What Ever Happened to the Promise of Participatory Television?: An Interview with Adam Fish (Part One)

Adam  Fish certainly knows how to get people’s attention. While still a PhD student at UCLA, he fired a shot off my bow — a challenging blog post critiquing my discussion of critical utopianism and critical pessimism in the concluding chapter of Convergence Culture. It certainly got my attention — he was fearless, a bit merciless, but for the most part, right in his critiques, and I found myself responding through the blog in ways that forced me to rethink my own positions.

We’ve remained in touch off and on since, and I’ve had the pleasure to watch him develop into an important and distinctive voice at the intersection between critical studies, cultural studies, and media industry studies. When Nick Couldry and I pulled together a large-scale academic conversation around the participatory turn in cultural studies for the International Journal of Communication, Fish was one of the people we included, even though he was one of the most junior participants, because we knew he would have important things to say and he did not disappoint.

He has now released his first book, Technoliberalism and the End of Participatory Culture in the United States. As with his original blog post, the title got my attention and as you will see, it is one of the first things I asked him about in the interview which follows. We do have somewhat different understandings of the scope and limits of participatory culture — not surprisingly — but I really admire what he accomplishes in this book, which I suspect is going to be one which many of us will be engaging with in the years to come, whether because of its contributions to the debates around media policy, its nuanced interpretation of different modes of participation, its rich ethnography in the production studies tradition, or its historical analysis of the evolution of opportunities for grassroots contributions to American television as it undergoes technological change.

We need critical, skeptical voices within the context of debates around participatory culture, but what I value about Fish is that he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He does recognize what is worth fighting for in the struggles around participatory culture. He proposes more rigorous criteria in terms of what counts as meaningful participation; he demonstrates the forces we work against when we advocate for more grassroots participation in the production and circulation of media; he doesn’t mince words when something falls short, but at the end of the day, I walk away with a sense that we are both engage in the same struggles from different tactical and theoretical vantage points.

I threw some challenging questions his direction and he responded with the usual thoughtfulness and originality.  Enjoy!

While the book’s title describes the “end” of participatory culture in the United States, a more nuanced reading of the book suggests that your predictions are a bit less dire than that. After all, you begin with some discussion of the ways that videos of racialized police violence has fueled the #blacklivesmatter movement. So, is it more accurate to say that the book describes the struggle of some forms of participatory culture to survive or have an impact in a world of increasingly corporitized digital media? What do you see as the stake for those of us who advocate a more participatory media scape in the face of the trends you document and analyze throughout this account?

 

Hi Henry, thanks for inviting me to talk with you. I need to begin by speaking to this funny experience I just had with my 4 year old. It is a good segue into different concepts of participation. Her favorite thing to do is this YouTube kids yoga class called Cosmic Kids, wholesome stuff for a family of techno-hippies from California stuck in northwest England! When it ended she came to ask me to start another episode. When I said, “No, honey you can’t watch another,” she retorted with a consternated brow, “Daddy, I am not watchinganything, I am doing something, I am doing yoga!” This illustrates my graded categories of participation. In my opinion, watching is OK, doing is better, and making is the best. (I let her do another one because of this sophisticated answer.)

This hierarchy can be interpreted as elitist, I know, but it is based upon ethnographic work with amateurs and activists stretching their skills, pushing their technologies, and challenging themselves to make things usually only made by paid professionals: television.

Following the typology of Nico Carpentier there is a difference between interaction and participation, as there is between slacktivism and activism, as this spoof video recently parodied. As you and Nico correctly note in a recent discussion, it is a question of intensities, engagement, and ultimately effectiveness. I celebrate intense forms of participation, not interactive engagement, but robust maker culture. If the only option that exist for amateur and activist participation with television is the rare inclusion of the witty tweet or a few seconds of a witness video in a newscast, just to add a bit of cinema verite and social media marketing to a newscast—that to me isn’t participation but rather the circulation of affect or what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism. My book, Technoliberalism and the End of Participatory Culture, is about those exceptional and short-lived moments when television was opened up by new technologies for radical participation—citizen-produced documentaries designed to foment political action.

I’ve wanted to clarify the title of the book in particular to you because it does contain the phrase, “participatory culture,” which you have advanced in media studies. I’ll be the first to admit that “The End of Participatory” part is a bit hyperbolic and the result of some pressure from the publisher. The book does not hypothesize the end of the convergence of bottom-up and top-down collaborations you describe in your book Convergence Culture. Such a statement would be far too normative and universalizing—there is no single “participatory culture” to end or begin.

Furthermore, definitive beginnings, ends, causalities, and dualities seem increasingly unlikely—a theme I’ll take up later. A better title would be “the end of a participatory culture in cable and satellite television production”—doesn’t quite have the same ring, the editors thought. That more nuanced title gets a bit of the irony I hope would be apparent.

Readers of your book Textual Poachers and Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lundt’s earlier work understand that television did provide abbreviated apertures for audience interactivity. But many consider participatory culture to be something that began in earnest with social media. There were brief moments of amateur and activist involvement in television production that usually coordinated with the first few months of the development of a new platform—8mm film, portapak cameras, satellite, cable, camcorders, mobile phones etc. Much of this history in thebook is potted from the excellent historical research of Patricia Zimmerman, William Boddy, Lauri Ouellette, and Lisa Parks and the idealistic work of guerilla television producers such as Michael Shamberg.

So the book looks at the origins and ends of participatory culture in television production during those historical moments as well as the more recent amateur and activist involvements in television production facilitated by the internet. So while the video evidence of police brutality–Eric Garner being choked to death or Walter Scott shot in the back—might be featured as part of a nightly news segment, there does not exist an activist or amateur network where these videos and the public sphere and activism they inspire can develop into social movements.

Its old news now and probably a bit romantic, but this was something Al Gore’s user-generated network Current was at times and what Participant Media’s Pivot network could have done with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord on TV program. As you know, both Current and HitRecord are dead, Current in 2013 in HitRecord in 2016, and with them the idea that television production could and should be democratised.

The media democratisation thesis will emerge again but only in the early halcyonic days of a new transmission medium. One point of the book is that the opening of television provoked by the internet has ended and with it a robust form of participatory culture on television. This concern, however, has provoked me to look for the beginnings of new transmission/networking systems capable of creating that rupture where amateurs and activists can again gain entry into the hegemonic public sphere.

My new book, co-written with Ramesh Srinivasan, After the Internet poses the question: what comes after an internet that is thoroughly surveilled by the NSA, increasingly centralised into gated communities like Facebook, monopolised by corporate mergers like AT&T and Time Warner, unshackled from network neutrality regulations, and manipulated by Russian bots and hackers? We look at activists, indigenous people, politicians, and programmers who are attempting to re-make an internet that is more in-line with their cultural and political ideals and ontologies.

My new research funded by the Leverhulme Trust is looking at how new atmospheric information infrastructures—mesh networked drones, balloons, and the like—can be mobilised by formerly occluded communities to generate new possibilities in participatory networked communication. So I have always studied the more engaged forms of participation which requires higher forms of socio-technical expertise and understanding of policy. Elites, probably, but that is the tribe who create the platforms and affordances that structure communication.

The consequences during periods of participatory closure are that this level of inventiveness, experimentation, and playfulness will decline. As far as diverse content in the hegemonic public sphere is concerned, this will create a deficit of the type of voicefulness Nick Couldry describes. So I see a materialist, softly deterministic and dialectic relationship between the transmission hardware and the messages they transmit. Open systems create the opportunities for radical speech, it isn’t that controversial of a thesis for a student of open source software or a participant in Burning Man.

