Digital Diasporas

by tatianabenjamin

Tatiana Benjamin

Space, Place, & Identity in the Digital Age

Book Review

Brinkerhoff, Jennifer. Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Digital Diasporas explores the role of Internet technology (IT) in developing and maintaining Diaspora communities. Brinkerhoff offers a detailed and well-structured text on the relationship between technology, identity, and transnationalism. She focuses on five Diasporas in the United States in order to provide the multiple ways Diaspora communities engage with technology. These five communities include, Afghan-Americans, Egyptian Copt- Americans, Tibetan-Americans, Somali-Americans, and Nepali-Americans. In her exploration of these communities, Brinkerhoff explores the digital Diaspora organizations used by each group.  The main questions explored within the text are, “How do communities of migrants become diaspora communities, that is, with identities that sustain at least psychological links to the homeland? How do these identities reflect the diaspora experience?; How does information technology contribute to identity outcomes and their potential manifestations in the real world?” (3).

It is also important to note that Brinkerhoff’s perspective or approach stems from her background in international affairs. Her engagement with international affairs and policy is seen through her seven recommendations for maintaining and engaging with digital Diasporas.  The two recommendations that I found to be most useful were, the selectivity in receiving funding and recommending that “host” government and international actors should create partnerships with Diaspora organizations. These policy recommendations allow for the sustaining and maintain of the organizations while allowing them to keep a level of autonomy.

This is a well-written text with rich information but there were two chapters that stood out the most. Chapters two and three of Digital Diasporas’ were the most interesting and helpful in understanding her arguments. In chapter two, Digital “Diasporas, Identity, and Information Technology,” Brinkerhoff explores how mobilization occurs within digital Diasporas.  One of the key points to arise in this chapter understands that transnational engagement is a selective process. This speaks to transmigrants as agents who are actively participating in boundary crossing.  In chapter three, “Keeping the Dream Alive,” she explores how Diasporas impact identity. This chapter stands out because she deals with what comes out digital Diasporas. Migrants are forming communities and educating other within and outside of their Diaspora community. These two chapters speak to her conceptualization of the Internet as a site of practice for migrants. I gave pinpointed these two chapters but the entire text is a must read.

Overall, this text was an easy and straightforward read with a strong policy lean. I believe her approach in policy is what allowed for this to be readable.  The only issues I had surrounded her lack of engagement with previous understandings of transnationalism. In other words, how were migrants participating in transnational activity prior to the prevalence of Digital Diasporas? Another dimension to this question understands the differences between the actual and the virtual. Yes the Internet does allow for the creations of digital Diasporas, but how are these Diasporas impacted by the physical? Although I have raised these questions I do believe that scholars and policy analysts should read this text. It lays the foundation for a string analysis on what the digital can do for transnational activity.

I apologize for the late post. I thought I posted this already.

Race After the Internet

by jessicavooris

Race After The Internet is a collection of essays that examines our conceptualizations of race and racial identities in an era of increasing digital media use.  It has been almost 20 years since the iconic New York Times cartoon “No-one Knows you are a dog on the internet” came out, and much scholarly work on the digital and race has critiqued this idea of internet anonymity as a utopian ideal that does not reflect the reality of racial representation and access online.  Referencing these early concepts of the internet, as well as the subsequent critiques, Race After The Internet pushes the conversation beyond questions of racial representations and access, to provide a more nuanced understanding of what counts as the digital, what we mean by the digital divide, and what we can learn about racial constructions through examining digital media and technology.  Situating itself in the current moment when the first generation of ‘digital natives’ is coming of age, when we have elected our first “digital” and first African-American president, within an era which has been called post-racial and post-feminist, this book makes critical arguments about the continuing importance of examining both race and the digital together.

The first part of the book “The History of Race and Information: Code, Policies and Identities” addresses the ways in which racial constructions are linked to the very codes within the technology that we use.  The essays here examine the development of particular programming alongside concepts of racial formation; race and racial segregation as technology; the links between narratives around black inventors and the OLPC program; and the raced and classed labor within narratives around Star Wars and the Silicone Valley.  The second and third parts of the book, “Race, Identity, and Digital Sorting” and “Digital Segregations” question the rhetoric of “the digital divide,” critiquing the idea of access as always privilege/good, and arguing for more nuanced examinations of internet use. These essays address racial coding online and off-line, the ways in which computers “enable new forms of social sorting” (11), the role of race and the digital around Obama’s election, and connectivity on indigenous lands.  Furthermore, essays in part three, provide information about how internet users sort themselves into particular platforms and sites, showing the importance of not only questioning who is online, but where they are spending time and what they are doing there.  The final section of the book addresses the increased biotechnical constructions of racial identity, looking at racial formations within online games, as well as constructions of race in various media contexts around the use of new DNA technologies.

While broad in its scope and conceptualization of race beyond the black-white binary, as various essays address Asian-American, Latino, and indigenous identities, few of the texts address the intersectional dynamics of gender, class, sexuality and other aspects of identity and I would have liked to have seen more layered analysis about these different identity formations as linked to race.   The links to transnational concepts of race and labor are a bit clearer, and essays address the concept of the Chinese gold farmer, the ways in which globalization and imperialism influenced the OLPC, and the transnational connections people make while learning of their genetic heritage.  While this book does not make claims to a transnational analysis, and is for the most part US-centered, I found these moments of global connection to be some of the most interesting.

