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

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)

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.

The Importance of Being Blue

After switching from iPhone to HTC it is as I suspected. Perfectly fine. The world did not explode and I did not grow horns or facial warts. The technology is beautiful and works great. There are differences but hardly worth mentioning. Everything I could do on one device I can now do on the other device.

Except for one thing. I cannot appear in a blue bubble when I text an iPhone user. Since I am no longer part of the iPhone exclusives my texts appear in green. I am marked as an outsider. The appearance of a green bubble among a long line of blue users not only marks me as an outsider but it marks be as “the other”, not the norm.

Indeed this status of otherness needs to be interpreted by those who receive the message. There first thought seems to be whether or not the color appears in error – for surely he cannot have chosen to become “other”.

Some seem to ignore it, unfazed by this color, or at least seemingly uncommenting. Are they ignoring it out of disinterest or is there a touch of embarrassment/shame? In the same way as when a friend lets himself go, or falls on hard times… its easier to avert ones eyes – are they doing the same with my green bubble?

Anne Worner Communication cc by saAnne Worner Communication CC BY SA

What is the interpretation of the green bubble? How do we judge those not part of the apple universe? One of my friends expressed his astonishment that I could even consider leaving the iPhone universe. iMessage is one of the major lock-in factors that keeps people to Apple devices. It is a great system that (when it works) allows for great functionality.

It is also an interesting marker that signals something about a user, a contact, or a friend. What does it mean to be green? Why aren’t you blue?

Regulating Online Public/Private Spaces: Notes from a lecture

The presentation yesterday dealt with moving regulation from the physical world to the digital environment. My goal was to show the ways in which regulation occurs and in particular to go beyond the simplistic “wild west” ideology online – at the same time I wanted to demonstrate that online behavior is controlled by more elements than the technological boundaries.

In order to do this, I wanted to begin by demonstrating that the we have used tools for a long period of time and that these tools enable and support varying elements of control. And since I was going to take a historic approach I could not resist taking the scenic route.

In the beginning was the Abacus. Developed around 2400 BCE in Mesapotamia this amazing tool for extending the power of the brain to calculate large numbers (which is basically what your smartphone does but much much more…). The fascinating thing with the abacus is that despite the wide range of digital devices it remains in use today (but it is in deep decline).

The decline of the Chinese abacus the Suanpan

Suanpan arithmetic was still being taught in school in Hong Kong as recently as the late 1960s, and in Republic of China into the 1990s. However, when hand held calculators became readily available, school children’s willingness to learn the use of the suanpan decreased dramatically. In the early days of hand held calculators, news of suanpan operators beating electronic calculators in arithmetic competitions in both speed and accuracy often appeared in the media. Early electronic calculators could only handle 8 to 10 significant digits, whereas suanpans can be built to virtually limitless precision. But when the functionality of calculators improved beyond simple arithmetic operations, most people realized that the suanpan could never compute higher functions – such as those in trigonometry – faster than a calculator. Nowadays, as calculators have become more affordable, suanpans are not commonly used in Hong Kong or Taiwan, but many parents still send their children to private tutors or school- and government- sponsored after school activities to learn bead arithmetic as a learning aid and a stepping stone to faster and more accurate mental arithmetic, or as a matter of cultural preservation. Speed competitions are still held. Suanpans are still being used elsewhere in China and in Japan, as well as in some few places in Canada and the United States.

Continuing on the story of ancient technology pointed to the Antikythera Mechanism an analogue computer from 100BCE designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses. The knowledge behind this machinery would be lost for centuries.

In the 17th century Wilhelm Schickard & Blaise Pascal developed mechanical addition and subtraction machines but the more durable development was that of the slide rule

The Reverend William Oughtred and others developed the slide rule in the 17th century based on the emerging work on logarithms by John Napier. Before the advent of the pocket calculator, it was the most commonly used calculation tool in science and engineering. The use of slide rules continued to grow through the 1950s and 1960s even as digital computing devices were being gradually introduced; but around 1974 the electronic scientific calculator made it largely obsolete and most suppliers left the business.

Despite its almost 3 centuries of dominance few of us today even remember the slide rule, let along know how to use one.

