Firing Racists and Mob Rule

The Internet is a magical wonderful thing that contains both the ugly and beautiful. For some time now I have been struggling with in which of these categories to deposit the Racists Getting Fired mob. Most of the time racists online seem to have the same modus operandi as trolls and haters. They’re ugly and noisy but maybe the best thing to do is to ignore them. You know, don’t feed the trolls. On the other hand there is value in the argument that if nobody speaks up against online racism they may believe there own garbage. They may also be able to grow in their own bubble.

Some online are reacting.

One such group can be seen in examples like the Tumblr Racists Getting Fired which actively posts personal information about racists and contacts their employers with the aim of getting them fired. Most companies seem to reply quickly to these types of complaints to disassociate them from the message their employees are spreading. Some companies have even fired the employees for spreading racist comments online.

I have no sympathy for the racists. But I do have concerns about mob mentality in online environments. A part of me congratulates the civic mindedness of people for not silently ignoring the horrible remarks, while a part of me abhors spreading personal information online. In effect this is doxxing as a punishment for racism and also intentionally trying to get the racist fired.

Will the fired racist change or understand? Will the fired racist be silenced? Does it matter? Isn’t it enough that the racist understands that the world will not silently ignore the vile messages? A recent case was the father whose daughter was bullied and racially taunted. He called the father of the bullies and was himself the receiver of racial abuse. He posted it all online. The bullies’ father was fired from his job.

When social stigma doesn’t work the next step is to cause actual hardship. The racists are wrongdoers and should be penalized but there is something about the process and punishments in these examples that raises concerns.

Screens & Maps: Is seeing believing? Notes on a lecture

The idea behind today’s class was to begin to explore the concept of reality as it is presented via screens. The fact that we believe anything we come across on our screens is really strange when we think about the many, many things that will influence what is presented there.

There are some things that are accepted despite we know them to be false (Columbus discovered America), some things are warped through advertising, some are limited by technology and (theoretically) someone could be manipulating my screen. Not to mention all the false information but out by trolls and jokers online. Despite all this, we have developed an ability to discern truth from fiction online (sometimes it fails).

In order to focus the presentation and to illustrate how falsehoods and politics change the information upon which we build our reality I decided to focus on maps as the example of this presentation. It turned out really well (everyone seemed to enjoy the discussion and minds were blown!).

I began by asking three questions:
Which country has the worlds largest proven oil reserves? Which country has the largest Muslim population? and where is the largest democracy? (Answers: Venezuela, Indonesia, India). The point of these questions were to show that the answers we tend to associate with oil, Muslims and democracy are most probably wrong. To add to this I asked the group to point to the countries on a blank world map.

By establishing that some of the things we “know” about the world are inaccurate I then introduced them to Jerry Botton (author of A History of the World in 12 Maps)

“All cultures produce a world map that puts their own interests and concerns at its heart. Even Ptolemy said any world map must make decisions about what it includes and what it leaves out. Some of those can be sinister decisions, but more often they’re simply practical ones. Do you need to show the North and South poles if you don’t think you’ll ever go there? Probably not.”

1024px-Ptolemy_Cosmographia_1467_-_world_mapPtolemy’s map in a reprint from 1467

The interesting thing is that the map is recognizable. The known world is there. But the middle i.e. the center of power is not what we are used to. Western Europe is in the periphery and the center of the world is focused on Asia. The map is both a representation of what is around us and a representation of what is important to us.

In order to better demonstrate the ways in which representation and politics are connected I showed a picture of the world as represented by the Flat Earth Society

Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim.

Earth’s day and night cycle is explained by positing that the sun and moon are spheres measuring 32 miles (51 kilometers) that move in circles 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the plane of the Earth. (Stars, they say, move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Like spotlights, these celestial spheres illuminate different portions of the planet in a 24-hour cycle. Flat-earthers believe there must also be an invisible “antimoon” that obscures the moon during lunar eclipses.

There are other ways in which the power of representation can be discussed, and in order to get everyone in the discussion mood I showed a series of maps which we briefly commented on:

worldwide_driving_orientation_by_country-1Countries driving on the left or right

paid-maternal-leave-by-countryPaid Maternity Leave

map-of-countires-that-use-metric-system-vs-imperialCountries not using metric system

enhanced-buzz-wide-7224-1361483168-3Google Autocomplete

There are several interesting collections of maps online this and this and this are probably the best.

Following this I handed out a blank map of Europe and asked them to try to identify as many states as they could. Naturally, I apologized for this and reminded them that I could not name most of the American states and that I am easily confused by all the straight lines making up the “square-sies”. This exercise was enjoyed by most and the point was to help them understand that they could identify many of the countries which are of little or no importance to them. This is because we are now still in an Euro-centric world view where many minor European countries are given more attention than several larger countries in the world.