Overall the book provides a comprehensive and diverse selection of texts addressing different aspects of the digital: programming and coding, matrices, gaming, internet connectivity, DNA technologies, social media sites, news platforms, and technological labor.  It is useful as a text which examines contemporary social media sites and is particularly relevant to the contemporary context but the broader arguments here around technology/the digital, and racial formations will remain relevant even after the particulars of Facebook, Myspace, and other social networking sites and online spaces change.  Furthermore, as it is an interdisciplinary collection, it provides multiple sites from which to approach these questions, making it a text that will be particularly useful to a variety of scholars.

Book Review- Networked: The New Social Operating System

by cassygriff

Rainie, Lee and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

It is often too easy to glance around the daily trappings of our lives and begin to feel simultaneously over and underwhelmed by the presence of various forms of technology and the supposed absence of other people’s bodies. Among scholars of digital and virtual spaces, it has been somewhat trendy and perhaps even comforting to assert what amounts to a doomsday analysis of the future of human relationships in the so-called digital age. However, as Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman explain from the very beginning of Networked: The New Social Operating System, “this is not a book about the wonders of the internet and smartphones. Despite all the attention paid to new gadgets, technology does not determine human behavior; humans determine how technology is used” (ix). Immediately, therefore, the main question of this text becomes clear: How are people using technology to create social networks that are not necessarily bounded by time and space? Furthermore, how do social networks provide members/users with other (and occasionally better) opportunities for contact, communication, and relationship-building than traditional, spatially and temporally restricted groups?

Wellman and Rainie open the book with an poignant vignette that proves infinitely minable as they unfold their argument for the existence of a “triple revolution” of social networks, the internet, and mobile technologies. Detailing one couple’s tragic series of medical incidents and the ways in which social networks facilitated by the internet and mobile technologies helped them survive and recover, the authors make clear that our modern social networks are not your father’s bowling club. Rather, these networks are loosely bound connections between various individuals that provide information, support, and even goods despite the fact that the individuals do not claim membership in a group nor are they all aware and reliant upon one another in precisely similar ways. Rainie and Wellman term this new sociality “Networked Individualism,” a designation that signals the focus on the individual or the ego and their relationships to multiple other individuals.

True to their early assertions, the authors’ focus remains on the social network aspects of this triple revolution, as they devote significantly less time to examining the historical roles of the internet and mobile media in the facilitation of networks. However in this case, less actually is more, as a great number of scholars have already done the work detailing the gestation, birth, and early years of these technological revolutions. Wellman and Rainie’s discussion of the internet and mobile revolution is succinct and never strays from the point, that these revolutions are but tools for facilitation a new sociality based on networks rather than groups. It is not that the technology forces us to change our model human interaction, but rather that these technologies provide the opportunity to do so. The authors thus successfully and diplomatically brush past Turkle’s assertion that technological innovation is destroying interpersonal relationships and instead argue rather convincingly that technology does what we ask it to do, and we have asked it to change the mode, scope, and intensity of our social interactions.

While I do not wish to downplay the relevance of the internet and mobile media aspects of the triple revolution, I argue that the usefulness of Networked lies primarily in its ability to translate the basic tenets of social network analysis (SNA) to wider interdisciplinary audience. Furthermore, the text also demonstrates the applicability of social network analysis to the changing configurations of relationships as technology continues to develop. This is especially true in the latter half of the book, in which the authors re-focus on networks and the various types of interactions either changed or made possible by technologically-mediated networks. Networked individualism remains at the fore throughout the five chapters comprising Part II, as relationships, family life, work, creation, and information sharing are each put under the microscope in order to better explain that the navigation of these aspects of life are differently and potentially better understood if we recognize the primacy of networks of individuals and their relationships. In each of these chapters, the authors actively demonstrate the ways in which social network analysis can and should be integrated into discussion of mobile media and the internet. SNA’s presence in these spaces effectively reintegrates human experience into analysis, thus ensuring that the apocalyptic predictions can be pushed aside to deal with the ways people actually use technology.

In very general terms, Networked presents possibilities rather than predictions, and does so in a manner that is surprisingly accessible for a text of its depth and breadth. However, scholars whose focus necessitates analysis of race, class, sexuality, and (less so) gender will be disappointed in the lack of engagement with categories of identity and difference beyond North American, heteronormative family structures and relationships. This lack of specificity is particularly glaring in the paucity of discussion around structural inequalities, an aspect that would surely impact access to technologies and the social networks that can be created via these technologies. Still, the lack of some specifics does not necessarily preclude this book from providing a useful set of theoretical and methodological tools that may be easily translatable to those doing ethnographic work and content analysis focusing on specific networked communities.

Also, an aside to Alyssa, Justin, and Avery: Based on what I know about your projects, this would probably be an incredibly useful introduction to social network analysis and how it looks when it’s deployed in digital spaces.

Teletechnologies, Place, and Community

by melissarogers

Wilken, Rowan. Teletechnologies, Place, and Community. New York: Routledge, 2011.

            Rowan Wilken’s 2011 Teletechnologies, Place, and Community explores the contradictory and shifting ways in which notions of place and community get taken up in discourses about teletechnologies, or “technologies of distance” (1). In this comprehensive and interdisciplinary media historiography, Wilken contests the argument that computer-mediated communication (CMC) transcends, or even signals the death of, space, place, and geography. At the same time, he challenges corollary statements that CMC enables disembodied online interactions in which identity is infinitely malleable, statements which thereby figure “virtual community” as either inherently transgressive and utopian or somehow weaker and less meaningful than face-to-face interactions. Through extensive discursive and textual analysis of writings on teletechnologies, Wilken not only provides useful evidence against the common position that online activities are separate from the “real” world, but also offers more productive ways to think through the relationships between teletechnologies, place, and community.

