Rereading Fahrenheit 451

Over the last year or so I’ve moved from reading mainstream news articles about media addiction to reading science fiction: I want to see how we imagine our relationship to technology. One of the biggest surprises, for me, was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the classic about a society where books are illegal and television keeps people docile. Of course I had read it before, but a long time ago, well before I really knew about the internet. Rereading it today left me feeling very differently about the book than I had thought I would. Bradbury doesn’t want a world full of writers and creators and independent thinkers. He wants a world of readers.

Beware, there are spoilers in this post. But then, you probably read the book already, didn’t you? A long time ago?

The first line of Fahrenheit 451: "It was a pleasure to burn." The adaptation of the novel into a graphic novel is by Tim Hamilton (2009)

The first line of Fahrenheit 451. The adaptation of the novel into a graphic novel is by Tim Hamilton (2009)

The story, you’ll remember, is about Guy Montag, a fireman in a future where houses are fireproof and the only fires are lit by firemen in order to burn books. But what really interests me, as I reread the book, is the ways in which books and television are portrayed.

Television has evolved into a 3D immersive experience, where the viewer is given a role to play in the story. Mildred, Montag’s wife, has screens covering three of the four walls of their living room, and wants a fourth screen: “why, it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms.” The way Bradbury describes this immersive VR does not leave Mildred a lot of agency, as a player in the holodeck would have. It’s more like the Flicksync tests in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the player has to mimic a character’s lines perfectly in order to pass the test. Mildred’s lines are not very complex, though:

“What’s on this afternoon?” he asked tiredly.

She didn’t look up from her script again. “Well, this is a play comes on the wall-to-wall circuit in ten minutes. They mailed me my part this morning. I sent in some box-tops. They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The home-maker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, ‘What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?’ and he looks at me sitting here, centre stage, see? And I say, I say–” She paused and ran her finger under a line in the script. “‘I think that’s fine!’ And then they go on with the play until he says, ‘Do you agree to that, Helen?’ and I say, ‘I sure do!’ Isn’t that fun, Guy?” (pages 27-28)

Mildred loves her shows, and listens to them even at night. This scene very strongly emphasises the way Montag sees her as a corpse when she is immersed in her media. In this scene, he comes home late at night and imagines how he will see his wife in bed, listening to her stories.

He opened the bedroom door.
It was like coming into the cold marbled room of a mausoleum after the moon had set. Complete darkness, not a hint of the silver world outside, the windows tightly shut, the chamber a tomb-world where no sound from the great city could penetrate. The room was not empty.
(..)
Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.
The room was cold but nonetheless he felt he could not breathe. He did not wish to open the curtains and open the french windows, for he did not want the moon to come into the room. (pages 19-20)

He has still not turned the light on, thought. This is all his imagination. When he finally lights his lighter (not wanting outside light from the windows) he realises she is barely breathing and has taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills. The next morning she remembers nothing of the suicide attempt.

A propaganda poster encouraging the people to give up their books.

A propaganda poster from Fahrenheit 451 encouraging the people to give up their books.

In this world, people stopped reading books before they were banned. Bradbury, in the voice of the chief fireman Beatty, blames it on the invention of photography and then radio and television and a world that wanted everything faster: “Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.” (61) In a lengthy lecture to Montag, while Montag lies in bed, attempting to hide contraband books under his pillow, Beatty describes Buzzfeed and clickbait:

He follows up with condemning minorities:

Fahrenheit451-minorities-p64

The problem isn’t really the loss of books. It’s the trivialization of the world. Faber, the retired English professor Montag befriends, tells him:

“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books. The same things could be in the “parlour families” today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.” (page 90)

One of the reasons that books are good for us, Faber the English professor explains, is that they are not immersive. At least not in the same way as television or VR are:

You can shut them [books], say “Hold on a moment.” You play God to it. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlour? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is truth. Books can be beaten down with reason. (92)

And yet at the end of Fahrenheit 451, when Montag has escaped his relentless pursuers who chase him on live television, making every viewer his would-be-attacker, he finds a band of men who live outside the city, in nature, and who have made it their task to memorise every book. They are not shown discussing books. They are certainly not shown writing books, or creating stories. No, they simply memorise books. And once a book is memorised, these men burn it:

“We’re book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Micro-filming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it.” (159)

The books they memorized are old classics: Plato’s Republic, the Book of Ecclesiastes, Byron, Machiavelli, Aristophanes, Gulliver’s Travels, the Magna Carta. These readers have no more agency than Mildred reciting her script to the parlour walls:

The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves was that we were not important, we mustn’t be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. (160)

Mildred and her television-loving friends aren’t portrayed as feeling superior. On the contrary, they are social beings – although they do seem less interested in the specifics of the plots they watch than in the close relationship they have with the characters on their screens. When Mildred tells Montag she went to Helen’s last night, he answers uncomprehendingly:

“Couldn’t you get the shows in your own parlour?”
“Sure, but it’s nice visiting.” (57)

Mildred and Montag try reading together, but they struggle to understand the words. They were unlucky enough to get Gulliver’s Travels, and as Montag reads about the war over which end of the egg is the end one should break, Mildred complains, “What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything!” She is very consistently given the role of the uneducated person.

Mildred kicked at a book. “Books aren’t people. You read and I look around, but there isn’t anybody.”

(..)

“Now,” said Mildred. “my ‘family’ is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colours!” (80)

Although Mildred is portrayed as believing in her fake relationships with the characters on the screens of her parlour (her “family”), she is also the only person in the book who appears to have genuine friendships. Montag is not shown as having a single friend, although he meets educational characters and forms brief, intense relationships with them through the course of the book. Mildred and her girlfriends get together regularly, it seems, and usually to watch shows together. I don’t think Bradbury really liked women. The only women in Fahrenheit 451 are ridiculed and pitied.

