Tag Archives: experiments

Prototyping Culture: social experimentation

Alberto Corsín and Adolfo Estrella, of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), have organized a conference I’m going to called “Prototyping cultures: social experimentation, do-it-yourself science and beta-knowledge.” This is something Adam Fish has written about here, and which is perennially on my mind.

Here is how they orient the problem:

What do a self-managed arts and social squat in downtown Madrid, the monthly Critical Mass cycling assertion movement, or a new media and digital cultural public organisation working at the intersection of art, technology and science, have in common?

All of them, we want to suggest, express novel forms of socio-technical experimentation: precarious and very often temporal entanglements in which an abandoned building is turned into a public and open cultural centre; city streets are parenthetically transformed into bicycle-friendly environments; or the call-for and inclusion of amateurs in the production of cultural and artistic works redefines the terms of institutional expertise. In all of them a certain politics of the urban is enacted; all of them are prototypes of new modes of city life.
Continue reading

The Pioneer Age of Internet Video (2005-2009)

There is a touch-screen internet networked television mounted on a wall in a middle class living room. You turn it on with a touch and rows of applications organized as colorful little boxes are revealed. You are familiar with the choices because they are the same as what is displayed on your mobile phone. In this apparent cornucopia of choices are hundreds of apps to click to watch CBS dramas, New York Times video segments, CNET interview programs, Mashable tweetfeeds, and CNN live broadcasts. Or you can rent a movie from Apple’s iTV, Google TV, Amazon, or YouTube Rentals suggested to you based on your shopping preferences as gathered from your GPS ambulations. You want to show your friend a funny video that was recommended to you earlier in the day so you click on the YouTube Partners app and it appears on the screen.

You crave a different meme, something old school, circa around 2009. You could go to the YouTube Classics app, but strangely your favorite video never made it to 100 million views and so wasn’t promoted to YouTube Classics. Your television system is connected to the internet but the public internet browser app is buried in the systems folder on your networked TV. Besides, if you could find the browser app you can’t find a keyboard to type out search terms. You drop the idea of following a personal impulse and go with what you can see through the window of the professionally curated suite of applications.

This description of a limited and safe television viewing experience of the future is meant to evoke a feeling that the limitless content and freedom that we associate with internet video is quickly being truncated by the hardware and software engineers in cahoots with the content app designers to make a much more safe, convenient, and professional internet. This is quite easy to see in the world of internet video—once the land of the most subversive, graphic, and comic content possible—is now being overhauled by professionals producing, curating, optimizing, and streaming ‘quality’ videos to homes on proprietary hardware. Many of us interested in the democratization of media, the absence of conglomerate consolidation, the presence of “generative” digital tools, video activism, and indigenous media should be concerned by these trends. This era will be seen as the historical pioneering era of internet video idealism (2005-2009).

Earlier this month, in re-introducing Apple’s internet connected TV set top box, the iTV, Steve Jobs claimed that people want “Hollywood movies and TV shows…they don’t want amateur hour.” What Jobs is saying is that we are entering a new era of professionalism—gone is the wild Darwinian kingdom of video memes, the meritocracy of the rabble rousers, the open platforms equally prioritizing the talented poor as well as the rich. Jobs has never been one to parrot the ‘democratization of media’ ideal. Never one championing collective design or the wisdom of the crowd (if only to fanatically buy his hardware), Jobs firmly believes in the auteur, the singular virtuosity of the genius designer, engineer, and director to make a professionally superior object of art and function. The upcoming golden age of ‘quality’ professional content will be ruled by Jobs and his ilk at HBO, Pixar, Hulu, LG, and Vizio.

Jobs’ vision is but one example showing that the pioneer age of the free and open culture of internet video is ending. Current TV, from 2005-2008, aired 30% user-generated documentaries and produced a cable television network that modeled democracy. Today they are taking pitches only from top Hollywood TV producers. The YouTube Partner’s program, like the very talented Next New Networks—the talent agents for Obama Girl and Auto-Tune the News—culls the ripest and most viral video producers from YouTube and optimizes them for the attachment of profitable commercials. Once pruned and preened, these YouTube cybercelebrities are promoted on the hottest real estate on the internet, YouTube’s frontpage, making 6-figures for themselves while finally making YouTube profitable.

Subcultural activities going mainstream is nothing new, the radical 60s cable guerilla television crew, TVTV, went from making ironic investigations into the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions to making regular puff pieces for broadcast. World of Wonder, the queerest television company in Hollywood, has been bringing the sexual and gender underground to mainstream cable television for decades. For examples, see my documentary on World of Wonder.

