Michele Graffieti’s narrative panorama of the “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” a more famous example of Digital History.

Over the past decade, theorizing about data and digital mediums has typically been kept to spaces like New Media Studies. The rise of Digital Humanities as a strictly empirical field cuts against this grain in a manner worth examining. Part I: The Hegemony of Data, discusses a longer history of information to evaluate the intuitive sense of objectivity that surrounds “Big Data”. Part II: The Heavens and Hells of the Web examines the initial beliefs in digital messianism as a method of eliminating moral and social problems, how they turned apocalyptic, and what lessons Digital Humanities should take from it. Part III: Digital Epistemology goes beyond critique and builds a sense in which anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, moral visions of a future may benefit and actually advance discourses through our experiences with digital tools and society.

“Epiphany” is a good description of my first encounter with Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis in 2014. Having come into the discipline history from a New Atheist Rational euphoric high, Macroanalysis struck me with its possibility for an entirely objective method of history. Jockers emphasized this possibility, by displacing the term “reading” with “analysis.” Where the formerwas entirely too close to problems of selectivity and bias, the latter emphasized the impartial potential of “big [literary] data.” Whereas before, we were all bound by the number of texts we could read in a single lifetime, Macroanalysis invited a more scientific approach to literature:

Today, however, the ubiquity of data, so-called big data, is changing the sampling game. Indeed, big data are fundamentally altering the way that much science and social science get done…

            …These massive digital-text collections are changing how literary studies get done. Close reading is not only impractical as a means of evidence gathering in the digital library, but big data render it totally inappropriate as a method of studying literary history. (p. 7)

The vision of arbitration-by-analysis has struck even the most interpretive of fields with considerable force. This is partially because we were primed for this vision of our future: an aristocracy of numbers where not only research, but also morality, ethics, and politics would be dictated by formulas that transcended mere human interest. That we presently take this reliance on data to religious proportions should invite some curiosity as to how life got to this point; in other words, Jockers’ faith in data asks us to historicize the ascension of data hegemony.

A reasonable starting point for this conversation is the development of the web. For both advocates and opponents, the web represents a requirement for the expansive role that data currently plays in society. That Google now stands in as the paragon of human knowledge only exemplifies the sense that the web was and continues to be essential to the current discussions about the Information Age. But how does our intuition compare to the (recent) history of data itself?

In 1964, the engineer Paul Baran published an eleven-volume proposal titled On Distributed Communications, which evaluated a method of rudimentary network connections between universities, military bases, and corporate labs across the country. Deeply influential to the development of ARPANET some five years later, Baran established many of the first packet switching protocols used to distribute information through a network. Baran’s proposal connected several of these regional networks for the purpose of creating a redundancy of data. This redundancy decentralized data in a manner that could preserve it in the worst-case scenario of nuclear war. If New York was lost in nuclear winter, labs at Berkeley, Chicago, and Texas would retain all the files that scientists and military researchers had collected on the east coast.

Baran’s rendering of a distributed network, p. 4, vol. 1


A 1974 rendering of the ARPANET network, courtesy of the ARPANET wikipedia page

The redundancy of data was a useful method to ensure its survivability. (Volume I, p. ii) This aspect of the project was so important that in volume XI, Baran claimed that it was “survivability” that served as their top criterion for the proposal (Volume XI, p. 5). But much like any new technology, its cost was not cheap. Baran estimated a 234 million dollar initial investment cost, with a 60 million dollar annual maintenance estimate for the first ten years of the system; in comparison the Department of Defense had typically budgeted 1 billion a year for communications projects. (Volume X, p. 1-2) The web didn’t lead to the hegemony of data; rather, the hegemony of data led to a demand for the web.

This demand invites us to ask what work data was doing at the time. Three years before Baran submitted his report, President Kennedy appointed the civilian bureaucrat Robert McNamara to Secretary of Defense, an unusual move, given McNamara’s lack of battle experience. Prior to his arrival as the boss of the United States military, McNamara had spent part of WWII using his experience in data analysis with the Air Force: determining, for example, at what altitude to drop bombs in order to maximize enemy casualties and minimize friendly fire. McNamara’s efforts—which became known as “systems analysis”—joined with Abraham Wald’s work in statistical analysis, and Alan Turing’s more famous work in breaking the Enigma code machine, all of which demonstrated the significance of data for rendering military battles more efficient. Against an earlier tradition of warfare in which honor, masculinity, and birthright had all played prominent roles in the development of an aristocratic army, data had transformed war from something waged into something managed.

