Bring the Noise: Systems, Sound, and Silence

In our most tranquil dreams, “peace” is almost always accompanied by “quiet.” Noise annoys. From the slightest rattle or infinitesimal buzz to window-wracking roars and earth-shaking rumbles, we block it, muffle it, or drown it out whenever possible. It is ubiquitous. Try as we might, cacophony is everywhere, and we’re the cause in most cases. Keizer (2010) points out that, besides sleeping (for some of us), reading is ironically the quietest thing we do. “Written words were meant to evoke heard speech,” he writes, “and were considered inadequate until they did so, like tea leaves before the addition of hot water” (p. 21). Reading silently was subversive.

We often speak of noise referring to the opposite of information. In the canonical model of communication conceived in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which I’ve been trying to break away from, noise is anything in the system that disrupts the signal or the message being sent.

If you’ve ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a parking garage, find a non-country station on the radio in a fly-over state, or follow up on a trending topic on Twitter, then you know what this kind of noise looks like. Thanks to Shannon and Weaver (and their followers; e.g., Freidrich Kittler, among many others), it’s remained a mainstay of communication theory since, privileging machines over humans (see Parikka, 2011). Well before it was a theoretical metonymy, noise was characterized as “destruction, distortion, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali, 1985, p. 27). More literally, Attali conceives noise as pain, power, error, murder, trauma, and youth (among other things) untempered by language. Noise is wild beyond words.

The two definitions of noise discussed above — one referring to unwanted sounds and the other to the opposite of information — are mixed and mangled in Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), a book that rebelliously claims to have been written to be read aloud. Yet, he writes, “No mere artefacts of an outmoded oral culture, such oratorical, jurisprudence, pedagogical, managerial, and liturgical acts reflect how people live today, at heart, environed by talk shows, books on tape, televised preaching, cell phones, public address systems, elevator music, and traveling albums on CD, MP3, and iPod” (p. 43). We live not immersed in noise, but saturated by it. As Aden Evens put it, “To hear is to hear difference,” and noise is indecipherable sameness. But, one person’s music is another’s noise — and vice versa (Voegelin, 2010), and age and nostalgia can eventually turn one into the other. In spite of its considerable heft (over 900 pages), Making Noise does not see noise as music’s opposite, nor does it set out for a history of sound, stating that “‘unwanted sound’ resonates across fields. subject everywhere and everywhen to debate, contest, reversal, repetition: to history” (p. 23).

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
John Cage

The digital file might be infinitely repeatable, but that doesn’t make it infinite. Chirps in the channel, the remainders of incomplete communiqué surround our signals like so much decimal dust, data exhaust. In Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture (University of Minnesota, 2011), Peter Krapp finds these anomalies the sites of inspiration and innovation. My friend Dave Allen is fond of saying, “There’s nothing new in digital.” To that end, Krapp traces the etymology of the error in machine languages from analog anomalies in general, and the extremes of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) and Brian Eno‘s Discreet Music (EG, 1975) in particular, up through our current binary blips and bleeps, clicks and clacks — including Christian Marclay‘s multiple artistic forays and Cory Arcangel’s digital synesthesia. This book is about both forms of noise as well, paying due attention to the distortion of digital communication.

There is a place between voice and presence where information flows. — Rumi

Another one of my all-time favorite books on sound is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 2001). In his latest, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum Books, 2010), he reinstates the human as an inhabitant on the planet of sound. He does this by analyzing the act of listening more than studying sound itself. His history of listening is largely comprised of fictional accounts, of myths and make-believe. Sound is a spectre. Our hearing is a haunting. From sounds of nature to psyops (though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is “torture-lite” in any context), the medium is the mortal. File Sinister Resonance next to Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House, 2010) and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2010).

And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? — Refused, “New Noise”

Life is loud, death is silent. Raise hell to heaven. Make a joyous noise unto all of the above.

———-

My thinking on this topic has greatly benefited from discussions with, and lectures and writings by my friend and colleague Josh Gunn.

References and Further Resonance:

Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Keizer, G. (2010). The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance. In E. Huhtamo & J. Parikka (Eds.), Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Refused. (1998). “New Noise” [performed by Refused]. On The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts (Sound recording). Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

Schwartz, H. (2011). Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.

Shannon, C.E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tompkins, D. (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Toop, D. (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum Books.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum Books.

