It’s been 7 years since Alone Together (2011) was published. And, here at Cyborgology (which we launched only a few months before the book came out), probably no other publication has received so much of our attention (with the possible exception of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”

While Turkle’s earlier writings were hopeful, forward-looking provocations about the growing intimacy between humans and machines, Alone Together (as well as Turkle’s more recent Reclaiming Conversation [2015]) struck a completely different tone: a present-focused techno-pessimism. Turkle’s insistence on the intrinsic inferiority of digitally mediated interaction—that it is less real, less human—became a foil for ambivalent, nuanced analysis of technology and society that we sought to provide on this blog. In part, Turkle has become an antagonistic figure because she cherry-picks anecdotes while ignoring more systematic research on the way digital technologies facilitate social support. In part, because she epitomizes a sort of rhetoric about the ontological inferiority of the Web—its lack of realness—that has distracted from important social justice questions about how such technologies reinforce/reproduce existing inequalities and the concrete measure that can be taken to changes this.

In the recent 2017 update of the book. Turkle doubles down, referencing Darwin and embracing evolutionary biology style grand narratives in her new preface. She says, “as we evolved, people were the only other creatures who responded with us with suggestions of empathy.” (I can hear Haraway off in the distance, shouting, “what about dogs?!”) Turkle continues:

Now robots showed us “as-if” empathy, and we were, you might say, cheap dates. We proved willing to talk to robots about personal matters.

She explains that machines gain control over us because they know how to “push people’s Darwinian buttons.”

This new analysis is also more polemical than the original book, which she now describes as “a call to arms.” For example, one passage reads:

What is democracy without privacy? What is intimacy without privacy? If your answer is, Let’s wait and see; technology always brings change, and people always adjust, then my note to you is this: you are playing with fire.

I suppose it should be said that this is a false dichotomy. There is a lot daylight between fearful techno-determinism and the wait-and-see approach. We could, for example, talk about (re-)constructing social media platforms so that they are not incentivized to collect and sell our data.

In her new take on Alone Together, Turkle’s most grave concern now appears to be that technology is undermining our capacity for empathy altogether, particularly for children as their toys become smarter. Furby and Tamagatchi were central to the original book, but their capacities pale in comparison to the high tech toys of today—at least, for those who can afford smart toy.

new questions feel… pressing: How will intimacy and empathy change in a world where we give toddlers baby bouncers and potty trainers with a slot for a tablet or smart phone?

I’m no technophile. It’s never even occurred to me to setup a television for my toddler let alone a tablet. But, I can say categorically that biggest threat to intimacy my son and I share isn’t the distraction of technology but the distraction of economic precarity, the endless hustle of the gig economy—something that Turkle, who begins the preface by informing readers that she is writing “at the cottage,” likely has little experience with.

Despite the fact that I think almost everything Turkle says is reductionist and oozes with privilege, I like her new style. She’s more upfront with her ideological agenda and the writing is far clearer as a result.

Authenticity and Intimacy in Alone Together

Turning now to the original text of Alone Together, I’ve sought to examine Turkle’s core arguments about intimacy and authenticity as carefully and generously as I could construct them. These terms come up a lot throughout the book and often in relation to one another. Being interested in digitally-mediated intimacy, I wanted to parse what she meant by both.

What’s most clear is her concern that technology is replacing “real” intimacy with simulation. She explains that the purpose of her book, Alone Together (2011, p.12), is to explore

a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?

Turkle’s nagging question itself raises a couple questions: What does she understand intimacy to be and what distinguishes “real” intimacy from its virtual or simulated forms—in other words, what conditions are necessary for intimate relationships to be authentic? But, while she emphasizes the centrality of these concepts to her work theorizing technology—saying, for example (p. 6), “both by temperament and profession, I place high value on relationships of intimacy and authenticity”—she never systematically defines these terms, so we are left to piece together how she interprets them.

For Turkle, authenticity is the opposite of simulation—in particular, she contrasts authentic interactions with “robotic sociality” (i.e., humans interacting with robot or interacting with each other as though they were robots). From children’s toys to sex dolls, Turkle contends that there is a growing propensity in our culture to replace people with interactive machines in important social interactions. She (2011, p. 7) explains why she believes such interaction is inauthentic:

Authenticity, for me, follows from the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences: we are born, have families, and know loss and the reality of death. A robot, however sophisticated, is patently out of this loop.

The way Turkle defines it, authenticity involves a certain imaginative capacity to assume the role of the other. In other words, authentically human interactions are defined by empathy. She justifies this claim in the 2017 preface mentioned above, leaning on speculative evolutionary biology: “as we evolved, people were the only other creatures who responded with us with suggestions of empathy.”

Robots (or AI, more broadly) can only mimic empathy (what she calls “as-if empathy” [2017]), they cannot actually feel it. And, though they can perform I ways that seem to invite empathy from us, that empathy is misplaced since we are projecting feeling on to robots that they can actually have. In her (2011, p. 287) words:

That the robotic performance of emotion might exist in its own category implies nothing about the authenticity of the emotions being performed. And robots do not “have” emotions that we must respect. We build robots to do things that make us feel as though they have emotions.

The consequence, Turkle fears, is that robots actually condition us away from empathy, because they can simply be turned off when inconvenient. In fact, the thrust of her book is, ultimately, to argue that the kinds of simulated sociality we have with robots extends beyond those interactions to interactions between people. She explains (2011, pp. 12-13):

Sociable robots and online life both suggest the possibility of relationships the way we want them. […] From the perspective of our robotic dreams, networked life takes on a new cast. We imagine it as expansive. But we are just as fond of its constraints. […] Technology makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will.

We are encouraged to see each other like robots—something there when we need it but that we can ignore or turn off when we do not—that digital communications technology

puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay (2011, p. 15).

She suggests that this willingness to distance others is dehumanizing, contrasting the easily avoidable/escapable interactions we have with intelligent machines to the “messy, often frustrating, and always complex world of people” (2011, p. 6). Turkle fears the outcome of these interactions with interactive technologies will be “an emotional dumbing down, a willful turning away from the complexities of human partnerships—the inauthentic as a new aesthetic.”

In other words, interactions with robots teach us to treat others as objects that can be disregarded or ignored. Authentic sociality, on the other hand, requires us to acknowledge the personhood of others and to confront them in a way that we cannot easily escape. In phenomenological language, other people are not merely an “object for-us” but a “subject in-itself.”

Ironically, however, Turkle seems to play down precisely the complexities of being human that she purports to champion. Her valorization of evolutionarily-driven, pre-social, “authentic” humanity seems to leave little room for the multifaceted, contradictory, and performative self that social theorists from Goffman to Gergan to Butler have observed. On the other hand, she often acknowledges that identity is malleable, and its development requires play and experimentation. Technology’s capacity to facilitate identity play was, in fact, a focal point of her earlier books, and it is something she continues to champion, even as she grows more pessimistic that technology affords such play. “The Internet can play a part in constructive identity play, although, as we have seen, it is not so easy to experiment when all rehearsals are archived” (2011, p. 273).

How do we make sense of Turkle describing authenticity as an essential aspect of our evolved human nature and at the same time describing identity as a fluid process? The simple answer seems to be that—in contrast to the way we commonly use the term—“authenticity,” for Turkle, is not about identity; instead, it is largely synonymous with empathy. Robots are not authentic because they are not empathetic. Humans are authentic to the degree they exercise empathy. But, none of this is meant to be a statement about identity in the way that we usually talk about authenticity.

But, wait… Just when we thought we understood where Turkle was coming from, she throws us a curveball. She cites this conversation with a teenager as emblematic of the way in which digital communications threaten to authenticity (2011, p. 271)

Brad says that digital life cheats people out of learning how to read a person’s face and “their nuances of feeling.” And it cheats people out of what he calls “passively being yourself.” It is a curious locution. I come to understand that he means it as shorthand for authenticity. It refers to who you are when you are not “trying,” not performing. It refers to who you are when you are in a simple conversation, unplanned.

Here, Turkle seems to be offering a second and third definition for authenticity: the unperformed self and the unmediated self. Moreover, she reinforces this second definition of authenticity as the unperformed self in her (2016, p. 109) book, Reclaiming Conversation, saying that: “Instead of promoting the value of authenticity, [social media] encourages performance.” This is the only mention of authenticity in her newest book.

Clearly these are distinct definitions of authenticity. Are we meant to assume that some underlying conceptual thread links them all together? Or, are these different definitions the product of conceptual slippage?

One possible way we might reconcile her statements regarding the inauthenticity of the performed self with her celebration of identity exploration is to infer that she believes that identity play is good when it is self-focused and problematic when it is other-focused; however, I am dubious as to whether such a distinction can hold up in practice. Phenomenology dating back to Hegel, existentialism, and social psychological theories such as “the looking glass self” all point to the significance of others in coming to know the ourselves. In other words, we often perform identities for others because we want to know ourselves.

I think the most generous interpretation is that Turkle intended for the first definition of authenticity—“the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences”— to be the meaning of the concept throughout Alone Together; however, because this is such an unusual way to use the term, she occasional slips into the more common usage.

More cynically, I would suggest that her choice to use this term was a rhetorical move that allowed her to condemn digitally-mediated interaction by association (with inauthenticity) rather through argumentation. In other words, you do not have to do the work of explaining why digitally-mediated interaction is bad if you define it as inauthentic, because the inauthentic is already assumed to be bad. Slippages in how the term “authenticity” is used then serve to reinforce this negative association.

Nonetheless, if we bracket these other meanings for authenticity and focus on her unique definition, then we can uncover how it is connected to another key concept in the book: intimacy. If authentic interactions are defined by empathy, then intimacy is the product such interactions. While she sometimes describes “intimacy with machines” (2011, p. xxiii), she clearly signals that such intimacy is inferior, lacking reciprocity. In other words, authenticity is a precondition for “real” intimacy and simulation anathema to it.

This brings us to what I believe is the underlying thesis of the book—that technology threatens intimacy by undermining authenticity—which is alluded to in the opening sentences (2011, p. 1):

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run.

