Tag Archives: digital media firms

Who Built the Internet? We Did! (Part 5)

In 2006, according to Time Magazine, the theory of technoindividualism “took a serious beating.” In electing You to the position of the Person of the Year, Time prophesized the fourth discourse of internet historiographical revisionism following President Obama’s statement. It was not the state, corporations, or genius insiders who made the internet, nonfiction best seller author and transhuman apologist Steven Johnson claimed in the New York Times, but Us who built the internet. Continue reading

Paul Ryan’s Neoliberal Fantasy and Keith Olbermann’s Demise

Foucault asks “Can the market really have the power of formalization for both the state and society?” (Foucault 2008: 117, originally 1978-79). House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan is convinced it can. He outlines it happening in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal year budgets. The impact of this neoliberal fantasy on democracy is stated by Couldry: “‘Democracy’ operated on neoliberal principles is not democracy. For it has abandoned, as unnecessary, a vision of democracy as a form of social organization in which government’s legitimacy is measured by the degree to which it takes account of its citizens’ voices” (Couldry 2010: 64). What is the impact of the dearth of diverse progressive voices on public and private media within the hegemonic public sphere?

The Nation states that the GOP’s 2013 budget or the “Ryan Plan” helps the very wealthy, corporations, Pentagon, and health insurance companies while forcing the poor, elderly, disabled, and middle class to sacrifice (Zornick 2012). President Obama called the budget “social Darwinism.” A great term, curiously investigated by the Washington Post. Back in February, 2011, during the last federal budget battle, the New York Times claimed that the GOP targeted to slash funding for job training, environmental protection, disease control, crime protection, science, technology, education, and public media (Editorial 2011). It is a theory of classical liberalism that as these issues of national importance are proposed and debated it is fundamental to the workings of democracy that citizens have diverse information options. This is the job of journalists, newspapers, television news — “the media” — whose investigate capacities have been gutted by parent companies’ market fundamentalism and whose federal funding, when it barely existed, is under attack. Six bills were proposed in 2011 to eliminate federally funding PBS (Tomasic 2011). In this neoliberal media logic, if it fails the single criteria of increasing capital, it misses the cut.

The same week the draconian 2013 Ryan Plan was revealed saw the elimination of two paternalistic guardians of the “American public sphere” –the Media Access Project (MAP), a public interest law firm and 40-year veteran resisting the deregulation and privatization of public media resources. And, most dramatically, Keith Olbermann was fired from Current, a cable television news network. Like him or hate him, he is one of the few television newscasters willing to bluntly critique such instances of neoliberal governmentality on that most hegemonic if media systems: television. As both private public interest and not-for-profit public interest media institutions falter, and federally funded public media systems are assaulted, how will diversity in the American public sphere survive?

I need to briefly address the following normative notions: neoliberal governmentality and the hegemonic or American public sphere.

MAP and Olbermann focused on diversifying the programming within the hegemonic public sphere. They see themselves, their work, and their information as central to dominant national issues within a single American public sphere. They are not interested in producing the conditions for a subaltern counterpublic as Nancy Fraser (1992) describes. Their interest is in competing on a national-level with the likes of Fox News, MSNBC, and other media giants. MAP and Olbermann sought to contribute diverse voices into a single, national, or American public sphere. Does it exist? No. Fraser is right. There are overlapping fields of public spheres. But the hegemonic public sphere is a type of emic model or frame, non-existent on the level of day-to-day discourse, that these media reform broadcasters draw from. More abstract and less polemical, yet comparable with the concept of the “mainstream media,” the hegemonic public sphere is a goal or target for the progressive cultural interventions of these media reform broadcasters.

Foucault provides a cogent definition of neoliberal governmentality in his exquisitely readable lectures at the College de France in 1978-1979. “What is at issue” said Foucault, “is whether a market economy can in fact serve as the principle, form, and model for a state” (Foucault 2008: 117). The result is market statism, or corporatism, which, in an extreme version, is fascism. This is diametrically opposed to the social liberalism advocated by Olbermann and MAP in which the state is focused on non-market social projects. It isn’t corporate liberalism either where the government in public discourse supports social liberalism but that practice is performed by subsidized corporations (Streeter 1996). An example of corporate liberalism comes from the presumed GOP candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Governor Mitt Romney addressed a crowd at a primary campaign stop in Iowa in November. At this event Romney says he won’t gut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but he will require it to “have advertisments.” Romney doesn’t want to “Kill Big Bird” he just wants it to be on life-support from American corporations. Rather, the Ryan Plan is neoliberal governmentality where social liberal projects are negated and replaced by market fundamentalism. It is this reduction of government functions to market logic that Olbermann and MAP once raged against.

