WePay Prohibitions

Last week I wrote about how–despite their supposed libertarian principles–Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms (most notably, Chase and Amazon) had embarked on systematic campaigns of discrimination against sex workers, seemingly intent on expelling sex workers from the financial system. I concluded that discrimination propelled by market forces is no less reprehensible and no less deleterious in its consequences than discrimination driven by personal prejudice. And, I argued that we should hold accountable those who let a commitment to profit trump their commitment to fighting discrimination.

This weekend–almost as if to make a spectacle out of how vicious the campaign against sex workers has become–WePay took the unfathomably callous action of cancelling a fundraiser for Eden Alexander, a porn performer who experienced some very serious and acute health issues and was in desperate need of financial assistance to pay medical/personal care bills. Alexander tweeted the cancellation notice that she received from WePay:edenIn pain and apparently shaken by the termination of what had seemed like her best hope to get care, Alexander made several disconcerting tweets then ceased communicating altogether. All indications are that she attempted or was close to attempting suicide and was taken away by paramedics.

Social media sites immediately flooded with outrage at WePay’s decision.whorephobiastructuralWePay’s CEO Bill Clerico took to Twitter to respond to the situation and, within a few hours, an official explanation was posted to the site (though, in a weird corporate-y way, it seems to assume that the text is being read on Monday and not the day it was posted):wepay

Note that Alexander did not, herself, tweet anything that violated WePay’s terms of service (which, in any case, discriminates against even legal sex work). This decision relies on the least generous possible interpretation of the facts, going against convention and assuming retweets to be endorsements. Moreover, the decision was, purportedly, based soley on communications external to WePay’s site.

Though they have responded to all the negative publicity* by transferring the original donations to Eden’s bank an by offering to help Eden restart her campaign (help which was, understandably, declined by Eden’s friends and supporters), WePay deflected blame for the incident to “back-end processors.” So who are these mysterious back-end boogie men who force WePay to so aggressively discriminate against sex workers. Clerico explained that these “processors” are card associations such as Visa and Mastercard [edit: Fruzsina Eördögh reported in VICE that a company called Vantiv is the processor responsible for pressuring WePay]:wepay convoClerico also equivocated a bit, saying that not all WePay’s limitations on users were demanded by card associations: “Some are because they are prone to fraud or abuse.”fraudWePay’s response, predictably, amounts to the old “don’t blame us, blame the market” strategy of denying responsibility. This is the same pattern we recently witnessed with Paypal and Chase: Rather than working to find ways to conduct business without discrimination, execs shrug their shoulders and point to the markets as supposed justification for what, in this case, is not only unjust, but downright inhumane, treatment. We, the public, are expected to just resign our democratic values when the market deems them inconvenient.

Fuck that. The discriminatory practices of a back-end processor and concerns about fraud do not and will not ever justify denying medical care to a very real human being, regardless of her occupation.

What is perhaps most shocking about this tragedy is that it illustrates how readily we dehumanize sex workers. Whether it is the doctor (who reportedly dismissed the severity Alexander’s condition, assuming it to be the product of drug abuse) or WePay shutting down her donations page because she is connected to the production pornographic content, institutional policies and practices reduced Alexander (as they do all sex workers) to being nothing more than her work. Unfortunately, this too often how stigma works. From the perspective of this institutionalized stigma, you can’t be a sex worker and a person in need of medical treatment because when you’re a sex worker, you are only a sex worker. A person’s humanity is flattened and they are seen only as their stigma. This is an observation that Kitty Stryker and Melissa Gira Grant both made pointedly:kitty melissaWhat market logic does–when we fail to intervene demanding that humanitarian values be respected–is to reduce humans to mere risks and opportunities. Risk is stigma in market terms. Both flatten a person and mark them for exclusion. When a CEO says “sex workers are a risk,” they always, implicitly, mean “a risk–and nothing more.” The purpose of such language is to depersonalize and dehumanize and, thereby, to remove the moral impediments to exclusion.

What we, collectively, need to do is present new impediments to exclusion–to create conditions where exclusion itself is risky business. I know I, for one, won’t be using WePay any time soon for any of my projects.

(A new fund has been established for Eden Alexander. Make a donation here.)

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

* In response to Tauriq Moosa’s article in the Daily Beast, WePay states:

We did not transfer the donations to Eden’s bank in response to the negative publicity. We transferred the donations to Eden’s bank before the account was closed (and long before the negative PR).  When we closed the account, we cancelled the pending payments, but we never withheld funds.

"Most Downloaded Woman" (ft. Danni Ashe) by Faith Holland
“Most Downloaded Woman” (ft. Danni Ashe)
Art used with permission of Faith Holland*

Over the course of the past few weeks, two major US corporations—Chase Bank and Amazon—have each undertaken campaigns apparently aimed at expelling sex workers from the financial system, despite the fact that this work is completely legal and the compensation is above board.

Social media has be buzzing with reports from porn performers of vaguely worded letters from Chase stating “we recently reviewed your account and determined that we will be closing it.” At the Cybogology-sponsored Theorizing the Web conference, porn performer Stoya described her experience: “I’ve personally had issues with Chase, which is why I was giggling, because they shut down my business account but then didn’t understand why I wanted to close my personal account.” While Chase and other financial institutions (e.g., Paypal, Square, WePay, City National Bank, and J.P. Morgan) have long engaged in ad hoc discrimination against sex workers, Chase’s recent actions are unprecedented in that they appear to indicate a systematic effort to uncover and blacklist anyone involved in sex work.

Similarly, Amazon appears to have initiated a systematic purge of wish lists posted by sex workers. Wish lists allow fans to send gifts to performers (sometimes clothing or sex toys to be used in future shows/shoots and sometimes just everyday items that performers need) without performers having to divulge their home address. As with the financial services companies, Amazon has a history of ad hoc discrimination. For example, late last year, porn performer Emma Ink posted to Tumblr an email she received from Amazon, stating that

Amazon Wish Lists are intended as a shopping tool for personal use or for gifting between friends and family members. We don’t condone the usage of Wish Lists for inappropriate purposes of with inappropriate content and for this reason we’ve deleted your Wish List.

Now, many other sex workers (particularly cam performers) are reporting similar notices.

Beyond the vagueness about what is “appropriate” and who gets to set these standards is an inexplicable hypocrisy of banning users for asking for the very things that Amazon itself is choosing to sell. However, I don’t think we should be content to merely point out the hypocrisy of companies suddenly deeming inappropriate goods and services they’ve been content to cash in on for years. We need to delve deeper into the ideological stakes of these decisions.

Particularly, it’s interesting that this outright discrimination against legal sex work is coming from Wall Street and Silicon Valley—both recognized hubs of libertarian ideology. Typically, leaders from both sectors staunchly defend unfettered economic activity as fundamental to an open society. In fact, they often go so far as to equate economic activity with expressions of free speech, deserving of maximum protection and minimal interference. It is this perspective that led the US government to recognize corporations as people with the legal right to influence elections through unlimited campaign contributions. It also from this perspective that Internet content providers most often frame their case for net neutrality.

Not so long ago, in 2009, Amazon (along with most other major Silicon Valley firms) signed a letter stating:

Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.

Apparently, however, this commitment to freedom from discrimination on the Web does not hold for sex workers. What makes sex work different?

One possibility we can’t fully rule out is that sex work is so thoroughly stigmatized in contemporary American society that even those who purport to champion individual freedom and open markets above all else simply make an exception when it comes to discriminatory and exclusionary practices against sex workers. While this sort of personal prejudice is probably part of the story, I also want to offer a somewhat more complex explanation–one that stems from American libertarianism’s reliance on markets as the primary mechanism of social organization.

The kind of discrimination that libertarians fear most is government regulation that might favor one person or group over another in market-based interactions. Typically, libertarians also espouse tolerance for alternative lifestyles that diverge from mainstream norms. For example, Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos—who is frequently reported (here, here, and here) to be a libertarian—has actively supported gay marriage.

But what libertarians too often fail to acknowledge is that discrimination is frequently expressed through and encoded into markets themselves (housing being perhaps the most notoriously discriminatory market). When one’s commitment to markets takes precedence over one’s commitment to challenging discrimination, it’s almost inevitable that fair treatment for marginalized groups falls by the wayside. It seems that sex workers have found themselves victims of a contradiction within libertarian ideology: markets, though themselves supposedly conditional on freedom and fairness, create conditions of unfreedom and unfairness.

This contradiction is something that Jewish** economic historian Karl Polanyi observed way back in 1944. Making the case for socially-directed intervention in and regulation of markets, Polanyi argued that classic liberalism (the precursor to modern libertarian philosophy)

gave a false direction to our ideals…No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent. It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone. Yet this was the result of a market-view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relations with freedom. The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition. Vision was limited by the market which “fragmentated” life into the producers… [and] consumer[s]… The one derived his income “freely” from the market, the other spent it “freely” there. Society as a whole remained invisible.