The first three chapters of the book lay the groundwork for Wilken’s later engagement with the uptake of computing technologies in architecture. The first chapter, “Techno-Sociality: Computer-Mediated Communication and Virtual Community”, examines the origins of the terms “cyberspace” and “virtual community” in the mid-eighties and early nineties as ways of describing online social interactions. He argues that whereas at first the use of the metaphor of community to describe what happens in what we know as cyberspace was implicitly accepted, in research on CMC since then this metaphor has come to be seen as somewhat accurate yet also problematic (15). Wilken then lays out key themes in debates over the use of “virtual community”: presence, geographical liberation, dis/embodiment, and identity. These themes are interrelated, as debates around telepresence (“the effect of being in a particular place while actually being somewhere quite different” [19, emphasis in original]) led to the argument that the primarily text-based medium of cyberspace could transcend geography and therefore rise above the limitations of embodied, place-based community formation. Wilken concludes the chapter by beginning to consider what might be distinctive about “virtual community”, arguing that much of the historical “baggage” (25) that accompanies the term “community” does not disappear in the attempt to use it in a computer-mediated context. This suggests that we “need to reformulate the very concept of ‘community’ in non-restrictive terms” (27). It is to this task that he turns in his next chapter, having offered a genealogy that usefully contextualizes some of the reasons why online interactions are commonly conceived as immaterial, placeless, and disembodied.

In his second chapter, “The Problem of Community,” Wilken historicizes the concept of community and then outlines its appearance in the theoretical frameworks of early twentieth century German sociologists Ferdinand Tönnies and Herman Schmalenbach, mid-twentieth century American sociologists George Hillery Jr. and William Goode, and late twentieth century poststructuralist philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Derrida. Approaching community in such a way enables Wilken to consider the usefulness of these scholars’ ideas for thinking about community’s translation to a virtual context. He establishes what he calls the problem of community, the cyclical disenchantment with and return to community amidst rapidly changing social, economic, and technological conditions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: “How to formulate a model of community that accommodates the ‘other’? How to think afresh a model of in-common community that welcomes the ‘other’ which threatens its very commonality?” (32). From this problem he moves to a discussion of Tönnies’ much-debated terms, the communal Gemeinschaft and the more instrumental Gesellschaft, and Schmalenbach’s concept of the affective Bund, which can mediate between the two. For Wilken, these terms have the potential to make sense of the kinds of interactions occurring in CMC, yet they are ultimately undermined by their close resemblance to Anglo-American and European conceptualizations of community as a communion that subsumes difference, as well as by their appropriation by the Nazis (39). By contrast, Hillery and Goode offer an understanding of community that is “constituted by social interaction and commonality (as opposed to geographically determined criteria)” (41), and that emphasizes the “plural and layered” processes by which communities are formed (44), contributions that, according to Wilken, can move scholars past the argument that virtual communities are divorced from “real” or other forms of community. Finally, Wilken offers an exploration of the idea of community in the work of Nancy and Derrida, two poststructuralist thinkers who radically reconfigure this contentious concept by attempting to work toward a “politics of difference” (55), the former by imagining community as a kind of “being-with” and the latter by focusing on the promise or potential of gift-giving. It is their desire to “think the risk of the limit of community—or to think the risk that takes place through exposure of and at the limit of community” that holds the most promise for Wilken’s project (60), as it theoretically avoids the pitfalls of the somewhat static understanding of community offered by thinkers over the previous two centuries.

Wilken’s selective genealogy for the immense and longstanding “problem of community” is worth repeating in such detail here because it proves immensely useful for scholars who seek to make sense of community in the digital age. Indeed, Wilken shows that contrary to claims that increased connection has made community engagement more superficial or a somehow less central preoccupation, the attempt to shift community into a digital context has only highlighted the necessity of revisiting and reconceiving historical debates around community’s potentials and risks. Furthermore, his attention not only to the abovementioned thinkers but also to their critics and advocates offers proliferative avenues of future investigation and an extensive bibliography of resources on these debates. This critical engagement with multiple disciplinary perspectives and points of conflict is sustained throughout the book and, while occasionally requiring the reader to sift through paragraphs of quotes and in-text citations, makes for a wide-ranging survey that does not sacrifice depth for breadth.

Wilken’s third chapter, “Haunting Affects: Place in Virtual Discourse”, deals with the definitional imprecision of place in its general use and, more specifically, with its spectral presence as metaphor in discourses on CMC. He writes that place is usually associated with a specific and bounded locality, yet it has a pervasive influence on our everyday lives, functioning as the backdrop or even the material for experience (62). He also notes the need to dissociate place from community if community’s exclusionary tendencies are to be rethought (63). He then delves into the widespread perception of CMC as placeless while also able to connect far-flung places, arguing that place persists in our engagement with CMC through the use of place-based metaphors. These include navigation and transportation metaphors such as “surfing the web” or traveling the “information superhighway”, pioneer metaphors that figure the internet as a frontier or territory, and most importantly, architectural metaphors that shape graphical user interfaces as well as the naming of online social “spaces” like chat “rooms”. It is in this chapter that one of the main arguments of Teletechnologies, Place, and Community begins to be developed in depth. Following Derrida, who critiqued the use of spatial metaphor in philosophy, Wilken argues that the metaphors we choose are never neutral but fundamentally shape that which we are trying to describe: “the historical framing of the virtual as ‘unbounded’ and ‘dematerialised’ is a myth produced by the insistence on place as only metaphorical. Moreover, these metaphorical constructions are based on quite limited underlying conceptions of place which deny the full complexity of this concept” (79). In other words, conceptualizing space as empty or abstract rather than socially practiced, à la Lefebvre, leads to the privileging of space over place in discourses on CMC, as well as the assumption that cyberspace cannot be physical space and is not a part of “actual” or geographical space. By attending to spatial or architectural metaphor as the “suppressed term” in discourses on teletechnologies (79), Wilken is able to get to the heart of major debates on CMC, debates on presence, embodiment, and emplacement that have significant implications for how we understand virtual community.

