ICA18 Day 4: labour in the gig economy; resistant media; feminist peer review; love, sex, and friendship; illiberal democracy in Eastern and Central Europe
May 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
Voices for Social Justice in the Gig Economy: Where Labor, Policy, Technology, and Activism Converge
Voices for Social Justice in the Gig Economy, Michelle Rodino-Colocino.
This research discusses the App-Based Driver Association, looking specifically at Seattle. There’s no “there” for gig economy work: previous spaces of organising, such as the shop floor, aren’t available. One space is a parking lot, where people sit waiting to get lifts. There’s one shady tree, where people tend to converge. Another space is an Ethiopian grocery store, as many drivers are East African. The ABDA is largely funded and supported by the teamsters. Drivers interviewed definitely understand that they’re producing for Uber, and that they’re being exploited. They spoke about the challenges of planning – they can’t go watch a movie. Above all, Uber sells drivers’ availability. One driver was told: “we can always get another Mohammed”. Drivers feel dehumanized. They’re not provided with toilets, there’s nowhere to pray. They’re also cautious about organising, as Uber is clearly anti-union.
Work in the European Gig Economy. Kaire Holts, University of Hertfordshire. This research aims to survey and measure the extent and characteristics of crowd work in Europe. Working conditions are characterised by precariousness (including frequent changes to pay levels), unpredictability, work intensity, the impact of customer ratings, abuse from customers, and poor communication with platform staff (including a lack of face to face contact, and no social etiquette). One driver was asked to deliver drugs to a criminal gang late at night. When she told the platform about it they said it was her responsibility to check what was in the bags. Workers face both physical risks and stresses, and issues with mental health. There are some attempts at collective representation of platform workers in Europe. In UK, for example, there’s the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain delivering Deliveroo drivers, and the United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD) representing Uber drivers.
Reimagining Work [didn’t quite catch the current title], Laura Forlano. This draws on a project with Megan Halpern, using workshops and games that helped people collaborate to imagine what work might look like in the future. One participation spoke up the importance of the shift from talking around around each other to needing to actually physically move as part of the workshop process. Shifts in work are linked to reimagining the city as a (new, urban) factory, so we need to reimagine relationships between work, technology, and the city to embed social justice values into our future.
Information and the Gig Economy. Brian Dolber.
Talks about shifting from a tenure-track position to adjunct work, and then taking up work with Uber and Unite Here (campaigning against Airbnb). From 2008 to 2012, Silicon Valley received little of the broader critique addressed at capitalism more generally. Silicon Valley can be seen within Nancy Fraser’s concept of ‘progressive neoliberalism’, but we’re also seeing a shift towards an emergent neofascism. Airbnb’s valuation is greater than all the hotel chains, which is odd when we think about ‘hosts’ as small business owners. Airbnb has created online communities called ‘Airbnb citizen’ which aim to mobilise hosts to affect city policy. The narrative is very much about facilitating people staying in their homes, paying medical bills, supporting the creative industries, which Dolber argues is cultivating a petit bourgeois attitude that shifts us towards an emergent neofascism.
The opening speaker (whose name I unfortunately didn’t get) discusses the ways in which pop feminism works, and the complexity of vulnerability. There’s a distorted mirroring of vulnerability between popular feminism and white misogyny.
Polemology: counterinsurgency and culture jamming, Jack Bratich.
We need a genealogy to elaborate and understand the persistence and connection of struggles across time.
Rosemary Clark-Parsons (University of Pennsylvania) will discuss de Certeau’s concept of “tactics” within the context of her ethnographic work among grassroots feminist collectives in the city of Philadelphia. She focuses on ‘girl army’, a secret Facebook group developed as a space for women and nonbinary people to share experiences. Tilly and Tarrow’s definition of contentious politics would exclude this group, which isn’t in line with women and nonbinary people’s solidarity and organising work within the group. De Certeau’s concept of tactics allows us to take the everyday seriously; can teach us about strategies; and allows explicit recognition of agency within systems of power. There are limitations, too, including issues with addressing differential access to agency, and theorizing structural change over time. The strategies/tactics binary can be reductive and reify power relations.
