About Jennifer Slack, Ph.D.: Dr. Jennifer Slack is Distinguished Professor of Communication and Cultural Studies in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. An influential figure in cultural studies perspectives on media and technology, Dr. Slack has authored, co-authored, and edited a number of important volumes including the text Technology and Culture: A Primer, with J. MacGregor Wise, and the recent volume, Algorithmic Culture: How Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are Transforming Everyday Life.
Dr. Slack’s research has been recognized with both Book of the Year and Article of the Year Awards from the National Communication Association. At Michigan Technological University, Dr. Slack is also the Director of the Institute for Policy, Ethics, and Culture, for which she was recently awarded a Faculty Fellowship. Prior to arriving at Michigan Tech, Dr. Slack worked as Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and Purdue University, as well as a Visiting Professor at North Carolina State University. She received her Ph.D. from the Institute of Communications Research at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in cultural studies and its relationship with media and technology studies?
[Dr. Jennifer Slack] I want to start with a preface, which is, particularly for those of us who are interested in culture, we are always children of our time. What we get interested in seems to be directly related to the issues that are emerging at the time our curiosities spark. I was born after World War Two, and I was a toddler in the 1950s. During that period of time, I was raised in a suburb that was redlined, though I didn’t know that at the time. I grew up in a family of largely Republicans, John Birchers, small business people, Eisenhower supporters. Everything was fine. [laughs]. I was raised to believe the world was just fine, and the only scary thing in it was when we had to hide under our desks in fear of a Russian nuclear attack.
I grew up in a family that wasn’t an academic family but became a curious and avid reader. When I went out into the world, I did so believing everything I read and everything everyone told me. That’s the key point I want to make. I wanted to be an archaeologist and I was told, “You can’t be an archeologist if you’re not independently wealthy.” So, I said, “Oh, darn, I can’t be an archaeologist.”
Then, I thought, “I’ll be a veterinarian. I love animals.” I actually started college as a science major to go into pre-vet. I was living in a dormitory with medical students and had befriended many of the medical students and one of my friends at the time, a young male medical student said, “You can’t be a veterinarian because you’re a woman,” and I went, “Oh, darn, I guess I can’t do that either.”
I left school. I couldn’t do the two things I wanted to: be an archaeologist or a veterinarian. I wandered around the world for about five years and got smacked in the face with all the stories that weren’t true. I had really low paying jobs, jobs where people were exploited: waitressing, working on assembly lines, hospital operating rooms. I was the low person on the totem pole everywhere I went. I just had my eyes opened by life. It totally undid the things I believed to be true without ever questioning them.
I developed an extreme curiosity. I used to put it this way, “Why do we believe things that are bad for us? How do we come to believe the things that we do?” You can see how this leads right into cultural studies. Because I was an avid reader, I eventually went back to college in English. I had to get off probation because when I left school everything was falling apart and I was about to flunk out. I went back to the University of Illinois Chicago where I was on probation and studied English. Then I transferred to the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and got an undergraduate degree in English there and was really interested in literary criticism. That theoretical question, “Why do we believe what we believe?,” was circulating there, mostly among the emerging feminist movement. I took a course called “Disassociation and the Double Life.” I started reading a lot of Russian literature and Dostoevsky was one of my very favorites. I loved all of his machinations and mental contortions.
Near the end of my undergraduate degree, someone said, “You know, there’s a graduate student who’s teaching a course over in the journalism school who you might really like to take a class from.” That was Larry [Lawrence] Grossberg, who was a teaching assistant at the time. I went over to the journalism school and asked, “Can I sign up for this class?” They said, “No, you’re not in the school of journalism, you can’t do that.” I said, “Wait a minute. I pay my tuition, why can’t I get into this class?” They said, “Come back later, if there’s room in the class we’ll let you in.” I was really persistent. I was going to be in this guy’s class because someone told me I would like it. This was 1974 or 1975. I finally got in and that class changed everything for me. I call it “the Grossberg effect.” [laughs].