In the transition to “peace,” the extension of these statistical skills in civilian management seemed only logical, something emphasized by a policy wonk under McNamara. In 1966, E. S. Quade proposed that the work “systems analysis” did for the military should be used to manage civilian affairs as well. While Quade was careful to consistently acknowledge the limitations of the approach, he nevertheless suggested that this approach of efficiency could be used in things like the postman’s route, urban redevelopment, and welfare planning. The goal for these projects would ultimately be efficiency; it set aside questions of morality, instead emphasizing ambiguous utilitarian perspectives on the organization of civil society:

The key to a successful analysis is a continuous cycle of formulating the problem, selecting objectives, designing alternatives, collecting data, building models, weighing cost against performance, testing for sensitivity, questioning assumptions and data, re-examining the objectives, opening new alternatives, building better models and so on, until satisfaction is obtained or time or money force a cutoff. (Quade, 2006, 10-11)

It is here that we see the full stakes of a slow elision between efficiency and morality. The hegemony of data created a very specific vision of the future: data through methodological innovations would consistently produce a society that privileged maximizing efficiency. At best, efficiency ran parallel to moral advancements in society; at worst, it was entirely oblivious to moral visions for a better world. In the context of the war, such efficiency dedicated to the preservation of human life could be wed to an anti-Nazi morality with few problems. In peacetime, the hegemony of data was a lynchpin of US imperialism against the Soviet Union. In other words, its objectivity was only guaranteed insofar as its users took the military power of the United States as an unqualified good.

Corporations were not the only players in this gradual transition from method of management into mode of moral politics. At a 1939 symposium, the economist Frank Knight–a teacher of Milton Friedman–had suggested changing a quote from Lord Kelvin that had been inscribed upon the Social Sciences Building at the University of Chicago to the following: “If you cannot measure, measure anyhow.” Taking up this challenge, the economic historian Robert Fogel arrived at the University of Chicago in 1964, where he began work on the most controversial history book of the late-twentieth century. It was published in 1976 with the title Time on the Cross, which introduced McNamara’s systems-analysis methodology into history and called it “cliometrics.” The book rejected the long-held assumption that slavery stunted capitalism and instead used the analysis of data to argue that plantations had in fact been most profitable immediately before to the Civil War.

Historical debate aside, cliometrics most directly challenged the ways that historical research was undertaken. Much like Jockers, the authors of Time on The Cross–an interdisciplinary, collaborative book if ever one existed–juxtaposed the empirical certainty of plantation data against the interpretive mode of historical research, a mode they associated with the “ideological pressures of writing about the American system of slavery.” Fogel & Stanley Engerman (his co-author of the book) did not deny that interpretation had some role to play in historical work; the cliometrician instead viewed it as a method that should be used sparingly, only where no quantitative data could be produced for analysis and accordingly viewed interpretation as quite close to speculation.

This is, in fact, the climax of contestation under data hegemony. Whereas historians had–and still do, for the most part–elected to perform their work embracing the necessary, ruthless selectivity that comes with distilling centuries of time into hundreds of pages, Fogel and the rising crop of cliometricians instead echoed Knight’s command for the social scientist. The hegemony of data for these folks produced a very different vision of slave society, one in which the plantation became an efficiency-maximizing, rational agent. Sources that emphasized the violence and brutality against slaves were consequently viewed as “exaggerated” and research on such sources as “ideological.”

It is worth taking seriously how Fogel & Engerman conceived of slave agency to see how deeply the language of efficiency pervaded their work. Less a pathological racism that saw African Americans and slaves as subhuman, they actually conceived themselves as “rescuing” African Americans from history through an account of their ingenuity and industriousness as slaves:

The typical slave fieldhand was not lazy, inept, and unproductive. On average, he was harder-working and more efficient than his white counterpart. (5)

Throughout the text, both authors commit to showing a slave capable of becoming efficient through an assimilation and transformation of the Protestant Work Ethic. The question of whether or not efficiency is a good manner of measuring human worth is never raised. While both authors had retracted their perspectives on violence on the plantations by the 1980s, this vision of demonstrating “rationality” and “efficiency” for a group of marginalized people in order to account for their history was only possible in a world where such quantitative data was the only objective method to describe them. In other words, the question of whether slavery was a moral good was a question that conveniently fell outside the purview of the data analyst.

This is a lasting influence of the transition from interpretation to analysis. In a heavily-critiqued piece published last year on the Digital Humanities, David Golumbia, Daniel Allington & Sarah Brouillette argued precisely that this was the general, if subconscious direction of the DH field: fetishize the collection of data, program for the analysis, cease interpretation. Despite all the critiques, very few respondents addressed directly the issue of data-collection, except to again proselytize about the natural power of big data. At this point, it should be clear that this naturalization had always been a political process, despite the best efforts of Jockers to render literary studies an analytical, objective science.

Historicizing the role of data has given us a feel for the tension that existed between the gathering of information and the subsequent loss of a particular political imagination. On a whole, many proponents of the Digital Humanities field think even less critically than Matthew Jockers about the limits and possibilities of digitization in disciplines like literature, history, and anthropology. Instead, many of the textbooks that introduce programming and data collection into these fields typically trot out lines about the radical accessibility, dynamic possibilities, or digital revolution. These clichés have long since played out in fields like New Media Studies or Game Studies, where astute critics like Lisa Nakamura have pointed out that being online did not eliminate social or political inequalities offline. The humbling of digital utopia in these fields ought to ensure Digital Humanities ask itself a question: what interpretive work is being done in the collection, systematization, digitization, and publication of literary and historical data, and what are we losing in the process? It is at the intersection on this question between these fields that Part II will turn.