In order to develop the discussion of politics, social equality and maps, I introduced the Mercator Projection and juxtaposed this with the Gall-Peters projection. This can neatly be illustrated by a clip from The West Wing (season 2, episode 16)

Aside from the incredible nerdiness of the fictitious Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality I think the best bit is in the end when the cartographers flip the world upside down and the White House staffer says:

You can’t do that!
Why not?
Because it’s freaking me out.

The map they are looking at at the time is:

map-of-world-upside-down-south-pole-on-topEurope is most definitely in a minor position, in the bottom right corner, and the whole concept of the world is redefined. Sure political power does not follow representation but a world that does this brings much of our per-established norms into question.

Of course today it is not only the political players that get to decide what is up and what is down. Our technology has begun to support (or distort) alternate world views. Take for example the app that is designed to help people avoid “sketchy” neighborhoods. This raises so many questions as to what it means to be a good/bad area and whether or not these apps create the areas they define as bad?
A recent example of the ways in which geography could be used to present a version of reality is the so-called catcalling video. The video purports to show a woman spending 10-hour walk in Manhattan and being harassed by men. The video has been criticized for what it shows – and more importantly – for what it does not show.

“The filmmakers claim to have shot this video while walking the streets of Manhattan for 10 hours, but over half of the shots in the video are actually taken from just one street, namely 125th St. in Harlem. It makes one wonder whether the filmmakers intentionally chose to concentrate their filming on a couple of neighborhoods, or if, out of many locations, these are the only places where harassment occurred.”

In a more practical use of geography I moved on to the way in which political parties to distort representational elections using Gerrymandering. Wikipedia has an interesting illustration for this where we see three districts where the blues are all in the majority. If the districts were allowed to vote in this way then the government would have an all blue politics. However, if the voting districts are redrawn in either of the other examples then we see that the blues are in a majority but the parliament is not without reds.

For the penultimate part of the discussion I wanted to introduce the concepts of nationhood and orientalism. It is sometimes conveniently stated that the nation state was “invented” by the peace of Westphalia and along with this the nation as a special interest group was established. With the nation state came the concept of the continent and the ability to establish a greater level of them and us. Naturally all these things did not simply spring into being but the progression can be said to have been accentuated in this way.

On the invention of Europe and continents in general we had an interesting aside attempting to position in which continent the countries of the Middle East lie. Is Turkey European? Is Israel Asian?

When the nation state was established as a primary organizational form (with rights and duties) it became important to establish what a nation state was. For example today there are around 30-35 million ethnic Kurds. They do not have a nation state and therefore they do not have a voice in international affairs. The Vatican City has a population of around 800 mostly (all) celibate people and they do have a voice (and a vote) in international affairs. So when deciding on conventions on the rights of Women or Children the Vatican gets to vote, but does not reproduce while the Kurds can reproduce but cannot vote.

The creation of nation states is a matter of history and tradition. Therefore despite the noble words of statesmen such as Woodrow Wilson

“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action. . . . ”

the reality is that nationhood is not granted to peoples but, more often than not, to established western nobilities and their allies. An example of this is the Sykes–Picot Agreement where interestingly straight lines were drawn to define French and English spheres of interest over the needs and hopes of the peoples who lived there. Africa is a similar case. The lines drawn by European imperialists are one of the primary reasons for the conflicts that remain in these states.

In a discussion on perspectives and interests I used the example of the Gaza strip to demonstrate how some conflicts are the focus of huge interest “worldwide” (i.e. in the West) while other conflicts are easily and regularly ignored. Who remembers the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh? Or many other conflicts that only appear as brief blips on our media radar (if at all). It surprises many to see the size of the Gaza strip. When superimposed over recognizable cities the impact of this region is understood in a different manner. Examples here.

Naturally this discussion would not be complete without a further discussion on the role of technology.

While the analogue map places us either in the center or in the periphery depending upon where we are from an artificially chosen spot. This spot is usually the space where we are supposed to see the most important place in the region. A digital map, in particular the one in our smartphones, places us in the center of the map. No matter where we are geographically – we have now become the center of the universe.

In order to create this, our technology has worked a great deal with the personalization of technology. The world has to be arrayed around us and according to our needs or interests. We have to recognize that we are in the middle of a filter bubble (Eli Pariser) where the Internet shows us what it thinks that we want to see – not what we need to see. The “it” in the last sentence is naturally the organizers who provide our technology.

