Showing posts with label High/Low Mobility. Show all posts
Showing posts with label High/Low Mobility. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

From Data Self to Data Serf

Photo by L D M
"We belong to you, but the land belongs to us." - Russian Peasant Refrain

"But even when I am at a loss to define the essence of freedom
I know full well the meaning of captivity." - Adam Zagajewski, 'Freedom'

"You can't be what you were
So you better start being just what you are
You can't be what you were
Time is now and it's running out…" - Fugazi, 'Bad Mouth'

A few months ago, in preparation for my (then) upcoming 'Theorizing the Web' presentation, I tweeted the peasant refrain quoted above and made a comment to the effect that this is how, I believe, many feel when it comes to social media platforms and the data those platforms contain.  Essentially, the modern phrase would be 'We belong to your platform, but the data belongs to us."  Upon further reflection, however, I've started to think that this isn't the case at all.  Take, for example, the difference of opinion between American data platform owners and privacy advocates from the EU or the recent piece by Alexis Madrigal on the Atlantic titled The Perfect Technocracy: Facebook's Attempt to Create Good Government for 900 Million People.  Looking at the social media's sites process for regulating content on its data platform Madrigal states, "People know that Facebook controls a large slice of their digital lives, but they don't have a sense of digital citizenship."  I think the problem goes beyond the ideal of citizenship, even though Madrigal's statement hints at the larger issues.  Evidence grows that we are becoming serfs amidst the growing fields of cultivated data- and there has yet to emerge an articulation on the relation of our serfdom to data platforms like that embodied by the peasant's refrain.  Why is this so?

From my perspective, the heart of data serfdom centers on a question over what counts as certified, verifiable knowledge and the degree to which that knowledge is permitted to circulate or be modified.  Data platforms embrace stable declarations of the self through updates, likes, pins and other markers that, once declared, are difficult to change in content or meaning.  Even if one erases, or 'unlikes', something, the impression generated by the data platform of your data self remains tied with this now etherial 'like'.  Because we cannot change the content of these declarations easily, the validity of the message becomes even more key, even more vital.  This presents some unique challenges with regards to the relation of our data to ourselves.

Low-Mobility Value Facebook's 'Like' Button Produces
Photo by Eric Schwartzman
I would like to investigate the writings of Rob Horning (@marginalutility) and his focus on the 'data self', which explores how neoliberal capitalistic practices capture users in a sticky web of commodity production/exploitation.  His perspective and analysis helps clarify points I would like to make regarding how data platforms current utilization of low mobility knowledge constructs fits nicely with the evolution of documentary regimes into their new hybridized form.  Whereas pervasive documentation once allowed governments and others in power to shape the normative discourse (or at least put it into quantifiable terms), the new data platforms allow those in power to not only continue pervasive documentary practices but also avail themselves of that practices ills through integration of highly personal intermediation.  Social media is the embodiment of this intermediation.

In Advertising and the Health of the Internet, Horning addresses Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal's piece detailing numerous companies that exist solely to track users data.  Picking apart Madrigal's premise behind the inherent value of this data, Horning states that the natural extension of Madrigal's logic would have one conclude that, "the health of the internet…depends on the degree to which we can turn thought into marketing through the process of circulating it."  For me, circulation is the key term in this statement.  Why?  Because I believe a key insight for understanding the 'data self' centers on the operation and interaction between high mobility and low mobility knowledge constructs, terms I've created to deal specifically with the circulation and adaptation of information.  In order to understand the terms of my critique, it would be best to take moment and define the terms and their execution as I intend.

Data platforms embrace, wholly, the configuration of low-mobility constructs, especially when it comes to articulating a data self that not only provides panoptic power but also algorithmic control in how we view our relation to others and ourselves.  Low-mobility constructs, generally, aren't modified through their transmission or reception.  I've often brought up the book as a prime example, but the same holds true for a Facebook update or Amazon purchase or Pintrest post.  These online statements are essentially one-offs that everyone can see- yet no one can change your thoughts, or purchase, or 'pin' through their own transmission or addendum.  All they can do is create a low-mobility response, adding shades of inflection to a conversation that is both asynchronous and bound in stasis bubbles.

This in itself would not be revelatory.  But if we look at Horning's line stated above through the lens of low mobility a key point does arise.  Circulation of thought in low-mobility form is entirely dependent on validation.  Because low-mobility constructs are highly resistant to being changed through transmission, the very act of circulating these constructs hinges on validation by the transmitter and, to some degree, the recipient as well.  High-mobility knowledge constructs, in comparison, can enjoy the added value validation brings, yet their impetus for transmission rests solely on the inherent capacity to be changed by both the transmitter and recipient through circulation.  Its very mutability is what ensures its survival and circulatory value.  In the past, I've used rumors as a prime example of high-mobility artifacts and specifically examined how Russian peasants often successfully used rumors to obfuscate demands made by Imperial authorities exemplified in low-mobility edicts or laws.  (See, for example, my Theorizing the Web presentation paper discussing this phenomenon in more detail)
Data platforms and the 'data selves' they produce, in order to generate some sort of commercial value, embrace low-mobility methods of knowledge production because the incessant need for validation as a precondition of circulation not only makes our various crops of data stable, (hence Target can accurately predict pregnancy-changing consumer behavior before even you are aware of it) but it also traps how we view ourselves in purely low-mobility, unchanging terms.  The only change allowed is that validated by the platforms, whose certification of knowledge creates a self-fulfilling and continuous loop of data.  This, in turn, creates a new view of the self whereby the past is illusionary and the future is now.  Meanwhile, the present languishes amidst declarations based both in the past (I 'liked' this post, I 'pinned' this item) and situated in the future projection of the self (think saving articles for 'Instapaper').  It should also be noted that this view of the self, largely predicated through digital terms, impacts the operation of augmented reality the self inhabits.  (An effect Nathan Jurgenson calls the 'Facebook Eye')   This is the kernel of data platform enserfment so many find themselves in today.

