ISTC-Social @ The Atlantic

Posted on | June 24, 2014 | No Comments

As part of the ISTC-Social All Hands celebrations in May, Ian Bogost was kind enough to put together a sample of the center’s work to feature in the Technology section of The Atlantic. The fab articles below are just a taste of some of the topics and perspectives coming out of our research on campus and at Intel Labs. Enjoy!

    Shanzhai: China’s Collaborative Electronics Design Ecosystem by Silvia Lindtner, Anna Greenspan, and David Li.
    In Shenzhen, there are hundreds of smart watches, not just design prototypes. Here’s why.

    Come on Feel the Data (And Smell It) by Luke Stark.
    Digital interaction will engage all of our senses simultaneously, including smell and taste, to help us feel the impact of information in our guts.

    The Right Way to Make Cities Smart by Christopher Le Dantec.
    Most data-driven “civic apps” report problems. What if they facilitated civic engagement instead?

    QR Codes for the Dead by Tamara Kneese.
    Graveyards are becoming smart spaces, but will today’s technology last for eternity?

    The Future of Money-Like Things by Lana Swartz and Bill Maurer.
    Look at the infrastructure that makes money move to understand the future of monetary forms like Bitcoin.

    Server Farm to Table by Jonathan Lukens.
    If we know where our fresh food comes from, will we believe that it’s really “fresh”?

    Left to Our Own Devices by Margie Morris.
    Creative, unforeseen adaptations of familiar technologies can help us make our relationships more meaningful.

Social computing – year two

Posted on | June 24, 2014 | No Comments


Last month we held the second annual meeting for the ISTC for Social Computing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The 3 day event brought ~80 faculty and students together with Intel researchers and leaders to discuss plans and findings to date. We were also joined by the Board of Advisors, including Bill Gaver (Goldsmiths), Judy Wajcman (LSE), Christena Nippert-Eng (IIT) and Rick Robinson (SapientNitro).

The ISTC-Social is sponsored by Genevieve Bell’s User Experience Research Lab, and it is one of several ISTCs at Intel designed to pioneer a new form of academic collaboration with industry. In Atlanta we heard curated panel discussions on hot topics across the center’s five universities including “maker” culture, privacy, time and work, quantified society, civic data applications, design for social action, technologies of intimacy and the body and more (here’s the full program).

We also had:

• 33 individual posters in 2 research fairs over 2 afternoons, with lots of new PhD students

• ‘Inside Intel’ Q&A sessions with Intel social scientists explaining life as a corporate researcher

• Breakout sessions on areas of shared interest (values in design, speculation, and experience after the user)

Some of the areas where ISTC-Social scholars are having the most influence on our thinking at Intel include:

understanding how emerging social attitudes to privacy, exchange and trust translate to new business opportunities (Bitcoin, cryptography, security and storage). In the case of Bitcoin, its novelty needs to be understood in terms of how it extends older models of knowledge exchange and authority accorded through things like kinship structures; it signals a desire for collectively produced and recognized protocols for exchange that are bottom up and avoid the perceived biases of the existing currency, transaction and money system.

demonstrating how the maker movement is not just about new developers for software and hardware. Making captures a whole ecosystem of DIY development, distribution, and requisition that is at least partly a response to the locked down and monopolistic markets for new technology. ISTC-Social research across fieldsites worldwide reveals an emerging international trade in informal pedagogies of hacking, building and repair responding to this situation. Making isn’t just about physical locations (maker spaces) or particular platforms (Arduino) but is an enactment of historical and cultural values in concert with technologies. ISTC-Social research can help us understand cultures of innovation and ‘making do’ that value adaption, reuse and repurpose.

One significant research focus for the coming year is Civic IoT (internet of things). Looking at case studies such as the National Day of Civic Hacking, we are interested in the role of entrepreneurialism and donated labor in restyling voluntarism and social participation. The work of speculative civics is a new form of social computing that uses technology to build belonging.

Another area coming to fruition across the ISTC investigates social perspectives on time, work and value. Here is the manifesto on time that Phoebe Sengers, Steve Jackson, Kaiton Williams, Melissa Mazmanian, Ellie Harmon and I put together for our panel. It’s a way of thinking about how we might design technology differently to take account of different cultural settings for use as well as the social effects of acceleration. Look for more events and writing on this topic in the year ahead!