In his next two chapters Wilken turns to the discipline of architecture in order to examine how it has taken up computing technologies and what influence it might have on place and community in discourses of the virtual. This turn to architecture is strategic and valuable in that architecture forms “an important but hitherto neglected chapter in the broader history of cyberculture” (115). “Machines of Tomorrow Past: Early Experiments in Architectural Computing” focuses on the early uptake of computing technologies by architects in the 1960s and 1970s, giving brief overviews of the work of Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Yona Friedman, Nicholas Negroponte, and Peter Cook. Wilken argues that despite their somewhat different reactions to the place of technological developments in architecture, these thinkers thought of the computer primarily as a problem-solving technology, linking it to architecture’s humanist agenda to improve living conditions (99). He also notes that although place and community do not appear explicitly in these early architectural engagements with technology, systems theory and cybernetics were “key influences” on these thinkers (99). The latter half of the chapter is a case study of the work of experimental British architect Cedric Price, whose unrealized design for the Fun Palace, an “anti-building” whose interior spaces would integrate computing technology in order to create maximum engagement with artistic materials and ideas, represents for Wilken the liberating potential of combining teletechnologies, architectural principles, and concern for place-based community interaction. This case study is where the overall arguments of the book become most tangible and salient, as the plans for the Fun Palace attempted to create unimagined forms of sociality through explicit use of teletechnologies for individual and group learning as well as play. The Fun Palace design built in the potential of the virtual as a fundamentally social project. If anything can approximate John Rajchman’s vision for a “virtual house” full of connections, openness, and multiplicity, it is Price’s unbuilt Fun Palace.

“Fantasies of Transcendence and Transformative Imagination: Architectural Visions of Cyberspace” continues the line of thinking developed in the previous chapter, shifting the focus to the 1990s, when computer-aided design (CAD) dominated architecture, “overturning or dismantling many of its foundational elements—the semantic units that make up the very language of architecture”: architectural representation, building materials, scale and proportion, spatiality, time, and architectural fixity (118-119). Thus the concept of cyberspace necessitated a “critical reframing” of architecture (126), what Wilken terms “neuromantic architecture”, paying homage to the science fiction novel in which William Gibson coined the term cyberspace as well as highlighting the somewhat Romantic aspects of new architecture, namely an idea of nature informed by cybernetic theory and global flows of information as well as an emphasis on taking imagination to the limits of representation. Wilken concludes, however, that despite neuromantic architecture’s imaginative promise, it continues to consider space in the abstract and does not attend to “the full complexities of ‘social space’” à la Lefebvre (145). In order to attend to some of these nuances, Wilken turns in his next chapter, “Domesticating Technology, Mobilising Place”, to the home as a site where discourses of place, community, and teletechnologies come into contact with one another. After historicizing “home” within a nostalgic tradition that figures it as the birthplace of community, Wilken problematizes understandings of home that take the universality of its privacy and secure enclosure for granted. He then theorizes the spatial practices of the “domestication” of teletechnologies in the home, exploring discourses on how uses of teletechnologies have not only become integrated with home life but how they have also become naturalized. Home therefore becomes one of the places in which we understand and experience mediated networked mobility, forcing us to question our understandings of place as stable and bounded. Wilken argues that transformations in uses of teletechnologies in the home, as well as in the use of mobile technologies, force us to shift our conception of place as stable to an understanding of place as mobile: “mobilitas loci (the renegotiation of place via networked mobility, and the interrogation of ‘questions of place, facility, equipment and the idiosyncracies of the users’ that this renegotiation prompts)” (179). Mobilizing place, Wilken argues, dissolves the rigid dichotomy between virtual and actual that plagues debates on teletechnologies.

It is to this dichotomy that Wilken turns in his final chapter, “Rethinking Teletechnologies, Place, and Community”, in which he proposes an alternate model for making sense of the relationships between these key terms. His three-part proposal for this model includes dissolving the divide between the virtual and the actual along the lines of Derrida’s concept of “actuvirtuality”, developing an understanding of social difference that can move “community” away from its association with exclusion, and establishing a model of place that emphasizes its relationality and its embeddedness in connectivity. Such a model, drawing heavily on poststructuralist positions that figure subjectivity as plural as well as the work of social geographers such as Doreen Massey who posit place as open and heterogeneous, offers tools for navigating the theoretical impasses created by strict binary oppositions imposed on the uses of teletechnologies. This is one of the key contributions of Wilken’s book, as he establishes a point of departure for scholars who grapple with the problems and limitations of community but who are unwilling to give up its promise and potential, in virtual form or otherwise.

Teletechnologies, Place, and Community is a must-read for anyone struggling to make sense of how increasingly pervasive and mobile technologies of distance have affected our sense of place as well as our sense of connection to communities that matter. Wilken’s in-depth and extensive discursive and textual analysis spans many disciplinary and geographic locations, shifting smoothly between different time periods and contexts in order to mark historical and conceptual shifts in discourses on teletechnologies. By refusing to let architecture remain the suppressed term that haunts our thinking on virtual space and place, Wilken opens avenues of exploration that otherwise remained closed due to an inability to think place and community outside of concrete boundaries, stability, and unity. His surprisingly readable and relatively jargon-free interpretations of poststructuralist thinking, furthermore, refute charges that such philosophers are apolitical or irrelevant to social concerns. This book represents a landmark study in trajectories of research on cyberspace and virtual community.