 

You describe in your introduction a shift from the internet delivering “community theater” to the internet delivering “Hollywood” entertainment. Is this necessarily a zero-sum game? Does one preclude the other? You describe here historically cycles between amateurism and professionalism in media production, but one could argue that there is still much more amateur media being produced and circulated today than ever before and that this grassroots media content is gaining a level of visibility and impact in the culture that would not be matched by earlier versions of this cycle. Without being naive about the ways corporate ownership of platforms and delivery channels potentially restricts what is taking place with amateur media makers, should we also acknowledge that some ground has been gained as a result of the struggles over media access and power your book documents?

 

This duality between “community theater” and “Hollywood” came from one of the unrecognized historians of media participation, the cybernetician JCR Licklider, who criticised television of the 1960s for not being participatory. Licklider understood that the affordances of television would create a path dependency leading not to greater participation, increasing diversification of voice, and a more robust democratic dialogue but less of each. Licklider was writing in the 1960s, and cable in the 1970s, satellites in the 1980s, camcorders in the 1990s, and the internet in the 2000 did, indeed, provide new openings for robust, generative participation online for active individuals and communities.

But as the once opened windows provided by those technologies closed, television returned to being a much more closed media ecology wherein professional ruled not only entrance into studios and networks but, more ominously, a professional logic also ruled the imagination.

 

Patricia Zimmerman in her history of the different marketing logics between 8MM film and 16MM film cameras showed how the camera manufacturers truncated the realm of possibility in order to sell more cameras. 8MM users were branded as incapable of producing film or television grade footage, while 16MM cameras, those were for the aspirational and would-be professional. Had this of been different there could have been the first citizen film journalists in the 1950s, instead we waited until the 1970s or more likely the 2000s for the idea of politically-motivated moving picture production democratization to occur.

There are always outliers but technological path dependencies and socio-cultural expectations cornering the imagination plays a large part in determining the possible future. Again, I admit this is elitist. I celebrate all forms of robust participation but I am also cynical about banality.

Take YouTube for instance, I don’t see “haul videos” and make-up tutorial vlogs as hallmarks of a renaissance of cultural creativity. I understand from reading Brooke Duffy that there is some important gender work going on in these videos but I am concerned that the convergence of bottom-up hype and top-down algorithmic promotion make it seem like this style of video is one of few options for would-be creative individuals. I know there is more than this on YouTubre, but I worry what this limiting of possibility does to the diversity of politicized voices in the public sphere.

YouTube now thinks itself ready to be a proper television network in five cities with branded, syndicated, commissioned, and sponsored content and it is ready to charge subscription fees like a regular cable network. As the book describes, YouTube got to this point of confidence not by empowering citizen video journalists, activists, community organisers, etc. but by patiently pairing simple content creators and advertisers and professionalizing the look of this content through multichannel networks, talent agencies, revenue sharing deals, and building small studios around the world.

The content for the most part is safe for sponsors—when it is not a backlash and public shaming occurs such as with PewDiePie. In this age of fake news, climate change denial, and economic nationalism I doubt this is the tenor of the public sphere the present needs. Unfortunately, this is the kind of content that emergent television networks—even those that come from the grassroots of participatory culture like video sharing sites like YouTube—are producing.

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University.He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia. This project deploys drones to map the undersea fibre optical cable system as seen here at Landeyjasandur, Iceland.

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part Three)

As you note, there has been a struggle throughout much of the 20th century between fundamentalist Christianity and science, particularly around the topic of evolution, but also around issues of sexuality and reproductive rights. How have some evangelical leaders been able to reconcile a concern for climate change with skepticism about what their members often see as the “ideological” nature of modern science?

One of the groups I interviewed were the leaders behind Creation Care, which was a kind of sub-movement at the time of my research in the mid to late 2000s. These were the same people who had worked on “What would Jesus drive?” a highly successful campaign to turn transportation into “a moral issue” for Christian communities.

What one of these leaders told me explicitly is that who is speaking matters to a great extent in terms of establishing the credibility of climate change as a concern within evangelical communities. He called it “blessing the facts,” and told me that the right “messengers” were required in order for evangelicals to take climate change seriously as an issue of concern that required their involvement and action. Climate change for many evangelicals is caught up in politics, science, and environmentalism, and he argued that such messengers are required in order to steer through all of that and make it about “stewardship” and part of the moral and spiritual obligation of Christians.

In some cases, this means mobilizing evangelical leaders, but in other cases, it means bringing in scientists who are also Christians. For example, the head of Working Group 1 for the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports is an active and vocal evangelical and a leading scientist. The history of evangelicals with evolution debates and court cases in the U.S. still matter to many, but it isn’t a central issue in need of resolving for those working on climate change. Rather, those I spoke with sought to rearticulate concern for the environment from and within Biblical frameworks hence the term, Creation Care as an alternative to environmentalism.

This goes back to the earlier point I raised about vernaculars. Those who ‘bless the facts’ aren’t rubber-stamping the science; it’s a much different and more nuanced process based on the moral and ethical contours of climate change. The credibility of messengers, as adjudicators of truth and of what’s meaningful within a Christian context, enable them to articulate climate change as a real and science-based issue that needs to be taken seriously because of what the Bible says about taking care of the poor, caring for Creation, etc. So the scientific facts do matter, but they also come with historical and political baggage, and facts by themselves are not an exclusive route to establishing why climate change should be taken seriously.

Many discussions of the climate change debate posit corporate America primarily as villains, who promote skepticism about climate change claims as a means of protecting their own economic interests or defending their current practices. Yet you also point towards a number of corporate efforts to combat climate change. How effective have these efforts been? When and how do they move beyond what some have called “greenwashing”? How are they able to reconcile support for environmental reform with the profit motives which drive Wall Street?

In the book, I look closely at the work undertaken by Ceres, a Boston based corporate social responsibility organization. They aren’t the only group working on climate change and CSR, but they are one of the leading voices, having focused on this issue since the early 2000s.

Ceres was fascinating for me because it took me out of the world of religion, human and indigenous rights, journalism, science, and democratic obligations and into a radically different set of societal institutions where profit, risk, and investment are the key terms. What Ceres has worked to achieve is a transformation of concerns about climate change into investor concerns that may affect future profits and the stability of corporations. Climate change presents a risk to investors that must be accounted for and managed, and Ceres uses a range of mechanisms to help companies articulate these risks related to climate change as well as the actions they are taking to mitigate these risks.

This discursive shift from climate change to climate risk has produced a powerful response within financial frameworks. It’s not without some critique from those who think Ceres could require more from the range of companies they deal with – particularly those whose bottom line is predicated on contributing to carbon emissions. However, mobilizing a business vernacular in order to reframe climate change as a problem that companies must address is an innovative way of moving towards what Ceres hopes will be increasingly progressive corporate action.

There is a tendency to discuss science in terms of rationality and facts, yet throughout your book, you point to the importance of faith, ethics, morality, and other “softer” human values in shaping how and why people embrace or reject such arguments. How might we develop arguments that better bridge between science and faith, rationality and emotion, pragmatism and morality when thinking about these issues?

In considering climate change as only (or primarily) a science-based or science-laden issue, deeper ethical and moral discussions about our relationships to the natural world and to each other often get lost. This doesn’t mean that scientific findings aren’t vital to understanding climate change, but rather: for broad and diverse publics to come to care about the issue and care enough to take actions about it, climate change needs to become much more than a scientific concern.

In the book, I refer to this as the persistent “double bind” related to climate change – where in order for a rationale to act on the issue to emerge, we must maintain fidelity to scientific findings and move beyond them at the same time in order to explore moral and ethical contours related to the issue.

Recognizing the power of social affiliations and networks and accompanying moral and ethical concerns alongside evidence-based analyses and predictions does take us towards a potentially robust and even more rambunctious public discourse. We have yet to develop the kinds of digital and/or other mechanisms that would actively facilitate this discourse. We’re barely past the gate in terms of thinking beyond a broadcast model of news and information, and in terms of contending with differing epistemologies.

