A few sources to check out

After (finally) finishing my entry on more twitter hatin’ and conflatin’, I seem to be in technology/social media mode. As I start to think more about blogs and social media in relation to ethics, moral selfhood and care of the self, here are a few sources that might be helpful:

1. Jonathan Franzen.  Liking is for Cowards: Go For What Hurts (Also known as: Technology Provides an Alternative to Love”
One key argument he makes is that internet technology (ex. the “like” button on facebook) contributes to our narcissism and our refusal to move outside of ourselves to actually connect (and love) others. When we “like” something or friend someone, we just invite it into “our private hall of flattering mirrors.”  I want to come back to Franzen’s claims in his essay and really think them through, especially what they mean for the Self. I’m not sure how or if it connects, but I want to revisit Chela Sandoval’s discussion of love in Methodology of the Oppressedand read it beside Franzen’s assessment of love.

2. Natasha Singer. The Trouble with the Echo Chamber Online
Speaking of insular selves who devote too much energy to reading/thinking about what they like/what they are interested in, Singer discusses the problems with the personalization of the web. Here’s a relevant passage:

But, in a effort to single out users for tailored recommendations or advertisements, personalization tends to sort people into categories that may limit their options. It is a system that cocoons users, diminishing the kind of exposure to opposing viewpoints necessary for a healthy democracy, says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and the author of “You Are Not a Gadget.”

I was excited to see this article because I have been known, quite frequently, to rail against the streamlining of my experience–especially when it comes to Netflix and how they recommend films based on my daughter’s excessive watching of Barney or Horseland or Suite Life on Deck.

3. Parser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You
In this book Parser, who is the former executive director of Moveon.org, discusses the dangers of web personalization and the filters that search engines–like google–or social media–like facebook—use to streamline our internet experience. Here’s his description of the filter bubble:

The basic code at the heart of the new Internet is pretty simple. The new generation of Internet filters looks at the things you seem to like—the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like—and tries to extrapolate. They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you’ll do and want next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us—what I’ve come to call a filter bubble—which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.

Of course, to some extent we’ve always consumed media that appealed to our interests and avocations and ignored much of the rest. But the filter bubble introduces three dynamics we’ve never dealt with before.

First, you’re alone in it. A cable channel that caters to a narrow interest (say, golf ) has other viewers with whom you share a frame of reference. But you’re the only person in your bubble. In an age when shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart.

Second, the filter bubble is invisible. Most viewers of conservative or liberal news sources know that they’re going to a station curated to serve a particular political viewpoint. But Google’s agenda is opaque. Google doesn’t tell you who it thinks you are or why it’s showing you the results you’re seeing. You don’t know if its assumptions about you are right or wrong—and you might not even know it’s making assumptions about you in the first place. My friend who got more investment-oriented information about BP still has no idea why that was the case— she’s not a stockbroker. Because you haven’t chosen the criteria by which sites filter information in and out, it’s easy to imagine that the information that comes through a filter bubble is unbiased, objective, true. But it’s not. In fact, from within the bubble, it’s nearly impossible to see how biased it is.

Finally, you don’t choose to enter the bubble. When you turn on Fox News or read The Nation, you’re making a decision about what kind of filter to use to make sense of the world. It’s an active process, and like putting on a pair of tinted glasses, you can guess how the editors’ leaning shapes your perception. You don’t make the same kind of choice with personalized fi lters. They come to you—and because they drive up profi ts for the Web sites that use them, they’ll become harder and harder to avoid.

You can read an excerpt of the book here. You can also watch a Democracy Now! interview with Parser here.

more twitter hatin’ and conflatin’

On Monday, I came across The Twitter Trap via hastac and Cathy Davidson’s It’s Not the Technology, Stupid!. Davidson does an excellent job of critically responding to the many (and I mean many) problematic claims made in this brief editorial. I feel compelled to add a few my own thoughts to this conversation by engaging in some direct talking back (see this post by KCF for more on bell hooks and “talking back”) to a few of Keller’s statements. As an aside, I am looking forward to Davidson’s new book, coming out in August, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live and WorkAnd I am very appreciative of the great work she and the other amazing scholars at HASTAC do.

Bill Keller opens the essay this way:

Last week my wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter she could join Facebook. Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.

Wait a second? The title of this article is “The Twitter Trap,” yet he opens with a discussion of facebook. When did facebook = twitter? Like many authors who hate on social media, Keller conflates facebook with twitter.* They are not the same. Here’s one (very brief way) in which I distinguish between facebook and twitter (read the full post here):

How is twitter different from facebook?

