Archives for category: praxis

For more than a millennium, the codex was king. The gathering of paper or vellum, folded into pages, and bound with a protective cover to a common spine was developed in second century Europe. Over the next two hundred years it would slowly overtake the scroll as the primary vessel1 for the recording, storage, and dissemination of the written word.

And since its development, the form of the codex has remained largely unchanged. In fact, the most important innovation in the production of books — the development of movable type printing in the mid fifteenth century — was a manufacturing revolution rather than a reinvention of the codex itself. Gutenberg’s revolution was finding a faster and cheaper way to make books.

Granted, the print revolution did begin the evolution of the manufacture of codices. Vellum pages gave way to paper. Over time, new binding techniques allowed for the production of books of all shapes and sizes with all manner of coverings.

And thanks to the print revolution, the content contained by codices changed tremendously. The spread of the book form led to a blossoming of knowledge and art.

Information begot information. Books begot books.

But for all the changes in content, for all the new shapes and sizes of book, the overall container — the codex — remained largely the same. The form of the book had been locked down a thousand years before the birth of Gutenberg. In other words, channeling Douglas Adams, if a wormhole opened in a Barnes and Noble today and a paperback fell back in time to the court of Charlemagne circa 785 AD, the famed scribe Alcuin would immediately recognize the alien object as a codex, as a book.

The old adage is that when all you have is a hammer, everything comes to look like a nail. If thats true, then it stands that when the only information container you have is a codex, all information starts to look like a book.

Where there is no real alternative, content becomes inseparable from container. The two collapse into a single, seemingly inseparable form.

Well into the 1980’s, if not the early 1990’s, the codex remained the only mass-​market container for the written word. The advent of new types of recording and broadcast media created alternatives to reading. But none of them offered an alternative for reading.

It’s only been in the last two decades with the rise of eReading devices — first the PC, then cell phones, and now eReaders and Tablets — that reading has taken a truly revolutionary step.

We are in the midst of a renaissance for readers and reading. And this renaissance was facilitated not just by an explosion in publishing, but though the creation of alternatives to the codex.

The introduction of alternatives into a space where they had not previously existed disrupted a thousand year old illusion of a hard bound relationship between form and content within the pages of a book. People have discovered, for example, that novels are, for the most part, platform independent — words read just as well on screen as they do in a paperback or a hard cover. A book is no longer synonymous with its traditional physical container. Today the choice of which version of a text to read — hardcover, paperback, audio, or ebook — is becoming increasingly dependent upon what type of experience a reader wishes to have with that text. And that includes having multiple experiences with the same text over a variety of platforms.

The appearance of alternatives containers for words also opens up new and exciting ways of looking at the present, the future, and perhaps, most importantly, the past.

Thinking about reading on smart-​phones and tablets has given me a new perspective on the books in my library. I increasingly find that my books shelves contain printed apps like cookbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, how-​to books, travel guides, and directories. These collections of functional information, written for random access rather than narrative reading, and intended for specialized tasks were relegated to books, not because that was the optimal format for that information, but because the codex was the only option available.

Looking at things from this perspective — that these were always apps that we mistook for being books — is it any surprise these categories of publishing have been revolutionized by the advent of electronic reading platforms?

Realizing that digital reading has freed apps hidden within traditional books, points us to the exciting challenge/​opportunity for publishers and creators. Sure, people will continue to write platform independent works like novels. Despite so many fears, there is no real evidence to suggest that long form writing is going to go away. I’m sure their popularity will wax and wane. But while the business models will change, the overall production of that sort of narrative writing will continue unabated.

What is far more exciting, from my perspective, is that creators can now choose between a diverse set of publishing platforms. And that choice opens up new opportunities to create revolutionary works that work to embrace the full potential of their chosen platform. Publishing consultant and all around bright guy, Joe Esposito, beautifully described this challenge as follows in a recent email discussion thread:

[T]here is another model, and that is what I will call the Frostian (from Robert Frost: “all I ask is the freedom of my material”) model. In the latter model, the creative impulse comes about in a struggle with the material – good fences make good neighbors: the operative word is “make.” In this sense, books ARE their containers, or at least they are born of a struggle with their containers.

