The debate over the ACA is carried out in ideological dogwhistle, waged with words barely capable of pointing to the concepts they are supposed to grip. While this well-oiled chatter is par for the course in American politics, it is doubly fruitless in the case of healthcare dot gov. The object of inquiry is a website, a kind of thing that is newer than our daily interactions would have us remember, and it has different ontological and anthropological qualities than our political commentators have learned to address. It is a kind of thing less suited to the language of communist bogeyman and other imaginary evils than the technics of networks and the processual language of software project management– topics where most of our politicians sound clueless and should follow Wittgenstein’s advice (“hey, shut up a minute”).

At the most basic syntax of domain naming, the phrase “healthcare dot gov”, repeated as much by its detractors as by its proponents, is a statement about the relationship of these two things: healthcare and government. Dot com is business, dot xxx is porn; top level domains like these are well known by people who use the internet. Few governmental sites have gained the traction to become household names, while some commercial ones have become so ubiquitous as to effectively consume their parent (Google needs no further identification). Healthcare dot gov might be the first governmental site whose name everyone knows (especially since the notorious whitehouse dot com is no longer a porn site).

Obamacare– née the Affordable Care Act, née Obamacare, née Romneycare– has been hard-pressed to find advocates excited to defend it (aside from the people no longer subject to medical discrimination). As an equally ambitious piece of legislation and software engineering, the ACA/healthcare dot gov assemblage must fight a two-front war against a motley horde of anxieties and misunderstandings. Despite the healthcare exchange’s problems, both real and imagined, the existence of such a site makes a statement about the role of government in healthcare.

Like all statements, listeners may accept the view of the world it represents or reject it. And the sparse dot notation of domain names is a weak basis for claiming that Americans will accept the governmental administration of the trillion dollar industry responsible for keeping them alive and well. One of the experiments that healthcare dot gov enacts is a measure of how effectively the rhetorics of the internet can persuade people to accept their view of the world.

The problems of healthcare dot gov are also less damning than critics would claim when it is viewed in the context of being a website. In my experience as a product manager for internet-y companies, building something new entails accepting unknown unknowns. You plan to discover flaws and improve them through iteration, and you will sound like a fool if you say you always get it right the first time. While the US government doesn’t have the same requirement to innovate that pervades Silicon Valley, in this case they don’t have a choice. Building a national healthcare exchange is something that the US has never done. The website should not have launched late and in such poor shape, but, as someone familiar with the sausage and the factory, I have different expectations for the production cycle of software.

I also buy games and use websites. Games have bugs; they get patched. Many games are released before they are finished so that players get a chance to play sooner and provide feedback (Minecraft, arguably the most important game in the world, was developed in this manner). Websites (Twitter) crash, sometimes for hours at a time (Twitter), or they introduce bad features (Twitter) that need to be reverted (Twitter). When I worked on a Facebook game, we kept a sticker on the splash screen that said “beta” for two years as a statement that we were still improving. It was more than a little silly but our players were never confused or mad but understood it as harmless marketing propaganda rather than the catastrophe of launching in an incomplete state.

This is not to say that healthcare dot gov is a triumph, but instead that many criticisms miss because they are speaking a different language. We can see how criticisms based in non-digital references fail to address a digital phenomenon in the current conversation around Bitcoin. The real advantages of Bitcoin over existing currencies are not as great as its advocates would claim, and to address the problems that prevent businesses from accepting Bitcoin–for example, the massive swings in valuation that would make every vendor accepting Bitcoin a high risk currency speculator–would result in Bitcoin being not so different from existing currencies. And yet, despite its problems, Bitcoin has a sizable market capitalization and a rabid fanbase. The different perceptions of Bitcoin’s critics and proponents aren’t because either group is stupid, but rather because the two are talking past each other. The power of Bitcoin is not really in what it offers today–buying illegal stuff and speculating, both possible long before Bitcoin–but for how it makes a rhetorical appeal that addresses the experience of using the internet. Seen from that side of the looking glass, fiat currencies waver with unreality while Bitcoin holds out the assurances that can only come with a strong cryptographic algorithm.

If Bitcoin is any indicator of the power of the internet to shape rhetorical success, the future of healthcare dot gov will likely be a surprise to most of the people professionally tasked with talking about it. By treating the digital as less real or reducible to analogues drawn from the old and known, such commenters have neglected to learn the rhetorical strategies that matter online. Phenomena like Bitcoin will continue to surprise until digital rhetorics receive their due respect, and the healthcare exchange could well be among those surprises. Rhetoric, naming: these things clearly matter, as the tug of war over whether to call it “the Affordable Care Act” or “Obamacare” shows, and talking in a way that speaks to our digital experiences will become increasingly important.

