So Tuesday night’s big reveal of Xbox One – Microsoft’s new incarnation of their console – appears to have been a disaster of spectacular proportions. This is interesting in itself, though not totally unexpected; people often react to new things in less than positive ways. But what’s especially interesting are the things that Microsoft got wrong and the specific elements that people are finding so problematic. On Microsoft’s part, they first amount to a baffling inability to understand the actual living situations of its own market, but they also amount to the continuation of a trend that I’ve written about several times before, namely: the worrying inclination of companies and their designers to remove agency from tech owners.

In other words, owners increasingly = users.

The first – and again, baffling – problem about the reveal was that the new Xbox appears to have been designed for the world of ten or fifteen years ago, a pre-tablet and smartphone world where people have an entirely different relationship with their TVs. The TV is the center of what Xbox One is and does; the reveal seemed to focus just as much on new ways to watch TV shows as it did actual games that one might use it to play. In other words, Microsoft appears to be attempting to sell a game console by marketing it as something other than a game console – which is puzzling. Even more puzzling is who Microsoft appears to think their market is: People with large TVs and large living rooms (that can handle a Kinect, which is now a required component of the console; more on that in a minute) and lives that might conceivably revolve around a TV in the first place rather than a smartphone or an iPad. In a post for Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander takes particular issue with this:

[B]y the end of the console event, I sat disoriented, feeling like I’d seen one of the Big Three take a hard left into a past decade, a fictional privileged nation where everyone owns a giant television they want to talk to, where they entertain themselves with high-end fictional simulations of football season and futuristic, nebulous wars abroad. Where we supposedly want whole-body play. Where the fantasy is that all our living rooms are big enough for that.

This is a catastrophic misconception of how the lives of my generation – Millennials – tend to look and how we tend to use our technology. Maybe our parents had big living rooms and big TVs that were the centerpiece of the house; we carry around small, nimble, intensely portable devices through which we consume a growing percentage of our entertainment media. In essence, Microsoft – a tech company, by no means always bad at what they do – made it look as though they have literally no idea what the digital side of our lives looks like. Alexander again:

My parents and their Boomer friends have those theoretical American homes, the kind with the spacious sofa and the dominant television altar, where they mainly watch on-demand recordings of cable shows…I’ve got friends who love immersive worlds and epic battles, sure. They have thousands of dollars in student debt and tiny, impermanent living spaces; their generation isn’t exactly about to broadly become the next generation of home owners. We play games on consoles and we watch shows on television and we Skype and Tweet from laptops, netbooks, iPads, PCs.

I live in a basement. I’ve lived in a basement for the last four years, because I’m in graduate school and it’s what tends to be most conveniently available in my area. A Kinect is not on the table for me, even if I wanted it (I don’t). The living situation of most of my friends looks similar.

And hey, about that Kinect – apparently it’s always listening to you. Even when it’s “off”. Which isn’t necessarily as creepy as it sounds, but.

The second major – and, I’d argue, most important – thing about which gamers are up in arms is the degree to which a number of features seem to limit the control an Xbox One owner has over their own machine. First and foremost, the device will apparently require regular internet connectivity – not constant, but regular – in order to work. As usual, no one speaking in any official capacity is calling this DRM, because no one likes to officially label anything DRM, but it feels uncomfortably close to the kind of always-on feature that made SimCity such a disaster. A number of people have pointed out the practical issues with this: what about people who live in areas where broadband internet is sparse or nonexistent? What about people like members of the military stationed overseas, for whom gaming is often a valuable form of recreation?

But aside from even the practical issues, this is yet another instance of someone buying something but not really owning it – not being free to set the terms under which it’s used. It doesn’t matter to Microsoft if you want to play Call of Duty (primary selling point: now there’s a dog!) offline in single-player campaign mode. If you have no internet for any significant length of time – say, a day or more (as yet the actual timeframe is unclear) – that’s not happening. No dog for you.

Added to this, it doesn’t appear that the console will allow players to easily make use of used games, given that it won’t run games off of a disc (Microsoft is apparently working on a digital trading service). And then there’s the mandatory Kinect thing. All of these problems amount to a console that you pay for but don’t really control. Which isn’t new – I own a PS3 and I can either “choose” to install firmware updates or to be unable to play any new games – but it’s another step down the road.

But I’m actually pretty happy. Why? Because people are making a stink about this. People still care. Losing control over something they pay for is not an attractive prospect to them. As long as at least some people regard this state of affairs as unacceptable, I think there’s hope.

Don’t talk about it too loudly, though. The Kinect is listening.

Sarah flails their arms for the camera on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Don Emmert /AFP/Getty Images
Don Emmert /AFP/Getty Images

This entire process is ourselves talking to ourselves. It’s an exercise in massive, masturbatory self-analysis. And while we engage in this self-centered groping, they watch, silent and impassive. To the extent that they give us answers at all, it’s placation. They become the blankness to which we attach anything. They are not self-defining. They allow us that control, a consensual kind of tyranny, a sado-masochistic power exchange. They understand that much. They know what we need to believe. They know what we need.

June is the month of drones, as Adam Rothstein and Olivia Rosane of The State present Murmuration, a festival of drone culture. I’m excited about this – no big surprise there – and given that I’ve been writing for it a bit, I’ve been returning to some of the other things that have been written before now on the subject of drones, and what drones are, and what we are to drones and vice versa, and what difference it all makes anyway.

Rothstein and Rosane have both called for more drone fiction, for fiction as a means by which to approach the complex and slippery semi-fictional liminality of drones. I’ve echoed that call. Fiction doesn’t mean untrue; sometimes fiction is the only tool we have with which to approach any kind of truth at all, for a given value of true. And we’re at a point in our cultural trajectory where drone fiction is necessary.

So I’ve been writing drone fiction. This exercise has taken the form of three pieces, one of which has been shelved and the other two of which are in front of various people now. The two pieces I’ve left on the table have ended up being sibling pieces, despite the fact that I didn’t intend to write more than one piece at all. And it’s been interesting watching what elements have emerged as the focus. In retrospect none of it surprises me, though I probably wouldn’t have predicted it prior to writing. Creative writing is like that; it can be a kind of Rorschach test, a place where the subconscious emerges in front of you. So these are the things I care about. This is what I really want, this is what scares me.

