Sunday, February 19, 2012

Graphospheric Insights into Augmented Reality

Photo by aroid
Russian history continually brings me surprises.  Just the other day, I learned (via the Austerity Kitchen blog on the New Inquiry, written by Christine Baumgarthuber) that Russian soldiers occupying Paris after the defeat of Napoleon brought about a new culinary term with their demands that restaurants deliver their ordered food and drink Быстро, or quickly, hence bistro.  Simon Franklin, in his recent Kritika article titled 'Mapping the Graphosphere', informed me that the Interior Ministry of Russia produced over 30 million printed documents by the mid-19th century.  While instances of French culture being shaped by Russian influence are certainly worthy of deeper examination, a la bistro, it was Franklin's statement, indeed his entire article, which captured my greater attention.  

Why?  Because I'm in the midst of preparing a presentation for the upcoming Theorizing the Web 2012 Conference (#TtW12) and my topic, looking at evidence of textual dualist and textual augmented reality conceptions used in Imperial Russia, directly concerns the analysis of Franklin and his concept of the 'Graphosphere' (of which the Ministry of Interior and its 30 million documents was but a part).  I want to spend this first post of two introducing Franklin's argument and exploring its implication for our understanding of augmented effects brought about by the emergence and coexistence of print and manuscript cultures.

Defined as the "totality of graphic devices used to record, store, display and disseminate messages and information, and the social and cultural spaces in which they figure," Franklin goes on to say that the Graphosphere has both external and internal boundaries.  Whereas previous scholars pursued exploration of the outer boundaries' expansion into spaces either new or already colonized by traditional non-graphic communicative methods (i.e. oral), the goal of 'Mapping the Graphosphere' is to investigate the internal boundaries between graphic methods, such as the interaction between print and manuscript.  This approach yields several valuable insights, particularly when one applies the observations Franklin makes towards further elaborating essential properties and operations of an augmented reality operating under textual auspices.  While the in-depth article is an extremely good read (Kritika, in general, publishes outstanding articles), I want to focus, below, on particular points that I plan to integrate into my #TtW12 presentation.

To begin, Franklin makes a very astute observation that I believe should be repeated early and often (to borrow and remix a famous phrase about voters) regarding the interplay of culture plurality, i.e. multiple print cultures, multiple manuscript cultures:
"There may be one or several cultures using a given technology, and in each of those cultures the interrelations among technologies may function similarly or differently.  Such are some of the basic issues in the study of the internal boundaries of the graphosphere." [533]
Contrasting this view with the 'positivist' genealogy proffered by traditional accounts, in which pre-modern oral/manuscript monoculture became superseded by the modern arrival of print monoculture (that, in turn, became displaced by digital media), Franklin turns the implication of this line of inquiry towards interpretation of Russian graphic culture:
"When the assumptions of this model are applied to Russia, they lead to a foregrounding of the fact that the introduction, assimilation, and dissemination of the modern technology, though ultimately inexorable, were late and slow by comparison with the equivalent processes in Western Europe (viewed as the model of proper technological progress).  … In consequence, the importance and functions of manuscript cultures (in the plural) are both underestimated and underinvestigated." [533-534]
Two important implications surface here; first, as I noted in my short analysis of Marshal McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy, when discussing augmented reality conceptions centered on the notion of speed (either in technology acceptance or use) simply cannot be applied without grossly skewing the interaction technology facilitates among the vast interplay of multiple cultures, and second, engaging in analysis based on monocultural notions of print, oral and manuscript use blinds one to the interweaving of these cultures and the strategy or tactics utilized by groups or individuals in the production/certification of knowledge across this diffuse cultural landscape.

Found via BuzzMachine
Take, for example, the Petrine introduction of a new print culture at the start of the 18th century, one centered on the administrative.  While printing presses were not unknown in the nascent Russian state prior to Peter the Great's ascension to power, the vast bulk of printing activity centered on ecclesiastical titles.  Interestingly, these early printed religious works did not distinguish themselves as unique or new through the 'moveable type' medium, as their visual construction closely mimicked the original manuscript version of the texts in question.  At this point, equivalence defined the visual and functional relationship between manuscript and print; one cultural mode did not possess increased authority or certification over the other.  

This relationship changed when Peter introduced his 'westernizing' reforms, spurring development of a new administrative print culture that, while definite in its separation from ecclesiastical affairs, emerged alongside, not superimposed, on the manuscript cultural practices embraced by the church.  While the hierarchy of authority would generally shift to print over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, manuscript culture continued to thrive and be used by the church.  Essentially, the Petrine administrative culture not only fostered the emergence of print culture plurality, but also provided a space for the operation of manuscript culture in a manner that did not invalidate its claim to a specific type of knowledge production and certification.

Photo by themactep
What does this mean for an augmented framework that seeks to understand the nature of knowledge production and consumption, or prosumption, through the lens of a singular reality?  If we accept, as Franklin does, that multiple cultures exist and interoperate, then we must begin to chart the waves of augmentation, or the degree to which a particular culture permeates the milieu of space under investigation, all the while keeping in mind that even the supposed complete absence of a particular culture still leaves residue on the actions taken by participants in social space.  Because augmented effects ebb and flow based on a participants physical location and technological utilization, documenting the permeation of a particular culture into social space is a continuously dynamic activity.

In part II of my exploration of Franklin's article, I want to address the idea that the Tsar's saw print as a means to amplify and verify their authority- even as the very mixed nature of print and manuscript culture in the larger Russian social sphere meant that illiterate peasants could effectively negotiate meaning and interpretation when pressed by the power of print culture.  I will also explore how concepts of textual dualism came into play with the advent of Peter's administrative print culture by looking at a play both heavily censored in print and widely distributed, uncensored, in manuscript form.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Abstract for Theorizing the Web 2012

Photo by Nic McPhee
Recently, I've been very engaged in the discussion over concepts of augmented reality and digital dualism as debated and refined by the talented writers of the Cyborgology blog, in addition to other notable voices like Rob Horning on his blog Marginal Utility and Mike Bulajewski, a.k.a. Mr. Teacup.  One reason I'm fascinated with these topics is that I find in them an enormous potential to view interactions between Russian authorities and their subjects during the Imperial period in a new light.  One position I've started outlining and investigating is the idea that Russian history can be viewed through an augmented reality framework that utilized textual platforms and practices, instead of digital counterparts we rely on today, to achieve its augmented effects.  

My post examining the empirical roots of digital dualism pointed towards examples in which Russian peasants confronted textual dualist claims made by the Imperial state with augmented claims to reality informed, in part, by rumors or idealistic concepts found in folktales.  Beyond peasants, my post reviewing Eugene Martin's 'Jews and the Imperial State' demonstrated that Imperial authorities also used textual dualist  conceptions when trying to  document and identity the Jewish population in an individual context.

Now it looks like I'll have the opportunity to discuss these ideas, and more, at the Theorizing the Web 2012 conference (search #TtW12 on Twitter) being held at the University of Maryland campus in College Park on April 14th.  I found out a few days ago that the conference organizers accepted my abstract proposal, and I wanted to post that abstract here so as to give people an idea of what I want to talk about.  The title of my proposed talk will be 'Charting the Waves of Augmentation: Textual Dualism & Augmented Reality in the Russian Empire'.  The abstract is reproduced below:
While the current focus on how digital technology alters our conception of the self and its place in the broader perceived reality yields fascinating insight into modern issues, there is much to be gained by analyzing the presence of augmented reality in a pre-digital era.  In a period, not far removed from our present, where moveable type and increasingly individualized documentation fueled the textual wave of augmentation, it was largely governments- not corporations- that sought to harness the informative potential offered by these analog technologies.  Western European powers, like France, Britain and Prussia/Germany, fostered impressive civil bureaucracies that utilized growing literacy rates in order to create a disciplinary regime based on documentation, while another great power, Russia, struggled to achieve the same results with its meager supply of trained civil servants.  If Russian authorities wanted to build a foucauldian gaze of panoptic power through documentation, they had to make compromises in order to do so. 
One essential compromise of Russian documentary practice hinged on embracing a stable and conservative textual dualist conception of reality with regards to tracking populations or promulgating laws.  On the individual level, this meant that lived identity and the identity held by the 'gaze' of documentation consistently remained asynchronous when conflated for the purposes of military conscription, admission into university, acquiring a passport, etc… On the national governance level, textual dualism provided the absolutist regime a means to utilize aspects of the liberalistic program without ceding any measure of real power to representative bodies or embracing truly civic concepts of citizenship devoid of ethnic or religious qualifiers.  Again, the textual reality espoused by tsarist documentary practice did little more than provide a thin veneer to justify inequalities among the estates and could do almost nothing to mitigate the asynchronicity between the document (in all its various forms) and lived experience, which could include use of rumors, 'everyday resistance' or even outright revolt. 
The interplay between textual dualist conceptions of identity and the augmented reality those conceptions measured up against thus largely framed many social conflicts experienced by the Russian empire over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Yet this interplay contained significant variance along the spectrum between dualist and augmented perspectives.  Sometimes peasants embraced textual dualism for the strategic benefit it could provide, but they were just as comfortable in arguing an augmented perspective to vex authorities when required.  Authorities often granted some space for augmented claims to exist, simply because efficiently enforcing a dualist conception through discipline proved beyond the capacity of the ruling regime.  The unique blending of documentary dedication on behalf of the state, a malnourished bureaucracy mostly incapable of enforcing disciplinary desires and a largely illiterate population canny enough to exploit the inconsistencies of both, give the Russian experience unusual depth in terms of an augmented analytical perspective.  Charting the wave of textual augmentation in Russian history helps explain the interplay between digital dualism and augmented reality, including the spectrum of strategic potential between both, in our present day.

