September 7, 2010


This summer of 2010 has been memorable. It started with a difficult period following the hospitalization and death of my mother, a series of very intense and equally memorable conferences catapulting me out of my funk and ending with a trip to Ireland, perhaps one of my most pleasant trips ever. I have always wanted to go there, as I have some good Irish friends and I was also quite attracted to the place due to its history, so when the opportunity came for me to go, I did not hesitate to book my ticket. I was not left disappointed in any way, shape or form, although since I barely experienced the gray, misty, and rainy weather Irish is famous for, my experience may admittedly be a bit skewed.

These are some of things I did and some of my fragmented thoughts about Ireland and some photos, proof that the weather was UnIrish

Ireland and The Irish: Well I can’t—as no one can—speak of The Irish as if they were some unitary group but I did learn a lot about Irish history and managed hang out with a number Irish folks (even a family) and one thing that seems to mark Ireland as distinct, what makes it stand out from the rest of its Western European brothers and sisters, is the pervasive sense of history bleeding into the ambiance, perhaps because it is so tragic. The short version of the history, if you don’t know it, is that the Irish, especially the Catholics, got repeatedly screwed by the British monarchs/rulers/planters/government/ for nearly a thousand years, the last five hundred of those being particularly harsh and ugly, a cycle of slight gains crushed by various forms of tyranny and violence at least until part of the country achieved independence (Northern Ireland is a bit of a different story).

I may have gone a bit out of my way to learn about Irish history, more than I have done for any other place, but this historical consciousness seemed to be inescapable, precipitating into all sorts of conversations and places. To take one example, I went to see Gaelic Football, one of the two beloved national sports (the other being hurling), and the minute you learn anything about this sport, you learn that it is intimately bound with the Irish fight for independence and nationalism.

The Irish are also very warm, kind, and outgoing. They also seem to curse an awful lot as well, so much so cursing is a bit of a national pastime, which yes, I (f*cking) loved as I tend to have a bit of a foul mouth myself, curbed I will admit, in recent years and in the classroom. It crept up in a lot of places but was most pronounced during the All Ireland Semi-Final Gaelic football game when the ladies (not lads, mind you) behind me were constantly yelling at the referee, hurling the c-word (rhymes with trunk) whenever they made a call they disagreed with.

EASA/Maynooth.: I went to Ireland to attend the largest Anthropological meetings in Europe, and in specific an all day panel on digital anthropology, which seemed like a great opportunity given we are a a bit of a minority. The conference was impressively large with roughly 1200 attendees (can you believe there are that many anthropologists?), smoothly run, and the all-day panel on digital media was quite lively and I got to meet some really interesting folks. I was a tad sad to find out Maynooth is the only university in Ireland with an Anthropology department (for crying shame lads!!!) but at least it is located in a darn stunning university: the old quarters of the campus are strikingly beautiful.

Anonymous: I have done some work on Anonymous and well when I found out there was going to be a raid/protest at the Church of Scientology (a pretty dismal, and run down church), I got in contact with Irish anon to let them know I was coming. Although someone first decapitated me (at least in character with their norms, right?), when I showed up in person, they were not only civil but really quite hospitable (greeting me with one of my favorite songs). Overall it was a great day. I was reminded of important differences among Anons (Irish Anon’s take their anonymity pretty seriously, the New York Anons do not) and also good to experience the social life and metabolism of a protest, especially one attended by folks who have lost family to the church.

Dublin: Since I stayed with my friend and his family in Dublin, this is where I spent most of my time. I was able to hook up with various friends, including one from graduate school who just got back from years of fieldwork in Rwanda and hearing about his experiences and stunning but stunningly sad project made me feel like mine in comparison was Child’s Play (in fact, it really was). I got to see the Debian crew (many who work at Google) and I finally paid a visit to the office, which was exactly how I imagined it to be (good and abundant food, good lighting, lots of toys and bikes, lots of Star Wars posters.. Yep, it could have been in Silicon Valley). But I was surprised at the young age of the marketing and sales folks who were hanging in their lounge when I ran into them. In fact when I saw them I thought like I was looking at my freshman class or something! It was great to see the Debian folks (though no one I met was actually Irish), as well, one of my favorite things to do whenever I visit a foreign city.

