a journal of personal fieldwork experiences and impressions
This summer, in between fieldwork and thesis structuring (crying), I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Digital Media Research Centre’s summer school, at the Queensland University of Technology’s Kelvin Grove campus. The summer school is pitched at PhD and early career researchers interested in studying digital media, or using digital media to study other things, and is an intensive week-long series of lecture-discussion-collaborative workshops, networking and social events, and amazing tutorials that crash course you through a range of established and new digital media research methods. It is friendly and accessible to people grounded in humanities and social sciences who want to better understand and incorporate computer sciences into their work, and vice versa – a really lovely realisation of interdisciplinarity.
Attending the DMRCSS18 was such an incredibly valuable experience, from a professional development standpoint, and also just really enjoyable. It was such a positive, supportive environment and group of people (both the DMRC and my fellow summer school attendees). I feel so thankful to my peers and QUT’s DMRC for the opportunity, and to my home institution as well (University of Adelaide) for providing me with funding assistance with the attendance fees.
Now that I’ve returned to Adelaide and had time to crash, eat my own body weight in potatoes, and reflect, I thought it might be nice to share what, from this week, I as a researcher, PhD student, and plain old person got from this week. And I think it really comes down to two big things for me:
There was such a strong focus at DMRCSS18 on building concrete skills and capabilities, and if you’re in a humss field and interested/looking to get into digital methods or computer science more generally, you know how rare and valuable this is! We got to see examples of new digital research problems and methods, shared by peers and teachers who are experts in their fields. Then, we got to actually talk and work through them hands-on, practicing using the new methods and tools – this included guided tutorials from installation of new software through to sample data collection and analysis, as well as personalised assistance and feedback on the applications of these tools and methods to our own devices, research interests, questions, and fields. I came out of this week much more informed about what is actually out there in terms of available digital media research tools and methods, where the field is kind of currently at in terms of standards and interests, and with many new research tools, methods, programs to apply to my research and – here’s the best part – I actually know how to do it, practically speaking.
2. The people
For someone who studies networks, I don’t much care for networking, but the people at DMRCSS18 were so welcoming and lovely, inclusive, and incredibly generous in sharing their own experiences and knowledge, both in the official scheduled sessions as well as in their personal time. I felt connected to a body of likeminded academic peers, at similar stages to me in their research, for maybe the first time in my (admittedly very early) career. This is a wonderful thing. I feel very thankful for this. I found, and I think we all did, some honest friendships, a network of people to tweet at, email, crash with and visit in their home cities all around the world, and some genuine and generative research connections.
So, if you’re in a similar boat (PhD student or early career researcher interested in studying what people are doing online with new, social, digital media, or how you can use those media and tools based in them to study other things) and thinking about attending next year (early February in Brisbane – Queensland, Australia), I highly recommend applying!
Official DMRC site here including details about the Centre and its work, as well as the summer school program, what was on offer this year, watch this space for how to apply, etc.
DMRC Twitter: @qutdmrc
One thing I really took away from this experience is a reaffirmed commitment to the value of organising, pooling, sharing, and discussing resources – helpful blogs, tutorials, organisations, networks, mailing lists, tools, software, programs, applications, research methods, etc. I want to keep learning more about what’s out there, and compile a good list of my own, for my own reference going forward, and also for anyone else who might find it useful. This is not complete by any means, but here is a little collection, which I might build on and give it’s own section on the site. If you have suggestions to add to the list tweet at me or send them to me in the comments or contact form! These are mostly free and/or open source (though not all, but some of the paid software offers scaled-down free versions, free trials, or free or reduced licenses to students and/or academics):
Research tools to download (for things like web and social media scraping, analysing and visualising data, etc.):
Courses and tutorials (coding, how to use some of the above software, how to do simple social media and network analysis, etc.):
Resource lists that are awesome from other expert organisations and groups in the field:
Personal/professional networks and research experience and ethical reflections/resources (connect with other people doing similar research, learn about their experiences and issues, find some ethical research practice guidelines and discussions, etc.):
Personal and professional/fieldwork security and privacy:
It’s suddenly September! If you’re interested in space and Australian, you’re probably aware that next week the IAC2017 kicks off in Adelaide.
