Besting Baudrillard!

Hi all, and sorry for the delayed posting! Here are some thoughts on data, epistemology, power, and Baudrillard to spice up your Saturday morning.

Reading Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia on the connections between the “data revolution,” which swept 19th-Century Europe as the agencies of a newly centralized and bureaucratized state set out to better understand and control rapidly expanding urban populations, and our own crisis of “big data,” I felt like I had found the response to Baudrillard I had been looking for. What I most appreciate in this piece is the fact that, while certainly critical of the ideological functions of contemporary big data discourses, Robertson and Travaglia resist the urge to simply jettison the phenomenon altogether, excising it from the province – even the possibility – of meaning. Rather, taking a more historiographic approach than Baudriallard (whose main historical reference seems to be his own now-revised opinions on the meaningful/less-ness of mediated images), they give themselves space to sit for a moment with the weird politicalities of big data, thinking carefully about 1) what ‘big data’ actually represents or allows us to access, and 2) the specific institutional formations (the disciplin-ification of the contemporary university, the sponsorship of the state, etc.) that helped it to take shape.

Where Baudrillard was emphatic in his belief that representational technologies like opinion polling represent absolutely nothing – that they are properly the objects of simulation, rather than of meaning; objects that narrow the field of agency and resistance to ironic subversion and mocking laughter – Robertson and Travaglia rightly note that, even if big data do not represent what we think they do, they nonetheless represent something, and this something is certainly something worthy of our consideration: “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.” In other words, even if the referent of population data is not the population itself, we are still dealing with reference and meaning; we are glimpsing not a population in its totality, but the various ways in which that population is defined, managed, and governed.

For those of us concerned with the contentious social and cultural topographies of data – say, those of us in this class – this is something I don’t think we can afford to overlook. Our data collection activities might not, in the end, tell us that much about the objects we want to study, but they do offer an important opportunity to glimpse the ways in which we as researchers imagine our objects, or more precisely, how we imagine them to be accessible and available within the parameters of academic knowledge production; to reflect on how we attempt to locate ourselves within (and potentially without) the conditions of our scholarly formation. These are questions of epistemology, about knowability. Quite appropriate, then, that Robertson and Travaglia seek appeal to Luciano Floridi: “Floridi writing on the philosophy of big data, has said quite specifically that the real big data problem we face today is less one of the quantity or quality of data or even technical skills but rather one of epistemology.” If, as Robertson and Travaglia note, “a great deal of social data is coercive in nature” – or at least ensconced within the particular ways of knowing we inherit from 19th-Century European social science, and thus intimately bound up with the pathologization, governance, and in many cases eradication of certain populations – I think it behooves us to aspire to more than Baudriallard’s mocking laughter when confronted with the massive and admittedly overheated discourse of big data. We need to find where our data sets touch the world, and consider what that touching might tell us about the politics of knowing, even and especially when it “fails” to represent the world.

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Besting Baudrillard!

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.

Reflections and Ruminations

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

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?