Week 1 readings discussion

Here’s a separate thread for anyone who wants to discuss their thoughts about the week 1 readings, since we didn’t discuss those in our lecture today (in future classes, we will discuss the readings in real time). I’d love to know what the readings brought up for folks.

This quote from The Surveillant Assemblage really stood out to me:

Privacy is now less a line in the sand beyond which transgression is not permitted, than a shifting space of negotiation where privacy is traded for products, better services or special deals.

Because of how it loops back into humdog’s discussion of commodification of the self. It reminds me of the phrase “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” because while the woman who initially coined it was in financial dire straits, you could buy it on a t-shirt or a tote bag from a million different places online. What does consent mean in this situation, with online communication? Who has control over the monetization of the phrase, with or without the permission of the person who said it? Where’s the line between public and private while expressing ideas online? Are we opting in to commodification just by having an online presence? Things like this keep me up at night.

I had to keep checking the date on The Surveillant Assemblage because it was spot on in so many ways it was hard to process it was written in 2000. Technologies Orwell couldn’t even have nightmares about, indeed.

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The Californian Ideology article made me think of the Dead Kennedys. When we think about Silicon Valley, SF, Oakland, Palo Alto…I think a lot of people romanticize the “progress” and “innovation” or at least, there is a mainstream acceptance and lauding of it.

While I feel like there is now much more criticism of the bro culture behind all of it, it’s interesting to see a critique of the bro culture or “Jeffersonian neo-liberalism” which is why it reminds of the Dead Kennedys.

There is not so much discussion concerning the price of this “innovation.” Everything from the software level to the hardware level to the abuse around the world required to mine the metals/materials for the hardware.

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I should confess here that my first masters thesis drew heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s work particularly their concepts of becoming, assemblages, the body without organs, nomadic politics, and the war machine. So, I was really excited to see the first reading, “The Surveillant Assemblage.” It was like running into an old friend while at new friend’s housewarming.

That all being said, I was not so excited once I finished reading. I think Haggerty and Ericson’s ideas are interesting, but I kept feeling like they were cherrypicking parts of theory and misusing other parts. They argue that in our current surveillant state individuals are broken down to data doubles that are de-localized from their bodies. Here they gesture towards a nomadic politic, but in Deleuze and Guattari’s work a nomadic politic is one where information is no longer tied to bodies, places, or nations and thus, free from hierarchy and systems of oppression. The double would be able to have it’s own affect and desires separate from the systems of power it stems from. Additionally, the argument that surveillance exists as a sort of rhizomatic system hinges on the assertion that the surveillance state touches everyone including those in power. However, they concede the extent and consequences of this vary, and, due to one’s position in relation to power. These differing levels again contradict D&G’s concept of the rhizome. CCTV exists and may capture us all, but as the work of Ruha Benjamin, and Virginia Eubanks show these tools are most commonly employed and weaponized against community of colors and those with less power, and thus, are data doubles are in fact more so marked by identity.

I don’t mean to tear this article apart as it did make some interesting points. I am also not asserting that Deleuze and Guattari are without their own faults as their concepts of becoming-woman, becoming-minority, and becoming-molecular definitely have some issues.

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I thought some of the labour stuff related to tech jobs was interesting too:

On the one hand, these hi-tech artisans not only tend to be well-paid, but also have considerable autonomy over their pace of work and place of employment. As a result, the cultural divide between the hippie and the organisation man has now become rather fuzzy. Yet, on the other hand, these workers are tied by the terms of have no guarantee continued employment. Lacking the free time of the hippies, work itself ho become the main route to self-fulfilment for much of the,virtual class’. (p. 3)

I feel like quite a bit of this ethos overlaps with/can easily be conflated with stuff that’s just precarity really, and that it’s impacting jobs where the degree of “creativity” or “risk” or “autonomy” is very low. ie, work is supposed to be the main route to self-fulfillment even if it’s short-term contracts for sub-minimum wage, never mind as some kind of trade-off for freedom/autonomy/etc… certainly the concept of “free time” is regarded with a lot of suspicion! (see: second jobs, side hustles, “productive” hobbies, etc.)