#HashtagActivism: race and gender in America’s Networked Counterpublics. Sarah J. Jackson (Northeastern University). Networked counterpublics theory is one way to understand how marginalised communities create their own public spheres. Mainstream media coverage of the public response to #myNYPD mostly treated it as ‘trolling’, or a PR disaster, that could happen to anyone. In the coverage of #Ferguson, there was a flow of the narrative from ordinary people’s framing through to social movement organisations, and finally the media. #GirlsLikeUs is a useful case, because even within counterpublics, there are people at the margins, who produce their own counter-counterpublics.
Jessa Lingel (University of Pennsylvania) focused on “mainstream creep,” referring to the uneasy relationships between countercultural communities and dominant media platforms, where the former uses the latter reluctantly or in highly-limited ways. How do we construct particular bodies as vulnerable: the language of ‘marginalised people’ is important for understanding structures of power, but does it also construct people as essentially weaker?
Gendered Voices and Practices of Open Peer Review
I opened this panel by reflecting on some of the ways in which I am currently trying to understand, and reconfigure, my approaches to both mothering and academia. I’ll put up a blog post about this later.
The Fembot Collective’s Global South Initiatives. Radhika Gajjala, Bowling Green State University. Problems for women in academia in the Global South start with the much-more-oppressive system of neocolonialism. To participate in autoethnography or other feminist methodologies would be a problem because it’s devalued within universities that see it as navel-gazing. Women need to publish in top-tier journals in order to be successful (or even survive) within their academic spaces. How do we as feminist publishers work with women in the Global South to help them access the resources that their institutions value? How do we support them without asking them to do a lot of extra activist work within their institutions? We need to think about power differences within the networks of solidarity and resistance we build across borders. It’s a messy terrain. We need to work to allow women in academia in the Global South to get access to a space where they can speak (and be heard).
Voicing New Forms of Scholarly Publishing. Sarah Kember, Goldsmith’s, University of London. There’s a seismic shift happening at the moment in academic publishing. Revolution and disruption are not the same thing. We need to understand this within the context of efforts to police and politicise scholarly practices: there’s no distinction between these two at the moment. We need to both uphold something (the trust in academic work), but also change it (the opacity of peer review processes). We’re currently seeing a “pay to say” model of academic publishing in open access, at least in the UK. “Openness” works in different ways, with an asymmetrical structure. Goldsmiths has to be open, Google doesn’t. “Open access” publishing is often incredibly expensive, especially where academics are pushed to continue publishing with traditional academic publishers. Kember cites ADA as a big intervention in these models. The disruptions of scholarly publishing models is a by-product of neoliberalism. The disruption of academia isn’t. We need to restate the university press mission, revise it, and rethink it. The policies around scholarly publishing need careful examination. The issue is not about adding ever-more OA panels, which are entrepreneurial, and technicist.
Peer Review is Dead, Long Live Peer Review: Conflicts in the Field of Academic Production. Bryce Peake, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Academics often undertake review because it gives access to particular networks. Women tend to receive much more negative feedback from review, and to engage in (be asked to do?) more peer review. There are different ways of understanding peer review: as enforcer (for example, of particular norms), networker, gatekeeper (of one particular journal), and/or mentor.
Ada and Affective Labor. Roopika Risam, Salem State University. ADA and the peer review process intervenes in scholarly systems, but is at risk particularly because of that. Risam talks about an experience drawing on theory from the margins: journal editors for a journal with a more experimental peer review process decided to shift from post-publication review to the traditional peer review process. Generosity in peer review is not the same as being ‘nice’: it’s about the level of engagement in the process. It means that the community takes seriously the project that the author is engaged in, rather than what they think the author should be doing. This means that the community has developed and perpetuated a set of norms. Even when editors are advising authors that their text is not ready for publishing, they are kind. Too often, ‘rigor’ has been set up as opposing kindness. This kind of peer review presents a challenge to the masculinist mode of academic production: it’s collectivist rather than individualist, seeing knowledge as an open system rather than a closed hierarchy. How can we look at the intersection of rigor and kindness? Scholarship is more rigorous when it makes its multiple genealogies visible, writing voices which have been made invisible back into academia.
