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With the Republican National Convention still freshly branded into our brains and the Democratic National Convention beginning to stagger into the media cycle, now is a good time to learn a few things about spectacles. If nominating conventions are anything, they are spectacles. For this we should turn to no one less than Guy Debord and his classic text The Society of the Spectacle.

Debord uses “spectacle” to describe “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.“ It is important to remember that spectacle can mean a visually rich event or something that you wear over your eyes to change your vision. The society of the spectacle shifts between both: media-saturated events support the creation of lenses with which to see the world. The propaganda of political rallies is not washed away by the balloon drop: it sticks with you long afterward. Throughout The Society of the Spectacle Debord makes reference to real and natural worlds but do not mistake such a distinction for a (digital) dualist conception of the world. Rather, Debord observes:

The spectacle cannot be set in abstract opposition to concrete social activity, for the dichotomy between reality and image will survive on either side of any such distinction. Thus the spectacle, though it turns reality on its head, is itself a product of real activity.

The spectacle is capitalist means of production feeling itself. It is always ready to replace meaningful experiences that we make for each other, with meticulously crafted moments that feel and look bigger and better than what we might have made for ourselves. Like the sweetness of candy compared to a beet from a garden. Debord suggests that a prerequisite for these moments is the destruction of more “real” experiences:

In its most advanced sectors, a highly concentrated capitalism has begun selling “fully equipped” blocks of time, each of which is a complete commodity combining a variety of other commodities. This is the logic behind the appearance, within an expanding economy of “services” and leisure activities, of the “all­inclusive” purchase of spectacular forms of housing, of collective pseudo­travel, of participation in cultural consumption and even of sociability itself, in the form of “exciting conversations,” “meetings with celebrities” and suchlike. Spectacular commodities of this type could obviously not exist were it not for the increasing impoverishment of the realities they parody. And, not surprisingly, they are also paradigmatic of modern sales techniques in that they may be bought on credit.

This is how we might make sense of the fact that conventions often give plumb speaking slots to celebrities and other folks that hold no office in the party or the government. Celebrities can stand in for a friend or a mentor. They are emotional surrogates as much as anything else.

Conventions also appear to be celebrating something when in fact few people know or care about what is going on, let alone are excited about their outcome. Debord’s “pseudo-festival” might help us understand what is going on here. Like the “real” experience, the conventions make up for the lack of actual celebration-worthy events through sheer force of visibility and manufactured excitement:

Our epoch, which presents its time to itself as essentially made up of many frequently recurring festivities, is actually an epoch without festival. Those moments when, under the reign of cyclical time, the community would participate in a luxurious expenditure of life, are strictly unavailable to a society where neither community nor luxury exists. Mass pseudo­festivals, with their travesty of dialogue and their parody of the gift, may incite people to excessive spending, but they produce only a disillusion ­­ which is invariably in turn offset by further false promises. The self­approbation of the time of modern survival can only be reinforced, in the spectacle, by reduction in its use value. The reality of time has been replaced by its publicity.

This last sentence sounds strange but the idea is simple: rather than celebrate the passage of historical time—acknowledging that life itself is defined as a span of time, that all things emerge as a product of time’s passing, and that by the very nature of things the biggest endeavors must be social because they take longer than a single human life—the spectacle requires time be both infinite and dividable into standard segments. The convention schedule, the time slot, and the commercial break are all predicated on the assumption that certain moments must be well seen and others are far less important. Time is divided so that it might be sold and the selling price is pegged to its ability to be seen, its publicity.

As we watch this convention and re-watch the last one (either uncut and pure, or reformulated as more obvious farce) let’s know spectacle when we see it, but also leave room for moments of honest candor. The spectacle is a useful theoretical lens, but it is also important to take it off once in a while. Debord leaves little room for moments where commodified time might be turned back on itself and appropriated for parody or narratives resistant to hegemonic discourse. (Debord sees the spectacle as, itself, a parody of more authentic ways of living.) The conventions are spectacle from gavel to gavel, but humanity always has a way of shining through.

David is on Twitter

Image credit: PBS Newshour

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One of the first news stories about the June 12th Orlando shooting that I read focused on the mother of a young man trapped inside Pulse nightclub, and the text messages that she had exchanged with her son. When I first read the story, the fate of the young man was not yet known, although his text messages had ceased by 3am, and his mother was quoted as having a “bad feeling” about the outcome. That day, as the names of the victims trickled out, I followed the news intently, hoping that somehow this young man’s name would not appear on the list of the deceased. But it did.

Like so many others across the country and the world in the wake of the Orlando massacre, I experienced an intense form of empathy for the victims and their families, made possible in part by increasingly timely and intimate forms of news gathering in the digital age. I read the news from a position of safety and security, but still felt that empty pit in my stomach, still had to stop in my tracks as the young man’s name came across my constantly updating Twitter feed. Millions of others felt something similar. But what becomes of all this empathy?

Empathy has increasingly come to be seen as an important component of efforts at social justice across a host of different contexts. For instance, writing on the current refugee crisis, Britney Summit Gill suggested that “if Westerners don’t care about the stability of the Middle East or the refugee crisis, we need to close the empathy gap and make the peoples of other regions of the world more familiar, more relatable.” This same “empathy gap” has also been used to describe the relatively low level of public attention paid to the recent terror attack in Istanbul, compared with the dramatic outpouring of emotion in the West devoted to last year’s attacks in Paris. And some argue that new technologies like virtual reality can cause us to “instinctively feel a surge of empathy for those whose experiences we are immersed in.” The assumption in these and other cases appears to be that an increase in empathy for the suffering of distant others can lead to improved outcomes for suffering people down the line. Indeed, we might be more focused on ending Western military adventurism if we viewed all people as equally worthy of our attention and protection. As Summit Gil laudably put it, “the least we can do is try.”

But this view may misunderstand what empathy really is, and its many limitations. As philosopher Jesse Prinz explained, “empathy is partial; we feel greater empathy for those who are similar to ourselves,” and numerous studies have born this out. For example, one psychological experiment found that whites who strongly identified with their own racial group biased their charitable giving against black disaster victims. Another confirmed that even on a sensory level, people experience more empathy for the physical pain of those with the same skin color. Race is, of course, a social construct, not some kind of natural or inherent barrier between peoples. But as long as some people continue to imagine that phenotypical differences are markers of significant distinctions between themselves and others, then we can expect empathy to have trouble crossing racial and other boundaries.

