History of Digital Culture and Evolution of Technology
- What are the 2 or 3 points you think are most valuable from this week’s readings? What about for this week’s video clips and documentaries?
Here is a template for how to approach answering this question each week: In [name of reading], [author] states that [main point] which is important because [why].
- Choose one point from this week’s lectures, readings, or media, and connect it back to oneof the key course questions that feels most relevant to you right now, and explain the connection you are making as best you can. It could be something that seems most important, or something that is new to you – it’s up to you how to take this question on.
Again, here are our DIGC 160 3 Guiding Questions:
– How do we understand something as a “new” technology?
– How can we analyze the ways that members of a culture use technology as a locus for evolving or conflicting cultural practices and social change?
– And, how does culture affect our understanding of a technology and how we use it?
Don’t include your own questions yet – that’s the next question!History of Digital Culture and Evolution of Technology
- Thinking back on the readings and media for this week, what questions do you have? What needs more explanations, more examples, or more detail? If you have no questions, try out giving an example of your own on one of this week’s concepts, and connect your example to one of this week’s topics or main points. Aim for 1-3 questions or comments.
For each question or comment you include, you have a maximum count of 280 characters (yes, consider these each tweet).
- Connection ideas from this week’s readings, lectures, and/or media to topics of your own interest (aim for 1-2, but some weeks you might have more).
You should pick specific examples, concepts, or terms, and connect them up to your own interests, project, or goals. During week 1-3, the field of what you can choose and how you use it is wide open – during weeks 4-7, this is the place to connect up what you read to your own capstone project. This question is deliberately left open – there may be only one point that really stands out for you, but there also might be a few. Take on no more than three things.
For this question, for each idea you discuss, present it in tweet format, with a maximum of 280 characters. (Hint: you can talk about multiple ideas – each one is its own tweet)
In this episode, I will be defining and giving background on the first of our main concepts for this unit – crowdsourcing.
In the times before the internet, in the analog era, communities shared and built information in very tangible ways – they spoke to one another, or they wrote it down and shared it with one another. The term crowdsourcing was coined by Jeff How in the June 2006 issue of Wired magazine:
“Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.”
If we want to use a shorter definition, we can understand crowdsourcing to be any user-generated content. In our current era, this typically is assumed to happen via the Internet. But crowdsourcing as a way of building expert content as a community has a long history. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, was a crowdsourcing project – philosopher James Murray, in 1879, asked his English-speaking audience to share references to everyday and unusual words, resulting in the OED’s first edition. In 1979, the Zagat Restaurant Guide was begun by a couple who collected restaurant ratings from their friends and later on a wider community. And the Lonely Planet travel guide, first published in 1981, gathered its information from travelers who shared their tips and tricks on destinations around the world. The SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project, crowdsourced data processing of radio telescope data from 1999 to March 31, 2020.
In 1993, Rick Gates presented the idea of a crowdsourced encyclopedia based in the World Wide Web in a Usenet newsgroup – the idea finally came about through the work of Jimmy Wales and Larry Stanger when the Wiki system, which allowed users to read and edit websites, came to the internet. Wikipedia, born on January 15, 2001, was the result.
There are a number of ways that crowdsourcing is used – these range from collecting, organizing, and filtering knowledge, sharing out the effort in realizing a project or product, creative brainstorming for innovation, and crowdfunding projects – either for the funding of specific projects (like a Kickstarter campaign) or fundraising for a nonprofit organization or an individual (such as a GoFundMe campaign for an individual or family).
While crowdsourcing has many benefits – it also carries some potential issues. Wikipedia, for example, has had to lock any number of pages from crowdsourced editing to prevent – in their own words – “edit wars or to control vandalism”. Indeed – Wikipedia keeps an archival page with a list of pages that are permanently locked, for a variety of reasons. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Most_vandalized_pages (Links to an external site.), also the list of Wikipedia controversies that resulted in locked pages – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Wikipedia_controversies (Links to an external site.)).
While Wikipedia is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of contemporary crowdsourcing, it is closely related to citizen journalism – where volunteers engage in gathering and sorting news, as I’ve already discussed. Indeed, there is a case to be made that citizen journalism is simply a specialized form of crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing has other, related implications that we can connect to other social function, rather than just the collection and dissemination – it’s about what we do with that information. I’m referring here to the concept of social and political protest.
