Implausipod E0012 – AI Reflections

AI provides a refection of humanity back at us, through a screen, darkly. But that glass can provide different visions, depending on the viewpoint of the observer. Are the generative tools that we call AI a tool for advancement and emancipation, or will they be used to further a dystopic control society? Several current news stories give us the opportunity to see the potential path before us leading down both these routes. Join us for a personal reflection on AI’s role as an assistive technology on this episode of the Implausipod.


 On the week before August 17th, 2023, something implausible happened. There was a news report that a user looking for, can’t miss spots in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, would be returned some unusual results on Microsoft’s Bing search. The third result down on an article from MS Travel suggested the users could visit the Ottawa food bank if they’re hungry, that they should bring an appetite.

This was a very dark response, a little odd, and definitely insensitive, making one wonder if this is done by some teenage pranksters or hackers, or if there was a human involved in the editing decisions at all. Because initial speculation was that this article – credited to Microsoft Travel – may have been entirely generated by AI.  Microsoft’s subsequent response in the week following was that it was credited due to human error, but doubts remain, and I think the whole incident allows us to reflect on what we see in AI, and what AI reflects back to us… about ourselves, which we’ll discuss in this episode of the ImplausiPod.

Welcome to the ImplausiPod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible, and today on episode 12, we’re gonna peer deeply into that glass, that formed silicon that makes up our large language models and AI, and find out what they’re telling us about ourselves.

Way back in episode three, which admittedly is only nine episodes but came out well over a year ago, we looked at some of the founding figures of cyberpunk and of course one of those is Philip K Dick, who’s most known for Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, which became Blade Runner, and now The Man in the High Castle, and other works which are yet un-adapted, like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, but one of his most famous works was of course A Scanner Darkly, which had a Rotoscoped film version released in 2006 starring Keanu Reeves. Now, the title, of course, is a play on words from the biblical verse from One Corinthians where it’s phrased as looking “through a glass darkly”, and even though there’s some ambiguity there, whether it’s a glass or a mirror, or in our context, a filter, or in this case a scanner or screen. With the latter two being the most heavily technologized of all of them, the point remains, whether it’s a metaphor or a meme, that by peering through the mirror, the reflection that we get back is but a shadow of the reality around us.

And so too, it is with AI. The large language models, which have been likened to “auto-complete on steroids”, and the generative art tools (which are like procedural map makers that we discussed in a icebreaker last fall) have gained an incredible amount of attention in 2023. But with that attention has come some cracks in the mirror, and while there is still a lot of deployment of them as tools, they’re no longer seen as the harbinger of AGI or (artificial) general Intelligence, let alone super intelligence that will lead us on a path through a technological singularity. No, the collection of programs that have been branded as AI are simply tools what media theorist Marshall McCluhan called “Extensions of Man”, and it’s with that dual framing of the mirror held extended at our hand that I wanna reflect on what AI means for us in 2023.

So let’s think about it in terms of a technology. In order to do that, I’d like to use the most simple definition I can come up with; one that I use as an example in courses I’ve taught at the university. So follow along with me and grab one of the simplest tools that you may have nearby. It works best with a pencil or perhaps a pair of chopsticks, depending on where you’re listening.

If you’re driving an automobile, please don’t follow along and try this when you’re safely stopped. But take the tool and hold it in your hands as if you were about to use it, whether to write or draw or to grab some tasty sushi or a bowl of ramen. You do you. And then close your eyes and rest for a moment.

Breathe and then focus your attention down. To the tool in your hands, held between your fingers and reach out. Feel the shape of it, you know exactly where it is, and you can kind of feel with the stretch of your attention, the end of where that might actually exist. The tool has now become part of you, a material object that is next to you and extends your senses and what you are capable of.

And so it is with all tools that we use, everything from a spoon to a steam shovel, even though we don’t often think of that as such. It also includes the AI tools that we use, that constellation of programs we discussed earlier. We can think of all of these as assistive technologies, as extensions of ourselves that multiply our capabilities. And open your eyes if you haven’t already.

So what this quick little experiment is helpful in demonstrating is just exactly how we may define technology. Here using a portion of McLuhan’s version. We can see it as an extension of man, but there have been many other definitions of technology before. We can use other versions that focus on the artifacts themselves, like Fiebleman’s  where tech is “materials that are altered by human agency for human usage”, but this can be a little instrumental. And at the other extreme, we can have those from the social construction school like John Laws’ definition of “a family of methods for associating and channelling other entities and forces, both human and non-human”. Which when you think about it, does capture pretty much everything relating to technology, but it’s also so broad that it loses a lot of the utility.

But I’ve always drawn a middle line and my personal definition of technology is it’s “the material embodiment of an artifact and its associated systems, materials, and practices employed to achieve human ends”. I think we need to capture both the tool and the context, as well as the ways that they’re employed and used, and I think this definition captures the generative tools that we call AI as well. If we can recognize that they’re tools used for human ends and not actors with their own agency, then we can change the frame of the discussion around these generative tools and focus on what ends they’re being used for.

And what they’re being used for right now is not some science fictional version, either the dystopic hellscapes of the Matrix or Terminator, or on the flip side, the more utopic versions, the one, the “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that we’d see in the post scarcity societies of like a Star Trek: The Next Generation, or even Iain M. Banks’ the Culture series.  Neither of these is coming true, but those polls – that ideation, these science fiction versions that kind of drive our collective imagination of the publics, the social imaginaries that we talked about a few episodes ago – these polls represent the two ends of that continuum, of that discussion, that dialectic between utopic and dystopic and the way we frame technology.

As Anabel Quan-Haase notes in their book on Technology and Society, those poles: the utopic idea of technology achieving progress through science, and the dystopic is technology as a threat to established ways of life, are both frames of reference. They could both be true depending on the point of view of the referrer. But as we said, it is a dialectic. There is a dialogue going back and forth between these two poles continually. So technology in this case is not inherently utopic or dystopic, but we have to return again to the ends that the technology is put towards: the human ends. So rather than utopic or dystopic, we can think of technology being rather emancipatory or controlling, and it’s in this frame, through this lens, this glass that I want to peer at the technology of AI.

The emancipatory frame for viewing these generative AI tools view them as an assistive technology, and it’s through this frame, this lens that we’re going to look at the technology first. These tools are exactly that: they are liberating, they are freeing. And whenever we want to take an empathetic view of technology, we wanna see how they may be used by others who aren’t in our situation.  And that situations means they may be doing okay, they might be even well off, but they may also be struggling. There may be issues that they, or challenges that they have to deal with on a regular basis that most of us can’t even imagine. And this is where my own experience comes from. So I’ll speak to that briefly.

Part of my background is when I was doing my field work for my dissertation, I was engaged with a number of the makerspaces in my city, and some of them were working with local need-knowers or persons with disabilities like the Tikkun Olam Makers, as well as the Makers Making Change groups. These groups worked with persons with disabilities to find solutions to their particular problems.  problems that often there wasn’t a market solution available because it wasn’t cost effective. You know, the “Capitalist realism” situation that we currently are under means that a lot of needs, especially for marginal groups, may go unmet. And these groups came together to try and meet those needs as best they could through technological solutions using modern technologies like 3D printing or microcontrollers or what have you, and they do it through regular events, whether it was a hackathon or regular monthly meetup groups or using the space provided by a local makerspace. And in all these cases, what these tools are are liberating to some of the constraints or challenges that are experienced in daily life.

