Author Archives: Adam Webb-Orenstein

Adam Webb-Orenstein is a PhD student in anthropology at Rice University. His dissertation research is on identity theft.

Three Videos of Dead Media Theorists

One of the benefits of access to YouTube’s vast sea of content is that by finding and watching videos that relate to our scholarly interests, however indirectly, we are able to tell ourselves that there is something productive about time spent drifting around the internet. There are, for example, plenty of videos of old lectures by our favorite thinkers and authors floating around out there. However, as the three theorists featured in this post would well understand, the conventions of this sort of presentation do not make the most of the medium. It can be a lot more revealing to see concepts and arguments we usually encounter on the written page play out in formats that are more unusual and more dialogic. In this post, I’ve collected a few of my favorite examples of the sorts of casually meandering discourse I find particularly illuminating. (read more...)

Trolls, Trump, and Truth: How Much Does History Matter?

In an article published last week on Motherboard, Whitney Phillips, Jessica Beyer, and Gabriella Coleman argue strongly against the widely-circulating idea that that the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters in the alt-right and white nationalist movements can be traced back to early incarnations of the internet-based “trolling” communities such as 4chan. These scholars of trolling culture suggest that a careful historical analysis will show that the recent upsurges in racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism in our politics are distinct from what their own work treats as the core cultural practice of “trolling.” They argue that 4chan, Anonymous, and trolls in general have never been fully aligned with any single political agenda, and so it is a mistake to reduce the fluid and complex trolling communities of the past to one particularly unlikable segment of what they have become. While I am appreciative of the authors’ insistence on a more precise and causally-nuanced account, I also think we should be careful not to let the pursuit of accuracy distract us from the identification of homologies between these cultural trends. (read more...)

How Not to Be a Bot: An Interview with Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. In her 2012 book Addiction by Design, she explores how electronic slot machines facilitate the compulsive behavior of gambling addicts through their digital interfaces. Informed by extensive ethnographic research among designers and users, the book details how the interrelationship between humans and digital media is engineered and experienced, and how it relates to the demands and logics of life in contemporary capitalist society. In current research, Schüll has shifted her focus to the design and use of digital self-tracking technologies. Her recent article, “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline,” which provides the starting point for the following interview, bridges her first and second projects. Adam Webb-Orenstein: What brought you to focus on players of online poker and how is this work related to the concerns of your earlier research on slot machine addicts? Natasha Dow Schüll: My approach as an anthropologist is to explore how technology mediates cultural demands in human experience, and slot machine play and online poker play are two cases I’ve examined to get at that. I see both forms of play as responses to contemporary life but the ways in which they are mediated by technology, and the experiences they afford, differ. (read more...)

What Vic Berger’s Videos Say About American Electoral Politics

Anyone watching Saturday Night Live’s parodies of US electoral campaigns in recent years has likely noticed its particular humor no longer works so well. Its treatment of recent events in the presidential primary competitions, especially on the Republican side, is a lot less funny than the news coverage of the campaigns themselves. The behavior displayed by the candidates as they travel around the country courting voters and debating each other seems to have more entertainment value than the sketches mocking it. Vine and Youtube videos made over the past few months by the comedian and video editor Vic Berger IV, on the other hand, distill some of the absurdity of this election season by highlighting what is too marginal and granular to capture with scripted caricature. His videos of the candidates and their campaigns home in on moments of particularly awkward behavior. They illustrate something of Henri Bergson’s argument about comedy, that it results from finding rigidity where one would expect there to be organic elasticity, “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” The effectiveness of political sketch comedy, it appears, decreases as the gap closes between the rhetorical skills that allow people to be successful in politics, on one hand, versus televised comedy on the other. Donald Trump is such a dramatic parody of himself that any parody by others is more or less redundant. Just as political campaigning has transformed by adapting to changes in the broader media environment, the locus of the most incisively humorous treatments of the current national election cycle has moved to a different technological register thanks to tools for editing and sharing digital video. (read more...)

The Entrepreneurial Future

Georges Doriot, who founded the first publicly traded venture capital firm in 1946, arguably announced a new regime of speculative capital when he said: “I want money to do things that have never been done before” (Ante 2008). In the years immediately after World War II, the establishment of venture capital firms was crucial to the ascent of a new kind of commercial enterprise, one that has profoundly influenced the development of digital technologies on a very broad scale. It was with the creation of the first venture capital firms that a financial network to support technology startup companies began to form. The fact that the earliest Silicon Valley startups were funded by venture capital investments is an indicator of the degree to which the developmental trajectory of personal computing has been intertwined with that of finance capital. Fairchild Semiconductor, for example, was the first startup funded by venture capital (in 1957), and it launched numerous “spin-off” companies that were collectively responsible for the innovations that enabled what became the microelectronics industry. Since then, of course, venture capital has grown into a powerful industry that directs vast financial resources into technology startup companies. But venture capital investment doesn’t only fuel the tech startup economy — it actively shapes it. Research on Silicon Valley’s high tech industry suggests that venture capitalists’ importance to processes of innovation has more to do with their role in selecting promising companies than with simply providing financing itself (Ferrary & Granovetter 2009). Beyond choosing the criteria for valuation by which the potential commercial success of startups is measured, they determine which innovations will even have a chance to enter the market. The result is that Silicon Valley innovation is guided directly by finance capital’s future-oriented logic of speculation. Companies with few tangible assets pursue funding without which they will have little chance to successfully launch their products and, as business news coverage attests, some companies are valued at billions of dollars without demonstrating that they have the means to become profitable. What matters is keeping the possibility of a market open. One could think, for example, of Snapchat, a popular photo and video sharing app that has expanded through significant venture capital investments. Last year, the company was valued at $10 billion, despite the fact that it generates almost no revenue, mostly on the basis of its potential to reach users and create an audience. (read more...)

Approaching the Infrastructure of Digital Media Startups

In the 1997 essay “Protected Mode,” the late media theorist Friedrich Kittler, with nostalgia for “the good old times” when using computers meant interacting with them in a way that made it impossible to ignore the reality of their basic hardware, expressed his disapproval of the user-friendliness of commercial software. In contrast to the true underlying operations of digital machines themselves, he asserted, commercial software hides from view the reality of computers’ operations determined at the level of material technological frameworks. “The higher and more effortless the programming languages,” he wrote, “the more insurmountable the gap between those languages and a hardware that still continues to do all of the work” (157). The problem with software, for Kittler, is that it seems to put the user in control when, in fact, what it really does is reduce the user’s agency by obscuring the user interface’s basis in hardware. Put in different terms, it performs an illusory reversal of the relationship between infrastructural and superstructural elements. One can only imagine that Kittler would be dismayed by the current state of digital media technology’s development in general and by the trend among technology startup companies toward increased reliance on cloud computing in the form of “infrastructure as a service.” At the same, I think this gestures toward a certain problem in the anthropological study of digital technologies. (read more...)