Frontiers of New Media – My Wrap-up
I am only now starting to recover from a seemingly non-stop weekend of some of the best research on media, communication, and history going on right now. The University of Utah just hosted the third Frontiers of New Media symposium. I was part of the group that planned it. I will admit that I will extremely nervous about everything: whether or not it would go smoothly, how well we organized the presentation panels, and of course because I presented my own research. (For anyone who wants to read my talk, here’s a PDF).
In the end, I couldn’t be happier. Our two keynotes, Timothy Lenoir and Richard White, presented on very different topics. Lenoir’s talk was about the history of academic research into neuro-imaging, and its potential applications both in medicine, human augmentation, and so-called neuromarketing. White’s talk centered on new ways we could examine space, particularly the spaces of 19th and early 20th railroad networks. It turns out that, whether we look at maps of neurons or maps of railroad networks, space and time are dynamic entities that shift and morph right before our eyes, denying our ability to objectively know them. I felt immediately that their work would be useful in my own struggle with the culture and political economy of network neutrality.
As for the presentations, I was particularly struck by Matt Cohen‘s work on the varying meanings of archives. He compared Western conceptions of archives to those of indigenous American (and to a lesser extent) Australasian peoples. Again, time and space – and memory – shift in unexpected ways as Cohen examined them through various lenses. I also valued his questions about the creation of new media archives of historical events and cultures. We have the idea now that everyone can “be the media” (to use Nick Couldry’s phrase), to participate in the production of new media sites such as digital archives, but Cohen rightly pointed out that ‘granting’ access to digital archives to various ethnic groups is a tricky question, since different cultures view archives in radically different ways. Archives are, of course, not neutral.
Mara Mills‘s paper built on this idea in important ways. She drew on the museum/archival practice of accessioning to explore how technologies such as early OCR and text-to-sound mediate access to books for disabled people. Much like Paul Smith’s work in Discerning the Subject wherein he found contradictory meanings in “discern,” Mills finds multiple meanings in “accession”: in the archival sense, it means to register, classify, and accept objects into a collection. In another, less used way, “accession” means “A coming on or invasion of disease; an attack, fit, or paroxysm; also a visitation, or fit of folly” (according to the OED). She used this tension between taxonomy and rupture, a clean process of transfer versus paroxysm, to illustrate the ways in which one media needs another media to animate it (and also challenge it, invade it, alter it, mutate it, and so on). Her work was brand new and I look forward to its development.
I’m biased, but of course I loved my friend Fan Yang‘s work on shanzhai culture in China. The basic tension she documents is between the production of knock-off, counterfeit phones and electronics and the Chinese state’s desire to brand itself as an engine of creativity (at least, creativity that adheres to the dictates of global intellectual property law). She uses remediation theory to explain this contradiction.
Finally, I see a lot of parallels between Bill Kirkpatrick‘s work on de facto local media policy (borne out of the possibilities of wireless mesh-networks) and my own on network architectures. His analysis draws on the often clumsy attempts by the FCC to foster local media, as well as the inadequacies of theories of local media. He sees mesh-nets as (possibly) bringing about local media in a way that can’t be done with centralized regulation.
I’m skipping over other talks, simply because it’s getting late and I’m still exhausted from this weekend. But suffice it to say that Frontiers of New Media 2011 made me very happy, and I am very grateful to all of the participants who came to Utah this weekend.