So with the departure of Olbermann and MAP the monolithic American public sphere is less diverse and less capable of engineering the conditions for access for diverse voices. Nick Couldry’s Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism (2010) directly addresses how neoliberal governmentality dampens voice through looking at US and UK television. He defines voice as referring to the process of individuals or communities using media to build reflexive and historical stories. Voice, for Couldry, is socially grounded, provides for reflexive agency and is an embodied force. Voice can be injured or denied by rationalities that perceive voice as an externality of market logic. Thus “valuing voice means valuing something that neoliberal rationality fails to count; it can therefore contribute to a counter-rationality against neoliberalism” (Couldry 2010: 12-13). Without Olbermann’s voice and MAP protecting the legal and political conditions for voicing, how will the American public sphere survive this assault by the flexible tactics of neoliberal governmentality?


Now, dear Reader, to reward you making it this far here are some hilarious videos that illustrate my points from the comic geniuses of Mitt Romney, President Obama, Cenk Uygur! Cue the laugh track after each video.  Continue reading

Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading

Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…

(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?

(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment. Continue reading

American Democracy?

Many scholars, activists, pundits, and even a few politicians agree that American democracy is in trouble. Many reasons are given–the raw punch of money in elections, a distracted, apathetic, or misinformed population, the absence of civic education, the specter of blind patriotism, the penal threat and painful reality of police brutality. The signs of collapsing democracy are obvious: the debt ceiling debacle, the recent Supercommittee failure, Citizen United v Federal Elections Commission, a US Congress with 9% approval ratings. Our Occupy mobilizations, and our “deeply democratic” (Appadurai 2001) methodology of the General Assembly inspired as it is by the anthropological knowledge translated through our colleague David Graeber, are reactions to the failure of the present incarnation of American democracy while exclaiming our desire, voice to voice, for a more humane social democracy.

Non-fiction information, knowledge, and “the news” are essential for citizens to make wise decisions regarding the future of a democratic state. The right to media is a human right and a public resource for democratic communication. But the media is a finite resource, limited in radio, television, and the internet and limited by the amount of subjective mental bandwidth we can personally process. In the United States this media resource was allocated by the state to corporations. These America corporations were given the right and responsibility to use the “airwaves.” Part of the bargain the government struck with these companies was that they could make massive profits if they worked in the public interest by informing and educating the citizens. This responsibility they have slowly neglected and we are today left with fiction parading as fact on television news. Citizen involvement in this corporately consolidated public sphere was promised but subtly ignored. The abused or misused power of corporate media is a significant reason why democracy is failing.

Deep Democracy or Digital Democracy?
Deep Democracy or Digital Democracy? Dr. West arrested on October 21, 2011.

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Television for the 99% & Reverse Media Imperialism

It is no surprise that American television news networks that consistently cover the Occupy Movement in detail tend to be liberal or progressive in political persuasion. Current TV’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Free Speech TV’s Democracy Now!, Russia Today’s The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, and Al Jazeera English all spend considerable amounts of their valuable time bringing the voices of Occupy to televisions in America. Similar funding strategies and political intentions unify these four networks. Each receives cultural, political, or economic support from various national governments. With this communication power, these networks proceed to critique American capitalism and imperialism through direct discursive confrontation or through emphasizing resistance movements such as Occupy. I run the risk of sounding a little conservative by posing it but my question is: what is the cultural meaning of the presence of state-based, anti-capitalism television and internet video? From the successes in Wisconsin, to Wikileaks, Anonymous, and Occupy Wall Street we are living in a golden era for progressive television and internet video.

The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

I keep returning to the public sphere as Habermas originally described it as I think about progressive political movements of today: Occupy Wall Street and its global dimensions, Anonymous and its more theatrical and political wing LulzSec, and progressive and independent cable television news network Current. Internet activism, television news punditry, and street-based social movements each work together implicitly or explicitly to constitute a larger public sphere. As scholars we need to resist the temptation of excluding one form of resistance as being inconsequential to social justice or to analysis and instead see all three as working together in a media ecology.

