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Surfacing from Nicole Starosielski

I had reached out to Nicole Starosielski at NYU about an excerpt from The Undersea Network that describes her visit to a cable station in the Philippines. I was curious about the stark differences between this part of her narrative and descriptions of other locations like Guam that feature prominently in her book. When she reaches her destination outside of Manila, she notes the visibility of the cable station but describes a place that is almost abandoned or neglected. Nicole Starosielski replied with a list of links to cable stations in the Philippines from the Surfacing digital project related the book. Below are a few of them:

And if you can, take a look at her team’s interactive underwater cable network project: http://www.surfacing.in/

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The Future Pitfall of an Evolving Digital Landscape

As I was scrolling through my usual feed this morning consisting of ten different platforms with ten similarly guarded accounts, I came across the news that a recent malware exploit, dubbed “gooligan” compromised 1 million Google accounts. The exploit roots your phone (if it is running any flavor of android 4 or 5) and compromises authentication tokens. The process continues by installing unwanted apps to your phone linked to the malware, and rates them to raise the app’s reputation. People (not including myself thankfully because I run the latest OS [Nexus and Pixel users get special treatment]), then flocked to usual safe havens like haveibeenpwned.com or checkpoint.com to see if their details were compromised. If details were compromised, users have to evaluate their situation with a list of questions:

  • How many accounts was my Google account linked to?
  • Do I use the same information for multiple outlets?
  • Why haven’t I changed my password in over two years?
  • Did I feed my dog this morning?

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The Value of the Private Platform

I wanted to reiterate a notion that I brought up in class regarding social networks and online communities. The topic of how susceptible digital media such as social network feeds, advertisements, results to search queries, etc. is frequently discussed as a parallel to the openness and freedom that the Web affords us. By being open to all users, the web and all of its constituent parts are also open to corporate, political, and illicit exploitation. The trade-off has always been the universal access to these forms of media, which effectively places the price to access in compliant, even passive, participation in a highly exploitable format of social and cultural mediation.

I mentioned in class the value of closed networks citing the now-retired What.CD music sharing community. My suggestion is effectively challenging the benefits of “open” access to digital media against the benefits of maintaining social, political, cultural, and all other possible kinds of assemblages in a more controlled format. Because private trackers for music (or any other types of digital media) are not available to any and all persons who happen to stumble upon the site to become members of the community, the capacity for external parties to exploit this platform is severely diminished. However, the way that community operates can be dramatically unchanged from that of freely accessible platforms because, as The Stack and  other readings pointed out, how people exist within this digital spaces is directly shaped by the protocols that enable those spaces to exist.

An inevitable contrast between public and private platforms for sharing and consuming media is the influence that unintended parties may have within those communities. (Here I mean that these parties are considered unintended or unwanted by the community itself, not by the media platforms that directly invites and profits from this participation.) Facebook, for instance, is dealing with the criticisms that its daily feed algorithm allowed fake news stories to influence how the consumers of those stories voted in the presidential election. Facebook, however, profits heavily from the public nature of this service and through the access it grants to explicit corporate entities in the form of advertisements and data-mining. The ease of access to Facebook also ensures that it becomes a dominant figure in social media further increasing its profitability. Not all “unwanted” participation is explicit or conducted with Facebook’s approval; The use of surveillance, scamming, phishing, and bullying are just a few examples of how being a public domain facilitates highly destructive entanglements between the community and those parties who wish to exploit the high degree of congregation and access this community allows.

In summary, perhaps the value that social networks, digital media, and constant connectedness offer to consumers is minuscule in comparison to the value we hold as consumers who are compliant in their own vulnerability. In the case of What.CD, it was the largest music database and music-based community in the world, and it operated illegally and entirely through member donations. It could not be public nor did it need to be.

 

Thoughts for Next Week

As we approach the end of the semester, I wanted to thank all seminar participants for such a generative and lively semester. It has been wonderful to explore issues of the cloud, and cloud-based infrastructure with you!

For next week, please be prepared to discuss not only your final projects, but also the following two questions:

1. To what degree are social networks viable in an age of surveillance capital? To what degree can we separate the affordances of social networks — feeds, friends, interfaces — from the proprietary systems (Twitter, Facebook) that we have come to know? Are free software solutions any better, or are the part of (or at least related to) the problems we’ve identified in recent weeks?

2. What does an “infrastructural perspective” look like? How can it be applied? To what degree can it be employed like other critical lenses to shed light on various phenomena, and what kinds of actions, networks, and agencies does it reveal?

Looking forward to seeing you next week for our final class of the semester.