I would like to thank Sarah Brouillette for reading an early draft of this piece. I would also like to point towards two more sources asking particularly good questions on this front: the first is Bernard Harcourt’s 2011 Aims of Education speech titled “Questioning the Authority of Truth” from which I first learned of Robert McNamara’s story. Second is Lara Putnam’s 2016 AHR article “The Transnational and the Text Searchable,” which critically theorizes the role of digital sources and searches in the pursuit of historical research. 

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.

At a moment when Democratic resistance appears rather close to compliance, a very broad wave of the internet has found its heroes in park rangers and scientists who have created “alt” National Park Service Twitter accounts in the wake of Trump’s ban on “official” NPS tweets.

It’s easy to see why they serve as a functional rally point: the accounts tweet about science, they defy an anti-liberal, anti-freedom of speech order, and they do so in a nonviolent manner. And yet, the palpable anxiety about time on-screen, versus time in the streets implores us to ask how we might measure the political value of spreadable media.

The relationship between politics and technology is fundamentally tense. Political judgments are conservative on an essential level; they reflect commitment to structures and institutions that have existed hitherto, be it for years, decades, or centuries, and a traditional mode of thought. Technology, on the other hand, only looks to the past so far as it can find something to break. The Silicon Valley’s monopoly on disruption is only a particular moment in time. Castles disrupted nomadism; gunpowder disrupted pitched battles; oceanic boats disrupted trade. The political value of a tweet remains an open question.

This open question is the immediate value of reading through the recently published lectures of Stuart Hall in Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History. Designed to introduce an American academy to the work of Hall, the lectures give us the contextual sense of the open question in 1983: was the mass culture of television, refrigeration, and even the secondhand car a crisis for Left politics, as it was initially perceived? More than one politician had identified the loss of a particular industrial working class culture as the source of declining political power for Left parties. In doing so, nostalgia created a particular experience of industrial life that naturalized the factory as a uniquely conducive space to Left organization. The Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies thus defined itself primarily as a political project: first asking about the relationship between technology and culture, and second asking what might be specific to the contemporary moment of technology, and how politics might come of it.

Cultural Studies rebelled immediately against the naturalization of the industrial revolution by taking up the work of scholars who had shown such a naturalization to be the failure of memory. In the second lecture, Hall traced this influence through literary scholar Raymond Williams and historian E. P. Thompson, both of whom emphasized the culture of the Industrial Age had itself displaced earlier forms of life, and had been vigorously contested by both a working-class that had not been disciplined to the bourgeoisie and an aristocracy that sensed its power on the wane. Something like time, measured on the clock, was a serious contestation between factory owners who wanted to keep labor in check and laborers used to a much different measure of time. Labor politicians and philosophers like Theodor Adorno thus remembered less the struggles and contestation that produced politics in the factory, and more the end result in which the factory appeared perfectly politicized.

However, Cultural Studies was not primarily focused on history. Rather, history illuminated the messy web between the realm of cultures and the economy that underpinned them. It is a credit to Stuart Hall that this sounds like a truism. As he reminds us throughout the eight lectures, the Marxism that Cultural Studies engaged in 1983 was a simplistic model, in which the economy determined everything directly. The fourth lecture directly approaches the reductiveness of this model through the metaphor of the Base-Superstructure relation. Any type of economic shift (base)—either in the forces of production, or social relations—immediately changed the types of culture (superstructure) available to the working-classes. Because most products developed for the mass culture society were developed by fledgling corporations, one of the initial assumptions underpinning leftist anxieties were such machines’ propensity to create a culture conducive to capital.

Cultural Studies was not the only group frustrated with such limited approaches. Both the New Left and Postcolonial schools were actively pushing against theories of the masses with more robust conceptions of difference beyond strictly economic notions of class. The members of any given society will not have the same experience or interactions with a media designed for all of them. Within these lectures, Hall typically used difference to combat “false consciousness,” which appeared whenever a member of an economic class went against their own interests. Hall and his school of Cultural Studies in Birmingham were interested in why people might act against their purported self-interests, rather than assume it was a simple error. Lecture seven was the first in which Hall used his own personal experience with the identity of blackness—juxtaposing its use in Jamaica with that in the United Kingdom—to express the ways difference could be constituted as speech, as a historical position, or as a geographic difference. And that each of these differences had implications for the manners in which an audience might “decode” the media presented to them, beyond simple consumption.

Hall’s tremendous number of essays and lectures produced a kaleidoscopic vision of his work. According to the editors, Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, Hall resisted another naturalized technology—the book—because he did not want his work divorced too far from the context in which it had arisen. These lectures thus should be read not as an abstract form of dealing with the question between politics and technology, but instead as an engagement with the question as it stood in 1983. Religion, for example, is treated most generously as an outdated mode of thought, generative of culture, and at worst as a form of irrational engagement with Left politics (in lecture eight, he credits religion with the reason why anticommunism is so popular in Jamaica, without a particularly deep explanation of it.) At a moment when even the most ardent secularization theorist has rejected secularization, the project of connecting religion, culture, and politics in the present becomes a more demanding issue.

But it is in lecture six where Hall asks a question of immediate relevance to us, both in our particular moment in time, and in the aftermath of the Trump election:

But precisely how is it that such large numbers of journalists, consulting only their ‘freedom’ to publish and be damned, do tend to reproduce, quite spontaneously, without compulsion, again and again, accounts of the world constructed within fundamentally the same ideological categories? (132-133)

Part of this question received an answer in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who show in the new global order of NGOs, financial institutions, and national leaders, freedom can be fundamentally coercive without contradicting itself (so the North Carolina GOP can advocate for the economic freedom of businesses from regulation, while simultaneously intervene in who uses gendered bathrooms.) Yet, we’re still openly asking about how such coercive freedom represents itself both in the production and consumption of media disseminated online.

While covering Trump, one immediate line being drawn is that on Nazis: good to punch, not good for listening.

While traditional outlets of media are comfortable incorporating amoral perspectives in the aim of profit, the dissemination of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face compared to Richard Spencer speaking appears to confirm that we’re now more ready to reject imperatives about freedom that threaten fundamental moralities. As David Banks put it yesterday: “An oppositional code [to a liberal discourse that insists violence is categorically wrong] interprets property damage and violent acts as a sign of deep injustices having been ignored.” Similarly, the networks built by Left activists via Twitter and Facebook have become crucial spaces not simply for liberal demonstrations to truth and freedom, but directly undermine the legitimacy and capability of a Trump presidency via organization and protest. The Facebook group Resist Hate RI, for example, was generated in direct response to the Trump presidency as a direct space of online organization; one in which each individual cause can draw upon thousands to show up for workshops, protests, phone banks, and logistical support.

Cultural Studies 1983 is likely to be received in the manner that it was billed: accessible to academics, for graduate students as a “personally guided tour of cultural studies’ intellectual genealogy.” The Birmingham Centre from which Cultural Studies was organized, was closed in 2002 with the traditional phrase uttered by senior university management: “restructuring.” One wonders, had protests against its closure been successful, what types of projects and analysis the Centre would have funded today. The economies of Silicon Valley, and the political and cultural organization against them have made for contradictory, polarizing, and altogether disjointed discourses that have yet come together in an array of harmonious resistances. Under a Trump presidency, such contradictions are only likely to increase and with it, our need to evaluate them.

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.



FAKE NEWS. In the aftermath of Trump, we’re finding the term used everywhere. Most recently, the Washington Post suggested that it was time to retire the term, having become so capricious that it hardly meant anything. While typically a fault, this lack of definition has made fake news incredibly compelling to rally against. We don’t need a rigorous definition to understand it sounds Bad. And since the election, “Fake News” has become something of a meme, buzzword and common concern set in our collective subconscious. Two history academic listservs to which I’m subscribed have taken their own turns interrogating fake news, especially interested in separating lazy, bad, or ignorant reporting from news that is deliberately intended to mislead the public.

Regardless of the definition, it’s hardly novel to this election. Papers like the National Enquirer have been around since the early twentieth century. Most arguments for why fake news matters instead typically rely on its digital circulation. So BuzzFeed’s investigative report on fake news concluded that it had more political influence as measured by clicks, shares and comments on Facebook: 8.7 million compared to news outlet’s 7.3 million. The subsequent conclusion has led to dramatic drives for everything from a more educated electorate to direct censorship by our Silicon Valley Lords.

Even if we can’t come to consensus about a definition, we have some sense of where fake news is not found: BuzzFeed’s investigation, for example, listed twenty news sites who are categorized as mainstream with wide circulation. Similarly, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reminded us about the mission of his New York Times: “to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.” Since the election of Trump, MSNBC has been running similar TV spots, in which their claims to comprehensive analysis are paired with close-ups of Trump’s face. Combining intimate access to political celebrities with performances of technical expertise, many of these outlets depict themselves as objective forms of journalistic knowledge. Underlying this objectivity is some platitude about the potential of the truth and good ideas to successfully triumph over all other forms.

Claims towards objective analysis should always be treated with caution. After all, presenting “objective” analysis in a fair manner is what historian Peter Novick termed The Noble Dream. For the most part, media outlets in 2017 offer not an idealized objectivity, but the pragmatic reality of for-profit news coverage. What papers like the New York Times, and The Washington Post, or cable networks like CNN and MSNBC offer might be better termed the aesthetic of objectivity. Such an aesthetic consists often consists of a series of practices designed to cover news objectively, rather than betray a partisan (or moral) perspective. So when white nationalism entered mainstream discourse with Richard Spencer, many networks and papers found space on their panels or pages to discuss white supremacy as an abstract position, rather than invoke a particularly strong refutation.

Aesthetically objective to the point of offering Nazis free air time.
Aesthetically objective to the point of offering Nazis free air time.

But because the aesthetic of objectivity is, at heart, a marketing decision, they are beholden to market logic. Attempting to consciously create what media theorists Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green termed “spreadable” media means that attempting objectivity can be set aside for the need of clicks and the revenue they generate. Donald Trump–who, if nothing else, is an extraordinary showman–thus became a free pass for quick media commoditization. His tweets are full of typos and unprofessional behavior, which stimulate immense numbers of shares, comments, and likes that simply are not present for substantive analysis of his policies where they exist. His tweets about Hamilton or Meryl Streep often compete successfully for coverage of policy or political actions happening at the same time. Even where attention is successfully kept on a certain specific political concern–for example, Republican efforts to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics–a tweet by Trump receives the credit for what activists organized and people implemented: a massive phone campaign to demand the GOP back down.

