Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I know there have not been many updates this month, but it's only because I've been busy working on research for my dissertation and preparing a demo for a board-game I'm currently play-testing.  More on both in later posts.  

For now, I wanted to post this latest video from the Berkman Center, a recording of a lecture given on Culturomics: Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books.  A quote from the summary of the video I present below:
In this talk Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel — co-founders of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and Visiting Faculty at Google — show how culturomics can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology.
Reasoned and well thought out searches of large data depositories are increasingly making their impact in several fields- while Journalism grabs the most attention due to its increasing daily contact with such large fields of data, I am a firm believer that the Humanities (especially History, but all disciplines really) will find potent new means to both analyze the past and interpret it in ways not possible for earlier scholars, even those whose works rested on the results of early adoption of quantitative analysis in the 80's and 90's.  With both mass storage and cheap processing power, not to mention developments made on the granularization of tasks through online social platforms, researchers today can tackle far larger 'tracts' of data.  This is the spirit behind my essay on Digital Archives and History, and for that reason I find the presentation of Aiden and Michel to be fascinating and prescient as to the power and potential of what they term 'Culturomics'.

Friday, May 6, 2011

My Picks From The Latest "Foreign Affairs"

I've mentioned previously on this blog that I subscribe to only a few magazines, one being the bi-monthly "Foreign Affairs"- a publication that provided great debate cards in high school and continues to provide insightful essays for my present consumption.  This recent issue is no exception.  While the main cover stories focus on the past and present Arab Revolt, there appears later in the issue essays on various topics united by the thread of American presence in a post-hegemonic world.  

G. John Ikenberry
via New America Foundation 
Now I'm not sure I totally agree with the use and definition of the term 'post-hegemonic world', but the views presented by G. John Ikenberry in "The Future of the Liberal World Order" and Russell Crandall in "The Post-American Hemisphere" demonstrate a willingness to see new configurations of power in our present geo-political landscape as a result of various nation-states growing ability to assimilate 'international norms', reconfigure them to suit their local needs and desires, and then promulgate these 'mutations' to be circulated and re-interpreted again.  Ikenberry describes how the liberal order, constructed over the past three centuries, underwent several innovations such as the UK's pursuit of free trade and freedom of the seas on the 19th century (ultimately undermined by their Imperialistic stance), Woodrow Wilson's dream of a collective-security organization in the League of Nations at the end of World War I (ultimately undermined by increasing 'bloc' mentalities developed in the interwar period), and, of course, the enshrinement of the liberal order after World War II evidenced by the incorporation of the UN and pursuant piecemeal declarations defining Human Rights over the course of the 20th century (a process that contributed to undermining the legitimacy of the Soviet Union).  He concludes,
"Seen in this light, the modern international order is not really American or Western -- even if, for historical reasons, it initially appeared that way.  It is something much wider.  In the decades after World War II, the United States stepped forward as the hegemonic leader, taking on the privileges and responsibilities of organizing and running the system.  It presided over a far-flung international order organized around multilateral institutions, alliances, special relationships, and client states -- a hierarchal order with liberal characteristics. 
But now, as this hegemonic organization of the liberal international order starts to change, the hierarchical aspects are fading while the liberal aspects persist.  So even as China and other rising states try to contest U.S. leadership -- and there is indeed a struggle over the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of the leading states within the system -- the deeper international order remains intact.  Rising powers are finding incentives and opportunities to engage and integrate into the order, doing so to advance their own interests.  For these states, the road to modernity runs through -- not away from -- the existing international order."
This is a wonderful summation of how the idea of 'liberalism' underwent changes not simply within an isolated power, but instead among a stage of global players.  When people see the current state of affairs and deduce that American 'power' is waining, they are misreading the 'tea leaves' so to speak.  What we have lost is the ability to increasingly dictate our configurations of liberalism upon a larger world, as rising states are growing in number and applicable power, seeking to integrate and promulgate their own version of the 'liberal order'.  

Russell Crandall
via Davidson
This point finds potent illustration in the work of Russell Crandall, who probes the increased self-reliance Latin American nation-states have vis-a-vis their relations with the U.S.  Beginning with an example of how Columbia decided to extradite a wanted drug trafficker to Venezuela instead of the United States, Crandall explains that Latin America is moving from "hegemony to autonomy", a process that brings diminishing American influence in regional policy making.  The upside to this process, however, is that the region is now capable of dealing with its own problems and crafting its own solutions to local problems without the inherent necessity for U.S. aid.  Again, like Ikenberry mentions above, Latin American nation-states are engaging with the liberal order, assimilating its norms, and re-interpreting those norms to fit their desires.  Other powers are taking notice.  From Crandall's essay:
"In the past, when Latin America was in economic trouble, outsiders prescribed bitter medicine, such as severe fiscal austerity measures.  In the last several years, however, the region has shown that it can address its own problems, even exporting its solutions globally.  There is no greater example of the region's autonomy in economic policymaking that Brazil's Bolsa Familia or Mexico's Oportunidades, conditional cash-transfer programs that give money to poor families if they meet certain requirements, such as enrolling their children in school.  As the World Bank has noted, Bols Familia targets the 12 million Brazilians who desperately need the assistance; most of the money is used to buy food, school supplies, and clothes for children.  The program is also credited with helping reduce Brazil's notoriously high income inequality.  The Brazilian and Mexican efforts have been widely emulated outside the region, including the United States."
What interests me most here is that the United States is taking cues from their once client states, the discourse no longer primarily unidirectional but multidirectional.  Mutations of the liberal order through information circulation will only increase, and time will yet tell if an alternative ideological belief will rise to challenge the current paradigm.  While I certainly don't necessarily believe both author's assertions that the above examples indicate a shift to a 'post-hegemonic' world, (see my post on Gramsci and his elaboration of the 'War of Position' vs. 'War of Maneuver'), I would recommend both of the articles discussed as good examples of the informatics-mutation possibility inherent in circulation of knowledge- even with something as abstract as the ideal of liberalism.