WTF? The great question of our age

How media has changed and what it means, by David Roberts

The internet changed all that. There are no longer supply constraints — it is trivially cheap and easy to publish something on the web — and there are virtually no constraints left on the supply of information. Libraries are online. Government records are online. Every public figure’s every move is blogged or tweeted.

Two things follow. First, with supply constraints gone, there is no reason to confine web journalism to the length and formal constraints of journalism developed for paper. Any story can be as long as it needs to be, whether it’s 200 words or 2,000. Not every journalist must choose between the view-from-nowhere voice of the objective journalist and stale aphorisms of major newspaper editorial pages. There is room for a greater variety of length, form, tone, voice, and subject on the web.

And second, there’s more need for explanation. Because they were supply constrained, newspapers and newspaper journalists focused on what was new, what just happened, the incremental development. But lots of times, readers had no way of making sense of those developments or contextualizing them. They were getting the leaves, but they’d never gotten the trunk.

Especially as information and incremental developments explode in quantity, there is increasing public hunger for understanding — not so much what happened, but what it means.

The great question of our age is simply, WTF? WTF isn’t asking after what happened. It’s easy to find out what happened these days. Rather, it’s pointing at what happened and asking, well … WTF?

What’s the deal with that? How does it work? How good or bad is it, really? How does it connect with these other things? What can we learn from its history?

People want to know how the world works. They want to know why the things that are happening are happening. They don’t stop wanting to learn when they get out of school.

So journalism is inevitably shifting. These days, it is less about producing new information than it is about gathering information already on the record, evaluating it, and explaining and contextualizing it for an audience, perhaps with some analysis and argumentation for good measure.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty of information to be dug up. Investigative journalism still very much exists, though it is under-funded everywhere. I look on it with great admiration and some awe, but it’s not what I do. And though many are loathe to admit it, it’s not what most US journalists do these days

Digital Resistance Call for Papers

Digital Resistance: Call for papers

Special thematic issue of the Journal of Resistance Studies

Editors: Nora Madison & Mathias Klang

This call as a pdf is available here

In many spaces, mobile digital devices and social media are ubiquitous. These devices and applications provide the platforms with which we create, share and consume information. Many obtain much of their news and social information via the personal screens we constantly carry with us. It is therefore unsurprising that these devices also become integral to acts of social activism and resistance.

This digital resistance is most visible in the virtual social movements found behind hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #TakeAKnee, and #MeToo. However, it would be an oversimplification to limit digital resistance to its most popular expressions. Video sharing on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have revealed abuses of police power, racist attacks, and misogyny. The same type of device is used to both record, share, and view instances of abuse. The devices and platforms are also used to organize and coordinate responses, ranging from online naming and shaming, online protests, physical protests. The devices and the platforms are then used to share the protests and their results. More and more the device and the platform are the keyhole through which resistance must fit.

Our devices and access to platforms enable the creation of self-forming and self-organizing resistance movements capable of sharing alternative discourses in advocating for diverse social agendas. This freedom shapes both the individual’s relationship to both power and resistance, in addition to their identities and awareness as activists. It is somewhat paradoxical that something so central to the activist identity and the performance of resistance is in essence created and run as a privatized surveillance machine.

Digital networked resistance has received a great deal of media attention recently. The research field is developing, but more needs to be understood about the role of technology in the enactment of resistance. Our goal is to explore both the role of digital devices and platforms in the processes of resistance.

This special edition aims to understand the role of technology in enabling and subverting resistance. We seek studies on the use of technology in the acts of protesting official power, as well as the use of technology in contesting power structures inherent in the technology or the technological platforms. Contributions are welcome from different methodological approaches and socio-cultural contexts.