Book Review: Online Territories

by justinsprague

Online Territories: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space

            To say that the Internet has been a ground for intense debate would be an understatement.  Since its truly widespread explosion in the 1990’s, a significant amount of scholarship has been dedicated to romanticizing the empowering effects and to make stark juxtapositions against between online and offline spaces.  Online Territory: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space, edited by Miyase Christensen, André Jansson, and Christian Christensen, seeks to trouble these notions, presenting an intersectional approach to exploring the ways that online technologies are experienced as well as the ways that social space is conceptualized.

This edited collection takes up the position that rhetoric rendering the online as placeless is not entirely accurate (similar to the ongoing debates concerning the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’), instead framing media use as inherently involved in issues of territory, which is as much a material concept as it is symbolic or imaginary.  It is critical to understand online space as “extensions of the symbolic struggles of social space, rather than as an exclusive realm of placeless interaction” (6).  Emblematic of online space as being territorialized is the dynamic tension between the affordances of reimagined spatial and temporal borders, but also the materialities of offline space like access to resource, corporeality and power relations.

The first section of this collection, Everyday Intersections, explores various nodes that are apparent online, like public versus private, and intimate versus formal, altering the way we experience our everyday lives, but not inherently making us more global.  The links between nationalist material and social culture with online territory, and the ways that socio-cultural values are reinforced online are evident.  Chapter 1 focuses on the ways in which discourse concerning spectacle of warfare has largely ignored the “everyday” of the military and the ways in which social media is largely being utilized to simply document the mundane.  Another running thread throughout this section are concepts of the “home/private” sphere, arguing that the “panics” associated with online pornography (chapter 2) or the ills of masculinized public spaces like gambling (chapter 4) and its invasion of the private/feminized domestic sphere are shaped by larger social structures concerning sexuality and social discipline.  Fandom is also taken up (chapter 3) and the reimagining of the notion that fan communities are expansive and global in nature, when they are actually closed communities of like minded individuals most often structured in the national form.  This closes with a look at Internet spam and the ways in which it acts as a limiter to online communication, acting as “functional trash” (103).

The next section, Citizenship, Public Space and Communication Online, explores the ways that various media ‘tools,’ like blogs and social networks, are invested in and affect the ways that social space is produced/reproduced.  This section aims to complicate the concepts of self, identity, citizenship and community by highlighting the affordances/limitations online communication.  Chapters 6 and 7 are invested in the ways that online communication is utilized for social change as well as the ways Utopian ideas of the Internet shaped concepts concerning gender inequality.  Likewise, they both work to dispel the romanticism that accompanies social media and the assumption that these technologies are in some way naturally predisposed for progressive/transgressive use (chapter 6), as well as the early Utopian perceptions that the Internet would be a freeing space of anonymity and that gender (chapter 7) – which ended up being largely inaccurate, and heteropatriarchal performances are still the norm (135).  Chapter 8 investigates social movements and analyzes their web use, and the last two chapters take up issues of surveillance (chapter 9) and colonization (chapter 10).  ‘Actuarial surveillance’ and the development of “cloud” technology are themes being used to explore the “interrelations among public space, surveillance practice and identity play” (172), while the post-Napster era is examined in the ways that consumer behavior is regulated (colonized) by the music industry juxtaposed with the hacker and culture-jammer acting in opposition to decolonize.

The last section, Transnational/Translocal Nexuses, troubles the global and local binary by expressing the multiplicity of possibilities inherent in new media and communication technologies that enable a move beyond “placeless space and territorial fixity” (202).  This is taken up in chapter 11, in order to examine the ways in which culture is central to our understandings of identity and mediation.  Chapter 12 explores transnational immigrants and their social practices in relation to online technologies, urban spaces and power relations.  “Cosmopolitanization” and “capsularization” are discussed in chapter 13, noting the ways that social media acts to stratify these two ideas, positing one at a space of either deterritorialization or at the opposite involved in various social forms of surveillance and control.  Lastly, chapter 14 critically engages with identity, in particular, the ways in which various ethnic groups “represent” themselves and potentially refigure the online space.

This collection provides a very current and expansive explanation of the ways in which online and offline spaces are constructed.  The running metaphor of “territory” is quite apt, and its use regarding issues of corporeal, temporal, symbolic, and material constructs is defined in many ways.  The editors offer very precise sections that examine particular aspects of online technology and social media, in order to show the ways in which nationhood and socio-political climate is reconstructed in the online territory.  The contributors come from a range of perspectives using various methodologies (transnational, feminist, textual analysis, etc.), and the ways in which they speak to each other in this text is cogent to the larger argument.

While the text troubles many long-held Utopian concepts/scholarship about the Internet, it might have benefitted from an entire section devoted specifically to the ways in which social justice, feminism and LGBT issues (to name very few) are taken up in these spaces and the implications of such.  Each of these issues are addressed in some way or another, but are grouped according to the larger three narratives in this text.  If the text is predicated on an intersectional approach to understand the way territory is mapped in online spaces, larger notions of nation and citizenship should be addressed (which they are in expansive and effective detail); however, a move to the interior intersections that drive people to select the communities they interact with or reject seems just as telling of the way online space is constructed.  It would add a rich element while supporting the central purpose/argument of this book that is supported so excellently in every other way.

This collection is not only approachable, but also very practical and up-to-date.  It has a distinct ability to be very useful in Undergraduate classrooms, because of its no-nonsense approach and linear trajectory; however, it is also put together in a way that Graduate seminars in Digital Humanities would find it quite useful to interrogate larger historical arguments/assertions being made concerning online spaces.  Online Territories is a fitting intervention in an area that has been debated, analyzed and perhaps misunderstood since it first emerged decades ago.  Issues of citizenship, identity and space are complex and diverse, yet this collection makes sense of the ways in which these interact with each other to map territories online and offline.

