books recently read - jan/feb 2017

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

The Nonviolence Handbook by Michael Nagler

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

books recently read - fall 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline

Zero K by Don DeLillo

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Brown Dog by Jim Harrison

Death Without Company by Craig Johnson

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Drinking Water by James Salzman

Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

body cameras

“One of the greatest lies perpetrated on our culture today is the notion that dash cameras on police cruisers and body cameras on police officers are tools of justice. Video evidence, no matter the source, can document injustice, but rarely does this incontrovertible evidence keep black people safe or prevent future injustices.” - Roxane Gay 

“the body camera becomes an extension of a television show like Cops, providing audiences with footage of black abnormality and justifications of death. The police officer can pick a moment in a video to say they feel 'threatened' in ways dead Black victims cannot. The anecdote that body cameras protect police assumes the actual threat is not police violence but Black suspects. The celebration of the body camera assumes a necessity of increased surveillance on Black people.” - Armond R. Towns 

"While we are fully in favor of citizen video as a tool for raising awareness, generating action, and galvanizing communities to push for accountability, we don’t believe that police-worn body cams will achieve anywhere near the same outcomes." - danah boyd and Alex Rosenblat

"Cameras fail to provide meaningful transparency, extend domestic spying, make mass incarceration even worse and represent a budgetary bonus to police departments and corporate camera contractors, while distracting the debate from the more important issue of officer - and department - accountability for abusive patterns and practices." - Shahid Buttar

"body cameras appear as simply the latest untested devices to be sold by a corporation that has long co-opted activist calls for police reform." - Ava Kofman 

A Distinct Lack of Change: Body Cameras as Institutionware [rough transcript] #rsa16

In previous work, I have suggested understanding certain kinds of proprietary software as “institutionware,” i.e., software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. Characteristics of this concept include the compliance and containment of users and features. Among the clearest examples of institutionware are Blackboard and Turnitin, whose continued successes are tied to the institution of higher education. Institutionware is thus marked by a distinct lack of change. And I see an opportunity here with #RSA16 to extend this concept to hardware. Namely, I want to suggest body cameras as institutionware. 

That body cameras emerged from the rhetoric surrounding Ferguson and less so demilitarization, increased training, or any other police reform as a solution is telling. If institutionware describes hardware/software that maintains tradition under the guise of providing a service, body cameras are surely that. Body cameras allow the police to operate with little to no change in official policy. If body cameras can be turned off and footage accessed only by police, for example, such technology is representative neither of a public service nor a solution to the problem. Documents and recordings already exist, yet the problem, however defined, persists. Visibility may increase, but justice has not. 

And rather than general observations about body cameras as institutionware, I want to focus on body cameras in Atlanta. Not only was it the first city in which Michael Brown’s parents stopped to call for body cameras on cops but Atlanta was also among the first cities post-Ferguson to research and ultimately require body cameras on police officers. I therefore seek at #RSA16 in Atlanta what body cameras alter, even if I already fear the answer is “not much.”

But before getting into all of that, I think it’s important to explain this institutionware concept a little more, to lay out in clearer and maybe more relatable terms just what I’m talking about. First, I must give credit and inspiration to Georgia Tech professor and game designer Ian Bogost. In a 2013 Gamasutra column, Bogost recasts gamification, the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems, as “exploitationware.” This is a rhetorical move for Bogost as he aims to connect gamification to “better known practices of software fraud,” to “situate gamification within a larger set of pernicious practices in the high-tech marketplace.” I see this move as following through on the need emphasized by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe in “The Rhetoric of Technology” to “recognize the high costs of hardware and software, recognize that computers can, and often do, support instruction that is as repressive and lockstep as any that we have seen” (61). So, I provide the name institutionware as a rhetorical move to draw further attention to such costs. I also consider the following to be another moment of identifying, according to Nancy Bray, “when the discomforts of technology should not be ignored.” Institutionware is an uncomfortable word for an uncomfortable thing, for our uncomfortable reality. 

So, here’s a definition: institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. The clearest examples of institutionware may be Blackboard and Turnitin, those products and services whose successes are most tied to the practices, customs, and traditions of higher education. Neither Blackboard nor Turnitin is out to question education but to scaffold it in particular ways. Their very names alone are evidence of traditional methods and values of classroom instruction. Institutionware is about keeping the institution as it is and has been, enhancing and supporting rather than challenging or threatening.

