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Notes from The Future of the Capitalist City

Here are some comments I made at the recent meeting of the American Association of Geographers in downtown LA. The Westin Bonaventura (search Jameson, postmodernism if you don’t remember his rant about architectural anti-democratic design and downtown LA) was the site of more lefty urban theorists than you could dream of.

This panel was called “The Future of the Capitalist City,” organized by NYU PhD candidate Daniel Cohen, who invited me to do the introduction. I’m so glad he did, as it was a blast seeing so many marxists at the art-deco Biltmore.    

So we started with:  “How might we think about the future of the city, and think it in conjunction with the future of capitalism?”

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UCFemTechNet conference being livestreamed now

A group of organizers across the UC are discussing new directions in feminist technology studies. Speakers include Anne Balsamo, Lisa Parks, Kelly Gates, Adele Clarke, and more!

Livestreaming here today and tomorrow

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Remote work: Creativity, innovation, unmanned bulldozers, and faculty governance

Fascinating article about Cornell-Technion partnership to build NYC tech campus. It’s going to be organized as a hub for interdisciplinary work, like the WW2 RAD labs Peter Galison and Fred Turner have written about.

Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, told The Jewish Week that Technion’s partnership with Cornell “is of strategic importance in terms of positioning Israel not only in America, but all over the world, as a bastion of creativity and innovation.” He added that “When Americans think of Israel, overwhelmingly the first thing that comes to mind is the association with conflict, the fact that Israel is in dispute with its neighbors.”

Technion is a top international university particularly strong in developing military technologies. Israel is a top exporter of drones. And Technion developed unmanned bulldozers.

Why would someone need an unmanned bulldozer? <pause> Hrm? Search Rachel Corrie just for a start.

Cornell faculty and students are angry that this partnership has gone through without even a debate among faculty who, by school bylaws, are to approve cross-school educational policy.

For those of us studying creativity and innovation cultures, the consul general is explicitly binding togetherinnovation economy diplomacy to Israel’s military actions and racialized exclusion of Palestinians. It’s not even entirely surprising, since a lot of the cultures of creativity we celebrate today, Fred Turner teaches us, came right out of military technology research into networks and ballistics systems.

The unmanned bulldozer also seems like another important data point in governmental policies that use science and technology to reduce citizen involvement in warmaking, taking it out of our political domain into relatively closed-door security decisions. I wonder what else moving the human out of the bulldozer and into a control center somewhere was meant to accomplish?
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When someone tells you to put innovation in a funding application



Given the association between innovation and masculine Silicon Valley cultures, I totally feel for humanistic scholars who feel like they need to invoke that language to get support for their work. We need critical inquiry into cultures of “innovation.”

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When someone says his or her argument isn’t political

Via the tumblr phdstress, via el–ee

When someone says his or her argument isn’t political.

This exact thing happened at 4S 2012 during a talk claiming that synthetic biology experimenters recombining the materials of human life can be understood as practicing queer kinship. True the two hold in common the reconstruction of relations, especially geneological ones, between living things. But, some audience members feeling like Britney here commented, queer kinship is also about conviviality and care between often vulnerable people, not the hacker oriented celebration of catalyzed evolution that the synthetic biologists were practicing. When the audience membered queried the stakes of making queer kinship and synthetic biohacking commensurable, the speaker answered that her project was not a politically engaged one.

If you’re going to build your project on queer kinship theories in anthropology and feminist philosophies of knowledge, then you need to take on board the assumption that your project — just like your synthetic biologists’ projects — are political.

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Kurt Vonnegut, “burn this letter”

I was shocked by the casual sexism and racism in Vonnegut’s personal letter:

He uses a derogatory racial term for East Asians, refers to the Taiwanese woman as a “mistress” of a famous white male writer (a person who I believe was actually a famous writer herself, and married to the Director of the Writer’s Workshop, a less well-known writer internationally than she was). And he refers to the (apparently common practice) of famous (male) visiting writers casually sleeping with (presumably young female) undergraduates , warning his friend that their parents were still watching.