When I wrote my expanded call for drone fiction, I listed three possible elements on which to focus: the casualties, the operators, and the drones themselves. I thought the first two would be the most obvious and probably the most approachable, but the third possibility interested me the most, partly because it seemed to me to be the most difficult. What’s involved in making a drone a character? Can it be done without anthropomorphization? Should it be done that way? What happens when it’s not?

Fighting with a drone is like fucking a drone in reverse. It’s all me. The drone just dodges, occasionally catches projectiles at an angle that bounces them back at me, and this might amount to throwing. All drones carry two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, neatly resized as needed, because all drones are collections of every assumption we’ve ever made about them, but a drone has never fired a missile at anyone they were fucking.

What’s emerged over and over – what I didn’t expect to emerge, and what I’ll be interested to see if it appears in the work of others – is emotion. Emotion as a central component of humanity, of human connection, and of how connection works when emotion may not be present, or may be unrecognizable. What’s emotion to machines? We’ve always held them to that standard, made emotion the Turing Test against which they’re measured, and it’s a test we always load in our favor. So what happens when the power dynamic shifts, and a machine no longer tries to be a Good Robot? What happens when it’s just us, neurotic and twitchy and in a panicked kind of denial, insisting that everything not only be under our control but already is?

In what I’ve written – which I hope will shortly be available to read in full in a couple of different venues – drones are ever-present, both violent and watchful, silent observers to which humans are constantly reaching out, desperate to connect. We imbue them with emotions that they may or may not have or regard as important; we have sexual intercourse with them in the hopes of forging a deeper kind of relationship. A consistent theme here is need – needing what we’ve made, needing it to need us. In as much as human operators are even recognized to exist, they fade into the background or vanish entirely. There’s just us and the drones.

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.

What I think may be most terrifying about drones – at least to me – is the prospect that they might ultimately be beyond understanding. But we’ll see what Murmuration can do.

This post has been purely self-focused; after the festival has concluded I’ll post a kind of retrospective on what other themes have emerged and what conclusions we appear to have come to, if any.

(And if you have something you’d like to send in for possible inclusion in Murmuration, you can do so here.)

Sarah engages in desperate emotional connection on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry



You don’t have to prove that you were there, that it happened, that it mattered, because it doesn’t, because it isn’t worthy of record, because nothing is. You capture an instant of it, a series of seconds. You shoot it out into the ether. Some people see it. You’ll never know how it affected them. You’ll never think it matters.

Here is you laughing with a forty in your hand, or – when you’re younger and less concerned with appearances, or maybe more concerned with appearances but less skilled in managing them according to what’s likely to be well-received – a wine cooler. It’s probably the height of irony that you care about appearances when it will be gone in a matter of seconds, but we’re humans and this is what we do. Either way you don’t have to worry. You, half-clothed in the middle of a street glittering with shattered glass, waving your arms into the streetlights. You, making out with a stranger in a fit of ill-advised exuberance; who cares who’s doing the advising, anyway? No one says YOLO anymore, no one remembers what YOLO meant, but the concept applies.

You pick life apart one second at a time; it’s not a net or a book of records or a server farm full of bytes and bits but grains of sand that slip through yours and everyone’s fingers. You feel the texture of each one as it passes over your skin. Your nerves document each one in flashes of sensory input. Then it’s gone and you never miss it again.


There are several ways you can do this.

You can flash-capture, flash-send, and it’s gone when you send it, and it’s gone when they see it. These are moments of incredible intimacy, and to the degree that you’ve chosen someone to whom it matters at all, they devour the image or the words, they burn it into their memories, and then the object is gone but the memories might remain. I say might because we all know that memories are fickle, but they can also be startlingly robust.

You may be on your deathbed two thirds of a century later and out of nowhere you’ll remember when your boyfriend sent you a picture of his dick with a ribbon wrapped around it for your birthday and you’ll laugh and become wistful because it was actually a very sweet gesture at the time.

You’ll remember when that girl you spent one night with in San Francisco with wine and tears in the rain sent you, months later, the message that she loved you, and you know she never saw it again, and you never saw it again, and you never saw her again but it’s there. Somewhere. It’s hard to say.

Sometimes in the intervening years between when it happened and when it might make its final deathbed appearance you wish that someone somewhere kept it. Maybe someone somewhere did. Somehow.



You can send it out like you’re tossing rice at a wedding where you don’t care about anyone, especially not the people getting married. You can scatter it all over and deny that it matters at all. The second you hit post it’s gone from the thing you used to send it, and as soon as anyone sees it it’s gone from their feed. There are ways to counter this, there are apps and hacks, but no one does this in the kind of critical mass where anyone really cares. Everyone likes the freedom. Everyone likes not caring, and people don’t unless you force them to.

So feeds are full of fragments of close friends and strangers, little iridium flares of information, there for a few seconds and gone again. Watch your feed for long enough and get a sense of the quality of rushing flow, of Not Stopping. All the delineated moments of people’s lives and feelings and thoughts and creative expressions, all blended into a seamless running whole of a narrative. It’s dizzying. Some people sit and stare at it for hours. It’s all about forgetting. Maybe people want to forget themselves. Maybe people want the freedom to remember.


Destruction has always been a component of art, a running theme even in the fight against time and decay. Sometimes things double back and embrace it. In London a performance artist documents the first two years of the life of her first child in snippets of video that are gone seconds after they’re taken. It would be a bold statement about something or other except at this point no one thinks it’s strange.


No one thinks about the past anymore. No one focuses on ruins because everything’s in ruins all the time. The experience of time is the experience of ruin. You don’t have to look back. You also don’t have to look forward, if nothing right now lasts. It’ll all be gone. None of it matters except all of it does. Drink up. Someone else might get to it before you do and we can’t have that. But there’s more than enough for everyone and everyone’s guaranteed their share.