Carol Stabile, in beginning discussion, prompted us to read Toward a Zombie Epistomology by Deanna Day, asking whether we should be should be considering a nonreproductive (or even antireproductive) approach to academia: one not concerned with leaving behind a specific legacy, either institutional or theoretical. Radhika’s answer was very much in line with my thinking on this: that in trying to rethink our approach not only to academia but also to mothering, she (and I) want to think of mothering not as a process of reproducing ourselves, but as a way of making space for children (and students, and colleagues) to be their own people. Thinking about the important challenges and prompts that (re)reading Revolutionary Mothering, The Argonauts, and more informal conversations with the many amazing people I know reflecting on their parenting experiences, have given me, I’d add that it’s also important to consider the ways in which feminist practices of peer review (and academia more generally), should not only not be about reproducing ourselves, but should be about allowing ourselves to be changed.
There was also some excellent discussion about the role of institutions (like the committees that evaluate promotions and tenure), and citation practices. In a response to a question about how to balance attempts to create change against the requirements of tenure, Carol and Sarah spoke on the importance of joining evaluation panels, both to get a better understanding of how they work and to intervene in them. Sarah notes that when we’re forced to write and research more quickly, it can be hard to find sources to draw on beyond the standard offerings. (I’ve particularly noted this myself: after managing not to cite any men, I think, in my last publication before giving birth, my writing since referring to work has relied far more heavily on the most well-known literature.) Sarah prompts peer reviewers to actively consider the breadth of sources that research draws on.
Love, Sex, Friendship: LGBTQ Relationships and Intimacies
Lover(s), Partner(s), and Friends: Exploring Privacy Management Tactics of Consensual Non-Monogamists in Online Spaces. Jade Metzger, Wayne State University. In 1986 a researcher surveyed around 3,000 people, and found that 15-28% of that population didn’t define themselves as monogamous, and more recent research has also found that many young people don’t define themselves as not strictly monogamous. Consensual non-monogamy is often stigmatised. How do we understand disclosure of consensual non-monogamy? Metzger notes that one of the main researchers in this area doesn’t engage in consensual non-monogamy herself. Metzger’s research, which included open-ended interviews and self-disclosure, found that self-disclosure varied, including ‘keeping it an open secret’, using ambiguous terms (like ‘friend’ or ‘partner…s’), or using terms open to interpretation (‘cuties’, ‘comets’, ‘cat’). Reasons cited for privacy included family disapproval, repercussions at work, harm to parental custody, and general discomfort. Privacy is often negotiated at the small-group community level: self-disclosure often implicates others. For some, social media is a risk that has to be navigated carefully: blocking family, for example, or using multiple accounts. Often, it can be hard not to be connected online: it can be painful to not be able to acknowledge people important to you online. Some sites don’t allow you to list multiple partners, embedding heteronormativity into their structure. We need to see privacy as negotiated at the community level (as opposed to individually, as many neoliberal approaches to privacy understand it). The transparency of networks on social media places risks and burdens on those wanting (or needing) to remain private.
Does Gender Matter? Exploring Friendship Patterns of LGBTQ Youth in a Gender-Neutral Environment. Traci Gillig, USC Annenberg, Leila Bighash, USC – Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Gender is not a binary, but we constantly encounter spaces structured by the social gender binary, and gender stereotypes. Gender is a major driver of peer relationships among youth, including LGBTQ people. This research looked at the Brave Trails LGBTQ youth camp, which is gender neutral. Gillig and Bighash found that here, were students weren’t separated out by gender, friendship groupings didn’t cluster by gender.
Hissing and Hollering: Performing Radical Queerness at Dinner. Greg Niedt, Drexel University. The word ‘radical’ is often seen as a confrontational challenge to the mainstream, which is certainly a part of it. But radical queerness can also be about more quiet, everyday moments of queerness: the queer ordinary. In discussing radical queer ‘family dinners’, there is an act of radical queerness to reconstituting family as chosen family. Radical Faeries came out of activism in the 1970s, borrowing – or appropriating – from various forms of paganism and spirituality. Harry Hay was particularly central (and some of his statements about what it means to be queer are kind of what you might expect from a relatively privileged white man). Existing research is limited, and focuses on the high ritual and performativity. Niedt focuses, instead, on weekly fa(e)mily dinners in Center City Philadelphia. The research methodology drew on Dell Hymes (1974).
Music in Queer Intimate Relationships. Marion Wasserbauer, Universiteit Antwerpen. Thea DeNora discusses music as a touchstone of social relations, but there’s a dearth of beographical analysis of sociological study of music consumption. Wasserbauer talked about one interview in which a 44-year-old woman tracked the entanglement of her relationship with music, and how after the breakup she’d never experienced music again. Another 27-year-old-woman, who mostly enjoyed classical and 1920s music, found herself almost crying at a Bryan Adams concert she attended because a woman she was in a relationship with loved him so much.
