Friday, March 05, 2010

Obsolete information labor occupations

Cute bit on the NPR web site that a friend pointed me to: "The Jobs of Yesteryear"
As computers and automated systems increasingly take the jobs humans once held, entire professions are now extinct. Click through the gallery below to see examples of endangered professions, from milkman to telegrapher, and hear from people who once filled those oft-forgotten jobs.

Interestingly, half of the jobs profiled dealt with information labor: lector, copy boy, switchboard operator, typist in a typist pool, typesetter, and telegraph operator. (No telegraph messenger boys, sadly.)

As a way of getting undergraduates to think about changes in labor and technology, I often find myself turning to the Prelinger Archives collection of corporate and educational training films. Here are two of my favorites, one for each of the two deparments I'm involved with at UW-Madison:

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Digital Labor, Cold-War Roots

Doing some reading over the past week, I was prompted to think about, then comment on,a chapter by Friedrich Kittler on Cold War computing technology. and the implicit (and explicit) ways in which an examination of so-called "defense technology" comes into direct contact with, and within the purview of, media studies, information studies and labor studies. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering the history of these technologies and their development, particularly when the when many defense technologies have been considered value-neutral or even as beneficial (and perhaps were, particularly when they moved from the province of military applications to consumer or mass-market ones). Additionally, the process of uncovering the hidden labor embedded in digital and computing technologies and processes, is inextricalbly tied to the critically important task of uncovering their hidden agendas, applications and roots within the military-academic-industrial complex1.

Fred Turner, in a talk last week at the University of Illinois, referenced SAGE, for example, one of the first interlinked computer systems, and part of the U.S military’s DEW (distant early warning) system. Kittler notes, in the same writing, that “the Semiautomatic Ground Environment Air Defense System, was conceived as an answer to the Soviet atomic fleet, and it brought us everything today’s computer users have come to love: from the monitor to networking to mass storage” (182). Many of these military innovations have found direct applications and homes in the civilian sector, a “spin-off called information society [that] began with the building of a network that connected sensors (radar), effectors (jet planes), and nodes (computers)” (182). Not only, therefore, has the technology developed by the military, in conjunction with partners in academe and industrial R&D, made its way into daily life, but so, too, have basic concepts of organization, processes and structures. Any study endeavoring to undertake an examination of these organisms must therefore absolutely examine ties to other systems, projects and goals, particularly during the technological boom of (and promulgated by) the Cold War.

I recently undertook a preliminary (to me) study of a state information system in late 20th century France that was developed for civilians and laypeople in the country2. While this system, popularly known as the Minitel, was fundamentally implemented for the populace at large, by tracing the policy development and goals at the root of the creation of the system, I quickly discovered that military and national sovereignty concerns were, in fact, at the core of this massive national technology project. In fact, a desire to be able to calculate nuclear strikes and impacts in simulation on IBM mainframe computers drove then-president and erstwhile war hero Charles de Gaulle to institute a state information policy where previously there had been none. To this end, Kittler’s comment that “since 1941, wars no longer needed men, whether as heroes or as spies, but were victories of machines over other machines” (182) does not seem like much of a reach at all.

And just as Cold War soldiers unleashed A-bombs on Pacific atolls, physically divorced from their literal and figurative impact, today’s drone pilots unleashing shock and awe in Afghanistan (raised on Xbox 360 information-processing and joystick skills) are removed from their targets. Yet, media reports are flooding in suggesting that these virtual bombardiers are experiencing very real PTSD3. How do virtuality and reality blend with technology and morality in this new brand of warfare? And what does it mean when our warfare resembles our gaming, and in our games we play soldiers for fun, on networked hardware running simulations on the one-time DoD project known ARPAnet and now known as the Internet4?

1. To this end, Carlos Alberto Scolari provided a great deal of context and support, suggesting that new generations of Internet and digital media scholars can provide the framework for examinations of technology in these complex areas of inquiry.

2. The Minitel system was developed and implemented in the 1970s-1990s and comprised of the nationalized telephone network, hardware access points and suite of services and information tailored to its French userbase. It was conceived as and constituted a digital Maginot Line against capital extraction, economic dominance and cultural hegemony from transnational corporations based in the United States, Japan and elsewhere.

3. See , , and for recent discussion of this topic.


Kittler, Friedrich. “Cold War Networks or Kaiserstr. 2, Neubabelsberg.” In New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan, 181-186. New edition. Routledge, 2005.

Scolari, C. A. “Mapping conversations about new media: the theoretical field of digital communication.” New Media & Society 11, no. 6 (9, 2009): 943-964.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

University-based reporting, or university-assisted reporting?

(Reposted from my School's new weblog.)

