I recently had the honor of moderating Weblandia the first keynote panel for Theorizing the Web 2017. I sat down with Sharon Zukin, Ava Koffman, and Kyle Chayka to talk about cities' relationship to the web and all the ways culture and city services are being rationalized and homogenized for the benefit of private capital. The whole talk was recorded and you can watch it above by scrolling down and clicking on "Weblandia" in the playlist.
I had the honor of being invited to speak at NEW INC as part of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation fifth annual Interpretations symposium. I was on a panel with Gabriella Coleman and Mary N Taylor.
This Tuesday at CAC Woodside I'll be one of several presenters at the monthly Pecha Kucha:
Holding Things in Common: One Small Step towards an Alternative to Capitalism
Typically when we hear something has fallen to the "Tragedy of the Commons" we imagine a lack of structure or regulation, when in fact the real tragedy that befell the English commons and similar institutions was one of too much control by too few people. How can we build new organizations that hold resources in common and what sorts of metrics can we use to measure our success?
More information here.
Or: Questionable Efficiencies: Recursive Depth as an Anti-Capitalist Metric. Below is the text and slides of a presentation I gave at the Generative Justice Conference held at RPI on June 27 & 28, 2014.
Today I want to talk about an issue that is very abstract, and yet plays an integral and indeed very material role in just about every life on the planet. This presentation could be described as mostly theoretical, in that all of my examples are in service of a more general and abstract point, but I just want to make clear on the outset that what I’m proposing today is very specific and very concrete. Before I tell you exactly what that proposal is, I want to tell all of you about my favorite part of exorcism movies.
In just about every horror movie that has an exorcism scene, the priest has to “name the demon.” It is through a name that you can grasp something intangible –like a demon– and either simply bring attention to it or exorcise it. You can also invoke other names in order to compel the bad spirit to leave. Names and labels are powerful, and even if we don’t explicitly acknowledge their power on a daily basis, we implicitly experience the power of names when we read grant proposals or stand up in the face of bigotry. Speaking personally, this is what’s always drawn me to the work of writing and building theory: at its core, theory is about grabbing hold of previously intangible demons and casting them out through the invocation of new names.
Theory works at its best when it gives a name to something that was previously nothing more than an indescribable and complicated feeling or emotion. Sometimes that thing is undesirable and giving it a name makes it easier to cast out, other times –and far too infrequently– theory gives a name to a good thing that we want to popularize and see more of in our lives. Today I want to do the latter because we all know the demon I want to cast out of the body politic: efficiency.
Efficiency is a really common idea but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a complex idea. Sort of like “sustainability” or “justice” efficiency is one of those words that you could built a syllabus around. And yet, we talk about efficiency all the time as something that generally means using the least amount of inputs to gain the maximum amount of outputs. Efficiency means less gas for more miles in a car, or fitting more chores into a single weekend. Lots of us feel comfortable assessing whether or not something or someone is acting efficiently. We are all very literate in efficiency and are well equipped to seek it out, know when it is missing, and impose it on our various tasks and jobs.
I think it’s also safe to say that efficiency, like most demons, has bad and seductive qualities. And while I said I want to “cast it out” it’d be more accurate to say that I want to highlight the ways in which efficiency as a metric --as a way of assessing whether or not something or someone is working optimally-- systematically fails to offer solutions to long-standing problems. Efficiency, if we wanted to take a historical materialist approach to it, is good for achieving a state of abundance, but it always fails to distribute that abundance in a way that is fair, equitable, and sustainable. What I am proposing here is that engineers, scientists, and political actors start using a new term to measure optimization. Efficiency will always be good for some things but, if we do this right, efficiency will seem like a steam engine in a digital world.
This new term, instead of focusing on a ratio of inputs to outputs, will measure the capacity of a system to self-replicate under its own means. That is, an optimal system will no longer be defined by how much it can do with how little, but how well those interacting with the system can easily expand that system and create new capacity across multiple dimensions . This new term, at least for now, I want to call “recursive depth.”
Now, as someone that gets into a lot of arguments that begin with the other person saying, “Well if you don’t like capitalism, come up with a better system,” I know that change at the level I’m calling for doesn’t happen by me offering the solution and everyone going out and acting on it. Obviously change is much slower and much more messy. That is why instead of standing up here and giving you an infomercial about all of the features of recursive depth, I’d much rather spend the remainder of my time sketching a brief outline of what recursive depth is, and sharing what I identify as the moment in which recursivity and efficiency had an equal chance of being the ur metric for all systems.