Book Review: The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)

by averydame

Google’s omnipresence has become something of a cultural meme, as it seeks to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google 2012). Even Google has mocked of its own pervasiveness, with its 2009 April Fools prank, the “Brain Search” google mobile app, which promised to “index your brain” (GoogleMobileBlog 2009). But this shaping of perception and memory is exactly what is happening to the average Google user, according to Siva Vaidhyanathan. In The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) Vaidhyanathan seeks to “generate a fuller picture of what is at stake in this apparently costless transaction [between Google and its users] and a new model of surveillance that goes beyond the now trite Panopticon model” (9). Each chapter is themed around a particular function og Google, beginning with an introductory anecdote that frames the function in practice before moving into its specifics.

Early on in the book he establishes that his focus is on being accessible to both popular and academic audiences. While this does not affect the strength of his argument, Vaidhyanathan’s tone is more conversational, and the depth of detail he goes to is rather more shallow than one might expect from an academic text. However, this choice is reflective of his larger argument: there is distinct value in shining a light into the black box that is Google, demystifying its interior functions, motivations, and pervasiveness for its consumers, who span from academics to the interested reader who communicates only through GMail.

Vaidhyanathan begins by tracking Google’s rise from a project by two computer science Ph.D.s at Stanford to a $9.7 billion dollar corporation. He presents Google as a kind of Caesar who orders the disorganized and undisciplined Rome of the Internet through its search function. Google was set apart from its competitors by the sheer amount of data it seeks to consume in pursuit of better search. Google’s continued predominance merely increases its power, making it “better because it’s bigger, and bigger because it’s better” (20). Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan sees Google’s rise as a result of a larger “public failure” by the state to provide services to the general public–the inverse of market failure (40-41). And Google discourages the impulse for government regulation through liberal reference to its “motto,” “Don’t be evil,” a rhetorical trick that emphasizes faith over skepticism.

This faith is reflective of Chapter 2’s focus, the philosophy that has facilitated Google’s rise: techno-fundamentalism, wherein all problems can be solved by technology, even problems solved by other technology (55). Techno-fundamentalism,  Vaidhyanathan argues, hides the role of human bias and majority opinion in ordering how Google presents information to its users. In order to pull back the curtain, so to speak, he focuses on the functions of Google Search. The search list is representative of precise comprehensiveness, which “appears to be clear and ranked in order of relevance” and encouraged user trust (59). However, this precise comprehensiveness elides the role of the human in the ordering of search, an example of this being searching for “Jew.” Ultimately, Google search results represent a comfortable middle ground (60) often influenced by internet “elites” who determine the relevance of sites.

Chapter 3 considers the role of the user in Google’s ecosystem, specifically regarding privacy, surveillance, and the role of infrastructure. Choice, in Google’s system, is an illusion: though Google provides an array of options for users to control their privacy, few users understand these switches, making them irrelevant (89). Instead, most users use the default settings, which many not actually best protect their privacy. Instead of merely being about the information we share, Vaidhyanathan argues privacy should “[refer] to the terms of control over information, not the nature of the information we share” (93). Vaidhyanathan considers these issues by looking at user concerns outside the United States, particularly in Japan and the United Kingdom, around the Street View project. Google’s inclination to assuming universal surveillance as a default is itself an expression of ideology, reflective of a larger “infrastructural imperialism” (110-111). He proposes a “cryptopticon,” “we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled–we simply know we are” (112).

Infrastructural imperialism then raises the question of just what Google’s role is in the global public sphere. In Chapter 4, Vaidhyanathan spends a large section of the chapter challenging public perceptions of both China’s Great Firewall and Google’s own position as a vanguard for the cause of free speech. As he points out, having access to a variety of information does not automatically promote change. Web search is “inherently conservative” by limiting “the number of surprises users will encounter.” Such search “inhibits rather than promotes social and political change” (133) by increasing users’ inclinations of tribalization.

The final two chapters focus primarily on Google’s attempts to fill in the gaps left by public failure: Google Books and Google’s increasing presence in higher education. Google Books, begun with the intent of making knowledge more accessible, instead increases Google’s overall power by exploiting weaknesses in copyright law. Google places faith in the power of search and the accuracy of metadata, but fails to replicate the knowledge and precise curatorial, filtering power of the librarian. Google seeks to fill a similar filtering role, but it cannot make distinctions regarding the value of the information it provides as “true or false, dependable or sketchy, polemical or analytical” (191). Thus function, according to Vaidhyanathan, is best left to professors and librarians, who can train students to understand these distinctions.

Vaidhyanathan closes the book by proposing a “Human Knowledge Project” modeled on the Human Genome Project, staffed by individuals trained in library and information science. This project would involves firms such as Google, but would not serve any one company’s financial interests. Instead, the focus would be placed on making knowledge available for the good of all. Though I am skeptical of his final exhortation, I think this work is particularly important because it does much to peel back Google’s layers and reach beyond the surface to bring forth Google’s hidden functions. For scholars who study communities with strong internet presences, particularly those where members communicate primarily online, this book is especially useful. It provides the groundwork for studies considering just how Google shapes community members’ perceptions and knowledges.

Book Review – Access Contested

by alexcarson

Book Link:

In the last several years digital rights have become increasingly prominent in American political and social discourse, but the debate is far from new. While acts like SOPA and PIPA would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, other nations in other parts of the globe were already engaged in heated – and sometimes violent – contests over whose interests are represented on the world wide web and who has control over what content can and can not be shared and what people can and can not do on the internet. Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace – edited by Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski, and Jonathan Zittrain – is an anthology of writings in a format reminiscent of university textbooks that utilizes academic work done in East Asia – a region where internet access has been a controversial issue among its diverse nations – to paint a picture of the internet which portrays the actors and the consequences of an increasingly contested world wide web.

