Sunday, November 10, 2013

Celebrating Erasmus University's 100th Birthday & honoring Arjun Appadurai

What a wonderful event ! It was the 100th anniversary of Erasmus University Rotterdam on Nov 8th and for that, they did not cut corners to say the least. The event was at the de doelen, a massive orchestra house which I had never been to until now, in spite of living in the Netherlands for four years now. The hall was packed with invite-only guests that were fed a four course meal, unlimited drinks and wonderful dessert. I believe there was at least a couple of thousand people overall.  It was indeed a spectacle and I could see many Erasmus University alumni getting rather sentimental about their time at the university.
De Doelen
Erasmus University Campus 2013
Also, thank god the construction is gone and we now have a much improved campus. Since I came here years ago, I have gotten used to cranes and re-routes to classes and mountains of mud and construction signage all around. What a relief it is now over.

Organizing Committee: Karin Willemse, Filip Vermeylen and Payal Arora
Also, my faculty of History, Culture and Communication commemorated this occasion by nominating Arjun Appadurai for the honorary doctorate. I was fortunate to be nominated alongside Filip Vermelyen and Karin Willemse to organize a symposium for Arjun prior the big event. It went smoothly overall, with stimulating conversations with top scholars such as Patricia Pisters, Patricia Spyer, Peter van der Veer, Helmut Anheieir, and Peter Gerschiere

Overall, a great week is now come to an end. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Frontiers of New Media Symposium at University of Utah

So am back from the University of Utah, having participated in their Frontiers of New Media symposium. The location of Utah is not a coincidence. In 1969, the University of Utah was the fourth of four nodes of the ARPANet. It is popularly believed that the birth of the ARPANet, and later the Internet, marked the beginning of this "new frontier." To top it off, this year, the National Security Agency’s “Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center” will be completed in Bluffdale, Utah. This data center will be a key archive of the electronic communications of individuals all over the world.

In light of the PRISM/NSA scandal, this years symposum theme was "The Beginning and End(s) of the Internet: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Future of Cyber-Utopia." The speakers came from diverse disciplines including law, sociology, cultural studies and communication. Ron Deibert opened the symposium with an alarming keynote on the extent to which we are being watched. He drew from research taking place in his Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research and development hothouse working at the intersection of the Internet, global security, and human rights. Pretty exciting stuff going on in that lab I must say and very relevant given the pervading issues on security and privacy. Geert Lovink followed this with a more hopeful tone in his keynote, emphasizing the activism, hacktivism and other initiatives that are going on to keep the internet diverse and open. One of the many interesting examples that he gave was the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine  that allows you to actually erase your digital past completely and guides you systematically so through this process. What an amazing idea! Interestingly though, Lovink mentioned that Facebook has slapped a lawsuit...just goes to show us how powerful these social media companies are but more importantly, a small grassroots act can rattle the biggest of corporations.

Of course there is an ongoing battle on the right to being forgotten which is by no means resolved but is well worth the fight. There is a new book out -Virtual of forgetting in the digital age by Prof. Mayer-Schönberger, which actually has a promo on YouTube (cool strategy in academia I have to say! I should remember that when promoting my book :-)

Anyway, my presentation, “From the Wild Wild West to the Global City: Spatial Metaphors across Internet history on the globalizing and architecting of digital space” is drawn from my upcoming book, "The Leisure Commons: A Spatial History of Web 2.0" by Routledge. Here is an abstract of my talk. The video should be out soon. Will keep you posted!