The 'landed' lords of the platforms, and the various petty 'landless' lords they sell our 'cultivated data' to, depend on this stable projection of the self trapped forever in the present.  If we could change our thoughts and our projections on the fly, carefully arranged cultivation processes would be tossed into a state of near-anarchy.  The asynchronous effects demarcating our lived self from the data self would grow to such proportions that any attempt to place a commodity effect on our production would yield false, shadow selves and thus become worthless to data platforms and marketers alike.  Moving targets are much more difficult to hit, especially when your gun is fixed in place.

Photo by Michael Mandiberg
If we look at the history of information through the lens of mobility, a progressive shift from the predominance of high mobility constructs, embodied by oral conceptions and utilizations, to that of low mobility constructs, introduced first by manuscript culture but later reinforced by print culture, can be detected.  Our current digital platforms of data only reinforce this trend, as I have tried to explain above, binding our actions increasingly in terms that are indicative of low mobility expressions and shunning forms that could allow the possibility of high mobility transmogrification.  In doing so, the new data platforms managed to solve an age old problem that plagued panoptic potential of documentary regimes.  By channeling the documentary process through a highly mobile (but not high mobility) process of algorithmic control, platforms can enjoy the benefits of both documentation and control with only minimal disruptive potential.  Increasingly the self becomes merged with the projected data self and the asynchronous friction that this process would typically engender becomes smoothed over due to the ease by which the data self can be fed, nourished and anesthetized.  Numb to the pain, we no longer recognize that our data is not our own.  No need arises for high mobility responses to low mobility control.  We become data serfs with few means to shape the terms of our bondage.

Russian peasants at least possessed access to the high mobility world of oral reinterpretations and rumors to challenge low mobility edicts or laws judged 'unfair' or 'unjust'.  The current generation of data serfs putter along without these tools or techniques, in effect declaring through their sustained cultivation of the data self the idea that both our data and ourselves belong to the platforms.  This is a dangerous position to be in, something Horning notes towards the end of Advertising and the Health of the Internet when he states,
"If our public lives are underwritten by our value to advertisers, our public selves will end up indexed to that value for everyone, and our private sense of ourselves will be to a degree dictated by the boundaries of the sensorium marketers can create around us with increasing specificity."
In Social Graph vs. Social Class, Horning follows his 'boundaries of the sensorium' concept to its natural extension by examining how Facebook's 'Social Graph' articulates both social organization norms enforced by social media and how those norms reinforce class-based analyses that are supposedly absent in the data platforms construction/execution.  Many people understand the 'networked' concept of social media platforms, yet fewer probably view their connections, in Horning's words, in terms of 'lines of competition as well as mere affiliation."  Asymmetrical power relations are inherent in data platforms just as they are in life.  Yet while many can accurately and articulately define those asymmetrical relationships in their personal, face to face interactions, they more easily gloss over the subtleties of such relations when using data platforms.  

"The social graph purports to passively record social arrangements that emerge organically and thus reflect some sort of true and undistorted account of how society works," states Horning, yet I would contest this point by saying that data accrued through cultivation of low-mobility sources cannot be organic- it is anything but organic.  Real communities, ones that establish possibilities for membership to make meaningful changes, exist on a mix of low and high mobility constructs.  They are chaotic, changing entities.  The lords of the data platforms, knowing the pains previous landed lords went through, sought circumvention of this community aspect through their algorithmically defined user interface.  Horning believes that social media makes identity construction fluid and able to be revised in real time- I believe it creates identity stasis as the constant accumulation of low-mobility statements continually weighs down the lived self with the constraints of the data self.

But how do we escape this serfdom?  Russian peasants were largely unsuccessful in their quest to achieve freedom, so why hold them up as paragons for a 'second' serfdom now occurring with the rise of data platforms?

The answer to both lies in finding ways to integrate high-mobility potentials into the data platforms on which our data resides.  While not a perfect example, Twitter has shown how this can be accomplished.  The retweet and hashtag features did not initially debut with the system- instead they evolved through user-centered invention and innovation, becoming an official part of the Twitter UI only in mid-2009.  These were not strictly high-mobility constructs shining through, rather they represented the exploration of potential space the Twitter platform allowed through the boundary-pushing behavior of users not engaged in a tightly defined algorithmic experience.  The inclusion of oral testimony as a primary source for use in Wikipedia articles, something I've written about, represents another potential mixing of high and low mobility sources, though not without some compromise.  Just as Russian peasants challenged edicts and textual dualist norms espoused by Tsarist authorities through use of 'augmented' oral constructs, so too do we need to find methods by which the low-mobility nature of data platforms have to contend with high-mobility critiques generated by an authentic community of users.  

It goes beyond voting on potential privacy rules on Facebook- this means putting the actual creation of privacy regulations in the hands of the users themselves.  Of course, this would mean threatening the stability of data reaped by data platform lords, not to mention an acknowledgement of a general consciousness on the value of the self to the process of data gathering.  If we fail to do so, we risk becoming serfs on a scale greater than that imagined by the most ardent Russian landowner.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

My 'Theorizing the Web' Presentation Paper

Since people have asked me about my presentation paper, I've gone ahead and uploaded it to Scribd.  This is a 'rough' version, in that it does not contain footnotes pointing towards the sources- a much more 'full' version will come later.  Feel free to download and leave comments below.

Charting the Waves of Augmentation

Monday, March 5, 2012

Going Beyond the Textual in History

Photo by Andrew Mason
Because of my interest in both history and games, I'm always on the look-out for good writing or new takes on how to bring elements of the gaming world into the framework of historical inquiry.  Increasingly, I'm finding my best sources of this kind of reading from my Twitter stream, as was the case when Shawn Graham (@electricarchaeo) pointed me towards an article in the recent edition of the Canadian Game Studies Association journal, 'Loading…', titled 'Beyond the 'Historical' Simulation: Using Theories of History to Inform Scholarly Game Design'.  Tackling what they call 'gamic action', the authors of the paper look to use elements of 'procedural rhetoric' (a concept introduced by Ian Bogost in his work 'Persuasive Games') combined with 'valid and scholarly means' of constructing the past (modeled on the monograph or print article) to produce 'reasonably justified truths' compatible with current methodologies in use by many historians.    

