In the summer of 2011, in the midst of the Cablegate affair (the leaking of some 250,000 diplomatic cable transmission between the US State Department and American embassies by WikiLeaks), at a time of far-reaching changes in the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, and while public demonstrations against existing social order swept various places in the world, a meeting was held between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his associates (Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas and previously a member of the State department’s policy planning staff; Lisa Shields, VP Communications & Marketing at Council on Foreign Relations; and Scott Malcomson, director of communication at International Crisis Group and previously advisor at the US State department).
The published transcript of their discussion provides a rare glimpse into a clash between conflicting worldviews, a clash which reflects various power and ideological struggles raging over the past twenty years with regard to technology’s role in our society, usually away from public view.
Assange-Schmidt — Derivative Work: Colin Green. Original Photos by: Cancillería del Ecuador, Guillaume Paumier, and Wikimedia (Photos are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)
Four such interrelated struggles are particularly worthy of mention. First, what will control of cyberspace look like? Will it be well-organized and centrally controlled by states and corporations, or by the individual users and professional experts? The debate on whether the Internet needs to operate without state regulation has already been decided both normatively and practically. The naive belief expressed in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, that the web can exist independently, relying on self-regulation only, is no longer tenable. Cyberspace, just like any other human space, is used for both positive and negative activities. The power struggle over the regulation of cyberspace is still ongoing: will it be the crowds whose “collective wisdom” and direct connectivity self-regulate online conduct (relying on professional experts and civil society to establish standards governing the way we communicate with each other), or will control be left to various state or corporate power elites who regulate our behavior by virtue of their control of political and economic resources, including technological platforms? In recent years, we have witnessed a trend of growth in both state and self-regulation of the Internet. However, the question of balancing power foci remains to be seen.
Second, technology — the web in particular — is it neutral or political? Technocrats tend to argue that because technology is based on algorithms devoid of human interference, makes it possible to construct consistently neutral and non-discriminatory processes. However, by the very fact that it is designed by humans, every technology is inherently political, involving values and interests cast in the image of its developers, and subsequently shaped by its users.
The third struggle is over the number and identity of mediators. In the information age, the ability to control flows of information is a significant power element. Technological improvements have immensely increased the individual user’s ability both to produce and to disseminate data. Despite this ability, however, true control of information is in the hands of mediators. The huge amount of information produced every second, as well as the need to create, share and read content require the user to rely on mediators. These network gatekeepers help the users in all their activities in cyberspace, from filtering excess information through connectivity with others to producing new content. We rely on Google to find what we search, or on Facebook and Twitter to show us the posts uploaded by our friends. But Facebook does not show us all of our friends’ posts, only those it selects. This is a struggle for controlling the agenda of information conveyed and transferred from one person to another — the essence of power — another aspect of the politics of information if you will.
Finally, the fourth struggle rages over transparency. Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founding fathers of the World Wide Web, open code developers, and multiple forces in civil society and business sectors all have been working on making information more open and publicly accessible. For some, information openness has become a means to an end. The boundaries of openness have become a critical issue in the struggle for shaping the image of cyberspace and society in general. What are the checks and balances involved? Is the revealing of sensitive information at a security cost justifiable solely based on the freedom of information principle? Does blowing the whistle on systematic surveillance and tracking of civilians and users justify any means? And if limits are drawn, who should determine the boundaries? Information can be open, but its flows will certainly not be equal.
These power struggles are waged between conflicting sides, but framing them in terms of good against evil, anarchist versus conformist, freedom fighter against the power hungry is simplistic and ignores the complexity of these debates. Google is presented as promoting a model of white, liberal and secular values, while WikiLeaks is presented as promoting various shades of gray. But in fact, the Wikileaks orthodox position against censorship, at all costs, is designed to allow it total control on the freedom of publication, how and as much as it wants. But will this allow other narratives they do not espouse to be freely expressed? It is reasonable to assume that they too, in their capacity as mediators, will become an alternative form of censorship.
The complexity of power struggles is revealed also when Assange and Schmidt talk about the reduced extent of mediation required in the “new world.” Assange talks about relying on the masses as a way of bypassing intermediators, while Schmidt makes do with believing in the empowering potential of technology as an explanation for the user’s growing power. Both ignore the fact that the degree of mediation has not decreased, but rather increased. Today, Google is the greatest platform mediator in human history — between its clouds, Android operating system, mapping service, search engine, YouTube, chat and telephony in Hangouts, photos on Picasa, or Waze. WikiLeaks, which wants to create “an improved model of journalism,” is also a mediator, whether reluctantly or not. In the diplomatic cables affair, it deliberately chose to release certain materials and exclude others from the public domain. Who can assure us it is an honest mediator? Nobody can answer that question — neither Assange nor Schmidt.
Despite their conflicting views on various issues, Julian Assange and Eric Schmidt share a blind adoration of technology and the belief that technological solutions will cure society of its ills and woes, of rampant inequality in different contexts and the brutal denial of various rights. Technology has an important role to play, but it is people who turn it into a space for economic growth or into a dangerous space.
[This is a translation of the Prologue for the Book: 'When Google Met Wikileaks' By Julian Assange in Hebrew. The article was originally posted on Karine’s “Network Gatekeeper” blog, and was also featured on The Huffington Post.]
-Contributed by Karine Nahon, Associate Professor in the School of Information, University of Washington-
Archive — Katherine D. Harris, San Jose State University
In Archive Fever, Derrida suggests that the moments of archivization are infinite throughout the life of the artifact: “The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (17). Archiving occurs at the moment that the previous representation is overwritten by a new “saved” document. Traces of the old document exist, but cannot be differentiated from the new. At the moment an archivist sits down to actively preserve and store and catalogue the objects, the archiving is once again contaminated with a process. This, according to Derrida, “produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future” (Derrida 68). Literary works become archives not only in their bibliographic and linguistic codes, but also in their social interactions yet to occur. It is the re-engagement with the work that adds to an archive and that continues the archiving itself beyond the physical object.
