Archives for posts with tag: academics

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. []

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. []

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. []

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).

This, the second of two documents, is a broad outline of how I hope to structure my fieldwork. The other document, found here, is my attempt at defining the larger (still too large) scope of my project.

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.


Outline of scope and approach for ethnographic fieldwork

This project is conceived, following the work of George Marcus and others, as a multi-​sited ethnography. While the majority of my fieldwork will be anchored within a US City, the nature of this study requires me to follow my interlocutors as they, and their words and works, circulate within a broader network of individuals and institutions collaborating to “dream” the future of news.

The choice of city is based on weighing four primary factors. First, the ability to conduct research within and around existing, “legacy” news institutions engaged in news R&D. The second factor is the presence of start-​up news enterprises. These range from community media outlets to start-​up organizations specifically working to develop new “news” applications. The third factor is the presence and activity level of industry networking groups such as “Hacks/​Hackers,” which work to foster conversation and collaborations between journalists and technologists. Finally, I am also looking for cities in which there are academic centers which are actively involved in the study of the future of the news.

As part of this research involves mapping the terrain of this collaborative space of dreaming, in addition to local research, I also plan to conduct supplemental research at a number of extra-​local sites, in particular, trade meetings and conferences. Because the size, scope, format, and influence of these events can vary greatly, the choice of which ones to attend will be largely shaped by the priorities of my interlocutors. In addition to these sites, it’s my hope to conduct brief in-​person research sessions at one or two of the non-​profit institutions, like the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which are helping set and shape these discussions at a national level.

Additionally, I also plan to follow my interlocutors on-​line, as social networking tools have become a critical part of the day-​to-​day productions efforts that I hope to track. In addition to staying abreast of discussions carried out via blogging platforms, I plan to conduct participant observation around various news related “tweet-​ups”, regularly scheduled chat sessions in which groups of journalists hold guided open, public discussions about a specific “news topic.” My research methodology for this aspect of the project will draw upon the tools of linguistic and media anthropology to consider the interaction of individuals, culture, and mediating software, while, at the same time maintaining attention to the embodied grounding of all interactions.

This post is part of the revived Carnival of Journalism, a monthly event, organized by David Cohn, in which journalists and academics will blog on a given topic. I fit into the later group of participants, as I’m not a journalist, but an Anthropologist who is studying the transformation of journalism within the US. That said, I have a particular ongoing interest in this month’s CoJ prompt: Reflect on the Knight Commission‘s recommendation that universities should “Increase the[ir] role…As hubs of journalistic activity” and “integrate digital and media literacy….”

In recent months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Applied Anthropology, sometimes also referred to as Public Anthropology. What specifically is the role of Anthropology in public discourse? Or rather, what could it be? What follows is a brief meditation on what Anthropologists, who lets face it, largely reside in Universities, can do to increase journalistic activities.

Roughly a year ago, anthropologist Chris Kelty wrote an insightful analysis of the situation in a post Savage Minds1 entitled Why is there no Anthropology Journalism? In the article Kelty proposed three big barriers to the integration of Anthropology into journalism:

  1. “Because there isn’t as much Anthropology as there is science [or humanities] to report on” — in other words, when looking at the wealth of research being conducted across the various disciplines (sciences, social sciences, and humanities), the amount of actual anthropological work is relatively minuscule.
  2. “Because journalists already do what Anthropologists do, only better” — We are sister disciplines/​professions/​crafts, so there is crossover. But one thing that differentiates us is time scale. Journalism works to report immediate facts. Anthropology then takes years to build theories of what was happening behind those facts (or why a certain set of facts, as opposed to others, were taken as “the facts”). Journalism works at the speed of hours and days. Anthropology typically works at the pace of years.
  3. “Because Anthropologists [and Anthropology journals] do not report on their research” — Anthropologists (and many academics) have a tendency to talk mainly among ourselves, typically in big and scary words, and rarely, if ever, condense our research down to publicly consumable “elevator talks.” Instead, that the focus to publish in (pay-​walled) institutional journals and respond, in long form, to ongoing Anthropological conversations renders our work inaccessible to the general public.

There’s a lot in Kelty’s analysis that’s worth addressing. For this post, I’d like to side-​step points one and two. Let’s assume that regardless of quantity of output, anthropologists have something valuable to say, and that this knowledge can be applied to events as they unfold, as opposed to focusing on retrospective events.

Instead, I’d like to concentrate on point three (lack of reporting) and think about it in terms of another recent anthro post. Almost a year after Kelty’s article, Miami University’s Mark Allen Peterson made the following pronouncement in a post on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s blog:

One thing is painfully clear: Linguistic Anthropology has a public relations problem. The media does not come to linguistic anthropologists. Our expertise on language, collective and individual, is not established.