Now that we have learned how much of our content is platform independent, now that we can stop trying to force apps into the form of books, there’s a wonderful opportunity to create platform-​dependent works. To create books that truly link content and form.2 To choose to work with the codex format and embrace what makes it different than an eReader (and visa versa, of course).

For more than a millennium, the codex was king — the only game in town for the written word. That is now over. We are in the second decade of having real alternatives. And those alternatives are not going to go away in the foreseeable future. In fact we’ll most likely see them expand.

This is such a good thing.

We now have the space, the opportunity, to rediscover the codex and choose to embrace it. We do not need to try and recreate the codex experience on a digital device. After all, the codex has been with us for a long, long time. It isn’t going away. If anything, now is when things get really interesting.

Vive la différence.

  1. Other media for the written word — scrolls, clay tables, chiseled stone, graffiti on walls — persisted, but these were largely relegated to special uses. []
  2. To be fair, there have always been authors and book creators who have worked to tie content and form together. Examples of such works include Tristan Shandy, House of Leaves, and Watchmen … my hope is that this will become a far more common practice. []

We’ve known for a while, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, that Apple was planning something big in the book/​textbook market. Yesterday, January 19th, we found out it was iBook 2. Quoting from Apple’s oh-​so-​subtle press release entitled Apple Reinvents Textbooks with iBooks 2 for iPad, here are the key things that are part of the upgrade:

(1) iBooks textbooks, an entirely new kind of textbook that’s dynamic, engaging and truly interactive […] with support for great new features including gorgeous, fullscreen books, interactive 3D objects, diagrams, videos and photos;

(2) iBooks Author […] a free download from the Mac App Store and lets anyone with a Mac create stunning iBooks textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books and more, and publish them to Apple’s iBookstore. [You create a ibook] with Apple-​designed templates that feature a wide variety of page layouts [… and] add your own text and images by simply dragging and dropping, [… you can also] add interactive photo galleries, movies, Keynote® presentations and 3D objects.

(3) iTunes® U app [which provides students and teachers with] access to the world’s largest catalog of free educational content, along with over 20,000 education apps at their fingertips and hundreds of thousands of books in the iBookstore that can be used in their school curriculum.

At first glance, there seems to be a lot in here for advocates of self-​publishing and eReading to like. In particular, iBooks Author could be an incredibly powerful tool for getting students to engage with authorship and course material in an entirely different way — imagine every student making their own custom textbook.

However, when one digs beneath the surface a bit, iBooks Author has a few big problems. These are the two — one small and one big — that concern me…

Problem #1 — Interactivity
Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes that while iBooks make a claim of being “truly” interactive, what that really means is interactive animations…

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-​on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

I would take this one step further, in that the books that I’ve seen also don’t seem to provide much connection between text and interactivity. Rather than integrating the interactivity into the content in such a way that it becomes inseparable, it largely remains there to illustrate the text. In this way, all we have is dancing baloney sort of illustration within a closed reading experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t a revolutionary interactive experience.

Still even if iBook Author isn’t all that interactive, the promise of providing students a tool to build their own books is a good thing… right?

Not if the book is locked down to the iOS platform.

Problem #2 — ibooks can only be read on iOS devices
The iBook format, .ida, is a proprietary build off of the industry standard .ePub format which can only be read on an iOS device. That means that a student’s work can only be viewed, as it was intended to be1 , within the iOS platform.2 “Taking home” the book you made in class to show your parents requires you to take your ipad as well.

This may not seem like a big thing — especially since we imagine that each student would have their own iPad. However, it doesn’t take much to imagine less affluent school districts where students would share iPads. Or other scenarios where school supplied iPads cannot leave the school campus. Without access to a “home” iPad, that student’s work becomes more-​or-​less inaccessible — even if the family has a computer. Further, if the student wants to share that work within her extended family, all of them need iOS devices as well.

The problem is a closed, hardware based, platforms
The fact that iBooks only work on iOS devices seems to me an exceedingly problematic development for ebooks in general.

