How Maker Culture Anticipates a Future of Empowered Tech Users

The Maker Movement has been subject of much debate in education for a few years now. Schools have had wood shops for decades and there are many vocational programs out there. So why is making so different, and what is the fuss about?

Making has its origins in the do-it-yourself culture where people make things to solve daily problems, or just for enjoyment. Personal relevance is extremely important for learning. Educators like Dewey and Freire have long stated that learning best takes place using contexts and problems that are personally relevant to students. The challenge has always been accomplishing this with a classroom full of students with diverse interests. Fortunately, because the variety of possible maker projects is so broad, there is usually something that will interest every student.

Photo by Sharon Vanderkaay / https://www.flickr.com/photos/77662096@N06/

Making is usually distinguished from do-it-yourself projects and more traditional craftwork and art by the inclusion of digital technology either in the process of making or as part of the final product. The emphasis on digital technology in making is of particular interest to educators as there is currently a push to focus on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects. Furthermore, unlike craftwork and the arts, making engages multiple skillsets typically involving a combination of craftwork, mechanics, circuitry and programming. As the demands for widely skilled workers increase in the job market, educators are becoming more concerned about fostering interdisciplinary skills in students. Making has been identified as an ideal approach to this challenge.

In schools, making alters students’ relationship with technology from one of passive consumer to one of active producer.

Less evident are the benefits making has on soft skill development, motivation, identity development and democratization of industry and society. Twenty-first century skills go beyond the hard skills of design, building and circuitry. More and more, employers are seeking workers who possess soft skills like creativity, innovation, initiative, problem solving, adaptability, independent learning and collaboration, all of which are honed when making. Makers choose their own project, take the initiative to seek the necessary information to complete the project via the internet or through collaboration with other makers, learn to find creative ways to accomplish their goals, and adapt their ideas based on physical or financial constraints. Opportunities to develop these skills are often limited in schools because they are difficult to manage and assess. It is becoming increasingly recognized, however, that if schools hope to prepare their students for the labour market of the 21st century it is essential that they begin to promote these skills.

Experts in industry predict that the increase in demand for highly skilled workers in the STEM fields will continue to rise. However, a decreasing number of youth are entering scientific and technology related fields, particularly among disadvantaged populations. This is partly attributed to student motivation and personal identity. Students often report a lack of motivation to pursue higher education due to a perceived lack of relevance of school to their experience of life. This perception is particularly prevalent in youth from disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Making is ideal for addressing this issue as it bridges the gap between theory and practice. When taking measurements for a 3D design, or writing code to program an arcade emulation station, the relevance of mathematics and computer programming to students’ interests and daily lives becomes evident. In addition to motivating students to pursue their studies for current interests, making also has the potential to influence their future career choices. An important factor for career choice is one’s identity. An individual is unlikely to imagine themselves in a future role for which they have no experience. Through making, however, students have the opportunity to ‘try on’ the scientist or engineer identity as they design and build concrete artefacts in an authentic context.

Maker culture has important implications for the democratization of industry and society. Thanks to cheap open-source technology and expansive shared knowledge on the internet, almost anyone anywhere can make. It is no longer the case that citizens are entirely dependent on companies for products. Making has the potential to disrupt industries worldwide and to put the power back into the hands of the people. And in schools, making alters students’ relationship with technology from one of passive consumer to one of active producer. This sense of empowerment is particularly important for youth in disadvantaged areas who might feel disempowered by dysfunctional social systems. Empowered people will more likely seek to improve their lives, which ultimately improves society as a whole.

There are many more potential benefits of making in education that are not listed here, but these alone offer a convincing argument for the inclusion of making in schools. This must be done with caution, however. Making is about more than just building. Having students build something following a pre-prescribed set of instructions or assembling a kit is not making. Yes, some knowledge and skills will be acquired through this type of activity, but the primary learning benefits of making will be absent. The personally relevant, self-directed experiential learning that making affords is vital in motivating students to take interest in STEM subjects and develop the necessary skills to become valuable contributors to 21st century advancements. If making is to benefit students to its fullest, the spirit of the Maker Movement needs to be authentic in schools.

