Doctor’s don’t want you to self-diagnose and would prefer you got rid of the internet entirely—a sentiment that is quite understandable. Medical professionals have gone through extensive training, continue to keep up with recent research findings, and are there to help the patients who come under their practice. Moreover, doctors have to maintain these laudable goals under tight time constraints and competing pressures. When a patient comes in with a self-diagnosis and treatment plan acquired through WebMD and responses to their Facebook blast, it not only dismisses the physician’s professional expertise, but also requires time and energy in which the physician has to consider—and often debunk—patients’ firm sense of knowledge based on incredibly partial and unreliable information. I get it.  But with an article released this week that traces the direct influence of the sugar industry upon heart health research, seeking crowdsourced medical advice that originates outside of the established medical canon emerges as both appealing and entirely reasonable.

The past several decades have seen what sociologists call the shifting engines of medicalization. While physicians once held full authority over body knowledge, the rise of internet technologies, in combination with huge advertising campaigns from pharmaceutical companies, has fostered the rise of patient-consumers. Patient-consumers understand medical professionals as service workers upon whom demands can be placed. Patients are no longer wholly reliant upon the medical establishment, but enter into medical encounters armed with information and often, an agenda. Patients’ information comes from pharmaceutical advertising (e.g., restless leg syndrome commercials) and also, web forums, medical blogs, and informal information sharing through personal and anonymous social networks (e.g., Facebook and Yahoo Answers). The debate over patient empowerment through the shifting engines of medicalization is complex, made even more so by role of big pharma. But based on my own interactions with medical professionals and family members who work in the medical field, it is clear that the medical establishment would largely prefer the engines shifted back in their favor.

Even in common parlance, the shared wisdom is for those who feel ill to steer clear of the internet. Googling will make you certain of imminent death. If you dive into the swarm of medical information online, you will leave both misinformed and terrified. Instead, listen to the medical authorities. They went to school for this. They know the research. You can trust them.  Only, you can’t trust them, even if they are individually trustworthy. It’s not that individual doctors are ill-informed or malicious, but the research on which medical professionals rely has as much (if not more) to do with market economies as it has to do the health and wellbeing of patients.

This week, the Journal of the American Medical Associate (JAMA) published an article revealing how, 50 years ago, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to write a literature review that downplayed the negative effects of sugar on heart disease and instead, cast fat as the prime culprit. This informed years of nutritional advice and affected American’s everyday food lives (and likely had a global affect, due to the general Westernization of global diets).

Research findings begin in the abstract world of ivory tower scientists and then, find their way to regular people. In the case of medical and nutrition research, the findings make their way into our bodies.  It’s not a direct path, but a mediated one that fosters a feeling of remoteness between those scientists in their lab coats and you, packing lunches and dropping by the pharmacy. The official chain looks something like this:

laboratory –>journal –>practitioner –>consumer. However, the actual chain looks more like this:

INDUSTRY –> laboratory –>journal –>practitioner –>consumer.

Research isn’t cheap and industries invest in research findings that serve their interests.

Although the sugar industry case happened 50 years ago, the practice it represents is far from a past-ill upon which we can look back with the disapproval afforded by wisdom that comes with time and progress. Rather, the sugar industry’s influence on heart research is an early example of a corrupt relationship between food industry and science that continues today. As nutritionist Marion Nestle points out in her commentary on the JAMA article, industry funded research is a continued norm, not an exception, citing ties between Coca-Cola, the candy trade association, and obesity researchers. Just last year, the meat industry successfully lobbied away USDA recommendations for Americans to consume less red and processed meat, despite studies linking these foods to higher rates of cancer and heart disease.

What happened 50 years ago has staying power and affects the lives and bodies of people today, just as ongoing science-industry relationships will stay with us far after the researchers and business tycoons have retired. The outcomes of the laboratory work their way into everyday practices, into folk wisdom passed from parents to children, between colleagues and friends, and indeed, work their way into consumer’s physical bodies. Nutritional research findings inform consumption practices which shape physiology. Those researchers in coats, and the industries that fund them, become inscribed in the bodies of those who—often unwittingly—heed their advice. As a child growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I can attest to the place of fatphobia vis-à-vis sugar’s acceptability. My “nutritious” lunches in high school often consisted of a white bagel, grape jelly, and juice. This supplemented breakfasts of large bowls of cereal—usually Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Cocoa Krispies.  I basically mainlined sugar all day and felt good about myself (at least I felt good about myself for the 20 seconds I stayed awake after consuming these meals) because their contents had green “fat free” and “low fat” labels plastered upon them.  I followed health guidelines, as did many in my generation, and they were entirely wrong. In this way, the candy industry and meat industry, who invest in research that renders animal protein and white sugar acceptable in the public imagination today, implicate themselves in our bodies for generations to come.

Medical and health information online is not just a product of the ability to create, share, and find content, but can be read as a response to the vacuum created by an untrustworthy medical establishment. Googling your way through food and medical forums may leave those who aspire to good health partially or even entirely mis-informed. But, as long as industry ties itself to science (and as long as scientists allow that relationship to persist), consumers are already misinformed. At least when your fumbling through the internet, you can be sure that the researcher—i.e., you—has your best interests at heart.


Jenny Davis, who still loves a good bagel and wouldn’t say no to a bowl of Cocoa-Krispies, is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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Nextdoor is a local social network site that connects people who live in the same neighborhood. Neighbors use it to exchange information and keep up with the ongoings of a geographically bounded community. Nextdoor seems like a relatively innocuous site for block party advertisements and zoning debates, and it is. It is also a site on which racial profiling has emerged as a problem and in response, a site on which important debates are currently playing out.

In short, people on Nextdoor have been reporting crimes in which race is the primary descriptor of the subject, casting suspicion upon entire groups of people and instigating/exacerbating racial tensions among neighbors.

Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia does not want his site to be a space for racial profiling, and recently instated a policy to ameliorate the problem. The policy is simple: Do not racially profile. What is contentious, however, is how this policy is enacted.

In contrast to Facebook (and more recently, Twitter), whose terms of service warn users that they can be censured or removed for discriminatory language, Tolia instructed his employees to build anti-profiling conduct into the site’s architecture. Specifically, the site provides a crime reporting form in which racial designations can only post if they are accompanied by two additional descriptors (e.g., clothing and hair style). In addition, reports that include race have to be of sufficient length. Otherwise they will be tagged by an algorithm and potentially removed.

Nextdoor’s tactic is exemplary of the politics inherent in codes and algorithms, and it is thus unsurprising that their anti-profiling codes and algorithms have been the subject of political debate. While the CEO makes a strong case for the move away from race-based criminalization, those opposed find the new requirement an impingement upon free speech, as well as a potential threat—if race is the only identifier a witness perceives, that witness is prevented from posting about potential dangers. As quoted on NRP, one person wrote the site administrators and complained: “Why would you engage in anything that limits people’s expression? And especially people who are trying to keep their neighborhoods safe?”

The debates—and potential outcomes—of Nextdoor’s anti-profiling code can be well explained using a gradated theory of affordance.

Broadly, an affordance is what a technological object enables and constrains, given a particular user. While historically, “affordance” is tied in a blanket way to each object—the object either affords or it does not afford a particular action—a gradated theory of affordance recognizes that a technological object affords in degrees.

