Archives for category: Uncategorized

While reading Experience and Education I was drawn to thinking through the culture of hacker and maker spaces (HMSs) through the eyes of John Dewey. As a pragmatic philosopher on education and democracy, he turns out to be the perfect lens for considering the culture of these spaces. Dewey would first read in HMSs a kind of continuation of the tug-of-war between “traditional” and “progressive” education. Their members enact a kind of anti-organization that is built around social learning, maximizing individualism while encouraging collaboration. Dewey saw sociality as essential to education, but noted that “community life does not organize itself in an enduring way purely spontaneously” (Dewey, 1997, p. 56). As much as Dewey questioned the institutionalized order of his day, he also had qualms with the progressives. Complete freedom “tends to be destructive of the shared cooperative activities which are the normal source of order” (Dewey, 1997, p. 63). That is, some amount of confinement is necessary.  Hackerspace members – geeks, artists, and hackers – tend to be highly individualistic, even introverted and anti-social. A shared workspace provides a way to bring together a heterogeneous community and structure interactions that lead to learning through participation.

Hackerspaces are a place to socialize, linger, and play with technology. HMSs serve as a counterpoint to literature that conceives of hackers as atomized groups that communicate exclusively through online technologies such as IRC and Github. Gabriella Coleman (2010) noted a dearth of research that considered “the existence and growing importance of face-to-face interactions among these geeks, hackers and developers” (p. 48). HMSs thus accomplish a delicate balancing act similar to other democratically-aligned collectives, particularly coming out of 1960s counterculture. They embrace notions of equal access and democratic conventions. However, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the importance of leaders in HMSs. Members reject external (Weberian) authority but embrace what Dewey might call “factors of control that are inherent within experience” (Dewey, 1997, p. 21). It might be more productive to consider how members embrace what James Gee calls “porous leadership” where individuals take the helm at various times but don’t assume a formal leadership role. In other words, individual skill sets are invaluable for HMSs’ success, even if strong personalities can be a detriment. One of my HMS interviewees put it this way:

Right, we’re full of tools! our members are all tools. it’s funny because it does really have a dual meaning. People who are authoritative on subjects tend to be extremely opinionated. Which can make them come across as the colloquial tool… [like] the guy from scrubs. “I’m a tool, I’m a tool tool tool?” Yeah, people are annoying, and people are extremely hard to deal with, but you know what? They’re also assets.

Talk about socio-materiality. Speaking of which, hackers are the ultimate pragmatists. In the context of learning, Dewey defines pragmatism’s “essential feature is to maintain the continuity of knowing with an activity which purposely modifies the environment” (Dewey, 1915, p. 369). Hackerspace members’ crafting of physical space for learning follows on their creative use of technologies to accomplish their goals. Tim Jordan described how hackers “enact the sociality of technology” (Jordan, 2008, p. 15) in that they both believe in technological determinism and simultaneously refute it by closely linking is to individual agency. Consider the “design patterns” that were first presented at the Chaos Computer Club in 2007. These suggestions are designed to craft experiences and interactions that occur in hackerspace. They range from altering group processes, events, tools in the space. If something isn’t working, shuck it and try something else. Hackerspace members are constantly testing ideas and encouraging others to do the same. This is the meaning of do-ocracy: a radical pragmatism designed to unite the group through shared actions. It should be noted that do-ocracy is not normless, but it requires participants to sense and act on norms of the space. There is a certain reflexivity in hackerspaces. Moving down this road we might draw on Paul Leonardi’s concept of “imbrication” (Leonardi, 2011), where he uses ethnographic inquiry to examine how routines with technology in organizations change. But this is a different question. What I’m more interested in is the culture of hackerspaces and how they serve as an example of “hacker culture” moving towards being increasingly democratized. Which is a topic bigger than the curent blog post.

Coleman, E. G. (2012). Coding freedom : the ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coleman, G. (2010). The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld. Anthropological Quarterly, 83(1), 47–72. doi:10.1353/anq.0.0112

Dewey, J. (1915). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education,. Dehli: Aakar Books.

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jordan, T. (2008). Hacking : digital media and technological determinism. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Leonardi, P. (2011). When Flexible Routines meet Flexible Technologies: Affordance, Constraint, and the Imbrication of Human and Material Agencies. MIS Quarterly, 35(1), 147–167.