Protest movements have a long history for a wide range of reasons – personal protest against specific situations and conditions, demonstrations, direct actions, protests in the public space against governments and corporations. They have taken place across the world in every society, for a wide range of causes, and using a wide range of methods. It would take us an entire course to chart and explore the nature of these even at a superficial level, but I think it particularly important to bring up the role of protest since it is yet another form of social behavior that has translated well and effectively into the digital sphere. I’d bring up a few examples to make the point as they chart some of the changes in digital technology that we have been addressing in DIGC 160.
I’ll begin, unsurprisingly, with a new media example from before the internet that transformed international fundraising – I’m talking about the Live Aid concert organized by musician Bob Geldof, which took place on July 13, 1985, and was attended in person at stages in Philadelphia and London. While almost 175,000 total people attended (including both venues), more than a billion television viewers – myself included – and this was about ¼ of the planet’s population at the time! Watched at least parts of it live, and participated in raising tens of millions of dollars in aid for the victims of a famine in Ethiopia. The impact of Live Aid is hard to miss – throughout the rest of the 1980s, and well into the following decade, celebrity fundraising events to support social causes became popular and common. It added terms to our vocabulary – including “extreme poverty”, which the UN finally used in 1995 to define as a base measurement for sustainable life. Fundraisers on television were not new – Geldof didn’t create something unprecedented. TV and radio fundraisers build on a long history of charitable giving across the world, A few brief examples would include soup kitchens run by the Sung Dynasty in China in the 10th century, Zulu tribe traditions of giving, established in the 17thcentury, and the charitable complex opened by the wife of the Ottoman Empire Sultan in 1552 to care for widows, orphans, and the poor. The word philanthropy itself came into the English language in 1600. Philanthropy was something tied to social institutions, and similarly, protest movements were, out of necessity, tied to social and cultural organizations who had the resources to communicate with large groups of people and disseminate ideas and information.
All of this changed when the internet began – now, groups of people could crowdsource ideas on platforms that were not tied to formal social institutions, and this changed everything.
On February 15, 2003, people in more than 600 cities around the world coordinated to express opposition to the imminent Iraq War, which was spearheaded by the US. This event grew out of smaller events – both political and protest in nature, that continued throughout the progress of that war. According to BBC News, somewhere between 6-10 million people took part in them in up to sixty countries over that weekend of February 15. The protest in Rome is listed in the 2004 Guinness Book of World Records as the largest anti-war rally in history, with over 3 million people participating. Remember that this was still in the pre-social media era, so single directional communications – often through digital newsletters – could be shared between organizations on increasingly smaller budgets, but there were few mechanisms the audiences for these communications could share on a large scale to communicate back.
Social media transformed and expanded all this.
The anti-war protest movement over the US-led Iraq War was organized and run by established nonprofits around the world through more or less traditional modes of communication (newsletters, live conversations, direct communication – yes including email – with members and interested parties). By 2011, all of this had changed. Two examples demonstrating very different forms of protest that show this were the Arab Spring protests of 2011, and the SOPA/PIPA online blackout and teach-in of 2012. SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act and PIPA, the PROTECT IP Act were bills introduced into the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate in the last quarter of 2011.
In both cases, social media were the vehicle used by groups to highlight the social and political problems at issue – in the case of the Arab Spring, Facebook and Twitter, and in the SOPA/PIPA blackout, attacking US Congressional legislation that would – the protesters argued – potentially make much of the internet unavailable to users, was first posted by Reddit administration, and proposed by the Wikipedia community. Interestingly in the latter case, this first movement was done by the Italian Wikipedia community against a law under consideration by the Italian Parliament to limit editorial independence. The Arab Spring protests – a far more complex situation – people from the Middle East and North Africa were individually using texting, emails, and blogging to share information about local, live (traditional) protests, and Western social media users amplified awareness, creating a feedback loop whereby local protesters made their judgments to participate, reinforcing each other’s prejudices and group identities. In short, social media took something that was going to happen anyhow but blew it up, proportionately, into a much larger situation.