So we go back to the words of the people who provide our technology. For example former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt who talks this way about personalization:

“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them”

Or even more strangely from Mark Zuckerberg:

A Squirrel Dying In Your Front Yard May Be More Relevant To Your Interests Right Now Than People Dying In Africa

The people providing the technology are not interested in an objective reality. Since we have created an Internet model where many services are based on marketing which in turn is based on surveillance and giving users incentives to remain online – we have created systems which are not necessarily about objective geographical truths but variations of the same.

In an interesting exchange about geolocation a Google representative is supposed to have explained:

Google Maps search results are based primarily on relevance, distance, and prominence. These factors are combined to help us find the best match for your search. For example, our search technology might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer.

Seriously! Look at that last part again: our search technology might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer.

Geography is not about distance, its about politics and power. And Google just redefined distance to suit its needs.


The slides I used for the presentation are here

Sharing, oversharing and selfies: Notes from a lecture

What are we doing online? How did we become the sharing group that we are today? And what are the implications of this change? These were the questions that we addressed today in class.

Social Media Timline 2014To begin with we began the discussion of what online safety looked like in the early 2000. The basic idea was that you should never put your real name, address, image, age or gender online. Bad things happened if you shared this openly online and the media joyously reported on the horrors of online life.

By the time Facebook came along everything changed. Real names and huge amounts of real information became the norm. Then we got cameras on phones (not an inevitable progression) so when we added smartphones to the mix, sharing exploded.

Sherry Turkle was one of the most prominent researchers involved in the early days of Internet life. In 1995 her book Life on the Screen was optimistic about the potential impact of technology and the way we could live our lives online. Following the development of social media, Turkle published a less positive perspective on technology in 2011 called “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other”. In this work she is more concerned about the negative impact of internet connected mobile digital devices on our lives.

In a discussion of her work I took some key quotes from her Ted Talk on her Alone Together book.

The illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship…

Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved…

I share therefore I am… Before it was; I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it’s; I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text…

If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely

The discussions in class around these quotes were ambivalent. Yes, there was a level of recognition in the ways in which technology was being portrayed but there was also a skepticism about the very negative image of technology.

Then there was the fact, that she mentions in her talk, that she was no longer just a young researcher, she was now the mother of teenagers. She looked at their use of technology and despaired. What did this mean? Was there a growing technophobia coming with age? Was her fear and generalization a nostalgic memory of the past that never was?

The Douglas Adams quote from Salmon of Doubt felt appropriate:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

So is that what’s happening here? Is it just that technology has moved and to a point where the researcher feels they are “against the natural order of things”? A fruitful discussion was had.

From this point we moved the discussion over to the process of sharing. The ways in which – no matter what you think – technology has changed our behavior. One example of this is the way in which we feel the need to document things that happen around us on a level which we were unable to do before.

The key question is whether we are changing, and if so, whether technology is driving this change. Of course all our behavior is not a direct result of our technology. For example the claims that we are stuck in our devices and anti-social can be countered with images such as these

kubrick-subway-newspapersCommuters on trains were rarely sociable and talkative with each other and therefore they needed a distraction. Newspapers were a practical medium at the time and now they are being replaced by other mediums.

However, the key feature about social media may not be what we consume but it’s the fact that we are participating and creating the content (hence the term User generated content).

What we share and how we share has become a huge area of study and parody. The video below is a great example of this. Part of what is interesting is the fact that most who watch it feel a sting of recognition. We are all guilty of sharing in this way.

This sharing has raised concerns about our new lifestyles and where we are headed. One example of this techno-concern (or techno-pessimism) can be seen in the spoken poem Look Up by Gary Turk

Of course this is one point of view and it wouldn’t be social media if this wasn’t met up with another point of view. There are several responses to Look Up, my favorite is “Look Down (Look Up Parody)” by JianHao Tan.

From this point I moved to a discussion on a more specific form of sharing: The Selfie. The first thing to remember is that the selfie is not a new phenomenon. We have been creating selfies since we first learned to paint. Check out the awesome self portrait by Gustave Courbet.

Gustave_Courbet_-_Le_DésespéréBut of course, without our camera phones we would not be able to follow the impulse to photograph ourselves. Without our internet connections we would not have the ability to impulsively share. These things are aided by technology.

The Telegraph has an excellent short video introduction to the selfie and includes some of the most famous/infamous examples

In preparation of this class I had asked the students to email me a selfie (this was voluntary) and at this stage I showed them their own pictures (and my own selfie of course). The purpose of this was to situate the discussion of the selfie in their own images and not in an abstract ideology.

We discussed the idea of a selfie aesthetic the way in which the way in which we take pictures is learned and then we learn what is and is not acceptable to share. All this is a process of socialization into the communication of selfies.

Questions we discussed were:
– Why did you take that image?
– Why did you take it that way?
– Why did you share it?
– What was being communicated?

