Apologies for the typos and the general lack of editing of this piece, I’m hurriedly tapping this out right before putting on the Theorizing the Web conference in a couple of hours.

Nicholas Carr chose a great lead photo for his post yesterday critiquing the anti-digital-dualism argument put forth by myself and others on this blog. The image of a remote landscape evokes “wilderness”; well, it doesn’t “evoke”, it literally says “wilderness” right on it and the filename was “wilderness.jpg”. I think this image might be a fun way to illustrate one very fundamental disagreement Carr and I have. But before we can get there, I should spend some time replying to the various points in his post. Since Carr’s rebuttal to the digital dualism argument gets the digital dualism argument I have made wrong in some very fundamental ways, I’ll have to spend much of this post simply clarifying that; which is fine, reiterating things is a useful task. Though, what’s more fun than restating what’s already been said is jumping off into new directions, and hopefully we can do a little of that here, too, finishing with that lead photo. 

Carr begins by laying out the argument against digital dualism sustained on this blog, and spends much of the post dealing with me personally. He begins with a story about how the on and offline were once clearly separated, but, as web-access has become more widespread, they have blurred, and then says that’s the story we tell on this blog. That’s fundamentally not our argument. Here’s maybe where we went wrong: in my original post coining “digital dualism” I did say that the digital and physical are “increasingly enmeshed.” I regret that “increasingly,” a word I’m increasingly finding I overuse. I’ve always held that reality has always been augmented by various flavors of information, though my first blog post wasn’t clear on that. Since, I’ve been more clear that digital dualism has always been false, instead of being contingent on anything like network speed. PJ Rey has done great work on just this issue, and I’d encourage Carr to take that on as well. Thus, unlike the characterization on Carr’s blog, our position is that the digital dualism of the 90’s might be a bit more understandable, but was equally false.

Carr also mischaracterizes my IRL Fetish essay, saying,

Jurgenson’s real mistake is to assume, grumpily, that pretty much everyone who draws a distinction in life between online experience and offline experience is in the grip of a superiority complex or is striking some other kind of pose. That provides him with an easy way to avoid discussing a far more probable and far more interesting interpretation of contemporary behavior and attitudes: that people really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience.

Carr states,

There’s no reason to believe that grappling with the online and the offline, and their effects on lived experience and the formation of the self, won’t also produce important thinking and art. As Sacasas implies, the arrival of a new mode of experience provides us with an opportunity to see more clearly an older mode of experience. To do that, though, requires the drawing of distinctions. If we rush to erase or obscure the distinctions, for ideological or other reasons, we sacrifice that opportunity

Let me, grumpily (lol), point out that I never claim that “pretty much everyone who draws a distinction” between on and offline experience are in the grip of a superiority complex. Because my argument is that they are different and are experienced differently. I even made a post, one that Carr cites, where I give a name to this view, “strong augmented reality”, and say it is a straw-person and I don’t agree with it. My argument is that there is a difference in being on Facebook and at a bar, war with drones and computers, sex physically co-present and through text messages. In my IRL Fetish essay I say,

To be clear, the digital and physical are not the same, but we should aim to better understand the relationship of different combinations of information, be they analog or digital, whether using the technologies of stones, transistors, or flesh and blood

Carr says I avoid discussing people’s different experiences of the on and offline, whereas in a post he cites I make clear,

Interaction on Facebook is different than at a coffee shop, but both Facebook and the coffee shop inhabit one reality

Carr does take on my categories of “strong” and “mild” digital dualism and augmented reality. Again, I create these in order to call out and remove the straw-people some have constructed in these conversations around digital dualism. It’s necessary to point out that digital dualists almost never see the digital and material as fully separate and not interacting. That’s a straw-person, as well is the idea that those supporting a synthetic, mixed, or augmented reality think there’s no difference between, say, Facebook and a coffee shop. No one thinks that either. Yet, there remains a very deep difference between those who do and do not see the on and offline as largely a zero-sum trade-off. Exactly what words we choose to talk about these very different positions is the semantic fun we are having going back and forth and figuring out, a project that has been inspiring, fruitful, and one Carr views as mostly irrelevant.

On Twitter, in op-eds, on this blog and others, in forthcoming papers, I’ve detailed many examples of very divergent ways of understanding the digital. I think the zero-sum perspective of the digital is starkly different than mine, especially as I laid it out in The IRL Fetish, but Carr is smart and if it’s still vague to him, it probably is for others, too, so I’m glad there’s lots of people who are excited to keep refining these conceptual categories and hopefully makes things more clear.

To do this, I implore thinkers to always and deeply take on the digital as comprising real people with real politics, histories, struggles, with real bodies and real feelings and so on. When we forget to do that, we can, for example, make that classic cyber-utopian mistake of seeing the Web as some new space separate from power, resistance, and embodiment (not something I’m accusing Carr of). I want these thinkers to also remember that our reality, even that solitary stroll on Cape Cod or in that wilderness scene from Carr’s post, is always augmented by various flavors of information, including the digital. Forgetting that, we can, for example, play the problematic and dangerous game or arbitrating who is more and less “real”, something I’ll come back to at the end of this post. Perhaps the terminology—strong, mild, dualist, interactionalist, synthetic, mixed, whatever—is vague, yes, let’s work on that, but the consistency in which people fail to do what I’ve asked for above, largely due to a zero-sum understanding of the supposed “on” and “offline”, is anything but vague but clear and persistent.

