söndag 30 juni 2013

Follow-up (autumn 2012)

Last year, I wrote a follow-up blog post that revisited, followed-up and clarified what had happened after I wrote about topics x, y and z in the blog. This is the first of two blog posts that follows up loose ends in blog posts I have written during the just-finished academic year (2012-2013). 

In this blog post I revisit the 30 or so blog posts that I published during the autumn of 2012 (August-December). In the next blog post I will follow-up stuff I have written about during the spring 2013 (January-June).

I wrote a blog post, "Bridging the distance between me and my students" and proposed that I would eat lunch at a public restaurant once per week and announce this to my students. The idea was that anyone who wanted to discuss a formal or informal topic outside the classroom could join me for lunch. Few students showed up. Perhaps I didn't market this idea aggressively, perhaps students think it is awkward to eat lunch with a teacher, or perhaps there are other reasons for why it didn't take off. I quit this habit after two months or so and after having had company only twice.

I wrote a blog post, "New term, new courses" about the two courses that took up a major part of my time during the autumn term; "Future of Media" and "Sustainability and Media Technology". I will give the same two courses next term and this will again take up a major part of my time during the autumn.

Back in September, I wrote two blog posts summarizing my (unsuccessful) attempts to write research grant applications during the first half of that year (2012), "Writing research grant applications = wasted time?" and "My price tag". What went missing was a third blog post with the consequences I drew from this large but unsuccessful investment in time. It's a pity I didn't write that blog post since my opinion regarding these issues has since changed, but I did hold a "Young faculty" seminar in March where I laid out some of my conclusions (albeit half a year "late"). My current attitude is to wait for the Opportunity, for the right research grant call, and then go "all in". That also means developing a much more strategic and perhaps cynical attitude towards writing applications. What do they want? Who do I have to be affiliated with to increase the chances of getting a grant? It's just as much about who applies, about using the right keywords and references as it's about the actual merits of the project idea and the application (text) itself. I'm working on an application right now and will for sure write a blog post about it after we submit it come September.

I was very busy teaching in September and October. One of my courses, "Sustainability and Media Technology", ended in October and here is the line-up of great guest lectures in the course. We're busy planning the next installment of the course as it starts right after the summer.

I worked really hard (but only for a very limited period of time) together with Leif Dahlberg putting together a Nordforsk application about establishing a Sino-Nordic network on ICT and Sustainability, i.e. asking for money to organize six meetings/workshop/conferences in China and the Nordic countries during the coming three years. We signed up a dozen different institutions and the application we handed in was very good (says everyone who read it). We were thus quite surprised when it later turned out we didn't get our application granted. I guess the competition was very tough...?

Me and my colleagues Björn Hedin and Stefan Hrastinski submitted an article, "Using social annotation systems to support students' academic writing" to the open-access journal Högre Utbildning [Higher education]. It was accepted and issue number 2/2013 was published just the other week. Our paper is now available online

I wrote a whole bunch of blog posts during the autumn about my course "Future of Media". Last year's theme was "Future of Magazines / Magazines of the Future" and the course ended with a final presentation in front of an audience of hundreds. Here is the great line-up of guest lectures in last year's course. Me and my (new) course assistant, Malin Picha, is busy planning the next course. It starts after the summer and this year's theme is "Future of News / News of the Future".

I wrote a blog post in December about starting up a network for researchers within the "growth-critical" grassroots movement Step 3. The idea of such a network is great but nothing much has happened and I'm ashamed to admit that I dropped that ball. I didn't have time to fix this in December and the urgency then receded. I wonder if it's possible to pick up that ball again?

I'm the team leader of the MID sustainability team. In December we finally had our (much-delayed) kick-off! It was a good kick-off and it created new energy within the team in preparing for the spring term. The sustainability team has only been around for a little more than a year but it seems to be on a roll. It will be exciting to see what happens with the team next year and it's pretty clear that some team-related research application will be handed in after the summer.

onsdag 26 juni 2013

Books I've read recently

"Books I've read lately" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). The books below as well as the books in the previous blog post are all part of a package of books that in one way or another relates to "community" (and thus partly or fully to sociology). I read the three books below back in February and March.

Rebecca Solnit's "A paradise built in hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster" (2009) is a very interesting and unusual book. It not only conveys a very positive view of human nature, but it also does so based not just on hopes and wishful thinking, but on some pertinent case studies starting with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, rounding the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City as well as other natural and man-made disasters, and ending with hurricane Katrina (2005) and its aftermath. 