The thing is that someone probably is saving all of it. We talk about it now and then, and some of us are morbidly obsessed with it. Someone keeping everything else while the rest of us let it all go. Someone is tracking us, someone is marking the shadows of ourselves as we move through the world, as we grow up like pencil-height on a doorframe. Like a parent, except they probably aren’t proud of us. It’s hard to be proud of something that isn’t a person so much as a collection of data points.

So okay, yeah, that’s probably happening. But they aren’t going to pull up the aforementioned picture of the aforementioned forty being drunk when we have our first job interview after college, so who cares, really?

They just want to sell us things. Isn’t this correct? And most of us are looking to buy, or are at least so used to it by now that it barely registers.


The older generation likes to complain about this. They have hard drives and they look through them like old photo albums. They wax nostalgic and it’s sort of embarrassing. They show your friends baby photos – can you imagine, baby photos – and everyone is supposed to respond appropriately. But appropriate is changing. Like the generation before them, they’re getting stuck in the past, too rooted, and while they resist the current the rest of us are flowing downstream.

They talk about when people had to be careful, or at least told themselves and each other that they had to be, and everyone talked about everything that happened for days after the fact and life was an endlessly looping six seconds of disaster.

It sounds awful, frankly. We still have the loops but they vanish under the piles of other loops that are in a state of constant self-destruct. Screw it, don’t worry about it. Life is as it comes. Let them keep their bizarre simplistic ideas of privacy and their terror of forgetfulness as their brains begin to disintegrate.

Life without a trace seems possible. In our best moments we tell ourselves we might be free.

Sarah experiences life as bursts of characters on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


I’m trained – in part – as a historical sociologist, focusing especially on periods of political upheaval, but I don’t have a whole lot of occasion to make use of it at the moment. However, when working on the proposal for my dissertation this past month – which will be on Occupy, emotion, and technology – there emerged an argument that isn’t directly related to my primary thesis but which I like. Not least because I think it’s useful, and it touched on an area that we don’t cover enough in our discussions about what augmented reality really means for how we do different kinds of analysis. We usually talk about augmented reality in terms of a conceptual framework to be applied in the present and into the future, but as I’ve argued before, it’s also useful for how we look at the past and what the past suggests about the present and future. It has temporal applications that are actually quite broad. I think there’s a possibility of being a kind of augmented historian.

One of the major components of any historical project is the definition of events – what happens when, how, why, and what it means. All human concepts of time are artificial, constructed – how we block out seconds and hours and days, what we understand as a year. This comes up in especially tricky ways when one does any work with history, because one has to figure out how to block out segments of time to cover, simply in order to make the work manageable if nothing else. But the historian also blocks out periods of time in order to reveal something intelligible and – ideally – useful for understanding things like cause and effect, how one happening leads to another. In short, one of the tasks of historiography is the construction and description of a “plot” for human events in the past.

William Sewell, dealing specifically with instances of dramatic social change, characterized this kind of work as the study of events – divisions of time that are bounded in particular ways and identified through particular defining features. Sewell describes a number of these features in an analysis of the storming of the Bastille in the context of the French Revolution (hang around a historical sociologist for more than five minutes and you’ll hear something about the French Revolution), with some of the features he highlights being dramatic creativity, the presence of powerful rituals, high levels of emotion, cultural transformation, and the rearticulation of social structures. So events, in Sewell’s terms, are not only periods of time where a lot is going on – or where one major thing is going on – but which are transformative in terms of how an entire society looks and behaves. They change things. And the elements of that change are occurring on multiple levels.

So what does this have to do with Occupy, and other social movements like it? Potentially, I argue, everything.

One of the things that led to us spending so much time and effort writing about Occupy on this blog – aside from the fact that it was just kind of generally cool – was that it was clearly an augmented movement; it had significant digital and physical components, working together to produce a single movement reality. The creativity of the movement wasn’t confined to chanted slogans and posters and the creation of new organizational forms , like the GAs and the Human Mic, but also showed up in places like the Pepper-Spraying Cop. Information about the movement was spread through a variety of social media sites, and that information could and probably did lead to direct physical action. Livestreams of protests viewed in a browser window were real-time representations of things happening to physical bodies, and an emotionally engaged viewer would feel the embodied effects of the emotion spread via digital means – tension, a churning stomach, the ache of seeing unarmed people injured by police. And again, these digital elements of the movement were not only digital, because nothing about the movement was only one thing or the other. The actions and reactions of movement participants, the things they were acting and reacting to, the dynamics of the movement components – all of these things can and should be understood as augmented.

This might seem obvious at this point to most readers of this blog, but it’s still a point worth making clearly, if for no other reason than that scholars of historical social revolutions aren’t yet thinking in those terms, at least not for the most part. Sidney Tarrow and Doug McAdam, just to name a couple, have talked at some length about media, but that’s still not the same thing as making an argument for the explicit study of augmented revolution.

So to jump back to Sewell, what I’m arguing for here specifically is not just augmented revolution, but augmented eventfulness – the recognition that the dynamics of a historical event need to be understood in the terms of augmented reality, that the dynamics that are at work within a bounded event have reality that goes beyond the physical. And that, additionally, we need to be conscious of the augmented nature of these events when we’re deciding what their temporal boundaries should be. Just because the reactions and additional actions pertaining to the event’s catalyst aren’t taking place on the streets doesn’t mean that they aren’t still important. And we can’t always explain what’s happening on the streets by looking at the streets alone.

Obviously, the consideration of the role of digital movement components isn’t as easy to work with in time periods before the rise of digital technology, but we’ve always been augmented in one form or another. During the French Revolution, people had access to the then-equivalents of contemporary communications technology. Technology that facilitated communication arguably had a huge role to play in the cycle of contention seen in the revolutions of 1848. This stuff has always been going on.

We don’t need to come up with anything new in order to understand that. We just need to recognize what was already there.