I do think there are glimmers of hope here and there as social movements like Occupy and Idle No More (a Canadian indigenous-led movement) demonstrate in various ways both in terms of their use of media and in bringing together varied groups. My hope is that this book contributes to broader thinking about the social and communal life of facts, and to contending with what it means to have shared goals without shared assumptions about how evidence has come to matter.

 

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies — both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part Two)

You argue that part of the problems is that scientists and journalists have conflicting professional ideologies, which prohibit both groups from being strong advocates for the importance of climate change and the values of any particular plan of action. Explain.

What initially got me interested in thinking about climate change were the debates I had encountered between scientists and journalists about whose fault it was that the public didn’t care (enough) about climate change. Yet, when I began researching this problem, I encountered a lot more common ground between scientists and journalists than might be obvious at first glance, particularly in regards to observing and negotiating with professional expectations of objectivity, distance, and independence.

Encountering the findings of climate change – whether as a scientific researcher or journalists, produces a variety of responses for many that I talked to for this book. For some, there is an absolute obligation as a citizen or as an expert to do something about the predictions related to climate change. For others, there is an obligation to speak about the findings only. Some scientists reach out directly to the public or work through social groups, or even more simply, just endeavor to return the call of reporters.

I came up with the term “near-advocacy” as a way of discussing and acknowledging the wide spectrum of responses that emerge as a result of knowing the facts related to climate change (and often as well, knowing what isn’t known and the long tale of unlikely probabilities that create some of the gravest concerns). Advocacy is a still “a third-rail” for many high level professionals who work in science and journalism. Most don’t want to be associated with or slotted into left or right politics such that their credibility as science experts or journalists is compromised. And yet, these same professionals are often the ones most able to speak about the state of climate change findings and predictions. Navigating what has become a very tricky political and politicized terrain is definitely not for those who lack conviction about the role of science in society.

You note that journalists often struggle with the need to distinguish their role in informing the public with other potential functions such as educating the public about science or advocating for particular policy changes. Why have these functions proven so challenging to work through in relation to climate change? How does the climate change debate bring into sharper profile questions about how journalism functions in the contemporary media landscape?

One of the funniest metaphors I encountered that captures the challenges journalists face was from a journalist who described reporting on climate change as akin to “parking your car under a bunch of starlings.” Whenever I quote this in a talk, I always show a car covered in bird shit and get a good laugh.

It’s poignant on a bunch of different levels because it demonstrates the ways in which journalists enter into rambunctious, concerned, and diverse debates when they report on this issue. I argue that this not only speaks to the kind of issue climate change is, but also to the changing structures, norms, and practices facing journalists as a result of the rise of digital media.

Journalists are now not only expected to report on issues and put information out on a 24/7 basis, but they are increasingly expected to be verifiers and chief discussants. Journalistic methods and approaches as well as the facts they relay have never been more open to public scrutiny. In this sense, climate change is an exemplary issue with much at stake in terms of public engagement, policy, and the circulation of information.

Much of the concern about how climate change is reported on stems from the persistence of climate change denial and mis-information — despite the widespread scientific consensus that climate change is a very real problem with a range of predictions and probabilities. For journalists, the spectre of denial is something they have to contend with constantly whether in response to stories or in the choice of experts. This past year at least one major science publication closed off its comment sections after stories, citing the response to climate change stories in particular.

Recent research has shown that this kind of debate does seem to affect public perception of whether there is scientific consensus, but I also think it’s vital to develop much better digital tools for dealing with these kinds of problems related to public debate and engagement. Shutting off comment sections doesn’t solve the issue, nor does it reflect the robust commitment to democratic discourse that many, including me, argue is required particularly on contentious and far-reaching issues like climate change.

You start your discussion with a consideration of the roles which indigenous peoples, especially those who live in the Arctic region, are playing in informing the climate change debate. What value do you think these forms of indigenous knowledge contribute ? In what ways have their voices been hi-jacked by other players and through what means have they learned to be more effective at speaking for their own interests?

When the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) was released in the early 2000s, it received a lot of attention because of the kinds of predictions it made about how climate change would affect polar regions. It also represented one of the first major and comprehensive attempts to combine indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. Indigenous knowledge about the natural world comes out of a different system, tradition, and methodology so this kind of work – bringing scientific and indigenous knowledge together is not an insignificant challenge. In the book, I look at this challenge from varied perspectives, recognizing the diverse ways in which traditional knowledge offers important insights both historically and currently.

What initially got me interested in the Arctic was the human rights claim that was brought by Inuit leaders and elders before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The claim was intended not only to put indigenous experiences with climate change in the Arctic before a wide public, but also to confront U.S. policymakers regarding their inaction on the very real and ongoing effects related to climate change. As the ACIA had shown and as much of the testimony offered by Inuit hunters and leaders articulated very powerfully in the claim, their ways of life, their means to support their communities, and their culture were being drastically affected by changes to sea ice, permafrost, and other environmental changes.

I come from an indigenous family, and my father is a longtime hunter and outfitter in my First Nation in northern B.C. so these kinds of stories captured my attention immediately. But, when I began to speak to Inuit leaders, I also began to see that climate change, while being a huge issue, was also the latest in a long line of challenges that have required their communities to deal with scientific researchers, media, geopolitics, resource development, and multiple national interests. The book provides a glimpse into how Inuit leaders were navigating both the needs and conversations going on at the level of villages and regions as well as transnational networks and discourses in order to influence Arctic policies and decision-making.

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies — both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

 

 

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part One)

The debate about climate change can often seem perplexing for those of us who take the foundations of modern science seriously.  We can become deeply cynical about why certain players refuse to accept “established truths” and become frustrated by the inability of governments to act decisively to curtail behaviors that are helping to create long-term “risks” for the future of humanity and the planet. Yet, we are never going to make progress in such debates, Candis Callison argues, unless we understand what she calls “the communal life of facts,” unless we develop a deeper understanding of the different epistemological commitments held by diverse players in this argument. Candis Callison’s recently released book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, is a spectacular example of how ethnographic work, especially work informed by the science, technology, and society perspective, might inform our ongoing debates around the environment.
Here’s what I said in a blurb for the book:

“A gifted storyteller who brings enormous empathy and nuance to each group she documents, Candis Callison depicts the current discursive struggles over climate change, as such diverse players as corporate responsibility advocates, evangelical Christians, and Inuit tribal leaders, not to mention scientists and journalists, seek to reconcile the need for dramatic change with their existing sets of professional norms and cultural values. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how science gets refracted across an increasingly diverse media landscape and for anyone who wants to understand how they might be more effective at changing entrenched beliefs and practices.”

Callison’s work ultimately raises core questions around the public communication of science, sharing insights around how advocates and activists might transform this debate. Before she gets there, she seeks first to understand in subtle and complicated ways why these various players believe what they take to be true about our relationships with the natural world. As she does so, she develops a robust account of different  “vernacular” models of climate change that have to be aligned before we can make progress in dealing with these concerns. We are speaking past each other because we see the world in such fundamentally different ways and we will never convince each other unless we understand the diverse languages through which this debate is being conducted. This books makes an important intervention into what remains one of the central controversies of our time.

I read this book with much personal satisfaction. I had been lucky enough to work with Candis Callison, when she was a masters student in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program more than a decade ago, having come to us with an already established professional career as an award-winning journalist. She went on to complete her PhD in Science, Technology, and Society, also at MIT. She is now  an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism and How Climate Change Comes to Matter is her first book, based in part on her dissertation research. Callison was already an intellectual leader in her graduate cohort  in part because of the enormous respect the faculty and other students had for her deep ethical and political commitments, including her desire to use her scholarship in the service of the indigenous community where she grew up in Canada.  I am so proud of the kind of scholar she has become.

Your introduction suggests that you are seeking to better understand a range of vernacular accounts of climate change. How are you defining vernaculars and what do you see as the relationship between scientific expertise and these more popular modes of describing environmental issues?

