Materiality Matters: Confronting Digital Dualism with a Theory of Co-Affordances

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When someone sends a text to my phone, are they any less responsible for their comments than if they had said the same thing face-to-face? If someone says a photo I post is “unflattering” or “unprofessional,” do I feel like this says something about me as a person? Why has it become so common to equate the unauthorized use of someone else’s Facebook account to the violation experienced during rape, that the term “fraping”* has come into popular usage? These are some of the questions I think that digital dualism prevents us from answering satisfactorily. In framing an alternative to dualist thinking, I argue that it is important to account for people’s changing sense of self (hinted at in the examples above). To do this, we must examine the material conditions of subjectivity, or, put simply, how what we are affects who we are.

Interestingly, my argument that we ought to take serious account of people’s changing sense of self closely aligns me with with Nick Carr’s recent counter to the digital dualism critique. In fact, in re-reading his post, I realize that he is arguing for almost exactly the kind of theoretical frame work that I am working to develop. Continue reading

Tech Isn’t Neutral & Guns Cause Tragedies

In light of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the debate over access to firearms has again been thrust to the fore of our national consciousness. With the resurgence of this debate, the classic “guns don’t kill people” line of argument will inevitably feature prominently in radio conversations, TV interviews, Facebook posts, and tweets. The “guns don’t kill people” trope is part of a larger pattern in how our society frames the relationship between technology and (lack of) collective responsibility.

“Guns don’t kill people” is a spin on the broader “technology is neutral” trope–still widely-embraced by Silicon Valley–whose function is to absolve the creators of technology from any responsibility for the consequences of what they have designed. The “technology is neutral” trope has long be subject to criticism. From Frankenstein’s monster turning on its creator to Robert Oppenheimer’s own reflections on creating the bomb, Western civilization has wrestled with the question of where responsibility resides in atrocities facilitated by technology, and we, on occasion, are reminded that the choice of what to research and create (or to not research and not create) is an expression of both individual and cultural values. As the great sociologist Max Weber once said, only through “naive self-deception” does a technician ignore “the evaluative ideas with which he unconsciously approaches his subject matter… that he has selected from an absolute infinity a tiny portion with the study of which he concerns himself.” Technology is never neutral because its birth–its very existence–is the product of both political forces and values-oriented decision making.

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Theater Review: R.U.X. (Rockwell Universal Sexbots)

R.U.X. (Rockwell Universal Sexbots), written by Maurice Martin and directed by Sun King Davis, was first written and performed as a charity effort to raise money for HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive); it ran as a five-part serial in Arlington’s October 2011 Hope Operas. It was rewritten as a full play for DC’s 2012 Fringe Festival, where it took the award for best comedy. The show just finished up a brief encore at Fall Fringe. While this comedy has already been widely and positively reviewed by DC theater critics, it deserves a piece that engages its rather weighty themes.

The story takes place in near-future America (similar in setting to the spate of early twenty aughts robot films such as Bicentennial Man, A.I., and I, Robot), where anthropomorphic robots have become a common consumer product. Louis Rockwell Jr. (John Tweel) has just been made acting CEO of the Rockwell Universal Carebots company, after his father (Frank Mancino) fell into a coma. Louis Jr. has a new vision that would transition the company away from producing robots designed for childcare and, instead, move it into designing robots for—you guessed it—sex. After rebranding the company “Rockwell Universal Sexbots,” he hires Dr. Callie Veru (Aubri O’Connor), a young and romantically inexperienced software expert to program the robots with the capacity to fulfill human desire. To program robots to respond to human desire, however, the characters must first understand it, and this interrogation of human desire becomes the axis on which the entire plot rotates. Continue reading

Gamification, Playbor & Exploitation

I’m posting to get some feedback on my initial thoughts in preparation for my chapter in a forthcoming gamification reader. I’d appreciated your thoughts and comments here or @pjrey.

My former prof Patricia Hill Collins taught me to begin inquiry into any new phenomenon with a simple question: Who benefits? And this, I am suggesting, is the approach we must take to the Silicon Valley buzzword du jure: “gamification.” Why does this idea now command so much attention that we feel compelled to write a book on it? Does a typical person really find aspects of his or her life becoming more gamelike? And, who is promoting all this talk of gamification, anyway?

It’s telling that conferences like “For the Win: Serious Gamification” or “The Gamification of Everything – convergence conversation” are taking place in business (and not, say, sociology) departments or being run by CEOs and investment consultants. The Gamification Summit invites attendees to “tap into the latest and hottest business trend.” Searching Forbes turns up far more articles (156) discussing gamification than the New York Times (34) or even Wired (45). All this makes TIME contributor Gary Belsky seems a bit behind the time when he predicts “gamification with soon rule the business world.” In short, gamification is promoted and championed—not by game designers, those interested in game studies, sociologists of labor/play, or even computer-human interaction researchers—but by business folks. And, given that the market for videogames is already worth greater than $25 billion, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that business folk are looking for new growth areas in gaming.

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Theorizing the Web 2012 Recap

#TtW12 Twitter Backchannel

Co-authored with Nathan Jurgenson for the UMD Sociology Department Newsletter.

The crowd is gone, the banners rolled back up, the rooms cleaned, and now we have a chance to sleep–and reflect on Theorizing the Web 2012. After two successful years, the conference—born as a fun idea and with humble expectations—has morphed into an institution in that sociological sense of the term. We’re proud of Theorizing the Web and those who made it a success: our committee and the attendees. Continue reading

Why Do We Use Spatial Metaphors to Talk about the Web?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. I even wrote an essay awhile back for The New Inquiry. But, honestly, none of the answers I come up seem complete. I’m posting this as a means of seeking help developing an explanation and to see if anyone knows of people who are taking on this question.

I think question is important because it relates to our “digital dualist” tendency to view the Web as separate from “real life.”

So far, I see three, potentially compatible, explanations: Continue reading

Hipsters and Low-Tech

Hipsters have been much discussed on the Cyborgology blog (see: here, here, here, and here). Cyborgology authors have also talked about the fetishization of low-tech/analog media and devices (see: here and here). As David Paul Strohecker pointed out, these two issue interrelated: “hipsters are at the forefront of movements of nostalgic revivalism.” I want to pick up these threads and add a small observation.

Nathan Jurgenson and I were discussing why low-tech devices have a seductive quality. Consider the popularity of, for example, fixed-gear bicycles or vintage cameras (such as the Kodak Brownie or the Polaroid PX-70). Though I think this phenomenon is probably overdetermined (in the Freudian sense of having multiple sufficient causes), I came up with a theory that seems worth further consideration: namely, that hipsters’ obsession with antique devices reflects a desire to escape the complex and highly-interdependent socio-technical systems that characterize contemporary society and return to time in which technology appeared to be something that humans could master and, thus, use to affirm their individual agency. In short, the fetishization of low-tech is about the illusion of agency; it provides affirmation for the hipster whose identity is defined by the post-Modern imperative to be an individual, to be unique.

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