Visualisation tools

June 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am yet to figure out the most useful buzzword by which to refer to this: David McCandless, for example, uses “infographics” and “designed information”; Matt Woolman refers to “functional visualisations”; Manuel Lima refers to the “visualisation of complex networks”.

I am also not yet ready to think or write much about this as I don’t have time, so this blogpost is just a space for jotting down some initial thoughts and links to visualisation tools that I have come across. What interests me about these tools is the possibility of presenting information in new ways that make it easier and more intuitive for viewers to see connections, the relationships that influence and produce changes.

This links with my interest in Bruno Latour (1996, 2005) and the Actor-Network Theory with which he is associated. The analysis I developed in my PhD drew on a particular interpretation of Latour’s approach that has been used recently in the anthropology of development, in particular in Cultivating Development (2005), a book by my PhD supervisor, David Mosse.

Latour understands “the social” as something that needs to be constantly made and maintained, and understands this as taking place through processes of assembly whereby diverse actors are enrolled into larger collectives, particular ways of being, and projects. Recent anthropology of development has drawn on Actor-Network Theory to emphasise that the policies that see the light of day – those that make it out of planning offices and into the field, those that are translated from a “world of signs into a world of objects” (Mosse 2005: 35) – are those that succeed in ‘enrolling’ a wide range of actors with different agendas. Successful ‘enrolment’ relies upon ‘brokers and translators’ (Lewis and Mosse 2006) able to translate different agendas into terms that make them appear compatible with each other.

Actor-Network Theory offers a framework for examining the relationships between actors that enable collectives to come together. For me, at this point in time, the significance of the visualisation tools I am currently investigating is that they offer different ways of presenting the information gathered through such a study.

Links to visualisation tools:


Latour, Bruno (1996) Aramis, or The Love of Technology trans. Catherine Porter. London: Harvard University Press

Latour, Bruno (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lewis, David and David Mosse (2006) (eds.) Development Brokers and Translators: the ethnography of aid and agencies Bloomfield, Conn.: Kumarian Press

Mosse, David (2005) Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice London: Pluto Press


Driven to distraction, then away again

June 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Some snippets from a thought-provoking article by Johann Hari in the Independent yesterday:

…there’s a reason why that word – “wired” – means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate”.

…here’s the function that the book – the paper book that doesn’t beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As Ulin puts it: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction…. It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”

A book has a different relationship to time than a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now. The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says “the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy.” It’s precisely because it is not immediate – because it doesn’t know what happened five minutes ago in Kazakhstan, or in Charlie Sheen’s apartment – that the book matters.

…We are the first generation to ever use the internet, and when I look at how we are reacting to it, I keep thinking of the Inuit communities I met in the Arctic, who were given alcohol and sugar for the first time a generation ago, and guzzled them so rapidly they were now sunk in obesity and alcoholism. Sugar, alcohol and the web are all amazing pleasures and joys – but we need to know how to handle them without letting them addle us.

The idea of keeping yourself on a digital diet will, I suspect, become mainstream soon. Just as I’ve learned not to stock my fridge with tempting carbs, I’ve learned to limit my exposure to the web – and to love it in the limited window I allow myself. I have installed the programme “Freedom” on my laptop: it will disconnect you from the web for however long you tell it to. It’s the Ritalin I need for my web-induced ADHD.

Hari makes a couple of plugs in the article: one, for David Ulin’s book The Lost Art of Reading – Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, and the other for software that helps you stop procrastinating (see below for a list of links to stuff on this). Hari makes his point by contrasting the linearity of the book with the nonlinear complexity of the internet, but I think there is a broader point (not to mention tools and techniques for fighting procrastination that extend beyond Ulin’s manifesto and a set of computer programmes designed by super-procrastinators). I think society was starting to exhibit strong ADHD tendencies even before Twitter, Facebook etc. started poking us, and I also think that certain activities or professions have always encouraged and even required this kind of mentality.

In particular, I think that the role of what Pierre Bourdieu (1991) refers to as the political professional – a broad category that, in the UK, would include Members of Parliament, student activists, and many other positions – requires the ability to say something about anything, to take a position and thus to appear as “being in the know,” as Ulin puts it. What this role does not require is the capacity to concentrate on and engage with one problem for a sustained period of time.

