Free Speech, Context, and Visibility: Protesting Racist Ads

On Tuesday, Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy was arrested for “criminal mischief” – or “the willful damaging of property” – when she responded to disturbingly racist ads that were posted in the New York City subway system with spray paint. Her act of political resistance went beyond spray paint however. In some ways, it was intentionally designed to get the attention of the internet. When she encountered resistance from a person defending the ads – who clearly knew Mona and kept responding to her by name – Eltahawy chose to create a challenge over her right to engage in what she called “freedom of expression.” This altercation escalates as the two argue on camera over whether or not Eltahawy is violating free speech or “making an expression on free speech.” (The video can be seen here.) As this encounter unfolds, Eltahawy regularly turns to the video and speaks to “the internet,” indicating that she knew full well that this video would be made available online. In constructing her audience, Eltahawy also switches between talking to Americans (“see this America”) and to a broader international public, presumably of people who are angry at the perceived hypocrisy of how America constructs free speech in light of the video mocking Islam’s prophet that sparked riots around the globe.

As I watch this video and try to untangle the dynamics going on, I can’t help but reflect on the cultural collision course underway as the notion of “free speech” gets decontextualized in light of heightened visibility. But before I get there, I need to offer some more context.

Free Speech in the United States

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is the foundation of the “free speech” clause that is one of the most unique aspects of American political life. It means that people have the right to speak their mind, even if their speech is unpopular, blasphemous, or critical.

Over the last 200+ years, there have been interesting cases that pit free speech against other issues that result in what may be perceived to be special carve-outs. For example, “hate speech” is not protected under civil rights clauses when it constitutes a form of harassment. Child pornography is not considered free speech but, rather, photographic evidence of a crime against a child. And speech that incites violence is not considered free speech if it serves to create an imminent threat of violence. (Of course, the edge cases on this are often dicey.) But content that depicts many things that are deemed offensive – including grotesque imagery, obscene pornography, and extreme violence – is often protected by free speech, even if public display of it is limited.

Of course, what taketh also giveth. Many European countries have begun banning women from wearing the hijab, seeing it as an oppressive dress. In the United States, the same first amendment that permits racist and blasphemous content also protects Muslim women in their choice of clothing. Even when people are racist shits, Muslims have a tremendous amount of freedom afforded to them because of US laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of religion. Does that make it easy to be Muslim in the US? No. But being Muslim in the US is a hell of a lot more protected than being Jewish in any Arab state.

As offensive (and, frankly, dreadfully awful) as the pseudo-pornographic film “Innocence of Muslims” is, it’s protected under free speech in the United States. This is not the first film to depict religious figures in problematic ways, nor will it be the last. As The Onion satirically reminds us, there are plenty of sexualized images out there depicting religious figures in all sorts of upsetting ways.

Yet, this video spread far beyond the walls of the United States, into other regions where the very notion of “free speech” is absent. Many Muslims were outraged at the idea that their prophet might be depicted in such an offensive manner and some took to the streets in anger. Some interpreted the video as hateful and couldn’t understand why such content would ever be allowed. Meanwhile, many Americans failed to understand why such a video would be uniquely provocative in Muslim communities. On more than one occasion, I heard Americans ask questions like: Why should it be illegal to represent a religious figure in a negative light when it’s so common in Muslim societies to be so hateful to people of other religions? Or to be hateful towards women or LGBT people? Or to depict women in negative ways? Needless to say, all of this rests on a fundamental moral disconnect around what values can and should shape a society.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a lawsuit was moving through the courts concerning a deeply racist advertisement that “The American Freedom Defense Initiative” wanted to pay to have displayed by New York City’s subway system (MTA). The MTA went to the courts in an effort to block the advertisement which implicitly linked Muslims to savages. The MTA lost their court battle when a judge argued that this racist ad was protected speech, thereby forcing the MTA to accept and post the advertisements. Begrudgingly, they did. And this is where we get to Mona.

