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Yes, Please to this article by Amy Orben and Andrew K. Przybylski, which I plan to pass around like I’m Oprah with cars. Titled The Association Between Adolescent Well-Being and Digital Technology Use, the paper does two of my favorite things: demonstrates the importance of theoretical precision & conceptual clarity in research design, and undermines moral panics about digital technology and mental health.

The effects of digital technologies on the mental lives of young people has been a topic of interdisciplinary concern and general popular worry. Such conversations are kept afloat by contradictory research findings in which digital technologies are alternately shown to enhance mental well-being, damage mental well-being, or to have little effect at all. Much (though not all) of this work comes from secondary analyses of large datasets, building on a broader scientific trend of big data analytics as an ostensibly superlative research tool. Orben and Przybylski base their own study on analysis of three exemplary datasets including over 350,000 cases. However, rather than simply address digital technology and mental well-being, the authors rigorously interrogate how existing datasets define key variables of interest, operationalize those variables, and model them with controls (i.e., other relevant factors). more...

AnthroFix, a speculation on online dating in a posthuman future. Picture: Maya Ganesh

In the past few weeks, the news of Chinese scientist He Jiankui germline editing twins of a HIV positive couple in vitro has raced around newsfeeds. He edited the CCR5 gene in the twins in an attempt to create resistance to HIV. He used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR (which is short for: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). CRISPR  is regularly used in genetic engineering in controlled lab contexts, but how it fares in the wild is unknown.  Bill Gates has been enthusiastic about the possibilities of future applications of CRISPR to address various ‘Third World’ health and development problems.

That He used CRISPR on humans and how he did it, have fueled discussions about bio-ethics and genetic engineering.  One of the best reviews of the ethical issues surrounding the CRISPR-ing of the embryos comes from Ed Yong writing in the Atlantic. For those  consumed with questions of ethics in emerging new technologies, the history and development of ethics in genetics and nuclear energy management are great first ports of call.

This week I went to a speculative design workshop about CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR-associated protein 9) hosted by Emilia Tikka, a Berlin-based artist and designer whose practice deals with the philosophical and cultural implications of biotechnologies, at STATE Studio.

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I should get something out of the way first: The oxygen that fills Steve King’s lungs would be better used fueling a tire fire. King, who represent’s Iowa’s 4th District in the House of Representatives is a reprehensible excuse for a human being and every moment of every day that he holds public office is a testament to term limits and the benefits of sortition over elections. Steve King is so racist (how racist is he?!) the Republican House election fund refused to give money to his last re-election bid citing his “words and actions” on white supremacy. All that being said, King is right to be skeptical of Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s claim that their search algorithm is merely a neutral reflection of the user’s interests.

Pichai was grilled for three hours on Tuesday by House reps who wanted to know more about Google’s data collection practices, its monopolistic tendencies, and the company’s rumored censored Chinese search engine. The inherent contradiction that stands between these latter two issues is interesting: having thoroughly captured the search market nearly everywhere else, Google must —if it is to continue to appease investor’s demands for infinite profit growth— do everything in its power to breach the Chinese market. China is doing what most powerful nations do in their rise to power: protect and favor their own companies and reinvest as much wealth as possible within the country. These protectionist policies mirror what Britain and the United States did in their own respective eras of rising dominance. They fostered companies like Google so that they might attain global dominance and, by extension, solidify their influence on the world. But now that Google is a global company with interests that exceed the American market, the company’s goals are beginning to run counter to national interests. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Google has exceeded the wide boundaries federal regulators put up and now, in its search for new markets, has both too much power at home and is working with a rival power abroad. It is just the kind of capitalist contradiction that Marx and Keynes would predict: the infinite growth of firms and markets eventually undermines the very power of those that establish them. more...

I’ve been unfortunate enough to be exposed to a great deal of live (read: non-streaming, non-DVR) television lately, a disappointing situation to occur right around the holidays, when every single advertisement is filled with smiling families, lavishing each other with piles of bow-covered gifts. From puppies to cars, headphones to televisions, the ads usually feature a young, suburbanite, heterosexual couple or family, where one member is smugly watching their spouse or children as the other(s) go into near epileptic shock on Christmas morning. Snow covers the ground outside, wrapping paper covers the floor inside, and credit card debt covers the rest of the year’s (years’?) budget.