The rational — on the surface — for going with a proprietary format, is that the current ePub standard does not currently allow for an ebook experience that meets Apple’s high standards. As someone whose struggled with the limits of ePub, I’m sympathetic to this argument. Especially, if we are talking about typographic nuances and interactive elements, by all accounts iBooks are able to do things that standard ePubs cannot do as well (if at all).

This will surely result in some beautiful ibooks.

However, if we look beyond élite publications, this slavish attention to “experience” makes less sense. Most self-​publishing authors — including students — rarely end up using many of those advanced interactive features that made it necessary to drop ePub. I expect that time will show that, outside of the typographic tweaks hard wired into Apple’s templates, the vast majority of iBooks could have been created as ePubs without sacrificing anything.

And if those books had been “born” ePub, they could have been read on just about any computer, tablet, eReader, or phone available today. Instead thy will be locked to the iOS. In this way iBooks coverts generic content into something that can only be viewed on Apple devices.

Considering that the iPad’s traces its lineage back to the iPod, whose success was based on the cross-​platform MP3 standard, there is a certain irony to this decision.

Beyond the issue of experience, there’s another compelling reason for Apple to do this. As was recently pointed out to me in an email discussion, while Apple makes a lot on content (some $1,571 million in its 2011 fourth quarter!), content only accounts for 6% of all of Apple’s revenue. Almost 70% of revenue in that same quarter came from the sale of iPods, iPhone, iPads, and their related services, carrier agreements, and accessories.

To be blunt, iBooks are about selling iOS devices, not the other way around.3

Thus, there is very little incentive for Apple to develop an iBook reader for Windows or Android, let alone for Apple lap– and desktop computers.4.

For the foreseeable future, expect iBooks to be locked to a hardware platform. And that in turn means that a lot of new, traditionally platform agnostic, content will become locked to a platform for no other reason the artificial restrictions of the platform it was authored on. While that might not seem like much, it’s a very different approach to electronic texts than we have seen up to this point.5 Granted, there have always been technological barriers to reading and writing, but I cannot think of a bigger attempt, in recent memory, to restrict mass-​market reading and writing to a single platform. It may result in a win for Apple, but I can’t help but this of it as a loss for the rest of us.

  1. Apple does provide the ability to export a platform independent PDF of an iBook. However, all of the much touted interactivity is stripped from the book. And PDF is a format that still is primarily intended for print consumption, which means that all of the screen-​reading advantages of an ebook, such as dynamic text reflow, are also lost. []
  2. Additionally, the iBooks Author EULA contains a big “catches” to the distribution of ibooks. While free ibooks can be distributed how ever the author wishes, ibooks can only be sold via the iBookstore. []
  3. see Joe Espisito’s spot on analysis for more on this []
  4. In this way Amazon has a fundamentally different reading platform strategy. While they are heavily invested in Kindle, one must understand that it’s the Kindle platform versus the hardware that Amazon really cares about. In order to reach the broadest community of readers/​customers, Amazon has published Kindle software for every major Computer, Tablet, and Smartphone platform. Kindle books, which typically have DRM applied to them, may also be in a proprietary format, but, to some degree its platform agnostics approach makes it a far more available format to readers than Apple’s hardware locked .ida []
  5. Even during the browser wars of the late nineties, text on a site optimized for a given browser could still be typically read by anyone who visited that site, regardless of their web browser. []

Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in the coming weeks JSTOR will make a subset of it’s archive of academic journals available to anyone who registers for a free account. This is, generally speaking, a good thing. However, as Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic points out, details from the Chronicle’s article suggests that this is, at best, a very small victory for open access. He writes:

JSTOR told the Chronicle that each and every year, they turn away 150 million attempts to gain access to articles. That’s right. 150 million attempts!

The way I see it, that’s 150 million chances lost to improve the quality of the Internet. JSTOR, as the keeper of so much great scholarly work, should be one of the Internet’s dominant suppliers of facts and serious research. But if something is not publicly available, key gatekeepers like journalists and Wikipedians, move to the best available source, even if they know that there probably is a better source behind JSTOR’s paywall. So, instead, JSTOR’s vast troves of valuable information remain within academia and the broader Internet’s immune system is that much weaker.