We can think of more mainstream versions, like a mobility scooter that allows somebody with reduced mobility to get around and more fully participate within their community to meet some of the needs that they need on a regular basis, and even something as simple as that can be really liberating for somebody who needs it. We need to be cognizant of that because as the saying goes, we are all at best just temporarily able, and we never know when a change may be coming that could radically change our lives. So that empathetic view of technology allows us to think with some forethought about what may happen as if we or someone we love were in that situation, and it doesn’t even have to be somebody that close to us. We can have a much more communal or collective view of society as well.

But to return to this liberating view, we can think about it in terms of those tools, the generative tools, whether they’re for text or for art, or for programming, or even helping with a little bit of math.  We can see how they can assist us in our daily lives by either fulfilling needs or just allowing us to pursue opportunities that we thought were too daunting. While the generative art tools like Dall-E and Midjourney have been trained on already existing images and photographs, they allow creators to use them in new and novel ways.

It may be that a musician can use the tools to create a music video where before they never had the resources or time or money in any way, shape, or form to actually pursue that. It allows them to expand their art in a different realm. Similarly, an artist may be able to create stills that go with a collection or you know, accompany their writing that they’re working on, or an academic could use it as slides to accompany a presentation, something that they’ve spent time on, or a YouTube video, or even a podcast and their title bars and the like (present company included). My own personal experience when I was trying to launch this podcast was there was all this stuff I needed to do, and the generative art tools, the cruder ones that were available at that time, allowed some of the art assets to be filled in, and that barrier to launch, that barrier to getting something going was removed.

So emancipatory, liberating, even though at a much smaller scale, those barriers were removed and it allowed for creativity to flow in other areas, and it works similarly across these generative tools, whether it’s putting together some background art or a campaign map or a story prompt. If you need some background for a characters that are part of a story as an NPC, as a Dungeon Master, or what have you, or even just to bounce or refine coding ideas off of, I mean, the coding skills are rudimentary, but it does allow for something functional to be produced.

And this leads into some of the examples I’d like to talk about. The first one is from a post by Brennan Stelli on Mastodon on August 18th, where he said that we could leverage AI to do work, which is not being done already because there’s no budget time or knowhow.  There’s a lot of work that falls into this space of stuff that needs to be done, but you know, is outside of scope of a particular project. This could include something like developing the visualizations that will allow him to better communicate an idea in a fraction of the time, you know, minutes instead of hours that would normally take to do something like that, and so we can see in Brennan’s experience that it mirrors a lot of our own.

The next example’s a little bit more involved in an article written by Pam Belluck and published on the New York Times website on August 23rd, 2023. She details how researchers have used predictive text as well as AI generated facial animations that help with an avatar and speech that assist the stroke victim in communicating with their loved ones.

And the third example that hit a little bit closer to home was that of a Stanford research team that used the BCI or brain computer interface, along with AI assisted predictive text generation to allow a person with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS (to talk) at a regular conversational tempo, the tools read the neural activity that would be combined with the facial muscles moving and that is allowed to be translated into text. These are absolutely groundbreaking and amazing developments and I can’t think of any better example that shows how AI can be an assistive technology.

Now most of these technologies are confined to text and screen, to video and audio, and often when we think of AI, we think of mobility as well. So the robotic assistants that have come out of research labs like that of Boston Dynamics have attracted a lot of the attention, but even there, we can see some of the potential as an assistive technology. The fact that it’s confined to a humanoid robot means we sometimes lose sight of that fact, but that is what it is. In the video that they released in January of 2023, it shows an Atlas Robot as an assistant on a construction site providing tools and moving things around in aid of the human that’s the lead on the project, so it allows a single contractor working on their own to extend what they’re able to do, even if they don’t have access to a human helper. So it still counts as an assistive technology, even though we can start to see the dark side of the reflection through this particular lens, that the fact that an emancipatory technology may mean emancipation from the work that people currently have available to them.

In all of these instances, there’s the potential for job loss, that the tools would take the place of someone doing that, whether it’s in writing or as an artist, or a translator, or transcriber, or a construction assistant, and those are very real concerns. I do not want to downplay that, Part of our reflection on AI has to take these into account that the dark side of the mirror (or the flip side of the magnifying glass) can take something that can be helpful and exacerbate it when it’s applied to society at large. The concerns about job loss are similar to concerns we’ve had about automation for centuries, and they’re still valid. What we’re seeing is an extension of that automation into realms that we thought were previously exclusively bound to, you know, human actors: creators, artists, writers and the like.

This is why AI and generative art tools are such a driving and divisive element when it comes to the current WGA and SAG-Aftra strikes: that the future of Hollywood could be radically different if they see widespread usage. And beyond just the automation and potential job loss, a second area of concern is the one that ChatGPT and the large language models don’t necessarily have any element of truth involved in it, that they’re just producing output linguists like Professor Emily Bender of the University of Washington and the Mystery AI Hype Theater Podcast have gone into extensive detail about how the output of ChatGPT cannot be trusted. It has no linkage to truth, and there’s been other scholars that have gone into the challenges with using ChatGPT or LLMs for legal research or academic work or anything along those lines. I think it still has a lot of potential and utility as a tool, but it’s very much a contested space.

And the final area of contestation that we’ll talk about today is the question of control. Now, that question has two sides: the first is the control of that AI. One that most often surfaces in our collective imaginary is that idea of rogue super intelligences or killer robots gets repeated in TV, film, and our media in general, and this does get addressed at an academic level and works like Stuart Russell’s Human Compatible and Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence.  They both address the idea of what happens if those artificial intelligences get beyond human capacity to control them.

But the other side of that is the control of us, control of society. Now, that gets replicated in our media as well, and everything from Westworld, to the underlying themes of the TV series Person of Interest, where The Machine is a computer system, developed to help detect and anticipate and suppress terrorist action using the tools of a post 9-11 surveillance state that it has access to.

And ever since Gilles Deleuze wrote his Postscript on the Societies of Control back in 1990, that so accurately captured the shift that had occurred in our societies from the sovereign societies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance through to the disciplinary societies that typified the 18th and 19th century, through to the shift that occurred in the 20th and 21st century to that of a control society where the logics of the society was enforced and regulated by computers and code. And while Deleuze was not talking about algorithms and AI in his work, we can see how they’re a natural extension of what he was talking about, how the biases that are ingrained within our algorithms, what Virginia Eubanks talked about in her book Automating Inequality, and how our biases and assumptions that go into the coding and training of those advanced system can manifest in ways, including everything from facial recognition to policing, to recommendation engines on travel websites that suggest that perhaps should go to the food bank to catch a meal.

Now there’s a twist to our Ottawa food bank story, of course. About a week after Microsoft came out and said that the article had been removed and that it had been identified that the issue was due to human error and not due to an unsupervised AI. But even with that answer, there are those who are skeptical: because it didn’t happen just once. There was a lot of articles where such weird or incongruous elements showed up. And of course, this being the internet, there was a number of people that did catch the receipts.

Now there’s a host of reasons of what might be happening with these bad reviews. Some plausible and some slightly less so. It could be just an issue of garbage in garbage out that the content that they’re scraping to power the AI is drawing articles that already exist that are, you know, satire or meme sites. If the information that you’re getting on the web is coming from Something Awful or 4chan, then you’re gonna get some dark articles in there. But the other alternative is that it could be just hallucinations that have been an observed fact that has been happening with these AIs and large language models that, uh, incidents like we saw with the Loa B that we talked about in an icebreaker last year are still coming forward in ways that are completely unexpected and out of our control.

That scares us a little bit because we don’t know exactly what it’s going to do. When we look at the AI through that lens, like in the mirror, what it’s reflecting back to us is something we don’t necessarily want to look at, and we think that it could be revealing the darkest aspects of ourselves, and that frightens us a whole lot.

