The New New Journalism

Nate Silver is probably one of the best popularizers of big data and how effective it can be at understanding and creating meaning. Today, there is a manifesto on FiveThirtyEight which does several things very well – it outlines the need for more data literacy, justifies how journalism needs to embrace big data and understand it in order to effectively disseminate knowledge, and gives a basic “how and why this works” guide on rigorous data collection and analysis for journalism.

It’s a really good article, with lots of great points. But there is something there between the lines which I think reflects a contemporary paradigm shift. First, there is the “condition of virtuality.” N. Katherine Hayles described virtuality as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.” There is a dualistic conception of information/matter and a relationship where control over the information leads to control over matter. Coding is an act which invokes new realities, as in the case with computer programing and gene sequencing, but it can be performed wherever there is access behind the user interface.  Continue reading

Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.4

Just for fun, a few words on scientism from my Papers library:


Scientism. The political consequences of the authority enjoyed by the scientific system in developed societies is ambivalent. On the one hand, traditional attitudes of belief cannot withstand the demand for discursive justification established by modern science. On the other hand, short-lived popular syntheses of isolated pieces of information, which have taken the place of global interpretations, secure the authority of science in abstraction. The authority of “science” can thus encompass both the broadly effective critique of arbitrary structures of prejudice and the new esoterics of specialized knowledge and judgment. A scientistic self-affirmation of the sciences can promote a positivistic common consciousness that sustains the public realm. But scientism also sets standards by which it can itself be criticized and convicted of residual dogmatism.’ Theories of technocracy and of elites, which assert the necessity of institutionalized civil privatism, are not immune to objections, because they too must claim to be theories (107).” – Habermas, Jürgen. Legitimation Crisis. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. London, UK: Heinemann, 1976.

Neil Postman (he devotes an entire chapter of Technopoly to scientism. Here’s an excerpt):

“Technopoly… is totalitarian technocracy (42). Technocracies are concerned to invent machinery. That people’s lives are changed by machinery is taken as a matter of course, and that people must sometimes be treated as if they were machinery is considered a necessary and unfortunate condition of technological development. But in technocracies, such a condition is not held to be a philosophy of culture. Technocracy does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique. Technopoly does (52).

…By Scientism, I mean three interrelated ideas that, taken together, stand as one of the pillars of Technopoly. Two of the three have just been cited. The first and indispensable idea is, as noted, that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior. This idea is the backbone of much of psychology and sociology as practiced at least in America, and largely accounts for the fact that social science, to quote F. A. Hayek, “has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena.”

The second idea is, as also noted, that social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis. This implies that technical means— mostly “invisible technologies” supervised by experts—can be designed to control human behavior and set it on the proper course.

The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality (400).” – Postman, Neil. Technopoly. Random House LLC, 2011.

I find it really fascinating to be able to thread back hackathon solutionism to technologism, to scientism, to technopoloy. The “data hegemony” that might arise out of a culture obsessed with virtuality, is pretty frightening if you understand the implications.

Scientism, Solutionism and Hackathons, Pt.3

So this is the last part of the series (for now), be sure to read Pt.1 and Pt.2

This is a random grabbag of my thoughts I guess. The last article I’d highlight (and everything I linked before, I really enjoyed so you should read them) is FUCK THEORY. I guess it sets the tone for this post – up until now I’d like to think I’ve been pretty deferential about the whole issue, so let me blow off some steam with this post.

Let’s be perfectly clear – “science” as we think of it today is a new thing.  It dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the disciplinary divisions we today regard as entirely natural were formalized by people like Hermann von Helmholz.  Before that there were no “scientists”:  there were thinkers, writers, philosophers, ethicists, geometers, and doctors.  There were also theologians, who Pinker dismisses out of hand, even though “science” would not exist without the precedent of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus.  “Science” is a fully historical product of the regimentation, organization, and professionalization of what used to just be people observing the world and thinking about it.  Science is the transformation of knowledge into a cliquish guild.

Continue reading

Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.2

(Read Pt.1 here)

“Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” – Michael Dobbins

My last post left off talking about how scientism relates to technologism, which in turn relates to solutionism. I believe that the commonality between these three is a near total belief in systematic, orderly approaches to problems, and the failure to acknowledge nuance, pure subjectivity, and comparative ethics.

First, there is the orderly approach to problems. City Atlas made this post which riffed off of Sasaki’s piece I mentioned last time.

Peo­ple seek short­cuts to hard prob­lems. Put another way by David Owen in an essay in the Wall Street Jour­nal, “[W]e already know more than enough, and we have for a long time. We just don’t like the answers.”

The rea­son for this is that the answers are some­times ugly. If we can cre­ate a pro­gram that allows us to geolo­cate road­kill, we con­sider our­selves smarter, hav­ing dis­cov­ered an elec­tronic “solu­tion” to this prob­lem plagu­ing soci­ety. We can sit back, happy that we used our incred­i­ble intel­li­gence to tackle an issue with­out even leav­ing the house. But what we, as a soci­ety, really need if these “solu­tions” are to become tan­gi­ble, is some­one who is will­ing to go out and actu­ally scrape a flat­tened squir­rel off of the side of the street.

Continue reading

Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.1

If you follow the same people I do, no doubt you’ve come across the recent debate over Stephen Pinker’s piece in The National Review. The discussions that have followed this article highlight something that I think is relevant to the nature of hackathons I’ve been unveiling in my work.

Scientism itself is a pretty contested word – Pinker chooses to describe it thusly:

“[Scientism is] more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems… Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life…. The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.

I’m not going to debate Stephen Pinker, since I am a lowly masters student not yet in a PhD program, and he is purportedly one of the most influential thinkers on the planet at the moment. Instead, I’ll let others do that for me! Continue reading

Weak and Strong Collectivism

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean by the term collectivism, particularly when we refer to collective identity… for my work, this is especially relevant to the online context. There are different types of collectivism, and we have as many examples of them as there could be definitions. But I think I’ve found a way to describe it in a two axis model, from weak and strong versions of collectivism to it’s natural antonym, individualism.


A lot of early online identity work focuses on personal identity through the weak individualism perspective. This is the “second life” of Sherry Turkle, the virtual “rape in cyberspace” described by Jullian Dibbell, and the multiple personas and characters that were promised as positive experiments in identity construction. The anonymity we were accustomed when interacting with others online let us play different roles, made us weary of strangers, and allowed us to vanish when we shut off the computer.

Today, there is a persistency to that online identity, because our self is integrated with our online identities so that we have a strong individualism perspective. Companies like Facebook and Google push users to use their real names.  Privacy and tracking worries us in different ways when we continually offer up the “selfie,” tag photos with our location and monitor our behavior through devices like Fitbit and self-tracking apps. We understand that users are the products of the social media that they use, being offered up to advertisers and seemingly unhuman corporations, and we are subject to algorithmic data apps that are all watching us. Sometimes we see ourselves as disjointed, isolated, and further alienated from each other, despite the supposed interconnectedness of the internet. We worry about how digital media affects our physiology as we grow closer to it (such as in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows).

The strong collectivism concept is how we are used to thinking about people in groups – the “smart mob,” the riot, which comes together to destroy and wreak havoc for a brief time before dissipating with no essence. It is very temporary but powerful, tenable yet unstable. It is Anonymous, or a legion of botnet zombie computers controlled by people who seem as bland as the beige on old PC cases. They are a monolith, like the old Soviets, and when they disappear there is nothing left.

In contrast to this, I believe the most useful important perspective is the weak collective which I see as a recursive public (to borrow Kelty’s term). It is flexible, it adapts, and it is formed out of the relationships and collaboration of individuals who work together, rather than march in step. OWS was an interesting example of this – the relationships formed during the physical protest (which resembled a mob) actually resulted in loose networks of people which transitioned from the demonstration spectacle to community programs that later provided needed services to others (such as the OccupySandy groups). These is the ideal the “network society” Marcuse writes about.

The hackathon is an interesting site for recursive publics, because attendees are distinctly individualistic, with differing agendas and motivations, but they come together and form relationships in this temporary space which, as one attendee put it very recently,  as participants are “collecting ideas from one hackathon and apply them to the others. this can lead to interesting mashups. i look at a hackathon as kind of like an Ouija board for geeks —  a weird discovery process with other weird people like you.”

OccupyData and TTW13

Evernote Snapshot 20130302 142839Last weekend I was at OccupyData and Theorizing the Web, as I mentioned earlier. Nathan Jurgenson and and PJ Reys put on an impressive conference for work about technology and theory (two things which are apparently difficult to talk about at the same time at conferences, apparently). At the same time, the organizers at OccupyData have done a good job coordinating people working on all sorts of different projects – there was a mixture of pitches and continuing work, and there was a little more structure to begin with this time. Two of the more interesting projects that were Data Anywhere [Day 2 post] and the NoFareHikes map that Ingrid Burrington showed us – I especially liked the later because as Christo said, “there’s a media action agenda inherent in project” which makes it great. I’ve been thinking about how a lot of hackathons propose a sort of data solutionism, or a belief that the technology solution is the solution to whatever the issue is. Continue reading

Researching Hackathons

EcoHack Sketch

a sketch of one of the hackathons where we did participant observation

Well, this past semester was incredibly busy. Although I haven’t been working as much with Youth Rights Media, I did start a research project that I will be pursuing as a master’s thesis this coming year. For awhile now, I’ve been interested in the idea of digital activism and “hacktivism” as it’s been termed. There’s a lot of confused discussion over the use of the term “hack” and how it applies to hackers, hacktivism, and hackathons. Public perceptions and use of the term hacking and hackers leads to some very odd policy decisions, as Molly Sauter points out in this MIT CMS lecture. But digital activism/hacktivism is a much larger barrel of monkeys. When I started working on this subject, I was highly influenced by Joss Hands book, @ is for Activism. I also have been following the discussions and trends around slacktivism/”clicktivism” as Earl and Kimport describe in “Digitally Enabled Social Change” and their “theory 2.0” ideas about how we conceptualize collective identity when dealing with disparate political actors in a digital environment.

These inspirations combined with the last year’s worth of news and events from Occupy and Anonymous and other forms of digital activism, led me to some new questions and ideas. First, is digital activism/hacktivism a collectivizing endeavor? Or is it purely an individualist activity where people wind up working together? As many know, there are difficulties of researching actions and subjects in digital localities. For the past twenty years people have been developing a methodology of netnography, and now we have a trend of combining quantitative analysis with a previously anthropological approach through the use of data mining and fancy coding tools. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do though.

At the New School, there was no shortage of talk about Occupy – there were even hackathons organized for projects geared towards Occupy-related issues. At the urging of my advisor, I started looking at hackathons as field sites where this sort of digital activism happened in a physical space as well, as a sort of hybrid environment where we could do more traditional participant observation into not just the physical space, but also the “information space” – all the cloud and internet based environments where data was being shared, stored, and drawn from to make these projects happen.

I’m really happy to say it was a great experience. I worked with a fellow grad student (Danny Kim) as a research partner and together we did participant observation at three hackathons  – OccupyResearch at CUNY, EcoHack, and Hack N’Jill, all of which had some sort of identifiable pro-social or political agenda or theme. It was great as a pilot study, and I’m eager to get more into the work this spring. Some of the things we discovered felt like new ideas – unless we’re reinventing the wheel, our findings so far helpful to understanding hackathons and their potential for social or political activism.


Participants working at one of the hackathons

The best TL;DR summary I can give is probably this: it seemed as though hackathons are about solving technology problems, rather than social problems. The time/skill-driven agenda really creates a disconnect between any policy issues that the projects are meant to address and focuses participants on rolling them out in a working and deployable format without a lot of concern towards longevity or application. This isn’t always the case, but what we really saw was an environment where people came to casually demonstrate and practice skills with others, to collaborate and learn, and generally have fun doing something they loved doing. I think this is all very different from the action-driven agenda of activism, although the two are not incompatible.

This sort of work will hopefully lead to our bigger questions, about how individual identity informs a group and helps to create a collective identity, and how a collective identity helps to inform the individual on their role within the group, particularly when dealing with horizontal networks of politically motivated individuals facilitated by technology. I believe this is a recursive sort of relationship, and I’d use the drosde effect as an illustration.

I’ve also submitted our abstract for Critical Themes In Media Studies and Theorizing The Web 2013. I’d love to present on this work or find some new opportunities for study. This semester I’ll be making a stronger effort to blog more frequently about updates to this project.

Encouragement for the New Semester

Classes at the New School started again today. Some of my courses will be online this semester, including Projects In Media Advocacy, a practices course which takes us through the process of creating advocacy messages and learning strategies for dealing with news outlets.

Media studies is one of those things which is commonly dismissed by others as a worthless degree, a shortsighted and somewhat arrogant assertion that grows increasingly weak as the influence and pervasiveness media technologies  extends to every part of our life. In going through one of the readings for the advocacy media course, I found great reason for studying media I’d like to share with everyone who doesn’t think media studies is important (admittedly, those people shouldn’t be listened to in the first place, but let’s be kind):

Today, the mass media… are among the most important institutions maintaining, reinforcing, and reproducing existing inequities in power. Since media controls the range of views to which audiences are exposed, media coverage can obscure – and can even reverse- public opinion towards repressive social policies. Mainstream media promote visions of society that endorse the status quo while silencing, marginalizing and/or absorbing alternative and opposition voices. 1

This reason is 20 years old. As we’ve seen media’s democratization and the political implications of participatory culture have global repercussions, media studies should be recognized as one of the most important areas of scholarship and work for today’s world.

1. Ryan, Charlotte. Prime Time Activism. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1991. 7

The Power of Narratives: Can One Story Survive?

This week, I received an invitation to join Cowbird, a fantastic site that defines itself as “a simple tool for telling stories, and a public library of human experience.” On a more basic level one can see it as an “audio-visual diary” of your life, but the site goal is more to catalogue experiential knowledge through a multimodal narrative format that overarches the “sagas” of its users.

Me, photographed by some installation at the Activist Demo Day at Eyebeam last spring.

The first time I remember hearing about Cowbird was during an Occupy-related event at Eyebeam – I was telling a colleague of mine about my interest in these ideological, mythological forms of information embedded in media, what Barthes would have explained as the “third order signification.” This reminded him of Storify, and Cowbird. Storify was popular at the time because of the way that citizen journalists had used it to help craft the narrative of OccupyWallStreet, but I hadn’t heard of Cowbird. Over the past year I checked into the site occasionally, reading stories and enjoying some of the things that had been shared. Continue reading