Polanyi suggested that without regulatory intervention by democratic institutions committed to maximizing freedom for all, markets inevitably result in monopoly and tyranny. He argues that we shouldn’t measure the degree of freedom in society by the lack of interference in markets; instead, freedom is a function of being able to live as one was born or chooses to be without fear of marginalization, exclusion, or persecution. He explains:

personal liberty… will exist to the degree in which we will deliberately create new safeguards for its maintenance… the right to nonconformity must be institutionally protected… The individual must be free to follow his [or her] conscience without fear of the powers that happen to be entrusted with administrative tasks in some of the fields of social life… Thus will be secured the right to nonconformity as the hallmark of a free society.

Polanyi’s vision of a free society is in stark contrast to libertarian ideology in which the freedom to pursue profit trumps all other freedoms. It’s this privileging of the freedom to pursue profit over the freedom to follow one’s conscious without fear of retaliation from social institutions that I believe has economically imperiled sex workers in this case.

While Amazon and Chase haven’t been particularly open about their motives, we can make a couple of reasonable guesses as to why these companies are trying to shut sex workers out of the market: They may fear that doing business with sex workers hurts their image and/or they may be concerned that commerce associated with the sex industry has high rates of fraud, non-payment, or other problematic activity. But the truth is that it doesn’t really matter why companies like Amazon and Chase have decided that offering basic services to sex workers is bad for business. What matters is that the logic of the market has become a justification for outright discrimination against a particular class of people.

Whatever their intent or reasoning, Amazon and Chase’s actions have created further injustice for a group that is already severely marginalized. We should never allow markets to serve as an excuse for such discrimination. And, when market-based discrimination occurs, we should demand that our democratic institutions hold accountable those who control these markets. If we let mega-corporations get away with openly oppressing sex workers, who’ll be next?

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

*Faith Holland‘s art highlights the centrality of sex and sex work to the Internet (and to the information economy associated with it), and, conversely, the manner in which digital technology is implicated in modern sexuality. She confronts the inextricability of sex and technology in her “Cyberpussy Manifesto,” saying: “Technology is restructured biology. Biology is sociotechnical structure.” She further explores these themes in “Woven Network in Lube” and “Light Petting & Heavy Petting” (nsfw).

** I mention Polanyi’s Jewish heritage only to highlight that discrimination was obviously at the forefront of his mind while writing The Great Transformation in the midst of WWII.

Halloween Appropriation

There are no more media in the literal sense of the word (I’m speaking particularly of electronic mass media) – that is, of a mediating power between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another. Neither in content, nor in form. Strictly, this is what implosion signifies. The absorption of one pole into another, the short-circuiting between poles of every differential system of meaning, the erasure of distinct terms and oppositions, including that of the medium and of the real… Circularity of all media effects. Hence the impossibility of meaning in the literal sense of a unilateral vector that goes from one pole to another. One must envisage this critical but original situation at its very limit: it is the only one left us… the medium and the real are now in a single nebula whose truth is indecipherable.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Halloween is said to be a secularized celebration of the traditional Christian holiday, All Hallows Eve (itself appropriated from pagan ceremonies to remember the dead). This, of course, is false. Symbols of death and of our connection to what lies beyond (e.g., pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, witches, etc.) do little more than provide a textured backdrop to masses of fantasy heroes/heroines, sexy [fill-in-the-blank], cross-dressers, and, increasingly, it seems, racial/cultural appropriators. During Halloween, we do not celebrate our traditions; we cannibalize them. And, that is what makes Halloween unique. Halloween is a celebration of the present–a reveling in the zeitgeist of our time. Halloween is the quintessence of our post-Modern cultural logic.

Post-Modernity (as Jean Baudrillard suggests in the quote that opens this piece) is, above all, defined by the implosion of boundaries between various cultures or systems of meaning. This implies, of course, that there was once a (pre-Modern) time when when systems of meaning existed separate and distinct from one another. Of course, there were occasional instances of cultural exchange that brought about (dialectical) changes in each system, but these interactions did not erode the boundaries between them. Difference remained.

As the Modern era emerged, these exchanges became less arbitrary. Modernity, with its aim of producing a single, rational, and all-encompassing system of meaning and its penchant for fitting all differences into rigid categories, sought to hierarchicalize these cultures as well as the nature and direction of transmissions across them. Cultures placed into inferior categories were repressed. So-called “progress” meant using various media to supplant certain systems of meaning with those deemed superior. Thus, for marginalized people, these externally-imposed categories often represented an existential threat to their way of life.

Post-Modernity, describes a dominant cultural reaction to Modernity–a resistance of the rigid categories it created and an affinity for blurring, blending, and exchange. Halloween has become an ecstatic indulgence in post-Modern erosion of contextualized meaning. It embodies what Baudrillard might call the free flow of signs and symbols. It is a night when everything is acknowledged and accepted as overt simulation. Costumes, as the primary medium of Halloween’s post-Modern expressivity, do not convey meaning but decontextualize and obliterate it.

The problem with Halloween–like post-Modernity writ large–is that, though it transgresses the categories constructed by Modernity, it does little to actually challenge these categories and wholly ignores the structural inequalities they sustain. (As Jacques Derrida persistently reminds us, the purpose of constructing such categories is, inevitably, to establish hierarchies.) The question of who gets to setup and tear down or ignore categories–what Pierre Bordieu called “symbolic capital”–matters. And, what Halloween demonstrates is that those with privilege not only create and benefit from the categorical boundaries that systematically oppress others, they are also free to cross these boundaries merely to entertain themselves.

In celebrating Halloween, the privileged see the world’s culture, and their histories, as a pallet to freely borrow from in pursuit of the unique and the unexpected (see: “hipster racism“). Symbols laden with meaning for the oppressed are worn for a night and then discarded as just as easily. In cases, such as the appropriation Native American clothing for costumes, symbols nearly destroyed by Modern Western culture are now trivialized and made into the exotic playthings of post-Modern culture. The post-Modern zeitgeist of Halloween never asks us to reflect on the violence done when Modernity constructed the hierachicalized categories it used to other and oppress, nor does it ask us to consider that ability to adopt and discard symbols of oppression is, itself, an expression of privilege not afforded to the oppressed. Post-Modern culture’s transgression of boundaries is no less an expression of power than Modern culture’s assertion of the right to impose them.

In asserting the power to appropriate without regard to structural inequalities and the experiences of the oppressed, Halloween illustrates that privilege often manifests as the freedom to ignore (not only imposed categorical boundaries but also the people who are affected by them). In this ignorance, Halloween becomes little more than an annual social ritual of vomiting up the worst aspects of our society–racism (as well as sexism and wasteful consumerism)–and wallowing in them.

Cyborgology Logo

Today is Cyborgology’s third birthday (see the first post)! Each year we do a little reflecting. Hear from each author and click the images for some select posts from the past twelve months.


David Banks: It was a great year! The popularity of “Fuck, I Need More Swear Words” caught me off guard but I hope it got a lot more people thinking about the potential for changing everyday speech at this particular historical moment. I also really enjoyed the conversations around “Can We Make an Anti-Racist Reddit” and “Time Traveling in Troy, New York.” I was a little disappointed that my Pumpkin Spice iPhone post sort of fell flat, but I still believe deeply in the design potential of seasonally spiced telecommunications devices. My fellow Cyborgologists also really hit it out of the park this year with Robin’s “Further thoughts on negate social action“, Jenny’s “Social Media Ecology” Whitney’s “The Introvert Fetish“, Sarah’s work with The State’s Murmuration Festival, PJ’s work on Burning Man (1 and 2), and Nathan’s very special message to p-ed writers.

I can’t believe how long I’ve been writing for Cyborgology. I remember how excited I was to see my first post published and how honored I felt to be asked to be a regular contributor. This blog and the community that has formed around it means so much to me and I really cherish all of the amazing conversations I’ve had about the content hosted on the blog. I can’t wait to see what the next year has to bring.


Whitney Erin Boesel: I love Cyborgology‘s “Birthday Retrospective” tradition. After writing as a regular contributor for all of our third year, however, it’s a lot harder to settle on just one favorite post! The most recent one that comes to mind is “The Introvert Fetish“—in part because PBS Idea Channel liked it enough to turn it into a video, and in part because halfway through writing it, I had that rare and wonderful sense of oh wait, this is good. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and, even as i said it, I felt like I was saying it in a solid, streamlined way. Watching that post gain more traction than I’d expected was really rewarding, in ways I still haven’t quite parsed out. Along similar lines, I was thrilled when Quantified Self liked “What is the Quantified Self Now?” enough to repost it on their own blog; I’ve also been both surprised and honored by the number of people who have come up to me at conferences to talk about “What’s In A (User)Name?” (a post which meant a lot to me personally, but which I’d thought was basically sociological navel-gazing). There’s a handful of other posts I want to talk about as well, but what more than half of them have in common is that they’re posts into which I poured some portion of my personal self, and which garnered far more positive feedback than I could have anticipated. As Cyborgology turns three, I remain grateful not only for a platform that has done so much to introduce my work to the world, but also for the community that surrounds that platform—especially my Cyborgology colleagues.


