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.

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.

generative justice.003In just about every horror movie that has an exorcism scene, the priest has to “name the demon.” It is through a name that you can grasp something intangible –like a demon– and either simply bring attention to it or exorcise it. You can also invoke other names in order to compel the bad spirit to leave. Names and labels are powerful, and even if we don’t explicitly acknowledge their power on a daily basis, we implicitly experience the power of names when we read grant proposals or stand up in the face of bigotry. Speaking personally, this is what’s always drawn me to the work of writing and building theory: at its core, theory is about grabbing hold of previously intangible demons and casting them out through the invocation of new names.

Theory works at its best when it gives a name to something that was previously nothing more than an indescribable and complicated feeling or emotion. Sometimes that thing is undesirable and giving it a name makes it easier to cast out, other times –and far too infrequently– theory gives a name to a good thing that we want to popularize and see more of in our lives. Today I want to do the latter because we all know the demon I want to cast out of the body politic: efficiency.

generative justice.004Efficiency is a really common idea but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a complex idea. Sort of like “sustainability” or “justice” efficiency is one of those words that you could built a syllabus around. And yet, we talk about efficiency all the time as something that generally means using the least amount of inputs to gain the maximum amount of outputs. Efficiency means less gas for more miles in a car, or fitting more chores into a single weekend. Lots of us feel comfortable assessing whether or not something or someone is acting efficiently. We are all very literate in efficiency and are well equipped to seek it out, know when it is missing, and impose it on our various tasks and jobs.

I think it’s also safe to say that efficiency, like most demons, has bad and seductive qualities. And while I said I want to “cast it out” it’d be more accurate to say that I want to highlight the ways in which efficiency as a metric --as a way of assessing whether or not something or someone is working optimally-- systematically fails to offer solutions to long-standing problems. Efficiency, if we wanted to take a historical materialist approach to it, is good for achieving a state of abundance, but it always fails to distribute that abundance in a way that is fair, equitable, and sustainable. What I am proposing here is that engineers, scientists, and political actors start using a new term to measure optimization. Efficiency will always be good for some things but, if we do this right, efficiency will seem like a steam engine in a digital world.

This new term, instead of focusing on a ratio of inputs to outputs, will measure the capacity of a system to self-replicate under its own means. That is, an optimal system will no longer be defined by how much it can do with how little, but how well those interacting with the system can easily expand that system and create new capacity across multiple dimensions . This new term, at least for now, I want to call “recursive depth.”

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Now, as someone that gets into a lot of arguments that begin with the other person saying, “Well if you don’t like capitalism, come up with a better system,” I know that change at the level I’m calling for doesn’t happen by me offering the solution and everyone going out and acting on it. Obviously change is much slower and much more messy. That is why instead of standing up here and giving you an infomercial about all of the features of recursive depth, I’d much rather spend the remainder of my time sketching a brief outline of what recursive depth is, and sharing what I identify as the moment in which recursivity and efficiency had an equal chance of being the ur metric for all systems.

generative justice.007People that participate in or are somehow reached by a recursively deep system are afforded, by virtue of their participation, more autonomy and freedom to pursue collective and individual desires. The most recursively deep systems are ones that contain within them all of the parts and practices for their maturation and expansion. This happens across multiple dimensions and I’ll get into the particulars of those dimensions later in examples and maybe in the Q&A but for now I’ll just name three that Ron Eglash and I identified in a paper we published earlier this year in The Information Society. They are: public/proprietary, virtual/material, and high/low social power. The anthropologist Chris Kelty gives us one of the best examples of a recursively deep system, by describing what he calls a recursive public. His case study is a community of free software developers who make software and maintain methods and practices that allow for the expansion of their software-making community. The systems they make are also the systems that bring them together so that they may continue to develop and mature those self same systems.

I don’t think free software is going to save humanity, but I do think there’s a lot to be learned from studying groups that are deeply committed to maintaining the material and digital prerequisites for their own existence. These sociotechnological relations are capable of developing parallel power structures that offer alternative modes of daily action. Recursively deep systems are also sustainable in a very fundamental way because the means by which they are sustained are also deeply intertwined with their political, cultural, ecological, and/or social ends. I am arguing then, that recursivity is much more capable of dealing with the big problems of today like extreme income inequalities and climate change, because it gives us a metric for examining both how self-sustaining, and how scalable a system can be.

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Now for the history: Its not uncommon to hear the phrase  “Tragedy of the Commons” when talking about access to what economics tellingly call “rival goods.” That is, goods that are used up such that my enjoyment of them means that you cannot enjoy them. Water, arable land, and coffee are all examples of rival goods. Tragedy of the Commons is invoked as a justification for making these goods private and ownable so that they may be used in the most efficient way possible. Without private ownership, the myth goes, we’d fall into some Hobbesian Mad Max-style fight over resources that would ultimately leave those resources ravaged and unusable for future generations. It is invoked as a parable, some abstract-yet-true story that we should all learn from when in fact it is much better described as an urban legend: something that never happened but sounds true enough that we heed the story’s prescriptive conclusion.

