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A Hefty Companion

March 17, 2013 1 comment

1444332244A Companion to New Media Dynamics is out now. And admittedly, it is quite expensive. But try to get your library to order a copy, as it does contain some really handy chapters on media culture, networks, politics of platforms, mobility, and more! I just finished reading a nice Sean Cubitt-piece (on media studies and new media studies), and will continue with some of the other great looking texts.

I co-wrote with Tony Sampson a piece on spam, network virality and contemporary capitalism and marketing: “Learning from Network Dysfunctionality: Accidents, Enterprise and Small Worlds of Infection”. It continues our joint interests into networks as well as viral capitalism, but with a specific Tardean twist.

Emoticon, 1881

March 14, 2013 10 comments

This article on Rhizome inspired me to post this picture relating to a sort of a media archaeology of emoticons — before the digital, before mass communication over networks, and demonstrated as a form of  “typographical art”.  This one is from the Puck magazine, 1881.

Emoticon 1881

For a more in-depth excavation of emoticons, we should look at the various work on categorisation of emotions across humans and animals that was a key topic of research also in the 19th century. It relates to the importance of the face before the facebook.

How about the face, expression and emotion more generally? For instance Charles Darwin  was interested in the evolutionary aspects of faces and expressions, and at the centre of much interest lies a curious book by the neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne: The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, or an Electro-physiological Analysis of the Expression of the Passions Applicable to the Practice of the Fine Arts (1862)

Duchenne worked at the Salpêtrière hospital which later became known for its hysteric (female) patients, and the variety of new media based experiments and empirical methods by Charcot.  In Duchenne’s work, the face, the expression was something that was the shared ground between humans and animals in these experiments.

Duchenne was  in the 1860s  using photography as a method to tap into the animal forces of the face. Photography offered him a way to capture the formal features of expressions. The patients were the models. Yet, two different time scales clashed. Photographic processes demanded a lot of time and holding the face still was difficult –Duchenne was using as his models mentally and physically ill patients. Instead of making photographic process quicker, he slowed down the body. By applying electrodes in right places of the face, the subject froze and kept the expression long enough – faces neurologyit became more than a fleeting expression, and an index for scientific purposes (indeed, Darwin was using these photographs, see Phillip Prodger’s Darwin’s Camera, Oxford University Press, 2009, 81-83).

For his own research and visualisation purposes, Darwin  used  engravings made from the photographs, where the electrodes were removed. This made the expressive faces slightly more natural, of course. An enforced typology of the face and emotion.

The neonatal intensive care unit of tech

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Don’t get me wrong despite my seemingly negative tone that is about to follow — this Wired-article about “tech’s premature births” is actually rather useful: it pitches the idea that media inventions and products have their own “time”. Some enter the stage too early,  and of course, some too late. The story collects  “stories of technologies, services, products, people and ideas that arrived too early — they either failed as a business for simply being ahead of their time, changed an industry for the worse because of the period of their birth, or simply suffered under hands too eager to ship a product.”

It even sounds a bit in-tune with a media archaeological interest in the “losers” of media history, which perhaps paved the way for something more succesful that followed later. However, what bugs me ever so slightly is the way in which this sort of discourse easily assumes that there is the right time — and pitches that as the norm. This is pretty much the time of commercial success, which naturalises the place of media technologies as part of the digital economy/creative industries product-way of thinking. Media are the stuff of business pages. Instead, the weirdness, inventions or political stakes of media devices remain sidelined. “Psychopathia medialis” was the term Siegfried Zielinski coined for the linearised media histories our capitalist culture loves. We are easily assuming that success comes through the evaluation and support of venture capitalists. Indeed, if we focus on the idea that there is a right time for these devices to make their mark, we should also ask what kinds of economic and political mechanisms are needed to support this. There is no general “cultural atmosphere” in which a media innovation just is succesful. Indeed, as Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunists keep on reminding us, perhaps we need a bit more of venture communism to provide those alternative life support mechanisms for innovations that are out of a different time than the ones supported by capitalist investment logic. Different kinds of devices and platforms might then survive through the neonatal intensive care unit of tech.

#code2k12

November 27, 2012 1 comment

I am not the most qualified person to analyse the political economy and at times slightly exaggerated role of conferences; I do not really too often go to the big ones where the whole system of recruitment and other sort of social/affective work of academia happens. I am sure there are loads of management books on such topics and their importance. Not that I have anything against being social – just being a Finn you have to limit it a bit, not to get exhausted with the overwhelming number of people that would amount to the total number of a small Finnish village easily. However, at times events really strike a chord – like Code at the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne: a fantastic combination of academic quality and lovely people.

I am a firm believer in that the more interesting academic benefit of such events is not hearing someone speak, but that you are able to meet and talk outside the sessions; whether casual chattering or on the topic of the presentation. This is hardly a surprise. But it is not only the meet & greet networking silly management culture that we are persuaded to pursue, but actually having some affective pleasure from finding out that academics are not completely subsumed into corporate climb-the-ladder assholism.

Of course, talks can be really good in triggering ideas. What I mean by that is at least my own prespective that I have often trouble in immediately summarizing someone’s talk in its entirety, and instead I get nuggets, something that triggers an idea. In this sense as well, Code was a success.

The event was not focused down solely on software culture or critical code studies despite the frequent references to Chun, Galloway and Kittler – and some other usual suspects. I perceived something of an expanded notion of code in the sense that through the theme, a lot of presentations pointed to a broader context of materialities in which code takes place; logistics, management, intermedial relations, aesthetic, and non-computer placed coding of social actions/events like with the Human Fax Machine-experiment. Talks ranged from reddit to Ring(u), cars to Erica T. Carter, commandline to Google, and signal to Simondon. Code had already introduced its own approach to the idea even with a conference reading list!

