commentary

Apple users usually expect for their devices to perform basic system management and maintenance, monitoring background processes so that a rogue task doesn’t drag down the currently active app, for example. But when Apple confirmed users’ suspicions that a recent update was aggressively slowing older devices, the story quickly gained national attention, culminating in the company cutting the price of battery replacement service and apologizing for the misunderstanding in an open letter to customers. Though Apple never goes as far as to admit wrongdoing in the letter, their direct appeals to customers’ “trust” and “faith” serve as an implicit acknowledgement that the company disregarded a boundary somewhere.

The new power management system has received justifiable attention and it isn’t the only update the company surreptitiously added recently. In a separate update, wireless and Bluetooth controls that previously functioned like manual on/off switches now only disable connectivity temporarily, until the system automatically reactivates them the following day. Similar to the new power management feature, the connectivity controls weren’t publicized and users weren’t notified of the altered functionality until a subsequent release.

Given how social media and messaging services have, as Jenny Davis says, “extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions,” Apple’s moves to smooth device performance and subtly automate connectivity make some sense. “They have become central to society’s basic functions, such as employment, public safety, and government services,” Data & Society scholars argued in response to Carpenter v. United States. On a basic level a phone’s remaining battery life can, as Jenny Davis wrote of her second night living in Australia, be the difference between calling an Uber or cab home and staying lost and stranded at night in an unfamiliar city on the other side of the world. “I could mess up, (which I did) and have layers of contingency preventing my mishap from becoming a catastrophe.” more...

In last week’s much-anticipated conversation between Barack Obama and Prince Harry, the pair turned to the topic of social media. Here’s what Obama said:

“Social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and   get to know each other and connect. But then it’s important for them to get offline,  meet in a pub, meet at a place of worship, meet in a neighbourhood and get to know   each other.”

The former president’s statements about social media are agreeable and measured. They don’t evoke moral panic, but they do offer a clear warning about the rise of new technologies and potential fall of social relations.

These sentiments feel comfortable and familiar. Indeed, the sober cautioning that digital media ought not replace face-to-face interaction has emerged as a widespread truism, and for valid reasons. Shared corporality holds distinct qualities that make it valuable and indispensable for human social connection. With the ubiquity of digital devices and mediated social platforms, it is wise to think about how these new forms of community and communication affect social relations, including their impact on local venues where people have traditionally gathered. It is also reasonable to believe that social media pose a degree of threat to community social life, one that individuals in society should actively ward off.

However, just because something is reasonable to believe doesn’t mean it’s true. The relationship between social media and social relations is not a foregone conclusion but an empirical question: does social media make people less social? Luckily, scholars have spent a good deal of time collecting cross-disciplinary evidence from which to draw conclusions. Let’s look at the research: more...

Warning: Mr. Robot spoilers abound (but, come on, what are you doing still not caught up with this show?). 

In my first post for Cyborgology last year, I suggested that perhaps Elliot Alderson, the paranoid and delusional protagonist of USA Network’s Mr. Robot, was the epitome of a Deleuzian Body Without Organs—an extreme state wherein rhythms and intensities not available in the anatomical body provide access to a plane of immanence (though I also incorrectly suggested that Elliot is schizophrenic). I used his own self-tracking technique—a journal—and how this journal led to advantage being taken of him. If you’ve read my other posts here, you won’t be surprised to hear that I then used all of that as a critique of the quantified self. What can I say? When all you read is QS critique, everything you read is QS critique. After making my way through season 3, however, I’d like to revisit Elliot and what other sorts of theoretical signposts I might use to understand his character. more...

Let me begin with a prescriptive statement: major social media companies ought to consult with trained social researchers to design interfaces, implement policies, and understand the implications of their products. I embark unhesitatingly into prescription because major social media companies have extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions. Pervasive in personal and public life, social media are not just things people use, places they go to, or activities they do. Social media shape the flows of social life, structure civic engagement, and integrate with affect, identity and selfhood.

Public understanding of social media as infrastructural likely underpins mass concern about what social media are doing to society, and what individuals in society are doing with social media. Out of this concern has emerged a vibrant field of commentary on the relationship between social media use and psychological well-being. Spanning academic literature, op-ed pages and dinner table conversation the question has seemingly remained on the collective mind: does social media make people feel bad? Last week, Facebook addressed the issue directly. more...

Jack Nicholson’s President James Dale

I have this childhood memory of one of those rigged games at a county fair where the prize was a stuffed alien. I wanted it really bad. It looked just like the Halloween costume I’d made with my mom a few years back. We covered a balloon with Papier-mâché and when it dried we popped the balloon, cut out almond-shaped eyes, and spray painted the whole thing silver. This stuffed alien looked just like my costume but it was electric green and had a beautiful black cape with silver embroidery. I won it (don’t remember the game) and kept it for a long time. I might still have it somewhere.

Being the 90s kid I am, I was excited to see a New York Times story about a 2004 incident off the coast of San Diego where two Navy airmen followed a U.F.O. as it, “appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up.” I was hoping this story might circulate for a while, especially given that a $22 million Defense Department program meant to study U.F.Os was recently discovered in the Pentagon’s black money budget. There’s even video of the thing! Sadly, it barely scratched the surface of most newsfeed algorithms. more...

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.)