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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, June 29, 2008

questions about "citizen" journalism and secret journalists

on NPR this morning, someone had written a letter-to-the-editor type comment about a piece on citizen journalism, that is, journalistic-style reporting by non-journalists. I'm really not a fan of the term citizen journalism (or its relative citizen science, for that matter), but that's the subject for another post. here, I want to focus on a comment about the NPR story. one listener said that citizen journalism is potentially problematic when such citizens do not identify themselves as serving a journalist-like function, as people on whom are being reported should be aware that such reporting is taking place. I wonder if that assumption, that the average person off the street is not going to report on your interactions that s/he observes, is really well founded.

I'm not encouraging or endorsing the practice of secret journalism or being intentionally misleading about one's intent to broadly disseminate information. however, I don't think it's reasonable to assume that any act taken in public will not be posted online. I'm thinking in part here of George Allen's macaca debacle. he clearly did not consider, even though he was speaking publicly in front of a largish audience, that his speech and actions would be as public as they became. but I'm also thinking in part about greater trends of watchfulness and sousveillance. it's not necessarily the case that every word you say will show up on the front page of tomorrow's New York Times or Slashdot post, but that possibility definitely exists for your every word.

how do we as a society and as a culture cope with such possibilities? one obvious approach is to assume that pretty much everything you say or do might be available for public consumption. however, I don't think that's really viable, for a number of reasons. normal social interaction depends on a certain degree of deception; plausible deniability is a necessary social gloss in many occasions.

ultimately, I feel like the currently predominant notions of public and private are not really sufficient for talking about or thinking about the ways in which we present and construct our selves, and the ways in which our selves get presented and constructed by others. I'm not quite sure what alternative conceptions might be more useful, but I suspect they would likely focus on identity, how we construct our identity, how others construct our identity for us, and the ways in which we maintain different identities in different contexts.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

more not always better

I've previously noted some of the problems with blaming obesity on large portion sizes in restaurants. here's an interesting article looking at the development of portion size over the past twenty years. in discussing changes in the size of coffee servings, the author notes that "When made into a mocha, the morning coffee has as many calories as a full meal." perhaps that's part of why people don't eat breakfast (which ends up being pretty darn important in terms of setting your metabolism for the rest of the day). there's not a not of data there, but there certainly are some interesting comparisons.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

reporting and reportage

a couple weeks ago, NPR was running several reports on Karachi, Pakistan. it's part of their Urban Frontiers series looking at growing cities around the world. hearing the reports throughout the week gave the listener (or at least this listener) the interesting impression of gaining some understanding of urban Pakistani culture. various segments described demand for housing leading to illegal building projects, which then necessitated the bribing of government officials to get "protection" for such projects; or how inconsistent infrastructure meant that, for that same illegal housing, builders needed to throw hooks into powerlines and "steal" electricity; or how racial and ethnic violence nearly resulted in the death of an ambulance driver whose skin didn't seem to be quite the right color.

for a moment, I felt like this NPR reporter was doing a service to his listeners, allowing them to glimpse a culture beyond, and likely very different from, those with which they are familiar. however, upon further consideration, I came to the conclusion that the reports were doing almost as much of a disservice, not only to the listeners but to the Pakistanis on whom were being reported. the events and circumstances of Karachi were depicted not from the perspective of a citizen, but from the perspective of an American reporter. listeners were seeing the culture, but it didn't seem as if any attempt were being made to foster an understanding of the culture.

I couldn't help comparing these reports with ethnography, done both well and poorly (both being variously common in my field). an important aspect of ethnography is that the ethnographer presents a culture in its own terms, from the perspective of a member of the culture. the purpose is to portray the subjective, lived experience of what it is like to be a member of a culture. contrast this with portraying a culture from an external perspective, applying analytic categories and distinctions to a culture that might not exist in the culture itself. a classic example is that of studying Micronesian navigation. when trying to do so from a western navigational framework that posits a birds-eye view, the Islanders' techniques seem inadequate, at best, to get them from one island to the next. however, if one adopts an ego-centric (or boat-centric) view, rather than the more objective-seeming birds-eye view, the Micronesian navigation system not only makes sense but works strikingly well. this difference in perspectives is sometimes referred to as the etic/emic distinction, that is, viewing a culture on an observer's terms from an external (etic) perspective vs viewing the culture on its own terms from a member's (emic) perspective.

upon reflection, it seemed that the NPR reports on Karachi had an etic perspective that gave the appearance of an emic one. what does it mean to those people who are laying the hooks to be garnering electricity from the city's powerlines? is it stealing (a category that a western reporter might apply to such an activity) or do they conceptualize it differently (perhaps with a category of activity for which a western reporter might have no analog)? on the one hand, this choice of perspective isn't wholly bad; it's journalism, after all, not cultural anthropology. however, I worry that we (as a society) might grow to accept this type of reporting as providing a sufficient understanding of a culture, an understanding from our external perspective rather than from the culture's own internal perspective. I'm not arguing that ethnography is a veridical representation of reality; ethnography is a form of reportage, and inevitably in that process of reportage is the reporter. however, there is a certain sensibility in that reportage that I did not find in the aforementioned NPR series. just as Paul notes, a whole bunch of things have sprung up in HCI that attempt to follow ethnography's methods but not its methodology. I worry that something similar might be happening in this form of journalism, and I wonder what some of the implications might be in terms of understanding and appreciating cultures (both others' and our own).

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Monday, June 02, 2008

local knowledge and knowing in the doing

about a year ago, I saw Lost in Translation. it's really an excellent film, but what I found most striking was the depiction of being an American visiting Japan. I was there for a conference back in 2006 (and incidentally took my phd qualifying exam while staying in Hakodate, but that's another story), and I found myself watching various scenes say, "yeah, that's exactly how it feels." watching the movie felt like being a lone American traveling in Japan.

however, the other people with whom I watched the film weren't quite as taken with it. only afterward did I consider that none of them had been to Japan or any non-western country (here, I'm counting most of western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as "western"). I suspect that part of the reason they didn't care for the movie is that they couldn't particularly identify with it. the plights of some of the characters certainly transcend the particulars of the situations that brought them to Japan, but the particular aesthetic, the feel, the experience of watching the film resonated with my experiences in Japan so strongly that I saw that as one of the film's greatest strengths, its ability to so perfectly capture and express that experience.

I've recently been doing a bit of research about blog readers. one particularly striking thing I've noticed during this process is the difference between reading about blogs (and virtual communities and online identity); no matter how many times I'd read Nardi et al. or boyd or Miller and Slater or any of these other folks, I never could have gained the understanding I got from actually doing the research myself. rather, I could never have gained the same kind of understanding from only reading. I draw at least two important conclusions.

first, there is no substitute for actually "getting one's hands dirty" doing research. I heard it suggested recently that, often, it doesn't matter what you set about to research, as long as you research something, because even if you think you know what you're studying, you're going to wind up working on something different. to that I'd might add that even if a large majority of your results are reiterations of those from previous studies, you as the researcher come to know those same results in a different way (perhaps even more fully) than the way you would know them from reading alone. this sort of knowing, the "knowing in the doing" or what Schon calls knowing-in-action, seems impossible without the doing.

second, it makes me wonder about the place and purpose of scholarly writing as a means of sharing ideas. it's not that the type of knowing that comes from reading isn't valuable. rather, the author/researcher, because of her or his unique experiences, understands what s/he knows in a way that the reader cannot, unless of course the reader has had similar experiences. granted, there is a sort of deeper philosophical issue about how we can ever come share meaning, but I'm going to side step that for the moment in favor of something slightly more pragmatic. if the major method of disseminating knowledge in academia is writing papers, and the kind of knowing/understanding that comes from reading is different from the kind of knowing/understanding that comes from doing, why not have more of an emphasis on doing, especially doing together? I think this sort of emphasis on doing is at work in various places, but it doesn't seem to be fore-fronted as much as might be beneficial (this is probably also my bias towards constructivist/constructionist learning coming through). rather than having conferences consist of presenting papers, lets get together and do studies together, analyze data together, theorize together, design together, and generally engage in our practices and concomitant (collaborative) knowledge construction together.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

to split or not to split?

while recently editing a paper, I found myself automatically correcting split infinitives. while I was taught that this grammatical construction is generally to be avoided, there are time when (I think) it allows a certain specificity and precision of expression not easily achievable otherwise. for example "to truly enjoy great music" and "to enjoy truly great music" mean rather different things, namely, truly enjoying music that is great or enjoying music that is truly great. I suppose one could say "truly to enjoy great music," but that starts becoming unclear to which clause "truly" belongs. for example, in "I want Henry truly to enjoy great music," does truly modify "want" or "to enjoy"?

at the Language Log, it was recently suggested that, rather than debate such rules using only argumentation, it may be possible to test some of these empirically. this is not a matter of statistics about which usages are more common, but rather studies about which usages are more readily and easily comprehensible. the specific examples used in that post focus on the use of "they" or "them" as a third person singular neuter pronoun in different contexts, e.g., the presence or absence of a gender expectation for the antecedent. much of the methodology of the studies mentioned have to do with speed of reading and comprehension, based on the cognitivist metaphor of the mind as a computer. while I'm not sure I buy or like this methodology, it might be possible to do similar experiments based on final comprehension as the measure of effectiveness. for example, give the three variants of the split infinitive listed above, and then determine whether people think my wanting is true, Henry's enjoyment is true, or the greatness of the music is true. by and large, I'm not an experimentalist, but it seems like something like this should be via. what exactly the results would tell you is another question entirely. there's also a question (raised in the comment on the Language Log post) about whether the primary purpose of grammar is to be clear or if there are other concerns, such as aesthetic, historical, or cultural ones, that should be considered, as well.

in general, I agree, split infinitives should probably be avoided, but what about when they allow a specificity of expression not otherwise possible? when "fixing" the split infinitive changes the meaning of the sentence in a way not easy to restore, I'm a little hesitant about not splitting the infinitive.

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