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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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

Researching Hackathons

EcoHack Sketch

a sketch of one of the hackathons where we did participant observation

Well, this past semester was incredibly busy. Although I haven’t been working as much with Youth Rights Media, I did start a research project that I will be pursuing as a master’s thesis this coming year. For awhile now, I’ve been interested in the idea of digital activism and “hacktivism” as it’s been termed. There’s a lot of confused discussion over the use of the term “hack” and how it applies to hackers, hacktivism, and hackathons. Public perceptions and use of the term hacking and hackers leads to some very odd policy decisions, as Molly Sauter points out in this MIT CMS lecture. But digital activism/hacktivism is a much larger barrel of monkeys. When I started working on this subject, I was highly influenced by Joss Hands book, @ is for Activism. I also have been following the discussions and trends around slacktivism/”clicktivism” as Earl and Kimport describe in “Digitally Enabled Social Change” and their “theory 2.0” ideas about how we conceptualize collective identity when dealing with disparate political actors in a digital environment.

These inspirations combined with the last year’s worth of news and events from Occupy and Anonymous and other forms of digital activism, led me to some new questions and ideas. First, is digital activism/hacktivism a collectivizing endeavor? Or is it purely an individualist activity where people wind up working together? As many know, there are difficulties of researching actions and subjects in digital localities. For the past twenty years people have been developing a methodology of netnography, and now we have a trend of combining quantitative analysis with a previously anthropological approach through the use of data mining and fancy coding tools. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do though.

At the New School, there was no shortage of talk about Occupy – there were even hackathons organized for projects geared towards Occupy-related issues. At the urging of my advisor, I started looking at hackathons as field sites where this sort of digital activism happened in a physical space as well, as a sort of hybrid environment where we could do more traditional participant observation into not just the physical space, but also the “information space” – all the cloud and internet based environments where data was being shared, stored, and drawn from to make these projects happen.

I’m really happy to say it was a great experience. I worked with a fellow grad student (Danny Kim) as a research partner and together we did participant observation at three hackathons  – OccupyResearch at CUNY, EcoHack, and Hack N’Jill, all of which had some sort of identifiable pro-social or political agenda or theme. It was great as a pilot study, and I’m eager to get more into the work this spring. Some of the things we discovered felt like new ideas – unless we’re reinventing the wheel, our findings so far helpful to understanding hackathons and their potential for social or political activism.


Participants working at one of the hackathons

The best TL;DR summary I can give is probably this: it seemed as though hackathons are about solving technology problems, rather than social problems. The time/skill-driven agenda really creates a disconnect between any policy issues that the projects are meant to address and focuses participants on rolling them out in a working and deployable format without a lot of concern towards longevity or application. This isn’t always the case, but what we really saw was an environment where people came to casually demonstrate and practice skills with others, to collaborate and learn, and generally have fun doing something they loved doing. I think this is all very different from the action-driven agenda of activism, although the two are not incompatible.

This sort of work will hopefully lead to our bigger questions, about how individual identity informs a group and helps to create a collective identity, and how a collective identity helps to inform the individual on their role within the group, particularly when dealing with horizontal networks of politically motivated individuals facilitated by technology. I believe this is a recursive sort of relationship, and I’d use the drosde effect as an illustration.

I’ve also submitted our abstract for Critical Themes In Media Studies and Theorizing The Web 2013. I’d love to present on this work or find some new opportunities for study. This semester I’ll be making a stronger effort to blog more frequently about updates to this project.

Encouragement for the New Semester

Classes at the New School started again today. Some of my courses will be online this semester, including Projects In Media Advocacy, a practices course which takes us through the process of creating advocacy messages and learning strategies for dealing with news outlets.

Media studies is one of those things which is commonly dismissed by others as a worthless degree, a shortsighted and somewhat arrogant assertion that grows increasingly weak as the influence and pervasiveness media technologies  extends to every part of our life. In going through one of the readings for the advocacy media course, I found great reason for studying media I’d like to share with everyone who doesn’t think media studies is important (admittedly, those people shouldn’t be listened to in the first place, but let’s be kind):

Today, the mass media… are among the most important institutions maintaining, reinforcing, and reproducing existing inequities in power. Since media controls the range of views to which audiences are exposed, media coverage can obscure – and can even reverse- public opinion towards repressive social policies. Mainstream media promote visions of society that endorse the status quo while silencing, marginalizing and/or absorbing alternative and opposition voices. 1

This reason is 20 years old. As we’ve seen media’s democratization and the political implications of participatory culture have global repercussions, media studies should be recognized as one of the most important areas of scholarship and work for today’s world.

