When the team here at Cyborgology first started working on The Quantified Mind, a collaboratively authored post about the increasing metrification of academic life, production, and “success”, I immediately reached out to Zach Kaiser, a close friend and collaborator. Last year, Zach produced Our Program, a short film narrated by a professor from a large research institution at which a newly implemented set of performance indicators has the full attention of the faculty.
For my post this week, then, I’d like to consider Zach an Artist in Residence at Cyborgology—someone using the production and dissemination of works that embody the types of cultural phenomena or theories covered on the blog (as it turns out, this is not Zach’s first film featured on Cyborgology). I suppose it’s up to him if he’d like to include the position on his CV. In the following, I would like to present some of my reactions to the film and let Zach respond, hopefully raising questions that can be asked in dialogue with the ones presented at the end of The Quantified Mind. In full disclosure, I am very familiar with Zach’s scholarship and art (I’m listed as a co-author or co-artist on much of it, though not Our Program in particular), so I hope I don’t lead the witness too much here.
The thorough saturation of performance metrics in publishing is well known. We get listicles, slideshows, information gap headlines, outrage, and sensationalism in our feeds to bait our clicks. Being paid by the click creates an infosphere where the content becomes coincidental to its circulation, and we all know and recognize this trend for what it is.
But what does it mean when the value of an academic career is reduced to a short letter-number combination? The H-index is a popular metric that grants numeric value to a scholar’s work (your score is 7 if you have 7 papers that have 7 or more citations, an h-10 means you have 10 papers with 10 or more citations, and so on). There is a lot wrong with the H-index from a measurement standpoint–it has trouble accounting for multiple versus single authorship, it only tallies publications and citations from traditional academic venues, and it only collects data from documents written in English. Yet even if we “fixed” the measure to attenuate bias, combined the measure with additional indicators of influence, and/or expanded the instrument to capture greater complexity, a larger philosophical issue remains: The metrification of scholarly pursuit.
Last week, alterations to Google Scholar coincided with sharp commentary on metrification. We were especially taken with two pieces on the LSE Impact blog addressing academic metrification in general and its particular manifestation on the ResearchGate repository. All of this comes at a time when scientists are also warning of dangerous levels of secrecy that make practitioners choose between the moral courage to blow the whistle on an industry and lucrative intellectual property contracts. For all the talk of collaborative and interdisciplinary work, scholars have never played it so close to the vest. The ubiquitous score-keeping in the day-to-day life and career path of the academic researcher is thoroughly felt but this increasingly gamified scholarship is a topic not spoken about too loudly. more...
Every now and again, as I stroll along through the rhythms of teaching and writing, my students stop and remind me of all the assumptions I quietly carry around. I find these moments helpful, if jarring. They usually entail me stuttering and looking confused and then rambling through some response that I was unprepared to give. Next there’s the rumination period during which I think about what I should have said, cringe at what I did (and did not) say, and engage in mildly self-deprecating wonder at my seeming complacency. I’m never upset when my positions are challenged (in fact, I quite like it) but I am usually disappointed and surprised that I somehow presumed my positions didn’t require justification.
Earlier this week, during my Public Sociology course, some very bright students took a critical stance against politics in the discipline. As a bit of background, much of the content I assign maintains a clear political angle and a distinct left leaning bias. I also talk a lot about writing and editing for Cyborgology, and have on several occasions made note of our explicit orientation towards social justice. The students wanted to know why sociology and sociologists leaned so far left, and questioned the appropriateness of incorporating politics into scholarly work—public or professional.
I think these questions deserve clear answers. The value of integrating politics with scholarship is not self-evident and it is unfair (and a little lazy) to go about political engagement as though it’s a fact of scholarly life rather than a position or a choice. We academics owe these answers to our students and we public scholars would do well to articulate these answers to the publics with whom we hope to engage. more...
The Instagram interface is changing so quickly and subtly all at once. For one, the app store on my iPhone constantly invites me to manually update my Instagram app in order to make those unsightly red notification bubbles go away. But the design tweaks and new features that are introduced each time come in small, user-friendly batches that I also learn to keep up and adapt.
