Wednesday, December 22, 2010

9/11, Images, & the Information Age

W. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)

War, as Mitchell notes, can be viewed in real time, from just about any vantage via social media: "The shaping of perceptions of history does not have to wait for historians or poets, but is immediately represented in audio-visual-textual images transmitted globally" (p. xii). In a clever bit of analysis, Mitchell teases how the meaning of the images associated with 9/11 by relating their interpretation to the highly politicized debates about the cloning of life preceding the terrorists' attacks. Cloning assumes many levels of meaning, from just plain copying to that of image making, especially since both the arguments about cloning and the terrorist attacks used images in very similar ways. Mitchell notes that the Bush administration was fortunate to have the terrorist events since it ended what was probably an endless debate about the bioethics of cloning before that debate had really settled in. Still, there is an inherent fear of images, that is, that they might come to life.

Mitchell examines what he calls the "memory archive" of the war, the essential and seemingly " unforgettable" or iconic images of 9/11 that have shaped our understanding of the war on terror (a term not now used by the Obama administration). The study of or interest in iconic images is nothing new, having emerged certainly with the birth of photography and even farther back with paintings. But there is something different now because of our networked information technologies. "Images migrate around the planet at blinding speed; they become much more difficult to quarantine or censor; and they are subject to more rapid mutation than ever before" (pp. 73-74). Not surprisingly, then, Mitchell focuses on the images of the Twin Towers and the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture (this example having been transformed into an "archive" of leaked images and other images commenting on or playing with the photographs). Mitchell suggests that what makes the Abu Ghraib archive "new and different" is that the "central collection of documents is virtual (a body of digital images accompanied by metadata automatically encoded in their files)' and that the archive itself -- its location, structure, and retrieval system -- is also virtual. The digital character of the images has had momentous consequences for their circulation, of course, giving them their notoriously viral character, resisting all attempts at quarantine and containment" (p. 123). From my vantage, we can understand the present "war" as much more of an Information Age phenomenon, even as we realize that images shaped our sense of earlier conflicts such as the Civil War, the World Wars, and Vietnam. War and memory is something different today: "The emergence of social media such as YouTube and Twitter has turned every citizen into a potential journalist, every innocent bystander into a potential witness whose testimony can be uploaded to the global nervous system" (p. 130). It is why Mitchell plays with the nature of bioethical debates about cloning, the latter representing a "deep copy, a perfect transcript at both the digital and analog levels, visible embodiment and molecular structure coordinated" (p. 164).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pirate Radio

Adrian Johns, Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2011).

Focused around the 1966 killing of a pirate radio operator, this book by historian Adrian Johns examines the rise and fall of pirate radio in England and its battle with British government and the BBC. Johns believes this helps us understand our own digital era. While Johns gives us an absorbing story, with interesting characters and incidents, I am not convinced about his connecting this to the modern information age or the debates about issues like intellectual property. But this may not be much of a criticism. Johns gets quite involved in revealing the details of the heyday of British pirate radio, so much so that when he interjects some sweeping assertion about the meaning of the period the reader really may not care if he or she buys the argument. In fact, Johns himself even asserts that it is not the role of the historian to tease out all the meaning for contemporary issues. Our historian reveals himself to be a good storyteller, a skill that a shrinking number of academic historians either possess or reveal, and that may be enough of a contribution. If one is energetic, you can read this book as a lengthy case study footnote to his other recent book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. I suspect the book of pirate radio was researched as part of his major study of piracy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Future of Libraries and Digital Repositories

Robert Darnton, “The Library: Three Jeremiads,” New York Review of Books 57 (December 23, 2010): 22, 24, 26.

In his continuing series of essays on the future of books and libraries, Darnton examines “three especially difficult problems” challenging the future of academic libraries. These challenges include the costs of periodicals and the devastating impact on other library programs, the sustainability of libraries, and the prospects of a true national digital library rather than the commercialization of e-books. One of Darnton’s persistent comments is that how these challenges are generally not well understood by university faculty. One might surmise that faculty at a school like ours might be in a position to grasp the issues. I doubt it, at least when looking at our actions. In the discussion about the second jeremiad, Darnton considers open digital repositories, noting the reason why they exist as follows: “While prices continued to spiral upward, professors became entrapped in another kind of vicious circle, unaware of the unintended consequences. Reduced to essentials, it goes like this: we academics devote ourselves to research; we write up the results as articles for journals; we referee the articles in the process of peer reviewing; we serve on the editorial boards of the journals; we also serve as editors (all of this unpaid, of course); and then we buy back our own work at ruinous prices in the form of journal subscriptions—not that we pay for it ourselves, of course; we expect our library to pay for it, and therefore we have no knowledge of our complicity in a disastrous system.” Well, we have such a digital repository, and only a few faculty members here have used it.

Intellectuals & Society

Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2010)
After reading Sowell’s text, one wonders whether any intellectual has ever done anything worthwhile for society. Sowell dissects the mess intellectuals have made of economic issues, how they visualize society and its problems, the concept of truth, law and its function in our world, war and its causes, and how they view their own roles. Sowell believes that intellectuals have no accountability for their views or the consequences of their ideas at play in the world, and that they have offered up a lot of concepts that are both nonsense and dangerous. This is an interesting book to read for its criticism of the nature of ideas, information, and wisdom in our culture. Yet, one walks away from the task of reading this lengthy tome wondering what the world would be like without intellectuals (but Sowell never really addresses this in any depth) or, for that matter, universities where most intellectuals live. But that is ok; being an intellectual, we can follow his own views and just ignore him.

Penn State & Academic Freedom

Scott Jaschik reports in “Defining Academic Freedom,” Inside Higher Education, December 14, 2010 that Pennsylvania State University is revising its policy on academic freedom for faculty. It is removing this wording, "No faculty member may claim as a right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial topics outside his/her own field of study. The faculty member is normally bound not to take advantage of his/her position by introducing into the classroom provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects not within the field of his/her study." This revises a policy that the American Association of University Professors, said had been “one of the most restrictive and troubling policies limiting intellectual freedom in the classroom. . . . It undermined the normal human capacity to make comparisons and contrasts between different fields and between different cultures and historical periods. The revised policy is a vast improvement."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Are SIS students texting in class?

[This appeared in this morning's Inside Higher Ed: ]

University Measures Extent of Texting in Class

Faculty members everywhere complain about students who text in class, but professors at Wilkes University decided to measure the extent of the practice. Deborah Tindell and Robert Bohlander, psychology professors, surveyed 269 students anonymously. Among the findings:
  • 95 percent of students bring their phones to class every day.
  • 91 percent have used their phones to text message during class time.
  • Almost half of respondents said it was easy to text in class without instructors being aware.
  • 99 percent said they should be permitted to retain their cell phones while in class.
  • 62 percent said they should be allowed to text in class as long as they don’t disturb their classmates. (About a quarter of the students stated that texting creates a distraction to those sitting nearby.)
  • 10 percent said that they have sent or received text messages during exams, and 3 percent admitted to transmitting exam information during a test.