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.
Also worthy of special note was the Saturday morning panel, chaired by Alice Marwick, entitled, “Brand Me Online: Sustaining Personal Identity through Strategies of the Corporate.” Along with the panel on Google, this panel, featuring Terri Senft, Andrew Herman, Marwick and danah boyd, engaged critically with hegemony and control being exerted by the dominance of (and domination by) the largest digital media platforms. Of special interest was discussion of the ways in which resistance to constraints might be negotiated within these same spaces; danah boyd, for example, discussed how young people and teens practice new formulations of private communication in very public fora (e.g., Twitter) using coded language and conventions known primarily within their own groups (she called this a form of “steganography”). I couldn’t help but think of the long lineage and history of the use of coded language and symbols – one small example being a perennial favorite of mine, Polari, – among LGBT/queer and other similarly marginalized and persecuted people. Indeed, this connection was clear to others in the audience; David Phillips of University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information brought up the issue of queer people as he remarked on the talk during the Q&A. Nevertheless, while these young people may be able to obfuscate meaning or avoid detection from parental or other authority figures, we must traverse this same ground to question how teen engagement – and by extension, all engagement – in commercial spaces might lead to (ta da) an illusion of volition – a belief that they are exerting control and choices over their engagement that could more accurately be described as the negotiation of prescribed digital constraints (cue Marc Andrejevic on this one).
This may be more evident when we examine engagement not from the perspective of potential audience but rather vis-à-vis the platform owners. Issues of digital labor as discussed by Marwick were also of particular interest to me, based on my own current projects and inquiries in this area, including enough references to favorite scholars of mine that it constituted an academic hit parade!
Finally, Friday’s keynote on green IT from Peter Arnfalk, with a focus on the true-to-hype amazingly progressive Sweden, was timely and interesting. I especially appreciated the focus on e-waste as I view the entirety of the production process as an issue that we, internet researchers, scholars and both promoters and critics of technology, must focus on. I also greatly anticipated the talk from my colleague, Safiya U. Noble, on her critical perspective on commercial GIS – a much-needed addition to our understanding of consolidation of power and control through ICTs. Despite the fact that her talk was cut, due to the session running behind, to an insane SIX MINUTES, she was able to speed through her presentation and still leave the audience members with much food for thought. Her paper on this topic is forthcoming, as well, for those who would like to engage further.
With the other highlights now becoming too numerous to mention, I should summarize by saying what a worthwhile, provocative and genuinely fun time this conference was. I appreciate so much the efforts of the organizers and the student volunteers at Chalmers University. The hospitality I experienced in Göteborg was phenomenal, not to mention the general vibe of the city as a whole. I could not help but marvel, for example, over the way in which Swedish drivers would stop – without apparent rancor – for pedestrians at every crosswalk. When I mentioned this a few times, the Swedish people to whom I expressed my amazement stated simply, “Well, it’s the law!” I mean…it’s the law here, too, right? Doesn’t mean I care to step out into traffic and press my luck anytime soon.
Thanks for a great event.
And here is Michael Zimmer’s AoIR roundup, too!