These are the perils of relying on what is essentially an imaginary relationship between some distant unfortunate and oneself. Psychologist Lauren Wispé argued that because it refers to “the attempt of one self-aware self to understand the subjective experiences of another self” empathy doesn’t necessarily involve “awareness of another’s plight as something to be alleviated.” Sociologist Candace Clark has suggested that empathy is simply the first step in a process that can lead to a desire to help, but can also lead to indifference or even disgust towards the other. My own textual analysis of an anti-Occupy Wall Street blog has shown that people can quite easily imagine the suffering of others as manageable or surmountable. The larger point here is that these things are not failures of empathy—this is how empathy works. We can’t truly know another’s pain, and in that gap between one’s own subjective experience and the pain of another, there is room for all sorts of biases, misunderstandings, and even enmity.

This makes the focus on empathy a somewhat poor choice for social justice movements. If we assume that empathy can and ought to be distributed equally, or that a more just society is predicated on a more empathetic public sphere, we are likely to be disappointed. This is true even as social networking sites, viral videos, and mobile devices put us in such intense and intimate contact with the suffering of others. After all, these things can expose the brutality of police violence against people of color, but just as easily rally support for those same police.

Of course, I believe that empathy is a virtue. I try to be as empathetic as I can toward those close to me as well as those very distant or different from me. And I hope that my friends and family are similarly empathetic. Nonetheless, I am troubled by the politics of empathy, which privilege short-sighted resolutions that salve emotions but often do little to fix underlying problems. The shape of the gun control debate in the wake of the Orlando shooting revealed as much.

As has become customary after such tragedies, calls for federal gun control legislation once again rang out after Orlando. This time they inspired, at the very least, some significant acts of political theater. Just four days after the Orlando massacre, Senator Chris Murphy engaged in a 15-hour filibuster in the Senate to demand a gun control vote. A week later, Congressional Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor of the House, also demanding the passage of new legislation, in a move that was heavily tweeted and streamed via the Periscope app. These displays felt good, they showed us politicians who were just as fatigued and frustrated and frightened as we were, and who were moved enough to disrupt the normal way of doing things.

Perhaps these ultimately fruitless maneuvers were the first steps in a broader movement. But in the rush to demonstrate empathy for the victims and their families, to salve the public’s enflamed emotional state, the bills put forward to address America’s gun problem were terrible. The so-called “no fly no buy” legislation would merely graft gun control onto a federal “no fly” list that, as Alex Pareene wrote, has been “a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands.” So even as these proposed laws played off our extreme empathy for the victims of gun violence in Orlando and elsewhere, they required us to avoid empathizing with all of those who have been secretly and often unfairly denied basic rights in the name of the war on terror. This is sadly reminiscent of the way that Americans’ empathy for the thousands of innocent victims of the September 11 attacks blinded them to the suffering that we soon unleashed on hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this way empathy can actually impede social justice.

We ought to remind ourselves, then, that justice doesn’t actually require empathy. It doesn’t rely on everyone developing a deeply felt understanding of what others are going through, and won’t necessarily be derailed by misunderstandings of this. There are likely many people who will never be empathetic toward disaster victims, or only do so in the most cursory and personally unchallenging ways. A safer and more just world will not be delivered through viral videos or Facebook posts. It requires hard work. It does require a movement that keeps going in the in-between times, when no new gun massacres are confronting us on television or on Twitter. It requires paying attention to the day-to-day handgun violence that results in less-spectacular but equally senseless losses. It depends on a movement of people who will keep the issue of gun control at the forefront of public consciousness once our mass-mediated empathy for the victims of gun violence has begun to fade. Many are already doing this. Many more are clearly needed. But if we truly want a safer and less violent future for this country, we can’t assume that the public’s mass-mediated empathy is going to make it happen on its own, or push legislators in the right direction. Instead, we need to keep working on ways to transform our empathy into action now, and in the months and years to come.

 

Timothy Recuber is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication at Hamilton College. His book, Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster, is out  Fall 2016 from Temple University Press. He tweets from @timr100,

Image credit: Francois Bester

I grew up watching a lot of Star Trek. It would be an understatement to say that the franchise was a big part of my life. Immediately after the last episode of Star Trek: Voyager I cut off my hair. I took Enterprise as a personal insult. If I saw J.J. Abrams I’d probably try to blind him with a strobe light while yelling, “How’s that lens flare working for you?!” I was feeling much more optimistic about the new TV series incarnation under Bryan Fuller until a couple days ago when, in an interview with Collider he told a reporter asking about casting decisions: “I’ve met with a few actors, and it’s an interesting process. There’s a few people that we like and we want to carry on what Star Trek does best, which is being progressive. So it’s fascinating to look at all of these roles through a colorblind prism and a gender-blind prism, so that’s exciting.” I try not to notice the color of flags but I’m pretty sure I’m seeing red ones.

After watching the whole rope-side interview and reading the transcript it seems that when he says “___-blind prism” Fuller is talking about an inclusionary and diverse cast. He goes on to clarify: “I think the progressive audience that loves Star Trek will be happy that we’re continuing that tradition.” This is faint reassurance. What a “progressive audience” wants out of Star Trek may not necessarily be what a diverse audience wants. Well-meaning, white progressive writers, producers, and directors, will not do the same work as a production team with diverse representation. Put another way, it is fine and right that the cast be diverse but who is behind the camera and holding the pen is just as (maybe even more) important here. The progressiveness that I heard in that interview sounded more like white people being generous: a working “for” rather than a working “with.”

As our last two essays from Apryl Williams and Jenny Davis on the newest season of Orange is the New Black (spoilers in both) have argued: having non-white characters—even a lot of them—does not get you anywhere near good race politics. What it usually delivers, in the words of Williams, are “[black people’s] stories but from a white perspective.” We can expect the same from Star Trek given that everyone working on the show (so far) is white:

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Bryan Fuller
Alex Kurtzman
Alex Kurtzman
Heather Kadin
Heather Kadin
Nicholas Meyer
Nicholas Meyer

The utopia depicted in the Star Trek universe is largely the construction of the white men that wrote the majority of the episodes and it is in danger of getting worse not better. So far it already hasn’t met the expectations set by its predecessors: The original series was one of the first science fiction television series with a woman as a writer and black actors like Avery Brooks, Michael Dorn, and LeVar Burton have all directed multiple episodes, many of which garnered the most accolades. Star Trek accomplished a lot with a stable of writers that woefully underrepresented the audiences it attracted and spoke to.

Moreover, if the Star Trek of 2016 is going to be as groundbreaking as it was half a century ago, it will have to achieve something beyond fair hiring practices. It would be a missed opportunity to hire everyone that does not identify as white and male, and interrogate the same utopia. The very foundations, the very premise of the Star Trek universe needs to shift and reveal the underlying mechanism that make this particular utopia work.

