Unpacking the Binary of Engagement and Uses

In order to approach the concepts discussed in my previous post (Thoughts on a negative turn), it is important to tease out some of the nuances in the term “use” which we tend to take for granted.

First off, when we talk about new technology and engagement (particularly in discussions over the digital divide), there is a tendency to view our status as participants in “all or nothing” terms. One either is a user, or one is a non-user. One is either connected to the internet and engaged with digital technology and networks, or one isn’t. Of course this is absurd. Over two million people still use AOL. Discussions over national broadband coverage, municipal fiber-optic networks, and varying strategies for improved infrastructure to overcome lag and latency make up the present conversation over broadband internet’s status as a potential core utility. The reliance of minority communities on mobile devices for internet access point to varying degrees of engagement on a scale like lumens. Certainly, the absence of light qualifies an environment for darkness. However, there is a great deal of difference between low candlepower  and high intensity halogen lights. Likewise, absolutely no connectivity would qualify an environment for non-users. However, just because one is able to connect doesn’t mean they won’t be frustrated with connection timeouts and slow service.

So we do not just have non-users and users. Sally Wyatt distinguishes the varieties of non-use (refusers, rejectors, excluded and expelled)(1) and points to ways we can understand users as well:

The Internet “user” should be conceptualized along a continuum, with degrees and forms of participation that can change. Different modalities of use should be understood in terms of different types of users, but also in relation to different temporal and social trajectories. The latter include changes in lifestyle determined by processes such as aging, changing jobs, educational history, and geographical mobility. (2)

This is where we enter a second binary about participation: use practices. The term “use” binds up our motivations and our methods for engaging in technology. These are not always as the author intends. Practices reflects how motivations and methods translates into actual behavior. Use practices are similar to what de Certau (3) describes as tactics individuals can employ against the strategies of systems. If we think about how technology is intended to be used, we can recognize a set of prescripted uses. Latour (4) describes prescription as

whatever a scene presupposes from its transcribed actors and authors (this is very much like ‘‘role expectation’’ in sociology, except that it may be inscribed or encoded in the machine)… ‘‘User input’’ in programming language, is another very telling example of this inscription in the automatism of a living character whose behavior is both free and predetermined.

This provides a way to create circumscription, or “the organization in the setting of its own limits and of its own demarcation.” Things are typically meant to be used in a certain way. They are designed or engineered with a prescriptive use. Often, more complicated technology comes with instructions or even a Terms of Service that describes how a thing is supposed to be used. From an engineer’s point of view, users are ideally well-behaved and at worst, call for assistance if they can’t get something to work right. But again, this is not the case. A long history of misuse and abuse (or what I would call proscribed use). This is where we have a critical engagement with technology and users can assert greater agency.

Proscribed use is not simply about breaking things. Even Luddites (the most archetypical non-users) were not merely smashing machines because they hated technology. Using hammers (another technology) they created an interruption in the technics and social relations created by the textile machinery as a means of strategic engagement. They did not retreat to the woods or look to build technology-free utopia. Instead, they marched against what they saw as threats to their status as the skilled technologists of their own day. They were (in one writer’s words) “labor strategists” rather than the technophobes as they’ve been characterized.

Proscribed use then is about a series of tactics and negotiations with technology. These maneuvers point to a diversity of use practices, much as there is a diversity in how connected we are or our level of participation. The other reason for exploring these nuances is not only to gain a better understanding of how humans relate to technology and what changes in technological society mean for us, but to identify and critique a growing and intended homogeneity. First, the push towards connection seeks to make us all users. Second, there is a push towards standardization, or prescripted use. Terms of service and standards of practice work alongside efforts to “bridge the digital divide” which aids an instrumental rationality working in tandem with the ideology of hegemony. I think some describe this as “Empire”(5), others “Leviathan”(6), and others a “technological society” (7).

I think I should also say my goals are not to provide others with more deterministic work in the vein of a doomsday crier or an amateur eschatologist… there are plenty of clichés already and I have no wish to join the ranks of dystopians, despite my natural pessimism. Instead I’d like to explore the “middle way” described by people like Langdon Winner(8) and Bruno Latour, and the relationship of people and things at the periphery of what I’ve described as prescripted use.

  1. Wyatt, S. (2005). The digital divide, health information and everyday life. New Media & Society, 7(2), 199–218. http://doi.org/10.1177/1461444805050747
  2. Wyatt, S. (2005). Non-Users Also Matter: The Construction of Users and Non-Users of the Internet. In N. Oudshoorn & T. Pinch (Eds.), How Users Matter The Co-Construction of Users and Technology Cambridge: MIT Press
  3. de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
  4. Latour, B. (n.d.). What are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology Building Society (pp. 225–257). Cambridge, MA.
  5. Negri, A., & Hardt, M. (2000). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  6. Perlman, F. (1983). Against his-story, against Leviathan!. Black & Red.
  7. Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society (pp. 1–503). New York: Vintage Books.
  8. Smits, M. (2001). Langdon Winner: Technology as a shadow constitution. In Achterhuis, H. (Ed.). American Philosophy of Technology-‐The Empirical Turn.Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Thoughts on a negative turn

Disconnect1-e1299441149589For a while now, we’ve heard people talk about connectivity and networks and participation in all sorts of terms: hope, paranoia, idealism and cynicism, from the promise they offer to the dangers we anticipate.

