Ben Peters: Announcing “555 Questions to Make Digital Keywords Harder”

This post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

I have relatives who joke that our family motto ought to be “if there’s a harder way, we’ll find it.” Like all jokes, this one rings true–at times painfully true. Everyone, of course, seeks convenience and yet we discover so often the opposite—new hardness, challenges, problems—that prove both uncomfortable and useful. Perhaps (if you’ll forgive the perverse suggestion!), critical digital teaching and scholarship should be harder as well.

How should we make digital technology criticism harder? How should critical engagement with tech discourse best carry on? What intellectual challenges does it currently face? What challenges must it face?

If you haven’t already seen it, Sara Watson released her new and significant report on the state of tech criticism last week. I am excited to announce the release of another kind of resource that just might help us keep after such questions—especially in our classrooms.

Please enjoy and share this freely downloadable, 35-page teaching resource now available on the Princeton University Press website:

“555 Questions to Make Digital Keywords Harder: A Teaching Resource for Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture

555 questions image 2Use this document as you will. Many may use it to support preexisting courses; a bold few may organize critical responses to it. The questions that prompted its creation are straightforward: Is it possible to gather enough material to generate and sustain a semester of discussion in undergraduate and graduate courses based on or around the volume Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture? Can this document, paired with that volume, sustain a stand-alone course? Whatever the answers, the document’s purpose is to complicate—not to simplify—keyword analysis for all. Keywords are supposed to be hard.

Each essay in the volume receives four sections of notes. (1) Background music suggests music that could be played in the classroom as students shuffle in and out of class; the music is meant to prompt students’ talking and thinking about the topic at hand. (2) What can we learn from the contributor listing? fosters the vital habit of learning to understand not only the reading content but also the author and his or her background. (3) Exercise suggests an activity to prompt discussion at the start of a lecture or seminar—and to be shared at the end of a class in order to encourage sustained thinking about a given keyword essay in the next class. Students may also be asked to bring prepared lists with them at the start of a class. Finally, (4) discussion prompts are meant to raise one thread of harder questions, not easy answers, for classroom debate. Most of these 555 questions are meant to model conversation pathways that elevate the theoretical stakes of thinking with and in language.

This document is in some ways an antidote to the editorial instinct to consolidate, polish, and finalize the topics raised in this volume. As the editor of this fine volume, I stand convinced that these twenty-five essays constitute state-of-the-art and definitive scholarly approaches to significant keywords. In fact it is because I am convinced of the volume’s virtues that I seek here to test them—and I know no better way to do that than to ask questions that unravel, challenge, and extend the threads of thought woven together in the essays themselves. I am sure I join my fellow contributors in inviting readers, students, and scholars to do the same with these essays.

“555 Questions” is also something of a methodological extension of Williams’s keywords project—that is, these 555 questions are meant not to provoke particular responses so much as, in admittedly sometimes slapdash and zigzag ways, to model the type of language-based discussion that all sensitive users of language may engage in on their own terms. In other words, most of the questions raised in these pages require little more than taking language and its consequences seriously—at least initially. I am sure I have not done so in these pages with any more fertility or force than others; nevertheless, I offer these pages as a working witness to the generative capabilities of language analysis to get along swimmingly with both the real-world empiricism of the social sciences and the textual commitments of the humanities. I have not questioned my own introduction to the volume, which I leave to others, although I’ll leave off with this quote from it:

“No one can escape keywords so deeply woven into the fabric of daily talk. Whatever our motivations we—as editor and contributors—have selected these keywords because we believe the world cannot proceed without them. We invite you to engage and to disagree. It is this ethic of critical inquiry we find most fruitful in Williams. Keyword analysis is bound to reward all those who take up Williams’s unmistakable invitation to all readers: Which words do unavoidably significant work in your life and the world, and why?”

Peters

Digital Keyword: Culture

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Culture is a keyword among keywords for Raymond Williams, who contributed to the founding of cultural studies in the 1960s and 1970s. It is among the most common ways to talk about how we talk. In the essay below, one of Williams’ most careful readers, Ted Striphas, offers a sensitive update to Williams and a wide-ranging intellectual history, describing how culture has coevolved with the digital turn since the end of World War II. No longer an antithesis to technology, culture has recently interpenetrated with the computational (e.g., digital humanities, culturomics, and big-data-driven cultural studies).

