November 27, 2010

If I could have, I would have

Category: Academic,Digital Media — Biella @ 10:56 am

As I previously blogged about, I wrote an Annual Review of Anthropology on digital media last year. About a month ago, I found out that anyone can download it thanks to a link provided by the ARA, which we are allowed to put on one institutional web page. So go here (and go to the citation for the link) for those who are interested in a way too short review of some of the ethnographic literature on digital media.

Writing the piece left me many psychological wounds and scars, one of which had to do with the fact that I probably overlooked some folks. I have been left out of review type essays and honestly, it sucks. I tried to be as comprehensive as possible: I chose not to massively whittle down the scope (which was an option) and was able to smuggle in more citations than originally allowed and yet I still cut out 200 citations. But in the end I overlooked some folks as I found out about them too late. If I could go back in time, this is who I would include (well there are others but I have chosen these for now).

So Shaka McGlotten: not only does he have a cool name, he studies some cool stuff like DIY online porn, race, and zombies. He has published a bunch of articles and a book is forthcoming. Check out his work here.

I missed this book Online a Lot of the Time: Ritual, Fetish, and Sign by Ken Hills which looks quite pertinent and a great read.

Jonathan Marshall is an anthropologist in Sydney who has been working on digital stuff for a long while now and recently published Living Cybermind, which covers in detail modes of interacting and communicating in a detailed examination of a mailing list by the name of Cybermind.

Although this book is not out yet, it will be soon and looks fascinating: Digital Jesus (great cover). From what I understand, and one of the reasons I want to dive into the book , is because it is so longitudinal, at least when measured in Internet years. Rob Howard has studied Christians online since the days of Usenet to the present and thus this ethnography promises to have some real meat to it.

I am eagerly anticipating the forthcoming book by Beth Coleman . I had a chance to read a chapter recently and it looks fantastic. While in some respects grounded in virtual worlds, it is far more expansive than that topic, addressing a range of issues from desire, experience, emotion and race. Can’t wait.

I cite four dissertations in the ARA mostly because I read them, thought they were great, and material based on the dissertation is en route to being published in some form in the next future. The one dissertation I wish I had read is Jenny Cool’s thesis on cyberorganic.

July 14, 2010

Annual Review of Anthropology on Digital Media

I don’t remember how but I remember when I first stumbled on an “Annual Review of Anthropology.” Reading the first one was like stumbling accidentally into a pirate chest of gold doubloons. I was simultaneously flabbergasted, elated, and somewhat annoyed. I could not believe how helpful of a resource the articles were, how interesting it was to learn about the state of the field (since each review covers one topic) and what a time saver it was in terms of research. I was annoyed only because no one had really properly clued me into its existence and felt like it was one of the things that every graduate student should know about like before they even entered their program.

When I got asked to write one a few years ago, a mix of conflicting emotions welled up. I was honored and horrified at the same time for I knew that it would require some of the heaviest lifting I have ever engaged in, which turned out to be the case. I almost quit twice but managed to turn in the first draft on time, before the deadline (thanks to a scheduled trip to NZ).

After a parade of months of reading, drafting, and rethinking, the uncorrected proofs are now online on the ARA wesbite (you need library access to fetch it and the link is tiny and on the right hand corner). The corrected proofs will be there in a few months but all the mistakes at this point are typos, although I would check back to get the final copy for the purposes of citation.

There is a lot more I want to say about the piece and the process of writing it but I will leave such ruminations for future posts. For now, it suffices to say that with a piece like this, you become a dart board, as my friend cleverly put it the other night. I am sure I have overlooked folks (I was working within very thrifty parameters, 6000 words, 150 citations though I managed to get a bit more) and I could have pushed everything further than I did, though this again was very hard to do given the constraints. I decided in the end to be as inclusive as I could, which meant sacrificing a few lines of thought, which I hope to pick up in the future. The part I like the most is the last bit, where I conclude by with the help of systems administrators and spam.

