New Activism Writing Project

Yesterday we go the good news that the book proposal by Nora Madison and myself has been accepted by Rowman and Littlefield’s Resistance Studies series. The working title is “Everyday Activism: Technologies of Resistance” (but this will be changed later) and looks at the ways in which technology assists, mediates, and hampers acts of resistance. Tentatively the book will be published in the end of 2019. We are really excited about this project and happy to be able to focus on a long term project. 

In conjunction with this I shall be using the blog to throw out ideas/updates about the project and generally return to using the blog as a more integral writing tool.


On Academic Productivity

How are some people so very productive in academia? I guess most of us will have a pet theory or too. This post from has a nice list of productive behavior. Lists like this are worth saving an revisiting so thats a good a reason as any to post it here:

  • Team work: Almost every star I’ve asked works in large groups. If you look at the CV’s, they have tons of co-authors.
  • Division of Labor: A lot of them have told me that they are very good at assigning tasks. One of them told me he *never* does fund raising. He works with another prof who in a medical school who has access to funds.
  • Shamelessness: Most academics sulk over rejections. These folks don’t. Soon as a paper gets rejected, they send it out ASAP.
  • Recognizing diminishing marginal returns: A paper will improve between first and second drafts. These folks understand that obsession over the 2oth and 21st version is pointless.
  • Attitude: Sounds corny, but every single one of these folks has an amazing forward looking attitude. They love what they do and they see the future as bright.
  • Minimizing junk work: Some probably shirk teaching or admin work, but what I have observed is that they are ruthlessly efficient. They reuse course materials, borrow syllabi, and use teaching to deepen their knowledge of a topic.
  • Recognizing the randomness of reviews: Most people complain about the randomness of reviewers. The star publishers draw the logical conclusion. If you can get random negatives, you get random positives.So just keep submitting until it you randomly pull positive reviews.

Bottom line: Sure, some people are geniuses, but a lot of productive people simply very good at time management and they don’t let the little things get to them.

The part about junk work is the part I take most issue with. I get that shirking teaching and admin free’s up more time for writing but it also does create a bad sense of faculty and collaboration. It also means that other faculty have to take up the slack. I don’t mean that admin should become or take over your life but that’s a far distance from shirking.

Technologies of Control & Desire Notes

The first class discussion & lecture of the Civic Media course began with the suitably vague title Technologies of Control and Desire. The purpose of this lecture was to introduce technology into the discussion of ethics and communication. The idea was to talk about the ways in which technologies have been seen both as a source of salvation and as a threat to the society in which they are introduced.

Unsurprisingly, in my eagerness I forgot to talk about the first slide which was a advertisement for an early television remote control.

Eugene PolleyOften the invention of the remote control is credited to Eugene Polley (1915 – 2012) it was an invention that had to happen. People didn’t want to have to stand up to change the channel. What we tend not to think about is that the invention of the remote control allowed for many changes. Thousands of channels would not be able to compete or exist without a remote control. Also advertising was forced to adapt once people could effortlessly change channels or lower the volume. Eugene Polley didn’t create the couch potato but he certainly made life easier for this group.

The first section of the presentation was a very, very brief introduction to technology ethics in order to arrive at the discussion of whether we have free choice or not. Are we choosing to do what we do based on ethical decision making? Or maybe on chance? Or maybe something else? What is the role of technology in forming our worlds and “assisting” our choices.

I included a quote from the composer Stravinsky

In America I had arranged with a gramophone firm to make some of my music. This suggested the idea that I should compose something whose length should be determined by the capacity of the record.

This is a nice illustration where art is no longer necessarily a choice of the creator but rather a decision based on technological limitations. Keeping on the theme of technology I also introduced the idea of technology enabling us to act – or to put it more extremely – technology “forcing” us to act.

To illustrate this I showed them the web page for the iPod Classic which has the line “Your top 40 000”. This refers to the capacity of the device to store 40 000 songs. But how would someone go about collecting so much music? Could it be done legally? Or does this tagline implicitly encourage piracy?

