One of the most interesting and unimagineable ideas about the nature of reality in the 21st century is that we are living in a computer simulation. Philosopher Nick Bostrum posed the question in Philosophical Quarterly (2003) this way: given the enormous computing power of any posthuman civilization, and the likelihood that they would run simulations to better understand their evolutionary history, it is entirely possible that we are living in a simulation created by a higher intelligence. Since Bostrum’s essay was published, many theorists have laid out reasons for entertaining the hypothesis, which are typically grounded in the mathematic nature of our current understanding of the universe. But I think we’re overlooking the most compelling argument in favor of the simulation hypothesis to date: the meteoric rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.


The 2016 U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team

Every 2 years, Olympic trials provide the rare opportunity to watch people’s huge and impossible dreams coming true. I love the Olympic trials. All of them. I love them so much. If shoe-tying were an Olympic sport, I would be entirely rapt with the selection process.  However, I am especially enamored by women’s gymnastics (in trials and in The Games)—I trace this back to my own budding gymnastics career cut short at the fragile age of 8 when, upon receiving an invitation to join my gym’s competition team, my mom said Hell-No-Competitive-Gymnastics-Is-Too-Intense and signed me up for basketball.

So imagine my delight when I discovered and immediately dove gleefully into the podcasts, blogs, and Twitter feeds that make up the gymternet—a network of gymnastics enthusiasts who nerd out about the sport and its athletes.  I had (and still have) so much to learn.  Jessica O’Beirne’s  GymCastic podcast is like the mother of the gymternet. The podcast goes in depth with gymnasts, coaches, and experts, and is a must-do for many of the big names in the sport (see: McKayla Maroney’s interview after deciding to retire).  In the blogosphere, Lauren Hopkins’ Gymternet blog has shot into popularity, and includes gymnastics history lessons, commentary, FAQs and funny memes. Linking around through the contributors at both GymCastic and Gymternet leads to an array of additional fantastic content. more...


CW: Discussion of assault

“It happened in the light of day, in a safe neighborhood, 200 feet from a police station.” Cut to a disembodied torso, a hand caressing the scars up the abdomen, panning up to a scarred chest and a woman with a soft expression. She is Kathy Roma, and in 2000 she was attacked by a stranger in broad daylight and stabbed repeatedly. Now, she serves as communications director for Nimb, “a smart ring that keeps you safe and sound.” The developers are currently raising funds on Kickstarter, with $186,530, far exceeding their goal of $50,000.


Nimb is the Life Alert all grown up, a fashion-forward wearable marketed to young college women, worried parents, those with disabilities, the elderly, and basically any other person living in an uncertain and terrifying world. The ring, which comes in Classic White or Stealth Black, connects to a smart phone via Bluetooth. When the wearer feels in danger and cannot otherwise seek help, a small button on the underside of the ring will alert their chosen networks and send GPS coordinates to potential saviors. Nimb has received international media coverage, and the fact that it blew the original Kickstarter goal out of the water shows how in-demand this sort of device is.

The project deftly addresses potential criticisms before they can even be voiced. The “safety circles” feature allows users to choose whom they notify with the panic button. When first seeing the project, I assumed police or emergency responders would be the default, but Nimb allows users to customize who receives an alert, whether friends, family members, a single individual, emergency services, or even those nearby.

The emphasis is on “community.” They tout the ring’s ability to give the user control over who receives panic notifications. They call this feature “crowd source security” and “believe that society’s ready to protect itself.” The subtle implication is that, rather than relying on institutional apparatuses such as 911 services, individuals can reach out to social networks when they need help.


While the promotional material features some diversity of Nimb wearers, specifically a few women of color, children, and elderly people, the dominant figures in the videos and images are young white women. Kathy Roma states in the Kickstarter video that her young adult daughter wears one, and goes to “crazy parties.” “I let her go with a lighter heart,” Roma declares, watching her daughter walk away and looking down lovingly at her Classic White Nimb. “I embrace the unknown while feeling safe and secure.”

I can think of no better articulation of the hopes and dreams of people living in what is often termed “The Risk Society.”

Writing on modernity, Ulrick Beck and Anthony Giddens argue that the forces at work in a society governed by mass industry, science, and realism create a cultural condition of reflexive introspection and focus on the future, rather than the past. Citing environmental disasters such as Chernobyl and economic upheavals, theorists of the risk society illustrate how widespread precarity—be it material, ideological, or even symbolic—create a climate of anxiety and fear, often with no discernable object to fear or be anxious about.

While Nimb cites medical emergencies as one potential application for the panic ring, the overwhelming emphasis of the promotional material is on young, attractive white women in dark hallways and deserted streets. A 20-something, thin, light-skinned woman looks ominously over her shoulder in a poorly-lit tunnel, and two versions of herself emerge. One, desperately sorting through her large bag to find her purse, fumbling with the security code and dialing 911 only to get an automated hold message; the other, with the Nimb, calmly holds the panic button for three seconds and begins confidently walking from the unseen danger, never even looking back.

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Of course, gendered violence is a real threat, and those of small stature are often easy targets for strangers on the street looking to do someone harm. But most assaults against women are perpetrated by people they know, not a stranger in a shadowy hallway. And a person of color with a gender non-conforming presentation walking down the street is significantly more likely to be attacked than nearly any other demographic. But domestic violence and folks with bodies that violate norms are notably absent from this, and many other discussions of public safety. The endangered white woman is a well-worn trope throughout Western civilization; it is a semiotic shorthand that easily writes its own narrative, and is therefore much more effective at selling products to a large demographic.

There also seems to be no possible accountability for activating such a device in a way that exploits both emergency services and one’s privilege to depend on them. Who gets to feel safe by calling the cops and who doesn’t is an important question, and while Nimb allows people to call for help without relying on police, it fails to address thosewho may have the police called on them. Nothing is going to stop the powerful from inflicting police violence on those with relatively less power, but this device will make it much easier for people to call the police in situations that do not require police intervention. Police intervention often makes a bad situation worse. Facilitating police intervention may be helpful to some, but at whose expense?

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All of this is made more apparent in the promotional video on Kickstarter. The video conveniently elides the source of danger in the scene of the white woman activating her Nimb. She is alone in a (now) well-lit corridor, looking over her shoulder at something unseen. What is she seeing? Are you filling in the blanks? Without any apparent threat, a white woman has called the police.

In a risk society, we are constantly overwhelmed with the uncertainty and danger of the unknown. How we deal with that danger speaks volumes about our assumptions about other people and the institutions we depend on to give order and safety to our lives. I applaud the Nimb for not defaulting to police intervention, but ultimately that decision is in the hands of the user, and the technological affordances of the Nimb can be used as easily for good as for ill. And this is to say nothing of the private security forces also mentioned in the promotional materials.

“Crowd source security” is the inevitable manifestation of the risk society, in which even emergency forces cannot be trusted, and onlookers may be either absent or apathetic. A mother or partner with their own Nimb, a trusted friend who lives in the neighborhood and checks their texts frequently, or even a stranger nearby set up to receive Nimb notifications may be a person’s best bet when facing unclear, possibly present danger. Perhaps Nimb demonstrates that the closest we can get to care free living is by outsourcing that care to surveillance.

Britney is on Twitter.


All photos and screenshots in this essay are taken from the Nimb’s Kickstarter site.

Fourth_of_July_2016_4534_1_Fireworkscredit to Fourandsixty

This July 4th, PBS viewers in the DC metro area were outraged to be reminded of the fact that they were watching television.

It’s actually not quite that simple, though it’s fun to phrase it that way. Here’s what happened: this past Monday was an extremely muggy and cloudy one in our neck of the woods; in other words, not at all the idea climatic conditions for a fireworks display. PBS, in something of a bind regarding how to maximize the spectacle for its live broadcast of the Independence Day celebration in front of the White House, elected to include archival footage of past fireworks displays with its live broadcast of the currently-happening fireworks.