For the Nerds: Bricks, Blocks, Bots, and Books

I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.

Erno Rubik among his Cubes.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,

Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancock puts it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:

Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.

To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.

Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Couplandbrick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:

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If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].

So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).

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Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.

Get on it, nerds.

TEDxAustin 2011: Right Now.

Quoting Ray Kurzweil, TEDxAustin co-curator Nancy Giordano opened the day by saying that as humans we’re prepared for linear change but completely unprepared for exponential change. We were certainly unprepared for the full day of potential change she and the TEDxAustin crew assembled in the Austin Music Hall on February 19th: Right Now. Giordano warned us a few times of “intellectual whiplash” when the schedule leaped from one topic to entirely another. She never warned us about “expectation whiplash” though. Right Now was a rollercoaster.

Several people* have pointed out that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Sunny Vanderbeck isn’t after the end of capitalism, just capitalism as we know it. In one giant leap toward fixing it, he takes a long-view that includes responsibility for the world in which business is done over short-term gain. In another, he advises openness. No more relying on sweatshops or sneaky offshore practices. If we make and demand that processes be more transparent, change happens. Change is a contagion. … Ralph Wagner showed us the future of biotechnology, then Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth (Crown, 2009), showed us how it can go horribly, unhealthily wrong. Here’s hoping her contagion catches on. She showed us crazy data on genetic food modification, pesticides, and food allergy and cancer rates in the U. S. versus the rest of the world. These are not a pretty pictures of our country or its policies. …  Runner Gilbert Tuhabonye advised us to do our work with joy. He has done his under many circumstances. He advises joy.

“Language and culture are the software of the 21st century,” proclaimed Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of ComminuCard. Um, I’m no rocket scientist (Acevedo is. No, really.), but I would argue that language and culture were the software of every century prior to the 21st. Software is the software of the 21st century. … Osama Bedier monstertrucked through his Skyped-in presentation with his back thrown out and taught us about the history and presumably the future of payment. By way of comically extended metaphor, he also taught us why the limitations of the Space Shuttle are based on the width of horses asses. It’s a great story, and I won’t give it away here. Gregory Kallenberg illustrated how creative media can bring polarized opinions together with his documentary Haynesville (2009) about a giant natural gas reserve (170 trillion cubic feet or the equivalent of 28 billion barrels of oil) in the backwoods of Louisiana. It’s an amazing story of hope and possibility. … Poet and teacher Joaquin Zihuatanejo brought tears to the eyes and chills to the skin with his starkly told stories and dynamic delivery thereof. If you’ve ever doubted the power of words, look up Zihuatanejo. … After we all got hyped up, Flint Sparks made sure everyone got very relaxed. The bumpers and graphics on the screen between and during the talks were excellent, and I was stoked to see Public School among the credits.

In each of our packets, there was a list of three people TEDxAustin thought we should meet. As most conference-goers know, the sidebar conversations are usually as important as the planned speakers, the serendipity of bumping into the new. As John Maeda once put it, “serendipity comes from differences.” Unfortunately, we tend to seek out similarities, and I found some like-minds in the halls (big ups to Kevin and Paul from M3 Design, Todd the freelance writer, and Travis the designer), but even my micro-experience echoed the larger impression of a bunch of white folks patting themselves on the back. By the end of the day, no one had found the three people on their suggested list.

Gary Thompson has some great ideas about how the internet and the cloud should serve us better, but he’ll have to help Sunny Vanderbeck fix capitalism before he’s likely to be able to implement any of them. Companies still want our information to stay separate because it serves them — and capitalism — that way. … Peter Hall was my favorite speaker by far. He talked about the difference between maps and mappings, and showed lots of great examples. He’s at my own University of Texas at Austin, so look for me to be tracking him down soon. … Lionel Tiger, author of The End of Males (St. Martins Press, 2000) and professor from Rutgers University who coined the term “male bonding,” came to defend the men. He made many interesting points about boys growing up believing they’re just bad girls, but the reason we don’t have men’s studies departments and courses on masculinity is the same reason we don’t have White Entertainment Television: It has always already been that. The study of history up until the last 30 or so years has been the study of men. We’re still doing it wrong, but we’re doing it.