From this point I introduced technological determinism and the idea of choice. Without refuting that we always have choice I gave examples of social and technological mass choices that seem to indicate a high level of determinism.

From this position I pointed out that the way in which technology is accepted depends on the way in which we see it either as a threat or a benefit to our lifestyle. Using weird and wonderful advertisements and technical articles from the past I demonstrated a utopian vision where farmers work from home, students learn without reading and asthma is cured with cigarettes.

In order to demonstrate techno-pessimism I used quotes from Plato (against writing), a snippet against books from Johannes Trithemius’ (1494) In Praise of Scribes

The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years.

Referencing social media I pointed at George M Beard’s (1881) concern that newspapers and telegraph create nervous disorders by exposing people to “the sorrows of individuals everywhere”

In closing I reminded the audience of Postman’s comparison between Orwell and Huxley’s visions of the future: Orwell was concerned that we would be oppressed by a technology wielding state. Huxley was concerned that we would all be sucked into the shallow pleasures offered by technology. I pointed out that it has become popular to say Huxley has “won” because social media seems to be people settling for shallow pleasures. However, this is not entirely true and states are increasingly using Orwellian means to control those who would engage in deeper discussions that threaten the state.

I finished off with a short video of Morosov’s work (which can be found online here) and a class discussion. The slides I used for the class are online here


Not a disinterested mind in sight

Joshua Rothman published an article in the New Yorker: Why is Academic Writing so Academic? as this article follows on the heels of the vaguely infamous piece in the Times by Nicholas Kristof “Professors, We Need You!” I was wondering if the whole thing should be seen as an exercise in trolling. In particular when I came across the interesting sentence:

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

Disinterested? Really? Most academics can be called many things but disinterested is not one. I agree with Peter Medawar‘s (Pluto’s Republic, p. 116). description of scientists:

Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.

It is not really possible to define scientists in any easy way. But all scientists are interested in their work, most are passionate, some are obsessive. There are famous arguments and grudge matches in academia to prove the level of intensity scientists feel toward each other. There are levels of passion for theories and objects studied that border on love.

Our published prose strives to be exact and specific but dry language should not be confused with lack of emotion – and definitely not be seen as disinterest.

The abundance of books is distraction

Another package arrives and my first thought is the joy of packages. It’s an conditioned response from decades of birthdays and Christmases. Despite knowing what’s inside there is an element of anticipation when I unwrap yet another book that I could not help ordering. Yupp, another book. The joy of holding the book is only marred by the sinking feeling that I should be writing faster, better and to be blunt about it, more. Just more.

There is a sadness in living in a time when there are enormous amounts of books. Most of the books I buy are second hand copies where the postage costs more than the content. Today the gorgeous On Paper: The Everything of it’s two-thousand-year history by a self-confessed bibliophiliac by the prolific Nicholas Basbanes. Thankfully, in this case, the book cost more than the postage.

Read Books by Wrote. CC BY.

But then I leaf through the book, marveling at all the letter, lines, paragraphs, chapters… The weight in my hand and the need to read it. Now. Read. Now. But, there is a pile of necessary books. All relevant to the project and this is just one of many. Place the book in the already precariously balanced pile and sigh while I think that the abundance of books is distraction.

The only thing that calms me is the thought that these words are neither original nor my own. Seneca wrote that the abundance of books is distraction (distringit librorum multitudo). Getting lost in so many books is unhelpful. Anne Bair quotes his explanation to what he means (in another great book: Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age)

You should always read the standard authors; and when you crave change, fall back upon those whom you read before.

And yet, here I am with another great looking book on my desk. It demands my attention and offers me the chance to procrastinate. Reading is not laziness but research, its not procrastination, it’s preparation. And yet the more I read the less text gets produced.

So I do neither: I blog my dilemma.

New Beginnings

Old blogs die from lack of use and I have ignored my old blog to the edge of total extinction. Many reasons really, changing habits, work, projects and the final nail in the coffin – the transatlantic move.
Here it is.The metaphorical clean slate (Well, not really a clean slate. While I am prepared to delete much of the old site I couldn’t really bring myself to rubbish all my blogging since 2005. So I imported the text and left the rest).
The main focus of this blog will be taking and making notes for my current research and writing on the impact of the ebook on production, distribution and consumption of books.
Naturally, this is a blog and I fully expect it to fill up with several pointless bits of information not relevant to the main project. But that’s the way it is with blogs, they were never meant to be stringent.

Enlightened Frog by Wrote CC BY NC

Everyone (in academia) needs an Acadominatrix

Most researchers love research but finding the time and energy for serious writing is a real problem. We write all the time. But no amount of emails, blogposts and tweets will get you tenure (or whatever the local equivalent).

We complain and dream about having more time. Which is translated into the dream of being showered in research funding. But who has time to write applications we moan collectively. So we struggle and embarrassedly attempt to disguise the wrecks of unfinished texts that litter our careers. Sure money is a problem and time is even more so. But what we really need is self-discipline, the mother of all deadlines, the biggest whip that will crack us into action and keep our cold fingers typing.

Enter the wacky world of AcWriMo with its founder, overenthusiastic cheerleader and residing Acadominatrix Charlotte Frost.

The project is devised around social shaming and a shared support group among suffering equals (more details here) and has six easy steps:

1. Set yourself some crazy goals. My #acwrimo goal: 25000 words in November. Beginning on a book on how technologies (and law and norms) regulate us.
2. Publicly declare your participation and goals. Well I declared it on twitter, this blog and soon on Facebook.
3. Draft a strategy. Is write like the devil is chasing you a strategy? No? well I plan to write 1000 words a day for 25 out of November days. Missing a day will result in needing to write 2000 words the next day. Need to put this in my calendar somehow. Worst case scenario? I will sleep in December.
4. Discuss what you’re doing. The fellow madmen are extremely supportive and funny. Using twitter & facebook to update on work done, goals missed and a lot of information about which tea they are drinking. Writing like this becomes less lonely and talking about the goals gives me a renewed reachable goal each day.
5. Don’t slack off. Major, major problem. The list offers support but sticking with the program is tough. Not to be made easier this year with the release of Assassins Creed III on October 31 (damn you Ubisoft!) Here is where the whip crack of social shaming and the role of resident Acadominatrix, with an ability to crack virtual whips comes in.
6. Publicly declare your results – and please be honest! Win or lose this is the best part. Aside from some academics that seem to have an inhuman ability we are all human and the way forward is to admit that.

So don’t think about it – just do it! This will be my second round and it was lots of fun. I failed miserably for my overambitious goal last year but I still produced a lot of text. Talked a lot more about my research and writing than I normally do and discovered (which I really always knew) that I wasn’t alone.

Advice to a new PhD student 3.0

My friends @benteka and @velkova have just begun their PhD studies so I decided to revamp an old text. Warning: Following advice is like entering into Phd studies. You do it at your own risk.

One: “You changed man!” – Axel Foley. Write down a list of things you want to achieve. Include ideas, expectations, dreams and hopes. Put the list into an envelope and do not open until you are halfway or two-thirds through your Phd period. Most probably you will be cynical and jaded and your advice will sound silly. Take the idealist with you.

Two: “Save it for your blog Howard.” – Leonard Hofstadter. If you have the inclination to blog – then do so. There are loads of arguments for (here) and against (here) academic blogging. Some supervisors see it as a waste of time & energy. Sure focus is good but some reasons against: You will hate your PhD project when you realize that you have no time to explore other cool stuff – blogging is a way to explore that stuff. Second, getting along in academia is all about ranking and impact. Blogging will not make you famous but it will help you push your views across. Finally, any activity which involves the formulation and presentation of ideas is an important activity for a Phd.

Three: “Follow that ostrich!” – Mr Fix. Leave the department. Go international if possible. Departments are microcosms of ideas, beliefs and practices. Reading others is good. Meeting them is better.

Four: “Be nice to people on your way up because you meet them on your way down.” – Jimmy Durante. Be helpful and friendly to your colleagues. I have NEVER understood the competitive side of some PhD students who attempt to suppress others. I will never understand the reason why certain people with PhD’s tend to forget the reality of the situation and bully PhD students. Picking on people who cannot fight back does not mean you are powerful. It means you are a weak human being.

Five: “Humour is also a way of saying something serious.” – T S Eliot. Pick a cartoon. For me the best are XKCD & Piled Higher and Deeper. You will be surprised where inspiration comes from.

Six: “Trust me, Cardiff is the safest place in the world.” – Dr Who. Don’t believe anything anyone tells you about the Phd. It is an experience. You make the experience.

Seven: “Recheck everything, Captain, question everything.” – Vulcan Ambassador Soval. Conducting research means questioning everything. Its like a return to childhood with the endless naive questioning of accepted values.

Eight: “Is it rude to Twitter during sex? To go “omg, omg, wtf, zzz”? Is that rude?” – Robin Williams. Twitter is a brilliant tool. Use it wisely.

Nine: “Who woulda guessed reading and writing would pay off.” – Homer. From the day you begin your PhD work. Write! Reading is important but don’t get stuck there. Don’t wait until you have read “everything” or the next important book before starting. If you do not have text you cannot re-write.

Ten: “Have fun, just don’t have amnesia.” – Samantha. If you do not enjoy what you do your text will reflect this. If your text reflects this then your thesis will not be interesting for the reader. If you do not enjoy what you do how are you ever going to find the energy to read all the texts, discuss them with others, write all your texts and beg others to discuss them with you?

Eleven: Expect procrastination, plan for it and embrace positive procrastination.

Twelve: Avoid the Seven Deadly Sins of Academia

Recommended reading:

You know you’re a Phd student when…

The dangers and joys of Academic Language

Butterworth I did a PhD and did NOT go mad

Matt Might’s The illustrated guide to a PhD

Why is plagiarism wrong?

Plagiarism is fascinating. One of the reasons it holds my interest is trying to figure out why we get so worked up about it. On a basic level there seems to be a connection between creators and their creations, but why is this connection given so much importance?

In recent years a German Defence Minister and a Hungarian President lost their jobs because of scandals surrounding plagiarized PhDs. Surely their jobs had nothing to do with their ability to complete a PhD without plagiarism. They lost their jobs because of the perceived dishonesty plagiarism entails. But politicians are held up to strange standards of behavior.

When the author Helene Hegemann was accused of plagiarizing sections of her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill she countered with: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

There is something interesting with this position – but it would have been stronger if she had put it forward before being found out.

Plagiarism has a strong place within academia but this can be explained by the internal social rules that exist there. Academia is a strange place where science is produced according to an odd set of norms and internal rules that are necessary in that context but are these norms even interesting outside academia?

The academic position on plagiarism is absolute. It is so strong that it is even applied to students in a way that may be harmful to teaching and learning. Here, I do not mean the rare cases where take someone’s work and simply change the name. What I mean here is the case when someone does not adequately use a reference system or when they practice the art of synonyms and re-writing the works of others.

A student work that does not use adequate sources is seen as plagiarism but can consist actually be an example of independent thought. Conversely a work that re-writes and synonymises and references properly is usually not judged as plagiarism – even if it in reality has no independent thought.

The anxiety of the system has led to investments into anti-plagiarism software. But this software does not stop plagiarism. It only teaches students to ensure that they have re-written and referenced enough. The focus is no longer on independent thought but on ensuring deniability and not getting caught.

Ultimately plagiarism and students tends to demand too much of a professionalism of the students and forgets the basic premise that much of learning is derived from copying. Professional academics should still be held to the system of plagiarism today – but should this still apply to students? We need to redefine student plagiarism in some form.