Social Disconnection II: Deleting My Twitter and Reddit Accounts

ellis-jason-twitter-profile
@dynamicsubspace before

Back in 2013 and after long deliberation, I deleted my Facebook, Google+, and Academia.edu accounts. Then, I deleted my Flickr/Yahoo and LinkedIn accounts. Now, I’ve wiped out my Twitter and Reddit accounts.

I used Twitter for seven-and-a-half years and had posted nearly 10,000 tweets (this number ebbed after cleaning up a hoard of past tweets). And I had a Reddit account for four years, and I had a healthy number of upvotes for my LEGO-related posts and discussions there.

I leveraged my Twitter and Reddit accounts to keep up with what’s going on in my profession as well as learn and contribute to other areas of interest including computer culture and LEGO. However, my cost for keeping up to date was considerable in terms of time and cognitive effort. And while I saw, read, and learned a lot from the work of social media, actionable returns–what I think of as a meaningful returns in terms of conversation, connections, and opportunities–were very small.

Ultimately, my decision to further reduce my social media footprint was based on these issues:

  • Cost (time, attention, and cognitive load)
  • Content (anxiety over posting, persistent needle-in-the-haystack problem for finding useful information)
  • Discourse (challenge to follow threads, gain background information for out-of-context posts, rage cycles, hot takes, fear of missing out)
  • Connection (so many discussions but uncertain where to contribute, sustaining conversation, social media not leading to projects outside of that realm)
  • People (nonsense, bullshit, bigotry, and sexism; e.g., disheartening cases of disconnection between how some users comport in online LEGO communities and elsewhere)

Of course, there are arguments for remaining on social media, such as maintaining a professional presence on these platforms, publicizing the work that you and others do, discovering new and compelling work that isn’t amplified elsewhere, and leveraging social media to expand discourse through discussion, debate, and public engagement. For me, however, the daily reality of these platforms do not live up to the promise or potential with which they are often sold to end users.

My choices and these issues will inform how I approach social media in my classes. The reality for many of my students–especially those entering the field of technical communication–will need and rely on various social media platforms for their professional work and advancement. I think that informed, strategic, and purposeful social media choices are the best for them and others. I’m looking forward to these upcoming discussions in the classroom.

For now, I’m going to remain blogging here at dynamicsubspace.net and posting videos on my YouTube channel.

If you’d like to trim your social media presence, Wired has a guide for deleting the most popular social media accountsThese instructions show how to deactivate your Twitter account. After 30 days of inactivity, your account and its content are deleted. And, these instructions tell you how to delete your Reddit account. One caveat: Your posts and comments will remain unless you take steps to remove or edit them. In my case, I manually deleted them, but there are automated approaches, such as Shreddit and Nuke Reddit History for Firefox or Chrome.

ellis-jason-twitter-deactivate-message
@dynamicsubspace after

The Debut of the Apple Disk II, Ambiguous Terminology, and the Effects of Memory: Digging Deeper into an Anecdote from Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms

The first Apple Disk II and controller card hand wired by Wozniak. Photo taken at the Apple Pop-Up Museum in Roswell, GA.
The first Apple Disk II and controller card hand wired by Wozniak. Photo taken at the Apple Pop-Up Museum in Roswell, GA.

Matthew Kirschenbaum constructs a compelling and interesting argument in his book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008). He argues that while new media and computer software might seem ephemeral and intangible, it has in fact physicality, a many-layered history, and emerging archaeological protocols (developed by Kirschenbaum and many others).

However, one section titled “Coda: CTRL-D, CTRL-Z” attracted my attention, because its use of the term “recover” in a story about the debut of the Apple Disk II seemed to imply computer disk data recovery instead of what historically happened, which was the manual rewriting of the software that had been accidentally overwritten during a botched disk copy operation.

Kirschenbaum uses the story of Steve Wozniak and Randy Wigginton’s development of software to control the reading and writing of data to Apple’s Disk II, which was based on Shugart’s 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive, before its unveiling at the 1978 CES in Las Vegas to establish an analogy: “Nowadays we toggle the CTRL-D and CTRL-Z shortcuts, deleting content and undoing the act at a whim. Gone and then back again, the keyboard-chorded Fort and Da of contemporary knowledge work” (Kirschenbaum 69). The idea is that computer facilitate a kind of gone and back again play as described by Freud. Of course, the keyboard shortcuts that he refers to are not universal across platforms or software, but the concept is pervasive. Nevertheless, my focus is not on that concept per se but instead on the Apple Disk II debut anecdote, the terminology surrounding what actually happened, and how that relates to the kinds of work that we do in new media archaeology.

After introducing the story of the Apple Disk II’s debut at CES, Kirschenbaum cites a passage from Steven Weyhrich’s Apple II History website:

“When they got to Las Vegas they helped to set up the booth, and then returned to working on the disk drive. They stayed up all night, and by six in the morning they had a functioning demonstration disk. Randy suggested making a copy of the disk, so they would have a backup if something went wrong. They copied the disk, track by track. When they were done, they found that they had copied the blank disk on top of their working demo! By 7:30 am they had recovered the lost information and went on to display the new disk drive at the show.” (Weyhrich par. 13, qtd. in Kirschenbaum 69).