TEDxAustin: Right Now ended with a bit of a whimper and not a bang. Tavo Hellmund was the most “sought-after” speaker of this event, but I couldn’t really figure out why. His talk was on the benefits of bringing a Grand Prix Formula 1 facility not only to the United States but to southeast Travis County, which he’s doing. It seemed antithetical to the piped-in Brené Brown talk we’d just heard. … He and Dustin Haisler should talk about generating interest in their communities. The messenger is the message, Hellmund seemed to be saying. Haisler, who spoke last, has obviously read Clay Shirky’s last book, but not Dan Pink‘s. Harnessing the cognitive surplus to renovate local government looks great on a comment card — it’s like democratizing democracy — but incentivizing it with virtual money doesn’t sound feasible. I don’t want to play Farmville with the players of Farmville, so I hardly want my city government run by them. Incentive comes from within. Engagement starts with the person, not the external rewards.

I left TEDxAustin inspired and very glad I managed to slip in, perhaps with a few of my expectations violated. The organizers, curators, participants, and volunteers all deserve massive gratitude and credit for putting this thing together.

——————

Here’s one of the videos of one of the talks we watched at TEDxAustin. It’s Brené Brown from TEDxHouston 2010, and it’s awesome [runtime: 20:45]!

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* Michael Hardt, Mark Fisher, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek, at least.

Desiring Lines: The Path More Traveled

Campus sidewalks meander between places of interest, connecting buildings and parking lots in a maze of concrete stripes. Often where their right angles turn near grassy areas between them and another building or parking lot, there are paths leading off diagonally. These forking paths are called “desire lines,” so named because they show where people would rather walk. There’s a story circulating that says good engineers (or lazy ones, depending on who tells the story; see Brand, 1994, p. 187) put sidewalks in last as to follow the desire lines and avoid wear on the grass. Desire lines illustrate the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them.

Desire lines are where the system – the system of people in conjunction with their built environment – asserts itself. “Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space (1958). “These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space… Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs” (p. 12).

Our dealings with Nature are just lines in innumerable directions.
— William James

In A Line Made by Walking (Afterall Books, 2010), Dieter Roelstraete examines a series of art work and black and white photographs thereof by Richard Long. In 1967, while a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, Long wore single, straight line on a hillside outside of London. His single photograph of the line wore his name into the annals of art like so many footsteps on that hill. The piece, also dubbed A Line Made by Walking, Roelstraete writes, “equally belongs to the histories of early Conceptual art, Land art, performance or body art…” and experiments in photography, among others (p. 2). It was Long’s first recognized piece of art and set in motion a career that took art out of the gallery and into the landscape. Roelstraete’s book explores his work, but also the many trajectories that spin off of it. Travel, technology’s influence thereon, walking, performance, and the relationship of the body to the world.

Rebecca Solnit has done the best job of exploring the history and philosophy of walking and thinking. Roelstraete situates Long’s work in relation to Solnit, quoting Solnit’s Wanderlust: A history of walking (2001): “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). Richard Long’s work and Dieter Roelstraete’s book about it illustrate this thought in lines both walked and written.

By the way, A Line Made By Walking (the book) is an entry in Afterall’s “One Work” series, each of which explores a particular piece of art and how it changed art and our perception of it, not unlike what Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series does for records. Both are highly recommended.

Desire lines and the meditations in A Line Made by Walking remind me that aspects of our lives only matter because a certain amount of us have decided that they do. Often called social construction and often harshly critiqued as uselessly postmodern, the concept is testable. Go to your local coffee shop or restaurant and try to walk behind the counter. You will be swiftly ushered back to the other side of the counter if not out of the establishment. Whether or not there is an actual physical barrier in place, there is an accepted area for the employees and one for the patrons — that’s social construction. As a society or culture we tend to agree on a great many of these constructions. We decide what matters.

To read Solnit, you’d think we’d decided that walking no longer matters. She writes,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination. (p.250)

Though I’m less pessimistic than Solnit sounds above, I acknowledge that technology often makes decisions for us. Often we aren’t left a choice as to what is easier, more convenient, or more fun, much less what is more acceptable. Often the technology in place makes only one path available — a sidewalk in the current example. But, as GeorgieR, an admin for the Desire Path Flickr Group, puts it,

The key to the desire path is not just that it’s a path which one person or a group has made, but that it’s done against the will of some authority which would have us go another, rather less convenient, way.

Desire lines illustrate our endless ability to stray anyway.

References:

Bachelard, G. (1958). The poetics of space. New York: Beacon.