While posting racist images is covered under free speech law, not just any act is covered under the freedom of expression. When Eltahawy chose to express her dissent by spray painting the ads, she did commit a crime, just as anyone who graffitis any public property is committing a crime. Freedom of speech does not permit anyone to damage property and, as horrid as those ads are, they were the property of the MTA. Unfortunately for Eltahawy, her act is also not non-violent protest because she committed a crime. [Update: Eltahawy uses non-violent protest as her justification to the police officers for why she should not be arrested. I’m not suggesting that her act was violent, but rather, that she can’t claim that she’s simply engaged in non-violent protest and assume that this overrides the illegal nature of her actions. If she knows her actions are illegal, she can claim she’s engaged in civil disobedience, but civil disobedience and non-violent protest are not synonymous.] Had she chosen to stand in front of the ad and said whatever was on her mind, she would’ve been fully within her rights (provided that it did not escalate to “disturbing the peace”). Now, we might not like that vandalism is a crime – and we might recognize that most graffiti these days goes unpunished – but the fact is that spray painting public property is unquestionably illegal.

Of course, the whole thing reaches a new level of disgusting today when Pamela Hall – the anti-Islam activist behind “Stop the Islamization of America” – sues Eltahawy for damage to _her_ property. While I don’t believe that Eltahawy was in the right when she vandalized MTA property, the video makes it very clear that Hall actively provokes Eltahawy and because of Hall’s aggressions, Hall’s property is damaged. I hope that the courts throw this one out entirely.

Making Protests Visible

By circulating the video of Eltahawy getting arrested, activists are asking viewers to have sympathy with Eltahawy. In some ways, this isn’t hard. That poster is disgusting and I’m embarrassed by it. But her choice to consistently exclaim that she’s engaged in freedom of expression and non-violent protest is misleading and inaccurate. What she did, whether she knew it or not, was illegal and not within the dominion of either free speech or non-violent protest. Interestingly, her aggressive interlocutor accepts her frame and just keeps trying to negate it by saying that she’s “violating free speech.” This too is inaccurate. Free speech is not the issue at play in the altercation between Eltahawy and Hall or when Eltahawy vandalizes the poster. Free speech only matters in that that stupid poster was posted in the first place.

The legal details of this will get worked out in the court, but I’m bothered by the way in which the circulation of this video and the discussion around it polarizes the conversation without shedding light on the murky realities of how free speech operates of what is and is not free speech and of what is and is not illegal in the United States when it comes to protesting. Let me be clear: I think that we should all be protesting those racist ads. And I’m fully aware that some acts of protest can and must blur the lines between what is legal and illegal because law enforcement regularly suppresses protester’s rights and arrests people in oppressive ways that undermine important acts of resistance. And I also realize that one of the reasons that activists engage in acts that get them arrested because, when they do, news media covers it and bringing attention to an issue is often a desired end-goal by many activists. But what concerns me is that there’s a huge international disconnect brewing over American free speech and our failure to publicly untangle these issues undermines any effort to promote its value.

I’m deeply committed to the value of free speech. I understand its costs and I despise when it’s used as a tool to degrade and demean people or groups. I hate when it’s used to justify unhealthy behavior or reinforce norms that disgust me. But I tolerate these things because I believe that it’s one of the most critical tools of freedom. I firmly believe that censoring speech erodes a society more than allowing icky speech does. I also firmly believe that efforts to hamper free speech do a greater disservice to oppressed people than permitting disgusting speech. It’s a trade-off and it’s a trade-off that I accept. Yet, it’s also a trade-off that cannot be taken for granted, especially in a global society.

Through the internet, content spreads across boundaries and cultural contexts. It’s sooo easy to take things out of context or not understand the context in which they are produced or disseminated. Or why they are tolerated. Contexts collapse and people get upset because their local norms and rules don’t seem to apply when things slip over the borders and can’t be controlled. Thus, we see a serious battle brewing over who controls the internet. What norms? What laws? What cultural contexts? Settling this is really bloody hard because many of the issues at stake are so deeply conflicting as to appear to be irresolvable.

I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen to freedom of speech as we enter into a networked world, but I suspect it’s going to spark many more ugly confrontations. Rather, it’s not the freedom of speech itself that will, but the visibility of the resultant expressions, good, bad, and ugly. For this reason, I think that we need to start having a serious conversation about what freedom of speech means in a networked world where jurisdictions blur, norms collide, and contexts collapse. This isn’t going to be worked out by enacting global laws nor is it going to be easily solved through technology. This is, above all else, a social issue that has scaled to new levels, creating serious socio-cultural governance questions. How do we understand the boundaries and freedoms of expression in a networked world?

