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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.

Must all that converges rise in my throat?

January 4th, 2007

I am finally getting around to reading Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide because the person who loaned it to me, Liz Losh (brilliant colleague, neighbor, and muse), needs it back. It is not going down easily and were it not for Liz’s gentle insistence, in her writing and on our walks together, that this is a book I cannot ignore, and her pointers to deft reviews, I doubt I’d have the courage or appetite.

What could I possibly find so distasteful about this often sanguine exposition of pop media convergence? Prudence dictates I finish the book before attempting a comprehensive answer, but let me just indulge in another erotema or two to whet my whistle.

Say you’re at Taco Bell and you order a drink and they give you a cup that you’re expected to fill yourself; or say you’re flying home for the holidays and choose your seat and print your boarding pass online; should we think of these as participatory fast food, participatory aviation? Though neither of these scenarios involve the kind of cultural production and consumption with which Jenkins is primarily concerned, they seem to me to be pretty central to the phenomena currently bundled as convergence.

Besides, Jenkins doesn’t limit his purview to pop media fandom and “franchises” (Survivor, American Idol, The Matrix, Start Wars and Harry Potter), but consistently underscores the wider socio-political implications of his subject. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as convinced as anyone about the socially transformative powers of networked media, it’s just that Jenkins seems to have things a bit backwards (or, at least, a different understanding of the history and structural aspects of convergence) when he writes:

Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more “serious” purposes.

You don’t have to be Janet Abbate or Steven Levy to know that the serious and the recreational always coincide in new media; and that the development of many of the technologies, genres, forms, and practices Jenkins describes (message boards, emails, web pages), has been driven since elder days by powerful synergies of work and play.

As Fred Turner, who has just published From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), wryly observes in another paper, the technophilia powering the transformation of communications technologies was “common to both the acidheads of the Trips Festival and the managers of America’s nuclear arsenal” (“Where the Counterculture Met The New Economy”, available on Turner’s site, 495). From my own fieldwork, I can drawn several examples, such as the birth of Apache on

graceful degradation

January 24th, 2005

there’s something to be said for knowing when it’s time to go down, and for going down easily, without a fuss. but i don’t know what it is.

i wasn’t about to get yanked around for playing games in a world where there were truly dangerous people out there, doing truly dangerous and deceitful things. samuel would have to be reasoned with. “and you’re the one who’ll have to do it,” i kept telling myself as we walked through cambridge, got in a taxi, and disembarked at the train station in the morning gloom. but perhaps i was being hasty, maybe it made more sense to get hold of luddie, or professor singh? let somebody else do the talking, so i didn’t have to decide what would be said. samuel hadn’t exactly been grilling me, but he was making it pretty clear that he wanted to hear my story and until he did we’d be riding the rails, in limbo until a suitable landing could be arranged.

we got on the train near the front, walked back to the dining car, and sat down together, side by side, at a table. for a moment it struck me as peculiar that he hadn’t sat across from me, but i waved it off thinking perhaps that’s how it’s done on british trains. samuel leaned over and said, “now are you going to tell me why you were asked to work on sandstone, and why you have G9 clearances dating from 1975, and how you happen to be in the UK when there’s no record of you being active… any capacity…..ever?”

i leaned back, if only to breathe. he’d been less than an inch from my face. i wanted some air of my own to work with. “i’ll do my best to answer all, samuel. can we order some tea first? why don’t you take care of it and i’ll just sit here and tell you what i can, straight and quick, so you’ll know i’m not piecing something together, so you’ll know i’m being straight with you.” he nodded, but didn’t do a thing about the tea.

“i was in london for apachecon, a conference for apache users and fans, anyway, i was here with my boyfriend, or rather fiance, or rather, soon-to-be-ex coz we’re breaking up, it’s a sad story really, but tangential to the current topic which was how i came to be here doing some work for luddie.” i paused and looked around for any sign of how one might contrive to have hot tea arrive at the table.

the dining car was empty save for a man standing at one end, filling the doorway in a strangely casual way. my heart sank. there might be no tea. and that might not be the worst of it. boy i really screwed up this time and i hadn’t a clue what i’d done.