I mention the article not because I found it to be a progressive example of innovative historical thinking on games, but rather the opposite.  Instead of offering a means by which games can be productively and thoughtfully incorporated into historical study, the authors present a reactionary stance that seeks to bind 'gamic action' within the tightly defined epistemological boundaries incorporated into textual modes of history.  While they do offer valid insight when it comes to analyzing the roles and pretenses games follow today with regards to claiming historical validation, the repeated insistence on bringing into alignment the modes of 'objective' history and playable games not only overlooks the complimentary nature of both in creating reasonably justified truths about the past (to borrow a central concern of the authors), but also ignores the more fundamental issue centered on student prosumption (production + consumption) of historical knowledge.

Photo by Caro's Lines
While the first objection stems from concern the authors profess regarding games ability to present historical 'truth' as exemplified by the monograph, the second objection goes to the core of a fundamental debate now occurring in the discipline of History.  Examining both these objections yields the insight that History must go beyond the textual when forming links outside the circumscribed boundaries current epistemologies demand.  This is not abandonment, it is augmentation.  Rather than take a simplistic, reductionist view of the interplay between history and games, it might suit both the Historian and the Student better to uncover the more nuanced and complex interoperability both spheres of knowledge possess.

Let's begin with what the authors define as the 'gamic mode'.
"A gamic mode of history is the construction of scholarly historical arguments as scholarly games, creating a relationship to commercial games analogous to that of non-fiction to fiction in literature. This enables scholars to convey their research in ways that go beyond the limits of textual monographs, digitized historical sources, and digital simulations." [3]
Thus the introduction of two parallel themes that run through the entire article- first, that scholarly historic arguments can be laid 1:1 over the gamic mode and, second, that this gives the gamic mode a source of truth to which other, commercial games cannot lay claim.  Simply put, the two worlds of textual history and games cannot coexist unless they are mirrors of each other, for to allow the possibility of transition between distinct spheres of knowledge would imply that truth is relative and the certified authority of the historian is no greater than the roll of a die or play of a card.  Students/players, in the 'commercial' and 'simulative' gamic modes, are empowered to both consume and produce knowledge on a level that is difficult for traditional Historians to acknowledge, much less accept.

This fear is clearly expressed by the authors when they claim that current methods of integrating games and history steer the debate away from expressing and elaborating "a disciplinary way of creating truth" and ultimately seek to transform the discipline by altering its epistemologies and limiting its empirical rigor.  Hence the following claim by the authors:
"This [steering of the debate] in turn limits scholarly debate by increasing ambiguity and opening reader response beyond the determination of whether or not the author has presented a reasonably justified truth." [5-6]
While that statement certainly seems ominous, the real source of angst is not the debate on epistemology, truth and empirical rigor conflating history and games supposedly brings about- it's the fact that the reader is apportioned a space of interpretation hereto held inviolate by certified authorities of the historical profession.  The gamic mode, as the authors see it currently being applied, allows the reader (note careful avoidance of the term 'player') to produce responses that go beyond consumption and simple affirmation or negation of the argument presented.  The reader, enabled to produce (or, more accurately, prosume) their own 'truths', can simply avoid the argument altogether.

Instead of dwelling on this point, let's put it in our back pocket as we survey other important parts of the authors argument.

One key concept that helps the authors align fidelity of the historical textual mode to the gamic mode is procedural rhetoric, a term first introduced and elaborated by Ian Bogost, defined in this context as:
"…the use of computational processes to persuasively and effectively convey an idea. What the author creates in procedural rhetoric is not the argument itself, but a series of general and specific rules through authoring code that a computer can then use to generate the argument (Bogost, 2007). This mirrors scholarly constructions of the past as history in two important ways. First is that the argument is not the past, but a representation of it created by authoring evidential and interpretive relationships that lead to conclusions. Second is that the scholarly historical argument itself consists of facts that are converted to evidence and arranged according to a set of rules for that particular argument via interpretation. The gamic mode of history is an application of procedural rhetoric that takes advantage of the processes inherent in scholarly evidential relationships to express these arguments as games.  While different in form the argument experienced by the player would contain the same series of procedural evidential relationships that work towards a verifiable conclusion with a reasonably justifiable truth attribute that they might have expected to find in a monograph of the same argument." [6]
By linking 'computational processes' to the way in which textual arguments are assembled, the authors hope to bring authoritative strength to their claim that the gamic mode and the textual historical argument can be one and the same.  However, this viewpoint hinges on the assumption that digital games possess an internal consistency of rules and play that allow the player to understand and predict cause/effect relationships in the gamic world.  This, unfortunately, is not the case.

Photo by Ken Goldberg
Digital games are, by their very nature, closed constructions whose operation the player cannot, on face, intrinsically know or predict without engaging first in a large degree of play.  Cause/effect relationships in digital games are determined by trial and error, inference, and the acknowledgment of a reward to indicate progress.  Yet the player can never be sure every corner of a digital game has been explored because many actions are obscured by the operation of code, which the player often cannot access and modify.  In fact, a digital game could be considered the exact opposite of a monograph, where the argument and sources used are clearly articulated.  But of course, this too simplifies the monographs presence, which is never really accounted for in the article.  For while citations are visible the documents behind those citations are not.  Alternatively, we know what the scholar selected but we don't know what they didn't select, or even the range of documents surveyed.  This is not a knock on professionalism, merely the idea that History in pursuit of objectivity nevertheless is guided, perhaps unknowingly, by subjective desires.

There is also the question of why the authors are so dedicated to digital gamic action, leaving the venerable tradition of manual board gaming to the relative wayside.  I find this trend currently common in many historic approaches towards utilizing games- but without straying too far from the question at hand, I would add that board games at least allow an alternative separate from the digital gamic mode to occur.  Board games are 'open' and the player does not have to continually press the boundaries of the world to figure out its meaning, a la digital.  Complete boundaries are defined and areas of ambiguity are not hidden but rather demarcated quite visibly in a manual design.  The player can dispense with the never-knowing and move straight to analysis and interpretation.  It should also be noted that the 'open' design of manual games allows players to assert their own interpretations of the events or model depicted, something the authors, as cited above, greatly disdain.