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Forget Steve Jobs

I can’t stand this tech bubble blowing hagiography that has gone down since Jobs’s retirement as Apple’s CEO. Tech rag Gigaom founder Om Malik found out and cried: “It is incredibly hard for me to write right now. To me, like many of you, it is an incredibly emotional moment. I cannot look at Twitter, and through the mist in my eyes, I am having a tough time focusing on the screen of this computer.” Wired just an hour ago posted an article consisting of fawning billionaires dreamily revisiting touching Him. Come on Om, just take my hand, you can look at Twitter! So much for the illusion of journalist impartiality. Malik’s sentiment is serious though. He is one of the many who’ve gotten rich on selling the illusion of Jobs as a visionary auteur. Silicon Valley, ever the retailers of vaporware–technology that facilitates experiences we neither need nor want nor, often, come to market–needs fantasy as much as Hollywood need the illusion of celebrity to prop ups its market domination in the selling of stardust.
Jobs is an excellent example of the way a social imaginaire comes into form through corporate performance. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls social imaginaires “the way people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often…carried in images, stories, and legends.” This notion goes back to Sahlins’s “charter myths,” B. Anderson’s “imagined communities,” and Ortner’s “serious games.” Social imaginaires are internalized and form a range of practical responses not unlike Bourdieu’s “habitus.” Anthropologists are good at recognizing the mental hardware that drive action. This may be a product of our emphasis on para-biological motivation (“culture”) as well as our methodologies. Look at the emphasis on narrative in the works of Richard Sennet and Paul Rabinow, both investigating the new economies of technology through subjective stories about work and its meaning.

Anthropologist Chris Kelty, influenced by Taylor, carried the imaginaire into the world of technology with his notion of the “moral-technical imaginaire” which is a cultural situated and persuasive moral philosophy attached to the use of both open and proprietary systems. Patrice Flichy in his book Internet Imaginaire uses the work of Paul Ricœur to show how utopian and ideological discourse are two poles of a technological imaginaire. The original euphoria of a technology is utopian, as that fades, the imaginaire is mobilized to hide or mask the ideological and dominating potential of the technological assemblage. More recently, sociologist Thomas Streeter, discusses how “romantic” imaginaires of ruggedly individual hackers, inventors, countercultural tramps, and psychedelic engineers helped to encourage the federal funding and venture capital that built the infrastructure of the internet. Finally, the most accessible of these accounts of internet imaginaires is the work of Vincent Mosco who simply refers to the myth of technological transcendence with the idea of the “digital sublime.” The transhumanist movement is ripe for such an analysis.
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Eco-Chic Burning Man Hipsters

That curious identity politic that mixes neo-primitive fashion, ecological coolness, spiritual openness, upper middle class ambition, multiculturalism, and conscious consumerism can be coalesced under the moniker eco-chic–an elite contradictory expression of social justice and neoliberalism. It will be explored in the conference EcoChic: Connecting Ethical, Sustainable and Elite Consumption, put on by the European Science Foundation in October. The conference organizers see this expressive culture accurately in its rich contradictions. Eco-chic “is both the product of and a move against globalization processes. It is a set of practices, an ideological frame and a marketing strategy.” If you’ve spent anytime in Shoreditch, Haight, Williamsburg, or Silverlake you’ve got some experience with these hip, trendy elites. Ramesh calls them “Burning Man Hipsters.” I’ve been studying new media producers in America and eco-chic describes an important cultural incarnation of these knowledge producer’s value set. As far as anthropology is concerned, meta-categories such as eco-chic, liberalism, or transhumanism that cross cultural boundaries while remaining bound by class, challenge our discipline to revisit totalizing notions such as “culture” and “tribe.”

Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism. The producers of eco-chic goods and experiences are structured by capitalism’s profit motive. Likewise consumers of eco-chic goods and experiences are motivated by ideals that try to transcend or correct the ecological or deleterious human impacts of capitalism. Thus both producer and consumer of eco-chic are caught in a contradiction between their social justice drives and their suspension in the logic of neoliberalism. Eco chic events such as Burning Man and television networks such as Al Gore’s Current TV also express the fundamental contradiction between the social and the entrepreneurial in social entrepreneurialism. How do the contradictions within eco-chic represent themselves in American West Coast’s cultural expressions such as Burning Man and Current TV? Continue reading

Critical Pessimism & Media Reform Movements

The American satellite television network Free Speech TV asked me to write up a blurb for their monthly newsletter about my participatory/observatory trip with them to the National Conference on Media Reform in Boston. This is my attempt at what Henry Jenkins calls “critical pessimism”–an “exaggeration” that “frighten readers into taking action” to stop media consolidation, exclusion, and the absence of televisual diversity.