In a gradated theory of affordance, technological objects request, demand, allow, encourage, and refuse[1]. Requests and demands are how an object influences the user, while allowances, encouragements, and refusals are how an object responds to a user’s desired actions. In the case of Nextdoor, the written policy—like Facebook’s and Twitter’s—requests that participants refrain from racial profiling. The new form, which requires multiple non-racial identifiers, demands it. In turn, the written instruction allows racial profiling, while the form refuses to let profiling persist.

Thus, the debate surrounding Nextdoor is not whether racial profiling is acceptable or not, but about whether antiprofiling policy should come as a request or a demand; whether its response to racist acts should be an allowance or a refusal.

 The pilot program, which rolls out nationally in a few weeks, comes down on the side of demand and refuse.

The demand that users include multiple identifiers for the alleged perpetrator and provide a description of sufficient length does two important things, one practical and the other ideological. First, it makes content itself more precise, reducing broad accusations against entire local populations and aiding law enforcement who, certainly, benefit from greater levels of detail. Second, and this is admittedly aspirational, it could teach people to perceive differently.

Communication technologies don’t just inform how we write and share, but how we frame the world and our place within it; social media doesn’t just shape how we communicate, but how we are. As bloggers, we at Cyborgology craft key points into 140 character tweetable lines. In this way, Instagrammers make their way to sunlit mountains and ask their friends to wait a moment before eating so they can capture interesting content with a particular aesthetic, while Facebookers show up to the party, even if perhaps they feel tired, partly because they want to be included in the document of the event–they want to be part of the archive.

Social psychologists have found that along with gender, race is the first thing people notice about someone else. By demanding a new practice of documenting, Nextdoor may, at the same time, shepherd in a new practice of looking.To be sure, and as noted by Tolia himself, forms are not the solution to racism. Certainly, users can (and likely will) revert to coded language and more granular ways of signifying race. But, users will be encouraged to look more holistically, and I hope, if too optimistically, that they will unlink race and criminality–at least to some degree.



Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

[1] “refuse” is an addition to the original formulation linked her. An extended version is under review in manuscript form.


worry piece

I’m the first to admit that coming up with new material to write on a regular basis can be really tough. I also think that important arguments bear repeating. So I’m not mad when I see multiple versions of essentially the same story pop up in op-eds and essays. But I do feel the need to step in when stories that repeat themselves, repeatedly get something wrong. Such is the case with what I call the worry piece.

The worry piece is a particular brand of techno-skeptism. It addresses technology as an overwhelming force that on balance, changes people and relationships for the worse. It is concerned with the very nature of humanity and saturated with visceral anxiety. It is personal, and meant to shame you, but in a collective-we-should-all-be-ashamed kind of way. One can (and should) be skeptical and critical of technology for a host of reasons—mostly with regard to patterns of exploitation from its production, distribution, and use. The worry piece is less concerned with these structural issues and instead, occupied by the loss of dinnertime conversation and the influx of content to which readers can presumably pay only fleeting attention.  

The worry piece has a standard formula and predictable conclusion. It begins with a personal anecdote, cites Sherry Turkle, metaphorizes media consumption as food consumption with a tie to health and morality (McDonalds often ends up on the losing side of the metaphor, despite their nugget makeover), the author confesses hir own “unhealthy” technological practices, nods to technologies’ benefits, and ends reflexively with some comment on the likelihood that the article itself is probably too long to keep readers’ attention. Columbia Journal Review recently published a worry piece that is conveniently meta, citing many of the existing worry pieces that have been popularized over the last several years.

The point of the worry piece is twofold: to discern the etiology of technology overload and provide practical advice for managing its effects. It places blame in some interrelated combination of technology companies, the media industry, and individual users. It tells  us that technology companies are invested in keeping people tethered to screens, which we regularly need to upgrade to keep up with new advancements. Media industries fight for eyeballs in a crowded attention economy and prioritize content quantity over quality. And individuals are weak and insatiable, addicted to the constant stream of information and attention. The advice is almost exclusively aimed at individual practice—log off, be intentional, detox, read a book. The worry piece fear mongers for several thousand words before placing the onus on the reader to push back against what the author has depicted as an unstoppable machine.

Clearly, the worry piece speaks to some experience that resonates with readers. Big outlets keep publishing them and people keep sharing them. But from my own recent slate of interviews with social media users, I think the worry piece resonates more with an ingrained, abstract, and habitual idea of technology, and less with people’s actual experiences with technology in their everyday lives. In this way, the worry piece contrasts markedly with what people tell me when they talk about their own relationships with platforms and devices.

I have been studying new and social media for almost 10 years. I collect data every few years, which lets me identify trends as they develop, and practices as they evolve. I am currently collecting new data. What stands out about this round of data collection is a general decrease in passion among participants. Their opinions are more fully formed but also less adamantly held. Things annoy them but don’t infuriate them. They laugh about the potential for distraction, but then elaborate on how they manage this for themselves. They know how to use privacy settings, they know how to navigate large content pools, they know how to hide, seek, tune out, turn on, and generally curate information and notifications.

In 2011, a woman I interviewed slammed her hand on a table and swore prolifically when describing a Facebook Friend who posted too frequently. It ate at her. Today, people mostly roll their eyes and laugh, then say that they hide those Friends who clog their feeds, generally qualifying their decision with a “you do you” kind of statement.  In previous iterations of data collection, people agonized over the ways the internet only showed people what they wanted to see. They feared the filter bubble and its effects on democratic discourse. Today, participants acknowledge the echo chamber and embrace their role in maintaining it. “Facebook isn’t where I go to learn things about ‘the other side,’” said one participant. “I can find what I want on my own.” In 2008, people talked about “going online,” as though it were something separate, something distracting. Today, people talk about how being online is part of their workday, social engagements, news consumption, and entertainment. Platforms and devices are how they communicate, as a matter of course and convenience.

Some participants still worry that people don’t talk as much or don’t connect as well, but the vast majority think we are both more widely connected and also maintain the deep connections we have always had. Even those who are concerned about the loss of social connection also feel generally confident in the strength of their own relationships—isolation is something that happens to other people, mostly teenagers who haven’t learned the skills that these participants have presumably mastered. Some people talk about the struggle to keep up with news and content, but most have systems that they imperfectly employ—lots of open tabs, RSS feeds, apps, dropbox folders— which they are generally comfortable neglecting.

This round of interviews is bearing out a relationship to technology that is decidedly settled. New platforms emerge, but this too is ordinary. A frequently changing technological landscape is expected and does not elicit panic. The older participants sometimes ask about “that Snapchat thing”, and a smattering of participants from varied age groups admit that they “don’t get” Twitter, but they also report that they don’t feel like they are missing out. The participants in this round of interviews engage with social media, but don’t feel compelled to engage on all social media, nor do they fear that the world is passing them by. Participants’ responses—both about themselves and about the place of new technologies in society—are tempered, nuanced, and quiet.

It’s not that worry pieces aren’t tapping into anything, it’s just that they are tapping into an affective sensibility that’s on its way out.

