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Berkman Community Newcomers: Benjamin Peters

Berkman Community Newcomers: Benjamin Peters

This post is part of a series featuring interviews with some of the fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as "Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.

Interested in joining the Berkman Center community? We're currently accepting fellowship applications for the 2015-2016 academic year. Read more on our fellowships page.

Q&A with Benjamin Peters

Berkman faculty associate and Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa
interviewed in summer 2014 by Berktern Claire McNear

First, some general background: Where are you from? What is your academic background? How did you come to be at the University of Tulsa?

Taking my current position as Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa in 2011 was something of a return home. I grew up in an academic home in the Midwest, and so, after over a decade of globetrotting geographically and intellectually across college in the intermountain west, graduate programs on both coasts, a postdoc in the Middle East, and frequent research trips in Eastern Europe, I found myself and my family drawn back into the more sustainable academic habits of research, teaching, and everyday life in quiet Tulsa.

As it turns out, the position with a top-flight, small private research university has proven a boon for my work and family life: I feel fortunate to have been able to advance the research, teaching, and start-up digital studies initiative I have in the last three years. That said, I cannot say how pleased I am to be able to enter back into the vibrant conversation orbits at Berkman.

How did your book on the Soviet Internet come about? What was it like doing research with the Russian and Ukrainian Academies of Science?

If, to gloss Whitehead, all philosophy begins as a series of footnotes to Plato, then perhaps I can fairly say this Soviet Internet book began as a footnote to something far more obscure: a FOIA-recovered declassified 1962 CIA report wringing its hands about a new Soviet initiative to develop a native “unified information network.” That document lodged a question so tenacious in my mind I had to write a book to shake it: Why was there no Soviet Internet? It turns out, at the height of the tech race, and with ample means and motivations, the Soviets did repeatedly try and fail to build a civilian nationwide network contemporary of the US ARPANET. So what happened to this “unified information network,” anyway? Why didn’t a native “Soviet Internet” take root? How can the Soviet network experience inform and challenge modern-day assumptions about network society? I'll just hint at what I think: it is not the usual Soviet culprits. It’s not the technological backwardness, not the censorship culture, not the command economy, and not the hierarchical bureaucracy. Instead, look for an answer that hits closer to home from the MIT Press in 2015.

About the research abroad that went into it, Marshall McLuhan once said that the first thing a visitor needs to know about visiting Russia is that there are no phonebooks. His point: a foreigner has to arrive in Russian with contacts already in place. There is no other way. The Finns have a joke along these lines: in Finland, everything works but nothing can be arranged. In Russia, nothing works but everything can be arranged. That was my experience as well: despite my comfort in the country and language, when I arrived in Moscow without the right contacts, I found myself shuffling through dusty documents lit by a flickering light bulb overhead. Once my social network shifted, however, a world of research opened up: dozens of interviews, previously hidden archives, and unprecedented access to the historical materials suddenly aligned themselves, and the work could be done. On the surface, the book is about why certain (computer) networks did not work in the Soviet Union, but once inside it, the story turns on the fact that other (social) networks in the area continue to run extraordinarily well.

Could you talk a little bit about the books you're working on now?

I am drafting a history of digital media that reaches back not to the 1990s, but to the 1890s. My argument is fairly simple: digital scholarship currently faces an unacknowledged crisis. Mortgaged to the present, we cyber-scholars race to keep abreast of a continuous cascade of digitally lit change whose relevance and significance to contemporary society, economy, and culture are undeniable. Yet, at its current sprint, digital scholarship risks becoming obsolete before tasting ink. If digital studies is to warrant careers of study, then we need intellectually sustainable ways of recognizing how digital media are not only new. I think the future of digital studies lies not (only) in keeping up with the future but in preparing for it with a broader, deeper, slower view of the digital world we have long inhabited. Of course my history now in preparation—ranging from the Golden Age of Philosophy at Harvard, to the interwar Vienna Circle and Moscow School of Mathematics, to the cold war preoccupation with cybernetics, information theory, systems research, to contemporary heirs in cognitive and computer science, complex network and big data research—won’t be able to describe the whole twentieth-century computational turn to digital media, but I expect it will be a fun ride nonetheless. It doesn’t matter so much if this specific history succeeds: what does matter is that current students and scholars of our digital age build on the profound connections and contributions in the history and philosophy of information science and technology to the present new media moment.

Thanks to friends at Culture Digitally, you can see more about the Digital Keywords project I’m working on at the moment. The premise is straightforward: short essays, plain prose, foundational points, and key concepts of the information age. With a bit of work, an edited volume should come out from a top press in 2016, the 40th anniversary of the publication of Raymond Williams’ classic Keywords.

Do you see digital media as distinct from traditional media, or more as a digital analog to traditional media?

That’s the N-dollar question. I do not know exactly, but I may quote your captivating phrase about digital media posing a “digital analog” to traditional media, since a “digital analog” relationship suggests analog relationships might exist between other shifts in media history (from oral to writing, to manuscript, to print, to mass, to digital media cultures), and what can we expect of the current digital media that will one day appear analog to the future? We might also push the idea of “digital” until it breaks: modern users happily dole out the label “digital” on bits, cameras, clocks, computers, discs, videos, and even divides, natives, and revolutions; well, what if the “digital” was that which our fingers (i.e., digits) press and manipulate? Aren’t the piano keyboard, the filing system, the typewriter, and electronic telegraphy also digital? What about the coin, the manicule, and the index finger itself? I think this kind of inquiry stands to refresh digital media debate today. We should trouble what “traditional media” means, too: for in the long view, there is nothing traditional about the broadcast mass media and their conglomerates occupying modern history. What we call “traditional” is unprecedented in the deep history of world media. Mass media are the outliers, not the rule. So we shouldn’t be surprised if a lot needs to be reformed as our media systems continue to molt and move forward.

What sorts of things are you hoping to accomplish at the Berkman Center?

To converse, collaborate, and maybe even conspire with interested folk, and of course to research and write. I’ll be in and out several times over the year, especially during the Spring 2015. If interested, please be in touch: my contact info and more is on my site.