While the analogue calculating devices were both useful and durable most of the machines were less so. This is because they were built with a fixed purpose in mind. The early addition and subtraction machines were simply that. Addition and subtraction machines. They could not be used for other tasks without needing to be completely rebuilt.

The first examples of programmable machinery came with the Jacquard loom first demonstrated in 1801. Using a system of punch cards the loom could be programmed to weave patterns. If the pattern needed to be changed then the program was altered. The punch cards were external memory systems which were fed into the machine. The machine did not need to be re-built for changes to occur.

The looms inspired both Charles Babbage and Herman Hollerith to use punch cards as a method for imputing data in their calculating machines. Babbage is naturally the next famous point in our history. His conceptual Difference Engine and Analytical Engine have made him famous as the father of the programmable computer.

But as his devices remained to the largest part theoretical constructs I believe that the more important person of this era is Ada Lovelace who not only saw the potential in these machines but, arguably, saw an even greater potential than Babbage himself envisioned. She was the first computer programmer and a gifted mathematician.

Few scientists understood Babbage’s breakthrough, but Ada wrote explanations of the Analytical Engine’s function, its advantage over the Difference Engine, and included a method for using the machine in calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

The next step in this story Hollerith’s tabulating machine. While the level of computing is not a major step the interesting part is the way it came to be and the solutions that were created. The American census of 1880 took 8 years to conduct and it was predicted that the 1890 census would take 13 years to conduct. This was unacceptable and the census bureau looked for technical solutions. Hollerith built machines under contract for the Census Office, which used them to tabulate the 1890 census in only one year.

Hollerith’s business model was ingenious. He did not sell the machines, he sold his services. The governments and corporations around the world that came to rely on his company had no control but had to pay the price for his technical expertise. Hollerith’s company eventually became the core of IBM.

The point being that Hollerith positioned his company as holding the key role between the user and the data.

The progress in machinery and thoughts around machinery moved forward at a steady pace. Then making rapid progress during the second world war with names like Bletchley Park, the Colossus (the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer) and Alan Turing.

While most people could hardly comprehend the power of a computer, Vannevar Bush wrote his famous article on the Memex As We May Think in 1945. Here were visions of total information digitization and retrieval. Ideas that are now possible after half a century of modern computing history.

And with this we leap into the modern era, first with the Internet, then personal computers, and the advent of the world wide web.

The fascinating thing here is the business model becomes more clearly what Hollerith envisioned it. It was about becoming the interface between the user and the data. This is where the power lay.

When IBM was at it’s height Bill Gates persuaded them to begin using his operating system. He also persuaded them to allow him not to be exclusive to them. The world realized that it wasn’t the hardware that was important – it was what we could do with it that counted. Other manufacturers came in and IBM lost its hold of the computer industry.

When Tim Berners Lee developed the web and the first web browser and released them both freely online he created a system which everyone could use without needing licenses or payment. The web began to grow at an incredible rate.

Windows was late in the game. They still believed in the operating system but the interface between the user and the data was shifting. No matter which operating system or hardware you used it was all about accessing data online.

With Windows95 Microsoft took up the fight for the online world against the then biggest competitor Netscape. Microsoft embedded their browser Internet Explorer in the operating system and made it increasingly difficult for users to remove it. This was the beginning of the browser wars, a fight for control of the interface between the user and the data.

The wars eventually lost their relevance with the development of a new type of company offering a new version of a search engine. When Google came on the scene it had to compete with other search engines but after a relatively quick battle it became the go-to place where Internet users began their online experiences. It had become the interface between the users and the data. It didn’t matter which hardware, software, or browser you used… everyone began with Google.

At this point I introduced the four modalities of regulation used by Lawrence Lessig and presented in his work The Code from 1999.

modalitiesContrary to what many believe, regulation takes many forms. We regulate with social norms, with market solutions and with architecture (as well as laws). Naturally none of these modalities occur in isolation but we often tend to forget that much of our regulation is embedded in social, economic and physical contexts. If any of these contexts change then the law must adapt to encompass this change.

Using the offline problem of slowing down traffic I pointed to the law which hangs out speed signs, the market regulation of the price of a speeding ticket and the time it takes to negotiate its payment. Social attempts to slow traffic occur when people in the neighborhood hang signs warning drivers of children in the area. They are appealing to the drivers better nature.

