Review of ‘code/space: software and everyday life’

This review was published in Environment and Planning B last year. I really loved the book and think that it’s a powerful reminder of the importance of context in thinking about how code does work in the world. 

Code/space: Software and Everyday Life By Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge; MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 2011, 290 pages, ISBN: 978-0262042482

codepsaceKitchen and Dodge’s important new book,  Code/space: Software and Everyday Life,  opens with the crucial phrase – “software matters”. It matters, they argue, because software increasingly mediates our everyday lives – from the digital trail that extends just that little bit further when we order our morning coffee, to the data which is sent to a remote location about our electricity and gas usage from so-called “smart meters”, and the airport security databases that determine whether we are allowed to travel or not. The power of software is its ability to make our lives easier, improve efficiency and productivity; but such efficiencies come at the cost of pervasive surveillance, a feature that is producing a society that “never forgets”.

The key premise of the book is that there are two key gaps in the way that we talk about technology and society. The first critique is aimed at social science and humanities approaches that deal too much with the technologies that software enables rather than explaining the particular code that affects activity and behavior in different contexts. This is akin, the authors argue, to looking only at the effects of ill health on society, rather than also considering ‘the specifics of different diseases, their etiology (causes, origins, evolution, and implications), and how these manifest themselves in shaping social relations’ (p13).

Software studies, on the other hand, is a nascent research field that seeks ‘to open the black box of processors and arcane algorithms to understand how software – its lines and routines of code – does work in the world by instructing various technologies how to act’ (p13). The problem, they write, is that the majority of software studies are aspatial, presuming that space is merely a neutral backdrop against which human activity occurs. Here, Kitchin and Dodge’s critique is directed at scholars such as Lawrence Lessig, whose book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (Lessig, 1999) refers to code (in the form of software) as having the ability to automatically regulate activity online. But code, argue Kitchin and Dodge, is not law. It is neither universal nor deterministic, but rather contingent and relational. And space is not simply a container in which things happen but rather ‘subtly evolving layers of context and practices that fold together people and things and actively shape social relations’ (p13).

Kitchin and Dodge formulate two important concepts in arguing for a spatial approach to software studies. The first is ‘code/space’, or the moment when space and code are mutually dependent on one another (a check-in desk at an airport, for example) and ‘coded spaces’, on the other hand, which do not entirely depend on code to function (the use of Powerpoint slides during a presentation, for example). After detailing the types of software employed in the areas of home, travel and consumption, Kitchin and Dodge conclude with a Manifesto for Software Studies that sets out an agenda for software studies to produce ‘detailed case studies of how software does work in the world’ as well as ‘theoretical tools for describing how and explaining why, and the effects, of that work’ (p249). Here they propose studies comparing effects of code in rural Ireland and urban Manchester, for example, where code is analyzed in a manner that is sensitive to place and scale, cultural histories, and modes of activity (p249).

The concept that code is not universal or immutable but contingent and contextual is powerful, but Kitchen and Dodge have a tendency to analyze code in home, travel and consumption without any reference to differences in code’s impact in different places or spaces (the use of international passenger record databases when traveling from Rio de Janeiro, or trying to buy books on Amazon.com from Johannesburg, for example). Although they maintain that their intention is to provide a broad field for future research, the book would have been stronger with some analysis of the different ways in which code codes differing practices and how they are understood, used, and the different moments of its instantiation in places and/or spaces.

Where the book succeeds, and makes its most useful contribution, is in its lucid explanation of how detailed analyses of code are essential to understanding how software is becoming ingrained into our everyday lives, and how it has both an empowering and disciplining effect. Kitchin and Dodge are charting new disciplinary territory here, bringing together the fields of computer science, social science and spatial studies in highly promising ways. Theirs is an inspiring approach to how we might come to unveil the hidden choices behind the code that governs our everyday lives, and how we might come to understand a phenomenon that has an increasingly powerful role in society.

References

Lessig, L, 1999 Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace (Basic Books, New York)

How Wikipedia’s Dr Jekyll became Mr Hyde: Vandalism, sock puppetry and the curious case of Wikipedia’s decline

This is a (very) short paper that I will be presenting at Internet Research in Denver this week. I want to write something longer about the story because I feel like it represents in many ways what I see as emblematic of so many of us who lived through our own Internet bubble: when everything seemed possible and there was nothing to lose. This is (a small slice of) Drork’s story. 

Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Richard Mansfield starring in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Abstract This paper concerns the rise and fall of Wikipedia editor, ‘drork’ who was blocked indefinitely from the English version of the encyclopedia after seven years of constructive contributions, movement leadership and intense engagement. It acts as a companion piece to the recent statistical analyses of patterns of conflict and vandalism on Wikipedia to reflect on the questions of why someone who was once committed to the encyclopedia may want to vandalize it. The paper compares two perspectives on the experience of being a Wikipedian: on the other hand, a virtuous experience that enables positive character formation as more commonly espoused, and alternatively as an experience dominated by in-fighting, personal attacks and the use of Wikipedia to express political goals. It concludes by arguing that the latter behavior is necessary in order to survive as a Wikipedian editing in these highly conflict-ridden areas.

