Repeating Mistakes and Big Brother

The reading this week had me thinking of a lot of different things coming up in these news these days and some interviews I’ve listened to related to these issues. with the first piece by Robertson and Travaglia I couldn’t help but think of the election process and the enormous number of polls that are taken and what the data, given to us in almost always unreliable ways without much context, are getting mostly wrong.

“That a census or a social survey is a snapshot of the way our societies are regulated is rarely remarked on and instead emphasis is given to the presumed objectivity of the categories and their data. This is the ideology of the small data era in action – the claim that it is science and not society that we are seeing through such instruments.”

When it comes to the polls about the Republican and Democratic primaries, it seems as though while they are usually fairly reflective of what will happen in a given state’s primary or caucus, they are misleading in the overall understanding of who may or may not be the party’s nominee and how they might do in a general election. I was listening to Nate Silver who started the website 538 (uses data to talk about politics, entertainment, the economy, sports, and pretty much any and everything else) and is well known for his accuracy in predicting nearly all 50 states correctly in the 2008 presidential election, and he mentioned how there is a strange reversal in the state of polls in primaries and generals. One of the main points was about Donald Trump and how his enormous support that makes him the front running candidate in most primaries is far from the case in the general, where you have a much different electorate that doesn’t find his style quite as charming as primary voters.

“We run the risk in the social sciences of perpetuating the ideological victories of the first data revolution as we progress through the second.”

In the other article by van Dijck and Poell, my mind shifted gears a bit to other items in the news— like the whole Apple and FBI dispute. The article provided a number of recent historical events as examples. Like when discussing programmability they mentioned reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing and how Reddit had to change their editorial process because of how many sub-Reddit threads led to the vilification and accusation of innocent people while the search for the suspects was still ongoing. Like they say in the article, platformers and programmers constantly negotiate the terms of social interaction. And so one even leads the social media programmers to change the level of agency on the part of users:

“The second part of the programmability definition, though, relates to human agency: users retain significant agency in the process of steering programmability not only through their own contributions but also because they may resist coded instructions or defy protocols.”

But programmability also made me think of how these platforms “steer” users and how Facebook in particular has been getting a lot of flack for years now about how they use users’ personal data.

“Programmability can hence be defined as the ability of a social media platform to trigger and steer users’ creative or communicative contributions, while users, through their interaction with these coded environments, may in turn influence the flow of communication and information activated by such a platform.”

Ironically, the Apple and FBI case shows another tech company (not directly social media but still) that has had a dubious track record on a number of issues, but here Apple comes out as the champion of privacy and constitutional rights.

Last thought on this week’s readings, this one particular quote really intrigued me:

“The idea that you can tap into people’s unconsciousness or ‘idea formation’ without affecting the processes of opinion making is a basic misconception.”

It seems like in the same mistakes keep happening (like the first article says) in which these companies and the government are so excited about the prospect of datafication of everything, that they end up oversimplifying its use, which is extremely dangerous, and not to sound so intense (and ironically I’ll be oversimplifying a bit here for effect) but isn’t too far off from when oppressive regimes crack down on dissent.

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Repeating Mistakes and Big Brother

Power dynamics, Religious Structures, and Ethical Considerations

Our readings this week had me thinking less about my current project for this course, but instead focusing on my future research project (that I hope to be starting this summer) that will be focusing on social network analysis of scholars and institutions in the Muslim world, from modern times to all the way back hundreds of years if possible.