One thing that usually haunts these thoughts is the implicit assumption, and the foreboding progression of eventual total mediation. A bifurcation between the past, where we were not online, and a future where we all will be. Isn’t this what we mean when we talk about the digital divide? When we imagine bridging it, we see new media as a form of essential literacy – something that will become absolutely necessary to survive in the future. We must become connected to the internet, so that we can access news and information, so that we can efficiently and conveniently manage our lives (from our finances to our romantic endeavors), and so that we can stay abreast of conveniences which will make our routines more efficient (apps to help with shopping, transit, and work). To say nothing of our correspondence – how many telephone numbers do you remember right now? Do you rely on a computer to store them for you? If you lose that computer, are they saved remotely so that they can be easily restored? If not, do you have a social network where you can ask friends and family for the missing numbers?

This has less to do with dependence than it does with the natural state of things. We don’t use phonebooks any more for the same reason that we don’t use public phones, or pagers, or telegrams. Most of our libraries don’t have card catalogs and many of our arcades have disappeared (to say nothing of Radioshack). The way we get stuff done has changed, and so does our expertise on how to do stuff. Knowing how to do that is a form of special knowledge that people describe in terms of literacy: computer literacy, code literacy, digital literacy, media literacy. Some describe it as a generational trend, with “digital natives” (oh how I dislike that term).

Is using the internet and computers as fundamental to being a member of society as knowing how to read? Or how to speak? Perhaps not right now, but it appears that we are moving that way. For everyone who approaches the “digital divide” like an anxious missionary, eager to spread the word, the idea of being disconnected is something akin to being in the outer darkness. Separation from the whole is a lamentable thing, and the answer is connectivity.

But non-users persist. Not just beyond the far reaches of the developed world and it’s neocolonial grasp, but within and throughout. Not as an oversight, but as willful, stubborn holdouts, nail-houses in the otherwise orderly datasets from whence we might summon Big Data truths. The efforts to connect everyone are frustrated by people who are not just presumably inept at technology, but who are active refusers and resisters. What is this about?

Bernard Stiegler described the way that mediation in forms like television lead to an industrialization of consciousness, because of how they order the flow of our experience. A potential for interruptions which reassert our control may result in a means of resistance. But we have seen how giving us control over not just the remote, but the programing, the channels, and everything else, result in a history and an experience which is dominated by the present. How are we building our memory? How are we writing our history? Events crystalize from their representation (like 9/11) or evaporate once our attention wanders (like #stopkony). If an idea does not go viral, it has no currency. If it does, it has no provenance. The chance for maturation is slim: new ideas which go viral are expected to perform at least as well as whatever has bored us up to this point.

Connection means adopting a new consciousness, one that is incapable of looking backwards. Walter Ong wrote on how writing “heightened” consciousness. What does digital media do? We still don’t know. It has certainly made itself essential to our way of life. Microtransactions are part of the stock market now. Algorithms are part of the security apparatus which are a major part of public policy. And we can hardly call our families without the computer dialing for us. If these processes truly are part of our cognition now, then any questions about computationalism might be put to rest.

Lastly, the state of being always on, always connected, always mediated would seem to mean that our experience is invariably referenced, connected, indexed, and able to be catalogued. When we talk about ways to “unplug” for our peace of mind, we do it in terms of the machine which brought us here: productivity. The “mindfulness movement” exists as a way to let overachieving professionals have a spa weekend and boost their productivity. The experiments at temporary refusal (not watching tv for a month, shutting off mobile devices before bedtime and so on) are only for the sake of being able to return refreshed, renewed and better. The search for a quiet space that escapes the “friendziedness of technology” is always a temporary one – our return is like some monomythic cycle, where Jonah emerges from the belly of the whale back into the daylight. Mediation is the new norm – refusing it is an act of defiance, something deviant and antisocial, which brings us to a separate place. Like so many refusers who went Amish, they become invisible, and their breadcrumbs are lost because nobody has marked them on Google Maps.

Some questions I would ask then, would be these: is this new consciousness inevitable? As mediation becomes a norm, is non-use a form of deviance? Is it ignorance to not buy a smartphone? Can I expect a poorer quality of life as an illiterate luddite? It seems too late to throw our shoes into the machine, but what strategies are there for holding onto a intracommunicative space where social media can’t tell me how to spend my time and attention?

The New New Journalism

Nate Silver is probably one of the best popularizers of big data and how effective it can be at understanding and creating meaning. Today, there is a manifesto on FiveThirtyEight which does several things very well – it outlines the need for more data literacy, justifies how journalism needs to embrace big data and understand it in order to effectively disseminate knowledge, and gives a basic “how and why this works” guide on rigorous data collection and analysis for journalism.

