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.

Stardew Valley, Sorge, and Martin Heidegger

I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley lately. The pixel-graphics farm RPG has enjoyed a  one-year anniversary this past Feb. 26, but mostly I’ve found the game to be a bit of an escape as Syracuse’s nickel grey March and school’s looming deadlines deepen a seasonal depression.

For those of you who have not played Stardew Valley, the plot is simple. Inheriting your grandfather’s rustic farm in the bucolic Stardew Valley, you start with some lose coins and tools and gradually nurture the farm back to health, interacting with the community and the surrounding countryside–from mysterious woods, to mines, to the ocean–as you plant and harvest seeds, forage, mine, and care for animals. Like any RPG, you level up your skills, from crafting and combat, and build relationships with NPCs by giving gifts and completing small quests. The player can eventually get married and raise a family.

The game has some overlap with the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing series, placing the player as a caretaker enmeshed in a community. The simple music, pixel graphics, and winsome, quirky cut-scenes have their charm, and while the mechanics can get a bit grind-inducing (depending on one’s style and goals), the rhythm of rising, getting set for the day, working, and heading to sleep is a calming metronome that structures your daily actions, whether attending a community celebration, fighting “Slimes” in the mine, or simply fishing away a few hours.

More deeply, though, I kept coming back to what Stardew Valley teaches about Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), especially his notion of sorge, or “caring,” as it’s often translated.

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Tech’s Silicon Tower

I was just reading Cathy O’Neil’s (@mathbabedotorg) New York Times piece on the tech industry and academia, which argues how academics have not done enough to study issues caused by recent technology, including filter bubbles and big data. Others have already critiqued some of the tone and oversights of the piece, with varying degrees of sass, but I want to look at it as a rallying cry. While I think the piece could give more credit to current researchers, it recognizes a dangerous gap between this research and the tech industry.

A few of O’Neil’s points are especially key. For one, she notes how big data is often cloistered in companies, reducing access to academics. She also notes how private companies hire academics, and she describes how funding that drives engineering and computer science programs may not include more humanities-tinged concerns for the ethical, social dimensions of technology.

More contentiously, O’Neil also says, “There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives.” While a distinct field of study may be harder to name and locate, plenty of sub-fields and inter-disciplinary work hits at this exact issue. For example, in rhet-comp, Kevin Brock and Dawn Shepherd discuss algorithms and their persuasive power and Jessica Reyman has analyzed issues of authorship and copyright with big data. Beyond rhet-comp, danah boyd continues to write on these issues, along with work from the University of Washington.

But a gap remains to some extent, despite this research.

Personally, I see two potential reasons: hubris and tech’s failure to consider social media more critically. Regarding hubris, George Packer’s “Change the World” (2013) explores Silicon Valley’s optimism and their skepticism of Washington. After describing how few start-ups invest in charity, for instance, Packer writes:

At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable. One of the mottoes posted on the walls at Facebook is “Move fast and break things.” Government is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.

After Russia’s propaganda push and amid ongoing issues, like Facebook’s role in genocide, this optimism seems naive and dangerous. Zuckerberg’s trip to the Midwest , hiring more fact checkers, and increasing  government scrutiny seem to point to a change. But I’m not sure how much is actually changing in tech–or larger structures like education and law.

This leads me to my second thought. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger distinguishes between the ready-at-hand and the present-at-hand. The former refers to how we normally go through life, interacting with objects without much reflective thought, while the later refers to the way a scientist or philosopher may look at stuff. In his hammer example, Heidegger says that we normally use a hammer without much second thought, but once the hammer breaks, we reflect on what it is or does.

Similarly, with the ugly realities of social media surfacing more, we are more apt to examine and reflect. Before it “broke,” we used it as a neutral tool to communicate and pontificate digitally. As long as we continue to see social media as a neutral tool, or a tool just needing tweaks or fixes, we miss considering what social media is within a broader context of culture, economics, and society. We may be waking up to these deeper questions now, but we can’t fall back on present-for-hand approaches to use and design.

As Lori Emerson (2014) argues, companies rush to intuitive designs and ubiquitous computing, but we must consider how these trends blackbox the values and potentials of our tools. As Emerson and others argue, we can challenge these trends with firmer technological understanding, more democratized development, and the resistance of hackers and activists.

But with tech having so much power, I am not optimistic for change without a broader attitudinal shift in tech and elsewhere. I only see incremental changes coming, like increased fact checkers and algorithmic tweaks. These are good and may lead to significant change in time, but fundamental outlooks in tech–what philosophers may call instrumental rationality–will likely stay the same. Many critique the Ivory Tower for its obsession with present-at-hand abstraction, but the Silicon Tower seems just as dangerous with its present-for-hand reduction.

[Image: “Hacker” by the Preiser Project, via Creative Commons]


CCR 633: Labels, Emergency, and Ontology

Early on in her introduction for Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, Lisa Gitelman states a thesis that also expresses a methodology and worldview regarding textual machines:

Edison identified his phonograph as a textual device, primarily for taking dictation. With this mandate, the invention emerged from Edison’s laboratory into and amid a cluster of mutually defining literacy practices, texts, and technologies, among them shorthand reporting, typescripts, printing telegraphs, and silent motion pictures. Even Edison’s own famous light bulb, now a universal icon for “I have an idea,” had to make sense within an ambient climate of textual and other representational practices, a climate it would, in fact, have an ample share in modifying. (1)

In many ways, this connects to many of the questions already taken up in the class, like the role of sociotechnical systems or alphabets as technologies  or the notion of ambience and complexity. Here, in particular, I am definitely feeling Rickert and Heidegger: that the phonograph emerged from and became intelligible through a “world” [Welt] of already existing relations. For example, as Gitelman argues, shorthand, or “phonography,” as a technology set the stage for the phonograph. Without this already circulating ambience, the phonograph would not have had the same intelligible impact.

