“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


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

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 8.50.44 PM

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:


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?

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.


At Nancy Reagan’s funeral presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told MSNBC that the Reagans “started a national conversation about AIDS.” The response to that obviously false statement was swift and loud. Even Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign (which endorsed Clinton), tweeted “Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS.” Clinton’s apology was posted to Medium the very next day. Picking a platform for a message goes a long way in picking the demographics of your message’s audience. The decision to use Medium for her apology was pitch perfect: older (and statistically more conservative) voters who watch cable news will see her praising the Reagans while younger voters who might turn to Medium to read the definitive take down of Clinton will find her own apology next to their favorite authors. More than just an apology though, the post goes on to give a small history of AIDS-related activism before going on to describe the present challenges facing those infected with HIV. More than an apology Clinton’s Medium post is an example of what I’m calling the “Explainer Candidate.”

We may still be mired in “post-truth politics” but there is an equal but opposite force of (mostly web-based) explainer publications that seek to augment, rebut, and frame a further reaching TV-based media cycle. Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and Slate (among others) have made an industry of starting sentences with “well, actually.” If you look at these publishers’ “advertise with us!” pages, you’ll see that their reader demographics skew towards the young-ish, well-off creative professional which also overwhelmingly votes for progressive candidates. There’s a danger here that is far worse than anything that comes from the right’s concerted effort to divorce facts from political positions: progressives have started mistaking the recitation of political facts for political positions.

To be fair to Clinton she does outline actual policy she would be in favor of, including expanded access to PrEP, getting Republican governors to expand Medicaid, and try to punish drug companies when they price gouge patients. But when you look at the proportions –out of a thirteen paragraph article there is one paragraph devoted to the apology and two for what she will do as president—the vast majority of it is a rehashing of the AIDS Wikipedia page. This is fact but not substance. Of course political leaders should be seen to at least know the facts of a given political controversy but when the announcement of truths outnumbers descriptions of what is to be done about those truths, we start losing sight of what this whole process is even meant to accomplish. Electing someone with good ideas about the future is much different than someone who can recount the past to you and being able to do the latter is only a necessary (not sufficient) condition for the former.

Bernie Sanders is guilty of this as well, in fact perhaps even more so. Every time he responds to a debate question with inequality statistics I cringe ever so slightly. The difference here though, and it is a crucial one, is that Sanders’ policy prescriptions are as radical as the facts that he cites. Clinton follows up a brief history of a radical direct action organization with incremental reform, thereby giving it a radical sheen.

Facts about radical organizations sitting next to hollow phrases like “hold companies accountable” does a disservice to those radical organizations, especially when you have a history of ignoring the role of social movements in securing progressive wins. Writing in The New Republic Jeet Heer chronicles how Clinton’s comments about the Reagans and HIV/AIDS is similar to her remarks eight years ago when “she appeared to give greater credit to President Lyndon Johnson for civil rights laws than the movement lead by Martin Luther King.” Jeet also points out that Clinton does not seem to understand the strategic role of contemporary social movements like #BlackLivesMatter. When she condemned the violence at Trump’s Chicago rally she exclusively attributed social progress to victims’ families “melt[ing] hearts” and not the sustained activism of Bree Newsome and others.

This is the important distinction: A candidate is an Explainer Candidate when the recitation of facts about the past or the abstract present replace policies or promised material support for present political struggles. An Explainer Candidate will give you a thorough history of a radical social movement in 800 words but claim all future progress must come from reasonable incremental change. The Explainer Candidate is looking to run out the clock on your own attention: to show that they are with it –that they are on your side– but also hope you don’t read to the end where they under-deliver on supporting the change agents that they acknowledge were necessary to secure those political wins.

David is on Twitter.

Image Credit: Hermann Kasser

weber tedI’ve dedicated a few essays to interrogating encryption and automation as a replacement for human judgement, politics, and inter-personal trust. Central to that argument is the observation that the replacement of institutions with technologies like blockchains are a rehashing of the arguments that set up those failing institutions in the first place. (You can read the full argument here and here.)