I’ve spun out a website devoted to mobile collectives, or social aggregations that emerge from social media platforms used on mobile devices, particularly “smart phones” and tablets. For the next year there will likely be far more activity there as I drill down on this one exciting topic. 

Google glass is the most provocative recent development in the mobile space. It echoes previous symbols of subcultural affiliation – cyberpunk’s “Mirror Shades” and steampunk’s goggles. But glass is presented to us as an entirely new paradigm and a mainstream accessory.  

There are a number of reasons why glass is an interesting touchstone for scholars from a variety of disciplines. It’s foremost an extension of ubiquitous computing’s (ubicomp) utopian desire to have the technology “disappear.” In Mobile Interface Theory Jason Farman elaborates further: “the ‘interfaceless interface’ of pervasive computing carries with it the threat of exercising hegemony by receding to the background and avoiding critique” (p. 29). The video lampooning Google Glass as a new advertising space – literally, capturing eyeballs – is likely not realistic. Advertisers still haven’t figured out how to monetize mobile phones, never mind something far more exotic. However, it is certainly a move by Google to get people to create and engage with more content for various types of monetization. Data are valuable, and this is part of the gold rush. 

More pragmatically, glass evokes privacy concerns. On one hand, video and audio recording has long been available in cell phones and “keychain cameras.” On the other, the wearing of google glasses is a clear signal that you may be recording those around you. This question of regulating one’s body in response to possible (perhaps not actual) observation is a classic Foucauldian notion. The argument among some surveillance scholars is that the state has essentially outsourced its surveilling to individuals vis-a-vis social media platforms. I’m sympathetic to these concerns, but overall more interested in the question of social cohesion: will glass bring distanced people together at the expense of local synchronous interaction? Sergey Brin has described smartphones as “emasculating” and “isolating” in comparison to glass. Beyond the strange claim that a pair of rimless glasses is somehow manly, Brin encourages us to think of google glass as hip and unifying. In an advertisement for glass, Google pluck our heartstrings as they present the always-on information retrieval and storage features of glass as an inroad to our own humanity. <snark>I’m tempted to wonder if at the end of my life Google will have a “flashback” option that compiles my greatest video hits for easy perusal before I snuff it. Otherwise, what meaning would life have?</snark> 

Going back to technological histories, it’s clear that glass encourages the types of utopian and dystopian discourses that always accompanies new technologies. Scholars are going to have a field day with this one. What will Donna Haraway say? What would McLuhan? 

A CNN report on the Aurora, Colorado shooting on July 20, 2012 where twelve died in a movie theater noted the “eerie sound of cell phones ringing, over and over again.” Another story on a night club fire in Santa Maria, Brazil where over two hundred perished focused on how the ringing were particularly unnerving for first responders. Confronted with a scene of unimaginable tragedy, the media are repeatedly compelled to note what is a comparatively trivial point: the presence of ringing cell phones. Here I am interested not in confronting the cause or scope of these tragic events, which vary in their international context and cause. This would be a disservice to the victims. Rather, I am just hoping to unpack: why is this detail particularly disturbing? Why is it even noteworthy for the media to report this minor fact in a culture suffused with cell phones? Isn’t the scope of these tragedies horrifying enough?

Cell phones are attached to individuals as personal technologies. As has been frequently noted, you no longer call someone’s phone, rather you call them. A mobile phone does not exist on its own in space. This is a difference from previous generations. A ringing land-line phone would simply indicate that nobody was home. The place, a house, would be empty – not a particularly disturbing thought. Furthermore, use of mobile devices as phones is something of a rarity. Young people in particular use their multifunctional devices for coordination and communication through anything but voice: SMS text messaging, email, web surfing, geolocative services, micro-blogging and so on. The sudden ringing of cell phones in tandem is a rare event that throws us off-guard. I’m reminded of the end sequence in the (admittedly, schlocky) “cyberspace” thriller Lawnmower Man; it isn’t clear if the antagonist survived, until he fulfills his promise of making every phone on earth ring simultaneously, an action so rare that it couldn’t happen naturally.

Fears about the simultaneously enabling and constricting nature of cell phones reflect the integration of mobile devices into society as an extension of paranoias about technologies as a whole. Allison Whitney noted that in films using landline phones, “while people grew to appreciate the telephone’s efficacy in supporting personal and public safety, modern societies’ growing dependence on this technology also aroused larger anxieties about the system’s potential contingencies and failures.” Films routinely use mobile phones as plot devices, showing characters talking on cell phones only to keep movie-goers on edge when they break or go out of range. A ringing cell phone after a tragedy reminds us how technology is often useless to prevent these kinds of tragic events.