Besides having the pleasure of listening to the fantastic keynotes by Anna Munster and Christian McCrea, for instance the plenary panel of Melissa Gregg, Ned Rossiter, Soenke Zehle and Mark Coté was the best one can hope for. Brilliant speakers all of whose I work admire a lot, and the topics were nicely resonating. For instance Gregg’s take on the Getting Things Done (GTD) software was something that illuminates what I tried to just briefly address in my own keynote on Cultural Techniques of Cognitive Capitalism (more on that later in a separate blog post): the entanglement of media, management, affect and modes of production in contemporary digital culture. Such practices, techniques and technologies frame the will for more time and freedom, as well as creativity, which ground notions such as cognitive capitalism, and in Gregg’s case she was able to show the deep layers of such ideas of “work smarter, not harder”. Exhaustion, tiredness and fatigue have not disappeared from the gendered worlds of management of office and post-office work. Such affect management and self control are excellent ways of articulating the curious emphasis on the cognitive and affective in relation to modes of production: they hover somewhere between of the tiring and energizing, of repetitive and creative. In this context, see also the Zooming Secretary game that Gregg started with — filing cabinets, telephones and coffee boosts; affective attunement.

It was also pleasure to hear Coté talk of his book project on Data Motility which is one of those great moments when we get someone with a fantastic knowledge of Italian political theory and current media theory talking about a topic of Digital Humanities. DH at times “forgets” the existence of media theory, as well as the longer history of humanities-technology partnering, but at the same time of course we need to be ready to update our theoretical perspectives in relation to new modes of quantities, qualities, and abstractions.

Coté ‘s book promises to be really exciting, offering an insight to data having a self-generated sense of movement as well as being the object of value creation: big social data is the sociality of the data for instance collected on social media, which highlights its polyvalence and social and economic valorisation. According to Coté big social data can be seen constituting a certain mode of humanness that humanities should tackle with. This sort of conditioning is the sort you get from the directions of Leroi-Gourhan and others. But it also points to the direction of debt, an interesting idea Coté suggests: what if we understand our relation with the data collected as one of debt, as analysed by for instance Lazzarato. Big social data in social media contexts is one of endless payments and demands of creating the social through actions, in order to justify our existence.

Both Rossiter and Zehle talked of logistics; Rossiter towards the worlds of media and management, transposition of labour to code & algorithms (which probably would resonate with some insights from Fuller & Goffey’s recent Evil Media) and Zehle in relation to gestures. Indeed, listening the two talks in the same panel made the audience aware of the multiscalar worlds of logistics – from human social affect and gestures, to the abstracted worlds of simulations and games in which management and logistics can be rehearsed.

Even if I mention only some of the papers here, throughout the conference I felt more inspired than in most of the events I visit. As said, this extends to the time outside the actual talks; people are engaged in several interesting projects, which made me actually, and without irony, feel rather ok about being an academic. And in that context, it was less painful to visit the other side of the world, Melbourne, and do two long haul flights within 10 days. I myself talked about some new things I am engaged in – a sort of a project pitch for something that might turn out to be a bigger project event – and gave a “master class” on Media Archaeology & Cultural Techniques.

Turf instead of Turf Wars

August 30, 2012 4 comments

I was recently invited to deliver the annual keynote lecture for the graduates of Amsterdam University New Media Studies MA cohort. Below is the talk (August 29, 2012) that I did – sorry for the length of this post, but might interest some.

Turf Instead of Turf Wars:

The Future of Media Theory (as Bin Theory)

I was asked to talk about the Future of Media Theory – but I have to admit, talking about the future of anything has never been one of my strengths. Trained as a historian, a cultural historian to be accurate, one of my fortes was to engage with the past. Surrounded by other PhD students and colleagues who were doing research on Antique Greece, Early Modern Cultures, or for instance Victorian travel writing, I was often in a mixed peer group when trying to figure my head around historical aspects of new media culture. There seemed to be something comforting thinking that the old was always at some point new (as a reference to Carolyn Marvin’s pioneering research from the 1980s). However that sort of escape route proved early on to be an asset: I sort of consoled myself that at least, this way, I do not have to worry about keeping up; the hyperbolic pace of media cultural discourse, of shifts, moving forward, sideways, changing its object of desire from one gadget to another, screen innovation to next, network buzz word to the next buzz, theory to another turn – all of this could be, perhaps, bypassed the other way; what was the new of the past, or the novelty that again feels fresh – something that a brand of theorists call media archaeology. Or, if you prefer, call it bin theory; about things discarded, waste(d),  sometimes yuckily stuck together so as to lose their individual contours, and where digging in the dumpster will get your hands dirty. Digging in the ruins to discover new things. Not just being behind of the curve, but actually turned back to look at the previous alley, probably its dumpster, for something slightly more curious of an example than the emergence of the new – to paraphrase one Finnish scholar (Mika Pantzar), there is nothing more worn out than the continuous talk of the new.

I want to talk about one of the benefits of media theory as part of media studies – of theoretical absurdities that make sense; and sense-making that should be at times discarded; this approach relates to the speculative power of such an interdisciplinary field and its way to tackle with much more than media, or perhaps other formulation would be “not-just-media”. Let me get back to that formulation soon, but before that, just open up the agenda a bit more; so what if, instead of the normal media studies check list that gives you a nice, predictable list of “media” from television to other screens, from network media to more specifically software, games, and so forth – what if instead, you start to look at media in all sorts of weird places?

Indeed, people in media studies, for instance the prestigious Bernhard Siegert in Germany, have approached things like doors and ships as media of sorts. Consider it for a while: what is a door if not a mediating factor between insides and outsides, a basic anthropological element that divides spaces and as such, stands at the beginning of any power relation; how thresholds are controlled in terms of access, people, goods, traffic of various sorts? All these sound like questions an analyst of network culture might ask but we can transpose the question to such archaic thresholds too. Indeed, as Siegert reminds us, there are a lot of non-humans involved too. Of course, there are very human cultural techniques concerning doors, like how loud or quietly you are trained and educated to shut it and yet the materiality of the door (which as we know, can come in many guises from household doors to gates to automatic doors, sliding doors, to those logic gates you find inside computers…) is what itself plays a role as an agency.