Player-Made Twilight Struggle Card
by Mark MacRae
To put it on even simpler terms- the main objection the authors have with current gamic modes is that they produce history for consumers, while the authors would much rather produce history for producers.  This approach, currently, is endemic in the historical discipline because historians, by and large, are used to being both the producers and consumers of their own product.  This is why the authors struggle so mightily to make equivalent a textual mode of history and a gamic mode of history, to make claims that this approach can, perhaps, go beyond the textual when, in fact, the very notion of equivalence negates this possibility.  Textual modes focus on producing knowledge through reading, while gamic modes focus on producing knowledge through play.  One allows simple consumption, the other complex prosumption.

Stalwart defense of the 'consumptive' textual mode can be further seen in the authors elaboration of Alan Munslow's three broad epistemological approaches to historical scholarship, those being construction, deconstruction and reconstruction.  Because deconstruction relies upon one's own experiences to form understanding of evidence and arguments presented, the authors reject such claims of historic inquiry because "to certain extent (deconstruction) means the past is unknowable and denies a corporate understanding of history."  Reconstruction is similarly disqualified as its primary exemplar, the computer simulation, asserts that collected facts of the past can be arranged and recreated to simulate the past as it actually happened- yet this involves subjective qualifiers and emphases that the authors stress "taxes the traditional historian's ideal of objective scholarship." 

This leaves construction as the preferred epistemological approach in producing an authoritative historical gamic mode.
"Constructionist history builds up knowledge of the past and expresses the past as history by both analyzing how and what individual pieces of evidence can do, and what conclusions about the actions of historical agents (be they individuals or corporate entities) can be established through evidence relationships. In this case, evidence itself is separate from a notion of historical fact, as the fact only becomes evidence based upon its relationship to the question at hand. The constructionist approach to history, while allowing almost any question to be asked, provides parameters around how the question can be answered." [7]
What gives construction the edge for the authors is that it neatly lays outs parameters establishing how 'almost any question…asked' can actually be answered.  Construction also goes hand-in-hand with the use of narrative to act as the communicator of historical truth.  Narrative as communicator of truth is so vitally important to the authors that they express fear in letting the student have input on interpretation outside of that directed by the Historian:
"Narrative is so closely tied to our understanding of action, and as history is the study of past action, that if the historian’s prose does not present a cohesive narrative to the reader, the reader then creates one. Therefore, the gamic mode of history needs to be able to utilize narrative in the same way." [8]
This is not 'meaningful' description.
 Photo by Phil Romans
Under this rationale, it becomes easy for the authors to question the role of any gamic mode in which the student/player becomes a nexus of interaction or interpretation of historical evidence.  Simulations and counter-factuals, the bread and butter of commercial games, are thus scorned by the authors because they allow the student/player to feel as though their actions create meaningful and accurate depictions of the past without utilizing "empirical, justified truths claims about the past."

The solution presented by the authors is Shadows of Utopia: Exploring the Thinking of Robert Owen, a digital game that lets players simulate "an argument about Robert Owen's thinking."  Placing questions of education and labor reform before the player expressed through puzzles and game-world exploration, Shadows of Utopia demonstrates the idealistic thinking of Robert Owen via player transformation of the game-world's 'lazy, foolish shadow-creatures who steal and rob' into real people who attain wealth and morals through factory work.  Mimicking the textual authenticator of citations, Shadows of Utopia provides in-game source documentation in a transparent manner, going so far as to link "sources and related interpretations to the game code, user interface, and aesthetic choices," although how this is accomplished is not specifically defined.

The authors conclude that efforts like Shadows of Utopia not only can "do all the things that the textual mode does" but also "add digital utilities that augment research in imaginative and useful ways." 

Now, to be clear and upfront, I think that Shadows of Utopia sounds like a fascinating attempt to bridge the epistemological gap between what we understand to be the practice of history with the act of play encountered in the gamic mode.  However, I'm not willing to burn all other existing and potential bridges from history to games as the authors of 'Beyond the Historical Simulation' have done.  For one thing, porting (to borrow a phrase from digital gaming) over the epistemological guidelines of textual monographs and journal articles to the gamic mode doesn't allow one to go beyond the textual mode- it merely extends that mode to gamic space without taking into account the unique epistemologies gamic space inherently possesses.  (The authors want to 'paper over' the gamic space, literally, with textual modes)  To make a simple point of comparison, a monograph does not seek reader input whereas a game, by its very nature, requires player input to be utilized.  When you read a journal article, you are passively absorbing knowledge.  When you play a game, you are actively absorbing knowledge.  The authors argument presented above seeks to appropriate player activity and channel it into passive knowledge absorption.

Instead of trying to simplify the conflation of history and games, perhaps it would be better to acknowledge their separate epistemological boundaries and formulate a way to negotiate knowledge handoffs between the two spheres.  Katie King in her recent work Networked Reenactments, points the way to just such a negotiation in her analysis of flexible knowledges and pastpresents displayed in commercially produced television reenactments.  Here we often see the interplay of several fields of knowledge, represented either by talking heads or physical actualization of knowledge epistemologies through representative involvement (i.e. having a Historian and Architect work together in recreating a Roman bath), set against the backdrop of a historical narrative that links the past to the present.  When you add in the viewer angle to reenactments, the demarcation of specialized knowledge becomes less and less viable as the flexible knowledges required to fulfill the reenactment demand greater mobility than tight epistemologies might otherwise demand.  Thus King notes,
"…it is especially important that reenactments are not a way to keep pasts and presents apart-or a way to keep authorities and alternative knowledges, metaphors and referents, materialities and abstractions, forms of academic expertise and cultural entertainment, or affects and cognitions separated, managed, or delimited by membership. Flexible knowledges, transdisciplinarities, new media, all plunge us into uncertainties, risk, collusion, and collaboration; all conditions that-as with responsibilities to multiple audiences from painfully limited authorships-we do not control and in which we are elemental "bits" in emergent reorganizations of knowledge economies and among altering evaluations." (17)
The uncertainty noted by King is what the authors of 'Beyond the Historical Simulation' wish to avoid, as it potentially invalidates the Historians authoritative position in knowledge making.  But, again, King notes this aversion in traditionally defined disciplines presented with flexible knowledges when she states, "intensively experienced affect is what signals movement across knowledge worlds, as well as what indicates cognitive and affiliative shifts across what counts as authoritative."