And the architecture of the road. If we want to slow down cars it is much more efficient to change the road than to hang up a sign. Make it curvy, make it bumpy, change its colors there are an array of things that can be done to limit or slow access. The problem with using technology (or architecture) is that it is absolute. If we put speed bumps in the road then not even someone driving with good cause can speed. Even someone attempting to drive a heart attack victim to the hospital must slow down.

triangle The more we move from the analogue into the digital world the less control that is afforded through the law and the more ability we have to change the realities in which we live. Architecture or technology is more pliable as a form of regulation.

In closing I asked the class to list regulatory examples which occur when attempting to access information online via their smartphones. The complex interface between them and the data included new levels like the apps they use, the apps that their phones allow, their payment plans, social control online, social control offline and a whole host of other regulatory elements.

And here are the slides I used:

Public/Private Spaces: Notes on a lecture

The class today was entitled Public/Private Spaces: Pulling things together, and had the idea of summing up the physical city part of the Civic Media course.

But before we could even go forward I needed to add an update to the earlier lectures on racial segregation. The article The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black is fascinating and not a little sad because of its implications.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black. Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

The actual beginning of class was a response to the students assignment to present three arguments for and three arguments against the Internet as a Human Right. In order to locate the discussion in the context of human rights I spoke of Athenian democracy and the death of Socrates, and the progression from natural rights to convention based rights. The purpose was both to show some progression in rights development – but also to show that rights are not linear and indeed contain exceptions from those the words imply. The American Declaration of Independence (1776) talks of all men

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

but we know that this was not true. Athenian democracy included “all” people with the exception of slaves, foreigners and women. So we must see rights for what they are without mythologizing their power.

In addition they cannot seen in isolation. For example the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) came as a result of the French Revolution include many ideas that appear in similar rights documents

  • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
  • Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.
  • Law is the expression of the general will
  • No punishment without law
  • Presumtion of innocence
  • Free opinions, speech & communication

The similarities are unsurprising as they emerge from international discussions on the value of individuals and a new level of thought appearing about where political power should lie.

The discussion then moved to the concept of free speech and the modern day attempts to limit speech by using the concept of civility, and interesting example of this is explained in the article Free speech, ‘civility,’ and how universities are getting them mixed up

When someone in power praises the principle of free speech, it’s wise to be on the lookout for weasel words. The phrase “I favor constructive criticism,” is weaseling. So is, “You can express your views as long as they’re respectful.” In those examples, “constructive” and “respectful” are modifiers concealing that the speaker really doesn’t favor free speech at all.

Free speech is there to protect speech we do not like to hear. We do not need protection from the nice things in life. Offending people may be a bi-product of free speech, but a bi-product that we must accept if we are to support free speech. Stephen Fry states it wonderfully:

fryAt this point we returned to the discussion of private/public spaces in the city and how these may be used. We have up until this point covered many of the major points and now it was time to move on to the more vague uses. Using Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance by John Parkinson we can define public as

1.Freely accessible places where ‘everything that happens can be observed by anyone’, where strangers are encountered whether one wants to or not, because everyone has free right of entry

2.Places where the spotlight of ‘publicity’ shines, and so might not just be public squares and market places, but political debating chambers where the right of physical access is limited but informational access is not.

3.‘common goods’ like clean air and water, public transport, and so on; as well as more particular concerns like crime or the raising of children that vary in their content over time and space, depending on the current state of a particular society’s value judgments.

4.Things which are owned by the state or the people in and paid for out of collective resources like taxes: government buildings, national parks in most countries, military bases and equipment, and so on.

and we can define private as:

1.Places that are not freely accessible, and have controllers who limit access to or use of that space.

2.Things that primarily concern individuals and not collectives

3.Things and places that are individually owned, including things that are cognitively ‘our own’, like our thoughts, goals, emotions, spirituality, preferences, and so on

In the discussion of Spaces we needed to get into the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) which states that individuals all act out of self-interest and any space that isn’t regulated through private property is lost forever. This ideology has grown to mythological proportions and it was very nice to be able to use Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom to critique it:

The lack of human element in the economists assumptions are glaring but still the myth persists that common goods are not possible to sustain and that government regulation will fail. All that remains is private property. In order to have a more interesting discussion on common goods I introduced David Bollier

A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise

We will be getting back to his work later in the course.