People that participate in or are somehow reached by a recursively deep system are afforded, by virtue of their participation, more autonomy and freedom to pursue collective and individual desires. The most recursively deep systems are ones that contain within them all of the parts and practices for their maturation and expansion. This happens across multiple dimensions and I’ll get into the particulars of those dimensions later in examples and maybe in the Q&A but for now I’ll just name three that Ron Eglash and I identified in a paper we published earlier this year in The Information Society. They are: public/proprietary, virtual/material, and high/low social power. The anthropologist Chris Kelty gives us one of the best examples of a recursively deep system, by describing what he calls a recursive public. His case study is a community of free software developers who make software and maintain methods and practices that allow for the expansion of their software-making community. The systems they make are also the systems that bring them together so that they may continue to develop and mature those self same systems.
I don’t think free software is going to save humanity, but I do think there’s a lot to be learned from studying groups that are deeply committed to maintaining the material and digital prerequisites for their own existence. These sociotechnological relations are capable of developing parallel power structures that offer alternative modes of daily action. Recursively deep systems are also sustainable in a very fundamental way because the means by which they are sustained are also deeply intertwined with their political, cultural, ecological, and/or social ends. I am arguing then, that recursivity is much more capable of dealing with the big problems of today like extreme income inequalities and climate change, because it gives us a metric for examining both how self-sustaining, and how scalable a system can be.
Now for the history: Its not uncommon to hear the phrase “Tragedy of the Commons” when talking about access to what economics tellingly call “rival goods.” That is, goods that are used up such that my enjoyment of them means that you cannot enjoy them. Water, arable land, and coffee are all examples of rival goods. Tragedy of the Commons is invoked as a justification for making these goods private and ownable so that they may be used in the most efficient way possible. Without private ownership, the myth goes, we’d fall into some Hobbesian Mad Max-style fight over resources that would ultimately leave those resources ravaged and unusable for future generations. It is invoked as a parable, some abstract-yet-true story that we should all learn from when in fact it is much better described as an urban legend: something that never happened but sounds true enough that we heed the story’s prescriptive conclusion.
The origin of this urban legend (like so many others) can be found in the journal of Science. In 1968 the economist Garrett Hardin wrote an article titled “Tragedy of the Commons” in which he gives a historical account of the English enclosure laws that “saved” the commons which he characterizes as completely unregulated land. The entire paper is meant as a kind of thought experiment meant to justify the privatization of public goods, but he adds just enough historical allusions to make his hypothesis seem like a foregone conclusion. Susan Jane Buck Cox published an article-length debunking of Hardin in a 1985 issue of Environmental Ethics. Her article, titled “No Tragedy of the Commons” [PDF] uses historical document analysis to show not only that Hardin’s characterization of the commons was factually wrong, but that in fact the end of the commons was in large part due to illegal seizures of land by wealthy landowners. The enclosure acts he cited as the saving grace of the English countryside was in actuality a formalization and thus legalization of something that aristocrats had been doing illegally, and with increasing frequency, for several decades.
The real tragedy of the commons then, is that rich people will always try to take common property away and extract rents from whatever is left.
Of course the Enclosure Acts didn’t happen in a historical vacuum. They were occurring during the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Rather than subsistence farming that utilized a regulated and peer-supervised commons, people were expected to purchase their daily needs in a marketplace. Here, I argue, is where efficiency won out over recursivity. Instead of developing and improving the ability of people to access common property, capitalists restricted access to the basics of life and turned them into goods to be sold.
Efficiency helps us measure how completely and quickly things are turned into a good. Our present ideas of efficiency are largely wrapped up in the proletarization of the masses. That is: systems and processes that are identified as efficient are very good at standardizing quantities and maintaining private control over resources. Recursive depth requires that we develop alternative systems that stretch from raw materials to finished product. It measures things based on how well resources are effectively distributed, not how effectively they are turned into goods with attached prices. Recursive depth demands that we build a new commons.
Notice I did not say return to the commons. Recursive depth does not require that we become sharecroppers or goat herders, although it’d be nice if that was an option left open to some people. What I’m suggesting is a lot more incremental than any kind of back to the land movement. Instead, I’m trying to nurture a reversal of proletarization by developing a popular metric by which we can measure that reversal.
Now might be a good time for some examples.
Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly and its concomitant consensus process, hand signals, and people’s mic are excellent examples of a deeply recursive system. They are very easy to learn and once learned it gives the individual the ability to recreate that system elsewhere. It sacrifices some aspects of efficiency for the sake of portability, reproducibility, and accessibility. Efforts to bring this kind of decision making online are slow but promising. The best so far is a product in public beta right now called Loomio, created by a New Zealand-based development group. Troy has a similar home-grown system called Nexus. Both of these are intriguing not just because they are attempting to bring a somewhat messy process to the clean lines of a web browser, but because they represent an opportunity to take an already recursively deep system, deeper through the digitization of some very basic organization logics like hand signals.
Another example more in line with the rest of my panelists is food production. Agribusiness has been very efficient at producing massive amounts of food. Too efficient in fact, given that governments pay farmers to not grow things so as to keep prices at serviceable levels. Current farming practices require that seeds, equipment, fertilizer, and many other requisite aspects of farming be privately owned and purchased as goods. This not only ensure rents for capitalists, it also turns a farm in to a machine. It maximizes outputs and minimized inputs within a certain systematic logic. It keeps food relatively cheap but at the expense of some fairly important social, political, and economic concerns that fellow panelists have already articulated. A recursively deep farming system wouldn’t be a wholesale return of the English commons but it might look similar. Seeds would be shared, readily available, and come with a wealth of information so that anyone purchasing a new seed variety can be sure they’ll know how to make the most of it. It would sacrifice larger mechanical harvesters for much simpler tools that can be easily mastered, fixed, and shared. The management of farms would have to be bound up in or somehow deeply ingrained in the labor practices that sustain them. It would require that those that eat the food are also somehow part of the maintenance of agricultural practice and not solely either food buyers or sellers.
What I have outlined here is neither a path nor a model for generative justice. It is a potential metric for determining whether we have achieved generative justice. I think this is an essential mode of inquiry not just for the titular theory of this conference but for prescriptive academic projects in general. The metrics of success must be ours or we risk measuring our own work against the failed value systems of previous generations.
I'll be hosting a brown bag discussion at my home institution, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, on November 6, 2013 from 1-3PM in Sage Labs 3510 on writing for a popular audience. I plan on covering the following topics:
- Theory in under 1000 words
- How to Write about Current Events
- Venues & Audiences
- Examples of different venues & their intended audiences
- Writing Publicly as a PhD
- Pitching your Work to an Editor
- CVs, Hiring & Tenure
- Twitter and the Writing Process
- Where your Work goes in Social Media
- Blogging under imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy & talking to the press
If you're in the area it'd be awesome if you showed up. Equally awesome would be written stories and anecdotes about your own experiences. I'm especially interested in the experiences of women and people of color who are blogging on the regular.
Writing with Twitter: Jessie Daniels's "From Tweet to Blog Post to Peer-Reviewed Article: How to be a Scholar Now" and Rob Horning's "The taste of circulation"
Here is a list of skills that, as a grad student at one time or another, I’ve been expected to have with absolutely no offered training whatsoever:
- Creative writing
- Public relations writing
- Sound engineering
- Graphic design
- Web design
- Film editing
- Institutional procurement
- Professional event catering
- Conference planning and management
- Brand representation on social media
- Copy editing
- Public speaking
- Managing a grade book
- Learning content management systems
- Advanced settings and features of Excel
These skills are not optional for me. I cannot expect to be competitive in the Ph.D job market without possessing at least three quarters of these skills. Through trial and error and the mutual aid of fellow grad students and sympathetic junior faculty (who know what its like and help in spite of the fact that this kind of service won’t go towards tenure) it all gets figured out, but there’s a serious, unsustainable problem here. Don’t get me wrong, there are much more egregious workplace abuses happening around the world, and enjoy an immense amount of privilege in society just by saying that I’ll probably have a Ph.D in a couple of years. I am not claiming that my challenges are the same caliber that fast food workers and Wal-Mart employeeshave recently started to fight against, but there are some important intersectionalities at play here. Namely, the ill-defined role of the grad student replaces well-paying jobs with privileged students that can afford to work for little money until they are credentialed enough to maintain a destructive status quo.
I’ve been thinking a lot about methods lately. I want to spend a few paragraphs considering the current state of affairs for social scientists interested in science and technology as their objects of analysis. What kind of work is impossible in our current universities? What kinds of new institutions are necessary for breaking new ground in method as well as theory? Think of this post as an exercise in McLuhan-style probing of institutions of higher learning. I’m going to play with a lot of “what-ifs” and “for instances.” None of this is particularly actionable, nor am I even interested in proposing anything that would be recognized as “realistic” or even “pragmatic.” Mainly, I’m interested in stepping back, considering the state of our technosociety, and asking what kinds of questions need asking and what kinds of science is being systematically left undone.