I have tried in previous posts (one on course design, another on modeling counterinsurgency) to indicate a way towards understanding how to use games in historical study that seeks to broaden the analytical framework beyond that of the textual, even though the textual is essential to analyzing games.  If games offer us nothing but interpretations of history, something I don't fully believe, there is still valuable cultural significance worthy of study in the act of play that brings about said interpretations.  How are cultural narratives sustained or modified in play?  Why do some historical 'truths' stick to the public consciousness, while others are perennially ignored?  How are certain conflicts or simulations modeled, and why would designers build games to emulate these processes?  How does a players analysis of the game, its play-design mechanics, impact how they approach replays or creating modifications?  (In particular I'm thinking of 'pacifist' play in Skyrim and even the creation of a '72 Summit Series card for Twilight Struggle)  

King offers a potent conceptual metaphor for analysis of games with her use of pastpresent- a player literally links the past to the present with their act of play- in addition to providing a framework though which diverse disciplines can interact on the subject of games through her analysis of flexible knowledges.  This is a good start- but as the 'Beyond the Historical Simulation' article makes clear, there are still many who are skeptical of such ventures.

Games are highly complex cultural artifacts that situate themselves on the borders of several disciplines, embodying fully the sort of reenactment potential for flexible knowledge discussed by King above.  While it might be nice to render the gamic mode under the auspices of textual epistemologies, these can only take us so far in our understanding on the interactions of both and perhaps limit us, arbitrarily, from expanding and utilizing historic knowledge in emerging 'posthumanities' approaches the study of games demand.  We can surely do better than advocate for the gamic mode to become backwards compatible with textual monographs.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can There Really Be Identity Stasis?

Yesterday I read an interesting piece titled 'Mechanisms of Stasis in Identity Prosumption' by Jenny Davis on the equally interesting Cyborgology blog, from which I have drawn many sources of inspiration for my own work.

Davis sought to disentangle "the liberating and constraining potential of digitally enabled identity prosumption" in her post, arguing that the increasing prominence of 'nonomous online environments' force participants to pursue increasingly accurate representations of self that ultimately result in 'identity stasis' due to the moral imperative such authenticity (or rather the specter of being called out for in-authenticity) demands.  This moral imperative is found on both the individual and cultural level, presenting unique challenges for either side.  Engaging in "digitally enabled identity prosumption' requires both sides to "overcome the challenge of lateral surveillance and pervasive documentation", with the individual additionally tasked to find a path towards a more abundant identity construction potential while the cultural must seek to do provide the same abundance in the potential for categorical construction.  This task is not easy, according to Davis, as paradoxically the pursuit of 'abundant potential' through digital prosumption often leads to a decrease in fluidity and tendency to resort to identity stasis, be it through the need to have historical layers of 'status updates' displayed in Facebook congeal or through institutionalization of a culture prompted by categorization and normalization inherent in the documenting process.

Despite provisos that "identity negotiation…is a continuous process" and that "digital technologies…facilitate the acquisition of new identities both interpersonally and culturally", Davis asserts that once these identities engage in the act of digital prosumption their progression towards stasis is all but certain as the very categories the identities create trap those who created them.
I agree with Davis in the need to examine the prosumption of identity both on the front and back end.  The issues raised by her investigation ask important questions of new processes now being integrated into the constructions of the self.  Yet, I cannot believe fully in the idea that digital prosumption of identity triggers mechanisms of stasis.  My objections lie in two areas.  First, while both the individual and the cultural are increasingly interacting with 'nonomous online environments' their moral imperative for authenticity does not solely occur in the digital realm because, second, the representations of the self as seen through the new Facebook 'Timeline' or documentation of a culture via Wikipedia or Newspaper articles are, at best, snapshots of a highly mobile identity potential or, at worst, Soma filled idealizations of the self that are as authentic of the creator as the shadows cast from the forms found outside Plato's cave.

Take the Facebook 'Timeline', a much talked about user interface that the pre-eminent social network recently debuted.  Just as it sounds, the 'Timeline' chronologically organizes your status updates, photos, events, etc… in order to give the once various islands of data a more human-friendly narrative form.  Davis uses this change in interface as an example demonstrating the limiting potential digital prosumption of identity, represented by the sum total of events displayed in the 'Timeline', forces upon the individual as they strain to maintain a verifiable authentic self that gives coherence to what is and what can be displayed.  But if we maintain the belief that our digital activities intermesh with our physical activities, it seems lopsided to say that only the digital maintains a say in the authentication of the self.  Augmented Reality demands that information- in this case ascertaining the validity of authenticity driven by moral imperative- flows between and amongst both physical and digital realms.  I can accept the influence of the digital only if the physical is given equal measure.

Intersection of influence found in Augmented Reality
Of course, there is no denying that activity on Facebook, in addition to other means of digital reflection or documentation, possesses discernible influence on the activity of the physical.  But I would be cautious of making claims of authenticity based on Facebook posts, as often those posts are what I would term 'highlights' of one's day or thought.  There is a strong disincentive to post anything with a negative alignment, not only because it provides a strong contrast to the general commentary of unbearable lightness many willingly display but also because the very architecture of Facebook itself rewards positive commentary via ranking algorithms tied to 'Likes' and comments produced.  No one posts photos of their difficult moments of solitude, at least not to any great degree.  If an integral part of digitally enabled prosumed assemblage of identity relies on documentation of, or anchoring to, activity of the physical, then we cannot put full confidence in an interpretation that does not account for the sum total of the augmented experience.

But even if we grant digital prosumption platforms like Facebook power of total documentation, there is another reason why solely relying on one sphere of activity to explain the results of an augmented reality is not sufficient to enable detection of 'stasis mechanisms'.  Status updates, photos, comments on blog posts, even 'Likes' are essentially one-off snapshots of the self expressed at that moment.  If we took a chronologically-close cluster of these one-off moments captured, patterns of continuity and correlation would no doubt be detectable.  Under the right conditions one might even be able to witness the digital prosumption process underway in shaping identity.  But if we took a chronologically-distant gathering of moments there would most likely appear very discernible differences in disposition or tastes, to name only a few qualities, marking the change of identity over time.  While Facebook posts might act as a milepost on the road of life, they do little to tell you the grade of asphalt or bumpiness encountered along the way. 