Jenny Davis: Today, on Cyborgology’s third birthday, I’m going to be a bit of a rule breaker. Instead of highlighting a single piece, I want to talk about how The Blog has solidified into a truly professional endeavor for me this year. Blogging is a labor of love. We don’t get paid. It wasn’t counted in my funding evaluations for graduate school. It gives me one line in my CV, buried in the middle, and most likely skipped over as readers beeline for the peer-reviewed publications section and list of courses taught. This year, however, several key events have shifted the meaning of blogging, for me, more solidly into legitimate professionalism. This personal shift, I think, reflects more general shifts in academia which decenter the peer-reviewed-publication and incorporate a wider range of scholarly activities.

First, I cited blog posts—my own and others—in peer-reviewed published pieces. I also saw our work cited in these kinds of venues, and suggested blog posts to authors whose papers I was charged with peer-reviewing. Importantly, as I’ve seen and partaken in these developments, I have yet to encounter and editor who batted an eye. My own work, and those of the Cyborgologist team, are beginning to meld with the more traditional, and more legitimized forms of scholarship. I wrote about this here. Second, I was invited to write a book chapter about my experience as a woman blogger. I used the theory of identity prosumption—a theoretical perspective many of us utilize and explore in our blog posts—to frame my narrative. Again, the editors of the book were highly supportive. Finally, I got a job. Like, a real job. In Sociology. Doing social media research. AND my department is excited and supportive of my blogging. They don’t see it as something extraneous, but as legitimate professional activity. It is even built into my “review” criteria under the heading of “service.” Personally, I think it also overlaps strongly with scholarship (see first paragraph especially) but any placement of blogging into tenure review requirements is a big step in the right direction.

Happy Birthday, Cyborgology!! Can’t wait to see where we go in the years ahead.


Robin James: I was really excited to join the cyborgology crew this past summer. Since then, I’ve written a lot about music, sound, and noise. Here, for example, I used Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance as a way to think about how social media affects practices of cultural appropriation. “The post-authentic quantified self,” I argued, “appropriates femininity and blackness through trolling.” I’m currently thinking about how the music business has shifted from selling records to generating social media buzz, YouTube plays, etc.


Nathan Jurgenson: Three calendar laps in and Cyborgology has grown from blog to community, from disparate ideas to, dare I say it, the beginnings of a perspective. With all the baggage that term carries, Cyborgology started on and has developed a stance towards technology always oriented towards embodiment, critique, and social justice. Not long after the blog first started, I came up with the phrase “digital dualism”, a topic that has Cyborgology as its original home and continues to be where the contours of that relationship between the screen and its contents is most deeply theorized. In the past year, I’ve written much about digital dualism on this blog: 1, carving out three approaches to digital dualism theory; 2, two type of digital dualism and augmented reality; 3, responding to critiques from the left (Tyler Bickford) and the right (Nicholas Carr); 4, critiquing popular digital dualism when I see it in the New York Times or a viral video, prompting a little snarky satire. I also wrote about privacy and publicity, how our approach is so often victim-blame-y from how we teach teens about privacy to how we talk about the NSA, to my issue with people claiming how glad they are they didn’t have social media when they were young. The post I’d like to highlight here was my reflection on the New York times choosing an Instagrammed selfie for its front-page story on the Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.


PJ Rey: It’s extraordinary to think that, little more than three years ago, Nathan and I were seated in Washington, DC bar discussing what we should name the blog that we had spent a few weeks sketching out and building. Our hope was both to create an intellectual home for ourselves and to engage broader publics on issues surrounding the digital technologies that now pervade our lives–particularly, big sociological questions and social justice issues that are seldom covered in the business-heavy tech sections of national newspapers. And, just as important, we desperately wanted to find other folks interested in collaborating and conversing with us on these topic. We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have David, Whitney, Jenny, Robin, and Sarah join us in building Cyborgology into a vibrant intellectual community. Together, we’ve built the site into a daily source of fun and smart analysis of a wide range of issues linking tech and society.

On a personal note, the past year was marked by some really fruitful collaborations with Whitney (post, post, and paper) on embodiment, subjectivity, and augmented reality. I’ve also tried to address some big issues (economic justice and consent) in my own Burner / Burning Man community. The post I’m most excited about, however, received somewhat less attention. In “Materiality Matters: Confronting Digital Dualism with a Theory of Co-Affordances,” I tied together a couple issues I had been thinking about for a long while: 1.) that the affordance of various objects are coimplicated in one another, and 2.) we can use the concept of affordances to talk about how digital and analog media are inescapably intertwined in our experience, even if, objectively, they have very different properties. I see this understanding as the basis for a phenomenological approach to debunking digital dualism.


Sarah Wanenchak: If my previous year at Cyborgology was about convincing myself that I could actually pull off saying something at least semi-interesting on a weekly basis (and I’m still not sure sometimes), this year has been about experimentation – with my own writing, with what I feel like I can appropriately do for the blog, with the intellectual places in which I want to venture. I wrote a lot about stories, I fell in love with drones, and I touched a good bit on fandom and video games, both subjects near and dear to my heart. But if I did one thing that I’m especially proud of this past year, it’s that I found the courage to be confessional. I made a lot of my writing painfully personal, and I think the results were generally good. I often did this in ways that blurred the line between my academic writing and my fiction, which has been endlessly rewarding. So although it’s difficult to pick a single one, I think the post I’m most proud of is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Livejournal”, a sprawling and chaotic and deeply weird little essay that dealt with my memories of identity formation online as a teenager and my difficulties in negotiating identities in the present. I was very scared of writing it, and the process itself was filled with that kind of slightly crazed euphoria that comes with attempting anything frightening and not completely failing.

Being able to experiment and to play off ourselves and each other is one of my favorite things about this blog and this community of writers. I think I’ve grown a lot in a year; I think we all have. I can’t wait to see where we go next.




The most commented on posts written between October 2011 and 2012:

1. Dude-ly Digital Dualism Debates

2. Strong and Mild Digital Dualism

3. Rape Culture, Consent, and “Grabbing 100+ Boobs at Burning Man 2013″

4. A Page One Selfie

5. Responding to Carr’s Digital Dualism

6. Status Flight and the Gendering of Google Glass

7. “Smart Parking” and the Robert Moses Mistake


9. Fuck, I Need Some New Swear Words

10. “Glad I Didn’t Have Facebook In High School!”


The most commented on posts of All Time:

1. Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality

2. The Faux-Vintage Photo: Full Essay (Parts I, II and III)

3. Dude-ly Digital Dualism Debates

4. The Rise of the Internet (Anti)-Intellectual?

5. Race, Class, App.net: The Beginning of ‘White Flight’ from Facebook & Twitter?

6. Strong and Mild Digital Dualism

7. Pinterest and Feminism

8. Rape Culture, Consent, and “Grabbing 100+ Boobs at Burning Man 2013″

9. Sherry Turkle’s Chronic Digital Dualism Problem

10. A Page One Selfie


Geographic Distribution of Cyborgology Readers October 2012 - October 2013
Geographic Distribution of Cyborgology Readers October 2012 – October 2013

 Blurred and Cropped Version of "Grabbing 100+ Boobs at Burning Man 2013"

Like many Burners (and non-Burners), I was outraged when, yesterday, an image with variations of the title “Grabbing 100+ Boobs at Burning Man 2013” went viral. In light of the public distribution of these photos, I think it’s imperative for the public in general, and Burners in particular, to have a focused conversation about a range of important social issues including the meaning of consent, rape culture, and slut shaming.

I do not know what each woman in the photos consented to and what problems may arise if they are recognized by people they know from contexts other than Burning Man, so I am reluctant to link to or share the image. However, because it is difficult to discuss the issues in question here without making specific references to the content of the photographs and because most of the harm from distributing the image has probably already been done, I have cropped and anonymized a small portion of the long gridded image here.

A photographer named Dong Xiao claims to have produced the image, though this is unconfirmed. He has also claimed to have received an official request from the Burning Man Organization to take down all publicly available copies of the the photos. (Upon entry, attendees forfeit distribution rights to the photos that they take at Burning Man.) However, given the nature of the Internet, it will be virtually impossible to contain the image and attempts to do so may only make it more visible.

