The following is a transcript of my brief remarks as part of a panel with Jenny L. Davis (@Jenny_L_Davis) about her recent book How Artifacts Afford:The Power and Politics of Everyday Things. The panel was hosted by the AIGA Design Educators Community and my role was to tie Jenny’s book to practices in the contemporary design classroom and to examine how today’s design students can benefit from observing their world through a critical affordance lens, delineated by the book’s ‘mechanisms and conditions framework’.
The idea of synthetic companions is not novel.
I got my first robot at around four or five – the Alphie II. For the mid-80s, it was an incredibly novel experience: insert different cards and Alphie would teach you basic skills in math, spelling, and problem solving. Though Alphie didn’t have the capacity for improvised conversations, my young self quickly formed a bond with the little robot. I’ve no doubt that he’s the locus of my persistent curiosity with artificial persons.
The following is a transcript of my brief remarks from a session at The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) 2020 conference. I served as the theoretical anchor for a panel titled “Experiencing Pleasure in the Pandemic”. The panel featured Naomi Smith (@deadtheorist) and her work on ASMR, and Alexia Maddox (@AlexiaMaddox) & Monica Barratt (@monicabarratt), who talked about digital drugs—an emergent technology using binaural beats to replicate the drug experience in the brain. Together, the papers on this panel addressed the fraught relationship between embodied pleasure and wellness discourse, focusing on their intersection in pandemic times.
During the Q&A discussion, we decided on ‘wellness washing’ as our preferred term to describe the virtuous veneer of wellness framing and its juxtaposition against pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Full video here.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, we would normally all gather at synagogue and listen to the recitation of the Kol Nidrei: a prayer, written in Aramaic (as opposed to Hebrew), wherein congregants disavow those oaths they are going to take in the coming year. Why would we do that? Seems like we might be getting ahead of ourselves if, at the start of those 25 hours during which we fast and pray in order to atone for those sins which we have committed the year before, we’re already swearing off the promises we’re about to make.
The answer comes in Judaism’s unfortunately strong familiarity with persecution and diaspora—the prayer is said to have been written by those Jews being forced to pray to another god under threats of torture or death:
All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations…that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and…from this Day of Atonement until the [next] Day of Atonement that will come for our benefit. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.
Until I was doing some research for this post, I was under the impression (thanks, most likely, to a misinformed school teacher) that this prayer had been written by the Marranos—a derogatory term, literally meaning “pig” or “swine”, for Jews who were forced into Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition—who knew they would have to make vows in the coming year which would be, in effect, transgressions against their fellow Jews and against God. As it turns out, the Kol Nidrei (literally “All Vows”) was probably written a few hundred years earlier by a different set of persecuted Jews. Go figure.
As I was growing up, I often heard about so-called (and unfortunately named) “crypto-Jews” who practiced in secret: going down to the basement on a Friday evening, for instance, to light candles to mark the start of the Sabbath, then attending mass on Sunday. The tradition has passed down family lines, even as the reason for lighting those candles has perhaps gotten lost along the way. Janet Liebman Jacobs writes:
The descendants of twentieth-century crypto-Jews living in Mexico report that the women sought a variety of means to conceal the lighting of the Sabbath candles. Among their strategies was the practice of lighting Sabbath oil lamps in a church so that no one would suspect the family of being “sabatistas.”
Kol Nidrei is my favorite prayer and so I have rarely missed attending its recitation in the past 20 years or so. In truth, I’m not a huge fan of congregational prayer—the practice is so personal to me. But there’s something about the architecture and acoustics of sanctuaries, the resonance of the cantor’s calls, and the collective understanding among my fellow congregants. Often, too, my parents are with me, having flown in for the holiday. This year, of course, was different. Instead of finishing up my fast-easing carb-heavy dinner before sundown on the night that Yom Kippur began and heading to synagogue, I went down to my basement office, prayer shawl in hand, to watch a live stream from the Central Synagogue in New York City, one of the few free streams from the sort of congregation with which I prefer to pray.
