on sport, women, academia, access, & daily affirmation

Thank you, sincerely, to Erin Wunker and Hook and Eye for giving me this opportunity to write out how much sport has meant to me over the years, as both a woman and an academic. 

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I thought I was going to use this much appreciated opportunity to write out some kind of overarching argument for the importance of the intersection between athletics and academics, particularly for women. But as I’ve thought about this issue over the last month, it turns out I can’t in good conscience make this argument at all as women still, by far, undertake the majority of both service work in the university workplace and caretaking at home, a dreary and undebatable fact that means I’d be truly wrapped up in my own privilege if I were to say, “hey all you women, you really need to try training for something on top of all the other duties and responsibilities and drains on your time! I mean, it’s really great and you’ll feel good about yourself!” It is great. And it does make you feel good about yourself. But the time I’ve spent as a competitive cyclist and now runner/occasional triathlete have shown me how the barriers to participation, let alone access, are still very high. I’ll return to this point toward the end of my post but to explain how I’ve come to this point, I’m afraid I need to indulge in some autobiography about my history as an athlete.

I’ve always been active and in love with running around and doing things, whether kicking or catching a ball, riding my bike on dirt or on roads, running around a track, or running on trails. But I always did these activities without any support network, with no understanding of training or technique or even nutrition, and – with the exception women like Missy Giove that I’d see in glossy magazines – with almost no role models. This isn’t surprising considering I grew up in the 70s and 80s, on what was then the isolated world of Vancouver Island. Still, I had this lurking belief I could be good at sport – that I was capable and strong, even if there was no real evidence for this belief.

Maybe it’s no coincidence my history as an academic followed a similar path, guided by my belief that maybe I could do this thing even if no one else around me thought one way or the other. So, after a few nerve-wracking years as a perpetually insecure, workaholic PhD student, I decided I’d try to build up my self-confidence from having almost none to, hopefully, at least having some. I started by coming up with an arbitrary amount of body fat I wanted to get down to at the local gym (incredibly, my personal life remained completely divorced from the work by Susan Bordo I was teaching at the same time), moved on to trying to do a sprint triathlon, and then – when we moved to Boulder, Colorado – trying what was for me the most intimidating of all: road bike racing.

I threw myself into training and racing road bikes for five years and, for those years, the sport gave me everything I was missing in the academic workplace. I wanted community, friends and connection and I found these things in spades, especially as a beginning Cat 4 racer. These women I trained and raced with, week in and week out for months at a time, were incredible – we pushed each other harder than we thought was possible; we learned together; we cheered each other on; we suffered together. It was a remarkable experience, especially compared to the profoundly isolationist and individualistic culture of academia. Those years racing and training also made me a more interesting person, one who became capable of talking with lawyers, accountants, physiotherapists, marketing managers, and sales associates. Not only did I learn about and engage with communities outside of academia but I also developed a more expanded sense of where exactly I stood in relation to my local and global community. It’s such an obvious revelation, that existing only in a university environment makes one uni-dimensional. It’s also obvious one cannot and should not work as many hours a day and days a week as one can hack. But somehow, academia – largely made up of type-A personalities who cannot stop striving seven days a week because of the lack of clear work-life boundaries – makes access to these obvious revelations very difficult.

I quit training and racing road bikes a couple years ago when I realized I’d achieved the goal I’d set out for myself (all I wanted was to become a Cat 2 racer, because somehow, narrowly, I thought that would mean I could finally tell myself I was “good” at this sport) and I was finding the 15 hours of training a week onerous rather than empowering. But still, the act of training taught me one lesson in particular that still hasn’t left me: the value of having clear and bounded goals coupled with an acceptance of what I have today, who I am today, instead of who I could be or would like to be or should be. Instead of the quiet but ever-present pressure in academia to continually work and produce, without rest and very often without end and without any clear indication of success (when is our work ever done? If you work for five years or longer to write a book and then wait a year and a half, sometimes two years, for the book to come out and be read by so few people, where is the triumph?), bike training presented me with the daily challenge to complete this set task, in this particular manner, in this set amount of time. Daily I’d ask myself, “Can I do this thing? Even though I’m tired? Even though I don’t feel great and even though I don’t have a lot of time? Can I push my body that hard? Can I finish the workout?” And very often the answer turned out to be “Yes, I can show up only with what I have to give today and yes, I can do this thing!” Eventually, the tiny, daily acknowledgements of what I had to give, given the circumstances of the day, turned into tiny, daily triumphs and then these triumphs came to influence both the way I go about my work as an academic and the way I think about my worth. Eventually, I came to ask myself, “Can I write 500 words today? Can I teach my classes with the knowledge and the energy I have today, rather than what I would like to have? Can I do this work in this two hours I have, before I spend time with my husband or my friends, rather than the eight hours I wish I had?”

