worry piece

I’m the first to admit that coming up with new material to write on a regular basis can be really tough. I also think that important arguments bear repeating. So I’m not mad when I see multiple versions of essentially the same story pop up in op-eds and essays. But I do feel the need to step in when stories that repeat themselves, repeatedly get something wrong. Such is the case with what I call the worry piece.

The worry piece is a particular brand of techno-skeptism. It addresses technology as an overwhelming force that on balance, changes people and relationships for the worse. It is concerned with the very nature of humanity and saturated with visceral anxiety. It is personal, and meant to shame you, but in a collective-we-should-all-be-ashamed kind of way. One can (and should) be skeptical and critical of technology for a host of reasons—mostly with regard to patterns of exploitation from its production, distribution, and use. The worry piece is less concerned with these structural issues and instead, occupied by the loss of dinnertime conversation and the influx of content to which readers can presumably pay only fleeting attention.   more...

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During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues.    more...

Thiel - Girard

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues. more...

Polling

Horse-race style political opinion polling is an integral a part of western democratic elections, with a history dating back to the 1800’s. Political opinion polling originally took hold in the first quarter of the 19th century, when a Pennsylvania straw poll predicted Andrew Jackson’s victory over John Quincey Adams in the bid for President of the United States. The weekly magazine Literary Digest then began conducting national opinion polls in the early 1900s, followed finally by the representative sampling introduced the George Gallup in 1936. Gallup’s polling method is the foundation of political opinion polls to this day (even though the Gallup poll itself recently retired from presidential election predictions).

While polling has been around a long time, new technological developments let pollsters gather data more frequently, analyze and broadcast it more quickly, and project the data to wider audiences. Through these developments, polling data have moved to the center of election coverage. Major news outlets report on the polls as a compulsory part of political segments, candidates cite poll numbers in their speeches and interviews, and tickers scroll poll numbers across both social media feeds and the bottom of television screens. So central has polling become that in-the-moment polling data superimpose candidates as they participate in televised debates, creating media events in which performance and analysis converge in real time. So integral has polling become to the election process that it may be difficult to imagine what coverage would look in the absence of these widely projected metrics. more...

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In December 2015, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure became the subject of fierce controversy. When it was publicly revealed that staffers of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid breached rival Hillary Clinton’s voter data stored in NGP VAN’s VoteBuilder, this infrastructure, normally hidden from view, suddenly became a contested matter of concern. As the Democratic Party closed access to VoteBuilder for a period of time for the Sanders campaign, the candidate’s supporters, competitors to NGP VAN, and journalists publicly debated why the party had such control over voter data and, ultimately, the dangers that such centralization might pose for the party and the democratic process. I have spent the past decade studying platforms such as VoteBuilder. While the incident with Sanders raised a number of important issues, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure, developed in the wake of the 2004 presidential election cycle, is a key reason for its well-documented technological advantages  over its Republican rival that persisted at least through the 2014 midterm elections.

Before I go any further it is worth providing some background context from news reports on the Sanders data breach, with the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of and have not conducted original research on the incident. From journalistic reports, the basic facts behind the Sanders data breach of NGP VAN’s firewalls between campaigns seem clear enough. By exploiting a vulnerability in the NGP VAN system, staffers on the Sanders campaign pulled multiple lists of voters from the Clinton campaign’s voter data. According to news articles, this included data on things such as strong Clinton supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire, 24 lists in all. The DNC responded by temporarily suspending the Sanders campaign’s access to VoteBuilder, in effect preventing staffers from using their voter data less than two months out from the Iowa caucuses. more...

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I want to share with you a personal story – an experience that I dealt with about four months ago that caused me a great deal of anxiety: I found a flea on my dog.  That’s right a flea; not multiple fleas, a flea.  But I panicked.  I vacuumed everything – couches, throw pillows, mattresses, floors – twice a day, every day for at least three weeks.  I mopped every other day.  I washed everything in the house three times a week.  I bought some of that terrible chemical shampoo and washed my poor pup with it.  I flea combed her three times a day.  I set up flea traps in every room before bed.  I caught three more fleas.  I started having recurring dreams about fleas multiplying on my dog – growing in size as in an arcade game while I tried to knock them out one by one.  My language changed.  I started singing the Pokemon – “Gotta Catch All” song while vacuuming and talking like Ted Cruz, using phrases like “we’ve got to obliterate…,” etc.  My partner was seriously concerned about my sanity.

Now this sort of anxiety is partly personal – an anxiety over microscopic things that have the potential to grow completely out of my control.  But I’m going to argue that there is more to it than that.  I’ve talked to pet owners who – upon spotting fleas – tore apart their houses, spent hundreds of dollars on flea products, set off chemicals in their homes that notably released the same poisonous gases that were instrumental to the India’s Bhopal disaster.  We can’t all be this crazy.

I don’t think we are. more...