Yom Kippur for me usually features 25 hours of no devices—no TV, no phone, no radio. I don’t do work. I don’t drive if I can avoid it. I don’t use money. It’s a very real privilege to be able to do this and not one I take lightly. Reform Jewish congregations allow for musical accompaniment and so the service began with a cello solo, a solemn and slow performance that my congregation back in San Diego featured as well. During those few minutes before the cantor begins reciting Kol Nidrei, I attempt to recenter, to bring myself into the moment and shut out the rest of my world. This is much easier when there aren’t glowing screens (my laptop for the live-stream and my iPad for the prayer book) in front of me.
I cried a lot during the next 25 hours until breaking fast with my family upstairs in the kitchen. After Kol Nidrei was recited in full all three times (a tradition meant to accommodate late-comers), the rabbi, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, gave a stirring and emotional sermon about systemic racism in Judaism and its roots in eugenics (total mind-explosion at a rabbi preaching some STS gospel) and I sobbed, exhausted, overwhelmed, and alone in a darkened basement room. What a fucking year.
So often on this blog I both read and write about the ways that techno-determinism and dualism lead to demonizing technologies that can actually help us focus, help us connect, and help us recenter. And so here I was, standing in the same space from which I teach my classes, connecting to my religion through devices which I would have normally sworn off and I was distracted: was the screen bright enough? Too bright? Was there any way to get the PDF software to accommodate a file that read right-to-left? Was my monitor at the right height? Would I be able to stare at this set-up for the next day without exacerbating what is already a physically taxing experience?
This was also supposed to be my son’s first Yom Kippur. Even if his 11-month self wouldn’t remember the occasion, I would. But we had sworn off screens for him until his second birthday, a rule we’ve had to bend severely so that his family in cities across the US can see him “live” as he has begun to crawl, climb, babble, and laugh with his whole belly, as only an infant can. My wife offered to bring him to watch the Kol Nidrei screen with me. I resisted. It didn’t feel right.
When my students come to me with arguments about how “technology is bad”—for our children, for our health, for our relationships, etc.—I ask them to consider the larger systemic powers at work. What would I say here? Why was I being forced into my basement, by myself, to practice a sort of Judaism I never asked for? Sure, I suppose I could have gone to one of the few open congregations in my neighborhood, but at the risk of illness or death. Would the Jews who prayed in person consider me a transgressor of Orthodox Judaism’s rules against the use of electronics on holy days and the Sabbath? Would they consider me a Marrano? A pig? I was doing my best. I was practicing one of the highest commandments in Judaism—pikuach nefesh, transgressing in order to save a life.
Or is it I who consider myself the transgressor of my own rules? How do I resolve the struggle between my ideologies around technology and my ideologies around my religious practice? Have I done my son a disservice by withholding this experience in the name of “avoiding screentime”?
When I started writing this, I had hoped to perhaps unpack some of the similarities and differences between the experiences of the Crypto-Jews and Jews of the pandemic. I think that goes beyond the scope of the post, but I want to close with a quote from one of Jacob’s Crypto-Jewish research subjects
On Friday evenings my grandmother would change all her beds. The house had to be clean. She had a small table in her bedroom with two candles, one on each side. Every Friday evening she would light them, and she would not allow anyone in her bedroom except for me…. And she would say some prayers in words that I did not understand.
Jacobs presents the grandmother’s bedroom here as an example of an “invisible” space of resistance. I want to think about my basement that night as a similar space—one wherein, thanks to a technologically mediated connectivity, I could feel my closeness to my religion during a time when Jews and other marginalized people are under direct threat from fascist regimes.
When you think of September, what comes to mind? Children returning to school? Apple cider in the markets? Autumn colors? New beginnings?
What about abstaining from porn and masturbation?
That’s a new September tradition that recently formed subreddit, r/NoSimpSeptember, is hoping to make a reality. The group of now more than 2,300 members encourages men to avoid online interaction with women—particularly with online sex workers and porn performers.
Almost ten years ago, then-editor of Wired magazine Thomas Goetz wrote an article titled “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops.” Goetz rightly predicted that, as the cost of producing sensors and other hardware continues to decrease, the feedback loop will become an essential mechanism used to govern many aspects of our lives through the stages of evidence, relevance, consequence, and action. Provide people with important and actionable information, and we can expect them to act to improve the activity monitored to generate that information.
