Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eighteen, Part Two): Julie Levin Russo and Hector Postigo

Technology and Control

HP: One of the things we talked about during our meeting in Providence was how new media technologies, especially the internet, can potentiate changing conditions and relations vis a vis consumers and producers? I’ve sort of touched on this a bit above with my comments about how the web allows for mass broadcast of previously isolated products. So I think user production and fan contributions and their value (i.e their exploitability) are a function of the medium. Fan fiction for example, has been around for some time and their communities have been able to coalesce and remain together over time thanks to zines and fan cons and other social/communication enterprises. I think that the web adds an element of mass broadcast to fan production such that we are talking about fan products as content; as part of the commoditized information flowing out of the pipe. So I don’t think we can any longer ignore the political economy of fandom. One of the interesting points that comes of all this is the question of control. If all this production is entering into some sort of relation with capital how is it controlled? The relations we discussed above are social relations but they happen through a technology so we could ask ourselves to what extent does the technology of the internet shape/is shaped by the productive relationships?

JLR: I’m so glad you asked! Control is a fruitful concept for articulating the economy with technology because, as the story of late capitalism goes, a new configuration of control is now coming to the fore: one which is just as horizontal, localized, and networked as the field of production on which it operates. Rather than enforcing prohibitions, it organizes possibilities and enables free movement within them — often mobilizing technology to do so. In Protocol, Alex Galloway suggests that today we commonly experience hybrid grids of control, and offers the anatomy of the internet an as example: it combines the top-down architecture of DNS with the distributed architecture of TCP/IP. I often notice an analogous strategy at work in proprietary fan-driven content initiatives, where the confining threat of legal muscle is overlaid on a structured platform for creative license, striking a compromise that (when it’s successful) is tolerable to both sides. What’s clear is that, at this point, if we’re looking out for hierarchical, centralized diagrams of power, we’re going to sail right over the terrain of struggle. Web 2.0 is seductive in its user-centric mentality, but in exchange for the convenience and scale of social media we accept (literally, by ticking the box on the TOS) its given parameters, both technological and economic. Recently fandom is beginning to wise up to this dynamic and work towards building an infrastructure that is user designed, owned, and operated.

HP: I like the idea of alternative infrastructures that resist the commercial iterations of things like Web 2.0 driven social enterprises. I wonder to what degree power in this system of sociability/production/distribution is dependent on technological know-how. Will only those that can design infrastructure be able to challenge protocol with a counter-protocol? I would take a lesson from Langdon Winner and say that not all of us have to be technologist but it’s in all our best interests to be concerned with the technological structures that consistently arise around us. We walk around in a state of what he calls “technological somnambulism” where before we know it we are moving through systems (social and technological) that were not democratically designed nor designed with the interest of democracy in mind. To what degree is this happening in participatory culture…to what degree has protocol taken shape around us without our input and without consideration to the values that users/fans/etc hold dear?

To get to the question of gender and technology it seems that these are not only pressing questions for participatory culture but also questions about how technologies embody gendered/sexist assumptions of what it means to produce in the digital world. Pointing to the troubling trend, when a technologies or professions become populated by women the economic rewards for the work decrease…the idea may be related to class too as for example when we say that a technology “is so easy to use anybody can do it” what we mean is that it’s lost its elite status because not only college educated white men can use it but also everyone else of any class, educational background, and gender. In the logic of supply and demand of course this would dictate that the supply is increased and thus the value is decreased but I don’t think this maps out in the area of cultural productions where conversations, reconstructions, and networks create value…in these cases the fact that anybody can do actually adds value but the elitist rhetoric holds it back when viewed from a market perspective.

JLR: Interestingly, this gendered revaluation can also move in the opposite direction: some occupations, such as film editing and computer programming, were initially understood as repetitive, detail-oriented labor that was thus feminized and performed primarily by women, and then later masculinized into elite technical skills. And while one sentence isn’t much of a corrective to the white- and US-centric slant of this project, I’d like to note that there’s a global dimension of inequality here too, as devalued forms of work are often relegated to the world’s as well as the nation’s “second-class” citizens.

One cause for optimism in the localized case of media fandom is that it’s always been full of geeks — women with highly-developed expertise in digital technologies — and thus surfed the first wave of innovation throughout its decades-long history (thanks to Francesca Coppa for reminding us of this). Moreover, fandom is collaborative, so it’s not necessary for us to be cultivating a counter-protocol on an individual basis when we collectively have a resevoir of competences to share. In any case, these are all good examples of the myriad ways technology intersects and intertwines with power, gesturing toward the merits of exploring, within our academic work, the particularities of its role in fan practice and fan/industry relations.

[Read more…]