All I have to offer here are my personal revelations about why my personal and professional life would be so much less if it weren’t for sport. I especially can only speak for myself here, as I’m reminded of the day I showed up for my first cat 2 race and I saw only women who were either professional bike racers or women who were retired or women whose children were now in college or women who were fortunate enough not to have to work at all. It’s a tremendous privilege to have the time and the resources I have to train, to hire a coach, to travel to races, to set goal race times and so on. I know countless women who are tremendously gifted athletes but who cannot possibly add training to their already nearly impossible schedules involving work, committee meetings, student supervision/mentoring, not to mention their own childcare and housework responsibilities. I only wish we could find a way not so much to say, “You can do it! You can train for that event and compete in that race!” but rather, “We value your health, happiness, and sense of well-being! We support a shorter work week and after-school child care! We support a more even distribution of childcare and service responsibilities across genders!” Then imagine what women could accomplish.

 

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workshop // Othernet, Alternet, Darknet

Once more, thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you about “Other Networks” and give a workshop on “Othernet, Alternet, Darknet // the Past, Present, and Future of Alternate Networks.” In preparation for today’s workshop I suggested you read “Against the Frictionless Interface! An Interview with Lori Emerson” and “What’s Wrong With the Internet & How to Fix It: An Interview with John Day.”

Before I build on these readings with a more extensive discussion of TCP/IP, I would like to discuss what it currently means to be on the Internet for many people and then show you a couple tools that make it alarmingly clear the way in which profit and capital saturates every single one of our clicks online. To that end, I’d like you to download a couple revealing extensions to your Chrome browser and/or an add-on to your Firefox browser to clearly visualize what’s happening when you’re on the web ; I use both browsers so I encourage you to download both but it’s also fine if you just want to play with one

  • open up Firefox and install Lightbeam – an add-on that “shines a light on who’s watching you” by way of interactive visualizations that show you the first and third party sites you’re often unwittingly interacting with on the web
  • now open up Chrome and install Disconnect – a browser extension that stops major third parties from tracking the webpages you go to
  • have any of you used these tools before? anything revealing or surprising?

Now I’d like to talk about alternatives to the current structure of the Internet, beginning with a brief overview of how TCP/IP itself could have been different (picking up the interview with John Day), leading to a different present-day Internet, and then moving on to contemporary projects and platforms you might use to get off or disrupt the Internet. I will touch on the following:

  • how thinking about the past and present of networks could be a way to imagine the future of our connected lives
  • how excavating the knowledge/power structures underlying TCP/IP can denaturalize that monolith “the Internet” and help us think about how the Internet could be otherwise. In particular, I discussed:
    • how TCP/IP was created to benefit the free market, not necessarily to exemplify democratic ideals of freedom and openness
    • the result of intense, complex political wrangling between communities of engineers, industry workers, and representatives who were almost uniformly white, middle class men often from the same school or neighborhood
    • how the protocol is based on concepts of blackboxing and layering taken from the design of operating systems rather than networks
    • how there were and still are alternatives to TCP/IP such as RINA that could potentially make the Internet work better than it currently does

figure2

With this groundwork, I would like to use the rest of the workshop to think as expansively, broadly, and imaginatively about what an alternative Internet might look like – one that we built ourselves, imagining for the moment that we can build whatever structure we dream up.  Here, then, are some contemporary examples of Other Networks I would like you to explore and/or experiment with:

  • Netless, created by Danja Vasiliev
  • Alternet, created by Sarah T. Gold
  • Firechat, created by Open Garden
    • create an account, see if you can find the #OtherNetworks chatroom I created, and start talking to each other
  • PirateBox, created by David Darts
    • if there’s time, I will demo a PirateBox I built to prove to you that even the most inept Internet user can do it
  • Tor, created by the United States Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA
    • read my notes and warnings below, download Tor, and try accessing the links I include below

Because Tor has become synonymous with criminal activity, for the sake of educating you, here is a bit more on what Tor is and why you might like to use it. Tor is primarily a privacy network that allows you to access the surface Internet without being tracked; it also allows you to access the deep web/darknet – any site or material that’s on the Internet but not indexed by search engines; keep in mind that most of the deep web/darknet is dedicated to innocent forums, blogs, essays and so on; because of the protection it offers, the darknet is attractive to activists in oppressive regimes as well as government agencies.

Why use Tor? While the Tor browser will work much slower than Chrome or Firefox, if you value privacy or if you would like to find a way to circumvent the online tracking we discussed earlier, you might like to give it a try. You might also give it a try if you would like to become a more informed, more active Internet user.

