Author Archives: Sakina Laksimi Morrow

Benkler: Economies of Information


The Wealth of Networks provides a detailed, complex and historically situated analysis of the shifting nature of the information-knowledge economy. Benkler’s main claim is that we are moving away from an industrial information economy characterized by the material and socio-political conditions of a capitalist model of information production and towards a networked information economy. While the former is hegemonic and homogenous, the latter is characterized by what Benkler calls “radical decentralization”. He explains that our digital ecology is shaped by “new and important cooperative and coordinated action carried out through radically distributed, non-market mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies.” (3) Effectively, the material conditions (cheap computers etc) and socio-political practices (peer to peer sharing of ideas, knowledge, cultural artifacts etc) of the internet produce a vastly different ecology of how information is produced, re-produced, distributed and shared. The symbiotic relationship between the technologies of the internet and the practices surrounding it have shaped a new economy of information and knowledge that complicates, resists and sometimes subverts social, cultural and political production.

In the chapter “Cultural Freedom: A Culture Both Plastic and Critical” Benkler goes on to  map out the role of culture in the networked information economy, and its effect on shaping the new public sphere. He makes the claim that culture is fluid, intangible and evolving, constantly re-defining and negotiating power, legitimacy and social relations. However, it does so within particular structural (techno-social-political) parameters. Benkler argues that these largely include information technologies, and in particular the political economy in which knowledge is produced and disseminated. From the printing press to newscasting, broadcast technology has determined the terms and shape in which the masses interacted with information. The culture surrounding that interaction was based on a one-to-many model of information dissemination. The internet has changed the very shape and structure of that interaction. Power, legitimacy and social relations are fundamentally changed in a networked information economy. Benkler locates the shift within and through cultural production that emerges out of the material and socio-political conditions of information technologies. In other words, looking at how culture works is an important avenue to understanding the effects and changes that the internet has had on society:

“Cultural freedom occupies a position that relates to both political freedom and individual autonomy, but is synonymous with neither. The root of it is that none of us exist outside of culture. As individuals and as political actors, we understand the world we occupy, evaluate it, and act in it from within a set of understandings and frames of meaning and reference that we share with others…How those frames of meaning are shaped and and by whom become central component so the structure of freedom for those individuals and societies that inhabit it and are inhabited by it.” (274)

As such the radically decentralized networks present themselves as a new way of negotiating identity and politics (and identity politics) outside of the industrial information economy that imposes a particular logic and order on our social worlds. Rather, an alternative space is carved out where citizens have the capacity to be active participants in the co-construction of a society based in democratic principles (if not Democracy itself). The networked society enables people to be participants in the changing frames of meanings and reference that mediate the terms by which we live and interact.

Provocation: What role do we have as educators in deploying (educational)technologies in the classroom that better resemble the networked information economy as opposed to the industrial information economy? What role do platforms such as Blackboard or CUNY Commons play in this schema?

Provocation: Do you think that Benkler oversimplifies the split between these two economies? Doesn’t broadcast media still play a fundamental role in what information is gathered and distributed? Can we operate our information world simply through networks?

DH, Facebook, Critical Re-Production and The Paris Bombings

As I was reading the piece “Digital Humanities Not About Building But About Sharing” it made me think of Facebook. My thinking around media in general and social media in particular has evolved over time, from a determinist perspective on how technologies mediate and facilitate our thinking-being-interacting etc. to something a bit more complex and dynamic. I’ve come to appreciate that fact that a) all tools mediate the ways we do things, including a spoon and a paper cup (the technology of disposal cups have changed food culture in urban areas where it has become “normal” to eat/have a cup of coffee on the go, drastically changing our relationship to meal times, meal spaces and meal rituals). And b) it is more productive to think of the relationship between people and tools as  the co-construction of our social worlds through an evolving and fluid negotiation of use.

From this perspective, dismissing FB (and whatever other types of social media that people use) as mindless/meaningless/consumerist/indulgent is to reduce the ways that the medium is used in productive ways. If Mark Sample states that the “heart of the digital humanities is not the production of knowledge; it’s the reproduction of knowledge” then we should give the practice and concept of re-production value. Recalling Benjamin’s piece from the beginning of the semester, I draw on two inter-related elements of reproduction that can be applied to FB. First, that the holy is rightly profaned- the inaccessible is removed from the pedestal and re-situated within the reach and use of masses, essentially allowing a politicization of the event/object. Second, that it is democratic. Facebook (and other social media) have been able to re-shape what we do with knowledge. The medium has allowed knowledge to be re-situated from mass (broadcast) media that has characterized the way people receive and interact with news/information for a very long time, and placed it in a format that allows for a close/messy/intimate interfacing of various perspectives. It has opened up information to discussion, debate and criticism through a practice of critical reproduction.

One such example is the unfortunate terrorist attacks in Paris this past week. While the major news channels broke the details of the violence as they unfolded, the Facebook community began various discussions around the issue- ranging from debate around Islamaphobia, to dissent around what gets coverage/value. While Paris received news coverage after the horrific violence, the equally horrific bombing in Beirut a day earlier went largely under-reported. As news unfolded, the event was claimed and re-claimed through various political and ideological lenses. These lenses provided contexts through which to understand and navigate the information, as well as provide a forum for discussion

Furthermore, discussions came not only in the form of commentary, but in the sharing of news pieces that resist, enhance and complicate dominant narratives and understanding around information. As such, one can read the discussions on FB as counter-discourses generated through these various political and ideological lenses.