These substitutions may be robots, computer programs, or smart toys like Tamagotchi and Furby. But the substitutions that concern Turkle are those that occur between humans. As I have already decribed, her central fear is that simulated interactions with smart machines condition our expectations for interactions with other humans, especially as technological mediation constructs interactions between humans in ways that look more like interactions with machines. Specifically, with regard to intimacy, she (2011, p. 16) explains that:

when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy.

In other words, for Turkle, real intimacy requires both availability and commitment. Digital technologies are problematic insofar as, even though they may bridge distance, they also make it just as easy to disconnect. We are not required to confront the consequences of interactions, to literally see the impact of our words on the face of another. For Turkle (p. 288), real intimacy requires “about being with people in person, hearing their voices and seeing their faces, trying to know their hearts.”

In contrast, she (2011, p. 169) believes that, with “online intimacies, we hope for compassion but often get the cruelty of strangers.” In fact, she suggests the Web encourages and normalizes cruelty—that rage and abuse “is endemic on the Internet” (2011, p. 237). While it would be difficult to argue that cruelty among strangers is not common within digitally-mediated interactions, but the question this invites is whether this is the only thing going on.

Two years of participant observation in the sex camming and DIY porn communities suggest to me that it isn’t. I’ll share more of those findings in future posts.

PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is an XBIZ nominated clip producer and a PhD candidate in sociology.

[updated 5/9/18. substantially revised based on further reading and reflection.]

I recently started a podcast called The Peepshow Podcast with Jessie Sage, and we recorded an interview with Kashmir Hill that may be of interest to Cyborgology readers.

Hill (@kashhill) is an investigative reporter with Gizmodo Media Group. She recently wrote an article on how Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature outs sex workers. We discuss the ways Facebook/Instagram algorithms may put marginalized people (sex workers, queer youth, domestic abuse survivors, etc.) at risk as well as possible ways of safeguarding users’ identities.

(You can find the uploaded contacts feature mentioned in this segment here.)

Non-consensual pornography—frequently called “revenge porn”—describes nude or sexually suggestive photos shared in a manner or context that the subject did not consent to, often with the intent to humiliate, intimidate, or extort the victim. In many cases, these pics are distributed by someone who received (or was allowed to take) them on the assumption that they would remain private.

While non-consensual pornography is not unique to social media, these platforms have made it easier to distribute images anonymously/pseudonymously to a wide audience. Nude or sexual pics are non-consensually distributed through dedicated websites; subforms on Reddit, 4chan, and their many offshoots; “dump accounts” on Twitter or Tumblr; torrent sites (particularly for celeb photos); and the Dark Web (for underage or otherwise illegal content).

In the past couple of years, non-consensual pornography has increasingly been discussed in the news media. One recent scandal that made headlines centered on “Marines United” Facebook page, where current and former marines were caught sharing and commenting on images of their female colleagues. Many of these images were “creepshots” taken without the knowledge of the women.

Another high profile incident occurred in 2014, when nearly 500 nude images of dozens of celebrities (mostly women) were leaked on message boards such as Reddit and 4chan; this event has been dubbed “Celebgate” (or “The Fappening”). Hackers managed to steal these images by compromising the security of celebrities’ own iCloud accounts. Though the original Celebgate hackers were caught and convicted, other hackers continue to target celebrities and leak their photos.

Perhaps the most infamous hub for non-consensual pornography was, which allowed users to post amateur pics they took of ex girlfriends, people having sex at parties, women in public, etc (and in some cases paid contributors). The website existed for a couple years before its creator, Hunter Moore, shut it down in 2012, complaining that he had to spend an average of three hours a day reporting underage submissions. Moore said of his victims:

They’re just stupid people. All I really do is take advantage of them.

Moore was eventually arrested and prosecuted in 2014. He accepted a plea deal of 2.5 years in prison for “unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information for purposes of private financial gain and one count of aggravated identity theft.” But he was only charged in connection with the files he purchased from hackers, not for the much larger number of lawfully obtained non-consensual pornographic images (and, yes, that sentence makes sense under current federal law).

In light of these events and countless other incidences of sexual images shared without permission by former partners and friends—or even strangers—non-consensual pornography has become the focus of lobbying organizations such as Without My Consent, campaigns by celebrities, and some journalists who have taken up this beat. One result of such attention is that several states have passed (or debated) criminal statutes specific to prosecuting non-consensual pornography, but not the federal government.

While the non-consensual sharing of pornographic images appears to be disturbingly widespread, it is difficult to track and tally these instances. Beyond the practical issue that it would be difficult to collect such information is the moral issue that such efforts could potentially bring further exposure and harm to victims. One thing we do know is that consensual sharing of pornographic images via digital media is increasingly common: A 2013 Pew survey* found that 18% of people ages 18-29 report sending sexually suggestive pictures or video of themselves with a cell phone. 42% of people in this age group reported receiving such images. Responses were similar for both single people and those in relationships.

Historically, copyright has been the main legal tool for prosecuting non-consensual pornography (at least in case of selfies). I’m certainly not going to criticize victims for using the only tools available, but this leads to absurd consequences—not the least of which is that copyright tends to vindicate those who share images without consent if they happened to be the one taking the photo.

John Oliver on non-consensual pornography, copyright, and victim blaming.

More importantly, treating non-consensual pornography as copyright infringement misses the point: The thing that actually upsets us in these case is not misuse of content but the denial of a person’s right to self-determination, particularly with regards what happens to one’s own body. I would suggest that that non-consensual pornography is more akin to sexual assault than pirating music via Bittorrent.

This disconnect between our experiences and public policy indicates a need to make sense of the deeper relationship going here—not the one bound up in copyright, property, and ownership, but, instead, what it is like to experience being the subject of non-consensual pornography and the sense of violation we feel when the control we have over our selves is taken from us.

The issue of non-consensual pornography highlights the increasingly intimate connection between our bodies and digital technologies. However, the technological mediation of our bodies is not something uniquely digital. Phenomenologists and other theorists long observed the blurring of boundaries between flesh and machine; these cyborganic relations just have never fully achieved popular and legal recognition.

Incorporation and Feeling Digital Media

I think it is particularly useful to consider the experience phenomenologists described as incorporation (i.e., the idea that we can come to experience foreign objects as being part of the body, part of our selves). Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945), Phenomenology of Perception explains:

those actions in which I habitually engage incorporate their instruments into themselves and make them play a part in the original structure of my own body. (p. 104)

To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments. (p. 166)

Going further back to Heidegger we have an idea that tools (such as a hammer) can become almost invisible to us so long as they function properly. We feel as though our agency extends through such objects. Martin Heidegger (1927), Being and Time, explained:

The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific “manipulability” of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call “readiness-to-hand”.

Similarly, Merleau-Ponty (p. 176) gives the example of a blind man learning to use a walking cane:

Once the stick has become a familiar instrument, the world of feelable things recedes and now begins, not at the outer skin of the hand, but at the end of the stick… The pressures on the hand and stick are no longer given; the stick is no longer an object perceived by the blind man, but an instrument with which he perceives.

There are other accounts of similar processes in social theory. Marshall McLuhan (Playboy, 1969) expanded this notion even further, suggesting that electronic media are an extension of our entire central nervous system. He also talks about the experience of driving—how the car can dissolve into our consciousness and we can forget that we are even driving:

The electric media are the telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, all of which have not only extended a single sense or function as the old mechanical media did — i.e., the wheel as an extension of the foot, clothing as an extension of the skin, the phonetic alphabet as an extension of the eye — but have enhanced and externalized our entire central nervous systems, thus transforming all aspects of our social and psychic existence.

Perhaps most relevant is a 2012 dissertation by Amy Taylor about a man left impotent after treatment for prostate cancer and, to his surprise, he discovers that he can experience orgasm using a strap-on dildo with his wife.

[The patient went] from regarding the dildo as a “piece of purple plastic” to an “organ” of his own body, and experiences the dildo as such—evidenced not only by his explicit statements, but by his ability to achieve sexual satisfaction through the dildo, a striking example of an object working in concert with the body, or extending the body beyond the skin.

The most radical aspect of our ability to incorporate objects into the body is the recognition that human subjectivity extends beyond the flesh—that objects become part of us—part of our perception of the world and part of our perception of ourselves. We generally describe such incorporated objects as “prostheses,” and we have argued that this is how we have come to relate to our social media profiles and our smartphones. It’s why when someone makes a negative comment, we feel hurt; and if they hack our accounts, we feel violated; and if we lend our phone to someone, we feel uneasy. These objects have become “digital prostheses.”

And, like Heidegger’s hammer, when these technologies work well, they seem to nearly vanish from our perception, creating the possibility for intimacy—for meaningful connection (perhaps one that is even felt physically) between two (or more) people. This perspective suggests that if we are going to makes sense of revenge porn as assaulting a person (and not just as an inappropriate use of property), then we to stop reifying conventionally held boundaries between subject and object; producer and product; person and thing—and I’d say even online and offline. The concept of digital prostheses suggests an extension of moral regard beyond flesh and blood to all things a person experiences as integral to his or her subjectivity.

This concept follows in the footsteps of Sandy Stone (“Split Subjects, Not Atoms; or, How I Fell in Love with My Prosthesis,” 1994), who also examined the intimacy of our relationships with machines. In her observation of a phone sex collective, she suggests “what was being sent back and forth over the wires wasn’t just information, it was bodies.”

Stone coined the term “split” subjectivity to describe subjectivity embodied by two or more media. In other words, phone sex operators were not only embodied by flesh and blood but also by the medium through which they worked. She concludes that new media are forcing us to reimagine where the bounds of self stops and starts:

virtual systems are [perceived as] dangerous because the agency/body coupling so diligently fostered by every facet of our society is in danger of becoming irrelevant

However, rather than emphasizing the distinctiveness of the materials that mediate our experience (as Stone does), I think it is more useful to emphasize the coherence and continuity of that experience, so (drawing on past work with Whitney Erin Boesel), I prefer to describe this state as “augmented subjectivity.”

One chief assumption of this perspective is that all interactions and experiences are mediated. Flesh itself is a medium. No interactions are any more or less “real” than others, just differently mediated.