Why doesn’t the role require this? Because the political professional has other people to do that for them. Successful political professionals are able to say something about anything while in front of the rolling camera because they have been properly briefed beforehand by someone who will probably never step into the limelight (at least not intentionally – a point which makes me think of Junior Policy Advisor Ollie Reeder at the end of The Thick of It episode in which, on discovering that his face has appeared on the front page of the newspaper as one of the losers in a hectic night of “spin” in which advisors, junior politicians and enforcers all try to better their position during the transition from one Prime Minister to another, he says “But I’m not supposed to be in the newspaper…”).

It probably goes without saying that there is a need for both kinds of work, but nevertheless there is always a fair amount of criticism levelled by each “side” against the other, something I encountered in my research in India. Something that has been articulated by a number of academics is the idea that part of the attraction of a certain kind of firefighting, in-the-moment and up-to-the-minute politics/activism may be that it justifies not thinking about the bigger picture (the longue durée?) – the awful situation which we can’t see how we can change. In an interview I conducted in Delhi, an academic at Jawaharlal Nehu University (JNU) used the phrase “No we don’t have time for all that, we have to do things” to characterise the mentality of some of the activists of whom he was critical because he felt they had no time for theory or reflection but were always rushing here and there following the latest crisis and controversy. Those activists were in turn critical of JNU academics who they saw as always criticising and engaging in post-facto deconstructions of activist attempts to make the world a better place, rather than joining the struggle.

Johann Hari’s article made me think about the tension I feel between my own interests in academic research (which requires the capacity for sustained linear concentration) and the practice of politics (which requires the capacity for rapid mental manouevring to always appear up-to-date to the nearest nanosecond), and the claim I have heard made many times that it is impossible for an individual to keep a foot in both these camps. Although many reasons have been offered for why “the twain shall never meet,” perhaps one reason is this, that the mental change of gear required between the two is too harsh on the gearbox and greatly increases the likelihood of either stalling or sending your RPM through the roof by putting your foot down in first when you thought you were in fifth.

Anti-procrastination software:


Bourdieu, Pierre (1991) Language and Symbolic Power ed. John B Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge: Polity Press

Castaneda, Quetzil E. (2006) “Ethnography in the Forest: An Analysis of Ethics in the Morals of Anthropology” Cultural Anthropology 21 (1) 121-145

D’Andrade, Roy (1995) “Moral Models in Anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3) 399-408

Hale, Charles R. (1997) “Consciousness, Violence, and the Politics of Memory in Guatemala” Current Anthropology 38 (5) 817-838

Hale, Charles R. (2006) “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology” Cultural Anthropology 21 (1) 96-120

Jean-Klein, Iris and Annelise Riles (2005) “Introducing Discipline: Anthropology and Human Rights Administrations” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 28 (2) 173-202

Mosse, David (2006) “Anti-social anthropology: objectivity, objection and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12: 935–956

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1995) “The Primacy of the Ethical: propositions for a Militant Anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3) 409-440

Shah, Alpa (2010) In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India London: Duke University Press

Topical lightbulb jokes

June 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

How many interns does it take to change a lightbulb? Who cares – it’s free.

How many bass players does it take to change a lightbulb? None – the keyboard player can do it with his left hand.

How many MPs does it take to change a lightbulb?

Affinity to the Sea gig, 24 June 2011

June 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

My band has its first gig at the end of this month and we’d love to see you there.

“Affinity to the Sea” is a blues rock covers band consisting of Andy Beale (guitar), Paul Davies (bass guitar), Brendan Donegan (guitar, backing vocals), Stéphanie Hennion (vocals) and Peter Rose (drums). We will be playing downstairs at Ryan’s Bar on 24 June 2011.

Address: Ryan’s Bar, 181 Church Street, Stoke Newington, London N16 0UL

Phone: 0871 951 1000

Doors: 8pm

Tickets: Free

24 june gig

An angle on internships

June 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wednesday lunchtime saw me sitting in a cafe in Westminster with a documentary film-maker, explaining why I didn’t want to appear in his documentary.

The film-maker was making a documentary about internships, a hot topic at the moment with Clegg and Cameron offering tasty soundbites to the media at the end of April in relation to the UK Government’s Social Mobility Strategy “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers”, and the recent case of Keri Hudson v TPG Web Publishing Ltd in May, in which an intern who had been working on the My Village website for two months successfully sued TPG Web Publishing Ltd for the minimum wage and unpaid holiday.

There are a number of issues with the way internships work in the UK today. The Clegg-Cameron spat in April made it seem that the main issue is nepotism – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and consequently who can intern with who.

But while this may be an issue with some internships, a far more significant problem is the prevalence of unpaid internships, particularly in “glamorous” sectors such as fashion, journalism and politics. This effectively creates a significant barrier to entry to these sectors for people who do not have either rich parents who can afford to support them while they work for free or, like me, savings they can draw on.

An additional problem with internships is the fact that from a legal perspective they are highly nebulous: interns simply do not exist in British law, and depending on how an intern is treated during their internship, they can be considered an employee, a worker, or someone undertaking work experience. This makes interns particularly vulnerable in the workplace, putting them in a situation where they may have no recourse to law in cases of abuse (for example, sexual harassment or bullying) because no court will recognise them as covered by the wide range of rights enjoyed by workers and employees.

This links to a wider point that American author Ross Perlin has made about the “internship boom” of recent decades: the move towards unpaid internships must be seen within the broader context of a shift towards a contingent workforce, a labour market in which the rights of workers and the responsibilities and duties of employers towards their employees are being gradually eroded, and the emergence of what Guy Standing has recently described as the precariat.

Research by IPPR and Internocracy suggests that many people working for free as unpaid interns could be legally entitled to be paid. The idea at the centre of the film-maker’s proposal is a good one: get interns to describe in detail the work they are doing on a day-to-day basis, and thereby “prove” that they are in fact doing work that is no different to the work of a paid employee – work for which they should, by law, be paid.

The problem with this approach – and my reason for refusing to take part in the documentary as one of a number of “intern video diarists” – is that the principal reason people do unpaid internships is to get a “foot in the door” in terms of experience and contacts. Appearing on TV arguing that I should be paid might make a contribution to the ongoing struggle to change how internships work, but it does so in a manner that would burn the bridges I have worked hard to build with my employers, to whom I am very grateful for offering me an internship experience which I went into with open eyes, and from which I feel I have benefitted far more than I could have hoped for. This is probably the main reason more interns don’t speak out against their employers or sue them like Keri Hudson: why would an intern speak out against someone they are trying to impress?

This suggests that if something is to be done about the issues with internships, it might not be realistic to expect interns to lead the struggle for change – or, at least, not to expect them to lead from the front and put themselves in the line of fire as individuals as Keri Hudson did.

Fortunately, there appears to be quite a lot of good work being done on this issue by a number of organisations and collectives, and by individuals who are not themselves interns. On Wednesday afternoon I attended “Imagine a day without interns”, a media event organised by the NUS, ULU, Unite, Intern Aware, Interns Anonymous and Ross Perlin involving the unveiling of an “Intern Bill of Rights”, a set of standards that these groups believe employers should follow and interns should expect. This was followed by a panel discussion in which a range of people working on the issues with internships offered perspectives on how to move forward.

These included: Stella Creasy MP, who published an article on the same day setting out her views; Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, a study of the internship boom in the US; Martin Bright, founder of New Deal of the Mind, an organisation that enables employers to access funding so they can offer paid work placements; Tanya de Grunwald, creator of the website Graduate Fog and author of Dude, Where’s my Career?; Teresa Pearce MP, who has argued that IPSA needs to get tough on unpaid parliamentary internships; Hazel Blears MP, who has been the driving force behind the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme that was launched yesterday; and a representative of the NUJ’s “Cashback for Interns” campaign, which was behind the Keri Hudson case.

I will be writing more about internships on this blog in the near future.

Further References:

“Do you need to pay your interns?” A short, insightful article on the Employease blog, written to meet the needs of employers.

“Unpaid website intern celebrates court victory” Guardian article on the Keri Hudson case.

“Why the NUJ’s ‘Cashback for Interns’ ruling is a hollow victory for journalists” A critique of the NUJ’s Cashback for Interns campaign.

Interns Aware Campaign group focusing on promoting fair access to the internship system.

Internocracy Social enterprise focusing on changing internship culture for the better.

Interns Anonymous A forum for interns to share their experiences anonymously in order to “shine a light on the problems in the graduate labour market.”

Carrotworkers’ Collective A London-based group of current or ex-interns who regularly meet to think and work around the conditions of free labour in contemporary societies.

Work on Trial Public event on 4 July 2011, organised by Mutiny: “Hosted by author of A Year on the Sauce and former Sunday Times journalist Brendan Montague and featuring Green politician Sian Berry, activist Anne-Marie O-Reilly from Boycott Workfare and London Coalition Against Poverty, trade union representatives and a host of other special guests, Work on Trial is a carnivalesque evening of live entertainment and discussion providing a whistle-stop tour of contemporary political issues at work.”

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