Monday
May022011

The open scholarship full disclosure initiative: a subversive proposal

In 1994 the cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad made a self-professed ‘subversive proposal’.  He suggested that those authors who did not want to sell their writing for profit – a category Harnad saw most scientists and scholars falling into - should make copies of their work freely available in globally accessible online archives. Doing so would enable those authors to both publish their research and make it available to be read all over the world by its intended audience of fellow scientists and scholars. It would also remove one of the chief barriers otherwise erected between those authors and their prospective readers: namely the price-tag that had been placed on their writing in the era of ink-on-paper publication to cover the costs of its reproduction. Some sense of the impact of Harnad’s proposal can be gained from the fact that, although Peter Suber is able to begin his ‘Timeline of the Open Access Movement’ as early as 1966, it’s Harnad’s ‘subversive’ intervention from 1994 that is identified as the occasion when self-archiving was first proposed.  

From there the idea eventually developed into what is today known as Green Open Access. This is where authors do make their research - which may or may not have already been published elsewhere in a journal or with a publisher of the author’s own choosing – available online for free to anyone with access to the Internet simply by self-archiving digital copies of it in central, subject or institutionally-based online repositories, such as arXiv or PubMed Central. Indeed, such is the general acceptance of Harnad’s subversive proposal and the Green Road to open access that on March 11, 2009 US President Barack Obama signed into law a bill making permanent the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy. This mandates that any research funded by the NIH is deposited in PubMed Central within a year of its publication.

Toward the end of this piece I’m going to make a proposal of my own. It’s intended as a modest supplement to that of Harnad, yet I believe it has the potential to be even more subversive. Among other things, it has radical implications for the very system that’s used to provide quality control when it comes to publishing, not just in open access repositories and online journals (the latter being Gold Open Access as opposed to the Green of self-archiving), but in paper journals too. I’m referring to peer review and editing, particularly by established journals of known quality. However, before I make this second subversive proposal – which I’m provisionally calling the ‘Open Scholarship Full Disclosure Initiative’ – I want to say something about where the motivation for it comes from. While it’s partly inspired by Harnad, it’s influenced more directly by two recent articles: a piece of journalism by Ben Goldacre on the relationship between funding source, impact factor and journal prestige in medical research; and an academic essay on cultural studies and the politics of journal publishing by Ted Striphas.

Goldacre is a medical doctor who writes the Bad Science column in the UK newspaper The Guardian. On February 14, 2009 he published an item titled ‘Funding and Findings: The Impact Factor’. In it Goldacre discusses a study in the British Medical Journal he describes as being ‘quietly one of the most subversive pieces of research ever printed’.  I think he may be right. The research in question, by Tom Jefferson et al., examined every study of the influenza vaccine. Specifically, it used statistics and quantitative analysis to investigate whether the source of funding ‘affected the quality of a study, the accuracy of its summary, and the eminence of the journal in which it was published’. According to Goldacre it’s common knowledge that, when it comes to research in medicine, industry-funded studies are ‘more likely to give a positive result for the sponsors' drug'. This was certainly found to be the case here with regard to the research on influenza vaccines. But by looking at where studies are published, what this new research by Tom Jefferson and his colleagues revealed is that the impact factor for industry-funded studies is more than twice that of government-funded studies; and that studies sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry are far more likely to get into the larger, more prestigious journals of supposedly known quality than studies sponsored by the government.

When it comes to the journal impact factor – i.e., how often, on average, research in a given journal is subsequently cited in other research publications according to the ISI Web of Science database - the average for the 92 studies funded by government that were looked at was 3.74, while for the 52 studies with partial or total industry funding it was a much more significant 8.78; and this despite the fact that there was no difference between the two in terms of ‘methodological rigour, or quality’, or ‘where people submit their articles’. This leads Goldacre to conclude that ‘an unkind commentator’ might put forward at least one reason why, for all the supposed rigour of the academic editing and peer-review system of quality control, industry trials might be more successful with their submissions to journals which have higher impact figures and which, as a consequence, are considered to be the ones publishing the best quality articles: it’s quite simply because many ‘journals are businesses, run by very huge international corporations, and they rely on advertising revenue from industry, but also on the phenomenal profits generated by selling glossy “reprints” of studies, and nicely presented translations, which drug reps around the world can then use'.