Mobile devices are seen as both enabling and constraining. Although we are tightly-integrated into networks of friends and families on mobile devices, technology is seen as paradoxically isolating. Nowhere is this more visible in the current obsession of psychologists creating diagnoses around technology usage. Young people are described in the media as simultaneously technology-savvy (“digital natives”) and at increased risk for a host of unhealthy habits.“Facebook addiction” describes how users are helpless to resist their desires to check in on their social media networks, which can even cause depression. The theory here is that social networks are a constant reminder of how much better off others are doing, and we feel worse about ourselves.

 A ringing cell phone next to a body is also “an instant reminder that this person is human.” Humanity here is oddly associated more with the technology than with the person. The uncanny valley effect describes our revulsion to a person that appears alive, but are also noticeably not alive. Zombies, for example, let us flirt with this sense of horror. On one hand they are literally the living dead, but on the other, would never be mistaken for being literally alive. Ringing cell phones next in the site of a tragedy force us to consider the connectedness and humanity of victims.

This is also an example of how we are forced to blend previously disparate steps of notification and mourning that used to be clearly-defined. Decades ago, a tolling bell was a signal to a community to come together to mourn, rather than reminding us of friends and family who haven’t yet been notified. 

This morning my friend Alex Leavitt took a bold stance in his blog, announcing that he would only participate in open-access journals and conferences. He started off by noting the sad passing of Aaron Swartz, who made his beliefs felt in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto and for which he was vilified. His story is not the one I am commenting on (many far closer to him have penned far more detailed articles), although I would think he would approve of Alex’s stance, which prompted me to re-think my own assumptions about how young scholars should operate. I’m posting some of these thoughts here.

I admire the strong message he sends. His take is bold because it directly confronts the stakes young scholars face in deciding where and how to disclose academic work. The system of academia rewards those who can produce written work that is published in peer-reviewed journals. These publications tend to be behind a “paywall” that restricts access to subscribers, which generally are members of institutions that can afford a license. This places academics in a strange situation where they are not paid for writing that they often produce with money from public sources, only to have it judged worthy and sold back to institutions. It’s deliriously out-dated. However, it’s the game recognized by professors, who tend to want to see their students publish in a fairly restricted set of journals. Our careers are valued on weirdly computed, often skewed numbers that have names like “impact factors.” Attaining tenure is more strongly based on publishing than teaching or service.

An open-access only stance would be far more difficult to follow through on just a few years ago. He quotes danah boyd’s similar statement from 2008, who eventually did publish again in paywalled journals, which isn’t that surprising given the numerous scholars she’s worked with and the state of OA in 2008. The only open-access journals that I remember existing when I started my Ph.D program were Surveillance and Society, and First Monday. Now there are promising OA communication journals with solid editorial and review processes popping up: the International Journal of Communication (IJOC), review of communication research,  communication + 1triple C, and the journal of peer production. These excite me greatly as options for budding scholars and I hope to work with them soon. It seems that going 100% OA is at least an option.

I’d like to bring up a major issue that gets overlooked in many discussions in the open culture movement about how predatory journals are voraciously appropriating the term “open access.” By predatory, I mean publications (term used charitably) that charge a fee to authors for the privilege of publishing in their journal, have flimsy (if any) peer review/editing, and dump articles to a website. They often spam conference email lists with offers to publish articles with letters that often have tells, such as grammar errors and mistakes in understanding a given field of research. They essentially masquerade as open-access to charge publishing fees to authors, trapping scholars in bogus deals that are useless, if not downright embarrassing, on a C/V. This is a serious liability for young scholars who are often frazzled, overworked and stressing about passing muster at their University of College.

Access in academia has never simply been “open” or “closed.” A simple example of making paywalls more permeable is the placing of a PDF on a personal website, or if under copyright, a simple line that says “email for PDF.” I have had an academic flat out refuse to email me a PDF (rather than simply forget, which is more common) all of exactly once. Alex finds this workaround angering. Maybe I am simply content to live with sharing as necessary for recognition in my discipline, at least until open-access journals mature.

