Teaching on Day 1 of Trump

This post was spurred by an email from Tarleton Gillespie and Hector Postigo to contribute to a collected series that appeared on Culture Digitally today. The focus of that series is for scholars to “think hard about our own work and research agendas, and how they should shift to face new political realities.”

I didn’t have a chance to contribute to this collection yesterday because I was trying to figure out how to prepare a lecture on the networked press to a class of undergraduates I’d never met before.  Months ago, I agreed to give a guest lecture in Henry Jenkins’s Communication & Technology class and it never occurred to me that November 9th would be such an ominous day.

I hadn’t slept the previous night as I tried to quell a dizzying headache and nausea, thinking about what I could possibly say to students about how a field I’m supposedly an expert in got everything so wrong.  I spent the morning avoiding news coverage, deeply angry at an institution I’m supposed to be invested in.  Instead, I played with different lecture openings, looked at old slides, arranged and rearranged arguments I’ve made countless times before. I thought that I’d just rely on a PowerPoint deck I knew well, get through the 90 minutes, and return to my fog.

Time eventually ran out, I bundled up my preparation as it was, and made my way to campus.

I walked into the room still unclear about what I’d say.  I didn’t know these students (I was the guest lecturer) and, after seeing several “Make America Great Again” t-shirts on campus the previous day, I wasn’t sure what they’d be feeling.  I mentally prepared myself for everything from tears (theirs and mine) to being drawn into an encounter with celebrating Trump supporters.

I began class. I asked them to put away their laptops and had the lingerers in the back come up to fill out the front row seats.

I started honestly: I told them that I didn’t really know how to begin, that I’d never led a class like this on a day like this, and that I wasn’t even sure this was where I wanted to be right now.  Their smiles, nods, and knowing glances at each other put me at ease.

I asked them why they studied Communication.  I told them why I did.  I told them that our jobs as Communication scholars was to figure out why people act together, build meaning, and share consequences.  And I told them that there was never a more important time for us to be world-class at what we did.  I told them that we can’t make the mistake fish make: they don’t know what water is because they’re always swimming in it.  We can’t not think critically about media because it’s all around us and we think we have little power to shape it.

I asked them to take out a piece of paper and free-form write for 7 minutes on two questions: what do you want from online news? And what do we need from online news?  They wrote and I stared out the window.

When the time was up we talked about similarities among their individual desires, where they thought those desires came from, how hard it was to define a “we”, and whose responsibility it was to differentiate a want from a need.  All of their comments were peppered with stories from the previous night: how confused they were about what was happening, how unexpected everything was, how disconnected they’d felt from pro-Trump parts of the country.  It was exhausting, they said, to have to individually create media worlds that challenged what their instincts made them want.  They didn’t know what a public might need from the news.  They assumed that the news media knew.  And they talked about “objectivity” and “balance” and “neutrality” in all the ways students usually do when they first start thinking about journalism.

I then went old-school.  We talked about James Carey’s transmission versus ritual models of communication. I channeled my advisor Ted Glasser to argue that the press exists in traditions not nature (news is never found, it is always made).  We looked at the history of the AP Style Guide to see the contingency of language: e.g., how it took the New York Times a long time to call women anything other than “Miss” or “Mrs.” (“why were woman ever defined by their marital status?” one female student said) and why the Times called gay men “longtime companions” instead of lovers or partners in AIDS plague obituaries.  We talked about the difference between writing “illegal” versus “undocumented” immigrant.  We talked about why the AP captioned an image a young person of colour wading through chest-high water carrying food as a “looter” versus why the Agence-France Presse said two white people in a similar photo were “finding” bread.  We talked about gender, and orientation, and race and I claimed victory when one student said “it seems like objectivity is just a construct.” Yes, yes, yes.

We then looked at Pew stats on social media and the news.  We looked at data, asked questions about where it came from and what it meant, and tried to write headlines for stories that might be written about the findings.  One student said she was “angry” at her Facebook algorithm for keeping from her news about the rest of the country; she’d assumed that her feed of Hillary supporters was similar to everyone else’s.  She didn’t understand why a friend in Georgia texted her to say she was nervous about Trump winning because Hillary’s impending win was “all over social media”.

One student asked when news organizations began endorsing candidates and whether such endorsements mean anything anymore.  We looked at Pew’s stats about how Republicans, Democrats, and Independents use social media differently, questioned their significance, and started asking questions about the people who weren’t showing up in social media statistics.  For me, the best conversation came just as class was about to end.  I asked “if many people are getting their news from social media, why don’t platforms endorse candidates?” and one student replied “because they think they’re being neutral and objective, just like the press thought it was.”

I know there are ongoing debates about the empirical bases for filter bubbles and how it’s incredibly hard—and dangerous—to track media circulation using media effects methodologies.  That wasn’t the point of our discussion.  It was to be fish who noticed and thought about the water.  It was to ask new and uncomfortable questions about platforms and news.  It was to demand different kinds of data.  It was to challenge the wisdom and sincerity of tech leaders who say they’re running technology companies, not media companies.  It was to refuse to accept that media systems are only the responsibility of individuals tasked with figuring out the differences between what individuals want and publics need.  It was to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past: eras not when “we” thought it was okay to run sexist, homophobic, racist media systems but when those with the power to make such systems thought such failures were acceptable artifacts of chasing the myth of objectivity.

I’ll be honest that teaching hasn’t always been the favourite part of my job. I do it, I’m not terrible at it, I sometimes admire and learn from some of my students, and every now and then I get a high from a class well taught or a student who “gets it” and helps us both see the world differently.  But yesterday’s class reminded me of what it sometimes felt like to go to church.  Teaching felt like a form of communion: a way not only to transmit information but critically, reflectively, constructively figure out what it means to live together.  This is the spirit of the media systems we need now more than ever, that I’m re-energized to help build through teaching and scholarship.

Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing

Mike Daisey lied to us – but how much you think he lied depends on how you think about ‘truth’.

Some background: in his one-man show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’ and a highly popular This American Life episode, Daisey tells several stories about how Apple manufactures products in China.  He presents stories—powerful in their details and emotional resonance—not just as examples but exemplars.  That is, they aren’t meant to be seen as isolated incidents with limited scope.  In his show and on This American Life, he presents them as rich and rigorous accounts that are typical of wide-spread practices and systemic problems for Apple and other Western manufacturers.  The problem is, as This American Life painstakingly detailed in its hour-long retraction this weekend, much of Daisey’s story wasn’t true.

He fabricated sources, exaggerated the number of people he talked to, invented conversations with his translator, presented his own age-estimates as well-sourced truths.  He seems to have intentionally used This American Life and its genre of communication—long-form journalism that works to verify its sources and claims—to underpin a different kind of communication: theatrical storytelling meant to evoke emotional connections to states of the world the storyteller believes to be true.

Reactions [e.g., 1, 2, 3] to Daisey’s fabrications have been varied.  Some say he’s simply from a different tradition and is being judged unfairly.  He’s a storyteller who personally believed something to be true, took too much license in his retellings, and erred in lying to This American Life.  Essentially, he’s a storyteller who strayed too far from his craft and mislabeled his work.  He’s a less skilled, modern day version of Upton Sinclair who didn’t carefully enough distinguish his love of his subject from his responsibilities when doing genre-bending work.  He’s still saying something that’s essentially true (backed up by NYT reports) and we shouldn’t let his personal failings distract us from the larger goal of labour reform.  In one respect he failed because he lied; but in another sense he succeeded because his lies resonated enough to draw attention to a situation we feel to be true.

Others say that labour reform must be a fact-based endeavour that aims to affect policy.  Thus, storytellers who work in this space (performers and journalists alike) cannot ever play fast and loose with the truth or walk fine lines between genres.  Reform will come only from rigorously researched facts that can cause companies to change their behaviour.  It matters a great deal that Daisey strayed from the theatre and into the press: the theatre is where emotions might resonate, but the press is where facts can convince.  Daisey’s failings make it easier for manufacturers to earn a pass on labour compliance because he’s shown that advocates let their love of storytelling overtake their interest in reform.

There’s a lot here to untangle, but what I want to focus on is this knotty question of “truth”.  This is a huge simplification, but pragmatist philosophers (people like John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James) essentially believed that truth—social truths, not stuff like 2+2=4—cannot live in the head of any one individual or system of knowledge.  Essentially, the very idea of truth (what people understand to be a fact) is tightly linked to epistemology (how people come to know).  Truth is what we find it impossible not to believe.  It’s what our minds, hearts, friends, families, classes, races, ethics, ideologies, histories, and imagined futures demand that must believe, if we are to be functioning people in society.  Truth is what makes us act, makes us do things in the world to achieve change.  Truth isn’t a mirror of reality, it’s what we can’t doubt.

