Science blogging, science communication and the multitude

Here’s the audience gathering for the session on ‘The Public Engagement of Science and Web 2.0′ organised by Gustav Holmberg for the 10th Public Communication of Science and Technology conference (PCST-10) held in Malmö a month ago (read more on our joint session blog). Grab all of the best UK no deposit casino offers at the best no deposit bonus in the United Kingdom. Themobilecasino.co.uk have all the Newest No Deposit Casino codes!

And here’s my own paper for the event (responses are welcome, it needs a lot of improvement and re-writing before it can go to publication):

Abstract:
Within a few years, science blogging has emerged as a new genre for science communication. But is science blogging really best understood in terms of ’science’ and ‘the public’? Or does the phenomenon of science blogging suggest other dichotomies? This paper argues that ’science communication’ is better conceptualized in terms of ‘Empire’ and ‘Multitude’. Science is financed and managed by a network of national and transnational state organisations and corporations, while the overwhelming number of laboratory and field workers constitute a global knowledge proletariat. These different positions in the global ’scientific field’ entail two different domains of communication practices which correspond, roughly, to the cultures of ‘Empire’ and ‘Multitude’, respectively.

And here’s the talk:

1. Those of you who have followed the field of science communication over the last decade have seen how earlier approaches to public understanding of science — usually based on what is often called the ‘deficit model’ — have repeatedly been challenged by demands for more participatory (dialogic, two-way, etc.) models for science communication.

2. In spite of these attempts to foster more participatory modes of engagement, however, the traditional one-way public understanding of science through institutionalized mass media, such as newspapers and magazines, radio and television, museums, etc., still constitutes the ruling paradigm, both in communication practice and in communication studies. Even the internet and web-based science communication is more often than not used for institutionalized one-way communication — a kind of digital broad-casting. More dialogic practices are still a largely utopian vision.

3. However, the possibility for developing more dialogic science communication practices has become much more realistic with the recent emergence of the participatory web, i.e., web platforms and services that aim to enhance user-driven content, easy and informal information sharing, and collaboration among users. Podcasting, image and movie content sharing services like Flickr and YouTube, social networking services like Facebook, wikis like Wikipedia, and not least blogging provide the means for a new flourishing of dialogic science communication.

4. In other words, what is happening on the internet these years under the label of ‘the participatory web’ promises to set qualitiatively new agendas for the way we understand and practice science communication. The ‘participatory web’ (‘web 2.0′) helps transforming science communication—from a traditional public understanding of science and passive public engagement with science, towards more active public engagement practices, towards public participation in science, and even towards public co-production of science.

5. Let me give a few examples of what I mean by the last three types of public science communication, before I turn to blogging.

5.1 My first example is the use of Wikipedia, which is highly contested among some academics, because they believe it is unauthoritative and unreliable, but which is otherwise extremely popular, not least among scientists. A simple indicator of Wikipedia’s popularity is that it almost always comes first in Google searches. Scientific content looms large on Wikipedia, probably because scientists (and computer technologists) contribute most of the science articles. These can be quite specialized; for example, the article on ‘RNA interference’ is more advanced than a basic textbook in cell biology.

Yet, because of the open wiki format, laypeople can and do partake in the continuous editing process. Therefore I think Wikipedia is a good example of a platform which creates more active public engagement with science. Users are not passive consumers of broad-casted scientific ready-made knowledge, but they become actively engaged in science through their involvement with the communication process, even involved in the production of science (‘science-in-the-making’) (see further below).

5.2 My second example is from YouTube. More and more scientists, students and laypeople are putting science-related material on YouTube. Geekishly complex science and tech stuff, like this microarray printing procedure, which has been clicked over 2200 times!), and which is then circulated on the net by means of social networking and sharing sites like Digg.

An interesting recent example of how user-generated content can potentially modify an institutional science communication project is that of UCSF Memory and Aging Center which has just started a YouTube channel about neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The idea here is to engage patients, caregivers and medical practitioners in reporting early symptoms and cases of such diseases; one can easily imagine a host of Alzheimer movies on YouTube coming out of this. This is an example of a web-based science communication initiative which goes beyond both passive and active public engagement with science – it’s more like public participation in science.