Carr concludes where I begin my IRL Fetish essay by saying, “we sense a threat in the hegemony of the online because there’s something in the offline that we’re not eager to sacrifice.” My reply is still my original argument: we’ve falsely constructed the categories “on-“ and “off-line” in order to tell the story that there is something virtual impinging on the real, allowing us to claim one’s own disconnection makes one more real. The insecurities around what is real, this obsession over authenticity, is a product of modernity in general and constructing “the virtual” provides an all-to-convenient shortcut to solve this modern dilemma by quelling one’s insecurities around their own authenticity. In any case, just to be clear, Banks, myself, and others are not “denying” the tension people feel between on and offline experience, as Carr states. Far from it, our entire projects are precisely about this tension.

Carr and I both are hearing people say that technology is impinging on the “real” (rarely articulated as such, but that’s the implication), and whereas Carr takes this pretty much at face value, I have the audacity to suggest what people say isn’t the full story, arguing that this isn’t an infringement on the real but the creation of the myth of the virtual to simultaneously deploy “the real” that one can then have access to (and often looking down on others still caught up in the “virtual”). This type of argument, that cultural forces are more complex than what might be seen at face value, does indeed make some people very mad, but that’s a pretty fundamental philosophical presupposition that neither of us are going to prove or convince each other of here. But dismissing this type of approach means also dismissing much psychoanalytic, critical, feminist, queer, structural, post-structural, postmodern, and many more theories. But let’s maybe save that discussion for over coffee? Let me conclude with a different disagreement.

I’ve spent most of this post just clarifying my previous arguments and listing what I think Carr missed or got wrong. This is probably pretty boring to almost everyone (though I kind of love it, sorry). Let’s end by briefly going off into a new direction for a moment, and it brings us back to that lead photo Carr used.


Carr states,

We should celebrate the fact that nature and wilderness have continued to exist, in our minds and in actuality, even as they have been overrun by technology and society.

Evgeny Morozov responds,

This idea of nature as separate from technology is pretty fundamental to why Carr and I see things so differently. This notion of “the natural” as something to cherish is, to me, fraught. This wilderness landscape isn’t “natural”. First, that scene is of nature that has been carved out, made “natural” by being demarcated, defined against un-natural environments of roads and buildings. By being not-unnatural it’s unnatural, curated and maintained to best simulate the real. I love hikes, but even back country routes are highly developed, pre-planned, simulated. Further, even the most remote areas are understood as not-developed, still understood in the terms of the developed. Parallel to our discussion here, this is my argument in The IRL Fetish essay, too,

When Turkle was walking Cape Cod, she breathed in the air, felt the breeze, and watched the waves with Facebook in mind. The appreciation of this moment of so-called disconnection was, in part, a product of online connection.

We always understand nature through technology, most abstractly through the technologies of social norms or language or more concretely through transportation routes, architecture, and most recently, understanding a hike without cell-signal as not-Facebook. As PJ Rey has convincingly argued, there is no logging off.

There is no “natural”, these spaces are understood and appreciated through the context of social standpoint, culture, politics, history, conflict, domination, resistance, embodiment, affect, and everything else. “Nature” is always a social construction, and appeals to it should be followed by ‘whose nature’? Or, as I frame it in these discussions about digital-experience, who benefits when one person anoints themselves a worthy arbiter of what set of experiences is more or less real?

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

Leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for more!

In this year’s Theorizing the Web, I will present a research that originated from my preoccupation with volatile encounters between photography and moments of social strife, as these are seen and mediated by traditional and social media. Homeless people in Libya, demonstrators’ confrontations with armed forces in Syria and Egypt, Kurd refugees in Northern Iraq, check points in Gaza, or Sudanese refugees in Sinai are just a few examples of current photographic undertakings, which are continuously mediated in independent and corporate media outlets. In this work in progress, I venture into documented ruptures while aiming to destabilize their initial appearance: to go beyond the immediate danger and visual narratives of an emergency in order to negotiate the apparatuses and discourses in which the photograph circulates, in which this practice is shaped and received.

My interest in these moments is propelled by photography’s conflicted relation to the formation of the civic subject and (the absence of) civic disobedience in my native country of Israel. Following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Simon Faulkner recognized a turn to photojournalism in the Israeli arena, which he associated with a move toward realism, viewing photography as a vehicle for documentation. Although this dominance is indeed present in Israel, I argue against this invocation of the search for an imagined “real.” Rather, I suggest this involvement exposes an inherent crisis of national identity that was developed, recognized and articulated by a turn to photography: an identity premised on the visual image it sought to implement in a given territory while distributing that image worldwide in order to affirm its validity.