The first two chapters of Access Contested are essential to understanding the remainder of the book. The editors use these chapters to establish the theoretical framework of internet development that they are working in and key terms that are utilized throughout the rest of the book. The authors of the chapters establish brief histories of internet use and regulation, from the earliest days when the internet was virtually free of outside regulation to more recent times when state actors have begun to refine their methods of controlling behavior on the internet and using it as a tool to enforce their authority. Both arrive at the same fundamental conclusion: that the internet is a space that is contested between a myriad of different forces all with their own way of using the internet, their own agendas, and their own views for how the internet should grow in the future. Both strike an optimistic tone, acknowledging that state control of the internet have turned the medium into an arm of state power but holding that the contesting of such power by other parties may pave the way for a better future for all involved. While I don’t quite share the optimism, both of these chapters present the anthology’s fundamental working theories in a simple manner that holds the reader’s interest, going into detail on the manner in which stakeholders interact without delving into overly-technical jargon which I have seen other internet studies go into to the detriment of the accessibility of their work.

The remaining eight chapters of the book utilize case studies from nations across the region to identify the various stakeholders in the contesting of the internet, the agendas at work, the means by which states can engage or repress their constituent people over the internet, and the role of the private sector in the regulation of the medium. Utilizing case studies from Malaysia, Thailand, the Phillipines, Burma, and, of course, China, Access Contested uses each nation and each circumstance to view the contests of the internet in a different light. Where in Malaysia the authorities have utilized the internet in order to reinforce patriarchal cultural norms, Thailand uses it to surveill dissidence against the King and China contests the very architecture and power structure of the internet on a global scale in order to better control its own cyberspace. Each article looks at the issues through a different light, and I was very pleased to see that despite the focus on East Asia many were critical of what they saw as similar systems of control in supposedly liberal Western and democratic states. The chapters succeed in painting a picture of the internet as a dynamic force in which virtually every group of people – connected or not – has a stake and has interests to be promoted or protected.

The second half of Access Contested is a series of profiles on the nations of East Asia. Each contains the nation’s vital information, internet regulatory framework, and other issues which impact how its people and the state relate to cyberspace. In its format as a textbook, I see these profiles as being extremely useful for encouraging independent exercises in a college class and for project-based assignments in both addressing current issues regarding the internet in each country and hypothesizing as to those which may impact them in the future.

In a post-Arab Spring, post-SOPA digitized world, it is essential that researchers understand the internet not as a monolithic system or entity, but as a architectural framework in which different, competing social, cultural, and economic influences are in contest with each other for control over this increasingly-vital digital space. Access Contested is contemporary, it is compelling, it is accessible, and the picture of the internet it paints opens the door to new ideas and new research as we come to terms with what the internet was, what it becomes, and how it is being used in the twenty first century.

Book Review: My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft

by alyssaneuner

World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) created by Blizzard in 2004. The game itself was based off of their original Warcraft series. The game itself has 4 expansions and is home to over 10million active subscribers. This game has been studied in various ways, ranging from addiction to community interaction. Bonnie A. Nardi is an anthropologist by trade and has studied virtual games and digital technologies throughout her career. She uses her background in anthropology and ethnography to develop an argument about WoW that examines play as an active aesthetic experience; to understanding play in its contemporary digital manifestation; and to use ethnographic reporting in order to make the unusual usual for those new to WoW (Nardi, 6). Each argument constitutes a new section of My Life as a Night Elf Priest/

Nardi uses her experiences as a new player to captivate the audience; players an non-players alike can experience the game through someone else’s eyes, sans bias because we are all put on the same playing field, either we have experienced it or are experiencing it for the first time – both exhibit a level of understanding. She uses her ethnographic skills to explain in great detail her trials and tribulations, while at the same time, explaining her successes. Nardi’s experience in anthropology allows her to effectively tell a story. As someone who has played World of Warcraft, and someone who has studied it, I find storytelling, especially the way in which she tells her story, to be an integral part of understanding what the significance of World of Warcraft is. Storytelling not just in the ways that she incorporates her own personal experiences but the aesthetics of World of Warcraft as a way of storytelling as well.

As she moves away from briefly explaining what World of Warcraft and ethnography are, she moves towards explaining what compels people to play games, especially World of Warcraft. The obvious argument to be made here would be to assume addiction (read: players have addictive personalities). However, Nardi moves away from this overly generalized, simplistic, and problematic way of thinking and asserts that what makes the game compelling is actually a combination of things, some of these things include goal meeting and reward structures. She dives into reward structures quite nicely saying that the unpredictability of what players are going to loot from any given goal that players meet is a perfectly acceptable answer. Nardi also suggests that the social aspect of World of Warcraft plays a specific role in continuous play (although the stereotype is that gaming is a completely isolating event). Another important point to mention is that Nardi suggests that continued play is all of the aforementioned and then some – suggesting that aesthetic experience and activity theory are playing a huge part in this continuous play. She combines the two theories in a really approachable and understanding way – one does not need to have read complete works on either to understand where Nardi is taking and shaping these theories.

Probably the more captivating part of My Life as a Night Elf is Nardi’s writings on Chinese and American players. Nardi and her research assistants traveled to China to study and understand World of Warcraft’s largest group of active subscribers. What Nardi and her assistants came to find out is that the only difference between American and Chinese players is the venue of play and interaction. American players have the ability to experience World of Warcraft as a primarily digital experience while Chinese players experience the world through the use of Internet Cafés. This type of venue means that not only are players completely immersed in a digital space, but they are also made fully aware of their place in the physical world.

This point of parallel is interesting in games studies, especially studies on World of Warcraft because it steps out of the typical parameters of research. Interviewing in game only works to a certain extent, this is a completely different experience. Not only does this study the ways in which people play but actually where and how people are playing these games, especially people are part of an imagined community, where they share a common digital but not physical location – this isn’t a LAN party folks.

My life as a Night Elf succeeds in every way at what it’s trying to do, to reiterate her goals they are, to develop an argument about WoW that examines play as an active aesthetic experience; to understand play in its contemporary digital manifestation; and to use ethnographic reporting in order to make the unusual usual for those new to WoW (Nardi, 6). This book is probably one of the best books on World of Warcraft in that it is accessible to the general non-playing public as well as giving a more in-depth look at a game that so many people play and complicating their basic understandings of the ways in which they game. If someone approached me and asked for me to suggest to them a book to help them understand World of Warcraft (beyond typical gaming guides) and the people who play, I would without a doubt suggest this book as an interesting take on the anthropology of virtual games.

Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism

by emilywarheit

Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew. By Maurya Wickstrom. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew presents a series of case studies illustrating aspects of political theatre in which the author identifies (or sees possibilities for) alternative politics. The author uses four performances to explore the question of whether there is an alternative to neoliberalism, and if theatre and performance could be a site for it to flourish. The author says “My intention in this book…is to propose ways in which performance, that at first glance seems to be lodged in politics-as-is, can be thought about differently through the use of what I think of as radical philosophy” (4). Performance can and should be “rethought and remade in a way that is attached to a new politics” (4).

Throughout the book, Wickstrom takes the position of genuinely questioning this possibility, giving the book a sense of exploration. At the end she comes down on the side of hope, saying “Theatre is proposed here as a place in which a profound practice and exploration of new politics might occur and, is, by my account, occurring” (188). I believe she is successful in finding and illuminating places in the performances that exemplify neoliberalism and politics-as-is, as well as places and performances that resist it. This is a difficult task because of the pervasiveness of our own “politics-as-is,” (her term for our unquestioning acceptance of the neoliberal worldview) but when she demonstrates a good example it is very illuminating.

Wickstrom’s introduction is quite extensive, and includes an excellent overview of neoliberalism and democratic materialism that would be useful on its own to anyone looking for an introduction to the topic. The introduction also includes a large introductory section on each chapter, for the most part introducing the major theories that readers will encounter, notably the work of Alain Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben’s biopolitics. While it was helpful to have a theoretical primer up front, I do wonder if some of the information could have been presented within the chapters in themselves.

Chapter two presents several examples of political theatre in Palestine, after a thorough introduction to the situation and the author’s own experience at the border between Israel and Palestine. Her analysis of the work of the three theatres focuses on the geographical and political circumstances and how their performances allow them to resist Israeli as well as American and European neoliberalism. In the third chapter, Wickstrom looks at theatre for development (as a general category) and one particular example of humanitarian theatre in the form of The Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, a touring installation exhibition by Medicins Sans Frontieres. In this section, Wickstrom identifies the “divide” between theatre practitioners or humanitarians and “those-to-be-developed,” whereby the typical process of this type of performance automatically positions those who are meant to benefit from the work as sufferers or victims. She posits that before this type of work can be truly productive, theatre and development workers must bridge the divide by relinquishing their position of privilege.

In chapter four, Wickstrom makes a compelling analysis of theatre produced by Irish Travellers, a formerly nomadic group that has been forcibly “settled” by the Irish government. The author argues that nomadism is in conflict with neoliberalism, which values the ownership of property and labor. The neoliberalism of the Irish government has suppressed the Traveller’s actual mobility, but through the plays illustrated in the chapter, Travellers have maintained some elements of cultural nomadism. Chapter five, perhaps the most disturbing, looks at two plasticinated body exhibits: the popular Bodies: The Exhibition and the original Body Worlds. The author analyzes the controversy over the way in which the bodies for Bodies: The Exhibition were procured through the lens of neoliberalism and the concept of the homo sacer, and the exhibits themselves as examples of spectacle. The book has no separate conclusion, but includes a short “coda” section at the end of the final chapter. The author ends on a hopeful note, having identified at least the potential for alternative politics in performance.

Both in the introduction and in each section, Wickstrom does an excellent job of explaining concepts and theories, including those like Badiou that may be unfamiliar to the reader. Theory is elegantly tied in to analysis of performances in a readable way. Chapter three is particularly enlightening, and provides a much-needed critical perspective on theatre for development. Chapter four was the most interesting and innovative, as it both introduced an unfamiliar form and, in my opinion, the most clear illustration of resistance against neoliberal politics. Despite their disparate subjects, the chapters flowed well and created a through line without seeming forced.

That being said, the lack of conclusion made for an abrupt ending, and I had hoped at some point the various chapters would be tied together in a more complete way. In some places the author’s somewhat performative style made the text pleasantly readable, but in other cases phrasing was awkward and only made sense when read aloud. Disappointingly, editing problems such as missing words and inconsistencies were common.

Overall, this book offers two important things: a thorough explanation of what neoliberalism is and how pervasive it is even (or especially) in activist theatre, and a model of how theatre scholars can look for alternative politics in the works we encounter. The entire book, or any of its easily excerpted chapters, would provide fruitful material for graduate seminars delving into political theatre or neoliberalism and performance. While the frustrating question of an alternative to neoliberal politics still remains, this book provides a glimpse at an alternative, and most importantly, opens up possibilities to think about political and applied theatre differently.