Greg Pollock is a game designer and writer in San Jose.

sites that rely heavily on simple voting have much higher percentages of male users

an ideology that sees every person as a potential threat & every communication as potentially worth surveilling

How does someone that with an obvious resentment for the social sciences, also make a joke about how we were always already alienated?

ViralNova does not exist. Those who speak of ViralNova miss the point of ViralNova

the gruff man taking drags from the e-cigarette may also have conceivably traversed the space-time continuum

the NSA had played a key role in nearly every major geopolitical and military event of the Cold War, with almost no public scrutiny

for now, there’s a really tidy profit to be made showing web pages to robots

Haraway’s theoretical misappropriations in the relationships between cyborgs and women of color

what happened to the internet after it stopped being a possibility

It’s a good time to start asking what civil inattention looks like on the internet

Twitter bots represent an open-access laboratory for creative programming

these thinkpieces discuss the social and political implications of these pieces without talking about the actual music

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].


Computer Virus TV News Report 1988

a prior exposure on Facebook will lead to increased arousal during a face-to-face encounter

we have to build the community as an online audience and hold it together by performing for it perpetually

I cursed the gendered nature of tech design that has written out women from the group of legitimate users

The billionaire-to-be co-founder of Twitter is a regular at Wisdom 2.0 events and began meditating just over a year ago

The cruel trick is that “the internet sucks” is a self-fulfilling prophecy

everyone who has ever masturbated understands the limitations of the [openness] paradigm

misogyny doesn’t come from the internet, it comes from contemporary culture. It won’t be fixed by the internet & it wont be fixed by women

seeing yourself do something to make yourself become something

defining the line between clothing and tech

the Great Man version of Twitter’s history

women who post on “Am I Ugly?” receive an average of 54 replies, while men receive an average of 14

There was a time—early 2012?—when memes were “cool,” and “funny”

Drafted with care, revenge porn laws won’t trample on the First Amendment

Etsy knocks the government focus on creating good-paying jobs, suggesting they invest more in poorly-paying hobbies

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

Franzen’s 6,400-word piece in The Guardian may be the last cry of the last dinosaur going down for the last time in the tar pit

the Internet is where we live. It’s not a place we go to anymore; it’s a layer over everything

Unsolved Mysteries injected a sense of the enchanted in an otherwise mundane suburban landscape

the tools used to make film, the science of it, are not racially neutral

why must a photo of my face be justified when a photo of my bookshelf is not?

selfies suggest the world we observe through social media is more interesting when people insert themselves into it

Week 5: Feedback: Bruno Latour comments on your blogs

the “government as a platform” agenda assumes that private industry is the best way of delivering public services

The problem with the relentless “search for meaning” is that it extinguishes all meaning in favour of pure emotion

the Internet is producing more extreme forms of modernism than modernism ever dreamed of

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

The drone is a sonic paradigm grounded in neoliberal values and conventions

Blurring the lines between machine and organic humanity, Haraway-like, shows that those lines are in fact blurrable

Replicants are obsessed with photographs

the visual regime of the drone, its will to omniscience and precision

A Predator drone stays aloft for 18hrs & the pilots were pushed to be as tireless as the technology they controlled

they had not yet grown comfortable playing themselves before the camera

Soft Culture is hard for some to look at

a grocery shelf that comes equipped with sensors to determine the age and sex of passing customers

Tinder feels like a stopgap solution

the question of whether or not something is digital is no longer really important

Apple announcements are the opposite of a guilty pleasure; they are a burden that I take on with pride

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

Lewis Powell (1865)
Lewis Powell (1865)

Go read “Dead And Going To Die”, a beautiful essay by Michael Sacasas posted today at The New Inquiry on the subjectivity expressed by people in old photographs. Part of why subjects look different in these images is they are expressing a different subjectivity to the camera lens. As the photographic gaze went from novelty to ubiquity, we’ve collectively oriented our selves to the camera differently. As Sacacas writes,

There is distinct subjectivity — or, perhaps, lack thereof — that emerges from most old photographs. There is something in the eyes that suggests a way of being in the world that is foreign and impenetrable to us

Specifically, he looks at the famous photographs of Lewis Powell that had previously interested Roland Barthes in his great study of photography. Powell was one of the co-conspirators of the Lincoln assassination and was tasked to kill the Secretary of State. Injuring many people, he failed and was captured. Before his execution, a series of photographs were taken that are famous for depicting a young man seemingly out of time, a snapshot of the past that looks disturbingly contemporary. Sacacas’ essay describes what is so hauntingly current about his image, and it goes beyond his hair style or clothes, but to how he has positioned himself in modern familiarity to the camera lens, which ultimately requires something a bit deeper: how one is concerned with oneself as a self.

