Tag Archives: internet

Beyond Surveillance Fridges and Socialized Power Drills: Social Media and the Financialization of Everyday Life

written with John Carter McKnight, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University

This past weekend, two prominent socio-technical critics have given us radically different versions of the future of capitalism in the age of social media. Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, argues in an op-ed for FT for a dystopia of toothbrush analytics, trash bin surveillance, and our personal lives being turned into marketing data and sold back to us as irresistible products and services. Meanwhile, Jeremy Rifkin in the New York Times sees similar trends leading to “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism.” These big-picture visions are important for steering us towards futures we’d rather live in. However, studying companies and consumers at the forefront of the transformative interaction of social media and financial services gives us a different picture entirely: one where old and new, privacy and sociality, onrushing corporatism and peer to peer pushback are producing a tangled, complicated, often contradictory mess – and along with it, the future we’ll probably see.

As kids growing up in Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” 80s we endured a lot of propaganda regarding drugs. One was the myth of the “gateway drug.” We were told that drugs like marijuana with few medically provable harms were highly dangerous because they were gateways to harder more evil drugs. Gateway drugs are like linkbait, hooks that bring unwitting subjects from a one innocuous practice to one more pernicious.

Morozov claims that social media is a gateway drug for the financial sector to hook us on a new range of products and services, while increasing its control over our lives. We hear that the dark insides of our mouths, fridges, rubbish bins, and cars will be scrutinized by networked and image-recognizing surveillance cameras. Videos will be algorithmically analyzed producing “data portfolios” which will be automatically used (for a fee) by third parties to adjudicate our credit worthiness, employability, and romantic fitness. As longtime admirers of Morozov’s guts and wit we’ve been pleased to see him begin (finally) to use the name and identify the problem head-on—neoliberal capitalism galvanized by ubiquitously networked humans. Continue reading

Data Havens of Iceland

Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.

Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?

Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform.  In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve.  The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.

But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche.  In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world.  The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.

AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?

Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them.  But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”.  That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection.  From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point.  That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!

AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work? Continue reading

Go read Coding Freedom

I wanted to take a little bit of time today to shamelessly plug my friend and co-author Biella Coleman’s new book Coding Freedom. When the book first came out I wanted to right a full review of it to explain that it is a full-length monograph about hackers, debian developers, anonymous, and other digital phenomena that carefully combines deep, deep ethnographic knowledge with a thoughtful theoretical contribution the literature on commons-based peer production, liberalism, and the trickster figure. Best of all, the book has been released under a creative commons license and can be downloaded and freed for free.

After taking a couple of stabs at it, unfortunately, I found that I just knew Biella too well to write a review that was neutral, or that pretended to neutrality. I kept writing sentences like “Biella RAWKS” and “Biella’s book is radz0r!!!”, which is sort of hard to massage into “this ethnography provides a substantive contribution to the existing literature on liberalism”. So instead I decided to write this ridiculously partisan plug to let you know how rad Biella is and how much her book rawks.

There are a lot of people doing cultural studies, qualitative research, ethnography, etc. on digital culture, virtual worlds, the Internet etc. and, frankly, the quality of much of this work is not very good. Much of the connoisseurship literature written by fans of video games, for instance, is better than academics writing on video games. Biella’s work bucks this trend by bringing a deep, immersive familiarity with the lifeworld she describes. At times, in fact, I think Coding Freedom does not do enough to show off her erudition in this area. Although people (including maybe Biella) will be tempted to see her work as exemplifying something new, non-disciplinary, or cutting edge, in my opinion what really makes her work so good is the way that it epitomizes anthropology’s values of immersion and description. She really knows her stuff. And after you read her book, you will too.