1. Ryan, Charlotte. Prime Time Activism. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1991. 7

The Power of Narratives: Can One Story Survive?

This week, I received an invitation to join Cowbird, a fantastic site that defines itself as “a simple tool for telling stories, and a public library of human experience.” On a more basic level one can see it as an “audio-visual diary” of your life, but the site goal is more to catalogue experiential knowledge through a multimodal narrative format that overarches the “sagas” of its users.

Me, photographed by some installation at the Activist Demo Day at Eyebeam last spring.

The first time I remember hearing about Cowbird was during an Occupy-related event at Eyebeam – I was telling a colleague of mine about my interest in these ideological, mythological forms of information embedded in media, what Barthes would have explained as the “third order signification.” This reminded him of Storify, and Cowbird. Storify was popular at the time because of the way that citizen journalists had used it to help craft the narrative of OccupyWallStreet, but I hadn’t heard of Cowbird. Over the past year I checked into the site occasionally, reading stories and enjoying some of the things that had been shared. Continue reading

Youth Media and Organizing

I’ve been busy with, what is it, week three? of Youth Right’s Media’s Summer Institute, which has been going really well. Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to lead a workshop in research skills for a group of about twenty six youth. As anyone who’s worked with teenagers knows, the mere mention of the word “research” can cause one’s eyes to glaze over and induce a slumber so severe, you think they’d been doing relay races all day. But the following day, the interns presented a creative media project we had them do to showcase what they’d found out. I was genuinely surprised by the means by which they presented, as well as the depth of work they’d done. All of them used video projects, but they included different techniques found in other PSAs and advocacy shorts. There was an intuitive knowledge gained during the research by seeing other examples, and it translated very well to the youth emulating that type of product and presenting it to each other.

I’ve also been busy writing a working paper for the Berkman Center’s CFP on “Youth Movements for Social Change / Youth Organizations.” I just submitted my work earlier, which I’m proud of because it drew from my experience at YRM and synthesized it with some foundational and cutting edge work on the subject of media literacy and participatory politics. I’m referring to Henry Jenkins’s White Paper from 2006 and Cohen and Kahne’s recently released Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Continue reading

Remember Me: Municipal Memorials Project

Remember Me” was born out of a set of inspirations and conditions that just happened to come together in the right time and place. For a while, I had been interested in Youth Rights Media, a New Haven non-profit that teaches media production and literacy to teenagers in an after-school program. I became involved around the same time that I started exploring the ideas behind civic media and tactical design, and I knew that I wanted to apply those principles to the organization, if possible. For a decade now, Youth Rights Media has been producing documentaries and public service announcements that deal with critical issues relating to urban youth and inner-city problems, such as the “school to prison pipeline,” school dropout rates, or “digital stories” of the youths themselves. At the time of this project, they were working on “Unspoken,” a film dealing with gun violence and the way it effects people whose stories and voices are seldom heard.

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The Radical Theatre: How to Turn an Audience Against Itself

This post is cross-posted at Civic Media + Tactical Design in Contested Spaces (with minor revisions)

When we think about civic media as a means to appeal to others through a medium, we may forget that we’re really exploring different types of mediation and not technology. The theatre is not something that immediately comes to mind (at least for me), but like any means of getting a message out, there is a structure to both the creation and the distribution of any content produced for it. We cannot presume that anything we do, simply because it has a political agenda, is immune to the effects of the medium. As Bertolt Brecht writes,

The avant-garde don’t think of changing the apparatus, because they fancy that they have at their disposal an apparatus which will serve up whatever they freely invent, transforming itself spontaneously to match their ideas. But they are not in fact free inventors; the apparatus goes on fulfilling its function with or without them; the theatres play every night; the papers come out so many times a day; and they absorb what they need; and all they need is a given amount of stuff.

Honest expression becomes production, and then “art is merchandise.” It is the same dishonesty that can take place in any creative industry (especially when we view them as such), because when we employ theatrics and/or music without a fair degree of tactical design to ensure the work is not co-opted by the apparatus, it becomes another product.

