Announcing #ttw17

Excited to do more for Theorizing the Web this year by acting as co-chair with Nathan Jurgenson. Check out the CFP below and hope to see lots of old friends and new faces at the conference in April!

Call for Papers

Theorizing the Web 2017

April 7–8 in New York City

At the Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria, Queens

The submission deadline is January 22, 2017 (11:59 p.m. EST)

Started in 2011, Theorizing the Web is an annual event for critical, conceptual conversations about technology and society. Theorizing the Web begins with the assumption that to talk about technology is also to discuss the self and the social world. Debate around digital social technologies too often fails to apply the many relevant literatures of social thought. We do not think “theorizing” is solely the domain of academia, and we value clear and compelling arguments that avoid jargon. Here are some photos from last year’s event if you want to see the vibe of it all.

Theorizing the Web is a home for thinking about technology by people who may not think of themselves primarily as “tech” thinkers. Activists, journalists, technologists, writers, artists, and people who don’t identify as any of the above are all encouraged to submit. We especially invite submissions that engage with issues of social justice, power, inequality, and vulnerability from a diverse range of perspectives. 

Submissions on any topic are welcome. Some general topical suggestions include the intersections between technology and identity, privacy, sexuality, the body, power, politics, surveillance, racism, sexism, ableism, harassment, space, code, design, knowledge, images, memes, attention, work, fiction, gaming, globalization, capitalism, and protest. 

Submissions should be 300 to 500 words (only the first 500 words will be reviewed). The TtW Selection Committee will blindly review submissions and make decisions in early to mid-February. Space is limited, and our acceptance rate is typically 20-35%. The presentations themselves will be 12-minute talks in a panel setting. You will be speaking to a general audience who may not share your area of expertise. 

Before submitting, please read our FAQ section on submissions.

Submit your proposal here: http://theorizingtheweb.tumblr.com/2017/submit

Registration for Theorizing the Web remains pay-what-you-can, and we ask that you donate whatever amount you deem fair or can afford (minimum $1). Register here: http://theorizingtheweb.tumblr.com/2017/registration

Stay tuned to theorizingtheweb.org for announcements about invited panels, and email us at theorizingtheweb@gmail.com if you would like to help out with our all-volunteer event in any way. We’re @TtW_conf on Twitter, and the conference hashtag is #TtW17.

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The Edifice Complex in Real Life

How long and how intensely a technology seems “vulgar” before it fades into the background is a useful barometer of a society’s willingness to embrace whatever ideology that technology has made it impossible to ignore.

I have a new essay up at Real Life Magazine that I'm very excited about. You can read it here. I've also added some photos of Empire State Plaza to my photography portfolio

Talk with Melissa Gira Grant about Selfies and Politics

On November 1st Melissa Gira Grant and I will be discussing the role of selfies in the election. Knowing us we'll probably talk much more generally about privacy and publicity in ways that cut against the typical discussions of selfies as exercises in vanity. The event is hosted by the International Center for Photography at 250 Bowery in Manhattan. More information about this event and other events in the series here.

Some writing on writing

Over at Cyborgology I took a moment to write out my approach to writing, how to start writing for more popular audiences, and how to work with editors. It's mainly written for academics but I think it's generally useful for anyone in a professional discipline looking to speak to more general audiences. Had a lot of fun writing it. You can read the whole post here.

True-Ish Grit in Real Life

Original artwork by Alexis Beauclair

Original artwork by Alexis Beauclair

Had the distinct pleasure and honor of writing a long essay about social media and the marketing of authenticity in Rust Belt towns for the new publication Real Life magazine

If places have become commodities, social media are platforms on which cities like Troy might dream of competing. For such cities, photogenicity represents opportunity. Friends sharing Sunday brunch on a terrace, a dog being walked in a well-appointed dog park—such moments create a reproducible online brand built on an air of exclusivity. This rationalized quirkiness makes a local flavor known, sellable in the broader market of “those nice places to live.” Once a city’s obscure and unique qualities are made machine-readable and comparable across networks, the city’s brand solidifies and can sit nicely on a social-media shelf.

