Why blog when I can vlog?

I have started a new project: a vlog! It’s called “Molly Up North” and you can find it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0lu86OpizojUiyyVrnZ9tg/featured Since I am writing all the time for work, I find myself less inclined to share some of the lighter moments in my life through writing. So I have turned to videos. My videography skills are not so great yet, but I am working on it. Feel free to subscribe and follow along, if you are so inclined.

Notes from the Field(s)

Deep. Breaths.

The start to my PhD has been exhilarating but intense. While hitting the ground running is always a satisfying feeling, it is only one step removed from feeling like you’ve run smack into a brick wall. I came into this program just a few weeks ago with a plan in hand. After all, I had to propose a dissertation topic on my application. But since being at Malmö I have been inundated with suggestions of books to read, people to contact, books to read, conferences to check out, books to read, journals to follow, and books to read. All of my pre-conceived notions about what my project will be are quickly unraveling as I am exposed to snippets and glimpses of the kind of work I COULD do. Let me break it down:

PhD Course at the IT University of Copenhagen

Last week I took a class called “New Ethnographic Methods for Technology Studies” at the IT University of Copenhagen. I was mostly drawn by the stellar academics running the course and giving guest lectures, particularly Paul Dourish, who wrote a paper about sci fi and ubiquitous computing that I came across recently: “Resistance is Futile”: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing. The readings were diverse and thought-provoking and led me to really think about how my research could use ethnographic methods. I enjoyed that we were required to write papers about how our work related to the readings, and then read each other’s papers, in advance. The other PhD students in the course came from a variety of different academic departments from universities across Europe, so reading about their work gave me an in-depth look at their projects that I never would have gotten from scattered conversations over the three days. I came away from the course super mentally drained but excited about possible new directions for my project (cough cough, maybe a site visit to the setting of the novel?).

Readings:

The field and the desk

 Positioning the ethnographer: Inside/outside of the network

  • Riles, Annelise (2000) Introduction: Inside out. In: the network inside out. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
  • Haraway, Donna (1997) ‘Modest Witness’ In: Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.Femaleman?_Meets_Oncomousetm. London: Routledge
  • Dourish, Paul & Genevieve Bell: “A role for Etnhography: Methodology and Theory” Chapter 4 in “Divining a Digital Future – Myth and Mythodology in Ubiquitous Computing”

 The problem of the field

  • Falzon, Marc- Anthony (2009) Introduction. in Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research. London: Ashgate pp 1-25.
  • Candea, Matei (2007) Arbitrary locations: in defence of the bounded field-site. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(1):167-184
  • Fortun, Kim (2009) Scaling and Visualizing Multi-sited Ethnography. In Marc-Anthony Falzon (ed.) Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research. London: Ashgate pp 73-87.

 Experiment

  • Brown, Steven D. (2012) Experiment: abstract experimentalism. In: Celia Lury & Nina Wakeford: Inventive Methods: The happening of the social. London: Routledge
  • Marres, Nortje (2012) Experiment: the experiment in living In: Celia Lury & Nina Wakeford: Inventive Methods: The happening of the social. London: Routledge

 The problem of context

  • Dilley, Roy (1999) Introduction: the problem of context. In Roy Dilley (ed.) The problem of context. New York: Berghahn Books
  • Asdal, Kristin & Ingunn Moser (2012) Experiments in Context and Contexting Science, Technology, & Human Values 37(4) 291-306

 Situated Knowledges

  • Haraway, Donna (1988) Situated knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective: Feminist Studies 14:575-99
  • Hughes, Christina & Celia Lury (2013) Re-turning feminist methodologies: from a social to an ecological epistemology, Gender and Education [special issue: Material Feminisms: New Directions For Education] 25:6, 786-799
  • Teun Zuiderent-Jerak 2015: Introduction: “Exploring Intervention in the Social Sciences” in Situated Intervention. Sociological Experiments in Health Care, MIT Press
    • Optional conclusion: Conclusion: “Situated Intervention and the Ethics of Specificity”

Berlin

Before the PhD course, I spent a magical week in Berlin, reading and writing in cafes, meeting with people who work there about ongoing projects, eating all the vegan food, doing yoga, wandering the streets, and dancing too late. It was a great time to get some SERIOUS THINKING done. Not everything about moving to a new country and starting a new PhD program is fun and games. I think it’s important to let the moments of doubt come sometimes, to burrow down and explore the frictions, discomforts, and uncertainties that I have been feeling but shoving away out of necessity as I try to get settled. As a wonderful friend of mine assured me, these feelings are normal. And Berlin was the perfect city to happily wallow in messiness for a week.