I rounded out the day at an excellent panel with Maria Bakardjieva, Jakub Macek, Alena Macková, and Monika Metykova (I think – the last two were not listed in the program), discussing attacks on media and political freedoms in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Metykova outlined the incredibly worrying range of attacks on independent press and political opposition in Hungary (some of which are outlined here), noting that these have been legal and difficult to fully track, let alone resist. Becasue there a small audience (the last panel on the last day sadly often suffers), it was more of a discussion and I didn’t take notes in the panel, but I strongly encourage you to follow up the speakers’ work – and the situation in Central and Eastern Europe. It was a bit strange to me that ICA as an institution did little to address the specific situation of communications in the Czech Republic – the odd floating ‘placelessness’ of Western-centric academia (with numerous panels addressing US politics).
November 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
The Creating Knowledge session opened with Julian Unkel and Alexander Haas’ work on ‘Credibility and Search Engines. The Effects of Source Reputation, Neutrality and Social Recommendations on the Selection of Search Engine Results.’ Using a model of search engine results they added different credibility cues, including markers of the reputation of the source, neutrality of the source, and social recommendations. Students participating in the experiment tended to choose ‘high neutrality’ sources, and also preferred links with a high reputation (news sites).
Reputation influences the probability of selecting a result, but has a weaker effect than rank (how high a source turns up in the search list): other credibility cues don’t have as much of an impact. This leads to two kinds of theoretical conclusion: firstly, that people think about credibility in a secondary way; or, that search rank is seen as a credibility cue. Future research will include modelling images with Google rather than DuckDuckGo, focusing on source cues, and looking at dwell time on different sources.
Next up, Colin Doty talked about ‘Believing the Internet: user comments about vaccine safety’. This research tries to understand misinformation on the Internet. The general theory is that the Internet increases information (because anyone can post; AND/OR it’s easy to retrieve; AND/OR spread of information is rapid; AND/OR echo chambers develop). Doty, instead, focuses on understanding why people believe what they do. He focuses on vaccines because this isn’t a case where there’s uncertainty in the research: instead, like climate change, there’s a strong consensus claims truth and a tiny minority in the research community disputing them (much of it, like Wakefield’s study, discredited).
Thinking about the kinds of claims being made online opposing vaccines, one issue is the way risk/benefit analyses are framed (for example, claims that only one person in a thousand dies of measles while vaccines are “putting everyone at risk of autism”). Searching for “vaccines” on google leads to autocomplete options that include “vaccines cause autism”, and search results lead to breakdowns that over-represent the risk of the vaccines, compared to a straight literature search/meta-analysis (turning up a much higher proportion of anti-vaccine search results than exist in the research).
Other routes to misinformation online include the use of ‘common sense’ reasoning (“it stands to reason that vaccines must…”), motivated reasoning (people’s desire to hold onto ideas they’re emotionally attached to, and the emotional nature of concerns around children’s safety), the spread of personal stories and claims to authority around this (sharing personal anecdotes about vaccination – “my child got vaccinated and the next day they had extreme behaviour changes” – that are used to push back against doctors’ claims of authority). There’s also a new claim to authority being made: parents “do their own research”, arguing that the Internet is leading them to an unobscured truth. This kind of motivated reasoning can be linked to echo chambers theories: that people go looking for information that will support their felt beliefs. One notable trend found here is the rise in the perception of the ability to know, as anti-vaccination advocates claim that “the internet has empowered me with knowledge/research”.
Nicholas Proferes followed with ‘A heuristic for tracing user knowledge of information flow on SMSs’. The problem he’s addressing is the vast user misunderstanding of how social media platforms actually work. For example, users not knowing that Twitter is public by default; Facebook users’ lack of knowledge that their newsfeed is based on an algorithm; Occupy accusing Twitter of censoring Trending Topics – subsequent analysis showed this was actually because the Trending Topic algorithms measure changes in velocity, not ongoing volume; and user responses to the Library of Congress Twitter archive – many users didn’t realise that Twitter was saving their tweets.