If it appears that I am working to discredit the role of Facebook and other digital prosumption platforms in identity, I do so not to eliminate its presence all together in the digital prosumption of identity but rather to place it within appropriate terms so that its effects are not overstated.  To be fair, Davis does leave room in her analysis of digital prosumption of identity to allow for escape from identity stasis, although only obliquely, in stating that the abundance of identity categories do not inescapably trap one in the categories constructed.  Yet how one escapes the prohibitive obstacles of lateral surveillance and pervasive documentation, mentioned by Davis as the challenges "digitally enabled identity prosumption must overcome", is largely left unaddressed.  It is my belief that the framework of ‘mobility potentials’ can answer questions presented by potential activation of 'stasis mechanisms'.  Not only does 'mobility' point the way towards a more fully reckoned account of the various interactions occurring in our larger augmented reality, but it can also uncover why claims of 'identity stasis', or really any stasis at all, simply cannot be true.

Let's take a look at 'digitally enabled identity prosumption' under the mobility potential framework, beginning with the type of mobility potentials created by posting entries on the Facebook 'Timeline'.  When anyone uploads a status update, photo or makes a comment on Facebook, they are engaging in documentation of low mobility potentials.  Knowledge constructs with low mobility potential, by their very nature, engage in little change through the act of transmission.  The photo you post will look the same to anyone who views it, regardless of when they view it.  The same applies to status updates and the like- the act of transmitting that update will do little to change the composition of that update.  Now it is entirely possible that someone will view your photo or update, internalize its content, and then create their own response.  'Mobility' states that the low mobility status update is transmitted to the mind of the viewer which acts as a transition point for the transformation of the low mobility knowledge (status update) into high mobility knowledge represented by thought-reaction (response to status update).  This reaction is then transformed into a low mobility construct (posting one's response to status update) that is registered by Facebook.

What makes Facebook so valuable, in a mobility perspective, is that it allows production (or prosumption) of low mobility constructs anchored to our everyday events to occur in a very rapid manner, reducing the asynchronous effects personal documentation (to name a single documentary mode) often encountered in eras before digital communication networks existed. (And in places where the digital wave of augmentation has yet to fully permeate, one can see these asynchronous effects occurring more often- especially in claims of identity) This reduction of asynchronicity is what provides the illusion of 'pervasive documentation'- when it becomes extremely easy to create low mobility 'mileposts' of one's life it can appear as though the definition of self consists solely of low mobility constructs, thus achieving the perceived effects of a 'stasis mechanism'.

But in an augmented reality perspective, we must accept that other low and high mobility constructs encountered by the individual (reading a book or editing a wikipedia entry, respectively) in both the physical and the digital world alters that individuals activity in both spheres.  A person might have a conversation, compelled by the moral imperative to authenticate, discussing the finer points of their belief when presented with a fact, or argument, that proves persuasive and forces them to alter the presumptions upon which rest their identity.  Or they might read a book, or blog post, and decide that a new perspective should be included in the constellation of ideas that go into making an identity.  If anything, digital prosumption reduces the asynchronous effects between the self's actualization in forming identity and the projection of that identity in an augmented reality.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Short Thoughts on 'Gutenberg Galaxy'

I just finished reading Marshal McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy in preparation for an abstract I'm planning to submit to the Theorizing the Web 2012 Conference, and there was a line of argumentation brought up in the work I wanted to discuss.  It comes from a quote McLuhan selected from James Frazer's Golden Bough for its commentary on the accelerating effect literacy and visuality introduced to the oral world:
"Compared with the evidence afforded by living tradition, the testimony of ancient books on the subject of early religion is worth very little.  For literature accelerates the advance of thought at a rate which leaves the slow progress of opinion by word of mouth at an immeasurable distance behind.  Two or three generations of literature may do more to change thought than two or three thousand years of traditional life…and so it has come about that in Europe at the present day the superstitious beliefs and practices that have been handed down by word of mouth are generally of a far more archaic type than the religion depicted in the most ancient literature of the Aryan race…"
Using the example (drawn from a different work) of 'folktales' and 'traditions' found in the play of schoolchildren as a corollary to the quote above, McLuhan declares, "In communities widely separated in space and time there is a continuity and tenacity of tradition quite unknown to written forms."

One of the themes I want to address in my abstract is the need, in my opinion, for a new conceptualization of information that will allow us to more accurately map the augmented reality presence infused in our daily lives.  While the points addressed by both Frazer and McLuhan are, on face, correct they do some disservice in their perpetuation of an informational framework dependent on speed as the indexer of change.  With the advent of the digital wave of augmentation, the interaction between supposedly slow atoms of oral knowledge and the fast bits of digital knowledge increasingly level each other out in their interoperability making distinctions of speed between the separate domains of knowledge increasingly moot (under what McLuhan calls the 'pressure of simultaneity') and even illusionary once an augmented reality perspective is pursued.  The question can no longer be, "what is the speed of this accelerating effect?"  It must instead shift to, "what degree can this knowledge be modified through transmission?" as this qualifier, this focusing of informational pursuit, will allow us to move away from harmful dualist modes of thinking towards a more realistic augmented reality perspective.  

This is helpful not only for interpreting the effects of the digital wave of augmentation, but also the previous waves and the waves to come.  My attempts to define knowledge in terms of high and low mobility potentials, as seen in my examination of the debate on usage of oral citations on Wikipedia and the new website Small Demons, denotes small efforts towards this larger goal. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subverting the Panoptic Structure

While on a recent visit to NYC for some archival digging, I took a day to visit parts of the city I wanted to see- chief among those parts was that glorious bookstore The Strand.  There I picked up a copy of Michel Foucault's '73-'74 lecture at the College de France titled Psychiatric Power, which proved to be a wonderful buy.  I've enjoyed reading Foucault's monographs on Sexuality, Madness, Discipline and Power, etc… but for me, the best place to explore Foucualt's imaginative thought process is in his lectures captured via tape recorder and transcribed for publication.  Psychiatric Power does not let down in this regard, as Foucault spends his twelve lectures investigating what would become the main topic of 'Discipline and Punish'- the role and configuration of disciplinary apparatuses.  His lectures on the topic are succinct and easy to engage, due mainly to the oral nature of their delivery.  I would easily recommend this volume for anyone attempting to grasp Foucault's larger themes of power and the disciplinary mechanisms created to channel power.

Photo by Nicolas Nova
Recently I've been using posts on this blog to investigate what I have termed the mobility potential of knowledge.  While reading Psychiatric Power it occurred to me that Bentham's panopticon and Foucault's use of it to explain the workings of disciplinary power might provide a good opportunity to map out the differences in operation and conception a panoptic mechanism would possess when examined under the framework I've tried to establish for the operation of mobility potentials.

Before diving into the differences each depiction portrays, it might be helpful to establish the baseline for how Bentham envisioned his Panopticon to function and how Foucault found in its operation the workings of a disciplinary apparatus of power.  (Quotes below come from Psychiatric Power)

Bentham designed the Panopticon to augment the power of the central observer through two means.  First, the panoptic design is a multiplier of power that provides 'herculean strength' to power circulating within the institution and to the individual who holds/directs power and, second, the panoptic design gives the center a means of obtaining 'mind over mind' power. This is accomplished by the individualizing nature of the panopticon, as it places the focus of the gaze, the body, on a singular subject. The result Foucault notes,
...means that in a system like this we are never dealing with a mass, with a group, or even, to tell the truth, with a multiplicity: we are only ever dealing with individuals.  ... All collective phenomena, all the phenomena of multiplicities, are thus completely abolished. (75)
Examples of 'collective phenomena' include distinction in workshops achieved by use of songs or strikes, collusion among prisoners, or acts of irritation/imitation found in the asylum.  As a result, "the whole network of group communication...will be brought to an end by the panoptic system."  Power thus becomes collective at the center, the beginning of the anonymous gaze, with the distribution of power always focused on the individuals, the bodies, located in their separate cells.  Foucault equates collective power held at the center as "...a sort of ribbon of power, a continuous, mobile and anonymous ribbon, which perpetually unwinds within the central tower.  ...(The Panoptic Mechanism) is an apparatus of both knowledge and power that individualizes on one side, and which, by individualizing, knows." (Both quotes from p. 78)

Returning to the illustrations above, we can now map out the operation of a panoptic mechanism using both disciplinary and mobility potential frameworks.  The disciplinary framework concerns itself, primarily, with the individualization of the subject in its cell.  The center's gaze penetrates the cell, able to give commands and directives but also capable of conducting observations that record the reaction of the cells to their individualized directives.  This 'feedback' of observation is reconciled in the center via the 'perpetually unwinding ribbon of power' which spurs the creation of new directives and commands.

Now let's examine the same panoptic mechanism through a mobility potential framework.  Because the panoptic mechanism facilitates the imposition of discipline it relies upon the transmission of primarily, perhaps exclusively, low mobility knowledge.  Foucault states that the rise of disciplinary mechanisms is closely tied to the growing use of documentary records to track a body, individually, through space, and the record keeping obsession possessed by many powers from the nineteenth century to present day attests to its enduring practice.  Documentary records, largely, do not transform through transmission or else they would lose their value in the larger practice of forming discipline.  

The cells, upon receiving the transmitted low mobility knowledge, formulate their own reaction or interpretation, although this cannot be shared to the other cells due to the configuration of the panoptic mechanism. (Remember that 'collective phenomena' is what the Panopticon is designed to avoid)  Information produced by the cell, be it high or low mobility, is observed by the gaze of the center and brought into the center for interpretation.  In doing so, the center acts as a 'transition point' for the shifting of high mobility information into low mobility information, a place to reconcile the two and mitigate the disruptive effects their transition generally entails, creating new directives that are then transmitted, once again, to the individual cells.  The key difference in this understanding is that both the cells and the center engage in knowledge interpretation, yet the design of the panoptic mechanism means that only the center can act as the 'transition point'.

Now I would like to ask different questions that I think hold significance with events unfolding today.  Can the panoptic mechanism be subverted?  Are there instances in which the operation of this subverted mechanism could be demonstrated?  I would like to explore the idea that the panoptic mechanism can be subverted and that the prime example of such subversion is the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Below, I've sketched out what I think a subverted panoptic mechanism would look like. 

Here we have the exact same layout as the traditional panoptic mechanisms analyzed above, yet the flow and type of information is highly varied.  Some distinctions are immediately evident.  The center, instead of being solely based on a physical location, now embraces an augmented reality presence allowing both high and low mobility information to be transmitted and received by the center.  This is the first key distinction, as the meshing of the physical and the digital allow the panoptic mechanism to maintain its form even while its very function is subverted.  Because an augmented reality presence necessitates the use of high mobility knowledge potentials, the gaze the center normally possesses in a traditional panoptic mechanism becomes inverted.  Cells now gaze and penetrate the center, attempting to gain knowledge and 'individualize' in a function closely aligned with the traditional panoptic gaze.  The 'perpetually unwinding ribbon of power' is now shared by the center and cell alike, meaning that cells can now engage in the sort of collective phenomena prohibited in traditional panoptic mechanisms.  Now the 'transition point' function, the capacity to interchange high and low mobility knowledge with minimal disruptive asynchronous effects, resides in both the cell and the center.  This shift is the second key distinction of a subverted panoptic mechanism.