Some of the issues raised in Goldacre’s short piece on funding sources and their relation to impact factor and the perceived prestige of journals tally with the work of a cultural studies scholar from Indiana University in the US, Ted Striphas. Striphas has undertaken some extremely interesting research into the political economy of academic journal publishing in general, and that of cultural studies’ journals in particular. In his text, ‘Acknowledged Goods’, Striphas shows how cultural studies has something of a blind spot when it comes to many of the material conditions and practices which make it possible as a field.   Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than with regard to the relationship between cultural studies and the academic book and journal publishing industries – especially as those industries have become increasingly consolidated and profit-intensive in recent the years. Striphas provides the example of Taylor and Francis/Informa, whose cultural studies list currently features over 70 journals. Among them are some of the most highly respected titles in the field, including Cultural Studies, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Feminist Media Studies, and Parallax. And yet it might come as something of a shock to many of those in cultural studies - especially those who have published in their journals or peer-reviewed manuscripts for them - to learn that:

One of Informa’s subsidiaries, Adam Smith Conferences... specializes in organizing events designed to open the former Soviet republics to private investment. Other divisions of the company provide information, consulting, training, and strategic planning services to major international agricultural, banking, insurance, investment, pharmaceutical, and telecommunications corporations, in addition to government agencies. Take Robbins-Gioia, for instance. The United States Army recently tapped this Informa subsidiary during an overhaul of its command and control infrastructure. The firm was brought in to assess how well the Army had achieved its goal of ‘battlefield digitization’. The United States Air Force, meanwhile, tapped Robbins- Gioia when it needed help improving its fleet management systems for U-2 spy planes. (Striphas)


It may seem unfair to single cultural studies out like this. After all, it’s not the only field to suffer from something of a blind spot when it comes to the politics of its own publishing practices. Far from it. What makes the existence of such a blind spot so noteworthy in this particular instance is that cultural studies prides itself on being a ‘serious’ political project, as one of its most influential exponents, Stuart Hall, puts it.   According to Hall, the political cultural studies intellectual has a responsibility to ‘know more’ than those on the other side; to ‘really know, not just pretend to know, not just to have the facility of knowledge, but to know deeply and profoundly’.  If so, then as far as Striphas is concerned, this injunction quite simply has to include knowing more about ‘the formidable network of social, economic, legal, and infrastructural linkages to the publishing industry that sustains’ cultural studies and its politically engaged intellectuals, and shapes the conditions in which their knowledge and research ‘can – and increasingly cannot – circulate’.  This is information that can be ignored only at the cost of the integrity of cultural studies’ politics, he insists.

As someone who identifies with cultural studies to a large extent,  I’ve been concerned for some time now with the way in which many cultural studies intellectuals, who are otherwise keen to wear their political commitment on their sleeves, are noticeably less keen when it comes to interrogating their own politico-institutional practices.  The marked lack of interest the majority of those in the field have shown in making their research and publications available open access is a case in point.

Why, given the often overtly radical nature of the content of their work, have those in cultural studies been so reluctant to challenge what John Willinsky describes as the ‘complacent and comfortable habits of scholarly publishing’ in this way?  After all, by making the research literature freely available to researchers, teachers, students, union organisers, NGOs, political activists, protest groups, public libraries, community centres and the wider public alike, on a worldwide basis, open access is frequently positioned as having the potential to break down some of the barriers between the institution of the university and the rest of society, as well as between countries in the so-called ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and ‘undeveloped’ worlds. These are all objectives most of those who identify with cultural studies as a political project would presumably be in favour of, given that just as important as knowing more than the other side, according to Stuart Hall, is the political intellectual’s responsibility to transmit ‘those ideas, that knowledge’, to others.  Yet while other movements and practices associated with digital culture and the open dissemination of knowledge and information, such as Creative Commons, free software, open source and peer-to-peer file-sharing, have often been regarded from a cultural studies perspective as providing models for new regimes of culture, new kinds of networked institutions, and even for new forms of social and political organisation, the open access movement has had comparatively little impact on the field to date.

This is all the more surprising when one considers that compared to, say, the task of constructing an ‘open source society’ or forging an organic connection with a larger emerging historical movement, making copies of their research and publications freely available in globally accessible online repositories or journals is something that is relatively easy for the majority of those in cultural studies to actually bring about. Why, then, have those in the sciences, such as Stevan Harnad, proved to be the more apparently progressive, institutionally, socially and politically, in this respect?

Interestingly, Goldacre and Striphas both end their articles with suggestions for future action. For Goldacre, the ideal would be for all drugs research to be made ‘commercially separate from manufacturing and retailing’ and for all journals to be ‘open and free’. In the meantime, as academics are already ‘obliged to declare all significant drug company funding on all academic articles’, he follows Jefferson et al. in proposing that ‘since their decisions are so hugely influential’, all editors and publishers should be asked to ‘post all their sources of income, and all the money related to the running of their journal’, once a year.  Striphas, in turn, emphasizes the importance of delving below the surface to discover just who the ‘parents and siblings’ of academic journal publishers are, and what other activities they are involved in. To push the point home he cites as a final example Reed Elsevier, one of the main journal publishers in both the ‘hard’ and social sciences. Until as recently as 2007, Reed Elsevier was facilitating the global arms trade through its event planning arm, Reed Exhibitions, who ‘staged the annual Defense Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) event in the London Docklands, and similar events worldwide’. Indeed, Elsevier was motivated to distance itself from the arms trade only after organized action on the part of ‘Campaign Against Arms Trade, along with groups of scholars associated with The Lancet, Political Geography, and other Elsevier journals’.  This leads Striphas to suggest that, by working collectively, it may be possible to put pressure on other academic journal publishers to change their practices, too, no matter how large they may be.