But it is the first example regarding IPTV—internet-based direct to consumer ‘television’ such as Apple’s iTV—that will bring only the best of internet video to the home that most concerns me. The professional domestication of internet video in the home, I fear, will forever wipe out the memory of the wicked and subversive video memes of the YouTube past. With it will go the very ethos of participatory video culture. My colleagues in the Open Video movement can collectively design the hell out of open video apps, editing systems, protocols, and videos standards but no one using these free and open source video systems will be seen if proprietary IPTV covers both software and hardware, internet and television, in both the home and the office.

The process I am describing can best be articulated as a historical process of professionalization. The wild world of amateur video—its production, promotion, and distribution procedures—is moving from the realm of prototyping, beta-testing, and experimentation to expert production, algorithmic optimization, and alpha release five years after its debut on YouTube and Current TV. This professionalization is a historical result of 5 years of industrial development, individual trial and error, and profit-focused talent agencies and creative thinktanks. It is also a product of the historical convergence of the internet and television hardware, as well as the corporate consolidation of content and software around the idea of the app—a professionally designed hardware/software/content peephole into a small fraction of the internet. More anthropological however is the historical transformation of the subculture into the culture. This has been happening forever and is the engine of popular culture and we shouldn’t be so hip and retro as to bemoan it. But we should be concerned with the loss of that realm of artistic and political potential encoded in the free and open internet. The “golden age” to follow this pioneering phase will be as innovative as the golden age of television as we welcome the equivalent of I Love Lucy, Friends, and Lost and along with it the return to spectatorism, canned laughter, and the proliferation of middle class values.

How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage is Made)

There have been several recent reports of the closure of Rice University Press (here, here and here). RUP made a splash when it was resurrected as an “all-digital” print-on-demand, open access university press, the first of its kind and for many in the ailing university and scholarly publishing world, a beacon, or at least a canary in what is turning out to be a very large, very dark coal mine.

So if it’s closing down, it must have failed, right? There must be no money in digital publishing of scholarly works, right? This must be proof that the only way to make money is with strong intellectual property rights held by massive conglomerates, right? Wrong Wrong Wrong. RUP’s closing is a crystal clear case of something entirely different: bad university administration. The decision, despite the claims in the various articles, had absolutely nothing to do with the viability of the ideas, or the expertise of the staff, or the realities of the marketplace. Instead, it had everything to do with short-sighted, self-important, autocratic management of a university by administrators whose interests are hard to identify though clearly at odds with any possible goal of producing high quality scholarship. (And don’t get me started about the other recent decision to sell the student-run 50K watt radio station, KTRU, one of the best in the country. Sign the petition)

As a board member of Rice University Press, a former employee, and a participant observer in the whole experiment, I’ve had a worms-eye view the fiasco as it has unfolded. I won’t detail all the ways in which RUP is innovative, but for those in the business, i’ll just say: you should all be madly copying their ideas, because RUP had and has no real competitors. Do not be deterred by the shutdown: take advantage of the fact that one less rich university is out there spending $$ on something innovative.
Continue reading

TV Free Burning Man

Next week as many as 50,000 people will inhabit Black Rock City, a temporary metropole constructed by volunteers for a week of personal expression and community celebration on the barren alkaline plains of a Nevada desert a half-days drive from Silicon Valley. This is Burning Man, a radically participatory event where a lot of people who labor in the digital creative industries work out collaborative utopias that make their way–the theory goes–into the social networking software and platforms they make and ask us to populate with our creative surplus, communal energy, and visually expressive humanity. The techno-culture historian Fred Turner states that Burning Man is a ‘sociotechnical commons’—the cultural infrastructure for the digital media industries of California. This is an attempt to document how and why Burning Man is a “proof of concept,” “beta test,” and practical experiment for the engineering of networked publics.

Here is the example. Burning Man influenced three projects to democratize media production initiated by Al Gore’s user-generated and citizen journalism cable network Current TV. Examples include Current’s Viewer Created Content (VC2) program, their social media website current.com, and TV Free Burning Man. Much like Burning Man, each project is an attempt to draw knowledge from the crowd and transform spectators into active producers. My observation is that Burning Man and Current’s emphasis on user-production business models is hemmed in by the looming pressures of capitalism.
Current is an example of what I call digital social entrepreneurship. It is a new media start-up and TV network deeply guided by both a mission and the market. At origin, so these firms go, the mission takes precedent over the market. As time goes by the market supersedes the mission. Current launched in 2005 with the mission to democratize media production and to provide a platform for others to discuss the future of democracy as well as view the cornucopia of voices that make democracy a dynamic guide for governance. Considering the tenuous state of democracies around the world, the consolidation of media systems by multinationals, the broadbanding of sectors of the globe, and the usability of graphic interfaces and professional grade video recorders the attempt to democratize media in 2005 was timely and prescient.

