Less than a week ago Byron Román made the above Facebook post challenging “bored teens” to pick up trash and post before and after photos on social media. Reddit user Baxxo24 (Baxxo24 looks to be Swedish while Byron lives in Arizona) took a screenshot and posted it to r/wholesomememes where it went viral. Now #trashtag (“hashtag trashtag?”) is the subject of a dozen or so feel-good human interest stories. It is unclear who the guy in the photo is (It looks like it came from a Guatemalan Travel Agency), but CNN, Washington Post, and CBS News have reported that “trashtag” is a long-dormant social media campaign for UCO Gear, a Seattle-based camping equipment company.

When I started seeing Byron Román’s #trashtag trending on my usual platforms I did what any well-adjusted person would do: I assumed it was as scam and Facebook stalked him until I was convinced otherwise. According to his Facebook profile, Román works in the non-profit home loan industry, mostly in marketing. His latest job helps veterans apply for and receive cheap mortgages. Nothing too dubious there, but it got me thinking about the long and dismal history of littering campaigns’ role in playing cover for corporate interests. more...

Image By Al Ibrahim

I want all of your mind
People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window…

Digital witnesses
What’s the point of even sleeping?

— St. Vincent, “Digital Witness” (2014)

 

Each day seemingly brings new revelations as to the extent of our Faustian bargain with the purveyors of the digital world in which we find ourselves. Our movements, moods, and monies are tracked with relentless precision, yielding the ability to not only predict future behaviors but to actively direct them. Permissions are sometimes given with pro forma consent, while other times they’re simply baked into the baseline of the shiniest and newest hardware and software alike. Back doors, data breaches, cookies and trackers, smart everything, always-on devices, and so much more — to compare Big Tech to Big Brother is trite by now, even as we might soon look back on the latter as a quaint form of social control.

While data breaches and privacy incursions are very serious and have tangible consequences, debates over user rights and platform regulation barely scratch the surface. Deeper questions about power, autonomy, and what it means to be human still loom, largely uncovered.  And when these concerns are even voiced at all they can often seem retrogressive, as if they represent mere longings for a bygone (pre-internet) time when children played outside, politics was honorable, and everyone was a great conversationalist. Despite ostensible consternation when something goes egregiously wrong (like influencing an election, let’s say), the public and political conversation around mass data collection and its commercialization never goes far enough: why do so many seemingly reasonable and critical people accept a surveillance-for-profit economy (with all of us as the primary commodity) as tolerable at all? more...

What is the one thing that stands between you and all your dreams? CAPITALISM. "Yourself" - the answer is obviously you. I'm pretty sure it's CAPITALISM.

In January I started a new job (woo me!), but I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten over the one I left yet, nor the job application process it took to get here. Below are some reflections on that experience, which I share mainly to process them.

On my last day working at the university as an office support assistant (four years almost to the day), I published one more issue of the biweekly program newsletter one last time. In a short goodbye to readers, I found myself recalling another assistant who published her department’s newsletter—my mom. “She delighted in the visual design aspects, adding new flourishes and sections,” I wrote, remembering her face lighting up in the car on the drive home from high school when she’d find the perfect clipart or goofy pun to slip into the margins. Even after leaving the university herself, she likes crafting cards and mom memes in Publisher 2007, her visual design program of choice. more...

Poster spotted in the Geoengineering and Geosciences department
at the University of Quebec at Abitibi and Temiscamingue. However, the author believes the future is not just about robots. (Image: Maya Ganesh, 2017)

It seems like there is a flowering of interest in speculating about the future. Of course SF writers, the RAND Group, and Trekkies, have been doing this for much longer. (An interesting side note: SF writers are now enjoying new income streams by working with multinational corporations to imagine the future.)