Full essay here.

Web Safe 2k16

Wrote something for the Web Safe 2k16 project. Web Safe 2k16 publishes one 216-word story associated with one of the original 216 web safe colors.  I wrote about forced calm and the use of blue in both social and work settings. 

I should have stared at the color a little bit more before writing because now I realize this also feels like the color of a TV awaiting a VHS tape. I wonder if there's something to that. A subconscious infusion of anticipation across all of our commonly-used platforms. 

There’s a reason so many memories with computers are blue. Blue is the color of imposed calm. Blue demands conscious calm in spite of what the blue-colored thing is doing to you. From social media and word processors, to company logos and web standards, shades of blue are keeping you passively awake.

Full essay here.

Won 1st Prize for Short Fiction at the 75th Annual McKinney Awards

I was very honored last week to receive first prize in RPI's annual McKinney Competition for short fiction (of all things!). The winning story, which is currently unpublished but looking for a home, is titled Platinum. Here's a short excerpt:

I do not like the house I am built in. I think it is ugly. I am beautiful. On the outside the house is trimmed in Quiet Moments™ and has Hawaiian Shell™ walls. I am black, with green, yellow, and red LEDs. I am mounted on an unpainted wall underground protected by a sump pump and treated steel. The inside of the house is largely characterized by PANTONE 14-1118 TPX and 15-1516 TPX and kept at 76F. My insides are plastic and platinum and reach temperatures in excess of 180F. 

This house is a brick and I am drowning slowly. That is a Ben Folds Five lyric. Jason Carethers played Brick on Whatever and Ever Amen [2035 Digital Vinyl Collection Edition] 135 times. Joyce Carethers, $usan and NickRulez were in a different room from Jason Carethers 96% of the time that song was playing. Automatically purchasing new needle heads for SONY Digital Vinyl – D3400 Player as per subscription settings.

Moderating #TtW16 Keynote Panel "Cool Story"

Stories are one of our first technologies. They are a means of collective memory storage that propel ideas forward in time and outward to new communities. Stories not only tell us what has been, they also help us imagine what could be. On the web, the scope of that collective memory increases and the relationships among stories, their tellers, and audiences are redefined. A complex social life plays out on our little screens, refracting and feeding into the stories told on the big screen. How will compelling, timeless narratives be told through timelines, threads, and selfies, and videos? Are algorithms already our best authors and editors? Rather than focus solely on perennial questions about the always imminent death of media forms and institutions, this panel explores how the web changes the stories we tell and how we tell them. 

This keynote panel happens during TtW on Saturday April 16th and features,

Alexandra Kleeman

Ales Kot

Laurie Penny

Jenna Wortham

Natasha Lennard

David A. Banks (moderator)

 

Essay in American Sociological Association's SKAT blog

The Science, Knowledge and Technology section of the American Sociological Association asked me to respond to a question President Obama posed in his latest State of the Union: "How do we make technology work for us, and not against us-especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges?" Here is my reply:

It is laudable that in 2016 our leaders are thinking about technology as something that could work against some humans’ interests. When the President of the United States asks how to “make technology work for us, and not against us—especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges,” our first inclination as social scientists should be to define the “us” under investigation. Presumably, the president would reply with “every American,” but even the most cursory reading of science and technology studies literature would suggest that this is impossible. Technologies are neither inherently good nor bad for all humans; rather, they are the artifacts of social action and often participate in political controversy and social stratification before, during, and after their initial creation. The levies in New Orleans, the drones that fly over the U.S. southern border and throughout the Middle East, and the corroded pipes of Flint, Michigan stand in testament to the ways in which technology participates in politics.
A far more realistic question might be: “How do we redistribute control over and allocation of technologies?” Such a reframing decenters the artifact itself and brings analytic focus to the methods we employ to make technology in the first place. If decades of research into innovation and regulation by social scientists has taught us anything, it is that our current paradigm of “design first and regulate later” makes for bad products and even worse policy. The former sets loose unintended consequences that cause real harm to people and the latter is ham-fisted, too late, or most commonly, both. Worse yet, as social scientists we may be over-prescribing DIY, citizen-led science and technology at the expense of social movements that would otherwise be changing the landscape of scientific research and technological innovation.