Then we moved to the limits of selfie sharing. What was permissible and not permissible. Naturally, this is all created and controlled in different social circles. We discussed the belfie as one possible outer limit for permissable communication.

But the belfie could be seen as tame compared to the funeral selfie a subgenre which has its own tumblr.

However, the selfie that sparked the most discussion was the Auschwitz Selfie which created a twitter storm when it was fist posted and continues to raise questions of what can and should be communicated and the manner in which it should be communicated.

The whole “selfie as communication” creates new ways of communication and innovation. One such example is the picture of a group of Brazilian politicians purported to be creating a selfie. brazilian politicians selfieThis is cool because the politicians want to be current and modern and therefore try to do what everyone is doing. They are following the selfie aesthetic which in itself has become a form of accepted communication online.

Here are the slides I used (I have taken out the student selfies)

Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Based in the city of Umeå in Northern Sweden, P. O. Ågren is an interesting thinker who often writes interesting thoughtpieces.  In a recent op-ed explains how social media leads to an increased self-censorship. In this piece he is discussing the PEW report Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Naturally he writes in Swedish but I wanted to take part of the argument and present it here. This is a translation but it isn’t my goal to make it a great translation – for this I apologize in advance. My goal is to capture the idea.

Social Media users tend to have a good idea about which opinions their friends and followers have. It has been shown that the user who holds an opinion that clearly differs from that of his friends and followers tends not to put forward or discuss these ideas.

The more people who disagree with me, the higher the chance that I will censor myself in social media.

The study goes further and shows that this attitude spills over into other arenas and affects our desire to discuss topics outside the web (for example at work or other places). Both Facebook and Twitter users are reluctant to discuss a controversial questions offline if they know that many of their online followers and friends hold a contrary opinion.

The overall results of the study point to the theory of the “the spiral of silence“, a term from the 70s, which entails that we are unwilling to express our opinions if we already believe (or know) that we are in a minority.

The study shows that the spiral of silence is identifiable online, and that it may also lead to an increased self-censorship offline.

A conclusion that may be drawn from this study is that social media does not have good preconditions to contributing to a deliberative democracy. Social technology which restrain rather than promote discussions on politics and society do not lead to an increased democratic participation.

I found several parts of this text interesting and while I have no real beef with the general thrust of the arguments I have questions.

The first question refers to the understanding that we are aware of the opinions of our friends and followers. On one level I would readily agree with this, but at the same time I have to ask: do we really? A couple of points on this: (1) this idea builds on the idea that social media is… well… social. Most interactions on social media are (obviously in my limited experience) not that social. We lurk, we peek, we look at links but do we really discuss?

This is also enhanced by the filter bubble effect (Pariser) where algorithms present us with the “right” information and the “right” friends. The differences are eradicated. When our online friends and followers get to a certain point (Dunbar number, maybe?) people (and opinions) disappear in the crowd.

Then there is the issue of self-censorship. Again I have no issue with the spiral of silence theory. But I think something is missing. For me, it isn’t enough to talk about people self-censoring online because they are in a minority online. There needs to be another element. What’s missing is power.

The online world is filled with countless examples of people behaving badly. People online being openly racist, misogynistic, antagonistic, impolite and downright threatening. Many of these examples are not voices from behind a veil of anonymity but openly and frighteningly from easily discoverable identities. Some are trolls, doing it for the lulz, but many are sincerely and openly assholes.

Of course the theory of groupthink is a good one. We shut up for fear of making waves. This self-censorship is worrisome because, as PO argues, it does little to support the development of democracy. When we recognize we must be far less optimistic about the role that technology (in particular social media) plays in the political debate.

However, the self-censorship in the spiral of silence theory may have been a trait among users before social media. Added to this is the problem of power relationships. If we fear social, economic, political or other reprisals censorship may be a virtue. This is obviously the same as saying the cowardice is a virtue. But don’t lets forget the Steven Salaita affair. Would you tweet openly in a similar position today?

Those who can be hurt avoid being punished, those who feel impervious tweet to an obnoxious degree. The former isn’t cowardice and the latter isn’t bravery.

Public/Private Spaces: Notes on a lecture

The class today was entitled Public/Private Spaces: Pulling things together, and had the idea of summing up the physical city part of the Civic Media course.

But before we could even go forward I needed to add an update to the earlier lectures on racial segregation. The article The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black is fascinating and not a little sad because of its implications.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black. Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

The actual beginning of class was a response to the students assignment to present three arguments for and three arguments against the Internet as a Human Right. In order to locate the discussion in the context of human rights I spoke of Athenian democracy and the death of Socrates, and the progression from natural rights to convention based rights. The purpose was both to show some progression in rights development – but also to show that rights are not linear and indeed contain exceptions from those the words imply. The American Declaration of Independence (1776) talks of all men

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

but we know that this was not true. Athenian democracy included “all” people with the exception of slaves, foreigners and women. So we must see rights for what they are without mythologizing their power.

