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.

 

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.

The Network of Things to Come

The year is 1959 and a very powerful modern art aficionado is sharing a limousine with Princess  Beatrix of the Netherlands. The man is supposed to be showing off the splendor of the capital of what was once —so optimistically— called New Amsterdam. His orchestrated car trip is not going quite as he had hoped and instead of zipping past “The Gut” and dwelling on the stately early 19th century mansions on Central and Clinton Avenues, Beatrix is devastated by the utter poverty that has come to define the very center of this capitol city now called Albany, New York. The art aficionado, unfortunately for him, cannot blame some far away disconnected bureaucrat or corrupt politician for what they are seeing because he is the governor of this powerful Empire State and he has done little to elevate the suffering of his subjects. He resolves, after that fateful car trip, to devote the same kind of passion he has for modern art to this seat of government. Governor Rockefeller will make this city into a piece of art worthy of his own collection. (more…)

Autobiography Through Devices

I wish I could say it was love at first sight when my Dad brought home what I just now leaned was called an IBM 5150. According to IBM, “ it was dramatically clear to most observers that IBM had done something very new and different.” I guess I wasn’t most observers. My parents say I liked it but my memories of it little to do with it being a computer per se. It was inculcated in major events in the household. It could make grayscale banners and quarter-page invitations, letters to pen pals and family. Nothing about that computer, for me, had to do with programming. In fact, what I remember most about it was how mechanical it was: All the different, almost musical sounds it made when it was reading a floppy or printing something on its included dot-matrix printer. The spring-loaded keys on its impossibly heavy keyboard made the most intriguing sound; when all ten fingers were on that keyboard it sounded like a mechanical horse clacking and clinking. My favorite part of the computer was when you’d turn it off and it would make a beautiful tornado of green phosphorus accompanied by a sad whirling sound. It sounded like this almost-living thing was dying a small death every time you were finished with it. I loved killing that computer. (more…)

The Rise of Friendsgiving

Airports suck. They suck the worst on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving: some nearly a sixth of all Americans travel for the holiday and most of them are taking to the sky to get to leave their homes and go “back home” to some dining room that’s larger than their own. Every airport is full of government-groped travelers anxious over the possibility of missing their flight to a Thanksgiving table. For the 20-30 year-old set, Thanksgiving out of town usually means a paycheck’s worth of plane ticket plus a couple days of missed work or precious class time needed for a final exam. For many more, the prospect of taking an extended weekend is completely out of the question because most of us work in retail. As my friend Lisa wrote on her Facebook yesterday: “To fellow retail employees this holiday: Godspeed, we can do this.” Thanksgiving isn’t a time to relax, its a time to either gear up for a 12-hour work day or spend as little as money as possible to make up for the remarkable food bill you just racked up. To leave town on Black Friday’s Eve is near-impossible, and so many millennials plan for a Friendsgiving: the thoroughly post-modern holiday that celebrates a  paradoxical mixture of just getting by, the excesses of late-capitalism, and the infinitely negotiable non-familial ties that make up young peoples’ lives.

(more…)

The Myth of Virtual Currency

File this one under “what is at stake” when we talk about the digital dualist critique. Bitcoin, the Internet’s favorite way to buy pot and donate to Ron Paul, hit an all-time high this week of around $900 to one Bitcoin (BTC). The news coverage of Bitcoin and the burgeoning array of crypto-currencies (according to the Wall Street Journal there’s also litecoinbbqcoinpeercoin,namecoin, and feathercoin) has largely focused on the unstable valuation of the currencies and all of the terrible things people could do with their untraceable Internet money. What hasn’t been investigated however, is the idea that crypto-currencies are somehow inherently more “virtual” and thereby less susceptible to centralized control the way US dollars, Euros, or Dave & Buster’s Powercards are. Both assumptions are wrong and are undergirded by the digital dualist fallacy(more…)

