The Digital Keywords Workshop

Culture Digitally is thrilled to partner with a new initiative, the Digital Keywords Workshop, spearheaded by Ben Peters (University of  Tulsa).

The goal of the Digital Keywords Workshop, a boutique scholarly forum, is to work through and critique some terms central to our research and the digitally lit world. We seek to publish — on the fortieth anniversary of Raymond William’s 1976 classic Keywords — short keyword provocations accessible to any educated reader of English and at once relevant to current scholarly research: each participant has been invited to get at the very basics of topics that fascinates and animates our work.

The workshop will proceed in three steps:

1. Selected scholars and students have been invited to fully draft short digital keyword entries during this 2013-2014 academic year. Below is the preliminary list of keyword contributors and their abstracts. We hope you agree this promises to be a fine mix of folks and fields!

2. During the summer of 2014, those keyword drafts will appear here for an open comment period. If you’re reading this, you are invited to comment. Please, come and play online!

3. Invited participants will meet in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma on October 10 and 11, 2014 to constructively critique and workshop their drafts in person. Each keyword discussion will begin with a prepared critical respondent. The format maximizes constructive critique and minimizes paper reading.

Culture Digitally will help to circulate the efforts of this initiative. Below are the abstracts, and we welcome comments now. When the authors have produced their drafts, they will be posted on Culture Digitally for public comment and discussion. Then news of, and excerpts from, the volume will appear here when it is nearing publication.

So please spread the word, stay tuned, watch for keyword drafts appearing in the summer months of 2014. While the conference organizers do not have additional funding, anyone interested in participating in these conversations but with questions about how they might do so should feel free to be in touch with Benjamin Peters.


A preliminary list of workshop participants and abstracts:

algorithm – Tarleton Gillespie, Cornell University

analog – Jonathan Sterne, McGill University

archive – Katherine D. Harris, San Jose State University

computing – Benjamin Peters, The University of Tulsa

cloud – John Durham Peters,  The University of Iowa

cyber-activism – Guobin Yang, The University of Pennsylvania

democracy – Rasmus Kleis Nielsen,  Roskilde and Oxford Universities

gaming – Saugata Bhaduri, Jawaharlal Nehru University

hacking – Gabriella Coleman, McGill University

memory – Steven Schrag, The University of Pennsylvania

prototype – Fred Turner, Stanford University

sharing – Nicholas John, Hebrew University

surrogate – Jeffrey Drouin, The University of Tulsa


Tarleton Gillespie: “algorithm”

Algorithms may now be our most important knowledge technologies, “the scientific instruments of a society at large,” (Gitelman) and they are increasingly vital to how we organize human social interaction and produce authoritative knowledge. It is tempting to think of algorithms as computational phenomena, and so address them as technical artifacts whose politics must be unpacked. But in doing so we overlook how they instantiate a much older logic: the embrace of “procedure” for managing complex human endeavors. What algorithms embody is a commitment to the “if/then”: the notion that human undertakings are best overseen by predicting and choreographing them with procedures designed to respond to and weigh all imagined conditions. This commitment to the “if/then” links algorithms to Taylorism and the automation of labor, to actuarial accounting and the census, and to management theory and the dominion of bureaucracy.

Jonathan Sterne: “analog”

Alongside the rise of terms like digital and cyber as modifiers for various nouns, the term analog has proliferated wildly over the last 30 years or so. Today, its ambit is impossibly broad. It covers types of computers, but also a range of signal processing devices and consumer electronics that were rarely understood as analog in their heyday. It is also now expanded to refer to the fulsome continuity of life itself, or used synonymously with terms like organic, which is an interesting departure from earlier meanings. Even as digital technologies and their processing protocols became metaphors for the human mind, the human body became somehow analog, as in Universal Audio’s corporate motto “analog ears, digital minds.” My entry will attempt to trace the expansion of the term in hopes that we might excavate a more restricted and specific definition for the analog, as one among many domains of human technics.

Katherine D. Harris: “archive”

In the digital age, we attempt to create archives of a particular moment (The 9/11 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 (Arnold) 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.

John Durham Peters: “cloud”

The cloud has become synonymous with online data storage and processing, with computing as a public utility.  The metaphor is as ubiquitous as the technology it names and sponsors.  But it deserves a critique and a history.  It deserves a straightforward ideology critique, since computing is a carbon-intensive activity, not at all the happy vision of puffy cumulus that pervade the imagery of cloud computing.  More subtly, clouds deserve a more generous treatment, and a rescue from the clutches of the latest technoboosters.  Clouds are preeminent theological, artistic, philosophical, and meteorological objects.  They have been looked to for signs, for painting, for photography, for espionage.  In an age in which clouds are visible in ways never before possible, it is good to ask what the digital cloud has to do with the clouds that float in the sky.

Benjamin Peters: “computing”

Computing, historically understood, rests on the tension between computation as a concept and the computer as a material object. In the traditional telling, great mathematicians make the ideas (Leibniz, Boole, Frege, Goedel, Turing, etc.) and industrial parks make the objects that execute those ideas (IBM, Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, MIT, ARPA, etc.). Critics of that story might instead look to the semiotic-material aspect of embedded in the thought laboratory culture that raised computing. In this fresh look, computation appears a concept given shape in diverse institutional-intellectual forums (the Vienna circle, Macy Conferences on cybernetics, cognitive science, etc.) and computers appear as objects whose shapes vary across media formats (analog, digital, gendered, genetic, mechanical, molecular, quantum, wetware, etc.). Neither grand idea nor enterprising installation alone but a combination of specific intellectual-institutional-material forces, modern computing challenges the distinction between the symbolic (software) and the real (hardware) upon which so much of the current digital age pivots.

Guobin Yang: “cyber-activism”

Cyber-activism: Together with other concepts in the same “family” — online activism, digital activism, electronic activism, internet activism, etc., cyber-activism is at the center of a historical transformation of the forms of citizen dissent and protest. In Western democracies, popular political radicalism was on the wane after the 1960s. In China and the former Soviet bloc, large-scale protest declined after 1989. It is not by accident that it was in the 1970s that Lyotard declared the collapse of the grand narrative. What has emerged since then in the realm of popular politics are varieties of Foucauldian micro-power. De-radicalized civic action becomes more common than radical protest as neoliberal capitalist ideology continues to undermine the legitimacy of revolutionary radicalism. Cyber-activism appeared in the middle of this transformation. I will contend that cyber-activism is symptomatic of this transformation. At the same time, cyber-activism contains the possibility of re-transformation, but in two divergent directions — toward further de-politicization or toward re-politicization. An analysis of the political contradictions of the meaning and practices of cyber-activism shows why.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: “democracy”

Digital democracy debate often has had more to do with the potential role of technology in alternative, idealized visions of deliberative or participatory democracy than with representative democratic practice as we know it. Real-world democracies are distinguished less by informed debate or active ongoing citizen engagement (frequent topics of digital democratic discourse) than by basic civil liberties, relatively free and fair periodic elections, and the separation of powers. The lack of focus on democratic practice in favor of potentials reflects the unhappy coincidence that many contemporary democratic theorists and much of the digital avant-garde are more interested in alternative visions than in existing realities. The result is that we may have spent more time discussing what digital technologies might mean for forms of democracy that do not exist than what digital technologies mean for democracies that do exist and that in many places today—despite global enthusiasm for the label “democracy”—face serious problems of legitimacy, efficiency, and institutional integrity.

Saugata Bhaduri: “gaming”

Why did it take so long for “gaming,” a word with roots connecting to gambling in the early 16th century, to find its contemporary usage as a participle? The form has been available for five centuries, yet rarely used. What accounts for this rarity?  How can one analyse the reticence of a language to deploy the verbal – i.e. the present participial, and thus always open-ended – form of a word whose nominal and adjectival use is so frequent? Could it be that “gaming” is essentially subversive, connected ontically to the dangerous wastefulness of gambling, and uncontainable in its participial form? Does gaming in the present context thus become the veritable site of role-playing and identity alteration, of contestations and negotiations vis-à-vis the normative life-world, of a Dionysian joyful disruption of the austere world of utility? It is in attempting to answer these and like questions, that the myriad senses of the universe of Gaming today can be unraveled.

Gabriella Coleman: “hacking”

Hacking, understood as a complex technical, ethical, and political craft, increasingly preoccupies public life. Underlying diverse activities such as programming, security research, network administration, collaborative hardware and gadget tinkering, innovative licensing scheming, counter-corporate and state snooping, and security breaking (breaking systems to improve them), hacking as a craft takes part in a hacktivist tradition, dating back to the early 1990s, that channels technical skills toward political ends. In particular, a political sense of craftiness guides the craft of hacking. Hacking will be explored as where craft and craftiness converge: building 3-D printers that print 3-D printers; stealing botnet—an army of zombie computers—to blast a website for a political DDoS campaign and then kill the botnet; showcasing a robot that mixes cocktails at a scientific-geek festival for cocktail robotics; inventing a programming language called Brainfuck designed to mess with people’s heads; and others. In this view, perhaps craftiness best pulls together the diverse technical and ethical worlds of hacking.

Steven Schrag: “memory”

Two distinct but overlapping metaphors have emerged to describe digital memory as both a function of the brain and of data storage hardware. The first, dating back at least to cybernetics, collapses the two in a cyborg extension of the mind’s natural memory faculty; the second, dating back at least to cyberpunk, separates the two into a conflict between machines and flesh. Specters of these ontologically incompatible metaphors haunt how we think about memory today, reanimating concerns of panopticon, mind control, social control, and mass amnesia. This paper will assess the more moderate possibility that the Internet has a shorter memory than we may think — but not as short as we may sometimes hope.

Fred Turner: “prototype”

Prototyping is a standard engineering process that has become a powerful engine of cultural change. I want to explore the ways in which various Silicon Valley constituencies have turned to prototyping in order to imagine and legitimate new political arrangements. I hope to think through the transformation of new technologies into emblems of social possibilities; the use of festivals and conferences as models of new socio-technical configurations; and the reframing of citizenship as a process of collaborative engineering. In short, I hope to examine the ways in which prototypes quite literally transform technology into culture.

Nicholas John: “sharing”

Sharing is the constitutive activity of Web 2.0, if not of the digital era itself. It is the name given to our participation in the platforms through which our lives are digitally mediated, as well as the term used to describe the shunting of data among and between companies and state agencies. The word is contentious: some maintain that sharing files is actually stealing them; meanwhile, others have observed that Facebook does not ‘share’ information about us with advertisers, but rather sells it. Sharing also has a political economy: when we share a candy bar, we are left with less of it. However, when we share a status update (or photo, or Tweet, or link) we make no similar material sacrifice. Yet we do produce a material trace of the interaction, which is commodified and monetized. A richly polysemic term, referring to acts of distribution as well as communication, sharing engages with the nebulous and negotiable boundaries between the public and the private.

Jeff Drouin: “surrogate”

Surrogate: Historical scholarship in literary studies is increasingly dependent upon digital objects that stand in for the original printed or manuscript material. The operational features of digital surrogates often attempt to mimic the functionalities of codices and other material formats without losing the vastly different cognitive and representational possibilities afforded by the new medium. There has been much theorization of the ways in which new media contain the old, but we are increasingly making print into a fetish, perhaps to an extent that has not been fully acknowledged. This paper will examine the digital surrogate as an effigy: an image in the full psychological sense, an object simultaneously of worship and ridicule, a palimpsest upon which the conscience of our time is rewritten.

(Note: this post was revised Jan 27, 2014, to add Nicholas John’s abstract.)