Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter break

The election is over, the semester is over, the year is over. Winter break is a time for university faculty to catch up on their own information labors, so I'll see you in spring 2009.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Better late than never: Joining the communication professors who have signed the "Statement Concerning Recent Discourse of the McCain/Palin Campaign"

I know, I know, it's only one day before the election, but I wanted to add my little bit of campaign discourse to the blogosphere — not necessarily for or against either party's positions and proposals (I know who I'm voting for and I'm proud of it, but I don't think my endorsement will be big news) but in regard to the communication strategies that one party has used against the other. This online statement has been circulating for a while and I just added my name to the mix:

Statement Concerning Recent Discourse

of the McCain/Palin Campaign

October 23, 2008

(Lastest Update: November 1st)

This statement is signed by research faculty of communication programs from across the nation. We speak as concerned educators and scholars of communication but do not claim to speak for our home institutions.

We wish to express our great concern over unethical communication behavior that threatens to dominate the closing days of the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Both major campaigns have been criticized by fact-checking organizations for prevarications. We call on both campaigns to halt blatant misrepresentations of their opponent’s positions.

It would be misleading, however, to imply that since “both sides do it” there is no qualitative difference worth noting. In recent weeks, the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin has engaged in such incendiary mendacity that we must speak out. The purposeful dissemination of messages that a communicator knows to be false and inflammatory is unethical. It is that simple.

Making decisions in a democracy requires an informed electorate. The health of our democracy and our ability to make a good decision about who should lead our nation require the very best in communication practices, not the worst.


The petition goes on to list (and document) specific instances of apparently intentional disinformation on the part of the McCain/Palin campaign. I'm happy to let the political, economic, and social philosophers among the faculty debate which party will actually bring the good life (if any), but as a member of the communication faculty the least I can do is add my name to a chorus of academics who want to use this campaign as a teachable moment, and to remind our students that both what we say and how we say it matters. If we hold out any hope for a civil political discourse in our globalized, polarized, technologically-mediated, and largely-commercialized media system, we have a responsibility to speak out when that civil discourse is threatened, mocked, or ignored.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Print culture and science/technology knowledge production

I'm here at the UW-Madison Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America conference on "The culture of print in science, technology, engineering, and medicine" today. As one of the co-organizers, I made some opening remarks on the study of print, science, and technology which fit with my weblog theme quite well, and I thought I'd reprint them (extended version) here:

I was trained in a program in the history of science, medicine, and technology — after having earned an engineering degree — long before I knew there was a field called "print culture studies" — and long before I found myself dealing with print culture on a daily basis as a faculty member in both a library school and a journalism school. But even from my graduate training it was clear to me that both the artifacts of print culture studies — books and periodicals, advertising and ephemera, newsletters and correspondence — and the social processes of print culture studies — making meaning and building community through the collective production, circulation, consumption, and interpretation of knowledge made physical through text and image — were central to the study of science, medicine, technology, and engineering practice in America.

Take the artifacts of print culture studies first. It is difficult to imagine how scientific or medical practice of any sort can take place without a social process of textual production, peer review of those texts, scholary publication of those texts, and professional librarianship to find those texts again when needed. In the middle of the 20th century the military demands of the Cold War and the information technologies of the computer suggested to some that the academic monograph, the academic journal, and even the academic article were all hopelessly out of date as efficient modes of scientific communication. But every technology that has been proposed to replace these print products — from the microfilmed technical report to the online weblog — still draws on the metaphors and practices of print culture. And behind the scenes, well before publication of scientific findings, a vast print culture of laboratory notebooks, emailed correspondence, and powerpoint presentations lurks under all of our scientific work.

This brings us to the second connection, the social processes of print cuture. After all, if there is one thing that broad science and technology studies share, whether they focus on nanotechnology or evolutionary theory, information technology or the germ theory of medicine, is that at their core they are about constructing, reproducing, and legitimizing certain ways of knowing — practices of knowledge production, circulation, and consumption.