First of all, thanks for reading my book and for the kind words you say about it. I’m deeply grateful I got to start my graduate life at MIT in Comparative Media Studies. CMS and your Media Theory class are what started me on a path to thinking more broadly about the many and diverse roles media play in, with, and around public engagement.

I started contemplating using the term, vernacular, because of what I experienced when I talked with people who were actively working to mobilize their concerns about climate change. The ways they were talking about climate change drew to a great extent on how they experienced the world, what mattered to them, and how they conceived of a future they wanted for themselves, their social group – and often, for society as well.

The way I’m using the term vernacular borrows from linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology in order to describe these processes I saw unfolding during my fieldwork. How climate change comes to be meaningful outside of a scientific context depends on how it gets talked about and reframed/reformatted/recontextualized within what people are already concerned about. So, for example, Inuit leaders who were at the forefront of global negotiations around climate change talked about it outside of their communities as a human rights issue in order to account for the fundamental changes that have already begun in the Arctic that will affect their ways of life, their cultural and social practices, and the location of their communities.

What was really interesting to think about is how very different concerns related to climate change sound in other contexts. For corporate social responsibility advocates working with Wall Street investors and corporate leaders, climate change concerns were rearticulated as “climate risk” in order to situate the issue within existing financial frameworks that require attention to fiduciary obligations and responsibilities and an accounting for risks that would harm an investment.

In a church setting, evangelicals talked about climate change as being part of Bible-based concerns and dictates to care for the poor and to be responsible stewards of creation.

You describe this debate as much in terms of questions about why the public should care about climate change as  about who or what they should believe. What are some examples of the reasons the groups you study offer for why their members should care about climate change?

Who and what is considered expert is related to a great extent to credibility, and yet how/where are our ideals of credibility formed? In our daily lives, many will trust the word of a New York Times reporter or a MIT-trained scientist – and we’re likely to assume everyone else does too. Our ideals about who and what is credible are inherently social and cultural, based on collective and historical experiences with institutions and a trust in the methods used to arrive at conclusions, analyses, and predictions. That’s the logic behind much of the work done by many environmental activists – they appeal to wide publics to act, based on evidence most will agree is credible.

Amongst those I interviewed and researched for this book, I encountered this straightforward route, but also, a range of alternative means of establishing credibility and expertise. So, my research became about trying to understand the many ways and means by which scientific evidence comes to matter, what kind of an issue climate change is in specific contexts, and how it is articulated as an issue of concern.

I often half-joke now that I would like epistemology to become a household or ‘headline’ word because how we know what we know — and how facts get established — are becoming increasingly open to scrutiny. Just look at the comments after an online story and you see this play out in various ways. But, and this is equally crucial then, the facts that we come to care about and why/how we decide to care about them — the routes by which concern becomes established — are equally important.

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies — both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

On Race and American Television: An Interview with NPR’s Eric Deggans (Part Two)

Broadcast and Cable News is over-whelmingly presented by older white men. What do you see as the consequences of these casting decisions? Why does it matter who “presents” the news and does this matter more in an era where news and opinion are mixed so fluidly than it did in an era where news was presumed to be objective?

There’s two effects here. First, news reports are delivered by people that news producers believe are liked and respected by the audience. Anchors are authority figures on their programs. The best of them exude a sense of expertise, gravitas and believability. If the news is delivered mostly by white males, the audience gets a not-so-subtle message about who in life is considered authoritative enough to deliver the day’s news, and who is not.

Beyond that, I know from my brief stint as a guest anchor on CNN’s Reliable Sources, that TV anchors exert a lot of influence over the content of their broadcasts, particularly on cable news. So restricting the field of anchors to white males also helps lock out a wider range of perspectives when it comes to picking story subjects, guests for shows and strategies for telling stories. it’s no wonder that a recent analysis of five weeks of select cable news shows found 84% of the guests were white; 90% of O’Reilly’s guests were white.

 

Near the end of your book, you stress the value of media literacy as a means of combating some of the noxious trends you identify. Many of my readers are supporters of media literacy education. What are the key lessons would you wish media literacy educators to take away from reading your book?

The biggest lesson here is that profitability and moneymaking guide the lion’s share of decisions made in TV and media. Roger Ailes figured out that most consistent viewers of cable news are older and more conservative, so he figured out a cable news channel to cater to their perspective in Fox News. TV producer Mike Fliess figured out how to get huge ratings among female viewers by building a dating shows around a princess fantasy, so The Bachelor was born. CBS found powerful summertime ratings by building up young, white stars within its Big Brother reality show and exporting them to other reality shows. And because the American public isn’t very tolerant of people who fail, news outlets do a terrible job of covering poverty and the poor. That’s why modern advocates for diversity in media are trying hard to show that TV shows with more diverse casts make more money; because if you can show that a certain strategy brings profits, it is much easier to get media outlets to try that strategy.

I wanted to get your thoughts on a controversy around race in the media that erupted after your book was published — i.e. the #cancelcolbert controversy, which in many ways illustrates many key themes you discuss, both in the role of cable television and the role of new media. How do you think this controversy reflects the ways racial politics is playing out in the media at the current moment?

I wrote about it here. Part of the problem with the cancelcolbert controversy is that it is complex. Suey Park, the activist who started the protest, admits that she doesn’t really believe Colbert’s show should be canceled because someone who manages comedy Central’s Twitter account for the show tweeted a joke without context that has Asian stereotypes in it. Her point is that using such stereotypes in a joke — even when the real joke is that the person using the stereotypes is an idiot — is still offensive. And she rightly doubts that anyone would tell a similar joke like that on a major TV shows about black people — because black people are more likely to object and raise a stink in a way Asians often do not.

So I think Park started this controversy as a way to make comedians think more about the jokes they were telling — not because she actually thought Colbert was racist. But that creates a situation where activists aren’t being totally honest about why they are starting protests, which leave them open to charges of unfairly race-baiting. Park may feel she has achieved her goal by starting the national conversation about Asian stereotypes she wanted. But I’m afraid future protests may fall on more resistant ears if people feel they can’t necessarily trust activists when they say why they are objecting to something.

There seems to be some concerted effort with the casting decisions for this fall’s shows to try to change some of the trends we’ve seen in recent years in terms of the lack of racial diversity on prime time entertainment television. You’ve been raising lots of questions about how racial stereotypes may or may not be reproduced through these series. What should we be looking for as the public gets its first look at these series? A student asked me recently whether it was better to be represented on television in a stereotypical manner or not to be represented at all. Clearly, there are other more desirable options than this binary, but it replicates logics I have heard from entertainment executives, so I wondered how you would have addressed this query.

Look for characters that seem like people and not a collection of stereotypes. In comedies, look for shows where the humor springs from who the character is, not what ethnicity they are. If a person of color is the star of a show, look to see if any other people of color are cast around them as spouses, lovers, friends or relatives. Often, TV shows cast one non-white person in a prominent role and surround them with white characters. Look to see if the characters of color have real lives; often characters of color mostly used to move the plot along or to help the white characters, sometimes to the exclusion of their own well-being.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

On Race and American Television: An Interview with Eric Deggans (Part One)

I wrote in the spring to share some of my experiences serving as a jury member for the Peabody Awards. One of the real pleasures of this process is getting locked in the room with a dozen really fascinating people from many different backgrounds who care passionately about television and who make arguments for and against programs. By the end of the process, you either feel very close to the guy across the table for you or you are not on speaking terms. In my case, for much of the time, the guy across the table from me was Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full time television critic, and the author of the recent book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. Not only did I find myself either agreeing with or convinced by Deggans’ arguments throughout the process but I’ve also regularly been catching up with his journalistic work ever since.  I find him an essential voice as we see ongoing struggles over diversity within American media — from last spring’s #cancelColbert brew-ha-ha to  what it means that we are seeing some increase in the number of people of color on entertainment television this fall.

