TCLP 2011-01-12 Interview: Gabriella Coleman

This is a feature cast, an episode of The Command Line Podcast.

There is no hacker word of the week this week due to the length of the feature.

The feature this week is an interview I conducted with Gabriella Coleman.  I was introduced to her work through her writings at The Atlantic.  She mentions Malcom Gladwell’s criticism of online activism and Indy Media.  The main reason I invited her on was her critique of Bruce Sterling’s The Blast Shack.  We delve a bit further into the question of WikiLeaks lasting impacts.  I mention a couple of times Clay Shirky’s long haul view.  Gabriella recommends Adrian Johns’ book on piracy (which I ordered with a gift card I received recently, can’t wait to read it).  She also mentions a revisit of the topic of WikiLeaks at The Economist.  You can also find Gabriella on Twitter where she is quite active and sharing some great links related to topics we discuss in this interview and of course her broader work.


View the detailed show notes online. You can grab the flac encoded audio from the Internet Archive.

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9 Replies to “TCLP 2011-01-12 Interview: Gabriella Coleman”

  1. Why do I get the feeling that events are happening too fast for anyone to keep up with. This continued rhetorical tennis match between journalists and academics is lost on the general public. To be clear I am speaking a member of the general public. I have tried to follow these series of stories and articles and such as best a possible; however, the lack of any real experience from either of these disciplines is obvious. I find things are reduced mostly to politics with claims and counter claims that ” Social Law” is “this or that” .

    This interview emphasizes this reality. As an outsider I would appreciate a humbling of all parties. most people who have engaged in this “war of ideals” all strike me as arrogant proponents of their own ideals: I include your interviewee. Near as I can tell there has been no true advancement of the facts of the situation. Perhaps this is because politics is a strong and emergent factor in this debate.

    I can only implore you to present a message and agenda of humble cooperation amongst those involved in this debate. People are generally more receptive when Ego’s are checked at the door. I can only hope that these diverse participants chose to put their collective heads together rather then continue rasp their unfounded opinions on the digital chalkboard.

    1. I am not sure I see it as being as dire as all that. I too get frustrated when dwelling too long on one end of the spectrum or the other. I thought Gabriella did a pretty good job of acknowledging that journalists and academics each serve a complementary purpose. As a professional technologist, however, I share her frustration when a journalist rushes too judgment on the basis of too shallow an understanding of the technology and the technological actors involved. I try to call attention to academics who make their work more accessible to the public (Lessig, Zittrain, Hyde, et. al.) and routinely highlight in my blogging journalists who share the implications of technological development with thoroughness and accuracy.

      All that being said, the discussion around Assange, WikiLeaks and Anonymous were perhaps overly ambitious even for a long form interview. Gabriella and I both mentioned other resources for further reading that I tried to link in the show notes. In particular, I think Clay Shirky is offering one of the sanest voices on my of the key aspects of the WikiLeaks story.

      I recently approached Dan Gillmor, a noted journalist and thought leader in the field of journalism. He was agreeable to an interview so I hope to have him on the show, soon. Perhaps that will help provide the balance you seek and provide hints towards more engagement and cooperation from all corners.

      1. My apologies, you seem to have misunderstood the thrust of my criticism.

        I not worried about the political circus of wiki-leaks, rather I am criticizing the nebulous and still emerging notions of social behavior over the web. Mostly in regards to the Gladwell. Shirky, and others. To often I feel that these commentators are mostly engaging in politicking with a few incomplete facts thrown in.

        There seems to be no broad based or even agreed upon approach to which we can develop concrete social data on such matters. Perhaps this is given over because of privacy matters, I’m not sure. I just can’t help think that any attempts to define the whole of human interaction online will always come up short. As the internet is not just one sub-culture in an isolated village, rather it is all those cultures clashing all at once.

        I don’t want to be pessimistic, but right now any description of social “anything” on the internet is just too entwined with current politics to point to an objective way forward. Think of it like your mention of the “facebook friend of a friend” information problem. That problem is more then just an informational one it is a social one that current commentary has not, and does not show interest in, coming to terms with.

  2. Hi Goblin,

    While I agree with your assessment (because often people are trying to bite off too much in their analysis of the Internet and/ or have an strong agenda to advance) there is a lot of really good work out there on the culture, politics, and sociology of digital media that is more modest and bounded in scope (but a lot of it is perhaps a bit boring to read as written for academic audiences).

    I wrote a long review essay which you can find on my web page that will point you to hundreds of books and articles that I think have accurately and fairly assessed the terrain, although to be sure, there is still a lot more work to be done and I am not sure if we can reach or should very general assessments about sociality, for example on the Internet. You do and should always bound your analysis by a set of issues and questions or else you risk being too general in your work.

    ( look for the Annual Review of Anthropology).

    There is also a lot of really good journalistic work out there too and their work is key because their material is more readable than so much academic material and comes out quicker than our own work. Thomas has already pointed out some of this stuff but some journalists who have grappled with and represented hackers and virtual with a lot of nuance are Steven Levy and Julian Dibbell.

    As per my own work, it is generally oriented toward the politics of digital media with a more particular focus on free software, trolls, Anonymous and a few other things and have been involved also with digital activism as well.

    I can’t speak to everything about the Internet or digital media and try to limit myself to these topics, although I try to keep abreast of trends and dynamics that are connected to my fields of study. There is a ton I still don’t know and am constantly humbled about the depth and the complexity of these worlds and am always open to learning more and being told that I am off in my fact or assessment. So if there is anything particular jumped out I am all ears.

    Finally and I think this insight is not only hinged to the digital: some arenas are easier to study and access than others. I have found this to be true for my own work. The ethics of transparency and access among free software hackers has made it a lot easier to study than Anonymous or trolls, which are more obscure and confusing.

    But this is not only the case with digital formations. Trying to pin down the ’causes’ of social revolutions can be notoriously hard in many cases and there are some groups (the Italian mafia, for example) that are really hard to crack. The ability to understandably social worlds is distributed quite unevenly.

  3. Gabriella, thanks for the extra sources, I will definitely check them out. I think a lot of my unease originates with the political contentiousness of current culture. In my examinations I find it impossible to separate the political slant of many articles from the point being made (I do not exclude myself, but rather accept it as a fact). This of course could be said about everyone, we all naturally express our own biases through our words and actions; it is just somehow even more noticeable over the internet medium.

    This is what jumps at me when discussing anyone’s opinions on the internet. Just how fine grained does that opinion, political or otherwise, get, and what are its effects? This is my primary concern, for all the talk of “inclusion” online, personal proclaimed political slant seems to be most expressive linkage and is more or less expected of self-associated groups. It is usually expressed as in an unwritten/unspoken attitude of, “Toe the line, or go to another page with people like you”. It’s as if many persona online don’t realize what that very attitude does for all their spoken opinions of “inclusion.”

    I am trying to deal with the “meta-space” issues, I am trying to map the “terrain” first, before I set off in search of a new way. Just what is the human geography of the internet? And more importantly how does that relate with actual geography?

    Thank you for your insights.


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