Larry’s class, one that I later taught, was on theories of communication. On the first day he drew on the blackboard a model of media effects theory and sender-receiver models of communication and he drew a big circle around the context and said, “That’s communication. We’re not going to do that.” We started reading anthropology, popular culture, and cultural theory. I remember, for example, reading Clifford Geertz in that class, and everything just blew my mind. I decided that, if that’s communication, that’s what I want to do. It was from the very beginning a conception of communication that was already cultural studies.
I applied to be in the same place where Larry was getting his PhD, which was the Institute of Communications Research [at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign]. In my application, I talked about how I wanted to understand the power of art, because I had been in literature. How does literature teach us to believe things that are not good for us? How do we come to believe and persist in believing things that are not good for us? This is still something that fascinates me. Just think about politics right now, about the conservative movement that holds to ideas that deny people health care and deny them child care. Why we believe what we do is still an issue that matters deeply to me.
I went directly from undergrad into a PhD. This was the moment in 1975 that everyone was talking about the power of computers and how computers were going to change everything. This was the moment of the computer as panacea. It was in the air. It was what was going on around me. By now I was already keyed to believe that things we’re often told are not true and these grand statements about the impacts of technology just seemed really suspicious to me.
I started studying the history of technology, the history of media, labor history, and whatever I could find on technology and culture. By then, I had become quite involved in politics and I started to develop a fascination with why we believe what we do about technology. This was the origin of my interest in technology, as a child of the era in which I came into curiosity. I had a fellow graduate student come to me at the time and paternalistically put his arm over my shoulder and say, “I am really worried about you, Jennifer. Here you are studying technology, and nobody is going to hire you. No one is interested in technology.”
Of course, that wasn’t true. By the 1980s everybody was studying technology and everyone was saying, “I study technology in context.” It became the requisite tip of that hat, that you were aware technology could not be understood outside of its context. I started asking, “What do you mean by context?” One of my earliest articles argues that you can’t just say you study technology in context, you have to explain what you mean by context, and we have very different understandings of context. You can see, once again, how it’s cultural studies that provided me with an understanding of how to contextualize technology.
Larry went to Purdue for two years and when he came back I took every course he taught. We read a lot of Stuart Hall, and when Stuart came to the University of Illinois, I became friends with him and was even more deeply influenced by his work. By then, I would identify myself as in cultural studies, and since that time it has been the foundation from which I ask questions.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there important ways you feel as though your research has shifted or developed over the course of your career? What are some of the factors that have driven those changes?
[Dr. Jennifer Slack] My initial interest was about the adoption and use of computers. I used to say we don’t have to adopt them — that we don’t have to go here, to let computers be so integral to our lives. I wrote a report for the Office of Technology Assessment, which by the way I’d like to go into the Library of Congress and find and burn. It was about rural broadband, and I said we shouldn’t be talking about how to adopt and spread rural broadband, we should be talking about whether and why we need it. Now, of course, I’m out here living in rural America desperately needing rural broadband.
Once computers became the standard way that we communicate, the stakes changed. My research has had to change with respect to how contemporary culture is transforming. It doesn’t make sense to get stuck in an old story. I still don’t believe we need to go where we’re going, but there are some things you don’t fight about anymore.
As my work on technology emerged, I became more interested in the connections between technology and the environment. More recently, I’ve become really interested in algorithms and algorithmic culture. I have a co-edited book on algorithmic culture that came out about a year ago, in which we explore what new issues we need to consider given the penetration of algorithms into war, into marketing, into all social media, and everyday life: hiring practices, credit practices, the order in which you get things on Facebook. I’ve always had this resistant component that leads me to say, “We don’t have to swallow this whole” — again, pushing back against the things we accept without challenge and saying we can challenge these, we have the capacity to do that.
So there’s a through line in my interests. As the world changes and technology changes, I ask new questions, but with that cultural studies way of formulating questions, as the foundation that is always in place.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As you just mentioned, one of your most recent publications is the book chapter “Why We Need The Concept of Algorithmic Culture,” co-authored with Stefka Hristova, published in the collected volume Algorithmic Culture: How Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are Transforming Everyday Life, which you also co-edited. Could you tell us a little bit more about the concept of algorithmic culture and why you believe it is so important to understanding in our current moment?