Nathalie is currently working on her doctorate in Educational Technology in the Department of Education. She is a teacher interested in the benefits of incorporating DIY and maker activities into the classroom to develop STEAM and 21st century skills in students. Her research focuses on professional development programs to help teachers and community workers safely and effectively incorporate making into classrooms and community centres so that youth can benefit from the many affordances making has to offer.  

Ephemeral Games and Ambiguous Rights

I come from a generation of gamers who long associated ownership with the accumulation of hard plastic. My shelves are still chock-full of Super Nintendo games, remnants of an era that celebrated brick-and-mortar stores, cardboard display cases, and grey cartridges.

At the risk of sounding like a luddite or a grognard, those were simpler times. Games were tangible items that could be bought, sold, traded, lent out, destroyed, or even buried in New Mexico, if you so desired. A video game library was measured not by an ordered list in a web browser, but rather through the physical space it took up in your home.

Photo by Alberto Garrido / https://www.flickr.com/photos/k40s/

Since the advent of digital marketplaces, however, the idea of ownership has become somewhat enigmatic. Although new technologies offer us unprecedented access to game assets and algorithms – something that was nearly unheard of in the hard plastic days – sprawling End User License Agreements (EULA) and stringent Digital Rights Management (DRM) software are contesting and restricting our ownership. Browsing through a games library on Blizzard or Steam feels more like surfing the web than sifting through a collection. Every title has gained an amorphous quality, changing constantly through iterative patches and updates. In many ways we’ve relinquished control over the games we have purchased, as developers can add or subtract content on a whim. This raises a troubling question: do we even own the games that we play?

Ownership in the World of Warcraft

 

On April 10, 2016, World of Warcraft’s largest private game server was shut down after receiving a cease and desist order from the game’s developer, Blizzard (Frank 2016). Operating without official oversight or authorization, the “Nostalrius” server featured 150,000 active users (compared to 8-10 million users that play on official servers) and ran a version of the game that was over a decade old. In a digital game marketplace where digital updates are mandatory, running an unsanctioned legacy server can be understood as both an exercise in nostalgia and a serious violation of the End User License Agreement.

However, members of the Nostalrius team had strong motivations for their seemingly subversive behaviour. They wanted to provide a space where players could engage with an older version of World of Warcraft, one that was no longer available through the game’s subscription or supported by the developer. They had also hoped that the popularity of Nostalrius could persuade Blizzard into creating an officially licensed legacy server (We Are Nostralius). Their campaign raises an interesting question: what right do players have to engage with previous versions of the games they have paid for? Blizzard’s stance on the issue has been made abundantly clear – precisely none – but many players would argue that their ongoing subscription fees entitle them to past builds of the game. After all, World of Warcraft has been patched so many times that the current version bears little resemblance to the one they originally purchased ten years earlier.

The battle brings up one of the more contentious issues with digital copyright: instances where publisher mandated terms-of-use and security measures (such as EULAs and DRM) complicate or supplant copyright law entirely (Darroch 153), shifting power away from the user and toward the developer. Critics argue this prevents meaningful ownership. How absurd would it be if Nintendo came into your home, threw away your old GameBoy cartridges, and replaced them with different versions? The scenario may seem far-fetched, but is not entirely unlike the processes playing out online. This dilemma is exacerbated by the lopsidedness in which many of these rules are enforced. Individual players are put at a disadvantage when facing the enormous resources of corporations like Blizzard, and attempts to hold onto to “out of date” game content may result in a cease and desist order or other legal action.

Although this story has a bittersweet ending – Blizzard announced its very own World of Warcraft legacy server the following year (Frank 2017) – the core issue of ownership and iterative game development remains. When EULAs, DRM, and copyright become hard to navigate, it’s the players, users, and fans that generally pay the price. And as a greater selection of games become available exclusively through online marketplaces, the idea of ownership becomes even more elusive. Games are becoming less an object that players can own and more a service that they can subscribe to.