Ironically, the continued prevalence of the worry piece is most certainly a product of some of the very patterns that the articles worry over—a 24hour news cycle, a competitive attention economy, and the need to produce new content, regardless of whether an outlet and its writers have something meaningful to say.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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This is part two of an essay on René Girard’s influence on Peter Thiel. Part one ran last week and you can read it here

In my previous post, I examined social theorist René Girard’s influence on tech investor Peter Thiel. Previous observers have picked up on Thiel’s remark that Girard’s mimetic theory helped him identify the promise of social media, but they have left out a crucial dimension of Girard’s thought: mimetic violence, also a central preoccupation for Thiel. In what follows, I will make the case that Thiel invested in and promoted Facebook not simply because Girard’s theories led him to foresee the future profitability of the company, but because he saw social media as a mechanism for the containment and channeling of mimetic violence in the face of an ineffectual state. Facebook, then, was not simply a prescient and well-rewarded investment for Thiel, but a political act closely connected to other well-known actions, from founding the national security-oriented startup Palantir Technologies to suing Gawker and supporting Trump.

According to Girard’s mimetic theory, humans choose objects of desire through contagious imitation: we desire things because others desire them, and we model our desires on others’ desires. As a result, desires converge on the same objects, and selves become rivals and doubles, struggling for the same sense of full being, which each subject suspects the other of possessing. The resulting conflicts cascade across societies because the mimetic structure of behavior also means that violence replicates itself rapidly. The entire community becomes mired in reciprocal aggression. The ancient solution to such a “mimetic crisis,” according to Girard, was sacrifice, which channeled collective violence into the murder of scapegoats, thus purging it, temporarily, from the community. While these cathartic acts of mob violence initially occurred spontaneously, as Girard argues in his book Violence and the Sacred, they later became codified in ritual, which reenacts collective violence in a controlled manner, and in myth, which recounts it in veiled forms. Religion, the sacred, and the state, for Girard, emerged out of this violent purgation of violence from the community. However, he argues, the modern era is characterized by a discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism, and therefore of sacrificial ritual, which creates a perennial problem of how to contain violence.

For Girard, to wield power is to control the mechanisms by which the mimetic violence that threatens the social order is contained, channeled, and expelled. Girard’s politics, as mentioned above, are ambiguous: he criticizes conservatism for wishing to preserve the sacrificial logic of ancient theocracies, and liberalism for believing that by dissolving religion it can eradicate the potential for violence. However, Girard’s religious commitment to a somewhat heterodox Christianity is clear, and controversial: he regards the non-violence of the Jesus of the gospel texts as a powerful exception to the violence that has been in the DNA of all human cultures, and an antidote to mimetic conflict. It is unclear to what degree Girard regards this conviction as reconcilable with an acceptance of modern secular governance, founded as it is by the state monopoly on violence. Peter Thiel, for his part, has stated that he is a Christian, but his large contributions to hawkish politicians suggest he does not share Girard’s pacifist interpretation of the Bible. His sympathetic account, in “The Straussian Moment,” of the ideas of Carl Schmitt offers further evidence of his ambivalence about Girard’s pacifism. For Schmitt, a society cannot achieve any meaningful cohesion without an “enemy” to define itself against. Schmitt and Girard both see violence as fundamental to the social order, but they draw opposite conclusions from that finding: Schmitt wants to resuscitate the scapegoat in order to maintain the state’s cohesion, while Girard wants (somehow) to put a final end to scapegoating and sacrifice. In his 2004 essay, Thiel seems torn between Girard’s pacifism and Schmitt’s bellicosity.

The tensions between Girard’s and Thiel’s worldviews run deeper, as a brief overview of Thiel’s politics reveals. As a libertarian, he has donated to both Ron and Rand Paul, and he has also supported Tea Party stalwarts including Ted Cruz. George Packer, in a 2011 profile of Thiel, reports that his chief influence in his youth was Ayn Rand, and that in political arguments in college, Thiel fondly quoted Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” As George Packer notes in his New Yorker profile of Thiel, few claims could be more alien to his mentor, Girard, who insists on the primacy of the collective over the individual and dedicated several books to debunking modern myths of individualism. Indeed, Thiel’s libertarian vision of the heroic entrepreneur standing apart from society closely resembles what Girard derided in his work as “the romantic lie”: the fantasy of the autonomous, self-directed individual that emerged out of European Romanticism. Girard went so far as to suggest replacing the term “individual” with the neologism “interdividual,” which better conveys the way that identity is always constructed in relation to others.

In a seemingly Ayn-Randian vein, Thiel likes to call tech entrepreneurs “founders,” and in lectures and seminars has compared startups to monarchies. He envisions “founders” in mythical terms, citing Romulus, Remus, Oedipus, and Cain, figures discussed at length in Girard’s analyses of myth. Thiel’s pro-monarchist statements have been parsed in the media (and linked to his support for the would-be autocrat Trump), but without noting that for a self-proclaimed devotee of René Girard to advocate for monarchy carries striking ambiguities. According to Girard’s counterintuitive analysis, monarchical power is the obverse side of scapegoating. Monarchy, he hypothesizes, has its origins in the role of the sacrificed scapegoat as the unifier and redeemer of the community; it developed when scapegoats managed to delay their own ritual murder and secured a fixed place at the center of a society. A king is a living scapegoat who has been deified, and can become a scapegoat again, as Girard illustrates in his reading of the myth of Oedipus (Oedipus begins as an outsider, goes on to become king, and is ultimately punished for the community’s ills, channeling collective violence toward himself, and returned to his outsider status).

If Thiel, as he reveals in a 2012 seminar, views the “founder” as both potentially a “God” and a “victim,” then he regards the broad societal influence wielded by the tech élite as a source of risk: a king can always become a scapegoat. On these grounds, it seems reasonable to conclude that Thiel’s animus against Gawker, which he has repeatedly accused of “bullying” him and other Silicon Valley power players, is closely connected to his core concern with scapegoating, derived from his longstanding engagement with Girard’s ideas. Thiel’s preoccupation with the risks faced by the “founder” also has a close connection to his hostility toward democratic politics, which he regards as placing power in the hands of a mob that will victimize those it chooses to play the role of scapegoat. Or as he states: “the 99% vs. the 1% is the modern articulation of [the] classic scapegoating mechanism: it is all minus one versus the one.”

No serious reader of Girard can regard a simple return to monarchical rule – which Thiel has sometimes seemed to favor – as plausible: the ritual underpinnings that were necessary to maintain its credibility, Girard insists, have been irreversibly demystified. Perhaps on the basis of this recognition, and even while hedging his bets through his involvement in Republican politics, Thiel has focused instead on the new possibilities offered by network technologies for the exercise of power. A Thiel text published on the website of the libertarian Cato Institute is suggestive in this context: “In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create . . . new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order.” Although Thiel does not say so here, from a Girardian point of view, a “founder” of a community does so by bringing mimetic violence under institutional control – precisely what the application of mimetic theory to Facebook would suggest that it does.