So, responding to both the political and pragmatic undertones of these two pieces, my own ‘subversive proposal’ is as follows: that we, as academics, authors, editors, librarians, publishers and so on - not just in medicine and cultural studies, but in the wider arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences - come together to establish an initiative whereby all academic editors and publishers are indeed asked to make freely available, on an annual basis, details of both their sources of income and funding, and of all the sources of financial income and support pertaining to the journals they run. Furthermore, as part of this initiative, I propose we set up an equivalent directory to the DOAJ and SHERPA/RoMEO directories  - only in this case documenting all these various sources of income and support, together with information as to who the owners of the different academic journals in our respective fields are and, just as importantly, the other divisions, subsidiaries and activities of their various companies, organisations, institutions and associations.

Let me quickly stress that I’m not suggesting all corporately owned journals are the politically co-opted tools of global capitalism, while smaller, independently scholar-produced journals, or those published on a non-profit basis by university presses, learned societies and scholarly associations somehow escape all this. None of this emerges out of a sense of moralism on my part. Some of my best friends are the editors of journals published by large, for-profit, multinational presses, and I am myself on the editorial board of a number of Taylor and Francis journals. It’s not therefore my intention to imply that anyone can be situated sufficiently outside of the forces of global capital to be completely politically and ethically ‘pure’ in this respect. (No one is innocent, as the Sex Pistols used to say.) 

Nevertheless, I believe such a campaign for ‘full-disclosure’ would be of huge assistance in furnishing scholars and researchers in all areas, the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences, with the knowledge that will enable them to make responsible political and ethical decisions as to who they want to publish with or undertake peer review for - and thus who they want to give their free labour to. For instance, as a result of this initiative and the information obtained some scholars may take a decision not to subscribe to, publish in, edit, peer review manuscripts or otherwise work for academic journals owned by multinationals involved in supporting the military; or journals that have high library subscription charges;   or indeed journals that refuse to endorse, as a bare minimum, the self-archiving by authors of the refereed and accepted final drafts of their articles in institutional open access repositories. (Or they may of course decide that none of these issues are of a particular concern to them and continue with their editorial and peer-review activities as before.)

At the very least, I believe that such an ‘Open Scholarship Full Disclosure Initiative’ would encourage both the editors and publishers of journals, and the owners of academic journal publishers and their siblings and subsidiaries, to behave more responsibly in political and ethical terms. What’s more, it would be capable of having an impact even if the editors and publishers of the larger more established and prominent journals refused to play ball and provide full disclosure themselves. I say this for a number of reasons: because such an initiative would raise awareness of the politics of journal and publisher funding and ownership more generally, regardless; because those editors and publishers who don't provide full disclosure would risk appearing as if they have something to hide; and because it would also hopefully have the effect of encouraging more scholars to conduct research into where the funding of such journals comes from, who their parent companies, institutions and organisations are, and what other activities they are involved in and connected to, and to make the results of their research widely known.

It’s also worth emphasising that such an initiative would not require a huge amount of time and effort on our collective part. After all, ‘Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa... publish about 6,000 journals between them.’ So to cover 6,000 journals, or somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of all peer-reviewed journals, we only need to research and disclose details of four corporations!  That’s one thing we have to thank the processes of conglomeration and consolidation in the academic journal publishing industry for at least.


(The above text first appeared in Against the Grain, June, 2009)


Thursday
Jan272011

On the limits of openness VI: has critical theory run out of time for data-driven scholarship?

Something that is particularly noticeable about many instances of this turn to data-driven scholarship - especially after decades when the humanities have been heavily marked by a variety of critical theories: Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, post-colonialism, post-Marxism - is just how difficult they find it to understand computing and the digital as anything more than tools and techniques, and thus how naive and lacking in meaningful critique they often are (Higgen).  Of course, this (at times explicit) repudiation of criticality could be viewed as part of what makes certain aspects of the digital humanities so intriguing at the moment. Exponents of the computational turn are precisely not making what I have elsewhere characterised as the anti-political gesture of conforming to accepted (and frequently moralistic) conceptions of politics that have been decided in advance, including those which see it only in terms of power, ideology, race, gender, class, sexuality, ecology, affect and so forth. They are responding to what is perceived as a fundamentally new cultural situation, and the challenge it represents to our traditional methods of studying culture, by avoiding such conventional gestures, and experimenting with the development of fresh methods and approaches for the humanities instead.

In a series of posts on his Found History blog, Tom Scheinfeldt, Managing Director at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, positions such scholarship very much in terms of a shift from a concern with theory and ideology to a concern with methodology:

I believe... we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work... as a digital historian, I traffic much less in new theories than in new methods. The new technology of the Internet has shifted the work of a rapidly growing number of scholars away from thinking big thoughts to forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work which will enable us to harness the still unwieldy, but obviously game-changing, information technologies now sitting on our desktops and in our pockets.

