With the 50th anniversary of the original series and impending debut of Star Trek: Discovery later this year, it seems like an ideal time to look back at how this franchise—which is so near and dear me and many of my fellow Cyborgologists—has imagined technology.

Those who grew up in the era of the recent J.J Abrams “reboot” series of action films, could be forgiven for thinking of the Star Trek universe is little more than a thin narrative strand binding together adrenaline hits in yet another forgettable instantiation of the timeless male fantasy of blowing shit up in space. But, in its prime, Star Trek’s cerebral nature and its relentless interrogation of moral and social values set it apart from other successful 20th Century space dramas like Star Wars or the original Battlestar Galactica series.

The original Star Trek series was notably progressive in employing women writers (primarily D.C. Fontana) and having a racially diverse cast, and it famously featured television’s first interracial kiss (which, speaking to the cerebral nature of the show, took place on a planet whose inhabitants where trying to enact the ideas of Plato’s Republic). Later series would push the envelope on media representation by featuring Black (DS9) and women (Voyager) captains. This opened the way to more explicit reflections of race and gender politics by the show’s characters.

Most significant, though, is the way that politics were baked into the setting of the Star Trek universe from the beginning. Creator Gene Roddenberry imagined that, with the elimination of material scarcity (and money along with it), 24th Century Earth would become a paradise. Having everything, humans would collectively turn away from the goal of accumulating wealth and toward the mutually intertwined goals of interplanetary exploration and self-realization. more...

canberra-map

Several nights ago, Uber saved my life prevented my becoming a distressed soul, lost and crying in a new country.  Had this event transpired to fruition, it would have been both emotionally exhausting and also, deeply troubled my  sense of self.  Luckily, however, I called an Uber, and here I am, nerves and feminist identity still well intact. In recounting the events of this banal and, in retrospect, marginally stressful experience, I’m reminded of the two nets that our devices weave: the trappings of dependence and the comfort of safety.

Here’s what happened: I was on a mission for fruit. Fruit not from a can. Fruit not dried into a nut bar. Fruit free from individual plastic wrapping. Real, Fresh, Fully Hydrated, Fruit. And so, on my second night in Australia, the land I now call home, I Google Mapped my way to an IGA X-Press. Armed with the cheapest “smart” phone I could purchase at the airport, I fumbled on foot down unfamiliar streets until, in what seemed more like an accident than a well followed plan, I found myself flesh to flesh with colorful and aromatic pears, apples, peaches, and citrus. I had arrived. With glee and pride I filled my cart with the fresh products that 30 hours of travel and temporary accommodation made scarce. I then slowly trecked down each aisle with anthropological interest in the breads, coffees, and packaged foods on offer. I chose Wallaby Bites to save for a late night treat, got thick ground coffee to use with my university-apartment-provided French press, marveled at all of the local dairy products, and felt strangely comforted by the familiar brands that I never bought in the U.S. and still wouldn’t buy here. I remained unwary of the weighty bags I would need to carry home, and unconcerned about the early signs of a setting sun. more...

podcast

Last week The New Inquiry published an essay I wrote about science journalism podcasts syndicated on NPR. Shows like Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio, I argued, were more about wrapping pre-conceived notions in a veneer of data than changing minds or delivering new insights into long-standing problems. Worse yet, social and political issues that might be met with collective action are turned into wishy-washy “well isn’t that interesting” anecdotes:

Topics that might have once been subject to political debate or rhetorical argument–work demands, exposure to toxins, surveillance, the limits of love, even Marxian alienation–become apolitical subjects for scientific testing. But the results only lead to greater and greater complexity, prompting introspective thought rather than action.

more...

mwa68jo

In the days before November 8th I wrote the following vignette for what was supposed to be a special Cyborgology roundtable, a collection of differing viewpoints on the U.S. presidential election. For a number of reasons that roundtable was never published. Nevertheless, I am now posting what I wrote, unedited. My intent in doing this is twofold. First, it is a time-specific encapsulation of my sentiments before the event itself. It is not a reflection on what I would do given what I know now, but emblematic of the inexact and speculative nature of politics. And second, because I feel as if, regardless of the moment it emerged from, this short essay still carries a lot of weight in this post-election period. In fact, I would probably write very close to the same thing again.

more...