What is so interesting about the random, funny and glitchy

In the past few years, funny compilations of falls, glitches and fails from video games became popular even outside the gamer community. Acknowledged by their creators to be “random” and just “messing around”, the funny videos with goats floating up ladders, skateboarders falling through polygon walls and ridiculous car crashes in GTA have generated a lot of LOLs. Far from being just goofy and inconsequential, they can actually reveal a lot about our relationship with the newness and strangeness of virtual environments. What exactly do we find humorous about them? How do the affordances, limitations and glitches in software can be used for comical purposes and how do they allow us to experience the virtual bodies of our avatars?

My internship project investigates how tropes of physical humor are being played out in virtual environments. I am interested in how they are being performed, edited, framed and discussed. This tumblr blog, started with the help of my friend Andres Lombana from UT-Austin (who knows too much about animated slapstick) is, among other things, a chronicle of my journey to understand it and write a paper about it. It brings together both slapstick-like videos from virtual environments, other humorous content playing with the emergent nature of new media environments, quotes from literature and analytical observations. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts, comments and videos and contact me if you have any suggestions, questions or tips.

Measuring Networked Social Privacy

Xinru Page, Karen Tang, Fred Stutzman and I are organizing a two-day workshop on measuring networked social privacy at the CSCW 2013 conference next spring. We are inviting researchers from diverse backgrounds to come and work with us on what would it look like to “measure” networked social privacy in rigorous, productive ways. Please pass our CfP on to your networks, or even better, submit a position paper and join the endeavor!

Call for Participation

Measuring Networked Social Privacy: Qualitative & Quantitative Approaches

Social media plays an increasingly important role in interpersonal relationships and, consequently, raises privacy questions for end-users. However, there is little guidance or consensus for researchers on how to measure privacy in social media contexts, such as in social network sites like Facebook or Twitter. To this point, privacy measurement has focused more on data protection for end-users and used privacy scales like CFIP, IUIPC, and the Westin Segmentation Index. While these scales have been used for cross-study comparisons, they primarily emphasize informational privacy concerns and are less effective at capturing interpersonal and interactional privacy concerns.

Thus, there is a clear need to develop appropriate metrics and techniques for measuring privacy concerns in social media. Accomplishing such a goal requires knowledge of the current methods for measuring social privacy, as well as various existing interpersonal privacy frameworks. In this workshop, we will cultivate a common understanding of privacy frameworks, provide an overview of recent empirical work on privacy in social media, and encourage the development of consensus among the community on how to approach measuring social privacy for these networked, interpersonal settings. Our 2-day workshop will provide participants the opportunity to work more deeply on these issues, including opportunities to create and pilot new privacy measures, methods, and frameworks that will comprise a toolbox of techniques that can be used to study privacy concerns in social media.

We invite researchers from various domains to join this multidisciplinary workshop and address a number of key challenges in achieving this research vision. Some of these challenges include:

  1. “Measuring” privacy: How should privacy be measured? Many studies run into the “privacy paradox” which points to how privacy concerns are not correlated with actual behavior. How should studies ensure that they are capturing untainted privacy concerns? How do we connect concerns with behavior?
  2. Contextualizing privacy: How context-specific should privacy metrics be? How can we anticipate the types of social privacy concerns that will be most salient for different audiences? What types of situational context need to be captured in order to effectively capture interpersonal privacy concerns in social media?
  3. Cross-study comparisons: How can general privacy measures be useful across different studies? What ways can we measure whether one privacy design is more effective than another in addressing social privacy concerns? How should context be considered when comparing privacy concerns across studies?
  4. Integrating qualitative with quantitative: What is the role of various qualitative and quantitative methods in developing metrics? How can these methods complement each other? In which situations should a particular method, tool, and/or study design be used?
  5. Integrating frameworks and metrics: How can we draw from existing privacy frameworks to contribute to our understanding of privacy in social media? What aspects of social privacy do these frameworks do a good job of capturing? What aspects of social privacy do these frameworks neglect to capture? How can we translate these privacy frameworks into a tool for capturing privacy concerns?

Interested parties should submit a position paper (2-4 pages in the Extended Abstracts format) by November 16, 2012, 11:59PM Pacific Standard Time.

We welcome a range of work including (but not limited to): (1) addressing one of the challenges described above, (2) experiences and/or case studies about measuring privacy and/or developing novel privacy frameworks, (3) lessons learned of what works and what doesn’t work when capturing social privacy concerns, (4) challenges to established assumptions about measuring privacy, and (5) ideas on novel directions in creating new privacy metrics and frameworks.