Read the full essay on the ASA SKAT website.

New essay in The New Inquiry about food and authenticity (with Britney Summit-Gil)

Have a new essay in The New Inquiry authored with Britney Summit-Gil about the newly announced "Bourdain Market", authenticity, and cultural capital. 

Authenticity is, for marketers and some cultural commentators, what objectivity is for scientists. It masquerades as an absolute, ascertainable quality inherent in situations when in fact it is a function of many contingencies, including subject position, social structure, historical happenstance, economic forces, and cultural norms. While objectivity relies on the expertise and training of scientists who follow certain procedures, authenticity is a product of cultural expertise with its own set of semi-arbitrary rules. Cultural experts are ordained with the power of finding and selling authenticity on the assumption that it exists somewhere, outside the self, and with the right training it can be discovered.

Read the full essay at The New Inquiry.

Mentioned in The Atlantic

Ingrid Burrington has a great article in the Atlantic on the mutually shaping relationship between railroads and the Internet where she cites my recent First Monday article on the origins of online and offline.

Google didn’t come to Council Bluffs because of historical resonance. They came for the fiber, which runs parallel to Iowa’s many railroads and interstates. Rail infrastructure has shaped the language of the network (as noted in David A. Banks’s work on the history of the term “online”), the constellation of companies that form the network (most famously with Sprint emerging from the Southern Pacific Railroad’s internal-communications network), and, most relevant to this story, the actual routes that fiber-optic networks run.

Read the full article in The Atlantic

Article published in First Monday's special issue on Non-Use

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I'm excited about my first single-author peer-reviewed article! Here's the abstract with a link to the full text:

More than a semantic difference, investigating what it means to be online or offline shines light on the contours and configurations of digitally augmented life (Jurgenson, 2011). Through the analysis of primary and secondary sources, this essay traces the origin of the terms online and offline to the early railroad industry where “the line” was a powerful orienting image. I propose that rather than an individual binary status; online/offline distinctions are more accurately described as a communal social relationship. This paper will argue that, rather than boycotts or similar market solutions, users are best served by following the historical example of railroads and fighting for democratized administrative control over networks.

Full article

Quoted in Fusion

“Why don’t we ever talk about taking over social media companies?,” David Banks, who studies public space and digital networks, asked last week on the blog Cyborgology. “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.” Why are we so hesitant, Banks asks, to demand control over our digital lives? What would it take to stage a user revolution?

Complete story at fusion.net

Interview in Buzzfeed

I spoke with Charlie Warzel at Buzzfeed tech about structural racism and the recent problems at Reddit:

Stamping out hate on Reddit is roughly as easy as stamping out hate anywhere, which is to say it’s nearly impossible. “You can’t treat this kind of hate or structural violence as a bug — it’s a feature in the system,” David Banks, a social scientist who has written extensively about Reddit’s ability to foster hate, told BuzzFeed News. “Structural violence exists in the site because it exists in society, and so it will keep showing up. So relying on reporting and flagging and tagging to get rid of this will never fix the issue for good.”

Read the full story here.

Two New Fellowships!

 

Very happy to announce that I have been awarded two fellowships covering this summer and the following academic year.

This summer I will be covered by the Alger Engineering Ethics Research Fellowship. This $1,500 will help me work on two dissertation chapters: One chapter gives two parallel, chronological accounts of the OSCVM and mesh wifi projects. This will also include descriptions of the field sites, the main objectives, methods, and final states of the projects. The second chapter will trace the difficulties I and engineering students had with working in places with vastly different material resources and coming to terms with geographic and cultural design assumptions surrounding the likelihood of product theft, fabrication costs, and time-to-completion.