In an article for the Chronicle for Higher Education this week entitled "University-Based Reporting Could Keep Journalism Alive" [] media scholars Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie Jr. discuss the fact that "in recent years, more journalism schools have plunged into producing news for the public" (including ours):

Florida International University now has an arrangement in which the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, and South Florida Sun-Sentinel use the work of student journalists. Columbia's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism has in its few years of existence had students produce work that has appeared in The New York Times, the Albany Times Union, Salon, and on PBS and NPR. Students at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism have produced work for the public posted on the school's news Web sites. It is beginning another news Web site in cooperation with San Francisco's KQED public radio and television stations. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University runs the Cronkite News Service, which provides student-reported work to 30 Arizona client news outlets, while other ASU journalism students have worked as paid reporters in the Phoenix suburbs for the Web site of the major metro daily in the city, The Arizona Republic. Similar work is taking place at Boston University, Northwestern University, the Universities of Maryland and Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

While department-run student newspapers, special seminars on investigative reporting, and exclusive internship relationships with professional journalism projects are not new in journalism education, Schudson and Downie argue that the Web has enabled such reporting to reach a much wider audience, in a much more timely manner, than ever before: "Publishing for the general public can now be done at minimal cost—no need to contract out to a printing company, no need to distribute to newsstands—just construct a Web site. Distribution has moved from major barrier to trivial expense."

Here at UW-Madison, of course, our situation is different than those of the stand-alone schools of journalism at Columbia and Arizona State where Schudson and Downie Jr. work. We're a School of Journalism & Mass Communication (SJMC) whose teaching, research, and service span a range of media industries and knowledge-production practices, from the analytical, investigative practices of careful journalism (whether online, on air, or in print), to the targeted, persuasive practices of ethical strategic communication (whether by businesses, non-profits, or governments). Our classes incorporate not only the skills and concepts necessary to succeed in these industries, but the context and understanding necessary to understand how these industries work together (and sometimes work against each other) in a global media ecology.

So for our School, the connection between our undergraduate and graduate educational mission and our larger knowledge-production research and service mission is what motivates our participation in community journalism projects where our students "produce news for the public." And rather than going it alone, we prefer collaborating with local, professional media firms and non-profit organizations. Here are just a few examples:

  • Madison Commons. [] This innovative online partnership between both local/neighborhood organizations (the East Isthmus Neighborhood Planning Council, the South Metropolitan Planning Council, and the Northside Planning Council) and local for-profit media (The Capital Times, Wisconsin State Journal, Isthmus, and Channel 3000) was created by SJMC Professor Lewis Friedland and the UW-Madison Center for Communication and Democracy. It's a great example of graduate student researchers and community citizen journalists working together with both democratic civic groups and local mainstream media.

  • Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. [] Started by longtime SJMC lecturer Andy Hall, WCIJ is "a first-of-its-kind alliance with public broadcasting journalists in six cities around the state, plus students and faculty of the journalism school at Wisconsin’s flagship university" which "combines innovative technology with time-tested journalistic techniques to increase the transparency of official actions, intensify the search for solutions to governmental and societal problems, strengthen democracy and raise the quality of investigative journalism." SJMC Professor Jack Mitchell sits on the board, and three current SJMC students plus one recent SJMC graduate work as reporters in the project.
  • All Together Now Madison [] This project, spearheaded by Brennan Nardi (editor, Madison Magazine), Bill Lueders (news editor, Isthmus), Andy Hall (executive director, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism), and our own SJMC Professor Deborah Blum, ATN is "a collaborative journalism endeavor by news media in Madison, Wisconsin, to produce print, broadcast and online reports on a common theme." The project has connected to several SJMC reporting classes already. Their first set of reports, on "Our Ailing Health Care System," are available now.

Schudson and Downie ended their article by reminding us that, "Thinking through what universities can do for journalism requires some serious conceptual work about how best to integrate the legitimate educational and research missions of the university with service to society." I've only thrown out a few of the concrete connections to live, investigative, community journalism that our School has helped to create and nurture, but I think that each one of them fills that double role that Schudson and Downie suggest. Anybody want to chime in with more examples, or propose further ideas?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Update: Blogging the Digital Labour Conference

As mentioned previously on this blog, the University of Western Ontario's Faculty of Information and Media Studies will be hosting a conference on Digital Labo(u)r, October 16-18, 2009.

I will be in attendance at the conference and will blog coverage of it here, including notes on sessions and other happenings of potential interest to the readership.

If you can't make it to Canada, stay tuned here for reports from the event.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Murdoch on Digital Journalism: The Ultimate Union-Buster

One must at least admire Rupert Murdoch for his unabashed franchise. The Financial Times reports that Murdoch, in a seeming about-face, has come to herald the new era of Kindle and other similar electronic newsreading devices from a truly pragmatic standpoint. Although he predicts up to 20 years for the devices to surmount the current paper and ink industry, Murdoch waxes rhapsodic on the future portended by such a shift:

"'Then we’re going to have no paper, no printing plants, no unions,' said Mr Murdoch, who battled printing unions at his Wapping plant in London more than 20 years ago. 'It’s going to be great.'"