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.

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.

generative justice.002

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.”

generative justice.006

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.

generative justice.009

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.

generative justice.013

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

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.


Very Serious Populists

Really proud to be published in The New Inquiry for the first time. I really love their work and it was a pleasure working with them. 

Just like its government equivalent, voting on social networks is also a nice way to give the illusion that anything and anyone can succeed on merit while actually maintaining the status quo through sociotechnical structures. Tech entrepreneurs deploy voting to show allegiance to their fantasy of a color-blind and genderless meritocracy, predicated on what PJ Rey has shownto be an outdated and debunked notion that the Internet allows us to transcend race, class, and gender by entering a space of pure information. Popular posts are good, the logic goes, because only the best makes it to the front page. Sites use a combination of moderators, reporting procedures, and spam filters to keep the meritocracy in order, but it is the user community (which sometimes includes volunteer moderators, depending on the platform) that polices the boundaries and defends the site from would-be attackers. In practice this often means strict enforcement of majoritarian politics. On Reddit (a completely user-moderated site), this has taken the form of protracted embargoes of Gawker media and internal conflicts between an insurgent “fempire” (a consortium of subreddits that compile and deconstruct problematic content) and the rest of the site. Gawker and the Fempire threaten the legitimacy of Reddit’s system by highlighting the terrible things it enables and promotes. By ignoring the existence of other subjectivities online, these sites reproduce (as bell hooks would call it) the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Implementing voting in online forums, evidence suggests, is a good way to keep them white and full of dudes.

You can read the whole article here.

Writing for a Popular Audience

I'll be hosting a brown bag discussion at my home institution, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, on November 6, 2013 from 1-3PM in Sage Labs 3510 on writing for a popular audience. I plan on covering the following topics:

  1. Theory in under 1000 words
  2. How to Write about Current Events
  3. Venues & Audiences
  4. Examples of different venues & their intended audiences
  5. Writing Publicly as a PhD 
  6. Pitching your Work to an Editor
  7. CVs, Hiring & Tenure 
  8. Twitter and the Writing Process
  9. Where your Work goes in Social Media
  10. Blogging under imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy & talking to the press
  11. Q&A

If you're in the area it'd be awesome if you showed up. Equally awesome would be written stories and anecdotes about your own experiences. I'm especially interested in the experiences of women and people of color who are blogging on the regular. 


Indicator Venues worth watching: Gawker, New York Times' Technology Section, and The Verge.

My essay: "You Won't Believe What This Web Site Does to the Liberal Left!

Examples of personal web sites that are heavily cited: danah boyd's "apophenia" , Zeynep Tufekci's "Technosociology", and Nathan Jurgenson

Places that accept unsolicited submissions or are open to pitches: JacobinN+1 , The New InquiryThe State, Cyborgology, and Sociological Images.

Aggregators and news sites: The Daily Dot, OWNI.eu, Huffington Post, The Civic Beat, The Browser. Arts & Letters Daily, The Daily Dish, Digg, and Metafilter.

Tools for reading and collecting existing content: Instapaper, Readability, Feedly, Digg Reader, and Buffer

Writing with Twitter: Jessie Daniels's "From Tweet to Blog Post to Peer-Reviewed Article: How to be a Scholar Now" and Rob Horning's "The taste of circulation"

Just Publics @365 Fall MediaCamp Workshops on Twitter for Academics 

David's presentation slides

#TwitterAlerts is Bad for Twitter (And Activists)

Last week Twitter introduced an alert system that they described as “ a new feature that brings us one step closer to helping users get important and accurate information during emergencies, natural disasters or when other communications services aren’t accessible.” The alerts show up on users phones as special push notifications and SMS notifications and are marked with an orange bell in your feed. At first blush it seems like a great idea but, given that I’m writing this during yet another government “shutdown”, are governments and NGOs really the only organizations that should get access to this useful service? What can activists do to push back? (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?

The Entire University of California System went Open Access

As someone working out of a Science and Technology Studies (STS) Department, I was proud to see that Dr. Chris Kelty (Author of Two Bits) had just won a major battle for open access. Kelty is an excellent example of the kind of scholar that reflexively applies the findings of his scholarship to the everyday concerns of his job. As an Associate Professor of Information Studies at UCLA, he studies open source communities and concepts of responsibility in scientific research. As the chair of the UC University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication (UCOLASC), he just spearheaded one of the largest windfalls for open access publishing.