I try to demonstrate how these intersections expose a crisis that goes beyond what is seen in the frame: they reveal a crisis of nationality, of shared language, revealed through attempts to rupture authorial structures, in a system that internalize and appropriates any such efforts. These moments, then, show what is at stake in this photographic moment. I ask to re-visit past encounters of photography, social conflict and crisis that uncover the heterogeneous nature of the photograph as a discursive event, and contextualize our current daily engagements with photographic technologies. The photograph is viewed as a hybrid, which is always already textualized and embedded in signifying modalities. This research examines the mechanisms that mobilize the photograph, while viewing who outlines its narratives and how, who captures the frame, who is caught in it and who is left outside: silenced out of the frame, of the institutions that regulate the frame. Therefore, a crisis will also be seen as that of exclusion: being left outside of the photographic machinery that constitutes the civic subject.

Rotem Rozental is web and blog editor for The Shpilman Institute for Photography and the Jerusalem Season of Culture, where she is also co-artistic director of We – Festi-Conference for Creative Collectives. She is a PhD student at the art history department of Binghamton University, where she currently researchers the interrelations of Zionist photographic archives, nation-state and communication. 

liqsurvThis post expounds on just one section of Liquid Surveillance and should not be considered a proper “review” as such, though I have completed a full review for a journal [read it here]. Further, one of the co-authors of this book, David Lyon, is giving the keynote to the Theorizing the Web conference this Saturday in New York City [more info].

In Liquid Surveillance, the theorist of liquidity, Zygmunt Bauman, and the perhaps the preeminent theorist of surveillance, David Lyon, apply their unique perspectives to social media. I’ve already written a general review of the entire book, submitted to a journal; here, I’m expanding on one specific section of the book that was too much for the general review and deserves its own treatment. In any case, this post has more of my own ideas than would be appropriate for a journal review.

To begin, Liquid Surveillance is not a typical study, but, instead, a “conversation” between the two authors; basically, the back-and-forth is like access to the best email chain that ever happened. It convincingly presents a theoretical paradigm, a theorizing of the web from a unique, historical, and critical framework, often lacking in the larger discussions around technology and society. However, while these authors are uniquely suited to making certain points, I’d like to push them towards engaging with the topic of social media a little more. To do so, I’ll outline three provocations to the theory of liquid surveillance as applied to social media. (I say “provocations to the theory” and not “criticisms for the authors” because each of my points is a disagreement with the authors but an agreement with the theory, as, hopefully, will be clear by the end of this.)

The title of the book highlights two themes, each deeply indebted to the authors of this volume. What is novel here is the application of Bauman’s liquidity thesis, something Lyon made a previous call for. In brief, Bauman first popularized the notion of liquidity as a central aspect of modernity, arguing that the world of solid, heavy structures is changing into an infinite set of flows, changing their form, becoming more agile, and, as such, harder to grasp and understand. Bauman has since applied the thesis to many realms, including love, life, fear, time, and much else. Here, the concept is applied to surveillance, under the expert hand of David Lyon, resulting in an illuminating volume that opens many conceptual doors, and, at times, leaves readers, or at least me, wanting much more.

The general thesis is that as people are tracked more and more via new technologies, and as data accumulates to unprecedented levels, “surveillance slips into a liquid state” (vi). Liquid surveillance is described as a softer form of surveillance, especially found in a consumer realm that spreads in unimaginable ways, spilling out all over. Surveillance has become less attached to spatial observation (e.g., the Panopticon) and, as such, has become post-panoptic, contrasting “the fixity and spatial orientation of solid modern surveillance with the mobile, pulsating signals of today’s flowing forms” (15).

The liquid surveillance perspective is indeed useful for understanding many technological developments; however, it is a little strange that drones and social media are tackled together in the first chapter. This is the longest chapter in the book and each topic probably deserves its own take, however, they are brought together seemingly because they are both new topics. Pitting them in the same discussion helps make Lyon’s astute point that social media has normalized surveillance to the point that people will likely be accepting of drone surveillance. However, this arrangement and the subsequent discussion downplays the deep theoretical divergence between how a liquid surveillance perspective should differently understand drones and social media. For example, the Facebook user is both voyeur and exhibitionist while much of the drone discussion is about seeing without being seen. Much, but not all, of the observation on Facebook is social, peer-to-peer, while drones are largely the powerful few watching a less powerful many. The various parallels and differences are left under-explored, and, as such, could be better handled separately, which is what I’m hoping to do a bit here.

This said, there are terrific insights into social media in this chapter, such as the merging of the panoptic nightmare as a sort of dream, that the fear of never being outside of surveillance is “now recast into the hope of ‘never again being alone’ (abandoned, ignored and neglected, blackballed and excluded), the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed” (23). Ultimately, Bauman argues that people joined Facebook for two reasons: they felt lonely and the site provided an outlet to relive that tension; Facebook as both symptom and remedy to the ills of modernity.

Lyon brings Simmel and Foucault into the discussion of user privacy on social media, the former to point out that our relationship with others is determined by what we know about them and the latter to view Facebook as like a confessional where inner-truths are revealed. Foucault thought that people would take an active role in their own surveillance, a trend that Facebook dramatically illustrates (though, with the difference that the premodern confession was mostly private while Facebook is much more public). This leads Bauman to conclude that we have built a confessional society where publicity is both virtue and obligation.