In fact, although I was among the earliest adopters of Instagram in Singapore, where I have been conducting research on Influencers and internet celebrities since 2010, I don’t even recall what the original Instagram interface looked like. Do you? But perhaps the most logical explanation for the seamless uptake of each Instagram update is that the platform is merely institutionalizing into officialdom practices that have been creatively innovated and adapted by its users. The latest of these is Instagram’s multiple account prompt.more...
When I started this series three weeks ago, my goal was to provide a review/recap of Orphan Black’s final season, tying it to issues of the body, history and philosophy of science, and the value of fiction. Turns out that last element drew me in and I was most curious about the way that Orphan Black’s creators, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, employed their science consultant, Cosima Herter, in order to make the science in the show as “real” as possible, while still developing and producing a piece of work that was very clearly fiction. Along the way, I’ve found myself wanting to bring in other works of narrative-based fiction. I wrote about Mr. Robot, but I have drafts that include Minority Report, Black Mirror, Nathaniel Rich’s 2013 novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, The Blair Witch Project, and Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Reflecting back on those drafts, I came just short of plotting these works along a matrix consisting of two axes: plausibility and believability. That is, could this not only actually happen, but would a public believe it had? In effect, I began to work out how hyperstitious to consider each of these culture artifacts.more...
Findings from a recent study out of Stanford University Business School by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski indicate that AI can correctly identify sexual preference based on images of a person’s face. The study used 35,000 images from a popular U.S. dating site to test the accuracy of algorithms in determining self-identified sexual orientation. Their sample images include cis-white people who identify as either heterosexual or homosexual. The researchers’ algorithm correctly assessed the sexual identity of men 81% of the time and women 74%. When the software had access to multiple images of each face, accuracy increased to 91% for images of men and 84% for images of women. In contrast, humans correctly discerned men’s sexual identity 61% of the time and for women, only 54%.
The authors of the study note that algorithmic detection was based on “gender atypical” expressions and “grooming” practices along with fixed facial features, such as forehead size and nose length. Homosexual-identified men appeared more feminized than their heterosexual counterparts, while lesbian women appeared more masculine. Wang and Kosinski argue that their findings show “strong support” for prenatal hormone exposure which predisposes people to same-sex attraction and has clear markers in both physiology and behavior. According to the authors’ analysis and subsequent media coverage, people with same-sex attraction were “born that way” and the essential nature of sexuality was revealed through a sophisticated technological apparatus.
While the authors demonstrate an impressive show of programming, they employ bad science, faulty philosophy, and irresponsible politics. This is because the study and its surrounding commentary maintain two lines of essentialism, and both are wrong. more...
The High Court of Australia is currently hearing a case about whether or not Australia will move forward with a marriage equality plebiscite. The plebiscite is a non-binding survey in which Australians can indicate their position on same-sex marriage. The results of the plebiscite have no direct effect on the law, but will inform members of parliament who may or may not then proceed with legislation to extend marriage rights to non-heterosexual couples.
The marriage equality debates in Australia are mired in familiar political tensions—left-leaning liberals argue that marriage is a human right, critical progressives are wary about entrenching normative kinship structures, and conservatives oppose same-sex marriage because, what about the children?. The plebiscite is contentious in its own right, as a high price tag ($122million) and an open platform for “No” campaigners to espouse hate have been the subject of heated critique (and indeed, undergird the current court hearings). But the plebiscite is also marked by an additional controversy arising from a seemingly mundane component: the use of postal mail. more...
Last week, I introduced some characters to my argument: Orphan Black and its writing and consulting staff, Mr. Robot and its creators, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit and Nick Land, accelerationism, and hyperstition. Need a refresher? Find it here. Now, I’d like to take a brief detour in order to introduce another important character here: speculative design. more...
At what point does a fictional tale of a present day technocapitalist advancement and the characters embroiled in its aftermath turn into a dystopia? Is there ever a clear threshold between the plausible and the absurd? And what responsibility does the artist or author have towards their audience to make clear the realism of the piece?
Spoiler Warning: you may want to tread lightly if you haven’t yet but still plan on watching through season 2 of Mr. Robot and season 5 of Orphan Black.more...
It is no secret that we live in an era of vast and unprecedented technological advancement. We are inundated in computers of all sorts, smart phones, drones (both commercial and military), juiceros, a growing and inescapable surveillance presence, robotic radiosurgery systems, the list goes on and on. Some of this technology is miraculous, some of it is frivolous, some of it is downright scary. At times, it seems as though the conditions of the world as we know it are less than half a step away from the teeming circuitboard studded eco-systems of Cyberpunk fiction. The comparison has been made before, in this excellent Washington Post editorial, for example.
