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Our chapter in ‘Activist Art in Social Justice Pedagogy’


My colleague Dr. Pat Clark, her grad students Peter Cavana, Dan Herson and Sharon Strong, and I, have just published a chapter titled “Interactive Social Media and the Art of Telling Stories: Strategies for Social Justice Through 2010” in B. Beyerbach and R. D. Davis (eds.) Activist Art in Social Justice Pedagogy (2011, Peter Lang Publishing). The chapter describes our experience designing and running an Alternate Reality Game about racism on campus.

Here’s the publisher’s page for the book.

Between Google and a Hard Place

This is a letter published in my school’s newspaper:

As most of you have heard, our campus is getting ready to migrate our email system to Google sometime in the Fall. The move seems like a sweet deal: we get not just better functioning email, but a full menu of apps including calendaring, document creation and sharing, file storage, and chat — all at no cost! On top of that, the services offered through Google Apps for Education come with no adds, 2.5 gigs of storage, and you get to keep your email tag, from what I hear. What’s not to like?

Well, plenty, if you ask me. But before I share my concerns, let me disclose two important facts: One, I myself use certain Google products (who doesn’t?). Two, I have a lot of respect for the people who made the decision to migrate to Google, and I understand the reasons why the switch is pretty much inevitable. Thus, this is not an attempt to reverse the decision (even if we could afford to), but simply to bring more awareness about what life under our Google overlords might mean.

In my Media Economics class, we discuss the positive and negative impacts of having a handful of media corporations control pretty much everything we see and hear. It’s easy to see the inordinate power that companies like News Corp, Disney or Time Warner have on our daily lives. But Google is soon going to make those companies look like charming mom and pop operations. Google is creating a monoculture where people believe Google is all they need. Think about the impact of having one company control all the software for your computer and your mobile phone, and one company handling all your personal data, tracking everything you do through its suite of information and media products and keeping the data for up to 18 months.

What does Google want to do with all that data? Figure out how to better direct advertisements to you, of course! Let’s not forget that Google, a company with a market value of $200 billion, derives 97% of its revenue from advertising. The more Google knows about you, the better it can target ads at you and make more money — and Google wants to know EVERYTHING about you! This perhaps explains why the company has a venture capital arm that is currently investing in biotech, genetics, energy, telecom, healthcare, and other things. So while switching to GMail doesn’t mean that we will start seeing adds for Viagra or teeth whitening products next to our Inbox, it does probably mean that Google will be scanning our emails and documents in an effort to collect more information about us, their users.

In essence this means that by using Google, all SUNY Oswego community members will effectively be working to increase the company’s bottom line. Now, perhaps I’m fooling myself by thinking that because I CHOOSE to use certain Google products, I can exercise some control and responsibility. But being forced to use ALL Google products is quite a different matter (what’s the alternative? not using email at school?). And this is another feature of life under oligopolies, that while seeming to open up more choices, the arena for choice is actually being limited. Furthermore, by using Google we are effectively endorsing its corporate policies on privacy, security and intellectual property issues. This is problematic at best, for reasons I don’t have the time to get into right now.

Yes, plenty of universities have already jumped on the bandwagon and saved tons on money. Arizona State is saving $500,000 a year. University of Washington laid off 66 IT workers (although that’s not necessarily a good thing, is it?). But a few schools are having serious concerns. The faculty union at Lakehead University, for instance, filed a grievance citing concerns about privacy and academic freedom. Apparently those cooky Canadians are worried that since Google is a US company, it is obligated to hand over any data that the US government wants to see, like faculty’s emails. You might be thinking: “We don’t have to worry about that! We are in the US and already subject to warrant-less surveillance!” Well, it is Google’s obligations to OTHER countries that worries Yale University, who recently decided to postpone its migration to Google because of concerns about cloud computing. You see, in order to have some data redundancy, Google stores your personal information randomly in 3 of its 450,000 servers located all over the world. So the folks at Yale are wondering whether Google is obligated to surrender your data according to the laws of THOSE countries. In other words, if my email data is stored in Israel or Malaysia, does that give those governments the right to monitor it? (of course, even if Google wants to protect your data, the fact of the matter is that it is a more alluring target for hackers than a small state college, as demonstrated recently when some users’ GMail accounts were broken into by Chinese hackers).

In the end, I suppose Google is no more evil or no less evil than Apple, Microsoft, or any other media company. Yes, it is quickly becoming a bigger monopoly, and that’s probably not good for the public OR for the market. But what troubles me more about our migration to Google is what it says about the increasing privatization of education, and our failure to support and fund the public university. Maybe it’s naive to think that public education can remain free of for-profit interests. But it will certainly be more difficult to maintain that separation now that we will all be working for Google.

Interview in The McGill Daily

I was recently interviewed for an article in The McGill Daily. The topic was gold farming. Here’s the link:

All your digital labour are belong to us.
The Daily’s Whitney Mallett explores the world of gold-farming: professional gaming and virtual trading


Below is the full exchange with the writer.

MGD: How does gold-farming re-map and reinforce repressive structures and global inequalities? Does it transcend these in any ways? Does it have the potential to?

UM: Virtual gold, or “gil,” might not be a tangible good like coffee or strawberries, but its exchange in the market is subjected to the same economic forces–which means that yes, there is the potential for this practice to replicate the inequalities inherent in capitalism. At a fundamental level, we are talking about supply and demand here: someone doesn’t have the time to collect all that gil, but they’ve got the money, and someone else has got the time and needs the money. But then we have to look at it as a global trade issue as well: some parts of the world have a “comparative advantage” when it comes to supplying cheap labor — the question of course is why. It is not accidental that the videogame players are sitting in North America and Europe, while most of the gil collectors (they don’t like being called “gold farmers” — it’s a pejorative term to them) are sitting in China or Indonesia. So it is unavoidable to talk about global inequalities when we talk about gold farming. Does the practice have the potential to transcend these inequalities? Maybe so. According to the interviews I’ve seen, some of the gil collectors find it preferable to engage in such practices as opposed to working in actual farms or factories.

MGD: Is the perception of gold-farming as abusive with sweatshop-like conditions over-represented? Can the over-representation of a victimizing narrative be harmful and possibly prevent positive social change?

UM: I think gil collectors should be the ones answering the question of whether they feel exploited or not. I do believe there is a tendency for us in the “First World” to look at an image of, say, a bunch of shirtless guys in a room somewhere in Asia and immediately think “sweatshop” and “oppression.” Which is not to say that we should overlook the ways in which this practice obviously fits into the context of global capitalism, like I said earlier. But I do believe that there is a underlying cyber-Orientalism in the tropes of Chinese Gold Farmers or (Amazon’s) Mechanical Turks. I think this Orientalism serves to conceal the fact that, as I heard Alex Galloway say recently, we are all Gold Farmers. In other words, in this age of user-generated content, we all find ourselves being (sometimes willingly) exploited by Web 2.0 companies. You might derive some benefit from poking your friends around in Facebook, but basically it’s a glorified marketing ponzi scheme where you surrender your personal data and your privacy. It’s just that we find it much easier to think of those being exploited as being Chinese. You and I, on the other hand, could never think of ourselves as being exploited by Google. But at least the folks in China are getting paid!

MGD: On your web site you talk about the paranodal and the network as a site to resist the commodification of the social — how can these ideas be applied to gold farming?

UM: The paranodal is the space between the nodes in a network. This space is not empty. It is populated by multitudes that do not quite conform to the organizing logic of the network. In essence, my concept of the paranodal is just a way to talk about the politics of inclusion and exclusion in networks. All networks exclude. For every node you have paranodes, at once attached to and detached from the network. So if we think of MMORPGs as networks, then gil collectors could indeed be an example of the paranodal, working and existing in the interstices of the network. In a recent alternate reality game I organized for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, we played with a gold farming scenario and we contemplated whether there could be Fair Trade gil, just like we have Fair Trade coffee and chocolate–in other words, a system for compensating workers appropriately. But in reality, I don’t think this would work. For one thing, the Chinese government is already getting involved in trying to prevent or limit the exchange of virtual currency for real goods and services. Secondly, my guess is that companies that produce MMORPGs, while they initially tried to ignore and then repress gold farming (by closing the accounts of farmers, for instance), will eventually adopt the sale of virtual goods as part of their business models. They will realize there is a demand and figure out a way to make money form it. What started as a paranodal practice will become mainstream, and more importantly, automated. Some companies like Sony already started doing this, with their Everquest Station Exchange. So I’m not sure gold farming as a paranodal practice has much relevance to resisting the commodification of the social. In the end, however, I am more concerned about *my* paranodal resistance. I would definitely want to work on that before prescribing what someone in China should do.

Participation in 4th Inclusiva-net Meeting

I have been invited to give a paper at the 4th Inclusiva-net Meeting: P2P Networks and Processes, organized by Medialab-Prado (in Madrid). The meeting will focus on “an analysis of ‘peer-to-peer’ networks and network processes, highlighting the social potentials of cooperative systems and processes based on the structures and dynamics inherent to these types of networks.”

I’ve heard good things about this workshop, and it looks like an interesting selection of papers. My own contribution is titled Peerless: The Ethics of P2P Network Disassembly. The proposal is below.

In theory, P2P networks embody a model of collaboration that spells out the end of monopolies of communication. Like the Inclusiva-net Call for Papers states, P2P exemplifies principles like “equality of power among participants, free cooperation among them, putting into circulation or forming what are considered ‘common goods’, and participation and communication ‘from many to many.'” While all this has been empirically confirmed in isolated cases, we need to question the ‘goodness’ of these premises at a large societal scale.

Even if we are to accept the claim that P2P network architecture engenders publics instead of markets, we should not put aside Kierkergaard’s critique of publics as nihilistic systems intended to facilitate the accumulation of information while postponing action indefinitely. While Kierkergaard was putting down newspaper media, his critique couldn’t be more fitting in the age of Web browsers, RSS aggregators and bitTorrent clients. Another way of putting this is to say that while P2P networks may indeed democratize access to cultural contents, we still need to ask: Whose cultural contents? The whole piracy debate revolves around the fact that the statistical majority of ‘pirates’ are using P2P networks not to disseminate radical countercultural products, but to share the latest Hollywood blockbuster or teen idol musical hit. We need to question how network processes normalize monocultures, and to do so we need to theorize what form of resistance is embodied by existing in the peripheries of networks.

In my work, I argue that digital technosocial networks (DTSNs) function not just as metaphors to describe sociality, but as full templates or models for organizing it. Since in order for something to be relevant or even visible within the network it needs to be rendered as a node, DTSNs are constituted as totalities by what they include as much as by what they exclude. I propose a framework for understanding the epistemological exclusion embedded in the structure and dynamics of DTSNs, and for exploring the ethical questions associated with the nature of the bond between the node and the excluded other. Contrary to its depiction in diagrams, the outside of the network is not empty but inhabited by multitudes that do not conform to the organizing logic of the network. Thus, I put forth a theory for how the peripheries of the network represent an ethical resistance to the network, and I suggest that these peripheries, the only sites from which it is possible to un-think the network episteme, can inform emerging models of identity and sociality.

This is important because we are perhaps entering an age when deviation from social norms will only be possible in the private, non-surveilled space of the paranodal (the space beyond the nodes), away from the templates of the network as model for organizing sociality. Subjectivization, as Rancière argues, happens precisely through a process of disidentification: parts of society disidentify themselves from the whole, and individuals and groups recognize themselves as separate from the mainstream. Thus, to paraphrase Rancière, the paranodal is the part of those who have no part; it is the place where we experience—or at least are free to theorize—what it is like to be outside the network. Articulating this form of disidentification, of imagining and claiming difference even in relation to ‘democratic’ P2P networks, is an important step in the actualization of alternative ways of knowing and acting in the world.

Happy New 2009!

Best wishes for a peaceful and joyful 2009!

Milan Kundera wrote that the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Let’s hope this year we remember some useful things. And by ‘remember’ I mean more than just information retrieval, which is actually just a license to forget (as Langdon Winner would say)!

Anyway, some announcements:

  • The wiki for my Fall 08 course Theory, Culture and Technology is open to the public. It contains some great work by students. Check it out.
  • Wikis for my upcoming Spring 09 courses (Videogame Theory & Analysis and Social Networks and the Web) are also available, in case you are interested (nothing there yet but course materials).
  • If you are a RSS subscriber to my blog, you probably haven’t seen the (somewhat) new Photography section (it’s actually just a collection of panoramas I use for my blog header)!
  • In an effort to divest from, I recently started my own social bookmarking site, which I will be using mostly with my students for school work (although you are more than welcome to join). It’s actually a free Drupal environment called Drigg, which took some tweaking to set up but seems to be working fine.

I hope to post more announcements about current work as they year progresses.



Is morality an emergent behavior?

I have been thinking about the question of what exactly is it that develops in moral development, and as a result I want to put forth some inconclusive thoughts. Cognitive structuralism’s approach to this question suggests that the answer is reason, that as people’s reasoning abilities develop, so do their morals. Piaget, for instance, mapped his stages of mental growth to heteronomous and autonomous stages in the development of moral reasoning. Kohlberg, following on Piaget’s footsteps, outlined six stages of moral reasoning from early childhood to adult life (heteronomous morality; individualistic/instrumental morality; impersonally normative morality; social system morality; human rights/social welfare morality; and morality of universalizable, reversible, and prescriptive general principles). The idea in both cases in that as people’s mental abilities develop, they are able to implement more complex and less self-centered models of morality.

This might make instinctive sense. After all, one could argue, aren’t adults better equipped to distinguish moral nuances than children? But careful consideration reveals some problems with this perspective. For example, does cognitive structuralism’s approach to moral development imply that organisms with higher reasoning skills are more capable of moral behavior than organisms with lower reasoning skills? Or to put it in more crass terms: Are smarter people more moral than their counterparts? Do humans behave more morally than jellyfish?
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