Over the decades we have learnt to conceptualize the Internet with the aid of metaphors, including that of the city to grasp its information highways, networks, the underlying logic dictating movement and nodes of concentrated social action (Arora, 2011, 2012; Castells, 2009; Mitchell, 1996; Lessig, 2006). By equating the Internet to the city, we are compelled to extend our imagination by applying our understandings of urban planning and geography to current conversations on the shaping of Internet spaces. The persistence of this parallel has matured significantly from the utopic notion of the web as a frontier of limitless and depoliticized western space (Barlow, 1996; Rheingold, 1993) to a more architected and socio-economic phenomenon of a propertied and contextual digital place. As we enter the political economy of algorithms, the erection of walled gardens and state firewalls to confine as well as protect, and hyperlinked networks that capture concentrations and flows of digital power worldwide, there is an urgent need to frame such global mappings of the Internet and its varied implications. This paper uses the metaphorical parallel of the city as Internet and capitalizes on the rich literature surrounding the globalization of the cityscape or what is referred to as the global city (Sassen, 2011), command centers that serve as fulcrums for the industrial, creative, leisurely, and the privileged as well as the laboring and migrant class. This effort allows us to borrow from the field of urban studies and extend important debates surrounding globalization of the geographical domain to its virtual counterpart- the Internet, to better confront its political, socio-cultural and economic dimensions and online/offline intermediations. Further, this paper historically maps out the shift in spatial metaphors that have been instrumental in conceptually architecting digital space and highlights the policy consequences of such shifts.
In drawing parallels between the Internet and global city, we see the persistence of the core-periphery nodes and hierarchies dictated by factors that are political, corporate, affective and culturally based. While certain command centers persist such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, we also see the rise of digital leisure networks that are becoming more issue, interest, group and location based such as Nextdoor, Black Planet, and Beautiful People. We also witness the indigenization of dominant networks such as Facebook wherein its usage allows for a diverse spatial representation that may have little resemblance to the original Facebook ethos. In a sense, the more global these command centers get, the more nebulous its ideology becomes as it’s impossible to impose its unique socio-cultural norms onto its substantive transnational and transcultural digital inhabitants. Additionally, it is argued that far from being disembedded from the nation state, the Internet seems represent a nation’s culture; several digital platforms have been designed for specific regions and audiences such as South Korean’s Cyworld, Latin America’s Migente, and Germany’s Studivz, as well as Google’s Orkut in Brazil. That said, we need to view these command centers not as individual nodes of power but as strategic clusters of circulating networks and capital. In the age of the hyperlinked and hybermobile community we need to pay attention to the flows between these sites and not solely that of its individual structures as the former allows for more dynamism and change. We need to consider Internet mediations between the physical and the virtual, where offline moments transform into digital memories to be consumed and played with and vice versa. Also, while new ICTs make possible the impressive blurring of lines between the real and the virtual, much of the world’s inhabitants reside in a pre-digital world and are invisible publics that have somehow slipped past the database that appears omnipresent. Poverty, rurality, criminality, and the perverse gain little attention within this larger discourse on the globalizing of the Internet. Going back to the analogy, it’s much like examining a city without taking heed of their vast slums, often where half their inhabitants live, work and play. Hence, this paper argues for the strategic use of spatial metaphors such as the global city to enrich our understandings of contemporary Internet spaces and its globalizing trajectories by being more encompassing of the marginal and the diverse, the labor and the leisurely, and the virtual and the material.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

2 New Papers Out on First Monday: Museum 2.0 & the Fashion Blogosphere

What a wonderful day to see 2 of my Masters students get their thesis published as papers in one of my favorite journals - First Monday. This journal is one of the first open access journals dedicated solely to the study of the Internet. It has published excellent and pioneering texts from several renowned scholars such as Howard Besser, danah boyd, John Seely Brown, Edward Castronova, Paul Duguid, Nathan Glazer, Eszter Hargittai, Lev Manovich, Helen Nissenbaum, Trevor Pinch, and Richard Wiggins.

So proud of Jessica Verboom, and Kristina Sedeke, both wonderful young scholars and practitioners.

