In the days before November 8th I wrote the following vignette for what was supposed to be a special Cyborgology roundtable, a collection of differing viewpoints on the U.S. presidential election. For a number of reasons that roundtable was never published. Nevertheless, I am now posting what I wrote, unedited. My intent in doing this is twofold. First, it is a time-specific encapsulation of my sentiments before the event itself. It is not a reflection on what I would do given what I know now, but emblematic of the inexact and speculative nature of politics. And second, because I feel as if, regardless of the moment it emerged from, this short essay still carries a lot of weight in this post-election period. In fact, I would probably write very close to the same thing again.
In a widely-shared article on The Intercept, Sam Biddle made the point that, “Trump’s anti-civil liberty agenda, half-baked and vague as it is, would largely be an engineering project, one that would almost certainly rely on some help from the private sector.” The center of his article, that of the six major tech companies he requested comments from only Twitter gave him an unequivocal statement that they would not help build a Muslim database, was chilling even though most of the companies just never responded. The role of engineers and designers in carrying out political ends often relegated to business’s policies. That is, engineers themselves are seen as completely beholden to whatever their bosses decide their job should be. I want to look at this from a different angle: why are engineers so willing to defer responsibility for their actions and why are they so often in positions to do so? more...
There is a trend—one that was present prior to the election but has increased dramatically since—in our inability to communicate with people who hold radically different political convictions. It is a complete systems failure. On the smaller end of the scale, it takes form in the specialized vocabularies that we do not share, the differences in language use that muddy conversations and leave us confused. Higher up the scale are the different sources we rely on for news, the different windows to the world that deliver information to us and form our basic conceptions of reality. And at the top of this systems failure is something more difficult to discuss, let alone solve. It is a crisis of epistemology—the ways we come to know the world—that is bound up in the collapse of trust in fundamental institutions, and an apocalyptic paranoia that everyone you disagree with is knowingly working toward the destruction of your way of life.
While this occurs across the spectrum of political ideology, there should be no false equivalence made; the far right is dangerous to the most vulnerable and exploited members of our society on a scale incomparable to any other political movement. But the problem exists left, right, and center. We just can’t talk to each other, because the ways we understand the world are so different that our ideas, worries, priorities, and arguments are unintelligible to the ideological other. For every argument that capitalism is the greatest threat to the continued existence of humanity, there is another that it is the greatest force for justice and equality in the world. For every assertion that socialized medicine will save millions of dollars and countless lives, there is another that it is a direct path to bankruptcy and death camps. For the great majority of citizens, these are abstractions, rather than lived, material experiences. And these worldviews are born out of a system of media texts and sources of information that are both entwined and divergent. There is a multiplicity of textual universes the likes of which we have never seen.
Prior to the advent of mass-produced media texts, the vast majority of the world’s population came to know the world through material, first-hand experience and face-to-face social interaction. Scholars like Marshal McLuhan and Walter Ong have documented and theorized the implications of these changes over time; McLuhan emphasized changing sense ratios and the rise of sight’s prominence over sound. Ong wrote about the movement from experiential cognition to abstract thinking and linear rationality. From a more ethnographic perspective, Richard Hoggart in his classic text The Uses of Literacy (which he originally wanted to call The Abuses of Literacy), argued that “massification” via centralized publicists were destroying the traditional culture of the English working class. His was a nostalgic view riddled with problematic assumptions, though the changes he documented are undeniable.
But arguably the most fundamental change to human societies across the world that was ushered in by mass-produced media was the creation of the nation state. Benedict Anderson, along with Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, wrote in depth histories and analyses of the origins of nation states, which are a relatively new phenomenon on the scale of human history. For Anderson, one development that played a key role in the creation of nation states was what he called “print capitalism,” a phenomenon born of the spread of capitalist economies and the development of the printing press. These forces—technologies, if you like—changed the shape and scale of human interaction so dramatically that every single individual on earth was eventually reimagined as something called a “citizen,” bound by centralized laws and duties, confined to some extent or another by imaginary lines that, over time, reshaped the globe.
Anderson exposes how nationalism, together with print capitalism, allowed—even required—human beings to imagine themselves as part of an “imagined community” riddled with contradictions. Objectively novel but subjectively ancient, radically diverse but undergirded by an ill-defined sense of solidarity, nationalism relied on mass mediated texts to create widespread “togetherness” based on flimsy shared values like, in the United States, “freedom” or “hard work.” And now, perhaps more than ever—or at least since the Civil War—these contradictions are front and center in the US. This is caused, in part, by two forces: the collapse of trust in institutions such as the press and the justice system, and the proliferation of texts that have come to serve as our primary way of understanding the world.
I have a leftist friend who has been in near constant back and forth with a Trump-supporting family member. They share articles and posts on Facebook, argue over the content and its truth or falsity, and ultimately find that their realities are irreconcilable. They live in two different worlds. And, perhaps more relevantly to current events, they live in two different countries, despite living under the same nation state.
I’m uninterested in chalking this up to the “post-fact” world we now supposedly live in. Instead, I want to understand the epistemological construction of truth in a media environment that can present you with evidence for literally any argument you want to make, from Holocaust denial to the need for universal Medicare. The New York Times is no longer the paper of record, but either a problematic yet still journalistic outlet that must be approached with scrutiny, or an agent of the radical left that makes up facts whole cloth and should probably be banned, depending on who you ask. The elections are rigged, no matter who wins. Everything can be proved to be true, depending on what you watch and read.