Although there’s no going back to the days of plastic cartridges and boxed CD-ROMs, game ownership isn’t a lost cause, either. In World of Warcraft’s Nostalrius, we see some ways in which players are attempting to navigate a realm where their legal rights are ambiguous and the games they purchase ephemeral. Though daunting, users need to keep pushing back against restrictive intellectual property regimes by exploring the limits of copyright, fair dealing, and user rights. It’s important not to lose sight of how these sorts of policies affect how we engage with our video games. Otherwise, our entire collections may one day evaporate into thin air.

 

References

Darroch, Calum. “Problems and Progress in the Protection of Videogames: A Legal and Sociological Perspective.” Manchester Review of Law, Crime, and Ethics, Vol.1, pp 136-172, 2012.

Frank, Allegra. World of Warcraft fans bid farewell to largest legacy server before shutdown. Polygon, 11 Apr. 2016. https://www.polygon.com/2016/4/11/11409436/world-of-warcraft-nostalrius-shutdown-legacy-servers-final-hours. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

Frank, Allegra. World of Warcraft Classic is an official vanilla server. Polygon, 3 Nov. 2017, https://www.polygon.com/2017/11/3/16603922/world-of-warcraft-classic-announced-trailer-wo-blizzcon-2017. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

We are Nostalrius, a World of Warcraft fan-made game server, reproducing the very first version of the game published in 2004, AMA. Reddit, 7 Apr. 2016, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/4droz4/we_are_nostalrius_a_world_of_warcraft_fanmade/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

 

Michael Iantorno is a Media Studies master’s candidate at Concordia University whose research-creation work focuses on video game hacking, fan cultures, media policy, and digital scholarship. An accomplished writer, radio producer, and game designer, Michael has over a decade of experience in the Canadian media industry. www.michaeliantorno.com

Simpler Than Ever? Online Grocery Shopping With Seniors

Debbie wants to get groceries without leaving her apartment. This is what she tells me during the “Internet workshop” I’m facilitating at a seniors’ low-income housing residence in Montreal.

They are part of a series of Online Literacy workshops I’ve been facilitating for the past year and Debbie is one of many seniors participating. The workshops are supported by the Ageing, Communication and Technologies research project, affiliated with Milieux’s Participatory Cluster and they give older adults a chance to learn about their own tablets, cellphones, or computers or explore new technologies. These workshops are not show and tell, they are very much hands-on. As a facilitator, I manipulate the devices as little as possible, and let the seniors do the finger work. While some of them have never operated a mouse or used a digital camera before, others have had experience with a range of technologies.

Online grocery shopping is an action that has transitioned from futuristic idea to common practice in only a few years. It is also a tool that could make Debbie’s life considerably easier, since she uses a walker to get around and lives on the 7th floor of her building, which is located 500 meters from the grocery store. If only it was that simple.

Debbie’s desire to buy groceries online opened my eyes to a few important points. Most technological interfaces are not designed with seniors in mind. Small devices like smart phones or digital cameras are rarely senior-friendly as a consequence of their tiny buttons or small screens. Actions such as enlarging text or typing on a tablet can be puzzling, uncomfortable, and outright annoying. It turns out that the interface for online grocery shopping is no exception.

Nevertheless, Debbie and I crack our fingers and set to order groceries online from a big supermarket chain offering the service. First, we need to create a new account, which takes us approximately 20 minutes. I’m just grateful she remembered her e-mail password.

In the case of this grocery shopping website, the website designers did a great job of connecting the shop’s inventory system to a visual interface – so much so that the search for carrots is entirely overwhelming. When Debbie searches “carrots”, the system finds 113 results – the first of which is “Living Organic Carrot – 10,99$”. Let us appreciate this feat of modern system engineering for a moment.

The “Living Organic Carrots” look like a nice option. However, Debbie just wants her “usual carrots.” We try to find them in this orange mosaic while she masters the art of scroll-page shopping. There they are (five minutes later)! We add them to our virtual cart. The exercise is time-consuming, and carrots are only one item on Debbie’s 30-item long list.

