Tag Archives: science/technology: internet

Reconnecting with Waste through Social Media

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

Humans produce waste. A lot of waste—much of which comes from our very bodies. Indeed, the average American produces 7 pounds of organic waste per day, largely made up of feces and urine. Cities have to somehow manage this waste, manage these now expelled parts of human bodies, manage that which we produce, drop, leave, and conscientiously ignore. Such management is typically engaged by an underclass of workers, the sanitation department, waste management employees, septic cleaners. When all goes well, waste remains invisible. Unsmelled. Unseen. Silently moved through underground systems and channeled out in ambiguous ways. This is a process to which most producers of bodily waste remain blissfully ignorant.

Sometimes, however, this waste management becomes a problem, and when it does, our expelled and forgotten matter spills back up into human view, reconnecting humans with the ways in which their own bodies must be managed through external structures; reminding humans of the dirty reality of organic embodiment. Such is the case in the New York City sewer system. High water levels, coupled with high waste levels, can lead to sewer overflows, flushing raw human waste into the city’s waterways — including the East River and the Hudson. Nothing reminds humans of their own embodiment like literal consumption of expelled matter. Nothing reconnects humans to an otherwise hidden process than their own shit floating down the river.

A recent solution to this problem of waste re-emergence comes from an unlikely place: social media. Leif Percifield recently introduced a social media tool called DontFlushMe, which allows New Yorkers to keep track of water levels and make waste management decisions accordingly — that is, decisions about whether or not to flush. The system works through sensors within the sewers, which notify users of high water levels via text message, Twitter, a call-in number, or by a website. When water levels get too high, users will ostensibly “let it mellow,” reducing the influx of waste into the sewer systems, and preserving the waterways.

The role of social media here is particularly interesting. Here we have a social tool, a communication medium necessarily removed from the body and physicality, working to reconnect the user to hir body, and reconnect the body to the architectures and structures in which it dwells. This form of mediated communication thins the mediating line between personal actions and public good, between expelling and consuming, between individuals and infrastructures. This tool makes invisible processes visible, and turns everyone into stewards of the shared land.

Such reconnection — between humans and their bodies; between individuals and infrastructures — is facilitated by a tool so often accused of causing disembodiment and disconnection. Social media republicizes and disseminates responsibility for that which was previously relegated out of sight, smell, and mind. This “new” technology, ironically, brings us back to an earlier time of chamber pots and smelly streets, in which bodily awareness was a communal necessity.

*Special thanks to James Chouinard for bringing this social media tool to my attention, and for sharing his vast knowledge on the Sociology of Dirt.

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Jenny Davis is a postdoctoral researcher in the social psychology lab at Texas A&M University. Follow Jenny on twitter @Jup83.

Battle in the Dark: Syria’s Communication Blackout

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

On Thursday Syria’s internet was shut down.

This is a serious situation with literal life and death implications.  Much of this story has yet to play out. Right now, I want to take a moment to explore one aspect of what this all means. Namely, I want to explore the question: why did the internet shut off now? To do so, I turn to Derrick Bell’s interest convergence theory.

Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence is a canonical statement on race relations. Bell famously argues that whites promote racial justice only when doing so converges with their own interests. The key example is the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education case, in which racial integration in schools served the larger U.S. message within the Cold War of human rights, freedom, and equality.

Although many scholars critique the strong version of Bell’s argument for its failure to incorporate agency among blacks, the root of the argument is quite useful in explaining power relations. In short, interest convergence theory tells us that the will of the powerful wades towards the direction of self-interest. When these interests converge with those of the less powerful, the less powerful are better able to achieve their will.

To a degree, I think this framework helps us understand the decision of the Syrian government to shut down communication channels. Syrian rebels utilized digital communication channels to both organize among themselves, and share their experiences — often in real time — with the outside world. This was instrumental in their cause both on the ground and internationally. The real question then, is why did the government maintain these channels for so long? This question is particularly blaring in light of extreme government atrocities, including mass killings of innocent citizens — including children. Moreover, why did the government decide to cut off these channels now?

