Rear Left


Posted in DigiCult, Dog Food, Media & Movements, Personal/Meta by rearleft on January 15, 2012

My very first academic journal article has been published. Yeah!

The paper was first written as an in-class assignment for a class in my Master’s called Digital Research & Publishing, led by Dr Morgan Richards. I presented some similar ideas at the Making Links conference in Perth, November of 2011. I’ve excerpted parts of it in these pages before.

This was one of the first pieces of writing I did after coming back to study. I don’t think it’s earth-shattering stuff by any means, but for me it helps frame some of the basic questions on the role of new media in social movements that I plan on exploring in much greater depth in the coming years.

It was also very cool to originally write this for a course on academic publishing in digital culture and then actually taken what I’d written there through a real peer review process and see it published on an open access journal.

DigiPopEd: Popular Education and Digital Culture (link)

OReillyRowe_DigiPopEd_JoCI (pdf)

A Wicked Web We Weave

Posted in DigiCult, Dog Food by rearleft on August 30, 2010

creative commons attribution: dullhunk. source:

In the discourse around the development of network technologies there seems to be a constant barrage of “next big things”. Tired of all this talk of Web 2.0? Well Web 3.0 is on its way! Do I hear 4.0? 5.0? Sold!

It can be difficult to pull meaning from the seemingly endless stream of terms and concepts presenting the possibility of technological breakthroughs that will radically reframe our use and understanding of networked information and communication technologies. One such idea that is often discussed as the NEXT BIG THING is the Semantic Web. In my initial understanding of the term I had taken it to be an abstract conception of internet based technologies and practices that would be somehow more embedded in the material world and would provide for a greater degree of data integration and interchange than is currently the case. As a result of participating in discussions at THATCamp, and event held at the University of Canberra this past weekend, I now have a much more concrete idea of the contours of what is meant by The Semantic Web, and some key reservations about the possibilities for it to truly represent a new ICT paradigm.

THATCamp (THAT=The Humanities And Technology) Canberra was the latest of a series of events around the world in which archivists, academics, technologists, and others with a connection to the use of technologies in the humanities, come together to discuss and work through emerging ideas in a spirit of collegiality and mutual support. By far the most intellectually challenging session I attended was a discussion on the development of semantic web tools and practices in Australian cultural, academic, and governmental institutions.

What I took away from the discussion was a sense that some incredibly intelligent people are working on a number of fronts to take the way in which data on the web is presented and accessed to a new level of utility by developing protocols around the encoding of information on the world wide web. In short facilitating the ability for humans and machines to pull meaning (ie semantics) from the massive volumes of data online. Essential to this project are technologies and protocols that facilitate the interchange of machine-readable information classification systems, forms of metadata that enrich data by describing it in an agreed upon schema. For example, the Resource Description Framework (RDF) is a framework built around a structure of linguistic triples, that is, a coded set of values around any statement to correspond to a subject-predicate-object. For example, the statement “Dan is wearing shoes” could be represented in RDF through the triplet Dan (subject) – is wearing (predicate) – shoes (object). By making these values present at the level of markup language (such as XML) in a webpage, this level of richness in the data would become made machine-readable, thereby supporting a more efficient process of interchange, and by extension, knowledge production.

In listening to the archivists and academics from some of this country’s core cultural institutions (eg the National Archives, the State Libraries, major museums, galleries, and universities), I was struck that the biggest hurdle that this project faces is not in the development of technologies, practices, and standards that would ensure the interchange of such data, although that in itself is a mind-boggling task, but in the development of shared or overlapping ontologies, that is, schema for the classification of EVERYTHING.

Given cultural and linguistic specificity and difference in meanings, how can can machine readable interchange be facilitated? Who will have the authority to develop ontological schema? What happens to those aspects of meaning that are not readily machine readable in relation to those that are readily interchanged?