In closing I wanted to continue the problematizing the public/private discussion – in particular the concepts of private spaces in public and public spaces in private. In order to illustrate this we looked at these photos:


Just a Kiss by Shutterpal CC BY NC SA

The outdoor kiss is an intensely private moment and it has at different times and places been regulated in different manners. The use of headphones and dark glasses is also a way in which private space can be enhanced in public. These spaces are all around us and form a kind of privacy in public.

The study of these spaces is known as Proxemics: the study of nonverbal communication which Wikipedia defines as:

Prominent other subcategories include haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time). Proxemics can be defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture”. Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who coined the term in 1963, emphasized the impact of proxemic behavior (the use of space) on interpersonal communication. Hall believed that the value in studying proxemics comes from its applicability in evaluating not only the way people interact with others in daily life, but also “the organization of space in [their] houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of [their] towns.

The discussions we have been having thus far have been about cities and the access and use of cities. How control has come about and who has the ability and power to input and change things in the city. Basically the “correct” and “incorrect” use of the technology. Since we are moving on to the public/private abilities inside our technology I wanted to show that we are more and more creating private bubbles in public via technology (our headphones and screens for example) and also bringing the public domain into our own spaces via, for example, Facebook and social networking.

We ended the class with a discussion on whether Facebook is a public or private space? If it is a private space what does it mean in relation to law enforcement and governmental bodies? If it is a public space when is it too far to stalk people? And finally what is the responsibility of the platform provider in relation to the digital space as public or private space?

here are the slides I used:

Design and Access to the City: Notes on a lecture

What is a city? Who gets to decide how it should be used and by which groups? In order to address this I began with two examples intended to demonstrate the conflict. I purposely chose not to use large scale examples.

The first example was in 2009 when the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr was arrested for breaking into his own home. Despite being able to identify himself and that it was his own address the police “…arrested, handcuffed and banged in a cell for four hours arguably the most highly respected scholar of black history in America.”

The second example was Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker being accused of shoplifting and patted down by an overzealous employee at the Milano Market on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. This latter example is interesting because the market apologized and said of the employee: “He’s a decent man, I’m sure he didn’t mean any by wrong doing, he was just doing his job” “a sincere mistake”. An interesting thing about this is that if you search the term “Forest Whitaker deli” most of the hits are for the apology and not for the action itself.

These two minor events would never had come to the attention of anyone unless they had happened to celebrities with the power to become part of the news. They demonstrate that even among sincere well meaning people there are groups thought to have less access to the city.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent op-ed called The Good, Racist People , which he ends writing about the deli:

The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.

And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.

Following this introduction the lecture moved on to demonstrate the power of maps. I began with a description of the events leading up to Dr John Snow identifying the Broad Street Pump as the cause for the Soho Cholera outbreak of 1854.

Dr Snow did not believe in the miasma (bad air) theory as the cause of cholera and in order to prove that the cause was connected to the public water pump on broad street he began mapping out the cholera victims on a map. They formed a cluster around the pump.

pumpWith the help of this illustration he was able to show that the disease was local and get the pump handle removed. The cholera cases decreased rapidly from that point.

The immediate cause of the outbreak was the introduction of human waste into the water system – most probably from a mother washing an infected child’s diapers. But the fundamental reason for the huge death count was the lack of sewer and sanitation systems in this poorer area of the city. By insisting on the miasma theory the city could claim to be free from responsibility.

In the following part of the lecture I wanted to discuss how cities can maintain segregation and inequality of services despite the ways in which the rules are presented as fair and non-biased. In order to do this I used a list of maps demonstrating cities segregation by race and ethnicity created by Eric Fischer.

One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other. Images are licensed CC BY SA. There are several maps of interest and they are well worth studying. Here I will only present Philadelphia and Chicago:

Chicago: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

Chicago: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

Philadelphia: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

Philadelphia: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

As we are in Philadelphia I also included a map of household income (Demographics of Philadelphia)

 Median household income in Center City and surrounding sections, 2000 Census.