Personal accounts of encounters with the photographer are beginning to surface. It appears that the man asked and received permission to grope and photograph the women in the image, but stated only that it was going to be used for “an art project.” No mention was made about posting the photos to the Internet. I had a conversation with one Burner friend who was approached by the photographer. She recounted her experience:

My friend and I were returning to our camp from the steam baths. I was topless and my friend was wearing a bikini. We were biking down A around 8:00 when a young man flagged us down. We pulled our bikes over and he asked if we would help him with his art project. He had a fancy looking camera around his neck. I asked him how we could help, and he said, “I’m trying to take a photo of 100 women while I’m here.” There was a pretty significant pause at this point and he seemed pretty nervous and awkward. Then he went on, “The tricky part is, I have to be putting my hand on your boob in each photo.” He held his hand out low in front of his camera to demonstrate. He really struck me as a shy guy who wanted to grope women but didn’t know how to ask without having “art” as an excuse and a camera as a prop. The general vibe was off-putting–I felt uncomfortable interacting with someone under such transparent false pretenses. So I smiled and said, “I think we’re going to pass. Good luck!” and we pushed off on our bikes. He didn’t object or try to persuade us otherwise. During the exchange, he made no mention of publishing the photos on the Internet. To be honest, I was surprised to see them yesterday. I wouldn’t have thought this awkward kid would have so much visibility online when thousands of photos are taken at Burning Man every day and just sort of disappear into the anonymous din of the Internet unless they’re taken by a well-known photographer.

Another Burner confirmed this account (though suggests less consent was given) in a massive (nearly 500 comment) thread on the official Burning Man Facebook page:

This guy walked up to a friend at Nexus and was like “Can I take a picture of you.” She replied okay and he put his hand out and said for her to pretend like she’s coming at him or fighting him off, so she did and it APPEARS like he’s grabbing her boob, but isn’t. He never mentioned anything about a project. She’s in the pics. What a slimy douche.

In the same thread, a second Burner describes:

As a witness, someone who Dong approached (& declined his request), he asked if he could take a shot of him reaching towards my chest. I hesitated, he said he would not shoot my face, I got a weird pervy vibe from him & declined. He never said the name of his “project”, “Grabbing 100 Boobs at BM”, nor did he try to explain his “project”, only that it was some type of school project.

Predictably, much of the Web chatter consisted of appalling slut shaming and rape-culture fueled gestures of support for the photographer.

The most popular comments on the image at 9GAG
The most popular comments on the image at 9GAG.com

Though overtly sexist attitudes were also expressed by some participants in Burner forums, Burners, as a whole, are taking the issue much more seriously and are debating it with concern. Unfortunately, however, much of the conversations in Burner message boards have focused on two issues:

  1. Whether the women enjoyed and consented to being groped (with frequent discussion of what their facial expressions indicate).
  2. Whether this illustrates the need for a ban on photography at Burning Man and related events.

Both questions miss the point.

Starting with the issue of consent: Many people have remarked that the women in the photos appear to be enjoying themselves. Burning Man (like other historical festivals) encourages and thrives on creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and dis-inhibition. It’s not surprising at all that participants (men or women) might consent to playful sexual interactions with strangers. After all, these sorts of interactions (and the security of the environment that facilitates them) are significant part of what distinguishes the Playa from the Default World–that makes Burning Man a place out of place and a time outside of time.

The mistake is to interpret consent to be touched or, even, consent to be photographed while being touched, as consent to have one’s images shared across the Web or posted in a manner so as to make it inevitable that they will be shared across the Web. When it comes to sharing something as explicit as sexual photos (especially as a stranger), nothing less than explicit consent (preferably written) from a person who is unquestionably sober is acceptable. As one Burner in suggested on the official Facebook forum:

Informed consent would require a release, really, as this would be considered sexual enough in nature that you would want to be damn sure everyone was over 18 and aware these photos might end up online.

Perhaps more than anyone else, a professional photographer should understand this. By not disclosing his full intentions, the photographer foreclosed the possibility of ever receiving consent. Denying someone the opportunity to consent to something when you know they may very well decline is, to put it bluntly, rapey behavior.
In the words of another Burner commenting of Facebook:

This guy represented himself deceitfully by intimating that he was doing a legit “project”. Preying on the “participatory” nature of the event & preying on at least 100 young women to want to help with a “project” – not knowing their images would later be plastered all over the internet. I feel for these women, who deserved “full transparent disclosure” when their photos where shot.

Focusing on whether or not the women appear to be having fun in the photos deflects attention away from the photographer and his responsibility to disclose his full intentions and to protect the privacy of the individuals who entrusted him with their images. Expressing one’s sexual agency does not somehow negate one’s right to privacy–a fact that our society seems to have a particularly hard time processing when it comes to women’s sexual agency.

The assumptions of rape culture still seep into discussions of the image within the Burner community, though more subtly. Rather than simply saying “She acts like that she deserves it.” responses often take the tone that “She should have known that if she let herself be photographed it would be all over the Internet.” For example, one Burner said on the Facebook boards:

it should be pretty obvious to anyone than 99% of the photos taken nowadays (at BM or anywhere else) are posted on some website (facebook, flickr, etc), and from there they can be (and will be) duplicated, possibly going viral. we don’t know where the images were initially posted. it’s very hard to locate a source when photos go viral.

And, similarly:

I agree that this is a STUPID project, by the way. But what sort of camera “project” is not posted on the internet in someway?

Such reactions are merely the latest examples of what Whitney Erin Boesel calls the Shame on You paradigm of victim-blaming in cases of privacy violation. She explains:

the control of personal information and the protection of personal privacy are not just individual responsibilities, but also moral obligations… A privacy violation is… ultimately a failure of vigilance, a failure of prescience; it redefines as disclosure the instant in which we should have known better, regardless of what it is we should have known. Accordingly, the greatest shame in compromised privacy is not what is exposed, but the fact of exposure itself. We judge people less for showing women their genitals, and more for being reckless enough to get caught doing so on Twitter.

Through the lens of the Shame on You paradigm, the women whose right to consent is violated are deemed responsible for their own violation because it is their responsibility to anticipate how an abuser might abuse them and to take preventative measures. The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that women should never consent to being recorded in the context of sexual activity. Thus, as the case in question illustrates, the Shame on You paradigm denies women sexual agency, particularly any sort of exhibitionist expression of sexual agency. In fact, we could go further and conclude that, because portable digital device makes the capture of images an ever-present possibility, the Shame on You paradigm stigmatizes any sort of public nudity for women. In light of these implications of the Shame on You paradigm, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue it is consistent with the values of the Burner community.

Turning now to the focus on whether or not photography should be banned at Burning Man. Throughout past decade (during which Burning Man has seen explosive growth), photography and its relationship to the festival have changed. Digital cameras are now in the pockets of almost all who attend, and social media has blurred the line between “personal use” and “public distribution” to such a degree that it has become nearly untenable. So, I respect the impulse to reexamine policies on photography. However, by attempting to make it the central issue in this case, scrutiny is, again, deflected away from the actions of the photographer and the rape culture that normalizes those actions. Banning photography will do nothing to resolve the underlying issue that Default World attitudes about privacy and consent manifest on Playa. In fact, it’s hard to imagine these issue truly being resolved without broader cultural change both inside and outside the Burner community. After all, there will always be Burn “virgins.” And, increasingly, Burning Man has to deal with a contingent of “Burn Tourists” who simply attend to consume the event rather than to participate.

Instead of discussing whether women in these images enjoyed being groped or whether photography should be banned, we should be talking about how to practice two core values of the Burning Man community: civic responsibility and sharing. Both on Playa and on the Web, when someone consents to share something (particularly something of a sensitive nature) with you, you are, in turn, accepting responsibility for the thing shared. Where durable digital documents are concerned, the concept of consent implies a lasting responsibility to respect the privacy of what you have been given access to. As danah boyd and Alice Marwick explain, privacy is something society produces collectively by establishing norms and practices that maintain it. So, we don’t just have an individual responsibility keep private things private; we also a collective responsibility to create social structures conducive to that end.

What the photographer who created this image did is wrong because he failed to live up to his responsibility to protect the privacy of what was shared with him by re-sharing the photos in a way that made it almost inevitable that they reach an audience far wider than what he could reasonably assume the women had consented to. Moreover, in the selfish pursuit personal visibility, he threw the women he photographed under the bus of the slut-shaming ridicule that is pervasive in our culture. An additional problem for the Burner community, however, is that this incident has demonstrated a failure in Burner culture to enforce norms and practices that respect consent and privacy. This makes our community look shameful to the outside world. We need to do better.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist, photographer, and Burner currently based in Austin.


My Facebook feed, which had nearly gone dormant for the past week, is once again teaming with life; this means that somewhere, in a nondescript plot of desert, 50,000+ souls are packing tents, scrubbing dust from their hair, and beginning an exhausted journey home from their annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival. After last year’s impulsive decision to fund the the trip on student loan debt, I find myself once again relegated to the social media sidelines by financial constraints. One benefit of watching this year’s event unfold at a distance is that it has given me time and space to reflect on my experiences with Burning Man 2012.

