commentary

Or, When Batting Your Eyelashes Doesn’t Work

I was recently asked to run a “Sex School” seminar on dirty talk at a sex club in Toronto. This invitation came by way of Twitter, in large part because of the profile I maintain in part to advertise my phone sex services. Toronto is half a day’s drive from where I live, so I drove up on the morning of the event. For this reason, I primped at home beforehand, which included full makeup appropriate for the role I was playing as sexpert at a club (read: heavy eyeliner and fake eyelashes – sexy for the club, a bit over the top for daylight).

What I didn’t anticipate was the way that my appearance (in conjunction with my role as a paid speaker in a sex club) was going to read to the Border Patrol. Indeed, while they didn’t say it explicitly, they flagged me as a sex worker, and detained my husband and I under that suspicion.

The line of questioning went something like this: Where are you speaking? What do you do to get such speaking gigs? Is there money involved? How much? Did you bring a contract? How will they pay you? I told the Canadian Border Patrol agent that this was all negotiated on Twitter, and she asked for my phone, making sure the social media apps were accessible. We were told to return to our seats, where we watched her comb through my phone from a distance.

I was surprised to receive this level of scrutiny, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Just a few months earlier, I was at an industry event in Miami where several sex cam models on the Canadian side of the boarder were denied entry into the United States after they had their social media profiles examined, which outed them as cam models. They had to forfeit their tickets and hotel accommodations, not to mention presence at an event that was meant to help bolster their careers. So, I suppose it shouldn’t have been too much of a shock that this sort of scrutiny would also flow in the other direction.

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The Daily Beast ran a story last week with this lede: “Roseanne Barr and Michael McFaul argued with her on Twitter. BuzzFeed and The New York Times cited her tweets. But Jenna Abrams was the fictional creation of a Russian troll farm.” Abrams, the story goes, was a concoction of The Internet Research Agency, the Russian government’s troll farm that was first profiled in New York Times Magazine by Adrian Chen in June 2015. During its three-year life span the Abrams account was able to amass close to 70,000 followers on Twitter and was quoted in nearly every major news outlet in America and Europe including The New York Times, The BBC, and France 24.

The Abrams Twitter account was a well of viral content that over-worked listicle writers couldn’t help but return to. Once the account had amassed a following the content shifted away from innocuous virality to offensive trolling: saying the civil war wasn’t about slavery, mocking Black Lives Matter activists, and jumping on hashtags that were critical of Clinton. “When Abrams joined in with an anti-Clinton hashtag,” The Daily Beast reports, “The Washington Post included her tweet in its own coverageOne outlet used an image of a terrorist attack sourced from Abrams’ Twitter feed.” more...

Content Warning: Descriptions of anti-trans violence and transmisogyny

In the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, ball scene queen Pepper Labeija opines that realness is “to be able to blend…[to] not give away that you’re gay, that’s what’s real…to look as much as possible like your straight counterpart.” In this, realness is an imaginative take, in the safe space of the ball, on passing, either in terms of one’s gender or sexuality. Contestants can masquerade, lampoon, subvert, enact, or actualize those identities denied to them in the outside world. What Paris is Burning also illuminates, however, are the violent repercussions when one’s performative identity is read against their intention, when they don’t pass. The most heinous example in the documentary being the murder of trans performer Venus Xtravaganza before the film was completed. In this, passing is quite literally embodied survival praxis.

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In our very first post, founding editors Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Patella-Rey wrote:

Facebook has become the homepage of today’s cyborg. For its many users, the Facebook profile becomes intimately entangled with existence itself. We document our thoughts and opinions in status updates and our bodies in photographs. Our likes, dislikes, friends, and activities come to form a granular picture—an image never wholly complete or accurate—but always an artifact that wraps the message of who we are up with the technological medium of the digital profile.

Too few people were talking about the internet in this way in 2010. Many were still paying close attention to Second Life more because it comported with prevailing theories of how identity worked online, not because it was representative of most people’s identity online. It was a different time: no one paid for music on the internet, men were afraid to walk out of the house with their new iPads, there was talk of Twitter Revolutions, Occupy gave us tons of opportunities to think about embodiment, planking was a thing, tattoos were talking to Nintendo 3DS’s, and the conversations around digital privacy that we have today were just taking their present form. The persistent media-rich profiles we made just a few years ago had lost their novelty and now we had to reckon with the context collapses, too-clean quantifications, algorithmic segregations, and liquid identities that they afforded.

Much has changed in the handful of years since Nathan and PJ started the blog. We say “cyborg” less and there are tons of new, wonderful people writing thoughtful essays and commentary about everything that is exciting, provocative, and downright frightening about our augmented society.

As always it is a pleasure to work alongside my co-editor Jenny and we couldn’t ask for a better crew of regular contributors: Crystal, Maya, Stephen, Gabi, Marley, Britney, and Sarah. And, of course, this site would be a 404 if it weren’t for Nathan and PJ.  To all of you and our guest contributors, Thank You!

