Saturday, June 20, 2009

Virtual fieldwork for social scientists?

We're living in strange times. I just read an interview with the authors of, "Fieldwork is Not What it Used To Be: Learning Anthropology's Method in a time of Transition."

What happens when a major component, such as fieldwork, suddenly has no "new" places to go? That is, anthropology is rather famous for exploring unknown cultures and people, going to live with forgotten indigenous tribes scattered across the globe, far from the clutches of telephones, TV, wifi and gasoline. Yet, as the world is shrinking rapidly, what is left to explore?

The answer is not a depressing one, although not as adventurous as traveling through forests and deserts. What is increasingly happening, across the globe, is a process of virtualization. That is, things are changing, new things are emerging, but they are doing so in a virtual space. Nevertheless, it is real. We have real conversations, spread news, communicate, make content, debate and do everything we have always done, except now we have a virtual grid to do it on.

A virtual space, particularly one that although is emerging rapidly, is still largely unexplored by social scientist pioneers.

This isn't a complaint as much as an observation, after all, the "real" world has just as much influence as ever. Politics, economics, war, famine, stratification; these things exist in the physical world just as much as they always have, and unfortunately so. They haven't been solved yet (will they ever)? So a majority of our efforts and research and activism has been abundantly provided for these world wide social issues.

Social scientists take note, however, that the world is a changing place and never remains stagnant.

The internet is not so much (as it once was) a detached, abstract place in which we could escape from reality. Very quickly, it is replacing most forms of communication technology. Everything is becoming digital, from relationships to communities. A lot of the world is increasingly "online," as the world-wide-web becomes embedded into the world, and not the other way around. We could consider it a platform for real action, and that's what many are doing. In other words, the virtual-sphere is becoming an integral player in the world. It has provided the means for the WTO Seattle 1999 protests, if you recall. It's becoming an active ingredient in studying society, because people are beginning to use it in every day life.

Although still in its development, this virtual "sphere" that is growing layer upon layer, vine by connective vine, is transforming the way people behave, and the very structures of society. Many argue it has little effect against the mega-giants; those banks, trusts, nations and big businesses that cause stratification across the globe. And, to some extent, yes, this is true. We aren't living in anywhere near a digital utopia, but take heed skeptics, that such phenomenon has happened before, and it has great potential to alter the way a society is structured, the way it behaves, and who holds the power.

Also, as a sociologist, one thing I have noticed is that people tend to start using something before they become aware of what they're doing. A phenomenon kicks up, and then we reflect upon what we're doing, why we're doing it. In the same way, ironically, us sociologists use our cell phones, email, read blogs like this and communicate within social networks. But after some time and significant development of these new mediums, it begins to affect us. As sociologists, and social scientists in general, this would seem like a wonderful opportunity to not just be using the internet as tools, but to analyzing how and why, and to what affect these mediums have upon us?

I guess to simplify, it goes like:

new techno-social changes occur-> self-reflection-> greater understanding of what we're doing and why.

To speak philosophically, our self-awareness evolves, folds over on itself before expanding again with new and greater potential.

With all that in mind, it would seem that social scientists have a gold mine of new places to excavate and explore. New, literal ecosystems of minds and ideas, people and communication are all over the globe. They behave differently than previous generations. All in all, the world is ripe with change and a bizarre tendency to fold over on itself, complicating, enriching, internalizing, virtualizing. Why wouldn't this be a fascinating place for field work? That being said, I'd just like to put a quote from the article here:

A: Like other social scientists, anthropologists shouldn't make predictions. We would prefer to offer a scenario -- in which fieldwork comes to conform to an increasingly refined, rigorous and concrete model of just the sort whose crafting we are pursuing in Fieldwork Is Not What It Used to Be. If it does so, it will among other things stand in rough analogy to the architectural model, crafted and recrafted in the studio from one critical pedagogical encounter to the next.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The revolution will be twittered.

For anyone following the events in Iran, Clay Shirky has a thing or two to say about it in an interview with TED. Here is the full Q&A, source is posted at the bottom of the page.

What do you make of what's going on in Iran right now.
I'm always a little reticent to draw lessons from things still unfolding, but it seems pretty clear that ... this is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I've been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted "the whole world is watching." Really, that wasn't true then. But this time it's true ... and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They're engaging with individual participants, they're passing on their messages to their friends, and they're even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can't immediately censor. That kind of participation is reallly extraordinary.

Which services have caused the greatest impact? Blogs? Facebook? Twitter?
It's Twitter. One thing that Evan (Williams) and Biz (Stone) did absolutely right is that they made Twitter so simple and so open that it's easier to integrate and harder to control than any other tool. At the time, I'm sure it wasn't conceived as anything other than a smart engineering choice. But it's had global consequences. Twitter is shareable and open and participatory in a way that Facebook's model prevents. So far, despite a massive effort, the authorities have found no way to shut it down, and now there are literally thousands of people aorund the world who've made it their business to help keep it open.

Do you get a sense that it's almost as if the world is figuring out live how to use Twitter in these circumstances? Some dissidents were using named accounts for a while, and there's been a raging debate in the community about how best to help them.

Yes, there's an enormous reckoning to be had about what works and what doesn't. There have been disagreements over whether it was dangerous to use hashtags like #Iranelection, and there was a period in which people were openly tweeting the IP addresses of web proxies for people to switch to, not realizing that the authorities would soon shut these down. It's incredibly messy, and the definitive rules of the game have yet to be written. So yes, we're seeing the medium invent itself in real time.

Talk some more about the sense of participation on Twitter. It seems to me that that has spurred an entirely deeper level of emotional connection with these events.
Absolutely. I've been saying this for a while -- as a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional. We feel faster than we think. But Twitter is also just a much more personal medium. Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement. We're seeing everyone desperate to do something to show solidarity like wear green -- and suddenly the community figures out that it can actually offer secure web proxies, or persuade Twitter to delay an engineering upgrade -- we can help keep the medium open.

When I see John Perry Barlow setting himself up as a router, he's not performing these services as a journalist. He's engaged. Traditional media operates as source of inofrmation not as a means of coordination. It can't do more than make us sympathize. Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it's just retweeting, you're aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the ouside world is paying attention is really valuable.

Of course the downside of this emotional engagement is that while this is happening, I feel like I can't in good consicence tweet about anything else!

There was fury on Twitter against CNN for not adequately covering the situation. Was that justified?
In a way it wasn't. I'm sure that for the majority of the country, events in Iran are not of grave interest, even if those desperate for CNN's Iran info couldn't get access to it. That push model of one message for all is an incredibly crappy way of linking supply and demand.

CNN has the same problem this decade that Time magazine had last decade. They simultaneously want to appeal to middle America and leading influencers. Reaching multiple audiences is increasingly difficult. The people who are hungry for info on events of global significance are used to instinctively switching on CNN. But they are realizng that that reflex doesn't serve them very well anymore, and that can't be good for CNN.

Do you get the sense that these new media tools are helping build a global community, forged more by technology and a desire for connection, than by traditional political or religious divides?
You can see it clearly in what's happening right now. And it cuts both ways. The guy we're rallying around, Mousavi, is no liberal reformer. But the principle of freedom of speech and fair elections and the desire for reform trump that.

So how does this play out?
It's complex. The Ahmadinejad supporters are going to use the fact of English-speaking and American participation to try to damn the dissidents. But whatever happens from here, the dissidents have seen that large numbers of American people, supposedly part of "the great Satan," are actually supporters. Someone tweeted from Tehran today that "the American media may not care, but the American people do." That's a sea-change.


PS: More on this one later.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The evolution of social networks

Alot of social networking tools, like Twitter, are usually developed as a further evolution in an ecosphere of communication technology. Emails, text messaging, twittering, status updates, blogrolls, followers, following, etc. These are all nifty little "linking" or "networking" technologies that always seem to be doing 2 things:

1) Enhancing the ability to network and communicate: Each new invention, "status update" or "SMS blogging" or microblogging, allows faster and more instantaneous communication.

2) Adding greater degrees of complexity to social communication. As the new techniques pile up, some catch on like wildfire. This literally adds layers upon layers to a virtual ecosphere. Over time, complexity and the rate of that complexity increases.

This exponential growth has blurred the lines between "online" and "offline." Describing the internet as a "geek tool" for "computer programmers" or "techies" is a forgotten association. Nearly everyone's online, and most of us are talking. Chatting goes on, and the internet, mobile phones, etc are interconnected, a part of everyday life and interaction.

So following this trend, how can we further enhance, evolve interaction with each other? We can add one another to blogrolls, email, leave comments, etc. It's almost like planting grass seeds. They'll take root, and develop a loose but connected "patch." The question is, how can networks such as Open Anthropology, or Open Source Sociology make successful, organic and living communities? It starts with basic networking, but I suppose the question I'm putting forward is: what makes a successful network?

Good resource for studying social interaction and the internet: Here Comes Everybody.

PS: The interesting phenomenon of increasing complexity over time raises some more questions, and more possibilities. Like what you say? Well for one thing, this might help us get a clearer understanding about whether or not we can take more evolutionary perspectives on changes in society. Biological evolution also gets more complex as time goes on. As more parallels emerge, what new tools can we use to understand ourselves and the societies we live in? Perhaps this calls for a renewed interest in sociobiology.

Pirate Bay Judge Not Biased?

After the guilty verdict, the Pirate Bay challenged the decision with the allegation that the judge was biased. The Stockholm District Court was in charge of reviewing this allegation, and concluded that:

"-his membership in several pro-copyright groups was merely an educational tool that increased his knowledge of the issues."

This is sure to outrage the already angered population who support the Pirate Bay, and view this as a sweeping act of money, power and corruption talking over any sort of objective trial. For anyone unfamiliar with the Pirate Bay's case, and why it's pretty significant, I recommend taking a stroll down memory lane: The King Kong Defense

The Pirate Bay was brought to trial in Sweden due to heavy pressure from US lawyers (on behalf of Hollywood and other media business). They charged the Pirate Bay, a bit-torrent tracking site, of promoting and encouraging the act of "illegal filesharing." Do people have a right to share their music, their movies, if they are not making a profit off of them? Is Sweden being bullied into enacting laws that more powerful countries seek to be instated? Do US companies have the right to do this? And furthermore, to what extent will we lose our privacy in person-to-person sharing? As the internet becomes a vital role in society, big decisions like this one set precedents.

As people become more integrated and interconnected, the older, stricter legal and economic systems need to evolve. If you take a look throughout history, it seems clear that the system needs to evolve with and for the people, not the other way around. Luckily, this is being done at a smaller level. The Creative Commons offers a new legal system for sharing your media. So too does the Science Commons do for collaborative research. We're living in a new world, and it's high time governments and businesses learn they can't stop that from happening.

Sources: Court Review Says Pirate Bay Judge Not Biased

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Joy of the Commons

When have human beings ever been able to communicate with each other to such an integrated degree? Voices from all over the world can sing in unison, or compliment one another in different harmonies. For the first time in the history of our evolution, we are capable of organizing a living, breathing, global voice. A million minds all evolving and meshing together. This enormous potential and literal evolutionary leap is changing society from the ground up. It has enabled everyday behavior; talking, chatting, updating, communicating to be further enhanced by text messages, mobile phones, mobile internet. This blogosphere, mental sphere, or to coin a word from the philosopher Teilhard, noosphereis terraforming society.

Why shouldn't we then take this new territory, with all of its busy, chatting electronic and organic devices (mind, bodies and machines) and do something in the spirit of ever-evolving unification? That is, to simply communicate with each other. I urge anyone who stumbles across this little node to speak up, leave a comment, or write me back! And I'll do the same. Talk, and someone talks back. It starts with such a simple process of interaction.

Eventually, and given enough time to evolve, take root and spread its first leaflets, the "noosphere" will reach a new plateau of development. Imagine, if you will, a society of chatting, writing bloggers, where the majority of thoughts, feelings, ideas and projects all emerge from this rich ecosystem of minds. That reality is already here, sprouting up in this blog and that. So I urge you to do, whatever it is that you're doing! But whatever that may be, consider it in the words of Teilhard:

"No evolutionary future awaits anyone except in association with everyone else."

Pirate Party gains a seat in European Parliament

The swedish Pirate Party has gained "7.1 percent of votes in Sweden in the Europe-wide ballot," making them capable of gaining a seat in the European parliament. Major win for the internet generation! The Pirate Party has a number of goals:

1) Re-regulate copyrighting.
2) Abolish the patent system.
3) Reduce surveillance on the internet.

About time there were official voices of support for modern forms of media exchange, no?


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Is the fictional universe of Star Trek a good model for open source?

Just found this interesting article, comparing the contemporary battle of open source vs. "closed" as something like aggressive, territorial Klingons vs. the more peaceful, "open" Federation. Good analogy. In the Star Trek universe, money has been done away with, and although there is still organization, institutions, etc, they seek as a major profit: scientific and social discovery. The federation is a "peaceful empire" of sorts, expanding and, in the words of Captain Pike from the new movie, "a peacekeeping armada." Interesting concepts, although are they idealistic?

Wouldn't it also be interesting to see what science fiction writers could do with the philosophy of open source? Could we imagine entire societies running in such an open, decentralized and collaborative way? How would you make money? What would be the ups and the downs? Society would appear more like a "hive" of minds working to create "nodes" or projects of one sort or another. Interesting possibilities! Any creative minds out there?

The Badge, Updated

Want to post the "OSS" badge on your blog? Just copy and paste this simple html code....

Without these brackets [small badge]
Other updates...

The network has a few members, hope to see some more soon.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

OSS Community, Network

Alright, it's done! Open Source Sociology now has a home on Ning. It's drafty in there, and definitely needs some more decorating. It's also quiet! I'm hoping folks will find there way there with the help of everyone spreading the word. Just pass the link to anyone you know who is 1) a sociologist, post-graduate, graduate or under-graduate, or 2) a social scientist of any kind. It'll be a great place for us to get situated, discuss, share knowledge and help the network spread. Also, it's a place to begin talking to each other!

Open Source Sociology.

If you or anyone you know is crafty with website design, or would like to assist in building the network (moderators, bloggers, etc), please contact me: shaman sun (at) g mail.

Further development..

Ning could be a good website to build small community where we could all discuss ideas and branch out, what say you? In fact, many groups online have started by creating ning "hubs." I'll get to working on this. Also, if anyone knows how to make the "OSS" badge a nice and easy, cut and paste HTML, let me know?

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    open source sociology by Jeremy Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
    Based on a work at