[Dr. Jennifer Slack] The typical way that people understand technology, and this is in my very first work and first book, Communication Technologies and Society, which came out of my dissertation, is that technology is just something that happens. Greg [J. Macgregor Wise] and I in our later work call it “falling from the sky.” Technology just falls from the sky. Or isolated people in labs independently develop technology: they bring it out, it impacts us, and then we have to adapt to it. There’s this typical notion that if you don’t adapt then you’re behind the times, because this is progress. It’s a natural process. Technology develops and you adapt.
That’s an inadequate understanding of the role of technology: this notion that I adapt. Accompanying that idea of adaptation is the sense that even though I use technology for different things, I’m still essentially the same person, I’m still me. Technology is over there, and I’m over here, and I’m safely different from the technology. People commonly put this position forward when they assert that “technology is just a tool.” In fact, what happens is that we’re techno-cultural human beings. Who we become is integrally related and intertwined with the technologies we use and the technologies that surround us and circulate in our lives.
That’s a very difficult argument for people to get, that story of the integral techno-cultural relationship that constitutes human beings. Science fiction writers write about this complexity all the time. People like myself write about this all the time. It’s not a mystery theoretically, but it’s very difficult to understand what that affect is, if you will: how technology is integrally wrapped up in what it means to be human.
The notion of algorithmic culture is an attempt to understand how calculation, computation, and the parsing of humans and human possibility driven by algorithms and machine learning, actively shape my daily life, my sense of myself, my affective being, what we think is possible or impossible, and who and what we are. As Larry Grossberg puts it, our “mattering maps” — what matters — are integrally related to the pervasive use of algorithms. “Why We Need The Concept of Algorithmic Culture” explores the ways in which that happens.
[MastersinCommunications.com] I see a commitment in your work to taking difficult theoretical ideas and making them accessible and valuable to a broader audience. For example, your text with J. Macgregor Wise that you referenced, Technology and Culture: A Primer, has become a popular reference for scholars seeking to understand conjunctural analysis, assemblage theory, articulation, and more. Do you think of your work was geared, in this way, to making the complex vocabularies of cultural studies and media studies more approachable and publicly relevant? What are some rewards and challenges that come with this type of research and writing?
[Dr. Jennifer Slack] That’s such a good question and it’s really a fundamentally important one. That question occupies a huge space in my brain, and there are so many ways I could answer it and so many issues that articulate to my current position. Let’s put it this way for the sake of clarity. Universities in the US are often referred to by people outside the academy as the ivory tower. I used to think, “Oh, that’s really unfair. We are not in an ivory tower, we’re in the world as much as everyone else is.” Which is true, but I think sometimes academics use the idea of the ivory tower as an excuse to be in an ivory tower, to not actually engage with the world outside of our conversations with one another.
I have to say, a lot of the world doesn’t care about what we do and they’re not interested in having these conversations with us. Who is interested in having these conversations? My fellow academics. We don’t live in a very intellectual culture, we live in fact in an anti-intellectual culture. So, whom do we talk to? We talk to one another because we can understand each other, and we can critique one another, and we can recognize the value in what we’re trying to do. Unfortunately, then, it becomes very easy for us to just talk to one another. We develop vocabularies that are nuanced, important, and fascinating, and we can critique one another intelligently. This situation is entirely understandable.
Unfortunately, however, the downside is that we start circling around our own ways of engaging the world to the exclusion of how people outside of the university understand the world. I’ve always taught an undergraduate course that was some version of technology and culture, and I have had to learn to talk to the students about technology as it matters in their lives. I wanted to teach engineering students because I wanted to teach them how to think about technology differently, and I had to find a way to speak to them. I developed course work material very early in my first job that was designed to help them understand this difficult thing about the way technology is integral to who we are – that concept I discussed before. Early on, I had to figure out how to explain that to people.
