Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence traces the history and development of the field of artificial intelligence (AI) in the West, from the 1950’s to the 1990’s and early 2000’s to argue that the key thing missing from all attempts to develop machine minds is a recognition of the role that affect plays in social and individual development. She directly engages many of the creators of the field of AI within their own lived historical context and uses Bruno Latour, Freudian Psychoanalysis, Alan Turning’s AI and computational theory, gender studies,cybernetics, Silvan Tomkins’ affect theory, and tools from STS to make her point. Using historical examples of embodied robots and programs, as well as some key instances in which social interactions caused rifts in the field,Wilson argues that crucial among all missing affects is shame, which functions from the social to the individual, and vice versa.
[Cover to Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence]
J.Lorand Matory’s The Fetish Revisited looks at a particular section of the history of European-Atlantic and Afro-Atlantic conceptual engagement, namely the place where Afro-Atlantic religious and spiritual practices were taken up and repackaged by white German men. Matory demonstrates that Marx and Freud took the notion of the Fetish and repurposed its meaning and intent, further arguing that this is a product of the both of the positionality of both of these men in their historical and social contexts. Both Marx and Freud, Matory says, Jewish men of potentially-indeterminate ethnicity who could have been read as “mulatto,” and whose work was designed to place them in the good graces of the white supremacist, or at least dominantly hierarchical power structure in which they lived.
Matory combines historiography,anthropology, ethnography, oral history, critical engagement Marxist and Freudian theory and, religious studies, and personal memoir to show that the Fetish is mutually a constituting category, one rendered out of the intersection of individuals, groups, places, needs, and objects. Further, he argues, by trying to use the fetish to mark out a category of “primitive savagery,” both Freud and Marx actually succeeded in making fetishes of their own theoretical frameworks, both in the original sense, and their own pejorative senses. Continue reading
Caitlin Wood’s 2014 edited volume Criptiques consists of 25 articles, essays, poems, songs, or stories, primarily in the first person, all of which are written from disabled people’s perspectives. Both the titles and the content are meant to be provocative and challenging to the reader, and especially if that reader is not, themselves, disabled. As editor Caitlin Wood puts it in the introduction, Criptiques is “a daring space,” designed to allow disabled people to create and inhabit their own feelings and expressions of their lived experiences. As such, there’s no single methodology or style, here, and many of the perspectives contrast or even conflict with each other in their intentions and recommendations.
The 1965 translation of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, on the other hand, is a single coherent text exploring the clinical psychological and sociological implications of the Algerian Revolution. Fanon uses soldiers’ first person accounts, as well as his own psychological and medical training, to explore the impact of the war and its tactics on the individual psychologies, the familial relationships, and the social dynamics of the Algerian people, arguing that the damage and horrors of war and colonialism have placed the Algerians and the French in a new relational mode.
[Image: A copy of the 1961 paperback edition of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, featuring a sea of dark-skinned people with upraised hands, coloured in diagonal bands of orange, red, and magenta.]
In Ras Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry Brown wants to talk about the history of the cultural and spiritual practices of African descendants in the American south. To do this, he traces discusses the transport of central, western, and west-central African captives to South Carolina in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,finally, lightly touching on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Brown explores how these African peoples brought, maintained, and transmitted their understandings of spiritual relationships between the physical land of the living and the spiritual land of the dead, and from there how the notions of the African simbi spirits translated through a particular region of South Carolina.
In Kelly Oliver’s The Colonization of Psychic Space, she constructs and argues for a new theory of subjectivity and individuation—one predicated on a radical forgiveness born of interrelationality and reconciliation between self and culture. Oliver argues that we have neglected to fully explore exactly how sublimation functions in the creation of the self,saying that oppression leads to a unique form of alienation which never fully allows the oppressed to learn to sublimate—to translate their bodily impulses into articulated modes of communication—and so they cannot become a full individual, only ever struggling against their place in society, never fully reconciling with it.
