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“The founding practice of conspiratorial thinking” writes Kathleen Stewart, “is the search for the missing plot.” When some piece of information is missing in our lives, whether it is the conversion ratio of cups to ounces or who shot JFK, there’s a good chance we’ll open up a browser window. And while most of us agree that there are eight ounces to every cup, far fewer (like, only 39 percent) think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Many who study the subject point to the mediation of the killing –The Zapruder film, the televised interviews and discussions about the assassination afterward—as one of the key elements of the conspiracy theory’s success. One might conclude that mediation and documentation cannot help but provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theory building.

Stewart goes so far as to say “The internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing, no place…” Just like a conspiracy theory you never get to the end of the Internet. Both are constantly unfolding with new information or a new arrangement of old facts. It is no surprise then, that with the ever-increasing saturation of our lives with digital networks that we are also awash in grotesque amalgamations of half-facts about vaccines, terrorist attacks, the birth and death of presidents, and the health of the planet. And, as the recently leaked documents about Facebook’s news operations demonstrate, it takes regular intervention to keep a network focused on professional reporting. Attention and truth-seeking are two very different animals.

The Internet might be a conspiracy theory but given the kind, size, and diversity of today’s conspiracy theories it is also worth asking a follow-up question: what is the Internet a conspiracy about? Is it a theory about the sinister inclinations of a powerful cabal? Or is it a derogatory tale about a scapegoated minority? Can it be both or neither? Stewart was writing in 1999, before the web got Social so she could not have known about the way 9/11 conspiracies flourished on the web and she may not have suspected our presidential candidates would make frequent use of conspiratorial content to drum up popular support. Someone else writing in 1999 got it right though. That someone was Joe Menosky and he wrote one of the best episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. Season 6, Episode 9 titled The Voyager Conspiracy. more...

The Storming of the Bastille
The Storming of the Bastille

Why don’t we ever talk about taking over social media companies? We will boycott them, demand transparency measures, and even build entire alternative networks based on volunteer labor but no one ever seems to consider taking all the servers and data sets away from the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and putting it all in the hands of the users. Even if a company was doing a bang-up job making their products easier to use, freer from harassment, and more productive in creating a better society, there’s still something fundamentally creepy about users having no democratic control over such an important aspect of their lives. Why is there no insistence that such important technologies have democratic accountability? Why are we so reticent to demand direct control over the digital aspects of our lives? more...

photo of George W Bush smiling wearing a cowboy hat with text overlaid that reads "The CIA's record keeping was so shoddy, "they lost track and they didn't really know who they were holding."

Earlier this week the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, more commonly known as just “The Torture Report” was declassified and made public and like many people I downloaded it. But given that it is a 525-page behemoth of documented state violence, most people are going to understandably look for summaries and analyses, letting other people do the hard work of pulling out important passages from the heaping pile of passive voice and bureaucratic jargon. While the report is deeply disturbing, the mainstream attention it has been getting is somewhat heartening. What might have dominated, but ultimately fallen out of, a couple of rapidly shifting news cycles has exploded over my Tumblr dashboard and Twitter feed in a constant stream of tiny, comprehensible bites of war crimes. Consuming national disgrace in small pieces isn’t necessarily new, it is the primary way the public learns about abuses of power. more...

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The murder of Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson has catalyzed an already fast-growing national conversation about outfitting police officers with cameras like the one shown above. These cameras, the logic goes, will keep officers on their best behavior because any abuses of power would be recorded and stored for later review. Officer’s behavior, much like an increasing amount of civilian behavior, will be subject to digital analysis and review by careful administrators and impartial juries. This kind of transparency is extremely enticing but we should always be critical of things that purport to show us unvarnished truths. As any any film director will tell you: the same set of events recorded on camera can look very different when viewed from different angles and in different contexts. more...

Image credit
Image credit

Late Monday night it was discovered that one of the EPA’s Twitter accounts was a C-list celebrity on the popular iPhone game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. The Tweet was one of those automatically generated ones meant to announce progress in a game or the unlocking of an achievement. Its easy to imagine the scenario: an over-worked or deeply bored social media manager didn’t realize they were signed into their work account instead of their personal one and let the tweet go. Or maybe a family member borrowed their work phone. Who knows? What we do know is that the tweet immediately garnered thousands of retweets and countless more screenshots were shared on other platforms. Why is this even remotely funny? What sorts of publicly held believes does it reveal? more...

