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This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Massively Multiplayer Voyeurism

I was planning to riff on Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece about futurists who want to live forever. (Summary: lots of interesting research but very little real progress.)

Then I encountered this headline: “Day care workers charged with running toddler ‘Fight Club'” — which, get this — they aired on Snapchat! On a daily basis I encounter more and more incredible things on the internet. What could encapsulate the modern moment better than the Li’l Snapping Turtles Brigade? (I made up that name.)

A few details, per the New York Post:

“In the video clips, Kenny can be heard referencing the activity as ‘Fight Club’ — quoting from the book and movie of the same name in encouraging the children to engage each other physically,” according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors and Lightbridge management insisted that none of the kids was injured in the scraps.

Day care officials copped to the violence but called it an “isolated incident.”


Day care officials tried to make sure parents who were approached by The Post adhered to the first rule of Toddler Fight Club — which is not to talk about Toddler Fight Club.

I have some unanswered questions. How many Snapchat followers did they have? Did the orchestrators plan to monetize their Brawling Babies endeavor? (I made up that name too.) How would they go about doing that — pay-for-access like a porn star’s private Snapchat, or via advertising? What brand would solicit the endorsement of a heavily bruised four-year-old? Weren’t the perpetrators like, “Hmm, maybe this is illegal?”

The sensationalism. The amorality. The fact that the fight videos were disseminated via Snapchat, of all venues! 2016 was 100% this and I expect 2017 to keep stepping up the pace admirably.

Everyone is a media critic these days, but I must say, it astounds me how mainstream the sordid and the prurient have become. (In some ways I’m happy about it.) Any scaleable broadcasting platform that isn’t censored, or isn’t easy to censor, will be used for fucked-up content ASAP. WorldStar fits the pattern, and they’re relatively tame!

Snapchat still surprises me. I mean, I know the company made its name by helping teenagers sext each other. But still — PVP toddler matches?

Adrien Chen has investigated how scarring content-moderation can be for the arbiters of the platforms that do maintain strict content standards, in a definitive Wired article and later New Yorker followup.

I guess people used to watch public hangings back in the day. Maybe this isn’t so different.

Header artwork by Christopher Dombres.

Internet Influences and Old-School Artisanship

“Dissonance series is my body of work that explores a broken, futuristic dystopia where adornment is used as a means of coping with the environment around us. Dissonance is about a disharmony within the self and the coping mechanisms created.” — Alice Argyros

Artwork by Alice Argyros.

Artwork by Alice Argyros.

I interviewed Alice Argyros about the cyberpunk-inspired jewelry she creates. Since we did this via email, I’m just going to omit my questions and present Argyros’ answers like they’re an essay (lightly edited for readability). She said…

I actually had no idea what “cyberpunk” was until Asher of ReTech told me that my work leans in that direction. There was a boom of steampunk about ten years ago that I found intriguing. However, it was short-lived with all the mass production and nonsensical aesthetic decisions. There were some really great stories and comic books that came out of it, though.

Perhaps it’s the stories more than anything that draws me into the realm of cyberpunk. I currently have a collection of jewelry based on my own utopian world where people don’t pop pills to solve problems, they just alter the world around them. [Editor’s note: You can pry my pills out of my cold, dead hands! Venlafaxine forever.]

But as far as aesthetics, I’ve always loved the strong bold lines of Art Nouveau and dark tones of macabre art. Sergio Toppi is a huge inspiration of mine, with his illustrations utilizing asymmetrical balance and broken lines.

I didn’t always have this style with my jewelry. I got into metalsmithing back in college and it’s been a slow-moving career choice since then. There’s a fine line between doing what you want to do and doing what sells.

I have a saying, “My hands know more than my head.” Take away everything else in our lives and what we have left is our abilities; that is what defines us. I’m okay with being incredibly low-tech. I’m still able to do a lot of things despite being behind with the tech times. All I have is a website and Instagram. I don’t bother doing Pinterest and I just found out about 4chan and Reddit. Still have no idea what they are… really.

It’s also about being the kind of maker I want to be. I’m not into production lines and shipping out hundreds of little packages every month. Slow progress helps me keep everything in check, to choose my next step rationally.

Despite being low-tech, there is so much in the digital world that is absolutely fascinating. For example, there are incredibly talented artists who utilize technology to make things faster but are also more intricate. Check out the work of Nervous System when you get a chance. [Editor’s note: I also highly recommend this.]