April 20, 2010

On Internet Punditry and Engendering Change

Category: Academic,Digital Media,Gender — Biella @ 7:22 am

One day a very well known Internet theorist writes a rant on women. The rant generates controversy, controversy lands theorist on WYNC on the media , despite the fact the he does not really work on the politics of gender. If this is so, why then give him more air time and focus on the NPR show? There are three lessons that precipitate from this social fact that are worth highlighting:

1.The fact that NPR chose him to pontificate and not… a woman nullifies Shirky’s thesis that behavior is one of the most important factors in keeping women behind, unless of course NPR asked a bunch of women but they were too meek to be on the air (not likely). If they wanted to keep the star power that is Shirky, the very least they could have done is had a woman respond. The solutions to get more women in the limelight are so easy to implement but they do require some thoughtfulness and foresight.

2.So what I am saying, it is about networks and Shirky, isn’t he a theorist of networks and behavior? It seems to be to more controversial, he really did not address how important networks are for the politics of visibility, instead he focused on individual behavior. If famous highly networked folks, most of them men, don’t highlight women in their blog posts, their twitter feeds, and don’t invite them to conferences, it is going to make very little difffernce whether a woman is meek or confident. So if there are more guys that are visible, which is certainly the case, it is as much their job to help engender change, not so much by pontificating but acting.

3. I realized that though I first thought his rant was a reflection of his personality (at least his public persona, I am sure he is a nice guy), in fact the rant is valuable to an anthropologist interested in digital media because it is an auto-ethnographic snapshot of web 2.0 punditry culture. It often comes across as smarmy and snarky, which is due in part, to how difficult it is to get your message heard in the sea of many voices. Just like there is an aesthetic of audaciousness in a lot of Internet memeology, for example, the pundits too must often act in extreme ways to get attention–which might inf fact be one of the reasons why they are reluctant to share the stage once they have worked hard to get there.

January 4, 2010

All tech

Category: Academic,Digital Media,IP Law,Phreaking,Piracy,Politics — Biella @ 5:32 am

Fall semester I did not teach any classes that covered digital media (in part because I was swimming in the stuff writing a review essay on the topic, which I am sending today to the journal, ending about 4 months of hell).

On the other hand, spring semester will be all about digital media: hackers, free software, privacy, piracy, phone phreaking and more. I am excited. Here is my graduate syllabus on the commons and piracy and here is my undergraduate class on hacking. Both are still under development but pretty far along.

December 1, 2009

The Politics of Piracy and Spicing the Political Life

Category: Academic,Canada,Digital Media,IP Law,Piracy,Pirates,Politics — Biella @ 7:36 pm

Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable. Stephen Duncombe

This fall I have been awash in a few obsessions including book piracy and spam. I recently got to talk about one of these obsessions when I was interviewed about book piracy by Nora Young for her weekly CBC radio and podcast show Spark. I mostly gave a lay of the land panorama with a nod toward some of the conditions, technological and social, that can help us grasp the contemporary explosion of book piracy and also raised some thoughts about what might change the future landscape.

What I don’t raise is whether a politics built around an explicit embrace of “piracy” is regressive, progressive, or something else but these ethical questions were posed in the comments left for the full interview. Some of the comments pointed to the pitfalls and shortcoming that can follow the terminology of piracy many of which I share.

But what keeps me interested in the politics of piracy is how it can speak the language of spectacle, which can be a powerful tactic and technique for broadcasting a political message. Here I just paraphrasing and cribbing the work of Stephen Duncombe, who has argued, I think quite persuasively, that we cannot rely solely on reasoned debate for building political programs. Duncombe does not argue that we must toss out rationality and truth seeking (these are absolutely necessary) but notes how on their own or if not clothed in some other cloak, they may not be enough to convey and compel, especially in this day of total media saturation. Or to put a but more poetically by him “Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable.”

Much (though not all) of contemporary digital piracy follows the logic of spectacle. It builds and conveys a fantastical drama of right and wrong, of new possibilities, of freedom from the noose of the law; it signals and speaks to the thrill and fun in twisting, even breaking, existing structures and constraints; and provides a window into another way of acting/behaving. In many cases what it provides is a commons (and I will be exploring it in depth in my class next semester on the commons) and many folks, I imagine, turn to piracy simply for the free stuff, and a number of them come out of the other side transformed into copy fighters willing to engage in a politics beyond sharing stuff and waving the pirate flag.

