Tag Archives: media

“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