Archive for » September, 2008 «

beta-testing on a grand scale

About a week ago, I heard a radio commentator whose beat is the stock market exclaim, “The market is broken!” What struck me about this is that nearly all such market commentators, whether on NPR or Fox, are free marketeers who at most pay lip service to what one might call ‘regulation lite’. So I found myself wondering in what possible sense could the present crisis be construed to mean that the free market is broken? On the contrary, isn’t this a classic example of a (substantially) free market working… freely? Notably, the mess around credit default swaps and other new derivatives has happened in precisely the least regulated areas of the market. I’m no economist myself, but I have to wonder what it means when something that operates as it’s supposed to is nonetheless taken to be broken, not by its critics but by its adherents. For one thing, it suggests that a good many people who argue for free markets actually don’t understand the concept (taking the promise of good outcomes on faith, an economic religion) or engage in self-deception, preferring to look only at the upside. I suspect that either position–the faith or the self-deception–is enabled by belonging to the safer zones of the middle class and becomes harder to sustain the closer you get to the economic margins.

Speaking of credit default swaps, it occurs to me that the slew of such financial instruments being invented over the last decade constitutes a new technology of money, and that what the banks that promulgated them have been doing is beta-testing them on us. Forced, de facto beta-testing is nothing new (think Microsoft Vista), but I wonder if one consequence of the computer era is that we have internalized the idea that such beta-testing of new technologies without consent of the testees is socially acceptable. If Microsoft can do it to its user base, AIG can do it to, in effect, everyone. Bioengineering is another obvious example of a field in which citizens have been beta-tested (through their food) without prior consent. To put it another way, free market capitalism normalizes large-scale beta-testing as as an opt-out rather than an opt-in system–but without any easy way to opt out.

We’ve had several hundred years of beta-testing free market capitalism. I hereby volunteer as a beta-tester for a true American social democracy.

Welcome to Difference Engines

Maps, chromosome tests, and even phrenology have long not only been ways of making sense of bodies and getting things done, but also sorting creatures into categories — gendered, racial, un/civilized, non/human are only a few.

While the web has many blogs that deal with feminist issues, we found few places that stoked discussion and built a community around thinking about technologies critically from a feminist perspective. And we know that the community is out there and wanting that discussion.

Camellia and I first thought to make this in a Rite Aid in Portland where we discovered that I had loved Wired as a high school student but had grown totally disillusioned with its technolibertarian cheerleading and its use of women as window dressing. Camellia had similarly enjoyed Wired but had dreamed of making a feminist alternative and she even had a pun for the name — Ellectron. (We cracked us up. :P)

So we scratched an itch and here we are. This is really meant to be a platform for a community, so please contact Lilly and Camellia to contribute.