Drew Harwell (@DrewHarwell) wrote a balanced article in the Washington Post about the ways universities are using wifi, bluetooth, and mobile phones to enact systematic monitoring of student populations. The article offers multiple perspectives that variously support and critique the technologies at play and their institutional implementation. I’m here to lay out in clear terms why these systems should be categorically resisted.
The article focuses on the SpotterEDU app which advertises itself as an “automated attendance monitoring and early alerting platform.” The idea is that students download the app and then universities can easily keep track of who’s coming to class and also, identify students who may be in, or on the brink of, crisis (e.g., a student only leaves her room to eat and therefore may be experiencing mental health issues). As university faculty, I would find these data useful. They are not worth the social costs. more...
Today, the influence of our moon Goddess foremothers is everywhere. Contemporary progressive activists dress up like witches to put hexes on Trump and Pence. The few remaining women’s bookstores in the country sell crystals and potions for practicing DIY feminist magic. There is an annual Queer Astrology conference, Tarot decks created especially for gays, and beloved figures like Chani Nicholas who have made careers out of queer-centered astrology. Almost every LGBTQ+ publication, whether mainstream or radical, features a regular horoscope column (including them.).
In this feature from last year, Sascha Cohen reflects on astrology’s recent re-ascendance and seeming ubiquity in LGBTQ+ circles, and the skepticism it’s meeting with more queer-identifying people. Astrology’s pseudoscience was a nonstarter for some (mainly those from STEM fields). For others it was New Age culture’s appropriation of indigenous spirituality and separately, the risk astrology poses as a distraction from systemic repression. A “sense of exclusion” or just being “seen as a cynic and no fun,” in one person’s words, was maybe the most common of all the complaints.
Despite these reservations, most of the queer ‘skeptics’ Cohen interviewed recognized astrology’s appeal for queer people — as a source of “meaning and purpose,” as an alternative to exclusionary religious communities, as entertainment, and one that in practice usually “centers and empowers women.” Hardly isolated from systemic anti-LGBTQ+ forces, “a recent uptick in such practices,” Cohen asserts, “may be because, [as interviewee] Chelsea argues, ‘We’re in the midst of a global existential crisis.’”
Though these responses make sense, an aspect that goes unmentioned in the piece is the part popular meme accounts and algorithmic social media appear to be playing in astrology’s current revival.
“Modelling is superficial, and anything superficial in the long run will never be good for the psyche”—this seems to be intuitively true. Although modelling might boost self-esteem, it cannot fill an inner emptiness. However, several years of participant observation, surveys and interviews in the scene of amateur modelling draw a different picture. Models seem to agree on the fact, that it makes them feel better. How is this possible?
Broadly speaking, there are two reasons apart from the fact that for many there is something pleasurable about it: Modelling can teach some skills relevant in everyday life and modelling can help to cope with identity.
Mark Zuckerberg testified to congress this week. The testimony was supposed to address Facebook’s move into the currency market. Instead, they mostly talked about Facebook’s policy of not banning or fact-checking politicians on the platform. Zuckerberg roots the policy in values of free expression and democratic ideals. Here is a quick primer on why that rationale is ridiculous. more...
As technology expands its footprint across nearly every domain of contemporary life, some spheres raise particularly acute issues that illuminate larger trends at hand. The criminal justice system is one such area, with automated systems being adopted widely and rapidly—and with activists and advocates beginning to push back with alternate politics that seek to ameliorate existing inequalities rather than instantiate and exacerbate them. The criminal justice system (and its well-known subsidiary, the prison-industrial complex) is a space often cited for its dehumanizing tendencies and outcomes; technologizing this realm may feed into these patterns, despite proponents pitching this as an “alternative to incarceration” that will promote more humane treatment through rehabilitation and employment opportunities.
As such, calls to modernize and reform criminal justice often manifest as a rapid move toward automated processes throughout many penal systems. Numerous jurisdictions are adopting digital tools at all levels, from policing to parole, in order to promote efficiency and (it is claimed) fairness. However, critics argue that mechanized systems—driven by Big Data, artificial intelligence, and human-coded algorithms—are ushering in an era of expansive policing, digital profiling, and punitive methods that can intensify structural inequalities. In this view, the embedded biases in algorithms can serve to deepen inequities, via automated systems built on platforms that are opaque and unregulated; likewise, emerging policing and surveillance technologies are often deployed disproportionately toward vulnerable segments of the population. In an era of digital saturation and rapidly shifting societal norms, these contrasting views of efficiency and inequality are playing out in quintessential ways throughout the realm of criminal justice. more...
The following contains light spoilers for William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral.
