Tag Archives: media


New post at my other blog: “On fielding a press inquiry about how pop culture depicts the oil industry”

English professors don’t often get press inquiries, but a writer for EnergyWire, an oil business-facing news service, contacted me last week to ask what I think of the video for Justin Bieber’s new song “Holy.”…

“Really really Canadian”

Many thanks to Bruce Sterling and Wired for the kind word about my article on copyright, Canadian science fiction, and social media.

Some pretty good stuff here, even if it’s, uh, really really Canadian.

I’ll take “really really Canadian” as a compliment. (Would there by any other way for a Canadian to take it?)
Not sure why WordPress waited four years to notify me about this particular pingback, but better late than never.

Writing desk vs. workstation: a productivity experiment

Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.
– Nietzsche, quoted in Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter

I am going to try reorganizing my office desk around pen and paper, to see whether that retro-fit might boost productivity. For as long as I’ve been in academia – well, for as long as my work station has revolved around word processing – I have organized my desk and work space around the computer. Now that computers are both a) ubiquitously mobile and b) designed for multitasking maximum distraction, I’m curious to discover whether re-orienting my work space around old-fashioned writing, reading, and telephony can do anything for productivity (and attention control).

Here’s my office desk’s “Before” pic (showing it behaving itself better than usual on the clutter front):

The hunch has come to me more or less out of the blue (this particular blue being exasperation with chronic and electronics-heavy desk clutter). But I am also partly motivated by the current debates on attention as dwindling resource, and on how to get more writing done. And while security isn’t a primary motivation (or not more so than usual, despite recent intelligence exposes), I am fascinated by the related retro-media news that the Kremlin has decided to abandon computers and return to typewriters, to mitigate against hacking and preserve more secure record-keeping.

Anyway. Here’s what the workspace looks like now.

A few of the electronics are still hanging around – the printer makes a convenient bookend – but the focal point is now a writing pad, not a computer.

We’ll see how this goes.

Adventures in Academic Advertising

Mirrlees_GEMI recently had the pleasure of providing a short promotional blurb for a colleague’s new book: Tanner Mirrlees’ Global Entertainment Media: Between Cultural Imperialism and Cultural Globalization (Routledge, 2013). It was interesting to observe the difference between what I supplied, and what they ended up using.

Here’s what I sent:

Comprehensive and tactically plain-spoken, Dr. Mirrlees’ cultural-economic study maps out the complex networks of production, consumption, and regulation that structure today’s culture industry, and offers a key for unlocking its meanings and functions in a neoliberal age dominated by neo-imperial corporations. In the process, this teachable text provides a primer – ideal for undergraduates – on key “macro” concepts in media and cultural studies, like discourse, globalization, intellectual property, and postcolonialism.

Here’s what they ran:

This teachable text provides a primer—ideal for undergraduates—on key ‘macro’ concepts in media and cultural studies, like discourse, globalization, intellectual property, and postcolonialism.

I’m not criticizing anybody, I just think the difference is interesting. (Also – note to self: you’re wordy!) And they ran the extended original on the book’s webpage. Publishers’ advertising and promotion people need a pretty free hand to work with what’s given: advertising is their expertise, it is so not mine. I just like contemplating the specific editorial moves involved here, and how they work to shift units, in this case an academic book.

And of course, Mirrlees’ book is very good, especially for its demystifying treatment of intellectual property, and its elaboration of theories of cultural imperialism.

We watch things on the VCR. (Still.)

I set up this configuration earlier this week and it still weirds me out a bit, seeing the VHS output on the iMac screen.


The gear is Elgato EyeTV Hybrid, a hardware and software video capture package that translates the analogue video to the digital monitor. It’s received mixed reviews, and it’s too soon to endorse it here (the video did start to lag and get choppy during one screening). I needed to set this up to watch the 1919 silent film Back to God’s Country for a student’s research project; the only version I could source is a VHS tape produced by the National Archives. The film is a fascinating cultural artifact of silent-era Canadian filmmaking … now format-shifted thrice, dragging the ghosts of media past into the digital present, and reminding us of the precarity of cultural history in an economy of planned obsolescence.


Good riddance to the cassette mixtape: on the ironies of aura in mechanical reproduction

In a recent Forbes article, Michele Catalano waxes nostalgic – or should that be rewinds nostalgic? – for “the lost art of the mixtape.”

The art – and make no mistake about it, it is an art – of making a mix tape is one lost on a generation that only has to drag and drop to complete a mix. There’s no love or passion involved in moving digital songs from one folder to another. Those “mixes” are just playlists held prison inside a device. There’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in making them.

I come not to praise mixtapes, but to bury them.

I come not to praise mixtapes, but to bury them.

Where to start a critique of such nostalgia for days of storage media yore? A statement like this, in the first place, is simply ironic: arguing that one recording medium is more authentic or immediate than another is more than a little absurd (although not without precedent: it’s part of what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin call “remediation,” or how new media are understood relative to old). A statement like this antagonizes both new media and its users – “kids these days” – in a manner that is at once as current as claims that the Internet rots your brain and as ancient as Plato’s criticism of writing itself (which, given in writing, was also ironic). Lastly, in a manner reminiscent of the dangers in writing of which Plato warned, a statement like this forgets as much about the “art” of the mixtape as it claims to recollect. Like, for instance, how crappy cassette technology was.