In fascinating conversation with Fred Turner’s prototype and Limor Shifman’s meme, in what sense do aspects of modern-day digital culture challenge and confirm Striphas’ observation about the dynamism and adaptability of culture—or, in Williams’ famous phrase, “one of two or three most complicated words in the English language?”

Ted Striphas: Culture

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Digital Keyword: “Algorithm”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the many uses of the recent keyword algorithm, on loan from Arabic. It is at once a trick of the trade for software programmers, a synecdoche standing in for entire informational systems and their stakeholders in popular discourse, a talisman used by those stakeholders for evoking cultural authority and avoiding blame (e.g., to blame “Facebook’s algorithm” can implicitly shift responsibility away from the company that designed it), and shorthand for the broader sociocultural shift toward, as Gillespie argues, “the insertion of procedure into human knowledge and social experience.”

In rich conversation with Ted Striphas’ essay on culture and Stephanie Ricker Schulte’s essay on personalization, Gillespie clarifies and multiplies the ways the current media environment extends a larger bureaucratic revolution central to modernity.

Tarleton Gillespie: Algorithm

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Digital Keyword: “Participation”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Christopher Kelty’s broad-minded and brilliant essay on participation is a welcomed participant in the Digital Keywords volume. It both intellectually broadens as well as analytically tightens the contemporary understanding of that classic concept and near constant discussion of it online. Marshaling together insights ranging from Parmenides to Polanyi, Kelty offers insights such as how participation proves a boundary function, excluding at the same time it constitutes community, democracy, and sharing, three towering keywords covered elsewhere in the volume by Rosemary Avance, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and Nicholas A. John.

If, as Kelty clarifies, to participate is to belong but not always voluntarily, what does it mean to participate in public life?

Christopher Kelty: Participation

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Digital Keyword: “Hacker”

This post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

digital keywords peters jacketGabriella Coleman critiques the stereotype of a hacker as a white male libertarian. In its place, and through a rich history of its varied sources and expressions, she uncovers an underlying hacker commitment to what she calls “craft autonomy,” or the freedom to do technical work that motivates contemporary classes of computing experts. In this, Coleman’s essay engages in productive conversation with Christina Dunbar-Hester’s equally superb essay on geeks, Adam Fish’s mirror, and John Durham Peters’ cloud in the computer classes.

Hackers, among other actors in the technical classes, are not as we may have thought.

Gabriella Coleman: Hacker

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Ben Peters on Keywords: Digital & Analog

This post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

The popular opposition between “analog” and “digital,” to put it in a nutshell, is wrong.

Two essays in the Digital Keywords volume—Jonathan Sterne’s “Analog” and my own “Digital”—frame this fundamental point: the analog and the digital are not a pair (itself a rehearsal of that tired digital binary, 0 and 1). Nor are they necessarily separate. Neither mutually exclusive nor embedded, digital and analog techniques should be understood by and independent of their fundamental non-relation. The digital is no simple realm of artificial and discrete symbols nor is the analog everything made of natural and continuous real waves, and certainly is the analog no opposite of digital. For Sterne, the analog is both narrower than we thought, compatible with, and subsequent to the digital. For me, the digital has roots in the extension of human hands.

When we talk about the digital, the analog, or other technical processes, are we sure we know what we are talking about? What, if anything, might these two essays have to offer the conversation?

Peters: Digital

Sterne: Analog

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Peters

Announcing Digital Keywords (at a discount) and a Call for More Keywords at #dkw

This post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

I’m thrilled to announce the official publication, by Princeton University Press, of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture — on the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Raymond Williams’ classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

Princeton University Press is offering a discount of 25% on the book to all Culture Digitally readers. Enter the discount code P06197 at any time, until December 31, 2016.

Check out the table of contents, featuring 25 essays from a great group of scholars, or join the Twitter-verse fun at #dkw:

Also, consider indulging in three minutes with the editor Benjamin Peters (me).

The book offers an immensely teachable collection of 25 short essays from leading scholars, set to change the conversation about our contemporary information society and culture. It also represents a conversation begun two years ago with the readers of Culture Digitally and continued thanks to the support of Fred Appel at Princeton University Press. I would like to continue that conversation today.

The volume covers just 25 terms that the contributors felt were important to contemporary scholarly thinking around the information age. So many more terms warrant similar attention. What are some of the other words you think are key to understanding the modern world and its media, and why? Help out now by tweeting your own keyword of interest with the hashtag #dkw.

(If you do not tweet, your welcome to submit your keywords suggestions into this Google form. If you’d like others to be able to follow up with you, please add your name and institutional affiliation; please do not include bot-readable email addresses, since the file will be public.)

Next week, a list of candidate digital keywords will be drawn from the #dkw Twitter hashtag and the Google form, and then posted to Culture Digitally as a public reference and basis for future work. This open resource will also feature a list of the keywords we arrived at well as more than 200 candidate keywords we listed in the Digital Keywords appendix. The resource is intended as a first step toward building a rolling Rolodex of keywords and their scholars and students. The hope is that this exercise will stimulate future Digital Keywords volumes, teaching, and conversations.

Please come join the conversation in print and online, stay tuned as sample keyword essays follow this month, and enjoy!

From “Brexit” to “dumpster fire”: Benjamin Peters on why digital keywords matter

petersIn the digital age, words are increasingly important, with some taking on entirely different meanings in the digital world. Benjamin Peters’ new book, Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture  presents modern humans as linguistic creatures whose cultural, economic, political, and social relations are inseparable from these “keywords”. Recently, Peters took the time to answer some questions about the book:

Why digital keywords? Why now?

BP: “Brexit” and “Trumpmemtum.”

What are these but marked keywords that—together with, say, the trendy new phrase “dumpster fire”—trigger anxieties very much alive today? What work do such words do?

40 years ago, in 1976, the Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams published his classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, establishing a critical and ongoing project for taking seriously the work of over 100 words in postindustrial Britain. This book, taking Williams as its (all too) timely inspiration, seeks to refresh the keywords project for English-language information societies and cultures worldwide.

This book seeks to change the conversation about the digital revolution of language at hand. The real world may not be made out of language but our access to it surely is. Modern humans are linguistic creatures: our cultural, economic, political, social, and other relations cannot be separated from the work our words do. And as everyone who has ever put pencil to paper knows, our words do not always oblige. This is especially true in the age of search. Digital keywords are both indispensable and tricky. They are ferociously important and often bite back.

Digital Keywords also seeks to offer a teachably different approach to “digital keywords” than currently championed, as a simple Google search will reveal, by the meddling reach of search engine optimizers (SEO). No older than the OJ Simpson trial and valued at no less than $65 billion (about the economy of Nebraska), the SEO industry is arguably the dominant approach to taking keywords seriously online at the moment: and yet reason strains at the massive capital flows that, say, the term “insurance” alone commands. SEO, with its shady markets of pay-per-click advertising and results manipulation, cannot be the best approach to working with digital keywords.

How else might we begin (again)?

I’m hooked. So which keywords does the book take up? And what makes those words key?

BP: Let me answer that in reverse. As editor I figured I had a choice: I could either start by choosing the words I thought were key for the information age and then find people to write about them, or I could invite the best contributors to the project and then let them choose their keywords. As it happens, this volume does both. On the one hand, the appendix lists well over 200 candidate keywords—from access to zoom—and we’ll be soliciting other keywords to that growing list on the scholarly blog Culture Digitally this July.

On the other hand, the 25 words featured in this book are “key” simply because the scholars that populate this book demonstrate that they are. That may sound tautological, but I actually uphold it as the high standard in keyword scholarship: a word is key because it does meaningful social work in our lives. It is the task of each essay to prove such work. The reader too is invited to take up Williams’ search for themselves and to test these essays accordingly: do they convince that these terms, once understood, are somehow tectonic to the modern information society and culture—and why or why not? Which words would you add—and why?

Fair enough. Can you give us a sample of what the authors claim about their keywords?

