29 July 2008

Critique of us: Open Objects Initiative

Yesterday I put down some of my concerns about how Contact Zones were being used. I also spent part of the day writing a critique of the Open Objects Initiative for a publication we are working on arising from a conference we did here in Cambridge in April, Subversion, Conversion, Development - Public Interests in Technologies. I got a bit of a terse email from Matt Ratto about my critique, but as it will be on-line anyway at Thoughtmesh I thought it would be alright to publish it in full here.

As part of an introduction, I would like to say that though it does seem very critical, I think that it is a critique of us, myself included. We are easily bedazzled and confused by our language, and terms can carry a force that we don't readily recognize. I suppose that this is the issue I was beginning to unravel in yesterday's post -- that we create a term for a specific context, and then believe that it is easily and systematically extendable to other contexts. It is the "easily and systematically" bit that I think is in error. Extension of ideas, practices, technologies, and even language is always a problematic exercise, and always involves degrees of translation, modification and even subversion (see John Law on this point). So this is not so much a critique of the OOI, its goals or its programme, but a critique of the bedazzlement of language that bedevils all of us.


Open Objects Initiative: A Critique of Openness
Robin Boast
28 July 2008

I must begin by saying that though this is a critique, to a degree, of the OOI, I largely agree with the underlying goals and principles of the OOI. Certainly, all good thinking people must agree that there is a fundamental asymmetry between ownership, access and use of knowledge, especially in regard to marginalized and indigenous communities. In fact, these asymmetries run very deep and extend very widely to most people within society. It is a myth that contemporary programmes of collaboration, as well as the prototypic "open access" media – the web, are symmetric. Knowledge is a prime commodity and, as with all commodities today, it is fiercely sought after and huge resources are invested to appropriate and control it. Insidious programmes of control, such as the Semantic Web, are marketed as improved means for accessing the world of knowledge. However, they are little more than thinly disguised means for a Wellsian technocratic control and appropriation of diverse and sovereign knowledges.

In this sense, the OOI is to be applauded. It is one more initiative that seeks to explicitly recognize and support the diversity and sovereignty of knowledge communities. However, in this programme, I find some fundamental asymmetries. I must also say that it is a bit difficult to comment fully on the OOI as there is little information available. The OOI website offers little explanation, and the workshops and downloads of the site almost universally meet with a 404 error. However, there is enough to see that there are fundamental confusions underlying the project.

The About page of the OOI website tells us that the OOI "is a consortium of researchers and institutions driven by a desire to address questions of openness and diversity as they relate communication and exchange across cultural divides.", and that this is to be achieved through a concern for how groups "intersect through objects". Again, this is to be applauded, but it goes on to say that:

"By “intersect” we mean to emphasize how people who do not just have different ‘values’, but different ways of producing and legitimating knowledge, relate to one another through material objects. The central premise is that a more thorough attention to the experiences, emotions, and engagements that objects make possible can provide deeper insights into how people communicate, debate, and exchange understandings about the world despite cultural differences."

This expresses clearly my first concern with the OOI. It is the "provide deeper insights" bit that concerns me. I have seen nothing from the OOI that speaks of ensuring that these communities have the means for local archiving and managing their local knowledge, for creating and promoting those programmes that ensure real symmetry between knowledge communities in the access to, use of and ownership of knowledge, nor for the programmes and protocols that will ensure symmetry of control when different knowledge communities actually meet over these objects. The impression that I get from the statements on the OOI webpage is strongly appropriative. That the real goal is to gain a, different, academic understanding of how people do meaning. In my experience, it is just this programme of research objectification that most of the communities that I work with object to.

What most knowledge communities want is not just to be taken seriously, not just to have their forms of knowledge recognized, and its authority recognized, but also the right and the means to control and manage who can speak about their knowledge – to stop the Western Liberal programme of speaking and performing for others – of appropriating these statements and performances. I am sure that the members of the OOI will say that they have no such intentions, and I would happily accept that they mean it. However, their programmes suggest that they are proceeding down just this track, no matter how unintentionally.

An example of this is the Cross Cultural Partnership Agreement Template. Though, again, seemingly laudable, this project suffers from just the issue I raise above, that of creating a generic, universal template for use by diverse, sovereign and competent knowledge communities, from just those people who are not locally involved. Though I recognize that the document is intended as a 'boundary object' between the diverse needs of collaborating communities and the law, it remains an example of the error of generalization. Not only does it not recognize that for the majority of indigenous communities, today, there is sufficient legal expertise to cover these situations, but that real symmetry is achieved not through global generalizations, but through local negotiations and the creation of local objects (by which I mean local, negotiated agreements). Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) have filled this role for over 20 years, and are now the preferred legal document for collaborations with Native American and First Nation peoples. Where more formal contracts are needed, and the CCPA is but a contract, these groups have legal departments who are well skilled in drafting them for the local needs and cultural requirements.

However, the real failing of the CCPA, in my mind, is that it seems to accept, uncritically and unreflectively, that a local collaborative negotiation between some academics, some legal experts and some local communities, can be generalized for diverse and incommensurable national if not global collaborations. This is the typical Western and Enlightenment assumption applied, that underlying all objects, all practices, all social communication is s set of, largely if not universally, transcendent principles. It may seem absurd that I am invoking enlightenment assumptions in this day and age, but simply because we are dazzled by the pastiche of a post-enlightenment critique, does not mean that these transcendental assumptions do not remain built into the fabric of our cultural practices, nor that these practices do not remain a form of philosophical colonization. They remain programmes of imposing one set of cultural assumptions onto others, and they do not promote symmetry, they denies it.

Today, the key issue in knowledge management and IPR is not the creation of standardized modes, meta-descriptions and forms of practice, but of ensuring, often under law, the rights of individuals, communities and institutions to the ownership as well as the local control and means of distribution of their knowledge. This too goes beyond Copyright, but not in the direction of Copyleft. It is moving, clumsily, toward a realization that whole new means are needed to ensure the preservation of the local means of knowledge production, use and reproduction that do not demand of it the role of a universal resource.

So what is the alternative? There are certainly many, but one critical feature must be that in any collaboration, any meeting of diverse knowledge communities, over objects or not, must first deal with the issues of symmetric power. It must deal with the issues of individual and cultural privacy, community ownership and rights to the dissemination and performance of that knowledge. Power of the control and rights not just to their knowledge, but to the means of ownership, expression and distribution of that knowledge. Also to the rights to determine and manage who can speak for that knowledge community. To this end, I feel that the concept of a Contact Zone, in Jim Clifford's sense rather than Marie-Louise Pratt's sense, is a more useful concept to the one that seems to be promoted by the OOI of observing the performance of the Other while being sympathetic to their difference, but of largely ignoring the real asymmetries of that engagement. Contact Zones, in Clifford's sense, promotes the idea of a symmetric space, where communities with quite incommensurable ontologies meet on largely equal terms. Where the communities have ultimate control over not only what they say and how they say it, but over its performance for an 'outside' community. It is this that is critical, the recognition that the presentation, the performance, of knowledge is as much a part of knowledge as is its content, and that symmetry must be extended to performance as much as to content. It is here that I find the OOI fundamentally lacking.

28 July 2008

Contact Zones: Contested Spaces or Everyday Practice

I was reading a paper I found on the Web by a friend of mine, Matt Ratto, about Contact zones in digital scholarship: Corpus construction for spoken and signed languages. In that paper, Matt and his co-author, Ernst Thoutenhoofd, that large collections of everyday speach, called linguistic corpora, had found that the the rarified language examples of linguistics simply don't exist in everyday speech, except among linguists. Of course, this would not surprise Wittgensteinian scholars, but this got me thinking about the main topic of the paper -- Contact Zones.

Contact Zone, as a term, was coined by Mary Louise Pratt in her monumentally important book Imperial Eyes to designate those spaces or dialogues where two different cultures meet, usually in colonial settings and where there are quite disparate power relations, but manage to create a space where communication and learning occures. However, today, it seems that contact zones are everywhere, the term being used to describe just about any place, publication or performance where two knowledge groups meet.

Matt and Ernst's paper got me thinking. Isn't it that every engagement, in 'normal' social practice, is more or less a contact zone? Isn't it that when we look at what people do, rather than the rarified models of what people do, that they are always engaging in this sort of negotiated, autoethnographic (to use Pratt's really awful term) practice? Isn't the contact zone another example of the linguist's language, existing only in an academic rarification?

Now I should make clear that I am enormously fond of the idea of a contact zone. Not only as a means of understanding that exploitative period of colonialization, which is very much still with us though in different form, but also in its more constructive twist given by Jim Clifford in his Museums as Contact Zones. However, no matter how good an idea may be, it still deserves critical examination, especially in its use.

For me, at the moment, contact zones seem hugely underdetermined. Basically, it seems that any setting where we find disparate knowledge groups coming together and interacting, or at least attempting to, is a contact zone. In other words, we take what Pratt calls the imagined norm as a baseline, and then put anything that doesn't fit into contact zones. This imagined norm is that belief in a rarified and abstract set of forms or rules that we believe govern what we do. As a transcendental norm, we act on the assumption that this norm must underly all we do, that we are all more or less competent in achieving the standard. But this demands the acceptance of a tautology in everything we do. That there is some ultimate and true form that we all strive for.

The assumption that seems to underly contacts zones is that there is some 'normal' setting which doesn't require the negotiation of disparate and often incommensurable knowledge practices. Prof. Pratt, in her later paper, Arts of Contact Zones, she said that she later began to use contact zones "to reconsider the models of community that many of us rely on in teaching and theorizing". She used as an example of this later use of the term a contentious course that they developed at Stanford called Cultures, Ideas, Values.

To make a long story short, what struck me about Prof. Pratt's characterization, especially after reading Matt Ratto's paper, was that it seemed what was being discussed was not a particular space or zone, but a sensitivity to a certain genre of practice. A practice that, by necessity or choice, actively destablizes and diversifies the usual categorical and practical stabilization of the setting and and engagement between the participants.

Though this needs a great deal more thought, I am beginning to wonder if what we call contact zones are, in fact, what we could also characterize as normal practice -- what we all do everytime we engage with other groups who have different understandings of the world than ourselves, which is just about always. However, it could be (should be) that contact zones designate the recognition or sympathy that to engender and enable more symmetric engagements, we need to stop trying to stabilize such engagements and allow them their difference?