Brecht also writes about irrationality and pleasure inherent in opera and the provocative effects which still draw our attention. I’m reminded of Frank Zappa’s fantastic rock opera Joe’s Garage, a bizarre, sprawling 3 act work touching on censorship, sexuality, cult religion, and the music industry, released at the same time as the Iranian Revolution (Ayatollah Khomeini banned rock music from the country), and as a precursor to Zappa’s later battles with the PMRC. Four years ago Hollywood’s Open Fist Theatre staged a sold out, fourteen week run of the production.

Being a composer who didn’t particularly care to satisfy anyone’s standards but his own, it’s surprising to note that during live shows Zappa would employ what he called “enforced audience participation” at his live shows, in which people would do things asked of them from the stage (such as jump up and down, and recite a poem during one show in the UK). This wasn’t mandatory, but Zappa (as the composer and head of the band – musicians were considered his employees and went by the script most of the time) freely broke any “fourth wall” during the show’s theatrics.

Although bands have always had vocalists screaming at the audience to try and get them to sing along, Zappa becomes an old-fashioned lounge-band master of ceremonies, talking to the audience, telling them stories, goading them into all sorts of weirdness… In “Dance Contest,” Zappa makes the statement:

“I have an important message to deliver to all the cute people all over the world. If you’re out there and you’re cute, maybe you’re beautiful, I just want to tell you somethin’ – there’s more of us ugly mother-fuckers than you are, hey-y, so watch out.”

In many ways this is Zappa’s philosophy: from his earliest recordings Zappa has been mocking and critiquing the unearned privilege of the beautiful people. This flat-out statement of contempt for the beautiful, and the realization that the ugly have an unacknowledged power, is important in understanding both Zappa and his fans.

This interactivity of live music and opera is something that’s lost in recordings – in fact, before recordings rendered a single performance into crystallizing what “the song” was, there were presumably many mutations given the conditions one would perform in (Roman Mars mentions this in a 99% Invisible podcast about the RJDJ app). But it is the interface of opera, as a physical engagement between performers and the public, is what allows for possible radical transformations, in Brecht’s mind:

“We have seen that opera is sold as evening entertainment, and that this puts definite bounds to all attempts to transform it. We see that this entertainment has to be devoted to illusion, and must be of a ceremonial kind. Why? In our present society the old opera cannot be just ‘wished away’. Its illusions have an important social function. The drug is irreplaceable; it cannot be done without…. Only in the opera does the human being have a chance to be human. His entire mental capacities have long since been ground down to a timid mistrustfulness, an envy of others, a selfish calculation. The old opera survives not just because it is old, but chiefly because the situation which it is able to meet is still the old one. This is not wholly so. And here lies the hope for the new opera. Today we can begin to ask whether opera hasn’t come to such a pass that further innovations, instead of leading to the renovation of this whole form, will bring about its destruction.”

Brecht also notes that changes distinguishing dramatic and epic theatre, brought about by technical innovations which led spectators to “face something” rather than to be “involved in something.” But if we are to apply this as a form of civic media, Augusto Boal’s directive to include an audience becomes paramount:

“In order to understand this poetics of the oppressed one must keep in mind its main objective: to change the people -“spectators,” passive beings in the theatrical phenomenon – into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic action… I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups
should transfer to the people the means of production in the theater so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it.”

As an way to impart the skill to handle that weapon, Operación Alfabetización Integral gave rural Peruvians various types of literacy. These went beyond basic reading and writing (which we take for granted when we hear the term literacy) and  included the the ability to speak in non-lingual mediums. Those abilities allow individuals to impart non-linguistic forms of meaning on core values relating to their identity, belief and way of life.

One day a man, in answer to the same question, took a picture of a child’s face. Of course everyone thought that the man had made a mistake and repeated the question to him:
“You didn’t understand; what we want is that you show us where you live. Take a picture and show us where you live. Any picture; the street, the house, the town, the river … ”
“Here is my answer. Here is where I live.”
“But it’s a child…. ”
“Look at his face: there is blood on it. This child, as all the others who live here, have their lives threatened by the rats that infest the whole bank of the river Rimac. They are protected by dogs that attack the rats and scare them away. But there was a mange epidemic and the city dog-catcher came around here catching lots of dogs and taking them away. This child had a dog who protected him. During the day his parents used to go to work and he was left with his dog. But now he doesn’t have it any more. A few days ago, when you asked me where I lived, the rats had come while the child Was sleeping and had eaten part of his nose. This is why there’s so much blood on his face. Look at the picture; it is my answer. I live in a place where things like this still happen.”
I could write a novel about the children of the barrios along the river Rimae; but only photography, and no other language, could express the pain of that child’s eyes, of those tears mixed with blood. And, as if the irony and outrage were not enough, the photograph was in Kodachrome, “Made in U.S.A.”