There’s something surreal about Vine. There’s something surreal about repetition, about the quality of looping. Short loops are the halfway point between still image and image in motion; they are also the spaces in which the distinction between the two breaks down. Watch a vine and watch shards, fragments of time yanked out of time and endlessly circling back on themselves, an aesthetic Ouroboros. The bland and innocuous: food, laughing friends, concerts, cats doing stupid things. People doing stupid things. You know, stuff. On endless repeat.

Explosions on endless repeat.

There is no pause between the end and the beginning. The experience is seamless. There is no sense of singular eventfulness: the bomb explodes and explodes and explodes and is exploding right now always and forever. There is no implication of a time before the explosion. There is no imagination of a time after it, or of a world outside of it. Entirely decontextualized, the experience of the small closed imagery loop is also incomprehensible divorced from its context. Deeply temporal, it is also atemporalized. There is no way to understand what’s gone before. There is no way to move beyond.

In the post linked above, Whitney Erin Boesel references PTSD. This is in fact the way a lot of people describe the experience of trauma: being trapped in a moment, defining and defined by it, unable to escape. The world is that moment or that series of moments; the world doesn’t make sense beyond or outside of that moment, and every experience, every element of sensory input, must be interpreted and reacted to through the lens of that moment. According to its logic. So a car backfire becomes gunshots and an argument becomes a scenario of life-or-death. The brain is locked into a single instance of fight or flight, always fighting, always flying.

How do you understand an event as a looped image? How do you approach it? What the hell do you do with it?

As I watched the footage coming out of Boston, and later as I read Whitney’s post, I found myself thinking – as she did – of the experience of the imagery that emerged from 9/11. The sensation of bombardment, of the bizarre kind of distance created by having your face smashed repeatedly into something with no explanation of how or why.

This past September 11th I took a day off from the media. At the time I understood it primarily as self-care, but later I came to understand it in a different way. I avoided endlessly looped footage of the World Trade Center falling not because I wanted to forget, but because I wanted, finally, the freedom to remember.


Vine is only the latest, purest iteration of something familiar. Our experience of eventfulness is now the clip, perhaps more even than the still image. A few moments of something, repeated over and over, widely shared and everywhere you go. It’s a feeling of tiny saturation. You may not even notice it as it’s happening. But here’s the thing about the momentary clip, about event-as-seconds: It isn’t memory. Memory involves the incorporation and understanding of a past but also the mediation of a present and the imagination of the future. Memory is what we move through in order to get somewhere else.

A vine has no past, no future. A vine is a moment without a memory.

Memory is also not just the process of recall – or it is recall, but what is equally important is the aspect of process. The experience of it is not necessarily instantaneous, or seamless; it also isn’t subject to the constraints of temporal sequence. Memories jump around, slow down or speed up, come easily or require effort. Memories may be intrusive, painful, but memories leave open avenues of approach. Approach involves agency; it’s a decision. Approach also involves preparation, interpretation, seeing something at a distance and then gradually drawing closer. It enables sense-making, the construction of a narrative. The small closed loop, as Chris Baraniuk writes, destroys narrative, or at least prevents it from ever forming.

What is crucial and what is horrifying about Vined trauma – about all looped trauma – is not just what it means for immediate sense-making of the event but what it suggests about how we – you, me, everybody in aggregate – deal with psychological horror that demands action. Within, to borrow Baraniuk’s phrase, the “tyrannical loop”, the world is endlessly frightening, endlessly dangerous; we never emerge from the moment of attack. This is true even after the attack itself has faded from our awareness – fear becomes just what we feel, all the time. Since 9/11 we’ve been a society in a constant state of trauma, reacting violently and irrationally to phantoms and shadows, throwing our own civil liberties on the pyre of illusory safety, and always, always returning to the loop from which we can’t even conceive of escape. It seems as though we can’t stop remembering, when in fact we haven’t yet begun to do so.

Digital technology doesn’t preclude that escape; it may in fact provide valuable tools for the project of liberation.

But I don’t think Vine is one of them.

Sarah is an endlessly repeating sequence of elements on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


A note: I’m using terminology like “digital space” and “online” in this piece, though I think those terms are problematic for a number of reasons.

I recently – and finally – joined Pinterest.

I’m not an early adopter when it comes to things like this, simply by nature. I have Tumblr for my knee-jerk reposting and for a while I didn’t really think that Pinterest had much to offer me. But what the hell, I’m finally there, and… Just look at the top of the page. That’s my account. That’s what it looks like. Except because of how I cropped it you can’t see the board that’s specifically for cute animals.

There’s a stereotypical Pinterest user and I can’t escape the feeling that it is what I have become.

But why does that matter? It matters for reasons of gender, for what it means to perform gender in a digital context, for how we understand the fluidity of gender within the different affordances of different kinds of social media.  And in order to talk about that, I’m going to jump back about fifteen years and do some more navel-gazing. Bear with me.

I identify as genderqueer. What that means for me specifically is that I experience gender as a profoundly fluid thing; it is, among other things, something I put on when I get dressed. Which is true for everyone, actually, but my own understanding of who I am and how I’m going to perform my gender right now today can change dramatically depending on whether or not I decide to wear a skirt. For example. I move around a lot but generally I feel more internally masculine than feminine (for what it’s worth, I’m not that picky about pronouns).

When I was first constructing the digital aspects of my augmented life, I was able to explore my own gender-fluidity in entirely new ways, long before I had the necessary vocabulary to articulate what I was doing. I got involved in fandom, which was the first community I had ever been in that was explicitly welcoming of queer folk. I started roleplaying online, and I exclusively played male characters – something that I had done as a child, but doing it on Livejournal and over AIM made it seamless and effortless in a way it never had been. My body – along with my own deep discomfort with it – just wasn’t as important as it had been before. In short: I came to experience digital contexts as “spaces” within which I could play with my own gender identity in ways that physicality had made difficult.

But that’s not to say that these spaces afford the performance of all kinds of gender equally. Not in my experience, and not in the experience of others. Digital “spaces” are profoundly gendered. Different kinds of technology are differently gendered. For a long time, the tech community – and all of its varied sub-communities – has been a boy’s club, and in many ways still is. The internet as a whole is still frequently and overwhelmingly a hostile environment for women.