In this respect there may well be a degree of ‘relief in having escaped the culture wars of the 1980s’ - for those in the US especially - as a result of this move ‘into the space of methodological work’ (Croxall) and what Scheinfeldt reportedly dubs ‘the post-theoretical age’.  The problem is, without such reflexive critical thinking and theories many of those whose work forms part of this computational turn find it difficult to articulate exactly what the point of what they are doing is, as Scheinfeldt readily acknowledges.

Witness one of the projects I mentioned earlier: the attempt by Dan Cohen and Fred Gibb to text-mine all the books published in English in the Victorian age (or at least those digitized by Google).   Among other things, this allows Cohen and Gibb to show that use of the word ‘revolution’ in book titles of the period spiked around ‘the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848’. But what argument is it that they are trying to make with this? What is it we are able to learn as a result of this use of computational power on their part that we didn’t know already and couldn’t have discovered without it? 

Elsewhere, in a response to Cohen and Gibb’s project, Scheinfeldt suggests that the problem of theory, or the lack of it, may actually be a matter of scale and timing:

It expects something of the scale of humanities scholarship which I’m not sure is true anymore: that a single scholar—nay, every scholar—working alone will, over the course of his or her lifetime ... make a fundamental theoretical advance to the field.

Increasingly, this expectation is something peculiar to the humanities.  ...it required the work of a generation of mathematicians and observational astronomers, gainfully employed, to enable the eventual “discovery” of Neptune… Since the scientific revolution, most theoretical advances play out over generations, not single careers. We don’t expect all of our physics graduate students to make fundamental theoretical breakthroughs or claims about the nature of quantum mechanics, for example. There is just too much lab work to be done and data to analyzed for each person to be pointed at the end point. That work is valued for the incremental contribution to the generational research agenda that it is.

Yet notice how theory is again being marginalized in favour of an emphasis on  STM subjects, and the adoption of expectations and approaches associated with mathematicians and astronomers in particular.

This not to deny the importance of experimenting with the new kinds of knowledge, tools, methods, materials and modes of work and thinking digital media technologies create and make possible, in order to bring new forms of Foucauldian dispositifs, what Bernard Steigler calls hypomnémata (i.e. mnemonics, what Plato referred to as pharmaka, both poisons and cures), or what I am trying to think here in terms of media gifts, into play.  And I would potentially include in this process of experimentation techniques and methodologies drawn from computer science and other related fields such as information visualisation, data mining and so forth. Yes, of course, it is quite possible that in the future ‘people will use this data in ways we can’t even imagine yet’, both singularly and collaboratively (Stowell).  Still, there is something intriguing about the way in which many defenders of the turn toward computational tools and methods in the humanities evoke a sense of time in relation to theory.

Take the argument that critical and self-reflexive theoretical questions about the use of digital tools and data-led methodologies should be deferred for the time being, lest they have the effect of strangling at birth what could turn out to be a very different form of humanities research before it has had a chance to properly develop and take shape. Viewed in isolation, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to decide whether this particular form of ‘limitless' postponement is serving as an alibi for a naive and rather superficial  form of scholarship; or whether it is indeed acting as a responsible, political or ethical opening to the (difference, heterogeneity and incalculability of the) future, including the future of the humanities. After all, the suggestion is that now is ‘not the right time’ to be making any such decision or judgement, since we cannot ‘yet’ know how humanists will ‘eventually’ come to use these tools and data, and thus what data-driven scholarship may or may not turn out to be capable of, critically, politically, theoretically.

This argument would be more convincing as a responsible, political or ethical call to leave the question of the use of digital tools and data-led methodologies in the humanities open if it were the only sense in which time was evoked in relation to theory in this context. Significantly, however, it is not. Advocates for the computational turn do so in a number of other and often competing senses too. These include:

a) that the time of theory is over, in the sense a particular historical period or moment has now ended (e.g. that of the culture wars of the 1980s);

b) that the time for theory is over, in the sense it is now the time for methodology;

c) and that the time to return to theory or for theory to (re-)emerge in some new, unpredictable form which represents a fundamental breakthrough or advance, although possibly on its way, has not arrived yet, and cannot necessarily be expected to do so for some time, given that ‘most theoretical advances play out over generations, not single careers’.

All of which puts a very different inflection on the view of theoretical critique as being at best inappropriate, and at worst harmful to data-driven scholarship. Even a brief glance at the history of theory’s reception in the English-speaking world reveals that those who announce that its time has not yet come, or is already over, that theory is in decline or even dead, and that we now live in a post-theoretical era, are merely endeavouring to keep it at a (temporal) distance. Rather than having to ask rigorous, critical and self-reflexive questions about their own practices and their justifications for them, those who position their work as being either pre- or post-theory are almost invariably doing so because it allows them to continue with their own preferred techniques and methodologies for study culture relatively uncontested. Placed in this wider context, far from helping to keep the question concerning the use of digital tools and data-led methodologies in the humanities open (or having anything particularly interesting to say about theory), the rejection of critical-intellectual ideas as untimely can be seen as moralizing and conservative.