First, it should be noted that Weyhrich uses the term “recovered” to describe the way that the “lost information” was brought back from the brink of the overwritten disk. Then, Kirschenbaum reads Weyhrich’s account above in the following way:

“Thus the disk handling routines that took the nascent personal computer industry by storm were accidentally overwritten on the very morning of their public debut–but recovered and restored again almost as quickly by those who had intimate knowledge of the disk’s low-level formatting and geometry” (Kirschenbaum 69).

Weyhrich uses the term “recovered” to refer to the software Wozniak and Wigginton had lost during the bad copy operation. Kirschenbaum borrows Weyhrich’s “recovered” and adds “restored” to describe the final state of the software on Wozniak and Wigginton’s floppy disks for use on the CES show floor. When I first read Kirschenbaum’s book, his reading seemed unncessarily ambiguous. On the one hand, Kirschenbaum does not directly say that the two Apple engineers used their knowledge of controlling the disk drive and reading low-level information on the floppy disks to “recover” the lost data–i.e., use the drive and disk technology to salvage, rescue, or retrieve what remains on the disk but otherwise might seem lost to someone with less advanced knowledge. On the other hand, Kirschenbaum’s reading of the incident–“recovered and restored again almost as quickly”–is implicitly aligned with his own project of the physicality of data stored on new media storage devices. One could mistakenly believe that Wozniak and Wigginton had restored the lost data from the overwritten floppy disk.

Steven Wozniak writes about this episode in his autobiography, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon (2006). Before turning to Wozniak’s later recall of this event in 1978, I would like to look at the two sources that Weyhrich cites on the passage that Kirschenbaum cites in his argument.

Weyhrich’s first of two footnotes on his passage points to page 168 of Gregg Williams and Rob Moore’s 1985 interview with Steve Wozniak titled, “The Apple Story, Part 2: More History And The Apple III” in the January 1985 issue of Byte magazine. In the interview, Wozniak tells them:

“We worked all night the day before we had to show it [the disk drive] at CES. At about six in the morning it was ready to demonstrate. Randy thought we ought to back it up, so we copied the disk, track by track. When we were done, he looked down at them in his hands and said, “Oh, no! I wrote on the wrong one!” We managed to recover it and actually demonstrated it at CES” (Williams and Moore 168).

In this primary source, we see Wozniak using  the term “recover” to indicate that they were able to get the demonstration operational in time for CES that day, but what form the “recovery” took place is not explained. Was it data recovery in the technical sense or data recovery in the hard work sense of re-writing the code?

Weyrich’s second footnote on his passage points to Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine’s “Fire In The Valley, Part Two (Book Excerpt)” in the January 1985 issue of A+ Magazine. While I have been unable to find a copy of this magazine, I did refer to the book that this excerpt was taken from: Freiberger and Swaine’s Fire in the Valley (1984). On page 286, they write in regard to Wozniak and Wigginton’s disk dilemma at CES:

“Wigginton and Woz arrived in Las Vegas the evening before the event. They helped set up the booth that night and went back to work on the drive and the demo program. They planned to have it done when the show opened in the morning even if they had to go without sleep. Staying up all night is no novelty in Las Vegas, and that’s what they did, taking periodic breaks from programming to inspect the craps tables. Wigginton, 17, was elated when he won $35 at craps, but a little later back in the room, his spirits were dashed when he accidentally erased a disk they had been working on. Woz patiently helped him reconstruct all the information. They tried to take a nap at 7:30 that morning, but both were too keyed up” (Freiberger and Swaine 286).

Unlike Wozniak’s “recover” in the Williams and Moore interview above, Freiberger and Swaine use the term “reconstruct” in their narrative about the pre-CES development of the Disk II demonstration software. Unlike the term recover, which means to regain what is lost, reconstruct means to build something again that has been destroyed. Freiberger and Swaine’s selection of this term seems more accurate when considering what Wozniak says about this episode in his autobiography:

“We set up in our booth and worked until about 6 a.m., finally getting everything working. At that point I did one very smart thing. I was so tired and wanted some sleep but knew it was worth backing up our one good floppy disk, with all the right data. . . . But when I finished this backup, I looked at the two unlabeled floppy disks and got a sinking feeling that I’d followed a rote pattern but accidentally copied the bad floppy to the good one, erasing all the good data. A quick test determined that this is what happened. You do things like that when you are extremely tired. So my smart idea had led to a dumb and unfortunate result. . . . We went back to the Villa Roma motel and slept. At about 10 a.m. I woke up and got to work. I wanted to try to rebuild the whole thing. The code was all in my head, anyways. I managed to get the good program reestablished by noon and took it to our booth. There we attached the floppy and started showing it” (Wozniak and Smith 218-219).

In this account, Wozniak says that he is responsible for overwriting the good disk with the bad (as opposed to what he said to Williams and Moore for the 1985 Byte magazine interview), but most important is the terms that he uses to describe how he made things right: “I wanted to try to rebuild the whole thing.” He “reestablished” the program by reentering “the code . . . in [his] head” into the computer that they had on-hand. Wozniak’s word choice and description makes it clearer than in his earlier interview that he had to remake the program from memory instead of attempting to “recover” it from the overwritten media itself. While, it might have been theoretically possible for someone as well versed in the mechanism that by that point he had had a significant hand in redesigning from the original Shugart drive mechanism and controller card and of course his development with Wigginton of the software that controlled the hardware to read and write floppy disks in the Apple Disk II system (computer-controller card-disk drive), Wozniak, who reports throughout his autobiography as an engineer who works things out in head meticulously before putting his designs into hardware or software, took the easiest path to the solution of this new media problem: write out the software again from memory.