To understand these photographs of Powell one must know their context. Powell attempted to resist photographic documentation by moving around (shutter speeds were slower then), and was threatened with a sword. In a moment of resignation, a profound and telling moment, Powell’s image was made as a fortune for the future. Bracketing the recent emergence of temporary photography, every photograph is a time capsule, a slice of the present frozen as past for the future. The content of this photographic time capsule hints at what subjectivity would become in the emerging era of visual documentation.

Specifically, Sacacas writes that what Powell learned to do is something subversive in his resignation to being photographed,

Powell could not avoid the gaze of the camera, but he could practice a studied indifference to it. In order to resist the gaze, he would carry on as if there were no gaze. To ward off the objectifying power of the camera, he had to play himself before the camera

What reads as modern indifference to the camera in an era otherwise noted for photographic performativity is instead a double-performance, the performance of indifference, the performance of the self as a self, of Lewis Powell as Lewis Powell.

While I agree with Sacacas that this is a profound moment, I think it’s profound in a very different way. While Sacacas maintains this is a new form of subjectivity, I would instead argue that it is a profound moment of revealing in explicit form what subjectivity has always been. I’m going to read into Sacacas’ essay what I think is presupposed but not explicitly stated, which is always a dangerous task, so I hope he can join in here and correct me where I’m bound to be wrong. Perhaps Sacacas’ account is more nuanced than the common understanding of the photographic self-performativity: at the invention of photography people learned to pose for the camera instead of just being themselves, and as documentation became more ubiquitous, posing and not-posing became confused and now we always act as if we’re on camera even when not.

I disagree with the fundamental assumption behind this story, however. Sacacas seems to assume there is some non-posed self that is “surrendered”, but what if we instead understand the self itself as a surrender, regardless of the adding or peeling away of reflexive and ironic layers of self-awareness? For instance, Michel Foucault argued, from the end of The Order of Things through his study of the History of Sexuality, that the self itself is not natural but instead a historical invention the product of modernity. If so, the process that Sacacas describes Powell undertaking isn’t a “watershed” moment of new subjectivity but instead what the self has always been.

But Sacacas and Barthes are right, the way Powell oriented himself to the camera was indeed novel. Instead of claiming this was a moment of an emerging new subjectivity but still retaining Sacacas’ general point, we might say that photographic, and now social media, self documentation mean an intensification of an existing trend, an intensification of our own relationship to ourselves, as I previously argued elsewhere in longer form.

The self, the intensity of identity as an omnipresent filter through which we experience, is not a given. It is something cultivated or not, to different degrees, in different ways, at different times, for different purposes. And identity is always a morality, not just a series of truths about who we are and what we do but also a declaration of what we won’t do; the ultimate expression of the self is always who we are not.

All of this leads me to wonder where our contemporary Lewis Powell’s are? Whose image today will be hauntingly familiar tomorrow? Or, perhaps instead a contemporary Powell would start somewhere different, perhaps where the self itself is understood as not natural or necessary. Perhaps it is subjectivity itself that is as doomed as the vacuous gaze of most early photographs. Perhaps in the future the very question of past subjectivies won’t even make sense.

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

Again, go read Dead And Going To Die, it’s wonderful. 

Raw video of the quadcopter drone flight and crash on the streets of Manhattan

you cannot take a picture without involving an act of selfishness

The anxiety some people feel over the mass advent of digital is not unreasonable but their response to it often is

the Bluetooth RoboRoach, the first cyborg to be commercially available to the general public

TV has gotten a lot more intimate, more entwined with our subconscious, closer

Facebook’s temporal orientation puts undue pressure on its users to conform to its system

Technology has made it extremely easy to save data but it is increasingly difficult to lose things deliberately

Anton Menlo not only encourages the dissolution of the work/play divide, it capitalizes on it

Silk Road used the Tor Network, but nothing about the bust suggests Tor has been broken

Broad but shallow (like the social media Eggers lampoons), The Circle is dark comedy for this moment in history

There’s a real brutality to the way Tinder turns people into merchandise

the telephone existed both inside and outside Wever and Bray’s cat and, by extension, people

If you deny sexism in tech, you’re either ignorant or a fucking liar. Neither is acceptable

the Malala Yousafzai interview on the Daily show is just too fine a distillation of what is wrong with Upworthy

The gaze of a drone is intrinsically penetrative. The gaze of a drone burrows

The percentage of female Internet video viewers claiming to watch porn online has grown exponentially

Our augmented reality is far more malleable. Truth and perception are as elastic

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].













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damn girl are you horse_ebooks because so many dudes got upset when they found out that you are a real human being

the Horse e-books fiasco suggests that we are more than ready to mistake bots for humans and vice versa

Why is it so much easier to blame Facebook than look at the misogyny & hatred it reflects?

the ipad pathetically asks: “Do you still think I’m pretty?”, shifting the gendered allusions into full culmination

by blending it with a more Victorian medium of calligraphy, the texts became more substantial in effect

people conceptualize the world into online and offline, which makes for a lot of very awkward experiences

an implicit assumption that any space characterized by digital media must somehow be less real than one that isn’t

Surface, however, is like the Gaga, Ke$ha, or perhaps even Miley of tablet computing

the consistency in online iterations of the travelers’ gaze

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].

The fact that the Supreme Court itself has links to its own Web site that no longer function shows the depth of the link rot problem

In some circles, being inaccessible is a status symbol

the intention behind the looking matters the most

clothing that does not move, rigid materials that force a body into an idealized appearance

romance was alive and well in the Instagram iteration of their marriage

“That’s boring,” thought BuzzFeed, deciding to place photographs of five nipples above that explanation

Guys who try to hit on you by asking if you want to try on their Google Glass

Jesse Pinkman’s Roomba Starting bid: $200

The hypothetical Horse-bot is, I think, a Kantian genius working in a neoliberal world

Even if YouTube miraculously manages to defeat you, you’ll always have Reddit

Texting with your crush is about as “disembodied” as quill-to-scroll love letters were

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].



what’s a bot and what’s human and where do we draw the line and should we draw that line

Yesterday, we learned that the most infamous Weird Twitter account, @Horse_ebooks, wasn’t a algorithmically-programmed “bot” but instead the product of a person tweeting as if. The revelation was accompanied by a live performance of the account in a Manhattan art gallery. While much is being written about the account, I’d like to share one thought about the live performance and what this all says about what is real and virtual, “bot” and human. In one day, @Horse_ebooks went from bot to human, and as I’ll argue, embodied in an art gallery, right back towards bot.

I’ll defer to the many other pieces about the history of @Horse_ebooks and the deeply emotional reactions people are having after learning things aren’t as bot as they seem. In fact, my favorite explanation for this came from Sarah just this morning on this blog, arguing that when horse was a bot, we got to supply the meaning, that made us feel good, and when the noise turned out to be signal, we lost our the credit for creating the signal. But let’s also bring the live-performance into this discussion, and I think it complicates things a bit in an interesting way.

The first step was revealing that the bot was human. Of course, a bot is always partially human, programmed by a person with a body and feelings and politics and standpoint and interests which is dumped into a world where it is (mis)understood by other humans. But a bot is very differently human because what it produces can diverge greatly from the human intentionality behind it. This massive difference in degree becomes, for practical reasons, a difference in type; bots aren’t devoid of humanity, but they are still very different, and that’s why the revelation that @Horse_ebooks wasn’t that different matters so much to people. So, yes, the technical is always deeply human, but the live-reading yesterday made the reverse point, that which is normally described as human is also deeply technical, virtual. Things like social norms, language, identities are technologies. Standing in the gallery watching the reading yesterday was to me an effort to make @Horse_ebooks algorithmic again.

If the fun of the Twitter account performance piece was that it queered the machine/human line by passing a sort-of reverse Turing Test, the live-reading of @Horse_ebooks played with that line in a different way. It was an intentional failing at the traditional Turing Test by purposefully taking that which is human and perform it as bot.

My critique of digital dualism is not just that what we call “virtual” is very real but also what we call “real” is also always highly virtual. The art gallery is a good example: The idea of a gallery is to create a tool premised on delineating what is and isn’t art, an architecture that deeply structures our actions, the intense performativity of us-actors in that space all create a highly simulated environment.

After revealing the bot to be human, @Horse_eBooks was mechanistically performed in a space more virtual than Twitter. Phones placed on a desk rang and our actors pretended to answer them, robotically reading the short tweets. The performance amplified the inhuman, the monotone reading, the lack of emotion shown despite the crowd’s laughter, the extra-human feat of sitting there and reading the tweets all day like only web-crawler bots usually do.

No one cares about my opinion if this is “good” art or not, but I will say that it at least arrives precisely at the question of how we should understand humans and technology. It plays within the framework of digital dualism by pushing at this assumed boundary, troubling its foundations, or at least making them more visible. A Twitter account robot does little to subvert the socially-constructed line between the human and technical but physically embodying such virtuality certainly does. If a bot is human, than a human is bot. For me, the @Horse_ebook revelation and performance at first seemed like the triumph of the human over the bot — and concluded as anything but.

Nathan is on Twitter [@nathanjurgenson] and Tumblr [].