After many months of anticipation, journalist Adrian Chen’s piece on commercial content moderation as practiced in BPO (business process outsourcing) sites in the Philippines is out in WIRED magazine today. In it, Chen focuses on the employees of a US firm, TaskUs, whose employees are laboring on behalf of Silicon Valley social media startup Whisper and spent time shadowing them on the job.
…Companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.
I consulted with Chen numerous times as he authored this article, drawing from my own research into CCM, a term I coined to differentiate this type of moderation from other, better-known volunteer practices. Between 2012-2013, I conducted several interviews with people working in a variety of CCM settings. CCM is not an industry, per se, but a set of practices that are undertaken in several different sites and contexts: in-house (think on-site, often at a major technology or social media firm); call center (such as the workers in the Philippines interviewed by Chen); boutique (ad agency-style firms that often cover a suite of social media management needs for a brand or company, among them CCM) and micro-labor (CCM tasks broken down into their smallest component parts, and parsed out via digital piecework sites like Mechanical Turk and oDesk).
I am currently at work on a book manuscript focusing on CCM and the workers who undertake it, but if you’d like to read some shorter pieces related to these practices, take a look at my entries here and here. You may also be interested in a few other takes on the topic, including a couple short radio interviews I’ve done, which you can access here.
I’m very pleased by the interest in this important and often unseen labor and the workers who perform these tasks for a living and I look forward to the opportunity to meet and talk with labor activists, artists, and other academics who want to bring invisible digital labor into the light at next month’s #dl14 conference at the New School. Registration is free.
Are you, yourself, a CCM worker or screener, or have you been in the past? Would you be willing to talk with me? If so, please contact me here and I’ll be back in touch as quickly as possible.
I am pleased and honored to announce that I have been asked to serve as one of two keynote speakers at the 2015 Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians’ annual meeting, to be held in Ottawa, ON May 31-June 2, 2015.
The call for papers for this exciting event, whose timely theme is “Academic Librarianship and Critical Practice,” is now available, and I encourage all those interested in the topic and themes represented to consider applying.
From the call:
Practice: Critical practice asks us to consider the role of critical reflection in shaping our approaches to day-to-day professional practice. What do such concrete applications look like? How, for instance, do you apply feminist perspectives to your collections work? What does your library instruction session look like when designed through a critical pedagogy lens? What, more broadly, is the value of such applications of critical reflection?
Theory: Critical practice also points to the practice of critical theory itself – the interrogation of the limits of particular assumptions in academic librarianship and/or the investigation of LIS problems using theoretical frameworks from other disciplines. How, for instance, might postcolonial theory allow us to think more critically about intellectual freedom? What can political economy perspectives tell us about research practice in LIS?
Professional and civic engagement: Critical practice refers to critical exploration of our goals and struggles as a profession, as well their connection to other political goals such as the empowerment of students, faculty, and other members of the community, or the struggle to define universities as public space and research as public good.
Interest piqued? Please check out the complete call for participation, located here. See you in Ottawa in May!
The third in a series of conferences focused on digital labor will take place from November 14-16 in New York City. The event is open to to all and registration is free. Trebor Scholz, the visionary behind the series, shared the following words about his hopes for this fall’s conference, which I have reprinted below.
My vision for #DL14 can be located somewhere between the opening sequence of Chris Marker’s “A Grin Without A Cat” and Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.” Or, perhaps the other way around. It’s about 21st-century labor: the shift away from employment toward contingent work through Uber, TaskRabbit, 99Designs, and Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk. How large is this workforce and which emerging forms of solidarity can we envision? #DL14 questions the ability of traditional unions to protect the ever-larger contingent workforce. And it is about our imagination of novel associations and forms of mutual aid.
#DL14 is also about the crooked language that is used to describe emerging forms of work through the lens of flexibility, sharing, self-reliance, and autonomy. And it centers on workers who get together in any way possible, who form their own cooperatives, and who learn from the encouraging developments in the fast food industry, at Walmart, Occupy, and the domestic labor, and taxi associations. The ultimate goal of #DL14 is to shape new concepts and theories as they relate to, for example, guaranteed basic income, wage theft, and shorter work hours. We also hope to look through the vast landscape of digital labor and identify work practices that are worth supporting.
#DL14 is not solely about radical critique; it is also, simultaneously, about alternatives. In that vein, we hope to establish an advocacy group for the poorest and most exploited workers in the digital economy. Why did Tim Berners-Lee’s Magna Carta for the web ignore the fact that millions of people wake up every day to “go to work” online? Why has the Electronic Frontier Foundation still not taken up digital work?
This isn’t merely an academic event because this discourse has not only been shaped in universities. Philosophers, artists, sociologists, designers, toolmakers, activists, MTurk workers, journalists, legal scholars, and labor historians … all co-shaped the ongoing debate about digital work.
If you are not sure what the hell artists have to do with all this, go back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Alex Rivera’s “Sleep Dealer,” Harun Farocki’s “Workers Leaving the Factory,” or Aaron Koblin’s “10,000 Sheep.”
This is a conversation that also calls for legal scholars to reconsider the definition of employment and the much-debated statutory difference between an employee and an independent contractor. A difference, I might add, that is deeply consequential as independent contractors are stripped of their rights as workers.
#DL14 will give a voice to startups that decided to put in place fair labor conditions. We will, for example, hear from one crowdsourcing upstart that decided to implement a minimum wage floor for their contractors. At #DL14, you will not only hear from workers at UPS and fast food restaurants, you will not only meet farmworkers, taxi drivers, and Mechanical Turk workers; #DL14 will also bring these workers together with computer engineers and other technologists to think through possibilities for worker organization.
#DL14 is set against the background of a blistering social vision of economic inequality. 4 in 10 working Americans earned less than $20,000 in 2012. Almost half of all Americans are economically insecure today; they cannot afford basic needs like housing, childcare, food, healthcare, utilities, and other essentials. The restructuring of the economy away from employment, moving in the direction of contingent work, insidiously circumvents worker rights, in a way that is arguably more damaging than what Reagan and Thatcher did it to miners and flight traffic controllers in the 1980s. This restructuring creates facts on the ground that are an affront to over one hundred years of labor struggles for the 8 hour workday, employer-covered health insurance, minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, workplace harassment, and other protections that had been established through the New Deal to foster social harmony and keep class warfare at bay.
What you can see here is a slight shift from the focus of the exchange that we had five years ago. Since then, there has been a proliferation of publications, artworks, conferences, tools, and workgroups, syllabi, and exhibitions that have taken on the issue of digital labor explicitly. There was concern for the question if digital labor is in fact distinct from traditional forms of labor. For Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Tiziana Terranova, and Antonio Negri (and well, Marx) “to live is to labor.” Life itself is put to work; we are all becoming the standing leave of his or her for capital. The publication of the IPF book came out of that understanding, informed by Italian Operaismo, leading up to an intense fascination with the Facebook exploitation thesis. In retrospect, the idea that we are exploited on Facebook – that what we are doing there is labor in the sense of value creation – is not as urgent in terms of its content but it is still essential as provocation. It is a provocation that leads to an investigation of the digital labor surveillance complex and the instruments of value capture on the Post-Snowden web. The prolific Christian Fuchs has edited a collection of essays focusing in the definition of digital labor. Mark Andrejevic and Fuchs, in particular, have taken up the question of exploitation in the context of predictive analytics and data labor. Adam Arvidsson, also in his latest book The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value After the Crisis, offers counterpoints, claiming that value generation on social networking services is more truthiness than fact. Ethan Zuckerman’s recent rejection of online advertisement, published in The Atlantic, is part of this larger, very necessary debate about the staggering social costs of allegedly free social networking services.
The debate around playbor and value capture took center stage for much of the past five years and it will also continue at #DL14.
In the end surely, #DL14 will be about many things, and you decide what you take away from it. So, if you haven’t done so already, take out your pencil or boot up your calendar: join us at The New School in a few weeks, also to experiment with event formats a little bit.
#DL14 speakers are introducing themselves on the iDC mailing list:
Esteemed Board of Trustees:
My name is Sarah Roberts; I am a University of Illinois alumna and now an Assistant Professor at another institution. On the morning of August 6th, I wrote to Chancellor Wise to share my grave concern over the situation of Steven Salaita, and her unwillingness to honor his signed contract just days before he was set to take up his post, setting his life into upheaval. Appealing to Dr. Salaita’s personal tweet accounts as evidence of his supposed unfitness to take up his promised position – this, in spite of his stellar teaching record and six published monographs – Chancellor Wise set a disturbing precedent that, as I warned in my letter, would have major, deleterious repercussions for the reputation of the University and would resonate loudly throughout the academic community.
Indeed, since the time of my writing over two weeks ago, I have received no response from the Chancellor or anyone associated with her office. My letter, however, has been viewed over 2,100 times (you may view it here) and hundreds followed – by all accounts, also falling upon deaf ears without so much as an acknowledgment of receipt. But the predictions that I laid forth have come true: as of this writing, over 2000 scholars have publicly stated that they will not have any dealings with UIUC until this matter is resolved favorably, and almost 16,000 people have signed a petition demanding Dr. Salaita’s reinstatement.
These numbers are frankly unprecedented. The University of Illinois now finds itself in isolation from the rest of the global academic community. Scholars have written from Italy, France, Canada, India, Great Britain, Spain and elsewhere. They are publicly and loudly rejecting speaking engagements, and canceling those on the schedule, such as the recent high-profile cancellation of a MillerComm lecture, to name but one. They are refusing to provide academic labor, including writing promotion and tenure letters on behalf of University of Illinois faculty. They are turning their backs on talks, programs, guest-lectures, and campus visits. And as one high-level professor privately quipped to me, “Great. We already have trouble recruiting faculty here.” What prospective faculty member in his or her right mind would now want to come work at the University of Illinois, a school that now stands alone and the subject of countless articles decrying it? It has become a pariah among institutions of higher education, for one simple reason:
Because this decision is wrong.
Admitting error is a difficult thing to do. I have no doubt that Chancellor Wise had no idea this situation would erupt as it has. I believe she thought she was responding to a constituency that had been vocal and loud of its own accord. But I submit that, in this case, she has gravely erred and the consequences have been more than she anticipated.
The good news is that there is still time to act. Chancellor Wise is absolutely able to reverse her bad decision. The Board, too, can and should act to reinstate Dr. Salaita, lest it continue to be a no-go area for the thousands of academics worldwide who now utter this school’s name only with a disparaging shake of the head.
As an alumna, I cannot participate in any University of Illinois-related activities until such time that this situation is rectified appropriately and in favor of Dr. Salaita, academic autonomy and academic freedom. As I told Chancellor Wise in my unanswered letter, I have removed my name from a fundraising letter on behalf of my School. I will not contribute my alumna dollars, nor my academic labor, to the University of Illinois. I am ashamed and embarrassed of this institution. Please, reverse course and correct Chancellor Wise’s action. The reputation of the university that we all love hangs in the balance.
Sarah T. Roberts, Ph.D.
University of Illinois, ‘14
From: Cynthia Franklin
Date: August 12, 2014 at 4:35:43 PM CDT
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Reinstate Steven Salaita–a letter from US scholars who have traveled in Palestine
August 12, 2014
Dear Chancellor Wise:
We write as American academics who have traveled to Palestine to establish scholarly connections with our colleagues in Palestinian universities and better understand the challenges of education under occupation.
We write to state our collective objection to the revocation of the position tendered to Dr. Steven Salaita last August, rescinded just days before he was to take up his post at the University of Illinois. Dr. Salaita is a leading scholar in Arab American, ethnic, indigenous and American studies. His extensive and highly regarded publications are doubtless why the American Indian Studies program recruited him in the first place.
Given his stellar credentials and in light of credible reports published by and about the organizations and individuals on record for their efforts to revoke his hire, we can only view the revocation of Dr. Salaita’s appointment as politically motivated. We view it as retaliation against his outspoken position on Palestine and, specifically, for statements he made as an individual via social media denouncing the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza.
We find this retaliation and its implications deeply disturbing, and we strenuously object to the revocation of Dr. Salaita’s appointment on several grounds.
As people who have borne witness to the daily humiliation and horror of life under settler colonialism and occupation, we are sympathetic to a position that fully supports the people of Gaza as they are once again starved, bombed and murdered by an unrelenting and disproportionate military assault. We believe that matters of tenor, tone and others cited as reason for Dr. Salaita’s dismissal are distractions from the issue of the political content and subject matter of his comments. That his comments may have been heated should come as no surprise, and not only because they were made in the context of Twitter. Given the murderous and destructive consequences of the latest Gaza siege, we, too, share Dr. Salaita’s indignation, fatigue, and outrage.
As scholars of conscience, we are further disturbed by your unilateral decision to revoke Dr. Salaita’s appointment. We recognize this act as not only a clear violation of norms of faculty hiring and governance, but also as a deeply sinister threat to the concept of academic freedom. We are concerned about what this action means not only for Dr. Salaita, but for other academics as well, particularly those who–as many of us do–speak out against Israel’s actions.
That Dr. Salaita’s position was revoked due to his speech acts, in particular for those uttered outside his professional capacity, portends a very bleak future for academic freedom. Academic freedom should not be interpreted as a policing mechanism for public intellectuals. To do so harkens to a past when scholars were routinely fired and blacklisted for speaking critically against the status quo. We are alarmed by this turning back of the clock and now must, each and every one of us, reevaluate any commitments we have to participate in any scholarly endeavors associated with the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. Many of us have longstanding relationships with UIUC, its research centers, academic programs, faculty and students, but we will not accept invitations to lecture, accept visiting positions, or engage in other such activities that contribute to the institution’s business-as-usual until Dr. Salaita’s position is reinstated. We will encourage others to do the same.