What Solnit argues is that as a (natural) disaster strikes, only a small proportion of the people are actually killed, and despite the grim results of the disaster, the experience of coming out unharmed can be liberating and sometimes life-altering for the individual. Everyday worries recede into the background as people focus on what is really important - helping family and friends, as well as neighbors and strangers in need. Everyday "normal" societal roles and appearances suddenly seems petty and a carnivalesque can-do!-help-thy-neighbor attitude can grip the energized survivors. What makes this perspective so interesting is that it totally contradicts the more traditional view of "the mob" and the dangers of people spontaneously congregating.

"in many disasters [...] how you behave depends on whether you think your neighbors or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster or a greater good than the property in houses and stores around you. [...] In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it [...] disaster is sometimes a door back to paradise [...] in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister's and brother's keeper."

One of the greatest threats in the aftermath of a disaster can instead be elites and "elite panic", i.e. elites' beliefs regarding the dangers and the irrationality of "the mob" (also supported by movies and television series conveying images of widespread post-disaster panic and disorder). Powerful people not seldom call in the troops to "bring order", thereby making a bad situation worse: "the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters." People (friends, neighbors, acquaintances) oftentimes know what's needed to help themselves and their neighbors in the aftermath of a disaster, but lack resources. The struggles between elites and the common people are however as intelligible as they are infelicitous. It is in the nature of disaster to disrupt ordinary power structures and chains-of-command. If ordinary persons - by necessity - then take power in their own hands, at some point there will be struggles when the old order attempts to "take command" of the situation.

Richard Mitchell Jr's book about American survivalists is masterful. It is a book "about troubles that might be coming to America, the people looking forward to them, and the aspects of modernity that condition both." It's about survivalists, but it's also a book about modern society and people who opted out or were left behind. Mitchell lived and interacted with some of them for more than a dozen years before he wrote "Dancing at armageddon: Survivalism and chaos in modern times" (2002) (here's a nine-page excerpt from the book). One of his many keen observations is that you can't trust what survivalists write about themselves. If you want to know what they're about, you have to talk to the people and participate in their practices. Furthermore, since privacy, secrecy and seclusion are important concerns for many survivalists, they "do not accommodate themselves readily to favored methods of social science research" such as surveys and standardized interviews.

To Mitchell, survivalists are primarily storytellers. It can be hard to find meaning in your life in this day and age, and more so if you are an un- or underemployed (male) working class American living in heartland America (e.g. not on the buzzing high-tech and service industry hubs on the east or the west coast). Each survivalist has their own personal theory about how life-as-we-know-it will end (including "invasions from within, abroad, or above"), but they are all great at telling themselves and each other stories about how their particular knowledge, skills and carefully stored artifacts will become extremely important and pertinent after "the shit hits the fan" and business-as-usual is dislodged. Survivalists are the heroes of the stories they themselves spin.

"Survivalism is centered on the continuing task of constructing "what if" scenarios in which survival preparations will be at once necessary and sufficient. This is a tenuous process. Survivalism depends upon scenarios built on middle ground, delicately fashioned to fall between the extremes of disbelief and despair [...] Problems ahead must be defined as both urgently compelling and manageable in scope, neither trivial improbabilities nor certain destruction."

The book is packed with interesting observations, including survivalists' relationship to "prepping" (storing food and other post-collapse necessities), to each other, to society-at-large, to commercialism within their own ranks, and not the least survivalists' particular relationships to guns. Mitchell gives a deeply insightful view of everything he sets out to do, including the impressive tensions and contradictions between "theory" and "practice" at a survivalist get-together weekend-long camping-in-the-woods as well as nominally para-military practice session:

"He quoted assorted passages verbatim from a short stack of advance armored infantry training manuals. His talk was impressively complicated. He used military slang and acronyms without elaboration and technical terms without definition. [...] With concentration and ten years' experience teaching this topic, I could follow most of what he said. [later] We marched on survivalist time: creep-walk ten minutes, wait for stragglers, rest ten minutes, repeat, always in slow motion. An hour and a half after we received our orders, we had progressed only three hundred yards [later me and my partner/research colleague] wondered how the participants could be satisfied with a weekend so apparently confounded, disorganized, and contradictory?"

Randall Collins and Michael Makowsky's "The discovery of society" is a textbook I bought waay back. I read the 6th edition which was printed 1998. I bought it when I was a ph.d. student, I read a few parts of it back then but I notice that I didn't refer to it in my ph.d. thesis. It is one of those books that didn't really get read at the time and that has warmed my bookshelf largely unread for more than a decade. The first edition was published in 1972 and a new, updated edition has been published every five year or so since then. In fact, there is now an eighth edition out (published in 2009) and I have no idea how the latest edition differ from the sixth edition that I read.

