Reflections and Ruminations

The readings this week really hit home with me. As someone invested in the exploring the relationship between media sources and knowledge production regarding war, I found both of these pieces incredibly helpful to re-framing thinking about information politics in the digital era.

Robertson and Travaglia provide us with the thematic gesture of this quarter of trying to find the connections between old and new. In this process, we’re drawn back to thinking about how the “new” builds on the old, the negative side of which is that we obscure the political nature of the structures on which the new has been fashioned. van Dijck and Poell’s piece then gives some depth to this narrative, weaving together dimensions of mass media theory and social media theory to show this exact relationship. Both of these texts point to the flowing, as opposed to ruptured, nature of shifts in information media.

While at times the van Dijck and Poell article seemed like a safari through the various scholarly approaches to mass media theory and social media theory (I found reading it in my head through the voice of Steve Irwin a somewhat rewarding project), I truly did appreciate the insights it gave to studying information media and social media in a more nuanced way. The authors approached the subject from both directions of the discourse surrounding social media (control and freedom) to really try to explore why these apparently oppositional approaches are relevant discussions, wrestling them into conversing with each other. I found this extremely helpful to propelling my own research interests in probing the informational atmosphere regarding war and militarism in the US. The point I got stuck on in moving forward my previous research revolved around this type of translation from “mass media” to new media – what is the relevance of television news today? This article pushed me to think beyond the media platform itself in order to shift the framework around how major news networks interact with social media to navigate discussion. This points towards a more nuanced understanding of how news networks view social media epistemologically, as well as to be able to start building a cross-media understanding of how public debate is framed through information networks. This opens up a number of doors for more nuanced study of the interplay between institutions, media platforms, and audiences/users in shaping the nature of debate regarding issues of war and protest.

This article gives agency to both sides of social media, placing it as an intermediary (which obviously can be more or less even of a playing field given the topic of discussion). This then places the burden of research involving information media on not just understanding one side or the other, but in examining the interplay between institutions and users, between social media and mass media. However, they also caution us about the dangers of framing research this way, citing the dangers in assuming that social media represent an organic and holistic “voice of the people.” This comes in their adherence against falling into the trap of the datafication of “the masses” through social media, stating that (in Louise Amoore’s words) “real-time data flows may say less about us, but more about ‘what can be inferred about who we might be’” (11). Not only does this provide a warning against the current epistemological weight of social media data, but it also connects back to our discussions of algorithmic culture and Robertson and Traviglia’s point that by studying data collection practices it becomes clear that “it is science and not society that we are seeing through such instruments.” Overall, these two articles seemed to pull together many strands of this course, as well as ones happening concurrently in Media Historiographies, surrounding social media, data, and the topic of old and new.

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Reflections and Ruminations

Privileged Privacy

Since everyone’s kind of focused on ripping up the Castells piece (and for good reason), I figured I’d spend my post digging a little more into the Vaidhyanathan piece.

In his“Googlized Subject” section, he devotes most of his energies to ripping apart cultural imperialism, finally turning to her idea of infrastructural imperialism. His example for this case of Google is moving away from focusing on Google’s brand, but rather that “it’s that Google’s defaults of ways of doing spread and structure ways of seeking, finding, exploring, buying, and presenting that influence (though they do not control) habits of thoughts and action. These default settings, these nudges, are expressions of an ideology” (594). I thought that this new terminology was interesting, and I was excited to see how he utilized it. However, my expectations were crushed as he never truly laid out the broader strokes of the impacts of this outside of citing a couple of examples where Google changed its defaults to be sensitive to national issues. Did this fall flat for anyone else?

In her last section, I want to zoom in on more on the “we” he keeps using. Who does he mean by we? In this discussion of “the googlized subject” it seems that he universalizes the googler’s experience and privilege in the same breath that he damns universalizing speech. It seems somewhat contradictory to write entire sections of a piece discussing how people have pushed back against surveillance and then state that “we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled – we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance: instead we don’t seem to care” (595). This not caring seems to be a privileged view. “We” don’t care because it hasn’t directly impacted “our” lives in a negative way. When it does, there’s hell to pay, as evidenced in her Facebook example from the privacy section. But who is this we? People who have historically been the subject of surveillance are typically very aware of the ways in which they are being watched – it’s the privileged class that seems shockingly unaware that the government and companies might want to watch them, too.

