is changing, but conferences seem out of date in some way. They are needlessly insular, they rely on hefty attendance fees that are increasingly cost-prohibitive,  and they rarely take advantage of social media in any meaningful way. The relative obduracy of conference styles come into high relief once they are compared to the massive changes to institutional knowledge production. Universities have adopted many of the managerial practices of private companies. They are also acting more like profit-seeking enterprises: putting massive resources into patenting offices and business incubators, hiring less tenure-track teaching staff, and employing armies of professionalized managers that run everything from information technology services to athletic facilities. Conferences, on the other hand, have seen few innovations beyond what I call Tote Bag Praxis.  (more…)

Limbaugh’s Social Media Problem

Rush Limbaugh is experiencing an advertiser exodus, and social media is playing a big part.

It’s the kind of story that writes itself. A popular media entity, on one of the oldest forms of electronic mass media, bears the brunt of activists’ Facebook wrath. It combines two old rivalries: liberals and conservatives and new media versus old media. In case you missed it, here’s the brief synopsis of events from ABC news:

Rush Limbaugh remains in big trouble. Advertisers – 11 at last count – are pulling spots off his radio talk show because of the reaction to his calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.” Opponents are mobilizing on social media for a long campaign to try to convince even more sponsors to drop his program. Ms. Fluke herself has rejected as insufficient Mr. Limbaugh’s attempts at apology

Fluke had testified before congress about the importance of “the pill” for medical uses beyond birth control. Rush concluded that she was having so much sex that she needed the American tax payer to help defer the cost of her contraceptives. (This has led to some speculation that conservatives don’t know how hormonal birth control works.) Thousands of people are organizing to get advertisers to pull their money out of Rush Limbaugh’s show, and many of them are organizing via Twitter and Facebook. Will we be subjected to another round of technologically deterministic news stories about “cyber revolution,” or are we going to have a more nuanced conversation? More precisely, does Rush have a social media problem or has he -all things being equal- just gone too far this time? (more…)

Frictionless Sharing and the Digital Paparazzi

(Or: How we’ve come to be micro-celebrities online)

Facebook’s recent introduction of “frictionless sharing” is the newest development in a growing trend: data is being increasingly produced passively as individuals conduct their day-to-day activities. This is a trend that has grown both on and offline. We will focus on the former here; especially “frictionless” sharing that involves syncing Facebook with other sites or apps. Once synced, much of what a user listens to, reads or otherwise accesses are automatically and immediately published on Facebook without any further action or approval.  Users may not even need to “opt into” frictionless sharing because many services are changing their default setting to automatically push content to Facebook. In short, we can say that users play a passive role in this process.

Contrast this to more active sharing: when we “like” or “+1” something (by clicking the eponymous buttons that have spread throughout the Web) it requires the user to make a conscious and affirmative action to share something with others in their network. Nathan Jurgenson (one of this post’s co-authors) previously described these two models as types of “documentary vision:” We actively document ourselves and our world around us as if we have a camera in our hand (“liking”, status updates, photos, etc.), or we can passively allow ourselves to be documented, curating our behaviors along the way (e.g., reading a magazine article so that you can present yourself as the type of person who “likes” that sort of magazine) much like a celebrity facing a crowd of paparazzi photographers.

Let’s make another layer of complexity to this documentary model (more…)

The Rise of the Internet (Anti)-Intellectual?

Larry Sanger and Evgeny Morozov have both critiqued the lack of rigor in modern technology writing.

The title of this post is an homage to two recent essays, the first being Larry Sanger’s “Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?” and the second Evgeny Morozov’s “The Internet Intellectual”, a recent scathing review of Jeff Jarvis’ latest book.

Larry Sanger’s critique of “geek” culture as anti-intellectual is a powerful read (even though I wrote a sort-of critique of Sanger’s post here; and he replied to me here). Sanger’s fundamental point is that modern geek culture is characterized by an anti-intellectual rejection of experts and I want to bring in Morozov’s review to highlight a slightly different point: the techno-experts embraced are anti-intellectual themselves.

My goal in this short piece is to encourage the reader to take a look at these two essays in tandem to suggest a further conversation about the need for public intellectuals, the role of academics in framing theories of new technologies and what the consequences are when we leave this discussion to be dominated by business folks.

To be read as a pair:

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?, by Larry Sanger.

The Internet Intellectual, by Evengy Morozov.

To be honest, I tried to dislike Morozov’s review (more…)