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...

About 60 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, there is a break in the already existing wall built on the border between the United States and Mexico. When you stand at the Shell Gas Station (the one with the Subway in it) off exit 73 on the I-8, near Jacumba, turn towards the southwest and look at the beginning of this fence opening. Paying attention to the terrain just east of where the last bar of steel juts out of the ground, it won’t take you long to figure out why the wall stops: anyone who attempts to travail the 10 miles of wilderness between the last road in Mexico and the Californian freeway must be well equipped physically and mentally.

This doesn’t mean that American border patrol agents don’t survey and patrol the space without a barrier. The militarization of the US-Mexico border started well before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, President Clinton’s “war on crime”, or the “war on drugs”. In 1924, the US Border Patrol was created in an effort to keep immigrants from Asian countries from coming into the country. During that time, agents also sought to block illegal shipments of alcohol into the country during prohibition.

The 1996 “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act”, signed into law by Clinton, was responsible mainly for authorizing the mass deportation of undocumented migrants, as well as a major expansion of the barrier between the US and Mexico, as well as a secondary wall slightly north of the primary structure. After 9/11, billions more (one estimate has it at $286 billion since 1986) were poured into the border: Blackhawk helicopters, drones costing $18 million a piece, 20,000 border patrol agents in military grade Humvees, heat sensors, seismic sensors, motion sensors, and the willful disregard of vigilantes in border-adjacent towns all stand in the way of individuals looking to cross the border—and that’s once they get there.

A large number of the migrants come from Central America to escape political or gang violence. Once in Mexico, options to get to the US border are as dangerous as they are limited: one “popular” way to do it is by hitching a ride on top of a freight train known as La Beastia (The Beast), or El tren de la muerte (The Death Train). Riding this train means risking kidnapping, robbery, or serious injury (limbs are easily removed by obstacles along the train’s route). To reinforce a point made by immigrant and refugee rights activists the world wide, if someone is willing to risk absolutely everything for entry into this country, a place that, with all of its very real and very serious faults, is still safer than the place from where that individual is fleeing, what right do we have to deny them entry, treat them like an animal, arrest them, and/or deport them?

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I’m writing this here because I’m not sure what else to write.

Cyborgology is a pretty laid back operation and I don’t necessarily feel pressure from my editors to post. But I’m listed as a contributor to this community and I’d like to live up to the title. Over the past few months, I’ve had some work and school obligations that have slowed me down, but what’s really kept me from posting since my last essay over six months ago is the absolute fear that (at the risk of being a digital dualist) what I’m going to write here does not have enough to do with what’s going on out there (I want to be very clear here that my colleagues at Cyborgology have written a good number of posts about the current administration and so my fear is not based on whether or not my fellow authors focus on the right issues—they do).

Reading about the immigrant detention centers inspired me to turn to a favorite of Cyborgology authors and prolific authority on discipline, Michel Foucault. I found plenty there to draw connections. Similarly, Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception would be extremely relevant here. And normally, that’s how I would start a post—think of a technology, say, seismic sensors embedded in the desert sand, and then turn to someone who has written abstractly about the sort of apparatus of control embedded within the sensor. Or I’d turn to the use of DNA testing for the reunification of families and consider what it means when an archive of marginalized bodies is being built anew, fortified with the very code of each individual’s physical manifestation.

I just don’t see where my analysis changes the fact that these abominations exist. Foucault was a brilliant historian—a self-proclaimed “archeologist” of power. He set up a multitude of signposts that we can read today to recognize how structures of society organize and control the individual. Has his work changed anything?

This is not an argument against online activism—we know how important and inclusive that element of resistance is. And it’s not a plea to ask you to get into the streets and start punching Nazis (for all I know, you’re already doing that). A few times during the last couple of years, I’ve gone out to the Jacumba wilderness and left water and supplies with an amazing organization called Border Angels. And I’ve attended a few protests. But, primarily, when I fret over what I’m doing to make change, I convince myself that being an artist, historian, and writer is what I do well and what I should keep doing. Is that going to be enough? I try hard to be an ally to the marginalized, but when does allyship fall too short?

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My grandmother was lucky enough to escape Europe while the rest of her immediate family was sent to Auschwitz. Three of my great aunts, through a series of luck and generosity from otherwise barbaric Nazis, lived through the experience until the camp was liberated. They traveled on foot and by hitchhiking from one Red Cross shelter to another before finally getting back to their family’s house in Czechoslovakia. They discovered that their neighbors had taken over their home and the shop which their father ran from within. “You were dead,” their neighbors proclaimed, “we figured you weren’t coming back. This is ours now. Go back to being dead.”