In short, I don’t really feel downsized or inadequate for not utilizing technology to my advantage. Working with my hands is what makes me feel good. I know some of my more detailed works could be easily cut out with a laser cutter. It would certainly make the time go by faster.

But, not only is it an expensive piece of equipment, there is a part of me that would just be exhausted sitting in front of a computer instead of physically sitting at a bench and designing the work. I like to get my hands dirty.

I don’t really like to pass the time surfing the internet. So, I kind of hear about these outlets through conversations with people… which takes a while. It’s interesting to see what people are up to and some of these outlets are really good at showcasing that creativity. That’s why I to stick more to Instagram; it’s just an immediate way to see what people are doing without a lot of the drama.

Once you get into other social outlets, the temperature quickly changes. That’s why I steered clear of a lot of social media. I joined Facebook back when it came out years ago, and it was interesting to see the flow of information. But it has a way of pandering to our lowest, most basic pleasures by allowing people to pick and choose a reality based on their beliefs. Maybe it’s self-inflicted propaganda?

I don’t know, either way it got too difficult dealing with people always having an answer for everything but never questioning anything. That’s why I’ve limited which areas to expend my time. Another reason is the false sense of accomplishment we can get from these outlets. As an artist, it can be helpful to showcase what we do on these outlets but if we’re not actually communicating with galleries, emailing curators, and making strong connections, we aren’t doing much at all. We can’t get paid in “likes”!

I could appreciate the business side of being an artist a lot more if I didn’t have a day job. I’ve always enjoyed math but it’s difficult navigating taxes, licenses, and legal issues. Right now any free time I have, I’d rather spend it on designing and making instead of crunching numbers and filing papers.

As far as marketing goes, I’m pretty terrible at talking about my work. Artist markets can be difficult to navigate. I’m confident in my work but I’m not always confident when talking to people about my work. That’s the feeling I get from a lot of other artists and independent creatives as well. Luckily we have a local service here that caters towards helping women and small business owners get their feet on the ground. That’s been a huge help.

My closest cousin died a year back. She was the older sister I never had — dark, punk, goth princess with dreams of heading to the stars. I think it hurt me more than I ever though it would have.

I needed to get out of a slump. I took the attitude of, “Fuck it, I’m going to make what I want to make, regardless of what other people want.” This new turn helped me get back on track and has made me develop a stronger hold on the kind of artist I am. Whenever I hit any rough patches, I just tune into that inner punk nature we both had.

Go follow Argyros on Instagram and buy her jewelry.

Slot Machines for Social Capital

In a Hacker News thread about gambling, I came across this comment by user noname123:

Like slot machines that pump random awards and chance into slot user, I feel the surge of social approval and dopamine rush too when I get a Reddit upvote, a Facebook Like, IG comment, Tumblr reblog etc.

Also like how gambling addicts get into a “zombie flow-state” when they’re one with the machine, I feel the same way scrolling through pages after pages of Hacker News/Reddit/NYTimes/ESPN/YouTube popular channels. The thrill is gone, but the mechanics of pulling the slots pulley is embedded in my brain, watching one more YouTube video of a political pundit railing about the election, one more reaction video about a Internet meme, sometimes even re-watching video’s like re-watching music lyrics video to relive the laughter, that feeling — and only in the middle of the video wondering how I got there, like sometimes driving to a destination other than your work office but your brain goes on autopilot and takes the other turn to your office; and you don’t realize it until you’re there.

Also like how casino’s are a very anonymous and comforting place to addicts, I feel very safe and comfortable in hanging out with like-minded individuals on online forums whom I only know a vague outline of, but whose weariness and anonymity like mine are just as addicted and plugged into the zombie human-machine interface; I feel intuned and comfortable with. Like the anti-social meme’s (“Ez game, Ez lyfe”) on online games, alt-right memes on some Subreddits (Pepe memes, Trump is a racist) and IT memes on HN (for Elon Musk’s new Tesla model, against Holmes’ Theranos, for Peter Thiel’s Fellowship, against Peter Thiel’s endorsements, employees vs. funders), I commiserate with the anger and rage; and the identification of these online communities, just to feel like I am a part of something and also to direct my emotions to have some kind of drama & risk in my otherwise sterile electronic life; sometimes I feel I feel simultaneous the negative emotions and positive identifications on both sides of the argument.

