IST 700: Locating and Drawing the Boundaries of Research

A few things struck me from the reading, in particular the messy boundaries (and lack thereof) between online and offline and the difficulty of mapping and bounding digital projects. These pose significant implications for conducting online research. For now, I was mainly thinking about how some of these readings are impacting how I look at my own research project.

A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.
A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.

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(Post)Demographics and Trends

Until this semester, I had not encountered the term “postdemographic.” First hearing it, I assumed it referenced the more individuated way that data collection could take place, putting less emphasis on the demographic that one belonged to and more emphasis on individuals themselves and what they did. In a sense, this understadning approaches the term, but Rogers completes it: “Postdemographics could be thought of as the study of the data of social networking platforms, and in particular, how profiling is or may be performed” (153).

Rogers also stresses the shift from the “biopolitical” to the “info-political,” explaining a shift from embodied attributes, like age and race, to the information that these bodies generate and consume. This explains a shift in focus on the data. Though the sites of data collection are not necessarily limited to “social networking platforms,” these sites tend to abound and automatically collect the sorts of data that postdemographics focuses on: taste, pop culture influences, political leanings, groups, associations, and the way that these may line up with people that you know or interact with.

These are the curated ads and Amazon book recomendations. The “you-might-also-likes” and “people-who-liked-this-also-likeds.” In my case, an odd mix of books on wine, Zen philosophy, critical theory, composition theory, and research methods.

Rogers also notes that many of these spaces, particularly in platforms like Facebook,  the space itself reaches out for us to detail our preferences and network our contacts and interests through pre-set categories like books and movies that we like or more open-ended notes. It wants our data, takes that data, and constructs our experience accordingly.

That, very roughly, introduces postdemographics.

Contrasting the postdemographic with demographic, I see a complication: how do demographics impact postdemographics? As the Pew research reports note, demographic issues, like age and gender, connect with who uses a platform. For example, Pinterist users tend to be women: 42% of women online users, compared with 12% of men. Also, wealth and access still play a role in usage, which are again traditional demographic categories.

These potential considerations have both ethical and practical implications. On the more ethical side, I think it forces us to look at the dangers of essentialism and the issues of representation. Demographics may have a link to postdemographics–with certain demographics tending to prefer certain media–but this trend does not necessary make a truism. It is just a trend. And when value judgements and hierarchies enter the equation, as the often do with taste, attention to the fragility and complications of trends becomes more important. One must check assumptions and sloppy reasoning all the more, as more potential connections get put on the table and our pattern-pushing brains have more to work with.

This points to larger issues of big data and postdemographic data more generally. Though “the garbage in garbage out” caveat is common when it comes to the data itself, it also has some connection to our interpretations. When making claims and synthesizing findings, research requires self-critical analysis of our own thinking and transparency in our reasoning. One can easily see connections that a correlation may draw, but as often noted, correlation does not equal causation.

In a similar way, similar interest does not mean similar postdemographic–or demographic. Just because I like Doc Martin doesn’t mean I like Dr. Who. And just because people who like classical music may have similar browsing habits, values, or memberships does not mean I do.

On the one hand, this is obvious. But its obviousness should not detract from its importance.

Accessible Materiality

Accessibility can be defined as the ability to use, enjoy, perform, work on, avail of, and participate in a resource, technology, activity, opportunity, or product at an equal or comparable level with others. Separate is not equal and before or after the fact is also not equal. In the context of technology and systems, accessibility at the interface level, not as a retrofit or add-on, is true accessibility; all other options are fixes and are intrinsically inferior to the primary access available to the able-bodied.” –Sushil K. Oswal, “Multimodality in Motion.

Continuing the topic of space from my last post, I was considering the role that the “material” or “materiality” more generally factors into the construction and engagement of digital space. In particular, I’ve been increasingly thinking about how disability gets constructed by the material, embodied, and social.

As I increasingly look at the assumptions implied in the material, I consider how the material constitutes certain practices and ways of being. For example, I think of Selfe and Selfe’s 2004 piece about the “politics of the interface” or Oudshoorn et al.’s case studies in “Configuring the Everybody” in which design goals, design teams, and assumptions–whether innovation or male experience–exclude people from the “everybody.”

The design of a digital space–how its constructed and organized–inform the how and the who of use. And though space gets encountered at an individual level, I argue that space can also order the larger systems and societies that engage these spaces. The same is true of technology and the other materials. As Arnold Pacey argues, for example, “technology-practice” involves “the application of scientific and other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organizations, living things and machines” (6; emphasis in original). These “ordered systems” are not just algorithms and circuitry, but social practice and potential practice are closely bound up in the possibility space of the material.

This connection can have important impacts for people with disabilities in our generally nondisabled society.

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Internet Spaces

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

-Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Starting off a reflection about social media with a quote from Byron about the solitude of nature seems counter intuitive. A “society, where none intrudes” clashes with the usual rhetoric surrounding the networked culture of social media and the digital, and the “lonely shore” and “pathless woods” probably lacks WiFi–or broadband.

But bringing in Byron highlights the paradox of place that the Internet and digital technology brings. We are networked selves, accessing the Internet in multiple ways from multiple places or portals, as our physical self continues to take up space and air “irl.” And much like the narrative locales of Romantic poetry, many digital spaces are constructed and emergent. They may have a url pinning them down, just as Byron’s saga traces the physical geography of Southern Europe, but Byron’s textual place–his “pathless woods” and roaring sea–arrive at us in ephemeral language. They are authored locales.