Introduction

Recent scholarship has painted two competing pictures of what Wikipedia and Wikipedians are “like” and what they are motivated by. On the one hand, Benkler and Nissenbaum argue that because people contribute to projects like Wikipedia with motivations “ranging from the pure pleasure of creation, to a particular sense of purpose, through to the companionship and social relations that grow around a common enterprise”, the practice of commons-based peer production fosters virtue and enables “positive character formation” (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006). On the other hand, we have heard more recently about how “free and open” communities like Wikipedia have become a haven for aggressive, intimidating behavior (Reagle, 2013) and that reversions of newcomers’ contributions has been growing steadily and may be contributing to Wikipedia’s decline (Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, & Riedl, in-press).   Continue reading

Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD

Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events. 

Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.

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A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.   

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In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.

A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations.

In the next few days in Nairobi, I became steeped in the narratives around this event – on television, in newspapers, in the bars, on Twitter, and FB. I learned that the story was not actually a story about the invasion of one country by another, and that there were more salient stories that only people living in Kenya were aware of:

  1. This was a story about Kenyan military trying to prove itself: it was the first time since independence that the military had been involved in an active campaign and the country was watching to see whether they would be able to succeed.
  2. The move had been preceded by a series of harrowing stories the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and tourists on the border with southern Somalia – one of Kenya’s major tourist destinations – and the subsequent move by the British government to advise against Britons traveling to coastal areas near the Somali border. [Another narrative that Mark Kaigwa pointed out was that some Kenyans believed that this was a move by the government to prevent spending cuts to the military, and that, as an election year in Kenya, they wanted to prove themselves]
  3. There were threats of retaliation by al Shabaab – many sympathizers of whom were living inside Kenya. I remember sitting in a bar with friends and remarking how quiet it was. My friends answered that everyone had been urged not to go out – and especially not to bars because of the threat of attacks at which point I wondered aloud why we were there. Al Shabaab acted on those threats at a bar in the city center only a few miles away from us that night.

I used to think that these kind of deletions were just an example of ignorance, of cultural imperialism and even of racism. Although some of the responses could definitely be viewed that way, the editor who nominated the article for deletion, Middayexpress, was engaged in the AfD (Articles for Deletion) discussion, and has contributed the highest number of edits. His/her actions could not be explained by ignorance and bad faith alone.

What I realized when I was interviewing Wikipedians about these and other articles that were threatened with deletion for so-called “lack of notability” was that editors in countries outside of Kenya didn’t have access to these narratives that would make it obvious that this event was notable enough to deserve its own page. People outside of Kenya would have seen the single narrative about the incursion/invasion without any of these supporting narratives that made this stand out in Kenya as obviously important in the history of the country.

The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign
The Facebook page for Operation Linda Nchi has 1,825 Likes and contains news with a significant nationalistic bent about the campaign

These narratives don’t travel well for three reasons:

a) The volume of international news being covered by traditional media in the West is declining. The story that Western editors were getting was a single story about a military offensive, one they thought must fit within a broader narrative about the Somali war;

b) Much of the local media that people in Kenya were exposed to (and certainly not buzz in the streets and in bars or the threat of bodily harm by terrorists) did not go online in traditional formats but was available on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and

c) Even where it did, front pages of news websites are especially ineffective at showing readers when there is a single story that is really important. In newspapers, we fill up the entire front page with the story, make the headline shorter, run it along the entire page, and run a massive photograph when there is a war or a huge story. The front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation is always going to be busy, with a lot of competing stories, making it really difficult just by looking at the site whether a story was relatively more important than others.

This story made me realize how important it is for Wikipedians to expose themselves to social media sources so that they can get access to some of these supporting narratives that you just don’t get by looking online, and that despite Wikipedia’s general aversion to social media, this kind of contextual understanding is essential to gaining a more nuanced understanding of local notability. This finding influenced the eventual report for Ushahidi on how Wikipedians manage and debate sources and citations, and lent legitimacy to Ushahidi’s plans to develop news filtering tools for use during rapidly evolving news events such as disasters, elections and political violence.

Featured pic by NS Newsflash (CC-BY) on Flickr

February 2013: The Openness Edition

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First published on ethnographymatters.net.

Last month on Ethnography Matters, we started a monthly thematic focus where each of the EM contributing editors would elicit posts about a particular theme. I kicked us off with the theme entitled ‘The Openness Edition’ where we investigated what openness means for the ethnographic community. I ended up editing some wonderful posts on the topic of openness last month – from Rachelle Annechino’s great post questioning what “informed consent” means in health research, to Jenna Burrell’s post about openaccess journals related to ethnography and Sarah Kendzior’s stimulating piece about by legitimacy and place of Internet research by anthropologists. We also had two really wonderful pieces sharing methods for more open, transparent research by Juliano Spyer (YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool) and by Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao in their inspiring piece about how they facilitated story-building exercises with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights (complete with PDF instructions!) Below is the editorial that I wrote at the beginning of the month where I try to tease out some of the complexities of my own relationship with the open access/open content movement. Comments welcome!