I walked my heart out in the city getting a blister in a shoe that I thought was blister proof and while not as picturesque as some other European cities, it has a ton of character and no shortage of Guinness and pubs (no surprise there). My favorite places/things were: The National Library (great exhibit on Yeats, but make sure to use the multi-media as that is where all the information is stuffed), St. Stephen’s Park (overflowing with chubby ducks and lovely flowers), the prison Kilmainham Gaol (would not advise a visit if you are feeling in any way down, there is some heavy shit you learn during the tour), the simple stained glass that seemed pretty common, and finally the Long Room in Trinity Church, which you enter after the Book of Kells (I realized just how much I adore books when I visited this old library stuffed from floor to ceiling with old old old books).

The West Coast: I did not think I was going to head out west but after hurricane Earl started its burst along the eastern Seaboard and I was able to change my ticket for free so I stayed a few more days. I went to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher both totally stunning, really majestic. As is often the case with these type of these natural wonders, I am often left elated and awed but such strikingly wondrous places also seem to subsequently spur a more melancholic state of mind and heart.

Friends, Family, and Dogs: While in Dublin I stayed with my friend A. and his extremely hospitable family, which included, a brother, a father, and three Irish mutts, one of which, Buster (pitt bull/lab mix), pretty much stole my heart. Buster’s true love, is food, so much so he almost poised himself to death a little while back snorting down something he shouldn’t have costing the family a pretty penny to save him. My friend no longer lives there but came from Berlin and it was a real treat to not only spend days layered upon each other with a friend (it has been an awful long since I have done that outside of conferences) but also meet his family. You learn a lot about your friends that way and in this case, there is some serious and I mean serious intellectual jousting that happens, sometimes bordering on warfare but generally it plays out in more contained, civil and fascinating fashion. Now I understand why my friend is armed with seemingly endless knowledge: it was needed for purposes of defense at home.

So in essence, a great, great trip and a fantastic way to end a memorable summer and transition into what I hope will be a bit of a monkish (I call it monk mode) period for this academic year. I am (so so so) fortunate enough to have a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study and am going to try my darnest to take advantage of the fact I am not teaching (Hell Yes!) and hide away and accomplish all that I have set out to do.

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.

March 12, 2010

Stuff I have been enjoying (a freaken lot)

So in the last week I have read some stuff, seen some presentations, and visited some sites that I have really loved, so here they are to share:

Trollcats (this will take my power point slides to a whole NEW level) and here is one for all the free software geeks, in particular.

I finally read Manuela Carneiro da Cunha fantastic Prickly Paradigm press book “Culture” and Culture: Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Rights. If you don’t know jack about the thorny issues around indigenous knowledge an IPR, the first 2/3 provides a pretty darn good introduction rooted not only in an explanation of trade treaties, the limited repertoire available for indigenous groups to politically respond, but a great story about a specific frog that secretes a sticky film that basically F’s you up (if you let it seep in your open wounds). It is entertaining. The last 1/3 takes a far more theoretical turn and will be harder to understand for novices (it helps if you have like at least a BA, possibly MA in anthro, best if you have a PhD from her academic home, U of Chicago). It is there where she discusses the relationship between culture as “reflexive” (hey, peoples of the world, we have x, y, c culture) as lived unreflexively (the unconscious plane of norms that helps guide perception and action). I loved her theoretical somersaults whereby she explained how contradictions between the two are experienced as anything but a contradiction.

Ok so today I went to this conference Radars and Fences III (where I presented my anon/scientology talk for the first time 3 years ago!). I was not able to stay the whole day but I saw Ricardo Dominguez & Amy Sara Carroll from the Electronic Disturbance Theater present on the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which I knew about but did not know how infused it was in poetry, poetry that is, in fact, an integral part of its arsenal. Their presentation was fantastic and it reminds me the great political work being done at the interface of art and technology (and believe me, these 2 are rabble rousers. UCSD, who helped fund the project, are not all that happy they did and they also get not hate mail they get but the HATE mail).