Forms of labour in Europe and China

Posted on | June 5, 2014 | No Comments

Forms of Labour in Europe and in China: The Case of Foxconn
University of Padua 26-27 June 2014

ROOM B1 – Via del Santo, 22 – Padova

10-11.00 Welcome and introductions

    Vincenzo Milanesi, Director of Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Education and Applied Psychology
    Antonio Varsori, Director of Department of Political, Legal and International Sciences

    Rutvica Andrijasevic (Leicester University)
    Devi Sacchetto (Padua University)

11-11.30 Coffee Break

11.30-13.00 Session 1 – Electronics: from China to the World

Chair: Massimiliano Tomba, University of Padua

    Speakers: Gijsbert van Liemt, Self-employed economist, formerly ILO
    Foxconn, the company: Past, present, and future

    Chris Smith, University of London, Royal Holloway College
    Work and employment in Chinese Multinationals abroad

    Jan Drahokoupil, European Trade Union Institute
    Foreign Direct Investment and the State in Central and Eastern Europe

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.30-16.30 Session 2 – Electronics in Europe

Chair: Marek Čaněk, Multicultural Centre Prague

    Speakers: Malgorzata Maciejewska, University of Wroclaw
    Work and life in a Special Economic Zone: The electronics industry in Poland

    Devi Sacchetto, University of Padua
    Working in a European Free Zone: Foxconn workers’ in Turkey

    Irene Schipper, Somo
    Working conditions at Foxconn in Hungary

16.30-17.00 Tea Break

17.00-19.00 Session 3 – Trade Unions and Labour Organising

Chair: Chun-Yi Lee, University of Nottingham

    Speakers: Laurent Zibell, Industriall-europe
    Co-ordinating workers across borders: IndustriAll Europe’s action at European level in the electronics sector

    Tomáš Formánek, Foxconn shop steward in the Czech Republic
    The experience of trade unions inside Foxconn plant in Czech Republic

    Li Changjiang, Labor Community Education Center – China
    Labour organizing and education for Foxconn workers


9.00-11.00 Session 4 – New features of the working class?

Chair: Ferruccio Gambino, University of Padua

    Speakers: Kateřina Kotrlá, Ngo MOST Pro – Czech Republic
    Working with migrants in Pardubice

    Jenny Chan, University of London – Royal Holloway College
    Student Workers in China

    Jack Qiu, Chinese University of Hong Kong
    Working-Class Public Spheres

11-11.30 Coffee Break

11.30-13.30 Session 5 – Global production regime, global labour politics: new research agendas

Chair: Rutvica Andrijasevic, University of Leicester

    Speakers: Martina Sproll, Freie Universität Berlin
    Contract Manufacturing as a Neotaylorist Production Regime: Linking Labour Politics, Power and Social Inequalities

    Pun Ngai, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
    Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn and the Struggle of Chinese workers

Contact: Rutvica Andrijasevic, ra238 AT leicester DOT ac DOT uk

Counterproductive: Towards mindful labor

Posted on | March 13, 2014 | No Comments

Excerpt written for iDC in the lead up to the Digital Labor Conference, The New School, November 14-6

Affective capitalism is defined by the articulation of self-fashioning practices with a productivity imperative. We work on ourselves in order to be productive, but without an overarching referent or guide for our actions. To feel productive is to celebrate as a personal accomplishment the qualities endorsed by computing technologies and management mantras alike. The current boom in productivity software draws attention to a new kind of digital labor – mindful labor – that is preparatory and reparative as much as it is obligatory. Through “Getting Things Done” (GTD), “lifehacking” and other productivity applications (apps), individuals create regimes of anticipation, protection and recovery to meet the temporality of data flows. The productivity industry depends on the promise that users can achieve their goals and reclaim ownership of their time in the face of network culture’s immersive potential.

Productivity apps facilitate the pleasure of time management, which is ultimately the pleasure of control. Their various platforms offer strategies for closure and containment, from shutting down email and non-essential communication to identifying peak performance periods and ideal moments for efficiency. With names like “Self Control,” “Omnifocus,” “Rescue Time,” even “Freedom,” these tools offer liberation as much as consolation from everyday demands. Providing mastery over extraneous matters (what management manuals have long referred to as “trivia”), human fallibilities can be avoided. GTD techniques deliver an enhanced relationship to time by focusing only on what is important, maximizing opportunities for optimal work “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi 1990).