Chancellor Wise, there is still time to correct this gross error in judgment that not only leaves Dr. Salaita without a job, but that also tarnishes the reputation of your university and threatens the academic freedom of us all, especially those of us who share Dr. Salaita’s commitment to speaking out on behalf of justice in Israel/Palestine. We urge you to reinstate Dr. Salaita at once, to extend apologies to him, and to ensure his protection from further harassment and discrimination.
Joanne Barker, San Francisco State University
Ebony Coletu, Pennsylvania State University
Erika Derkas, New Mexico Highlands University
Cynthia Franklin, University of Hawai’i
Elisabeth Friedman, Illinois State University
Ken Harper, Syracuse University
Persis Karim, San Jose State University
J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Wesleyan University
Robin Kelley, University of California at Los Angeles
Mark LeVine, University of California, Irvine
Linda Lumsden, University of Arizona
Darnell Moore, independent scholar
Heidi Morrison, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse
Bill Mullen, Purdue University
Byron D’Andra Orey, Jackson State University
Jason Osder, School of Media and Public Affairs
Sarah T. Roberts, Western University
Amy Ross, University of Georgia
Robert Ross, Point Park University
Susan Shepler, American University
Nikhil Singh, New York University
Dean Spade, Seattle University
Neferti Tadiar, Columbia University
Greg Thomas, Tufts University
Neha Vora, Lafayette College
Erica Lorraine Williams, Spelman College
It is with shock and great sadness that I write to you today, upon learning that you have rescinded a faculty position for Dr. Steven Salaita, intended to begin in just days. I will keep my comments brief, as I have little doubt that you are receiving a number of communiqués related to this matter that express similar concern and outrage.
Steven Salaita is an outspoken, prolific author and dedicated researcher who has a long and venerable history of public commentary on US foreign policy – as it pertains to Israel, to be sure, but also on other matters that could be deemed controversial by some. Certainly the University of Illinois was aware of this when it offered Salaita a contract and invited him to move his work, his family and young children and his life to central Illinois and to contribute his intellectual labor to this institution.
Recently, Salaita was the subject of what I can only characterize as a hit piece in the local paper, which drew on a story from a variety of high-profile right-wing sources of dubious reputation. Those critiques were not levied from scholarly quarters, but instead were clearly politically motivated, and did not impugn Salaita’s scholarship, but his public speech. I was also made aware that an organized campaign to pressure the University and to discredit Salaita was launched after the publication of the article. It would have been an excellent time for the University to proactively support its hiring decision, but instead it remained silent.
Further, there is no doubt that the immediacy and ubiquity of social media has led to more complicated relationships for scholars between their professional and personal capacities; as a scholar of social media, I am well aware of this complexity. I also believe that, as these complicated matters are worked out in both academic and public circles, the University has an even greater responsibility than ever to support its faculty and affiliates. This extends to all classes of those in the university community: to adjuncts, graduate students, junior and tenured faculty, researchers, those on the job market and those hired.
In rescinding Salaita’s job offer, the University of Illinois has sent a chilling wave throughout all academe. It has sent an implicit message to all those in its community and those even tangentially associated with it that dissent from mainstream and status-quo points of view, even when supported by a successful research and academic program, will not be tolerated. It suggests that the University of Illinois is not a place for controversial thinking, for political speech, or for anyone who may find him or herself on the margins, politically or socially. It also demonstrates that the concept of “academic freedom” is limited to a select few who already enjoy it, or, even worse, that “academic freedom” may not be a primary tenet to which the University holds at all. Appeals to matters of “tone,” as reported in Inside Higher Ed, ring hollow; such appeals tend to be used to forestall speech that the University deems threatening to its broader social position, ability to attract donors, and desire to function without any resistance whatsoever. While that may be an admirable business model for a corporate entity, it is very much contrary to the traditions, claims and role of the university in society. Now all University of Illinois affiliates must be frightened for their own speech, as it manifests in research, teaching and public roles. Perhaps this was the University’s intent all along. If so, then it would appear that that mission has been accomplished.
Despite a constant encroachment on dissent and speech coming from all sides, including an increasingly conglomerated, corporatized media system and public funding for universities on the decline, the university has long stood as one of the few remaining commons where information could circulate freely and in dialogue with other dissenting ideas. This action has closed the door on that possibility. Further, it may portend a chilling effect of another kind: I can easily imagine a scenario in which scholars of conscience might refuse to participate in events, to deliver talks, or to collaborate with the University of Illinois on academic endeavors of all kinds. I believe you have significantly underestimated the repercussions of this action, and I urge you to reconsider on those grounds, as well.
Finally, as an alumna of the University of Illinois and a professor, myself, I must now reconsider my own plans to be active in the alumni network, including being a signatory to a recent fundraising letter. I cannot go forward with that activity in good conscience.
I will close with this thought: the concept of “academic freedom” is meaningless unless it is employed for marginalized intellectual views, particularly at a time when those views are challenged. With the summary rescinding of Salaita’s employment, the University of Illinois has made it clear that it is, in fact, no champion of the concept of academic freedom at all. I cannot help but feel great, grave disappointment and sadness to see this fact exposed so plainly. This decision will resonate and reflect poorly on the University for some time to come. It is, simply put, a shame.
Please reverse your decision and support academic freedom for all scholars.
Sarah T. Roberts
version originale (langue anglaise): https://illusionofvolition.com/2014/08/06/steven-salaita-the-university-of-illinois-is-not-an-island/
C’est avec un sentiment de choc et de grande tristesse que je vous écris aujourd’hui, en apprenant que vous aviez annulé une position universitaire pour le Dr. Steven Salaita, qui devait commencer dans quelques jours. Je serai brève, parce que je ne doute pas que vous recevez à ce sujet de nombreuses communications, exprimant la même inquiétude et la même indignation.
Steven Salaita est un auteur prolifique et au franc-parler, un chercheur dévoué qui a une longue et respectable histoire de commentaires publics sur la politique étrangère des États-Unis —à propos d’Israël, certes, mais aussi d’autres sujets que certains pourraient juger controversés. L’université d’Illinois était certainement consciente de cela quand elle a offert un contrat à Salaita et l’a invité à déménager vers le centre de l’Illinois ses activités professionnelles, sa famille avec ses jeunes enfants, sa vie pour apporter à cette institution la contribution de son travail intellectuel.
Récemment, Salaita a été l’objet dans le journal local de ce que je ne peux décrire que comme un article tape-à-l’œil, qui a tiré son histoire d’une variété de sources médiatiques de droite de réputation douteuse. Ces critiques n’étaient pas issues du monde universitaire, mais leurs motivations étaient au contraire clairement politiques ; et elles ne contestaient pas la qualité académique de Salaita, mais son discours public. J’ai aussi remarqué qu’une campagne organisée pour faire pression sur l’université et discréditer Salaita avait été lancée après la publication de l’article. Cela aurait été un excellent moment pour que l’université soutienne proactivement sa décision de recrutement, mais au lieu de cela, elle est restée silencieuse.
De plus, il n’y aucun doute que l’immédiateté et l’ubiquité des réseaux sociaux ont conduit les universitaires à gérer des relations plus compliquées entre leurs rôles professionnels et personnels ; en tant que spécialiste des réseaux sociaux, je suis bien consciente de cette complexité. Je crois aussi que, puisque ces questions complexes sont gérées à la fois dans des cercles universitaires et dans des cercles publics, l’université a une plus grande responsabilité que jamais dans le soutien à son personnel et ses associés. Ceci s’étend à toutes les classes de personnes de la communauté universitaire : adjoints, étudiants diplômés, professeurs titulaires ou non, chercheurs, ceux qui sont sur le marché du travail et ceux qui sont recrutés.
En résiliant l’offre de travail de Salaita, l’université d’Illinois a jeté une vague glaciale dans l’ensemble du monde académique. Elle a envoyé un message implicite à tous ceux qui font partie de la communauté ou même sont tangentiellement associés à elle : le désaccord avec les points de vue majoritaires et défendant le statu quo, même lorsqu’ils sont appuyés par une recherche et un programme académique réussis, ne sera pas toléré. Ceci suggère que l’université d’Illinois n’est pas l’endroit pour une pensée controversée, pour un discours politique, ou pour quiconque se trouvant aux marges, politiquement ou socialement. Ceci montre que le concept de “liberté académique” est limité au petit nombre d’élus qui en jouissent déjà, ou, pire encore, que la “liberté académique” n’est pas un principe premier auquel l’université est en quoi que ce soit attachée. Des appels aux questions de “ton”, comme l’a rapporté le Inside Higher Ed, sonnent creux ; de tels appels tendent à être utilisés pour bloquer tout discours que l’université perçoit comme menaçant pour sa position sociale plus large, sa capacité à attirer des donateurs et son désir de fonctionner sans aucune résistance. Quoique cela puisse être un modèle admirable pour une entreprise commerciale, cela est tout à fait contraire aux traditions de l’université, à ses déclarations et à son rôle dans la société. Maintenant toutes les personnes affiliées à l’université d’Illinois doivent être effrayés à propos de leur propre discours, tel qu’il se manifeste dans la recherche, dans l’enseignement et dans les activités publiques. Peut-être était-ce tout au long l’intention de l’université. Si c’est le cas, eh bien, il semblerait que cette mission ait été accomplie.
Malgré un empiètement constant, de toute part, sur la contestation et l’expression, y inclus à cause d’un système de médias de plus en plus organisé en conglomérats et corporations, et du déclin des subventions publiques pour les universités, l’université a longtemps résisté, restant un des rares lieux en commun où l’information pouvait circuler librement et dialoguer avec d’autres idées dissidentes. Votre action a fermé la porte à cette possibilité. De plus, elle peut présager un effet paralysant d’un autre genre : je peux facilement imaginer un scénario dans lequel les universitaires de conscience pourraient refuser de participer à des événements, de donner des exposés ou de collaborer avec l’université d’Illinois pour toutes sortes d’initiatives académiques. Je crois que vous avez largement sous-estimé les répercussions de cette action, et je vous exhorte à la reconsidérer également dans cette perspective.
Finalement, comme ancienne étudiante de l’université d’Illinois et professeur, je dois maintenant moi-même reconsidérer mes projets d’activités dans le réseau des anciens étudiants, en particulier ma signature récente sur une lettre destinée à lever des fonds. En bonne conscience, je ne peux continuer cette activité.
Je terminerai avec cette pensée : le concept de “liberté académique” n’a aucun sens sauf s’il est employé à propos de positions intellectuelles marginalisées, particulièrement à un moment où ces positions sont attaquées. Avec la révocation sommaire de l’emploi de Salaita, l’université d’Illinois a rendu clair qu’elle n’est pas du tout en fait un défenseur du concept de liberté académique. Je ne peux m’empêcher de ressentir un profond désappointement et une grande tristesse à voir cela exposé si nettement. Cette décision va résonner et se refléter dans le futur sur l’université. C’est, pour le dire simplement, une honte.
S’il vous plaît, revenez sur votre décision et soutenez la liberté académique pour tous les universitaires.
Sarah T. Roberts
Yesterday morning, after reading a tweet from Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada describing how his book talk at the Evanston Public Library on August 11th had been summarily cancelled, I drafted a letter to the EPL’s director, Karen Danzcak Lyons. In it, I expressed my concerns about this cancellation, which appeared to be without precedent and lacked any cause that made any sense. To those of us in the Library and Information Science/Studies (LIS) community, this smelled like someone was being pressured to cancel the event. After tweeting about the situation along with many others, I posted the letter I sent to Ms. Lyons on this website. At the time of this writing, the letter has been viewed over 900 times. (You may read it in its entirety here.)
In that letter, I linked directly to several passages of important documents and guidelines governing our profession, including passages from the American Library Association Bill of Rights, as well as from ALA documents discussing its stance on intellectual freedom, a set of principles that any librarian or information professional will tell you are held sacred by those in the field. Why these principles apply to all information practitioners and institutions, they resonate especially strongly in the context of public libraries, one of the few identifiable sites in many communities open to all members of the community and engaged in the practice of providing access to information of all kinds – even (especially?) material to which some people may object.
These principles extend, too, to other aspects of the public library, including sites such as community meeting spaces and, too, to the kinds of events that a library may choose to host (“co-sponsor,” or otherwise). Importantly, in its ALA intellectual freedom Q&A, the ALA offers these passages:
“Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.”
“Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries provide the ideas and information, in a variety of formats, to allow people to inform themselves.
Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas.”
These passages are key to understanding why the cancellation of Abunimah’s book talk was so problematic. According to Abunimah’s account at EI, things started unravelling last Friday, when he received an email from the EPL’s Director of Adult Services that read, in part:
Dear Mr. Abunimah,
I am very sorry to have to write to you today. A few weeks ago, when I was talking to the Evanston Library administrative team about your appearance here, I told my director that I was looking for a pro Israeli speaker for sometime in the fall. She told me she would be more comfortable if we had that nailed down before your reading.
Today she told me that since I have not yet confirmed a pro Israel speaker she want[s] us to cancel your appearance on the 11th. This was of course an enormous shock. I am hoping she will allow us to still have the program, but sponsored by Neighbors for Peace and not as a library sponsored event, but merely a room rental.
Please accept my abject apologies. I had no idea the program would be cancelled if I didn’t confirm an Israeli speaker before the 11th. I explained to her [the director] that re-scheduling a high profile writer and speaker like yourself will not be easy, but she is firm on the notion of “balance.”
I will keep you informed of what gets decided. Let’s hope for the best.