  • Twitter is a public site. There is not an expectation of privacy.
  • People who read your tweets are your followers, not friends.
  • Twitter has a 140 character limit.
  • Twitter relies on crowdsourcing and how it is used is driven more by how people are using it and experimenting with it. Example: hashtags

In addition to these structural differences, twitter and facebook often appeal to and are used by different groups of people (influenced by gender, age, race, ethnicity, class, global positioning). While I am in favor of critical engagements with the limits of social media, those engagements demand that we provide specific critiques to the various media as opposed to over-generalized, hyperbolic statements that equate participating in social media to using crystal meth. While Keller’s flippant remark is probably intended to get a laugh, what it really does is shut down any serious (as in deep, thoughtful, meaningful) discussion about what various forms of social media do to us and what we can do with them.

*note: Keller does distinguish between twitter and facebook, at least briefly and somewhat superficially, later in his essay. However, his opening conflation still speaks to how social media is frequently represented as a monolithic threat; it becomes SOCIAL MEDIA as opposed to various forms of social media.

mini-rant: In addition to conflating twitter with facebook in this opening, Keller also invokes the tired old trope of the internet/social media as dangerous predator. Lock your doors! Shut down your computers! The interwebz are coming for your poor, defenseless children! Don’t even think about letting little Johnny go on facebook. Just like Jim Ignatowsky in Taxi when he take his first bite of the marijuana brownie and instantly becomes a drug addict, all Johnny needs is one click of the like button and he’s hooked forever. But seriously, I don’t want to dismiss the potential dangers of facebook (cyberbullies, privacy violations, posting private thoughts/images that shouldn’t be public, inordinate amounts of time spent in front of the computer instead of outside or with other people). Instead, I want to shift the conversation away from envisioning social media as a threat that children need to protected from.  We need to spend more time focusing on how to guide children in using social media effectively and critically/creatively. We (adults/parental figures) might also spend time learning from our kids about using social media.

Later on in the editorial, Keller writes:

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.”

Claiming that the only upside to using online technologies/social media is that it provides us with more time to do Farmville and watch/discuss “Real Housewives” ignores (or actively suppresses) the wide range of critical and creative ways that lots of people are using social media–like facebook or twitter–to share ideas, connect with others and create and document authentic expressions of selfhood. From:

  • live-tweeting conferences and workshops I was just following the hashtag for #racialequity and the plenary with Peggy McIntosh. See below for one of my favorite lines:

  • to mobilizing others to action check out mashable’s post on How Egyptians Used Twitter During the January Crisis
  • to documenting/sharing stories/spreading the word on the devastating tornado damage in Alabama and Missouri On both facebook and twitter, I was able to bear witness to first-hand accounts of the devastation and determine reliable ways to donate much-needed supplies to those communities.

Finally, Keller concludes:

There is a growing library of credible digital Cassandras who have explored what new media are doing to our brains (Nicholas CarrJaron LanierGary Small and Gigi Vorgan,William Powers, et al.). My own anxiety is less about the cerebrum than about the soul…

Throughout the essay, Keller spends some time describing the ways that social media (and here he particularly targets twitter) serves as a threat to our souls:

  • twitter is an enemy of contemplation, demanding that we pay attention to it and other tweeters at the expensive of our own thinking and reflection
  • erodes “our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity”
  • encourages us to unlearn “complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy”

I don’t totally disagree with Keller’s assessment of the potential effects of social media. Yes, various forms of social media (I tend to focus on twitter and facebook), can create distractions and encourage uncritical ramblings. But, that’s not all these social media can (or actually) do. Perhaps Keller will dismiss my claim, just as he dismisses the anonymous “tweeter” in his article who suggests that the value of social media “depends on who you follow/who your friends are.” But, I want to echo Davidson in her essay and suggest that “it’s not the technology, stupid!” but the people who use the technology that plays the most significant role in whether or not twitter erodes the soul.

Also like Davidson, I was initially reluctant to waste time responding to Keller’s “plaintive, yet hyperbolic critique of all social media.” However, since one focus of my current work is on how blogs and twitter can potentially enable us to cultivate authentic moments of (moral) selfhood and help us to create spaces for deep critical, creative and ethical reflection, I couldn’t not talk back to his claim that social media was a threat to our souls.  I plan to spend a lot of time this summer working through what it might mean to use blogs and twitter in tandem to cultivate and practice virtue and to (a la Foucault) care for the self. For now, check out my post on the undisciplined self via twitter.


