Now That the Holiday Season Is Upon Us…

Earlier this week I came across this article entitled “Will You Be Taking a Vacation in Virtual Reality This Season?” and I found it was quite entertaining.

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte pictured himself being transported to the Swiss Alps from his own living room in Boston already in 1995. Even though virtual reality cannot compete with the real experience of actually going somewhere, it makes a lot of sense that a growing list of airlines—including Etihad Airways and United Airlines—and vacation spots are becoming more and more involved with VR technology. These types of digital options are able to give customers a more detailed experience of their potential destinations and potentially make them want to visit the real location. Some of them can be viewed online—via YouTube and Facebook—but others do require special viewers—such as Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard. On a different note, VR can also give access to unlikely destinations and places off-limits to ordinary vacationers.

In any case, VR is getting closer to the real deal. What is also really interesting to me is the fact that Sue Thomas, author of the blog Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace, concludes the article by bringing up digital scent technology, and how it still is “the Holy Grail of virtual reality” nowadays.

Trump & Wireless Emergency Alerts

I was recently watching the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and, in one of his sketches, he mentioned something that I personally had not realized about yet: Donald Trump will be able to send unblockable texts to every American starting January 20th. I am particularly curious to see how things are going to turn out from here on out, taking into account we are talking about a President-elect who has shown no hesitation when it comes to firing off tweets on social media.

Until this moment, we have received Wireless Emergency Alerts (or WEAs) on US soil mostly concerning weather warnings or Amber alerts. According to the Federal Communications Commission, WEAs can be released for three different reasons:

A) Alerts issued by the President
B) Alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life
C) Amber alerts

Guess which one of the above cannot be blocked.

However, it is also true that all 90 character WEA text messages are issued through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. With that being said, these texts must pass through at least one more layer before being released throughout the Nation. Moreover, access to this system usually takes two different training courses, apparently. As Jake Swearingen points out in this article, getting access “requires some time and effort […] it’s hard to imagine Trump (who doesn’t use a computer) learning how to do on his own. Which means he would need the help of his support staff to issue a WEA”.

In any case—and taking into account how the electoral campaign and the election went—I am sure this will also be another controversial topic come Trump’s presidency.

(I hope you all had a great last day of class yesterday presenting your final papers.)

Surfacing from Nicole Starosielski

I had reached out to Nicole Starosielski at NYU about an excerpt from The Undersea Network that describes her visit to a cable station in the Philippines. I was curious about the stark differences between this part of her narrative and descriptions of other locations like Guam that feature prominently in her book. When she reaches her destination outside of Manila, she notes the visibility of the cable station but describes a place that is almost abandoned or neglected. Nicole Starosielski replied with a list of links to cable stations in the Philippines from the Surfacing digital project related the book. Below are a few of them:

And if you can, take a look at her team’s interactive underwater cable network project:

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The Future Pitfall of an Evolving Digital Landscape

As I was scrolling through my usual feed this morning consisting of ten different platforms with ten similarly guarded accounts, I came across the news that a recent malware exploit, dubbed “gooligan” compromised 1 million Google accounts. The exploit roots your phone (if it is running any flavor of android 4 or 5) and compromises authentication tokens. The process continues by installing unwanted apps to your phone linked to the malware, and rates them to raise the app’s reputation. People (not including myself thankfully because I run the latest OS [Nexus and Pixel users get special treatment]), then flocked to usual safe havens like or to see if their details were compromised. If details were compromised, users have to evaluate their situation with a list of questions:

  • How many accounts was my Google account linked to?
  • Do I use the same information for multiple outlets?
  • Why haven’t I changed my password in over two years?
  • Did I feed my dog this morning?

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The Value of the Private Platform

I wanted to reiterate a notion that I brought up in class regarding social networks and online communities. The topic of how susceptible digital media such as social network feeds, advertisements, results to search queries, etc. is frequently discussed as a parallel to the openness and freedom that the Web affords us. By being open to all users, the web and all of its constituent parts are also open to corporate, political, and illicit exploitation. The trade-off has always been the universal access to these forms of media, which effectively places the price to access in compliant, even passive, participation in a highly exploitable format of social and cultural mediation.

I mentioned in class the value of closed networks citing the now-retired What.CD music sharing community. My suggestion is effectively challenging the benefits of “open” access to digital media against the benefits of maintaining social, political, cultural, and all other possible kinds of assemblages in a more controlled format. Because private trackers for music (or any other types of digital media) are not available to any and all persons who happen to stumble upon the site to become members of the community, the capacity for external parties to exploit this platform is severely diminished. However, the way that community operates can be dramatically unchanged from that of freely accessible platforms because, as The Stack and  other readings pointed out, how people exist within this digital spaces is directly shaped by the protocols that enable those spaces to exist.