The truth is (haha I’m making a claim about truth right now) that facts are not terribly effective at persuading your political opponent anyway. Politics are informed by deeply held beliefs about the “essence” of human nature—emotional positions that can never be proved or disproved given the radical diversity of the human experience. Are we inherently selfish or generous? Different or the same? Competitive or cooperative? Emotions are ultimately how we come to define ourselves. As Sara Ahmed writes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion:
“To become the ‘you’ addressed by the [nationalist] narrative is to feel rage against those who threaten not only to take the ‘benefits’ of the nation away, but also to destroy ‘the nation,’ which would signal the end of life itself. Emotions provide a script, certainly: you become the ‘you’ if you accept the invitation to align yourself with the nation, and against those others who threaten to take the nation away.” (12)
During the election, a group of young people in Macedonia found that they could make money distributing fake news geared toward Trump supporters on Facebook. Any attempt to debunk these posts could easily be met with accusations of liberal media bias and cover-ups perpetrated by the globalists, or the Clintons, or some other abstract force dead set on destroying the United States. Two opposing realities, constructed and perpetuated by a vast network of texts that cross platforms and political ideologies: they are seemingly arguing about facts, but at a much deeper level lie expressions of fear, outrage, and hate. And after a year of speculation upon speculation, backed up by “facts” that were often based rather on emotions, I am afraid to prophesize on the potential implications of this phenomenon. After all, Trump will never be the Republican nominee. He’ll never win the election. He won’t openly endorse and appoint white nationalists. He’ll tone it down it down once he’s in office. Right?
Britney is on Twitter.
“The motor has killed the great city. The motor must save the great city.”
-Le Corbusier, 1924.
In the fast and shallow anxiety around driverless cars, there isn’t a lot of attention being paid to what driving in cities itself will become, and not just for drivers (of any kind of car) but also for pedestrians, governments, regulators and the law. This post is about the ‘relative geographies’ being produced by driverless cars, drones and big data technologies. Another way to think about this may be: what is the city when it is made for autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence? more...
Fake news among the alt-right has been central in post-election public discourse, most recently instantiated through Donald Trump’s dubiously sourced tweet about the “millions of illegal voters” supposedly driving Clinton’s substantial lead in the popular vote. Less attention, however, has been paid to the way “real” news is, to use Jurgenson’s term, “fact-i”. Based in data and empirical accounts, mainstream news gets cast as respectable and objective vis-à-vis the fabrications and embellishments that go viral in right wing echo-chambers. This is especially true when journalists, stack of papers and obligatory pen studiously in hand, point to statistics that back up their reports.
Such reliance on, and valorization of, “data” masks the human underpinnings of journalistic practice and the ways that things become numbers and those numbers become stories. So here I present a cautionary tale of a small missing data point, with big narrative consequences.
A couple of years ago I wrote about Friendsgiving, that very special holiday where cash-strapped millennials gather around a dietary-restriction-labeled potluck table and make social space for their politics and life experiences under late capitalism. All still very relevant, though I suspect this is the year where we should come up with a name for whatever happens after late capitalism. Some of you, of course, will be sharing a table with people not of your own choosing and so you might be forced into reckoning with people who make excuses for Nazis and disagree that trans people exist.
What follows are a couple of useful tactics that will help you hold your own and get through arguments that we shouldn’t have to keep having but here we are. These probably will not help you in a completely hostile room. These are better if you’re in a mixed crowd and you want to make sure that at the end of the political argument people don’t leave saying nothing more than “politics is so divisive!” People only criticize divisiveness when they aren’t sufficiently convinced by one side. more...
On Friday night, VP-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton. He was loudly booed. The cast delivered a respectful message asking him to “work on behalf of all of us”. President-elect and noted internet troll Donald Trump accused the cast of harassment, because the truth is whatever he says it is. By Saturday morning, it was – going by my feed – most of what Twitter was talking about.
It’s probably appropriate that amidst a torrent of harassment and abuse directed at marginalized people following the election of noted internet troll Donald Trump, Twitter would roll out a new feature that purports to allow users to protect themselves against harassment and abuse and general unwanted interaction and content. Essentially it functions as an extension of the “mute” feature, with broader and more powerful applications. It allows users to block specific keywords from appearing in their notifications, as well as muting conversation threads they’re @ed in, effectively removing themselves.
“It’s time for unity.” “We need to listen to each other more.” “Now that it’s over, things can get back to normal.” “Who knows, maybe he won’t do all that stuff.” “Let’s give him a chance.”
This is what it often looks like when liberals and moderates who didn’t support Trump try to come to terms with his election. To quell their own fears. To quell the fears of others. To tamp down the vitriol and partisanship of a long, ugly campaign. To make amends with the relatives on Facebook whom they all-caps yelled at, to signal to their Twitter followers that they are folding themselves into the new normal, and to atone for being blindsided by an election result that many had already predicted—primarily those most effected by a Trump presidency: immigrants and people of color.
Calls for unity and prayers that his campaign was mere showmanship are not only a coping mechanism, but a performance as well. It’s trite to say that any post on social media is a performance, though that does not make it less true. And politics itself is a performance. But I believe the performance of reasonability in this particular climate has important, perhaps dire, repercussions for all of us, and more so for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us.
My writing this was inspired prior to last week’s result by an article from May of this year, which proclaimed 2016 as the first “internet election.” The author, Andrew Keen, was less concerned with rigorously defining what an “internet election” might entail, and more interested in throwing a variety of questions at 2016 in order to rip it away from the course of standard electoral discourse. The barely-implicit question, of course, was to explain away what seemed––at the time and until last week––the outlier that was Donald J. Trump.