Here are some of the things I’ve talked about on my Twitter in the last week or so.

  • my mental health issues
  • nail polish
  • Batman
  • how generally unpleasant graduate school is
  • the pan-fandom roleplaying game I’m part of
  • my fiction writing
  • Chelsea Manning and rights for trans* people
  • my syllabus for my Social Problems course this fall
  • Detroit
  • the failing Philadelphia public school system
  • knitting

In other words, in many respects this is your average personal Twitter account. I use it in a pretty average way, if there even is an “average” way to use Twitter, which I think is up for debate. What isn’t average about it is that it’s my only Twitter account. It is the social media site in which my personal life, my professional academic life, my professional writer life, and every other aspect of me come crashing together in a flailing torrent of wibbly, anxiety-riddled unprofessionalism. I don’t use it as a professional account – my legal name is not attached to it in any immediately obvious way – but it would only take a moderately competent internet detective to connect the dots between it and my legal name. I don’t even keep it a secret that I’m Sunny Moraine every bit as much as I am Sarah Wanenchak (see what I just did there?). I used to, but I gave that up a while ago when I witnessed the two identities colliding repeatedly in such a way that it didn’t seem to make sense to draw lines anymore.

And anyway, I do use it as a professional account. I do it all the time.

This particular piece of navel-gazing was inspired by a wonderful post that Whitney Erin Boesel wrote a while ago on changing her Twitter username to reflect a greater owning of what she feels is her professional identity, an identity that she has to have and to cultivate in order to do what she wants to do. What struck me about it, aside from the fact that it was generally awesome and piercingly insightful regarding the way that academics and especially female academics (I don’t identify as female, but people keep gendering me that way so in practical terms I guess I still sort of am) have to negotiate social media was how different hers and my paths have been and continue to be. As she heads down one particular road, I appear to be veering wildly away. She is clarifying (some) things. I am becoming more and more confused.

My name on Twitter – Sunny Moraine – is my pen name, but it feels like as much my name as my legal name does, and is in fact one that I’m much more comfortable using. It comes from a former SN that came from a nickname that itself came from another former SN; the surname is an in-joke between me and my geologist father. It is a fundamental part of my personal history. My Twitter SN – dynamicsymmetry – is a name with a lot of personal meaning for me as well, and is my account name in a number of other places. Rather than establishing boundaries, I’m tearing down walls and letting everything mix. I’m drawing as many connections as I can. I’m trying to make it clear that this is all me.

What you need to understand about this is that it’s as much intentional as it is accidental – and yes, it is both of those things at once. Realizing early on what was happening with my Twitter account – which, incidentally, I only signed up for in order to play Spymaster – I elected to continue to erode borderlines as I saw more of my colleagues establishing them. I felt jumbled and confused, especially as my graduate school career careened along, and I decided to make my Twitter an experiment in owned unprofessionalism. When I have a opinion on pop culture or fandom, it goes there. When I have something to say related to academia, it goes there. When I attend writing conferences and academic conferences, livetweets go there. When I suffered a mental health crisis last summer – which, incidentally, was profoundly influenced by issues in my academic life – I tweeted about it relentlessly. Twitter became a confessional space, and then a supportive one. And because by then it was at least in part an account that I used to maintain professional academic connections, it felt like a political act as much as a personal one. I wanted to fight stigma. I wanted to talk openly about what happens to graduate students when things go badly awry.

I’ve watched other people negotiate these boundaries and borders by establishing two separate accounts, one very clearly marked as professional and the other carefully cultivated as personal. I want to emphasize that I don’t regard that as a poor or an illegitimate decision. But I explicitly decided not to do that.

I don’t even like the idea that there are “poor” or “illegitimate” decisions when it comes to self-presentation in social media, at least not in the way those concepts are often used. But I can’t escape the feeling that this has all been an elaborate exercise in professional suicide. I have been told for years that this is something I shouldn’t do. Yet I also can’t escape the feeling that when the majority of people are telling you not to do something, that might be an indication that it’s something worth doing.

Or it might be an indication that I’m a complete and utter fool who will never be employed.

We can’t all be danah boyd, as Whitney pointed out. Most of us can’t be danah boyd. But what I’m trying – clumsily – to convey is that I’m not trying to be danah boyd, or hoping to be danah boyd; I’m trying to be me, and I’m trying to figure out what that even means, and I’m trying to find out what happens when one entirely bucks the common sense regarding what is required to maintain a professional presence in social media. At this point I don’t really have a career to kill anyway, and maybe what I’m doing is ensuring that I won’t ever. But maybe not.

Nathan Jurgenson has observed in a number of places that one of the great current tyrannies of how we live our lives is this idea that we have to be self-consistent, so we have to carefully monitor everything that goes on the web and all related places. We can’t slip up, we can’t do anything that could come back to bite us later, we can’t do anything to damage the professional facade that we’ll have to erect when we “grow up”.  And yet what social media reveals is that we have never been self-consistent. Our selves have never been clearly delineated. We are chaotic, irrational, self-contradictory, cognitively dissonant, massively unwise, devoid of forethought. We exist in an atemporal present while at the same time we’re constantly cautioned to feel deep anxiety about our pasts and terror of a future that we can’t possibly control but are still expected to manage.

It goes without saying that women have it worse here. Of course they do. We do, because I feel like I do fall into that category in this case: I am subject to greater degrees of scrutiny and surveillance, greater degrees of policing and control, and the consequences for my failure are potentially much harsher.

And yet.

Whitney characterized changing her Twitter SN as “growing up”, not in the sense of becoming less child-like but in different terms entirely:

In a weird way, the idea of changing my username feels like “having to grow up”—not because there’s anything child-like about using a pseudonym, but because changing my username feels like a scary and increasingly inevitable shift in my identity. My pseudonym is in many ways more “me” than my legal name, and yet the idea of using my legal name scares me because it feels too much me. The idea of going first & foremost by my legal name—something I’ve never really done on the Internet, save what’s now my oft-neglected professional Facebook profile—feels frighteningly naked, so intensely visible. I’d just be myself, plain and in plain sight, right there in front of everyone.

At one point, this would also have been me. I chose not to use my legal name in my first forays onto the web – back when the “web” was pretty much all there was – because I wanted to maintain control over my identity that I didn’t have with the identity that had been given to me by others. I wanted to protect myself. But that no longer feels true. When I use Twitter the way I do, I feel painfully exposed. I’m totally naked out there, all the conflicted messiness that is me, that will be the me that any department that hires me will be getting, regardless of how “professional” I am at a conference or in front of a class. Using my legal name would feel like hiding. It would feel like adopting an identity that isn’t nearly as real. Using Twitter the way I do now highlights my own atemporal experience of reality; there is no growing up for me to do, not in that sense. I’m just me. All the time.

I want – again – to emphasize that I’m not devaluing Whitney’s choice, or anyone’s choice, in any way. I’m simply struck by how differently she and I feel. And how similarly we feel in so many other ways, how similar paths have led in such different directions.

I also want to emphasize that I realize that this may be a completely terrible idea.

The point of all of this – I think – is that in all our blathering about professionalism and privacy and publicity we often neglect the sheer diversity in how people use social media and negotiate identity in those settings. How blurred the lines can get. How confused things can become. We don’t make room for those things; we can’t, if we don’t recognize that they’re there. I’m not advocating some kind of consequence-free space where people get to do whatever they want, merely a recognition that people are very complicated and that how we use technology will be correspondingly so.