Then I saw Laila El Haddad & Mushon Zer-Aviv present on an amazing project You are Not Here which is a bit hard to explain briefly but I will try (and their site introduces it as “an urban tourism mash-up. It takes place in the streets of one city and invites participants to become meta-tourists of another city.”

So basically there are two interlinked sites (NYC and Baghdad and Tel Aviv and Gaza) where you can be a tourist (though the physical place to follow the symbols are only in NYC and Tel Aviv). You need a map. You get a map. The map, once put up to the light shows two cities/places with symbols that indicate a special spot on the map. You find the physical spot, there is sticker or other sign with a phone number, you call, and you hear a story not about NYC or Tel Aviv (where you would physically go) but about Baghdad or Gaza and a story that pertains to the area of the map that overlaps where you are in NYC or Tel Aviv. We saw a bunch of examples and they were riveting and powerful.

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.

June 23, 2009

If you ever have wondered

Category: Academic,Anthropology — Biella @ 8:04 am

Fieldwork: it is THE method used by anthropologist and is often treated as a loosey goosey set of experiences and techniques, partly because it is. But only partly. If you have ever wanted to read more about fieldwork, my friend Alex Golub has written an interesting account of fieldwork in terms of two realizations.

December 20, 2008

Anon visits NYU, the audio

Category: Academic,Anonymous,Anthropology,Geek,Politics,Teaching — Biella @ 5:30 pm

Since they beat me to it and I am swamped with stuff/errands/cleaning/grading/everything else, here is the audio from Anon’s great visit to my class on Dec 8th. I will throw up a copy on my server tonight as well.

Warning: Not lots but in fact tons of expletives.

November 16, 2008

Getting the attention of large organizations

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Not Wholesome — Biella @ 5:41 am

A few years ago, I posted a story about my frustrations with Blue Cross Blue Shield. They were not coughing up the dough for a 4000 dollar bill and for the life of me, I could not get them to do it and I could not even get in touch with people in the organization to help me. After that post circulated, the Public Relations director wrote me and this helped me get the access I needed to eventually get all the money (it did take almost 3 years though and I should write about that but later).

Though the ethical stakes and scenario are totally different, I have had equal problems contacting someone, a live body, a person who might reply to an email, a person who might return a phone call, from the American Anthropological Association. Next week is their Annual Meeting in San Francisco, CA and I am giving a presentation. I simply want to inquire whether there is A/V equipment in the room for if there is not, I need to do some serious shuffling of my talk because it is currently so dependent on the audio visual components.

Given that I coughed up $ 400 bucks (and some change) to be a member and to attend the zoo that is this conference, given that it costs money to fly there, given that it is a member supported organization, one would think that one could just get a simple answer to a simple question. I realize they are not staffed to field endless inquiries but it is a conference they are putting on and thus, I do expect an answer or basic information about the A/V equipment (which we also requested when we signed up) especially after 1.5 months of trying.

Anyhow, I am frustrated and I realize this is a really silly and small annoyance. But if no one ever calls them on it, there is no way for them to every change their archaic and pathetic ways.

June 28, 2008

On Anthropology, Participant Observation, and Non-Places

Category: Academic,Anthropology — Biella @ 2:10 am

When you are in a foreign city, Dakar, Tunis, Tokyo, the spaces and sights are disorienting for they unfamiliar. But there are a few spots (hotels, supermarkets), that bring you back the familiar and these places have been theorized by French Anthropologist Marc Auge as non-spaces. Here is a nice interview with Auge on the difference between ethnology, anthropology, as well as his description of non-places:

I tried to characterize these new emerging spaces by the term “non-places” which empirically makes note of the extension of these new spaces in our world; spaces of circulation giving us the sense that the earth is small, spaces of communication (possibly virtual spaces), or even of consumption, since a large part of what circulates aims to put products into circulation (and possibly the men who produce them) such that the activity of consumption reproduces society itself. Such spaces of circulation, of communication and consumption, including the technical capabilities that make it possible for them to be visited or concentrated (the airport, the supermarket, the freeway, etc.), are what I have designated by the term “non-place”.

