Archive for November, 2011

The Future of the #Occupy Movement (in Memes)

With police dismantling Zuccotti Park and other #Occupy encampments throughout the country and impending Winter weather, pundits and activist alike are asking: Does the #Occupy movement have a future? To survive, #Occupy must begin—and, in fact, has already begun—a tactical shift. However, before I attempt to discuss #Occupy’s future, let me first be clear: The #Occupy movement is already a success. Recent months have witnessed a radical shift in mainstream political discourse, where concerns over America’s widening income and wealth gaps now have near equal footing with the deficit-reduction agenda. It has become common knowledge that the top 1% receive roughly a fifth of America’s collective income and control a third of the wealth. More Americans view Occupy Wall Street favorably (35%) than Wall Street (16%), government (21%), or the Tea Party (21%); and, though the country is gripped by a state of general cynicism, more people hold unfavorable impressions of big business (71%), government (71%), and the Tea Party (50%), than of #Occupy Wall Street (40%). Put simply, #Occupy is the most popular (and least unpopular) thing we’ve got. Continue reading

Trust and Complex Technology: The Cyborg’s Modern Bargain

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about special pieces of technology (e.g., backpacks, glasses, a Facebook profile), which become so integrated into our routines that they become almost invisible to us, seeming to act as extension of our own consciousness. I explained that this relationship is what differentiates equipment from tools, which we occasionally use to complete specific tasks, but which remain separate and distinct to us. I concluded that our relationship with equipment fundamentally alters who we are. And, because we all use equipment, we are all cyborgs (in the loosest sense).

In this essay, I want to continue the discussion about our relationship with the technology we use. Adapting and extending Anthony Giddens’ Consequences of Modernity, I will argue that an essential part of the cyborganic transformation we experience when we equip Modern, sophisticated technology is deeply tied to trust in expert systems. It is no longer feasible to fully comprehend the inner workings of the innumerable devices that we depend on; rather, we are forced to trust that the institutions that deliver these devices to us have designed, tested, and maintained the devices properly. This bargain—trading certainty for convenience—however, means that the Modern cyborg finds herself ever more deeply integrated into the social circuit. In fact, the cyborg’s connection to technology makes her increasingly socially dependent because the technological facets of her being require expert knowledge from others. Continue reading

Ambient Documentation: To Be is to See and To See is to Be

This post was co-authored with Nathan Jurgenson.

We begin with the assumption that social media expands the opportunity to capture/document/record ourselves and others and therefore has developed in us a sort-of “documentary vision” whereby we increasingly experience the world as a potential social media document. How might my current experience look as a photograph, tweet, or status update? Here, we would like to expand by thinking about what objective reality produces this type of subjective experience. Indeed, we are increasingly breathing an atmosphere of ambient documentation that is more and more likely to capture our thoughts and behaviors.

As this blog often points out, we are increasingly living our lives at the intersection of atoms and bits. Identities, friendships, conversations and a whole range of experience form an augmented reality where each is simultaneously shaped by physical presence and digital information. Information traveling on the backs of bits moves quickly and easily; anchor it to atoms and it is relatively slow and costly. In an augmented reality, information flows back and forth across physicality and digitality, deftly evading spatial and temporal obstacles that otherwise accompany physical presence.

When Egyptians dramatically occupied the physical space of Tahrir Square this past January Continue reading

Incidental Productivity: Value and Social Media

For nearly two centuries, the term “production” has conjured an image of a worker physically laboring in the factory. Arguably, this image has been supplanted, in recent decades, by office worker typing away on a keyboard; however, both images share certain commonalities. Office work and factory work are both conspicuous—i.e., the worker sees what she is making, be it a physical object or a document. Office work and factory work are also active—i.e., they require the workers’ energy and attention and come at the expense of other possible activities.

The nature of production has undergone a radical change in a ballooning sector of the economy. The paradigmatic images of active workers producing conspicuous objects in the factory and the office have been replaced by the image of Facebook users, leisurely interacting with one another. But before we delve into this new form of productivity we must take a moment to define production itself.

Following Marx, we can say that any activity that results in the creation of value is production of one sort or another. Labor is a form of production specific to humans because human are capable of imagination and intentionality. Continue reading

Julian Assange: Cyber-Libertarian or Cyber-Anarchist?


Julian Assange, the notorious founder and director of WikiLeaks, is many things to many people: hero, terrorist, figurehead, megalomaniac. What is it about Assange that makes him both so resonant and so divisive in our culture? What, exactly, does Assange stand for? In this post, I explore two possible frameworks for understanding Assange and, more broadly, the WikiLeaks agenda. These frameworks are: cyber-libertarianism and cyber-anarchism.