The pragmatists help us see three levels of truth in the whole Daisey debacle.  The first—a mundane kind of level—is about the details of Daisey’s narrative.  Did he talk to 3 people or 10 people?  Did he talk with someone who had used n-hexane or not?  Was the girl he talked to 12- or 13-years old?  These details matter for sure.  The second type is focused on what different genres have to say about truth.  Is a theatre story that makes us feel something “true” because the emotions are real, regardless of their origin?  Is a journalistic story “true” because we trust news organizations to follow fact-checking conventions that we might not understand first-hand, but that tradition, professional scrutiny and investigative reporting outcomes have convinced us are the gold standard of fact-based public storytelling?  Do we trust Daisey more or less to influence our beliefs if we know which genres and traditions he’s using?

The third type of truth, though, is where pragmatists are the most helpful and where internet-based learning is trickiest: what do we want to do because of the story?  What is it about the mix of emotion, evidence, argument, and narrative compels us to action – to believe something or do something?  What  do we want to be true?  What do our social worlds make it hard for us to doubt?  What makes us act because of—or in spite of—the story?  Would we let ourselves believe that Daisey is telling us about a problem that does or doesn’t exist?

This whole incident is definitely about journalism, storytelling, labour practices, and fact-checking.  But it’s also about how belief, trust, and doubt intersect to make us make things true for ourselves.  On the internet there are countless sources, genres, stories, traditions, networks, and appeals to authority.  The case of Mike Daisey, Apple, and This American Life isn’t about the internet per se; but it does serve as an examplar for thinking about contemporary truth-making.

The Daisey incident can help us understand why we believe and why we act.  (It means, for example, being able to distinguish between the three kinds of truth-making described above the next time an incident like this happens.)  Such beliefs and actions are at the heart of internet-based ways of knowing and the accompanying shifts away from traditional sources of power and truth-making.  Being a good pragmatist means always being open to questioning not only what you believe but how you believe.  It not only means knowing how to work across multiple epistemologies (when to use journalism and when to rely on theatre, when to tell stories and when to use statistics, when to use an example as an exemplar) but understanding the impact that different ways of knowing can have on your openness to believing later what you might doubt now.

(The pragmatist philosophers probably didn’t anticipate being so relevant today, but they’d surely have been open to considering the possibility.)

Putting aside for a moment questions of labour reform, Daisey’s lies, journalistic traditions, and genres of storytelling: what is it that’s impossible for you to doubt in this story?  Where does this impossibility come from?  What needs to change for you to doubt a little more – and thus be a different kind of certain?

Accepting Inefficiencies and Different Scales of Change in Networked Environments

I didn’t know him personally, but I was saddened to read about Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s recent suicide.  I have no personal insight into his situation, the sources of his stress, or what brought him to take his life.  It’s tragic, full stop.

As I was reading Gawker’s story on his death, I was struck by its implicit message that some of Zhitomirskiy’s stress may have derived, in part, from his desire to “change the world.”  As Gawker says, “Did the pressure of running a struggling, much-hyped start-up—not just any start-up, but a Facebook killer—contribute to Zhitomirskiy’s death?”  He and his Diaspora co-founders set themselves the monumental task of competing with Facebook – crafting a brand new social network that challenged one of the internet’s most powerful laws — a difficult, but noble goal.

It’s the scale of this goal that stands out to me, that I want to think through here.

I often explicitly hear from tech entrepreneurs—or even just those who use platforms like Kiva and Kickstarter—that they have an explicit desire to “change the world” through their work.  Why does this seem, to me at least, to be such a dominant scale for change embedded in the projects of internet-based entrepreneurs?  Is it something about the network itself, the people drawn to the network, the rhetoric around online social movements?  Especially at a time when #Occupy protesters are calling for wide-spread societal change, it might seem disingenuous to question the very idea of world-changing work.  This is not my intention.  The world does constantly need to be rethought and reinvented.

This potential is enticing and I have deep sympathy with the promise of networked social action led by articulate, impassioned, talented individuals like Zhitomirskiy.  Who wouldn’t want to have their vision of how they think the world should be adopted by millions of people?  Who wouldn’t want to live their life motivated by a passion to make social change at a scale the internet makes possible?

My concern is about people’s need to be seen and judged publicly in order to do this kind of work, and the absence of understanding what kind of pressures such motivations, predicaments, and cultivated visibility might create.  Most people are not accustomed to making themselves seen and vulnerable in pursuit of large-scale change, embodying the responsibility for achieving that change, and judging and being judged on their ability to lead large numbers of people organized into fuzzy and dynamic networks.

Translating the ideal of large-scale networked social change into a personal goal can be exciting and motivating, but it can also be an ever-present source of self-initiated, socially constructed pressure.

We are at a tricky moment in history where networks and near-constant connectedness make visible fundamental mismatches between the scale of our experience, the scale of our imagined impact, and the scale of our actual agency.  We are victims of complex, distributed systems that are beyond our individual capacities to appreciate or control (the international banking system, environmental change).  And some of us are privileged enough to have time to ponder these systems and share our visions of how we think things should be with those we would likely never have met even 5 years ago.  But all of us are also stuck figuring out how to be the middle space between systems beyond our control and agency that’s seemingly within our grasp.  We’re being forced to figure out, simultaneously, our personal stories and our network stories – without much appreciation for how much emotional work this entails and what kind of support we need to imagine and realize potentials.

It’s often hard to know what to do with such imagined potential.  And it’s even harder to see the shape of the technical, social, economic, cultural, and political systems we inhabit — to understand them well enough to know what’s possible, what we might change at any given moment, what it’s worth investing our bodies and souls.  It’s a new kind of skill to know not just how to use networked media to create social change, but to understand, find peace with, work within, and subtly change the potentials and limits of your network, and to know the merits of working at different scales of change.

Essentially, I think we don’t understand yet the very idea of networked scales of change, how to live in relation to them — and when to shift among scales in ways that take care with our psyches.

I’m not criticizing digital, networked mediated relationships, saying that we should retreat from online networks or reifying physical, face-to-face interactions.  Much excellent work exists on how complex these shifts and distinctions are.  Nor am I talking about the potential cognitive limits on social relationships, or the need to craft new kinds of social science for making sense of big data.  This isn’t a problem of information overload or filter failure, nor is it only a critique of the idea of perfect memory.  This is about negotiating our individual emotional relationships to the lived realities and imagined potentials of big data, fast rhythms, network efficiency, and algorithmic automaticity.

I’m envisioning something more akin to a spiritual understanding of networked scales, knowing how and when to: navigate ourselves among scales, appreciate the value of different impacts at different moments, craft emotional relationships to networked potential that go beyond today’s instincts to confuse measurement with interpretation, efficiency with success, network position with personal satisfaction.

Optimizing your relationship to a search engine, building your list of Twitter followers and keeping them engaged, garnering more YouTube views, managing your Facebook threads and friend lists in a timely fashion, and imagining a future income from all this – these are exciting moves that let us experience and affect change at new and different scales.  But, un-examined, they also look like sources of self-initiated, socially constructed stress that lead to less healthy lives than we might otherwise find in our networks.

At the risk of seeming like I’m simply a curmudgeon complaining about the narcotizing dysfunction of networked media, I think that we need to have new conversations about what these scales and speeds mean to us as humans trying to live within and change a world that has gotten very large, very fast.

I used to volunteer regularly with a peer counseling hotline.  For someone who’s been embedded in cultures of technology and designing for years, it always struck me as an incredibly inefficient service.  We’d wait by the phones for people to call.  If no volunteer was available when someone called, they’d get a message asking them to wait or try again later.  You never knew if a call would take 5 minutes or an hour.  Sometimes we’d get prank phone calls that would tie up staff and prevent people with genuine calls from getting through.  Sometimes the volunteers would joke that if only we could use the downtime to make outgoing peer counseling calls (“Hi, someone said you might need to talk about something?”), our time would be used more efficiently.

I was deeply frustrated by some of the hotline’s inefficiencies (especially those that prevented people from getting help) but, over time, I grew to appreciate other aspects of the hotline’s sporadic pacing.  Specifically, it often takes time for people to open up.  Some details of people’s stories seemed trivial and needlessly time-consuming, but people seemed to interpret my patience with them as evidence that I was willing to wade through the mundane as we searched together for the meaningful.  The calls took time, they had to happen one-on-one, and my tolerance of inefficiency built a particular kind of trust.  Improvements to the system can always be made, but the counseling experience only seemed to “work” at a specific scale and rhythm that was inefficient but somehow human.

Essentially, internet life lets us see and imagine new scales of experience but, unlike previous mass media, it leaves open a question of agency – how can individuality persist and thrive in increasingly social and connected environments?  How can we and should we imagine, realize and be okay with our individual locations within networks?  What are the limits on this agency?  When are these limits inefficiencies whose scale should be embraced, and when are they constraints whose powers should be resisted?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but my hope is that we can make room for many different scales of existence.  I hope that we can know that it’s okay to be silent, to fail, to wait, to listen, to slow down, to be alone, to enjoy success that isn’t rendered in networks or visible millions — to be patient with your mind and heart as we figure out our networks together.