Deggans’ book provides a big picture of a news and entertainment medium under change — or in most cases, a medium that urgently needs to change and yet refuses to do so. His discussion of racialized politics in American media spans from talk radio and cable news to reality television and fictional programs. He not only goes after the usual suspects — Russ Limbaugh, Fox News — but also shows how some of the same logics and practices surfaces on networks such as MSNBC or even PBS which claim to be more progressive and should know better. This book should be required reading for every media student in the country — both those who will be entering the media industry in some ways and those who are seeking to become better critics and more skeptical consumers. Deggans asks hard questions and doesn’t back away from a fight, but he also brings an insider’s perspective to help us understand what’s taking place inside the news room and production studio as bad calls get made and offensive comments reach the air.

Deggans was nice enough to let me reverse the lens and interview him about some of the book’s core themes and about some recent developments in American television. As we get ready for the start of the fall television season, not to mention this November’s mid-term elections, I hope that his comments will give us plenty to think about.

Let’s start with the word, Race-Baiter, which is the title of your book. What do you see as the stakes in this term — for you, for others who use it — and what does it help us to see about the arguments you are constructing across the book?

The struggle over the definition of the term “race-baiter” is a microcosm of the way some media outlets and political movements have sought to redefine words to serve their current polemical and political interests. In the same way some conservatives managed to turn the word “feminism” into a derogatory term, even for women who clearly believe in the ideas of feminism, others have sought to re-define the word race-baiter from its early uses in describing white politicians who encouraged racial hatred among white people to further their political goals. Now, some idealogues use the term to refer to people of color and white liberals who make allegations of prejudice or racism; the presumption is that these claims are unfounded and unfair — made mostly to gain political or economic advantage.
This is really a different struggle; a way to invalidate the idea of institutional racism or prejudice without ever really arguing the concept directly. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News generally behave as if the institutions of American society are currently fair and treat everyone equally. So, absent overwhelming evidence, they are severely skeptical of any claims that people of color have less wealth, are incarcerated more often, have a tougher time getting good housing or have a tougher time getting into good colleges because of institutional prejudice or racism.
If the term race-baiter can be successfully shifted to refer to people who try to raise questions about institutional racism, then they have created an effective tool for silencing people without ever arguing the concept directly. Because they create a situation where the argument begins with the assumption that American society is fair and people who talk about racism are simply doing so for selfish reasons.
I made it the title of my book because Fox News star Bill O’Reilly tried to silence me in exactly that way, calling me “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country” for my work as chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ media monitoring committee. It’s a group which help develop suggestions of best practices when it comes to coverage of race by journalists and it also recommends nominees to the NABJ board for the group’s Best Practices and Thumbs Down awards. Guess which news outlet won the thumbs down award the year O’Reilly called me a race-baiter?    

For me, part and parcel of resisting such media outlets is redefining the term race-baiter and refusing to accept the new focus conservative media outlets have tried to attach to it. and that will mostly happen by educating the public on how race works in America, how media works, how political speech works and how some media outlets convert these prejudices and stereotypes in big profits.

 

The second part of the title, “How the media wields dangerous words to divide a nation,” implies a strong sense of intentionality. To what degree do you feel that the various media organizations in this book are intentionally seeking to be divisive,to what degree do you think they are indifferent to the choices they make? And does intentionally matter, given the consequences of this divisiveness?

I’m not sure intentionality is possible to discern or even necessary. One of the big problems in analyzing race-based controversies and issues, is that people too often try to peer into the soul of the person at the heart of the controversy and conclude whether or not they are a bigot. But such determinations are often impossible, requiring mind reading of one sort or another. What you can do is look at the actions of a person or institution and look at the results of their actions. If a news outlet consistently features a pundit who compares a black female congress woman to Whitney Houston and tells her to put down the crack pipe because he doesn’t like her political arguments; if another media outlet misidentifies a photo of a young, shirtless black man with his underwear showing flipping “the bird” to the camera, as slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — and then has to admit the photo came from a white supremacist website — then you have to question how those media outlets handle reporting on racial issues.
Different media outlets are superserving the interests of their target audience in order to build loyal followings. But when those tactics include spreading stereotypes and misinformation to reinforce the worldview of one race over the perspectives of others, you have a problem — particularly in news coverage.  

You write early in the book about “the Tyranny of the Broad Niche,” suggesting that a key factor in how race gets depicted on television has to do with the ways some demographic segments are viewed as more economically valuable than others. Can you tell us more about how this “Broad Niche” logic works and what it’s consequences has been in terms of cultural diversity on American television?

Broadcast television in particular is struggling to maintain an audience and its advertising revenue. Advertisers pay most for audiences that are hardest to reach. So that means the most valuable audience in broadcast television per capita is young males, particularly young white males. That’s because more women watch TV than men and people of color watch TV proportionally more than white people.
This means a great many TV shows are aimed at the broad niche of young white men. So most late night comedy shows on TV are now hosted by white men popular with young white male viewers. Seth MacFarlane is a huge force at the Fox network because his animated comedy Family Guy draws a significant number of young male viewers. Unequal standard of beauty exist for women and men on TV shows. There is a lack of diversity among lead roles for network TV shows. In fact,  BuzzFeed featured a story showing that men are 49% of the population, but 57% of characters on the top four broadcast TV networks. White men are 30% of the population, but 50 percent of characters. Asian and Latino men are 11 percent of the population but less than 2 percent of the characters (there are as many robots and magical creatures on TV as Asian and Latino men). The perceived desires of this niche affect programming that everyone watches, giving us all a distorted idea of who gets to have a starring role in real life society, as well.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

 

 

 

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part One)

I was lucky enough to have gotten to know the social-cultural-technological historian Fred Turner during some time he spent at MIT at the start of his academic career, and we have stayed in touch off and on ever since. I have lost count of the number of times I have taught chapters from his landmark book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, or the number of times that I have ended up citing this book in my own research on participatory culture and politics. It came out in a moment when there was so much focus on new media that it was as if the world had developed amnesia — discussing everything as if it had been invented yesterday rather than understanding the ideologies and cultures that had led up to the digital revolution. Turner’s book helped to place the utopian rhetoric I was hearing at MIT around “new media” in a richer, more nuanced, and more historically grounded perspective. It quickly became essential reading in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, which I headed at the time, and indeed, it has been core reading at programs all over the world.

Turner’s new book, The Democratic Surround:Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties expands the terrain even further, showing us how the counterculture itself emerged from the theories of media, culture, psychology, and political persuasion that took shape during World War II and achieved their greatest impact during the Cold War Period. As with the first book, Turner offers what might once have been considered intellectual history — a focus on key thinkers, who in this case, include anthropologists, psychologists, artists and art critics, musicians, communication scholars, photographers, curators, policy makers, and many others — but combines it with social, technological, political and cultural history. The book is full of fascinating people — from Margaret Mead, John Cage, Buckmeister Fuller, to Andy Warhol and Marshall Mcluhan — and he not only reminds us of their own contributions to society, but shows the strong connections across their work.

He shows us how the media (and especially museum and World’s Fair installations of the period) reflected larger aesthetic theories about the forms of perception required to foster a democratic personality, which were in turn shaped by new models of psychology and anthropology, all of which were put in the service of the Cold War. Beyond that, through, he transforms how we think about the politics of the period, pushing through the encrusted critique of the Cold War and the domestic containment of the 1950s, to identify the liberal/progressive impulses that inspired these thinkers, showing how they were more open to diversity, equality, and freedom than had been acknowledge by many recent writers. He doesn’t ignore the blindspots and complicity in their thinking, but he does help us to appreciate why Family of Man, say, was seen as such a transformative work at the time that it commanded the attention of audiences around the world. He challenges assumptions about the propagandistic use of media during the Cold War to focus on what people at the time understood as a more “democratic” approach to spectatorship and in the process, implicitly at least, he suggests some of the roots of the focus on interactivity, nonlinearity, multimodality, immersion, and transmedia in our own times.