It looks like the conference will be livestreamed and recorded, and when I find out more specific information regarding when I will be speaking (as well as the list of the other, no doubt, awesome presenters) an update will be posted here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Between Reality & Cyberspace

(Author's Note- Mr. Teacup responded to my piece on his blog.  PJ Rey also posted a response on Cyborgology, addressing points made by myself and Teacup.  Both are excellent and I recommend reading them to see this conversation continued.  JA)

What does the term 'cyberspace' mean?  Does this Gibsonian construct adequately fulfill the task, currently asked of it by many, of defining the digital/physical realm interaction in terms of its scope and function?

Attempts to frame new social interactions spurred by digital innovations in communication, documentation and self-actualization (just to name a few) generally encounter problems of word choice when describing the effects these advancements bring to our growing conceptions of reality.  Literary terminology, often built upon antiquated notions reconfigured to suggest a potential or future state of being, sometimes suits the purpose of analogy when looking at these phenomena.  Yet there always comes a time when our understanding of an event or construction of reality demands that we re-evaluate our word choice, lest our future analytical efforts be hindered by its, perhaps, outmoded or misleading operation.  PJ Rey and the internet persona known as Mr. Teacup produced just this sort of re-evalutation of the term mentioned above, cyberspace, through two excellent pieces titled 'There is no Cyberspace' and 'There is Only Cyberspace', respectively written.

PJ Rey argued that the term cyberspace, first coined by William Gibson in the short story 'Burning Chrome' and defined as a 'consensual hallucination', is deeply problematic in describing our contemporary social web because the web is neither consensual nor a hallucination.  Thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones, pervasive documentary practices (something Nathan Jurgenson calls the 'Facebook Eye') mean that even if someone does not participate in the social web their actions are nonetheless captured by it to some degree, thus shaping our actions on the individual and societal level.  Many of us cannot control the degree to which this 'Facebook Eye' documents our actions (Could you stop every friend from making comments or posting pictures of your embarrassing moment from last week's party?  What about last year's party?) making the web far from a consensual space.  In many ways, because the web is not consensual it is also not a fantastical or a hallucinatory space either.  It is a part of reality- the web is as real as reality itself.  Actions taken offline impact online relations and vice-versa, allowing Rey to state that, "causality is bi-directional.  We are all part of the same human-computer system."

For Rey, 'cyberspace' is merely the continuation of dualist thinking inherited from the Western philosophical conception of the mind-body separation.  Because the web always held a dialectal relationship with the physical world, Rey suggests that new vocabulary be created to more accurately explain the web/reality interplay, the augmented reality encompassing it all.

Affirming several of Rey's assertions through a decidedly different analytical embrace, Mr. Teacup first dissects what he calls 'augmentism', a view attributed to the stance taken by Rey and others who write on the Cyborgology blog, before tackling the main issue at stake in the piece; what if there is no reality and only cyberspace?  Teacup expresses a very nuanced critique in both sections of his response, one that makes a compelling yet, ultimately, flawed case for why augmentism and augmented reality claims fall flat.

Let's begin with the presentation of augmentism.  Teacup states that, "One thing that seems to be often implied is that digital dualism leads to exaggerated fears and anxieties, and augmented reality does not…augmentism effects a kind of naturalization or even domestication of technology."  He goes on to bring up the example of parents concerned with their child spending too much time playing World of Warcraft.  While on face, the concern expressed by the parents would appear to enforce a digital dualist perspective of reality (Our son is spending too much time in the virtual world and ignoring the real world), Teacup accurately demonstrates that an 'augmented' perspective is actually at work as the parents are essentially stating that while the son may only feel like he's in a virtual world, he is, in fact, very much a part of the real world and that ignoring real world concerns to play immersive games has impact.  The parents concern reflects a belief in the dialectal relationship between the web and reality- a conception Rey argues for in his piece.

"Many moral panics are centrally concerned with the threat of confusing fantasy for reality," writes Teacup, who later adds, "by this definition, the criticism of moral panics is itself a moral panic."   When Rey criticizes conceptions of reality rooted in a digital dualist discourse (like those espoused by the media concerning issues of internet addiction, violence in video games, etc…) he is engaging in a moral panic that is similar to the moral panics criticized in the first place.  Yet Rey plays the trump card in asserting that there is no other space, no other fantasy world or virtual reality, for a digital dualist moral panic to build upon- there is no 'alternate world' that can be confused for reality because the web is as real as reality itself.  The augmentist perspective, with its soothing naturalization of technology, presents a conception of reality in which the web seamlessly integrates and becomes a part of the everyday.  One can't have panic over frictional issues between the web and the real- the web is real so there is no friction and thus no panic.

Happy Days thanks to Augmentation!
Photo by New England Secession
Teacup presents this view, the idea of a frictionless augmentation, in order to set up the contrast between Rey's augmentism and Teacup's own assertion that there is no reality, there is only cyberspace.  Making clear that this Lacanian inspired view is a subjective viewpoint to be explored and not an ontological statement like the title of Rey's original piece, Teacup executes a cunning act of rhetoric.  Attacking conceptions of reality by means of asserting alternate subjective viewpoints allows Teacup to not only turn Rey's argument on its head, without necessarily invalidating its central thesis, but also insist that fantasy is the only means we have to experience reality.  "This is because the Real is too strong, we cannot confront it directly," posits Teacup, who then summons a list of traumatic occurrences in which participants report an 'in a movie'-like experience when asked to describe their perception of events.  Thus, Teacup's title, 'There is Only Cyberspace', should be understood as an acknowledgment of the traumatic real repressed.  Furthermore, Rey's title, 'There is No Cyberspace', can be understood as a similar repression of the traumatic real that, Teacup says, "is disclosed through fantasy."  For this to be true, as a subjective viewpoint, the sort of assuagement of technology with reality brought about by an augmentist perspective cannot be accepted.

Why?  Because, as Teacup asserts in the second-half of his argument, there is an alternative between a dualist construction of reality, embodied by the mind-body debates, and an 'augmented' perspective of reality (Teacup calls this an 'embodied cognition'); there is the Lacan inspired 'antagonistic opposition' perspective.  He writes, "to put it another way, our subjective self-consciousness feels like it has been grafted on, and sits in an uneasy relationship with the body."  As such the self exists in some degree of friction with the body, making augmentist claims impossible to assert.  In denying the hybridity involved in 'antagonistic opposition', Rey ignores what Teacup labels the "simultaneously horrifying and compelling" nature of the modern cyborg.  This is why Rey must refute the term 'cyberspace'- to accept its existence would be to face the traumatic reality head on.