Beyond social media, information in academia moves across permeable boundaries such as classes, conferences, and social networks. Diane Crane elaborated on the concept of “invisible colleges,” referring to informal academic networks. In her 1972 book of the same name she analyzed networks built from academic citations. As it turns out, disciplines have quite different patterns of sharing, and some academics are particularly prolific “hubs.” This was, of course, more newsworthy when the networked paradigm of communication didn’t yet dominate. I see shades of this idea in Henry Jenkins’ early work on groups of television fans assembling to collaborate on stories using characters and plotlines from mainstream entertainment.

In the current day, I see strong and vibrant social networks developing among academics that cut across disciplines. We are studying broad themes that by definition have to move across these boundaries, and are not fully defined by journals or conferences. We aren’t waiting for publications or disciplines to catch up. This gives me tremendous hope for the future of my discipline. I don’t think we, at least in communication, are as hung-up on reinforcing disciplinary boundaries or shutting down discussion. We would be pretty terrible communication scholars if that were true.

I think the open-closed discussion also draws our attention to differential access. We are seen and heard in, let’s face it, pretty privileged media and spaces that are not open to everyone. This is why I admire scholars that make efforts to make their work not just physically accessible but comprehendible in public venues (although I am also sensitive to Judith Butler’s stance that, drawing from Adorno, that “one of the most important ways to call into question the status quo is by engaging language in nonconventional ways”). Crane’s point was that networks of collaboration are not simply built from reading publications, but by being tied to social networks. Making publications available is a good starting point, but neglects thinking about economic and cultural barriers to connecting. We should also continue to think deeply about the stakes involved with inclusion, rather than just presentation of one’s own work. IAMCR, for example, has a sliding scale for admission that takes into account the differential access from less affluent countries. We need to get people literally in the room and serve as emissaries for our disciplines.

At the end of the day, I can’t take the strong stance Alex did. Getting accepted at conferences such as the International Communication Association (ICA) is part of connecting with fellow academics, even if it does involve participating in posting papers to a website that is accessible only to paying conference-goers. If I am able to get a paper in a leading journal, I need to exercise that option. If nothing else, I worry about my wife and daughter having to deal with me moping around the house if I don’t find some way to make myself useful after graduation.

What I can get behind is Alex’s pushing for us to act, stating that “there’s no image to share, no petition to sign, no badge to display: at this critical and crucial point, there is only action.” Maybe I can’t go 100% open-access, but I will promote ample work-arounds and publish in OA journals where possible. Ph.D students are, well, everywhere. We can speak for open-access in meetings and to those who make sure the trains run on time. Specifically, the strong connection between peer review and paywalled journals is an artifact of history. It seems important to convince our professors to review for OA journals and break the hold paywalled journals have on peer review, which is, ultimately, the measure of scholarship valued by institutions, not the name of the journal. Finally, academic publishers are in very much the same bind as the publishing industry at large. It also seems necessary to propose new publishing models that are not built on exorbitant fees charged by journals to institutions for access to research.

“Platform” as a term has emerged into prominence over the last few years. Scholars have been carefully unearthing the term, examining its rhetorical use, computational impact, and implications for marketing and distribution of media. I touch on three scholars here to briefly outline their usage of the term, and the fruitful discussions that have been taking place around it.

Tarleton Gillespie (2010) noted how the word has been employed rhetorically by firms as careful negotiation of obligations to various stakeholders. Twitter, for example, wishes to appeal to marketers (advertising platform), investors and individuals self-organzing for civic unrest against dictatorial regimes (in the “Arab Spring”). I’ve described previously how Twitter goes through great lengths to present itself as aligned with more populist goals, both complying with censorship requests and making these requests public. Twitter is able to promote a more egalitarian agenda while simultaneously adhering to legalistic and economic frameworks in which it is embedded. The term itself is not that important, because companies capitalize on its vagueness. Gillespie’s contribution is secondarily to map the wide-ranging ways that the term is employed, but most importantly, elaborating on the linguistic flexibility of platforms as entities with various conflicting goals.

Bogost (2009) comes closest to what Gillespie describes as a computational definition of platform, specifically investigating software and hardware platforms for development. However, he is also interested more broadly in cultural formations around platforms, particularly of professional and amateur software developers. He pushes back on Gillespie and advocates for a narrower conception based on the perspective from engineers and developers, writing that “something is a platform when a [sic] developers consider it as such and use it” (p. 4). This waffling around the term is clearly not as interesting to Bogost as the features, development environment, and perspective of the engineers. He describes platforms as “‘deep’ or ‘far away’ from the user experience” (p. 5), but also influential of everything that is built on it. We can extract from Bogost’s narrower definition that considering a more materialist perspective on platform can be illuminating of what kinds of development and execution environments lead to better or worse software, creative hacks, and user experiences.