June 25, 2008

The Cultural Significance of Free Software

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Chris_Kelty,Hackers,Open Access,Tech — Biella @ 6:33 am

When it comes to research and writing, anthropologists are notorious for being slow as molasses. It takes, on average, 9 years to finish grad school and then another 3-6 years before you write and publish your first book. Such is the sometimes frustrating pace of academia. But sometimes it is worth the wait as this new book, Two Bits, the Cultural Significance of Free Software by the anthropologist of science and technology Chris Kelty, makes clear.

I am pretty intimate with the details of the book as ck was one of my dissertation committee members. I have read earlier versions and was fortunate enough to teach the final version to a small group of graduate students last spring. While there have been previous books on the subject of open source or peer-to-peer production more generally, this is the first book to delve deep, analytically and historically, into the cultural significance of free software. And the best part is that ck managed (I am not sure how but he did) to convince Duke University Press to release the whole book under a CC license. So download it to your heart’s delight and if you find it useful, do order a treeware copy (as you can’t beat that for easy and comfortable reading).

For the developers out there, I would suggest starting with the introduction, which provides an initial overview of some of the main themes he develops and then I would dig into part two where the historical chapters reside and then loop back to the theoretical chapters in part one or continue to part three.

Trust me, these will fascinate and surprise even those geeks with a relatively deep historical sense of this world. In fact, my very favorite academic piece on free software exists in these pages: and is the chapter on the history of the actual conflict between James Gosling and Richard Stallman that led to the creation of the GNU General Public License. Here is a small excerpt to whet your appetite:

In brief the controversy was this: in 1983 James Gosling decided to sell his version of EMACS—a version written in C for UNIX called GOSMACS—to a commercial software vendor called Unipress. GOSMACS, the second most famous implementation of EMACS (after Stallman’s itself ), was written when Gosling was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. For years, Gosling had distributed GOSMACS by himself and had run a mailing list on Usenet, on which he answered queries and discussed extensions. Gosling had explicitly asked people not to redistribute the program, but to come back to him (or send interested parties to him directly) for new versions, making GOSMACS more of a benevolent dictatorship than a commune. Gosling maintained his authority, but graciously accepted revisions and bug-fixes and extensions from users, incorporating them into new releases. Stallman’s system, by contrast, allowed users to distribute their extensions themselves, as well as have them included in the “official” EMACS. By 1983, Gosling had decided he was unable to effectively maintain and support GOSMACS—a task he considered the proper role of a corporation.
[ . . .]
Indeed, the general irony of this complicated situation was certainly not as evident as it might have been given the emotional tone of the debates: Stallman was using code from Gosling based on permission Gosling had given to Labalme, but Labalme had written code for Gosling which Gosling had commercialized without telling Labalme—conceivably, but not likely, the same code. Furthermore, all of them were creating software that had been originally conceived in large part by Stallman (but based on ideas and work on TECO, an editor written twenty years before EMACS), who was now busy rewriting the very software Gosling had rewritten for UNIX. The “once proud hacker ethic” that Labalme mentions would thus amount not so much to an explicit belief in sharing so much as a fast-and-loose practice of making contributions and fixes without documenting them, giving oral permission to use and reuse, and “losing” records that may or may not have existed—hardly a noble enterprise.
[. . .]

The story is a lively one, punctuated with some great e-mail “moments,” and gives you a play-by-play sense of how it is that free software become so entangled with the law and how the unwritten norms that guided sharing were violated to then become transformed, explicit, and written.

The other chapter that will also fascinate those who want a deeper sense of this history is on UNIX and its role in creating the technical and collaborative conditions necessary to secure the explosion of free software years later. “The story of the norms of sharing source code is, not by accident,” writes Kelty, “also the history of the UNIX operating system.” This connection has been made by others but not shown in any historical detail as it is done in this book.

