The Future of Collaborative Culture?

[I’m cross-posting this from Open Culture–it seemed apropos to my academic pursuits as well…]

I just heard Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, speaking at Stanford Law School today. Wales is working on some new projects that he hopes will harness the community-driven collaboration of Wikipedia. He’s already had some success in branching out from the encyclopedia idea with Wikia, which is a “wiki farm” compiling information on a variety of different subjects (some of the most successful so far relate to video games).

What Wales spoke about today, however, is a new collaborative search project. The concept is still in its early stages, it seems, but the idea would be to harness the intelligence and dedication of human beings to produce search results significantly better than Google’s. This raises a few questions:

Is Google broken? It’s amazing what Google pulls up, but maybe we’ve all gotten so good at working with an imperfect system that we just tune out the spam and misinterpretations that still crop up.

Is a collaborative social model the appropriate solution to this problem? People are good at compiling encyclopedias, but they may not be good at emulating search rank algorithms. Also, Google is powered by millions of servers in dozens of data centers over the world managing petabytes of information. In other words, this may be a technology+money business, not a people+transparency business.

These issues aside, Wikipedia is one of the most amazing things to come out of the whole Internet experiment, so I’m excited to see what Wales comes up with. Has search become a basic service? Would it work better as an open-source system?

Getting Listed

Ian Hsu has been hired by Stanford to bring more attention to new media activity around the campus (title: Director of Internet Media Outreach). He’s just launched one major initiative: the Stanford Blog Directory. Yours truly is up there, along with a few other students (and many more blogs by Stanford groups, faculty and staff). Hopefully as we move forward more students will join the listing, since I know there are a lot more bloggers lurking on campus. Nevertheless, it’s nice to be in on the ground floor–thanks for the listing, Ian!

The Politics of Presence

I’ve been invited to contribute to The Politics of Presence, a multi-day, multi-continental conference experience put together by new media scholars, archaeologists, and more. I’m going to give a brief PowerPoint version of a paper I worked last quarter on terrorism and new media.

Terrorism is an interesting subject because it tends to fall through the academic cracks. This has led to a fragmented professional discourse that tends to get lost between international affairs, psychology, law and politics. Thus the old saw that there are as more theories of terrorism than there are theorists.

My take is that terrorism is essentially a communicative action: without a public to terrorize and a mass medium to dominate, there’s no point. So how do new, collaborative media change that equation? How do we deal with terrorism online? Come by tomorrow to find out.

Scholarly Web 2.0?

We just had a great speaker at the Literary Studies and the Digital Library Workshop–Dan Cohen came to discuss the Zotero project, a new web research tool specifically geared toward scholars. To describe it boringly, Zotero is a plugin for Firefox 2.0. But what it really does is give you an easy way to accumulate all of your links, bibliographic citations, Amazon books, etc into one annotatable database that lives on your computer. No more losing your Google Docs or battling with EndNote! No more wrestling with incredibly long library catalog URLs! That, at least, is the dream.

It seems like Cohen’s team has done a lot of amazing things already, and Zotero automatically recognizes many kinds of XML in the pages you browse (like the author and title of the book you’re looking at on Amazon, for example). Then when you drag and drop that tab into the Firefox applet, you have a record that already includes the citation information you would have to type in for other reference programs. At least I think this is what it does now–I only installed it this afternoon.

I’ll report back with an update on how well Zotero works, and whether Cohen excommunicates me from the Church of the Semantic Web after I tell him I screwed up recording his talk today. You have to push the record button twice, and it looks like it’s recording after the first push. Not intuitive.

Stanford-Berkeley Togetherness

On Saturday I participated in the annual Stanford-Berkeley English Department Graduate Student Conference. This year’s “theme” was “Who Cares?”. I gave a much-abbreviated version of my Weber talk and got some great feedback from the panel and from the audience. Professor Denise Gigante gave a very interesting keynote at the beginning of the day discussing specialization and professionalization in the field of literature.

What are we studying, anyway, and does it make sense to break things down into centuries and countries? I’m not so sure…at the very least, I’ve never felt very comfortable putting myself in a temporal box.


Well, maybe not, but it was still exciting to see two of my colleagues from Stanford get some Newspaper of Record facetime today for their work on video game research. Henry Lowood and Matteo Bittanti have both been involved in the study of games as cultural forms and it’s nice to see their work reaching such a major audience.

The article discusses their efforts to create a draft canon for game studies. Of course, this is just as contentious in video games as it is in literature or film, and the difference between a formal canon and a top ten list is awfully thin. However, I think both Henry and Matteo would be quick to argue that the point isn’t to isolate a few games for special treatment but to get the rest of us thinking about games as artifacts worth studying and archiving. Henry has done an amazing job of building up the Stanford Library’s collection of games, consoles and more.

Taking the Weber show on the road

How time flies! I can’t believe it’s been a month since my last post. I’ll try and do a little better. One reason things have been so busy for me is that I finally completed a draft of a seminar paper that has been steadily growing into something bigger.

On Monday I submitted an abstract based on this evolving opus to a conference at UCLA. The theme of the 18th Annual Southland Graduate Student Conference is “Synthetics” and the paper I’ve been working on connects Max Weber to contemporary questions of identity and production, so this seems like the perfect venue to work on my ideas. Here’s my abstract:

The Networked Shell: Max Weber and the Ethic of Work in the Digital Era

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber twice used a metaphor that has become a touchstone in cultural analysis for the past century: the “iron cage” of capitalism in which we have all been trapped. The Puritan overtones of this translation represent a semantic intervention by Weber’s first American translator, Talcott Parsons. In his translation of the work Peter Baehr makes a convincing argument that this iconic metaphor should in fact be translated from the German (stahlhartes Gehäuse) as the “shell as hard as steel.” In a close reading of Weber’s original text I will flesh out this reading: the “shell as hard as steel” is an organic, protective carapace that shields and defines as much as it limits and confines its inhabitant. I will follow the metaphor of the shell as hard as steel from Weber to the darkness of World War II and the intellectual and technological revolution that sprang from its ashes. From there I will pick up the story of how cybernetics and post-war military-industrial research blended with the 1960s counterculture to create the network society of the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, our own synthetic cultures of virtual production. By following its thread from Max Weber through the twentieth century, I hope to create an interpretive foundation on which to answer a very Weberian question: what is the ethic of work in the digital era? What does it mean to be an individual trapped/integrated/liberated by the networked shell of contemporary capitalism?

We’ll see if they like it.

How Fred Writes

I’m about to sit in on a talk in the series How I Write at the Stanford Writing Center. Tonight’s speaker is Fred Turner, who wrote a great book on the emergence of the digital counterculture in the 1960s and beyond.

I’m particularly interested in what he has to say about his writing process since he also lived a life in journalism before returning to grad school and academia. His time in journalism was much more serious and successful…but I’m hoping the experience will still translate.

Oh, wow: I just discovered that the “How I Write” website has an amazing archive of audio and video! Very neat.

Actually listening to poetry

How often do we really listen to poetry anymore? Perhaps it is true that contemporary poetry is meant to be read more than to be heard, but I find that once I hear a poet reading his or her own work I can never read it the same way again. That’s right, I’m looking at you, Paul.

The PENNsound poetry site collects audio files from all sorts of interesting people. We’re using it this week in a class to listen to William Carlos Williams reading a few excerpts from Paterson.