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Mobilizing Controversy

In Summer 2021, 25 USC students, faculty, and Los Angeles community members met once-weekly to discuss a series of projects concerning the theme of "Changing Infrastructures" (CFP here). These weekly meetings comprised of generative discussions, presentations of works-in-progress, and interdisciplinary collaboration across schools, departments, and areas of expertise, culminating in final presentations in a variety of forms.

Of bread and time: temporal mending practices under quarantine (Andrea Alarcon, Soledad Altrudi, Ashton Cooper, & Frances Corry)

The pandemic has brought competing understandings of time to the fore as people everywhere grapple with slippery sensations of temporality. Do we have an abundance of time, with few plans to fill it? Is time the same as it always was, with the calendrical march of rent checks and bills due? Or has time sped up with its ever-greater demands, from homeschooling children to back-to-back teleconferencing?

Taking the COVID-19 crisis as a fruitful context to explore contending discourses of time vis-a-vis fluctuating notions of production, consumption, labor and leisure, our project looks to the practice of homemade sourdough bread baking during quarantine to ask questions about the ways in which time becomes tangible and gets re-ordered. Specifically, we focus on homemade sourdough bread baking—a popular activity when time at home felt long and bread at grocery stores was scarce—and examine the ways in which this practice, with its demanding and ritualized schedules, became an outlet for temporal control and non-human care.

Through semi-structured interviews with Instagram users who have posted about their homemade sourdough bread baking, we explore how bread-baking has served as a means to structure participants’ days when the boundaries between formerly distinct time and space arrangements had seemingly dissolved. Ultimately, we articulate bread baking as a 'time-mending practice,' one that, by allowing individuals to exert control through the external demands of sourdough bread, attempts to fix time when it feels so suddenly torn apart–despite its common external markers remaining unaltered.

Pandemic Pleasures: Queer Sex and Dating During Covid-19 (Nathan Bartley, Lee Kezar, Daniel Lark, & Christopher J. Persaud)

At the beginning of the pandemic’s spread around the United States, we became interested in how queer social and sexual life was shifting in response, particularly among gay male users of hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff. How were queer people’s sexual practices changing? How did queer people talk about sex and dating on social media? How were hookup apps, typically structured around facilitating face-to-face meetups, responding to public health demands and emerging norms around appropriate social distancing? What resources did these apps produce or make available? What affordances did they change?

To answer some of these questions, we took an interdisciplinary approach (view the full report here).

“I always feel like somebody's watchin' me:” A Handbook for Facial Recognition Considerations at USC (Stefanie Demetriades, Jillian Kwong, Colin Maclay, Ali Rachel Pearl, & Noy Thrupkaew)

This group created a handbook on facial recognition (FR) technology, which is intended to serve as a guide to the issues surrounding FR—including an analysis and subsequent rationale for banning FR—for university administrators and stakeholders as they work to make informed decisions about facial recognition in their classrooms and communities. We know that universities will have to return over and over again to decisions around whether or not to adopt new technologies, and we hope that this guide will serve as a blueprint and provide administrators with tools for evaluating the hidden risks of adopting future, as-yet-undeveloped technologies.

Viral Vocabularies (Hamsini Sridharan, Pamela Perrimon, Azeb Madebo, Sharon Zhang, Kyooeun Jang, & Mehitabel Glenhaber

The Covid-19 pandemic has become a site in which multiple sociotechnical controversies are enacted. Focusing on the language of the pandemic allows us to examine how the vocabularies used by communities to discuss the virus reflect the social, political, and technological tensions of this moment. Our project is inspired by Raymond Williams’ groundbreaking text, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which maps the contested meanings and deployments of canonical terms in cultural studies. This project documents the messy, brave new world that our linguistic practices have mutated to accommodate; we ask, what do viral vocabularies do besides communicate? In what ways do their variegated uses obfuscate or reveal the dynamics of pandemic in a profoundly unequal world? We seek to develop an understanding of the dynamic lexicons of the Covid-19 pandemic informed by news coverage and social media discourse in 2020. Each entry in our "atlas" defines and traces the polysemic sociocultural etymologies of words and phrases associated with the pandemic.

Facial Recognition in Public Discourse (Hamsini Sridharan, Ho-Chun Herbert Chang, Sulagna Mukherjee, Becky Pham, Mehitabel Glenhaber)

Facial recognition technologies have received increasing public attention and scrutiny in recent years. In this working group, we explore the surging public controversy surrounding facial recognition tech by mapping imaginaries of the technology across science fiction, news media, patents, and activist responses. Specifically, our team was driven by the question: How have science fiction, news coverage, and other sorts of public conversations, both fictional and non-fictional, led us to our current framings of and concerns about these issues? Our research combined quantitative and close-reading based approaches to identify themes of concern across these sites, including surveillance and civil liberties; foreign and domestic concerns; private (corporate) vs. government control; and issues of bias, error, and discrimination.