The point of this is to focus on the power relations of religious discourse, as Castells project is to focus on the power relations between corporate entities, political forces, and of course the counter-power he mentions in the later parts of his article.  Many of his issues seem to be obvious to us, for we are at large a part of a well educated group that has its lifted our blinders to the façade of media.  Statements like this (although perhaps in 2006 when he was writing things were a bit different) should be relatively straightforward to a generally liberal Jon Stewart loving audience:

“Yet, the main issue is not the shaping of the minds by explicit messages in the media, but the absence of a given content in the media.  What does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind, even if it could have a fragmented presence in individual minds.” (241)

He uses points like this to go into a more nuanced argument, bring in the broad stroking of our brush against all political entities for being two-faced, hypocritical, and in bed with the corporations they claim to be defending us from:

“generalized mudslinging, citizens end up putting all politicians in the same bag, as they distrust electoral promises, parties, and political leaders. (244)

When it comes to religious discourse however, these points create a much different rift in society, that until now has not produced a fruitful or at the very least easily visible counter-power to the current Islamic-powers at be in the world of Islamic knowledge.  People can easily disengage entirely form the religious world if they choose.  American Muslims can cease to identify as Muslims (sort-of) and ignore the religious powers.  They don’t have to matter if an individual doesn’t want them to matter.

This creates a different kind of fragmentation in the Muslim community, one in which large portions choose to just disengage.  The reason for this is that the current “mainstream” or normative power structures in the Muslim world do what Castells remarks about Fox News or El Mundo, they simply do not provide certain information.  And if the alternative scholarship, opinions, or peoples who oppose the mainstream practice poke their heads up in the global discourse, they can easily attack them.

“If credibility, trust, and character become critical issues in deciding the political outcome, the destruction of credibility and character assassination become the most potent political weapons.” (243)

Perhaps waiting for the counter-power to rise up in the Muslim community is a fruitless endeavor.  There are progressives in the Muslim community, and there are hard line conservatives who take the prescriptive brand of Islam to the umpteenth degree.  The hardliners have found their outlet and power in often violent ways (not always, but these fundamentalist movements around the world are of course the most visible).  The progressives on the other hand, have had much less success in creating an alternative counter-power.  But perhaps the medium is the key.

“True, the medium, even a medium as revolutionary as this one, does not determine the content and effect of its messages. But it makes possible the unlimited diversity and the largely autonomous origin of most of the communication flows that construct, and reconstruct every second the global and local production of meaning in the public mind.” (248)

I’m not sure I like how Castells glosses over the medium’s influence on effecting the message, but he seems to be somewhat positive in the new medias potential.

As for my future social network analysis project, I have a lot of considerations to keep in mind.  I need to be careful of falling into similar (albeit on a much smaller scale) ethical issues that google does as mentioned in Siva Vaidhyantathan’s article.  I will be collecting data, sometimes covering sensitive information on supposedly public platforms like twitter and the such, but many of the contemporary participants in the religious discourse may not be fully aware of how their tweets, posts, and so on will be analyzed by someone like me.  Taking part in a project like this, something I believe is actually important and is fuelled by the activist mentality in me, and the place (and stakes and investment) I have in a certain community, I really need to figure out how I can avoid becoming like a corporate entity.  I need to keep treating real people like people and not just “nodes” in a network.

Power dynamics, Religious Structures, and Ethical Considerations

Why is it always so bleak?

Sorry for the lateness of this post ya’ll, had some issues to deal with!

 

It seems that I find myself reading things this week (both for this class and for my field exam) that are quite damning of our current situation— it’s like listening to one of my old brown Middle Eastern or South Asian uncles lament the issues of “this generation” (which is usually not-so-subtle code to blast progressive views on social issues— or at least espouse conservative social values, no matter how nonsensical they might be when looking at you know, the history of the world).  Or it’s like listening to various public figures talk smack about millennials and the problems of millennial culture.

“It is information itself which produces uncertainty, and so this uncertainty, unlike the traditional one which could always be resolved, is irreparable.”  (580)

 

Now obviously, Baudrillard (and Benjamin, who I was also reading this past week) are a bit more sophisticated than my racist and homophobic uncles. The damning portrait they paint of technological reproduction and of media and the information age are done with an extensive philosophical understanding of how art, of how society, and of how the masses function and exist in our world.