Behavior modification technologies (BMT) have indeed become a large market, especially in the wellness industry. These technologies augment the body and affect behavior through surveillance and feedback. One has augmented willpower when using gamified apps which encourage physical activity, augmented memory through products that remind users of things they need to do, augmented sensations when a water bottle tells its user when to drink. Supplementing and replacing mental processes with feedback systems, users tie them to a standardized measure: a codified difference between enough and not enough. Users employ these technologies because they promise self-optimization with the technologies’ help. Failing to use these tools, or failing to respond to their prompts, is increasingly cast as irresponsible, as healthcare costs rise and chronic ‘lifestyle diseases’ lead the charts in causes of death in the United States. more...
The following is an edited transcript of a brief talk I gave as part of the Women of Sex Tech Virtual Conference given on May 2, 2020.
I’m an online sex worker; I’ve been doing this work for the last five years. If you’re unfamiliar with sex work— and in particular if you’re unfamiliar with online sex work— it is an umbrella terms that covers any erotic performances or interactions that are sold and mediated online. This includes sexting, selling nudes, porn, phone sex, amateur clip making, sexual Skype sessions, and more.
As digitally mediated erotic
labor, online sex work sits at the intersection of tech, intimacy, and
business: it’s quite literally the commodification of virtual intimacy and
sexual gratification. It’s the business of pleasure.
The following is an edited transcript of a brief talk I gave as part of the ANU School of Sociology Pandemic Society Panel Series on May 25, 2020.
The rapid shift online due to physical distancing measures has resulted in significant changes to the way we work and interact. One highly salient change is the use of Zoom and other video conferencing programs to facilitate face-to-face communications that would have otherwise taken place in a shared physical venue.
A surprising side effect that’s emerging from this move online has been the seemingly ubiquitous, or at least widespread, experience of physical exhaustion. Many of us know this exhaustion first-hand and more than likely, have commiserated with friends and colleagues who are struggling with the same. This “Zoom fatigue,” as it’s been called, presents something of a puzzle.
Interacting via video should ostensibly require lower energy outputs than an in-person engagement. Take teaching as an example. Teaching a class online means sitting or standing in front of a computer, in the same spot, in your own home. In contrast, teaching in a physical classroom means getting yourself to campus, traipsing up and down stairs, pacing around a lecture hall, and racing to get coffee in the moments between class ending and an appointment that begins 2 minutes sooner than the amount of time it takes you to get back to your office. The latter should be more tiring. The former, apparently, is. What’s going on here? Why are we so tired? more...
The term “meme” first appeared in the 1975 Richard Dawkins’ bestselling book The selfish gene. The neologism is derived from the ancient Greek mīmēma, which means “imitated thing”. Richard Dawkins, a notorious evolutionary biologist, coined it to describe “a unit of cultural content that is transmitted by a human mind to another” through a process that can be referred as “imitation”. For instance, anytime a philosopher ideates a new concept, their contemporaries interrogate it. If the idea is brilliant, other philosophers may eventually decide to cite it in their essays and speeches, with the outcome of propagating it. Originally, the concept was proposed to describe an analogy between the “behaviour” of genes and cultural products. A gene is transmitted from one generation to another, and if selected, it can accumulate in a given population. Similarly, a meme can spread from one mind to another, and it can become popular in the cultural context of a given civilization. The term “meme” is indeed a monosyllable, which resembles the word “gene”. more...
Minimalism has a way of latching on to people that want
nothing to do with it. None of the artists contained in Kyle Chayka’s Longing
for Less wanted to be associated with the term, and yet here they are,
mostly posthumously, contained in a book subtitled Living with Minimalism.
Chayka nevertheless pulls together midcentury artists like Philp Glass and
Donald Judd and contemporary pop culture icons like Marie Kondo and the author
of the 2016 self-help-through-minimalism book The More of Less Joshua
Becker into a single, slim volume against their will.