So the first paper by Jessica Verboom , 'Museum 2.0: A study into the culture of expertise within the museum blogosphere' is on how museums are addressing the rise of social media and how this challenges the notion of expertise in the art world. The abstract below gives a glimpse of what its about:

While studies on popular culture have a more vast understanding of the impact of the participatory culture on experts and expertise, there is a dearth of literature on the impact of Web 2.0 on museums, which are established authorities within the cultural field. We aim to answer the following research question here: who are the experts and what is the nature of their expertise in the museum blogosphere? In addition, we look at the spatial culture on these museum blogs and its role in shaping expertise. We address this question by conducting a content analysis on a sample of the top ten ranked museum blogs, and find that new experts have entered the playing field and expertise is constructed in the personal and social context of an entertainment-oriented blogosphere. Click here for the full text

The second paper by Kristina Sedeke, 'Top ranking fashion blogs and their role in the current fashion industry' is about how the fashion industry is responding to the rise of the blogosphere and the new role of experts in this realm and their influence in this fashion arena.The abstract below gives a glimpse of what its about:

Within the last decade, fashion has become more of a global industry catering to complex and transnational customers of diverse lifestyles, religions, and cultures which makes the recognition and identification with particular customers more complex. Simultaneously the radical change in communication allows users to participate, follow and discuss any trends and fashion news easily for any collection and purchase them online. In particular, the blogosphere has become a prime arena within which fashion consumers reside online, bringing to question who and what are the influencers within these new digital and cultural spaces in the fashion industry. Blogging in general is considered as a new form of online journalism, enjoying great attention of users, based on a personal and interactive approach, versus the standardized treatment through mainstream media. Fashion blogs are perceived as a street of fashion, as a source of authenticity and a display of the actual use of fashion by the general public. However, fashion bloggers are looked upon skeptically by the fashion industry as they may not have the proper expertise guaranteeing quality and credible reporting. This new cultural sphere continues to be resisted by established and well-known fashion brands and designers who do not incorporate them into their corporate communication. This is not to say that fashion bloggers are not influential; in fact, these amateur-experts have proven an impressive capacity to build up a wide audience following, and have even influenced mainstream media and the fashion industry. While we are aware of these trends, few studies have shed light on the nature and characteristic of this new cultural and online domain of the fashion industry. Thereby, this paper focuses on some of the most effective blogs and bloggers, delving into who they are, what kinds of strategies do they employ to attract a wide audience and what are the range of characteristics that make an effective blog. The aim of this paper is to enhance the understanding of this new cultural realm, especially in three avenues: identity of bloggers, the culture of space of their blogs, and their actual or possible use as a tool of fashion marketing and brand management. Click here for the full text

Monday, July 1, 2013

General Electric Panel on Cutting through the hype (Helsinki WCSJ 2013)

General Electric Panel Helsinki Finland June 26 2013 (WCSJ)

Just got back from Helsinki after speaking on the GE sponsored panel on energy at the World Conference of Science Journalists 2013 (click here for the live video recording of our panel talk). And yes, before you even go there, it is true that I'm not an expert on energy. In fact, ask me a question on wind turbines or solar energy or whether or not fracking is good or bad for the environment, and I would just advise you to Google these issues instead. So where do I fit in on a panel with Haydn Rees, the managing director of Clarke Energy or Rhys Owen, Deputy Editor of Global Water Intelligence or Tom Freyberg, the Chief Editor of WWi Magazine?

Simply put, there is no escaping the conversation of social media infiltration into all corporate spheres, including that of the energy world. In a forum such as this where science journalists are confronted time and again with the hype on citizen scientists and amateur journalism as somehow more authentic, there is need to talk about the impact of Web 2.0 on communicating science to the public. Today, science journalists are expected to be more flexible in their expertise, be able to move seamlessly through multimedia platforms and transform their language constantly to suit the needs of the diverse audience out there in the Twitterverse to the Blogosphere.