Some warnings:

    • not surprisingly, Tor does not guarantee perfect anonymity; if you don’t use a Virtual Private Network in addition to Tor, people can still see you’re using Tor even if they can’t necessarily see what sites you’re visiting; hopefully it goes without saying that you shouldn’t use a university VPN – instead consider purchasing the very inexpensive IPVanish and take a look at tips here and here to understand better how VPN works with Tor
    • don’t Torrent over Tor and especially don’t use BitTorrent and Tor together
    • according to the Tor website, avoid opening  .doc and .pdf documents while on Tor as there seems to be a way to reveal your IP address once you do this
    • try to use HTTPS versions of websites; Tor encrypts your traffic to and within the Tor network but to ensure encryption at your final destination, try to also use the HTTPS Everywhere extension
    • to make sure you’re not tracked down if you inadvertently visit a website that’s criminal in nature, turn off scripts and plugins in the Tor options (according to their website, you do this by clicking the button just before the address bar).
    • be very cautious about clicking on links on Tor – try to only use known directories to reach authenticated destinations.

Here are a very few safe Tor links that have worked for me:

  • search engine TORCH at http://xmh57jrzrnw6insl.onion/
  • search engine DuckDuckGo at http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/
  • the first issue of a Tor-hosted literary journal, The Torist (pdf) at http://toristinkirir4xj.onion/issue1.pdf
  • and, surprisingly, Facebook! at https://www.facebookcorewwwi.onion

If you’d like to continue thinking about these issues post-workshop, one place to start is to think about the repercussions of the underlying structure of the Internet – especially in the context of how the structure might create a certain power dynamic that excludes (women, minorities, underprivileged communities, those who are less technically savvy) more than it includes. Questions I’ll leave you with:

  • What does a cooperatively owned Internet look like and why might we want one? If you need help getting started, consider checking out Platform Cooperativism.
  • What does a non-profit, non-commercial network look like?
  • What does a feminist network look like? Can the Internet be feminist? These 15 “Feminist Principles of the Feminist Internet” might help you get started.  You might also like to look at this interview with Jac sm Kee who has been deeply involved in the Association for Progressive Communication’s (APC) Women’s Rights Programme; Kee states that “to start, a feminist Internet is one where everyone has universal, equal and meaningful access to an open and transformative Internet to enable the exercise of all of our rights, to play, to create, to form communities, to organize for change, in freedom and pleasure.”

selling the future at the MIT Media Lab

The following is the text of a talk I gave at Transmediale on February 5, 2016 as part of a panel with Jussi Parikka, Ryan Bishop, and John Beck on “The Persistence of the Lab.” The text of the talk will eventually find its way into THE LAB BOOK.

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What follows are some of my initial findings as I’ve been researching the past and present of the MIT Media Lab – a lab founded in 1985 by former MIT President Jerome Wiesner and Nicholas Negroponte of OLPC fame and then directed by Negroponte for the first twenty years of its existence so far. The Media Lab has become synonymous with “inventing the future,” partly because of a dogged thirty year long marketing campaign whose success we can measure by the fact that almost any discussion of “the future” of technology is a discussion about some project at the Media Lab.

And of course the lab has also become synonymous with “inventing the future” because of the central role it’s historically played in the fields of wireless networks, field sensing, web browsers, the WWW, and the central role the lab is now playing in neurobiology, biologically inspired fabrication, socially adaptive robots, emotive computing, and the list goes on and on. Given this list, you’d be right to think that the lab has long been driven by an insatiable thirst for profit operating under the guise of an innocent desire to just keep performing computerized feats of near impossibility, decade after decade.

But I’ve also come to see this performance is partly a product of a post-Sputnik Cold War race to out-do the Soviets no matter what the reality, the project or the cost. In Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab, the only book written so far exclusively on the media lab, written in 1986, the year after the lab opened, he writes with an astuteness I don’t usually associate with him:

If you wanted to push world-scale technology at a fever pace, what would you need to set it in motion and maintain it indefinitely? Not a hot war, because of the industrial destruction and the possibility of an outcome. You’d prefer a cold war, ideally between two empires that had won a hot war. You wouldn’t mind if one were fabulously paranoid from being traumatized by the most massive surprise attack in history (as the USSR was by Hitler’s Barbarossa) or if the other was fabulously wealthy, accelerated by the war but undamaged by it (as the US was by victory in Europe and the Pacific). Set them an ocean apart. Stand back and marvel. (161-162)

Brand then goes on to explain how American computer science owes so much to the Soviet space program – one which resulted in the creation of Eisenhower’s Advanced Research Projects Agency which, by the 1970s, had an annual budget of $238 million and funded many labs at MIT. And even when ARPA changed to DARPA to show that all agency projects had direct defense applicability, it still continued to fund labs such as the predecessor to the Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group. Still to this day, even though the Media Lab is famous for its corporate sponsorship, the U.S. Army is listed as one of its sponsors and many of the lab’s projects still do have direct applicability in a defense context.