I crafted my keyword perambulations around this burning desire to return to origins intermixed with the desire to hold everything at once in the mind’s eye. In literature, this of course causes the protagonist to faint, go mad, isolate herself, create alternate realities — all in the name of either escaping or explaining what cannot be known. My Gothic Novel students pointed out just this week that the narrator in a short story, most specifically Lovecraft, attempts to focus on a few actions in the busy-ness of the world, to focus the reader on what is calculable, knowable but ultimately unheimlich.
In the digital age, we attempt to create archives of a particular moment (The September 11 Digital Archive), the entirety of a medium (The Internet Archive), the mutability of language (The Oxford English Dictionary), all knowledge (Wikipedia). More than any others, the crowd-sourced information of Wikipedia attempts to capture knowledge as well as the creation of that knowledge — the history or Talk of each Wikipedia entry unveils an evolving community of supposedly disinterested users who argue, contribute, and create each entry. Wikipedia entries represent that digital version of an archive in the twenty-first century. The archive as a fractured, incalculable moment is an attempt to hold close all that happens at once in the world. But this concept has become incredibly problematic with the rush of information around us – a topic that I broach in my entry for “Archive” with The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.
Kenneth Price begins my discussion about “archive” by offering a traditional definition of the term:
Traditionally, an archive has referred to a repository holding material artifacts rather than digital surrogates. An archive in this traditional sense may well be described in finding aids but its materials are rarely, if ever, meticulously edited and annotated as a whole. In an electronic environment, archive has gradually come to mean a purposeful collection of digital surrogates. (para. 3)
Later in this article, Price veers into discussing the role of archivist in shaping the archive, similar to what Derrida proposes above but with less dramatic flair. Price’s article is in response to the authority of a digital scholarly edition and its editors in the face of traditional print editions. Always, for Price, there is an organizing principle to archiving and, subsequently, editing. However, what we’re concerned with for this particular gathering is inherent the messiness of the archive as it pertain to cultural records, both physical and digital. What gets placed into the archive and by whom becomes part of that record. What’s missing, then, becomes equally important. Martha Nell Smith proposes that digital archives are free from the constraints of a traditional print critical edition; more importantly, the contents and architecture of a digital archive can be developed in full view of the public with the intention of incorporating the messiness of humanity.
In “Googling the Victorians,” Patrick Leary writes that all sorts of digital archives about Victorian literature are springing up, archives that are not peer-reviewed per se but offer an intriguing and sanguine view of the wealth of nineteenth-century materials. Leary concludes his essay by asserting that whatever does not end up in a digital archive, represented as cyber/hypertext will not, in the future, be studied, remembered, valorized and canonized. Though this statement reflects some hysteria about the loss of the print book, it is also revealing in its recognition that digital representations have become common and widespread, regardless of professional standards. Whatever is not on the Web will not be remembered, says Leary. Does this mean that the literary canon will shift to accommodate all of those wild archives and editions? Or, does it mean that those mega projects of canonical authors will survive while the disenfranchised and non-canonical literary materials will fall further into obscurity?
Raymond Williams posits that “vulgar misuse” allows for entry into the cultural record (Williams, Keywords 21), though those in library science object to the normalization of archive, that moves away from their professional standards for a vault of record of humanity. But the construction of a digital archive in literary studies conflates literature, digital humanities, history, computer programming, social sciences, and a host of other cross-pollinated disciplines. The archive, more than anything right now in literary studies, demonstrates what Williams calls “networks of usage” (23) with “an emphasis on historical origins [as well as] on the present – present meanings, implications, relationships – as history” (23). Community, radical change, discontinuity, and conflict are all part of the continuum in the creation of meaning according to Williams, seemingly similar to Borges’ “Library of Babel” and Derrida’s “archive fever.” While archivists insist on a conscious choice in the use of “archive” (noun or verb), perhaps as part of a professional tradition, I seek to look at the messiness of the word as a representation of the messiness of past, present, and future.
The issue with formal digital archives is where to stop collecting to account for scope, duration, and shelf space. In digital archives, sustainability is key; but the digital archive is vastly more capable of accumulating everything and then its liberal and even promiscuous remixing by its users based on the tools available. The primary argument seems to be who is controlling the inventorying, organization, tagging, coding of the data with an archive (user, curator, editor, architect?). And, what digital tools are best employed in sorting the information? Even a tool offers a preliminary critical perspective.
Kathleen Burnett, borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome, notes in “Theory of Hypertextual Design” that the archive is less about the artifact and more about the user:
[e]ach user’s path of connection through a database is as valid as any other. New paths can be grafted onto the old, providing fresh alternatives. The map orients the user within the context of the database as a whole, but always from the perspective of the user. In hierarchical systems, the user map generally shows the user’s progress, but it does so out of context. A typical search history displays only the user’s queries and the system’s responses. It does not show the systems’s path through the database. It does not display rejected terms, only matches. It does not record the user’s psychological responses to what the system presents. . . . ‘The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious.'” (25)
The digital archive, some argue, is the culmination of Don McKenzie’s “social text,” and the database, and to some extent hyperlinks, allow users to chase down any reference. In essence, the users become ergodic and radial readers. McGann, in The Textual Condition, defines radial reading as the activity of reading regularly transcends its own ocular physical bases, which means that readers leave the book in order to acquire more information about the book (i.e., look up word in dictionary or footnote in back). This allows the reader to interact with the book, text, story, etc., through this acquisition of knowledge. The reader makes and re-makes the knowledge produced by the text through this continual knowledge acquisition, yet the reader never actually leaves the text. It stays with her even while consulting other knowledge. This creates a plasticity to the text that is unique according to each reader (119).
But the archive, a metaphor once again, is always and forever contaminated according to David Greetham in Pleasures of Contamination. An archive is less about the text of a printed word and can be about all facets of materiality, form, and its subsequent encoding – even the reader herself. Scott Rettberg notes that the act of reading prioritizes the experience over the object itself with this idea of ergodic reading:
The process of reading any configurative or “ergodic” form of literature invites the reader to first explore the ludic challenges and pleasures of operating and traversing the text in a hyperattentive and experimental fashion before reading more deeply. The reader of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch must decide which of the two recommended reading orders to pursue, and whether or not to consider the chapters which the author labels “expendable.” The reader of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars must devise a strategy for moving through the cross-referenced web of encyclopedic fragments. The reader of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress or Reader’s Block must straddle between competing desires to attend to the nuggets of trivia of which those two books are largely composed or to concentrate on the leitmotifs which weave them into a tapestry of coherent psychological narrative. In each of these print novels, the reader must first puzzle over the rules of operation of the text itself, negotiate the formal “novelty” of the novel, play with the various pieces, and fiddle with the switches, before arriving at an impression of how the jigsaw puzzle might together, how the text-machine may run. Only after this exploratory stage is the type of contemplative or interpretive reading we associate with deep attention possible. (para. 13 – emphasis added)
As our understanding of digital interruptions into an otherwise humanistic world expands and becomes both resistant and welcoming, the definition of an “archive” expands as well.