In addition they cannot seen in isolation. For example the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) came as a result of the French Revolution include many ideas that appear in similar rights documents

  • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
  • Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.
  • Law is the expression of the general will
  • No punishment without law
  • Presumtion of innocence
  • Free opinions, speech & communication

The similarities are unsurprising as they emerge from international discussions on the value of individuals and a new level of thought appearing about where political power should lie.

The discussion then moved to the concept of free speech and the modern day attempts to limit speech by using the concept of civility, and interesting example of this is explained in the article Free speech, ‘civility,’ and how universities are getting them mixed up

When someone in power praises the principle of free speech, it’s wise to be on the lookout for weasel words. The phrase “I favor constructive criticism,” is weaseling. So is, “You can express your views as long as they’re respectful.” In those examples, “constructive” and “respectful” are modifiers concealing that the speaker really doesn’t favor free speech at all.

Free speech is there to protect speech we do not like to hear. We do not need protection from the nice things in life. Offending people may be a bi-product of free speech, but a bi-product that we must accept if we are to support free speech. Stephen Fry states it wonderfully:

fryAt this point we returned to the discussion of private/public spaces in the city and how these may be used. We have up until this point covered many of the major points and now it was time to move on to the more vague uses. Using Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance by John Parkinson we can define public as

1.Freely accessible places where ‘everything that happens can be observed by anyone’, where strangers are encountered whether one wants to or not, because everyone has free right of entry

2.Places where the spotlight of ‘publicity’ shines, and so might not just be public squares and market places, but political debating chambers where the right of physical access is limited but informational access is not.

3.‘common goods’ like clean air and water, public transport, and so on; as well as more particular concerns like crime or the raising of children that vary in their content over time and space, depending on the current state of a particular society’s value judgments.

4.Things which are owned by the state or the people in and paid for out of collective resources like taxes: government buildings, national parks in most countries, military bases and equipment, and so on.

and we can define private as:

1.Places that are not freely accessible, and have controllers who limit access to or use of that space.

2.Things that primarily concern individuals and not collectives

3.Things and places that are individually owned, including things that are cognitively ‘our own’, like our thoughts, goals, emotions, spirituality, preferences, and so on

In the discussion of Spaces we needed to get into the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) which states that individuals all act out of self-interest and any space that isn’t regulated through private property is lost forever. This ideology has grown to mythological proportions and it was very nice to be able to use Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom to critique it:

The lack of human element in the economists assumptions are glaring but still the myth persists that common goods are not possible to sustain and that government regulation will fail. All that remains is private property. In order to have a more interesting discussion on common goods I introduced David Bollier

A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise

We will be getting back to his work later in the course.

In closing I wanted to continue the problematizing the public/private discussion – in particular the concepts of private spaces in public and public spaces in private. In order to illustrate this we looked at these photos:


Just a Kiss by Shutterpal CC BY NC SA

The outdoor kiss is an intensely private moment and it has at different times and places been regulated in different manners. The use of headphones and dark glasses is also a way in which private space can be enhanced in public. These spaces are all around us and form a kind of privacy in public.

The study of these spaces is known as Proxemics: the study of nonverbal communication which Wikipedia defines as:

Prominent other subcategories include haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time). Proxemics can be defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture”. Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who coined the term in 1963, emphasized the impact of proxemic behavior (the use of space) on interpersonal communication. Hall believed that the value in studying proxemics comes from its applicability in evaluating not only the way people interact with others in daily life, but also “the organization of space in [their] houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of [their] towns.

The discussions we have been having thus far have been about cities and the access and use of cities. How control has come about and who has the ability and power to input and change things in the city. Basically the “correct” and “incorrect” use of the technology. Since we are moving on to the public/private abilities inside our technology I wanted to show that we are more and more creating private bubbles in public via technology (our headphones and screens for example) and also bringing the public domain into our own spaces via, for example, Facebook and social networking.

We ended the class with a discussion on whether Facebook is a public or private space? If it is a private space what does it mean in relation to law enforcement and governmental bodies? If it is a public space when is it too far to stalk people? And finally what is the responsibility of the platform provider in relation to the digital space as public or private space?

here are the slides I used:

Design and Access to the City: Notes on a lecture

What is a city? Who gets to decide how it should be used and by which groups? In order to address this I began with two examples intended to demonstrate the conflict. I purposely chose not to use large scale examples.

The first example was in 2009 when the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr was arrested for breaking into his own home. Despite being able to identify himself and that it was his own address the police “…arrested, handcuffed and banged in a cell for four hours arguably the most highly respected scholar of black history in America.”