Because of his journalistic background, he is an engaging, vivid writer, one who tells compelling stories, but he is also a first rate archival historian and a world class theorist and critic of media practices. His work is at once programatic — in that he now takes us on a history of media and politics from the World War II to the present — and also boldly original — constantly forcing us to look again at things we thought we already knew. I have no doubts that The Democratic Surround is going to be as important a book as From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  Everywhere I have traveled this summer, people have been reading and talking about this book, but if you have missed it so far, you are in for a treat.

I am proud to be presenting the following interview with Turner about the book and its implications for those of us interested in the contemporary media environment.

Henry: Let’s start with the title, The Democratic Surround. Can you explain this concept? In particular, can you speak to the connections your book makes between a political concept — democracy — and an aesthetic approach — the surround? How did these two concepts come together during the period your book documents?

Fred: Well, the book stretches from the late 1930s to the late 1960s and across that time, the thing I’m calling the “surround” took three forms: It was an actual, existing genre of mediated communication; a tool for producing more democratic citizens; and a model of how to organize a well-run democracy. To their promoters, surrounds could help Americans experience a deeply liberating alternative to totalitarian systems. Fifty years later, we can see that surrounds also gave rise to a new mode of management, a mode of self-regulation through media that dramatically shapes our lives today.
To see how the aesthetic and political came together the way they did, we have to go back to World War II. The story takes a bit to tell, but it’s worth it.

In the late 1930s, many Americans were terrified – and baffled – by the rise of fascism. Hitler had taken over Germany, Mussolini had grabbed Italy, Franco had overrun Spain, and Imperial Japan had invaded China. Everyone wondered: How had so many sophisticated nations fallen under the sway of dictators? And particularly Germany – despite World War I, Germany remained a beacon of culture for American intellectuals and artists. How had the home of Goethe and Beethoven fallen for Adolf Hitler?

A surprising number of Americans argued that it must have been mass media that had brought Hitler to power. First, Hitler had taken control of the German media and dramatically restricted what his citizens could see and hear. Second, many believed that the one-to-many dynamics of broadcasting and the print press themselves could turn people into authoritarians: Just being one of the many, tuned in to a single leader, forced you to practice being part of a faceless crowd.

If the problem was mass media itself, many feared could America go the way of Germany – especially because by the time Hitler invaded Poland, fascism had visibly metastasized in the United States. To take just one example, in February, 1939, twenty-two thousand Americans rallied in Madison Square Garden to support German-style fascism here. They cheered under a giant banner that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.”

Fig 1 Bund Parade 10 30 39

German-American Bundists parade swastikas and American flags down East 86th Street, New York, October 30, 1939. Photograph from the New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-117148.

All of this left American leaders with a dilemma at the start of World War II: How could they use media to stir their citizens to take arms against fascism without turning them into fascists?

Two groups actually set out to answer this question, starting about 1941. The first consisted of about 60 social scientists who called themselves the Committee for National Morale. They were really a Who’s Who of American social science at the time — Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Gordon Allport, the list went on and on. Together they believed that every country drew its strength from the individual personalities of its citizens. And if mass media had produced authoritarian personalities in Germany, Americans would need to develop a kind of media that would that would produce a democratic personalities here.

In the Committee’s view, authoritarians were psychologically fractured, unable to reason, bigoted and obedient. Democrats, they argued, should be highly individuated and highly collaborative. They should reason and choose, and above all, embrace the diversity of American society.

To produce such personalities members of the Committee proposed creating exhibitions at museums and in other public halls, surrounding individuals with images and sounds, and freeing them to move among them. These aesthetic environments would give Americans a chance to practice doing the individual work of making meaning of the world around them, but they would do these things in person, together. Surrounded by images, they would collaborate in forming their own democratic personalities and at the same time, a mode of being together that was unified, not massified, American not German.

The members of the Committee didn’t know how to build these environments. But in the late 1930s, a generation of Bauhaus artists had just fled to the United States from Germany. They carried with them very sophisticated designs for multi-screen displays and immersive theaters, and they were more than happy to apply their skills to promoting American democracy. Throughout World War II people like Herbert Bayer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy designed museum exhibitions and media to promote the war effort. They created the spaces that the American social scientists had dreamed of – spaces in which Americans could practice moving their bodies individually together, looking high and low at the world around them, and arriving at a new mode of political unity in the process.

Once the Cold War began, the exhibition designs they created became cornerstones of two seemingly contradictory developments: American anti-Communist propaganda abroad and avant-garde art here at home. In the 1950s, America built a series of multi-media exhibition spaces abroad with the explicit intent of turning the psyches of potential allies and enemies in more democratic (meaning, pro-American) directions. The most famous of these was probably the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate. At the same time, artists such as John Cage opened up the soundscape and the world of performance, with an equally explicit desire to engage their audiences in a world of aesthetic democracy – a place in which every sound, no matter how lowly, would be equal to every other, a world in which the European hierarchies of the symphony no longer held sway. By the late 1960s, Cage’s experiments in particular had helped transform the pro-democratic propaganda aesthetics of the 1940s into the Happenings and the Be-Ins of the counterculture.

Henry: Many of my readers will know your groundbreaking work, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In many ways, this new book represents that infinite regress that historians are prone to do. In many ways, you could have called it From the Cold War to the Counterculture. How do you explain the relationship between the two projects?

Fred: I hope the historical regress here won’t be quite infinite!
I began The Democratic Surround as a way to solve a puzzle I first saw when I was writing From Counterculture to Cyberculture. I’d always been told that the generation of 1968 had rejected the culture of the 1940s and the 1950s. But when I was researching the Whole Earth Catalog crew, I saw that they were steeped in ideas and books from those periods. When they headed out to build their communes, the New Communalists of the 1960s tucked books by their parents’ generation into their backpacks. They read Norbert Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson – and I wondered why. When I went back to those books, I saw the appeal. These thinkers were far more radical than we remember. They and other leading liberal intellectuals of the period challenged the prejudice that ran through American society. They called for the United States to become much more egalitarian, diverse and accepting than it was. Some, like Mead’s teacher and friend, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, called loudly and publicly for racial equality in America more than a decade before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Mead herself gained national renown in part by urging American women to become sexually liberated. And all of these figures saw the personal as political in a way would suffuse the countercultural movements of the 1960s.

By going back to these figures, I’ve been trying to do a few things. On the historical front, I want to de-mythologize the sixties. We’ve labored for too long under the illusion that hippies represented a break in American history and an alternative to mainstream American life. As I hope my last book showed, the New Communalists were in many ways an opening wedge for the hyper-individualized, tech-centered ways many of us live and work today. On the contemporary front, I want to decouple our claims about the social impact of digital media from the dreams to which they’ve become attached. Those dreams flowered in the 1940s, and not only in the technical worlds that brought us computers. They flowered in social science, politics, propaganda – all across public life. Today, we inhabit a multi-screen world in which we manage our lives in terms set by any number of organizations that remain invisible behind the screens. We often imagine that it is somehow digital media that have brought us this world. But they didn’t, or at least, they didn’t do it alone.

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part One)

In 2010, a group of forward thinking scholars, activists, media-makers, and citizen journalists gathered at the University of Toronto to participate in a conference which sought to explore the ways that the emergence of new media platforms and practices was impacting our civic and political lives. I was lucky enough to be asked to be one of the key note speakers at this event, which was organized by Matt Ratto and Megan Boler, and several of my USC colleagues (past or future) Anne Balsamo and Mike Ananny as well as a number of my USC graduate students Kevin Driscoll, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, and Lana Swartz, among them, participated.

