Intellectual Audience

My friend Jo wrote a post a while ago that addressed the subject of building an audience for your scholarly work. You can read the post on her blog, here.

One of the things that I think Jo is really great at is thinking practically about academic careers and trajectories in light of the current academic job market. While people working in traditional academic spaces and on a traditional academic course have a different set of challenges than folks like me, her points still resonate.

How do you build networks and audiences? Two things:

  1. You talk to people.

Audiences are built on relationships. While we might like to think that writers and scholars are able to attract audiences purely on the basis of their work, in practice additional work is required.

  1. You make sure you have something to show for yourself.

Everyone's got ideas, and projects that they'd like to work on. People love to talk about their ideas. Success, I think, comes when you have something to show for yourself and your projects, and give people some level of confidence that your can make good on your ideas.

In sort, write more, publish more. While quality matters some, being more than someone to talks well at parties is really important.

I think this approach is useful for people doing any kind of creative or intellectual work that engages an audience, but I'm interested in your thoughts.

Critical Practice

Being a critic is not simply looking for the points of failure, shortcomings, and breaking points in cultural artifacts (e.g. music, art, literature, software, technology, and so forth.) Criticism is a practice of comparison and rich analysis and a way of understanding cultural production. One might even call criticism a methodology, though "methodologizing" criticism does not give us anything particularly useful, nor does it make any practices or skills more concrete.

Criticism is really the only way that we can understand culture and cultural products. In short, criticism renders culture meaningful.

I wrote the above in response to this "On Being a Critic" post that a long time reader of this site wrote a while ago. Most of the differences between our approaches to criticism derives from technical versus non-technical understandings of critical practice. With that in mind, and in an effort to consolidate some thoughts about methodology, criticism, and theoretical practice, I'd like to provide two theses that define good critical practice, and provide some starting points for "getting it right:"

  • Criticism is comparative. If you analyze a single thing in isolation, this analysis is not criticism. By contrast, one of the best ways to make poor criticism more powerful is to include more information (data) to strengthen the comparison. Comparison should highlight or help explain the phenomena or objects you are critiquing, but should always serve agenda and goals of the criticism to avoid overloading readers with too much information.
  • Criticism ought to have its own agenda. It is impossible to avoid bias entirely, and from this impossibility springs criticism's greatest strength: the power to productively examine and contribute to cultural discourses. While critical essays are perhaps the most identifiable form of criticism, there are others: novels, lectures, films, art, and perhaps even technology itself, can all be (and often are) critical practices in themselves.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Big Data Impact

I've been milling over this post about big data in the IT world for quite a while. It basically says that given large (and growing) data sets, companies that didn't previously need data researchers suddenly need people to help them use "big data." Everyone company is a data company. In effect we have an ironic counter example to the effect of automation on the need for labor.

These would be "data managers" have their work cut out for them. Data has value, sure, but unlike software which has value as long as someone knows how to use it, [1] poorly utilized data is just as good as no data. Data researchers need to be able to talk to developers and help figure out what data is worth collecting and what data isn't. Organizations need someone to determine what data has real value, if only to solve a storage-related problem. Perhaps more importantly data managers would need to guide data usage both technically (in terms of algorithms, and software design) and in terms of being able to understand the abilities and shortfalls of data sets.

There's a long history of IT specialist positions: database developers, systems administrators, quality assurance engineers, release engineering, and software testing. Typically we divide this between developers and operations folks, but even the development/operations division is something of a misnomer. There are merits to generalism and specialization, but as projects grow, specialization makes sense and data may just be another specialty in a long tradition of software development and IT organization.

Speicailization also makes a lot of sense in the context of data, where having a lot of unusable data adds no value and can potentially subtract value from an organization.

A Step Back

There are two very fundamental points that I've left undefined: what "data" am I talking about and what kinds of skills differentiate "data specialists" from other kinds of technicians.

What are big data?

Big data sets are, to my mind, large collections of data, GIS/map based information, "crowd sourced" information, and data that is automatically collected through the course of normal internet activity. Big data is enabled by increasingly powerful databases and the ubiquity of the computing power, which lets developers process data on large scales. For examples: the aggregate data from foursquare and other similar services, comprehensive records of user activity within websites and applications, service monitoring data and records, audit trails of activity on shared file systems, transaction data from credit cards and customers, tracking data from marketing campaigns.

With so much activity online, it's easier for software developers and users (which is basically everyone, directly or otherwise) to create and collect a really large collection of data regarding otherwise trivial events. Mobile devices and linkable accounts (OpenID, and other single sign-on systems) simplify this process. The thought and hope is all this data equals value and in many circumstances it does. Sometimes, it probably just makes things more complicated.

