On Logics and Tactics

This week’s readings offer a nice cap to many of the discussions we’ve has in this class, in particular by addressing the following two issues regarding data epistemologies: history and infrastructure. To use an analogy from Jonathan Sterne, these matters are the water in which the fish (in this case users, producers, coders, etc) swim. I largely agree with the points made in Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia’s piece, and with the throughline they draw between 19th century scientific practices and epistemologies and those “problems” that define the contemporary information age. For that reason, I’m choosing to focus this response on Jose Van Dijck and Thomas Poell’s piece on social media logic which I found both extremely useful and generative in my own work.

The piece opens with in essence a discussion of the role that social media and mass media play as invisible intermediaries that are not so invisible. This point is very much simpatico with the scholarship of Lisa Gitelman, Tartleton Gillespie in his work on platforms, as well as other media industry scholarship on digital intermediaries and infomediaries. That is, all of these scholars  discuss the ways in which services that propose to merely “connect people” do much more than passively enable people to connect, but rather actively change the way that this connection is defined and activated. Van Dijck and Poell build on this idea by weaving a narrative about the ways in which a newer social media logic intertwines with older logics of mass media, offering a detailed and thoughtful discussion of user/producer relationships, programmability, popularity, connectivity, and datafication.

I think individually, all of these sections are successfully argued—particularly through the nuanced discussion of the way users, platforms, advertisers, and online environments shape each other. My confusion arose I think, in the more specific definitions and choice of words to describe these relationships. Social media logic is defined as: “the processes, principles, and practices through which these platforms process information, news, and communication, and more generally, how they channel social traffic” (5). Meanwhile, mass media logics are the “set of principles or common sense rationality cultivated in and by media institutions that penetrates every public domain and dominates its organizing structures” (3). These definitions are certainly not very close, and immediately it felt to me like the argument was set up to compare apples to vegetables, or something along those lines.

The authors do end up explaining the differences more carefully later on by talking about the way mass-media logic is one way editorial strategy and social media logic is two-way dialogic relationship between users and code, but I think ultimately their insistence on maintaining the paradigm of “logic” is a detriment to the overall flow of the essay. Logic does connote invisible infrastructures, but it seems less suitable to a discussion of tactics, or the purposeful navigation of these infrastructures (I’m thinking along the lines of Rita Raley here, who uses the word “tactics” to discuss intervention, disruption, and pre-emption on the part of individual actors). And, if we are to accept that the word “logic” encompasses both of those things, then I have to wonder—why is it the authors feel a need to choose a word that is so broad?

My second gripe with this mass media “logic” vs. social media “logic” paradigm is that it seems to exclude other genealogical explanations for how we interact with social media beyond mass media. What about, for instance, the influence of Google search on our penchant for using keywords and hashtags? What about those classification systems pointed out in the other piece—the libraries and census organizations that first developed the rubrics for data epistemologies? These certainly aren’t the same “logics” as mass media logics.

Anyway, I understand that the argument that this essay missed a lot isn’t that powerful given the word count restraints that all short articles have to deal with, but I do feel that this discussion of logics is narrow in a way that it need not be, particularly given the more nuanced arguments made in the individual sections.

In any case, I did really like this article in that it describes very well the things that I am trying to pay attention to in my data visualization project: namely the way in which particular platforms (twitter in my case) cause users to adjust their tactics of communication. My word cloud for Planned Parenthood is below. I’ll be categorizing groups of words into topics in my final project: calls to action, politics, women’s health, and references to actual abortion (chop, body, parts etc).

word cloud

On Logics and Tactics

Countering Castells’ Counterpower

Okay, I’ll be honest. I really disliked Manuel Castells’ “Communication, Power and Counter-power,” so I’d like to devote most of this blog post deconstructing it. To me, this essay read like a pieced together collection of seemingly unsubstantiated opinions with statements of the obvious. Phrases describing self-communication as “electronic autism” and tossed out remarks about how “many people, particularly men” like to “brag and be indiscrete” are perplexingly unacademic, while Castells insistence on talking about the potential for individual autonomy without offering a nuanced discussion of the fundamentally inextricable relationship of self-expression to communal identification, immobility, and control seems to replicate highly problematic assumptions about social media as some new, uninhibited space of free expression.

Of course, Castells himself seems to renege on this “autonomy” myth by talking about the ways in which powerful corporate interests also try to get on the Internet. The basic discussion is that on new mediums, there exist pirate networks that seek to mobilize rhizomatic, global support against mainstream networks, while mainstream actors try to co-opt these new mediums.Yes, there’s a cat and mouse game going on, and yes both companies and individuals are becoming increasingly savvy about how to take advantage of new social platforms. Sure, these things are happening, but there doesn’t appear to be any forceful intervention or argument beyond just stating obvious facts. What exactly is his analysis showing, other than offering case studies in which this is true? What are we learning beyond what we could see for ourselves?

It sounds like his argument boils down to the idea that strategies of disobedience are somehow better equipped to operate in a networked new media environment than in older media, but this feels extremely ahistorical. Every old medium was at one point a new medium, and every new medium has had its pirates (phone phreaking, pirate radio, even underground newspapers etc). Of course the Internet has flourishing counterpublics, but I think that this notion that somehow these current practices are inherently better-suited for disobedience is flawed and unsubstantiated. First of all, when have older mediums not been arenas for political drama? And second, social media platforms go through phases of evolution too. Twitter and Facebook, for instance, began as pure self-expression vehicles, then became increasingly political forums, and are now largely characterized by mass media linking. Not to mention, different platforms are earmarked for different degrees of self, political, or communal expression.

I suppose what irked me the most is Castells’ final discussion of how national identities and boundaries of nation-states have been diminished by social media; I find this reductive in its obviousness. To the contrary, the local specificities of where these technologies are created have a profound ideological effect on how they are used. For instance, Google maps, because it is based in United States, is able to enact a certain hegemonic power on the globe by drawing nation-state boundaries in contested regions of the world according to US definitions. Facebook, built on Silicon Valley, is exported around with the world with the imperializing expectation that people in third world countries would naturally desire the kinds of communication that originate in the Western hemisphere. This article merely reproduces this bias by assuming that networked online publics are the appropriate place for everyone, no matter their cultural background, to “free their minds.”

Anyway, I know I’ve taken up this time ranting about Castells, but I do think Vaidhyanathan did a much better job going into specifics about Google’s data acquisition and its lack of acknowledgment of these privacy issues. In particular, I appreciated the thoughtfulness and rigor of the taxonomy and discussion of privacy as “the terms of control over information, not the nature of the information we share” (Vaidhyanathan 585). The discussion of Google street view as an imperializing and universalizing gaze was also well-argued, and I think speaks to a lot of what the Castells article seemed to be missing.

Countering Castells’ Counterpower

Did Simulation Murder Reality? Une Dramaturgie de Baudrillard

(Please excuse my French)

“Implosions,” “statistical pornography,” “autointoxication,” “obscenity,” “de-volition.” One would be hard-pressed, I think, to find a public for Jean Baudrillard’s “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media,” that is not immediately compelled to react, antagonistically, incredulously, or through fits of giggles to his writing. Baudrillard writes to incite, and for that reason I think at times it becomes difficult to suppress the eye-roll, ignore the stylistic flourishes, and consider in seriousness, the ideas behind his piece.

For my part, I have many critiques of the way Baudrillard veers towards hyperbole, blanket judgments, and over simplistic reductions of complicated social realities. But my main issue is with the way in which he contorts what are very astute observations about modern mass media into a tangle of unsupported assumptions about human psychology. Baudrillard highlights the very relatable dilemma that “We will never know if an advertisement or opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills—but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement.” This believable statement then serves as evidence for a fundamental point that I find both extremely important and extremely perplexing: “There is no relationship between a system of meaning and a system of simulation” (579).

Before engaging with this sweeping statement, there are two aspects to Baudrillard’s argument that I see as core. 1. He points to the problem of what Mark Andrejevic calls “infoglut”: there is an excess of information brought on by mass media and datafication that produces uncertainty, and that 2. People react to this with a ludic sense of detachment and ambivalence. Baudrillard attributes this complacency to social voyeurism and “a secret form of the refusal of will” (de-volition). As he explains it, the loss of political meaning and will stems from a convoluted psychological battle between forces of submission/conformity vs. will/responsibility (an idea reminiscent of Nietzsche’s master-slave morality). As I understood his argument, we ignore statistics, for instance, because it is a threat to our superficial perception of having a personal destiny and we must maintain the simulation of will, even as we are complicit in the annihilation of the real thing.

The idea is neat, but I find it impossible to accept. In fact, I think Andrejevic offers a superior counter-explanation of the origins of the uncertainty we all intuit as real. While also acknowledging the crippling effect of having too much info, he makes the argument that we don’t believe in statistics because affect is better a shortcut to decision making. To put it simply, “Gut feelings” allow us to bypass the excess of information and activate a sense of willpower.

Given all this, what I really wanted to write about is how all of this is extremely important to the purpose of my own project. The recent controversy over Planned Parenthood, as we know, has co-opted a very old pro-life vs. pro-choice debate and politicized it in time for election season by repackaging it as #defundpp and #standwithpp. Now, my original goal of going into Twitter to the data of thousands of people using these hashtags is a project that seeks to map the simulation—or perhaps, to make visible the already extant social media map-simulation of abortion debates. It seems that unless I take the time to really think it through, doing this work could easily mean assuming one of Baudrillard’s points to be true: that there is, in fact, some “reality” or sphere containing wills and judgments that exists separately from the spectacle of PP debates happening on Twitter. That would consist of, for instance, assuming the existence of a “real” distribution of opinions about PP that is different than the one we see online (i.e. believing that most Americans deep down, support Planned Parenthood and that anti-abortion folks are just louder online).

If I take this reality as my ground, then I am already problematically looking and critiquing my data as false representation—no matter what I actually find. It would be altogether too easy to make the argument that this simulated social sphere is just a reverberating echo chamber of egos with no meaning. But of course, it’s impossible for us know to what extent our own opinions are influenced by this media sphere. If I don’t want to accept Baudrillard’s assertion that this is evidence of our own self-delusion and disavowal of will, I’m logically led to the conclusion that there is no reality/simulation divide at all—the plurality of our identities, and by extension, the media apparatuses that we use to express our identities are all different realms of reality. I might be rambling here, but I believe that one node of affiliation on one platform is necessarily just a small, yet meaningful piece of an infinite network. It is only our interpretation of these shards of the network that may lead to errors in translation or imprecise projections.

At the end of the day, I think all data humanists intuit that part of our job is to avoid making the “data collection = reality of what people think” type of conclusion that Baudrillard obviously guards us against. For my part, I hope to do this by focusing on the issue of how earmarking identities online distorts conversation about abortion, and vice versa. I am interested in the way in which anonymity and professional identity (which might include media orgs and civil society groups) are mobilized through different platforms for political discourse, and on the flip side, the barriers that stop people at the border of participation. In other words, I’m avoiding extrapolating conclusions about the PP debate itself and looking at the platforms themselves in order to avoid generalizing a complicated discussion based on data alone. Would I be missing out by doing this?

Did Simulation Murder Reality? Une Dramaturgie de Baudrillard

On Process and Manifestos

Reading, listening, and interacting with various types of manifestos this week, I could not help but meditate on the ways in which playing with format can contribute to critical and historiographic interventions in digital media and data studies. The interactive editorial statement of Vectors was obviously striking in the way that it engages a more active participant and troubles the boundary between both author and reader as well as manifesto and manifestation. In particular, I love the way that the search function and hyperlinking of components adds a collaborative element to the plain act of reading. Ironically, the philosophical question at the heart of this issue is brought out through a question asked under the search term, “search”: “Can an argument be interactive and remain an argument? We think that it can.”

This is a really interesting claim, and I’m not sure I’ve fully formulated my own understanding of its implications. But I do think that there’s a definite limit to the extent that it can be universalized into other forms of “interactivity.” What if, for instance, we were to encounter the Glitch Manifesto as a glitched or deformed text? So much of what is important in that manifesto is represented within its semantic content, so in that sense glitching it would either destroy its argumentative weight or transform the argument altogether. In fact, I think glitching the manifesto would be disingenuous—more a gimmick for the times than a genuine reflection of how new ideas can intervene into the old.

On the other hand, the sound file of FemTechNet is a more passively experienced, but still conveys a sense of process and temporal depth that is so important to experiences of digitality today. The use of a “female” mechanical voice to “read” the text similarly suggests a collaboration between the human and machine and in particular, feminism and its technicity. It moreover retains traces of its textuality in the way that it gets read and the way that it is organized. There’s an indexical, semiotic relationship in having a computer read a text—it’s almost as if you can hear the paragraph indents with each declaration.

By experimenting with format, FemTechNet and Vectors are both self-reflexive, creative meditations on the messages they put forth, but like the Glitch Manifesto and the Hacker Manifesto, they are also both reflections of the moment in which they are written. The self-conscious choice of sound coincides with a historical moment in media scholarship when people are calling for the de-centering of visual epistemologies over acoustemologies or haptic knowledge, just as a written list-form manifesto about glitch inevitably confronts established “templates” and “action scripts” through both its form and content.

What I think is ultimately a worthwhile challenge in writing these editorial statements is acknowledging the particular time and place that they arise and engaging in an extended dialogue with the past. Questions that McKenzie Wark’s interview asked are important consider: How might the battlefield shift over time? Who are the warriors? Who will be the inheritors?Why are we at “war” in the first place? This is why I liked the Vectors statement so much—by incorporating search, there is an embedded sense of the mundane acts of online mediation that have led to the event of the publication’s creation, as well as a record of relevant cultural keywords that we can reflect back on in the future.


On Process and Manifestos

The Wide Cooker

This week, Lisa Gitelman’s “Raw Data is an Oxymoron” and Lev Manovich’s “The Science of Culture?” introduce the data studies as a contested and multifarious field of study. Gitelman’s piece seems to address an imagined scholarly community that presumably treats data like a fresh pair of glasses: a clarifying, objective, and unquestionably useful tool to see the world. The thrust of Gitelman’s argument is to implore scholars to pay attention to the “pre-cooked” hermeneutics of data-vision and to point out the hegomonic ways in which data and other empirical tools have evolved over time. Additionallyshe draws a throughline between science studies and data studies by pointing to how objectivity in both cases is mythical.

On this last point, Gitelman and Manovich both treat data studies as a vibrational nexus between science and the humanistic study—an idea that has really strongly resonated with me in all of my own research. As I think about the possibility of using data visualization as a critical lens from which to consider either climate discourse or the circulation of fetal images, it becomes imperative for me not to pick a scientific view over a humanistic one and vice versa. I really want to hold these two tensions together: the long, globalizing view that data can offer (which will possibly be generalizing but maybe also generative) and the potentialities of data to speak to human actants, or what Manovich refers to as the “individual and particular” (Manovich 2016, 9).

Gitelman says that the imagination of data is always “an act of classification,” (Gitelman 172) and I believe that to be mostly true. But what I sensed after reading Manovich’s Cultural Analytics manifesto is that classification doesn’t have to constrict our study. Manovich’s call for a “wide data” argues against the categorization of data into discrete dimensions or variables. And while he doesn’t state it explicitly in this essay, I think what he means is that there is a use for views of data that are continuous rather than discrete. It reminds me of something Alan Liu once said about his own work in the digital humanities, where rather than trying to classify and plot the sentiments we encounter from large data sets, we can construct heat maps and look for hot spots.

I can think of ways that a wide cooker could be useful in both my projects. Maybe I can mine a lot of instagram images under a hashtag like #globalwarming and allow clusters of affiliation to form in ways that they could not if I just plotted them temporally or by geolocation. Or maybe I cull information from several pro-life websites and try to simulate my own anti-abortion page using textual and visual data. I also think Professor Sakr’s mosaics would actually be a great example of “wide data.” What other kinds of “wide cooking” could we come up with?

The Wide Cooker