In some ways, the discussions at that conference anticipated some of the top political stories of the past few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the “Arab Spring,” from “Binders of Women” to KONY 2012, as we grappled to come up with frameworks for thinking about how the public sphere was shifting in response to the emergence of social media, the ways that community based hacker and maker spaces were allowing people to envision new kinds of civic media technologies and rituals, and the ways that the “digital divide” and “participation gap” threatened the democratic potentials that many of us see within this new media landscape. The conversations at the event were critical — both in the sense that they asked hard questions and refused to accept simple solutions and in the sense that these exchanges were urgently needed if we were to hammer out together some frameworks for understanding how political life operates in the digital age.And the conference also provided hacker and maker space tools where people could work on projects together, putting their ideas into action.

Some years later, Ratto and Boler have released an important new book, DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, published earlier this spring, by The MIT Press, whose contributors are drawn from the conference participants, though in many cases, their arguments were updated to reflect the many ground-breaking stories of social media and political change we’ve seen in the past few years. The essays here could not be more timely; they represent a range of important theoretical and conceptual models, but they are also deeply grounded in concrete case studies and practical experiences. And the result is a book that should matter to anyone who cares about the future of democracy around the world.

I had asked the editors if they could share with us some core insights, specifically helping us to understand the central concepts of the book, and what they see as some of the most important developments to occur since the conference. I am happy to share this interview over the next two installments of my blog.

 

Let’s start by mapping out some of the keywords from your title. DIY citizenship, as developed by you and your contributors, seems to be an especially expansive concept. So, can you share with us a working definition. What relationship does it have to what I and others like to call participatory culture? 

 

Matt Ratto (MR): The concept of DIY Citizenship was originally used by Hartley to extend traditional notions of citizenship associated with civil, political, and social rights.  To these, Hartley added ‘DIY citizenship’ generally meaning the right to self-determine one’s own identity through engagements with the concepts and ideas on offer within the media. According to Hartley, the DIY citizen is one who creates their identity and individuality through a process of choosing from the semiotic material on offer.

While this was the starting place for the book and for the conference that preceded it, we also highlight issues with this definition. In the introduction, we note linkages between Hartley’s notion and the atomistic sense of self that is assumed within liberalism – this is most easily revealed in the obvious connections between Hartley’s ‘DIY citizen’ and the self that is typically assumed by marketing departments. This is namely a fluid, consumerist model of the self that presupposes that we are all equally free to choose from a set of options (nicely provided for us by social institutions) what kind of being that we want to be. It is increasingly obvious that this is not at all true and even, to take it one step further, that the various discourses of semiotic self-determination is often leveraged to hide or underplay structural restrictions that impinge on our ability to choose for ourselves our own identities.

Here we can see one connection to the simplistic notions of participatory culture that were previously to be found in early work on Free Libre Open Source Software that emphasized open participation by all. While the rhetoric was about freedom and openness, the communities themselves were often anything but – and for sometimes good reasons since the work involved often required very specific forms of expertise (e.g. the writing of Linux device drivers.) This is one connection we might draw between DIY Citizenship and Participatory Culture –both are manifested and driven forward by a central contradiction that exists between openness and closedness, between a reliance on a sovereign, DIY self and the self that is imposed upon us.

 

Megan Boler (MB): More specifically, examining the characteristics of participatory culture (Jenkins 2006), it becomes apparent that indeed many of the projects described in this edited collection exemplify quite precisely ‘participatory culture’ at work:

‘1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement 2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others 3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices 4. Where members believe that their contributions matter 5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).’ 

We suggest that beyond its reiteration of the practices of participatory culture, the notion of DIY citizenship pushes us to ask questions about self- and collectively-determined political affinities, coalitions, and aims – and how we work to construct both them and ourselves. One can conceivably have all sorts of DIY activities that are not explicitly seeking political voice or membership or effect.

 

MR: Exactly, Megan, and many of these activities do seek to intervene in the semiosphere and in this sense can be understood as political activity. This aspect of participatory culture is emphasized in our use of “DIY citizenship” but equally in the development of “critical making” that occurs within the collection. Whereas DIY citizenship emphasizes the dialectic between sovereign and structured self, the term critical making emphasizes the reflexive, praxis oriented engagements and interventions that emerge from diverse indy or collective energies. Critical making is about reflecting on how we build ourselves, our cultures, and our institutions through processes of material engagement. Thus the ‘critical making’ is key to distinguishing the “politics” of culture as well as an extension of participatory culture.

 

One of the challenges that have historically clung to the word, DIY, is the focus on individualism. You in English is especially slippery since it can be both singular and plural. So, the you in YouTube and its slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” has often been read in terms of personal expression, where-as most notions of the civic start with the idea of shared interests and collective action.  Some have suggested a shift to talk about “doing it ourselves.” How have you and the other contributors to the volume addressed this issue? 

 

MB: Yes, the very term “DIY” ideally provokes debate of this sort.  “DIY” was chosen for the title and the common referent because of its more common usage, but the underlying question is not of small consequence.  As suggested increasingly in diverse scholarly works about social media and networks, there are genuine questions about how best to describe the contemporary experiences of “self” and “individual,” — whether a coherent notion of the individual is indeed even possible any longer;  whether and how this individual is distinct from the liberal individual — all questions that poses  a persistent challenge to many critical scholars. Yet–at the same time–the notion of ‘yourself’ cannot be avoided, and will always be overdetermined. To substitute DIO or DIT loses a signifier that has much broader connotations in our contemporary culture.  In our Introduction we address this fraught question, and outline alternative conceptions such as  “DIT” (Do it together), DIY as in the plural, DIO (do it ourselves). My own research suggests that we may need to develop a new concept like “collective individualism,” to try and capture the  collectivity of the You so distinctively featured in this mediated era of pluralistic self-expression.  I come to this having been intensively studying the recent shifts from “collective” to “connective” action, a shift which arguably is closely tied to the growing  role of networked connectivities that increasingly constitute our globalized collective identities. Social media and networks encourage new forms of connectivity, which are distinct from a collective identity but not solely an aggregation of individuals.

 

One of the striking features of the original conference you hosted and now of this collection was the ways you were exploring a way to bridge between new forms of activism and the emergence of Maker culture, which has not always been understood in political terms. What might this collection teach us about the political and civic dimensions of the Maker movement? Another way to ask this would be what is “critical” about “critical making.” 

 

MR: Yes,  this bridging is definitely an important part of the overall project – and to explore the bridge between maker culture and academic practices as well! This occurred more at the conference where we supplemented more standard academic talks and plenaries with a HackSpace where other kinds of projects could be encountered. (The academy still need to work on incorporating such forms within our larger scholastic practices – but this is a longer term project…). More importantly, an obvious aspect of maker culture today is that it increasingly follows a larger social trope of innovation and entrepreneurship. While there is nothing wrong with this, this move does de-emphasize some of the more overtly political maker actions of the past. In some ways, the move from ‘hackers’ to ‘makers’ mirrors the move from Free Software to Open Source. Both discursive developments are about depoliticizing the processes while maintaining their pragmatic effects – a sort of stripping away of the value-laden aspects while keeping the utilitarian. Despite this, there are still makers who remain focused on moving beyond the linguistic to other forms of political activity. Understanding making as critical – whether the making of gardens, of new forms of media– is a key focus of the collection.  As we note in the Introduction, “Critical making signals the ways in which productions–whether of video, web-based communications, gardens, radio transmitters, or robots–are understood as politically transformative activities….Critical making invites reflection on the relationship  of the maker” to processes of production.

 

Megan Boler is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at: www.meganboler.net

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.

 

Civic Paths “By Any Media Necessary” Hot Spot

 

Henry Jenkins introducing “By Any Media Necessary,” the Spring 2014 Civic Paths Hotspot Vimeo.

Hot Spot Overview: “By Any Media Necessary”

By Liana Gamber-Thompson

How do we foster a civic imagination? That’s the question Professor Henry Jenkins asks us to consider in his video intro. Of course, there is no one answer to that question. That’s why we’ve kept the topic broad for this Hot Spot, our semesterly collection of mini-blog posts organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group.