The origin of this urban legend (like so many others) can be found in the journal of Science. In 1968 the economist Garrett Hardin wrote an article titled “Tragedy of the Commons” in which he gives a historical account of the English enclosure laws that “saved” the commons which he characterizes as completely unregulated land. The entire paper is meant as a kind of thought experiment meant to justify the privatization of public goods, but he adds just enough historical allusions to make his hypothesis seem like a foregone conclusion.  Susan Jane Buck Cox published an article-length debunking of Hardin in a 1985 issue of Environmental Ethics. Her article, titled “No Tragedy of the Commons” [PDF] uses historical document analysis to show not only that Hardin’s characterization of the commons was factually wrong, but that in fact the end of the commons was in large part due to illegal seizures of land by wealthy landowners. The enclosure acts he cited as the saving grace of the English countryside was in actuality a formalization and thus legalization of something that aristocrats had been doing illegally, and with increasing frequency, for several decades.

The real tragedy of the commons then, is that rich people will always try to take common property away and extract rents from whatever is left.

Rich people will always try to take common property away and extract rents from whatever is left.

Of course the Enclosure Acts didn’t happen in a historical vacuum. They were occurring during the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Rather than subsistence farming that utilized a regulated and peer-supervised commons, people were expected to purchase their daily needs in a marketplace. Here, I argue, is where efficiency won out over recursivity. Instead of developing and improving the ability of people to access common property, capitalists restricted access to the basics of life and turned them into goods to be sold.

generative justice.012Efficiency helps us measure how completely and quickly things are turned into a good. Our present ideas of efficiency are largely wrapped up in the proletarization of the masses. That is: systems and processes that are identified as efficient are very good at standardizing quantities and maintaining private control over resources. Recursive depth requires that we develop alternative systems that stretch from raw materials to finished product. It measures things based on how well resources are effectively distributed, not how effectively they are turned into goods with attached prices. Recursive depth demands that we build a new commons.

Notice I did not say return to the commons. Recursive depth does not require that we become sharecroppers or goat herders, although it’d be nice if that was an option left open to some people. What I’m suggesting is a lot more incremental than any kind of back to the land movement. Instead, I’m trying to nurture a reversal of proletarization by developing a popular metric by which we can measure that reversal.

Now might be a good time for some examples.

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Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly and its concomitant consensus process, hand signals, and people’s mic are excellent examples of a deeply recursive system. They are very easy to learn and once learned it gives the individual the ability to recreate that system elsewhere. It sacrifices some aspects of efficiency for the sake of portability, reproducibility, and accessibility. Efforts to bring this kind of decision making online are slow but promising. The best so far is a product in public beta right now called Loomio, created by a New Zealand-based development group. Troy has a similar home-grown system called Nexus. Both of these are intriguing not just because they are attempting to bring a somewhat messy process to the clean lines of a web browser, but because they represent an opportunity to take an already recursively deep system, deeper through the digitization of some very basic organization logics like hand signals.

generative justice.014Another example more in line with the rest of my panelists is food production. Agribusiness has been very efficient at producing massive amounts of food. Too efficient in fact, given that governments pay farmers to not grow things so as to keep prices at serviceable levels. Current farming practices require that seeds, equipment, fertilizer, and many other requisite aspects of farming be privately owned and purchased as goods. This not only ensure rents for capitalists, it also turns a farm in to a machine. It maximizes outputs and minimized inputs within a certain systematic logic. It keeps food relatively cheap but at the expense of some fairly important social, political, and economic concerns that fellow panelists have already articulated.  A recursively deep farming system wouldn’t be a wholesale return of the English commons but it might look similar. generative justice.015Seeds would be shared, readily available, and come with a wealth of information so that anyone purchasing a new seed variety can be sure they’ll know how to make the most of it. It would sacrifice larger mechanical harvesters for much simpler tools that can be easily mastered, fixed, and shared. The management of farms would have to be bound up in or somehow deeply ingrained in the labor practices that sustain them. It would require that those that eat the food are also somehow part of the maintenance of agricultural practice and not solely either food buyers or sellers.

What I have outlined here is neither a path nor a model for generative justice. It is a potential metric for determining whether we have achieved generative justice. I think this is an essential mode of inquiry not just for the titular theory of this conference but for prescriptive academic projects in general. The metrics of success must be ours or we risk measuring our own work against the failed value systems of previous generations.

 

Open Source Condom Vending Machine Wiki

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Now up and available for download are entire blueprints, parts lists, and assembly instructions for our Open Source Condom Vending Machine. We've organized them into a wiki, so that anyone can access, improve, or even "fork" the machine for their own project. More information on the project here.

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

Abandoning 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

https://twitter.com/Amtrak/status/233648740068638720

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.

 

Article in The Information Society With Ron Eglash

Very proud to announce that a co-authored article with Ron Eglash was just published in a special issue of The Information Society by Taylor & Francis.