All submissions should be made in English. Our program committee will peer-review submissions and evaluate participants based on their potential to contribute to the workshop goals and discussions. At least one author of each accepted paper must register for the workshop.

Important dates

  • Submission deadline – November 16, 2012
  • Notification of acceptance – December 11, 2012
  • Workshop at CSCW 2013 – February 23-24, 2013

In all issues related to the workshop, please contact us by e-mail at networkedprivacy(at)gmail.com

Digital In/Justice

I want to recommend a new post at Culture Digitally, “Digital In/Justice,” both because it may be of interest to the readers of this blog, and because it features Microsoft Research’s Mary Gray. Culture Digitally arranges occasional dialogues, in which two or more scholars go back and forth in conversation on a topic they are just working out in their own mind. It’s meant as a chance to make visible the raw development of ideas, unpolished and engaging. In this one, Mary Gray and Nick Couldry (King’s College, London) tried to develop their idea of “digital injustice,” offering an opportunity to rethink issues like the digital divide, equitable access, voice and opportunity, and the institutional environment necessary for such issues of equity to be addressed and protected. It is at once philosophical and quite personal, and I hope those of you who want new ways to think about digital media and the ethics of public participation will find intriguing ideas in it.

For instance, here’s a tiny clip, a comment by Mary:

Yes, cutting off access to an individual’s capacity to contribute to cultural dialogue and deliberation is, arguably, a case of injustice. But this formulation presumes or, at least, prioritizes individual autonomy and agency as the (pre-public/pre-mediated?) source of voice. If negotiation and articulation of the self are collective acts… then the greater injustice is not the loss of individual access to media as sites of personal narrative and expression. The more pressing injustice is that such a loss forecloses the use of media as processes of contribution, deliberation, contestation, and play in the social construction of the self — from the well of possibilities of a future articulation of self. Simply put, I’m interested in prioritizing information and technology access as a precious cultural resource…

And one from Nick, later in the conversation:

Is this where privatized conditions of digital discourse… bite most, in undercutting the common spaces of debate where claims of social injustice might be made, heard and recognised, and by distributing unequally access to the discursive resources that enable some to command general attention? If so, then I would like to add to your interesting conception of digital media as a ‘space of possibles’ the idea that such a space must allow to be heard and registered claims for the redistribution of ‘actuals’.

“Socially Mediated Publicness”: an open-access issue of JOBEM

I love being a scholar, but one thing that really depresses me about research is that so much of what scholars produce is rendered inaccessible to so many people who might find it valuable, inspiring, or thought-provoking. This is at the root of what drives my commitment to open-access. When Zizi Papacharissi asked Nancy Baym and I if we’d be willing to guest edit the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (JOBEM), we agreed under one condition: the issue had to be open-access (OA). Much to our surprise and delight, Taylor and Francis agreed to “test” that strange and peculiar OA phenomenon by allowing us to make this issue OA.

Nancy and I decided to organize the special issue around “socially mediated publicness,” both because we find that topic to be of great interest and because we felt like there was something fun about talking about publicness in truly public form. We weren’t sure what the response to our call would be, but were overwhelmed with phenomenal submissions and had to reject many interesting articles.

But we are completely delighted to publish a collection of articles that we think are timely, interesting, insightful, and downright awesome. If you would like to get a sense of the arguments made in these articles, make sure to check out our introduction. The seven pieces in this guest-edited issue of JOBEM are:

We hope that you’ll find them fun to read and that you’ll share them with others that might enjoy them too!

Panel discussion on the #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement – Sep 20, 5pm at the NERD Center

In collaboration with the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, Microsoft Research New England is hosting a discussion about the #YoSoy132 activist movement. Open to the public.

What: #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement

When: Thursday September 20 at 5:00 PM

Where: Microsoft Conference Center (Barton Room) located at One Memorial Drive, First Floor, Cambridge, MA

Photo: (c) Omar Torres/AFP/Getty

Abstract

The role of social media in movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street has been much discussed, and such “hashtagged” social movements continue to appear in multiple latitudes. The panelists will discuss the development of the #YoSoy132 movement, “I am 132” in English, an ongoing student-led activist group that fights for democracy and against media bias in an apparent attempt to impose the next president of Mexico during the recent 2012 general election. The movement embodies the collision between centralized traditional media and distributed social media, and reveals the limitations of social media in reaching beyond those who are already networked. The panelists include a member of the #YoSoy132 and researchers investigating networked social movements.