Data Specialists

Obviously every programmer is a kind of "data specialist" and the last seven or eight years of the Internet has done everything to make every programmer a data specialist. What the Internet hasn't done is give programers a sense of basic human factors knowledge, or a background in fundamental quantitative psychology and sociology. Software development groups need people who know what kinds of questions data can and cannot answer regardless of what kind or how much data is present.

Data managers, thus would be one of those posistions that sits between/with technical staff and business staff, and perhaps I'm partial to work in this kind of space, because this is very much my Chance. But there's a lot of work in bridging this divide, and a great deal of value to be realized in this space. And it's not like there's a shortage of really bright people who know a lot about data and social science who would be a great asset to pretty much any development team.

Big Data Beyond Software Development

The part of this post that I've been struggling over for a long time is the mirror of what I've been talking about thus far. In short, do recent advancements in data processing and storage (NoSQL, Map Reduce, etc.) that have primarily transpired amonst startups, technology incubators, and other "Industry" sources have the potential to help acdemic research? Are there examples of academics using data collected from the usage habits of websites to draw conclusions about media interaction, reading habits, cultural particpation/formation? If nothing else are sociologists keeping up with "new/big data" developents? And perhaps most importantly, does the prospect of being able to access and process large and expansive datasets have any affect on the way social scientists work? Hopefully someone who knows more about this than I do will offer answers!

[1]Thankfully there are a number of conventions that make it pretty easy for software designers to be able to write programs that people can use without needing to write extensive documentation.

An Intellectual Practice

What I want, it seems to me, isn't a career--I have one of those--but to sustain intellectual life and practice. I would like to be able to ask questions, read seriously, participate in important conversations, and to write about this work and practice effectively for an audience that is invested in these discussions. This post is a follow up to my "career pathways" post.

I have a blog and wiki, I can read, and my writing continues to improve. How hard can it be to achieve these goals and establish this practice on my own? Famous last words.

The thing is, I hate auto-didacticism as an approach to knowledge production and learning. Sure it works, sometimes, and professionally I think I've been able to succeed on the basis of being able to learn things on my own. At the same time, self teaching at more advanced levels, and avoiding formal study feels like a mechanism for people to use to avoid challenging themselves or their assumptions about the world. The challenge here, in addition to discipline (in a number of senses of the word,) is to avoid scholarly isolationism.

Conversely, it might be true that sufficiently advanced study is always already self-lead and self-taught anyway. That's not a conjecture I have the experience or specialty to comment upon, but it's a possibility.

In any case, my success at being able to do meaningful and fulfilling work, hinges upon:

  • being able to write and interact effectively for your communications medium. In my case this means, use blogging and wikis well.
  • being able to maintain an active presence and participation in the discussions and work you want to do. This means posting regularly, in addition to writing, reading, and thinking about various projects. Work needs to be sustained and ongoing.
  • being able to make leisure time sacrifices to support the work. There's only so much time in the day, and I think it's also important to manage expectations somewhat in recognition of this fact.
  • being able to find or establish and interact with a community of peers. Regardless of interest or focus, it's important to find colleagues who do work that is enough like yours to allow them to grasp the intricacies of your work and different enough to infuse the conversation with useful context and ideological breadth.

At least, that's my hope. What am I forgetting?

The Meaning of Work

I've started to realize that, fundamentally, the questions I'm asking of the world and that I'm trying to address by learning more about technology, center on work and the meaning and process of working. Work lies at the intersection of the all the things that I seem to revisit endlessly: interfaces, collaboration technology, cooperatives and economics institutions, and open source software development. I'm not sure if I'm interested in work because it's the unifying theme of a bunch of different interests, or this is the base from which other interests spring.

I realize that this makes me an incredibly weird geek.

I was talking to caroline about our respective work environments, specifically about how we (and our coworkers) relocated (or didn't) for our jobs, and I was chagrined to realize that this novel that I've been working at (or not,) for way too long at this point spends some time revolving around these questions:

  • How does being stuck in a single place and time constrain one agency to effect the world around them?
  • What does labor look like in a mostly/quasi post-scarcity world?

Perhaps the most worrying thing about this project is that I started writing this story in late August of 2008. This was of course before the American/Financial Services economic crash that got me blogging and really thinking about issues outside of technology.