AI is a reflection of our society and ourselves, and if we don’t like what we’re seeing, then that gives us an opportunity to perhaps correct things because AI, truth be told, is really dumb right now. It just shows us what’s gone into building it. But as it gets better, as the algorithms improve, then it may get better at hiding its sources.

And that’s a cause for concern. We’re rapidly reaching a point where we may no longer be able to tell or spot a deepfake or artificially generated image or voice, and this may be used by all manner of malicious actors. So as we look through our lens at the future of AI , what do we see on our horizon?

Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7.

Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating Inequality. Macmillan.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The New American Library.

Quan-Haase, A. (2015). Technology and Society: Social Networks, Power, and Inequality. Oxford University Press.

Russell, S. (2019). Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control. Viking.


Implausipod E0011 – Media, Mailbag, and Paths Not Yet Taken


This episode covers a number of short segments, starting with some thoughts on the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike actions and what that means for Media Consumption (and commentary), as well as a dive into feedback and mail that the channel has received over the last year, addressing questions from the most important part of this show: the listeners.


 Welcome to the ImplausiPod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible, and in this episode number 11, we’re gonna dive into the mailbag a little bit and discuss some questions that have been asked since we’ve launched the channel, including media, and how to discuss it in 2023, and future directions that we might be taking here on the channel.

So are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin. See, I wanted to start with a riddle here. If movie A makes a billion dollars in the first three weeks of its release, and movie B makes half a billion dollars, then how much longer are the studios, which take 50% plus of the profits of those films able to at the strike?

It’s an interesting question, and I kind of want to know because outside of a full media boycott, I don’t see the strike ending anytime soon since SAG-AFTRA joined the Writer’s Guild in the middle of July 2023. There’s been a lot of work stopped, obviously, but a lot of that’s for future production, stuff that won’t be showing up for months or even years. 

And we as humans can be collectively very bad at delayed gratification and also linking the consequences of current actions to future outcomes. I mean, not all of us and not all the time, but something-something climate change too, right? So we can see how this could drag on for quite some time. And while it’s dragging on, it’s going to impact a lot of individuals that are outside of the guilds that are striking; workers whose income is also tied to their labor in and around Hollywood, and currently have few options for meaningful employment.  So in order to have solidarity with all those workers, haven’t been consuming any media.

As we hinted at in episode eight, in the era of the audience commodity. If every post is promotion, whether it’s on YouTube or in a blog, or here on a podcast, then talking about current or recent shows is still gonna drive business and engagement for those struck studio.  So I’m not gonna talk about it now. The WGA and SAG after leadership is not calling for a general media boycott, but I can still not watch things if I don’t want to or don’t want to talk about ’em. So I’m not gonna, I mean, I kind of do, as we had discussed both Westworld and The Peripheral on the show before, and there’s a couple other series that we have that we’re taking a look at that we’d like to publish on once the strike is over. But that in any current or future media commentary is going to have to wait. And by current, I mean like the last five years or so. ’cause that’s directly involved with the struck studios.

So what does that mean for the podcast? Well, for the coverage of shows like the Peripheral in Westworld, they’ll just have to wait. I’ll record some episodes based on my notes, but as you’ll notice from listening to those episodes, we weren’t really doing a recap – that isn’t the goal of this show. There’s a challenge with doing the kind of analysis we’re doing and linking the themes of the episodes to the broader literature that’s out there on a live week-to-week basis.  Now, I think the process has improved here, and we might be able to do that at some point in the future, but I’m not interested in doing recaps. There’s hundreds of places you can get those, and I think that is not the strength of what we can bring to the table here. I think for The Peripheral we’ll be able to get those up and get those out before a season two happens, ’cause by then the strike will obviously be over.

And for Westworld, I’ll admit, when it was announced that it would be canceled and there would be no season five, a lot of the air went out of my enthusiasm balloon for getting those episodes done. I was feeling pretty deflated, to be honest, and it took a little while to get back going again.

But the current events that have been happening with the advance of large language models and generative AI and their focus in the general public in the discussion. Right now, the linkages between Westworld and that are so strong that I do wanna still cover it and come back to it. I was looking at some of my old episode transcripts for stuff that had been recorded but not released yet, especially for episode four, which I had titled “Creativity”, and seeing the discussions around creativity and the AI, the generative tools we have and whether they’re creative or not, um, I, I think we need to talk about it. So we will focus on those themes of the episode, and we’ll come back to the episodes proper at some point in. Observant listeners will notice that I did say “current” media, so that’s one of our mailbag questions.

So why don’t we shift to that right now?

(Parents don’t let your kids have unsupervised access to ProTools.)

Question one: what exactly am I doing here? Is it media archeology or contemporary anthropology? And that’s a fantastic question, and the answer is yes. And if media archeology is understanding new and emerging media through close examination of the past (to use a Wikipedia definition), then that’s absolutely part of what I do, and that’s kind of where my practice is.  It’s a lot of what I did in academia in grad school through my dissertation work that was done there. I was doing field work studying innovators and creators of new technologies and how they’re engaging with the media in their environment.

If contemporary anthropology is the study of the modern human condition and how we deal with modernity, then “also true”. So yes, it’s both. It’s the difference between the study of the artifacts or the study of the actors. And if we’re looking at it from like an ontological lens or a flat ontology, then we gotta be studying both. Then we’ll talk a little bit about that in some of the episodes that are more academically focused going forward.

So does that answer the question about what the channel is about? Well, maybe. I have an idea of where the channel is going in my mind’s eye, but it’s gonna take a little while to put together the pieces and all the various streams of it. So bear with me. It’s gonna be a fun ride. And I think that leads into :

question two, which is what path are you on?  Where is this going?

Well, there’s a number of different paths that we have, a number of different streams. Some of them we’ve touched on like Appendix W and cyberspace, and the media review and the communications and theory discussions that we’ve been having in the last few episodes. Now, some of these overlap, some in more obvious ways than others, but they all converge in an interesting point, and my job is to bring those together for you.

Some of those paths, Appendix W and “Our Dystopian Present” are gonna be ongoing. The Lost Basics of Communication Theory will be coming up time and again as we need it. And other paths, the roads not yet taken, including about 95% of the stuff that I’ve written about academically, which includes innovation, makerspaces, game studies, and cultural archetypes will all be added into the mix where appropriate, and this will become apparent in the upcoming weeks and months.

So the follow up question to that, that I received, question two B, if you will (No pun intended): then why not organize it in a different manner? Why not do seasons or focus it on a specific niche? And the answer to be somewhat oblique is that the medium is the message; that history doesn’t quite work that way – it’s a little bit messy.  It isn’t necessarily serial happening in distinct chunks, and it isn’t necessarily massively parallelizable either. (Sorry, that was a bit of a struggle to say, but I think we got it out.) The point being is that I can’t do six different podcasts on different things each with their own specific focus as just my time and energy isn’t finite, as is finite and it doesn’t really work that well.

So we’re gonna bounce around a bit. So if you’re interested in a wide variety of topics, then please stick around. I’ll do my best to untangle the threads and show how they line up on the blog, or on the YouTube channel and we’ll do periodic updates about where we’re at and what upcoming episodes on various streams are, but it’s just, it’s gonna be the way it is, and that’s just the way that I work.

All I can hope is that you find it interesting and informative and perhaps even entertaining. So the next question I got:

Question three is why am I doing this? What are my sources of inspiration? (There’s another question there, but I’ll leave that unanswered or unaddressed for now.) But I think sources of inspiration are really important.  It can be a motivating factor, but it can speak to our underlying reasoning, ideology, and sometimes the goals that we have working on something and not just as a particular project or a particular person, but culturally and societally as well, which is why a lot of what I look at, whether it’s media archeology or cultural anthropology or communication studies, whatever you want to call it, is focussed on those sources of inspiration.

Because it’s a way to chart where we might be going, especially when we’re headed off into something unknown. And the future is always a bit of an unknown, right? It’s uncharted territory. There are “strange new worlds” out there. So in order to figure out where we’re going into the future, the one thing that we can do, the one thing that separates us from the animals and from the AIs is our imagination, and to use that to the fullest extent that we can.

So I think my sources of inspiration are fairly obvious. I wear them on my sleeve. I’m a Gen Xer. I grew up in the seventies and eighties with, you know, two and a half channels of TV and a library card and an active imagination. So the things I found inspiring in my youth, whether it was history or gaming, or sci-fi or, music or comic books, are still things that continue to inspire me in some way as I’ve grown older.

The challenge when looking back at those sources of inspiration is to not fall back into nostalgia, but to use that as a springboard for where you’re going future. And that’s really what we’re all about here. However, in the interest of fun, I thought I’d just recap what some of those sources of inspiration were.

In the seventies, it included pretty much any sci-fi TV show I could get my hands on, and again, this was on a couple channels of broadcast tv, so it wasn’t necessarily everything. It included some Star Trek, the original series, as well as some more obscure shows like Space 1999, the StarLost, and Six Million Dollar Man.

Granted, the last one wasn’t obscure, but I think collectively they all managed to freak out my impressionable little mind. I also recall reading Novelizations of the Star Trek series by James Blish and other authors, as well as whatever I could get my hands on in the local school library as I got a little older and started reading on my own and included a lot more comic books, including a treasure trove of Mad magazines that were donated and, uh, anything else that had some visual appeal. A lot of Asterisk books too. And the occasional Marvel comic too, though those are few and far between: often, just something to keep me occupied on a road trip.

Into the Eighties, I started playing Dungeons and Dragons, so I started reading a little bit of fantasy. But I wanna be clear here: a lot of the fantasy from the seventies and eighties was _not good_, so maybe we need to go into that here one time. But in any event, I still consumed a lot of sci-fi and the comics started getting better in the mid eighties. I was reading a lot more of it and buying stuff with my own money. I. So able to do that on a more consistent basis, even though there wasn’t that much in the way of sci-fi comic books, things like Micronauts and ROM, but you know, Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated was out there as well. The saving grace was that there was some amazing science fiction being written. Not all of it cyberpunk, but uh, some great stuff there too.

Then into the nineties, we finally started hitting our stride with some decent video games and comic books, some amazing music, and the introduction of the “New Weird” on television, including shows like the XFiles.  And gaming. Gaming had exploded: between the unholy constellation of doom and quake and magic. The gathering early MMOs like UL and EverQuest and Warhammer, gaming, both analog and digital, made up a significant portion of my entertainment, but always with a community, a friend group, or online with other individuals.  It was never a solitary endeavor.

In 2005, I entered academia grad school, and the challenge now is to bring all these disparate threats together. And that leads into:

Question four. If I am doing that, if I’m bringing this all together, why am I making it so hard to find? Why is this podcast not available on iTunes or Spotify or Google Podcasts?

And for part of the answer, you can just check out episode eight. If we have issues with the business practices of some of those players, it would seem hypocritical to engage with for distribution of the product, and that’s especially true when. And how they have commodified music and how they basically pay out to the artists. When it comes to something like iTunes, the issue there is the Walled Garden of Apple’s podcasts to basically make me as a non-Apple user excluded from using it. And while the increased reach would be good, there’s still issues there, right? So maybe that one will get resolved. The Spotify one, most likely will not.

You’ll still be able to find the podcast on the carriers that do carry it, as well as through the Buzzsprout link or on the website once we get that linked to the Buzzsprout page.  In addition, we’re trying to put as much of the information, including the transcripts available on the blog as well.

I’m a firm believer in the POSSE principle when it comes to content creators, and that’s, uh, short for “post on own site, syndicate everywhere”. Which is basically ensuring that the content creator has ownership of that material and it doesn’t get locked behind a walled garden or something that the creator doesn’t have access to. So to that end, we’ll keep doing it on a website that I’m have direct access to, even though it might be hosted somewhere. So the smaller excerpts of the content should be available on multiple sites. We’re not gonna be using a newsletter service like Substack because again, there’s some issues there. And Medium as a paywall is not necessarily great for content either, and I’m kind of opposed to it.

But the forums that we do have some control over, we’ll keep on putting out content on. Now, not every podcast is gonna end up being a YouTube video, but I would like to move some of the content there as well. We’ll keep on working on that. That’s a new skill to learn and we’ll, and I’m looking to get that up on a more regular basis as the audio production elements are starting to get more regular and comfortable.

And finally, contact, you can reach the show at Dr Implausible at implausi dot blog. The link should be in the show notes. We’d be happy to hear from you. If you have any questions or suggestions for topic ideas or something you’d like to hear about, by all means let us know. Reach out.  Otherwise, if you see Dr. Implausible on a social media site, it’s probably me though. We’re not on any of the Facebook owned sites. And that brings us to our final question:

Question five, what’s next? And that is a fantastic question. As we’ve stated, we won’t be focusing on any of the current media during the W G A and SAG after job actions, but we may look at some of the older media, including Appendix W and the cyberpunk literature that have informed our dystopian present, as well as any number of the implausibilities, which have jumped from the pages of science fiction to be manifest in our reality.

But I know the three most recent episodes of each spun off a whole host of follow-up topics, so the snowball sample grows, but sometimes I just gotta follow my bliss and see what strikes my fancy. So I’ll dig into the big bag of topics and I’ll see you in a week or so. Until next time, have fun.

Implausipod E0010 – AOL, Fediverse, and Eternal September


What does the relationship between a 40 year old game console company, and ancient internet protocol, and American Online have to teach us about the current issues faced by new users to the Fediverse? Let’s find out on this episode of the Implausipod.


Welcome to the Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. September is almost on us again, and with it the 30th anniversary of the Endless September, the date when the internet changed forever. Join me on this deep dive on the Implausipod.

So if I told you that a video game service developed for the Atari 2600, back 40 years ago in 1983, had implications for the future of social media in 2023, you’d be like, okay, that sounds a little implausible, but uh, “give it to me straight, doctor, I can take it!” and I’m like, “alright…”. That company, Control Video Corporation would about a decade later as AOL allow its users unfettered access to the nascent internet, especially Usenet, and that has direct parallels to the mass migration of users that were seen in 2023 due to the social media meltdowns of the former Twitter and Reddit, and researchers that are investigating the user experience of that migration are uncovering some things that have parallels to that transition in 1993.  So the lessons learned back then are still relevant to us today.

So this episode will cover all three, the history, the recent research, and how we can apply those lessons learned. So to begin with, let’s take you back to a dark and scary time called the eighties. Ooh, frightening.

In 1982, the Atari 2600 was the absolute market leader in home video game entertainment. It was pretty much everywhere. They had sold about 10 million copies of the VCS in North America, and while there was competitors like ColecoVision, Atari still had like 60% of the market. Now those who know their video game history are aware that 1982 was not the best time to be getting into the market, but at the time things looked rosy. There was an upcoming game called ET that was due to come out for Christmas that year, and things were looking pretty good. Pacman had just sold like 7 million units, and while it didn’t quite replicate the arcade experience (to put it mildly), you know, sales are sales, right?

And it was into this tech landscape that Control Video Corporation was born. What the company was working on was developing a system that would deliver games over telephone lines for the Atari 2600 video game console. The service called Game Line would allow the users to download the game and keep playing it as long as the console stayed on.

It was basically they sold a modem to the users and allowed them to use it. And it’s a reminder that there was a lot of really interesting things happening with computers long before the era of the internet. I mean, you also had like the Mintel system in France that was contemporaneous with this, and I think Mintel will absolutely deserve its own episode in a little while.

But while CVC was getting the product up and running and actually delivering games to customers, they hit a bit of a road bump, and that road bump just happened to look like a landfill out in the New Mexico Desert where all the unsold ET cartridges were dumped. So as the video game console market came to a screeching halt in 83 and 84, CVC began to hemorrhage cash, and by 85 they had reformulated into Quantum Link Corporation, or Quantum Computer Services, and they began to leverage and market their online technologies, which were innovative by all means. And they provided these online services to other computing companies and manufacturers with names like Commodore and Apple and Microsoft, and this ability of theirs to diversify and to provide services to multiple vendors allow them to thrive in a turbulent market where larger competitors that were tied to a particular vendor would fail if that vendor failed.

Quantum Computer Services was able to tailor their product to the various manufacturers that they were dealing with. So you’d have QLink on the Commodore or Apple Link on the Apple machines. And the product that they’re offering was basically what we now think of as an online portal. They were like a BBS front end.  It had graphics and chat and you could do a little bit of research or play some games, which could max out at an amazing 320 by 200 resolution. But often the games were in the text mode version, which is usually 24 across and 21 down, and it just used a lot of built-in sprites and pixels, and it looked a lot like playing DwarfFortress or a retro game like that.

And we can see versions of this portal with a still and everything from Yahoo to Google to Facebook to any of the social media sites. And that kind of gives us a hint of where we’re going with this. But in the meantime, Quantum Computing Services was having some success with the product, and in 1989, they rebranded it as America Online as part of their approach to attract new users to using online computing, and they’re pretty innovative in this approach as well. I mean, there was other competitors like Compuserve, but they focused the AOL experience on the new user, and that paid off because there was a lot more people not using the internet in 1989 than there was anywhere close to it. Computer use, especially online computer use, was very much a minority proposition at this point in time.

We might wanna say that everybody at this point was an early adopter of the internet. I mean, that’s not precisely true based on Roger’s diffusion curve, but it’s close enough, especially when compared to the size of the market now. And one of the ways they approached getting these new users was probably their biggest innovation, which was the mass distribution of their software through the floppy disks.

And I wanna be clear, that was an innovation because marketing innovations totally count. And AOL wasn’t technically superior to any of its competitors, especially the ones on like university campuses and government departments. And the funny thing is, it totally worked, it allowed for a ton of new users because at the time, I mean the floppy disks was still a useful, you could rewrite on them and they cost money at the store. So gather them up and you had something that you could go with. But for a new user that’s unfamiliar with the internet, it was software. All you need is a modem, and here you are, you’re connected and going on the internet as quickly as possible. And when I say “internet”, I wanna be perfectly clear because I’m not sure the air quotes that I’m currently miming are coming through clear over the podcast, but you know what I mean. ’cause it was a walled garden. Using America online in 1990 was a lot like logging on in 2023 and thinking Facebook is the entirety of the internet. I mean, for some users it may as well be, but you know, there’s a bigger world out there. But that being said, Quantum Computer Services was incredibly successful with their America online product and rebranded the company after the product.

In 1991, it became AOL, and at the time AOL was super successful with their floppy disc campaign. They were maintaining growth of anywhere between 36 to as high as like 197% year over year. That’s amazing. For a lot of people, America Online was the internet, but one of those other parts that was outside of its walled garden was Usenet.

Usenet was a distributed discussion forum, think Reddit, but not really owned by anybody and people just ran their servers for it. It used the NNTP protocol, the network can use transfer protocol, and it was really similar to like email, which was using the SMTP or Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. So similar but with like a few extra features that allowed for grouping and threading and, uh, distribution of the messages. Servers running the software would store and forward the messages to other servers in the network so that everybody had a copy that was pretty much local. Now there was rules for it, so not everybody carried everything, but by and large, you could get news or information from around the world depending on what, what the users were posting.  So it was all user generated content in a way similar to TikTok and Twitter and everything else nowadays. It was almost the original social media network, but there was a lot of academic stuff on there as well, because a lot of the servers were on universities. There weren’t that many ISPs out in the world at the time.

One of the big things within NNTP over email was it allowed for threaded communication, so if you’re ever wondering where Facebook got the idea for their current app, well there’s a hint. Over time, the group self-organized based on topic and interest and a culture of the internet kind of grew up around it.

There was a hierarchy to it where you had higher level domains that were structured around broad interest groups like comp or sci, or news or rec, and then lower-level domains that were more specific to a given topic like science fiction or wrestling or Linux or whatever. Some of these news groups were moderated, but most weren’t, and because of the way they were structured, they were very much those recursive Publix that we talked about in the last episode. NNTP was originally proposed in 1979 and became the dominant form throughout the eighties. It was basically what the internet was, along with bulletin-board systems and a few other servers.

And because of this, it developed a culture all of its own. A lot of the things that are still central to how we deal with things online, like flaming and spam, and FAQs all came from Usenet. The fact that some of those enduring elements are kind of negative maybe speaks a little bit to what the culture was like. Even though it was all text-based, it could be on occasion incredibly toxic. The lineage to 4chan is probably closer than a lot of your more highbrow forums. And when I say all text-based for the purpose of this discussion, I’m not getting into the binaries news groups at all. We’re just really focusing on the conversation now because these servers were mostly academic and a culture had developed around them.

Every year something wonderful happened, and that is in September, there was a bunch of new admissions to university who got access to the internet or to Usenet for the very first time, came online and started talking like they owned the place. And all of a sudden, the Flame Wars started developing again, as people got told. In a text-based forum, your options for communication are somewhat limited, so the communication could be somewhat terse, and your options for going to another server or rolling your own are well, “Hypothetically” there: you could engage with the protocol, set up a server; but at the time, and especially given the cost of these things, it was highly unlikely and there’s few limited commercial options. 

You had your CompuServe, or Prodigy or Delphi, but really there wasn’t a lot of options that you could use to get onto Usenet unless you had access through your institution, so people either learned and became accustomed to it, and over the month or two, you know, by November you became good net citizens or they left.  And when they left, they left. For other systems that had different cultures, either a BBS or like the private walled gardens, like the ones run by AOL. And that was fine. People could find a place where they fit in a cyberspace, where the culture worked for them and, you know, go about their business of being online.

This changed in 1993. As we said earlier, AOL was experiencing massive growth, and in September of 1993, they opened up the floodgates by allowing full access to Usenet for all their customers. So the influx of newbies far exceeded the capacity for the community to bring new people in and acculturate them to the process of the way things were done.  And so things kind of changed. Forever.

This was the Eternal September, and for the rest of the nineties UseNet that was radically different than what it was before.

So if that’s where we were in 1993, what does that have to do with now? What does a 30 year old change in the internet have anything to say about social media in the 21st century? Well, let’s run through it at a high level:

We have a distributed system of servers, running communication groups that are mostly text-based with an incumbent population, and they’re dealing with an influx of new users coming from various online communities that have different cultures, and they’re struggling to deal with the changes.

