Thank you to The Inquiry, a radio show and podcast from the BBC World Service for their insightful broadcast this week about WhatsApp and its influence on vigilantism. Natalie Dixon, co-founder of Affect Lab, was interviewed for a segment of the show to give perspective and context to WhatsApp groups. Natalie’s focus was on Affect Lab’s research into neighbourhood WhatsApp groups in South Africa and The Netherlands and how this technology creates both a sense of neighbourly intimacy but also facilitates acts of alienation. Listen to the FULL PODCAST here. Read the full paper about WhatsApp groups here.
Author: Natalie Dixon
The messaging application WhatsApp is often adopted in urban neighbourhoods to distribute and discuss information as part of neighbourhood watch programmes. In this context, certain notions of information sharing and the cherishing this implies, are often entangled with ideals of protection in the neighbourhood. Using the case study of an enclosed neighbourhood in Johannesburg, this research draws on theories of affect and mobility to introduce the concept of affective mooring. That is, that a neighbourhood WhatsApp group constitutes an affective mooring – an established practice and point of fixity – that generates a sense of being held in a community through feelings of collective presence and safety. Notably, these feelings of presence and safety are hinged on acts of resistance and alienation towards strangers. In this way, WhatsApp as an affective mooring in the neighbourhood is also a site for negotiating ideals of belonging.
This research was peer reviewed and published in the Open Cultural Studies journal (January 2018). DOWNLOAD THE FULL ARTICLE HERE
Feminists and legal observers in Spain have expressed outrage at what they see as “patriarchal justice” during the trial of five men accused of gang raping an 18-year-old woman during Pamplona’s San Fermín bull-running festival in 2016.
The judge, who will consider his verdict after Tuesday’s final hearing, has come under fire over his decisions to allow evidence to be presented about the alleged victim’s personal life and character, while not permitting the inclusion of texted conversations between the accused in which they apparently discuss plans to rape women.
Searching through conversations in the WhatsApp group called “La manada”, or “wolf pack”, to which the men belonged, police investigators came across an incident in which video showed some of the individuals apparently abusing another woman, who seemed to be unconscious.
Conversations prior to their journey from Seville to Pamplona mention the need to procure date rape drugs and ropes, “because when we get there, we’ll want to rape everything we set eyes on”.
A private detective’s report, commissioned by one of the accused, was compiled by spying on the alleged victim in the aftermath of the alleged attack, including her activity on social media and a holiday with friends. Two weeks into the trial, the defence decided to withdraw the file as evidence.
The strategy of the defence has been based on an attempt to show that the woman consented to group sex with all five of them. They are men in their late 20s, including a Civil Guard police officer who is also accused of stealing the female student’s mobile phone immediately after the incident. If found guilty, the men face prison terms of up to 25 years.
“In this trial, it seems that what is being judged is not the crimes, but this woman’s honour,” says Amalia Fernández, president of Themis, a Spanish organisation of women jurists.
Criticising the judge’s decision to include the detective’s report and media debates over whether the alleged victim had been truthful in describing the late-night encounter with the men as rape, Ms Fernández sees evidence of a systematic bias against women.
“We live in a society with patriarchal attitudes. Courts reflect society leading to a double victimisation as in this case. In crimes against women, the victim is turned into a suspect, something that never happens to complainants in other crimes.”
Ms Fernández questions how the judge could have considered a private detective’s report on the student from Madrid to be of any value in evaluating her level of trauma, while describing the material from the accused’s WhatsApp conversations as irrelevant in terms of their “preparations” for the alleged crime.
She also criticises the fact that the accused were not cross-examined until the end of the trial after hearing all the other evidence and the testimony of the alleged victim, an extremely rare exception to the norm in Spanish trials in which defendants are put on the stand first.
When the five men finally gave evidence, women protestors could be heard outside the Pamplona courthouse shouting slogans including “No means no”.
Media reporting, focusing heavily on the alleged victim’s credibility, has been criticised. In one instance, a major TV network ran a poll on Twitter asking the public if they believed it was a rape or consensual sex.
Videos of the late-night encounter between the men and the young woman from Madrid show how they wandered the streets among other drunken revellers before two of the men led her into the basement block of flats by the hand.