Besides doors, we could consider, as does Siegert and other scholars engaged in analysis of cultural techniques, maps, diagrams, graphs, practices such as servantry (see Markus Krajewski’s work) and more as ways to open up the media studies checklist – media studies becomes more than just media, not just media, as a way to understand a range of technologies, gestures, practices and techniques which consolidate a range of things under the umbrella of what we blandly call media. Such are part of the necessary gestures of extending the boundaries of what we do, just for the sake of getting away of the stuffy indoors and knocking on the doors of other disciplinary huts; don’t always even knock and be pollite but poach and steal, smuggle and translate, transform – a range of pirate practices for theory production too, which constitute what a bit tiredly is often called interdiscplinarity. For what is media studies already from the outset if not interdisciplinary? It deals with themes familiar from science and engineering, of cultural studies and anthropology, of social sciences and, if you want to push your boundaries, mathematics too – for some theorists, including Wolfgang Ernst, it is with mathematics that our specific understanding of technical media should start. From Pythagoras to time-critical processes of current computers, mathematics opens a whole media epistemology.

For sure, media is definitely not only about mediating or communicating. We need to stir up things with theory, and theory itself has a peculiar place in contemporary academia. While an increasing amount of for instance institutions try to purge theory out from their media studies courses in order to gain street cred in terms of vocational skills deemed necessary for the digital economy (such a British buzz word), the other side of the coin in our field of arts and humanities and philosophy is the lust for glamour of theory. Theoretical turns and trendification of even metaphysical speak is an index of both looming turf wars as well as theory as a brand; in the current attempts to neoliberalise universities, theory becomes work of heroes (and still, slightly less often heroines), often described in the language of war; wars on social media from Twitter and blogs as platforms much quicker than in the age of David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseu, the quarrelling philosophers of the 18th century – for them, the media of turf wars were letters. In wars, and neoliberalist managerial wet fantasies, theory becomes performed as slick and without hiccups. Theory becomes confused with Ted –talks and the theorist as a brand, smooth and convincing salesperson, demonstrating also the powers of performance (see Paolo Virno on these points) on stage that one demands both as a visual culture phenomena but also increasingly in terms of scholarship as customer service as in the UK.

But there are more acute reasons for our expansion of media theory than just for the sake of avoiding stuffy academic air. What interests me in this case are not turf wars, but more closely turf itself, as well as things below the turf; we can use theory as a pathway itself to open up and question lists of things, as well as old habits, and include a range of new things for our conceptualisations. There is a practice of theory as well. In relation to my bigger theme today, the past years have seen a whole media zoology (and Zootechnics, see Vehlken’s recent book) emerge, with animals and animal studies finding a joint tune with some media studies theories; similarly things ecological, even under another theoretical theme of past years, media ecology, are mapped as part of the very concrete material contexts in which media takes place and displace. Rubbish, electronic waste, and the concretely ecological contexts of media are what constitute another way of seeing where things come from and end up – and using seemingly insignificant themes to track and map what is the more abstract and still yet one of widespread effects. Such media cartography is one way to see that task of a much more world oriented, and even object-oriented route for some. This also might be an arena for bin theory – clearly a relative of what McKenzie Wark calls P(OO): Praxis (object oriented): “A praxis which knows itself  to be limited, but which constructs a praxis of praxis, aimed at a useful knowledge of the strange praxis of objects entertain amongst themselves. And to make it possible, a certain conversation. One which does not have a stake in the language-game of professional philosophy, but which raids it for the odd useful thing, for hammers and such.” (Wark 2012: 161)

As cartography, let us remind ourselves that the map is the territory (to refer to Bernhard Siegert’s text in Radical Philosophy in 2011). Such a mapping that has to mistake the object as part of the praxis is not content to come up with representative lists of media studies topics, but wants itself to participate as an agent in social discussions – a technology of mapping that as technique caters objects, things and more to be even recognized as such. It steps from metaphysics to practices, historically existing. This is, as mentioned above, the thing about not-just-media, which is a variant of the media scholar Matthew Fuller’s (2003) phrase “not-just-art”. Without going into more details, Fuller’s note in the context of software points towards “a poetics of the potential” and how  a piece of software – and/or art – can elaborate a range of other critical techniques that are not just critique; not just a deconstruction of the notion of art into ironic twists of anti-art, but ways to forge, create worlds, and modalities of experience. For us, not just media, or not just media theory is a way to call into focus the fact that we just don’t talk of media, and we just don’t do media to theorise, but to action things – to enact.  Theory actually does a lot, through it’s work of concepts.

But in terms of speculations and not-just-typical media theory, let me explain more about what I mean with turf, with animal approaches, as well as the emphasis on junk as well as energy – all things quite physical, and definitely not purely semiotic. To start with animals, a for purpose simplifying claim gets us on the pitch; that so much of media theory has been branded by a focus on the human; as an analysis of human communication, we have tended to focus on linguistic models and a variety of social and interpersonal themes, or as an analysis of worlds of perception, to see media as extensions of Man. The Marshall McLuhan phrase however is not very satisfactory if you start to realise the amount of very non-human aspects when it comes down to media environments that are by definition so quick and so puzzling even on a physical level that it would not merit them well to call them an extension of myself. Indeed, the recent years have seen various well grounded and even provocative attacks against a human centered humanities.

As for media of the other sort, namely of animal worlds, there are obvious routes as well. One could now claim this territory to for instance biomedia: the biological as something that is taken to support what usually would call high tech processes; besides metaphors, the harnessing of for instance magnetic bacteria to become grown harddrives is under way, as are other plans that try to fit (and/or modify) the historically quite recent ideas of computer architectures as part biological and ecological affordances.