Walking through the desert near the routes taken by migrants seeking a better life in the United States, you’ll see evidence of those people: empty cans of food, a body-sized imprint in the sand in a crawlspace. One time I saw a Little Mermaid backpack and another I saw two large dish sponges with shoelaces and foot imprints—most likely someone trying to walk without leaving footprints or disturbing a seismic sensor. How can I make sure that these people—if they make it through the mountains, and the desert, and past the helicopters and drones, and through the sensors, and to the highway, and out of detention centers—how can I make sure that they aren’t told, “go back to being dead”?

Still image from a YouTube tutorial on how to build a model Victorian factory in Minecraft

I’m going to sound like a grandpa here –video games are a big gap in my knowledge of digital media—but what the hell is wrong with today’s video games? I’m not really talking about getting ripped off by loot boxes, or titles that ship with major bugs left to be squashed. Those are certainly things that keep me away, but what really turns me off is what the games themselves are about. And here, rest assured, I’m not talking about the violence depicted in games which, as many well-regarded studies have definitively shown, don’t cause violence. (Though, that doesn’t stop the fact that I don’t really find photo-realistic war games to be particularly entertaining.) No, I’m just tired of video games feeling like a second job.

I have never felt the desire to play any of the simulator games that are popular today, even Train Simulator 2018 which, objectively, sounds awesome. Ditto for Minecraft, even though I love building things. It all just sounds like chores. I so desperately want to love video games. I own a PlayStation 4 and have about half a dozen games, but they just collect dust on a shelf. I played Skyrim for a long time but that was only after I rage-quit half an hour into the game and then didn’t pick it back up for over a year. Why would I want to collect hundreds of flowers to make a health potion? more...

This post is based on the author’s article in the journal Science as Culture. Full text available here and here

In 2016, Lumos Labs – creators of the popular brain training service Lumosity – settled against charges laid by the FTC, who concluded that the company unjustly ‘preyed on consumers fears …[but] simply did not have the science to back up its ads’. In addition to a substantial fine, the judgment stipulated that – except in light of any rigorously derived scientific findings – Lumos Labs

‘… are permanently restrained and enjoined from making any representation, expressly or by implication [that their product] … improves performance in school, at work … delays or protects against age-related decline in memory or other cognitive function, including mild cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease…. [or] reduces cognitive impairment caused by health conditions, including Turner syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, or side effects of chemotherapy.’

However, by the time of the settlement, Lumosity’s message was already out. Lumosity boasts ‘85 million registered users worldwide from 182 countries’ and their seductive advertisements were seen by many millions more. Over three billion mini-games have been played on their platform, which – combined with personal data gleaned from their users – makes for an incredibly valuable data set. Lumosity kindled sparks of hope within those who suffered, or feared suffering from the above conditions, or who simply sought to better themselves for contemporary demands. In this way, the brain has become a site of both promise and peril. Today, ever more ethical injunctions are levied through calls for ‘participatory biocitizenship’, the supposed ‘empowerment of the individual, at any age, to self-monitor and self-manage health and wellness’. more...


Jessie Sage is not my legal name. Shocking, right? It is, however, my public identity. At this point, so many of my interactions happen through this name that it often feels more natural to me than my legal one. As someone who works in and covers the adult industry, it is the name under which everything I do related to sex work and sex work advocacy falls: my writing, my podcast, my profiles, my activist work, etc.

There are very obvious reasons for this. Sex work is highly stigmatized. And even for those who have only done legal sex work, like myself, there can still be dire consequences to being connected to the sex industry: from social ostracization, to loss of vanilla jobs, to custody battles, to threats of (or actual) violence.

It is no wonder then that nearly everyone who works in my community works under a pseudonym. In a world in which a Google search that links your name to porn can shut down your bank account or prevent you from crossing international borders, it only makes sense to not link your legal identity to your sex work.

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At the confluence of being chronic meme aficionados, internet research scholars, and educators to cohorts of young people, in 2017 my colleague Kristine Ask and I began a project to consider seriously the types of memes students share online.

Memes have been established as objects that bear meaning beyond mere internet frivolity. Studies in vernacular cultures have framed memes as “the propagation of content items such as jokes, rumours, videos, or websites from one person to others“, and as a form of “pop polyvocality” or “a pop cultural tongue that facilitate[s] the diverse engagement of many voices“. Other studies from media and communications have found that memes are a “shared social phenomenon“, and still others from the socio-cultural perspective have asserted them as a “common instrument for establishing normativity“.

Specifically, we studied the popular Facebook page “Student Problems” on which over 7 million subscribers participate in producing, circulating, gatekeeping, and consuming memes focused on mental health issues, student debt, racism, sexism, and other struggles associated with student life. Aside from the humour proliferate on the Facebook page, the Student Problem brand’s flagship website also dishes out tips via (moderately sincere) Student Guides and an online shop of blatantly self-ironic merchandise, such as a “Cry Cushion” with the inscription “place head and cry”.