It is hubris to predict the future but anniversaries are as good a time to look forward as they are to look back so here are a few topics and trends that seem worthy of research, debate, and clear-eyed thinking in the next year:

Geographic Thinking Will Take Prominence Alongside Historic, Anthropological, and Sociological Analysis

I study cities so maybe I am biased here but as more and more of our online interactions happen through our devices, instead of less-portable computers, geographic context will become a key component of social media’s affordances and thus our analyses of the social action that takes place on those services. Pair Snapchat’s recent map features with the steady increase of ride-sharing services and the continual fascination with the possibilities that drones represent, and it makes sense that geographers will be more helpful in understanding our digital age than ever before. We’re over-due for it anyway. As the recently-departed Edward Soja once said in his Postmodern Geographies: “For the past century, time and history have occupied a privileged position in the practical and theoretical consciousness of Western Marxism and critical social science. … Today, however, it may be space more than time that hides consequences from us, the ‘making of geography’ more than the ‘making of history’ that provides the most revealing tactical and theoretical world.” Dromology (Paul Virilio’s term for the study of speed) also has a role to play here. As we seek out and interact with our friends across digital maps and subscribe to on-demand product delivery, the accounting and over-coming of large amounts of terrain and topology become an issue for individuals, not just nations’ armies.

The Return of InfoGlut

In 2013 Mark Andrejevic published Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know and that titular neologism was everywhere. Something similar is sorely needed again as “fake news” and its phenomenological antecedents pop up like mushrooms in the dark, damp swamp that is slowly engulfing our media landscape. The issue of too many people acting on and responding to information with questionable relationships to reality is serious, but framed badly. Yes there is too much misleading information out there but what is worse is that there is simply too much information being routed through algorithms that will mess up as surely as their human progenitors do. Perhaps we don’t need better information, just less.

Amazon is the New Facebook When It Comes to Privacy Norms

The recent headlines about Amazon Key, the service that lets couriers open your front door, are definitely having an outsized influence on my thoughts but I still think its accurate to say that Amazon —in its attempts to find and conquer new markets— will start playing with our privacy norms. This year alone it has released a slew of “echo” branded devices that judge your outfits and let people automatically turn on video chats to say nothing of their Alexa devices that are constantly listening. Amazon has every reason to feel like they can succeed where Facebook failed: while Facebook was pushing users to reveal more just as they were starting to share less, Amazon has actual products and services that it is offering consumers.

Acceptance and Mobilization Around Social Media Companies’ Authority

In 2014 Yo, Ello, and Emojli tried to shake us out of the social media duopoly of Twitter and Facebook, but fell short of establishing a beachhead. Let this next year be the time that we finish our grieving process and accept these imperfect companies as the major power-players for the foreseeable future. With this acceptance, should come a determination to build organizations that we feel comfortable living with. Instead of falling for the Silicon Valley myth that everything is a meritocracy and the next billion-dollar social media company is just one round of VC funding away, we must start doing the arduous work of reigning these companies in and learning to make demands of them. Not just regulation or transparency, but profit sharing and true, meaningful shared governance. If this doesn’t happen, we may stand to lose the cyborg selves we were just starting to understand.

I recently started a podcast called The Peepshow Podcast with Jessie Sage, and we recorded an interview with Kashmir Hill that may be of interest to Cyborgology readers.

Hill (@kashhill) is an investigative reporter with Gizmodo Media Group. She recently wrote an article on how Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature outs sex workers. We discuss the ways Facebook/Instagram algorithms may put marginalized people (sex workers, queer youth, domestic abuse survivors, etc.) at risk as well as possible ways of safeguarding users’ identities.

(You can find the uploaded contacts feature mentioned in this segment here.)

View of an open pit gold mine.

 

“A mine is a complex space of flows” says Dr. Mostafa Benzaazoua.

I’m not expecting a professor of geological engineering to use a phrase from the media studies cannon. I write in my notebook” “maybe media studies before mining science?!!!” Or perhaps that phrase has now entered into everyday scholarly parlance. Over the course of the next few hours, Dr. Benzaazoua gives us a detail-rich lecture on how gold is mined from the earth, and the spaces of flows the mine and its products inhabit. The next day we leave before dawn to visit Canada’s largest open pit gold mine.

This post is a report on a visit to a large scale extraction facility, and its relationship to studies of infrastructure and technology. The visit contributes to my own (ongoing) research on machine learning, accountability and ethics; in this I argue that narratives of ethics and accountability are in fact about the evolution of measurements and standards for regulating and assessing human and non-human systems working together. This visit was organised as part of a Summer School called Planetary Futures conceived and led by Drs. Orit Halpern, Pierre- Louis Patoine, Marie-Pier Boucher and Perig Pitrou, and hosted by the Milieux Institute for Art, Technology and Culture at Concordia University.