But other sorts of animal worlds are involved too. Hence, take science fiction as a way to understand what I am to try to get with, in terms of this mild zoophilia. If you want to be futuristic, you do not anymore fantasize in reference to humans or even androids, but animals, and preferably insects (as I tried to argue in Insect Media too). This is the lesson one gets even from a glimpse of past years of science-fiction discourse, such as Ian McDonald’s Dervish House. The nanotechnological future Istanbul is pitched as the 21st century version of the Silk Road node, defined by its booming nanotech cluster of businesses and tech companies. The David Cronenberg 1980s fantasies of human-insect –hybrid (as in the Fly) is superseded by the fiction version of spider robotics and insectoid-drones part of security and surveillance regimes in Istanbul plagued by various suicide sects.

Animals abound in media talk too, as well as to refer to trends in current digital society. Swarms and more, such terms as pollen society float about (a term by Yann Moulier Boutang)– here to refer to the specific collaborative and cognitive modes of value production in current creative industries culture.

There is a bit of a similar thrust to be noticed in how marketing researchers are trying to convince that we need to look at the reptilian brain, the unconscious and unrational parts, in order to find what triggers us to brands; social networks bloat with links about news stories in which insect research demonstrates how ants do it, termites do it, even Facebook does it: clusters around common interests, sharing, collaboration — a nice way of trying to convince that companies from Silicon Valley with their own specific quite cunning business models that aim to accumulate social behaviour as an inroad to capital accumulation are as natural as hive formations. More recently, this has taken place by talk of Anternets even, an idea that certain ants’ foraging patterns are like the invention of TCP/IP protocol but some millions years earlier.

Such examples demonstrate a scientific keenness in media, animals and behaviour as somehow interlinked, a weird rhetorical connection established through scientific research that seems to link up evolutionary aspects of animals to specific technological platforms. Don’t get me wrong – I do like animals, at least some, and I am an active Twitter user, and it is for sure that most of my actions happen on a very non-rational level of my own lizard brain – but what this more specifically points out is a terribly weird new version of sociobiologism, but on the level of animal behaviour and modes of organisation. Indeed, there is an interesting relation to the sociological interest in crowd behaviour in cities at the end of the 19th century and early 20th, and our current forms of crowds online – both demonstrating for researchers patterns of such behaviour that seem of the lower level; It begs the question concerning the “social” in social media, and the wider pitching of sociability as the natural protocol of the world. Instead, we should shout out that there is nothing natural about sociability, not at least in this articulation of corporate platforms as so inherently connected to biology and evolution! Instead, we need to pick open such creations, imaginations of the social, inventions of forms of life that take detours at times through the natural.

As a cultural historical theme, we can talk of the dual bind of modern urban technological landscapes and animals: disappearance of farm animals, rodents and so forth is paralleled by the animalisation of media, which seems to be clear from even a cursory representational analysis of early media, so fascinated by agility of animal bodies as well as animation worlds of rodents and animal farms – a whole media zoology (see Akira Mizuta Lippit’s Electric Animal on this topic). This idea of media zoology used in a parallel sense to that of a “zootechnical” approach (Vehlken) to elaborate the wider entanglement of communication practices in relation to animal research – and in addition, as we will see below, to a wider media ecological stance.

But of course there is more to this grounding of media zoology than looking at media through its content and what is on the screen. Indeed, the worlds of such fiction as The Dervish House remind that media as technologies – as abstract, yet embodied, as concrete but massively distributed in the current wireless network age – work much more efficiently when they are not modelled on the human form. This is why marine biologists turned US military and security advisors, talking about octopus tentacles make international news: this refers to the University of Arizona marine ecologist Rafe Sagarin advising on learning about decentralised organisational methods from the tentacled marine creatures. “What the Octopus Can Teach Us About National Security”, ran the BBC headline which we can tweak to: “What the Discourse About the Octopus and National Security Can Teach Us Media Theorists”.

In terms of media theory, such voices relate to necessary complements to the traditions of theory of technology from Ernst Kapp to Marshall McLuhan. There are predecessors, and is a whole another tradition of media theory taking aboard animals in various forms, and starting the theoretisation of media from a different set of affordances (Insect Media). Indeed, when talking of media ecology, one should not forget the early writings of Harold Innis, which features such literally ecological themes as rivers, fur and , yes, beavers as well as the more conceptual reminders that medium did not always refer to what you think it does on a media studies course.

Besides quirky examples about beavers and protocols, ants and Ivy league scholars, we can point towards a gloomy side of this development as well. So allow me the role of a doomsday narrator in terms of ecological effects of media technologies. This itself is not that difficult, acknowledging the amount of electronic waste we discard every year – millions, hundreds of millions of electronic devices that are still operational, and besides that, packed with a range of hazardous material. Media are, by definition and in their material constitution, toxic. This is not a gloomy statement of the sort that media content ecologists like Neil Postman voiced while opening his telly – that it is ruining our world, our social relations, and amuses us to death (incidentally, I always liked more the ex Pink Floyd member Roger Waters’ version of this theme); instead, it is the material existence of media that is directly hazardous to our bodies. Instead of semiotics of media, we approach materialities of media, to be understood for instance through a “mineral per disease syndrome” chart:

Lead — damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and reproductive system.

Cadmium –— accumulates for instance in the kidney

Mercury — brain and kidneys, as well as the fetus.

Hexavalent Chromium/Chromium VI  — passes through cell membranes, producing various toxic effects in contaminated cells.

Barium — brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the heart, liver, and spleen. (Source: Exporting Harm, )

Such are only a couple of examples of things that constitute our information technology, a wide range of examples of refined minerals, metals, and chemicals that are essential as ever so material things inside our media, which paradoxically has meant neglecting them as any part of the courses concerned with Understanding Media  . With a way too serious eye have we tried to approach media only as media, and ignored the much lower, physical level on which media takes place. (For alternatives, see for instance Sean Cubitt  in Grau 2011).