5.3 My third example is a variation of the distributed computing phenomenon which Gustav Holmberg talked about in the preceeding talk. One of these research projects on protein folding — the rosetta(at)home-project at University of Washington that uses idle computer power from hundreds of thousands of volonteers all over world to predict and design the 3D structure of proteins — has gone a step further, by creating a protein folding computer game. They hope to challenge players to construct a protein with just the right shape to lock into, for example, an HIV virus and deactivate it. The winning protein designs will then be synthesized in the lab and high-scoring players of the game will be credited in the scientific articles from the group. “Long-term”, says the head of the Rosetta-group, David Baker:

I’m hoping that we can get a significant fraction of the world’s population engaged in solving critical problems in world health, and doing it collaboratively and successfully through the game … We’re trying to use the brain power of people all around the world to advance biomedical research.” (from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/106908.php).

I think the Foldit-game is a pretty nice example of what I call public co-production of science.

6. Now, over to science blogging. I will give a quick overview of science blogging, and then I will suggest a theoretical perspective for how blogging can be understood as a component in dialogic science communication.

7. As most of you probably know, the weblog medium has grown explosively over the last decade. In February this year, the blog tracking service Technorati reported the stunning number of 113 million blogs world-wide, and a number of daily posts somewhere around 1,5 million. (Others have reported much lower numbers; yet these are still large numbers compared to other media.)

8. The absolute majority of these blogs are, of course, dealing with anything but science. Yet, the number of active blogs dealing with science, technology and medicine have a rather impressive presence on the internet, compared to traditional science communication media. It’s been an explosive growth. It’s only three years ago that Derek Lowe wrote that ‘there seem to be enough science bloggers around now that we’re starting to wonder what it is that we’re doing, and why’. Now, three years later, there are probably in the order of magnitude somewhere between 1000 and 1500 active, serious science blogs, ‘written by graduate students, postdocs and young faculty, a few by undergraduates and tenured faculty, several by science teachers, and just a few by professional journalists’ (Laura Bonetta, Cell, vol. 129, 2007, pp. 443-5). And on top of these science blogs, there are thousands of blogs on technology, medicine and health. (For some reasons surgeons are very active bloggers!). Here are three of my favourites:

  • In the Pipeline by Derek Lowe, an organic chemist who is working in a pharmaceutical company, who writes about everything from his daily work at the bench to critical reflections on Big Pharma. Derek posts almost every day and he sometimes have 10, 20 or 30 comments on each post. High quality throughout.
  • The Sterile Eye, by Oystein Horgmo, a Norwegian professional surgical video photographer who regularly reports – in exquisite bloody and gory detail – from the tumour operations at the Norwegian National Hospital.
  • Pimm–Partial Immortalization by Attila Czordas, a biotech geek who writes passionately about the prospects of regenerative medicine and human enhancement.

9. What characterizes these and many hundreds of other science blogs as a medium for dialogic science communication?

9.1 First, from a narrow technical point of view, a blog is of course just another kind of website; and it’s tempting to emphasize this ‘just-another-kind’ aspect of blogs, because there is so much hype around blogging as being something ‘very different’ from, say, internet-based journalism.

9.2 On the other hand, the special functionalities that characterize blog platforms — like chronological posting, comment function, RSS feeds etc. — do after all make the medium pretty different from other web-based media. Together with the fact that blogs are extremely easy to set up and use, these special functionalities make it a highly user-driven medium.

9.3 Third, this strong user-driven character of blogs is associated with the fact that almost all high-ranking science blogs (i.e., blogs that are often linked to) are written from a first-person singular perspective (in contrast to many institutional websites which are written from a we-perspective). This doesn’t mean that blogs are just gossipy or solipsistic personal diaries. As another observer of the blogging phenomenon has pointed out:

The ‘blogosphere’ represents not simply the juxtaposition of intimate diaries, but is a true media space which enables subjectivities to exist on a territory of their own, while at the same time ‘weaving threads’ among each other, and which makes it possible for them to assemble around a political and aesthetic subjectivity that is at once their own and shared. It is never ‘me’ who decides whether someone is going to ‘syndicate’ with me. It is always for the other party to decide, and vice-versa. (Olivier Blondeau, ‘Hactivism’ in Eurozine)

9.4 Finally, it is this special combination of first-person narrative and dense social interaction that is the major feature of the medium. The blogs worth reading and linking to are those that convey the impression of an auteur who is personally involved in his or her intellectual project. It is not just the cognitive content as such that is important, but a cognitive content which is carried by a sense of urgency, with a sense of authenticity behind it.

10. In other words, successful bloggers are those who give the impression that they are on an urgent intellectual journey, and who also wish to share the uncertainty and messiness, the cognitive and emotional struggles on their way to personal enlightenment. It is this existentially cross-linked science networking which I believe best characterizes the science blogosphere. Science blogs don’t tell us much about institutional ready-made science. But they can tell us much about science-in-the-making.

11. The last point leads me to my concluding question, viz., how to make sense of the science blogging phenomenon and other participatory web media and what they can tell us about science communication today? What’s the Big Picture? What’s at stake?

12. With only a few minutes left, I will condense a long argument into a few postulating sentences. I’m drawing on Michael Hardt’s and Toni Negri’s analysis of the social structure in emerging transnational capitalism published in their two seminal books Empire 2000 and Multitude 2004.

13. The thrust of the argument is that we are witnessing the emergence of a new global conflict pattern. On the hand, a combined private and public, national and transnational regime (‘Empire’) which regulates ‘the dominant form of contemporary production, which exerts its hegemony over the others, creates “immaterial goods” such as ideas, knowledge, forms of communication, and relationships’. ‘Multitude’, on the other hand, is the working side of contemporary production of material and immaterial goods and services.

14. Hardt and Negri describe ‘multitude’ as ‘an open network of singularities … that produce a common life; it is a kind of social flesh that organizes itself into a new social body’. It produces ‘cooperation, communication, forms of life, and social relationships’, in other words, not material or immaterial commodity production, but ‘the production and re-production of human biological and social life which creates social relationships and forms through collaborative forms of labor’.

15. To make a long argument short, Hardt and Negri’s Empire-multitude distinction is, I suggest, a promising analytical framework for understanding the Big Picture of science communication, and particularly how the participatory web, including science blogging, relates to more traditional one-way public understanding modes of science communication.

16. The point here is that the big picture of science communication is not a dichotomy between science and the public. The emerging dichotomy, according to this analysis, is rather the following:
16.1 On the one hand, we can discern an assemblage of national and transnational institutions for the government of science (like the sponsoring partners of this conference; logos to the right –>) that develop power practices of science communication for the formation of so called ‘scientific citizenship’, and do this through traditional institutionalized media, like newspapers, radio and TV, museums, and web-based public understanding of science (and supporting conferences of this kind).

16.2 And on the other hand, a ‘multitude’ of ordinary working scientists, researchers, and the general public, a multitude which constitutes ’an open network of singularities’ and which is right now, in the early 21st century, exploring the blog medium and other user-driven participatory web-media as technologies of resistance against the understanding of science spread by institutionalized science communication stakeholders.

17. This is very condensed argument. And let me immediately preempt one obvious counter-argument: Science blogging is not by definition a multitudinarian practice. The blogosphere is a openly contested arena. More and more institutional (both national and transnational) blogs are entering the arena. Science blogging rather points to the possibility of a multitudinarian, truly dialogic, science communication practice.

18. Time is running out, so just one final quote: ‘Can blogs make science cool?’, asked a speaker on Marketplace public radio some time ago. I’m not sure. I rather think it can make science hot, in the sense of opening up for some of the friction heat of new kinds of global conflict patterns between governers and governed which are increasingly permeating the contemporary technoscientific system.