All of these issues relate to users’ knowledge of information flow. This matters because our knowledge of information flows on SMS allows us to gauge risks for information disclosure, make meaningful decisions about use, and participate in governance decisions. In part, our knowledge about information flows allows us to push back: our power is limited, but we can participate in networked power (like organising with friends not to use Facebook). However, there’s comparatively little research on the intersection between how information flows online, and how users think information flows online.
Understanding how information flows online is a difficult task: it requires understanding algorithms and design, but also policies, and economic structures. Drawing on Jose Van Dijck’s critical history of social media, Proferes understands information flow as constituted by both technocultural and socioeconomic flows. For Twitter, understanding its system of information flows requires looking at Twitter’s development, user guides, EDGAR search results (NYSE filings), and source code, among other things.
Finally, Leah Scolere and Lee Humphrey’s work on ‘Pinning originality’ examined the curation practices of creative professionals. This starts by understanding Pinterest as a visual discovery tool for finding ideas, and one which privileges curation over creation. This research drew on interviews and participant observation with professional designers. Pinning practices among this group highlighted the idea of originality as performance, process, and product.
Originality was defined differently from how we might expect, here. Rather than being about pinning images taken by the users themselves, it was about taking content from outside Pinterest and pinning it (rather than repinning other’s images). It was also about taking offline design strategies and taking them online, for example, by collecting and effectively curiting inspirational images.
Pinboards are a means for designers to present themselves, as a performance of their identities as designers. Therefore they include a lot of design-related imagery (and a distance between this and what they saw non-designers as pinning, for example, there were no health, recipe, or workout tip pins). Originality as a process was limited by how you can curate a Pinboard, so designers would take a large private Pinboard and repin onto smaller Pinboards. Pinterest allows three private boards: use this as a space to ‘safeguard process’ and try out more ‘edgy’ ideas. There were also links between offline practices and Pinterest use, including face to face discussions between designers about group Pinboards, and conversations about the effort involved in developing Pinboards. Finally, the visibility of pinboards made them into a product presented to others: a way of inspiring imagined audiences.
The next session, Design, opened with Ben Light’s ‘Anyone Here Around Now Today: digitally mediated public sexual cultures’. The ‘real name Web’ is often posed as establishing trust (somewhat disengenously, given companies’ commercial interests in users’ providing their real names), and presented as a passport to authentic connection. However, there are still many spaces where connection happens through pseudonymity. Light draws on Nancy Fraser’s work on subaltern politics (shaped practices that are culturally unacceptable and often also illegal) and work on public sexual cultures from Frankis and Flowers to understand Grindr and other apps as tools to help you connect with other people. Frankis and Flowers differentiate between ‘public sex environments’ (not meant for sex) and ‘public sex venues’ (meant for public sex). Light instead talks about ‘public sex locations’ – as the distinction is not so neat.
This research obviously poses significant methodological and ethical challenges. Data collection draws on user comments and geolocated sites. Data is scraped and anonymised, with pseudonyms from site removed. There are many decisions not to use data in particular ways, and comments aren’t directly quoted in case they eventually become searchable. Getting participant consent was neither possible not desirable.
Next James Malazita talked about ‘Non-Humans as meaning makers: Elizabeth as a co-designer of Bioshock Infinite’. Malazita asks, “who counts as a who?”, arguing for the affordances and agency, but also a subject position, for technologies (and specifically the non-player character of Elizabeth). He talks about Elizabeth as a ‘her’, a meaning-making subject [and, somewhat jarringly, Malazita also only referred to the hypothetical male player as ‘he’]. The original plan for Elizabeth was for her to be saved by the player, but for the player to rapidly find out that Elizabeth’s in-game power eclipsed theirs.
However, there’s a contrast between the potential of Elizabeth’s power, and the actual gameplay (in which she mostly hides in corners). Ken Levine talking about design of Bioshock: ‘she was the shark in Jaws’, talking about her as ‘falling through the ground’, ‘staring creepily’…a designed object, but also a ‘she’ who didn’t do what they wanted her to. ‘Elizabeth contributed to her own design’.
Jeffrey Holmes followed with ‘Teaching as designing: creating game-inspired courses’. Holmes notes that experiences, and specifically good experiences, are important for learning. A lot of teaching is about designing good experiences, which means students should have:
- Something at stake (affective involvement),
- Specific actions to complete,
- Clear goals,
- The ability to plug in to other tools and minds, and
These are all also found in video games. This leads to a lot of literature on gamification. THis problems with this is that there is often too much focus on ‘the game’ (including the game mechanics, which means that students end up playing the game rather than the course, and there are metaphoric layers that interfere with learning). We ask teachers to be game designers (which requires skills that take a long time to learn), and end up with games that may not align well with course goals.