The International Astronautical Congress, which was held last year in Guadalajara, will take place in my not-so-little hometown of Adelaide, in South Australia. It opens on Monday September 25th, and will continue through the week. This is a pretty big deal for Adelaide, and for Australia, as government and private priorities are shifting to focus on space once more. Hopefully we will see many opportunities to network, and build ideas, projects, and futures together (and maybe Elon Musk can fix our power & icecream infrastructures while he’s here).
You can find out more about the Congress here. There are so many incredible events and sessions to choose from - with over 2000 abstracts accepted, this will definitely be the biggest conference I've ever attended.
If you’re wondering what the heck Australia has to do with space, I’ll point you towards some cool current discussions about Australia’s space industry and role in the global scene. This recent article by UNSW PhD candidate & space historian Kerrie Dougherty discusses how Australia went from a leader/significant global player to one of only 2 OECD countries without a space agency, in just half a century, and is great if you want a speedy historical overview with helpful links to follow! I also highly recommend checking out our resident space archaeologist, Dr Space Junk, who approaches the study of space as a cultural landscape, and has done some really interesting stuff on Australia's historical involvement in space projects, from a cultural heritage management perspective. You can find many recent free-to-read articles by her here, and her blog is super interesting too!
If you’re already sold and planning on attending – I’m here to fieldwork and network and present my research. If you’re keen for coffee and a conference buddy, hit me up! If you’re interested in chatting with me/getting involved in my research in some form/becoming a participant, I would love to work with you!
I’ll be presenting 2 different talks this year.
One is a collaborative effort, as part of the SGAC’s Space Exploration Project Group’s output – we look at proposals for large-scale human space/Mars colonisation or resettlement as a solution to certain key global problems here on Earth (particularly human overpopulation, critical resource shortages and pollution) and run some of the numbers, assuming current technologies and that we could start sending people now. The goal is to assess the feasibility of such claims, and highlight some realistic limitations to some of these ideas and proposals, in the hopes of building conversations and possibilities in productive directions. Take-homes – Solving problems of global human population by sending heaps of people off-Earth is (if you’re using RP-1/LOX to get to LEO) not possible, given the severely limited global mineral oil reserves. If we somehow found/had enough, the environmental effects would be wild. Human space exploration and settlement may have many selling points and productive possibilities, but it won’t solve those particular global problems (at least not now). The (only slightly) inflammatory title is: Why space colonies will not solve (all) terrestrial problems (Sorry NewSpacers who dare to dream – I do my best to qualify this carefully I promise!) Link to the Session is here.
The other is my own. Basically, it’s just a short outline of my ongoing research – I describe the project structure, motivations & contributions, methods & approaches, before sharing some tentative insights from thematic analysis of interviews and experiences of participant observation that I’ve conducted so far. I discuss what the normalisation of social and new media into our contemporary digitally-mediated social life has meant for people who work in the space industry, in space-related projects and networks – how their communicative and representational work is changing, and the kinds of expectations, pressures and challenges this throws up. Then I point to some interesting conceptualisations of publics and the public operationalised by various media practitioners in the field and suggest that frameworks of public relevance and utility are playing a key role in my (mainly Australian & US) participants’ understandings – more than whether the public is knowledgeable or has a knowledge deficit, conversations often revolved around whether the public is relevant to space industry/projects or not, and the utility of publics as a resource that can be harnessed to get work and projects done. I tie this into particular communication styles/modes, and particular digital contexts (specific platforms & applications), the significance of which will be explored further as fieldwork and analysis continue. Here’s a link to the session – there’s some cool stuff in here!
I’ll be actively posting, researching, fieldworking, recruiting at the con, so things will be pretty busy, but hopefully you can catch updates from me on Twitter! Look forward to some reflections, photos, notes, and debriefs in the coming weeks as I get back into my Australia based research, analytic-work, and get through the post-con crash.