Bornstein, George. “How to Read a Page: Modernism and Material Textuality.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32:1 (Spring 1999): 29-58.
Burnett, Kathleen. “Toward a Theory of Hypertextual Design.” Postmodern Culture 3: 2 (January, 1993): 1-28.
Greetham, David. The Pleasures of Contamination: Evidence, Text, and Voice in Textual Studies. Indiana UP, 2010.
Harris, Katherine. “Archive.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Eds. Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014.
Leary, Patrick. “Googling the Victorians.” Journal of Victorian Culture 10:1 (Spring 2005): 72-86.
McGann, Jerome. “How to Read a Book.” The Textual Condition. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991. 119.
Price, Kenneth. “Electronic Scholarly Editions.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Eds. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
Rettberg, Scott. “Communitizing Electronic Literature.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3:2 (Spring 2009).
Smith, Martha Nell Smith. “The Human Touch: Software of the Highest Order.” Textual Cultures 2:1 (2007 Spring): 1-15.
William, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. NY: Oxford UP, 1983.
 The bibliographic code is distinguished from the content or the semantic construction of language within a text (linguistic code) by the following elements, as George Bornstein describes: “[F]eatures of a page layout, book design, ink and paper, and typeface . . . publisher, print run, price or audience. . . . [Bibliographic codes] might also include the other contents of the book or periodical in which the work appears, as well as prefaces, notes, or dedications that affect the reception and interpretation of the work” (30, 31). Linguistic codes are specifically the words. Also within the book are paratextual elements that do not necessarily fall under the bibliographic or linguistic codes.
 See Matthew Arnold on disinterestedness in Essays on Criticism.
-Contributed by Katherine D. Harris, Associate Professor of English & Comparative Literature, San Jose State University-
Many might recall that this past summer there was a bit of moral panic over the Internet meme “The Slender Man.” The panic began when two Wisconsin twelve-year-old girls stabbed a third twelve-year-old girl 19 times to gain favor with an Internet horror character. While the girl survived the attack, this led to public outcry and similar, seemingly related stories: the mother of a teen girl in Ohio claimed that her daughter stabbed her because of an obsession with the Slender Man, and the perpetrator of a killing spree in Las Vegas was said to sometimes dress as the Slender Man. News media seemed to be quickly confounded by these horrific tales and began to issue warnings to parents about the fictions found online. Warnings were issued about the web site “creepypasta” (not where the Slender Man was originally invented) and commentators suggested that online horror is corrupting the youth of America.
The story has a new life now that a Florida teen has been accused of attempting to burn down her house (with family inside) because of her obsession with the Slender Man. It has been pointed out by blogger Paul Fidalgo that this story has pretty dubious origins – while the accused arsonist was certainly a fan of the Slender Man (her Facebook presence was full of creepypasta images), the girl has not claimed that she did this specifically as a result of the stories she read. This, of course, has not stopped news media from jumping back on the Slender-wagon. A New York post article referred to creepypasta as a “violent website.” On Call with Dr. Drew guest Leean Tweeden remarked of the incident: “My son is turning one tomorrow, so I’m thinking of these things as a parent now, through those lenses.” The urgency underlying this statement is clear: apparently, the Slender Man is so pernicious that he can seep through the screens of the Internet to even affect the toddler set – whose kid watches Sesame Street anymore, anyhow?
Of course, myself, and many other scholars who have been studying the Slender Man, his origins, and his growth since the first iterations in 2009 on the web site Something Awful have been unnerved by this panic. The original story was not much more than creepy – certainly not violent storytelling. It resembled more of a fairy tale than an Eli Roth film. The original stories primarily had the Slender Man targeting children, though this quickly shifted to young adults – the most common online storytellers. The Slender Man stories often feature characters that fall down rabbit holes and discover an otherworldly presence is now stalking them, and whose very existence exudes malevolence. While his presence sometimes encourages human violence (depending on the version of the story) it is the inhuman unknown that makes his story so terrifying.
For those who are unaware of the basic premise: the Slender Man is a non-human presence who stalks victims. He is faceless, thin, and grotesquely tall. Depending on versions of the story he may have tentacular arms, is bald, and almost always wears a suit. He is often hidden in or disguised by trees. He may be able to teleport and may cause physical illness and/or insanity in those he is around. He is the textbook definition of the uncanny – his similarities to human form yet otherworldly features and appendages make him almost human, but not quite. His blank face makes him both familiar and mutable. If the stories teach us nothing else, they teach us there is nothing more horrifying than an anonymous white male with ominous intentions wearing a business suit.
This is not to say that all of the Slender Man stories stayed away from explicit violence. While many early versions were more creepy than violent, some did take a violent turn (to varying degrees). Other online authors, though, interpreted the Slender Man in other ways: patriarchal father figure, comedic character, and erotic character (slenderotica). There are wonderful parodies, including Slender siblings such as “Trender Man” and “Splendorman.” While some fans might invalidate the more romantic interpretations of the character, in online spaces all versions are (in some way) valid. I may not be a fan of slenderotica, but it meets a need for a certain demographic to tell a kind of story that is meaningful to them. The power of the Slender Man is that his blank face allows an infinite amount of projection, interpretation, and mutability. The character has encouraged a plethora of fan-based creativity: short stories, novels and novellas, web series, films, art work, web comics, and poetry are only a few of the ways fans have written and read about the Slender Man.