We are looking for contributions addressing resistance, power, and technology. This call is interested in original works addressing, but not limited to:

  • Problems with the use of Digital Resistance
  • Powerholders capacity to map Digital Resistance-activists through surveillance
  • How does Digital Resistance differ and/or function compared with Non-digital Resistance?
  • Problems and advantages with combinations of Digital Resistance and non- Digital Resistance?
  • Resistance to platforms
  • Hashtag activism & hijacking
  • Online protests & movements
  • The use of humor/memes as resistance
  • Selfies as resistance
  • Globalization of resistance memes
  • Ethical implications of digital resistance
  • Online ethnography (testimonials/narratives provided by online participants)
  • Issues concerning, privacy, surveillance, anonymity, and intellectual property
  • Effective rhetorical strategies and aesthetics employed in digital resistance
  • Digital resistance: Research methods and challenges
  • The role of technology activism in shaping resistance and political agency
  • Shaping the digital protest identity
  • Policing digital activism
  • Digital resistance as culture
  • Virtual resistance communities
  • The affordances and limitations of the technological tools for digital resistance

Abstracts should be 500 – 750 words (references not included).

Send abstracts to noramadison@gmail.com

Important Dates

Abstracts by 15 January 2019

Notification of acceptance 15 February 2019

Submission of final papers 1 April 2019

  • Max 12000 words (all included)

Statistical Noise, Self Harm, Social Media

Social media gets blamed for a lot of ills, but sometimes the results are exaggerated. Here is an interesting quote from The truth about the suspected link between social media and self-harm

While some studies have found a link between social media and suicide, Przybylski’s colleague Amy Orben has noted that the correlation with mental health issues is tiny. In one study, social media use explained only 0.36 per cent of a girl’s depressive symptoms. That figure is so low, it could just be statistical noise.

International Symbol of Protest

Margret Atwood’s handmaids have become a global symbol of protest:

When US vice-president Mike Pence visited Philadelphia on 23 July, he was greeted by a now familiar sight: a wall of women dressed in scarlet cloaks, with oversize white bonnets obscuring their faces.

The outfit worn by Margaret Atwood’s handmaids in her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent TV adaptation has been in evidence from Argentina to the US, the UK and Ireland, and has emerged as one of the most powerful current feminist symbols of protest, in a subversive inversion of its association with the oppression of women.

Margret Atwood says to The Guardian

“The handmaid’s costume has been adopted by women in many countries as a symbol of protest about various issues having to do with the requisitioning of women’s bodies by the state,” she told the Guardian.

“It has even been used on posters in the context of the Trump-Putin relationship, with Trump as the handmaid. Because it’s a visual symbol, women can use it without fear of being arrested for causing a disturbance, as they would be for shouting in places like legislatures.

This is an interesting example of how popular media are creating a symbol of protest that can be readily understood as such across the world.

What is platform literacy?

Anyone who is trying to think about platforms and their impact should be following Mark Carrigan. His Platform Capitalism Reading Group includes key readings and is a discussion I wish I could have attended. And then their is this simple text What is platform literacy? in connection with a call for reading materials. This is why this is a fascinating question:

“In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the idea of platform literacy. By this I mean a capacity to understand how platforms shape the action which takes place through them, sometimes in observable and explicit ways but usually in unobservable and implicit ones. It concerns our own (inter)actions and how this context facilitates or frustrates them, as well as the unseen ways in which it subtly moulds them and the responses of others to them.”

Nothing is more beautiful (and frustrating) to an academic to read a simple paragraph that nails the questions rattling around in your own mind. Thanks Mark!

The goal of platform literacy is to be able to identify the subtle ways in which actions are directed, controlled, regulated and censored in the online environment. To mangle the great “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Wittgenstein) – We cannot protest that which prevents us from protesting.

New Activism Writing Project

Yesterday we go the good news that the book proposal by Nora Madison and myself has been accepted by Rowman and Littlefield’s Resistance Studies series. The working title is “Everyday Activism: Technologies of Resistance” (but this will be changed later) and looks at the ways in which technology assists, mediates, and hampers acts of resistance. Tentatively the book will be published in the end of 2019. We are really excited about this project and happy to be able to focus on a long term project. 

In conjunction with this I shall be using the blog to throw out ideas/updates about the project and generally return to using the blog as a more integral writing tool.

