Digital Arts and New Media: MFA: Collaboration, Innovation, Social Impact

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Public Media: New Forms of Democratic Participation (Spring 08 - Winter 09)

Faculty: Warren Sack

Proposal Abstract

This project group will design, implement and experiment with new media technologies for democratic participation. Work in the area of e-government has, until now, largely focused on how the Internet can be used to facilitate traditional forms of public, democratic interaction; forms which are largely party- and state-based politics and government using, for example, electronic voting, web-based government services, online petitions and fundraising. Meanwhile new forms of private and social interaction are rapidly evolving on Web 2.0 sites like Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Craigslist, Ebay, etc. In the terminology of media studies, “the audience has become active”; or, in the words of business, “consumers are now producers.” In the realm of the public – where people are citizens rather than simply audience members or consumers – new forms of interaction and participation are being developed at a slower pace. Examples of new forms of news reporting (e.g., and analysis (e.g., blogs); Internet-based political advocacy (e.g.,; local organization (e.g.,; and, collective knowledge production (e.g., do exist, but far too little has been done to articulate new forms of online public action and discussion with the legacy, “old media” institutions of democratic governance: newspapers, television networks, libraries, state legislatures, local city governments, the U.S. House and Senate. In other words, when you scream in cyberspace, can anyone in Washington, D.C. hear you? Free, participatory culture is a bubbling, productive realm of invention and discovery, but its biggest successes have largely been in the construction and distribution of open source software alternatives (e.g., Linux) to commercial products. Can participatory (i.e., non-broadcast), public media be invented that inspire and facilitate new forms of democratic participation and the reinvigoration of civic society? In this project group we will attempt to address this question through a process of invention and experimentation.

To date, the best DANM answer to this question is Michael Dale’s and Aphid Stern’s M.F.A. project developed in the Social Computing project group I led in 2005-2006. The Metavid system archives video of U.S. Senate and House floor proceedings, indexes the footage according to close-captioning information, and makes the video footage searchable and remixable on the web (see This constitutes a new medium for citizen action and a means for participants to closely study and comment on the words and positions of U.S. Senators and Representatives. will be one possible platform on which project members may want to build. But, we will also start with a broad survey of art projects in this area edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel for the 1000+ page catalogue for the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Technology (Karlsruhe, Germany) exhibition entitled Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (MIT Press, 2005). This enormous show investigated historical and contemporary intersections of how media technologies and the public co-construct and influence each other. My work, “Agonistics: A Language Game” was one of the many included in the exhibition.

Students – Participation/Preferred background and skills

Graduate student participants will have experience and/or interest in political philosophy, political science, theories of democracy, critical studies of labor and participation and the techniques and technologies of Web 2.0 (e.g., blogging, photosharing, locative media, open source software development, online discussion forums, collaborative filtering, etc.).

Potential forms/venues for publication/exhibition

A principal venue for this work will be the web itself. A good project should attract attention from the blogosphere,Wikipedia, IndyMedia, Creative Commons, and other successful, public-oriented, online successes. But, a good project should also be strongly linked to a more traditional, democratic institution. For example, we hope to extend the Metavid project by organizing, via the UCDC program, camera crews for videoing Senate and House committee meetings. The plan is to have each project of this proposed group have one “foot” in a traditional institution and the other on the Internet. While an exhibition like Making Things Public is unlikely to reoccur soon, public media projects are increasingly popular in the digital art world. I will encourage students to submit their work to annual competitions like those run by, and Ars Electronica. In addition, the professional society – Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) – now has a semi-regular conference on online deliberation. This conference brings together artists, activists, technologists and political scientists and will be a likely venue for reporting our results.

Funding Sources, Equipment

I currently have National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for a multi-year project in this area of research (“A search engine and interface for deliberation”). Michael Dale, Aphid Stern and I intend to apply to various foundations this year to support the continuation and expansion of the Metavid project. We are considering applying to the Soros, the Rockefeller, and the Mellon foundations. I anticipate that some of this funding will be in place by the spring term of 2008. I intend to involve project group members in these ongoing projects during that term in order to introduce them to the area of study. I will also have them brainstorming new projects in the area and have them co-author grant proposals to – ideally – support their work in the following year. Pedagogically this is also useful: most graduate students are interested in learning how to write a grant proposal and grant writing is also a good means to force one to clarify one’s research agenda and aspirations.

Most of the equipment necessary for this type of work is simply a set of servers, programming environments, and digital media production packages: all of which we now have for the DANM program. Location-based media projects might require GPS devices (e.g., GPS-enabled cell phones) and GIS software. However, my experience has been that equipment vendors and cell phone providers are more than willing to donate such equipment. For example, Nextel/Sprint has given me multi-year loaner phones and free service contracts for the research and development of a location-based system.