Critical reproduction of knowledge is privileged in this medium, resisting the hegemonic master-narratives that are often imposed by US/Western News media. This fits within the framework of the Digital Humanities, where sharing of knowledge in itself becomes a productive and critical activity. “The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge. We are no longer bound by the physical demands of printed books and paper journals, no longer constrained by production costs and distribution friction, no longer hampered by a top-down and unsustainable business model. And we should no longer be content to make our work public achingly slowly along ingrained routes, authors and readers alike delayed by innumerable gateways limiting knowledge production and sharing.”



On McGann (and a little bit on Weinberg)

I had some help in de-constructing the McGann text a bit as I was not familiar with the various methodologies/typologies of editing presented in “The Rationale of Hypertext”, and their significance to scholarship. So I will begin by presenting that as a background through which to discuss the direction of academic writing and our work as students and educators.

There are various types of editions, each serving a different purpose in the publishing world (See http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic453618.files/Central/editions/edition_types.html#diplomatic_edition and http://www.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/ms-course/course/editns.htm):

  1. Diplomatic editions
  2. Eclectic Editions.
  3. Facsimile Editions
  4. Critical Editions.
  5. Parallel Text Editions.
  6. Hyper-text Editions.

The basic premise of these different editions is how the editor/publisher seeks to present the author’s work alongside the process of editing and alteration that it goes through over time. These different types of editions are mechanisms of reading that reflect the interest, concerns and needs of a literary readership. Or as McGann explains, “[s]cholarly editions comprise the most fundamental tools in literary studies. Their development came in response to the complexity of literary works, especially those that have evolved through a long historical process.” A critical edition for example, will try to present the most “authentic” or close edition to the author’s original intent through comparing various editions and pieces of information and collating together to present something that most resembles the author’s original work. Parallel text editions on the other hand will provide multiple versions/iterations of the work alongside one another. What McGann is most concerned with in this text is highlighting the limitations of the various types of editions embedded in codex form (books), and focusing on the capacity of the hypertextuality to subsume all the practices of the codex editions (1 through 6), and open up scholarship to more possibility than can be allowed or possible in book form. In essence, what he asserts is that hyper-text/hyper-editing is a vastly different “set of schoalrly tools” that can offer a different way of doing scholarship. In other words, he argues that the technology of the book is antiquated (in certain spheres and cases), and argues for a different type of textuality that is layered, complex, multi-modal, dynamic and responsive.

I was put off a bit by this rather strict denouncement of book/codex technology (how quickly we condemn “old” technology when a newer and hotter thing comes along). Nevertheless, as I read both his piece and a critical reception of his piece (http://www.jpwalter.com/cyber-rhetoric/archives/449), I found validity in the claims he makes; ie. that we can leverage hypertext (as opposed to codex) textuality in developing and evolving different forms of scholarship (and writing, reading, researching and learning). However, the transition from one technology to another is not so smooth and not so simple. A lot of rhetoric around education and technology has hastened the process, and in that process, has cheated students and educators out of the real potential for technological change in how learning and scholarship can happen. What Thomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has to tell us is that these quantum leaps in techno-scientific inventions  (or revolutions) is to push society not forward in some linear trajectory of “progress” but out of one epistemic paradigm into another. The mental model by which we come to know the world, in a sense, is radically different. As such, simply copy-pasting your five paragraph essay into a WordPress blog does not a Digital Humanities project make. What McGann was trying to get across, from what I can gather, is that hypertextuality is a different technology rooted in the capacity for a different form of scholarship that is divorced from the logic of codex technology. What this may look like is something that I am personally still in the process of exploring and grappling with in my own thinking and work. As students and scholars conducting research and writing essays, I am very interested in your thoughts on how we could leverage hypertextuality in teaching and learning?

On the Weinberg piece that we almost read, I see a lot of potential for teaching historical thinking through hypertextuality. In the Spring 2015 I piloted a course on the Great Migration that utilized counter-narratives as a critical lens through which to understand contemporary issues and experiences viz-a-viz exploring the conditions that the black community faced at the abolishment of slavery. Specifically, examining the mental framework of the South as blacks and whites alike tried to navigate the social, cultural, economic and political/legal implications of a newly-freed population became the focus of reading historical narratives. The counter-ness of the counter-narrative came from juxtaposing popular stereotypes and issues in contemporary society with developments in race relations during the 60-year movement. In addition, the question of historical texts and narratives was breaded throughout our class discussions. We talked about what we read, but we also talked about coming to this information for the first time (for the majority of the class who were youth of color), we talked about how history was taught in their personal experiences at school, and we talked about the ways that narratives shape our worldview. What also emerged was musing on the concept of a leaderless movements, and an African-American/Black History that did not include the major figures (MLK, Malcon X) etc, but rather focused in the daily experiences of regular folk as they grappled with whether to stay or leave, and navigated a world that offered both potential for progress and more fear. Hypertextuality offers a way of writing about experiences that could potentially braid in several narratives (in a similar way to parallel text), offer a critical annotation through a close and reflexive process of historical reading/thinking, and to embed beneath the text more and more information and ideas, as though the practice of reading, writing and research involves mining iterations of the truth and layers of voices that provide a more complex, nuanced and probably messy “text”. My second provocation the is how does historical thinking matter to you, and in what ways can you see hypertextuality playing a role in your work.

To re-cap: Two provocations-

  1. As students and scholars conducting research and writing essays, I am very interested in your thoughts on how we could leverage hypertextuality in teaching and learning?
  2. How does historical thinking matter to you, and in what ways can you see hypertextuality playing a role in your work.