Bios

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a researcher and mediamaker who works on civic media, the political economy of communication, and collaborative design for media justice and communication rights. He is Assistant Professor of Civic Media at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, Co-PI of the Center for Civic Media, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Sasha has been a part of the Independent Media Center network, the Allied Media Conference, and VozMob, among other projects. For more info see http://schock.cc. Twitter: @schock

Antonio Attolini Murra is a student at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México majoring in political science and international relations and the spokesperson of his university’s Local Assembly in the student movement #YoSoy132. He has participated in several conferences about transnational organized crime and political reforms in Mexico. In 2011, he was elected Secretary General of his university’s Model of United Nations. He writes in his school’s newspaper, specialized publications, and online news portals such as Animal Político and ADN Político. Antonio is an avid social media user and blogs at http://antonioattolini.blogspot.com Twitter: @antonioattolini

Mayo Fuster Morell does action research in the field of social movements (Global Justice Movement, Free Culture Movement, and recent mobilization wave of “Indignados” in Spain), online collaborative communities, and, public policies. Mayo  concluded her PhD at the European University Institute, and published a book on the influence of Free Culture Movement for the emergence of 15M/Indignados mobilization in Spain. She is currently a fellow at the Berkman center for Internet and Society, a researcher at the Institute of Government and Public Policies (Autonomous University of Barcelona), and a member of the Internet and policy steering committee of the European Council of Political Research. As part of her academic work, she is a promoter of Networked Politics collaborative action research, and the International Forum on Building Digital Commons. For more info see: http://www.onlinecreation.info Twitter: @Lilaroja

Andrés Monroy-Hernández is a social computing researcher at Microsoft Research and an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His research focuses on the design and study of social media systems that support collaboration for creative expression and civic engagement. His current research looks at the use of social media in crises, such as in the Mexican Drug War. Andrés’ work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, and Wired. Andrés holds a PhD and a Masters from the MIT Media Lab, and a Bachelor’s from Tecnológico de Monterrey. For more info see: http://andresmh.com. Twitter: @andresmh

Arrival Guidance

Upon arrival at One Memorial Drive, kindly approach the Lobby Floor Security Desk; identity yourself, show your picture ID and sign the Building Visitor Log.

Turn This into That: a Remixing Experiment

Two sides of social production: crowdsourcing and remixing

Networked technologies have facilitated two forms of social production: remixing and crowdsourcing. Remixing has been typically associated with creative, expressive, and unconstrained work such as the creation of video mashups or funny image macros that we often see on social media websites. Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has been associated with large-scale mechanical work, like labeling images or transcribing audio, performed as microtasks on services like Amazon Mechanical Turk. So the stereotype is that remixing is playful, creative, expressive, but undirected and often chaotic, while crowdsourcing is useful to achieve actual work but it is monotonous, and requires (small) financial incentives.

Crowdsoucing Creativity: “Mixsourcing”

The space between remixing and crowdsourcing has partially been explored. For example, one could argue that Wikipedia exists in a unique space in between these two ideas as it relies on some, albeit small, degree of human creativity, requires no financial incentives, and leverages large numbers of contributors who are encouraged to tweak one another’s submissions. However, Wikipedia’s texts are mainly functional, purposely devoid of any personal expressiveness, and constrained by the task at hand.

On the more creative end of the spectrum, artists have explored the use of crowdsourcing, such as the Johnny Cash Project and the Sheep Market, and researchers have evaluated the uses of creative crowdsourcing for design. We wondered then, if there is a way to create a generic platform to perform creative and artistic work in a more directed, crowdsourcing-like way, some kind of “bounded creativity,” which we called “mixsourcing.”

The mixsourcing of a “Moonicorn”

We decided to play with this idea of mixsourcing through an exercise that involved giving people a creative, yet directed task. The exercise consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it. The task was specifically crafted for each individual based on their interests, which we knew through pre-existing personal relationships with them.

