Distraction Free Reading

Weekly Round-up | February 24th

After a brief hiatus, the weekly round-up returns with stories on algorithms, microdosing, virtual reality documentaries, and how to read new media. As always, we’d love to showcase stuff that CASTAC members are working on elsewhere, or just cool stuff that you find around the web! Drop us a line at editor@castac.org and we’ll throw it in the mix for next week.

Painting of vaqueros rounding up cattle in 1830s Spanish California

Actual image of our link round-up process (public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia)

  • Algorithms have been a favorite punching bag of the blogosphere and middle-brow journals for a few years now. While they’re easy to criticize, they’re harder to engage and historicize. “Rule by Nobody” does a nice job of both, however. Adam Clair draws on Weber and Graeber to argue that algorithms should be understood as an expansion of bureaucratic rationalization. Rather than posthuman monstrosities of unfeeling code and insensate machines, he suggests that we consider them as profoundly human, sociotechnical systems, open to intervention and creative refashioning. How anthropological!
  • The emergence of algorithms as active inhabitants of social space has also been producing a strangely didactic current of commentary, such as this “guide to seeing the news beyond your cozy filter bubble.” Although perhaps more interesting sociologically than practically to the ever-so-savvy readers of Platypus, it’s nevertheless nice to see the pendulum swing from smug criticism of algorithms’ shortcomings to critical engagement with their affordances and constraints.
  • Meanwhile, in actual algorithmic news, Google has managed to produce the first SHA1 collision, undermining faith in the Secure Hash Algorithm underlying huge swathes of the contemporary digital security landscape. This is a big deal for existing web infrastructures, and also interesting as an indicator of the scale of brute computational power we’re now able to level at solving such cryptographic problems.
  • If algorithms are easy targets, so too are the blithely unreflexive attitudes of the Bay Area creatives who build many of them. However just the criticism, it’s often stale. The Baffler, though, conjures an especially piquant distaste for the practice of microdosing, the use of small and regular doses LSD to improve productivity, in their exquisitely-titled “Tune On, Turn On, Disrupt Something.”
  • On another note entirely, check out this nuanced dissection of Clouds Over Sidra, “the UN’s first virtual reality documentary,” by Kathryn Hamilton at the New Inquiry. For one thing, it’s empirically fascinating. For another, in our increasingly theoretical worlds of media studies, it’s nice to be reminded just how much good, old-fashioned critical reading can still tell us plenty about the function of contemporary ways of seeing.
  • For a similarly old school approach to new media, check out this interview with Josef Nguyen discussing his recent Configurations article reading Minecraft alongside Robinson Crusoe and a broader archive of “island narratives.” It does a nice job of placing the creativity practices of world-building games within a constellation of similar self- and world-making practices, while being mindful of the specificity of the virtual milieu.
  • We’re often inclined to think that improving bandwidth and capture technologies will gradually shift the internet from a textual basis to an audiovisual one; certainly there has lately been an explosion of images, video, and audio within what was once a mostly written communication medium. Deborah Cameron, however, argues for the continued primacy of textual communication on the internet, while calling for careful attention to how the internet as medium might be changing our literacy practices.

Until next time, folks. Stay frosty.

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