Those underpaid workers, in non-Western locations, dismantling the media devices for the valuable parts, are the ones exposed to the above-mentioned list of health hazards. (As always, see the wonderful Digital Rubbish by Jennifer Gabrys) Methods as crude as riverside dumping, burning old computer parts, and so forth are also part of the life – and death – cycle of our digital culture, as methods of displacing obsolescent products as well as retrieving what they were made: copper, gold, and so forth. Of course, this is the part of the cycle we rarely see, as such media practices are reserved for developing countries, as end placement for stuff we don’t want to view, listen or play anymore. Junk media does not stop being media, and similarly if we speculate about futures of media theory, we need to quite concretely speculate futures of our media devices – where do they end up, quite physically, as part of container shipments, logistics routes, and a grey economy of the zombie life of media devices. (On logistics, see for instance Ned Rossiter’s work.).

With such speculation, we rediscover a materiality of the mediatic. This extends to what I would call a material speculative take on media history. Think of it this way:

Media history is one big “story” of experimenting with different materials from glass plates to chemicals, from selenium to coltan, from dilute suphuric acid to shellac silk and classic insulation material from gutta percha trees essential for underwater cables, to processes such as crystallization, ionization, and so forth. They also are media practices. Our screen technologies, cables, networks, technical means of seeing and hearing are partly results of meticulous – and sometimes just purely accidental – experimentation with how materials work; what works, what doesn’t, whether you are talking of materials for insulation, conduction, projection or recording. Same thing with processing and its materiality.

The transistor based information tech culture would not be thinkable without the various meticulous insights into the material characteristics and differences between germanium and silicon – or the energetic regimes; whether that involves the consideration of current clouds (as in server farms), or the constant attempts to manage power consumption.

What such geeky historical mapping reveals is just part of a bigger story that demands even more urgent attention in the age of the high energy consumption age of server farms and cloud computing (Cubitt, Hassan and Volkmer 2011): that story is not about frictionless clouds and sweetly mobile technologies with an ideal sense of displacement; this story is more about physics, and entropy, and exhausted resources;

Media and information technology are far from zero entropy mathematical dreams, and embedded in physical networks, afforded by hardware and hardwork – practices of mining, shipping, polishing, constructing, and then the other way round, when disgorging such machines.

This is the mirror side of the question about resources on governmental levels, also multinational governmental levels; Whereas on EU policy level, directives about electronic waste have focused on collecting and appropriate treatment, in terms of economic planning for the information technology age, there is a different challenge to face

From the European Union perspective, the future of information technology has to be planned below the turf: EU does not hold much in terms of critical raw material resources when it comes to advanced technology that are identified crucial for a longer term socio-economic change, something identified to have geopolitical-economic consequences. In short, this refers to the crucial status of China, Russia, Brazil, Congo and for instance South-Africa as producers of raw materials, and an alternative material future of technological culture. Suddenly, it is realized how the materiality of information technology starts from the soil, and underground – 500 meters, and preferably (for the mining companies) lower as the earth’s crust is dozens of kilometres deep.

Cobalt Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels

Gallium Thin layer photovoltaics, IC, WLED

Indium Displays, thin layer photovoltaics

Tantalum Micro capacitors, medical technology

Antimony ATO, micro capacitors

Germanium Fibre optic cable, IR optical technologies

Platinum (PGM) Fuel cells, catalysts

Palladium (PGM) Catalysts, seawater desalination

Niobium Micro capacitors, ferroalloys

Neodymium Permanent magnets, laser technology (source)

Such an underground is slightly different from the discourse of underground art or activism.

Siegfried Zielinski, the Berlin situated media variantologist, writes about “deep time of the media” referring to extensively long historical durations for media inquiry; of looking at Antique times, of medieval alchemists, of 19th century science-art collaborations as such deep times of media practice. But what if we need to account for an alternative deep time, that reaches for this depth of even kilometres down the earth? This extends the historical interest into alchemists towards contemporary mining practices, minerals and a different sort of wizardry than those of celebrated geniuses of steve jobses. Instead, would this sort of an approach be something that is comfortable to tackle with materiality on its below the ground level (such theory is definitely “low theory”, to refer to McKenzie Wark’s notion), stretched between political economy of resources and for instance art practices: I am here thinking such examples as Florian Dombois’ “Auditory Seismology” work that sonifies earthquakes – usually of a frequency range that does not reach the human ear, but that can be modified, instead of the usual visualisation. Digging into the earth is a methodology that lets us look at what affords our media, and theorise such regimes of perception, of sensation that are immediately catered for us. For instance sonification of such earth sounds one can justify from a point Dombois also makes, that is how the “the eye is good for recognizing structure, surface and steadiness, whereas the ear is good for recognizing time, continuum, remembrance and expectation.”

The ear as a media theorist (an idea embraced by Wolfgang Ernst as well) is  more suited to theoretical analysis of temporalities, for instance. Temporalities of deep earth. Despite my historical training, I am more convinced that these are the temporalities we should be looking at and listening to.

A lot of what I have been talking about boils down to the following themes, in the mode of ecological mapping an alternative, more “natural” list of media studies.

More accurately than a call for naturalisation, it is a list that acknowledges the various sedimentations, geologies and garbologies of media that we need to account for: worlds of animal energies, also in terms of their exploitation, whether just through bad use of ideas from biological and ethological studies, or directly through the linkages of animal testing with consumer industries;

Through minerals, as a resource for that physical, hard layer of information technology that gets too often press only as creative industries and digital economy of networks;

And then energy; not just the exploitation of human energies as with cheap physical labour or the exhausted creative industries freelancers, but also energy production – of which a big part still unrenewable.