Who Built the Internet? We Did! (Part 5)

In 2006, according to Time Magazine, the theory of technoindividualism “took a serious beating.” In electing You to the position of the Person of the Year, Time prophesized the fourth discourse of internet historiographical revisionism following President Obama’s statement. It was not the state, corporations, or genius insiders who made the internet, nonfiction best seller author and transhuman apologist Steven Johnson claimed in the New York Times, but Us who built the internet. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? The State! (Part 3)

Despite Crovitz’s best wishes, Taylor’s Xerox PARC Ethernet didn’t become the internet as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Time’s Harry McCracken explain. Two days later, Manjoo rebutted Crovitz’s “almost hysterically false” argument. Aligning with given wisdom, Manjoo stated that the internet was financed and created by the US government. Despite being more historically accurate than Crovitz’s argument this statement is also political. In reminding the residents of Roanoke of the government’s role in the founding of the internet, President Obama, according to Manjoo, “argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure.” This argument is progressive, social democratic, or socially liberal–advocating for responsible taxation and the shared burden of national identification, and is therefore a political narrative opposed to the Darwinism of technolibertarianism expounded by the Technology Liberation Front. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? Corporations! (Part 2)

Obama may have gaffed, neoliberal assistant editors at Fox News and the Republican National Committee, exploitatively edited, repurposed, and exaggerated the speech, but it was Wall Street Journal writer L. Gordon Crovitz who mistook the misedits as evidence for US executive branch internet revisionism. Crovitz, ex-publisher of the Journal, ex-executive at Dow Jones, and social media start-up entrepreneur, attacked President Obama’s statement that the internet was funded and engineered by the federal government. “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” he idiosyncratically declared. The crux of Crovitz’s argument was focused on Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPAnet, a US DAPRA project that connected computer networks to computer networks. Taylor, according to Crovitz, stated that this proto-internet, “was not an Internet.” And therefore, most importantly for Crovitz, this meant that President Obama was dead wrong, Taylor, a federal employee at this time did not help to invent the internet. The internet was not made by engineers paid by public but private hands. Crovitz’s twist on the accepted story is that Taylor later made a different internet, ethernet, at Xerox PARC where we worked after DARPA. And it was Ethernet that became the internet. Continue reading

The Internet: Who Built That?! (Part 1)

[This is a part of a six part blog on four debates about the origins of the internet. Please see all six posts here.]

Suddenly in the wake of President Barack Obama’s untimely but ultimately non-fatal but non-optimal grammar, the question of who made what when and how much the government had or had not to do with it was up for debate. Resisting the attacks on all things federal at the tail end of the 2012 US presidential election, President Obama said to a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13, 2012:

“The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.” Continue reading

Fly-on-the-wall or Troll?

Thanks for letting me guest blog on Savage Minds this month! I’ll wrap up with some meta analysis about being an activist/anthropologist/blogger type.

I’m not a regular commenter on any websites, but sometimes I read long comment threads on controversial posts, spending enough time that I go into a kind of trance until something snaps me out of it and I’m disgusted by my own voyeurism. From these forays I’ve learned that people are quick to accuse commenters with unfamiliar screen names and unpopular opinions of being trolls, meaning they are only there to elicit a reaction. Writers can also troll for pageviews. (I don’t study online sociality or new media, so sorry if this sounds like The Internet 101: Beyond AOL.) Controversial posts often go up with the intention of eliciting reactions to raise pageviews, for monetary gain or fame or to raise awareness.

For the most part, I’m an outsider to that game. I think of my own blog as an archive of knowledge, there for the Googling, rather than part of a click-oriented news cycle. A “trending” category on my blog would probably just be an image of a skeleton covered in cobwebs. I reliably get a “great writing Doni!” comment from, you guessed it, Mom, but most people who look at my blog don’t leave comments. I do, however, monitor pageviews out of curiosity.

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LOL Anthropology

Fadormeme

Recently I’ve been rethinking my attitude towards popular trends in anthropological theory. You know what I’m talking about… that sudden realization that a whole bunch of anthropologists seem to be engaged with a theoretical framework, scholar, or empirical subject matter that seems to have come out of the blue while you weren’t paying attention. Lacan, Agamben, affect, transnational flows… whatnot. In the past I used to share Marshall Sahlins sense that these were but passing fads and that long-established anthropological traditions had already said many of the same things if we just knew where to look for it. Now I’m not so sure.

Lately I’ve been thinking that there is something productive about playing with the latest lingo. The important word is “play.” Just like internet memes, trying to fit your research or ideas into a new meme gives one a chance to see the material afresh. Hell, it can simply make it fun again, like remixing Gangnam Style with Star Trek the Next Generation, or removing all the music and adding sound effects, or perhaps even just singing it as an acoustic set.

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Selling Out

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

Over the past year, I’ve had to carefully consider the meaning of “selling out”.

Of my blogger colleagues, I’m probably the farthest removed from academia – or, at least I’m moving in that general direction. This certainly does not mean I’m abandoning research, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that I’ve all but given up on the idea of staying in academia and searching out a tenure-track position. For the time being, anyway. Instead, I’m looking to transition into the corporate world, but ideally in a way which would allow me to still do interesting ethnographic research. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit about my background and current position.

In 2011, I wrapped up my doctoral degree in STS – the first to graduate from my program under the soft four-year deadline slowly hardening under increasing institutional pressures. For years, I had labored, perhaps delusionally, under the hopes that if I was working on a “hot” and highly visible topic a job would simply materialize by the time I reached the end of the doctoral plank. For me, that topic was youth Internet safety. I developed my dissertation research with jobs beyond academia in mind, and deliberately built into the project opportunities to meet with school administrators across New York, in the hopes of expanding my contact network for eventual consulting work. I envisioned possibilites in state government, doing technology policy work. I thought I could even keep writing, given the two freelance books already under my belt.

The imagined job never really materialized. Between the economic downturn and my failure to anticipate what I’ve come to describe and recognize in others as post-dissertation slump, things simply stalled out. My dissertation research panned out in a way that made consulting difficult – schools want someone to come in and talk to kids about cyberbullying, not so much someone to tell them that the idea of cyberbullying is fundamentally problematic. State positions dried up during budget cutbacks, and I never really figured out how to get into a position that would allow me to write policy briefings. In terms of more writing, merely considering the idea of returning to Internet safety issues after almost a decade of research on the topic made me nauseous.

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Social Reading Logs

How do you jumpstart the life of the mind when you aren’t physically located in one of those rare places bubbling over with Mind? In an earlier post I discussed using Wunderkit to increase reading capacity and ‘surveil’ colleagues as one way to get something going, intellectually speaking. Since writing that post my thought have changes a bit and I wanted to talk in more detail about my thinking behind my social network use lately. First, although ‘surveil’ sounds good and is probably accurate, the branding is all wrong and it doesn’t really capture what I am trying to get at: a vital and productive community of ‘social reading logs’. Second, Wunderkit has not shaped up into a platform that can accommodate what I’m looking for (at least not so far).

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One List To Rule Them All

There are many reasons contemporary American anthropology feels fragmented and lost, without direction: the discipline has grown in size, there is no clear theoretical paradigm, etc. But beyond these reasons there is one force, more powerful than all of them put together, that accounts for our current malaise:

We don’t have an email list.

This was brought home to me recently when a European colleague emailed me and said they had an announcement they wanted widely circulated. Could I tell them the address of the American anthropology listserv so that they could post it there? I was like: uh…..

We lack a single unified way of communicating with each other. I mean, we have one of course. The AAA could easily create numerous forums for us to communicate with one another about our discipline. But in fact the blog is mostly focused on posting the fact that the staff can win industry awards or throwing up pictures of adorable subaltern children. There is no general AAA list, no system in place to quickly create section lists, etc.

It’s not that there aren’t lots of good scholarly debates on the net. We’ve formed patchwork communities with varying degrees of academic seriousness, and these have done a great job of keeping the conversation going. But there is no centralized or all inclusive place for us all — and especially not one which has all the nice affordances of a listserv: polyvocal, pushed to our inbox, long-format, familiar technologically to anyone who uses email. It’s a bit shocking really.

Or maybe it’s not. It is one thing to have every anthropologist in the UK on AnthropologyMatters or every Oceanist on ASAO — quite another thing to try to cram 20,000 people onto a single mailing list.

Here at SM we’ve often thought about starting a list of this sort, but we’ve never felt comfortable making such a hegemonic gesture. And also, no one has the time to manage it. It’s exactly the sort of thing the AAA should have tried to run with about fifteen years ago, but (to the best of my knowledge) never got around to it. While a listserv feels like an answer to me, there might be other ones — the point would be centralization, however it happens, technically.

Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading

Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…

(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?

(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment. Continue reading