February 2007

I recently found this commentary by Jason Calcanis on what he calls 'Wikipedia's Technological Obscurification'. Basically, Jason argues that there are three primary factors that keep many folks from contributing to Wikipedia:

  1. The lack of a WYSIWYG editor (what you see is what you get)
  2. The user of discussion pages that are hard to understand
  3. The use of IRC for many of the meta-discussions about how Wikipedia is run

Jason quite rightly points out that these are not intentional mechanisms for blocking participation, and neither are they necessarily a bad thing. He comes down with the point that these conditions are remnants of old technologies, and that Wikipedia has lacked the resources to move to more modern ones. I don't buy this last argument, and I want to reframe the question a bit.

First, I think this example shows us that although Wikipedia's rhetoric has been all about openness, in practice it doesn't really get there. My adviser Coye Cheshire often points out that even the most open of public goods on the internet end up enacting what he calls 'rings of hegemony'. In other words, we can think of the openness as starting only once we get to a certain point on the totem pole. Above that, there are still heirarchies of power that grow out of the need to do things like make rules, pay bills, and manage servers. I don't think this is a knock against Wikipedia at all. It's just a reality check.

Second, I take a completely different view from Jason about why these technologies persist. A lack of resources may be a part of it, but more important is the fact that Wikipedia is a culture with entrenched practices. Its core contributors apparently ascribe some meaning and value to technologies like Wiki markup and IRC that help them persist even when they become outmoded. This reminds is that many of these open projects are driven by a small group of zealots, even when the number of contributors overall gets very large.

Finally, Coye and I have recently written an article (forthcoming) which makes the point that online public goods system may tend to move from less order to more order over time and as they get larger. We define order as the degree to which the process by which the public good is produced and the product which constitutes it are clearly defined. Certainly wiki markup and IRC present a barrier to entry (which may or may not be intentional), but we can also think of stubbornly adhering to older technologies as one way of imposing order. By doing nothing, they essentially set up a structured process that is controlled by access to certain skills. Another way to impose order, of course, is to create new technologies and hierarchies (which they are also doing).

Think about it this way: why does Congress continue to adhere to a set of highly complex and arcane rules and procedures? Because they're necessary? Probably not. I'd argue it's more because the fact that they're so hard to understand gives a measure of power to more experienced lawmakers, thereby implying an order to the body. Imposing new rules to provide order would work too, but it would not necessarily privilege older lawmakers.

Thanks to Ben for pointing me to an amazing commentary by Tony Bourdain, author of the fantastic Kitchen Confidential. Writing as a guest on Michael Ruhlman's blog, Tony employs his signature whip-cracking, politically incorrect, dry style to critique the 'stars' of today's Food Network, and in general bemoans what's become of FoodTV. Here are a few choice tidbits but I suggest you take it all in yourself:

On Rachael Ray:

Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook… She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could–if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?”

On Sandra Lee (of Semi-Homemade):

Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time… I would likely be arrested if I suggested on television that any children watching should promptly go to a wooded area with a gun and harm themselves. What’s the difference between that and Sandra suggesting we fill our mouths with Ritz Crackers, jam a can of Cheez Wiz in after and press hard? None that I can see. This is simply irresponsible programming.

On Paula Deen:

I’m reluctant to bash what seems to be a nice old lady. Even if her supporting cast is beginning to look like the Hills Have Eyes–and her food a True Buffet of Horrors. A recent Hawaii show was indistinguishable from an early John Waters film. And the food on a par with the last scene of Pink Flamingos.

I couldn't have said it better, especially on Paula Deen. I'll never forgot my horror, watching as she poured an entire can of sweetened condensed milk on top of a pile of Krispy Kreme doughnuts for a nauseating version of bread pudding, as she smiled and said in her silky southern drawl '…and would you believe it, this recipe has no added sugar!'

Joe Hall reminded me of an interesting article from the New Yorker back in Dec.:

KNOWING THE ENEMY (The New Yorker, 12.18.2006)

The story is about an Australian Army Captain and anthropologist named David Kilcullen who has studied counterinsurgency and is now trying to help the US government make better decisions in the war on terror.

Many anthropologists are extremely wary of working for the gov't, largely because of folks like Margaret Mead who worked for the War Relocation Authority during WW II. Unfortunately, this debatably-dubious application of anthropology has gone a long way to sullying the reputation of applied anthropology in the academic community. In my opinion, applied anthropologists should absolutely be working for the gov't, especially in their capacity as cultural brokers and translators. Politicians are some of the most myopic people around – anthropologists can help.

This video from Michael Wesch, an Anthro. Professor at Kansas State, is less interesting to the tech. savvy crowd than it likely is to many anthropologists. Still, it's fairly well done, and in my mind fairly uncontroversial. (Which means there's sure to be some debate).

David Hakken, author of a series of fascinating but fairly impenetrable books like Cyborgs@Cyberspace? and The Knowledge Landscapes of Cyberspace dismisses the summary in a very 'ivory tower' sort of way:

I found it an interesting animation of much of the promotional drivel I hear from promoters of so-called social networking software, completely lacking in any critical perspective or sense that such claims about the world need to be evaluated against evidence. This is not an information ethnography in which I am interested.

Ken Erickson of Pacific Ethnography, on the other hand, understands what the video is actually about, responds with (I think) the appropriate amount of perspective despite his admitted lack of technical expertise:

I thought it was an introductory think-piece designed perhaps to inspire undergraduates to think more about the Internet. And on U-Tube. Why aren't other anthropologists or IT design researchers on U-Tube? (Maybe they are and I'm just not an adept.) Do we all have nothing worth saying that can be said in five minutes? I bet we do. I say, Bravo Dr. Wesch. And, I'll bet this could become an interesting thread. Maybe Dr. Wesch will join in.

And, of course, what would a 'critical' debate among anthropologists be without resorting to WMDs – that's Weber, Marx, and Durkheim.

The idea that the web "learns", that we are the web, etc. etc. restates the venerable Marxian argument about how human labor gets embedded in technology, and subsequent generations of that technology fully incorporate and make automatic what formerly could be done only through direct human action. It's the same phenomenon one sees in the evolution of tools used to make other tools — Volume 1 of Capital has a chapter called "Machinery and Modern Industry" which lays out the basic ideas (It also discusses the "intensification of the working day" — something most dot-com worker bees like myself would've been able to relate to, if we'd had any free time to read long books.) — Jerry Lombardi

The discussion goes on through AnthroDesign, but where does this leave us with our impressions of anthropologists? Confused, I think, since even in this short debate we span from scholars like Hakken who are clearly extremely knowledgeable about new technologies but also overly dismissive and haughty about thought-provoking commentary on them, to others who attempt to integrate ideas about Web 2.0 with classical social theory.

For my part, I thought the video was a nice (if technocentric) summary of how the confluence of certain trends have laid the groundwork for the social phenomenon we see today (which is sometimes referred to by the shorthand Web 2.0. Ok, I'm cool with that). My only real 'critique' stems from the pet-peeve of my adviser, Coye Cheshire. And that's this: let's not start with the assumption that Web x.0 changes anything. Let's assume – reasonably based on historical evidence – that seemingly paradigm-shattering technologies tend to influence organically, not seismically. What's going on right now is not so fundamentally different. Although it's all those little details that make it fascinating.