Monthly Archives: January 2005

help with vacation planning

It is absolutely ridiculous that i haven’t taken a proper vacation since January 2002. I’m longing to see a proper beach and do a shitload of reading for my orals while lounging in sand. The problem is that i have no idea how to best go about finding a cheap flight to some place warm. I’m curious if anyone who reads my ramblings has a good idea of where to look. I want to fly out on March 18 and want to come back on March 27 (could fly out after 8PM on the 17th and could land on the 28th at any time). Hawaii, South America, Caribbean, Asia… i don’t care. Just warm, sunny, beachy and not resorty (i.e. i want to find a hostel or a bungalow or something else that is low-key). Does anyone have any suggestions of how to get somewhere for relatively cheap? Everything that i’m seeing is >$700 and won’t take my miles (American).

questions of classification (a response to Clay)

Clay’s right – i’m a huge skeptic, although i don’t attribute it to the academy at all. My first reaction to hype is and always was critique (unless, of course, i’m doing the hyping). This has resulted in me always ::raising eyebrows:: over everything from the *best* bands to “i just met the best girl in the world” stories.

I’m not actually in disagreement with Clay about classification – i am, after all, in a librarian school. My first indoctrination was “classification is impossible – here are a bazillion techniques that we use to try to get better schemas.” So, when i critique folksonomy, it is not in comparison to formal structures of classification. My critical reaction comes from any and all concerns that folksonomy is the panacea to hundreds of years of librarian woe. I know that formal systems are screwed, but i think that folksonomy has its own set of problems.

While i acknowledge the comparisons that can be made about the problematic similarities between folksonomy and formal classification, i also think that the effort towards ‘accuracy’ is actually clouding a few major differences. The differences are not that surprising, but very important. It comes down to benevolent dictator vs. crowd behavior. Sometimes the benevolent dictator goes way wrong, but also, sometimes crowds are scary.

There’s a problematic feature to crowds – they like to homogenize. Yes, the guy with the mohawk can assert his independence, but folks might trample him. Or he might be left to his own planet. Should he be given more attention than others because he is different? Should a classification schema be concerned with frequency/popularity or the full range? What does it mean to classify things that are rare viewpoints? Who gets to decide? That’s a heavily contested domain in classification.

Folksonomy isn’t asking the questions about the implications of collective action classification. Who benefits? Who becomes marginalized? What priorities bubble up? How does pressure to homogenize affect the schema and the people involved? How are some people hurt or offended by decisions that are made? Should moderation of classifications occur? If so, what are the consequences?

I totally appreciate the just-do model that is often espoused here, but i don’t subscribe to it. I believe that you have to go into the doing with the questions always at hand and always in check. What makes formal classification interesting is not its end result, its “technology” but the huge discourse around it, trying to figure out the implications of any and all decisions. Those questions have been around for years and i think that it’s important that we use those questions, those concerns, not for comparison but as a guideline for our hyping.

In short, i love tagging and folksonomy. But once it is taken serious and people are talking about ‘accuracy’ and being offended, questions that must be asked despite the hype – “folksonomy is better” is not good enough for me.

issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social consequences flag (thank you Liz and Rebecca). I wanted to bring up a few things about culture that i feel haven’t been really addressed yet. (My apologies if i’ve missed them.)

First, don’t forget Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Classification schemes are always culturally dependent based on how people organize information. There is nothing universal about the terms that we use, the relationship between those terms and the meanings behind them. Many terms are contested, used differently by different populations for different reasons and otherwise inconsistent. (Take a look at Raymond Williams’ Keywords if you want to see how different socio-cultural terms are employed over time in Western culture alone.)

What makes the tagging phenomenon utterly fascinating is that there is a collective action component to it. We love to see how people will come to common consensus on relevant terms. But part of what makes it valuable is that, right now, most of the people tagging things have some form of shared cultural understandings. The “in the know” groups using these services are very homogenous and often have shared values and thus offers valuable related links. This helps explain why Rebecca Blood is concerned about the MLK tags – they signify a lack of shared common ground. In tagging, quality is not just about ‘accuracy’, but about what cultural assumptions dominate. This is also the problem that motivated my earlier post on digital xenophobia.

The translation problem alone offers insight into the problems of collective action tagging (see Benjamin). There are tons of words that cannot be simply translated literally both for linguistic and cultural reasons (such as my colleague’s favorite – ohrwurm from German or any number of metaphors). And there are tons of words with multiple and conflicting meanings. This is why reading a translation of something is never the same – it’s not just a matter of linguistic translation, but cultural translation. That’s almost impossible.

Flipped around, the culture of the people tagging says a lot about how they use language that is quite valuable. We might want to see everything with a particular tag using the sense that we mean.

There is also a perspective problem. Think about the tag ‘me’ on Flickr. This is fantastic when we’re organizing stuff for ourselves, but such a tag is inherently dependent on perspective.