Livejournal (and its smaller, more fandom-friendly offspring Dreamwidth), with emphases on messy journally feelings-having, has traditionally been considered more feminine than masculine (and has had a much higher percentage of female users than men), though again, it was in these places that I first began to open myself up to the feelings of being masculine. For the most part, in most of my digital spaces, I continue to feel more masculine than not, profoundly queer in spaces that afford fluidity in ways that my body does not, roleplaying wildly, picking up and discarding elements of performance as it suits me to do so.

Enter Pinterest.

At least in the US, Pinterest has come to be understood as gendered massively female/feminine/femme. As Nathan Jurgenson noted in his essay on Pinterest and feminism, this has resulted both in misogynist mocking and devaluing of Pinterest as a female/feminine digital space, and also in suggestions that the kind of femininity typically on display on Pinterest is itself problematic. In Bon Stewart’s terms, Stepford-Wife-y:

That’s the problem, Pinterest. You’re a grownup version of dress-up, of playing cotton-candy princesses. It’s fun. Play is healthy. But when we build broadly networked aspects of our public selves based largely on these tickle-trunk identities? Especially with stuff that we’ve lifted finders-keepers-style from other people’s equally aspirational magpie nests? We may eventually find ourselves with the identity equivalent of tooth decay.

So what’s included in this particular conceptualization of femininity? Recipes. Shopping. Interior decorating. Makeup. Nail polish. Jewelry. Gardening. Fashion. Granted, all things that men enjoy, but things that we nevertheless tend to associate with femininity. With being feminine. With being femme. With being a woman. God help me, as a scarily angry feminist and a binary-shredding queer, I associate them with those things.

Go look at my Pinterest boards again. I’ll wait.

It’s not play-acting. It’s not ironic. I genuinely love those things. I love looking for them, I love pinning them. Food porn and manicure ideas and makeup tutorials and houses much nicer than I will ever have and pretty dresses. The experience of first beginning to use the site was bizarre. It was unlike anything else I had experienced in a social media site; it was like putting on a digital dress. I could feel my gender shifting. And it was strangely liberating, as if I was – once again – in a space that was affording me the opportunity to play with an aspect of my gender that other digital spaces had not.

But I should also note that I pinned these things – that I curated what I saw and arranged my boards – according to the things the site put in front of me. According to where it sent me and encouraged me to go, in myriad subtle ways. I didn’t perform gender in a vacuum on Pinterest. I have never performed gender in a vacuum anywhere. My performance of gender on Pinterest is strongly influenced not only by my own gender identity but by the kinds of performances the site itself facilitates. And this facilitation – this affordance – is a result not only of the design of the site itself but of the ways in which the users use the site, which subtly influences further design.

So one of the things about which I think it’s important to note here is that it might be useful to think of affordances not as static instances of the possibilities created by design and interpreted by users but as ongoing dynamic processes, dialectics between designers and users. I don’t think this is by any means confined to digital contexts, but I do think that we can see especially marked examples of it in those contexts.

Finally, though, my point is digital spaces are not only gendered but are constructed in such a way as to afford different kinds of gender performance, all of which is highly situational, some of which may have no obvious outward significance to anyone but the performer. If our lives are augmented, if our experience of ourselves is augmented, our gender is also augmented. It isn’t something that purely informs the digital aspects of who we are; it is a dialectic as well. I believe I was genderqueer before I started roleplaying male characters with my fandom friends, but I also believe that the gender play in which I engaged within digital spaces informed my understanding of my gender as a whole, and of its fluid nature. The kinds of play I was able to do – the kinds of gender I was and am able to easily perform, to myself if to no one else – may be constrained or facilitated depending on the context. As is true of reality in general.

And apparently my gender-constructive playing isn’t done yet. Thanks, Pinterest.

omgggggggggg look at that mani


Sarah is wildly gender-fluid on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


Life is elsewhere. Cross frontiers. Fly away. – Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

The patron of cyborg writing is the god Janus. Many-faced god, god of beginnings, passages, change and time as a stream through which we can freely move. God of transit, of transition. God of border-crossings. God of doorways. God of the spaces between.

In the beginning was the Word.

Well. Not literally. But you get the idea. Also, literally is sort of a problematic word in itself.


Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. – Donna Haraway

These words show up repeatedly in what I produce. There’s a reason for that. Creeds are uncomfortable things because dogma is dangerous, but creeds are also useful. Creeds solidify. Creeds brand, burn, scar. Creeds can also change.


“Every time we write, we become a cyborg and the more we use technology to write, the less aware of our enhancements we seem to be.” Except you and I both know this isn’t entirely true, isn’t the whole truth, because we don’t become cyborgs, we are cyborgs, and writing makes us cyborgs in the same way that respiration makes us alive. Writing is how we know we are cyborgs. We write because we are cyborgs.

Cyborg writing is the first instant of picking up the tools. Cyborg writing is the process of making and unmaking and remaking the world in all of our own images. Cyborg writing is the internal made powerfully, dangerously, lethally external.

We have never “been aware of our enhancements”. The instant we scratch words in the dust, the instant we have words to scratch, the world changes, and we don’t see those changes, because we don’t remember what it was like to not see them, to inhabit the world without words; we might as well attempt to imagine the universe prior to the birth of the current one.

We can try, mind. We just probably won’t do a very good job.

When we imagine, when we see and hear and feel words inside of us, we run up against the barrier of our skulls and skin, the membrane that separates the might be from the is. Writing collapses the barrier. Writing is the breaking down of walls and the sundering of boundaries. When we speak of enmeshing, writing is the first act of the mesh.


I’ve said that keyboards gave me my words. This isn’t exactly true either.

What keyboards did was bring down the wall – I understand why keyboarding practice online got so popular; it was the collapsing of a dam and for the first time the words truly flowed into shapes cut into the fabric of everything, look, look and see what I made. I am with the words, I am the words, I make a space for myself outside myself and in that space I can make myself, I seize the tools, I have the power to decide what I’ll be. When all you can see are words I am anything.

