Review of Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy

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Gabriella Coleman’s history of the Anonymous collective is as much about her complicity in the group’s attention-seeking tactics as it is about the group itself.

A hundred years ago, Dadaists made prankish, confrontational “anti-art” to protest an increasingly nationalistic and fractured Europe that was hurling itself into World War I. Their art was meant to reveal and criticize things as they were, not to be distracted from them. While the jarring effects of modernism as a whole was their muse, they also had a knack for precision strikes, as when Marcel Duchamp famously signed a urinal and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. It was never displayed, but that was sort of the point: The works were meant as an antagonism, not an ends in themselves. “One cannot understand Dada,” wrote Richard Huelsenbeck in 1920. “One must experience it.”

Continue reading at The New Inquiry.

Talk at CAC Woodside

This Tuesday at CAC Woodside I’ll be one of several presenters at the monthly Pecha Kucha:

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Holding Things in Common: One Small Step towards an Alternative to Capitalism

Typically when we hear something has fallen to the “Tragedy of the Commons” we imagine a lack of structure or regulation, when in fact the real tragedy that befell the English commons and similar institutions was one of too much control by too few people. How can we build new organizations that hold resources in common and what sorts of metrics can we use to measure our success?

More information here.

Efficiency is Dead

Or: Questionable Efficiencies: Recursive Depth as an Anti-Capitalist Metric.

Below is the text and slides of a presentation I gave at the Generative Justice Conference held at RPI on June 27 & 28, 2014.

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Today I want to talk about an issue that is very abstract, and yet plays an integral and indeed very material role in just about every life on the planet. This presentation could be described as mostly theoretical, in that all of my examples are in service of a more general and abstract point, but I just want to make clear on the outset that what I’m proposing today is very specific and very concrete. Before I tell you exactly what that proposal is, I want to tell all of you about my favorite part of exorcism movies. Continue reading

Vapor Eyes in The New Inquiry

vap-383The e-cigarette feels like the future. It is a generational marker that gives millennials another way to distinguish themselves from the past. It takes its design cues and business models from smartphones, gentrified downtowns, and complimentary next-day global delivery systems. When you choose to use silicon and glycerine over paper and tobacco, you are also choosing a shipping warehouse in Anaheim over the nearest gas station, opting to monitor battery life instead of lighter fluid, and possibly demonstrating a preference for the DIY promise of building your own vaping rig over the predictability of mass-produced, uniformly rolled cigarettes. It should be no surprise that almost every e-cig battery charges over USB, there are no disposable batteries, and if you want to plug it into a wall outlet you have to use a converter brick just as with a smartphone. E-cigs are eminently compatible with our digitized lives.

Read the full text here: Vapor Eyes – The New Inquiry

The Power of a Decentralized Left in Tikkun Magazine

Silver-StackAbandoning the monolith of “The Left” means embracing the tumultuous and complicated relationships we have with one another. It means having our fights out in public, with each other, and organizing affinity groups across geographical as well as social, economic, and gender lines. It means knitting together as many different kinds of organizations as possible. The Right will portray this as dissonance and fracture. We should embrace both of those charges and hold them up as our most cherished virtues because it is through working out our disagreements that we arrive at more sustainable, effective, and just decisions.

Full text here: The Power of a Decentralized Left | Tikkun Magazine.

Democracy comes to Mozilla

Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, was CEO of Mozilla for exactly 11 days before stepping down. Image c/o Wikicommons.

Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript, was CEO of Mozilla for exactly 11 days before stepping down. Image c/o Wikicommons.

Last week Brendan Eich, the newly appointed CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, had to step down amid backlash from his fellow board members, Silicon Valley elites, and the public at large for his $1,000 donation to supporters of California’s Prop 8 anti-marriage equality bill. In the grand scheme of things, a $1000 contribution from a guy that is I-invented-JavaScript-wealthy to a $38.7 million campaign, probably didn’t change much. But the headlines were never about Eich secretly bankrolling Prop 8; it’s been about what kind of person should be allowed to lead the best-known open-source organization that makes the third-most-installed browser on the planet.

