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Open Post to [members]

November 6th, 2009

Below is my response to an email thread on a mailing list I’ve been on since 1995. I didn’t include any list discussion by others, as a matter of principle. I think one can make sense of it without that context, but let me know, if I’m wrong.

What’s sobering to me is all this utilitarian and ends justify the means thinking.  All unsolicited mail is spam, especially when it’s selling something,  and some regard it as an intrusion of market forces into spaces reserved for other kinds of communication. Others think it’s no big deal, or have no idea what a space outside the market might be.

That’s fine and fair enough. I understand people have different views. But, puh-lease don’t assume those whose views get in the way of your plans (however noble those plans) are simply cranks, or mere minorities in “modern American life”.

There’s a whole Net culture for whom spamming is socially unacceptable behavior. This culture has particularly strong pockets in academia (N.B.:university spam filters are some of the strongest out there). I was raised in that culture and though I’m happy for those who’ve succeeded in email campaigns, and even considered one myself, I just haven’t been able to get around ye olde-timey net.values.

It’s not a question of whether spam works. It’s a principle of how to use email as a channel, not unlike discussions of how to use the members list, and when to take discussions elsewhere, such as Ning, a privately held company which adds me to it’s data mine field as the price of admission to the channel.

Send unsolicited mail (i.e., spam), if you feel you have to to survive, but what going on in all this froth of communication isn’t just noise. Deeper issues are involved and my goal is writing this is to point them out.

TND Dispatch Archive: Excavation or Renovation?

July 15th, 2009

TND Dispatch ArchiveLast weekend I spent some time working to restore part of the Cyborganic archive that went down when died in April 2008. Aimee Cardwell had been asking after the TND Dispatches, so I decided to get an idea of how much grepping and schlepping it would take to get images and main links working for just that part of the Cyborganic site.

Though these things are never the quick look-see one intends, it was pretty simple to correct/revise broken URL paths. However, I came away with a much thornier sense of all the decisions involved in doing a complete restoration of the site for real (including decisions about what for real means).

Do you work to restore all the serverside includes and scripts, including slideshows done with cgis? Do you re-implement same/similar functionality with current wares? Do you leave broken links to pages outside the Cyborganic site as they were because the original path, broken or not, is itself the data in the context of an archive? Just what I needed, a host of complex techno-philosophic decisions to get to before diving into the archive data that’s been sitting on my PC for almost a year!

Chapter Guide to the Dissertation

December 14th, 2008

I’m hoping some of you will read some of the dissertation. I realize that’s asking a lot. It’s a huge, academic document. You’re busy. It has many parts. You might be interested in some (but which?). So, I prepared a short chapter guide to show where the goodies are and a slideshow (it’s bigger in the guide) to entice you to read, baby, read!

Cyborganic and the Birth of Networked Social Media (It’s here!)

December 8th, 2008

Communities of Innovation: Cyborganic and the Birth of Networked Social Media is now available for download (PDF, 5.7 MB). I am especially eager to share my dissertation with the many Cyborganics who participated in the research, sharing their stories and insights. For those who prefer a quick synopsis to the 420-page version, I offer the following diagram and abstract.

Network of Firms, Projects and Communities

Communities of Innovation: Cyborganic and the Birth of Networked Social Media

Cyborganic, the subject of this study, was a community whose members brought Wired magazine online; launched Hotwired, the first ad-supported online magazine; set-up Web production for CNET; led the open source Apache project; and staffed and started dozens of other Internet firms and projects—from Craig’s List to Organic Online—during the first phase of the Web’s development as a popular platform (1993-1999).

As a conscious project to build a hybrid community both online and on-ground, Cyborganic’s central premise was that mediated and face-to-face interaction are mutually sustaining and can be used together to build uniquely robust communities. Yet, Cyborganic was also an Internet start-up and the business project provided both impetus and infrastructure for the community. The social forms and cultural practices developed in this milieu figured in the initial development of Web publishing, and prefigured Web 2.0 in online collaboration, collective knowledge creation, and social networking.

The objectives of this dissertation are several. The first is to demonstrate the role of Cyborganic in the innovation and adoption of networked social media through an ethnographic case study of the group, showing it as exemplary of the regional and cultural advantage of “technopoles,” and as precursor to contemporary phenomena of online social networking. The second objective is to interrogate the relation between entrepreneurial and utopian practices and social imaginaries in the Cyborganic project, identifying not only their synergies, but also their tensions. Finally, my third objective is to ground celebratory and utopian discourses of new media genealogically, showing that the social media heralded today as “revolutionary” grew from earlier media and practices, similarly hailed as revolutionary in their day. Rather than representing rupture with the past, the narrative of social revolution through technologies is a cultural legacy passed through generations already, and one that draws on quintessentially American attitudes and practice.

Our black box has gone dark (for now)

June 17th, 2008
Picture of a VA Linux serverOn April 11, 2008 the power supply on our server failed bringing to an abrupt halt a bandwidth cooperative with a long and noble history, and taking with it (for the time being at least) content far more important than my blog here.

After going through three power supplies we figure one of the boards in our hardware must be shorting. Now we have two tasks–data recovery and setting up a new system. So, we’ve been offline far longer than anticipated.

Meanwhile, I handed in my dissertation on April 15, defended successfully May 13, and should at this very minute be formatting it to file by July 1. So, I’ve neglected The Participant Observer and been remiss in putting up any error message. This shall have to suffice until the blog is reborn later this summer. Meanwhile, I’ll be tweeting and answering mail at

Eric Raymond: Science Fiction & Anthropology

June 16th, 2007

Self-described hacker anthropologist Eric Raymond (ESR) explains that science fiction was the source of his interest in anthropology, citing the example of the anthropologist character in Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. If this clip were a dish, I’d pair it with Chris Kelty’s ruminations on Raymond’s hacker anthropology.

The Other has a login on my box?

March 8th, 2007
picture of MacOSX login screenIt’s not often that I see the Mac OSX login screen, but on those rare occasions when I do reboot, I’m always amused for a moment by the sight of this second user “Other.”

“Now how did he get an account on my machine?,” I joke to myself at this ready-made sight gag for eggheads. I think the outline of a human head and shoulders, silhouetted against a blue field, illuminated by a starry network, is a pretty good icon for the Other. Especially here where it stands for anyone who doesn’t have an account on the system for which this is the login screen.

I also find some existential relief in the thought that, unlike Rimbaud (who famously said “je est un autre” [sic.]), I am/is decidedly not an other, at least not here on my desktop, in my system, at my cockpit on the world. Of course, some days, it feels more like a ball turret, but that’s another story.

Mmm technology, not merely man-made, but made of men!

February 24th, 2007
Old Lady Who Swallowed A FlyI couldn’t come up with a title for this post while writing it, but kept thinking of that great line from David Nobel’s America by Design:

For technology is not simply a driving force in human history, it is something in itself human; it is not merely man-made, but made of men.” (1977, xxi-xxii

I’m indebted to John Labovitz for his comments on my wiki lament and for pointers to two articles about efforts to build a better wiki. The first, “Meet the uber-wiki”, is about WikiProfessionial’s WikiProteins, a wiki with structured data, automatic updates of related pages and alerts. The second is a piece by Tim O’Reilly about a recent NSF award to the University of Colorado to research and create a “New Generation Wiki” that goes “beyond existing wikis.” (It’s gotta be vaporware when one of the specifications is “utilize new paradigms.” As if simply “using” them weren’t enough. “Use”, “utilize,” do you know the difference?)

Even though these projects seem to respond to many of the concerns I had with wikis as groupware, for me they call to mind the children’s song about the old lady who swallowed a fly. That is, in terms of the ailment I described as wiki-mania, these cures may simply be more of the disease. The problems to which I point–of creating meaningful order collectively–are not, I think, chiefly problems of software but of socialization. From that standpoint, the fact that wikiware is the object on which the talk centers is itself indicative of the problem, namely, the tendency to see collaborative representation and storage of knowledge primarily in technical terms. There’s a saying that any problem in computer science can be solved by another layer of indirection, but this problem is simply bumped along to each new layer. Users are part of the system, you always get to them in the end, and there’s no system so robust it can’t be thwarted by ignorant armies, or subverted by clever ones. Right about now is when the techno-faithful (friends and colleagues) usually protest “but you shouldn’t have to be an expert” and I counter, “Yes, silly, but there’s a whole spectrum out there, why dash to an extreme?” Because “plug-and-play” isn’t the only alternative to expertise, no matter how those “Exegesis for Dummies” books would have it.

Focus on perfecting the wiki will not get at the concerns I was raising which were more along the lines of acknowledging that inculcating users in habits of mind and protocols is vital to any wiki project. Of course, to take that on sincerely requires swimming upstream against a strong cultural current that views meaningful social order as something that arises automagically from myriad individual transactions. Evidence of this current, as well as the social relations within which wikis work, can be found in this blog about Wikipedia edit-wars (start at the bottom).

Here, Parker Peters, a (former?) Wikipedia admin, expounds with great detail and vigor on the tactics by which, as he sees it, “Wikipedia turns ‘consensus’ into ‘groupthink’.” What interests me most is his notion that legitimate consensus is threatened the instant individuals act in concert. It comes forth most clearly in the post Lesson #3: Organize, Organize, Organize where he writes: “First of all, the idea of “consensus” is thrown under the bus as soon as an organized group shows up trying to push their own point of view.”

I understand where Peters is coming from and feel his frustration because, whatever the particulars in contention, I wouldn’t suppose that an artifact such as Wikipedia could be anything other than a social construct (with all that that implies). It’s a point Stephen Colbert gets across more pointedly and mirthfully in Wikiality, The Truthiness Encyclopedia

One of my newbie complaints of Wikipedia was, in fact, that articles didn’t include anything about who’d authored them, so that I might understand on what bases they advanced their claims to knowledge? But the aspiration to “neutral point of view” is one Peters shares with Wikipedia. His critique basically calls project admins to task for acting against values they purportedly have in common.

It is these values in which I’m interested, or rather, the conceptions of the social they bespeak. How do you distinguish between “groupthink” and shared values you do, or do not, happen to share? What are the bounds of consensus? The conditions of community? In what size and kinds of groups does legitimate discourse take place, that is, what distinguishes a cabal from a public? Though such questions may seem far afield from my complaints of wiki-mania, the connecting thread I’m tracing is a backgrounding (and even eclipsing) of the social work entailed in collecting and representing knowledge of any sort. It’s never merely a matter of technicalities, so when you background all thinking about what records or articles should consist of, or move from a world of pages, to one of feeds, without much attention, let alone discussion, of what habits of mind can be translated or rendered in the new media, you quickly run into all sorts of problems. You can throw all the “New Generation” and “uber” warez you want at these problems, but the trend toward field specific wikis (WikiProfessional) and initiatives like Citizendium which “aims to improve on the Wikipedia model by adding “gentle expert oversight” and requiring contributors to use their real names,” indicate their deeply social and conventional nature.

Where’s the metadata, the anthropology?

February 13th, 2007

Though I joined the lovefest over this video at Savage Minds; shared it with dozens of people last week; and am genuinely grateful it was produced and posted; I have some problems with the representation of Web 2.0 it makes.

Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us

The focus on form and content a bit misleading. Sure, XML, enables you to separate abstract data (i.e. the so-called “content”) from rendition information (form, or better, formatting), but that’s hardly the heart of Web 2.0. Metadata, middleware, an interchange format that makes document processing and data processing one and the same, that’s the heart of it. Though the video emphasizes that XML facilitates automatic data exchange, and talks about tagging as teaching the machine, metadata is never mentioned by name.

Mostly, I find the video problematic as a work of cultural anthropology because it so readily serves up the party line of the Web 2.0 initiative in the native tongue of marketing: “Digital text can do better,” XML leaves us “free from formatting constraints,” no need to “know complicated code,” “no longer just linking information, Web 2.0 is linking people.” This last one strikes me as particularly odd coming from an anthropologist. Were people not connected by the Web in 1994? A lot of complicated codes are required to blog and use social networking tools, the fact that most of them aren’t machine-readable shouldn’t keep a social scientist from recognizing them as code.

Liz Losh: a very proper and discreet girl

February 7th, 2007
Photo of Liz Losh at her desk, Harvard 1985Scantily clad, yes, but incredibly well-lettered. In the years since I took this photo, the young woman pictured here in front of her Xerox 820 has become a brilliant scholar of digital rhetoric. Back then she was the only person I knew with a letter-quality printer. Today she is the only person I know who manages to confront the outrages of our time on a daily basis with scholarly rigor, wry humor, and a detached equanimity worthy of an L.A. Punk, or a Unitarian.

I’ve chosen to open my people posts with Liz Losh, not because of her pioneering scholarship and blog, not even because she plugged this blog a couple days ago on, but because of her service to humanity as a close reader.

In my nightmares of information overload, I often wonder, “Is there a close reader in this lifeboat?” Cuz if not, RTFM is just a slogan.

The title of this post is a reference to a bizarre line towards the end of Warren Weaver’s Recent Contributions to The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) [PDF], that Liz once pointed out to me. In arguing for a statistical view of information (i.e. one that “has nothing to do with meaning”), Weaver writes:

“An engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and discreet girl accepting your telegram. She pays no attention to the meaning, whether it be sad, or joyous, or embarrassing. But she must be prepared to deal with all that come to her desk. (27)

Photo of Liz Losh 2003I remember this striking me a a rather odd analogy, but I hadn’t stopped to think about it. Liz had, noting that these discreet girls pop up all over the early literature of information theory, including the classic “As We May Think” in which: “A girl strokes its [the stenotype] keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze.”

Shades of Milton’s daughters here, the female as faithful but uncomprehending conduit of information. What this fantasy of communication always seems to miss is that, however proper and discreet on the job, the girls talk among themselves after hours. When they do, the attention they have been paying becomes quite evident and is surely not without significance for communication in general.

At right, Liz Losh in 2003, dressed for protest.

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