A good friend of mine who was also trained as a historian of science and technology, Josh Greenberg (who coincidentally is now heading up digital print projects at the New York Public Library), uses an unusual word to describe this connection: "epistemography." What does this mean? To find out you can consult the online print archive known as Josh's weblog, in which he writes, "the name epistemographer comes from one of my graduate school professors (a fine historian of science named Peter Dear), who wrote an article in which he argues that Science Studies is really about charting knowledge; where it comes from, how it’s made, and who’s doing the making. Thus we studied epistemography, which makes me an epistemographer." I don't bring this up to suggest we all run off and form yet another new discipline, but to suggest that the work we're already doing probably points more in the same direction than we might normally think.

There's one final way in which print culture studies and science/technology/engineering/medicine studies inform each other, in my view. This one is a little more tricky, though, because it assumes a particular kind of print culture and science studies. Here at the Center we've built a long tradition of focusing not just on the products of print, or on the ways they've been put into social practice, but the relationship that print culture products and practices have to power — political and economic, social and cultural.

What this means is that the Madison Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America, following in the research traditions of its founders Jim Danky and Wayne Wiegand, and building on those traditions with so many of its participants over the years (wholeheartedly including the research of current director Christine Pawley), places special focus on how those lacking power in American history — sometimes literally lacking a voice in the mainstream historical record — have used the tools and techniques of print to call attention to their claims and build a shared identity under circumstances of marginalization. We see it as our special responsibility to collect, catalog, and understand "the print culture collections of groups whose gender, race, occupation, ethnicity and sexual preference (among other factors) have historically placed them on the periphery of power but who used print sources as one of the few means of expression available to them."

We in science and technology studies are in a similarly exciting moment with research that has, especially in the last few decades, finally begun to seriously and systematically foreground the role of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and language in the production of scientific knowledge, in the construction of technological infrastructure, in the decisions about engineering values and the application of medical advances. I'm proud to be a participant in both the print culture and science studies disciplines, because I think much like the professional cultures they nurture — librarianship and publishing on the one hand, and science/engineering/medicine on the other — our academic efforts hold within them a real mission to make sure that the benefits of human knowledge are made accessible with equity and justice across the globe.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Summer vacation

Time for me to get some information labors of my own completed before summer's up and the fall semester begins. See you in September.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Global warming and a tangle of information labors -- journalism, computer modeling, and Google searching

An article in my local newspaper got me angry today and set me to writing a response. I think the episode actually represents an interesting set of issues dealing with information seeking and evaluation of evidence -- on several levels -- so I'm reprinting my letter to the editor here:
While I take no issue with my local newspaper presenting a news analysis on those engaged in "dismissing global warming," the supposed "In Depth" article on this topic in the July 17 2008 Wisconsin State Journal was actually rather shallow. The article, reprinted from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, only briefly described the belief of "Colorado State University storm prognosticator" William Gray that, in his words, "global warming has been grossly exaggerated." It offered no explanation, context or counter-claims for Gray's opinion. If the State Journal is going to simply reprint mediocre news reports on this issue, rather than doing its own reporting and consulting with the many University of Wisconsin climate experts who work here in our own state, perhaps instead of purchasing the 500-word Sun-Sentinel article it should have purchased (or at least consulted) the 7,500-word May 28 2006 Washington Post article by Joel Achenbach entitled "The tempest" which detailed that Gray believes computer climate modeling to be useless, stating, in his words, "They sit in this ivory tower, playing around, and they don't tell us if this is going to be a hot summer coming up. Why not? Because the models are no damn good!" Or perhaps the State Journal might have followed up on other articles by Ken Kaye on Gray's own track record of predictions, such as Kaye's April 09 2008 article in the Sun-Sentinel entitled "Long-range hurricane forecasts: Public service or worthless?" which reports that Gray himself actually "overestimated the 2006 and 2007 [hurricane] seasons and severely underestimated the chaotic 2005 season; in April of that year, they called for seven hurricanes to emerge — and 15 eventually formed." No matter what you think about the risk and reality of global warming, clearly there is much more "depth" to this issue than the flimsy half-page article in Thursday's Wisconsin State Journal would lead one to believe. I expect better from my city's last remaining daily print newspaper.

Greg Downey
Madison, WI

Now, I don't see myself as any sort of serious media watchdog by any means. But given a bit of background knowledge about the global warming debate, access to Google, the online presence of previously-published newspaper articles from around the nation, and an email account, I was able to quickly make an assertion of journalistic quality and communicate this opinion to my local newspaper editor. That's kind of cool. It's also kind of depressing that it was necessary, given that those same tools are available to my local newspaper editor as well.

Here are the original articles in question, if anyone is interested:

Dismissing global warming (as first published in the Sun-Sentinel, later reprinted in the Wisconsin State Journal)
The tempest (Washington Post)
Long-range hurricane forecasts: Public service or worthless? (Sun-Sentinel)

As a postscript, today my department of Journalism & Mass Communication sent out a press release entitled "SCIENTISTS SEE BRIGHT SIDE OF WORKING WITH MEDIA." Food for thought.

Further postscript: A few hours after I emailed my letter, a WSJ managing editor got back to me with a polite acknowledgement, which was much appreciated.

And yet another postscript: Coincidentally, on Tuesday, July 29, 2008, UW-Madison Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Jonathan Martin will be speaking in a series on "emerging technologies at the intersection of science, policy, and media" sponsored by the Department of Life Science Communications. Martin's topic: "Talking about the weather: Shaping public perception of science." The talk will be from 7-8pm, in 1100 Grainger Hall.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Revealing information labor through Wordle

A blog post over at Wisconsin Union Blend alerted me to this fun little Java program called Wordle:
Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.
Desperately trying to imagine how to link Wordle to the topic of "information labor" so I could talk about it in my blog, I realized that academics these days generally produce two major texts which are meant to represent their information labors to the world: their c.v. (traditionally produced in a paper, or at least paper-like, format) and, now, their web site. So I wondered: would the word cloud of Wordle reveal two different concentrations of information labor if fed my more "official" c.v. and my more "public" web site?

Here's the c.v.:


And here's the web site:


I was surprised at how my institutional affiliation with UW-Madison leaps out of the c.v. text, whereas my topical focus on information, technology, and labor is more prominent on the web site text. It's something I'll be thinking about and, I'll admit, something I wouldn't have considered had there not been a free little web applet for visualizing my representation of my own labors in this way.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The labor contradictions of steampunk

I never thought I'd see a New York Times article on the literary, technological-tinkerer, and aesthetic movement loosely known as "steampunk," but there it is today, in the "Fashion" section:
The lead singer of a neovaudevillian performance troupe called the James Gang, Mr. James has assembled his universe from oddly assorted props and castoffs: a gramophone with a crank and velvet turntable, an old wooden icebox and a wardrobe rack made from brass pipes that were ballet bars in a previous incarnation.

Yes, he owns a flat-screen television, but he has modified it with a burlap frame. He uses an iPhone, but it is encased in burnished brass. Even his clothing -- an unlikely fusion of current and neo-Edwardian pieces (polo shirt, gentleman's waistcoat, paisley bow tie), not unlike those he plans to sell this summer at his own Manhattan haberdashery -- is an expression of his keenly romantic worldview.

It is also the vision of steampunk, a subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines. First appearing in the late 1980s and early '90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.

I must admit, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I'm something of a steampunk fan myself. But this affiliation manifests itself in different ways. In my consumption of popular culture, I'm indeed drawn to the airship-filled worlds of young adult science fiction paperbacks and Hayao Miyazaki anime DVDs. In my own technology aesthetic, I guess I'm less "steampunk" than "electropunk," as my campus offices are filled with cast-off media technology from the last fifty years ... analog record players and analog microfilm readers, vintage Atari games (antiques after 30 years) and vintage iPods (antiques after less than 10). And while I don't clothe my digital appliances in burlap, I do wrap my bicycle in wooden baskets and plastic flowers; I don't electroplate my computer in copper, but I complement my wireless-laptop-based blogging with wooden pencil sketches in a Moleskine notebook. In a sense I feel that the students I see who plaster their notebook computers with political bumper stickers and encase their industrially-designed iPhones in handmade, recycled-material pouches ("hippiepunk"?) are doing the same thing. Of course, the original meaning of "cyberpunk" itself was filled with similar anachronisms, nostalgias, and contradictions.

What I find interesting about all these "technopunk" aesthetics and longings are the way they reveal our simultaneous desire and discomfort for both the future and the past. We long for the latest technology -- recognizing that "latest" is perpetually reinvented and continually just out of our reach, by definition -- but we cradle and contextualize that latest technology within an idealized representation of past technology, seemingly undermining our desire for the new with a sense of loss for the old.

How does "information labor" -- and ideas of social class and social power connected to information technology -- relate to any of this? At one level, being a technopunk of any sort means expending labor to recast, recontextualize, or reimagine your present-day technology in the context of another (usually idealized) age. It's a valuing of craft labor, amateur labor, fandom labor of a very particular sort. It's a repudiation of both mass production and flexible production, a challenge to notions of planned obsolescence and incremental upgrades. And it's a social practice that takes significant time, expense, and education (literary, historical, or technological) to carry out. When affluent consumers use old technology, it's "retro chic." When poor consumers use old technology, it's a digital divide.

But there's another sense in which labor and class lurk, specifically in the "steampunk" world. Combining formal Victorian clothing with digital consumer technology seems to connect both the noble utopian visions and the harsh political-economic realities of the modern and the postmodern age. Steampunk suggests a nostalgic world of possibility, where the visions of peace and prosperity through technology articulated by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne might yet be realized. But steampunk might demand a world of imperialist resource extraction, rigid class boundaries, widespread economic unrest and perpetual technological warfare as well. The late nineteenth century was no picnic.

Yet I remain a steampunk fan. I think at its best, the literary, artistic, and playful processes of casting our technological dreams back 25, 50 or 100 years can be an incredibly creative exercise, illuminating the ways in which technology is constantly mobilized for the most beautiful of imagined futures even as it is put to use in the most terrible of present-day projects. Calling an alternate technological history into being forces the dreamer to engage with the same issues as those academic practitioners of the history of technology: not just the question of what difference technology can make, but the question of how we make sure that technology makes the difference we want.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The labor of closed captioning

At long last, my second book, Closed Captioning: Subtitling, Stenography, and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television, is officially out. (I received my box of ten complementary copies from the publisher in the mail yesterday. This time I won't be reckless enough to donate five copies to various UW-Madison libraries.) Here's the blurb from Johns Hopkins University Press:
This engaging study traces the development of closed captioning -- a field that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s from decades-long developments in cinematic subtitling, courtroom stenography, and education for the deaf. Gregory J. Downey discusses how digital computers, coupled with human mental and physical skills, made live television captioning possible. Downey's survey includess the hidden information workers who mediate between live audiovisual action and the production of visual track and written records. His work examines communication technology, human geography, and the place of labor in a technologically complex and spatially fragmented world. Illustrating the ways in which technological development grows out of government regulation, education innovation, professional profit-seeking, and social activism, this interdisciplinary study combines insights from several fields, among them the history of technology, human geography, mass communication, and information studies.

My "book tour" consisted of a talk in my own UW-Madison Department of Geography Yi-Fu Tuan lecture series. My "Introduction to mass communication" class and I were just discussing book publishing recently, and since I showed them in lecture that my previous book, Telegraph Messenger Boys, sits comfortably around the 1 million mark in terms of sales rank at (that means "millionth best selling," not "sold a million copies"), here's hoping this one breaks the 900,000 mark.