Bauman also fruitfully draws from his previous work on consumerism to argue that consumer society has taught us to treat ourselves as a commodity, an attractive one as possible, and social media is precisely about getting the attention needed to stay in the game of socializing. Facebook users,

are simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote. They are, at the same time, the merchandise and their marketing agents, the goods and their traveling salespersons (32)

We have to recast ourselves as commodities, that is, “as products capable of drawing attention, and attracting demand and customers” (33). Bauman states that all of society is being reshaped as a marketplace, and there’s no exception allowed. Parallel with PJ Rey’s argument, social media is argued to be non-contractual, indeed, “social fact.” Ultimately, according to Bauman, social media is less about satisfying needs and more about the commoditization of the consumer; that it is exactly in being a commodity one is defined as a member of this society.

With this introduction, let me move to three provocations towards the development and application of a theory of liquid surveillance and social media.

1-The “End of Anonymity” Grand Narrative

The authors discuss privacy, or more specifically, how the Internet will bring a “death of anonymity” (21). Bauman specifically argues that privacy, the foremost invention of modernity, had invaded and conquered public realm, and has now, as a consequence of the Web, begun to fall. He states,

In a startling U-turn from the habits of our ancestors, however, we’ve lost the guts, the stamina, and above all the will to persist in the defense of such rights, those irreplaceable building blocks of individual autonomy” (28)

Bauman’s penchant for hyperbole in this volume sometimes makes the points crystal-clear; however, at times, it obscures the workings of surveillance in its liquid state across these new technologies. There has been a rise in publicity, but there has been no end to privacy. People still think, feel, and do things without them being fully-captured. Bauman claims that having one’s own “complete being” (24) online cannot be resisted, however, one’s complete being is not online, and such resistance is commonplace. Because of the rise in publicness, people are using privacy settings, and in some cases, have become more secretive. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere why I think, drawing on Bataille’s notion of non-knowledge, that it is theoretically impossible for a death of privacy (also see a new chapter co-authored with PJ Rey on “How Privacy Thrives In An Age Of Hyper-Publicity”). Bauman states that “we see no joy in having secrets” which might be exactly wrong; instead, it might also be the case that as secrets become more scare they simultaneously become more valuable.

We must resist the temptation to interpret a rise in publicness as an inevitable, linear, “grand narrative” that will end up in the complete death of anonymity, as I wrote recently about “The Transparent Society”. This sort of totalizing forgets the dialectical interplay of forces—here with privacy and publicity—that post-structural and postmodern theorists have pointed out in critique of modern grand theorizing.

2-The Few and the Many

Perhaps the biggest impediment for many surveillance theorists trying to take on social media is the bias towards describing only how the powerful surveil and control the masses with little attention to how the masses, digitally connected, surveil each other more and more. Tracking scanners, Google recording your browsing history, credit card company databases, automatic toll-collecting on tollways, drone cameras, most the examples that drive the analysis in Liquid Surveillance are about how the few watch the many. This should remind the reader of the most famous theory of surveillance, Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s “Panopticon” prison whereby the many prisoners are under full observation of the few guards (or potentially no guards at all), a disciplinary gaze that hopes to achieve the normalization of all prisoners towards some ideal. Bauman and Lyon are not stuck in this theory, indeed, they devote much time to moving past the Panopticon, a metaphor both brilliantly useful, but, at the same time, for many, the “mere mention of the Panopticon elicits exasterbated groans” (52).

The authors push for a post-panoptic understanding of surveillance that does not forget the Panopticon, just understands it as only part of the overall field (Bauman states that a problem in the humanities is that we “never solve any issues – we only get bored with them” [55)]. The role of the Panopticon today is to manage the “unmanageable margins of societies”, however the main thrust of surveillance today is not the prison model. As is repeated in the book on many occasions, the model of power that holds today is less of coercion and more one of seduction. As Bauman says, “Everything moves from enforcement to temptation and seduction” (57), a surveillance society that no longer chases its victims but finds its volunteers (73). Thus, if the Panopticon was the few watching the many, the guards watching the prisoners, the authors also bring in the Synopticon, where the many watch the few. This may be a better model of surveillance within consumer society, where, for instance, the many television consumers watch the few cultural gatekeepers, newmakers, and celebrities (a topic Bauman wrote about in Liquid Modernity).

Applied to sites like Facebook, what this discussion begs for is an analysis of how the many watch the many on social media, which is underdeveloped so far and a missed opportunity for Liquid Surveillance precisely because it works well with the overall argument of increasing liquidity. An additional form of post-panoptic, and post-synoptic, surveillance is what George Ritzer and I have called “omnioptic”, that is, how the many watching the many is not only an increasingly powerful form of surveillance, but also the most liquid. Tellingly, Bauman describes the Synopticon, where the many watch the few, as “surveillance without surviallors”, meaning that the many, by virtue of not being a powerful few, simply cannot be considered surviallors. Instead, what is needed is a better theory of how the surveillant gaze is both enacted by and upon the many (without forgetting the powerful role the few have in watching and being watched). A fruitful starting point for this analysis would be integrating the liquid surveillance thesis with Alice Marwick’s recent work on “social surveillance”, which attempts to remove the top-down bias in much surveillance theorizing and to better integrate lateral, social observation, not as separate from, but in conversation with, watching of and from the top. This work, I think, reinforces a more flowing, nimble, lighter understanding of surveillance consistent with the thesis of the book at hand.

