Briefly Noted for May 27, 2021

I read Zach Carter’s magisterial biography of John Maynard Keynes, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. Not only is it a super-readable education in economics and a sweeping history of the 20th century told through the prism of one of its most important intellectual and political figures, it also turns out that Keynes was … VERY COOL. Did you know that he was a core (the core?) member of the Bloomsbury set and close friends and sometimes housemates with Virginia Woolf? How about that he was married to a world-famous Russian ballerina? Or that, even though his economics work wasn’t particularly mathematical, he started his career with a work on probability and exchanged mathematical proofs with Bertrand Russell? The guy was really amazing, and so is Carter’s book.

I also highly recommend Jim McGrath’s article in The Public Historian on Museums and Social Media During COVID-19.

My boys love a Youtuber called MatPat. His real name is TK, and he produces several video series including “Film Theory,” “Game Theory,” and “Food Theory.” In each video, he makes an elaborate, meandering conjecture: how to survive the Hunger Games, how to predict Oscar winners, why Minecraft is so popular, etc., etc., etc. They’re silly, dense with facts, expertly produced, and fun. But one of these videos stands head and shoulders above the rest: How Trump is Winning with Reality TV. Posted in February 2016 — still early in the Republican primary — the video predicts a Trump victory; explains exactly how it will happen based on Trump’s previous career as a huckster, media badboy, and reality TV star; and presages the media manipulation mastery that Trump will use as President to avoid accountability and poison our politics. It’s something only a social media virtuoso with 9 million subscribers could understand so completely: you just gotta watch.

Sourcery: “Disruption,” Austerity, Equity, and Remote Access to Archives

I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking about and responding to Mark Matienzo’s recent post about Sourcery and its response on social media. I’ve enjoyed engaging in the concerns Mark raises and I’ve learned a lot from the conversation it has spurred. Everything Mark wonders and worries about in connection with Sourcery are things we are actively questioning ourselves. It’s the reason we held a series of workshops with the archives profession this past fall and it’s the reason we’re working with a set of institutional partners to pilot Sourcery while it’s still under active development — so that we can address these questions and concerns in conversation with the community and have those conversations inform the functionality of the application.

These conversations, however, have demonstrated to me that there’s a bit of a misperception circulating, not so much about the app itself, but about the way in which we aim to develop it, a misperception that’s born, I think, more of a learned skepticism of Silicon Valley and university austerity politics than it has to do with a real look at the way in which we’re actually going about things. 

The first thing to say is that we don’t begrudge archivists their skepticism. We share it. A decade that’s seen democracy undermined by social media and labor undermined by “gig economy” apps has made us justifiably skeptical of technology. Likewise, a decade or more of austerity budgets has made archivists justifiably skeptical of “external” “solutions.” But Sourcery is not “external” to these concerns: Greenhouse Studios is based in the library of a state university and staffed by unionized librarians and faculty members. We’re well familiar with austerity budgets, believe me. And we’re not promising a “solution.” What we want to do is engage the field — both researchers and archivists — in a conversation about how some of the technologies of the past decade might be retrofitted to expand access to archival sources. 

Sourcery is not a stealth operation to undermine or “disrupt” archival labor or paid researchers like Uber was a stealth operation to undermine taxi drivers. If it were, we wouldn’t have released a roadmap and half-baked app to the community for comment and reflection in a series of workshops, talks, and pilot projects with institutional partners. (We are very much still in our “planning” phase.) Informed by nearly 20 years of building open source, not-for-profit, community-based software systems for libraries and scholarship, our purpose (and the explicit terms of our funding) has always been to engage the community in a process of conversation and co-creation around alleviating the (sometimes cross-cutting!) pressures of archivists and researchers and then to build something that responds to those pressures. Some may disagree, but I don’t think that just because a technology has been used badly by some means that it’s necessarily bad. Certainly Uber has used peer-to-peer technologies in some very bad ways. But GoFundMe has used peer-to-peer technology in some very good ways (the broader SNAFU that is our healthcare system notwithstanding). Our aim is to work with all the relevant groups to make sure we do the good things and avoid the bad things.

If we haven’t made that clear, that’s on me. This post certainly isn’t intended as defense against unwanted critique or tough conversations.

At the same time, it does offer a challenge to archivists. Just as its incumbent on us to understand the challenges archivists face and to work to meet those challenges in our outreach and our software, the tough conversations must also include an acknowledgment of the fact that the current systems for getting remote access to documents isn’t very good and that it hasn’t kept up with either the possibilities of the available technology or the needs of diverse researchers. The process for requesting remote assistance hasn’t really changed since the advent of email and the simple web forms of the mid-1990s (although the pandemic has complicated that picture). We should acknowledge that existing systems of remote access to non-digitized sources create confusion for researchers who need to learn a new system for every repository they encounter. They create disjointed reference workflows for archivists that can be hard to monitor, allocate within teams, track, record, and report. And their failings cause more visits to the reading room than are probably strictly necessary or desirable for either archivists or researchers. By no means do we want to replace the necessary, sustained, intellectually fruitful in-person exchanges between archivists and researchers and the mutual journeys of discovery that take place in the reading room. But we do aim to replace the unnecessary ones.