Back in Australia, and it’s time to catch up on my writing! I’ve just returned from an intensive 3 month period of fieldwork in the US, where I was attending events, interviewing, observing, and working with various actors in the space industry and its communities, including students, scientists, science communicators, aspiring astronauts, advocacy organisations, artists, and popular and social media personalities. I was lucky enough to be based in San Francisco for a large portion of that time, and spent the last month travelling through Arizona and New England. This period has been full of travel, stories, new friends and loved ones, and lots of exciting research. Even though, being primarily ethnographic, there is a strong interpersonal component to my research, the focus on data collection and recording has meant I haven’t been spending nearly as much time on actively connecting, sharing, and communicating my process, resources, finds, and ideas as I would like to. I am looking forward to more actively doing so in the coming months, and hope to start developing a collection of useful resources for others who might be interested in some of these research questions and methods! So stay tuned for more content and tags, and you can check out the obligatory travel slideshow reel here:
I’ve been thinking about stories lately, and histories, and about the roles of certain kinds of technology, especially global(-ised? -ising?), digital social media – something that strikes me more the more I delve into it is just how much these technologies of representation and communication do.
Being able to watch, hear, read, consume things as they happen and with many connected others is huge in the sense that so so much is being recorded that we are said to be drowning in a data deluge. And so much of it is, relatively speaking, widely and readily available and accessible, increasingly in real time. But these communicative and representational affordances mean that we’re not just capturing stories and histories as they are, but that we can participate in and change them, to varying extents, as they are unfolding. I don’t want to go all internet-chatrooms-as-utopian and Twitter-as-cause-and-home-of-social-movements here, and it is easy to get overexcited about the revolutionary potential of technology. Nevertheless, I think we are in an exciting moment, and that there is a lot worth looking at from a research perspective, especially with regards to the space industry and ideas of publics, access, knowledge, information, and presence. For example, if you have access to an internet-connected device, you can watch a livefeed view of the Earth from the ISS as it orbits above, you can now explore the ISS with Google Street View as you would any other location on Earth, you can watch livefeeds of satellite launches, you can remotely take MOOCs in space topics and delivered by space agencies like ESA, follow people, corporations, and organisations on social media and get news delivered to you, analyse astronomical data in crowdsourced citizen science projects to discover new exoplanets, go to space in VR, or explore plausible, procedurally generated models of the universe with simulation game Space Engine. It is kind of exciting. And presence and participation at such scale can actually shift the bounds and kinds of possibility – as a participant from a citizen science platform pointed out to me, it’s not just that more people acting now means that more classifications get done (on a given project), but that projects get to happen that never would have otherwise – you can only catch some ephemeral phenomena at all when you have people working at that scale!
I was lucky enough to attend the recent Spacefest in Tucson, an event for space enthusiasts that brings interested members of the public together with industry professionals including astronauts, scientists, journalists, and renowned space artists. One of the speaker panels I attended was Leonard David’s. Leonard David is a prominent space journalist and author (his site is here, and you can find his work in such publications as Space News and Aerospace America. At Spacefest, he was discussing his recent book on the future of Mars exploration, produced for National Geographic as a companion to their recent and wildly popular Mars series. He talked about how exciting and dynamic the present moment is for the space industry at a global scale, as so many countries are now players, but so too are many private companies and individuals, following the shift to the increasing commercialisation of space-related activities, and the rise of the NewSpace industry. He described the current moment, our time, with a really interesting turn of phrase – ‘now history’. Everyone (or at least a larger number of people) can now participate and pioneer in discoveries, projects, and developments in a way that simply was not possible before, through enabling technologies such as VR. I found the idea very intriguing, and wrote it down. I’ve since done a quick Google canvas and I can’t seem to find much more on this idea, or records of David speaking about it. I would love to know more about what, exactly, he means by the concept of now history, and why – if anyone can hook me up or ask him, please do!
Lite understanding aside, I’ve been thinking about the idea and what it could mean, about the ways stories and events get to unfold, when they are digitally-mediated and allow us unprecedented presence and access. How does this change how we think? How we act as individuals? How we act as collectivities?
I thought I would bulk out these musings by sharing some graphic visualisations from a social, and social media phenomenon I was prescient/lucky enough to collect earlier this year - a little bit of history I caught as it was happening. Here are some frames on the recent March for Science! It happened this Earth Day, on April 22, in DC and, Wikipedia tells me, in 600 other cities around the world, with over 1 million marchers. It followed the very visible Women's Marches, and it itself was very visible on social media - in terms of organising, logistics, debates, conversations, and scandals. Others have covered this better than I could or have time to in this post. What I do have and would like to share, is one piece of the conversations, and one angle on their unfolding.