“Overinformed, it develops in-growing obesity.” (580)

But man, I know that my mind is no where near capable of their kind of thinking, but must everything be so damning?  Is this really how they view the world?  Is societal, or at least technological, progression equivalent to society losing its grasp on actual “meaning?”  Benjamin was concerned with art losing its aura and authority when copies were able to be reproduced on a mass scale through photographic means— and Baudrillard was concerned over the loss of meaning, the “liquidation” of it, the “violence done to [it].”  But again, I keep coming back to this same questions of culture and my own interests— what if aura or authority don’t matter as much?  What if meaning does not come from words and what they aren’t or are in relation to one another?  What if we think of meaning in accordance to Eastern philosophies (be they related to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or anything else)?  And this leads me to another question, how much exposure did these Western Europeans have to non-Western traditions and thought?  I honestly don’t know.  But it seems like none at all.  And perhaps this is too simplistic, but for that reason I read everything they write with a great amount of suspicion.

Why is it always so bleak?

Ramblings and Glitches in Oral Traditions

This week, as I took in the readings I was simultaneously in the Collaboratory messing with Crimson Hexagon, trying to get it to work for my purposes, trying desperately to get a dataset that was most interesting to my needs, trying to exclude the tweets I didn’t want, getting annoyed with my search for verses of the Qur’an online, because no matter how many times I thought I had figured out to get just quoted verses, or I had taken precautions to avoid the bigots spouting  racist diatribe against Islam, or those responding to them, I kept finding tweets that didn’t fit my needs.

And then of course, I keep stressing out and pulling out my hair as I’m trying to zero in on the overall point of this exercise— yes, I have a research question (more like several) that are fueling my overall efforts, but I keep worrying about how much I keep manipulating my own perception of the data in order to see what I wanted to see.

“In short, failure is a phenomenon to overcome, while a glitch is incorporated further into technological or interpretive processes.” (27)

I want to see glitches.  But the failures keep piling up.  A glitch, as Menkman says, “refers to a not yet defined break from a procedural flow.” (27)  And this is exactly what I want to find.  Where is the break in the flow from oral or aural text to written to digital to short-without-context tweets.  I want to see the shift in experience of the Qur’an on social media, on Twitter specifically, perhaps Facebook, or even youtube.  I want to see what happens when certain verses make it to the online platform while others don’t.  When certain translations make it and others don’t.  When certain voices dominate.  When the essence of the Qur’an and its esoteric meaning/flow is disrupted, but somehow reaches a much larger audience than ever before at greater speed and regularity.    But I can’t help but think, perhaps this idea of glitch doesn’t quite work with oral traditions.  Perhaps oral traditions don’t really care about glitch.

The stuff I’m reading right now, about the compilation of the Qur’an, hadith, and Arabic poetic traditions seems to think so.  The readings criticize the Western focus on accuracy, seeing this as being irrelevant.  For religious texts, this may sound ludicrous.  And it kind of is, I suppose.  But maybe not so much.  Menkman writes “The first encounter with a glitch comes hand in hand with a feeling of shock, with being lost and in awe. The glitch is a powerful interruption that shifts an object away from its flow and ordinary discourse, towards the ruins of destructed meaning.” (29)  When looking at the Arabic poetic tradition, there are constant glitches or even failures according to this terminology, in that little was written down, and therefore the poems themselves would be retold, “rewritten,” re-mediated even, sometimes even “improved” upon, sometimes made worse, catered towards different locales, and therefore became living things.  The glitch that would disrupt this normal flow of things then, is when the primarily oral tradition comes into a head on collision with the dominant written culture, or the need for written culture, so that the oral tradition won’t die out.  Could I say then, that the glitch in the data I’m looking at is that it has been re-contextualized and re-mediated so much that the oral tradition of Qur’anic recitation itself has been infringed upon, disrupted to a certain extent.  People are learning the proper recitation (tajwid) through youtube videos and websites rather than with a teacher.  People are reading the Qur’an, or at least taking in bits and pieces of daily inspiration through twitter accounts and chopped up verses that sound nice.  Is modernity itself the glitch in the oral traditions of Islam?  Perhaps I’m going way too off the deep end here… I feel like I’m rambling.