His semi-activist call to action also assumes a certain level of privilege and access not afforded by everyone in the US let alone the rest of the world. He seems to champion those that stood up to the big bully Google through legal action. However, I’m assuming that this grassroots reaction to Google’s surveillance policies is when those that had the privilege of not being surveilled come to find that they are subjected to the same treatment as marginalized populations – a horrific idea indeed. “I bought my private villa on the beachside to escape people watching me, to find some privacy, not to be photographed by Google” – seems to be the gist of the Google View protesters in the US. He hints at this somewhat by discussing the differences between those in cities and those in “the country,” but fails to recognize that there is a definite racial and class dynamic to this division. Those that have been surveilled (often those living in cities) in the US for a long time find Google’s practices nothing new, but they also are those that can’t afford to “fight the good fight.” Having the time and money to fight a service that saves time and money sometimes isn’t at the top of the “to do list” for those working multiple jobs just to get by. Thus, while he brings up some good points regarding re-thinking the idea of privacy, there is more room for critiquing what type of ideology goes along with the assumption of access to privacy.

Privileged Privacy

Cleaning up the clutter

Coincidentally enough, in the course I’m TAing for, the term clutter came up in discussions of advertising this week, making it somewhat of my topic of rumination of late. Baudrillard slips in this term in his piece while discussing overinformation as the source of obesity and obscenity of the mass in the age of simulation.

“For the masses are already made of this hyperinformation which claims to enlighten them, when all it does is clutter up the space of the representable and annul itself in a silent equivalence” (580).

At first, I agree with this observation in reflecting on the gluttony of information that we receive through multimedia platforms today (and I realize he’s writing this in the 1980’s, but come along with me here into the social media age). From Facebook to Twitter to television to Snapchat, it seems that we are operating on an unprecedented level of information overload. I’m encountering this even within the academic world this week in trying to sift through sources to piece together a concise and original trajectory of interest for a research proposal, often resulting in a frustration of “there’s just too much information; there’s no way I can get through all of this in the time I have and contribute something meaningful,” often then followed with a “if there’s so much already written, then why bother adding to the noise?” Clutter seems to be a daily part of our lives, leading to all sorts of channels of white noise. Baudrillard seems to cite this as the source of “the implosion of the social,” of the disconnect drawn between the mass and the mass media with both parties at fault for misdirecting signals. However, I think what appears to be missing from this conversation is a discussion of the act of cleaning (which becomes more complicated when we circle back to the idea of “scrubbed” data, but we’ll bracket that for now and talk about how the mass also scrubs and cleans).

Cleaning up the clutter takes time and reflection, and forming opinions and gaining knowledge only happen once we can sort and sift through the things we’ve accumulated in order to order and arrange the things we have in a meaningful way. We’ve all encountered this process whether in a physical sense of “cleaning” or in the cleaning processes of narrowing down on research questions, writing, revising, etc. These thoughts bring me back to our discussions of slowness, somewhat putting into perspective that maybe data are the quick-and-dirty way to organize the clutter in one sense. They seem to produce some sort of easily digestible knowledge, but then arises this issue, as Baudrillard astutely describes, of “the evil genius of the masses” in making these projects actually devoid of reality and truth that they are intended to stand in for.

So where does this leave us with social media, the 24-hour news cycle, the Facebook feed full of a million different photos, videos, articles, etc.? According to Baudrillard, it leaves us in this world of clutter without a sense of time for sifting and cleaning. In a sense it leaves us uninformed, drowning in a sea of information without realizing or caring that we are even drowning. However, I do think that this perspective minimizes agency. It’s clear that thinking about society in as divisive of a way as “the mass,” oversimplifies how “the mass” adapts in new and interesting ways to new environments. We have hackers and activists and radicals that find ways to create glitches in the systems in place. To boil down society to “the masses have no opinion and the information does not inform them” and “the mass knows nothing and it does not want to know” perpetuates a sense of nihilism about the situation that perpetuates and almost endorses falling into a state of “why bother?” It’s true that some people are more attuned or diligent in their cleaning practices, while some embrace and enjoy the clutter, others do not even seem to notice it, and yet others clean for special occasions. Baudrillard’s ponderings seem to operate on an assumption that being informed should be a labor-less task for the masses, when I believe that that has never been the perception of it by this so-called “mass.”

