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While putting together the most recent project for External Pages, I have had the pleasure to work with artist and designer Anna Tokareva in developing Baba Yaga Myco Glitch™, an online exhibition about corporate mystification techniques that boost the digital presence of biotech companies. Working on BYMG™ catalysed the exploration of the shifting critiques of interface design in the User Experience community. These discourses shape powerful standards on not just illusions of consumer choice, but corporate identity itself. However, I propose that as designers, artists and users, we are able to recognise the importance of visually identifying such deceptive websites in order to interfere with corporate control over online content circulation. Scrutinising multiple website examples to inform the aesthetic themes and initial conceptual stages of the exhibition, we specifically focused on finding common user interfaces and content language that result in enhancing internet marketing.

Anna’s research on political fictions that direct the necessity for a global mobilisation of big data in Нооскоп: The Nooscope as Geopolitical Myth of Planetary Scale Computation lead to a detailed study of current biotech incentives as motivating forces of technological singularity. She argues that in order to achieve “planetary computation”, political myth-building and semantics are used for scientific thought to centre itself on the merging of humans and technology. Exploring Russian legends in fairytales and folklore that traverse seemingly binary oppositions of the human and non-human, Anna interprets the Baba Yaga (a Slavic fictitious female shapeshifter, villain or witch) as a representation of the ambitious motivations of biotech’s endeavour to achieve superhumanity. We used Baba Yaga as a main character to further investigate such cultural construction by experimenting with storytelling through website production.

The commercial biotech websites that we looked at for inspiration were either incredibly blasé, where descriptions of the company’s purpose would be extremely vague and unoriginal (e.g., GENEWIZ), or unnervingly overwhelming with dense articles, research and testimonials (e.g., Synbio Technologies). Struck by the aesthetic and experiential banality of these websites, we wondered why they all seemed to mimic each other. Generic corporate interface features such as full-width nav bars, header slideshows, fade animations, and contact information were distributed in a determined chronology of vertically-partitioned main sections. Starting from the top and moving down, we were presented with a navigation menu, slideshow, company services, awards and partners, “learn more” or “order now” button, and eventually land on an extensive footer.

This UI conformity easily permits a visual establishment of professionalism and validity; a quick seal of approval for legitimacy. It is customary throughout the UX and HCI paradigm, a phenomenon that Olia Lialina describes as “mainstream practices based on the postulate that the best interface is intuitive, transparent, or actually no interface” in Once Again, The Doorknob. Referring back to Don Norman’s Why Interfaces Don’t Work, which champions computers to only serve as devices of simplifying human lives, Lialina explains why this ethos contributes to mitigating user control, a sense of individualism and society-centred computing in general. She applies GeoCities as a counterpoint to Norman’s design attitude and an example of sites where users are expected to create their own interface. Defining the problematic nature in designing computers to be machines that only make life easier via such “transparent” interfaces, she argues:

“’The question is not, “What is the answer?” The question is, “What is the question?”’” Licklider (2003) quoted french philosopher Anry Puancare when he wrote his programmatic Man Computer Symbiosis, meaning that computers as colleagues should be a part of formulating questions.”

Coining the term “User Centred Design” and scheming the foundations of User Experience during his position as the first User Experience Architect at Apple in 1993, Norman’s advocacy of transparent design has unfortunately manifested into a universal reality. It has advanced into a standard so impenetrable that a business’s legitimacy and success is probably at stake if they do not follow these rules. The idea that we’ve become dependent on reviewing the website rather than the company themselves – leading to user choices being heavily navigated by websites rather than company ethos – is nothing new. And additionally, the invisibility of transparent interface design has proceeded to fooling users into algorithmic “free” will. Jenny Davis’s work on affordances highlights that just because functions or information may be technically accessible, they are not necessarily “socially available”, and the critique of affordance extends to the critique of society. In Beyond the Self, Jack Self illustrates website loading animations or throbbers (moving graphics that illustrate the site’s current background actions) as synchronised “illusions of smoothness” that support neoliberal incentives of real-time efficiency.

“The throbber is thus integral to maintaining the illusion of inescapability, dissimulating the possibility of exiting the network—one that has become both spatially and temporally coextensive with the world. This is the truth of the real-time we now inhabit: a surreal simulation so perfectly smooth it is indistinguishable from, and indeed preferable to, reality.”

These homogeneous plain sailing interfaces reinforce a mindset of inevitability, and at the same time, can create slick operations that cheat the user. Actions like “dark patterns” are implemented requests that trick users into completing tasks such as enlisting or purchasing which may be unconsented. My lengthy experience with recruitment websites could represent the type of impact that sites have on the portrayal of true company intentions. Constantly reading about the struggles of obtaining a position in the tech industry, I wondered how these agencies make commission when finding employment seems so rare. I persisted and filled out countless job applications and forms, received nagging emails and calls from recruiters for a profile update or elaboration, until I finally realised that I have been swindled by the consultancies for my monetised data (which I handed off via applications). Having found out that these companies profit on applicant data and not job offer commissions, I slowly withdrew from any further communication as I knew this would only lead to another dead end. As Anna and I roamed through examples of biotech companies online, it was easy to spot familiar UI between recruitment and lab websites; welcoming slideshows and all the obvious keywords like “future” and “innovation” stamped across images of professionals doing their work. It was impossible not to question the sincerity of what the websites displayed.

Along with the financial motives behind tech businesses, there are also fundamental internal and external design factors that diminish the trustworthiness of websites. Search engine optimisation is vital in controlling how websites are marketed and ranked. In order to fit into the confines of web indexing, site traffic now depends on not just handling Google Analytics but creating keywords that are either exposed in the page’s content or mostly hidden within metadata and backlinks. As the increase in backlinks correlates with the growth of SEO, corporate websites implement dense footers with links to all their pages, web directories, social media, newsletters and contact information. The more noise a website makes via its calls to external platforms, the more noise it makes on the internet in general.

The online consumer’s behavior is another factor in manipulating marketing strategies. Besides brainstorming what users might search, SEO managers are inclined to find related terms by scrolling through Google’s results page and seeing what else their users already searched for. Here, we can see how Google’s algorithms produce a tailored feedback loop of strategic content distribution that simultaneously feeds an uninterrupted rotating dependency on their search engine.

It is clear that keyword research helps companies come up with their content delivery and governance, and I worry about the line blurring between the information’s delivery strategy and its actual meaning. Alex Rosenblat observes how Uber uses multiple definitions for their in court hearings in order to shift blame onto their drivers as they are “consumers of its software”, subsequently enabling tech companies to switch so often between the words “users” and “workers” until they become fully entangled. In the SEO world, avoiding keyword repetition additionally helps to stay away from competing with their own content, and companies like Uber easily benefit from this specific game plan as they can freely work with interchanging their wording when necessary. With the increase in applying a varied range of buzzwords, encouraged by using multiple words to portray one thing, it’s evident that Google’s SEO system plays a role in stimulating corporations to implement ambiguous language on their sites.

However, search engine restrictions also further the SEO manipulation of content. There have been a multitude of studies (such as Enquiro, EyeTools and Did-It or Google’s Search Quality blog and User Experience findings) that look at our eye-tracking patterns when searching for information, many of which back up the rules of the “Golden Triangle” – a triangular space in which the highest density of attention remains on the top and trickles down on the left of the search engine results page (SERP). While the shape changes in relation to SERP’s interface evolution (as explained in a Moz Blog by Rebecca Maynes), the studies reveal how Google’s search engine interface offers the illusion of choice, while subsequently exploiting the fact that users will pick the first three results.

In a Digital Visual Cultural podcast, Padmini Ray Murray describes Mitchell Whitelaw’s project, The Generous Interface, where new forms of searching are reviewed through interface design to show the actual scope and intricacy of digital heritage collections. In order to realise generous interfaces, Whitelaw considers functions like changing results every time the page is loaded or randomly juxtaposing content. Murray underpins the importance of Whitelaw’s suggestions to completely rethink how we display collections as a way to untie us from the Golden Triangle’s logic. She claims that our reliance on such online infrastructures is a design flaw.