Boal also provides an outline for “transforming the spectator into actor” through increasing levels of mastery of technique, medium, and production that leads to a final stage of “the theater as discourse.” Spectator-actors create “spectacles” as per their “need to discuss certain themes.” A contemporary, well mediated example of this would be Reverend Billy (and the Church of Life After Shopping or Earthalujah). Reverend Billy and his group often maintain an identity as a evangelist and his choir, holding revival meeting-styled performances in public spaces, whether on the street or in shopping department stores. They “preach” and “sing” messages of anti-consumerism, perform exorcisms and so on.

They’ve also “cast out demons” for Deutschbank, Bank of America, BP, and other corporations, in an satirical-interventionist style akin to The Yes Men. But the church format works well for involving audiences in all sorts of locations. Most people have seen a street preacher before – but very few have seen an activist impersonating a street preacher talking about climate change or economic inequality.

By employing a familiar, participatory format like “church” in the medium of street theater, Reverend Billy is able to bypass or deflect aversion one might hold to either practice. He also can include the audience through the church format by directly addressing them, encouraging hand clapping, asking for affirmation, and so on. It’s great stuff – better yet, it translates well to the internet, where the parody is not lost on those audiences. The recordings and rhetoric of Reverend Billy’s performance can be shared and fits will with whatever social media it’s sent through.

If you haven’t heard Frank Zappa or Reverend Billy before this, I highly encourage you to check them both out. Zappa distorts the conventions of rock music for his own musical agenda, and Reverend Billy does the same to evangelical pretensions for his progressive causes. Also, don’t let that music in the video be the last you hear of Zappa – I appreciate what they tried to do in spirit, but the recording is terrible and the musicians can’t hold a candle to Zappa Plays Zappa or the original works.

Bertolt Brecht. The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater (Chapter 13), Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, 1964.
Augusto Boal, Poetics of the Oppressed: Experiments with the People’s Theater in Peru (in Chapter 4), Theater of the Oppressed, 1985.
Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed., Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 71-101.
Lowe, Kelly Fisher, and Kelly Fisher Lowe. The Words and Music of Frank Zappa. Bison Books, 2007.

Naturalization and Questioning the Codes We Live By

Paul Bass and Shafiq Abdussabur

Last Wednesday night the Youth Rights Media staff and I took a group of students from my Media Literacy class to a talk by Shafiq R. F. Abdussabur. The author of “A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in America,” Abdussabur is a police officer also runs workshops for other police departments in Connecticut. The purpose of this talk was “Race, Politics, and Police,” mostly focussed around racial profiling and police/community relations, always timely topics in New Haven but moreso given the way East Haven’s dirty laundry has gone national.

Because I am a terribly cynical person*, I would characterize Abdussabur’s comments as “the best PR the NHPD has going for it.” While well intentioned, there are uncomfortable overtones that even the youth in our program picked up on. His book, as the literature describes,

gives tough love instructions for those who think they have been victims of racial ethnic profiling, but only to realize that they where [sic] poor communicators.

Abdussabur did raise an important point where he talked about the dificulty of addressing racial profiling and moving forward in solving the problem because of a lack of data. While CT passed the Racial Profiling Prohibition Act in 1999, this was never properly enforced and East Haven was one of several cities that didn’t regularly file reports which would provide evidential records of profiling.

The troublesome bit was all the qualifiers that Abdussabur has for the public. On one hand, they are pretty common-sense – be polite to police, watch your tone, respect their authority, etc. During Q&A, he explained that this is something police belief the public already knows, yet chooses to ignore. The answer is evidently to train the public to meet the police’s expectations. That flies in the face of the seemingly obvious need to train police in cultural competency and overall better people skills.

Also worrisome was his lack of clarity on whether or not it’s ok to record police (which Paul Bass, asking the questions, undoubted wished he could have explored), something an audience member took objection to. It’s really at the heart of these current issues.