Oh bother! The Today Show Takes on Gender-Neutral Parenting

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For maybe the first time ever STA, RJP, FWA and I happened to be watching the Today Show yesterday morning and saw their segment on the parents who are raising their third child as genderless. I’m not sure what the segment was called, but the article on Today’s website was entitled, “He, She or It? Family Keeps Gender a Secret”. I must admit that while I have seen various links to the story circulating on the interwebz (several of which were posted by students from this semester), I haven’t really followed it. Therefore this “oh bother” speaks specifically to the coverage of this story on the Today Show this morning. There are so many ways that Today’s framing of this issue with this title (and the article/segment) bothers me. Here are just three:

ONE: Does violence through pronoun usage
He, She or It? Really? Using “it” to refer to someone who does not identify/is not identified as either male or female is not okay. This baby is not an it, they are a person. And contrary to what one “expert” on the segment suggests (1 min 50 secs in),  one’s humanity should not be predicated on a clear and rigid gender presentation (see J Butler’s Undoing Gender for more on gender and the “human”). By the way, this “family researcher” just happens to be the director of Focus on the Family, a “global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive” and encouraging “parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles.” Why isn’t this important fact, a fact that certainly influences his interpretation of the “scientific Truths” he purports, mentioned in the segment? And, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a trained scientist discussing the science behind sex and gender differences? Just sayin’.

TWO: Implies that regardless of how the parents choose to raise this child (or even how the child chooses to identify/present themselves) the “truth” of sex/gender* still exists–it’s just hidden.
To suggest that the family is keeping a secret about the child’s sex/gender is to indicate that some essential truth about that sex exists but isn’t being told. And, what is that truth of sex/gender, exactly? Is it boy = penis and girl = vagina (or, no penis)? And what are the implications of this equation for gender, if sex = biology and gender = social rules/roles? Could it be this?

We discussed these issues of sex/gender a lot in my politics of sex class this past spring. See my notes for more on this discussion.

*note: I’m writing sex/gender because they are used interchangeably in the article/segment. In the interest of making this entry accessible to a wide range of readers, I decided not to discuss the problematic ways in which the Today Show conflates and confuses sex and gender and how different feminist and queer theorists theorize the relationship between sex and gender. For one discussion of the differences between sex and gender, see my notes on sex/gender/desire for my politics of sex class.

THREE: Encourages us to morally judge (and condemn) parents by describing their actions as “keeping a secret”
The focus of the TV segment is on the question of whether or not these parents are doing the right thing and not about what gender-neutral parenting (or even negotiating gender in child-rearing practices) means for the child. As viewers we are being invited to morally judge them (literally: there was a poll with 11% saying what these parents did was “great” and 89% saying that it was terrible). I think that there are many other, potentially more productive ways, in which to approach this issue and to think through the problems and possibilities of negotiating gender rules/norms with our kids. In my queer/ing ethics class this past spring, we spent a lot of time thinking through what it might mean to engage in ethical practices that don’t involve judgment. What questions aren’t asked when we devote so much of our energy asking, Are these parents morally right or wrong?, and then answering by condemning them as terrible parents? Why aren’t we asking: What societal forces/structures have made gender such a problem that these parents don’t want to impose gender on their child? How does gender work? Could it work differently? Are our only options rigid gender roles or no gender? Why does assigning gender matter so much to us and why do we become so enraged/uncomfortable/anxious when someone’s gender isn’t obvious?

The Today Show article/segment speaks to a lot of different topics I discussed in my three classes this semester. In addition to the class notes links I offer above, check out my entry on gender-netural parenting for my feminist debates class.

Now, since this is an “Oh Bother!” post, I want to hear from you. What do you think about this segment? About gender-neutral parenting? About the parent’s promotion of a “free to be..you and me” mentality? About the primary expert not being a scientist but a “family values” researcher?

