Toward a Theory of Critical Computing: The Case of Social Identity Representation in Digital Media Applications



D. Fox Harrell

The affordances of the computational medium offer particular means through which social and cultural critique can be posed. I have introduced the term “polymorphic poetics” as the computational means through which computational representations of imaginative semantic constructs become dynamic, interactive, and generative. Here, I propose polymorphic poetics as a means to enable “critical computing.” As a case study, I present recent work theory and technology for developing empowering, transformative, and critical representations of users’ identities such as player characters, avatars, or social networking profiles. Current representations are typically inadequate for conveying subjective social identity experiences and fail to engage diverse insights regarding social categorization and identity construction from cognitive science and cultural theory. Hence, computational social identity representation infrastructures often reinforce stereotyped identity construction and experience patterns as opposed to allowing for critical identity construction. I provide an account of this phenomenon and propose new technologies to do better.

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