 

Surveillance in the Simulacrum Notes From a Lecture

This lecture was about the ways in which the Simulacrum is a model for surveillance. The idea was to present the ways in which surveillance can be seen as beginning with juridical power of classical liberalism. This is best illustrated by the ways in which the power of the monarch was all about the right to use power over life and death to enforce commands. An illustration of this can be seen in Bentham’s model prison. This classic surveillance was built into the architecture and focused on reducing the cost of surveillance of the prisoners. In Bentham’s prison the efficiency was maximized when the few could easily and efficiently monitor the many. The norms we live by create the prison. Foucault writes in Volume One of History of Sexuality:

Power was exercised mainly as a means of deduction, a subtraction mechanism, a right to appropriate a portion of the wealth, a tax of products, goods and services, labor and blood, levied on subjects… a right of seizure… it culminated in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it.

This is, of course, Foucault’s starting point when he sees the prison as a metaphor of control and power. In the panopticon it was the prisoner’s role to internalize their own surveillance and become their own guards. In the wider society this can be seen by the ways in which we all become our own guards as we have internalized the social rules around us.

In order to illustrate this, I used the art history in order to illustrate the shift from the single dominant explanatory model to the complexity of regulatory and surveillance models. I started with showing them Diego Velazquez’s Las Melinas from 1656. After describing what the image portrayed we spoke of the positioning of the artist, the royal couple, the courtiers, dwarves and dog. The meaning increased with the understanding of who everyone was. The next image was Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews

(1750) which portrayed the wealthy couple showing off their wealth. It reminds me of the boastful elements of social media. The next portrait was John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Sam Adams (1772). This shows Adams slightly disheveled, holding a petition and demanding change. His head is oddly sized to his body and its hardly a flattering portrait. The image captures the high point of his activism rather than his physical prowess and wealth.

 

 

A major technological development is the camera. Now that mechanical reproduction was possible the question of what could be done in art was open for experimentation. From this point we see the development of different styles from the expressionism of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), to the dadism of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism, and the pop art of Andy Warhol.

These forms of art are often criticized for being simple and hardly worthy of the praise and attention they receive. The goal was to explain the ways in which we have moved from the dominant explanations of the world and begun to accept that multiple models of explanations that overlap and co-exist. The earlier forms of art are representations of a single idea and people. Later art has nothing so simple models of explanation but they are there to be interpreted and can offer different answers to different people. It was a fun exercise.

In particular asking the students whether something was art or not. Along with these famous images I also showed them an image of the joke that some people played when they put a pair of glasses on the floor in a gallery and people began taking photos of them.

Asking the students if this was art led to an interesting discussion. Could Marcel Duchamp exhibit a urinal and everyone called it art then what was different with the eyeglasses?

The goal was to discuss the world of surveillance without a dominant narrative and how power is redefined. Instead of the (juridical) centralized power we are left to our norms and this comes into a form of control by desire. The desire to belong to, and follow a group of norms. I had the students post questions on the readings in advance. Some of the questions were:

So is Bogard saying that being able to predict the actions of a population is a more effective form of control than making the population think it is constantly being watched?

Do you believe that people want to be ‘private’ in certain aspects of their life because of over-surveillance or has there always been an innate feeling that we are being watched?

Does constant surveillance morph people’s personalities over time?

if simulations are truly a way of surveilling, or something else? Are simulations a violation of privacy if they are not technically real?

With this I moved on to explaining the simulacrum as envisioned by Baudrillard who asserted that,

as simulation ascends to a dominant position in postmodern societies, the sign’s traditional function of representation, i.e. its power to “mirror reality” and separate it from false appearances, comes to an end, along with its role in the organization of society.

and

The utopian goal of simulation…is not to reflect reality, but to reproduce it as artifice; to “liquidate all referentials” and replace them with signs of the real. The truth of the sign henceforth is self-referential and no longer needs the measure of an independent reality for its verification.