I believe that festivals, in general, and Burning Man, in particular, do much to enrich the lives of their attendees. I frequently encounter people who consciously divide their life into time spent “on the Playa” (a term Burners use to describe the festival grounds) and time spent “in the default world” (i.e., the rest of their lives off-Playa).  These phrases indicate just how much attendees experience Burning Man as a transformative event. Similarly, in my own personal experience, I found Burning Man to be an creative, inspirational, and highly collaborative environment, where people take time to treat each other as people and not as a means to an ends in some sort of transactional relationship.

Burning Man in Black and White 2009Sunrise at the Temple, Burning Man 2009

With its 10 Principles, its rituals (e.g., Burning the Man, spanking festival “virgins,” respecting the solemnity of The Temple, lamp lighting ceremonies, etc.), and its symbols (Burners will instantly recognize this little ASCII icon: )'(  ), Burning Man transcends the mundanity of default life and takes on aspects of (what Durkheim called) “the sacred.” In fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to describe Burning Man as the foundation of a secular religion.


While there is much to discuss regarding the significant place that Burning Man occupies in the lives of its participants, I’d like to focus on the complex social and economic relationship Burning Man has with the default world and how this relationship reflects the changing nature of capitalism in the 21st Century. Let’s start by examining two key principals:

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

By elevating gifting as a virtue, Burning Man distinguishes itself from the default world which is dominated by transactional relationships between people who have no personal connection to one another. (For example, the bagger at the grocery store sees customers as largely interchangeable and the customer also sees baggers as largely interchangeable. To each the other is just a means to an ends.) Gifting is, ostensibly, about putting the needs of the other above oneself.

The principle of decommodification attempts to further separate human interaction at Burning Man from market logic. In fact, the description of the principle of decommodification even employs a Marxist concept: exploitation. (Though in the strict Marxist sense, culture cannot be exploited, only labor.)


full truckBecause no money is exchanged at Burning Man* and because gifting and decommodification are key principles of the community, Burning Man is often described as “outside the system” or anti-capitalist. However, the notion that Burning Man opposes capitalism is misguided, if not naive. In a recent interview with TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey spoke to this point, insisting, “We’re not building a Marxist society.” While Ferenstein’s interview highlights the comfortable relationship that Burning Man has with capitalism (particularly Silicon Valley-based enterprises), Ferenstein oddly concludes that what it opposes, instead, is consumerism.

Were Burning Man’s goal to get people to consume less, it would be failing miserably. Anyone who has traveled the Reno Airport to Black Rock Desert circuit knows that an enormous consumer economy has evolved around the event. From the second you step off the plane through the very last Native American reservation before Black Rock City, advertisements suffuse the landscape, offering a wide array of commodities (bikes, tents, glowing el wire, “Indian tacos,” water, etc.) and services (e.g., rides to the Playa). And, all this pales in comparison to the vast amounts of consumer spending done in advance of the events. Camps from every major US city fill shipping containers with supplies and haul them to the desert on 18-wheelers. Many of the gifts given at Burning Man were first bought via the market economy. Burning Man’s principle of “radical self-reliance” often feeds a “get the gear” mentality of hyper-preparation, encouraging attendees to purchase supplies for every contingency they may encounter in the (admittedly harsh) desert conditions.maskgetthegearIII

“Participatory experiences” alone will not shield 50,000 people from the sun or protect them from dust. It won’t even produce a fashionable pair of furry leggings or tutu. The Burning Man experience is the product of tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars flowing into the consumer economy and is inextricably linked to disposable incomes of Silicon Valley’s digerati. (It is also this requisite spending that keeps Burning Man as an exclusive and relatively privileged event.)

Larry Harvey’s pro-capitalist sentiments are surprising not because people misunderstand Burning Man but because people misunderstand modern capitalism. While there is certainly no causal relationship between the two, it is not entirely coincidence that a Man was first raised in the desert the year that the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War-era perception of an irresolvable antagonism between capitalism and communism–market and commons–had begun to appear less tenable. The innovation economy that Silicon Valley has come to represent proposes to link sharing (of information) and capitalist production in a mutual reinforcing relationship. Tech companies benefit when the level of common knowledge in the employment pool increases or when innovations in the commons can be commoditized and brought into the market. (See Fred Turner’s excellent work on how Burning Man ties into Silicon Valley’s innovation economy.)

Commentators from Lawrence Lessig to Paulo Virno recognize the marriage of market and common as the underlying logic of the information economy and its chief instrument, the Web. In fact, we experience this marriage daily when we give and take freely in the gift economy of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. (and, in doing so, make fortunes for the founders and their investors).

Similarly, the story of Burning Man isn’t a battle between capitalism (or the consumerism it encourages) and communism; instead, it is a story of the ritualized integration of market and commons.  Burning Man demonstrates how market-driven consumption fuels a new commons and how this commons, in turn, creates new markets. It embodies what Virno called “the communism of capital.”bikestents

Recognizing that The Playa is inextricably linked to the market structures of the default world does not delegitimize it as a commons or as an experience distinct from our daily lives. It does mean, however, that we are responsible for the broader economic and social consequences of our big party in the desert. We cannot simply ignore, for example, the extraordinary amount of exploited labor that makes Burning Man possible or that the (mostly foreign) laborers who supply tens of thousands of tents, boots, goggle, backpacks, lights, etc. for the event will likely never be able to afford the price of admission.

It is unrealistic for anyone to expect Burning Man to exist outside of capitalism, but it is possible for Burners to participate in the economy in ways that are more socially-responsible and in ways that are less socially-responsible. If the Burning Man community truly wants to embody the progressive values of inclusivity, communalism, and civic responsibility, Burners need to start thinking seriously about issues of class and economic justice.

* Most attendees do, in fact, exchange money for ice, coffee, and drugs. The first two are sold by the organizers.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist and photographer now based in Austin.


Photo credits: Buy More Stuff, The Temple and The Man by Michael Holden;  hand holding by PJ Rey; truck by alxndr; bikes by papertygre; woman in mask by damaradeaella; supplies by nayrb7; tents by donotlick

Elysium Movie Poster

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Elysium was trashy action flick. It sacrificed any pretense of plot or character development to maximize the number of fight sequences and explosions. It’s clearly geared toward the X-Men 7/J.J. Abrams crowd. However, Elysium does accomplish a few things worth considering:

  1. It injects a class narrative into an action movie—a genre that has been intellectually moribund in recent decades.
  2. It offers a revolution (as opposed to reform) narrative.
  3. It envisions a dystopia arising more from state neglect than from state control.
  4. It avoids technological reductionism.

(Note: Spoilers to follow)

Elysium Space Station

Class Conflict

Americans are notoriously bad at at discussing–or even acknowledging–class (compared to, say, our British counterparts who regularly portray class conflict in popular shows such as Downton Abbey  or Upstairs, Downstairs). While Elysium is, in many ways, a standard Hollywood blockbuster, director Neill Blomkamp’s South African heritage seems evident in the film’s backdrop of class-based oppression. The film’s namesake, Elysium, is a city-sized space station orbiting the Earth; it was built so that the world’s elites can spatially isolate themselves from the global poor that vastly overpopulates the near-future planet. The poor remain bound to the planet’s surface where their labor is exploited by a police state to further enrich the the elites of Elysium. While there are villains in the movie, they are serve as obstacles in a quest to confront a greater evil: the injustices inherent in the social system. The movie closes not after the final villain is defeated, but after the central computer system is reprogrammed to give all people citizenship to Elysium (and the rights to health care and freedom of travel that this citizenship affords them).

Contrary to our national mythology—The American Dream—which suggests everyone can achieve prosperity if he or she works hard enough, Elysium works from the premise that there is only so much room on the ship of privilege and that this ship needs to exploit a lot of outside labor to stay afloat. There is no rising tide to lift all boats. Instead, privilege for some must come at the expense of others.

Elysium Overpopulation

Revolution vs. Reform

Revolution narratives were commonplace in the collective imagination of the West in the early to mid 20th Century. Fritz Lang’s early dystopian classic Metropolis (1927), for example, ends in a violent workers’ revolt. In the past several decades, most prominent activists, academics, and artists have conceded that capitalism is impossible to displace (at least in the near-term), arguing that it is more productive to put energy towards regulating it or towards hastening its (supposed) evolution towards something more benign. Rather than imaging the overthrow of an unjust system, we are now more often confronted with narratives about how one individual maintain his or her humanity in the face of a system that is impossible to escape (e.g., Blade Runner  [1982], Brazil [1985], Gattaca [1997], Code 46 [2003] . Elysium, however, imagines a wholesale (and literal) reprogramming of the social apparatus, where healthcare is redistributed to all according to need and where the police now serve the people not the state.

Stand Down

Dystopia of Neglect (vs. Dystopia of Control)

Georg Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is perhaps the most-cited English-language dystopian narrative. It, like most classic dystopian narratives, imagines a world in which the state (or whatever other bureaucracy maintains social order) exerts excessive control over our lives, limiting personal freedom. In Elysium, on the other hand, the grim conditions experienced by the protagonist is more the product of under-regulation of the lives of individuals than of over-regulation. In other words, conditions are so terrible for the characters because their well-being is largely neglected or ignored.