Such aspects of media theory – of animals, rubbish, energy is not just to talk rubbish, but to continue the earlier idea; of our field of not just as media theory. We nod towards the bin, and bin theory. Instead, to an extent that some media theorists claim that the whole term is becoming useless because of its ubiquity, we can see the rapidly infecting impact of things mediatic. This is not a closed list, just like speculative media theory should not stop at the definitions handed down to you in some classical textbooks. Instead, the speculative enterprise, nowadays consolidated also in such waves of philosophical inquiry as speculative realism, is one of not really knowing what to expect; for speculative realism, it corresponds to an ontological attitude about the non-human constitution of the world – that there is much more than we expect in terms of our epistemological categories. And yet, we speculate in so many ways – even the term has been corrupted by financial capitalism adapting it as one of its techniques that presents its own version of future-orientedness;

We need to grab speculation back, as an inquiry into things more than is the assumed, or more than is expected, so that we can really dig down to something deeper than turf wars of theory. Turf is already enough to start theorising, as a way to go deeper, (be)low theory, and towards the crust.

Critique With a Cause – on Lovink’s new book

June 5, 2012 3 comments

Geert Lovink can be provocative – very provocative. This is one of the pleasures of diving into his writings and books, just like with Networks Without a Cause, the most recent one published by Polity.

Lovink is a good “network barometer”, a measuring device in his own right, who captures significant themes being debated, even if not always within academia. And I say that as a good thing.

Lovink’s style of defending the work of concepts and theory but steering clear of stuffy academic language and managerial games, of investigating global trajectories without buying into neoliberal globalization speak, and investing so much into perspectives that stay close to code and technology without reducing his work into techy-geekyness is always a good combo.

Networks Without a Cause works it’s way through the current crisis of social media and the  public sector, including universities, and provides insights into the managerial cultures that combines both. Of course, these are two different kinds of crisis; Social Media companies are perhaps not in the financial crisis as the public sector, but in a state where their stance towards security, surveillance and privacy is being increasingly questions; and well, public sector both being pressed by the cuts and austerity programs as well as the managerial attitude creeping into a range of institutions. Hailing the liberatory effects of Social Media is just, well, naïve in the age when no user is probably unaware of the surveillance and business logics of such proprietary platforms. Similarly, Lovink picks up on the crisis of theory in universities, or more specifically a take on media studies’ role in current educational landscape.

For a media studies scholar, the chapter (see also a piece co-written with Ned Rossiter) is a tough read – but thoroughly enjoyable! I found a weird sense of satisfaction reading it, despite disagreeing on points; something about the provocation was to me spot on, in terms of placing media studies as part of the managerial drive in current universities – and UK is an especially apt case. While noting the running down of Arts and Humanities worldwide, Lovink picks up on media studies as “an academic genre [that] sprang out of the heads of education consultants and bureaucrats and blended into unrelated departments and intellectual cultures, in order to scale-up output.” (83) In other words, while registering the birth of media studies as a jumbled together mixed bag of variety of disciplines from film to theatre, cultural studies to new media studies, Lovink continues the argument as one related to theory. On the one hand, a “neutering” of innovative theory that has become a mechanical mode of application (“watching Heroes with Zizek in our favorite interpassive mode, flowing through the national libraries with Castells, understanding Google a la Deleuze, or interpreting Twitter via Butler?”); on the other hand, academic theory becoming only a means towards the end of managerially controlled research output exercises.

Yet, one could object – and should. As Michael Goddard noted on Facebook, where does this place then such fields as Media Ecology (after Matt Fuller) or Media Archaeology, which I also would claim is not only a look backwards to the old media studies groundings in television, radio or visual culture? Furthermore, whereas institutional settings in our discplines such as media are becoming threatened by admin culture, media studies scholars are happy to carry the legacy foward and come up with extra-institutional and other innovative settings for theory work and critique — read for instance Mirko Tobias Schäfer’s recent thoughts on tactics of going rogue. Another objection might be raised when Lovink quotes Lev Manovich, and Manovich’s critique of 1960s-1980s theory that has lost its relevance “because commercial culture and computers today run on many principles of this theory – from irony and the self-referentiality of advertising to ‘rhizomatic’ networks. So to use many of these theoretical concepts is to state the obvious.”

Manovich has a nice point here of the recursive nature with which earlier critical theory has turned part of the advertising folks toolkit. To a large extent, that can be seen true, but also we need to be aware that a very uninspiring and loose use of for instance notions like “rhizome” in 1990s cyberculture studies does not equate into it being completely part and parcel with the network condition. That a lot of Anglo-American adaptation of French philosophy for instance produced a range of misreadings and reliance in such notions of distributed nature, rhizomes, irony etc. is not exactly the same as assuming that a misplaced metaphor suddenly determined the state of new media. Such a stance would just validate bad theory. We need to be able to really read theory – and understand where theory turns rotten, uninspiring, and badly applied; not just dismiss it altogether that easily and uncritically.

However, Lovink picks up on exciting ways to develop theory. It is not about being dismissive, but clearly wanting to see something new to happen. Although I would claim that a lot of this is happening – however, not much supported in the creative industries/digital economy academic culture of for instance Britain – and gradually carving out more visibility. I agree with Lovink that such openings as Fuller & Goffey’s Evil media is among them, similarly as McKenzie Wark’s notes that are as needed. Even Manovich’s quantitative cultural analytics can be seen as an interesting move away from a traditional hermeneutics approach, developing media specific methodologies.

Indeed, media studies – like pretty much all arts and humanities disciplines – is in a difficult spot in relation to funding cuts, decrease in public support (well, in the UK media studies has historically been in a bad spot as the blamed mickey mouse-field, hated by the Tories and media), increasing managerial culture surrounding research (REF) and teaching (counterintuitive QAA), as well as the temporal issues. As Lovink notes, in an increasingly quickly changing media cultures, the cycles of academic studies are just too slow to be up to date, and often their destiny is to focus on historical phenomena.  Whereas some approaches, such as media archaeology, might be able to turn that to their advantage, that does not hide the problem entirely. More radical structural changes are needed in publishing and recognition systems. This means for instance on such levels as REF a sustained commitment to supporting open access journals and experimental formats of publishing academic research.