If only a couple of journalists came to this conclusion, I would be inclined to view it as accidental; as it is, CNN, The Washington Post, Politico, Bloomberg, Business Insider, NBC, and the New York Times all ran similar coverage on the connection between Trump’s tweet and the GOP retreat. Instead, it seems more likely that coverage that can incorporate Trump’s Twitter presence can rely on more clicks, shares and comments. By safely critiquing the “unprofessional elements” of Trump, this type of coverage can offer some semblance of being against Trump, without offering concrete political responses. The spectacle thus displaces the politics.

While journalism is typically portrayed as always holding power accountable, this is actually a relatively novel perspective on print media. Jurgen Habermas pointed to the rise of periodicals in the seventeenth century primarily as a vehicle for the aristocracy and more affluent merchants and professionals to communicate. The production of the first “public” sphere was not a radical sense of inclusivity, but a development that allowed the literate populations to exploit political and economic changes to their own benefits (Even today in the United Kingdom, some of their most affluent private schools are considered “public” under this definition.) A truly “free” media—the world of pamphlets and printed visuals—often clashed directly with what the prince or religious official of any particular region allowed in circulation. As a result, official or formal vehicles of communication could often–and sometimes were treated by historians–hide as objective analysis of their places and times, despite needing formal approval for circulation.

Politicizing the circulation of fake news has allowed the mainstream media to similarly refute any periodicals or journals that are not household names. So The Washington Post’s investigation of Russia spreading fake news could happily incorporate a source whose method for finding pro-Russian sites was vague to the point that even the Washington Post could be found guilty. In practice, such a definition enabled the grouping of labor and ethnonationalist parties, as though both operated for the purpose of advancing Putin. Despite the shoddy work and the Post’s own retractions atop the page, the article currently sits on 10k shares through Facebook, and certainly has held influence over the DNC’s priorities.

In a year of solid rejection of establishment politics, we might also ask whether the aesthetic of objectivity has been kicked to the curb by consumers of media. From this framework, one immediate conclusion is that people who consume media in their “echo chambers,” on Twitter or Facebook do so intentionally, rather than accidentally. In fact, sources that profess political allegiance often emphasize some rejection of this mainstream aesthetic, whether it is justified in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of liberal bias purported by the Right, or rising class solidarity and social organization found on the Left. Given the realization that many political pundits continue to spread their own media despite eighteen months of being wrong about Trump, it may be time to re-evaluate not only how we consume media, but how the mainstream produces it.

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion 

Spoiler alert: No, no he does not.

My writing this was inspired prior to last week’s result by an article from May of this year, which proclaimed 2016 as the first “internet election.” The author, Andrew Keen, was less concerned with rigorously defining what an “internet election” might entail, and more interested in throwing a variety of questions at 2016 in order to rip it away from the course of standard electoral discourse. The barely-implicit question, of course, was to explain away what seemed––at the time and until last week––the outlier that was Donald J. Trump.

Each question Keen threw at 2016 was less convincing than the one that came before. An “internet election” could not be one predicated on the virality of small moments taken out of context, because that is what halted Howard Dean in 2004. An “internet election” could not be one in which truth was coincidental to politics, because as Nathan Jurgenson aptly reminded us, that described most of Bush’s major policy decisions.

If an “internet election” means we’re post-ideology, Trump is a strange figure to examine how post-ideology functions. He has, generally speaking, espoused a narrative of self-improvement through freedom, using differences in identity as a scapegoat for severe economic depression, and emphasized the need for law and order to protect hard-working Americans. These are all fundamental tenets of a Right-nationalist ideology, one energized by populist support.

I was initially fascinated with the way that each of these questions accepted––and helped produce––a Transcendental Trump. Trump was constructed as extraordinary and unprecedented, which therefore amounted to unexplainable. In order to account for it, we had to look at what else happened to be distinct about this election: enter discussions about social media ruining the election. Throughout Trump, we’ve had fun pathologizing him.

Trump winning the election, however, has changed that narrative. Instead of a one-time anomaly, liberal pundits are learning a vocabulary that presents Trump as the apex of horrors outside of our liberal bubble. Paul Krugman epitomizes this narrative shift to a T:

“What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous.

We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.

We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.

It turns out that we were wrong. There turn out to be a huge number of people––white people, living mainly in rural areas––who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.”

I pick on Krugman, but Nate Silver also normalizes this outcome by explaining what happened fell in the realm of possibility according to his polls. Jonathan Chait was only joking about leaving for Canada: we will overcome Trump through a sheer determinism of individual will and liberal monopolization on facts. They lead to similar conclusions: the stupid, racist, ignorant, people were more powerful than most of us imagined, and they need to be kept underfoot, (perhaps by eliminating the electoral college or contacting faithless electors?) This is precisely the wrong type of normalization.