Today’s mediascape is so supersaturated with so many different and competing apparatuses, techniques, and systems that it has become not just plausible but commonplace to argue that some media are more authentic – less technological, and more “live,” if you will – than others. The German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin coined the term aura to describe the effects of reverence and awe that accompany the traditional, unique work of art – the painting, the chamber music performance – and yet these effects only make sense after the advent of recording technologies for mass copying art, as you will know if you’ve ever lined up at the Louvre to see the original Mona Lisa. The performance scholar Philip Auslander has coined a related term: “liveness.” The very idea of liveness, he argues, does not precede but can only be defined in contrast to recording. Reversing conventional wisdom, Auslander argues rock & roll is a genre the live performance of which always strives to sound as much as it can like its prior studio recording; he also shows how entrenched the value of liveness is in popular culture, with reference for instance to the case of dance act Milli Vanilli, disgraced for having their Grammy revoked on the grounds they had lip-synched their work.

Arguments for “liveness” and against mediation are in some ways a reprise of the ancient hostility to new media as media, which is to say hostility to techne – to art – as mythologized by Plato’s Phaedrus (circa 370 BCE), which recounts the encounter between the Egyptian king Thamus and the god Theuth, inventor of writing: a technology that Thamus argues does not aid memory, as Theuth claims, but rather destroys it.

this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

In the context of music, the hostility to media has been modulated by a Romantic ideology of creativity as spontaneous, individual expression and by musicians’ organized campaigns against recording media. Ironically, since the 1980s, the DJ sector itself has been reproducing this tradition, in campaigns against the CD, campaigns to “keep vinyl alive.” Last summer, Toronto producer and DJ Deadmau5 reignited the “liveness” debate in the domain of DJing specifically by claiming >many top dance DJs like himself just “hit play” (instead of mixing and beatmatching tracks). His comments drew fierce and defensive criticism from other top DJs, who went on to justify their work and the outrageous sums that overcompensate it in terms of romanticized “blood, sweat and tears.” As though some ways to press play are less technological, or more work, than others.

Catalano’s article, then, is a very recent variation on a very ancient theme. It is invested in Romanticism, in authenticity, in the notion that making a mixtape is work that can’t be matched by whatever it is the kids today are doing with their phones (clicking and dragging, shuffling, sodcasting, and so on). Unlike sorting mp3s, making a mixtape is an “art,” Catalano insists, repeatedly, perhaps protesting too much. Moreover, it’s an “art” that is driven by “love and passion” and that demands “blood, sweat and tears” – it demands real work, that is, unlike pointing, clicking, and dragging. Which are also apparently acts devoid of love and passion.

These claims – about old media being better quality, or more authentic, or more engaging, and – conversely – about new media being lower quality, or artificial and superficial, or dissociative and antisocial – will not stand. They rehearse assumptions about culture and technology that are not only ancient but pernicious and regressive: they’re the same kinds of assumptions that Big Content exploits to pursue its copyright maximalist agenda, thwarting cultural innovation and growth (but that’s another story). They valorize kinds of DIY cultural labour as though they havedisappeared, rather than transformed. And these claims are also more than a little ironic, for appearing in blog form.

Let me be clear: I too made my fair share of analogue cassette mixtapes when I was young. I still own, and even play, several of these pause-button productions, soundtracks to youthful desire and mystery. But would I trade the mobile device I can pocket for a double-deck boom box, a shoe box full of cassettes, a milk crate full of vinyl, and an antennae-borne FM signal? Hell no.

Let me also be clear that I’m not refuting the idea that making a mixtape is a creative practice. (I wouldn’t call it an “art,” actually, but that’s a different argument to make elsewhere.) Making a music mix – whether as “live” set, mixtape, mashup, playlist, or podcast – is an eminently, critically creative practice. What I am refuting is the idea that this art depends on a specific medium – and in this case a rightly dead one that nobody should feel like they miss, or missed out on. I’m not even refuting the idea that a cassette mixtape takes a lot of work – I’m just saying it’s work not worth missing, and that goes on anyway, in different forms.

So let me count the ways I don’t miss the mixtape, and bid it good riddance.

1) Sound quality: analogue cassettes start degrading as soon as you play them, and the more you play one back, the faster it goes. (As a kid I even bought commercially made tapes, before a school friend pointed out I should buy vinyl and blank tapes instead, a more robust solution.) Depending on the tape and the recording-playback unit, a tape could all too often end up sounding warbly. To fix that, you’d have to do it again, or risk a new tape. In contrast, the fix for a warbly-sounding mp3 is simply finding or forking out for a high-quality one instead. I sure don’t miss warbly-sounding tapes – whether they got dubbed that way or just inevitably got that way with repeated play.
Then there were levels, too: tape decks had better and worse EQs for sound-checking a mix, and EQing this detail, making sure the levels just touched the reds from song to song, could get hugely time-consuming. It’s work I don’t miss. (Not that iTunes does anything like an ideal job with its own sound check, but it’s an improvement.)

2) Research: finding music new or old, sourcing the right songs for a certain mix, trying to decide what gear to buy, what records, what kinds of blank tapes (what quality, how long) … the sourcing and selecting of music did take a lot of work before the Internet, and it’s work I don’t miss for a second. Then, as now, to not only find the right music but to develop your own distinctive tastes, you relied on your friends, social circles, and your own idiosyncratic navigation of the social fabric and cultural media of the day.
The Internet increasingly allows you to source and select songs from more and more of the whole history of recorded sound (as long as the copyright lobbies don’t ultimately get their way – by using the same romantic rhetoric on display in articles like that under discussion). Would I, as a teen, have had access to Edison’s recordings? Wouldn’t even occur to me to have tried.
As the Internet has magnified the opportunities for developing musical taste – allowing for both global diversification and micro-genre specialization equally – so do digital playback apps and systems enhance possibilities for honing the craft of the perfect mix. If you made a mixtape and, after repeated playback, one or more songs started to seem out of place, you’d have to put a fair bit of work into redoing or perfecting it. Not so with digital playback. And what’s more, digital playback allows for what I consider a welcome element of chance: the shuffle function often yields sequences and juxtapositions that have an uncanny serendipity about them, like a ghost in the machine. Such chance combinations have a valuable role to play in the conscious composition of a playlist or mix.