The second fellowship ––The Humanities Arts, and Social Sciences Fellowship–– is an internal award that provides tuition and fee remittance, TA-ship release, and a $24,000 living stipend that will give me time to do fieldwork abroad and generally help me complete the dissertation. Very excited and thankful for all the help I've gotten from my wife, friends and colleagues.

Invited Talk: Mediating Realties

I had the honor of being invited to speak at NEW INC as part of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation fifth annual Interpretations symposium. I was on a panel with Gabriella Coleman and Mary N Taylor.

 

OSCVM Project Awarded $18,000 NSF Grant

Very pleased to announce that my work on Open Source condom vending machines will benefit from an $18,000 dissertation research improvement grant from the National Science Foundation. This money will go directly to parts and related travel expenses to help grow a network of locally made vending machines. Below are excerpts from the proposal on background and methodology. You can also view current schematics of the RPI prototype and contribute your own at OSCVM.org.

Doctoral Dissertation Research: Translation Strategies for Mutual Symbiosis in STS-Engineering Collaborations Award Number:1456138

Ghana has relatively low levels of HIV/AIDS infection rates (Adu-Oppong et al.), however there remains a regrettable dearth of up-to-date information on the sociocultural attitudes toward condoms and the rate of their usage. A study by Adih and Alexander that sampled 601 young men, 15–24 years of age found that “While 65% of the sexually active male respondents had used condoms at least once, only 25% had used condoms at last intercourse.” (P. 63) More sobering is the statistic that only 15% of sexually active men from the ages 15-30 use condoms regularly. This is especially concerning given that, according to Adu-Oppong , younger (24 years old and younger) female sex workers in Ghana were more likely to use condoms than their older counterparts but a full two thirds of respondents who did not use condoms with every client cited “refusal by client” as the reason. Adih and Alexander note regarding their data on the small numbers of young men using condoms,

contradict[s] findings from other researchers on adolescent condom use. In the current study, older respondents were found to be more likely ever to have used a condom. Other studies have found the reverse to be true: that younger subjects were significantly more likely to report higher frequency of condom use during intercourse (11,29). A possible explanation for this observation is that in Ghana, where contraceptive services traditionally cater to adults, younger people may find it more difficult to obtain condoms, they may not have the money to buy condoms. In addition, even if they have the means, they may feel embarrassed to go to the drugstore or family planning center to buy them (Adih and Alexander 69).

Adih and Alexander concluded that “HIV prevention programs for youth should emphasize personal vulnerability to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, instill in youth the self-belief that they can use condoms any time, and address how to overcome barriers to condom use” (63). An obvious prerequisite to this last concern is overcoming barriers to condom acquisition. Our initial fieldwork in Kumasi confirms Adih and Alexander's observation that drugstore condom purchases can be embarrassing. Some respondents reported not wanting to ask a pharmacist in a crowded space for condoms that were typically placed out of reach of the customer. All nine pharmacies in the biggest market in Kumasi were, 1) busy and had few if any private spaces away from crowds, 2) kept condoms either below or behind the counter out of reach of customers and, 3) reported some embarrassment on the part of customers purchasing them.

We hypothesize that a vending machine located in an inconspicuous location, or a location frequented by youth will provide a less intimidating, if not welcoming, opportunity to acquire condoms. Additionally, by creating an infrastructure for sharing design information, rather than importing pre-made machines, we hope to establish an ecologically sustainable system that will tailor itself to the needs and desires of Ghanaians. As social scientists, our role is to collaborate with engineers and public health professionals to build a technology that responds to existing needs while also avoiding some of the major recurring problems faced by development professionals. STS scholars, we argue, are uniquely positioned to understand the multivariate causes of project failure and recognize the early signs of new failures.

[...]

This work was initially informed by subsequent trips by the researcher and engineering students who conducted pilot studies using off-the-shelf machines in Kumasi. While the off-the-shelf machine worked well enough to even experiment with electronic notification systems, it was evident that it was not a sufficient product. Problems with the machines—import expenses and tariffs, limited capacity, and harsh environmental conditions—prompted an investigation into a new machine design using an “appropriate technology” (Nieusma 2004) approach. This aspect of the project highlighted the fundamental disjuncture between local needs assessment and “universal” engineering principles. The design process is not a simple matter of—to use the parlance of engineers— “optimizing for user-specified parameters.”

As Capps (2012) notes, “Product failure is deceptively difficult to understand.” That is to say, even well quantified issues such as mechanical wear testing can be challenging under ideal circumstances; add in the contingencies of development discussed in the Literature Review and we can see that the common, reductive approach of classically trained engineers is clearly inappropriate. Worthy of particular note here is what we have identified as Mode III failure or “Blind View from Nowhere.” We see this as an opportunity to investigate how to best deploy STS and related collaborationist theories (e.g. Nieusma and Riley 2010; Ratto 2011; Sengers et al. 2005; Bronet and Layne 2010; Guston 2014). Engineering students working on the project have reported significant differences between what they learned in classroom settings and the skill sets necessary to design something that will be built and sold in another country.

RPI engineering students have maintained blogs, and produced a wealth of information showing how their design decisions have been negotiated in light of the success and failure of a variety of prototype designs. They have also learned through conversations with Ghanaian professionals and guided research into STS literature. This is just one part of an iterative cycle: a complete working prototype made of very simple and easy to fabricate mechanical parts was finished at RPI in mid February 2014. In July 2014 KNUST and RPI engineering students worked together in a KNUST machine shop to replicate the design with a mixture of pre-fabricated parts and locally sourced material. The students installed a Ghana-made machine at a local hospital and it is currently dispensing condoms for 50 peswas each or approximately 15 cents American. The condoms are purchased from the government through the hospital’s Sexually Transmitted Infection clinic.

The next stage of work, which is just beginning as of this writing, will be to work with local engineers and business people to identify locally sourced replacements for their pre-fabricated parts. As previously noted, an unanticipated bonus has been the incorporation of hand-crafted textile artisans, which opens an entirely new network of humans and non-humans. Related to this sustainability dimension, the team will seek out e-waste components and other sources of material for repurposing and recycling. Finally, we are also exploring the opportunities presented by 3D printers in fabricating gears and some other components of the machine that require relatively high precision. “Rep Rap” 3D printers are especially promising given that 1) their designs are held under a creative commons license and 2) are made up of 3D-printed parts making them both highly customizable and capable of expanding their own production capacity. While a single machine is a high up-front expense, the ability to recycle local plastic waste would be a boon to both lowering expenses and improving sustainability.

[...]

A substantial portion of this research includes reflection and study of methodology itself. Ostensibly the applicants will be employing several published methods including critical making (Ratto 2011; Ratto, Wylie, and Jalbert 2014), reflective design (Sengers et al. 2005), and appropriate design (Nieusma 2004); but the particular aspects selected from each is a crucial component of the investigation. As noted previously in the example of the Adinkra cloth covering for the condom machine, we find ourselves switching “modalities” in fairly rapid succession: thus the investigation will raise questions about their relation to context: what made “embedded anthropologist” the appropriate mode for arguing against new solvents for ink production? How do you evaluate the efficacy of one modality against another? Within any one given modality, what “translation strategies” are most useful for moving between the STS framework and lay or professional frames of reference? This same set of question can be applied symmetrically to non-STS groups: once the professionals/lay people are successful in convincing STS researchers to see from their perspective, can they reflexively help to inform us about their equivalents in what we have termed “modality” and “translation strategy”? Are there liminal modes in which both we and “the other” occupy the same mode; perhaps even achieving a deliberately constructed universal language of making- an “Esperanto for Symbiosis”?

