On African Cultural Production and the Challenges of Digital Technology
a response to Miriam Conteh-Morgan
Jason Baird Jackson
It is an honor to have been asked to participate in this Seminar. As an Americanist rather than a student of African societies, I am doubly appreciative of this unique opportunity to broaden my horizons while participating in an exciting dialogue on issues of shared concern.
I am particularly fortunate to be responding to the discussion paper offered to us by Miriam Coteh-Morgan of the Ohio State University. Despite sometimes thinking that Columbus and OSU are my second home (I am a board member of the American Folklore Society, which is headquartered there.), this is my first opportunity to engage with Miriam’s work. The issues that are on her mind, as reflected by her paper are very much on my mind too and I sense that we approach them in very similar ways. My library colleague Julie Bobay can offer her own comments on the matter, but if I began my career as an ethnographer collaborating with, and learning from, the indigenous peoples of Eastern North America, my second great intellectual adventure has been undertaken in the company of university librarians who have welcomed me into their midst and taught me a tremendous amount about the rapidly and dramatically changing scholarly communication system. It is these experiences—as an open access journal editor and as a participant in broader open access initiatives such as IUScholarWorks, OSUKnowledgeBank, and the Open Folklore project—that will inform my contributions to today’s discussions. They also account, I suspect, for the goodness of fit between Miriam’s presentation and the remarks that I would have offered had I been in her place. In this spirit, let me try to build upon her valuable overview of the issues.
Miriam begins very fruitfully evoking the utopian/dystopian binary that haunts our attempts to grapple with the transformations being catalyzed around new digital technologies. To take just one example, will ubiquitous cell phone technologies be a platform for literacy and civic participation or will they enable unprecedented state and commercial surveillance and become a new vector of social control and disempowerment?
Because they are tidy, binaries are both good to think with and also a pervasive conceptual risk. Ethnographically, the particular binary that Miriam evokes is an interesting one because it is recognizable as a reoccurring theme in the global ethnography of social change over a timespan that began long before the digital moment. Folklorists and anthropologists have regularly and widely documented the ways that diverse peoples have, in essence, told us that modernization (as felt experience) makes things better and worse at the same time. Many people would go on to add that this concurrent improvement on, and degradation of, the status quo seems to proceed, experientially at least, at an ever faster rate. Vernacular wisdom is not enough, but it is also not irrelevant. My own experiential perceptions are in accord on this point with those of the Native American elders with whom I have studied for the past two decades. I struggle daily with a sense that these are the best and the worst and the fastest of times. (This widespread theme was reflected upon prominently in Glassie’s 1982 ethnographic study in a rural Irish community.)
But where do we go from there? Like Miriam, I think that we should be trying to see the big picture, cataloging and assessing to the fullest degree that we can the emergent systems with which we are increasingly bound in a kind of recursive co-dependency or, more positively co-creation. While interested in the wider frame, I, like many of us, have focused on the place of new digital technologies in scholarly contexts, but the lessons learned there seem to spill over into the broader domain. I hope and sense that they at least extend to the realm of cultural production more broadly. I intuit that African cultural production will have distinctive contours while participating in the global system. As ethnographies of media in African societies have shown, there is much to learn from the specifics of communicative practices across that vast continent and its diasporas.
Such spillovers between domains are all the more pronounced when widespread technologies like Facebook, cellphone cameras, blogs, data mining techniques, and relational databases become fundamental to the work that scholars and other culture workers do, sometimes without even fully realizing their centrality. Here we see the kind of slippage between consumer grade technologies and professional grade ones that is evoked in the prosumer phenomena that Miriam highlights. In the marketplace, this is a collapse of distinction between grades of technology products, but more interestingly it also captures a collapsed social distinction. Miriam emphasized the pro- of production in prosumer. The other pro- in prosumer is professional as in—not amateur. The conversation forks here and leads in a number of directions. Our interests in digital feudalism will certainly lead us back to this space.