Bodily Integrity as an Alternate Framework to Privacy or Context Integrity

We need to expand our sense moral regard to accommodate the new, digital-mediated reality confronting us. In particular, I believe that the conversation about non-consensual pornography needs to be recentered from property rights, or even privacy, to the concept of “bodily integrity.” Helen Nissenbaum’s (2004) work on “context integrity” is an important bridge concept here. She observes new surveillance and information technologies strain conventional notions of privacy. When it was assumed that surveillance technologies were bulky and limited in scope,

public surveillance is determined not to be a privacy problem. Because this conclusion is at odds with the intuition and judgment of many people, it warrants more than simple dismissal.

Nissenbaum suggests that, rather than ignoring these concerns, we need a new model—a paradigm shift—that can account for them. (This, of course, is exactly what we are suggesting is needed to address the sense of violation experienced by victims of non-consensual pornography). Her concept of “context integrity” suggests that, when considering whether it is proper to collect or share information, we need to consider norms about what sort of information is appropriate in various spaces as well as how freely the information was expected to flow when it was initially disclosed. Important to our discussion of non-consensual pornography, Nissenbaum observes “appropriating information from one situation and inserting it in another can constitute a violation.”

While the disruption of context integrity is one aspect of why the experience of non-consensually sharing of nude or sexually suggestive images is so violating, it does not fully account for the intensity of this experience of violation. To understand this, we need to also consider bodily integrity.

The concept of bodily integrity assume that we have a privileged relationship to our own bodies—a right to determine what happens to them and, above all, how other people relate to them.

After the Celebgate release of private nude images stolen from her computer, Jennifer Lawrence spoke out about her experience in a way that gets to the heart why digital images are an issue of bodily integrity

Those pictures were incredibly personal to me — and my naked body I haven’t shown on camera by choice — it’s my body. I felt angry at websites reposting them. … I can’t really describe to you the feeling that took a very long time to go away, wondering at any point who is just passing my body around. Who’s got a picture of my body on their phone and is at a barbecue and looking at them. It was an unshakable, really awful feeling that after it healed a little bit made me incredibly angry.

Lawrence identifies with the photos not just as something she’s created and put out into the world but as “my body”—something that is still part of her. This loss of control over self left her shaken.

Though women celebrities like Lawrence are accustomed to being publicly objectified, she makes it clear that having images of her body shared without consent felt profoundly violating. This experience of violation is likely even more profound for people who are less accustomed to public exposure. Nevertheless, people of all types—and, particularly, women—are increasingly likely to be victims of non-consensual pornography.

What this discussion, and the concept of digital prostheses, suggests is that our pictures and profiles are not merely representations of us; rather, they are us, in some important sense. As such, they merit greater respect and protection than can be provided by laws and norms against privacy—or even context—violations. We must treat non-consensual pornography as a matter of bodily integrity.

* Download crosstabs to find these statistics.


PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is a Founding Editor at Cyborgology and a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. 

Like raising kids, there is no handbook that tells you how to make the thousands of decisions and judgment calls that shape what a conference grows into. Seven year into organizing the Theorizing the Web conference, we’re still learning and adapting. In years past, we’ve responded to feedback from our community, making significant changes to our review process (e.g., diversifying our committee and creating a better system to keep the process blind) as well as adopting and enforcing an anti-harassment policy.

This year, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to ensure that presentations respect the privacy of the populations they are analyzing and respect the context integrity of text, images, video, and other media that presenters include in their presentations. I want to offer my take—and, hopefully, spark a conversation—on this important notion of “context integrity” in presenting research.

In “Privacy as Contextual Integrity,” Helen Nissenbaum observes that each of the various roles and situations that comprise our lives has “a distinct set of norms, which governs its various aspects such as roles, expectations, actions, and practices” and that “appropriating information from one situation and inserting it in another can constitute a violation.” It’s often social scientists’ job to take some things out of context and bring understanding to a broader audience. But, how we do that matters.

The ethical challenge for social scientists who use methods that remove information from its context (such as observation or content analysis) is figuring out how to still respect the norms of that context as well as the dignity of the people who are a part of it. We have not always done this well. Early anthropologists and sociologists were complicit in racism and colonialism. In my field of sex work research, previous generations of social scientists distorted or ignored sex workers’ own narratives to such a degree that sex work community, as a whole, remains skeptical of researchers.

Let’s consider a concrete example of how taking information out of context for research purposes can prove problematic: Laud Humphreys’ “Tearoom Trade” study. Humphreys described the sex habits of a community of gay men who met in certain public bathrooms. In the process of observing the men, he took down their license plate numbers and later visited their homes to conduct a health survey (which he posed as unrelated). Most of the criticism aimed at the study concerned how Humphreys used deception and risked outing individual men by collecting and storing identifiable data. This latter issue is often framed as a violation of privacy. However, I think this only gets at some of what was wrong with the Humphreys study, and I’d like to suggest that this case actually points to the limits of privacy as foundation for ethical decision-making in research.

Notably, the most sensitive information was obtained in public spaces, while the primary risk was exposure to the private (i.e., home/family) sphere. Already, this troubles conventional privacy discourses that tend to frame exposure as a uni-directional flow of information from private to public. Rather than seeing privacy and publicity as a simple dichotomy in which only that which is private is at risk of being exposed to that which is public, we might take Nissenbaum’s suggestion and frame our lives as consisting of numerous, sometimes overlapping social spheres with different norms of disclosure. From this perspective, the problem with the Humprey’s study is that it collapsed these contexts in potentially harmful ways. For example, though he altered his appearance, Humprey’s subjects would likely have been distressed to have him in their homes if they to recognized him from the tearooms. Worse yet, by taking information and observations out of the specific context of the tearooms (where he was assumed to be just another participant), Humprey’s research posed an existential threat to the community, making the men more susceptible to public moralizing and police actions.

It’s a staple of qualitative method courses to discuss how observation changes behavior. Part of the reason is that research, itself, is a context in which norms of disclosure may be different than other social situations. In the Humphreys study, subjects’ behavior and responses may have been completely different had they known they were participating in a research study—in fact, many men likely would have opted out altogether. This is something we should ask ourselves when presenting any data: “If the research subjects knew the manner in which I am presenting their information, would it change what they share?” To share data in a way that ignores the implicit norms and expectations of the context in which the information was shared is, at best, negligent and, at worse, exploitative (i.e., using someone else in pursuit of one’s own goals).

Data collection via the Web, further highlights why the concept of context integrity is a desirable alternative to the conventional public/private dichotomy. Researchers are sometimes tempted to believe that, because something is public (i.e., searchable on the Web), it is fair game for them to use as they wish (regardless of a site’s norms or the user’s original intent); but, such thinking is often rooted in a slippage between what information can be collected and held as a matter property rights and what is useable as a matter of ethics. Part of the problem is that discourse around public/private information has been incorporated into the market logic of copyright law. According to this logic anything done in public (legally defined as that which lacks “a reasonable expectation of privacy”) can be captured and become the property of whomever recorded it.* However, establishing ownership of data does not intrinsically imply that it’s ethical to share that data. In fact, IRB’s regularly compel researchers to destroy identifiable data that they rightfully own. Simply saying “well, it was public” and, therefore, legally obtained, in no way excuses harm done by placing information in another context.

To think about what context integrity means for Web-related research, it may be useful to consider a second case (one with parallels to the tearooms Humphreys observed): namely, hookup/dating sites like Grindr, Tindr, Fetlife, SwingLifeStyle, Craigslist. These sites are publicly accessible, and it is extraordinarily easy to capture screenshots from them (or even to systematically scrape data). Such research activities may violate terms of service, but they certainly aren’t violations of criminal law. So, assuming for a moment that a scenario exists where it is both legal and ethical to attain information about a hookup/dating site’s users, the question is then: How do we determine what aspects of this “public” information can ethically be shared by researchers?

Nissenbaum’s theory of context integrity suggests that we should look to the norms of disclosure on sites and try to remain consistent with them. Specifically, we might infer that users only intended for the personal information on their profiles to be seen by potential dates. These profiles may contain information about their sex life or relationship status (e.g., non-monogamy) that they would not want to share with family or co-workers. In fact, some may obscure their faces or certain other personal details as an additional precaution against their information leaking into another context.

The obvious conclusion in this case, then, is that sharing any potentially identifiable information (images, location, unique stories, etc.) would fail to respect the implicit assumptions made by users in posting their data. But, even if personal information can’t easily be linked back to the user, it may still be unsettling to see intimate things taken out of context. Moreover, we shouldn’t assume that de-identified aggregate level data is intrinsically benign; it can still, potentially, violate context integrity (as the “Tearoom Trade” study demonstrated). Increasing general attention to a site can have negative consequences, outing communities writ large. We saw this just last week with FetLife as increased attention (much resulting from the Fifty Shade of Grey craze) led to the banning of many sorts of content from the site after credit card companies threatened to stop processing payments unless things they objected to were removed.

This isn’t to say that all research into hookup/dating sites is ethically dubious, just that, in such sensitive cases, no disclosure should go without careful consideration and scrutiny. It’s the researcher’s job to anticipate the consequences of bringing information into another context and to mitigate whatever risks this transfer entails.

Finally, we need to pay special to the most sensitive cases: namely, those where the subject matter involves victims (e.g., research into police violence, sexual assault, revenge porn, etc.). When the context in which the information originates is an instance of violation, humiliation, and/or violence, circulation of certain pieces of this information (e.g., names, images, specific acts, etc.) may amplify this harm, re-victimizing the target. If there is any reason to believe that a research subject (or subjects) might be embarrassed to have a piece of information shared in conference setting and the connection to the subject cannot be anonymized, pseudonymized, or otherwise obscured, then I think that obtaining explicit consent is the way to go. This is doubly important for vulnerable populations.

In reflecting on “Tearoom Trade” study and considering how the lessons learned from it might apply to current research on hookup/dating site, I’ve suggested that both privacy and ownership are weak ethical frameworks for information sharing practices; much harm could be avoided by, instead, centering ethical consideration on context integrity and consent. In particular, I think it’s important to recognize research as its own context and that the basic purpose of methods such as observation and content analysis is to pull information out of their original context. While one-size-fits-all rules are difficult to establishe (given the wide variety of contexts explored by social scientific research), I’ve suggested that sharing sensitive information disclosed in other contexts (including images and audio) merits careful consideration and usually requires protections (such as de-identification) and/or explicit consent.