The Laborer as Automaton

Arkwright's Cotton Mills by Night, 1782 - Joseph Wright of Derby

Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night, 1782 – Joseph Wright of Derby

When I was a research assistant for Professor Allan P. Isaac at Rutgers University, I once transcribed an interview between him and a Filipino call center agent who described how work at a call center in the Philippines for American companies fractured the structure of their days and nights.  At night in the call center, they were expected to work tirelessly and meet a 300 second average handling time for each call, knowing that any missteps could lead to their termination and replacement.  Their lives at home during the day were also impacted by the change in sleep routine and their families had to live around their schedule, moving quietly around their homes and interacting minimally.

Above is Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night by Joseph Wright of Derby, described at the beginning of chapter three in Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.  The author describes the “reconceptualization of the relation between work and time” and the normalization of continuous labor that is made possible through advances in technology throughout the century and across the globe (Crary 62).  I found his use of Marx’s observation that the “first requirement of capitalism… was the dissolution of the relation to the earth” a familiar process in Professor Isaac’s research on call centers and the “disconnection from family, community, environment” due to the organization of labor a familiar sacrifice for both OFWs and the call center agent who must navigate global time and national time (Crary 63).

Tweeting Jacob’s Room

After much ado, I was finally able to get a twitterbot up and running. I created a bot @somemodernist that tweets out lines from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), whenever I run the module. I chose Jacob’s Room because Woolf wrote the novel with space breaks — that is, she divides the narrative with blank spaces into “scenes” or little sketches. I’ve done work on this novel before (I actually created a prototype for an online edition of the novel for my MA project), and I’m always really inspired by how the digital medium engages with Woolf’s work, in this case, with the fragmentary structure of her narrative and her use of blank spaces.

To make this bot, I used the tutorial from  the “Build a Bot” workshop developed by Terian Koscik. Though I still had difficulty getting the bot up and running, the workshop was extremely helpful for my goal, which was to get a bot to tweet lines in succession from a text file.

That being said, working on this bot actually gave me an idea for something more interesting (unfortunately, @somemodernist isn’t quite as robust as I want it to be, the lines don’t tweet neatly and it won’t run without my prompting). In the near future, maybe over the break, I’m going to make another bot for Woolf’s novel The Waves. For those who are unfamiliar with this novel, the narrative runs through the stream-of-conscious of six different characters, and their thoughts at times share the same phrases and images. For that reason, there’s an interesting literature on Woolf’s creation of a shared consciousness, if any of you guys are interested.  In making this bot, I’m going to get more deeply into Python (which is something I’ve been meaning to do, now I have an excuse!). My goal is to run a script that finds patterns of words or phrases throughout the novel and tweets them in succession, regardless of the speaker. The tweets will then facilitate more study on the shared language of the six characters in the novel.

I found some resources that will help with this kind of text analysis in Python. First there’s the Natural Language Processing with Python (NLTK) Book, which is an online book that teaches beginners how to do text analysis in Python. Then there’s the pattern.en module, which allows for more advanced syntactic searches and analysis, and finally there’s the TextBlob module, which is like a more beginner-friendly library of scripts for processing text.

Remixing Code, Resisting Control

For the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking about computer code and language as a means of control. For Alexander Galloway, code is a type of protocol, or a way of imposing control in communication. In Protocol, Galloway describes code as a language (yet to be officially recognized as such) that requires adherence to its standards in order to work. For Kenneth Goldsmith, code offers an opportunity to be creative. In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith talks about remixing different kinds of “code,” such as the code from an image file with lines of poetry, to create a new image. I’m wondering how we can bring what Galloway says about control and restraint in code into conversation with Goldsmith’s presentation of creative uses of code.

Galloway shows how power structures, such as DNS and ISP, are instituted through code, which must conform to a certain standard in order to successfully communicate. For Galloway, resistance to this kind of control consists of finding loopholes or “exploits” in systems (what hackers do). But Goldsmith shows how resistance to standards can take a different route, how it can actually defy the requirements of protocol, by splicing the standard code with other kinds of code, or languages. This remixing is creative because it combines two different codes (such as poetry and computer code) to create something new.

On page 24 in Uncreative Writing. Goldsmith performs an experiment with an image of William Shakespeare. His experiment takes the textual code from the image and splices it with the text from a Shakespearean sonnet. The resulting .jpg file renders a jumbled image. I performed the same experiment with a picture of my family’s thanksgiving table. Here, I took the code from a .jpg file and spliced it with text (in this case, with an argument that my family had at the table when the picture was taken). The result looks like this:

img_6793

The image shows two things: first, how the code doesn’t work, and second, how this failure nonetheless results in an image that is read and rendered by the computer. In this case, the remixing of code is both corruptive and creative. It shows that mixing different kinds of languages, such as English and computer code, successfully resists standards.