Instead, we might ask what video games can tell us about teaching. Holmes does this by looking at two courses he’s taught that draw on lessons from video games. Some of these lessons include the value of:
- Using a World of Warcraft party model to cultivate and resource distributed knowledge skills.
- Allowing customisation and problems with multiple solutions.
- Treating learners as co-designers and agentive participants.
- Structuring ways to gauge how a learner is doing, and where to go next (where to next is the far more important part).
- Providing ways to develop a critical narrative for their learning (including how to think of their learning as meaningful; and progression not just of skills but as a journey through identities).
Finally, Helen Kennedy presented research on ‘The Role of Convention in Visualising and Imagining Data’. With the growth in available data, access is often through visualisations: this means we need to think critically about how visualisations are produced, and about how they produce data. Part of the skill in understanding visualisations is understanding that something (data) has been transformed; there’s a difference between seeing visualisations as “windows into data” and visualisations as purposeful mediations of data. Visualisations are purposeful acts: results of decisions. But the resulting visualisation pretends to be coherent and tidy, and removes traces of the interpretation involved.
The power of charts is that they communicate numbers, which people see as trustworthy. There’s an ongoing belief in ‘doing good with data’, and an idea that visualisation makes data transparent and accessible. In interviews with visual designers, they talked about trying to empower people with their visualisations, in part by representing data accurately; including links to sources; and recognising that choices are involved in creating visualisations. We need to take seriously what visual designers say, including their idealism about their work.
Visualisation conventions constrain what visualisations do. Conventions do rhetoric work, play a persuasive role, hide the messiness of visualisation. For example, the use of two-dimensional viewpoints creates a sense of objectivity (use of three dimensional views is frowned upon, as it makes it harder to view data…this makes sense, but also ‘encodes objectivity’ in the two-dimensional viewpoint). Geometric shapes and lines create a sense of order. Citing data sources makes the data look transparent, which does persuasive work – it gives an aura of truthfulnes (which means many of us don’t feel we need to go back to the source, and couldn’t understand it anyway.) We need to think about all of this critically to understand practices surrounding the production and consumption of visualisations.
Theorizing the Web, Day 1: cache flow & code queering & racial standpoints & magic & music & concrete dust
April 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
Theorizing the Web has been fascinating, but a bit of a shock to the system after AdaCamp. TtW is gloriously DIY, which has a lot of benefits: it’s particularly great to see an academic(ish) conference that’s open to activists and artists, and not hideously expensive to attend. I did miss the efforts AdaCamp went to in building a safe and inclusive space (including having a clear photo policy, pronouns on badges, and marked walkways for accessibility) – TtW has an anti-harassment policy, which is a great start, but I’d love to see a few more active steps around publicising and extending this policy.
As usual with events like this, I’ve tried to summarise a few of my notes for those who couldn’t make it (and Future Me), but I strongly suggest you check out the program, tweets, and livestream for the conference: there were so many great sessions I couldn’t go to, and of course my notes have been edited down (and tend to get shorter and shorter as the conference progresses).
The first session I went to, Cache Flow, kicked off with Zac Zimmer’s historical perspective on Bitcoin, linking the economic, environmental, and social impacts of sixteenth-century silver mining in the South American region of Potosí with Bitcoin. Zimmer pointed out that the ideology behind Bitcoin reveals a very particular (and circular) understanding of currency: Bitcoin is modelled on gold (and therefore scarce, and increasingly difficult to mine) because gold is seen as an archetypical currency, and gold is seen as an archetypical currency because it is scarce and increasingly difficult to mine. At the same time, this model demonstrates a lack of awareness of the environmental and social externalities involved in mining, which was horrifically destructive in Potosí.