Lovink writes about writing (net criticism genre), radio, blogging, google, wikileaks and more – pretty much a range of the most debated events and platforms of past years. And still his book feels something that you actually enjoy reading. This might sound like a casual and banal observation, but I mean it in the sense of actually expecting to reach the end of the page, just to turn to next page. Lovink observes, inscribes and reports – but with a twist that makes his style so recognizable. His provocative style is attractive, and whether you agree or not on the points, well, he is making a point.

Sociability, or sex, mental disorders and code

November 14, 2010 1 comment

The basic teaching of The Social Network is, probably, more or less: people go to extensive measures in order to get sex. And The Social Network presents one of the most complex ways of achieving that (and if you think “sex” is here too blunt, just replace it with “achieving social recognition”, “status”, etc.): to write the most successful social media platforms till yet, and make it into a billion+ business.

More seriously, the key thing to understand about the film is that it is not about The Facebook website or the company, nor about the real people behind these networks which themselves have created a load of global internet life; not about mark zuckerbergs, sean parkers, eduardo saverins, or the usually the faceless/nameless (or first name basis only) coders and girls which seem to be essential to any successful internet company.
To me, and what I tried to see the film as, it is about how to think the mental ecology of informational and networked “social” capitalism of 21st century. What it succeeds in showing is how messy the supposedly immaterial, and logical-driven mathematical society, i.e. society of code/software, is, and how affective labour and social relations are not only the object of those internet business models, but also its driving force. Now that sounds quite anthropocentric, I admit, but actually I want to point out to the messy ontologies in which the supposedly nice and “we-all-agree-its-good-for-us” sociability is about.
After broadcast media as the driving force of 20th century media landscapes, and the at least partial message of the media system of, well, broadcasting and catering for as many eyeballs as possible (both in the advertising logic but also public broadcasting version of this logic), The Social Network seems to imply that a driving force of this system is a feeling of exclusiveness; embedded in a system of closed institutions, invitations, rank, privilege, The Social Network shows the cruelty and dark sides in celebrated utopias of open internet and celebrated social ties. Cultivating on the idea of “clubs” into a software platform and a form of high tech neotribalism suggests not only the affective logic that might be driving the addiction economy of such social media but also the exclusiveness in terms of code which suggests that there are the creative whiz-kids (elite, billionaire, white), and the end-users (hot girls with no name, or a first name, who are the psychotic end-users, but also end-products of this affective economy). Naturally such a division is far from truth, as the relations demanded by social networks aim to blur the boundaries of producers and consumers, which works towards even a more affective entanglement. Recently Jodi Dean has made interesting points about this entanglement in her Blog Theory, but earlier already Tiziana Terranova as well.
What The Social Network is consistently about is the mental ecology of sociability – and especially sociability in the age of technological networks. Code is being born of labour and money – of some people getting paid, and some not; of some people getting laid, and some not; and some people at the high end of the power law curve, some not. That is why the descriptions of affective states, and even more so the various mental disorders at the core of this film are such a clue of thinking it in terms of impersonal affects — the affective landscape of capitalism not reducible to representational figures: paranoia, compulsion, psychosis, depression.
“Social pathologies are first of all a communicational disorder”, writes Franco “Bifo” Berardi in The Soul at Work, and understanding the compulsion of communication as a state where again affect and business models conflate is a key way to understand contemporary infoscapes. Look at the disorders of minds and tech, of social relations and software to understand fundamental elements of how internet and high-tech cultures in general work, and this is where the fundamental impersonality in terms of Zuckerberg-the-film-character might just become a crucial symbol of current social media capitalism in a similar manner as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2007) is emblematic of capitalism through an understanding of its zombie-like, soulless man as the “vessel of Capital” of the industrial age, to borrow Steven Shaviro’s words and insightful analysis.

Culture Synchronised: Remixes with Nick Cook and Eclectic Method


The room Hel 252 is starting to have good karma as the remix-class room at Anglia Ruskin. Not because its equipped with computers, editing equipment or such, but because it is starting to have a good track record as the room where we have now hosted both the screening and discussion of RIP: Remix Manifesto with Brett Gaylor, and now also discussed the work of Eclectic Method — one of the most well known remix-acts.

Geoff Gamlen, a founding member of Eclectic Method, visited us in the context of Professor Nicholas Cook’s talk on musical multimedia. Professor Cook continued themes that were addressed already in his 1998 book on the topic and now followed up in the form of a new book project that
deals with performance. With a full room of excited audience, Cook gave a strong presentation on hot topics in musicology and the need to move to new areas of investigation, as well as showing how such ideas relate to the wider field of cultural production in the digital age. Remix-culture is not restricted to music but where such examples as Eclectic Method (or we could as well mention for example Girl Talk) are emblematic of software driven cultural production that ties contemporary culture with early 20th century avant-garde art practices, and shows how political economy of copyright/copyleft, of participatory and collaborative modes of sharing and producing, of aesthetics of image/sound-collages and synchronisations, all are involved in this wider musical assemblage. What Cook argued in terms of musicological approaches that, in my own words, are suggesting “the primacy of variation” was apt. Such performance practices as Eclectic Method’s are important in trying to come up with up-to-date understanding of what is performance, what is the author, and how performance practices relate to wider media cultural changes that are as much about the sonic, as they are about pop cultural aesthetics — hence the examples on Tarantino were apt in the presentation. We need to move on (whether in terms of the epistemic frameworks or the legal ones) from the 19th century romantic notion of the Creator as the source of the artwork to what I would suggest (in a kinda of a Henry Jenkins sort of way) to an alternative 19th century of folk cultures where sharing and participating was the way culture was distributed, and in continuous variation. Despite the increasing amount of skeptics from Andrew Keen to Jaron Lanier (and in a much more interesting fashion Dmytri Kleiner), who also rightly so remind us that Web 2.0 is not only about celebration of amateur creativity and sharing but a business strategy that compiles free labour through website bottlenecks into privatized value, I would suggest that there is a lot to learn from such practices of creation as remixing and their implications for a theoretical understanding of musical and media performance.