The reason Teacup makes such a compelling argument is that he attacks Rey's 'augmented reality' conception at its assumed weakest point; the idea that web/reality dialectal relationships, through their interplay, are devoid of friction that could lead to panic.  Yet I'm not sure that is an accurate assessment on the workings of an augmentist perspective.  For example, there are questions related to the degree of permeation the digital wave of augmentation holds on any given space or situation.  I live in Oregon and it is entirely possible for me to drive into a vast forest and lose all cellular connection, making my Galaxy S phone (my personal connector to the 'Facebook Eye') useless in documenting my experience.  Say I go on a hike and see an amazing waterfall.  When I return home, reentering the potential gaze of the 'Facebook Eye', the composition of my self is asynchronous to the self connected to and expressed through the web.  I could remedy this asyncronicity by posting an update, or perhaps uploading and posting photos I took of the hike with my old point-and-shoot camera.  But, I may choose not to post an update or upload photos.  If I never tell a single person about my hike, then no matter how good the 'Facebook Eye' becomes it will always possess an asynchronous composition of my identity as compared to the lived experience.  Smart phones and digital platforms make documenting life very easy (even non-consensual, as Rey observes), but in this ease I am reminded of the Philip K. Dick quote from 'A Scanner Darkly':
"What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me—into us—clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too." (185)
This, to me, is the main conundrum in trying to assert that the web is reality.  We must address this issue of whether or not the 'Facebook Eye' operates as a scanner darkly or a scanner clearly when engaging in pervasive documentation.  If it indeed operates as a scanner darkly, then there can be no denying the presence of friction in the web/reality interplay found in an augmented reality.

There is also the question regarding the order, or level, of augmented documentation.  I'm not on Facebook but it is still possible for my life to be documented there through discussions people have about me, pictures taken with me in them that are then posted, etc…  Yet, I would generally have no knowledge of this documentation unless those who saw the post or produced it informed me of its existence.  In a strange way, the web connected self, in this case, would be asynchronous to the self of lived experience, but only when the two are conflated.  Also, because I'm not registered as an official entity on Facebook there is no publicly available collected 'timeline' through which to view my web connected self.  I have become a ghost, one that is asynchronous to the lived self.  In the pre-digital era, such asynchronous meetings of one's self occurred with the spread of rumors or reputation (I am reminded of that classic phrase by Twain, "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated), yet the limits of communicative speed provided some measure of delay for the impact of their effects.  Today, thanks to nearly instantaneous communication platforms available to an increasing number of people, rumors or reputation can spread quickly and in a very organized fashion.  Unless one dedicates a great deal of time to managing their Web-connected self, there will always be moments of asynchronicity when the lived self and the web-connected self are called upon to account for each other.

This is not to say that a dualist conception arises between the lived self and the web-connected self, merely that augmentation of our reality is limited to permeation and penetration of its augmented effects.  If we accept the premise that the Web is reality, then we must also accept that primary loss of connection to the web will create asynchronous gaps between our experience and the experience pervasively documented on the web.  Even if others note our absence through Web platforms like Facebook or Twitter, this documentation is on a secondary order (sometimes bordering on speculation) from that attained by the primary view of documentation.  In short, even an augmentist perspective contains elements of friction that can lead to panic, but more accurately asynchronicity.  With this viewpoint, debates over the alien nature of the self to the body become largely moot, as they, too, primarily deal with asynchronous concepts.  However, Teacup is right to question the 'naturalization of technology' perhaps glossed over in current augmentist conceptions, as there is much ground to explore on the nature of the web/reality interplay.  And, of course, while Rey dismisses and Teacup only obliquely mentions it, the fact that a digital dualist conception can still be used in contemporary discourse at all needs to be more fully investigated.  As I've noted with Russian peasants during the late 19th century, the era of textual augmented reality, there were situations when an augmentist perspective proved most effective (i.e. using concepts of Justice found in folktales to challenge the law or treatment under a landowner) and other situations when a dualist construction (eschewing traditional rights in a court proceeding in favor of written statutes) suited needs better.  As Rey states in his post, the durability of the term 'cyberspace' to describe the web clearly indicates that a digital dualist discourse continues to hold sway.  This strategic selection of dualist vs. augmentist perspective demands further investigation if we are to better understand the relation of the self to the larger augmented reality.

Just like Mr. Teacup, I agree with Rey's argument that the web is reality and not a separate sphere of activity.  However, just as I cannot accept Teacup's view that 'augmentism' equates to a frictionless, panic-less, 'naturalization of technology', I also cannot put full faith in a conception of augmented reality that does not account for the asynchronicities inherent in documentation, which is something Rey's 'augmentist' position does not address.  To be fair, elaborating the workings and composition of relations that go into an augmented reality is still in its infancy, and posts like those written by PJ Rey and Mr. Teacup do a great service in deepening our understanding of this phenomena.  As I have tried to demonstrate above, there are many aspects of this conception of reality that need to be explored.  Ultimately, Rey is correct when he calls for a new vocabulary to explicitly describe our affirmation that the Web is not a separated sphere from our reality- our current terminology is too vague.