A Social Critique Without Social Science

After seeing today’s XKCD (above) I sort of wish I had written all of my digital dualism posts as an easy-to-read table.  I generally agree with everything on there (more on that later), but I’m also pretty confused as to how Randall Munroe got to those conclusions given some of his past comics. I can’t square the message of this table with the rest of Monroe’s work that has maligned the social sciences as having no access to The Way Things Are. The table is funny specifically because the social scientists he pokes fun of, did a lot of work to make those answers plainly (painfully?) obvious. How does someone with an obvious resentment for the social sciences, also make a joke about how we were always already alienated?  (more…)

Voting Reduces Diversity in Social Media Participation (Kinda)

The merits of voting have come under scrutiny as of late, thanks in part to Russell Brand’s comments on the topic in his guest edited edition of the New Statesman. (Oh and I think there might have been an interview as well.) I’m highly suspicious of voting as well, which is why my ballots are mostly blank except for the one or two things I think might be strategically useful in later direct action. I voted earlier this week in a local election because my city is still small enough that there are very real and tangible differences to electing one counsel person over another: One city council person authorizes citizen working groups to organize municipal composting while another led the charge to close an indy media center that hosted an Iraqi artist because… terrorism.[2] A lot has already been said about the efficacy of voting and why it alone cannot possibly bring about the fundamental change that politicians promise. Besides, if you’ve read your Zinn, you know that all the important stuff happens between elections anyway. What I want to touch on today however, has less to do with government elections, and more to do with the abstract concept of voting. Why is it that, if voting is implemented within a system, do we automatically assume that it is more democratic? What happens to social networks and web platforms when we install voting as the overriding system of displaying public opinion? Why shouldn’t the critique of voting in general be directly imported as a critique of the social networking sites that use voting as the primary form of interaction on the site? (more…)

Modern Myths: Mundane Enchantment and Creating Ghosts

When I was young, Robert Stack would visit me in my dreams. His monotone voice and sharp eyes would come through my wood-paneled RCA cathode-ray childhood TV and settle in my subconscious until I went to sleep.  During the day Unsolved Mysteries was an opportunity to, “solve a mystery” from the comfort of my own home. If I watched the dramatizations closely enough I thought I might recall some repressed memory of an alien abduction or I might notice a telltale tattoo that marks the new neighbor as a relocated serial killer. Solving these Lifetime-disseminated mysteries was a sacred trust that I did not take lightly. Everything from persistent hauntings to serial killings were on my plate. When you grow up in South Florida, extra terrestrial abduction and friendly serial killers seem so plausible. If we were able to fit over a million people on a sandbar and intoxicate them long enough to stay through hurricane season, anything could happen. But no matter how much I investigated I always seemed to disappoint Robert. My neighbor with eight fingers that loved ham radio was not the man suspected of murdering two teenagers in Ohio; he was just really racist. The lady across the street was not a reoccurring spectral phenomena; she was just 90 years old. None of these people were particularly extraordinary —let alone extraterrestrial— but Unsolved Mysteries injected a sense of the enchanted in an otherwise mundane suburban landscape. (more)

The Apple Event

 Confession: I watched the Apple event yesterday, and I’ve watched at least part of every product announcement for the last several years. Apple announcements are the opposite of a guilty pleasure; they are a burden that I take on with pride.  They are insipid and represent everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley and yet I feel obliged to watch them because they let me stare deeply into this heaving morass of Cronenbergian lust for technology. It always feels like we’re one year away from Phil Schiller offing himself with an iGun after screaming “LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH!” When I watch Silicon Valley spread out on the Moscone Center stage I feel prideful (to a fault perhaps) that these events just seem so… transparent. They’re so easy to read and so easy to critique they amount to social science target practice. (more)

Ownership of the Commons in an Age of Divestment

We have a two-month break from self-inflicted government crisis, so let’s use it to take a breather, assess the situation, and cast some shade on rich people. Not because it is cathartic (it is), or because it will prevent the next crisis (it won’t); rather, I think studying the contours of the government-shaped hole of the last three weeks can teach us something about how Silicon Valley views public ownership. This is important because we typically use metaphors[1] like “the commons” or “the public” to describe their products. These words imply a sense of trust, if not mutually assured disruption: sure a rich guy might own Twitter on paper but it becomes worthless if everyone stops treating it as a (if not the) center of daily life. What do the people that own these service/spaces think about the de facto collective ownership of their product? (more…)

You Won't Believe What This Web Site Does to the Liberal Left!

