Platforms of Knowledge in a Wide Web of Worlds: Production, Participation, and Politics

I. Rationale and Significance

Be it in the form of a Coursera, Historypin, or Wikipedia, platforms have been defined either as the “hardware and software framework that supports other programs” or as “a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers—users—and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform's original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate."(1) In essence, web platforms are programmable by third parties and must connect to other platforms through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which are at the heart of “ecosystems” that consist of mutually dependent communities of developers and users, all working symbiotically with the platform.(2) Since their inception in the 1970s, APIs have spurred the creation of new industries yet they have also threatened the existence of others. A whole slew of applications is, for example, now possible because of the Google Maps platform yet social media platforms might well put an end to the newspaper, magazine or cable news industries as we knew them. In its more recent reliance on vast arrays of servers, ubiquitous computing, and the enormity of the World Wide Web, such a general-purpose technology now promises not only large-scale change, but also significant losses, especially if left unscrutinized.

Across university campuses, API based platforms bring together creators, developers, contributors, users, sponsors, and eventually manipulators in cyber-environments where knowledge can be taught, learned, disseminated, geo-located, crowd-sourced, archived, text-mined, spied-upon, etc., all thanks to the over two decade long history of the World Wide Web. The recent exponential increase in scale may slowly be turning the cyber-world of web platforms into a new Tower of Babel where various cultures speaking diverse idioms rely on similar core technologies to build a mega-platform of shared knowledge. While in the Babel story, the tower’s ambitiousness comes at the cost of miscommunication—which presumably provokes the invention of translators—the World Wide Web banks on  “HTML” and related technologies as a universal form of communication able, on the one hand, to overcome time and space yet able, on the other hand, to abolish the role of intermediaries. With all the promise that e-learning, self-publishing, and other platforms bring about, it is potentially at the cost of significant losses, be it the loss of cultural and professional agents or the loss of peripheral information when the analog is translated into the digital.

The very binary design of APIs requires both the participation of an increasing number of developers and users as well as the inevitable elimination of intermediaries, go-betweens, or agents, on the other (e.g., eBay can only function in a world where buyers and sellers come together and thus eliminates the auctioneers). Hence the Tower of Babel scenario of an ambitious world where news streams in live via social media, where money is exchanged on one’s phone, where students teach each other, where patients treat themselves, and where we can all build our own houses, all without journalists, bankers, professors, doctors, or architects.

The rationale for the Seminar is, therefore, straightforward: If web platforms are indeed transforming the ways in which we communicate, find information, make purchases, and conduct research, they ought to be studied closely, especially when hard-won expertise is lost altogether – or, at the very least, lost in translation. By enabling teachers, students and researchers to discover, analyze, and share information, collaborate without regard to barriers of space and time, and publish their work widely, such knowledge platforms uphold the fundamental academic mission to promote the discovery and dissemination of knowledge, yet they also raise questions about what counts as expertise, who controls access to information, whether quantification and metrics are being valued over humanistic knowledge and wisdom, the incursion of neoliberal ideologies that shift power from educational institutions to profit-seeking companies, and the loss of academic autonomy and diversity. Given the speed with which web platforms are now being created, the Seminar is both timely and significant. As George Siemens warns, “Whoever has the platform sets the rules and controls the game. Diversity will be pushed to the margins…"(3)

Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web’s public debut in 1991, the 2015-16 Platforms of Knowledge in a Wide Web of Worlds seminar plans to incubate a multi-disciplinary broadly humanistic collaboration among interested tech innovators, visiting scholars, faculty and students in order to explore, critique, and experience web platforms as well as shape an intellectually diverse yet humanistically rigorous research community. Ultimately, Seminar participants will produce an edited collection of essays on the issues surrounding the production of, participation in, and politics around participatory platforms of knowledge. This endeavor will require a close exploration of consequences caused by the increasing reliance on these platforms; including the trend towards open access, changing conceptions of privacy and intellectual property, new ways of assessing scholarly productivity, and the development of interdisciplinary laboratory models of the humanities classroom, among others. It will also make use of the very platforms under discussion to develop multifaceted interpretations of the changing face of academia. Although, in some sense, all Internet platforms involve managing information (whether medical records, commercial transactions, or bureaucratic process), this Seminar will primarily focus on those that explicitly involve knowledge creation and transmission, that is, those that support education, collaborative research, public engagement in knowledge production, and publishing.