BP: Sure thing. The freely available extended introduction critically frames the project as a first step toward a grammar for understanding terministic technologies; it also summarizes each essay and draws critical connections between them, so I won’t do any of that here. Since the book itself is organized alphabetically by keyword, I’ll list the essays alphabetically by author last name. Rosemary Avance critically reclaims community online and off, Saugata Bhaduri risks the collective action baked into gaming, Sandra Braman tackles Williams’ keyword flow in information systems, Gabriella Coleman decrypts hackers and their crafts, Jeffrey Drouin takes on document surrogates in copy cultures, Christina Dunbar-Hester critically appraises the gender in computing geeks, Adam Fish reflects on what mirror is doing in data mirroring, Hope Forsyth grounds the online forum in ancient Rome, Bernard Geoghegan telegraphs back the origins of modern information, Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the omnipresent algorithm, Katherine D. Harris unpacks the digital archive, Nicholas A. John rethinks sharing cultures online, Christopher Kelty unearths root causes and consequences of participation, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen separates democracy from digital technologies, John Durham Peters seeds an outpouring of the cloud in cloud computing, Steven Schrag reworks memory and its mental and mechanical discontents, Stephanie Ricker Schulte repossesses personalization, Limor Shifman reanimates the meme online, Julia Sonnevend theorizes events beyond media, Jonathan Sterne and I, separately, deconstruct the analog and digital binary, Thomas Streeter pluralizes the internet, Ted Striphas rereads culture alongside technology after Williams, Fred Turner goes Puritan on the Silicon Valley prototype, and Guobin Yang launches the book with the de-radicalizing of activism online.

Who is the audience for this book? Who are you writing for?

BP: Students, scholars, and general interest readers interested in the weighty role of language in the age of search in particular and the current information age in general. Ideally, each essay will prove plain and short enough (average length 3000 words) to sustain the attention of the distracted undergraduate, substantial enough to enrich the graduate students, and pointed enough to provoke constructive criticism from the most experienced scholar. Of course this ideal will not hold uniformly across this or any other volume, but perhaps this group of contributors delivers on the whole, I must say, and that is enough for this editor.

I’m also excited to note that later this year Princeton University Press also plans to release for free download my teaching notes for this book. These notes aim to offer in an easily editable format enough material to teach the book as the main course text for a semester-long undergraduate or graduate course in media and communication studies. We hope this will benefit courses worldwide. Meanwhile, the scholarly blog Culture Digitally maintains, with Princeton University Press’ generous support, the early drafts of fair share of the published essays here.

Benjamin Peters is assistant professor of communication at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is also affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

 

 

 

Language in the age of “search”

digital keywords peters jacketHow does language function in today’s information revolution? Keywords, and these days, “digital keywords” organize research, teaching, even thought itself. In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture, Benjamin Peters compiles essays on keywords by major digital media scholars, as well as an extensive list of these keywords themselves. Here’s a look at five words that have completely changed in today’s search-driven culture.

1. “Activism” has become one of the most popular terms found on the internet and it’s nearly decimated the use of “revolution”.

On the one hand, aspirations for political struggle continue to take both radical and nonradical forms . . . On the other hand, the history of activism and protest since the 1990s remains marked more by moderation than by radicalism in both Western democracies and other countries.

2. “Archive” is a word that has had its concept completely re-imagined as each person can individually decide what is important to them and should be saved permanently through digital means.

An archive is less about the printed word and can be about all facets of materiality, form, and its subsequent encoding–even the reader herself.

3. “Cloud” today does not only invoke images of nature, but streams of data held and protected somewhere.

Perhaps it is exactly their apparent blankness, mutability, and vanishing mode of being that makes them such a ripe canvas for human creativity and criticism.

4. “Meme” is an exception in that its meaning hasn’t changed so much as its relevance has. It is a word that was largely ignored when it was first conceived and now is in common use on the internet.

While researchers continue arguing about the usefulness of this construct, netizens have delivered their verdict. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the term Meme had become an integral part of online vernacular.

5. “Sharing” is a huge part of media and social relations on computers today, between friends or between millions of people who have never met each other except over the Internet. This concept has challenged concepts about copyright and how criminal activity can be conducted online.

However, while the term data sharing would not appear controversial in any way . . . File sharing . . . is not sharing, but rather theft.

Learn more about Digital Keywords this summer as we share a series of posts from Culture Digitally.