On July 24, 2013 the University of California Senate approved a state-wide Open Access Policy that will, according to the press release, make all “future research articles authored by faculty at all 10 campuses of UC… available to the public at no charge.”  This is a huge step forward for the Open Access movement because, as the press release goes on to say,  (more…)

Grad Students are Ruining Everything

Here is a list of skills that, as a grad student at one time or another, I’ve been expected to have with absolutely no offered training whatsoever:

  • Creative writing
  • Public relations writing
  • Typesetting
  • Sound engineering
  • Videography
  • Photography
  • Graphic design
  • Web design
  • Film editing
  • Institutional procurement
  • Professional event catering
  • Conference planning and management
  • Brand representation on social media
  • Copy editing
  • Public speaking
  • Managing a grade book
  • Learning content management systems
  • Advanced settings and features of Excel

These skills are not optional for me. I cannot expect to be competitive in the Ph.D job market without possessing at least three quarters of these skills. Through trial and error and the mutual aid of fellow grad students and sympathetic junior faculty (who know what its like and help in spite of the fact that this kind of service won’t go towards tenure) it all gets figured out, but there’s a serious, unsustainable problem here. Don’t get me wrong, there are much more egregious workplace abuses happening around the world, and enjoy an immense amount of privilege in society just by saying that I’ll probably have a Ph.D in a couple of years. I am not claiming that my challenges are the same caliber that fast food workers and Wal-Mart employeeshave recently started to fight against, but there are some important intersectionalities at play here. Namely, the ill-defined role of the grad student replaces well-paying jobs with privileged students that can afford to work for little money until they are credentialed enough to maintain a destructive status quo. 

More on Cyborgology.

#Trayvonning and Thinking Through Populist Technology

Note: This article discusses virulent racism and white privilege. However, every effort has been made to not post or link to the images discussed below.

At first, I didn’t want to write about the privileged little shits who, sometime around May of last year, got it in their heads that it would be funny to lay facedown on the floor with some skittles and tea and call it #trayvonning. The Zimmerman verdict brought the disgusting meme back into timelines and news cycles, so I feel obliged to make short mention of it. I thought it would be disingenuous of me to write a post for just about every other (123) performative internet meme without mentioning this disgusting bit of racism. #Trayvonning shows up on the usual platforms –Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr—albeit I don’t see as much #Trayvonning as I did #standingman or even #eastwooding in its heyday. There are no dedicated web sites to #Trayvonning (although I haven’t checked Stormfront), nor have I ever seen the hashtag reach trending status. If there’s any silver lining to this story it’s the fact that I encountered many more people deriding the meme, than participating in it. 

Read more on Cyborgology.

The Perfect Place: What's Really Disturbing About Retailers Tracking Your Every Move

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran yet another hilariously digital dualist piece on a new surveillance system that lets retailers follow customers’ every move. The systems, mainly through cameras tied into motion capture software, can detect how long you stared at a pair of jeans, or even the grossed-out face you made at this year’s crop of creepy, hyper-sexualized Halloween costumes. The New York Times describes this as an attempt by brick and mortar stores to compete with data-wealthy “e-commerce sites.” (Who says “e-commerce” anymore? Seriously, change your style guide.) Putting aside the fact that most major retailers are also major online retailers, making the implicit distinction in the article almost meaningless, the article completely misses the most important (and disturbing) part of the story: our built environment will be tuned to never-before-seen degrees of precision. We have absolutely no idea what such meticulously built spaces will do to our psyches.

On Facebook, Hating CNN

I “Like” CNN on Facebook. Not because I enjoy getting the news on my Facebook feed (my friends do that) but because I love watching a bunch of people hate on CNN. As the above photo demonstrates, CNN tends to show its ass a lot. Asking your readers about the Royal Family’s baby on the 4th of July, will undoubtedly piss off a dozen different demographics. It is constantly being called out for doing all of the things we know are wrong with American cable news. There are dozens, in some cases even hundreds, of comments about calling a revolution a coup, ignoring the important parts of stories, and generally missing the mark when it comes to stewarding and curating these weird things we generally call “national conversations.” I just want to know why CNN chooses to subject their brand to such public, naked criticism on a daily basis.

Read more on Cyborgology.

The Contradiction of Austere Warfare

Drones offer a gaze of the battlefield akin to the reality-TV producer’s gaze. From atop a remote-controlled flying HD eyeball, American generals are coming ever closer to total battlefield awareness. That fabled state of logistical being that heralds the beginning of the ultimate life-imitates-art moment: real war is fought with the perspective of a Sid Meier game and the ease and danger of a flight simulator. All of this visual data is curated and presented to Deciders with the same techniques that brought you Monday Night Football and The Bachelor. Reality-TV producers cum military contractors are the real Fox warmongers and we barely know they exist. The culture industry is widely recognized as post-industrial America’s main export, but I don’t think anyone ever expected it to be quite this deadly.