This season, there’s one ad that dares buck the trend and, somehow, ends up being even worse. Titled “His & Hers”, this 30-second spot features a husband (presumably, our Him) waking up at the crack of dawn to sneak out into the snow-surrounded garage and ride a stationary bike. Not just any stationary bike, though: it’s Her bike. We know this, because Him has already placed a bow and a tag with her name on it. And that’s not all. This bike—Her bike—comes with a large touchscreen on which Him can watch a live studio feed of extremely fit trainers yelling encouraging platitudes at him. This, of course, is a Peloton bike. more...

A series of studies was just published showing that White Liberals present themselves as less competent when interacting with Black people than when interacting with other White people. This pattern does not emerge among White Conservatives. The authors of the studies, Cynthia H. Dupree (Yale University) and Susan T.  Fiske (Princeton University), refer to this as the “competence downshift” and explain that reliance on racial stereotypes result in patronizing patterns of speech when Liberal Whites engage with a racial outgroup. The original article appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology. I make the case that these human-based findings have something to tell us about AI and its continued struggle with bigotry.  more...

OoOoOhHhH! Scary hoaxus pocus!!! (I just didn’t want to use that photo of the three authors like everyone else.) Source: Iconspng

Last week three self-described “concerned academics” perpetrated a hoax in the name of uncovering what they call the “political corruption that has taken hold of the university.” “I’m not going to lie to you.” James A Lindsay, one of the concerned academics says in a YouTube video, just after laughing at a reviewers’ comments on a bogus article. “We had a lot of fun with this project.” The video then cuts to images of mass protests and blurry phone-recorded lectures, presumably about topics that aren’t worthy of debate. The takeaway from the videos, press kit, and write-up in Areo Magazine is the following: fields that study race, gender, sexuality, body types, and identity are really no more than “Grievance Studies” (their neologism) and the desire to criticize whiteness and masculinity overrides any appreciation of data.

To prove this they spent over a year writing and submitting articles that they wrote in bad faith. Sometimes these articles would have fairly decent literature reviews which would then lend legitimacy to less-than-decent theses. But when you actually read the papers, and the reviews, the picture you get is far less interesting than the sensationalist write-ups or even the Areo piece makes them out to be. The picture you get by actually reading the work is mostly mid-level journals doing the hard, unpaid work of giving institutional authority to ideas that —hoax or not— will rarely see the light of day. This is the real hoax: that academic institutions waste so many good people’s time and energy on work that goes nowhere and influences nobody. I wish we lived in a world where it made any sort of sense to compare the influence of Fat Studies to the influence of oil companies on climate science. We don’t, but —and here’s something that astonishingly no one with a platform seems to want to argue— we should. more...

I’ll start by stating the obvious: power manifests in myriad forms. In this piece I’ll be focusing on the normalizing power of discourse. Normalizing discourse refers to the way language – talk, text, and body – reinforces the status quo and crystalizes social structures, including our own place within those structures. I will draw on my own research about religion online to make the case that the internet fosters normalizing discourse, while at the same time, leaving room for subversion.

I suggest conceptualizing digital media as a Foucauldian Discourse, or, for a lack of a better analog: the street, the marketplace. What I mean by Foucauldian discourse is the systematic ways in which communication shapes our social norms. This happens online because, while we use digital media individually, we are taking part in a social space. Online media includes the multiplicity of opinions experienced through an individual’s lenses. We use digital media in personalized ways: to create a ‘personal’ profile, to do your own banking, travel, shopping, etc. But the experience in not fully individualized: the ‘street’ or ‘tribe’ is always at the background of online activities. Friends and family (‘the tribe’) react to personal profiles in social media; reviewers and commenters (‘the street’) “shout” their opinions about the latest gadget you just purchased, or the news you are reading; and always, the watchful eye of a big company – Google, Microsoft, Apple – is present. Therefore, online communication is never done in a vacuum. Even if I am watching cat videos by myself at 3 AM, I am surrounded by society. Online, the individual user is communicating with ‘the masses.’ They are out in the street, or at the marketplace, or at school, or at church, even if they are physically alone in bed. Online, you converse with “everyone.” And these online ‘conversations,’ I argue, are the essence of conceptualizing online media as Foucauldian discourse.