Median household income in Center City and surrounding sections, 2000 Census.

At this point I moved the discussion to the distinction between public and private spaces. I used definitions of these from Wikipedia

A public space is a social space that is generally open and accessible to people. Roads (including the pavement), public squares, parks and beaches are typically considered public space.

To a limited extent, government buildings which are open to the public, such as public libraries are public spaces, although they tend to have restricted areas and greater limits upon use.

Although not considered public space, privately owned buildings or property visible from sidewalks and public thoroughfares may affect the public visual landscape, for example, by outdoor advertising.

As the distinctions between private/public will be discussed in depth in a future lecture I left this as a relatively vague discussion and went into the problems of two of our rights as practiced in the “public space”

Free Speech: Not wanting to delve into the theory of this fascinating space I jumped straight into the heart of the discussion with a quote from Salman Rushdie: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist” The point being that we don’t need protection to conform but we do need it to evolve. 

For this lecture I brought up outdoor advertising. This is an activity which is globally dominated by one corporation: The Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings is probably the biggest controller of outdoor communication in the world. They have the ability to decide which messages are transmitted and which are not. They have accepted advertising for fashion brands which transmit harmful body images and even brands which have been accused of glorifying gang rape. For a look at this disturbing trend in advertising see 15 Recent Ads That Glorify Sexual Violence Against Women.

The messages being pushed out on billboards can arguably seen as a one-sided participation of the public debate. Changing messages (adbusting) or even correcting willfully false information on billboards is seen as vandalism. As a demonstration that something can be done I showed a clip of a report about the clean city law, where the city of Sao Paulo has forbidden outdoor advertising.

However, when Baltimore in 2013 attempted to introduce a billboard tax Clear Channel Outdoor argued that billboards should be protected as free speech by the First Amendment and this tax would therefore be a limitation of the corporations human rights.

In order to demonstrate the right of assembly I used the demonstrations at Wall Street where the desire to protest was supported (in theory) by Mayor Bloomberg

“people have a right to protest, and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it.”

Despite this sentiment the parks of New York close (even the ones without gates) at dusk or 1 am. This prevents demonstrators staying overnight. In order to circumvent this and continue the protests the demonstrators went to the privately owned Zuccotti Park where they could stay overnight. Eventually the protestors where dispersed when it was argued that the conditions were unsanitary.

Health hazard! by Seema Krishnakumar CC by nc sa

Health hazard! by Seema Krishnakumar CC by nc sa

The slides I used are here:


Cities and Suburbs: Notes on a Lecture

The lecture began with a short piece on population. The future of the world is urban centers and the population of the world will arrive at 10 billion people. This has nothing to do with large families. Because as Hans Rosling explains in this talk. We are not having more children but the the population is aging. He talks of “the big fill up”.

That we are moving from the countryside to the cities and have been doing so for a really short period of time. So while Urban settlements appeared around 3,000 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley we were mostly country dwellers until about 2008.

In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, a figure that rose to 47% by the end of the twentieth century. In 1950, there were 83 cities with populations exceeding one million; by 2007, this number had risen to 468. (Wikipedia).

Despite this there has been a long tradition of the viewing the city as a bad place and the countryside as a good place. In poetry we can see this trend as far back as to the bucolic poetry of Theocritus (c. 270 BC). Basically the city is unhealthy for both mind and soul.

Today the concept of the city is a space that is divided up into an inner zone which usually matches the boundaries of the old industrial city and suburbia, which was designed for the automobile, beginning from the 1920s.

One of the creators of suburbia (both as a concept and a reality) in the USA was the property developer William Levitt whose massive construction and development of whole regions spawned copies all across the country. In Levitttown home construction began in 1952 and 17,311 homes were built by 1958. At its peak, through an intense division of labor, the workers were building a home every 16 minutes.

A home in 16 minutes. Perspective – how long did it take for you to wake up and get dressed this morning?