*Criminals laws regulating public recording vary by state and local municipality.

PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is a sociology PhD candidate writing about the experiences of sex cam models.

A review of Future Sex (2016) by Emily Witt.

Emily Witt’s (2016) book Future Sex chronicles her search for sexual self-realization as a New Yorker in her early 30s migrating to tech-centered San Francisco. The book is based both in interviews and personal experiences, stringing vignettes together into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Meditation, Internet porn, and Burning Man. In this review, I highlight the chapter on her Cam sites experience.

But first, I will start with a broad overview. A major theme in the book is the kind of existential angst that comes from having too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the limitless range of sexual partners and practices—first made possible by the sexual revolution, and then by the Internet. She (p. 12) explains:

What if love failed us? Sexual freedom had now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I was unhappy.

Witt spent her early adult life wanting to find enduring love—and possibly even marriage—viewing this as an escape from the cycle of causal sexual arrangements, occasionally punctuated by periods of monogamy, that has up until now defined her romantic life. But Witt’s desires conflict with the world she inhabits, as Millennial sexual norms privilege freedom over security in relationships. She (pp.11-2) describes why security remains desirable, even as the Internet opens ever more possibilities:

The expansion of sexuality outside of marriage had brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of feelings. Even as I settled for freedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous destiny. My sense of rightness, after the failed experiments of earlier generations, was like the reconstructions of a baroque national monument that was destroyed by a bomb [but] another kind of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in empty space.

In questioning these new romantic configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what social theorists Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman respectively describe as “pure relationships” and “liquid love.” Both authors suggest that the ideal of unconditional commitment has been supplanted by constant negotiation and the criterion of mutual benefit. And, even in coupling, individuality remains central.

Lacking a secure, committed relationship in the old mold, Witt sets out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less conventional situations. As turns out, it is in the chapter on “Live Webcams” that Witt does the most theoretical work to explain why seeking diverse experiences—the project of the book—might aid in her quest for sexual self-realization. In particular, she points to an essay in the book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by the gay African-American author Samuel D. Delany about the time he spent having anonymous sex in porno theaters. Witt (p. 126) summarizes the essay:

[Delany] describe[d] the benefits of his vast experience in casual sex. The movie theaters had served as laboratories in which he had learned to discern the nuances and spectrum of his sexual desire… His observations about sexual attraction consistently disproved conventional notions of beauty and ugliness. (He discovered, among other proclivities, that he had a thing for Burly Irish-American men, including two who had hairlips.)

She quotes Delany who suggests we must “learn to find our own way of having sex sexy” and concludes:

I don’t see how this can be accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners… However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do that. This is a quintessentially social process…

Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mostly lands back where she started, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing an ideal of commitment as temporary:

I hope that married partnership would cease to be seen as a totalizing end point and instead become something more modest, perhaps am institutional basis for shared endeavors such as raising children or making art.

But this return to a somewhat conventional notion of romance proves to be the most interesting aspect of the book. Witt’s thinking about the freedom and diversity of experience available to the present generation seems to evolve. Rather than seeing the nearly infinite range of sexual possibilities as daunting, Witt ends up seeing it as an opportunity to experiment until one finds confidence and feels affirmed in their own desires. She (p. 204) says:

I found that… mostly I wanted to live in a world with a wider range of sexual identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of a single sexual model would continue to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, in the past fifty years.

Though she does not state it so explicitly, I would argue that Witt has uncovered an interesting dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may aid us in discovering what we find sexually desirable, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s established sexual desires, when new experience continually prove less satisfying and thus reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.

And, while final chapter wonders off a bit, I think the desirability of embracing this tension between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) conclusion of the book.


Following this theme of sexual exploration as a mechanism of self-realization, I now want to turn to the question of what camming teaches Witt about her own sexuality (and what we can learn about camming in the process). Witt (p. 114) describes her experiences with the popular camsite Chaturbate:

I first saw Chaturbate and the many other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technological evolution of peep show booths and phone sex lines. Like those, they had a performer and they had a voyeur… Then I spent more time on the site.

As she dives deeper into the site, Witt determines that the resemblances she observed between cam sites and other forms of sex work/performance were only superficial. The diversity and interactivity of cam sites set them apart.

Chaturbate was full of serendipity… the feeling of clicking through the 18+ disclaimer into the opening matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the mid-1990s, when music videos played most of the day and kept viewers captive in the anticipation of a favorite performer or a new discovery. Or maybe, to reach farther back in time, it recalled the earlier days of the Internet—the Internet of strangers rather than “friends.”

Witt’s decision to approach her subject matter through the lens of her own desire—as described in the first section of this review—proves both interesting and problematic in this chapter.

What makes Witt’s approach interesting is that, in bypassing the popular rooms that she largely finds uninteresting, she takes us to the margins of the sites, searching for the unexpected. This includes an Icelandic woman who strips wearing a rubber horse mask and fedora. In a passage representative of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt describes (pp. 112-3):

maybe it was the house that she was in or her high definition camera or a general characteristic of the Icelandic people but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita consumption of fish oils is high and citizens benefit from socialized health care.

Witt also describes a college-age women who talked about literature and made $1,500 doing a 24 hour marathon that featured much talking, some nudity, and no sex. A third woman suspended herself from a hook made of ice. And another woman held nude sex ed discussions.

Taking a cue from one of her interviewees, Witt describes the intended use of site—one or two performers broadcasting to many viewers in each room—as “mass intimacy.” But, the most interesting part of the chapter was Witt’s exploration into a culture that has emerged around using Chaturbate to facilitate unpaid, anonymous, 1-on-1 sex.

Assisted by two performers that she interviewed, she “multiperved” or “audio-Skyped with one another while sifting through videos online” (p. 124). Together, logged on to browse the countless pages of men streaming but being watched by no one. She describes (pp. 124-5):

not even the most popular men, instead clicking through to the second and third pages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in desk chairs… It turned out that they waited there for a reason… so that they will find someone who will cam-to-cam with them…

Witt (and her guides) come across a man she finds somewhat attractive, and she chats with him. The man quickly invites her to turn her cam on. She obliges and sets up a password-protected room so only he can see her. While Witt does not seem to find the encounter particularly rewarding, she (p. 125) does offer some insight into the value others find in the experience:

here, where hopes resided in the chance of an electronic encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its landing page, Chaturbate was thousands of men watching a few women, a couple pages in, the numbers changed to one or two people using Chaturbate to interact privately with another person.

Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology being used against the grain. It is a rougish activity for users to seek non-transactional intimate or sexual encounters on sites whose profits come from viewers purchasing tokens. While these sites afford such activity and do not prohibit it, they do not intend or explicitly condone it either. It is, perhaps, due to this lack control that sites likes Chaturbate remind Witt of the earlier Web.

While Witt’s examination of the margins of camming sites is revealing, she also, arguably, fails to represent most of what is going on these sites and is even somewhat dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she focuses on her desires as a thirty-something NYC writer, Witt sometimes displays a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird or edgy, it’s not seen as deserving attention.

Witt is also not a joiner. Her desire to experiment as part her own quest for sexual self-realization, drives her visit many places; but, for the most part, Witt does identify or feel a sense of belonging with the people she meets. She seems to participate only at a distance, viewing others as subjects as much as relationships. Witt (p. 172) describes her own relationship to a sex party she attends, saying “I was still thinking of myself as just a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone undertaking an abstract inquiry but not yet with true intention.” This distancing is valuable insofar as it brings with it a degree of objectivity (most other things written about Orgasmic Mediation, for example, sound like marketing copy); however, it also means she’s unable to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.

What’s missing in the chapter on camming—due to some combination of her hipster bias and lack of personal experience—is an examination of the many dimensions of creative labor that goes into producing evening the most normative-appearing shows. Had Witt tried modeling herself, this would be readily apparent. The seeming ease with which models embody normative desires is part of the work—part of the performance of authenticity.

A most troubling moment is when she uncritically relays one of her interviewee’s characterization of the top performers as “zombie hot girls” (p. 124). This privileging of the weird in porn feeds a kind of whorearchy, where certain forms of sex work/practice are denigrated as a way of validating others.

Witt certainly is not consciously anti-sex work. In the previous chapter, in fact, she offers a great deal of praise for the artistry women porn directors and producers, and she spends a significant time questioning her own beliefs shaped by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that embrace sex workers and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues that much fetish porn is a reaction or response to new taboos set up by anti-porn feminists.

Nevertheless, Witt does not seem to extend the interest and regard she has for women-directed studio porn to the women-directed performances of popular cam models. I’m certain they have unique insights and fascinating stories to tell.


Regardless of these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The future of sex cannot be reduced to a story of technological development but must be understood in terms of changing patterns of human relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America had a lot of respect for the future of objects, and less interest in the future of human arrangements.” For that reason alone, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.

PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist writing a dissertation on sex camming.

I need to start this essay by making one thing clear: I will not in any way suggest that cam girls or the work that they do is problematic. On the contrary, this essay is aimed at appreciating some of the complexity involved in this form of sex work. In particular, it examines how the culturally ubiquitous trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) shapes the expectations an audience might place on cammers (especially young cis-women cammers) and how cammers anticipate and capitalize on such expectations.

Sex work is a performance that requires anticipating and reflecting the desires of customers. Many sex workers have a specific role or act that they regularly return to whenever they are on the clock. In some cases, this may even involve what Arlie Hochschild (The Managed Heart, 1983) called “deep acting” (i.e., working to feel the desires or emotions required by a performance or to achieve a real connection with clients). However, the identities of sex workers are not reducible to these performances anymore than the personalities of flight attendants or waitresses are reducible to their interactions with customers. In Playing the Whore (2014, p. 86) Melissa Gira Grant explains:

Acting as if we share our customers’ desires is the work of sex work. But that’s not the same as allowing our customers to define our sexuality… [we need] to see off-the-clock sex workers as whole, as people who aren’t just here to fuck.

