Interview with Sasha Costanza-Chock

Author: 
Vicki Callahan

In these first two months of 2011, we have witnessed an extraordinary sequence of events demonstrating the transformative possibilities of social media when employed in the area of social change.  While it is crucial that we not erase the specific contexts of activist engagement or the diverse organizing elements involved in particular political movements and protests, it is also clear that the tools of social media have played a vital role in an ongoing series of upheavals in Northern Africa and the Middle East.  Closer to home, I was intrigued by ongoing references to connections between events in Cairo and the labor protests in Madison, which circulated though a variety of social media from Flickr to Facebook to Twitter.  The continued linkage of these two very different political events, albeit tenuous or indeed maladroit, illustrates both the power of the new media forms as well as the global reach of the conversation around questions of democracy and social justice.

I wanted then in my NAMAC posting to take up the question of media literacy specifically within the context of activism and media education.  As I mentioned in my last entry, I am fortunate to be a visiting scholar at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy this year, where these issues are explicitly addressed.  Even more fortuitously for this particular posting, my office partner at the IML is Sasha Costanza-Chock.  Sasha is a recent Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, as well as a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a 2010 Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.  He is a community board member and active participant in VozMob (Mobile Voices / Voces Móviles) a mobile media project that supports immigrant and low wage workers in the Los Angeles area in the documentation of their own stories and communities. Sasha is also involved with the media activist networks Transmission and Indymedia (the latter he helped to organize). Next year, he will be on the faculty of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.   Sasha has been an incredibly generous colleague and wonderful resource for information – both practical and theoretical – on an array of topics related to open source materials, media activism and public policy.  I felt Sasha would provide a particularly unique perspective on questions of media literacy as he has been involved in this area as a scholar, activist, media maker, as well as media curator.

VC: In your scholarly work, what comes through clearly is that the rich assortment and constantly changing digital tools we use are not necessarily democratic. That reality is something I know I have to remind myself of often because these tools have such an incredible power to connect us, to distribute information.  But again, this liberatory element is not necessarily a given with digital technology, which then elevates the importance of media education/literacy. How would you describe your philosophy of media literacy? How do you approach? What do you see as key areas to consider? Is it access, practical use, or strategies of connections?
 
SC-C: The conversation in media literacy has largely moved from 'digital divide,' where there's a binary conceptualization of those on/offline, towards a more nuanced discussion of the multilayered barriers to digital inclusion. Most people (although not all) on earth now have *some* form of access to ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies], ranging all the way from shared and occasional (family or village) access to a mobile phone all the way to always-on broadband connectivity across multiple devices (home computer, office, netbook, mobile phone, iPad, etc). Connectivity is still vastly unequal, and the level of access is mostly determined by income (and to some degree gender, age, race/ethnicity, geography, etc). So I certainly think that issues of access are still crucial, and we need to fight for policies that will expand access at the level of connectivity.

But then beyond that, once you have access at any level, there's the question of learning how to use the new tools in interesting ways. Having time to do that, guidance from others more experienced, content that's interesting and meaningful and will motivate you to learn more, and so on.

The promise is that we move towards mass read/write digital literacies. The danger is that the spread of read/write digital literacy continues to be shaped and structured by existing inequalities and we end up with the vast majority of people mostly limited to 'read-only' digital literacy (if anything).

In the past many who were interested in critical media literacy might have been satisfied with people learning how to analyze, deconstruct, and understand power and ideology encoded in texts. So media literacy just meant critical decoding. There was the whole 'active audience' turn that (rightly) questioned the traditional left's conception of audiences as passive receivers of cultural texts. But that school of thought didn't go far enough. Now that the tools of remix and production are so much more widespread, critical media literacy has to also mean we learn how to actually cut up, remix, rework, and redistribute media texts. This was always going on (DIY film and video, zine culture, hip hop) but now that it is front and center, read/write media literacy is the way to go!

VC: That is an interesting, and sometimes scary, place for the institution of scholarship though as it would mean some very large and established intellectual divides need to go -- as in ones between arts/humanities, practical/theoretical world.  There is some great work being done in the areas of critical arts practice and digital humanities but I wouldn't say we have reached critical mass in terms of rethinking those boundaries.   Do you feel any particular ways you would like to redraw the institutional/scholarly map or any particular roadblocks?

