[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

nick knouf nak44 at cornell.edu
Thu Jun 11 00:53:41 UTC 2009

Dear iDC members,

Coming late to the game, due to guest moderating -empyre- this week on
participatory art, new media, and the archival trace, Trebor has asked
me to introduce myself and post some thoughts about the conference
topic.  I've posted on iDC off and on over the years, so apologies for
any repeats.  I am currently a graduate student in information science
at Cornell University.  My work is in the interstitial spaces around
information science, digital art, critical theory, and science and
technology studies.  Ongoing projects include MAICgregator
(http://maicgregator.org), a Firefox extension that aggregates
information about the military-academic-industrial complex; Fluid Nexus
(http://fluidnexus.net), a mobile phone messaging application designed
for activists and relief workers that operates independent of a
centralized network; and sound works that encourage the expression of
the unspeakable.

I'm encouraged by the discussion that I've seen so far that not only
critiques the status of digital or so-called "immaterial" labor, but
also suggests how we might move from critique into action.  As the
MAICgregator project intimates, I am deeply worried about labor within
the university context.  Colleagues of mine see no problems with the
mixing of their studies and summer work for Google, Microsoft, IBM, HP
or others.  In fact, this past year at CHI, the main conference for
those working in human-computer interaction, there were advertisements
that touted "HP Labs India: Innovating for HP's Next Billion Customers".
 When I asked the audience of about 50 at my presentation whether they
saw anything wrong with this quote, only a couple hands were raised.
Industry presents at the same level as academia at these conferences,
conferences, mind you, that you are required to present at if you hope
for a faculty job in this field.  (Nevermind the high cost of the
conference ($760 early registration for faculty members, $350 for
students), effectively making this a "pay-to-publish" field, since
conference proceedings cover the bulk of academic publications, not
journal articles or author monographs.)  This relationship between
academia, industry, and the military is of course not new and has been
documented by many including Jean-Francois Lyotard, Henry Giroux,
Jennifer Washburn, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Marc Bousquet, among many
others.  Nevertheless there is something quite pernicious when we see at
the major universities faculty and students---in both engineering _and_
the arts---using proprietary software and expensive hardware (read:
iPhones and iPod Touches) as part of their "research", rather than
considering instead how we might be able to reconfigure existing technology.

Of course it is not surprising that industry is keen on monetizing the
work of willing faculty and students---it is their fiduciary
responsibility to shareholders.  They cannot act otherwise, or they risk
lawsuits for not upholding their duty to increase shareholder value.
Yet I find it quite disturbing when we valorize corporations such as
Google or Yahoo "as long as [we] can view and publish via Flickr and
YouTube" (as Howard Rheingold wrote).  These are corporations who exist
to create value, and thus they will do some quite heinous things as part
of the "cost of doing business" (a euphemism if there ever was one).
So, for example, Shi Tao can be sent to a Chinese prison due to e-mails
turned over by Yahoo
), one reason why I use FuckFlickr (http://fffff.at/fuckflickr-info/ ).
 Google can censor material in China (see it in action using the China
Channel Plugin: http://www.chinachannel.hk/ ) because they "have to" in
order to do business there.  Google can also decide that they will
retain search data for an inordinate amount of time, one reason why I
use Scroogle (http://www.scroogle.org/ ).  And we can be sure to present
many others.  (Consider the fact that computer companies are now being
forced to install filtering software on all machines in China; we will
see how easily their present protests get turned into arguments that
they were just "following the law".)  While indeed we each use many of
these services daily, I for one would not be sad if they went away; I'd
find something else to do with my time, something else to use, just like
we always have done forever.   In fact, I look forward to the day when
Google serves up its last search result---because that day will indeed
come, no matter how unlikely it appears now.  What worries me most about
attitudes towards digital labor that would accept the practices of these
companies (and many, many, many, many more) as just the "cost of doing
business" is that it effaces entirely the ethical dimension, puts it to
the side, and asks us to suspend judgment.  It assumes that the only way
we can pass ethical judgment is from a state of pure non-implication, as
if that state ever existed.  I hope that the conference allows us to
reactivate the ethical discussions that are vitally (always) needed, no
matter how difficult they might be, no matter how worried we might be
about falling down the relativist rabbit hole.

Nevertheless I am heartened by work of individuals and collectives
across the globe, such as edu-factory and the counter cartographies
collective (3C), who are not only questioning the role of the university
within capitalism but also performing an alternative.  Thus the protests
and occupations at NYU and the New School, however flawed, were
encouraging, as well as the Anomalous Wave throughout Europe.  I am
interested in exploring how other allied groups are working across the
artificial boundaries between universities and their local communities
to examine similar issues and concerns around labor, without falling
into the trap of a presumed consensus and recognizing the inherent
agonism in any encounter with others.  (On this issue, see the excellent
article in the recent collection _Constituent Imagination: Militant
Investigations, Collective Theorization_ (edited by Stevphen Shukaitis
and David Graeber) by Colectivo Situaciones regarding their
relationships with Precarias de la Deriva and the difficulty of working
across groups with widely varying modes of communication.)  I would like
to expand this to include questions of cultural production within/beyond
the university context, to better understand how we might develop new
alternatives and means of working that might, using Ned Rossiter's term,
create sustainable "organized networks".  (Such as the ongoing workshops
put on by Medialab-Prado, headquartered in Madrid, Spain.)  I hope that
the discussion on this list, as well as the conference itself, allows us
to create new configurations of people and abilities that allow us to
both respond to the present "crisis" as well as configure our own future.


nick knouf

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