In the end, Debbie decides to give up on the carrots and also on the rest of her list. A complex website, coupled with an outdated tablet and a slow Internet connection depleted her enthusiasm and diminished her determination to order groceries online. Upon abandoning the task at hand, she remarked that she was unable to deal with “technological gadgets.” She puts the blame on herself and we put the tablet away.

After this experience, I cannot help but reflect on the ways in which the design of the system and even of the tablet prevented Debbie from doing what she wanted to do. When I started facilitating these workshops, I was amazed to take a step back and realize something: the quantity of informed micro-decisions a person must make in order to operate these technologies properly are decisions that we – the so-called “native” users – stopped noticing long ago. For instance, do you realize that in order to input a URL address, you must first click in the white rectangle of said URL? Otherwise, it doesn’t work. This has become innate to most, but it is not. Every decision, linked to every movement, is not innate and must be learned.

We should be impressed that digital technologies now allow us to order a complex list of items from our home, pay online and receive said groceries later the same day. However, it is only amazing for a minority of consumers. Ironically, those who would benefit most from this service are the very ones whose experience navigating it can be the most challenging: marginalized, non-literate or disabled seniors. Literacy and financial barriers—the cost of the devices themselves, but also Canada’s infamously global chart-toppingly expensive Internet—are only two factors preventing seniors from fully participating in the digital world.

Technology advances, but there isn’t always a clear-cut correlation between advancement and user-friendliness. While the rate of innovation is rapidly accelerating, technologies themselves aren’t necessarily becoming easier to use. Engineers of all kinds might not realize what new challenges result from improvements to their systems. This is why designing logical, user- and senior-friendly systems should remain the priority of UX designers and software developers. The possibility to enlarge font size or consistent design patterns across a website are only two possible inclusive design practices making it easier for seniors – and for everyone else – to feel at ease on the Internet.

 

Nora T. Lamontagne is a writer and a Master’s student in Media Studies at Concordia under the supervision of Dr. Kim Sawchuk. Her research revolves around the weaving practices of older weavers of Cercle de Fermières and the ways they contribute, by the socio-material relationships they create, to strengthen this century-old crafts community.

 

 

Faking It: Deepfake Porn and Moral Panic

2018 has been the year of deepfakes: algorithmically generated videos that insert faces into existing video footage, fabricating convincing scenes which never took place in reality. They’re named after the Reddit user who circulated many of the earliest videos made using the technique—one that can now be mastered by anyone with a computer and some free time. The resulting videos are convincing, in fact they’re nearly indistinguishable from real footage: politicians delivering fake speeches, for example, and endless Nicolas Cage appearances. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, internet denizens have put deepfakes almost entirely to use in the pursuit of manufacturing pornography. Porn consumers have now become the producers of their own scenes, swapping celebrities’ faces into thousands of preexisting porn videos.

Deepfakes are being received as the harbingers of a moral apocalypse, with news coverage proclaiming them “a looming crisis for national security, democracy and privacy” and warning vaguely but alarmingly, that “AI-assisted fake porn is here and we’re all fucked.” But this framing forgets a crucial point: the techniques and technologies behind this practice are neutral. Machine learning is a tool that can be employed for good or for nefarious purposes. More than that, deepfakes are the most recent on a continuum of doctored sexual material spanning back over a century. From Tijuana Bibles to slash fan fiction to revenge porn, pornography has long before now been produced within a culture that does not value the consent of its subjects.

It’s not that the moral panic levied at the practice is undeserved. It does, of course, have consequences that must not be minimized. But framing deepfakes as the exception rather than the rule detracts from our ability to engage with our culture’s larger, underlying devaluation of women’s consent and disrespect for their bodily autonomy. This problem, in essence, is not unique to deepfakes, or even restricted to pornography; it saturates our social and political life, especially women’s involvement in it. Deepfakes are ethically troubling to be sure, but looking beyond the panic we could perhaps observe these media makers to help understand emerging media ecosystems.