For many sex workers, performing at work involves manipulating the sexist assumptions they encounter throughout their lives so that they can actually benefit from them. For example, cammers often adopt the feminized role of dutiful listener because it gratifies customers who stick around and pay just to talk. In this way, sex workers present themselves as fantasy objects for men (at least temporarily). Grant observes (p. 90):

Sex workers know they are objectified; they move in the world as women too, and through their work they have to become fluent in the narrow and kaleidoscopic visions through which men would like to relate to them as sexual fantasies embodied.

Which fantasies women are expected to embody will, of course, vary based on the cultural assumptions of a particular time and place. And, given the increasing prominence of the MPDG in Hollywood films and other media, it seems likely that this trope is also becoming more commonplace in men’s individual fantasies. As such, it is something that sex workers will increasingly have projected on them and will increasingly respond to. But before I discuss how I think the MPDG trope is affecting sex work—and camming in particular—I need to review the characteristics that define the MPDG.

In his 2007 essay coining the term, Nathan Rabin explains:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.

Rabin later elaborates that the MPDG

seem[s] to belong in some magical, otherworldly realm — hence the “pixie”… a… carefree nymphet who is the accessory to [a male protaganist’s] character development. It’s an archetype… that taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done… a fancifully if thinly conceived flibbertigibbet who has no reason to exist except to cheer up one miserable guy.

He concludes that:

The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize.

In other words, the chief feature of the MPDG trope is the reduction of women to nothing more than props in a man’s quest for self-actualization.

Particularly relevant to sex workers encountering the MPDG trope is David Strohecker’s observation that what makes an MPDG so inspiring to the man at the center of a story is her propensity for breaking rules and norms. The rebellious nature of the MPDG appeals to men who are unsatisfied with their lives but unable to break out of their own habits and narrow view of the world. Strohecker explains:

Hollywood fetishizes the progressive, non-conformist type; the type of woman that has visible tattoos and body piercings, yet exudes a childlike glee and excitement about life. Why? Because such women serve as muses for young men, men in power, or soon-to-be heirs of privilege. They are accessible as cultural objects, things to be gazed at and amazed by. They may even be listened to, but only when seeking emotional support, inspiration, or hope.

While MPDG characters are portrayed as outsiders, sex workers occupy prominent outsider role in society: the role of whore. Whores defy the compulsory virtue society prescribes for women, choosing how and when to express their own sexuality. In Sex at the Margins (2007, p. 101), Laura Agustín explains that, when the term originated, the emphasis was on rule-breaking not just monetary exchange:

‘Whoring’ referred to sexual relations out of marriage and connoted immorality or promiscuity without the involvement of money, and the word whore was used to brand any women who stepped outside current boundaries of respectability… there was no word or concept which signified exclusively the sale of sexual services

Though the whore is stigmatized by society, she is also liberated—free to embrace other possible ways of being. Through the male gaze, women perceived as whores appear to be avenues of sexual possibility not open to men in the conventional relationships that they have reserved for “good girls.” And, in this sense, whores’ non-conformity—like that of the MPDG—may “inspire” or be “fetishized” by men who would treat them as a muse for their own (sexual) self-actualization. Of course, whores are not merely props for men’s self-actualization. In fact, it is women’s expression of their own sexual agency that, ironically, gets them branded as a whore.

The reason that the role of the whore is relevant to the MPDG is that the intrinsic non-conformity of the women who occupy this role makes them attractive to men looking to play out an MPDG fantasy. This tendency is further encouraged when women exhibit other visible markers of non-conformity: dyed hair, tattoos, uncommon piercings, symbols of non-mainstream tastes (bands, movies, books, etc.). And, it is encouraged even more when other traits of the MPDG (e.g., youth, bubbly personality, quirkiness) are present.

This brings us to the chief observation I want to make in this essay: Sex camming sites are full of young, bubbly, geeky, tattooed women with vividly-colored clothes, hair, and backdrops. This pattern is derivative of the MPDG trope—we might call it the “Manic Pixie Cam Girl”—and, I am suggesting that two things are happening to cause this: 1.) men have a propensity to imagine women occupying the whore role as muses who can help them in their quest for sexual self-actualization, and 2.) cammers are successfully exploiting this sexist male fantasy in their shows by selling an MPDG fantasy.

These are just broad observations, and only cammers themselves can speak to if and how much they have deliberately adopted the MPDG trope as a playbook. (In my experience, cammers are keenly aware of such trends and are creatively engaged with culture writ large.) What is certain is that cammers, along with their clients, are part of a shared cultural landscape where images of MPDGs feature prominently. Whether or not a cammer explicitly frames her performance in terms of the MPDG, this trope provides a script for interactions that both parties have been socialized to understand intuitively. And, this learned pattern of interactions is what Manic Pixie Cam Girls are very intentionally capitalizing on in their performances.

What, then, are we supposed to make of Manic Pixie Cam Girl trend?

Undoubtedly, some critics will argue that the Manic Pixie Cam Girls—like the MPDG trope—only reinforce the male fantasy that women are accessories or props that can be ignored when not immediately useful. In movies, relationships with MPDGs are almost always ephemeral—the male protagonist racing to get what he needs from an MPDG before repeated interactions force him to recognize her as something more than an object. And, perhaps, the transactional and contingent nature of cam interactions does seem to confirm the suspicions of these skeptics—after all, a viewer can just log off as soon as satisfaction is achieved.

But, unlike movies, camming is interactive, and these interactions are often ongoing, especially for regular customers. Over time, viewers see cammers’ moods vary. And, cammers often use social media to share events and life experiences with engaged audiences. Also unlike Hollywood, cammers are their own writers and directors—they control their own shows and make the ultimate decisions about when and what to perform. In all these ways, the MPDG-esque illusion of other-as-fetishized-muse may be harder to maintain on cam site. And, it is even quite possible that the audience likes it that way. After all, playing with and subverting conventional social roles is the basis of a wide range of kinks.

Beyond the question of women’s representation—whether Manic Pixie Cam Girls help or hurt the way women are perceived in general—is, perhaps, an even more important issue: How the individual women performing on cam are managing to pursue their own ambitions in a hetero-patriarchal society. And, I believe we ought to celebrate anyone who is able to turn that which is used to oppress them into an opportunity. By capitalizing on sexist male fantasies, MPCGs are doing just that.

PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is sociologist and cammer writing a dissertation sex camming.

Revised 1/24/17 to clarify some language.


With the 50th anniversary of the original series and impending debut of Star Trek: Discovery later this year, it seems like an ideal time to look back at how this franchise—which is so near and dear me and many of my fellow Cyborgologists—has imagined technology.

Those who grew up in the era of the recent J.J Abrams “reboot” series of action films, could be forgiven for thinking of the Star Trek universe is little more than a thin narrative strand binding together adrenaline hits in yet another forgettable instantiation of the timeless male fantasy of blowing shit up in space. But, in its prime, Star Trek’s cerebral nature and its relentless interrogation of moral and social values set it apart from other successful 20th Century space dramas like Star Wars or the original Battlestar Galactica series.

The original Star Trek series was notably progressive in employing women writers (primarily D.C. Fontana) and having a racially diverse cast, and it famously featured television’s first interracial kiss (which, speaking to the cerebral nature of the show, took place on a planet whose inhabitants where trying to enact the ideas of Plato’s Republic). Later series would push the envelope on media representation by featuring Black (DS9) and women (Voyager) captains. This opened the way to more explicit reflections of race and gender politics by the show’s characters.

Most significant, though, is the way that politics were baked into the setting of the Star Trek universe from the beginning. Creator Gene Roddenberry imagined that, with the elimination of material scarcity (and money along with it), 24th Century Earth would become a paradise. Having everything, humans would collectively turn away from the goal of accumulating wealth and toward the mutually intertwined goals of interplanetary exploration and self-realization. Roddenberry’s imagined future was a product of its time (i.e., the 1960s). The original series aired during the period of peak influence for Frankfurt School and other Freudo-Marxian theorists who were arguing that human potential could finally be realized now that techno-social innovations were on the cusp of providing whole of society sufficient resources to meet their basic biological needs. Once new technologies—and the unparalleled levels of productivity they promised to enable—made us all healthy and comfortable, we could turn our attention to higher order desires, such as the pursuit of knowledge and the search for meaning. This is the deep meaning of the series’ recurring introductory monologue:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Of course, it is naïve to imagine that, even in the absence of material scarcity, humans could put aside social and cultural difference (without any group being oppressed) and unite to explore the galaxy—even given the classic sci-fi trope that, once aliens appear on Earth (in this case, friendly Vulcans), differences between humans will seem small by comparison. However, this naiveté was only ever superficial—a way of disarming knee-jerk political reactions and evading prejudices by transposing human social dynamics onto our interactions with aliens. This was a particularly effective vehicle for social commentary during the periods that the original series (1966-69) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) ran, when television was still dominated by just a few risk-adverse networks.

Star Trek’s emphasis on exploration and discovery points not to a future of moral clarity and social harmony, but rather to one where our virtues are constantly tested—where personal contradictions and social conflicts perpetually emerge. This is what I understand David Banks to mean when he writes about utopianism in Star Trek:

Utopias… don’t just let us display the final result of a certain kind of politics, they let us interrogate the very foundations of our politics. They let us bring ideas to their logical and illogical conclusions and, in so doing, gives us a crucible in which to crush them up, mix them, and come up with brand new ideas. Utopic story telling should not be blind to anything: it should meet race, class, gender, and any other social structure head on and complicate it beyond comprehension. What comes out the other side should be a little unnerving, exciting, and dangerous. Exactly what the future should be.

I accept and agree with Banks’ perspective on the potential for radical utopias as imagined futures that facilitate our questioning of the present. And, his understanding certainly fits with Karl Mannheim’s classic definition that “a state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality in which it occurs” and “which, when they pass over into conduct, tend to shatter, either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing at the time.” But what Banks dismisses as failing to live up to the ideal of (radical) utopic storytelling, is still, I suggest, a form of utopianism; it is just a more naïve and insidious form of utopianism that imagines that there to be scientific solutions for social and moral problems. As such, these problems can be ignored as temporary setbacks, which will inevitably be resolved by the progressive arc of history and technological advancement.