On Saturday the 12th of January, almost a month ago, I woke to news of Aaron Swartz’s death the previous day. In the days that followed, I experienced the mixed emotions that accompany such horrific moments: sadness for him and the pain he must have gone through in struggling with depression and anxiety, anger at those who had waged an exaggerated legal campaign against him, uncertainty as I posted about his death on Facebook and felt like I was trying to claim some part of him and his story, and finally resolution that I needed to clarify my own policy on open access. Continue reading

Crowd Wisdom

I just posted the article about Ushahidi and its future challenges that was published in the Index on Censorship last month (‘Crowd Wisdom’ by Heather Ford in Index on Censorship December 2012, vol. 41, no. 4 33-39 doi: 10.1177/0306422012465800) . I wrote about Ushahidi’s emergence as a powerful tool used in countries around the world to document elections, disasters and food – among others – and the coming challenges as the majority of Ushahidi implementations remain ‘small data’ projects and as tools move towards automatic verification, something only possible with ‘Big Data’.

Why Wikipedia is no ‘proxy for culture’ (Part 1 of 3)

First posted at EthnographyMatters.net

Last month’s Wired magazine showed an infographic with a headline that read: ‘History’s most influential people, ranked by Wikipedia reach’ with a group of 20 men arranged in hierarchical order — from Jesus at number 1 to Stalin at number 20. Curious, I wondered how ‘influence’ and ‘Wikipedia reach’ was being decided. According to the article, ‘Rankings (were) based on parameters such as the number of language editions in which that person has a page, and the number of people known to speak those languages’. What really surprised me was not the particular arrangement of figures on this page but the conclusions that were being drawn from it.

According to the piece, César Hidalgo, head of the Media Lab’s Macro Connections group, who researched the data, made the following claims about the data gathered from Wikipedia:

a) “It shows you how the world perceives your own national culture.

b) “It’s a socio-cultural mirror.

c) “We use historical characters as proxies for culture.

And finally, perhaps most surprising is this final line in the story:

Using this quantitative approach, Hidalgo is now testing hypotheses such as whether cultural development is structured or random. “Can you have a Steve Jobs in a country that has not generated enough science or technology?” he wonders. “Ultimately we want to know how culture assembles itself.”

It is difficult to comment on the particular method used by this study because there is little more than the diagram and a few paragraphs of analysis, and the journalist may have misquoted him, but I wanted to draw attention to the statements being made because I think it represents the growing phenomenon of big data analysts using Wikipedia data to make assumptions about ‘culture’. Continue reading

WikiSym Redefined

Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, at the first WikiSym in 2005 which was co-located with ACM OOPSLA in San Diego, California. Pic by Peter Kaminski CC BY on Flickr.

Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, at the first WikiSym in 2005 which was co-located with ACM OOPSLA in San Diego, California. Pic by Peter Kaminski CC BY on Flickr.

There has been much reflecting and soul-searching about the future of WikiSym in the past year (and probably before that as well). Many felt that the conference was becoming dominated by Wikipedia research and that it needed to grow to encompass more research in the open source, open data and open content realm. I felt that the conference needed to attract more social scientists and qualitative researchers in order to reach more detailed understanding of Wikipedia is being integrated into everyday life.

Despite the negatives, everyone felt that WikiSym was and still is the best place for people who do research about Wikipedia and other wikis to gather and that there was a lot of promise in broadening our mandate. This is why I feel so excited about co-chairing a new dedicated Wikipedia track at next year’s WikiSym in Hong Kong along with Mark Graham, also at the Oxford Internet Institute. And that’s why I was also happy that Dirk Riehle, veteren of WikiSym, is at the helm again next year, leading an effort to redesign the event around a changing research landscape.

There are a few key differences to next year’s event:

1. WikiSym 2013 will be held jointly with a new conference called ‘OpenSym’ and the entire event will consist of four tracks dedicated to different research trajectories:

  • Open collaboration (wikis, social media, etc.) research (WikiSym 2013), chaired by Jude Yew of National University of Singapore
  • Wikipedia research (WikiSym 2013), chaired jointly by myself and Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford
  • Free, libre, and open source software research (OpenSym 2013), chaired jointly by Jesus M. Gonzalez-Barahona and Gregorio Robles of Universidad Rey Juan Carlos
  • Open access, data, and government research (OpenSym 2013), chaired by Anne Fitzgerald of Queensland University of Technology

This means that Mark and I can focus on getting the very best of Wikipedia research to WikiSym and in thinking hard about what is missing and what needs to be encouraged in the years to come. Continue reading