In sum: our primary research question--how do social scientists work collaboratively and productively with engineers, designers, business owners, and potential end users to produce usable technological artifacts? —is a kind of exploratory tool for developing both theoretical and practical generalizations about the means to establish long term symbiotic working relationships between engineers, STS scholars, and the constituents they serve. This requires an innovative mixed method approach that not only combines collaborationist methods but also positions those same methods as a field of investigation.

Kumasi, Ghana is the second-largest city in Ghana and the historic seat of power of the Ashanti Kingdom. The secular government is based in the capital city of Accra, the largest city several hours south on the coast. These two forms of government, along with the increasing influence of Christianity and Islam, make for a rich, yet contentious, political landscape. As already discussed in the Background section, Ghana is still battling the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the stigma associated with the barrier methods of birth control that might stem increased infection rates (Adih and Alexander 1999; Bosompra 2001; Adu-Oppong et al. 2007).

Most of the work for the OSCVM takes place in the Kwame Nkrumah University Of Science And Technology (KNUST) and the South Suntreso Government Hospital. Suntreso has an STI clinic that does testing, fertility treatments, and manages care for thousands of patients in the region. Condom vending machines will be placed in a variety of locations throughout Kumasi including the STI clinic, gas stations, other hospitals, highway rest stops, bars, and hotels. The applicants are also in the process of establishing a working relationship with a “maker space” in Accra that is practiced in building working devices from used or outdated machine components.  We see this as a potentially fruitful working relationship that might expand our primary work to include Accra as well as Kumasi.

While much of the costs outlined in this proposal’s budget relate to international work in Kumasi, Ghana we consider the RPI campus itself to be a field site of sorts as well. This research, if it is to be generalizable beyond the coordination of international development work, must also compare its findings to domestic case studies as well. That is why the applicants will also be disseminating their critical making-based methods by applying them to a hyper-local case located in the host institution’s own city, Troy, New York. The way research is perceived and regarded as worthy of attention by administrative bodies, academic peers, and interlocutors is of major concern to this study. Specifically, we want to ascertain whether the same kind of participatory design will “work” when the field site is also the researcher’s home. We find this to be an indispensible part of developing this methodology, as we do not consider any method that we wouldn’t practice at home to be an ethical or moral one to implement anywhere else. The applicants will use the same style of reflective interview questions, design workshops, and collaborative documentation for both sites.

Developed by Ratto (2011) and expanded in a special issue of The Information Society (Volume 30, Issue 2), Critical Making utilizes “the shared acts of making” (2011, 253) to produce  “a common space for experimentation [that] encourages the development of a collective frame while allowing disciplinary and epistemic differences to be both highlighted and hopefully overcome” (2011, 253). Ratto, while focusing his own work on deepening conceptual understandings of complex sociotechnical problems also considers critical making to be a “possible venue for technical innovation” (2011, 259) and offers a promising avenue toward “new knowledge making communities and institutions” (Ratto, Wylie, and Jalbert 2014, 86). Present efforts in critical making however, have a “penchant for producing one-time tactical pieces or single products” and have a harder time producing “structural critiques or affecting [systematic] change” (Ratto, Wylie, and Jalbert 2014, 93).

This study seeks to develop those methodologies for long-term structural change by establishing translation strategies of mutual symbiosis between engineers and STS scholars. This will include (as described below) periodic interviews with all parties designed to collect data and elicit reflective conversations about the process of making; design workshops where the OSCVM is assessed and critiqued from the point of view of multiple “stakeholders”; and active collaboration through open source wiki software to develop easy to understand documentation for constructing, maintaining, and altering an OSCVM.

The full grant proposal is available upon request. More information here and here.

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

anon-383 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

generative justice.008 This Tuesday at CAC Woodside I'll be one of several presenters at the monthly Pecha Kucha:

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.