Despite the large corpus of co-created fan works, many reporters and pundits have suggested that the web sites where horror fiction is posted, co-created, read, and commented on is somehow to blame for the events that have occurs. In continuation of her previous remarks, Tweeden waxes nostalgic:
“When I was a kid we went out and played we played in the dirt. We played in the earth. […] They don’t even read books anymore. This girl’s reading this online. You’re reading digital stuff. You can easily go down the rabbit hole when you are online and you start watching videos and start going to these creepypasta sites … It’s like the girl didn’t even know what is reality anymore.”
There is a deep irony in the implication that is being made here – that youth do not “read” because what they read (and write) is found online. Somehow, the technology seems to create a barrier in the minds of those implicating the Slender Man. The fiction is apparently so deeply dangerous it can alter the very soul of readers. Of course, media scholars are not strangers to moral panics in emerging media, but there is an absurdity to implying that (somehow) interests in the Slender Man are neither literary nor encouraging of creative endeavors. This couldn’t be any further from reality. It is almost as though there are two Slender Mans – one haunting stories of the Internet and another haunting the adults who seem fairly certain that the character is harming the youth of America.
Of the many debates about the origins of the Slender Man in online forums, my favorite theory is the “Tulpa Effect.” A tulpa is an esoteric concept – a magically created thought-form appropriated from Tibetan traditions by turn of the century Western author, Alexandra David-Néel. The basic premise is that a person can breath life into an imaginary thought-form, giving it a will of its own through the right ritual practices. It is like an imaginary friend, brought to life. The tulpa, once created, is no longer controlled by its architect and often invites havoc. In some interpretations of tulpas, it can be created simply from a large enough group of people believing in its existence. The Tulpa Theory of the Slender Man suggests that the Slender Man himself, has been willed into existence simply because enough people believe in him.
The Tulpa Effect theory works neatly with the existing mythos of the Slender Man. It allows for readers to acknowledge that the character was fictionally constructed yet leaves the possibility for the fact that – even with fictional origins – he still might exist in the real world. It’s a clever way to make the character both fictional and non-fictional at once.
Yet, if the Slender Man has become a tulpa and has been willed into existence by the Internet, then it is entirely possibly that those creating moral panic of the Slender Man have created a secondary tulpa. While the original tulpa is a fictional character based on the amalgam of existing fictions and works of art, co-created by storytellers and their audiences, the second tulpa is the one that haunts parents, journalists, and pundits. The second Slender Man tulpa promises that if your child engages in creative work online they will somehow be sucked into a world where they cannot tell fiction from reality – where they are bound to commit violent acts against themselves or others. They have brought to life a far more violent version of the Slender Man that is able to seep into reality via cable modem or DSL. This secondary tulpa has been brought to life by a mass media that seems determined to believe in the power of the Slender Man more than many of the authors of Slender Man fiction.
Without speculating on or blaming mental illness of those accused of Slender Man crimes, I feel confident in saying that it was not the Slender Man, himself, that led them to their crimes. In this, it seems possible that the second tulpa of the Slender Man suggested by news media, haunting our children online, is the more dangerous tulpa. The real Slender Man, after all, is only a creepy stalker. The news media version of the Slender Man tells parents and teens that any misunderstood teen and any violent act can be blamed on an Internet character.
-Contributed by Shira Chess, Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication-
Pleased to share a draft of an article Daniel Kreiss and I are working on for the upcoming International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy. We think this compliments some of the great work being done through the Digital Keywords Project—especially Digital and Analog.
We would appreciate any comments you care to give!
‘Digitization’ and ‘digitalization’ are two conceptual terms that are closely associated and often used interchangeably in a broad range of literatures. This article argues that there is analytical value in explicitly making a clear distinction between these two terms.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the first uses of the terms ‘digitization’ and ‘digitalization’ in conjunction with computers to the mid-1950s. In the OED, digitization refers to “the action or process of digitizing; the conversion of analogue data (esp. in later use images, video, and text) into digital form.” Digitalization, by contrast, refers to “the adoption or increase in use of digital or computer technology by an organization, industry, country, etc.”
We follow this distinction in this article and define digitization as the material process of converting individual analogue streams of information into digital bits. In contrast, we refer to digitalization as the way in which many domains of social life are restructured around digital communication and media infrastructures. In the pages that follow, we discuss these distinct, yet interrelated, concepts.
Scholars across disciplines use the term digitization to refer to the technical process of converting streams of analog information into digital bits of 1s and 0s with discrete and discontinuous values. As communication scholar Tony Feldman (1997, 2) argues, unlike analogue data with “continuously varying values, digital information is based on just two distinct states. In the digital world, things are there or not there, ‘on’ or ‘off’. There are no in-betweens.” That digital bits have only two possible values leaves many to argue that, in the words of Robert Pepperell (2003, 126), “digital information is discrete and ‘clean’, whilst analogue information is continuous and ‘noisy’.” Robinson (2008, 21) defines analog as: “smoothly varying, of a piece with the apparent seamless and inviolable veracity of space and time; like space and time admitting inﬁnite subdivision, and by association with them connoting something authentic and natural, against the artiﬁcial, arbitrarily truncated precision of the digital (e.g., vinyl records vs. CDs).” One example is the synthesizer, which in the mid 1960s and 1970s produced sound through “continuous variables such as changing voltages” instead of binary 1s and 0s (Pinch and Trocco, 2002, 7).
While some have traced digitization as a form of communication back to light semaphores (Winston, 1998), a more narrow definition locates the origins of the concept in the development of binary numbers. Some identify the foundations of digitization in the late 17th century and the work of philosopher Gottried Leibniz, who completed initial work on binary number systems (Vogelsang, 2010: 7). Somewhat later, Leibniz’s ideas came to form the basis of the Morse alphabet, and therefore Morse code, which became the standard system of the telegraph. Morse code, as a binary system based on only two different states, proved far more resistant to transmission, coding, and decoding errors than alternatives (Vogelsang, 2010: 7). Though innovations like Morse code, as one of the earliest widely used digitization system, binary numbers laid the historical foundations for later developments in computing and digitization (see Edwards, 2004, x-xii).
