While I may not currently work in academia, I am still an academic. I specialize in looking at how we imagine and think about technology and how those conceptions then guide what technology we build and how we use it.
This should be a golden time for the work I do. If you look around, you will see a media landscape in a near permanent state of shock. Reddit, a private company masquerading as a open platform, is suddenly a lot more closed. Twitter, a private company masquerading as an open platform for communications and coordination, was bought by a far-right billionaire and his autocrat backers and is now in lockdown as it devolves into another garbage hate site. We don’t need to even mention Meta/Facebook, Amazon, or the “Don’t be evil” to “Fuck it, we’re rich. Be evil” evolution of Google.
Now, our imagination swirls with the doomsday apocalypse of AI, a doomsday sold to us by the same hype-men who sold us cryptocurrencies. Hype men who want to, and I mean this literally, scan your eyes as a way to track and identify you. In our imagination, the day of the user is done. Time’s 2006 cover is a memory with a sour taste. We return, once again, to the trope at the heart of “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” factory: technology as an active threat to humanity. No longer a tool for empowering the individual, technology is reconsidered as a totalizing force only available to the wealthy and the powerful–until they too lose control.
Meanwhile, in the corners of the Internet, distributed platforms are on the rise. ActivityPub and the AT Protocol are growing at a massive rate. Tomorrow (maybe today), Meta releases it ActivityPub product and the users already on different fediverse applications are prepping for the next Eternal September.
There is a cornucopia of topics for research and publication. In this moment, though, I keep thinking of the cascade of privilege that brought us so many of the early tech culture pioneers and the supposed counter-culture movements that created them. Movements and people that failed us. In many ways, I feel the same about much of the academy. I value my work and my research. I am proud of the work I did and do. I am struggling, though, with wanting to publish and remain engaged in academic spaces when I feel like they are so far from the mark and often more interested in self-promotion, self-reference, and self-preservation than actual work.
In the same vein, while I love the work I do now, I do not have the opportunity to really do significant external research in the area that should be published outside the research materials and tools that we build for the public and the community (MN Dash to End Homelessness, for example). I am more than happy to keep that work focused on supporting the agencies and communities engaged in helping those experiencing homelessness.
I do want to talk about hope, though. Hope in other possibilities and other publics’ sociotechnical imaginaries. Ones that saw interconnected technology not as a means of individual empowerment but of networked strength and capacity. Ideas that, when leveraged, terrified those in places of power (and rightfully so). I saw them in the early days of the BBS and the early Internet. I see them remembered in discussions on slow networks (see Lori Emerson’s work at the Media Archaeology Lab) and the call for a small web along with the numerous instances of shared servers with gopher and IRC powered tools. There are still people out there who have preserved and remembered and, in some cases, continued to develop these imaginaries even as the rest of us moved on.
Maybe, I just want to be one of them again.