The backdrop of my favorite Cyberpunk works are commercialized wastelands; the walls built and buttressed by corporate power, floorboards laid by cyber crime and corporate espionage, furnished with wires, neon and advertising. With every passing day our world more and more resembles this speculative and cautionary setting.
However, Cyberpunk is more than a warning to me… it’s a road map. Cyberpunk, in many ways, leads us through the boundaries and pitfalls that it seems to predict. That’s not to say that Cyberpunk is a monolith, by any means. However, by examining the common narrative strands shared by different Cyberpunk works, themes and trajectories become all the more apparent and applicable to our lived experience.
The catalyst to my writing this piece is the recent result of the Supreme Court Case: Impression Products, Inc. V. Lexmark International, Inc. The court case is fairly complicated- but here is the quick and dirty rundown: Lexmark sold two kinds of printer cartridges: refillable cartridges and single use cartridges. Impression Products, Inc was sued by Lexmark for adapting the single use cartridges into reusable cartridges (cutting down on waste and letting the consumer save some coin). The case made its way up to the Supreme Court and the court aired in favor of Impression over Lexmark.
Alright, so it’s ink, what’s the big deal? Well, Kyle Weins at Wired nails it on the head: “Why all the fuss? Because this wasn’t really about printer toner. It was about your ownership rights, and whether a patent holder can dictate how you repair, modify, or reuse something you’ve purchased.” Over the years, tech giants like Sony, Lexmark, HP, Microsoft, etc. have been pushing the idea that products purchased from them are, in fact, licensed and not owned by the consumer. Understandably, these licensing schemes are an attempt by these larger companies to consolidate and protect their intellectual property.
Apple and other large tech companies do everything they can to inhibit small time repair shops- in the name of intellectual property, of course. Apple went so far as to disable IPhones remotely if they were detected at a third party repair shop. I’m sure intellectual property was a factor in these policies but it’s convenient that companies like Apple simultaneously make a tidy profit on the micro monopolies they create by locking down the repair and expansion of the products that they sell to us.
These restrictions represent a kind of technological prescriptivism. From the perspective of large tech companies like Apple, we have to use manufactured items for their standardized manufactured purpose. Innovation has been consigned to the boardroom, the R&D lab or the Silicon Valley start up. We no longer literally “own” what we own. Copyright, intellectual property, and the very concept of economic exchange have become disgusting shams under these policies. Technological prescriptivism would rob us of our ability to tinker, to create, to experiment… we are to become naught but predictable and ever profitable consumers.
THIS is where we can learn from Cyberpunk. Those interested in Cyberpunk can quote William Gibson ad nauseum on this: “The Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined.” What Gibson is saying: characters in Cyberpunk overcome the assigned manufactured purpose of the things around them.
Cyberpunk fiction is filled with individuals owning what they own but simultaneously do not “own.” It’s filled with individuals who subvert prescribed use.
In the 1995 anime, Ghost in the Shell, Motoko Kusinagi’s body is literally not hers. Her state-of-the-art cybernetic body is government property. During a conversation with another member of her unit, Batou, Kusanagi says: “If we ever quit or retire, we’d have to give back our augmented brains and cyborg bodies. There wouldn’t be much left after that.” Throughout the plot of Ghost in the Shell (1995) Kusanagi’s search for answers forces her to push the limits of what her body is “allowed” to do. During the final scenes of the movie, Kusanagi literally tears her body apart through overexertion. Likewise, her search for truth eventually thrusts two Japanese governmental agencies into conflict with one another. Her own unit, Section 9 is pitted against Section 6. This conflict, indicative of a split in the otherwise autonomous interests of the Japanese government, reflects the collapsing authority that had once outlined the limits of Motoko Kusanagi’s ownership over her body. Cyborgs claiming their rightful bodily autonomy is not unique to Ghost in the Shell. Other examples are easily found in Ex-Machina and Blade Runner in which rebellious bots shed their chains and refuse subservience. In every case, these Cyborgs shift the terms of ownership to match the demands of their lived experience.