“The state of the web today – the corporate web – the fact that it’s completely taken over by four major players, is a design problem. We are working in a culture where everything we understand as a way into information is hierarchical. And that hierarchy is being decided by capital.”

Interfaces of choice are contested and monopolised, guiding and informing user experience. After we have clicked on our illusion of choice, we are given yet another illusion – through the mirage of soft and polished animations, friendly welcome page slideshows and statements of social motivation – we read about company ethos (perhaps we’re given the generic slideshow and fade animation to distract us if the information is misleading).


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Murray goes on to describe a project developed by Google’s Cultural Institute called Womenwill India, which approaches institutions to digitise cultural artefacts that speak to women in India. This paved the way for scandals where institutions that could not afford or have the expertise to digitalise their own collections ended up simply administering them to Google. She goes on to study the suspiciousness of the program through the motivations that lie beneath the concept of digitising collections and the institute’s loaded power: “it’s used for machines to get smarter, not altruism […] there is no interest in curating with any sense of sophistication, nuance or empathy”. Demonstrating the program’s dubious incentives, she points to the website’s cultivation of exoticism with the use of “– India” affixed to the product’s title. She continues to describe the website to be “absolutely inexplicable” as it flippantly throws together unrelated images of labeled ‘Intellectuals’, ‘Gods and Goddesses’ and ‘Artworks’ with ‘Women Who Have Encountered Sexual Violence During The Partition’.

When capital has power over the online circulation of public relations, the distinction between website design and content begins to fade, which leads design to take on multiple roles. Since design acts as a way of presenting information, Murray believes it therefore has the potential to correct it.

“This is a metadata problem as well. Who is creating this? Who is telling us that this is what things are? The only way that we can push back against the Google machine is to start thinking about interventions in terms of metadata.”

The bottom-up approach to consider interventions as metadata could also then be applied to the algorithmic activities of web crawlers. The metadata (a word I believe Murray also uses to express the act of naming and describing information) of a website specifies “what things are”. While the algorithmic activity of web crawlers further enhance content delivery, search engine infrastructure is ruled by the unification of two very specific forces – of crawler and website. As algorithms remain to be inherently non-neutral, developed by agents with very specific motives, the suggestion to use metadata as a vehicle for intervention (within both crawlers and websites) can employ bottom-up processing to be a strong political tactic.

Web crawlers’ functions are unintelligible and concealed to the user’s eye. Yet they’re connected to metadata, whose information seeps through to reach public visibility via either content descriptions on the results page, drawn-out footers containing extensive amounts of links, ambiguous buzzword language or any of the conforming UI features mentioned above. This allows for users (as visual perceivers) to begin to identify suspicious motives of websites through their interfaces. These aesthetic cues give us little snippets of what the “Google machine” actually wants from us. And, while it may just present the tip of the iceberg, it is a prompt to not underestimate, ignore or become numb to the general corporate visual language of dullness and disguise. The idea of making interfaces invisible has formed into an aesthetic of deception, and Norman’s transparent design manifesto has collapsed onto itself. When metadata and user interfaces work as ways of publicising the commercial logic of computation by exposing hidden algorithms, we can start to collectively see, understand and hopefully rethink these digital forms of (what used to be invisible) labour.


Ana Meisel is a web developer and curator of External Pages, starting her MSc in Human Computer Interaction and Design later this year., @ananamei

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 Today I worked on three separate collaborations: feedback on a thesis draft, a paper revision with colleagues at other universities, and a grant proposal with mostly senior scholars. Each collaboration represents my integration with distinct project teams, on which my status varies. And along with my relative status, so too varies my relationship with the Track Changes editing tool.

When giving feedback on my student’s thesis, I wrote over existing text with reckless abandon. I also left comments, moved paragraphs, and deleted at will. When working on my paper collaboration, I also edited freely, though was more likely to include comments justifying major alterations. When working on the research grant, for a project team on which I am the most junior member, I knew not to change any of the text directly. Instead, I made suggestions using the Comment function, sometimes with alternative text, always phrased and punctuated as a question.

These experiences are, of course, not just tied to me nor to the specific tasks I undertook today. They are part of a larger and complex rule structure that has emerged with collaborative editing tools. Without anyone saying anything, the rules generally go like this: those higher on the status hierarchy maintain control over the document. Those lower on the status hierarchy do not. Even though Track Changes positions everything as a suggestion (i.e., collaborators can accept or reject any change), there is something gutsy about striking someone’s words and replacing them with your own, and something far meeker about a text-bubble in the margins.

Track Changes (and other collaboration tools) do not enforce status structures. They do, however, reflect and enact them. Who you are affects which functions are socially available, even as the entire suite of functions remain technically available. Users infuse these tools with existing social arrangements and keep these arrangements intact. The rules are not explicit. Nobody told me not to mess with the grant proposal text, just as nobody sanctioned my commanding approach to the student’s thesis, or the “clean” (Track Changes all accepted) manuscript copy I eventually sent to my co-authors. Rather, these rules are implicit. They are tacit. And yet, they are palpable. Missteps and transgressions could result in passive aggressive friction in the mildest case, and severed working relationships in the more extreme.

Just like all technologies, Track Changes is of the culture from which it stems. Status hierarchies in the social system reemerge in the technical artifact and the social relations facilitated through it. Stories of Track Changes norm breaching would illustrate this point with particular clarity. I’m struck, however, by not having on hand a single personal example of such a breach. Everyone I work with seems, somehow, to just know what to do.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis


Stories of data breaches and privacy violations dot the news landscape on a near daily basis. This week, security vendor Carbon Black published their Australian Threat Report based on 250 interviews with tech executives across multiple business sectors. 89% Of those interviewed reported some form of data breach in their companies. That’s almost everyone. These breaches represent both a business problem and a social problem. Privacy violations threaten institutional and organizational trust and also, expose individuals to surveillance and potential harm.

But “breaches” are not the only way that data exposure and privacy violations take shape. Often, widespread surveillance and exposure are integral to technological design. In such cases, exposure isn’t leveled at powerful organizations, but enacted by them.  Legacy services like Facebook and Google trade in data. They provide information and social connection, and users provide copious information about themselves. These services are not common goods, but businesses that operate through a data extraction economy.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about the cost-benefit dynamics of data economies and in particular, how to grapple with the fact that for most individuals, including myself, the data exchange feels relatively inconsequential or even mildly beneficial. Yet at a societal level, the breadth and depth of normative surveillance is devastating. Resolving this tension isn’t just an intellectual exercise, but a way of answering the persistent and nagging question: “why should I care if Facebook knows where I ate brunch?” This is often wrapped in a broader “nothing to hide” narrative, in which data exposure is a problem only for deviant actors.

Nothing to hide narratives derive from a fundamental obfuscation of how data works at scale. “Opt-out” and even “opt-in” settings rely on a denatured calculus. Individuals solve for data privacy as a personal trouble when in contrast, it is very much a public issue.  

Data privacy is a public issue because data are sui generis—greater than the sum of their parts. Data trades don’t just affect individuals, but collectively generate an encompassing surveillance system. Most individual data are meaningless on their own. Data become valuable—and powerful—through aggregation. Singular datum are thus primarily effectual when they combine into plural data. In other words, my data comes to matter in the context of our data. With our data, patterns are rendered perceptible and those patterns become tools for political advantage and economic gain.

Individuals can trade their data for services which, at the individual level, make for a relatively low cost (and even personally advantageous) exchange. Accessing information through highly efficient search engines and connecting with friends, colleagues, communities, and fellow hobbyists are plausibly worth as much or more than the personal data that a user “pays” for this access and connection. At the individual level, data often buy more than they cost.

