Posts Tagged ‘ sociology ’

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

Critical Theory: Useful Distinction or Unconscious Smugness?

On September 18th, 2011, Barry Wellman, the early and rather prescient scholar of the Internet, posed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question to the Communication and Information Technology Section of the American Sociology Association (CITASA): “‘Critical’ – aren’t we all?” This post was precipitated by a call for papers for special issue of tripleC entitled Marx is Back: The Importance of Marxist Theory and Research for Critical Communication Studies Today (no affiliation with the author). Specifically, the call invited papers that address (my emphasis):

what it means to ask Marx’s questions in 21st century informational capitalism, how Marxian theory can be used for critically analyzing and transforming media and communication today, and what the implications of the revival of the interest in Marx are for the field of Media and Communication Studies.

Shortly after it was sent, Wellman responded to the call, saying:

Not meant personally, but the use of the word “critical” by a subset of scholars always bothers me as leading to unconscious smugness? If I’m “critical”, your lot isn’t? Who, except flacks and twerps, isn’t critical? Can we criticize the criticalists?

This sparked a debate over the utility and appropriateness of the phrase “critical theory.” Critics of the phrase raise the following objections: Continue reading

Cyborgs and the Augmented Reality they Inhabit

The Cyborgology Blog has recently hosted much discussion on the topic of augmented reality (i.e., the co-constitution of online and offline, digital and physical). A few threads to follow as background are:

Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality by Nathan Jurgenson

Virtual, Mediated, and Augmented Reality by PJ Rey

why i don’t like “augmented reality” by Sang-Hyoun Pahk

Defending and Clarifying the Term Augmented Reality by Nathan Jurgenson

I’d like to extend this discussion by clarifying the relationship between augmented reality and the namesake of the Cyborgology blog (i.e, the cyborg). The two concepts are intimately connected. Continue reading

Dear Media: Bullying is Never Just “Cyber”

The term “cyberbullying” is frequently used to describe hurtful behaviors occurring via communication technologies. But why distinguish “cyber” bullying from other forms of bullying? Perhaps it is partly because, when thinking of bullying, we tend to envision physical violence, something impossible to accomplish over the Web. Perhaps it is because the Web allows for new and vastly different forms of communication, necessitating new terminologies. Indeed, social media, mobile phones, and other recent technologies have created new ways for bullying to occur. For instance, the anonymity one has on Formspring has certainly contributed to a groundswell of hurtful behaviors on that site. Moreover, bullying can now occur at virtually any time and in any place (with Internet access).

However, as danah boyd has previously pointed out, the term “cyberbullying” is quite loaded because it tends to be used in a way that seems to diminish the significance of an act of bullying. Yet, bullying is bullying, whether it occurs in a school, park, bus, or on the Web. (A rough definition of bullying for our purposes here: the repeated use of hurtful behaviors, such as, but not limited to, insults, rumors, threats, intimidation, coercion, exclusion, physical violence, or vandalism.)

Continue reading

OkCupid Grants Special Privileges to Attractive Users

Before you ask: I did not make this picture up. It is a screenshot taken directly from my email. And, yeah, this is probably a bit of inexcusable narcissism.

I, like millions of other Americans (OkCupid has 500,000 active users, eHarmony has had more than 20 million registered users in its history, and sees more than 20,000 users register each day), have turned to the enigmatic world of online dating. Being a less than affluent Ph.D. student, I naturally turned to the free option: OkCupid.

What has struck me most about online dating is the penchant these sites have for quantifying everything. The latest, and perhaps, creepiest, instance of quantification is OkCupid’s announcement that is has developed an algorithm to determine other users’ subjective experience of your attractiveness. The following is an excerpt from the email I received:

We are very pleased to report that you are in the top half of OkCupid’s most attractive users. The scales recently tipped in your favor, and we thought you’d like to know.

