I Spy

History TableclothIn 2007, researchers at the University of London developed a flexible screen-printed tabletop called the History Tablecloth. When objects were placed on the Tabletop surface, its electroluminescent material formed a grid of glowing, lace-like patterns. The longer an object sat on the table, the further the halo expanded; upon removing the object, the halo would slowly fade to nothing.

Scientists create inventions like the History Tablecloth in order to evoke a higher level of interpretive recognition. Traditional roles in human-to-object interaction are always in flux; if we can better understand the social dynamics of ubiquitous computing, we might gain insight into the use of such technologies to enhance our person-to-person relationships.

The opinion here is that the History Tablecloth has greater metaphorical significance in the marks that remain after something has been removed. We suspect this is why people carve their initials into trees and public park benches. Everyone wants to gain a small degree of immortality by leaving some sort of imprint on the world. The temptation to commit is irresistible, for some people, even if they know the act itself is fundamentally wrong.

Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook). From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take Part.
Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook. From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take PartTake Part).

Last week, a family vacationing in Oregon were publicly shamed on social media for carving their names into a metal railing overlooking Tumalo Falls Park. Hiker Brett Nelson documented the incident on his Instagram account and Facebook page, getting more than 53,000 people to share the image. This was enough to gain the attention of the U.S. Forest Service, who as of this writing have threatened the alleged vandals with steep penalties (a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in jail).

child in dunce cap

The past few years have produced a number of studies to determine whether we are born with a fundamental understanding of moral ethics. Abigail Tucker writes that the factors influencing our cognitive bias between right and wrong can seem quite arbitrary, and they fluctuate wildly under observation:

“Day to day, babies can seem unfeeling and primitive, or at the very least unfathomably bizarre, afraid of donkeys one minute and the moon the next, their prismatic minds beaming nonsense and non sequiturs instead of the secrets of our higher nature. No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies.”

One thing we do know: the digital realm has fully encroached into our personal space. We no longer have to make a conscious decision to interact with transmitted data, and much of it is received via nondeliberate events. Computers are increasingly part of our environments: toys, home appliances, books, clothing, furniture, jewelry, shopping malls, airports, hospitals, schools, office buildings. Devices are carried, sensors are worn, chips are implanted.

It’s possible that one day, the act of carving one’s initials on a metal railing will initialize a virtual network of national park activists. Whether that delights or frightens us probably has a lot to do with how we feel about Nelson’s conviction in doing what he felt was right, as well as the ease by which a transgression can be catastrophized by 53,000 people.

To be fair, it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for someone who intentionally vandalizes public property (especially in full view of a parent) and justifies the act by petulantly claiming “We can do what we want.” At the same time, moral imperatives are fleeting, like those haloes in the History Tablecloth, but their digital footprints remain long after the event that inspired them is forgotten.

I Sing the Body Electric

The first recorded instance of body-shaming in modern culture took place in 1863. That’s the year when Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) made its exhibition debut in the Salon des Refusés, shortly after being rejected for inclusion to the Salon. In the painting, we see a nude woman relaxing between two respectably dressed men in a pastoral setting. When writing about the painting, art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary used the word “flabby” to describe it. But there is more to the story than a woman’s physique.

Manet's Lunceon on the Grass

The painting generated controversy for reasons other than the stark nudity of the woman in contrast to the male figures. At the time, rampant prostitution in Paris was considered too inappropriate for even casual conversation, let alone to be displayed on an oversized canvas. Viewers expected the presence of a nude woman among clothed men to hold a certain mythological or allegorical significance, neither of which Manet chose to reference in his work.

It was not the nude that most infuriated audiences, however, but rather what appeared to be a lack of technique on the part of the artist. Manet painted his characters in such a way that they didn’t seem to fit inside the composition, his landscape portrayed as a sloppy sketch of monochromatic brushstrokes. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of depth, subtlety and perspective infuriated critics who chided him for seeing the world in high-contrast swatches. Manet’s vision of the world (and the female form it contained) did not align with that of his audience.

proportions of the female formDéjeuner sur l’herbe is today considered a primary departure point in modern culture, gaining significance as one of the watershed moments in art history. Body-shaming endures as well, serving as a form of conjunctive imperialism among those who have very specific expectations of what the female form should represent.