The seed content used in this first exercise was an image, hand-drawn by one of the researchers, showing of a unicorn with a moon as a head. We sent the email to a group of friends, appealing to their social relationship as a group and with one of the researchers; each person was offered a task: an invitation to turn the “moonicorn” into something based on what we knew they were good at:

“Hello my dear friends! […] I’m writing to see if you can help me with my summer project […] I gave you all top secret assignments below. If you can help, it would mean so so so so so much to me. You don’t have to spend a ton of time on it. And I’ll throw a boozy thanks-you party next week when I’m in town. I couldn’t ask for a better lump of friends. Much love from the west coast.

This is my moonicorn:

Jables: please create a moonicorn cocktail recipe.

Celia: please create an iPhone video documenting the rare, nut-eating moonicorn, played by @Ian

[…]

Jables not only created his moonicorn cocktail, he also prepared one, took a picture of it, and emailed a make-believe recipe to accompany the beverage:

The Sanguine Moonicorn

6oz Fresh Moonicorn Blood.

1oz Pure Moonicorn Tears [hold for virgins]

Topped with Moonicorn Sweetbreads, Moonicorn Gonad, Moon Cheese, and an olive.

Cleansed by fire and served over ice, with a Moonicorn Jerky Moon Dagger.

Celia and Ian also completed their collaborative task and produced a short video. Similarly, we received remixes in the form of a fiction article, a felt toy, and a music mix. Here is a collage of all the remixes people produced:

The moonicorn experiment was quite successful, as more than half of the people actually completed their remix. A lot of them spent quite a bit of time on it and were very keen on narrating their creative process as much as they were in sharing their finished work.

Subsequently, we decided to recreate a similar exercise on a larger scale. This failed, however. We used a school mailing list and a group on Facebook, but both failed to attract many participants. The message in both cases did not include personalized tasks and the groups included many strangers. Hence, we hypothesized that there were three key attributes for the success of the first experiment:

  1. Pre-existing personal relationships.
  2. Well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities, well-described in the social psychology literature.
  3. Detailed tasks. The messages to broader group were to open putting a burden of choosing on the remixers.

Turn This Into That

Using the insights gained from the previous exercises, we began to envision a mixsourcing platform to enable people to create and participate in remixing exchanges like the moonicorn one.

We called the platform “Turn This Into That,” as it describes the system’s premise.

To convey the spirit of the social relationships that we thought were instrumental to the success of the first exercise, we decided to build the system on a postcard metaphor.

People can send postcards challenging one another to turn something into something else, and the responses themselves can also be thought of as postcards. Furthermore, given the interest people showed in talking about their process the submissions provide space and encouragement for people to address the whys and the hows of their challenges and their remixes. Also, the challenges are specific in terms of what the remix should be, a photo for example, yet it leaves the choice of what to do up to the remixer.

Practically speaking, we aimed for this platform to merely be the embodiment of a mechanism to provide creative sparks, playfulness, and interactions among people without actually having to deal with the complexities of creating tools or even repositories for the content itself. Our system would rely completely on the social media ecosystem for all that, and Turn This Into That would create the linkages.

Before implementing the actual system we built a semi-functional prototype, and we would like to invite you to use it and give us feedback.

—-

Turn This into That is a project by FUSE Lab‘s intern Sarah Hallacher, in collaboration with Jenny Rodenhouse and Andrés Monroy-Hernández.

Cross-posted at FUSE Labs blog

Can objects be evil? A review of “Addiction by Design”

Bliss by Sean O'Brien
Bliss by Sean O’Brien

Schüll, Natasha Dow. (2012) Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Addiction by Design is a nonfiction page-turner. A richly detailed account of the particulars of video gaming addiction, worth reading for the excellence of the ethnographic narrative alone, it is also an empirically rigorous examination of users, designers, and objects that deepens practical and philosophical questions about the capacities of players interacting with machines designed to entrance them. Many books that make worthy contributions to the theoretical literature of a particular field are slogs to read. Addiction by Design is as compelling as a horror story—a sad, smart horror story that calls off the Luddite witch hunt (Down with the machines!) in favor of an approach that examines the role of gaming designers within existing social systems of gender and class disparity.