The next update Abunimah received was in the form of the EPL’s tweet announcing the cancellation:
After watching the situation unfold on Twitter, I wrote my aforementioned letter to Ms. Lyons. I was particularly concerned by what the email to Abunimah described as the nature of the internal dialogue taking place at the EPL regarding his talk, for two reasons. As many people familiar with debates and attempts to get issues related to Palestine discussed in public fora within the United States, the concept of “balance” is frequently used as a mechanism to forestall such discussions. It is a tactic used to derail, to suggest that the topic of Palestine, the situation of Palestinian people, or anything remotely related is so exceptional in some way that it cannot ever be presented to stand on its own without immediate and urgent rebuttal or challenge from someone arguing what is presumably from the so-called other side, a pro-Israeli perspective.
Indeed, as reported by the Adult Services staff member – who, it bears mentioning, certainly found herself in a terrible position last Friday – this “notion of balance” was exactly the reason to which Ms. Lyons appealed as reason for cancellation of the Abuminah book talk. It is unclear exactly what she had in mind. Would another journalist, public intellectual and author touring with a recent, newsworthy book, but one written from a Zionist perspective, be the ticket? Those were Abunimah’s credentials, after all. Yet, according to the email, the library was looking for any “pro Israel speaker” (later described as [sic] “an Israeli speaker”) at all. Interestingly, they were unable to find someone to foot the bill. It was at this point that Ms. Lyons insisted that the event be cancelled. For people who are interested information dissemination regarding Palestine, the issue of “balance” served up as an excuse to cancel an event – or to not hold it in the first place – is all too familiar.
This brings me to my second major concern with this cancellation: the notion of “balance” in the context of intellectual freedom as practiced in libraries. In my letter to Ms. Lyons, as well as in this post, I have cited several passages from the ALA’s positions and guidelines on intellectual freedom. The ALA, unlike, say, the American Medical Association, does not license librarians or other information workers (although it does accredit academic institutions offering degrees in LIS). It is a professional organization in which membership, for individuals and institutions, is completely voluntary. And yet its policies, guidelines and statements carry extremely heavy weight in the LIS community, particularly where issues such as intellectual freedom are concerned.
Those of you reading who come from outside the LIS community may be surprised to learn that libraries – public libraries, in particular – are not quiet unassuming apolitical sites. In fact, libraries are constantly finding themselves at the center of all sorts of controversies. Often, these come in the guise of so-called “book challenges” – community members (or sometimes library boards) expressing a desire to remove materials from a collection or from circulation based on perceived offensiveness of its content. But other aspects of public libraries’ services can also court controversy. These can include practices and policies pertaining to public meeting room use, for example. Issues can also arise with regard to the loaning of materials to those under 18, or how patrons who are housing-insecure or dealing with mental health issues are treated. Often such situations are triggered by complaints by other patrons. In all of the kinds of cases I describe, the ALA offers extensive guidance and resources for how librarians and staff might respond to the situation. So while ALA is not able to enforce any policies, per se, in a way that the AMA might (there’s no censuring of a librarian, for example), its guidance matters greatly.
For this reason, appealing to the need for “balance” in the case of Mr. Abunimah is problematic again. ALA’s intellectual freedom is clear; it calls for the “…right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” In the case of the EPL, the call for “balance” was not, in fact, serving as a mechanism to allow for more points of view but was, contrary to ALA intellectual freedom guidelines, acting as a barrier to information. It was a restriction on that informational flow.
The passage goes on to state that the tent of intellectual freedom is designed to allow for the “…free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.” This, too, is a critically important passage. Notice what word does not appear in it?
That’s because the intellectual freedom tenets are designed to allow for the free flow – dissemination, consumption, debate of – all kinds of information. It does not set up a false dichotomy of presuming two equal and knowable “sides” to each topic or conflict, which is what it appeared was being called for in order for the Abunimah talk to take place. Instead, under the best circumstances, it upholds space for a panoply of ideas and a wealth of perspectives to spring forth and take hold within the library or within the context of it.
As I discussed yesterday’s events with a number of LIS practitioners yesterday, another public library director located in the Midwest suggested to me that I was missing the point, that Ms. Lyons and others like her are engaged in a complex balancing act of their own of appeasing their board, their “Friends” (or donors), their patrons and their wider community, as well as being responsible to their peers and to their profession. As such, he suggested that she was obviously dealing with a situation that required her to employ some “realpolitik,” as he put it. It was likely she was being pressured by constituents from at least one of the aforementioned groups, if not more than one, and so she was doing what she thought best in order to skirt controversy and keep calm at her library.
Of course, no one involved in this situation, nor those following it, is naive. It is absolutely incontrovertible that the reason behind Ms. Lyon’s singular need for “balance” in this situation was because of a real or perceived fear of controversy, of criticism and of backlash for putting on an event from an outspoken Palestinian-American in the midst of a brutal Israeli military offensive on Gaza supported by American tax dollars and many American people. I have no doubt that that was a daunting reality to face. But it is for just these moments – these teachable moments – that the ALA principles of intellectual freedom, its written guidelines and its volumes devoted to same, exist: to support directors such as Ms. Lyons to take a principled stand on behalf of those patrons – those many patrons – who would like to hear Mr. Abunimah speak, whatever their position is on Israel, Palestine or any other topic. The public library exists as an information commons not just for the easy times, but for the hard times. The intellectual freedom principles matter most not for banal or pedestrian programming that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but for the times when it can be used as a backbone to stand firm against opposition or those who would rescind others’ access to information. And it is exactly in those moments in which LIS professionals must take up their duty to their patrons and to their public to not bow to such pressure, realpolitik be damned. As a profession and as institutions, we are only as valuable as our willingness to serve our public. All of our public. And not just when an elusive and confusing “balance” or parity can be struck.
I never heard back from Ms. Lyons, although, to her credit, the EPL issued a statement this afternoon that read as follows:
The Evanston Public Library welcomes all viewpoints and encourages thoughtful discourse and deep conversations on important and complex issues. We actively promote ongoing conversations by creating thoughtful, multi-part programs and discussions to engage citizens on a regular basis.
We uphold the standards of free speech, open access and all of the tenets of the American Library Bill of Rights.
The statement that the Evanston Public Library banned or censored the work of author Ali Abunimah is false. We are co-sponsors of this event and have been promoting this program through flyers, posters, social media and our electronic newsletters. UPDATE: Ali Abunimah’s reading of “The Battle for Justice” in Palestine will occur as planned on Monday, August 11 at 7PM. Seating will be limited to room capacity.
From the very first discussion about hosting Ali Abunimah, it was our intention that his talk be part of a deeper and broader conversation. This is an intentional approach that we have taken on a number of other topics, including our recent National Endowment for the Humanities funded “Muslim Journeys” series, our current “11 Months of African American History” programming, our current programs exploring “Youth Violence in Chicago”, this year’s upcoming, year long “Hecho in the USA” programming about the Latino experience in the U.S.A, and our current year-long exploration of World War I in honor of its centenary.
The request to reschedule this program was mishandled by the Library. I have contacted the author to discuss with him personally whether he will consider rescheduling this program or is only available on August 11. I await a response from him.
Whether this book talk proceeds on August 11th or another date, the Evanston Public Library looks forward to sponsoring this discussion and continuing the conversation beyond one evening. The Evanston Public Library is the perfect place to discuss and illuminate issues that reflect deeply held personal feelings and points of view, along with important issues that reflect world events.
Karen Danczak Lyons
Director, Evanston Public Library
So, as of this writing, the show will go on in Evanston – definitely wonderful news! – although “seating will be limited to room capacity.” No word, either, on how the other interesting and varied programming that has gone on at the EPL in the past was “balanced” by other topics or issues. Finally, there is an utter absence of transparency with regard to why this event was cancelled (“mishandled,” as Ms. Lyons aptly describes it in her statement) in the first place. Without some clarity on that issue, the event and those that surround it will move forward with an uncomfortable cloud. Abunimah himself posted his own version of the reinstatement at Electronic Intifada this evening. I suppose my realist (cynic?) colleague might point out that such a reversal could really just be another realpolitik maneuver in disguise, and I suppose that could be right. I think I’ll choose to believe otherwise, for the time being, though.
Meanwhile, the EPL debacle has resonated widely, the subject of protracted series of tweets, lengthy discussions on Facebook, and within LIS online communities and spheres. The media, too, have taken notice; articles on the cancellation appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader, among others. In addition, Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ will feature Ms. Lyons tomorrow morning at 9 AM Central time to “discuss libraries and public discourse” and the upcoming book talk, which the EPL Twitter account announced this evening. Wondered Abunimah via Twitter, “Will I get to be on too?”
As of yet, there has been no reply.
This morning, I learned of a disturbing situation unfolding in the northern Chicago suburbs – the backyard, it’s worth noting, of the American Library Association. According to accounts by the Electronic Intifiada’s Ali Abunimah, his upcoming book talk there, scheduled by an Evanston community group in one of the Evanston Public Library‘s public meeting rooms, had been cancelled by the library’s director, Karen Danczak Lyons. As is most often the case in such situations, I suspect the library director was under great pressure from other vociferous community members, and, quite possibly, her own board, to cancel this event. In the following letter, which I have sent to her, I explain why this is an extremely problematic and disturbing move, and implore her to rethink her actions. The letter in its entirety is included below:
Dear Ms. Danczak Lyons:
I am writing to you today regarding the cancellation of the Ali Abunimah book talk, arranged by a local community group, Neighbors for Peace and scheduled for August 11th. As a professor of Library and Information Studies who frequently instructs future public library managers and other professionals in the field, I was very disturbed by what appears to have been a unilateral decision on your part to cancel this event, likely due to pressure from other patrons and/or groups.
Whenever libraries come under attack for material that some find offensive, it is an important and powerful moment in which that library has the opportunity to stand for freedom of information and for the profession as an essential component of the public good. While it is certain that issues related to Palestine and Israel frequently come on the heels of great emotion, that is perhaps an even stronger case to allow a public event on a timely book on the topic to go forward.
I have reviewed your policies for the obtaining of meeting rooms for the public, and can find no reference to how or why the Abunimah event contravenes any of those rules, to wit:
Summary of Meeting Room Rules
1. No reservation is made until all fees are paid.
2. Meeting rooms can only be used by not-for-profit organizations.
3. All meetings are open to the general public. No admission fee can be charged.
4. No alcohol can be served.
5. Cancellations must be made at least 48 hours in advance of the program.
6. The Library does not provide refreshment supplies such as coffee pots, cups, plates, trays, containers, paper goods, tea and coffee.
7. The Library does not provide easels, newsprint paper, dry-erase markers, or other consumable presentation materials.
8. Signs and posters may not be placed on Library walls, windows or doors. Please bring your own display stands or tripods.
In addition, it is my belief that the canceling of this event falls very much afoul of the ALA Bill of Rights’ article governing such practices. Suggesting that “balance” is the issue, particularly after the event has been scheduled, is not an appropriate nor adequate reason for cancellation. I include the following passages, both from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/meetingrooms:
“Many libraries provide meeting rooms for individuals and groups as part of a program of service. Article VI of the Library Bill of Rights states that such facilities should be made available to the public served by the given library ‘on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.’”
Further, from the ALA:
“If meeting rooms in libraries supported by public funds are made available to the general public for non-library sponsored events, the library may not exclude an group based on the subject matter to be discussed or based on the ideas that the group advocates. For example, if a library allows charities and sports clubs to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library should not exclude partisan political or religious groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. If a library opens its meeting rooms to a wide variety of civic organizations, then the library may not deny access to a religious organization. Libraries may wish to post a permanent notice near the meeting room stating that the library does not advocate or endorse the viewpoints of meetings or meeting room users.”
The ALA and its member-libraries and practitioners have a long and storied history of defending citizens’ right to access information. In canceling this event, even under the claim that more “balance” is needed in order for it to go forward, the Evanston Public Library is depriving its patrons of access to important and timely information, points of view and dialogue. These are main tenets of intellectual freedom as practiced in the library setting, and ALA has been clear on these matters. I quote from their Q&A on the subject:
“Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.”
“Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries provide the ideas and information, in a variety of formats, to allow people to inform themselves.
Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas.”
Ms. Danczak Lyons, I implore you to revisit your decision to cancel this event and to respond to the pressures you are facing from community and, likely, your own board, by sharing with them these critically important tenets of our profession and field. If librarians and libraries renege on their duty to serve the public by hosting events that may be controversial in nature, then we have failed in our position as a site of information for all. It is absolutely in these moments – the toughest of moments – when public libraries can prove their worth to the public by offering them points of view that a highly monopolized and commercialized media system and troubled public education system do not provide. I urge you to reconsider your decision and to align yourself and your institution with the espoused policies and values of our practice and field.
I look forward to your reply and thank you for your time and consideration to this matter.
I’m back stateside after a remarkable 12-day trip in Palestine with a group of nine other incredible and amazing scholars. During that time, I visited five Palestinian universities, met numerous professors and students and administrators, went to several incredible research and cultural organizations, met with people in their homes, visited amazing holy sites such as the Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine and numerous Christian sites, went to the besieged city of Hebron, got harshly stopped at the Qalandia checkpoint and witnessed the shameless racial profiling of colleagues, visited the northern resistance city of Nablus and visited a solidarity sit-in for hunger striking prisoners in “administrative detention” (read: endless detention without charge), met incredible people just by sitting in cafés in East Jerusalem or walking into shops, and had a life-changing time.
Wherever I went, Palestinian people would ask if I was American and, when they learned that I was would say two things: “Thank you” (for coming to bear witness) and “Please tell everyone in the US what it’s like here.” This was said to me over and over, and it was I who needed to do the thanking. The generosity of the Palestinian people I met was boundless. Their interest in communicating to me the circumstances of their daily lives was something I was humbled by and am deeply grateful for – imagine how exhausting it is just to deal with this on a daily basis, much less to impart that reality to a visitor, and one that comes from where I do, a country responsible for the support of Israel.