Brand, S. (1994) How building learn: What happens after they’re built. New York: Viking.

James, W. (1903). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Roelstraete, D. (2010). Richard Long: A line made by walking. London: Afterall Books.

Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Penguin.

———-

Special thanks to Katie Arens for introducing me to the concept of desire lines.

Culture, Computers, and Communities: Two Recent Books

Culture is technology-driven William Gibson once said, and, with the proliferation of digital media, the aphorism is less and less debatable (if it ever was). If technology is indeed the engine and infrastructure of our culture, then understanding it is tantamount to understanding ourselves.

The books written on the topic could fill a library, and two recent ones caught my eye. The first attempts a broad-reaching macro-view. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (Free Press, 2009) promises not only to get to the bottom of the technology undergirding our culture, but to be an engaging read as well. I first came across Arthur’s work in M. Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Simon & Schuster, 1992). Arthur stumbled upon the theory of increasing returns (what are known in cybernetics and systems theory as reinforcing feedback loops) while attempting to apply biological principles to economics. The academic crossbreeding proved fruitful as Arthur deftly outlined the reasons for the dominance of everything from Microsoft Windows to QWERTY keyboards.

Unfortunately, his mixing and matching of intellectual domains falls short when it comes to the science of technology. First of all, The Nature of Technology starts by conceptualizing the two (nature and technology) as opposing forces, calling them “tectonic plates grinding inexorably into each other in one long, slow collision” (p. 11). As often as it has been employed elsewhere, this is a premise of limited promise. Technology is an extension or continuation of nature. They are parts of the same continuum. Viewing them as adversaries leads to many other fallacies, not the least of which is the attempt to draw a line separating the two. For example, on page 10, Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’re still left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval.” Drawing such an arbitrary line in the sands of time is exactly the mistake that those against technology make. As if speaking and writing aren’t technology. As if harnessing fire or clothing ourselves aren’t technology. We shape our tools and they shape us, as McLuhan (1964) put it. Our overall developmental lifecycle is the result of a structural coupling—in Maturana and Varela’s terminology (1987; Maturana & Poerkson, 2004)—with our technology. Not that Arthur is against technology, but making distinctions as such is not only treacherous, it’s just ludicrous.

Brian Arthur is a brilliant scholar and subsequently this book is not without insight. “A change in domain is the main way in which technology progresses,” he writes on page 74, echoing Thomas Kuhn (1962). If only he’d based his book on this statement, we might have ended up with a more useful theory of technology.

Another of Arthur’s key ideas is one he calls “deep craft,” writing, “Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work” (p. 159). Eitienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John David Smith apply their deep craft to technology and the ways in which communities and technology work together. A little over a decade ago, Etienne Wenger wrote a classic text on the ways that we work and learn together called Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Applying the ideas to software, networks, and connectivity, Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities (CPsquare, 2009) is a handbook that every IT manager should keep handy. It won’t tell you which specific software tools you need for your business or community, but it will guide you through your needs and illuminate aspects of your community (and its technology use) that you scarcely knew existed. For example, the simple idea that the “always on” of broadband connectivity equals the “always there” of the community (p. 186; an idea that my friend Howard Rheingold has explored in depth in his many books, most recently Smart Mobs, 2003) puts technology’s augmenting role in your community in a new light.

Wenger, White, and Smith’s many well-worn and time-tested insights yield a book rife with the same. In-depth scenarios and quick advice pop up on nearly every page, often bolstered by real-world examples and their relevant URLs, as well as excellent graphs and flowcharts. A lot of the general information in Digital Habitats might be common knowledge for the experienced technology steward, but the experience and research collected here is likely to be useful for everyone interested in creating, fostering, or maintaining a working community augmented by technology.

Technology infiltrates our lives in ways we don’t even realize. Rem Koolhaas went so far as to say that human culture wouldn’t exist at all without technology, calling it “a decaying myth, an ideology superimposed on technology” (1995, p. 210). As much as we may want to grasp a grand unified theory of its ubiquity, perhaps it’s just easier to look at it on the micro-level. Either way, technology is as much a part of us as we are of nature (and vice versa). Drawing lines between us and it or it and nature are useless.

References

Arthur, W. B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Koolhaas, R. & Mau, B. (1995). S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maturana, H. R. & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer Verlag.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rheingold, H. (2003). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Waldrop, M. M. (1998). Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.