My overarching project going back to my PhD, has been on the politics and ideologies of online communities. Those most closely associated with tech culture, engineering and, to a great extent, disruption of some kind. I started with the Piracy cultures of the 2000s. Working from 2008-2011 I wrote an account of contemporary digital piracy that was, looking back, probably verging on boosterism as I recounted the myriad ways in which illicit anti-copyright, pro-piracy cultures were transforming the cultural industries.
Research is always personal to some degree, and it was no different with this. I grew up in these cultures, identified quite strongly as 'techy', 'nerdy' and 'awkward' and recounted the exploits of these groups with a little too much glee. I too thought the music industry was probably asking for it and that a little disruption to established power was probably a good move.
Whilst my interests have broadened since my PhD, I still find much of what I do revolves around tech culture. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I have not broadened away from tech culture, but instead come to understand it better. As you'd expect tech culture is both quite a bounded and identifiable community, but also one that is embedded in broader societal frames such as American liberalism, libertarianism and market-oriented assumptions about value, progress and success. It is also a culture that has its fringes - usually the parts the fascinate me most - and at these fringes you find intersection with the host society's fringes too.
Fringe Vectors ➡️
The name, Fringe Vectors, seems appropriate to me right now. Fringe indicating both the non-mainstream nature of the ideologies and values held by these groups, but also fringe in that I'm interested in the edges of these groups and where they touch upon others. How one might begin on the fringes and be drawn into the centre, and vice versa.
Vector is inspired by McKenzie Wark's concept of the "vectoralist class". Wark uses the term to describe an emergent class of people that control the infrastructure through which information is routed. Power comes not from owning the means of production, but by controlling the infrastructure and data upon which those means rely. Under this model the capitalist class, in the strict sense of those that have the capital, become subordinate to a new additional class layer, the vectoralist class. In many ways my project about tech culture is about the culture of this class. What has been referred to as the Californian Ideology, the Hacker Ethic, Silicon Valley Culture.
Vector is also a useful term in its more technical sense. A vector in physics is a "quantity having direction as well as magnitude", whilst in epidemiology it is used to discuss contagion, and the routes to which a pathogen might be passed across organisms. The project fudamentally is interested in these routes of movement of fringe ideas, the magnitude to which fringe politics might move through a community, and the direction of travel.
To me the term makes sense right now. It might change next week...
The Questions 🤔
My emerging project is about understanding how a range of tech culture groups intersect, particularly at their more extremist fringes. A broad range of research questions I'm currently toying with include...
- What are the underlying principles or features of tech culture that might be shared with fringe and often radical politics?
- How "close" are the more mainstream tech communities and the broader public, to these fringe ideologies in terms of shared interests, and underlying assumptions about the world?
- How many "steps", in a purely theoretical sense, does it take for someone to find themselves in the fringes of their community?
- Are these actually "fringes", or a rhetorical devices used by communities to deny qualities that are in fact central to their community?
- Are there particular features of tech communities that may incline them towards more fringe or contrarian politics/thinking?
- Can we see these assumptions and politics, and perhaps their fringe elements expressed in the products they produce?
- Given tech's ability to have an accelerated impact across non-tech populations, are these products a vector to larger political impact for fringe politics?
The Communities 🦞 🦄 👑
I'm yet to fully settle on which communities will be the focus, and much of it will be driven by the data, however the key groups that I'll be examining are.
- Silicon Valley Elites
- The RationalSphere
- The Manosphere
- The Alt-Right (broadly)
Having already spent a year reading around these areas I can initially say three things...
- I think that there is a theoretical argument to be made that connects these groups. I hope to also produce empirical work to back it up.
- I do not necessarily think that everyone that identifies as being in one of these groups, can automatically be equated with the others - we do nuance around these parts.
- In the course of this I have already read mass shooter manifestos, misogyny, race science, proposals for class based genocide, and other similar radical visions of the future that involve either mass subjugation or mass murder. I don't imagine things will improve as we progress. Consider this a blanket content warning for the project and if you know me please occasionally check in about my mental health.
I'm approaching this from two angles. The first, as always, is reams and reams of reading, both of literature around the subject and in deep dives of some of these communities, lurking in subreddits, alt-tech chat channels etc. The other approach is the greater challenge, and where the computational bit comes in. I plan to map these communities on Twitter, but I want to go beyond simple retweet networks which often capture just snapshots of activity. Whilst activity is a key element of mapping these spaces to understand how ideas or values might flow between them, I'm also interested in mapping the foundations of interconnection between communities, which means follower data. This means a network that will likely features millions of nodes, and hundreds of millions of edges. A single person on Twitter might have one or two million followers alone, so this is not a small task. Thankfully, I already have my prototypes, both for software to collect this material efficiently, but also software to process it in a way that can isolate the communities, find the fringes and make it all interpretable. The technical in's and outs of this process are something I'll cover in detail as the project progresses.
Open Research 📖 🤝
My intention is to use my site as an open research diary as I work my way through this project. Summaries of literature, tentative attempts to form arguments, thinking aloud style writing - free form and initially unconcerned with rigour - visualisations, conceptual mapping are all components of my usual process, that normally happen in the background. Academics like to be precise and clear and rigorous. It is the expected social role that we play. We take a lot of time over things, but at least at the end we have hopefully produced something of substance.
The secret is that before we can be all those things we have to be imprecise, at times incoherent and speculative. We have to first attempt to write the argument before we can assess if the argument is a good one. We have to go on tangents, many of which will be cut later on, but one or two may turn out to be the core of what we actually produce years down the line. We have to write poorly and do it a lot. We have to be wrong, before we can be right.
So here is the deal. I'm going to do this in the open with all relevant caveats applied by the above. I'm going to be wrong. Probably a lot. And you, amorphous internet population, can watch me be wrong if you want to, with the expectation that possibly one day I will be right.
Additional clause: I will use shitty gifs and emoji liberally and you will be ok with it.
For all posts related to this project check out the dedicated Fringe Vectors hub.