Only this time last year the technique required dedicated teams equipped with training, tech expertise and advanced editing equipment, but since the early months of 2018 the videos have worked their way onto message boards and laptops the world over. Deepfakes train a deep learning algorithm to recognize the characteristics of a given face using an image bank. As explained by technology journalist Samantha Cole, after enough of this “training,” the assigned nodes arrange themselves to “correct” faces that appear in selected videos. Using a machine learning algorithm, a home computer, publicly available photos and some spare time, anyone can now fake a hyperrealistic video.

This type of content borrowing is typical of today’s participatory culture. In this media ecosystem, audiences construct their own culture through content appropriated from mass media, reshaping it to serve their interests. This circuit of simultaneous production and consumption depends heavily on the engagement of the average participant, the producer-consumer, or as Henry Jenkins names it, the ‘prosumer’.

As prosumers, deepfake creators are gesturing towards what they want to see in their media. When they appropriate and transform porn and celebrity in new hybrid forms of expression, they are harnessing the technique’s potential to demonstrate that anything can be made real. Unlike with studio-produced porn, deepfake communities act like fans. A free economy flourishes and engagement is incredibly high in many porn-sharing forums, especially ones that allow for creative freedom. We could have seen it coming: before this year, the immense popularity of porn GIFs suggested there was an active audience, eager to produce as well as to consume pornography. Porn scholar Helen Hester has defended these forums as exemplary spaces for participatory interaction, which is at odds with the image of porn browsers as “passive, thoughtless, and wholly receptive”. The tactics of deepfake prosumers could have been predicted, considering these fans are enmeshed in the modern world of porn – a system already riddled with piracy and an alarming disregard for consent.

Actresses including Gal Gadot, Emma Watson and Scarlett Johansson have been targeted by the practice but practically there isn’t much legal recourse for victims of a deepfake — a large part of why the practice took off so explosively. The ethical issues of consent and objectification have made it clear that a video itself does not need to be real in order for the personal damages it incurs to be. Defamation or copyright law may be a good place to start, but as one redditor put it, “You can’t effectively sue someone for exposing intimate details of your life when it’s not your life they’re exposing.” While sites like Reddit, Discord and PornHub have theoretically banned deepfakes under nonconsensual pornography clauses, the videos are emerging faster than they can be contained. There is currently no straightforward route for getting videos like these taken down, given their free circulation, anonymous creation and ability to perpetually re-emerge after they first appear.

It’s unquestionably alarming that porn is being faked without the consent of those depicted and there remains alarmingly little recourse for victims. Moderation of these videos is nightmarish, but neither legal nor regulatory responses have historically kept pace with any forms of porn making regardless of the type of technology involved. Treating this practice as an unprecedented moral problem brought about by technology ignores much larger cultural problems – a troubling red herring.

In this emerging media system, not only are media producers and consumers transformed from two separate categories into a shared pool of prosumers, but they interact with each other according to a new set of rules which none of us completely understands yet. A moral panic only obfuscates the cultural context from which these technologies emerge. Rather than misunderstanding emergent practices like this one, we should closely consider these techniques and communities in order to help us understand our media futures.

References

Cole, Samantha. 2018. “We Are Truly Fucked: Everyone Is Making AI-Generated Fake Porn Now.” Motherboard. January 24, 2018.

Hester, Helen, Bethan Jones, and Sarah Taylor-Harman. “Giffing a Fuck: Non-Narrative Pleasures in Participatory Porn Cultures and Female Fandom.” Porn Studies 2, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 356–66.

Jenkins, Henry. 2013. “Layers of Meaning: Fan Music Video and the Poetics of Poaching” in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge.

 

Maggie MacDonald is an MA candidate in Media Studies at Concordia University as well as the coordinator of the Media History Research Centre at Milieux Institute. Her research focuses on the transformation of pornography as a cultural industry through the platformization of pornographic content online, specifically investigating the impact of MindGeek, a Montreal-based producer and distributor, on the supply chain of the porn industry. 