SC-C: Great question. I think communication and media studies scholars definitely need to connect more to practice and to public life.  A number of institutions are trying to do this, for example, MIT's Center for Future Civic Media, or here at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy. The Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and a number of other Comm schools are also taking baby steps in that direction, for example there's the COMPASS internship program (Consortium of Media Policy Studies) that is supposed to place Communications Ph.D. students in Washington D.C. over the summer to work on public interest communications policy. Herbert Gans has recently published a call for the Social Sciences to transform and develop 'Applied' as well as 'Theoretical' branches and tracks for PhD students. The idea is to encourage, rather than block, the new generation of doctoral students as public intellectuals. There are excellent examples from every field of scholars whose work is grounded/rooted in community based practice but usually it happens on the margins of the institutions. So absolutely, it's a huge challenge. How do we validate and support scholarship/practice, or rather, praxis?  Some of the sciences seem to do a much better job of this, no? Maybe we can learn from them. For me, I'm increasingly interested in questions of technology design: how do we make new media technologies, software, hardware, social practices, that really respond to community needs? Participatory technology design is one way to approach this question. That's one area I'm hoping to push much further once I get to MIT.

VC: That really requires redrawing the institutional map from the humanities to social sciences, arts, and engineering, etc.  I am wondering about these various crises facing academia right now – maybe I am just so immersed in this due to the Wisconsin situation, but  – maybe there is opportunity with this to talk about the *public* role of universities and to the redraw the map as a consequence.  Although right now things are in a defensive posture mode on the academia side (save what little we still have) and then on government institutional side talking about public accountability, but that typically means don't do anything that fosters activism/democracy.   
 
SC-C:
Absolutely, we're living in dangerous times. The State is still in retreat and the right is going full swing to take out public investment in education, from elementary school all the way through the universities. I don't know what to say – the best defense is a good offense?  We have to use the spaces we have inside the educational institutions to develop critical analysis and a commitment to engagement/struggle in the next generation of young people. As scholars and activists, we also have to get organized and push for an educational system that we want and believe in. If not, what can I say, the market fundamentalists will rule unchecked, patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity will never be dismantled.  The environmental and social costs will all remain externalized, and the planet will be completely destroyed within a few more generations...
 
VC:  I know in your work you discuss “transmedia mobilization” or cross-platform media activist strategies.  Can you talk more about what that is and where we are with this as a strategy, especially in light of recent events?   

SC-C: Transmedia mobilization is a mash-up of ideas about transmedia narrative (Kinder, Jenkins, etc) and social movement theory (Calhound, McCarthy, Gamson, etc). I'm starting from social movements and saying "ok, here's a social movement formation, let's do a deep dive and talk to movement activists, networks, organizations, and look at what they are actually doing to generate and spread their narratives and ideas." I think that if you do this, it yields a lot of rich material and insight into how movements actually use and relate to media across all platforms. To me this is much more productive than constantly asking 'what impact does x media technology have on social movements?' That's where we get in the endless loop debates about the importance/irrelevance/dangers of, say, Twitter to revolutionary activity. I'm just not as interested in those debates. Movements use every kind of media that they have access to: face-to-face, print, broadcast, social media, whatever. Of course the landscape is changing and in ways that increases the opportunities for movements to make themselves heard – I'm calling this the transformation of the media opportunity structure. Social movement scholars for too long have thought of the media as something static, external to movements, a given. That's changing – not only because of social media but also because of the rise of so-called 'ethnic' media, the increased ease of accessing media from a home country for transnational migrants, the dropping costs of print production, lots of other reasons. I also think it's interesting to look at how making media helps to produce and strengthen social movement identity in those who participate.

VC: There has been some interesting crossover of activism – I think people in Wisconsin have been very explicitly inspired/empowered by Egypt and the use of social media.
 
SC-C: There's no question that social movement ideas, strategies, and tactics spread across contexts. This has always been the case. Martin Luther King, Jr. borrowed from Gandhi, the GLBTQ struggle was explicitly modeled on the Black liberation struggle, the nuclear freeze and antiwar movements drew on tactics of struggle from the Civil Rights era, and so on. Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink in Activists Beyond Borders talked about the spread of tactics across the world via Transnational Advocacy Networks that link local environmentalist struggles to each other; cultural strategies of resistance, which circulated throughout the Black Atlantic (Paul Gilroy), and so on. What's new? Images, ideas, tactics, and tools of struggle now can spread much more rapidly and more widely than ever before because of the Internet and social media, but also because of new regional and global television networks. Probably the most important medium for spreading the current wave of revolutionary struggle across the Arab world and beyond isn't social media alone: it's Al Jazeera. Of course AJ is drawing content (videos, photos, contacts to interview) systematically from social media sites. But over half of the households in Tunisia have access to (illegal) Al Jazeera broadcasts, compared to much smaller Internet penetration levels. And when the net goes down, let's not forget that a wide range of 'small media' (zines, especially) also were taken up by protesters to circulate the struggle. These all operate together, which takes us back to the transmedia mobilization idea.

VC: Yes and I found the campaign here stateside with folks demanding cable access to  AJEnglish interesting – and within days Roku added AJE to their streaming network as well as other cable providers picking them up.  I was just so struck by folks in US knowing their mainstream media outlets were not providing adequate coverage of international events.

On a related point, it would also seem transmedia mobilization engages a variety of strategies, including playful protest signs – as in those mocking Mubarak – it was so effective and translated so well over to US context.  I have noticed in the Wisconsin protests very similar tactics.  I think it is about bringing all sort of new "weapons" to bear in protest.

SC-C: I love "Game Over Mubarak."

VC:  I am seeing on Twitter connections being drawn between Tunisia, Egypt and Wisconsin, and on one level you don’t want to present things acontextually, ahistorically but at same time, one does feel something is happening.  Can you talk about the linkages a bit?
 
SC-C: We've talked about this to some degree, but one aspect of the current cycle of struggles is the massification of electronic civil disobedience. I'm mainly thinking of what's been going on with Anonymous. Anonymous started to become more politicized in taking on the Church of Scientology, but it's reached a whole new level following WikiLeaks. The last few months have been amazing to watch: thousands of mostly young people getting involved in online direct action, ECD [Electronic Civil Disobedience], shutting down the websites of Amazon, PayPal, and other corporate entities that abandoned WikiLeaks with a little pressure, and then transforming that energy into participatory processes to seek any way possible to remotely support the revolutions across North Africa. The Critical Art Ensemble wrote The Electronic Disturbance what, more than a decade ago? At the time it was largely conceptual and there were just a handful of hacker/theorists/cultural workers like Ricardo Dominguez and Stefan Wray and Carmin Karasic doing this stuff – distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks to support the Zapatistas. I was involved in a Virtual Netstrike for Vieques back in 2000, I wrote about it in a book chapter called “Mapping the Repertoire of Electronic Contention.” Then for 10 years it seemed more and more evident that this kind of practice was going to remain limited to a tiny fringe, and largely as demo/design or as cultural/artistic intervention. Suddenly, after Wikileaks, Anonymous has tens or hundreds of thousands of people participating, downloading Low Orbit Ion Cannon and DDOSing the sites of some of the largest companies in the world.
 
And even more exciting, that's only an entry point – a bridge activity, because now the activity is shifting and mutating again. When Egypt shut down the web, thousands of people were coordinating in Anonymous chat rooms to gather lists of every fax in Egypt and fax in information about how to make calls to dial-up connections, voice to Twitter accounts, and a range of other tools to help keep information flowing. It's exciting and fascinating and it's hard to know where it will go next.
 
VC:
I loved learning and borrowing from your wiki for the class Media for Social Change.   Not only for the great resources of content, but for teaching strategies.  You “crowd-sourced” the syllabus for the class, and in reviewing the process it was clearer, you have a very open and collaborative teaching style.   How do students respond to all this, because I do think it is unique style – we always hear students want more structure.

 
SC-C: Well it's always finding that balance, isn't it? Last year the syllabus for that course was more open, and during the first session I had everyone write on sticky notes topics they wanted to cover, and tools they wanted to learn, then structured the class around the most popular topics and tools. Some students complained that there wasn't enough structure, so this year that's still part of the course, but half to two thirds of the sessions were already set beforehand. If readers want to see the syllabus in its current iteration it's here: http://bit.ly/media4change2011.
 
VC: With respect to social media – I think there is an impression that students already know all about (e.g., they all use Facebook).  How would you rate student knowledge coming in?
 

SC-C: I'm always surprised at how little the supposed 'Digital Natives' know about the tools they use on a daily basis, to be honest. Near the beginning of each semester, I usually teach my students a crash course in Rip, Mix, and Burn: three ways to download videos off YouTube; how to grab audio and music that you can use to remix and cut your videos to; I show them how to use Torrents. There are always some students who do all this stuff already but the majority, it doesn't seem like it. Many of them also haven't thought much about privacy, fair use, and so on; forget about Net Neutrality and media policy. Only a few have social movement experience, as well. But this has been my experience with USC students, it will be very interesting to see what the differences are at MIT.
 
VC: What you will be teaching at MIT?
 
SC-C: I've been asked to develop an Introduction to Civic Media course. This is going to draw on a range of texts across time, platforms, and geographic locations, and from a variety of social movements. I know Henry Jenkins is teaching a Civic Media course now, so I'll look at that and draw from it. My tendency is to begin by looking at social movements and then say 'how are they using media?' rather than to start with a media type and then look for how movements use it.  I'll talk about movements, policy, digital literacies; there will be case studies, etc.
 
 In the spring, I'll probably launch some version of the Multimedia for Social Change course that I've taught for two years at USC. This is the project-based, service-learning course where students are partnered with a community based organization and have to develop some type of media based project over the course of the semester.
 
VC: Perhaps we should close by discussing the relationship between literacy issues and the work you have done in curating media, especially in the DIY context.  Since both scholarly and artistic forms are changing and given the central role of remix as well as transmedia, a new aesthetic is coming into play, one which is especially reforming/revolutionizing the documentary format.   What should the criteria be aesthetically/intellectually in this fluid domain?
 
SC-C: As read/write digital literacies become more widespread, curation becomes in some ways ever more critical. But the role of the curator is also transforming, because there are new incredibly powerful search and aggregation tools, and there are crowd-sourced forms of curation (the 'like' button, for one). I sometimes find myself, in class, acting as a kind of metacurator in the sense that I introduce my students not just to media texts that I want them to engage with, but also to collections, search tools, and social aggregation spaces. For example, I point them to the excellent curated space of the DIY Video 24/7 programs, coordinated by Mimi Ito and Steve Anderson and others; I draw their attention to the collections at Archive.org; I have them install social bookmarking tools like delicious or Zotero and share links with each other to texts that relate to the topic of our seminar. During class, I have students log in to a chat backchannel where they can pass links back and forth, and someone is usually responsible for pulling these links up on a video projector. I find it keeps them engaged and generates interesting new flows of examples between the conversation we're having face to face and their own search practices that otherwise would be private. So, converting individual information gathering practices into shared or pooled strategies of search and curation.  
 
 VC: One of archives that I love is Media Burn, and I am so interested in having my students find out about their site because I want them to understand this media work/struggle has a history.  It didn't start with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert but goes back to a rich tradition including Dada, the Situationists, and then groups like Ant Farm and Critical Art Ensemble – that aesthetic heritage, that history I think is crucial to understanding both the language (there are some great models out there) and the struggle.

 
SC-C: Totally. We have to historicize. Maybe that's one of the most important roles for a curator now – to take current cultural texts and put them in dialogue with what's come before, so that history and context don't disappear in the blur of the Next Five Minutes.

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Vicki Callahan is an Associate Professor of Art and Design in the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a visiting scholar at USC's Institute for Multimedia Literacy, where her classes have a special focus on remix and social media.  She is also the author of Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade (Wayne State UP, 2004) and the editor for the recent collection, Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History (Wayne State UP 2010). She is the author/organizer of the Feminism 3.0 website and with Lina Srivastava she co-authors the site Transmedia Activism. Her interests in silent cinema, feminist theory, and digital media intersect around questions of emergent/disruptive technologies, new modes of writing, social justice, and alternative or counter narrative forms.