Productivity software epitomizes the trend towards algorithmic living, in which data bits and code become the impetus for enlightened behavior. App services and pointers turn ordinary activities into objects of measurement – and hence adjustment and improvement – by a “quantified self.” GTD categorizes, with the aim of eventually finessing, different elements of a user’s world. As an instance of cognitive capitalism, the administrivia of life and labor become interchangeable. Personal and professional tasks are similar challenges to be met through superior programming. The volatility of contemporary living is transformed into actionable steps that better pace and orient our encounters with time and things. In this way, productivity apps follow a long tradition of time- and self-management.

The scientific management of the Taylorist factory, the human relations theories that succeeded it, and the self-motivated, mobile professional of the present each advance the work of monitoring and reflection necessary for peak performance. At each step in this history, productivity logic retrains seemingly natural aspects of social being towards more efficient, substantial and rewarding ends. Convivial interactions, from the pleasant to the merely phatic, become traps or annoyances that obstruct the engineering of a viable professional self. The productivity mandate evident in time management apps continues this lineage by positing the viability of focusing only on the consequential, at least for predetermined periods. That individuals have the power to control life’s unpredictability in such a way with the deployment of technological infrastructure is just the first fantasy necessary for productivity’s appeal.

The relationship between GTD, lifehacking and other techniques for living is illuminated through the ideas of both Michel Foucault (1988) and Peter Sloterdijk (2013). In different ways, these writers’ insights show that work on the self has been a key facet of (Western) modernity. Drawing out these historical precedents for productivity helps to isolate the limitations of its current manifestation as a secular ethics, or what in Sloterdijk’s terms is a kind of religion. Productivity operates at the level of practice. It is a lifestyle enacted as genre, as pure form. But unlike religion, which makes an attempt to relate the individual to a larger whole, productivity isolates and sanctifies the individual. It elevates an elite class of worker beyond the concerns of the ordinary and the collective. These two factors mark its difference from previous visions of labor and its possible politics.

In the organization era, workers gained power and privileges through association with a firm. Career ambition was couched within the terms and the “social ethic” of a company and its standing within a community (Whyte 1956). By contrast, today’s workers learn to manage themselves in proximity to a workplace that is felt to be omnipresent, even ambient (Gregg 2011). This pervasively “virtual” space and time for work is the territory of the adhoc professional. Employees are less tethered to a particular office or workplace because they are assumed to be willing to provide their own ostensibly inexhaustible resources for labor. These resources begin with the logistical benchmark of constant connectivity and stretch to include the psychological resilience of day-to-day affect management. Productivity’s requisite asociality is symptomatic of this growing experience of mobile work. Adhoc professionals are entrusted to internalize productivity, accomplish results, and maintain composure using techniques that are self-sought and -taught. The science of management thus gives way to the pseudo-science of self-help, as workers encourage themselves to focus and flourish – often at others’ expense.

The convergence of neo-humanist management practices and productivity’s anti-institutionalism obviates mutual dependence and reciprocity in the workplace, not least because of a happy alliance with the entrepreneurialism at the heart of computer culture. The story of productivity is the story of assembling the ideal subject of professional work in terms defined by machines. Combined with the mythology of Silicon Valley, the most corrosive outcome of productivity services is to advance a broader ideological project that destroys solidarity in the name of individual freedom and creativity. This situation calls for a new kind of labor politics – what I call mindful labor. A politics of mindful labor alleviates the psychological impact of performative presence, requires periods of withdrawal, and summons collective means for resisting the alienating effects of digitally-mediated work. An anthropotechnics of mindful labor issues new demands on behalf of the adhoc professional, including the right to ritual. It asserts the value of work as a fully social practice, one that has the capacity to provide individual dignity, but only once the myopic nature of the productivity imperative has been overturned.

Productivity apps materialize a mode of thinking that takes seriously the possibility of transcending the social. Such an aspiration has the effect of producing a hierarchical workplace in which trivial tasks can be delegated down to other, less powerful employees, whose inferior status prevents their recognition as colleagues. The reciprocity of the labor relation is precluded in this process, and the cooperative nature of work transactions underplayed. By celebrating this structure as freedom, productivity tools normalize notions of individual exceptionalism in the guise of effective entrepreneurialism. A faith in technology is productivity’s salve for broader ontological insecurity, even while it exacerbates divisions of labor inherited from previous configurations of work and its management.

Stripped of religious, which is to say other-facing demands, productivity’s self-affirming mantras falsely suggest an underlying “order of things” (Foucault 1970). It is this lack of philosophical substance that drives the search for an enlightened metaphysics that can assuage the accumulative bias of capitalist thinking, in the rise of mindfulness practices, for instance. For the current experience of professional life, in which self-management occurs biopolitically, mindful labor emerges as a concept indebted to the spiritual foundations of protestant capitalism, but attuned to the global conditions for business. It offers a patchwork of ontological substitutes for a system that provides little by way of spiritual nourishment. If mindful labor is a Band-Aid cure for the productivity imperative, then, in more optimistic terms it also offers a path back to the social, to the world of others, and a set of relationships that hinge on reciprocity. It is therefore one of the best means available to show that collective thinking continues, that other worldviews remain, and that entertaining them is necessary to produce a labor subject appropriate to our times.


Csíkszentmihályi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row, New York.
Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Pantheon, New York.
—. 1988. The History of Sexuality, Volume Three: The Care of the Self. Vintage.
Gregg. M. 2011. Work’s Intimacy. Polity, London.
Sloterdijk, P. 2013. You Must Change Your Life. Polity, London.
Whyte, William H. 1956. The Organization Man. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Obfuscation: Exploiting data entropy

Posted on | February 17, 2014 | No Comments

Thanks to Seda Gürses for her efforts in organizing such a wonderful day. I am still wearing my camo souvenir!

Saturday’s ISTC for Social Computing Obfuscation Symposium at NYU brought together experts in law, policy, arts, activism, engineering, computer science, design and anthropology to discuss case studies and demos exploring obfuscation – strategies whereby ‘individuals, groups or communities hide, protect themselves, protest or enact civil disobedience, especially in the context of monitoring, aggregated analysis, and profiling in (digital) space’. Speakers debated the ethical and technical costs of sending confusing, diverting, or misleading information as a ‘weapon of the weak’ in an era of inevitable surveillance and big data, as well as new priorities for consumer protection rights when organizations adopt obfuscation techniques in, for example, the realm of privacy policies.

The day began with a brief overview of the term obfuscation and the benefits of the framework as defined by Helen Nissenbaum and Finn Brunton in ‘Vernacular resistance to data collection and analysis: A political theory of obfuscation’ (2011). Their point in the paper is that obfuscation is about confusing rather than hiding; it is a chance for ordinary users to ‘take control’ when faced with encounters that are defined by information asymmetry.

Obfuscation works as an opportunity to buy time, create plausible deniability, provide cover, foil profiling and ultimately elude surveillance in situations that amount to ‘data tyranny’. Obfuscation is a more promising alternative to the common defeatism invoked by arbitrary monitoring power, i.e. when users simply ‘suck it up’ and/or ‘hope for the best’ in their transactions.

Communication scholar Joseph Turow’s complementary take on this position highlighted that organizations also routinely engage in obfuscation practices to mislead. Obfuscation is not just a technique of those without power, then. It is a means for a company to avoid ‘anything marginal to its own primary resource considerations’. Turow talked about privacy policies as a kind of phatic speech: the mere convention and the fact of presentation can have a reassuring effect on the user even if the content of a policy makes little sense or holds no binding obligation. Privacy policies often boil down to being a ‘tough luck contract’, yet they raise significant new questions (for communication studies in particular) about what is an audience and what is a public. Michael Warner is a useful reference here.

The technical sessions taught me a lot of new things to be concerned about! e.g. the practices of font probing, proxy piercing and finger printing. Demos of Ad Nauseum, Anonymouth and Vortex showcased obfuscation tools already in development. But not all of the talks focused on technology. Throughout the day, conversations regularly turned to nature and history to situate the practices under analysis.

Finn Brunton drew attention to the rare spider that sets up a decoy spider in its web to stay safe from predators. It’s a resonant illustration of how to produce confusing messages or signals when concealment is impossible. Following Hanna Rose Shell’s work on camouflage, my mind turned to the idea of exposure more broadly. Especially in open fields. I kept thinking of scarecrows! Which also made me wonder at the ways obfuscation has facilitated different modes of production. It was Finn’s mention of ‘foot dragging’ and ‘go slows’ in the industrial era that sent me in this direction.

Nick Montfort and Susan Stryker rounded out the day talking about code: in Nick’s case, the sophistication and knowingness that can underwrite the most simple and poetic computation expressions; in Susan’s, state-imposed gender distinctions that set punishing terms for legibility and recognition. Laura Kurgan’s investigation of satellite imagery was a lovely counterpoint to Susan’s talk, in the sense that it conveyed the historical assumptions that militate surveillance norms. As such, and as a result of concerted activism, the blessing is that they may pass.

As the day closed, I was most struck by how much obfuscation helps to reveal the very strong relationship between knowledge and sight in Western culture. At times, these parallels between visibility and legibility, recognition and comprehension seemed a little easy. I was much more interested in comments made by Finn, in conclusion, about how obfuscation might be used to secure a model of identity that is much less human-centric than we have managed in the past. This is surely true when we find ourselves needing protection from the way we perceive an algorithm to be reading us. Mark Andrejevic calls this threat the ‘drone logic’ of a ballistic imaginary.

I also left pondering Rachel Law’s observation that, in the move to algorithmic living – when college health insurance policies are calculated based on your father’s heart medication purchases – we are essentially post-Internet. We are no longer in the driver’s seat, logging on to discover information at random. As tailored Google search results only serve to prove, sharing information now creates opacity. Every time you send something to a friend or colleague you enclose them in your own data bubble. The techniques we need to recreate and demand the objectivity of information, in the face of data filters, is a matter of exploiting the weaknesses of ‘data entropy’.

From creatives to creators

Posted on | January 29, 2014 | No Comments


Creative – relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work


Creator – a person or thing that brings something into existence; used as a name for God.

Counterproductive: From management to managing

Posted on | January 26, 2014 | No Comments

The history of time management in the workplace draws on ideals of efficiency arising from the factory: a worker who comes to work, ‘clocks’ on and off, with discrete periods of separation and respite from the job. Extended to professional realms, the careful orchestration of activities through calendars and schedules allowed office workers the capacity to claim time for themselves both within and outside the temporal logic of the organization. The widespread take-up of online and mobile technologies and the emergence of post-Fordist data industries change this temporal configuration significantly. Today’s workplaces span time and space, resulting in a growing experience of presence bleed. Workers learn to manage themselves in proximity to a workplace that is both ambient and omnipresent. Never entirely relieved of their obligations, the default measure for productivity is an amorphous display of commitment.

Coping mechanisms for dealing with constant availability are often adhoc, as reflected in the proliferation of lifehacking plugins, services and apps. The boom in productivity platforms – equipment that quantifies tasks, privileges attention and encourages mindfulness through pervasive assistance – reflects a moment in which professionals are personally responsible for their own performance. Adhoc professionals in and beyond the organization are entrusted to internalize productivity, accomplish results and maintain composure through techniques that are self-sought and -taught. The science of management thus gives way to the pseudo-science of self-help, as workers attempt to focus and flourish – at the very least, simply to manage.

Professional subjectivity in this situation calls for technological innovations that enable performative presence on the one hand and opportunities for withdrawal and obfuscation on the other. This paper surveys a number of productivity apps, lifehacks and “Getting Things Done” philosophies to illustrate the regenerative and reflexive activities accompanying knowledge work today. Identifying these affective support structures reveals new priorities for workers and management, including the right to ritual. An anthropotechnics of mindful labor asserts the benefits of work beyond the productivity imperative.

- Abstract for SCA The Ends of Work conference, slightly amended

New page, new writing

Posted on | December 23, 2013 | No Comments

I’ve added a specific page for online features in the ‘other writing’ section to the right. This is a way to highlight some of the things I’ve been doing in collaboration with others lately. And to remember some of the feisty things I put in print a few years ago, too. One of the hardest things about moving countries is trying to integrate the different parts of previous lives. An upside of starting a new job in a new place is that the past is less burdensome. But there are times when you also crave the sense of coherence and accumulation that place and field and context – not to mention friends and family – provide.

Then again, maybe my lack of coherence is one of the things that defines me. To wit: my piece on intimacy and adultery technologies is also out in Surveillance and Society’s latest issue, just after the earlier version appeared in Anna Poletti and Julie Rak’s excellent new collection, Identity Technologies. This book has some really exciting essays and an interview with fellow traveler/blogger, Lauren Berlant. It’s consolation for someone who has, for whatever reason, found my most consistent home to be here, online.