It is possible that as consumer technologies began to appear as if from ‘the future’, as presented to us in dystopian movies such as Bladerunner and Minority Report,  speculating about the future increasingly became a topic of interest. As the phrase ‘surveillance capitalism’ has gained visibility thanks to devices just as the Echo. And maybe things started to appear ‘Orwellian’ after the Snowden revelations. I would like to think that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports generate concern about the future; but the continued rising temperature of the planet suggests that this is not the case. Possibly for people in the US, the election of Donald Trump, for Brazilians of Jair Bolsonaro, The Future has become a thing to be worried about (‘now more than ever’).

I spent last weekend at a workshop called Designing Tomorrow organised by the great folks behind the Utopia Film Festival in Tel Aviv, and re:publica in Berlin. The workshop was about testing various methodologies to actually speculate about the future; and they drew heavily from Peter Frase’s Four Futures. It got me thinking about the different narratives to thinking about the future. Here is a quick overview of some of these that I’ve encountered through recent arts and culture projects, and in the tech news (These do not necessarily line up as perfectly nested Russian dolls, however.)

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(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

This past weekend I attended Crafting the Long Tomorrow, a conference ostensibly about climate change, though approached through the varied perspectives of scholars working in both the sciences and the humanities. The setting was Biosphere 2, the site of two 1990s experiments to recreate the Earth’s biosphere in a completely sealed environment, under the assumption that humanity would need to evacuate our current planet some time in the future. Throughout the densely packed three days of panels and keynotes, we heard about efforts to measure, curb, combat, and educate on the anthropocentric nature of our impending planetary disaster.

From the outset, there was a relatively awkward divide in the room, though not the disciplinary sort that I would have predicted. Rather, there seemed to be two parallel conferences going on in the same room at the same time: one was being attended and contributed to by individuals who wanted to center identity politics and socio-economic considerations and another by those who did not (or, to be fair, perhaps did not even consider it a possibility). What I found the most striking, however, was that when the former would call out the latter, the critique would be met with an absurd defensiveness. When a respondent to a talk about the first Biosphere 2 experiment pointed out that there was a complete lack of diversity in the all-White participants (the “Biospherians”), another audience member took it upon himself to explain that the experiment was not about diversity among humans, but diversity among plants within the structure. The next morning, when two presenters spoke out about the dearth of people of color within the room, one of the organizers declared that she was made sad by the call-out and didn’t find it fair.

This is not to say that the conference was, in itself, not fruitful. Those talks that did engage with questions of diversity and marginalized communities did so eloquently and with an openness that resulted in compelling discourse. Still, even throughout those talks, not one speaker engaged with questions of physical access, disability studies, or disability rights.

That climate change will affect the most marginalized first and with the most force has been well argued. It is important to recognize the at-risk nature of those for whom the deterioration of our natural world and the systems of infrastructure within means life-or-death situations on an order of magnitude greater than for an abled body. In 2017, for PS Mag, David M. Perry described four different types of ways that disabled individuals might be at-risk during a climate crisis:

health maintenance (medicine, electricity, medical care), ability to move in and through physical areas, effective communication access, and what the experts call “program access.” Some of these needs are obvious: People who depend on dialysis or oxygen need power. Diabetics need insulin. Chemotherapy patients need hospitals that work, and so forth. A wheelchair user might well not be able to cross flooded areas, climb stairs to escape rising water, or access a shelter. Shelter space might also be inaccessible because messages about locations aren’t communicated in sign language or Braille. Such spaces might be too loud or chaotic for people with sensory integration needs

Perry’s piece provides an excellent overview of the problem and I suggest you read it.

But I also suggest/implore scholars, artists, researchers, and scientists to start centering disability studies within their work on climate change. You might approach it from an infrastructural perspective, extending work of scholars like Cassandra Hartblay, who has argued that “When accessible design elements are installed to meet minimum standards, they are “just for the check mark” and often do not “work.”” This might relate well to research on, for instance, ADA standards and how well they would hold up to the various climate disaster scenarios. Or you might take a more theoretical approach and build on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on fitting versus misfitting—something we’ve talk about a lot at Theorizing the Web. What happens when the environment shifts so drastically that the fits become the misfits—what do the misfits become?