“Body of My Own”: Disembodiment and the Digital Feminine in Mara Eagle’s Autoerotix

There is a scene in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies in which Q (head of research and development for the British Secret Service) presents Bond with a new BMW equipped with machine guns, rockets and a GPS tracking system. When Bond opens the door, a pleasant, lilting female voice greets him, urging him to fasten his seatbelt for a safe trip. Playing to Bond’s notorious womanizing nature, Q quips, “I thought you’d pay more attention to a female voice.”

The subtext here is that a female voice is not only more alluring than a male voice, with its sexual connotations, but it is also less threatening, even as it emanates from a weaponized vehicle. The disembodied female voice is a ubiquitous feature of our current world that goes relatively unnoticed as it enlivens our computers, busses, bank machines and automated phone lines. Our digital age is simultaneously technophilic and technophobic. While many of us have developed an intensely intimate and fetishistic relationship with our gadgets, and see social media and interactivity as a means for connection and opportunity, there is also rising concern about ‘screen time’ as the downfall of social skills and ethics. The digital feminine presence is the ideal interface for the unknown region between desire and fear. Housed in stoke-able fetish objects like iPhones, our in-phone secretaries like Siri mediate this unknown space, not just by sorting our emails and organizing our schedules but by performing affective labour we have come to associate with the feminine. In the digital realm, this work is disembodied.

As Montreal artist Mara Eagle puts it, “because they do not speak through bodies, digital voices are never tongue tied, choked by breath – or by passion.” Eagle, a Concordia MFA student, explores the tension between the disembodied digital voice and female pleasure in Autoerotix, an 11-minute, five-channel “audio recital” of eight pop songs about female masturbation recorded between 1984 and 2015. By feeding the lyrics into a free online text-to-speech generator, Eagle flattened the delivery of these songs into a digital chorus of voices – or rather a polyphonic incantation made up of one digital voice (named “Alice”), manipulated into varying pitches using Adobe Audition. Emerging out of her research on labour, mimicry and simulation, Eagle’s Autoerotix uses digital tools to disembody the concept of female pleasure.

Autoerotix can be accessed online, but the work is intended to be experienced in person, and I got the chance to preview the installation earlier this year. In Eagle’s studio in Concordia’s Fine Arts building, I was told to sit within a circle of five inward-facing speakers. I felt like the object of a ritual whose practitioners had identical plastic bodies. I listened carefully while they chanted songs like “Touch of My Hand” by Britney Spears, “Oops (Oh My)” by Tweet featuring Missy Elliot, “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls, “Body of My Own” by Charli XCX and “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper, all in clean, monotone, digitized arrangements. In her book Feeling and Form (1953), American philosopher Susanne Langer writes that one of the oldest forms of dance is the medieval Reigen, or circle dance, the “first holy office of the dance,” acting as both stage and altar (191).

Traditionally, ritual magicians and witches have used circles to form a protective barrier that contain the energy they summon. Sitting at the center of the magic circle in Eagle’s dark studio, I inhabit this space between stage and altar: as the focal point, I am the vulnerable receiver of the energies of capitalism, female sexuality and pop culture, but there is also a barrier erected by my inability to access these voices, or their source. The songwriters, performers and listeners that created these hit singles over the years are condensed into one body through Eagle’s manipulation; similarly, the multiple “I”s of the lyrics, when spoken by the same monotone voice, congeal into one “female body,” the most familiar symbol in popular culture.

Eagle’s installation imposes disembodiment, but the lyrics she uses insist upon the presence of a body (“I touch myself/I honestly do”). The effect is both absurd and playful, but it also exposes the earnest tone that propels pop music, especially songs about female sexual pleasure. In stripping away the accompanying music and paring these songs down to just their lyrics, spoken in flatness, Autoerotix reveals their mechanized performance of female desire. Without tonal harmony or sexy rhythms, the lyrics purr along mechanically, like ready-mades on an assembly line. Similarly, subjective, intimate female pleasure becomes objectified (as well as sanitized and consumable) when performed for the mainstream popular audience, a dissonance that extends to our everyday interaction with the digital feminine as well.