Well, let me ask you, does that description cover Usenet in 1993, or Mastodon and the larger Fediverse in 2023 following the implosion of Twitter and Reddit? Right. Maybe they’re a lot more similar than we think. So the lessons learned from the 1993 Endless September may have some implications for how the Fediverse can deal with incoming new users in 2023 and beyond because the Fediverse, and Mastodon in particular, are not without their problems.

It’s a relatively young protocol with ActivityPub being developed in 2018, and for the most part of that, it’s had relatively small user count, similar in a lot of ways to Usenet back in the nineties. And for the most part, the implementations that are built on top of the ActivityPub Protocol are trying to replicate various other social media sites or networks in a more open or friendly or accessible way to break out of the walled gardens of Facebook or Reddit or Twitter, in a similar way that AOL was a walled garden back in 1991. While some of these implementations are focused on videos or images like PeerTube or PixelFed, I’m gonna focus on the text-based ones like Lemmy, kbin, and most notably Mastodon.

Mastodon is one of the Twitter-style micro blogging implementations of the ActivityPub protocol in the FediVerse, and it’s the most prominent one. In 2022, following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, it saw a significant spike in its user base. The number of people that were looking for ABE, or Anything But Elon, found Mastodon (including yours truly, even though I wasn’t a significant Twitter user for the prior 15 years).

In 2022, not being on Twitter seemed prudent, but for people looking for ABE, Mastodon isn’t the only option. There are other alternatives like BlueSky, which is a new Microblogging service currently in beta, headed up by Jack Dorsey, the former honcho of Twitter, and there are some users that have moved to BlueSky as an alternative to Twitter who found that Mastodon wasn’t the thing for them, that BlueSky presented a more “Twitter-like” experience.

And for an example of some of the reasons why users might have opted for BlueSky instead of Mastodon, writer Erin Kissane did a survey of some of those “ex-Mastodon, now BlueSky” users and posted them to their blog. The piece is titled “Mastodon is easy and fun, except when it isn’t”, and it’s a really excellent piece that they posted up on July 28th, 2023, and in the Post, Erin includes some of the excerpts, the thick description that we’d expect to see in some qualitative research. And as I know from my own research in grad school that description is really where the meat of the responses can lie, and it allows you to uncover those insights as to what’s actually going on.

Erin groups the responses in four main categories, as well as a fifth meta category. I’ll give you the rough taxonomy right now, they are in order:

One: Got yelled at, felt bad.

Two: Couldn’t find people or interests people didn’t stay.

Three: too confusing. Too much work. Too intimidating.

Four: Too serious. Too boring, anti fun.

And then the meta category is the complicated high stakes decisions that go into the choices that have to be made when you’re engaged with the Fediverse.

So let’s look at those in order with an eye to everything that we’ve previously discussed about AOL and Usenet, as well as the idea of publics and communities online in the previous episode, and we’re gonna break those four into two groups because I think there’s a little bit of natural overlap between groups one and three and two and four.

So for groups one and three, the got yelled at felt bad and the too confusing, too much work, too intimidating group, w absolutely see echoes of Eternal September, the onboarding of new users to usenet and the acculturation process that took place. Now, what Erin captures here is a moment in time, and I want to stress that by way of example: between starting recording this podcast and wrapping it up, which sometimes takes me a day or two, there was a significant change to the Mastodon software with search being added (note: in beta), and that’s been one of the things that’s been discussed for quite some time as a missing feature, but that can also cause problems, s there’s been a lot of debate. Anyways, the point being is that conditions may change, and what we’re talking about at any given point in time may have changed by the time you’re listening to this, whether it’s weeks or months later.

Now, a lot of the scolding that was coming from the incumbent Mastodon users was on content warnings and etiquette, things that have been a bone of contention on various servers and software platforms for forever, for at least the 30 years, since the Endless September, and honestly since the dawn of the internet.  Some of these may be endemic and some of them may be just people overreaching their authority on what other people can do on a given platform, as it may come down to the mods or administrators and what their particular preferences are, but the federated nature of the servers on just one implementation of the ActivityPub on, you know, Fediverse – Mastodon –  means you’re gonna have a lot of different versions of what is acceptable and they may not scale across the entire thing, but finding that out, finding where your particular group is, is speaks to the second half of this, the intimidating and potentially confusing nature of it. But again, this is something that the devs and admins are aware of and making changes to, and in the nine months that I’ve been observing Mastodon, there’s been remarkable improvements in that onboarding process, even though I don’t think it’s still a hundred percent where it needs to be.

Now, as for the second group of responses, the ones that I’ve grouped together, which are Erin’s responses two and four, the “Couldn’t find people or interests” and the “too serious, too boring, anti fun” groups. I think I’ve covered a number of these in my Locally Boring post on the blog, but I’ll go into the details here. 

I recognized a fair amount of my own experiences in the responses that Erin captured in their survey, and what the survey captures is that notion of what I call locally boring, that absent an algorithm or the ability to import a social graph and have a preexisting group of connections, there might not be a lot of content there.  It functions very different, and “it’ being here, Mastodon, and the way it displays the information that’s available. Unless you’re following a specific hashtag or a specific group, you may only be seeing local information and depending on what’s available on your server, that might be not necessarily something you’re interested in.  Now, you’re not tied to the feed from your server, but that might not be initially obvious. It’s a lot like, you know, starting a new online role-playing game and all your friends decide to stay on World of Warcraft, you’re gonna be doing a lot of questing alone, and depending on a combination of your personality and the software, it may be a lot more or less fun.

And if it’s less fun, you’re less likely to stick around. And if you don’t stick around, you’re unlikely to build a community or find one. So depending on your tolerance for these things, your ability to endure through the fallow period, or the “Desert of Boredom”, or whatever you wanna call it, it may be tough to get to the other side and actually reach the Promised Land, but there are some solutions that you can use to mitigate these. 

Now Erin gets into a number of these in that amazing blog post, but I wanted to get into it, especially in context of what we were discussing at the start of the episode: AOL and Usenet. You see, I wanted to provide that context because I think it’s really important to realize that a lot of these issues are not new and that these problems have existed and that solutions have been tried over time.

What we’re seeing with the Fediverse is a period of decentralization in response to the centralization that occurred with the walled gardens of the various social media platforms or what Deleuze would call deterritorialization and reterritorialization, and that this happens cyclically over time, and it’s just the newness of the internet, (even though 30 years can feel like several lifetimes on the internet), but the relative newness of what we call new media on all of its platforms means we’ve only seen a few waves of this. Honestly, given the rapid developments of media as a whole during the 20th and 21st centuries, we often only see it once on any given platform like radio and film and television and the internet, so seeing it twice is kind of interesting, but I digress.

Any of the solutions that have been introduced over time have come with their own host of associated problems, and this is common with any study of technology we see this time and time again, regardless of the sphere. If the problem is discoverability or lack of content in showing up in people’s feeds, then you can use an algorithm to drive that content, but that could be gamed with potentially tragic results.

Similarly, if there’s low engagement, then you can add tools that increase shareability or spreadability, but that can lead to the development of parasocial relationships and potentially stalking and harassment. So there’s always a trade-off, and this is what Erin Kissane notes in their commentary about the meta-topical issues that we see in these spaces, that the divide between health and safety, and personalization and control, can lead to compromises being made that end up satisfying no one. So choices need to be made and in the Fediverse, that often happens at the server or instance level rather than at the aggregate level. Though that can happen as well when changes are made to the software or the apps or the overall user experience.

