Reopening

My absence from blogging here has been because as a grad student, you have to be incredibly prolific all the time in ways that benefit your own agenda and trajectory. I didn’t blog here because I didn’t see a way that it could benefit me – I was busy with CFPs, term papers and research agendas. However, for the next several months I will be preparing to take my comprehensive exams. At UIC we are required to have a committee of 5 faculty. (At least) one must be from outside our department. As a fellow I have to have a committee member who is a member of the ESP-IGERT faculty, and I was lucky enough to get a law professor with a strong background in philosophy who could give me readings in philosophy of technology (and let me slip Simondon’s upcoming English translation of “On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects” onto my list (to be published by Univocal this year). I also have committee members to give me exams/readings in STS, philosophy of design, history of technology, and media archaeology.

My process has always been to obsessively research and plan things out in advance so that I am a few steps ahead of what needs to happen. My advisor is good enough to know how this isn’t always the best course of action, so he has refused to give me a reading list until I work through some of the ideas that I have been working on.

This is the creative element of academic work and also the most frustrating. It feels a bit like starting from scratch to be asking oneself “what am I interested in? What’s my research question? Where should my field site be?” Things that seem like they should already be answered, or that they are right in front of you if only you could see them. But it is not so much as square one, as it is finding work that is not to familiar and yet not too bizarre so that it will be original and fruitful to work in.

So I will be posting some of this, as well as reflections on readings, as a way of keeping myself publicly accountable, sort of like an open journal (besides my closed one) and helping me to work through my research in areas that I describe as “political materiality” and “post-luddism.”

 

Combative Affordances and Actant Insecurity

Just a quick update to say I’ve joined the current group of NSF IGERT fellows at UIC starting a couple of weeks ago. The focus of our program is security and privacy, and I’m excited to be collaborating with scholars and graduate students from the computer science department here at UIC in thinking about these issues.

My own research agenda has made me consider the combative affordances of artifacts – how things can be used in unintended or forbidden ways, and the conflict between the goals of so called “end-users” and designers. What is the capacity for agency or autonomy when prescriptive use becomes normative?

Continue reading

Misusing the Master’s Tools: Exploring the Capacity to Break from Prescriptive Use

Bassett, N. 2016. Misusing the Master’s Tools: Exploring the Capacity to Break from Prescriptive Use. The Torist 1(1), 48-50. http://toristinkirir4xj.onion/the-torist-issue-1-goes-live/

The wall is one of the earliest technologies developed to counter surveillance. As a form of defense, materials piled in everything from a heap to intricate stonework would protect from the wind, the wild, and the watching eyes of one’s neighbors and enemies. Privacy has always been a part of what makes us feel secure. Jay Appleton’s concept of “prospect and refuge” places our comfort zone in a place where we can see others and remain unobserved, like caves in cliff-faces. When geography fails us, we build walls to suit our needs for privacy. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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.