How can we say this with confidence? We’ve tracked click-thrus on your photo and analyzed other people’s reactions to you in QuickMatch and Quiver.

Continue reading

Public Sociology vs the Anger Industry (or Why Lying Makes Michael Savage Richer)

Radio(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

Cast deep in recession and with unprecedented political polarization inside the halls of government, it’s no shock that the American public is angry. Perhaps, this frustration is merely a byproduct of legislative and discursive gridlock. Perhaps, however, this anger is better understood as the cause of such gridlock. But if this anger is the cause and not merely a reaction to the current political situation, we must ask: Where has all this anger come from? Has this recession really made life so miserable, or is something other than the economic well-being of the average American to blame? Does someone stand to gain from all this anger? Perhaps that someone (or, better, that institution) recognizes its own interest in the promotion of generic anger and is attempting to capitalize on it.

Mainstream media has become an anger industry. I’m speaking, primarily, of the cable news revolution as well as the explosion of conservative talk radio in recent decades; however, other media have trended in this direction as well. We’ve all heard the trope “if it bleeds it leads.” Media personalities have realized that anger can be more profitably harnessed if they’re the ones doing the stabbing. The way anger has become rationalized and manipulated by the media is not altogether different from the realization that wrestling was more profitable when it was staged and professionalized. Yet, while professional wrestlers still have to be athletic, contemporary “journalists” no longer need to be well-researched. Pundits only need to be provocative. Each news cycle has become simple and formulaic: select an issue regardless of scope or public significance, arbitrarily take sides, fight, rinse, repeat.

Continue reading

Cyborg Systems: Sociology’s Proper Unit of Analysis

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

The increasing centrality of the Internet in our daily lives has precipitated a spate of theorizing about how we – as humans and as a society – are changing (or not) due to the constant technological mediation of our most basic interactions and activities. Let’s face it: This sort of theorizing is populated mostly by men of considerable privilege (with some very notable exceptions). A cynic might hold that the problems concerning human techno-social interactions are relatively insignificant compared to more pressing issues of race, class, gender, age, etc. One cannot but be sympathetic to such charges.

However, I would posit that a complicated set of processes are at work in causing many to view theory surrounding the Internet and its ever-expanding litany of technical terms (e.g., Web 2.0, prosumption, produsage, playbor, or sousveillance) as largely irrelevant to the salient social issues of our day: 1.) The theorists of the Web, tending to work from a position of privilege, perhaps, simply lack awareness of feminist and other situated discourses, thus failing to acknowledge their relevance. 2.) Privilege may also account for a willingness to be satisfied by grand theoretical projects that produce political objectives couched in inaccessible language, too impractical to be actionable, altogether irrelevant, or simply nonexistent. 3.) Disciplinary specialization is such that the theorists from Marxian, post-structuralist, and/or science and technology studies traditions who are studying similar phenomena may not be in dialogue with one another. Continue reading

Conference Summary Part I: The Internet as Playground and Factory

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

The New School held a conference last week that may be of interest to many Sociology Lens readers, so I have decided to devote this week’s entry to sharing some notes from the conference.

The implosion of work and play was the most recurrent theme in the panels that I attended. The term “playbor” was frequently used to describe the product of this implosion. Panelists generally seemed to assume that playbor was a relatively new and increasingly prevalent phenomenon. However, one dissenter, an artist named Stephanie Rothenberg, argued that play and productivity have coincided from the earliest days of capitalism. She explained that hobbies (e.g., collecting, handicraft, parlor room singsong, gardening, and animal raising) are voluntary forms of play that produce objects with no intent to exchange them on the market. These activities often have significant social aspects and some hobbies, like music or quilting, are even done collaboratively. Given the resemblance to hobbies, Rothenberg urges that we view playbor as the latest instantiation of a historical trend, rather than newly emerging paradigm. In fact she claims that online environments like Second Life mimic the world so hyperbolically that they offer an unprecedented opportunity for us to turn a critical eye on ourselves. In our distanced view of these “simulacrums,” we find our own distanced reflections.

