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Socializing the Dark Web


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Can there be social networking among the pseudonymous?

The life sentence meted out to Ross Ulbricht, a.k.a. the Dread Pirate Roberts, for his role in running the Silk Road online market has again raised the profile of the “dark web,” with a slew of media stories promising to take readers inside a seething world of drugs, counterfeit goods, hit-men services, hacker forums, and child pornography. The message is clear: The dark web is an unsafe space, policing it is necessary and justified, and Ulbricht’s life sentence is well-deserved.

However, there’s another side to the dark web that rarely, if ever, gets mentioned. The dark web — the network of sites accessible only with special routing software such as Tor, i2p, or Freenet — is not just a criminal domain for drug dealers and pornographers; it’s also an experimental media system exploring the sometimes contradictory fusion of networking and anonymity to build spaces dedicated to political dissent and debating taboo or prohibited topics. This is all the more valuable in a time when the “clear web” is increasingly under government and corporate surveillance, and where Facebook regularly shuts down activist pages, as Kevin Mathews explains in this article.

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Spinoza in a T-Shirt

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A manifesto for designs that do not know what bodies aren’t

“What can a body do?” is the question Spinoza puts to his readers in the third part of Ethics. For Spinoza, bodies are constituted not by predefined classifications but by encounters with material, social, and spatial forces. That means the body cannot be abstracted into neat categories of description, but exists in relation to broader contexts of power and meaning. Bodies are realized both through individual actions and by being acted upon, but the conditions under which a body can (and can’t) act are nearly limitless. Therefore, contained within Spinoza’s question is the radical idea that we not only don’t know what a body can do, but that we don’t even know what a body is. That Spinoza included this challenging question in his Ethics means that the forces that constitute bodies in a society’s space and time stem from decisions that carry ethical weight. These decisions are what we call “design.”

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In the middle of the twentieth century, US industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was also thinking about the ways in which bodies are situated in social contexts. His 1955 book Designing for People introduced a groundbreaking approach to industrial design that continues to shape and define the field of ergonomics and industrial design today. In his book, he uses two anthropometric models named Joe and Josephine—considered by some to be “the heroes of modern, functionalist design”—in order to emphasize “the human factor” of industrial design. We suggest that Joe and Josephine exemplify the socio-ethical problems of knowing too well what a body is.  For Dreyfuss and the legacy of design knowledge he left behind, archetypal human bodies are white-skinned, able-bodied, of mythically average height and weight. They also fall neatly into the (hetero)normative two-gender binary system.

Dreyfuss designed objects and spaces not only to fit Joe and Josephine’s highly gendered bodies; Joe and Josephine gender the objects and spaces they inhabited. When chairs made for an airplane, an armored tank or a tractor are designed to correspond to Joe’s virtual and normative body dimensions, and when an ironing table, a telephone switchboard, or a vacuum cleaner are designed to correspond to Josephine’s body height and size, the abstract concepts of masculine and feminine bodies structure and define these objects, their uses, and the spaces they occupy. Although Dreyfuss’ standard bodies are easy to critique because of their explicit definition, most designers of the modern era operate with similar bodies in mind. Many still refer directly to Dreyfuss’ anthropometric data and models.

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Open Channels


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Fan fiction is more than a genre. It’s a technology for generating new feelings out of old texts.

Like her protagonist, EL James appears to love humiliation, as evidenced by yesterday’s #AskELJames Twitter Q&A. While the many harsh jabs at Fifty Shades of Grey’s prose style weren’t directed specifically at its origins in fan fiction, certainly some of the animus against it is informed by a sense that fan fiction should stay fan fiction: not pulled into the world of “proper” literature and the authorial legitimacy it presumably confers. But while fan fiction as a genre is still largely (and unfairly) denigrated, it’s leaking into literature in all sorts of exciting ways.

In an essay published this spring, poet and playwright Joyelle McSweeney described her recent work as “fan fiction in the form of plays.” Poet Richard Siken, due to his relationship to the Supernatural and Sherlock fandoms, was just dubbed “Poet Laureate of Fan Fiction” by The Awl, and fiction writer Tom Cho has, in various interviews and essays, named fan fiction a model of influence. Postmodern pastiche may be dead (I’m skeptical), but fan fiction is alive and thriving, not just on internet archives and Tumblr–or on the New York Times bestseller list–but also in indie and innovative literature.

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Against Students

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Complaining, censorious, and over-sensitive, university students are destroying their own institutions. Wait, seriously? People think that?

What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilization,  even to life itself.  In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. Students are failing to reproduce the required norms of conduct. Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message, or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing system failure.

In describing the problem of how students have become the problem, I analyze some recent writings that seem to be concerned with distinct issues even if they all address the demise of higher education and involve a kind of nostalgia for something that has been, or is being, lost. I have made the decision to quote from these texts without citing the authors by name. I wish to treat each text as an instance in a wider intertextual web and thus to depersonalise the material. Some of these texts do cite each other, and by evoking the figure of the problem student (who travels through this terrain with an accumulating pace and velocity) they all participate in the making of a shared world.

The “problem student” is a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them, connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated.  We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.

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Ultra Violence


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The extreme nature of Ultra fandom often reflects an equally extreme political position

In July 2013, fans of the Italian football team Atalanta drove a Sherman tank over two cars painted with the colors of two opposing teams. The cars, which were spray-painted with epithets insulting the teams (Roma Merde!), were completely crushed. After the tank passed, fans rushed in to continue beating the cars or, if possible, grab a piece as a souvenir.  Though the Italian media responded to this particular incident with fascination and outrage, rolling out the tank during pre-season street festivals is apparently a years-long tradition. Episodes like this illustrate the theatrical excess characteristic of football superfans, the most infamous of whom are known as Ultras.

Ultras are formally organized support groups for association football teams iconic for their elaborate pyrotechnic displays and bitter rivalries. In Italy, the fans are referred to as the “12th man,” evening out the eleven players a team has on the field. As the popularity of football has spread all over the world, so too has this Italian institution of fandom. Teams all over Europe, the Middle East and Latin America have affiliated Ultras.

Perpetually attempting to outdo each other, Ultras assert their presence through constant singing, flag-waving, colored smoke flares, choreographies and other gestures of collective jouissance. More than spectators, they are partisans, unafraid to express disagreement with their own team’s strategy. They have been known to storm the field or linger long after a game, burning cars and fighting each other or the cops. They are also prone to “hooliganism”—vicious insults, brawls and coordinated attacks on rival Ultras. Their rivalries sometimes take on grandiose proportions: One supporter of Robur Siena, explaining his hatred of Florence, invoked a thousand-year antagonism between the two cities, bragging about “exterminating the Florentine army” in 1260, in a battle that Dante described as “a terrible day” where the Arbia river was turned into a “river of blood.” The volatility they introduce to the game has long been a PR problem for football leagues, leading to recent crackdowns.

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