AnthroFix, a speculation on online dating in a posthuman future. Picture: Maya Ganesh

In the past few weeks, the news of Chinese scientist He Jiankui germline editing twins of a HIV positive couple in vitro has raced around newsfeeds. He edited the CCR5 gene in the twins in an attempt to create resistance to HIV. He used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR (which is short for: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). CRISPR  is regularly used in genetic engineering in controlled lab contexts, but how it fares in the wild is unknown.  Bill Gates has been enthusiastic about the possibilities of future applications of CRISPR to address various ‘Third World’ health and development problems.

That He used CRISPR on humans and how he did it, have fueled discussions about bio-ethics and genetic engineering.  One of the best reviews of the ethical issues surrounding the CRISPR-ing of the embryos comes from Ed Yong writing in the Atlantic. For those  consumed with questions of ethics in emerging new technologies, the history and development of ethics in genetics and nuclear energy management are great first ports of call.

This week I went to a speculative design workshop about CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR-associated protein 9) hosted by Emilia Tikka, a Berlin-based artist and designer whose practice deals with the philosophical and cultural implications of biotechnologies, at STATE Studio.

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I should get something out of the way first: The oxygen that fills Steve King’s lungs would be better used fueling a tire fire. King, who represent’s Iowa’s 4th District in the House of Representatives is a reprehensible excuse for a human being and every moment of every day that he holds public office is a testament to term limits and the benefits of sortition over elections. Steve King is so racist (how racist is he?!) the Republican House election fund refused to give money to his last re-election bid citing his “words and actions” on white supremacy. All that being said, King is right to be skeptical of Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s claim that their search algorithm is merely a neutral reflection of the user’s interests.

Pichai was grilled for three hours on Tuesday by House reps who wanted to know more about Google’s data collection practices, its monopolistic tendencies, and the company’s rumored censored Chinese search engine. The inherent contradiction that stands between these latter two issues is interesting: having thoroughly captured the search market nearly everywhere else, Google must —if it is to continue to appease investor’s demands for infinite profit growth— do everything in its power to breach the Chinese market. China is doing what most powerful nations do in their rise to power: protect and favor their own companies and reinvest as much wealth as possible within the country. These protectionist policies mirror what Britain and the United States did in their own respective eras of rising dominance. They fostered companies like Google so that they might attain global dominance and, by extension, solidify their influence on the world. But now that Google is a global company with interests that exceed the American market, the company’s goals are beginning to run counter to national interests. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Google has exceeded the wide boundaries federal regulators put up and now, in its search for new markets, has both too much power at home and is working with a rival power abroad. It is just the kind of capitalist contradiction that Marx and Keynes would predict: the infinite growth of firms and markets eventually undermines the very power of those that establish them. more...

I’ve been unfortunate enough to be exposed to a great deal of live (read: non-streaming, non-DVR) television lately, a disappointing situation to occur right around the holidays, when every single advertisement is filled with smiling families, lavishing each other with piles of bow-covered gifts. From puppies to cars, headphones to televisions, the ads usually feature a young, suburbanite, heterosexual couple or family, where one member is smugly watching their spouse or children as the other(s) go into near epileptic shock on Christmas morning. Snow covers the ground outside, wrapping paper covers the floor inside, and credit card debt covers the rest of the year’s (years’?) budget.

This season, there’s one ad that dares buck the trend and, somehow, ends up being even worse. Titled “His & Hers”, this 30-second spot features a husband (presumably, our Him) waking up at the crack of dawn to sneak out into the snow-surrounded garage and ride a stationary bike. Not just any stationary bike, though: it’s Her bike. We know this, because Him has already placed a bow and a tag with her name on it. And that’s not all. This bike—Her bike—comes with a large touchscreen on which Him can watch a live studio feed of extremely fit trainers yelling encouraging platitudes at him. This, of course, is a Peloton bike. more...

A series of studies was just published showing that White Liberals present themselves as less competent when interacting with Black people than when interacting with other White people. This pattern does not emerge among White Conservatives. The authors of the studies, Cynthia H. Dupree (Yale University) and Susan T.  Fiske (Princeton University), refer to this as the “competence downshift” and explain that reliance on racial stereotypes result in patronizing patterns of speech when Liberal Whites engage with a racial outgroup. The original article appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology. I make the case that these human-based findings have something to tell us about AI and its continued struggle with bigotry.  more...