Memory, of course, is another tricky element of this story. It was my memory of Wozniak’s exploits that drew me to this passage in Kirschenbaum’s book. My memory of Kirschenbaum’s argument informed the way that I interpreted what I thought Kirschenbaum meant by using this episode as a way of making his Fort-Da computer analogy. Kirschenbaum’s memory of the episode as it had been interpreted secondhand in Weyhrich’s history of the Apple II informed how he applied it to his argument. Wozniak’s own memory is illustrated as pliable through the subtle differences in his story as evidenced in the 1985 Byte magazine interview and twenty-one years later in his 2006 autobiography.

Ultimately, the episode as I read it in Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms was caught in an ambiguous use of language. The use of certain terms to describe the work that we do in new media–in its development, implementation, or daily use–relies on the terminology that we use to describe the work that is done to others–lay audience or otherwise. Due to the kind of ambiguity illustrated here, we have to strive to select terms that accurately and explicitly describe what it is we are talking about. Of course, primary and secondary accounts contribute to the possibility of ambiguity, confusion, or inaccuracy. Sometimes, we have to dig more deeply through the layers of new media history to uncover the fact that illuminates the other layers or triangulate between differing accounts to establish a best educated guess about the topic at hand.

Works Cited

Freiberger, Paul and Michael Swaine. Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Weyhrich, Steven. “The Disk II.” Apple II History. Apple II History, n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Williams, Gregg, and Rob Moore. “The Apple Story, Part 2: More History And The Apple III”, Byte, Jan 1985: 167-180. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Wozniak, Steve and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

Demos Chiang, Chiang Kai-shek’s Great Grandson, on the Cost of Social Media

Demos Chiang, photo by Yi-Ping Wu. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Demos Chiang, photo by Yi-Ping Wu. CC BY-ND 2.0.

In a BuzzOrange.com interview with Demos Yu-bou Chiang (蔣友柏), who is Chiang Kai-shek’s great grandson and  founder of the Taiwan design firm DEM Inc. (橙果設計), the interviewer asks if he uses social media:

Q:你有 Facebook 或 Line 等社交通訊軟件嗎?

不開,很累,真的很累,而且 Facebook 商業行為太嚴重。我的手機是 4G 可以上網,但所有通訊軟件 、Line 都不使用,只用簡訊。我不喜歡人家可以免費找到我。

Y’s translation into English:

Q: Do you have Facebook or Line accounts, or any kind of social media apps?

A: I don’t use it. It is too much work. Facebook has too much commercial activity. I have a 4G cellphone to get online, but I don’t use the communicating apps like Line except for text messaging. I don’t like it that people can find [or reach] me for free.

There are three parts of Chiang’s response that I would like to discuss.

First, he observes that social media takes “too much work.” This is one of the reasons why I deleted my Facebook account a few years ago. It seemed like I was putting in a lot of time and labor on the Facebook website and mobile app. On the one hand, I wanted to connect with others, create conversation, and share my goings-on while enjoying the goings-on of others. However, it increasingly seemed to me to take a considerable amount of effort to keep up with the information and conversations taking place there. Jennifer Pan goes into the issue of labor that sustains social media networks in her Jacobin article, “The Labor of Social Media.”

Chiang laments that there is “too much commercial activity” on social media. This can be interpreted in different ways. On the one hand, there is a lot of advertising on social media, which is a kind of commercial activity. On the other hand, people use social media as a platform to publicize their work or seek support for their work on social media (another form of advertising). While social media opens new ways of supporting otherwise unfunded projects (such as with Patreon or Kickstarter), the number of such projects that one sees on a daily basis can be overwhelming and seemingly unsustainable.

Another aspect of Chiang’s lament is the unseen commercial activity of tracking and personal information. Social media platforms make money in part through targeting advertising to its users by selling targeted and detailed access to its advertising partners. The more information that a social network can get about its users and the more meaningful that information can be made for the purposes of advertising mean that the social network can potentially make more money by selling a higher value to advertisers.

Finally, the third issue that Chiang takes with social media is that he says, “people can find me for free.” This is important point that I hadn’t really considered when I left Facebook and other social media platforms a few years ago. For Chiang, he is a business person whose time is valuable. Even deflecting questions or offers takes away from his focus and time, which is time and focus he could apply to other endeavors. Social media at its core is about connecting people together. Social media makes it easier for one person to contact another person. Some networks, such as LinkedIn, place monetized barriers in the way of too easy contact, but others, such as Twitter, make contact for public accounts extremely easy. By not being on social media, Chiang places the ultimate old-school barrier to others bothering him, stealing his focus, or taking away his time. Making it so that others cannot simply find you “for free” protects your time and attention so that you can apply yourself to the work and living that matters the most to you.

Chiang’s three points are useful for thinking about what the costs of social media are for you. It involves our labor, out information is bought and sold, and others want to monopolize our time. Consider these things when you sign-up or configure your social media accounts to protect yourself and maximize its value to yourself.

