22 October 2014

Interview with David M. Berry at re:publica 2013

Open science interview at re:publica conference in Berlin, 2013, by Kaja Scheliga.


Kaja ScheligaSo to start off...what is your field, what do you do?

David M. Berry: My field is broadly conceived as digital humanities or software studies. I focus in particular on critical approaches to understanding technology, through theoretical and philosophical work, so, for example, I have written a book called Philosophy of Software and I have a new book called Critical Theory and The Digital but I am also interested in the multiplicity of practices within computational culture as well, and the way the digital plays out in a political economic context.

KS: Today, here at the re:publica you talked about digital humanities. What do you associate with the term open science?

DB: Well, open science has very large resonances with Isaiah Berlin’s notion of the open society, and I think the notion of open itself is interesting in that kind of construction, because it implies a "good". To talk about open science implies firstly that closed science is "bad", that science should be somehow widely available, that everything is published and there is essentially a public involvement in science. It has a lot of resonances, not necessarily clear. It is a cloudy concept. 

KS: So where do you see the boundary between open science and digital humanities? Do they overlap or are they two separate fields? Is one part of the other?

DB: Yes, I think, as I was talking in the previous talk about how digital humanities should be understood within a constellation, I think open science should also be understood in that way. There is no single concept as such, and we can bring up a lot of different definitions, and practitioners would use it in multiple ways depending on their fields. But I think, there is a kind of commitment towards open access, the notion of some kind of responsibility to a public, the idea that you can have access to data and to methodologies, and that it is published in a format that other people have access to, and also there is a certain democratic value that is implicit in all of these constructions of the open: open society, open access, open science, etc. And that is really linked to a notion of a kind of liberalism that the public has a right, and indeed has a need to understand.  And to understand in order to be the kind of citizen that can make decisions themselves about science. So in many ways it is a legitimate discourse, it is a linked and legitimating discourse about science itself, and it is a way of presenting science as having a value to society.

KS:  But is that justified, do you agree with this concept? Or do you rather look at it critically?

DB: Well, I am a critical theorist. So, for me these kinds of concepts are never finished. They always have within them embedded certain kinds of values and certain kinds of positions. And so for me it is an interesting concept and I think "open science" is interesting in that it emerges at a certain historical juncture, and of course with the notion of a "digital age" and all the things that have been talked about here at the re:publica, everyone is so happy and so progressive and the future looks so bright – apparently...

KS: Does it?

DB: Yes, well, from the conference perspective, because re:publica is a technology conference, there is this whole discourse of progress – which is kind of an American techno-utopian vision that is really odd in a European context – for me anyway. So, being a critical theorist, it does not necessarily mean that I want to dismiss the concept, but I think it is interesting to unpick the concept and see how it plays out in various ways. In some ways it can be very good, it can be very productive, it can be very democratic, in other ways it can be used for example as a certain legitimating tool to get funding for certain kinds of projects, which means other projects, which are labelled "closed", are no longer able to get funded. So, it is a complex concept, it is necessarily "good" or "bad".

KS: So, not saying ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but looking at the dark side of say openness, where do you see the limits? Or where do you see problem zones?

DB: Well, again, to talk about the "dark side," it is kind of like Star Wars or something. We have to be very careful with that framework, because the moment you start talking about the dark side of the digital, which is a current, big discussion going on, for example, in the dark side of the digital humanities, I think it is a bit problematic. That is why thinking in terms of critique is a much better way to move forward. So for me, what would be more interesting would be to look at the actual practices of how open science is used and deployed. Which practitioners are using it? Which groups align themselves with it? Which policy documents? And which government policies are justified by rolling back to open science itself? And then, it is important to perform a kind of genealogy of the concept of "open science" itself. Where does it come from? What is it borrowing from? Where is the discussion over that term? Why did we come to this term being utilised in this way? And I think that then shows us the force of a particular term, and places it within an historical context. Because open science ten years ago may have meant one thing, but open science today might mean something different. So, it is very important we ask these questions.

KS: All right. And are there any open science projects that come to mind, spontaneously, right now?

DB: I'm not sure they would brand themselves as "open science" but I think CERN would be for me a massive open science project, and which likes to promote itself in these kinds of ways. So, the idea of a public good, publishing their data, having a lot of cool things on their website the public can look at, but ultimately, that justification for open science is disconnected because, well, what is the point of finding the Higgs Boson, what is the actual point, where will it go, what will it do? And that question never gets asked because it is open science, so the good of open science makes it hard for us to ask these other kinds of questions. So, those are the kinds of issues that I think are really important. And it is also interesting in terms of, for example, there was an American version of CERN which was cancelled. So why was CERN built, how did open science enable that? I mean, we are talking huge amounts of money, large amounts of effort, would this money have been better transferred to solving the problem of unemployment, you know, we are in a fiscal crisis at the moment, a financial catastrophe and these kinds of questions get lost because open science itself gets divorced from its political economic context.

KS: Yes. But interesting that you say that within open science certain questions are maybe not that welcome, so actually, it seems to be at certain places still pretty closed, right?

DB: Well, that is right, open itself is a way of closing down other kinds of debates. So, for example, in the programming world open source was promoted in order not to have a discussion about free software, because free software was just too politicised for many people. So using the term open, it was a nice woolly term that meant everything to a lot of different people, did not feel political and therefore could be promoted to certain actors, many governments, but also corporations. And people sign up to open source because it just sounds – "open source, yes, who is not for open source?" I think if you were to ask anyone here you would struggle to find anybody against open source. But if you ask them if they are for free software a lot of people would not know what it is. That concept has been pushed away. I think the same thing happens in science by these kinds of legitimating discourses. Certain kinds of critical approaches get closed down. I think you would not be welcomed if at the CERN press conference for the Higgs boson you would put up your hand and ask: "well actually, would it not have been better spending this money on solving poverty?" That would immediately not be welcomed as a legitimate line of questioning.  

