Theory Beyond the Codes
Annalee Newitz leads a life your average geek dreams about. As Editor-in-Chief of the massively popular science and science fiction blog io9.com, Newitz spends her days tracking down new and exciting developments from the worlds of science and technology, while, at the same time, getting to immerse herself in the latest and greatest in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and genre fiction. io9 provides both news and commentary, with Newitz herself frequently providing insightful accounts of the political and social implications of contemporary pop culture.
Given this endpoint, her diverse professional background begins to make a strange amount of sense. She started her professional career as a Ph.D. student in the English department at UC Berkeley. While there she served as one of the founders of the seminal cultural studies journal/webzine Bad Subjects. She also published two books while at Berkeley, White Trash: Race and Class in America (Routledge, 1997) and The Bad Subjects Anthology (NYU Press, 1998). Her dissertation on ‘images of monsters, psychopaths, and capitalism in 20th Century American pop culture’, was later published under the name Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (Duke University Press, 2006). Following her Ph.D., Newitz turned to journalism, and began writing “Techsploitation” a syndicated column “about the ways that media mutates and reiterates the problems of everyday life”, as well as freelance articles for publications such as Wired, Popular Science, New Scientist, The Washington Post and New York Magazine. In 2007 she co-edited the anthology She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology and Other Nerdy Stuff (Seal Press, 2007), a volume which engaged with one of Newitz’s main focuses, the representation of women in science and technology. She also served as a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
CTheory interviewed Newitz about her work as a blogger and writer, about the relationship between science and the humanities, about the relationship between ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ culture, and about what makes the future so interesting.
Science and Culture
CTHEORY: Your background is as an academic working in the humanities. You have an English Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, where you launched the seminal cultural studies journal and webzine Bad Subjects. You have written books of cultural criticism focusing on issues of race, class, gender and sexuality in popular culture. At the same time, however, you have spent a lot of time as a science writer, penning articles on new digital technologies and advances in genetics for publications such as Wired. What brought you to science writing? How do you relate that to your background in the humanities?
Annalee Newitz: Even when I was working in the humanities, I always wanted to take an interdisciplinary approach to the material I was studying. My doctoral research explored ways that mass media responded to — and shaped — the political/economic culture of twentieth-century America. A lot of the mass media I researched was about science and technology. I’m fascinated by stories about science, as well as science and engineering in practice. I guess you could say that I moved from an academic career writing about representations of science in mass media, to a career in mass media creating representations of it.
One thing I’ve always strongly regretted about my education — getting a Ph.D. in a humanities discipline — was how little exposure I got to scientific thought. I felt like people in the humanities were making a lot of claims about problems with scientific reasoning and empiricism without actually understanding how useful those tools could be. And so as soon as I escaped from academia, I basically immersed myself in science — especially, in the late 1990s, in computer science and technology. I became interested in biology a little later on.
When I was working on Bad Subjects as a graduate student and adjunct professor, I really thought that good cultural criticism could change the world. Now I know that good cultural criticism is nothing without good science to go along with it. It’s foolish to imagine culture and science are a binary, if you’re trying to be a thoughtful person and contribute usefully to public conversations about where we’re headed as a civilization.
CTHEORY: It does seem like there’s always a division between those working in the humanities and those working in the sciences that goes beyond just matters of focus and specialization. It frequently feels like there’s a mutual suspicion between the two camps. What is it you think that makes humanities scholars so leery of the sciences? And what about the opposite direction? Do you feel like there’s a tendency amongst the scientific community to view the work that the humanities scholars are engaged in as frivolous, or inadequately rigorous? What do you think could be done (either inside the academy, or outside of it) to encourage productive exchange between these two worlds? Do you see signs that this might be changing?
AN: I do think there’s a lot of mistrust between the humanities and the sciences. The stereotype (which holds true sometimes) is that scientists think humanities types are frivolous and stupid; and humanities types think scientists are destructive and naive. But I think most people on both sides are more indifferent to the other than hostile.
Some of the social sciences do manage to bridge the gap, especially when you consider how certain fields fit together — you can easily conceive of collaborations between fields like linguistics and computer programming, or between psychology, neuroscience and robotics. But even when there are collaborations, one area tends to be emphasized over the other. At MIT, for example, I saw a lot of incredible collaborations between humanities/social science and the sciences, but ultimately science was everybody’s focus. In other schools where interdisciplinary work is encouraged, like say UC Santa Cruz, it feels like social sciences are the focus. I’m not saying this is bad necessarily — I think it’s terrific that MIT and UCSC foment interdisciplinary work. My point is just that we still live with a long history of distrust between the fields that comes out even in good circumstances.
I do think this is changing. More people want to do interdisciplinary work, and there are little pockets where radical science/humanities collaboration is happening. A project I wrote about recently, Synthetic Aesthetics (http://io9.com/5500485/want-to-redesign-nature-now-you-can/gallery/), brings together biologists and artists/designers to do synthetic biology projects. Both sides have equal input. The idea is that biotech has entered a phase where we are designing life, and scientists need input from people who understand culture and aesthetics. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is crazy awesome.
CTHEORY: Pointing to another apparent split in your work, you’ve also served as editor-in-chief of the science fiction and futurism blog io9.com since its launch. How do you reconcile this kind of short-form, popular writing with your more academic writing? Do you ever find yourself wanting to suddenly insert a discussion of, say, Georg Lukacs, or reification, into a review of the new Predator movie?
AN: I often feel like my work at io9 is sort of the “Evil Dead II” version of my academic work — you know, same basic plot but with better effects and a tighter script. I’m not sure if Predators, the new Predator flick, requires a Lukacsian reading — it’s just straight-up Albert Memmi colonizer and colonized stuff. Seriously, though, I have actually written about Lukacs on io9, as well as contemporary academic critics I admire, like Fredric Jameson, Kaja Silverman and Constance Penley. A lot of academics and para-academics read io9 — in the sciences as well as social sciences and humanities — and I love that. I encourage it!
I think academics in the humanities like to pretend their critical work is really different from pop criticism and writing. There are a lot of reasons for this, and none of them are particularly persuasive unless you’re an elitist. It always saddens me when I hear somebody has gotten denied tenure because they’ve published work in the popular press instead of tiny academic journals. I love tiny academic journals — don’t get me wrong. But they shouldn’t be treated as the only game in town. In the sciences, almost everybody works in industry at some point. There is no great “split” between doing computer science at Google vs. doing it at Stanford. You might do one, then the other, then go back again. In the humanities, not so much.
CTHEORY: I feel like there are two great ironies in this academic disdain for pop writing. First of all, it seems like the policing of the boundaries between popular writing and proper, ‘academic’ writing is intensifying at the very moment that opportunities for academics to engage in public discourse through new media platforms are radically increasing. Secondly, it feels like it’s those disciplines which have been most willing to take pop culture seriously (and are most critical of naturalized borders and boundaries), that are most insistent on maintaining the distinction between the two spheres.
AN: That’s really interesting. The idea that academics can’t be public intellectuals is a peculiarly American one — in the UK and Europe — which happen to be two places I’ve observed myself — there doesn’t seem to be the same prejudice. Of course their tenure systems are quite different too.
I like the idea that new media is allowing American academics to become public intellectuals — I hope we see more professors like Constance Penley and Henry Jenkins, who participate in the same culture they analyze. But I’d also like to see more citizen academics. People like industrial historian Megan Shaw Prelinger or the cast of Mythbusters — smart, educated people doing research and teaching, but in popular venues rather than formal classrooms. Honestly the Mythbusters crew probably does more to demystify and rationally explain physical processes in the world than many science teachers do.
My point is that we need to redefine “scholarship.” Learning and teaching shouldn’t have to take place in a reified part of your consciousness, ala Lukacs, or in a university enclave.
CTHEORY: I really appreciated your comments about Mythbusters. My first thought was “We need a humanities version of Mythbusters“. (Actually that’s not quite true. My first thought was “How can I become the humanities version of ‘Mythbusters?”) But, following along from your comments, I think you’re right, there’s probably quite a few people who are already starting to fill that role (or rather carry on that tradition). I’m thinking here of things like “The Pinocchio Theory” Steven Shaviro’s blog (http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/) of the political theory group blog “The Contemporary Condition” (http://contemporarycondition.blogspot.com/).
However, I want to return to your point about the elitism of academia, because I think you’re absolutely right that is a major element. But I wonder if this isn’t also a result of the increasing ‘professionalization’ of higher education, through the rationalization and bureaucratization of things like tenure reviews and grant applications. I’m reminded of Adorno (someone who had his own issues with elitism), when he said that “the occupation with things of the mind has by now itself become ‘practical,’ a business with strict divisions of labour, departments and restricted entry” and that those who challenge these divisions are viewed as “not a ‘professional'” and are “ranked in the competitive hierarchy as a dilettante no matter how well he knows his subject.” [Minima Moralia, p. 21] (This would also seem to have something to say to the question above about the divisions between science and the humanities). How do you think this contributes to maintaining these distinctions?
AN: Let me get back to your point about certain disciplines frantically setting up boundaries between acceptable and non-acceptable writing. I see two things going on. One is the age-old high culture/low culture distinction that Frankfurt School types are seemingly obsessed with. I think some academics in the humanities really buy into that distinction, and feel quite honestly that pop culture is a degraded form of art whose entire purpose is to brainwash the masses into complacency. Fair enough. I disagree, but whatever.
The other issue, I suspect, is a much more pragmatic desire to preserve jobs. So many humanities departments are being hit by furloughs and budget cuts and shrinkage. Unlike scientists, humanities scholars have few opportunities to sustain themselves and their students with big grants. So there’s a circling the wagons mentality. A withdrawing into purely academic writing. The frustrating part is that this means academics are missing out on a chance to share their work with a broad audience. And they’re also missing a chance to create more financial security for themselves by doing a little work in the culture industry.
CTHEORY: Do you see anything that gives you hope that these distinctions might be loosening (As you said, io9 has a large academic audience)? What do you think is the benefit when there’s this intermixing of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ discourses?
AN: Intermixing creates hybrid vigor! I think it’s obvious that innovation and progress tend to flourish in environments where people can move freely between different worlds. I try to encourage friendly border crossings as much as possible.
CTHEORY: I’d like to shift the focus specifically to your work as editor-in-chief of io9.com, and talk a little bit about working in blogging. I want to know what you see as some of the benefits, and some of the potential pitfalls of the blog format. Back in October, Gawker Media head Nick Denton sent out a memo entitled ‘We’re not running a newspaper’ where he expressed his concern over “[a] few cases recently where we’ve thought *way* too much before publishing.” and stated that “[a]t some media organizations you might get rapped for running a premature story. At Gawker Media, you’ll lose way more points for being scooped on a story you had in your hands.” Does this emphasis on speed, on increasing the sheer volume of information, concern you, or is this perhaps part of what makes this form of media so vital? Maybe in a more general sense, what do you think are the implications for a culture that is increasingly organized on the fast-paced, possibly ephemeral nature of the blog form? What are your goals and hopes as the editor-in-chief of a very widely read, influential blog?
AN: I like the interactivity of blogging. Having a lot of smart commenters helps refine my ideas — nothing like having 1000 people tell you that you’re wrong to make you a more careful, humble writer.
Luckily io9 is feature-driven, so we’re not as affected by the scoop mania of the news world. Having worked in print and online media, though, I don’t think the obsessive desire for a scoop is anything new. Scoops come a little faster now is all. The thing I love about Gawker Media is that I feel like we’re encouraged to do good, old-fashioned, nineteenth-century muckraking. One of my favorite writers is Frank Norris, who was a novelist but also worked as a muckraker for San Francisco papers at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m sure old Frank Norris would loved to have worked for a Gawker blog. Shit-disturbing is one of the foundational principles of journalism, so it’s no surprise that bloggers are doing it too.
Like newspapers and pulps, most blogs are — as you rightly put it — “ephemeral.” This definitely freaks me out sometimes. I want to leave my tiny mark on the universe like any writer does, and I don’t have high hopes that io9 will be preserved very well over time. That definitely depresses me. But then I think about all those pulp writers 100 years ago, how much total awesomeness they poured into the world, even though their books have crumbled into dust. There is nothing wrong with churning out ephemera that gives people pleasure and makes them think. I’m honored to do it. If io9 fills your brain with burning images of a weird future for 30 minutes in 2010, that’s good enough for me.
CTHEORY: That’s an interesting point. We have a tendency (clearly myself included) to think of the present as fast-moving and ephemeral and the past as marked by permanence and slowness. But the past is packed with just as much speed and ephemera as the present. One of my favourite pieces of writing that I stumbled across a long time ago is a passage in Heinrich Von Treitschke’s “Politics”, written in the 1860’s, where he complains that the increasing speed of mail delivery is completely ruining the art of correspondences. Suggesting that anyone who blames e-mail for ruining letter writing is about a century and a half late to the party.
AN: Absolutely. Every generation has its demonized forms of communication, which are allegedly ruining the ways we once related to one another. In the last century or so, I think the speed of communication has for a variety of reasons been terrifying to people. It suggests that traditional boundaries of space are being broken down so quickly that nobody can stop it, nobody can rebuild the old walls fast enough to keep up with SMS or Twitter or (in Von Treitschke’s case) the postal service.
CTHEORY: I want to go back to your comments on liking the interactive nature of blogs. From a practical point of view, what role does your awareness of, and interaction with, the audience (if that’s even the right word anymore) play? You mention being a little more careful and humble in your writing, two qualities that a lot of writing on the internet, or anywhere else for that matter, could definitely use. But what effect do you think it might have in terms of shaping content, either in terms of the kind of topics you deal with, as well as the way in which you deal with them. This kind of constant interaction between the writer and audience somewhat challenges the romantic image of the isolated genius of the author. Do you think this is a good thing, making writers more connected to their audience? Or is there possibly something lost, maybe some sort of sense of autonomy. Do you worry that sometimes you might be catering too much to what your audience wants to hear?
AN: I think a lot of the concerns you raise are only going to be relevant to people in the media transition generation like myself. I started writing in the 1990s, when print journalism reigned, but I published most of my work online instead. Still, my experiences publishing academic books and writing for print publications like Wired and the San Francisco Bay Guardian allowed me to see what the old print culture was like. My whole adult life, I’ve been watching print culture transform into digital culture.
Am I ruined, misled, schooled, or exalted by getting audience feedback on a story instantly? Yes. All of those things. The same way William Faulkner was ruined by bad reviews back in the slow-writing days of the 1920s and 30s. I’m not comparing my work to Faulkner’s, by the way — I’m just saying he’s a good example of a guy who was writing this crazy, modernist, amazing stuff “in isolation” — but he kept getting bad reviews and being ignored. So in the early 1930s he said, “Fuck it- I’ll just cater to my audience.” And he wrote Sanctuary, the story of a snotty college girl who gets kidnapped by a bunch of criminal lowlifes, which became a huge bestseller and a trashy pre-Code movie. And then he went to Hollywood to write screenplays.
My point is that authors are always in dialog with their audiences — even Faulkner made decisions based on what he thought his readers wanted. Though they sometimes pretend not to be, writers are always making decisions based on the perceived desires of their readers (even if the decision is to ignore what they know their readers want).
Does the instantaneous feedback on a blog post change this situation in a qualitative way? I’m really not sure. I think it probably gives authors a thicker skin, because they have to read through a lot of critical responses and learn to filter the constructive criticism from the pure insults. And sure, it helps you figure out what kinds of stories garner more attention. But even armed with all our knowledge about what makes people click on a story, we still misfire all the time. I’ll write something that I think people will love, and they ignore it. Or I’ll write something difficult and opinionated, thinking to myself that it will get 1,000 views but who cares because I wanted to write it. And then, weirdly, that story will blow up and hundreds of thousands of people will read it and get excited. So audience response always ultimately remains a mystery.
CTHEORY: You used a great phrase earlier; that you hope that io9 “fills your brain with burning images of a weird future” (which would probably make a good new tagline for the site). Futurism is obviously a big part of io9‘s subject matter. In terms of science news, what, for you, are some of the most interesting developments that you’ve been tracking in science and technology, that have shaped how you’re thinking about the future? What about in the realm of science fiction? What do you look for in a work of science fiction, in terms of getting some sort of image of the future?
On the other side of things, a frequent refrain amongst science fiction authors is that sci-fi isn’t about predicting the future, but about investigating the present. What works of science fiction lately do you think have had the most insightful things to say about the present, whether that be in terms of politics, culture, economics, day-to-day life, etc?
AN: When I’m reading the scientific journals for story ideas, the kinds of research that excites me the most tends to be in the areas of materials science, biotechnology, synthetic biology and the Earth sciences. I think that’s because a lot of these areas have an engineering component. You’ll find research focused on producing new life forms, modified organisms, medical therapies, devices for preventing liquefaction, etc. I like science where the rubber meets the road in the real world. That’s not to say that I’m not fascinated by astrophysics — I am — and I wish we were working harder on colonizing space and coming up with ways to deal with dangers from near-Earth objects!
I’m the most disgruntled with neuroscience, especially where it overlaps with psychology. There are a lot of terrific scientists working in the field whose work I admire, but unfortunately there are many people who are basically pseudoscientists, using fMRI studies to make dubious claims about the biological basis of culture. Even more unfortunately, these are the kinds of studies that get the most media attention, too.
I’m definitely a believer in the idea that science fiction is constrained by the time when it was written. It’s sometimes about possible futures, but of course those futures are viewed through the windscreen of the present. I think that’s why William Gibson started writing about the present day, but still calls himself a science fiction writer. I think people like Maureen McHugh, Carol Emschwiller, Vernor Vinge and Paolo Bacigalupi do a good job capturing the present and projecting it into the future (or simply into an alternate present). Pagan Kennedy’s novel Confessions of a Memory Eater, which I think is incredibly underrated, is one the best scifi tales about contemporary neurotech I’ve read. It’s right up there with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Despite its problems, I think the Battlestar Galactica series, and its spinoff Caprica, do a great job projecting contemporary anxieties about war into a space opera landscape. The longrunning show Doctor Who, which is explicitly about time-bending, often hits it out of the park when it comes to representing present-day issues in a far-future or alternate history context. And finally, I’m excited to see more movies in the vein of District 9, which is an attempt to explore racism and colonialism using science fiction. That movie made some missteps politically — many critics were dismayed by the monstrous representations of Nigerians — but I think it also captured in a visceral way the violence and pervasive hypocrisy that fuel post-colonial relationships everywhere on Earth.
CTHEORY: A lot of your work focuses on increasing the representation of women within the realms of science and technology (or, perhaps more accurately, reducing barriers to women in the worlds of science and technology). I’m thinking here specifically of your edited anthology and blog She’s Such a Geek. What kind of progress do you think has been made in that area recently and what are some of the moves that could be made (at either the social or the individual level) to move us towards this goal?
AN: Five years ago, former Harvard president Lawrence Summer gave a now-infamous speech where he asserted that women’s brains may not be suited for science and engineering. His words were greeted with nearly universal condemnation, and probably led to his resignation. But he also inadvertently helped women in the sciences by sparking a furious amount of research in the United States on this very question of women’s competence in science.
The National Science Foundation funded a number of studies into the question of female brains and science, which has left us with very encouraging results. In fact, there are no provable biological differences between the sexes when it comes to math, science, and engineering competence. What we have found, however, is that women and men can be “primed” to score higher or lower on tests simply by being told that men score higher on math-related questions. Stereotype priming turns out to be a major culprit in the discrepancies between men’s and women’s scores on standardized tests, as well as one possible reason why women show less interest in the sciences. When you’re surrounded by messages that say women fail in the sciences, you’re primed to steer away from them. (Cordelia Fine’s amazing book Delusions of Gender deals with these studies in fascinating detail.)
The good news that comes out of these studies is that there are no biological “hardwired” barriers to women entering the sciences — women can learn to be just as good as men are in these fields. The main barrier to entry seems to be this stereotype priming. Interestingly, studies have shown that this priming can be shifted fairly quickly. Women taking a math test who were told that there is no difference between male and female performance on the test did, indeed, score comparably with their male counterparts. So it would seem that even if women grow up with negative messages about science and math, we can start counteracting those messages at any point and have some good results. But obviously we want to start priming boys and girls at an early age, making sure that we buy girls science kits, educational videogames, etc., and get them excited about numbers in the same way we do with boys.
Another positive sign is that in some of the most important and lucrative areas of science, women are making tremendous strides. A recent National Science Foundation (NSF) study of employment in US science jobs showed that half the jobs in biology and life sciences fields were held by women. Roughly 30 percent of jobs in materials science were also held by women. In terms of priming, we would also hope to see more images of women doing science in the media — and we do. They range from Carly Fiorina (even if you disagree with her politics, she’s a successful tech-entrepreneur-turned-politican) and Helen Grenier (founder of iRobot, the company whose PackBot robots are now fighting in Iraq and whose Roombas are sweeping our floors), to fictional women like the star of TV series Bones (a geeky forensic scientist) and the heroic hacker character Trinity from The Matrix series. The point is, we’re being exposed to exponentially more images of women working in the sciences, both in real life and in popular culture.
But we still have a long way to go. Women are paid less than men are in comparable science jobs, and university women in the sciences are granted tenure far less often than men. Most science fields, especially computer science and the physical sciences, are dominated by men to an embarrassing degree. In the United States, women hold less than 10 percent of jobs in the physical sciences, and less than 20 percent in computer science. We know it doesn’t have to be this way: These discrepancies don’t exist to such an extreme degree in China and India, nor do they exist in other scientific disciplines. Our culture has to change. We need to stop priming women (and women need to stop priming themselves) to think that they can’t do some of the most exciting and important jobs on the planet.
CTHEORY: Once again, crossing disciplinary lines, how do you view this project as linked up with your work on the representation of women in Science Fiction (and indeed in regards to other underrepresented groups)?
AN: Women are discouraged from creating and enjoying science fiction in the same ways they’re primed not to pursue science as a career. There’s a widespread misapprehension that women aren’t competent at science, and therefore it follows that they shouldn’t have anything useful to say about science — whether they’re writing essays or television shows about it. And yet some of the most influential science fiction magazines — from OMNI in the 1970s and 80s, to Asimov’s and Locus today — are run by women. io9 has always been run by women. In fact, percentage-wise, io9 is dominated by female writers. A woman, Mary Shelley, founded the whole damn genre with Frankenstein. And yet even people who are true science fiction fans persist in believing that women aren’t interested, and aren’t participating, in the cultural branch of science known as science fiction. The whole situation honestly makes me want to stab my face with a pencil because it’s so blatantly stupid.
But instead of perforating my head, I just soldier on. I’m a woman who loves science, who grew up playing with computers, and who has devoted her career to writing about science. It’s not like it’s always easy, when nearly every day somebody tells me that I shouldn’t exist (or simply assumes that I’m a man because I write about science and apparently they can’t read bylines). I have a persistent fantasy that my super power is the ability to bestow reason, and that with a gentle touch on somebody’s shoulder I could get them to open their eyes and see all the women who love science, who are doing science, and how their love is being eaten away by a culture that tries to erase them.
As much as I can, I try to use my work to create a place where women know that nobody will question their love of science and science fiction. On io9, for example, we have a thriving community of commenters where women are welcome. I and the other moderators have made it clear that we won’t tolerate sexist comments, and we will ban commenters who think it’s funny to talk about a woman’s breast size as if that’s the most important thing about her. I write about sexism in science fiction on io9, and so do my (male and female) colleagues. I want to remind the millions of people who read io9 every month that their awesome geek space on the web is run by women — not because women are superior, but because women are just as into nerdy stuff as men are. I’d like to believe that io9 is a snapshot of the future, an example of a workplace where men and women work alongside each other to talk about the role of science in the world. We need both genders to make science awesome, and in fact we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the contributions of both women and men to the field.
I think a lot about people like Rosalind Franklin — the person who discovered the structure of DNA, only to have her revolutionary finding attributed to a sexist like James Watson — or Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize twice but wasn’t allowed to join the all-male French Academy of Science. Or Andre Norton and James Tiptree, who took male names in order to publish science fiction. Those women had to deal with a lot more crap than I have, and still their love of science survived. If their love could endure, so can mine. Yours can too.