People were displeased.



Image credit: Kevin Dooley on Flickr

This is a follow-up post to this essay on accusations of censorship on Reddit and the unpredictable consequences of algorithmic quirks.

Reddit is the self-described “front page of the internet.” Millions of users rely on Reddit to keep them informed on a wide range of topics from world news to gaming developments to the latest in pictures of cute dogs (or, often as not, reposts of pictures of cute dogs). But what happens when the front page fails us, and how do Reddit administrators respond? more...

I grew up watching a lot of Star Trek. It would be an understatement to say that the franchise was a big part of my life. Immediately after the last episode of Star Trek: Voyager I cut off my hair. I took Enterprise as a personal insult. If I saw J.J. Abrams I’d probably try to blind him with a strobe light while yelling, “How’s that lens flare working for you?!” I was feeling much more optimistic about the new TV series incarnation under Bryan Fuller until a couple days ago when, in an interview with Collider he told a reporter asking about casting decisions: “I’ve met with a few actors, and it’s an interesting process. There’s a few people that we like and we want to carry on what Star Trek does best, which is being progressive. So it’s fascinating to look at all of these roles through a colorblind prism and a gender-blind prism, so that’s exciting.” I try not to notice the color of flags but I’m pretty sure I’m seeing red ones. more...

Williams Response

Before the first word was written, Orange is the New Black was already fucked.

In an essay we posted earlier this week, guest author Apryl Williams refers to the 4th season of Orange is the New Black as a spectacle, comparable to the lynch mobs that used the destruction of black bodies as a form of entertainment. In her excellent post, Williams especially laments the lack of a trigger warning accompanying the graphic death of a key black character, one which unapologetically mirrored the 2014 suffocation of Eric Garner. Had there been black writers, Williams contends, things would have been different—she would have been warned instead of just “entertained.”

Williams and others critique the writing decisions that played out in Season 4 and attribute the season’s missteps to a very white writing crew. Indeed, by Isha Aran’s careful calculation, exactly zero black people have been involved in writing Orange is the New Black across its 4 seasons.

Undoubtedly, Williams is right that the series, and the 4th  season in particular,  would have been generally better, and also more carefully written and produced, with a racially diverse staff. The issue of racial representation in the writing room is one that pervades the popular media industry, and Orange, a show about prisons that tells stories about race, is a cautionary tale. Rather than reimagine how much better the season could have been with the inclusion of writers of color, however, I think the critique of a whitewashed profession and industry stands strongest when we table the quality of the writing altogether. Because even if Orange is the New Black Season 4 had been the greatest story of our time, it would remain, unacceptably, told by the wrong people. more...



*****************************Mild Spoilers**************************************

Orange is the New Black’s newest season demands to be binge watched with its notorious twists at every episode style. When it came out on June 17th, I began my annual binge session and had completed it by Saturday, June 18th.

If you haven’t heard, the series delivered “The mother of all finales” at the end of this season. As I mourned the death of a major black character, I found myself simultaneously mourning the real deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and the list unfortunately goes on. The stylized portrayal of a death in prison custody at the hands – or knee rather – of a white correctional officer was unmistakably close to Garner’s “I can’t breath.” Though those words were never uttered, anyone who has kept up with news in the last year would find haunting familiarity in the fictional inmate’s all-too-real gasps for air.

With her small frame and spine gradually being crushed by the full weight of the white correctional officer as she tried to breathe but failed, the imagery was almost too painful to watch. But I had come this far, I had to continue. At the end of the season, instead of falling into my usual “showhole” syndrome, I was angry and emotionally distraught. This had a visceral, personal effect and nobody warned me it was coming. As the other inmates grieved the death of their friend and urged those in charge to move her body, I wondered who was responsible for writing these scenes and this episode. Surely, a person of color would have cautioned against such tactics without ample viewer preparation. It appears as though the perspective of black viewers was not taken into consideration; a likely result of the limited representation we have in media production. Then I realized that to a white audience, a warning would not have the same meaning or importance. more...

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