Free Speech TV at the National Conference on Media Reform

From its inception in 1995, Free Speech TV’s goal has been to infiltrate and subvert the vapid, shrill and corporately controlled American television newscape with challenging and unheard voices. Fast forward to 2011, and in the age of viral videos, social media and ubiquitous computing, the same issues persist.

An excellent young pro-freedom-of-speech organization, Free Press, called all media activists to Boston for the National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR), April 8-10, to celebrate independent media and incubate strategies to fight the tide of corporate personhood, monopolization in communication industries, and the denial of access to the public airwaves.

These are issues FSTV has long fought, first with VHS tapes of radical documentaries shipped to community access stations throughout the nation, then through satellite carriage in 30 million homes, and now via live internet video and direct dialogues with the audience through social media.

FSTV was at NCMR in full force, covering live panels on everything from the role of social media in North African revolutions to media’s sexualization of women; developing strategic relationships with print, radio, internet and television collaborators; interviewing luminaries like FCC Commissioner Copps; and inspiring the delegates by opening up the otherwise closed and corporatized satellite television world to the voices of media activists fighting for access and diversity during a frankly terrifying period in American media freedom.

One question haunted the many stages, daises and dialogues at the NCMR: Is the open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet – by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized – becoming closed, centralized and homogenous as it begins to look and feel more like the elite-controlled cable television system?

For example, while we were in the conference, the House voted to block the FCC from protecting our right to access an open Internet. The mergers of Comcast and NBC-Universal and AT&T/T-Mobile loomed behind every passionate oration. And yet FSTV was there to document when FCC Commissioner Copps took the stage stating he would resist the denial of network neutrality and such monopolizing mergers.

Internationally, examples of the power and problems of the internet exist. The Egypt-based Facebook group “We are all Khaled Said” had 80,000 members, many who amassed at Tahrir Square on January 26, instigating a wave of democratization that began in Tunisia – also fueled by social media – and hopefully continuing to Libya. Two days later, however, the Mubarak regime was able effectively to hit a “kill switch” on the internet and target activists using Facebook for arrest, an activity that worked against the desires of the repressive regime. At the NCMR, Democracy Now! reporter Sharif Abdel Kouddous said,  “Facebook was down … so they hit the streets. It had the reverse desire and effect that the government wanted to happen.”

In 2010, Reporters Without Borders compiled a list of 13 internet enemies – countries that suppress free speech online. The U.S. wasn’t on the list, but U.S. companies Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, Visa and Apple were pressured to cut digital and financial support for whistleblowing WikiLeaks. The point is obvious: A vigilant press aided by an open, uncensored and unprivatized internet are necessary yet threatened and are the focus of FSTV’s coverage at NCMR.

FSTV embodies that ancient movement of ordinary people taking back power from entrenched elites. Today, every issue, from class inequality to ecological justice – is a media issue. However, our media sources, from journalists to internet and television delivery systems, are being co-opted by monopolizing corporations and lobbyists. As an independent, open and interactive television network, FSTV is an antidote to the problems facing free speech and democracy as more media power is centralized in fewer hands. Thankfully, as we found out in Boston, FSTV is not alone in this dangerous and difficult operation of media liberation.

Jenkins hyperbolically describes “critical pessimists” as people who “opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper by small alternative presses”. This is a false exaggeration of a movement that is providing a necessary check on corporate power and mindfully working for greater civic, community, and citizen involvement in media production.