Eclectic Method’s work…range from political remixes…

…to pop/rock culture synchronisations…

Operational Management of Life

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment


Management of life — in terms of processes, decisions and consequences — is probably an emblematic part of life in post-industrial societies. Increasingly, such management does not take place only on the level individuality, but dividuality — i.e. managing the data clouds, traces, and avataric transpositions of subjectivity in online environments. This is the context in which J. Nathan Matias’ talk on operational media design made sense (among other contexts of course), and provided an apt, and exciting, example of how through media design we are able to understand wider social processes.

Nathan addressed “operationalisation” as a trend that can be incorporated in various platforms from SMS to online self-management and operationalisation. More concretely, “operational media” can be seen as a management, filtering and decision mechanism that can be incorporated into services and apps of various kinds. Nathan’s talk moved from military contexts of “command and control” (operationalisation of strategic ways into tactical operations) to such Apps as the blatantly sexist Pepsi Amp up before you score which allowed the (male) user to find “correct” and functional responses to a variety of female types. In addition to such, Nathan’s talk was able to introduce the general idea of computer assisted information retrieval and management which to me was a great way of branding a variety of trends into “operational media”. He talked about visualisation of data, augmented reality, filtering of data, expert, crowd and computer assisted information gathering, and a variety of other contexts in which the idea works.

“Should I eat this croissant” considering its calories, the needed time I need to work out to get it again out of my system, the time available etc. is one example of operationalisation of decisions in post-fordist societies of high-tech mobile tools that tap into work and leisure activities.

Another example is the service offered by Nathan’s employed KGB (not the spies, but Knowledge Generation Bureau. See their recent Superbowl ad here. The KGB service is one example of mobile based operational services which in the character space of an SMS try to provide accurate answers to specific questions and hence differ from e.g. search engines.

Of course, one could from a critical theory perspective start to contextualise “operational media”. Is it a form of digital apps enhanced behavioralism that does not only assume but strengthens assumptions about the possibility of streamlining complex human actions? Is it a mode of media design that further distances management of life into external services? Is it hence a form of biopower of commercial kinds that ties in with the various processes from the physiological to cultural such as labour and provides its design-solutions for them? In any case, Nathan’s expertise in this field was a very enjoyable, and a good demonstration of a scholar/designer working in software studies.

Beyond the Free Labour

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

During a week, two perspectives to digital economy.

1) Berlin Transmediale-festival, where I got to see and hear some of the panels in the Free Culture stream. Basically the question revolved a lot around very small scale projects and the question concerning creative as a motor for economic development. A question which touches so intimately on free labour as the actual driver for economic value – a point well elaborated by Tiziana Terranova years ago. This is where value is extracted and admittedly exploited in the age of celebrated digital culture, collaboration, participatory culture. Well, it was not all that small scale; after all, one panel featured a representative from the Benetton think tank Fabrica in Northern-Italy as well as a representative from MotorFM, among others. These are the success stories which do not even try to hide the elistist face of some of the contexts; Fabrica being a sandpit for young, successful young creators; MotorFM representative explaining how their listener basis of course depends on the accumulation of a certain brand of educated, creative and such people that often also come from wealthier backgrounds. Matteo Pasquinelli raised some nice critical points, but these could have been pursued a bit further. (I missed the Sunday’s Liquid Democracies-discussion where Matteo tackled such themes in length).

2) Beyond the Soundbite-Cambridge Media Industry event on Friday and Saturday. Loads of interesting perspectives, where none really discussed the question of cultural work, labour. Whereas I enjoyed enormously some of the talks, from Alan Moore to day 2 talks on Crowdfunding and Film, I could not help noticing that celebrating collaborative and participatory culture did not in any way discuss how actual cultural work is going to be funded on a large scale. Such projects as Swarm of Angels and in a different fashion the Hunt for Gollum depend on the participation of a wide range of volunteers who based on their affective investment, the true e-factor (i.e. enthusiasm), are willing to contribute their time and skills to the project. There is nothing wrong in this, and I enjoyed the projects a lot. However, in terms of a wider cultural sustainability of such precarious jobs in arts and cultural production sector, the possibilities in using crowdsourced labour does not produce any viable income streams for the participators. This fact is taken at face value, which is scary to me, especially with the economic situation being what it is at the moment. The affective investment that has been part and parcel of film cultures from the start – fanaticism and cinephilia – turns easily into involvement in such products that revolve often around a specific genre that already attracts an enthusiastic relation to the product, or them an existing product like the Lord of the Rings-films and books on which Hunt for Gollum attaches itself. The symbiotic attachments of cultural production extend however to the parasitic attachment to the potentials of the skilled and non-skilled cultural workers whose investments might smell of “free culture” but actually “free” is only an euphemism for non-monetary investments (time, skill, energy etc.) Its far from free in those other kinds of investments.

This is where collaborative cultures and open source are the ideal models for appropriation for the capitalist logic. In short, collaborative cultures is not “free” in the sense of freedom, but free in the sense of free beer (to use the worn example turned the other way).

And yes, for a different perspective, such projects as RIP – Remix manifesto present a more politically tuned image of the powers of collaborative production. (Later, I had a chance to exchange an email with Matt Hanson (Swarm of Angels) about this where he flagged in his response that he has been developing models of meritocratic nature that also support payments for professional practice, while continuing how “something many of the less thought out, immature crowdfunding models do not take into account.”) Good point, and looking forward to learning more of such developments!