But it’s an ongoing and recursive process as we discussed last time. So for those making the decisions at those higher levels, maybe – just maybe – something can be learned from America Online of all places, about how they improved on the Usenet process. Back in the day, one of the things that AOL did was basically a process of “McDonaldization for the internet”, to borrow George Ritzer’s term, and what that process is, is a process of rationalization, to borrow a very Weberian approach, and it happens along four main dimensions, which are efficiency, countability, predictability, and control.

What AOL did was really cultivate the experience for that new user, catering to them and developing something that a complete beginner would be able to get working with minimal effort and make it easy enough that they could share it with their friends, becoming Spreadable Media in an era before Spreadable Media. The service had large, easily identifiable buttons and a very predictable interface from the standpoint of the customer. There was very few major version changes and even the minor version changes didn’t really have an appreciable difference in appearance. 

The most unpredictable thing was the connectivity issues that plagued dial up in the nineties, and part of that was just due to the rapid growth that they had and having to bring onboard new servers. But even then, a lot of the service was calculable and knowable. They (the user) could know how much they were gonna be billed for based on time, and engage with it, uh, to the extent that they needed to. AOL minimized the number of options available that were presented to the customer, but still made them available under the hood if needed. And a lot of this beginning experience could be totally ported over to the Fediverse. And here I’m gonna stray away from the site its sources a little bit and talk about more of the overall view of the Fedi verse.

A lot of the existing implementations of the ActivityPub protocol are replicating already existing apps, programs or platforms, there’s a point of confusion, not just on picking the right server on Mastodon, but whether they should be on Mastodon at all as opposed to kbin or Lemmy, or PixelFed or PeerTube or whatever.  From the outside viewer’s perspective, a lot of the different implementations appear to be a distinction without a difference. And if they can all talk to each other, what does it matter that you’re choosing one rather than the other? So it’s a stressor, it’s a point of confusion.

And the other thing that I’d like to point out is an observation. We’ve talked before about how the social web and online platforms in general treat the audience as a commodity and present ads to them. And for the Fediverse that lack of the commodification of self may be the very thing that the audience is missing. It lacks the warm all-encompassing goo of what Michael de Zengotita calls the “blob of post-modernity” or late capitalism. 

Now, I’m in no way arguing for the introduction of advertising on the Fediverse. It is perhaps not a thing to be wistful or nostalgic for. But the Dumpshock that can be felt can be very hard to take, especially for those who have grown up swimming in the flood of capitalist realism. Now, this isn’t a call to action, there’s no need to introduce that. It’s just an observation that the people experiencing that might be feeling something very different when they enter the Fediverse for the first time.

So as September draws near, this has been one of our longest episodes yet. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for hanging around. Hope you’ve enjoyed it and maybe learned a little something. I’d like to give a shout out to some of the sources that I’ve used, including Kara Swisher’s work on AOL from the nineties, Erin Kissane’s blog, as well as a number of other academic texts that I’ve referenced in the bibliography.

As always, I’m your host, Dr. Implausible. The show is licensed under a Creative Commons, share-alike 4.0 license. Music is by me, production is by me, research is by me. You can reach me at drimplausible at implausi dot blog or on whatever Mastodon instance I happen to be on this week. If there’s anything you found interesting or would like me to expand on, please let me know.

But in the meantime, have fun.

Links and References:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.

De Zengotita, T. (2006). Mediated: How the media shapes your world and the way you live in it. Bloomsbury

Kissane, E. (n.d.). Mastodon is easy and fun except when it isn’t—Erin Kissane’s small internet website. Retrieved July 29, 2023, from

Op’tLand, R. (2009). Another Endless November: AOL, WoW, and the Corporatization of a Niche Market. Journal For Virtual Worlds Research, 2(3).

Ritzer, G. (2000). The McDonaldization of society (New Century). Pine Forge Press.

Swisher, K. (1998). How Steve Case beat Bill Gates, nailed the netheads, and made millions in the war for the Web. Random House.

Implausipod EP009: Recursive Publics and Social Media


What are “recursive publics” and “social imaginaries”, how have they impacted the development of the modern internet, and what impact do they have on the state of the internet in 2023 with the implosion of Twitter, Reddit, and the rise of the Fediverse? Stay tuned as we take a 50000 foot view of the rise of the public sphere of geeks.


 Welcome to the Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible, and today we’re gonna follow on from our last episode and stay in the social media sphere and look at the idea of a recursive public, a form of a social imaginary, and see how they’ve impacted the development of the modern internet.

What is a recursive public? Well, if you’re using the internet and if you’re seeing or hearing this, I’m gonna guess you are, you’re impacted by one because recursive publics are the driving force behind a lot of the tools of the internet. And they’re also now driving the future of social media through the ActivityPub protocol.

And I’m also gonna hazard a guess that you’d never even heard of them before, even though the idea has been around for nearly 20 years. So let’s get into it: let’s find out how geeks build communities online and what that means for the future of the internet. Now, when we last spoke, Threads had just come out, Twitter was still called Twitter, and we were worried about Facebook possibly engaging in something called EEE with respect to ActivityPub. Since then, Threads has cut its user base in half, Twitter’s now called X, and Google’s the one engaged in EEE with respect to something called W E I or Web Environment Integrity, which will be D R M on all chromium browsers.

So, we might need to have a look at that sometime in the future, but like Ferris Bueller said: “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” But that was back in the eighties and life was moving way faster now in the 21st century. So let’s try and get caught up a little bit.

While the goal is to be weekly with this, there’s some challenges with that, so I’ll just work on improving my workflow and iterating through a process of, uh, additive manufacturing, so to speak, and getting better over time. We’ll increase the frequency as things improve, but that brings us back to the topic at hand because that idea of improving through iteration is core to what the recursive public is.

What exactly is it? Well, as Christopher Kelty explained in 2005, a recursive public is a group, or rather a particular form of social imaginary through which this group develops the means of their own association and the material form that this imagination takes the technical and legal conditions required for their association.

So, in other words, it’s a bunch of geeks that get together and say: “Hey, how can we use the internet to talk?” and developed tools and processes by which they can get together and talk. It’s a little circular, and those tools can be things like, you know, a chat room or email, but they can also be the underlying tools like the operating system, Linux or something for sharing things like Napster, and those are the things that Kelty was originally looking at, and that kind of makes sense.

But wait a second. You’re asking. What’s a social imaginary? Well, we’re at the risk of defining things by using other things. So, um, let’s drill down a little bit and see if we can get to a base level of understanding. Social imaginaries are ways in which people imagine their social existence and how they fit together with others.

How things go on between them and their fellows, and the expectations that are normally met. And the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations. Now, that’s a direct quote from Charles Taylor in 2004 who described them as meta topical spaces or topical spaces. The place where a conversation takes place, and not just conversation, but also pre 20th century also where like rituals and practices and assembly takes place.

And as I’m talking here, I realize I need to put a pin in that idea of “where a conversation takes place”, and we’ll circle back to that in a little while. But we’re defining things with other things again. So, topical spaces, if that’s where the conversation’s taking place, then who’s having that conversation?

Well, a public. Not the public mind you, just a public, that’s having that conversation. So I think we’re getting somewhere. If we have multiple conversations taking place, then that must be happening in the public sphere and that is where the public is. And when we’re looking at the difference between these publics, we’re looking at the work of Michael Warner who talked about Publics and Counter-publics in 2002.

The public is the social totality. It is, in other words, the social imaginary and that differs from a specific instantiation, which would be a public. Publics are happening all the time. They form, they’re swirling together, they achieve a specific mass and through discursive address, and performed attention in quotes, guilty before dissipating, and either achieving critical mass to become a movement or, you know, drifting off into the either.