Arguably, the first two Star Trek series, tended more toward this sort of naïve utopianism. Both series are deeply and fundamentally optimistic in their orientation toward technology. Despite the future’s inherent dangers, most problems are imagined to be resolvable with persistence and inventiveness. This unwavering faith in human ingenuity was Roddenberry’s trademark, and, as Banks notes, it is also a “box” that Star Trek’s writers only escaped from after his death.

In many episodes (from the first two series in particular), technical solutions act as a deus ex machina, eliminating any need for compromise or meaningful sacrifices on the part of the crew. These instances a parodied in the Voltaire song “USS Make Shit Up” whose chorus goes:

Bounce a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish
That’s the way we do things lad, we’re making shit up as we wish
The Klingons and the Romulans pose no threat to us
‘Cause if we find we’re in a bind we just make some shit up.

Technological deus ex machina may have worked as a in individual episodes as a useful mechanism, allowing writers to introduce scenarios that pose interesting questions without needing to answer those questions or connect all the dots relating them back to contemporary moral and social issues; however, it also created a broader meta-narrative of technological solutionism throughout the series. In other words, this narrative pattern encourages naïve utopian expectations that moral and social issues will be resolved by technological innovation, rather than moral or social insights and decision-making.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the first of the post-Roddenberry series. What makes it unique (and, in my estimation, the most creative and theoretically interesting show in the franchise’s history) is deliberate departure from the technological and moral solutionism of its predecessors. DS9 imagined a world were failure was a real possibility and success often came at a price.

Technology in DS9 is often hostile. Unlike the Starship Enterprise which is portrayed as the pinnacle of human inventiveness, Deep Space Nine is a war trophy won from the Cardassians and was previously used to enslave members of the crew and their kin. Rather than a symbol of hope, it is a symbol of oppression—or was. Nothing in DS9 is so one-sided. Despite being uncomfortable, alien, and dangerous, the space station also becomes home; it also becomes the last bastion of hope in humanity’s struggle to preserve its freedom.

Most significant, DS9 does not take an intrinsically optimistic or pessimistic stance toward technology, nor does it adopt the facile view that technology is neutral or value free. Instead, DS9 approaches technology with profound ambivalence, understanding that our relationship to technology is always a matter of human (or alien) values. Innovation is not always bad, but more innovation is not always better.

The episode, “Armageddon Game” is an excellent example of how this ambivalent relationship to technology plays out. The crew agrees to help two alien races cement a peace deal by figuring how to destroy the advanced biological weapons that both alien species had developed during their long war. On the surface, a degree of ambivalence is apparent in this narrative: Technological innovation has produced these terrible weapons, but it is also the solution for getting rid of them. Despite this superficial ambivalence, however, the narrative, without further development, would resolve into a “yay, science” moment, where, though technological innovation did create some problems (i.e., genocide), we can rest comfortably in knowing that such problems are nothing that can’t be solved with a little more innovation.

Instead of following this kind of pat techno-solutionist narrative, the episode takes a darker, more sophisticated turn: Once the weapons are destroyed, the two alien governments jointly undertake a plot to assassinate all the scientists involved with the project (including an attempt on a pair of the show’s protagonists, who barely manage to escape). The aliens believe that any technical knowledge of the weapons is too dangerous to exist and that peace depends on undoing the technological (weapons) development that has previously occurred. In other words, the aliens believe that the solution to the problem posed by the existence of these weapons is to simultaneously advance and turn back technological development. By presenting the aliens as having such an ambivalent relationship with technology—as neither single-mindedly embracing technological solutionism or skepticism—the episode pivots toward a much deeper conversation about values: What is the worth of an individual life and how much risk should a society tolerate for the sake of one person? These are not questions that the crew–or anyone–can answer (or render irrelevant) through innovation. Technology cannot save us from ourselves.

This echoes the observations of early-20th Century sociologist Max Weber, who argued that, despite the modernist impulse to put faith in reason, science and technology can never enable us to escape the need for moral judgements. Virtues are matters of faith, a different order of knowledge than empirical data or objective reasoning. These virtues—whether received are chosen—cannot be proven but only accepted or denied. Most importantly to a show about aliens—who, inevitably, are proxies for competing aspects of our own humanity—meaning is only realized in light of what we choose not to do or be. He explains (“Objectivity in Social Science,” 1904):

The fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. It must recognize that general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals which are just as sacred to others as ours are to us.

Both Weber and DS9 (throughout its many episodes) demonstrate what might be described as an existentialist orientation: To affirm ourselves—both in our individuality and our humanity—we must make moral choices—choices of consequence that affirm one way of being at the expense of foreclosing other possible ways of being. The illusion of naïve techno-utopianism—whether pedaled by Silicon Valley or the earlier incarnations of the Star Trek franchise—is that technology offers an escape from morality; that we can innovate our way out of having to make choices or sacrifices that affirm our values; that technology will allow us to transcend the need for morality so that we can, somehow, live a life that is amoral without being immoral.

A second DS9 episode (my personal favorite) shatters the illusion that this sort of naïve, amoral utopia is possible, even in the imagined Star Trek universe. The episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” begins with news that humans and their allies are losing a war for their freedom against a vast interstellar empire known as the Dominion. Captain Sisko believes humanity’s only hope is to draw the Romulans (who have long been enemies) into war on their side. He recruits an exiled former spy named Garak to aid him in a plot to forge a recording that ostensibly proves that the Dominion is planning a sneak attack on the Romulans. When Sisko asks Garak to aid him in carrying out this plot, Garak responds:

It may be a very messy, very bloody business. Are you prepared for that?

The captain pulls strings to have an expert forger named Grathon Tolar released from jail so that he can assist them. He also pays bribes and deals in contraband in order to obtain the necessary technology. Once complete, Sisko arranges a secret meeting with a Romulan senator who, despite all Sisko’s efforts and moral compromises, scrutinizes the message and determines that it is, in fact, a forgery. Persistence and inventiveness have not paid off for Sisko, and these efforts only convince us that it was unrealistic to ever believe a technical solution was possible.

What makes the episode most interesting is that it turns out not to be a simplistic morality tale about crime and punishment; instead, it creates a scenario of moral ambivalence in addition to technological ambivalence. Once the forgery is discovered, the ambassador is furious and leaves the station. Shortly thereafter, his ship explodes, apparently sabotaged by the Dominion. The Romulans recover the forged message rod from the ship’s wreckage, which they fail to carefully examine because they already blame the Dominion for the assassination. It convinces them to join the war on the side of the humans. The episode ends with a revelation that Garak had in fact planted the bomb and planned to assassinate the ambassador all along, because he believed the stakes were too high to place faith in the forgery (i.e., the technical fix). He also murdered Grathon Tolar, the forger. The real revelation, however, is that Sisko picked Garak to help him because, in the back of his mind, he knew Garak would do anything necessary to ensure they succeeded in drawing the Romulans into the war. Garak calls Sisko out, saying:

That’s why you came to me, isn’t it, captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing. Well it worked. And you’ll get what you want: A war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And, if your conscious is bothering you, you should sooth it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a bargain.

Sisko then closes the episode reflecting to himself:

I lied, I cheated, I bribed a man to cover the crimes of other men, I am an accessory to murder. The most damning thing of all: I think I can live with it. And, if I had to do it all over again, I would… a guilty conscious is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant, so I will learn to live with it

At this pivotal moment in the story arc of the entire series, technology cannot save humanity, but lies and murder can. If technological solutionism is the naïve belief that humans can invent their way out of moral and social problems, existential entitlement is a parallel belief that all moral conflicts can be solved without sacrifice or compromise. Of course, Sisko would have preferred another option—an easy technological or moral fix—but such solutions are not guaranteed in radical utopias such as DS9 and are certainly not guaranteed in reality.

Zygmunt Bauman

Earlier this week, I posted a remembrance of the ways Zygmunt Bauman influenced us here at Cyborgology. In this post, I reflect on–and attempt to further develop–some of the aspects of Bauman’s thought that may be useful to us as we continue our work theorizing digital media.

Two things I most admired about Zygmunt Bauman were his ability to relate his theories to current events (even as he aged into his 90s) and the way he always manage to connect social theory and moral philosophy–how to achieve justice as a society and lead a good life as an individual.

To the former point, Bauman was remarkably prolific up until his final days. In a 2016 interview that sets the tone for my reflection here, he argued:

most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap. You should only trust some authorized sites for checking reviews.

This notion of social media as a pleasurable trap–and how Bauman comes to understand it this way–is the lens through which I would like to review his sizable body of work.


Pleasurable Traps: Beyond the Panopticon

The final decade and a half of Bauman’s life was, almost obsessively, devoted to developing his concept of liquidity “as the leading metaphor for the present stage of the modern era” (Liquid Modernity, p. 2). Early modernity was largely concerned with the development of enduring structures that could control space for extended periods of time. Nation states and prisons exemplify how control was tied to spatial relations in early modernity. Late, “liquid” modernity, however, is distinguished by accelerated movement of both information and material objects. Rigid structures tied to particular spaces become less important than the movement of the flows that pass easily between them. Bauman explains (Liquid Modernity, pp. 10-11):

the long effort to accelerate the speed of movement has presently reached its ‘natural limit’. Power can move with the speed of the electronic signal – and so the time required for the movement of its essential ingredients has been reduced to instantaneity. For all practical purposes, power has become truly exterritorial, no longer bound, not even slowed down, by the resistance of space… It does not matter any more where the giver of the command is – the difference between ‘close by’ and ‘far away’… has been all but cancelled.

This being the case, Bauman argues that we need to move beyond the theoretic frameworks used to make sense of control in early modernity–most significantly, we need to move beyond the metaphor of the panopticon described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. The guards of liquid modernity can watch from anywhere and the prisoners can be watched anywhere. Bauman explains (Liquid Modernity, p. 10) that panoptic control is

burdened with… handicaps… It is an expensive strategy: conquering space and holding to it as well as keeping its residents in the surveilled place… [rapid movement] gives the power-holders a truly unprecedented opportunity: the awkward and irritating aspects of the panoptical technique of power may be disposed of. Whatever else the present stage in the history of modernity is, it is… above all, post-Panoptical.