I guess it shouldn’t be shocking to remember that so many DWMs were prejudiced, and that most people thought nothing of using racial slurs and sexist objectification. But the casual & sexist use of the racist term used by American military in Vietnam was especially jarring.

Zelda has done some really great work on sexism in art (like her piece Galileo in America, where Galileo’s daughter challenges some of Brecht’s famous reliance on the invisible labour of women).

It also made me think about Vonnegut’s instruction to burn the letter — clearly he knew he was talking trash; finding this is sort of like seeing those thousands of personal emails exchanged (on gmail!) by Petraeus and other high-placed security officials. It isn’t just electronic media that has shown up the imaginations of the private-public divide to be a figment of our Victorian imaginations.



Mitt Romney or Silicon Valley designer?

“Work with really nice people whose goal it is to make things and not to take things. Because there are people out there who just want to take things.”

This quote from is attributed to Evan Sharp, the designer-founder of Pinterest. It reminded me of Mitt Romney’s 47% comment that almost half the country just wants entitlements, and Bill O’Reilly’s post-election analysis that Obama won because enough people out there just want “things.”

Not all designers talk like this, but that thought this was worth highlighting on their homepage suggests that this kind of makers-takers discourse has wide hold, The question is how attributions of making and taking are being made, and I’m sure it is subtly different in different places but when “making” requires social, cultural, and financial capital, you tell me you don’t see some familiar gender / race / class lines being reinscribed.

Radiolab’s “truth” is no justice for Hmong activist

Kao Kalian Yang in Hyphen Magazine explains the racist pattern of interaction and representation in a recent Radiolab story on “the science” and “the truth” behind Yellow Rain. An activist and interviewee of the Radiolab show wrote the piece. Yellow Rain was a material Ronald Reagan and Hmong refugees have called a poison weapon. Some people we call scientists in American universities have claimed Yellow Rain was just bee droppings.

As the reporter tries to drill Yang and her uncle on what they saw and what they know, he tries to claim that they could not know what they claim to know — not in the terms that a bunch of lab scientists testing 20 year old samples could.

Hmong man who was an official reporter to Thai government on Hmong violence: “It feels to him that this is a semantic debate. It feels like there’s a jack of justice. The word of a man who survived this thing is pitted against a man from Harvard who read these accounts.”

Radiolab guy: “It seems like your uncle didn’t SEE the pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t SEE the plane. All of this is hearsay.”

Yang cites justice as a value that competes against various definitions of what can count as truth. It’s not just that we need plural truths, but we need truths we can use in pursuit of justice too. The means of pursuing truth must also themselves be just. Judith Butler writes about the politics of truth in her piece Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality (2001). She tells the story of the havoc wreaked on the life of an American kid whose non-binary gender became a battleground for a culture seeking scientific understanding of sexual “nature vs nurture.” The life of the person made a subject of scrutiny didn’t get factored into the debates about the politics of sexual knowledge. The “yellow rain” story is riven with questions of how we make our truths, as well as who gets to speak “truth.”

Must read for any ethnographers, journalists, and everyone who thinks they care about what counts as evidence.

Spacejump isn’t about tech progress. It is about male enhancement.

I know I’ve posted recently to DiffEng, but Spacejump is too timely so I couldn’t resist.

If you haven’t heard, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a space balloon from 120,000 feet in the sky down to earth under the watchful audience of 8 million YouTube viewers.

DA Banks asks in The Society Pages:

Why is a man jumping from the edge of space when we still rely on 18th century energy sources and can’t build a train network as advanced as the one we had a hundred years ago?

He then suggests that, following David Graeber, it might be

that existing bureaucratic systems under corporate capitalism are not up to the job of creating immortality drugs or colonies on Mars because huge disparities in wealth and power make it too cheap and easy to clean our homes and build our iPhones with cheap labor instead of robots.