It’s as if a TED conference smashed headfirst into a hackathon and then fell into an NGO strategy summit. CEOs sit next to non-profit employees and eat boxed lunches as a dominatrix(@MClarissa) presents a slide on teledilonics followed up by a garage hacker-turned-million dollar project director quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. It is a supremely uncanny experience that all happens within the confines of a movie theater (and, later, a sushi bar). This is what one can expect when they attend the Freedom to Connect conference (#f2c) held in Silver Spring, Maryland. The conference is meant to bring “under-represented people and issues into the Washington, DC based federal policy discussion…” I left the conference feeling generally good that there are people out there working to preserve and protect open infrastructures. I just wish that team were more diverse.
The price of 3D printers is plummeting. Like all complicated pieces of technology it is quickly moving from large, confusing, and expensive to small, simple and cheap. This year has been full of consumer-level 3D printers that are cheaper than some professional grade photo printers. Right now, these little things are capable of making plastic do-dads that are, admittedly, of lesser quality than some dollar store toys. But just like a magic trick, you’re not paying for the physical thing, you’re paying for the ability to do the trick. Design an object in a modeling software suite like SketchUp, convert it into some kind of printer-friendly format, and -so long as it is smaller than a bread box and made out of plastic- you can build whatever you want. 3D printers give an individual the ability to transform bits into atoms. In some ways it is a radical democratization of the means of production. For a fraction of the price of a car, someone can gain the ability to fabricate a relatively wide range of material objects. What are the implications for this new ability? What does it say about the relationship of atoms and bits?
Theorizing the Web 2012 was great. Everyone involved did a bang-up job. I certainly learned more in a single day than I usually do at weekend-long establishment conferences. I have said a lot about conferences (here, here, and here) as have fellow cyborgologists (Sarah, Nathan, and PJ). All of these posts have a common thread: academia is changing, but conferences seem out of date in some way. They are needlessly insular, they rely on hefty attendance fees that are increasingly cost-prohibitive, and they rarely take advantage of social media in any meaningful way. The relative obduracy of conference styles come into high relief once they are compared to the massive changes to institutional knowledge production. Universities have adopted many of the managerial practices of private companies. They are also acting more like profit-seeking enterprises: putting massive resources into patenting offices and business incubators, hiring less tenure-track teaching staff, and employing armies of professionalized managers that run everything from information technology services to athletic facilities. Conferences, on the other hand, have seen few innovations beyond what I call Tote Bag Praxis.
This weekend I'll be at the University of Maryland in College Park presenting my work on mobile phones in Ghana. This is an amazing conference hosted by the Cyborgology editors Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey. I'll be joined on the "Theorizing the Mobile Web" panel by Jason Farman, Katy Pearce, and Jim Thatcher. Cyborgology has a full write-up with our abstracts. Mine is reproduced below.
“Finding it ‘Otherwise’: Culturally and Geographically Situating The Practice of Texting”
Social constructionists and actor network theorists consistently claim that assemblages of technosocial systems are historically contingent or otherwise –to varying degrees- arbitrary. In other words, things could have been another way. The main criticisms of this these programs have been a lack of critical focus on power distribution and the influence of institutions. Rebuttals focus on the “seamless web” of social action that provides no clear beginning or referent for analysis. We must be satisfied with identifying the salient characteristics of relevant actants and working outward analytically, and forward historically. I contend that the statement “it could have been otherwise” belies a lack of sufficient comparative analysis. There are cases where it was, in fact, otherwise and from this comparative analysis we can find a basis for talking about power.
Over the course of two weeks I conducted over two-dozen interviews with patients, caretakers, administrators, and pharmacists in and around a government hospital in the city of Kumasi in central Ghana. My goal was to set up a text messaging system that helped Ghanaians find pharmacies that sold condoms. In the course of asking questions about privacy, frequency of phone use, navigating urban environments, and contraception, I also learned something about the culturally situated nature of large sociotechnical systems.
Mobile phone technology plays a much different role in Ghanaians lives than in Americans. Investigating these differences tell us something about the power relations embedded in western and non-western cell networks. The cell phone plays a much different role in Ghanaians lives than in Americans. In Ghana, the cell phone takes the place of the home phone and internet-enabled computer. (A tendency that we are only just now seeing in America.) In this comparative analysis, we can parse out meaningful relationships between sociotechnical networks and draw conclusions about what makes networks useful and powerful