Trebor Scholz lightened the mood briefly by opening his talk, “Okay, tardigrades”, and pointing out that these microscopic animals are much more well-suited to the rigours of capitalism than us unsteady, exhausted humans. Scholz outlined some of the ways in which digital technologies are allowing for increasing surveillance and atomisation of workers, from Amazon warehouse workers fired for spending a few minutes standing ‘inactive’ to the Mechanical Turk. Online platforms become digital bottlenecks for insecure and precarious workers. Scholz ended by outlining some of the ways in which we might “rip out the algorithmic model” at the heart of the ‘sharing economy’ and make something different, taking the corporate mediation out of the picture and using apps or other digital technologies to build worker-run and/or unionised alternatives. Examples to check out include: Turkopticon and the Transunion car service in NYC.
Next up, Andrea Hunter talked about crowdfunding, Crackstarter, and changing journalistic norms. She argued that while many journalists are trying out crowdfunding, this isn’t a sustainable alternative to funding problems in the long term. Crowdfunding requires negotiating new ways of engaging with funders/audiences, and new ways of trying to preserve autonomy while building this engagement. Many journalists currently using crowdfunding are hoping to use it as a step towards setting up new arrangements with advertisers (based on crowdfunding as evidence of a substantial audience).
Finally, Reubenn Binns explored the idea of selling our own data as the answer to our privacy concerns. This talk raised some thought-provoking ideas about how we respond to and resist the incredible levels of data-gathering taking place today, often with the goal of more effectively marketing at us. He argued that while selling our data ourselves can be tempting, doing so undermines our autonomy (as it gives marketers tools with which to more effectively manipulate our desires). However, in doing so he referred to a set of goods and services which it is ‘inherently morally problematic’ to exchange, citing sex work along with voting, indentured labour, selling organs, and other examples – this reference to sex work as inherently problematic (and particularly the reference to sex work as ‘prostitution’) wasn’t necessary for the argument, and has many fierce critics.
The second session, Code Queering, open with Dorian Adams and Steven Losco‘s discussion of ‘Viral Martyrs: Gender Identity, Race, and the Digital Construction of Victimhood’. They argued that allies and media brought attention to the 2014 suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn while violence against so many trans people of colour is largely ignored in part because she was white, young, middle-class, and from the suburbs, and her parents could afford conversion therapy. This mean coverage and support for Alcorn “did not require acknowledging existing networks of domination beyond a bounded notion of transphobia”. In contrast, despite the fact that trans people of colour (and particularly Black women) make up 70% of LGBT-related murders in the US, public attention to these victims limited, with media coverage frequently misgendered them, and either implying or explicitly referring to a real or imagined history of sex work.
Max Thorntorn continued the discussion of trans issues, beginning by noting that Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note talked about being isolated from her online communities by her parents’ confiscation of her devices. The Web, Thornton argues, can become a prosthesis for trans people, not just in the sense of extending or supplementing the self, but also in a more transformative way. Social media accounts and online communities can offer trans people who are not able to safely come out a space in which they can explore their identity, and be recognised by others. The web doesn’t just extend the borders of the self, it dissipates them (we are all cyborgs now). This encourages us to divest ourselves of the fallacy of the discrete, atomised, individual self. Thornton argues that this isn’t just theoretical: we need to take trans people’s gender identities seriously, which means recognising that a laptop and wifi can keep people alive.
Next, Chelsea Summers (standing in for Fuck Theory) talked about gay cruising apps. She/they argued that while common understandings of cruising apps tend to create a binary between cruising online and cruising in person, the actual shift is from a mode of cruising in specific times and places to constantly and ever-presently cruising.
Finally, Dorothy Howard talked about gynoids and geminoid: falling in love with machines. She asked why, when we think about robots and AI, we’re usually asking questions about whether we’ll lose our humanity, rather than about the new forms of intimacy we might be creating? How do algorithms change love? And how, when we think about loving machines, might we explore issue of intimacy, social function, and alienation. (For those interested in these issues, I also recommend my colleague Eleanor Sandry’s Robots and Communication.)
The Racial Standpoints panel was in one of the upper rooms with pretty poor acoustics, so please excuse brevity/errors in my notes. Kyra Gaunt opened by dedicating her work on ‘The Bottomlines Project: YouTube, Segregation and Black Girls’ to Jaime Adedro Moore, who was involved in one of the original YouTube twerk teams and was murdered in 2014. Gaunt and her students have found and watched over 800 hours of twerking videos by black girls on YouTube. She notes that as twerking (which comes out of a number of different African-American and African dance traditions) has become more popular, there are more white girls sharing twerking videos online. Videos by white girls tend to get more views, and more supportive comments, than those by black girls. Perhaps most worryingly, videos by black girls are often posted by older white male users, and/or might share identifying information or receive comments from men trying to make contact with the dancers. Gaunt notes that there are some important ethical issues with this research, including how to present it without revealing information about the girls themselves.