An inevitable contrast between public and private platforms for sharing and consuming media is the influence that unintended parties may have within those communities. (Here I mean that these parties are considered unintended or unwanted by the community itself, not by the media platforms that directly invites and profits from this participation.) Facebook, for instance, is dealing with the criticisms that its daily feed algorithm allowed fake news stories to influence how the consumers of those stories voted in the presidential election. Facebook, however, profits heavily from the public nature of this service and through the access it grants to explicit corporate entities in the form of advertisements and data-mining. The ease of access to Facebook also ensures that it becomes a dominant figure in social media further increasing its profitability. Not all “unwanted” participation is explicit or conducted with Facebook’s approval; The use of surveillance, scamming, phishing, and bullying are just a few examples of how being a public domain facilitates highly destructive entanglements between the community and those parties who wish to exploit the high degree of congregation and access this community allows.

In summary, perhaps the value that social networks, digital media, and constant connectedness offer to consumers is minuscule in comparison to the value we hold as consumers who are compliant in their own vulnerability. In the case of What.CD, it was the largest music database and music-based community in the world, and it operated illegally and entirely through member donations. It could not be public nor did it need to be.


Thoughts for Next Week

As we approach the end of the semester, I wanted to thank all seminar participants for such a generative and lively semester. It has been wonderful to explore issues of the cloud, and cloud-based infrastructure with you!

For next week, please be prepared to discuss not only your final projects, but also the following two questions:

1. To what degree are social networks viable in an age of surveillance capital? To what degree can we separate the affordances of social networks — feeds, friends, interfaces — from the proprietary systems (Twitter, Facebook) that we have come to know? Are free software solutions any better, or are the part of (or at least related to) the problems we’ve identified in recent weeks?

2. What does an “infrastructural perspective” look like? How can it be applied? To what degree can it be employed like other critical lenses to shed light on various phenomena, and what kinds of actions, networks, and agencies does it reveal?

Looking forward to seeing you next week for our final class of the semester.

I Share Therefore I Am

Here is a TED Talk from Sherry Turkle, whom Prof. Gold brought up by the end of the class. She is a Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT.

In her research, she explores the ways we are connected with each other and our relationships with technology. She analyzes how we turn to technology to engage with our communities in ways we can comfortably control—even though we might not actually be “comfortable” with it—and also how we get from connectivity to isolation at a more introspective level. At one point, she goes on to say that “I am still excited by technology, but I believe, and I am here to make the case, that we are letting it take us places that we do not want to go”.

The Laborer as Automaton

Arkwright's Cotton Mills by Night, 1782 - Joseph Wright of Derby

Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night, 1782 – Joseph Wright of Derby

When I was a research assistant for Professor Allan P. Isaac at Rutgers University, I once transcribed an interview between him and a Filipino call center agent who described how work at a call center in the Philippines for American companies fractured the structure of their days and nights.  At night in the call center, they were expected to work tirelessly and meet a 300 second average handling time for each call, knowing that any missteps could lead to their termination and replacement.  Their lives at home during the day were also impacted by the change in sleep routine and their families had to live around their schedule, moving quietly around their homes and interacting minimally.

Above is Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night by Joseph Wright of Derby, described at the beginning of chapter three in Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.  The author describes the “reconceptualization of the relation between work and time” and the normalization of continuous labor that is made possible through advances in technology throughout the century and across the globe (Crary 62).  I found his use of Marx’s observation that the “first requirement of capitalism… was the dissolution of the relation to the earth” a familiar process in Professor Isaac’s research on call centers and the “disconnection from family, community, environment” due to the organization of labor a familiar sacrifice for both OFWs and the call center agent who must navigate global time and national time (Crary 63).

Tweeting Jacob’s Room

After much ado, I was finally able to get a twitterbot up and running. I created a bot @somemodernist that tweets out lines from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), whenever I run the module. I chose Jacob’s Room because Woolf wrote the novel with space breaks — that is, she divides the narrative with blank spaces into “scenes” or little sketches. I’ve done work on this novel before (I actually created a prototype for an online edition of the novel for my MA project), and I’m always really inspired by how the digital medium engages with Woolf’s work, in this case, with the fragmentary structure of her narrative and her use of blank spaces.

To make this bot, I used the tutorial from  the “Build a Bot” workshop developed by Terian Koscik. Though I still had difficulty getting the bot up and running, the workshop was extremely helpful for my goal, which was to get a bot to tweet lines in succession from a text file.

That being said, working on this bot actually gave me an idea for something more interesting (unfortunately, @somemodernist isn’t quite as robust as I want it to be, the lines don’t tweet neatly and it won’t run without my prompting). In the near future, maybe over the break, I’m going to make another bot for Woolf’s novel The Waves. For those who are unfamiliar with this novel, the narrative runs through the stream-of-conscious of six different characters, and their thoughts at times share the same phrases and images. For that reason, there’s an interesting literature on Woolf’s creation of a shared consciousness, if any of you guys are interested.  In making this bot, I’m going to get more deeply into Python (which is something I’ve been meaning to do, now I have an excuse!). My goal is to run a script that finds patterns of words or phrases throughout the novel and tweets them in succession, regardless of the speaker. The tweets will then facilitate more study on the shared language of the six characters in the novel.

I found some resources that will help with this kind of text analysis in Python. First there’s the Natural Language Processing with Python (NLTK) Book, which is an online book that teaches beginners how to do text analysis in Python. Then there’s the pattern.en module, which allows for more advanced syntactic searches and analysis, and finally there’s the TextBlob module, which is like a more beginner-friendly library of scripts for processing text.