AbdussaburThere’s a bit of good and bad here – Abdussabur is clearly aware of what he calls the need for “multidimensional thinking” – where we see each other beyond the roles we play, a degree of personalization where an enemy becomes someone’s parent, sibling, child, etc. The enemy in need of this multidimensional representation is not a “thug,” but the police themselves. He dismisses hip-hop fashion and youth culture as fads and trends, that “everyone looks like a gangster,” and the talk seemed to gloss over the way that media portrayals can make certain demographics into a stereotype, leading to the problem of racial profiling. On a beat, police rely on what he refers to “officer discretion,” or their hunches – which can be motivated by racial preconceptions brought on by those faulty representations.

These preconceptions are promoted and internalized as a value within a culture, as self-perpetuating ego defenses against out-groups (“blacks are so violent, no wonder so many of them are in prison!”) Anecdotal evidence such as the NYPD’s repeated screening of an Islamophobic film for recruits should still be infuriating, but not surprising, in a society where Muslims have been vilified by the media for over twenty five years. The same would go for African-Americans and Latinos, who (as with any non-white minority) have continuously struggled for fair media representations which weren’t ridiculous or offensive caricatures or contrived and pandering token cutouts of real people.

These representations really not only determine the nature “officer discretion,” but the way people see themselves (identity) and the world (ideology).

Connotation, in short, produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical. Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’. According to an Althusserian reading, when we first learn denotations, we are also being positioned within ideology by learning dominant connotations at the same time (Silverman 1983, 30). – from Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

Abdussabur said, “Policing is politics through the use of force.” I think that’s a great quote. I think it’s probably the most unintentionally accurate quote about humanity in general – we police others, we police ourselves, according to some measure of politics, which isn’t always decided by a legislature somewhere (as he presumably meant it to be). His outlook on policing is a decidedly parental one, in the decision to educate the public on how to better conform to the police’s expectations of them. But although the absurdity of that thought is lost on some, we have to understand that each of us go through that process of naturalization, whether it’s through induction into the culture of policing or just “normal life.” We should all have that multidimensional thinking Abdussabur mentions, which lets us challenge codes and dominant connotations – but that training should certainly be applied as part of the institutional naturalization police go through.

For more on the “evil arab/muslim” orientalist stereotype, see Steuter, Erin, and Deborah Wills. At War with Metaphor. Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

On representation of the black community, try Herman Gray, “The Politics of Representation In Network Television,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 439-462. There’s a terrific takedown of the Cosby show in it, in case you ever wanted to be disappointed by one more thing.

*It should go without saying that comments are my own and do not reflect the views of Youth Rights Media. Just because I was there with them does not mean I am not an independent thinker with my own opinions.

Occupy The Super Bowl?

Remember what I said (or Eco said) about protesting and sports?

There is one thing that – even if it were considered essential – no student movement or urban revolt or global protest or what have you would ever be able to do. And that is to occupy the football field on a Sunday.

Well, it appears as though people are starting to grasp the power of that idea:

As Tithi Bhattacharya says,

“…the protest on Sunday actually is not a one-off. It stands on the shoulder of and in solidarity with the thousands of people who came to the State House over the last two weeks to protest this bill. It is also not, I think, the end—-or I hope it’s not the end of this series of protests. Why the Super Bowl? Lucas Oil Stadium was built with 100% union labor. Every single structure that is up in the city of Indianapolis today that has been built to beautify the city has been built with union labor. So, I think it is absolutely shameful that the legislature passed a law that condemns unions and is now using the city to kind of showcase Indianapolis while ordinary people in Indiana are completely opposed to this law. The protest on Sunday also stands in solidarity with the NFL Players Union, which has come out so strongly against the legislation. I think there has been some talk of how the Occupy movement may—-there has been some fear that the Occupy movement may disrupt a Super Bowl. As far as I know and as far as I’m concerned, the Occupy movement nationally has been a non-violent movement and absolutely is committed to being non-violent on Saturday. The question of disruption absolutely is not an issue because as I said before, we stand in solidarity with the Players Union. The only thing the Occupy movement, on Sunday, hopes to disrupt is the complacency of the 1% who think that they can get away with this.”

Good luck to them, but just remember how Eco wrote that:

…an attack on a sports field would surely cause the massacre of the attackers, indiscriminate, total slaughter carried out by self-respecting citizens aghast at the outrage…

Not to say that it shouldn’t be done – it is a smart move to try and interrupt the inevitable media spectacle of the Superbowl for the aims of these demonstrators. Protesters must find those intersections of physical and virtual space to create interruptions for the public if they’re going to draw attention to their cause, especially in a world where the traffic of our attentions is increasingly virtual and not physical.