In the Tweet economy, I have made my response just a bit provocative but allow me to explain. Shortly after spacejump, Paolo Coelho tweeted this, which someone else commemorated on a meme-able image (below): “Never accept your limitations — because there are NO limitations. Viva Felix!” Spacejump, to me, seems to captivate people because it is an extreme form of personal technology. It creates the individual who can overcome all through technological and psychological breakthroughs. It is about remaking and bolstering the individual, the main thing we pay attention to in these days of entrepreneurial individualism, positive psychology, self-improvement, Ayn Randian ethics, or choose-your-individualism. The infrastructures DA Banks talks about are investments in the shared underpinnings of social collectivity — railways, standards, colonies (let’s not repeat colonialism though, thx). Social collectivities — the welfare state, the big society, the other America, unions — are things that don’t arouse passions, votes, and dollars that spas, coaches, and entrepreneurship do.

This is why I say spacejump is in part about male enhancement. It takes the (still) de facto (assumed to be) strongest, fastest, best kind of human and then enhances him to achieve what was beyond our wildest dreams.

FemTechNet: Massive online collaborative courses

There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to the massively online courses famously taught by Stanford. The model is generally center out, allowing people all over the world to access what is considered leading edge teaching from “centers” of research.  A recent online artificial intelligence course taught by Google AI researcher Peter Norvig attracted 150,000 students from around the world to listen to lectures, work on problem sets, and get familiar with Stanford’s flavor of artificial intelligence pedagogy. The New York Times even published an op-ed from Stanford professor Daphne Koller promising “technology as a passport to personalized education.”

Advocates of these models don’t acknowledge (or maybe even recognize) how the kind of knowledge and skill relevant in particular cultural situations vary. For example, I’ve met engineers in India who often complain that becoming a world class researcher requires working on problems set by agendas centered in the United States where their work might generate more useful and innovative results working from their own contexts. What would computer programming look like, for example, if computers didn’t rely on constant power or environmentally costly batteries to power and store a constant state? Why should supporting rural village innovation be an “India” business problem while the problems of corporations are “global” management knowledge? It’s not like rural people only live in India. Gender studies has dealt with this as well, grappling with how theories of gender developed around American or European experiences do not account for the experiences  of people embedded in very different kinds of institutions, social relations, and discourses. It isn’t surprising that it is Computer Science, a highly formalized discipline most immediately contextualized in mass-produced computing machinery, that is the most immediate proponent of the massive online learning model.

Connecting learners across the globe has the potential to de-universalize pedagogies in ways that the Stanford efforts have not explored. FemTechNet, a project spearheaded by Anne Balsamo (New School of Public Engagement) and Alex Juhasz (Pitzer College), is trying to develop a different kind of massive online learning experience, drawing strength and knowledge from the reach of the student population rather than simply disseminating out.

FemTechNet is going to run a course with 15 nodes, or instructor-led classrooms, in many continents, dialoguing on feminist approaches to science and technology. Rather than teaching from center out, the idea is to create a transnational networked classroom where students and instructors in very different locations can speak about and analyze themes together, learning from one another. The project is also developing an open-submission archive of short videos that can be used for educational purposes.

The network of people involved in this project are working to build alternative archives, infrastructures, and social practices to experiment with the possibilities of a less “colonial” education. I use “colonial” here because “democratic,” what I first wrote, seemed to specify too much about the multiple, temporarily aligned political ideals of people involved in the project. I simply wish to note how the project seeks to decentralize learning and make lateral learning possible. Often, “global” projects (e.g. development, humanitarianism) end up ordered as EuroAmerica-based professionals with passports and salaries that will move them around while they depend on the work of “locals” in places like Africa or South Asia who can’t get the visa or job to leave the country to actually get the work done. (This is Peter Redfield’s point. (2012)) When EuroAmericans call what they do global while those else where have “local” problems, that is a pretty colonial knowledge structure. FemTechNet is trying to build the infrastructures and establish the practices that can sustain an alternative.

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