This is important because the problems with have with our present institutions –how they are exploitable, alienating, or otherwise broken– may very well be exacerbated by these technologies, not solved by them. To drive this point home I have pulled a few excerpts from Max Weber’s writing on bureaucracy but I have replaced a few nouns (in bold) so that his references to human organizations are replaced by algorithms, blockchains, and other technologies. With just these few noun changes a 19th century German sociologist of modern statecraft turns into the next great TED talk:

An algorithm offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations. Individual tasks are allocated to heuristicfunctions who have specialized training and who by constant practice learn more and more. The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs– these are raised to the optimum point with blockchain technology.

The tendency toward secrecy in certain development communities follows their material nature: everywhere that the power interests of the domination structure toward the outside are at stake, whether it is an economic competition of a private enterprise, or a foreign, potentially hostile polity, we find secrecy.

The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the crowd–in a certain sense more powerless than any other political head.

And here are the originals:

Bureaucratization offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations. Individual performances are allocated to functionaries who have specialized training and who by constant practice learn more and more. The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs– these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form.

The tendency toward secrecy in certain administrative fields follows their material nature: everywhere that the power interests of the domination structure toward the outside are at stake, whether it is an economic competition of a private enterprise, or a foreign, potentially hostile polity, we find secrecy.

The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the bureaucratic expert–in a certain sense more powerless than any other political head.


In December 2015, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure became the subject of fierce controversy. When it was publicly revealed that staffers of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid breached rival Hillary Clinton’s voter data stored in NGP VAN’s VoteBuilder, this infrastructure, normally hidden from view, suddenly became a contested matter of concern. As the Democratic Party closed access to VoteBuilder for a period of time for the Sanders campaign, the candidate’s supporters, competitors to NGP VAN, and journalists publicly debated why the party had such control over voter data and, ultimately, the dangers that such centralization might pose for the party and the democratic process. I have spent the past decade studying platforms such as VoteBuilder. While the incident with Sanders raised a number of important issues, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure, developed in the wake of the 2004 presidential election cycle, is a key reason for its well-documented technological advantages  over its Republican rival that persisted at least through the 2014 midterm elections.

Before I go any further it is worth providing some background context from news reports on the Sanders data breach, with the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of and have not conducted original research on the incident. From journalistic reports, the basic facts behind the Sanders data breach of NGP VAN’s firewalls between campaigns seem clear enough. By exploiting a vulnerability in the NGP VAN system, staffers on the Sanders campaign pulled multiple lists of voters from the Clinton campaign’s voter data. According to news articles, this included data on things such as strong Clinton supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire, 24 lists in all. The DNC responded by temporarily suspending the Sanders campaign’s access to VoteBuilder, in effect preventing staffers from using their voter data less than two months out from the Iowa caucuses.

As Larry Lessig has pointed out, there are legal questions here relating to the actual contract that users of VoteBuilder and the DNC’s data sign that, without direct knowledge of the matter at hand, I am not going to opine on. However, the consensus among practitioners is that Sanders’s staffers knew what they were doing and it was a clear ethical violation of the use of the NGP VAN system (indeed, the campaign’s national data director was summarily fired and the candidate apologized). In the end, the campaign filed a federal lawsuit against the DNC, and the entire matter was resolved in 24-hours with the campaign again gaining access to its voter data after the DNC stated it fulfilled its requests for more information.

What I want to focus on here is the call after the Sanders incident, among some practitioners and firms with a stake in the outcome, to open up the DNC’s voter data so candidates and their campaigns, not the party, own what they use and produce. Part of this response stems from fears over monopoly power. The Democratic Party has built the most powerful political database in the world, and serves as the ‘obligatory passage point’ through which all of its political campaigns must go to gain access to it. Presidential campaigns essentially rent the DNC’s voter file, which is in effect a collection of 51 different state voter files (including Washington D.C.) that states share with the national party and are all hosted in the same database and interface system, VoteBuilder. The Democratic Party contracts with NGP VAN to make the state parties’ voter files accessible to and actionable for campaigns at all levels of office through VoteBuilder. As campaigns use VoteBuilder, they enrich the voter file through all of their canvassing and voter contacts. The voter contact and identification data of campaigns are firewalled from each other during elections. However, after elections, this voter contact and identification work conducted by campaign volunteers and paid staffers goes back to the DNC and the state parties, and is ultimately made available to subsequent Democratic candidates. In this system, campaigns do not own these voter files that they helped to enrich.