A Note on Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown

Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992) is a book that I should have read back when it was first published. In fact, I’m rather let down with myself that I did not know about this book back it was published at the same time that I was beginning high school and transitioning from an Amiga user to a PC/DOS enthusiast (if you can imagine such an animal).

Sterling’s journalistic account of the Hacker Crackdown of 1990 and its immediate aftermath is as enlightening as it is enjoyable to read. He chronicles the passage of the BellSouth E911 document, the targeting of the Legion of Doom, the criminal case against the publisher of Phrack magazine, the  hentanglement of Steve Jackson Games (creator of GURPS Cyberpunk), and the launch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Sterling had my attention from the get-go, but I was really jazzed when he writes about FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) and my hometown, Brunswick, GA. He visited FLETC to speak with Carlton Fitzpatrick about computer crime.

Around that same time, I was delivering auto parts to the FLETC repair shop. I was out there at least every few days–virtually free to roam the facility in my Toyota pickup truck emblazoned with “Ellis Auto Parts” on its sides. Sterling might have been touring the facility when I was dropping off distributor points or a new starter.

Also, around that  time, I was learning about DOS, Windows 3.1, and PC gaming. I had a Commodore Amiga 2000, but I was the only person besides my cousins who owned an Amiga. Of course the Amiga was a more advanced and capable computer than most IBM-compatibles, but I knew many more people with PCs and PC software. So, for a time, I indulged a hobby in PC computers (at least until I discovered the Apple Macintosh SE/30 and the computing universe that represented in Mrs. Ragland’s drafting class).

Had I read this book back then, who knows what I might have done? I imagine myself taking a detour on one of my delivery missions to the auto shop–and its interior office walls emblazoned with centerfold girls–to drop in to meet Mr. Fitzpatrick. A detour taken while driving and learning a little bit more about computers and computer security could have taken my life on its own detour from where it is now.

Had I seen computers and networks as an end in themselves–more than I did building, optimizing, and fixing them–my life would have been detoured.

As it happens, my life detoured in other, unexpected, and interesting ways. At the time, I was focused on learning about plasma physics, and in my off time, the physics of consciousness. I wound up at Georgia Tech, but I quickly learned that I was better at writing about science than doing it full time. During that time, I fell in love with science fiction–especially the New Wave and cyberpunk. I studied how to make art with new media online with HTML and Adobe Flash, and for performance with video production. I worked with James Warbington on two 48-Hour Film Festivals, and I made DVDs for Poetry at Tech (Georgia Tech).

It is own weird way, the detour comes back around so that I study the relationship between computers and the human brain, science fiction and computers, and writing pedagogy and digital media.

While things have worked out remarkably well for me despite the weird turns on my life’s road, I still consider the “what ifs,” and sometimes, I try out the “what ifs” by incorporating the “what ifs” into my daily practices. One way besides creating what I tentatively call City Tech’s Retrocomputing Lab in my humble 64 sq. ft. of office space, I decided to take my enthusiasm with computers into the Linux realm. I’ve used different distros in the past on separate partitions or in virtual machines, but this time I wanted to go all-in–perhaps after getting riled up from reading Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, which isn’t a story about Linux, but it is in large part about the margins and despite Linux’s successes, it is still on the margins when it comes to the personal computer desktop.

To follow through on this, I took Uber rides back and forth from Microcenter in Brooklyn (my first Uber rides–necessitated by the heat more than the distance–when the weather’s nice, I enjoy walking to Microcenter from where I live). I had discovered they had a Dell XPS 12 marked down from about $1000 to $450. I purchased one, created a backup of the Windows 8 installer (yes, it had Windows 8, not 8.1 installed), and nuked-and-paved it with Ubutu 14.04 LTS Trusty Tahr (now that I’ve fixed my cursor jumping problem initially encountered by simply turning off touchpad taps/clicks, I might venture into one of the newer versions).

Of course, I am no more a hacker than I am a neurosurgeon (this latter point, my dissertation director Mack Hassler enjoyed reminding me of despite the subject matter of my neuroscience-focused literary dissertation), but I enjoy exploring, learning, and playing. Occasionally, I do hack things together. I make things–albeit, usually simple things put together with Deckmate screws and duct tape–and I would like to make things using the computer in ways that I have not really done before. Sure, I’ve taken programming classes before, but I created what I was told to make instead of what I wanted to make. This was a lack of imagination and inspiration on my part, and I do not want to continue making that mistake. So, here we go!

My SFRA 2015 Conference Presentation: The Cyberspace Deck as a Mechanism: Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy as a Voyager Expanded Book

The presentation that I will be giving tomorrow afternoon at 1:00PM at the annual Science Fiction Research Association Conference (this year at Stony Brook University on June 25-27, 2015) will be nothing like the title and abstract that I submitted earlier this year, but that’s a good thing. Over the past several months, my reading and research has focused on one small corner of that original abstract: The Voyager Company’s Expanded Book Edition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1992). I began to see the cyberspace deck as an important image and mechanism connecting Gibson’s fictional world with our contemporary shift from written to digital culture.

Above,  you can watch a demo video that will accompany my presentation as a backdrop to my talk, and below, you can find my paper’s abstract, useful links, and my works cited list for reference. I will have handouts of this information available at the session tomorrow, too.