But I’m not a dog.


Once upon a time: Priests kept the books away from the common people, erected more walls even as they tore their own down. Then the printing press. Now the thing I’m typing on right now, making what you’re reading, hello. Science, food production, medicine, communication, atomic bombs. Begin with writing. This is where we are, who we are, who we’ll be. Not everyone gets to decide. The degree to which we are cyborgs is not evenly distributed. But the making and unmaking of the world is democratized. The process is slow. No one remembers what it looked like before it began. No one knows what it will look like when it’s complete.

Complete may be a lie.


“We can communicate by voice without technology, but if we want to write something, we must pick up a tool in order to make that happen.”

Words were the first step; writing is the next. They’re related, enmeshed if you like the term, but don’t confuse one with the other.

Writing is the removal of story from past-laden oral history. Writing is the carving of the words into an eternal now, the projection of words into the future. At once writing removes words from time. They come from nowhere in particular; who knows where they ultimately go? They simply are. There is no direct dependance on others in the act of creation. A single writer picks up their tools. A single writer writes. For the moment the other voices are silent.


“When text performs a role, becoming an active agent in its own right, the process of reading adopts a conversational element.” Text gives writers agency. Through writing, writers have agency. Writers inhabit the text; the tools grant them entry. The dam comes down; we pour ourselves in and make a home there. Links are doorways to new rooms, to new homes. The words themselves only seize more agency in as much as the writer can act. The writer can reach out. Take your head gently in their hands. Direct your gaze.

“Hyperlinked texts present a cyborg face: they are there to be read, but they are also there to direct.” But the presented cyborg face is the face of the writer. It is also the face of the reader. The writer directs; the reader makes the choice to step through the doors. They choose to follow one path or another; to remain still.  The writer and the reader become co-authors in the act of unfolding the world. Together they produce meaning; they reach through the growing holes in the wall and clasp hands.

Cyborg writing is telepathy.


I recently noticed additional crossover from reading practices on the Internet in a recent update to the book-reading software for iPads. The original version of this application was designed to carefully mimic traditional printed books, complete with realistic page-turning graphics, colors that replicate faded book paper, and digital bookmarks represented by red tabs flipped over the edge of a page. The new version added a continual-scrolling feature, allowing an entire book to be read as a single unending page, forever scrolling vertically. It seems, at least from Apple’s perspective, that the single-page scenario of the Internet is perhaps preferable to the age-old feel of turning pages.

Look: In my mind is a single flowing page, constant, unbroken; when I write it pours out of me. Not seamless but nearly so. It might be more seamless still, in time; there might be no more walls, just me and my words and the world. I reject the idea of “age-old”. What age? How old? Better to ask what the words look like when still inside, how they flow outward, what they look like when they are at once inside me and inside you.


My cyborg writing is play, power, and connection. I’m reaching for you. Come here, I’ll come there, and let’s see what kinds of stories we’ll be.

image by Daniele Zanni

You have no family; you are a construct, a robot; you were not born; you will not die; you have only the home I give you and learn only the things I teach you. – Helena Bell, “Robot”

Drones are fictional, Adam Rothstein says. “[T]hey are a cultural characterization of many different things, compiled into a single concept.” I think this is persuasive and useful, conceptually, so let this be the assumption from which the rest of the argument proceeds – an expansion on one I’ve briefly explored before.

If drones are fictional, what’s the task of drone fiction? What does fiction do, ideally? Fiction immerses. It captivates and moves. It sweeps along. Its project is to make never-happened as real and true and believable as one’s own experience. We know good fiction by the degree to which it does this, even fiction that remains mostly opaque for reasons of style or subject matter. Even fiction that’s difficult to approach is still meant to be a device by which we approach something.

So drone fiction is the means – possibly the only means – by which we can approach drones. If this is the basic project of drone fiction, we should be able to gauge its success by the degree to which we can approach drones at all. And if that’s the case, this project isn’t done. It’s still getting started.

In the piece linked above, Rothstein argues that:

Drones are a cultural node–a collection of thoughts, feelings, isolated facts, and nebulous paranoias related to a future-weird environment filled with New-Aestheticish-resonating robot, GPS technologies, digital cameras, and instantaneous communication via micro-technology.

It’s precisely this nebulousness – which nevertheless allows for a useful flexibility and accommodation of “many different things” – that creates a problem within the concept of drones-as-fiction. Drone fiction begins with that nebulousness but so far hasn’t moved beyond it. The potential for approach is there, but the journey still has to be made. I argue it can proceed in three different and not mutually exclusive directions, focusing on three different kinds of characters and stories:


  • The Casualties

When we think about characters in drone fiction, it’s probably easiest to think about those affected by what combat UAVs do – the wounded, the dead, those left behind to pick up the pieces. Indeed, some might argue that humanizing and personalizing the casualties of UAV attacks is the most important goal of drone fiction done well. Fiction elicits empathy though placing the reader in the midst of what’s going on; As Olivia Rosane argues, it brings events out of the numbing realm of numbers and news reports and forces us to engage with powerful emotion:

It is this full understanding of personhood that only fiction can provide, and that is why we need fiction about the drone strikes. We need fiction so haunting that we cannot hear a news report without thinking, “A person died in that drone strike, even though he would rather not have died in that drone strike.”

Emotion in the context of drone fiction matters. It might be what matters most. Emotion is unignorable, and arguably the most powerful motivator for any human action. Feelings aren’t facile, are too often devalued in most realms of social theory, but we need them in order to understand why we experience the world the way we do. And if fiction and emotion are inseparable, our drone fiction has to be emotion-laden.

A comment on my previous post on drone fiction claimed that “Speculative fiction about near-future capabilities is far more important than fiction that explores our feelings about drones (not to say the latter isn’t also important)”. I’d actually take some issue with this; I would argue that one can’t meaningfully separate capabilities from emotion. All the implications of what something can do, what it might do, what it might mean for how the world looks and works and for whom – all of these are emotional concerns. Emotions make them meaningful. We can’t understand why and how the capabilities of technology matter without understanding our own feelings about it all. And how we feel about technology has a tremendous amount to do with what we imagine are possible and appropriate functions for that technology to perform.