The prosumer practice of blogging destabilized the professional practice of journalism, but blogs are also, as Miriam noted, hybridizing with the scholarly journal article in telling ways. A great example to highlight here is the Journal of Digital Humanities, which was launched yesterday. It is a comprehensive gold OA journal, but it is built on top of a powerful social media ecology and a hybrid human and algorithmic/machine selection process. The process begins with a WordPress-based system called Digital Humanities Now. Digital Humanities Now filters a wide range of RSS feeds and Twitter “tweets,” thereby aggregating and keeping tabs on what the English-speaking digital humanities community is sharing and discussing online. Intensive discussion shifts a chunk of unfiltered content—a substantive blog post, most typically—into the “Top Tweeted” category. Such prominent points of community discussion may in turn become “Editor’s Choice” items. On the basis of editorial review and selection, Editor’s Choice pieces are partially republished in a consistent and attractive way on the DHN site. In this form, they are well-constructed teasers that will entice DHN readers to link out to the original online home for the content. That is not the end of the story though. Such Editor’s Choice items then become eligible for peer-review and more formal publication (post- revision) in the Journal of Digital Humanities. Importantly, the peer-review is not in the ancestral, double-blind form, but is instead a sophisticated public and open peer-review process. The inaugural issue of JDH began with approximately 15,000 items (think “submissions”) a number that was, on the basis of community discourse and editorial selection reduced to 85 and it was these 85 works that were subjected to an intensive peer-review process that included hundreds and hundreds of collaborative, communal inputs in addition to the kinds of editorial interventions with which we are accustomed. DHN and JDH are noteworthy in their particulars (and their timeliness relative to our discussions) but they are just one node in a wholesale refiguring of scholarly activity. [For the launch of JDH and its relationship to DHN and the broader PressForward project, see Cohen and Troyano 2012. See also Fitzpatrick 2011 and Cohen and Scheinfeldt, eds. 2011).
Crowdsourcing, collaborative creation, fun, remix, generative culture, and sharing in a pre-industrial mode—these are the terms that Miriam rightfully chooses to evoke the spirit of Wikipedia, the open access movement and Creative Commons licensing system. I would add that these projects, as Chris Kelty (2008) has documented, owe a great deal to the earlier free and open source software movements, which both pioneered the legal and collaborative practices at issue and contributed (and continue to contribute) much of the software infrastructure that powers cultural production within these frameworks. The journal that I edit—Museum Anthropology Review—would not be possible without the open source software and the intellectual property licenses that make it, and thousands more like it, possible. To the motivations that Miriam highlights, I would add two more. While these two matter to me, I know that they are not the dominant concerns of every scholarly communications/cultural production reformer. On the end-user level, I do think that they are particularly relevant to the circumstances of most of the world’s peoples, including most of Africa’s peoples.
Miriam highlights the “money ruins everything” dynamic. Related to this is the problem of corporate control over media and the enclosure of public goods under the current neoliberal form of global capitalism. What motivates my open access work? For me, a big part of it is a desire to fight the for-profit enclosure of scholarly knowledge, academic labor, and public resources by massive, corrupting multinational corporations like Elsevier and Wiley. For me, open access projects are part of the broader alternative globalization movement. At the heart of the matter is social justice and equity. As I have discussed in a number of recent essays (2011, 2012, Kelty et al. 2008), this matter is particularly salient for practitioners in ethnographic disciplines such as folklore and anthropology. Such scholars produce work on the basis of direct collaboration with the peoples of the world and it is unjust for those co-producers of scholarly knowledge to be cut off from it, particularly when we know now how to build an alternative scholarly communication system. To quantify this a bit, I worked out the numbers in an article published as part of a recent issue of Anthropologies devoted to the intersection of the Open Access and Occupy movements. It turns out that only about 1% of the global population can currently access anything like a representative sample of the scholarly literature. This is a direct consequence of the toll access regime that dominates the production and circulation of scholarship.
Here is a place where I would like to expand on one of Miriam’s allusions. She is understandably appreciative of publisher-sponsored initiatives to provide access to the toll access literature. If I were a professor teaching in a developing nation, I too would be thankful for journals provided under programs such as HINARI and AGORA. At the same time, I think we need to reflect critically on these programs. From another perspective, they appear as a crucial and inexpensive part of the public relations armor that the megapublishers have fashioned and donned to deflect ever louder critiques of their exceedingly profitable business models. For me, the painful fact is that such programs, if maximally successful in reaching every university student and faculty in need, would only up the global access rate to about 3%. 99% of the world cannot access scholarship now and under the most ambitious scheme currently offered by the toll access publishers, this is reduced to 97%.
The open access movement cannot alone solve the digital divide, but as Miriam notes, it is already making a real difference in Africa and globally. In my calculations, open access and open educational resource projects improves the availability of scholarship and learning materials across the board, even as the deep disparities between world regions persist. 13.5% of African peoples can access the open access literature and open educational resources more broadly. With Africa at the low end of the scale, North America is at the high end at 79%. The disaster of only 13.5% access for Africa is still tons better than the 3% utopia dreamed of by the powerful defenders of the status quo. (For all the calculations and the more complete argument, see Jackson 2012.) In a world filled with lifelong learners seeking knowledge, desperate social problems needing redress, rapid cultural change to be negotiated, and nearly boundless deprivation and suffering, we have unprecedented need for scholarship that is widely and freely available. African peoples appear, as Miriam shows and projects like those that we have read about for today demonstrate, understandably eager to participate in the fashioning of this alternative.
In the spirit of Miriam’s overview, let me conclude by enumerating a few additional phenomena that we might take up in discussion together.
Digital museums and archives are a crucial mode of cultural production and reproduction that could be of special relevance and interest to artists and others in African societies. Such initiatives are valuable in their own right but also in connection with digital and physical repatriation initiatives. One of many projects of possible interest is the Archival Platform (2012), a South African online heritage initiative.
In connection with the IP concerns to be explored in our discussion, I would observe that African artists in general, as well as members of sub-national communities concerned with local customary knowledge and knowledge systems might have a special interest in the current development of Traditional Knowledge licenses. Working like Creative Commons licenses as modifications of the underlying Western copyright system, TK licenses are being developed with the needs of local cultural communities and specific customary intellectual property systems in mind. My friend and collaborator Kim Christen is leading the team developing this licensing system, which is an outgrowth of her work building a content-management system—Mukurtu—tailored to the needs of, and customizable by, indigenous communities worldwide. (Anderson and Christen 2012; Mukurtu 2012).
Assessments of scholarly and artistic value in online publications is another question on our agenda. Here I would point to the currently escalating conversation on, and experimentation with what are called “altmetrics,” a term that refers to a wide constellation of alternative metrics by which scholarly works (and by extension all works) in both new and older media can be assessed.
If time allows, we might also discuss—beyond such phenomena as digital archives, open source software, open peer-review, open access monographs, journals and portals, open educational resources, alternative licensing schemes, and alternative business models—the ways that these changes co-occur with, and feed into, changes in university life and education more broadly. The same communities that are pioneering these new communicative practices are also leading the development of alternative learning and credentialing practices, including such things as digital “badges” for life-long learning and urban youth media cooperatives. It may be that such educational practices hold special relevance in the context of African cultural production and African societies in general (Badges for Lifelong Learning 2012; Hu Dahl 2009).
I’ll close there with thanks for the fine overview that Miriam wrote and shared with us. I look forward to learning from the other presenters and from our discussions.
Anderson, Jane and Kimberly Christen
2012 Traditional Knowledge Licensing and Labeling Website 1.0: localcontexts.org. IPinCH: Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage. https://www.sfu.ca/ipinch/, accessed September 6, 2017.
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This paper is circulated by the author under the terms of a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license. For details, see: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en_US