In dystopias of neglect, scarce resources and opportunities go to those who are inside the system and sophisticated techniques/technologies are employed to ensure the exclusion of all others. The injustice is not in how people inside these societies are treated but in how “social sorting” is conducted to determine who has a right to participate in the system at all. The victims of the system are outsiders to its world of privilege left to fend for themselves.

The dystopia of control reflects a rather conservative fear of losing the freedom and privilege that one already has, while the dystopia of neglect stems from a fear of being permanently shut out from the opportunities one has yet to access. The dystopia of neglect is the present made permanent—the rigidification of existing global inequalities.

(Code 46 and Sleep Dealer also both recently tackled the theme of neglect [2008].)

Elysium Healthcare

Technology is not Sinister but also not Neutral

In many dystopian narratives, technology itself becomes the antagonist. This ludditic impulse is most evident in The Matrix (1999),where technology controls not only the social order but also the very fabric of (simulated) reality. In such films, freedom depends on whether the characters manage to destroy the technologies used to oppress them.

While near-future technologies are used to facilitate oppression in Elysium, the characters have no interest in destroying that technology. Instead, they are fighting to share access to and control of the technology. The protagonists’ main motivation, in fact, is that they need Elysium’s technology to improve their lives, particularly the medical regeneration stations that can cure virtually any ailment. Once the protagonists manage to seize control of the central computer system, it automatically deploys mobile healthcare units back to Earth to treat all the new people it now registers as citizens.

Elysium also avoids simplistically portraying technology as politically-neutral. For example, the program implanted into the lead protagonist’s head is lethal when extracted. This technology intrinsically inhibits sharing and is thus anti-democratic. The protagonists are not simply interested in technology for technology’s sake; rather they are specifically interested in the technologies that promote democratic and humanist values.

Lethal Data

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When someone sends a text to my phone, are they any less responsible for their comments than if they had said the same thing face-to-face? If someone says a photo I post is “unflattering” or “unprofessional,” do I feel like this says something about me as a person? Why has it become so common to equate the unauthorized use of someone else’s Facebook account to the violation experienced during rape, that the term “fraping”* has come into popular usage? These are some of the questions I think that digital dualism prevents us from answering satisfactorily. In framing an alternative to dualist thinking, I argue that it is important to account for people’s changing sense of self (hinted at in the examples above). To do this, we must examine the material conditions of subjectivity, or, put simply, how what we are affects who we are.

Interestingly, my argument that we ought to take serious account of people’s changing sense of self closely aligns me with with Nick Carr’s recent counter to the digital dualism critique. In fact, in re-reading his post, I realize that he is arguing for almost exactly the kind of theoretical frame work that I am working to develop. Carr argues:

there is a tension between online experience and offline experience, and people are smart enough to understand, to feel, that the tension does not evaporate as the online intrudes ever further into the offline. In fact, the growing interpenetration between the two modes of experience—the two states of being—actually ratchets up the tension… There’s no reason to believe that grappling with the online and the offline, and their effects on lived experience and the formation of the self, won’t also produce important thinking and art.

I think Carr is dead on in saying that our experience of self is transforming in light of the shifts in the material nature of the world (i.e., the emergence of digital media). However, I have two problems with his framing of the issue. The first issue is merely semantic. The use of the terms “online” and “offline” (which I am attempting to purge from my vocabulary) sets up a rigid separation between physical and digital media. Much like a light switch imposes a binary on otherwise variable electric current, online/offline cognitively pushes us toward thinking of physical and digital media as necessarily separate. Worse, it differentiates digital from physical media by applying a physical descriptor (i.e., “on”) to digital media.

The second, and more substantive issue, is that, though Carr forcefully argues that we cannot ignore our subjective experience of digital media, he paradoxically argues that our physical environment has an immutable essence that seems to transcend the contingency of experience:

Nature existed before technology gave us the idea of nature. Wilderness existed before society gave us the idea of wilderness. Offline existed before online gave us the idea of offline. Grappling with the idea of nature and the idea of wilderness, as well as their contrary states, has been the source of much of the greatest philosophy and art for at least the last two hundred years. We should celebrate the fact that nature and wilderness have continued to exist, in our minds and in actuality, even as they have been overrun by technology and society.

Carr seems to be operating with a deterministic understanding of the relationship between the objective nature and subjective experience of things (i.e., the objective nature causes the subjective experience of thing), whereas, since Kant, Western philosophy has tend to embrace a dialectical understand of the relationship between objective nature and subjective experience. A dialectical approach allows us, for example, to claim (as Nathan Jurgenson does in his IRL Fetish essay) that the emergence of digital media has irrevocably altered how we experience physical media (and there is no going back).

I contend that experience is even more important than Carr suggests–that, while there is, of course, a material nature to things, we can never know reality beyond our experience of it. If we accept my premise (which is commonly held in mainstream Western philosophy), then the fetishization of wilderness is not a fetishization of the thing itself, but a fetishization of an experience produced in part by nature but also, in part, by all the cultural baggage we carry with us as humans socialized by 21st Century institutions. (David Banks made a similar critique Carr’s piece, saying “we are always already augmented.”)

Of course, in the same vein that Plato argued the advent of writing produced inferior forms of human consciousness, we can, theoretically, argue that digital mediation has corrupted human consciousness. But, the example from Plato demonstrates that even the digital mediation of human consciousness is historically contingent. In short, there is no natural state for human consciousness. And, as such, there is no primitive or essential experience of nature. Wilderness may have existed before society, but we never experienced it as such. Offline may have existed before online, but we can no longer experience it as such.


In light of Carr’s piece, Whitney Erin Boesel and Nathan Jurgenson have both written excellent posts attempting to refine the concept of digital dualism by distinguishing subjective values/experience from the objective ontology of atoms and bits–that is to say, epistemology from metaphysics. While I laud these efforts to set scope conditions for the debate and to bring clarity to ambiguous terms like “reality,” there are costs to bracketing broad metaphysical questions like “What am I made of?”

I’d like to argue (like Katherine Hayles, Jason Farman, and others) that subjectivity is “medium specific.” That is to say, how we experience ourselves and how we come to know the world is shaped in meaningful ways by the materials that embody us. Materiality–whether physical or digital–shapes subjectivity. (Increasingly, our subjectivity is simultaneously embodied by both.) As John T. Sanders explains a “theory of embodied agency… is designed to offer a language that can be used to talk about how things are without commitment to a rigid subject/object dichotomy.”

It has always been a mistake to view social interaction and expressions of agency that are enacted through the body as natural or “unmediated” (for this reason, it is also problematic to talk about “unmediated publics“). It is more accurate to think of a face-to-face conversation, for example, as physically-mediated interaction. Similarly, we can think about how men and women have different physically-mediated experiences of walking down a city street at night.

In contrast to our tendency to normalize and naturalize physicality, we are accustomed to distinguishing actions and interactions that are facilitated by bits as digitally-mediated. In this case, I think common sense has it right. Being and interacting through Twitter, Facebook, or SMS is different than being and interacting through physical media. The properties of bits (such as those described by danah boyd–persistence, searchability, replicability, and in/visibility) matter.

The problem arises when we moralize and hierachicalize these ontological differences–when we say that digital mediation is inferior to physical mediation and, as such, diminishes the realness of a thing or experience. While this sort of moralizing about the the “virtual” and the “real” currently has great currency in our culture (in fact, one might argue that, we, as a culture, have embraced the most fantastical conceptualization of “cyberspace” possible so that we could most satisfyingly reject it), it is not a necessary outcome of recognizing the ontological separation between and unique properties of atoms and bits.

However, maintaining the material distinction between bits and atoms, physical and digital, isn’t as easy as just asserting that they are separate but equal. That would dismiss the ways that physical and digital media interrelate (and combine to embody our subjectivity), and it means falling back onto the very (digital) dualism we are trying to escape. What we need is a theory that can account for the objective differences in the physics of atoms and bits and subjective distinctiveness we experience when interacting through physical or digital media, while also accounting for the fact that we experience them as being enmeshed in very practical ways. This is no small order and is, no doubt, why the digital dualism debate persists.

Developing such a theory, I believe, is two-step process that requires us to collapse the rigid boundaries between two binary pairs: the subjective/objective and the physical/digital. However, as Jenny Davis cautions, this collapse should avoid the total erasure of difference.

To handle the fact that digital dualism makes interrelated claims about the objective (bits are different than atoms) and subjective (digital media is inferior to/less real than physical media) we need an approach that examines the relation between objective and subjective: namely, phenomenology.***

Let me avoid getting too lost in “the ontological weeds” and just say that a fundamental assumption of phenomenology is that objective and subjective reality are dialectically linked, so that, while the two cannot be fully collapsed into each other, neither exists for-us in isolation from the other. We can never directly experience an objective reality outside our subjective experience, yet our subjectivity, and our very consciousness, only comes into being through our interactions with that which objectively exists in the world. (For a more detailed explanation, read Hegel.)

Lucky for us, the sociology of technology already has a well-established phenomenological framework called the theory of affordances. As broadly defined by Donald Norman:

Affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used… A chair affords (“is for”) support and, therefore, affords sitting.

Note that Norman refers to both our perceptions and the objective properties of an object.

Atoms and bits can and do have unique affordances, even as they remain within the same reality. But what’s important for us is that the theory of affordances assumed that what we percieve to exist as objects in the world is shaped by our subjective understanding of how things can be used. For example, I perceive a chair as a discrete object because I recognize it as something that can be sat in. However, if I need to build a fire, the wooden pieces may become salient as pieces separate from the whole of the chair. So, my subjective state conditions what the mass of matter previously associated with the chair is for-me. Sanders explains that

Understanding ontology in terms of affordances thus bridges gaps that would otherwise leave room for questions of relative priority between epistemology and metaphysics. One cannot talk about affordances without talking about both metaphysics and epistemology at the same time (or alternately, at least).

So, why do affordances matter to the digital dualism debate? Because affordances explain why I have distinct experiences of media comprised of atoms or bits. I can do different things with physical and digital media, and, in fact, their different properties seem to encourage me to behave differently. For example, several decades ago, would be unlikely that my mother would expect me to check in every few days or a few times a day with my partner. But the affordances of digital media have facilitated (though not necessitated–I don’t want to be too tech determinist) a shift in norms.

But wait, haven’t I just used affordances to make the case for digital dualism? Yes, the argument as it stands is very dualist in that it fails to account for how we also experience the physical and digital as enmeshed in practical and quite meaningful ways. Thus, we need to take a second step in this argument and erode the digital/physical binary. To do this effectively, I believe we need a new concept, which I will call co-affordances.****

Co-affordances describes situations where the affordances of two objects or two classes of object are mutually dependent. That is to say, how I experience the properties of one thing is determined, in part, by how I process and experience the other thing. We all assume atoms and bits interact on an objective level (capacitors and wires comprised of atoms are require to store and transmit bits) but the concept of co-affordance allows us to talk about how physical and digital media co-produce our experience and knowledge of each. Applied to the physical/digital binary, co-affordances allows us to describe how I both experience each medium as distinct but yet am conscious of the fact that they are interrelated. So, for example, I perceive using Facebook to plan events as useful, in part, because I am conscious of the relatively low transmission speed of paper invitations. At the same time, I perceive handwritten invitations as more meaningful precisely because I am aware of the greater efficiency of electronic messaging. In characterizing these examples, I can say electronic and handwritten messaging co-afford one another. The significance and utility of each is partially derivative or the other.

More broadly, we can say that physical media co-affords digital media. I do not have to use both to experience them as co-afforded. In fact, the decision to use one in lieu of the other will be meaningful precisely because of what media I am–willingly or unwillingly–forgoing. Paper books, for example, become a fetish object because of their more efficient (and less temporally-confined) alternative.

Importantly, this means that, even if reject the argument that human subjectivity is now embodied by two media simultaneously–that we are what Allucquére Rosanne Stone calls “split subjects“–we still have to acknowledge that our physical bodies are now co-afforded by digital media and, thus, may shape human subjectivity in new ways.

The concept of co-affordances allow us to talk about both the enmeshment and distinctiveness of physical and digital media without having to bracket or dismiss important issue of material embodiment. In fact, we now have a language to distinguish contemporary subjectivity from past epochs in history: Contemporary subjects are embodied by both atoms and bits–and necessarily so. Though it may be possible to avoid digitally-mediated interaction in the direct sense, physical media are inextricably co-afforded by digital media, making the influence of digital media on human subjectivity inescapable.

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* This term is both telling and deeply problematic. It merits a separate post (in progress).

** Though the two are certainly not mutually exclusive in a “cyborg ontology” à la Haraway.

*** Whitney Erin Boesel (in troubling the objective/subjective divide), Jenny Davis (in applying the work phenomenologist Judith Butler to the digital dualism debate), and Sarah Wanenchak (in discussing the “feels” of digital media) adopt a phenomenological approach without labeling it as such.

**** All my attempts to name this idea were lousy. Whitney Erin Boesel deserves much credit for coming up with this most eloquent term.

In light of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the debate over access to firearms has again been thrust to the fore of our national consciousness. With the resurgence of this debate, the classic “guns don’t kill people” line of argument will inevitably feature prominently in radio conversations, TV interviews, Facebook posts, and tweets. The “guns don’t kill people” trope is part of a larger pattern in how our society frames the relationship between technology and (lack of) collective responsibility.

“Guns don’t kill people” is a spin on the broader “technology is neutral” trope–still widely-embraced by Silicon Valley–whose function is to absolve the creators of technology from any responsibility for the consequences of what they have designed. The “technology is neutral” trope has long be subject to criticism. From Frankenstein’s monster turning on its creator to Robert Oppenheimer’s own reflections on creating the bomb, Western civilization has wrestled with the question of where responsibility resides in atrocities facilitated by technology, and we, on occasion, are reminded that the choice of what to research and create (or to not research and not create) is an expression of both individual and cultural values. As the great sociologist Max Weber once said, only through “naive self-deception” does a technician ignore “the evaluative ideas with which he unconsciously approaches his subject matter… that he has selected from an absolute infinity a tiny portion with the study of which he concerns himself.” Technology is never neutral because its birth–its very existence–is the product of both political forces and values-oriented decision making.

Both the “technology is neutral” and the “guns don’t kill people” tropes attempt to deflect moral, legal, and political accountability by obscuring our understanding of the causes behind technologically-facilitated tragedies (or triumphs). However, recent global events have made the concept of technological neutrality appear increasingly untenable. For example, social media seemed to play such an important role in the Middle East that many commentators began speaking of Facebook and Twitter revolutions. While social media was not the direct cause of the Arab Spring, it certainly shaped its character and, possibly, its outcome (as Zeynep Tufekci explained in a very astute essay on the causes behind the Arab Spring).

Drawing on Aristotle, Tufekci reminds us that there are four different ways that we can understand how one thing caused another thing to happen:

So what to make of all of this? I say, let’s bring in Aristotle! Aristotle distinguished between four types of causation: material, formal, efficient and final. I want to specifically bring the notions of material, efficient and final causation into this debate. Here’s Aristotle…

“Cause” means: (a) in one sense, that as the result of whose presence something comes into being—e.g. the bronze of a statue and the silver of a cup, and the classes which contain these [i.e., the material cause]; … (c) The source of the first beginning of change or rest; e.g. the man who plans is a cause, and the father is the cause of the child, and in general that which produces is the cause of that which is produced, and that which changes of that which is changed [i.e., the efficient cause]. (d) The same as “end”; i.e. the final cause; e.g., as the “end” of walking is health. For why does a man walk? “To be healthy,” we say, and by saying this we consider that we have supplied the cause [the final cause]. (Full text is here )

In this schema, material causes are the substrate of things. Does metal cause cars? In some sense, cars as we know them wouldn’t exist without metals so it meets a “but for” definition of causality. So, in some sense cars are caused by metals in that no metals, no cars–at least in their current form. However, in everyday usage, most of us tend to use the other two definitions, the efficient cause, i.e. cars are there because someone manufactured them; or the final cause, i.e. cars are there to take us from place A to place B in a speedy (but polluting!) manner.

So, I think most of the people using the term “social media revolution” are using it in the sense of a material cause. As I asked on Twitter during the debate, would we call the French Revolution a printing press revolution? Surely, the invention of the press is a strong antecedent of that revolution. But also surely, that revolution was made by people, through political action. So, the printing press just defines the milieu in which the revolution took place; it is an inseparable part of the French revolution even though it is not the efficient (political uprising) or the final (establishing a republic) cause of the French revolution. But you cannot really imagine a French Revolution, of the kind that happened, without the printing press.

We now need to apply this same schema to guns (and to debunking the “guns don’t kill people” argument). In the Newtown shooting, the efficient cause was perpetrator Adam Lanza’s decision to pull the trigger. Police are still working to determine the final cause or “motive,” though we may find that mental illness is one such cause. While the semi-automatic Bushmaster assault rifle technology available to the perpetrator was not an efficient or final cause of the shootings, it was undeniably a material cause. That is to say, Lanza would not have been able to murder so many people in such rapid succession “but for” the availability of such a deadly weapon.