Alaska

Turn on your TV and I bet you can find a show about Alaska. A partial list of Alaska-themed reality shows airing between 2005 and today includes Deadliest Catch, Alaskan Bush People, Alaska the Last Frontier, Ice Road Truckers, Gold Rush, Edge of Alaska, Bering Sea Gold, The Last Alaskans, Mounting Alaska, Alaska State Troopers, Flying Wild Alaska, Alaskan Wing Men, and the latest, Alaska Proof, premiering last week on Animal Planet, a show that follows an Alaskan distillery team as they strive to “bottle the true Alaskan spirit.” And with Alaska Proof, I submit that we have saturated the Alaskan genre; we have reached Peak Alaska. We may see a few new Alaska shows, but it’s likely on the decline. I don’t imagine we have many Alaskan activities left yet unexplored.

Television programming remains a staple of American Leisure, even as the practice of television watching continues to change (e.g., it’s often done through a device that’s not a TV). As a leisure activity, consumers expect their TV to entertain, compel, and also, provide comfort. What content and forms will entertain, compel and comfort shift with cultural and historical developments. Our media products are therefore useful barometers for measuring the zeitgeist of the time.  Marshall McLuhan argues in The Medium is the Message that upon something’s peak, when it is on the way out, that thing becomes most clearly visible. And so, with Alaska peaking in clear view, I ask, what does our Alaskan obsession tell us about ourselves?    more...

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“Aren’t you glad you’re not there right now?” This is, if personal experience is any indication, the state-mandated response Floridians must give to anyone that claims to be visiting from anything north of the state line. It doesn’t matter the context —a bartender on Hollywood beach, an emergency room physician in North Miami— they are all very happy that you found your way to Florida this winter. The phrase has a wide range of registers though, that go from outright smugness to a thinly veiled request to validate one’s decision to settle down in 2,300 square feet of something called Flamingo Palisades. “Please,” they seem to say, “tell me this is as good as it gets.”

I grew up just north of Miami and even though I have little desire to live on whatever is left of it after the seas rise to their predicted heights, I value the perspective it has given me. Florida sensitizes you to the effort humans put in to turning spaces into places. Florida’s economy is based on the constant re-invention of its own brand, always changing for different demographics and markets. Florida’s cities are the sociocultural equivalents of GMO corn: equal parts science and marketing, growing out of an artificial substrate of designer chemicals and excrement. They are bland and immensely profitable by design. They don’t conform to existing economies of scale, they make their own.

The Sunbelt, that stretch of Post World War II development that became desirable for modern, full-time habitation only after the advent of the air conditioner, isn’t so much a geographic feature as it is an historic anomaly. It is undergirded by cheap fossil fuels, leisure time, a guaranteed (for some) retirement age, and modern architecture. The winters are warm and prices for goods are generally kept at a libertarian low but the car-based transportation system doesn’t really let most people enjoy either of these qualities. Most of your time is spent burning expensive gas in an air-conditioned Hyundai on a gridlocked highway.

Living in one’s car, albeit among a very different set of conditions, was the focus of a recent essay in Fusion by Malcolm Harris. In exploring his titular question “Where Should a Good Millennial Live?,” he reveals that some of the more trendy alternative housing options pitched to younger generations are substantial reductions in the quality of life: houses not much bigger than a box truck or actually living in a box truck in the parking lot of your employer, are being marketed to young adults as the American Dream of the 21st Century. In addition to living in tiny houses and cars, Millennials are also being encouraged to rehab the leftovers of the post-industrial economy. If you’re not willing to live in something impossibly small, you can always own lots of property laced with lead and asbestos.

Unlike tiny houses or a truck in the parking lot however, the Rustbelt may hold some liberatory potential. Before we get to that though, I would like to sort out all of the promises and fanfare that has surrounded Rustbelt living and describe why the most publicized reasons for moving to the Rustbelt are not what makes it so interesting. more...

FBI director James B. Comey’s recent comment that police scrutiny has led to an uptick in violence is a villainization of #BlackLivesMatter activists. I rerun this piece as a response to Comey’s position.15407587706_6f3ccf86c2_z

 

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me…It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision…It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful… ~Ralph Ellison (1932), Invisible Man

In what follows, I argue that the Black Lives Matter movement is a hacker group, glitching the social program in ways that disrupt white supremacy with glimpses of race consciousness. It is a group that combats black Americans’ invisibility; that “bumps back” until finally, they are recognized.  As Ellison continues:   more...

Ahmed Mohamed, 14. Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas News.
Ahmed Mohamed, 14. Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas News.

On Monday, August 14, a 14-year-old ninth grade student, Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to Irving MacArthur High School, his school in Irving, Texas.

Dark-skinned and a Muslim, Mohamed was clearly singled out on the basis of his ethnic and religious background. Of course, the school and police officials reject this assertion, but Mohamed’s family and many thousands of social media users aren’t buying it. The rapid, nationwide attention to Mohamed’s case provides an opportunity. Not only have charges been dropped against Mohamed, but it is unlikely that his detention and arrest will produce the negative reputation they otherwise would have. When applying to colleges, his Islamic name and the box checked indicating that he has been arrested would otherwise be cause for rejection. Instead, the details of his arrest are widely known and assessed as illegitimate. That’s great news for Mohamed, and this alone is a laudable outcome of his willingness and courage to fight this injustice so publicly while being backed up by others’ social media activism. more...