call for papers
conference directors
abstracts and papers
hotel and travel
media in transition


Forum 4:


Sunday, May 5, 2013
Wong Auditorium, MIT


Roderick Coover is an associate professor in the Department of Film and Media Arts at Temple University and an artist who creates films, interactive cinema, installations and webworks.

Theo Hug
is professor of educational sciences at the University of Innsbruck and coordinator of the Innsbruck Media Studies Research Forum.

Molly Sauter
is a graduate student in MIT Comparative Media Studies and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

Dan Whaley
is founder of hypothes.is, an open-source platform for the collaborative evaluation of information. He is director of Sauce Labs, an open-source functional testing company; and Getaround, a peer-to-peer car sharing company.

Moderator: James Paradis is the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of Writing and Humanistic Studies and director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. His books include T.H. Huxley: Man’s Place in Nature, Victorian Science and Victorian Values (with T. Postlewait) and Samuel Butler: Victorian against the Grain: A Critical Overview.


Video of MiT8 Summing Up available.


A downloadable podcast of MiT8 Summing Up is available.


Streaming audio of MiT8 Summing Up is available.


By Elyse Graham

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

James Paradis

James Paradis began by remarking on the diversity of the speakers on the Summing Up panel. “They represent an interesting snapshot of media studies,” he said. 

They include an artist, a professor of education, an internet scholar, and a web entrepreneur. “That really captures the spirit of this conference.”

Roderick Coover

Roderick Coover said that the conference had highlighted a number of significant trends in the world of media scholarship. The first is “the merger of art and scholarship.” As scholars experiment with new models of publication, he said, they are increasingly engaging with models of distribution from the art world. This includes gallery installations, peer-to-peer video exchange, and the increasing use of video blogs in film studies programs; it also includes “doing work physically that finds its way back into books, and more often work that finds form as books and something else, websites, blogs, new kinds of interactive video, databases, and so on and so forth.”

The interplay of scholarship and artistic practice also encourages researchers to collaborate with practitioners in other fields, he said. He offered as an example of this kind of mixed discourse the book Switching Codes, which he recently edited and which includes contributions from writers, scholars, and artists: “Eric Zimmerman created a game in response to the essays. Richard Powers made a fiction in response to the essays.”

Finally, he argued, this trend is bringing about “the rise of new spaces of scholarship”: namely, “creative environments” designed to foster the interplay between research and the arts. He described the experience of participating in a group at Temple University that is trying to identify the characteristics that a digital humanities program on campus should have: “It seems impossible to imagine it without an artistic space, a creative lab.”

Theo Hug

Theodore Hug began his talk by praising the “egalitarian design principles” that define the Media in Transition conference. By bringing together graduate students, junior and senior faculty, and artists and members of industry for conversation on an equal plane, he said, the conference fosters the exchange of ideas.

“My first Media in Transition conference was way back in 2002, when the topic was about globalization and convergence,” he said. “I was in the global media generations panel. It was one of my most important experiences in my academic socialization.”

Especially important to these egalitarian principles is the fact that the conference is free, he said: “You may have noticed that I’m not here alone. I’m here together with twelve students and four colleagues from different subjects, not just from education; from ethnology, from German Studies, Women’s Studies, philosophy, business, and also educational studies. So you see the importance of it.”

Hug then moved on to a discussion of a few themes that recurred in this year’s conference. One key term that first appeared in the opening plenary session, he said, is “sharing.” Hug suggested that this is a term worth further exploration: “not only the basic meanings of it, the current use, but also the current forms and the coming together of moral communicative and distributive meaning.”

Another recurring keyword was “algorithm,” he said. This term arose in a number of panels, including the panel of surveillance and the panel on social media platforms. Hug suggested that, given the importance of the term to contemporary culture, we would benefit from pausing to more carefully define the ways in which we conceive of algorithms: “as procedures for execution, as institutions, as narration, as phantoms, as actors, or other concepts?” In their respective panels, Hug said, Nick Seaver and Tarleton Gillespie offered useful insights into this issue.

Another key term worth revisiting is data literacy, he said. Among other things, the subject raises the question of the possible relationships between data literacy and other literacies, such as cultural literacy and numeracy. In her own talk, he said, Kelly Gates “reminded us of the situational gap, so if you are really competent with dealing with algorithms and data, you still need situational and context literacy.”

Several panels from the conference also touched on an issue that has already become something of a chestnut in the internet era, he said: “the relations of amateurs, semi-professionals, professionals in various fields.” The more up-to-date version of that issue concerns “the relations between media activism, social activism, and social media activism.”

Finally, Hug said, “we learned a lot about surveillance this time around.” The time and attention given to the topic suggest that aspects of surveillance that received less attention, such as on biological surveillance, would be well worth revisiting. They also suggest that we have reached the moment to revisit large questions concerning political awareness and the public sphere.

