Critical Theory

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...


I recently updated my mac’s operating system. The new OS, named Sierra, has a few new features that I was excited to try but the biggest one was the ability to use Siri to search my files and launch applications. Sierra was bringing me one step closer to the human-computer interaction fantasy that was set up for me at an early age when I watched Picard, La Forge, and Data solve a complicated problem with the ship’s computer. In those scenes they’d ask fairly complicated questions, ask follow-up questions with pronouns and prepositions that referenced the first question, and finish their 24th century Googling session with some plain language query like “anything else?”  Judging by the demo I had seen on the Apple website it seemed like I could have just that conversation. I clicked the waveform icon, saw the window pop up indicating that my very own ship’s computer was listening and… nothing.

The problem wasn’t with Siri, it was with me. I had frozen. It was as if a rainbow spinning beach ball was stuck in my mouth. I was unable to complete a simple sentence. I closed the window and tried again:

Show me files that I created on… Damnit

Sorry I did not get that.

Show me files from… That I made on Friday.

Here are some of the files you created on Friday.

In all honesty, I should have seen this coming. I frequently use Siri to set reminders or to put things in my calendar but I always use my digital assistant in secret: the moment between getting in the car and starting the engine, alone at my desk, or (sorry) while I am using the bathroom. It works almost every time but when something goes wrong, it is my commands not Siri’s execution, that is left wanting. I pause because I forget the name of the place I need directions to or I stumble when it comes to saying exactly what reminder I want to set. There are several Siri-dictated reminders sitting in my phone right now that don’t want me to forget to “bring it back with you before you go” or “to write email in the morning.”  I clam up when I know my devices are listening.

It gets worse when other humans are listening to my awkward commands. The thought of talking to an algorithm in the presence of fellow humans is about as enticing to me as reciting a poem I wrote in high school or explaining a joke that just fell flat. Here I was thinking it was the technology that had to catch up to my cyborg dreams but now it seems that the flesh is the half not willing. more...

#review features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books. Today I review Christian Fuchs’ book–Social Media: A Critical Introduction.


Generally, I’m not a big fan of textbooks. The bold words and broadly glossed-over content beg for flash-card style teaching. Because of this, I always opt for edited volumes and peer-reviewed journal articles, sprinkled with blog posts and popular media clips. Fuchs Social Media: A Critical Introduction, however, is not your typical text book. Rather than a corpus of definitions, the book is at once a review of the field, an argument about how scholars should approach the field, and a biting critique of the social media landscape.

As indicated by the title, Fuchs’ work examines social media from a critical perspective. Critical, for Fuchs, refers explicitly to Marxism and neo-Marxism, with power and resource distribution the key focal points. A Marxist take on social media examines exploitation and domination by studying both political economy and political communication of social media. That is, a critical perspective looks at who owns the means of production in both the financial and attention economies, and how various media perpetuate, reflect, or potentially upend, an inherently exploitative capitalism.

Early in the book, Fuchs makes an effort to differentiate this perspective from other uses of the term “critical,” and to distance this work from non-Marxist scholarship. Reminiscent of a debate summarized by PJ Rey, Fuchs explicates this distinction: more...

The Pew Internet and American Life Project and researchers from Elon University asked over a thousand “experts” about the future of money. Specifically, they were interested in the potential replacement of cash and credit/debit cards with smart-device technologies.

The majority of respondents (65%) believe that smartphones will largely replace cash and credit/debit cards by the year 2020. Others, however, believe that our infrastructure is too closely tied with a cash/card based system to be fully replaced. Further, most experts note that not ALL consumers will make the switch, as some will resist over concerns about privacy and anonymity. Finally, many predict that adoption will differ across demographics (with younger consumers replacing cash/credit at a faster rate than older consumers). Read the full report here.

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine a largely smart-device based currency system—as this is already prevalent in Japan and growing in the U.S..  The next step is to imagine the social implications of such a system. I believe that these implications will be twofold: First, we will become more efficient consumers. Second, identity and practices of consumption will be more explicitly and directly linked—solidifying the connection between self and stuff. more...

Academics usually do not talk about “tactics.” There are theories, methods, critiques, but we -as professionals-rarely feel comfortable advocating for something as unstable or open to interpretation as a tactic. In the latest edition of the Science, Technology, and Human Values (The flagship journal for Society for Social Studies of Science) three authors threw caution to the wind and published the paper “Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey” [over-priced subscription required]. While the content of the paper is excellent, what excited me the most was their decision to describe their new “bag of tools” as a set of tactics. Kavita Philip, Lilly Irani, and Paul Dourish take a moment in their conclusion to reflect on their decision:

We call our results tactics, rather than methodologies, strategies, or universal guarantors of truth. Tactics lead not to the true or final design solution but to the contingent and collaborative construction of other narratives. These other narratives remain partial and approximate, but they are irrevocably opened up to problematization.

I will employ the language and approach of the “tactical survey” to offer a new set of conceptual tools for understanding augmented protest and revolution. It is my aim that they prove useful for activists as well as academics and journalists following Occupy Wall Street and similar movements. This first part focuses on the intersections of transparency, social media, privilege, and public depictions of protest. Part 2 will cover the utilization of corporate technological systems (e.g. Apple productsTwitter) and building alternatives to those systems (e.g. Vibe, Diaspora). These tactics are forged from observations (first hand and otherwise) of the #OWS movement. They are intentionally abstract, because they are menat to apply to a wide range of instances and scenarios.  more...


I'm pretty bad at unpacking from conferences...

Unlike my fellow Cyborgologists, who are based in sociology departments, I am working towards a Ph.D in an interdisciplinary field called Science and Technology Studies (STS). The field emerged in the late 60s amongst (and directly influenced by) the environmental movement, the anti-nuke movement, and second wave feminism. Today STS is an established field with departments all around the world. The interdisciplinary nature of the field makes it difficult to have one single umbrella conference, but the closest we get is the annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science, or simply “4S.” The conference has panels on a wide variety of topics including, “(Re)Inventing the Internet: New Forms of Agency“, “Evidence on Trial: Experts, Judges and Public Reason“, and “Reproductive and Contraceptive Technologies: Shifting Subjectivities and Contemporary Lives“. There are also two sister conferences that happen simultaneously at nearby hotels: The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) and the History of Science Society (HSS). While the conference was enjoyable, and the talks were fascinating, I was left wondering if STS is up to the task of changing how we talk about technology, science, and innovation. more...

On September 18th, 2011, Barry Wellman, the early and rather prescient scholar of the Internet, posed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question to the Communication and Information Technology Section of the American Sociology Association (CITASA): “‘Critical’ – aren’t we all?”  This post was precipitated by a call for papers for special issue of tripleC entitled Marx is Back: The Importance of Marxist Theory and Research for Critical Communication Studies Today (no affiliation with the author).  Specifically, the call invited papers that address (my emphasis):

what it means to ask Marx’s questions in 21st century informational capitalism, how Marxian theory can be used for critically analyzing and transforming media and communication today, and what the implications of the revival of the interest in Marx are for the field of Media and Communication Studies.

Shortly after it was sent, Wellman responded to the call, saying:

Not meant personally, but the use of the word “critical” by a subset of scholars always bothers me as leading to unconscious smugness? If I’m “critical”, your lot isn’t? Who, except flacks and twerps, isn’t critical? Can we criticize the criticalists?

This sparked a debate over the utility and appropriateness of the phrase “critical theory.”  Critics of the phrase raise the following objections: more...