Current’s first idea about content producers was not to crowdsource content through the VC2 program. They didn’t intend to mine the producing audience for TV-caliber video submissions. Current originally planned to hire 20-30 digital correspondents to travel the world making content. A Current employee related to me how the programming executives, fresh from recent excursions to Burning Man in the early 2000s, used the open participatory model of Burning Man to argue against the exclusivity of the digital correspondent model by asking, “like Burning Man, why wouldn’t we let everybody in who wants to participate?” That spirit carried into the creation the VC2, a project to empower any amateur documentary producer to make content for television. This was the impetus behind the first user-generated television network.

From 2005-2008 Current’s website was www.current.tv. It was a space dedicated to VC2 producers to upload and critique short documentaries. In 2008, upper management decided that this was too elitist and they wanted more traffic so they put together a group of marketers, engineers, and creative executives to envision the new website, current.com. One of those creative executives, Justin Gunn, went into the first meeting to brainstorm current.com and

…hung up a map of Burning Man and I took an astronomy magazine and cut out pictures of stars and star clusters, and galaxies and galaxy clusters, and superclusters really beautiful Hubble imagery and positioned it around the  Burning Man map and I looked at [my colleagues] and said, ‘that is what we are going to make.’ And they said,’ what is that?’ And I said, ‘OK, work with me here. We are going to start with the organizational principle of Burning Man, it is a very light, lean organization. I could be wrong here but there is something like 12 full-time employees around the year everything else is all volunteer labor. But they build the structure, they set the rules, they define the parameters and then they invite anyone, anyone to come and do whatever they want as long as they stay within the confines, abide by the rules, and follow the predetermined parameters—they can do whatever they want.’…You start with an organization principle, a framework, here is how this thing works, here is the lattice, but it is empty, we will do a few key things, and we will invite anybody in as long as they abide by the rules and play within the framework, they can build whatever they want. So the constellations and star clusters were meant to represent constellations of information.

Using celestially graphic metaphors for the digitally engaged public they hoped to network together Gunn sought to inspire his co-workers to make a system as open and empty–and as charged with possibility–as the desert of Black Rock before the gates of Burning Man swing wide.

Using their shared interests in participatory community, self expression, and technology as a platform for dialogue–as well as their proximal offices mere blocks from each other in the Silicon Valley outpost of SoMa in San Francisco– producers at Current and organizers of Burning Man began to scheme about a more dynamic relationship. TV Free Burning Man was a result. Combining professional and amateur field production with a televisual aesthetic of first person documentaries and tone poems, the for profit mass media television firm Current produced content live from the playa for four years, 2005-2008. Considering Burning Man’s imperative to avoid all forms of commercialization and the strict media permitting process to even use a still camera at Burning Man, TV Free Burning Man is a testament to the shared ideals and aesthetics of Current and Burning Man.

I’ve attempted to link an outrageous event to important technological and economic digital systems used by billions of humans. The goal is to see how internet practices in virtual spaces are coconstituted by actual world practices in material spaces. Savage Mind writer Rex coolly said CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s goal with Facebook is to “scaffold” sociality–strap supportive beams to the human-to-human communication network that presently exists or might not exist without the structured arena. Rex has it right. Social media and social events, like the virtual and the actual, are coconstructed. And yet, something still trumps this transcendence of body-mind duality.

The commercial imperative looms over the users of corporately-made social media just as the end of the week at Black Rock City haunts the freedom-accustomed Burner. In a series of moves, Current has increasingly pulled back from their mission to democratize media production. In a tense economy and with venture capitalist money running thin, Current has moved to capitalize on its major asset, its cable license, through abandoning the VC2 program and relying on traditional professional programming.

Burning Man, on the other hand, remains a valiant, excessive, and privileged materialization of the ideal sociality coded into and by internet culture. Last year around this time I wrote about the emerging tourism industry in Black Rock City, But for now, the Black Rock Foundation does a tremendous job with a skeleton staff, grants art funds to hundreds of artists, and facilitates a relatively commercial free environment. As a non-profit with a seasonal ecstatic event, Burning Man has an easier job than Current of retaining its mission, a for-profit firm in a fiercely competitive TV market responsible for 24 hours of programming 365 days a year.