Levittown was also a highly regulated space, designed to conform to the ideal of the American family. Among the rules were things like: no laundry hanging outside on Sunday, and no fences between properties. More seriously Levitt did not sell homes directly to African Americans. In 1957 an African-American family, the Myers, bought a home from the previous owners

Their move to Levittown was marked with racist harassment and mob violence, which required intervention by state authorities. This led to an injunction and criminal charges against the harassers while Myers and their supporters refused to surrender and received national acclaim for their efforts. Wikipedia

The dream of suburbia is also reflected in the ideology of the time. Personal property was good for the individual and for the society. The words of Sen. Charles Percy (1966) are interesting here:

“For a man who owns his home acquires with it a new dignity… He begins to take pride in what is his own, and pride in conserving and improving it for his children. He becomes a more steadfast and concerned citizen of his community. He becomes more self-confident and self-reliant. The mere act of becoming a homeowner transforms him. It gives him roots, a sense of belonging, a true stake in his community and well being.”

Indeed Percy is expressing what is to be considered the norm. This norm becomes that which is supported socially, economically and politically. If a society believes that home ownership is the keystone of society then it will invest in ensuring tax incentives for the creation of a wider base of home owners in society.

The ideal of the suburban homes has its most interesting expression in the front lawn. Naturally, our understanding of this artifact is colored by both our time and our space. But it is interesting to see that the large expanse of expensive green desert in front of peoples houses (in American suburbia) is never used, highly maintained and costly. It is all about signalling. This resonated with many students and stories of the ways in which neighbors are judged by the appearance of this empty piece of land were shared.

But the connection between private property and community involvement is under question. Salon Magazine reported on the increase in renting homes in USA and the way in which this does not signal the end of community:

Philly, a recent survey of renters conducted by the city found unexpected levels of social engagement. Planners were surprised by how many renters knew their neighbors, participated in neighborhood events and helped maintain the physical environment through volunteer work.

Indeed renting is the norm in many other countries and it is growing in the birthplace of suburbia. There is also a growing critique towards the ways in which suburbs are problematic on many levels. One suburban critic is Charles Marohn who is interviewed in The Suburbs Will Die: One Man’s Fight to Fix the American Dream

The “suburban experiment,” as he calls it, has been a fiscal failure. On top of the issues of low-density tax collection, sprawling development is more expensive to build. Roads are wider and require more paving. Water and sewage service costs are higher. It costs more to maintain emergency services since more fire stations and police stations are needed per capita to keep response times down. Children need to be bused farther distances to school.

The article was written by Leigh Gallagher whose book The End of the Suburbs came out in 2013.

Among the other critiques (environmental, social, economic) an interesting, and maybe counter-intuitive, study shows that suburbia may even be bad for your health. The Atlantic ran an article called “Do We Look Fat in These Suburbs?

“Garrick and Marshall report that cities with more compact street networks—specifically, increased intersection density—have lower levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. The more intersections, the healthier the humans.”

streetsIn the last section of the presentation I moved on to the city and the users. Once again the point here is to show that there are “ideal” users and that those who do not conform are not welcome to the city.

We have talked about anti-homeless design or uncomfortable design in the last lecture Control By Design. But what I wanted to get on to was the ways in which the city is being used. The ways in which our public spaces are most probably not public anymore but they are privately owned and therefore no longer need to conform to the rules of the public space. Or rather they can be made to fit the ideals of the owner.

Showing the ways in which spaces are used in alternative ways I mentioned the case of The Hess Triangle

In 1910, nearly 300 buildings were condemned and demolished by the city to widen the streets and construct new subway lines. David Hess battled the city to keep the Voorhis, his 5-story apartment building. He resisted eminent domain laws for years, but was ultimately forced to give up his property.

By 1914, the 500-square-inch concrete triangle was all that remained of Hess’ property. As if his loss wasn’t bad enough, the city asked him to donate the tiny portion of concrete to use as part of the public sidewalk. Out of spite, Hess refused the offer. On July 27, 1922, he had the triangle covered with mosaic tiles, displaying the statement, “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated For Public Purposes.” Atlas Obscura

And the Seattle nail house that seems to have been the inspiration for the movie Up. Edith Macefield refused to sell her house while a mall was being built around it. In 2006 she turned down US$1 million to sell her home to make way for a commercial development in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.