But the lab is also the product of MIT’s long history of pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in higher education in terms of its deep ties with the military industrial complex and corporate sponsorship that goes back even to the 1920s. However, we now know that even though MIT tried to work with corporate partners in the post World War I years as it tried to pay for research programs in chemical and electrical engineering, the depression put an end to corporate partnerships until late in the second world war. The WWII in fact became a decisive turning point in the history of university science/tech labs, likely because of the enormous amount of funds that were suddenly available to sponsor research and development contracts.

Historian Stuart Leslie reports that during the war years MIT alone received $117 million in R&D contracts. So, again, naturally, once the “hot war” was over in 1945, it was almost as if MIT needed a Cold War as much as the state did so that it would continue to receive hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of contracts. As a result, by the 1960s, physicist Alan Weinberg famously said that it was getting increasingly hard “to tell whether MIT is a university with many government research laboratories appended to it or a cluster of government research laboratories with a very good educational institution attached to it.” (quoted in Leslie 14)

Also in the 1960s, the Research Lab of Electronics (or RLE) in particular was getting the lion’s share of the funding. RLE was a lab created in 1946 as a continuation of the world war II era Radiation Lab which was responsible for designing almost half of the radar deployed during the war. The RLE also became the template for many MIT labs that followed – particularly the Arch Mach Group which, again, turned into the Media Lab in the mid 80s. RLE was one of the first labs to be thoroughly interdisciplinary, to train grad students who went on to write the books that future grad students read and then responded to by writing other books or who went on to fund tech companies, and it also groomed future leaders either of the lab itself, the university, or for government/industry. Given this beautifully efficient system of using labs to both create and replicate knowledge, it makes perfect sense that researchers Vannevar Bush and Norbert Weiner – famous in part for their roles in advancing war-time technology – were teachers at MIT of Julius Stratton, the founding Director of RLE, and Jerome Wiesner who, again, you remember later co-founded the Media Lab.

Wiesner’s life in corporate and government sponsored labs began in 1940 as he was appointed chief engineer for the Acoustical and Record Laboratory of the Library of Congress. His job at the time mostly involved traveling to the South/Southwest under a Carnegie Corporation grant, with folklorist Alan Lomax, recording the folk music of these areas. Two years later, in 1942, Wiesner joined the RadLab at MIT and soon moved to the lab’s advisory committee; during his time there he was largely responsible for Project Cadillac which worked on the predecessor to the airborne early warning and control system. After World War II, the RadLab was dismantled in 1946 and in its place the RLE was created with Wiesner as the assistant and then associate director and then director from 1947 to to 1961. 1961 was the same year President John F. Kennedy named Wiesner to chair the President’s Science Advisory Committee; Weisner served Kennedy until Kennedy’s death in 1963 and then served President Johnson for one more year and most of his work involved advising the presidents on the space race and on nuclear disarmament. In 1966 Wiesner moved back to MIT as university provost and then President from ’71-’80. With Nicholas Negroponte at his side, he started fundraising for the lab in 1977 while he was president and, again, became co-founder of the lab in 1985 once he had stepped down as president and returned to life as a professor.

The foregoing is my brief history of one side of the Media Lab’s lineage that extends quite far back into the military-industrial complex, and especially the years of the Cold war, by way of Jerome Wiesner. Now I will move on to discuss the corporate, anti-intellectual lineage operating under the guise of “humanism” that runs through Nicholas Negroponte. The son of a Greek shipping magnate, Negroponte was educated in a series of private schools in New York, Switzerland and Connecticut and he completed his education with a MA in Architecture at MIT in the 1960s. You might also be interested to know that his older brother John Negroponte was a deputy secretary of state and the first ever Director of National Intelligence. In 1966, the year Wiesner returned to MIT to become provost, Nicholas became a faculty member there and a year later founded the Architecture Machine Group – a group which took a systems theory approach to studying the relationship between humans and machines. While the Media Lab’s lineage on Wiesner’s side runs through the Research Lab in Electronics and, earlier, the Radiation Lab, on Negroponte’s side the lineage runs through the Architecture Machine Group – a lab which combined the notion of a government sponsored lab with a 1960s-1970s-appropriate espoused dedication to humanism meshed with futurism.

But of course, especially as this particular brand of humanism is always tied to an imaginary future, it’s a particular kind of inhuman humanism that’s began in the Arch Mach group and went on to flourish in the Media lab – it’s one that constantly invokes an imagined future human that doesn’t really exist partly because it’s part of an ever-receding future but also because this imagined future human is only ever a privileged, highly individualized, boundary-policing, disembodied, white, western male human. I think you can see the essence of the Negroponte side of the Media Lab in three projects I want to touch on for the rest of my talk today. The first, from the early years of the Arch Mac group, was unglamorously called the “Hessdorfer Experiment” and is glowingly described by Negroponte in a section titled “Humanism Through Intelligent Machines” in The Architecture Machine, written in 1969 and published in 1970.