Merry Christmas!

Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends

Posted on | December 4, 2013 | 1 Comment

On Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, Free Press (2012) and Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Knopf (2013)

Even before opening the books, you can see why Losse is annoyed with Eggers. It’s not that the content is the same, exactly – although there are overlaps that lead us to ponder. To be generous, the fact that the female protagonist works in customer service in each case is as much a reflection of the gendered distribution of labor in engineering firms as it is of Losse’s previous writing. I’d also offer – having written about compulsory workplace sociality – that Eggers’ satire merely extends cliches that are already widely available. It does strike me as odd that he would choose not to read ‘any books about any internet companies, or about the experiences of anyone working at any of these companies’ before writing a manuscript on such things, but then, maybe that’s his creative process.

The broader issue is that given the likely audience, the books are similar enough that people won’t make time to read both. Comparing Eggers’ existing profile and marketing budget relative to Losse’s, there is less of a chance that people will hear about the earlier book, let alone read it. This is, after all, the generation that spawned the acronym TL;DR (too long; didn’t read). And it is to every potential reader’s detriment that they would choose Eggers’ book over Losse’s.

Anyone who wants to understand how technology companies operate internally should read The Boy Kings. Since it is explicitly a memoir about working at Facebook, it is hard to imagine a better blow-by-blow account of the contradictions that characterize the company dedicated to ‘transparency’. The goals of the founder and visionary Mark Zuckerberg are admirable enough, to a point. But as a humanities graduate in a world of engineers, Losse is unprepared to accept the cultural insensitivity Zuckerberg’s ambition requires. The book calls out what is simple colonial zeal dressed up as technological revolution.

The longer she spends at Facebook, Losse learns that the only way to succeed is to give over to the pleasure of domination. This is a patriarchal conquest narrative at its purest. It is hardly camouflaged by Harvard insignia.

Losse finds her respite from the firm’s hypermasculinity in the desert: in the anonymous glow of Las Vegas, playing sidekick to her queer hacker friends; in the slower rhythms and ritual of her trips to Coachella. In each case, it is lyricism that keeps her afloat – the wit of an IM, a smart fiction reference (“You look pale”), the chorus of a song. It’s no coincidence that the coders love Daft Punk (“Harder, better, faster, stronger”) while she prefers Frank Ocean. “Super Rich Kids” provides the soundtrack to this memoir.

As a non-native Californian, Losse finds a poetry of sorts in the suburban instrumentality of Safeway and In-N-Out Burger. Describing these ordinary journeys gives us further insight into her worklife, as she she finds herself shopping for groceries at midnight with an overpaid hacker obsessing over bologna prices. Embracing California’s mall culture symbolizes her growing implication in a larger territorial battle, too, as Facebook fends off competitors to command a monopoly over virtual social space. The clean aesthetics of the Silicon Valley tech campus are echoed in the platform’s smooth blue and white boxes, especially in the early years. As success beckoned, and Facebook’s competitors faded, ads and apps quickly encroached upon the original page layout like so many Chipotle and Carl’s Jnr branches on Californian arterials.

The vulnerability at the heart of Losse’s story marks its urgency. For one thing, we feel every banality and inequity of the job itself. Consider that in Facebook’s early years, ‘customer service’ included the reality of answering endless email queries asking what a ‘poke’ is. I’ve yet to read anything quite so effective in conveying the mundane experience of employment in an adhoc start-up workplace. The sheer volume of work, the grind that is the email-heavy job, the endlessness, the thanklessness, the displacement of emotion and any sense of value that the work entails: this aspect of the book is unflinching.

Additionally, Losse writes of a job in which every interaction is better if it is performed to a public. Intimacy is only genuine when it is mediated and witnessed in text and image. The effect of this permanent audience is to turn every relationship into a kind of frieze or tableaux. ‘Becoming screen,’ we are robbed of the chance to register progress or duration. The cues we had for developing depth, nuance and meaning are strangely muted. This makes us doubt what we are feeling because we are never quite sure what is real, reciprocal, appropriate. On this score, if Eggers’ book entertains similar concerns, it does so in a less compelling way. Its hyperbole cannot grant empathy with the millions of users who use social media in spite of – and often precisely to fight – this ontological flatness.