Read more at The State's Murmuration: A Festival of Drone Culture

#Standingman: The Meme for the Masses

People coming out of their homes and into the streets to particpate in #duranadam or #standingman. Photo by @myriamonde and h/t to @zeynepIn Taksim Square, at around 8PM local time, a man started standing near Gezi park facing the Atatürk Cultural Center. According to CNN –and more importantly Andy Carvin (@acarvin) and Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) — the man is believed to be Erdem Gündüz, a well known Turkish performance artist who has inspired a performative internet meme that has already made it around the globe. (There’s a nice Storify here. Thanks to @samar_ismail for putting it on my radar.) Gündüz and his supporters were removed by police after an 8 hour stand-off (in multiple senses of the term) but now that small act has gone viral and spread well beyond Taksim Square. The idea is simple: a photo, usually taken from behind demonstrates that person’s solidarity with those hurt or killed by Turkish police actions in the past month, and the increasingly repressive policies of that country’s government in the last few years. On twitter, the hashtag #duranadam (“duran adam” is “the standing man” in Turkish) quickly spilled over the borders of Turkey and has been translated to #standingman as more people in North America and Western Europe start to stand in solidarity with those in Taksim. #standingman is an overtly political meme because, unlike other performative memes like #planking, #owing, or even #eastwooding, it is meant to demonstrate a belonging to a cause.

Read more on Cyborgology or The Civic Beat.

Star Trek Into the Endless War on Terror

For Christmas in 2004 I received every episode of the original series on VHS. Each tape contained two episodes separated by the kind of cheesy music you might expect from a local news daytime talk show in 1992. I watched all 30 or so tapes, multiple times, sometimes with my high school English teacher during lunch after he had finished sneaking a cigarette in his beat up Civic. I have fond memories of eating turkey sandwiches and laughing at William Shatner’s fighting style. But what was more important (to us anyway) than the unchoreographed fight sequences were the literary parables. I see no exaggeration or hyperbole when people describe Star Trek as a philosophy or a religion, but I see it much more as a political orientation. The crew might go where no one has gone before, but the show rarely strayed from the very basics of the human condition. Star Trek holds a mirror to the society that produced it, and J.J. Abrams’ trek is most certainly a product of the Endless War on Terror.

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Can We Make an Anti-Racist Reddit?

I don’t recommend doing it, but if you search for “Charles Ramsey” on Reddit, something predictably disturbing happens. First, you’ll notice that the most results come from /r/funny, the subreddit devoted to memes, punsphotobombs, and a whole bunch of sexist shit. Charles Ramsey, in case you don’t know, is the Good Samaritan that responded to calls for help by Amanda Berry- a woman that had been held captive for 10 years in a Cleveland basement, along with Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. The jokes on Reddit are largely at the expense of Ramsey, poking fun at his reaction to a police siren or his reference to eating ribs and McDonalds. As Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) said on Slate: “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.”

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Also syndicated on The Daily Dot

Cable News is Dead, Long Live Cable News

The very fact that your eyes rolled (just a little bit) at the title tells you that it is absolutely true. So true its obnoxious to proclaim it. Perhaps cable news died when CNN made a hologram of  Jessica Yeller  and beamed her into the “Situation Room” just to talk horse race bullshit during the 2008 election. Or maybe it was as far back as 2004 when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire and shattered the fourth wall by excoriating the dual hosts for destroying public discourse. The beginning of the end might be hard to pinpoint, but the end is certainly coming. Fox News had its lowest ratings since 2001 this year, but still has more viewers than CNN & MSNBCNEWSWHATEVERITSCALLEDNOW combined. Even if ratings weren’t a problem, credibility certainly is. Imagine if CNN stopped calling themselves the “Most Trusted Name In News” and used the more accurate, “A Little Over Half of Our Viewers Think We’re Believable.” By now it is clear that the zombified talking heads of cable news are either bought and sold, or just irrelevant. Cable news channels’ hulking, telepresent bodies have been run through and left to rot on the cynical barbs of political bloggers and just about anyone at a comedy shop’s open-mic night. This last series of screw-ups in Boston (hereherehere and unless it was avant-garde electronic literature, here) begs the question if cable news channels can even tell us what’s going on anymore. Cable news is dead, but something keeps animating the corpse.

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