Jelena Karanović

Anthropologist of digital technologies and media

“The Decompository”

A beautiful decomposition: Stewartia Pseudocamellia flowers strewn across the ground

A few weeks ago, I took part in a codesign workshop in digital science and technology studies at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. My team (consisting of Hanna Rose Shell, Max Liboiron, and Shad Gross) designed three data narratives about decomposition at the Arboretum.

We started our project with a sensory exploration of the Arboretum dump, “the most important production and storage site of the Arboretum,” in an intern’s words. This site allowed us to understand decomposition as a curated and regulated process: e.g., decomposing heaps are categorized; visitors are not allowed. The better curated and the more decomposed the artifacts at the dump, the more valuable and productive the mulch that they produce. Decomposition is thus integral to the well-being of the Arboretum’s collection of living organisms.

In informal conversations with Arboretum employees, we learned that certain kinds of decomposition are given priority in research: there are existing maps of soil texture, types, and nutritional info, while a future research project may investigate Arboretum’s cosmopolitan microbiomes. Employees are also aware of, but unwilling to dwell on, various other forms of decomposition related to the Arboretum’s open-door policy (such as dog-urine-soaked gates and logs).

While linear timelines may be implicit in preservation, our study of decomposition highlights the importance of cyclical time scales (weekly chipping and transport of branches designated for discard, yearly turnover of mulch piles). At the Arboretum, taking decomposition as integral to preservation allow for construction of further data narratives emphasizing the ongoing labor (of transport, curating, and maintenance of the piles) and connections with institutions and sites beyond the Arboretum (mulch from the dump is transported to the Harvard campus in Cambridge; dog-walkers come from the surrounding urban neighborhoods). By highlighting cyclical time scales, connections with other urban sites and the labor of maintenance, our project opens up new possibilities for “recomposing” the cultural and scientific significance of the Arboretum.

More broadly, our project contributes to debates about decomposition in digital collections: while decomposition has often been vilified noise or simple corruption of data, we ask whether practices of digital preservation and database design may fruitfully embrace the practices of curated decomposition.

Our final report, entitled “The Decompository,” is available on the workshop’s Tumblr page.

New Publication: Free Software and the Politics of Sharing

My chapter on free software and anthropology has been published in the edited collection “Digital Anthropology.” In this chapter, I situate anthropological approaches to the utopian premises of free software and daily practices that sustain FS projects around the world. I also present some preliminary thoughts of how struggles over software may matter to anthropologists and other readers interested in understanding the changing practices of media production, consumption and circulation. Thanks to Heather Horst and Danny Miller for moving the book project along! The full citation and the pre-print version of my article are available on my Publications page.

New courses for 2011-2012

This year I will be teaching “Introduction to Digital Media” and “Media and Cultural Analysis.” Find more info on these courses on my “Teaching” page.

Conference Presentation: Free Software Citizenship

I am giving a talk entitled “Free Software Citizenship: Digital Media Infrastructures and Civic Engagement” at the 2011 meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.  The talk is scheduled for Sunday, March 15 at 10 a.m. at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans, panel N15, entitled “New Media Citizenship.”  Other presenters are Nadia Bozak, Anne Kustritz, Nicole Richter, and Elizabeth Peterson.

New Article: Contentious Europeanization

My first article is finally published!  “Contentious Europeanization: The Paradox of Becoming European through Anti-Patent Activism” is being published in Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology.  The full citation, abstract, and the pre-print version of the article are available on my Publications page.

Many thanks to Ethnos editors Nils Bubandt and Mark Graham for a thoroughly encouraging peer review process which immensely improved the paper.  I am also indebted to Alberto Barrionuevo, who has kindly given me permission to reprint his photo “Sea Battle of the Software Patents at the European Parliament,” (CC) 2005-07-05, Alberto Barrionuevo, license Creative Commons BY-SA Spain 3.0.  This photo effectively captures the political imagery engaged in disputes over software patents in the European Union.  So when my article was accepted for publication, I started looking for the author in order to secure permission for reprinting the photo with the text of my article.  In the two months of e-mailing that ensued, I discovered that the photo had been archived, published, (re)named, (re)contextualized, and edited on various websites, including:

  • An editorial entitled “Victory in the European Parliament” by Gérald Sédrati-Dinet, then-president of FFII France.  The photo was attributed to Gustavo Broos and entitled “David and Goliath.”
  • FFII gallery of online photos, which was since been re-done and the old URL does not work any more.  As of 2006, when I checked this website the last time, the photo was also attributed to Gustavo Broos and named “David and Goliath / giant, goliath, behemoth, monster: someone or something that is abnormally large and powerful.”  Gustavo said that he remembered coming up with this name, but he was not the author of the photo.
  • newer FFII gallery site credits the photo to Alberto Barrionuevo and gives no title for the photo.
  • Alberto Barrionuevo on his website offers a “web ready version” of the photo which, as he pointed out in an e-mail, has been edited to remove the cable which appears in the front plan of the original image.

Eventually I decided to use the image from the FFII gallery website (which does contain the cable) and add Alberto’s title and the terms of his license (CC BY-SA Spain 3.0).

Thanks to numerous free software activists whom I contacted along the way in my attempt to reconcile the multiple tracks of activist archiving, editing and repurposing the photo as documentary evidence with publisher’s demand of finding the single author who could give the reprint permission in conventional copyright terms.

Gustavo Broos, entitled “David and Goliath / giant, goliath, behemoth, monster: someone or something that is abnormally large and powerful” available online at, last accessed 28 June 2006.

Upcoming Talk: Activist Intimacies

Next week I am giving a talk in the “Global Fieldwork” series organized by the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Lafayette College.  My talk, entitled “Activist Intimacies: Testimonials, Publicity, and Free Software Advocacy in France” will take place on Tuesday, October 26th from 4:15 to 6 p.m. in Hugel 103.  I’d love to see you there!

Intro to Digital Media: Semester Research Proposal

I plan to investigate how cats have altered the development of the internet, and how inter-species animal relationships have been changed by increasing digitization.  I will pay special attention to the protest strategies employed by other animal groups as they react to the disproportionate representation of their feline peers.

My sources will be drawn from a wide range of online forums frequented by cats, giant oversized rabbits, tiny chicks that have just been hatched, rows of ducklings, and sneezing pandas.  I have arranged a Skype interview with a slow loris in 2 weeks, who is the moderator of a forum targeted specifically to animals whose brief fame has faded.

I will also analyze the total ecological footprint of ‘surprised kitty,’ taking into account the server and client hardware, electricity usage, and long-term health effects of repeated viewings.

— by Harvey Nailbiter

Two New Courses

This semester I am teaching two new courses: “Introduction to Digital Media” and “Media and Global Communication.”  Both are undergraduate courses offered at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication.  You can find the course descriptions and reading lists on my Teaching page.

Upcoming Conference Panel: Ethnography 2.0

I am co-organizing a panel entitled “Ethnography 2.0: Anthropology of Online Commitments,” at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association:

This panel examines how anthropological theory and methods can critically engage with people’s daily lives as they increasingly encompass diverse online platforms. Early ethnographic research about the internet emphasized that existing cultural categories and practices loomed large both in understandings of cyberspace and in imaginings of its transformative potential. These studies of online forms of sociality, modes of interaction, and representations highlight a range of practices, technologies, and assumptions that were deployed in cyberspace. Building on such research, this panel focuses on the means by which research participants, as well as researchers, have strategically constructed disjunctures and connections between their online and offline experiences. At a moment when digital commitments are expanding far beyond email and websites, this panel critically considers how online ethnographic work resituates the anthropological project.

The panel includes four presenters and two discussants who have conducted ethnographic research online among diverse populations. Four of these contributors approached online communities as an explicit component of research; three were originally interested in other questions but realized digital connections and disconnections were of fundamental importance. This range of research design enables us to examine how online lives might be fundamentally impacting anthropological research, whether it explicitly concerns the internet or not. The focus on strategic connections and disconnections also allows us to reflect on anthropologists’ commitments to engage multiple publics. For instance, what are the ethical demands of referencing writing posted online, when research participants’ aspirations and reflexive practices explicitly counter anthropological commitments to assuring confidentiality? Should such writing be represented as the pseudonymous words of an informant, or as the credited writing of another expert?

The panelists highlight the diversity and the politics of online commitments. For Americans who travel to China to seek experimental medical care, online health discussion forums have enabled new forms of sociality and tactics of mobilization that both transcend and reinforce lines of social cleavage. In France, romantic partners of software activists have created their own online platforms, in which their personal accounts redefine activist identities and terms of engagement by foregrounding gender and sexuality. For Japanese Americans who return-migrate to Japan, online communities have produced and strengthened networks in Japan, creating new formations of diaspora and ethnicity. In Japan, divorce support groups are coded explicitly as “online” communities, even if many meetings occur in person. In all of these situations, being online matters deeply to the people involved. We discuss how anthropological approaches can account for such strategic commitments to the virtual, the possibilities offered by ethnographic fieldwork to trace such online mediations, and the implications of pursuing them.

Other participants will be Priscilla Song (chair), Ayako Takamori, Allison Alexy (co-organizer), Ilana Gershon, and Nicole Constable.

Our panel is scheduled for Wednesday, December 2, 2009, starting at 8 p.m. in the Room 413 at the Downtown Philadelphia Marriott. We are planning a special journal issue on this topic and would love some provocative questions from the audience!

Conference: Shaping Europe in a Globalized World

My Green Card has finally arrived! More precisely, the “Welcome to the United States” notice has arrived. The actual Green Card machine is apparently being upgraded, so for the time being I am getting a temporary replacement card.

These exciting details notwithstanding, the Welcome notice is timely: in ten days, I am traveling to Zurich for the conference “Shaping Europe in a Globalized World? Protest Movements and the Rise of a Transnational Civil Society, ” organized by the Department of German, Zurich University. I am giving a talk on the panel about computer-based protest. My paper, based on my ethnographic fieldwork and media research in 2004-05, will analyze the campaign against software patents in the European Union.