Continue reading

Out of Print: Prosumption and the Triumph of New Media

(Reposted for Sociology Lens)

President Obama recently gave a eulogy for the legendary news anchor, Walter Cronkite, on which occasion, he delivered the nation this message:

We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. [...] Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance? Would he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?

The president waxed romantically about the old media and spoke with the sort fondness that one expects at the funeral of an old friend (or cherished institution). He was hopeful about the future of conventional media. But, eulogies are a post-mortum affair. And, for all the president’s accolades, “the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites” appear to have won the day.

In fact, these days, one can hardly avoid stories about the death of print media. Last December, the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Michael Hirschorn warned that “End Times” might be drawing near for the America’s paper of record. A recent article reports that the crisis is spreading to other forms of conventional reporting such as photojournalism. Michael Bowden has even gone so far as to announce that we have entered a “post-journalistic age.”

Two explanations for the crisis in the conventional media have been circulated by none other than the the conventional media itself. Both share the same theme: blame the consumer!

The first explanation posits that Americans these days are just plain dopes. This argument has a venerable history among media critics and has been a central theme in such diverse works as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and Andrew Keen’s recent The Cult of the Amateur. In its modern incarnation, the assumption is that a less intelligent society naturally consumes less quality reporting, thus diminishing support for the industry.

The second explanation holds that people have been seduced by the allure of free content on the web and now expect all information to be free. These latter critics believe that a generation is emerging who have seldom, if ever, paid for content and simply lack the basis from which to judge the quality of various information venues. Wired magazine editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, discusses the technological innovations which influence changing attitudes toward content in a new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, though he is not so pessimistic about the implications of “free” for the quality of content.

Regardless of their truth or falsity, such theories totally miss the overwhelming structural forces at play in the crisis of conventional media. The real threat to these institutions has little to do with taste or educational development. Rather, it is, largely, economic. The concept of “prosumption” has already been addressed several times on this blog, but as a refresher: prosumption refers human activity that combines aspects of both consumption and production. And, it is prosumption that most threatens the business model of the conventional media. Why? Because prosumption best serves the principles of capitalism in which the various form of media compete.

The increasing presence of prosumptive activities in our daily lives (most notably as a result of the important role that the Internet now in the lives of most people) has meant that people are busy doing free labor on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Put simply, prosumption is more efficient. By efficiency, I do not mean that more quality/quantity of unique content is produce with less labor. On the contrary, prosumption is less productive. Bloggers, Twitters, and other online posters produce extraordinary amounts of (often redundant) content, but the end result is that more work produces less information of value to society. The blogosphere may require a thousands times the labor and laborers it takes for one newspaper to break the same number of stories. But how, then, is the blogosphere more efficient?

The answer lies in the Marxian concept of exploitation. For Marx, exploitation had a very specific meaning: the amount of value that the capitalist extracts from a laborer’s activity. If we accept Marx’s definition then we might say: exploitation is more efficient when the capitalist is able to capitalize on a greater proportion of the laborer’s labor and returns less to the laborer in the form of wages. Thus, the most efficient mode of organization would be one where the capitalist capitalizes on the laborer’s labor and returns nothing in the form of wages. This maximized state of efficiency describes what we find occurring on the Internet today. It is more efficient to not pay a hundred people to do a job than to pay one person to do that job. It is with this most basic logic of capitalism that the private conventional media must compete. So far, they are losing.

If the public wants to retain the quality of these traditional venues, I suggest we rapidly examine alternative funding models such as NPR’s or the BBC’s, which continue to remain successful, in part, because they simply remain outside the logic of capitalism. Without quick action, I fear many of these conventional media institutions will be dismantled beyond repair.

Square-eye Obama on a “Difficult Time for Journalism”

Square-eye“Exploitation,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Andrew Kliman, ed. George Ritzer


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