Technological advancements have had a profound influence on social science research. The rise of the internet, mobile hardware and app economies generate a breadth, depth and type of data previously unimaginable, while computational capabilities allow granular analyses that reveal patterns across massive data sets.  From these new types of data and forms of analysis, has emerged a crisis and renaissance of methodological thought.

Early excitement around big data celebrated a world that would be entirely changed and entirely knowable. Big data would “revolutionize” the way we “live, work, and think” claimed Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cuckier in their 2013 monograph, which so aptly captured the cultural zeitgeist energized around this new way of knowing. At the same time, social scientists and humanities scholars expressed concern that big data would displace their rich array of methodological traditions, undermining diverse scholarly practices and forms of knowledge production. However, with the hype around big data beginning to settle, polemic visions of omnipotence on the one hand, and bleak austerity on the other, seem unlikely to come into fruition.

While big data itself enables researchers to ask new kinds of questions, I argue that big data’s most significant effect has been to bring social thinkers back to the methodological (and philosophical) drawing board. For decades, more...

Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
To mould me Man, did I sollicite thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious Garden?

Adam in John Milton’s, Paradise Lost 1667 (X. 743–5)

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost we see a poetic retelling of the biblical story of humanity and temptation. The excerpt above is from Adam, who mourns his fate as one who was brought into the world unwittingly, and then forsaken by his maker.   Adam blames his creator for designing a fallible subject, with vulnerabilities that manifest in the ultimate fall from grace. From this classic story of creation, willfulness, and abandonment, I can’t help but think about robots, their creators, and what happens once robots become sentient and autonomous.

Although the precise trajectory of robotic advancement is difficult to pin down,  Stephen Hawking claims that within a few decades robots will achieve sentient thought and will be able to question their existence and position in human society. With such a prospect on the (potentially quite close) horizon, legal systems have begun to think about how to classify, treat, and regulate intelligent machines. 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...

rigged

Pundits across the political spectrum have expressed outrage at Trump’s continued insistence that the presidential election is rigged, and seem quite scandalized at his stated unwillingness to agree, apriori, to accept the final results.  Trump’s critics argue that his distrust of the election process threatens to destabilize U.S. democracy by undermining the ideology of citizen-driven governance. It is horrifying they say, and more than that, his claims are dangerous.

While a smooth transition of power is indeed a hallmark of democracy, there is a distinct disingenuousness about the breathless moralizing against Trump’s claims. It’s hard to ignore the sharp dissonance that emerges when broadcast journalists report on the economics of campaign finance, the political collusion and corruption revealed through an email leak, and then, without even the interruption of a commercial break, turn to Camera 2 and condemn Donald Trump for questioning the integrity of the democratic process.   more...

Thiel - Girard

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues. more...

IMAGE1One of the most prominent theorists of the late 20th century, Michel Foucault, spent a career asking his history students to let go of the search for the beginning of an idea. “Origins” become hopelessly confused and muddled with time; they gain accretions that ultimately distort any pure search for the past on the terms of the past. Instead, his alternative was to focus on how these accretions distorted the continuity behind any idea. This method was called “genealogy,” by Nietzsche, and Foucault’s essay expanded on its use. Dawn Shepherd captured the significance of this lesson in a beautiful, single sentence: “Before we had ‘netflix and chill ;)’ we just had ‘netflix and chill.’”

The temptation with something as recent as the web is to emphasize the web’s radical newness. Genealogy asks that we resist this demand and instead carefully think about the web’s continuity with structures far older than the web itself. While genealogy is not about the origins of “chill,” genealogy emphasizes the continuity of “chill.” Genealogy must build from an idea of what “chilling” entailed to say something about what “chill” means now.