The franchise must undergo a shift on the order of what happened in the mid-nineties. What Trek writers called “leaving the Roddenberry Box.” Former producer Michael Piller, in an unpublished manuscript about working on the show, describes the box like this:

Roddenberry was adamant that Twenty-Fourth Century man would evolve past the petty emotional turmoil that gets in the way of our happiness today. Well, as any writer will tell you, ‘emotional turmoil’, petty and otherwise, is at the core of any good drama. It creates conflict between characters. But Gene didn’t want conflict between our characters. “All the problems of mankind have been solved,” he said. “Earth is a paradise.”

Now, go write drama.

PIller goes on to say that he actually came to respect and even be the final champion of the Roddenberry Box until he left amongst what he calls a “writers’ rebellion of sorts” after the second season of Voyager. The writers said they had to be let out of the box and both series that were running at the time, Voyager and Deep Space Nine, got immensely better. They got better not because they left the box behind, the show got better because the writers put characters in competing positions to justify the box. Utopia had to be defended.

While The Next Generation is undoubtedly a good show, the later seasons of Deep Space Nine and Voyager have a richness that made them more thought-provoking. Both of these series are meditations on justifying received values with none of the prerequisite material support that makes those values work. How do post-scarcity ethics work when you’re stranded far away from home? What does it mean to uphold exploration as your highest ideal when you are at war? To what lengths will you go to defend utopia? These shows were, as far as I can remember, the last popular pieces of culture that asked us to think in utopian terms. We need that again, especially given how shaky everything feels as of late.

Ronald D. Moore, one of the most strident critics of the Roddenberry Box, eventually ended up being one of the most prominent writers and left an indelible mark on the series. If this new series is going to do what Star Trek should do—push boundaries about what is politically, culturally, and socially possible—then we will need a shift of similar proportions and scope. What have we been missing in this utopia? What remains stubbornly scarce in a post-scarcity utopia? In a world where you can transport across the planet in a fraction of a second, what keeps regional cultures alive? Is Sisko’s Creole Kitchen more like an Olive Garden in Tuscany—a chain restaurant mimicking what it is situated in—or is that no longer a useful distinction? Is whatever we might call “Italian culture” today enacted solely in places like the Olive Garden in the 24th century? Might we be disgusted by a society that is utterly and completely free and happy? I want to see those stories.

Star Trek was never progressive, it was utopian. It makes sense though that Fuller would characterize Star Trek as both “progressive” and “color blind” because that is, in a sense, what Gene Roddenberry had made in retrospect. But at the time it was not merely progressive, it was utopian. Utopias, like the Roddenberry Box, don’t just let us display the final result of a certain kind of politics, they let us interrogate the very foundations of our politics. They let us bring ideas to their logical and illogical conclusions and, in so doing, gives us a crucible in which to crush them up, mix them, and come up with brand new ideas. Utopic story telling should not be blind to anything: it should meet race, class, gender, and any other social structure head on and complicate it beyond comprehension. What comes out the other side should be a little unnerving, exciting, and dangerous. Exactly what the future should be.

David is on Twitter: @da_banks

 

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The recent tragedy in Orlando should remind us, among many other things, that building solidarity and compassion across multiple identities is both difficult and necessary. It is difficult because too few people are willing or able to understand how intersecting forms of oppression can leave their mark on one’s identity. It is necessary because those forms of oppression are at their most powerful when they divide people as they hold them down. Building a politics that recognizes the unique challenges of intersecting identities while not stopping at advocating for the freedom of only that identity is the sort of critique that reminds us that organizations like The Human Rights Campaign are both a force for progressive change but ultimately an extremely limited one. I like to think of concepts like identity politics and intersectionality as inventions or technologies because it underscores how analytical concepts do work in the world. You can look at writing by radical collectives before and after these concepts were invented and see very different kinds of points being made and new approaches to activist work being tested. Thinking this way also helps us think about how and to what degree people use these concepts correctly or productively.

The Combahee River Collective started out as a chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization but eventually became a black feminist lesbian organization of its own operating out of Boston in the second half of the 1970s. The term “identity politics” was first coined in their collective statement released in 1977 which was consciously part of building a movement around intersecting forms of oppression. In the interview below, between author and black feminist Kimberly Springer and Combahee River Collective member Barbara Smith, we can see how identity politics and intersectionality were “invented” for a very particular purpose but then appropriated by the right wing to do the exact opposite kind of rhetorical work. After so much abuse, these terms get “watered down” even when they’re used by well-intentioned leftists.

Before turning to the interview I want to suggest that while Smith and Springer don’t dwell too long on the right-wing’s intentions for using terms like identity politics, I suspect the hijacking of these terms was an intentional act of sabotage (or technological appropriation [PDF]) and not a misunderstanding. The intentionality becomes more obvious when conservatives seem to “get” intersectionality better than liberals. For example, Melissa Gira Grant in Pacific Standard writing about the recent spate of anti-trans bathroom bills notes: “Same-sex marriage, straight sex outside marriage, and trans people — they see the sexual politics linking all these issues, a kind of conservative intersectionality liberals still struggle over.”

The following is excerpted from pages 53 and 54 in Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith (2014).

Barbara Smith: We meant to assert that it is legitimate to look at the elements of a combined identity that included affiliation or connection to several marginalized groups in this society. There is meaning in being not solely a person of color, not solely Black, not solely female, not solely lesbian, not solely working class or poor. There is a new constellation of meaning when those identities are combined. That’s what we were trying to say. … Black politics at the time, as defined by males, did not completely or sufficiently address the actual circumstances of real, live Black women. They just didn’t.

What the right wing meant by identity politics was that those people who are not white, not male, not straight, and not rich, it was not legitimate for them to assert anything, because they just wanted special privileges and special rights in a context of: “Enough rights already.”  … White males who are heterosexual and have class privileges—the system does work pretty well for them. There was a great resentment that theses other people, these people they considered to be marginal and undeserving of the same kind of privileges and access, they were irritated that those people were asserting that, again, it made a difference whether you were an immigrant of Muslim heritage or religious beliefs, living in the United States, and maybe even queer at the same time. They didn’t want to hear about that. …

Kimberly Springer: But it seems like there are some on the left who might let the Right co-opt the term “identity politics” by talking about the differences that they think identity politics creates. It seems like the disparagement of identity politics is something that works against having unity within a movement. So, if people are organizing that there’s value in their own situation and their own identity, how does that work with the goal of solidarity?

Barbara Smith: That was another aspect of it Because the watered-down version of identity politics was just what you described. Which was, “I’m an African American, working-class lesbian with a physical disability and those are the only things I’m concerned about. I’m not really interested in finding out about the struggles of Chicano farm workers to organize labor unions, because that doesn’t have anything to do with me.” The narrow watered-down dilution of the most expansive meaning of the term “identity politics” was used by people as a way of isolating themselves, and not working in coalition, and not being concerned about overarching systems of institutionalized oppression. That was narrow.

