Image by Mansi Thapliyal /Reuters grabbed from a Quartz story on January 25, 2018

I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers – Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. – From the suicide note of Rohith Vemula 1989 – 2016.

A speculative dystopia in which a person’s name, biometrics or social media profile determine their lot is not so speculative after all. China’s social credit scoring system assesses creditworthiness on the basis of social graphs. Cash disbursements to Syrian refugees are made through the verification of iris scans to eliminate identity fraud. A recent data audit of the World Food Program has revealed significant lapses in how personal data is being managed; this becomes concerning in Myanmar (one of the places where the WFP works) where religious identity is at the heart of the ongoing genocide.

In this essay I write about how two technology applications in India – ‘fintech’ and Aadhaar – are being implemented to verify and ‘fix’ identity against the backdrop of contestations of identity, and religious fascism and caste-based violence in the country. I don’t intend to compare the two technologies directly; however, they exist within closely connected technical infrastructure ecosystems. I’m interested in how both socio-technical systems operate with respect to identity.

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cw: suicide

This isn’t the essay I originally set out to write. That essay is sitting open next to this one, unfinished. But in being unable to finish that piece, I was inspired to write this one.

In January 2013, web developer and activist Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment. At the time, Swartz was facing serious jail time for using a guest account on MIT servers to download millions of academic papers from the online journal repository JSTOR. Swartz, who was also integral in the development of RSS web feed format and the news aggregation site Reddit, sought to make publically available the academic content that JSTOR held behind its subscription paywalls.

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An artists’ rendering of a possible future Amazon HQ2 in Chicago. Image from the Chicago Tribune.

The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani asked a really good question earlier today: Why Don’t the 20 Cities on Amazon’s HQ2 Shortlist Collectively Bargain Instead of Collectively Beg? Amazon is looking for a place to put its second headquarters and cities have fallen over each other to provide some startlingly desperate concessions to lure the tech giant. Some of the concessions, like Chicago’s offer to essentially engage in wage theft by taking all the income tax collected from employees and hand it back to Amazon, make it unclear what these cities actually gain by hosting the company. The reason that city mayors will never collectively bargain on behalf of their citizens is two fold: 1) America lacks an inter-city governance mechanism that prevents cities from being blackballed by corporate capital and 2) most big city mayors are corrupt as hell and don’t care about you.

In 1987 urban sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch put forward the “Growth Machine” theory to explain why cities do not collectively bargain and instead compete with one-another in a race-to-the-bottom to see which city can concede the most taxes for the least gain. The theory is rather straightforward: cities may have one or two inherent competitive advantages that no other city has, but beyond that you can only offer tax breaks. Maybe you’ve got a deep water port that big container ships can use, or you’re situated at the only pass in a mountain range. Other than that, location is completely fungible. All that’s left is tax policy and land grants. more...

Apple users usually expect for their devices to perform basic system management and maintenance, monitoring background processes so that a rogue task doesn’t drag down the currently active app, for example. But when Apple confirmed users’ suspicions that a recent update was aggressively slowing older devices, the story quickly gained national attention, culminating in the company cutting the price of battery replacement service and apologizing for the misunderstanding in an open letter to customers. Though Apple never goes as far as to admit wrongdoing in the letter, their direct appeals to customers’ “trust” and “faith” serve as an implicit acknowledgement that the company disregarded a boundary somewhere.

The new power management system has received justifiable attention and it isn’t the only update the company surreptitiously added recently. In a separate update, wireless and Bluetooth controls that previously functioned like manual on/off switches now only disable connectivity temporarily, until the system automatically reactivates them the following day. Similar to the new power management feature, the connectivity controls weren’t publicized and users weren’t notified of the altered functionality until a subsequent release.

Given how social media and messaging services have, as Jenny Davis says, “extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions,” Apple’s moves to smooth device performance and subtly automate connectivity make some sense. “They have become central to society’s basic functions, such as employment, public safety, and government services,” Data & Society scholars argued in response to Carpenter v. United States. On a basic level a phone’s remaining battery life can, as Jenny Davis wrote of her second night living in Australia, be the difference between calling an Uber or cab home and staying lost and stranded at night in an unfamiliar city on the other side of the world. “I could mess up, (which I did) and have layers of contingency preventing my mishap from becoming a catastrophe.” more...

In last week’s much-anticipated conversation between Barack Obama and Prince Harry, the pair turned to the topic of social media. Here’s what Obama said:

“Social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and   get to know each other and connect. But then it’s important for them to get offline,  meet in a pub, meet at a place of worship, meet in a neighbourhood and get to know   each other.”

The former president’s statements about social media are agreeable and measured. They don’t evoke moral panic, but they do offer a clear warning about the rise of new technologies and potential fall of social relations.

These sentiments feel comfortable and familiar. Indeed, the sober cautioning that digital media ought not replace face-to-face interaction has emerged as a widespread truism, and for valid reasons. Shared corporality holds distinct qualities that make it valuable and indispensable for human social connection. With the ubiquity of digital devices and mediated social platforms, it is wise to think about how these new forms of community and communication affect social relations, including their impact on local venues where people have traditionally gathered. It is also reasonable to believe that social media pose a degree of threat to community social life, one that individuals in society should actively ward off.

However, just because something is reasonable to believe doesn’t mean it’s true. The relationship between social media and social relations is not a foregone conclusion but an empirical question: does social media make people less social? Luckily, scholars have spent a good deal of time collecting cross-disciplinary evidence from which to draw conclusions. Let’s look at the research: more...