I just finished The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, published in 2014. Generally, the work documents two different futures: a time not too far off from now (maybe 15 years or so?) and then around 70 years after that. Overall, it’s extremely Gibsonian in its plot and narrative arc (my wife asked, “what’s that about?” as I started it and I could only reply, “I’ll tell you after page 50”), and for that I really loved it. His visions of the future are informed by so much more than the utopian technolust or dystopian apocalypse of Hollywood or most pop speculative fiction. Instead, they are filled with nuanced socio-political prescience, the kind that just seems to make sense as logical progressions from our current trajectory.
While putting together the most recent project for External Pages, I have had the pleasure to work with artist and designer Anna Tokareva in developing Baba Yaga Myco Glitch™, an online exhibition about corporate mystification techniques that boost the digital presence of biotech companies. Working on BYMG™ catalysed the exploration of the shifting critiques of interface design in the User Experience community. These discourses shape powerful standards on not just illusions of consumer choice, but corporate identity itself. However, I propose that as designers, artists and users, we are able to recognise the importance of visually identifying such deceptive websites in order to interfere with corporate control over online content circulation. Scrutinising multiple website examples to inform the aesthetic themes and initial conceptual stages of the exhibition, we specifically focused on finding common user interfaces and content language that result in enhancing internet marketing.
Anna’s research on political fictions that direct the necessity for a global mobilisation of big data in Нооскоп: The Nooscope as Geopolitical Myth of Planetary Scale Computation lead to a detailed study of current biotech incentives as motivating forces of technological singularity. She argues that in order to achieve “planetary computation”, political myth-building and semantics are used for scientific thought to centre itself on the merging of humans and technology. Exploring Russian legends in fairytales and folklore that traverse seemingly binary oppositions of the human and non-human, Anna interprets the Baba Yaga (a Slavic fictitious female shapeshifter, villain or witch) as a representation of the ambitious motivations of biotech’s endeavour to achieve superhumanity. We used Baba Yaga as a main character to further investigate such cultural construction by experimenting with storytelling through website production. more...
In February, some colleagues and I visited Biosphere 2—an absurd, failed experiment in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. What sort of experiment? Well, that’s hard to pin down. Depending on who you ask or how you want to frame it, Biosphere 2 could be a science experience, a social experience, a financial one, or maybe just an experiment in American hubris.
One of my colleagues on that trip to Arizona earlier this year, Avery Trufelman, recently released a podcast episode on the project as part of her new series on failed utopias. The Biosphere piece effectively chronicles the entire timeline of this absurd effort to recreate an Earth-like biosphere in three enclosed acres. Complete with ocean, rainforest, farm, desert, and—of course—living quarters, the Biosphere 2 was funded by the eccentric Ed Bass, ostensibly an easily distracted recipient of a trust fund. Under the direction of the equally idiosyncratic John P. Allen, Bass poured hundreds of millions into building this utopian vision in the early 90s.
The first time Allen and Bass collaborated was on a project called Synergia Ranch, a counter-cultural haven in the 70s and 80s. Members of the ranch, the Synergians, created a troupe called The Theater of All Possibilities and even built a seafaring ship—the Heraclitus—to carry them around as they acted out their visions for the future on stage. That’s the beginning of this whole mess. The end came after Steve Bannon (as Avery says, “yes—that Steve Bannon”) enacted a hostile takeover to remove Allen from the reigns and return control to Bass. For everything in between, I suggest you listen to the podcast.
I’ve written previously on this blog about my issues with the field of speculative design (of which I consider myself a participant), but this whole Biosphere 2 story is just too exemplary. Eight white people with little-to-no scientific background were put in a multi-million dollar enclosure for two years because they thought they could learn something (but what?) about how Earth works. The UV-protected glass killed the bees immediately, the exposed concrete sequestered carbon and oxygen, the air got thinner, the energy required to farm was greater than what the crops could provide, and the group split into two factions (who still don’t speak to each other to this day). Meanwhile, outside the dome, businessmen and bureaucrats wanted the experiment to be so successful—so real—that they censored reports coming from participants. And as the building—which, by the way, was powered by an external natural gas source—struggled to sustain human life, egotrips decimated any hope of a well-run project.
A few years ago, there was a comment thread on MoMA’s Design and Violence page that sparked a serious debate about the overtly privileged position of speculative designers. I think about that often and how well it sparked an important introspection among the field (a few of the participants in the thread have gone on to produce long-form scholarship inspired, in part, by the discussions happening there). But I also think about how little we’ve been able to change.
At the end of her series on utopias, Avery points to Foucauldian heterotopias as perhaps a way to envision future communities that are built with inclusion and justice. “Gathering communities,” she says, “means building heterotopias for the present while studying the past…Gathering community involved imagining a way to the future” She suggests that fiction is where we can “dismantle the hubristic imperialist ideal of what the perfect place is.” I think that sounds like a good start to me.
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.