As we saw previously, Thiel was ruminating on Strauss, Schmitt, and Girard in the summer of 2004, but also on the future of social media platforms, which he found himself in a position to help shape. It is worth adding that around the same time, Thiel was involved in the founding of Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company whose main clients are the US Intelligence Community and Department of Defense – a company explicitly founded, according to Thiel, to forestall acts of destabilizing violence like 9/11. One may speculate that Thiel understood Facebook to serve a parallel function. According to his own account, he identified the new platform as a powerful conduit of mimetic desire. In Girard’s account, the original conduits of mimetic desire were religions, which channeled socially destructive, “profane” violence into sanctioned forms of socially consolidating violence. If the sacrificial and juridical superstructures designed to contain violence had reached their limits, Thiel seemed to understand social media as a new, technological means to achieving comparable ends.

If we take Girard’s mimetic theory seriously, the consequences for the way we think about social media are potentially profound. For one, it would lead us to conclude that social media platforms, by channeling mimetic desire, also serve as conduits of the violence that goes along with it. That, in turn, would suggest that abuse, harassment, and bullying – the various forms of scapegoating that have become depressing constants of online behavior – are features, not bugs: the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, and hatred of the Other that feed online violence. From Thiel’s perspective, we may speculate, this means that those who operate those platforms are in the position to harness and manipulate the most powerful and potentially destabilizing forces in human social life – and most remarkably, to derive profits from them. For someone overtly concerned about the threat posed by such forces to those in positions of power, a crucial advantage would seem to lie in the possibility of deflecting violence away from the prominent figures who are the most obvious potential targets of popular ressentiment, and into internecine conflict with other users.

Girard’s mimetic theory can help illuminate what social media does, and why it has become so central to our lives so quickly – yet it can lead to insights at odds with those drawn by Thiel. From Thiel’s perspective, it would seem, mimetic theory provides him and those of his class with an account of how and to what ends power can be exercised through technology. Thiel has made this clear enough: mimetic violence threatens the powerful; it needs to be contained for their – his – protection; as quasi-monarchs, “founders” run the risk of becoming scapegoats; the solution is to use technologies to control violence – this is explicit in the case of Palantir, implicit in the case of Facebook. But there is another way of reading social media through Girard. By revealing that the management of desire confers power, mimetic theory can help us make sense of how platforms administer our desires, and to whose benefit. For Girard, modernity is the prolonged demystification of the basis of power in violence. Unveiling the ways that power operates through social media can continue that process.

Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.

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Thiel - Girard

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues.

Thiel’s connection to the late René Girard, his former teacher at Stanford, is well known but poorly understood. Most accounts of the Girard-Thiel connection have described the common ground between them as “conservatism,” but this oversimplifies the matter. Girard, a French Catholic pacifist, would have likely found little common ground with most Trump delegates. While aspects of his thinking could be described as conservative, he also described himself as an advocate of “a more reasonable, renewed ideology of liberalism and progress.” Nevertheless, as the Politics and Apocalypse symposium reveals, Thiel and Girard both believe that “Western political philosophy can no longer cope with our world of global violence.” “The Straussian Moment,” Thiel’s contribution to the conference, seeks common ground between Girard’s mimetic theory of human social life – to which I will return shortly – and the work of two right-wing, anti-democratic political philosophers who were in vogue in the years following 9/11: Leo Strauss, a cult figure in some conservative circles, and a guru to some members of the Bush administration; and Carl Schmitt, a onetime Nazi who has nevertheless been influential among academics of both the right and the left. Thiel notes that Girard, Strauss, and Schmitt, despite various differences, share a conviction that “the whole issue of human violence has been whitewashed away by the Enlightenment.” His dense and wide-ranging essay draws from their writings an analysis of the failure of modern secular politics to contend with the foundational role of violence in the social order.

Thiel’s intellectual debt to Girard’s theories has a surprising relevance to some of his most prominent investments. For anyone who has followed Thiel’s career, the summer of 2004 – the summer when the “Politics and Apocalypse” symposium at Stanford took place – should be a familiar period. About a month afterward, in August, Thiel made his crucial $500,000 angel investment in Facebook, the first outside funding for what was then a little-known startup. In most accounts of Facebook’s breakthrough from dormroom project to social media empire (including that offered by the film The Social Network), Thiel plays a decisive role: a well-connected tech industry figure, he provided Zuckerberg et al, then Silicon Valley newcomers, with credibility as well as cash at a key juncture. What made Thiel see the potential of Facebook before anyone else? We find his answer in an obituary for René Girard (who died in November 2015), which reports that Thiel “credits Girard with inspiring him to switch careers and become an early, and well-rewarded, investor in Facebook.” It was the French academic’s mimetic theory, he claims, that allowed him to foresee the company’s success: “[Thiel] gave Facebook its first $500,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ he said. ‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.'” On the basis of such statements, business analyst and Thiel admirer Arnaud Auger has gone so far as to call Girard “the godfather of the ‘like’ button.”

In order to make sense of how Girard informed Thiel’s investment in Facebook, but also how he has shaped Thiel’s ideas about violence, we need to examine the basic tenets of Girard’s thought. Mimetic theory has not been widely applied in social analyses of the internet, perhaps in part because Girard himself had essentially nothing to say about technology in his published oeuvre. Yet the omission is surprising given mimetic theory’s superficial resemblance to the more often discussed “meme theory,” which similarly posits imitation as the basis of culture. Meme theory began with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, was codified in Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, and has been applied broadly, in popular and scholarly contexts, to varied internet phenomena. Indeed, the traction achieved by the term “meme” has made most of us witting or unwitting adopters of meme theory. Yet as Matthew Taylor has argued, Girard’s account of mimeticism has significant theoretical advantages over Dawkins-derived meme theory, at least for anyone interested in making sense of the socio-political dimensions of technology. Meme theory tends to reify memes, separating them from the social contexts in which their circulation is embedded. Girard, in contrast, situates imitative behaviors within a general social theory of desire.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is simple in its basic framework but has permitted complex, detailed analyses of a wide range of cultural and social phenomena. For Girard, what distinguishes desire from instinct is its mediated form: put simply, we desire things because others desire them. There is some continuity with familiar strands of psychoanalytic theory here. I quote, for example, from Slavoj Žižek: “The problem is, how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural, about human desires. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire.” Compare this with Girard’s statement: “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” For Girard (and here he differs from psychoanalysis), mimesis is the process by which we learn how and what to desire. Any subject’s desire, he argues, is based on that of another subject who functions as a model, or “mediator.” Hence, as he first asserted in his book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, the structure of desire is triangular, incorporating not only a subject and an object, but also, and more crucially, another subject who models any subject’s desire. Moreover, for Girard, the relation to the object of desire is secondary to the relation between the two desiring subjects – which can eclipse the object, reducing it to the status of a prop or pretext.

The possible applications of this thinking to social media in particular should be relatively obvious. The structures of social platforms mediate the presentation of objects: that is, all “objects” appear embedded in, and placed in relation to, visible signals of the other’s desire (likes, up-votes, reblogs, retweets, comments, etc.). The accumulation of such signals, in turn, renders objects more visible: the more mediated through the other’s desire (that is, the more liked, retweeted, reblogged, etc.), the more prominent a post or tweet becomes on one’s feed, and hence the more desirable. Desire begets desire, much in the manner that Girard describes. Moreover, social media platforms perpetually enjoin users, through various means, to enter the iterative chain of mimesis: to signal their desires to other users, eliciting further desires in the process. The algorithms driving social media, as it turns out, are programmed on mimetic principles.