This is difficult technical and philosophical ground to say the least, and working through the possibilities and pitfalls of the next stages of the development of humanity’s relationship to ICT will require long and broad collaborations. My description above is a gross simplification of the structure and functioning of the Semantic Web and is not intended to encompass its entire scope, rather to serve as an introduction from the perspective of someone who is themselves grappling with the importance of bridging the worlds of the informational-technological and the philosophical-political.

A few resources to begin engaging with the Semantic Web:

Lewis, J., Semantic Building: Starting a Revolution – Blog – Semantic Focus – The Semantic Web, Semantic Web technology and computational semantics. Available at: [Accessed September 1, 2010].

Tim Berners-Lee on the next Web | Video on Available at: [Accessed September 1, 2010].

A resource that is much more advanced, but recent:

Aroyo, L., 2009. The Semantic Web: Research and Applications 6th European Semantic Web Conference, ESWC 2009 Heraklion, Crete, Greece, May 31́¿¿ June 4, 2009 Proceedings, New York: Springer.

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M066 G33k

Posted in DigiCult, Dog Food by rearleft on August 27, 2010

Across this past weekend I was one of about 100 people related in some way or another to this Frankenstein’s monster known as the Digital Humanities to take part in THATcamp Canberra. One of an international series of loosely affiliated events that are self-organised by groups of theorists and practitioners working in The Humanities And Technology (ie THAT), the gatherings are billed as “unconferences“, informal spaces for the exchange of knowledge and the development of relationships between people working on connected but diverse projects. THATCamp is built around a number of key principles that can be sumarised into three key points (paraphrasing Tom Sheinfeldt):

  1. THATCamp is FUN – everyone attends to participate in something that will hopefully enable them to do their work better, but the sessions should be enjoyable, stimulating, exciting, intellectually liberating.
  2. THATCamp is PRODUCTIVE – participants are encouraged to think about what sort of outcomes they’d like to see come out of each session and the program as a whole.
  3. THATCamp is COLLEGIAL – unlike many academic conferences, this is not about grandstanding, competitive, careerist intellectual work. This is about developing supportive, collaborative professional relationships that help to advance an emerging set of disciplines.

As a Master’s level student, I came at the event with a great deal of trepidation. I was fully aware that I was entering a space full of people who’ve been working on these ideas with great focus, rigour, discipline (and in many cases institutional support) for a whole lot longer than I have been. I tried to enter this space with humility and an open yet critical outlook. I was relieved to find that the promise of a challenging yet welcoming space was actually delivered, even for a relative novice like me.

The event ran over a day and a half, and in that time I attended sessions covering a range of topics: the semantic web, data visualisation, API data mashups, research tool zeitgeist, collaborative play-based learning, digital objects and texts. Some of these sessions were broad ranging discussions with no concrete objective or outcome, others were designed to address a particular problem that one ‘camper was bringing to the group, and some fell into the BOOTCamp program of practical trainings and surveys of a the digital humanist’s tools.

As I have said already above, my experience of THATCamp CBR was overall very positive, and I left the weekend with an invigorating sense of possibilities for my future studies and for the important and exciting course that this young field is charting. In the name of constructive critique, here are some reflections that I have on the content and process of THATCamp CBR.

Warm (stuff I liked, thought went well)

  • The sense of collaboration, collegiality was very present and very genuine throughout. In spite of being one of the least experienced, least connected people present I felt able to ask basic questions and to bring my own perspective into discussions.
  • The overall logistics of the weekend (space, wifi, transportation) went as smoothly as anyone could hope for, and this was obviously a result of very hard work done in advance by the co-ordinating team.
  • The diverse nature of the sessions (some broad discussion, some specific problem-solving, some training) felt very balanced and rewarding. The facilitators and participants generally did a good job at the tricky task of managing rooms of people with wide ranging levels of expertise in any given topic and the diverse contexts they were coming from.

