Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Stand by Me

Bruce Sperling, a founder of the cyberpunk literary genre, shocked the South by Southwest Interactive tech conference in Austin by raising issues of class in the jolly optimism of web networking. Sperling argued that Facebook, Twitter, Skype, text-messaging and other such forms of connectivity are registers of poverty. Poor folk, are essentially the greatest users of these technologies. Lacking resources to connect with other human beings, web connectivity fills in for class deprivation. The implications of Sperling's argument are profound, placing a buffer on the financial optimism that such services have depended on. Virginia Heffernan takes Sperling's reading further in "Let Them East Tweets: Why Twitter is a Trap," New York Times Magazine (Apr. 19, 2009), pp. 22, 24. And for an amusing take on Sterling's speech by Sterling himself, see his blog, Beyond the Beyond.

I personally agree. My ventures into web connectivity--this very blog, for instance--arise from desperation. Absolutely, if I had other venues of communication, I would choose them over the amorphous and undependable readership of a blog. If I could publish each one of my musings in a peer-reviewed journal, or even if I had a syndicated newspaper column, I would shut down this blog immediately. But such platforms require a different financial infrastructure, where I would ultimately also benefit financially (either directly through royalties or indirectly through tenure). At a moment of early optimism, I contacted my local newspaper offering to contribute a weekly column on architectural criticism, news in historic preservation and urbanism. But there was no interest. The cultural pages of the Greenville News, in this case, simply regurgitated articles circulated from USA Today, owned by the same conglomerate, the Gannett Co. I'm also fully aware that using the Blogger platform is dependent on mammoth economic players. Founded in 1999, Blogger was bought by Google in 2003. Indirectly, my medium of expression is a $23 billion dollar corporation.

Academic blogging is an interesting sub-genre. In discussions with colleagues, it still seems relatively counter-cultural and even dangerous. The medium of poverty remains more democratic than other options and is worth the risk. A few days ago I have even started experimenting with Twitter. Little did I know that on the same day, Oprah Winfried publicly joined, too, ushering Twitter into the mainstream, see Jenna Wortham, "With Oprah on Board, Twitter Grows" (NYT, Apr. 17, 2009). Thanks to the laborious commentary by Bill Caraher (Archaeology of the Mediterranean World) and others, we are beginning to understand the repercussions that blogging is having on the archaeological discipline and on pedagogy (much less so with Twitter). The effects (for me at least) have been astounding. And in discussions with Caraher, I still feel that academic blogging is a form of resistance. It is democratic and transparent in ways that run against the grain of academic institutions--even though a small number of academics have eagerly embraced the medium. This has been the first year, for example, that I've been on the academic job market with a blog visible to all future employers. The results have been interesting, and I will ponder on them later in the year (when the dust settles). I think it's undeniable that tools of connectivity have changed the rules of the academic market. Imagine doing a job search without Google's search engine, or without a Wiki. But enough about that.

I want to return to the issue of "Connectivity is Poverty" through a video that made me jump, clap, sing outloud and dance along. The video is a version of the 1961 hit "Stand By Me" rendered collectively by 16 dislocated performers throughout the world. Watch the video here. Stand by Me was produced by the Playing for Change Foundation and filmed by Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls. "No matter how much money you got, you are gonna need somebody to stand by you," starts off Roger Ridley, a street performer in Santa Monica, California. Suddenly, Grandpa Elliott joins in, except that he is performing from another street in New Orleans, 1800 miles away (according to Mapquest). As the song further unfolds, we are joined by an array of musicians performing in the streets of New Orleans (Washboard Chaz, Roberto Luti), Amsterdam, Holland (Clarence Bekker), Zuni, New Mexico (Twin Eagle Drum Group), Toulouse, France (Francoise Viguie), Rio, Brazil (Cesar Pupe), Moscow, Russia (Dimitri Dolganov), Caracas, Venezuela (Geraldo and Dionisio), Mbouta, Congo (Junior Kissangwa), Guguletu, Umlazi and Mamelozi, South Africa (Pokei Klaas, Sinamuva Umlazi and Vusi Mahlasela), Barcelona, Spain (Djano Degen) and Pisa, Italy (Stefano Tomaselli). All the performers are street musicians and represent poverty; some bear the visible signs of poverty and even homelessness. They are all alone in their corners but collectively connected through the recording. They have never met each other, but the new media has brought them together. This may not be the best example of new connective technologies, but it gives a glimmer of hope towards new means of connectivity even if those connected are poor folk. I thank Brenda Gray for sending me the video. It is truly inspiring and has brought "tears of joy" to many bloggers throughout the world.


Bill Caraher said...


One place that has really brought this home to me is my wife's work marketing the graduate school here. In fact, she's giving a paper on Friday in NYC in which she talks about how many folks from "the developing world" use the internet to find out about UND, and it's not just the usual suspects (China, India) but places like Nepal, Iran, Bangladesh, Nigeria, et c. The are coming to our website on old operating systems, old browsers, from internet cafes and schools, and getting information about graduate programs.

Jan Chipchase's blog, Future Perfect, often considers how seemingly minor changes in technology will revolutionize connectivity. For example, the standardization of cellphone data ports to "micro USB" will mean that street vendors can standardize their gear for disseminating data of various kinds in the developing world. Chipchase predicts that this simple change could have a real impact how people in the developing world have access to the internet, new media content, and community.

Diana Wright said...

I sent the "Stand by Me" link to a daughter. She wrote:
'There were some guys singing this in Washington Square Park on September 13, 2001. When they got to the lines about "if the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, and the mountains crumble to the sea," well...'

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