Title:

The Cyberspace Deck as a Mechanism: Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy as a Voyager Expanded Book

Abstract:

Instead of focusing on the epistemology or ontology of cyberspace, this paper explores the cyberspace deck in William Gibson’s fictions as a mechanism of inscription. It does this by charting Gibson’s inspiration in the Apple IIc, his comparison of it to the first Apple PowerBooks, and the publication of his cyberspace deck-infused fictions as the Voyager Company Expanded Book edition in 1992. Through discussing these connections, it addresses other issues of importance for the current shift from written culture to digital culture, such as the effect of reading on screens as opposed to print, and the effect of digital culture on the human brain.

Useful Links:

Conference Demo Video (embedded above): http://youtu.be/fU8K2DuTfeE

Google Glass, iPad, PowerBook 145 Demo Video: https://youtu.be/-XrIqLdx3EU

Mini vMac Emulation Software: http://gryphel.com/c/minivmac/index.html

Emaculation Emulation Community: http://www.emaculation.com/doku.php

Works Cited

Casimir, Jon. “Voyager Seeks to Improve Thinking.” Sydney Morning Herald (23 May 1995): n.p. Web. 18 May 2015.

DeStefano, Diana and Jo-Anne LeFebre. “Cognitive Load in Hypertext Reading: A Review.” Computers in Human Behavior 23 (2007): 1616-1641. Web. 22 June 2015.

Gibson, William. “Afterword.” Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. n.p. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

—. Burning Chrome. New York: EOS, 2003. Print.

—. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1987. Print.

—. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1989. Print.

—. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.

—. Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

—. Package. Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Company, 1992. 3.5” Floppy Disk.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Print.

Markley, Robert. “Boundaries: Mathematics, Alientation, and the Metaphysics of Cyberspace.” Configurations 2.3 (1994): 485-507. Web. 23 June 2015.

Matazzoni, Joe. “Books in a New Light.” Publish (October 1992): 16-21. Print.

Mazlish, Bruce. The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Print.

Sellen, Abigail J. and Richard H.R. Harper. The Myth of the Paperless Office. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Virshup, Amy. “The Teachings of Bob Stein.” Wired (April 2007): n.p. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

An Entreaty to Gamergate: Giving Ourselves Permission to Change for an Inclusive Video Game Culture

Originally, I wrote a draft of this essay last year for a special roundtable on important issues in “play and competition” for the journal NANO: New American Notes Online. However, I wanted to send these thoughts into the world as soon as possible—especially in light of tonight’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode based on the experiences of Gamergate victims (NBC, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 9:00PM). I will write an update to the essay below as part of an upcoming Nano roundtable in a future issue of that journal.

If you are not familiar with Gamergate or how it has developed over time, you can catch up with these reports: Gawker; The New York Times here, here, and here; The Guardian; Newsweek; The Washington Post; and ArsTechnica (lots of coverage).

An Entreaty to Gamergate: Giving Ourselves Permission to Change for an Inclusive Video Game Culture

Jason W. Ellis

I recently visited Adam Yauch Park near where I live in Brooklyn, New York, because I sought inspiration for this essay about inclusion and video game culture. As you might know, Yauch, whose stage name was M.C.A. and who was a founding member of the hip-hop group The Beastie Boys, passed away from cancer in 2012. I felt that visiting this park in a corner of Brooklyn where I now call home would help ground my thinking about the way exclusionary actions and beliefs threaten and continue to threaten video game culture as a community for anyone who likes to play games, talk about games, and build games. What drew me to this park is that fact that M.C.A. and The Beastie Boys represent something that I feel to be very important to the human condition: the ability to change over time, admit to past mistakes, and make amends for those transgressions. As you might know, The Beastie Boy’s infused sexist attitudes (e.g., “Girls” and other lyrics—notably on songs from their first album) and homophobic prejudices in a proposed album title (Licensed to Ill was originally titled Don’t Be a F****t). As they grew older and listened to challenges from their fans and critics, they reflected on their past actions and changed their attitudes and behavior for the better—to be more inclusive and respectful to others by changing lyrics during performances (Tyler-Ameen par. 10) and writing socially and politically progressive songs on their later albums (e.g., “Song for the Man” on Hello Nasty, and “It Takes Time to Build,” “Right Right Now Now” on their album To the 5 Boroughs, and “In a World Gone Mad,” released online as an mp3 download).

The Beastie Boy’s shift toward inclusivity and away from the exclusivity of their early career provides a useful guide for thinking about one of the most pressing issues in video game culture made paramount by the largely misogynistic Gamergate movement. In particular, two songs come to mind where M.C.A. uses his low, course voice—the most mature voice of the trio—to establish The Beastie Boy’s program for inclusivity. In “Sure Shot” from 1994’s Ill Communication, M.C.A. sings, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends/I want to over my love and respect to the end.” These lines promote the idea that empathy, understanding, and welcoming constitute respect for others. Related to this is an idea that comes from “It Takes Time to Build” from 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, where M.C.A. lays it down: “Waiting like a batter who is on deck/When it’s time to wreck shop then shop I’ll wreck/So let’s calibrate and check our specs/We need a little shift on over to the left.” While M.C.A. explicitly takes issue with Bush-II era politics, his entreaty for a shift to the left—of opening minds instead of closing them, of listening instead of speaking, of empathizing instead of victim blaming—is something that we must continue to strive toward if we are to move into the future constructively rather than destructively.

