Contexts and Backgrounds

Hamish Robertson’s and Joanne Travaglia’s “Impact of Socil Sciences – Big Data Problems We Face Today Can Be Traced to the Social Ordering Practices of the 19th Century” provided a wonderful reading that situates the many issues and discussions of big data into a historical framework that allows us to understand the data revolution as a development of a first data revolution in the 19th century.

This first data revolution is so ingrained in the Western world that it is difficult to even perceive it as anything but natural. This era of information organization was the period of classification, a period that sought to classify a variety of organisms such as animal species, words and social dynamics. I use the word “organisms” to emphasize the historical mobility and liveliness of society’s forces and products. While science provided the tools for classification, the authors argue that classification is nothing but natural. In the contrary, “a great deal of social data is coercive in nature” (5). They attempt to reveal it is not science, but society, that we see through the instruments of classification.

This historical background of data management and classification on the 19th century creates an interesting dynamic when integrated into Jose Van Dijck’s and Thomas Poell’s “Understanding Social Media Logic.” In this work, the authors attempt to demonstrate how social new media logic infiltrates and is infiltrated by mass media and offline processes in the same way that 19th century data management and ideologies can be found in mass media and new media logic. In addition, I appreciate “Understanding Social Media Logic” in that it is almost didactic in its organization and presentation and allows the reader to carefully meditate about the different aspects of social new media (logic, programmability, popularity, connectivity and datafication) and how they are integrated in individual lives. The comparison between the two articles is also fortunate in that it reveals how the image of the scientist capable of presenting natural and objective data has been adapted from the 19th century animal and plant sciences to television news broadcast to television product advertising and to the apparent objectivity of non-human mediated logarithmic information. Ironically, while many other articles did alert readers about the subjectivity of data collection and the important place that data collection acquires in the struggle for power, Van Dijck and Poell are able to evince this subjectivity and social coarseness of classification by providing a 19th century-style classification of different media logics and attempt to remain objective in their assessment of media effects.

While Robertson’s and Travaglia’s article provides a background that clearly influenced the logic of media, Van Dijck’s and Poell’s offer a present context to read social new media (and mass media). These were indeed very interesting articles, especially when assigned together, that allows for a good reading of the “media world” today.

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Contexts and Backgrounds

In search for the real power

Silva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Us: Universal Survailance and Infrastructural Imperialism” serves as a very interesting and powerful counterpoint to Manuel Castells’s “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.” There were three very interesting points raised by Vaidhyanathan that somehow were more effective in personifying the new medium “players” than Castells’s article.

The first of these points was how Google, while guaranteeing the privacy of its users by a written privacy policy, “changes its policy often and without warning. So today’s policy – for all its strengths and weaknesses – might not be the policy tomorrow or next year” (580). Therefore, Google not only positions itself as the police over its own policies, but also carefully deprives its “costumers” of any legal power. Castells’s description of communication and information being sources of power in the “battle over the minds of people” (238) suggests Google positions itself as a powerful and flexible moderator/agent in this battle. It seems that Castells’s mass self-communication may have a new “competitor” other than the traditional political powers capable of controlling mass media, a new power that not only gives voice to marginalized “individualists,” but keeps track of these voices to be used by whoever is interested in commercialize them.

A second interesting point described by Vaidhyanathan is the amusingly depersonalized (and tragic) “Star Wars Kid,” who had to quit school after being harassed for having a personal video go viral. I take this as a true personalized example of individuals who are embedded and are major players in the rise of mass self-communication. While I like to believe that Castells’s mass self-communication offers a challenge to traditional powers by individuals who “think local, rooted in their society, and act global, confronting the power where the power holders are, in the global networks of power and in the communication sphere” (249), Vaidhyanathan at the same time focus on politically engaged individuals who may represent an infinitesimal number of the total number of players engaged in making their voices be heard online. It is incontestable that the new medium offers new ways of political mobilizations. It is also unquestionable that individuals who share many of the values broadcasted by mass media strengthened these values through mass self-communication. It is possible that the answer regarding what power benefits more from the new medium will never be known.

Finally, Vaidhyanathan speaks about users’ indifference to Google’s “Streetview omnipresence” (although he admits that individuals from rural areas present more negative views towards surveillance than individuals living in urban areas). He also presents Google’s CEO, Eric Shmidt, argument that states that “people are the same everywhere” and that this is “very disturbing” (593). While Shmidt statement may be untrue and may be made through the prism of his corporation that, after all, is one of the forces behind globalization, it may present a future trend. If that is true, social mobilizations, purported to be aided by the new medium, may not be a force against the traditional political powers, but against a world where social mobilizations themselves become part of a commercialized and global action.