Yet it is not simply that the signaling of desire (for example, by liking a post) happens to produce relations with others, but that the true aim of the signaling of desire through posting, liking, commenting, etc. is to produce relations with others. This is what meme theory obscures and mimetic theory makes clear: memes, far from being autonomous replicators, as meme theory would have it, function entirely as mediators of social relations; their replication relies entirely on those relations. Recall that for Girard, the desire for any object is always enmeshed in social linkages, insofar as the desire only comes about in the first place through the mediation of the other. A reading of Girard’s analyses of nineteenth-century fiction or of ancient myth suggests that none of this is at all new. Social media have not, as the popular hype sometimes implies, altered the structures that underlie social relations. They merely render certain aspects of them more obvious. According to Girard, what stands in the way of the discovery of mimetic desire is not its obscurity or complexity, but the seeming triviality of the behaviors that reveal it: envy, jealousy, snobbery, copycat behavior. All are too embarrassing to seem socially, much less politically, significant. For similar reasons, to revisit Thiel’s remark, “social media proved to be more important than it looked.”

But so far, I have been expanding on what Thiel himself has said, which others have echoed. However, what accounts of Girard’s role in Thiel’s Facebook investment never mention is the other half of Girard’s theory, the half that Thiel was at Stanford to discuss in 2004: mimetic violence, which, for Girard, is the necessary corollary of mimetic desire. A follow-up post will explore this dimension of Girard’s thought, and reveal its relevance to Thiel’s agenda as an investor and “influencer.”

Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.  

Headline Pics: Girard;Thiel

The 2016 U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team

Every 2 years, Olympic trials provide the rare opportunity to watch people’s huge and impossible dreams coming true. I love the Olympic trials. All of them. I love them so much. If shoe-tying were an Olympic sport, I would be entirely rapt with the selection process.  However, I am especially enamored by women’s gymnastics (in trials and in The Games)—I trace this back to my own budding gymnastics career cut short at the fragile age of 8 when, upon receiving an invitation to join my gym’s competition team, my mom said Hell-No-Competitive-Gymnastics-Is-Too-Intense and signed me up for basketball.

So imagine my delight when I discovered and immediately dove gleefully into the podcasts, blogs, and Twitter feeds that make up the gymternet—a network of gymnastics enthusiasts who nerd out about the sport and its athletes.  I had (and still have) so much to learn.  Jessica O’Beirne’s  GymCastic podcast is like the mother of the gymternet. The podcast goes in depth with gymnasts, coaches, and experts, and is a must-do for many of the big names in the sport (see: McKayla Maroney’s interview after deciding to retire).  In the blogosphere, Lauren Hopkins’ Gymternet blog has shot into popularity, and includes gymnastics history lessons, commentary, FAQs and funny memes. Linking around through the contributors at both GymCastic and Gymternet leads to an array of additional fantastic content.

The gymternet is great because it celebrates the sport and the women who compete,  but it does more than this. The gymternet is to its roots, political. It insists upon the sport’s relevance and loudly critiques the way popular press ignores, objectifies, and/or infanticizes women gymnasts. O’Bierne’s bio at GymCastic cites gaining legitimacy for women’s gymnastics as her life’s mission. The collective gymternet project is at once promotional, enthusiastic, political, and feminist.

The gymternet is also quite efficacious. The social media world of gymnastics fandom and commentary has indeed found its way into the public narrative. This year, NBC hired Hopkins as a researcher for the 2016 Rio Games, and mainstream media outlets reportedly follow her Gymternet blog during live competitions. In this vein, athletes themselves frequently drop news at GymCastic before ESPN or NBC Sports.

The effect of gymternet networks upon the media landscape is far from novel—one of the key ways social media has changed public life is through a proliferation of counter discourses that, when reaching a critical mass, refuse to be ignored (see: “ending systemic racism” as part of mainstream political platforms). For a technology theorist/writer, it’s no longer interesting to point out that social media content informs traditional media content and public conversation. The flow of social media content into newspapers, newscasts, and popular culture products is a well-established truism that arguably, doesn’t need to be written about as much as it still is.

Instead, it’s surprising when, in today’s media environment, talking heads go along like nothing has changed, ignoring content and conversations on the web. Apparent dismissal of prominent web content is strange, confusing, and was egregiously present among the NBC commentators during the Women’s Gymnastics Rio trials that ended on Sunday night.

Over the course of the trials, NBC commentators used words like adorable and fun to describe both the gymnasts and their routines. They debated who was more “hyper,” Laurie Hernandez or Simone Biles. One broadcaster asserted that Madison Kocian would be perfect as the lead in a gymnastics movie. Apparently, the athletes’ short statures also required frequent comment, usually accompanied by a warmly paternal chuckle (I’m pretty sure Ragan Smith’s first name isn’t really “Little,” but one might make that mistake by listening to the NBC broadcast team). I also watched the Men’s trials, in which commentators noted strength, precision, and focus among the athletes–things of relevance in an Olympic competition–while managing to avoid the cutesy adjectives. Remember, these commentators work at the network that hired the Gymternet blogger as a researcher!!

The NBC sportscaster’s language and sensibility during the 2016 trials would have made  sense during the 2012 trials for London—they weren’t okay, but they made sense—because four years ago, the gymternet was still budding (GymCastic launched just after the 2012 Games). Today, they are distractingly baffling. How do professional commentators proceed without regard for, or even seeming awareness of, an entire opposition rising up against their commentary? Given the contributions of the gymternet, how can commentators refer to athletes as tiny while ignoring the reason for gymnasts’ short stature: they have overdeveloped their muscles to the effect of stunted growth. That’s not cute, that’s tough as hell.

It’s not that commentators don’t “get” social media. On the contrary, the programming was peppered with content from the athletes’ Twitter and Instagram feeds. For instance, Aly Raisman’s tweet about water proof makeup served as a running joke throughout Sunday night’s broadcast.

The NBC commentators also didn’t seem to be actively opposing the gymternet agenda. There was nothing aggressive about the paternalism aimed at the “adorable” and “tiny” athletes, nor anything antagonistic in pondering, along with the Twitterverse, over the conspicuous absence of Gabby Douglas’s smile. Instead, the commentators feminized the sport and the athletes as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They went along as they have gone along, perhaps vaguely aware of some chatterings, but from somewhere far away, from a place that they needn’t really go, with a message they needn’t really address.

It was a good reminder that although social media do push society in a political direction, counter discourses, on the web and otherwise, always have to push against. A counter discourse is, by definition, an alternate perspective, one that challenges the status quo. In the case of gymnastics commentary, that status quo is sexism that surrounds women in sport.  To be sure, the gymternet argument has made strides. While previously the gymternet argument lived through isolated tirades and passionate screen yelling, it is now on NPR and in The New Republic.  But the status quo is big and the internet is a lot of smalls. The gymternet has changed the conversation, a little. Perhaps by 2020, the broadcast sportscasters will be wise enough to speak the gymternet language.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

Headline pic via: USAGymnastics

Williams Response

Before the first word was written, Orange is the New Black was already fucked.

In an essay we posted earlier this week, guest author Apryl Williams refers to the 4th season of Orange is the New Black as a spectacle, comparable to the lynch mobs that used the destruction of black bodies as a form of entertainment. In her excellent post, Williams especially laments the lack of a trigger warning accompanying the graphic death of a key black character, one which unapologetically mirrored the 2014 suffocation of Eric Garner. Had there been black writers, Williams contends, things would have been different—she would have been warned instead of just “entertained.”

