Category: News, Links, and Pointers

Pokémon GO and the visibility of digital infrastructure

This blog post is about the popular augmented reality game, Pokémon GO. If you are unfamiliar and/or want a brief overview of it and its cultural history, this is a useful resource. As a virtual world anthropologist and a Pokémon nerd, I have become immersed in Pokémon GO. As the game continues to gain traction and I wander around meeting strangers and friends who are also playing the game, I have taken note of numerous issues of anthropological concern, like new forms of social interaction and the re-mapping and flattening of cityscapes. Colleagues and I have even speculated about whether Pokémon GO is a virtual world—by which I mean a computer-simulated, persistent, and shared environment online—and, if it is such a world, how it represents one that is visible even to non-players. Participating in and observing the Pokémon GO phenomenon, I’ve found that players have been confronted by another recurring topic related to visibility: the visibility of game servers. I recently attended a large gathering of about 1000 Pokémon GO players in downtown Riverside, CA. We all walked around together, yet apart, huddled among small groups of friends with phones in hand, capturing virtual pets. Servers are the typically invisible and distant machines that allow such an event to happen. They connect people to the game world and to one another by receiving and returning signals to and from our mobile devices. They are an integral part of the ecology of media that enables the shared experience of being in a virtual space overlaid upon the actual world—and, curiously, players have a vague understanding of this. Pokémon GO servers have become very visible. If you ask any Pokémon GO player, servers are to blame for some of the greatest downfalls of the game, like faulty connections, glitches, outages, and lag. Developers have repeatedly mentioned servers as the root of many issues with the game, and, as a result, many players continue to point fingers at servers. So why have servers, things we can’t see or even explain, become the targets of so much anger and frustration? How can we characterize the very visible role servers play in the social worlds of Pokémon GO? (read more...)

The Problem of Expecting Privacy on Social Media

In May of this year, Danish researchers released a data set containing the profile information of 70,000 OkCupid users. OkCupid is a free online dating site to which, as you would expect, users post information in hopes of making a connection. The researchers collected this data by scraping the site, or using code that captures the information available. The data set included usernames, locations, and the answers to the personal questions related to user dating, sexuality, and sexual preferences. In other words, the researchers published personal information that the dating site users would expect to remain, at least theoretically, among the other members of the dating site, and could also be used to discover the users’ real names. But should OkCupid users, and the denizens of social media in general, expect what they post online to not be made “public”? In my last blog post, I briefly pondered the normalization of doxxing and what that means for privacy online. My question, for the most part, was whether courts would see how common doxxing has become as an indication that it is not as highly offensive to a reasonable person as necessary for a judgment of invasion of privacy. In that post I focused on doxxing by individuals, and sometimes the media. It’s important to note, however, that researchers have begun to participate in the same kind of behavior with little to no remorse. Which leads to what I think is the overarching question of what expectation of privacy people can have in information that they place on social media or connected sites like newspaper comment forums or review sites like Yelp. (read more...)

The Hulk, Doxxing, and Changing Standards of Privacy

By now you’ve probably heard the verdict in the Bollea v. Gawker case, the formal name of the lawsuit that Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea being his legal name) filed against the online news site Gawker. The jury awarded the Hulkster with $140 million in damages for invasion of privacy after Gawker posted a one-minute segment of a sex tape featuring the wrestler with the wife of his best friend Bubba the Love Sponge. If you got a chance to watch the trial, or a least read about what was happening, you’d know that it was very entertaining, particularly for a media/info/tech law nerd such as myself. You should also know that Hulk has unfinished business with Gawker, having recently (as of May 3, 2016) filed another lawsuit against the media organization and others claiming emotional distress. Bollea v. Gawker, as humorous as it was, is perhaps not as important as (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 Rise of Citizen Science, Part II: Building Capacity

Earlier this month, I posted about how a principled approach to citizen science could help shape the field. In this second part, I look at one novel online project that’s helping citizen scientists connect both with each other and with scientific researchers and research teams that want (or need) their help. Thanks to a Pathways grant from the National Science Foundation, a web-based resource called SciStarter 2.0 is a global public science engagement tool in-the-making. While SciStarter 2.0 is now simply a website, it may someday be much more. I asked Darlene Cavalier, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and founder of the original SciStarter program, to tell me a bit about it. According to Cavalier, the NSF funding and recent move of SciStarter to ASU enabled the team to pivot from an initial emphasis on the web-based system as a project finder (helping people find science projects) toward providing more support for all participants by making it easier to find people (both fellow citizen scientists and/or researchers in need of their contributions) and to keep track of everyone’s contributions. Such an approach not only formalizes the process for finding and participating in science, but it also helps, says Cavalier, “to enhance, diversify, and validate a participant’s involvement in citizen science.” (read more...)

The Anti-Politics of Women in Tech

Almost daily are news articles about women in tech. Among these on the day I wrote this post, for example, were an article in Marie Claire, the women’s magazine, called “How Much Have Things Really Changed for Women in Technology?” and another in India’s business newspaper Mint titled “Two kinds of pay gap in the IT industry: NetApp’s Mark Bregman.” Both articles touch on several issues about women in tech, and STEM fields more generally; the cornerstone in each, however, is simply the number of women in the tech world—or the lack thereof, compared with men. This is a problem that has been explored since at least the mid-1970s in computer science (e.g., Montanelli Jr. and Mamrak 1976), longer for some other STEM fields. More recently this issue was highlighted last year, particularly in the media and public attention, when large tech companies like Google, Apple, Twitter, and Facebook released “diversity data” showing the dismal number of women and minorities among their employees. The articles also point to several issues seen as contributing to the disparities, including pay and hiring gaps for women, so-called “brogrammer” culture (involving frat-house-like sociality and performances of technical heroism, generally among men), and implicit biases shaping how women (and men) are perceived and judged. As a former woman in tech—I pursued an undergraduate degree in computer science—I appreciate how this surge in public awareness and interest is helpful to many, particularly in relation to discussions about sexism and tech cultures. Through social media, blogs, and news articles people are sharing and discussing personal experiences and working to further raise awareness of, and gain support for, challenges women as a group face in tech. Tech companies and governments have also pledged a great deal of money towards “fixing” this problem. (read more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part I: A Principled Approach

This is the first in a two-part series about the rise of citizen science, from CASTAC Contributing Editor Todd Hanson. When it comes to science, Albert Einstein was an amateur. Well, at least he was during the time he made his most groundbreaking contributions to physics. From 1902 to 1908, Einstein’s day job was that of an assistant patent examiner at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property. It was during these six years as an avocational scientist that he developed his theories that transformed physics. Working as what we would today call a “citizen scientist,” the four papers he published would become a foundation of modern physics. While Einstein’s case may be unique, a lesson from his life is that ignoring the contributions of those scientists and scholars unaffiliated with university or research institutions is done at society’s risk. The bifurcation of scientists into professional and amateur is a relatively recent and arbitrary occurrence. Several notable eighteenth and nineteenth century “gentlemen scientists” had no direct affiliation to corporate or public institutions, including Robert Boyle, Henry Cavendish, and Charles Darwin, and were not paid scientists, or even science professors, for much or even all of their lives–but were nonetheless immensely important in the history of science. Historically, the divide increased as professional scientists were generally better educated in their fields and paid positions in universities and, later, corporations increased. Still, the general public interest in scientific matters was strong and although amateurs were rarely welcomed into science’s inner circles, they continued to work unpaid, and mostly unacknowledged on scientific matters. (read more...)