Thursday, November 19, 2009

extrACT and complex networks

In this blog post, I'll focus on the lecture given by Prof. Csikszentmihályi on Tuesday on networks and the extrACT project.  Please correct me if  I misinterpreted something from the lecture.

Csikszentmihályi's work on the extrACT project involved traveling from community to community across the the US where oil and gas companies purchase gas and mineral rights from residents.  I did not see a clear distinction between communities (urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor), rather, there was an emphasis on uniting geographically similar communities (some of which have already formed alliances), and then compiling data which the communities could then share with other communities around the US.

The purposes of these networks struck me as different from Terranova's masses.  While we can see the pragmatism of these networks of owners of land and mineral rights (beyond Left vs. Right), the networks ofextrACT seem to operate in a super rational realm when its main goal is to gather evidence, as opposed to a more fluid mass that takes on more properties than pure data collection.  In a sense, it seems as if theextrACT team works with these networks in the classic public sphere of rational debate, without taking on the passion that one saw in the images from Iranian protesters earlier in the year (the felt injustice!).  This calls into question the organic nature of theextrACT network: does pragmatism make networks passionless? E.g., What do you think of MTV's organization of small groups for betterment of the community?  Also, if we can separate the two, does it make a difference if a network protests capital versus a political regime?

What these communities do in conjunction with the extrACT team is smart and ambitious.  As was stated in the presentation, many community members have no idea of what chemicals are being used in order to extract natural gas from their land, there is little regulation as to what goes on with these extraction methods, and in some scenarios, there have been verified negative health effects.  Furthermore, some believe that there will be future negative health repercussions that we cannot yet measure.  Thus, for the communities to fight back, they need evidence; the communities need to receive the same data on what chemicals are detected near extraction sites, what chemicals and methods are being used to drill, and any other information regarding natural gas and oil companies.  If the network shares this data, this compilation of evidence can theoretically be used to back communities that are hesitant of drillers, or be used to threaten legal action against unethical, destructive, or harmful drilling practices.

This is exposure to the Nth degree, making a public case for action if we catch the bad guys.  From Keenan, we know we must take precaution when using these tactics, as well as understanding how this exposure occurs, through what medium, and how this medium is used within the network.  While I believe theLandman Report Card site ( to only act as one facet of the extrACT group, it looks underused, with few entries on landmen (the negotiators for oil and mineral rights) and the companies that these landmen work with.  On the other hand, companies like Chesapeake, who perform urban drilling in my hometown of Fort Worth, have plastered the media sphere with billboards, payed for hour long, prime time TVinformercials , and sponsor just about every new scholarship, art showing, or community event.  Chesapeake and other companies are always winning the PR battle (they always have more money to spend on mass media) while community organizers lack the funds to keep up.

Would using a site like have saved my local neighborhood from selling their mineral rights?  Maybe, maybe not.  While I see such abstract ratings for companies like "Knowledge" and "Courtesy," I do not see the "scientific" evidence or data logged from those companies current drilling sites, or any other deal makers that would have persuaded the community against selling their mineral rights (or at least any arguments any more persuasive than those of the few members of the community that protested the issue on local list-servs). 

We also need to understand that each community in the area is very different,with different levels of access, of different socio-economic statuses, and with different motives.  Many in my community wanted the drilling to happen, while in other communities they were completely blind-sighted by the process and without say.  Not all communities are equal, and not all communities are equal within the network.

Let's return to the local problem this capital coming from an outsider company from Oklahoma.  We couldn't take to the streets to protest at the company's HQ (although they do have offices in the downtown area, but unless this was a political protest on immigration, these communities don't take to the street).  At best, we could write the oil companies directly on their website or discuss the issues in the local paper.  Yet again, many city proponents were in favor of the drilling as many families had financial connections to the gas companies, and selling a land's mineral rights is lucrative (especially when energy prices were at an all time high).  Almost all neighborhoods sold their rights to drilling, even though they might accrued more value in the future, because it was the only option many communities could do in the face of capital pouring in from Oklahoma and bombarding the city- "You have to take what you can get, or your gas will be sucked out through the neighboring drill." 

ExtrACT is trying to make industry accountable for what they do- to unite people so that they can see when negative health effects occur, or to make sure that these foreign centers of capital don't screw the locals out of a deal and funnel everything back to theirHQs.  Some communities in my area, mainly those of high socio-economic status, held out and received high pay checks for their mineral rights (I don't think extrACT was a partner with my are at the time).  However, is this making industry accountable the same thing as making capital itself accountable?  We are dealing with the selling of land, so is it the network's job just to negotiate a fairer price for those without access and connection?

We are dealing with such complex communities and networks with an overbearing company, I am just never sure how software or technology will solve this problem.  We have created this winners take all community, where the winner's win and the loser's can't fight, so I would like to learn more about howextrACT and approach the complexity of the community.

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