14221637039_7d81bd26b4_z

In the 60s there was a movement in engineering and the physical sciences towards building what the British economist E.F. Schumacher called “appropriate technology.” Appropriate technology is sort of what it sounds like: build things that are appropriate to the context in which they are meant to be deployed. If that sounds like common sense to you, then you are benefitting from a minor scientific revolution that occurred in the midst of incredible professional hubris. For quite a while (and still today, as I can personally attest to during my time at a polytechnic institute) scientists and engineers thought that what works in an American lab will work anywhere in the world. Physics is physics no matter where you are and so the underlying mechanical properties of any given technology should work wherever it is situated. Appropriate technology pushed back against that concept, encouraging practitioners to think long and hard about social, economic, political, environmental, and any other context an artifact might find itself in. more...

AffordanceGibson

The concept of affordances, which broadly refers to those functions an object or environment make possible, maintains a sordid history in which overuse, misuse, and varied uses have led some to argue that researchers should abandon the term altogether. And yet, the concept persists as a central analytic tool within design, science and technology studies, media studies, and even popular parlance. This is for good reason. Affordances give us language to address the push and pull between technological objects and human users as simultaneously agentic and influential.

Previously on Cyborgology, I tried to save the term, and think about how to theorize it with greater precision. In recent weeks, I have immersed myself in the affordances literature in an attempt to develop the theoretical model in a tighter, expanded, and more formalized way. Today, I want to share a bit of this work: a timeline of affordances. This includes the influential works that theorize affordances as a concept and analytic tool, rather than the (quite hearty) body of work that employs affordances as part of their analyses.

The concept has an interesting history that expands across fields and continues to provoke debate and dialogue. Please feel free to fill in any gaps in the comments or on Twitter. more...

A Budnitz Bike in its natural habitat.

A Budnitz Bike in its natural habitat. Source.

Paul Budnitz describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” having created other companies that make artisanal toys and luxury bicycles. He’s also the creator/founder/president/charismatic leader of Ello. And when a social network launches with a manifesto that proudly proclaims “You are not a product”, there’s more on the line than embedded video support. Despite the radical overtures of the initial launch, we shouldn’t expect any more from Ello than we would from a luxury bicycle. more...

This essay is cross-posted with TechnoScience as if People Mattered

A Swiss-made 1983 Mr. T Watch. Timeless. (Source)

A Swiss-made 1983 Mr. T Watch. Timeless. (Source)

Micah Singleton (@micahsingleton) over at the Daily Dot has a really great essay about one of the biggest problems with the Apple Watch. You should read the whole thing but the big takeaway is that really great watches and mainstream tech have a fundamental incompatibility: nice watches usually become heirlooms that get handed down from generation to generation, but consumer technology is meant to be bought in product cycles of a only a couple of years. A really nice watch should be “timeless” in a way our devices never have been. Compared to the usual 2-year contract phone purchase, the technological evolution of high-quality watches moves about as fast as actual biological evolution. Is it possible to deliberately build timelessness into electronics? more...

Apple_-_Live_-_September_2014_Special_Event

What are all those people celebrating with their standing ovation? Even the guy on stage is applauding. Sure the new product is exciting, but applause? Unlike a play or a musical performance (even a U2 performance), nothing is actually happening on stage when a product is announced. All that work that goes into making a product was done months ago, and the audience isn’t even being asked (at the moment) to thank the people that made the product. Instead of rapt silence or an excited buzz, lots of people are moved to show their unbridled enthusiasm in a very specific way. It is the same kind of collective reaction that comes after a political speech and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When we applaud the Apple Watch we’re applauding an imagined future. more...

Image Credit: Marco Paköeningrat

Image Credit: Marco Paköeningrat

Ugh. I hate the new Facebook. I liked it better without the massive psychological experiments.

Facebook experimented on us in a way that we really didn’t like. Its important to frame it that way because, as Jenny Davis pointed out earlier this week, they experiment on us all the time and in much more invasive ways. The ever-changing affordances of Facebook are a relatively large intervention in the lives of millions of people and yet the outrage over these undemocratic changes never really go beyond a complaint about the new font or the increased visibility of your favorite movies (mine have been and always will be True Stories and Die Hard). To date no organization, as Zeynep Tufekci observed, has had the “stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams.” When we do get mad at Facebook, it always seems to be a matter of unintended consequences or unavoidable external forces: There was justified outrage over changes in privacy settings that initiated unwanted context collapse, and we didn’t like the hard truth that Facebook had been releasing its data to governments. Until this week, it was never quite so clear just how much unchecked power Facebook has over its 1.01 billion monthly active users. What would governing such a massive sociotechnical system even look like? more...