In some instances, the subverted panoptic mechanism can wield traditional panoptic powers- this is evident when Occupiers pose for pictures taken by tourists or when video or statements created by the center are transmitted to the cells.  What is interesting is that only in these expressions of 'weak panoptic power' (utilizing the physical structure of the panoptic mechanism) does the center actually gaze into the surrounding cells.  When engaging the cells in an augmented reality presence (as Nathan Jurgenson says, uniting the hashtag and the physical), this gaze is inverted and can no longer penetrate the surrounding cells.  By utilizing the panoptic mechanism in such subversion, the cells also acquire the two benefits outlined by Bentham and explained above- the 'herculean strength' of power multiplied and a means to obtain 'mind over mind' power- and while the effect of the first benefit is immediately apparent when viewing the outpouring of discussion, videos and photos associated with OWS, the second benefit, while very crucial, becomes diminished by simple fact of plurality.  Many cells aligned with the 'ribbon of power' mean that many interpretations are created, making the 'mind over mind' power generated by the subverted panoptic mechanism more suited to the question and analysis of hegemony.

It cannot be stressed enough that the essential characteristic of a subverted panoptic mechanism is the intermeshing of both the physical and the digital.  Absent the physical anchoring, the movement would still be transmitting and receiving information but it would do so outside of the (subverted) panoptic structure.  This, to me, is a key difference between a movement like Occupy Wall Street and a group like Anonymous.  There is a question now, with the general revocation of a physical space to occupy, if the OWS movement can continue or maintain the impact they have fostered so far.  While the loss of a physical location would prevent the movement from subverting the panoptic mechanism for their own uses, there is always the possibility that one of the cells will hold new ground and re-create the movement there.

This is just a very preliminary sketching out of ideas regarding the role of the panoptic mechanism under the framework of mobility potential.  I gladly welcome any comments from readers as to points I either glossed over or missed completely.  

Monday, October 31, 2011

Exploring the Small Demons of Books

When discussing the differences between high mobility/low mobility knowledge constructs, I often invoke the book as an exemplar of the latter given its general property of being unable to undergo modification through transmission.  You and I may have different copies of the same book, but the words, characters, jokes and cultural references (to only name a few) remain the same even if we loan the book to a friend or find a stranger on the subway reading a copy of foreign origin.  This singular property, its immutable character, makes the book a superb transmitter of stable knowledge.
And while I am far from an authoritative source of knowledge on the history of books, a la Adrian Johns, the low mobility potential of the book (as I have defined it) continually proves to be a fascinating intellectual investigation.  That's probably why I found the following tweet from James Bridle, author of the blog and general commentator on the intersection of technology and literature (in addition to 'book futurism' as he states on his blog), to be very interesting with regards to my evolving thoughts on the mobility potential knowledge in books possess.

Tweeting from the 'Books in Browsers' 2011 conference, Bridle added the following thought tweet a day after the above came into came into existence:

Both of these thoughts explain, in their own way, what I have come to see as the interaction of high and low mobility found in knowledge constructs.  In a real sense, the beginning portion of Bridle's first tweet is entirely correct; books do not need a network.  But when brought under the lens of mobility potential, books do need a human network in order to not only transmit their stable knowledge but also facilitate the creation of high mobility knowledge constructs- reader's thoughts, interpretations and influences- that produce a full range of what we might call 'culture', expressed in a variety of forms.  In this interpretation, the second half of Bridle's initial tweet fully affirms the role low mobility books play in the creation of a diversified field of culture, made up of both high and low mobility knowledge potentials- other books, essays, rumors, stories, tweets, blogs, art, music, etc…

Bridle's second tweet affirms this interpretation.  In a good example of circular reasoning, books are products of culture which, when transmitted- networked- produce additional iterations of culture which have the potential to produce other books, and so on.  Whereas in the past, when interaction between knowledge constructs of high and low mobility often produced disruptive asynchronous effects (think the interaction between written documents and oral rumors disputing their contents), thanks to the facilitation of digital networks new forms of knowledge interaction, which I label 'transition points', are engendering greater interaction with knowledge constructs of both high/low mobility with decreasing degrees of disruptive asynchronicity.  In a previous post, I demonstrated how Wikipedia was one such 'transition point' involving both high and low knowledge constructs in the process of certifying encyclopedic knowledge.  I have recently discovered a website that I feel is another 'transition point', this time for analyzing books; Small Demons.

Here is a video explaining, in part, what Small Demons is trying to do:

I recently received a beta invite to use the service (you can register for an invite from the Small Demons main page) and while it is still very rudimentary in many respects, there is a lot of potential for the service as it continues development.  

The reason I qualify Small Demons as a 'transition point' is the way it essentially helps users pick apart the details, perhaps uncovering the influences an author selected when creating their low mobility literary work, and then transfer those users reactions to these details in a high mobility manner.  Engaging in a limited 'reverse-engineering' of 'cultural' sources (it cannot reveal the mystique of writing, only the sum total of references in the work), Small Demons gives glimpses, shadows perhaps (thus the Demons reference?), of the high mobility knowledge constructs- i.e. thoughts, influences, culture- that entered the minds of writers as they produced works dissected by the website.  People can comment via the 'like' function on various ephemeral bits uncovered- a map location, or weapon, or music album- and create their own interpretation of the work, in a very low mobility way (the likes don't change via transmission), that nonetheless acknowledges the extreme high mobility thought process that spurred the 'like' expression people find attachment to in a book.  The asynchronous effect between the interaction of low mobility books and references and high mobility thought-reactions is reduced to the extreme in Small Demons, if only because people can state what attracted them to the work, revealing what part of the creative mystique drew them into the words, in a way that is stable and yet capable of creating high mobility spin-offs.  This is accomplished through debates on the selected book or influences facilitated by the act of reading (see Bridle's first tweet above), further discussions brought about via the 'share' button linking to Twitter or Facebook, or in the soon to be implemented 'curation' option whereby particularly knowledgable people who add details to the site can moderate discussions or review incoming contributions.

Because the website is stability based- there is little to no modification of the works presented- Small Demons embraces the low mobility defined by the books it covers, yet the capacity for high mobility discussion and the examination of the sources used in literary works allows the site to become a 'transition point'.  Increasingly, digital portals and structures are being developed that fuse high & low mobility knowledge constructs in way that augment the presence of both without producing the often disruptive asynchronous effects observed in previous analog or textual conceptions.  Small Demons is more than just a book lovers 'nerd-out' site- it is emblematic of a new type of knowledge production 'augmented reality', reshaping the way we both produce and consume cultural content.