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Internet Technologies

Studying the Processes of Media Production

The final speaker in this AoIR 2013 plenary is Gina Neff, who notes that the study of online practices and texts can only provide a limited perspective on resistance to capitalism. The political and economic affordances of the Internet are less open to resisting capitalist models than we might have thought; it tends to subsume resistant practices into online capitalism in the end.

This leads Gina to suggest that the era of the amateur is over. Capitalist dynamics privilege the platform developers, policy makers, proprietors and others over users; the Net is tool for and symbol of the reproduction of this set of power relations. Through it, proto-, pseudo-, and not-quite-yet-professional media makers are subsumed into the system.

The Emancipatory Potential of Tech Activism

The final speaker in this first AoIR 2013 plenary is Christina Dunbar-Hester, whose focus is on activist technical projects - such as micropower radio stations or community wifi networks. The activists describe such activities with the Amish term of barnraising, highlighting the community empowerment and self-sufficiency aspects of such initiatives. The hope is to demystify technology and generate political engagement through further hands-on knowledge sharing.

There is a big difference in this in how technical expertise is seen as empowering (through sharing) rather than disempowering (through the emergence of knowledge elites). But there remains a strong white middle-class basis to this - such sharing continues to speak largely to a male white addressee, and the involvement of women or minorities in these initiatives remains rare.

Online Racism Isn't Just a Glitch

Next up in this plenary at AoIR 2013 is Lisa Nakamura, whose interest is in racism online - an issue which is often downplayed as a minor problem or an irrelevant distraction. But what drives online racism - is it a product of the greater levels of anonymity online (and thus an inevitable, natural, normal effect of the Net)? Does this mean that humans are fundamentally, inherently driven to racism, which the Net enables us to live out? Does the Net enable us to indulge in glitchy behaviour, in other words?

But the machine of the Internet is not a separate, animate entity with its own agency, but is co-created with or by us. The idea that the Net has its own, separate nature is merely a convenient excuse - as in Ian Bogost's statement that it's not gamer culture that's racist, but the Internet itself. If online racism is seen as a glitch in the system, this places it alongside other (e.g. hacker) exploits of glitches - it legitimises and excuses racism as merely off-topic and a failure of protective mechanisms.

Participation and Exclusion on the Global Net

The first full day of AoIR 2013 is about to get underway - and it starts with a series of plenary talks. Jenna Burrell is the first speaker, taking an ethnographic angle. Her recent focus has been on youth in the Internet cafés or urban Ghana - a sign of the global reality of the contemporary Internet. But this global Internet does not eradicate personal identity, contrary to some of the cyberutopian claims of the early 1990s which have now become unfashionable - the Net's userbase is increasingly diverse, but in different ways than originally envisaged.

What motivates young Internet users in Ghana, then? As it turns out, a key driver of Internet café use (as of 2005) was to find penpals in other countries - at the time, mainly through Yahoo! chatrooms. Such penpals might be friends, peers, potential romantic interests, patrons, sponsors, business partners, or philanthropists - following previous mail-based practices, which were translated online and became a way to envisage what the Net was for.

Making Sense of Anonymous's Hacker Trickery

Back from my visit to Project EPIC in Boulder, and right to the opening keynote of the 2013 Association of Internet Researchers conference. The keynote speaker is Gabriella Coleman, whose focus is on cyberactivism. Computer hacking has taken an increasingly prominent role in society in recent years - hackers have engaged in disrupting communication through DDoS attacks as well as in increasing transparency through leaking information.

But what are hackers? Some programme software, some develop hardware; some promote transparency (e.g. through the free software movement), some operate from the anonymous underground. Put simply, hacking is where craft and craftiness converge, Gabriella says - often with a great deal of humour and subversion. Hackers are quintessential craftsmen (men, most often); they enjoy the performance of circumventing the rules by using the weapons of the geek.

The Corporate Hijacking of Internet Blackout Protests

The next speaker in this ECREA 2012 session is Tessa Houghton, who begins by noting the 2009 New Zealand blackout of Websites and avatars, in protest against new copyright legislation. This is a form of spectacular viral publicity, and has been repeated in a number of national contexts over the past years – variously protesting copyright or Internet regulations. The anti-SOPA/PIPA blackout of early 2012 is another example for this.

Online Activism and Transparency

The next speaker in this AoIR 2012 session is Constance Kampf, whose interest is in online activism. There are a number of different forms and levels of activism, of course – from a general expression of support for specific causes to radical and potentially dangerous interventions. Much online activism has been driven by issues of transparency, but that term is ill-defined: does it just mean the openness and availability of information about known phenomena, or also an absence of unknowns?

Internet Studies without Shame

The final speaker in this AoIR 2012 plenary is Terri Senft, who argues for a department of Shameless Studies. Is anyone actually shameless? We all constantly negotiate our shame, for all sorts of reasons; we are in solidarity with one another where we share a specific form of shame.

Understanding What It Is to Be Human

The next plenary session at AoIR 2012 starts with Daniel Miller, who describes enthnography as often grand in its ambitions, but sometimes a little parochial in its work – how do you go about developing some of the wider theory about technology and what it means to be human, for example? What needs to happen here is a move between the broad and the specific.

In Defence of the Multiplicity of Personal Identity

The post-lunch keynote at AoIR 2012 is by Liesbet van Zoonen, who begins with a recap of cultural theories of identity. These assume both individual and collective identities to be multiple rather than single, dynamic rather than static. Identity is something we do, not something we are. Research has been informed by these ideas, and we have a good understanding of how different groups use media to perform their identities. This has also been reflected in an understanding of diversity as a desirable goal for social policy.

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