The ongoing actions taken by misogynistic Gamergate supporters and instigators against feminist voices—voices calling for equality and righting cultural stereotypes, prejudices, and attitudes—in the video game community demonstrate the pressing need of inclusivity. I define inclusivity to be the unconditional acceptance of everyone as members of a community of game developers, game players, and game fans. In all of these overlapping groups, inclusivity particularly applies to the unconditional acceptance of historically marginalized groups from gaming culture, including women, LGBTQ persons, people of color, and persons with disabilities. To illustrate the marginalization as evident in the production and consumption of games, consider that while 48% of game players are female (ESA 3), only 22% of game developers are female (IGDA, Developers 9). Or, as Patrick Yacco reports from an interview with game designer and critic Mattie Brice: “While there is little data regarding LGBT characters and players, Brice believes that ‘most developers find it too much of a risk to include queer people in games, even when it comes to avatars with little to no narrative arc in the games’ stories,’ leading to a paucity of queer characters. She adds, ‘The majority of queer people are stereotypes many people are tired of seeing’” (Yacco par. 8). Or, at 79%, the overwhelming majority of game developers are white (ESA 9), and at 75.1%, the overwhelming majority of video game characters are white (Williams et. al. 825). This is despite the fact that some evidence shows that African-American and Latino gamers spend more time playing (Packwood par. 8), are more likely to purchase games more frequently than their white counterparts (Good par. 3), and have a greater percentage of homes with video games than their white counterparts (Nielsen 5). Furthermore, Williams et. al. conclude their study of gender and race that, “Nevertheless, the current study demonstrates that the world of game characters is highly unrepresentative of the actual population and even of game players. For developers, this is a missed opportunity. For players, it is a potential source of identity-based problems” (Williams et. al. 831). Or, the fact that the conclusion of the IGDA’s 2004 white paper on game accessibility begins with this paragraph acknowledging the need for political will to potentially overcome financial over ethical concerns: “It goes without saying that the efforts of game accessibility must have a realistic financial grounding, otherwise they risk not become implemented in mainstream games. What is important is: to achieve this we need to work on a political level” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). Yet, the report backpedals in the next paragraph and again asserts the financial calculus: “Efforts of individuals or small companies to create accessible games are important and interesting from many perspectives. However, to get mainstream games to be accessible to as many as possible we need first to resolve the financial issues, which are related to the time and effort accessibility development takes, and the increased number of sales you get by doing it” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). This sampling represents only a small part of the quantified data regarding marginalization in gaming culture. Reading online screeds, comments, and tweets reveals the semi-anonymous vitriol against inclusion of these groups. Listening to the lived experiences of these marginalized peoples and the challenges to building their own communities and attempting to enter exclusionary communities provides a deeper insight that these other sources cannot capture.

Obviously, one person excluded from gaming culture might occupy one or more of these marginalized identities. Their exclusion from gamer culture takes the form of misogyny, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance, and an overwhelming lack of empathy, understanding, or even acknowledgement. Some exclusive practices are organized by anonymous mobs of ethically unhinged persons who threaten anyone, any idea, or any game seen as antagonistic or different than those games celebrating male power fantasies supported by violence.

For example, Gamergate (or #gamergate on Twitter) continues to play out online and in real life (of course, both being lived experience). What began as false allegations by an ex-boyfriend against the award winning indie game developer of Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn, exploded into an unrelenting assault on women and their supporters dubbed by Gamergate supporters as “Social Justice Warriors.” Organizing on sites including 4Chan and Github, Gamergate supporters organized attacks against anyone seen as potentially upending, challenging, or critiquing male power fantasies in games or game fandom. Instead of recognizing the work of Quinn and others (such as developer of Revolution 60, Brianna Wu; editor-at-large of Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander; or founder of Feminist Frequency and creator of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, Anita Sarkeesian) as adding to gaming culture, they were seen as threats to the status quo needing silencing or in the most extreme elimination. Continuing over the past several months (though, the threats extend further back), people have been doxed (having their private information released online), harassed in the worst possible ways, and threatened with assault, rape, and murder. Even more alarmingly, as of a few moments ago, even mass murder was leveled as a threat against Utah State University where Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak. She has since canceled, because the police declined to perform security checks due to Utah’s open-carry-gun laws, which understandably made Sarkeesian feel unsafe in an already threatening situation (Wingfield par. 2). As M.C.A. entreats us, “the disrespect to women has got to be through.”

The disrespect and exclusion of women from game culture (space here does not permit me to further describe other examples such as the “fake geek girl”) is only one (albeit alarmingly so) component of the overall exclusion of Othered individuals from gaming culture. Exclusion leveled against women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, ethnic groups, and religious persons confront largely explicit exclusion from participating in games culture writ large. Stereotypes presented in message board visual memes, hate speech written and spoken, and exclusive cliques, teams, and guilds all serve to warn marginalized persons that they are unwelcomed participants in game culture.