According to the police report on the case, the men surrounded the teenager in a small alcove, removed her clothes and had unprotected penetrative sex.
The men sent WhatsApp messages to friends celebrating the sex act, and promised to share videos they took on their phones. Those videos have been examined by the court frame by frame.
The police report on the videos says that the alleged victim maintains a “passive or neutral” attitude throughout the scene, keeping her eyes closed at all times.
“I just wanted it to finish as soon as possible,” she said on the witness stand.
The woman was found in a reportedly distraught state by a couple in the street outside the scene of the alleged crime. She told the court she is still having psychological treatment to deal with trauma from the alleged attack.
A Qatar Airways plane has been forced to land midflight after a woman who used her sleeping husband’s thumb to unlock his smartphone discovered he was having an affair.
The couple and their child were flying to Bali, Indonesia, for a holiday after boarding in Doha. The woman repeatedly hit her husband after learning of his infidelity and the captain was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Chennai, India, when the cabin crew was unable to restore order.
The family was then taken to a detention centre at the airport as they did not have an Indian visa before being put on a flight to Kuala Lumpur.
“The Qatar Airways flight QR-962 (Doha-Bali) was diverted to Chennai after the pilot requested it citing unruly passenger on board as the reason,” an officer from India’s central industrial security force (CISF) told the Hindustan Times, which first reported the incident.
“The woman and her husband, along with their child, were offloaded and the flight departed for Bali.”
The newspaper said the plane’s crew failed to calm the wife, who it said was an Iranian national. “The woman had unlocked her husband’s phone using his thumb impression when he was sleeping and then blew her top after discovering his infidelity,” it reported.
The Times of India said the Iranian woman made “such a ruckus” that the plane had no other choice but to make an unscheduled landing.
The family spent the day at Chennai airport and left for Malaysia on a Batik Air flight at 10.30pm.
Qatar Airways declined to comment in order to protect its passengers’ privacy.
‘And just as the medium obeys the voice that takes possession of him from beyond the grave, I submitted to the first proposal that came my way through the telephone’. – Walter Benjamin (1932)
Author: Natalie Dixon
In the early 1930s the German essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin penned a weirdly prescient piece about technology simply titled ‘The Telephone’. Alongside other essays about his childhood in Berlin at the turn of the 20th Century, Benjamin depicts the sometimes haunting but oftentimes animated dynamics surrounding the family’s landline telephone. First, the phone was relegated to the darker recesses of the house, but later ‘the apparatus, like a legendary hero once exposed to die in a mountain gorge, left the dark hallway in the back of the house to make its way into the cleaner and brighter rooms that now were inhabited by a younger generation’. In another succinct paragraph he writes that,
‘Not many of those who use the apparatus know what devastation it once wreaked in family circles. The sound with which it rang between two and four in the afternoon, when a schoolfriend wished to speak to me, was an alarm signal that menaced not only my parents’ midday nap but the historical era that underwrote and enveloped this siesta’. – Walter Benjamin (1932)
Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin, 2006, Harvard University Press.
Eight decades after Benjamin’s essay and it seems not much has changed about our relationships with the phone or technology in general. While phones are now mobile and almost ubiquitous, they’re still sites of contestation and ambiguity.
In 2010 when I conducted ethnographic interviews about intimacy in mobile communication between couples, almost all the interviewees reported mixed feelings, at one time cursing their mobile for being a socially corrosive element in their lives and in another instance describing the phone as an ‘absolute lifeline’. Michael Arnold calls this ambiguity the Janus-faces of mobile phones, that is, that mobiles ‘perform in ways that are ironic, perverse and paradoxical.’ In research Arnold calls for ‘foregrounding uncertainty’. A few other titles make similar points about ambiguity as part of phone culture, like Rich Ling and Scott Campbell’s Mobile Communication: Bringing Us Together and Tearing Us Part (2010) and Sherry Turkle’s paradoxically titled Alone Together (2011).
Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, 2011, Basic Books
It’s perhaps the ambiguity that is the most interesting dimension of phone culture, as compared to the dominant oppositions that often present in popular discourse. By extreme oppositions I mean that typically we are presented with narratives of how technology SAVES THE WORLD. Evidence of this is littered all over the web. See Quartz’s piece: Here’s how mobile technology is saving Africans from humanitarian disasters or How Mobiles Phones Are Transforming Africa. But, the most entertaining examples of techno utopianism are best exemplified by industry captains who just remind us that technology ROCKS!
The opposite presents in persuasive narratives about the dystopian effects of technology, look no further than Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror series.
Or, for a more academically inclined version of dystopia, check out any of Adam Curtis’ documentaries, HyperNormalisation (2016) and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), that expertly petrifies and persuades us of the sinister psychodynamics that prevail in society, often mediated by technology.
These extreme oppositions – Techno Utopia and Techno Dystopia – feel a little blunt, even simplified, considering how ambiguous we feel about our personal technologies.
It’s not easy navigating the somewhat weird in-between space of feeling both delighted and repulsed by technology (or what new technology enables).
To address this issue, the brilliant Amsterdam-based Next Nature Network present a compelling counter narrative, one filled with provocation and trepidation. They seem to be perpetually asking WHAT IF? Like, what if you could order a shoe made from your very own genetically modified stingray? The answer lies in their mockumentary titled The Rise and Fall of Rayfish Footwear.
Or, what if meat wasn’t animal based but rather grown in a lab? Check out their In Vitro Meat Cook Book.
What emerges from Next Nature is a playful gesture to this in-between space of technology narratives that doesn’t spell disaster or enlightenment, but provocatively kickstarts your imagination about our relationship with technology. Rather than present a clear cut answer, their projects playfully illicit a reaction about the outer-limit possibilities of nature and culture.
Author: Natalie Dixon
Author Adam Alter, launched his book titled Irresistible (Super Verslavend in Dutch) amongst a panel discussion of internet critics and commentators in Amsterdam recently. There are similar antecedents for some of Irresistible’s key narratives — I’m thinking of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicolas Carr –offering a dystopian and unnerving perspective on technology and our relationship with devices. There’s definitely enough evidence to support Alter’s claims on mobile phone addiction, look no further than the statistics scattered throughout his book like, “75% of people can reach their smartphone without moving their feet”. But, as I commented to Alter and the panel during this lecture, these kinds of narratives, that suggest that technology impacts us in ways that somehow corrode social cohesion, denies elements of human agency, while also supposing that using your phone doesn’t constitute a viable emerging form of sociability. Alter’s seems like a nostalgic narrative at best, one that even he admitted will disappear with our current generation (I think he’s referring to Generation X).
The creator of a chatbot which overturned more than 160,000 parking fines and helped vulnerable people apply for emergency housing is now turning the bot to helping refugees claim asylum.
The original DoNotPay, created by Stanford student Joshua Browder, describes itself as “the world’s first robot lawyer”, giving free legal aid to users through a simple-to-use chat interface. The chatbot, using Facebook Messenger, can now help refugees fill in an immigration application in the US and Canada. For those in the UK, it helps them apply for asylum support.
The London-born developer worked with lawyers in each country, as well as speaking to asylum seekers whose applications have been successful.
Browder says this new functionality for his robot lawyer is “long overdue”. He told the Guardian: “I’ve been trying to launch this for about six months – I initially wanted to do it in the summer. But I wanted to make sure I got it right because it’s such a complicated issue. I kept showing it to lawyers throughout the process and I’d go back and tweak it.
“That took months and months of work, but we wanted to make sure it was right.”
Browder began working on this project before Donald Trump’s election as US president but he said he feels it’s more important now than ever. “I wanted to add Canada at the last minute because of the changes in the political background in the US,” he said.
The chatbot works by asking the user a series of questions, in order to determine which application the refugee needs to fill out and whether a refugee is eligible for asylum protection under international law.
After this, it takes down the necessary details required for the appropriate asylum application – an I-589 for the United States or a Canadian Asylum Application for Canada. Those in the UK are told they need to apply in person, and the bot helps fill out an ASF1 form for asylum support.
Browder says it was crucial the questions were in plain English. “The language in these forms can be quite complicated,” he said.