Examples of celebrity body-shaming are rampant in social media. When Selena Gomez posted an image of herself on a Mexico beach, it didn’t take long for the trolls in Twitter, Reddit and Instagram to pile on with comments about her weight. Almost instantly, Gomez joined Demi Lovato, PinkKelly Clarkson and other female celebrities who dared to leave themselves publicly exposed to a jury of online executioners and self-assumed fitness experts. Gomez addressed her critics with a suitably appropriate response:

Selena Gomez self-portrait announcing that she is comfortable in her own body

Mary Poovey book coverBody-shaming isn’t limited to comments about a woman’s dress size. The message being imparted to females is clear and direct: don’t gain weight, don’t get old, don’t wear shabby clothes, don’t cut your hair, and don’t own your sexuality. In general: don’t put forward an image unless it’s been sanctioned by a societal norm. Our expectations of how women are supposed to present themselves are calibrated, at least to some degree, by centuries of misogynist behavior. This is a theme with many cultural precedents. Consider this essay on Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield by historian Mary Poovey, which describes how the relationship between the titular character and his mother influences his actions:

“The ideal that David will strive to re-create throughout the novel is the discrepancy between what Clara seems to offer and what she indirectly causes … the gap within himself between the infatuations he suffers and the perfect love he imagines [is] the symbolic reworking necessary to transform woman into the idealized mother. If his mother is not the ideal, then she must be transformed into this figure.”

Rachel BrykFemale celebrities are not the only targets of body-shaming. It could be argued that the transgender community is particularly vulnerable to online trolling, since the affected victims are people who have made the conscious (and often difficult) choice to alter their self-image on a very public stage. Rachel Bryk posted her last words in a posthumous Twitter message last week, after the transgender 23-year-old’s suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge: “Guess I am dead. Killed myself. Sorry.” Bryk had previously complained about the “constant transphobia” she experienced online. Of note were the anonymous trolls who goaded Bryk to kill herself at a time when the pain she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was unendurable.

The Latin phrase “Mulier est hominis confusio” means “Woman is the confusion of man.” The theological context for this quote was to question whether a woman had a soul, from the Biblical concept of original sin to Helen’s role in the Trojan War. It could also be interpreted, however, as the challenge of ingenuity that men have always held regarding their female cohabitants. The unstated rule is that so-called “feminine” traits, especially those that can be detected by sight, must be accompanied by “feminine” behaviors. In the minds of body-shamers, any deviation risks upsetting the balance of power upon which rests their formulaic assumptions regarding gender roles.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Kellie Maloney, a boxing promoter who previously lived as a man, suggests that perpetrators of online abuse have something more on their minds than what a woman is supposed to look like:

“You’re always going to get the keyboard warriors and the guys who want to make a name for themselves. I’ve had some messages like ‘You’re always going to be a man, just because you’ve had your genitals cut off doesn’t make you a woman’. I just laughed, even when it got really abusive and personal. I would think if people want to say these things they are hiding secrets of their own. “

Inevitable Accidents

Lisa McElroy, Drexel Law Professor

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”

So says Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. England has developed a mathematical formula that he believes explains the fundamental components of how life begins and evolves. Put simply, when an external source of energy is applied to a grouping of matter, under certain conditions the matter will gradually restructure itself in order to disperse more energy.

Which bring us to the story of a Drexel University law professor, her careless job of copying & pasting a simple URL, and the crucible of public judgment. Lisa McElroy, teacher and professor at Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, used the University’s network earlier this month to share a link with her students about writing legal briefs. Unfortunately, the link took students to a Pornhub video, which (as one can detect from the name) streams explicit sexual content for free.