Molly Sauter

Molly Sauter observed that many of the discussions in the preceding days centered on issues of identity. In her thesis research, which focused on “distributed denial of service as an activist and political tactic,” she found it helpful to draw a distinction between “identity” and “presence.” (A distributed denial-of-service attack involves hijacking a network of computers and using them to overwhelm a computer or network with incoming messages.)

This type of activist tactic is based clearly on presence rather than identity, Sauter said, and so it provides a model to help us better understand the role of presence elsewhere in political life: “In fact, many aspects of our government and political system are based on ideas of presence.” As we try to chart “the political future of the internet,” it may be useful to reflect on “these questions of how presence will manifest online, and ways in which we can encourage the manifestation of presence as opposed to an almost single-minded emphasis on identity, that is, preformed and constructed identity.”

Sauter raised several questions that connect these research interests with the themes of the conference: “How do concepts of privacy and anonymized data fit into constructions of presence? How do we use anonymized data in an educational sense, a business sense, and a governmental and political sense to bring this concept into reality rather than just leave it as a theoretical concept?”

Dan Whaley

Dan Whaley reminded the audience that the first panel at the conference raised the question of whether our current society of surveillance is “a rehearsal for the Panopticon.” He suggested, in response, that “the Panopticon is already here.”

As evidence, he noted Glenn Greenwald’s recent piece in The Guardian detailing “what we already knew: that the FBI is not only listening to all of our conversations, but recording them, forever.” Concerns about “oversharing” are already outdated, he suggested; we are already at the stage of “overstoring.” The battles remaining to us perhaps “revolve not so much around the technology of surveillance, but around the fight for the last stronghold of our freedoms, to think and act as relatively free, though still surveilled, citizens.”

Still, Whaley suggested that we can maintain a sense of optimism about the future. New technologies are already yielding projects that have revolutionary social potential: Tor, BitTorrent, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Pirate Bay, bitcoin, and projects like the recent 3-D printing of a gun.

Such projects “give me hope,” he said, “not because I want more guns, but because it’s important that we continue to demonstrate that these counter-publics can continue to exist.”

Audience Discussion

Moderator Paradis noted that “The conference has bounced back and forth between a determinist sense of how the technologies will turn out and an open, sense of humans as actors.” Given the determinist tendency of so much of the conversation in media studies, he asked, “Where do you see human agency and responsibility coming in?”

Sauter rephrased the question: “What are human responsibilities and human agency in the face of surveillance?” Her answer was that our responsibility includes maintaining, together, an awareness from below of the surveillance in place—and, when necessary, engaging in “direct confrontation with that system.” She offered as an example a game among activists in Berlin that involved “attacking CCTV cameras in the subway system.”

Paradis remarked that “counterpublics” is another term that appeared often during the conference: “How is this way of approaching the public sphere useful?”

Whaley argued that counterpublics foster disruptive innovation: “Counter-publics are the opportunities out there, because they’re the thing by definition that stands in opposition to what came before them. They’re ripe to engage with, if you want to disrupt what’s come before.”

Sauter noted that hacker culture provides an example of a counterpublic that has been persistently treated as criminal. This is unfair treatment that does society no favors, she argued: hackers “are useful and interesting and should be celebrated and maintained.”

Roderick Coover

Coover suggested that counterpublics constitute important laboratories for innovation, and that we would be well advised to lend attention and support to the counter-publics within our own walls. “It’s the only way to enable our institutions to survive,” he said. “Counterpublics are about new groups inventing new languages, new terms, and taking over old terms. What would they invent if they took over the institutions we’re currently within?”

Noel Jackson professor of literature at MIT, asked Sauter to expand on a connection she made earlier between the concept of presence and the formation of counterpublics. Are there particular oppositional spaces that foster the growth of counterpublics?

Sauter replied that presence, as she defines it, is one way a counterpublic can manifest itself, rather than a counterpublic itself. “Flash mobs are a type of imposed presence,” she said. “Rather than the performance of an identity, it is the performance of an interruption.” Practices based on presence—like flash mobs—offer a playful tool that counter-publics can use for political action, but they are not constitutive of the group’s identity.

Another audience member asked what steps the panelists are taking in order to keep their online data private.

Molly Sauter

Sauter said, “Unless you use Tor every time you go online and you roll your own e-mail system, the internet is not anonymous. And you are not anonymous on the internet.” She added, “The internet is a nest of trackers and identifiers and things that know where you are and remember who you are. Even if that’s not your name or your address or your e-mail address and it’s just a collection of identifying markers, you can use those to get personally identifiable information.”

Civil rights groups are fighting to make changes to that situation, she said, but in the meantime, anonymity on the internet is not “a pillow to rest your civil liberties on.”

Whaley replied, “There’s still extraordinary utility in having strong models of anonymous and pseudonymous identity…. We need more systems, more infrastructures, more communities, that support those kinds of identity systems.”