Enhancement of and support for the institution comes in the form of two overlapping characteristic goals: compliance and containment. In naming compliance as a characteristic goal of institutionware, I invoke here Douglas Rushkoff’s comments about Blackboard: “From the student or teacher's perspective, Blackboard is terrible. It's just awful. You run up consistently against these terrible obstacles and extremely difficult things, ways you've got to wrap your whole self and brain and course and life around what this program needs needs from you in order to comply with it. And most of us look and say, "Ugh, this is just an awful thing. This software is awful." If you look at it from what I'm calling the programmer's perspective, you see, "Oh no, Blackboard is brilliant." Because Blackboard wasn't written for me. Blackboard wasn't written for me as an educator or for that person as a student. Blackboard was written for the Blackboard company to dominate education in a very particular way. Blackboard was created…not to promote the user's agency, but to decrease the user's agency and increase the institution's dependence on this piece of software.” The actions Blackboard asks users to execute represent a sort of endless acquiescence, an indicator of eternal compliance, a user’s inability to do anything but accept. Users come to institutionware subservient in spite of their own abilities and power. Institutionware holds it own, external demands over the internal, individual desires of its users. 

Institutionware is also about containment. Features of institutionware aren’t so much offered as they are contained, kept within an overall system so users have less reason to go elsewhere. For example, Blackboard contains blogs, discussion boards, journals, and wikis, all things freely available and customizable on the open web. Feature containment ensures that we can’t possibly take advantage of everything institutionware offers and also that we don’t use something else, much less have the time to experiment with other options. In this way, feature containment leads to and reinforces user containment. 

And just as Paul LeBlanc observes that “software programs are not neutral,” there is very little that is neutral about institutionware. Leveraging it for good or bad is inconsequential. When we use institutionware, we decrease our agency and encourage collective dependency on it. Institutionware signals stagnation, if not regression or reversion. Institutionware also suggests no possibility of escape and that is by design; any advocacy regarding flexibility remains within the confines of the program itself. The near ubiquity of institutionware indicates a sort of stasis, that our paying attention, however vigilant, signals little beyond a shrug and an acknowledgement that Blackboard is terrible.

In arguing for an understanding of proprietary software as institutionware, I have so far attempted to explain pernicious aims (i.e., compliance and containment) and to better our understanding of what we might be doing when we use Blackboard or iTunes or Microsoft Word or even Twitter. But, as I mentioned earlier, that’s not all I want to do today. I want to also extend the concept of institutionware from software to hardware, specifically body cameras. And we’re in a rather unique situation here in Atlanta regarding body cameras, too, so let’s get to that. 

The technology quickly emerged as a potential new method of accountability in fatal encounters between law enforcement and civilians, following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014. In September 2014, Atlanta City Council approved a feasibility study to determine whether to move forward with buying the devices. In September 2015, Atlanta City Council voted to buy 110 body cameras for police offers under a six-month $112,000 contract. In January 2016, a judge put Atlanta’s body cameras on hold due to a lawsuit brought against the city by a Decatur-based manufacturer accusing the police department of steering its body-camera contract toward two other companies in an “erroneous, arbitrary, [and] capricious manner.” As of this writing, police officers in Atlanta are without body cameras, but there are plenty in the surrounding area who are or will be equipped with the devices. Furthermore, body camera footage of what media outlets are calling an “officer-involved shooting” in Athens and a “fatal encounter with police” in Coweta County has been released in the last month. 

Mirroring much of the national debate on body cameras, local police and politicians often talked up the devices as agents of change that will increase accountability, safety, and transparency for citizens and police. While some initial research supports such claims, more recent research does not. In fact, the authors of a just-published study observe that “there is a worldwide uncontrolled social experiment taking place—underpinned by feverish public debate and billions of dollars of government expenditure. Robust evidence is only just keeping pace with the adoption of new technology” (Ariel, et al 2016). Atlanta is among a growing number of U.S. cities standing as an example of a technology first, policy second approach to body-camera implementation. 

Furthermore, implementing body cameras as the solution to the killing of unarmed black men also lends the devices a presumptive function, that the problem isn’t police brutality, only that officers aren’t “transparent” when committing murder. And whether or not officers are committing murder is but one part of the complex, contentious problem of policing in this country. And if we understand policing as a problem, as this kind of problem, body cameras can never be seen as any kind of solution. Again, this has to do with the two premiere characteristic aims of institutionware: compliance and containment. 