The other form that exclusion takes, of course, is implicit. On the one hand, these are the game design decisions that developers, publishers, or advertisers make (the tail wags the dog as surely in video games as in other spheres). They include choices such as: Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who are non-playable characters (NPCs)? Where does the story take place? What level of control do players have in the visual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. of their playable character? How central are these considerations to the development of the narrative and its interactive progression? When developers are overwhelming white and male (cite), they might not know from their privileged position how important considerations are for audience identification, engagement, and empowerment afforded by providing the possibility of identifying with in-game characters, nuanced and informed handling of cultures and identities as part of a game narrative, and supporting an inclusive and respectful community of gamers.

Another implicit concern has to do with issues of accessibility and accommodation. To what extent are video games and video game platforms playable by persons with disabilities? To what extent are gamer communities receptive to the voices and needs of gamers with disabilities? Do message boards for game fan communities adhere to usability guidelines to enable everyone regardless of challenges to participate in this shared culture?

These exclusions—explicit and implicit—are opportunities for us to confront and correct them in the work that we do together as faculty, students, and the public. Video games are an important part of our culture that we should bring into the classroom as new texts to experience, confront, question, and in a word, grok (meaning to understand completely and holistically within a larger historical and cultural context—see Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land). Together with our students, we can explore how games and game culture are a part of real life and lived experience. We can discover how we learn from video games and how we have lessons to offer to others about games as they currently exist and as they have yet to be made. We can critique how game culture as it has evolved to be exclusionary is not how it has always been or how it always will be. Simply helping our students understand that their choice to behave a certain way to others in game culture is a decision that they should make after having the tools and knowledge to make informed and ethical decisions will be an important shift, as M.C.A. puts it, “over to the left.”

Deeply embedded in this challenge is an observation by the celebrated science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who writes, “A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake. We mean, basically, someone who does not care about the fate that his fellow living creatures fall victim to; he stands detached, a spectator, acting out by his indifference John Donne’s theorem that ‘No man is an island,’ but giving the theorem a twist: That which is a mental and moral island is not a man” (Dick 211). For Dick, it is our capacity for empathy that makes us human and not machine-like androids. However, he cautions us that human beings can become android-like if we lack empathy and ignore the suffering of others. Social justice advocate Mark Bracher argues in his body of work that literature is one important avenue to teach students how to feel empathy for the suffering of others. In a recent essay, he asserts, “From the perspective of these and other philosophers [Sandra Bartky, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Solomon], the question of how the study of literature might contribute to the production of social justice is thus not a question of how it can inculcate new values, provide new knowledge, or develop new analytical skills but of how it might help people overcome their indifference to, and instead experience compassion for, the billions of people who live in misery on our planet. If literary study could systematically help students overcome their indifference to the suffering that surrounds them and experience compassion for the sufferers, it would make a significant contribution to social justice” (Bracher 471). Likewise, I argue that video games provide an even more important cultural point of contact for these issues and for teaching students how to empathize, because 1) video game culture as it now stands is overwhelmingly exclusionary and provides many engaging teachable examples, 2) the interactive aspect of game play provides different kinds of characterological, narratological, and psychological engagements on the part of the player, and 3) video games are significant carriers of culture for an increasing number of people worldwide of all age groups.

As part of our engagement with students playing video games, we need to help them reflect on what they do in video games. Of course, this is not a concern for all video games, but it is for the popular first-person shooter (FPS), real-time strategy (RTS), and other games brokering violence. In my previous work, using cosmopolitanism as a lens is one approach to rethinking and re-engaging a video game apparently meant to be something else. For example, World of Warcraft. “which is overtly about war, death, and defense of one’s own race and faction, carries an implicit cosmopolitanism hidden within the game’s mechanics (quests), in-game achievements (associated with travel and exploring the entire world of Azeroth), and the over-arching game narrative in which the two opposing factions, which are comprised of the only playable races, tentatively cooperate against the subversively encroaching Burning Legion. Furthermore, it is these cosmopolitan imbued in-game elements that may serve an educational and pedagogical function for game players” (Ellis 157). That is, helping students see others as human beings sharing the same world despite arbitrary borders. More to the point with Dick’s ideas is the need of teaching empathy. While video games are often registered as mindless fun, we need to work with our students to identify with and consider Othered characters in games so that they might feel something instead of tuning out their empathy for others and disabling their ethical compass. Through games, we can help our students be more human and less like androids. Similarly, we can work with the public using outreach in person or with new media outreach (Twitter, YouTube, blogging, etc.).

As far as how digital play might play a role in restructuring how we structure learning, I am sure that it will in some way. More learning is taking place now via games and reward/achievement systems than ever before. More research is taking place on how the reward centers of the brain might be harnessed to improve learning outcomes, too. My concern about these developments is three fold. First, we need qualitative alongside quantitative assessment of student learning outcomes, and we need to be a part of the process that develops the implementation of these pedagogical methods instead of having them imposed from less qualitative disciplines. Second, we cannot ignore the material conditions of our students and their access to technology that supports studying digital play. Also, we cannot assume anything about our students’ backgrounds and experiences that inform their engagement with digital play. Third, we cannot ignore the material conditions of the faculty who design, implement, and improve gamification of learning environments. Faculty cannot be exploited to pursue the next buzz-worthy wave of digital pedagogy.