There’s lots of people who say that even if you disagree with Eich, this shouldn’t be grounds for him to step down because his beliefs have no bearing on how you build a browser. I deeply disagree, and it isn’t a matter of ideological opposition, but of observable fact: technology always has a bit of its creator in it and technology is never politically neutral. Moreover, I don’t think, as many have claimed, that Eich’s departure was a failure of democracy. In fact I see it as a leading indicator for the free software community’s maturing legal and political knowledge.

Read More: Democracy comes to Mozilla » Cyborgology.

Why Facebook’s Acquisition of Oculus Still Seems Unfair

Last week, The Verge’s Adrianne Jeffries (@adrjeffries) asked a really provocative titular question: “If you back a Kickstarter Project that sells for $2 billion, do you deserve to get rich?” After interviewing venture capitalists and the like she concludes that the answer isn’t even “no” it’s “that’s ridiculous.” After speaking to Spark Capital’s Mo Koyfman Jeffries writes, “Oculus raised money on Kickstarter because it wanted to see if people wanted and would buy the product, and whether developers wanted it and would build games for it. The wildly successful campaign validated that premise, and made it much easier for Oculus to raise money from venture capitalists.”

Kickstarter’s biggest innovation is its ability to cut two time-consuming tasks –market research and startup funds– down to a 90 day fundraising window. Companies that choose to use Kickstarter usually aren’t ready to offer equity because that comes after the two steps that Kickstarter is so useful in accelerating. Or, perhaps more honestly, companies opt to use Kickstarter precisely because they want to avoid selling off shares of their company as much as possible. Jeffries gives us a good financial and legal (juridical, if we want to be Foucauldian about it) but that seems like a wholly unfulfilling argument for someone who spent $25 on an Oculus-branded t-shirt. Let’s forget for a moment about what’s legal and normal –those things are rarely moral or fair– and start to compare what happens on Kickstarter to similar (and much older) social arrangements. To start, let’s go way back to the early 1990s.

Read more: Why Facebook’s Acquisition of Oculus Still Seems Unfair » Cyborgology.

Notorious Learning

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I learn a lot on Tumblr. I follow a lot of really great people that post links, infographics, GIF sets, and comics covering everything from Star Trek trivia to trans* identity. I like that when I look at my dashboard, or do a cursory search of a tag I will experience a mix of future tattoo ideas and links to PDFs of social theory. Invariably, within this eclectic mix that I’ve curated for myself, I will come across a post with notes that show multiple people claiming that the post taught them something and so they feel obligated to reblog it so others may also know this crucial information. If you’re a regular Tumblr user you’re probably familiar with the specific kind of emphatic sharing. Sometimes it is implied by one word in all caps: “THIS!” In other instances the author is ashamed or frustrated that they didn’t know something sooner. For example, I recently reblogged a post about America’s Japanese internment camps that contained a note from another user who was angry that they were 24 when they first learned about their existence. I want to give this phenomenon a name and, in the tradition of fellow regular contributor Robin James’ recent“thinking out-loud” posts, throw a few questions out there to see if anyone has more insights on this.

Read more here: Notorious Learning » Cyborgology.

A Sample of My Work

This is my writing sample for my (public) application for the #AmtrakResidency.

Oh Amtrak. How could you even ask me why I’d want an #AmtrakResidency? Don’t you remember the moments between me and your Twitter account? You told me it was love at first sight! And who is Spencer? How could you hang out with Spencer with puns like those? Amtrak I thought you and I had a thing. Like the time I shamelessly added you to my tweet about a guy getting really excited about trains. I thought we were closer than this. In any case, I never got around to saying this but, I’m glad that you’re glad that I like trains.