There is concern about reductionism and popularization of science and the compromise of the integrity of the science journalist as s/he views this as selling out to mass appeal. But as we see this play out, it is hardly a choice of amateur versus the expert but rather we need to view this new communicative landscape in its spectrum of pitfalls and opportunities. For instance, at the conference there was much talk about data checking departments being shut down due to budget cuts and the genuine concern by journalists on making sure their reports were cross-checked for errors and misinformation. Here, crowdsourcing can come in handy where citizens volunteer to do that for experts and lend to the vigor of the article rather than diminish it. (This is not to advocate for it replacing professional data checking but given the financial crisis within the field of journalism, this provides some solace to journalists looking to maintain their quality of reporting).

Also, when citizens take an interest in science through participation, this also increases the audience for science journalists. When there is personal involvement in the making of science news, this is bound to generate an interest in consuming such news. Also, science journalists need to view these amateurs as possible mavens, disseminating critical science through the numerous channels of mass media, framing it in numerous ways beyond that which is institutionally endorsed by the state and corporate entities. While by no means am I an uncritical enthusiast for the much talked about wisdom of the crowds and collective intelligence phenomena, I do see the potential in amateur involvement. What would be worse is public indifference to science where decisions are made through primarily emotion and not understanding of the ramifications of science in our daily lives.
What struck me was how much in common the art market has with the world of science. Currently, one of my research projects entails gauging the impact of social media on the traditional gatekeepers of the art world such as museums, galleries and art critics. Much like science journalists, art experts are far from redundant in this information deluge. Experts are very much entrenched to guide audiences through this maze of data online but what has changed is the nature of expertise in their communicating and networking abilities that requires re-addressing. Basically, the role of the science journalist as the primary interface in the golden triangle of the scientist, state and the industry is over. Today, there are multiple intermediaries due to the affordances of new media and the changing appetite of the public for more accessible science. There have been a number of studies that demonstrate that the public accesses their science and technology information primarily through the medium of entertainment such as the television (NSB 2008; Pew Research Center on People and the Press 2008). Social media platforms come second as a source for investigating more on specific science issues such as climate change.

Of course, this comes with a whole host of problems including the promotion of pseudoscience and the hijacking of the Google algorithm by concerted parties. That said, if we are to Google water and nuclear energy debates, what we get are a range of results that are not all corporate-oriented. For instance, the search results for water debates are biased toward conversations around water conservation in Australia and New Zealand while the nuclear energy debates seem to be driven by a non profit 'Do Something. Org.' In other words, it isn't necessarily the commercialization of algorithms that has pervaded as internet pessimists have predicted but rather a cat and mouse game between corporate, non-profit and other special interest groups that fight to dictate the search for science issues, shaping how the public constructs and processes them as fact.

Contrary to popular belief, this emphasis on public engagement cannot be credited solely to social media. In fact, if we are to look at public policy on science dissemination, well in the 1980s, from the UK to the Netherlands, there was a concerted effort to make science public and promote what is called as 'deliberative democracy.' In 1985, the Royal Society in London issued a report on The Public Understanding of Science, where it was the moral responsibility of the state to make transparent its expenditure by explaining science investments in layman terms and connect it to the everyday life of citizens. Or take for instance the Broad Societal Debate around Energy Policy (BMD) in the Netherlands in the early 1980s. The Dutch Parliament was instrumental in organizing broad societal debates pre-Facebook era on a range of science agendas including cloning, GM-food and xeno-transplantation.

This historical rootedness can be found even in the hype around big data. There is an overwhelming feeling that science journalism has been overtaken by the algorithmic mastermind that swerves conversation and factoids in the digital landscape of reporting. While undoubtedly the scale at which data is collated is unprecedented, it is hardly new. Citizens have been contributing information about their lifestyles, preferences and opinions through conventional media and the state and corporate entities have been gathering them in strategic ways to market and personalize articles of interest and frame science agendas that makes it more palatable to the public. Granted, big data is more sweeping and thereby gives us the impression of being more representative of the public. However, it is still the amassing of data from those within the system which leaves a large percentage of the global public that are undocumented and outside the radar to not be considered. Last but not the least, the role of science journalists is to convert this data into a narrative, to guide conversations on energy debates through their story telling. They need to use big data as a starting point of critique and analysis rather than factoids that create a grand narrative of critical science that pertains to our daily lives.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Expertise. The judgment between art history, technology, law and market

Next week my colleague Filip Vermeylen and I are heading to Zurich for a speaking engagement on art expertise in the digital age. This colloquium is being organized by the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA), Institute of Art History at the University of Zurich and the Centre of Cultural Law (ZKR) at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). Looking forward to what apparently is going to be a very 'Swiss' experience as the talks will be in German, English and French with simultaneous translations! 