“luddie called me last wednesday, said he’d heard i was in england and wanted to know if i’d like to make some money, serious money, on my vacation…he said he needed someone who knew anything about the langauges of the Wakhan Corridor…. i remember, he kept emphasizing anything…like it would be enough to know the languages existed. i was confused by his request…a little put off that he kept saying ‘serious money’…it was cheesy.” i paused. samuel nodded. i continued.

“i told him, i know only a little Wakhi, i’m not literate in any turkic language, and i’m not an experienced translator….so, if you’re offering ‘serious money’, you better find a more serious candidate! besides, i have a job, it’s pretty strenuous, and i’m supposed to be on vacation.”

that is, word for word, nuance for nuance, exactly what i’d said to luddie. i had closed my eyes and was playing the conversation back in mind’s ear. i was being so completely faithful in my recreation of the event that i hadn’t noticed the train begin to move.

“so what did luddie say then?” asked samuel. i was relieved to hear him speak. he didn’t seem antagonistic. he seemed genial, but i mustn’t let that fool me. for some reason he thought i was dangerous and that made him dangerous. the fact that he was damned attractive made it worse. “stockholm syndrome” i tried to laugh it off. but there was no getting around it. i’d just have to factor it in as i went along.

“well, then luddie told me what they needed was someone to help out with a bunch of files that got corrupted, through some combination of faulty encryption and media storage, and that many of these were sound recordings made in the Wakhan Corridor by an ethnomusicologist in the 1980s… and that sounded interesting to me, like something i might be able to help with…. and then luddie said he’d pay me five thousand dollars just to come out to Cambridge, meet with professor singh, and spend a few hours working on their problem…….all that ego-appeal…..all that money, how could i say no?”

i waited for some sort of reaction, but there wasn’t any. not from samuel, not from the gentle blur of shubbery whirring by to my left, not from the man at the end of the car.

“so that answers two of your questions, but maybe raises some more? as for the clearances, that’s completely unrelated, as far as i know, except you never know with luddie, he’s active in so many circles.” i tried to laugh, but it came out more like a cough. “that has to do with my father, he was a prisoner of the Patet Lao sometime before i was born, and later in ’75….” i trailed off.

“and so, did you meet with professor singh? tell me about that,” he coaxed.

“you know i did, first thing friday morning, you probably know the time, what train i took, and all that better than i do, so i’ll focus on what i think you don’t know….okay?”

no response.

“we met at professor singh’s lab, luddie, this fellow eric, and i. eric walked me through what they had, but it wasn’t much, just a list of files, mostly, and some gibberish they’d tried unsuccessfully to extract. eric quizzed me to see what i knew about sound file formats, then professor singh came in to test my langauge skills. he had me listen to a bunch of recordings, like sentences from a language lesson, and i remember thinking he must be trying to test my hearing at the same time, because the volume was very low, and some of the speakers barely discernable. after thirty minutes or so the professor excused himself, eric followed him out and came back several minutes later saying that he was looking forward to working together and would be sending a set of recordings to me in london the next day. that was it. it around lunchtime on friday and i thought i was done for the day, so i decided to look up simon schaeffer, who was my friend lisa’s professor when she was at Cambridge for her masters in the history of science, i think it was.” samuel interrrupted.

“yes, and he met you, gave you a lovely tour of the colleges, showed you the classroom where your great uncle harrie used to teach, and left you at king’s college only to meet you an hour later at the eagle.” he seemed to know it at least as well as i did at that point. it had been a busy weekend with little sleep and far too little tea.

“okay, so you know luddie tracked me down and eventually brought me over to the bunker, or complex, or whatever it is, and eric and i started working on this three-second loop, and after a couple hours some guys came in and told us to take a break. they showed us to the break room and said we’d have to wait there until our clearances had been checked. i had no idea what they were talking about, but luddie told me not to worry, that he’d call professor singh and work it out. so i didn’t worry. afterall, the job wouldn’t pay so well unless it were some kind of hassle, right?

besides, i was in no hurry to get back to london, my soon to be ex-fiance, and the eight by ten hotel room we were sharing.”

“and the sound loop” samuel leaned in, “what did you learn about it?”

“it was pretty interesting, actually, all that information packed in to such a short loop, parts were definitely music, other parts seemed to be speech, and other parts, neither. it was super-dense, super-saturated, we hadn’t gotten too far, but we were making progress.”