 

 

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In the 60s there was a movement in engineering and the physical sciences towards building what the British economist E.F. Schumacher called “appropriate technology.” Appropriate technology is sort of what it sounds like: build things that are appropriate to the context in which they are meant to be deployed. If that sounds like common sense to you, then you are benefitting from a minor scientific revolution that occurred in the midst of incredible professional hubris. For quite a while (and still today, as I can personally attest to during my time at a polytechnic institute) scientists and engineers thought that what works in an American lab will work anywhere in the world. Physics is physics no matter where you are and so the underlying mechanical properties of any given technology should work wherever it is situated. Appropriate technology pushed back against that concept, encouraging practitioners to think long and hard about social, economic, political, environmental, and any other context an artifact might find itself in.

Such a broad critique is bound to distort and end up (somewhat ironically in this case) broken apart into several different flavors based on who uses that idea. In 1990, Kelvin Willoughby gave appropriate technology a book-length evaluation and critique, first noting that the fracturing of the term makes it a difficult idea to wrestle with:

The term “appropriate technology” has been taken up by a plethora of organizations, interest groups, individuals and schools of thought, and its usage has consequently been loose and confusing. It is used variously to refer to particular philosophical approaches to technology, to ideologies, to a political-economic critique, to social movements, to economic development strategies, to particular types of technical hardware, or even to anti-technology activities.

Willoughby’s working definition of appropriate technology ends up being, “technology tailored to fit the psychosocial and biophysical context prevailing in a particular location and period.” Think of water pumps built for rural farms in Zimbabwe [PDF] or insulation made out of agricultural waste. These things seek to leverage or work seamlessly within, existing resource flows or topological realities. The water pumps are simple and their parts replaceable and widely replicable specifically because it is difficult to ship and sell finely machined parts in rural Zimbabwe. The insulation uses highly fibrous materials like coconuts and cork that are found in equatorial regions that are in need of exports and well-performing insulation to keep cool. These technologies seek to “fit” the context but ultimately they mean to change it in the long run.

Fitting into a context so as to ultimately change it, is an insidious kind of appropriate. Certainly there are things that need changing and water pumps and insulation are good things, but there is a danger in focusing on the initial conditions when describing the benefits of a technology. A hundred years ago the industrializing cities of America underwent significant changes as part of the City Beautiful Movement. “City Beautiful advocates” writes Catherine Tumber in the introduction to Small, Gritty, and Green,

mainly local elites joined in voluntary municipal art and civic improvement associations that served as informal planning boards–concerned themselves with the orderly grouping and placement of public buildings, railway stations, and parks, nurturing an exemplary vision of the urban public realm. Influenced by neoclassicism and the arts-and-crafts movement ideal that “what is most adapted to its purposes is most beautiful,” they were particularly attentive to appropriate fit and scale. Some of their handiwork remains in smaller cities across the land, since the market for new downtown development, which usually results in the demolition of older buildings, did not take shape as it did in large cities over the past few decades.

This pair of interwoven movements –City Beautiful and Arts and Crafts– are not unlike trends we see today. Proponents of the City Beautiful sought to literally and directly take control over the shape and character of their cities and the Arts and Crafts movement was not unlike the maker movement of today: a response to the pre-made-ness of the world and a desire to find some semblance of control in a rapidly changing world. All of these movements are well-intended –and individuals certainly do find joy in tinkering with the things around them– but ultimately we should understand that all of this is about control. Sometimes that control is over personal possessions: being able to repair a pair of headphones instead of buying new ones. Most of the time though, having the leisure time to attend meetings and being a part of organizations is a good way for local elites to make big changes while appearing democratic. The working poor, in addition to being financially strapped, are often deprived of leisure time as well.

Moreover, the focus on artifacts –whether they are buildings or hand-made Etsy commodities– generally misses underlying social factors that contribute to communities’ problems. You won’t end poverty by putting the poor in different buildings and you won’t make a dent in alienation by focusing solely on the digital devices that embody the latest instantiation of capitalism. Wade Graham in Dream Cities is instructive here:

Ultimately, the revolutionary intent of the Arts and Crafts movement failed: handmade objects were too expensive for any but the wealthy, most of whom had gotten rich from the industrialization and standardization of production that the movement decried.

The Arts and Crafts reformers were looking at the wrong things: things. Just as [Arts and Crafts movement leader William] Morris wanted to believe in the power of better-designed and more humanely made objects to cure our social ills, … critics of the conditions of the new industrial city wanted to believe that the city itself was the culprit, not the economic conditions that drove its growth. They failed to look at themselves behind the curtain. like the Wizard of Oz, operating the machinery.

A similar, and perhaps larger, irony plays out today in Troy, New York where I live. A century ago this city was at the forefront of industrialization but it lost the game it helped make and is now resorting to the maker movement and handmade goods to rebuild what it has lost. There is a humongous makerspace downtown and all the little shops have jewelry and furniture made and recycled by local artists.

Circling back now to appropriate technology I think it is fair to ask what sort of context is Troy and what technology would be appropriate to help it thrive? Is it more industry? That is what New York’s Governor Cuomo thinks is the right answer. Is it more handicrafts? That’s what the local leaders of the Business Improvement District seem to agree on. The literature on appropriate technology might agree with both of these assessments: That the appropriate organizational technology for a place like Troy is some sort of commodified handicraft industry. Something that leverages all of the empty warehouses and latent creative talent in the region, along with its proximity to larger cities and markets. All of this sounds wrong to me because who wants to play to the context of a boom-and-bust cycle of wealth inequality? Building appropriately for such a context seems like a good way to uphold a status quo and not get at the heart of the problem. Perhaps the technology appropriate for places like Troy are ones that are not appropriate for their contexts at all. What exactly that is, will require some political imagination.

David is on twitter: @da_banks

 

Lede image by Brian Debus

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“The founding practice of conspiratorial thinking” writes Kathleen Stewart, “is the search for the missing plot.” When some piece of information is missing in our lives, whether it is the conversion ratio of cups to ounces or who shot JFK, there’s a good chance we’ll open up a browser window. And while most of us agree that there are eight ounces to every cup, far fewer (like, only 39 percent) think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Many who study the subject point to the mediation of the killing –The Zapruder film, the televised interviews and discussions about the assassination afterward—as one of the key elements of the conspiracy theory’s success. One might conclude that mediation and documentation cannot help but provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theory building.

Stewart goes so far as to say “The internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing, no place…” Just like a conspiracy theory you never get to the end of the Internet. Both are constantly unfolding with new information or a new arrangement of old facts. It is no surprise then, that with the ever-increasing saturation of our lives with digital networks that we are also awash in grotesque amalgamations of half-facts about vaccines, terrorist attacks, the birth and death of presidents, and the health of the planet. And, as the recently leaked documents about Facebook’s news operations demonstrate, it takes regular intervention to keep a network focused on professional reporting. Attention and truth-seeking are two very different animals.