These details are used to auto-fill an application form for either the US, Canada or the UK. “Once the form is sent off, the details are deleted from my end,” said Browder.
The 20-year-old chose Facebook Messenger as a home for the latest incarnation of his robot lawyer because of accessibility. “It works with almost every device, making it accessible to over a billion people,” he said.
Browder acknowledges Messenger doesn’t come without its pitfalls. Unlike some other chat apps, it’s not automatically end-to-end encrypted. Browder says there is, however, end-to-end encryption between his server and Facebook. He added: “Ideally I would love to expand to WhatsApp when their platform opens up, particularly because it’s popular internationally.”
Once the application is sent, the data is destroyed from his servers within 10 minutes of someone using the bot.
The next step is making the service available in more languages. Browder is currently working on translating it into Arabic.
Immigration lawyer Sophie Alcorn welcomed DoNotPay’s latest venture. She said: “As an immigration attorney, I can see the major benefits that leveraging sophisticated chatbot technology will have in the asylum application process.
“It will be easier for applicants to submit their applications and it will empower legal aid organisations to assist a larger numbers of clients.
“Asylum seekers want to follow the laws and do everything properly, and this technology will help them do so.”
DoNotPay was initially a free service that guided people with parking fines through the appeals process.
The chatbot was later programmed to deal with other legal issues, such as claiming for delayed flights and trains and payment protection insurance (PPI). As of August 2016, it also helps with housing issues. The homelessness bot has had more than 3,000 users, with more than 240,000 messages sent and received.
Browder runs DoNotPay alongside his studies at Stanford University. He said: “My degree has become a bit of a side project these days.”
Watch it on your mobile phone.
If you had to flee your country, what’s the one piece of technology you would take with you?
This striking film, designed to watch on a mobile phone, helps the viewer to experience with immediacy the confusion and fear facing refugees making a perilous journey by boat. Your phone is now a refugee’s phone. Text messages arrive from your family. Suddenly someone contacts you on WhatsApp warning you to turn back. But are they right? Your lifeline is a phone with no signal that’s rapidly running out of battery.
The film is based on research conducted by BBC Media Action, in partnership with DAHLIA, to help humanitarian agencies be aware of the communication issues of refugees in transit. It found that access to internet, mobile networks and social media are critical in helping people feel more informed and better connected. For more information, visit: http://bbc.in/2amio0P
“strange bodies are produced through tactile encounters with other bodies: differences are not marked on the stranger’s body, but come to materialise in the relationship of touch between bodies…. it is the very acts and gestures whereby subjects differentiate between others that constitutes the permeability of both social and bodily space”
– Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters (2000, page 15.)
This year, Oxford Dictionaries got creative with its Word of the Year. Instead of picking an actual word, it chose a familiar little yellow face. Upturned mouth, tears of joy streaming down its cheeks, eyebrows tilted in laughter: an emoji, precisely the one you’d add to a retweet of something that was so funny you cried. The decision was yet another example of how commonplace the small digital characters created by Unicode have become in daily life.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, use of the word emoji more than tripled between 2014 and 2015. Their ubiquity is undeniable. They’re popular with grandparents and teenagers, in Bangkok and Bel Air. There are pages and pages of them on smartphones, enough to suit a broad range of everyday texting situations. Yet despite their abundance, there’s an area of life that isn’t properly represented.
Where the hell, we ask, are all the emojis for professional women?
What options exist? As it stands, women who want to use something other than a neutral female emoji have the following options to choose from: a princess, a bride, twins that resemble Playboy bunnies, a dancer in a red dress and a series of “information desk person” characters.
Male emojis, on the other hand, have the following non-neutral forms: Santa Claus, a man wearing a turban, a man wearing a gua pi mao (a type of hat), a policeman, a guardsman, a male detective, a male construction worker and a male angel. There’s also a series of male athletes: a male horseback rider, a man bowing, a man walking, a man running, a man golfing, a man swimming and a man floating.
Besides the sheer difference in numbers, the occupations of these characters is telling. Men get the “serious” professional roles, and women get the “girlie” ones. Even the “information desk person” emojis have become better known for their seemingly sassy behavior: The woman holding out her hand, for instance, has been re-imagined as the hair-flip emoji.