If you aren’t a regular reader of this blog, here’s my explanation of the “oh bother!” category:

OH BOTHER!: I am starting a new category this morning called “oh bother.” This category will include anything that I find particularly reprehensible, repulsive, or just plain annoying. The term, bother, has been one that I have adopted as of late in order to stop saying f**k (which is a favorite word of mine) in front of my highly impressionable kids (who are 3 and 6). Any resemblance to Winnie the Pooh’s catch-phrase is purely coincidental. (Don’t get me wrong, I really like classic Winnie the Pooh. But, somehow, I don’t think Pooh meant “oh bother” in the same spirit that I do.) Like I said, I started uttering “oh bother” about a year ago when my kids got old enough to understand and repeat inappropriate words. It seems rather fitting to use this phrase in relation to making/staying in trouble. After all, to be bothered by something is another way of being troubled by it, right? To bother someone is to trouble them, right? To be in a state of botherment (is this a word?) is to be in a state of trouble. This category is different from my other categories. The “oh bother” examples are meant to be analyzed by you, dear reader, and not me. I want to know what you think about these examples. Perhaps the “oh bother” is a request or a command–as in, (won’t you please) bother these examples for me because I can’t or don’t want to.

Bodies and habits in the coffee shop

note: I am in the process of cleaning up/expanding my blog. My first step is to finish up or delete past draft entries. The following began as a draft on October 11, 2010.

How do we learn to become aware of others? Why do some people (almost) instinctually act in ways that demonstrate an awareness and consideration of other bodies? How do we develop habits that compel us to always think about (or, if not think, at least act in accordance with) how our bodies exist/move in the world/connect/are in proximity to other bodies?

I was reminded of this set of questions this morning when I was waiting to get coffee at a local coffee shop. When I arrived to get a latte, there was a line. It was positioned in such a way that the people in line blocked the door and made it difficult for others to easily enter or exit. As with most coffee places, people usually wait in line right by the counter and don’t block the door. However, the door-blocking line had happened enough times at this coffee place that it made me wonder about lines at restaurants (and other public places) and why some people always seem to like to take up as much space as possible, regardless of its impact on any bodies around them.

Perhaps it is a misreading, but when I see people blocking exits and being oblivious to others I am often bothered by the sense of entitlement that these space-hoggers must have. How can they not pay attention to their surroundings? How can they not realize the impact of their bodies and actions on others? Because of my interest in virtue ethics and habits, I wonder about what repeated/habitual bodily practices space-hoggers do that have trained them to be so oblivious. And I wonder what needs to be done for them to break those habits. Could disrupting their space with subversive practices/subversive bodies be successful in enabling them to stop being oblivious and stop hogging space? Could they learn new habits, habits that trained them to be aware of all of the bodies beside/around them?

I don’t really have any answers to these questions, but I find thinking about how bodies exist in proximity to each other in coffee shop lines and how this connects to power, privilege and habit to be much more productive than silently stewing over how/why space hogs like to screw up lines just to piss me off.

In revisiting my reflection, having first started this draft last October, I am reminded of some recent discussions in my queer/ing ethics class about bodies in coffee shops. These discussions don’t necessarily directly connect to my own questions about space-hoggers, but I find myself wanting to put them beside each other (plus, that’s just how my brain works; I like to put a wide range of ideas next to each other and experiment with developing connections).

1. During our February 8th class, we watched a clip from the documentary, Unexamined Life, in which Judith Butler and Sanaura Taylor ponder the question, “what does it mean to take a walk?” At 2 minutes and 57 seconds in, Taylor describes what it’s like for her, as someone who is in a wheelchair and has limited use of her hands, to be in a coffee shop. Butler asks her, “Do you feel free to move in all of the ways that you want to move?” Taylor answers:

I can go into a coffee shop and actually pick up the cup with my mouth and carry it to my table. But then that becomes almost more difficult because of the normalizing standards of our movements and the discomfort that that causes when I do things with body parts that aren’t necessarily what we assume that they’re for. That seems to be even more hard for people to deal with.

I find it helpful to think about how both the space-hoggers in my experience and S Taylor inhabit and disrupt space (and normative behavior) in radically different ways.

2. In her notes for our class discussion, Raechel documents how we kept coming back to this Butler/Taylor clip and Taylor’s discussion of the coffee shop. Here’s just one excerpt:

What does it mean for her to use body parts in ways they weren’t “meant for.” What kind of visibility disruption is caused through her picking up a coffee cup with her mouth? Remy recollects an image from their past when they saw someone using their feet to do different tasks, such as eating, and remembering that they felt weirded out/grossed out by that. They then make the connection to gender and how others respond to their gender as a similar thing, and gender visibility does create space for actual change. Remy challenges the word “individual” and prefers word “solo”–Sanaura’s act impacts other people; it’s not just about her. Liora points out that coffee is treated as a basic human need. Some agree that it is. : )

3. Months later one student in the class, @Mel4queer11, posted the following tweet: