Thoughts on AAA15, Denver, and a “Rawlsian” Internet.

Like many of you, I am just back (and not nearly caught up) from pop-art obsessed Denver. Another AAA, another 2000-person business meeting. Just finished converting my nametag holder into a duvet cover. Also: the parlimentarian.

Rex captured some high and low points–ever the participant observer. Carole (the local) can pull rank and can correct us, but I just want to say that Rex didn’t spend nearly enough time on 16th street if he thinks there wasn’t high calorie cheap food available. I won’t say “good”, but the calories were in abundance.

I feel I can judge Denver because I grew up visiting my relatives there: Wax Trax records is still going strong, hallelujah, Elitch’s gardens has moved from the old-school high-liability zone of my youth to a chamber of commerce immagined dead zone of high profit near downtown, and the mountains are still, by an order of magnitude, thee most. Despite the current fame Colorado Springs is experiencing—which puts the state squarely back in the violent middle America most anthros were probably expecting, but narrowly escaped given the unfortunate regularity of the madness, Denver is in fact a distinctive American place. It’s not very diverse racially, to be sure, but it is distinctive: in the blocks around the convention center there was a definite mix of white lower class, middle class marijuana tourism, ostentatious 1%-er development, overdressed anthropologist and bearded hipsters on loan from williamsburg/highland park. Also, did I mention the parliamentarian?

And of course, I was pleased to be part of the 10 years of Savage Minds love-fest. I missed the awards ceremony but commend all the Minds for being Role Model Social Media Leaders, even though only Rex got a little statuette. I thought we lived in an age where everyone got a “participation” trophy. Come on AAA, can you think about the children for once?

I also gave a paper, no thanks to my readers, I must say–the only response I got to my plaintive request for SM to represent was a pointed critique of my execrable German. It’s true, my German does suck. I shouldn’t use it in public. But alas, at the last minute, I pulled it together, and managed to read my tear-stained talk at 8 am to a packed house entirely in German. It was standing-room only. The fire marshall had to bar the doors and the jumbotrons had to be hooked up to speakers outside the ballroom. The Parlimentarian had to remind me twice that I was over time. Oh wait, that was the business meeting. Anyway, my paper is posted on my website for those who want to read it.

It did make me reflect, once more, on the strange productivity of the AAA talk. At the time, and in the run up, it always seems insane and wrong to be cramming a paper into 15 minutes, which always turns into 20, which always means there is never time for questions. But it can have a galvanizing effect— sometimes just being forced to settle on something and read it out loud is enough to make you realize you might have an idea, maybe, just maybe, one worth exploring.

Like a lot of people, I think the conference paper format with its limitations, nonetheless has certain advantages— it can force concision, it can allow experiment beyond what peer review would stomach, and it can stimulate hallway conversation that leads in new directions. I need to remind myself every year amidst the pages and pages of panels, that even every talk is heard by only one or two people who manage to say something constructive afterwards that (given roughly 3-4K papers) something on the order of 10,000 such conversations are happening at each meeting. That’s good. Professionalized or not, that’s not going to stop happening.

I my case, because I am neurotic, I was as usual trying to do two things in one paper, which means I got something like the √-1 responses. The first paper was written to meet the demands of the panel, which was to reflect on 10 years of the way anthropologists have tried to know the Internet–and I tried to make that legible via the things Savage Minds has paid attention to, from the birth of blogging up to the hashtag social movement. But that paper is wrapped inside another enigmatic project, namely, to argue that the Internet and John Rawls Theory of Justice are similar in structure, focus, intent and history because they respond to the same historical nexus of problems. Why do this? Well one reason is because it seems to be more, rather than less, common to see academics attack Silicon Valley, technology entrepreneurs, software hackers and even some hacktivists as “libertarians.” This is both factually and empirically wrong, as well as theoretically thin and uninteresting. But it springs from an intuition I do agree with, which is that technologies and infrastructures can encode or express political theories of social relations—that they are “society made durable” in Latour’s memorable phrase. So the germ of an idea that AAA15 provoked was to explore the idea of what it would mean for the Internet to be “Rawlsian” rather than libertarian, and think more carefully about how thinks like utilitarian calculi and “principles” of justice are and are not different from the calculi and principles encoded into the protocols, standards, code and algorithms that currently organize our lives. Maybe by Minneapolis I will have half an answer…

Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.