Understanding digital media as discourse means theorizing digital communication as a set of systematic statements and online practices that create, construct, and negotiate social norms: as spaces of power and resistance. And, while the internet allows for multiple voices and counter-spheres, there are policing and regulating processes that make online media a normalizing force. I’d like to share two example from my own work on religion online that reflect how digital media can be conceptualized as a site for power and resistance. more...

Defending the theoretician’s choice to employ a theoretical reductionism is in some respects a nonsensical exercise.  After all, theory of any kind operates as a manifestly reductionistic articulation of a given thing—even if that thing is another theory. This is the conclusion we must come to if we permit ourselves to define theory by the fundamental function it performs.  That is to say, we must accept that theory is (and seeks to be) a reduction of the busyness of the world’s observable on-goings—i.e., it omits detail in one form or another in an effort to make some specific facet of human experience more intelligible, approachable, operatable, etc. To stipulate any theoretical premise (even one that indicts another theory as reductionistic), then, is to assert a reductionism.

Following such an understanding, we must take a moment to acknowledge that many who regularly engage with theory (particularly those who regard themselves as theorists) will rebuke the present characterization.  To justify their stance to the contrary, they could highlight the theoretical efforts to complicate and perhaps negate those perniciously simple and banal articulations of observable on-goings. They may offer rebuttals that quite closely resemble the following remarks: more...

This year, I have lectured and spoken to students in 16 cities across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US. I often begin with a prompt asking these (mostly young) people to name me the first few local and international ‘internet celebrities’ off the top of their heads. Their responses would almost unanimously comprise entirely of names of ‘social media influencers’ — the type of ‘internet-famous’ persons who generally produce social media content full-time as a living, using and repackaging material from their everyday lives as lived, modeling their lifestyles into a canvas onto which sponsored messages (be they products, services, or ideologies) can be interwoven and embedded.

These self-branded influencers are the epitome of ‘internet celebrities’ in that their fame is usually derived from positive self-branding, that followers consume their content aspirationally, that their public visibility is sustained and stable, and that the income they accumulate is lucrative enough to pursue influencer commerce as a full-time career. But we often forget that influencers are just one form of ‘internet celebrities’, or categorically conflate both concepts.

In the first of three short posts, I provide a primer for thinking about internet celebrity through definition frameworks. The forthcoming second post will be a primer for conceptualising the relationship between internet celebrity, visibility, and virality; and the forthcoming third post will be a primer of rethinking the progression from internet celebrity to influencer.

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Miquela Sousa is one of the hottest influencers on Instagram. The triple-threat model, actress and singer, better known as “Lil Miquela” to her million-plus followers, has captured the attention of elite fashion labels, lifestyle brands, magazine profiles, and YouTube celebrities. Last year, she sported Prada at New York Fashion Week, and in 2016 she appeared in Vogue as the face of a Louis Vuitton advertising campaign. Her debut single, “Not Mine,” has been streamed over one million times on Spotify and was even treated to an Anamanaguchi remix.

Miquela isn’t human. As The Cut wrote in their Miquela profile this past May, the 19-year-old Brazilian-American influencer is a CGI character created by Brud, “a mysterious L.A.-based start-up of ‘engineers, storytellers, and dreamers’ who claim to specialize in artificial intelligence and robotics,” which has received at least $6 million in funding. Brud call themselves storytellers as well as developers, but their work seems mostly to be marketing. Lil Miquela’s artificiality has made her interesting to elite fashion labels, lifestyle brands, and magazine profiles — she’s appeared on the runway for Prada, and in Vogue as part of a Louis Vuitton advertising campaign; recently, the writer Naomi Fry profiled her for the magazine’s September issue.

Miquela inhabits a Marvel-like universe of other Brud-made avatars orbit, including her Trump-loving frenemy, Bermuda, and Blawko, her brother (whether that’s a term of endearment or a genetic relation, it’s not clear). The three are constantly embroiled in juicy internet drama, and scarcely does one post to their account without tagging, promoting, shouting out or calling out another. In April, when Bermuda allegedly hacked Miquela’s account, deleted all her photos, and demanded Miquela reveal her “true self.” Miquela eventually released a statement: “I am not a human being. . . I’m a robot. It just doesn’t sound right. I feel so human. I cry and I laugh and I dream. I fall in love.” But the character wasn’t revealing anything true: Miquela is a character scripted by humans. The robot ruse only upped her intrigue: not only has it added a new layer to the character’s fiction, it has added a new layer of fictional possibilities. more...