However, the costs of collective data are much greater, and include power transfers to state and corporate actors. Siva Vaidhyanathan is excellent on this point. In his book Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects us and Undermines Democracy Vaidhyanathan demonstrates how the platform’s norm of peer-sharing turns to peer surveillance, turns, though mass data collection, to corporate and state surveillance. Facebook collects our data and gifts it back to us in the form of pleasing News Feeds. Yet in turn, Facebook sells our data for corporate and political gain. This model only works en masse . Both News Feeds and political operatives would be less effective without the data aggregates, collected through seemingly banal clicks, shares, and key strokes.

Individual privacy decisions are thus not just personal choices and risks, nor even network-based practices. Our data are all wrapped up in each other. Ingeniously, big tech companies have devised a system in which data exchange benefits the individual, while damaging the whole. Each click is a contribution to that system. Nobody’s data much matters, but everybody’s data matters a lot.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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

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

Ari Schlesinger, Kenton P. O’Hara, and Alex S. Taylor present an interesting suggestion/question about database construction. They are interested in chatbots in particular, but their point easily expands to other forms of AI. They note that the standard practice is to manage AI databases through the construction of a “blacklist”. A blacklist is a list of words that will be filtered from the AI training. Blacklists generally include racist, sexist, homophobic, and other forms of offensive language. The authors point out, however, that this  approach is less than ideal for two reasons. First, it can eliminate innocuous terms and phrases in the name of caution. This doesn’t just limit the AI, but can also erase forms of identity and experience. The authors give the example of “Paki”. This is a derogatory racist term. However, filtering this string of letters also filters out the word Pakistan, which is an entire country/nationality that gets deleted from the lexicon. Second, language is dynamic and meanings change. Blacklists are relatively static and thus quickly dated and ineffective.

The authors suggest instead that databases are constructed proactively through modeling. Rather than tell databases what not to say (or read/hear/calculate etc.), we ought to manufacture models of desirable content (e.g., people talking about race in a race conscious way). I think there’s an interesting point here, and an interesting question about preventative versus proactive approaches to AI and bias. Likely, the approach has to come from both directions–omit that which is explicitly offensive and teach in ways that are socially conscious. How to achieve this balance remains an open question both technically and socially. My guess is that constructing social models of equity will be the most complex part of the puzzle.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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

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

A key finding from their work is that existing datasets conceptualize, operationalize, and model digital technology and mental well-being in a lot of different ways. The variation is so great, the authors find, that researchers can construct trillions of different combinations, just to answer a single research question (i.e., is digital technology making teens sad?). Moreover, they find that analytic flexibility has a significant effect on research outcomes. Running over 20,000 analyses on their three datasets, Orben and Przybylski find that design and analysis can result in thousands of different outputs, some of which show negative effects of digital technology, some positive, and others, none at all.  Their findings drive home the point that big data is not intrinsically valuable as a data source but instead, must be treated with theoretical care. More data does not equal better science by the nature of its size. Better science is theoretically informed science, for which big data can act as a tool. While others have made similar arguments, Orben and Przybylski articulate the case in the home language of big data practitioners.

The second element of their study is that analyzing across the three datasets gives a result in which digital technology explains less than 1% of the variation in teens’ mental well-being (0.4%, to be exact). The findings do show that the relationship is negative, but only slightly. This means that 99% of teens’ mental well-being is correlated with things other than digital technology. Regularly eating potatoes showed a negative correlation similar to that of technology use in relation to teens’ mental health. The minuscule space of digital technology in the mental lives of young people sits in stark contrast to its bloated expanse within the public imagination and policy initiatives. For example, while  I was searching for popular press pieces about mental health among university students to use in a class for which I am preparing, it was a seeming requirement that authors agree on the trouble of technology, even when they disagreed on everything else.

The article’s unassuming title could easily have blended with the myriad existing studies about technology, youth, and mental health. Its titular simplicity belies the explosive dual contributions contained within. Luckily, Twitter


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

A series of studies was just published showing that White Liberals present themselves as less competent when interacting with Black people than when interacting with other White people. This pattern does not emerge among White Conservatives. The authors of the studies, Cynthia H. Dupree (Yale University) and Susan T.  Fiske (Princeton University), refer to this as the “competence downshift” and explain that reliance on racial stereotypes result in patronizing patterns of speech when Liberal Whites engage with a racial outgroup. The original article appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology. I make the case that these human-based findings have something to tell us about AI and its continued struggle with bigotry. 

Since the article’s publication, the Conservative response has been swift and expected. Holding the report as evidence of White Liberal hypocrisy, a Washington Times story describes how the findings “fly in the face of a standard talking point of the political left,” and a Patriot Post story concludes that “Without even realizing it, ‘woke’ leftists are the ones most guilty of perpetrating the very racial stereotypes they so vehemently condemn.”

Conservative commentators aren’t wrong to call out the racism of White Liberals, nor would White Liberals be justified in coming to their own defense. The data do indeed tell a damning story. However, the data also reveal ingroup racial preference among White Conservatives and an actively unwelcoming interaction style when White Conservatives engage with people of color. In other words, White Conservatives aren’t wrong, they are just racist, too.

Overall, the studies show the insidiousness of racism across ideological bounds. Once racial status processes activate, they inform everyday encounters in ways that are often difficult to detect, and yet have lasting impacts. While White Liberals talk down to Black people in an effort to connect, White Conservatives look down on Black people and would prefer to remain within their own racial group. Neither of these outcomes are good for Black people, and that story is clear.

Racism is rampant across ideological lines. That is the story that the data tell. This story has implications beyond the laboratory settings in which the data were collected.  I think one of those implications has to do with AI. Namely, the findings tell us something insightful about how and why AI keeps being accidentally racist (and sexist/homophobic/classist/generally bigoted), despite continued efforts and promises to rectify such issues. .

The tales of problematic AI are regular and fast-coming. Facial recognition software that misidentifies people of color; job advertisements that show women lower paying gigs; welfare algorithms that punish poverty; and search platforms that rely on raced and gendered stereotypes. I could go on.

The AI bigotry problem is easy to identify and diagnose, but the findings of the above study show that it is especially tricky—though not impossible—to resolve. AI comes out prejudice because society is prejudice. AI is made by people who live in society, trained by data that comes from society, and deployed through culturally entrenched social systems. AI hardware and software are thus bound to pick up and enact the status structures that govern human social relations. The problem isn’t so much with faulty technology, but with historically ingrained “isms” that have become so normative they disappear from conscious thought until Surprise! Gmail autocomplete assumes investors are men.  These #AIFails are like an embarrassing super power which renders invisible inequalities hyper-visible and blatantly clear.

The oft proposed solution—besides technical fixes—has been a call for a more critical lens in the tech sector. This means collaboration between technologists and critical social thinkers such that technological design can better attend to and account for the complexities of social life, including issues of power, status, and intersecting oppressions.

The solution of a critical lens, however, is somewhat undermined by Dupree and Fiske’s findings. One of the main reasons the authors give for the competence downshift is White Liberals’ disproportionate desire to engage with racial minorities and their concern that racial minorities will find White Liberals racist. That is, Liberal Whites wanted to reach across race lines, and they were aware of how their Whiteness can trouble interracial interaction. This is a solid critical starting point, one I imagine most progressive thinkers would hope for among people who build AI. And yet, it was this exact critical position that created racist interaction patterns.

When White Liberals interacted with Black people in Dupree and Fiske’s studies, they activated stereotypes along with an understanding of their own positionality. This combination resulted in “talking down” to people in a racial outgroup. In short, White Liberals weren’t racist despite their best intentions and critical toolbox, but because of them. If racism is so insidious in humans, how can we expect machines, made by humans, to be better?