For those interested in more anthropological issues, the first few chapters is where this type of more conceptual theorizing is at. Chris Kelty introduces the master trope of his book: the recursive public which is an idea that feeds into a longer academic debate, inaugurated by Jurgen Habermas, on the role of publicity, dialogue, and circulation of ideas and texts in cementing a democratic sphere. Many others, such as Charles Taylor, Michael Warner, and Nancy Fraser have since refigured and rehashed the meaning publics and public debate but there have been few ethnographies on the topic. It is here where Chris Kelty intervenes most forcefully to conceptualize publics in explicitly ethnographic terms and in an arena—technology and the Internet—which is often left undertheorized by cultural theorists. There is a lot more in the book (the third section examines some of the various political modulations of free software, such as Connexions and Creative Commons) but instead of saying any more, I will just leave you with his definition of a recursive public and again urge you to check out the book for yourself!

“A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.”

June 8, 2008

Anthropologocial Wonders and Myopias North and South

Category: Academic,Anthropology,F/OSS,IP Law,Tech — Biella @ 2:28 am

Four years ago, the last time I was in Brazil, I came as an anthropologist-in-training to attend and give a talk at Debconf4 held in Porto Alegre. I have returned to this city in the south, again in the winter, but this time I have come back as an anthropologist who is giving a talk at the department of anthropology at the UFRGS, based on my research conducted many years ago. This time, thanks to my (really friendly and energetic) hosts, I am seeing far more of the actual city, its beautiful and aaaamaazing sunsets, its outlying neighborhoods, and even its subcultures.

This has been my first foreign trip where I am interacting primarily with anthropologists and this has been really interesting for me. On the one hand, because of the language difference, there is a lot that is strange and hard for me to follow and I am acutely aware of the general and particular economic gulf between north and south and its impact on students (books are expensive, traveling for conferences is very difficult, and even applying to graduate schools in the north can be impossible because it costs so much to apply to each school!) On the other hand, the methods and subjects of study, the style of analysis, and the teaching are all very familiar, making me feel like I am part of a discipline that (thankfully) transcends national borders. Many of the projects I learned about–the tensions between free software advocacy and development, the role of memory among fan’s of a “corny” country/Gaucho singer from this area and the “surgical management” of intersex (hermaphrodite) newborns were some of the most interesting projects I have come across and gobbled as much information about them as I could.

I was also struck, yet again, by the deep myopias of anthropology, north and south. My own project, which focuses mostly on white, American and European hackers, often does not strike as culturally authentic enough because, well, the people I study are white, American and European (and I am slowly coming to see that if you study the so-called white and male or the North American/European elements of technology and the Internet and the law, you are probably white and male yourself and anything having to do with ethnicity/gender is usually the province of female academics, which I find really problematic).

If I had carried out my first project in Brazil, where there is a foreign language, where there is a long tradition of studying various groups, then my project would have been stamped by that mysterious aura of authenticity/approval. On the other hand, two of the students here (those that worked on free software and the country singer) complained that their papers have yet to be accepted by the Brazilian Anthropological Association for being too strange, non-traditional, and it seems in their case, the problem is that they are studying urban Brazilian, popular culture (which for me would have just been “just” the thing to study). We are located far apart but find ourselves in similar positions by virtue of studying something geographically close to where we live, which is confused and misperceived as being culturally close to our world. But if there is something I wish to hammer into my students and other anthropologists is that there is tremendous plurality and multiplicity within our own societies. We can travel far, in the cultural sense, just by staying home and opening our eyes a little wider.

Another nice experience is that I am learning a tremendous amount about free software politics and development from the graduate student, Luis Felipe, who is really responsible for getting me down here. He found me on IRC many moons ago and finally we have been able to compare notes and have long conversations about free software, the differences in how we can gather data due to gender, and a topic close to me, which is the tension between the political and apolitical in free software.

Our relationship is at once based on friendship and also one of mentoring. And it reminds me of others who have also mentored me and how crucial this mentoring was to the development of my own work. One of my most important mentors, Chris Kelty, just published his book on Free Software (and I will soon write an entry about the book but the WHOLE THING IS ONLINE) and so it felt quite nice that we were discussing what I think his one of his most amazing chapters on the creation of the copyleft in our class on Friday. Not only was the topic about the genesis of the first free software license appropriate for a class on IP, but in many ways, because of his mentoring, I have gotten to where I am and so it felt also appropriate to honor and recognize that genealogy in my own work.