Digitization is a process that has both symbolic and material dimensions. Symbolically, digitization converts analog signals into bits that are represented as 1s and 0s. Digitization therefore produces information that can be expressed in many different ways, on many different types of materials, and in many different systems. Theoretically, almost any material with two easily differentiated states can be used to store and communicate digitized signals, including silicone transistors, punch cards, or atoms. This has motivated many scholars to highlight the “immaterial” (e.g. Manoff, 2006, 312) quality of information generated through digitization, while deemphasizing the material systems (transistors) on which that information is housed. That being said, it would be a mistake to ignore that digital information is ultimately stored on and communicated through the physical orientation of material transistors as bits. While digitized information is not limited to a specific set of materials, it is still, in the final instance, grounded in the configurations of materials. It is this way in which digitization mediates between the material and the immaterial (Manoff, 2006; Hayles, 2003) that makes digitization a unique process.
Just as digitized information can be represented on any set of transistors, “all forms of data such as alphanumeric text, graphics, still and moving pictures, and sounds” can be digitized (Verhulst, 2002, 433). The fundamental process is one in which “all signals are chopped into little pieces” (van Dijk, 2005: 44) and encoded as strings of 1s and 0s. While this process can be applied to almost any type of information, this conversion process occurs through very specific technical mechanisms and requires specific technical infrastructures that alter the original signal itself.
For example, digitization can proceed through sampling. As Negropone (1995: 14) describes, “digitizing a signal is to take samples of it, which, if closely spaced, can be used to play a seemingly perfect replica.” Yet sampling, by definition, means selecting some aspects of an analog signal and rejecting others. While this can be done so as to suggest the appearance of a perfect replica, within the process of digitization an algorithm makes decisions about what to keep and what to discard. At their most basic level, algorithms are “encoded procedures for transforming input data into a desired output, based on specified calculations” (Gillespie, 2013). Hayles (2003) argues that this encoding is a process of “interpretation.” Ultimately, programmers have written these algorithms, just as engineers have designed and built the machines that carry out digitization processes. While popular and scholarly accounts often describe digitization as a technical process, humans have delegated particular decisions about what signals should be kept and what should be thrown out to algorithms that carry out digitization processes. While it is useful to recognize the active mediation work performed by digital technologies, Jonathan Sterne’s history of sound reproduction makes a strong case that the same is true for analog technologies. There is a pervasive sense that analog technologies produce representations that are more faithful to the original than digital representations that continually reconstruct bits in the moment. Sterne, however, looks to similarities between the two, recognizing that all forms of mediation necessarily interpret the world (Sterne, 2003, 218-219).
Much scholarly work has recognized that digitization produces data with a set of distinguishing characteristics. Negroponte stresses the universality of digitized information, arguing that “because bits are bits” they have the ability to “commingle effortlessly” (1995: 18). A bit can interact with any other bit, regardless of “the forms that were initially transformed into digits, or what the digits represent when accessed by the end-user” (Flew, 9). Yet, the universality of digital information requires that it be stripped of any non-essential “additional information” (Dretske, 1982: 137), or of any “intrinsic redundancies and repetitions” (Negroponte, 1995: 16). While some observe and lament the way digitization necessarily strips communication of its interesting imperfections, others contend that digitization, by reducing communication to its basic components, produces a lingua franca, capable of facilitating universal communication (van Dijk, 2006).
Being striped of errors, repetitions, and static allows digitized information to be easily stored and transferred, permitting the “easy manipulation and display of these data” (Verhulst, 2002: 433). Digitized information also affords “data compression” (Negronponte, 1995, 15), that allows for “controlled storagein large volume” (Verulst, 2002: 433). That is to say, in being easily manipulated, digital data provides users with additional control over information (Owen, 1997: 94; Beniger, 1986). This additional control affords users the agency to “shape their own experiences of it” (Feldman, 1997: 4). In other words, digitization permits an expansive degree of interactivitybetween user and information. This is, perhaps, most forcibly stated in legal scholar Lessig’s (2008) broad idea of digital technologies supporting a democratic form of “remix culture.”
Implicit in digitized information’s ability to be controlled is the capacity to be easily, cheaply, and accurately transferred between points. As digital bits have only two possible states, 1 or 0, receiving nodes will likely make fewer errors in transferring and decoding data than occurs in analogue systems. Scholars argue that this may result in “lossless” transmission, giving rise to “less faults and replication of mistakes and more opportunities for exact processing and calculation” (van Dijk, 2005: 44). At the same time, this underscores that transferring digital information does not include any actual transfer of physical materials. Instead, there is only the transfer of information about the configuration of transistors—meaning there is only copying. Some see this as eroding the distinction between the original and the copy (Groys, 2008: 91), an idea that holds particular relevance for legal issues of intellectual property (see Benkler, 2006). As Lessig (2008, 98-99) notes, this raises troubling implications for the expansion of intellectual property:
“The law regulates ‘reproductions’ or ‘copies.’ But every time you use a creative work in a digital context, the technology is making a copy. When you ‘read’ an electronic book, the machine is copying the text of the book from your hard drive, or from a hard drive on a network, to the memory in your computer. That ‘copy”’triggers copyright law. When you play a CD on your computer, the recording gets copied into memory on its way to your headphones or speakers. No matter what you do, your actions trigger the law of copyright. Every action must then be justified as either licensed or ‘fair use.'”
Perhaps the most developed line of work that captures the replicable, interactive, and distributive affordances of digital media has come from legal scholarship, particularly around the way digital media have complicated the enforcement of intellectual property rights. In the quote above, Lessig identifies a central tension of digitized information. On one hand, digitized information is “non-rival,” meaning that it can be used repeatedly by a number of different people without diminishing or degrading the original digital object. Combined with the fact that it has “close to zero marginal cost of reproduction” (Brynosofisson, 2014), permits cheap, faithful, and widespread copies of digitized content. The ease of replicating digital information, the interactive affordances that have resulted in the proliferation of creative re-combinations of cultural content, and the easy distribution of digital creative work have challenged the monetization of copyrightable content and undermined the ability to assert an enforceable copyright over cultural goods (Ananny and Kreiss, 2011; Benkler, 2006; Boyle, 2009; Fisher, 2004; Lessig, 2008). On the other, industries have responded by creating a host of ‘digital rights management’ technologies that lock-down consumer products and even ‘fair uses’ of copyrighted works (Gillespie, 2007), and by pressuring platforms and individuals to remove all potentially copyrighted work, even those that a court may judge to be a fair use of copyrighted content (Vaidhyanathan, 2003). Indeed, these issues at the intersection of law and the affordances of digital technologies have animated two decades of work on the regulation of the Internet (Mansell, 2012) in addition to struggles over fundamental issues of jurisdiction and governance (DeNardis, 2014).