One pathway is simple: diversify the tech field and check all products rigorously and empirically against a critical standard. The standpoint of technologists matter. An overly White, male, hetero field promises a racist, sexist, heteronormative result. A race-gender diverse field is better. Social scientists can help, too. Social scientists are trained in detecting otherwise imperceptible patterns. We take a lot of methods classes just for this purpose, and pair those methods with years of theory training. A critical lens is not enough. It never will be. It can, however, be a tool that intersects with diverse standpoints and rigorous social science. AI will still surprise us in unflattering and perhaps devastating ways, but critical awareness and a firm directive to“stop being racist,” can’t be the simple solution.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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In late September the social news networking site ‘Reddit’ announced a revamp of their ‘quarantine’ function. A policy that has been in place for almost three years now, quarantines were designed to stop casual Redditors from accessing offensive and gruesome subreddits (topic based communities within the site), without banning these channels outright. In doing so the function impacted a small number of small subreddits and received little attention. The revamp of the quarantine function however has led to the policy applying to much larger subreddits, creating significant controversy. As an attempt to shape the affordances of the site, the revamped quarantine function highlights many of political and architectural issues that Reddit is facing in today’s current political climate.

As a platform, Reddit sits in a frequently uncomfortable position. Reddit was initially established as a haven for free speech, a place in which anything and everything could and should be discussed. When, for example, discussion about #gamergate, the controversy in 2014 over the ethics of the gaming industry that resulted in a number of high-profile women game designers and journalists being publicly harassed, was banned on the often more insidious 4chan, it was Reddit where discussion continued to flourish. However, in recent years, Reddit has come under increasing pressure due to this free for all policy. Reddit has been blamed for fueling misogyny, facilitating online abuse, and even leading to the misidentification of suspects in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings.

Reddit announced the revamp of its quarantining policy via a long post on the subreddit r/announcements. In doing so, one of Reddit’s moderators u/landoflobsters highlighted the bind that Reddit faces. They said:

“On a platform as open and diverse as Reddit, there will sometimes be communities that, while not prohibited by the Content Policy, average redditors may nevertheless find highly offensive or upsetting. In other cases, communities may be dedicated to promoting hoaxes (yes we used that word) that warrant additional scrutiny, as there are some things that are either verifiable or falsifiable and not seriously up for debate (eg, the Holocaust did happen and the number of people who died is well documented). In these circumstances, Reddit administrators may apply a quarantine.”

u/landoflobsters Argued that a quarantine function was not designed to shut down discourse, but rather to ensure those who didn’t wish to see it did not view it and to potentially encourage change:

“The purpose of quarantining a community is to prevent its content from being accidentally viewed by those who do not knowingly wish to do so, or viewed without appropriate context. We’ve also learned that quarantining a community may have a positive effect on the behavior of its subscribers by publicly signaling that there is a problem. This both forces subscribers to reconsider their behavior and incentivizes moderators to make changes.”

A quarantine has a number of impacts on a subreddit. A quarantined community is unable to generate revenue, does not appear on Reddit’s front page, nor on other non-subscription-based feeds. These subreddits cannot be found via the search or recommendation function. To find a quarantined subreddit a user must search for the name specifically, normally through Google. When a user attempts to subscribe to a quarantined subreddit a warning is displayed requiring the user to explicitly opt-in to view the content. Information about these subreddits, for example the number of subscribers, is also scrubbed from their front page. In essence, quarantines are designed to halt the growth of subreddits without banning them outright.

Through the mechanism of affordances we can understand this attempt from Reddit more thoroughly. Affordances is a term that has become a critical analytical tool within science and technology studies, and increasingly in relation to the study of social media architectures. Davis and Chouinard argue that “affordance refers to the range of functions and constraints that an object provides for, and places upon, structurally situated subjects.”

In relation to studies of social media we can understand affordances to be the functions of the site that shape what users can do within the space. Davis and Chouinard provide a theoretical scaffold for affordance analyses by modeling the mechanisms of affordance. These mechanisms capture variation in the strength with which artefacts shape human behavior and social dynamics. Davis and Chouinard propose that artefacts don’t just afford or not afford but instead, request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow.

Requests and demands refer to bids that the artefact places upon the subject. Encouragement, discouragement, and refusal refer to how the artefact responds to a subject’s desired actions. Allow pertains to both bids placed upon on the subject and bids placed upon the artefact.”

In relation to Reddit’s quarantine function, we can see a strong attempt at discouragement. Davis and Chouinard argue that “artifacts discourage when one line of action, though available should subjects wish to pursue it, is only accessible through concerted effort.” Reddit has attempted discouragement in a number of ways — through requiring users to specifically search for quarantined subreddits, through the warning messages provided when users access quarantined subreddits, and through the inability of these subreddits to earn income, in turn discouraging use and development of these subreddits.

Through the expansion of the quarantine function we can see the deep politics that exist behind artefact affordances. The expansion of the quarantine function has seen significant pushback by affected subreddits. One of the largest for example, r/TheRedPill, which was quarantined specifically for misogynistic rhetoric, has launched a concerted campaign against their quarantine. Moderators of r/TheRedPill have argued strongly against the politics of the quarantine, stating that Reddit has tacitly endorsed male abuse and denied its victims. In doing so they have worked to subvert the new affordance of the site, labeling it as an inherently political act.

In response to the quarantine, we see the politics of affordances play out. While affordances provide a framework for what users can and cannot do with a particular artefact, this can, and is frequently subverted by users in numerous ways. This mutability is in particular a feature of Reddit. Having an open source philosophy Reddit users have changed and shaped the interface and functions of the site regularly across its history. Whether users will be able to successfully subvert the quarantine revamp is yet to be seen. Yet, what is interesting about this episode is how it highlights the politics that exist behind the artefact’s affordances, politics that are playing out once again on centre stage.

Reddit finds itself once again stuck in a bind. The site seems to be trying to please everybody, hoping to hold on to its status as a place of free speech, while at the same time responding to critics about the very speech that occurs on the site. In doing so it is likely that Reddit will end up pleasing no one.


Simon Copland is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Australian National University (ANU), studying online men’s communities, frequently called the ‘manosphere’

Simon is a freelance writer and has been published in The Guardian, BBC Online and Overland Journal, amongst others. He co-produces the podcast‘Queers’, a fortnightly discussion on queer politics and culture, and is the co-editor of the opinion and analysis site ‘Green Agenda’.

Simon is a David Bowie and rugby union fanatic.”

Headline pic via: Source

The following argument is as an elaboration upon and the second part of “The Ineluctable Politics of Doctor Who: Part 1.” In that piece, I present the television series Doctor Who as an artefact with ineluctable social-material significance and political implications. In so doing, I illustrate that the ostensibly playful, inconsequential spaces that celebrate beloved objects of fan entertainment never actually enact neutral positions. The text and fan pronouncements about the text exist, incontrovertibly, as partisan acts—even when enacting an ostensibly innocuous posture that seeks to avoid or negate polemical effects.

Here, in Part 2, I address the ways in which the show may and should take responsibility for its social-material effects—which, while demonstrating relevance for a general viewing audience, hold particular import for a diverse fan community. It is on this point of fan diversity that the present discussion locates sociological significance. Surely Doctor Who fans, as a group, constitute a wide range of varying demographic orientations. Such a pronouncement seems rather evident considering the fanbase spans cross-cultural contexts.

While an analysis of the fans’ demographic differences may be revelatory and significant in its own right, I presently refrain from such an endeavour (which is beyond the scope of mere blog musings) and instead gauge the diverse opinions surrounding the induction of the show’s first woman Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. The overall response to Whittaker’s casting is largely positive. Most fans embrace the change, while a smaller subset of fans express derision for it. Though, as will become apparent in the remainder of the discussion, the whole of the fan community demonstrates substantive variations in how they either affirm or disparage the event.

While these differences of expression are by no means resolute and exclusive stances for all persons voicing them, they still illustrate a far more complex, nuanced assortment of postures than a bifurcated typology demarcating for or against can capture. Nowhere is this complexity and nuance clearer than in claims to political neutrality, which span discourses on both sides of the debate. Whovians espouse political neutrality by claiming that the Doctor Who programme should remain free from gender concerns and feminist sensibilities; however, said Whovians differ on whether or not they believe Whittaker’s casting exists as a feminist political act.

Such divergent interpretations of Whittaker-as-Doctor reveal the agency and generative-potential of fan viewership as well as obfuscate the ineluctability of political implications emerging from a beloved-fan artefact. Only by acknowledging the untenability of authorial political-neutrality can concerned subjects also recognize the futility of a politics free fandom. Whereby, I hold that fans should hold the enterprises that create, curate and profit from beloved-fan artefacts accountable for their political instantiations. The appropriate concern, then, is not whether  enterprises should be political, but rather what politic they should enact and how they should the enact it.

Accordingly, one may pose the following queries. Should enterprises pander to existing fans’ nostalgic desires for maintaining narrative lineage and tradition? Or should enterprises interrogate and potentially amend the possible norms and values they engender? With that said we may now survey and consider various fan pronouncements that exist among and across diverse internet platforms.

The Opposition

We will begin by cataloguing “some” of the stances of disappointment—i.e., those who express dissatisfaction with the program and wish that the contents of the show were otherwise.


One persistent accusation emerging from the opposition indicates that the Doctor Who enterprise panders to discourses and campaigns that cultivate and enact progressively partisan sentiments—particularly with regards to gender politics. Individual expressions of discontent may highlight one or many of the following discursive orientations: cultural Marxism, feminism, third wave feminism, the #Metoo campaign, Social Justice initiatives, progressivism, political correctness, leftist or liberal politics, etc.  Of course they also employ pejorative expressions as well—e.g., superficial hipsters, wokeness, snowflakes, feminazis, man-haters, the easily triggered, etc.  As they see it, gender politics demonstrate an inappropriate presence in and influence over the show’s narrative and casting decisions in a manner that fundamentally undermines the quality and legacy of the programme.

One central example of antifeminism is youtuber Dave Cullen of The Dave Cullen Show who criticizes the narrative unfolding of Doctor Who with at least two separate videos, “The Vandalization of Doctor Who” and “Feminist Misandry Infests Doctor Who.” Through these media artefacts, he provides analysis and commentary of how the show’s dialogue repeatedly gives voice to a progressivism that—among other rebukes—routinely derogates men in a thoroughly one-sided manner. As he articulates the problem, the show’s narrative choices are a consequence of the enterprise’s attempt to “virtue signal” in response to feminist ideology and critique.

Cullen, using phrases like “feminist garbage,” enacts an oppositional rhetoric that not only negates a respect for (and thereby legitimacy of) the creative decisions of Doctor Who, but also progressive epistemologies. Consequently, the critique offered—though not necessarily unsophisticated for the context of Youtube—refrains from approximating the academic practice of measured interrogation and a scholarly disinclination toward determinism. Instead of probing a discursive logic in an effort to unearth its potential utility and apparent shortcomings, Cullen argues by assertion (at least with respect the epistemological frames he indicts). “Feminism,” within the epistemic parameters of his own narrative enactments, is simply (and thereby essentially) absent of intellectual and political worth.

Other antifeminist commentaries centre specifically on Jodie’s casting as the source of (or rather a target for) fan discontent. These discursive acts contend that Jodie’s undertaking of the role represents a radical departure from the show fans grew to love and celebrate. As one Twitter user exclaims in response to Jodie’s casting, “Are you f**king kidding me you’ve ruined doctor who for me and my father in law. You might as well just cancelled the show.” Though other expressions of disappointment contend that Jodie’s presence represents the enterprise’s zenith instantiation of feminism—making the story and mythology secondary to political demonstrations and indoctrination. Likewise, there are commentaries that share this (or a similar) sentiment, but target some specific demographic or behaviour as a proxy for feminist and progressive sensibilities. One tweet plainly states, “This is just pandering to women” and another exclaims, “This is nothing but political correctness” (as quoted in Chastain 2017).

Narrative Consistency

Some discursive indictments emphasize an investment in The Doctor being an archetypal male. While such speech acts often demonstrate antifeminist sentiments, they focus attention on narrative integrity and respect for the cannon. A petition to “stop making Doctor Who a SJW [social justice warrior]/PC [politically correct] show” circulating the internet (rather unsuccessfully with less than a thousand signatures) explains:

The Doctor is a well established male character. I feel that if the BBC want[s] more female leads they should create new shows instead of breaking over 50 years of tradition in Doctor Who. People today don’t have a lot of male heroes to look up to and the ones we do have have been replaced by women…. What makes this instant with Doctor Who worse is that they are changing the gender of the protagonist. Not making another Female Timelord, just taking one of the only male ones left… I’m sorry, but that is just wrong. You wouldn’t turn Spongebob into a female to get girl viewers or turn Barbie [in]to a man to get Boy fans. This is just unnecessary for the show, marketing and the plot.

Cullen (the aforementioned YouTuber) demonstrates a similar logic when he gives reason— beyond his general distaste for feminism—for his disinclination to accept the casting of a woman Doctor. While Cullen acknowledges that the Doctor Who cannon does not prohibit the story from moving in this direction, he purports that show creators made the change without a concern for the cannon or any other story centred initiative. He believes the BCC’s pandering to a pervading culture of political correctness serves as the primary impetus for The Doctor’s gender change. Though he also notes that the Doctor Who enterprise adopted and began disseminating a “progressive” agenda well before Whittaker’s casting. Such an agenda, Cullen purports, became “ramped-up” during the years of Whittaker’s predecessor, Peter Capaldi.


Gender Neutral Opposition

Some oppositional discourse suggests that indeed the casting of a woman Doctor is entirely appropriate, but gender should not be a criterion to determine such a casting. Proceeding from this ethic, they maintain that the show producers and writers should not permit or facilitate the salience of gender issues and feminist politics within the show’s narrative and advertising. Likewise, some fans contend that that the show is still enjoyable—they give voice to their intentions to remain viewers and fans—but further suggest that to do so requires that they actively ignore what they perceive to be obvious political sentiments of the show. As one YouTube user—commenting on Cullen’s “The Vandalization of Doctor Who”—declares, “As an avid Doctor Who fan, I’m just going to try to enjoy the show and just ignore the ‘wokeness.’”

For the sake of clarity, we should acknowledge that sexiest sentiments and hang-ups imbue all—and everything among and in-between—these discursive acts. While the comments offered seem to represent distinct positions of opposition, they coalesce on a general discontent with the presence of progressive gender politics within one or more aspects of the Doctor Who enterprise. Furthermore, while these ostensible subsets of opposition demonstrate distinct nuances—it would likely be a mistake for us to regard them as the definitive and precise stances of the persons who proffer them. If we examine the history of any given user’s media commentaries, after all, we may very well find that such comments, read individually, are not entirely consistent with respect to other discrete pronouncements made by said user. Perhaps the comments will demonstrate outright contradiction, or they may simply facilitate opportunities for ambiguous and ambivalent readings. In any event, discursive enactments demonstrate an agency that, in some respects, remain independent of their authorial progenitors.

The Advocates            

Overdue Feminism

On the other end of the Whovian political spectrum (#MakeWhovianPolticalSpectrumReal) are those Whovians who resolutely, largely or somewhat affirm the narrative and casting choices of the show. Some highlight that Doctor Who holds a sexist legacy, which requires correction via the casting of a woman Doctor as well as the incorporation and dissemination of progressive (and/or feminist) values. In a series of tweets, sociologist-fan Carlos Beck (@CarlosGBeck) provides a thorough exegesis of the gender inequity perpetually underlying the Doctor-companion relationship. Beck iterates:

The Doctor’s relations with his companions is variously asymmetrical. While this is narratively established by the fact that the Doctor is a space/time traveling E[xtra]T[errestrial], it nonetheless serves as the foundation for a series of tropes effectively organized around gender. “doctor-splaining” is only 1 mind-numbingly repetitive example in a set of these narrative devices whereby the dr, as man, is positioned to explain generally in annoyed fashion the fantastic logic of the episode’s conflict & its resolution to his companion, as woman. Another ex.[ample] being the tendency of his companions, all the most important have up to s[eason]3 been women, to soothe the Dr’s more aggressive (read:masculine) tendencies. This… is attached to & justified by the dr’s initimate knowledge of the cosmos, one his comp[anion]’s can’t master.

For Beck, as with others, the casting of a woman Doctor was long overdue and indeed, may well not go far enough.

Gender Neutral Advocacy

Yet other discourses, which advocate for Whittaker as The Doctor, suggest that Doctor Who has not and/or does not pander to progressivism, feminism or any other political sensibility. Whereby, their understanding of fan politics is such that it is a mistake to read such an agenda into the program. Responding to a denigrating tweet from a (now former) fan bemoaning Doctor Who’s gender progressivism and celebration of Jodie’s casting, many fans defended the premiere by denouncing any such political enactments within the episode. Such fans made statements to the effect of, “The episode doesn’t have an agenda! You should watch it; you may enjoy it!” Similarly, some fans suggest that while having a woman Doctor is not necessary or relevant to the show’s success or political stakes, the position of opposition to a woman Doctor lacks legitimacy. As one twitter user, responding to another user bemoaning the fact that The Doctor is now a woman, stipulated: “The Doctor does not need to be a woman. But there is no reason she shouldn’t be. And she is.” One with this understanding, then, may simply neglect to engage with or consider the political implications of The Doctor’s gender.

The Untenability of Political Neutrality

The above examples defending the Doctor Who enterprise by distancing it from political intentions and enactments demonstrate particular import in juxtaposition to the oppositional examples that indict the show for having a politic. The implicit logic undergirding all these examples, both from the side of affirmation and opposition, is that Doctor Who is not an appropriate space for political concerns—with respect to gender inequality or otherwise. Yet, as I illustrate in the first part of this two part discussion, an artefact’s political implications are ineluctable—both in the sense that an artefact demonstrates social-material consequences for users and in the (not entirely separate) sense that an artefact does not exist independently of political readings—even those readings positioned in opposition to partisan posturing.

What we are left with, then, is a circumstance in which Whovians miscategorise or neglect the relevant and appropriate debate. What, then, is an enterprise’s obligation to its diverse fanbase? Should an enterprise like Doctor Who uphold fan expectations—i.e., pander to lineage and tradition? With respect to disappointed Whovians, the circumstance is one in which a segment of fans believe that the Doctor Who programme holds a responsibility to meet their expectations. In the present moment, these fans believe that the enterprise should uphold the show’s tradition of casting men as The Doctor. With respect to how they understand the problem, the relevant ethics are rather simple. Because Loyal Whovians are in significant ways responsible for the show’s enduring success, the programme thereby owes them—or rather the programme must remain sensitive to their desires. Is it not, then, disrespectful to said fans to amend such an enduring feature of the Doctor Who story—like The Doctor’s gender?

Without even exploring the narrative justification for why a woman Doctor does not disturb the integrity of the Doctor Who mythos (trust me, it doesn’t), we may readily problematize this logic. We must contrast this ostensible obligation to traditional expectations with another apparent responsibility. Because enterprises creating, curating and profiting from beloved (fan) artefacts have ineluctable consequences (political in scope), are these enterprises not accountable for the consequences (and possible harms) they engender? With respect to the Doctor Who enterprise, a history of representational gender inequity remains complicit in normalizing differential gender privileges and burdens (see Part 1 of the discussion).

So enterprises—recognizing an obligation to (some) fans—may very well maintain a narrative unfolding indicative of the show’s past. In so doing, they could very well enact normative on-goings that pander to audience nostalgia (and prejudice)—despite the social harms that such on-goings may engender (either deliberately or by means of silence and inaction). Or the enterprises in question can glean the relevant lessons of the present socio-historical context and take responsibility for the political implications they pose to a world of onlookers. For what my opinion is worth, I prefer my beloved programmes to take a position of responsibility that furthers social equality. My Doctor is a person who will recognize the needs of those denied equal opportunity and fair treatment over the desires of those who are simply content with the way things are or were. My Doctor does not refuse help to those in need.


James Chouinard (@Jamesbc81) is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology at The Australian National University


Headline Image via: Source

An analysis of how human beings engage with a given artefact likely draws from a fundamental premise: human creations demonstrate social-material consequences. This observation does not purport to indicate a probable condition, but rather an ineluctable one—and it holds relevance, always and everywhere, for all types of artefacts. This is true of artefacts demonstrating utilitarian salience—like a spear, scythe, wrench, pencil, microwave, motor vehicle, computer, etc.—and those ostensibly centring on more aesthetic functions—like a painting, sonnet, concert, novel, play or even a television programme.

For the following argument, I discuss how a particular television series, Doctor Who, demonstrates social-material consequences for a community of fans, the Whovians. Following the recent premier of Season Eleven, many excited Whovians took to Twitter in collective celebration of Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the show’s leading character, The Doctor.  After 55 years of men in the role, Whittaker’ casting had clear symbolic importance. But it had social-material significance, too. One Twitter comment comes to my mind as an exemplary indication of such significance.

A father tweets, “My daughter (6) told me they were playing  #DoctorWho… in the playground today and she was the Doctor – that’s why last night was brilliant.” Recognizing that the child’s pretending to be the Doctor is to envision herself as the hero, we may acknowledge that she not only enacted a role of social importance, but also felt it was appropriate and desirable to do so. In other words, we confront the affective (and thereby material) implications of her having a woman role model to serve as fodder for her imagined (and real life) ambitions. Pretending to be the Doctor, this child may envision herself as not only competent, but exceptional. While playing, she perhaps recited that now iconic line from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, “When people need help, I never refuse!”  

This tweet, for many, is a heart-warming indication of how parents derive joy from their children’s glee. Though it also reveals how an ostensibly silly television show about aliens, time-travel and companionship holds the power to provoke social change—i.e., to empower young girls (as well as boys) to regard themselves as capable (as potential heroes) as well as to inform a normative order about who gets to be exceptional and deserves celebration. To acknowledge this, though, is to give credence to another ineluctable implication of engaging artefacts—i.e., that such engagement is not independent of the dynamics of power and thereby holds political relevance. Media representation, after all, is an operation and reflection of power—performing and indicating a politic with respect to who has power and for whom power is denied.

The Doctor Who Universe

Doctor Who is a BBC produced science-fiction programme. It demonstrates prominent fandom the world over, but particularly so within British society. The show began in 1963 and aired until 1989. The BBC attempted to relaunch the programme in 1996 with a made-for-television Doctor Who film; however, a rebooted series did not begin airing until 2005. From that time onwards, the show has remained on the air and is still in production presently.

The unfolding story of Doctor Who centres on “the Doctor,” a humanoid time traveling alien from the fictional planet Gallifrey. The character typically travels with human companions to diverse worlds as well as into the past and future. These traveling feats occur by means of the iconic TARDIS: a sentient, time and space traversing vehicle that is paradoxically “bigger on the inside than the outside.” To all outside observers, the TARDIS appears as a police kiosk—an edifice that was normative to Britain’s public infrastructure at the time of the show’s inception. TARDIS travel is often imprecise. Consequently, the Doctor and companions may find themselves in unanticipated times or places. Also, they typically find themselves amongst and aiding peoples or persons enduring a crisis from some despotic foe (e.g., daleks, cybermen, weeping angels, etc.).

Reading this description, one may note the lack of gender pronouns. Though I recognize the political significance of gender neutral prose, I employ the practice here for another reason—which pertains to the present and historical context of Doctor Who. The show has maintained a tradition of continually recasting The Doctor after a specified segment of time. From 1963 to the present, thirteen separate lead actors have officially undertaken the role. The narrative unfolding of Doctor Who accounts for the change by enacting the Doctor’s ability to regenerate (and thereby endure a prolonged life).

With every regeneration the doctor takes on a new humanoid form as well as a new persona. (Yes! I know! Except for that time David Tennant’s Doctor regenerated in a way that maintained his form and persona. Please stop quibbling!). With respect to the enduring mythology of the show, however, the Doctor (in substantial respects) remains the same person—i.e., the doctor retains many if not most memories of past “lives” and the show intends for the audience to regard the present and “new” Doctor as “the same” Doctor(s) from past seasons. Now prior to the eleventh season, I could simply stipulate, “The Doctor and his companions….”  But the current Doctor (or rather the Doctor’s current form)—as we now know—is a woman and portrayed by Jodie Whittaker.

The Whovian Response

Many, including myself, regard the character’s gender change as profound and exciting. The enthusiasm for and celebration of the Season Eleven premiere has much to do with the fact that the first woman Doctor follows 55 concurrent years of Doctors who were men. Whereby, the weeks and months preceding Jodie’s debut enjoyed widespread anticipation from old and new fans alike. Yet the love and enthusiasm did not span the whole of the Whovian community.

Many fans expressed derision at what they perceived to be an interpolation of trendy political sentiments in the show’s narrative and casting decisions. Such fans regarded the revelation of Jodie’s casting as the tipping point upon which the show enacted a metamorphic shift from episodic interjections of feminist sentiments to a full-on critical-feminist project (e.g., see The Cullen Show). For a contingent of fans, this perceived shift in the show’s narrative corresponded to a relational one in which said Whovians’ perpetual annoyance with the show gave way to a complete break in their fan-allegiance.

These fans then took to the internet to declare their intentions to abstain from further viewership of the programme. Subsequently, an enduring internet battle unfolded across an array of platforms with some Whovians supporting the show’s narrative and casting choices, others wholly denouncing said choices and still others occupying a plethora of ambiguous, ambivalent and approximating positions between the two extremes. In Part Two 2 I illustrate the precise nature of these debates and offer a corresponding analysis of their differential logics and implications. Presently, though, I clarify why these debates matter.

What Is at Stake?

Debates among Whovians about Whittaker’s casting centre on a few broad questions:  Is the Doctor Who universe an appropriate space to address gender inequities?  Is it inappropriate to imbue those cultural spaces intended to be fun (or possibly inconsequential with regard to real-world commitments) with politicized sentiments? These are indictments masquerading as inquiries and to many onlookers they are ostensibly reasonable. However, closer inspection reveals that such inquires fail to grasp a fundamental premise about cultural artefacts. They fail to demonstrate what the present text stipulates at its outset—i.e., that all cultural artefacts hold politics. We have already addressed how a given artefact’s politics are fundamentally entangled with social-material consequences and relations of power. Yet we may further explore how artefacts are also ineluctably subject to political readings.

To understand how this occurs, we must acknowledge that this particular concern implicates both authors and audiences. Most readers will readily acknowledge that authors have and will intentionally incorporate their political leanings into a text and do so in a manifest way—resolutely undermining all opportunities for ambiguous and ambivalent readings. Those who indict as well as those who champion Doctor Who as a political project assume said project to be a consequence of author intentionality. Whereby, they accept as apparent within the story’s unfolding a deliberate, unambiguous message about gender representation. I am not, here, arguing for or against the veracity of this claim; rather I give recognition to the relevance of intentional design so that I may better frame a discussion of how political readings can and will demonstrate independence from authorial aims.

With that said, we may also confront the circumstance in which authors fancy themselves as being persons without ideological objectives. They might reflect, “I’m not political. I simply enjoy making-up cool stories with interesting characters.” Such a disposition, perhaps, is one which many disappointed Whovians believe is appropriate and necessary for the creators of Doctor Who. These fans may reason, “Look, we just want to see time travel and aliens and all the fun stuff related to these things. I don’t want my favourite sci-fi stories to burden me with the ideological hang-ups of the real world.” However, even if the producers and writers heed such a call, the resulting television show will still demonstrate political relevance.

For example, a hypothetical author may attempt to resolutely position the narrative in opposition to partisan readings by crafting the text in a manner that is decisively banal, innocuous or unremarkable—i.e., in a manner that does not lay claim to political, divisive rhetoric. Yet to proffer a series of bromides and seemingly benign characterizations still demonstrates a politic in its default positioning. While such a posture refuses to state moral or ethical suppositions, it continues to imply them. An author who neglects to critically assess the world, after all, negates the importance of such evaluations (and thereby makes a claim about what should be or should remain so).

Our present conflation of neglect with negation is appropriate here, because such epistemic negligence holds real world consequences. By not questioning and challenging the everyday violence that occurs in one context or another, one permits as well as complies with said violence. The discourses articulating systemic racism and sexism illustrate this point. These prejudices are built into the fabric of everyday life. To ignore them as consequential for the life-chances of others is to remain complicit in the harms such forces engender. In short, political neutrality is an unviable position—even when engaging fun, fantastical stories (like Doctor Who) to experientially escape the real harms and concerns of lived experience.

Furthermore, authors who deliberately construct narratives to facilitate highly precise or exact readings (political, apolitical or otherwise) will witness the undermining of their efforts as an agentic audience demonstrates the generative power of construal—of actively observing meaning into an artefact. In other words, the audience in question “prosumes”  cultural artefacts, which implies that the act of watching (and consuming) holds productive potential. For example, Whovians consume Doctor Who in a manner that produces a diverse array of experiences and political inclinations.

While some fans regard the eleventh Doctor’s relationship to long-time companion Amelia Pond as constituting an implied romance other fans regard their mutual affections—though immensely loving—as decidedly platonic. The situation is not merely one of differential or (mis)interpretation. Fans, after all, do not passively view the unfolding events of a series arc; rather, they actively will the story to take a specific form. Furthermore, prosuming Doctor Who generates fodder for fandom unity and debate—e.g., fans who celebrate the romance and those who argue about the nature of the relationship. Thus, the fans’ prosumption of the beloved artefact occurs with and through their prosumption of the community itself.

We must now consider some clarifying remarks on the point of viewer agency. Some readers might assume that the practice lends an absolute (or limitless) efficacy to viewer-consumers. One may, then, surmise that since viewers may create and curate their own meanings for a programme’s on-goings, the show’s actual decisions hold little political relevance for or influence over said viewers. Such a position, however, is fundamentally mistaken.

The extant arrangements of a story (as well as a surrounding social world) imposes limits on the generative potential of fan viewing.  After all, if we accept that human perceptions of the world largely operate in and through shared social constructions, then, we must recognize that social artefacts—like televisions shows— are informative of how persons (or fans) understand and engage the world. Furthermore, a fan’s generative-viewing potential likely suffers increasing enfeeblement the more said fan credulously acquiesces to the putative logics of various dialogues and scenes. Even if we accept this hypothesis as irrefutable, however, we still must recognize that the most discerning viewers and subversive viewings inexorably draw from and make-sense of the world through the symbolic register of a larger, normative order.

With that said, we should acknowledge that a reoccurring male Doctor—typically with adoring female companions—communicates and inculcates cultural expectations about what type of persons can and should be protagonists, leaders, saviours, special and exceptional as well as what types of persons should admire, follow, acquiesce and accept the deliberations and pronouncements of others. Such expectations, then, are thoroughly shot-through with the dynamics of systemic power. Fan opposition to Whittaker as Doctor is thus an inherently political act—even among those who claim political neutrality and wish for their pop-culture to remain free from political meddling.

Of course, we would be remiss not to recognize that the history of Doctor Who does offer us strong, agentic and admirable women companions time and again—such as Sarah Jane, Martha Jones, Donna Noble and Bill Potts (among others). But admiring these characters—especially in the sense that they often have and do reflect progressive-feminist ideals—does not negate the legitimacy of observations recognizing past inequities and calls for rectification.

Sexism and gender egalitarianism as well as hegemonic standards and progressive ideals are multifaceted variables—each of which exist on a continuum. Whereby the presence of a variable on one end of the continuum does not necessitate a mutually exclusive relationship with a variable on the other end. Consequently, one may observe both sexist and gender egalitarian features within the same artefact. The history of Doctor Who, then, may have been “relatively” progressive in some respects, but not others. Keeping in mind, however, that all such observations demonstrate a contextual contingency with respect to the cultural moments in which they emerge.

With a concern for the present cultural moment, we should come to understand the multifaceted political readings among Whovians as a representative microcosm of larger debates highlighting the intersections of politics, power, and gender—e.g., the #MeToo campaign and other recent instantiations of progressivism. Wherefore, we readily acknowledge that political participation takes many forms. Disrupting hearings for a predatory SCOTUS nominee is one such example. So too, however, is a fan’s support for story arcs that position women as heroes—especially when those stories take shape through cultural artefacts as widely treasured as Doctor Who. Such an understanding becomes apparent when reflecting on the initial anecdote about a young girl pretending to be The Doctor. Re-enacting the Season Eleven premiere and the episodes to come, this little girl and others like her believe they just might save the universe.


James Chouinard (@jamesbc81) is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology at The Australian National University

Headline pic via: Source


I’ll start by stating the obvious: power manifests in myriad forms. In this piece I’ll be focusing on the normalizing power of discourse. Normalizing discourse refers to the way language – talk, text, and body – reinforces the status quo and crystalizes social structures, including our own place within those structures. I will draw on my own research about religion online to make the case that the internet fosters normalizing discourse, while at the same time, leaving room for subversion.

I suggest conceptualizing digital media as a Foucauldian Discourse, or, for a lack of a better analog: the street, the marketplace. What I mean by Foucauldian discourse is the systematic ways in which communication shapes our social norms. This happens online because, while we use digital media individually, we are taking part in a social space. Online media includes the multiplicity of opinions experienced through an individual’s lenses. We use digital media in personalized ways: to create a ‘personal’ profile, to do your own banking, travel, shopping, etc. There are shopify business websites, a direct product of ecommerce, which again is by extension is born out of digital media. But the experience in not fully individualized: the ‘street’ or ‘tribe’ is always at the background of online activities. Friends and family (‘the tribe’) react to personal profiles in social media; reviewers and commenters (‘the street’) “shout” their opinions about the latest gadget you just purchased, or the news you are reading; and always, the watchful eye of a big company – Google, Microsoft, Apple – is present. Therefore, online communication is never done in a vacuum. Even if I am watching cat videos by myself at 3 AM, I am surrounded by society. Online, the individual user is communicating with ‘the masses.’ They are out in the street, or at the marketplace, or at school, or at church, even if they are physically alone in bed. Online, you converse with “everyone.” And these online ‘conversations,’ I argue, are the essence of conceptualizing online media as Foucauldian discourse.

Understanding digital media as discourse means theorizing digital communication as a set of systematic statements and online practices that create, construct, and negotiate social norms: as spaces of power and resistance. And, while the internet allows for multiple voices and counter-spheres, there are policing and regulating processes that make online media a normalizing force. I’d like to share two example from my own work on religion online that reflect how digital media can be conceptualized as a site for power and resistance.

I’ll begin with a juicy example. In my dissertation I examined Jewish religious negotiation of gender and sexuality. I was hoping to find that the internet – commonly conceived as a ‘democratizing’ technology – gives power to new voices – like women and LGBTQIA+ people – to reshape gender and sexual norms within this religion. I found the opposite. That the ability to comment, share, like and participate reinforces the religious dogmatic positions rather than, as I anticipated, help bend them. For example, in a Q&A with a rabbi, a female lay person asks if it’s “ok for girl to… masturbate”. The rabbi says no. While in fact, to some degree, Orthodox Judaism does not explicitly prohibit female masturbation, it is not really surprising that the rabbi prohibits this. But what follows is the interesting stuff:

In the comment section, users, some of whom self-identify as women, shame the girl for asking, and thank the rabbi for prohibiting. “Thank god, I can’t masturbate, what a relief!” Just as the rabbi reinforces gendered norms of chastity, the community concurs and entrenches normative notions of shame about a sexualized body. Normalized discourse is thus reinforced and along with it, normative oppressive practice.

But then, a lone commenter contests the point:

No way?? [מה פתאום]. I’ve discovered this by accident at a young age and for years my conscience was killing me. I tormented myself long and hard to stop and I almost succeeded. I thought to myself, when I get married this will stop by itself. Today I am married and I am so not sorry for my experience with this because this is how I’ve learned what feels good for me and could reach pleasure also with my partner. I hear about married women that do not enjoy [intercourse] and don’t know how to have fun with their husbands. And both sides are then frustrated. I’m not saying you must but if you have this experience it is for sure not bad.

This spark of resistance is short lived, as other commenters collaboratively dissent: “Are you not ashamed?” “Who do you think you are?”, etc. This is just a small example of how the democratic features of the internet can and are being used to reinforce traditional, patriarchal and even fundamental, worldviews. However, the inkling of resistance shines through.

In other cases, the resistance shines brighter. Indeed, the internet is multiple and complex. Thus, not all internet-based discourses will look the same. As such, I find discourses in my research that subvert conservative religio-political positions.

In a current project, I am examining religious resistance online via Twitter. Specifically, I’m looking at the hashtag #EmptyThePews which is part of a movement of Ex or liberal Evangelicals, using social media to resist Trumpist churches. Here, twitter and Facebook are used to openly share traumatic church experience, and to slowly form a different conception of what a church can and should be – free of racism, sexism, and hate. The leaders of this movement are calling people to empty the pews of churches that support Trump or hurt their members in other ways. For example, “If your church supports @realDonaldTrump, ask your pastor to name one quality Christ and Trump have in common. Then walk out. #EmptyThePews” Or: “If your pastor doesn’t condemn racism tomorrow…walk out. #EmptyThePews”. This hashtag is used to shed light on these experiences, and perhaps, to slowly change the discourse around racism and its deep ties to religion.

To think of power as discourse and of online communication as a space for normalizing discourse does not mean we are doomed to be controlled by religious authorities and alt-right internet trolls. Discourse is created and maintained by us – and so we can and must participate in it. True, some have more power to influence the discourse then others, but we can try and contribute to the discourses we are part of online and offline.

The internet has emerged as a technology with the potential to level the playing field in a number of discursive domains, but it is not the fated savior of liberal values it has been extolled to be. It is more appropriately recognized as a variant of other democratic institutions, the agora, the voting booth, spaces that can only be utilized to their full intended potential when we all engage and participate in them. In the same way that democracy is threatened when we don’t cast our ballots, so too the internet can serve as an echo-chamber for only the most fanatical and extreme of voices. While the internet does offer a greater sense of accessibility and allows for different voices to be heard, this ‘participatory culture’ does not always lead to change, or to an open and respectful dialogue. We should not be deceived by the seemingly democratic capabilities of the internet. The street can also be democratic, and many lynches happened at the market place. The fleeting feeling of online media, along with its blurring of private and public, create a confusing space. One way to think about this confusing space is to consider it a discourse, in which ‘they’ or ‘everybody’ – the common-sense, the norm – take the front stage. In this space, it is the work of normalizing social beliefs and behaviors that is taking place, unless counter-publics insist on alternatives.  Digital media are about defining and negotiating definitions, about power and resistance. And just like in a democracy, change won’t happen if we don’t demand it.

Ruth Tsuria, Assistant Professor at Seton Hall University College of Communication and the Arts, has earned her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University Department of Communication.  Her research investigates the intersection of digital media, religion, and feminism. Awarded Emerging Scholar in Religion in Society, Her work has been supported by various bodies, including Women and Gender Studies Program at Texas A&M University. She is currently working on her first book Holy Women, Pious Sex, Sanctified Internet: Exploring Jewish Online Discourse on Gender and Sexuality.

A version of this work was presented at ASA Media Sociology Preconference, 2018

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