It’s a really good article, with lots of great points. But there is something there between the lines which I think reflects a contemporary paradigm shift. First, there is the “condition of virtuality.” N. Katherine Hayles described virtuality as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.” There is a dualistic conception of information/matter and a relationship where control over the information leads to control over matter. Coding is an act which invokes new realities, as in the case with computer programing and gene sequencing, but it can be performed wherever there is access behind the user interface.  Continue reading

Uncommon Commons now happening at CAA2014



workshop attendees at Uncommon Commons this morning.

For nearly the past year I have been helping to organize UncommonCommons. We are now in full swing of the College Art Association event and I was really pleased with our first workshop. It’s great to bring a breath of the radical and collaborative to the environment of CAA. If you’re in Chicago, be sure to check us out! We’ll be there until Saturday. Afterwards I’ll be sure to post a longer summary and review.

Some thoughts via Reddit via technocracies and democracy

Neil Postman describes a technocracy in his 2011 book “Technopoly.” (one of my favorites, I’ve posted about it before). As he understands it, technocracy is an intermediate step between a tool-using culture and a technopoly. Up until the 17th century all societies were tool using societies. Tools performed in the way you might expect them to.

With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization. These beliefs, in fact, directed the invention of tools and limited the uses to which they were put. Even in the case of military technology, spiritual ideas and social customs acted as controlling forces. (P. 23)
The tools are not intruders. They are integrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its world-view. (P.25)

However… Continue reading

Wrapping up work at TNS

I’m very happy to say my thesis has been approved by my committee and I am formally turning it in Monday. This marks the end of a year long research project that relied on the input of a great many people, whether they were aware or not. Some of them were very helpful by graciously agreeing to participate as interviewees, and others were members of the communities I was following through participant observation, in person and through meetup group and listservs. This was my first exposure to a real, long term qualitative research project and using ethnography to produce knowledge. I’ll be self-publishing the thesis and sharing it with all the research participants. Also, I’m work on (quickly) wrapping up a short journal paper with a colleague and my advisor to make some of these study results more accessible. 

Although I was really grateful for the experience, in some ways the focus of the project drifted from my interests as a graduate student. I went into the work with an expectation and a hope to learn more about how groups like Occupy work, by using a hackathon as an alternative setting or a case study. I wanted to know how groups of people that operated without strict leadership produced things or made decisions together, and formed a collective identity asserting what they were about and what they wanted. The hackathon wasn’t really the best way to understand that, but it did give me some unique insights into the balance and struggle of organizers to negotiate with a group of participants who have their own motivations and agendas. 

Now that the hackathon and thesis work is over, I’m going to be applying to grad programs where I can keep working on those issues and maybe get the focus back on issues that are still not fully reconciled within the world and our mediasphere. Fingers crossed!

PS (since this may read like a “why I haven’t posted in awhile, I also want to say my wife and I are expecting in January. I’ve also been distracted by everything it takes to get ready to have a baby! very exciting times.)

Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.4

Just for fun, a few words on scientism from my Papers library:


Scientism. The political consequences of the authority enjoyed by the scientific system in developed societies is ambivalent. On the one hand, traditional attitudes of belief cannot withstand the demand for discursive justification established by modern science. On the other hand, short-lived popular syntheses of isolated pieces of information, which have taken the place of global interpretations, secure the authority of science in abstraction. The authority of “science” can thus encompass both the broadly effective critique of arbitrary structures of prejudice and the new esoterics of specialized knowledge and judgment. A scientistic self-affirmation of the sciences can promote a positivistic common consciousness that sustains the public realm. But scientism also sets standards by which it can itself be criticized and convicted of residual dogmatism.’ Theories of technocracy and of elites, which assert the necessity of institutionalized civil privatism, are not immune to objections, because they too must claim to be theories (107).” – Habermas, Jürgen. Legitimation Crisis. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. London, UK: Heinemann, 1976.

Neil Postman (he devotes an entire chapter of Technopoly to scientism. Here’s an excerpt):

“Technopoly… is totalitarian technocracy (42). Technocracies are concerned to invent machinery. That people’s lives are changed by machinery is taken as a matter of course, and that people must sometimes be treated as if they were machinery is considered a necessary and unfortunate condition of technological development. But in technocracies, such a condition is not held to be a philosophy of culture. Technocracy does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique. Technopoly does (52).

…By Scientism, I mean three interrelated ideas that, taken together, stand as one of the pillars of Technopoly. Two of the three have just been cited. The first and indispensable idea is, as noted, that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior. This idea is the backbone of much of psychology and sociology as practiced at least in America, and largely accounts for the fact that social science, to quote F. A. Hayek, “has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena.”

The second idea is, as also noted, that social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis. This implies that technical means— mostly “invisible technologies” supervised by experts—can be designed to control human behavior and set it on the proper course.

The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality (400).” – Postman, Neil. Technopoly. Random House LLC, 2011.

I find it really fascinating to be able to thread back hackathon solutionism to technologism, to scientism, to technopoloy. The “data hegemony” that might arise out of a culture obsessed with virtuality, is pretty frightening if you understand the implications.