Without access to an assault rifle (or similar weapon) the quality or character of the killings would have been fundamentally different. If say, Lanza had access only to a manually-operated rifle or a standard revolver, the rampage likely would have been less deadly. This fact is only further highlighted by a similar attack that took place at a school in China on the very same day, but, in this case, the attacker was armed with only a knife. While none of the 22 people slashed and stabbed in China died, all of the victims targeted in Connecticut perished. Intent may have been a factor here, but clearly the two weapons have very different “affordances,” which give the two events each a completely different character and degree of tragicness. [This is, in many ways, an extension of Evan Selinger’s critique of the “instrumental” view of technology, but I think drawing on Aristotle (via Tufekci) provides a simple framework for understanding why the cause of a murder is more than just the the murder’s decision to discharge a weapon.]

We must ask ourselves: Who benefits from the systematic denial of material causality when it comes to firearms and other technologies? Certainly not the children of Newtown. More broadly, however, we are all directly or indirectly affected by the technologies that industry creates and government allows to circulate. The acknowledgement of causality inevitably leads to the assignment of responsibility. If assault weapons are a cause of this massacre, then surely those who caused the assault weapons to exist bear a share of the responsibility. However, this accountability is something that manufacturers, policy makers, and investors alike are keen to avoid, so they will continue to try and confuse the conversation by reducing all causality to the simple pull of a trigger.

Note: Zeynep and I both skip over Aristotle’s notion of formal causation. A formal cause is “the form or pattern; that is, the essential formula and the classes which contain it—e.g. the ratio 2:1 and number in general is the cause of the octave—and the parts of the formula.” Formal causation, in the cases discussed, would imply an essentialist ontology that most contemporary sociologists would reject.

Follow PJ Rey on Twitter: @pjrey.

R.U.X. (Rockwell Universal Sexbots), written by Maurice Martin and directed by Sun King Davis, was first written and performed as a charity effort to raise money for HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive); it ran as a five-part serial in Arlington’s October 2011 Hope Operas. It was rewritten as a full play for DC’s 2012 Fringe Festival, where it took the award for best comedy. The show just finished up a brief encore at Fall Fringe. While this comedy has already been widely and positively reviewed by DC theater critics, it deserves a piece that engages its rather weighty themes.

The story takes place in near-future America (similar in setting to the spate of early twenty aughts robot films such as Bicentennial Man, A.I., and I, Robot), where anthropomorphic robots have become a common consumer product. Louis Rockwell Jr. (John Tweel) has just been made acting CEO of the Rockwell Universal Carebots company, after his father (Frank Mancino) fell into a coma. Louis Jr. has a new vision that would transition the company away from producing robots designed for childcare and, instead, move it into designing robots for—you guessed it—sex.  After rebranding the company “Rockwell Universal Sexbots,” he hires Dr. Callie Veru (Aubri O’Connor), a young and romantically inexperienced software expert to program the robots with the capacity to fulfill human desire. To program robots to respond to human desire, however, the characters must first understand it, and this interrogation of human desire becomes the axis on which the entire plot rotates.

Initially, Dr. Veru, with the help of Gary Stator (Adam R. Adkins), R.U.X.’s chief hardware engineer, attempts to program the robots using romantic tropes from movies and magazines.  However, it is quickly decided that, rather than having robots play out Twilight-esque fantasies of unconsummatable love, customers will prefer robots that simulate real humans. Here, of course, is where it gets tricky. What defines humans as human? And, why would we pay for the company of a robot if robots were indistinguishable from the humans that are already around us?

The designers realize for robots to be more desirable than humans, they have do something that most humans can’t or won’t do: They have to both interpret and reflect our own desires. By giving robots this sort of adaptability, they are made “universal”—they can evolve into the perfect love object for anyone. It’s not enough for a sexbots to want what their users want; they must want what their users want them to want. Desire is dynamic and so too must be its embodiment. These robots become a mirror whose images is tweaked and inverted so that we see, in it, the personification of our own desire. In essence, we don’t want robots to be real; we want them to be what Baudrillard called “hyper-real” (more real than real)—a human that exists solely for us. It would be impossible to ever find such a human; instead, this human must be simulated.

However, as we might expect, the characters’ attempts to create these hyper-real love objects end in folly. It would have been easy to end this play with the tired sci-fi trope that humans are fallible so shouldn’t play god—these sorts of biblical overtones were present throughout R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robot), the 1920 Czech play that inspired R.U.X.. Instead, Martin makes a fresher and more philosophical observation: We can’t program machines to fulfill all our desires because our desires themselves are often competing and contradictory. It’s not human fallibility that comedically disrupts the characters’ scheming; instead, the characters are foiled by the complex and irresolvable nature of human desire.

The scenario that most poignantly captures the contradictory nature of human desire comes when X-1 (Amie Cazel), a robot designed to fulfill the all of Louis Jr.’s desires, murders Louis Jr.’s father after his father awakes from a coma and intends to reclaim control of the company. Louis is plunged into a state of seemingly-insurmountable regret because his desire to be a successful businessman has so deeply conflicted with his desire to be a good person. He projects blame and anger on to X-1 (who he is ultimately responsible for creating in the first place). X-1, in turn, is left wrestling with the paradox that Louis now desires only for her to be miserable. Because the only thing that makes her happy is to fulfill Louis’ desires, she must make herself miserable in order to be happy.

The relationship between Louis and X-1 also sheds light on the strange and multi-faceted relationship between desire and power. Desire cannot be satisfied by simply control or mastery over someone. X-1 continually reminds Louis: “I’m not programmed to obey your orders, I’m programmed to obey your desires… You should understand that subtle but important difference.”

Despite the deftness with which Martin parses out these complex philosophical issues pertaining to the nature of human desire, the play often walks (and sometimes crosses) a very thin line between satirizing and reinforcing offensive stereotypes, including the portrayal of women as emotionally needy and of Japanese culture as perverse and erratic. In some cases, the play turned a critical eye to such stereotypes, reminding us that indulging in these stereotypes is often indicative of some flaw in the character of the beholder; in other cases, however, the play itself seems to indulge in offensive stereotypes.

I found one character particularly distracting: Happy Hoshi (Momo Nakamura) is a Japanese sexbot acquired by R.U.X. for market research. She runs on stage yelling about how she excretes rainbows and uses her sexual organs to play musical instruments. The character capitalizes on the kinds of mistranslations that provided endless amusement in early Nintendo games, but this is embodied by an over-sexed young woman in a way that makes virtually everything the character says and does seem sexist. Were this fact explicitly addressed, it might have played differently; instead, the audience is asked to laugh along with the sexism (and, predictably, they did). From my perspective, however, Happy Hoshi undermines the otherwise thoughtful narrative like a culturally-insensitive Jar Jar Binks.

The play also suffered from a bit of schizophrenia. The first half was mostly a light comedy (with occasional slapstick elements), but this comedy, at some point, starts to transition into a contemplative drama. One can only assume this disjuncture is a vestige of its origins as a serial production. The problem is that we are asked to believe that a crude, flat character like Louis Jr. suddenly transforms into an afflicted, dynamic antihero. It just wasn’t terribly convincing (despite Tweel’s admirable effort). It’s as if The Office’s Michael Scott made a guest appearance on Mad Men.

The plays themes may have been better served by tragedy than comedy. I would have preferred to see Louis Jr. seek atonement by killing himself and X-2. Or, perhaps, X-2 would kill Louis Jr. because that was his deepest desire in a state of chronic depression. Louis Jr. was just not an easily redeemable character and his survival left the plot unresolved.

Interestingly, the play was slightly rewritten for Fall Fringe. In the earlier version, the theme of the death was more prominent. X-2 (Ben Gibson/Ricardo Frederick Evans), the sexbot designed for Dr. Veru, constantly (and humorously) crashes every time he realizes that Dr. Veru will one day die.

Apart from X-1 (who is marvelously performed by Cazel), the most dynamic and believable characters are Gary and his robot girlfriend Gal (Amy Kellett). Gary allows Gal to edit her own source code so she becomes self-directed (though instead of using this power to incite a BSG-style robot apocalypse, she simply marries Gary and they live happily together until his death). In fact, robots have no need to kill off humans because sexbots so fully satisfy human sexual desire that they are no longer interested in having sex with other humans. No human sex means no human reproduction, and, 153 years later, the human race slips contently into oblivion. (I’m pretty sure the desire to have sex and the desire to have children aren’t quite so tightly bound, but it’s an amusing scenario.) Upon the death of the last human, Gal discovers that, in a final act of love, Gary has surreptitiously programmed her with admin rights to all other robots, and she becomes the matriarch of a new robot civilization.

The cast’s original performance at Fringe was significantly tighter than the short Fall Fringe run, where several of the actors seemed to stumble on their lines. Also, Ricardo Fredrick Evans (who delivered a compelling performance) replaced Ben Gibson (who was, nevertheless, a more convincing idiot).

Despite my many misgivings, R.U.X. is an extraordinarily thought-provoking piece of writing that transcends the standard tropes which land most robot stories in sci-fi purgatory—enough so that I saw it twice.

Photo credits from top to bottom: Christos Liacouras, Todd Gardner, Todd Gardner, and Jason Horowitz.

Tweet me: @pjrey.