In late September the social news networking site ‘Reddit’ announced a revamp of their ‘quarantine’ function. A policy that has been in place for almost three years now, quarantines were designed to stop casual Redditors from accessing offensive and gruesome subreddits (topic based communities within the site), without banning these channels outright. In doing so the function impacted a small number of small subreddits and received little attention. The revamp of the quarantine function however has led to the policy applying to much larger subreddits, creating significant controversy. As an attempt to shape the affordances of the site, the revamped quarantine function highlights many of political and architectural issues that Reddit is facing in today’s current political climate.

As a platform, Reddit sits in a frequently uncomfortable position. Reddit was initially established as a haven for free speech, a place in which anything and everything could and should be discussed. When, for example, discussion about #gamergate, the controversy in 2014 over the ethics of the gaming industry that resulted in a number of high-profile women game designers and journalists being publicly harassed, was banned on the often more insidious 4chan, it was Reddit where discussion continued to flourish. However, in recent years, Reddit has come under increasing pressure due to this free for all policy. Reddit has been blamed for fueling misogyny, facilitating online abuse, and even leading to the misidentification of suspects in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings.

Reddit announced the revamp of its quarantining policy via a long post on the subreddit r/announcements. In doing so, one of Reddit’s moderators u/landoflobsters highlighted the bind that Reddit faces. They said: more...

The following argument is as an elaboration upon and the second part of “The Ineluctable Politics of Doctor Who: Part 1.” In that piece, I present the television series Doctor Who as an artefact with ineluctable social-material significance and political implications. In so doing, I illustrate that the ostensibly playful, inconsequential spaces that celebrate beloved objects of fan entertainment never actually enact neutral positions. The text and fan pronouncements about the text exist, incontrovertibly, as partisan acts—even when enacting an ostensibly innocuous posture that seeks to avoid or negate polemical effects.

Here, in Part 2, I address the ways in which the show may and should take responsibility for its social-material effects—which, while demonstrating relevance for a general viewing audience, hold particular import for a diverse fan community. It is on this point of fan diversity that the present discussion locates sociological significance. Surely Doctor Who fans, as a group, constitute a wide range of varying demographic orientations. Such a pronouncement seems rather evident considering the fanbase spans cross-cultural contexts. more...

An analysis of how human beings engage with a given artefact likely draws from a fundamental premise: human creations demonstrate social-material consequences. This observation does not purport to indicate a probable condition, but rather an ineluctable one—and it holds relevance, always and everywhere, for all types of artefacts. This is true of artefacts demonstrating utilitarian salience—like a spear, scythe, wrench, pencil, microwave, motor vehicle, computer, etc.—and those ostensibly centring on more aesthetic functions—like a painting, sonnet, concert, novel, play or even a television programme.

For the following argument, I discuss how a particular television series, Doctor Who, demonstrates social-material consequences for a community of fans, the Whovians. Following the recent premier of Season Eleven, many excited Whovians took to Twitter in collective celebration of Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the show’s leading character, The Doctor.  After 55 years of men in the role, Whittaker’ casting had clear symbolic importance. But it had social-material significance, too. One Twitter comment comes to my mind as an exemplary indication of such significance.

A father tweets, “My daughter (6) told me they were playing  #DoctorWho… in the playground today and she was the Doctor – that’s why last night was brilliant.” Recognizing that the child’s pretending to be the Doctor is to envision herself as the hero, we may acknowledge that she not only enacted a role of social importance, but also felt it was appropriate and desirable to do so. In other words, we confront the affective (and thereby material) implications of her having a woman role model to serve as fodder for her imagined (and real life) ambitions. Pretending to be the Doctor, this child may envision herself as not only competent, but exceptional. While playing, she perhaps recited that now iconic line from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, “When people need help, I never refuse!”   more...

OoOoOhHhH! Scary hoaxus pocus!!! (I just didn’t want to use that photo of the three authors like everyone else.) Source: Iconspng

Last week three self-described “concerned academics” perpetrated a hoax in the name of uncovering what they call the “political corruption that has taken hold of the university.” “I’m not going to lie to you.” James A Lindsay, one of the concerned academics says in a YouTube video, just after laughing at a reviewers’ comments on a bogus article. “We had a lot of fun with this project.” The video then cuts to images of mass protests and blurry phone-recorded lectures, presumably about topics that aren’t worthy of debate. The takeaway from the videos, press kit, and write-up in Areo Magazine is the following: fields that study race, gender, sexuality, body types, and identity are really no more than “Grievance Studies” (their neologism) and the desire to criticize whiteness and masculinity overrides any appreciation of data.

To prove this they spent over a year writing and submitting articles that they wrote in bad faith. Sometimes these articles would have fairly decent literature reviews which would then lend legitimacy to less-than-decent theses. But when you actually read the papers, and the reviews, the picture you get is far less interesting than the sensationalist write-ups or even the Areo piece makes them out to be. The picture you get by actually reading the work is mostly mid-level journals doing the hard, unpaid work of giving institutional authority to ideas that —hoax or not— will rarely see the light of day. This is the real hoax: that academic institutions waste so many good people’s time and energy on work that goes nowhere and influences nobody. I wish we lived in a world where it made any sort of sense to compare the influence of Fat Studies to the influence of oil companies on climate science. We don’t, but —and here’s something that astonishingly no one with a platform seems to want to argue— we should. more...

From the 1967 edition of The Measure of Man & Woman by Henry Dreyfuss

Last week I put on a spandex suit and posed in front of my phone so that an app could capture photos of my body (and no, this post is not, I promise, an attempt to encroach on Jessie and PJ’s territory). The suit, which is made by the Japanese clothing company, ZOZO, is black with dozens of white circles on it. Each circle is covered in a unique pattern of dots which are used by ZOZO’s app to identify their position on the body and, consequently, map a set of measurements: arm length, waist size, inseam, etc. From there, the app makes recommendations based on what size clothing would fit you best. Per the company’s “About” page, they “create clothing patterns using real people in dozens of diverse shapes and sizes.” The founder, Yusaku Maezawa, explains further:

“ZOZO was created to be adaptable to each and every person. You don’t have to adapt to ZOZO. ZOZO adapts to you. People are unique, but they also want to be treated and accepted as equal. This concept is reflected in the ZOZO logo. The circle, square and triangles are all different colors and shapes, yet they have the same surface area. They are all unique but still equal.”

If you, like me, pay close attention to the quantified self movement, then you’ll find this rhetoric extremely familiar. 23andMe offers that their service will delve into the “One unique you”. FitBit promises that you will “Find your fit”. These are products that, as Whitney and I have argued over the course of the last few years, are not truly individualizing in nature, but are much more complicated than that—often, aggregation is more critical than individualization. In this post, I’d like to echo that sentiment, but also ground what ZOZO is doing here in the history of another anthropometric tool, one developed for the purposes of so-called “human-centered design” and which has seen a recent resurgence in popularity. more...

I’ll start by stating the obvious: power manifests in myriad forms. In this piece I’ll be focusing on the normalizing power of discourse. Normalizing discourse refers to the way language – talk, text, and body – reinforces the status quo and crystalizes social structures, including our own place within those structures. I will draw on my own research about religion online to make the case that the internet fosters normalizing discourse, while at the same time, leaving room for subversion.

I suggest conceptualizing digital media as a Foucauldian Discourse, or, for a lack of a better analog: the street, the marketplace. What I mean by Foucauldian discourse is the systematic ways in which communication shapes our social norms. This happens online because, while we use digital media individually, we are taking part in a social space. Online media includes the multiplicity of opinions experienced through an individual’s lenses. We use digital media in personalized ways: to create a ‘personal’ profile, to do your own banking, travel, shopping, etc. There are shopify business websites, a direct product of ecommerce, which again is by extension is born out of digital media. But the experience in not fully individualized: the ‘street’ or ‘tribe’ is always at the background of online activities. Friends and family (‘the tribe’) react to personal profiles in social media; reviewers and commenters (‘the street’) “shout” their opinions about the latest gadget you just purchased, or the news you are reading; and always, the watchful eye of a big company – Google, Microsoft, Apple – is present. Therefore, online communication is never done in a vacuum. Even if I am watching cat videos by myself at 3 AM, I am surrounded by society. Online, the individual user is communicating with ‘the masses.’ They are out in the street, or at the marketplace, or at school, or at church, even if they are physically alone in bed. Online, you converse with “everyone.” And these online ‘conversations,’ I argue, are the essence of conceptualizing online media as Foucauldian discourse.

Understanding digital media as discourse means theorizing digital communication as a set of systematic statements and online practices that create, construct, and negotiate social norms: as spaces of power and resistance. And, while the internet allows for multiple voices and counter-spheres, there are policing and regulating processes that make online media a normalizing force. I’d like to share two example from my own work on religion online that reflect how digital media can be conceptualized as a site for power and resistance. more...