“Every day we’re seeing this subtle message that there are these emojis of men doing jobs, but women are just dancing and getting their hair cut,” Niniane Wang, CEO of Evertoon and a former engineering manager at Google, told Mic. “It [has] an effect.”
Before men’s-rights types start screaming about political correctness gone haywire, no, this isn’t the most pressing feminist issue of our time. We shouldn’t necessarily throw all other causes to the wind and spend their days and nights fighting for equal emoji representation. There are myriad problems for women around the globe – violence, sexual assault, pay inequality and access to reproductive services, to name a few — that are far more threatening to women’s lives.
The lack of emoji options for the working woman is worth examining because it’s a small yet clear example of a social scheme that still manages to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes at every turn — even when the issue is as seemingly innocuous as a tiny digital face.
“I think it’s a symptom of a detrimental system — the patriarchy — that reinforces stereotypes (the bride, the princess, the dancer) that don’t represent the many layers of what it means to identify as female,” Kendall Mackey, 28, told Mic.
Wang first noticed the lack of professional women emojis while developing Evertoon, an app that allows users to create avatars. “Emojis are a huge part of our product, and I’ve spent many hours of the last year of my professional life staring at [them],” she said.
Kelly Byrd, 29, theorized that the lack of emoji ladies in professional roles comes from a fear of representing women badly.
“They didn’t want them to come across as being totally stereotypical,” Byrd told Mic. If Unicode had chosen traditionally female-dominated — and thus easily identifiable — jobs, like nurses, teachers or secretaries, the backlash likely would have been powerful. Wang agreed, noting that it was possible Unicode didn’t want to do “the wrong thing.”
Still, both said they were dissatisfied with the emoji universe’s inadequacies.
“I’m definitely disappointed that there’s a big discrepancy,” Byrd said. Though she said she won’t be beating down the door of her local congressperson over the issue anytime soon, she emphasized that it’s still important to see herself represented properly.
“[Emojis have] become part of our cultural language,” Wang said. “That’s why I don’t think it’s silly. Lots of people communicate with emojis, and texting is such a pervasive part of how we communicate with each other. If we’re all texting, and all using emojis, then doesn’t it make sense that they should represent us?”
It doesn’t have to be a giant shift right away. Unicode can’t represent every single profession out there. But it should be aware, as Mackey put it, that there are different layers to what it means to be female — and that means acknowledging that women make up roughly 40% of the global workforce.
They could start, for example, by adding female versions of the male professions, and vice versa. That means including female construction workers, grooms, male information desk people, and so on. (They could also stand to experiment with more genderless figures.)
Eventually, other occupations — businesswomen, doctors, housekeepers, scientists, singers, cooks — should have a place. (As well as some other key roles.) Wang said she’d like to see a female engineer or a female CEO.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Though Unicode can seem like an impenetrable and distant fortress from the outside, recent updates to the emoji catalog have proven that change certainly isn’t out of the question. Although BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel describes Unicode as “a deeply technical and somewhat secretive organization.” (Unicode has not responded to a request for comment for this story.)
Racially diverse emoji finally made their way into Unicode’s updates in 2015, and on Friday, a Kickstarter campaign to add a dumpling emoji surpassed its goal. Jennifer Lee, the co-creator of the campaign, previously told Mic that beyond getting the dumpling emoji approved, she wanted to use the Kickstarter funds to help diversify Unicode’s voting bodies and make the proposal process more inclusive to the public.
The organizing body she intends to use to see this goal through, Emojination, will help tackle problems like the lack of professional women emoji, and it will start by adding to the ranks of people who participate in the process in the first place. Emojination is a “nonvoting associate member” of Unicode.
Engineers, for example, make a good portion of the membership, which Lee believes needs to change. “The skill set of engineering is not robust enough to address the demands the emoji world is putting on the system,” she told Mic earlier this week. “You need someone, ideally, who understands how to plug in to systems to gauge desire. The emoji subcommittee itself would benefit from a richer range of skill sets.”
Then again, there’s a much simpler solution to all of this. As Mackey put it, “Can’t we just have an emoji that’s of a woman smashing patriarchy?”