essay

Photo: independent.co.uk , 2017

We should not be at all surprised to find ourselves online, but we are disturbed to find ourselves where we did not post, especially elements of ourselves we did not share intentionally. These departures from our expectations reveal something critical to the appeal of social media: it seems to provide a kind of identity control previously available only to autobiographers. We feel betrayed, as the writer would, if something is published which we had wanted struck from the record. The genius of social media is meeting this need for editorial control, but the danger is that these services do not profit from the user’s sense of coherent identity, which they appear to produce. The publisher is not interested primarily in the health of the memoirist, but in obtaining a story that will sell.

The intersection of autobiography and social media, especially emphasized by the structure of the Facebook Timeline, should raise questions about how identity is disclosed both before and after the advent of Facebook. The data self Facebook creates, which Nathan Jurgenson wrote about five years ago, is a dramatic departure from the way many of us likely conceive of ourselves. He suggests that the modern subject is constituted largely by data even as the subject creates that data; the self we reference and reveal to others is built on things that can be found out without our consent or effort. A more recent article in New York Times Magazine highlights the power of the immense data available on each of us with a profile. more...

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...

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...

When I started this series three weeks ago, my goal was to provide a review/recap of Orphan Black’s final season, tying it to issues of the body, history and philosophy of science, and the value of fiction. Turns out that last element drew me in and I was most curious about the way that Orphan Black’s creators, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, employed their science consultant, Cosima Herter, in order to make the science in the show as “real” as possible, while still developing and producing a piece of work that was very clearly fiction. Along the way, I’ve found myself wanting to bring in other works of narrative-based fiction. I wrote about Mr. Robot, but I have drafts that include Minority Report, Black Mirror, Nathaniel Rich’s 2013 novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, The Blair Witch Project, and Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Reflecting back on those drafts, I came just short of plotting these works along a matrix consisting of two axes: plausibility and believability. That is, could this not only actually happen, but would a public believe it had? In effect, I began to work out how hyperstitious to consider each of these culture artifacts. more...

Findings from a recent study out of Stanford University Business School by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski indicate that AI can correctly identify sexual preference based on images of a person’s face. The study used 35,000 images from a popular U.S. dating site to test the accuracy of algorithms in determining self-identified sexual orientation. Their sample images include cis-white people who identify as either heterosexual or homosexual. The researchers’ algorithm correctly assessed the sexual identity of men 81% of the time and women 74%. When the software had access to multiple images of each face, accuracy increased to 91% for images of men and 84% for images of women. In contrast, humans correctly discerned men’s sexual identity 61% of the time and for women, only 54%.

The authors of the study note that algorithmic detection was based on “gender atypical” expressions and “grooming” practices along with fixed facial features, such as forehead size and nose length. Homosexual-identified men appeared more feminized than their heterosexual counterparts, while lesbian women appeared more masculine. Wang and Kosinski argue that their findings show “strong support” for prenatal hormone exposure which predisposes people to same-sex attraction and has clear markers in both physiology and behavior. According to the authors’ analysis and subsequent media coverage, people with same-sex attraction were “born that way” and the essential nature of sexuality was revealed through a sophisticated technological apparatus.

While the authors demonstrate an impressive show of programming, they employ bad science, faulty philosophy, and irresponsible politics. This is because the study and its surrounding commentary maintain two lines of essentialism, and both are wrong. more...


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Last week, I introduced some characters to my argument: Orphan Black and its writing and consulting staff, Mr. Robot and its creators, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit and Nick Land, accelerationism, and hyperstition. Need a refresher? Find it here. Now, I’d like to take a brief detour in order to introduce another important character here: speculative design. more...

At what point does a fictional tale of a present day technocapitalist advancement and the characters embroiled in its aftermath turn into a dystopia? Is there ever a clear threshold between the plausible and the absurd? And what responsibility does the artist or author have towards their audience to make clear the realism of the piece?

Spoiler Warning: you may want to tread lightly if you haven’t yet but still plan on watching through season 2 of Mr. Robot and season 5 of Orphan Black. more...

In this post, I’d like to make an argument about a way to understand how the Democratic party seems to be making messaging and policy decisions. An argument like this can’t be made in a vacuum—or in 1,500 words. Nor can any one or even ten reasons be decided upon for why the leaders of a party do what they do. But I recognize a pattern in how the DNC and leadership has acted over the past decade and I want to work that through here. So please forgive any indication that I am not a policy wonk or political analyst—I do not claim to be, nor do I wish to be either. more...

METATOPIA 4.0 – Algoricene (2017) by Jaime Del Val

The 23rd International Symposium on Electronic Art was held in collaboration with the 16th Festival Internacional De La Imagen in Manizales, Colombia in mid-June 2017. The opening ceremony for the conference kicked off with a performance by the artist Jaime Del Val, entitled METATOPIA 4.0 – Algoricene (2017), described by the artist as “a nomadic, interactive and performative environment for outdoors and indoors spaces.” The artist statement goes on (and on) to explain that the piece “merges dynamic physical and digital architectures” in an effort to “def[y] prediction and control in the Big Data Era.” In actuality, Del Val stripped down to his naked body, put himself in a clear mesh tent, projected abstract shapes onto the tent, and danced to what might best be called abstract electronica (think dubstep’s “wubwubwub” without the pop).

What piece of what Del Val presented qualifies as “electronic art”? Was it the music? The projector? The use of the term “Big Data Era”, capitalized (in lieu, perhaps, of scare-quotes) in his entirely glib artist statement? I was similarly confused by Alejandro Brianza’s artist talk, “Underground Soundscapes”, in which he showed a few photos of subway systems around the world, accompanied by sound recordings from each visit. About Brianza’s work and Del Val’s, I wondered: why is this electronic art? In fact, throughout the duration of my visit to the ISEA conference and festival, I found myself asking “why” quite often.

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Screen grab, Ghost in the Shell. Mamoru Oshii, 1995.

In April this year, thanks to Stephanie Dinkins and Francis Tseng, artists-in-residence at New Inc., I experimented with a workshop called ‘Imagining Ethics’. The workshop invites participants to imagine and work through everyday scenarios in a near future with autonomous vehicles and driving. These scenarios are usually related to moral conflicts, or interpersonal, social, and cultural challenges. This post is about situating this experiment within the methods and approaches of  design fiction, a technique to speculate about near futures.

Julian Bleecker writes about design fiction as “totems” through which projections into the future may be assembled:

“Design fictions are assemblages of various sorts, part story, part material, part idea-articulating prop, part functional software. …are component parts for different kinds of near future worlds. They are like artifacts brought back from those worlds in order to be examined, studied over. They are puzzles of a sort….They are complete specimens, but foreign in the sense that they represent a corner of some speculative world where things are different from how we might imagine the “future” to be, or how we imagine some other corner of the future to be. These worlds are “worlds” not because they contain everything, but because they contain enough to encourage our imaginations, which, as it turns out, are much better at pulling out the questions, activities, logics, culture, interactions and practices of the imaginary worlds in which such a designed object might exist.” more...