Posts Tagged ‘ technology ’

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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Teaching Marx and Technology

I’m always on the lookout for work that might be useful in a sociology of technology course. I was re-reading Nick Dyer-Witheford’s (1999) Cyber-Marx and realized that the ‘Marxisms” chapter [.pdf] provides a pretty useful outline of Marxian interpretations of technology that could provide that backbone for a pretty good lesson plan.

Dyer-Witheford (p. 38) opens with the acknowledgement that:

Marx was, like all of us, a multiple. He wrote variously about technology, making statements that cannot all be reconciled one with another—or, at least, that can be reconciled in very different, sometimes radically opposed, ways.

Marx’s varied positions on technology are revealed in some oft-cited passages 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

Facebook – Homepage for a Cyborg Planet

The cyborg is a technologically-enhanced human. While we recognize and even play off of the campy sci-fi/cyberpunk vision of a half-robot that is conjured up by the term “cyborg,” our vision of the cyborgour topic of study for this new blogis at once more sophisticated and more mundane. We believe that the cyborg concept is epitomized by the ordinary person living in the 21st Century, whose everyday activities are seldom, if ever, independent of technology, whether they be for communication (e.g., cell phones and other electronic communication devices), bodily enhancement (e.g., medicine and specialized articles of clothing), or self-presentation (e.g., fashion or the social media profile).

Our fundamental thesis is that technology (exemplified by social media) alters who we are, how we interact, even how we define reality. And, in turn, we continuously alter and define these technologies. All of reality, including ourselves, has been augmented by technology of some sort, and all technology has been augmented by our sociality. As such, we are all cyborgs. And the study of this blurring of technology and social reality is cyborgology.

Facebook has become the homepage of today’s cyborg. For its many users, the Facebook profile becomes intimately entangled with existence itself. We document our thoughts and opinions in status updates and our bodies in photographs. Our likes, dislikes, friends, and activities come to form a granular picturean image never wholly complete or accuratebut always an artifact that wraps the message of who we are up with the technological medium of the digital profile. Continue reading

Augmented Reality: Going the Way of the Dildo

The Great Epidemic of Pornography"The Great Epidemic of Pornography"(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

While the term “augmented reality” uttered in a sexual context might immediately conjure the perennial problematic of the boozed, buzzed, and befuddled (commonly referred to as “beer goggles”), more nuanced analysis may prove fruitful. Fellow Sociology Lens news editor, nathan jurgenson, recently argued in “towards theorizing an augmented reality” that we need to anticipate an ascending paradigm where “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.”

To anticipate this new reality, I argue that we ought to turn to another trend in consumer culture that has prevailed for several decades. Pornography and the sex industry have consistently been a bellwether for future technology adoption in the population writ large. Remember polaroids, VCRs, camcorders, DVDs, and high definition television? Sure you do. Ever wonder why so many of our parents and grandparents bought these items so early on, even though they were expensive and still largely untested? They were probably producing and consuming pornography. Yep, that’s right: porn. Okay, so, some people had other motivations. The conspicuous consumption of such commodities certainly confers a form of social capital which appeals to many. Yet, ample evidence exists indicating that the pornography industry has influenced the adoption of a wide range of technologies (see citations below). Even the founder of Wikipedia and one of Time Magazine’s most influential people, Jimmy Wales, began his entrepreneurial career leveraging user-generated content for profit by hosting a series of user-generated porn web rings. 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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