3) Sharing: You know what was maybe kind of special about mixtapes? Not being invited or pressured to share them with the world. Or being auto-prompted to check out similar music “you might like.” Privacy is a scarce resource these days. And I will concede that the surveillance mechanisms and privacy policies those algorithms represent are deeply spooky, even dystopian.
And you know what is kind of special about digital mixes? BEING INVITED TO SHARE THEM WITH THE WORLD. Similarly, being advised by algorithms to check out music you might like is certainly creepy, but we are living some science fiction shit when robots can suggest what music we might sample.
In addition, the aura of a given mixtape – its uniqueness – reflects its fragility, its vulnerability to vicissitudes of sharing and distribution. Lend a tape and there’d be no telling what shape you’d get it back in. You could make a backup, but that too was time-consuming and costly (and risked the warbly issue I mentioned above, too).

4) Democratized mixing, DJing and sound engineering: It’s true that the whole genre of hip hop started with pause-button boombox tape edits and vinyl hackers like Herc and Flash rebuilding the relation between needle and groove from the ground up. But it’s also true that today’s digital milieu has even more dramatically further democratized music mixing and music-making. For one thing, digital files are much more portable and manipulable. For another, audio tools for doing so are available in abundance and relatively easy to learn – Audacity is a great example of free, high-quality, and easily learned sound editing and podcasting software for anyone who wants a mix to be more than an iTunes playlist. Not that theres anything wrong with an iTunes playlist. Similarly, streaming music services engage listeners more interactively in selecting and customizing the sound stream.

5) Footprint: See what I said above, about the double-deck boom box, shoe box full of cassettes, and milk crate full of vinyl. That’s a lot of mass, for one thing. On this front, at least, I feel like the science fiction future I was promised as a youth (in part by the new wave and Afro-Futurist sounds of my ’80s mixtapes) has come to pass: the shit that used to fill my bedroom now fits IN MY POCKET. I do not miss packing for trips or moving house that involved hauling so much bulky tech luggage.
That said, it isn’t at all clear or straightforward that today’s pocket jukebox puts down a smaller environmental footprint than yesterday’s shelves full of boxes did, especially when we consider: offshore manufacture environment policies and shipping; the “planned obsolescence” business model for consumer technology, which yields a new crop of flat glass rectangles every fall; electronic waste; the “rare earth” that goes into microprocessing and, arguably, some geopolitical coflicts.

Like I said, I agree that making a mixtape is a creative practice, and that, in their day, mixtapes held momentous cultural importance: they helped to found hip hop, and they helped to build rave scenes, for instance. And for those who still have and can play them, they remain important cultural-historical artifacts. But I disagree with claims that making mixtapes is more creative than manipulating iTunes, that dead media are inherently of more value or better quality than current media, or that mixing music is anything like a “lost art.” If anything, it’s booming now more than ever. As numerous music critics, historians, and DJs themselves point out, the art of the mix is – at its aesthetic core – the art of selecting and sequencing. Composition is compilation. And this is a creative process that long predates cassette tapes, and has thrived in their wake.

I also like to think that the automation of one creative process makes possible new kinds of hands-on creative opportunities;for instance, automated beat-matching frees up more time for thoughtful selecting, or for effects and EQing. We also see this transformation of creative work in the wider proliferation of not just new mechanisms for consuming music but also new modes of producing it – some of which themselves mix and match, in the ever-changing realm of consumption-as-production, or “prosumption.”

In closing, it’s interesting to note that Catalano’s article is itself something of a mix of the kinds of deep-seated premises I’ve outlined, a mix that resonates strongly with more recent and specific statements on the cassette mixtape in particular. Carl Wilson wrote a similar column in 2005, when iPods first burst into the consumer tech sector. His “Ode to the yearning, churning mixtape” was composed as an annotated playlist – the article is “a mix tape in memory of mix tapes,” organized as reflections on twenty selections from Billie Holiday to Sonic Youth (and for further recursivity, some of the tracks are themselves musical odes to mixtapes). Here’s a sample entry:

19. Mixtape=Love (Viva Voce, 2004): The mix CD may permit laziness, but it doesn’t require it. I spent as many hours on a mix for my wife while she was away this winter as I ever have, sifting hundreds of tracks for strands on separation and return, on time’s conveyances. Her response was as tender as to any cassette. (But handwrite the track listing: Modernity has its limits.)

So I’m tempted (perhaps unfairly) to suggest there’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in the Forbes article. In its unexamined, problematic assumptions, nostalgic affectation, and played-out tropes, this article suggests that the art of lamenting the lost art of the mixtape is itself in danger of being lost on a generation of writers that can so easily pastiche premises and arguments from the whole history of writing on media – premises and arguments that demand critical scrutiny. Such arguments short-change and dismiss the diverse and vital practices of music sharing and music-making practiced by kids today – who are still alright, as The Who sang, and whom you can’t fool, as Peter Tosh did. Maybe download those two to start your next playlist.

Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. “Liveness, Mediatization, and Intermedial Performance.” Degrés: Revue de synthèse à orientation sémiologique 101 (2000). http://lmc.gatech.edu/~auslander/publications/liveness.pdf

Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936). Rpt. in Marxists Archive.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: WW Norton, 2010.