Over the two weeks following the visit to the mine we journey – literally and figuratively – to the following places: a Mohawk reservation; waterways that enabled the development of the US and Canada as settler-colonial states; the Buckminster Fuller-designed Biosphere from Expo 67; Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, an architectural vision for future housing in crowded cities; a future ‘village’ on the Moon to be built by various Space agencies; the SF of Ursula K le Guin, J.G Ballard, and Peter Watts; and the work of Sarah Sharma on critical temporalities, and notions of ‘exit’ among others.

There is a logic in making these stops; each one relays histories and practices of extraction, colonialism, and imaginations of futures through speculation and design to the next stop. more...


I have a confession to make. I am an outsider. I never saw the original Blade Runner, and I don’t particularly even like sci-fi. Going in, I also didn’t have a clear idea about what the movie was going to be about, though my partner did give me an excruciatingly long history of the movie’s relationship to noir/sci-fi/western films on the way to the theater. (I literally had to check to see if my ears were bleeding).

Perhaps this makes me unqualified to speak about the merits or faults of the film. On the other hand, for this reason—and reasons of my own personal history—I may have related to this movie differently than other reviewers.

I write this reflecting as an online sex worker—someone who professionally plays the role of virtual girlfriend. Someone who, despite the fact that I am a living breathing human being with my own life and agency, takes on a role in my work that looks strikingly similar to Joi—the holographic AI girlfriend of K, the protagonist. more...

The thorough saturation of performance metrics in publishing is well known. We get listicles, slideshows, information gap headlines, outrage, and sensationalism in our feeds to bait our clicks. Being paid by the click creates an infosphere where the content becomes coincidental to its circulation, and we all know and recognize this trend for what it is.

But what does it mean when the value of an academic career is reduced to a short letter-number combination? The H-index is a popular metric that grants numeric value to a scholar’s work (your score is 7 if you have 7 papers that have 7 or more citations, an h-10 means you have 10 papers with 10 or more citations, and so on). There is a lot wrong with the H-index from a measurement standpoint–it has trouble accounting for multiple versus single authorship, it only tallies publications and citations from traditional academic venues, and it only collects data from documents written in English. Yet even if we “fixed” the measure to attenuate bias, combined the measure with additional indicators of influence, and/or expanded the instrument to capture greater complexity, a larger philosophical issue remains: The metrification of scholarly pursuit.

Last week, alterations to Google Scholar coincided with sharp commentary on metrification. We were especially taken with two pieces on the LSE Impact blog addressing academic metrification in general and its particular manifestation on the ResearchGate repository. All of this comes at a time when scientists are also warning of dangerous levels of secrecy that make practitioners choose between the moral courage to blow the whistle on an industry and lucrative intellectual property contracts. For all the talk of collaborative and interdisciplinary work, scholars have never played it so close to the vest. The ubiquitous score-keeping in the day-to-day life and career path of the academic researcher is thoroughly felt but this increasingly gamified scholarship is a topic not spoken about too loudly.   more...

Every now and again, as I stroll along through the rhythms of teaching and writing, my students stop and remind me of all the assumptions I quietly carry around. I find these moments helpful, if jarring. They usually entail me stuttering and looking confused and then rambling through some response that I was unprepared to give. Next there’s the rumination period during which I think about what I should have said, cringe at what I did (and did not) say, and engage in mildly self-deprecating wonder at my seeming complacency. I’m never upset when my positions are challenged (in fact, I quite like it) but I am usually disappointed and surprised that I somehow presumed my positions didn’t require justification.

Earlier this week, during my Public Sociology course, some very bright students took a critical stance against politics in the discipline.  As a bit of background, much of the content I assign maintains a clear political angle and a distinct left leaning bias. I also talk a lot about writing and editing for Cyborgology, and have on several occasions made note of our explicit orientation towards social justice.  The students wanted to know why sociology and sociologists leaned so far left, and questioned the appropriateness of incorporating politics into scholarly work—public or professional.

I think these questions deserve clear answers. The value of integrating politics with scholarship is not self-evident and it is unfair (and a little lazy) to go about political engagement as though it’s a fact of scholarly life rather than a position or a choice. We academics owe these answers to our students and we public scholars would do well to articulate these answers to the publics with whom we hope to engage. more...

The Instagram interface is changing so quickly and subtly all at once. For one, the app store on my iPhone constantly invites me to manually update my Instagram app in order to make those unsightly red notification bubbles go away. But the design tweaks and new features that are introduced each time come in small, user-friendly batches that I also learn to keep up and adapt.

In fact, although I was among the earliest adopters of Instagram in Singapore, where I have been conducting research on Influencers and internet celebrities since 2010, I don’t even recall what the original Instagram interface looked like. Do you? But perhaps the most logical explanation for the seamless uptake of each Instagram update is that the platform is merely institutionalizing into officialdom practices that have been creatively innovated and adapted by its users. The latest of these is Instagram’s multiple account prompt. more...