Here it’s crucial to point out the perhaps under-appreciated fact that in-person visits are available to only a small subset of the researching population — that is, those with the money and flexibility to make a trip. The same is true of the informal networks whereby friends-of-friends and colleagues’ grad students go get stuff for scholars. Travel and professional networks are a privilege of the rich and well-connected, graduate student labor is often exploited for these purposes, and the “gift economy” whereby junior scholars do uncompensated service on behalf of more senior scholars is insidious. Whether intentional or not, current systems that place an enormous premium on the in-person visit end up providing access on extremely unequal terms. Emily Higgs correctly pointed out on Twitter that Sourcery is responsible for the ill effects of its service, whatever its good intentions. It’s likewise true that—given the possibility of change—the archives profession will be at least partly responsible for the ill effects of the status quo, whether it ever intended them or not. Sourcery runs the risk of creating new inequalities, for sure. But sticking with a status quo that privileges the in-person visit even when it’s not strictly necessary — a status quo that privleges rich scholars and ones with fancy connections and ones with grad students to exploit — runs the risk of perpetuating old inequalities. Not doing something to address the situation is an affirmative choice. That something doesn’t have to be Sourcery … but we should be honest that some things should change.

I’m seriously not trying to call anybody out. I’m just saying that researchers, archivists, digital humanists, software developers, and their funders and administrators need to work together if we’re going to expand access in ways that neither create new inequalities nor perpetuate old ones. That’s the conversation we want to have, and I know the archival profession wants to have, and I’m glad Sourcery is causing it.

Collaboration and Emergent Knowledge at Greenhouse Studios

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Crossposted from Greenhouse Studios

Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.

We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.”

oxford street

Emergent approaches to scholarly communication have long been an interest of mine, although I’ve only recently come to think of them this way. My first experiment in the emergent possibilities of radical collaboration took the form of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—an “unconference” that colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and I launched in 2008. Instead of a pre-arranged, centrally-planned conference program, THATCampers set their own agendas on the first morning of the event, organizing around the topics that happen to be of most interest to most campers on that day. Another example is Hacking the Academy, a collaboration with Dan Cohen, which posed an open call for submissions to the community of digital humanists on a seven-day deadline. From the patterns that emerged from the more than 300 submissions we received—everything from tweets to blog post to fully formed essays—we assembled and published an edited volume with University of Michigan Press. A final experiment with this emergent approach was a project called One Week | One Tool. This Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities brought together a diverse collections of scholars, students, programmers, designers, librarians, and administrators to conceive, build, and launch an entirely new software tool for humanities scholarship. Participants arrived without an idea of what they would build, only the knowledge that the assembled team would possess the necessary range of talent for the undertaking. They began by brainstorming ideas for a digital project and proceeded to establish project roles, iteratively design a feature set, implement their design, and finally launch their product on day seven.

The Greenhouse Studios design process similarly provides a space for emergent knowledge making. Greenhouse Studios is interested in what new knowledge might emerge when we allow academic communities to self-organize. We are asking what kinds of higher-order complexities arise when teams of humanists, artists, librarians, faculty, students, and staff are given permission to set and follow their own simple rules of collaboration. This mode of work stands in strong rebuke to what I would call the “additive” model of collaboration that draws resources and people together to serve faculty member-driven projects. Instead, Greenhouse Studios provides its teams with the conditions for collaboration—diversity and depth of thought and experience, time apart, creative tools and spaces—and lets them set their own projects and own roles. At Greenhouse Studios, we’re running an experiment in radical collaboration, exploring what happens when you remove the labor hierarchies and predetermined workplans that normally structure collaborative scholarly projects, and instead embrace the emergent qualities of collaboration itself.

Uber and Airbnb

I’m extremely uneasy about startups like Uber and Airbnb whose business models are grounded in sidestepping regulations that were originally intended as consumer- and labor-protection measures. People—both the service providers and their customers—love Uber and Airbnb because they offer greater flexibility and efficiency than traditional taxi and hotel services. Some of that flexibility is afforded by new communications technologies that offer a more direct connection between the service provider and the consumer. But a lot of that flexibility stems from the fact that these services are unregulated. Uber and Airbnb get closer to consumers not only by using information technology to ditch the middleman of the dispatcher (in Uber’s case) or travel agent and hotel chain (in Airbnb’s), but also by ditching the middleman of the government.

We can imagine lots of markets that could be streamlined by using information technology to sidestep middlemen to place service providers in more direct communication with consumers. But the middlemen are often the people who comply with government regulations that are intended to protect us from fraud and abuse. Middlemen often create friction and inefficiencies in the system. But sometimes a little friction is good.