I have watched my fair share of Upworthy videos. They’re generally fun to hate-watch, and they make for good Newsfeed fodder. Sharing Upworthy videos with your “Family” or “High School Friends” Facebook list can make you feel like a prime time MSNBC anchor. Each video is an opportunity to reveal something to your assumedly uniformed, selfish friends. The leading,absolutely begging to be parodied titles range from confusing (You Should Watch This Strange Man Rub A Stick Of Butter On A Tree. For A Really Good Reason) to the cloyingly heinous (Obama Takes A Second To Talk About Jews In America. It’s MEGA Inspiring). These could be dismissed as cludgy rhetorical tools for Facebook arguments, but there’s something else about these videos that is actively destructive to the American left. Upworthy packages soundbites of elite white paternalism for mass distribution and consumption through social media.  (More)

(Intellectual) Property is Theft!

I’m in the midsts of one of those unavoidable grad student extended crises this month so I I thought writing something this week was going to be out of the question. But last Monday I had an interaction with a PDF that I really need to tell someone about. Trust me, its more interesting than it sounds.

Lately, I’ve been taking advantage of my institution’s (appropriately ancient-sounding) ILLiad Inter-Library Loan System. Usually, if I can’t find journal article I need, I just ask a fellow grad student friend over GChat or Facebook to get me the article from their library. If I can’t find anyone (or I’ve asked them too many times) I resort to ILLiad. Getting a book from ILLiad means waiting about 24 hours for an undergrad on work study to copy and paste a DOI and send me the article under another institution’s journal subscription. It is the ultimate exercise in artificial scarcity: A teenager in a library basement, fueled on Moe’s burritos and motivated by the threat of crushing student debt, orchestrates the transfer of a few ones and zeroes in such a way that my desire for the article can be monetized to the benefit of a publishing company’s CEO and a couple of computer system designers. The physical scarcity of a paper journal is transmuted into a new kind of scarcity: the scarcity of student labor and my own dedication to reading this article that I saw in someone else’s bibliography. (more…)

Selling the Social Sciences

“If it weren’t for all of you I would have lost my mind at my job.” Its a familiar refrain that I hear at lots of small conferences and, occasionally, on Twitter backchannels. Its an amazing compliment to hear that your weak tie with someone means so much, but its also an immensely troubling prospect. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of highly trained professionals have serious misgivings about their professional associations, their home institutions, and maybe even their life’s work. I had heard variations on this theme most recently this past week when I helped out at the (really, really cool) Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference hosted here in Troy, New York. The conference was attended by an array of people: engineers, educators, activists, and social scientists like myself. Some people worked in industry, others in academia, and a significant portion worked for NGOs like Engineers Without Borders. And again, I just want to reiterate: No single person said the exact phrase above, and I certainly don’t want to (mis)characterize any of the attendee’s personal feelings about their jobs or work. Rather, what I witnessed at ESJP is more accurately characterized as a feeling of “coming home.” Think of it as the positive side of the same disaffected coin. This anecdotal trend was in my mind when I read this Seattle Times articleabout social scientists finding new and inviting homes in tech companies. Are social scientists finding better intellectual homes in industry than in academia? Or am I connecting two totally separate phenomena? Is it just the pay? More to the point: can social scientists do more and better things for the world working in Silicon Valley than the Ivory Tower?
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