Working at the University of Michigan, I began to develop a way to talk to engineering students. I met Greg [J. Macgregor] Wise, who is also very committed to cultural studies and technology, and he asked, “How do you teach this?” I said, “I developed all these course materials,” and he said, “You should write a book.” I responded, “We should do a book together.” So, Greg and I started working together with the goal of trying to take this knowledge we had developed in this intellectual climate and make it accessible to people who really are interested but don’t have the language and the background to really engage in this at the high academic, intellectual level that we were raised to value.
We wrote Culture and Technology: A Primer, the first and the second edition, and it’s widely used in undergraduate classes and it’s become really successful. The problem is, as an academic, there are people for whom that kind of book is “for students.” You just have to stand up to that attitude and say, “Fine, if you think that’s a bad thing that’s your problem.” I find more and more that I have difficulty with what we call in the biz “high theory.” I have more and more impatience with it. I look to the kind of authors and scholars who try not to prove how smart they are or talk just to people who have similar “high knowledge” but are instead trying to change the world.
You’re not going to change the world by only talking to a few people who understand what you’re saying. There are wonderful books like Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Shüll. I assign this to my undergraduate students. They can read it, and we can talk about it, and it stretches them, but it doesn’t push them away. I think writing to stretch people’s knowledge is what we should be doing, not pushing them away.
There’s an interesting thing happening in the academy right now that we should all be careful about. Journalists are taking over the job of writing for the public about these serious matters, because we’ve left that space undeveloped. Journalists are writing about things for audiences we should be writing for. Journalists are typically less knowledgeable than those of us who have been training and learning and studying for a really long time. But if we don’t occupy that space, it will be taken up by others, because the issues matter.
I think we should deemphasize going to conferences and talking to one another in this elevated high language, competing to be in the top tier of scholars that everyone adores and looks up to. I think we really need to work hard to make our work more directly relevant. We need to be dealing with climate change. We need to be dealing with surveillance, with privacy, with the role of algorithms, with geopolitics. There’s an invasion of Ukraine we need to help the world understand. We need to be finding the links between all this knowledge we have and addressing real world problems in everyday life.
[MastersinCommunications.com] At Michigan Tech you are the Director of the Institute for Policy, Ethics, and Culture. Can you tell us about the aims of the Institute and the work that you do there?
[Dr. Jennifer Slack] When I came to Michigan Tech in 1988, I hoped it would be possible to forge connections with engineers, scientists, and social scientists and it didn’t really work out all that well. I ended up pretty much safely ensconced in the humanities, doing my work, teaching undergraduate students and graduate students, and not making a lot of connections with STEM scholars. The rich legacy of the mining school with a deep-set orientation toward engineering left not much space for the humanities. But three or four years ago we got a new president, Richard Koubek, who urged that we really needed to upgrade this university for the coming centuries. He latched onto the literature on the fourth industrial revolution and said we really need to rethink the role of the university for the future. He developed what he called his Tech Forward Initiative. There were nine total initiatives. Our paths crossed, and he asked me to lead one of the initiatives, and it felt like beautiful serendipity.
He asked me to lead the initiative on Ethics and Policy and I said, “If I can add culture, because you can’t do ethics and policy without culture.” He said, “Go for it.” We developed this initiative to figure out how to infuse the university’s teaching, research, and climate with policy, ethics, and culture. I put together a group of people, both faculty and staff, and we proposed the Institute for Policy, Ethics and Culture.
The Institute is designed to address the policy, ethical, and cultural aspects of the changing techno-cultural, environmental landscape. There are three prongs, where policy attends to governance, both formal and informal, ethics attends to moral principles of conduct, both formal and informal, and culture attends to the power and significance of values, beliefs, norms, roles, practices, communication, and change. We infuse each of these with attention to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. It’s a huge charge.
We have a yearly speaker series. We just finished this year’s series last night. We had six speakers engaging the topic “lives in transition.” Last year we featured “justice in transition.” We’ve run a series on “algorithmic culture” and another on “designing the anthropocene.” We identify emerging issues of great importance and bring in people to engage the academic and regional community as well as influence research, teaching, and policy.
