Crystal Abidin on her book, Internet Celebrity

Jacket Image

https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Internet-Celebrity/?k=9781787560796

Interview by Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?

Crystal Abidin: Logistically, I wanted to write a highly accessible primer text for a general audience. My original disciplinary training is in anthropology and sociology, but the bulk of research on this phenomena has come out of media and communications. Because of this, depending on the journal or the audience or the edited collection I’m writing for, I variously use terms like “microcelebrity”, “internet celebrity”, “online celebrity”, “influencer”, and so on and so forth. We all know that depending on our background and our training and our disciplinary preferences, this would mean that as we’re searching for literature, we’re going to miss out on heaps and heaps of articles or data or reviews. So, I wanted a book to kind of consolidate all these related but distinct concepts. That’s why I wanted to do this on the operational side of things.

Intellectually, I wanted to publish a text that captured the state of the industry at this very moment and share this piece quickly with a wide audience. My publisher Emerald Publishing has a series Society Now that does just this. Although I have also published a number of book chapters and journal articles, my thesis—which focused on my internet ethnography of influencer culture in Singapore—is going to take some time to be published as an academic monograph due to the processes of academic publishing and the need to update my conceptual thinking in this quickly evolving domain. So while that’s being done, I was thinking about a condensed and stripped down version of this upcoming thesis-to-book monograph. But at the same time, a lot of my newer fieldwork now involves working with industry, and I saw this as a great opportunity to combine a populist and corporate way of framing these phenomena with an academic and scholarly way of understanding and analyzing them.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Do you see this book as any particular kind of theoretical genealogy in anthropology? What would be the value of this work for anthropologists who maybe don’t know anything about this side of internet culture, or maybe are curious about it— how does this work speak to anthropologists specifically?

Crystal Abidin: Although my research and analysis is guided by anthropological theory, I don’t think it’s explicit in this book, because I needed to cater to the widest audience possible – it’s really primed for perhaps a large undergraduate introduction course, or anyone from the general public who can’t differentiate between a YouTuber and a meme, or the concept of virality from celebrity. But, if I were to return to my initial rhetoric in planning the chapters, then certainly I worked hard to showcase the variety of methods that I used throughout my projects. The first chapter I feel is quite similar to a traditional literature review or archival research, glazing through the phenomena. And in this text, I have organized this information as a historical overview of how we came to this idea of internet celebrity, drawing from various books and concepts across multiple disciplines. This is one of the things I struggled with in my earlier work in my doctoral studies, that if we were bounded by a discipline in terms of where we looked for journals or for books, we would miss out on a lot of the good debate developing in other industries and developing in other disciplines. So that was one thing I struggled with and one thing I needed to overcome. I was explicit throughout the whole book that I work primarily as an anthropologist and as an ethnographer but my literature review was more encompassing and generous across the disciplines.

In the second chapter, I highlight some of the key repetitive tropes that we see of internet celebrity, the qualities that they share, even though I chose specific case studies that were resonant mostly in the Asian market or during that time period. It was drawn from several long-term research projects that used traditional ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and then even digital ethnography, content analysis, media analysis, and trend watching.

The third chapter dives deeper into case studies and I think this is where at times I extrapolate between the social media posts, some of the comments, some of the reactions from the press— this would be what an in depth digital ethnographic study or media studies content analysis would look like. Because it’s not a one-time-off study of a single viral post, but a long-term engagement as a viewer/fan/hater/follower/and so on across multiple connected internet spaces in a network, I was able to piece together a longer-term digital biography of some of these personalities.

Finally, I wanted the last chapter to be a springboard to the thesis-to-book monograph on influencers that I am finishing up. So, this chapter positioned the industry of influencers within a climate of internet celebrity at larger, and my upcoming thesis-to-book monograph will then dive in explicitly into the microcosms and social relationships on the level of the influencer as an actor. And here, I felt better able to share some of the ethnographic snippets and observations from my work—say, mapping out the structure of the industry, sharing some of the observations from vignettes or from conversations.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: With this kind of internet-based research, the traditional anthropological framing of the “field site” becomes a bit murky. As a researcher who herself is very engaged with internet culture, how do you circumscribe the boundary of the “field site”, in this book and in your related work?

Crystal Abidin: It doesn’t come up much in this book per se, because this text is a summation of several different projects across various ideo-geographical fieldsites in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US and Europe. If I were to really stretch it, I’d say that the data in this text is bounded by temporality – I had intentionally focused on a range of years when I was selecting case studies form my data, specifically to demonstrate the shifts across forms of celebrity – traditional or digital – that I had mapped out in the first chapter. But I also made specific decisions over which of my locational or cultural fieldsites to showcase – where possible and where the arguments could still be communicated well, I substituted many Anglo- and Euro-centric examples with ones from the Global South, in line with my research and personal ethic to promote visibility and representation of equally interesting phenomena happening elsewhere in the world that is often lost in discourses propagated by the popular media.

In my other works beyond this book, I bound or segment my fieldsites differently depending on the project or my research question. There are instances where I am studying a specific trend or viral incident, so my field is bounded chronologically by time. But if I am studying the everyday practices of a particular demographic or community of people, then I bound my field by the biographies or locations of the content producers. In other words, I adopt more anthropological approaches to study genealogies, and here my field is determined by the snowball sampling that may expand more laterally to include more and more influencers, or vertically to study up the chain (such as agencies or industry) or down the chain (that is, followers and fans). Sometimes this may mean identifying a different space altogether, such as the backend or logistical and operational systems of influencers (such as bot factories, software and infrastructure). In my more ambitious works, I may consider a larger cultural group as a phenomena,  my newest major project will focus on influencers in cultural East Asia, broadly defined as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. In general, depending on my research question or what I am isolating as my factor of analysis, my fieldsites are scoped and bounded differently.

That said, I’m only able to do this because my very initial sampling of influencers for my traditional observation and later in my digital observation was quite large, aimed at getting an idea of the field. Some of this is really purposive sampling—for example, covering almost every role possible in the influencer industry in Singapore. Anyone you can think of, from an assistant that helps in the warehouse that’s owned by an influencer, all the way down to the parent or the loved one who is somehow implicated in their visibility. And then I am also going back and forth with the different production and circulation chains. So I am not just focusing on the influencer themselves, but also the companies that are sustaining the platforms they use. This includes policies from different social media platforms, like how Instagram deals with ads, and also regulations and provisions by third-party companies who may provide the ability for influencers to trace their metrics and do real-time analysis of their audiences. It also includes where they are congregating in discussion forums, where they are meeting in the flesh, what they are doing when they meet in the flesh— going down to these spaces and hanging out with these young people.

