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

 

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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:

Habermas:

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.

Scientism, Solutionism and Hackathons, Pt.3

So this is the last part of the series (for now), be sure to read Pt.1 and Pt.2

This is a random grabbag of my thoughts I guess. The last article I’d highlight (and everything I linked before, I really enjoyed so you should read them) is FUCK THEORY. I guess it sets the tone for this post – up until now I’d like to think I’ve been pretty deferential about the whole issue, so let me blow off some steam with this post.

Let’s be perfectly clear – “science” as we think of it today is a new thing.  It dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the disciplinary divisions we today regard as entirely natural were formalized by people like Hermann von Helmholz.  Before that there were no “scientists”:  there were thinkers, writers, philosophers, ethicists, geometers, and doctors.  There were also theologians, who Pinker dismisses out of hand, even though “science” would not exist without the precedent of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus.  “Science” is a fully historical product of the regimentation, organization, and professionalization of what used to just be people observing the world and thinking about it.  Science is the transformation of knowledge into a cliquish guild.

Continue reading