The book contains sixteen chapters, most often based on a portrait and on the theories of a dead white man. Most chapters have neat subtitles, like "Conquistador of the irrational" (Freud), "Sociology in the underground" (Marx), "The last gentleman" (de Tocqueville) and "The disenchantment of the world" (Weber). New to my (the sixth) edition is (for example) two chapters on African-American sociology and "The impact of women in sociology".

There isn't that much to say about the book - it's a pretty good overview of the historical origins and the growth of sociology as a discipline. I personally think that the former part of the book, about the 18th and the 19th century origins of sociological thought, were more interesting than the last part of the book about the 20th century. The book is not a particularly easy read, but each chapter has a great resource in the form of high-quity "further readings", i.e. "if you are interested in Comte/ Nietzsche/ Durkheim/ Simmel/ Mead/ Goffman, the most important biography is... [...] Important secondary sources include...".

söndag 23 juni 2013

ICT society scenarios & the future of work

Back in the beginning of February, I wrote a blog post about the research project I'm part of, "Scenarios and impacts of the information society". The project description states that "The project will focus on one overarching question: What are the local and global sustainability implications of different scenarios of ICT societies?".

During the spring, I have been part of a four-person team that has included the two project leaders and that has worked with developing the ICT scenarios in question. We have come up with five different scenarios (or at the moment rather "scenario skeletons"), i.e. five different "stories about the way the world might turn out tomorrow" (Dreborg 2004). The titles below are preliminary, and I have briefly summarized these scenarios as follows:

1) Environmentally sustainable society driven by ICT
Cooperation, sharing and open knowledge, facilitated and driven by ICT comes true. Internet (open source, open [whatever/everything]) values of sharing and building on the work of others successfully enter mainstream society. Technology helps us decrease our resource consumption and teleworking is common. A parallel currency is introduced to limit consumption and CO2-emitting activities and an ICT system keeps track of products and services and their environmental footprints.

2) Life online
As much as possible, life is lived online. With the exception of having access to personal digital technologies that will get you online, other material possessions are of decreased importance. Most people work just enough to satisfy basic physical needs, and a new, positive culture has arisen around limited real-world wealth, a surplus of free time (spent online) and an abundance of free resources, information and culture online.

3) Gated communities
Trust is as asset that is as highly valued as it is rare. Fear (from terrorism, diseases or perhaps something else?) makes people stick to "safe" and "controlled" environments both online and offline. Walls divide people, globalization is just a memory and society is stratified. Power is concentrated to a small number of (online/offline) societal actors. Materialism is high, since stuff can be "trusted" and sends clear signals regarding image and status.

4) The end of economic growth
Economic activity is shrinking, technological innovation (and pensions) are low. People hang on to what they have as necessities consume a higher proportion of disposable incomes. The household economy becomes more important (vs. paid labor and buying services) and class society makes a comeback. Cell phones, computers and Internet access is highly valued but expensive, (c.f. poor people in developing countries today).

5) 50 billion devices
Everything is connected and oodles of devices collect oodles of data (sensors, lifelogging, quantified self, big data). Consumption levels are high, people live in high-tech homes, and material status matters a lot. People are "obsessed" by gadgets and continuously collected data is shared (or is anyway impossible to control). The scenario title has to be changes and this is the title of an Ericsson scenario that is much more upbeat than ours...

For now, we will put these scenarios aside (they will be more fully developed later). During the autumn we will instead work on "building blocks", i.e. areas that should be explored in all the scenarios above. There are four building blocks: 1) private and public, 2) households, 3) technological development of ICT and 4) structural change. 

I'm in the household building block/theme/area/group and this building block is further divided into three "building block parts" - time use, work patterns and consumption. I'm responsible for "work patterns". The concrete end result of this responsibility of mine will be a 10-30 pages long report (possibly later turned into a journal article or a chapter in a future book). These reports should all cover 1) historical development, 2) current situation, 3) trends and 4) potentials (for ICT) in the area in question. 