For example, I have recently conclude fieldwork looking at the influencer industry in the Nordic region, but because of time and resource constraints, I’m not able to replicate the very thorough and in-depth studies I’ve done, say, in Southeast Asia. Instead, I have decided to focus on the specific lateral category of influencer agencies, specifically those in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, to constitute the ‘Nordic market’. I conduct interviews with specific people in these companies, and record observations about their daily work in the offices when I have the privilege to embed in spaces or attend events to conduct participant observation. While I no longer have the same depth as, say the project of influencers in Singapore that thoroughly investigated every possible role in the industry, this Nordic project is asking a completely different set of questions on a more macro scale.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Going back to the Internet Celebrity book specifically, I loved the art style used to illustrate your data. I found that to be a really interesting choice, especially given how much of internet culture, broadly speaking, centers the visual. Was there a particular motivation for using this style of art rather than a more direct representation of the data you were looking at (for example, screenshots of actual memes)? What were you hoping the audience would get out of that?

Crystal Abidin: Again, a variety of reasons—I’ll mention a conceptual one, a more intellectual one, and a pragmatic one.

Conceptually, in Internet Celebrity, one of my key arguments is that while some of the people who opt in to internet celebrity pursue this fervently and become influencers—which is what the last chapter points to, and the focus of my work that’s forthcoming– we also have a lot of internet celebrities who stumble into this or are forced into this industry, as in the case of the unwilling meme (Chapter 3, page 52) or the eyewitness viral star (Chapter 3, page 38) that circulates widely and gets mocked with racist tones of humor. So, not wanting to replicate or reignite that violence against these people, it would not feel right to republish their images in print, even if the publisher allows it, even if they have become widely circulated as memes, or even if the images are generally considered in the‘public domain. The aesthetic of it would not have been congruent with the argument I was trying to make, so I needed to be careful with that.

The second endeavor was more fun for me—to illustrate a more intellectual goal of using this art style. I was thinking about how verbally referring to a meme and explaining it with thick description, versus actually seeing the meme, are two different experiences. We consume internet celebrities via a visual form. If could could visually simulate a mere skeleton or likeness of the form, and have the readers able to guess or recall what this refers to, then this successfully demonstrates the arguments in the book that internet celebrity has a feel of templatability, a wider social memory, that cuts across different cultural pools of knowledge. It has been really fun for me to get feedback from readers who have told me, “Alright, we’re reading this in text form and this sounds familiar,” and then in the next page they flip to they see an outline and they think, “Oh yes, I know exactly the meme she’s talking about.” It also points to the difference in how we process information with our social memory. Traditionally, anthropology and ethnography has relied a lot on thick description, and very persuasive writing, and that’s a craft that I’m trying to hone. But when I do similar work in the industry, that’s not a format that’s palatable to people working in social media, working in tech companies, working with some of the biggest conglomerates in the media industry. Often, I have to present a different framing for the exact same thing I want to put across, such as relying heavily on visual aids. So, I also saw this as an experimental opportunity.

The third reason, of course, pragmatically, is dealing with the notion of public property, or copyright. Different publishers have different logistical guidelines for what constitutes an image that can be used for fair use, or for academic critique. Some of the publishers have guidelines ranging from how extensively public am image has been circulating, whether it has been deposited into the major meme or gif libraries, whether it has been reposted by reputable newspapers or online news sites of a certain leverage – and all of these guidelines are fair enough. They are all an approximation trying to estimate how public something is, and to iron out the difficulties of tracing the ownership of something that feels authorless like a meme. But again, going back to the ethic I adopt in this piece of work, something that’s put out and publicly available may not have been intentionally made so. So I brainstormed over a better method of engaging with the audience of the book, while also staying true to the intention and the ethic of the arguments I was trying to make.

John Postill on his new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics

The Rise of Nerd Politics
Interview by Angela VandenBroek
Angela VandenBroek: The Rise of Nerd Politics is a captivating description and analysis of “techpol nerds” and their “clamping” (computing, law, art, media, and politics) skills. You have described the techpol nerds as related to but not the same as other kinds of nerd categories studied by anthropologists (such as Kelty and Coleman). What led you to this analytic decision and why do you think it is important for anthropology now?
John Postill: That’s right. While Chris Kelty and Gabriella Coleman – whose pioneering work has had a major influence on mine – and other scholars have focused on computer geeks and hackers, I include other specialists under my category of “nerd politics” – a term I borrowed from the Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow.
The people I’m calling “techno-political nerds”, or simply “techpol nerds”, are a highly diverse lot. To be sure, among their ranks we find geeks and hackers, but we also find tech journalists, digital artists, copyright lawyers, Pirate politicians, and even anthropologists. What all these specialists have in common is a passionate devotion to working at the intersection of technology and politics, a pro-democracy stance, a profound dislike of authoritarianism, and the belief that the fate of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined. They translate this passion into a huge variety of initiatives in areas such as open data activism, digital rights, popular mobilisation, and electoral politics. It follows that I regard hacker politics to be a subclass of nerd, or “clamper”, politics.
As I argue in Chapter 2, not all forms of knowledge or skillsets are born equal in the world of nerd politics. Five forms in particular (computing, law, art, media and politics, or “clamp” for short) take pride of place within this world. Even accomplished computer nerds like the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden must rely on the expertise of others to pursue their political goals. Snowden gathered around him a team of Guardian journalists, lawyers and tech people as well as a documentary filmmaker. Yet we tend to overlook this interdisciplinary teamwork in our fascination with this supposedly lone wolf and his technological wizardry.
I arrived at this analytic decision in a roundabout way, as tends to be the case in anthropology. I started fieldwork in Barcelona, Spain, in the summer of 2010 with the intention of studying whether social media were making any substantial difference to the work of activists in that part of the world. After surveying the terrain, I became interested in the small but rambunctious digital rights scene and soon realised that it wasn’t just geeks and hackers who were active within it. In 2014 and 2015 I did comparative research on similar scenes in Indonesia, as well as secondary research on other countries. Everywhere I looked I found heterogeneous teams of nerds – not just techies – “clamping up” on corruption, fraud, online censorship, and other perceived malaises of the digital era.
 
Angela VandenBroek: For this book you drew on a wide range of techpol nerds, including those in Spain, Indonesia, Iceland, Brazil, Tunisia, Taiwan, and the United States. But the 15M movement in Spain figured prominently throughout the text. What about this particular example made it such a fruitful resource for you analytically, especially in contrast to more popularly covered subjects, such as the Arab Spring uprisings or the Occupy movement?
John Postill: There was an element of sheer luck in my decision to work in Spain. In 2009, when I was still based in the UK, a friend in London sent me a link to an advert in The Economist. The Open University of Catalonia were offering a one-year fellowship to study social media and activism in Barcelona. I applied and got it. It helped that I was brought up in Spain and that my previous research was on internet activism (albeit in a very different setting: suburban Malaysia). Another stroke of luck was that in early 2011 the digital rights nerds I was working with decided to switch from internet politics to politics writ large when they helped to launch the 15M (indignados) movement, which called for “real democracy now” and led directly to the Occupy movement.
But the story doesn’t end here, as the very same Barcelona nerds, an activist group called Xnet, later launched a data activism campaign to put on trial those behind the collapse of one of Spain’s major banks, Bankia. They later wrote and performed a widely acclaimed “data theatre” play on the Bankia case, launched a nerdy political party named Partido X, and even got embroiled in the fraught data politics of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017. By retracing Xnet’s nomadic trajectory I was able to map the world of nerd politics in Spain and discern four main spaces, or “subworlds”, within it: digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.
I then tested this four-cornered map in those other countries that you mention and, to my delight, it worked there, too. This enabled me to make comparisons across political cultures. For instance, while Spain’s nerds migrated en masse in 2011 from the space of digital rights to that of social protest to launch the 15M movement, their Brazilian counterparts remained fixated on a single digital-rights issue even at the height of the 2013 popular mobilisations. This paid off eventually as far as digital rights in Brazil are concerned, but arguably there was a missed opportunity for Brazilian nerds to help create something like Spain’s 15M movement and its formal political offshoots.
Spain has turned out to be an unlikely global leader in nerd politics, a massive laboratory of techno-politics and democracy. Today scores of town halls across Spain, including in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, are in the hands of indignados, many of them steeped in nerd culture. Moreover, a party that borrowed heavily from Xnet’s techno-political tools, namely Podemos, is now Spain’s third political force and the main ally of the ruling Socialists.
Angela VandenBroek:  You have artfully debunked many perceptions of nerds in The Rise of Nerd Politics that are common both in popular media and within anthropology and related fields, including their politics, their demographics and geographic locations, their collaborations and organization, and their utopian and techno-solutionist inclinations. How do you think these prior perceptions may have hindered our understanding of techpol nerds and their movements? And, what do you think are the most important misconceptions you have identified for us to pay attention to going forward?
John Postill: The prior perceptions you refer to – about nerds being typically white, male, anglophone, geeky, techno-solutionist, and so on – originate largely in US popular culture and news media but are influential worldwide. The two paradigmatic examples are Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These perceptions have clouded our understanding of the world of nerd politics in a number of ways, including a lack of attention to techpol nerds’ pragmatism; to their ethno-national, religious and gendered diversity; to their penchant for combining teamwork and crowdwork; to the fact that many of them work across civil society, government and the private sector divides, and so on.
Out of these misconceptions I would single out the popular fixation with hackers and their tech wizardry to the detriment of nerds from non-tech backgrounds (for example, journalism, art, humanities, politics) who are equally important to the rise of nerd politics and its increasing centrality to our political and cultural lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Assange, Snowden and other leading computer nerds have played hugely important roles, but so have lesser known individuals and groups around the globe (who may or may not possess advanced IT skills).
Angela VandenBroek: You end your book by saying, “For social scientists like me, and many readers of this book, there is also the issue of the current dominance of five kinds of knowledge (computing, law, art, media and politics) in this social world, which suggests that there is room for greater anthropological and sociological expertise in the nerd politics repertoire” (p. 254). How do you think anthropological knowledge could sit practically within the existing clamping suite? What are the tensions anthropologists may face in this space and how do you think we might overcome them through our work?
John Postill: Yes, that’s the book’s cliffhanger, a key unanswered question!
One significant contribution that anthropologists studying this topic could make to nerd politics is to continue to ask questions about who these techpol nerds (think they) are, what they have done so far, and with what actual and potential consequences. Whatever else we’re interested in, we anthropologists are always deeply interested in people, especially in our research participants. We are also interested, of course, in processes, systems, technologies, networks (whatever these are), actions and practices, but more than anything else we study people and their social relations, which these days are often digitally mediated.
Another potential contribution could be to interrogate the ontological status of some of the nerds’ favourite sociological notions. Do these notions have an empirical basis or are they simply cherished ideals and/or useful fictions? For example, when my research participants – some of them fellow researchers from other academic fields – get excited about the power of  connected multitudes or horizontal networks to bring about political change, I am among those whose job it is to sound a note of caution. What exactly is a horizontal network? Has anyone ever seen one? If so, where and when? By the same token, a team is a more tangible social entity than a so-called network, and yet the notion of team is conspicuously absent from many of the nerd narratives. These are the kinds of questions and blind spots that anthropologists are well placed to identify as the research and writing progresses. It follows that we should go about this task diplomatically (after all, we don’t necessarily want to antagonise people!).
Beyond these epistemological concerns, there is also the question of health and safety. As the world becomes more unruly, polarised, and unpredictable, anthropologists and their research participants working on nerd politics – and related topics – face greater legal and physical risks. One urgent task for anthropologists is to go beyond our liberal comfort zones and help bridge the current ideological rift between pro-democracy progressives and conservatives so that, together, we can take on the extremists and autocrats. We also need many more part-nerdships, that is, political initiatives that bring together nerds and non-nerds fighting for the social and economic rights of all citizens, including their digital rights – regardless of class, creed, or skin colour.

Ulla Berg on her new book, Mobile Selves

Mobile Selves: Race, Migration, and Belonging in Peru and the U.S. (Social Transformations in American Anthropology) by [Berg, Ulla D.]

 

https://nyupress.org/books/9781479803460/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

 If you were in a long customs line, like the one in the complex and evocative vignette with which you open your book, and you struck up a conversation with an immigration lawyer who happened to be just ahead of you in line, how would you describe your book?

Any migrant almost always exceeds the legal category they inhabit for US immigration purposes and this “excess” is a central concern in my book. I would probably focus on describing the communicative practices that people in my study use to navigate and fit into the legal categories available to them, including various visa categories. Lawyers are of course extremely aware of the complexities of people’s experiences when they try to construct a client’s case as compelling for any type of relief, but they also for obvious reasons need to shy away from engaging how people’s communicative practices are performative and context-dependent.

Migration is both a social and signifying practice that link the individual to the social collectivity. In contexts of migration, the migrant body is the center of these processes of signification; it is that which is read by others—for example, immigration officers, Anglo-Americans and non-migrant relatives—and that which in the most fundamental sense mediates all action upon the world. In the book at large, I discuss how the larger constraints of the migration process—and of social and racial orders more generally—constantly prompts migrants to communicate to others— U.S. immigration officials, Peruvian government officials, elite Peruvians, people in their home towns, US employers, and wider publics—an image of who they are or are expected to be and how they wish to be seen. Such images are necessarily always partial; indeed, they deny any facile claims to legibility embedded in normative and ideal-typical representations of who is a “Peruvian,” an “immigrant,” a “non-citizen,” a “refugee,” and so on. This is where the anthropological perspective is different from the legal one and could produce interesting debates!

How have biometric technologies changed people’s experiences of traveling between Peru and the United States?

Before the implementation of biometric passports and screening systems at USCIS checkpoints, it was still relatively easy for someone from Latin America to travel on someone else’s passport. In Mobile Selves, I give the example of two brothers who used the same passport to enter the US sometime in the 1990s. One of them told me: “We look like each other…and they [that is, the immigration authorities] can’t tell the difference anyway. To the gringos all cholos look the same.” But in the biometric era, not all cholos “read” the same!

Biometric technologies transform the body’s surfaces and characteristics into digital codes to be ‘read’ by a machine. But the meaning of the biometric body is always contingent upon the social and racial contexts in which it will be read and how it is tied to identity from the perspective of the social and political institutions that control the international movement of people. But of course, as many critics of biometrics have also argued, the burden of surveillance will continue to fall disproportionately on poor, marginal, and racialized communities. That is one of the problems with biometrics.

The heavier reliance on biometric identification also puts more weight on the visa interview and less on a portfolio of supporting documents. An average visa interview at the US consulate in Lima now lasts 3-5 minutes, and this opens up for all sorts of questions about the arbitrariness and the social and racial logics by which visa decisions are made, including about the issuing officer’s assumption about some people’s worthiness of a US visa over others. I think biometric technologies have intensified many people’s experience of being subjected to a controlling racial regime.

You describe how the experience of transnational migration has changed for people because of all the possible media people can now use to connect with family members back home.  Yet just because these technologies exist doesn’t mean that it is socially possible for Peruvian migrants to use them.   I was wondering if you could say a little bit about some of the social complications surrounding these technologies that make using these technologies a challenge both for those in Peru and those in the United States.

It is often assumed that just because communication technology exists, it will automatically make us feel more connected to our loved ones across time and space. But the expectation that you have to be reachable and connected at any point in time can be both exhausting, impractical, and also undesirable – we all know this from our daily lives! Such expectations were often difficult to meet both for labor migrants abroad as well as for family members in Peru, because of complicated work schedules, long workdays, little free time at their disposal, controlling employers or workplace surveillance, or limited options to connect in rural areas in Peru.

This is the main issue with celebratory accounts of the affordances that new media environments are supposed to offer for the enactment and experience of social relations across time and space. Yes, disenfranchised migrant mothers can use Skype or Facetime to check in on their children from afar, but this technologically mediated form of communication cannot substitute the intense multi-sensorial experience of being able to tug your own kid (not someone else’s) into bed at night or to be there for them if they wake up in the middle of the night after a nightmare or if something bad happens at school.

Considering these complex social dynamics undergirded by global inequality, I disagree with scholars who diminish or even disregard the social and emotional cost of separation by proposing that polymedia environments contribute to making the absent other tangible and therefore come to constitute the other person and hence the relationship itself. For most people in my study, new technologies could alter feelings by momentarily collapsing distance and institute forms of co-presence, but at the end of the day most migrant mothers lived on in the United States mourning the prolonged separation from their children and other relatives. Along with this, the feelings of abandonment in some children towards their migrant parents extend into their adolescence and adulthood as resentments that cannot easily be undone even as a person grows up and acquires more tools to understand your parent’s actions.  Feelings such as pain, loss, suffering over separation and distance, longing, sadness, and nostalgia or the more positive ones such as love, compassion, intimacy, and belonging continued to animate the lives of migrants in affective and material ways despite the changing technologies used to produce these social and intersubjective relationships through long-distance communication.

I was wondering if you could discuss the different attitudes Peruvian migrants have towards audio-cassettes and videocassettes, and how these different media ideologies shaped the genres people use to circulate images and stories circulated between Peru and the U.S.

Absolutely. Most recent migrants are constantly preoccupied with maintaining the social bonds of kinship with family and relatives left behind via long-distance communication, remitting small amounts of money from their meager entry-level U.S. salaries, and by circulating a variety of material and media objects. In this way, they seek to remain emotionally connected and relevant in the everyday lives of their families in Peru and socially visible in the communities they left behind. For example, in Chapter 3, I evoke the concept of “remote sensing” specifically to discuss the attempts of migrant parents to “feel” and “know” their children’s lives and whereabouts from afar. This communicative, sensory, and mediated practice, which employ both aural and visual technologies, regularly plays out against dominant social norms that cast “communicative” migrants abroad in a favorable light back home as caring mothers, responsible fathers, dutiful daughters, and reliable and dependable “hijos ausentes” (that is, absent sons and daughters of their rural communities of origin). But in the context of the prolonged separation caused by migration, “remote sensing”, I suggest, amplifies rather than ameliorates the social and emotional struggles of transnational families, because participants are often not able to perform according to the roles set for them by gendered and intergenerational normative frameworks. In this way, long-distance communication, as a form of social, cultural, and affective practice, is often fraught with tension, uncertainty, and power inequalities.