“and how is it that someone clever enough to figure out all that can’t give me any other name than luddie balmer’s at the end of the day? who did you think you were working for?”

“the university?” i was sounding rattled, but less rattled than i felt.

“and it didn’t strike you as odd that there were all these langley types hanging about the complex? or that you were held for clearances doing piecework on a university project?” he sounded a bit condescending, but not saractic. small mercies.

“yes, that was odd, but this is new to me, i’ve never done work like this for money before, so it’s all a bit odd, but i like puzzles, and eric and i were working well together, making progress faster than either of us expected, i suppose i got caught up….but, yes, in retrospect, with you shining a light on it, the whole thing seems……surreal, not just odd.”

“jennifer, jennifer” he sounded like he was talking to someone else. a child lodged deep within the tabletop he was staring in to. “isn’t there a name you can give me, someone who can explain your clearances?

i stared in to the table, too, trying to put my mind where his was, trying to answer his question. i was stumped. who, who, whom, yes that’s right, whom should i name, on whom should i call? the question went round in my brain in time with the train, both were slowing, and as they did, it seemed in the tabletop world as if we were pulling in to a familiar station (was it guildford?) and i could see the child he’d been talking to, and she was me, and all at once it came to me, just came over me like a wave, not a flash you understand, but a wave of experience containing every particle of air, light, moisture, every sonic vibration, every packet of energy in that moment of pulling to a stop on a sunny afternoon long ago, the squeal of braking wheels, of new equilibria breaking to the surface. and then we were stopped, the electricity cut out and in the silence she and i together speak one name. “Pop Yule”.

Modernity 4.0 now with more less tradition!

October 13th, 2004

Today I was talking with Coops, one of the spirit guides aiding me on the dreamquest of getting a Ph.D. I was trying to persuade him that Manuel Castell’s idea of the network society is in important ways different from what Braudel and Wallerstein say about the world system.

Coop told me about Janet Abu-Lughod’s book “Before European Hegemony
The World System A.D. 1250-1350
” and Andre Gunder Frank’s new book “ReORIENT” and I went out and bought them right after, but continued to press my case.

Let us not contest that the world economy is Silk Road era news, but the network society is something different because technological networks make it possible for social forces to organize on “a planetary scale in real time.”

And if you say that’s only a quantitative difference I say it’s so many orders of magnitude more of the same that it becomes radically different. So, if Abu-Lughod is correct and the roots of the force that remade the world, aka capitalism, lie earlier and in Asia, then that’s 1.0. Next there’s the whole familiar story that Eric Wolf told so well of capitalism 2.0, and then post-industrialism is 3.0, which brings us to 4.0 and that’s when Coop broke in with the line “now with more less tradition.”

the mancunian candidate

August 28th, 2004

stairsgarage.JPG it took over a minute for me to realize we’d come to the surface and into some sort of parking structure. dazed, i followed samuel through the wide, shallow puddles of natural light. the light had been the give-away. this space didn’t feel or smell outdoors. it was only the light and i moved toward it.

two pots of tea, a rack of toast, and a soft boiled egg later i was a new animal. no longer a timid, little reptile, i now counted myself among the primates. though not quite human, of course, next to this highly polished specimen, samuel.

he hadn’t said a word about anything other than breakfast since we’d left the cold room, now it seemed like the dining portion of my adventure would soon be coming to a close. his energy’s shifting, i noticed, knowing how new agey that sounded in this setting. he was getting a bit twitchy, so i decided to seed the cloud.

“so, what’s on your mind, anyway? i’m positive i’ve done nothing intentionally remiss, so how can i be a help to you lot, whoever you are?”

“is bruce massie really your cousin?” he asked, motioning for the check to someone i couldn’t see.

“once removed, yes, of course. and i really had no idea what our little game might look like to someone else….you, for instance. same with that silly gamebot…just games that spooked the spooks…..”

“sounds like that movie “WarGames.”

“man, i loved that movie….’shall we play a game?’…the story, the teen romance, the moral, all great, but i really, really hated that they expected us to believe you could war-dial using an acoustic modem…….”

samuel wasn’t responding, so i put down my half of the conversation and took a drink of water. after a time, he spoke.

“okay, say i believe that none of your card buddies had a clue where they were, which seems to be the case. and also about your gamebot. i understand you were in the facility as part of luddie’s team, helping out with sandstone, the project you know as professor singh’s file conversions and translations.”

“yup, that’s right, that’s what they kept me here for and then they didn’t need me for hours. and i was supposed to be at Apachecon, and that made me impatient. so i strayed from the straights and narrows of outrageous fortune right into a card game and now seem to have ended up in another fine mess.”

i’d finished my tea ages ago, but i picked up the teacup, swirled it around gently, and turned it over in my saucer.

“are you reading your tea leaves?” he smiles and once again it is disarming.

“i’m looking for any insight i can get, samuel. i honestly have no idea why i’ve been carted off, kept, and questioned, and i think i’ve been a darn good sport….i’m on the clock, after all, and i figure we’re all on the same team….but now i’m wondering.”

“well, here’s the problem.” he opened his briefcase and pulled out a thick stack of paper, a print-out on old-fashioned autofeed, perforated paper, which he put on the table between us.

“wow, i didn’t know any one still used that stuff, impressive.” i said of the paper.

“these are logs for the past two weeks of your home computer as well as the two boxes at the co-lo in fremont, california.” he turned the stack around for me to read.

“you’ll notice, about twenty pages in, we found of particular interest, a little daemon process called imperial.msg. would you mind explaining that?”

i open the report, look down rows and across columns, trying to take it all in calmly and quickly, to see just what they’d “logged”. this is yet another kind of literacy our schools don’t teach, reading machine generated reports.

i smile at the wanderings of my mind, even in moments like these, and keep skimming through the print-out in silence, not exactly surprised by the complete transparency of my electronic life, but stunned, and sort of in awe of this brave, new universe around me. after a time i regain powers of speech.

“i understand your interest in imperial.msg and the traffic it might conceal, but that’s not what it’s there for, and not what it’s used for, at least not by me. it’s basically just an arty network monitor that cycles through a set of diagnostics, generates and sends reports…all the dummy content, odd as it may seem to you, is……….well, art, or something like that…a game of sorts…you know.”

he looks at me, then at his watch. he’d paid the bill before taking the logs out of his briefcase, so we were free to leave. i wait for a cue, but he just looks at me skeptically, or is that disdain?”

“look, samuel, do you know the kafka short story An Imperial Message?”

“yes, i like kafka quite a bit, actually.” i’m surprised to hear him answer.

“and i’m fairly sure i’ve read that, a very short story indeed, right, only a paragraph, but i can’t recall it, other than a line or two. why? what’s the relation between that story and your daemon?”

it’s a surreal question and i laugh. kafka is always a cut-up at interrogations.

“sorry, i promise i’ll answer the question, i mean no disrespect, laughing, it’s just a reflex…sorry….but first, tell me what line of imperial message you remember?” do you remember this?:

“No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man.”

samuel smiles, “this is all very edifying, jennifer, but would you get to the question at hand?”

“that’s got to be one of my all-time favorite lines, that, and the one right after it, the last line of the story, anyway, okay, you’re a patient guy, i’m a chatty cathy, but knowing the story is actually relevant to understanding the daemon that you’re asking about.”

i pause to make sure he understands i’m serious, then continue.

“because, as you’ll recall, in the story the emperor, from his deathbed has sent a message to you the humble subject, and the tireless messenger struggles through an infinite series of walls, crowds, and obstacles, striving to bring you this message that never arrives…so that’s what imperial.msg is designed to mimic, the endless circuit of this message through the network…that’s the arty part, but as far as functionality goes, it’s pretty basic stuff.”

“but you see the dangers, you understand our concerns, right?” he leans in to say this as if to keep others from overhearing, but there’s no one else about.

“i do and i’m very sorry for any misunderstandings. even though i only do contract stuff for luddie’s group now and again, i have some family history here, i hope you understand i would never deliberately do anything to compromise country or company.”

“this is precisely what i’m trying to ascertain, your mum’s uncle taught here, right? an australian physicist knighted for his work with oppenheimer on the bomb, i believe. but luddie says you told him it’s your dad’s work that got you involved, so i’m a bit unclear, even after doing my homework.”

“where are you from?” i ask boldly.

i’d been wondering since he’d introduced himself where on earth to place his accent. it was so many different things at once, and yet it’s own thing entirely. he’d said “mum” just now and that was, finally, a major clue. i just had to ask.

“what?” he sounded surprised.

“where are you from? where were you born and bred?

“why do you ask?”

“because i’ve been trying to place your accent for about three hours now, and it’s defied me, and you just said ‘mum’ and i wanted to know…”

“please…” i continue in a mock plaintive voice. “it’s less awful for me if i feel there’s an exchange of information taking place here. otherwise, you know, i feel so used.” perhaps flirtatious joking would get him to talk.

“what are your guesses so far?” he asks. it seems to be working.

“well, at first i thought american, east-coast, but then i thought ah, clearly some kind of british accent i’ve not heard before, or maybe a south african who’s worked closely with americans for a long time, but every now and again, i hear something vaguely yiddish, like when you said ‘oppenheimer’ just then, so i can’t place it, i’m stumped.”

“wow, that’s damn good actually.” he laughs, takes a long, slow breath, and relents with a shy smile.

“i was born and raised here in england, in manchester, actually. my mother’s israeli, my dad’s american, both german jews, and i’ve lived in the states since i was 12, so you covered all the bases, actually, and i’m quite impressed.” he seemed genuine.

“so do I win anything?”

“no, because you gave up. you might have presented exactly those observations in a far more assertive light.”

“meanie.” i grumble, making a frowny face.

“tell you what, let’s walk and talk.” he pushed back from the table.

“i’ll have someone contact luddie, let him know how to reach you when and if he needs. you’re still on the clock and you and i, we’re just having a friendly chat, where you’ll fill me in and we’ll get you back to london as soon as possible. how does that sound?”

i watched as he stood, put on his well-made raincoat, and put the papers back in the briefcase.

“that sounds peachy” i said. and it did.

i relish few things better than a morning walk and the streets of this medieval city were as fine a place as any for such undertaking.

straights and narrows

August 7th, 2004

tawdry as it sounds, they found me in the break room playing cards. bruce, jeffries, and their mates from the lab had a weekly game. when they heard i wasn’t free to leave the complex, but wasn’t at the moment occupied, and was in fact extremely bored waiting my turn to do my bit, they offered to bring the game round as a diversion. apparently, bruce had talked me up as quite a card shark. ha.
we’d been playing more than a few hours when in they came as if we should’ve heard the trumpets announce them. three men, all very serious.

as a reflex, i was about to make a wisecrack when the small, reptilian part of my brain broke through with a message: “fear, look, listen, don’t move.”

“they need to talk to her.” one of them said.

“Who?” protested jeffries. “She’s already talked to everyone, haven’t you dear?” he turned my way but kept his eye on mr. killjoy.

“The Americans” he said flatly, then added sarcastically, “The G-men.”

“Yes, quite, she spoke at length with the US Government gentlemen this afternoon,” jefferies countered. “Now, if you please this is a hand we’re all rather interested in playing out, as you can see.” he nodded to the table.

“These are a different lot,” mr. killjoy returned flatly. i couldn’t tell if he looked at the table first, but he took a beat and seemed to scan the room on his inhale, as though he were sampling the energy field around each of us. sniffing for bombs.

when he got to me i punked out even though i had a decent hand. i stood up, got my cardigan off the chair back, put it on, pulled my hair out from under it, and placed my cards face down on the table.

“might as well quit while i’m ahead, kids.” i scooped my chips up and handed them to bruce. “take care of these for me, will you cousin,” i hear myself saying in a far away voice as the room does a deep spin and tilt maneuver. i have not fainted, but i can not feel my feet as we move for what seems like hours through halls and corridors, alternately underlit and over-lit. up and down stairs and elevators and into yet another windowless room.

maybe they’re going to show an in-flight movie i joke (to myself or out loud, i’m not sure), as someone nudges me into a plush chair in a darkened, over-airconditioned space. the air is frigid and coffee-scented. together with the hum of central cooling it puts me in mind of a long, jet flight. after the meal and coffee, but before the movie, i think, dozing off in what really was an extremely comfortable chair.