These works are very different, so obviously, to achieve their goals, Brown and Oliver lean on distinct tools,methodologies, and sources. Brown focuses on the techniques of religious studies as he examines a religious history: historiography, anthropology, sociology, and linguistic and narrative analysis. He explores the written records and first person accounts of enslaved peoples and their captors, as well as the contextualizing historical documents of Black liberation theorists who were contemporary to the time frame he discusses. Oliver’s project is one of social psychology, and she explores it through the lenses of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis,social construction theory, Hegelian dialectic, and the works of Franz Fanon. She is looking to build psycho-social analysis that takes both the social and the individual into account, fundamentally asking the question “How do we belong to the social as singular?” Continue reading
Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology and Kathleen Richardson’s An Anthropology of Robots and AI both trace histories of technology and human-machine interactions, and both make use of fictional narratives as well as other theoretical techniques. The goal of Midson’s book is to put forward a new understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding to supplant the myth of a perfect “Edenic” state and the various disciplines’ dichotomous oppositions of “human” and “other.” This new understanding, Midson says, exists at the intersection of technological, theological, and ecological contexts,and he argues that an understanding of the conceptual category of the cyborg can allow us to understand this assemblage in a new way.
That is, all of the categories of “human,” “animal,” “technological,” “natural,” and more are far more porous than people tend to admit and their boundaries should be challenged; this understanding of the cyborg gives us the tools to do so. Richardson, on the other hand, seeks to argue that what it means to be human has been devalued by the drive to render human capacities and likenesses into machines, and that this drive arises from the male-dominated and otherwise socialized spaces in which these systems are created. The more we elide the distinction between the human and the machine, the more we will harm human beings and human relationships.
Midson’s training is in theology and religious studies, and so it’s no real surprise that he primarily uses theological exegesis (and specifically an exegesis of Genesis creation stories), but he also deploys the tools of cyborg anthropology (specifically Donna Haraway’s 1991 work on cyborgs), sociology, anthropology, and comparative religious studies. He engages in interdisciplinary narrative analysis and comparison,exploring the themes from several pieces of speculative fiction media and the writings of multiple theorists from several disciplines.
Back in the spring, I read and did a critical comparative analysis on both Cressida J. Heyes’ Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, and Dr. Sami Schalk’s BODYMINDS REIMAGINED: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Each of these texts aims to explore conceptions of modes of embodied being, and the ways the exterior pressure of societal norms impacts what are seen as “normal” or “acceptable” bodies.
For Heyes, that exploration takes the form of three case studies: The hermeneutics of transgender individuals, especially trans women; the “Askeses” (self-discipline practices) of organized weight loss dieting programs; and “Attempts to represent the subjectivity of cosmetic surgery patients.” Schalk’s site of interrogation is Black women speculative fiction authors and the ways in which their writing illuminates new understandings of race, gender, and what Schalk terms “(dis)ability.
Both Heyes and Schalk focus on popular culture and they both center gender as a valence of investigation because the embodied experience of women in western society is the crux point for multiple intersecting pressures.
[Image of an eye in a light-skinned face; the iris and pupil have been replaced with a green neutral-faced emoji; by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons]
Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.
Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.
Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.
This week Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill*, talks with us about the implications of algorithmically filtering social media feeds.
The article is also noteworthy because it revealed that Auernheimer was, by his own admission, behind a campaign to terrorize educator and game designer Kathy Sierra (previously).
Auernheimer went on to become the poster-boy for the over-prosecution of hackers both in the hacker community and tech press, and subsequently denied that he ever told Schwartz that he was behind the harassment of Sierra. This week she wrote a bit about what that felt like to watch close friends and respected journalists suddenly becoming very chummy with the person not only destroyed her career but made her fear for life, and why she doesn’t take Auernheimer’s denials seriously:
But the one thing I never expected was that after all these years, he’d suddenly deny it. Even more so, that reasonable, logical, intelligent people would actually believe this. He’d suddenly, after 6 years, claim that a world-class, international, Livingston-winner (“Pulitzer of the Young”) journalist would just somehow… come up with that. And that in six years it never occurred to weev, not once, to publicly deny it no matter how many times he was asked about it.
(Schwartz himself came into these conversations more than once over the past year to remind weev about their conversation, to confirm that yes, it happened exactly as he described in the 2008 feature. Not that it made a difference. After all, in weev vs. amazing writer with everything to lose by lying, who are you going with? Weev. They went with weev.)
(Note: she says she’s taking down her original post soon, but a copy can also be found here).
Elsewhere, ex-troll turned journalist Emmett Rensin wrote for Vox.com that trolling has changed, man. “But I want to tell you about when violent campaigns against harmless bloggers weren’t any halfway decent troll’s idea of a good time — even the then-malicious would’ve found it too easy to be fun,” he writes. “When the punches went up, not down.”
I’m not sure that’s historically accurate though, given the malicious glee trolls of yore took in, say, hacking an epilepsy forum to place seizure inducing flashing images on the site.