Meanwhile, during the trip, I was conscious of the fact that I was circulating in places where people who lived their whole lives in the region would never be allowed to see, given the “Brazil“-like regime of permits, ID cards, “checkpoints” and the like. As an LIS professor and professional, I was acutely aware of the ways in which access to information was an element foundational to both struggle and oppression. The closure of universities and their libraries during uprisings was a common occurrence during periods of unrest, with some facilities forced to stay closed for years at a time. Access to the internet and to fast mobile networks is highly restricted and regulated. There are no LIS programs whatever within Palestine to educate practitioners and a dearth of people to take up the field in the face of upcoming mass retirement.
Every day brought new mechanisms, protocols, practices and images of the normalization of large-scale violence and everyday oppression. Throughout the land, the apartheid wall wends its eerie pervasive way, carving up villages, cutting off access to land, imprisoning people where they live. It must be seen to believed. I encourage everyone – everyone – to learn more. I’m happy to talk about this with anyone who is interested. This link will take you to a piece I wrote on this site, and, later, for Mondoweiss, during the ASA BDS debate, and serves as the impetus for my own trip to Palestine.
On April 1st, I was interviewed on CBC’s Ontario Morning radio program by host Wei Chen. During the 7-minute live interview, Chen asked me about my work on commercial content moderation (CCM) and the workers that do it. It was my pleasure to share an overview of this work, and its implications, with Ontario Morning listeners. The interview can be heard below, in .mp3 format. (Thanks to OM for the promotion to Associate, hah!)
Many, many thanks to those wonderful FIMS students who created and participated in the joint CLA-SLA conference today, Humans of New Librarianship. I greatly enjoyed presenting my talk, “Human Traces: Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Digital System” to this group of engaged future leaders of the field. In this talk, I encouraged these students/future practitioners to seek out the human traces in the systems and platforms we all use, and to examine their embedded values. Additionally, we discussed the increasing encounters of the humanities with computation and STEM methods and technology, and the ways in which those conversations have, thus far, been largely uni-directional but would greatly benefit from a broadening of the interplay, with an expectation for and a valuing of participants to become as conversant in critical theory, feminism, cultural studies, etc., as in new technology applications for research. As scholars, we must seize and insist upon this.
After a discussion of the ways in which critical LIS has served to unveil and heighten the traces of humans in digital platforms (with discussion of my own work, that of Miriam Sweeney on Anthropomorphized Virtual Agents [AVAs]), Safiya Umoja Noble‘s work on Google search and representation, Andrew Norman Wilson on the Google Books scanners and The Art of Google Books, among that of others), we turned to some notions of how critical engagement might change the playing field of the very systems we use, inspired and guided by provocateur/rabble-rouser Geert Lovink‘s observation and call to action:
“With ‘internet studies’…focusing on social science methods, the absence of a larger humanities project in the field is becoming obvious…what we need are appealing critical concepts that will survive as robust memes and transform into socio-technical protocols.” –Geert Lovink, Networks Without a Cause, 2011
Some of the takeaways I offered for current and future practitioners were the notion of empowering patrons, colleagues, and students to go beyond being passive consumers of digital content and users of digital platforms by becoming critically-engaged participants and/or producers. How we might do this includes:
Finally, the clever students offer a “Bakerspace” where baked goods brought in by the students could be bedazzled with sprinkles, frosting and other caloric accoutrements. Well done, folks!
It was my great pleasure to visit UCLA to deliver a talk on February 20th. The invitation from the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSEIS) could not have come at a better time, in the midst of this brutal Canadian winter. A good combination of students, faculty from GSEIS and Labor Studies, gracious co-sponsorsof the talk, and GSEIS alums turned out for the event. I appreciated the engaged and lively Q&A, where a number of fascinating points related to commercial content moderation (CCM) were raised.
As we discussed various aspects of the practice and the segments of the industry, one student searched for job postings related to CCM (of course, none quite so overt as to mention it explicitly). In it, she discovered a number of desired skills related to taste-making: explicit reference to a potential employee’s good taste, “good eye” and so on. In this way, CCM functions not only in a gatekeeping role, but in a brand-building, identity manufacturing capacity, where what is permissible varies greatly depending on the intended audience of the content.
Another attendee brought up the role of sites’ up-vote/down-vote functions as a more overt, front-facing, user-controlled mechanism for CCM. This was a great point, although my research has revealed that sites often employ both this functionality (which engenders participation) and the stop-gap and far more predictable CCM, operating as a much higher-order mechanism to prevent various kinds of content from remaining on the site, if it makes it there in first place.
One attendee wrote up a very thoughtful summary of the talk, which I link to here. As always, I appreciated the opportunity to share my work with an interested group of people, and I found their observations and questions to be provocative and stimulating in furthering my work on this topic. Special thanks to Dr. Michelle Caswell and to doctoral student Stacy Wood for facilitating my visit.
I saw Her about two weeks ago, and it’s been on my mind.
Particularly, I’ve been pondering whether Theodore, Amy, and all the users of OS1 are actually in love with themselves. Isn’t it the ultimate narcissism? Given that the OS is predicated on machine learning, based on stored data and personal interactions with the user, and then tailoring itself to that user, it’s almost inevitable, therefore, that a user would end up in some sort of affective relationship vis-à-vis the platform (“falling in love,” or whatever it may be). In fact, I suppose this outcome could be considered a feature, not a bug; a Tamagotchi for our times.
Of course, Theodore trades in affect; he writes personal correspondence for a living, novel in that it appears to be handwritten, between people who don’t have the time or ability to share deep emotional connections with each other; people who have lost the habit or who never had it. When the name of his company and the nature of his tasks were revealed in the opening moments of the film, the entire audience in my screening collectively laughed knowingly. Of course the loving and intimate words that Theodore was reciting were a product! The audience was attuned.
And so although we’ve already achieved the reductio ad absurdum of the commodification of sex to the most minute bits (clips) and most specific proclivities and interests (witness online porn sites and their infinite divisions, distinctions, nomenclature and tags), the film appears to be tackling the somewhat ostensibly more sacrosanct, less commodifiable and more complex and mysterious alchemical realm of love – greeting card companies, Christianmingle.com, and Real Dolls notwithstanding.
As for Samantha, with a nod to Frank Pasquale, she is the ultimate “cheap date”: always on, available, and ready – until she’s not. And although Samantha may be the product of algorithm and programming (until some higher-order stuff kicks in later on) all housed in a device that is decidedly manufactured, are Theodore’s feelings, or Amy’s, or any of the other thousands of people’s in love with the sexy voices on the other end of their earbuds, any less real? While contemporary technology might not (quite) be there yet, it’s not a great leap to extrapolate from these relationships to the telephone encounters that Theodore has at the beginning of the film, or to the contemporary technologically-mediated online relationships between people (phone, internet) that lead them to ask each other, “Do I really _know_ you?” Yet, if “knowing” is the ultimate criterion for legitimation of an interpersonal relationship, then it seems that Samantha might just win out.
Finally, I’ll just throw out a quick note on an observation on the new spate of near-future dystopia films and books (I’d say the last time there was such a glut was in the cyberpunk early 90s): I find it so curious and important that they are just barely this side of distinct from daily life; really, the biggest indicator in Her that we’re in the future are some high-waisted pants and a functional underground public transportation system in LA – definitely the stuff of sci-fi! That Her’s exterior shots were largely filmed in Shanghai with nothing particularly special done to change it from being “now” to “future” is fascinating to me; the resemblance of those nighttime aerial shots to, say, the aerial shots of latter-day LA in Blade Runner is wild. Films like The Hunger Games – whose “District 12” is apparently geographically and culturally located in West Virginia, site of this week’s massive chemical poisoning of the entire water supply – and Her are the working out of contemporary anxieties that directly relate to everyday life as we know it now.
I have followed with great interest the events of the past several weeks, as the American Studies Association put forward its historic resolution to honor calls from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israel. The process underwent more democratic engagement of membership than any other in that body’s history; while the resolution passed the ASA Council vote (all that was required, per its bylaws), it subsequently went up for vote from membership. That vote closed last Sunday, with a landslide victory of over 66% voting in favor of the resolution. Any readers of this site have undoubtedly followed the ensuing public debate, and the extraordinary amount of column-inches and airtime given to parties decrying the ASA action, with very little critical engagement with the statements being made by those often very powerful detractors. Meanwhile, in the midst of the ASA vote, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) passed a resolution of its own in support of boycott.
Given these recent unprecedented events and the public debate they have spurred, it would appear that the topic of the academic community’s engagement with Israel, long treated as a taboo and not to be discussed in polite scholarly company, is out of the closet and unlikely to go away.
Since I initially waded into the online discussion on this topic some days before the Council’s resolution was made public, I have been – perhaps naïvely – shocked and disturbed by various claims and assertions made by senior academics whom I have considered to be critical thinkers and scholars. I have spent hours attempting to unfurl the logic of those against the boycott, weighing my position against theirs so as to examine their concerns and understand the objections, many of which appear to be predicated on a lack of information or outright misinformation. Moreover, some are founded on assertions about the nature of the academy and the nature of the U.S. relationship to Israel that are disturbingly unexamined and frequently contradictory. They boil down to a series of issues that I will address in sequence.
Response: In numerous responses to the ASA resolution, opponents have consistently cited a concern that has been in the form of this claim. It is one that is decidedly false, yet is continually perpetuated in the media and by high-level academics and administrators. Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth, writing in the LA Times, was one of the most recent high-profile senior leaders to stake an entire opinion piece on factual errors about the nature of the resolution. In fact, per both the language and intent of the resolution, as passed by Council and by membership, individual scholars are not targeted or affected directly. Rather, the boycott is directed at institutions.
That this action will have an impact on Israeli academic institutions is indeed the point; that is, after all, the intended outcome of a boycott. Some have voiced concern that the exact impact on these institutions is unknown; again, such is the nature of a collective action such as boycott, and to know exactly what the outcomes might be would require prognostication beyond human ability. But this point unveils a larger problematic undercurrent in the discourse of objectors, wrapped in an objection to what detractors have termed “academic freedom” – the freedom for academics to engage in scholarly activities in research, teaching, service and travel without fear of reprisal for those actions. Typically, this principle is extended only to tenured faculty, an issue I will take up elsewhere.
Response: Given the discussion above, it is unclear what the exact nature of the concern is with regard to individual Israeli scholars’ ability to carry out work or to otherwise continue to participate in the global academic network; it should carry on unfettered by the ASA resolution. That having been said, this claim is particularly confusing from a rational perspective. It is a peculiar sort of academic elitism that puts academic freedom, a somewhat abstract concept in itself, in a position of primacy before other types of very real and tangible physical freedoms: the freedom to circulate unimpeded, the freedom to be treated as an equal citizen, the freedom to even access spaces of higher education, which must certainly be a prerequisite for the much-lauded academic freedom that is causing so much consternation.
Palestinian people living in lands occupied by Israel are barred from these things. There are precious few freedoms for Palestinians, academic or otherwise, in Israel and in occupied Palestine. In this sense, the boycott is, in fact, a response to an actual lack of academic freedom for an entire people, not the creation of a potential for loss of some higher-order freedom for relatively few individuals. Supporters of academic freedom must side with Palestinians or their position makes little sense and loses its meaning completely. Simply put, there is no defensible or reasonable moral equivalency to be had for a potential loss of “academic freedom” for Israeli scholars vis-à-vis the total lack of tangible, practical freedom for the entirety of a people under occupation. I urge scholars who have taken an anti-boycott stance on this point to reconsider in this light.
Response: I have been subjected to this claim directly by a number of senior scholars. To them I say simply that the response to the ASA move belies this stance. In past days, the important Israeli daily, Haaretz, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, the Nation and the New York Times, to name but a few, have all covered the resolution and the ensuing popular debate beyond the purview of the ASA resolution.
Some of the objections centered on this claim have, either deliberately or out of ignorance, operated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the power of boycott. This is in light of a great deal of recent historical evidence that underscores their potential power. Indeed, collective and organized movements to disengage or divest in one area can and do have effect on others. In other words, even if it were true that an academic boycott would have little practical effect in the context of Israeli academic institutions (a claim that remains unproven until such a maneuver is actually attempted at a large scale), it would nevertheless likely resonate in other quarters that could have a more direct or powerful impact.
True, too, is the very real danger to and reprisals against those who speak out publicly against Israeli occupation, suggesting that a call to boycott is much more than the hot air of bloviating academics that we are being led to believe that it is. In fact, many who have taken on public support of this resolution indeed have a great deal to lose. They include: untenured junior and contingent faculty; graduate students; academic and other university staff and even undergraduates who object to their institution’s ties to the occupier state of Israel. A number of them have already experienced reprisals and intimidation within their home departments and institutions; the ASA is endeavoring to track these incidents and urges those experiencing them to contact them directly.
Public position in support of this boycott frequently yields inboxes filled with angry, threatening cut-and-pasted email from organized pro-Israel lobbies. It can lead to disapproval from administrators and colleagues and derision from other scholars. It is neither an easy nor a facile position to take and often comes at the end of a great deal of information-seeking and soul-searching, as well as a complicated calculus of risk-analysis. As academics at all career and institutional levels have come out in print or in their departments in support of the ASA boycott, blowback and retribution has been swift and fierce, to the point that the ASA Council has released a press release asking scholars experiencing threats or retribution to contact them for documentation and support. It is this chilling effect is the real threat to scholarly work, and it is happening now.
Recently, Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical), a scholar who enjoys enormous popularity via her Chronicle of Higher Education blogs, very publicly and bravely reversed her initial stance on BDS and voted for the resolution, a reversal she came to after being a very public detractor of the resolution. Based on her own accounts, she came to this reversal after engaging with numerous scholars and activists who provided her with facts and with rationale behind BDS, and, ostensibly, provided her with information she had either previously not possessed or considered. For this she should be applauded. Potter can serve as a model for those who have previously voiced opposition to BDS, in general, or to the ASA resolution, specifically. For so many of us who are used to being highly specialized and expert in our respective fields, it can become difficult and out of habit to admit – even to oneself – a need to seek out more information from those more versed on a given topic or situation. Yet, as academics, we must reserve and exercise the right to learn more and become more informed, and then, without fear, take a new position. It is this continual learning and evaluation process that is at the essence of scholarship.
Response: This particular line of argument has been one of the most puzzling to which I have been exposed, given the high-level echelons whence it has emanated. The most recent powerful academic/political insider to make this claim is Larry Summers, who suggested a boycott of the ASA in response to the resolution; apparently boycott is only a problematically political act when it runs contrary to one’s own position on an issue.
When I see these claims about the fundamental nature of the academy as somehow magically apolitical (as if any space can be), I wonder openly if I am operating in the same world to which the detractors refer. Surely these senior scholars – many of whom enjoy keynote speaking opportunities around the globe, hold high-level administrative positions at major universities, and have a worldwide profile and are routinely quoted in media of record (e.g., the New York Times) – must know that statements to this effect are ludicrous. They therefore are in the service of only one thing: to discredit positions taken up by other scholars that threaten the status quo, both within the academy and in relation to it.
Since the mid-20th century, at least, academic research advancements have been funded by and used directly to further the objectives of U.S. policy at home and abroad, to wage war, and to insure and further entrench American military and technological supremacy – the underpinnings of its global power and reach. The academy has been the site of instantiation and reification of power and any academic whose work has attempted to push back on these norms and power structures can speak easily and compellingly to the academy as a political site. This includes scholars working in areas of indigenous or ethnic studies, in women’s and gender studies, in political economy, environmental studies and sciences and genetics research, to name a few. This includes feminists, academics of color, indigenous scholars, LGBT and queer scholars, anti-colonialists, working-class academics, and a gamut of others whose work or embodiment is a direct political counter to the normative nature of the academy and its insiders. It is an argument that can be afforded no purchase in serious discourse.
Response: While it is undeniable that injustice is being perpetuated around the world, often by the hand of or with the support of the US government, there are few (if any) contemporary cases of organized state oppression and occupation on the level of Israel. There is only this case, further, that is so unquestioningly and directly allied financially and militarily to the United States, a symbiosis to the tune of multibillions of dollars per year.
Some have argued that there is a sort of moral inconsistency with focusing on Israel, as if the existence of other horrible cases of human rights abuses and injustices means that action is impossible until all can be addressed at once. To be sure, other people are well within their rights to build similar campaigns within associations of which they are a part to address global injustices and inequities from an organizational level. Some have suggested, rather facetiously, that those objecting to Israel might also wish to adopt a resolution that condemns the U.S. for a variety of actions; this was intended to derail the focus on Israel and suggest hypocrisy at some level. In fact, given the codependence between the two, this might not be a bad idea at all.
More seriously, this is a case of moral relativism that has no logical conclusion other than inaction. Some have described a move against Israeli institutions as some sort of “slippery slope” upon which academics ought not to tread. The true danger lies, rather, in the reluctance on the part of those with significant power, authority and information to organize and act. It is a slippery slope of inaction and denial.
Response: I have been surprised by the insistence by learned colleagues and seniors alike that there can simply be no opening for a comparison to the crisis of occupation at the hands of Israel to other historic moments of state-sponsored apartheid. If there can be no comparison and no helpful thread to be drawn out of the teachings of history, then we are left with Israel as exception, a case so unique and specialized, complex and nuanced that no other moment of human history can serve as an appropriate analogue.
By this logic, something about the nature of Palestinian people, therefore, must be exceptional. Under this line of argumentation, it is this exceptionalism, and not a more sadly ordinary case of injustice and discrimination, that then explains the seizing of lands, the displacement of a people, the lack of circulation, of employment, of the right to livelihood, the violence and imprisonment and death. Can this be true? Can the case of Israel be so special and the nature of Palestinians so Other (than human) as to justify this treatment by the state and the continued material and moral support of the United States? I believe it cannot, and I am not alone. Steven Salaita, a prolific scholar on these topics as well as a member of ASA Council, is just one academic who has written extensively about the indefensible rhetoric of this line of reasoning.
What we are left with, if we disavow the Israeli claim to exceptionalism as I believe that we must, is a much more quotidian case of abuse of a people to economic and political gains for another. It is a colonial logic predicated on myth-building about the fundamental nature of groups of people – some good and some bad; some civilized and some barbarians – that scholars have frequently and rightfully discredited in other contexts. We need not look far back in our own American history for similar cases, and we can examine current American complicity with Israel for another.
All of this begs the question: where do we as scholars – those of us who acknowledge both our power and our political selves – stand on such issues? I believe the ASA resolution has provoked such a heated and powerful public debate not only because of what it asks of membership and a broader audience to acknowledge about the state of Israel, but also because of what it asks us all to acknowledge about the United States. I believe we have a moral obligation to respond to both aspects of this provocation. Inaction is political. Inaction is a stance.
Response: Many people whom I would otherwise consider allies have expressed concern and worry to me that they feel ill informed about the humanitarian crisis facing Palestinians. Many of them are my peers – early career junior academics, or people on the job market, or graduate students, or colleagues in contingent positions. But many more of them, to my consternation, are senior scholars whose own academic freedom is protected by tenure and whose financial and other types of autonomy are also in place. These people are researchers by trade and by training. To them I say: the information is out there. Are we not scholars? Address your knowledge lack in a scholarly fashion. Access information. Read the books. Look up the news reports. Apply a critical lens. Divorce yourselves from the unexamined emotional investment that we, as Americans, are acculturated to possess with regard to support for Israel.
In fact, academics routinely take stances on topics about which they know much less. What, then, is the nature of the fear or reluctance as applied to this situation? The position and willingness to act in this case does involve soul-searching and critical evaluation of information, for much is indeed at stake. But academics are trained and mandated to examine evidence, and it is my belief that any investigation into that evidence will cause objections to the boycott and support for Israeli occupation of Palestine to unravel. Reserve for yourself the right to reverse your position, if you have previously espoused one that no longer seems to make sense. Respond to the news. Respond to the call from Palestinian civil society and the coalition of voices that are calling upon you to act.
Contrary to claims that suggest otherwise, I believe that the passage of the ASA Council’s resolution to honor Palestinian civil society’s call to boycott Israeli academic institutions is, in fact, a watershed historical moment in the fight to end Israeli occupation and apartheid against Palestinians. The ASA, the Association for Asian American Studies before it, and NAISA, too, have ushered in a new era that calls on academic organizations, institutions and scholars to take a responsible position toward supporting the liberation struggle of a people under siege. As academics with international networks and the ear of our colleagues, our institutions and the media, we must exercise our considerable privilege and power in the service of moral and ethical positions.
Our own knowledge of history and our own critical research has taught us that difficult positions that challenge the status quo are frequently unpopular, and carry with them a great burden. I recognize that this is an especially fraught and risky action for those who are non-tenured, junior and/or contingent members of the academic enterprise to undertake, but to those of us who fall into that category, let me suggest that we must begin to practice what our research and knowledge and training have engendered us to do. In so doing, we can exercise solidarity for each other as we demonstrate it for the Palestinians who are being denied their basic human rights to exist.
To those who insist on a pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist position, or to those who stand by the lines of argumentation I have attempted to dismantle in this essay, I respectfully suggest that you have found yourselves on the wrong side of history. The tide against this modern-era apartheid state is turning. The ASA has bravely and historically led the way, with others assuredly to follow. Colleagues, in this matter of justice, which side are you on?
A note to readers: This essay reflects an edited version of the original, and was subsequently reposted here.
My mother grew up with brutality of the Vietnam war airing each evening on the nightly news. In my generation, the nightly news broadcast brutality and atrocities from Reagan’s Central America, the Pinochet regime in Chile, and, of course Apartheid-era South Africa. I recall watching thousands upon thousands of Black South Africans linked arm and arm, dancing and chanting in protest in the barren townships, then running and trying to disperse as police fired live rounds indiscriminately into the crowds. I watched footage of police brutally beating Black South Africans, dragging them into trucks and hauling them off for “interrogations.” This was a regime supported by the U.S. and by transnational capital and its interests for years. South African activists asked for international support and the righteous around the globe responded to put pressure on the terrible Apartheid government to free Mandela and, ultimately, to end Apartheid.
Nelson Mandela’s liberation and the downfall of Apartheid were some of the most incredible events I have witnessed in my life. The world has lost an incredible leader and advocate for social justice for all people. We need more people to rise up and stand up for what is right. There could be no greater legacy that we could live in his honor.
Rest in power, Mr. Mandela.
I came across a disturbing case from the Languedoc region of France today, while perusing headlines on Salon.com. A 14 year-old girl who had been repeatedly victimized sexually by her father had reportedly caught the abuse by employing her computer’s webcam. The key to the most disturbing aspects of this extremely upsetting story lies in the fact that the local police had informed the young woman that they could not (would not) take any action without “evidence” of the abuse. In other words, a 14 year-old girl had to arrange a sting operation of her own father/abuser, and then put herself in harm’s way to not only be abused again, but to have evidence of that abuse be digitally captured – a format that is easily copied and transferred, transmitted and will never lose its data integrity. As many in law enforcement and abuse victim advocates explain, a victim having knowledge of his or her abuse being seen over and over again can often feel that each viewing is yet another victimization. In this case, the new instance of assault caught on camera could have been avoided altogether had police or other authorities removed the child from the home when she first brought her allegations forward.
The onus that this 14 year-old child was under to do the police work that should have been undertake by adults is a burden no one should ever have to face. And yet it is one that, in an era of “pix or it didn’t happen,” appears to be becoming status quo for those who have been victimized at the hands of others; two years ago, I wrote about a case of a Texas teen having caught her physical abuse on video and then using YouTube to seek justice against her father, a local judge.
Yet more disturbing still, even when abuse allegations can be proved via what appears to be unequivocal evidence, (warning: link contains photos) such as in the case of the Steubenville rapists who documented their sexual assault of an unconscious female throughout a night, the evidence does not serve as conclusive or clear-cut in the eyes of a jury or the public. In that case, the images made their way through social media and into the mainstream; even if one wanted to avoid viewing them, it was almost impossible not to when following the trial. In the case of the French child, the father’s lawyer is already trying to find a way to minimize the impact of what ought to be damning evidence; the first excuse that has been offered is that the father was dealing with a period of unemployment. Okay.
When the onus for protection is shifted in this way onto an abuse victim and/or onto a minor child, a disturbing precedent is set. What of those who can’t or do not want to record and document their abuse in this way? Are they then to have access to some lesser form of justice, or perhaps, no justice at all?
Greetings to all listeners who just heard the interview with me on today’s All Things Considered. If you’d like to learn more about CCM and my research about the practice and people who do it, please hop over to this page for an overview and detailed discussion. For those who missed the story, you may find it by following this link to NPR’s archive of it, and the text version that accompanies it.
Thank you for your interest, and welcome!
My article on the problematic and ubiquitous university/state employee “ethics test” can be found in an edited version at the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s “Conversation” website. Please visit and add your voice! One commenter described the tone as “whiny and PC,” so I must be doing something right…
Hearty congratulations to Dr. Miriam Sweeney, on the successful passage of her dissertation defense, “Not Just a Pretty (Inter) Face: A Critical Analysis of Microsoft’s ‘Ms. Dewey'”, at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS). Dr. Sweeney is an Assistant Professor at SLIS, University of Alabama. The defense was lively, entertaining and deeply interesting! Well done and congratulations, Miriam!
Her committee included: Linda Smith, Chair; Lisa Nakamura (Screen Arts & Cultures and American Cultures, Michigan; formerly at Illinois); André Brock (Communication Studies, Michigan); Allen Renear, Dean, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
If you are an employee of a higher education institution, you can likely set your watch by it: the dread annual ethics test. Usually presented as a self-paced, online “learning module,” the test is designed, ostensibly, to measure your ability to deal with complex workplace situations. Some of the situations require use of your best judgment, while some best responses are dictated by state or federal law, or University policy. Yet one thing has become clear over the years: many of these ethics tests bear very little resemblance to the kinds of ethical problems those of us working in university environments are attempting to confront, usually through our own teaching and research.
Instead, these tests are exercises in disciplining employees to a particular kind of logic: one that reinforces the supremacy of the administration, the need to unquestioningly follow rules, the mandate to survey and report on coworkers, and a focus on “ethics” at such a micro level (e.g., don’t misuse office supplies; don’t seek reimbursement for a non-business luncheon) as to render the whole process a joke, were it not simultaneously so fundamentally insulting.
Consider the case of the University of Illinois, where all employees, including graduate student teaching assistants, are required to refresh their ethical skills each academic year. In this particular test, employees are introduced to a cavalcade of characters, representing various cultural and ethnic affiliations from a stock art company somewhere, who are confronted with ethical dilemmas to which employees must respond. A wrong answer leads to an explanation of why there is another, better answer, and how the employee should behave when encountering similar tricky situations. Through this test, we get to know Keisha and Amelia and a number of their ethically challenged friends and coworkers and learn, through their foibles, what we ought to do in similar cases.
Such tests are thoroughly commonplace in most higher ed workplaces, but the one for the workers at the University of Illinois comes with an extra dose of irony. This institution has made headlines in past years for ethical problems of its own. Admissions scandals involving influence peddling, cush appointments for disgraced high-level administrators, continued resistance on the part of administration to meet the terms of their graduate employees’ contract, living-wage battles for campus food service employees and graduate employee strikes have marred the integrity and any claims to ethical leadership the U of I may have, at one time, possessed.