We have a proposal going forward as we speak, for a PhD in policy, ethics and culture, which will promote the development of transdisciplinary expertise. We’re going to hire some research scientists to do transdisciplinary work across the humanities/STEM boundary, to bring in some money to support the institute, to support students, and to collaborate in transdisciplinary work. You can see my cultural studies background here, but I’m not calling it cultural studies. It’s about articulating scientific approaches, social scientific approaches, humanistic approaches and using them to address problems like climate change, machine learning, health care, biotechnology, autonomous vehicles, potentially anything, and supporting transdisciplinary work in an attempt to, again, change the world.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your recent piece “Cultural Studies in Black and White” engages more experimentally with the practice of academic writing, incorporating your own artworks into cultural criticism. Can you provide us with some background on these pieces? What do you think integrating visual art into cultural studies helps us see that we would otherwise overlook? Do you sense a shift within cultural studies, or communication studies more broadly, where critical engagements through creative work are becoming more widely accepted?
[Dr. Jennifer Slack] This is an interesting question and one that’s very difficult. It is also something that I struggle with. Like the problem of the isolation of the humanities in the university, I think the arts are even further removed, even further insular. This is the (unfortunate and often misleading) narrative of artists and their art: they’re isolated, crazy people who do art and what they do has nothing to do with everyday life. The goal of art is not to fix the world, art is simply self-expression. We know that story is insufficient and mostly wrong, but it is very powerful. So, the work that’s produced is often like that.
I’ve challenged myself to see if I could use art to cross that divide: to be both aesthetically interesting, standing on its own (artistic) merits, but at the same time be useful in creating change. I don’t want to use art as a pedagogical hammer to make you rethink the world, but as a way of drawing people into thinking about the world. The goal isn’t to teach you with these pieces. It’s not a book, it’s an experience. Art is not a manual. It’s an affective experience. I want to try to play with that. Can I curate an affective experience that is both beautiful and evokes thought and a different way of being in the world? “Cultural Studies in Black and White” was an attempt in print to provoke a conversation about what cultural studies is and how it resonates with affective experience.
I’ve had pastel painting exhibitions for which this was the goal. One of them was called “What Makes a Wall?”, which I did when Donald Trump was obsessing over building a wall on the US-Mexico border. I did a series of paintings of walls: internal walls, literal walls, abstract walls, as a way to get people to think about walls and what the roles they play in their lives. The opening for that show was the best opening I’ve ever had because I asked people to tell their stories about walls. People would come in, identify with one of the paintings, and talk about their experience with walls in their lives.
I gave away paintings. I picked out five paintings to give away, and on each of them there was a charge: you can have this painting if you make a commitment to break down a wall somewhere in your life, or, you can have this painting if you’re willing to send off money in support of the children at the border who are in need of humanitarian assistance. Those paintings were snapped up and people would come and say, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” It was a wonderful experiment and then it was over. Art exhibitions are kind of fleeting like that. They come and there’s a moment and then they go.
You have to remember from the time that we’re young children we learn to wrestle with writing, but drawing is fun time. Then, as we grow older, the dominant story is that people who do art are slightly mad. We don’t learn to appreciate the multiple ways of engaging with art that we do with writing. Even those people who never go on to college understand some things about writing, but most of us are never really taught to understand art in anything close to its complexity.
I had a graduate student once who had poetry in her dissertation and she fought for that. She said, “This chapter is a poem,” and everyone went, “Oh no, really?” She was so darn smart she could get away with it, and we wanted her to, but it was totally nonstandard. You can’t have a chapter that’s a poem. But, it turns out, you can if you work hard to make it happen! The thing is, you bring this to a community that is deeply steeped in trying to protect its reputation against the barbarian arts and the idea that we’re selfish, self-centered, privileged, ivory tower liberals. We’ve learned that if you’re going to do a dissertation it has to meet certain standards, and it has to look a certain way, and poetry isn’t it. But, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.
I remember at one point in the history of the journal Cultural Studies they really wanted to bring in more art and poetry. It wasn’t successful. I remember a friend of mine submitted something that was, I thought, just lovely and I recommended that it be published. I thought it was beautiful and playful, but it was destroyed in the review process for not being scholarly enough, for not citing the right sources. So I said, “Ok, you don’t really want poetry and affective reflection.” It’s a terrible tension and difficult to tackle. I was not entirely satisfied with the reception of “Cultural Studies in Black and White.” In fact, I never got any feedback on it. The piece that I did on color [“Cultural Studies in Color”] is academic, and that piece was fine.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give to students interested in media technologies and cultural studies who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Jennifer Slack] I have a couple of points I’d like to make. First of all, cultural studies is a conversation. If you’re intrigued by cultural studies, it’s like you’re walking into a group conversation that’s been going on for a long time. You have to sidle in and you need background. What it means to do cultural studies comes with a complex background of conversations. I really believe studying the history of cultural studies is tremendously helpful because then you understand why there are some issues in the present that really matter.
Reading three articles in cultural studies and saying I do cultural studies just doesn’t cut it. So, I would first of all take very seriously reading about and trying to catch up to the conversation. The book by Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983, which is a collection of lectures by Hall that Lawrence Grossberg and I co-edited, is one way into that. That’s my first point; you have to catch up to the conversation.
My second point is that you need to follow your own passions. If you’re really interested in art and poetry and it doesn’t quite fit, that doesn’t matter. You keep pursuing that, because it will matter. Nothing that you think matters is unique to you. As I said, you are a child of the times. If that’s where your passion is, that’s connected to the world you’re living in, and you need to work on it.
Remember, I told you about the guy who put his arm over my shoulder and said, “Nobody’s interested in technology, you’ll never get a job.” I could have believed that, like I had earlier when I said, “No, I can’t be an archeologist because I’m not independently wealthy or I can’t be a veterinarian because I’m a woman.” I accepted those things. Please don’t accept the things that people tell you that you can’t do.
So, follow your passion, but be part of the conversation. Figure out how to integrate your passion with the work that can help you. One of the things that Stuart Hall said that has always resonated with me is, and I am paraphrasing here, “to work on theory is to take a detour through theory.” What we’re really trying to understand is the world we live in. The theory and methods of cultural studies are not the goal. Those are the ways that help us wrestle with the world we’re living in.
Get into that conversation, learn what those issues are, and see what helps you engage the world as you face it. Your generation, your position, your history, engages the world in a particular way. You would not believe how many of my students have chosen their path because they thought they were supposed to, and I have had so many students who were unhappy because they were just doing what they thought they had to do. I would gently give them permission to pursue their passions. I try to not to intervene with parents and their instructions, but the students didn’t know they had choices.
Graduate school can be misleading that way, because people often go to school thinking they want to do something in particular and it gets derailed by their advisors, funding opportunities, or by the prevailing interests of their peers. There’s a wonderful book written decades ago by Mary Midgley called Wisdom, Information, and Wonder, and the first chapter is all about the way graduate school in philosophy derails the passions of the students because they adopt what they think they’re supposed to do. She says, “Don’t do that. Remember why you went to graduate school to begin with.” Honor your passion.
The model of the sciences is often that you do whatever your advisor has support for. I’ve seen engineers who are interested in groundwater and end up changing their whole career to engineering foundry waste. They’re miserable human beings afterward, because groundwater was their passion. They often end up not being successful engineers. If you want to be a happy human, you have to pursue your way of being in the world. Graduate school changes people, but you have choices, and you need to recognize the choices, and pick a committee carefully that lets you develop your passions and expertise but, at the same time, can guide you to do that successfully. It’s really hard, but you have to remember you have choices.
Thank you, Dr. Slack, for your fascinating discussion of your research into how technology shapes humanity, ethics and policy’s relationship with culture, and the ways in which art promotes human thought, empathy, and social engagement!