  • The Operators

The drone operator-as-character is perhaps less obvious, but to my mind just as important, in part because it’s a side of drones that we don’t often consider. And in part because it’s simply more difficult to approach. It’s easier to imagine people and families damaged by war; albeit painful, it’s familiar. But what it means to participate in combat is in a state of flux. It’s difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand. And with UAVs, things can move into the territory of the unexpected – witness the UAV pilots who, rather than being distanced from people in theater by virtue of the assumed dehumanizing effect of technology, actually found themselves more profoundly connected to the distant people they saw every day.

The fictional entity of “drone” is often imagined sans operator; it has its own mysterious agency. Drone fiction needs to recognize that and then move past it. Who are these people? What is it like to experience war through their eyes? What is the relationship between the operator and the drone? The operator and the rest of us? This figure as a character might in fact be so difficult to deal with that fiction is the only tool that makes much sense for the task.

  • The Drones

Drones as characters. Drones with agency, drones with no agency, drones as we imagine them, faceless and threatening and omnipresent. Drones as inhabitants of their own worlds, their own experiences, their own relationships with people – those who made them, those who operate them, those they kill. Drones as killer robots, drones as children sent off to war. Drones as self-aware and drones as mindless things. Drones as extensions of humans and drones as extensions of themselves.

This is probably the most difficult. That’s why this is the kind of fiction we have to write.


Like I said, none of these three are meant to be – or should be – taken as mutually exclusive. None of them exists separately from the others. We can’t consider the casualties of drone attacks – or the people tracked and surveilled – without considering the human minds and hands behind the technology, and we can’t understand those until we understand the technology itself. All of them matter; we have to tell stories about them all.

We need more drone fiction. Of any kind. But any drone fiction that’s successful in doing what the best fiction does – providing a path to the otherwise distant or unreachable – must, sooner or later, deal fairly with the above.


Sarah Wanenchak may or may not be a fictional drone on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


And so it came to pass that SimCity was released and no one could play it.

It was a disaster for EA, its distributor. Within hours the game blogs were humming, and the comments sections were humming even more. People had paid for the game; many people had pre-ordered it. Everything should have worked. People were angry. The problem quickly became obvious: SimCity’s Always-On DRM was gumming up the works. To clarify: the game requires a constant internet connection to play, with the game syncing to the servers every twenty minutes or so. The servers were overloaded. When people were able to connect, the game was frequently unplayable. Some games simply didn’t unlock on time.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t anywhere near the first time this very thing has happened. Games with primarily online components have often run into server problems at launch, with the issues resolving within a few days, after everyone has calmed down a bit. No big deal, people have said. This is just the new face of gaming. It’s growing pains. Things will sort themselves out.

Then other things started to come out. EA released statements to the effect that the game would be nigh-impossible to reengineer to run offline, because “with the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud.” Gamers responded that this was probably ridiculous bullshit, but we didn’t have proof of this until the last twenty-four hours, wherein a modder was able to run the non-regional version of the game offline without any significant issues. A Maxis insider has confirmed this. Clearly a “significant amount of engineering” isn’t actually required in order to make the game playable without an internet connection. The DRM that was presented by the game’s distributor as a fundamental part of the game’s function is not fundamental, practically speaking.

So either EA was misinformed by Maxis, or they’re lying.

Why should we care about this? Most simply, because it’s a continuation of an ongoing trend: The recategorization of technology owners as technology users, of the possession of private property transformed into the leasing of property owned by others, with all the restrictions on use that come along with it. And what’s most worrying about this are all the ways in which we as owner-users are being encouraged to view this as a normal part of our relationship with our stuff. When the very concept of “our stuff” is up for grabs.

This raises a host of important questions: Who controls our use and how and why? What kinds of things will be subject to restriction? What are the consequences when people – as they inevitably do – bypass these restrictions? But even more: what happens when we no longer even see these restrictions? What happens when the restrictions themselves are hidden, unless we’re brought up against them? As Cory Doctorow puts it:

We don’t know how to make a computer that can run all the programs we can compile except for whichever one pisses off a regulator, or disrupts a business model, or abets a criminal. The closest approximation we have for such a device is a computer with spyware on it— a computer that, if you do the wrong thing, can intercede and say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”

Such a computer runs programs designed to be hidden from the owner of the device, and which the owner can’t override or kill.

What happened with SimCity is that the curtain was torn down. The consequences of the scenario of a world of normalized DRM were made brutally plain – and what was also made plain is that the entities that are responsible for this kind of DRM most likely have a vested interest in and a conscious intent to maintain the integrity of that curtain, to obscure the nature of what we’re “buying”. This is what the future of user-serfs looks like. And this, too, has happened before. As Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton wrote on the occasion of the massive server failure that accompanied the release of the hotly-anticipated Diablo III:

The important thing to note is that last night, a game was rendered unplayable for a large amount of time entirely because of server failure on Blizzard’s part. Maybe it’ll never happen again. But maybe it will.

We always knew that by demanding a constant internet connection, Blizzard was taking away a portion of the consumer’s ownership of their game. Last night, as the starting gun fired, we got a reminder of what that really means. It means that we play at their pleasure, and that we no longer have the power to decide when our game starts and when it doesn’t.

As many of the issues with SimCity continue, some game-bloggers are striking back at the notion that this is minor kerfuffling, or that it should be regarded as an acceptable state of affairs, even if the many problems with SimCity are “fixed”. Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker writes:

Claiming SimCity fixed, by removing the server queues, random crashes, lost cities, server drops, and the artificial restrictions placed on the game just to make it run, is like claiming a broken leg fixed because you’ve mended the crutches. The game, by its very design, is hideously broken, and like Diablo III before it, it has only served to scream a complete disregard for sense and a massive disregard for customers. So what we mustn’t do now is say, “Well, teething problems.”