The most popular gaming machines serve up video slots and video poker. They run on paycards because inserting cash and coinage slows down the rate of play, compromising the experience. By the mid-1990s in Las Vegas, Schüll reports, the vast majority of people at Gamblers Anonymous meetings were addicted to machines—not the table games, ponies, or lotteries previously associated with problem gambling. In 2003 it was estimated that 85 percent of industry profits nationally came from video gaming. For the people (mostly women) who become addicts, the draw of the machines has little to do with the possibility of winning big. Problem gamblers are attracted to the machines because they offer portals to an appealing parallel universe in which they can disconnect from the anxieties and pressures of everyday life. One of Schüll’s interviewees, Mollie, explains, “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there—you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”

woman playing video slots
Woman playing video slots, 2010, Copyright Kate Krueger

Mollie’s experience is typical in at least two ways. First, she has a traumatic past that predisposes her to addictive behaviors. Second, she repeatedly spends all that she has in binges. But before we blame Mollie and other victims and then expound the benefits of 12-step programs with earnest optimism, Schüll asks readers to consider the insidious dependencies that arise between machine designers, casino owners, and gamblers, especially “problem gamblers,” whose struggle to control personal spending generates 30 to 60 percent of casino revenue. Schüll’s Addiction systematically builds on her basic argument that, “just as certain individuals are more vulnerable to addiction than others, it is also the case that some objects, by virtue of their unique pharmacologic or structural characteristics, are more likely than others to trigger or accelerate an addiction.”

Schüll describes the progression of changes the industry has introduced in search of higher profits. For a while, ergonomics was economics. Then high-priced animators were hired to design pleasing sounds and animations to reward winners. But some players were annoyed that the animations were too slow, so the animations were dropped. Play sped up. Faster play was great for increasing dopamine delivery to the brain. It also tended to speed players toward the end of their credits, which lowered their loyalty to particular machines and the casinos that housed them. Chip-driven gaming allowed designers to respond to this problem by tweaking the programs so that frequent small wins (often less than the cost of playing a single hand) kept dopamine surging while players’ cash trickled steadily into casino coffers. One player in a gambling support group compared video machines to crack cocaine, a comparison frequently repeated by researchers and psychologists.[1] By some accounts, the recidivism rate is now higher for gambling than for any other addiction.

The demons here are not the machines, though they are manifest in the machines. The demons are not the people who design the machines nor the people who build palaces in which the machines are arrayed in blinking, burbling gardens of vertiginous electronica. The demons are not located in the players’ genes or childhoods. The demons are not the state regulators who now embrace video gaming after corralling it on American Indian reservations for decades. There is no single devil here, and no particular exorcism can right the wrong, but there is something devilish about the way designers’ intentions and users’ neurology meet up to make video gaming so devastating for some and so profitable for others.

[1] Mary Sojourner, She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (New York: Seal Books, 2010).

This review is cross-posted at publicbooks.org, a new book review and visual essay website affiliated with Public Culture, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

SMC seeks a Research Assistant

Call for Research Assistant

Microsoft Research (MSR) is looking for a Research Assistant for its Social Media Collective in the New England lab, based in Cambridge,Massachusetts. The Social Media Collective consists of Nancy Baym, danah boyd, Kate Crawford, Megan Finn, and Mary L. Gray, as well as faculty visitors and Ph.D. interns.  An appropriate candidate will be both passionate and knowledgeable about social media, have strong writing and organization skills, and have experience working on research projects.  Minimal qualifications are a BA or equivalent degree in a social science discipline and some qualitative research training. 

Job responsibilities will include producing literature reviews, coding ethnographic data, editing manuscripts, and organizing events.  The RA will also get to collaborate on ongoing research and, while publication is not a guarantee, the RA will be encouraged to co-author papers while at MSR. The RAship will require 40 hours per week on site in Cambridge, MA.  It is a 1-year only contractor position, paid hourly with flexible daytime hours. The start date will likely be in September.  

This position is ideal for scholars who are applying to PhD programs in Communication, Media Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Information Studies, and related fields who want to get involved with research before entering a graduate program.  Current New England-based MA/PhD students are welcome to apply provided they can commit to 40 hours of on-site work per week.  

To apply, please send an email to Nancy Baym (baym@microsoft.com) with the subject “RA Application” and include the following:

 – 1-page personal statement, including a description of research experience, interests, and professional goals

– CV or resume

– Writing sample (preferably a literature review or a scholarly-styled article)

– Links to online presence (e.g., blog, homepage, Twitter, journalistic endeavors, etc.)  

– The names and emails of two recommenders

We will begin reviewing applications on September 11 and continue doing so until we find an appropriate candidate.