Some migrants in my study preferred visual means of communication and they claimed it gave them the added effect of seeing their loved ones. There was often an assumption that you can “fake it” over the phone but you cannot conceal your true feelings when video chatting (even if all forms of communication are of course performative – also face-to-face communication whether mediated by video or not). Many migrants also “produced” videos to send to their family members – either of everyday life or special occasions such as community events or fiestas. I show in the book how video production, consumption, and circulation figure centrally in migrants’ staging of their own social visibility as “worldly” and “cosmopolitan” ex-campesinos. Participants in my study were highly invested in monitoring, selecting, and negotiating the criteria for which images of migrant life abroad could be shared with those back in Peru and what, in turn, had to be made invisible and left out of circulation to avoid rumors, tensions, and accusations within transnational families or among paisanos back home. Of course sometimes particular image objects escaped intended networks of circulation and moved beyond specific audiences. In these cases, imagery served as “visual evidence” that could complicate people’s efforts of self-fashioning. I show how such revelations have implications for the production of social cohesion within transnational migrant collectivities, and how circulating images may serve as new forms of social control and surveillance. In sum, visual and oral forms of communication have significant differences but both extend and also complicate social relations and in their own way expose the inherent tensions and ambiguities of the migrant/transnational condition of Andean Peruvians.You published this book before Trump was elected, turning anti-immigration sentiment into an official government position. If you had a chance to talk to a room full of Trump supporters who were willing to listening respectfully to academics, what would you like them to know about your research?

Ha ha—fact-seeking Trump supporters? That seems like a hypothetical scenario at this point in time, but ok… I would probably feel compelled to first talk about the many contributions of immigrants—Latin Americans, in particular—to the US economy and society and to expel some of the many “alternative facts” about these populations circulated by the Trump administration’s propaganda machinery.

What currently counts as “immigration policy” in the US is a series of contradictory piecemeal actions, most of them based on long-lived racial anxieties and nativist ideologies, which do not add up to any coherent policy. Unfortunately, by not having a coherent immigration policy, the US has become a world leader in the undermining of human potential. Trump’s recent decision to end DACA is a text-book example of such complete lack of perspective.

I would give examples of the profound existential resourcefulness of most of the mobile Peruvians I came to know during my research to show Trump supporters how the drive to better oneself and the larger community is not a US invention but one that is widely shared by migrants around the world; one that cannot but make America much greater in the future than what it currently is today. Immigrants don’t take jobs, they create them. We are not parasitical on the US economy; we make this economy happen on a daily basis.

Hopefully, the Trump era will soon be reduced to a crazy minor parenthesis in modern US history, but what not only a room full of attentive Trump supporters specifically, but US whites more generally must acknowledge and work to change is how in the United States mobility is intimately tied to race and privilege (or the lack thereof). This is one of the basic points of the book that I would attempt to convey in such a situation.

 

 

 

Sareeta Amrute on her new book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class

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https://www.dukeupress.edu/encoding-race-encoding-class

Interview by Ilana Gershon

By focusing on Indian computer programmers, you are able to point out the ways in which computer programmers have racialized bodies, and how this affects their work lives.  If you happened to find yourself at a dinner party seated next to a Silicon Valley recruiter, what would you want them to know about your book?

My book takes sides. It’s not just descriptive, it’s provocative. It humanizes an incredibly cartoonified subset of laborers. Literally: I discuss cartoons satirizing Indian IT workers in European publications as part of my chapter on perceptions. I’d want her to know that coders from India don’t deserve the reputation they’ve been handed down as fast, cheap, and replaceable. These attributes are a result of the way the industry produces value, primarily by divvying coding projects up into creative and grunt parts, which are then given to different kinds of workers, often divided by race. And while engineers from India occupy director and management positions across the Silicon Plateaus, Alleys, Valleys, and Highways around the globe, this racial logic remains. Upper management coders from India elevate themselves above the uncreative grunt coders from India along the lines of urbanity, caste, and elite versus regional engineering college backgrounds. These divisions also reach service workers, packers, and cleaners who have access to few of the perks that accompany tech jobs.

The focus of your work – IT workers in companies – is different than earlier anthropological work on coders, such as Chris Kelty or Gabriella Coleman’s work.  What difference do you think it makes that the workers you focus on work for corporations?   How do the organizational structures under which people labor affect people’s philosophies of coding?

There is much to recommend anthropological focus on hacking and free software communities, since in those arenas, alternatives to the neoliberal organization of life often emerges in unexpected ways. But, I cannot teach about global IT without recognizing its corporate structure. Last year, the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) accounted for at least 50% of all Internet traffic. One out of very two dollars spent on the Internet was spent on Amazon. Most of my students look forward to landing a job at Amazon. Like it or not, the Internet is dominated by corporations.

Within corporations, migrant programmers readily identify the contradiction between the ways that code has to move around the world and restrictions on the global movement of people. This makes them skeptical of free software movements because they simply do not go far enough. By likening code to speech, such movements unwittingly support neoconservative political ideologies that sacrifice human well- being in the name of abstract principles. Migrant programmers diagnose this gap between free software and free people, leading them to violate many principles of what is otherwise considered ‘good’ coding, such as leaving comments that explain their work to others.

You argue that one strategy that Indian IT code writers resort to is writing “inalienable” code, and thus making themselves more essential to a company in a context of temporary contracts.  Could you explain a bit what it means to write inalienable code, and what effect this strategy has on the ways that these workplaces are organized?

Inalienable code is a form of resistance. Global corporations compartmentalize temporary coders from India. “Grunts” resist by writing their code in such a way that makes that code harder to hand off to another, making them harder to replace. This is “inalienable code”. My book includes specific examples, like leaving bad comments or no comments at all, so that the coder is the only one who understand this part of the project.

Interestingly, this is widely considered poor programming. When I began conceptualizing things like this that didn’t fit the “good programming” paradigm, I tried to think of these practices in very concrete terms. They were certainly a kind of foot dragging practice, which we know from studies of factory work is a daily opposition to the ownership of time by the employer. I get a kick out of labor practices developed in the 19th century being right at home in the 21st.

“Poor programming” practices were also a means of creating a kind of wealth. These practices take the idea of knowledge work, that knowledge is capital, at its word. Thinking of aberrant coding practices as creating property and stealing time allowed me to think about the kinds of wealth coding might generate. I revisited anthropologist of the Pacific Annette Weiner’s foundational argument about inalienable wealth, in which she examined kinds of wealth that are kept back from circulation. In her scholarship, she describes wealth that, in a social scene that demands gifts and return-gifts, can be held back from these types of exchange. One of her most famous examples is a greenstone (nephrite) axe, which remained powerfully tied to the history of its victories and could only be held in trust on behalf of a group.

Now apply this concept of “inalienable” wealth to coding. The way global technology companies structure employment agreements, coders do not properly own what they write. They cannot normally exert intellectual property rights over the innovations they may make. So, they instead try to create a special relationship to this wealth by taking it out of circulation—by making it the equivalent of a jade axe buried underground, valuable because it is there not because it is freely available for exchange. Of course, these practices of making code inalienable exist in the everyday alongside the exchange of coding labor for a wage, and the free exchange of solutions to programming problems that coders post to sharing sites like Stack Overflow.

You point out many complex ways in which these programmers represent India to the German public, and a particular model of technological development to government officials in the Indian government.  But one of your imaginative arguments is pointing out that these Indian IT workers have a relationship to India as a state that calls forth a third perspective of how workers are part and parcel of state projects.  Could you explain how currently Indian IT workers overseas understand their relationship to the Indian state?

This is a fascinating question right now, and it demonstrates how coding cultures can be open ended and change over time. By and large, most programmers share a soft libertarian attitude towards governments, including their own. The government should set in motion a limited number of laws, and then get out of the way. As IT workers were understood to represent the new face of Indian business, which was higher paying, innovative and relatively free from corruption, IT workers felt themselves to be the best representative of this new, economically muscular, India. But, the turmoil on the Indian political scene in the last few years has shifted the equation. India’s government, like the United States’ government, has become more nativist in recent years. Opinion about the current state of affairs in India varies widely among Indian IT workers overseas. Some support the ongoing efforts to redefine India a normatively Hindu and are not bothered by increasing inequality, pollution, and violence against minorities. Many are deeply troubled by these developments and have begun to feel displaced, neither comfortable at home, nor in the rightist, anti-immigrant regimes in the U.S. and elsewhere.

You argue that these IT programmers are deeply ambivalent about how neoliberal logics recommend people should organize their lives.  How do they use leisure moments as moments to reclaim control over the kinds of working selves they are expected to be and as moments of experimentation?

Migrant programmers from India can recognize the failures of subjecthood under neoliberalism because as migrants, their precarious job status belies their vaunted position as knowledge workers. The protagonists of my book did all the things white collar workers are supposed to do to become successful—say, for example, getting up at 5 am to go jogging. Yet, jogging was not sustainable. They were working too many late nights for that. What happened next fascinated me. Rather than give up entirely, they walked in the local park. I name walking and related practices fragments of a politics of eros, because they inaugurated a conversation on the content of a good life. Such a conversation is otherwise evacuated under the logics of neoliberal survival. I’m not saying that walking is a perfect utopian practice; but, it is a moment when people practice inhabiting a world they want. Anyone familiar with India knows that the caste and class implications of walking in parks are complex. These moments of eros can just as easily flip into moments of asserting upper caste and upper class rights to urban public space. But, if we paint all overseas Indian IT workers with the same brush, that is, as classist, casteist, Hindu nationalists, we run the extreme danger of missing the progressive potential in their resistance to neoliberal work and its companions, such as a certain ways of exercising. Even more egregiously, we may miss the widest applicability of the conversation about the good life. How many of us can say that we are entirely satisfied by the way neoliberal logics govern our selves and our attachments? I think one of the most important tasks for anthropology is to interrogate the degree to which we, and others, are attached to these logics of hard work and self-improvement. For me, it is an ethical imperative to ask about the texture of a good life across class, caste, race, gender, and color divides.

Gabriele de Seta’s Postdigital China

Page 99 of my doctoral thesis Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China is a messy microcosm that is yet quite representative of the whole dissertation. The page is positioned right at the beginning of the fourth chapter, in which I try to describe “contemporary China’s postdigital media ecologies” through the local tech buzzword weishidai [‘micro-era’], a historical moment

in which the Internet, fragmented, ubiquitous and personalized, disappears in the fabric of everyday life.

Even when read in isolation, this page feels as overbearing as the rest of the thesis, my writing rushing through composite terms and neologisms I deploy in order to pin down glimpses of the sociotechnical reality I thought I witnessed during my sparse months of fieldwork. The first couple of paragraphs are a really bad example of terminological proliferation in social science writing – hardly giving words any room to breathe, I propose a flurry of concepts: “technomorphology”, “weishidai”, “technological imaginary”, “postdigital”, “post-media” and “post-Internet”. Cobbling together my dissertation in a disciplinary context that emphasized ethnographic mystique over theoretical debate, the lexical flourishes offered by barely digested media theory readings made me feel sharper and safer.

My writing then moves to a couple of fieldwork impressions, but only after reframing my whole research project through a disillusioned self-reflection:

I traveled to different locations in Mainland China looking forward to collect the insights of media-savvy and enthusiastic Internet users, expecting to give voice to strong opinions on digital media and their culture. Instead, as time went on, I realized that most people I was talking to deemed my research topic to be extremely vague or not groundbreaking at all: some noticed the importance of an Internet connection only when it didn’t work, to then quickly realize they didn’t even know what they really wanted to use it for (Fig. 35); others were active content creators on different digital media platforms, yet didn’t have much to say about it: “Yes, feel free to use my photos. As for your questions, I would love to help you, but I really don’t have any opinion, I don’t want to disappoint you” (ZuoYou, May 2014, Shanghai).

Eventually, I didn’t use one any of my friend’s photos, and his opinions – even if articulated in small talk rather than formal interviews – kept informing my writing over the years. When I last saw him in Shanghai a few months ago, we spent an entire dinner talking about livestreaming apps.

gabriele.04.boredom

Figure 35, which appears at the bottom of the page, is a composite of screengrabs from social media posts made by another friend over a six-hour span during which her VPN (Virtual Private Network) software stopped working. Unable to access Facebook, she laments “the hopelessness of not being able to connect to the Internet” through a Chinese-language post on her WeChat account. When her VPN comes back online after a few hours, she writes an English-language post on Facebook noting how “have the network the but again don’t know what to do”. Besides the evident design similarities between the two platforms, and her decision to use different languages on each of them, this constructed image evokes the pragmatic use of software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship while also resonating with a self-aware disenchantment about the feeling of purposelessness resulting from digital media use.

The page ends with the heading of section 4.2.1, “After digital media”. I clearly remember titling this section as a nod to Mark Hobart’s volume After culture: Anthropology as radical metaphysical critique. His use of the term “after”, in turn inspired by Johannes Fabian, is echoed by Florian Kramer’s definition of “post-digital” as

a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical […].

If page 99 of my dissertation manages to make a point about postdigital China, I hope it is the following: after digital media, there is more digital media.

de Seta, Gabriele. 2015. Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China. PhD dissertation. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China.

free download of dissertation available here: https://www.academia.edu/25790317/Dajiangyou_Media_practices_of_vernacular_creativity_in_postdigital_China

Lynnette Arnold’s Communicative Care Across Borders

My dissertation, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” explores the role of everyday communication in the lives of multigenerational transnational families living stretched between El Salvador and the United States, revealing how technologically mediated language both produces and contests the political-economic marginalization of geographically mobile populations. These families rely on regular cell-phone calls as a primary form of kin work in the face of long-term physical separation caused by restrictive immigration policies (Di Leonardo 1987), and the dissertation provides a close analysis of these cross-border conversations, informed by insights developed through multi-sited ethnographic engagement.

Page 99 is located in the middle of my methods chapter, and discusses the relationships that made this intimate investigation possible, describing how 15 years of connection had resulted in my adoption into several transnational families, signaling close affective ties despite the insurmountable gulf between our political-economic positions. As such, although page 99 is methodological, it draws attention to the primary theoretical contribution of the dissertation, the concept of communicative care.

Building on feminist approaches to care, I develop this term to highlight how mundane conversations attend to both material and affective concerns, nurturing the relational ties upon which cross-border families depend. The dissertation analyzes long-distance greetings, collaborative reminiscences, and negotiations of economic decisions, elucidating how each practice works to reproduce material connections between migrants and their relatives back home, while also providing forms of affective engagement that maintain kin ties.

In sustaining transnational family life, communicative care practices constitute a creative response to the failures of state care, but one that also reinforces the domestication and privatization of caring responsibilities. Thus, while communicative care is a means of pursuing well-being at the margins of neoliberalism, these strategies simultaneously produce forms of personhood and relationship that conform to neoliberal models. The analysis presented in the dissertation demonstrates the crucial importance of paying close attention to technologically mediated talk for understanding how the tensions of neoliberal mobility are both produced and managed.

Lynnette Arnold, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” Phd diss, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016.

Bibliography

Di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12, no. 3 (1987): 440–453.

 

Ben Peters on his new book, How Not to Network a Nation

How Not to Network a Nation

https://mitpress.mit.edu/hownot

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for Ben Peters

If you found yourself at a picnic with linguistic anthropologists, and one of them was sensible enough to bring tasty corn and seemed very interested when you mentioned briefly that you had written about the history of thwarted Soviet attempts to develop the internet, how would you explain your book?

Hey ling anth friends, please pass the corn!

(Between messy bites) I think my interest in the Soviet internet story owes a sideways debt to the fact I’m from deep corn country, USA. Coming from a small college town in the Midwest licenses one not only to know their corn (delicious!) but to appreciate life removed from the urban centers of global action. This appreciation once struck me as a 20-year-old service volunteer living in a small city called Balakovo along the Volga river in the post-industrial rust belt of Russia. There I realized not all “middle of nowheres” are similar (Ian Frazier’s delightful and meditative masterpieces The Great Plains  and Travels in Siberia make this point). In addition to the earnest people, the agricultural base, and scenic landscape I was used to back in Iowa, Balakovo, a former secret Soviet city, had decaying military-industrial factories for the cosmonaut industries, an enormous hydroelectric dam, a line of nuclear reactors looming on the horizon, and much else. Where did this outsized industrial infrastructure come from?  I remember wondering on the edge of an enormous dammed reservoir: who first thought it a good idea to plan so much electrical power in out-of-the-way Balakovo, and why?

(Holding up half-eaten corn cob) I have since recognized that the big ag corn industry in the US—and perhaps even all advanced modernity in its debt to large institutions—participates in the basic question behind the Soviet internet book: why do some institutions organize our lives and others not?  Why, in particular, wasn’t there a Soviet internet? Given its failure was neither inevitable nor natural, what was the story of the Soviet scientists and leaders that planned to network the nation with computers anyway? Who were these cyberneticists?   What did they want when they started to imagine  networking the planned economy with computers in an ambitious project called the All-State Automated System ( or OGAS for short)? And why, despite thirty years of attempts at the height of the cold war tech race, did this outsized informational network infrastructure for the Soviet people not take root?

(Hint: my answers are not censorship cultures, technological backwardness, or inefficient hierarchical states.)

Throughout the book, you explain that while many cyberneticists modeled their national network projects after the human mind, the projects were quite different, in part because how they understood this metaphor varied so much. Could you explain some of the differences?

(Sets corn cob down in order to focus.) Sure thing. There are many brain-computer metaphors—and none of them are right. I think the twentieth-century pedestaled the wrong image of the ideal computing processor: the ideal computing processor is not the human brain. (Moreover this towering intellectual hubris—or what brains think about themselves—builds naturally on a troubling early modern vaulting of western individualism.) Cybernetics, after World War II, enabled strong neural-computer network analogies to be at work in Warren McCulloch’s influence on Paul Baran’s distributed network design at RAND, in Stafford Beer’s influence on Allende’s Cybersyn network in Chile, and in (as I detail in the book) Viktor Glushkov’s influence on the OGAS Project in the Soviet Union. Each had different consequences in different places: to put it in a nutshell, the ARPANET designers imagined their nation as a single distributed brain of users, while the OGAS Project designers (not entirely unlike Beer in Chile) imagined their network as a nervous system for layering onto their nation as an economic industrial body of workers, with the state as the brain. To suggest that the first American computer network was modeled after an imagination of a national brain and the Soviet networks were after a national body not only rehearses the mid-century emerging information and industrial cold war economic differences—but it also obscures the on-the-ground story of both. I suspect linguist anthropologists have much to teach me here in particular: I think the biggest difference lies not in the metaphors but in the distance between all those brain-computer metaphors and the embodied practices of building and institutionalizing computer networks. No national network projects resemble the human mind in practice.

Economists and economic cybernetics play a much larger role in the book that I imagined when I first started reading. It left me wondering: what kind of dilemmas do economists have to solve when they don’t presume that the market is the best way to distribute goods and determine value?

They stump up against some of the hardest dilemmas I know. In all semiotic-material discourse (of which the economy is of course just one mode), every evaluation is also an executable fabrication that itself acts on other evaluations. And among the resulting chains of operations, in which there are many dilemmas, the ones that matter most in this book do not fall along the cold war economic liberal language of private markets versus public states. (Hannah Arendt, for example, nudges my conclusion to deconstruct and begin rebuilding network discourse beyond the tired cold war triumphalism around markets, liberty, and commerce.) As you note, I spend a couple chapters developing how economic relations did not work as planned in the Soviet context: continuous and partial reform among battling schools of thought, nonlinear command and control dynamics, informal power networks, vertical bargaining, and other sources of organizational dissonance. I dub all this, borrowing from McCulloch and David Stark’s language, “heterarchy.” In a heterarchy, every node is subject to competing regimes of evaluation and the resulting logics by which value is determined cannot be described or mapped onto simple two-dimensional models (markets, hierarchies, and so on). Perhaps our behavior can be mapped onto a higher order in n-dimensional spaces, suggests McCulloch, or perhaps not at all. How we determine value is a complex measure of how modern humans interact, and indeed how any actor responds to contradictory demands (do I write, prepare for class, go for a walk, or have another piece of corn?) reveals more than our negotiated compromises to that contradiction.

Back to the Soviet case: it is no surprising revelation that the on-the-ground practical relations for determining and planning values in the Soviet planned economy did not function as they promised to on paper. Still, this mundane fact had consequences in at least two directions: it frustrated the rationalizing impulses of technocratic economic reform attempts such as the OGAS Project. It also ensured that economic bureaucracies could actively resist reforms because they were free to pursue their institutional self-interest in the status quo. The Soviet network story is thus an uneasy mix of technological genius and futuristic foresight leavened with mutinous ministries and institutional infighting. Or, to restate the book hook, while the US ARPANET took shape thanks to state funding and collaborative research environments, the Soviet contemporary projects broke against the rock of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions and bureaucrats. The first global computer networks took shape thanks to cooperative capitalists, not competitive socialists.

As your story unfolds about why the Soviets never developed a national computer network, another deep irony emerges – that a system built around centralization consistently over time ended up undercutting any possibility of a centralized computer network.   You suggest that this is a story about the tensions between belief and practice, between a system that was touted as a centralized and well-regulated bureaucracy and in practice a complicated mixture of differently structured hierarchies. Could you discuss the tensions between Soviet centralization and Soviet bureaucratic fiefdoms that lie behind your history of non-events?

That’s a beautiful question central to the project—one that I’d like to tweak in two ways as a way of responding.

First, commonplace understanding of the Soviet state as centralized and well-regulated is empirically wrong. Let’s think instead of the Soviet state as trying to turn a complex field of decentralized fiefdoms into a single field of decentralized fiefdoms. Even the Politburo rarely endorsed totalizing centralization, and certainly none of the Soviet network projects in the book call for fully centralized networks. With the exception of one short-lived radial network proposal, all of the proposed Soviet network projects between 1959 and 1989 interestingly resemble decentralized pyramids (just like the official economic plan at the time).

These network still recognized a central command in Moscow while also permitting real-time remote access between any two authorized nodes on the national network. This is a key corrective (especially in light of the romance of flat organizational networks in the west): in both principle and practice, the Soviet Union was not too top-down or rigidly hierarchical.  And in administrative practice, it was too messy and pernicious.

Second, the book is a negative history of real events, not a hypothetical history of non-events (although it does color the vision of a futuristic electronic socialism that never was). The reason I think this re-characterization matters is because I am openly interested in helping normalize the study of failed projects among scholars of human relations, complex institutions, media studies, and their adjunct interests.

Or as the book puts it,

contingent histories also help focus public debate better than do popular histories of technology that parade about hackers, geniuses, and geeks marching to the Whiggish beats of technological progress. In negative histories failures, even epic breakdowns, are normal. Astonishing genius, imaginative foresight, and peerless technical wizardry are not enough to change the world. This is one of the lessons of the OGAS experience. Its story places the conventional concepts of technological successes and failures on the wobbly foundations of the accidents of history. The historical record is a cemetery overgrown in short-lived technological futures: stepping of its beaten paths leads us to slow down and take stock before we rush to crown the next generation of technologists as agents of change. (197)

Perhaps the hard moral of the story is this: no one sensitive to the suffering all around us cannot want to reform the world for the better. Yet, in the multivariable calculus of social reform, the only thing more certain than our desire to change the world (and media and language are among those ways) is to admit that there is no guarantee that any given effort ever will.

This is a beautifully written book about bureaucracy, one in which you even manage to make a bureaucratic meeting, and the fact that two people happened to be absent, suspenseful. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your writing strategies for making compelling some topics that at first glance might seem like good insomniac aids. How do you make bureaucracy and its genres compelling?

(Setting down now finished corn cob.) Thanks! That means a lot. Writing is one of my favorite demons. Bureaucracy, because it (like computing programming) is made out of writing that is meant to be executed but never really read, often deadens its observers to the real fertility and force of the written word. Perhaps students and scholars of mind-numbingly dull technical systems should indulge in great stylists in English and other languages as temporary antidotes against the occupational hazard that is prose pollution. Outside of my own awe for language (which I take up more directly in my brand new edited volume Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture, which Princeton published last week on the 40th anniversary of Raymond Williams’ Keywords), I don’t have any sure-fire strategies, although the normal ones will probably do: I recommend reading voraciously and strategically, slavishly imitating and scrupulously doubting the masters, writing for the smart and interested eighth grader, and then rewriting with an ear tuned to the cadence of language. Of course I rarely manage to pull all that off, but it’s a good thing to try and a better thing to have sympathetic readers to share it with.

Thanks for the picnic!

Benjamin Peters is the author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet  (MIT 2016) and editor of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture (Princeton 2016). He is assistant professor of  Communication at the University of Tulsa and an affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Work site: petersbenjamin.wordpress.com. Tweet at him @bjpeters.