Finally, I think the most important lesson for all involved—faculty, students, and the public—is that, like The Beastie Boys, we are not bound by our initial conditions. M.C.A. and his band mates Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike-D (Michael Diamond) became who they are through learning and experience. In 1986 when their first major album License to Ill was released, they were disrespectful towards women and LGBTQ people, but they became inclusionary over time—admitting to past mistakes and misjudgments and working to put things right through their rhymes, public work, and open acknowledgments. For example, Ad-Rock published an open letter to the gay and lesbian community in Time Out New York on December 16, 1999, in which he wrote, “There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity. … We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology” (qtd. in MTV News Staff par. 1). The Beastie Boys can serve as an exemplary model for how we should all aspire to be—permit ourselves to change our minds based on new evidence, connect with people who we might not have made connections with before, attempt to understand others who we might believe are different than ourselves, welcome others, and finally, encourage others to follow our example and actions as inclusive teachers, designers, makers, players, and critics.

Works Cited

The Beastie Boys. “It Takes Time to Build.” To the 5 Boroughs. Capital, 2004. MP3.

—. “Sure Shot.” Ill Communication. Capital, 1994. MP3.

Bracher, Mark. “Teaching for Social Justice: Reeducating the Emotions Through Literary Study.” jac 26.3-4 (2006): 463-512. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Dick, Philip K. “Man, Android, and Machine.” In The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 211-232. Print.

Ellis, Jason W. “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future: Race, Nation, and World of Warcraft.” In The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics and Science Fiction. Eds. Masood Ashraf Raja, Jason W. Ellis, and Swaralipi Nandi. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print. 156-173.

Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry: 2014 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data. theesa.com. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Good, Owen. “Survey: Hispanic Gamers More Inclined to Buy Games.” Kotaku. 1 April 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

MTV News Staff. “Beastie Boy Apologizes for Past Lyrics.” MTV.com. 17 December 1999. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Accessibility in Games: Motivations and Approaches. igda.org. 29 June 2004. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

—. Developer Satisfaction Survey 2014: Summary Report. igda.org. 25 June 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Nielsen. Ethnic Trends in Media. Nielsen.com. March 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Packwood, Damon. “Hispanics and Blacks Missing in Gaming Industry.” New American Media. 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Tyler-Ameen, Daoud. “Adam Yauch, Co-Founder of The Beastie Boys, Dies.” NPR. 4 May 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo, and James D. Ivory. “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race, and Age in Video Games.” New Media Society 11.5 (2009): 815-834. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Wingfield, Nick. “Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in ‘Gamergate’ Campaign.” The New York Times 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Yacco, Patrick. “Game Developers Conference Tackles LGBT Representation in Video Games.” The Advocate. 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

An Idea for Aggregation of Student Online Artifacts Using Visual Rendering and Metadata Collection

Diagram of Visual Aggregation.
Diagram of Visual Aggregation. Click image above to view full resolution version.

This afternoon, I participated in an online reunion with my colleagues at Georgia Tech–Nirmal Trivedi, Pete Rorabaugh, Andy Frazee, and Clay Fenlason–about the first-year reading program, Project One.

During the conversation, I thought of this idea for aggregating student online work in a database and presenting student work through a website.

This builds on Pete’s ideas about dispersed exploration and fragmented student artifactual creation. So, if we have our students working online using any service, platform, or software, how can we bring their work together so that we can see and more importantly, they can see how their work fits together with the work of others? We can build a simple website that collects information (a URL, a brief, optional description, tags, and an affirmation that the content linked belongs to the student and is legal), generates a rendered image of the content, and presents those images as thumbnails with the collected information on a visually dynamic website that supports different ways of arranging aggregated content (by date, by dominant color, by tags, etc.). Beyond making these aggregated student artifacts available through the presentation website, the archive of rendered images and supporting metadata can be dispersed once the project is over (dispersing the archive–an idea I received from a conversation with Bob Stein of The Future of the Book project).

The image that leads this post illustrates my idea:

  1. Students login to a collection site with Active Directory (no new account needed). The collection website asks for the URL to the student’s work anywhere publicly available online, a brief description (not required–move this down the page and elevate tags), content tags or keywords (required), and a commitment that the content belongs to the student and is legal. The student’s name is automatically associated with the content after logging into the site with Active Directory.
  2. A service running on the site creates a JPG or PNG image of the rendered website URL supplied by the student, which is added to their content’s entry in the aggregation database. The site’s backend takes the URL, loads the URL in webkit, and captures the rendered page as  JPG or PNG. CutyCapt does this kind of work.
  3. On the public-facing side of the aggregation website, the students’ work is presented in either a grid of images (with ordering options based on dominant color, date of publication, tags) or a word cloud of tags (which can be clicked revealing the artifact thumbnails associated with that tag). Other possibilities can be concurrence between tags–visually depicting links between different tags, etc. On the visual presentation of artifacts, the square thumbnails enlarge as the user mouseovers each thumbnail to reveal a larger preview of the content, description, tags, student name, etc. (think of Mac OS X’s dock animation). There are lots of different ways to use visualization techniques and technologies to make the presentation of student work interesting, engaging, and layered with additional meaning and context.
  4. Finally, after the project is completed, the archive of student work exists online on the website and distributed among the students on flash drives. The content can be in directories for each aggregated student project, or a Java app that recreates the functionality of the website (or Java can be used on the presentation site, too–the website connects to an online database and the thumb drive version connects to the local database).