The basic architecture of the Democratic Party’s voter data was put in place by Chairman Howard Dean, with VAN gaining the contract to put together VoteBuilder in 2007. The national party provides access to VoteBuilder for its presidential candidates, while state parties determine access for state-level campaigns. As I have previously detailed, this architecture grew out of the party’s experiences during the 2004 cycle, when John Kerry’s multiple state voter files, housed in many vendor systems responsible for providing access to them, crashed in important states. The data was unstandardized across states, vendors had uneven track records, there was little in the way of field tools for accessing voter files, much historical data on voter contact was simply lost, and candidates even had trouble accessing state voter files. During the 2004 cycle, the Democratic Party was significantly behind the Republican Party and its voter database and interface system VoterVault.

Dean and his staff turned the Democratic Party’s data architecture from a mess of often vendor-controlled state voter files into the nationalized system it is today. Dean’s team created a set of agreements between the national and state parties, where the former works to ensure that state parties are fair arbiters of their voter files and make them available to all Democrats in an open primary, and the latter can hold the national party to account for what they do with the data.  Former party staffers argue that because the national party is an outsized player in terms of funding, the national organization has a significant role in making sure state parties are not unfair and can mediate disputes when they arise. That said, disputes between candidates and state parties do occur. For example, the policies of state parties with respect to challengers to incumbents in primaries varies, with states such as Missouri only providing access to VAN for incumbent office holders as the “winner of the last primary.” This policy was recently called into question by an African American state senator who was active in the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown after she sought access to VAN to contest a congressional incumbent. The rationale of the state party is that there needs to be an incentive for incumbents to continue to use the party’s voter data, and ultimately share their voter identification work back with other candidates, or they will view their electoral work across cycles simply as being used against them. What this in effect means is that, in some states, challengers to incumbents cannot access the party’s extensive voter file and the competitive advantages it might entail.

While there is a romantic notion that candidates should be free of parties and just make their own direct appeals to voters, especially among organizations that stand to profit from the decentralization and fragmentation of the party’s data, the Democratic Party’s voter file is an acknowledgment of the fact that American political life is, for worse but mostly for better, organized through parties. The DNC’s voter file architecture is ultimately a distinctly partisan resource, designed to strengthen its candidates’ ability to contest elections by providing them with far more data than they could ever muster on their own in discrete electoral runs, or even through data swaps with allies. As such, it is a tool of the party, not a ‘democratic’ technology in the sense of facilitating the efforts of independent candidates across the ideological spectrum to contest elections or even challenges to Democratic incumbents.

While this might not accord with our deep-seated longings for democratic technologies that will afford things such as more open and participatory elections (although this cycle is certainly testing that normative democratic wish), it does fit with the structure of American democracy, which is organized through parties. Political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has argued for the “moral distinctiveness of partisanship.” Parties, in Rosenblum’s eyes, are the institutions that define representative democracy. As Rosenblum argues, parties not only organize elections, they define political issues (and the political center), organize intra-party deliberation, are responsible for mobilizing the electorate, and are pluralist in having to negotiate intra-party compromise. Rosenblum, for instance, notes the irony that the celebrated “civil society organization” is the foremost example of political extremism, given that it often pursues single issues at the expense of multi-issue coalitions and tends to be the most uncompromising (single issues candidates would fall into a similar category).

The story of parties in America is long and complicated, but suffice it to say they are central to democratic processes. In an era when there are stark differences between the two parties, voters have clear choices and responsible parties attempt to pursue power through the ballot box. Parties do so, in no small part, through their ability to serve as databases for their candidates. In the process, they often do not fulfill other democratic longings or normative aspirations that the public has for electoral politics. However, parties fulfill their normative democratic role in representative democracy by working to defeat the other side in elections and create governing majorities according to the most advantageous means that they collectively decide upon. Indeed, Rosenblum argues that it is ultimately a good thing that parties have to balance multiple interests within them, lest we empower extremist single-issue candidates or ideological movements that brook no compromise (indeed, the Koch Brothers’ network invested in its own data firm http://www.i-360.com/ precisely to help bend the Republican Party to its ideological will). And, ultimately, a party may decide that protecting incumbents in exchange for them contributing back to a common data pool that candidates at all levels of office may subsequently benefit from should come at the expense of individual candidates’ attempting to access data. We should respect the decisions of parties to judge what is in their collective best interest according to their normative role of, according to Rosenblum, mobilizing citizens, pursuing political power through majorities, and making government work once in office.

One final consideration. There are alternatives to the Democratic Party’s data – although most would argue that they are inferior to the party’s historical data provided through VoteBuilder. There is nothing precluding a candidate that does not want to opt-into this system from relying on third party data firms such as Aristotle, Catalist, and NationBuilder, and taking advantage of any of the commercial customer relationship management platforms available to manage it. And, there is nothing preventing them from purchasing data, generating their own contacts, and then building their own independent operations. But it will never be as powerful as the DNC’s communal and partisan resource, and these candidates will find that even if they gain office, they will diminish the resources available for their partisan and ideological allies to do so as well – in the end, this hurts their ability to enact legislative change.

In essence, the Democratic Party has created a powerful and robust tool that facilitates its efforts to secure political power. And, I believe, in keeping with the normative role of parties in democratic societies, the party should have the ability to control access to it according to their own policies designed to further their governance interests. As a matter of course, these policies and remedies should be transparent and ultimately contestable (which appeared to be part of the issue in the Sanders and Missouri cases), but in the end I believe it is a good thing that as a multi-issue coalition of heterogeneous actors the Democratic Party sets its own policies and procedures for its use as a database.

The buy-in across the Democratic Party network to the party’s voter file and interface system provided by NGP VAN has resulted in a powerful and robust piece of infrastructure that the party’s ecosystem convenes around and that is ultimately enrolled in the pursuit of electoral power. The DNC’s voter file is an asset for the party because of the trust and culture of collaboration and sharing that has grown up around it. As a result of the fact that there is broad buy-in to VoteBuilder, the party’s data is standardized and accrues across election cycles and moves up and down ballot. Democrats in races across all levels of office and election cycles share the data they collect about who their voters are and what they care about. The fact that campaigns have to provide the data they generate through canvasses and contacts back to the party (excluding campaign proprietary data on donors), means that data is a shared asset across the party as a whole. At the same time, there is one system for accessing the voter file, so volunteers without much in the way of technical skills or training in states such as Iowa use it easily from cycle to cycle. Voter modeling flows downward from comparatively well-resourced presidential campaigns to state and even local races. And, the universal buy-in to the party’s data has meant that the expansive, hybrid Democratic network ecosystem of firms and organizations [PDF]  all work from the same basic data infrastructure. These organizations adopt and use the party’s voter file and tools for accessing it  – which facilitates the complementarity of campaign services.

The danger, as a number of practitioners have suggested, is that with monopoly comes the possibility for suboptimal technologies and stasis. However, the fact that the Democratic Party has been well ahead of its rival with a more fragmented data and analytics ecosystem for nearly a decade suggests that this fear is overblown. Another concern is that the party might behave arbitrarily, such as in the case of the Sanders breach when it appeared the party’s own policies were unclear, but there are a host of normative pressures exerted by the DNC and other party actors and regulative agreements and policies against this (indeed, the Sanders situation was ultimately resolved quickly). As former Clark and Kerry 2004 veteran and director of political data and analytics from 2005-2007 and director of technology from 2009-2011 at the Democratic Party, Josh Hendler argued, “the state parties decided that while they would be giving up some power, they trusted the DNC to be stewards of the data.” In that trust, the Democratic Party as a whole benefits from access to the data generated by their candidates, especially their presidential candidates with their vast mobilization of resources and volunteers to generate voter contacts.

Daniel Kreiss is Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kreiss’s research explores the impact of technological change on the public sphere and political practice. Kreiss is the author of Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2016).


Header image credit: Keith Bacongco


Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a huge part of his presidential campaign (Huge). The media quotes from it, his opponents try to score political points by making fun of it, and his fans / supporters constantly engage with its content. @realDonaldTrump is just that: a string of pronouncements that feel very (perhaps even a little too) real. As Britney Summit-Gil wrote back in December: “the beauty of Trump’s tweetability is that his fans don’t really care if he’s manicured or carefully crafted—it’s what they love about him. His tweets read just like his speeches sound. They’re off the cuff, natural, and engaging.”