In explaining the simulacrum I turned to The Idea Chanel and Mike Rugnetta to help illustrate the concept. His video “How Is Orphan Black An Illustration of the Simulacrum?” is a great and popular way to introduce the concept.

So Baudrillard shares Foucault’s sense that the panoptic model of enclosure and its disciplinary logic are historically finished. They are not enough to explain the ways in which norms are used as control and surveillance.

The discipline enforced by panoptic surveillance evolves into a general “system of deterrence,” in which submission to a centralized gaze becomes a general codification of experience that allows no room for deviation from its model. In post-panoptic society, subjectivity is not produced by surveillance in the conventional sense of hierarchical observation, but by codes intended to reproduce the subject in advance.

Not to mention that…

…power does not vanish, but becomes simulated power, no longer instantiated and invested in the real, but rather reproduced in codes and models.

In order to help explain the ways in which norms are used in enforcing I used Judith Butler’s ideas that its not that we are determined by norms – but rather that we are determined by the repeated performance of norms. In Gender Trouble she writes

In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; ‘agency’, then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition.

The next step was to introduce the concept of biopower. This is becoming more and more interesting with the increasing use of wearable devices and fitness apps. This mode of surveillance comes with the idea of measurement through ideas of normal. Once we introduce concepts such as IQ, standardized testing, and BMI we instantly measure ourselves against them. They are the basis for creating a “correct” way to be. After the readings, some of the questions asked by the students were:

Is invisibly guiding people towards information that reinforces their biases (presumably what they want) a form of corporate efficiency, informational slavery, or both?

Does this type of surveillance bother us? Why not?

How does personal technology increase the constant surveillance of our bodies?

But how can we really trust algorithms in surveillance?

Here are the powerpoint slides I used in the class.

Women and Bicycles

While writing on a totally unrelated topic I fell down a different rabbit hole about the role of the bicycle in the liberation of women. I vaguely remember an example of how the bicycle enabled women to take their own letters to the post office and therefore not be under the control of men. But I have been unable to find a good source for this. There are several other examples and quotes about the ways in which the bicycle enabled changes in fashion and social order.

There is a new dawn … of emancipation, and it is brought about by the cycle. Free to wheel, free to spin out in the glorious country, unhampered by chaperones … the young girl of today can feel the real independence of herself and, while she is building up her better constitution, she is developing her better mind.

Louise Jeye (1895)

No girl over the age of 39 should be allowed to wheel. It is immoral. Unfortunately, it is older girls who are ardent wheelers. They love to cavort and careen above the spokes, twirling and twisting in a manner that must remind them of long-dead dancing days.

Kit Coleman (1889)

Then there is this anti-women on bicycles rant that states that “the bicycle is the devil’s advance agent”

Or this one from The Sunday Herald 1891 “I had thought that cigarette smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I have changed my mind.” now its riding a bicycle.

But Susan B. Anthony was a fan of the new mode of transportation and credited it with playing a large part in the emancipation of women.

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood

 

 

Here is a Vox video on How Bicycles boosted the woman’s rights movement.

Who owns your stuff?

Its a discussion that has been going on since the start of the Free Software movement in the 80s (and maybe even earlier), and its taking a more sinister and urgent turn. There are two parts of the problem both addressed in Joshua Fairfield’s book “Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom” and this article he wrote for Quartz: A Roomba of One’s Own. The first part is the question

If we are surrounded by devices we bought but do not control, do we really own them?

This is the challenge to the very idea of property that we are facing today. The books you buy for your Kindle are less yours than the books you have on your shelf (they are more leased than owned). The devices that you cannot repair are a clear example of the ways in which your stuff is really more of a rental situation.

The second part is all about the data our devices collect about us. We have always been under surveillance but the difference is that now we are the ones buying the surveillance devices AND providing all the data for surveillance. Recently there was a fascinating display of this when Netflix posted this tweet:

Some people thought it was amusing while others saw it as creepy. But it is a simple example of how everything we do is being mined for data. This was a simple piece of humor, but it is also an excellent visualization of the power of data collection. Its not even a complex example.