3-Digital Dualism

A third critique is a familiar one for readers of this blog: Liquid Surveillance suffers from the common tendency to understand and articulate the Internet as a new, separate, virtual, cyber, space, what I call “digital dualism”, indeed, a common starting point for theorists of the digital. Bauman makes this understanding of the Web most clear when he states, “our life (and to a growing degree as we move from older to younger generations) is split between two universes, ‘online’ and ‘offline’, and irreparably bicentered.” He states that “social life has already turned into an electronic life or cyberlife” (29; emphasis in the original). Within my framework of dualist and synthetic models of the on and offline, Bauman is clearly dualist, however, a mild dualism (or “Interactionist Digital Dualism“) as he does articulate an interplay between these separate worlds, saying that “experience obtained in one universe cannot but re-form the axiology guiding the assessment of the other.” One cannot describe life on one of the two universes without referencing “the share played in its constitution by the second universe” (37-38).

As I’ve argued many times before, this dualist understanding of the Web often leads thinkers into problematic conclusions. Bauman’s digital dualism, positing the digital as some other universe, makes it easier for him to claim that digital communication takes “almost no effort and is almost risk free” (38), even as research (and lived experience) has demonstrated that efforts, risks, and difficulties are indeed experienced, sometimes exasperated, when communicating via digital tools. The digital is not risk-free, one cannot easily “cut one’s losses” (43) as Bauman states, instead, social media is not risk-free precisely because it is not a new, separate universe, but instead deeply integrated into the lived, material reality that Bauman declares the Web is pushing away.

Bauman calls the digital cold, shallow, perfunctory, and superficial while the offline is articulated as deep, profound, warm and heartfelt (a trend I call “the IRL fetish”). He further claims that social media is a place for loose connections, where we acquire a network, not a community, forgetting that a social media user’s strong ties, community, solidarity, also exist online. The assumption made in this volume is that the offline is being traded for the on; meanwhile, research has shown that those using social media more also do more things away from the computer, precisely against the zero-sum assumption. Indeed, there are many trends related to the rise of modernity—consumer culture, suburbanization, television, to name a few—that have done what Bauman has described, so it is unfortunate that he has identified a counter-trend as the convenient culprit.

A theory of liquid surveillance and social media might more profitably begin with the understanding that the Internet is not separate from but part of the same reality that comprises real people with real bodies, politics, bonds, histories, emotions, and the rest. For example, when Bauman says of Occupy, “Wall Street took little note of ‘being occupied’ by offline visitors from the online world” (51), we see the problems inherent in digital dualism. By viewing occupiers as visitors from an online world, we can conveniently blame the so-called trivial nature of this new world for the difficulties inherent in social movements rather than detail the fact that the Wall Street and the state certainly did take notice of the protests as something very real and responded as such, often violently. The occupiers were not visiting from an online world but from a very real world of lived experience, akin to what I have argued elsewhere against this dualist “Twitter revolution” conceptualization of modern protest.


Liquid Surveillance does much more than just discuss social media, which is all I have focused on here. The conversational style makes it a fun read while never ceasing to be stimulating and sharp. For our purposes here, the book is utterly persuasive that liquid surveillance is an important way to discuss social observation online, and it is my hope that others continue this application moving forward. To do this, I’ve outlined three main provocations to the theory: (1) to question the grand narritive of forever-increasing publicity; (2) to question the bias towards “the few” and take better account of how the many watch the many; (3) to question the digital dualist bias and instead begin with the assumption that the digital is part of this one reality. Thus, the biggest weakness of Liquid Surveillance is also one of its strengths: by not providing a fully adequate account of social media, the book creates significant space in surveillance studies literature for projects that begin with social media from the ground up. What might a refined theory look like that more deeply “cooks in” sites like Facebook throughout? The outcome, I think, will demonstrate that Bauman and Lyon are correct to call these trends “liquid surveillance”; just, perhaps, more liquid than they know.

Note: I have also published a more traditional academic review of this book for Surveillance and society, found here.

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

Catfish is Jerry Springer for the social media age

Let’s face it: panic about ‘people’ not pairing off is really panic about women not pairing off

the idea that technology comes from us, people, is something we are reluctant to accept

Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities’

temporary photography is doing something very interesting with time

I don’t oppose the MOOC any more than I oppose online classes, or three-hundred-person-lectures, or Wikipedia

the way that the Harlem Shake meme seems perfectly designed for the workplace

Everybody in the industry wants to see Spotify succeed

Who hates free speech? The powerful and the powerless

With almost 20 different speakers over two hours, not a single woman took the stage

Cup holders aren’t just for our constant hydration, they’re the source of our psychological well-being on the road

Google is doing other things to recruit the fashion-savvy, particularly women

There is no difference between the “real” and the “virtual” : a brief phenomenology of digital revolution

Writing, like drones and smartphones, is a technology

linguistic innovations that start with young women spread rapidly throughout the population

we can disturb the archive & begin to draw new connections between the personal & the technical

Even if an accusation is unfounded, being branded as a troll can be damaging to an online reputation

social engineering disguised as product engineering

the Internet once felt like a secret. And, like most secrets, it was mostly about sex

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

Facebook has certainly taken notice of the desire for impermanence

It’s interesting that we now create things specifically to forget

networks can be far more tyrannical, opaque, and anti-democratic than hierarchies