Williams and others critique the writing decisions that played out in Season 4 and attribute the season’s missteps to a very white writing crew. Indeed, by Isha Aran’s careful calculation, exactly zero black people have been involved in writing Orange is the New Black across its 4 seasons.

Undoubtedly, Williams is right that the series, and the 4th  season in particular,  would have been generally better, and also more carefully written and produced, with a racially diverse staff. The issue of racial representation in the writing room is one that pervades the popular media industry, and Orange, a show about prisons that tells stories about race, is a cautionary tale. Rather than reimagine how much better the season could have been with the inclusion of writers of color, however, I think the critique of a whitewashed profession and industry stands strongest when we table the quality of the writing altogether. Because even if Orange is the New Black Season 4 had been the greatest story of our time, it would remain, unacceptably, told by the wrong people.

Season 4 of Orange is a useful case for the explication of the racial homogeneity problem because, unlike other seasons, it wasn’t terrible and in some cases, did things exceptionally well.  Although expositional writing, heavy handed character arcs, and a little shark-jumping certainly seeped through, the 4th was by far the most sophisticated and politically astute season, throwing the dearth of black writers and what that means, into stark relief.

The first season of Orange began from a literal white perspective and asked viewers to giggle along as the pretty blonde navigated her way through Trader Joe’s withdrawal, the indignities of public bathing, and of course, the black people, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, and the impoverished who disproportionately populate her new home. Piper Chapman was very much at the center of the story and the rest of the inmates played the foil for Piper’s misadventures. Seasons 2 and 3 followed a similar formula.

But then there was season 4. Piper’s role was minimized (Thank. Goodness.) while impoverished, drug addicted, mentally unstable, and racially marked characters drove the story[1]. From a political commentary perspective, the season hit the prison system hard and demonstrated its disproportionate effect on people of color, people in poverty, people with mental illness, and people at all of those intersections. More than any other season, the 4th season addresses how the prison industrial complex traps people in a corrupt and backwards system out of which escape is all but impossible. The system is bigger than those imprisoned by it (inmates), those who work in it (guards), and even bigger than those who run it (administrators). The corrupt and callous operate alongside the well intentioned, all equal cogs in the juggernaut of (in)justice, wittingly or not. The writers’ decision to parallel real life events—namely the killing of unarmed black people by those charged with protection—was a bold move that refused to write or film around an issue, but tackled it head on, unflinchingly, and I might add, heart wrenchingly.

In short, the writers did a good job writing a story and demonstrated that they could articulate the systemic connections between race, poverty, and police states well enough to capture it in fictional form. This is not deserving of praise. It is instead appalling that people can “get” the argument so well, and yet so seamlessly reproduce the very system that they spend a season (and arguably, a series) deconstructing. What could have been meaningful political commentary was instead exploitative.When white people  make money off of black people’s pain, the best possible outcome is an empty signifier of compassion that entirely misses the point.

The relatively decent product of the show itself made clear that under no conditions, whatsoever, should white ladies get to profit by creatively portraying black deaths. It’s smug, disingenuous, self-serving, and entirely typical.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

[1] Can we please all pause for a moment and applaud the phenomenal performance by Danielle Brooks AKA Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson!?

Big-data-largeContemporary political campaigns are highly data-driven. Large datasets let campaign staffers learn about, access, and ultimately persuade potential voters through hyper-local messaging or micro-targeting. The digitization of society means that people leave traces of themselves in the course of everyday life—how they consume, who they love, when their next menstrual cycle is likely to begin and most relevant here, how they have engaged politically. These traces and advanced analysis of them, have been instrumental in political campaign strategies, guiding staffers in numbers-based decisions about how to best reach and  acquire, voters. Many partially attribute Obama’s 2008 and 2012 successful Whitehouse bids to his team’s skillful use of voter data and micro-targeting, and an uproar ensued with Bernie Sanders temporarily lost access to a DNC voter database.

In contemporary politics, big data is a big deal.  So of course, Donald Trump is not down with big data. The Associated Press is circulating a story about the discrepancy between Trump and Clinton with regard to data usage. Clinton’s campaign has embraced voter-data as a central tool of success, while in contrast, Trump has dismissed big data as “overrated” and expressed his intention to use big data in a “limited” capacity (although in the story linked above, a Trump advisor assures that the campaign will be “state of the art,” presumably including some degree of data analytics).

Much of the commentary on Trump’s data decentralization center around the question of whether or not rejecting data will be harmful for the candidate and/or for the Republican party. This angle is usually coupled with a reminder that Trump is the candidate who “breaks the rules,” and therefore may beat all odds and in fact, succeed without heavy reliance on data science. Getting beyond Trump the candidate, though, brings us to investigate the rule from which Trump deviates—data driven campaigning—and what it means in the democratic process.

Far more interesting than renderings of Trump-as-Cavalier, is the harsh light Trump’s data rejection pours over the role of big data in politics. Data lets candidates target audiences at the micro level, crafting messages that suit the needs, tastes, and sensibilities of diverse voters. Data facilitates campaigns in which candidates can communicate in unique ways with a hipster in Brooklyn and a teacher in Minnesota, compelling them not only to vote, but vote for the same candidate. This micro-targeting, though exciting from a political strategy perspective, is troubling from the perspective of democracy. The reason commentators are concerned about Trump’s prospects is because his data eschewal precludes the micro-targeting on which political persuasion now so strongly rests. While political persuasion may help candidates win, real democracy is driven by fully informed voters.

Targeted messaging contrasts with the macro form of governance that defines a president’s job. Presidents are elected to oversee the nation as a whole—not particularistic subsets. Presidential policy is far reaching and broad, not local or particular. So what a president does is in direct opposition to how a president, in a data age, gets elected.

Implied in data-informed curated messaging is an assumption that a candidate is telling voters what the voters wish to hear. This places voter-acquisition strategy, rather than making sure that voters are informed, at the center of the political process. One can assume that when different messages distribute to different audiences, no one gets the full story. Although the campaign has not yet framed it this way, Trump’s data rejection does well in serving his larger narrative of “authenticity.” His platform may be racist, sexist, classist, and generally ill-informed, but it is all of these things for all voters, not just those who live in the heart of a red state and own several firearms.

Big data in politics serve the interests of power. Not only is the collection and analysis of data prohibitively expensive and thereby only available to those already well connected, but also play to an end game of obscuring the information with which voters make voting decisions. Donald Trump seems to reject data out of pure hubris, but that is irrelevant. The effect of Trump decentralizing big data is, decidedly, democratic.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis


Headline Pic Via: Source


Redlining refers to the racist policy and/or practice of denying services to people of color. The term was coined in the 1960s by sociologist John McKnight and referred to literal red lines overlaid on city maps that designated “secure” versus “insecure” investment regions, distributed largely along racial faults such that banks became disproportionately unwilling to invest in minority communities. In turn, realtors showed different, more desirable properties to White clients than those they showed to clients of color, thereby reinforcing segregation and doing so in a way that perpetuated White advantage. Redlining was outlawed in the 1970s but its direct effects were intergenerational and versions of redlining continue to persist.

Versions of it like this:


Over the last few weeks, the story of Gregory Selden went viral. Selden attempted to book an Airbnb and was rejected. Noticing that the space was still available, he created two fake profiles using images of White men. Both fake guests were accepted. He confronted the host and the company, to little actionable effect.

Selden’s case, though compelling, is not exceptional. The hashtag  #AirbnbWhileBlack emerged in response to Selden’s viral experience, validating the patterned nature of discrimination through the home-sharing site. The stories shared on Twitter fall directly in line with the academic research,which shows that Black guests are 16% less likely to be accepted than their White counterparts, even at a financial cost to Airbnb hosts. In short, many Airbnb hosts do not want Black people to stay in their homes, just as White homeowners and White bankers wanted to keep Black people in separate neighborhoods.

To be sure, the stakes for Airbnb customers who struggle to find vacation accommodation are not so high as families of color who could not purchase homes and were relegated to poorly funded regions and ghettoized into poverty. In this way, discriminatory patterns on Airbnb are more fairly categorized in the hospitality sector than the housing sector and are more akin to the Whites Only lunch counters and hotel policies than mortgage lending practices.

But even the lunch counters and hotels of Jim Crow don’t quite capture what is going on here. Those were explicit forms of discrimination, announced and therefore debatable only in their righteousness, not their existence. People disagreed about whether or not people of color should be admitted to the same establishments as Whites, but all were clear about the fact that people of color were not admitted to these establishments. On Airbnb, the racism itself is an unsettled reality. Indeed, Airbnb tried to explain away Selden’s experience of racism, claiming that the initial rejection was not due to race, but due to Selden booking different dates. They claim that he booked only one night with his real account but booked 2 nights with the fake accounts, and that lots of Airbnb hosts will not rent their space for just 1 night  (Selden says Airbnb’s assessment is erroneous, and that he booked the exact same dates and number of nights).

So Maybe it’s more like trying to hail a cab while Black, in which one’s skin becomes conspicuous making services difficult to obtain, but also difficult to prove a racially motivated reason on the part of the service provider. Only with Airbnb, the judgment isn’t so snap. Hosts have time to think about why they elect one customer over another, meaning that hosts have to confront their own racial bias in a way cab drivers may be able to effectively suppress.

Ultimately, the model of Airbnb, and of the share economy in general, is qualitatively different from a hotel or restaurant or even taxi service. In a share economy, financial transactions have a distinctly personal bent.  The challenge of regulation is in monitoring lots of individual contractors, who hold little connection to the companies under which they operate, and who have an interest not just in profit, but in maintaining interactional comfort. How does one regulate who people will allow to sleep in their homes?

Racial discrimination on Airbnb is therefore not so much a parallel to historical patterns of racism, but a continuation. This is how racism manifests in today’s version of capitalism. The system looks different, but does the same thing. This is the racism of Google’s photo identification software that identified Black people as “gorillas” and Apple’s racially diverse emojis that not only came after years of White-only options, but appeared as aliens on phones that did not have the latest software running. This is the racial bias of online dating.

As long as race organizes interaction, and does so in a hierarchical way, the goods and services of market capitalism will have racism built in. A sharing economy sounds warmer than the cold tradition of corporate capitalism, but sharing implies a choice on the part of the “sharer,” one that, apparently if unsurprisingly, excludes and marginalizes the “sharees” who have long been pushed out of public and civic life.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

IMAGE1One of the most prominent theorists of the late 20th century, Michel Foucault, spent a career asking his history students to let go of the search for the beginning of an idea. “Origins” become hopelessly confused and muddled with time; they gain accretions that ultimately distort any pure search for the past on the terms of the past. Instead, his alternative was to focus on how these accretions distorted the continuity behind any idea. This method was called “genealogy,” by Nietzsche, and Foucault’s essay expanded on its use. Dawn Shepherd captured the significance of this lesson in a beautiful, single sentence: “Before we had ‘netflix and chill ;)’ we just had ‘netflix and chill.’”

The temptation with something as recent as the web is to emphasize the web’s radical newness. Genealogy asks that we resist this demand and instead carefully think about the web’s continuity with structures far older than the web itself. While genealogy is not about the origins of “chill,” genealogy emphasizes the continuity of “chill.” Genealogy must build from an idea of what “chilling” entailed to say something about what “chill” means now.

Conversations about these continuities animated many of the conversations at Theorizing the Web 2016. Both the keynote panels and regular sessions asked audiences to imagine the web as part of society, rather than outside of it. In the words of its founders, the original premise of the conference was “to understand the Web as part of this one reality, rather than as a virtual addition to the natural.”

It was in 2012 when I first encountered this premise in a course called “Critical Videogame Studies.” This course took seriously the notion that digitality did not exist outside of “real life,” but constituted it. It was an experience that invited me into spaces like Theorizing the Web, where digitality does not need to defend itself in terms of broader historical significance. Just like print culture’s assimilation into European politics, so too has digital culture become more than simply a marginal realm for hackers and geeks.

Pushing against the web as radically new demands discussion about continuity. Inequality, exploitation, and abuse are clear examples of such continuity. Katherine Cross, in #k1, brought them in focus with her description of the robot apocalypse as a guilty memory of the future; the parallels between the Marxist factory worker and the robot––Czech for “forced labor”––shifted by the persistent demand that we gender our sources of labor. TayAI was the most recent in a long history of gendered bots designed according to the historical placement of race and gender into vulnerable labor roles, usually without the ability to say “no.”

Shepherd’s invocation of “netflix and chill,” which happened on #k1, also invokes what is new for a genealogical approach to the web: the idea of “netflix” brings into our heads a deeply intimate connection with our screens, often watched in private, late at night, and alone or with a person of interest. Faith Holland emphasized this new relationship to technology, calling it the “libidinal residue on our screens.”

But even with this new element, the web reveals itself to be more reactionary than revolutionary. A central part of Alana Massey’s “Against Chill” essay is a critique of how the “chill” nature of hook-up and dating apps make building investment a deeply gendered game of chicken. To show attraction, to text frequently, to even feel infatuation itself must be regulated by appearing to be “chill.” This is the newest form of an old game: critiquing often feminine-associated affect for not performing to masculine demands.

Whether we want to fuck robots in some post-human sexual fantasy, or are drawn to the fantasy of dominating femininity in the relatively safe space of AI programming, the hybrid nature of the people-tech apparatus has changed both our relationships to technology and our relationships with each other. Thinking about hybridity animates much of our current obsession with cyborgs. But while hybridity is all about coming together in a synthesis, cyborgs can also bring about an anxiety over the prospect of machines’ ability to overtake humanity within the cyborg body. If Minka Stoyanova’s suggestion on #a2––that cyborgism is feminism––is a helpful framework, then it might be better to ask how a politics of empathy might help us develop better habits for how we treat both parts of the cyborg, rather than asking what part we can freely exploit or which part will be dominated by the other.

This demand––to own, to exploit, to command, to impose––are all exertions we’ve projected onto the sphere of AI. Darius Kazemi kicked off #k2 with a search of bots on Medium articles, whose titles reflect this demand:

“Bot is the Wrong Name and Why People Who Think They Are Silly Are Wrong.”