I am Sunny Moraine and Sarah Wanenchak and dynamicsymmetry. I will answer to any of those.

If you see me, come say hi.

(Addendum: I’m not looking for professional advice or to be told that I’m doing a wrong thing. I appreciate good wishes and well-intended counsel but those just aren’t conversations that I’m interested in having, at least not here.)

A book in a vending machine. This is a thing that exists. Image by Jochen Jansen.


I want to preface this post by coming out against the term “ebooks”. There are a number of reasons why I’m not crazy about it – anything with “e” at the beginning of the word to denote “electronic” strikes me as a bit Information Super-Highway-esque at this point – but also because it discursively separates one medium for books from another and, in my opinion, contributes to a culture that subtly delegitimizes one as compared to the other. Ebooks are books. Period.

However, it’s so entrenched in the language at this point that I think I pretty much have to use it anyway.

That said, last Tuesday I went to a bookstore for the first time in a while.

My experience is not unique – that of visiting bookstores only infrequently at this point. The collapse of Borders and the slow downward slide of Barnes & Noble is damning evidence of that. The store I went to – Books-A-Million in a local mall – is another largeish chain along the same lines, and it looks as if it’s succumbing to the same patterns: less and less space given to actual books and more to calendars, greeting cards, and other vaguely book-related products that admittedly share the feature of being words of a sort printed on various kinds of wood pulp.

There are not a million books.

Basically, if you’re someone who buys into one of the cultural assumptions that supports and maintains the idea that print books are somehow more legitimate than ebooks – that print books are more real because they are more fundamentally sensual – Books-A-Million is still not a place where you would probably go in order to get that sensual experience. This is worth noting simply because in the ebooks vs. print books debate “bookstores” are often presented as monolithic things that are all basically the same and basically up against the rising tide of ebooks in the same way. This isn’t true across the board, but it’s often true, so I’m going to run with it for a sec.

One of the other things that maintains the legitimacy of print over digital – related to the above assumption re: sensuality – is that there is greater cultural value in print books. As I’ve written before, this is in part the result of the idea that it requires a higher level of quality to get into print – something that is true in some ways but increasingly not so in others. Print has greater cultural cachet than digital, but it doesn’t stop there; just as not all bookstore spaces carry the same prestige, not all forms of print do. Trade paperback, I’d argue, carries higher levels of prestige than mass market paperback, hardback carries higher levels of prestige than both. Dust-jacketless hardback with embossing – in most cases – carries higher prestige than hardcover with a paper dust jacket.

And of course the spaces themselves in which one goes to experience books are laden with differing degrees of cultural capital. Independent bookstores tend to be more prestigious than chains. Independent bookstores with lots of antique shelving that’s high enough to need those cool rolling ladders tend to be more prestigious than a little hole-in-the-wall used bookstore. You stand in these spaces, a hardcover first edition in your hands, surrounded by whispers and wood and that fantastic old book smell, and you can think Aha, I am a Cultured person in a Cultured space and I am Experiencing Books.

By the way, all of these rules apply to libraries. The grand central ones are clearly more impressive than the tiny provincial branches. I mean, just look at them. Bonus points for the ones in old universities.

All of this is to say that print is not monolithic in nature. There is an enormously complex system of hierarchically valued cultural capital built up around not only print books but the spaces in which those books are found, consumed, and experienced. The experience of books in its purest and most complete form is the result of the conjunction of the physical artifact of the book and its physical surroundings.

A recent essay in The New Inquiry on the declining prestige of physical galleries as places to experience works of art – in favor of the experience of art via digital media – got me thinking. The piece points out that the prestige associated with the presentation of art has historically been dependent not only on the art and the prestige of the name behind it but on the physical features of the physical space in which the art is viewed – something into which the digital experience of art is beginning to encroach, though with mixed success:

Artists have the ability to create vast social networks online, promote themselves and their artworks, and use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr to share images themselves. Further, while galleries restrict how, when, and where their represented artists show their work to keep demand high, the attention economy rewards artists who produce and share frequently, encouraging artists to be productive and prolific…Artists can be more effectual than the gallery in cultivating attention and connecting with their audiences. Yet the gallery continues to have the upper hand in connoting value within the art market, and the white cube continues to be the quintessential marker of art-world status.

The “white cube” is central here. It is the presentation that we associate with the experience of viewing art: when we think of a “gallery”, that’s probably what we all think of. It serves not only as background but as carefully constructed space – sound, lighting, even smell all come into play. What the TNI piece discusses are the ways in which, with the increasing consumption of art through screens, the “white cube” is becoming merely a backdrop for a photo of art that is then encoded as a JPEG and put on a website. But the general aesthetics of the “white cube” remain as a reference point that everyone can easily identify:

Though Contemporary Art Daily showcases exhibitions from a huge pool of galleries, photos on the site become almost indistinguishable from one another, save for the art. The white cube retains its place in the documentation image: Each photo has a white-walled backdrop and minimal accompanying text, mimicking the aesthetic of white-cube galleries. Situating works within a simulated white cube maintains the illusion of prestige and credibility traditionally conveyed by the gallery space. Only now, the gallery-cum-backdrop contextualizes the work not within physical space but within the democratized playing field of the Internet, while specifying the images’ art-world context.

What’s especially noteworthy about this essay is the recognition that there are sensual aspects to the digital experience of art, simply that it is a differently sensual experience. It is an experience. This is significant, because one of the things that the discourse around the experience of art and the experience of books in digital forms implicitly rejects is the idea that such an experience even exists. How can you experience something that isn’t tactile?

Of course, one vital sense is still used in most forms of this experience: vision. Additionally, ebooks are tactile in that pages are often “turned” by swiping a finger across a screen. Highlighting and notes are also done with hands. The book is touched, just differently. And for those who can’t or prefer not to experience digital books visually, there are audiobooks, which introduce the nuances of an entirely different medium – vocal tone, level, balance, possibly music. It’s still a book, though. It’s still sensual. It’s still an experience. It’s still an experience that is, at least in part, physical.

It’s also worth noting, though, that the ways in which the experiences of books and art in digital settings are constructed ape – at least in part – the familiar traditional experiences of them. The white cube is still there. We still turn pages. What I wonder is what experiences of books and art might look like divorced from those more traditional forms, whether such a thing might even be conceivable. Along with that, I wonder what a system of cultural capital built up around these digital experiences and forms might look like. Just as we often see what we identify as the “physical” as monolithic in nature, we see the digital in the same ways. Ebooks aren’t yet old enough to have such a system built up around them, but there probably will eventually be one; it’s sort of what we do with things. What will that look like? What will it mean? How will we define the experience of digital books and art?

First, of course, we need to get used to the idea that there’s an experience to be had.


Sarah produces words for digital experience on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


There’s always a lighthouse.  There’s always a man.  There’s always a city. – Bioshock Infinite

Let’s play.

My proportions are perfect. Perfect is a slippery term; rest assured that there have been teams and focus groups and more focus groups and round after round of men with impressive cars making comments and more teams and redrafts and here we are and here I am, exactly as we have determined you want me.

If I’m not perfect, you can mod me.


You always say I when you do something. Never he. I killed a bunch of zombies. I got a wicked combo. I jumped a goddamn ice cream truck over a plane. I punched a dragon to death. I was so close to the next checkpoint and then I got sniped in the fucking head. It’s always you.