Just as Blackboard holds its own external demands over the individual, internal desires of its users, body cameras make both the police and the public secondary. Individual officers may or may not have control over the devices, what is recorded and when, and the same goes for everyday citizens. There are also substantial and valid concerns over the storage, analysis, and dissemination of body-cam footage as well as associated monetary costs. Such concerns are left unaddressed even in light of knowledge that Taser International, a company whose successes have direct ties to the police as an institution, is one of the technology companies often responsible for access and storage.  

Storage, of course, is a form of containment, but there are others to consider here, too. Body cameras contain both the police and the public, often only benefiting the former. Yes, officers wearing the devices appear as arms and hands holding guns accompanied by disembodied voices, revealing a dehumanizing element, but things are arguably worse for anyone more completely in the lens. Many civil rights groups note that body cameras are not pointed at the police, but the public. We may only see, again, from yet another angle and perspective, African Americans as a threat, as a target, as something to fear and to shoot. And as the number of black and brown bodies contained by body cameras grows, issues of justice and privacy, of profiling and surveillance, will only persist. 

The more we depend on technology as a fix, the less we are able to question it. This combined dependence and inability via compliance and containment serves the market, too. It’s worth noting again that it was only another technology company that has so far prevented the Atlanta police department from deploying body cameras. The Atlanta Citizen Review Board, an independent, city-wide forum responsible for assessing complaints and promoting public confidence in law enforcement, issued in September 2014 a comprehensive study and discussion of concerns and recommendations on body cameras. This report emphasized body cameras as but one small part of a much larger initiative to address privacy, access, retention, operation, redaction, and training. “It cannot be stressed enough,” wrote the ACRB, that “[body-worn cameras] alone will not yield the anticipated results unless there is strong policy, effective management and enforcement, and a general change in policing culture.” But Atlanta City Council and police department went ahead without any real address of these concerns and recommendations. With body cameras, we have yet further evidence of a persistent lack of change, and we remain without necessary consideration of what such technology will do for and to us. 

In a pointed, impassioned column for the New York Times, Roxane Gay writes that “one of the greatest lies perpetrated on our culture today is the notion that dash cameras on police cruisers and body cameras on police officers are tools of justice. Video evidence, no matter the source, can document injustice, but rarely does this incontrovertible evidence keep black people safe or prevent future injustices.” If I have not been successful in explaining and extending this institutionware concept to you, then I ask that you listen to Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others whose words and lived experiences speak in ways I cannot. 

Thank you for your time and attention today.

#flintwatersyllabus blame game

Michigan's failure to protect Flint

Michigan DEQ’s responsibility to ensure public safety collapsed in Flint

Why the EPA is also at fault for Flint's toxic water’s-silent-guilty-role-flint-water-crisis

Series of mistakes tainted Flint water

Flint's toxic water crisis was 50 years in the making

Supplemental: congressional hearing 

conspiracy theorists online

"Within each fangroup, leaders and followers emerge, sometimes with internal factions. The leaders always have anonymous and fiercely protected insider sources who confirm all their theories. Those 'in the know' are superior to the sheep who buy mainstream PR, and firmly believe their brave attempts at outing the truth are being closely monitored by the star's panicked management. 

You are either a friend or an enemy, with us or against us, no one is neutral, and each new photo, sighting, interview or role is quickly embroidered into the conspiracy tapestry." -

"Frustrated by their inability to rattle government officials, Hoaxers began attacking the families of victims, accusing them of being 'treasonous' government operatives. To press their case, they designated themselves authorities on the physiology of grieving. The parents didn’t appear sad enough in interviews, they argued; therefore, they could not possibly have lost children...Hoaxers also latched onto time-stamping errors on certain victims’ memorial pages, which, due to a common Google bug, made it seem like they were set up the before the massacre. The hoaxers found a photo of a little girl taken after the shooting. Mistaking its subject for her dead sister, they held it up as proof that the victim was still alive." -

research rabbit hole: Thomas & Friends, a conservative, imperialist, liberal, sexist, socialist model for Silicon Valley