In the 1985 Terry Gilliam dystopian film, Brazil, there is a short scene wherein the protagonist, Sam, phones into the “Central Services” to get his heating and air conditioning fixed. He finds his requests dispassionately and politely declined. Amusingly, renegade repairman Archibald Tuttle intercepts the request and infiltrates Sam’s apartment in order to repair his air conditioning. This, of course, is a dangerous and highly illegal endeavor- “Central Services” eventually seizes Sam’s apartment because of the unauthorized repairs. Apple would be proud. In Brazil, Gilliam frames Tuttle, the third party repairman, as a literal subversive. To me, the third party repairmen who fix cracked IPhone screens are probably not that far off Gilliam’s Archibald Tuttle.
Finally, many Cyberpunk stories harbor a motif of necessary improvisation in the face of obsolescence. Two famous examples are Terminator 2 and Terminator 3. In both films, the T-800/T-850 (as portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an outdated model of Android forced to hold his own against a technologically superior foe. The T-8XX and his allies must make due with what they have. John Connor, Sarah Connor, Kate Brewster and others have to be creative, they have to struggle, and they have to improvise. That improvisation is a crucial part of the Terminator movies, but it is an undeniable part of the Cyberpunk aesthetic generally speaking. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Ratz- the bartender has to make due with his outdated (described as antique) mechanical arm. In Deus Ex, Gunther Hermann and Anna Navarre- military cyborgs- find themselves at risk of being displaced by newer cyborgs. Hermann and Navarre are especially resentful because their extensive cyberization left them permanently disfigured- an ordeal the newer cyborgs don’t have to deal with. Despite their struggle against obsolescence, Hermann and Navarre prove themselves to be exceptional soldiers via tactical prowess and ruthlessness. The need for improvisation and struggle against obsolescence is something that’s been felt by anyone who has had to make due with an aging computer or wait for a contract renew before updating a dying mobile phone.
It is essential (or at least, helpful) to pay attention to the way characters in Cyberpunk fiction navigate the technological worlds in which they live. It is rare to see Cyberpunk characters depicted as luddites (although, it is not unheard of – In Deus Ex, the player can blow up the internet). Generally speaking, however, Cyberpunks turn their constraints back on themselves. In the finale of the surrealist cyberpunk horror film, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, when a man is faced with the loss of his humanity at the hands of a “Metal Fetishist,” this would-be victim subverts his transfiguration to corrupt the corruption he’s been forced to embrace.
Cyberpunks own what is theirs, even when it is not theirs. They repair and they tinker. They improvise and adapt. In Cyberpunk fiction, a spade is not a spade- a spade is whatever you can make it.
In our own world, we are quick to dismiss new technology. Many wish to escape the ubiquity of smartphones, social media, networks and surveillance. PsychologyToday even has a guide on how to escape and set boundaries. The impulse to toss it all aside makes sense- it’s clear that technology often isn’t presented to us as much as it is imposed. On this point, I turn to Hélène Cixous’ account of writing. In her 1975 article, Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous (philosopher, playwright and poet) highlights a certain anxiety the average person feels when they are called upon to write:
And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven’t written. (And why I didn’t write before the age of twenty-seven.) Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great-that is for “great men”; and it’s “silly.”
Technology is just the same- generally speaking, it is manufactured for an imaginary “average” everyday consumer. But as cyberpunk teaches us, we are not bound by the prescribed manufacture. As punk musician Amanda Palmer, would say- “we can fix our own shit”, too.
Winding down- I am reminded of my older sister who lives in New York City. In her spare time, she makes art from duct tape. She uses an exacto knife to cut out bits of different colored tape. From there, she arranges the bits into an reimagined sort of mosaic. The result is nothing less than stunning to me- Nikki is able to see past the standardized use of “duct tape” as material with a set use and function. Artists, like Cyberpunks, have an inert ability to see past the given. Artists and Cyberpunks alike innovate from the bottom up rather than the top down. Such a mindset is needed if we are to escape the strange pre-Cyberpunk dysphoria we currently find ourselves in.
Alex Palma is a member of the Philadelphia Historical Community; he’s worked in several archives and historical sites across the city. His interests include technology, videogames, film, genre literature, historiography, historic preservation and continental philosophy.
We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts. This blog chronicles our new, augmented reality.