II. Cases to be Studied and Perspectives

The Seminar will examine the proliferation of digital knowledge platforms from a variety of perspectives in order to understand their impact on culture and academia. These perspectives will include interpreting the legal code governing knowledge platforms, analyzing their technological underpinnings, exploring their ethical implications, understanding their cultural history and significance, theorizing the production and consumption of knowledge through digital platforms, and examining the social groups that control, contribute to, and use these platforms.  We will consider platforms according to their functions, developer and user communities, core technologies, approach to openness, underlying business models, and frameworks for participation. Among the cases to be studied are the following:

E-learning platforms: In 2012, Audrey Watters named the “platforming” of education a key educational technology trend, pointing to the rise of startups and non-profits focused on data interchange and interoperability in education and cautioning that education risks handing control over to private companies. While learning management systems such as Sakai and Blackboard may make it easier to distribute course materials, administer quizzes, support class mailing lists, and keep students informed about their grades, such systems have come under significant critique for focusing more on management than learning. Moreover, with the rise of learning analytics, which uses data from learning management systems and other sources to monitor student learning and identify opportunities for improvement, new concerns are emerging about privacy, reductive approaches to education, misinterpretation of data, and the costs of implementation. To resist corporate “solutions” to the complexities of learning, the “edupunk” movement urges a “Do It Yourself,” open, community-driven approach to learning using blogs, wikis and other open tools. Universities are using massive open online course (MOOC) platforms such as edX and Coursera to provide broad access to education, raise their profiles and develop insights into how people learn. Yet MOOCs stir up concern about diminishing face-to-face learning, faculty autonomy, public education, and lack of access to computers and/or internet.

Publishing platforms: University presses face significant challenges as a result of shrinking library budgets, declining university support, and the shift from print to digital. To confront such challenges, one study calls for a collective effort to develop a platform “that would serve as a catalyst for collaboration and shared capital investment in university-based publishing."(4) Even as many humanities scholars seek publishing contracts in order to achieve tenure or promotion, they lament long lag times, small audiences, and the limitations of print. With the emergence of web-based publishing platforms, scholars are experimenting with publishing models that speed the circulation of research, make possible open peer review and discussion, and incorporate rich media. For example, Scalar, an open source authoring and publishing platform developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, supports collaborative authoring, reader discussions, multiple navigation paths, and a range of embedded media formats (including in partnership with archives). Many open publishing projects face challenges in motivating and rewarding author contributions, performing quality control and validation, and finding viable sustainability models. As open access mandates gain steam, enabled in part by dissemination of scholarly work through digital platforms, academics are protesting that academic freedom is being violated. Faculty also tend to resist such platforms largely due to tenure and promotions concerns. Seminar participants and visiting scholars will consider the implications of digital publishing platforms for shaping, disseminating, and discussing knowledge, examining their underlying assumptions about how academic knowledge is produced and validated, technical frameworks, and approaches to intellectual property.

Collaborative research platforms/ cyberinfrastructure: As scientific research becomes more and more collaborative, collaborative research platforms have emerged to facilitate and provide tools for data sharing, to maintain communication within research teams, and to manage knowledge. For example, NanoHUB provides a collaborative research platform for nanotechnology research, offering access to simulation tools, data, educational resources, collaboration space, and dynamic publishing capabilities. Efforts, such as Project Bamboo, to create cyberinfrastructure platforms in the humanities have run into challenges such as defining a clear focus, building and sustaining community, and managing collaboration. Cyberinfrastructure platforms raise key questions: What motivates researchers to contribute to such platforms? How can these platforms be sustained? How might such platforms work in other disciplines less inclined toward collaboration?

Crowdsourced knowledge platforms: Crowdsourcing platforms enable the public to contribute to the production of knowledge, whether by identifying galaxies (Galaxy Zoo), studying folding proteins (FoldIt), gathering information about birds (eBirds), transcribing a philosopher’s manuscripts (Transcribe Bentham), or editing encyclopedia entries (Wikipedia). Even as they allow basic scholarly work to be accomplished on a much larger scale, such projects raise fundamental questions about the nature of expertise and authority, the incentives and rewards for participation, and how to manage large-scale collaboration.

III. Thematic Threads

All thematic threads pertinent to this seminar can be grouped under the rubrics of production, participation, and politics. For example, the production of platforms, specifically in academia, promotes collaboration, interdisciplinarity, freely-accessible information, and laboratory-like classrooms structures. Many of these side products of platforms are positive, allowing students hands-on research experience and scholars exposure to a broader audience. Their production can also allow the investigation of new research questions not feasible for a lone researcher without the technical tools to ask, much less explore. While these positive aspects of production have been widely, and justifiably, praised, this shifting emphasis toward the development of technologically based research production also raises several issues that merit investigation.

Simply by searching the Web, accessing a reading on a course management system, or “liking” a Facebook post, we participate on an Internet platform at some level. Indeed, Internet participation assumes a bewildering array of forms: “It’s not even clear what to call participation today: consuming, collaborating, voting, protesting, belonging, friending, exploiting, liking, lobbying, volunteering, working, laboring, relaxing, or addicting? Do we ‘consume’ Google searches or Facebook Ads or do we ‘collaboratively create’ them through our wisdom as a crowd?"(5) Whether we participate actively or passively, our data feeds the Internet, providing insights into what we buy, who we know, how we feel, and what we think. How people participate online is conditioned by who owns the platform, the terms of engagement, core technologies, and the platform’s purposes. The Internet has been hailed for enabling open participation, making everyone a creator and publisher, unconstrained by the middleman. Through Internet platforms, authors can interact with their audiences, researchers can both access and share data, large research projects can invite contributions to distribute labor and engage the public, and instructors can make available course content. But even as authors seek to engage audiences using new publishing platforms, they often struggle to find participants. Researchers worry about giving too much of their valuable data away and not being recognized and rewarded for their contributions. Participation raises the specter of surveillance, exploitation, and being marketed to. As people feed data to machines, it becomes easier to use metrics such as learning analytics and research productivity measures to monitor and pigeonhole them. Further, online platforms may strengthen cultural hegemony and provide an environment for racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.

The politics involved in the “seigniorial” gaze, of a monarch or the State, have historically relied on various forms of spatial organizations in order to both collect information and control populations. As Michel Foucault famously pointed out, this was certainly true in times of pestilence when a 17th-century town was segmented and its inhabitants fixed in place, supervised, constantly located, examined, and distributed among the living, the sick, or the dead. Visibility became a trap and a spatial choreography of power eventually became illustrated in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon where the very invisibility of the overseer guaranteed order. While the panopticon enhanced axial, yet unidirectional, visibility, it also imposed lateral invisibility in order to prevent plotting among convicts, contagion among patients, cheating among schoolchildren, and coalitions among workers. Regardless, space was shown as able to provide privileged positions from which the exercise of power could not only be economic and effective, but could also serve to intensify social forces, i.e., to increase production, spread education, and cure plagues. While such a model for the exercise of power relied on an actual architectural structure, it was certainly destined to spread in a diffused, multiple, and polyvalent way throughout the social body. Fast forward to the recent Snowden affair and it turns out that the State did just that with the National Security Agency’s hyper-surveillance program, the scale of which far exceeds what Bentham could have possibly imagined. If Bentham’s Panopticon required a particular spatial platform for it to function, NSA’s hyper-panopticism functions in a cyber-space populated by web platforms where millions, if not billions, of people, leave behind collectible traces that can and will be monitored.

 

1. Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, “New Media as Material Constraint: An Introduction to Platform Studies,” in 1st International HASTAC Conference, Duke University, Durham NC, 2007; Marc Andreessen,  “The Three Kinds of Platforms You Meet on the Internet,” September 16, 2007.
2. David Evans et al., Invisible Engines: How Software Platforms Drive Innovation and Transform Industries. (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT, 2008).
3. George Siemens, “The Race to Platform Education,” Elearnspace, October 13, 2011.
4. Laura Brown et al., “University Publishing in a Digital Age,” Journal of Electronic Publishing 10, #3 (Fall 2007): 1.
5. Adam Fish et al., “Birds of the Internet: Towards a Field Guide to the Organization and Governance of Participation,” Journal of Cultural Economy 4, no. 2 (2011): 157-187.