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

Critical Themes In Media Studies 2013

I had my first conference presentation today, at The New School’s Critical Themes In Media Studies annual grad student conference. There was a lot of great speakers and topics in the program, and from what I understand there should be some video of them up online at some point.


I got to hear another panel and a half speak before I had to get ready for the panel I was presenting in – probably my favorite thing I heard during the conference was Mateusz Halawa’s work on “Lifelogging: A Technology of the Self.” Halawa identified the sort of archival work that we do with social media, creating assemblages of meaning out of an otherwise meaningless datastream, as a “technology of the self” as described by Foucault. I’m actually not familiar with this term or idea, so I’m eager to look into it myself.

My presentation was a recap of the pilot work I did with Danny Kim on hackathons and collective identity, but I was able to incorporate some of the ideas that I’ve been drawing from as I’ve expanded it into thesis work. Namely, more Castells, some Galloway, and especially Christopher Kelty’s ideas on recursive publics, which I can’t believe I didn’t know about. My second reader brought it up to me in a review meeting a few weeks ago (I was meaning to post about that, but I’ve been crazy busy as I’ve been revising the proposal).

It was interesting to see the way other presenters on the panel viewed publics – our respondent, Edward Byfield, felt this was the underlying theme that connected our works. The other panelists’s projects were “Digital Uncanniness: Art from Google Street View,”“Flash Mobs: Seizing Space “In A Flash” with Digital Technology,” and “The socio-politics of virtual private networks” which mainly focused on the Iranian intranet and use of VPN’s to overcome censorship. I argued that the public is becoming more public by conceptualizing it as “nested publics” of counterpublics (Nancy Fraser) and private publics (Papacharissi) which overlap and bump up against each other.

On that note, I’ll be talking about public/private identity and these virtual communities at Media in Transition 8 in May! Two conferences in a month… at least my thesis proposal is virtually done.

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

The Critical Theory of Amusements

Last Thursday I went with Youth Rights Media to Lake Compounce, an amusement park in Connecticut – we took the youth there to close out the Summer Institute program.

I have never cared for amusement parks. Everything about them bothers me – the giant parking lots, the lines, the prices, food stands. On top of that, I don’t like the rides themselves. All the feelings of anxiety, excitement, and g-force pressure just don’t make me happy! Perhaps this makes me stuffy. I’ve just never been able to understand why so many people enjoy theme parks, and this is similar to my feelings about sports, pop music,  most television and blockbuster films.

Scholars have found rationale for critiquing these institutions in ways that range from “very stuffy fuddy-duddy” to “brilliant and insightful” that appeal to the like minded, but tend to be ignored by the public. I actually used Noam Chomsky‘s argument about sports being “training in irrational jingoism” to bash the athletic programs at the university where I got my BA. But these sorts of arguments stem from the influence of critical theory. Amusement parks themselves seem to be an embodiment of Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of culture industry, or maybe they just strike me that way as someone who doesn’t like roller coasters.

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

Prometheus and Post-Humans

I saw Ridley Scott’s Prometheus with my wife this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to it for awhile, simply because the motion picture industry rarely puts out any decent science fiction. Space/the future as a narrative playground has been crowded out by fantasy films, comic book super hero stories, and horror about the undead. I understand there are those don’t who want scifi to be a limited term that only regards rockets and robots, but the death of Ray Bradbury underlines the way scifi has changed. Writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison wrote stories that were more than the technological fantasy of Issac Asimov or Robert Forward – they were future ethics, stories about how technology introduced changes in society that demanded new moral structures and behaviors to deal with the transformations we were/are facing.

The closest we come to this type of story is when we recycle something by Dick (one of the trailers we saw involved another adaptation/remake of Total Recall) or if someone courageous writes a paper-thin metaphor with some scifi element as a stand in for a current social issue. But this isn’t one person’s fault. Prometheus itself reinforces the truth that “you can’t please everybody so you’ve got to please yourself.” Studios and directors try way to hard to write films for a mass audience, and the films are inferior for it. Inferior is relative here; we’re talking about the difference between a good movie and a film that is good. If we subscribe to auteur theory for a second, Ridley Scott gave us a good film in 1982 with Blade Runner – which was duly nominated for two Academy Awards.  Much of the rest of his work has been to make good movies – including 2000’s Gladiator (which was nominated for 12 awards and received 5). The awards themselves reflect the culture industry’s praise for acceptable levels of mediocrity – if you make a bad movie, nobody would ever give you one. If you make a great film, no one can give you one. Great films alienate as many people as they attract. The mediocrity threshold is demonstrated by Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it’s hopeless follower, Crazy Heart. Prometheus works very hard to be a solidly good movie, which means it had no hopes of being great.

The rest of my analysis has spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing. Continue reading

Summertime, Scrapy and Civic Media

When a semester finishes, there are really two options:

  1. Act like you’re a kid and enjoy three months of slip-‘n-slides, riding bikes, slumber parties, junk food and TV.
  2. Keep working.

As tempting as that first option is, after you finish grade school, it’s not very feasible. If you’re a teacher, you have to prepare for the next semester, writing syllabi, class plans, course outlines, and taking the time to pursue studies in the field you chose (if you’re into that sort of thing). If you’re an undergrad, you probably have to get a job, but you might do an internship. And if you’re a grad student like me, you continue the awkward shuffle of “extremely-busy-yet-seemingly-lazy.” You have to plan for your thesis. There is always research to do. If you’re motivated, you could think about conferences and submitting papers or abstracts. And the amount of reading material available to self-starters never ends – presumably you know of Negri and Hardt’s Empire, yes? did you know it’s the first part of a trilogy? You’d better get cracking!

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.

Continue reading