While I want to get into more concrete considerations of method, I want to pause initially and consider what “space” or “community” constitutes the subject of Internet inquiry.  More specifically, I think that the quality of born-digital space forces us to look at space as an ephemeral, emergent gathering, and this should affect our methods. As Richard Rogers argues in Digital Methods, our methods should “follow the medium.” For now, I want to reflect on what that medium is.

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Thought Germs, Filter Bubbles, and Virality

Sunday night, a friend and I ended up talking about the trolley problem, a thought experiment by Philippa Foot that aims at the  differences that minor changes can make in our moral calculations. While the problem itself is interesting, it mainly launched us toward a related topic: moral consensus and disagreement, i.e. what to do when what you think is “right” differs from what I think is “right.”

Though I didn’t mention it in the conversation, the debate brought me back to studying medical ethics, particularly the beliefs of Christian Science and Jehovah Witnesses. Christian Science says that diseases arise from sin and prayer provides the only solution. As one can expect, the reliance on spiritual healing does not always work, and in the case of children, the result can be tragic, with families getting prosecuted for child death. A similar death from belief occurs with Jehovah Witness, only by refusing blood transfusions instead of medicine at large.

Here, two things are particularly interesting. First, while many people will consider this a foolish, tragic loss of life, one must also consider it from their perspective: either a single, painful death or an eternity in damnation. From this belief system, the rejection of medicine is morally right. This does not condone the belief system, but only shows why the stakes are so high.

Second, many people may feel fine with letting the parent die from their beliefs, but the sticking point is the “innocent” child. In other words, you can lose your own life for your beliefs, but shouldn’t cost the lives of others. This fallout from belief challenges the libertarian bias that many Americans may feel: we are not as autonomous as we like to think and our beliefs affect our society and those around us.

These two elements–the persistence of radically different views and their affect on others–force one to examine the role of belief and the mechanisms of belief as a moral and ethical issue. In a sense it echoes Emmanuel Levinas: we are always in relation to one another and have a moral imperative to respect that relation.

Particularly, I want to consider the role of the Internet and Internet technology in this: how it might help and hinder the process of belief.

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Narrative Numbers

[T]hey fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind , another opportunity , and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modeled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe.

-Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 1, 985b

Much of what interests me in data mapping and data extraction in light of network maps, concept modeling, vector space modelling, etc., is that they are not only methods, but also metaphysics.

Dealing with a corpus is a bit like the Pre-Socratics trying to find the underlying something that comprises reality.  The big ideas–or Big Idea–that connects or threads the works together. The corpus may have alcoves and pockets, islands and peninsulas, but unity and commonality exists. Patterns exist.

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Here be Networks

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what a map is. As a child, I loved treasure maps, drawing them on tea-stained, sepia-toned sheets of crinkled computer paper. In such maps, a trail meandered through fantastical landscapes populated motifs I gleaned from kids books and pirate stories, starting from an arbitrary place and ending on an ornate X.

“Here be dragons,” I wrote over some hills, not knowing the cartographic history of the term, when map makers slapped it on the page to mark the unknowns. Castles and giants, towns, and mysterious lagoons pockmarked page after page. Such maps had no correspondence to reality.

When I got a little older, I got more scientific. I buried boxes in the yard and mapped the terrain of trees and bushes to show where they were. In scouts, I used a compass and topographic map. Watching Discovery Channel with friends, I read weather maps, learning their shifting symbols of pressure topographies, wind speeds, and fronts. In video games and history books I mapped out terrains and countries, borderlands and battlefields–both “real” and imaginary. And in music, I traced out correspondences between piano keys, tones, scales, music notation, chord structures, and auditory landscapes–relying on ear or memory to get a sense for how a piece mapped out, how it layered and piled together in a shifting set of tonalities and rhythms, loosely laced with emotion and allusion.

In school and in play, maps have saturated much of my life. Some are clear geographies, others are fictions. Some are abstracted topographies and a spattering of symbols, meant to make meaning or filter out noise. Some–especially these days–are notes dashed on within-reach pads, “maps” of ideas made of messy lines and bubbles that may prove indecipherable after a few days.

Throughout this journey, though, maps have felt somewhat secondary. They are means or aids, not ends. But revisiting mapping in the reading this week, as a word and a practice, threw me straight back to those early years sitting out in my parent’s garden, using my knees as a makeshift desk, pencil in hand, pensively sketching one.

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Reading without Principle

Along the banks of the Allegheny River on a tepid September day in 2009, a college freshman decided to read the complete works of Henry David Thoreau.

Needless to say, he never reached his goal.

Reading the entire corpus of an author is pretty difficult. Not only for the sheer volume it contains, but also for the access it requires, with some books relegated to expensive collections. It’s also a question of utility: Why read an entire author’s oeuvre, when you’ll probably forget most of it?

But in digital humanities, the use of technology allows a range of new practices–new “reading” and analysis–that makes this act a little more feasible. Franco Morretti’s “distant reading,” for example, can allow a scholar to sift through millions of texts, using different data-driven lenses to pry out patterns.

And while this ability to access large swaths of text is helpful in itself, technology can play with texts in other ways, highlighting certain words, collecting certain patterns, making visualizations. As Tanya Clemens points out, such methodologies “defamiliarize texts, making them unrecognizable in a way (putting them at a distance) that helps scholars identify features they might not otherwise have seen.” This defamiliarizing lies at the heart of literary scholarship, finding new ways to understand texts.

But for now, I want to get back to my freshman self, sitting on the riverbank, reading an old library book of Thoreau.

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