He was eating a light supper at nine in the evening when the front door cried out in the hall and Mildred ran from the parlour like a native feeling an eruption of Vesuvius. Mrs Phelps and Mrs Bowles came through the front door and vanished into the volcano’s mouth with martinis in their hands. Montag stopped eating. They were like a monstrous crystal chandelier tinkling in a thousand chimes, he saw their Cheshire Cat smiles burning through the walls of the house, and now they were screaming at each other above the din.

These women are both ridiculous and, in a negative manner, connected to nature. They are noisy, they run, they feel, they burn, they scream. Towards the end of the book nature is seen as positive and Mildred and the city are seen in opposition to it, but here, nature is emotional, trivial, uneducated.

Montag asks where the women’s husbands are. One is at war: “the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home.” (102) Montag proceeds to ask about their children. One is astounded that anyone would have children, the other says it’s easy enough with Caesarians and school:

“I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the ‘parlour’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes; stuff laundry in and slam the lid.” Mrs Bowles tittered. “They’d just as soon kick as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!”

The women showed their tongues, laughing. (104)

It’s an ugly world, devoid of marital or parental love or care. Montag himself can’t even remember when he met his wife Mildred, not until the end, after the city is destroyed. But these women are friends. They seem to care for each other. I don’t think Bradbury really intended that, but the women’s friendship is pretty clear. No care for husbands or children, but they care for each other.

Montag flees the city after killing his own boss, and escapes to the forest outside, where he finds a group of men, sitting round a campfire, each man able to recite a book that he has memorized. Here again we see a single-sex group of friends strangely dissociated from any family. There are no parents, spouses or children here. (I suppose the aunts and uncles and the “family” on the screens are supposed to supplant real families – but how does that fit with these family-less men who despise screens? For them, books seem to have the same purpose.)

A bomb explodes, obliterating the entire city, but Montag is safe outside it. He imagines Mildred’s last seconds before her death. (So often she is seen through his thoughts rather than speaking herself.) He sees in his mind the moment when the screens around her go blank and she sees her own face in them, her own face that she has presumably been avoiding all these years:

Montag, falling flat, going down, saw or felt, or imagined he saw or felt the walls go dark in Millie’s face, heard her screaming, because in the millionth part of time left, she saw her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starved and eating of itself, that at last she recognized it as her own and looked quickly up at the ceiling as it and the entire structure of the hotel blasted down upon her (..) (167)

We don’t see ourselves, this book argues. We use our screens to avoid love and to avoid looking at our own faces to understand ourselves.

“Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror-factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them,” one of the men in the forest tells Montag (171). Bradbury did not foresee selfies.

Rereading Fahrenheit 451 makes me skeptical of books. Don’t get me wrong, I love books. But the way that books are portrayed in Fahrenheit 451 is not alluring. They are massive works of incomprehensible nonsense that must be memorized and treated with great respect. They are not something to be argued with, to be written, to be dogeared and torn and scribbled in.

Old books memorized by old men in the woods won’t save the world described in Fahrenheit 451. What would save that world is people talking together, reading, watching, playing, but most importantly, creating. Sharing. Being.

31. August 2015 by Jill
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Academic social networks

When I saw that almost a third of researchers at my university were on ResearchGate and I’d barely heard of it I decided to create a profile. I’m not sure that was a good idea.

Here are the stats for our university’s use of social media specifically for researchers, gathered by Susanne Mikki in her analysis of publication in 2014:

andel-UiB-forskere-i-akademiske-nettverkSorry about the acronyms. The network sites are down along the left: Academia.edu, Google Scholar, ORCID, ResearchGate and Researcher ID. The faculties at UiB are along the top: HUM=humanities, JUR=law, MN=sciences, MO=medicine, PS=psychology, SV=social sciences.

As you can see, Academia.edu is popular in the humanities and somewhat popular in the social sciences but not so popular among other faculties. Social scientists are fairly likely to have a Google Scholar profile. And everyone except the lawyers is quite likely to have a Research Gate profile. Well, if you’re the sort of person who bothers with that kind of profile at all.

I quite like Academia.edu. Last time I logged on, it told me that 46 of the people I followed had all bookmarked a paper and would I like to see that paper? Sure, I clicked through and found a handbook chapter on autoethnography that I spent a happy half-hour reading. See, that’s useful. The interface is relatively simple and you can add lots of different kinds of information about your publications. Today it suggests another paper that’s popular among people I follow:

academia.edu-27-people-bookmarked

Really that’s the most useful aspect of Academia.edu for me. Oh, and the fact that lots of people seem to not have worked out how to post copies of their papers to their own websites or to their institutional repository, but are perfectly happy to upload it to Academia.edu. Strange, but certainly there are quite a few publications you can find there but not easily in other ways.

I’m on Google Scholar, of course. I love getting email alerts when somebody cites one of my publications. Quite often I find interesting research in that way. But mostly I use Google Scholar to find other peoples’ research by searching for it. You don’t need a scholar profile to do that.

I’ve not tried Researcher ID (do I really need an ID number?) or ORCID (another “persistent digital identifier that distinguishes you from every other researcher” – I’ve never actually felt the need for that) but I did sign up for ResearchGate this week. Why on earth did they choose that name, I wonder. I thought people only added -gate to a word to indicate a political scandal was going on.

On the face of it ResearchGate seems very similar to Academia.edu – you create a profile, follow others and it encourages you to upload full texts of your publications. It seems more focused on very traditional publications, though. It wants a PDF, not a URL, so for publications that are in open access web journals you have to upload a PDF of the webpage instead of simply providing a link, as I’ve done for my paper in ebr about visualising networks of electronic literature based on citations of creative works of electronic literature in dissertations in the field. Ridiculous. It automatically extracts citations and references but imperfectly, and with no way to correct the errors, for instance if you noticed that it thinks a review of Espen Aarseth’s book Cybertext actually is the book. It couldn’t figure out the references in my visualising paper. And it only counts citations from articles that are in its database. It asks you to upload datasets, and I did upload my gephi files for the visualising e-lit paper, but can’t see how you would get to the dataset from the paper. What annoys me most is the lack of URLs – ResearchGate really seems to want to be a closed garden, locking all the research in the world into its system and not providing links elsewhere.

The statistics it provides support this closed atmosphere. You get a ResearchGate score based not on your research in general, but on how other people on ResearchGate interact with your research. And this is “A new way to measure scientific reputation.” Sure, when I see there’s a score I kind of want to win the points, you know, but this is a very specific score. It really doesn’t tell you much about a researcher’s actual impact on their field, I think it mostly tells you whether they’re active on ResearchGate. I don’t actually have a score yet since I’m a newbie. ResearchGate-RG-ScoreAre you on any of these networks? Are they worth it? How are they useful to you?

 

28. August 2015 by Jill
Categories: Academia | 1 comment

Diversity at ELO2015: Global voices and gender balance

We’re hosting ELO2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature here at the University of Bergen this week, and we are so excited to see everyone beginning to arrive! We’ve got a fabulous academic program lined up, as well as a series of open arts events (five exhibitions, two performance nights!) that will be open to the general public as well as to the conference goers. The full program is online, of course, and if you’re not in Bergen, some sessions will be streamed and archived. There’s also lots of discussions already on Twitter and Facebook.

Too many academic conferences fail at including diverse voices. The recent Digital Humanities conference didn’t have a single woman on stage for the first day, which was of course a topic of debate.

parade-of-patriarchs

Fortunately, the Electronic Literature Organization’s conferences have never been parades of patriarchs. I can say that with confidence, because one of our excellent students, Daniela Ørvik, chose to research gender balance in the ELO conferences in her project for our Digital Humanities in Practice course last year, using data from the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base. I’ll share some of Daniela’s findings later on in this blog post, but first, let’s look at another kind of diversity: where do people attending ELO2015 come from?

This is just the second iteration of the annual ELO conference series to be held in Europe, and so I was interested to look at how this broadening of the ELO’s sphere  might have affected where the attendees come from.

What with all the conference preparations I’m afraid haven’t had time to go through the data from previous conferences (we do actually have speaker info for many of the conferences in the ELMCIP Knowledge Base so could do that later) so I can’t compare to previous years, but I took a look at where this year’s attendees come from.

Where the ELO2015 attendees come from

There are 110 Europeans (the big countries being Norway (33), the UK (11) and Denmark, France and Spain with 10 attendees each and Poland with 9), 80 North Americans (64 from the USA and 16 Canadians) and 12 Australians. That’s probably a pretty typical combination of English-speaking nations and Europeans as academic conferences go, although with a much broader spread of Europeans from a lot of different countries than the conferences have usually had (Portugal, Germany, Finland, Italy, Malta, Austria, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands are all represented). There are also attendees from Russia, Singapore, India, Japan, Israel, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Mexico, Peru and Argentina, which is wonderful. 27 countries are represented in all.

One of our goals for the conferences has been to broaden our knowledge of global electronic literature. One of the five ELO2015 exhibitions, Decentering, specifically showcases works that come from outside the mainstream US/European electronic literature, and we also have several academic presentations focused on electronic literature from countries that have not been as visible to US/American scholars. For instance, Claudia Kozak is presenting on “Latin American Electronic Literature and its Own Ends” and Eman Younis will speak about “Interaction between art and literature in the Arab digital poetry and the issue of criticism” in a panel on Thursday August 6 at 9 am. That’s one of the panels we’ll be streaming, by the way. In another panel, Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang will talk about “Sankofa, or Looking Back while Moving Forward: An African Case for E-Lit” in a panel with Stuart Moulthrop and Rob Wittig about participatory culture and the literary. (I am sorry those panels are at the same time. Scheduling conferences is unbelievably difficult. We’ll see if we can stream the participatory culture panel too though I can’t promise it as we have limited resources…Maybe someone will Bambuser it on their phone?)

Of course we would have liked even more diversity. It’s hard to figure out how to get the word out to the people you don’t already know about. One thing we tried doing was applying for arts travel grants for some of the artists who submitted works, which did help somewhat, but we weren’t as successful as we would have hoped with this. I do think that having a specific call for an exhibition of global electronic literature helped diversify the conference.

So what about our gender distribution? Thanks to Daniela Ørvik, we have good data on gender at the ELO conferences form 2002 to 2014. In total, 758 unique people presented academic or artistic work at these conferences, and 296 (39%) of them were women. As you can see, the number of women presenting is pretty stable from year to year, but the  number of men presenting varies a lot. I have no idea why this would be the case – does anyone have any ideas?

Daniela Ørvik gathered and analyzed this data on gender distribution at the ELO conferences from 2002 to 2014 in her paper "Is there an equal balance of female and male presenters at the Electronic Literature Organization conferences over time?" that she wrote for the course DIKULT207: Digital Humanities in Practice in 2015.

Daniela Ørvik gathered and analyzed this data on gender distribution at the ELO conferences from 2002 to 2014 in her paper “Is there an equal balance of female and male
presenters at the Electronic Literature Organization
conferences over time?” that she wrote for the course DIKULT207: Digital Humanities in Practice in 2015.Daniela writes:

 

 

So every iteration of the ELO conference has had more men than women presenting, but compared to many conferences, 39% women isn’t too bad, really. We’re close to that this year too: 75 of 186 of our speakers and artists (just over 40%) are women.

Daniela takes her analysis one step further, by splitting it into the presenters of creative work and critical work. That’s a bit more worrying. As you can see, the gender imbalance is greater for creative work than for academic work. Obviously I should go through and count what that looks like this year but I simply don’t have time right now. If you’re in the mood for it you can skim through the presenters yourself – please let me know what the numbers are if you do and I’ll update this post!

From Daniela Ørvik's 2015 paper for DIKULT207: Digital Humanities in Practice..

From Daniela Ørvik’s 2015 paper for DIKULT207: Digital Humanities in Practice..

elo-conferences-gender-distribution-critical-writing-2002-2014

 

There are many other ways of measuring diversity, too of course, and like most academic conferences run by Western organizations and universities we’re not as diverse as we would like to be. We need to do better. But we’re working on it.

I’m really looking forwards to greeting all our visitors on Tuesday. I’m glad that we won’t be seeing “a parade of patriarchs,” and I look forwards to even more diverse conferences in the future, as we learn to become more open to the world and to differences.

 

02. August 2015 by Jill
Categories: Digital Humanities, Electronic literature, Gender balance in academia | Leave a comment

Video presentations of electronic literature

I’m contributing to an online course Jon Hoem is coordinating on media-rich ebooks, and I’m making video presentations and mini analyses of some examples of electronic literature. My first try was Blast Theory’s fictional life coaching app Karen (2013), mostly because I had just discovered how easy it is now to get a video screen capture from an iPhone. Here’s the result, with my narrative in Norwegian because the online course is in Norwegian.

I’m thinking making a video presentation of a work of electronic literature might be a good student assignment for the course I’m teaching this autumn, DIKULT203: Electronic Literature.

02. July 2015 by Jill
Categories: Electronic literature | Leave a comment

Tre typer oppringinger fra journalister som forskere ikke bør svare på

Er det bra forskningsformidling å svare på telefoner fra journalister? Ja, ofte er det det. Jeg lærer mye av journalister som ringer for å spørre meg om et eller annet som nettopp har skjedd i sosiale medier. De forklarer meg hva som har skjedd og jeg prater mer enn gjerne om hvordan forskningen kan knyttes til det.

Vi forskere skal drive forskningsformidling. Det er en del av jobben vår. Men ofte syns jeg tiden jeg bruker på å snakke med journalister er dårligere forskningsformidling enn å bare holde kjeft. La meg prøve å forklare tre kjipe mediesituasjoner for en forsker som jeg skal prøve å unngå i framtiden. Jeg har opplevd alle tre flere ganger, men nøyer meg med å gi eksempler fra de siste to ukene.

1. Saken som ikke finnes men som journalisten prøver å skape

Du fikk kanskje med deg at på 17. mai i år postet en stortingspolitiker et bilde på Instagram av naboen som sto og tisset fra verandaen. En journalist sendte meg lenken. Jeg stirret og stirret på bildet på telefonen min og klarte ikke å se penisen, bare hender foran buksesmekken, og hår foran et ugjenkjennelig ansikt. Jeg åpnet det på laptopen for å se om det ble tydeligere. Fortsatt ingen synlig penis.

“Det var ikke så lett å se den penisen,” sa jeg til journalisten. “Å, da har du nok mindre skjerm enn jeg,” humret han. Jeg burde ha googlet pikselstørrelsen på Instagrambilder straks, men jeg gjorde det først nå. Instagrambilder vises i max 612 x 612 piksler, altså var skjermen min mer enn stor nok til å se det som kunne sees, og det var jammen ikke mye. Jeg tror journalisten hadde stor fantasi i tillegg til stor skjerm.

“Er det ikke sjokkerende, da? Kan en stortingspolitiker poste slik?” spurte journalisten. (Oppdatering 2/6: mulig at journalisten brukte et annet ord enn “sjokkerende” men det er slik jeg husker det.) Instagrambildet hadde én kommentar og en håndfull likes. “Lol” eller noe sånt var kommentaren, jeg tok ikke skjermbilde. “Mjo, det er vel ikke spesielt smart å poste bilder av folk som tisser,” sa jeg. “Men dette er jo en helt upolitisk Instagramkonto med bare vanlige, personlige bilder,” sa jeg, “og kontoen heller ikke mange følgere, og ingen ser ut til å ha brydd seg om bildet selv om det har lagt ute siden i går.”

Journalisten ville tydeligvis ha en sak, og spurte igjen. Jeg sa noe om at det ifølge norsk personvernslov ikke er lov å poste gjenkjennelige bilder av mennesker uten deres tillatelse om det ikke er en offentlig situasjon. Ingen bør poste slike bilder, spesielt ikke en stortingspolitiker, og det at personen tisser gjør det selvsagt ikke bedre. Jeg mener jo det.

“Er det ikke en dobbeltmoral her da,” gravde han videre. “Ville ikke det blitt ramaskrik om en stortingspolitiker postet et bilde av en jente som tisset?” Jeg tenkte på det. “Det kommer jo an på hvordan bildet var tatt,” sa jeg. “Det er ganske lett å se for seg et bilde av en jente sett bakfra hvor hun er på huk i gresset og du må en måte skjønner at hun tisser men hvor du ikke ser noe som helst av kjønnsorgan eller hud. Det ville vel ikke vært så annerledes fra dette bildet, og jeg tviler på at det ville skapt så veldig mye debatt.”

Dette bringer meg til den neste faren du som er forsker må vokte deg for:

2. Journalisten som allerede har bestemt seg for hva du skal si og vil stille deg spørsmål inntil du sier det.

Journalisten ringte meg opp igjen noen minutter seinere. “Men mener du ikke at det er en dobbeltmoral her, og at folk ville reagert annerledes om det var en jente?” Joda, medgikk jeg litt trøtt. Kanskje det.

I denne saken ble jeg ikke så veldig feil framstilt. Det var bare en så utrolig teit sak, skapt av en journalist som bare vil ha en nyhet. Nå ser jeg at Journalisten har diskutert dekningen av saken:

– Mimir Kristjánsson og Heidi Nordby Lunde mener BT senker takhøyden for politikeres rett til å gjøre alminnelige feil?

– Det poenget ser vi. Men vi mener dette ikke handler om mer enn å uttale noe uklokt eller skrive noe uheldig. Det var en alvorlig handling og kan oppfattes som en krenkelse av en ung person. Vi mener det var verdt å problematisere.

Den diskusjonen fikk jeg dessverre ikke med meg. Takk til Mimir Kristjánsson og Heidi Nordby Lunde for å ha kommet med mer nyttige kommentarer enn mine.

Jeg tror journalister ofte har skrevet saker på forhånd, eller i det minste bestemt seg for overskriften. Måten du som forsker kan oppdage dette er å være oppmerksom på spørsmål som gjentas. Når en journalist gjentar et spørsmål du allerede har svart på for å få et annet eller et mer unyansert svar avslører det ofte hovedvinklingen på saken. Da journalisten ringte meg opp for andre gang burde jeg sikkert ha reagert. Kanskje jeg skulle sagt at dette hadde jeg allerede svart på, eller jeg kunne kanskje trukket meg fra hele intervjuet (kan man det når man allerede har begynt å svare tro?) eller jeg kunne sagt at jeg ville ringe ham opp igjen om en liten stund og da hadde jeg fått tid til å tenke gjennom saken og kanskje kommet fram til noe like fornuftig som det Mimir Kristjánsson og Heidi Nordby Lunde seinere sa. Eller kanskje det lureste bare er å sukke og gå med på hva journalisten vil, jeg vet ikke.

En av de andre gangene jeg har opplevd dette var i forbindelse med snapchat-hackingen i fjor. Det var jo en viktig sak, og jeg var i grunnen fornøyd med det meste av NRK-journalistens framstilling, men hun spurte mange ganger “Er ikke dette et uttrykk for kvinnehat?” Jeg ville ikke brukt det begrepet, sa jeg, og forklarte hva jeg mente. Tredje gangen hun spurte om det ikke var kvinnehat ga jeg opp og sa, “joda, det er vel en form for kvinnehat.” Selvfølgelig ble det overskriften på saken: Professor om Snapchat-hacking: – Eit utrykk for kvinnehat.

3. Saken som lages som ny versjon av en annen journalists sak

Fredag ble jeg oppringt av en TV2-journalist som hadde sett at jeg hadde argumentert for at man ikke nødvendigvis ble deprimert av å se andres glade Facebookposter men at venners gode opplevelser kunne smitte over på deg. Eller rettere sagt: hun hadde ikke oppfattet meg slik, for det var ikke slik overskriftene i andre medier framstilte argumentet mitt. Jeg snakket med henne i et kvarter og syns jeg klarte å forklare meg ganske bra, men saken ble vinklet på en måte som virkelig ikke fremstiller min forskning riktig: “Forsker mener andres perfekte liv på Facebook gjør oss lykkelige.” (Oppdatering: journalisten og redaksjonssjefen i TV2 tok begge kontakt med meg etter jeg skrev denne bloggposten og spurte hvordan rette opp artikkelen. De lagde ny overskrift og ingress, og med det syns jeg framstillingen er helt i orden.)  

Her var tabben min at jeg ikke hadde fulgt godt nok med på de tidligere sakene om dette. Jeg burde ha fulgt med på overskriftene og vinklingene: da ville jeg ha forstått hva journalisten ville. (På den annen side ville jeg da ha brukt enda mer tid på dette, og målet mitt var jo egentlig å effektivisere forskningsformidlingstiden min.)

Det begynte med et intervju i StudVest, som var godt skrevet men hvor overskriften var “spisset”, som en journalist sikkert vil si, og overskriften ga tydeligvis mersmak til andre journalister. Hvordan dette har skjedd ble ganske tydelig da jeg gjorde et søk på navnet mitt på Atekst:

perfekte-liv perfekte-liv2

Jeg leste Studvest-intervjuet, ble intervjuet av P4 men verken så eller hørte resultatene. Jeg ante ikke at Framtida hadde skrevet om det. Og selv om journalisten fra TV2 helt sikkert brukte ordene “perfekte liv” så hørte jeg det på en måte ikke fordi jeg jo tenkte på det jeg mente og ikke på det som journalisten så for seg. Hun hadde lest at jeg snakket om det perfekte liv. Kanskje hun, med sitt kontekst, oppfattet det som om jeg snakket om skrytebilder og “det perfekte liv”, mens det jeg faktisk sa (trodde jeg) var at jeg ikke snakket om skrytebilder og glansbildeliv men om at dine virkelige venner, mennesker du bryr deg om, skriver om noe som har gjort dem glade på Facebook eller på Instagram. Selvsagt blir vi gladere om de rundt oss er glade. Det har ingenting med perfekte liv og selvskryt  å gjøre. Men selv om jeg trodde jeg forklarte det godt og trodde journalisten forsto meg godt så ble overskriften og vinklingen helt feil. Journalisten har til og med utelatt mitt poeng om at det ikke er alle som opplever det slik, og i stedet latt (dyktige og fine) Cecilie Staude uttrykke et slikt litt mer nyansert syn. Jeg ser at det fungerer bra fortellermessig å ha større kontraster mellom synene våre, men det er ikke riktig framstilling av hva jeg sa.

— Men Jill, ber du ikke om sitatsjekk, spør nok du som leser nå.

Jo, i blant. Jeg gidder ikke alltid det. Du skjønner, du får bare se dine egne direkte sitat i en sitatsjekk. Jeg blir sjeldent direkte feilsitert i media. Men jeg blir svært ofte feil framstilt.

Overskriften, vinklingen, beskrivelsene og det som utelates er vel så viktige for forskningsformidlingen som de direkte sitatene. Og det er jo for forskningsformidlingen sin skyld vi skal snakke med journalister, ikke sant? Det er ikke for at avisene skal få flere lesere og dermed selge flere annonsekroner. Det er for å formidle forskning.

Så er det alltid riktig tidsbruk for en forsker å ta telefonen når en journalist ringer? I blant er det det. Men ikke alltid. Spørsmålet er hvordan ta vare på de gode journalistsamtalene og unngå de som er bortkastet tid. Kanskje det ikke er mulig.

Jeg må legge til at jeg ikke er ute etter å ta noen journalister. Jeg vet at journalister er under et enormt tidspress hvor de ofte skal skrive flere saker på en dag, og jeg vet også at journalisten ofte ikke har mye kontroll over hvordan saken tilslutt spisses før publisering. Dette er mer generelle problemer som jeg tror vi som blir intervjuet må være mer oppmerksomme på. Jeg må i alle fall det.

Har du flere tips, tar jeg gjerne i mot dem.

31. May 2015 by Jill
Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 8 comments

Can you imagine that the world will change?

Last night at the conference dinner I was chatting with Peng Hwa Ang, and we started talking about young people nowadays. That’s a sure sign that I’m getting older, I suppose, but we weren’t complaining about their wildness, we were comparing notes on teens in Norway and Singapore and how the younger generation is more conformist than their parents’ generation in both countries. And of course, social media is often blamed for the woes of youth today.

“No, it’s because of the future deficit,” Peng Hwa said. I demanded an explanation: I had never heard the term.

“Well, think about it. You and I experienced the world changing when we were young. The end of the cold war, the Berlin wall, the internet.”

“Oh, yes, ” I nodded, instantly seeing where he was going. “Our students were born after the web was well established. They weren’t even teenagers yet when Facebook took over the world.”

Peng Hwa nodded.

“Do you mean that for a young person today, the world looks as though nothing ever changes?”

He nodded again. The term “future deficit” was a term a colleague of his had coined, he explained as we piled on to the shuttle bus back to the hotel.

At drinks a little later, I eagerly told Luciana Gattas about the future deficit.

“Oh, he’s talking about the broad present,” she said. Another term I’d never heard before.

“You know, Gumbrecht talks about that.”

Sure enough, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s book, The Broad Present: Time and Contemporary Culture, was published in English last year. As Luciana continued to explain the rich basis for this idea in contemporary culture (she clearly reads a lot more critical theory than I do and she made me want to read it all) I remembered Tim Barker’s talk at Le sujet digital in Paris last year, and realized that these are ideas that are floating around in many discourses. We talked more over drinks, thinking of how we are clearly headed to mass annihilation and don’t really want to think about that future, and how youth in Southern Europe are facing record levels of unemployment and little chance of a stable future. And yet the future deficit Ang Peng mentioned goes even deeper than that. I googled Gumbrecht’s book, and read:

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht notes an important shift in our relationship to history and the passage of time. Although we continue to use concepts inherited from a “historicist” viewpoint, a notion of time articulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the actual construction of time in which we live in today, which shapes our perceptions, experiences, and actions, is no longer historicist. Without fully realizing it, we now inhabit a new, unnamed space in which the “closed future” and “ever-available past” (a past we have not managed to leave behind) converge to produce an “ever-broadening present of simultaneities.”

Perhaps, if we believe in this idea, young people today truly cannot imagine that the world changes. To them, perhaps, the world has always been the same. The internet and social media have always been there. The constant threat of terrorism has always been there. Climate change has always been there. There has always been fighting in the Middle East. How could you imagine change if nothing has changed in your life time?

When I was 18 the Berlin wall fell. Some of my classmates immediately got on trains and busses to participate in the protests. There are still protests, but does anything much change? The Occupy movement, the Umbrella movement: did anything change? Can anything ever change?

At Transmediale in January I was saddened by the one-sided dystopianism with little space given to those who are trying to hack the system and change it. Perhaps this is a sign of the times. If there is no future, why try to improve it?

What do you think? I may be too rooted in the past to really know.

26. April 2015 by Jill
Categories: Networked Politics | 3 comments

Teaching BASIC in 2015

If you bought a home computer in the 1980s, chances are you learnt a little bit of BASIC programming. The command line interface meant that the difference between starting to play a game and writing a short program was not as big as today, and most of the Commodore 64 User’s Manual was dedicated to explaining how to program your own game or program in BASIC. So for the last few years, our first year Computing Technology: History, Theory and Practice students have had a two hour workshop where they learn to program in BASIC. Here are my notes from the first time I taught this workshop, and the post you’re reading right now gives you some updated ideas. Continue Reading →

23. April 2015 by Jill
Categories: Teach kids to program!, Teaching, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Åpen dag på digital kultur

I dag har Universitetet i Bergen invitert alle avgangselever i videregående skole til en åpen dag på universitetet. Fagmiljøene har laget smakebit-forelesninger og aktiviteter, og det har vi selvfølgelig gjort her på Digital kultur også. Continue Reading →

05. March 2015 by Jill
Categories: Teaching | Leave a comment

Transmediale: the opening

transmediale-slogans0

I’m in Berlin at the digital arts festival Transmediale for the first time, and of course I’m excited about the topic: CAPTURE ALL. An entire digital arts festival about the datafication of the world, which invited artists to “outsmart and outplay the logic of CAPTURE ALL and that organise more intimate modes of post-digital life, work and play.” Chapters 4 and 5 in my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (published open access by Palgrave, or buy in print or download for free from online bookstores) are all about the automated collection and curation of personal data and the quantified self, so of course I had to come and see the art and hear the discussions here.

transmediale-slogans1

Thursday night was the opening ceremony and I sat in a huge packed auditorium with hundreds of others.

The ceremony opened with Hanne Lippard‘s performance of the flow of words we knew from the conference website (very reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Technologic, actually). Here’s an excerpt:

Artistic director of the festival, Kristoffer Gansing, gave a talk about the conference theme, Capture All, which given all the marxist and other critical analyses of the datafied world recently sounded very familiar, and very dystopic. A couple of my tweets: transmediale-my-tweets-about-Kristoffer-Gansings-opening-speech

I did enjoy the way that the opening wove together brief performances with more theoretical talks. Erica Scourti elegantly performed a piece of autocorrect poetry, letting her iPhone suggest words for her and reading them, faster and faster. I only captured a second of video of this, but maybe it’s enough to get the idea.

I had a bit of a Facebook discussion with Ben Grosser (who made the Facebook Demetricator, an excellent intervention into the capture all logics of current social media, but who sadly isn’t here) about how Scourti’s performance worked. Obviously the autocorrect learns from the user – my autocorrect now regularly suggests words like “fakultetsstyremøte” and “ELMCIP”, which I am guessing most of you don’t get. So assuming Scourti used her own iPhone, the autocorrect poem would be customized to her. One of the phrases that popped up was something like “for more info about my work, see my website”, which is certainly the sort of text an artist is more likely to have typed in than many other users. Ben suggested she might have primed her iPhone by pasting in certain words again and again to make a certain theme more likely to appear. I did notice that “love” seemed to pop up a lot, but perhaps she simply tends to write “love, Erica” at the end of emails or something. The final sentence was certainly scripted (she must have pasted it in?) and sometimes, particularly towards the end, she didn’t read exactly what the autocorrect wrote. It was a fascinating performance.

Erica Scourti also has a rather fascinating video work in the conference exhibition, Body Scan, a sort of distracted narrative told by a computer using Google that I might have to write more about later.

transmediale-altlit

The star of the night was Peter Sunde, recently out of prison after he was sentenced for the Pirate Bay. He did not present an optimistic view of our world. I met him in Bergen before his time in prison and remember him as forceful and still very much willing to fight. Last night he said he had given up.

His talk was riveting, full of tweetable one-liners (and I tweeted several) but with no hope. A sample:

We’re on our way to a broadcast democracy where we have little say anymore.

Fighting the system from within is like trying to fight capitalism by trying to capture all the money.

We don’t need robots, we are robots.

We tried, but it’s over. Capitalism won. We’re happy with our espresso machines.

He finished by saying that like in Wargames, the only way to win the game is to not play. I loved Wargames, but if ‘re going to talk about Wargames, let’s do it properly. The movie is about a kid who unwittingly starts playing a game with a computer he dials up on his modem, but realizes that the game is not a game but very real: he and the computer are starting a nuclear war. Finally the kid convinces the computer to play tic-tac-toe against itself and after hundreds of runs through the game the computer Ai realizes that the only possible outcome is a tie. Thus it is convinced that nuclear war, likewise, is a game where “the only winning move is not to play.”

But we can’t not play technology today, at least not as a society. Individuals can extract themselves, refuse to be on Facebook, resign from the Wikipedia in disgust at the ways in which editors team up and use entries as weapons, but ultimately if we refuse to participate in technology and social media we can’t participate in contemporary public debate, democracy, employment, commerce etc. An absolute digital detox is all but impossible today. We need to build alternatives. Bruce Sterling describes us as not living in digital captalism, as Transmediale’s artistic director said in his introductory talk and as many recent marxist analyses have argued, but in digital feudalism, where we live in spaces owned by our feudal lords (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc) and are both completely dependent on them and actually feel fealty to them. I think Sterling is right in that these technologies have become part of the air we breathe.

I hope to see far more interventions in the datafied world we live in at the rest of Transmediale. Too much of the program so far has been one-sided criticism of datafication and social media that is so simplistic that it makes things worse. Chanting a list of all the things we track is cool. But once that’s done, is it really helpful to basically just do that again and again?

You can’t not play this game. We need to hack the game, to find other ways of playing the game, to make our own game. Maybe you need to make the computer play against itself.

30. January 2015 by Jill
Categories: Digital Art, Visualise me | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Tracking culture: a workshop on intimate surveillance

I’m traveling home from a wonderful two day workshop in Aarhus, organized by surveillance scholar and philosopher Anders Albrechtslund. It was wonderful: a smallish group of scholars all researching what self-tracking means spending hours each day just talking about it. We had three hour sessions allotted to just two presentations, so a very heavy focus on discussion and sharing ideas. Add to that wonderful food, a beautiful setting at the brand new Moesgaard Museum and a tour of the stunning AROS art museum after dinner and you have a very happy group of academics. Self-tracking is the focus of chapter five in my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology and this quantified self-representation is one of the things I really want to continue working on, so I was thrilled to be invited to this workshop. This somewhat long blog post includes some notes and examples from the workshop about activity trackers, family tracking and more.

Discussing intimate surveillance at the Tracking Culture workshop in Aarhus.

Discussing intimate surveillance at the Tracking Culture workshop in Aarhus.

Anders Albrechtslund convened the workshop and has written several key papers in surveillance studies, as well as co-editing the anthology Internet and Surveillance, for which they received over a hundred proposals!! This is certainly a growing field. In his presentation, he made a convincing argument for the need to see intimate self-tracking as surveillance, because this will allow us to better understand the power relationships involved. Anders is also interested in ethics and privacy and in the enactment of selfhood through self-tracking. He proposed the concept of the oligopticon, which rather the god-like view of the panopticon gives us very specific, grounded views of that which we track. Someone (probably Chris Till, who was the first discussant) brought up Deleuze’s idea of the dividual at this point (as someone usually does these days at discussions like this). The dividual or the divided individual is the basic unit of society in this view. Corporations don’t really care who you really are as an individual, they just want to know about certain aspects, certain data sets: they want to know you as a dividual.

Anders talked about the transition from a surveillance society to a surveillance culture, which is not so much about something that is forced upon us from above (although that also happens) but just as much about our everyday practices. We actively participate in this surveillance culture, for instance by willingly sharing our data in social media or by using GPS tracking on our kids. Intimate surveillance is about control but also about care. We want to look after our kids and keep our families safe. How then does this inform our ways of thinking about norms?

One blog I’ll be following is Chris Till’s This is not a sociology blog. In addition to his many insightful comments throughout the workshop, Chris gave a really interesting presentation laying out an in-progress marxist analysis of corporations’ use of fitness trackers for their employees. Chris argued that employers aren’t simply wanting their employees to get fitter, and thereby able to create more value in a traditional sense (work harder and be more productive), employees self-tracking creates direct value for employers – and the corporations providing the activity trackers to the employers through the data that is produced. Because trackers standardize the activity done by runners in a way not previously possible, that activity can be compared to other activity, and thus is can be exchanged and produces value. So our workouts become labour in a marxist sense.

Chris Till's presentation at the tracking culture workshop in Aarhus

Chris Till discussing corporations tracking their employees’ exercise data.

Tamar Sharon is another scholar to watch. She is in the STS group  (STS=science, technology and society studies) at Maastricht University and has a grant to explore the quantified self movement and other self-tracking. In discussing Chris’s presentation, she pointed out that it’s not really the employers (like BP giving health insurance discounts to employees who get enough steps) that exploit the workout labour of the employees, it’s the corporations another level up that actually get and use the data. So it’s a case of Fitbit or Google exploiting the smaller corporations.

Of course, once you bring Marx into play you start discussing capitalism, and I remembered Bruce Sterling’s wonderful rant about the internet of things. He argues that it’s not capitalism, it’s feudalism.

Politically speaking, the relationship of the reader to the Internet of Things is not democratic. It’s not even capitalistic. It’s a new thing. It’s digital-feudalism. People in the Internet of Things are like the woolly livestock of a feudal demesne, grazing under the watchful eye of barons in their hilltop Cloud Castles. (location 58)

We are completely dependent on our feudal lords (the biggest in the US are Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple) and like serfs of old we actually respect and admire them. We feel fealty to them. And if we don’t serve them, we cannot exist (or can only exist with great difficulty) in today’s society. As Chris cited a tweet by Angela Wilson Ursery, perhaps it’s Quantified Serf, not Quantified Self.

The others didn’t agree with (my rendition of) Sterling about digital feudalism, and I’m not enough of a scholar of capitalism or feudalism to really know, but it’s an interesting comparison. I’m not sure what it does to the marxist interpretations.

Tamar Sharon is in the early phases of a study of the quantified self movement and self-tracking, and has set up a fabulous table showing what she sees as three key values in self-tracking and how each value has a positive side but also a fear attached to it.

tamar-sharon-table-about-self-tracking

Tamar Sharon’s chart showing promises and fears relating to self-tracking, and how they can be viewed through three values: autonomy, solidarity and authenticity.

 

 

“The problem with Marxist approaches,” she said as we were discussing Chris’s presentation, “is that it’s always about false consciousness and exploitation, which can stop you from seeing agency and from moving on to questions of ethos and ethics.” I have to admit I love the marxist approaches that are popping up all over the place in discussions of digital labour. I think we need to think about who benefits and how our leisure and online activities are converted to value for others, but I also think Tamar is right in that this is not the only way we need to think about digital activities like self-tracking. In a way this is the old cultural studies debate about television viewers not being completely controlled by television but having agency, for instance creating fan fiction.

I’ve gone from loving self-tracking to being more and more skeptical of it, but I do still see the pleasures of self-tracking. And you know, we were in a room full of surveillance scholars who are apt to be a bit suspicious of tracking, so I particularly appreciated Tamar’s work to figure out the pleasures that self-tracking can bring, and what it is that the quantified selfers she has interviewed and observed like about self-tracking. Here she is explaining some of the non-reductionist things data can do:

tamar-sharon-non-reductionist-things-data-can-do

Tamar Sharon pointing out some of the non-reductionist things data can do.

 

Although Tamar is in the early phases of her research and has only recently started her interviews and observations, she has a really solid theoretical framework worked out and I look forwards to hearing more of her results.

Stine Liv Johansen spoke about tracking children. Her research is about children’s use of media for play, and so she was thinking about possible ways of thinking about self-tracking in this respect.  Tracking babies and children is something I wrote about in chapter five of my book, as well as on the blog, and I was very happy to get even more examples of kid-tracking apps. For instance Kuddle.com, an imagesharing site for kids where parents are notified and have to approve each image a child wants to share, or Tableaux, a system used in a lot of Danish preschools and after school care centers where parents have a smart phone app connected to the school’s systems so parents always know exactly where their kids are (in the gym, on an excursion, at lunch) and when they slept if they still nap at school. Stine emphasized that some of these devices actually give kids greater freedom. For instance, in a Danish city where all school kids got iPads, kids would FaceTime their mum themselves to ask whether they could go home with another kid, and wouldn’t have to ask the teachers and get permission to use the landline phone.

Following a few links I found even more devices on our horizon. I already knew about the Tinitell video, which shows how tracking children can be (presented as or actually?) a way to give kids more freedom.

I found the Paxie bands via a link from the menstrual tracker @clue after seeing a tweet to @clue from another workshop participant, Marie Louise Juul, who is about to start a PhD on intimate self-tracking of things like menstruation and sex. The Paxie bands have a similar argument, but go even further. They not only track the location of your child, but constantly measure their temperature and heart rate. My kids get fevers once or twice a year, and I suppose at those moments it’d be quite useful to have the temperature measurements, but wow, having it constant is quite extreme. Apparently the child can’t remove the band herself, as it takes two adult hands to get it off.

paxie-bandClearly care is a huge part of this kind of intimate surveillance. But how do we balance care and well, paranoia?

Anders Albrechtslund showed us the ad for the new Withings Home, which has exactly the same emphasis on parents who are away from their kids but connected through surveillance technology:

There were other excellent presentations too, for instance by Federica Lucivera, who spoke about heath tracking, and Tjerk Timan, who spoke about the internet of things and how we should study the code behind trackers and not just the people using them, and there were lots of discussions throughout I can’t possibly do justice too. I’m left with lots of ideas, scribbled notes and a pile of links, and a strong motivation to do more work in this area! Thank you to Anders, Kasper and everyone else for a wonderful few days.

 

16. January 2015 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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