For those of us who believe in greater access and different ways of imagining structures and strategies of re-compensation, piracy on its own is not certainly enough and I understand fully and even to some degree, share the skepticism many feel toward such language. But I am not quite ready to declare a politics of piracy as always politically bankrupt or necessarily backward. I guess what I embrace is a diverse political ecology. For some, the drama of spectacle and thrill of transgression are what turns their political mojo on; for others it is the cool and reasoned debate common to policy and reform; for others, they want to focus on building alternatives as we see with Free Software or radical tech collectives. For some, it is both the reasoned salt and the transgressive pepper that spices their political world. And I would rather have more spice than less, especially in an era where the blandness of political apathy is that which is our most dangerous enemy.

Related Links:

Here is a wonderful animation by the NZ Book Council that captures what I love about books and renders its materiality wonderfully alive. On the Media has a episode on book publishing and Cory Doctorow has penned some thoughts about the future of book selling. If you want to keep abreast on the politics of liberating books, check out Free our Books. If you are more interested in the technical side of things, check out the book liberator project.

November 10, 2009

Fsck Purity: The Politics and Pleasures of Free Software

The great thing about living and working in NYC is that there is a steady stream of conferences to attend, such as the fast approaching digital labor conference entitled ‘Internet as Playground and Factory.’ The problem is that since I live 1/3 of the year in San Juan and often get stranded and stuck when my mother gets hospitalized, as is the case now, I am often not in NYC. Depending on my mom’s prognosis tomorrow, I may or may not make it but I am working on my slides and revamping a few of my thoughts as I would like to attend.

My new title is one I think some readers of the blog might enjoy: “Fsck Purity: The politics and pleasures of free software” (thanks karl) and the talk will be part of a panel “The Emancipatory Politics of Play” with Chris Kelty, Fred Turner, and Ben Peters. If you are interested in attending, register soon as it is free and open to the public but requires advanced registration. There are also already a collection of short interviews videos available, the one by me is a basic discussion of the politics of free software, conducted at the end of a very long teaching day, so I am not sure it makes any sense. I never watch my own interviews so I can’t quite be the judge :-)

November 3, 2009

Touching Music via the Voice-O-Graph

Category: Academic,Aesthetics,Digital Media,Ethics,Music — Biella @ 7:54 am

In no way can I be describe myself as music aficionado for I rarely seek music. But music being that it makes its way into your ears through so many venues and vehicles, certainly finds me. A few years ago I stumbled upon Owen Chapman’s music at live performance (using ice among other objects) at a conference on copyright’s counterparts.

I immediately loved it not only because it is a genre of electronic music I tend to like but because of the depth of its texture. While all music enfolds this feature, when I listen to his music, it is as if I am not listening to music but also touching it (and vice-versa).

He just released an album whose song and sounds keep with his signature style of deep texture. It also makes an ethical call and claim: since remixing/sampling is citational, akin to academic quotation, it thus deserves a kind of explicit recognition and commentary. To honor this he is providing his music free of charge once one dips in with their own commentary and contribution. Full details and music here

October 12, 2009

Digital Anthropology, the Anthropology of the Digital

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Digital Media,Hackers,My Work — Biella @ 4:17 am

I have not been a frequent fixture on my own blog as I am writing what is called an “Annual Review of Anthropology” on digital media and ethnography. Truth be told it is killing me as there is a 6000 word limit and 100-150 works one must mention and entertain (usually by throwing in some categorical statement that makes sense for 10+ works). One thing is clear: the literature on digital media by anthropologists is switching from trickle to steady and very interesting stream. Even if I Epically Fail, I have already learned a lot, which is what I keep telling myself as I struggle through the writing stage of the article.

But if you want a taste of some recent work, there are some blog entries you can check out: Daniel Miller who was one of the first anthropologists to venture in this area (and kick-started the first program in digital anthro) at UCL has written a nice review of various books recently published. And for the same blog, I wrote an overview
of my work on hacking, liberalism, and pleasure. So if you want a short introduction to the books being published by anthropologists on digital media, I highly recommend checking Daniel Miller’s post.