Email sent by Lisa McElroy to her students

A number of McElroy’s students allegedly complained about the email, which McElroy insists was delivered in error. Some of McElroy’s supporters suggested that her system was hacked. Still, Drexel administrators felt compelled by the incident to conduct an investigation to determine if McElroy’s actions should result in sexual harassment and misconduct procedures. As of this writing, according to a Drexel spokesperson, McElroy has been “cleared to continue her academic and research responsibilities” and still holds her teaching position at the University.

Lisa McElroy on MillionaireLisa McElroy is no stranger to the public spotlight; you might recognize the name from her appearance as a contestant on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? She is also well regarded in her profession, having earned a doctorate from Harvard Law School and authoring several children’s books about Supreme Court justices. And she knows how to use the media. In an op-ed piece appearing in the Washington Post last week, the professor says she was “mortified” upon discovering what she had sent to her students, yet called the incident “pretty trivial” compared to the public shaming she received when the story went viral:

“I was sure I had lost my dignity forever. Unsurprisingly, some students spread word of the incident through social media and anonymous e-mails to the media. Everyone was talking about me … still, no one questioned the dignity of those who forwarded the unintended post. No one asked why, if they found it so offensive, students opened the link, with its unmistakable Web address, and watched the video long enough to know what it contained. No one publicly questioned the dignity of the so-called journalists who wrote salacious stories [and] called my unpublished cellphone number.”

Beyond a desire to cause ridicule or suffering, there is nothing ideological about the way digital mobs organize themselves at the first hint of a public figure’s downfall. The digital mob’s most distinctive attribute is the speed at which thousands of participants can be spontaneously whipped up into an irrational frenzy. Once released, the ensuing tidal wave of damage is nearly impossible to contain. In the days before social media, such activities would take place within the geographic constraints of a street corner, city park or town square. Today it takes only a single, well-timed tweet or an anonymous blog comment to publicly eviscerate someone’s reputation.

SocratesLisa McElroy’s piece in the Washington Post resembles a latter-day version of Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates declares that the wisdom of all philosophy begins with a sincere admission of ignorance. Her most poignant statement is one she never makes: how or why she had access to that link in the first place. Perhaps that’s not the point, as some journalists have suggested, if we choose to believe that what happens in the privacy of one’s own home or IP address is nobody else’s business. Still, we can always expect conjecture to play a strong role in identifying why and how these things happen. David Lat of Above the Law offers an interesting hypothetical: perhaps McElroy’s gender and personality contributed to the story becoming a bigger spectacle than originally warranted:

“One can’t help wondering whether the schadenfreude surrounding ‘Beadgate’ reflects student antipathy towards a less-than-popular professor, whether ‘tough’ women professors get a bad rap, and whether students would have tattled to the administration about a more well-liked member of the faculty … we all have our private vices and we all make mistakes.”

At worst, one could argue that McElroy’s “mistake” was to reveal herself as a sexual human being with poor proofreading skills. One could also argue that McElroy’s piece in the Post smacks of self-righteous opportunism. (Comparing the recovery periods of public humiliation and cancer, while well-intentioned, may not solicit favorable empathy from all members of her audience.) That said, these supposed transgressions certainly don’t position her accusers on a higher plane of moral immunity. Wrong behavior should be punished; however, the consequences of wrong choices worsen inexorably under heightened examination and scrutiny. The fairness of that social dynamic is as questionable as the acts that inspire it.

entropyLike all forms of energy, the attention surrounding Lisa McElroy’s email will disperse in time. Physicists tell us that energy is more likely to diffuse into the atmosphere than be concentrated into one location; they call it “the arrow of time.” They also tell us that entropy occurs naturally, allowing for a degree of randomness in terms of how and where thermal energy will next be collected. This is an overly scientific way of saying that what happened to Lisa McElroy could potentially happen to anyone. At least she had the benefit of being part of an academic community, limiting the field of propagators to an identifiable group. This was an opportunity that Socrates did not enjoy:

The main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought … all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.