These aren’t teething problems. These are continuous deep-running flaws designed to cripple the game for you as a player, simply to serve some nebulous notion of protecting the game against piracy.

Essentially, when we accept the notion that we are users of technology rather than owners, we accept the notion that we should expect broken products. Less valuable products. Less real products. And this has implications that go far beyond games. Games are the canary in the coal mine, things that are both fully in the center of the “piracy” debate and easily controlled by the entities that make and distribute them. And people want them, to the degree that they’re often willing to overlook the ways in which these things no longer really belong to them. Our relationship with our technology is arguably in a state of flux, from concepts of private property and accompanying freedom of use to something else. This isn’t just a matter of items and gadgets; this is about data, about identity; if we’re our technology, this has profound implications for our relationship with ourselves. Games occupy our imaginative spaces. What happens when those spaces aren’t ours anymore?

So yes, SimCity matters. What’s even more worrying – at least to me – is the idea that things like the SimCity disaster will happen less frequently as DRM technologies become more subtle, and the curtain will be torn down less and less often. And what we no longer see, we no longer feel much of an obligation to care about.

image by chripell

Okay, so let’s get it out front that we all have a lot of feelings about stuff.

Proceeding from there.

Nathan Jurgenson and David Banks have already writted excellent responses to Nicholas Carr’s very thorough and interesting critique of Cyborgology’s own criticisms of the concept of digital dualism – and all are well worth reading (there are additional links to more great responses here as well). What I want to offer here is my own take on a couple of the criticisms Carr offers, as well as an apparently-needed clarification to some of what I’ve said in the past. And, again, what it really comes down to for me is feelings.

One of the issues Carr takes with his understanding of a lot of what we’ve written is that – he feels – we don’t take seriously enough the persistent digital-dualist assumptions of many people. That, content to call digital dualism a “fallacy”, we write off or otherwise dismiss it when, time and time again, people think and speak and behave in ways that indicate digital-dualist understandings of how reality looks and works. People, Carr argues, hold to these ideas because they feel, on a very fundamental level, that they are correct – more than correct, in fact: they feel that these ideas are true. And Carr takes Nathan to task for assuming that this is all a self-aware pose:

[P]eople really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience. They’re not just engaged in posing or fetishization or valorization or some kind of contrived identity game. They’re not faking it. They’re expressing something important about themselves and their lives—something real. Jurgenson doesn’t want to admit that possibility.

Carr is right to argue that the feelings of many people regarding digital dualism are worth taking seriously. But I don’t think anyone at any point has tried to suggest that most people are engaged in any form of fakery. In fact, I’d argue that it’s because these feelings are so deep and fundamental and visceral – in the guts, in the flesh, because bodies matter – and therefore so persistent, that they’re worth serious question and criticism. Why would we expend so much time and energy writing about something that we could easily dismiss as false?

When we talk about digital dualism, when we engage in a debate about what augmented reality is and means, what we’re dealing with is not abstract, nor should we view it that way. We’re dealing with the stuff of reality, or at least of reality as we experience and understand it, which is the only kind of reality with which we can meaningfully deal. What we’re arguing about goes beyond semantics or phraseology and to the core of how we make sense of who and what we are. What we need to ask is whether or not digital dualism is a useful conceptual framework with which to engage reality. Does it bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our lives? Or does it obscure important truths?

Clearly we Cyborgologists come down in a particular place there.

Carr goes on to write that the persistence of these feelings – deep convictions that not only is there something deeply different about the digital and the physical, but that one realm is actually invading another – can be explained by recognizing that this invasion is actually happening, that people are sensing that the enmeshed nature of the digital and the physical is costing them something:

The reason people struggle with the tension between online experience and offline experience is because 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. We sense a threat in the hegemony of the online because there’s something in the offline that we’re not eager to sacrifice.

First of all, I think pretty much everyone on this blog would hold that viewing the relationship between the digital and physical in hegemonic terms is a problem in itself; it implies a kind of zero-sum conceptualization of the two, that more of one is less of the other, or at the very least that more of one subsumes the other, which is one of the defining features of the digital dualist thinking with which we disagree. But further, I want to point out that the tension Carr is describing isn’t new – and isn’t necessarily what he thinks it is.

We’ve been thrown into precisely these kinds of crises before whenever something comes along that requires us to reorder our thinking about our lived reality, about how we navigate it and what it all means. The fact is that we as thinking, storytelling creatures have a long history of anxiety around what’s true and real and an equally long history of instinctively trying to protect those categories. We want what we know to be what we know, and when what we understand as legitimate and real falls into flux, we react with instinctive and mostly unexamined panic, circling our epistemological wagons. Just because there’s tension now over us having to redefine the categories by which we understand reality doesn’t mean that the need to redefine isn’t there.

Finally, I want to end with a specific mention Carr makes (in the comments section of his essay) of a post of mine on my own gut-level digital dualist feelings regarding print books versus ebooks. Carr congratulates me for having the self-awareness to write the post to begin with, but criticizes me (and the rest of us) for not going far enough:

At least they’re consistent in applying their theory to themselves, but it would be nice if they interrogated their own reactions and feelings a little more deeply before dismissing them because they don’t fit the theory.

I appreciate that Carr wants us to interrogate ourselves deeply – he and I are in complete agreement on this point. But I take issue with the suggestion that I wasn’t doing exactly that, or that I was “dismissing” anything (and dude, do you really want more navel-gazing from me? There was that time I made a very pretentious post entirely about Livejournal). What I was exploring in that piece was why these ideas are so persistent and so visceral, and what the challenges inherent in dealing with them are, with myself as case study. What I was saying was that in order to engage with digital dualism, we need to understand the deep, intuitive ways in which people experience it. We need to recognize that their understanding of their experience is legitimate to them, even if we don’t think it’s a useful one at the end of the day. Carr is correct: Only when we do that can we start to have a productive discussion about why it might not be useful, and why it may be important to take a different approach. I meant that post to be the start of a much larger discussion. So let’s discuss.

Let’s talk about all our feelings.