In the opening pages of the book, Negroponte mostly lays out the need for “humanistic” machines that respond to users’ environments, analyze user behavior, and even anticipate possible future problems and solutions – what he calls a machine that does not so much “problem solve” as it “problem worries.” (7) His example of what such an adaptive, responsive machine could look like is drawn from an experiment that undergraduate Richard Hessdorfer undertook in the lab the year the book was writen. Writes Negroponte, “Richard Hessdorfer is…constructing a machine conversationalist… The machine tries to build a model of the user’s English and through this model build another model, one of his needs and desires. It is a consumer item…that might someday be able to talk to citizens via touch-tone picture phone, or interactive cable television.” (56)

To help him build this machine conversationalist, Hessdorfer thought it would be useful to bring teletypewriting devices into a neighborhood in the south side of Boston – what Negroponte calls “Boston’s ghetto area.”

sellingTheFutureImages_Page_1

Negroponte writes:

THREE INHABITANTS OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD WERE ASKED TO CONVERSE WITH THIS MACHINE ABOUT THEIR LOCAL ENVIRONMENT. THOUGH THE CONVERSATION WAS HAMPERED BY THE NECESSITY OF TYPING ENGLISH SENTENCES, THE CHAT WAS SMOOTH ENOUGH TO REVEAL TWO IMPORTANT RESULTS. FIRST, THE THREE RESIDENTS HAD NO QUALMS OR SUSPICIONS ABOUT TALKING WITH A MACHINE IN ENGLISH, ABOUT PERSONAL DESIRES; THEY DID NOT TYPE UNCALLED-FOR REMARKS; INSTEAD, THEY IMMEDIATELY ENTERED A DISCOURSE ABOUT SLUM LANDLORDS, HIGHWAYS, SCHOOLS, AND THE LIKE. SECOND, THE THREE USER-INHABITANTS SAID THINGS TO THIS MACHINE THEY WOULD PROBABLY NOT HAVE SAID TO ANOTHER HUMAN, PARTICULARLY A WHITE PLANNER OR POLITICIAN: TO THEM THE MACHINE WAS NOT BLACK, WAS NOT WHITE, AND SURELY HAD NO PREJUDICES. (56-57)

I barely know where to begin with this passage except to say that the entire racist, deceptive undertaking is, for me, about as far away from a humanism that acknowledges the lives of these particular humans as you can get. It also clearly demonstrates what can happen when we believe so completely in the neutrality of the machine as its assumed neutrality – or its assumed capacity to give us pure, unmediated access to reality – can be called on as a magical mechanical solution to any human problems. Got a race problem? Get a computer!

The second project from about a year later, also run through the Architecture Machine Group, is just as disturbing. This time the subjects in the experiment are not African Americans but, rather, gerbils.

sellingTheFutureImages_Page_2

The experiment, called “SEEK,” was exhibited as part of the 1970 show at the New York Jewish Museum called SOFTWARE. It consisted of a computer-controlled environment, contained by Plexiglass and full of small blocks and gerbils who were there to change the position of the blocks following an automatic arrangement of the blocks by a robotic arm. The machine was supposed to analyze the gerbils’ actions and then try to successfully complete the rearrangement according to what the machine thought the gerbils were trying to do. Unfortunately, the experiment was a disaster.

sellingTheFutureImages_Page_3

As Orit Halpern puts it, “The exhibition’s computers rarely functioned…the museum almost went bankrupt; and in what might be seen as an omen, the experiment’s gerbils confused the computer, wrought havoc on the blocks, turned on each other in aggression, and wound up sick. No one thought to ask, or could ask, whether gerbils wish to live in a block built micro-world.” Again, this brand of humanism that’s in the name of the future is one that has very little to do with situatedness (or what’s now called posthumanism) – instead it has everything to do with abstraction and transcendence in the name of producing consumer products or R&D for the military-industrial complex.

The last example I’d like to touch on today is the One Laptop Per Child Project which Negroponte took up as an explicitly Media Lab project in the early 2000s and which, again, continues these same themes of humanism meshed with futurism combined with an espoused belief in the neutrality of the machine.

sellingTheFutureImages_Page_4

The difference now is that even just the guise of academic rigor and a scientific care for method that you could see in the Architecture Machine Group has been transformed, probably because of the lab’s responsibility toward its 80+ corporate sponsors, into the gleeful, continuous production of tech demonstrations, driven by the lab’s other, more ominous motto “DEMO OR DIE.”

OLPC was launched by Negroponte in 2005 and was effectively shut down in 2014. After traveling the world since at least the early 1980s to effectively sell personal computers to developing nations, Negroponte announced he had created a non-profit organization to produce a $100 laptop “at scale” – in other words, the cost of the laptop could only be this low in the early 2000s if, according to Negroponte, they could amass orders for 7-10 million laptops. Essentially, despite his often repeated statement that OLPC is not a laptop project but rather an education project, the essence of the project was still the same as the Hessdorfer experiment or “SEEK”: got a poveryty problem? get a computer! Worse yet, don’t do a study of whether what the community or nation needs are – JUST GET A COMPUTER.

Here’s what Negroponte said in a Ted Talk from 2006, suggesting that even if families didn’t use the laptops, they could use them as light sources:

I WAS RECENTLY IN A VILLAGE IN CAMBODIA – IN A VILLAGE THAT HAS NO ELECTRICITY, NO WATER, NO TELEVISION, NO PHONE. BUT IT NOW HAS BROADBAND INTERNET AND THESE KIDS – THEIR FIRST WORD IS “GOOGLE” AND THEY ONLY KNOW “SKYPE,” NOT TELEPHONY…AND THEY HAVE A BROADBAND CONNECTION IN A HUT WITH NO ELECTRICITY AND THEIR PARENTS LOVE THE COMPUTERS BECAUSE THEY’RE THE BRIGHTEST LIGHT SOURCE IN THE HOUSE. THIS LAPTOP PROJECT IS NOT SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO TEST. THE DAYS OF PILOT PROJECTS ARE OVER. WHEN PEOPLE SAY WELL WE’D LIKE TO DO 3 OR 4 THOUSAND IN OUR COUNTRY TO SEE HOW IT WORKS, SCREW YOU. GO TO THE BACK OF THE LINE AND SOMEONE ELSE WILL DO IT AND THEN WHEN YOU FIGURE OUT THIS WORKS YOU CAN JOIN AS WELL.

Not surprisingly, as with the lack of forethought in the experiment with the poor gerbils, by 2012 studies were coming out clearly indicating that the laptops – whether they were used in Peru, Nepal or Australia, made no measurable difference in reading and math test scores. In fact, one starts to get the sense that Negroponte’s truly remarkable skill which he began honing in the late 60s in the Architecture Machine Group is not design, not architecture, not tech per se, but rather dazzling salesmanship built on a lifetime pitching humanism and futurism via technological marvels. Even Stewart Brand saw this in Negroponte. Quoting Nat Rochester, a senior computer scientist and negotiator for IBM, “[If Nicholas] were an IBM salesman, he’d be a member of the Golden Circle…if you know what good salesmanship is, you can’t miss it when you get to know him.” (6)

And with this, the pitch perfect ending to this strange story is that in 2013, after selling millions of laptops to developing nations around the world, laptops that again made no measurable improvement in anyone’s lives, Negroponte left OLPC and went on to chair the Global Literacy X Prize as part of the XPRIZE Foundation. However, the prize itself no longer seems to exist and there’s no record of him being with the organization just a year later in 2014 – it seems he’s finally, quietly living out his salesman years back at MIT where he began.

XPRIZE, however, does exist and appears to be the ultimate nonprofit based on nothing more than air and yet more humanist slogans:

XPRIZE IS AN INNOVATION ENGINE. A FACILITATOR OF EXPONENTIAL CHANGE. A CATALYST FOR THE BENEFIT OF HUMANITY. WE BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF COMPETITION. THAT IT’S PART OF OUR DNA. OF HUMANITY ITSELF. THAT TAPPING INTO THAT INDOMITABLE SPIRIT OF COMPETITION BRINGS ABOUT BREAKTHROUGHS AND SOLUTIONS THAT ONCE SEEMED UNIMAGINABLE. IMPOSSIBLE. WE BELIEVE THAT YOU GET WHAT YOU INCENTIVIZE…RATHER THAN THROW MONEY AT A PROBLEM, WE INCENTIVIZE THE SOLUTION AND CHALLENGE THE WORLD TO SOLVE IT…WE BELIEVE THAT SOLUTIONS CAN COME FROM ANYONE, ANYWHERE AND THAT SOME OF THE GREATEST MINDS OF OUR TIME REMAIN UNTAPPED, READY TO BE ENGAGED BY A WORLD THAT IS IN DESPERATE NEED OF HELP. SOLUTIONS. CHANGE. AND RADICAL BREAKTHROUGHS FOR THE BENEFIT OF HUMANITY. CALL US CRAZY, BUT WE BELIEVE.

In many ways, XPRIZE is the ultimate Media Lab project spanning the world and whose board includes every major corporate executive you can think of – all to produce not even things anymore but rather just “incentives.” And in terms of the lab itself, while Negroponte seems to be practically retired and Wiesner passed away a number of years ago, the media lab continues to merrily churn out demos and products for consumers and the military under the leadership of Joi Ito – a venture capitalist with no completed degrees, a godson of Timothy Leary and a self-proclaimed “activist,” MIT couldn’t have found a better successor for the world-class salesman Nicholas Negroponte.

Works Cited

Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.

Halpern, Orit. “Inhuman Vision.” Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, 10:3 (Fall 2014).

Leslie, Stuart. The Cold War and American Science: The Military-industrial-academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Negroponte, Nicholas. The Architecture Machine: Toward a More Human Environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 1970.

—. Soft Architecture Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 1975.

sister labs // Signal Lab & Media Archaeological Fundus

For years now, I’ve been yearning to go to Berlin to visit two labs that have the closest kinship to my own Media Archaeology Lab: the Signal Lab, run by Stefan Höltgen, and the Media Archaeological Fundus, founded by Wolfgang Ernst and now also run by Stefan. I finally got my chance to tour both labs in early February of this year, partly for pure pleasure and partly as a way to begin research for THE LAB BOOK: Situated Practices in Media Studies that Darren Wershler, Jussi Parikka and I are writing for the University of Minnesota Press.

While I’ve had some email correspondence with both Stefan and Wolfgang over the years about our labs, I didn’t realize how closely aligned our labs were until this visit. All three labs, including the MAL, are driven not by a nostalgic impulse or a desire to act as mini museums. Instead, we have all appropriated the science-based infrastructure of the lab for (anti) humanistic ends as we perform hands-on experiments with functioning media from the 19th and 20th centuries as a way to discover what Ernst has called the “time criticality” of each device.

There are, however, a few key differences between our labs – first, the MAL does have some preservationist responsibilities that the Signal Lab and the Fundus do not have; for example, we have hardware and software that has been donated to us by individuals hoping we will care for, maintain, and preserve their donations for as long as possible; we also have conventionally valuable hardware such as the machines that ran The Thing BBS and valuable digital literature and art from the 1980s such as Paul Zelevansky’s “SWALLOWS” and bpNichol’s “First Screening.” These preservationalist responsibilities mean the MAL has a more expansive, complex, and perhaps even conflicted mission as its belief in making the lab a space of hands-on experimentation and inquiry is bound to eventually conflict with our responsibility to protect certain particularly valuable holdings. By contrast, Stefan writes me in an email that “Indeed there are no such responsibilities for both of our collections. Vice versa we have a ‘hands-on imperative’ which is the opposite of materialistic preservation for the idea of preserving the knowledge within the apparatuses (that therefor often have to be damaged). We say that to all of our donators so they can decide if they want donate their stuff.”

The other major difference is in how we’ve structured our labs. Perhaps precisely because of the slight difference in our mission, the MAL’s holdings are mostly displayed on desks lining the walls; each machine  has its own desk and its own chair. The benefit to such an arrangement is it facilitates immediate and extended access – visitors often feel comfortable immediately sitting down, turning on the machines, and inserting a floppy disk or a cartridge sitting nearby. The drawback to this arrangement is partly that we’ve found ourselves very limited in the number of machines we can display and partly that there is still something auratic about this method of display – if the machines aren’t on when visitors arrive or without a tour guide on hand to continually remind visitors to play, tinker, hack, the pernicious assumption is that the MAL is a museum and one may only view the media on display as if they’re valuable works of art.

By contrast, both the Signal Lab and the Fundus structure their space by having machines stacked on shelves around the perimeter of the room with empty tables situated in the middle of the room such that visitors can remove machines from the shelves and use the tables for hands-on experiments. This is, I think, a small but fundamental difference in our labs as the infrastructure of these two Berlin labs is such that there is a firmer, even unapologetic rejection of the aura of the museum and an emphasis on serious research. As Stefan wrote to me in the same email: “Yes, it’s a question of space and the numbers of items stored in the collections. But the ‘Fundus’ also wants to be a fund (like that in theaters) where the students and researchers take items from the shelf to use in their projects. The fundus itself is not an exhibition. The Signal Lab has some workstation desks but most of the computers are stored in shelfs. The benefit is that the users have to build the systems with its peripherals for themselfs to use them (which – I think – is a form of technological praxis that has to be ‘preserved’ as well).”

Below are pictures I took on my cell phone of both labs – I hope you enjoy the virtual tour. And, finally, I would like to thank Stefan one more time for giving us such a wonderful tour of both labs.

media archaeology is literary studies

Katie Price and the good folks at Jacket2 Magazine requested short answers to a quick question on how media archaeology informs literary studies. Along with great responses by Aaron Angello, Jussi Parikka and Jane Birkin, I contributed the following paragraph:

If you believe that media archaeology largely coalesces in the writing of Friedrich Kittler, then media archaeology wouldn’t exist without literary studies! As others before me have pointed out, in many ways Kittler’s Discourse Networks works because of all the literary examples he relies on to make his argument – examples of how, after 1900, literature registers what he calls “a histrionics of media.” While he does also write that 1900 equally marks the disintegration of poetry, I’ve always thought what he really means is that this point marks the disintegration both of what had, up to that point, appeared to be the necessity of creating lyric, expressive poetry and of poetry as an art form that depends on creating the seamless, naturalized illusion of the human as separate from, above and beyond, the technological world. So, of course people continue to read and write lyric poetry all over the world after 1900; but now the poetry world is augmented with pieces that are non-semantic gurgles, grinds, glitches, eruptions, shrieks, howls, and so on – pieces that register the media effects of their time (I’m thinking of the Dadaists’ and Futurists’ visual and sound poems or dirty concrete poetry by Steve McCaffery or bpNichol’s and John Riddell’s experiments with the photocopier).

So while I do use the Media Archaeology Lab to work through a version of media archaeology that concerns itself with excavating failed media or dead ends in the history of technology, I am equally fascinated with what I’ve been calling “media poetics,” or poetry that registers media effects and that does not necessarily demand hermeneutic interpretation. For me, media archaeology’s most significant contribution to literary studies is the way it frees us from constantly, and only, interpreting content and allows us to go back and re-see poetry from the 20th and 21st centuries as inscriptions that record experiments with the limits and possibilities of writing media.

grad seminar + book project: theory & practice of doing, from DH to PH

At the same time as I keep working on “Other Networks” (a history of telecommunications networks that existed before or outside of the Internet), I’m pleased to announce I’ve also started working on another multi-part project – a graduate seminar and a book project – that has everything to do with the thinking and doing I’ve done over the last five years on the Media Archaeology Lab, on why I founded it in the first place, what discourses and practices I hope it intervenes in, and on what I hope it will become. While I’ve given probably twenty talks around the world on the lab and written a handful of short pieces on it, until now I haven’t had the chance to fully theorize the lab’s philosophy as well as its place in relation to other arts/humanities media labs as well as Digital Humanities labs.

To that end, starting this week, I am teaching a graduate seminar called “Theory & Practice of Doing // From the Digital Humanities to the Posthumanities.” Our course begins with a classic text, C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures from 1959, to make clear the longstanding, perceived gulf between the sciences and the humanities and the resulting anxiety the humanities have had about how to advocate for their worth. Jump ahead fifty years and suddenly we’re in the midst of he digital humanities as well as various other media studies practices that have made their home in the humanities. Now, the anxieties are perhaps more about the displacement of traditional humanities work, not by the sciences but by a new humanities that’s inflected by scientific practice and, at times, a “spirit” of entrepreneurialism that’s particularly associated with the tech/startup world. We then move from Snow’s text to an overview of the state of the profession in the 21st century, focusing specifically on the ramifications of doing collaborative, interdisciplinary, project-based, hands-on work that engages with or relies on digital media in the humanities. This first part of the course then gives way to the second part, in which we explore more deeply a series of interconnected questions. What does it mean when humanists start placing “doing” at the center of their research agendas? What does it mean to do hands-on work in a digital humanities lab versus a media archaeology lab or a makerspace or a hackerspace? Are these scholars or practitioners appropriating the trappings of scientific labs for the sake of cultural capital or are they in a unique position to critique not only the way labs are often hierarchical, closed structures built around single individuals but also the way the data generated by these labs is too often seen as neutral or necessarily, timelessly true? Can 21st century hands-on work actually work not only to finally close the divide between “the two cultures”, science and humanities, but can it also work to displace the longstanding anthropocentrism at the heart of the humanities? You can see our schedule of weekly readings here.

The second project I’ve started working on with my esteemed colleagues Jussi Parikka and Darren Wershler is a collaboratively written book called THE LAB BOOK: Situated Practices and accompanying website (we haven’t launched it yet but the url will be whatisamedialab.com). In the book, we will provide a critical genealogy of the notion of the media and humanities lab as well as an exploration of some of the affordances labs can offer for the humanities – or the posthumanities – in the 21st century. The project offers a more detailed account of the media lab’s potential to open up new possibilities for thought and action in the present. Besides discussing Digital Humanities, we draw extensively on our own areas of expertise. Sections of the project will focus on sites such as the Berlin Humboldt University Media Archaeological Fundus, and my own Media Archaeology Lab. Other sections will describe the history of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Media Lab, the first of its kind in Canada. CFC Media Lab survived until the exact moment that universities started to duplicate it. Since CFC could not grant degrees, it promptly became a startup incubator program so it would produce more revenue than the constant stream of professional artists that were its traditional constituency. This history demonstrates once again the imbrication of creativity, innovation and monetization in the realm of media labs; it also offers an alternative way to investigate what a lab could mean as a cross-section of work in education, theory and critical practice.

While the book will thoroughly document and explicate this significant cultural force, the website will deliver a synchronic overview of contemporary media labs, mostly via interviews. If you take a look at the syllabus for the graduate seminar, you’ll see that graduate students will participate in interviewing people who have played or are playing a significant role in arts/humanities labs and we’ll post these interviews on whatisamedialab.com. Not only is the first time I’ve written a book with two other scholars, but this is also the first time I’ve had the chance to invite students to participate directly in a scholarly project.

I’m looking forward to posting links to interviews as well as updates on the book and website.