What is most remarkable about Losse’s book is the love story. The friendship she shares with Thrax, a star recruit who hacks his way to employment, is the intriguing subplot that lingers. Together, they develop a cocoon that suits the strangeness of the world they are building. It is a conspiracy of care that typifies a prophylactic atmosphere.

For several years, we slept this way on work trips or social ones – they were one and the same: connected, but not quite, like the physical enactment of the AIM messages we tossed back and forth just to show each other that we are here, online, simultaneously together and apart. In retrospect it seems that this, a tangential state of connection, never total, never lost, always there at midnight when you are bored or lonely and need a slight, subtle reminder that you are loved, was one of the things Facebook was about, and it was our job as employees to embody it. Thrax’s and my insistence on a noncommittal proximity was the perfect manifestation of what we were creating for the whole world: a system devoted to potential connection, a way of being always near but never with the ones you love, a technology of forestalling choice in favor of the endless option, forever.

What does it mean for a group of people to grow up thinking they can’t risk being physically intimate? What is the sensibility that led to this? Granted, there are plenty of examples that would question this as the dominant register for online intimacy – within queer lifeworlds, in particular. But the passage above is troubling not least because it describes an even more intense notion of work’s intimacy. Here the subjectivity imagined by the employer-platform is inhabited by an employee whose personal life is compromised but not compensated.

Losse’s friendship brought to mind the hundreds of students I taught in gender studies courses in Australia: young people who saw their love lives reflected in Illana Gershon’s studies, whose relationships had only ever been experienced through technology. The Boy Kings makes me worry about the emergence of a permanently anticipatory sexual identity, one in which the precarious college student meets the inarticulate programmer.

In the move to a prophylactic culture, philosophers see a world that is isolated and protected by comforting interiors or bubbles. Screen culture is a means for us to create safer worlds to protect us from our passions so that we don’t hurt or break. Meanwhile engineers often imagine we can avoid social glitches and problems by designing them out of existence. This vision makes it possible to develop a world in which there are no dislikes.

Losse’s voice, by contrast, communicates affect. She adopts the <3 sign in her online interactions as a way to break protocol. <3 marks the emptiness that is the ultimate hangover from the stunning range of emotion expressed through social media: the panopoly of aches, anxieties, crises and crushes. These are disregarded, distracted and disowned desires that, even as they accumulate in server space, rarely materialize as profitable reflections of our own speculative thinking.

Facebook turns out to be a way to live the lives we aren’t able to enact, a repository for the necessary projections, fantasies and displacements that ease the here and now. But as Adam Philips shows, we avoid acknowledging these wishes at our peril. Fantasy’s function is to stand in for the lives we think we are avoiding, but to the extent that it succeeds, we lose the option of exploring our potential.

What remains instructive about Losse’s book is the historical curoisity that we have allowed ourselves to share so much affect in such a way that it both escapes our recognition and becomes the basis for a proprietorial cloud. This is the definitive affective economy: using social media, our fantasies are suspended out of reach, are owned by others, and become subject to algorithmic inspection.

The risk that Losse takes, in leaving Facebook and daring to explain why, illustrates the kind of courage she would like to see in more of us. She urges her readers to find other ways to touch each other beyond the convenience of the click. The decision to write a book about Facebook becomes a refusal of the very forms of attention embodied in the platform; of unthinking, anti-humanist, short-termist, superficial, unimaginative, unsubtle connection. In these accelerated times, Losse reminds us why writing at length is, as ever, a political act.

The hackathon’s civic work

Posted on | November 24, 2013 | No Comments

This week The New Inquiry published The Trouble with White Hats, a piece I wrote with Carl DiSalvo. It is an edited version of the keynote I gave at the Apps and Affect conference last month.

The article gives a brief overview of some larger conversations we’ve been having in and around Intel and the ISTC for Social Computing as we figure out the business models, labor practices and collective politics enacted by hackathons. While there are many kinds of hackathon, Carl and I are especially interested in how civic hackathons draw on a longer tradition of public duty, voluntarism and doing good. This ties in with previous work I did back in Australia, considering the arguments around civic infrastructure investments like the National Broadband Network. This new work benefits from Carl’s design expertise and experience in local community initiatives.

In future writing, we aim to explore the intersection of design and speculative thinking in hackathons, and the forms of labor and value exchange taking place in these events. For now, this first piece highlights some of the ambiguities in digital citizenship. We welcome feedback from other participants and observers.

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