I realize that Galloway’s project is ultimately about communication, while Goldsmith’s is about creating something new from old materials. But it seems to me that we can see the two in the same light, as a resistance to the control of language through experimentation. Do you think this experiment changes how we view protocol? Is mixing different kinds of code analogous to Galloway’s “exploit”, or is it something else?

A Sample-est Critique of My Own Twitterbot

In my earlier post, I began to reflect on the ethical, political, and theoretical limitations of the cloud text project I designed. By way of summary, I offer the following: my twitterbot retweets slightly altered tweets from the #NotNormal stream, so as to amplify a broad range of political messages associated with Anti-Trump sentiment and resistance. In my initial post, I expressed concerns about the ways in which my bot promulgated and perpetuated unvetted news links, thereby contributing to a larger problematic grounded in uncritical reading and reflection.

Sample’s criteria for bots of conviction provides an additional framework for critique; specifically, he offers the following framework by which bots can function politically and effectively:

  • Topical.  According to this criteria, bot should not be about lost love or existential anguish; they should focus on the morning news — and the daily horrors that fail to make it into the news. My bot, though  initially topical (I constructed its database from tweets collected over the course of two days), but since then the news cycle has moved on. Ideally, I would have a mechanism for continually scraping the twitter feeds to update my supporting database.
  • Data-based. Here Sample articulates the importance of actual data and research. Mine transmits memes and other forms of predigested research, but does not reach back to the supporting data in responsible ways.
  • Cumulative. In Sample’s words, “it is the nature of bots to do the same thing over and over again, with only slight variation. Repetition with a difference.” The aggregation of these repetitions conveys rhetorical and political weight. In this sense, my twitterbot functions well – it highlights the repetitive nature of reductive political sentiment; it assaults one with the only slightly iterative nature of revision in twitter-based discourse, etc. Though I intended it to function in service of progressive politics, what manifests is an implicit critique of political discourse.
  • Oppositional. My bot takes a stand, which Samples argues is an important element of automatized protest, but that stand is a catch-all aggregate of sometimes only ancillary stands – the #notnormal hashtag can be instrumentalized in a wide variety of political projects, and for that reason my bot’s stand can be at times incoherent. (I even had to delete two references to blonde tips that somehow appeared).
  • Uncanny. If, for Sample, bots should help reveal things that were previously hidden, then my bot fails entirely to satisfy this criteria; the tweets it produces have already been tweeted (and, in many cases, already retweeted). Instead of revealing the hidden, my bot exaggerates existing visibility.

I present this exercise, not as a means of self-castigation, but as a way of more rigorously reflecting on what seemed to be a clever project. And this has me rethinking my bot’s potential for revision and ongoing deployment.

Krisetya and Starosielski: Undersea Cables as Narrative Landscape

Last week’s trip to DataGryd with Andrew Blum reaffirmed for me how very small we are in the networks we’ve built to connect each other and control our environments.  I was interested in learning more about Markus Krisetya and his work after reading about his cartographic designs in the chapters we read from Blum’s Tubes.  Krisetya has a Tumblr page with some of his work, including a Submarine Cable Map from 2014:

http://mkrisetya.tumblr.com/post/84823497084/submarine-cable-map-protectors-of-the-internet

An updated one from 2016 from TeleGeography can be found here:

http://submarine-cable-map-2016.telegeography.com/

The updated map is a little more interactive – you can scroll left and right, zoom in and out to read short reports on changes to the cable network since the map’s previous publication.  I enjoyed Blum’s description of Krisetya’s cartographic work as a form of storytelling (“I loved drawing stories on paper, and referencing distance in that strange manner,” [Krisetya] told me) (Blum 15).

I focus on TeleGeography’s maps because they provide us with physical representations of our media infrastructures, something I’ve been searching for as I collect and study materials for my final paper on colonial infrastructures in the Philippines.  In Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network, I noticed that the Philippines only features as a sort of stepping stone in the undersea cable networks despite the existence of miles of telegraph networks connecting islands to each other and across the Pacific in the early 1900s.  There has to be a story behind this as well.  I recently found a map from 1902 online that could be useful provided by Brown University Library’s Digital Production Services illustrating these telegraph cables from that time published in National Geographic Magazine:

http://library.brown.edu/dps/curio/the-world-wide-telegraph/