The star of Autoerotix is the voice that Eagle selected from the text-to-voice database, named “Alice” by her provider. Eagle’s work exposes the lack of diversity presented by digital voices. In tone and delivery, Alice’s voice is very similar to Siri’s, which is supplied by a white American woman named Susan Bennett; the fact that we take Alice for neutral is telling. Evoking Siri’s delivery of driving directions, Autoerotix’s star Alice recites the lyrics in a monotone drawl. Her “oohs” and “aahs” are comical because they are simply phonetic. They lack emotion. Yet whereas Siri is programmed to serve others, in having Alice recite songs about female masturbation, Eagle shifts the focus from the emotional labour that our digital secretaries perform to the presence of an incessant and monotonous self-servicing. (“I can do it better when I’m all alone,” Alice recites).

In keeping with the intimate subject of solo sex, many of the lyrics in Autoerotix are spoken in the first person. The command-response structure that we know so well from interacting with digital voices through our phones (Siri’s constant prompt, for example: “How can I help you?”) is exchanged for a series of statements of independence and self-control: “I can do it better when I’m all alone;” “I’ve got a body of my own;” “my body is mine.” There are also themes of unruliness and frenzied, irrepressible desire expressed in lyrics such as “I can’t control what’s happenin’,” “it’s not a sin,” and “I find myself flirting with the verge of the obscene into the unknown…I will be bold…I’m going to places I can be out of control.” Here, female embodiment and autonomy are presented, in a classical formation, as the gateway to chaos and sin. At the conclusion of Autoerotix, which features Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” Alice’s many voices collapse together into a cacophonous glitch-parade. The disembodied vocals enact an ironic corrective to the excess of female desire; in regurgitating a rehearsed mantra like a robot army, an eerie order is imposed. But even as the lyrical disarray is hemmed in by Alice’s measured digital tone, there is still disorder at its core.

Many of the lyrics that Eagle uses, such as “When it’s late at night and you’re fast asleep” (Pink) and “Getting off, getting off, while they’re all downstairs” (Tori Amos) bring to mind the private space of one’s dark bedroom. Eagle’s work juxtaposes that privacy with communality, as multiple voices share space, and the listener at the circle’s centre is invited to witness intimate sexual experience, in ritual initiation. But if this is an initiation, what is being sacrificed here? Who, or what, is the scapegoat other than the dissolution of privacy?

Our everyday encounter with digital voices is also an encounter with surveillance and dissolution of privacy, in which the feminized vocal performance fosters complacency through its comforting associations: the trusted secretary, the doting girlfriend, the woman who captures the attention of rogues like James Bond through her voice alone. Eagle’s Autoerotix reveals both the ongoing stigma surrounding female sexuality and also how it’s used to normalize everyday surveillance. The disembodied digital feminine can be a threat as it pertains to our daily interactions. Not only do we freely share our data and personal communications through our phones, developments like Project Oxford’s new Emotion Recognition app for Microsoft will potentially allow AIs (voiced by the likes of Siri, Alexa and Cortana) to respond to human emotional states by identifying particular facial expressions, a design that poses a severe threat to human rights and privacy. In this vein, Eagle’s work is both darkly feminist and a warning about issues of security in our digital era. Where performative gender roles are used to help sacrifice our privacy, what looks like maintenance of power—and technological development as status quo—is in fact our own, undetected, loss of control.

 

A version of Mara Eagle’s Autoerotix will be presented in Montreal at Centre Clark from September 7 to October 13, and at Studio XX in November 2018.

Hilary Bergen is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Humanities at Concordia University where she studies technologies of the dancing body, posthumanism and feminist media history. She has published work on Siri, affective labour and the disembodied cyborg with Word and Text and most recently on rotoscoping, erasure and embodiment in Naomi Uman’s ‘Removed’ with Screening the Past.