Openness, liberation, transparency, relativity, democracy, trust, non-privacy, and collaboration are the shared origin myths of the activists and planners of the internet and Burning Man. These ideals are coded into digital architecture in Silicon Valley and other areas around the Black Rock Desert and distributed for free use throughout the world. These digital social systems and event organizations are molded by their missions and driven by the necessity to optimize the growth of their organizations. Every ideal has a shelf life cut short usually by the profit necessity. The compromises to the mission that commercialization requires are the instances to monitor when adjudicating the sustainability of the social entrepreneurship model.

Cultural Anthropology’s Virtual Issue on Business Cultures

Cultural Anthropology’s ambitious website has not been as successful as some might have hoped — it’s forums are dusty (to say the least) and the ‘SuppleMentals’ section is not only an underused attempt to add multimedia links to supplement print articles, it employs that tired old ‘I capitalized something to make a pun! Get it?!’ styles of tired 80s avant-gardism that only James Boon still thinks is charming. That said, however, their decision to publish a ‘virtual issue‘ on business cultures is both extremely welcome and extremely interesting. Having unfairly mocked the stylistics of the website, I will save you rant about how anthropology’s recent turn to the study of ‘business cultures’ is problematic for the way it construes predecessors and fails to make possible interdisciplinary connections (you can read my article later on this later if it ever comes out), and move on to praise CA for making this material available and prompting us to think about what digital anthologizing might mean or signal.

The basic idea is simple. CA creates a web page with links to five articles written between 2009 and 2003 which are all thematically related. The articles are open access (huzzah!), and the web page includes a brief editorial introduction and a link to other articles which are related but which did not, apparently, make the cut.

Now, the idea of anthologizing greatest hits from a journal in order to present a picture of the past that enables research in the future is not a new idea. Colonialism and Culture collected several classic history/colonialism/power papers from Comparative Studies in Society and History, there is a three volume collection of papers from American Anthropologist, and Ethnos (I think it was) also did an edited volume of its political anthropology articles. Sage specializes in bookifying special issues of journals (such as Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods, a volume which is, sadly, largely off the radar of the new business anthropology) and the line between journal, conference, and anthology has become so tenuous over at Theory, Culture, and Society that they seem at times officially Beyond Genre.

But what is so new and interesting about CA is exactly the fact they they are not publishing this as a physical book. It is easy to see why — in an era of proliferating PDFs the value of physically collocating these essays has sharply declines (and remember, it used to be quite a value). CA is adding value to their work by selectively filtering it and, of course, making it available to everyone. What does it mean to anthologize merely by linking? It’s a fascinating question.

First, it makes us start to see the similarities between the edited volume and other genres that we might not have understood as being related to it. Is this a digital anthology or a syllabus? Is it an edited volume or a reading list? Is it a web site or a course reader? Syllabi, readers, and reading lists create usable pasts for students, while edited volumes are often authoritative presentations of work which in turn spawns new work. I guess I’ve always understood that both of these involve renarrating the past to move into the future, but here the similarities are especially striking.

Second: Because it is all links all the way down, there is no reason that CA had to stick merely with CA articles. Why not create a more wide-ranging edited volume? There are issues of rights, of course, as well as the problem of where you stop looking once your purview stops being just one journal and becomes an entire InterNetoSphere. It may be that legal regimes and our own imaginations result in us retaining the ghostly spectre of a physical journal issue in our heads as we imagine anthologization.

Thirdly, of course, is the fact that this is great for CA’s ‘brand’. Open Access means better publicity, and intelligent filtering (the selection of articles is great) mean that CA gets the credit not just for publishing these papers, but for wrapping them up in a nice little package for you. And of course in the future when people cite Mazarella and Ho with religious reverence as founders of The New Thing, CA can say “we were there first”.

At any rate, despite my snarkiness, I think CA has done something really useful and thought provoking, and I’d encourage you to check it out — and who knows, maybe even breathe some life into the forums.

Public Participation in the Life Sciences

I’ve been spending the last month organizing a symposium at UCLA called “Outlaw Biology” on public participation in the life sciences. There is much to say here about organizing a mini conference (on which see the recent post by G. Downey that Jay directed us to ), especially one that involves an active participatory component, especially when that involves doing biological experiments of some sort.

Outlaw Biology?
Outlaw Biology?
The whole goal of this symposium was to draw attention to the ways public participation is changing what the life sciences are (whether that means DIY Bio, recreational ancestry genetics, patient advocacy, or ‘open source science’). But what I wanted to draw SM reader’s attention to is the strange way that “public participation” is changing too. Publics are being “organization-ified” in new ways. The easier it becomes to constitute new affinity groups, the more difficult it becomes to be an unaffiliated member of the public. I blame FB and Twitter. But I’m a curmudgeon. Regardless… I’ve written an essay about it and am curious what people think.

Another Publishing World is Possible…

There is so much to say about what’s wrong with the publishing industry these days, and so much depressing to report about the state of reading and writing and the circulation of good ideas, that it’s nice to see a clear example of someone trying hard to find another way. John Sundman (aka John F.X. Sundman) is a science fiction writer with a background in truckdriving, volunteer firefighting, development in West Africa. I’ve read one of his three novels (Acts of The Apostles) and (full disclosure for my haters) he’s written a very nice review of by book, the sordid story of which is chronicled on his website. All his books are available for free under CC licenses, as well as (as my friend JFB says) in a flat rectangular form with printed symbols throughout.

John is writing a new novel, his fourth, called Creation Science. But he’s not independently wealthy, so writing and publishing the book is not free, regardless of its form. Fortunately, there is Kickstarter. For years I’ve been hearing people talk about alternative business plans for publishing, art, movies or music. This is it: a platform where people can pitch projects, have people pledge money to them, and if the funding level is met, the funds are released. There’s no mechanism to monitor whether the project is completed… but pledging a fistful of dollars doesn’t hurt anyone. Good old-fashioned risk-sharing. If you think John’s novel sounds like something that should be written, then pledge away. If you like Cory Doctorow’s books (who is also running a similar experiment in self-publishing), you will probably like Sundman’s as well.

But at the very least: think about what he’s doing. This isn’t vanity publishing. Well it is, but it relies on a pool of people who are willing to feed someone’s vanity. But that’s what the mainstream publishing industry is, except instead of vanity, it feeds on raw exploitative power. We have the technology, we don’t need to go back and read Marx again… just stop and think about it.

John is offering different levels of funding: you can pledge just a little ($5) and get a pdf. That’s basically a donation. Or you can pledge $17 and get a signed copy of the book. That’s a steal. Or you can pledge $750 and get “a souvenir pack of nifty stuff from my Creation Science archives, including my original notebooks, copies of correspondence with my editor, one-of-a-kind mockups, etc. After Creation Science has outsold Harry Potter, you’ll be able to sell this on Ebay for a fortune.” That’s hilarious, and not totally insane.

There are other projects like kickstarter, but none, so far as I can tell that are directed at a scholarly audience in any particular discipline. Imagine what a tool like this might look like for scholarly publishing. Imagine a journal run this way, for example. Topics or collections of research are proposed, along with a funding goal, projects that get funded have money to pay for editorial work, copyediting, promotion, maybe even on-demand publishing of the work. At the very least, it’s an easy way to go open access. Anti-OA people like the publishing staff of the AAA always wave the “pay-to-publish” bogeyman at anyone who argues that our work should be freely available (“OMG. It will cost you $9000 per article, we can’t do that!”). So bypass them. Start your own edited volume and raise what you think you’d need to pay someone to edit and manage it (hey you, yes I’m talking to you, the assistant professor trying to get tenure, you end up doing all that work FOR FREE anyways, what do you have to lose here?). Use your AAA Membership fees to contribute to other people’s edited projects that you think deserve to be published and read. It could engage the population of people who care about your work most. It’s an alternative to conventional grant-writing etc.

But even more than that, it could transform peer review and quality-monitoring. Currently Kickstarter is “invitation only” whatever that means. Imagine a scholarly version in which rather than it being “inivitation only” one has to constitute a mini-editorial board of respected scholars (for whatever value of ‘respected’) who would sign off on a project, peer review it and stamp it with a seal of approval (we do this for free already, or at most for $350 in books). My mind reels with the possibilities this has for improving the sorry state of scholarly publishing today. Kickstarter probably isn’t the right forum for this. In fact, I know it isn’t. But some enterprising people from the university press world could get together and make something like this happen right (hint hint). It could even be a consortium of existing presses, if they could solve the collective action problem of saving themselves from extinction. In fact, they might want to check into Kickstarter’s business model: they get 5% of successful projects. In other words, Step 3: Profit!

Learning from TED, SFAA and BarCamp

The 2009 SEAA conference was held in Taipei this year and it was a real treat to see so many anthropologists visiting the country I currently call home. I thought the Jurassic Restaurant was a great place for our final dinner! But as much as I enjoyed it, I am always left somewhat disappointed by anthropology conferences, so I thought I’d write a blog post to try to put some of the reasons for that disappointment into words, trying to think aloud about how we might do better.

The first thing I would do, if I had the power to do so, would be to ban the reading of papers. It seems to me that there is often an inverse relationship between how famous an anthropologist is and how boring their presentations are. All too often they simply read aloud seven to nine pages of dense double spaced text extracted from their most recent publication. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather read the paper at my own pace, thank you. How about trying to learn from the wonderful TED talks? Although the TED curators seem to be a bit too fond of neoliberal and technocratic solutions to the world’s problems, there is no doubt that the talks one finds on that site are rarely boring.

Secondly, putting all the TED talks up as online video might have something to do with the quality of the talks. Surely this keeps presenters on their toes? The SFAA podcast site is a great example of what anthropologists can do in this regard. This should be standard practice at all anthropology conferences, and included in the conference budget. All too often there are a million talks scheduled at the same time, so it would be great to be able to hear the ones you missed later on. It is a great way to “open access” our conferences.

Third, I’d like to see a little more time devoted to discussion. Lets be honest, fifteen minutes is not enough time to present all your data. It seems to me that anything less than forty minutes is going to be little more than an advertisement for your work, encouraging people to read more if they are interested. So why not keep the papers short, maybe under ten minutes, and open up more time to some real discussion. Make the papers available online for those who want to read them.

Finally, I’ve never been to BarCamp, but it seems to be one of many participant-driven “unconferences” like the citizen journalism one I attended at Wikimania 2007. The entire agenda was determined on the spot, with the second round of topics picking up from where we left off at the end of the first round. I loved how dynamic this approach was, compared with what I’m used to at academic conferences. It would be great to open up the format of anthropology conferences to experiment with these other forms. This could even be extended to after the conference is over. Perhaps there could be some kind of built-in mechanism by which each year’s conference builds on questions raised the previous year?

The New Persistence of Memory: The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archive

Some readers here may have seen my review of Johannes Fabian’s recent books, which are linked to a site he co-created with Vincent de Rooij called The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archive. It’s a great small collection of original texts, translations and commentaries, curated with scholarly care, and representing hard to find and valuable resources. What’s more, even though it is a small-scale project, it was one of the first open access publications in anthropology, and could continue in this fashion if there were interested people.

Fabian wrote to me recently concerned about the future of this archive, highlighting several issues that I think we will all face in the near future:

As you may have noticed in my email signature below the address of our LPCA archive has changed (because of some reorganization at the University of Amsterdam). The old address that appeared in publications so far will get you there for a while but probably not forever. One of the vagaries of presence on the net. Also I say “our” archive because it has been a truly collaborative effort with Vincent de Rooij, a former student and a linguist-cum-anthropologists whose dissertation was about Katanga Swahili. He designed, maintained, and edited the website meticulously. And he did this for almost 10 years without any institutional funding or even academic credit, on his own time. This has become untenable for me but, more importantly, he has turned to other subjects and interests, which is of course entirely legitimate. So the sad news is that LPCA, though it can run, as it were, on autopilot for years as long as it keeps its space on the server, is, if not dead, in suspended animation.

I think such projects are the very lifeblood of anthropology today–far more so than the increasingly sterile walled gardens of the academic journals run by the Publishing Borg and its scholarly society minions. So what should we do to keep them alive:

  1. Volunteers? Is there anyone out there with an interest in and focus on popular culture in Africa, african linguistics or swahili who wants to help? This could be an editorial opportunity as well, since there is both the archive and a Journal associated with the project.
  2. How can we improve it, or make it more 2.0-y and social interneterrific without sacrificing what is already there? What’s the right back-end? The journal (Journal of Language and Popular Culture in Africa) could obviously be ported to Open Journal Systems, if someone wanted to do that, whereas the archive materials might be appropriate for Omeka.
  3. How can we make it more “official”– perhaps by assigning DOI numbers (what would a suitable registration agency be?) and so forth to make it findable as a library resource?
  4. Can we leverage the new “open anthropology cooperative” to find people who are interested and committed?
  5. Other suggestions for Johannes and Vincent as to how to make this project survive and grow?

Media Anthropology and Pedagogy

Anand Pandian, assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins, shared the site for his Fall Semester undergrad course on The Anthropology of Media. The syllabus is comprehensive and tight. Students were asked to do a semester project on some aspect of the media, and the range of projects runs the gamut from the predictable (facebook) to the intriguing (Industrial Mix Tape: Baltimore’s Diverse Music Scene) to the kitchy (The Indian Chuck Norris).

I asked him why the projects look the way they do (I was thinking, what’s up with the 1990s web vernacular aesthetic?). The answer is illuminating, because it reflects how challenging it is to do a class like this and make students focus on the anthropology and not on the media. I don’t believe that this generation is any more digitally equipped than the last, and I hate it when journalists assume that it is (as they frequently do, given the number of requests I get to do interviews about how new media are causing children to evolve into large-thumbed, ADHD-addled, hacker-loving codemonkeys). In reality, some students have mad skillz, others have none. Focusing a class (of 50+ students) on the issues and asking them to produce a “new media” project that does not automatically activate different creative skills is challenging, so I was surprised by what Pandian’s class web site looked like. Of course, some students wanted to break out of the constraints (which results in some internal-link bizareness in some cases) I think it’s a measure of success, and it demonstrates one way to produce comparability in this medium.

Of course, one way to really get students thinking about the effects of media is to have them explore all the challenges, ins and outs of media production, but then the trade-off is that you risk running a course in web-production, rather than one in anthropology. In any case, an excellent case of experimentation.

Emily Martin on Anthropology Now!

Emily Martin has generously sent this brief history of how Anthropology Now started… Please be civil.

AnthroNow LogoI am pleased to see that there has been such quick and interested reaction to the launch of Anthropology Now. I wanted to write with a brief history of the long effort that has brought us here. I am speaking from my (spotty) memory here, and some details may be missing. We began as a committee of the AES in 1998 when I was president, Susan Harding was president elect, and Ida Susser was Councillor. The AES has kept us as an active committee ever since, which explains how we were included in the AAA program this year.

Our efforts to find a publisher stretched over 10 years. Ida Susser, Susan Harding and I organized approaches to (among others) Duke University Press, the University of California Press, the University of Chicago Press, Blackwells, Sage, and Palgrave. In each case we asked an anthropologist who had an existing (and positive) relationship with the press to make the pitch. All these presses turned us down except Palgrave. We got close with Palgrave only to be stymied by a change in administration and journal publication policies. We stayed in close touch with the AAA through successive presidents and the committee on scientific communication, but we never imagined that the AAA could fund this venture. They have consistently promised (and followed through on) in kind contributions and exchanges.

The very first year of our existence, Dean Birkenkamp, in a former professional capacity, found us and expressed his support and commitment. Thereafter he attended just about every annual meeting we had at the AAA meetings. He shared advice, kept up our morale, and pledged every possible effort to help us, for which we remain immensely grateful. It was only after he founded Paradigm Publishers and made it a commercial success that it became realistic for him to become our publisher. Given the depth and consistency of his interest and support, I do hope Paradigm makes some profit from Anthropology Now. Giving away 1000 copies (maybe more) of the first issue and mailing out countless full color brochures is an investment we hope the press will be able to recover. They are accepting the reality of years of losses on this venture, a move for which we are extremely grateful.

During the years before we had a publisher, our strategy was first to form an Editorial Board (much as you see it today) and second to post a “sample issue” on the web, which predates and only partially overlaps with what you see today. We owe the contributors to that sample issue and of course the additional contributors to the current issue a vote of thanks.

We also made efforts to raise grant support. When Leslie Aiello became president of Wenner-Gren, one of her mandates was to raise the public awareness of anthropology as a discipline: what is it that we do and what can we contribute to public debate and understanding? She agreed with our assessment of the need for a print magazine and a web presence. The financial support we have from Wenner-Gren will be crucial in the continued growth of the project.

We look forward to taking the web site to the next level and hope to continue to get good suggestions (and participation) from the readers of Savage Minds. For the moment, feel free to join us on the open Facebook group for Anthropology Now.

Anthropology in/of Circulation

It was never announced officially here, in part deliberately, in part just because my life got the better of me… but let this be official: we (Me, Rex, Jason B. Jackson, Kimberly Christen, Tom Boellstorff, Michael F. Brown and Michael M.J. Fischer) published a Really Great Interview about Open Access in Cultural Anthropology. For those who subscribe, the paper copies have now arrived, for those who don’t it is an Open Access article available to everyone (even in AnthroSource!). It is also hosted at the CA website for your commentary and discussion using the CommentPress software of which I am so fond.

The fact that I am announcing this “too late” is also related to a discussion we started earlier in the month, regarding the issue of attention to and care for various new kinds of internetty and webliche zweipunktnullische projects. In particular, the difficulty academics have of devoting time and attention to such new projects, and the way in which what Rex called the “field of care” structures how academics take up and run with certain projects. There are a lot of really great points in that thread… and I think it’s worth continuing the discussion here, and hopefully, over at Cultural Anthropology as well.

What spun the discussion off in interesting directions, I think, were two points:
Continue reading

The LSA Ethics Blog

Sometimes I think we don’t give enough credit to AAA — after only a year or two of total inaction since we first suggested the idea, they have gone from no blogging to having four blogs: “In Focus”:http://anthropologynews.blogspot.com/, “Human Rights”:http://aaahumanrights.blogspot.com/, “Public Affairs”:http://aaanewsinfo.blogspot.com/ (although the url is aaanewsinfo — so much for branding) and the “Race blog”:http://understandingrace.org/cs/blogs/race/default.aspx. I’m sure there are some who think this is three too many and that they are all too hard to find and navigate, but I’m glad to see that they have gotten these underway — especially the public affairs blog.

That said though, I’m sort of blown away by the fascinating use of blogging that is happening over at Linguistic Society of America. They are just now drafting an ethics statement and they are doing it “posting each section of the statement as a blog entry and letting people comment on them”:http://lsaethics.wordpress.com/2008/07/. Now that is innovation in blogging. Fascinating.

ARC seeks passengers and drivers

One of my various projects is looking for new blood: the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory is looking for people to help with the management of the project. As a collaboratory, it’s intended to be an umbrella for different kinds of research projects that work together on problems and concepts in a loosely defined, geographically and academically dispersed way. The current research has settled into two major research projects. The first is a project on critical infrastructure protection or “Vital Systems Security” organized by Andy Lakoff and Stephen Collier. The other is a project on the ethics and politics of synthetic biology and nanotechnology that includes myself, Gaymon Bennett and Paul Rabinow.

We use a simple WordPress installation to coordinate our research, and much of the discussion over the years has been about how to improve the specifically academic modes of interaction we are accustomed to (i.e. email and sharing documents for review and critique) to take advantage of new software tools and new kinds of research, much of which is frequently discussed here. Right now, I’m the main “technical” person, but I’m looking for people (especially graduate students) who might want to participate in this project and help make the tools more effective, figure out how to manage a collaboratory (i.e. herd cats), or contribute to these research projects or even start a new one. This potentially includes one or more paid positions, but that depends on how much work required or desired. If anyone is interested in participating at any level, please contact me (ckelty at rice dot edu)

Philosophers Discover Lost Tribe in Jungles of Free Will

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of responsibility, and this has necessarily entailed (determined even) my encounter with contemporary (mostly American) moral philosophy. It’s not a domain I would ever seek out, being much more comfortable in the idioms of social theory and continental philosophy, but it’s hardly alien. However, a funny thing happened on my way to the agora, which is that I discovered that a small selection of philosophers have recently gone “experimental.”

Apparently, making broad claims about “what a person would naturally think” have finally become so insupportable that even philosophers have started exploring the possibility of actually talking to people. Experiments measuring “folk beliefs” about whether our world is deterministic or not, or whether free will can exist if the world is deterministic, are intended to settle claims that begin “most people believe that…” Settling such claims is necessary in the domain of moral philosophy, because a concept like responsibility is fundamentally tied to what people do in “everyday” circumstances. If it is not possible to start from some kind of claim about whether (to say nothing of why) people make ascriptions of praise and blame in the same way, then, arguments about free will and moral responsibility start to seem like the proverbial and much-maligned mass and extension of angels living on pins.

Burning ArmchairEnter “X-Phi” — a contingent of young whippersnappers bent on making names for themselves by shaking up some methodological verities in their discipline, “trailing blogs of glory” (as K. A. Appiah deligtfully characterized it) and sporting a burning arm-chair as their logo. You can get a T-shirt, here. You can befriend Experimental Philosopher on myspace here (you’ll be in some rocking company). Or read about them in Slate.

Needless to say, and I speak on behalf of all of us here, This Rocks. Continue reading