In saying this I am reiterating an argument made by Wendy Brown in the sphere of political theory. Yet can a similar case not be made with regard to the computational turn in the humanities, to the effect that the ‘rebuff of critical theory as untimely provides the core matter for the affirmative case for it’? Theory is vital from this point of view, not for conforming to accepted conceptions of political critique which see it primarily in terms of power, ideology, race, gender, class, sexuality, ecology, affect and so forth, or for sustaining conventional methods of studying culture that may no longer be appropriate to the networked nature of 21st century post-industrial society. Theory is vital ‘to contest the very sense of time invoked to declare critique untimely’:


If the charge of untimeliness inevitably also fixes time, then disrupting this fixity is crucial to keeping the times from closing in on us. It is a way of reclaiming the present from the conservative hold on it that is borne by the charge of untimeliness.

To insist on the value of untimely political critique is not, then, to refuse the problem of time and timing in politics but rather to contest settled accounts of what time is, what the times are, and what political tempo and temporality we should hew to in political life. 

(Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005) p.4)

Wednesday
Jan122011

On the limits of openness V: there are no digital humanities

Let’s bracket the many questions that can be raised for Deleuze’s thesis on the societies of control (some of which can also be raised for Lyotard’s account of the postmodern condition), and the reasons it has been taken up and used so readily within the contemporary social sciences, and social theory especially.  For the time being, let us pursue a little further the hypothesis that the externalization of knowledge onto computers, databases, servers and the cloud is involved in the constitution of a different form of both society and human subject. 

To what extent do such developments cast the so-called computational turn in the humanities in a rather different light to the celebratory data-fetishism that has come to dominate this rapidly emerging field of late? Is the direct, practical use of techniques and methodologies drawn from computer science and fields related to it here too helping to produce a major alteration in the status and nature of knowledge, and indeed the human subject? I’m thinking not just of the use of tools such as Anthologize,  Delicious, Juxta, Mendeley, Pliny, Prezi and Zotero to structure and disseminate scholarship and learning in the humanities, but also of the generation of dynamic maps of large humanities data sets, and employment of algorithmic techniques to search for and identify patterns in literary, cultural and filmic texts,  as well as the way in which the interactive nature of much digital technology is enabling user data regarding people’s creative activities with this media to be captured, mined and analyzed by humanities scholars.

To be sure, in what seems to be almost the reverse of the situation we saw Lyotard describe, many of those in the humanities - including some of the field’s most radical thinkers - do now appear to be looking increasingly to science (and technology and mathematics) to provide their research with a degree of legitimacy. Witness Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s appeal to ‘the history of modern chemistry on the one hand, and the most recent cognitive theories on the other’, for confirmation of the Compositionist philosophical hypothesis in his 2009 book, The Soul at Work: ‘There is no object, no existent, and no person: only aggregates, temporary atomic compositions, figures that the human eye perceives as stable but that are indeed mutational, transient, frayed and indefinable’. It is this hypothesis, derived from Democritus, that Bifo sees as underpinning the methods of both the Schizoanalysis of Deleuze and Guattari, and the Italian Autonomist theory, on which his own Compositionist philosophy is based. It is interesting however that Bifo should now feel the need to turn, albeit briefly and almost in passing, to science to underpin and confirm it.

Can this turn toward the sciences (if there has indeed been such a turn, which is by no means certain) be regarded as a response on the part of the humanities to the perceived lack of credibility, if not obsolescence, of their metanarratives of legitimation: the life of the spirit and the Enlightenment, but also Marxism, psychoanalysis and so forth? Indeed, are the sciences today to be regarded as answering many humanities questions more convincingly than the humanities themselves?

While ideas of this kind appear just that little bit too neat and symmetrical to be entirely convincing, this so-called ‘scientific turn’ in the humanities has been attributed by some to a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis regarded as having been brought about, if not by the lack of credibility of the humanities’ metanarratives of legitimation exactly, then at least in part by the ‘imperious attitude’ of the sciences. This attitude has led the latter to colonize the humanists’ space in the form of biomedicine, neuroscience, theories of cognition and so on.  Is the turn toward computing just the latest manifestation of, and response to, this crisis of confidence in the humanities?

Can we go even further and ask: is it evidence that certain parts of the humanities are attempting to increase their connection to society; and to the instrumentality and functionality of society especially? Can it merely be a coincidence that such a turn toward computing is gaining momentum at a time when the likes of the UK government is emphasizing the importance of the STMs and withdrawing support and funding for the humanities? Or is one of the reasons all this is happening now because the humanities, like the sciences themselves, are under pressure from government, business, management, industry and increasingly the media to prove they provide value for money in instrumental, functional, performative terms? (Is the interest in computing a strategic decision on the part of some of those in the humanities? As the project of Cohen and Gibb shows, one can get funding from the likes of Google.  In fact, ‘last summer Google awarded $1 million to professors doing digital humanities research’.) 

