Today, the influence of our moon Goddess foremothers is everywhere. Contemporary progressive activists dress up like witches to put hexes on Trump and Pence. The few remaining women’s bookstores in the country sell crystals and potions for practicing DIY feminist magic. There is an annual Queer Astrology conference, Tarot decks created especially for gays, and beloved figures like Chani Nicholas who have made careers out of queer-centered astrology. Almost every LGBTQ+ publication, whether mainstream or radical, features a regular horoscope column (including them.).

In this feature from last year, Sascha Cohen reflects on אסטרולוגיה recent re-ascendance and seeming ubiquity in LGBTQ+ circles, and the skepticism it’s meeting with more queer-identifying people. Astrology’s pseudoscience was a nonstarter for some (mainly those from STEM fields). For others it was New Age culture’s appropriation of indigenous spirituality and separately, the risk astrology poses as a distraction from systemic repression. A “sense of exclusion” or just being “seen as a cynic and no fun,” in one person’s words, was maybe the most common of all the complaints.

Despite these reservations, most of the queer ‘skeptics’ Cohen interviewed recognized astrology’s appeal for queer people — as a source of “meaning and purpose,” as an alternative to exclusionary religious communities, as entertainment, and one that in practice usually “centers and empowers women.” Hardly isolated from systemic anti-LGBTQ+ forces, “a recent uptick in such practices,” Cohen asserts, “may be because, [as interviewee] Chelsea argues, ‘We’re in the midst of a global existential crisis.’”

Though these responses make sense, an aspect that goes unmentioned in the piece is the part popular meme accounts and algorithmic social media appear to be playing in astrology’s current revival.

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I am not an expert on Bolivian politics. I am, however, human, which is more than can be said about the Twitter accounts commenting on the Bolivian coup:

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“Modelling is superficial, and anything superficial in the long run will never be good for the psyche”—this seems to be intuitively true. Although modelling might boost self-esteem, it cannot fill an inner emptiness. However, several years of participant observation, surveys and interviews in the scene of amateur modelling draw a different picture. Models seem to agree on the fact, that it makes them feel better.  How is this possible?

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons apart from the fact that for many there is something pleasurable about it: Modelling can teach some skills relevant in everyday life and modelling can help to cope with identity.

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Mark Zuckerberg testified to congress this week. The testimony was supposed to address Facebook’s move into the currency market. Instead, they mostly talked about Facebook’s policy of not banning or fact-checking politicians on the platform.  Zuckerberg roots the policy in values of free expression and democratic ideals. Here is a quick primer on why that rationale is ridiculous. more...

As technology expands its footprint across nearly every domain of contemporary life, some spheres raise particularly acute issues that illuminate larger trends at hand. The criminal justice system is one such area, with automated systems being adopted widely and rapidly—and with activists and advocates beginning to push back with alternate politics that seek to ameliorate existing inequalities rather than instantiate and exacerbate them. The criminal justice system (and its well-known subsidiary, the prison-industrial complex) is a space often cited for its dehumanizing tendencies and outcomes; technologizing this realm may feed into these patterns, despite proponents pitching this as an “alternative to incarceration” that will promote more humane treatment through rehabilitation and employment opportunities.

As such, calls to modernize and reform criminal justice often manifest as a rapid move toward automated processes throughout many penal systems. Numerous jurisdictions are adopting digital tools at all levels, from policing to parole, in order to promote efficiency and (it is claimed) fairness. However, critics argue that mechanized systems—driven by Big Data, artificial intelligence, and human-coded algorithms—are ushering in an era of expansive policing, digital profiling, and punitive methods that can intensify structural inequalities. In this view, the embedded biases in algorithms can serve to deepen inequities, via automated systems built on platforms that are opaque and unregulated; likewise, emerging policing and surveillance technologies are often deployed disproportionately toward vulnerable segments of the population. In an era of digital saturation and rapidly shifting societal norms, these contrasting views of efficiency and inequality are playing out in quintessential ways throughout the realm of criminal justice. more...

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In the wake of the terrifying violence that shook El Paso and Dayton, there have been a lot of questions around the role of the Internet in facilitating communities of hate and the radicalization of angry white men. Digital affordances like anonymity and pseudonymity are especially suspect for their alleged ability to provide cover for far-right extremist communities. These connections seem to be crystal clear. For one, 8chan, an anonymous image board, has been the host of several far-right manifestos posted on its feeds preceding mass shootings. And Kiwi Farms, a forum board populated with trolls and stalkers who spend their days monitoring and harassing women, has been keeping a record of mass killings and became infamous after its administrator “Null”, Joshua Conner Moon, refused to take down the Christchurch manifesto.

The KF community claim to merely be archiving mass shootings, however, it’s clear that the racist and misogynistic politics on the forum board are closely aligned with that of the shooters. The Christchurch extremist had alleged membership to the KF community and had posted white supremacist content on the forum. New Zealand authorities requested access to their data to assist in their investigation and were promptly refused. Afterwards, Null encouraged Kiwi users to use anonymizing tools and purged the website’s data. It is becoming increasingly clear that these far-right communities are radicalizing white men to commit atrocities, even if such radicalization is only a tacit consequence of constant streams of racist and sexist vitriol.

With the existence of sites like 8chan and Kiwi Farms, it becomes exceedingly easy to blame digital technology as a root cause of mass violence. Following the recent shootings, the Trump administration attempted to pin the root of the US violence crisis on, among other things, video games. And though this might seem like a convincing explanation of mass violence on the surface, as angry white men are known to spend time playing violent video games like Fortnite, there has yet to be much conclusive or convincing empirical accounts that causally link videogames to acts of violence. more...

William Gibson novel The Peripheral

The following contains light spoilers for William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral.

I just finished The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, published in 2014. Generally, the work documents two different futures: a time not too far off from now (maybe 15 years or so?) and then around 70 years after that. Overall, it’s extremely Gibsonian in its plot and narrative arc (my wife asked, “what’s that about?” as I started it and I could only reply, “I’ll tell you after page 50”), and for that I really loved it. His visions of the future are informed by so much more than the utopian technolust or dystopian apocalypse of Hollywood or most pop speculative fiction. Instead, they are filled with nuanced socio-political prescience, the kind that just seems to make sense as logical progressions from our current trajectory.

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While putting together the most recent project for External Pages, I have had the pleasure to work with artist and designer Anna Tokareva in developing Baba Yaga Myco Glitch™, an online exhibition about corporate mystification techniques that boost the digital presence of biotech companies. Working on BYMG™ catalysed the exploration of the shifting critiques of interface design in the User Experience community. These discourses shape powerful standards on not just illusions of consumer choice, but corporate identity itself. However, I propose that as designers, artists and users, we are able to recognise the importance of visually identifying such deceptive websites in order to interfere with corporate control over online content circulation. Scrutinising multiple website examples to inform the aesthetic themes and initial conceptual stages of the exhibition, we specifically focused on finding common user interfaces and content language that result in enhancing internet marketing.

Anna’s research on political fictions that direct the necessity for a global mobilisation of big data in Нооскоп: The Nooscope as Geopolitical Myth of Planetary Scale Computation lead to a detailed study of current biotech incentives as motivating forces of technological singularity. She argues that in order to achieve “planetary computation”, political myth-building and semantics are used for scientific thought to centre itself on the merging of humans and technology. Exploring Russian legends in fairytales and folklore that traverse seemingly binary oppositions of the human and non-human, Anna interprets the Baba Yaga (a Slavic fictitious female shapeshifter, villain or witch) as a representation of the ambitious motivations of biotech’s endeavour to achieve superhumanity. We used Baba Yaga as a main character to further investigate such cultural construction by experimenting with storytelling through website production. more...

In February, some colleagues and I visited Biosphere 2—an absurd, failed  experiment in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. What sort of experiment? Well, that’s hard to pin down. Depending on who you ask or how you want to frame it, Biosphere 2 could be a science experience, a social experience, a financial one, or maybe just an experiment in American hubris. 

One of my colleagues on that trip to Arizona earlier this year, Avery Trufelman, recently released a podcast episode on the project as part of her new series on failed utopias. The Biosphere piece effectively chronicles the entire timeline of this absurd effort to recreate an Earth-like biosphere in three enclosed acres. Complete with ocean, rainforest, farm, desert, and—of course—living quarters, the Biosphere 2 was funded by the eccentric Ed Bass, ostensibly an easily distracted recipient of a trust fund. Under the direction of the equally idiosyncratic John P. Allen, Bass poured hundreds of millions into building this utopian vision in the early 90s. 

The first time Allen and Bass collaborated was on a project called Synergia Ranch, a counter-cultural haven in the 70s and 80s. Members of the ranch, the Synergians, created a troupe called The Theater of All Possibilities and even built a seafaring ship—the Heraclitus—to carry them around as they acted out their visions for the future on stage. That’s the beginning of this whole mess. The end came after Steve Bannon (as Avery says, “yes—that Steve Bannon”) enacted a hostile takeover to remove Allen from the reigns and return control to Bass. For everything in between, I suggest you listen to the podcast.

I’ve written previously on this blog about my issues with the field of speculative design (of which I consider myself a participant), but this whole Biosphere 2 story is just too exemplary. Eight white people with little-to-no scientific background were put in a multi-million dollar enclosure for two years because they thought they could learn something (but what?) about how Earth works. The UV-protected glass killed the bees immediately, the exposed concrete sequestered carbon and oxygen, the air got thinner, the energy required to farm was greater than what the crops could provide, and the group split into two factions (who still don’t speak to each other to this day). Meanwhile, outside the dome, businessmen and bureaucrats wanted the experiment to be so successful—so real—that they censored reports coming from participants. And as the building—which, by the way, was powered by an external natural gas source—struggled to sustain human life, egotrips decimated any hope of a well-run project.

Nearly thirty years later, we have Jeff Bezos telling us he’ll build a colony on the Moon because Earth isn’t working out for him. Sci-Fi writers are being hired to advise the French military on future attacks and how to prepare for them. The same authors are consulting with multi-billion dollar enterprises. What are we doing here?

A few years ago, there was a comment thread on MoMA’s Design and Violence page that sparked a serious debate about the overtly privileged position of speculative designers. I think about that often and how well it sparked an important introspection among the field (a few of the participants in the thread have gone on to produce long-form scholarship inspired, in part, by the discussions happening there). But I also think about how little we’ve been able to change.

At the end of her series on utopias, Avery points to Foucauldian heterotopias as perhaps a way to envision future communities that are built with inclusion and justice. “Gathering communities,” she says, “means building heterotopias for the present while studying the past…Gathering community involved imagining a way to the future” She suggests that fiction is where we can “dismantle the hubristic imperialist ideal of what the perfect place is.” I think that sounds like a good start to me.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate at UC San Diego.

“Do you ever part it to the other side,” my girlfriend B asked one morning while I was futzing with my hair in the bathroom mirror. “I read somewhere that it’s good to part it the other way every six months so your regular part doesn’t pull wider.” Though it sounded like reasonable advice, the comment sparked an uneasy reflection – that the face I see in the mirror and in selfies is exactly reversed for everyone else…

A similar creeping feeling seems at play in people’s reactions to the Snapchat “gender swap” filters. “When the filter was released,” Magdalene Taylor recalls in MEL Magazine, “my social feeds were clogged with dudes talking about how hot they were with long hair and a feminized face. One dude even told Reddit about how he got caught jacking off to his.” Curious what might be behind these users’ apparent autoeroticism, Taylor asked psychologist Pamela Rutledge. “It appears that the gender-swap filter makes features more symmetrical, smoothes out imperfections,” Rutledge said. Taylor observes they make your eyes look subtly bigger, too. “So the filter isn’t necessarily an exact portrayal of a differently gendered self,” Taylor says, “It’s an idealized version of it.”

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