KS: Yes, right. Okay, so do you think science is already open, or do we need my openness? And if so, where?

DB: Well, again, that is a strange question that assumes that I know what "open" is. I mean openness is a concept that changes over time. I think that the project of science clearly benefits from its ability to be critiqued and checked, and I do not necessarily just want to have a Popperian notion of science here – it is not just about falsification – but I think verification and the ability to check numbers is hugely important to the progress of science. So that dimension is a traditional value of science, and very important that it does not get lost. Whether or not rebranding it as open science helps us is not so straightforward. I am not sure that this concept does much for us, really. Surely it is just science? And approaches that are defined as "closed" are perhaps being defined as non-science.

KS: What has the internet changed about science and working in research?

DB: Well, I am not a scientist, so –   

KS: - as in science, as in academia. Or, what has the internet changed in research?

DB: Well, this is an interesting question. Without being too philosophical about it I hope, Heidegger was talking about the fact that science was not science anymore, and actually technology had massively altered what science was. Because science now is about using mechanisms, tools, digital devices, and computers, in order to undertake the kinds of science that is possible. So it becomes this entirely technologically driven activity. Also, today science has become much more firmly located within economic discourse, so science needs to be justified in terms of economic output, for example. It is not just the internet and the digital that have introduced this, there are larger structural conditions that I think that are part of this. So, what has the Internet or the web changed about science? One thing is allowing certain kinds of scientism to be performed in public. And so you see this playing out in particular ways, certain movements – really strange movements – have emerged that are pro-science and they just seek to attack people they see as anti-science. So, for example, the polemical atheist movement led by Richard Dawkins argues that that it is pro-science and anyone who is against it is literally against science – they are anti-science. This is a very strange way of conceptualising science. And some scientists I think are very uncomfortable with the way Dawkins is using rhetoric, not science, to actually enforce and justify his arguments. And another example is the "skeptics" movement, another very "pro-science" movement that has very fixed ideas about what science is. So science becomes a very strong, almost political philosophy, a scientism. I am interested in exploring how digital technologies facilitate a technocratic way of thinking: a certain kind of instrumental rationality, as it were.

KS: How open is your research, how open is your work? Do you share your work in progress with your colleagues?

DB: Well, as an academic, sharing knowledge is a natural way of working – we are very collaborative, go to conferences, present new work all the time, and publish in a variety of different venues. In any case, your ability to be promoted as an academic, to become a professor, is based on publishing, which means putting work out there in the public sphere which is then assessed by your colleagues. So the very principles of academia are about publishing, peer review, and so on and so forth. So, we just have to be a bit careful about the framing of the question in terms of: "how 'open' is your work?", because I am not sure how useful that question is inasmuch as it is too embedded within certain kinds of rhetorics that I am a little bit uncomfortable with. So the academic pursuit is very much about sharing knowledge – but also knowledge being shared.

KS: Okay. I was referring to, of course, when you do work and when you have completed your research you want to share it with others because that is the point of doing the research in the first place, to find something out and then to tell the world look this is what I found out, right?

DB: Possibly. No.

KS: No?

DB: This is what I am saying. I mean –

KS: I mean, of course in a simplified way.

DB: Well, disciplines are not there to "tell the world". Disciplines are there to do research and to create research cultures. What is the point of telling the world? The world is not necessarily very interested. And so you have multiple publics – which is one way of thinking about it. So one of my publics, if you like, is my discipline, and cognate disciplines, and then broader publics like re:publica and then maybe the general public. And there are different ways of engaging with those different audiences. If I was a theoretical physicist for example, and I publish in complex mathematical formulae,  I can put that on the web but you are not really going to get an engagement from a public as such. That will need to be translated. And therefore maybe you might write a newspaper article which translates that research for a different public. So, I think it is not about just throwing stuff on the web or what have you. I think that would be overly simplistic. It is also about translation. So do I translate my research? Well I am doing it now. I do it all the time. So, I talk to Ph.D. students and graduates, that is part of the dissemination of information, which is, I think really what you are getting at. How do you disseminate knowledge?

KS: Exactly. And knowledge referring not only to knowledge that is kind of settled and finished, you know, I have come to this conclusion, this is what I am sharing, but also knowledge that is in the making, in the process, that was what I was referring to.

DB: Sure, yes. I mean, good academics do this all the time. And I am talking particularly about academia here. I think good academics do research and then they are teaching and of course these two things overlap in very interesting ways. So if you are very lucky to have a good scholar as a professor you are going to benefit from seeing knowledge in the making. So that is a more general question about academic knowledge and education. But the question of knowledges for publics, I think that is a different question and it is very, very complex and you need to pin down what it is you want to happen there. In Britain we have this notion of the public engagement of science and that is about translation. Let’s say you do a big research project that is very esoteric or difficult to understand, and then you write a popular version of it – Stephen Hawking is a good example of this – he writes books that people can read and this has major effects beyond science and academia itself. I think this is hugely important, both in terms of understanding how science is translated, but also how popular versions of science may not themselves be science per se.

KS: So, what online tools do use for your research?

DB: What online tools? I do not use many online tools as such. I mean I am in many ways quite a traditional scholar, I rely on books – I will just show you my notes. I take notes in a paper journal and I write with a fountain pen which I think is a very traditional way of working. The point is that my "tools" are non-digital, I hardly ever digitise my notes and I think it is interesting to go through the medium of paper to think about the digital, because digital tools seem to offer us solutions and we are very caught up in the idea that the digital provides answers. I think we have to pause a little bit, and paper forces you to slow down – that is why I like it. It is this slowing down that I think is really important when undertaking research, giving time to think by virtue of making knowledge embodied. Obviously, when it comes to collecting data and following debates I will use digital tools. Google of course is one of the most important, Google scholar and social media are really interesting tools, Gephi is very interesting social network analysis tool. I use Word and Excel as does pretty much everybody else. So the important issue is choosing which digital tools to use in which contexts. One thing I do much less of is, for example, the kind of programming were people write APIs and scrapers and all this kind of approaches, I have been involved in some projects doing that but I just do not have time to construct those tools, so I sometimes other people’s software (such as digital methods tools).


Notes, reproduced in Lewandowska and Ptak (2013)

KS: Okay, and how about organising ideas, do you do that on paper? Or for example do you use a tool for task managing?

DB: Always paper. If you have a look in my journal you can see that I can choose any page and there is an organisation of ideas going on here. For me it is a richer way to work through ideas and concepts  Eventually, you do have to move to another medium – you know I do not type my books on typewriters! – I use a word processor, for example. So eventually I do work on a computer, but by that point I think the structure is pretty much in my head but mediated through paper and ink – the computer is therefore an inscription device at the end of thinking. I dwell on paper, as it were, and then move over into a digital medium. You know, I do not use any concept mapping softwares, I just find them too clumsy and too annoying actually. 

KS: Okay, so what puts you off not using / not being tempted by using all those tools that offer you help and offer to make you more productive?

DB: Well, because firstly, I do not want to be more productive, and secondly I do not think they help. So the first thing I tell my new students, including new Ph.D. students, is: buy a note book and a pen and start taking notes. Do not think that the computer is your tool, or your servant. The computer will be your hindrance, particularly in the early stages of a Ph.D. It is much more important to carefully review and think through things. And that is actually the hardest thing to do, especially in this world of tweets and messages and emails – distractions are everywhere. There are no tweets in my book, thankfully, and it is the slowness and leisureliness that enables me to create a space for thinking. It is a good way of training your mind to pause and think before responding.

KS: So, you are saying that online tools kind of distract us from thinking and actually we think that we are doing a lot of stuff but actually we are not doing that much, right?

DB: Well, the classic problem is students that, for example, think they are doing an entirely new research project and map it all out in a digital tool that allows you to do fancy graphs, etc. – but they are not asking any kind of interesting research questions because they have not actually looked at the literature and they do not know the history of their subject. So it is very important that we do this, indeed some theorists have made the argument that we are forgetting our histories. And I think this is very true. The temptation to be in the future, to catch the latest wave or the latest trend affects Ph.D. students and academics as much as everybody else. And there are great dangers from chasing those kinds of solutions. Academia used to be about taking your time and being slow and considering things. And I think in the digital age academia’s value is that it can continue to do that, at least I hope so.

KS: Okay, but is there not a danger that if you say: okay, I am taking my time, I am taking my paper and my pen while others are hacking away, being busy using all those online tools, and in a way you could say okay that speeds up some part of research, at least when you draw out the cumulative essence of it, can you afford to invest the time?

DB: Well, it is not either or. It is both. The trouble is, I find anyway, with Ph.D. students, their rush to use the digital tools is to prevent them from having to use the paper. And, a classic example of this is Endnote. Everybody rushes to use Endnote because they do not like doing bibliographies. But actually, doing the bibliography by hand is one of the best things you can do because you learn your field’s knowledge, and you immediately recognise names because you are the one typing them in. Again this is a question of embodiment. When you leave that to a computer program to do it for you, laziness emerges – and you just pick and choose names to scatter over your paper. So, I am not saying you should not use such tools, I am saying that you should maybe do both. I mean, I never use these tools to construct bibliographies, I do them by hand because it encourages me to think through, what about this person are they really contributing, what do they add? And I think that is really important.

KS: Although, it probably should be more about, okay what do I remember this persons writing, and what have they contributed and not so much about whose name sounds fancy and which names do I need to drop here.

DB: Totally. Well, there has been some interesting work on this. Researchers have undertaken bibliometric analysis to show how references are used in certain disciplines and how common citations crop up again and again because they were used in previous papers and researchers feel the need to mention them again – so it becomes a name-checking exercise. Interestingly, few people go back and read these original canonical papers. So it is really important to read early work in a field, and place it within an historical context and trajectory, if one is to make sense of the present.

KS: A last question, I want to ask you about collaborative writing, do you write with other people and if so, how does that work? Where do you see advantages and where do you see possible trouble?

DB: Yes, I do. I have been through the whole gamut of collaborative writing, so I have seen both the failures and the successes. Collaborative writing is never easy, first and foremost. Particularly I think for humanities' academics, because we are taught and we are promoted on the basis of our name being on the front of a paper or on the cover of a book. This obviously adds its own complications, plus you know academics tend to be very individualistic, and there is always questions about -

KS: …in spite of all the collaboration, right?

DB: Indeed, yes of course, I mean that is just the academic way, but I think you need that, because writing a book requires you to sit in a room for months and months and months and the sun is shining, everyone else having fun and you are sitting there in a gloomy room typing away, so you need that kind of self-drive and belief, and that, of course, causes frictions between people. So I have tried various different methods of working with people, but one method I found particularly interesting is a method called booksprinting. It is essentially a time-boxed process where you come together with, let us say, four or five other scholars, you are locked in a room for the week (figuratively speaking!), except to sleep and you eat together, write together, concept map and develop a book, collaboratively. And then the book that is produced is jointly authored, there is no arguments over that, if you do not agree you can leave, but the point is that the collaborative output is understood and bought into by all the participants. Now, to many academics this sounds like absolute horror, and indeed when I was first asked if I would like to be involved I was sceptical – I went along but I was sure this was going to be a complete failure. However it was one of the most interesting collaborative writing processes I have been involved in. I have taken part in two book sprints to date (three including 2014). You are welcome to have a look at the first book, it is called New Aesthetic New Anxieties. It is amazing how productive those kinds of collaborative writing processes can be. But it has to be a managed process. So, do check out booksprinting, it is very interesting – see also Imaginary museums, Computationality & the New Aesthetic and On Book Sprints.

KS: Okay, but then for that to work what do you actually / from your experience, can you draw out factors that make it work?

DB: Sure. The most important factor is having a facilitator, so someone who does not write. And the facilitators role is to make sure that everybody else does write.  And that is an amazing ability, a key person, because they have to manage difficult people and situations – it is like herding cats. Academics do not like to be pushed, for example. And the facilitator I have worked with, he is very skilled at this kind of facilitation. The second thing is the kinds of writing that you do and how you do it. The booksprinting process I have been involved in has been very paper-based, so again there is a lot of paper everywhere, there are post-it notes, there is a lot of sharing of knowledge, and this is probably the bit you are going to find interesting: There is, nonetheless, a digital tool which enables you to write collaboratively. It is a cleverly written tool, it has none of the bells and whistles, it is very utilitarian and really focuses the writing process and working together. And, having seen this used out on two different booksprints, I can affirm that it does indeed help the writing process. I recommend you have a look.

KS: So, what is the tool?

DB: It is called Booktype. And Adam Hyde is the facilitator who developed the process of Book Sprints, and is also one of the developers of the software.

KS: Okay, interesting. Any questions? Or any question I did not ask you, anything you want to add that we have missed out, any final thoughts? Any questions for me?

DB: Yes, I do think that a genealogy of "open science" is important and your questions are really interesting because they are informed by certain assumptions about what open science is. In other words, there is a certain position you are taking which you do not make explicit, and which I find interesting. So it might be useful to reflect on how "open science" needs to critically unpacked further.

KS: Okay, great, thank you very much.

DB: My pleasure.

KS: Thanks.

DB: Thank you.






Interview archived at Zenodo. Transcript corrected from the original to remove errors and clarify terms and sentences. 

16 September 2014

On Shareable Media: What is the Apple Watch and what is it doing on your wrist?


Xerox Palo Alto Researchers using Tabs, Pads and Boards (Weiser 1991)
Three years ago I wrote a post about Apple's strategy towards digital devices entitled, Tabs, Pads and Boards: Why Apple et al will make a HDTV, which attempted to understand the way in which certain material forms and sizes were beginning to be sedimented in relation to media production and consumption. The aim of the article was to try to divine Apple's strategy in relation to dividing up screens by using the concepts of tabs, pads and boards, drawn from the work of Xerox Palo Alto Researchers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was not just to provide an analysis of Apple but also general trends in the technology industry by using Apple as an exemplar. One of the key considerations was how screens are entangled with space and the norms and values of usage which correspond to shared media practices. As such I originally thought that this framework might play out in the following fashion,

  • PERSONAL: 
    • Tabs: iPhone, iPod
  • SEMI-SHARED: 
    • Pads: iPad, iPad Mini, Macbook,
  • SHARED: 
    • Boards: AppleTV? 

As I stated in the original article, "the success of the iPad, and other new tablet-like devices, shows that what people want to be able to do with their media will become increasing important in both differentiating computational products, but also in structuring the technology and media industries", and I think that this still holds true in relation to trying to understand how computation is driving consumption habits and medial change. Indeed I argued,
Through a number of refinements and empirical experiments [Xerox] settled on range of device categories that seemed to be needed to negotiate a computational media landscape, dividing them into three classes: tabs, pads, and boards: tabs are 'inch-scale machines that approximate active Post-It notes', pads are 'foot-scale ones that behave something like a sheet of paper (or a book or a magazine)', and boards are 'yard-scale displays that are the equivalent of a blackboard or bulletin board' (Weiser 1991: 80). It does not take much imagination to see that Apple's strategy has followed the Xerox research to a remarkable degree, except for one glaring exception [of the TV screen] (Berry 2011).
I think it is useful to revisit some of the arguments I made in light of an extremely interesting new addition to the line up (and loss to some extent of the original iPod). This is exemplified by the Apple Watch, a personal, intimate technology that is part of the space called wearables, that has analysts, like Benedict Evans, trying to understand how they fit into everyday life practices (Evans 2014). Again, I argued, "Xerox team saw computation as a distributed system, not a self-contained device. That is, that they understood the importance of the network for computational media. This immediately transformed the kinds of information that each of these classes of technical device was able to use and transmit to others, and most importantly these devices were programmed to understand the importance of the real-time stream, above and beyond that of historical data and media. Indeed, they even referred to 'liveboards'".

I think that this framework becomes even more relevant in relation to the Apple line up in light of the revision of their technologies. Both because of the fact that the original framework of pads, tabs and boards, still seems to be a useful heuristic for thinking about this, but also because Apple has responded to user feedback with what I think is an intensification of the divisions that Xerox had developed. So in my earlier formulation I thought that the pad corresponded to the iPhone and iPod, but it seems that this technology was not intimate enough and actually is not as private/personal as originally envisioned. In fact in reworking these categories I think that the structure of experience is now spread across the devices in the following way,
  • PERSONAL: 
    • Tabs: iWatch
  • SEMI-SHARED: 
    • Pads: iPhone 6, iPhone 6+
  • SHARED: 
    • Boards: iPad Air/AppleTV/? 
Here I am also connecting these types to normative practices (personal, semi-shared, shared) in relation to usage of the devices. I think that this is important because the usage of the iPhone and iPod, which seemed likely extremely personal devices in their early iterations have in fact become increasing public and sharable, albeit not as public as a TV screen. This has been magnified by the increase in display size of both new models of the iPhone 6, now sized at 4.7" and 5.5" (up from the iPhone 5's 4" display and the iPhone 4's 3.5" display). The iPhone 6/+ is now also a wallet, which needs to be "displayed" to purchase goods etc, but also the screen size is more amenable to sharing information (who hasn't take a photo and then passed their phone around a group, for example). 

The way in which the Apple Watch has pushed all the devices up this framework, points back to the original formulation of the tab at Xerox, as an inch-scale machine, and which can transmit extremely personal and even intimate information to the user without others being aware. Here, I am thinking of the new "taptic engine" which can transmit discrete vibrations and "taps" through haptic technology to the wrist. Together with nice touches like social media sharing of picture and messages, not to mention the ability to send your heartbeat to a friend. 

The Apple Watch functions as a sophisticated personal GPS, giving directions and routes through haptic feedback as discreet taps for turn left, turn right. Here, there are links to notions of a transitional object that mediates movement between different kinds of spaces, home to public space, place to place and around an unfamiliar location or city. Of course, the Apple Watch still enables looking at photos, listening to music (via bluetooth headphones), voice-messaging, and voice-operated commands using Siri which makes it potentially a very intimate repository of identity and memories. But the Apple Watch is also very much a fashion device, and again will be strongly linked to personal self-identity and public signalling of status and what Bourdieu (1986) called distinction. 

This analysis still leaves the question of boards somewhat hanging. Should we expect the iPad to become increasingly board-like, very much a shared consumption and display device, or will Apple finally produce a form of television, perhaps a 4K or 5K version, that completes the spread of categories? I think that the work done at Xerox provides a powerful way of understanding the way in which our current devices are morphing in size and capability, and continues to give us at least a basic map of the future trajectories of sharable and shared media. For that reason the next couple of years will be interesting in relation to computational media, communications technologies and social networks and their continued penetration of everyday life. 




Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2011) Tabs, Pads and Boards: Why Apple et al will make a HDTV, Stunlaw, accessed 16/09/2014, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/tabs-pads-and-boards-why-apple-et-al.html

Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction. London: Routledge.

Evans, B. (2014) Ways to think about watches, accessed 16/09/2014, http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2014/9/15/ways-to-think-about-watches

Weiser, M. (1991) The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American, accessed 18/04/2011, http://nano.xerox.com/hypertext/weiser/SciAmDraft3.html

28 August 2014

On Latour's Notion of the Digital


Bruno Latour at Digital Humanities 2014
Bruno Latour, professor at Sciences Po and director of the TARDE program (Theory of Actor-network and Research in Digital Environments), recently outlined his understanding of the digital in an interesting part of his plenary lecture at Digital Humanities 2014 conference. He was honest in accepting that his understanding may itself be a product of his own individuation and pre-digital training as a scholar which emphasised close-reading techniques and agonistic engagement around a shared text (Latour 2014). Nonetheless, in presenting his attempt to produce a system of what we might call augmented close-reading in the AIME system, he was also revealing about how the digital was being deployed methodologically and his notion of the digital's ontological constitution.[1]

Unsurprisingly, Latour's first move was to deny the specificity of the digital as a separate domain as such, highlighting both the materiality of the digital and its complex relationship with the analogue. He described both the analogue structures that underpin the digital processing that makes the digital possible at all (the materials, the specific electrical voltage structures and signalling mechanisms, the sheer matter of it all), but also the digital's relationship to a socio-technical environment. In other words, he swiftly moved away from what we might call the abstract materiality of the digital, its complex layering over an analogue carrier and instead reiterated the conditions under which the existing methodological approach of actor-network theory was justified – i.e. digital forms part of a network, is "physical" and material, requires a socio-techical environment to function, is a "complex function", and so on.

Slide drawn from Latour (2014)
It would be too strong, perhaps, to state that Latour denied the specificity of the digital as such, but rather through what we might unkindly call a sophisticated technique of bait and switch and the use of a convincingly deployed visualisation of what the digital "really" is, courtesy of an image drawn from Cantwell-Smith (2003) the digital as not-physical was considered to have been refuted. Indeed, this approach to the digital echoes his earlier statements from 1997 about the digital, such that Latour argues,[2]
I do not believe that computers are abstract... there is (either) 0 and (or) 1 has absolutely no connection with the abstractness. It is actually very concrete, never 0 and 1 (at the same time)... There is only transformation. Information as something which will be carried through space and time, without  deformation, is a complete myth. People who deal with the technology will actually use the practical notion of transformation. From the same bytes, in terms of 'abstract encoding', the output you get is entirely different, depending on  the medium  you use. Down with information (Lovink and Schultz 1997).
This is not a new position for Latour, indeed in earlier work he has stated "actually there is nothing entirely digital in digital computers either!" (original emphasis, Latour 2010a). Whilst this may well be Latour's polemical style getting rather out of hand, it does raise the question about what it is that is "digital" for Latour and therefore how this definition enables him to make such strong claims. One is tempted to suppose that it is the materiality of the 0 and 1s that Cantwell Smith's diagram points towards that enables Latour to dismiss out of hand the complex abstract digitality of the computer as an environment, which although not immaterial, still is located through a complex series of abstraction layers which actually do enable programmers to work and code in an abstract machine disconnected in a logical sense from the materiality of the underlying silicon. Indeed, without this abstraction within the space of digital computers there could be none of the complex computational systems and applications that are built today on abstraction layers. Here space is deployed both in a material sense as the shared memory abstracted across both memory chips and the hard disk (which itself may be memory chips) and as a metaphor for the way in which the space of computation is produced through complex system structures that enable programmers to work as programmers working within a notionally two-dimensional address space that is abstracted onto a multidimensional structure.

The Digital Iceberg (Berry 2014)
In any case, whilst our attention is distracted by his assertion, Latour moves to cement his switch by making the entirely reasonable claim that the digital lies within a socio-technical environment, and that the way to study the digital is therefore to identify what is observable of the digital. This he claims are "segments of trajectories through distributed sets of material practice only some of which are made visible through digital traces", thus he claims the digital is digital less as a domain and more as a set of practices. This approach to studying the digital is, of course, completely acceptable, providing one is cognisant of the way in which the digital in our post-digital world resembles the structure of an iceberg, with only a small part ever visible to everyday life – even to empirical researchers (see diagram above).  Otherwise, ethnographic approaches which a priori declare the abstractness of the digital as a research environment illegitimate, lose the very specificity of the digital that their well-meaning attempt to capture the materiality of the digital calls for. Indeed, the way in which the digital through complex processes of abstraction is then able to provide mediators to and interfaces over the material is one of the key research questions to be unpacked when attempting to get a handle on the increasing proliferation of the digital into "real" spaces. As such, ethnographic approaches will only ever be part of a set of research approaches for the study of the digital, rather than, as Latour claims, the only, or certainly most important research methodology.

This is significant because as the research agenda of the digital is heightened, in part due to financial pressures and research grants deployed to engage with digital systems, but also the now manifest presence of the digital in all aspects of life, and hence the deployment of methodological and theoretical positions on how such phenomena should be studied. Should one undertake digital humanities or computational social science? Digital sociology or some other approach such as actor-network theory? In his claim that "the more thinking and interpreting becomes traceable, the more humanities could merge with other disciplines" reveals the normative line of reasoning that (digital) humanities specificity as a research field could be usurped or supplemented by approaches that Latour himself thinks are better at capturing the digital (Latour 2014). Indeed, Latour claims in his book, Modes of Existence, that his project, AIME, "is part of the development of something known by the still- vague term 'digital humanities,' whose evolving style is beginning to supplement the more conventional styles of the social sciences and philosophy" (Latour 2013: xx).

To legitimate the claim of Latour's flavour of actor-network theory as a research approach to the digital, he refers to Boullier's (2014) work, Pour des sciences social de çéme génération, that there have been three ages of social context, with the latest emerging from the rise of digital technologies and the capture of digital traces they make possible. They are,
Age 1: Statistics and the idea of society 
Age 2: Polls and the idea of opinion 
Age 3: Digital traces and the idea of vibrations (quoted in Latour 2014).
Here, vibration follows from the work of Gabriel Tarde in 1903 who referred to the notion of "vibration" in connection to an empirical social science of data collection, arguing that,
If Statistics continues to progress as it has done for several years, if the in-formation which it gives us continues to gain in accuracy, in dispatch, in bulk, and in regularity, a time may come when upon the accomplishment of every social event a figure will at once issue forth automatically, so to speak, to takeits place on the statistical registers that will be continuously communicatedto the public and spread abroad pictorially by the daily press. Then, at every step, at every glance cast upon poster or newspaper, we shall be assailed, asit were, with statistical facts, with precise and condensed knowledge of allthe peculiarities of actual social conditions, of commercial gains or losses, of the rise or falling off of certain political parties, of the progress or decay of a certain doctrine, etc., in exactly the same way as we are assailed when weopen our eyes by the vibrations of the ether which tell us of the approach or withdrawal of such and such a so-called body and of many other things of a similar nature (Tarde 1962: 167–8).
This is the notion of vibration Latour deploys, although he prefers the notion of sublata (similar to capta, or captured data) rather than vibration. For Latour, the datascape is that which is captured by the digital and this digitality allows us to view a few segments, thus partially making visible the connections and communications of the social, understood as an actor-network. It is key here to note the focus on the visibility of the representation made possible by the digital, which becomes not a processual computational infrastructure but rather a set of inscriptions which can be collected by the keen-eyed ethnographer to help reassemble the complex socio-technical environments that the digital forms a part of. The digital is, then, a text within which are written the traces of complex social interactions between actants in a network, but only ever a repository of some of these traces.

Latour finishes his talk by reminding us that the "digital is not a domain, but a single entry into the materiality of interpreting complex data (sublata) within a collective of fellow co-inquirers". Reiterating his point about the downgraded status of the digital as a problematic within social research and its pacification through its articulation as an inscription technology (similar to books) rather than a machinery in and of itself, shows us again, I think, that Latour's understanding of the digital is correspondingly weak.

The use of the digital in such a desiccated form points to the limitations of Latour's ability to engage with the research programme of investigating the digital but also the way in which a theologically derived close-reading method derived from bookish practice may not be entirely appropriate for unpacking and "reading" computational media and software structures.[3] It is not that the digital does not leave traces, as patently it does, rather it is that these traces are encoded in such a form, at such quantities and high-resolutions of data compression that in many cases human attempts to read this information inscription directly are fruitless, and instead require the mediation of software, and hence a double-hermeneutic which places human researchers twice (or more) removed from the inscriptions they wish to examine and read.  This is not to deny the materiality of the digital, or of computation itself, but certainly makes the study of such matter and practices much more difficult than the claims to visibility that Latour presents. It also suggests that Latour's rejection of the abstraction in and of computation that electronic circuitry makes possible is highly problematic and ultimately flawed.



Notes

[1] Accepting the well-designed look of the website that contains the AIME project, there can be no disputing the fact that the user experience is shockingly bad. Not only is the layout of the web version of the book completely unintuitive but the process of finding information is clumsy and annoying to use. One can detect the faint glimmer of a network ontology guiding the design of the website, an ontology that has been forced onto the usage of the text rather than organically emerging from use, indeed the philosophical inquiry appears to have influenced the design in unproductive ways. Latour himself notes: "although I have learned from studying technological projects that innovating on all fronts at once is a recipe for failure, here we are determined to explore innovations in method, concept, style, and content simultaneously" (Latour 2013: xx). I have to say that unfortunately I do think that there is something rather odd about the interface that means that the recipe has been unsuccessful. In any case, it is faster and easier to negotiate the book via a PDF file than through the web interface, or certainly it is better to keep ready to hand the PDF or the paper copy when waiting for the website to slowly grind back into life. 
[2] See also, Latour stating: "the digital only adds a little speed to [connectivity]. But that is small compared to talks, prints or writing. The difficulty with computer development is to respect the little innovation there is, without making too much out of it. We add a little spirit to this thing when we use words like universal, unmediated or global. But if way say that, in order to make visible a collective of 5 to 10 billion people, in the long history of immutable mobiles, the byte conversion is adding a little speed, which favours certain connections more than others, than this seems a reasonable statement" (Lovink and Schultz 1997).
[3] The irony of Latour (2014) revealing the close reading practices of actor-network theory as a replacement for the close reading practices of the humanities/digital humanities is interesting (see Berry 2011). Particularly in relation to his continual reference to the question of distant reading within the digital humanities and his admission that actor-network theory offers little by way of distant reading methods. Latour (2010b) explains "under André Malet’s guidance, I discovered biblical exegesis, which had the effect of forcing me to renew my Catholic training, but, more importantly, which put me for the first time in contact with what came to be called a network of translations – something that was to have decisive influence on my thinking... Hence, my fascination for the literary aspects of science, for the visualizing tools, for the collective work of interpretation around barely distinguishable traces, for what I called inscriptions. Here too, exactly as in the work of biblical exegesis, truth could be obtained not by decreasing the number of intermediary steps, but by increasing the number of mediations" (Latour 2010b: 600-601, emphasis removed).



Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2011) Understanding Digital Humanities, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cantwell Smith, B. (2003). Digital Abstraction and Concrete Reality. In Impressiones, Calcografia Nacional, Madrid.

Latour, B. (2010a) The migration of the aura or how to explore the original through its fac similes, in Bartscherer, T. (ed.) Switching Codes, University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (2010b) Coming out as a philosopher, Social Studies of Science, 40(4) 599–608.

Latour, B (2013) An inquiry into modes of existence : an anthropology of the moderns, Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2014) Opening Plenary, Digital Humanities 2014 (DH2014), available from http://dh2014.org/videos/opening-night-bruno-latour/

Lovink, G. and Schultz, P. (1997) There is no information, only transformation: An Interview with Bruno Latour, available from http://thing.desk.nl/bilwet/Geert/Workspace/LATOUR.INT

Tarde, G. (1903/1962) The Laws of Imitation, New York, Henry Holt and Company

06 June 2014

The Post-Digital Ornament


This post is part of a presentation I gave at the Matter – Materials – Materiality – Materialism  (4M) conference organised by Dr Iris van der Tuin and Dr Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Utrecht University, 5th June 2014. 


The Tiller Girls
I now want to turn to think about the notion of the “post-digital ornament”. This is part of a project that looks to interrogate both the original theoretical work of the early critical theory literature, but also explore their concepts and ideas in light of computation and the post-digital condition. There is a need to critically think through the implications of computational imaginaries, particularly hegemonic representations of the digital – “post-digital aesthetics”, “new aesthetic”, “pixels”, “sound waves”, “interfaces”, “surface”, and so forth. This is new work I am exploring through a re-reading of first generation critical theorists and draws on Siegfried Kracauer’s writing on The Mass Ornament (1927) and related writings (Kracauer 1995).

As the historical distinction between the digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred, so the idea that the digital presupposes an experiential and technical disjuncture that makes less and less sense. So in developing a critical approach to the digital by definition required the explicit recognition that the digital itself needed to be historicised. Perhaps today it is better to talk about the need to think in terms of “post-digital objects”. Thus computation becomes spatial in its implementation, embedded within the environment, in the body, and in society. Computation is part of the texture of life itself which can be walked around, touched, manipulated and interacted with in a number of ways and means. So "being online" or "being offline" is now anachronistic, with our always-on smart devices, tablets and hyper-connectivity, as indeed is the notion that we have "digital" and "analogue" worlds that are disconnected. Today the digital is hegemonic, and as such is entangled with everyday life and experience in a highly complex, messy and difficult to untangle way that is different from previous instantiations of the digital. The notion of the "post-digital" helps to give us a critical purchase on this moment, pointing towards the differences in this new post-digital condition, but also provides a critical way into thinking the new hegemonic form of the digital. Critical theory can contribute to this critique of the digital, and this post is an exploration of the critical project of the twentieth century, in order to orient and inform a critical purchase on the computational. 

Kracauer wrote that we must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is the major events which have the most decisive influence on us. We are much more deeply and continuously influenced by what he called "the tiny catastrophes that make up daily life". Such that we need a consistent, interdisciplinary attempt to articulate the material construction of a historically specific social reality. That is, a focus on the impoverished but potentially revelatory landscape of everyday life. He argues that the position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. These surface-level expressions provide access to the state of things, because through their organisation computationally, aesthetically, elements that were “strewn helter-skelter” suddenly become meaningfully related.

For Kracauer the ornamental patterns produced by groups of dancers, for example, are the aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires (see above for an example of the Tiller Girls). The mass ornament is not, though, simply a superstructural reflection of the prevailing mode of production. Rather Kracauer reads the geometry of human limbs as an ambivalent historico-philosophical allegory, insisting they are also a mise-en-scene of disenchantment. Thus, the mass ornament manifests progressive potential as the representation of a new type of collectivity organised not according to bonds of a community but as a social mass of functionally linked individuals.

The landscape from above
The post-digital ornament similarly resembles aerial photography of landscapes and cities in that it does not emerge out of the interior of the given conditions, but rather appears above them – granting a distant reading of culture, society and everyday life. In the midst of a world which has become blurred and ungraspable, the post-digital ornament becomes a primary element, a cultural analytics that provides connection and a sense of cohesion in a fragmentary digital experience. The relation to the post-digital ornament is an aesthetic mode, and the ornament becomes an end in itself – via data visualisations, interfaces, surfaces.


So the post-digital ornament consists of lines and circles, like in Euclidean geometry, but also waves and spirals. These formations are still in some sense opaque, composed as they are according to the dictates of a rationality that sacrifices meaning for the sake of an abstract unity of reified elements. The post-digital ornament suspends the opposition of the merely decorative applied ornament and the functional structure.

3D Alignment Forms. Animation of dancer's traceforms
in One Flat Thing, reproduced mapped to 3D space.
Thus producing both an ornamentation of function and a functionalization of ornament. Thus, by critically examining the very superficiality of the post-digital ornament as a surface, one can further explore the computational practices that underwrite and mediate this affinity with the surface. That is to look at how a spatial continuum devoid of both time and meaning is produced. Reading algorithms, for example, as material expressions of a particular historical condition. This has been explored by Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company project which aims to create a large set of data visualization tools for understanding and analyzing the interlocking systems of organization in the choreography of William Forsythe's "One Flat Thing.[1] These dances were quantified through the collection of data and transformed into a series of objects – that they call "synchronous objects" and we might think of as an example of the post-digital ornament – that work in harmony to explore those choreographic structures, reveal their patterns, and re-imagine them through data visualisation techniques. In some senses this is the de-temporalisation of movement, creating a spatial map formed by the aggregate of dancers' movements. The post-digital ornament is also gestured towards by the artist, Natalie Bookchin, in her installation and video, Mass Ornament, she writes,
In Mass Ornament a mass dance is constructed from hundreds of clips from YouTube of people dancing alone in their rooms... Today, YouTube dancers, alone in their rooms performing a routine that is both extremely private and extraordinarily public, reflect a post-Fordist era. Millions of isolated spectator/workers in front of their screens move in formation and watch dancers moving in formation alone in their rooms, also in front of their screens (Bookchin 2009).
We might say that the algorithm that instantiates the post-digital ornament captures the remnants that history has left behind, the same mere nature that appears in the algorithm is thriving in the reality of the society created by capitalist rationality. For example, in new social obsessions with consumption and conspicuous compensatory leisure, sedimented issues of gender, or in politics and norms. The post-digital ornament serves to train people in those forms of perceptions and reactions which are necessary for any interaction with apparatuses. Indeed, the representational practices of the post-digital ornament display an elective affinity with the surface, not the knowledge of an original but the spatial configuration of an instant. In some sense, the post-digital ornament stage nature and everyday life as the negativity of history. 

It is clear that we have an urgent task to mobilise critical philosophy towards contestations and interpretation of our present historical condition as manifested in computation. As computation penetrates more deeply into our everyday life and increasingly mediates our social and personal lives, the task becomes ever more urgent. For me this involves a critical re-reading of key theoretical and philosophical work in relation to developing concepts in a theoretical register but also to provide a means for developing empirical work in relation to computational society.

This leads to a theoretical and sociological challenge in terms of how critical theory can be deployed to think through this historical constellation. Questions of aesthetics, politics, economics, society and the everyday need to be reflected on in relation to the computation precisely because of the penetration of computation into all aspects of human life. This is a call to more rigorous scholarship in relation to the post-digital but also towards a praxis linked to critical practice and a critical approach to the aesthetic of computation and its mediating role both in and through computation.


Notes

[1] I would like to thank Maaike Bleeker for introducing me to these works at the 4M conference in Utrecht, 5th June 2014. 

Bibliography

Bookchin, N. (2009) Mass Ornament, accessed 6 June 2014, http://bookchin.net/projects/massornament.html

Kracauer, S. (1995) The Mass Ornament, Harvard University Press. 



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