Madrigal is makes an important point. Search engines like Google now regularly return links to academic articles as part of search results. For most people1 following a journal link leads to a page that informs you that you don’t have access to that article. Want to experience it for yourself, just follow this link to as article on Open access and academic journal quality … #irony.

Other than examining attempts, there are other ways to wrap our head around the problem. I decided that I’d look into how many articles are firewalled at JSTOR. To do this, I ran a number of queries on the JSTOR search engine2 using variations on the string (cty:(journal) AND ty:(fla)) AND (year:[1 TO 2012]) The results are rather sobering. Here’s the top line:

Publicly available articles on JSTOR as of 1÷13÷2011 total articles publicly accessible articles publicly available as a % of total
All articles on JSTOR 3,816,066 272,475 7.14%
Texts out of copyright (beginning-​1922) 533,282 264,384 49.58%
Texts published since 1922 3,172,269 8,085 0.25%

Currently, only 7% of all of JSTOR’s content is freely available.

Worse yet, only half of articles that have entered the public domain are publicly available via JSTOR!

0 of the 2,465,468 articles published between 1923 and 1996 are publicly available.

In 1997 the first open journals began to publish. However, only 8,085 — less than 1% — of the 829,330 JSTOR articles published after 1997 are publicly available.

These are big numbers.

In theory, the point of publishing is to disseminate research for the development of knowledge. Further, many of those 3 million articles were built on data collected through publicly funded research. I have a hard time seeing how we can say the public is getting a solid return on its research investment when it still doesn’t have open access to research it helped funded over fifty-​years ago.

As an academic of sorts, I appreciate the need to protect the work of research. But I cannot buy into the idea that copyright is the right way to protect that work (especially when the one who benefits in the long term is the archive as opposed to the scholar). Imagine an alternative scenario. For example, that academic publication were handled more like patents — which enter into the public domain after 20 years for the good of society. JSTOR currently holds approximately 2,567,820 articles that would, under patent laws, have entered the public domain, versus the 533,282 that currently have passed out of copyright.3

All of this speaks to Madrigal ‘s point. This massive amount of information that is only available to those of us who are lucky enough to be in institutions that are willing to pay for it.

Admittedly, as I understand things, JSTOR has no legal obligation to provide free access to any of this content. And the price of access for back articles is often set by the journals, or rather their publishers. However, moral obligations are entirely different.

To their credit, in September of 2011 JSTOR began the process of opening up access to all their content that has entered into the public domain. Approximately 50% of it is currently available, but that still leaves half of it behind firewalls.

Hopefully, JSTOR’s new program will greatly improve public access. However, given the fact that there are over three million articles that currently remain beyond the reach of the public (and many scholars), it’s going to take a lot to make a real dent.

BTW, I’ve made all of the data I collected available via google docs. Please feel free to use it as you’d like. If you do something cool with it, let me know.

  1. this includes academics as there are far more journals available than even the most affluent research institutions can afford to subscribe to []
  2. I had to brute force this. I’d love it if someone could point me to a example of python code to do the same sort of thing. []
  3. Currently 2,303,436 of those articles are firewalled. []

tl;dr.: Why we should stop worrying about stereotyped feminism and learn to love (or at least appreciate) what it is really about

About a week ago, in a post entitled Designers and Women in Open Source, Usability (UX) designer Vitorio Miliano argued that Open Source culture isn’t as egalitarian as it sometimes promises. Pulling together a bunch of discussion threads, Vito argued that Open Source Culture, while promising to be welcoming to all, tends to marginalize the input of people who cannot/​do not code (including, but not limited to designers). In particular, I was interested in the fallout from one particular passage of Vito’s post…

in Vito: I believe the problems with open source not being able to handle non-​programmers in their projects is the same problem as the rampant sexism: open source culture is not feminist. (Designers and Women in Open Source)

Via Twitter:
Joel Johnson: @unruthless @anildash That just made me realize why I hate the term “feminism”. And why I may be wrong. 6 days ago

Anil Dash
: @joeljohnson i find everyone who hates the word “feminism” defines it differently from those of us who identify as feminists. 6 days ago

I’ve been working on a long response to Vito’s beautiful short post. In the meantime, I thought I would post a subsection of that response that might help frame the conversation about feminism and Open Source culture.