Internet and communication blackouts are not unique among the Arab uprisings. Egypt and Libyan governments both shut down communication during their respective battles. The Syrian government, however, is unique in its deft use of digital technologies to quash protests, locate dissidents, and suppress the movement. In short, the interests of the powerful (i.e. the government) converged with the less powerful (i.e. the rebels). In addition to appearing somehow less oppressive to the international community, we see here a possible reason for maintaining Internet capabilities despite their strategic importance in the rebel movement.

However, we may speculate that the costs got too high for the government. We may speculate that in light a persistent rebel force, culminating in massive protests in Damascus – so large that the major airport had to be shut down – it no longer served governmental interests to maintain digital connectivity. The interests of the powerful and the less powerful no longer converged.

Certainly, there are other factors in play. This is a minuscule fraction of the story. With that said, this framework suggests that perhaps today’s act by the Syrian government was one of desperation. They were forced to give up a key oppressive resource (digital communication capabilities). This resource was no longer adequately effective for keep the uprising at bay. Now, they must all battle in the dark.

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Jenny Davis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University, where she studies the intersection of culture and identity. You can follow her twitter feed at @Jup83.

Social Media and the Fight over Urban Outfitters’ Appropriation of Native American Cultures

Yesterday Native Appropriations featured a presentation about Urban Outfitters, cultural appropriation in fashion, and the struggle to get the clothing chain to stop labeling clothing as “Navajo.” The presentation is great both for explaining this particular case — which included the Navajo nation sending a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Urban Outfitters stop using the term Navajo in its marketing — and also because it shows how one particular story spread through social media, which increasingly have the ability to bring mainstream media attention to stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Performance Art in the Age of the Internet

Hennessy Youngman is one of things-on-the-internetz that validates the entire enterprise. In the fast and fascinating 10 minute clip here, Youngman traces the history of performance art, linking it to Occupy and our contemporary engagement with the internet. Oh, and totally worth watching to the end.

(Hennessy, if you’re reading, I was the one that tweeted at you to do a video about The Levitated Mass.  Nobody could do it quite like you! PS – whisky is my drink too.)

Also from Hennessy Youngman:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Happy Africans and Smiling Indians

Dominant groups have the power to control representations of less-powerful groups.  They exert an out-of-proportion influence on their cultural portrayals.

We’ve previously featured objections to simplistic portrayals of the enormous continent of Africa, especially as a place that is primitive and hopelessly burdened by death, disease, poverty, corruption, and other problems.  Chimamanda Adichie, for example, objects to the “single story of Africa” and Binyavanga Wainaina tell us how not to write about Africa.  Elsewhere, we’ve illustrated how the bustling city of Nairobi is portrayed as a savanna with giraffes and elephants.

An organization called Mama Hope, sent in by Jennifer C., seeks to challenge this perception.  They want the world to think of Africa as a place of hope and possibility.  To this end, Mama Hope is producing videos that “…feature the shared traits that make us all human— the dancing, the singing, the laughter…”  They look like this:

The effort reminds me of the “Smiling Indians” and “More Than That” videos, sent in by Katrin and Anna W.  The first addressed the stereotype of the “stoic Indian,” while the second is designed to counterbalance the common portrayal of reservations as miserable places full of one-dimensional hopeless people (something we are certainly sometimes guilty of).

Smiling Indians:

More Than That…:

These videos are examples of the way that the democratizing power of new technologies (both the internet in general and the relatively easy ability to take video and edit) are offering marginalized peoples an opportunity to contest representations by dominant groups.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Are Social Networking Site Users Compassionate?

Cross-posted at Compassionate Societies.

new study from Pew, based upon a large national survey, found that people reported a lot more cruelty and the absence of kindness that many would expect. This implies that social networking sites (SNS) could use a lot more compassion.