In search for the real power

The Opposing Statements

The reading of the different manifestos, statements and interviews were very instructive, especially in the way it conveys new approaches to escape the mainstream modes of production, consumption and perception. Each of these readings provoked different questions to arise, questions that I believe can go beyond the scope of the digital cultural and social forces behind the production of these texts.

In “Glitch Studies Manifesto,” Rosa Menkma not only advocates for the acknowledgement that the development of any media brings produces different and unexpected noise or glitches, but also that artists and activists must incorporate these glitches in their works so that listeners, viewers and users can experience what is “outside knowledge.” At the same time, Menkma acknowledges that “Not all glitch art is progressive or something new. The popularization and cultivation of the avant-garde of mishaps has become predestined and unavoidable.” Every scientific, religious, political, cultural and social structure seems to have started as a radical departure of a previously established system that, with time, may get accepted as the new norm if it is successfully implemented. While Menkma does attempt to warn artists to avoid creating works that employ techniques that have been incorporated by the system, this advice seems to be a silent scream in the noise of history. Glitch art, when speaking to most of us in an intellectual and emotional level, will probably have the same fate as the impressionistic art before it.

Nevertheless, when the system incorporates different forms of expression, the system can change. Arguing, then, that we need to rid our minds from established binary oppositions of what is clean and what is noise, like Menkma does, seems particularly appropriate. This merge of apparent oppositions can be found in the way that the authors of “Vector journal’s dynamic editorial statement” speak about the important use of text as the “clearest form of expression” while at the same time encouraging new forms of viewing and reading through vectors that provide unique ways of experiencing and understanding. Particularly interesting was how the searches, including those the statement has not found, stay visible on the screen, creating a kind of a visual map.

This kind of integration of binary oppositions can also be felt when reading McKenzie Wark interview on A Hacker Manifesto. Wark seems not only to have acknowledge, but also to be conformed to the fact that hacking has been incorporated as a mainstream practice in our society, without being able to provide clear paths through which hackers (with all the diversity found in the word) should march (besides acknowledging that the fight has gone from data to metadata).

“Femtechnet Manifesto” did not stay in the confines of its own ontology but is grounded on diverse layers of society. For this reason, it gets closer to abolishing binary oppositions. After all,

“We are a work group.

We are many genders.

We are an innovative learning technology.

We are FemTechNet”.

The Opposing Statements

Mechanical Humanities

Lisa Gitelman’s “Raw Data is an Oxymoron” and Lev Manovich’s “The Science of Culture?” offer interesting approaches on the understanding of collecting and interpreting data that touch upon certain aspects of my own research. While Gitelman’s article attempts to demystify the concept of raw data, arguing that data is always “cooked” and never objective, Manovich’s piece seems to be more optimistic, claiming that the computer’s ability to gather an endless number of data “offers an opportunity to rethink fundamental assumptions about what is society and how to study it” (13). While both articles appear to analyze different characteristics of data studies, I believe that they may slightly contradict each other. It is in that contradiction that I see the most interesting aspect of these articles.

One of Gitelman’s most visual comparisons, which attempts to discredit the idea of data as being objective, was that of photography and data. The former was once claimed to be objective since “no art is necessary” (170). Using the idea that framing in photography is an act that prevents this art from being objective, Gitelman introduces the concept of framing in data. Consequently, data has to be “understood according to the uses to which they are and can be put.”

The idea of framing presupposes that only a fraction of the word can be manipulated while the rest will be carefully ignored. In terms of data, the act of choosing particular variables to be collected is an act of “cooking” the information. On the other hand, Manovich’s description of wide data as “very large and potentially endless number of variables describing a set of cases” (13) appears to momentarily give computers the ability to delete data collection’s framing. While clusters of information gathered by wide data analysis may provide certain framing, Manovich contends that this type of analysis can also help us to “question our common sense view of things” or question “how we think, see, and ultimately act on our knowledge.” In other words, this belief seems to be based on the concept of wide data analysis as an objective data collection capable of altering (or correcting) our limited subjective perceptions of the world.

One of the topics of my own research has to do with the fact that while the photographic and cinematic image has been widely analyzed, the equipment that produces this image is constantly ignored. Any photographic or motion picture camera was built in a particular geographic location and in a particular point in history by an individual or group of individuals that had specific beliefs, goals and purposes in building such equipment. I argue that the human development of such equipment prevents it from producing objective material. In the same way, I believe that it is not the framing of the data that prevents it from being truly raw, but the actual machinery that is used to gather data. The very fact that computers can collect an endless number of data already frames the data.

Mechanical Humanities