Consider this a brief, easy-​to-​read, Primer on Feminism to help folks who are not familiar with it move beyond some of the stereotypes and excesses of the movement.1 Note that this is my version of feminism and its story. It’s a history and definition that is, for the most part, shared by a lot of feminists who I know and work with (so it’s not completely out of left field).

Feminism, like any movement, is an constant state for flux. So what it appears to be now is different than it was ten years ago and is different from what it will be ten years from now. Accepting that there are multiple forms and approaches to feminism is, in itself, a key feminist move.

Generally speaking, feminism arose out of efforts to combat discrimination against women in Western culture. From voting rights, to issues of equity in salary, to birth control, the first wave of Feminism identified areas in which culture treated women as being *less* than men. These fights happened in all areas of society: from government and politics, to the private sector and the home, to the academy. Generally speaking, the goal was quantitatively equal treatment between men and women.

A key tool that emerged out of this phase was the “binary” – Men and Women. Moral and Immoral. Good and Evil. Marked and Unmarked. 0 and 1. – pairs of objects and ideas that define each other through their relation to each other. At the time they were often thought of as hard oppositions: you could only be one or the other. In theory, binaries are said to be equivalent (of equal value). Feminists and others who were simultaneously attacking other forms of discrimination, argued that, in practice, they never were. One was always valued more than the other within a system.

As real gains toward equality were happening in the political and social spheres, feminist activists began to investigate how that original Male/​Female binary, with it’s embedded power relations, was built into every aspect of society. To do this they asked big provocative questions and took extreme positions: because human made, subjective (female) ideologies were part of every system, pure-​objective (male) science was a myth; pornography was fundamentally abusive to women and therefore immoral. These sorts of positions, typically the stereotypical version of feminism represented in (especially conservative) media, came to be labeled “second wave” feminism.

The third wave (what I consider current feminism) arose out of critiques of the second wave. Female and male scholars and activists recognized that second wave feminists, in their attempts to push through the dominant cultural ideologies, had sometimes thrown the baby out with the bathwater.2 In particular, three important lines of thought emerged:

  1. This wasn’t about binaries. You not only could not reduce the world and it’s problems to Man/​Woman, but such a move often created new discrimination in that it implied one universal “man” and one universal “woman.” Race, nationality, culture, sexuality, age, class, religion, you name it, had to be removed to make “man” and “woman” work as categories (and the moment you remove any of those pieces, you create blind spots in your ideology).As an extreme simplification: feminism was at risk of becoming trapped by its tools: turning the world into one big nail​.So as Donna Haraway, a matron saint of third wave feminism would say, attention refocused to the fact that are no universals, and that groups have as many differences as similarities. This attention to non-​gender differences has led feminism to addressing inequalities of all types — including those that simply cannot be reduced to gender.
  2. Second, if there are no binaries, then we need to rethink the entire opposition thing. Third-​wave feminism works to accept the world as a “messy” place — contradictions not only exist, but live quite comfortably along side each other in “real life.“This move resolved many of the perceived extremes of the second wave: some porn could be misogynistic, but there could be feminist porn as well. Likewise, it might be impossible to have a completely “pure” objective science, but that didn’t negate the fact that we could come to a shared objective understanding our world (forces like gravity happen).
  3. Finally, recognizing that binaries and oppositions had stopped being productive created an opportunity for third-​wave feminists to escape the trap of snap moral judgments. Instead of imposing the fundamental “us vs them” binary on every situation (with us being “right,” “good,” “innocent,” “oppressed,” and “moral” and them be “wrong,” “bad,” “evil,” “oppressors,” and “immoral”), it allowed a space to see people as, for the most part, trying to do the best they can with what they had. It opened up the possibility of working within the system to transform it rather than starting from the position that the system needed to be burned to the ground and rebuilt by “us.”