Fiction

I’m getting really excited about the role that my work of fiction will play in my dissertation, although I have a lot of work to do deciding how it will fit into a Media and Communications degree, which has empirical requirements. I am looking a lot at writing by Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska and the Goldsmiths Press. There is much more out there but this is a start. I’ll make a better list later.

PhD Tales

In an effort to “open” my PhD process, I will be making an effort to post more frequently here with what I’m reading, what I’m working on, and project updates. I was inspired by NPR / Berkman Fellow / 18F openness evangelist Melody Kramer‘s philosophy of opening processes to make things truly public. You can hear about it in her own words on one of my favorite podcasts, Nerdette:

Her philosophy that for public media to be truly public, the process of creating the media should be open to the public and it should facilitate audience participation to the greatest extent possible. Public radio should be by the people, for the people, if you will. So, since my PhD is funded by the Swedish government, here is my PhD for the people (though not in Swedish, my apologies).

The Right to be Remembered

Recently I have gotten caught in some debates related to technology and new media that are giving me whiplash. In my archives circles everyone is panicked: How are we ever going to get control over the massive amounts of information being created in digital formats? How will we preserve it as technology rapidly changes? How can we make sure that everything happening in our time will be recorded and REMEMBERED? We have a sacred duty to researchers! To future publics! To history!

In my tech policy circles everyone is panicked: How can we lead private lives when corporations and governments can scrutinize every online action and detect patterns that unlock our private lives with elegantly simple lines of code? How do we prevent the tracking of our everyday lives in an age of smartphones and geolocation? How can we make sure that information about us gets FORGOTTEN? We must remain vigilant against surveillance! Companies do not have the right to access and sell our data! Just 25 years ago secret police like the Stasi used private information to manipulate and control people! Such sentiments are even more pronounced in Europe.

Are any of us even living in the same reality? Why does it seem like the “good guys” are helplessly wading around in masses of data, losing our precious cultural heritage in the black hole of cyberspace, while the “bad guys” are reducing our complex humanity to bits of data that can be analyzed, manipulated, and sold for a profit?

It all comes down to a question of control and context. As we move more of our lives online, from knowledge-seeking, to communication, to banking, to creating, to paying taxes, to healthcare, we want to know who has control over our online identity. Over our humanity. Is it us? Is it a third party? If it is a third party, what are they doing with our data? Are they trustworthy? What are their agendas and criteria for preserving and providing access to data?

The truth is, we use tech platforms like Google and Facebook because we like that a third party is curating our content. We make a choice to use these platforms because somehow they are useful, be it as a place to connect with people, spread a message, or kill time. And frequently the content that we access (online or in analog format) has been filtered, by algorithms or archivists or “up votes” or editors. These filters are largely helpful and beneficial. In an age of information abundance, content filters are necessary to wade through the masses of information out there and increase the chances that you find the content you want to find. People seem to be more disconcerted by the idea that this content filter is a faceless Facebook algorithm rather than a kindly reference librarian.

The move from human filters to automated filters is generally a good thing. It increases accuracy and neutrality by removing human inconsistency and bias from the equation. It works more efficiently at scale. There is, however, a trust issue. Information professionals, such as archivists and librarians, are trained to preserve and provide access to information that is credible, accurate, and uncorrupted. The profession is infused with a legal and moral mandate to prioritize information that represents “objective proof” to the greatest extent possible. It is also exempt from corporate influences. It is naive, however, to assume that any information filter is entirely devoid of bias and ulterior motives, even if they are accidental or well-intentioned.