Snapchat subverts the affordances of networked publics…the technology now—not the recipient—is the trusted object

using the magic word “MOOC,” the privatization disappears in a puff of euphemism. We are instead “expanding access”

Just as CafePress can sell you a customized T-Shirt, why shouldn’t OKCupid aspire to sell you a customized partner?

use online connectivity not to try to define ourselves perfectly but to undo ourselves over and over

social media seem to intersect interpersonal sociality and corporate monetization

they all took snapshots and movies of each other out of fear of experiencing the meaninglessness of their existence

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

photo-3This is just an off-the-cuff post as I do some weekend reading, namely David Brin’s The Transparent Society (1998). I’m curious about the common grand narrative that society has become more transparent and thus will continue to be more so, ultimately creating the state of full transparency, full surveillance, where everything is seen, recorded, and known. I’ve critiqued this line of thought before, as the issue is common in writing about surveillance or privacy, from silly op-eds to pieces by serious scholars like Zygmunt Bauman.

Brin begins his book by asking the reader to look 10-20 years in the future, which from 1998 means today. Brin claims in the world of the future-for-him / now-for-us there will be no street crime because surveillance cameras peer down from “every lamppost, every rooftop and street sign” which are “observing everything in open view” (4).

Nope. Street crime still exists as well as street signs without cameras. Instead of hyperbolically claiming full transparency and surveillance and the complete end to anonymity, we would be better off discussing the very real increases in surveillance accurately. We owe this issue such respect. As I argued elsewhere responding to various hyperbolic and incorrect claims, there hasn’t, and likely will not be, a death of anonymity,

Anonymity is declining, it is not dead. The web forgets less, but it still sometimes forgets. We are living in an era of more knowledge, not an era of omniscience. The web unmasks some people sometimes, but it does not unmask everyone. The worst thing you’ve done might be the first thing people know about you, but probably not. There is less invisibility, but invisibility is not dead. Society’s memory has become better, but it is not perfect. Much is increasingly revealed, but much remains concealed

To be fair, Brin thought that while public areas had full surveillance, the home would remain largely hidden. His vision was of cameras everywhere in public so that, for example, any individual could call up the cameras to locate their friends. Want to know if your date has arrived at the bar? Just log onto the camera in the bar and look.

He gets this wrong in two ways. First, Brin thought of a world where you “pulled” information about what one is doing, whereas, 15 years later, this information is “pushed” at us. Yes, cameras do capture some of what we are doing, but when it comes to public transparency today, we often tell others what we are doing. It is understandable that Brin didn’t see this coming 15 years ago; he lived in a world where the concern was of being watched with the fear of others seeing us. Now many fear not being seen; the concern now isn’t if people know what I’m doing, but the worry that no one cares. As Bauman states in Liquid Surveillance, “the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed” (23). While Brin’s transparent society is achieved through cameras passively recording, today, many actively announce. Brin understood “microcameras overhead” that see rather than devices in our hands that speak.

Second, Brin made too strong a distinction between “private” and “public”, again, understandable given how much those concepts have eroded since. What is happening in the streets, according to Brin, would be transparent, and what happened in the home would be hidden. Today, not only are the streets not fully transparent, what happens inside many homes is much more visible. Homes have become increasingly a domain of surveillance, a type willingly entered into, for example, in the proliferation of our homes, families, food, etc in photos on Facebook.

All of this speaks to the general problem of constructing “grand narratives”, once popular in social theory but these days looked upon with skepticism. Making sweeping claims about how society will change in the future is troublesome because it is downright arrogant; one thinker cannot think for all people in all places and all times, rather, there are infinite standpoints and contingencies that should temper the scope of any one theory. I think of Max Weber, who cautioned against grand narratives on one hand but on the other provided some of his own. Take, for example, his theory that efficiency, the centerpiece of what Weber called “formal rationality”, would come to dominate over anything thought to be inefficient. Western modernity, according to Weber, wipes out anything left to chance, anything unknown, mysterious, or hidden. This efficiency would come to dominate and engulf society in a cold iron cage of rationality –a grand narrative to be sure.

It didn’t come to pass. Yes, George Ritzer has shown how many sectors of society have been formally rationalized since the time of Weber, for which Ritzer uses McDonalds as the paradigmatic case (McDonaldization also updates Weber’s theory from the bureaucracy into globalized consumer spaces). However, even George Ritzer acknowledges that McDonaldized consumer spaces are not an “iron cage”, but rather what he calls “velvet cages”, making reference to the softer, intentionally-entered-into, forms of rationalized control; Weber’s hell is replaced with Ritzer’s purgatory. We never turned into the Brazil-like iron cage Weber thought was inevitable. Grand narratives often make the mistake of assuming the trends of the present will continue to march on unchecked.

Brin makes the same error, as do the many people claiming we will surely see a society of full transparency, the “death of anonymity”, the “end of privacy” and so-forth (again, I list and critique these more here). More than just the old-fashioned error of the grand narrative, Brin and these others also fall into the trap of what Michael Sacasas calls the “Borg complex” (here, here, and here), making reference to the Star Trek aliens who use technology to assimilate other species and who famous proclaim that “resistance is futile”; akin to what Weber thought of efficiency and Brin of transparency. There is good reason to be skeptical of theories that proclaim a future that must come to pass, especially those who hyperbolically and incorrectly claim a fully “transparent society.”