Cool (stuff that I think needs attention or change)

  • The openness of the event, both on the session scheduling level and in the facilitation of each session felt too loose to me. I would have like to see some more active facilitation to ensure that everyone had equal ability to speak, rather than those people who felt most comfortable as a result of their social and professional experience with other people present, or simply the most confident people in the room, being able to direct the conversations. This was not the case in many instances, but it was only as a result of the general generosity and self-confidence of most participants that domination of spaces did not occur more.
  • I don’t think I have ever participated in a more overwhelmingly white event. I recognise that the makeup of THATCamp CBR is probably representative of the makeup of the upper levels of digital humanities/archives in universities, governmental, other institutions. This factor became particularly problematic for me in conversations around the semantic web and the creation of historical and educational tools in which we were discussing the development of ontological schema and historical narratives that are intended to serve or represent diverse (if not global) populations.

A number of THATCamps are scheduled for the coming months, beginning with Cologne, Germany in September. THATCamp Melbourne is being planned for early 2011. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in the intersections of technology and the humanities to get involved. Frequent updates can be found at and by following #THATCamp on twitter.

Cute Cats in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism (Ethan Zuckerman) goes something like this:

  1. Web 1.0 was designed for the exchange of scholarly research papers. Web 2.0 is designed for the exchange of pictures of cute kitty-cats.
  2. Repressive governments face massive backlash from broad segments of their population if attempts to control online activism impinge on access to pictures of cute kitty-cats.
  3. Therefore, platforms that facilitate the publishing and access to cute kitty-cats on the web are highly suitable sites for digital activism.

Of the many famous cats in the internet cat star system, the work of Maru is perhaps the most nuanced, disciplined, and as a result, enduring contribution. Maru’s latest video, A big box and Maru. Super Slow ver.- pushes the audience to consider the value of cute cat videos in their own right, rather than simply as a cover for more other more clandestine or didactic online art and activism.

In seeing Maru spring from the box, seemingly hang in the air if only for an instant, and land with the grace of … a cat, the viewer is presented with a powerful prompt for the contemplation of the nature of art and culture in the era of digital reproduction. The cat is in the box. A computer box, no less. And the cat is alive.

Walter Benjamin, referencing the work of master Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, pointed to the filmic-mechanical technique of slow motion as one of a number of ways in which the newly developed technology of motion pictures and the evolving conventions of cinema opened opportunities for a radically new perspective on existence. Vertov described his films as employing two distinct modes: “life as it is”, and “life caught unawares”. Maru’s latest offering is a pure slab of life caught unawares, a videographic manipulation of time and space that invites the viewer to see with new eyes the world around them. Since the video’s upload to YouTube on August 8, 2010 (one week ago at time of writing), nearly 400,000 views have been recorded, although it should be noted that many viewers (like myself) are responsible for many multiple views. The sheer magnitude of this ability for images to simultaneously reach audiences in every corner of the world suggests a need to revisit Benjamin’s work on the effect of mechanical reproduction and to consider the effects of networked digital communications on our very perception of existence.

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Posted in Media & Movements by rearleft on April 22, 2010

Here are some excerpts from an interview I did last week with Le Tim Ly from the Partnership for Immigrant Leadership and Action (PILA) in San Francisco on the development of, an online community for sharing popular education resources. The interview was conducted as research towards a journal article I’m writing on the potential use of digital publishing technologies in progressive education and organising.

Dan O’Reilly-Rowe (DOR): Part of where I’m coming at this from is from my own experience in social justice and in non-profit work in the US and seeing very limited use of digital technologies. I’m really looking in this article at Build the Wheel as an example of the adoption of new technologies in a way that is seems very appropriate to popular education. Can you talk a little bit about where it came from, the partnerships around it, and bring us up to where we are now?

Le Tim Ly (LTL): Basically the idea for Build the Wheel started probably a good 6 or 7 years ago. I was a youth organiser with an organization called YUCA (Youth United for Community Action) and part of our work regularly was coming up with popular education curriculum for the young people that we were working with, and I also had friends working in other youth organizations and other worker organizations and often we would try to tap each other and say ‘have you done a workshop about this?’ and ‘have you done something around this?’. At every conference or every gathering you’d go to it’d be like ‘oh, if only there was a way that we could figure out how to share resources with each other, that would save us so much time, and not have to do the same thing over and over again’. So that’s kind of where the idea came from. I don’t think that there was an original idea, it was something that folks had naturally brought up as a need for a long time. A few of us who had been working on this project at Liberation Ink, a volunteer-run t-shirt collective were just sitting around talking about what it would look like to build something that where we could share not just with each other, but broadly, and we could get everyone’s resources onto one place. So that’s kind of where the idea came from. We were already over-worked organizers, it was a slow-coming process and we started reaching out to different folks about the idea and kind of doing a survey, an initial assessment way before the name Build the Wheel even came into existence. Wanted to get a sense from folks what they wanted to see, what they wanted this to look like. That’s how it started and how it developed.

DOR: Those organizations, they were progressive social justice organizations? Were they explicitly organizing, education, or a mix of these things?

LTL: The folks we reached out to were progressive social justice organizations, folks that were building bases in working class communities, or supporting those folks that were building in working class communities.

DOR: So, popular education was already a methodology that was being used by these communities?

LTL: Yes.

DOR: Talk about why you think that might be. Why is that an appropriate model for the type of work being done by those groups?

LTL: I think for many reasons, from my own background and leanings popular education is about the process of getting people to engage with their realities, getting them to understand and think about and analyze their realities and then take action. I think that’s exactly what progressive organizing groups want to do, is to basically get people to become actors, agents in their world, agents of change. The popular education methodology, and principles and approach are very much in line with that. Not to be passive folks, to be soldiers, or to be thinking soldiers in an organisation in a battle, to be agents.

DOR:  Why a website? How can Build the Wheel support that type of popular education work towards movement activity?

LTL: I would say that Build the Wheel is not an end all be all. You can’t just take a tool, Build the Wheel, and necessarily do a popular education training or process, just off the bat, because popular education demands more than that. But where I think that Build the Wheel comes in is that it gives folks a running start, for folks to be able to take something that’s already been done and really adapt it to their particular needs. Often what I do as someone who’s about to do a training is to look for other resources that are out there, see what else has been done to kind of build from that. I think that what we’re able to do with a website is, if successful, to harness as much of the collective experience and knowledge as possible into a place that can be broadly shared, instead of just depending on networks that someone might have to access that information. I think that’s particularly important for areas that are less resourced, and have less support networks, to be able to tap into the work that’s from other places, or the body of work from the rest of the country, or the world at some point in time. Because you know I think we take for granted sometimes… like me, doing organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The network’s more developed, and we can take advantage. We might know people who would have access to this information, we could talk to people but still it’s not like we share all these things with each other, so it can be a tool to support that.

DOR: So much of the discourse on the use of technologies in education comes from a framework of civic engagement and talks about participatory culture in terms of civic engagement, but doesn’t necessarily have the transformative angle that I think social justice work does in the US right now, so I’m thinking about where this fits into this civic engagement discussion.

LTL: I think civic engagement is one of those potential code words. When I hear civic engagement I think of it as a way to talk about organizing work to sell to funders or a more mainstream audience, to talk about community organizing. It is civic engagement, what organizing is about. It is civic engagement, but it’s more than that. I guess it’s civic engagement to a different level. We’re talking about the process of coming together to imagine a different world, and a different way of being, and then fighting for that. I think there’s limitations to how that can be done, from what I’ve seen, in the online world. Because it’s ultimately about building relationships and crossing comfortable areas. I think that there’s a role for things like Build the Wheel, and things like online advocacy, and things like civic engagement tools, but it’s also very comfortable. So I think that’s kind of an area to figure out, because organising, if it’s being effective, it shouldn’t be too comfortable. You’re talking about bringing people together that are being pushed apart, needing to learn about each other and each other’s struggles, needing to deal with stereotypes and prejudices that we have between each other.