MonthAugust 2013

Conspiracy theories: Why are we so fascinated?

Short Q&A in Christian Science Monitor with Jesse Walker, author of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory and contributor to the libertarian magazine Reason:

Q: What do we need to have in place for a conspiracy theory to develop?

A: Conspiracy theories emerge where three things collide. The first is our natural tendency to find patterns and creative narratives, to try to turn all these stray signals we receive into some sort of coherent order. Second is a situation that we’re suspicious of and makes us fearful. And third is the fact that there are actual cases of people conspiring. There’s a reason why there’s a legal offense called conspiracy. It’s not like being afraid of some supernatural monster that people talk about but never shows up. [...]

Q: When conspiracies get mentioned, some people accuse the believers of being mentally ill. Is that a real issue among conspiracy believers?

A: When a story catches on with enough people, we’re not talking about mental illness. If believing in conspiracy theories is a sign of mental illness, it means 90 percent of Americans have been crazy since the beginning. We’re talking about folklore. Even if it says nothing that’s true, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of those who believe and repeat the theory.

Full Story: Christian Science Monitor: Conspiracy theories: Why are we so fascinated?

Mindful Cyborgs Interviews Alex Soojung-Kim Pang on Contemplative Computing and the Distraction Addiction

The Distraction Addiction

This week Chris Dancy and I interview Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. We talked about contemplative computing, the history of meditation and more. Here’s a taste:

KF: One other thing I wanted to ask you about, Alex, it was one of the more surprising things in the book to me was that you pointed out that contemplative practices seem to have started somewhere between 800 and 200 BC as a response to colonialism, global trade and urbanization. That actually does kind of bring us back to that idea of the technologies that causes this sort of problem aren’t hammers and bows and arrows but they’re network technologies like social media comes back to that comparison of urbanization and economics and so forth. I would have thought those practices would still have developed much, much earlier in history so I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit about the research you did in that area of the history of contemplation.

ASP: There’s not a huge literature on this yet, I mean people definitely are working on it but I think that what’s distinctive about that period which historians of religion refer to as the Axial Age is that it’s the first time that contemplative practices stopped being a secret. They stopped doing things that are for initiates that are part of … It’s the first time that we begin to see people like Buddha arguing that these are and should be accessible to everyone. That they’re open, they’re public sort of in a sense that they go from or they continue to the network metaphor they go from being proprietary to being open source. Anyone can do them. Anyone can improve upon and add to them.

You can find the episode on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher, or download it directly.

Transcript and show notes

Oh, and see also my article on Pang’s book.

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The Street Art of Chemis

Street art by Chemis

Chemis is a Czech street artist. The piece above is from Copenhagen, and the hole is real.

More Chemis art at Art Crimes

Life on the Fringes of Cyberculture: An Interview with Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn

Vice interviews Gareth Branwyn, a writer for the late great Mondo 2000 magazine and author of the forthcoming Borg Like Me:

What are some of weirdest fringe scenes out there?

Well, the whole dark net world of Anyonmous, 4chan (the anonymous images/bbs where rebels, criminals, and crusaders hang out), anonymous P2P networks are pretty kooky. And things like Tor, which you can use to buy mailorder illegal drugs with bitcoin. It has been said that what you see on 4chan will melt your brain, and that’s no lie. You see things, you hear things, that you can’t unsee or unhear.

Then, of course, there’s the whole Jihadist net, but I’ve never checked that out. I’ve also been researching a feature article on sexcam sites and that’s this whole specific world and there’s very kooky stuff on there—naked yoga shows, sexual game shows, women who craft and run raffles and then masturbate when they’re done and send the craft item to the raffle winner. That’s a fascinating subculture that I don’t think anybody outside of it knows much about.

Ah yes, I’ve heard about the sexcam trend. So how do you go about researching something like that?

So far, I’ve just been watching A LOT of cams… for research. I’m establishing relationships with various models and will hopefully convince some of them to talk candidly to me about themselves and their work. This isn’t going to be a piece about the business of these sites, but rather, about the models themselves and their “shows,” who their fans are, the nature of these relationships. I think it’s rather unique and an interesting twist on DIY sex work and net-based intimacy here in the early 21st century.

Full Story: Vice Motherboard: Life on the Fringes of Cyberculture: An Interview with Gareth Branwyn

(via Chris)

The Gentrification of the Left

Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill on the friction between the “middle class” and the “working class”:

The whole concept of the 99% against the 1% is a powerful way of both focusing attention on that tiny elite who own and control the major resources globally, and of repressing the class divisions within the 99%. The 99%, the slogan of the social movements dominated by the middle class, projects a unity of the majority which has yet to be built, and which cannot in fact be built unless we first acknowledge the real differences and divisions between the middle and working classes within the 99%.

The classic Marxist view that the working class is defined by the fact that it sells its labour power to the owners of the means of production is also problematic for similar reasons. Since Marx’s time there has been an enormous expansion of the professional middle class, especially in the public sector, who in terms of income and other cultural-educational benefits are differentiated from the working class. Typically many of these professional jobs involve some sort of controlling position over the working class which further problematises the notion that the middle class can be simply incorporated into the working class. True, a number of middle class professions, such as teaching have been subject to ‘proletarianisation’ and the middle class can be on the receiving end of employer demands just as the working class usually are. Globalised capitalism is likely to make these tendencies impact further on the middle class, pushing towards a de-differentiation between the working and middle class. Nevertheless the Marxist notion that virtually everyone bar senior managers and bosses are working class points forward to a political project that has to be constituted rather than assumed as an empirical fact in the here and now.

Full Story: New Left Project: The Gentrification of the Left

(via Paul Graham Raven)

Videodrome is the best movie ever made about Facebook

Videodrome VHS packaging

Cyborgologist Nathan Jurgenson on the 30th anniversary of Videodrome:

Over the course of the film, Max comes to know a “media prophet” named Professor Brian O’Blivion—an obvious homage to Marshall McLuhan. O’Blivion builds a “Cathode Ray Mission,” named after the television set component which shoots electrons and creates images. The Cathode Ray Mission gives the destitute a chance to watch television in order to “patch them back into the world’s mixing board,” akin to McLuhan’s notion of media creating a “global village,” premised on the idea that media and technology, together, form the social fabric. O’Blivion goes on to monologue,

“The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen appears as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality; and reality is less than television.”

This is Videodrome’s philosophy. It’s the opposite of The Matrix’s (1999) misreading of Baudrillard’s theories of simulation, and it goes completely against the common understanding of the Web as “virtual,” of the so-called “offline” as “real.” O’blivion would agree when I claim that “it is wrong to say ‘IRL’ to mean offline: Facebook is real life.”

This logic—that the Web is some other place we visit, a “cyber” space, something “virtual” and hence unreal—is what I call “digital dualism” and I think it’s dead wrong. Instead, we need a far more synthetic understanding of technology and society, media and bodies, physicality and information as perpetually enmeshed and co-determining. If The Matrix is the film of digital dualism, Videodrome is its synthetic and augmented opponent.

Full Story: Omni Reboot: Network of Blood

Although I agree with Nathan’s rejection of digital dualism, I do find that the internet, or rather particular parts of the internet create a “place-like” experience — much the way reading a book or watching a movie does. Except other people are there. Place metaphors have been common since the beginning, besides cyberspace we have chat “rooms” web “sites.” Of course these spaces are real, and enmeshed with the physical, but they are also ethereal — they are unplaces. That’s part of their appeal. You can enter them from anywhere, your phone at a bus station, a cybercafe in Bangkok or your new apartment in a new city. And when you enter, you are someplace more than the place that you are physically.

(FWIW, both Neuromancer and Matrix include some concept of entanglement between meatspace and cyberspace: when you die in them, you die for real.)