To what extent, then, is the take up of practical techniques and approaches from computing science providing some areas of the humanities with a means of defending themselves in an era of global economic crisis and severe cuts to higher education, through the transformation of their knowledge and learning into quantities of information - deliverables? Following Federica Frabetti, can we even position the computational turn as an event created precisely to justify such a move on the part of certain elements within the humanities?  And does this mean that, if we don’t simply want to go along with the current movement away from what remains resistant to a general culture of measurement and calculation, and toward a concern to legitimate power and control by optimizing the system’s efficiency, we would be better off using a different term other than ‘digital humanities’? After all, as Frabetti points out, the idea of a computational turn implies that the humanities, thanks to the development of a new generation of powerful computers and digital tools, have somehow become digital, or are in the process of becoming digital, or at least coming to terms with the digital and computing.  Yet what I am attempting to show here by drawing on the philosophy of Lyotard and others, is that the digital is not something that can now be added to the humanities - for the simple reason that the (supposedly pre-digital) humanities can be seen to have had an understanding of, and engagement with, computing and the digital for some time now.


Friday
Dec172010

On the limits of openness IV: why Facebook is not a factory (even though it profits from the exploitation of labour)

Could the move toward supplying ever more research, information and data online for free on an open basis be part of the development of what Gilles Deleuze called a control society?  Here we are no longer subject primarily to those closed, disciplinary modes of power Michel Foucault traced historically in Discipline and Punish, and which govern by means of a dispersed and decentralized ensemble of institutions, instruments, techniques and procedures that operate to produce and regulate subjectivity via the interiorization of the law.  Such disciplinary societies are characterized by vast closed environments - the family, school, barracks, factory and, depending on circumstances, the hospital - each with their own laws, through which the individual ceaselessly passes, one to the other. As Deleuze makes clear in his 'Postscript on the Societies of Control', these disciplinary environments or enclaves are about enclosure, confinement, surveillance: their project is to ‘concentrate’, ‘distribute in space’, ‘order in time’, ‘organise production’, ‘administer life’, ‘compose a productive force within the dimension of space-time whose effect will be greater than the sum of its component forces’ . Above all, it is the prison which serves as the ‘analogical model’ for the closed system of disciplinary societies and the manner in which it produces and organizes subjectivity. Hence Foucault’s question in Discipline and Punish: ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’ 

For Deleuze, disciplinary societies reached their peak at the beginning of the 20th century. His contention is that, just as Foucault saw disciplinary societies as having superseded ‘societies of sovereignty’ from the late eighteenth century onwards so, in a process that has accelerated after WWII, social organisation is ceasing to be disciplinary, if it has not happened already.  To an extent that all the closed spaces associated with disciplinary societies are in now crisis: the family is in crisis, the health service is in crisis, the factory system is in crisis.

These disciplinary societies are in the process of being replaced by societies of control. The latter are our ‘immediate future’, Deleuze writes, and contain extremely rapid, free-floating forms of ‘continuous control and instant communication’, as he puts it in 'Control and Becoming', that operate in environments and spaces that are much more fluid and open.  Witness, to provide some 21st century examples, the way in which increases in computer processing capacity and the associated availability of large, complex data sets have enabled a degree of data mining and pattern recognition to be achieved that makes it possible to automatically anticipate and predict – and thus control, albeit in a comparatively open way – actions on the part of the subject, even before they actually take place. Think of Google News aggregating ‘headlines from news sources worldwide’, grouping  similar stories together and displaying them ‘according to each reader's personalized interests’; Last.fm employing scrobbling software to detail the listening habits of users and provide them with personalized selections of music based on their previous listening history;  or the European Media Monitor system of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center which ‘counts the number of stories on a given topic and looks for the names of people and places to create geotagged "clusters" for given events, like food riots in Haiti or political unrest in Zimbabwe. Burgeoning clusters and increasing numbers of stories indicate a topic of growing importance or severity.’

Whereas the enclaves of disciplinary societies – the family, school, factory and so on - are like different moulds or castings into which individuals are placed at different times and which shape and produce their subjectivity that way, the mechanisms of the societies of control are ‘a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other’. Instead of the prison or factory of disciplinary societies, what we have now is the corporation of the control societies which is likened to a spirit or gas:

The factory constituted individuals as a single body to the double advantage of the boss who surveyed each element within the mass and the unions who mobilized a mass resistance; but the corporation constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another [when it comes to negotiating for a higher salary, for example, according to the  modulating principle of individual performance and merit] and runs through each, dividing each within. 

(Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

Interestingly, given some of the things I wrote earlier about knowledge and learning, this is also the case with the School. Here, too, perpetual training now reigns by means of the introduction of an audit culture, evaluation forms, league-tables, and other forms of monitoring and micro-management; with continuous control, including continuous assessment, training and staff development, replacing the examination.

