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Until very recently, the majority of texts on the quantified self have been either short-form essays or uncritical manifestos penned by the same neoliberal technocrats whose biohacking dreams we have to thank for self-tracking’s proliferation over the past decade. Last year saw the publication of two books that take a more critical look at QS: Self-Tracking (MIT Press) by a pair of American researchers, Gina Neff and Dawn Nafus, and The Quantified Self (Polity) by Deborah Lupton, a professor in Communications at the University of Canberra in Australia. While I haven’t read Neff and Nafus’s work yet (but plan to do so in the coming months), I did just finish Lupton’s book and think it’s a great place to start for anyone beginning to research the quantified self and its associated movement. more...

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Part 1: Work, Work, Work, Work, Work, Work

Running short on money and in desperate need of luxuries like health insurance, food, and booze I scoured the Internet for part time jobs. My primary source of income, as a dissertation fellow, pays a small stipend (nowhere near enough to live on in any city, much less a major one) and affords no benefits. And so, pockets empty, I began my search. My first stop was H-Net, though I wasn’t holding out much hope for a well-paid, part-time, quick-hire. After about 5 minutes I gave up and transitioned to Idealist and Indeed, looking for any jobs that might be intellectually stimulating, somewhat ethical, or at least tangentially related to my interests. Forty-five minutes later I was depressed on Craigslist.

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headlineWhen talking about China, local digital media hypes are often temporalized on a yearly basis, resulting in a peculiar Chinese zodiac of tech-related buzzwords. 2005 was the Year of the Blog, 2008 The Year of Shanzhai, 2009 the Year of Weibo, 2012 the Year of WeChat, 2014 the Year of… well, it’s been the Year of WeChat for a few years now. Anyway, given the disproportionate attention being given to the phenomenon, 2016 is poised to be remembered as the Year of Livestreaming, or, as it is called in Mandarin Chinese, zhibo (literally ‘direct-casting’). The translation is revealing, because while livestreaming is commonly linked to videogaming and event broadcasting on platforms like Twitch (or, more recently, YouTube and Facebook) in Mainland China livestreaming is being adopted as a prominent content format by a wide variety of social media platforms, and has been enthusiastically embraced by users keen to share sights from their everyday lives, often through apps and websites that offer social networking capabilities, live commenting functions and microtransaction-based gifting.

I got in touch with my former colleague Dino Zhang to hear about his ongoing doctoral work at DERC (Digital Ethnography Research Center), and we exchanged a few thoughts around zhibo and content formats on Chinese digital media platforms. In 2014, Dino was kind enough to host me for the brief period in which our fieldworks overlapped in his home city of Wuhan, and we ended up writing some observations about Momo (perhaps 2014 was the Year of Dating Apps, who knows), a social contact app that was much touted as symptomatic of a Chinese “sexual revolution”, but that we instead found to be largely used for combating wuliao (boredom) through group chats and location-based social networking. Quite tellingly, two years later, Momo’s growing profits are fueled by its incorporation of a zhibo function which projects the platform further away from its narrow depiction as a “dating app” and typifies the shapeshifting nature of many local digital media platforms, forced by a competition for hundreds of millions of users to embrace and incorporate the latest functions and content formats.

 

1Gabriele de Seta: Your previous research project was about internet cafés in a second-tier Chinese city and the changes they went through during large-scale urban restructuring. You’ve also written about social contact apps and explored the concept of boredom in its relation with urban spaces. How did zhibo enter this picture? more...

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Over at The New Inquiry, an excellent piece by Trevor Paglen about machine-readable imagery was recently posted. In “Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Looking at You)”, Paglen highlights the ways in which algorithmically driven breakdowns of photo-content is a phenomenon that comes along with digital images. When an image is made of machine-generated pixels rather than chemically-generated gradations, machines can read these pixels, regardless of a human’s ability to do so. With film, machines could not read pre-developed exposures. With bits and bytes, machines have access to image content as soon as it is stored. The scale and speed enabled by this phenomenon, argues Paglen, leads to major market- and police-based implications.

Overall, I really enjoyed the essay—Paglen does an excellent job of highlighting how systems that take advantage of machine-readable photographs work, as well as outlining the day-to-day implications of the widespread use of these systems. There is room, however, for some historical context surrounding both systematic photographic analysis and what that means for the unsuspecting public.

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Last week The New Inquiry published an essay I wrote about science journalism podcasts syndicated on NPR. Shows like Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio, I argued, were more about wrapping pre-conceived notions in a veneer of data than changing minds or delivering new insights into long-standing problems. Worse yet, social and political issues that might be met with collective action are turned into wishy-washy “well isn’t that interesting” anecdotes:

Topics that might have once been subject to political debate or rhetorical argument–work demands, exposure to toxins, surveillance, the limits of love, even Marxian alienation–become apolitical subjects for scientific testing. But the results only lead to greater and greater complexity, prompting introspective thought rather than action.

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This year was, by all accounts, a tumultuous one. The last 12 months did, however, produce some amazing work, and we’d like to share some of our favorite texts of 2016. Below are the media that made a lasting impression on us. more...

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23andMe Co-Founder Anne Wojcicki
by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Anne Wojcicki’s thinks it’s “incredibly meaningful” to honor scientists who are “purists” who “love what they do” and have “never looked for any kind of celebrity.” So she and a slew of other Silicon Valley technocrats gathered to recognize these altruistic innovators at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View last week by giving them a spotlight on primetime network television and also $3 million each. At the event, called the Breakthrough Prize ceremony, the 23andMe CEO sat down with a reporter from Bloomberg to discuss the award, which, per her interviewer, should “empower scientists just like technologists are empowered in silicon valley.”

It is most likely wishful thinking to presume that the curriculum for a Yale bachelors of science in molecular biology—of which Wojcicki is a recipient—would include the likes of Ludwick Fleck or Bruno Latour. more...

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In the days before November 8th I wrote the following vignette for what was supposed to be a special Cyborgology roundtable, a collection of differing viewpoints on the U.S. presidential election. For a number of reasons that roundtable was never published. Nevertheless, I am now posting what I wrote, unedited. My intent in doing this is twofold. First, it is a time-specific encapsulation of my sentiments before the event itself. It is not a reflection on what I would do given what I know now, but emblematic of the inexact and speculative nature of politics. And second, because I feel as if, regardless of the moment it emerged from, this short essay still carries a lot of weight in this post-election period. In fact, I would probably write very close to the same thing again.

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In a widely-shared article on The Intercept, Sam Biddle made the point that, “Trump’s anti-civil liberty agenda, half-baked and vague as it is, would largely be an engineering project, one that would almost certainly rely on some help from the private sector.” The center of his article, that of the six major tech companies he requested comments from only Twitter gave him an unequivocal statement that they would not help build a Muslim database, was chilling even though most of the companies just never responded. The role of engineers and designers in carrying out political ends often relegated to business’s policies. That is, engineers themselves are seen as completely beholden to whatever their bosses decide their job should be. I want to look at this from a different angle: why are engineers so willing to defer responsibility for their actions and why are they so often in positions to do so? more...

disunited-537x350There is a trend—one that was present prior to the election but has increased dramatically since—in our inability to communicate with people who hold radically different political convictions. It is a complete systems failure. On the smaller end of the scale, it takes form in the specialized vocabularies that we do not share, the differences in language use that muddy conversations and leave us confused. Higher up the scale are the different sources we rely on for news, the different windows to the world that deliver information to us and form our basic conceptions of reality. And at the top of this systems failure is something more difficult to discuss, let alone solve. It is a crisis of epistemology—the ways we come to know the world—that is bound up in the collapse of trust in fundamental institutions, and an apocalyptic paranoia that everyone you disagree with is knowingly working toward the destruction of your way of life.

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