See also:

Nathan on Mindful Cyborgs

David Cronenberg dossier

TV Ate Itself

ds106: Not a Course, Not Like Any MOOC

ds106 is an online learning project from the University of Mary Washington that goes beyond the usual “online course” format:

Looking for something different from the current hysteria of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? A digital storytelling course started by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), ds106 was set loose as an open course in January 2011. Yet the UMW catalog does not include such a course. Its actual course designation is CPSC 106 (Computer Science)—a small but telling example of how ds106 plays with and questions the norm.

Most classes in digital storytelling revolve around the personal video narrative form as popularized by the Center for Digital Storytelling. But ds106 storytelling explores the web as a culture, as a media source, and as a place to publish in the open. Not claiming to authoritatively define digital storytelling, ds106 is a constant process of questioning digital storytelling. Is an animated GIF a story? What does it mean to put “fast food” in the hands of Internet pioneers? Why would we mess with the MacGuffin? Is everything a remix? Though this is perhaps simply semantic wordplay, ds106 is not just “on” the web—it is “of” the web.

Characteristic of ds106 is its distributed structure, mimicking the Internet itself, and its open-source non-LMS platform. Students are charged with registering their own domain, managing their own personal cyberinfrastructure, and publishing to their own website. Via the WordPress plugin FeedWordPress, all content from students is automatically aggregated to the main ds106 site—but all links go back directly to the students’ sites.

Full Story: Educause Review: ds106: Not a Course, Not Like Any MOOC

(Thanks Audrey)

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Bull shit jobs

David Graeber writes:

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

Full Story: Strike! Magazine: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

See also: Time Wars

Not Science Fiction: A Brain In A Box To Let People Live On After Death

Fast Company on the latest in neurotech:

While their roundtable discussion admittedly sounded like a master’s exercise in strange science, the kicker is that all three are engaged in preliminary efforts to make this happen. Last year, at the resolutely mainstream MIT Media Lab, I saw Dr. Berger speak about hacking the memories of rats. Berger’s lab at USC is actively working on prosthetic brain implants that both falsify memories and stimulate brain function in damaged neurons. The lab’s work recently received media attention when it successfully generated new memories in a rat that had its hippocampus chemically disabled. In literature, Berger emphasizes his technology’s potential for treating Alzheimer’s and dementia through the possibility of “building spare parts for the brain;” on-stage in New York, he said it could also lead in the future to full-on brain transplants.

This would work in tandem with Kaplan’s and Lebedev’s specialties. The two Russian scientists research brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)–plug-in interfaces which meld the human brain and nervous system to computer operating systems. While BCIs are most commonly found in toys that read brainwaves to detect stress or concentration, they have revolutionary potential to change the lives of stroke victims and the disabled.

Full Story: Fast CoExist: Not Science Fiction: A Brain In A Box To Let People Live On After Death

Twitter ‘Joke Bots’ Shame Human Sense of Humor

@horse_ebooks

My latest for Wired:

One of the funniest people on Twitter isn’t a person at all. It’s a bot called @Horse_ebooks.

It was originally built as a promotional vehicle for a series of digital books, but in the years since it has developed a life of its own — not to mention a sizable cult following. Its tweets range from the cryptic (“I Will Make Certain You Never Buy Knives Again”) to the bizarre (“No flow of bile to speak of. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later.”).

OK, it’s no George Carlin, but it’s funnier than most of the Twitter one-liners from your friends and family — and it’s not even trying. It’s randomly grabbing text from e-books and websites.

Hackers Darius Kazemi and Joel McCoy believe there’s a larger point to be made here. For years, people have worked to build machines with a sense of humor — researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently created a program that can actually learn from its past jokes — but Kazemi and McCoy believe these academics are working too hard. Since most people aren’t that funny, the two hackers say, why not replace everyday humor with remarkably simple bots that spew boilerplate phrases over Twitter?

Full Story: Wired: Twitter ‘Joke Bots’ Shame Human Sense of Humor

Photo by Lindsay Eyink

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