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Considering Virtuality: Theorizing the Web 2013

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Free Speech for Whom Panel with Danah Boyd, Adrian Chen, and Zeynep Tufecki
Photo Credit: Aaron Thompson

A strangeness abounds when people are asked to theorize and elucidate something so untethered and rhizomatic as the Internet. At its basic structure, networks connect us to the images, data and knowledge we draw upon every day. Yet what is at the heart of these connections and what separates or integrates our In Real Life (IRL) and digital personas? This past weekend, the annual Theorizing the Web conference took place in New York’s bustling Midtown district at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) graduate center. Co-founders Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey created the conference in the hopes of balancing theory and practice with the diverse set of presenters and contributors while bridging the gap between institution and academia to the general public. Since the theme of this year’s conference dealt primarily with notion of surveillance, many of the panels focused on the different ways surveillance is used, not only to learn behaviors and habits of people, but as a means of creating a self through data or better understanding our connections and interactions online.

Photo Credit: Aaron Thompson

Since the conference garnered much attention, Jurgenson and Rey added another day to the, historically, one day conference. After experiencing the rapid firing of synapses this past weekend, it’s challenging to imagine the incredibly robust and lively discussion and exchange happening only within an eight hour time span. This year’s conference was too short, quite frankly. The first night alone was filled with an intense presentation of stories around the topic of free speech and social media at the symposium titled, “Free Speech for Whom” with panelists Danah Boyd, Adrian Chen, and Zeynep Tufecki. Each individual was asked to share a story about their experience (direct or indirect) of free speech. From empowerment to journalism to creation of social norms online, the discussion was rife with ideas of how free speech can lead to cultural revolution as well as perpetuate real life social norms that can cripple and possibly be destructive to marginalized populations (i.e., unknowingly becoming a subject to the male gaze, for instance). The night ended with the presider of the panel asking each panelist to reflect on a change they would like to see on the Internet and within society. Chen mentioned an acknowledgement and awareness of the infrastructure while Tufecki asserted looking at different and more conscious ways to program and code but bearing in mind the social implications. Lastly, Boyd’s closing remarks resonated with many participants as seen on the Twitter feed for the event. She emphasized being at conferences such as Theorizing the Web are fantastic ways to connect but disseminating our individual and collective knowledge to the public is imperative. The public is where the learning and shifting of culture takes place, in her words, “Be public with your work.”

Photo Credit: Aaron Thompson

Double takes and squinting eyes trying to decipher names on badges started the second day of conference activities as participants and visitors slowly trickled back into the CUNY concourse. Laptops and wires were strewn about tables outside of each conference room. Organizers were calmly but briskly walking back and forth to check the live stream was running for the public who wished to join in on an augmented conference experience. As we all settled into the space and, ironically, shuffling through our hard copy conference papers about the Internet, virtuality, and surveillance; the immersion into discourse began. There certainly wasn’t a shortage of fascinating topics. I served as a hashtag moderator for the panel titled, “The Participatory Culture Industry” with panelists Andrea Baker discussing the lives of digital/physical music fans, sociologist Sam Han presenting on digital fetishism, and Nicholas Boston talking about diasporic technologies of the self. Their presentations went into the various ways IRL performativity affect online presence as well as self and gender construction through humor, mimicry, and memory.

Subsequently, I dashed off to the “You Are What You Post” panel. I had the pleasure of participating on this panel with brilliant minds Rotem Rozental, Rob Horning, and Carolyn Kane. Kane’s research focused heavily on mathematics and algorithmic production as a way of creating visual knowledge, similar to my research interests, her work looks at new media art as well as infrared technologies. Rozental presented on authorship and civic action and engagement through photography. Horning’s talk looked at how our interests lead to a construction of identity based on a data self and how this type of subjectivity gives way to what he coined as a post-authentic self. My presentation focused on re-examining the New Aesthetic movement by investigating conceptual artworks using surveillance and satellite technologies to better understand human perception. Another noteworthy panel, “Bodies and Bits” was comprised of theorists and writers investigating the ways in which the body is implicated virtually through hacker culture (Christina Dunbar-Hester), data metrics (Gina Neff), prosumption and the quantified self (Jenny Davis), and technology’s relationship to disability (John Michalczyk).

Keynote Speaker, David Lyon
Photo Credit: Aaron Thompson

While much of the discussion was rich with theoretical frameworks and infrastructures, the concluding speaker for the conference was, leading theorist, professor, and writer on surveillance studies, David Lyon. He gave a great thought-provoking commentary on surveillance studies minus the technical and academic vernacular. Incredibly conversational in tone, he enlightened the audience about the evolution of surveillance. Lyon brought many topics forward including the body, visibility, identification and verification systems, data infrastructures, and consumer surveillance. He also posed the question of why we individually and collectively engage and willingly participate in surveillance. Lyon noted our sense of fear for opposing a system which maintains order as well as the performative aspect surveillance may warrant. But one of the most striking thoughts he shared was his affinity to French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas’s idea of the Other. Lyon emphasized that surveillance doesn’t necessary have to be about being watched, informed by the panoptic perspective, but that it could serve as a way of caring for Other as well. Although the conference included quite the frenetic intellectual activity, the residual thoughts its left remind me of the importance of a dialogue across disciplines.