Peterson goes on to suggest a number of ways for individual anthropologists to build “public expertise,” including constructing homepages and maintaining blogs, editing Wikipedia pages, adding content to YouTube, and using social media. All of these are steps that make sense, and can help raise one’s “Google index,” making it more likely for a journalist to find you when they are researching a story. But it does little, at least in the short term, to increasing engagement.

The big issue2 that Anthropology faces is that we’ve, for the most part, bought into a “field of dreams” sort of mindset: if we produce good scholarship, they will come and interview us. This tends to ignore the barriers that prevent journalists from “getting at” that scholarship (firewalls, arcane language, expectation that you’re at least familiar with the texts/​arguments that one is engaging). It also ignores the reality of the practice of journalism, especially how fast stories have to come together. As I keep re-​learning through interviews with journalists, the average journalist doesn’t have the luxury of reflection when facing a daily (or even weekly) deadline.

Here’s the immediate problem: the values that shape “good Anthropological scholarship” render that scholarship useless to journalists. The impasse that needs to be acknowledged and resolved is that, up to this point, the expectation is that the journalists are supposed to bridge the gap.

Peterson’s posting is a nod towards changing this. And in general I agree with what he’s saying. But outreach on social media is fundamentally different than direct outreach to journalists (and journalistic institutions).

So, what can be done on the institutional, university level? Beyond the usual “change tenure requirements“3 , here are a couple tactical ideas based on my discussions with journalists and my past experiences as a visiting professor:

  1. Accept that journalists are not undergraduates. Regardless of how interested they are in a topic, they typically don’t have time to read and absorb the paper, the chapter, or the book. The responsibility of boiling it down is on you (and note that I said boiling it down, versus dumbing it down). Which leads to…
  2. When it comes to publicizing your work, take TLDR (Too long, didn’t read) to heart. Love the 140 character limit — if you can’t make me at least curious in 140 characters, there’s little chance of convincing a journalists to pay attention. Likewise, in interviews, start simple and let the journalist guide the conversation.
  3. Embrace existing institutional solutions. The majority of universities are already engaged in press outreach, go talk to these people. Get registered as a subject matter “expert.” They can help with access to various media outlets, because the more an individual scholar is seen as an expert, the more the institution is seen as the home of experts.
  4. Begin to cultivate individual relationships with reporters and editors who work in topic areas of interest. One method of getting at them is via the letters to the editor page. Other options include direct email engagement and …
  5. Building off Peterson’s point, start to follow journalists working within your field, especially on twitter, and be ready to respond. This isn’t about them following you, though that’s a hopeful outcome, it’s about you following them.
  6. Pitch stories. Seriously. There are a number of amazing academic journalist engagements going on right now — see The Atlantic’s ongoing publication of Syllabus-​as-​Essay feature as one example of this sort of collaboration.
  7. Write content for public consumption [thanks to Josh Braun for reminding me that this should explicitly be stated]. Anthropology, especially in the first half of the century, had a history of doing this (See Mead, Benedict, and Powdermaker as examples). Like it or not, the chances that most journalism outlets are going to add a social sciences beat are slim-​to-​none. Again, that doesn’t mean that content needs to be “dumbed-​down” through the removal of any nuanced analysis. And, btw, learning to write this was is a challenge unto itself (for one of my attempts at finding the “sweet spot” check out this post on the inescapable politicization of the Tucson shooting which tries to work with Sahlins and Evans-​Pritchard without getting too “academic-​ie”)

Much like Smokey Bear reminds us that “only you can prevent Forest Fires,” at this point, only Anthropologists can make Anthropology relevant again. Doing that will requires an active engagement with the press. And said engagement means that we (Anthropologists) need to come more than half-​way in order to reestablish a relationships that was largely lost quite some time ago.

  1. an academic blog specifically focused on the practice and culture of Anthropology []
  2. The second issue is that, by and large, Anthropologists, especially since WWII, have allowed our focus on where we are studying (field site) to overshadow what we are studying when we get there. So when someone is reporting on a medical crisis in Haiti, for example, its easy for a reporter to think about how they can integrate Anthropology into a story. Unfortunately, if it’s a story about medical crisis in general, reporters, and most of the general public, are not trained to think that a Medical Anthropologist has much to say on that topic. This operationalization is our own fault, as, in many ways we operationalized ourselves years ago when, post WWII, the field tied it’s overall program to area studies, ceding the majority of direct engagement with modern, western culture to sociologists. []
  3. a topic over which so much blood, sweat, ink, and pixels have been spilled that there’s little I can add, and given my state in the overall process, any attempt at addition would be the height of presumption []