I've already started to prepare for the autumn's upcoming work by thinking about which books to read after the summer. This represents a list of candidates:

Books I consider buying/reading: 
- Brynjolfsson & McAfee, "Race against the machine: How the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy (2012)
- Florida, "The rise of the creative class - revisited: 10th anniversary edition (2012)
- Moretti, "The new geography of jobs" (2012)
- Berhardtz (ed.), "Skitliv: Ungas villkor på en förändrad arbetsmarknad" (2012)
- Standing, "The precariat: The new dangerious class" (2011)
- Jones, "Chavs: The demonization of the working class" (2011)
- Paulsen, "Arbetssamhället: Hur arbetet överlevde teknologin" (2010)
- Hayes, "Radical homemakers: Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture" (2010) 
- Andersson & Sylwan, "Framtidens arbete och liv" (1997)
- Ingelstam, "Ekonomi för en ny tid" (1995)
- Schor, "The overworked American: The unexpected decline of leisure" (1993)
- Sennett & Cobb, "The hidden injuries of class" (1993)
- Willis, "Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs" (1977)
- Braverman, "Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century" (1974)
- Burenstam Linder, "Den rastlösa välfärdsmänniskan" (1969)

No less than 14 books are listed above, but I plan to "only" buy around half a dozen for now and I need your help to figure out which! Have you, dear reader, read and/or have opinions about any of the books above? If so, please leave a comment below!

Beyond the list above, I have also already read a number of books that comes to mind and that I for sure will have use of, for example Sennett's "The corrosion of character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism" (2000), Himanen's "The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age"(2001) and Boltanski & Chiapello's "The new spirit of capitalism" (1999/2005).

Yet another way to get inspiration is by watching movies. I'm thinking of movies about work like Pichler's "Äta, sova, dö" [Eat, sleep, die] (2012), Reitman's "Up in the air" (with George Clooney) (2009), Loach's "It's a free world..." and why not also Chaplin's "Modern times" (1936)? Suggestions for movies to watch would also be much appreciated!

tisdag 18 juni 2013

Engineers of the future

I wrote a blog post almost a month ago "On the challenges of teaching sustainability". The topic of the blog post was the upcoming Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) conference and the paper that I wrote for the conference together with my colleague Elina Eriksson, "It's not fair!": Making students engage in sustainability".

If you happen to read this blog regularly and have a really good memory, you might remember that I was also the co-author of another abstract that was submitted to the same conference back in January (five months ago). Since the conference organizers were kind enough to extend the deadline, we did in the end manage to write and submit also the second paper to the conference, "Engineers of the future: Using scenario methods in sustainable development education".

The "we" who wrote this second paper, about scenarios, are Josefin Wangel (who did at least as much work as the other three co-authors together), Mattias Höjer, Daniel Pargman and Örjan Svane. This was a more arduous process, mainly because we all sat with our thumbs up our a***s for way too long (everyone is always soo busy). We did in the end manage to get something produced and here is the abstract of the finished paper:


Scenario methods are used and taught in a variety of courses related to sustainable development by teachers at KTH – the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. In this article we explore how futures studies approaches, understood in a wide sense, can contribute to education for sustainable development. Based on our experiences from these courses, we identify positive outcomes as well as some key challenges. The four courses presented and discussed in the paper include 3rd through 5th year courses from engineering programmes in urban planning, media technology, and industrial design. 

söndag 16 juni 2013

On "On the move" - a cultural studies conference

I went to a three-day cultural studies conference in Norrköping this week, "On the move". The program book with all the presented papers and abstracts is online. My previous blog post treated the paper that I presented there (together with Daniel Svensson). This blog post is about the conference itself.

I do believe I wrote a paper about computer games that was presented some 6 years ago by my co-author at a cultural studies conference, "Crossroads in cultural studies", in Turkey. I also distinctly remember attending a "Crossroads in cultural studies" conference in Finland myself, back in the late 90's when I was a ph.d. student. I have also published an article, "Do you believer in magic? Computer games in everyday life", in the European Journal of Cultural Studies back (2008). I have thus dabbled a little in the area but still, I very much felt like a visitor (i.e. basically an outsider) at this conference. While the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute in Sweden (ACSIS) have organized four previous conferences, this is the first ACSIS conference I have attended.

The reason I attended the conference had a lot to do with convenience (a 90-minute train ride from Stockholm), curiosity about the conference and the discipline, and of course also the fact that my contribution to the conference had been accepted for presentation. Although not a contributing reason in and of itself, it was also nice that my ex-fellow ph.d. student Bodil Axelsson was the conference chair at it was nice to meet her again.

The conference venue and the organization (reception, conference dinner etc.) was really nice, but I do however have some opinions (e.g. critique) of the academic content and perhaps also about cultural studies as an area of research. Do note that I'm not sure I know enough to talk about "cultural studies" as apart from my experience of cultural studies at this particular conference.

One aspect of the conference that I found problematic was the poor quality of many presentations. I'm talking about presentation skills, I'm talking about Powerpoint slides (or the absence of them), but also about cryptic presentations where the audience had to work hard to "get" what it's about. Like, "why is this interesting?", "why is this interesting to you, why did you choose to conduct this research?", "why should this be interesting to me (if I don't happen to share a particular interest in the niche you are exploring?" and "what are the implications of your research on [something/anything else]?". Yes, there might be a distinction between X and Y, but why is this distinction interesting? If someone fails to clearly answer these questions, it can easily feel like a waste of time listening to that presentation.