We’re calling this collection of posts “By Any Media Necessary” because it gets at the myriad ways that social and political change happen in the age of digital media. Henry explains:

At the heart of the phrase “By Any Media Necessary” we’re building upon Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any means necessary,” but we’re saying today change will come, not through a single media platform, but by the ability to coordinate your message across many different channels, to reach many different publics with multiple messages, all serving some shared vision of what political change needs to be.

In that spirit, we invite you to explore the multiplicity with us through this collection of posts that touches on many interpretations of what it means to effect change “by any media necessary.”

First, Andrew Schrock draws parallels to previous generations of “ethical engineers” to describe how “civic hackers” attempt to bring about institutional change through community-based work and technological production. He argues that civic hacking serves as a mode of political participation closer to civic engagement than hacker cultures aligned with activism or software production.

Diana Lee looks at the recent “I, Too, Am Harvard” Tumblr campaign to shed light on the ways young people are using online spaces and new media platforms to take a stand against their everyday lived experiences of racism as well as institutionalized structures of inequality.

Kari Storla examines how survivors of rape are using a variety of media forms to talk about their experiences of sexual assault and to communicate about a subject matter that is often rendered invisible in public discourse and cultural representations. She considers how humor is employed to open up conversations about rape and rape culture.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik provides her account of a recent workshop, “Think Critically, Act Creatively,” at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning conference. She draws on her experiences to think about how tapping into our civic imaginations and engaging in acts of “critical utopianism” can broaden our conceptions of what’s possible for social change.

Raffi Sarkissian shares several case studies of queer activism and shows us how the web is just one arena in which queer-identified and LGBT youth are exerting their voice and garnering visibility. He looks at both on and offline strategies used in contemporary queer activism, urging us to look at the variety of ways LGBT youth are asserting their influence.

Lastly, Yomna Elsayed describes the shifting nature of popular representations of American Muslims, examining their reception both within and without the Muslim community. From the appearance of a veiled Muslim woman in a Super Bowl Coca-Cola ad, to one Muslim woman’s attempt to normalize her experiences as a “Muslim Hipster,” she describes how such representations, however fraught, continue to broaden the national conversation about Muslims in America.

We hope this collection inspires you to think critically about what a kind of activism that relies on “any media necessary” might look like in 2014. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section because we believe you can’t have a theory of change unless it’s also constantly growing and evolving.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part Three)

Many adults discourage youth from creating and sharing media online because of what they see of the “risks” involved. How realistic are these risk framings? How have the youth and their parents included in your study thought about these issues?

Concerns about posting materials online are logical, because posting personal material may lead to unfortunate consequences. People have gotten fired or been denied diplomas because of things they themselves posted online. We know that government organizations and businesses such as operators of social network sites are using our data for their own ends, such as for profit or to maintain forms of power. Many families continue to post images of themselves and their loved ones online without necessarily stopping to reflect on the consequences of their acts.

As I argue in my book, people often hold varying or even conflicting representational ideologies, or ideas about what is ethical to post. In some cases, people may be unaware of how their data is being used. I asked one mother how she felt about advertisements being posted to her videos, and she said she really had not yet formed an opinion. In other cases, people are more than happy to post human images, arguing that the tremendous benefits, social connections, and self-actualization that they have achieved ultimately outweigh the risks involved in being so public with their personally-expressive media.

I would expect to see many more of the type of media skirmishes that I describe in my book as people argue over who has control or ownership of their own images or images that others have taken of them. As some scholars have suggested, we may need new terms that include more collectively-oriented versus personally-generated media making, so that we can understand in a more fundamental way what collective image production entails.

Mechanisms might be developed to reduce risks such as current experiments with short-term media that is automatically deleted after a certain time. Yet, the problem with those mechanisms is that once something is mediated, it always has the potential to continue to be copied, circulated, downloaded, remembered, and viewed in perpetuity. Long ago, Kitzmann (2004) used the example of a diary left on a city bus to show how even the most quiet and personal mediation always holds the potential to become public. Think of how diaries may be used after someone’s death to understand their personality, when in reality it is only one piece of the identity puzzle.

I can envision this explosion in media potentially leading to two trends. On the one hand, the proliferation of private images online may be a kind of equalizer, in that most everyone will have pictures of them posted by their families and friends. The potential for everyone to have at least one embarrassing picture may be too common to cause serious harm to a particular individual.

On the other hand, though, we could see the emergence of a two-tiered image-based society in which those families and people who have been more cautious about circulating public media will have a status-advantage over those who have “gone Kardashian” and posted every moment, even unflattering or unethical ones, of their lives online. Unlike the Karashians however, people without financial resources who post too much of their lives online may find themselves in a digital-image-based lower class, and they may struggle to obtain access to jobs and education because of what they have publicly shared. Knowing what to post is beyond a doubt a crucial digital literacy in today’s self-image-laden media environment.

 Home movies were historically an archival medium, much like amateur photography — a way of recording the stages of the child’s growth into adulthood or the ongoing life of the family. What has changed about the kinds of media being produced in families today? What new genres of production are emerging and why?

In prior eras in the United States, home movies were, as Chalfen (1987) observed, about preserving memories and charting personal progress. The things that were recorded were often important events or milestones in a person’s life such as weddings, graduations, and the arrival of a new car.

Although those functions have not gone away, we’re seeing more experiential-type videos where people record an experience of even small moments such as going to a coffee shop or going on a walk. Part of the fun of the experience is the recording and posting of the video. The phenomenology of the mediated moment, or how we experience recording and circulating media, includes more instances in which people experience something in a way that is deeply intertwined with the delight and anticipation of sharing the media to potentially wider audiences. In some cases, people post videos for people who cannot attend the event or experience, and so the video helps friends and family go along for the ride. Posting the videos helps self-select an audience (in Warner’s [2002]) sense for those viewers who interpellate themselves as interested parties.

People often wonder why such small moments get recorded and circulated so publicly, and critics tend to see these activities as narcissism on the part of the video makers. But as some pundits have observed, it is often rather the reverse; it is narcissistic of audiences to assume that they are the central viewing target of a video that is quite clearly not at all intended for them. YouTubers and video bloggers have told me that their sense of humor or personality tends to shine through in their videos—both the planned and experiential varieties—and they often attract like minded viewers who may eventually even become friends in the traditional sense (as opposed to the casual social media sense).

Experiential videos are about cementing friendships when people cannot be physically present and attracting new friends who happen to share similar interests or worldviews but who are not physically co-located. As my ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media shows, YouTubers have continued a long Internet tradition of making an effort to meet the people with whom one has established interesting or meaningful connections online.

 There’s a tendency to talk about the public circulation of these videos in terms of self-branding or self-promotion. Is this an adequate explanation for what motivates these young people to post their works online?


Although it is certainly part of many people’s online experiences, self-branding is not the only game in town in online spaces. Social media and YouTube offer plenty of fuel for critics to express concern about how rampant self-promotion complicates authentic dialogue.

But at the same time, people share media for many reasons, often related to aspects of friendship and sociality. Sometimes, the point of making a video is to share an experience with people who are there, and with people who cannot be there. The moments may be small and unimportant to most viewers, but they hold meaning to the people who make and post these videos.

Flashy self-promotional videos may attract attention and receive more criticism in mainstream professional media because focusing on this aspect of media making, rather than the myriad other forms of socially-driven media, becomes another way of creating delineations between vernacular video and professionals. However, many kids are quite capable of shining a light on important problems that are difficult to tackle.

It is also important to keep in mind that self-promotion has long been seen as important for cultivating future job opportunities. “Networking” for jobs and opportunities is considered an essential skill, and has long been a necessary part of successful professional life. Judging young people negatively for self-promotion sometimes smuggles in a moral judgment about who should have the permission to break beyond the sometimes closed doors of professional media making, when in fact these skills are broadening across the population.

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.