What’s more, just as the School has been handed over to the corporation in Deleuze’s account so now, I would maintain, has the University. The fundamental transformation in the way universities in England are viewed that has recently been proposed by the Labour government-commissioned Browne Report, and imposed by the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition, provides only the latest evidence of this. It is a shift from thinking of the university as a public good financed mainly from public funds, to treating it as a ‘lightly regulated market’ (Collini). A market moreover in which consumer demand, in the form of the choices of individual students over where and what to study, reigns supreme when it comes to deciding where the funding goes, and thus what is offered by competing ‘service providers (i.e. universities)’, which are now required to operate as businesses in order to ‘produce the most effective mix of skills to meet business needs’.  Like the School, the University is thus ‘becoming less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as another closed site’  in a process of continuous control that is never-ending. For nothing is left alone for long in a control-based system.  While ‘in the disciplinary societies one was always starting again’, as the individual moved from school, to university, to the factory, in societies of control one can never finish anything, ‘the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation’.

It follows that, despite what some of the banners and slogans of those protesting against the marketisation of the higher education system and increase in tuition fees in England have claimed, the contemporary university is not best understood as a factory. Nor, to take another example, is Facebook,  for all the latter’s harnessing of the free labour power generated by social cooperation (Scholz). Facebook’s fluid and relatively open environment, together with its own origins (like Google) in the contemporary university – Facebook was famously invented by a Harvard undergraduate, Mark Zuckerberg - means that it, too, is far closer to Deleuze’s account of the corporation that has replaced the factory in a control society. And, like the university, Facebook can be seen as part of the corresponding reconfiguration of the individual in terms of the dividual and of the mass in terms of coded data that is produced to be controlled:

The disciplinary societies have two poles: the signature that designates the individual, and the number or administrative numeration that indicates his or her position within a mass. This is because the disciplines never saw any incompatibility between these two, and because at the same time power individualizes and masses together, that is, constitutes those over whom it exercises power into a body and molds the individuality of each member of that body…. In the societies of control, on the other hand, what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password… The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals’, and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’. 

(Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

 

(An earlier version of some of the material provided above appeared in 'Deleuze’s "Postscript on the Societies of Control"’ (with Clare Birchall and Pete Woodbridge), Culture Machine, 11, 2010.)

Wednesday
Dec012010

On the limits of openness III: open government

The global financial crisis that began in 2008 has only served to add further urgency to the belief of many in the UK that the government should relinquish its copyright on all local, regional and  national data collected with tax payers’ money - most vociferously that relating to Parliamentary expenses and the salaries and bonuses of the highest paid employees in the City of London  - and make it freely and openly available to the public by publishing it online, where it can be searched, mined, mapped, graphed, cross-tabulated, visualized, audited, interpreted, analysed and assessed using software tools.  The Guardian newspaper in the UK has even gone so far as to establish a ‘Free Our Data’ campaign to this end. 

From a liberal democratic perspective, freeing publically funded and acquired data like this, whether it is gathered directly in the process of  census collection, or indirectly as part of other activities (crime, healthcare, transport, schools and accident statistics, for example), helps society to perform more efficiently.  It does so not least by virtue of its ability to play a key role in increasing citizen participation and involvement in democracy, and indeed government,  as access to information such as that needed to intervene in public policy is no longer restricted either to the state or to those corporations, institutions, organizations and individuals who have sufficient money and power to acquire it for themselves. 

But neoliberals also support making the data freely and openly available to businesses and the public. They do so on the grounds that it provides a means of achieving the ‘best possible input/output equation’ (Lyotard). In this respect it is of a piece with the emphasis placed by neoliberalism’s audit culture on accountability, transparency, evaluation, measurement and centralised data management: for instance, in Higher Education regarding the impact of research on society and the economy, league tables, teaching standards, contact hours, as well as student drop-out rates, future employment destinations and earning prospects. From this perspective, such openness and communicative transparency is perceived as ensuring greater value for (tax payers’) money, enabling costs to be distributed more effectively, and increasing choice, innovation, enterprise, creativity, competiveness and accountability (over MPs expenses payments for second homes, moat cleaning, duck islands, trouser presses and the like).

Some libertarians have even gone so far as to argue that there is no need to make difficult policy decisions about what data and information it is right to publish online and what to keep secret at all. (Since Prince Harry is funded from the public purse, do the public have the right to access data regarding his blood group and DNA, so it can be determined once and for all that his father is Prince Charles and not James Hewitt?) Instead, we should work toward the kind of situation the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling proposes. In Shaping Things, his non-fiction book on the future of design, Sterling advocates retaining all data and information, ‘the known, the unknown known, and the unknown unknown’, in large archives and databases equipped with the necessary bandwidth, processing speed and storage capacity, and simply devising search tools and metadata that are accurate, fast and powerful enough to find and access it. 