Screenshot from EA’s The Sims 4

Reflecting on their experience playing with Cats & Dogs, the new Sims 4 expansion pack, Nicole Carpenter describes the anxieties arising from new pets of the digital and physical variety. When their new pet cat catches ‘lava nose’ in the game, it recalled memories of waiting at the vet after Carpenter’s own kitten (on which their Sim cat is based) swallowed a long piece of yarn. And not just memories, but new, visceral worries for their digital cat’s wellbeing. “That anxiety stems from wanting control,” Carpenter says, “something that you rarely have in real life and that the Sims allows you in small doses before taking it away for dramatic effect.”

The anxieties our pets inspire in us — “You’re in charge of a life now, and that’s scary” — seems primarily an effect of vicariousness. It’s one thing to console a friend or newborn or a stranger through a crisis, where each demands unique empathetic approaches. Strategies for consoling a pet are similarly individuated, but more ambiguous. Our furry friends’ exceedingly wide yet minute subtleties in conveying their discomfort, combined with the relatively more limited forms of medical and emotional care we have to console them, heightens our vicarious pain, compelling us to exhaust every possible fix until something sticks. “Can she die? Am I a bad cat mom?,” Carpenter recalls worrying over their sick digital cat. Learning that no, as far as the Sims goes, your pets can’t really die or even run away (though they can get bored from owner negligence) did less to relieve those worries than simply carrying on in spite of them.

Last month a group of us got together to put on an unconference, a DIY gathering made up of short, semi-improvised workshops proposed the day of. The tangible excitement of being all crammed together, friends, loose ties and strangers, around the schedule board provoked a mix of spontaneity and natural anxieties for many of us. The workshops ranged from communal cooking to disarming active shooters to handling leftist infighting in a small city where many activists are one degree separated.  My choice to do a workshop on anxiety in relation to political action was in retrospect a pretty safe bet. I want to use this post to recount the workshop, by summarizing a specific text that helped inform it, as well as the personal experience of doing the workshop itself. In a year where just keeping up with the deluge of bad news and formulating an appropriate response became its own preoccupation, many of us are in the process of forming new media consumption habits. Even if those new modes of action are just spreading information while expressing how fucked up everything is, a little guidance can be helpful. more...

Warning: Mr. Robot spoilers abound (but, come on, what are you doing still not caught up with this show?). 

In my first post for Cyborgology last year, I suggested that perhaps Elliot Alderson, the paranoid and delusional protagonist of USA Network’s Mr. Robot, was the epitome of a Deleuzian Body Without Organs—an extreme state wherein rhythms and intensities not available in the anatomical body provide access to a plane of immanence (though I also incorrectly suggested that Elliot is schizophrenic). I used his own self-tracking technique—a journal—and how this journal led to advantage being taken of him. If you’ve read my other posts here, you won’t be surprised to hear that I then used all of that as a critique of the quantified self. What can I say? When all you read is QS critique, everything you read is QS critique. After making my way through season 3, however, I’d like to revisit Elliot and what other sorts of theoretical signposts I might use to understand his character. more...

Let me begin with a prescriptive statement: major social media companies ought to consult with trained social researchers to design interfaces, implement policies, and understand the implications of their products. I embark unhesitatingly into prescription because major social media companies have extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions. Pervasive in personal and public life, social media are not just things people use, places they go to, or activities they do. Social media shape the flows of social life, structure civic engagement, and integrate with affect, identity and selfhood.

Public understanding of social media as infrastructural likely underpins mass concern about what social media are doing to society, and what individuals in society are doing with social media. Out of this concern has emerged a vibrant field of commentary on the relationship between social media use and psychological well-being. Spanning academic literature, op-ed pages and dinner table conversation the question has seemingly remained on the collective mind: does social media make people feel bad? Last week, Facebook addressed the issue directly. more...

Jack Nicholson’s President James Dale

I have this childhood memory of one of those rigged games at a county fair where the prize was a stuffed alien. I wanted it really bad. It looked just like the Halloween costume I’d made with my mom a few years back. We covered a balloon with Papier-mâché and when it dried we popped the balloon, cut out almond-shaped eyes, and spray painted the whole thing silver. This stuffed alien looked just like my costume but it was electric green and had a beautiful black cape with silver embroidery. I won it (don’t remember the game) and kept it for a long time. I might still have it somewhere.

Being the 90s kid I am, I was excited to see a New York Times story about a 2004 incident off the coast of San Diego where two Navy airmen followed a U.F.O. as it, “appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up.” I was hoping this story might circulate for a while, especially given that a $22 million Defense Department program meant to study U.F.Os was recently discovered in the Pentagon’s black money budget. There’s even video of the thing! Sadly, it barely scratched the surface of most newsfeed algorithms. more...

Photo: independent.co.uk , 2017

We should not be at all surprised to find ourselves online, but we are disturbed to find ourselves where we did not post, especially elements of ourselves we did not share intentionally. These departures from our expectations reveal something critical to the appeal of social media: it seems to provide a kind of identity control previously available only to autobiographers. We feel betrayed, as the writer would, if something is published which we had wanted struck from the record. The genius of social media is meeting this need for editorial control, but the danger is that these services do not profit from the user’s sense of coherent identity, which they appear to produce. The publisher is not interested primarily in the health of the memoirist, but in obtaining a story that will sell.

The intersection of autobiography and social media, especially emphasized by the structure of the Facebook Timeline, should raise questions about how identity is disclosed both before and after the advent of Facebook. The data self Facebook creates, which Nathan Jurgenson wrote about five years ago, is a dramatic departure from the way many of us likely conceive of ourselves. He suggests that the modern subject is constituted largely by data even as the subject creates that data; the self we reference and reveal to others is built on things that can be found out without our consent or effort. A more recent article in New York Times Magazine highlights the power of the immense data available on each of us with a profile. more...