The Internet might be a conspiracy theory but given the kind, size, and diversity of today’s conspiracy theories it is also worth asking a follow-up question: what is the Internet a conspiracy about? Is it a theory about the sinister inclinations of a powerful cabal? Or is it a derogatory tale about a scapegoated minority? Can it be both or neither? Stewart was writing in 1999, before the web got Social so she could not have known about the way 9/11 conspiracies flourished on the web and she may not have suspected our presidential candidates would make frequent use of conspiratorial content to drum up popular support. Someone else writing in 1999 got it right though. That someone was Joe Menosky and he wrote one of the best episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. Season 6, Episode 9 titled The Voyager Conspiracy.

In The Voyager Conspiracy Seven of Nine, a former Borg drone who can download and upload data like a computer but still has the reasoning capacities of a fleshy human brain, has decided to upload the ships’ logs into her mind. As a literal cyborg Seven can leverage the storage capacity of a computer with the analytic capabilities we (and even the Federation) have yet to build into an artificial intelligence. No time is spent explaining why anyone would want to do such a thing but perhaps the reason we need no explanation is the same reason anyone thought Siri would be a good idea.

The initial results of her experiment are great—Seven correctly deduces that photonic fleas have disrupted power flow to the sensor grid—but things go awry from there. She quickly starts making connections across disparate events that are “highly speculative” (to borrow a phrase from Vulcan Security Officer, Tuvok) but difficult to disprove. Seven accuses Captain Janeway of plotting to send a Federation invasion force into the Delta Quadrant but not before accusing First Officer Chakotay of plotting to mount a similar invasion against the Federation. The episode crescendos with Seven attempting to flee the ship out of fear that she is the subject of a third elaborate conspiracy to use her as a science experiment.

In the final act of the episode Seven reports that the technology “functioned within expected parameters. Unfortunately, I did not.” It is a simple, elegant way to describe humans’ relationship to their creations. Like a wish granted by a monkey paw, we over-estimate our ability to handle technologies’ fulfillment of our desires. Seven starts by solving problems, then starts to question the motivations of powerful people, and finally turns inward convinced that everyone is out to get her. The first action is useful for a hierarchical organization like a ship. The first two actions are useful in a democracy. This third and final stage is definitely anti-social, perhaps even pathological, and so it is easy to dismiss this self-centered perspective as anathema to any sort of political or social organization.

Psychologists have studied conspiracy for a long time and have come to a similar conclusion. Daniel Jolley [PDF] cites one study that showed being exposed to one conspiracy theory made respondents more susceptible to believing subsequent conspiracy theories and were “unaware of the change in their conspiracy endorsement.” After being exposed to conspiracy theory material participants in one study “were less likely to engage with politics, relative to those who were exposed to information refuting conspiracy theories. This effect was shown to be caused by an increase in feelings of political powerlessness.” Jolley also cites multiple studies that show no particular demographic seems to “reliably predict conspiracy beliefs”, which Jolley interprets to mean that “we are all susceptible to conspiracy theories, which may subsequently help explain why conspiracy theories have flourished. Conspiracy theories appear to be viral apathy.

Political apathy, however, is not the same as total social isolation. Michael Wood, after citing the same Stewart essay quoted above, notes that “research has shown that people who once were afraid to express their opinions openly are now free to gather with like-minded individuals on forums, blogs, and social media, developing opinion-based communities of a breadth and depth never seen before.” Conspiracy in the age of the Internet, according to Wood, has become increasingly vague because the power to debunk has risen alongside the power to question. Instead of describing a plot with an intended goal (e.g. The U.S. faked the moon landing to win the space race.) conspiracy theories describe vague yet menacing government agencies. The idea that the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the Sandy Hook shooting were both false flag operations populated by crisis actors is a good example of post-internet conspiracy. They are specific stories about vague anxieties that the government and other powerful organizations are antagonistic to your existence.

Jolley and Wood are missing something though. Actually quite a few things. Perhaps it is true that everyone is equally capable of believing a conspiracy theory but I suspect there are lots of structural concerns –race, class, and gender positionality just to name a few—that factor into which conspiracy any given person believes in or gets introduced to. For example, Pasek et al. [PDF] show that conservative-leaning white Americans are overwhelmingly more likely to believe that Barack Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim. Reporting has also shown that it is largely well-educated, affluent parents that believe vaccines cause autism. Conspiracy theories are not, as Stewart claims, “all over the map: … right wing one moment and left-wing the next.” Or at least they aren’t anymore. As conspiracy theories have come into the mainstream they have made real changes to the world: preventable diseases, both biological and ideological, have broken out and they have a very particular political character.

It makes sense then, that recent political candidates have been greatly rewarded by not only citing conspiracy theories, but weaving them into a larger narrative of inequality brought about by elites beholden to foreign interests. The resulting story may seem ideologically confusing –rarely in American politics do we see a candidate defend social safety net programs while deriding illegal immigration—but it is populism, pure and simple.

Again, science fiction is instructive here. 9/11 is often treated as an inflection point for so many socio-political trends and conspiracy theories are no different. The recent X-Flies miniseries shows how the conspiracy theory terrain has shifted over the last 30 years. Whereas the original X-Files series (which ran from 1992 to 2002) cast the conspiracy theorist as a lone searcher for the truth, the reboot must account for a robust conspiratorial culture that has blossomed within populist political circles. “Since 9/11,” Skinner says in the first episode of the 10th season, “this country has taken a big turn in a very strange direction.”

When the original series launched public trust in government was at an all-time low of 18 percent. It went off the air amidst a potent combination of contract disputes and skyrocketing post-9/11 nationalism, but now we have come back to our senses and trust has fallen even lower. Except this new mini-series must deal with a very different conspiratorial terrain that is far more conservative and lucrative. One where the military, small businesses, and the police are the only institutions capable of garnering trust from over half of the population. Conspiracy among government elites is so expected and widely-believed that far-right media personalities not only have a big audience, they can build a successful business off of it. (Not to mention successful primary campaigns.)

The new X-Files perfectly mirrors Americans’ new relationship with political prominence, conspiracy, and governmental over-reach: Scully and Mulder find themselves making uneasy alliances where left and right means less than agitating a populist revolt against elites. The plot of the first and last episodes revolve around a conservative millionaire YouTube personality who wants to help them reveal The Truth but neither of the agents trust his motivations any more than they trust the elites within the FBI. It is a bargain many young leftists are considering themselves: compromise one’s deepest-held values and accept the offer to be brought back into the elite’s fold, or join with the conservative populist with whom you share a common enemy?

In considering the power of the Internet to spread conspiracy theories we have to take into account who is best poised to take advantage of widespread doubt. We have to remember that Seven cast a finger at authority first, but ultimately made it about herself. Such self-centered behavior can cause reactionary, anti-social behavior that easily maps onto open-ended, post-internet. Such vague anxieties are the proving ground for strong-man political campaigns. At the heart of conspiracy theories are disparities of power and any powerful person that promises to act on behalf of the people who “know the truth” can build an immensely successful campaign to extend that power. If the internet is a conspiracy theory, it is a mass of tangled, obscured lines of power that put the individual at the heart of the web. It is a theory that distorts the material relations of authority and constructs a truth that, ultimately, implicates everyone and no one. That truth is out there and to resist it, is futile.

David is on twitter: @da_banks

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A photo posted by d a banks (@d_a_banks) on

Today at The Awl there’s a nice long read about the city I live in Troy, NY. I’ve written about Troy before and it certainly never runs out of interesting stories. Luke Stoddard Nathan, the author of the piece, and I spoke for a few hours about his essay a month or so ago and after reading the finished piece (you should too!) I remembered some of the ground we covered over beers. Luke’s essay follows the peculiar story of Washington Park –one of only three private parks in New York State— and the decades-long argument over who owns the park and who should be allowed to use it. When we spoke I mentioned that problems like Washington Park are ultimately the result of a lack of imagination when it comes to governance. We have two bad options: perpetually under-funded public systems and restrictive private ones. This is also a technological problem because not only are bureaucracies a kind of technology, but so are parks insomuch as they are built things that result from applied knowledge. How do you solve a problem like Washington Park?

First a little bit more about Washington Park from Luke:

An 1840 deed of partition established Washington Park in Troy, New York, a small city near Albany, at the meeting of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers. According to a walking tour booklet co-produced by the Rensselaer County Historical Society and the Washington Park Association (W.P.A.), the grantors, all “prominent businessmen or professionals in Troy,” acquired fourteen acres of land at the edge of downtown. They sliced it into narrow lots for adjoining row houses, which were then sold off “in a dizzying array of transactions” over the next twenty-five years. At the center of the subdivision, the developers plotted the two-acre square as an amenity for the exclusive use of surrounding lot owners; they put a fence around it. Sixty-six lots, twenty of which did not actually face the park, were named in the deed.

A Catholic church moved in on the northeast corner in 1843 which severely hurt property values (it still stands today and is gorgeous) and by the Panic of 1873 what was supposed to be a posh urban enclave of Victorian mansions looking in on a luxurious garden turned into apartments overlooking a modest fenced-in park. Today the old-growth trees are beautiful but the grass and outdoor furniture could use a lot of work. It is kept up through maintenance fees assessed by the WPA but there are also arguments over whether or not it should be taxed like private property. You can (and should) read Luke’s essay for a full accounting of that long and ongoing argument.

What’s important to me, and what I think will be interesting here, is that problems of ownership and governance are closely tied to the things that are governed and owned. Parks, by definition, don’t really move and so it makes sense that the organizations that take care of them be set up to last for a long time. Parks also require a sort of singular management structure. Imagine a park where people planted whatever they wanted, threw in whatever benches they thought were nice, and maybe a connoisseur of Bar-B-Q built a smoker for a whole pig. The smoke would waft into the chess tables and one plant would block the sun of another. Typically, this management problem is dealt with by assigning a single bureaucracy to manage parks. Cities have departments devoted to such things or they enter into agreements with private management companies to maintain plazas or other outdoor event spaces.

Washington Park and private parks like it are different though. They limit access to a set population and the resources that go into them are extremely finite or maybe even personal. Luke’s essay is full of quotes from residents that liken the park to a communal front lawn and they would not let anyone else on to it any more than one should expect a suburban home owner to open up the space immediately in front of their homes to perfect strangers.

Holding things in common is a great way to manage resources although we have badly fallen out of the habit of doing so. The often-repeated phrase “tragedy of the commons” is always there to remind us that things left up to groups often go the way of a dorm room sink: ignored, abused, and dirty. The members of the WPA are understandably nervous that their park would go the way of the dorm room sink but that’s only because most of us only have experience with the duality of either totally private or totally public ownership. Either everyone can use something or only a single person (or group) can use it. Commons law, represents everything in between these two extremes. It is an ancient form of resource management and we are living through what can only be called an historical anomaly where commons are rarely used. For example, here is Susan Jane Buck Cox describing how English villagers were expected to use common pastures to feed their cattle:

Common appendant is the right of the villagers who owned their own land within the manor to feed their animals used in agriculture upon the lord’ s “waste,” i.e., that land within the borders of the lord’s domain that was not under cultivation. … The lord’ s waste was used for grazing during the growing season when the tenant’s land was under cultivation. In turn, during the winter the tenant used his own land and the harvests of hay to support his livestock. Thus, he was not permitted to put more animals on the lord’ s land in summer than his own land could feed for the winter. To do otherwise would be to abuse the lord’s pasture.

Common appendant is just one of many different forms of common ownership and use. The only thing that all commons systems have in common is that they have rules to prevent a tragedy. There are as many ways of managing a park as there are parks and it would be a shame if a beautiful patch of land like Washington Park was sealed off to the rest of the world or abused until it is useless. Is there another way?

One major exception to our collective lack of experience with commons management is the Internet. The Internet is neither owned by a single entity nor is it quite publicly owned. Instead it is a patchwork of different ownership models that still technically work together to form a global communication system. I’m reticent to ask questions like “what can the Internet teach us about managing a park?” since the Internet is very different from a park and, as I said at the beginning, organizational structures tend to match the things they manage. What works for the Internet will not necessarily work for a park. But we can draw inspiration from our rare experiences with common ownership and make something new.

David is on Twitter.

An Amazon Prime Air Drone
An Amazon Prime Air Drone

The Victorians were into some weird stuff but one thing that could stand to make a comeback is a subgenre of speculative fiction called “utopian romance.” These books were somewhat light on plot and spent most of their pages describing utopian futures where everything you could ever want or need was directly at your finger tips. I suppose that is as good a way as any to work through the existential angst that persists in the face of incredible violence mixed with the lavishness of global empire. One person that was not too keen on these novels was a legal stenographer by the name of Ebenezer Howard. He was reading one such utopian romance called Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy which described something akin to Amazon: an enormous network of hyper-efficient delivery systems that could get you just about anything you want nearly as soon as you wanted it.

Unfortunately for Howard he could not partake in the excitement about this new novel because he kept getting caught up in the details: What was keeping these supply routes running? Who made all of that possible and what was keeping them from going on strike, raising prices, or demanding some sort of unimaginably high concession from the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing? These questions plagued Howard so much that it drove him to create a whole new profession that has touched just about every city on the planet: urban planning.

And now here we are, in the future, and Amazon wants to surpass the speed of human delivery systems by using drones to airdrop our orders.  I won’t pretend that such a prospect is uninteresting to me. I want robots to do my bidding as much as the next guy, but our history with labor-saving robots has been sketchy at best. We’ve been here before and there are lots of predictably bad outcomes from automation.

Amazon’s promo videos for their drone service conveniently obscure the humans in their warehouses and only show happy customers. Unless entire production lines are automated there is inevitably someone somewhere trying to keep up with the inhuman tempo. And if the suffering human isn’t in one production line, they are somewhere else in the production chain, either providing the raw materials or receiving the finished products. In any case the story remains the same: Human labor is rarely saved in a way that is good for a worker. No single worker in an automated factory is working less or more comfortably, rather there are fewer workers doing more repetitive tasks faster than ever before. David Noble, in America By Design showed that automation, when it is first implemented, is never as efficient or cheap as the human labor it supplanted. It takes years before assembly lines reach the quality and efficiency of human assembly lines and so the loss in productivity can be seen as a down payment on a smaller, more pliable workforce. Robots do not need health insurance, retirement packages, or break rooms.

This dynamic can even be found in spaces that too few people are willing to acknowledge even contain workers: home kitchens. Home appliances, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan famously observed, never reduced housewives’ labor. Instead, the amount of work expected of them increased. Rather than cooking a meal and repairing some socks, a day’s work involved multiple meals, a spotless house, and several loads of laundry.

If the past is prelude then the drones that replace your delivery person will probably be good enough. That is, the automated portions of the delivery system will work enough of the time that few customers will drop the service while engineers perfect the drones and the delivery person’s union loses its appeal in court. Legal and technical timeframes are both taken into account in this sort of transition.

Write-ups on automated delivery like the one that ran in The Verge last January, cast regulations as something in the way of an inevitable future. Regulations are “holding back” exciting new developments. And on one level that’s true, although I would say that is a good thing even though the wording of such articles clearly begin and end with the opposite assumption. What’s even more frustrating is that all the regulations that do stand “in the way” of drone delivery are safety regulations for flying aircraft. While safely rolling out an automated fleet of drones is important, no one is asking if the roll out should happen at all. How will this impact Amazon’s notoriously sad and overworked employees or the employees of competing firms? Transportation is an enormous sector of the economy and delivery in private and public organizations constitute some of the largest unionized workforces. The prospect of replacing one of the biggest employment opportunities in North America with drones should at least merit a public conversation.

Of course none of this is a problem if we decouple work from individuals’ means of subsistence. If extended unemployment were not tantamount to a slowly unfurling death sentence, then the rise of robot deliveries would be very desirable save for those that gleam some sort of emotional reward for delivering the mail. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their new book Inventing the Future: Folk Politics and the Left do a thorough job of describing the work needed to have our cake delivered by drones and eat it too:

If we think of global just-in-time supply chains, for example, these are economically efficient under capitalism, but also exceptionally effective in breaking the power of unions. In other words, hegemony, or rule by the engineering of consent, is as much a material force as it is a social one. It is something embedded in human minds, social and political organizations, individual technologies and the built environment that constitutes our world.

Hegemony, a theory developed by the Italian author Antonio Gramsci, tries to make sense of the fact that while capitalism benefits a relatively small elite it has many champions who are actually on the losing end. Gramsci argues that capitalism’s staying power resides in its ability to appear as common sense. Most of us don’t think twice about the relationship between hard work and material comfort, the former is simply a prerequisite for the latter. Drones, of course, make this all very confusing because on the one hand they are taking away opportunities to work but they are also the product of engineers’ work. We resolve this seeming paradox by creating a hierarchy of whose work is more desirable: the creative and complex labor of building machines is valorized while the grunt work of delivering packages is cast as respectable but not something to aspire toward.

Hegemony is much more than ham-fisted propaganda: it is lived experience. Or, as cultural theorist Raymond Williams puts it, hegemony is “a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced, as practices appear as reciprocally confirming.” We are not merely encouraged to strengthen the power of managers and put workers out of the job, we are surrounded by a world in which every marker of encourages us to destabilize other people’s means of subsistence while increasing the power of elites. If I sound conspiratorial it is because a crucial part of hegemony is making detractors sound like tin-foil hat-wearers. And of course, even saying that just makes me sound like I’m typing from within a faraday cage.

Srnicek and Williams point toward a way out of all this and it involves nothing less than undoing common sense itself. They prescribe a broad, long-term strategy that in many ways retreads the path that free-market radicals took in the 80s. We need new narratives of individual success and societal triumph. We must, as their title implies, invent a new kind of future that puts justice and dignity at the center, not growth for its own sake.

David is on Twitter

This essay was crossposted with Technoscience As If People Mattered

Image Credit: Amazon.com

 

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Hello fellow bloggers! Today I want to give you some helpful tips and tricks for using Twittr.com. Twittr, also called Twitter or http://www.Twitter.com, is like Friendster but not as good. (They’re working on it!) Twittr is a social network based off of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds and only lets you post 140 characters at a time but lets you tweet as many times as you want. The service is fairly limited (the company doesn’t even know what harassment is) but there’s still a lot of options so let’s dive right in!

First you have to pick a user name (also known as your call sign) which is what everyone calls you on the site. You should also pick a photo of a car to replace the standard egg that you get when you first sign up. A car let’s others know that you are successful and muscular. Don’t leave the default egg because that is a generally known as a sign that you are a member of Anonymous and then the FBI will never favorite your tweets. Put as many numbers as you can in your handle so that people know you are unique and also great with math.

Clicking the little heart on each tweet is called “favoriting” which lets others know that you kind of like a tweet but not enough to RT it. RT stands for “Renewed Trust” and is a signal to your followers that you would allow the author of that tweet to march under the sidgle of your house.  To RT someone (represented by the recycle symbol next to the heart) is the highest honor a Twittr user can bestow on a fellow twittr user because it shows a deep commitment that will last for minutes. When someone RTs you it is customary to tweet @ the person “Thanks for the RT and many blessings to you and your sons.”

Tweeting @ someone is like having a very private conversation that no one else is invited to. Generally, when two people are having a conversation over Twittr they are left alone by the rest of the user base. If someone does reply to you and your conversation partner unprovoked it is expected that you will mute them out of respect for civilization. Some people will also refer to “blocking” which is an inside joke. This feature does not actually exist.

Twittr is a great way to connect with people who hold very different views from your own. For example, I follow the Clorox Brand and they think Clorox is good while I think it releases pheromones that make you love the idea of Ronald Reagan. I have also had a lot of productive conversations with my internet service provider, Time Warner Cable:

The best part of Twittr is how much free beef stroganoff samples you can receive through various coupons and cyber flash mob giveaways. In the past two days I have been able to taste the bold flavors of beef simply by clicking Twittr’s new “Moments” feature. The egg noodles are a little over done but it is better than Pinterest because you can opt out of algorithmic sorting.

If you do a lot of tweetring and need to maintain multiple accounts so that your enemies do not triangulate your IP address and hack your PlayStation Network account, TweetDeck might be for you. TweetDeck lets you set up multiple columns for dedicated hashtags, users, and very important saved searches. For an example check out this screen shot of my Tweeting Rig

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Hashtags are a great way to connect with people who do or do not like beef stroganoff. A hashtag (also known as pound sign) collects tweets into easy-to-find piles of unique concepts. To expand your audience, use #asmany hashtags as #possible. More #people will see your #tweets and it shows how #savvy you are. A #hashtag## is also #### for when @#### feeds the @)—‘–,—–‘——- @clorox. Safety first!

There, now you know what it takes to be a real Twittr surfer. If you post a lot make sure you use correct punctuation. This is called “sexting” by experts. Finally, remember that twittr is a manifestation of millions of individual humans’ thoughts and feelings and we call it a dumpster fire because late capitalism relies on cynicism and calculated emotional distance that can be filled with plastic shit bought on debt. An entire generation’s conversations –thousands of birth announcements, breakups, and late nights with pizza rolls– are all the private property of companies run by people that think countries should be managed by CEOs and in the meantime are all buying water futures so that they can profit off of the coming resource wars that will be brought about in no small part by the reckless and insatiable greed that churns out Tide Amazon Dash buttons which exist because all of a sudden going to a fucking website is too much of a burden. An oligarchy built on convenience. We deserve this.

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David is on Twitter.

 

Edit: Some helpful people who can’t keep their opinions to themselves have reminded me that I didn’t really talk about BRANDS. Here is what is important to know about brands on Twittr: No one has ever seen a brand in person. We only get pictures of brands. For example:

Coca_cola_logo-9

No one has ever actually touched a Coca-Cola! Scientists predict, however, that if a normal human were to actually touch a Coca-Cola they would experience a sort of ecstasy that begins just as huffing nitrous oxide does, but would quickly descend into a state of being that a paper in PLoS One described as, “churning self-awareness.” Wow!

To engage with a brand on Twitter you should first put on your apiary outfit and @ them with a deferential comment about a product. For example, if I wanted to interact with @Clorox I might begin with “@clorox your liquid washes the world with a sinister water-fire that raises all boats.” This will signal to the brand manager that I am ready to receive free coupons and subscribe to their Tiny Letter. There you go! BRANDS!

Toilets are rife with politics. The things we do immediately before and after using the toilet are subject to all sorts of social and cultural power structures. Even getting a toilet in the first place can be swept up in the larger political debates about development and infrastructure investment. Everything from global finance to local political corruption can determine whether or not any given person on this planet gets to relieve themselves with comfort and dignity. It is a sad but true fact that an estimated 2.5 billion people do not have regular access to a toilet. Enter “The Nano Membrane Toilet” an invention from Cranfield University which uses state-of-the-art nano technology to make a toilet that does not require plumbing. Instead it needs batteries, regular servicing of complex and proprietary parts, and safe, dry removal of wax-coated solid waste. The decision to help fix this enormous problem is laudable but the Nano Membrane Toilet side-steps the real social and economic problems that keep people in unsanitary conditions. It might even create new, unintended sanitation problems.

I’ll get this out of the way: the only reason I have lived in homes with not just one but two toilets, and other people have to walk miles for toilets that are shared by hundreds of people, is because we live under an immensely unfair and unjust system called capitalism. Other systems have been unfair too (Feudal peasants had to poop in buckets while their lords relieved themselves on resplendent wood-carved thrones.) but that doesn’t make present inequalities any more excusable. What is more important than just blaming capitalism though, is looking at how inequalities persist even in the face of well-resourced groups looking to mitigate those inequalities. Put another way, why hasn’t the millions of dollars and award-winning talent put into the Nano Membrane Toilet gone towards political and social programs that finance the installation of regular old plumbing? Why does it seem easier to built a toilet out of experimental polymers than just build a sewer?

The historian of technology Leo Marx once pointed out that we are keen to conflate technological breakthroughs with social progress: automated cars and smartphones are seen as indicators of an advancing society not just a set of technical achievements. It makes sense then, that we also cast challenges like ending poverty or unsanitary conditions as technical problems in need of inventions, rather than social problems in need of political action. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for the Nano Membrane Toilet is a good example of this. Rather than fund governments to build out their sewage systems or provide monetary assistance to employ more sanitation workers, or even give scholarships to people who want to go into public utility management and help their own communities, the Gates Foundation wants to build things that negate the need for public sanitation systems as we know them.

The Nano Membrane Toilet is also subject to the “appropriate technology” critique. Appropriate technology is an approach developed in the 70s that asked technologists, engineers, and, designers to consider the larger context of their creations: If something breaks does the user have to rely on a single company (or person?) to make expensive repairs or can they fix it themselves? A battery operated device might be problem-free in a modern home but if it is put in a home with a leaky roof or a dirt floor, the whole thing might behave differently. Then there is the issue of unintended consequences that come from the wide-spread adoption of a new technology. What happens if the sophisticated materials in the toilets end up in open waste dumps? Once there is a company selling these toilets are they going to lobby local governments against any future expansion of utility services in the future?

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Our first fully-working prototype condom vending machine hung outside the STI clinic of a hospital in Kumasi.

I do not want to make it sound like approaching a social problem with a designed object is always a bad approach. My own research actually revolves around an invention of sorts, but rather than innovating in new areas of material science my colleagues and I have been trying to design something that could be manufactured locally and easily repaired. Our Open Source Condom Vending Machine (OSCVM.org) is an attempt to build reliable, low-cost condom vending machines in Ghana. All the schematics and designs are open and available to the public and we’ve partnered with a maker collective called The Creativity Group to build the machine. If we’ve innovated at all, it has been in the area of social relations, not technology. You can buy a well-built condom vending machine at Costco, but good luck getting it to Ghana. And even if you did get one there, buying a machine that was built in China or even the United States, doesn’t employ as many people as a machine built where it is used. That is why the machine’s internal mechanics are very simple to make and easy to repair. We wanted to reduce the barriers to making your own machine. The OSCVM is also an opportunity to buy condoms in private, something that is difficult to do in the crowded pharmacies and markets. Rather than try to invent something brand new, we worked to build something old in a new way.

If the Nano Membrane Toilet saves lives, then we should call it a success. But we need to take a harder look at how we frame these sorts of problems. Do we need cutting-edge nano polymers to solve a problem as old as where to put our waste? Or should our creative efforts be focused in re-arranging governance structures and financing so that proven technologies can serve more people more of the time?

David is on Twitter.