It's interesting, and perhaps outside the scope of this post, but I think it's interesting how since graduating from college, my "research" interests as they were, all work them into fiction (intentionally or otherwise.) I suppose I haven't written fiction about Free Software/open source, exactly, but I think there's a good enough reason for that. [1]

I'm left with two realizations. First, that this novel has been sitting on my plate for far too long, and there's no reason why I can't write the last 10/20 thousand words in the next few months and be done with the sucker. Second, I'm interested in thinking about how "being an academic" (or not) affects the way I (we?) approach learning more about the world and the process/rigor that I bring to those projects.

But we'll get to that later, I have writing to do.

[1]I write fiction as open source, in a lot of ways, so it doesn't seem too important to put it in the story as well.

Deleuze and the Utility of Materialism

(ETA: On second thought, perhaps this essay should have been called "Materialism and the Utility of Deleuze," but both work.)

Here's the second part in my (re)contemplation of Deleuzian theory. Here's part one.

Everything is a machine. Celestial machines, the stars or rainbows in the sky, alpine machines--all of them connected to those of [the] body. [...] There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring-machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all species of life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever. (p. 2)

-- Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatteri Anti-Oedipus Originally published in 1972, English translation 1977. Translated by Helen R. Lane, Robert Hurley, and Mark Seem.

I think one of the key reasons that I keep returning to Anti-Oedipus is that it provides a way to be a fierce materialist while addressing the kinds of questions that idealists (i.e. psychoanalysts) raise. This in itself isn't particularly unique (I suppose,) but I'm particularly taken with the way that they approach questions of subjectivity, identity, experience, and development without engaging or furthering the discourse of psychoanalytic thought.

Initially I think I was off put by all the psychoanalytic language in the text, and the way that they seem to argue incredibly fine points against Lacan and Freud. As I look at it more and more, I realize the point of Anti-Opedipus is to say "don't think about these issues in Freudian terms, and with Freudian assumptions! Think about subjectivity and identity as phenomena with material foundations and mechanistic underpinnings!"

I, perhaps unlike the milieu that Deleuze and Guatteri were writing in, was never particularly enchanted by psychoanalysis, but I have been incredibly interested in the kinds of issues that analytic thought engages, and Anti-Oedipus provides a way to entertain those kinds of discussions without engaging in a troublesome intellectual lineage.

But to tie this post back to the last one, this approach to thinking about ourselves as subjects, to our creativity and desire, to the cultural implications of our identity, is not something that's particularly useful addition to a theoretical framework. Right? I've not done a lot of this kind writing recently, but it strikes me that the call to be a materialist, and to think about the mechanics of social and personal phenomena is, as we say, "non-trivial." Being Anti-Oedipal isn't just something that you sprinkle here and there; it's not a grand-theory-of-everything, but once it seeps in a bit, it makes it possible to think about the world and experiences in--what I'd call--a more productive way. Perhaps it's true that Anti-Oedipus is a book of ethics after all.

I underlined the paragraph from the last post nearly four years ago. I think I've finally gotten it. I think, more than anything, that is a marker of my own development.

Onward and Upward!

Perhaps Someday We'll Call This Deleuzian

I would say that Anti-Oedipus (may its authors forgive me) is a book of ethics, the first book of ethics to be written in France in quite a long time (perhaps that explains why its success was not limited to a particular "readership:" being anti-oedipal has become a life style, a way of thinking and living.) How does one keep from being fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant? How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism? How do we ferret out this fascism that is ingrained in our behavior? The Christan Moralists sought out the traces of the Flesh lodged deep within the soul. Deleuze and Guatteri, for their part, pursue the slightest traces of fascism in the body.

-- Michel Foucault, writing in the preface to Anti-Oedipus, by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatteri.

I've spent a while away from Academia and geeky theoretical academic thoughts for a while. Then I discovered this twitter account and I got drawn back into it. I read the tweets and I thought, "you know," these are hilarious on their own because they are so off the well, but I think I actually understand what's going on. I'd have conversations with unsuspecting coworkers about little bits of Deleuzian theory. H.S. came for a visit and we had a rather long conversation about Deleuze and theory. I don't know that "I'm back," is exactly the right way to phrase this, but I definitely enjoy the added perspective that I'm able to bring to this stuff now.

I was never a very good theorist or philosopher, though I enjoy watching from a far, I tend want answers to different kinds of questions. I'm not, nor have I ever been "a scholar" of the "Capitalism and Schizophrenia" diptych--I haven't even read it in its entirety--but it's been a great influence me. Of the things that I read and interacted with in college, I'd have to say that Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus are the texts that I return to with the greatest frequency. And I never even took a class that assigned D&G!

I've read a fair number of papers and other pieces that have attempted to use Deleuze's work as theoretical framework or some such, and I've always been disappointed by what happens as a result. For starters, the chance of Deleuze citations being: of the Rhizomatics essay at the beginning of "A Thousand Plateaus," or from his collections of film criticism are overwhelming. This is unsurprising as this probably represents the most accessible of portions of Deleuze's work. Also unsurprising is my sense that no matter what the paper is about, the Deleuzian theory overpowers whatever the author is trying to say. Deleuze's thought is pretty darn heavy, and there's no way around it.

And from some perspectives this is actually pretty funny: when you read Anti-Oedipus it's not "fluffy," but it's pretty playful. There are lots of metaphors and images that draw out the logic and the point. There's a lot going on, but it's not dense (certainly not in the way that Derrida is dense.) This has lead me to ask a two important questions:

  • If the writing is not very difficult or opaque, why do (Americans) who attempt to use the work fail to capture the playfulness, and seem too fall flat?
  • Why am I (and clearly others as well) so intrigued by this work, and why do I (we?) keep returning to this text? Particularly since it's so difficult to use in support of other arguments.

The answers, I think bring us back to Foucault's assertion in the preface, that Anti-Oedipus is (counter to first impressions) a book of ethics rather than a book of cultural and social theory or even a commentary on Marxist and Freudian theory. When reading the texts, Anti-Oedipus (and A Thousand Plateaus) don't feel like ethical manifestos, but I think that this explains why it's so difficult to use and remains so intriguing.

That's enough for now, but I hope you'll pardon my impulse to blog about Deleuze for a little longer, as I think there's another post or two here.

Poems are Made out of Words

I remember having this epic fight conversation with a poet-friend from college about aesthetics and art and literature. I'm not sure exactly what brought it on, or particularly why I thought my side of the argument was in any way defensible, but it came back to me recently. So as I'm wont to do, here's a post in review of these thoughts.

Act One: Poems are Just Words

I think in the first iteration of the argument, I took the opinion that poems existed (mostly) to transcend the experience of the written word on the page. That the project of poetry was about getting past words and constructing some sort of image or transcendent experience, or something.

Did I mention that I wasn't a poet? I'm not. Not at all. I'm not even particularly good at reading poetry. I've sometimes written poems, and even I am a good enough reader to tell that they're crap.

In any-case, H.S.'s argument was that poems were just words on paper (or screens) [1] and that's it. That writing itself is an act of putting words together, and experimenting with how words come together in (quasi) fixed mediums. And nothing more.

I don't really know what my beef in this argument was. This was certainly before I started writing again. I guess my argument was that writing was simply an imperfect means of conveying an idea, and the real work and creativity of "being a writer" was really in coming up with good ideas and practical logic that illustrates your arguments.

And while that's true, from one perspective if you squint at things the right way, I don't think it's really true about writing as a whole, and certainly not creative projects. It might be true that that's a pretty good summary of academic writing, particularly entry level academic writing, but I'm not sure.

When I find writing that I'm impressed with, I keep coming back to the idea that it's just "words on the page," and somehow that makes. My skill--insofar as I have one--and the asset that makes me employable (I think) is the fact that I can turn ideas and thoughts (which are thick on the ground) into something useful and understandable by normal folk.

Act Two: Rethinking William Gibson

So, ok, lets be honest. I don't really like William Gibson's work very much. I thought Neuromancer expressed a social commentary that was totally obvious almost instantly, and it hadn't stood the test of time particularly well, and I felt it sort of read like the rehab journal of an addict who hadn't quite cleaned up entirely. This was just my reaction on reading it, and not a particularly well reasoned critique.

I mean I will acknowledge the book's impact, and I think I read it too late which probably accounts for my reaction. And although I responded so poorly to it, I don't really have a lot of a problem with literature that is of its time. In any case, I was thinking about Gibson recently, and casually comparing him to some other writers, and I found myself saying (of another writer of the cyberpunk ilk), pretty much without realizing it:

...which is fine, except [they] didn't have Gibson's literary chops. I mean Gibson's work is incredibly frustrating but his writing is superb.

And I sort of realized after I'd said the above, that I had inadvertently conceded the argument from Act One, years later. Sure there's a lot of idealism in writing, but writers aren't differentiated on the basis of how awesome their ideas are. It all comes down to how they put the words together.

The side effect of this transposition is that, somehow, I've started to be able to read (and enjoy) short stories more than I ever was before. And much to my surprise, I've been writing the end of this (damned) novel as a sequence of short stories. At least in how I've been thinking of it. I could go on with more and additional examples, but I think I better leave it at that for now. Thoughts? Anyone?

[1]Or in my case emacs buffers.