Third-​wave feminism is still concerned with inequalities (including gender). And none of this should be taken to suggest that morals or binaries have been completely abandoned.

But beyond being critical (telling people what’s wrong with a system), it’s also interested in helping work to change the system (drawing upon the activist roots of the feminist movement). In other words it critiques with care and out of caring.

From my perspective:

  • Just pointing out gender discrimination is not feminist. Refusing to engage with systems that discriminate is not feminist. Working to identify and work with a group to address issues of discrimination is feminist.
  • Calling anyone caught up in a system of discrimination an evil bastard or a slave of ideology is not feminist. Starting from the position that, until they prove you wrong, those people are just trying to do what they think is right and are open to collaborating to make things better is feminist.

Modern feminism, as I understand it, is about trying to live ethically in world full of contradictions and inequalities. It’s about finding ways to balance the needs of individual and groups, relativism and absolutism, and objectivity and subjectivity. It’s about finding ways to approach situations where all too often, in the moment, there are no hard and fast rules for how to interact. It’s about accepting that sometimes someone has to be hurt or excluded and then trying to find ways to protect that individual. Finally, it’s not about my knowing what’s right for others, but rather collaborating with others to find what’s best (not perfect) for “us.”

So Vito’s post has started a conversation about the issue of discrimination in Open Source Culture. If all it does is generate moral recriminations or resigned acceptance of the problem as it exists, then it (and the conversation it generated) is no more feminist than the culture it critiqued.

I’ll spill a lot more pixels on this by the middle of next week… In the meantime comments are definitely welcome.

About a week ago, in a post entitled Designers and women in open source, Usability (UX) designer Vitorio Miliano argued that Open Source culture isn’t as egalitarian as it sometimes promises. Pulling together a bunch of discussion threads, Vito pointed out that Open Source Culture, while promising to be welcoming to all, tends to marginalize the input of people who cannot/​do not code (including, but not limited to designers). In particular, I was interested in the fallout from one particular passage of Vito’s post…

in Vito: I believe the problems with open source not being able to handle non-​programmers in their projects is the same problem as the rampant sexism: open source culture is not feminist.

joeljohnson Joel Johnson @unruthless @anildash That just made me realize why I hate the term “feminism”. And why I may be wrong.

anildash Anil Dash @joeljohnson i find everyone who hates the word “feminism” defines it differently from those of us who identify as feminists.

I’ve been working on a long response to Vito’s beautiful short post. In the meantime, I thought I would post a subsection of that response that might help frame the conversation about feminism and Open Source culture — consider this a brief history and definition of Feminism. Note this is my version of feminism. It’s a history and definition that is, for the most part, shared by a lot of feminists who I know and work with (so it’s not completely out of left field). This is an attempt at a quick-​and-​dirty primer to help folks move beyond some of the stereotypes and excesses of the movement.

The first thing to understand is that Feminism, like any movement is an continuous state for flux. So what it appears to be now is different than it was ten years ago and is different from what it will be ten years from now. Accepting that there are multiple forms and approaches to feminism is, in itself, a key feminist move.

Generally speaking, feminism arose out of efforts to combat discrimination against women in Western culture. From voting rights, to issues of equity in salary, to birth control, the first wave of Feminism identified areas in which culture treated women as being *less* than men. These fights happened in all areas of society: from government and politics, to the private sector and the home, to the academy. Generally speaking, the goal was quantitatively equal treatment between men and women.

A key tool that emerged out of this phase was the “binary.” Men and Women. Moral and Immoral. Good and Evil. Marked and Unmarked. 0 and 1. Pairs of objects or ideas that define each other through their relation to each other. At the time they were often thought of as hard oppositions — you could only be one or the other. In theory, binaries are said to be equivalent (of equal value). Feminists and other’s who attacked discrimination, argued that, in practice, they never were. One was always valued more than the other within a system.