Evidently, self-deprecating relatability is the order of the day, in which condescending, pessimistic, and vulnerable displays of student struggles have arisen in opposition to the rise of pristine, prestigious, and celebratory content propagated by social media Influencers and everyday humblebraggers. As vehicles of emotive visual display, Student Problem memes allowed users to build a sense of community, camaraderie, and commiseration, albeit clouded in the language of humour and wit. Although our study also considered findings from a workshop with undergraduate students in two batches, and a media watch of press coverage on student issues over several months across the world, in this post we focus on the content analysis of just the Facebook page and briefly discuss three themes from our sample of 179 memes collected between March and May 2017. more...

“Designing Kai, I was able to anticipate off-topic questions with responses that lightly guide the user back to banking,” Jacqueline Feldman wrote describing her work on the banking chatbot. Feldman’s attempts to discourage certain lines of questioning reflects both the unique affordances bots open up and the resulting difficulties their designers face. While Feldman’s employer gave her leeway to let Kai essentially shrug off odd questions from users until they gave up, she notes “…Alexa and Siri are generalists, set up to be asked anything, which makes defining inappropriate input challenging, I imagine.” If the work of bot/assistant designers entails codifying a brand into an interactive persona, how their creations afford various interactions shape user’s expectations and behavior as much as their conventionally feminine names, voices and marketing as “assistants.”

Affordances form “the dynamic link between subjects and objects within sociotechnical systems,” as Jenny Davis and James Chouinard write in “Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse.” According to the model Davis and Chouinard propose, what an object affords isn’t a simple formula e.g. object + subject = output, but a continuous interrelation of “mechanisms and conditions,” including an object’s feature set, a user’s level of awareness and comfort in utilizing them, and the cultural and institutional influences underlying a user’s perceptions of and interactions with an object. “Centering the how,” rather than the what, this model acknowledges “the variability in the way affordances mediate between features and outcomes.” Although Facebook requires users to pick a gender in order to complete the initial signup process, as one example they cite, users also “may rebuff these demands” through picking a gender they don’t personally identify as. But as Davis and Chouinard argue, affordances work “through gradations” and so demands are just one of the ways objects afford. They can also “requestallow, encourage, discourage, and refuse.” How technologies afford certain interactions clearly affects how we as users use them, but this truth implies another: that how technologies afford our interactions re-defines both object and subject in the process. Sometimes there’s trouble distinguishing even which is which.

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It’s been 7 years since Alone Together (2011) was published. And, here at Cyborgology (which we launched only a few months before the book came out), probably no other publication has received so much of our attention (with the possible exception of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”

While Turkle’s earlier writings were hopeful, forward-looking provocations about the growing intimacy between humans and machines, Alone Together (as well as Turkle’s more recent Reclaiming Conversation [2015]) struck a completely different tone: a present-focused techno-pessimism. Turkle’s insistence on the intrinsic inferiority of digitally mediated interaction—that it is less real, less human—became a foil for ambivalent, nuanced analysis of technology and society that we sought to provide on this blog. In part, Turkle has become an antagonistic figure because she cherry-picks anecdotes while ignoring more systematic research on the way digital technologies facilitate social support. In part, because she epitomizes a sort of rhetoric about the ontological inferiority of the Web—its lack of realness—that has distracted from important social justice questions about how such technologies reinforce/reproduce existing inequalities and the concrete measure that can be taken to changes this.

In the recent 2017 update of the book. Turkle doubles down, referencing Darwin and embracing evolutionary biology style grand narratives in her new preface. She says, “as we evolved, people were the only other creatures who responded with us with suggestions of empathy.” (I can hear Haraway off in the distance, shouting, “what about dogs?!”) Turkle continues more...

When migrants meet we talk about our visas. You can be a Belgian in New Delhi or a Colombian in New York, but until you get your anchor passport, or a Green/Blue card, something that stabilises your identity in a place that you’ve chosen to live and work in, and that isn’t the poor, boring, violent or corrupt yet always-wonderful place you’re ‘originally from’, you will continue to talk about your right to remain.

We do this because it affects what we can and cannot do to build our lives as workers, survivors, parents and upstanding members of our new societies. Public and social bureaucracies that regulate our right to remain in a place affect our confidence in visible and invisible ways.

Talking about our visas is an extended response to the question: Wie gehts? How’s it going? Yesterday, my answer would have been: Schlimm! Terrible! Because I discovered that my prized freelancer visa is actually not as stable a sign of inclusion as I thought it was. I was reminded that my right to remain and work in Germany is a paper sticker in a passport, and indicative of a particular system of systems related to immigration, not verification of my identity, nor a validation of the hoop-jumping that translates into trust in me.

In this post I put together some reflections from a personal incident as a way to document how notions of identity and trust are being transformed in the context of automated decision-making and financial technologies (fintech). more...