They’ve gotten a lot of things wrong over the years. Being – sometimes quite literally – a feature of the landscape, I’ve seen it all. Most of us remember Columbine but that was an old story even then. But there’s something else there. It is, indeed, you. You do these things, you make choices, you control – to the extent that the design will let you – and you kill and destroy and possess. You are the subject in this sentence. Not he. Not they. Certainly not her.



So don’t worry. Breasts will always be a thing you get to look at, never a thing you have to have.

When you get called on this, feel free to point to the exceptions, and feel additionally free to disregard what they always say about exceptions and rules.


Allow me to serve you drinks in a tavern. Allow me to play the object in the tower. Allow me to serve as the sexually threatening yet strangely alluring Big Bad. Allow me to pose no real threat at all. Allow me to fight by your side in unbelievably impractical armor. Allow me to be impregnated against my will by aliens. Allow me to make a truly laughable wardrobe change, just in case you were losing interest in my less revealing clothes. Allow me to be covered in sexy wounds. Allow me to appear only as a device in a booth to sell you things. Allow me to die in this refrigerator. Allow me to serve as your motivation, your characterization, your eye candy, your psychological pain, the tears you may, in a daring show of sensitivity, cry.

Allow me to do these things. Please. I’m begging you.


I don’t have to look like, do, or be anything else. The only one here is the archetypal you – like me, expansive and vague and perfect.


There are a number of reasons for the persistence of this situation. I have a lot of time to think about it, what with rarely being the center of things in any active sense. Some of it is who is making me, who is bullied and chased and frightened out of doing so. Some of it is assumptions about the market that bear little to no resemblance to reality. But some of it is that subject of the sentence. Those hands in front of the screen. The silence. The truth of what you say coupled with a heavily policed line between what is and is not real.

Real is sort of at the root of all of this.

There are so many levels on which I am not real. You have no obligations to what isn’t real. You have no obligations to anything inside your sandbox and nothing that exists outside of it is meaningful. This isn’t even all that new. This is merely an extreme version of the sea in which you’ve been swimming since you were born


Yes, we’ll totally stop bitching and change everything all by ourselves. I’ll just pull on my nipple armor and pass that right along.


Yes, you’re totally objectified in games too, what with being muscular and strong and confident and competent and possessing of agency in addition to being overtly sexually attractive. Yes, you’re totally also being treated unfairly, what with being slaughtered in massive numbers. My barely chain mail-covered heart bleeds for you. We are full partners in this struggle, provided the struggle amounts to sit-down-and-be-quiet-and-just-don’t-get-involved-if-it-bugs-you-so-much.


Look, here’s the thing. You see me, but you don’t really see me. You look at me; there is an important difference to be drawn between that and seeing. And none of this is real but it’s all painfully real, for you, so you get to go on looking and desperately protecting your feelings while insisting that it’s no big deal.

And you don’t see. You don’t have to. The girls in the tower, the girls on the battlefield, the girls murdered and damaged to make you feel things, always girls, unless a villain is required and you need to be suitably frightened by power. The girls with the controllers in their hands being told they’re about to be raped. The “girl gamers”, because obviously girl is the most important part of that arrangement of identity.

Half of the population. You don’t have to see us at all.


Let’s play.

There is no “let’s” in this equation.

Sarah frequently yells things about video games on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Given that I write science fiction and fantasy for fun and occasional profit, it stands to reason that I have an interest in quantum mechanics. Given that I almost failed high school physics, it stands to reason that that interest has led to only the most rudimentary understanding of same. Nevertheless, a recent comment by Robin James on one of David Banks’s  recent posts led me to draw some connections to that exact thing.

David is talking about stores like Nordstroms, which, thanks to monitoring systems like Euclid, are likely to become ever more carefully tailored to sell things to the people in them, tracking customer’s movements and preferences like websites, and presenting a worrying picture of physical spaces marked by advanced, surveillance-driven forms of  behavioral control.

Robin’s comment on this post makes the provocative point that the next frontier in this kind of consumer tracking may theoretically lie not in the realm of what customers do but rather in what they don’t do. She refers to Sartre’s “negatites” – that every decision one makes generates an infinite number of things that one did not decide to do – as a conceptual tool with which to approach this idea and why it potentially matters. And this is what got me thinking about quantum mechanics.

For those who aren’t familiar with the ideas behind this, allow me – a person who barely understands them and is therefore hugely qualified – to attempt an explanation.

A fundamental element of the theory behind quantum mechanics is that outcomes at the subatomic level are produced when the wave function of a particular particle collapses, reducing all possible states of that particle to a single “real” observed state. In other words, a bunch of things are potentially true, and then only one is (a thought experiment exploring the more wacky angles of this is of course the (in)famous Schrodinger’s Cat paradox).

An offshoot of this is the wonderfully strange Many-Worlds theory, which holds that, while we perceive a single timeline within a single universe wherein a single set of things has occurred, there in fact exist an infinite number of real alternate universes that correspond to the infinite number of different things that could have happened but didn’t (this actually extends into multiple orders of infinity and at this point I just cannot even; a great explanation can be found here).

Aside from being cool, this is another conceptual tool that can augment an approach to the issues David is outlining. Again, as Robin suggested, technologies that allow for extensive consumer surveillance and the accumulation of massive amounts of data – which of course can then potentially analyzed by incredibly powerful algorithms – make it possible, at least in theory, to record not only what a consumer does but to record and analyze all the decisions a customer might have made but did not. Along with inferences about the reasoning behind these choices-not-made.

This obviously incredibly valuable data for any entity that’s interested in selling you something, but – as David points out – any form of surveillance and behavior tracking that can potentially translate into behavior modification is going to be of interest to people other than corporations peddling to consumers.

Being able to record and analyze what’s not done in addition to what’s done makes it possible to explore and exploit human behavior in ways that approach the level of quantum mechanics. We like to think of ourselves as the products of our decisions, and to the extent that our decisions help to shape the particular universe we perceive, that’s true. But we’re also a collection of negatite-generators, defined as much by what we chose not to do – things which are not simply absence but which are as real in themselves as what we’ve done.

Behavior tracking like the above – even if it exists only in theory as yet – collapses those myriad wave functions. Through observation, it makes all of the multidimensional possibilities that constitute us and our experience of reality something solid that can be grappled with. If it can be grappled with, it can potentially be controlled. Fundamentally this is about the effects of power – and power can work within multiple dimensions.

Of course, this isn’t literal, and again, the quantum element is only a conceptual tool. But it’s still significant that surveillance – and the large-scale analysis of data collected via surveillance – have the potential to subtly alter the way existence is given meaning. What’s troublesome about this idea is not only what it suggests about what effects new forms of spatial organization will have on us, but what it suggests about what and how every part of us could be seen and understood.


Sarah exists in multiple quantum states on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

"Dubai Drones" by Ahmad Makia
“Dubai Drones” by Ahmad Makia

Edward said their thereness is just
a shadow on the sky. Before depredating colonies 
of pests, the selfish herd moves
with all the precision of an equation, unraveled
by game controllers north of Tampa. Of starlings, 
bats, and drones, only drones are native to Florida.

– Phillip Barron, “A Murmuration of Drones”

Murmuration is over. The drones are still there.

