Watson Talk – Ownership and Online Composition

“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

Watson Talk Slides

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 digital spaces, 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.

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 through his poetry. They are authored locales. Phrased another way, one can visit the spaces where he allegedly traveled while writing Childe Harolde Pilgrimage, but those irl locations—the rocks, the rivers, the trees, the moss-laced logs—all of these differ from the locations that we envision when reading or hearing his poetry—nor are they constant over time, like the printed word. Language both signifies and creates locales.

Similarly, I think that the quality of born-digital space forces us to look at space as an ephemeral, emergent gathering. Websites may have a url pinning them down and servers in world sucking up power and taking up space, but we largely experience them more subjectively. In his later work, Martin Heidegger discusses the notions of “location” (or “locale”) and “space.” As he writes in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”:

“The location is not already there before the bridge is. Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can be occupied by something. One of them proves to be a location, and does so because of the bridge. Thus the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.”

The bridge in this example, by being constructed, is opening a “location,” a significant site where different elements can gather and be. One can look at the bridge as a concrete space of possibility, a site that can direct meaning at some level in ways that an unmarked, undeveloped area cannot. Before the bridge exists, the area is just a “spot.” Things are happening in it, but nothing is built there. And with no building–or inscribed significance, like a park or childhood memory–the place feels anonymous.

On the one hand, this is obvious, and Heidegger’s obscure thinking may over-complicate the matter. But I think it gets at something important: how construction creates a fundamentally new reality at a site. Before the bridge, the space was simply “nature” or a river bend. Now, the bridge may have a name. It serves a human purpose for commerce. Lovers add locks to it. It may be in a film. It may represent a certain style or culture. It interacts with the nonhuman environment, deflecting rain and providing shelter for animals.

In Heidegger’s thought, a “thing,” like a bridge, is not an inert site of stone and steel. Drawing from the older use of thing in Icelandic and Germanic language, “Ting” and “Ding” respectively, thing is a site for an assembly, a gathering of people to reach decisions. With thinkers like Bruno Latour and Thomas Rickert picking up on this use more recently, I think we can look at Internet architecture with a similar dynamism.

A site is often even more of a “thing,” in this sense, than Heidegger’s bridge. It is a place for gathering. And in that gathering, a fundamentally location-attuned way of being arises through the interplay of different forces. As Nancy Baym argues in “The Emergence of On-Line Community,” online communities are emergent rather than dictated. As she writes, “Social organization emerges in a dynamic process of appropriation in which participants invoke structures to create meanings in ways that researchers or system engineers may not foresee.” Participants inherent certain structures or systems, Baym points out, and users dwell in and add to these initial elements to construct social practices and communal spaces. Location emerges. The community of individual authors writes and is written by the location.

But I want to turn, particularly, to authorship.

As Jessica Reyman argues in “Authorship and Ownership,” such spaces are often “co-authored” by algorithms and multiple people. By drawing from user data—as they point, click, and brows the digital spaces—algorithms tailor adds, curate feeds, and allegedly cocoon users in “filter bubbles” of easy-to-consume content, all the while drawing meta data for marketing and research. Today, this data mining and site curation is commonplace, and though scandals brought by Cambridge Analytica and others have brought renewed scrutiny, Reyman offers an important perspective. She argues that users have a right to this data: they are the ones creating it, while corporations profit off it. This sort of free labor, sometimes fit under the term “playbor” abounds in the Internet. As Andrew Ross argues, “The social platforms, web crawlers, personalized algorithms, and other data mining techniques of recent years are engineered to suck valuable, or monetizable information out of almost every one of our online activities” (15).

The relationship between authorship and labor has had a pronounced history leading back to the Statute of Anne in 1710 and the tensions of “intellectual property.” The image of the gentlemanly author plucking inspiration from muses and native genius to create new ideas, taken down in print, remains a sticky one. Today, if one follows Reyman’s argument, we are all authors at some level, as our being-in-the-(digital)-world adds to that world, co-authoring these spaces through our content creation and meta-data. Considerable playbor takes place in the form of Instagram posts, linking to articles, fanfiction, videogame modding, and more. Indeed, part of the reason that videogame companies endure the cottage industry of streamers and walkthroughs is for the free publicity it provides, and it has been common place since the 90s to collect and re-release content created by fans for company profit. Turn-it-In also owns student work, creating a financial empire from the labor of student writers.