Cleaning up the clutter

Wondering About Words

Upon reflecting on the manifestos for this week, I ended up thinking about the centrality of text/writing in conveying information. As manifestos, each project attempts to subvert ideas regarding dominant ideologies/epistemologies in a multitude of fields. Whether explicitly or implicitly, each manifesto brings to the forefront questions of form in regards to knowledge production, particularly in thinking about incorporating human and computer epistemologies into an integrated approach.

However, despite efforts to re-imagine the dynamics of discourse into a form more attuned to the digital age, what struck me as interesting was the centrality of the written/spoken word to all of the pieces. While the form of each text was experienced in drastically different ways, the only one to engage with the word outside of its visual textuality was the FemTechNet manifesto. By experimenting with the aural dynamics of the cyber voice, FemTechNet’s manifesto played with ideas of the collective yet anonymous voice (“we are”) that is often embodied in the collective/collaborative grassroots project. However, it is usually not experienced outside of the disembodied voice of the written text, lending it a somewhat detached feeling from the humanistic affect it attempts to purport. Utilizing the oral form brings voice and texture to the disembodied voice we all read while experiencing text online. However, there’s an odd distancing effect given by the cyborg effect – there is an experienced dissonance of aural closeness that points towards humanity performed by a cyborg voice that is distinctly non-human as well as a disjuncture between the collective, humanist/subversive thought spoken in a singular disconnected outlet.

This seems to embody the spirit of glitch art as proposed in its manifesto, looking to the importance of interruption – “Flow cannot be understood without interruption, nor function without glitching. This is why glitch studies is necessary.” By experiencing this dissonance, the FemTechNet manifesto seems to offer a moment of exploration of experiences between human interaction, en vivo and online. By providing this perceived dissonance and continuity, it allows for an exploration of the distinctions between individual and collective, man and machine. The Vectors manifesto seems to explore this area as well, attempting to bring together the worlds of human thought and computer thought in their dynamic model. While these different approaches to exploring this “interruption” between human and machine “thought”/expression, a couple of things seem to be points of further exploration. Particularly in the Vectors manifesto, I find the project’s goal to combine human and machine thought slightly problematic as perpetuating this difference maintains the narrative that computers/technology exist in a realm parallel to their human origins. However, maybe this is the point in the interruption – to explore the distinctions and contours of this conversation, to examine the flows of discourse.

What also struck me, and perhaps this is me participating in the same practice of which I’m being critical, is the continued centrality of the spoken/written word to convey meaning even as technologies make it easier to create and share multimedia forms. As personal declarations of intent, manifestos have a necessity to declare clearly and succinctly how they are attempting to subvert problematic dominant ideologies. It’s interesting to me that the best way in which to do this remains the word. One would think that proposing manifestos antithetical to the word would be at the heart of subverting dominant modes of thinking and knowledge production. Wouldn’t collaboration amongst broader audiences subsume a need to communicate in a more universal language? Doesn’t the use of English assume a certain audience? A certain level of competency in order to comprehend and participate? I’m not proposing that I have a solution to the confines of language, but I find it striking that manifestos that aim to question the ideologies of linearity and modes of production continue to cling to language as the primary mode of expression. Are we confined to thinking in text form? Is this universal, or a production of the West with its roots in textual tradition? Are there ways to subvert the text beyond an interactive rearrangement of words or aural rendering of a text? Can a manifesto be communicated in an image, a video, a work of art, a song? Is there a hierarchy of mode of expression? Can we subvert it?

Wondering About Words

Can I get a witness?

Gitelman’s discussions of the “cooked” nature of data allowed me to start drawing connections between the types of discussions surrounding objectivity in news sources with the idea of “raw” data, both of which are caught up in “processes that work to obscure – or as if to obscure – ambiguity, conflict, and contradictions” (172). In just a few brief sentences, Gitelman connects the “imaginative” and “interpretive” nature of historiographical practices with data construction and visualization practices through the idea of the event, stating that “like events imagined and enunciated against the continuity of time, data are imagined and enunciated against the seamlessness of phenomena” (168). These conversations come up time and time again in discussions of mediated history and construction of the event within broadcast news sources. The connections here become further elucidated when Gitelman enlightens us with her discussion of how innocent observation, here conflated with objectivity, “ever came to be associated with epistemological privilege” (169) through the introduction of mechanical objectivity and the photograph as tools of objectivity. According to Gitelman, the photograph becomes the stepping stone by which mechanical evidence becomes the preferred source of objective information, resulting in today’s obsession with data.

However, caught up in these ideas of photographic evidence is also a necessary discussion of the politics of witnessing, a term that implies human agency but subsumes these ideas of detached objectivity. As we’ve continued to see in not only the world of journalism, but also in the age of social media, images continue to be tied to this idea of bearing witness, of being there, that gives authority and power to a voice. At first glance, this seems to validate Gitelman’s analogy between data and events, thereby solidifying her argument that data have become socially embedded into a hierarchy of epistemological practices through this history of reliance on the technological and mechanical to provide the objectivity that supposedly human renderings of reality cannot. However, the strong ties (at least in the US sense) to these ideas of bearing witness hint that a stronger connection to human agency in the creation of information is at play – that objectivity hasn’t been entirely delegated to the world of mechanical and technological innovation. After all, photos and data alike need to be situated and explained to other humans by those deemed closest to the source by politics of power and authority.

However, here maybe there are just simply disciplinary differences of what constitutes “data,” as “data needs to imagined as data to exist” (168). Manovich points out this difference in the subdivisions of data collection depending on discipline, a discussion somewhat missing from Gitelman’s piece. Here, I think Gitelman has a type of number-driven data in mind, the type that informs “governmental and non-governmental authorities” among a smattering of fields that seems to transcend disciplinary boundaries. However, numbers aren’t the only data that inform these decisions. Photographs and human witnesses still act as data in different epistemes, thereby negating the technologically deterministic sense of data presented within “Raw Data.” While addressing the “cooked” origins of data is a vital discussion to negating the myths surrounding objective data, I guess what I find unsettling is the underlying assumption that number-driven data are the be-all-end-all of portraying truth and objectivity while clearly other forms of evidence and information continue to drive informational practices.

In an undergraduate class, we watched some of the US television news coverage of the Romanian Revolution in 1989. Penetrating the media blackout that overcame the state in the throes of revolution became the sole resolution of US cable network news covering the event. It wasn’t good enough to simply tell the good people of the USA how Communism was being overthrown by the Romanian people; they needed to show them as well. They needed to see the horrors of the Ceausescu regime and they needed to see the rejoicing and celebration of the Velvet Revolution in order to reaffirm capitalist ideologies regarding the world behind the Iron Curtain through the act of witnessing (the result of which penetrated perversely into the operating rooms of live abortions and disturbing images of babies dying of AIDS). These images seem to act as data to provide the “objective” and authorial act of witnessing that pervades newcasts and portrayals of history particularly in the US. However, the “cooked” nature of these events becomes revealed in the similitude in the types of images associated with the narrativization of certain events (as Laila hinted towards in her collages that often depict images of child suffering). This is where I’m starting to think about my own project for this class. I’m envisioning a sort of archive of images of “The Children of War” that seem to proliferate newcasts, tweets, and other sources of imagery that perpetuate what I would call the “narratives of intervention” involved in motivating US foreign policy decisions for military intervention.

Women recovering from abortions  at the Filanthropia clinic. Bucharest, Romania. Feb 1990
Women recovering from abortions at the Filanthropia clinic. Bucharest, Romania. Feb 1990

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Can I get a witness?