As the year has progressed, my content consumption has only increased. Here are a few pieces from the past couple of months that I think are worth your time.
October 8, 2019
This wonderful and acerbic criticism by Rose Eveleth in Vox came out in October, and actually prompted some much needed conversation online, albeit not enough in my opinion. My favorite aspect of the piece was her implicit criticism of "the progress narrative," the idea that all history moves in a straight line which invariably points up. In such a world such as this, all change is good change–any change necessarily has to be a good change. It's a convenient framework for Silicon Valley because it excuses both pollyannaish predictions of the future and willful misinterpretation of the past.
Technologists’ desire to make a parallel to evolution is flawed at its very foundation. Evolution is driven by random mutation — mistakes, not plans... Evolution doesn’t have meetings about the market, the environment, the customer base. Evolution doesn’t patent things or do focus groups. Evolution doesn’t spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress to ensure that its plans go unfettered.
This idea persists in part because Americans cannot resist the allure of “progress”
This endless, punishing race in the name of “progress” is often what drives consumer behavior, too. Despite the “American dream” — security, safety, prosperity — being more and more out of reach for everyday Americans, the idea that it’s just around the corner drives people to purchase these products.
September 2, 2019
This piece from September continues to remain relevant as India–the country who has shut off the internet more than any other in history–did it again in the wake protest against its new discriminatory citizenship laws. I'll admit, I'm kicking myself for leaving India right as this long-simmering tension came to a head. I remember speaking to Jean Dréze, a well-regarded economist and activist within the country, at a conference in Raipur in September. He suggested I look at all the ways technology would be wielded to coerce India from a secular nation to one of religiously and ethnically tiered citizenship. I didn't have the time to flesh out the idea into a full-blown investigation, but internet shutdowns will invariably remain a key tool for despotically-inclined governments around the world (the US and UK should perhaps pay attention before the issue gets more personal).
Internet shutdowns have become one of the defining tools of government repression in the 21st century — not just in Zimbabwe, but in a growing number of countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, that are seeking to quash dissent.
“People always had this simplistic view that technology could only be used in one way — that it was this great tool for democracy,” said Kuda Hove, a digital rights researcher at the Media Institute of Southern Africa. But after the emergence of the shutdown, he said, “it dawned on them that the government could use technology against the people.”
August 31, 2019
Jenny Odell became very famous this year for publishing her first book How To Do Nothing. I have not read it, but just her brief distillation in this Times piece left me feeling quietly optimistic that today's attention-terrorized society can still be remedied. For anyone between the ages of 15 and 30, this article will be unnerving. It's just far too accurate. Odell captures the way constant connectivity morphs both our intake of the world and the way we project ourselves back into it. Even more on point than her problem description, however, is her solution. An artist and art historian, Odell offers sense of history as a remedy. I've found myself increasingly persuaded by such historical argument over the past few years–especially Jill Lepore's work on history of evidence–and I am glad more people are contending with idea.
The attention economy demands not just consumption but also the production and upkeep of a marketable self. The work of self-promotion fills every spare moment.
With nonstop dystopian news alerts and infinite social media feeds to refresh, the attention economy makes time feel contracted into an endless and urgent present. A simple awareness of history can help cultivate a different sense of time.
People with the longer view might stop feeling like unmoored producers of work and reaction and see themselves as actors grounded in real, historical time.
April 26, 2019
I don't think I should try to introduce danah boyd (lowercase stylization on purpose, much in the mold of bell hooks) in a single paragraph. The internet scholar is one whose work I've been increasingly coming across as I've begun peeling the onion that is "data & society" scholarship. boyd does run a think-tank called Data & Society, however, and everything I've ever read by them is crack smart. This speech was one she gave at the Digital Public Library of America conference. I love that there are still public library conferences, and I love that boyd honored the knowledge work of librarians by using her speech to inject new and profound arguments about how digital media changes how we know what we know. In this speech, she explains agnotology and epistemology in an approachable way, and even more importantly, shows why they are not just arcane academic buzz words, but urgent ideas for affecting positive changes in the 21st century.
Ignorance is often assumed to be not-yet-knowledgeable. But what if ignorance is strategically manufactured? What if the tools of knowledge production are perverted to enable ignorance? In 1995, Robert Proctor and Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” to describe the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance.
What’s at stake right now is not simply about hate speech vs. free speech or the role of state-sponsored bots in political activity. It’s much more basic. It’s about purposefully and intentionally seeding doubt to fragment society. To fragment epistemologies.