Participation, Collaboration, and Mergers

I work at UCLA’s Part.Public.Part.Lab where we investigate new modes of co-production and participation facilitated by networked technologies. Internet-enabled citizen journalism such as Current TV, public science like PatientsLikeMe, and free and open software development like Wikipedia are key foci. In the lab I investigate the vitality or closure of a moment of freedom and openness within cable television, news production, and internet video when the amateur and the alternative disrupted the professional and the mainstream. What are the promises and perils of social justice video in the age of internet/television convergence? Will internet video become as inaccessible, vapid, and homogenous as cable television? In our recent paper, Birds of the Internet: Towards a field guide to the organization and governance of participation, we draft a guide to identify two species flourishing in the internet ecology: what we call “formal social enterprises,” which include firms and non-profits, as well as the “organized publics” the enterprises foster or from which they emerge. These two types share a vertical or inverted relationship, power comes down from visionary CEOs and charismatic NGO directors to provoke rabid social media production, or a viable movement foments amongst grassroots makers that percolates upwards towards the formation of semi-elitist institutions. In light of this research and with a discreet fieldwork experience to think through I would like to clarify and address three types of social interaction: participation, collaboration, and mergers. Continue reading

Social Media: From Meaning to Presence

by Jenny Cool, USC

I sometimes joke that I’ve been working in new media so long I can’t believe we still call it that. But longitude is no laughing matter in an age of time-space compression: and the persistence of novelty no accident. Yet, there is much to be gleaned from histories of the new. At least that’s what I contend in taking up Adam’s invitation to post about my 10-year study of Cyborganic, an influential group of early web geeks—producer-consumers of new forms, social imaginaries, and practices of networked communication and techno-sociality. Cyborganic spored and faded away by 2003, yet many of the genres, imaginaries, and practices that emerged out of this milieu (San Francisco’s South of Market area in the 1990s) have since become predominant on the Internet. Cyborganic members brought Wired magazine online; led the open source Apache project; and created dozens of Internet firms and projects, from bOING bOING to Craig’s List and Twitter. Continue reading

Cultural Contradictions of Net Neutrality

“Free, open, keep one web,” World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s is heard provoking us in the 15 second video above.

How can you champion anything that has the totalizing vibe to it as Berners-Lee’s One Web thing? Doesn’t it sound like One Web=One World=First World? Isn’t this One Web pitch a commercial for the global hegemony of Silicon Valley made technologies, standards, and corporations? Wouldn’t a greater diversity of broadband and wifi options be more advantageous to cultural diversity than merely One? The controversial and slightly ridiculous claim I will make now is that the tiering or diversification of the internet, such as we saw yesterday at the FCC, might foreshadow the fragmentation of the One Web into many ethnic and linguistic webs in the future.

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What’s behind YouTube and Mechanical Turk?

This is the second provocation on the theme of digital labor from me and Ramesh Srinivasan. To warm up, check out Saskia Sassen at last year’s Internet as Playground and Factory as she warns us about how financial logicians uses networked technologies to manipulate human ingenuity:

Free Use as Free Labor on YouTube

YouTube, subsidiary of Google, serves as a notable example of how a company creates value through free, user-contributed labor. User-producers upload content to YouTube for free and are given the opportunity to freely use Google’s immense, proprietary data centers (commonly called the “cloud”). Adding content, commenting, tagging, and even browsing all add value to the corporate product, though the amount of user investment and creative immersion differs in each of these cases. In the process, content creators facilitate Google’s ability to place targeted advertisements. These advertising schemes are monetized via the billion+ views YouTube receives per week. Commenting, tagging, and browsing are more passive forms of labor, as each adds to YouTube’s ability to build a social space that users will continuously return to, and optimize algorithms that allow for more efficient retrieval and browsing.

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Digital Labor

My colleague Ramesh Srinivasan and I just submitted an article to a journal in which we analyze social entrepreneurs’ digital labor practices. The argument we are making is that one needs to focus on (1) organizational missions, cultures and histories, (2) the nature of the labor (its level of creativity or its invocation of routinized, uncreative time-motion studies!) and the level of agency for workers to choose this labor versus various alternatives, and (3) the level of capitalization of the labor, notably who profits and to what extent from the contributed work. Our case studies, Samasource, a digital labor firm that brings digital work to developing world populations, including refugees and women, and Current TV, a cable network that self describes as “democratizing” documentary production, maintain an interplay between for/non-profit and social empowerment/exploitation. Instead of waiting the 4 months for reviews, or 8 months for publication we’d love some real time feedback on some of the more illustrative examples and concerns that drive this research. (I’ll be presenting this analysis at the American Anthropological Association meeting on Friday at 5 if you prefer embodied engagement).

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