In the next presentation Julia Michiko Hori discussed the ways in which TripAdvisor reveals (or conceals) the relationship between tourism and traumatic histories. Reviews on the site unmask both an anxiety about, and the banality of, systemic historical erasure. Even those who are engaging in ‘cultural heritage tourism’ often post about their experiences within a colonialist framework, in which they are explorers overcoming the challenges of mosquito bites, uncovered food, and overpriced gift shops. These reviews reveal a desire for all places to be welcoming to (Western) tourists, no matter how historically hunted they are.
Louis Philippe Römer‘s Caribbean Visions of Digital Dystopia looked at Facebook demons and trickster prostitutes. He opened by reviewing the history of the Caribbean as the ground-zero of european colonisation, and talking about the ways in which this has shaped ICT infrastructures in the Caribbean today: telegraph networks integral to colonial trade have been replaced by internet cable networks. This
has enabled rapid adoption of internet and other ICTs in the Caribbean. However, at the same time there’s often little support for, or recognition of, a local manifestation of Web communities: Facebook, for example, doesn’t even recognise Curaçao as a location.
Mikhel Proulx closed the session talking about ‘Digital Natives: Indigenous Cultures on the Early Web’. He opened with an acknowledgement of the Native history of Manhattan (the only acknowledgement of country I’ve heard at a North American conference, as far as I can remember). Proulx spoke both about the colonialism embedded in many Internet spaces (such as the resonances in browsers ‘Explorer’ and ‘Navigator’), and of early attempts by Native artists in particular to make room for indigenous perspectives online, including on CyberPowWow and the Zapatista’s Internet presence.
I was quite curious to see what Magic, Machines, and Metaphors would be about, and it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of the overlaps and disjunctures between how we think about (and practice?) magic and technology. I really can’t do justice to the beautiful, rambling, conversation here, and I recommend checking out the tweets from the session. Participants Ingrid Burrington, Melissa Gira Grant, Karen Gregory, Damien Williams, and Deb Chachra invoked magic as a metaphor for structures of power, but also for resistance. Williams spoke of both magic and technology as systems that are unknown to us, unworkable to us, unless we take the time to become initiated, and Chachra pointed out that for technology, that process of initiation is often made pointlessly difficult in ways that exclude many people.
Chachra has no interest in making technology seem like magic, making it more arcane and inaccessible than it already is. Burrington talked about how this technology-as-magic frame is simultaneously criticised by the crypto community (“crypto’s not magic, why don’t people use it properly?”) at the same time as many people imply that they’re wizards in the area. She also did a cool project looking at the NSA and the occult after seeing an astrology magazine doing star charts for Snowden and the NSA as a lens to talk about surveillance. “What does it mean to make a star chart for an institution? You have to give it a birthday for a start.” That might seem ridiculous, she says, but at the same time it makes about as much sense as killing people based on metadata.
I also liked the efforts to think through relationships between magic and capitalism. Karen Gregory’s work on Tarot practitioners tracked ways in which this was often a response to being pushed out of a precarious economy, with Tarot becoming a means of survival. Magic as a means of survival and resistance can take many forms – Burrington’s mention of bots as a way of conjuring familiars made me think of this recent anti-troll campaign, or heartbot. At the same time, we can’t forget that capital is always seeking expansion and enclosure, so talking about magic (or otherwise exposing our spaces of resistance) is always risking their commodification.
This linked in with discussions about anglocentrism and appropriation: what does it mean that many of the magical traditions that we draw on are so Western? What does it mean that when tech culture draws on other spiritual traditions, it often does it in ways that are appropriative, or about turning them into tools for productivity?
The keynote to wrap day one focused on Music and the Web. I admit I was a little exhausted at this stage and so I’m not going to try to draw on my rather-incoherent notes too much: again, I highly recommend checking out tweets from the session. Participants Sasha Geffen, Gavin Mueller, Robin James, Reggie Ugwu, and Naomi Zeichner brought up some great points about the changing nature of celebrity and fan labour, and about how social media is shifting practices around not just the sharing of music, but also how it’s composed and produced.