I want to take a minute to dive into the powerful linguistic work that hides behind Trump’s natural and off the cuff style. Consider the following pair of tweets:

Here Trump’s campaign has attached what linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would call “orientational metaphors.” These are very simple but powerful metaphors that help us interpret abstract concepts by embedding them in our embodied existence. “These spatial orientations arise” write Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors we Live By (1980), “from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have and that they function as they do in our physical environment.” For example the phrases “over your head” and “behind my back” mean that we either do not understand or have been intentionally left out of something. In the tweets above Trump gets a lot of mileage out of one of the most prominent orientational metaphors: up and down. Up is conscious, happy, healthy, and denotes control or force. Down is sad unconscious, sickly, and might mean one has lost control or lack’s the force to impose their will or is subject to another’s control (e.g. You are under my spell). Jeb is low energy, Rubio is Mr. meltdown. 

These tweets are obviously directed at his competitors, not the public in general, but these tweets say a lot about how Trump wants to be seen and what aspects of our humanity he’s playing off of to garner support. Someone with an eye towards theories of embodiment and the power dynamics around ableist language will already note that this kind of language privileges normative bodies and especially rewards those that are considered traditionally beautiful or otherwise desirable. This is completely true and it shows how far we have to go to dismantle all sorts of structural oppressions. (Let’s not forget all of the moral metaphors wrapped up in light and dark.)

Given all this it makes perfect sense that fascism always relies on plain, straight-forward language and the strict labeling of desirable and undesirable bodies. These two prerequisites are, in fact, one in the same move toward command-and-control power systems. Systems that do not deal in nuance, only brute force. This may also be why, according to the late Umberto Eco, fascism always induces skepticism (if not outright hatred) of academics or intellectual thinking. Do not mistake Trump’s simple language as mere branding, it is a harbinger of things to come.

David is on Twitter.

Image “low energy light bulb” credit: Alexander Ortweiler


I want to share with you a personal story – an experience that I dealt with about four months ago that caused me a great deal of anxiety: I found a flea on my dog.  That’s right a flea; not multiple fleas, a flea.  But I panicked.  I vacuumed everything – couches, throw pillows, mattresses, floors – twice a day, every day for at least three weeks.  I mopped every other day.  I washed everything in the house three times a week.  I bought some of that terrible chemical shampoo and washed my poor pup with it.  I flea combed her three times a day.  I set up flea traps in every room before bed.  I caught three more fleas.  I started having recurring dreams about fleas multiplying on my dog – growing in size as in an arcade game while I tried to knock them out one by one.  My language changed.  I started singing the Pokemon – “Gotta Catch All” song while vacuuming and talking like Ted Cruz, using phrases like “we’ve got to obliterate…,” etc.  My partner was seriously concerned about my sanity.

Now this sort of anxiety is partly personal – an anxiety over microscopic things that have the potential to grow completely out of my control.  But I’m going to argue that there is more to it than that.  I’ve talked to pet owners who – upon spotting fleas – tore apart their houses, spent hundreds of dollars on flea products, set off chemicals in their homes that notably released the same poisonous gases that were instrumental to the India’s Bhopal disaster.  We can’t all be this crazy.

I don’t think we are.

For one, new information systems – PetMD, e-wiki articles, and veterinary forums –  instigate panic while setting impossible standards for care. While supposedly designed to help diagnose and treat our own issues, these are the same links that warn that for every one flea, there are a hundred fleas.  The same links that show images of hundreds of tiny bugs weaving in between a dog’s fur.  The same links that break down the scientific version of the flea life cycle into colloquial terms so that you know how serious the issue is.  The same links that suggest that you throw out carpets and bedding and that you vacuum ferociously several times a day for weeks.  They state at the beginning “Don’t panic!  You can get through this.” and then proceed to list a series of chores that working families cannot possibly get through.  It’s dizzying to click through them.