Yet to have participated in the shift away from questions of truth, justice and what, in The Inhuman, Lyotard places under the headings of ‘heterogeneity,  dissensus, event… the unharmonizable’,  and toward a concern with performativity, measurement and optimising the relation between input and output, one doesn’t need to be a practicing data journalist,  or to have actively contributed to the movements for open access, open data or open government, at all. If you are one of the 1.3 million plus people who have purchased a Kindle, and helped the sale of digital books outpace those of hardbacks on Amazon’s US website, then you have already signed a license agreement allowing the online book retailer - but not academic researchers or the public - to collect, store, mine, analyse and extract economic value from data concerning your personal reading habits for free.  Similarly, if you are one of the 23 million in the UK and 500 million worldwide who use the pass-word protected Facebook social network,  then you are already voluntarily giving your time and labour for free, not only to help its owners, their investors, and other companies make a reputed $1 billion a year from demographically targeted advertising,  but to supply law enforcement agencies with profile data relating to yourself, your family, friends, colleagues and peers they can use in investigations.  Even if you have done neither, you will in all probability have provided the Google technology company with a host of network data and digital traces it can both monetize and give to the police as a result of having mapped your home, digitized your book, or supplied you with free music videos to enjoy via Google Street View,  Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Book Search and YouTube, which Google also owns. And if this shift from open access to Google seems somewhat farfetched, it’s worth remembering that ‘Google has moved to establish, embellish, or replace many core university services such as library databases, search interfaces, and e-mail servers’; and that in fact Universities gave birth to Google,  Google’s PageRank algorithm being little more ‘than an expansion of what is known as citation analysis’.

Obviously, no matter how exciting and enjoyable such activities may be, you don’t have to buy that e-book reader, join that social network or display your personal metrics online, from sexual activity to food consumption, in an attempt to identify patterns in your life – what is called life-tracking or self-tracking.  (Although, actually, a lot of people are quite happy to keep contributing to the networked communities reached by Facebook and YouTube, even though they realise they are being used as free labour and that, in the case of the former, much of what they do cannot be accessed by search engines and web browsers. They just see this as being part of the deal and a reasonable trade-off for the services and experiences that are provided by these companies.) Nevertheless, even if we want to, refusing to take part in this transformation of knowledge and learning into quantities of data, and shift away from questions of what is just and right toward a concern with optimizing the system’s performance, is just not an option for most of us.  It’s not something that can be opted out of by declining to take out a Tesco Club Card, refusing to look for research using Google Scholar, or committing social networking ‘suicide’ and reading print-on-paper books instead.

For one thing, the process of capturing data by means not just of the internet, but a myriad of cameras, sensors and robotic devices, is now so ubiquitous and all pervasive it is impossible to avoid being caught up in it, no matter how rich, knowledgable and technologically proficient you are.  It’s regularly said that there are approximately four million cameras in the UK – one for every 14 people, more than any other country  (and that’s without even mentioning means of gathering data that are reputed to be more intrusive still, such as mobile phone GPS location and automatic vehicle number plate recognition). Yet no one really knows how many CCTV cameras are actually in operation in Britain today. (In fact the above statistic is reputed to have been based merely ‘on a dubious extrapolation from the number of cameras in London’s Putney High Street in 2002’.) 

For another, and as the example of CCTV illustrates, it’s not necessarily a question of actively doing something in this respect. It’s not a matter of positively contributing free labour to the likes of Flickr and YouTube, for instance; or of refusing to do so. Nor is it a case of the separation between work and non-work being harder to maintain nowadays. (Is it work or leisure when you’re writing a status update on Facebook, posting a photograph, ‘friending’ someone, interacting, detailing your ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ regarding the places you eat, the films you watch, the books you read?) As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari pointed out some time ago, ‘surplus labor no longer requires labor... one may furnish surplus-value without doing any work’, or anything that even remotely resembles work for that matter, at least as it is most commonly understood:

In these new conditions, it remains true that all labour involves surplus labor; but surplus labor no longer requires labor. Surplus labor, capitalist organization in its entirety, operates less and less by the striation of space-time corresponding to the physicosocial concept of work. Rather, it is as though human alienation through surplus labor were replaced by a generalized ‘machinic enslavement’, such that one may furnish surplus-value without doing any work (children, the retired, the unemployed, television viewers, etc.). Not only does the user as such tend to become an employee, but capitalism operates less on a quantity of labor than by a complex qualitative process bringing into play modes of transportation, urban models, the media, the entertainment industries, ways of perceiving and feeling – every semiotic system. It is as though, at the outcome of the striation that capitalism was able to carry to an unequalled point of perfection, circulating capital necessarily recreated, reconstituted, a sort of smooth space in which the destiny of human beings is recast. 

(Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone, 1988) p.492)

So as the above two examples show, this transformation of knowledge and information into quantities of data is not something that can actually be opted out of, since it’s not something that is necessarily opted into.

But there is a further and related reason all this data capturing, storing and mining cannot be simply opted out of or resisted via facilities such as Google Dashboard,  which allows people to see all the data Google has about them, or by reporting objectionable content,  as it’s possible to do in the case of Google Street View providing you’re knowledgeable enough. This is that too often such notions of refusal and active resistance (like their counterparts to do with ideas of privacy, civil rights and liberties)  have their basis in a conception of the autonomous, fully-conscious, rational, self-identical and self-present individual humanist subject that these changes in media and technology may be in the process of helping to reconfigure. As a result, they risk overlooking the possibility that computers, databases, archives,  servers, blogs, microblogs, RSS feeds, image and video-sharing, social networking and ‘the cloud’ are not just being used to change the status and nature of knowledge; they may be involved in the constitution of a very different form of human subject too.