So what is to be done? The usual response is “don’t feed the trolls,” which makes sense if you’re just talking about the occasional blog post, but today’s troll praxis is to flood someone’s Twitter mentions and inbox with threats, call their phones, send packages to their physical address, and use that address to order pizzas, taxis and, sometimes, to “swat” them. Swatting, for those who don’t know, is where you spoof a call from a particular number — your victim — to the police or 911 saying that you’re being held prisoner in your own home. A SWAT team then shows up, and if the victim is lucky, all that happens is that they get the shit scared out of them. But as Radley Balko has documented, SWAT teams often have a habit of shooting first and asking questions later, so there’s a real danger of the victim actually being killed by the police.
But yeah, you’re just supposed to ignore all that and hope the trolls move on to another victim.
OK, so what do we really do? I wish I had an answer. Some of it probably will be technical. Better security and what not. Some of it will need to be legal — actually putting people behind bars for pulling this crap. And some of it will necessarily be social — addressing what the hell actually makes people want to do this stuff in the first place.
And what exactly is that, anyway? It’s easy to do arm-chair psycho-analysis about the erosion of white privilege, holding power over others or finding acceptance in a peer group. But is that what’s really going on? And even if so, how do you solve the problem?
In an amazing (and probably triggering for racism, anti-semitism, and general harassment) blog post Leo Traynor wrote about meeting the person who had waged a three year harassment campaign against Traynor and his wife, sending the two of them threatening emails and Tweets, as well as packages in the mail. The perpetrator turned out to be the teenage son of of one of Traynor’s friends. Asked why he did it, the kid said “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry. It was like a game thing.”
There’s clearly a huge social problem if a kid could ever think something like this would be just a bit of fun, but it points to a larger problem here, which is that kids have a tendency towards being assholes. Usually they grow out of it. But technology now enables kids to stalk, harass, and generally ruin the lives of strangers remotely, and semi-anonymously. In other words, the amount of damage a kid, or group of kids working together online, can do with seemingly little risk, at a remove from the consequences, is far greater than ever before. (Note: Traynor’s post mentions that the kid spent a lot of time on conspiracy sites, which suggests, at least to me, that there may have been more to the anti-semitic content of his messages than a “game thing,” so this could be more than just something he’d grow out of).
All of which is to say, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but it’s something I want to look into more deeply. I’ve found a few academic papers on trolling, and hope to find more:
I was born during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, a one-term administration remembered mostly for the Iran hostage crisis, the New York City blackout, and stagflation. The Carter babies—anyone born between his inauguration in January 1977 and Reagan’s in January 1981—are now 30 to 34, and, like Carter himself, the weirdly brilliant yet deeply weird born-again Christian peanut farmer, this micro-generation is hard to pin down. We identify with some of Gen X’s cynicism and suspicion of authority—watching Pee-Wee Herman proclaim, “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel,” will do that to a kid—but we were too young to claim Singles and Reality Bites and Slacker as our own (though that didn’t stop me from buying the soundtracks). And, while the proud alienation of the Gen X worldview doesn’t totally sit right, we certainly don’t yearn for the Organization Man-like conformity that the Millennials seem to crave. […]
But maybe we’re not the only ones who feel unmoored. After explaining the gist of the piece to a 29-year-old friend over email, she responded: “I feel like I’m especially without generation because I’m not quite a Carter baby but not really a Millennial either. … I feel like Noreen, who is only two years younger than me, is of a slightly different generation, which seems crazy! But it feels true.” Her email was a classic Generation Catalano move: dancing near the spotlight, and then dancing with herself.
I hate the name, but I can identify with this, although I missed the Carter administration by about 10 months. Some measures of when Generation X place its end as late as 1981, while the Millennial generation starts as early as the late 70s. There’s a lot of overlap.
The “wisdom of the crowd” has become a bit of a pop cliché, but it’s backed up by real-world evidence. When groups of people are asked to provide estimates of obscure information, the median value of their answers will often be remarkably close to the right one, even though many of their answers are laughably wrong. But crowds rarely act in the absence of social influences, and some researchers in Zurich have now shown that providing individuals information about what their fellow crowd-members are thinking is enough to wipe out the crowd’s wisdom. […]
Compared to the control setup, the additional information changed the crowd’s collective behavior dramatically. In what the authors term the “social influence effect,” the panels that were provided with information about their peers quickly narrowed their focus onto a fairly limited set of values, meaning the diversity of their answers decreased. In contrast, the control group retained its initial diversity throughout the repeated rounds of questioning.
Worse still, the panels that were provided with social information narrowed in on answers that were more likely to be wrong.