We closed the lecture by talking about strange little remnants of architecture and city planning: desire paths and Thomassons. The latter is

a term launched by Genpei Akasegawa in 1972, and refers to an architectural detail that is both completely and utterly useless, but is still being maintained. These steps in south Philly are an example:






And here are the slides I used

Control by design: Notes from a lecture

It’s Murphy’s Law! There always seems to be something that occurs just after a lecture that reminds me: Oh I should have included this or that. Almost as I walked out of this lecture I remembered a podcast that I should have mentioned. It was 99% Invisible (episode 126: Walk this way). Well at least I get to include it in this post. The interview with wayfinding expert Jim Harding was fascinating in the ways in which subtle cues are used to ensure that people walk in the correct direction in public spaces. For an interesting article on Harding and wayfinding check out How You Know Where You’re Going When You’re in an Airport.

Enough about what I should have included.

I began with examples where people have been overly reliant on technology mainly through examples of people ending up in accidents by using GPS for car navigation (see here and here). It could be easy to say that the people who ended up trusting technology beyond what is recommended – or even despite clear signals to the contrary – are stupid. But this seems to minimize the role of technology.

So in a discussion of control via design I began by using Jeremy Bentham and his dream of the model prison Panopticon. Apparently he would argue against the trend to send prisoners to Australia by pointing to the

‘failures’ of colony: that the society was immoral; that transported convicts were not reformed; that transportation was unjust and borderline illegal; and that the convict system was inefficient and hugely expensive. New material – Panopticon versus New South Wales

Apparently he also cherry picked his arguments and ignored facts that didn’t suit his theory. This man really wanted to build his prison. But the Panopticon becomes more relevant to the modern discussion when we bring in Michel Foucault who saw it as a metaphor for the way in which control in society (not only in prisons) was being internalized and the freedom of the individual was being subverted.

In language the discussion of control is seen through the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which questions whether our language controls our thoughts. Would we be able to think about freedom if we lacked the words for it? This example comes from George Orwell‘s 1984 where society was being controlled by several means but not least the ability to speak of injustices.

All this was a lead up to present the work of the urban planner Robert Moses. He was highly influential in creating cities and suburbs in New York and he also was responsible for downgrading the importance of public transport.

In his article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Langdon Winner pointed to a biography of Moses where a co-worker hinted that Moses had made some New York bridges purposely too low to prevent buses from passing underneath them. These bridges effectively blocked buses from driving to the New York parkways and therefore excluded all those who didn’t have cars from enjoying them. Winner’s argument was that Moses’ politics were embedded in the bridges. This argument has been refuted by Bernward Joerges in his article “Do Politics Have Artefacts?”.

The question is not whether or not Moses was discriminating against a group but rather that design builds on the designers ideal of how a thing should be used. To illustrate this I used the anti-homeless design that has become a growing part of our public spaces.

My favorite image demonstrating this trend is from Yumiko Hayakawa’s essay Public Benches Turn ‘Anti-Homeless’ (also recommend Design with Intent)

With this simple design homeless people cannot sleep on this bench. At the same time nobody can be accused of discrimination since everybody is welcome to try to sleep on the bench. Most people with homes will go home to sleep. Homeless people will go elsewhere – this is control by design.

Here are the slides I used.


Technologies of Control & Desire Notes

The first class discussion & lecture of the Civic Media course began with the suitably vague title Technologies of Control and Desire. The purpose of this lecture was to introduce technology into the discussion of ethics and communication. The idea was to talk about the ways in which technologies have been seen both as a source of salvation and as a threat to the society in which they are introduced.

Unsurprisingly, in my eagerness I forgot to talk about the first slide which was a advertisement for an early television remote control.

Eugene PolleyOften the invention of the remote control is credited to Eugene Polley (1915 – 2012) it was an invention that had to happen. People didn’t want to have to stand up to change the channel. What we tend not to think about is that the invention of the remote control allowed for many changes. Thousands of channels would not be able to compete or exist without a remote control. Also advertising was forced to adapt once people could effortlessly change channels or lower the volume. Eugene Polley didn’t create the couch potato but he certainly made life easier for this group.

The first section of the presentation was a very, very brief introduction to technology ethics in order to arrive at the discussion of whether we have free choice or not. Are we choosing to do what we do based on ethical decision making? Or maybe on chance? Or maybe something else? What is the role of technology in forming our worlds and “assisting” our choices.