In the more material sense, in terms of dollars and cents, this is a problem, but I want to take it to a somewhat deeper level–first addressing the authoring on the other side.

As philosopher Daniel Estrada wrote in a Medium article on filter bubbles, “in a very deep sense, you are your bubble. The process of constructing a social identity is identical to the process of deciding how to act, which is identical again to the process of filtering and interpreting your world.” While I would argue that identity is more than “the process of deciding how to act,” a point that I reckon Estrada would likely recognize, I think it definitely plays a central role. Sartre put it best: “We are our choices.” Our choices have echoes, and sometimes those echoes etch our being–or how others view our being.

But Estrada goes on: “any constraints imposed on your filter are also constraints on your possibilities for action, constraints on the freedom of your decisions and the construction of your world. If you are your bubble, then any attempt to control or manipulate your bubble is likewise an attempt to control you.” As technology ethicist Tristan Harris puts it, you may get to decide what you eat in these platforms, but they provide the menu.

Again, this has implications as we consider our selfhood or identities. While for Kant, the self is largely insular, cognitive, sensory, and self-contained, thinkers continue to argue, from a Buddhist metaphysics of emptiness to Diane Davis in Inessential Solidarity and Thomas Rickert in Ambient Rhetoric that the self is more osmotic or relational. It is permeable and messy, bundled and blurry, oozy and diffuse, yet localized by language and materiality. As Rickert puts it, we don’t just live in a world, we are enworlded.

And here come the algorithms. These too, if you want to go this way, are part of us, and so is the digital pathways they “co-author” from our metadata. To use Kant’s term, this digital world informs–or possibly is–our phenomenological experience and the self that this experience informs. In many cases our digital selves are ourselves—networked and saturated by technology and the nameless bots and programs in the background. And as both Reyman and Estrada point to, we don’t really own, or fully understand, these algorithms. Eusong Kim has argued about trending, for example: “We don’t know why something trends. The algorithm is a locked secret, a “black box” (to the point where MIT professors have built algorithms attempting to predict trending tags). The Fineprint: Trending is visibility granted by a closed, private corporation and their proprietary algorithms.”

This leads me back to Reyman’s view on data and our ownership of it. As we live in a more English model of copyright, economics and law tend to steer the conversation. But as this digital composing infuses our lives, both the deliberate messages we send out and the co-authoring of our data, issues of ownership, autonomy, and originality come to the forefront—especially that of ownership. Who owns our data is not just an issue of privacy, but it is an existential one. As our being-in-the-world co-authors and becomes entangled with our personas and places online, so do our selves. Just as England wrestled with the intellectual labor and textual ownership of traditional authors, we face a world in which our own ideas and our own digital being has become monetized and divested from our hands. Despite efforts by Facebook and others to allow us to see our data or have more input on our privacy and feed, a fundamental structure of black-boxing already exists, persistent through law and custom, to own and profit from our online meanders and statuses—and filer our own experience and online localities.

As we make paths in this pathless wood, Facebook profits and shapes the woods around us.

Why I Don’t Buy the Arguments to Vote for Kavanaugh

This afternoon, the Senate–after weeks of rancor and the bathetic hem-hawing of folks like Flake–will vote in Kavanaugh as the Ninth Justice of the current Supreme Court. I should technically say that they “likely” or “all-but-certainly” will, but precision devalues the sheer force pushing confirmation. So, unless God himself smites the Capitol Monty-Python style, hello Chief Justice Kavanaugh.

I haven’t written here in a while, though I have been meaning to, and perhaps those now-unfinished posts may make their way up here. But like many, the Kavanaugh confirmation, long-since troublesome, has consumed my thinking the past two weeks after Ford’s accusations and subsequent testimony. Considered a referendum on the #MeToo movement, the debate over Kavanaugh certainly represents a crucible-rupturing focus on gender politics in an already fraught era. It has also brought up issues of judicial impartiality and temperment, the institutional credibility of the court, and the stability of centrist and liberal provisions eked out over the past decades.