These graphics are based on publicly available data that I collected from Twitter, for a particular set of simple queries (data is publicly available, but if you see your username here and don't want it to be, let me know and I'm happy to take it down). This is by no means a holistic or complete representation of all public conversation or action related to the March for Science event on social media, just some key topics, keywords and hashtags on Twitter. All the same, it’s pretty cool, and I think that when you start to put multiple things next to each other, layer the representations and visualisations, is when you start to get a bit more analytic or explanatory power. This also isn’t my main project, just some stuff I’ve been collecting along the side, so it’s not perfect or polished, but I thought it was interesting, and thought others might too!
I pulled from Twitter over April and May (and into June for some queries), using TAGS v6.12.
#MarchForScience March for Science MarchForScience
Included above and below is some of the data from the hashtag #MarchForScience and the two keyword searches March for Science and MarchForScience, over April and May 2017, cleaned up, processed, and visualised using the programs Tableau and Gephi.
Please let me know if you have questions or would like to know more about or see data or visualisations for the rest of the queries – I want to stack them all side by side and see what the conversations look like over time and from different word and topic angles, but that’s a project for another day. And if you think you can improve upon what’s here, critique, correct, or help me – please do! I’m just a student learning as I go and welcome any tutelage I can get! And a big thank you to the Digital Media Research Centre at QUT for their fabulous tutes on social media analytics which helped me learn how to do this last year!
Visualisation of the network of Twitter interactions including the March for Science hashtag and keywords. Interactions may be retweets or @mentions between users. The larger the node & name, the more interactions that user had with others in the network involving those key tags/terms, and the more connected/visible/possibly influential they are in this conversation
Looking at visualisations of data pulled from specific social media platforms, it's important to remember that these datasets are highly processed, and that they do not reflect the entire body of data within a specific platform, nor do they reflect the entirety of a social conversation or movement, nor do they necessarily tell us what things mean and why they happened.
That being said, such large-scale social media analysis and network mapping can be incredibly useful I think, in exploring trends, issues, activities from the top-down and the outside. As someone trained more in working deeply with individual people to learn about what they do and think and why, I can see great utility in these methods in terms of exploring and canvassing an issue, and figuring out where exactly to look and dig deeper (along with the obvious benefits of triangulation)!
For example, it was interesting and kind of surprised me a little bit how many of the interactions involving these key terms/tags centred around just a few tweets by celebrity Twitter users, prominent outside of scientific fields where most of the core conversation was happening - I wonder if this kind of celebrity signal-boosting had any effects in terms of driving up event attendance or motivating more people to participate in afterthemarch activism, or if it only represents peripheral conversation, and had little to do with attendance and activism. Conversations and prominent secondary hashtags in the dataset centred around Russiagate suggest that these two topics are related, or part of a bigger political dialogue happening in the US at the moment, and that understanding the dynamics of adjacent social movements and issues will be important in trying to understand what situated what people were doing and saying in the leadup to the March for Science, during, and after.
These specific trends and topics were not at the forefront of my mind when I was actually participating in the march, and some of the activism after the fact, and exploring some of the data at a zoomed-out level has been really interesting in gaining an alternate perspective on this social event and dialogue. Had I been a little more engaged with exploring this data right around the time of the march, I would have been able to start collecting data for other, adjacent topics, tags, and keywords as they popped up, and build a more comprehensive picture of the social networks and interactions involved. Being able to (even lite-ly) observe, track, collect, note trends in parts of history at such a large scale is so exciting! Being able to do so as-it-is-happening, and then use insights generated from this data to analyse or participate better in the ongoing event in the now is even more exciting - to me that opens possibilities for more intentional participation (data-driven?) and intervention in our social projects as they are unfolding.
Living and Dying Well in the Chthulucene – What are the Existential Implications for Humans in Space? (Asking for a friend.)
Near the end of last month I attended a talk Donna Haraway gave at the San Francisco Art Institute, exploring key ideas in her new book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. The talk’s central problem was that of living and dying well on this earth, in this epoch.
Being a rube from a city with a CBD measuring a staggering 1 km squared, I severely miscalculated the amount of time it would take to ‘just cut across North Beach’, and so I arrived at the talk harried, out of breath, sweaty, and with biological, temporal, existential limitations already at the forefront of my mind – what a primer! But what a beautiful scene to get to walk in on – the small auditorium was absolutely packed, and everyone there to hear and think and talk about something so important. I did my best to soak all the wonderful feels up as I used my backpack as a chair.
What I want to write about here is not so much the talk, as some of the questions and ideas it’s thrown up for me. I've been sitting on them for a while and think I should just get them out, as they are. I will mention a few things, for those who weren’t able to make it. Firstly, Haraway, I think, really situated her talk and topic, these issues, within the broader socio-political context of the moment with such deftness – I was really struck by this. The talk sat midweek, in between the huge March for Science just past, and the climate march set for the following weekend. Considering the very real, very critical nature of the threats these marches sought to address, the tensions between the politics or lack thereof of organising and participating factions, and the complexity of straddling all these interests and fronts in ways that might still allow us to act, strongly, it really was a perfect time to talk about staying with the trouble. (My personal favourite quote: “I’m speaking to you in a time of many marches. Or should I say, parades?”)
The take home message, at least as far as I understood it, was that we need to stay with the trouble we face, in the here and now. We face immense and nearly incomprehensible things (environmental, planetary, systemic crises) that inspire both hope and despair, but “neither… [of these states] teaches us to play string figures with companion species.” What we need, according to Haraway, is a presence and relation, a making of odd-kin with our fellow critters, a profound shift to the attitude that “we become together, or not at all.”
I think, in practical terms, this is targeting our words and concepts and frames – that the ways that we have to think through and with things is central to any doing. These matter, these are a vital first step, and these need changing.
Since the talk, I’ve been trying to think through some of the existential and moral questions raised by this account, particularly because of all the interesting and uneasy fits with key elements in my own field of work. Many of my participants work primarily on large-scale technical and technological projects, building, designing, engineering big, material things, or imagining, proposing, and advocating for them. And as other space anthropologists have well-noted, the kinds of foundational values and assumptions underlying NewSpace imaginaries and endeavours tend to lean a very particular way – namely, assuming that the expansion of human systems, presence, and activities (like exploration, conquest, propagation, consumption, resource exploitation) outwards into space is good, because life is good, humanity is good, progress, continuity, and immortality are good, consciousness is good, and capitalism is good. Clearly the values, assumptions, goals and means of such projects do not map neatly onto Haraway’s account, or onto many others concerned with the Earth and environmental justice. I wonder, if our core metaphysics and ethics are so different, are we left at cross-purposes across some of the biggest and most important human projects? Are there any places at which these projects meet?
So here are my questions. If we (as a species?) are already leaving Earth, and trying to establish or carve out a foothold for life (most particularly human, along with a limited subset of other species for explicit human use) off-Earth, is this incompatible with an approach that stays-with-the-trouble? If so, is the extension of human activities outwards morally defensible on such an account? Many critics of human space exploration and settlement argue against approaches that posit human ejection and migration from the Earth as an ideal, sustainable, or realistic solution to our many pressing and complex existential crises. Of course, I agree with this argument. However, humans are already directly living and working in orbit in many forms (physically and virtually), and have been for longer than many high school students today have been alive. There is human and other earth-terrestrial life in orbit. People are (with some degree of theoretical seriousness) talking about terraforming Mars for potential human settlement, or (more seriously) about mining it and other near earth objects for resource extraction and exploitation. There are concerns about contaminating other locations in our solar system with Earth-terrestrial life, and vice versa, and processes for minimising that risk. We have found and are continuing to search (in part through huge citizen science searches mobilising public enthusiasm and effort) for exoplanets that could support life, though the recently discovered and seemingly promising TRAPPIST-1 system is much less likely to support life than originally thought.
What I mean to say, with all of this, is that our point of reference has profoundly extended and shifted. And it is worth mentioning that for many proponents of human space settlement and exploration, the goal is not wholesale Earth-abandonment. When we think about space and human activities within it, we’re not necessarily talking about a mutually exclusive Earth-or-not-Earth situation. For all that human activities have damaged and destabilised Earth’s environmental systems, in ways making it less habitable and hospitable for us, it remains the most perfectly suited home and habitat that we know of (the model for utopian Mars is, after all, still Earth) so the shift in reference that I mean is not necessarily one grounded in overcoming, escaping, and abandoning Earth. What happens (theoretically speaking), when spheres of human social activity extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere and orbit? What does it mean if Earth-based life forms live in closed ecosystems or biospheres not on Earth? If we find evidence of life that is not Earth-terrestrial in origin, elsewhere in the cosmos? What is the trouble that we are staying with, then, and where is it? Are our existential and moral considerations grounded in the inherent goodness of life, of Earth, of autopoietic systems? If any of these things can be found, extended, or located off of Earth, does the moral sphere (borrowing from Murdoch here) expand? And what do our obligations then become?
Maybe these questions aren’t really answerable now, and they probably depend hugely on where your account of goodness bottoms out – Is it life that is inherently good? Consciousness? Autopoietic systems? Earth? But I wonder. And I do feel like people leading and working on these technical projects (imagining, designing, building, implementing, actualising human futures in/with outer space) aren’t necessarily having these kinds of conversations with people working on Earth-based projects in the now (environmental justice projects, for example, or slow-living and anti-consumption movements), and vice versa of course. We don’t often hold up our most base assumptions about how reality works and how it should, don’t often share them in dialogue with others whose own assumptions differ, but perhaps we should be trying to do so more explicitly. Are there ways to find middle grounds such that large scale human technical and existential projects could collaborate and coalesce? What could happen at those spaces of meeting? What would they look like? Or, if they don’t meet, would it be better at least for those differences in direction to be intentional? What do different points of reference, or shifting points of reference, mean for our practical foci and action?
TL;DR: Is the trouble earthbound? Must it be? What does it mean if it’s not?
May already! My first month here in San Francisco has gone so quickly, as I've been lucky enough to get to spend it speaking and working with so many amazing people, on so many amazing projects, from virtual space exploration, to analogue simulations, to science communication and citizen science using new media. Everyday I find myself so inspired by the projects people imagine, the things they make real. And I've just had an abstract accepted for a presentation on my research at the IAC 2017 this September, so stay tuned for more in-depth academic, theoretical, methodological, and project-specific content to come in the next few months! I look forward to hunkering down, working, and sharing useful things I find with you!
In the meantime, I thought I'd share some personal highlights with you, some of the little snippets of day-to-day life and fun off-the-clock adventures I've been having. I hope this will be a little like a journal for me, and a way to get to know me a little, for you.
So what fits around a month of fieldwork and jetlag? Lots of sleeping, and lots of walking! I've walked through the city, up and down Golden Gate bridge, and from Embarcadero to the Civic Center for the recent March for Science. I've boosted back and forth between here and San Jose to catch the Silicon Valley Comic Con and also to conduct fieldwork, travelled up to the beautiful Chabot Space Science Center for Yuri's Night (a belated happy День космонавтики!), and went to my very first cherry blossom festival.
I got the chance to be Captain of the USS Aegis (defeating the Klingons and unfortunately only saving half the survivors of a wrecked ship) at the launch of the Star Trek: Bridge Crew virtual reality game at Ubisoft, and oh my gosh it was so much fun! I can't wait to get it oneday and live out all my nerdy Starfleet dreams!
I was also lucky enough to make it to an incredible lecture on staying with the trouble by Donna Haraway (which I think I will write more about next) at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was beautiful, and packed, and gave me so much to think about and think with - I feel very grateful to have gone - it was, in itself a refugia, to borrow the term.
I was also able to see one of my favourite bands in person for the first time last night (it turns out hipsters are the same no matter where you go) and have been having some serious quality time meeting and missing beautiful dogs. One of my housemates is a lovely Corgi-Chihuahua, and we've just added someone new to the household - a sweet little old boy, a rescue senior dog named Neptune, who we are fostering until he can get adopted and find his forever home. It's so incredible getting to watch him become strong and healthy again, and learn to feel safe and enjoy his days! But it's also tough, being away from my home in Australia, and I've been really missing the animals I live with there. So they get a special mention and photo feature too!
Okay, that's enough spamming from me. Thanks for spending some time hanging out here on my journal, I hope you feel you've gotten to know me a bit better!
And I've been a bit lax, and haven't been photo-documenting as many things as I could be - I'll do my best to stay on top of things this month so I have more to share on other platforms. See you next time!
The past month or so has been so huge. I’m now on a whole new continent, learning and trying to make the most of some truly exciting travel and fieldwork opportunities. I’ll do a proper travel update post soon, but I’ve been sitting on some little ideas and theoretical musings that I wanted to get out first, lest I lose them. (Stay tuned though for cute pics of puppies, Star Trek, and San Francisco!)
As I catch up on some much needed reading in between fieldwork, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around some of the structures, infrastructures, and politics of networks (and of ‘the network’, as a central idea/metaphor). One text I’ve personally found to be thought-provoking and interesting is Grant Bollmer’s recent (2016) Inhuman Networks: Social Media and the Archaeology of Connection (books.google.com.au/books?id=DRBNDAAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s). Using a media archaeology approach, Bollmer takes social media to refer not just to a form of technology, but also to a political rationality of nodal citizenship, wherein the collective group or totality to which we belong becomes not the state, but the network, and the ‘good “citizen”’ is tasked with “the maintenance of connections and perpetuation of flows.” I haven’t finished reading it yet, and as someone who tends towards a relational metaphysics, I’m not sure I’ll agree with all the underlying assumptions and conclusions of the book. That being said, I’ve been finding the formulation of nodal citizenship really great to think with as I explore sociality, possibility, information/knowledge, and access (epistemic and political) in the field, with people who see themselves as working explicitly at humanity’s frontiers through new technology.
So what is the nodal citizen?
“A proper nodal citizen is one that, like networks more broadly, connects socially, economically, biologically, and technologically. It generates data to be uploaded and stored in accordance with norms handed down from history, perpetuated by contemporary technology and the recent fetish for Big Data. A nodal citizen relates to others by connecting and maintaining flows.”
What you get, then, and I think what many of us do feel, is a prescription – a pressure to contribute, connect, upload, produce, consume, share. Why does this matter? Or rather, how does thinking about this in terms of citizenship (a central framework for conceptualising individual responsibilities/duties and rights/freedoms within a collective, governing group) point to and give us purchase on contemporary political issues? Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that many of the areas we would typically think of as being in the domain of traditional state citizenship are digitised and automated, and connected to the network to varying degrees (eg. online banking, online portals tied to digital accounts & profiles as point of access for social services, remote and virtual education services & platforms, employment listings, services and applications through social networking sites, etc.) – the social in the media/network is not just about play, friends, and downtime, it is the social of the public sphere, work, civic duty and involvement, etc. Failing to use, or contribute to the network through these services, applications, and practices is not simply a personal preference here, but a social/moral failing, and ‘bad citizens’ are punished/disciplined. This might include social/peer pressure, or denial of key services until behaviour is changed, or, and here’s the one I find scariest, denial of existence as a human, an agent, an actor, a member of the social world. For Bollmer, “social media produce that which does not connect and flow properly as inhuman…[W]hatever qualifies as human is preconditioned by non-human technologies,” and the boundaries between the two are continually being negotiated, so “what counts as human may exclude biological humans.” If you’re on the margins of the network, you’re in trouble, because you are not fully a part of social life, and access is further compromised by the fact that the rhetoric of the network is one of an all-encompassing totality, so if you’re not connected, then, definitionally, you don’t exist.
The erasure or invisibility of those without access to the technology (software, hardware, infrastructure) and technological literacy of everyday citizenship and social life is a sobering thought. Remote, virtual/digital learning is presented as a great leveller and democratiser of education, and to an extent, I agree. But conversations with participants who work in virtual/digital STEM education and outreach have really highlighted some of the limits of the democratic Internet rhetoric. For some education providers with lower levels of technological literacy, outreach initiatives may be, broadly speaking, accessible to them and their students, but the technical proficiencies and work required in coordinating and setting up the virtual session/workshop/classroom are too steep, reducing uptake. Or, many educators and students never have a chance to access digital resources and programs at all, since they lack the basic hardware and infrastructure to even find out about them, let alone utilise them.
The concern with using new technology to increase access to new technology and thereby contribute to social welfare or equity is, of course, the element of circularity at play. Maybe, as a participant suggested, “the gap just widens”, and a new layer is added to the already ever-present threat of erasure facing those in positions of structural inequity.
The relevance of these issues and this conceptual framework to contemporary social justice debates and movements is something that deserves unpacking in more time and detail. (I’d like to explore the implications of this framework for feminism once I get back from the field.) In broad brushstrokes for now though, this is interesting because it suggests that if social movements and identity politics are to exist at all now, there must be a significant networked component. And, given the structure of many key technological social networks (eg. attention and outrage economies running on clicks, shareability, ads, and capital), we run the risk of making spectacles and commodities of ourselves, in ways that may distance us further from those original goals of equity and positive action.
The politics of equity and access, and values and prescriptions that come packed into ‘the network’ seem to reflect wider discussions in the contemporary moment about technological and scientific systems that often have been seen as neutral, impartial, and objective. The debates and dialogues around tomorrow’s March for Science are a really interesting example, with marchers seeing the denial of scientific methods and evidence in political institutions as a social issue requiring a response from the professional and extended scientific community. For some of those, the march is not about science being political, because science is universal and rational and extends beyond human concerns, values, politics. For others of those marching, it is specifically about politicising science so that it can be part of the political process, and then those opposed to science or certain empirical claims and results (eg. climate change deniers) resent the intrusion of what they see as scientists’ political agendas into processes of governance and policy. Many others still have been alienated from the march and its goals by a feeling that organisers have failed to properly recognise that science has already always been fundamentally political in its exclusion and exploitation of many sectors of society, eg. women, people of colour, and without engagement and care for these experiences, the march is limited to an elite and problematic activity.
Lauren Young's recent article is worth looking at if you haven’t been following the March for Science activity and want a speedy summary (sciencefriday.com/articles/what-is-the-march-for-science/), and Dr Zevallos' (The Other Sociologist) tweets and recent article for Latino Rebels are so incredibly great if you're looking for a more detailed recap and exploration of the kinds of concerns people have around justice, diversity, equity, access, inclusion, and politics in scientific practice (www.latinorebels.com/2017/03/14/the-march-for-science-cant-figure-out-how-to-handle-diversity/; twitter.com/OtherSociology).
I think we can also see some really interesting elements of the technological as social, political, and not neutral, within recent discussions around fake news as well, eg. the monetary incentives to spread fake news and profit off of misinformation, the critical thinking/information/source evaluation skills required to know what one is reading which are not distributed equally across social strata and groups, the social responsibility of social networking platform companies to become actively involved in evaluating, flagging, or removing fake news, for the good of its communities.
The fact that algorithms are not, in their operation, or by their human design, fundamentally neutral at all is a huge thing, given how much social force they have (habitus 2.0 with social rules and conventions as actual acting agents?), and the fact that much of the software and hardware we rely on day-to-day remains fundamentally mysterious to most of us.
I wonder how these structures will continue to affect us and our social systems in future. I wonder what is to be done to minimise potentially negative effects going forward. It seems to me that keeping things material is a good first step - trying to increase material access to new technologies in equitable ways, and making those systems and services already in use more material to people (ie., their materials, components, operations, processes – the what’s and why’s and how-to’s). I hope that this is something I can become more savvy with over time, and address in this and future projects.
Time to write!
As I settle into conducting fieldwork for a new and exciting project, and, in terms of scope, the largest project I've attempted to date, I hope to cultivate some best practice writing habits as a student and as a researcher.
My fieldnotes and core diary are, of course, sensitive, and won't ever be shared here. But as I carry out fieldwork, I read and see interesting things, I have theoretical notions I quite like, and I find so many amazing resources for learning or doing projects, that I would love to share. Doing so here is good for me, because reflecting on and polishing my personal notes forces me to articulate them much clearer, and stops me from falling into writing-lulls.
I also believe that sharing one's resources and knowledge with as many people as possible, outside of academia and institutions, is key to being a useful academic (ie., one whose knowledge and experience actually benefit wider publics) and I will build and practice those skills here, in the hopes that it will benefit more than just me.
This blog is therefore intended as a place of usefulness and extension. For me, and for you too! Thank you for coming to visit, and thank you for your patience as I gather momentum on my research and writing projects. I look forward to sharing generative content with you soon and into the future.