Crowdsourcing became something that is at once a benign mode of sharing information and also a potential mechanism for exploding already existing social and political problems. I could go on – the examples of such situations are indisputable across the 2010s and beyond, but this would take an entire course of its own to explore, and we are in some respects still too close to the most recent of these situations to be able to unpack and address them appropriately.
Elements of this lecture are drawn from:History of Digital Culture and Evolution of Technology
Howe, Jeff. “The rise of crowdsourcing” Wired 6.1.2006. Accessed from https://www.wired.com/2006/06/crowds/ (Links to an external site.)
York Wooten, Kristi. “The Legacy of Live Aid, 30 Years Later.” The Atlantic July 13, 2015. Accessed from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/07/live-aid-anniversary/398402/ (Links to an external site.).
For more on SOPA/PIPA and Net Neutrality:
Keep Watch Stay Free Campaign. “The day the internet stood still” TechCrunch 1.18.2017. Accessed from https://techcrunch.com/2017/01/18/the-day-the-internet-stood-still/ (Links to an external site.)
“Protests against SOPA and PIPA.” Wikipedia (updated 12.2.2021): Accessed from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protests_against_SOPA_and_PIPA (Links to an external site.)
Yu, Allen. “The SOPA-PIPA saga – freedom of speech vs. net neutrality. The Center for Internet and Society 1.25.2012. Accessed from http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2012/01/sopa-pipa-saga-freedom-speech-vs-net-neutrality (Links to an external site.).
TRIGGER WARNING: Please note that the topic for this episode contains a discussion of a subject that some people may find disturbing. Please take care of yourself in ways that are appropriate to your needs. You will find indicators in the transcript below the recording that may help you decide on what portions of the episode to read or listen to.
In this episode I want to talk about the other of our main concepts in this unit – conspiracy theory. While this is one term that’s become familiar to us in recent years, it has a very long history. It’s also very connected to crowdsourcing, since, this is how community knowledge and ideas are built.
Historically, as Douglas et al note, conspiracy theories have been closely linked across history to “prejudice, witch hunts, revolutions, and genocide. Many perpetrators of terrorist attacks were known to be keen supporters of conspiracy theories.” (Douglas et al 2019: 3). Let’s start with a definition: conspiracy theories are attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors.” (Douglas et al, 4) While these are often directed at governments, they can accuse any group that is perceived as powerful and malevolent – in other words socially dangerous. For example, about 60% of Americans continue to believe the CIA killed President John F. Kennedy; about 46% of British voters intending to vote “leave” believe the referendum about European Union membership by the UK in 2016 would be rigged, and in the run-up to the 2020 US Presidential election, The Hill reported that 37% of Republican registered voters, 40% of independent voters, and 36% of Democratic voters all believed the presidential election would be rigged. (The Hill 9/30/2020 https://thehill.com/hilltv/what-americas-thinking/518987-poll-bipartisan-agreement-on-the-possibility-of-a-rigged (Links to an external site.)). There were widespread conspiracy theories around the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City, accusing a wide range of groups of being behind the attack and its consequences.
What is particularly important to note is that, not only are conspiracy theories not new, but they are also no more prevalent now than they have been in the past. While van Proin and Douglas note that there are fluctuations in different periods of history, spikes in levels of conspiratorial content are marked most by periods of major societal changes than anything else. Something they found that is particularly important to our purposes here is that they found one real motivating reason for such increases in conspiracy thinking – rapid change, including quick technological progress, rapidly changing power structures, major economic changes – including economic recessions. What they are really about, then, is the ways cultures experience uncertainty and fear, and what people do about them. What are some of the stresses in our contemporary society that might be tied to conspiracy theories in our own time? Economic and financial crises (2008), climate change, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 9/11 terror attacks. Historically, a group that has often been accused of conspiracy formation is the Jewish population – one world government, causing epidemics and plague, and many others. In the US, the Muslim population is often a target. While the reason for the conspiracy theory itself is a desire to make sense of a situation, what often arises are the prejudices against what sociologists and psychologists call “outgroups” – the short definition of which is that ingroups are social groups that people psychologically identify as being a member of, and outgroups as a social group that an individual does not identify with. It should not be surprising, then, that outgroups – what we often label “minority groups” within a society – are often blamed for the social problems experienced by the ingroup. Basically, this is about people who are “like us” and people who are “not like us”. During the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy thinking has focused on external sources of illness, and denying that the pandemic exists. As Junzi et al (2020) note, “one could argue that lowering the overall perceived COVID-19 threat levels and felt anxiety during the crisis (i.e., by media reports and political measures/messages intended to decrease anxiety) might well be an effective tool to battle the negative consequences of the reactions toward the pandemic.” (Junzi et al 2020: 13)
Folklorist and conspiracy theory scholar Dr. Stephanie Singleton notes that narratives and mythology are powered by this idea of good vs. evil. This becomes more pronounced in America because we’re supposed to be the “shining beacon on the hill of American exceptionalism” – conspiracy theories of our current world – whether it’s JFK assassination theories, the 9/11 Truth movement point, or Covid-19 conspiracies – point out the places where the US isn’t being the place we’re supposed to be. This is yet another metaphor for who we are as a people, and the utopia the US is supposed to be and represent in the world. She speaks to these conspiracies as what she calls organic conspiracies, coming from the lay population.