I included a quote from the composer Stravinsky

In America I had arranged with a gramophone firm to make some of my music. This suggested the idea that I should compose something whose length should be determined by the capacity of the record.

This is a nice illustration where art is no longer necessarily a choice of the creator but rather a decision based on technological limitations. Keeping on the theme of technology I also introduced the idea of technology enabling us to act – or to put it more extremely – technology “forcing” us to act.

To illustrate this I showed them the web page for the iPod Classic which has the line “Your top 40 000”. This refers to the capacity of the device to store 40 000 songs. But how would someone go about collecting so much music? Could it be done legally? Or does this tagline implicitly encourage piracy?

From this point I introduced technological determinism and the idea of choice. Without refuting that we always have choice I gave examples of social and technological mass choices that seem to indicate a high level of determinism.

From this position I pointed out that the way in which technology is accepted depends on the way in which we see it either as a threat or a benefit to our lifestyle. Using weird and wonderful advertisements and technical articles from the past I demonstrated a utopian vision where farmers work from home, students learn without reading and asthma is cured with cigarettes.

In order to demonstrate techno-pessimism I used quotes from Plato (against writing), a snippet against books from Johannes Trithemius’ (1494) In Praise of Scribes

The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years.

Referencing social media I pointed at George M Beard’s (1881) concern that newspapers and telegraph create nervous disorders by exposing people to “the sorrows of individuals everywhere”

In closing I reminded the audience of Postman’s comparison between Orwell and Huxley’s visions of the future: Orwell was concerned that we would be oppressed by a technology wielding state. Huxley was concerned that we would all be sucked into the shallow pleasures offered by technology. I pointed out that it has become popular to say Huxley has “won” because social media seems to be people settling for shallow pleasures. However, this is not entirely true and states are increasingly using Orwellian means to control those who would engage in deeper discussions that threaten the state.

I finished off with a short video of Morosov’s work (which can be found online here) and a class discussion. The slides I used for the class are online here


Biased Screens and Us

We should always what parts of technology is true and false. In an attempt to identify what should be common knowledge among anybody who uses, or is dependent on, digital technology (this is basically all of us) Alex Krotoski has written a report The Personal (Computer) Is Political: Recommendations for the rest of us for the Nominet Trust. From the presentation

To be able to fully participate in our physical and digital communities requires a range of actions and understanding. The value of the technical skills of coding and programming and the creativity of making and designing digital products are well understood, but at the heart of our ambition to support young people’s digital making is understanding how digital technologies are made. This understanding can come about through the process of digital making, or of tinkering with existing digital products, but it is this understanding that is so important.

We are constantly drawn in by the convenience of our shiny devices but we seldom think about the ways in which our devices are biased. We tend to trust what appears in front of us on our screens despite knowing that the screen is a device capable of extreme manipulation. We need to be critical both to the content that is delivered by our technology and by the technology itself (the focus of Krotoski’s report). She writes:

Becoming a critical consumer of technology isn’t just the responsibility of our teachers, our policy makers or software developers: we need to arm ourselves with the knowledge and the know-how to break out of our technofundamentalist trappings, and to wrestle our lives back from the machines.

On her website she publishes four obvious, but often overlooked, points that we should always be aware of in relation to our technology.

  • Be aware that software developers do not necessarily have your individual wellbeing as their priority.
  • Demand more from developers. You are their customer, and if your interests and needs are not being met, don’t adapt yourself to the system; expect it to adapt to you.
  • Consider how well you are able to express yourself in software, and whether this is adequate. Assess if what you want and need changes in the future, that the software is flexible and responsive enough to allow you to change. Consider the implications of your interactions with the service should that service change its conditions for use.
  • In all of your interactions with technology, consider the assumptions and biases held by the developers.

fry-can-t-tell-meme-generator-can-t-tell-if-truth-or-lie-bf08edThe problem is that the convenience offered by our technology allows us to both know this and simultaneously believe that what appears on our screens is (mostly) true. It is easier for us to doubt the truth of images and facts we find online (because we have been fooled before) but we tend not to question the bias built into our systems.

Also check out Alex’s book Untangling the Web