"Criticism of sexism in the Thomas stories dates to the 1980s, when the Birmingham City Council banned the books from its libraries. Britt Allcroft, who formerly produced the TV series now seen in 130 countries, dismissed the allegations back then, saying, 'Thomas and friends are neither male nor female. They're magic.'" --

"Thomas and those friends are trains that toil away endlessly on the Isle of Sodor – which seems to be forever caught in British colonial times – and, on its surface, the show seems to impart good moral lessons about hard work and friendship. But if you look through the steam rising up from the coal-powered train stacks, you realize that the pretty puffs of smoke are concealing some pretty twisted, anachronistic messages." --

"There are no subversive messages in Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s just a story about trains that a man wrote for his son while he was sick." --

"the Thomas stories 'represent a conservative political ideology that punishes individual initiative, opposes critique and change, and relegates females to supportive roles. Any change is seen as disrupting the natural order of things.'" --

"when your role on earth is to 'research and write about the intersection of social justice and pop culture'…Thomas the Tank Engine, a lovely little story put together by a village clergyman with a wide-eyed imagination and a son in need of comfort, becomes a brutal allegory for all that is wrong with the world." --

"Thomas resembles one of those preposterous idealised figures of Stalinist propaganda. Face radiant with a dream of heightened productivity...In fact, Stalin would probably have approved of Thomas, who always does what the Fat Controller tells him and strongly disapproves of other engines who step out of line." --

"In the Thomas the Tank Engine books there are almost no female engines. The only female characters are an annoyance, a nuisance and in some cases a danger to the functioning of the railway." --

"Thomas the Tank Engine is not a capitalist stooge. To the contrary, socialism is alive and well--at least on the Island of Sodor. Sodor's railroads are all nationalized. That is why Sir Topham called 'The Fat Controller.' Thomas the Tank Engine is a thus a loyal and subservient employee of the State who wants only to be Really Useful." --

"On Sodor, the messiness of midcentury British class conflicts, civil-rights movements, and post-colonial political struggles never happened, erased by a minister nostalgic for the power and the glory of the British empire." --

"When those stories were first written [in the 1940s] it wasn’t a forelock-tugging age, but there were limits and you have got to have somebody in charge. I think he saw the characters as a family, in which the Fat Controller was the boss, the father figure, and all the engines were the children." --

"The great trick of Sir Topham is to employ engines who essentially evoke the image of the New Soviet man in the service of a proto-capitalist, semi-feudal enterprise." -- The economics and politics of Thomas the Tank Engine - Bull Market - Medium

"[Sir Topham] Hatt, however endearing he may be, is the misbegotten result of a society in which aristocracy and capital are too closely linked…the show champions neither socialism nor oligarchy, but serves by (bad) example to champion a sound, open, properly functioning market." --

"AI research on the Island of Sodor is massively ahead of the rest of the world. The trains on Sodor have been designed to understand natural language, solve problems for themselves, recognize new situations, and even have emotions and personalities…Sodor shouldn’t be a quaint island whose dominant industry is rails. It should be the new Silicon Valley, using its advanced artificial intelligence research as its primary economic export." --

"condolence payments"

"The U.S. government has regularly issued payments to Afghans for property damage, injuries and deaths throughout its military presence in the embattled country." --

"The Gray settlement exceeds the combined total of more than 120 other lawsuits brought against Baltimore police for alleged brutality and misconduct since 2011. State law generally caps such payments, but local officials can authorize larger awards." --

transcript of #wideemu talk cc @techairos

In the winter of 1959, Truman Capote appeared on David Susskind’s program Open End to talk about writers and writing. When Susskind mentioned the Beat Generation, Capote was quick to quip: “None of these people have anything interesting to say and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac. What they do isn’t writing at all — it’s typing.” Now, we can, as others have, speculate on reasons for Capote’s comment. We could say it had something to do with when On The Road was published relative to when Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published. We could say it had something to do with Capote’s need for attention or, arguably, his tendency to punch down rather than up. We could say it had something to do with consternation of Kerouac’s new form of writing, “spontaneous prose,” relative to Capote’s own development of the “nonfiction novel.” However, I want to use Capote’s critique of the Beat Generation as a starting point for identifying the material and physical aspects of writing that might be ignored, lost, or otherwise negated in such discussions. I want to do this because we can have very different images of not only what writing is but what it even looks like. 

For instance, we can compare film representations of Capote and Kerouac in the act of writing. [Impromptu commentary about materiality, physicality] Also, because I lack first-hand knowledge and/or personal experience with some of what I’ll be touching on today, I’m going to make media references instead. But these are historical examples, so let’s get an update. 

[Impromptu commentary on context, include announcer/commentator quote: “Every girl in the picture is locked into her phone. Every single one is dialed in…They’re all just completely transfixed by technology.”] Nevermind that those same announcers paid particular and comparable attention to their own screens, ones detailing whether or not the last pitch was a strike, the runner was safe, or the hard-hit ball was foul. We’re all just completely transfixed by technology, materially and physically, and I think these material and physical considerations are part of every criticism of that transfixion. Aiding both the considerations and the criticisms is how writing has been bundled, folded, or otherwise collapsed into our devices. I think at least a few of us will be able to identify the following example as “writing.” 

[Impromptu comment about process, procrastination, reflection] With formatting, editing, correcting, and even publishing in a single program, in a single screen, some of those material and physical conditions of writing disappear. Maybe also disappearing is care and empathy for the labor involved, for the writer performing the work, because it is work and it is performance. 

And so maybe we could say “it isn’t writing at all — it’s typing” is a critique of gesture and posture, an erasure of one’s labor. Similarly, as Rebecca Moore Howard observed, “our adherence to the received definition of plagiarism blinds us to the positive value of a composing strategy which I call ‘patchwriting’; copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym substitutes.” To call patchwriting plagiarism, in a way, gives no credit to the actual work involved with this kind of writing. Patchwriting is still writing, is still work, and although Kenneth Goldsmith does not credit Howard for this term he does use it, saying that patchwriting is “a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole.” Patchwriting, from a material or physical perspective, likely looks like a lot of other kinds of writing today, though wholly different from, say, William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique. 

But I’m starting to digress, or maybe I’m not because Burroughs placed a curse on Capote after the publication of In Cold Blood. Anyway, let’s get back to typing. 

That’s not typing — it’s tapping. 

That’s not tapping — it’s swiping. 

That’s not swiping — it’s autocorrect. 

And damn you autocorrect! Of course, we could also say that autocorrect and autocomplete are erasures of labor, empathy, and care. Related here, too, is the possibility of reflection, of taking a moment, and I’d like to close with another historical example of that. 

In the February 2014 issue of College Composition and Communication, Thomas Deans writes of the rhetoric of Jesus writing in the story of the woman accused of adultery. Deans draws attention to silent writing as public performance, the capacity of writing to provoke reflection and the rhetorical power of silence. There remains scholarly debate on what Jesus writes, that he writes, the consequences of his writing, whether he is doodling, scribbling, tracing patterns, or even citing his sources. But Deans identifies all these readings as emphasizing writing as an embodied public performance, that the bending to write and the silence “prime an authentic opening for understanding and change.” Deans even suggests following Christ’s example the next time you field barbed questions at a conference or teach a hostile class. My question is this: can we imagine Jesus taking a selfie instead? 

I’m glad for the unconference topic. I’m glad for the opportunity to share some of these ideas, even those that aren’t my own (and maybe none of them are). Thank you for your time and attention this morning. I appreciate it.

that's not typing, it's tapping #wideemu

Truman Capote: None of these people have anything interesting to say, and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac. What they do isn’t writing at all — it’s typing.

Ben Marcus: This, alas, would exclude many writers who believe themselves to be realistic, most notably those who seem to equate writing with operating a massive karaoke machine.

Rebecca Moore Howard: our adherence to the received definition of plagiarism blinds us to the positive value of a composing strategy which I call “patchwriting”: copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym substitutes.

Sarah Charlesworth: “unwriting” was an active undertaking, even as all the blocks of running text were literally blanked out. She called the process, “an engagement with text.” In spite of—or rather, because of—the lack of text in the work, its presence is strongly felt through the physical rendering of its absence.

Gertrude Stein: She experimented with everything in trying to describe. She tried a bit inventing words but she soon gave that up. The english language was her medium and with the english language the task was to be achieved, the problem solved. The use of fabricated words offended her, it was an escape into imitative emotionalism.

Kenneth Goldsmith: Perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse, and distribute language-based practices.