“A glitch is the most puzzling, difficultt to define and enchanting noise artifact; it reveals itself to perception as accident, chaos or laceration and gives a glimpse into normally obfuscated machine language. Rather than creating the illusion of a transparent, well-working interface to information, the glitch captures the machine revealing itself.” (29-30)

 

According to the quote above, maybe modernity and social media aren’t the problem.  Maybe the Qur’an via Twitter is actually allowing the “machine [to reveal] itself.”

 

My project (and career in academia) is still coming together, or falling apart depending on  how you read this rambling piece, but perhaps the fogginess in my own thoughts is merely setting the stage for clarity:

 

“Noise turns to glitch when it passes a momentary tipping point, at which it could  tip away into a failure, or instead force new knowledge about the glitch’s techné, and actual and presumed media flows, onto the viewer.” (31)

 

I’m thinking this quote means there is a real purpose, perhaps even potentially incredibly interesting end to my project.  Or perhaps, and excuse my language, I’m just writing convoluted and unecssary bullshit and I need to shape up.

Ramblings and Glitches in Oral Traditions

Overcooked Data

Gitelman’s idea of “raw data” being an oxymoron and the various degrees of which it can be cooked has taken me backward historically in my research area, rather than what I thought would be the case— looking at the digitizing of Islamic literature, and the Quran in particular.  The various cooking methods have gotten me to think about its status as a purely oral text for the first many years of its existence, which then transitioned back and forth between written and oral forms (while remaining primarily oral) until about twenty years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, when the Caliph Uthman began the process of collecting and canonizing the chapters of the Quran into the version we have today (most scholars agree to this narrative).

If this is the case, the text itself was “generated” (not “discovered”), according to Islamic tradition, in a pure “raw” form through an oral transmission to the prophet over a period of years form the angel Gabriel.  The only true raw form of it can then only be the recited word, which makes sense given the emphasis and importance on this quality of text and its place in the lives of Muslims who pray five times a day, reciting these words aloud or in their own heads.  After revelation it was then taught to Prophet’s companions who memorized the text in its entirety.  Even here there is a certain stage of “cooking” that occurs in terms of the order of the Quran, because the version that is accepted today was not compiled chronologically according to the order of revelation.  The memorizers of the Quran continued the oral tradition and recitation, sometimes with small portions written down as memory aides (the first time that Quran was ever turned into text), until the compilation began under Uthman’s caliphate.

Fast forward many years and the Quran has turned into cassette tapes, cds, audio files, digital versions for computers and smart phones, etc.  The number of forms it takes add different layers to the “cooking” process, sometimes taking the oral component into account and sometimes not.  If we can refer to the original recitation as “raw data” then what we have now has been cooked too many times to count (not even mentioning translation)— which is usually fuel for some scholars (usually from the West) to question the authenticity and/or completeness of the holy book.  In any case, both articles we read this week have got me thinking about whether or not it is truly possible to experience the Quran in a truly raw and uninterrupted way.  Gitelman mentions the lack of objectivity in machines when reproducing pieces of art, and I wonder whether the current way in which most Western Muslims in particular who get their religious literature through bits and pieces on their phones or through social media (twitter handles and memes devoted entirely to spreading inspirational and life advising hadith or verses of the Quran), regardless of the “aggregate quality of data,” are receiving tiny pieces of data so overcooked it is perhaps impossible to grasp the actual essence of the message, which is already an esoteric and lifelong endeavor.

And here’s a recitation by a world famous reciter, there are so many things happening around her interfering, talking over, and muffling the text— that I hardly think “raw” is the right word for this bit of data.

 

 

Overcooked Data