The second example was Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker being accused of shoplifting and patted down by an overzealous employee at the Milano Market on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. This latter example is interesting because the market apologized and said of the employee: “He’s a decent man, I’m sure he didn’t mean any by wrong doing, he was just doing his job” “a sincere mistake”. An interesting thing about this is that if you search the term “Forest Whitaker deli” most of the hits are for the apology and not for the action itself.

These two minor events would never had come to the attention of anyone unless they had happened to celebrities with the power to become part of the news. They demonstrate that even among sincere well meaning people there are groups thought to have less access to the city.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent op-ed called The Good, Racist People , which he ends writing about the deli:

The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.

And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.

Following this introduction the lecture moved on to demonstrate the power of maps. I began with a description of the events leading up to Dr John Snow identifying the Broad Street Pump as the cause for the Soho Cholera outbreak of 1854.

Dr Snow did not believe in the miasma (bad air) theory as the cause of cholera and in order to prove that the cause was connected to the public water pump on broad street he began mapping out the cholera victims on a map. They formed a cluster around the pump.

pumpWith the help of this illustration he was able to show that the disease was local and get the pump handle removed. The cholera cases decreased rapidly from that point.

The immediate cause of the outbreak was the introduction of human waste into the water system – most probably from a mother washing an infected child’s diapers. But the fundamental reason for the huge death count was the lack of sewer and sanitation systems in this poorer area of the city. By insisting on the miasma theory the city could claim to be free from responsibility.

In the following part of the lecture I wanted to discuss how cities can maintain segregation and inequality of services despite the ways in which the rules are presented as fair and non-biased. In order to do this I used a list of maps demonstrating cities segregation by race and ethnicity created by Eric Fischer.

One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other. Images are licensed CC BY SA. There are several maps of interest and they are well worth studying. Here I will only present Philadelphia and Chicago:

Chicago: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

Chicago: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

Philadelphia: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

Philadelphia: One dot for each 500 residents. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other.

As we are in Philadelphia I also included a map of household income (Demographics of Philadelphia)

 Median household income in Center City and surrounding sections, 2000 Census.

Median household income in Center City and surrounding sections, 2000 Census.

At this point I moved the discussion to the distinction between public and private spaces. I used definitions of these from Wikipedia

A public space is a social space that is generally open and accessible to people. Roads (including the pavement), public squares, parks and beaches are typically considered public space.

To a limited extent, government buildings which are open to the public, such as public libraries are public spaces, although they tend to have restricted areas and greater limits upon use.

Although not considered public space, privately owned buildings or property visible from sidewalks and public thoroughfares may affect the public visual landscape, for example, by outdoor advertising.

As the distinctions between private/public will be discussed in depth in a future lecture I left this as a relatively vague discussion and went into the problems of two of our rights as practiced in the “public space”

Free Speech: Not wanting to delve into the theory of this fascinating space I jumped straight into the heart of the discussion with a quote from Salman Rushdie: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist” The point being that we don’t need protection to conform but we do need it to evolve. 

For this lecture I brought up outdoor advertising. This is an activity which is globally dominated by one corporation: The Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings is probably the biggest controller of outdoor communication in the world. They have the ability to decide which messages are transmitted and which are not. They have accepted advertising for fashion brands which transmit harmful body images and even brands which have been accused of glorifying gang rape. For a look at this disturbing trend in advertising see 15 Recent Ads That Glorify Sexual Violence Against Women.

The messages being pushed out on billboards can arguably seen as a one-sided participation of the public debate. Changing messages (adbusting) or even correcting willfully false information on billboards is seen as vandalism. As a demonstration that something can be done I showed a clip of a report about the clean city law, where the city of Sao Paulo has forbidden outdoor advertising.

However, when Baltimore in 2013 attempted to introduce a billboard tax Clear Channel Outdoor argued that billboards should be protected as free speech by the First Amendment and this tax would therefore be a limitation of the corporations human rights.

In order to demonstrate the right of assembly I used the demonstrations at Wall Street where the desire to protest was supported (in theory) by Mayor Bloomberg

“people have a right to protest, and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it.”

Despite this sentiment the parks of New York close (even the ones without gates) at dusk or 1 am. This prevents demonstrators staying overnight. In order to circumvent this and continue the protests the demonstrators went to the privately owned Zuccotti Park where they could stay overnight. Eventually the protestors where dispersed when it was argued that the conditions were unsanitary.

Health hazard! by Seema Krishnakumar CC by nc sa

Health hazard! by Seema Krishnakumar CC by nc sa

The slides I used are here:


Mute teenagers, technophobes & art of conversation

Ever since the first cell phones began appearing there has been a grumbling of annoyance. You would think it would subside but nope. In a BBC article yesterday Sherry Turkle is referenced:

People such as psychologist and professor Sherry Turkle warn that we’re in danger of losing the power of speech as we once understood it.

Apparently our smartphones have struck us dumb or mute or something. Turkle brings the classical cry of: Won’t someone think of the children! She argues that they are suffering from Psychological lockjaw.

Seriously this romanticizing of the past through the lenses of technophobia has to stop! Turkle who was once the leading proponent of: everything will be alright once we are online has now become a parent and thinks that her children don’t communicate enough. That their phones are all they stare at – therefore we must be witnessing the death of conversation.

The non-communicative teen is a staple of western culture and definitely predates any mobile technology. Looking around and seeing people happily communicating with devices scare people who are not communicating with devices. It’s not the teens that are losing conversation (they are hugely social and can both talk and text) it’s the lonely who would prefer that everyone was like them that wax lyrical about the past when everyone was joyful without technology.

The composer John Sousa was so annoyed by recorded music that in a submission to a congressional hearing in 1906, he argued:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

Our technology has changed the way in which we do things but it does not create change in the way that the technophobes argue. Teens (who are actually normal people, not some weird subclass) have long and heated conversations without devices – but only when it suits them. Just like adults.

Don’t romanticize the past…

newspapers iphones

Theorizing the Web

Hundreds of smart, stylish and intelligent people met in Brooklyn for two days in April. But this wasn’t just a hipster meetup in Williamsburg it was the venue for the refreshingly interesting Theorizing the Web conference.

Conference in New York

Setting the conference in a studio was a fun idea. The space was made up of large, mostly white, rooms and were a fun backdrop for the creative lineup of speakers all exploring the many exciting things the web have brought our society.

With three parallel sessions going on at all times and a very active twitter back channel the experience is exciting and intense. And unfortunately this also leaves the visitor with the experience that there was so much happening elsewhere. The good news is that everyone gains their own personal conference experience.

Some of the highlights of my conference were @the_log_lady on the poetics of image search, @OddLetters brilliant analysis of the gay girl in Damascus, @AnneLBurns on disciplining the duckface, @mathuclair provoking thoughts on neoliberalism and digital technology, and @hegemonyrules on assholes on reddit.

Now that I look through the program I realize how much I missed and how much more I would have loved to see. The joy of the conference however is the chance to participate, present (I spoke about the impact of e-books on culture) and to talk to smart people with a burning interest for the was in which the web is changing our lives.

Thankfully the sessions were both livestreamed and recorded and can still be accessed here.

Social Silence: Lurking as a form of society

While listening to The Digital Human episode Whispers the presenter Alex Krotoski (aleksk) pointed to a very central way of understanding social media:

In many ways the online world is like a video game. Everything you put out comes with its own scoring system. Tweets are counted by re-tweets and favorites, stories are scored by page views and Facebook likes. Writers reach and influence is visible in its number of followers and the number of influencers who subscribe to his or her feed.

it becomes a competition to see who can get this positive feedback from the community. and people do this by trawling the web for evidence and being the first to publish. To be silent is to lose points, to be re-tweeted is to regain them. The system encourages you to keep feeding the machine…

Naturally, this is a way to understand the online world. In particular it has become a trope of social media that we are talking in order to be constantly re-affirmed by others who are constantly talking. Noise begets noise.

The problem with this view of social media is that it is the view from the top. In reality it does not take into consideration the ways in which most users actually use social media.

Most users on twitter do not have thousands of followers, many do not even tweet. Like most of us, at most parties, they tend to listen to others more than speaking themselves. But in the collective babble of noise it is taken for granted that all we want to do is to make ourselves heard and to make others admire the noise we make.

The same is true on Facebook. There are users with friends numbering in the thousands, who cannot pass by a meal without documenting it. But most are silent users who like often and post occasionally.

The social part of social media does not have to mean that those who are silent are losing. We are social even when we are silent.

For more on this topic I recommend Susan Cain’s book on introverts. An elegant puff for the book is her TED talk: Susan Cain: The power of introverts

In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But, as Susan Cain argues in this passionate talk, introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated.

Nobody Cites Your Work: Notes from a lecture

Yesterday I was invited to give a talk at the Drexel University Library and in a fit of hubris I decided to attack a problem that many of us in academia face: how to interact with society, engage your students, get your papers read, not become an “empty” entertainer, while avoiding burnout and staying happy… The actual title to the talk was slightly less ambitious but maybe a bit of a downer: “Nobody cites your work: copyright licensing and public engagement”

These are questions which have long been close to my heart but it was great to be given the opportunity to be able to share my thoughts about what we should or could be doing about this. The presentation began with me explaining that there will be no easy answer to all the questions I pose but that we as a community of academics must continue to raise awareness in these issues in order not to be overcome with them. So the talk would really present some issues, solutions, and a critique.

The issues I wanted to address were interaction, students, being ignored, and edutainment.

Interaction: The was a response to the recent critique by Nicholas Kristof Academics, We need you! in which he wrote

“If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

and the article by Joshua Rothman Why is academic writing so academic? in which he wrote

“Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds”

There have been much written about these two articles and suffice to say that there is a perception problem when the hoards of engaged and enthusiastic academics that I know and work with are being portrayed as dated, distant, and disinterested. I’ve written more on this earlier here and the links are rewarding.  The difference between perception and reality is what makes this a real problem.

Students: Many of our students are as young as 18 years old. This means that they were 8 years old when Facebook emerged. They have been online, using technology, and being shaped by digital technology for all of their lives. In order to communicate meaningfully to them we must be prepared to both demand that they struggle but simultaneously understand that they are shaped by the environment. A quote by Missy Cummings puts this into perspective (BBC The Why Factor: Boredom):

“We’d be lucky today if they had a 20-30 minute attention span, now its more like 5-10, because if their minds wander they immediately go to another information seeking routine like their cell phones… Like it or not this is the new norm.“

Yes of course we can be upset about this development. But more importantly we must accept this development to be part of the reality of teaching today.

Being ignored:This is the incredibly disheartening realization that lies at the heart of academic publishing. Lokman I Meho The Rise and Rise of Citation Analysis

“It is a sobering fact that some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited. Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.”

Between the amount of time academics spend on unsuccessful grant applications and creating articles which are unread it is difficult not to throw ones arms up in the air and scream in frustration.

Edutainment: This is the unreasonable expectation that learning should be fun. Of course learning can be fun. But actually learning the basics of something is a challenge and the pride one feels after mastering something comes as a result of the effort it takes. If it’s all fun then maybe it’s not really effort? The problem that education should be fun is partly caused by the snappy lectures presented in short pithy formats like the TED’s. The TED isn’t about basic education. It’s about small ideas with personal experiences and easy to swallow segments. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language, programming or the finer details of procurement law in TED talks! Unfortunately the talks have sometimes been presented as the future of education. For more on TED’s negative effects and sources to its critics see The Cult of TED harms lectures.

Following a presentation of the issues I wanted to address some of the solutions being put forward social media, open access, and licensing. These were presented with the understanding that taken as general one-size-fits-all solutions they are not particularly usable. The reason for presenting this set of “solutions” was also to enable the discussion on the shallow critics which have been particularly vocal in a couple of articles in The Scholarly Kitchen. First there was CC-BY, Copyright, and Stolen Advocacy and then there was Does Creative Commons Make Sense? these articles were critiqued in the comments but they still stand as a voices of criticism. In particular the latter article attempts to argue that CC is unimportant because copyright law exists. Sad statement, a rebuttal could fill several books… oh, wait it they already exist.

As a slight aside, as I couldn’t resist pointing it out, the existence of law does not in itself protect the individual. I told the audience of the situation where Lawerence Lessig (copyright professor and activist and founder of CC) was sued for posting a lecture online. He argued fair use and eventually won his case. But would many professors have the knowledge, tenacity and support to fight in cases such as these?

Following this I presented a quick intro to Creative Commons licensing including a small description into the progression from version 1 to the current version 4 of the licenses. Then I moved on the lecture to the analysis. Does social media and lowering barriers work and if so how and how much?

The material I presented was a mix of cases with the efficiency of open access and open content licensing in making material available to larger groups of people. These systems also have the ability to make material available to groups who would not have access through the channels we as academics take for granted. When I came to the discussion on whether or not open access helps I used this article Open Access increases citation? A brief overview of two reports

Two different methods and two different results. Which one is more accurate? It is hard to determine. Open Access is not a panacea for all problems. It does not automatically increase the level of citations. But, without doubt, it helps when it comes to getting more visibility, which obviously is of a great advantage for the articles and their authors. There are other factors in play which shape the level of citations for specific paper; for example the Impact Factor of journal,  promotion efforts of publisher and author himself, the chosen subject and field of research, as well as an extended reference list at the end of a research paper. All these factors may have impact on citations level. But all in all, almost all studies into this subject confirm –  direct or indirect –  positive impact of Open Access on level of citations.

The result of everything? Lowering barriers helps academics, social media can increase range. All must be used with knowledge and caution in order not to become worthless and we need to be knowledgeable about our realities in order to carry out a well informed discussion. Now, find your comfort level & share your work!

Here are the slides I used: