05 Oct

Pick-Your-Own Internet

red barn pathIt’s fall in New England.  That means farms all over the region are opening their doors to locals and tourists alike to pick over their crops so that they might have that unique New England experience of working for their food.  For only $20, you can get a bag and walk through the orchards and the opportunity to fill the bag with apples.  Hours of fun (labor) for only about 20% more money than picking them up at the grocery store!  And as you walk through the pristine New England orchard and enjoy the crisp fall air, one can’t help but notice the vast amounts of apples that have been discarded for one reason or another that will remain unpicked.

So what is the logic of this pick-your-own phenomenon?  As local farms struggle to eek by in a global food context, turning working farms into a consumer experience has become the economic model du jour.    Hay rides, apple cider, and some good clean labor, rounds out the apple experience during a New England October.  But why are people willing to give up their labor for free?  The answer is simple: the experience of certain kinds of labor is worth paying for, even if it is wasteful.

While gleefully picking my apples at a farm just northwest of Boston, I found myself thinking less about apples and more about the Internet.  Is the reason I’m building up a sweat picking apples the same as the reason I contribute to YouTube, fan sites, or political poles?  Perhaps I’m not giving up my labor for free as much as I’m paying to consume a work experience.  Perhaps the experience of participation is the commodity.  New Media theorist and commentator Trebor Scholz makes a convincing argument that sociable web media is premised on the unequal ideological platform of consumer labor for corporate gain – that users willingly give up their labor to aid a few corporations in profit-making.  But what if it’s not about giving up free labor, but about paying for commodified experience.  The pick-your-own Internet is premised on the assumption that participation is itself worth the price of time – that the experience of contributing to a fan site or a growing database is worth paying for.

As the production economy continues to give way to the experience economy, the pick-your-own Internet will become even more normalized.  Just as a working farm in New England that doesn’t sell the experience of labor will become a thing of the past.

04 Jan

Urban Informatics

Journal coverA special issue of Information, Communication and Society just hit the stands and it’s worth a mention here. Yeah, yeah, I have an article in it, but more importantly, it’s a fantastic collection of work on the topic of “Urban Informatics: Software, Cities, and the New Cartographies of Knowing Capitalism.” Here’s the table of contents:

  • Mike Crang & Stephen Graham, “Sentient Cities: ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space”
  • Rowland Atkinson & Paul Willis, “Charting the ludochrome: the mediation of urban and simulated space and the rise of the flaneur electronique”
  • David Beer, “Tune out: music, soundscapes and the urban mise-en-scene”
  • Michael Hardey, “The city in the age of Web 2.0: a new synergistic relationship between place and people”
  • Eric Gordon, “Mapping digital networks: from cyberspace to Google”
  • Simon Parker, Emma Uprchard & Roger Burrows, “Class places and place classes: geodemographics and the spatialization of class”
  • Andy C. Pratt, Rosalind Gill & Volker Spelthann, “Work and the city in the e-society: a critical investigation of the sociospatially situated character of economic production in the digital content industries in the UK”
  • Nicholas Pleace, “Workless people and the surveillant mashups: social policy and data sharing in the UK”

Unfortunately, IC&S is not available online, so these articles might remain obscure to those without access to a research library. Seems a shame, especially considering the theme of the issue. We might be closer than ever to urban data, but academic knowledge remains quite distant.

That aside, it’s a privilege to have my work included in this excellent volume. And as I read through the journal and familiarize myself with the various projects, I hope that the issue sparks a greater debate about the politics of urban informatics – its potential benefits to democratic engagement and its potential risks to personal privacy and freedoms.

03 Aug

Question Concerning Technology

In Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, he makes the distinction between instrumental technology and techne.  The current concept of technology is anthropological or instrumental, in that it is a means to an end, it accomplishes something.  That, according to Heidegger, will get us nowhere. 

So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it (337).

This will to master technology is specific to previous forms of technology wherein there was more of a relationship between the technology and the element it mastered.  For instance, a wind turbine had a direct relationship to wind.  With modern technology, we abstract the physicality and process of wind and produce machines that can master it, thus creating a standing-reserve.  We transform the objects in the world into a standing-reserve, to possibly be used in the future.  He suggests that we also become part of the standing-reserve.

After re-reading this essay, it occured to me that he is describing quite well the way in which we willingly give ourselves over to the standing-reserve of the network to be used for this purpose or that.  Modern technology illiminates objectness for the sake of the standing-reserve. 

This danger attests itself to us in two ways.  As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve” (332).

So, man orders things.  Man puts files into place and spends his time searching for them.  Is this not the majority of what takes place within networks?  But, what is distinct about contemporary digital technology is the sense of freedom that corresponds with the standing-reserve.  Is it possible that agency is revealed in the standing-reserve?

21 Jul

Pattern vs. Presence

In N. Katherine Hayles book How We Became Posthuman, she suggests that one of the cultural struggles emerging in the post-human discourse is the shift between two structuring binaries: presence / absence and pattern / randomness.  She argues that the floating signifier theorized by Lacan, one based on the anxiety-ridden divide between presence and absence is being overshadowed by what she calls a flickering signifier.  The flickering signifier is characterized by the pattern / randomness binary.  In other words, linguistic meaning is comprised primarily through the formation of patterns (information on networks, code, the apperance of intelligence in machines).  These things are not necessarily present, but they form patterns to suggest presence. 

Before going any further, I should describe what she means by post-human:
– the privileging of information patterns over material instantiation;
– the notion that consciousness is the primary factor in determing human life;
– understanding the body as prosthesis;
– the conflation of human being and intelligent machine (ala cybernetics).

So, patterns of information determines human life.  At least, Hayles argues, this has become a primary narrative in science and culture over the last half century.  Informatics has supplanted metaphysics as the method of deciphering life.

She argues by the end of chapter two that these trends are irreversible.  She remains optimistic, however, by suggesting that narrative is always malleable.  Technology will follow the market, but the desires of the market can be altered through narrative.  Even if that doesn’t work, the contextualizing of technology happens through narrative.  She hopes to see pattern and presence become complimentary as opposed to oppositional. 

01 Jun

Culture and Technology

Friedrich Kittler argues that "culture cannot be had without technology, and technology cannot be had without culture" ("The Perspective of Print").  This seems like a fairly simply idea, but Kittler makes it complex.  What he’s trying to get at here is that they these two discourses (technology and culture) are always already the same thing.  Technology doesn’t emerge from culture (as a response to cultural needs and desires), nor does culture emerge from technology (as Internet culture or gaming culture that corrupts the minds of youth); rather, culture is a kind of technology (or system) and it is simply manifested through machines.

In Geoffrey Winthrop-Young’s article called "Silicon Sociology, or, Two Kings on Hegel’s Throne? Kittler, Luhmann, and the Posthuman Merger of German Media Theory", he explains Kittler’s position this way:

“This does not mean that computers are artificial human brains, or that they digitally ape specifically human ways of thinking.  Rather, they optimize certain patterns of information processing that were also imposed on human beings but subsequently were mistaken to be innately human qualities.  Where subjects were, there programs shall be – because programs were there in the first place.”

This gets to the crux of the matter: programs were there in the first place.  We mourn the loss of some pre-technical reality, or what Kittler calls the "ecologically sound Stone Age," but it is just a myth.  Human beings have always been engaged in systems, and with each technological change the preceding system has been seen as natural.   Kittler is trying to tell the history of media as a history of systems, both human and machine.