A similar but more expansive route is taken by Bogost’s fellow Georgia Tech professor Janet Murray (2011), who describes platforms as combinations of hardware, software, accessories and other formats (p. 34). Stability in platforms comes from close or loose coupling of these infrastructural components. Apple, with its iPhone, iTunes software, and online storefront, comprise a stable platform. From her designer’s perspective this is interesting because it creates a set of emerging standards that are tightly-coupled and lead to possibilities for “the sustained development of expressive genres” (p. 35). Murray only touches on the notion of platforms, as it is not central to her discussion, which is more focused on the collective process of design and how designers can take advantage of it. Murray’s notion can be considered to be more of an infrastructural perspective of platforms from a marketing and sales standpoint. This definition should appeal to mass communication scholars interested in dynamics of distribution and also has more interplay with the policy arena.

Bogost, I., & Montfort, N. (2009). Platform Studies: Frequently Asked Questions. Presented at the Digital Arts and Culture, Irvine, CA.
Gillespie, T. (2010). The politics of “platforms.” New Media & Society, 12(3), 347–364. doi:10.1177/1461444809342738
Murray, J. H. (2011). Inventing the medium : principles of interaction design as a cultural practice. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press.

I feel obligated to write a quick few paragraphs on brogrammers because they combine together two topics of interest: geek subculture and masculinities. (If you aren’t familiar with the recent press on so-called “brogrammers,” check the gee-whiz-y Business Week article here, and the more comprehensive Mother Jones piece here)

Looking beyond the narrow confines of geek subculture, I see shades of the 1980’s “crisis of masculinity” where enthusiasm for the “new man” of the 1970s turned intro criticism of their wimpiness. Think of how the reaction to the “sensitive new age guy” was to forge the image of the manly-man that didn’t eat quiche. Danilo Stern-Sapad’s claim that “we’re the cool programmers” reveals that brogrammer is a consciously reactionary identity that is positioned against previous software developers of the 1990s & 2000s, which were stereotyped as introverted and anti-social. Enter the ridiculously hypermasculine dude-y brogrammer, who drinks on the job, works out obsessively and wears mirrored aviator shades in their best Top Gun imitation.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the brogrammer reveals the internal language of male geeks to the public eye…. This is hardly a defense of geek chatter just because it’s private, but neither should geeks being misogynistic be particularly surprising. Lori Kendall, in Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online, observed that males in an online community called BlueSky use terms that denigrate women even as they fall short of societal norms of masculine ideals. This occurs not in conversations with women, but in an attempt to connect with other men: “men in groups create sexual and gender narratives that may not resemble their lived experience but nevertheless form important elements of their masculine identities and their connections with other men” (p. 87). In other words, even though the sexist banter in their online roles don’t match with their offline lives, it’s still a way for them to connect with other men.

When Van Horn stammered “I’m sorry for being sexist, I apologize in advance” before starting a presentation on “bikini babes” he was acknowledging an awareness of the offensiveness of the material before proceeding to violate norms of public and professional conduct. The presentation fell flat because the blatently sexist (antiquated, really) imagery was evaluated in public rather than a small group that would be either receptive to the ironic stance, or at least wouldn’t spread it around social media with quite the same enthusiasm. In part, it’s another story of violation of public & private norms through social media.

I was reminded of Ariel Levy’s Female Sexist Pigs when an anonymous commentator commented that “‘Brogrammer’ isn’t an exclusionary term… the female equivalent is called a ‘hogrammer’.” The rise of raunch culture lowers all expectations. The female version of the term is a pejorative for sexual promiscuity, not fraternal inclusion. Yet what is especially worrisome is that some smaller companies seem to have few qualms about incorporating the brogrammer image into recruitment campaigns. Masculine representations are expressions of power, and it’s dangerous when companies signal that the “talent” they seek equates to a particular gender. While we’re at it, what hasn’t gotten enough attention is the completely heteronormative nature of brogramming in an industry that, frankly, I’ve found to be pretty damn queer-friendly. Luckily it doesn’t seem like brogramming has much traction among larger companies.