Besides, this could not have come at a better time as we just published a paper in the Information, Communication and Society Journal that speaks directly to this topic. Basically, the premise for our talk is based on the fact that at this point, few challenge the fact that recent developments in the art world are hugely impacting the process of knowledge construction in the arts and the valorization process in the art market. According to some observers, the digital revolution has sounded the death knell of the traditional art connoisseurs who are increasingly being replaced by amateur experts such as bloggers and casual online commentators. This development is seen as part of a larger shift within an art world that is under pressure to communicate and treat the public as active consumers rather than passive recipients. Traditional intermediaries such as museums are being compelled to become more accessible and engaging with their audiences through new media platforms. The Internet as a medium of easy access, with its populist, audience-expanding interactivity allows for new actors and exchanges to emerge and play out through its 'participatory culture'. For instance, mostly young bloggers with a profile far removed from the traditional art critic now capture a large audience of online readership interested in fine art exhibitions. However, others believe that is precisely in this environment marked by a plethora of voices and its confusion on art quality (and especially on issues concerning the authenticity of artworks) that there is an increased need for trusted, trained gatekeepers with firm institutional linkages to museums, auction houses and other vested institutions. 

So, Filip and I  have dealt with the history of art expertise in an earlier paper, and will expand/shift our focus for the Zurich conference to gauge the impact of the Internet in shaping decisions on art value and whether the traditional role of institution as expert and the public as amateur has been reconstituted through new media. For this purpose, we draw on empirical research being conducted at Erasmus University in Rotterdam on the impact of both the traditional experts and critics and the expert amateur. In addition, we ascertain to what extent technical intermediaries can exert market power. For instance, technical innovations applied by the Art Genome Project and rely on a characteristics-approach to establish linkages and similarities between artworks and schools. These and comparable initiatives ultimately construct rubrics of criteria that are used to determine what constitutes good art, both in terms of economics (a good investment) and from an artistic point of view (artistic value), but serious questions arise relative to which criteria are used to select the artists and artworks, and how the politics of algorithms guide and rank our searches in what constitutes as common information. In other words, how knowledge on art value is shaped by old and new experts in this digital environment remains deeply under-investigated. We therefore aim to set a research agenda and will propose some methodological tools to map and analyze these fundamental shifts in the judgment of art.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Arm Chair Activism: Serious Games usage by INGOs for Educational Change

A new paper (PDF) that I co-authored with Sorina Itu on the analysis of serious games usage by INGOs as a means to foster virtual activism has just been published in the International Journal of Game-Based Learning. Sorina Itu deserves significant credit for this as she embarked on gathering data on which this paper is based on.

Basically, this is about the battle between educators and entertainers specifically when it comes to gaming. This paper argues that the edutainment battleground has expanded to include actors outside formal schooling agencies, namely International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs). These actors employ digital games with the aim to educate and activate towards specific social causes. These serious games are viewed to have tremendous potential for behavioral change through their interactive and persuasive aspects. This paper examines serious games deployed by certain prominent INGOs and analyzes the educative aspects of such new media platforms. What is revealed at the design, audience, and content level compel us to examine what constitutes as education through serious games. Here, education is seen as social marketing employing sensationalism, morality, and emotional capital to stimulate activism. Such games sustain the converted rather than create new understandings of complex social issues.

Hope you get a chance to check our paper out...should be an interesting read for educators, designers and activists who would like to capitalize on gaming platforms to instigate social change.