Catalano, Michele. “The lost art of the mixtape.” Forbes 23 Dec. 2012.

Deadmau5 [Joel Zimmerman]. “we all hit play.” United We Fail 23 Jun. 2012.

Plato. Phaedrus. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 9. Trans. Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1925. Rpt. in “The first critique of writing: Plato’s Phaedrus.” U of Illinois.

Tosh, Peter. “Can’t blame the youth.” Intel-Diplo, 1973.

The Who. “The kids are alright.” My Generation. Brunswick, 1965.

Wilson, Carl. “Ode to the yearning, churning mix tape.” Globe and Mail 4 Jun. 2005: R6.

“Political correctness”: decoding a vicious, pernicious code word

I always cringe when I hear the phrase “political correctness” being used. It’s a deeply coded phrase, and what it encodes is a stubborn, neoconservative cultural politics, a politics of entitlement and disrespect. And yet that politics is so deeply coded that one encounters the phrase being used by people who should know better; and maybe they will learn to avoid the phrase, if they take the time to get caught up on its context and complexity. If I never see it being taken out and waved around in public discourse again, it will be too soon.

In the late 1980s and ’90s, North American academia – and the Humanities and social sciences sector more specifically – found itself in a war of words and policies not only among its own stakeholders, but also with policymakers, and with corporate news media – which, let’s remember, held far more cultural and discursive sway then, before the popularization of the Internet in the mid-’90s. This encounter became known as the “Culture Wars.” In his critical retrospective, Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars, U of Guelph Professor Emeritus Michael Keefer describes the Culture Wars as “a widespread perception of crisis in North American higher education, a perception stemming largely from the outcries over ‘political correctness’ in American and Canadian universities that began in the late 1980s” and continued until the mid-1990s (Keefer vi). Understood in retrospect as a “moral panic” created and fueled by neoconservative ideologues (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, George F. Will, Allan Bloom) to justify the defunding and privatizing of the Humanities and social sciences, the “PC furore” revolved around the coded buzzword “political correctness.”

“Political correctness” remains in use today, usually as a pejorative term that neoconservatives use to ridicule or criticize progressive or left-leaning events or persons, to conjure moral panic over freedom of speech, or to otherwise vilify criticism of inappropriate or untenable claims. Take this Maclean’s article from last year, for instance, which uses the phrase to dismiss the UN’s quite legitimate critique of Canada’s policy language of “visible minorities.”

One of the usual suspects

The phrase also gets an annual dusting-off during the holiday season in neoconservative news media reports of a purported “war on Christmas.” The phrase has nothing like the traction it had in the early 1990s – when you couldn’t swing a black and smoking Christmas tree without hitting some old white fart brandishing a new book denouncing the censorious menace of “PC” – but it has persisted, viciously and perniciously, in everyday speech, popular culture, and public discourse. “Political correctness” is still a card quickly played by conservative or otherwise privileged voices who complain of being “censored” – not just the usual rightwing media suspects, but also a curious and tenacious class of strident yet paranoid academics whose definitions of political correctness – as some kind of discursive “tyranny,” or liberal conspiracy, or “threat” to academic freedom – have helped establish the phrase as a rhetorical stick with which to beat progressive intellectuals. Or intellectuals generally, for that matter. I’m not linking to any such definitions or diatribes. Google “political correctness” if you want, and then take in the lunacy of even just the first page of results. But I will stoop to briefly administer some undeserved oxygen of publicity to a recent example in peer-reviewed scholarship – on account of its windy bombast, and its startling success in finding refereed publication some twenty years after this party more or less ended:

One of the abominations of our day, and there are many, is the beast of political correctness that has been turned loose on the world. Born of genuine humanitarian impulses, it now threatens to devour much of what is greatest in our literature and forever separate the children of our culture from what is essential to their humanity. (272)

Whoa, this opener makes PC sound like a Monsanto product. Actually, in this particular article, this chimerical “beast” threatens to suggest that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a racist text, instead of just a “beautifully written” one that “should still be read” (278) – as though analyzing the book’s racism somehow means we shouldn’t, or haven’t.

But – its purported “beastliness” and “tyranny” aside – what does the phrase actually mean, as a phrase so cherished and widespread in neoconservative usage? “For the sake of reporters and columnists who might want to come clean and openly mock the virtues that would otherwise remain hidden by the PC label,” Keefer directs our attention to Wayne Booth’s “list of synonyms for political correctness”:

(1) decency; (2) legality; (3) moral or ethical standards; (4) justice, fairness, equality of opportunity; (5) tact, courtesy, concern about hurting people’s feelings unnecessarily; (6) generosity; (7) kindness; (8) courage in defending the underdog; (9) anti-bigotry; (10) anti-racism; (11) anti-anti-Semitism; (12) anti-fascism; (13) anti-sexism; (14) refusal to kneel to mammon; (15) sympathetic support for the jobless, the homeless, the impoverished, or the abused; (16) preservation of an environment in which human life might survive; (17) openness to the possibility that certain popular right-wing dogmas just might be erroneous. (qtd. in Keefer 11)

More plain-spoken versions of this definition appear as ripostes to a diatribe against political correctness that was published (unsurprisingly enough) on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website:

“Political Correctness” – Buzzword used to express the absurd notion that the majority is being dominated by the minorities. (foundationist)

Political correctness is formalised good manners. It has been a benefit to society. Before it became influential it was common to see overt racism, sexism, homophobia, jokes about the disabled and so on. Fortunately a culture of respect for diversity developed and with it a culture of disrespect for rudeness – political correctness. … The term ‘political correctness’ can be used as a verbal weapon by those who want to do extreme things, things which would attack equality and human rights. When others complain, the response ‘that’s just political correctness’ is supposed to be a conversation stopper, because political correctness is supposed to be wrong. Complaining about political correctness is as absurd as complaining about good manners. The response ‘that’s just political correctness’ usually translates as ‘that’s just being polite’. (Zara)

In other words, “political correctness” is a nasty way to describe talking nicely, as though talking nicely is nasty. This rhetorical duplicity, coupled with the privileged, dominant positions from which pronouncements on political correctness typically come, has made the phrase “political correctness” slippery, robust, and insidious. The phrase thus provides a present-day example of “political speech and writing” as “the defense of the indefensible,” as criticized by George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English language.” The phrase “political correctness” is a perfect example of a phrase whose cryptic complexity lets it smuggle into one’s speech or writing a formidable freight of covert (and perhaps, sometimes, unintended) meanings that can detract from or even derail the point of a statement in which it’s used, when it’s not being openly used to justify oppression.

Amidst the flame wars, troll rampages, and other hostilities that attend a digital mediascape much more populous and interactive than it was in the mid-1990s, it is a tragedy of English vocabulary and public discourse that one of the main progressive take-away points from the “political correctness” furore – that we be courteous, thoughtful, sensitive, inclusive, and above all respectful in our language – has been lost, body-snatched by a sneaky and vicious code word for the privileged, entitled, and bigoted to claim not only license but even moral high ground for their vituperative sound and fury.

Works cited

Booth, Wayne. “A politically correct letter to the newspaper.” Democratic Culture 3.1 (1994): 2.

Curtler, Hugh Mercer. “Political correctness and the attack on great literature.” Modern Age 51.3-4 (2009): 272-79.

Derry, Alex. “Political correctness gone mad?” Maclean’s 10 Aug. 2011

foundationist. Comment 2 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011

Keefer, Michael. Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars. Toronto: Anansi, 1996. Print.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon Apr. 1946. Rpt. in Stanford U. Web.

Zara, Steve. Comment 4 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011

Pathologizing the Internet: File-sharing as a sign of depression?

In June this year, a study by Missouri U of Science and Technology researchers scored some impressive headlines in the NY Times, the NY Post, and elsewhere: “How depressives surf the web.” The rather less catchy title of the study itself is “Associating Depressive Symptoms in College Students with Internet Usage Using Real Internet Data.” The Times article, by the study’s own authors, does a good, even exemplary job of translating the study itself into plain language. But in both its specialist and general-audience forms, the study makes some troubling claims and suggests some insidious implications.

The study’s two main claims are: 1) “we identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression”; and 2) “there were patterns of Internet usage that were statistically high among participants with depressive symptoms.” One specific feature of Internet use the study correlates with depression is, symptomatically, file-sharing:

The correlation observed between peer-to-peer usage and depressive symptoms is intuitive. Sharing files like music, movies, photos etc. are primary reasons for using peer-to-peer services. Students are prone to be addicted to such kinds of content, which may explain this trend. (5)

A claim like this explains the corporate media’s uptake of the study. This claim pathologizes file-sharing, thus legitimizing Big Content’s persistent efforts to criminalize it tout court; it adds to the close and evidence-based associations among depression, anxiety, and addiction the practices of digital copying and sharing. Sharing: it is now a symptom of addiction, not a fundamentally human trait. And what does it mean for students – or anyone – to be “addicted” to cultural products like music and movies? Inside the study’s apparently modest and limited claim is a vicious Utilitarian assumption, that cultural products are surplus to requirements, useless subjects, addictive – without redeeming social value. Conversely, the Culture Industry thesis would argue the institutional capitalist basis for this addiction in the Big Content industries themselves, industries that actively and sometimes openly cultivate and exploit addictive behaviours via advertising, via serialization, via the rapid and high-volume turnover of products, via the commodity fetishism of consumerist ideology in general.

The study goes on to make similarly pathologizing claims for other forms of Internet use, like e-mail and IRC.

Frequent email checking may relate with high levels of anxiety, which in-turn [sic] correlates with depressive symptoms. (5)

Of course, frequent e-mail checking also relates to the demands increasingly placed on postindustrial labour to be on call 24/7, via applications and, in particular, mobile devices designed precisely to encourage and stimulate frequent e-mail checking. If you have a mobile device – say, an iOS device – see how long it takes you to find the settings for e-mail notification – and then take careful note of how the defaults are set: that is, for maximal “push” notification. The very vocabulary of mobile apps openly identifies the role of the app (and by extension its programmer) as a pusher, in case you’re looking for one to god-damn, for all the e-mail you’ve got to smoke through.

So while I don’t question the basic empirical findings here, I do see significant limitations in the study’s methodology, and pernicious implications in its claims. Its methodology could well stand to absorb more of McLuhan’s message: that our technologies, our media, work us over completely, thus rendering the cause-effect relationship between Internet use and psychological health a much more complex chicken-and-egg problem. To identify (however tentatively) features and patterns of Internet use as symptoms of depression is to disregard, even mystify, the formidable planning, design, and market-share calculations that go into making p2p, e-mail, IRC, and other prevalent Internet apps and tools as “addictive” as possible. Lacking an economic or institutional analysis, the study becomes legible as a market instrument.

The implications of this study’s claims serve not only the Big Content lobby, by pathologizing file-sharing, but also the Big Pharma industry, which – as other studies have persuasively argued – is at least as busy designing new disorders to treat as it is invested in actually alleviating extant ones (Cooke 71). In a broader theoretical context, this study (like so many others) makes scientific claims to bolster entrenched, dominant ideologies, in particular the privileging of speech over writing, embodied presence over technological mediation, that deconstruction has so thoroughly documented and critiqued. The authors claim, for instance:

Excess online chatting can affect the psychology of young people, and can also cause social isolation and loneliness in the real world, potentially leading to depressive symptoms. (5)

Reinforcing this line between the virtual and the real, a line that it is the perennial historical function of new media to transgress and redraw, the study leverages this line to propose new strategies for detecting – and intervening in the lives of – depressives in the digital milieu (with a commitment to respecting the user’s privacy, of course). Now, don’t get me wrong – I know depression is a real and enormous social problem, among students no less so than among the general population; I have experienced it among friends and family and had at least one bout of it myself. And I know that some Internet uses are symptomatic of addictive disorders. But if frequent e-mail checking and file-sharing are signs of depression, then wouldn’t a sizeable majority of postindustrial workers be diagnosable as depressives? And if so, how conveniently would that mass diagnosis serve certain corporate interests?

The issue here is this study’s unexamined ideological premises, its reductive methodology – which reads into statistical findings more context that seems defensible, while taking many Internet uses out of their institutional and economic contexts – and consequently the conclusions, which lend scientific authority to the profit-motivated, anti-public political and media campaigns of Big Content and Big Pharma, and lend further fuel to the long-burning signal fires that always flare up against new ways to send signals.

Works Cited

Chellappan, Sriram and Raghavendra Kotikalapudi. “Associating Depressive Symptoms in College Students with Internet Usage Using Real Internet Data.” IEEE Technology and Society 2012 [forthcoming] http://web.mst.edu/~chellaps/papers/12_tech-soc_kcmwl.pdf

—. “How depressives surf the web.” New York Times 15 Jun. 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/opinion/sunday/how-depressed-people-use-the-internet.html

Cooke, Grayson. “Technics and the human at the zero hour: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.” Studies in Canadian Literature 31.2 (2006): 63-83 http://epubs.scu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1537&context=sass_pubs&sei-redir=1


This year my Congress itinerary started with a side trip: on landing in Toronto, I stopped by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto, to meet the people who run it and my research assistant, an Athabasca MA student who’s working on a research project there. Everyone was fabulous and the archive is like an impossible and imperative project: a collection of queer Canada’s vital cultural and historical documents, housed in a Victorian three-storey house (not, I suspect, originally designed for this purpose); and a project whose private funding means independence from – but also inaccessibility to – public funding sources. Given the recent budget’s libary and archive cuts, the CLGA’s support system seems a mix of boon and bane.

Next stop was with family north of Toronto; they drove me to Waterloo on Sunday, where we met the family friends, a couple, who’d agreed to host me while I was in town for Congress. One of my hosts actually works at WLU’s communications office, so I was privy to interesting non-academic perspectives on Congress and media.

Via FreeEducationMontreal.org

The first session I attended, hosted by ACCUTE, concerned critical theory in relation to current social questions of marginalization and gentrification; it also provided the first of numerous instances of delegates wearing red square fabric patches to express solidarity with the Quebec student movement. (My host and some delegates wondered aloud whether Congress might host a protest or march (between the manifencours and the spectre of censure hanging over WLU and Waterloo for their new corporate-funded research centre. I never saw any protest manifest, but then again I might have just missed it entirely based on my own schedule.)

After that session was the president’s reception, the big freeform meet-n-greet. Ran into a few people I know from Western and Guelph, including the indomitable Smaro Kamboureli, to whom I showed iPad-stored family photos in between the mobile calls she had to take, in our wave new world of augmented socializing. I introduced my RA to lots of people, but I think she found the scene something of a sensory overload. Every association gets invited to one of these receptions, and they tend to group like fields and interests, but not necessarily every association with people you know goes to the same reception you do. (Congress vets will advise newcomers, grads in particular, to go to every reception just to grab a good free meal. They’re not exactly regulated by bouncers and velvet rope.)

For the second consecutive night of the trip I endured the dim infinitude of insomnia, taking shape between the second night in a strange bed and nerves about the busy Monday ahead. Not an auspicious start to that day’s full program. Propped up by coffee, I presented a talk on Frankenstein in pop music for an ACCUTE session on New Directions in Adaptation Studies. The venue’s AV system played wonderfully well with the iPad, and played back the music samples I’d prepared at satisfyingly high volume and definition. This year the schedule of proceedings made much more breathing room for Q & A after the papers: a welcome change, making each session more productive and interesting for those party to it. In this case, I fielded some solid primary text suggestions and theoretical questions (such as one about how to distinguish adaptation from intertextuality).

In the session right after that, I joined a special “professional concerns” panel on cynicism in academia. While my previous talk had drawn several solid comments and questions from its relatively small but focused audience, this second session was provocative, feisty even – presenters and audience alike. Although some complained it was more familiar complaining, and floated some suggestions for action against sources of academic cynicism: workforce casualization, university corporatization -the now all-too-usual suspects. One excellent but then-undeliverable suggestion was for a panel on cynicism to include a higher-up university administrator. One of my co-panelists had maybe the best ever conference paper title for his talk – complete with a corresponding Venn diagram – but I’m not stealing that thunder here since the organizer has designs on getting the panel proceedings into print (more on that as it happens). For my part, I was pleased to be able to work into my presentation a shot of Margaret Sutherland’s painting of Canada’s ruling cynic, Emperor Haute Couture.


My talk on academic cynicism, as seen from space

I represented AU at the association’s lunch for campus representatives, a yearly chance to give feedback on the conference, communications, and membership matters. Just before lunch I ran into a family friend who’s a philosopher, to find out he’d published a book and had recently been offered tenure-track work. Good to know some such offers still stand. Would there were more, for all the eminently deserving people you meet at things like this.

After that lunch, I played hooky for the afternoon, retreating to my hosts’ house in the suburb across the parkway for a leisurely run in the 35 degree late May heat. (Yeah, that’s real normal weather.) My host had recommended a nearby woodlot, on account of the shade, but I must have taken a wrong turn, and found myself jogging down an ever-narrowing dirt track. I turned back and sought civilization on encountering a patch of big ugly weeds spray-painted orange…and recalling that Waterloo was where the invasive and toxic giant hogweed had first been discovered a couple years earlier. Retreat!

Monday evening was time for the ACCUTE-hosted and strangely misnamed “wine and cheese,” preceded by drinks with the research team at the U of Manitoba’s Sex Worker and Missing Women archive, a team my RA introduced me to. This team’s work, like the CLGA’s, struck me as similarly imperative and impossible, possibly moreso, given the traumatic subject matter of and public recoil from their work. So maybe I didn’t meet everybody I’d been hoping to at the prior night’s reception; here was a welcome chance, instead, to make some new scholarly acquaintances.

I’m not sure what my RA was expecting of the ACCUTE “wine and cheese” but I guess it wasn’t a club with a dark dance floor full of English and Cultural Studies students and scholars getting down to the eclectic, request-friendly playlist being thrown down by ACCUTE’s resident DJ. The ACCUTE party is always a Congress highlight, and this year’s may have been the best yet: the sound system was massive, the tracks were way more hit than miss, and the floor was constantly full. Also, there was a dry ice machine, which got put to good use. Standout selections included “Born this way” (I hadn’t heard it before on a proper system, which opened it to new levels of textured and tactile appreciation), “Blue Monday” (which I dug on with a verve that felt retrieved from high school days), and “Vogue” – mostly for the opportunity it afforded a few of the delegates who’d been there back in the day to actually vogue – an extraordinary dancefloor drama. Sadly, I had to quit the scene all too early, gently ridiculed for doing so by partygoers taking a break from the move-busting for sidewalk cigarazzi duty.

The early but not-quite-Cinderella-grade bail was necessitated by next morning’s 9 am session on the copyfight, which I had convened and was chairing. (At least all the exercise Monday killed the insomnia, finally.) The copyfight panel was a fantastic line-up for a respectable turnout (not massive, but respectable given it was going down first thing after ACCUTE party night), with delegates from both ACCUTE and SDH, which co-sponsored it. The speakers included a law-trained member of Western’s copyright advisory group speaking on Access Copyright, my RA on copyright and digital porn, and Digital Prohibition author Carolyn Guertin on the modes and meanings of digital remix practice. Understandably, many audience members were very concerned about the Access Copyright situation, on which much discussion ensued in particular – and in which developments keep coming fast and furiously, making it hard to keep one’s work timely. This challenge to stay abreast of the latest regulatory decisions and manoeuvres is a common caveat issued by researchers presenting work on copyright; it’s a sign not just of the subject’s currency, but also of its inordinate command of policy-making resource, its monopolization of political will.


Carolyn Guertin’s talk was rich with samples of digital remix productions

Following some sightseeing downtime (sights including RIM hq, the llamas of Eby Farms, and Mennonites), I randomly encountered some #AthaU colleagues whilst grabbing a coffee, and we compared notes on sessions and associations. There are so many even for a more discipline-dedicated than interdisciplinary researcher to choose from. I’ve previously attended CATR, CCA, and SSS conferences; and even in just Anglophone literary studies I could also join at least two other associations beside ACCUTE: namely, ACQL and CACLALS.

Tuesday afternoon, then, I attended an SDH session on the politics of cyberculture. Antiquated as anything “cyber-” sounds, the session presented up-to-the-minute investigations of digital graffiti, remix culture in China, and interactive art installations. The SDH proceedings also afforded a chance to catch up with familiar acquaintances and make some new ones.

The experience of attending Congress as something of a tour guide – i.e. introducing my RA, an AU Masters student, to the megaconference – made for a somewhat different Congress itinerary than the solo kind I’d pursued in prior years. One obvious difference was that it made the event more about mentorship, from overall orientation to details of conference presentation. The mentorship approach got me reflecting on my own independent introduction to Congress as a gad student, and how disorienting and trial-and-error that autodidactic exercise had been. It also meant making new contacts, as I got introduced to members of my RA’s own growing research network: the U Manitoba archive team; Brock U’s Margot Francis, author of Creative Subversions, a new book about Canada’s racialized, colonial imaginary. It also got me noticing how widespread this kind of mentorship is, observing other scholars leading students on a kind of conference Grand Tour, and, moreover, how much more taken for granted (and, arguably, easy to organize) this kind of mentorship is at traditional, face-to-face universities.


#AthaU MAIS student poses for photo op with supervisor, mostly to prove he’s not a paper-marking robot.

The other novel dimension of Congress this year was staying with friends, one of whom works for the host institution but not as an academic, and the other in the private sector. They were very curious about what Congress is about in the big-picture way, and about what I was doing there in particular. On my last evening in Waterloo I treated them to a thankyou dinner at a hip little resto they’d raved about, a spot clearly staggering under the influx of hungry academic traffic; then we met a friend of theirs and, on a whim, went to take in a special concert led by Canada’s Polka King himself, Walter Ostanek.


I’m way more stoked about this than I look. (If we’re talking media savvy, I need to work on my photo op skills.)

Over pints and between rounds of the chicken dance (which got played more often that night than Lady GaGa had been the night before), my hosts asked me about my work; it’s a sometimes difficult but always useful exercise to describe one’s research in plain-speaking cocktail-party talk. In turn, my host shared a sense of what such an event looks like from the not-quite-outside perspective of the university communications office, its media wing, which represents the university to the media, the government, the public. She said that she’d spent most of Tuesday in the Congress media office, and that it was “dead.” I wondered aloud about the media office, how some years it contacts you if it thinks your work will interest the media: this and previous years, I’d filled out and sent in the media form, but to no apparent end – no press of mics and cameras waiting outside the classroom doors. “Bring it to the media office,” my friend said. That is: Don’t wait for the media to come to you, if you think your work is a story – take it to the media. Given recent, disturbing developments in Canada’s public intellectual culture – from the government’s muzzling of climate change scientists to the Canadian Library Association’s suppression of its own members’ activism – this strikes me as a particularly important take-away point. Canada’s public intellectual culture – even the idea of the public itself – is only as strong as those willing to stand up for it, though we do so in the face of the public interest’s active destruction by a regime beholden only to the narrowest of private interests. On this front, Congress could stand to learn much from CLASSE and the students in Quebec, in solidarity with whom so many delegates wore safety-pinned red squares … more visible to sympathetic eyes than to those who really need to see them.

Format-shifting and fidelity: on reading and adaptation

Recent work on adaptation studies (the study of novels turned into movies, and so on) suggests that the ideas the field was founded on – like how “faithful” a movie is to its source – have been superseded, left behind as passé or outmoded. That’s the state of the field according to Linda Hutcheon’s 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation, for instance.

So reading Jamie Lee Wallace’s blog post about how “audio books are not cheating” – to gether with its comments – is a useful reminder that ideas about fidelity to source texts and authenticity in original versions are alive and well in everyday language and popular culture. Wallace is responding to criticisms that reading audio rather than print editions of books is a kind of “cheating.” She makes solid, practical arguments: that the text is the same; that audiobooks make reading possible for otherwise busy schedules; and, most interestingly, that the speaking voice adds presence (what Walter Benjamin calls “aura”) and, sometimes, additional interpretive layers.

My main criticism of the post was going to be that she doesn’t name those who think audiobooks are cheating: who are the “bibliophile purists” she’s responding to?

Then I started reading the comments. The overwhelming majority agree with the blogger (not surprising, since the blog medium itself would filter out a lot of print purists). But the dissenting comments are revealing. (I admit I’m taking some of these out of context.)

“I don’t listen to books — I read them.”
“I’m still just purist enough to be annoyed by eBooks. I still think nothing beats the feeling of actually holding the book and turning the pages.”
“I am totally one of those people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a kindle or any fandangled technology device that’s trying to replace books.”
“I felt dirty for listening to it. I was cheating myself of the experience of cradling a book in my hands and being curled up on the couch with it, but it freed my hands up to do other things..granted there was a few sound effects added into the story, which helped enhance the experience but I don’t think I can really say I’ve “read” that book because I didn’t physically hold it in my hands.”
“I still insist that books are meant to be read. However, I do not consider audio-books or kindle versions to be cheating, with one condition: That the book is intact. That is all summaries, short versions and most obviously movie adaptations are cheating. Mostly because they give everything in bite size, easily digested pieces. The point about a book is to let your imagination go wild and enjoy the imagery the author so carefully created.”

As you can see, the discussion ends up encompassing not just audiobooks but e-books as formats seen to compete with print as more people shift to them. But the shift isn’t one-way, just as adaptation isn’t one-way. (Hutcheon discusses how novels changed over the 20th century to adopt more “cinematic” techniques.) In this light, the last quoted comment’s point about abridgments is well taken – I read unabridged audio editions – but to call a film adaptation “cheating” is to misconstrue what films do (unless you’re talking about films that cheat estates out of their royalties), and yet it’s a widely held opinion. I myself confess to having felt vaguely like I was taking a shortcut by reading Ulysses (unabridged) as an audiobook; but that feeling was easily trumped by a rewarding feeling of accomplishment: I’ve read Ulysses!

Ulysses, by James Joyce

What this blog post suggests for adaptation studies is that it needs to engage critically with the popular romance of fidelity: the fetishes of authenticity and aura that we have inherited from Romantic tradition and that clearly continue to inform popular receptions and understandings of popular culture. (There’s also, among this post’s comments, a recurring sense that new media simply replace old – as I discussed last week.)

But by the same token, “purists” need to ask themselves what purity they are defending, and what that defence serves. Discourses of purity, for instance, are historically bound up in pernicious practices and institutions of race and nation. And defences of purity are one of the main ideological weapons still deployed by multinational media conglomerates to sell the public on increasingly restrictive, censorious, and invasive copyright regulation. In addition, media today are so diverse and multi-directional in their mutual appropriations and cross-pollinations that more pertinent and productive questions beg to be asked than whether audio editions are more real or more readable than paper, or whether Clueless is “faithful” to Austen.

Take Canadian poet Christian Bok’s Xenotext Experiment, for instance: a poem transcribed into a bacterium’s genome, for it to replicate and mutate – literally re-writing Bok’s poem – ad infinitum. What might readers attached to print make of this writing? How does one read the “original” text of a bacterial genome?