Abstract: Kelty's “recursive public” is defined as a binary: whether or not ownership of intellectual property is legally in the public domain. We propose a broader continuum of recursive depth, which spans the range from shallow constrained generative spaces (e.g., photo memes) to the deeply open collaborations of “critical making” communities. Recursive depth is assessed by the capacity for transformation across three distinct continuums: public/proprietary, virtual/material, and high/low social power. Transformations across all three continuums is not always necessary for deep recursion (as Kelty and others note for many cases of open source), but we argue that paying attention to all three, and treating them as continuums rather than binaries, allows a better evaluation of the capacity for democratizing the technosocial landscape.

Full text available to subscribers here.

If you don't have personal or institutional access to The Information Society the first 50 people that use this link can get a free copy.

Google Scholar has also picked up some free pre-published versions.

 

Producing Consumers: A Follow Up to Robin James » Cyborgology

Today’s post is a reply to Robin James’ post, which raises questions stemming from the observations made in Jodi Dean’s recent post on “What Comes After Real Subsumption?Image c/o Aldor

Image c/o Aldor

This might be a tad “incompatible” with the existing discussion because while the discussion so far has focused mainly on a Marxist approach to a series of philosophical questions, I want to take an anarchist approach to an anthropological re-reading of the initial question: “what comes after real subsumption?” That is, I think some of the subsequent questions might be more answerable if we interrogate their anthropological facets. Particularly, I want to focus on what is considered feedstock for production and what is identified as the act of consumption which, by definition, must yield a waste that capitalists sort through in an effort to extract more surplus value. Pigs in shit as it were.

Read more here: Producing Consumers: A Follow Up to Robin James » Cyborgology.

The New Normal: School Shootings as Industrial Disaster » Cyborgology

An entire train full of crude oil slides and tumbles 11 miles down hill. Image from NBCNews

An entire train full of crude oil slides and tumbles 11 miles down hill. Image from NBCNews

One morning, in the seventh grade, my math class was told to prepare for a surprise standardized writing test. A writing test with no warning in math class wasn’t the weirdest thing we had been asked to do. Jeb Bush was our governor and Florida was a proving ground for what would later be called “No Child Left Behind.” Tests were common and testing different kinds of tests were even more common. You never knew if the test you were taking would change your life or never be seen again. This one was a little bit of both. The prompt was really strange, although I don’t remember what it was. As a life-long test taker (my first standardized test was in the 4th grade) you become a sort of connoisseur of writing prompts. This one didn’t seem to test my expository or creative writing skills. It just felt like a demand to write and so we did. We wrote for about half an hour.

 

The New Normal: School Shootings as Industrial Disaster » Cyborgology.

The Conservative Social Scientist: What AcademicTorrents Says About the Social Sciences » Cyborgology

When you search for Foucault on AcademicTorrents

When you search for Foucault on AcademicTorrents

The Social Sciences –despite the widely held notion that we’re all a bunch of Marxists that will turn your children into pinkos– are incredibly conservative when it comes to their own affairs. Our conferences are pretty traditional, we took a really long time getting around to noticing that the Internet was A Thing, and if you take a Social Theory 101 course you’re more likely to read Durkheim than bell hooks. You can blame it on tenure, fear of action, or simple lack of imagination, but the analysis remains the same: rarely do our articles’ prescriptive conclusions make it into our day-to-day practice. When I read that a couple of students from the University of Massachusetts had launched a torrent site to share data I knew it wouldn’t be social scientists. Not necessarily because we don’t have the expertise, (more on that later) but because we so rarely seem to have the will to act. Its always the engineers and the natural scientists that come up with faster, cheaper, and more egalitarian methods of sharing data and promoting their work. What gives?

 

The Conservative Social Scientist: What AcademicTorrents Says About the Social Sciences » Cyborgology.

#Review Actor-Network Theory’s Approach to Agency » Cyborgology

#review Features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books.

This week, I’m reviewing: Sayes, E. M. “Actor-Network Theory and Methodology: Just What Does It Mean to Say That Nonhumans Have Agency?” Social Studies of Science (2014) Vol. 44(1) 134–149. doi:10.1177/0306312713511867. [Paywalled PDF]
Update: The author, E.M. Sayes has responded to the review in a comment below.Image from You as a MachineImage from You as a Machine

A few weeks ago Jathan Sadowski tweeted a link to Sayes’ article and described it as, “One of the best, clearest, most explanatory articles I’ve read on Actor-Network Theory, method, & nonhuman agency.” I totally agree. This is most definitely, in spite of the cited material’s own agentic power to obfuscate, one of the clearest descriptions of what Actor-Network Theory (hereafter ANT) is meant to do and what it is useful for. Its important to say up front, when reviewing an article that’s mostly literature review, that Sayes isn’t attempting to summarize all of Actor-Network Theory, he is focused solely on what ANT has to say about nonhuman agents. It doesn’t rigorously explore semiotics or the binaries that make up modernity. For a fuller picture of ANT (if one were making a syllabus with a week of “What is ANT?”) I suggest pairing this article with John Law’s chapter in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory (2009) entitled “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” Between the two you’d get a nice overview of both of ANT’s hallmark abilities: articulating the character of nonhuman agency and the semiotics of modern binaries like nature/culture and technology/sociality.

#Review Actor-Network Theory’s Approach to Agency » Cyborgology.