Copyright protection is not the only legal concern implicated in digitization. Recently, many have considered the relations between digitization and surveillance. Most notably, Negroponte recognized two decades ago that digitization produces “metadata,” or “a bit that tells you about the other bits” (1995: 8). Metadata is produced by the radical simplification or reduction of information in digital form. The system produces information about digital streams by distilling signals down to their most basic form. Metadata permit computer systems and infrastructures to index, search, and store digitized information. Digital metadata is often created by users themselves in ways that classify and index information (Mathes, 2004). Metadata has been an extraordinarily important aspect of digital media in contexts ranging from knowledge production and social scientific research to government surveillance. It has helped fuel the rise of ‘big data’ social science efforts, from revealing the networked structure of blogs and patterns of social ties on Facebook to the patterns of social media use during the Arab Spring, traffic of political news sites, and patterns of diffusion of health messages. Metadata has also proved enormously useful for state agencies seeking to monitor people. The legal contexts of state surveillance using metadata has been the subject of the ongoing debate around the National Security Agency’s use of digital media for surveillance people around the world, the extent to which was revealed by Edward Snowden. In the context of this debate, Healy (2013) showed the power of metadata, using organizational affiliations to “discover” Paul Revere and his fellow revolutionaries without needing to consider the content of their communications.
Across disciplines, many scholars have united in heralding the radical uniqueness of digitization and digitized information. Many have suggested that digitizing information endows it with significant and meaningful qualities. Scholars see these as the characteristics of digital information and the necessary consequences of digitization. For many, digitization radically transforms the entire landscape of media. Certainly, digitization has become ubiquitous; now, almost all the media technologies we routinely interact with are digital. Increasingly, there are no analog counterparts to be posed against digital technologies. The ultimate implication is that digitization reverberates across social groups and social interactions. Scholars often use the concept of ‘digitalization’ to discuss these macro-level changes in social structure and practice.
The first contemporary use of the term “digitalization’ in conjunction with computerization appeared in a 1971 essay first published in the North American Review. In it, Robert Wachal (in Sanders, 1974: 575) discusses the social implications of the “digitalization of society” in the context of considering objections to, and potentials for, computer-assisted humanities research. From this beginning, writing about digitalization has grown into a massive literature—one concerned less with the specific process of converting analogue data streams into digital bits or the specific affordances of digital media than the ways that digital media structure, shape, and influence the contemporary world. In this sense, digitalization has come to refer to the structuring of many and diverse domains of social life around digital communication and media infrastructures. In this section, we focus on a few prominent works that address the implications of digitialization that scholars have traced across some of the many different domains of social life.
As he observes the digitalization of “the new economy, society, and culture….,” Manuel Castells (2010), views digitalization as one of the – if not the – defining characteristics of the contemporary era. Castells is part of a larger set of scholarship that points to the underlying media and communications system as a way to explain or understand many, if not all, aspects of contemporary social life. As van Dijkargues, “for the first time in history we will have a single communications infrastructure that links all activities in society” (2006: 46). This communication system is wholly characterized by “new media,” often defined as “old media that have been transformed through their reconfiguration into devices capable of managing digital signals” (Verhulst, 2002: 451). There are a number of ways that scholars have analyzed how digitalization shapes the contemporary world. For example, scholars have focused on the rise of globalization, a process that has both facilitated, and been facilitated by, the expansion of the economy beyond national borders through digitalization (Sassen, 1998). The digitalization and globalization of the economy has subsequently eroded national sovereignty, reshaped conceptions of materiality and place, and facilitated new circulations of culture, capital, commodities, and people. In finance alone, many scholars have shown how digital media are now central to global capital flows (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2002).
Discussions about digitalization often invoke ‘information’ as the organizing mode of many domains of social life. Although the scholarship on ‘the information society’ is incredibly vast and varied, much traces its roots to early work by Fritz Machlup (e.g. 1962) and Daniel Bell (1976) that noted broad shifts in national economies and occupation patterns. Within this framework, many scholars have argued that that “computer technology is to the information age what mechanization was to the Industrial Revolution” (Naisbitt, 1984: 28). Even still, some have recognized the gross technological determinism implicit in this suggestion (Webster, 2006: 12).
Other scholars explain digitalization’s wide-ranging effects on social life by noting how digitalization broadly motivates “convergence” of disparate sectors. Most notably, many have identified ‘digitalization’ as bringing about convergence across media, which drives many of the broader social and technical changes detailed below. Some scholars have argued that digitization’s ability to produce a medium that mimics, simulates, or consolidates all other media means that the digital must ultimately be seen as a “generalized medium” that consolidates “diverse forms of information” (Beniger, 1986: 26), or that is ultimately “mediumlessness” (Negroponte, 1995: 71). Ultimately, the rise of digital media “has entailed a reconsideration of what a medium is, because the digital computer can reproduce or simulate all other known media” (Jensen, 2013: 217).
Scholars have explored the idea of ‘convergence’ across a number of different processes and domains of social life, identifying a number of different forms of convergence. For the sake of clarity, we synthesize existing discussion into four key dimensions of convergence related to digitization and digitalization: infrastructural, terminal, functional and rhetorical, and market convergence.
Perhaps the most common form of convergence discussed in the literature is infrastructural convergence. Scholars describe how digitization brings about the convergence of the material infrastructures of communication. There are two main forms of this type of convergence. First, network or “infrastructure” convergence (van Dijk, 2006: 7) refers to the physical network of wires and tubes (Blum, 2013) that undergird the communication infrastructure. Because digitized information can be manipulated and understood by (nearly) any digital system, “any network can be used to transmit all kinds of digital signals” (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2008: 1320). This means that “a single physical means—be it wires, cables, or airwaves—may carry services that in the past were provided in separate ways” (Pool, 1984: 23).