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

Ballard: “I’ve always wanted to drive a crashed car.” Vaughn: “You could get your wish at any moment.” –from Crash (1996)

David Cronenberg is so very Cyborgology. The fleshy, pulsating video game consoles that blur machine and body in eXistenZ (1999), or Videodrome (1983), the anti-digital-dualist counter-paradigm to The Matrix where a separate digital reality is rejected in favor of showing the augmentation of media and the body in bloody detail. Vaughn, a character in Cronenberg’s 1996 film, Crash, says that the car-crash is “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology.”

In Crash, the crash is a lust object, something to be witnessed in all of its reality and detail and in extreme close up. On YouTube, it’s the rise of Russian “dashcams.”

Their numbers have swelled over the past year or so due to the rampant corruption of traffic police and insurance company officials. The videos provide evidence for traffic disputes both common and not-so-common, from everyday fender-bender quarrels to pedestrians throwing themselves in front of cars for settlement money. After one particularly horrendous accident that killed twenty people, President Dmitry Medvedev made a statement calling on the State Traffic Safety Inspectorate to “take all the necessary measures to impose order on the roads.” That was in 2009 and little seems to have changed.

The genre has as its origin a LiveJournal community for sharing footage as well as finding amateur legal advice. Russian ex-pat Marina Galperina wrote an essay for Animal Magazine last summer, describing the community as “vicious” but also that

there are moments of humanity among the crashes, in between skidding, the burning, the kicking. There are dash-cam videos with happy endings.

Sometimes drivers pull over on remote highways to help stranded motorists or the disabled truck driver. While the cameras can tell all sorts of stories, it is the crashes that garner the most attention, congealing into the popular YouTube genre.

The videos begin banal. For a while, maybe more than a minute, the viewer simply rides along through the eyes of a camera perched on the dashboard; importantly, a first-person view. Everything is normal and, indeed, that’s the point: that nothing spectacular is happening primes the viewer to know what will happen is real, it will occur in an unnervingly normal setting, one you can relate to. As such, for many, you’ve already put yourself in the driver’s seat. The landscape moves past. Suspense builds in anticipation of the knowledge that something will happen. And then it does.

Spectacular crashes and death defying maneuvers follow; often, bizarrely, set to the soundtrack of Europop and The Cure. Russian roads are home to tanks, fighter jets, boats, cows, and commercial airliners. Maybe a car leaps across the median or a hit pedestrian shoots a driver. Sometimes a fistfight breaks out in the middle of the street. These moments are brief, rarely fully in frame, and very, very real.

The initial appeal is the old-school rubber-necking many people do when passing by an accident, often causing traffic backups on lanes going the opposite direction obstructed by nothing but curiosity. The appeal of dashcam videos is this but also more than this.

The accidents are real and they look like they really do. Unlike action movies that show the event from the perfect dramatic and informative angles, dashcrashes can begin off-screen, occur in any direction, even ones the camera doesn’t point at. This makes them more realistic, more likely to encourage the viewer to imagine themselves in the driver’s seat, and, therefore, all the more terrifying.

Dashcrashes can sensitize the eye after stepping away from the computer. Those who have seen many of these videos and subsequently ride in cars might look at the world a bit differently. Each car is easily imaged crossing the centerline, trucks seemingly can roll over and spill their cargo at any moment, pedestrians are always on the verge of inexplicably stepping in front of you — the car’s windshield becomes the computer screen.

And then there’s also a sense of strangeness and other. Dashcams equally capture societal failure and mechanical malfunction. Many Westerners gawking at the crashes also poke fun at this seemingly far-off and strange land where cows walk in front of cars blasting Robertas Kupstas. While the dangers on Russian highways are certainly real, more Americans die in car accidents every year. Granted, the per capita rate is higher in Russia, but we can certainly imagine the countless events on American roads simply never captured. If American dash cams were more popular, perhaps we would see some of our own stereotypes laid out; perhaps a genre would emerge of brash, hubris-filled, Americans destroying sportscars, SUVs, or large trucks due to negligence and recklessness? In any case, perhaps part of the American appeal of Russian dashcam videos is that they confirm the supposed exotic strangeness of the other.

Horrific car accidents occur every day; most are witnessed by only a few and only for an instant. The dashcams make these events once ephemeral immortal, able to be pulled up by millions, paused, replayed, gawked at. In this way, the dashcrashes are devastating and simultaneously creative; a new genre is produced, itself producing new ways of seeing out one’s windshield, and producing new meanings both cultural and personal. The automobile crashes into the collective conscious, or as Vaughn states, “the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”

David is on Twitter and Tumblr and Nathan is on Twitter and Tumblr and they also produce Spectacular Optical – does anyone know what Cronenberg reference that title is?

Lead image via:

the Internet is laughing. And Applebee’s is losing a lot of customers

Let me break it down, Your Holiness: sentiment-wise, your entrance on Twitter has been saluted by a roaring “meh”

People need to worry less about the future of print and worry more about the future of sentences

cogito ergo sum is usurped by something with far more ominous implications: “I am documented, therefore I am.”