As real gains toward equality were happening in the political and social spheres, feminist activists began to ask how that original Male/​Female divide/​binary, with it’s embedded power relations, was built into every aspect of society. To do this they asked big provocative questions and took extreme positions: because human made, subjective (female) ideologies were part of every system, pure-​objective (male) science was a myth; pornography was fundamentally abusive to women and therefore immoral. These sorts of positions, typically the stereotypical version of feminism represented in (especially conservative) media, came to be labeled “second wave” feminism.

The third wave (what I consider current feminism) arose out of critiques of the second wave. Female and male scholars and activists recognized that in their attempts to push through the dominant cultural ideologies, second wave feminists had sometimes thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In particular, three important lines of thought emerged:

(1) This wasn’t about binaries. You not only could not reduce the world and it’s problems to Man/​Woman, but such a move pretended that there was one universal “man” and one universal “woman.” Race, nationality, culture, sexuality, age, class, religion, you name it, had to be removed to make “man” and “woman” work as categories (and the moment you remove any of those pieces, you create blind spots in your ideology). As an extreme simplification: feminism was becoming trapped by its tools — a specific strain of feminist ideology was turning the world into one big nail. So as Donna Haraway, a matron saint of third wave feminism would say, the attention focused to the fact that are no universals, and that groups have as many differences as similarities. This attention to non-​gender differences has led feminism to addressing inequalities of all types — including those that simply cannot be reduced to gender.

(2) Second, if there are no binaries, then we need to rethink the entire opposition thing. Third-​wave feminism works to accepts the world as a “messy” place — contradictions not only exist, but live quite comfortably in the world. This move resolved many of the perceived extremes of the second wave: some porn could be misogynistic, but there could be feminist porn as well. Likewise, it might be impossible to have a completely “pure” objective science, but that didn’t negate the fact that we could come to a shared objective understanding our world (forces like gravity happen).

(3) Finally, recognizing that binaries and oppositions had stopped being productive created an opportunity for third-​wave feminists to escape the trap of snap moral judgments. Instead of imposing the fundamental “us vs them” binary on every situation (with us being “right,” “good,” “innocent,” “oppressed,” and “moral” and them be “wrong,” “bad,” “evil,” “oppressors,” and “immoral”), it allowed a space to see people as, for the most part, trying to do the best they can with what they had. It opened up the possibility of working within the system to transform it rather than starting from the position that the system needed to be burned to the ground and rebuilt by “us.”

Third-​wave feminism is still concerned with inequalities (including gender). But beyond being critical (telling people what’s wrong with a system), it’s also interested in helping work to change the system (drawing upon the activist roots of the feminist movement). In other words it critiques with care and out of caring.

From my perspective:

Screaming gender discrimination is not feminist. Refusing to engage with systems that discriminate is not feminist. Working to identify and work with a group to address issues of discrimination is feminist.

Calling anyone caught up in a system of discrimination an evil bastard or a slave of ideology is not feminist. Starting from the position that, until they prove you wrong, those people are just trying to do what they think is right and are open to collaborating to make things better is feminist.

In many ways, modern feminism, as I understand it, is about trying to live ethically in world full of contradictions and inequalities. It’s about finding ways to approach situations where all too often, in the moment, there are no hard and fast rules for how to interact. It’s about accepting that sometimes someone has to be hurt or excluded and then trying to find ways to protect that individual. Finally, it’s not about my knowing what’s right for others, but rather collaborating with others to find what’s best (not perfect) for “us.”

  1. And it’s also an argument for why I’m a feminist and you should consider being on too []
  2. I have to admit that I’m in a constant struggle about how to fairly represent Second Wave feminism. It’s clear that it was necessary and it’s clear that in the long term it helped get things to a better place. At the same time, there’s just so much of it that is so far outside of my own pragmatist thinking/​ethos that I just don’t know what to do with it. []

Update (2.10.2011): Thank you so much to the folks who, via email and Twitter! have contributed really helpful comments. Please, keep them coming (if you don’t mind)!

As part of my ongoing attempt to get out of Cornell and into the field, I’ve been in the process of honing my proposed PhD research. Based on the productive interactions I’ve had with people at events like NewsFoo, and drawing upon some really wonderful work that’s already been done in this area by a number of anthropologists, I’m proposing to study interactions between “hacks” (aka journalists) and “hackers” (including, but not restricted to programmers, DB folks, visualization experts, etc).1

This, the first of two documents, is a broad outline of the overall goals and direction of my project. The other doc, located here, is an attempt to conceptualize where the research will happen.

BTW, if you’re with a start-​up or Newspaper in the US who’d be interested in working with a young (career-​wise at least) anthropologist please feel free to contact me. Likewise, if you’re from a Foundation or Center interested in supporting or otherwise collaborating on this project, please drop me a note as well.


PhD Research Proposal:
The Makers/​ing of the Future of News

US news institutions, in particular, newspapers, are in a state of crisis. While debates may be had as to how and when this moment was reached, and to the size and scope of said rupture, the fact remains that there is a sense of general agreement between lay people, academics, politicians, and those within the industry, that the current model is unsustainable. Popular opinion is the news must “change or die.”

At the center of my research project, is the following question: In the face of an existential institutional crisis, how do the individuals at the heart of the crisis work to create a “hopeful” future. Using an anthropological approach, I seek to explore the ways in which different concepts of the “future,” often containing multiple futures themselves, are introduced, negotiated, transformed, and reproduced in both the interactions of journalists and technologists and in the products of they build. I am also concerned with the ways that, at the same time they are developing new “news” futures, these actors reconcile themselves to the giving up of current presents and pasts.

The imperative for change in the “news” was succinctly crystallized in the following excerpt from a 2009 blog posting by NYU Journalism Professor Clay Shirky, widely circulated and commented upon within in news industry:

There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke… Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
[Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, 3.13.2009]

Shirky gives voice to a dominant view held within and outside the US News industry: “the future of the news” will be found through a specific mode of research and development which imports specific high tech ideals and models of “innovation,” including the web 2.0 mindset (an idiosyncratic mixing of neoliberal and techno-​utopian ideologies) and an increasing number of non-​traditional actors, including programmers, database experts, and data visualization designers, into process of making the news. Traditional journalists find themselves working side-​by-​side with these technologists, not as client and service-​provider, but instead as “equal” partners in a project to reinvent the news.

At a high level, my research works to map how, at this socio-​historical moment in the history of the US News industry, a distributed network of actors, many of whom are from outside the traditional news business, are directly and indirectly coming together dream about new models of “news.” I plan to conduct in a historical examination of the recent history of the news industry and an analysis of the circulation of the various conversations and projects that are currently “in-​play.”

Moving from the macro to the micro, the majority of my research will focus on documenting what emerges from specific encounters and collaborations between journalists and technologists taking place in and around a US metropolitan area. Centering myself within a mid-​sized to large American city, I will conduct a multi-​sited ethnography that, through participant observation and interviewing, seeks to trace the various, and often, conflicting values and visions at play in these interactions. This includes following the circulation of ideas and individuals, tracking how both are mediated through lived encounters — acts of embodied communication and negotiation — and ultimately how they code (and are encoded within) the applications and content that these projects produce. Along the way, I also plan to record how my interlocutors also reconcile their work with changes that they see occurring in journalism practices and institutions. This primary field research will be supplemented with research conducted in relevant on-​line spaces, at various trade events, and side trips to external institutions, such as the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which my interlocutors are in dialog with.

Drawing upon my background in semiotic and linguistic anthropology, and previous experience as a professional publisher and web designer, it is my goal to build upon, and contribute to, ongoing discussions in the fields of anthropology, science and technology studies, and communications theorizing how media ideologies come to bound specific interactions and professional, in particular journalistic, practices. Additionally, following the work of Lucy Suchman, Diana Foresythe, Biella Coleman, and Christopher Kelty, I am interested in showing how, as a result of these interactions, specific ideologies become reproduced within software which, intentionally or not, helps shape the ways in which that software can be used to investigate, edit, distribute, amplify, and discuss the news. I also plan to develop my research in such a way that it will be of use to those engaged in the broader project of reinventing the news.

  1. Note that this does not mean my project is centered around the Journalism group that goes by the same name — though I do hope to do work with them. []