On the one had, this sort of claim reminds me a bit of Steven Johnson’s “adjacent possible,” an idea that certain networks, ideas, and materials need to be in place in order for an idea to take root. Often, as he points out with Charles Babbage’s  “computer,” an idea that is ahead of its time dies out. It needs to still be in stage of possibility, but such a possibility must be “adjacent” to the present and the local.

But the role of labels, as Gitelman details, provides an interesting complication. As she writes, “The label is a vital cultural nexus, a point where producers meet consumers, where owners meet spectators, where novelty and originality enter the commonplace of the market and commodities perform” (151). I want to spend some time with this idea.

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CCR 633: Thinking through Things, Dwelling, and Fourfold

This past weekend, my parents and I attended a concert at a Anyela’s a winery just outside of Skaneateles. From our seats, we saw lanes of grapes, stretched out like topography along the hills. Behind the stage, the lake reflected back the setting sun in bleeding reds and oranges staining the the once-blue water.  The stage rose up like a wooden ark, seeming to sit becalmed amid the people, trees, lake, and grapevines. And the musicians–a motley collection of strings, brass, harpsichord, and players–played as the sky dimmed through stirred-up rainbows into muted black.

In time, crickets chirped amid bow-strokes and the temperature fell. Under-dressed for the cold, I buttoned up my cardigan and sipped at my Cabernet Franc–its living brethren growing on the hills nearby.  When the sky was a steady darkness, fireworks perched over the shoulder of a distant hill, occasionally sneaking a muted rumble into the music.

At one level, these noises and sites–combined with our distant seats–got “in the way” and impeded the “piece” of Vivaldi or Sufjan Stevens from reaching us, “the audience.” Vivaldi may have pulled out his (wig) hair imagining how fireworks, crickets, and someone tripping over a stair in the dark would fit is double cello concerto.

This is what my parent’s thought. But the whole time I kept thinking about Heidegger and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric, thinking how this particular concert was incredibly ambient, even down to the fourfold of Heidegger’s dwelling. How the crickets and the cold, the sloped earth and changing sky, fit together, indeed “spoke together.”

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IST 700: Next steps and Research Muddles

Project update: I’ve heard back from all of my core research participants and have been able to ask a few follow-up questions over the course of the past weeks. While some aspects of e-mail interviews have been tedious, as noted, I feel largely happy. I have a decent amount of stuff to work with and think through future problems.

I haven’t had much time to “do” next step stuff, as I’ve been trying to get a paper in this Monday, but that may be good, as I have time to think through the next steps.  I’m not sure whether I’ll do coding or not. I think I may go through and read the data a bit, trying to get a general sense of things, before making more specific moves. I also want to print out copies. Something about looking at a paper copy, instead of a screen, feels more appealing, like I may catch more or be less inclined to skim. On screen, I tend to have such an F-style reading pattern, which would not be good for research.

At this point, too, I’m trying to remain somewhat inductive in my approach, as noted in my last post for this class. I have my focus: intertextualtiy and the tensions created by openly intertextual work. I want to see what people are saying about this.

Shifting gears a bit, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about presenting research in different ways. I think I often tend to “think” better in a PowerPoint setting sometimes. The way it breaks down units of thoughts into discrete slides helps me think more clearly about what those units are. In my head, they often get muddled. And though more long-term, free-writing thinking (much like this blog) helps me think through ideas, I have had trouble transitioning from that thinking into the presentation of thought in a paper. I can’t quite straighten out, simplify, and de-muddle.

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CCR 711: Hauntology/Ontology and the Structures of Exclusion

“Haunting these [education] policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. A cornucopia of lifeless data. In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable. Bodies are not always compliant”

–Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts

“124 was spiteful.”
Tony Morrison, Beloved

The notion that Erevelles draws from Patricia Williams of an “absent presence” that “haunts” these systems of bureaucratic procedure struck me in particular, connecting to some previous thinking on “The Specter of Disability” and the exclusionary practices that the withdrawing nature of “normal” bodies can create.

As she notes, these systems can create imperializing ghettos that create outcasts in a given system, like an internal colony. Those excluded from the norm get walled away, often literally, in a material segregation that exists, despite the legal restrictions against segregation.  In the case of disability, this can often have more paternal forms, like “special education.” But as Erevelles points out, the paternalistic framing and “good” intentions cannot suppress the sense of punishment that such interventions have.

Reflecting this, Erevelles writes, “Educational institutions  present themselves as agents of benevolence for the billions of students it purports to serve on a daily basis. However, these institutions. . . fail to educate ‘different’ students . . . because they have transformed themselves into institutions of social control  intent on following bureaucratic procedures” (118). Far from neutral, these procedures perpetuate the normal and exclude the ‘different’ through various logics. For example, as Erevelles notes in her later chapters, the logic of humanistic citizenship implicitly excludes those with severe disability, even in its more liberal, inclusive variants. Locked into these logics, educational policy becomes colonial and ableist.

I think Erevelles’ grounded historical-materialist approach to these issues presents a powerful bedrock. But reading, I also was considering the way these “hauntings” might fit into a more ontological outlook on world.

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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”

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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Ontology of revision


For most freshmen, revision seems like an afterthought. But in more process-heavy writing, it’s central. Revising the argument, the thinking behind the argument, the organization of the argument, and the grammar and syntax that laces and threads these thoughts together.

Revision, as its name suggests, is a “re-vision,” a re-seeing, and re-consideration of the work.  (Before one turns it in, presumably).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ontology of revision. Phrased another way, what mode of being does revision cultivate–or vise versa?

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