Facebook is the perfect “safe space” cos it has white walls and feels like home and you don’t own shit

people click Like merely because humans have an irresistible desire to be counted

when DRM makes products less valuable, it also makes them less real

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

for those of us whose bodies seem like a burden or an ontological prison, the Internet functions as a utopia of sorts

Vine’s six seconds feels like an eternity

These messages are intended specifically to shame and frighten women out of engaging online

I hear ‘clickclickclickclickclick’ all over the place…they are photographing me, and now I’m pissed. I felt like a zoo animal

Facebook is not *doing* anything to society

we don’t like seeing Apple bloggers imply Android’s success doesn’t count because what—poor people don’t count?

Why do we photograph the aftermath of misadventure?

Plato was right. The efficient and durable externalization of memory makes us personally indifferent to remembrance

by pretending that joining up all those disconnected dots is no big deal, Facebook is being dishonest and dumb

Teams of players are charged with taking out as many [surveillance] cameras as possible

make no mistake: Vine will be a big deal

poor people have little choice but to surrender their privacy in the name of social mobility

We’ll probably see a day when games aren’t defined by winstates

why not use a robot of Andy to dramatize his philosophy?

There is something about watching a missile vaporize a guy from the view of a close up camera

This is digital dualism, but it’s also determinism at work

It seems *normal* to them to walk into a bar with Google Glasses, even though everyone’s smirking at them

it appears no accident that expansion of personal debt occurred pari passu with technological development

MOOCs are an essentially authoritarian structure; a one-way process in which the student is a passive recipient

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

Is there a Dunbar’s Number for our documentary consciousness?

Dunbar argued that we can only keep up with about 150 people at a time, at which point we reach a cognitive saturation. Can this similar sort of saturation occur with the proliferation of ways we can document ourselves and others on social media? The ways someone holding a working smartphone can document experience grows not just with the number of sites one can post to, but also the number of available mediums of documentation: audio, video, photo, and their recombinations into things like GIFs and Vines whatever else I’m forgetting or will come next. Each new app carries with it a different audience with different expectations, adding to the documentary chaos.

Or: Given the proliferation of options, how should I document this cat?

For some, though certainly not everyone, this question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. The most obvious answer is “don’t document that cat. Enough already.” I’m with you. I’m concerned about how social media documentation changes experience [see here, here, here, here]. I think there is good reason for why these types of documentation proliferate: most importantly, to be on social media in all its various forms is, for many, to exist. PJ Rey does an excellent job at explaining why it’s not so easy to just opt-out of all of this. In any case, this is not a post about whether this expansion in the ways of documentation is a good thing, but asking if there is a cognitive limit to all of this. So, again: How should I document this cat lying next to me?

Is she documented textually, in a tweet, or a Facebook status? Is it a photograph, and if so, with a nicer camera or with my smartphone? Instagram? Facebook? Or perhaps this is better a Snapchat, self-deleting and shared with one person? Or maybe a Lytro photograph that allows the viewer to change the focus after the fact, shifting the emphasis at will from her face to her tail? Or perhaps her tail-wagging is best captured in a soundless moving GIF using the popular GifBoom app? Or maybe make a Vine, the current “hot” app we may or may not be talking about a month from now that allows for short, quick-cut, looping videos. Many of these apps will come and go, but what is important is that photographs, video, text, and audio are being recombined in different ways for different audiences, putting a heavy load on our documentary consciousness.*

My essay on the Instagram Faux-Vintage Photo argued that social media has expanded “the camera eye” into a sort-of “Facebook Eye”, the documentary vision where more and more of life comes to be seen as a potential social media document, where the present is always a potential future past. Unlike the camera eye—viewing the world as a potential photograph—social media expands this documentary vision: we can document more, in more ways, and to more people. Again, my point here is not to complain about having so many options or to argue if this is good or bad, but to ask if there is a limit to how many different documentary understandings we can manage at once?

Can one simultaneously see the photographs, video, audio, and GIFs in front of them in real-time? Can documentary literacy be refined as to intuit between what is most shareable frozen-still versus wants to be stuck in the GIF loop? Can one see the fast Vine video in the sandwich being slowly consumed? Can we keep all of these documentary-affordances and potentialities in our head at once? Is there a limit?

To make this even more complex, we modern documentarians also need to keep all of the different audiences in mind. Indeed, that we now have been connected to large audiences to share our ephemera is in large part why we are being given so many documentary options. To see something as a potential snap (sent via Snapchat) is to already know the taste and expectations of each potential recipient. Vine users are different than your Facebook friends are different than your Tumblr followers and thus expectations multiply within the documentary consciousness.

As the complexities swell, might there be in this ecology of documentary consciousness something to keep mediums of documentation from proliferating endlessly? Is there a point of cognitive documentary saturation? Can we really all-at-once see the world as photographable, GIFable, Vineable, and whatever else comes next? And are those who reach that documentary saturation first at a disadvantage, missing out on the cultural and social capital that social media documentation promises?

There might just be a limit to the number of ways Silicon Valley can ask us, in the name of creativity, to capture and atomize experience into their databases.

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


*Whitney Erin Boesel used this similar term in her post, however, I am using it differently than she defines it there.