The Tower of David (Image Source)
The Tower of David (Image Source)

I was scrolling through Tumblr the other morning (like I do) when I came across “the world’s tallest slum.” Located in downtown Caracas, an unfinished 45-story skyscraper that was supposed to host Venezuela’s business elite is now home to an estimated 3,000 squatters. The “Tower of David” (named after finance tycoon that started and abandoned the project) is now owned by the state but there are no government-provided utilities. The building is, in essence, not much more than an immense concrete frame, upon which the residents have begun to build a community. They pool money to pay for building security, there are bodegas on every floor, and water and electricity reach as high as the 22nd floor. This is no small feat of engineering or human organization, but it isn’t comfortable living either. I don’t think it would be romanticizing the living conditions of these people to say that they (and no one else) have made something that is both modest and remarkable for themselves. Abandoned by both private industry and the government, some people pooled their limited resources and made their lives a little more livable.  Zulma Bolivar, a Caracas City planning official in an interview with the New York Times described the situation in one sentence: “This tower is a perfect example of anarchy.” more...

Image from Robert Cooke
Image from Robert Cooke

On Monday I posed two related questions:  “Are wearables like Glass relegated to the same fate as Bluetooth earpieces and the Discman, or can they be saved?  Is the entire category irredeemable or have we yet to see the winning execution?” I concluded that most of the problems have to do with the particular executions we’ve seen to date, but it’s also very possible that the very idea of the wearable is predicated on the digital dualist notion that interacting with a smartphone is inherently disruptive to a productive/happy/authentic lifestyle. Lot’s of devices are pitched as “getting out of the way” and only providing a little bit of information that is context specific and quickly (not to mention discreetly) displayed to the user. I contended that the motivation to make devices “invisible” can bring about some unintended consequences; mainly that early adopters experience the exact opposite reaction. Everyone pays attention to your face computer and nothing is getting out of the way at all. more...

The Planned Headquarters of Apple Inc.
The Planned Headquarters of Apple Inc.

The year is 1959 and a very powerful modern art aficionado is sharing a limousine with Princess  Beatrix of the Netherlands. The man is supposed to be showing off the splendor of the capital of what was once —so optimistically— called New Amsterdam. His orchestrated car trip is not going quite as he had hoped and instead of zipping past “The Gut” and dwelling on the stately early 19th century mansions on Central and Clinton Avenues, Beatrix is devastated by the utter poverty that has come to define the very center of this capitol city now called Albany, New York. The art aficionado, unfortunately for him, cannot blame some far away disconnected bureaucrat or corrupt politician for what they are seeing because he is the governor of this powerful Empire State and he has done little to elevate the suffering of his subjects. He resolves, after that fateful car trip, to devote the same kind of passion he has for modern art to this seat of government. Governor Rockefeller will make this city into a piece of art worthy of his own collection. more...

We have a two-month break from self-inflicted government crisis, so let’s use it to take a breather, assess the situation, and cast some shade on rich people. Not because it is cathartic (it is), or because it will prevent the next crisis (it won’t); rather, I think studying the contours of the government-shaped hole of the last three weeks can teach us something about how Silicon Valley views public ownership. This is important because we typically use metaphors[1] like “the commons” or “the public” to describe their products. These words imply a sense of trust, if not mutually assured disruption: sure a rich guy might own Twitter on paper but it becomes worthless if everyone stops treating it as a (if not the) center of daily life. What do the people that own these service/spaces think about the de facto collective ownership of their product? more...

Twitter_Alerts

Last week Twitter introduced an alert system that they described as “ a new feature that brings us one step closer to helping users get important and accurate information during emergencies, natural disasters or when other communications services aren’t accessible.” The alerts show up on users phones as special push notifications and SMS notifications and are marked with an orange bell in your feed. At first blush it seems like a great idea but, given that I’m writing this during yet another government “shutdown”, are governments and NGOs really the only organizations that should get access to this useful service? What can activists do to push back? more...