Back before the beginning of June, I stated the intention to write something in reflection once June’s “festival of drone culture” concluded. At the time, I was also reflecting on my own writing in relation to drones, looking for some of the dominant themes that seemed to be emerging in my own work. I said then that creative writing – both fictional and less so – was the emergence of things of which one may or not be aware, and as such it has the potential to be endlessly surprising. With so many creative voices brought together around a single theme, creating audiovisual artwork, essays, fiction, poetry, and combinations of some or all, I was interested to see in what areas, if any, there appeared to be a kind of mutual focus.

Of course there were. There were lots of them. For a wonderful conclusion, see Olivia Rosane and Adam Rothstein’s restrospective post. They call attention to a wide range of things that emerged as central concerns, some surprising and some less so, all worth meditating on. But I want to focus here on a singular element, though it’s an element that’s broad enough to contain many other things, a hub from which emerge many spokes.

At the end of my pre-Murmuration post – which identified emotion as my own dominant theme – I mentioned emotion as an entree into considerations of power, specifically as pertaining to need:

Need is by definition a loss of power. And in as much as a drone is a cultural node, it’s a node of political and social power, equally capable of surveillance and lethality, technically exact but inscrutable. A shifting, endlessly accommodating idea isn’t especially trustworthy. But maybe we want to trust. Above all, we want everything to be recognizable. We want to be able to understand.

Early on in my graduate coursework, I was advised in a theory class to always be looking for the power, for where it was located and how it was working. Power is what it all ultimately comes back to. It’s the hub. I think Murmuration is no exception. I’m not even sure how one would write about drones without writing about power.

In Murmuration I saw work that dealt with this explicitly and implicitly, that touched on it from myriad angles, that explored its loss and its flows and attempts to reclaim it, and tried to imagine its potential future.

Most obviously, when we think of drones we usually think of both surveillance and warfare, and combinations of the two. Surveillance and warfare have both traditionally been understood as expressions of state power, ways in which the state directly extends potentially lethal control over human bodies. Power decides who lives and who dies, and which deaths have the weight of significance. A large percentage of the work featured in Murmuration dealt with this, addressing questions of what the exercise of that power actually looks like and what its consequences are. Molly Crabapple’s “Shakira”, a haunting portrait of a four year old Pakistani drone strike victim, literally gave the consequences of the power to kill and injure a face. Likewise, Rosane’s own wrenching short story “Warnings” and Angbeen Saleem’s equally powerful poem “Vestiges” capture the helplessness and fear of people rendered into objects, keenly aware of their own lack of power but unable to protect themselves or their loved ones from the death they know is coming.

The drones in those pieces are distant and ineffable; any potential human operator doesn’t enter the picture because they are ultimately unimportant to the dead and the survivors, who in turn may or may not be important to the human operators on the other end. In these pieces the drones themselves are the centers of power, and that power is largely incomprehensible, even as it watches and kills. It’s simply there.

I believe that to the degree that we remove humans on both ends of the equation, drones take on almost godlike power that generally resists deeper interrogation. Nathan Jurgenson issues a piercing critique of this discursive habit in “The Fiction of the Autonomous Drone”, wherein he points out that the removal of a human operator from the picture makes it more difficult to hold those who truly control a drone responsible for the all-too-human consequences of its missions. In “the Contradiction of Austere Warfare”, our own David Banks points out that drones are the perfect tools of contemporary war precisely because they maximize the efficiency of war as the very basis of power:

War must become permanent and without borders. It must be able to expand and shrink as quickly and fluidly as the global markets it creates and sustains. Drones are the crucial tools that keep war expensive, but also agile and austere…America’s burgeoning austere war harnesses the age-old contradiction of expensive war and efficient killing machines to create a highly customizable geopolitical conflict generator. The drone will go down in history as the crucial invention that made war a managerial decision.

As Nathan says, one of the most insidious things about digital dualism is the degree to which it dehumanizes that which is deeply human, which results in letting some important people off the hook. The dehumanization of drones – often done through incorrectly granting them autonomy – not only in turn dehumanizes their human targets but dehumanizes the entities that control them, states (and potentially corporations) that are nonetheless made up of human beings. To be devoid of the complications of emotion and interpersonal relationships, to be perfectly distant and removed, is to be powerful in a way that we find deeply and viscerally terrifying. In my own short story, “All the Literati Keep an Imaginary Friend”, people profoundly disturbed by the ability of drones to kill without fear or remorse (and of course my drones have no human operators at all) force them into therapy in a desperate attempt to impress emotions on them that make them more comprehensible and less frightening. But in the end, the human therapists find themselves rendered powerless and confessional – something that they perversely enjoy.

But just as protestors in Turkey, Russia, and during Occupy in the USA were able to make use of drones for their own ends, some of the work in Murmuration introduces possibilities for direct resistance. Christopher F. Smith’s “My Little Droney: Surveillance is Magic” renders drones less powerful and less frightening – and more directly approachable for discussion – by making light of what they are. Adam Rothstein imagines a potential strategy for counter-action against drones in “Cascadian Drone Sigils: An Instance of Drone Culture”, where people in the Pacific Northwest reclaim power from domestically used drones through creativity and new forms of folk magic.

In what I feel is one of the most poignant pieces to come out of the festival, Jeremy Antley describes the intimate relationship between a drone and their human operator in “Dronefire”, a short story that explores whether drones themselves might feel ultimately powerless and how they might even experience grief and loss. In Antley’s story, a drone is just as much subject to relentless expressions of power as human beings on either end – and feels the damage just as keenly.

Perhaps the simplest, purest exploration of drone-as-power to come out of Murmuration can be found in “In This, Conquer”, Jordan Worley’s presentation of a drone as the cross that appeared to Constantine I and drove him to establish an officially Christian empire. Worley is calling attention to the ways in which our understandings of the relationship between drones and power reduce drones to watchers and killers, therefore constraining our discourse in ways that have their own consequences:

Drones are machines. They are tools that are meant to increase the safety of the worker, soldier, police officer, and rescue technician that operate them. Drones transport the worker’s agency and consciousness without endangering the operator. Drones allow the operator to act without fear of death or injury. Drones have also been used to assassinate those that would act against the USA and its interests. In the process they have murdered innocent bystanders, destroyed lives, and spread fear. Drones as a symbol of security (safety, protection) have become a symbol of terror and death.

As I said, it shouldn’t be surprising that power is popping up everywhere in these pieces; power always is. And just as we can’t talk about drones without talking about power, I don’t think we can talk about technology without doing the same. What makes drones so powerful as a creative tool are the ways in which we can use them to talk about so many other things. Power moves through drones; so we can write and talk and think through drones. So we have to.

Though Murmuration is over, the conversation isn’t done; check out @DroneMurmur for more. Additionally, there are many amazing pieces that I didn’t talk about here, and all of them are worth spending some time with.

Sarah exercises very limited forms of power on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


Today we’re featuring an interview with Olivia Rosane and Adam Rothstein, contributing editors for The State and the minds behind Murmuration, June’s month-long festival of drone culture. Given this blog’s close ties to that project, it seems appropriate to dig a little deeper into the thinking and aims behind it. Olivia and Adam were kind enough to sit down and answer some questions to that end.

Where did the idea for Murmuration come from?