I would add to her point, that even Qanoon, which falls under what Dr. Singleton calls government sponsored conspiracy theories, also has a connection to organic, community-based conspiracies in that for Qanoon believers, part of what draws them to this ideology is that they, too, are working from a reaction to things that challenge their belief in American exceptionalism as they understand it. Government sponsored conspiracy theories, as she defines them, are drawn from governmental bodies.
Has the internet made this all worse? Van Proin and Douglas suggest that it really hasn’t – the internet has simply replaced other modes of communication. We can make a case that – during the COVID-19 pandemic in particular – since word-of-mouth has not been a good option for sharing conspiracy theories, the internet has indeed taken its place, and in fact has extended that sharing of ideas in some very destructive ways. We need to bear in mind that social media has absolutely accelerated the sharing of ideas – the speed and breadth of crowdsourcing in the internet era is unlike anything we’ve seen in past eras.
I want to build on this connection to crowdsourcing and follow out that logic for a moment. Most conspiracy theories in our current world are, themselves, crowdsourced – shared on social media platforms. They range from small-scale to huge, and include theories about stolen personal data on Facebook, to the Pizza gate conspiracy spread by believers in Qanoon. People accept ideas presented by someone they perceive as a member of their “ingroup” about “outgroup” outrages and behavior. Crowdsourcing, while it brings a closer sense of ownership between users of content and producers of content, can also bring in an individual’s – or a group’s – need to make sense of what’s happening in the world around them in ways that can be dangerous, and the systems of belief that they bring into their ideas. As Singleton tells us, it really all comes back to systems of belief – and no logic or data is going to overcome such systems.
What to take away from this? Consider that the internet has increased the speed of social change, not just technological change. This kind of social instability can be very stressful, as I’ve discussed earlier. And, when we crowdsource knowledge with others, we tend to identify with them. This makes crowdsourcing – while an opportunity to create positive knowledge and content creation – also a way of crowdsourcing attempts to make meaning of scary or threatening ideas and information. The technology, in this case, becomes yet one more way of extending the ways the people have always tried to make sense of the world around them. This includes the metaphors we have around our own world and our own ways of life.
Elements of this lecture are drawn from:
Douglas, Karen M., Joseph E. Uscinski, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, Turkay Nefes, Chee Siang Ang, and Farzin Deravi. “Understanding Conspiracy Theories” Advances in Political Psychology Vol. 40, Suppl. 1 (2019): 3-35.
“Poll: Both Democrats and Republicans believe there is a possibility of rigged election” The Hill. 9/30/2020 Accessed from https://thehill.com/hilltv/what-americas-thinking/518987-poll-bipartisan-agreement-on-the-possibility-of-a-rigged (Links to an external site.)
Krieger, J. Meryl. 2021. Conversation with Dr. Stephanie Singleton. March 12, 2021.
McKenzie-McHarg, A. (2018). Conspiracy theory: The nineteenth-century prehistory of a twentieth-century concept. In J. E. Uscinski (Ed.), Conspiracy theories and the people who believe them (pp. 62–81). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Van Prooijen, Jan-Willem, and Karen M Douglas. “Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations”. Memory Studies Vol. 10 No. 3 (2017): 323-333.
History of Digital Culture and Evolution of Technology