Second, device or terminal convergence refers to how digitization entails the consolidation of multiple media devices into one (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2008: 1320). The quintessential example here is the smartphone, which now takes the place of a number of former devices (telephone, computer, camera, audio recorder, calendar, calculator, notepad, etc.).
As network infrastructures and devices converge, there is a corresponding functional convergence in “services” (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2009: 1320; van Dijk, 2005: 7). The smartphone again offers a telling example. Not only does the smartphone physically consolidate a number of devices, but it likewise performs a number of functions associated with other mediums. Scholars often associate this functional convergence with a corresponding “rhetorical convergence,” or the combination in one medium of cultural forms “that were earlier only seen in separate media” (Fagerford, 2003: 1). The larger implication of functional and rhetorical convergence is the “eroding” of the “one-to-one relationships that used to exist between a medium and its use” (Pool, 1982: 23). That is, convergence works in both directions: not only can a single device now perform multiple functions, but also “a service that was provided in the past by any one medium-be it broadcasting, the press, or telephony—can now be provided in several different physical ways” (Pool, 1982: 23).
As different services converge through common infrastructures as a result of digitization, there is often a corresponding industry or market convergence. Some scholars see this in terms of consolidating once separate industry sectors, including the “computing, telecommunications, and media and information sectors” (Flew, 2005: 10). Others see this as a more general blurring of the “the distinctions between infrastructures and services, software and media content” (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2008: 1321). Both types of convergence are associated with the consolidation of companies, in which individual companies expand, entering into multiple markets or sectors. Though most agree that this sort of convergence is occurring, some explain it mainly through technological changes—in particular technological convergence. Others suggest, “technology-driven convergence of modes is reinforced by the economic process of cross-ownership” (Pool, 1982: 23). Regardless of the cause, industry convergence has significant implications for media regulation, as “Digitization and convergence drastically change the foundation upon which the traditional regulatory broadcasting regime is based” (Verhulst, 2002: 434).
We now turn to the discussion of a number of scholarly cases that posit digitalization both as an organizing mode across social domains and as a destabilizing force given these broader trends that we have synthesized as infrastructural, terminal, functional and rhetorical, and market convergence.
Cultural and Knowledge Production
Over the last decade, a number of scholars have argued that we have seen radical shifts in the production of culture and knowledge. In a world with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia, scholars have argued that entirely new forms of non-market and non-proprietary production of knowledge and culture have sprung up through the unique affordances of digital technologies, and this has changed who is empowered to create in society.
For example, perhaps the most influential theorist of cultural production is the legal scholar Yochai Benkler, whose The Wealth of Networks (2006)has shaped nearly a decade of scholarship into the legal, technical, and moral implications of digital media. In Benkler’s work, ‘peer’ or ‘social’ production can take shape for the first time at a global scale. Thanks to the rapidly failing costs of the production and distribution of digital information, peer production begins to supplant other market mechanisms of producing knowledge and culture. The rise of digital media has meant that it costs little to create and disseminate everything from digital movies shot with iPhones to political commentary on blogs. This is especially the case compared to the production and distribution systems of the industrial behemoths of Hollywood studios and professional newspaper outlets. Even more, Benkler argues that individuals no longer need direct market incentives to produce cultural and knowledge goods, nor the indirect market subsidy of intellectual property rights. Instead, individuals will create and distribute digital goods simply through their love of creation, their passion, or just good will. When brought together through digital platforms, millions of individual contributions to knowledge production, such as Wikipedia, or culture can become highly consequential in their own right.
Benkler further argues that these new non-market and cooperative modes of labor produce economic value that is increasingly rivaling that of the nation-states and bureaucracies of the past. Indeed, Benkler argues that many of these new forms of cultural and knowledge production occur outside of formal management structures. Instead, labor is now driven by the interest, values, and time of laborers who can easily seek and pursue projects that fit with their own particular constraints and time and are psychologically and socially gratifying. More broadly, Benkler’s argument is that digital media are ushering in an era in which this new mode of laboring is transformative, rapidly challenging information production in domains ranging from professionalized journalism to academic book publishing. Furthermore, by collaborating on large-scale projects, individuals benefit, becoming psychologically gratified, cooperative, and team oriented.
Political Participation and Collective Action
A number of scholars have traced similar effects of digitalization on the contemporary shape and processes of political participation and collective action. Political scientists Bruce Bimber, Andrew Flanagin, and Cynthia Stohl (2012) have detailed how civic engagement changes in an information environment defined by digitalization. Echoing Benkler, these scholars argue that citizens now have radically different expectations for and much greater ability and desire to shape their own participation. Whereas participation in a pre-digital era was mostly defined by the incentives and opportunities that organizations could provide to individuals to entice them to participate, in the digital era individuals have radically increased choice. Therefore organizations need to provide more open forms of engagement that enable individuals to define and act upon their own definitions of membership and political action.
Many of these forms of engagement are premised on the use of data and analytics that are made newly possible with the explosion of digital ‘trace data’ that can provide real time feedback on the actions and interactions of users. For example, David Karpf (2012) has analyzed how digitally native civic organizations such as MoveOn.org rely on digital analytics as a form of “passive democratic feedback.” These organizations work to assess what is important to their “membership,” by tracking what they click on. Importantly, the organizations’ comparatively small leadership uses digital media to shape organizational strategy, set goals, prioritize tactics and action, and ultimately provide members with a voice in the organizations’ priorities. Even more broadly, Karpf shows how the very structures, processes, and forms of engagement have shifted given the informational affordances of digital media.
While these scholars have generally focused on the new forms of organization that new and legacy groups have fashioned in response to digitalization, Lance Bennett and Andrea Segerberg (2013) have observed the ways digitalization affects the forms and possibilities for collective action. Their book, which follows cases such as the ‘los indignados’ in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the United States, emphasizes how digital media have facilitated leaderless and decentralized forms of collective action that take place in lieu of formal leadership and organizational structures. Communication, in this account, is shaped by the textures of often highly personalized narratives and forms of expression that bridge public and private speech. As such, it can happen in lieu of formal organizations that have played an important role in shaping collective action in previous decades.
