Monthly Archives: November 2016

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Facebook’s Political Networks

I came across this article in the Times Magazine that really seemed to resonate with this week’s readings, in particular Galloway’s & Thacker’s work in a Theory of Networks. It’s a long article, but it explores in detail the role that Facebook (more specifically, the new types of political posts specifically crafted for Facebook’s newsfeed) has played in this particularly vicious and vitriolic election cycle. Here is the article: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/08/28/magazine/inside-facebooks-totally-insane-unintentionally-gigantic-hyperpartisan-political-media-machine.html?_r=0&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.slate.com%2Fblogs%2Ffuture_tense%2F2016%2F11%2F04%2Ffacebook_is_fueling_an_international_boom_in_pro_trump_propaganda.html

Here are  some important excerpts:

“Individually, these pages [such as OccupyDemocrats, or the Other 98%] have meaningful audiences, but cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media, whether corporate giants like CNN or The New York Times, or openly ideological web operations like Breitbart or Mic. And unlike traditional media organizations, which have spent years trying to figure out how to lure readers out of the Facebook ecosystem and onto their sites, these new publishers are happy to live inside the world that Facebook has created. Their pages are accommodated but not actively courted by the company and are not a major part of its public messaging about media. But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web and has now inherited, for better or for worse, a great deal of America’s political discourse.”

Another:

“This year, political content has become more popular all across the platform: on homegrown Facebook pages, through media companies with a growing Facebook presence and through the sharing habits of users in general. But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.”

I won’t quote the entire article, because I think these give you a good sense of where it’s going, and of the ways in which it parallels Galloway’s and Thacker’s argument – in essence, Facebook is a network governed by protocols; these protocols define a technology that regulates the flow of information and connects life forms. Facebook, furthermore, is not a single network, but a network of networks, wherein each individual network sees different things, and comes to radically different conclusions about the same events that often can’t be reconciled. No one theoretically controls these networks, but the networks are controlled regardless, so that, in the words of Galloway, “we are witnessing a sovereignty that is…based not on exceptional events but on exceptional topologies.” Within this “twofold dynamic of network control,” subjects act within distributed networks to materialize and create protocols through their exercise of local agency.

These native posts/pages are designed to function within Facebook’s rhetorical context, but they gain potency through the complex relationships between autonomous, interconnected agents. This, as Galloway explains, is the basis for protocol, and so it seems to me that Facebook, just by setting the initial parameters (posts, newsfeeds, the ability to like and share things),  exercises control over political discourse; we see this control emerge, as the Times article suggests, in a very specific style of political engagement that is grounded in what Galloway would call distinct levels of network individuation (that of the user nodes, who share posts and political memes to perform their politics, and the networks through which these posts/memes can spread, which define the larger political movements). The end result, however, is less a kind of public space, or town square, or commons, than a series of differently structured networks with their own unique and competing swarm doctrines. Control is a kind of coordination that emerges in response to Facebook’s protocol, to its user interface and network affordances, that has real consequences for the kinds of conversations that can happen.

lingua universal

 

google-noto

Google is explicit: “Make all the world’s information universally accessible and useful.”

If your device does not recognize a font, it renders little boxes in the character space—unofficially called “tofu.” Google and design company Monotype have been working for over 5 years towards creating a linguistically universal font, one that will render any language on any device : it’s called Noto (no tofu, GET IT!?).

Is there in “digital” the potential for universal language? What does it mean when “universalism” is designed and asserted by commercial actors? Is the effort necessarily more about power, more a move like “commercial imperialism?” Monotype, for its part, tried to be sensitive to this:

Describing the company’s approach to Tibetan, for example, Monotype did “deep research into a vast library of writings and source material, and then enlisted the help of a Buddhist monastery to critique the font and make adjustments. The monks’ constant study of Tibetan manuscripts made them the ideal experts to evaluate Noto Tibetan, and were instrumental in the final design of the font.”

Can a non-imperial universalism be mediated by a multi-lingual digital platform? Readings this week suggest directing this question to the inbuilt protocologic forms brokering digital exchange, where “control” describes our User Interface. Perhaps the question is rather: can a non-imperial universalism be operationalized via any structured interface?

 

Making Personal the Public Record

In light of our last class’s theme of labor, I thought I would offer some interesting examples of crowdsourced labor that challenge the boundaries between work and play, and public and private. In these examples, I’m interested in how productive leisure activity may be considered “fan labor”, what users get out of such labor, and whether we can consider this labor a personal appropriation of the object. Both of the examples below use crowdsourcing to contribute to literary archives by inviting volunteers to complete transcriptions of written documents.

If we can consider this crowdsourced transcribing activity akin to what Abigail de Kosnik calls “fan labor” in her article, “Fandom as Free Labor”, I’m wondering about the incentive for such labor. How do these volunteers feel enfranchised in their transcription work? And how does their enfranchisement in public, archival work engage with the process of appropriation and customization that de Kosnik describes happens in fan communities?

The first example comes from the Smithsonian. This project allows the average member of the public to engage in archival work by transcribing written documents into print. The website offers a quick tutorial to get volunteers started, and imposes a peer review system to double check the transcriptions. Here, engagement seems to be the primary goal: this is clearly a space for the public, not researchers; there is a low barrier to entry; and participants engage with one another through peer review. Users can just jump from transcription to transcription at will.

The second example comes from University College London, and it’s a “collaborative transcription initiative” that grants digital access to Jeremy Bentham’s unpublished manuscripts. This project requires more experience than the Smithsonian one, as users have to learn how to encode their transcriptions according to UCL’s markup guidelines and create an account before getting started. Despite the higher learning curve, this project has over 30,000 registered users, with almost half of Betham’s folios already transcribed.

These two projects’ methodologies reveal a new type of “fandom.” First, there is the difference in target audiences, then there is how each audience engages with the “product” — the personal process of transcribing the documents. While the Smithsonian project invites all levels of contributors for transcriptions on various subjects, the Bentham project involves a certain understanding of encoding and a special interest in Bentham. Furthermore, all transcriptions in the Bentham project are verified by the paid staff, while the Smithsonian uses a system of public peer review. It seems like UCL’s main audience may be more serious, academically-inclined or interested in the digital humanities, while the Smithsonian is trying to engage with a wider public. Despite this difference in audience, both institutions make users feel enfranchised in the process, perhaps wanting to discuss the text, or feeling a part of it in some way. We can regard these users’ transcriptions as a kind of inverted version of de Kosnik’s “work of customization” that fans undertake when they make something private out of something public (102). Instead of appropriating mass produced objects, these fans work to make the personal widely accessible to the public. Nonetheless, as they carry out their transcriptions, they become a part of the process, and their transcriptions become a kind of appropriation. In a sense, their work of “customization” is to invest the documents with their labor. It would be interesting to look more deeply into these fans to learn more about their relationship to the products of their labor.

Versions of Cause and Effect in Technology and Society

As I was reading this week’s texts on labor in the cloud, I was struck, in particular, by the emphasis on the political motivations behind these tools (I’m using “politics” here in a very specific sense, in connection with Marxian discourses on political economy, etc.). I think this stood out to me in part because so many of the readings we’ve done for this class have been kind of post-Marxist – it’s not that infrastructure analysis and A Thousand Plateaus are anti-politics, merely that politic/political economy become decentralized in their critiques. This political emphasis brought to mind a text that I had sort of forgotten about, and which speaks to the themes of this course – “The Technology and the Society” by Raymond Williams, a Marxist critic, that was written in 1972.

One of the things that Williams analyzes is the notion of cause and effect in discussions of technology, specifically the effects of new technologies on social structures and society. He identifies eight ways of discussing this relationship, using television as an example:

(ii) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its power as a medium of
news and entertainment was then so great that it
altered all preceding media of news and
entertainment.

(iii) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its power as a medium of
social communication was then so great that it
altered many of our institutions and forms of social
relationships.

(iv) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its inherent properties as an
electronic medium altered our basic perceptions of
reality, and thence our relations with each other and
with the world.

(v) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. As a powerful medium of
communication and entertainment it took its place
with other factors- such as greatly increased physical
mobility, itself the result of other newly invented
technologies- in altering the scale and form of our
societies.

(vi) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research, and developed as a medium of
entertainment and news. It then had unforeseen
consequences, not only on other entertainment and
news media. which it reduced in viability and
importance, but on some of the central processes of
family, cultural and social life.

(vi) Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific
and technical research, was selected for investment
and development to meet the needs of a new kind of
society,l especially in the provision of centralised
entertainment and in the centralised formation of
opinions and styles of behaviour.

(vii) Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific
and technical research, was selected for investment
and promotion as a new and profitable phase of a
domestic consumer economy; it is then one of the
characteristic “machines for the home.”

(viii) Television became available as a result of
scientific and technical research, and in its character
and uses exploited and emphasised elements of a
passivity, a cultural and psychological inadequacy,
which had always been latent in people, but which
television now organised and came to represent.

(ix.) Television became available as a result of scientific
and technical research. and in its character and uses
both served and exploited the needs of a new kind of
large-scale and complex but atomised society.

As you can see, the emphasis progresses from one in which technology is produced through ideologically neutral mechanisms (research) and results in generally unintended consequences to one in which technological creation is itself an ideologically motivated process, aimed at reinforcing latent structures in the capitalist mode of production for the benefit of those in power. I think it’s interesting to consider how our class readings might be mapped onto this continuum, and to what extent something like ANT presents technological production as a quasi-accidental, haphazard, emergent process, as opposed to a politically motivated process that is deeply embedded within a certain ideological context. (I don’t think it actually does this in practice; I merely present this a kind of provocation.) Doing so raises important questions about the benefits and pitfalls of de-emphasizing politics – which strategy, for instance, has the most philosophical/theoretical utility? Which strategy is best suited to creating change? In reading some of the chapters from the Labor book, for instance, I couldn’t help thinking that the authors favored simplistic political reductions over real engagements with the complexity of these systems, and whether or not that reaction is accurate, I felt in some ways like it was conditioned by many of our earlier readings.

For instance, there is an artist, Aaron Koeblin, who uses Mechanical Turk to create artworks, and who uses that process to foreground complex issues surrounding distributed labor and value creation. In a way, his work points to many of the questions raised by our readings, but without landing in a conclusive political judgment. I don’t know if that’s a strength of the work or a weakness, but here are some links to what might be some relevant projects:

http://www.aaronkoblin.com/project/10000-cents/

http://www.aaronkoblin.com/project/bicycle-built-for-two-thousand/