Now, these arguments seem to substantiate claims that Google has provoked a sort of “cyberchondria” – where Googling to find information about our health problems, pet problems, and house problems leads people to overact – to jump to irrational conclusions.  That the freckle on their finger must be cancer.  Or that the spot on their dog means they need to burn their houses down.  But I find this to be an extremely gendered argument – one that positions information seekers as emotionally-charged and unreasonable – characterized by conceptions of a feminine excessiveness as Luce Irigaray would say.  You see this gendering in the articles that advise against Googling health symptoms – in magazines like Glamour and Women’s Health – articles that disproportionately feature images of anxious women staring at computer screens.   Articles that include statistics such as “one in four British women have misdiagnosed themselves on the Internet.” Such depictions, I believe, stem from a very problematic assumption that women can’t think logically when exposed to provocative information.

New “anxieties of care” are induced, not so much by the sensationalized information in online articles (though this is certainly part of it), nor the raising costs of expert care advice from doctors, vets, exterminators (though is certainly part of it too).  Instead, families today constantly find themselves in information double binds – binds that make it impossible to at once meet new standards of care (house care, pet care, and child care, etc.) and at the same time attend to the grounded knowledge they’ve developed in their experience being caregivers.  Impulsive cleaning, spending, and chemical spraying, in this sense, are not a result of mis-information or falling prey to “cyberchondria” but instead are anxious responses to being embedded in conflicting communication streams – streams mediated by algorithms, science, capital, and gendering.

Double bind theory, proposed by Gregory Bateson, suggests that anxiety can be provoked in situations where an individual must respond to two or more conflicting streams of communication.  For instance, imagine a mother tells her child, “I demand that you disobey me.”  There is no way for the child to attend to both requests.  Today’s parents face the same communicative contradictions when it comes to care.

Take the flea problem for example.  The #1 recommended flea product by veterinarians and many online sources is Advantix II, produced by Bayer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.  Bayer is also acclaimed for a particularly long history of chemical and drug-related corporate injustices, which may not be of particular interest to caregivers until they come across other web articles describing what can happen if you “poison” your dog with toxic chemicals.  Or consider the bug bomb issue.  While many online sources describe it as the only way to ensure that you kill off the bugs in your home – to exterminate them at all stages of the flea life cycle – other articles remind us that such insecticides can cause serious long-term health effects, particularly for young children.  Caregivers know that any product that tells you to cover all of the surfaces in your house and stay away from it with the windows closed for several hours is not the safest choice for the kids and pets.  They see that companies they’ve learned to hate – such as Monsanto – sponsor the top medical/pet advice websites.  And that veterinarians make their living by recommending expensive pharmaceutical products.   And if they’re not going to purchase these products, they better be prepared to clean – every second of every day – for months, which is just not an option for most working families today.

In the midst of such information binds, I found myself searching, relentlessly, for anything rational, anything that didn’t require me to be super-mommy – to pull off the impossible.  But unfortunately, with information infrastructures so heavily mediated today – more information tends to equate to more expectations, while simultaneously exposing more contradictions.  It’s much like Ruth Cowan describes in her book More Work for Mother – how modern labor-saving technologies for the home, such as the vacuum and the washing machine, set new standards for cleanliness, thus creating more work for mothers, not less.  Information infrastructures, designed to help families deal with medical or home issues, have set impossible standards for care.  Digesting this information is an anxiety-ridden experience – one that pushes families to consider how much time they are willing to devote, how much money they are willing to spend, and what toxic chemicals they are willing to expose themselves to.  It’s a gendered experience; women, in particular, are held to higher expectations, while simultaneously, couched as emotionally-charged and overreacting when they respond to them.

Don’t worry parents; you are not alone.  New information systems are making us all a little more anxious – a little more prone to panic.  And it’s not because we’re irrational or foolish.  It’s because we’re embedded in an information infrastructure that’s impossible to move within.   Key to double bind theory, though, is that working the double bind – resisting and weaving your way out of it – leads to emotional growth.  Recognizing how information sources compete – how they are so often shaped by macro-forces that are particularly antagonistic to women – can be the best medicine for dealing with anxieties of care.

Lindsay Poirier is a PhD Student in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  She occasionally Tweets at @lindsaypoirierhttp://lindsaypoirier.com/

Image source credit: Kat Masback