Kerric Harvey’s three-volume project examines the intersection of politics and new technology.
January 21, 2014
In December 2011, School of Media and Public Affairs Professor Kerric Harvey was preparing for a semester-long sabbatical. She had a research appointment at Oxford and a visiting professorship at Simon Fraser University, and she wanted to work out details of two book proposals. Just moments before she packed away her computer, she decided to check her university email one last time. In her inbox was a curious note: It was CQ Press/Sage Publications offering her a chance to edit what is likely the first-ever encyclopedia on the burgeoning field of social media and politics.
Dr. Harvey knew that if she agreed to the assignment, she would have to put many of her own projects on hold. She also felt that as a media anthropologist, she was a surprising choice for the publication: Unlike a conventional political strategist, Dr. Harvey believes that politics is not confined to Capitol Hill, but has more to do with the choices people have as individuals and members of cultural groups. These choices extend from the voting booth to all aspects of daily life.
She remembers an early conversation with the publisher in which she asked, “You do know that I’m a media anthropologist? You understand that means Lady Gaga will be in this encyclopedia?”
There was a long pause.
“Wonderful. That’s fine with us,” Dr. Harvey recalled the publishers saying.
This month, Dr. Harvey unveiled what is arguably the most complete account of how technology has revamped politics in the modern era: a 1,632-page, three-volume encyclopedia that contains nearly 600 entries, a collection of essays and original research studies—all of which took Dr. Harvey more than two years to produce. She described the project as one of the hardest things she’s ever done, and one of the most rewarding.
While older academic disciplines have long-held theories and practices, Dr. Harvey had the dual task of creating one of the earliest publications of record on the topic while also setting the parameters for the field.
“It is like shaping a volcano while it erupts, and that was a challenge I couldn’t back out from,” she said. “We got a chance not only to define the territory, but to map it as well.”
Dr. Harvey has studied the connection among technology, politics and culture for decades. In 1995, she was part of a 33-person group invited by the White House and the National Science Foundation to create an anthropological research agenda on the Internet in the 21st century. To her surprise, she found many of the questions she asked in the ’90s are applicable today.
Although Dr. Harvey’s expertise is vast, defining an entire field wasn’t a task she could take on alone. She solicited suggestions from other academics and began delving into existing literature to identify major concepts. She was thrilled to find many of her SMPA colleagues kept appearing again and again as top movers and shakers in the discipline. Several GW faculty members wrote for the encyclopedia, were cited by other academics and, in several instances, were the actual subject of entries.
The encyclopedia spans the gamut from a 1945 Atlantic Monthly article written on engineer Vannevar Bush to a recent study from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. The individual entries shed light on how technology is a companion presence to other areas of life and collective governance.
“We were peeling back the earth’s surface and seeing the wiring underneath, looking at how every aspect of public life—religion, music, art, education, household decisions, everything—is interconnected,” she said.
Readers can flip through the pages of the encyclopedia and learn about the intricacies of software and systems like FinFisher, ECHELON and Carnivore. In some ways, Dr. Harvey said, parts of the project may read like a technical manual—but she believes it is crucial for readers to become more informed consumers by learning about the technical aspects of social media they use.
But because technology is evolving at warp speed, it was a race against time to make sure entries in the encyclopedia wouldn’t become obsolete. Dr. Harvey made sure that the information she included was practically useful, academically important and exerted influence on the current field.
She also noted it is impossible to work in new technologies without encountering questions about personal security, national security and surveillance. In the process of studying the backend of social media platforms, she learned information she would rather not know, which has made her more cautious about what she shares online. She described how every person leaves behind a digital footprint—a history of Internet searches, items they’ve bought, financial information—that can be collected by both government and corporate interests.
“Privacy is never going to be the same again,” she said. “The encyclopedia taught me that every issue we are now starting to talk about is introducing a new set of human rights issues, questions and controversies around online privacy and surveillance. This is ‘topic A’ for our generation.”
Dr. Harvey and her team also did something nearly unheard of in the reference world: They conducted their own original research. A table presented in the encyclopedia shows the results of a study on which politicians use social media the most, how they use it and how it helps their careers.
“What we produced is an artifact. This encyclopedia is a portrait of the social media political landscape at this place and this time, in all of the dimensions we could get access to. That in its own right is a valuable thing,” Dr. Harvey said.