commentary

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. There are shopify business websites, a direct product of ecommerce, which again is by extension is born out of digital media. 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...

In the Summer of 2009 I had just graduated college and job prospects were slim in Recession-era Florida. My best lead for employment had been a Craigslist ad to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and after having attended the orientation in a remote office park I was now mentally preparing myself for a new life as an Arthur Miller character. That was when a friend called with a lucrative offer. She worked at a law office and they were hiring a part-time secretary to process the new wave of cases they had just gotten. This tiny firm represented home owners’ associations in mortgage foreclosures and bankruptcies, and business was booming.

The job was simple because everything about suburban homes is standardized: from the floor plans to the foreclosure proceedings, everything is set up for mass production. It was also optimized for bullshit. Sometimes I would be instructed to print out emails from clients who’d attached PDFs of scans of printed, previously received emails. I would write a cover letter, print out their email and the attachments (which, remember were scans of printed out emails) and enclose the printed-out email with the printed-out PDFs of scans of emails, then scan and email what I had just printed and mailed so that the client would get an email and a paper letter of the same exact thing. Sometimes I would fax it too. Everyone knew this was ridiculous but the longer it took to do anything the more money the attorneys made.

My job reminded me of a scene in the 1997 movie The Fifth Element, wherein CEO Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) delivers a monologue to Father Cornelius (Ian Holm) that begins, “Life, which you so dutifully serve, comes from destruction, disorder, chaos!” He then pushes a glass off his desk and as little robots descend on the shards and clean it up he narrates the scene: “a lovely ballet ensues so full of form and color. Now think of all those people that created them. Technicians, engineers, hundreds of people who will be able to feed their children tonight.” Financiers and the burgeoning tech industry had destroyed countless things, and now I was an obedient Roomba cleaning up the shards— a beneficiary of others’ creative destruction.

This is not a particularly deep thought, but that’s never stopped an idea whose time has been forced by capital. Depth is not a precondition of power when it comes to ideology. In fact, it is teenage suburban weed revelations like Zorg’s that dominate the minds of capitalists who, at least since Andrew Carnegie’s Prosperity Gospel, have done a good job of making everyone else agree that their bad ideas are immutable truths. Observers and practitioners of state power —from Antonio Gramsci to Karl Rove— recognize that political common sense is not forged through debate, it is imposed through brute force and media saturation. Simple, easy to digest ideas spread fast, which is why it is important to engage with deeply uncritical ideas and, whenever possible, come up with compelling alternatives. more...

At the end of May our local police department released a statement on city traffic stops, a day ahead of the attorney general’s annual report covering all stops made across the state. “Black drivers continue to be overrepresented in Columbia Police Department traffic stops” as a local newspaper summed it up, “and the numbers are even worse than in 2016.” Despite Black residents making up less than 10% of the city’s population, Black drivers were over 4 times more likely to be stopped than White drivers, as one city council member noted at the end of a public comment session where several local residents spoke out on the issue. From the statistical data, to residents’ critical comments, including one Black resident’s direct experiences being routinely followed and stopped, racial profiling by seemingly all accounts remains the norm, and overall appears to be getting steadily worse.

By all accounts, well, except for the police and the city manager’s anyway. “We continue to look at data and we have not seen an apparent pattern of profiling…,” the city manager assured. “[H]owever, we acknowledge that some community members have experiences with officers that make them have negative feelings and perceptions about police.” His assurances, among other things, sound eerily close to the police chief’s own statements last year about the previous year’s report: “We will vigilantly continue to look for additional data we can collect that would give our community a fuller picture of the reason each traffic stop is conducted” (emphasis mine). But if a “disparity index of 3.28 for African American drivers, an increase from 3.13 in 2016” doesn’t signify a pattern, what would? According to our officials, the answer is the same as it was a year ago: more data and/or analysis is needed to say for sure what the data is telling them. Meanwhile, the dissonance between what they say and what the data shows continues to grow. Indeed, it almost seems as though these two things exist in parallel dimensions from one another.

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Algorithms are something of a hot topic.  Interest in these computational directives has taken hold in public discourse and emerged as a subject of public concern. While computer scientists were the original algorithm experts, social scientists now equally stake a claim in this space. In the past 12 months, several excellent books on the social science of algorithms have hit the shelves. Three in particular stand out: Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality, and Taina Bucher’s If…Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics. Rather than a full review of each text, I offer a quick summary of what they offer together, while drawing out what makes each distinct.

I selected these texts because of what they represent: a culmination of shorter and more hastily penned contentions about automation and algorithmic governance, and an exemplary standard for critical technology studies. I review them here as a state of the field and an analytical grounding for subsequent thought.

There is no shortage of social scientists commenting on algorithms in everyday life. Twitter threads, blog posts, op-eds, and peer-review articles take on the topic with varying degrees of urgency and rigor. Algorithms of Oppression, Automating Inequality, and If…Then encapsulate these lines of thought and give them full expression in monograph form. more...