First, of course, we have to define these two terms. Cyber-libertarianism is a well-established political ideology that has its roots equally in the Internet’s early hacker culture and in American libertarianism. From hacker culture, it inherited a general antagonism to any form of regulation, censorship, or other barrier that might stand in the way of “free” (i.e., unhindered) access of the World Wide Web. From American libertarianism it inherited a general belief that voluntary associations are more effective in promoting freedom than government (the US Libertarian Party‘s motto is “maximum freedom, minimum government”). American libertarianism is distinct from other incarnations of libertarianism in that tends to celebrate the market and private business over co-opts or other modes of collective organization. In this sense, American libertarianism is deeply pro-capitalist. Thus, when we hear the slogan “information wants to be” that is widely associated with cyber-libertarianism, we should not read it as meaning gratis (i.e., zero price); rather, we should read it as meaning libre (without obstacles or restrictions). This is important because the latter interpretation is compatible with free market economics, unlike the former.

Cyber-anarchism is a far less widely used term. In practice, commentators often fail to distinguish between cyber-anarchism and cyber-libertarianism. However, there are subtle distinctions between the two. Anarchism aims at the abolition of hierarchy. Like libertarians, anarchists have a strong skepticism of government, particularly government’s exclusive claim to use force against other actors. Yet, while libertarians tend to focus on the market as a mechanism for rewarding individual achievement, anarchists tend to see it as means for perpetuating inequality. Thus, cyber-anarchists tend to be as much against private consolidation of Internet infrastructure as they are against government interference. While cyber-libertarians have, historically, viewed the Internet as an unregulated space where good ideas and the most clever entrepreneurs are free to rise to the top, cyber-anarchists see the Internet as a means of working around and, ultimately, tearing down old hierarchies. Thus, what differentiates cyber-anarchist from cyber-libertarians, then, is that cyber-libertarians embrace fluid, meritocratic hierarchies (which are believed to be best served by markets), while anarchists are distrustful of all hierarchies. This would explain while libertarians tend to organize into conventional political parties, while the notion of an anarchist party seems almost oxymoronic. Another way to understand this difference is in how each group defines freedom: Freedom for libertarians is freedom to individually prosper, while freedom for anarchists is freedom from systemic inequalities. Continue reading

Equipment: Why You Can’t Convince a Cyborg She’s a Cyborg

Everybody knows the story: Computers—which, a half century ago, were expensive, room-hogging behemoths—have developed into a broad range of portable devices that we now rely on constantly throughout the day. Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously observed:

progress in information technology is exponential, not linear. My cell phone is a billion times more powerful per dollar than the computer we all shared when I was an undergrad at MIT. And we will do it again in 25 years. What used to take up a building now fits in my pocket, and what now fits in my pocket will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years.

Beyond advances in miniaturization and processing, computers have become more versatile and, most importantly, more accessible. In the early days of computing, mainframes were owned and controlled by various public and private institutions (e.g., the US Census Bureau drove the development of punch card readers from the 1890s onward). When universities began to develop and house mainframes, users had to submit proposals to justify their access to the machine. They were given a short period in which to complete their task, then the machine was turned over to the next person. In short, computers were scarce, so access was limited. Continue reading

Frictionless Sharing and the Digital Paparazzi

(Or: How we’ve come to be micro-celebrities online)

(Co-Authored by Nathan Jurgenson)

Facebook’s recent introduction of “frictionless sharing” is the newest development in a growing trend: data is being increasingly produced passively as individuals conduct their day-to-day activities. This is a trend that has grown both on and offline. We will focus on the former here; especially “frictionless” sharing that involves syncing Facebook with other sites or apps. Once synced, much of what a user listens to, reads or otherwise accesses are automatically and immediately published on Facebook without any further action or approval. Users may not even need to “opt into” frictionless sharing because many services are changing their default setting to automatically push content to Facebook. In short, we can say that users play a passive role in this process.

Contrast this to more active sharing: when we “like” or “+1” something (by clicking the eponymous buttons that have spread throughout the Web) it requires the user to make a conscious and affirmative action to share something with others in their network. Nathan Jurgenson (one of this post’s co-authors) previously described these two models as types of “documentary vision:” We actively document ourselves and our world around us as if we have a camera in our hand (“liking”, status updates, photos, etc.), or we can passively allow ourselves to be documented, curating our behaviors along the way (e.g., reading a magazine article so that you can present yourself as the type of person who “likes” that sort of magazine) much like a celebrity facing a crowd of paparazzi photographers.

Let’s make another layer of complexity to this documentary model Continue reading

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