So much of this is a Love and Theft arrangement. The love comes from my own relationship to trains. This residency, for me, is a relationship that could never exist outside of my own memories of that HO scale Amtrak train that I’d set up in the living room and watch go around in a circle for hours. I would never consider writing on a train ride to nowhere if I hadn’t thought, for the first decade of my life, that Amtrak was what adults took when they wanted to go somewhere important. Afterall, that’s how my grandparents went from Fort Lauderdale to New York City twice a year. I just assumed that trains were for special occasions. Like a cross-continental limousine. I was also the kid that, having most of Orlando, Florida’s theme parks at my disposal, wanted to go to Train Land over Disney World. Universal Studios was okay because you got to ride a train on the Earthquake ride. I love trains so why wouldn’t I pass up doing what I love while riding a thing that I love?

But then there’s the theft. I think Vauhini Vara gets it right in her New Yorker piece when she compares the #AmtrakResidency to David Foster Wallace’s essay about traveling on cruise ships. This residency is nothing more than highbrow marketing that gives cynical assholes like me a license to sincerely enjoy something as earnest as reflecting on life as the scenery rolls by. In turn, I will let others know how Beyond Cool™ I am to just enjoy a train ride to nowhere in particular. I will help you turn the Lake Shore Limited into a Hipster Carnival Cruise. It is for this reason that I don’t think you’re stealing from writers necessarily (or primarily), you’re stealing from a society that desperately needs a continental rail system that could give airlines a run for their money. Trains shouldn’t be small luxury liners, they should be big buses. That’s what we really need from you right now. But I understand that as an organization that relies on government money, your agency is severely restrained and so you must find money wherever it lies. Indeed, you must act like all other market actors and cleave your offerings into two big categories to match the socioeconomic landscape. Your trains must either be high luxury or bargain basement. You’ll sell both, but investment to create the former will be bankrolled by the latter.

#AmtrakResidency is eerily similar to the Write-A-House Program in Detroit: a program that teaches poor kids carpentry and masonry skills by having them rehab a house that’ll be given away to a writer who only pays a modest fee to cover the property taxes. It sounds like a wonderful program until you think about the long-term repercussions of the arrangement: they’re taking poor kids’ labor and investing it in a house that will, most likely, end up gentrifying the area and kicking them out of the neighborhood that they literally built with their own hands. The #AmtrakResidency does something very similar. It gives away tickets on Amtrak’s most expensive lines, in hopes of rebranding a private-public corporation as a writer’s retreat on wheels. It can fund these land-cruises with equal parts tax money and the profits from the Northeastern corridor. Granted the lobbyists riding the Acela Express could use to have their fares raised but will we realize too late that the middle class riders of the Empire Express were bankrolling the gentrification of their beloved train this whole time?

But let’s get back to how you’re stealing from writers for a second. A good friend of mine compared this little part of your Official Terms to the Limp Bizkit’s Guitar Center talent search:

Applicant understands and agrees that Sponsor has wide access to ideas, stories and other literary, artistic and creative materials submitted to it from outside sources or developed by its own employees and agents (together, “Sponsor Creative”); and, such Sponsor Creative may be competitive with, similar to (or even identical to) the writing sample/answers to questions created and submitted by Applicants; and, Sponsor shall have no liability to Applicant or any third party in respect to or in connection with the development, use, sale and/or commercial exploitation of all or any portion of Sponsor Creative by Sponsor and/or its designees and licensees, all of which liability, if any, Applicant hereby expressly and irrevocably waives, releases and discharges.

This isn’t a good look for you Amtrak. I’d love to do this if you didn’t write up terms that’d make Elsevier cringe. We could have been partners on this thing. I don’t want to live in a world where Amtrak is the Limp Bizkit of trains. Or maybe the Limp Bizkit of writer residencies. I can’t really tell anymore. Either way, I didn’t ask my friend if I could use that comparison. It was just too good. Maybe you’re on to something here.

I love you Amtrak, and I wish we weren’t in this fucked up scenario where you have to turn a profit and I have to find ways to pay the bills through people paying attention to my work. But putting the two together might be too much for me. I hope one of your writers in residence writes the perfect story that renews everyone’s interest in trains and they don’t mind that they don’t get a cut when your funding goes through the roof and you don’t have to spend all of your money on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. I just won’t be one of those writers.

This is part of my (public) Application for the #AmtrakResidency.

Photo from Flickr User Leon Kay, all rights reserved.