Lilly Irani on her book, Chasing Innovation

https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13362.html

Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty

(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).

Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?

Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.

Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.

The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”

Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?

Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.

Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you? Continue reading

Mack Hagood on his new book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control

Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Sign, Storage, Transmission) by [Hagood, Mack]

https://www.dukeupress.edu/hush

Interview by Jacob Smith

Jacob Smith: Hush offers a strikingly original take on the history of devices and practices that offer control over the sonic environment. As a framework for your analysis, you coin the terms “orphic media” and “empty media”: what are these?

Mack Hagood: In its narrowest sense, the concept of orphic media refers to the ways people use audio media to create a safe space for themselves. In Greek mythology, Orpheus saves the lives of the Argonauts by neutralizing the Sirens’ song with a song of his own, pacifying the treacherous environment of the Siren Strait. Over the past sixty years or so, a number of media devices that operate on this principle have arisen: bedside machines that generate white noise or nature sounds, commercial recordings and smartphone apps that do the same, wearable devices that counteract tinnitus, noise-canceling headphones, and others. All of these technologies fight sound with sound to control one’s environment, thereby allowing the user to control her own subjective state. If we think of these disparate technologies as the products of a single industry, it generates billions of dollars by promising control over how we feel, sleep, and concentrate. But up until now, we haven’t thought of orphic mediation as a media practice—and, in fact, we haven’t thought of most of these technologies as media at all, because they don’t have “content” in a traditional sense. They are “empty media” that challenge our scholarly and lay notions of media as technologies that inform, entertain, or transmit messages. In fact, these media aren’t meant to be paid attention to at all, which is what allows them to be so effective!

Now, this might seem to be simply a quirky and overlooked product category or a lacuna in the field of media studies, but I argue that it’s much more than that. In the book, I use these technologies as a way to explore the way listening has become difficult, painful, and even paranoid in the era of the attention economy, which equates the liberal subject with controlled attention while also flooding consciousness with voices, information, enticements, and distractions, undermining any possibility of self-control. This personal, sensory conflict fuels our politics of filter bubbles, right-wing echo chambers, campus safe spaces, and other contemporary controversies around listening. Studying listening is useful because a similar reactivity and even physiology are at work when we recoil from a sound we find uncomfortable and when we recoil from a social situation or even an idea that we find uncomfortable. So, in its widest sense, the concept of orphic media is about more than sound technologies. It claims that the most fundamental purpose of all media use is not to transmit information, but rather to navigate our affective relationship to our environment. And it’s the misguided ways we try to stay in control of that relationship that drive our current conflicts.

Jacob Smith: Your first chapter concerns the use of orphic media by the sufferers of tinnitus. What is distinctive about these practices in the broader terrain of orphic media? What methodological challenges did you face when writing this chapter?

Mack Hagood: In the course of studying orphic media, I quickly realized that people with buzzing, ringing, or other putative phantom sounds in the head or ears were among the most committed users of these technologies. During my ethnographic study of tinnitus and the roles that media play in its diagnosis and treatment, I came to understand just how high the stakes of orphic media use can be. Many of us experience tinnitus to some degree or from time to time and are relatively unbothered by it, but for a small minority of people, tinnitus is a deeply disturbing experience that interferes with personal relationships and the ability to work or enjoy life. And as an invisible disability, inaudible to others, tinnitus can often be met with skepticism and impatience. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression are strongly associated with suffering from tinnitus in this way.

By visiting audiology clinics, research centers, and tinnitus support groups, as well as volunteering with the American Tinnitus Association for a number of years, I met many people with tinnitus and learned a great deal about the nature of aural suffering. And, indeed, almost everyone I met used white noise or other orphic technologies either as digital folk remedies or as prescription media, under the guidance of an audiologist or other clinician. They used media as what Foucault called “technologies of the self” that help us bear the burdens of liberty, the requirement to be free of hindrances and limitations that a liberal society places upon us.

When you ask about methodological challenges, I think perhaps you are referring to my own struggle with tinnitus during my fieldwork, which I discuss in the book. Hush is based on my dissertation and shortly after my research proposal was approved by my Ph.D. committee, I accidentally overfilled a bicycle tire at a gas station and it burst right next to my left ear, leaving me with very loud tinnitus. I was quite upset by this and now I had to begin my fieldwork on the subject of tinnitus, interviewing people about it and thinking about it every day. It was really challenging and I found myself dealing with similar anxieties and depressive feelings as my interlocutors, which not only heightened my empathy for them, but also added a visceral, lived dimension to my analysis. It made me understand the intimate relationship between fear and control, the way that refusing to accept what wasn’t freely chosen only amplifies suffering and, conversely, the way that opening oneself up to sounds we didn’t choose can actually diminish our suffering. Truly, the only way I was able to stop suffering from tinnitus was to gradually accept that it was part of my body and my experience, whether I wanted it or not. In the end, my experience and study of tinnitus was the key to understanding the impetus for all orphic media and to formulating the critique that evaluating life only in terms of the freedom to choose actually instills more fear and suffering into life. Continue reading

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.

Rebekah Cupitt’s “Making Difference: Deafness and video technology at work”

rebekah culpritt

 

Meetings – a photo of a poster hanging on the wall of the office I moved into on the first day of my PhD at KTH. I noted and documented it because it was an accurate representation of my own impression of meetings, pre-research – pre-thesis.

That a discussion of meetings takes place on page 99 of my thesis is perhaps a bit unexpected given its title, Make difference: Deafness and video technology at work. Meetings do not figure here and there are good reasons why…

My doctoral research was on how video technology and people’s (deaf and hearing) interactions with it in the course of the work of television production create distinct and fluid subjectivities. I used empirical examples to recount how these diverse subjectivities are enacted in different contexts and sometimes for specific (political) purposes. In the later chapters, I go on to illustrate how the multiple ways of being deaf, hearing, and interpreting materialise during instances where video technology is used. These instances are video *meetings*. The meeting forms a setting of sorts and is convened to carry out work. Is it an event, is it a practice, how can it be understood within the larger context of the work of television production and the organisation of the television station? It is these kinds of questions the discussion on page 99 pre-empts.

Page 99 is part of one of three introductory chapters that lay the groundwork for later discussions (Technology, Organisation, Meetings). Each of these chapters establishes how technology, the organisation (Swedish Television) and meetings (video meetings) are treated and framed in my analysis. In Meetings, I discuss the various conceptualisations and ways of analytically approaching meetings from a variety of perspectives. It goes without saying that the subject matter of this page mis-represents the topic of my thesis to a certain extent but it is indicative of a critical part of my research – its necessary inter-disciplinarity. As an anthropologist practising in a non-anthropological institution, this page is about how I position myself in relation to the field of research of Human-Computer Interaction. It is also about drawing from my disciplinary background and translating anthropological knowledge into a language that can be understood by computer scientists, audiologists, engineers, designers, and of course, my fellow anthropologists and social scientists.

Not only is this page about positionality but this page, and the thesis on a whole, is a proving ground. It is about me distinguishing myself from my disciplinary ancestors and previous researchers. It is about Making Difference – which is in itself, the subject and entire point of the thesis. In writing this page, and my thesis, I am carrying out the scholarly work of mimesis and alterity: showing that I am at once the same and yet distinct, different and more than… This task mirrors the ways in which the employees at Swedish Television carry out video meetings. In each video meeting, there is a sense of collaboration, of the team coming together, identifying as ‘same’, sharing the same goals and knowledge. Yet there are differences that co-exist with this sense of togetherness and belonging. Hearing colleagues acknowledge and work hard to incorporate and adapt their hearing ways of being to shared understandings of deafness and communication in sign language. Deaf colleagues accommodate and adapt to hearing ways of communication, and the interpreters vacillate between modalities of communication. The video technology, however is designed and functions purely from a hearing point of view and this affects the ways in which deafness (and hearing) are performed during video meetings.

While page 99 gives no hint at this (other than its rebellious stance against Goffman, perhaps), my thesis concludes with a challenge to all interested in technology and its design to question the normative assumptions that hide behind design decisions and utopian visions of technological futures.

Cupitt, Rebekah. 2017. “Make difference. Deafness and video technology at work” KTH, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, PhD dissertation.

Rebekah Cupitt is a social anthropologist whose research interests span critical disability studies, queer theory and feminist technoscience, and our often mundane and now ubiquitous interactions with technologies. Currently a lecturer in Digital Design at Birkbeck, University of London, this research focus on social justice, inclusive design, and recognising the politics of design and technologies is part of courses Rebekah teaches such as digital cultures, inclusive design, and human-centred design practice. You can reach Rebekah via email at rebekah@kth.se.