Technological advancements have had a profound influence on social science research. The rise of the internet, mobile hardware and app economies generate a breadth, depth and type of data previously unimaginable, while computational capabilities allow granular analyses that reveal patterns across massive data sets.  From these new types of data and forms of analysis, has emerged a crisis and renaissance of methodological thought.

Early excitement around big data celebrated a world that would be entirely changed and entirely knowable. Big data would “revolutionize” the way we “live, work, and think” claimed Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cuckier in their 2013 monograph, which so aptly captured the cultural zeitgeist energized around this new way of knowing. At the same time, social scientists and humanities scholars expressed concern that big data would displace their rich array of methodological traditions, undermining diverse scholarly practices and forms of knowledge production. However, with the hype around big data beginning to settle, polemic visions of omnipotence on the one hand, and bleak austerity on the other, seem unlikely to come into fruition.

While big data itself enables researchers to ask new kinds of questions, I argue that big data’s most significant effect has been to bring social thinkers back to the methodological (and philosophical) drawing board. For decades, more...

Screen grab, Ghost in the Shell. Mamoru Oshii, 1995.

In April this year, thanks to Stephanie Dinkins and Francis Tseng, artists-in-residence at New Inc., I experimented with a workshop called ‘Imagining Ethics’. The workshop invites participants to imagine and work through everyday scenarios in a near future with autonomous vehicles and driving. These scenarios are usually related to moral conflicts, or interpersonal, social, and cultural challenges. This post is about situating this experiment within the methods and approaches of  design fiction, a technique to speculate about near futures.

Julian Bleecker writes about design fiction as “totems” through which projections into the future may be assembled:

“Design fictions are assemblages of various sorts, part story, part material, part idea-articulating prop, part functional software. …are component parts for different kinds of near future worlds. They are like artifacts brought back from those worlds in order to be examined, studied over. They are puzzles of a sort….They are complete specimens, but foreign in the sense that they represent a corner of some speculative world where things are different from how we might imagine the “future” to be, or how we imagine some other corner of the future to be. These worlds are “worlds” not because they contain everything, but because they contain enough to encourage our imaginations, which, as it turns out, are much better at pulling out the questions, activities, logics, culture, interactions and practices of the imaginary worlds in which such a designed object might exist.” more...

“It’s not about the money, it is about the principle”, I’ve heard this phrase so many times from friends, colleagues and internet influencers who refuse to pay an extra charge for a service or product not deemed worthwhile. In an episode titled ‘No Change’, a famous influencer was complaining about what he had felt was a growing phenomenon—that of waiters not giving back change when he pays the bill. He was expressing annoyance at ‘being duped’ by a waiter and went on to share that it should be his decision to leave a tip. In the wake of the ubiquity of imposed minimum charges at cafés in Egypt, people started resorting to storytelling on social media platforms to expose certain companies and ameliorate the standards of services.  Instead of waiting on hold to make a complaint, a woman had provided a detailed account on Facebook of her conversation with a waiter at a café, where she was explaining to him that minimum charge is an illegal practice and he can’t really force her to pay it. She shared what she felt was a success story on a group titled ‘Don’t shop here-a list of untrustworthy shops in Egypt’, a public Facebook group where middle-class Egyptians would share stories about bad consumer experiences. The group now serves as an eclectic archive for a wide range of stories recounting bad experiences (from raw chicken at a famous restaurant to slow internet to undelivered customer service promises).  more...

As the school year ends we at Cyborgology thought it fitting to publish our first-ever anonymous contribution. We all have varying opinions about the views stated below but we did agree that these are ideas worth putting out there for discussion.

Excerpt from an infographic included in the IPP’s report on college president pay. Full graphic here.

To Whom It May Concern:

If it is your job to keep track and rank institutions of higher education and publish that data in venues like U.S. News & World Report or the Princeton Review, I have a simple request for you. Please start keeping track of institutions’ administrator to faculty ratios and, in your proprietary ranking formulas, reduce the numerical rank of institutions with a low ratio. The reasoning here is equally straightforward: putting more emphasis on administrative work than actual teaching and research is detrimental to student outcomes.

I wish I could say there was lots of data to back this up but, sadly, researchers are reticent to publish findings that are directly hostile to their bosses. Still though, there are preliminary findings that are worth paying attention to. For starters, a 2014 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that within public universities high president salaries and high administrative spending overall, correlated positively with high student debt, high reliance on part-time adjunct hiring, and sharp declines in permanent tenure-track faculty. You already keep track of graduating students’ debt and the percentage of adjunct professors in the faculty pool so why not track what seems to be a predictive variable for both of those things? more...


With advances in machine learning and a growing ubiquity of “smart” technologies, questions of technological agency rise to the fore of philosophical and practical importance. Technological agency implies deep ethical questions about autonomy, ownership, and what it means to be human(e), while engendering real concerns about safety, control, and new forms of inequality. Such questions, however, hinge on a more basic one: can technology be agentic?

To have agency, technologies need to want something. Agency entails values, desires, and goals. In turn, agency entails vulnerability, in the sense that the agentic subject—the one who wants some things and does not want others—can be deprived and/or violated should those wishes be ignored.

The presence vs. absence of technological agency, though an ontologically philosophical conundrum, can only be assessed through the empirical case. In particular, agency can be found or negated through an empirical instance in which a technological object seems, quite clearly, to express some desire. Such a case arises in the WCry ransomware virus ravaging network systems as I write. more...

Last Sunday French voters seemingly stemmed the tide of nationalist candidates winning major elections. I say seemingly because, as The Guardian reported: “Turnout was the lowest in more than 40 years. Almost one-third of voters chose neither Macron nor Le Pen, with 12 million abstaining and 4.2 million spoiling ballot papers.” The most disturbing statistic though, is that nearly half of voters 18 to 24 voted for Le Pen. She may have not won this time, but the future in France looks pretty fascist. For now, though, France seems to have dodged a bullet with a familiar caliber.

Late last Friday night the Macron campaign announced it had been hacked and many internal documents had been leaked to the open internet through Pastebin and later spread on /Pol/ and Twitter. The comparisons to the American election were easy and numerous but unlike the United States, France has a media blackout period. Elections are held on weekends and new reporting is severely limited. Emily Schultheis in The Atlantic explains:

Here, the pre-election ban on active campaigning, which begins at midnight the Friday night before an election, and ends only when the polls close Sunday night, is practically sacred. The pause is seen as a time when French voters can sit back, gather their information and reflect on their choice before heading to the voting booth on Sunday. It’s also the law: According to French election rules, the blackout includes not just candidate events but anything that could theoretically sway the course of the election: media commentary, interviews, and candidate postings on social media are not just illegal, but taboo.

more...

Welcome to the fourth and final installment to my series on the history of the Quantified Self. If you’re just joining us, be sure to review parts one, two, and three, wherein I introduced and explored a project that seeks to build a genealogical relationship between an already analogous pair: eugenics and the contemporary Quantified Self movement. The last two posts appear to have, at best, complicated, and at worst, failed the hypothesis: critical breaks along both of the genealogies elucidated within each post seem more like chasms which make eugenics and QS difficult to connect in a meaningful way. At the root of this break seems to be the fundamental tenets underlying each movement. Eugenics, with its emphasis on hereditarily passed physical and psychological traits, precludes the possibility that outside, environmental influences may lead to changes in an individual’s bodily or mental makeup. The Quantified Self, on the other hand, is predicated on the belief that, by tracking the variables associated with one’s activities or environment, one might be able to make adjustments to achieve physical or psychological health. On the surface, then, there is an incommensurability between the two fields. However, by understanding how the technologies of the two movements work in the context of the predominant form of Foucauldian governmentality and biopower of their respective times, we may be able to resolve this chasm. more...

Welcome to part three of my multi-part series on the history of the Quantified Self as a genealogical ancestor of eugenics. In last week’s post, I elucidated Francis Galton’s influence on experimental psychology, arguing that it was, largely, a technological one. In an oft-cited paper from 2013, researcher Melanie Swan argues that “the idea of aggregated data from multiple…self-trackers[, who] share and work collaboratively with their data” will help make that data more valuable—be it to the individual tracking, physician working with them, corporation selling the device worn, or other stakeholder (86). No doubt, then, the value of the predictive power of correlation and regression to these trackers. Harvey Goldstein, in a paper tracing Galton’s contributions to psychometrics, notes that Galton was not the only late-nineteenth century scientist to believe that genius was passed hereditarily. He was, however, one of the few to take up the task of designing a study to show genealogical causality regarding character, thanks once again to his correlation coefficient and resultant laws of regression. more...

Last week, I began an attempt at tracing a genealogical relationship between eugenics and the Quantified Self. I reviewed the history of eugenics and the ways in which statistics, anthropometrics, and psychometrics influenced the pseudoscience. This week, I’d like to begin to trace backwards from QS and towards eugenics. Let me begin, as I did last week, with something quite obvious: the Quantified Self has a great deal to do with one’s self. Stating this, however, helps place QS in a historical context that will prove fruitful in the overall task at hand. more...

In turbulent times there is something emotionally powerful about reliability in and of itself. Facebook, for all its faults, is reliable. I can bet on Facebook being up and available more often than the Internet connection I rely on to access it. Hell, it works more reliably than my toilet. Changes to the site trigger cascades of stories and opinions about user experience which, really, goes to show how infrequently Facebook makes major alterations to core functions. You don’t have to like Facebook as a company or as a product to acknowledge that it is stable and works as intended more often that most other things. This transcendent reliability—a steadfast infrastructure of emotive communication and identity construction—has become Facebook’s core service. You may not like what you see in your timeline, but the timeline will be there.

Watching an organization embed itself into the lives of nearly a third of the global population is a strange thing. To be a common tread across all of those lives is to be as unthreatening or uncontroversial as possible. Conversely, it was only a matter of time before Facebook played host to something deeply disturbing like a murder, or even world-changing like a reactionary election. This tension between striving for unassuming background service and inevitable host to calamity goes a long way towards explaining why Mark Zuckerberg is traveling across the U.S and writing 6,000-word manifestos about community, despite the fact that most Facebook users aren’t Americans and Facebook is not a community. Shoring up good will in the most powerful nation on the planet is not only good business, it is tapping into a tradition of American progressivism that is so embedded in our daily lives we can’t recognize it when we see it enacted. It is the water we swim in and Mark Zuckerberg wants to tint it Facebook blue. more...