A more realistic approach might start with the premise “People are voting for Trump for particular reasons.” From such a premise we get into cohesive discussions about where Clinton lost ground, people who voted for Obama, then voted for Trump, the successful rise of voter restrictions in states like Wisconsin, and the surge of suicide rates since 1999 for all but two groups, a surge that includes a rate twice as high for people 10-24 in rural regions than their peers in cities. This is not a question about invoking empathy for the white working class, as though there were one group of ideologies, histories, and practices that constituted “the white working class,” a point that pundits would also do well to remember with “African Americans” “Women” and “Latinos.” It simply opens a facet of Trump’s victory that we must confront at some point or another: he won, in part, because he produced a particular vision of affinity politics. You’re hurting, Trump said, I will help fix that.

My initial conclusion was that the “internet election” embodied our need to rip Trump from our present moment, and freeze him in time as a barbaric inversion brought on by some people who refused to “get woke.” History was only helpful insofar as it described Trump as backwards, irrational, and emblematic of some social order from the pre-Civil Rights Era. Political pundits expanded on this vision, and ran away with mythologies of Trump free from any constraints of history. And I imagined that this would dovetail neatly into the dominance of quantitative methods to free ourselves from rigorous studies of the past.

My new conclusion is that if “internet election” is a term, it refers not so much to the loss of facts or ideologies but that information now flows with a particular force and volume to which we have yet to fully adjust, in a manner similar to the Catholic Church struggling against the printing press. Jurgenson has recently pointed to the commoditization of this amplification as factiness, and it operates on both sides of the aisle. Liberals are capable of weaving entire fantasies through the media we share, whereas “fake” news articles on the Right receive consistent and constant dissemination.   

While depressing, these threads of communication also have amazing potential for organization and protest. The successful marshalling of xenophobia and misogyny by the Right is a global phenomenon; tools like Bridge currently respond to it by pushing through language boundaries. Memes can play right into the machine as Crystal so carefully traced here yesterday; they can also bring into discourse groups of people who are illiterate, or otherwise struggle with textuality. From a national perspective, both Jacobin Magazine and the Democratic Socialists of America have reported surges in memberships and subscriptions. The protests against Trump have shown that no matter how large his shadow becomes, we are capable of finding new sources of light. And if Derek Black, the son of David Duke and socialized from birth to be the new face of the white nationalist movement, could turn his back on family, friends, and the world in which he was raised, I feel cautiously optimistic about our capabilities to bring a Transcendent Trump back to Earth.

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.


In 2014, a stalwart of the WarCraft III community passed away. SySShark, by any account, was the heart of a top American community forum called WCReplays.com, which dedicated itself to the coverage and community of the WarCraft III international scene . The game lost steam after the release of StarCraft II; the forums now are smaller than they once were. But the servers and forums are still robust with activity from people across the world. Even people who had not posted in years came back to this thread in order to offer their memories and regret for his passing. 

I was one of those players. From 2003 to 2009 the forums for WarCraft had been a significant portion of my social time. At the time, my mom worried that I was developing an addiction to video games. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it back then, but it was really the people–some of which I still see on Facebook–that drew me back. After all, it is extraordinarily addictive when you find people with whom you like spending time.

It was these communal experiences on games–Runescape, and Gunbound before WarCraft–that deeply influenced my own personal growth and formation as a social being. Mediating myself online since has always felt more intimate and full than it does offline. And to that extent, I became immeasurably curious about communities that had existed far beyond the purview of American culture.

And yet, it was examining the material limits game worlds that drove some of the first works on online communities. Synthetic Worlds was recognized as an immediate classic of the emergent Game Studies field upon its publication in 2004. Castronova refused to separate the online and offline economies; he instead elided them by emphasizing the economic productivity of the labor both sides produced. This emphasis was likely a result of his own position as a serious economist, interested in the “hard economic, political, and security-related questions that synthetic worlds bring up.” Castronova was bound by his relationship to games–a leisurely indulgence of his youth–and the commitment that games had only become topics of interest when he realized that currency was being exchanged; he translated the significance of this exchange by emphasizing that if Norrath–a region on the EverQuest server–was a country, its Gross National Produced would have been on par with Bulgaria and four times higher than that of China.  

Legitimizing the study of the web was necessary for groups of academics who, in 2004, had no personal reason to care about it. This was partially generational; Castronova came to study synthetic worlds because he had experienced the Golden Age of Arcade Games. The generation of students now likely grew up with their own friends on forums, games, and fanfiction sites. For many of us, the force of the question needs no legitimation; it simply exists. However, the generational shift is less significant than the ways that we have been taught to think and write about communities, a category that has come to encompass everything from nations to families.

The need to legitimize the field via studies of economic productivity, however, has limited its potential to theorizing about such communities in a typical fashion. Castronova, for example, was content to render a theory about government as transcendent to the contingencies of politics or history. While the rejection of democracy on MMORPGs might give certain theorists pause, Castronova powers through to explain that, actually, the anarchy of EverQuest is akin to the writing of English political theorist Thomas Hobbes. When PvP modes were introduced on MMORPGs, they brought out sadistic behaviors of slaughter and massacre wherever players could get away with it. Because this happened to coincide with a lack of government, Castronova was comfortable aligning correlation with causation in the case of this synthetic world.

The move towards Hobbes and democracy as the immediate categories of analysis is familiar. When Europeans began writing history from primary sources, they naturalized their own behaviors, their societies, their ideologies, and wrote about other forms of life as alien or backwards by comparison. It was this project of naturalization that historian Dipesh Chakrabarty called “political modernity,” in his book Provincializing Europe. Political modernity is the type of thinking that assume concepts like “citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, democracy, scientific rationality” and so forth are marks of enlightened and liberal states. In the context of his work, Chakrabarty addressed his theory to historians who were educated in this intellectual tradition, and studied non-European regions. Hence, to provincialize Europe was to ask why and how political modernity was being applied to regions whose history was entirely distinct from the European tradition. Not only was Chakrabarty’s book geared towards the Eurocentric nature of intellectual production, it also was a critique of any writer who aimed to naturalize specific political developments of the Enlightenment. Thus, people who study the Middle Ages have sympathized with the book.

It’s seemed to me for some time now that if we cannot assume the value of such analytical categories is intrinsic to communities in the medieval past or the non-European present, we also cannot assume their value in the synthetic future. A digital community like the group of people who gathered to watch and partake in the Twitch Plays Pokémon series, for example, were only bound by their relationship to the Pokémon universe. They came from a range of national traditions, they spoke a number of languages, they had a disparate set of goals, and more than likely an array of beliefs and ideologies. Attempting an analysis of this group that seeks to make a cohesive homogenous entity on the basis of “modernity” would only confuse tendencies of this group with some kind of determinist narrative.

These determinist narratives almost always make some use of political modernity. The main thesis of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone declared a decline in civic participation. This decline was rooted in the lessening of social leisure time, which Putnam attributed to technologies that made isolation preferable. Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation similarly argues that the act of conversation has been diluted by the introduction of digital devices, which suppress empathy in order to function. Neither author asks a historical question about social capital or empathy, which could provide insight as to whether technological advances were incidental to the narratives they weave, or causal.

Legitimizing technology became dependent on showing that it was part of engaging other people, whether for empathy or social capital. In danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, we receive a narrative of the web’s normalization, and its pragmatic role in either enforcing racial and gendered structures that existed beforehand, or else offering a social space for teenagers in particular to cultivate connection at a time when regimented schedules offer fewer and fewer outlets. Similarly, Whitney Phillips closed her ethnography of trolls by suggesting that the web functions primarily as a mirror; that the distortions and corruptions we view in digital social relations are best addressed through asking questions about the world that enables them to operate.

These scholars had to defend their studies of the web as a relational project; one where the web derives its significance primarily from the social relations that preceded it. However, one way of producing a new theory of society is to ask what social relations exist that are primarily made possible by the web itself. In other words, what does an archive of anonymous online chats look like? How does the exchange on internet forums or Twitter differ from the varying Republics of Letters that existed in the past? What do deeply intimate friendships look like when the individuals who DM each other after a chance occurrence on Weird Facebook? Where do international boundaries come into play? How does the web connect the least suspecting of individuals (à la ISIS and the Lonely American)?

This is a difficult set of parameters to navigate, particularly because I suspect many of these questions are older than most people imagine. But they also represent an opportunity to forge new modes of analysis that privilege the ways that communities are produced not only by the global cosmopolitan elites, but also the majority of people who constitute web users at this point in time. Not only will it be possible, but it will be essential given the porous nature of the web.  

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.


Pepe, oh Pepe; who knew a frog could be so hateful? The Anti-Defamation League has had enough, and a brief stroll through alt-right Twitter appears to confirm their anxieties: Pepes at the camps, Pepes smugly smiling at the World Trade Center burning, Pepes watching as people fall from helicopters.

This is hardly the full Pepe experience. Both the ADL and the comic’s creator agreed that the majority of Pepes out there are entirely harmless. Where they differ is in interpretations of Pepe as alt-right white nationalist icon. The ADL’s designation implies a very static interpretation of Pepe, one that implies an immediate connection between certain corridors of the web and Anti-Semitism. These corridors of the web-Reddit and 4chan among them-gain an exclusive monopoly on societal production of discrimination. 

Human societies are generally anxious about change. In the case of technology, this anxiety expresses itself by reifying “the digital” as an experience: it transforms everything. Whether people embrace “the digital” as beneficial to the point of calling it a “New Enlightenment,” or lament it as detrimental to society, there is little space to describe digital media as simply a new layer in the construction of society.

This homogenization of “the digital” as one broad-sweep transformation of everything is brought to an analytical limit when we think about the individual people and events that constitute everything. In Network Aesthetics Patrick Jagoda suggests that a fundamental flaw in the way we describe networks of everything–like the internet–is our assumption that such networks’ normative states imply stability. Such normative states are more fantasy than reality; while many individual people approach and mold a network with a determined stability in mind, it is inevitable that such a network is also contingent on how the desires of those individual people clash and evolve.

Networks of memes never reach a moment of stability; they don’t prefer a mode of stability. The dissemination of memes through different forums, sites, and blogs make stability nearly impossible. A meme on 4chan means something fundamentally different than the same meme on 9gag. Each circulation brings new layers to the meme; by the time it reaches the “mainstream” of digital society (aka, Facebook), the meme is dead. When the ADL admits that the vast majority of Pepe-usage is not driven by anti-Semitism, it recognized the best its logic could do was indicate a point of no return, where a vocal minority could seize the meme from its production, wherever that production occurred. 

While the particulars of the alt-right and Pepe are specific to the twenty-first century, the issue in which the ADL specializes–anti-Semitism–has a longer story. For centuries, the whole body of knowledge production itself was perceived as a very Jewish phenomenon: Christians focused on the spiritual, Jews on the material. The exchanges of commerce, science, and law were all focused on the success of our own earthly kingdoms. Even now, the threads of anti-Semitism that lump “science,” “economy,” and “Jewish” are from a long tradition of association.

These ideas were robust elements of Christian thought with the production of a new technology: the printing press. The engine of the Protestant Reformation was the press shop, protected by a prince or court whose politics defied the papacy. In historian Elisabeth Eisenstein’s account, the printing press was what gave the Reformation its political and populist power. The widespread dissemination of pamphlets, books, and leaflets in vernacular languages turned previously elitist debates into a popular revolution. 

Part of the Reformation and its theological challenges incorporated threads of anti-Jewish thought. One such wildly popular pamphlet was Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies (sidenote: it’s available as a pdf with a complaint against the “political correctness” of contextualization.) After a long career of attempting––and subsequently failing––to convert the Jews with his approach to Christianity, Martin Luther wrote about their poisonous corruption, their unending filth, their fascination with the physical flesh in rejection of the faith. His last section offers solutions that advocate deprivation of property, burning of their houses, and wholesale murder of their communities. 

Why does any of this matter? When we imagine print, we don’t associate it with the dissemination and accessibility of anti-Semitism, despite its very real presence. Instead, we think about print’s propensity to fight falsehood. We think about the Enlightenment discourse and ideals of statehood. We think of when Belle sees the Beast’s library for the first time. These associations of print with Good Things feel natural, but they were only produced through the struggles, arguments, and experiences that came with the maturation of text as a medium.

Memes have yet to receive this type of consideration. The ADL’s actions embody a typical experience with “the meme economy.” Instead of working to understand the value and significance of memes as a cultural medium, it is easier to write them off as obscure and odd expressions of a select few people; and if those select few people can be written off as alt-right white nationalists, all the better. NPR concurs: “Life is short, much of internet communication is more Dada-esque than denotative, and mastering dank memes has an effort-to-payoff ratio that really, truly is not worth it.”

It remains unclear whether dank memes are more Dada-esque than putting a ball into a hole in the ground, gushing over some words written and performed by a guy eight times a week, or making pretty buildings to store books in order to assuage the feelings of a guilty capitalist. The web’s position as a significant political, economic, and social sphere has created an expansion of culture that reflects those spheres. In order not to reduce cultural practices to the absurdity they appear as to outsiders, anthropologist Clifford Geertz expanded on a method he called “thick descriptions” of practices in the context of their societies.

Memes are the epitome of culturally thick objects. They reflect human conscious effort and action that often cannot be understood without knowing the conversation from which they are taken. In her podcast Pushing Hoops with Sticks, Ayesha Siddiqi describes “Memes as a language for quickly identifying social commentary… it can very quickly identify or call out a specific type of character or cliche, which would have taken books to do before.” And much like any language, translating them without the salience of context is a pointless endeavor.

A case about the meaning of a meme is found with China. An Xiao Mina has written about the ways a mythical alpaca-looking animal–the mud grass horse–existed in strictly political terms as a meme. While the Great Firewall moderates and suppresses anti-government speech online quite effectively, these images of the mud grass horse got through for their seeming irrelevance. Mina points out that the Chinese name for the mud grass horse, when intoned in a slightly different manner, sounds like “Fuck your mother.” From this, many activists, organizers, and other political groups used the mud grass horse to circulate a variety of subversive messages about the Chinese government through the Firewall.

Of course, it is important to evaluate a meme’s potency for hate-speech, but this potency is not found in the macro of a frog face. Pepe has a rich history that has gloriously come to the surface as a result of his new infamy. The ADL’s decision only ignores the very contextualization they advocate.

The strategy to align Pepe with anti-Semitism–rather than ideologies and people who constitute anti-Semitism–is analogous to the strategy that concerned English professor Whitney Phillips in her work on trolls. Instead of rejecting trolls as communities pushing “edginess” and hatred “for the lulz,” Phillips argued that communities like 4chan are mirrors; the elimination of behaviors we loathe in trolls cannot be separated from the elimination of the racism, sexism, and classism that are inherent in the structure of our society. That we should be take Pepe as the icon for societal problems is indicative of our inability to distinguish symbols from human intent. Feels bad, man.

Many thanks to Britney Summit-Gil for her review and thoughts on an earlier draft.


Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion