BCNM at AAA 2019

06 Feb, 2020

BCNM at AAA 2019

AAA 2019, the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, took place last November.

Berkeley Center for New Media attendees included DE Juliana Friend and alumni Reginold Royston. Read the abstract of their works and projects below.


Juliana Friend

Techno-optimism and its Social Overflows

This panel is concerned with the ways in which manifold technologies harness, obscure, and reformulate human sociality. We understand technology as a multivalent term. It is not only the material application of scientific knowledge, but also a repertoire of techniques that humans use to understand and alter their environments, engage with others, and make sense of their own positions and possibilities in the face of social, political, economic, and cultural change.

In diverse contexts, data-driven digital technologies obscure the sociality of taste, value, service, and desire. In the United States, real estate website Zillow’s Zestimate home valuation tool makes the interpretative, interpersonal work of assessing property value and setting a home price appear objective and context-free. Similarly, land record digitization in India is framed as a rational, efficiency-driven project in spite of its political implications and social entanglements. Crowd-sourced technologies, such as blockchain promise to facilitate public trust in record keeping for functions heretofore in the domain of the state like cadastral maintenance. In so doing, blockchain harnesses social interactions, reformulating them into quantifiable and objective fact. Centralized technologies of care invert this formula, reifying authentic social interactions and obscuring the standardized, programmed elements of care work so as to appear as genuine human interaction. In-flight service, for example--embodied in the customer service techniques of flight attendants, and in the space and materiality of the cabin--is carefully curated the present an “appropriately” gendered, racialized, and classed experience. Online communities/marketplaces, such as YouTube and porn websites, use algorithms to meet customer demand for specific types of content, shaping consumer tastes, and the nature and marketing of the content produced to meet them. However, digital calculations of human desire often fail to take into account the interpersonal and political dimensions of people’s relationships with and connections to online content and those who create it.

Against the backdrop of such empirically grounded and theoretically informed examples, this panel asks the following: How might technologies make use of and simultaneously transform social relationships? What categories of difference, such as gender, class, or geography, do technologies obscure and legitimize? How do calculative technologies facilitate the extraction of value? Finally, how does “techno-optimism”--an abiding faith in the power of technological innovation to solve complex human problems--quell enduring cultural anxieties over efficiency, transparency, authenticity, and accuracy even as it reinforces these metrics?

Hardcore Nations: Optimization and Difference in Senegalese Online Porn Infrastructure

Videos on Senegal’s first “Made in Senegal” porn site are organized and made searchable by nationality tags (e.g. “Malian,” “Senegalese.”) This paper explores how the site’s tagging affordances reflect and reconfigure Wolof ethics of sutura (“modesty” or “discretion”), teasing out implications for the reification of difference. In historically persistent yet contingent ways, sutura has predicated honor and legible gender identity on the management of public/private boundaries (Mills 2011). This website monetizes transgressions of sutura. Analyzing graphic design, indexes of locality, and dissonances between tags and video content, I examine how the site’s configuration frames particular nationality tags as more “hardcore.” This plays upon a persistent prejudice that women in certain West African countries outside Senegal lack sutura, and co-constitutively, sexual restraint. Notably, site promotional materials claim the tags connect viewers to “what they want” and simply make the satisfaction of (pre-existing) desires more efficient. This optimization rhetoric obscures how intersecting forms of marginalization mediated by sutura shape content configuration, which frames desire in particular ways: through filters of reified national difference. However, the website’s founder professes moral objectives, undercutting “supply and demand” claims that tags only reflect, not create, difference. In videos and disclaimers, the founder tells viewers he will “sanitize” Senegal by creating digital boundaries between “ruined” and “pure” women, protecting the latter’s sutura. Digital infrastructures may simultaneously obscure and highlight social-historical underpinnings of optimization logics. Website metadiscourse proposes a technological solution to the purported social problem of unruly female sexuality, suggesting an unsettling appropriation of techno-optimist discourses.

Reginold Royston

Innovation from Above and Below: Civic Hackers and Development in Ghana

In this paper, I examine hacking as a form of tactical media (Raley 2009) aimed at achieving technological symmetry in the world-system: Hacking denotes agency and invention by my research participants in Ghana, West Africa. In this paper I offer an alternate genre of hacktivists, that of the "activist-developer." These include social elites and middle-income "digital elites" whose work as computer professionals, social media enthusiasts and civic activists advances alternative routes for political struggle and inclusion for youth. Their asymmetrical collaborations with global tech firms, international NGOs, and local grassroots organizations reframes key approaches to ICT4D, a synthesis which I characterize as "innovation from above and below" (Kwami 2016). Against this narrative of a global democratizing information system, I argue that tech users operating from the Global South interact with information technology via asymmetrical positions of connection, participation and production. For nations such as Ghana, whose engagement with the West includes historic and contemporary waves of diaspora, the opportunities and failures of these new networking technologies remain poignant. In this paper, I advance a general description of the unique convergence these approaches to new media, with respect to local Ghanaian product design, dominant HCI strategies and users' strategic adoption practices, as an aesthetic and ethos of African tech/development.

See the full schedule here.