There are some ideals that are held high in research such as conducting rigorous and relevant research as well as doing studies that have a high degree of validity and reliability. I find that many of the presentations at the conference has a problem with one, several or all of these criteria. I find presentations that fails to convey the relevance especially irritating

Something I did think was amusing though was that several presentations started with an anecdote that was based on a personal experience (for example of listening to music while climbing the stairs to the workplace, or waiting for the bus in the countryside in northern Sweden). As a listener, I was thrown into the "story" because there was no introduction or explanation about what I was about to hear. The presenter however didn't just retell what "objectively" happened, but rather interlace thoughts and feelings on top of the actions ("I felt energetic, taking two steps at a time", "I remember thinking that..."). This story then becomes food for thought and the entry point into some kind of analytical stance about "ways to interpret what was (really) happening". Only after I heard this for the third time did I realize that this was a genre and an ok way to start a presentation in this field.

My worry is that the (cultural studies) researcher's gaze can basically fall on any and every phenomenon - however small or narrow - and that the fact that no-one has looked at this particular problem before oftentimes can be a good enough reason to pick it! This will lead to problems explaining why this topic is relevant or indeed even interesting in the first place (except to the in-group of fellow cultural studies researchers who seem to have an infinite tolerance to hearing about different sorts of "cosmopolitanism"). Seemingly contradicting myself, I do think that many phenomena can be entry points into deep insights about (some part of) our culture, about ourselves, about why we (or some of us) do what we do as well as the time we live in - in the hands of the right researcher. The skill to connect the dots and weave a coherent, interesting and pertinent fabric from mundane everyday occurrences is however something that is reserved for the few.

I would personally say that sociologist Gary Alan Fine has this skill. While I have only read a single book of his (twice!), "Shared fantasy: Role playing games as social worlds", I hold him in the highest regard and believe that any of his in-depth looks at wildly varying different phenomena would be a good reads; "Morel tales: The culture of mushrooming",  "Kitchens: The culture of restaurant work", "With the boys: Little league baseball and preadolescent culture", "Gifted tongues: High school debate and adolescent culture", "Everyday genius: Self-taught art and the culture of authenticity", "Authors of the storm: Meteorologists and the culture of prediction". Another prime example is Swedish sociologist/social psychologist Johan Asplund.

Every discipline has its own foundations, its own concepts and objects of interest, its own preferred research methods etc. A physicist has gravity, the speed of light, friction, stars, particle accelerators etc. Computer scientist (currently) have the cloud, sensors and big data, computer/network architectures, programming languages, systems development methods, the semantic web etc. Even the quasi-scientific discipline of economics has supply and demand, (in)elasticity, externalities, comparative advantages etc. So what does cultural studies have? I have a hard time figuring that one out, but as far as I can tell it has cryptic (preferably French, but German are also ok) philosophers and social thinkers that are infinitely applicable and interpretable. Some popular references at the conference were for example Latour, Marx, Deleuze, Guttari, Bordieu, Habermas, Ricoeur and Foucault. Cultural studies seems to be particularly good at problematizing and reinterpreting just about anythings, but less good at providing (even preliminary) answers to questions (rather than novel interpretations that can be further discussed and juxtaposed with yet other interpretations in a combinatorial extravaganza). I personally find that less than satisfying. Let me exemplify.

Alan Kay has said: "Simple things should be simple. Difficult things should be possible." Cultural studies to me seems to say that "simple things should be expressed in difficult ways, and difficult things should be close to unintelligible to anyone outside of our field". I really like complex ideas, but the language in which those ideas are expressed should be as simple and as precise as possibly (but not simpler). I here again point to the (Swedish-language) books by Johan Asplund's and admit bafflement as to why the Swedish branch of cultural studies don't refer to them. His ideas are complex and multifaceted, his language simple but exceedingly precise - each single word can be justified in his texts.

