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.

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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.

ecohack12

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

Youth Media and Organizing

I’ve been busy with, what is it, week three? of Youth Right’s Media’s Summer Institute, which has been going really well. Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to lead a workshop in research skills for a group of about twenty six youth. As anyone who’s worked with teenagers knows, the mere mention of the word “research” can cause one’s eyes to glaze over and induce a slumber so severe, you think they’d been doing relay races all day. But the following day, the interns presented a creative media project we had them do to showcase what they’d found out. I was genuinely surprised by the means by which they presented, as well as the depth of work they’d done. All of them used video projects, but they included different techniques found in other PSAs and advocacy shorts. There was an intuitive knowledge gained during the research by seeing other examples, and it translated very well to the youth emulating that type of product and presenting it to each other.

I’ve also been busy writing a working paper for the Berkman Center’s CFP on “Youth Movements for Social Change / Youth Organizations.” I just submitted my work earlier, which I’m proud of because it drew from my experience at YRM and synthesized it with some foundational and cutting edge work on the subject of media literacy and participatory politics. I’m referring to Henry Jenkins’s White Paper from 2006 and Cohen and Kahne’s recently released Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Continue reading

Remember Me: Municipal Memorials Project

Remember Me” was born out of a set of inspirations and conditions that just happened to come together in the right time and place. For a while, I had been interested in Youth Rights Media, a New Haven non-profit that teaches media production and literacy to teenagers in an after-school program. I became involved around the same time that I started exploring the ideas behind civic media and tactical design, and I knew that I wanted to apply those principles to the organization, if possible. For a decade now, Youth Rights Media has been producing documentaries and public service announcements that deal with critical issues relating to urban youth and inner-city problems, such as the “school to prison pipeline,” school dropout rates, or “digital stories” of the youths themselves. At the time of this project, they were working on “Unspoken,” a film dealing with gun violence and the way it effects people whose stories and voices are seldom heard.

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