Conversations about these continuities animated many of the conversations at Theorizing the Web 2016. Both the keynote panels and regular sessions asked audiences to imagine the web as part of society, rather than outside of it. In the words of its founders, the original premise of the conference was “to understand the Web as part of this one reality, rather than as a virtual addition to the natural.”
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As a rule, parents tend to experience concern about their children’s wellbeing. With all of the decisions that parents have to make, I imagine it’s near impossible not to worry that you are making the wrong ones, with consequences that may not reveal themselves for years to come. I’m that way with my dogs, and I feel confident the anxiety is more pressing with tiny human people. This is why recommendations from professional organizations are so important.  They offer the comfort of a guiding word, based presumably in expertise, to help parents make the best decisions possible.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is one such organization, and they have some things to say about children and screen time. However, what they have to say about children and screen time will be revised in the next year, and no doubt, many parents will listen intently. NPR interviewed David Hill, chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media and a member of the AAP Children, Adolescents and Media Leadership Working Group. Although Hill did not reveal what the new recommendations would advise, the way he talked about the relationship between screens and kids did reveal a lot about the logic that drives recommendations.  The logic that Hill’s interview revealed made clear, once again, the need for theory to inform practice. More specifically, those who make practical recommendations about technology should consult with technology theorists. more...

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Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson

Science, to borrow a phrase from Steven Shapin, is a social process that is “produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.” This simple fact is difficult to remember in the face of intricate computer generated images and declarative statements in credible publications. Science may produce some of the most accurate and useful descriptions of the world but that does not make it an unmediated window onto reality.

Facebook’s latest published study, claiming that personal choice is more to blame for filter bubbles than their own algorithm, is a stark reminder that science is a deeply human enterprise. Not only does the study contain significant methodological problems, its conclusions run counter to their actual findings. Criticisms of the study and media accounts of the study have already been expertly executed by Zeynep Tufecki, Nathan Jurgenson, and Christian Sandvig and I won’t repeat them. Instead I’d like to do a quick review of what the social sciences know about the practice of science, how the institutions of science behave, and how they both intersect with social power, class, race, and gender. After reviewing the literature we might also be able to ask how the study of science could have improved Facebook’s research. more...

Editors Note: This is based on a presentation at the upcoming  Theorizing the Web 2015 conferenceIt will be part of the Protocol Me Maybe panel. 

InternetSlowdown_Day

I’ve been researching hacking for a little while, and it occurred to me that I was focusing on a yet unnamed hacking subgenre. I’ve come to call this subgenre “interface hacks.” Interface hack refers to any use of web interface that upends user expectations and challenges assumptions about the creative and structural limitations of the Internet. An interface hack must have a technical component; in other words, its creator must employ either a minimal amount of code or demonstrate working knowledge of web technologies otherwise. By virtue of the fact they use interface, each hack has aesthetic properties; hacks on web infrastructure do not fall in this category unless they have a component that impacts the page design.

One of the most notable interface hacks is the “loading” icon promoted by organizations including Demand Progress and Fight for the Future in September 2014. This work was created to call attention to the cause of net neutrality: it made it appear as though the website on which it was displayed was loading, even after that was obviously not the case. It would seem to visitors that the icon was there in error; this confusion encouraged clicks on the image, which linked to a separate web page featuring content on the importance of net neutrality. To display the icon, website administrators inserted a snippet of JavaScript — provided free online by Fight for the Future — into their site’s source code. A more lighthearted interface hack is the “Adult Cat Finder,” a work that satirizes pornographic advertising in the form of a pop-up window that lets users know they’re “never more than one click away from chatting with a hot, local cat;” the piece includes a looping image of a Persian cat in front of a computer and scrolling chatroom-style text simply reading “meow.” The links to these, and other interface hacks, are included at the end of this post. more...

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I have a secret to tell all of you: I kind of don’t care about teaching evolution in science classes. Put another way, I’m less than convinced that most people, having learned the story of species differentiation and adaptation, go on to live fuller and more meaningful lives. In fact, the way we teach evolution ­­––with a ferocious attention toward competition and struggle in adverse circumstances–– might be detrimental to the encouragement of healthy and happy communities. I also see little reason to trust the medical community writ-large, and I cringe when a well-meaning environmentalist describes their reaction to impending climate change by listing all of the light bulbs and battery-powered cars they bought. I suppose –given my cynical outlook– that the cover story of this month’s National Geographic is speaking to me when it asks “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” Good question: what the hell is wrong with me? more...