So a discussion would be a topical public and a public constituted through the imagined participation in a discussion is a meta topical public, and all of these together, that social totality, they’re engaging in the public’s sphere or this is where the public sphere happens, and if we’re situating those within the public sphere, then that brings us all the way back to Habermas.

Wonderful. I think I’ve managed to make this as clear as mud. Fantastic.

Let’s diagram this out a little bit and see if we can make some sense of all this. Whenever you have a group of people involved in a discussion that creates a topical public, it doesn’t matter whether it’s face-to-face or through the media or online, it’s a public. That’s it. That’s the minimum. We need a public that’s constituted through the imagined participation in that discussion. So that includes the audience basically is a meta topical public, and you can have multiple of those together to create that public.

Each of these discussions amongst the publics occurs in a particular topical space. So if it’s online, we could think of these as like subreddits or discussion forums or ABNs or what have you. And then if you have multiple of those together, it would be a meta topical space. This would be like the platform itself, whether it’s Twitter, Sorry, X, Reddit, Facebook, TikTok. These are what Taylor calls “non-local common spaces”.  And again, that’s particular to the internet, but it happens in broadcast and other media as well. And then if you have a particular group, which can. Change the place of the means of their association. That is a recursive public. And so that’s like your geeks in Linux or what’s happening right now with Mastodon, ActivityPub and the Fediverse in general.

And that was the big change: the way a recursive public, one that’s on the internet, can actually make changes to the way they get together and communicate. You see, those meta topical common spaces had already existed long before the internet, prior to the 18th century. We called them things like the Church and the State.  But in the 18th century, we had the idea of this new social imaginary that showed up. That would become, what was the public sphere? It was the coffee house society. It was the discussion that would take place within the newspapers, the letters to the editor within the salons. So all this happened well before the internet.

What these spaces are is they’re, they bring about by like a common understanding that like, this is how we talk, this is where things take place and this is how we can discuss things. And this public sphere is made up by, it’s like an extra political space, right? It’s not brought about by any legislation or political maneuver, the government or the church, but through the practices and the media of that society, through the way they’re able to communicate with each other, and it’s a self-organizing space through the conversations that are taking place.

One of the things that made it really powerful was that it was seen as apolitical or extra political that it took place away from the discussions of power and had a place that was seen outside of that. Because it’s outside of that power, it has power. Which is kind of weird, I know, but it’s like why you’ll see politicians engage on Twitter or TikTok and try and be trendy just because they need to court the power that’s there in the public sphere.

It’s also why you’ll see like authoritarian states try and fake the existence of a public sphere by having news media or what have you. That gives the appearance that there’s a discussion going on. And there’s amazing scholars that have done work on like, the role of media in Eastern Bloc countries and the like, and how that, you know, legitimizes that power.

But that’s way outside of our point of discussion. The main point is that these social imaginaries, these ways that the public imagines society to be, have existed for a long time. And while it’s classically been defined by the activities like speaking and writing and thinking and having that discussion, we now need to change that a little bit in the internet era and include things like building and coding and compiling and redistributing and sharing and hacking.

And this is what Kelty is arguing, is that this “argument by technology” can create a new way of building a public space, a recursive public. You can contrast this with like a non recursive public, which would be like a newspaper or a political gathering. There’s the organizers or the people who write or publish the newspapers, and occasionally there’s like a letter to an editor or they’ll have somebody get up, but by and large, they’re locked into way that it allows them to engage with the public in the first place.

A recursive public allows for the feedback and for that public to remake the means of that gathering. In their own terms and their own terms include their shared common understanding, the way they imagine the world works. And how do they imagine the world works? How do they come up with the ideology that they share?

Well, myths and narratives and folklore. The shared fictions that they have pre-internet. This would be things like, uh, tall tales like Paul Bunyan or George Washington not being able to tell a lie. Those kinds of things. Anything that would be a fodder for like a Disney movie or TV show. Post internet, this can include things like, you know, the “net treats censorship as damage”, or “show me the code” or the idea of a singularity, or the ideas behind free and open-source software In the general, or even some of the underlying myths about cyberspace or the images and beliefs that go into like the identity of a hacker.

These are all elements that constitute the social imaginary of a recursive public, of a public on the internet. But there’s a twist. And the twist is social media. See, as I said, Kelty was writing in 2005 and he was talking about Napster and Linux, and he did some ethnographic field work with groups that are engaged in that, you know, in different parts of the world.

But, Since 2005, there’s been some changes to how the internet works, so let me read off some names and dates. Facebook, 2004. Reddit 2005, Snapchat, 2005. Twitter, 2006, Instagram 2010 GitHub 2008. YouTube 2005, TikTok or Douyin. 2012, and even the ones like Facebook that were before 2005, before Kelty was writing, were much smaller then.

So when Kelty was writing the internet was a radically different place than it is now in 2023, we’ve had the rise of these platforms, these. Social networks, but within walled gardens that all seek to recreate the public sphere. Having learned some of the lessons from the boom and bust, and from AOL and the other crashes, you could call them all medic topical spaces because they allow for multiple discussions and in their totality make up a public sphere.

Not “the” public sphere because the old public sphere is still there and they still interact with the online one as well, and none of them on their own make up the public sphere are constituted of it, even though just by dint of size, Facebook probably comes close. And it’s within this framework that Elon Musk with his purchase and subsequent rebranding of Twitter tried to buy into and Twitter’s role within it, even though it was smaller than most of the others, was the extent that it was legitimized, because that’s where journalists and academics and politicians would go to have those discussions.

That was where the conversation was taking place. But in 2023, that place has shifted, and this has been going on for a while. In the mid 20 teens, the geeks were chafing at the various restrictions, digital rights management and other, uh, issues with the various walled gardens and platforms. And because the geeks constituted a recursive public, they set about creating their own version of these walled platforms, of these social networks, one that fit their needs better.

They recognize the utility of those social networks and that they could be used for good, but they recognize that there’s also serious limitations with the way they’re constructed and the way they commoditize their audiences, as we discussed last time. So in 2018, the ActivityPub protocol was created and it became a standard upon which new applications and communication networks could be built.

Like a lot of these tools and especially the early Linux tools in the nineties, it’s been worked on part-time by a lot of volunteers, occasionally funded, and even though it’s been a little rough, it’s gotten better over time, over the intervening five years. So in late 2022 when Elon Musk purchased Twitter and in 2023, when Reddit and various other social networks started having massive problems, an alternative existed.

A new recursive public built by the geeks that mirrored some of the forms of the platforms of the previous 15 years of the social networking era. Different but familiar enough that it allowed for use. Thus, once again, the geeks have remade the internet, building a community that they can use, and we are moving.

Into the era of the FediVerse, but we’ll have to explore that in a future episode. For now, let’s wrap this up. I’m Dr. Implausible. It’s been a pleasure to join you. Transcripts should be available on the blog sometime soon, within a day or so, and we’ll also try and get a video version of the this up on the YouTubes.

The whole show is produced under Creative Commons 4.0 Share Alike license. Audio is by me, music is by me, and all the writing and stuff is too. No generative text or large language models have been employed in the production of this episode, and the world is moving pretty fast. So get out there and enjoy it.  Until next time, I’m Dr. Implausible. Have fun.

Anderson, B. R. O. (1991 [2006]). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso.

Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (T. Burger, Trans.). MIT Press.

Kelty, C. (2005). Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics. Cultural Anthropology,_20(2), 185–214. [](

Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Duke University Press.

Warner, M. (2002) “Publics and Counterpublics”. Public Culture 14(1): 49-90.