“Software is ‘Eating’ up the World, Part II.”

“We Should All Have Our Own Bot.”

“How to Get Money with Your Telegram Bot.”

“Bot Apps, the Invisible Interface and a 100 Billion Dollar Market.”

Each of these articles follows the disruption narrative: bots are an undervalued market, investing in apps for bot commoditization will yield profits. The “new” conception of a perfect automaton, to exploit for endless amounts of revenue, meets an old understanding of labor’s relation to the market. To paraphrase Marx, capital could not abide the physical limits to its growth. We can interpret our present historical moment as an effort on the part of Silicon Valley to supercede those barriers with digitality. Wherever a new market for apps or quantitative methods appeared underexploited, venture capital and start-ups were more than happy to commoditize even if they had zero expertise, as seen by Jessie Patel and Maggie Mayhem on the proliferation of pregnancy apps in #b3.

If bots currently embody the reactionary nature of capitalism itself, bots also embody the potential of new ways to envision connection. With enough data and the right algorithm, the re-creation of people who died becomes a serious idea, as suggested by Joanne McNeill on #k2. But this possibility is less about whether the bot can do it—it can—and more about whether society can currently take the bot seriously, on its own terms, rather than perpetually asking when it will become “human.”

Questions like “what is new about stories on the web?” are less about what is new about their mediums, and more about the relationship of these mediums to their audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than the relationship between the web and storytelling. The problems of calling something new about digital storytelling is how one judges its veracity. If the definition of “fanfiction” is anything written on, then the genre is new. If the definition of “fanfiction” is “alternate accounts set in the same universe,” then the Four Gospels of the New Testament become fanfiction. What genealogies of the web ask is “how does the centrality of sites like contribute to the normalization of this genre, and have people reacted differently to it?”

One clear difference is how quickly specific non-normative headcanons have caught fire in the fanfiction genre. From the pon farr narratives of Kirk and Spock to the plethora of stories that existed simultaneously in the same universe, fan fiction as a genre has become a productive first step for writers now exploring their own stories and a space for non-normative experiences to make their mark on the science fiction and fantasy worlds.

But’s centrality has also given space for reactionary groups to push against these narratives. While the Sad Puppy movement failed to capture the Hugo Awards for several years now, that movement has normalized its own canon, marking Sci-Fi as the genre of “men starting wars on the moon” (quote by Laurie Penny, on #k3). What’s more, The Sad Puppies, much like GamerGate, are not the irrational fragments of a few upset people; they constitute a viable political force, whose reactionary agenda has been well organized and targeted. Taking these movements seriously, genealogy shows just how deeply entwined the digital hopes for liberation are bound by the limits of social imagination.

These digital hopes for liberation had themselves come from the fetishization of a web “origins”: the word was envisioned as central power. Julian Dibbell wrote that words now had the power of action: “a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does.” Dibbell’s essay focused on making sense of a rape on an MUD—or multi-user dungeon—built on text. This emphasis on the power of words led many to believe that society could finally overcome many of the politics associated with race, gender, and other elements of identity that are difficult to change.

Dibbell’s essay was published in 1993. Over twenty years later, most people recognize that this hope was about as likely as Clifford Stoll’s predictions in Silicon Snake Oil. Writing about the same MUD as Dibbell, Lisa Nakamura emphasized that it was the people using the words who were producing identity, rather than the words themselves. Against an earlier tradition of writers who envisioned the web as something truly different from ourselves, Nakamura’s analysis centered the decisions made by people, rather than the new medium through which those decisions were communicated. By emphasizing the origins of the web as a text-only peripheral communications space, this tradition of early writing on the web could not recognize the agency of the humans whose actions were ultimately determinative in producing older social structures of society online.

By focusing on this agency, the relationships between images, virality, and “evil,” are easier to understand. As Moira Weigel’s introduction of #k4 noted, people have steadily questioned the relationship between the image as a mode for change and the image as mere spectacle since Socrates. #TtW16 dealt directly with this issue in #b6 where a talk on revenge porn freely distributed the images with no censorship of identity, or even consent. One question that came directly from the hashtag was whether or not such a redistribution of images was essential to the study of the phenomenon, or whether it was only an experience of the spectacular, thus complying the audience to re-victimize these targets.

Weigel summarized this dynamic as repetition and cessation: “We have to look at this violent, upsetting, horrible thing, if to acknowledge the horrors of history so that they don’t happen again.”

Is it so clear that looking at an image prevents it from happening again? As Ava Kofman and Jade Davis both invoked on #k4, the simple proliferation of images of violence against Black Bodies––and now the augmented experiences of those in refugee camps or in the aftermath of a police shooting––do relatively little if they are presented as an exhibit, or in a sterilized space where we set these occurrences outside of our own practices in everyday life.

In other words, experiencing these moments of violent behavior are not transformative in themselves; they are either tools we use to envision alternative structures of society that we expend energy to make real, or they are exhibitions that we click, share, or spread in order to feel good about our own levels of awareness compared to our friends. Of course, this binary between tool and exhibition is false, and it is more than likely that each image exists as some combination of both. Genealogy often helps us recognize the gradient of human action that is possible with any given image or text.

When it comes to the nature of evil, however, it is easiest to imagine evil as produced by a single entity, premeditated and clearly defined, with zero room for gradients. We’re used to conceptualizing evil as a single big bad werewolf, whose obliteration is entirely possible through some silver-bullet reform or revolution. Many early dreams of digital utopia hinged on the potential for this obliteration, whether they believed that revolution was anonymity or ease of communication. These dreams were illusions because the evil is in the details. Rather than building a giant ideological entity, traceable through the entirety of history, evil is better thought as the accretion of precise accidents that have snowballed to produce something significant. It was the snowballing of these details that social theorist Hannah Arendt famously termed “the banality of evilin her writings on the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

In this regard, what is new about the web is precisely its potential for the rapid aggregation of those details on a scale previously unknown. Zeynep Tufekçi, on #k4, positioned this aggregation in terms of how images online are created, and how those images are consumed. The circulation of violent images has no definitive effect in the world: it can embolden people towards more violence or encourage others to end it. Regardless of how powerful or well-intended a set of images are, an intrinsic component of the web is to steadfastly resist whatever story you’d like to tell; on #k3 Kleeman described this steadfast resistance as “the tweet that refuses the primacy of the streamlined narrative.” To borrow Laurie Penny’s phrasing, the existence of “multiple headcanons” online cannot properly translate into politics offline for all their stark oppositions. How do we merge headcanons of post-patriarchy with the headcanons of /r/RedPill?

The answer is also in the details of asking what is new and old about the web and humans on the web. The web is not an apex of hyper-rational modernity whose introduction will tame and educate those people who seem irrational to us; the web is an element of reality, intimately molded by the social and cultural expectations of all people. To theorize the web is to theorize about how we as humans derive meaning and understanding in the world. Focusing on how these precise details, accretions, and accidents produce structures far larger than ourselves is the process of genealogy, and its end result will produce a type of evil far more manageable than the werewolf we currently see.

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a PhD student at Brown, where he works on religion, economics, and ideas between Spain and Latin America in the sixteenth century. He uses this experience to ask what is new and old about human beings on the web, a question that is very dear to him. He occasionally tweets.

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