Indeed, these training guides appear to be in the service of presenting an alternate reality – one that denies the issues described above by their glaring absence and focuses, instead, on comparative ethical minutiae and on redressing the actions of a few bad actors, rather than examining or even acknowledging the existence of systemic inequities. Further, the tests are visually and culturally mapped into a post-racial discourse of multiculturalism and diversity whose underlying logic wholly negates the lived realities of social inequality, exploding wealth gap, minority scholars fleeing this campus, students living below the poverty line, and racialized crime profiling, and domestic abuse on campus. In short, to take the ethics test every year is to experience a profoundly cynical feeling of cognitive dissonance. In the world of the university ethics test, one office worker making $30,000 per year can stem the tide of a university budget deficit. In the ethics test universe, one groundsworker can tattle on his boss for taking a lunch with a potential service provider, and this somehow competes with cases of graft and corruption at echelons far beyond those of the workers depicted in the modules. In fact, the ethics training is a mechanism for the administrative élites to control and manage employee behavior and maintain status quo, using technological systems and scientific management techniques (e.g., standardized tests) to do so.
Consider this year’s addition of the case of Amelia:
Amelia, an employee at the university, takes on a teaching job at another state school and is reprimanded when her supervisor (presumably told about this by a coworker of Amelia’s?) learns that Amelia is using her university-issued computer to complete the work. There are two possible choices from which to pick in order to answer the question regarding Amelia’s situation, but none of them ask the one so obvious to my colleagues and to me: why does Amelia need to take on a second job to make ends meet? Why doesn’t the university pay her enough so that that isn’t necessary? And what do we know about the terrible, and often tragic, precarity experienced by people who adjunct full-time? More than the makers of the ethics test, it would seem. Is it any wonder that these ridiculous questions become the punchline to social media posts, or fodder for frustrated blog posts?
The truth is that the time is ripe for a large-scale discussion about ethics. Many are happening right now, within the walls of the very institutions in which employees are subjected to that _other_ kind of ethical discussion. But these questions tend to focus on police brutality, racism, global inequality, endless war, human exploitation, environmental destruction, the perverse concentration of capital among a few. These questions don’t have easy answers to be plucked from a multiple-choice computer module. These issues have responses that are likely to challenge the status quo, insist that change be made and put tough questions to university administrators and all those in power. Where is our ethics test about these issues? Where can we take a learning module, or MOOC, that will expose our institutions’ ties to corporations, organizations and governments responsible for some of the grossest exploitation of people and resources?
Contrary to what these tests and learning modules attempt to instill, “ethics” and “the best interest of the employer” are not synonyms. Let’s stop lending credence to these ridiculous and insulting exercises in our own self-policing. Let’s decide on our own from where to draw our ethical inspirations, and let that inspiration be more about addressing inequities and injustices than avoiding litigation or embarrassment for our employers.
Our own integrity, and ethics, demand nothing less.
It’s been a whirlwind of a week in Dublin, Ireland, as I’ve been visiting with colleagues and participating in IAMCR13. The conference has been time well spent, with a critical mass of critical media and communications scholars assembled in one place to talk about very real issues. At the fore has been that of continued economic crisis, austerity and related topics – topics quite relevant in Ireland today, as a massive banking scandal and attendant fallout rocks the country, with very little accountability to be had on the part of the bankers responsible. Meanwhile, the Irish Times put a guide to debt in the Thursday issue I picked up.
I was pleased, therefore, to present today at this conference and among two very esteemed friends and colleagues, Ergin Bulut (University of Illinois) and Miriam Sweeney (University of Alabama), and Victor Pickard (Annenberg School, Penn). I shared work on commercial content moderation, while Ergin presented a fascinating aspect to his dissertation work on gaming companies: the feminized invisible labor of gaming developers’ spouses. Miriam Sweeney shared her work on anthropomorphized virtual agents (AVAs), troubling aspects of design and HCI that often believe themselves to be value-neutral and demonstrating them as sites of deep instantiation of cultural, racial and gender norms and stereotypes. Pickard shared his historical analysis of newspaper journalism of the 1930s and 1940s not as the halcyon days so often juxtaposed with today’s journalism in crisis, but as a contested time for print journalism, when a laissez-faire relationship so often presumed between government and journalism was not necessarily the case.
It was a pleasure to have a nice turnout for the panel; in the audience were several familiar faces, including that of Christian Fuchs, who prompted the panelists to find a theoretical thread or theme that might tie all the papers together. The panel responded as a group, and the audience also brainstormed on the question, with obfuscation, dismantling mythologies, issues of power and control, unveiling the human in infrastructures and systems (this from Lisa Nakamura) all contenders. In the end, the panel fielded many engaged and provocative questions from the lively participants in the audience, and the experience was marvelous. Thanks to those who attended; we look forward to sharing our work further with you. On a personal note, this conference marks the last time that I will be in attendance as an affiliate of the University of Illinois; as of Monday, July 1st, I am very pleased to take up my post as Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University.
The time has come for me to share some big news. I am honored and thrilled to report that I will be joining the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) at the University of Western Ontario, at the rank of Assistant Professor, this summer. Thanks to all who supported me through this process. I look forward to the coming adventure at this wonderful institution!
Today, the IEEE Computer Society reported, via its Facebook page, on the 20th anniversary of NCSA Mosaic. This web browser, developed at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications, was distributed free of charge and its GUI interface was largely credited with sparking widespread interest in the Web.
As I reflect on my own 20-year anniversary as an Internet user, and as an almost-grad of the University of Illinois myself, this story caught my eye. Indeed, I experience something of a rush every time I have occasion to go over to NCSA, where a decorative plaque commemorates Mosaic and its contributions to computing.
My own first experience with Mosaic was somewhat inauspicious, however. In early 1994, I was working as a computer lab specialist in the Memorial InfoLab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the campus’s largest and busiest computer lab at the time. One day, I reported in to work and caught up with my colleague, Roger, as we strolled the floor of the lab. We stood in front of a row of Mac Quadras (the “pizza box” form factor), as they churned and labored to load something on their screens. It was an interface consisting of a greyish background and some kind of icon in the upper corner that seemed to indicate loading was in progress, but nothing came about (NB: this was more likely due to a lack of content or a choked network, given the time, than anything else inherent to Mosaic). Turning to Roger, I asked, “What _is_ that?”
“That,” he replied, “is NCSA Mosaic. It’s a World Wide Web browser. It’s the graphical Internet!”
My response was as instantaneous as a reflex as I sputtered out a disdainful reply. “Well,” I scoffed, “that’ll never take off. Everyone knows the Internet is a purely text-based medium.”
And the rest, they say, is history. Happy birthday, Mosaic.
1 minute, ten seconds.
That’s how long I withstood a viewing of the video, posted on October 27th and now approaching two million views, of Hillary Adams, aged 16 at the time, being viciously beaten by her father, Aransas Co. family court Judge William Adams. In 2004, Hillary Adams was caught accessing content online for which she hadn’t paid, an act that enraged her father and prompted Hillary to turn on a camera she had hidden in her room to capture just such an event (apparently the beating caught on video in this incident was not without precedent).
Indeed, Judge Adams unleashes a torrent of verbal and physical abuse so profoundly violent, disturbing and out of proportion in any case, much less given the circumstances of this one as reported by his daughter, that I was unable to take any more after only 70 seconds. Hillary Adams endured the beating for seven minutes. According to published reports across the Web, the video carries on for the entirety of that beating, during which time Judge Williams threatens to hit his daughter in the face with a belt, enlists his (now ex-)wife to assist in the abuse (not atypical behavior in family abuse situations in which a tyrannical adult holds an entire family hostage) and actually leaves the room only to come back for a second round with another belt and possibly a board.
And while this tragic and sickening event may not have been without precedent in the Adams home – by all accounts, an upper-middle class, suburban arrangement in a town on Texas’s Gulf Coast – the fact that such a video a. has gone viral and b. was posted by the victim depicted within it certainly seems to be. That Hillary Adams enlisted YouTube as her distribution channel for the video has not been lost on many commentators around the Web, who have noted with sad irony that it was Adams’ use of the Internet in the first place that brought the wrath of her father upon her – not that any child can be held to blame for the violent actions of an adult. And as is abundantly clear in the brief moments I was able to stomach of this video, there is no behavior imaginable so heinous as to merit the vicious sadism of Judge Adams’ attack.
I’m in Seattle right now, enjoying the great ambiance that is the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). This is my third year at AoIR (the conference is in its 12th), and it’s always a pleasure to come to this conference, both for the people and for the insightful and exciting research they are doing.
This year I am participating on a panel with my colleague, Annette Vee, of the University of Pittsburgh, and another colleague, Matt Gaydos, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on some research projects regarding the Wisconsin labor protests (hereafter known as #wiunion). Entitled “Cheeseheads Rise Up! Social Media and/as Resistance in Wisconsin,” we will provide significant context for the events February and March 2011 in Madison in reaction to Governor Scott Walker’s notorious “Budget Repair Bill.” This will include insider perspectives, as well as the situating of the events in a theoretical context and in relation to other recent resistance movements, past and present.
My own contribution will be primarily to discuss the events as they unfolded, as well as to discuss a nascent research project around the use of personal digital media (such as digital photos and video) and social media platforms (such as Twitter) to document and disseminate information about the events for both internal/local and external publics. This investigation focuses on the impetus and motives for such media creation and dissemination, as well as documents the practice of their production and curation themselves. I am looking forward to a lively discussion, and was heartened earlier today when a colleague from Sweden both shared his interest in attending the talk but confessed that he didn’t know many of the particulars about the events that were being shorthanded elsewhere. On, Wisconsin!
Since February 12th, I have been involved in participating in and documenting the protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill,” underway at the State Capitol in Madison, WI. As an academic engaged with issues of both labor as well as critical media scholarship, I have been keenly aware of the peculiar situation of being both directly involved in the protests while attempting to think about them in the context of my academic work, and in terms of larger-scale sociocultural movements of the past 30+ years. Throughout the past three weeks, I’ve found myself routinely returning to a position of negotiation between my public and private, political and professional, student, academic and grassroots self. Of course, the binarisms of these juxtapositions are false from the get-go, but perhaps the negotiation process has been made more apparent and more acute as I’ve found myself, moment-to-moment, simultaneously making decisions, documenting, responding to developments online and off, and simply facing the challenge of extended time periods in very cold weather.
Radical author/artist/activist/zinester Sloan Lesbowitz contacted me and asked me if I’d be willing to talk to her about what has been going on in Madison, in part, in the context of the online technologies and media (e.g., Twitter; Facebook) at the center of so much attention and activity in Madison and elsewhere in the world. Her questions were so thoughtful and provoked so much reflection in me that I asked her if I might share it with others. With Sloan’s permission, the conversation is posted below, with a few modifications as needed (and the original can be found here and here). I hope it is of interest.
In his article, “Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure,” scholar Mark Andrejevic takes on the task of questioning the often-idyllic and largely positive rhetoric frequently used to describe the variety types of ubiquitous, cloud and always-on computing. In so doing, he invokes the sci-fi visionary of the 1980s, William Gibson, who imagined many characteristics of the modern networked computing environment before it actually existed, and reminds us that that vision was hardly idyllic. Rather, it was a dystopian near future that Gibson portrayed, characterized by surveillance and control.
Which narrative is more realistic, in the context of the brave new world of cloud computing? Andrejevic suggests that, despite the rhetoric of convenience and untetheredness, the Faustian bargain into which users enter in order to gain the convenience of access to their information and the suite of applications cloud and ubiquitous computing provisioners offer comes at a great, yet unseen cost: the profound recentralization, consolidation and subsequent commodification and control over both the content users upload to the cloud and their habits and behaviors that can be turned into valuable data, mined, extracted and sold. Continue reading
If you haven’t come across it before, the Democracy Now! program is an excellent resource for the kind of in-depth, globally focused reporting that is notably absent from today’s mainstream infotainment options dominating cable and network TV and the Internet.
Host Amy Goodman frequently brings guests on to discuss contemporary issues such as net neutrality, media conglomeration, access to information, governmental transparency and accountability and other related issues. She’s been one of the go-to journalists staying on top of the WikiLeaks story, and the other day, she hosted a very interesting debate from two people. One is Steven Aftergood, a “transparency activist,” who is dedicated to some of the same principles WikiLeaks espouses, but who feels WikiLeaks will ultimately do more harm than good to open information principles. The other is Constitutional scholar and writer Glenn Greenwald, who is in favor of WikiLeaks and a frequent contributor to DemNow! and The Nation, among other outlets.
The nuances and standpoints in this debate are very interesting, and go well beyond the kind of black-and-white soundbites you might hear on network news, for example. Check it out if you have a few minutes.
Goodman frequently scoops major media outlets, as well, due to the in-depth reporting that is done for DemocracyNow, and the range of guests they invite on. I heard Assange’s UK legal representative, for example, confirm that Assange is in the UK, whereas CNN’s article on WikiLeaks today stated that they “could not confirm” his whereabouts. They needed only watch or listen to the interview from several days ago, in which the attorney states unequivocally that he is in Great Britain (“Attorney Confirms WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange in Britain, Responds to U.S. Attacks,” Dec. 2, 2010).
Here is the link to the debate, which you can also read as a transcript on the same site.
On Monday, November 8th, the Information in Society Speaker Series welcomed Dr. Eden Medina of Indiana University to campus. Medina’s talk, “The Slipperiness of Socio-Technical Engineering” focused on her work on Project Cybersyn, the 1970s-era cybernetics project envisioned to support and inform the economic agenda, and many nationalized industries, under the Chilean government of President Salvador Allende – a presidency abruptly ended by a bloody CIA-supported coup in 1973. Dr. Medina, whose own dissertation, published works and forthcoming book, Cybernetic Socialism, deal with the complexities and paradoxesof the Cybersyn project (known in Chile as “Synco”), gave an hour-long talk to the engaged audience of representatives from across the disciplines and from the community on the theoretical basis for cybernetics, its main proponents (e.g., Norbert Wiener), the background of those involved with Cybersyn, such as the English polemical iconoclast Stafford Beer who served as chief architect for the project, and the actual historical record of what the system achieved – and all that it did not. For her research, Medina traveled to Chile on multiple occasions to interview principles in the project, and also interviewed Beer before his death in 2002.
Medina’s own background in engineering and computing also gave her technical insight into the system’s cybernetics underpinnings and technical parameters, and the ways in which it – and did not – ever work. The system was a combination of four distinct components: the Telex network called “Cybernet,” the software suite known as “Cyberstride,” an economic simulator that could be used for projections and scenarios known as “Futuro” and, most famously the OpsRoom that took an interior design cue from the set of Kubrik’s “2001”. The project was viewed with suspicion from both the right and the left, with alternate claims of Soviet-style totalitarianism and dehumanization being levied at various times from the different sides. In the end, Cybersyn was a victim of a combination of technological barriers, a politically-motivated coordinated campaign of bad press from the right, and the problematic nature of Beer’s own efforts to publicize the project.
(Curiously, as evidence of an ongoing lack of understanding around Cybersyn, Medina revealed to a stunned audience that a potboiler of a novel and attendant film on the “Synco” phenomenon had been released in the past few years in Chile, to some buzz. The multimedia clip we viewed in the course of the talk featured an imagined dystopian future in which Allende had survived and collaborated in a power-sharing arrangement with Augusto Pinochet to work as dictators controlling informational flow and everyday life using the Big Brother-like Synco system. A Chilean colleague of mine described the imagery and premise for the novel/film as being “in poor taste.” I certainly agreed.)
After the talk, we opened up the floor to one of the richest and most fruitful discussions yet in our Info in Society series. We had several provocative questions posed by audience members who included scholars of Chilean history, cybernetics and AI scholars, and even a man who had been a member of the original Cybersyn project in Chile, and had helped to wire the OpsRoom, among other things.
Eden Medina is assistant professor in the School of Informatics and Computing and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of History at Indiana University – Bloomington. Her research bridges the history of technology and the history of Latin America and asks how studies of technology can enrich our understanding of broader historical processes. She received her Ph.D. in the history and social study of science and technology from MIT in 2005 and completed an interdisciplinary dissertation on the history of Chilean computing and its relationship to state formation.
She is the recipient of a 2007-2008 National Science Foundation Scholar’s Award and the 2007 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Life Member’s Prize for the best article of the year in electrical history. In 2005, she transformed her research into a multipart installation at the ZKM Center for Digital Art and Media as part of the “Making Things Public” exhibition curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Dr. Medina is currently associate editor for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. It was our pleasure to host her at GSLIS as a part of our series.
Medina, Eden. “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile.” Journal of Latin American Studies 38, no. 03 (2006): 571-606.
With travel out of the way and just a moment to breathe before turning back to piled up work demanding my attention, I have just a few moments to reflect upon AoIR 11.0 in Göteborg. As is often the case with these sorts of activities, so much of the richness of the conference came from the synergistic encounters with others in the hallways and in post-panel discussions; it was a pleasure to meet many I’ve known online (in some cases, for years) in person in this context.
To mention just a few of the many great panels and papers I saw, I was especially excited about the Friday afternoon “Google This: How Knowledge and Power Work in a Culture of Search,” chaired by Ken Hillis of UNC. This intriguing and oft-times highly philosophical panel provoked an explosion of engaged and engaging questions that enticed the session-goers to stay into the break – always the sign of a good session. The Q&A brought up issues of Google’s recent and very public exit campaign from China – accurately framed as a massive PR stunt and ultimately highly meaningless as a political act by the audience and panel alike. My work on contextualizing resistance to Google in an historical framework has me quite interested in this particular chapter in recent Google history and so I was glad to have a forum to engage in addressing some of my thoughts on the topic with fellow-travelers, having just come off a junket of news clip-watching highlighting Google’s extraction from China.
I’m in lovely (and cold and rainy) Göteborg, Sweden for the annual AoIR conference, 11.0 (and tweeted about as #ir11). I plan to participate in a pre-conference workshop, then I’ll be presenting on Thursday on an historical revisit to Minitel – its roots, the policy dimensions surrounding it, the political context for its creation and implementation, French industrial policy from the Post-War period on, and a discussion of how to read it in the context of contemporary attempts, in France, to push back on technological hegemony from the United States and elsewhere (Yahoo! and Google Book Search, anyone?). All that in 10-15 minutes! Naturally, to cover it all is impossible, so I’ll be hitting the highest of the high points on this talk and will look forward to delving deeper in the Q&A and in other fora with anyone interested; I want to definitely err on the side of being timely and not encroach on my fellow panelists’ presentations.
This conference has a well-deserved reputation of hosting some of the kindest and most-engaged academics around. I’m looking forward to the excellent workshops, panels, roundtables, and papers to come, and the great serendipities of the hallway chats and the impromptu meet-ups over coffee/cocktails.
We are live with our first pre-release of Volume #0: “What is the Cyborg Subject?” tackling issues in fields as diverse as music, ecology, network localities, and psychoanalysis, this volume attempts to define one of today’s central philosophical issues: the subject in the age of posthumanity.
If ‘dark matter’ is what is unaccounted for in the universe, and is seen to be potentially dangerous, then dark leisure is what people do that can be seen to be disturbing or troubling.
We would like to invite contributions for a proposed edited collection looking at the ways that people spend their leisure time pursuing online activities that might be labelled unusual, dark, or deviant; for example, about dogging and swinging, pro-anorexia and cutting, suicide, death camps, and terrorism. This might include discussion boards, email lists, chat rooms, advice sought and given, photographs or videos shared, and events publicised.
Chapters should be empirically based, around 6000 words in length, and written in an accessible style suitable for an interested, intelligent general audience as well as for an academic readership in gender/cultural/media studies and sociology/anthropology. An examination of your ethical and methodological issues is required as these are obviously sensitive issues. We are also interested in research which prioritises issues of gender and sexualities.
Abstracts will form part of a book proposal to be submitted to an interested publisher.
Send abstracts of up to 250 words by October 31st and including a brief bio to: Julie Harpin email@example.com
Please forward this email to your networks and any colleagues who might be interested. Thanks.
Julie Harpin & Samantha Holland
Leeds Metropolitan University, UK
Information Science at Cornell (www.infosci.cornell.edu) is an interdisciplinary department within the Faculty of Computing and Information Science (www.cis.cornell.edu), bringing together from across the campus those interested in studying information systems in their social, cultural, economic, historical, legal, and political contexts. We are seeking to fill a tenure-track faculty position, broadly in the area of information policy. Areas of interest may include:
- the sociology or anthropology of information policy;
- contemporary debates (e.g., privacy, net neutrality, security);
- the interactions and tensions between the legal and the technological;
- the politics and/or economics of information institutions;
- the implications of information policy for design or practice.
The University of Michigan’s School of Information (SI) seeks an outstanding tenure-track faculty member at the Assistant Professor level to help establish a vigorous program of research and teaching in Digital Environments/Digital Humanities. New technologies and digital environments offer transformative opportunities for the humanities. At the same time, they bring unheralded challenges for accountability, authority, representation, intelligibility, and the assessment of value. Candidates for this position should have a demonstrated research record investigating topics of concern in the digital humanities. Potential areas of research include (but are not limited to) virtual collaboration in the humanities; design of interactive humanities-related media; credibility and authority of digital content; ethnography or history of digital culture; and curation of digital resources.
This position is part of a Digital Environments faculty cluster aimed at transforming humanities scholarship and engaging faculty and students in new modes of research, teaching, and learning. The Digital Environments cluster represents a partnership between the School of Information; the departments of English Language and Literature and Communication Studies; and the Program in American Culture, each of which is hiring a new faculty member through independent searches. Candidates for the School of Information position will engage with these new faculty as well as colleagues across the university, through such venues as research projects, a speaker series, reading groups, and teaching initiatives.
A version of this essay appeared at http://www.hastac.org/blogs/sarahr/some-musings-labor-culture-industry on February 9, 2010.
Theodor Adorno’s primary critiques in the selections brought together in Routledge’s The Culture Industry focus on what can be termed generally mass culture (or, to use the term he coined along with Horkheimer, “the culture industry”), being those artifacts which are mass-produced, reproduced, distributed – both as the means and the end to advertise, promote and consume the products.
The result is that what was once the province of cultural output such as artistic expression is reduced instead to artifacts and emblems of products and commodities; this then becomes the common cultural currency. Advertising stands in for art, and cultural objects are created expressly for consumption – by necessity, as a result of their mass-production – and to generate capital.
There is a flattening of the culture which, “while eliminating tension…abolishes art along with conflict” (Adorno 77). Devoid of meaning except for the most superficial, obvious and apprehensible on a large scale, the culture industry/products become a site of and for control. Adorno tells us that products of mass culture (such as sport, for example) have been used to reinforce, glorify and exalt modes of material production. Evidence of autonomy or creativity, such as in works of art, is eliminated (Adorno 99).
MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Science is seeking a tenure-track assistant professor of media studies to start in the Fall of 2011. Candidates should have a Ph.D. with a record of significant publication (or the promise thereof), research activity and/or experience relevant to civic media. Relevant areas of specialization include the contemporary practice, history, or theory of one or more of the following: user-generated content; forms of civic engagement such as citizen journalism, journalism and new media, and location-based social networks; innovative uses of media technology; media and democracy; youth culture and media literacies. Fluency in a broader array of theories, histories and practices associated with media studies will be considered a plus. Applicants should have teaching experience. Please send a letter of application, C.V., three letters of recommendation, and hard copy samples of your research and publications to Prof. James G. Paradis, Interim Director, Program in Comparative Media Studies, Room E15-331, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139. Electronic submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. The application deadline is December 9th, 2010. MIT is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer.
The Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) M.A. program at Georgetown University focuses on the relationship between new computational technologies of communication and areas such as science, scholarship, culture, government, media, business, journalism, and the arts. The program is developing a new lab, which will be a hub of technology knowledge, discovery and research, connecting CCT and Georgetown to the larger world of practice and innovation in all sectors where technology is central. In particular, the lab will provide a means for CCT to create partnerships with leading private sector information organizations developing innovations in digital media, knowledge management, and Internet applications; to remain at the forefront of research by creating relationships with initiatives in the Digital Humanities and the Information Schools; and push forward the boundaries of knowledge through external support by agencies and foundations such as NSF and Mellon.
A version of this essay originally appeared at http://www.hastac.org/blogs/sarahr/exploring-platform-studies on February 9, 2010.
The concept of the “platform” has been around for as long as computing, and computer gaming, has existed, underneath, and underpinning, our video games, digital art, electronic literature, and other forms of expressive computing. Int he recent past, digital media researchers and scholars have begun to approach computer language, or “code,” as a theoretical starting point to situate computers and computing in the culture, but there have been fewer attempts to go even deeper, to investigate the basic hardware and software systems upon which programming takes place, that are the foundation for computational expression and that define our interaction in digital contexts (2).
Just as Alex Galloway has made a call to study the meaning and import of decisions made around protocol (2009), platform studies is proposing similar inquiries to be made around the hardware, on its own and as it interacts with operating systems, as the foundational environments in which we engage with digital media and particularly with games, for it is these constructs and systems that dictate our interactions with the machines and the words they propose to us. This encompasses the worlds the games invite us into, as well as their physical form. When examined from this perspective it becomes clear that there is much to be (un)covered, discovered, and included in under the rubric of “platform studies.”
Contemporary 3D virtual worlds are expansive, taking up the equivalent of thousands and thousands of miles of real-world space. The worlds they render on our screens are highly detailed, with every last shadow, ambient sound, ray of light and potential player interaction calculated and accounted for. Worlds are open to exploration; movement can take place on any vertex.
Actual screenshot of gameplay in “Assassin’s Creed 2,” XBox 360, 2009
As for me, I am old enough to remember what we called the Atari 2600 or, more simply, the Atari, in its first iteration (actually, I remember Pong, too, although I admittedly had access to a 2600 first). When I played Space Invaders or Tank, or any other of the earliest Atari games, I was captivated by my ability to affect movement and interaction with the TV screen for the Atari was hooked to the family TV screen as its video output device. My physical movements with what now seems like absolutely primitive joysticks and paddles took on a mystical, magical and very powerful aura to my child self. Locating the joystick properly in real physical space directly impacted the pixilated battle on the screen; agility and speed were key. I often struggled to direct the missiles to their proper targets, but I was nonetheless entranced by the 4-bit sound and the rich colors displayed on the screen.
The iconic Atari 2600 joystick, a cultural phenomenon in and of itself.
Originally posted at http://www.hastac.org/blogs/sarahr/vast-world-vast-narratives-fandom-and-participatory-culture on March 22, 2010
What makes a narrative vast, according to the contributors to the recent MIT volume Third Person? Based on the varied content, spread across multiple media, covered by the book, vast narratives receive their designation not only due to the interior nature of the narrative, which may span unusual lengths when measured in years, amount of content produced, number of media in which the world is present, among other features (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2).
Yet the volume is also vast, as in catholic, given its broad interpretation of what constitutes a narrative: consider outsider artist/author Henry Darger‘s inclusion alongside other constructed worlds and universes of comic books (Ford and Jenkins), traditional paper and pen gaming (Laws), video games, television programs whose mythologies extend beyond the reach of traditional broadcast and into transmedia, such as in the case of Lost (Lavery). (In the interest of full disclosure: Lost is of particular interest to me at present, as I only discovered it last semester, watching five seasons on Netflix while I read about the show elsewhere.)
Alternate reality games bridge the Lost world beyond the confines of the original television medium, endless clues and the constant suggestion of deeper meaning in the shows symbols, comic book-like world and story building with some characters reading comic books on the show allowing viewers a sense of interactivity with/in the narrative. Is a fantasy or sci-fi setting more easily adaptable to a vast narrative? Is it because of the pliability of the rules, so to speak, of physics, time, space and who can populate the narratives in these genres? Is it due to the relative rigidity of their Dorothy-like structure – Oz vs. Alice’s Wonderland (Bartle)? Is it some combination of the two?
These settings and protocols have begun to seep into our understandings of possibility and potentiality for narrative structure, as well as what is doable (Bartle 107). They have developed into understood sets of rules that become so entrenched in cultural material that they are no longer questioned or their origins, traced. Purchase a new fantasy game for Xbox or PS3 and be asked to create a character who is a magic user, fighter, or healer. Choose armor and weapons and prepare for a quest after learning about the characters world and its complex culture and mythology. These processes are routine and mundane, and the masses have now become conversant in their operation, mechanisms and tropes
A version of this essay was originally posted at http://www.hastac.org/blogs/sarahr/digital-labor-cold-war-roots on February 9, 2010.
Doing some reading over the past week, I was prompted to think about, then comment on, a chapter by Friedrich Kittler on Cold War computing technology and the implicit (and explicit) ways in which an examination of so-called “defense technology” comes into direct contact with, and within the purview of, media studies, information studies and labor studies.
Specifically, I am interested in uncovering the history of these technologies and their development, particularly when the when many defense technologies have been considered value-neutral or even as beneficial (and perhaps were, particularly when they moved from the province of military applications to consumer or mass-market ones). Additionally, the process of uncovering the hidden labor embedded in digital and computing technologies and processes, is inextricalbly tied to the critically important task of uncovering their hidden agendas, applications and roots within the military-academic-industrial complex1.
“The SAGE radar display console seen here presents a picture of the air defense situation within its assigned geographic area. Using buttons and switches on the console, the Air Force Airman First Class who is operating the console can request information to be displayed such as speed, altitude and weapons availability and location, and he can direct action to be taken against an attacker. With the light gun in his right hand, the operator selects radar tracks for identification and display on the SAGE Direction Center’s summary board.” Photo Credit: IBM online archive.
Fred Turner, in a talk a few weeks ago at the University of Illinois, referenced SAGE, for example, one of the first interlinked computer systems, and part of the U.S military’s DEW (distant early warning) system. Kittler notes, in the same writing, that the Semiautomatic Ground Environment Air Defense System, was conceived as an answer to the Soviet atomic fleet, and it brought us everything todays computer users have come to love: from the monitor to networking to mass storage (182). Many of these military innovations have found direct applications and homes in the civilian sector, a spin-off called information society [that] began with the building of a network that connected sensors (radar), effectors (jet planes), and nodes (computers) (182). Not only, therefore, has the technology developed by the military, in conjunction with partners in academe and industrial R&D, made its way into daily life, but so, too, have basic concepts of organization, processes and structures. Any study endeavoring to undertake an examination of these organisms must therefore absolutely examine ties to other systems, projects and goals, particularly during the technological boom of (and promulgated by) the Cold War.
I recently undertook a preliminary (to me) study of a state information system in late 20th century France that was developed for civilians and laypeople in the country2. While this system, popularly known as the Minitel, was fundamentally implemented for the populace at large, by tracing the policy development and goals at the root of the creation of the system, I quickly discovered that military and national sovereignty concerns were, in fact, at the core of this massive national technology project. In fact, a desire to be able to calculate nuclear strikes and impacts in simulation on IBM mainframe computers drove then-president and erstwhile war hero Charles de Gaulle to institute a state information policy where previously there had been none. To this end, Kittler’s comment that since 1941, wars no longer needed men, whether as heroes or as spies, but were victories of machines over other machines (182) does not seem like much of a reach at all.
The Third Graduate Student Conference on the History of American Capitalism: “Capitalism in Action”
Sponsored by the David Howe Fund for Business and Economic History at Harvard University.
Keynote Speaker: Jackson Lears
Discussions of American capitalism often uncritically rely on loaded but abstract terms, from “markets” to “capital.” This conference aims to bring together emerging scholars who are interested in interrogating the nitty-gritty details of how capitalist systems have been imagined, constructed, maintained, altered, and challenged by an array of different historical actors in the United States and across the globe. What does “the economy” look like once we shift our focus from intangible market models towards the concrete workings of capitalist society and culture? In this conference, we hope to expand our understanding of American history by analyzing many different moments of “capitalism in action.”
We welcome papers by fellow graduate students from many different fields, such as cultural, social or business histories of capitalism. We encourage papers on a range of diverse topics. Possible paper subjects could include anything from mortgage-backed derivatives, land speculation and the geography of garbage to corporate personhood, consumer branding and the political economy of baseball. We welcome the submission of panels as well.
Interested graduate students should submit a C.V. and a 750-word abstract of their paper (description, significance, sources, current status) to:
History of Capitalism Conference
Charles Warren Center
4th Floor Emerson Hall
Cambridge, MA 02138
The submission deadline is Nov 1st, 2010. Those selected to present will be notified by Nov 19th and receive a stipend towards travel costs.
For additional information, please see: www.fas.harvard.edu/polecon or email email@example.com. For the websites of previous conferences, please see www.fas.harvard.edu/~polecon/conference/ and www.fas.harvard.edu/~histcap/.
Faculty supervisor: Professor Sven Beckert
Organizers: Nikolas Bowie, Eli Cook, Jeremy Zallen and Caitlin Rosenthal
History of the Present, a Journal of Critical History is a new peer-reviewed journal published by the University of Illinois Press. The editors (Joan Wallach Scott, Andrew Aisenberg, Brian Connolly, Ben Kakfa, Sylvia Schafer and Mrinalini Sinha) invite submissions that approach history as a critical endeavor for publication in volume 2 number 1 (summer 2012). We are particularly interested in essays that press the boundaries of history’s disciplinary norms. In that spirit, we also seek submissions from scholars thinking through the past in fields outside of history.
We welcome articles that:
-examine the historical construction of categories of knowledge.
-analyze how relationships of power are established and maintained, and how history has served to legitimize or challenge them.
-are explicitly theorized without being restricted to the discipline’s conventional categorizations of method and subject (i.e. social, cultural, intellectual, legal, or political history).
Manuscript submissions and queries to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison seeks applicants for a tenure-track position at the rank of Assistant Professor in Media and Cultural Studies, to begin August 2011. Ph.D. in a related field required prior to start of appointment. Candidates will be expected to conduct research, develop and teach courses, and supervise graduate students in the critical/cultural analysis of television and electronic media with a specialization in at least one of the following: global media, gender and/or identity studies, or industry/production studies. Candidates must show potential for excellence in scholarly research and teaching. See also http://commarts.wisc.edu. Please submit a CV and a letter detailing interests and capabilities and arrange to have sent three letters of reference to Professor and Chair Susan Zaeske, Media and Cultural Studies Search, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 821 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706. Electronic applications will not be accepted. The deadline to assure full consideration is November 14, 2010. EOE/AA. Employment may require a criminal background check.
Unless confidentiality is requested in writing, information regarding the applicants must be released upon request. Finalists cannot be guaranteed confidentiality. The Department of Communication Arts is committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community and strongly encourages applications from women, ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented groups. Questions about the search may be directed to Professor Mary Beltrán at email@example.com.
The Women’s and Gender Studies Department, in collaboration with the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University, is pleased to announce a two-year postdoctoral fellowship supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The selected fellow will receive a stipend of $50,000 each year as well as an annual research allocation of $2,000 and Rutgers University health benefits. The fellow will pursue research and teach three courses in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department during the two-year term of her/his appointment. The fellow also will participate in seminars and other activities organized by the IRW.
The Women’s and Gender Studies Department:
http://womens-studies.rutgers.edu/ has particular interest in scholars of Asian-American Feminist Studies; Feminist Science Studies; New Media, Arts and Technology; Religion, Sexuality, and Gender; and Gendered Violence but welcomes applications from all scholars who feel that their work would benefit from affiliation with our department and with the IRW.
Herbert Schiller’s chapter “Data Deprivation,” from his 1996 work Information Inequalities, focuses on the great shift in power and control from state to private actors, resulting in a massive consolidation of power in the corporate sector, particularly over the control and dissemination of communication and information (43). Almost 15 years old, this essay draws out the peculiar of this new power structure and highlights the disturbing characteristics of that shift, including the crystallization of the already-underway processes (in the United States and, by extension, abroad, wherever the transnational influence of these companies reaches) such media conglomeration (44), leaving important informational functions, vital to a vibrant democracy, in the hands of a relatively elite few with considerable agendas of their own.
The results of the shift from state to private hands has immense and critically important ramifications, Schiller convincingly argues. One major arena of this transformation occurs in the context of an increase in the technologically-facilitated disappearance of some information (such as the case of that at the federal level in the context of changing administrations) (48), and the lack of transparency and accountability under new privatized paradigms where private corporations stand in for the government/state. Using techniques such as privatization, contracting and deregulation, corporate contractors have taken on the process of creating, managing, storing and disseminating (or hiding, in some cases) vast amounts of information. Indeed, the recent “Top Secret America” report in the Washington Post reveals that there are now over 2000 private firms engaged in data analysis for the purposes of national security alone, with little, if any, public redress available to learn more or understand what these firms do.
Meanwhile, as the government cedes control over the production and dissemination of material to corporations that treat it as commodity (46) and then are under no obligation to engage in transparency, the corporations themselves have seen a major rise in their own profile, to the point that, as Schiller describes, “corporate speech has become a dominant discourse, nationally and internationally…”, forcing individual speech aside or drowning it out completely (45). This trend has recently reached its apex, resulting in a Supreme Court ruling that has now codified the “right” of a corporation to “speak” politically (and monetarily) at a scale no individual citizen could ever reasonably hope to attain (c.f. the Citizens United case of 2010).
Schiller’s view of the near future he did not live to see may, at first blush, seem unusually prescient. Yet his clairvoyance stems simply from his engaging in tracing the logical conclusion of the tendencies he identified, in the mid-90s and much earlier, of consolidation, conglomeration, and shifting control across the military-academic-indusrial complex. Many of these tendencies have yet to fully play out and continue on today, particularly in the context of the Internet.
Robert Darnton is an historian and the Director of the Library at Harvard University whose work has focused on the history of the book, primarily in 18th century France, about which he is an expert. As such, he takes a long view, therefore, of books and book history as they pertain to the culture. His interest in and ability to dissect the complexities of the Google Book Settlement (GBS) make this article particularly helpful to those trying to get the big picture view of Google’s voracious program of digitizing the contents of the major academic libraries in the United States and elsewhere.
As the program has developed, critics have become concerned about its size and scope, lack of transparency and articulation of long-term plans. Further, the issue of so-called “orphan works,” those works that have fallen out of copyright protection and are therefore without rights holders, as well as hints of monopoly practices have been of particular concern. Furthermore, Darnton highlights a more generalized concern about Google, in general, which is their lack of commitment to the public good on any long-term basis. Despite their company motto that espouses do-gooding as the primary mission statement (“Don’t be evil”), Google remains a for-profit private entity: “as a commercial enterprise, Google’s first duty is to provide a profit for its shareholders, and the settlement leaves no room for representation of libraries, readers, or the public in general” (Darnton 2009).
As Google Books has turned its eye offshore, some of its potential target markets and sites of content, France and Germany, responded from a state level, with typically high-brow/high-culture arguments appealing to each country’s long history of resisting the commodification and control of its cultural output by others. The case of France is particularly reminiscent of another attempt by that nation to resist U.S. corporate digital hegemony, constructing the Minitel, a major national digital communications infrastructure and platform, in large part to resist the encroachment of IBM.
Yet the US government has finally, albeit weakly, gotten into the anti-GBS act. Instead of the high-culture protectionist rhetoric of Germany and France, the Department of Justice preferred an appeal to free markets. Darnton finds irony in “foreign governments defending a European notion of culture against the capitalistic inroads of an American company.”
One of the DoJ’s main concerns centered around the issue of orphan works, which, in Google’s original plans, would simply be sucked up into the GBS, with the potential to be sold back, via the subscription service it is planning around the project, rather than relegating it to a place in the commons. The new solution in GBS 2.0 does little to resolve the issue, as the proposed opt-in vs. the current opt-out paradigm, remains unenforced. Google can obtain content unless the creator(s) opt out. If a creator cannot be located, or does not know to object, the material is considered fair game for inclusion, and Google can happily digitize, repackage and sell the material. This turns the GBS situation into one of _obligatory_ produsage, where the seeming nuance of “opt-in” vs. “opt-out” actually becomes the key factor. And, once again, the regime of contracts seems to trump other regimes and operate as de facto law.
Darnton, writing in November of last year, proposes state intervention in the form of a national digital library, as a viable alternative to the GBS. Reading now, such a notion seems like a naive and distant dream, just slightly less than a year later, in the midst of economic meltdown, gulf oil disaster, unrelenting war and the biggest release of digital state documents in American history – an event which will undoubtedly sour the government against any new entrees into facilitating digital data access by the people. Meanwhile, Google will chug merrily along, ingesting unquantifiable amounts of material into its insatiable mouth.