There is a rich trove of research to be done here and it’s not being addressed on the necessary scale. Let’s do better.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. The headline of this piece is a shout-out to Annie Elainey’s awesome t-shirt project.

In addition to contributing to Cyborgology, I write a sex column for the Pittsburgh City Paper. This week, I wrote a piece that’s relevant to conversations here, titled, “A new Kickstarter campaign has a terrible solution to your relationship problems.

I look at LoveSync, a new technology aimed at helping couples with mismatched libidos, and argue it’s an example of how technological solutions to social or interpersonal problems can do more harm than good.

Jessie Sage on Twitter @sapiotextual.

I’ve written about Star Trek a few times (here and here). I think I still agree with most of what’s written there. PJ Patella-Rey also wrote about Star Trek on the blog here. My favorite commentary on Discovery, which I’ll do my best not to simply repeat is by Lyta Gold which you can read at Current Affairs. What follows are some vaguely connected thoughts I’ve had about Discovery‘s relationship to the rest of the canon after having just gotten caught up with the series. more...

Stories about AI gone bigoted are easy to find: Microsoft’s Neo-Nazi “Tay” bot, her still racist sister “Zo”, Google’s autocomplete function that assumed men occupy high status jobs, and Facebook’s job-related targeted advertising which assumed the same.

A key factor in AI bias is that the technology is trained on faulty databases. Databases are made up of existing content. Existing content comes from people interacting in society. Society has historic, entrenched, and persistent patterns of privilege and disadvantage across demographic markers. Databases reflect these structural societal patterns and thus, replicate discriminatory assumptions. For example, Rashida Richardson, Jason Schultz, and Kate Crawford put out a paper this week showing how policing jurisdictions with a history of racist and unprofessional practices generate “dirty data” and thus produce dubious databases from which policing algorithms are derived. The point is that database construction is a social and political task, not just a technical one. Without concerted effort and attention, databases will be biased by default.  more...

After his clash with the Wall Street Journal in February 2017 become memorialised as a struggle between YouTube Influencers and the legacy media, PewDiePie was embroiled in more controversy for amplifying anti-Semitic sentiment, attacking/calling-out more journalists and media outlets, and inciting a YouTube channel war that has stimulated his followers to spew racist remarks. Despite all this, journalists observe that “PewDiePie’s frequent controversies seem to have no real effect on his popularity“.

In the wake of these events, I asked by several journalists to provide context and commentary on Influencers and their relationship to the mainstream media. As expected, I was pressed to forecast if Influencers would eventually replace digital news media outlets, or to confirm if legacy and digital media were increasingly threatened by Influencers’ impact in the information space. I struggled to respond to sweeping statements such as ‘YouTubers have more legitimacy than the press’, ‘Young people generally trust Influencers over the media’, and ‘Influencers have a larger reach than the media today’, without providing situational context. As a reflection on a fortnight of such conversations, I briefly pen here three nuances to keep in mind when comparing digital news media to Influencers, given that each is held to distinct barometers of authority, engagement, and reach. more...

Yes, Please to this article by Amy Orben and Andrew K. Przybylski, which I plan to pass around like I’m Oprah with cars. Titled The Association Between Adolescent Well-Being and Digital Technology Use, the paper does two of my favorite things: demonstrates the importance of theoretical precision & conceptual clarity in research design, and undermines moral panics about digital technology and mental health.

The effects of digital technologies on the mental lives of young people has been a topic of interdisciplinary concern and general popular worry. Such conversations are kept afloat by contradictory research findings in which digital technologies are alternately shown to enhance mental well-being, damage mental well-being, or to have little effect at all. Much (though not all) of this work comes from secondary analyses of large datasets, building on a broader scientific trend of big data analytics as an ostensibly superlative research tool. Orben and Przybylski base their own study on analysis of three exemplary datasets including over 350,000 cases. However, rather than simply address digital technology and mental well-being, the authors rigorously interrogate how existing datasets define key variables of interest, operationalize those variables, and model them with controls (i.e., other relevant factors). more...