Statehood and Globalization
Other scholars have looked to the ways digitalizalization is shaping globalization processes and the nexus of states, authority, and citizenship. Saskia Sassen uses the idea of “digitization” (in the more expansive way of “digitalization” used in this chapter) to make a number of arguments about the new, global configurations of “territory, authority, and rights,” which she sees as the foundational elements of the state (2006, 336). Sassen argues that digital media have enabled new forms of cross-border politics, expanded the political playing field to more resource poor organizations and individuals, created scales of action and information that cross local and national, and provided more contexts for the linking of local sites with global networks. Sassen also stresses the importance of not conflating digitalization with the Internet. In the context of finance, for instance, it is less the Internet, and more the growth of “dedicated, private digital networks” that have played roles in enhancing the power of global capital, including enabling non-state market forces to enforce financial considerations on national governments and influence policymaking.
Sassen’s work illustrates that the digital and non-digital are mutually imbricated, wholly intertwined with one another. Digital media shape and are shaped by disparate social, political, economic, and cultural forces and contexts. Global media assemblages have reconfigured aspects of territory, authority, and rights, but they are deeply implicated in non-media forces and deeply entangled with local places. Sassen shows how the digital has reworked “spatio-temporal orders,” (415) including working against rationalization, standardization, and bureaucratization.
Finally, a number of scholars have analyzed the effects of digitalization on social structures. Scholars have broadly suggested that social “infrastructure is changing under the influence of communication networks” (van Dijk, 2005: 156). In particular, many have argued that digital networks give rise to vast changes in the logics and structures of global social organization. Manuel Castells has argued that the increasing digitalization of social organization, for instance, has given rise to a “network society.” Though there has been much debate about whether networks (Castells, 2000), individuals (van Dijk, 2005), or “networked-individuals” (Rainie and Wellman, 2012) are the base unit of the network society, there is broad agreement across these different perspectives about the connection between networked social structures and global digital communications infrastructures. At the same time, in each of these literatures, scholars are careful to describe digitalization and the network society as constituting each other. For van Dijk, it is the “mutual shaping processes” between social structure and communication technology that “create the network society” (van Dijk, 2005: 156). For Castells, social and technical forces constitute each other so much so that “technology is society, and society cannot be understood or represented without its technological tools” (Castells 2010: 5).
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 There is a large literature in the medical science fields dating from the late 1800s on ‘digitalization’ that refers to the administration of the digitalis family of plants for the treatment of heart ailments. For the purposes of this chapter, we do not consider this specialized use of the term.
But then the portion of the Internet surrounding videogames and game development exploded.
I’ve started posts previously with the line, “I teach game design…” I’ll do that again. I teach game design. One of the lectures I give is titled, “A 3-Front War.” Today I’ve decided that it will now be titled, “A 4-Front War.” Why so many wars? Why even call it a war? I don’t know. Mostly because lives will be caught in the cross-fire and many will be the lives of friends. Not the same as those playing out in other places, like Missouri or the Middle East, but important none the less.
The original wars I referenced in the class were wars of attention, technology and platforms. I’m not here to lecture. I’m here to reflect on the fourth front. Culture. A cultural war is coming and videogames, like so many other sites of cultural production, will be where they are waged. I recently published something on the videogames in/as/of/through culture. Thomas Malaby wrote something more eloquent back in 2009.
I won’t begin to try and index all of the important conversations happening around “gamer” or its rejection in favor of terms that indicate the no-longer ostracized position of games in broader culture. Or, perhaps more importantly Adrienne Shaw’s critique of the term on the grounds of critical identity theory. Yes, all of these. But I’m not interested in the word gamer. I’m interested in culture.
Renewed attacks on predominantly female critics and game journalists, and perhaps most notably renewed verbal attacks and now death threats against Anita Sarkeesian [warning: disturbing content]. Numerous others who have entered into the #gamergate conversation have been attacked, often with misogynistic, homophobic and hate-filled speech. This has prompted several writers to declare the “end of gamers” or the end of that cultural category.
But I don’t think this is specifically about games. Games may only be the battle ground de jour. Rather, this is about culture and hegemony. Calls for greater diversity, cultural awareness and sensitivity are gaining ground. In the words of Omi and Winant, this is a counter-hegemonic process. It is creating waves and will generate change (that’s how hegemony works), however I can’t stress enough that this is about culture and cultural identity more than about games.
Games, like so many other realms of cultural production, are increasingly fronts for battles over culture. It is difficult to watch/listen to the words of some of the individuals [warning: disturbing content] participating in these battles and not see a kind of Fox News, “this isn’t about race, this is discrimination,” double-speak playing out around videogames. “Social Justice Warrior” as a derogatory term has become the dismissive for some kind of culturally-liberal-conspiracy [warning: disturbing content]. But this plays out on numerous realms of cultural production.
As I note in my essay above, that’s just part of games in/as/of/through culture. There are definitely cultural identity issues that are playing out in this, which needs to also be explored and care taken. There are undoubtedly people who are in it simply as another front to fight the war against women and diversity of all kinds. The difficulty is that the two are now entangled with one another in ways that will ultimately only damage those in it for reasons of care (cultural identity) and those who want to fight (cultural war).
The emergence of this fourth front in the context of games and game development, perhaps more than anything signals videogames in/as/of/through culture. But the thing that worries me now, is the intersection of this with death threats and misogyny in the name of preserving an imagined culture [warning: disturbing content]. It is parallel to counter-protesters verbally encouraging armed police to shoot other protestors.
I doubt that my students come into class expecting me to prepare them to enter this fray, but increasingly it is tantamount. Without the knowledge that this is a new aspect of participating in cultural production, I would be willfully sending my students out into these new battle-zones unaware of the danger and the last few days have demonstrated, I can simply no longer do that.
What I think needs to be stressed is that this isn’t about just games. Games and cultural identity are part of it, but the culture wars are broad and wide. The fact that games are involved demonstrates the relevance of and importance of games. Hence why they need to be explored critically, not the other way around. The strangest part is that now game academics are being “identified” as part of the “problem” in this culture war. That isn’t surprising, but these are the same people that offered games legitimacy. All cultural wars are ultimately Ouroboros.
Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
-Contributed by Casey O'Donnell, Michigan State University Department of Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media-← Older posts |