Among adults, 85% say that their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind. Fewer teens said the same, only 69%.  More, social networking sites contributed to real life problems: including arguments and physical fights with friends, family members, teachers, or co-workers.  In all categories, teens were about twice as likely to report that SNS got them into trouble:

Racial minority populations encountered an even more cruel environment on SNS. Forty-two percent of Black and 33% of Hispanic SNS users said they frequently or sometimes saw language, images, or humor that they found offensive, compared with 22% of White SNS users.

Interestingly, people who used social networking sites on a daily basis were far more likely to report experiencing negative things:

SNS users also reported positive experiences, suggesting that, for many, social networking is a mixed bag of good and bad:

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Ron Anderson, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, has written many books and hundreds of articles, mostly on technology. In his retirement, he is doing research and writing on compassion and suffering and maintains the website CompassionateSocieties.org.

Protesting Censorship Online: Technology and Knowledge

Last Wednesday, January 20 18, over 7000 websites participated in a massive protest opposing bills H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and S. 968, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). While these bills aimed to curb online piracy, many fear that they also pave the way for widespread internet censorship. Although consideration of SOPA and PIPA has now been “postponed,” the bills and the protests raise the issue of who has the authority to control access to knowledge. The different visual and technological ways that websites protested SOPA and PIPA demonstrate the importance we as a culture place on unfettered access to information. In imagining what a censored internet might be like, the protests also show how much the medium — in this case, technology — shapes our individual and collective knowledge and what kind of a threat censorship would be. In additional to concerns about free speech and access to information, the protests also remind us how many profitable businesses are based on assumptions that those things will remain uncensored.

Many sites (such as Craigslist, Pinterest, and icanhascheezburger, screencaps below) took a traditional web protest approach by posting informational messages encouraging visitors to take action against the bills:

Other websites (WordPress, Wired, Google), along with Facebook status updates and Tweets, visually depicted what internet censorship would look like. This kind of protest is particularly visually powerful — stark black blocks out the text, making the message unreadable:

Facebook:

Twitter:

Others shut down altogether (like Wikipedia, Reddit, MoveOn, and Mozilla), essentially removing their website’s resources and information for 24 hours:

Many of us are fortunate to take for granted open, easy access to information, including open access to everything on the internet (though the continued existence of a digital divide makes such information more available to some than others, and school districts routinely censor online content for students). The protests of SOPA and PIPA illustrate how much we rely on technology for access to information by raising important questions about what censorship would mean for access to knowledge. Seemingly boundless information is at the tips of our fingers everywhere we go:

(Via Shoebox Blog.)

As the cartoon shows, our knowledge is shaped by what medium is physically available to us for seeking new information. Students in my classes can’t fathom a time when they couldn’t look up any bit of information they needed on Google.  They can’t imagine the way I used to do research for a school paper– by consulting my family’s dusty encyclopedia set, or heading down to the library. Though their experience is physically removed from the research librarian’s desk, they have access to much more information than I ever did in my local library. The protests against SOPA and PIPA — the website outages and blacked out texts — make real the idea that if the internet were censored, our avenues for learning would shrink.

The Impact of the SOPA/PIPA BlackOut

On January 18th, 2012 many sites on the internet went “black” to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), including Wikipedia, Boing Boing, Reddit, Cheezburger, Craig’s List, WordPress, Wired, and Sociological Images too, to name a few (in solidarity, Google blacked out it’s logo).  While written ostensibly to make it easier to stop pirating of music, movies, and other media, opponents argue that the Acts are so penalizing and over-reaching that they would essentially criminalize sharing and creativity.  There’s a great slideshow of the blacked out sites at the Los Angeles Times.

The next day proved that this online action made a large difference, at least in the short run. Seventy Congress members switched their positions or newly decided to stand against the Acts (Boing Boing). Congress has postponed actions on the Act, which was slotted for today.

From the point of view of Sociological Images, this is a much needed victory. From a sociological point of view, it is another illustration of how the internet creates both new legal issues and facilitates new social movement tactics.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.