(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.

Disability and Curriculum

“in the air     the slant snow

the bird rising away

from the wild and bare tree”  -Larry Eigner

Born with cerebral palsy in 1927, Larry Eigner spent most of his life using a wheel chair. He also wrote more than 40 collections of poetry, according to The Poetry Foundation. Often grouped with the Black Mountain Poets–and more broadly, the poets of the groundbreaking New American Poetry anthology–Eigner’s poetry has always struck me. Something about his wandering line breaks and latched-together images gives his poetry the spontaneous clarity of a Zen haiku. But it feels freer, spilling out of its forms. He composed most of them from his front porch.

About 100 years earlier, another poet named John Clair penned “I Am” from within the walls of an asylum:

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live. . .
Allegedly broken by the weight of poverty and grief, Clare was institutionalized for suffering delusions the final 20 years of his life. Some biographers trace his breakdown with the rise of industrialization and the death of the commons.
To me, both poets represent powerful writing. They also represent work from people with disabilities–Eigner’s cerebral palsy, and Clare’s psychosis. When approaching Linton’s Claiming Disability, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Maybe the clarion calls it makes throughout for a more integrated, critical outlook on disability. Or the way it deconstructs the traditional curriculum. The stances it makes on language.
But, I think the point that likely struck the most from Linton, and what drew me back to this poetry, is her point about the dominantly medical mode of disability and the role of this sense of the term has. As she writes at one point, “What is absent from the curriculum is the voice of the disabled subject and the study of disability as an idea, as an abstract concept, and it is in the humanities that these gaps are most apparent.”

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Specialization and Openness

Something that rings through David Russell’s “Nineteenth Century Backgrounds” and Clay Spinuzzi’s All Edge and “Symmetry as Methodological Move” is the tension between specialization and openness.

For Russell, the changing demographic of students entering higher education and their educational needs and expectations created a conflict between more general education and the specialized training of a discipline. On the one extreme, outlines Russell, one has the elitist liberal arts curriculum, “a single required course, identical for all students, regardless of abilities, interests, or career paths” (37). In this model, departments were flexible, and each educator could change roles easily. Schools were small and communal.

This unified, homogeneous education broke down amid increased discipline-specific and technical needs, though vestiges sometimes remained–like Harvard’s “forensic system”–as a general writing requirement.

Often, this general requirement has seemed to gain power from serving some need, ranging from civic or moral formation in its early years to solving the 1970s literacy crisis more recently. Thus, a compromise often took place between the two extremes: a school empty of general requirements, and one with a substantial one. In Russell’s history discipline-specific training has seemed to push out much of the general requirement.

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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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Harris, Dartmouth, and Composition

One of the more helpful elements in Harris’ Teaching Subject and his introduction to “updating Dartmouth” is his insistence on the perennial nature of issues he outlines and the fact that either side has much to other.

For example, he outlines the tension from the 1966 Dartmouth Summit between English as a discipline and content area (like Albert Kitzhaber’s approach) and the more lived out, experience-driven role of language that James Britton, James Moffett, and others argued for. As Harris writes in the introduction to “updating Dartmouth, “there is something to both sides of the argument. There are real things to teach students about literary genres, figures, and traditions. . . But those things become valuable only when students put them to use in their own work” (xxii).

In writing studies and composition, I think a further tension presents itself. Composition models, terms, theories, heuristics, histories, and paradigms—in short, a field of content knowledge—now comprise the field. But as Harris right points out in A Teaching Subject, many people in the field—including himself—see “teaching as an integral part of (and not just a kind of report on)” their scholarship (xv-xvi). Thus, this scholarship is always tested in light of the student and the classroom, with pedagogy acting as a desired end, not a byproduct.

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Embodied Borders

“Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.”

-Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied

The distinction that the Romans had regarding “nature” v. training seems to represent a tangled area. Discussing delivery, for example, Quintillian writes,  “without the least reluctance, I allow that the chief power rests with nature,” although nature can be “assisted by art” (Institutes of Oratory, III.12). In other words, one must have a certain set of skills initially in order to build upon–like a good memory, a strong voice, etc. While one can certainly improve upon these qualities, both Cicero and Quintilian seem to stress the importance of a latent sound body and mind.

Complicating this, however, both Cicero and Quintillian describe ornate hand gestures, ways of planting the feet, modes of walking, etc., that lead to a “natural” delivery.  While some of these might sound inherently natural, like pointing, others are less intuitive, with specific placement of fingers in unnatural patterns.  Taking command of these gestures and setting the semiotic bridges of signifier and signified, training could construct these seemingly “natural” gestures.  Such codification creates stability and comprehension, but such stability, just like any monolingual intervention, often leads to exclusion.

As Anthony Corbeill writes, “tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker’s mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant.” Constructing signs that constitute the norm, the “natural” within proper rhetorical discourse, instruction can be a powerful tool for exclusion.

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Networked

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?

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Rethinking social media spaces as storage

Like most adolescent Americans, or so I crudely assume, I used social media to “express myself” with photographs, quirky quizzes, links to other media sites, etc., and to contact friends, giving a space to socialize outside school.

Though persisting in that usage for a while, I’ve started seeing many social media sites, and similar apps, as tools for storing, grouping, searching, and sharing information about a variety of topics. Doing so has really shifted the way I’ve been approaching them, providing a different sense of self and a helpful tool for research and the classroom.

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