Renaissance – maybe.

For better or worse (I think largely better) the covid-19 interval has spurred such a plentiful offering of online arts, cultural, and intellectual events. For someone like me who exists on some plane outside of large institutions but who holds interest and curiosity, and who is also in an active phase of attempted self-integration and on a continued path of learning, it’s been on the whole wonderful and bridging.

As a tech person nowadays, I’ve also been curious about the tech choices being employed by various endeavors, and how this new tech and open interfacing – in terms of both the tools and tenets of open source culture – are being utilized and embraced or not by different proponents spanning a breadth of intellectual exchange and learning.

Some of my explorations:

  • A soundcloud/facebook live event at an east-coast bookstore with Madeline Miller, the author of Circe. This was a wonderful discussion. The Facebook advertising did a great job of bringing in the masses, while Crowdcast handled the huge server load.
  • The Borderless Book Club, formerly the Translated Literature Book Club, based out of Peirene Press in the U.K. There’s a ton to say about this because I’ve read every book and attended every meeting, which happen on Zoom. This has been a great way to support independent publishers of translated literature and the literature has been truly engaging and diverse. As a U.S. based reader, it’s been a task to get the literature, but there are alternatives though preferable to support the publishers directly. All meetings feature an interview with the translator at the fore, followed by breakout rooms, followed by reconvening, recap and followup discussion. The meetings are fairly short to cover that much ground, but manageable. I’m looking forward to the fortnightly meetings which will continue. If time allows, it would be fun to write about some of that literature here.
  • Emergence Magazine has also offered a writing group and ongoing book groups, most of which unfortunately conflict with the Borderless Book group in terms of meeting date and time. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I intend to.
  • Robert McFarlane had offered a collective Twitter reading of The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepard. This is a true gem of a book. Twitter may or may not work as a good discussion medium but it allowed for a truly swooping, drilling, or treetop conversation – in part due to the thoughtful questions posed by McFarlane, the breadth of interested participants and the limitations of the Twitter character limit.
  • German-language groups that meet to speak German over Skype or Zoom. Many of the in-person meetings happened during rush hour, when I didn’t want to drive into town, or on weekends, when I was off adventuring. So it’s been great to be able to be more regular about speaking.
  • Various other online, mostly Zoom, panels which included Carmen Maria Machado and others. Informative, casual, meandering, but also reducing the isolation felt by so many.
  • Alongside these, various tech events where online events and learning opportunities are pretty much par for the course already.

I was also curious about how academia would adapt, how it might engage, and what it might make accessible to those outside its vaunted gates who are pursuing paths of learning. To what extent academic culture might embrace the tools for open sourcing and the ideologies behind open source movements which generate many of those tools and models in terms of open symposia or conferencing – and other places where there are dialogue. How the hierarchical power structures might play out within the flattening effect of broader access.

This ties in with questions surrounding established communities that grow into to having an online presence. Some of my – especially open source – tech communities that I’ve both organized and participated in events in have made forays in this area. One indispensable article in establishing community standards both on and offline has proved to be a Code of Conduct document, which everyone reads and checks a box to agree to when signing up. The agreements and penalties are clearly spelled out and there are procedures in place, which are adhered to, to deal with any CoC departures by people who are appointed and trained in how to resolve them. This has been enormously effective in sustaining a sense of a welcoming, open, safe and risk-taking environment, in bridging attendees who span interests and industries, and in promoting an atmosphere of and pathways for institutional courage.

As a quick digression, I will talk briefly about the wind energy industry, where I also spent some time. One thinks of this industry as clean, maybe a little granola, both blue and white collar, and environmentally aware and motivated. What actually happened was that some people from the oil industry followed the money going into wind and jumped into managerial positions. The industry events I attended had big money poured into them and the prevailing event culture was actually more reflective of big oil ethics, interests, and power structures than those of any environmental movement.

So when one established industry adopts – whether it’s forced or simply interested in exploring – the tools, products, language, levers or appearances established by others with which it might or might not share an ideology around power and community, I’m interested in how it will play out and also a little skeptical.

These online tools like Zoom that mediate the experience allow for good user control (in spite of documented privacy concerns): people have privacy in their own homes, can control the input they send and receive, can come or go at any time. People can share interest, but the planes of time and space become much more one- or multi-dimensional and more negotiable.

One thing I’ve noticed about academia is that a primary interest is control of discourse, in branding people who have little acknowledged voice and thus political power as a route to power in the very small echo chamber that academia supplies. In using the many levers available to get and deploy power in a world of little to no accountability, in resistance of accountability. Sometimes this can even entail the complete dismantling of safety of others. What happens when some of those levers of power become unavailable or untenable, when people can’t as readily gang up on others, or place them in visually demeaning roles in a place of increased visibility and perhaps accountability to transparency. And how far are academics actually willing to go to include people who want, like me, to learn. Who are or were interested, able, or identified with some of its ideas but who are not officially anointed, or who have been excluded or excommunicated for reasons entirely fair or entirely spurious. ie: how would power and culture established in the academic sphere play out and deal with the possibility of engaging its “fringe” in an “open” offering. Would new centers emerge, and could there be new planes of shared intellectual experience with more neutrality and less intimidation and hostility, and more shared or negotiated power?

As my time and work allowed, I attended one online academic event about anti-fascist language and multicultural communities that was well-run, with language both simple and obtuse, with primary presenters who were poets and academics, which actively sought out, welcomed, and was self-reflective about diversity and linguistic concerns. It was well-organized, thought-provoking, and solicited questions, comments and feedback along the way and afterwards. It felt open and clearly demonstrated a considered work of bridging. Though people had difficulty at times with the tech (to be expected), it went pretty smoothly as far as I could tell. I was so into the material, I totally forgot to note what tech was used. Update: it was Zoom. The website was on Wix, which is yuck (issues with accessibility, mobile responsiveness and data ownership), but that’s beside the point. This conference adopted a manual approval process for access, and I don’t recall seeing an explicit Code of Conduct doc. Nonetheless, discourse seemed civil and thoughtful around some very loaded topics to the extent I was able to attend and participate.

The next academic event I attended as my schedule allowed was on Blackboard Connect Ultra, which is one of the more sophisticated tech interfaces geared towards a classroom experience. It automatically allowed for closed captioning, which was great for accessibility, even if the captions, which I turned on out of curiosity, didn’t translate well. But then I couldn’t figure out how to turn them off. Many of the primary controls were buried in panels, but once one learned one’s way around it was fine. This event also sported a crisp and impactful WordPress website.

This event was, admittedly, the sort of forbidden fruit event I would never get the chance to attend in person, and where I would not have felt welcomed or safe in person, though it was a community I identified with. Though absolutely what I would in this or an alternate universe have needed and wanted in terms of learning, development of scholarship, interest and identity, it was one of those things which would have been closed off to me for reasons beyond my control using the mysterious additional set of rules historically imposed on me during my time on the strange upside-down planet of schwarze Pädagogik which was grad school by those with power that nobody ever spelled out to me until I tripped over them while following the “official” rules. In fact, the unofficial rules were often completely at odds with the official rules, leaving no good options. And the rules were changed on me with frequency. Access to career advancement had seemed to require submission to torture. But that was then. This event – every single session – was overtly advertised as welcoming and open to the general public. As I read about it, I was heartened by an initial Code of Conduct sort of statement and linked document in the first paragraph of the event, which had noted that anyone in violation would be booted. It looked like a good way to get more of the pieces I needed to pick up in my project of self-integration, and aligned with enough of some of my current interests to make it timely and stimulating. Further, I had more tools at hand to control my own privacy and safety as someone who could arrive or leave, show my office space or not, and even try to offer consideration of others along the way. And — it looked really fun. And – maybe there’s a little piece of me that is a shit-disturber. A white hat one, but o.k. I’ll just own it. Mostly, though, I was just excited to learn and decided to attend in good faith as my work and other obligations allowed, and I thought I saw a way to thread the needle.

The presentation content I saw was informative, fresh and compelling and what this or a whole other post should actually be about, and in another universe might have been, but I am just in the universe I’m in. In spite of the to-be-expected tech difficulties and one notable interruption by the moderator – an announcement that threw the presenter off for a moment or two – went smoothly. The event included an independent scholar (great!) and had a good gender balance. Everyone needed to identify themselves by first and last name upon entering, also fine and fair.

Where that event fell down in my witnessing was in changing the rules midstream. At one point, a new person entered the event and what was a fairly small group of attendees, the majority of whom, it’s pretty safe to assume, had been there for awhile. A few moments after that new person entered (names of those entering or leaving flash across the screen like an ongoing attendance sheet listing), the presentation in progress was totally interrupted to inform that the Q&A chat function had been shut down due to “safety concerns” and people were to send Q&A for filtering to the moderator. It was clear to anyone who was paying attention that this new person, who had entered a session but done nothing wrong there vis a vis the code of conduct, was to be branded as a threat, a black sheep who caused everyone else to suffer the inconvenient consequences of simply being present. Deemed guilty before being proved innocent with no due process, as is the academic way. While this person was – to the reasonable observer – publicly identified, whomever requested the Q&A shutdown remained quite comfortably anonymous. What a hostile reception. The event could not follow its own advertised code of conduct as safety concerns were weaponized to brand, alienate, and muffle one individual, but under the supposed auspices of being fair to all, and under a cloak of anonymity. Was this weaponization of safety yet another prime example of DARVO, was it yet another point in the continued disavowal of power and the responsibility it entails out of fear for the consequences and the inability to be at once in power and in discomfort, was it the simple fear of things out of one’s control, or the need to justify historical and even then in this context continued abuse of power without any blowback, and/or characterizing what might have been legitimate blowback or response as “inappropriate”, inadmissible or other without having provided alternative or any pathways to dispute identification, resolution or reconciliation. The organizer had apparently been strongarmed into abandoning the code of conduct to cater to someone else’s interpersonal agenda. Or was someone just nervous, scared and edgy during a tumultuous time for everyone and having a reaction based on their own traumatic academic or other history. Or just garden-variety paranoia. Who can ever know. It was almost laughable in being so extreme. Aside from that unusual publicly accusatory moment, the event went on apace and a good discussion was had.

After I left, I noted that following this distracting and interruptive departure from the ongoing panel and the stated rules and consequences, the text of the first paragraph on the website was altered and some of the subsequent content was closed to non-presenting participants. Clearly, those people have some things to sort out about designing an open and welcoming forum, and a code of conduct that can be adhered to.

So in terms of academia meeting and engaging with open culture, it can be rocky — those which are or try to be intentional about it seem to do better and to think through who to include, how to engage, how to welcome, how to create a broadened sense of intellectual community, and those who are just adopting the trappings of new tech without this self-reflexiveness may scramble more reactively. It’s definitely a hard task of adaptation, harder even for the very small and closed communities of inquiry which are used to operating within closed, containable, and controllable greasy-pole systems.

At this point in time especially, everyone wants a sense of community, safety, and rootedness – no, needs – not wants – that can never really go away. Everyone is being forced to grow beyond their comfort levels. It will be interesting to continue to watch and witness what shapes “open culture” and “open inquiry” evolve into over time.

In the meantime, when one has had enough of screens and people, there is always nature and the great outdoors available to provide an ultimate sense of belonging.