The issue of trust and fear could be largely mitigated by increased transparency on the part of information filters. We can make more intelligent decisions about which information services we opt to use if we know what criteria was being used to preserve and prioritize content. Some of that information is currently available — it is just a question of us doing our due diligence as consumers and educating ourselves. But there is still more that companies could do to increase transparency. The uncomfortable truth is that once information is released on public platforms we have very little control over whether it is remembered or forgotten. The best we can do is produce and amplify good information and access information through portals that we like and trust.

I gave a presentation last weekend on this issue at the first ever Being Human Festival in London. I was one of ten early-career researchers giving a five-minute “Ignite!” style presentation and it was great fun. My slides are below and I will post the video recording here when I have access to it.

* I realize that I throw the “royal we” around liberally in this post. If you do not agree with any of these sentiments, please assume that the “we” only covers myself and all the microbes living in my gut and keeping me alive. (My microbes are very amenable and generally agree with me.) If you agree with these sentiments, you are by all means welcome and included in all of my “we’s.”

My Commute: Otaniemi to Töölö

Since I so enjoy my bike rides between Töölö, a neighborhood in the Helsinki city center where I live, and Otaniemi, the site of one of the Aalto University campuses in Espoo where the Media Lab is located, I decided to rent out a GoPro from the Media Lab and record it! It’s a bit boring, but hopefully you can feel the sublime joy of crossing four bridges on the way to class.

Sibelius Exhibit at Ateneum

Sibelius bust at the entrance to the exhibit
Sibelius bust at the entrance to the exhibit

I have swans in my mind all the time, and they give brilliance to life. It is odd to see that nothing in the world, not in art, literature or music, affects me as much as these swans + cranes + bean geese. Their calls and their being! – Sibelius’ diary entry on April 24th, 1915

The Sibelius exhibit marking the 150th birthday of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius just opened on Thursday at the Ateneum Art Museum and it is definitely worth seeing. The exhibit is a multi-modal representation of Sibelius’ life and work, a vibrant interfusion of paintings, sculptures, video, music, and photographs that evoke Sibelius’ synaestheticism and the vibrant community of artists that he worked among and created with (many of whom painted him). The portraits of Sibelius as a Bohemian young man, with a thick mane of hair pushed jauntily off his forehead and bushy mustache, getting drunk with his artist comrades in cafés, and the documentation of his domestic life at Ainola, the timber-built villa where he lived with his devoted wife Aino and five daughters, all served to humanize my impression of Sibelius as the venerable father of Finnish nationalism.

I got a sense of just how strongly Sibelius lives on in Finland’s cultural identity as I chatted with some of the curators of the exhibit over glasses of champagne at Hotel Kämp following the opening. As we discussed the launch of the exhibit, how it came together and was received, everyone who was involved in creating the exhibit expressed his/her heartfelt desire to capture Sibelius’ brilliance and share it with the public. As one of them put it, Sibelius’ music is “a view to the soul.” The exhibit opening was followed up with an awesome hackathon (#SibHack2014) inside the hallowed halls of Ateneum, in which a team of artists (including some of my fellow Media Lab students) built an interactive audiovisual experiment called Amazibelius:

Some fun facts that get to core questions of the relationship between cultural heritage, memory, and representations of reality:

  • Sibelius was very free with personal information in his letter correspondences. His wife Aino burned many of his letter after his death to prevent the personal details written in them from becoming public knowledge. A pre-digital “Right to be Forgotten?”
  • Sibelius was always a very neat dresser, so one of his artist friends purposefully (and inaccurately) painted a portrait of him with his top shirt button unbuttoned. Apparently Aino was furious.

Fulbright Speaker Program in Tampere

Sammon lukio atrium
Sammon lukio atrium

Last Monday, October 6th I had the honor of launching the Fulbright Speakers Program in Tampere. I spoke to nearly 300 students and educators from three different high schools in Tampere about “What is it like to be a teenager in the U.S.” It was so fun to see what Finnish high schools are like and talk to the students!

The Fulbright Speakers Program was a fantastic way to see another part of Finland, get an inside view of the Finnish education system, and spread awareness about opportunities for Finnish students to study abroad. For example, my presentation was followed by a presentation by John Gaines, an admissions representative from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt University is a medium-sized university with top-notch research programs, a competitive admissions process, and expensive tuition fees. Most Finnish students are probably not aware that Vanderbilt offers a full-tuition scholarship specifically for Finnish students! This is an amazing opportunity, but to take advantage of it Finnish students must prepare well in advance by taking the necessary standardized tests and completing the application. I was really excited that John and I got to introduce high school students to these opportunities and point them to the Fulbright Center as a resource.

Speaking at the Classical High School of Tampere
Speaking at the Classical High School of Tampere

Talking to teachers and students about my experiences in American high school and college, and listening to their experiences in return, was a natural and productive method of cultural exchange. I was astonished by how open, modern, and relaxed both high schools felt, both in terms of building design and student-teacher interactions. Both high schools had beautiful atriums where students had the freedom and space to hang out, eat lunch, and do schoolwork on public computers. In the cafeteria students and teachers all eat the same buffet lunch (which did not cost money and was quite tasty) and sit at the same lunch tables. I enjoyed talking to the Finnish teachers about topics such as fostering a comfortable environment for both introverted and extroverted students and the compare concept of school spirit in the United States and in Finland. I was delighted and surprised when, as we were eating lunch, a Finnish student came and sat down next to me at the table with the teachers. We talked about how she lived in Uganda for many years before moving back to Finland.

I also got to sit in on part of an English class, where I felt the same atmosphere of freedom and comfort. Students were openly using their cell phones and iPads in class for school work and Annukka (who seemed like a really fun English teacher) encouraged students to stand up and sit down to get their brains moving during their quiz on irregular verbs. I was partners with a 15-year-old student named Oona, and together we worked through the exercises, me helping her with English and her helping me with Finnish. We were completed the quiz together as team “Moona.” I think she carried our team 🙂

At Sammon lukio John and I were greeted by three second-year students, Mari, Kati, and Linda. They were very engaged students, all participating in a mock European Parliament and interested in studying in the United States. I was surprised by the different cultures in each school. The first school was for students focusing on the arts and the second was for students focusing on athletics, and the difference among the student bodies, both in terms of aesthetic styles and academic interests, was immediately obvious. It was interesting to me that students were divided based on interests so early in their academic careers.

Special thanks to students and staff at the Classical High School of Tampere as well as at the Tammerkoski and Sammon lukio upper secondary schools for warm reception and excellent questions!

User-Generated Experiences: my presentation

Molly presenting at the Usability Working Group Seminar
Molly presenting at the Usability Working Group Seminar

I am about to gave a presentation at the Finna Usability Working group seminar organized by the National Library of Finland on Monday, September 30th You can access a video recording of all four presentations from the seminar. My presentation starts around minute 1:30. I will be presented on user-generated experiences and how user expectations shape our metadata practice. Here is a list of the articles or websites I referred to in my talk with accompanying links:

Digital Museums: Quasi-objects for quasi-minds

I had occasion to remember that in small museum houses the past is preserved within objects as souls are kept in their earthen bodies, and in that awareness I found a consoling beauty that bound me to life. *

Display in the Museum of Innocence
Display in the Museum of Innocence

The study of cultural heritage involves core questions of identity and the human experience. Who are we? How do we experience the world around us? How do we express who we are to the outside world? How much is the content of our identity shaped by our means of expression?

To kick off my studies in the Systems of Representation research group I am taking a course called “Digital Strategies for Museums and Cultural Heritage” at Aalto University. The course has me thinking about the true meaning of cultural heritage, what it means to “represent” life through objects, and how digital media change the principles of representation by changing the platforms of representation. (The course also has a stellar list of recommended links).

Representation, be it in the format of images, reproduction, or language, has long been recognized as a vital component of how we experience reality.

For Aristotle, representation becomes man’s way of being in the world and his method of learning (lecture notes: 14 January 2002).

For C.S. Peirce, a progenitor for theories of linguistic semeiotics and game-theoretical semantic approaches, the word representation encompasses not only the physical form of an object, but also the aspect of reality that the object carries meaning about and the meaning of the object as understood by an interpreter. In other words, representation encompasses the processes of thought, communication, and interpretation of reality. To Pierce, Truth requires an embodiment:

A thought is not per se in any mind or quasi-mind. I mean this in the same sense as I might say that Right and Truth would remain what they are though they were not embodied, & though nothing were right or true. But a thought, to gain any active mode of being must be embodied in a Sign. A thought is a special variety of sign. All thinking is necessarily a sort of dialogue, an appeal from the momentary self to the better considered self of the immediate and of the general future. Now as every thinking requires a mind, so every sign even if external to all minds must be a determination of a quasi-mind.**

While representations of reality saturate our everyday lives, cultural heritage is a very intentional form of representation. It is the art of representation, the study of representation, the exploration of representation through media.

It is generally accepted in the field that what distinguishes cultural heritage objects, those objects traditionally found in libraries, archives, and museums, from ordinary objects is that they are thematically acquired, organized, preserved, and made accessible. Cultural heritage objects and exhibits are supposed to tell a story, to create an experience, to possess meaning for the audience. If done right, cultural heritage should enhance the human experience and serve as a gateway to knowledge. In the past there has been a professional layer of curators, archivists, and librarians who make the decisions and do the work to transform objects, be they paintings, manuscripts, books, or ephemera, into cultural heritage collections.

Shepherding cultural heritage to the digital space presents huge opportunities for how we access and experience cultural heritage. Items can be made accessible on a previously unimaginably massive scale, easily discoverable through search engines, manipulated through automation, and interacted with via social media and crowdsourcing. We have moved from the Age of Preservation to the Age of Access.

There is no question that the development of digital media has fundamentally revolutionized the cultural heritage field and the process of information access. But it has left many unresolved questions about whether this change in the platform of representation changes the principles of representation.

It may sound philosophical, but such questions have innumerable unresolved applications in everyday life. Does the possibility of accessing information swiftly and easily through search engines change the interpretation of freedom of expression? This is being battled in the European Court’s Right to be Forgotten decision. Does automated data collection change the application of privacy rights? This is being fought in a cascading series of anti-surveillance legislation and activism following Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations. Cooper Hewitt’s Aaron Straup Cope playfully and thoughtfully probes these questions in his dConstruct talk. He sees our age as being defined by a rhetoric of ephemerality that arose partly as a coping mechanism to deal with the fear of constant surveillance:

Which is problematic because it replaces what is fundamentally a social question – one of means (how data is collected) and admissibility (whether information collected in a manner contrary to the social norm is acceptable) – with a technical solution that from a practical like-how-does-it-work perspective is fantasy.

The cultural heritage profession has been busted open, coopted, disrupted, and enhanced by digital developments. The role that information professionals will play remains to be determined. The invention of the internet briefly resurrected utopian visions of a universal library. We are still exploring what it will really mean to move cultural heritage online.

As a guest lecturer in a class, Georgetown University’s Lesley Kadish questioned whether digital cultural heritage is enhanced by being more visual or decreased in value by being flattened into pixels. Are we succumbing to the tyranny of the visual, teased by looking at objects that we expect to trigger emotional responses while still grasping at authenticity?

In the end, cultural heritage allows us to transcend time through sensory stimuli. It feeds our nostalgic longings to rebel against the modern idea of time by representing moments of past experiences. It opens up new, future, unrealized worlds. It feeds the cycle of knowledge that keeps life moving. I see digital platforms as a way to continue this tradition in new ways on a massive scale. To end these happy chirpings I give you another quote from Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence:

My life has taught me that remembering Time — that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present — is for most of us a rather painful business. When we try to conjure up the line connecting these moments, or, as in our museum, the line connecting all the objects that carry those moments inside them, we are forced to remember that the line comes to an end, and to contemplate death. As we get older and come to the painful realization that this line per se has no real meaning — a sense that comes to us cumulatively in intimations we struggle to ignore — we are brought to sorrow. But sometimes these moments we call the “present” can bring us enough happiness to last a century. (Page 288)

*Pamuk, Orhan. The Museum of Innocence. Trans. by Maureen Freely. New York: Vintage International, 2009. Page 500.

**‘Quasi-mind’ (pub. 14.04.13-13:09). Quote in M. Bergman & S. Paavola (Eds.), The Commens Dictionary: Peirce’s Terms in His Own Words. New Edition. Retrieved fromhttp://www.commens.org/dictionary/entry/quote-letters-lady-welby-17.