Olivia Rosane: The idea for Murmuration grew out of a series of blog posts Adam and I wrote for the State back in January. A blogger on another site had negatively reviewed Teju Cole’s “Seven Short Stories About Drones,” by basically arguing that fiction was not a good tool for dealing with the reality of drones. Adam and I took issue with this for different reasons. Adam pointed out that since our ideas about drones are already so influenced by fiction and formed in a fictional way, we needed more fiction to understand not just the technology itself, but our idea of it. I argued more from the perspective that fiction can free us to empathize with people we wouldn’t normally give ourselves permission to empathize with, and so that fiction could be a powerful tool for exploring the effects of drones on those who operate them and live under them. After we had written posts basically calling for more art and fiction about drones, we thought we should do more than just nebulously argue for its existence, we should do something to generate more of it. That’s how we came up with the idea of an online festival. We wanted to inspire others to create around the idea of drones and then post all the work on the same site during the same time frame so that the stories and art pieces could speak to each other and together give readers a sense of what people are thinking about drones.

Adam Rothstein: To what Olivia aptly said I would just add that there is something of Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque” to the festival, as we noted in our introduction. This is not a military parade, but more of a counter-cultural festival. Drones are not typically ours to talk about, unless we build them ourselves. The “festival” was definitely conceived in this sense, as a location for satirical worship, for reversals of roles and ludic experimentation.

Also, we are trying to develop a digital archive of all the posts, as well as a printed document of the festival. Anyone interested in helping make these archives a reality (and receiving copies) should back our Kickstarter campaign, which will enable these productions, as well as pay all of our contributors for the month.


What do you think are the most significant aspects of the conversation around drone culture?

Adam Rothstein: Overall, the significant thing to me about drone culture is that it continues to evolve. It’s largely (but not entirely) culture within digital mediums, and so it is subject to digital sharing, remixing, mimetics, and so on. I would not say that it is therefore “virtual” in a non-real sense, but it is stimulated by technology and politics that are very much occurring in reality, and therefore, it allows itself the freedom to twist reality and respond to it in its mediums.

This is something similar to what might have been termed “street art” in the past–reacting to the reality of a new urban architecture by painting on the wall, in a creative act that is less permanent and from a certain point of view, destructive. But there is more to graffiti than writing on walls, of course. Graffiti has been conceived as one of the “four elements of hip-hop”, the others being DJing, MCing, and break dancing. All of these are art forms that react to the urban environment. This is how you dance on concrete, this is how you paint without canvas, this is how you make music and write when your only instrument is a radio or turntable and the only bookstore that can’t kick you out is a public park. I’m not saying this is what hip-hop is (I wouldn’t be in the position to provide any such definition), but in a certain way this is what it perceives itself to be, when it articulates itself this way. So, we can’t afford any technology above a cell phone and a laptop, we have no more political agency than a free social media account, our sense of security exists on the wrong side of stop-and-frisk and a NSA database, our image of the earth is a potential targeting grid, and our sense of our own bodies is somewhere between the smooth, seamless paint of a radome and burned flesh at the site of a drone strike. Do we perceive the creativity arising from this situation as “drone culture”? I’m still not sure. But both of us found it fairly easy to apply this label, and so we did–to see what happens as a result of that.

Olivia Rosane: What first caught my attention when beginning to think about “drone culture” is just how fascinated people seem to be by drones. Whether that’s enthusiastic hobbyists teaching us to make DIY drones or protestors in Yemen burning drones in effigy, everyone seems to agree that the drones themselves are worth paying attention to. There are protests that target the use of drones specifically, not just wars that they are used for. So one thing that’s important about the conversation is simply that there is one, and it’s a pretty loud one. And I think it’s worth getting to the bottom of that fascination. Should we be so focused on drones? Are they a game-changer? Or merely a distraction?

On the one hand, I think it’s very important, very significant, that you can now have one person in one place control a machine that can kill another person in another place. And the person with his or her finger on the trigger is entirely safe from physical harm. While a fighter pilot dropping bombs might have less visual contact with his or her targets, he or she still risks getting shot down. So the scary thing about drones is that they make foreign entanglements more appealing to wealthy democracies, because politicians can do what they want to abroad without dealing with the voter-displeasing videos of flag-draped coffins.

On the other hand, one thing that’s significant but incorrect about drone culture is that we talk about them as if they’re already robots. They’re not, yet. They’re not autonomous, as Nathan Jurgenson pointed out in an essay for Murmuration. They are remote-controlled machines, but they’re still controlled. And sometimes I think we are too eager to see them as the realization of so much of the science fiction we’ve seen and read in the past 50 years, when in fact they are something different. We need to remember when talking about drones that the controller is just as important as what he or she controls. The technology is much more about the relationship between user and machine than about the machine alone.


What do you see as the primary features of drone culture itself, as it currently exists?

Olivia Rosane: I think there are probably multiple drone cultures, as opposed to a single drone culture. There’s the military-industrial-imperialist culture that created the drone, which seems to be all about maintaining power with as little consequence to yourself as possible. Drones are a way of making sure that all your wars will be fought “over there.” Then there’s a culture of fascination, perhaps fetishization? that surrounds drones themselves as a new technology. The bright colors of Drones of New York. The enthusiasm of DIY Drones  or Drones For Peace. Videos like the one of mini-drones playing the James Bond theme song. Finally there’s a culture of resistance. Beyond protests, there are also artworks like Adam Harvey’s Stealth Wear line of anti-drone fashion, or AJ Kohn and Hiba Ali’s “Shura City,” which we published for the festival, which is a proposal for a city designed to defend inhabitants from drones. Now perhaps these are all just different facets of a larger drone culture, drones being the one thing that link otherwise disparate groups, which is something they do physically. So why not conceptually?

Adam Rothstein: There is a sense in which all of this is “dancing about architecture”, or “doing art about technology”. But there has always been art about technology, and drone culture seems to be drawn to a particular node of technology, even if it is more fiction than reality. It is a bit of fetishization, as Olivia said. But we fetishize interesting things: ruins, container ships, guns, telephones, cars, denim, rockets. No one decided, “hey, let’s freak out about cars, just because”. Cars were significant. We were already doing car culture to ourselves. We write songs about cars, even as we kill ourselves in them. We’re already doing drone culture to ourselves. Now we arm our cars with cameras so we can upload those crashes to a social network monitored and analyzed by the government. And so we write poems about drones.


Any ideas regarding where the conversation is going? Where would you like to see it go?

Adam Rothstein: I think it was very illuminating to see the positive feedback to Murmuration, and that we got so many submissions. People seemed to say, “yes! this is a thing!” As far as what this thing is, there is probably critical work to be done, to look at all of these responses, and see what is common and uncommon. I hope that those who submitted got a chance to see the other work, and were able to relate that to their own practice, and that was helpful in some way. This was the tangible goal. As far as any direction beyond that, there’s no way we could expect it or guide it. The choice of Tumblr for the original publication medium was deliberate. Others create, we collect, others see and perhaps re-share. And then? Tumblr’s usefulness as a theory-object goes only that far, and that’s the point.

Olivia Rosane: One thing I was rather shocked to read and have been working to remind myself of ever since is that the vast majority of Americans support drone strikes. So I think it is very important to keep stating and restating that it is not good or fair to be able to fight a war in which the casualties are all on one side, even if it is “easier” and even if the death count ends up lower.

That said, I really don’t think that drones as a technology are inherently evil. Having the ability to control something remotely doesn’t have to be bad if you’re using it to take (non-surveillance) photographs or monitor forest fires. Drones are different from other weapons like guns or nukes because they don’t have to be used to kill. They’re more like airplanes, which have been used to kill because that’s the world we live in, but can be used to do many other wonderful things as well. So I think an important conversation to have is what do we want to use drones for? Who do we want to use them and how? I know I wouldn’t trust the NYPD with drones, but I wouldn’t mind if the MTA used them to check out the safety of flooded subway tunnels, for example.  This is all rather outside the purview of Murmuration, which is really just about trying to get to the bottom of the emergence of drones on the scene. Art isn’t there to direct policy; it’s there to help us make sense of the world.


What were you hoping to see out of the submissions you got?

Olivia Rosane: I personally was hoping to get as many different perspectives on drones as possible in as many different media as possible, and so far I’ve been very pleased with the results. We’ve had stories, essays, drawings, audio files, videos, even a video game! And we’ve seen drones explored from the perspective of targets, controllers, drones themselves, and observers of this strange moment we’re living in. Overall, I’m very proud of what we’ve posted and am excited to present the last week and a half of the festival.

Adam Rothstein: What we received was uniformly excellent, because much of it I didn’t expect. We were hoping to get a range of mediums, but I didn’t expect how awesome drone music would be, drone architecture, or a drone video game. To see what other people do with an idea as complicated as drones, and to be surprised by unexpected and beautiful takes on it is a very powerful thing. Secretly, I was hoping to get more submissions with a sexual component. There’s a lot to say about drones and the gaze, about the sexualization of bodies, and the eroticization of our actions, about experimentation with sex and violence. But that’s just me. I suppose that’s something I’ll have to work on myself.


Have any primary common themes emerged that we can expect to see in the work this month?

Adam Rothstein: A particular image of the drone is very evocative. Mostly embodied by a MQ-1 or MQ-9 sort of visage. The down-turned elevators and stabilizers, the smooth, bumped out radome. It has an uncanniness, almost like an animal head without eyes, mouth, or ears. This isn’t the only image we’ve seen repeating, but it is there.

In the prose and poetry we’ve received, there is a tendency to existentially anthropomorphize the drone, to give it some sort of being, but also to question that being or with it, question our being. I used to think this was a bad thing–I don’t like anthropomorphizing machines generally. But I think the drone, in fiction, is a necessary character. It’s a monster. It’s an angel, a ghost, a leviathan, a thunderbird, a mythically powerful weapon. It has a relationship to our deep hopes and fears. It projects parts of ourselves, in many ways.

Another interesting trend is drone culture that involves sound. Music, recordings, noise. I’m not sure what to think about this, but it is delightfully unexpected and interesting. Maybe, the unseen aspect of drone technology draws people to portray them through a medium that is itself unseen.

Olivia Rosane: I think that, while there has certainly been a lot of anthropomorphizing going on, an interesting and rather unexpected theme that’s emerged has been the relationship between drones and humans, and how our reaction to and understanding of drones says as much about us as they do about the drones. There was your piece imagining drones in therapy, and how the drones actually ended up being better therapists for their therapists than vice versa, and of course Nathan’s point that drones are very much not autonomous no matter if we call them UAVs. But beyond that there was Matt Gulley’s piece that imagines a man trying to keep himself from entering into an affair by hiring a surveillance drone to follow him and shame him out of it. And of course any work that focuses on the effects of drone strikes, like Molly Crabapple’s drawing “Shakira” or Angbeen Saleem’s poem “Vestiges,” is about a very different sort of relationship between drones and people. One of the things this festival has made me realize is that the way we, as a culture, talk about drones ties in very much with the work you do at Cyborgology on Digital Dualism. We talk about drones as if they are separate when in fact they are much more like the smart-phones or computers we use; they are machines that augment, rather than challenge, our will. What is frightening about them is not actually that they would rebel and turn on us, but what they already enable us to do to ourselves.

Olivia Rosane graduated from Barnard College in 2009 with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. Her work as appeared in YES! Magazine, A Tale of Four Cities, Lapham’s Quarterly’s “Roundtable” blog, and The New Inquiry. She currently lives in New York, where she writes and shelves books at the Strand bookstore. She blogs at Fiction on Foot. → @orosane

Adam Rothstein is an insurgent archivist and researcher, who writes about media, technology, and politics wherever he can get a signal. He is on Twitter as @interdome


Murmuration (a month-long festival of drone culture) is in full swing, and while I still plan to write a retrospective post once it’s all done, there are naturally already themes emerging as common to a number of the pieces. And like all powerful themes, they transcend the pieces themselves, speaking to wider technological and social issues, revealing existing things while pointing the conversational way forward. I think one of these themes in particular is worth some particular attention, not only for what it says about drones but for what it says about war in general.

Both Olivia Rosane and Nathan Jurgenson – as well as many other people, in the festival and out of it – have observed that one of the primary features of much of our drone fiction is the removal of the human element, both the human operator and the human casualties (Olivia also makes the extremely important point that drone fiction can and should tear down this project). Our drone fiction denies the presence of human operators; it renders drones autonomous. The consequences of this are significant and significantly troubling.

When a drone is autonomous, there is no one to blame, no one to feel guilt, and no culpability on our own part. The killing of civilians or the surveillance of citizens can be explained away as the act of an ineffable drone god. Even the power of the state behind the drone is erased, or at least subtly minimized – although, as Asher Kohn points out, a drone is also a perfect citizen, a perfect subject of state and corporate power. But for the rest of us, a drone is just there, its power nebulous and yet intensely present, and without human responsibility no one can be held responsible for what it does. As Nathan writes:

My worry is that the agency and humanization many grant the drone deflects the intentionality, and thus responsibility, away from those controlling it. Caught in the fascinating ways the drone is “autonomous”, we spend far too few words on the overwhelming degree to which the drone is no more autonomous than previous tools of surveillance and/or destruction.

So drones aren’t autonomous. The stories we tell about drones need to reflect that; the best stories are true stories, even when they’re fictional, and our drone fiction needs to tell the truth. But what we also shouldn’t forget is that just because drones – the actual vehicles themselves, and in particular here I’m talking about vehicles designed for use in combat – aren’t autonomous yet doesn’t mean they won’t be.

And in fact this is the true, terrifying goal of the drone, the reason it exists at all: the removal of any obvious humanity from the equation.

This isn’t science fiction. The Global Hawk surveillance UAV currently operates with almost no human operator control except in takeoff and landing. Work on creating a more autonomous drone continues.

The thing about this is that, as Nathan says above, none of it is new, at least not in aim. This has always been what we do when we wage war. One of the identifiers of “total war” is industrialism, the degree of technological sophistication, and the goal of technology in war is almost always to kill more of the enemy while leaving more of one’s own forces intact.

The goal of technology in war is, in other words, to make killing more efficient. And humans are profoundly inefficient. It’s also extremely difficult – despite appearances – to get people to kill each other. Studies of soldiers in combat have revealed that a significant number of them intentionally fire over enemy heads rather than shooting to kill. But technological warfare as it’s practiced now tends to distance the killers from the killed (with notable exceptions). With the advent of aerial bombardment that distance became literal. When mass death is reduced to numbers – to physics and casualty counts – it becomes abstract, its various components as nebulous and therefore as blameless as a machine without a mind. Technological warfare obscures – it hides and removes as much as it purports to clarify.

Combat drones are the logical next step in this project. Our common fiction about them erases the people at both ends – the pilots and the casualties. But our fiction is based in something; it always is, that’s what makes it so powerful, but in this case we should be especially careful to make sure that we understand what exactly that base consists of.

On some level we want to remove human agency from drones, yes. That’s why we talk about what we talk about when we talk about drones, why we tell the stories we do. But the thing about fiction is that the line between it and fact is – as all lines are – extremely porous. We should watch what moves.

Sarah reveals and obscures in equal measure on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


I’ve been writing a lot about game consoles lately, mostly because a lot has been going on with gaming. To date I’ve mostly been focusing on the Xbox One and the degree to which it contributes to the troubling industry trend – intensely apparent in the game industry but by no means confined to it – of eroding the power of owners and turning them increasingly into users/renters. With the release of the Xbox one, I – and many others – wondered if this marked the final push in the setting of massive industry standards. If, with the Xbox One’s hopelessly restrictive and confusing game lending/resale process and its daily “phone home” requirement, this was simply going to become the norm. Which would mean a serious blow to the power of technology consumers and an important and worrying redefinition of our relationship with the technology that augments our daily lived experience.

Then E3 happened.

A quick explanation: E3 – the Electronic Entertainment Expo – is the annual trade fair of the game industry. It’s a big deal, a huge publicity event, and one where game developers and hardware manufacturers show off new products and create buzz around those still in development. It’s where, this week, Sony unveiled the next generation of the Playstation console, the PS4. Coming on the heels of the Xbox One reveal, this would have been a big enough deal; Microsoft was naturally also at E3 to push the Xbox One, and everyone was waiting to see how the two giants would go head to head.

What happened is that Sony presented the PS4 as the anti-Xbox. In so doing, they presented themselves as the anti-Microsoft. And Microsoft got shellacked.

Twitter exploded as Sony outlined the major features of the PS4. No internet connectivity requirement. It’s easy to lend, trade, and resell games an unlimited number of times (they claimed, initially; it now appears that third-party developers may have final say there). No in-built console DRM, at least not of the oppressive kind included with the Xbox One. All that control freak stuff that Microsoft intends to do, Sony said? We won’t do that. We’re not evil.

So why should anyone outside the game industry care about this? Because by setting itself up against Microsoft in terms of how much control over its technology it seeks to retain, Sony is introducing the possibility of another way forward in terms of the relationship it affords between technology and technology owners. It’s turning aside from the trend I mentioned above, and it’s doing so in a very public fashion. It’s far from the first corporate entity to do this, but it is one of the most visible.

Let’s be clear about something: Sony isn’t any more or less evil than Microsoft. Sony is just smarter. I’ve said before that one of the things that I think is valuable about DRM disasters like we saw with SimCity and Diablo III is that they bring these issues to the surface and make them impossible to ignore. They expose the direction of the changing definition of “owner” and spark a conversation regarding how we really want things to go. They also make people angry, and these angry people yell. The yelling becomes pressure. If there’s enough pressure, corporations respond.

Microsoft didn’t. So Sony did it for them. Sony saw how people responded to the DRM-y issues with the Xbox One and turned it into a marketing strategy. They’re arguing that not only should oppressive DRM not be an industry standard, but that positioning oneself as opposed to it can win market share.

But let’s be clear about something else: Sony is positioning itself against the kind of DRM that Microsoft built into the Xbox One, which is DRM of a very apparent sort. There’s visible, bad DRM that makes very clear how little control owners have over a device. And then there’s invisible, good DRM that never gets in the way of anything, that never makes waves, that makes no one angry and sparks no conversations. Right now DRM technology is still arguably in its infancy, and there’s more of the former than the latter. But if there was more of the latter than the former, the furor over the Xbox One probably never would have happened, and Sony wouldn’t be adopting the marketing strategy that it is. The downward slide from owners to users would continue unchecked.

So this is a hopeful sign. But we shouldn’t regard it as the end of DRM. And we shouldn’t automatically trust companies to not be evil about it, regardless of what industry we’re talking about.

Sarah yells angrily about everything on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


A comment from a friend of mine on my recent post about the XBox One reveal got me thinking, about games and bodies and how exactly it is that we talk about both.

The thing about video/computer games – and in fact this is true of a huge amount of digital technology – is that we have this mythology built up around them that implies that they render bodies unimportant, that they divorce identity and movement and interaction from the physical embodied state in which most of us have historically experienced all of those things. This mythology is a classic example of Strong Digital Dualism, the digital and the physical profoundly disconnected and entree from one to the other amounting to an entry into a wholly different world where none of the rules are the same.

Which is clearly not the case. And games are a fantastic arena in which to see how un-true this is.

Video games are often presented as bodiless experiences, especially when the controls are extremely simplified; In The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim I run, jump, cast fireballs and swing battleaxes, all from the comfort of my office chair. When I do these things, my body fades into the periphery of my conscious awareness, except for when my wrist or back (or butt) start to ache. And because there’s no force feedback in my game setup, the input is all about vision and sound; nothing is tactile, but because the tactile doesn’t directly matter, I tend not to notice that it’s not there. Likewise, when I play a game on my PS3, I only use my fingers and my thumbs, and I feel the vibrating feedback on  the controller, but otherwise it’s all in my ears and eyes. I think it’s this experience of perceptual disregard of the physical that allows us to imagine that the digital “space” of a game allows us liberation from the limitations of our bodies; I can’t run for miles up mountains, but my high elf in Skyrim can. I sure as hell can’t shoot fire out of my hands, but my high elf in Skyrim roasts frostbite spiders without breaking a sweat.

But all of those things that I don’t notice anymore still matter.

I can move easily through Skyrim without any significant game setup modification because I can see (with glasses) and hear just fine. I can play for hours and not be bothered by my body because I have no chronic pain conditions that make sitting or remaining in one position for long periods difficult (though I know it probably isn’t good for me to do so). I can follow complex storylines and read lengthy text without any trouble because I have no significant cognitive disabilities. In short, I can temporarily disregard aspects of my physical experience and focus more fully on interaction with a form of digital media because of my able-bodied privilege. The game was designed for people like me – able-bodied, primarily neurotypical people – so my experience is seamless and mostly effortless.

The point is that the kind of Strong Digital Dualism that creates the above mythology is intrinsically ableist. It assumes that people are able to stop caring about their bodies. But this is patently impossible, as well as unfair. If I were blind or deaf, I would need elements of the game to be modified in order to be able to play, or I might not be able to play at all. If I had difficulty controlling my hands, a keyboard + mouse interface would obviously not work well for me.

Games are therefore a fantastic example of ways in which digital technology is profoundly embodied and usually designed with the able-bodied default in mind – and when you don’t possess the “default” body, this fact becomes (often literally) painfully obvious.

Which brings us to the Kinect.

When the Kinect was released, a lot of people assumed it would remain a niche form of controller, and for the most part this has been the case. But with the announcement of the XBox One, it looks like the console will be working to incorporate the Kinect more fully into more and more of its games – and into more and more of its functioning in general. This is significant because the Kinect, rather than allowing for temporary disregard of aspects of physical experience, makes bodies central to the experience of a game. Bodies are how you use a Kinect; you move in order to make things happen.

Which clearly has some consequences regarding can and can’t use a Kinect. What’s interesting about this is that some people with disabilities are finding that a Kinect is allowing them to play games that were impossible to interact with before (for example, people with difficulties in fine motor control required for traditional hand-held controllers), while others with mobility issues (such as needing to remain seated) find using many features of the Kinect difficult or impossible.

Microsoft, to its credit, appears to have made at least some moves in the right direction, recognizing the disparities of use in their Kinect FAQ and meeting with the AbleGamers foundation for a useability/accessibility roundtable. But as Microsoft correctly points out, the accessibility of a game is only partially to do with the controller; a huge amount depends on the design of the game itself. So a truly accessible game depends on many people at many points in the development process incorporating considerations of bodies and neurological arrangements other than the go-to able default. In other words, it depends on designers not approaching design from a Digital Dualist perspective but instead recognizing that the digital and physical together make up someone’s experience of technology, and that not everyone’s “physical” is the same.

It’s worth noting that, once again, those of us on this blog who’ve written against Digital Dualism don’t just do so because we feel that it’s not a useful conceptual framework with which to approach the world, but because we believe it helps to perpetuate existing forms of inequality.  Technology isn’t neutral; neither is theory. Nor should it be.


Before we get into it, allow me to direct your attention to the massive link roundup about this on Fanlore. It’s worth a look on its own, and contains many awesome arguments and viewpoints to which I can’t do justice here.

It was one of those moments of glorious serendipity that, a day before I left for Wiscon – a weekend of feminist SF and fandom in Madison, Wisconsin, hence the name – Amazon announced that they would start selling fanfiction.

Specifically, the venture is called Kindle Worlds, wherein Amazon has secured licenses for various IPs in order to allow writers to publish fic set in those various canon for which they will receive royalties – while, of course, Amazon takes its cut (and it’s a sizable cut). So far the only licenses specified are the CW’s The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl, and ABC’s Pretty Little Liars, but Amazon indicates that writers will be able to publish fic from “popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games” and they claim that more licenses are on the way.

And fandom exploded, as fandom is wont to do.

Response hasn’t been uniformly negative. But about the best that can be said about the non-negative responses is that they’re ambivalent. Most people are scornful – is Amazon seriously expecting to make money selling something that people have been doing forever for free? We can’t write crossovers? We can’t write porn? (How the hell will porn be defined, anyway?) But more than a few people are troubled (true confession: my fiction writer alter ego was both). Interestingly, the reasoning behind the troublement freely crosses the boundary between fanfiction writers and original fiction writers – a line that, granted, was never all that clear anyway. And that reasoning is worth examining more closely, because of what it suggests about the future of fandom in the age of digital publishing.

The issues fall into two broad and interrelated categories.

First, there’s the fact that, as I’ve written about before on this blog, fandom has a long-standing tradition of resisting monetization. The practice of “pull-to-publish” work is generally looked down on, even more if the work is successful (witness Fifty Shades of Grey). Fandom tends to be a gift economy that runs on love of canon, a wildly creative space in which people exchange time, effort, feedback, and powerfully positive emotions in order to produce transformative work. A gift economy of this type is pretty much ideologically opposed to traditional consumer capitalism – or, if it isn’t necessarily opposed, it exists completely outside of that sphere. It isn’t that people in fandom don’t want to make money; it’s that money isn’t why they’re in fandom.

Add to this the fact that the ways in which fans engage in transformative work are often radical in nature; from the earliest days of what we now recognize as fandom, fans were inserting queer content into fannish extensions of canon, exploring issues of race, class, gender, and how we define humanity itself in ways that the canon couldn’t or wouldn’t do.  Radical messaging has historically not played well with corporatization, yet from second wave feminism to Occupy there is a long history of radical messaging being co-opted by corporations. Fans who perceive their work as political – and there are many fans who have and do – are unlikely to regard Amazon’s venture favorably.

Put everything together and what you have is a deep cultural clash between the value system on which Amazon runs and the value system behind fandom. People who imagine that this is simply a great thing for fans because who wouldn’t want to get paid for their work are entirely missing the point.

So okay, this is obnoxious. But why is it an problem? For that – and to set up the next category of issues – allow me to refer to my post linked above:

[I]f companies start blurring the line between official/licensed and unofficial/fan-produced, I think that opens an immense can of worms, in terms of fandom culture, in terms of legalities, and in terms of what everyone is prepared to accept and expect as appropriate. Fandom has been so robust and done so well precisely because it has fiercely protected autonomy.

The problem is the blurring of the line between “official” and “fannish”. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey, among other things, made that blurring implicit. Kindle Worlds makes it explicit, and, in so doing, sets a problematic precedent regarding the relationship between fans and the corporations that provide content. And fans aren’t the only ones worried.

First, excellently summarized here by John Scalzi, there are the extremely unfavorable contract terms that Amazon is offering. Amazon requires that authors sign over their rights to their work for the term of copyright, which, as Scalzi puts it:

Once Amazon has it, they have the right to do anything they want with it, including possibly using it in anthologies or selling it other languages, etc, without paying the author anything else for it, ever.

But even more worrying is this: “We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.”

Which means – again, Scalzi:

i.e., that really cool creative idea you put in your story, or that awesome new character you made? If Alloy Entertainment likes it, they can take it and use it for their own purposes without paying you…Essentially, this means that all the work in the Kindle Worlds arena is a work for hire that Alloy (and whomever else signs on) can mine with impunity. This is a very good deal for Alloy, et al — they’re getting story ideas! Free! — and less of a good deal for the actual writers themselves. I mean, the official media tie-in writers and script writers are doing work for hire, too, but they get advances and\or at least WGA minimum scale for their work.

Along the same lines, Tobias Buckell writes:

[E]veryone is responding to this as a way to monetize fan fiction, but that’s slightly off. It’s really a way for Amazon to disinter mediate media tie in novels, where packagers and publishers approach authors to write in an established media universe.

This, to my mind, is the truly troubling part, and the truly troubling thing about the precedent that Amazon is setting with Kindle Worlds. As Malinda Lo points out, “who gets to decide which elements of your work are ‘original’?” By signing on with Amazon, everything is potentially up for grabs. And the practical implications of this are that traditional tie-in writers might no longer be needed at all. Instead of having to pay authors advances and higher royalty rates, Kindle Worlds presents a dystopian future where media tie-ins are entirely produced by poorly compensated fandom content-serfs, where traditional writers of original fiction are simply no longer needed.

It’s worth pointing out that this would probably not be possible without the ways in which digital publishing has vastly lowered barriers to entry, flooding the business with un-agented would-be authors who may or may not know how to recognize when someone is trying to contractually screw them. Amazon is clearly counting on people not knowing or not caring about all the ways in which its terms are disadvantageous to authors. It’s not that authors weren’t getting screwed before, but now it’s that much easier for entities like Amazon to get away with it (though it’s also easier to spread info about bad deals).

It also shouldn’t escape notice that so far, Amazon has acquired licenses for shows aimed at younger audiences – audiences who might not be aware of the massive, gift economy fandom presence that already exists. It remains to be seen what other licenses will go after, but it’s still worth a mention.

So why should anyone but writers care? Because the saga of Kindle Worlds and what it suggests has potentially far-reaching consequences regarding what corporations desire and expect from the creators of their content, and where new kinds of publishing may be allowing them to look. E-publishing, as many others have noticed, is not going anywhere, and is likely to continue to grow as a model. The publishers – and distributors of content/holders of IPs – who profit most from the associated changed in the technology of publishing are the ones who adapt first and most quickly. What Kindle Worlds gives us is a potentially troubling look at one form of adaptation.

And as always, the question we should be asking when we consider who profits from a specific arrangement is who bears the costs.


Sarah is unapologetically fannish about many things on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry