Monday, July 28, 2008

Check Out The September Project

Fall is just around the corner and I'm starting to think about all the great things my favorite season brings. One event that I've followed for the past few years has been The September Project. I've lifted the description from the's below...get involved if you can.

Welcome to the 5th annual September Project! The September Project is a grassroots effort to encourage events about freedom and democracy in all libraries in all countries during the month of September. September Project events are free and organized locally.

In 2004, we began the September Project to break the silence following September 11, and to invite all people into libraries to consider topics of patriotism, democracy, and citizenship. Initially, events focused on September 11 and largely took place on September 11. As the project evolved, events spread throughout the month of September and focused on issues of freedom and democracy.

To date, public, academic, school, government, and special libraries around the world have organized September Project book displays, community book readings, childrens’ art projects, film screenings, theatrical performances, civic deliberations, voter registrations, murals, panel discussions, and so much more. What will this year bring?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Twitter, Blogs, and the Public Sphere

A recent Fast Company feed by Robert Scoble that offers some incisive nuggets on Twitter, RSS, MSFT, and several other user/tech trends has me thinking about the ever-changing public sphere. I am particularly curious about the claim that Twitter will continue to emerge as the update/news/marketing vehicle of preference. I can certainly see how this would work, and Scoble's habits of information foraging and consumption are in line with my own as well as so many others.

Print media plays less and less of a role in my life and, like Scoble, RSS feeds seem less attractive to me these days. Scoble argues in this piece, which is actually highlights from a week's worth of tweetstream (ah, postmodern narrative once again), that Twitter is the public conversation with diverse interests. I read his piece to fuse Twitter with blogs' messages in a way that complements both...ultimately creating a dialogue and remediation of events of interest. His specific claim is, "Twitter is the public square. Lots of noise, little signal. Blogs are like a speech. Signal, but little noise ... ". Such rich information texture fulfills a role that decaying print media cannot. His points make sense.

With such user-centric "news" construction however, a sincere concern over criticality does emerge. Sometimes institutional authorities, like "experts" in historical media, do offer information in a way that deconceals certain beliefs or "common sense". Blogs can do this too, but they can also reinscribe ill-founded notions, such as sexism or racism. Not to get all librarian/English teacher about this, but the ability to scrutinize sources and information is key here. To this end, Fred Stutzman's April post on curation is a good read for such sentiment.

Assuming we are inserted upon this path, it makes sense to look for creative, efficient, and informative ways to leverage social media so that the information we need (whether we know it or not) gets to us. Equally as important, is the commitment to questioning bias in information and the applications/devices that deliver it to us. Limitations (like that of print) or blind spots (like perspectives of many bloggers) must be held in account.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bot 2.0: Botany through Web 2.0, the Memex and Social Learning

About a week from now BotCamp starts. One might ask, "What the heck is BotCamp?" Well, first one (that would be you) might peruse the description for the NSF-funded project entitled Bot 2.0: Botany through Web 2.0, the Memex and Social Learning. It's cool and it's at UNC.

The official blurb, as lifted from the MRC web site and our NSF grant, is:

Bot 2.0 project is an innovative technological approach to retaining student interest in the biological and botanical sciences and addresses the lack of diversity in the student population pursing the botanical sciences. The project involves introducing students from area universities and community colleges to a three-phase curriculum involving reading and field exercises that incorporate inquiry-based learning, communal learning, and reflection.

For my part in this project I am talking with Bot participants about their experiences and expectations with regard to botany, science curriculum writ large, issues of "literacy", and technology. Toward this end I've been reading more of Shirley Brice Heath's work...this time, I'm into her new title On Ethnography which is co-authored with Brian Street. I've also been digging up some of my old qualitative data from my days in D.C., when I taught at the University of the District of Columbia. I'm hoping to post some of those pieces eventually as well.

What I'm meditating on right now is the value of ethnography, which seems not only to be disregarded way too often, but to get lost in a lot of tech talk in these globalized times. If folks do make nods toward audience or individuals it seems to get morphed into User Experience speak which is pretty deterministic (don't want to say myopic here...ooops, said it). UX seems to be bound up in technical aspects and to use behavioral theories from Psychology nearly exclusively. Good ethnography explores "the social" and gets at the dialectic between group and individual forces trump individual psychological inclinations. I'm endeavoring to craft an ethnographic frame that does this, which may be challenging in an Information Science (and NSF) context, but it would certainly be in the spirit of Heath's project.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Google's Big Plans and Possibilities in Africa

Today's New York Times featured an excellent article that illuminates some points made in my previous post last Friday. The piece, entitled "Inside Nairobi, the Next Palo Alto" details tactics for technology development and maximization at work in Kenya and other low-tech areas of Africa. The second portion of the article focuses on the influence of Google in Kenya, Google's increasing physical presence there, and the citizens' hopes for what Google can enable them to achieve. The article is linked above and pasted below. Hopefully, it adds to my supposition that perceived lackluster earnings reports from Google matter little when it comes to the company's influence on identity, ethos, and aspirations of global individuals and groups.

Friday, July 18, 2008

How to Look at Google the Wrong Way

Google reported 2nd quarter earnings yesterday afternoon , meeting analyst estimates, however warnings from company execs prompted a pretty significant drop in GOOG stock. Shares of GOOG fell over 10 percent in after hours trading Thursday and continued to hold the decline today. Google chairman Eric Schmidt's description of the economy as "challenging", coupled with admissions of slower hiring at Google and decreased consumer click-throughs of ads, are being cited as common analyst concerns.

In a financial respect, some of the analyst concerns are warranted in the short term, but longer term they are not. It's also important to note that Google continues to lead our ever-emerging online experience even if they're not growing as rapidly as they were 6 months ago and if revenue looks different this quarter than it did last (when analysts were surprised at earnings and GOOG skyrocketed as a result). Importantly, there is no competition for Google in many of their continuing core business areas; they continue to set precedent as others follow.

As Schmidt noted in the conference call Google domestic business was "slower" due to the current economic situation, however non-domestic activity was rapidly accelerating. More and more of Google's business is in areas outside of the United States...areas like China (which will overtake the U.S. in numbers of Internet users sometime in the next 12 to 18 months). While analysts are marginally good at analyzing Google's earnings, they seem to be oblivious (at best) at understanding how it continues to shape user experience, preference, and behavior. These are the important, possibly intangible, assets. User search behavior, and a large part of Internet behavior and practice in the U.S. has been molded by Google for better or for worse. This will continue, in addition to Google's inroads into global markets. Forget the stock price decline (but do know Google wants to make money), look at Google's products and launch agenda(s)...they've got big plans for everyone. Few companies in any sector have the position to do such a thing when it comes to shaping user realities...which is what really matters.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

OCLC Report on Library Support

Library Journal featured an article recently that profiles findings on how libraries might endeavor to generate and sustain new support. The piece, entitled OCLC Report Suggests Ways To Generate New Library Support, synthesizes important findings from a recent study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For those of you who attended ALA in Anaheim last month this may be familiar ground. Read the article, of course, but note that among the key findings are the following points:

*The most committed funding supporters are not the heaviest users
*Many people are unaware of library services
*“Passionate librarians” help generate library funding
*Voters who see the library as 'transformational' as opposed to 'informational' are more likely to favor it
*Increasing support for libraries may not necessarily mean a trade-off with financing other public services

What I find to be a really inspiring and important is the underlying theme that the library space is a dynamic space, increasingly so. It's not moribund, nor does it no longer matter. True, it matters differently. What the report does outline, in addition to challenges, is the impactful areas of rearticulation for librarians and libraries. Communities, users, and individuals are all still tied to libraries...they are just tied to them in ways that reflect the major changes in habits of patrons/community members. Technology and Web 2.0 have profoundly altered all of our lives, perceptions, and expectations, especially when it comes to access and format of information and knowledge resources. However, just because the market has fueled the proliferation of Web 2.0 and its attendant hyperreality it does not stand to reason that agents in the market are filling the curation and instruction role of libraries. Agents of the market have neither the expertise nor the context to do such a thing, plus the logic of capital (while sometimes beneficial) stymies efforts toward curation and instruction.

Bottom line: librarians making space in different ways is what future success for libraries is all about, not librarians ceded way to technology or industry. Expertise and community will continue to matter.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Haven't We Had This Conversation Already?

Recently, the Third International Plagiarism Conference was held at Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-tyne, UK. The conference theme was "Transforming Practice for an Authentic Future". To get a flavor for the conference and its proceedings check out the link above as well as Gerry McKiernan's blog for a sampling of his presentation. The blog Information Literacy Meets Library 2.0 also works for a cursory glance at topical considerations.

The point of my post is to remark on this notion of authenticity. Haven' we already had this conversation? At least philosophically, have we had it? Not to get all Baudrillard and what not, but I can't see such a conference happening in France for example, or in the French intellectual tradition rather. The French love their language, but also celebrate its fluidity and its versatility. English, on the other hand, has always suffered from policing and surveillance in efforts to control it and to make it rational in its "grammar" and representation. Cartesian predilections it seems. An analog to libraries can be made here too. This sort of control is an impossible project, now more than ever. It is just as impossible as the achievement of authenticity.

Sure, I get what the conference organizers are going for; after all, I teach in an English Department. Plagiarism is to be understood and avoided. However, as enlightened intellectuals we want a sort of criticality that gets composers to weave a rich tapestry that celebrates the many voices that have gone into said composer being able to write (or compose) a piece. It's a celebration of access and context, both of which have been profoundly emboldened by Web 2.0 technologies. What we don't want is what appears to me to have dominated curriculum pre-Web 2.0...that is, a curriculum strictured by the threat of plagiarism and grammar policing while asking students to remark (originally) on great works/texts (rather than create great works/texts themselves). I'd be remiss to say that it was the curricular assumption here, too, that the student was a subject forever positioned subordinate to these great works and she had better learn to approach these texts with the appropriate reverence. In sum, this was the modernist project and we are still wasting our time fighting its vestiges.

In a sense, Web 2.0 is about empowerment to compose and access information as text. Of course all compositions aren't great and all access isn't fruitful or informed, but the context is there and up for engagement. Pre-Web 2.0, at least in education and libraries, the context was fixed and control was centralized; consequently narratives weren't up for contestation (much less, manipulation). There were penalties for efforts toward manipulation and contestation. Policing for plagiarism is an example.

Going on the record here, in a technical sense plagiarism is bad. Yes, bad bad bad. But the irreverence (not the laziness or stupidity) associated with plagiarism is something I like because it harnesses creativity and fuels it at the same time. This irreverent creativity should be celebrated for its liberatory potential. But, do keep in mind that creativity is not the same as authenticity. I'd like to a see a conference, and not just individual papers, dedicated to irreverent creativity versus sanctioned utility. Maybe next time.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I've been reading a lot of feeds of late that speculate on ways to teach, work with, "reach", etc. digital natives. This of course begs conjecture on what a digital native is and who might qualify for such status. Such deliberations seem fair enough, though they are familiar protocol for those aiming to educate in "new times" (see the cult stud work of Stuart Hall as well as the ed work of Robert Helfenbein). Anyway, my first reaction is to suggest that any attempt is always already reactionary. Digital natives, like most who drive new paradigms, author their own space and regardless of how curriculum designers feel about the merits of such "new" practices and their attendant spaces such authoring is hegemonic in its own right. Once the digital natives are inserted upon the load road to hegemony they are (at least in the near term) positioned against those who aspire to "educate", "observe", or "characterize" who and what they are as subject/digital natives. So, in this abbreviated post, I'd challenge researchers and curriculum designers to understand the colonial predisposition of "studying" digital natives. In lieu of such study, I'd advocate participation, celebration, or even resistance...remarks on those types of engagements will offer better insights into our new and emerging ways of being.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Social, Community, Discursive Practice

Following up on the previous post and on recent posts from Jacob and Paul where they're contemplating notions of the social versus the collaborative, I've gotta revisit some important conceptual touchstones.

In my last post I valorized Seattle and its "Libraries For All" initiative, labeling such thrusts emblematic of a healthy community...possibly even one that's invested in pursuit of utopias. I'm still excited about "Libraries For All".

I have also read Paul Jones' post and Jacob Kramer-Duffield's meditation on Paul's post. Good stuff. I've linked them here (and below in my blogroll) at your leisure. One of the points that they're considering is how to operationalize terms like "social" and "collaborative" with regard to software, the virtual, and the hyperreal. When I think about this I find myself returning to my cultural studies roots and the early work of media and social theorists, namely Raymond Williams.

In his work, Culture and Society, he states "any real theory of communication is also a theory of community’ (301). The Seattle post is about community and I read discussions about "social" and "collaborative" to be the same. Anyhow, Williams' goes on to argue that communication, ‘is not only transmission, it is also reception and response’ (301). Williams' work is decades old now but as salient as ever. Williams', like the other early cultural studies theorists, resuscitated the Marxist concept of the dialectic, but utilized it namely in a cultural way.

One of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Bruno Latour, works with the same trajectory when he contemplates "the social"; for Latour, the social is a's always already in flux, always contested, and always changing (like hegemony). Think through post-structuralism and sit with fluidity...all our spaces, meanings, and identities tend to leak and mix these days.
Looking at concepts, at practices, as processes overcomes the stricture and oppression of naming, labeling, or defining. Such a lens also seems appropriate given these new times. So, it might be useful to turn to such an approach when iterating over what Williams' referred to as the "mass mind". To that end, as you read the big and valuable thoughts of Paul and Jacob, indulge me and stretch beyond the quest for definitions of social and collaborative...look at how the processes that we are involved in daily get us to a point where creation of such terms are possible (or even needed). By looking at the context and the conditions that create it we might get at drivers of culture and what gets constructed as knowledge and truth in said cultures.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Libraries For All: An Intimation for Attention to Place

This upcoming Saturday in Seattle the last of the building/refurbishing projects that have comprised the "Libraries For All" initiative will officially be complete. This is really great to see such an initiative coalesce and be completed over the course of the last ten years. Seattle is a special place for a lot of reasons but the inclination of community members to actually value (and fund) projects like this one differentiate it from other locales that either don't, can't, or (worse-yet) delay such support. Materiality matters and its easy to get so disembodied via our networked world that what is actually happening in our community goes un-scrutinized. Place still matters. Development, non-development, investment (or lack of) are amplified in accelerated globalized spaces. In an era of spatial theory we tend to think that place doesn't matter as much, but it does. Place matters differently and probably matters more than it used to. Seeing communities take a stand for their places through a spatial practice (space=enacted place...see Doreen Massey's work) is really cool. Back to Seattle. A lot of these libraries were built in under served lower SES neighborhoods. Having a place to go and to interact with a variety of media and information is important. By making such a place available in certain areas, communities experience empowerment and recognition. This isn't a trope, its' real. Find out for yourself. The city takes a stand for these areas and that matters. Having lived in areas like Washington, DC where public libraries get shut down it's edifying to witness Seattle's achievement. Libraries (and other publicly supported institutions) matter and if someone tells you different it's probably because they've got so much privilege and access that they're not able to see whose back they're standing on. Help them out if you can.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Iterations on Spectacle

One of my academic interests is tussling with French theory. I like it because when I'm wasting time around other academics it seems useful as a lingua franca, sounds pretentious at just about all social gatherings, and for the most part is irrelevant to anything shaking down on a daily basis. However, there are a few French theorists that ARE useful when endeavoring to figure out how to conceptualize our social interactions. Guy Debord is one that I've spent many years reading and now, more than ever, his work seems prescient (in ways he probably never envisioned...or maybe he did). Debord, along with Henri Lefebvre, was one of the key figures/propagater of the Situationist International movement in the late 1960s. Having worked through Marxism and post-structuralism Debord (and Lefebvre) levied critiques on the emerging post-industrial organization of our society and the spaces that were springing forth. To borrow from REM, Debord commented on life and how we live it. His work Society of the Spectacle hashes out his most salient points in short easily digestable (or readable I'd say) paragraphs. From this comes one of my current research projects. I'm presenting at two conferences this fall where I've got papers driven by the following proposal. To that end I'd love some comment and thoughts on this topic. Enjoy.

Facebook as Spectacle: Image, Rhetoric, and Social Practice in the Hyperreal
Guy Debord writes that “the Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 12). This presenter focuses on online social networks, specifically Facebook, as an exemplar and interstice of the Spectacle. This presentation asserts that central to the dominance of the Spectacle’s hegemony is the supposition that systemic forms of oppression and stricture are amplified and reinscribed by new spatial relations, specifically relations mediated by images. The presenter will discuss rhetorical practices that “spectacular” relations engender. Moves to fetishize the virtual and hyperreal often eclipse egalitarian possibilities and utopias of virtual space. Such enthusiasm can also produce physical reconfigurations in built space, alienation of (im)material labor, and uneven geographical development driven by global forces (Harvey 2006). The Spectacle’s ascent is driven by these related projects and rhetorics. These phenomena present challenges for our times and require various registers of rhetorical faculties, from reading to recognizing to responding. The presenter addresses theory and use of “spectacular” relations and concludes with examples of student (and faculty) use of Facebook as a way to problematize notions of the Spectacle as well as understand liberatory aspects of virtual participatory space. Curricular conclusions are framed by the observation that: “Concepts of the virtual in itself are important only to the extent to which they contribute to a pragmatic understanding of emergence, to the extent to which they enable triggering of change (induce the new). It is the edge of virtual, where it leaks into actual, that counts. For the seeping edge is where potential, actually, is found” (Massumi 43).

Works Cited
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994.
Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. New York: Verso, 2006.
Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

Friday, July 4, 2008

End of Method, Against Method Redux

I’ve been pining to make this post for a couple of weeks now, ever since the July issue of Wired came out. It’s the issue with a cover that claims, or intimates depending on your hyperbole register, that we’ve breached a boundary where profound change now dominates. Specifically, the claim is that we are seeing the “end of science”. Rather, we are seeing the end of how scientific method gets constructed. It’s a good and useful read that focuses on how access to and manipulation of large amounts of data can enable us to (for)see patterns and attributes of “scientific” phenomena. This can be anything from political voting behavior to issues of disease outbreak to understanding outer space. Good points and all true. Being an academic, I am used to seeing claims of the “beginning of this” or “the end of that”; such monikers are abundant in conference programs and journals (I’d love to see someone claim “we’re seeing the middle of such and such”). But the Wired article isn’t a let down…it is important, namely because we’ve seen similar calls that fell flat or were resisted. The zeitgeist seems to favor such valorization of data’s potential. Paul Feyerabend's oft-misread Against Method aimed to illuminate the social constructedness of science and argue that changes in method have largely worked to further cement a popular reception of science as truth and its methods as truth-making rituals. Feyerabend articulated his project as:

My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits. The best way to show this is to demonstrate the limits and even the irrationality of some rules which she, or he, is likely to regard as basic. (1975, 32)

It would be interesting to read Feyerabend against (or with) the Wired piece. Our increased ability to understand the world through the mass amounts of data that we have and through statistical analysis is impressive and does often achieve great results. Just because such great things do happen though is not reason to look askance at the method itself. My hope is that with this particular change in the way science is conducted we’ll revisit the irreverence of Against Method so that a critical use of technology and assumptions about science can yield a scientific method with reflexivity and breadth versus one that simply assumes truth from process and ability to construct a method.

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. London: Verso.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Denali Rain

i've had a hiatus from the blog attributable to this beautiful one on the left...what an experience! more blogging soon!