And that the broader point of how tech is dependent on civic infrastructure, and always has been and just refuses to admit it was especially interesting in terms of how they framed it re: the digital divide, being information rich or information poor:

Yet calls for the telcos to be forced to provide universal access to the information superstructure for all citizens are denounced in Wired magazine as being inimical to progress. Whose progress? (p. 6)

So if you refuse to admit that your success had anything to do with prior civic infrastructure you certainly can’t be held accountable/responsible for providing any yourself…

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I wanted to add a couple more thoughts about Barlow and humdog pieces –

Barlow

As a long-time fan of the EFF’s work I’d read this manifesto before, and to some extent I feel like picking apart the obvious issues here is a bit like, well, shooting fish in a barrel… so have tried to be generous with the text. (e.g. lots of problems with “the mind” as separate from everything else, and with the sort of glossing over of inequalities that existed and do exist online.)

However, this bit from paragraph 5 stood out to me:

You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist.

It definitely made me think not only of the internet but also of policing and machine learning as other categories where the powers that be are finding problems that don’t necessarily exist, or at least seriously mischaracterizing them, and then using those issues as an excuse for surveillance and violence.

And then later this paragraph about children:

You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves.

Now, the whole “digital natives” thing has been (rightly) debunked and challenged in many places (although arguably that was not inevitable and has more to do with the severe limits on computation available to the casual user in the app store!). But this idea of a lack of understanding and offloading concern for children on to bureaucracy has implications beyond the internet as well. Public space whether online or outdoors is constantly limited and controlled “for the sake of children” (of course without their input or consent). i.e., internet censorship/net nanny/etc but also things like opposition to safe consumption sites or shelters in “good” neighbourhoods.

Humdog

This piece was really interesting; I’ve read very little from women involved in e.g. the WELL and other early computing (I’ve read Stephen Levy’s Hackers book but it’s got an awful lot of anonymous girlfriends and wives…) So reading this manifesto which gets to the heart of a lot of issues with online communities from nearly 30 years ago was really cool!

For example, this section on censorship:

i have a quaint view that makes me think that discussing the ability to write “fuck” or worrying about the ability to look at pictures of sexual acts constitutes The Least Of Our Problems surrounding freedom of expression.

This is certainly still true! Certainly recently with all these platforms being held accountable-or-not for what’s on their sties, we’ve seen constant changes in laws around content moderation that tend to result in sex workers being chased off platforms while all sorts of other egregious stuff gets left in piece.

I also thought the discussion around “eco-green” was basically exactly what is still happening around green-washing and ethical consumption and more broadly the kind of “signs” that humdog brings up in terms of sort of performative opinion-having (whether it’s companies in June with their aggressive rainbow-ing or every company having to come up with some kind of BLM statement last year, even if they had no intention of making anything materially better)

eco-green is a social concept that is about making people feel good. what they
feel good about is that they are getting a handle on what amounts to the trashing
of planet earth by industrialists of the second industrial revolution.

I mean for real I follow a lot of rollerskaters on instagram and someone was posting about how in honour of earth day you should buy these leggings that are made of recycled plastic bottles but (a) not buying leggings is almost certainly better for the earth than buying anything and (b) even if the plastic is recycled it still sheds particles into the water when you wash it, which presumably you will do frequently since it is for exercising in!!! I don’t think individual choices about leggings are going to make or break us hear but the idea that we can actviely consume our way out of this is a huge scam.

Another perhaps less broadly applicable thing I appreciated was the characterization of Major Forum Drama. As someone who has been active in various online communities for more than half my life, I’ve been around when big things have happened in online forum communities – whether it’s someone dying, false identities coming to light, or group-norm-defining debates that cause big shifts in membership, I appreciated reading an essay where the person definitely understands what it’s like to be part of that sort of community and takes its conflicts seriously. (Obviously there is a lot of manufactured “internet drama” as well but sometimes the whole social-media-is-fake, real life is not on the computer, etc. goes a bit too far and dismisses the large and rich communities that have existed online for a very long time.) And I think this attitude is important too in terms of people not taking online harassment/stalking/etc seriously.

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Agreed. I don’t remember how, but I stumbled upon Aaron Swartz today. It was through looking at some database provider who was occupied by ProQuest. (Interested to see what we learn about them) Interesting to be reminded of the other side of the tech world.

Love to see what WiReD was like compared to what it is now. Not saying they have changed greatly but they heavily create and curate content on YouTube that is (more or less) free to the consumer, so long as an ad is viewed.

I think your critique is important! I included this piece in our readings because it’s foundational in the realm of “surveillance studies”, and was especially prescient being published in 2000. But I never engaged with D&G enough to recognize how much this piece got wrong about their original theory

Absolutely – and think about how much of that precarious labor is facilitated by the “tech” industry (Amazon warehouse work, Uber/Lyft, etc).

It’s mind boggling how they can continue this lie! How much of the iPhone alone was built with technology created with public funds? Either from the military (DARPA) or other US government programs (NSF) or publicly funded academic institutions? (Here’s more on that: Taxpayers Helped Apple, but Apple Won’t Help Them I read Mariana Mazzucato’s book referenced here, but I think there are better books on this subject, happy to recommend if anyone wants that).

I appreciate that you were generous with the text! I think this is the point where I disclose that I include this text in our readings because I can’t stand it. :joy: I am likewise an EFF fan (LFP works with them a TON) but this text (and a lot of the cyberlibertarians like Barlow) needs criticism. I mean, this world that he describes doesn’t exist, didn’t at the time either. The other thing about this manifesto is that he wrote it after leaving a cocktail party at the World Economic Forum in Davos. I think Barlow’s class position as a super rich dude who got to go to cocktail parties at Davos is important context. This text remains enormously influential in the hacker scene to this day.

Humdog, on the other hand, has been nearly vanished into obscurity.

More than all the others, I feel like she predicted the future, and her analysis of it, especially the commodification of the self that is facilitated so easily by being online, blew my mind when I first read it. She said this all in 1994?!? And then she kinda stopped being on the internet. And then she passed away, I think in 2008.

I would be interested for sure, and thanks for this link as well! there is a lot of weird mythology that goes into where vast sums of money magically come from in tech…

ahah well that makes sense! that’s interesting about Davos and is certainly not a good look for such a manifesto lol :joy:
and for sure the sorts of ideas in the text pop up all over – although I think lots of hackers have also drifted a bit (like that California ideology article gets at, e.g. p. 4 “other West Coast ideologues have embraced the laissez faire ideology of their erstwhile conservative enemy” but also milder versions of that) in terms of being more ambivalent about freedom/liberty/etc – ie, it was never as free/inclusive/broad-minded as they said it was even back in the day, and now it’s not even that central of a concern.

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Quick popping in–I had never heard of Humdog, so did go down a bit of a rabbit hole about her, especially about her death. (Also, Second Life! It was still relevant enough to be a joke when I was in library school (2011-13, so just after the era of “libraries in Second Life” electives), but it’s easy for me to forget just how influential it was for so many folks…)

For some additional context, I tracked down these two articles about Humdog’s death.
A Virtual Life. An Actual Death – h+ Media --one perspective, possibly very biased
Zero Dark Thirty: The Last Days of Carmen Hermosillo | The Alphaville Herald --a response to the above.

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Yes, I did the same thing and found the same articles! Likewise I was too late for Second Life to be a serious curriculum item but had seen similar jokes floating around and knew nothing else about it really so was interesting perspective for sure.