I guess at least my addiction isn’t too bad given I’m only losing on my account balance of time and attention although that feeling of coming out of a six hours bender on the net trying to find the perfect co-working space in my city, debating through all the Yelp/CityData threads for the pro’s and con’s, feels eerily like coming out a casino sliding doors to bright sunlight at 8AM after a 18hr binge at the blackjack table; somehow in the back of your mind, you already accepted that you’ll be economically bankrupt in exchange for a chase for an emotional high — almost a spiritual transcendence, but somehow you wound up just feeling morally bankrupt.

I want to pull out one line in particular: “[I do it] just to feel like I am a part of something and also to direct my emotions to have some kind of drama & risk in my otherwise sterile electronic life”.

I recognize myself in that line, since I closely follow any conflict in the subcultures I pay attention to. Drama is intoxicating. I hate being part of social conflicts, but I’m a dedicated voyeur.

In a way I relate to all of noname123’s experience, since I spend a substantial portion of every day online. I work online. I have online hobbies. I compulsively check Twitter. Sometimes I open a new tab and start typing the address of the website that I just closed in the URL bar.

But it doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers this person. I wonder why that is. Because I have a partner? Because I don’t spend literally all of my waking hours at the computer? Because I have pets? Or is it just some kind of genetic temperament thing?

Certainly people with partners and pets are susceptible to addiction, so that’s probably not the significant variable. Besides, maybe noname123 is happily married with eight children. (I doubt that, but it’s possible.)

Personally, I do worry about my productivity. But I’m not sure how much more productive I’d be if my work were spatially separated from my play. Creative thinking requires a lot of rebound time, if you know what I mean, or at least it does for me. Ideas require time and stimulation to bubble up to the surface.

I know a lot of you work online too, in one capacity or another. Is this a problem for you? How do you deal with?

Header photo by jayneandd.

Sousveillance on a Blockchain

Compared to the Western world, Japan has an efficient and comprehensive bureaucratic apparatus for determining individuals’ legal identities:

The koseki is Japan’s family registration system. All legally significant transitions in a person’s life — births, deaths, marriages, divorces, adoptions, even changes of gender — are supposed to be registered in a koseki; in fact, registration is what gives them legal effect. An extract of a person’s koseki serves as the Official Document that confirms to the Rest of the World basic details about their identity and status.

Need to prove when you were born? Koseki extract. Need to show you have parental authority to apply for a child’s passport? Koseki extract. Want to commit bigamy? Good luck; the authorities will refuse to register a second marriage if your registry shows you are still encumbered with a first.

Compared to “event-based” Official Documents (birth certificates, divorce decrees and so forth) that prevail in places like America, the koseki is more accurate. An American can use a marriage certificate to show he got married on a particular date in the past but would struggle to prove he is still married today. A koseki extract, on the other hand, can do just that.

Part of me wants to say, “Now throw it on a blockchain!”

But actually what I should talk about is how much of my life is not Officially Documented at all. Who knows what the NSA and the rest of the alphabet soup have in their sneaky little archives (actually massive archives) but I’m insignificant so information about me wouldn’t be catalogued anyway.

When it comes to Genuine Official Documents, I exist and that’s just about it. Birth certificate, driver’s license, and… expired passport? What else do people even have?

On the internet it’s a different story. Some pundits talk about social media as a kind of performative sousveillance. I think “sousveillance” is an unnecessarily loaded word, but it’s true that many of us compulsively self-document. Facebook even has a “major life events” feature (that I personally never use, but it pops up on my timeline frequently).

The vast majority of posts are inane. People grip about this — “I don’t care what you had for breakfast!” — but it also ensures that there’s plenty of material to sift through. Insights can be gleaned, my friends, especially if you cross-reference separate feeds. You could learn so much about me by combing through my 16k+ tweets! Especially when combined with my Instagram.

Maybe we should throw all these social networks on a blockchain and use that as our universal record? If I’ve learned anything from heartfelt Medium posts it’s that anything you could possibly put on a blockchain should be formatted that way.

Header photo by Ryuichi Miwa. It probably doesn’t depict anything related to koseki.

Pyongyang Is Totes Awesome, Bro

This is a superlative cyberpunk headline if I ever saw one: “YouTube Stars Are Now Being Used for North Korean Propaganda”. A vlogger named Louis Cole uploaded a series of videos in which he gallivanted around the DPRK, with nary a mention of the country’s atrocious human rights record.

Per the article: “Cole has, so far, not really made mention of any of that, choosing instead to go for a light tone, oohing and ahhing over abundant food in a country ravaged by hunger.” I mean, to be fair, famine is a bummer, right? What brand would want to sponsor a vlogger who talks about that stuff?

Louis Cole on Twitter, @funforlouis. Glad you're enjoying yourself, buddy.

Louis Cole on Twitter, @funforlouis. Glad you’re enjoying yourself, buddy.

The "beautiful military guide at the war museum", praised by Louis Cole on Instagram.

The “beautiful military guide at the war museum”, praised by Louis Cole on Instagram.

In the article, Richard Lawson wrote incisively:

The more you watch Cole’s videos from North Korea, the more you wonder if he’s plainly ignorant to the plight of many people in the country, or if he’s willingly doing an alarmingly thorough job of carrying water for Kim Jong Un’s regime — not really caring what the implications are, because, hey, cool trip.

Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe this is a surreal extreme of the unthinking, vacuous new-niceness that occupies a large amount of YouTube territory, content creators so determined to deliver an upbeat, brand-friendly message that the uncomfortable truths of the world — personal and political — go mind-bogglingly, witlessly ignored.

Louis Cole’s manager insisted that he wasn’t being paid by the DPRK and didn’t intend to “gloss over or dismiss any negative issues that plague the country”. Like Lawson, I believe that.

I don’t think this vlogger was gleefully pressing “upload” and thinking, “Haha, now’s my chance to bolster the image of an oppressive dictator!” On his Twitter account — which he appears to run himself — Cole said, “its a tiny step & gesture of peace. waving a finger & isolating the country even more fuels division” [sic].

Here’s the thing, though — Cole may be goodhearted and he may mean all the best, but it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t change the fact that he was shilling for the carefully curated trip that a brutal regime presented to him. And it doesn’t change the incentives that he and his professional brethren are responding to.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the new “influencer economy”, as it’s being called — for instance, Elspeth Reeves’ fascinating article on teen lip-syncing sensations — because I’m a media geek and that’s a substantial portion of the future of media. So I follow a lot of these people on social media.

The “influencers” who are raking in cash are relentlessly positive. Big companies are risk-averse — they don’t want to be associated with anything negative — and big companies are the ones cutting checks to YouTube stars, Instagram stars, etc. Interpersonal drama pops up now and then, but any political questions are avoided.

Who can blame them? Gotta make a buck and late capitalism only offers so many options…

(I still blame them.)

Counterintuitive Meshing of Activism and Hashtags

Social media is very cyberpunk. I covered the Facebook-and-censorship angle last week, and Ben Thompson wrote a longer piece on that topic. But think about just the normal, everyday operations on a platform like Twitter.

Twitter's logo as a skull, by Adam Koford.

Twitter’s logo as a skull, by Adam Koford.

For example, Black Lives Matter and its attendant hashtag have flourished in streams of 140 characters or less. (Black people in general are disproportionately represented on Twitter, which is surprising when you consider how many white supremacists flock there.) The mainstream spotlight on BLM waxes and wanes depending on the latest high-profile tragedy, but the group been around for years now.

Twitter's custom #BlackLivesMatter hashtag emoji

Think about how weird that is: a radical justice movement is organizing protests and recruiting supporters via a corporate media distribution service, which is oriented towards earning advertising revenue. Aren’t they at cross-purposes? How strange for the incentives to align. It reminds me of that famous William Gibson quote: “The street finds its own uses for things.”

When BLM activist DeRay McKesson was arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was wearing a #StayWoke shirt created by Twitter’s in-house diversity group, Blackbirds. It’s the same shirt that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wore onstage at Recode’s flagship tech conference.

Meanwhile, 2% of Twitter’s US employees were black as of August, 2015, compared to 6.7% of Bay Area residents. The company’s “vice president of diversity and inclusion” is a white man in his fifties.

McKesson broadcast his arrest live on Periscope, an app owned by Twitter.

Mundane Media Addictions + Snapchat Fever

I am inundated with information. It’s my default state now, and anything else feels odd. If I’m not actively intaking or creating media, I get restless because I’m under-stimulated. My senses are constantly processing multiple layers of pictures and text and sound. Most of my daily socializing happens through the internet — well, through glossy frontend interfaces that live on top of web infrastructure powered by the internet. Technically speaking, I understand none of this. Experientially, it’s natural.

Snapchat Fever Doom

Blatantly stolen from BuzzFeed.

Snapchat Fever

Back in February, a BuzzFeed employee named Ben Rosen wrote about how his teen sister uses Snapchat. I have to admit, it was a little bit frightening. I’ve seen my own little sister use this app too, and even though I’m in my early twenties, it makes me feel ancient. Media production is how I support myself, broadly speaking, so it’s terrifying not to have a handle on the latest ~hot~ platform. I talk melodramatically about stuffing my face full of photos and words, but I’m not on this level:

“I would watch in awe as she flipped through her snaps, opening and responding to each one in less than a second with a quick selfie face. She answered all 40 of her friends’ snaps in under a minute.”

Rosen included this quote from his sister: “I don’t really see what [my friends] send. I tap through so fast. It’s rapid fire.” Predictably, in the comments a bunch of adults chimed in with varying expressions of horror and fear. Someone named Jeanie Glaser said, “It never ceases to be amusing, how every single generation can be so certain that the one coming up after them will be the one that is going to bring about the death of humanity.” She has a point.

I don’t foresee doom and gloom, but I do foresee my own irrelevance. It’s not something I want to be aware of — the inevitable eclipse. I feel like my media intake is extreme, compared to how I grew up, and I’m someone who leaves her phone on the side table at night and reads a paper book in bed. I still have the patience for long magazine pieces. My intellectual and entertainment habits are very slow-moving compared to the dreaded teens.

What will it be like when virtual reality is integrated into our daily lives? Perhaps, ironically, it will strip away one of the layers of information that we perceive, since we’ll be immersed in constructed worlds. Or maybe VR will just add another set of interfaces for users to manage. Will Facebook build a Facebook app for the Oculus Rift? If they did, would it feel hopelessly antiquated?

We’re All Watching, But Why?

“In order to protect Melbourne’s reputation as Australia’s street art capital, CCTV cameras have been installed in areas deemed to be urban art hotpots. These cameras will serve a dual purpose, firstly to ensure that culturally significant works are protected for future generations to enjoy, and secondly, to be used as evidence against the artists should their work turn out to have no cultural significance.”

There is something on-the-money about that poster. Surveillance has become so normal — you’re being watched constantly, all the time. Watched and recorded. It’s mundane. No one pays attention to most of the footage, but your presence and your actions are preserved. So many ambient cameras, loosely intended for security, are mounted on buildings. They absorb audiovisual data 24-7. The files are archived — deleted periodically, but available for at least thirty days. Friends’ smartphones and strangers’ smartphones capture your image. Your face is disseminated on Instagram and through Snapchat.

There’s always a good reason for these activities, right? No one is conducting surveillance for surveillance’s sake (except maybe the NSA). It’s to prevent shoplifting. It’s to express love via Facebook tagging. In fact, the latter type of recording wouldn’t usually be described as surveillance. But let’s look at the dictionary definition: surveillance is “the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime”. So surveillance usually pertains to illegal behavior, sure, but it doesn’t have to. Surveillance is systematic watching and recording. If that doesn’t describe how teenagers use Snapchat, I don’t know what does.

Like most technologies that become integrated into everyday life, surveillance cameras are inherently political. But they don’t necessarily support one side or the other. However, the data they capture is almost always deployed to reinforce the state’s authority. Citizen recordings of police brutality provide a notable exception, but even then the framework of laws and judgment is inescapable.

Expose Yourself / Still Trying To Hide

Sometimes I like to string quotes together to indicate a point. It’s akin to writing a very short essay using other people’s words.

“What makes crowdfunding possible now is the emergence of new communication platforms. The Internet allows us to surface niche communities that weren’t so obvious beforehand.” — Ellen Chisa, a former Kickstarter product manager

Image via Alan O’Rourke. Get that money.

Image via Alan O’Rourke. Gettin’ that guac.

“In some ways, we’re lucky that the first two decades involving the advent of the commercial Internet were largely a positive-sum game. The creation of digital space for self-expression, at near-zero cost, does not necessarily challenge or erode someone else’s right to space or resources.” — Kim-Mai Cutler on California’s housing and development problems [not necessarily — note that]

“Now, as the stars begin to dim and humans dip and swerve in flocks of social media ephemera, responses are instantaneous and direct and physical, our nascent haptic helpers tugging gently at our sleeves to let us know that someone, somewhere, has had an opinion at us. […] I’ve started thinking of this as an attention lens: small, human amounts of individual attention are refracted through social media to converge on a single person, producing the effect of infinite attention at the focal point.” — Coda Hale on Twitter and related social dilemmas

“the world today is like living in a big field that is more illuminated than ever before” — Joseph Nye, quoted on government surveillance

There are pros and cons to being a figment of the open web. The freely visible web. The semi-universally accessible web. For my purposes, the pros outweigh the cons. But like most choices, it’s worth considering! How much do you want to participate?

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