I don't see the value of gratuitous complexification and crypticfication - strategies to narrow down the audience by developing and exerting a centre of the brain devoted to making things unnecessarily complicated. This too is a way of exerting power over other (an area of interest to cultural studies - so perhaps this comment can be a lead for an interesting study?). "You don't understand what I say? Well then you must be stooopid!". So as to avoid spreading groundless assertions, allow me to exemplify with difficult-to-understand titles from the program book from which you can draw your own conclusions. Do note that I don't say that these titles/papers necessarily constitutes "bad" research - only that they are cryptic and difficult to understand and that they thus hopefully raise questions about what research is about, what research should be about and perhaps what research shouldn't be about:

- "Mobility of visually impaired guests in hospitality servicespaces"
- "Piracy, musical work, and the monosexual concept of creativity: Time to do away with an obsolete metaphor and affirm the 'Mothership Connection'?"
- "The communicating-vessel system between properness and illegaity. New epistemological and empirical trajectories in conceptualizing cultural heritage"
- "Expanding heritage: Roma place-related history and the 'othering' of foundational heritage narratives"
- "Challenging the hegemonic gaze on the city by foot: Walk-alongs as a useful method in gentrification research"
- Moving bodies/Moving pasts: Cross-border memory, politics and aesthetics in Ea Sola's drought and rain performances"

I have saved my favorite for last, but first a challenge. Let's say that I challenge you to think of a paper that will combines coffee, materiality, Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy and Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory (ANT). You would be challenged, but what would you be able to come up with? Perhaps "Actor-Network Theory and the materiality of coffee in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy"? Well, one researcher has topped this by also including Swedes and class in the title of the paper in question; "Coffee and class for the Swedes - as seen in the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson: Analysing coffee as materiality of Actor-Network-Theory". Again, I'm not saying the paper is uninteresting - I've read the abstract and there's something to be said for it. Apparently at least one reporter thought it was interesting enough to refer to in article of his. But if you can write a paper about this, what can't you write a paper about? Are there any limits at all to what is "researchable"? If not, doesn't that imply that (cultural studies) research has extremely far-reaching imperialistic claims of describing "reality" in ways that only few can understand and fewer yet can utilize? If so, is that healthy?

Cultural studies researchers are skilled at expressing themselves through complex and complicated language. It's harder to gauge if there always are complex, interesting ideas hiding behind the complex language in question. The fact that it is hard to gauge the complexity of the underlying ideas (as apart from the complexity of the language in which they were expressed) is something I find to be problematic in itself. I dislike that the actual empirical material and the efforts of concretely working with that material (i.e. the craftwork of the researcher) oftentimes plays second fiddle to interpreting and formulating something fanciful that nominally treats the material in question. If it all comes down to expressing yourself in complex, impressive-sounding ways, then it isn't any longer about imparting any particular knowledge or conclusions, but rather just a matter of impressing an audience with dazzling language and to pose, to pretend and to convince. I hope cultural studies is about more than than but this is still part of the impression I carried with me from the conference.

These are some of the issues I struggled with at the conference. Perhaps my reflections above "just" reflect a kind of "culture shock" when encountering this "other", strange field? Perhaps someone with deeper insights into cultural studies would like to comment and clarify any misconceptions of mine?

onsdag 12 juni 2013

21st century sports

I'm at the ACSIS conference (the conference theme is "On the move/I rörelse") in Norrköping right now:

"On the move is the fifth biennial conference on cultural research arranged by ACSIS (The Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden). ACSIS was established early in 2002 [and] it is a national centre for cultural research with linking, driving and quality raising tasks"

It's the first time I visit this particular cultural studies conference and it's also the first time that me and my collaborator Daniel Svensson present our work on "sportification". More specifically, we held a presentation based on our draft paper "21st century sports: Movements without movements". Despite the cryptic title, it's actually an improvement compared to the previously Swedish-language title, "Från rörelse to sport och till sporter utan rörelse" [From movement to sports and to sports without movements]. We submitted our abstract three months ago and I wrote a blog post about it at the time. We later decided to rewrite our paper in English and I therefore post the new, reworked abstract (paper introduction) below.

Despite having been very busy lately, me and Daniel pulled together and managed to whip this paper together in no time at all (less than a week). It's not really a finished paper (the status is "draft version" or perhaps "working paper" right now), but we are in fact very happy both about the contents of the paper as well as the fact that we actually managed to get it written (it's a dozen or so pages long). Since we didn't have time to finish the paper, the paper lacks a concluding discussion and we instead chose to write some meta-text about three different possible direction in which we could take the paper. The paper ends like this:


Discussion and conclusion is pending!

Depending on what we decide to do with this text (i.e. what publication we aim for), we see three tracks that could be developed (both above but especially) in the discussion. These tracks could perhaps be developed independently, but they also heavily overlap:

...followed by a 1/2 page long outline of the three different tracks. Me and Daniel "met" a year ago, but this is the first concrete outcome of our cooperation, so how then did this presentation of ours turn out? I had to put together our Powerpoint presentation on the 90-minute train trip from Stockholm to Norrköping, but despite (or because of) this, it was actually pretty good. I don't think I could have increased the quality very much even had I spent twice as much time on it.

A really great outcome was that the other three presentations in our session were very relevant to ours. A presentation about breakdancers - amateurs who invest huge amounts of time, but who aren't (and don't want to be) professional dancers - was of especial interest to us. Another outcome is the input we have gotten at the conference. Shared experiences (of attending the same conference) are valuable and me and Daniel have thus discussed and documented some things/issues/perspectives which could be of use in later developing our ideas further.

Something that was less good was that there weren't really a lot of people in our session and our talk didn't have a particularly large audience. That also means that I didn't manage to get rid of the 15 copies of our paper that I brought with me.

On the whole it was still useful for our future work to present, get feedback and acquire new shared impressions to formulate new ideas about how to develop our project. Attending a conference together is also a way for me and Daniel to have some more time to talk and get to know each other - since our ordinary meetings are usually tightly scheduled and very goal-oriented.

I'll get back with a separate blog post about the conference itself as apart from this blog post about our contribution to the conference.

21st century sports: movements without movements

On sportification

Modern sports originally developed from physical practices of moving the human body - from movements. Examples of such sports are running, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, swimming and rowing. These sports often originated in work-related practices, for example forestry, and they have, through standardization, organization and rationalization, been turned into competitive movements (for the participants), events for spectatorship (for a sedentary audience) and organizations/social movements (for amateurs and professional practitioners, coaches, administrators, functionaries, sponsors/investors and others). Many sport researchers, (sport) historians and (sport) sociologists have pointed out that modern sports have gone through a process of “sportification” (Guttman 2004, Yttergren 1996) - that there has been a movement from games and play towards fully-fledged modern sports - and that this process has occurred in parallel with the modernization and industrialization of society.

Today we see the emergence of sports where practitioners’ physical movements are very limited, and where different kinds of movements plays an important role. Computer games have gone from being a leisure activity for kids and teenagers, to being a competitive activity, “e-sports”, with international competitions and professional players (Rambusch et. al. 2007, Taylor 2012). In e-sports, movements takes place mainly within computer games, and there are both differences and similarities between these new sports and more traditional sports. Where certain traditional sports are heavily dependent on specialized equipment, e-sports are instead totally dependent on a well-functioning technical infrastructure with computers, networks and servers. Within the world of sports, movements over national borders have grown in lock-step with more international, global (and, when it comes to e-sports, also internet-based) arenas (Findling & Pelle 2004). The ever-growing importance of training, and of strengthening the scientific base for this training is also an important part of the sportification process (Heggie 2011, Hoberman 1992, Svensson 2013)

We argue that even if sports can be separated by differences in what types of movements are required and what sorts of meaning are invested in them, there are similarities between processes in the work-intense sports that evolved from heavy physical work in the early 20th century and the digital sports that are on the rise today. Both modern and “post-modern” sports are characterized by movements towards standardized, rationalized, medialized and commercialized competitive arenas. 

torsdag 6 juni 2013

Research by blogging?

Sometimes you read a text by a scientist-author who totally masters the art of writing. Just as a good magician will "fool" the audience into looking at certain things (his right hand) while equally important not looking at other things (his left hand), some authors master the art of controlling and directing their readers' attention to what is important right here right now. Not a single word is misplaced or redundant and the writing is lucid. This kind of mastery oftentimes seems to go together with having something important to say.

When I think of this specialized ability of expressing your ideas and arguments in text, certain names pop up. I've read two books by Neil Postman (a long time ago) and I've concluded that even if you happen to disagree with him, it is still very hard not to be seduced by his convincing line of reasoning and his masterful art of expressing himself.

I think that I myself has become a much better author compared to five or ten year ago. If I have to pinpoint a specific reason, I think that fact that I, between 2008-2011, squeezed out a weekly ≈ 12 000 characters (2-3 pages) long "essay" on my other Swedish-language blog has had something to do with it. As a researcher, you might write more than the average person, but you for sure don't develop and write up a paper based on a new idea every week. It takes a lot longer to write an academic paper. In comparison, the weekly "grind" of producing a finished text is an excellent "school of hard knocks" for learning both this and that. You learn the art of writing by writing regularly, and by finishing many smaller writing projects before you take on large ones. Producing on a daily basis is something I presume journalists get knocked into them quickly (or they fail as journalists).

This all is also something I've been aware of for some time, but I haven't put it into words before. I nowadays not only write more, but I write better texts than I did some years ago. It's not that I have learned a lot of new fancy words, it's that I now have a better command of how to get the text to do what I want it to do - including glossing over things I can't or don't want to write about right here and right now. I do think blogging has some part in it. This blog doesn't count fully though, since it is pretty easy to just sit down and write something up that uses the events and experiences of the past week as a starting point. This blog is more a diary or a notebook where my other blog presented one brand new argumentative essay every week for three years (145 published blog posts in total). To some extent, I sharpened my teeth as a writer on that blog, rather than (for example) by writing my ph.d. thesis some years earlier. My (probably) most ambitious text is called Rationaliseringens död and it also happens to be one of the texts that I have translated to English: Death of rationalization. It's actually pretty great and I could imagine picking up the basic idea, developing it and including it in a future paper of mine.

What I write about above is something that I've been thinking about now and then, but the idea that made me write this blog is the following: would it not be ideal to force/encourage new ph.d. students to start a blog and write longish blog posts regularly as a way to 1) establish a pattern of writing, 2) as a diary, 3) as a repository of ideas to draw from (later), 4) as a way to communicate current ideas of theirs to their advisors (and others who are interested) and 5) probably for some other reasons I haven't thought of, right?

As a bachelor's and master's thesis advisor, I have introduce the idea of my students writing a blog. Some take up the idea as this is basically the only way they can get feedback from me in-between our scheduled meetings. But why not extend the ideas to (new) ph.d. students? Let's say that a new ph.d. student would write at least one blog post per week. The purpose is not primarily to account for your time, but that would be a beneficial side effect. The primary purpose, as I see it, it is to develop ideas that are generated by reading books, attending seminars, having discussions around the coffee table and by taking on ph.d. courses. The blog would allow you to write up relatively informal texts that are focused on ideas of yours rather than on the form. It would be an excellent means to open up a line of communication between the ph.d. student and the advisor, and it would also constitute a repository for ideas for later, when you start to write papers. If you take care to write carefully crafted texts on the blog, it might even be possible to lift over sentences or whole paragraphs into a future paper.

To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the man who blogs, every problem can be solved starting a blog - and that's me. Reactions? Suggestions?

tisdag 4 juni 2013

Media Technology bachelor's theses spring 2013

Last week was extremely hectic and it was the first week in forever when I didn't have time to write a single blog post! My goal is to write at least one and a maximum of two blog posts each and every week (except for summer and winter breaks) and I have for the most part been very good at fulfilling that goal since I started this blog almost three years ago.

I wrote a blog post recently about the five bachelor's theses that I have been the advisor of during the spring. One of the things that kept me busy last week was being the examiner of ten other media technology bachelor's thesis. This is something I did also last year.

Being the examiner means that I have to read these theses quite carefully and prepared constructive critique, written feedback as well as later also grading them. The title of this blog post is not 100% representative as ten theses (below) only represent about 1/3 of the bachelor's theses that our media technology students wrote this spring (there are many different teachers involved in this course).

I will later update this blog post and add links (these theses will all be published on the web - eventually). I especially liked the first four thesis below as they for the most part represent all you can ask for in a bachelor's thesis and they will thus all get top grades.

- Cederman & Warnhag, "RSVP i läsar-kontrollerad takt på smartphones för dyslektiker" ["Self-paced RSVP on smartphones for dyslexics"]. AbstractThesis (pdf file).

- Evaldsson & Åbyhammar, "Att leva utan appar - besvärligt eller befriande?" ["Living without mobile apps - difficult or liberating?"]. AbstractThesis (pdf file).

- Målsäter & Schön, "Arkivering av internetpublicerade videogram för bevarandet av det svenska kulturarvet" ["Archiving internet published videograms for Swedish cultural heritage preservation"]. AbstractThesis (pdf file).

- Blomgren & Wennström, "Visualisering av framsteg i matematikstudier" ["Visualization of progress in mathematical studies"]. AbstractThesis (pdf file).


- Andersson Glass & Storvall, "Rapid Serial Visual Presentation på moderna mobiltelefoner" ["Rapid Serial Visual Presentation on modern mobile telephones"]. Abstract. Thesis (pdf file).

- Bäckman & Rosman, "Lifetracking och studievanor" ["Lifetracking and study habits"]. AbstractThesis (pdf file).

- Carlsson & Engström, "Visualisering av musikskalor på klaviatur" ["Visualizing music scales on keyboard"]. AbstractThesis (pdf file).

- Hanze & Ringqvist, "Grafiskt förmdlande av kroppsspråk, känslor och tonläga via uttrycksfull typografi" ["Graphically conveying body language, emotion and tone of voice by means of expressive typography"]. AbstractThesis (pdf file).

- Olsson & Rosell, "Telemedicine for lung cancer patients". AbstractThesis (pdf file).

- Eliasson & ter Vehn, "Development study of KTH Social's schedule function". AbstractThesis (pdf file).