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

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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.

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Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.2

(Read Pt.1 here)

“Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” – Michael Dobbins

My last post left off talking about how scientism relates to technologism, which in turn relates to solutionism. I believe that the commonality between these three is a near total belief in systematic, orderly approaches to problems, and the failure to acknowledge nuance, pure subjectivity, and comparative ethics.

First, there is the orderly approach to problems. City Atlas made this post which riffed off of Sasaki’s piece I mentioned last time.

Peo­ple seek short­cuts to hard prob­lems. Put another way by David Owen in an essay in the Wall Street Jour­nal, “[W]e already know more than enough, and we have for a long time. We just don’t like the answers.”

The rea­son for this is that the answers are some­times ugly. If we can cre­ate a pro­gram that allows us to geolo­cate road­kill, we con­sider our­selves smarter, hav­ing dis­cov­ered an elec­tronic “solu­tion” to this prob­lem plagu­ing soci­ety. We can sit back, happy that we used our incred­i­ble intel­li­gence to tackle an issue with­out even leav­ing the house. But what we, as a soci­ety, really need if these “solu­tions” are to become tan­gi­ble, is some­one who is will­ing to go out and actu­ally scrape a flat­tened squir­rel off of the side of the street.

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Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.1

If you follow the same people I do, no doubt you’ve come across the recent debate over Stephen Pinker’s piece in The National Review. The discussions that have followed this article highlight something that I think is relevant to the nature of hackathons I’ve been unveiling in my work.

Scientism itself is a pretty contested word – Pinker chooses to describe it thusly:

“[Scientism is] more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems… Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life…. The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.

I’m not going to debate Stephen Pinker, since I am a lowly masters student not yet in a PhD program, and he is purportedly one of the most influential thinkers on the planet at the moment. Instead, I’ll let others do that for me! Continue reading

Weak and Strong Collectivism

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean by the term collectivism, particularly when we refer to collective identity… for my work, this is especially relevant to the online context. There are different types of collectivism, and we have as many examples of them as there could be definitions. But I think I’ve found a way to describe it in a two axis model, from weak and strong versions of collectivism to it’s natural antonym, individualism.

collectivismindividualismstrongweak

A lot of early online identity work focuses on personal identity through the weak individualism perspective. This is the “second life” of Sherry Turkle, the virtual “rape in cyberspace” described by Jullian Dibbell, and the multiple personas and characters that were promised as positive experiments in identity construction. The anonymity we were accustomed when interacting with others online let us play different roles, made us weary of strangers, and allowed us to vanish when we shut off the computer.

Today, there is a persistency to that online identity, because our self is integrated with our online identities so that we have a strong individualism perspective. Companies like Facebook and Google push users to use their real names.  Privacy and tracking worries us in different ways when we continually offer up the “selfie,” tag photos with our location and monitor our behavior through devices like Fitbit and self-tracking apps. We understand that users are the products of the social media that they use, being offered up to advertisers and seemingly unhuman corporations, and we are subject to algorithmic data apps that are all watching us. Sometimes we see ourselves as disjointed, isolated, and further alienated from each other, despite the supposed interconnectedness of the internet. We worry about how digital media affects our physiology as we grow closer to it (such as in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows).

The strong collectivism concept is how we are used to thinking about people in groups – the “smart mob,” the riot, which comes together to destroy and wreak havoc for a brief time before dissipating with no essence. It is very temporary but powerful, tenable yet unstable. It is Anonymous, or a legion of botnet zombie computers controlled by people who seem as bland as the beige on old PC cases. They are a monolith, like the old Soviets, and when they disappear there is nothing left.

In contrast to this, I believe the most useful important perspective is the weak collective which I see as a recursive public (to borrow Kelty’s term). It is flexible, it adapts, and it is formed out of the relationships and collaboration of individuals who work together, rather than march in step. OWS was an interesting example of this – the relationships formed during the physical protest (which resembled a mob) actually resulted in loose networks of people which transitioned from the demonstration spectacle to community programs that later provided needed services to others (such as the OccupySandy groups). These is the ideal the “network society” Marcuse writes about.

The hackathon is an interesting site for recursive publics, because attendees are distinctly individualistic, with differing agendas and motivations, but they come together and form relationships in this temporary space which, as one attendee put it very recently,  as participants are “collecting ideas from one hackathon and apply them to the others. this can lead to interesting mashups. i look at a hackathon as kind of like an Ouija board for geeks —  a weird discovery process with other weird people like you.”

OccupyData and TTW13

Evernote Snapshot 20130302 142839Last weekend I was at OccupyData and Theorizing the Web, as I mentioned earlier. Nathan Jurgenson and and PJ Reys put on an impressive conference for work about technology and theory (two things which are apparently difficult to talk about at the same time at conferences, apparently). At the same time, the organizers at OccupyData have done a good job coordinating people working on all sorts of different projects – there was a mixture of pitches and continuing work, and there was a little more structure to begin with this time. Two of the more interesting projects that were Data Anywhere [Day 2 post] and the NoFareHikes map that Ingrid Burrington showed us – I especially liked the later because as Christo said, “there’s a media action agenda inherent in project” which makes it great. I’ve been thinking about how a lot of hackathons propose a sort of data solutionism, or a belief that the technology solution is the solution to whatever the issue is. Continue reading