Though not without its flaws, Bauman’s 2013 collaboration with David Lyon, titled Liquid Surveillance, most forcibly made the case that we need to move beyond the metaphor of the panopticon if we truly hope to understand how the relationship between visibility and control works in the age of social media. A decade earlier in Liquid Modernity, Bauman (drawing on Thomas Mathiesen), had already suggested we examine “synoptic” power structures, where the many now watch the few but the few still maintain influence over the many by producing spectacles for the many to consume. Liquid Surveillance pushes the conversation a step further, suggesting we consider “ban-optic” power structures (a term coined by Didier Bigo), which, unlike the panopticon, are not confined to a specific institution but are applied to society– and even the global population–as a whole. The fundamental mechanism behind ban-optic structures is social sorting by way of profiling and algorithmic prediction. The ban-opticon pressures us to conform to normalized patterns of behavior or else be categorized as a potential threat and, thus, subjected to greater surveillance and diminished rights. Perhaps even more concerning, ban-optic power structures often draw boundaries of exclusion based on involuntary categories such as race, citizenship, or genetic markers. These discussions of the ban-opticon now seems prescient as we transition toward a Trump presidency.

While these were important insights, I would argue that it is not what Bauman explicitly said here about surveillance that is most significant, but the discussions that his worked helped open the door to.

First, the conversation about surveillance and social media has finally moved past the metaphor of the panopticon. Excellent books like David Savat’s Uncoding the Digital [my review] are attempting to develop entirely new frameworks for understanding more fluid forms of surveillance. Bauman stretches the concept of the synopticon almost beyond recognizability to the point that his recent work all but begs for new conceptual tools. Further development of terms like “omniopticon” (used by Nathan Jurgenson and George Ritzer to describe many-many surveillance dynamics) are still sorely needed.

Second, we we have begun to see that the model of surveillance is no longer an iron cage but a velvet one–it is now sought as much as it is imposed. Social media users, for example, are drawn to sites because they offer a certain kind of social gratifaction that comes from being heard or known. Such voluntary and extensive visibility is the basis for a seismic shift in the way social control operates–from punitive measures to predictive ones. Bauman explains (Liquid Surveillance, pp. 65-66):

With the carrot (or its promise) replacing the stick, temptation and seduction taking over the functions once performed by normative regulation, and the grooming and honing of desires substituting for costly and dissent-generating policing… I would rather abstain from using the term ‘panopticon’ in this context. The professionals in question are anything but the old-fashioned surveillors watching over the monotony of the binding routine; they are rather trackers or stalkers of the exquisitely changeable patterns of desires and of the conduct inspired by those volatile desires.

The imposing nature of the panopticon is rapidly being designed out of surveillance technologies, and Silicon Valley’s goal of “frictionless” sharing on social media exemplifies this trend. Social control, itself, has become more adaptive and individualized–more fluid–and Bauman’s work gives us a language to talk about this.

Pleasurable traps depend on this sort of fluidity; they must adjust themselves to most efficiently channel the desires and behaviors of each individual. When effective, such traps are not experienced as an imposition but as opportunity. In his most hyperbolic moments, Bauman made statements such as:

we no longer employ technology to find the appropriate means for our ends, but we instead allow our ends to be determined by the available means of technology. We don’t develop technologies to do what we want to be done. We do what is made possible by technology.

If we take this too seriously, we might conclude that Bauman believed we have all become dupes. But, he, himself, gives us tools to understand why this is not so.

Bauman suggests that–following modernity’s failure to divide the world up into definite and enduring categories–ambiguity and ambivalence define post-modern logic. It is useful to think about pleasurable traps as being ambivalent to our ends/desires. Ambivalence is necessary to achieve flexibility. There is no singular, ideal way to be ensnared. Pleasurable traps modulate themselves to be the means to many different ends; they only encourage users to adapt when they reach the limits of their own adaptability. And, they only tend to bar entry when they exhaust efforts to co-adapt with the user.

Returning to the example of social media, platforms generally attempt to maximize their user base. They may encourage happy posts but will happily accept all your uncle’s political rants. They may encourage you, time and again, to fill out your “about me” information, but will let you get away with leaving most things blank. They may encourage you to friend or follow an ex, but will also allow you to perpetually ignore these suggestions. They may even tolerate some rule-breaking (e.g., Facebook’s real name policy) in order to keep users in the system. Generally speaking, the only things that can get you barred from a platform is if you either drive other users away or if you engage in sabotage.

Part I summary: As the paradigmatic example of a pleasurable trap–the form of social control native to liquid modernity–social media is highly flexible in adapting itself to individual users and is largely ambivalent to their desires.

Hansel and Gretel

Pleasurable Traps as Post-Modern Sorcery and Enchantment

Bauman’s discussions of liquidity and surveillance were not, themselves, the primary focus of his work, but rather pieces of a much larger legacy of theorizing social control–a legacy that begins with his defining work on Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman did not view the Holocaust as an aberration in Western history or a setback in its progress; instead, he saw it as modernity’s logical conclusion. Bauman was deeply critical of modernity and its relentless pressure to rationalize and control the world; he likened it to a gardener who establishes order only by eliminating that which does not fit neatly into their prescribed categories. In Bauman’s words (Modernity and the Holocaust, p. 18):

the bureaucratic culture which prompts us to view society as an object of administration, as a collection of so many ‘problems’ to be solved, as ‘nature’ to be ‘controlled’, ‘mastered’ and ‘improved’ or ‘remade’, as a legitimate target for ‘social engineering’, and in general a garden to be designed and kept in the planned shape by force (the gardening posture divides vegetation into ‘cultured plants’ to be taken care of, and weeds to be exterminated), was the very atmosphere in which the idea of the Holocaust could be conceived, slowly yet consistently developed, and brought to its conclusion.

Bauman contrasts the early modern logic of control embodied by the gardener with the pre-modern figure of the gamekeeper–who assumes order to be intrinsic to the nature of things according to a divine plan–and with the post-modern figure of the hunter–who tries capture as many trophies as they can without concern for the nature of the landscape, the future existence of the game, or even other hunters. Bauman suggests we now live, predominantly, in a would of hyper-individualistic hunters (“Living in Utopia,” p. 5):

we would need to try really hard to spot a gardener who contemplates a predesigned harmony beyond the fence of his private garden and then goes out to bring it about. We certainly won’t find many gamekeepers with similarly vast interests… That increasingly salient absence is called ‘deregulation’.

Returning now to the idea of a pleasurable trap, Bauman unwittingly seems to be pushing us beyond the metaphor of a hunter who cares nothing for the landscape. Liquid modernity, as exemplified by social media, does, in fact, feature figures who are deeply concerned with the landscape: these the are the engineers behind all the platforms and algorithms that allow pleasurable traps to modulate themselves to the desires of each user.

Extending Bauman’s metaphors, I suggest we add the figure of the sorcerer, who conjures up an illusory landscape tailored to the desires of each passerby. The sorcerer’s conjured landscape is fluid but ensnares that which flows through it (at least temporarily). The sorcerer also uses their power to banish enemies. The magic of the conjured landscape is that it not only lures desirable victims in, but also that acts as a barrier keeping undesirable victims out. The sorcerer does not replace the hunter; rather, sorcerer hunts the hunter, preying on their individual desires–each conjured landscape filled with attractive game likely to lure the hunter in.

The pleasurable trap is a conjured landscape–a creation of the sorcerer, a site of enchantment. Interestingly, enchantment is another concept Bauman uses to describe post-modernity (Intimations of Postmodernity, p. x) :

postmodernity can be seen as restoring to the world what modernity, presumptuously, had taken away; as a re-enchantment of… the world that modernity tried hard to dis-enchant

Bauman further explains that, in a re-enechanted world, “the mistrust of human spontaneity, of drives, impulses and inclinations resistant to prediction and rational justification, has all but been replaced by the mistrust of the unemotional, calculating reason” (Postmodern Ethics, p. 33). Using this langauge, we can say that pleasurable traps are pleasurable because they have been re-enchantmented–they allow for individual expression and meaning-making, unlike previous apparatuses of control.

But, the “re-” in “re-enchantment” is key, here, and Bauman seems to forget that at times. Enchantment cannot return us to a pre-modern state. Contrary to Bauman’s previous quote, predictibility–and rationalization, for that matter–still remain key aspects of post-modernity; they have just imploded with–or, perhaps, been concealed by–less rational, less modern ways of being. Expanding on Bauman, George Ritzer (Enchanting a Disenchanted World, p. 70) observes that “efforts at reenchantment may, themselves, be rationalized from the very beginning”; he (ibid, p. 7) describes these re-enchanted systems as “‘cathedrals of consumption’–that is, they are structured, often successfully, to have an enchanted, sometimes even sacred, religious character… to offer, or at least appear to offer increasingly magical, fantastic, and enchanted settings in which to consume.” Whether we call them “conjured landscapes,” “cathedrals of consumptions,” or “pleasurable traps,” these concepts all point our attention toward rationalized structures that have been re-enchanted.

Of particular relevance to our main case of interest–i.e., social media–Ritzer notes that “rather than having their consumption orchestrated by people like advertising executives and directors of cathedrals of consumption, it may be that it is consumers who are in control” (Enchanting a Disenchanted World, p. 75). That is not to say that users/consumers/hunters are in absolute control; but, their desires do determine the shape that these conjured landscapes take and their willingness to continually pass through such pleasurable traps incentivizes sorcerers to continue to conjurer them.

In this way, pleasurable traps implode rationality and irrationality, freedom and control. This implosion–the capacity to embody contradiction–is the true magic–the spell post-modernity hath cast.

Part II summary: Though they are still rational at their core, what differentiates pleasurable traps (such as social media) from early modern forms of social control (such as the panopticon) is that they have been re-enchanted; individual freedom for expression and meaning-making are now essential to their functioning. To Bauman’s list of metaphorical figures (i.e., the gamekeeper, gardener, and hunter), we can add the sorcerer, who represents the powers that conjure these re-enchanted apparatuses into being.


Readers interested in social theory will likely have heard the news of Zygmunt Bauman’s death earlier this week. Bauman was influential to many of us at Cyborgology. His ideas have been cited in numerous posts throughout the past six years, particularly in the early days of the blog, when Nathan Jurgenson and I were studying his work with our advisor George Ritzer. As a small memorial to Bauman, I want to take a moment to look back at some of the ways he inspired us. (I’ve even included a couple quotes from Sociology Lens, where Nathan and I got our start as bloggers!)

Facebook, The Transumer and Liquid Capitalism

by Nathan Jurgenson

Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquidity” thesis about our late-modern world becoming more fluid seems relevant in light of the “transumer” and “virtual commodities”, both having received recent attention… “Stuff”, for many, is decreasingly allowed to solidify on our shelves and in our attics, instead flowing in a more liquid and nimble sense through consumers’ lives… the trend is towards “lighter” exchange as opposed to the solid and heavier exchange of physical goods. Microsoft was Bauman’s example of “light capitalism”, producing light products such as software, which is, opposed to heavier items such as automobiles, more changeable and disposable.

Weightless Capitalism

by Nathan Jurgenson

Almost a decade ago, Bauman viewed Microsoft as the paradigmatic example of the lighter capitalism because software was easily changeable and disposable. Today, Web 2.0 marks a further lightening. User-generated content is not largely dictated by corporate structures. Corporations on Web 2.0 do not have to dictate efficiency and worry about waste because Web 2.0 is a digital environment where content and labor is abundant. Thus, corporate entities on Web 2.0 can become more than liquid, they are gaseous; more than light, they are nearly weightless.

Liquid Charity

by PJ Rey

Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another.  He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable… Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance… In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million… The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card… Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another. The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized.

Why Journals are the Dinosaurs of Academia

by PJ Rey

In the age of the printing press, journals were, by far, the most efficient and enduring form of communication.  They enabled disciplines to have thoughtful conversations spanning decades and continents… [Today,] print media remain firmly entrenched, retaining all their symbolic significance, while lacking any of their earlier practical import… the privileging of the print over the digital, in fact, has the opposite effect than was originally intended.  Instead of facilitating the rapid dissemination of ideas, it hinders it. Print is a solid, heavy medium (as Bauman explains); it travels slowly and is expensive to reproduce. Digital information is liquid and light; it travels instantaneously and is free to reproduce.

WikiLeaks and our Liquid Modernity

by Nathan Jurgenson

Zygmunt Bauman has famously conceptualized modern society as increasingly “liquid.” Information, objects, people and even places can more easily flow around time and space. Old “solid” structures are melting away in favor of faster and more nimble fluids… WikiLeaks is a prime example of this… digitality and Internet… create information that is more liquid and leak-able and have also allowed WikiLeaks to become highly liquid itself. It is not just one website, but also flows throughout the web on its many “mirror” sites. The data is disseminated over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks making it truly “the new Napster.” And just as shutting down Napster did not end music-sharing, shutting down WikiLeaks will not end the sharing of classified information.

What are the consequences of this new politics of liquidity? …old, heavy structures need to become more porous else they will be washed away in the wave of liquidity. Assange’s strategy is exactly to make the U.S. government more secretive and therefore less porous. Thus, the government will be less effective at communicating both internally and diplomatically with others – what Assange calls the “secrecy tax.”

A New Paradigm of Leaking: Anonymous’ “Delicious Data”

by PJ Rey

Historically, leaks are the product of activism within an institution (e.g., Daniel Ellsberg‘s famous leak of the Pentagon Papers). Anonymous is demonstrating, however, that in the highly liquid world of digital information, leaks no longer need to be pushed from within, but can be pulled from without.  That is to say, institutional outsiders can target the secret documents of an organization and reveal them to the public…  The question raised by Anonymous’ activities is whether—in light of the knowledge that it is more difficult than ever to control the flows of information—institutions will be compelled to change/reform their behavior.  Is enforced transparency an effective remedy to the ills created by institutionally-consolidated power structures?

Egypt’s Liquid Modernity

by Nathan Jurgenson

“Heavy” structures need to become more porous; that is, allow for some amount of liquidity in order to withstand the torrent of contemporary fluidity… Too solid, the structure of the Egyptian government was even less prepared to withstand the rising tide of a liquid generation. Shutting down the Internet did not slow protests, but enflamed them. Unable to bend, the structure was largely washed away.

Governments across the globe are being faced with a decision: to further solidify or become more porous. On one hand, a government that cannot provide flowing digital information in today’s liquid world looks immediately repressive. On the other, allowing the free flow of information might foster dissent…

Social Media and Social Movements

by Sarah Wanenchak

The rapid spread of… strategies of protest and dissidence, discourses of political claim-making, ideas regarding what is desirable and how one might get there… is due in large part to the technologies and social networks that enable the rapid spread of everything else… the wave of protest spreading through the Middle East is the result.

The Transparent Society Won’t Happen

by Nathan Jurgenson

15 years ago, [we] 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).

The All-in-One Consumption Tool Kit?

Jenny Davis

Critical theorists have long argued that we literally consume identity through the things that we buy and the media that we ingest. Indeed, Zygmunt Bauman describes a viscous cycle of consuming and trashing identities in a breathless and fruitless attempt to avoid being left behind. Digital commerce, and mobile-based purchasing in particular, holds the potential to amplify this connection. Not only do we display our identities through the products of our consumption, but announce these purchases, increasingly seamlessly (or “frictionlessly”) to our social networks… Increasingly, our purchases will integrate into the curated content of our prosumed profiled selves, which act as both projector and mirror, affecting how others see us, how we see ourselves, and how act and interact in light of this projected/reflected image.

Panopticon For whom?

by Nathan Jurgenson

The Panopticon wrongly understands everyday people as prisoners with too restricted freedom when it is precisely such freedom that is often leveraged for social control… the Frankfurt School and other critics of the consumer society – especially Bauman’s critique that also takes the prisoner’s gaze to be more important than the panoptic metaphor allows, himself positing the “Synopticon” that describes social control of the many watching the few cultural gatekeepers; the act of looking can modify behavior as deeply as being seen. As such, many have concluded that we should forget the Panopticon as a useful metaphor for understand surveillance in a digital age.

Liquid Surveillance & Social Media: Three Provocations

by Nathan Jurgenson

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.

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 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.

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… 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… Applied to sites like Facebook, what this discussion begs for is an analysis of how the many watch the many on social media… what George Ritzer and I have called “omnioptic”… not only an increasingly powerful form of surveillance, but also the most liquid.

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)… he 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.


Today, Facebook announced some significant changes in its approach to privacy: New users now start with “friends only” as their default share setting and a new “Privacy Checkup” will remind users to select audiences for their posts (if they don’t, it will also default to “friends only”).

This announcement is significant in that it is the first time that Facebook has ever stepped back its privacy settings to be less open by default. This appears to contradict a widely held assumption that Facebook is on a linear trajectory to encourage ever more sharing with ever more people. Media reports have pitched this as a victory for users, who are supposed to have forced the company to “respond to business pressures and longstanding concerns” or “bow to pressure.”

Facebook, itself, presented the changes as a reaction to user feedback:

While some people want to post to everyone, others have told us that they are more comfortable sharing with a smaller group, like just their friends. We recognize that it is much worse for someone to accidentally share with everyone when they actually meant to share just with friends, compared with the reverse.

But the narrative that Facebook is responding to consumer demands conceals what I believe is a deeper philosophical shift within the company–but one that is still fundamentally rooted in self-interested profit-seeking. Facebook’s revenue primarily derived from delivering targeted ads to users. The more information Facebook has about a user, the more effectively it can target these ads, and the more marketers will pay for this service. So, Facebook has a vested interest in maximizing how much information each user shares.

Historically, Facebook–like so much of Silicon Valley (as well as news media and researchers)–has operated with the simplistic belief that less privacy equals more sharing. Specifically, Facebook believed that when people speak to the broadest possible audience, they generate the most interaction and, therefore, maximize sharing. Facebook once sought to instigate a cultural shift that would see people come to accept speaking to and sharing with a mass audience as the new normal. They did so, in part, by making the site’s design difficult enough to navigate that many people determined that managing privacy wasn’t worth the effort.

What Facebook seems to have finally realized is that when people conceal more they also reveal more. Nathan Jurgenson observed this co-implicated relationship in an essay on this site, saying:

“Publicity” on social media needs to be understood fundamentally as an act rife also with its conceptual opposite: creativity and concealment.

In the absence of effective privacy controls (and the concealment they provide), Facebook has become plagued with a phenomenon known as “context collapse,” which, occurs when the various roles one performs and the audience one performs them for collide and contradict. Jenny Davis describes the cause of this phenomenon:

Social actors hold many roles throughout the life course and simultaneously at any given moment within the life course. For instance, one may be a mother, sister, athlete, student, and exotic dancer. For each role, the social actor maintains particular identity meanings guiding who s/he is, and a network of others who (typically) share these expectations. Although the expectations across roles may coincide neatly, it is most often the case that each role bears slightly different meanings, and in some cases, highly contradictory ones.

Context collapse often results in a “lowest common denominator approach” to sharing, meaning that a user shares only what they believe is appropriate for all potential audiences, which doesn’t tend to be very much–or, at least, not very much of interest.

In order to get people to start sharing more interesting and valuable information (that it can sell for more money) Facebook has had to reinvent itself so that users perceive it to be affording greater privacy and concealment of information. As Nathan suggested in the previously mentioned essay, sharing is seldom interesting when it’s obscene–the term Jean Baudrillard used to describe the drive to fully reveal and expose a thing. Instead, sharing is most often a process of seduction–“of strategically withholding in order to create magical and enchanted interest.” This process can be likened to a burlesque performer’s fan dance, which simultaneously exposes and obscures from view.

But, just because Facebook has wised up to the way that sharing involves both revelation and concealment, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s become more responsive to users or has taken users’ concerns and interests to heart. Instead, what we’re seeing is a new, more sophisticated approach to exploiting users and further transforming them profit centers. Facebook hasn’t reformed; it’s redeployed. Facebook’s principle goal remains to influence and direct users into activities that boost its bottom line, and, today, it got a little better at doing just that.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.