These questions have been raised as ones of ‘accuracy’ but they’re not. They’re about perspective and culture. Accuracy is only meaningful if we share the same cultural assumptions. Ironically, we know that culture matters at some level, if only via our collective choice to discuss FOLKsonomy and ETHNOclassification.

Given that we’re dealing with culture and structure, we must also think through issues of legitimacy and power. How are our collective choices enforcing hegemonic uses of language that may marginalize?

Design questions then emerge. How do we deal with conflicting cultural norms as more people are engaged in the act of tagging? How useful are tags across cultures? Do we only gain value from collective-action tagging amongst groups of shared values? If so, how do we implement that? And what are the social consequences for explicitly delimiting culture online?

[Also posted on M2M]

why i’m in academia

Wow. I’m back in school. And overwhelmed in that way that only school can offer – more reading than is physically possible combined with a radical shift in discursive styles and output combined with the weight of feeling as though everything is overdue. Of course, everything *IS* overdue, including blog entries.

Because i’m back in school, what’s on my mind is why. Some of my dearest friends have left this semester and nothing makes me cringe more than being asked when i’m going to graduate. (I promise that until i do i will continue to say “3 more years” as i have since the beginning.) I’m trying to unpack why i believe in academia and why i want my PhD. Or maybe this is an annual reality check.

I love having a knowledge project, a philosophical direction to grapple with a core issue of humanness. I love being intellectually engaged with the end goal being knowledge above all else. I love learning and i love teaching.

Of course, i absolutely despise writing – it’s like pulling teeth and i seem to avoid it like the plague. There’s nothing fun about grant writing and the internal politics are brutal (although not as bad as in non-profits).

The irony is that the deeper i go into academia, the more i enjoy having one foot in industry. I really like helping people work out development problems, offering applicable critique in a way that they can move forward. Of course, my goal isn’t monetization so i can’t imagine actually being responsible for the development of a product inside a company, only for helping people who are motivated by monetization figure out flaws in their plot. Of course, my politics are still strong here and i cannot imagine helping projects that will monetize by abusing people in any form.

I am not invested in only communicating with other academics or people whose end goal is knowledge production. I’m happy to talk to developers, journalists, businesspeople. I find the conversations stimulating and the questions that are asked challenging. That’s part of why i read blogs not just academic papers – access to diverse views. I love thinking of my peer group as being broader than just other academics and i love getting feedback or having conversations outside of the academy. Unfortunately, peer reviewed papers in academia take forever and it’s really hard to motivate to get my ideas out that way when i can just throw things up online and get burnt at the stake and then rework my ideas. Somehow, the idea of not sharing until it’s peer reviewed feels so institutional.

Of course here is where i’m going to get myself into major trouble with academia. I don’t think that the institutional boundaries are the end-all-be-all and i do think that they’re quite limiting at times. I’ve never been one to appreciate rules for rules sake. I’m half terrified that my openness is going to get me into major trouble down the line (another reason why i’m terrified of graduating).

The other trouble is that by having feet in multiple worlds, i’m not doing justice to any of them. I’m not the best academic i could be and i’m not the best consultant or whatever that i could be. And i have a million things that i should write about here but never get around to. Worse: there are a million conversations that i would love to have but simply don’t have time for. My desire to have it all means that i can’t actually balance anything.

In the meantime, i feel like i’m moving forward at speeds far too fast for comfort, continuing to balance on the weeble wobble system and hoping that it will all work out. Am i naive as hell?

defining a discipline

Last semester, i took the first core PhD class in performance studies at Berkeley. This semester, i’m taking the second one. The structure of these core classes is brilliant and i’m still in awe of how valuable they are; i also admit that it’s making me addicted to that discipline. Performance studies, like information sciences, is a field defined by its interdisciplinary. It is still trying to define itself, express its meaningful contributions to knowledge and define its methodology.

Structurally, what they have done at Berkeley is set up a core methods + theory requirement. In the methods class, an overview is given that conveys how you address topics in performance studies methodologically. Attention is given to critical analysis, ethnography, oral histories, etc. The theory class throws you deeply into the roots of the discipline, asking you to constantly challenge the assumptions and terms put forward. From the onset, you’re asked to question the field and in doing so, define it.

The assignments prepare you to be an academic. You are required to do a book review (the typical first publication in the humanities) and a conference paper. You do a project built on a key methodology. You write a course syllabus for freshman. Finally, you define a term that is central to performance studies. (Note: defining a term is not as easy as it seems… this includes documenting its history, usage, applications, etc. Think 20 pages.)

What intrigues me about this process is that performance studies is doing an amazing job of asking its students to really define the field, to really think through the intellectual projects of the discipline and to come to terms with what it means for them. In essence, the discipline is active, constantly reflexive and redefining on a generational level.

This seems to me to be a brilliant way to actually indoctrinate students and i’m hoping to see this approach applied more broadly to interdisciplinary spaces. As a student of information, i’m still not entirely sure what we mean by information. Or more accurately, i’m not at all aware of what the different discussions are and have been. And the more time that i spend at CHI, the more i’m concerned that HCI isn’t entirely figuring out its identity either. And i never did figure out what the unifying knowledge projects of the Media Lab were. [I kind of wonder if performance studies is partially successful since it defines its discipline based on an active process rather than on a site / noun (performance vs. information).]

How do other interdisciplinary disciplines begin the process of scoping theory, methodology and site? Are there other good models out there that one should look to?

the failure of digital course catalogues

Every year during undergraduate, i would race to University Hall to pick up a copy of the latest course catalogue as soon as it was released. My best friend and i would sit in couch covered coffee shops over tea/juice and circle classes that looked interesting. The classes were ordered by departments with cross-references made. Each class had a full description under the title and professor. There was this glorious rush of all the things that we could learn and we obsessed over that book. The beginning of each semester was filled with the enthusiasm of rushing around on campus seeing if the classes lived up to their description.

Inevitably, some of the classes would be cancelled, change times or otherwise not match the promise of their description. Because of this and the cost of publishing those catalogues, most schools went digital.

There is nothing nearly as delectable about surfing terribly organized webpages looking for classes by title/professor only, having to click twice to find a description that is never there, a syllabus that is never submitted on a website that is often unavailable for this or that reason. Not only has searching for classes lost its joy, it’s outright irritating. I automatically skip over surfing the disciplines that don’t seem at all related – things like French or geography or art. And thus, as i learned last semester, i miss critical classes that would have been beyond interesting. But to find them in the sea of titles would never work. It takes 1 scroll-down bar, and at least 1 click to get to each discipline. You have to scroll down to grad-level classes (or click to next pages). And then click on every class whose inane title might actually be relevant. That’s a hell of a lot of clicks for nothing. After looking at 50 or so classes, i’ve given up.

But i found a new method! Of course, it will drive all of the pro-digital folks crazy because it’s just as flawed as the original tree-killing one. Now, instead of dealing with the hellish page, i go to the bookstore the day before classes. I take a notepad and walk through each aisle of textbooks. I don’t pay any attention to what discipline i’m in – i just look for things whose titles look interesting or whose authors i know i should read. Ooh – 3 Bourdieus, must be good, write down class number. I came out of the bookstore with 10 potential classes and then looked those up on the hellish website. They were in departments i never would’ve guessed (and some that i would’ve). I cut out all the classes that took place before 11AM or have 3 meeting times cause i know better. At this stage, it’s seminars all the way. And voila, i have class choices.

The funny thing is that this route is in theory far more unpredictable. There are inevitably classes with readers instead of books or where the professor forgot to order the books. But i found more interesting classes this way in 30 minutes in the bookstore than i did with probably 1 hour spent in online frustration. And i feel as though i have a general understanding of the topology of classes.

Now, this doesn’t mean that online course catalogues can’t work, but they need to be improved. Desperately. First off, it should be hyper simple for professors to upload their course books. In fact, they should upload it to the same system that orders it and puts it online. The course readers people should also connect all items there to the class because you know they have to document it somewhere since they call for copyright on all of those items. Given complete data, I should be able to search for authors that I want to read, not just professor’s names. I should have a little interactive system that shows what classes I’ve taken and shows me the topology of classes available, including a recommendation system. I should be able to surf the classes by similar content, across disciplines. I should be able to see the whole landscape, not just the terrible hierarchy of departments and numbers and navigate without a bazillion clicks. And dammit, i want a PDF that i can download and print out incomplete. Let me kill my own tree so that i can have the joy of sitting in cozy couches with a friend and cider, surfing all of the possible things i could take. Make the digital do more than my paper version ever could, but let me have my paper joy too.

little danah


Originally uploaded by zephoria.

I just spent the week in LA with Mimi, working out readings for this semester and plotting in general. As such, i got to spend lots of time with her kids who are utterly awesome. Luna was obsessed with my fuzzy items and jingly bracelets and decided to dress up as little danah, resulting in a picture that i just had to share.

Technorati tags

Tags, tags, everywhere tags…. Technorati just launched Tags.

This system collects three types of tags: Flickr tags, tags and “category” tags on blog posts. (Unlike Flickr and only the author can tag blog posts.)

It’s definitely in early beta and there aren’t that many posts that are tagged. This is probably because most people don’t categorize (if their tool even lets them) and they didn’t include LJ/Xanga moods as tags. Herein is another reminder of differentiating similarities. Some of you may be looking for all blog posts on ‘blogging’ but some may want to find all entries marked as ‘giggly’… This would be super useful in the friends of friends context.

(Of course, i’m still terrible at categorizing my posts because it takes far too much work.)

Resonance: A Convergence of Perspectives on Music and Spirituality

On February 5, ExploreSpirit (the org that put on the Altered States and the Spiritual Awakening conference) is putting on Resonance, a conference that “will examine music from this emerging paradigm of the sacred, exploring the connection between music and spirituality from a variety of perspectives, weaving them together into a larger whole, and providing a glimpse of a new landscape of sound and spirit.”

This might be of interest to those of you who appreciate the intersection between music and spirituality. It sure interests me.