All of these are important conversations, as are the testimonies of Ford and Kavanaugh, the political background of Kavanaugh, the procedural issues of the confirmation, the veracity of his two other accusers, and many more issues. However, I mainly want to focus on the arguments of those in favor of the Kavanaugh vote, as I see them.

I want to take these at face value, though I suspect like so much in this era, they lack the sincerity of their delivery. I do this knowing that it makes no difference. Having called public servants, donated to causes, talked with friends, and gone to protests–done all in my current power, in other words–I feel that it may at-best be an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, as a teacher and student of rhetoric, I think it’s important to look at the arguments that govern major political and policy decisions and define our country for our lifetimes and beyond.

As such, I see three main arguments, summarized and addressed below. And, yes, I am biased. I do not want Kavanaugh, but being biased does not preclude academic fairness. And frankly, I don’t think these arguments deserve that fairness, but many Americans (cough, Republicans) support him, so here we go.

Gif of woman shrugging tiredly with the phrase "Here we go" below

Continue reading “Why I Don’t Buy the Arguments to Vote for Kavanaugh”

Rhetorics of Winning

With the tax bill passing Friday being touted as a “win” by Republicans, despite potential blowback, I keep coming back to an idea I’ve been nursing for a few weeks now: winning in politics. Phrases like Trump’s “you’ll be tired of winning” and reporter’s “Republicans need a win” saturate public discourse, and I keep asking what “winning” means. Like most buzzwords,”winning” leaves much unsaid–and unthought–but it still exerts its influence. And in this case, “winning” isn’t a good thing. What I call a “rhetoric of winning,” this trend to frame things as “wins,” feels like a significant danger for our current American politics.

Winning immediately brings up positive images. Triumph. Trophies. Confetti. The climax of a sports movie when our underdog protagonists finally overcome the big, mean team.  But these positive feelings overlook two key things: opponents and win/loss binaries.

Continue reading “Rhetorics of Winning”

CCR 634: Comparative (Cultural) Rhetorics

The tension between more “objective” knowing and more “subjective” knowing has often followed me around. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of filter bubbles, as this post explores, but I think it also has more general connections, including to the task of comparative rhetoric from the readings.

Before diving into the readings, though, I wanted to start a bit where I generally come from: essentially, Kant and the question of metaphysics. With Kant, I’m always preoccupied with his argument that most knowledge is “synthetic” and therefore arrived at through experience, and furthermore, we experience things as phenomena through the “synthetic a priori”of our experience, not as the noumena of the “thing-in-itself.” I think this basic framework–that we never experience “Reality” except in a subjective sense–is productive beyond Kant, as one can layer up more lenses between the thing-in-itself and our experience of it. Language, culture, our prior experiences, cognitive biases, our senses, etc., color our perception, making the sort of transcendental knowledge of the Rationalists impossible. As Nietzsche put it, in Kaufmann’s translation, there is no “immaculate perception.”

And as someone who is trying to think about the world and “produce knowledge” (though the phrase knowledge production has always felt off to me), I am constantly faced with the ethics of knowledge. A certain hubris can come from a transcendent view of knowledge, as well as a potential violence. Even if one isn’t actually trying to produce a totalizing model for stuff or a transcendent theory, the deductive and inductive dance of explaining and knowing in most Western models still has a certain tendency to want to stretch beyond individual contexts.

And I think that’s where the readings come in: trying to find ways to ethically and responsibly theorize across different contexts, particularly different cultural and rhetorical ones.

Continue reading “CCR 634: Comparative (Cultural) Rhetorics”

Hello, 2017

“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” -Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I’ve never been a big New Year person. It’s position seems too arbitrary. Sometimes it fits, but often, like a poorly timed joke, it feels too late or too early, punctuating the calendar whether we want to celebrate it or not.

I think about other forms of time, like the slow waltz of geologic cycles or the Mayan Long Calendar’s b’ak’tun–the approximate equivalent of 144,000 years per cycle. I don’t mean to go full Rent, but the sense of days adding up to a pre-determined, arbitrarily assigned date feels a little bloodless to me. Abstract, even if its celestial and mathematical elegance has its own beauty. I appreciate the bringing-together mentality that each New Year offers, even though many countries don’t celebrate this crux between December 31st and January, but as an individual, I wonder if more valuable measurements exist.

Continue reading “Hello, 2017”

CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy

As Amy Wan highlights, citizenship is a messy word, a word that comes up in many discussions about writing but rarely gets interrogated or defined. It exists as a “ambient” term.

At its most reductive, it’s a legal status, as Wan points out. But it also has a cultural element infused with literacy. As Wan notes, “it [citizenship] is not simply a conferred legal status, but cultivated through a number of civil political, and social rights and obligations” (27).  Literacy training allows one to “cultivate” these abilities, letting people who lack literacy–like the immigrants whom Wan discusses–enter as “productive” members of society.

Here, once again, literacy instruction is tied up with gate keeping. Instructors of writing, as part of the ambient cohort of literacy training, do citizen training. And the roles of this citizen, while having many contradictory forms, closely align with economics in Wan’s view: “Through an emphasis on productivity and economic survival in literacy training, immigrants were taught the importance of literacy as a habit of citizenship and as a marker of productivity” (41). And this productivity was further aligned with the habit-training of literacy. “Good” citizens are not only literate and productive, but honest and clean.

And above all, this citizenship bore the odd paradox of becoming part of something–the state, the market, the culture, etc.–but had whil being individual. One chose to be productive, good-natured, and American, says the narrative, by pursuing literacy.

Continue reading “CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy”

CCR 711: Bodies and Webbed Worlds

Reading Kristen Lindgren’s “Bodies in Trouble,” I kept coming back to Heidegger’s distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-for-hand.” In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that people tend to encounter objects as ready-for-hand, meaning that we encounter them based on what they do or how we use them. He uses the example of the hammer. We encounter and look at hammers as a tool to “hammer,” not as an abstract object in itself.

Moreover, he argues, this object-defining function is grounded in a “world” of interrelations and definitions that help constitute “being-in-the-world.” For example, one couldn’t hammer without nails and boards, and one couldn’t build a house without the concept of “house,” and one may not need to make a house without nature’s capacity to storm. A world of relation webs out from this hammer, contextualizing its being.

But when ready-to-hand, the world of these interrelations and the hammer as an object recedes into the background and one sets to work.

This all changes once the hammer breaks. Suddenly it can no longer “hammer,” and it becomes an alien object in our hands, forcing us to reflect on what it “is.” This approaches Heidegger’s present-at-hand, when we look at an object in a more abstract, property-oriented way, like a scientist or theorist. In particular, Heidegger wants to critique the Cartesian tradition of looking at objects in abstract ways, outside of their more fundamental being as objects in the world, closely involved with our being.

But I’ve always been stuck on the breaking of the hammer.

Continue reading “CCR 711: Bodies and Webbed Worlds”

(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.


When I first grew self-conscious that friends come and go–breakups, fights, forgotten phone calls a part of life–I found Nietzsche’s short aphorism in The Gay Science called “Star Friendship” helpful. In it, possibly alluding to his rift with Wagner, Nietzsche describes, “We were friends and have become estranged.” Even more, they are now “earth enemies.”

Yet, as Nietzsche also writes, “There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path — let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.”

So it’s a question of scale. At the one level, chance meetings, fights, or enduring partnerships exist in a certain way. We experience and name them with a certain vocabulary. But further up, in some “invisible stellar orbit,” these connections gain a different timbre or pattern. Like looking at a character map of Middlemarch, certain once-tangled relationships and social shifts emerge  with network forces affecting broader social cohesion.

For example, a meeting may bring together two distinct groups that were independent before, forming a “huge component” to use the language of Easley and Kleinberg. Or, as Merton describes, the “Matthew effect” might shift the circulation of a text, with a well-known scientist getting more coverage than a newbie simply through his or her tug in a network.

And with current technology, both in terms of data mining and visualization, we can get a better sense of that “stellar” perspective. I think the question remains, however, with what to do with it and how we understand it. In particular, I think it should shift the way we look at agency, moving it from an egosystem to an ecosystem, i.e. thinking of ways that we fit into broader networks and can influence them in a networked way and not in a purely self-based way.

I guess a way you could phrase it is this: how much agency do I have as a node and a collection of nodes?

Continue reading “Networked”