08 Reading (For Week 9)


Murphie, Andrew, and John Potts. Culture and Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print. This is the introduction from this book. Short, very general but lays out some important general ideas and terms. (PDF)

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. The MIT Press, 2006. Print. (PDF). This could be experienced as dense. It is great work that combines critical theory, technology studies, technological understanding (Galloway knows how to do things with code and computers, as opposed to knowing how to do things on computers) to think about the significance of ‘protocol’ as a social and technological requirement online. I’ve set this reading because it brings together technical and philosophical understanding very well, as well as making some interesting points about something that is specific to the internet as a sociotechnical thing.


Murphie, Andrew, and John Potts. Culture and Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print. “Theoretical Frameworks” (PDF)

This is the first chapter which is a survey come overview of key theories to think about culture and technology and their relation. This covers a lot of material. Some of you will enjoy it for its range and the theorists and ideas it introduces, others will pick up bits and pieces and others perhaps a bit lost. This is straightforward writing (this book was a set text for this subject in 2006 or 2007) that I enjoy as it covers a lot of ideas, contextualising them very well in the process.

Uncertainty Versus Control

A theme of today’s unsymposium was about control. When working on the network and/or in interactive media you have one simple question. How do you want to respond or manage the experience of uncertainty. This uncertainty is any, or all of:

  • my relation to what I make
  • my relation to my audience
  • what I make’s relation to the audience
  • what I make’s relation to its parts
  • my audience’s relation to the parts of what I make
  • and whether my audience are users or an audience

All of these can be completely controlled, completely open, or (as is normally the case) somewhere in between. Control is the obverse to uncertainty. Do you have to insist that C follows B follows A, all the time? That what you make is fixed and can’t be touched/changed/altered? The audience is there to consume, not do? That the pieces of my work should stay still, just so? Our answers vary, but how these are answered largely defines the sort of interactive work you can and will make.

Novels, An Assemblage of Histories

IN today’s unsymposium the discussion wandered around the shop about the essay and the literary. On the way home it sparked a little florid flurry of ideas that arose from that half baked discussion. A couple of weeks ago Actor Network Theory (ANT) was mentioned, and while what follows isn’t specifically ANT, the way to think of it is not as a linear sequence of causes but a network of relationships that could have different sorts of outcomes, and that the novel was one particular one, and more importantly it is this aggregation of different things, at different speeds and moments, that sees the novel happen. In this view it isn’t that the novel is at the end of a process and these are the parts of steps, but that the novel finds itself within all these things that have their own, particular, individual histories and trajectories, parts of which touch the novel. (For example the relationship between making wine and the printing press, these histories touch each other, but one doesn’t ’cause’ the other and the printing press is not the ‘culmination’ of an idea.)

I want to write about the novel because the discussion today begun from there, and it is a very useful example of how to think about what we describe as the specificity of media history not as this narrative of cause and effect, but as a conglomeration of, well, stuff. Ideas, technologies, economics, religion, technological appropriation, cultural transmission, and so on. Now, if I were particular sort of theorist, for example some sort of Marxist, I might decide that one of the parts of what I’ve described as a ‘conglomeration’ is more important than the others, in trying to explain how novels happened (and so as a Marxist I might see the emerging forms of capitalism as essential to the whole thing), but that risks a sort of theoretical chauvinism (why is capitalism any more important than realising the wine press over there would solve the technical problem of applying regular constant pressure to actually be able to print?). Personally, I think it is more elegant, and possibly more accurate, to recognise it is a complex messy assemblage and then try to recognise the terms or parts of this assemblage, and as an assemblage to recognise that the parts have their own histories, and uses, and their role here is not just to somehow give birth to printing and later the novel.

So, the novel. There was a good question today about the literary and the digital and the book. My answer was simply that if you take the literary out of the question then the book is, today, irrelevant as a particular form. It simply doesn’t matter. For some things it remains the most convenient form, but that is rapidly changing. In most contexts most people don’t care if it is a book or not (something on paper, with a cover, made up of serial pages), and in many cases a digital form which is searchable and can be annotated and all the rest is more use to you and preferable to a book. Think court decisions text books, legislation, manuals, diagnostic manuals (technical, medical, psychological) even a copy of Shakespeare that can automatically show you every occurrence of a phrase, in context (what we all a concordance), and then provide links to other occurrences of the similar phrases in other works by Shakespeare. (Once upon a time not so very long ago the complaint about ebooks was that you ‘couldn’t read them in the bath’ – seriously. Then things like the iPad came along, which you could, but if you dropped it… Except if you drop your book in the bath then, well, that’s usually buggered too. Now the complaint is about the smell of the paper, or its feel. Now, seriously, if this what makes literature have literary value, just go and buy some paper be done with it, as this is so very seriously a fetish dressed up as an argument to be embarrassing!)

I digress. Unusually. I want to stick the literary back into the conversation and make the provocative claim that the literary and the book aren’t intimate bedfellows, and might not be in to the future. They were intimate, but they don’t have to be, or, more provocatively perhaps the literary will just have had its moment and fade, to be enjoyed by a small band of academics and buffs, while the world moves along to other things. Why? How?

Let’s keep it simple and think about the novel. The novel needs the book, well, it did. The novel needed:

  • the invention of the printing press
  • the printing press developed from the innovative appropriation of the wine press (so we needed wine presses first)
  • development of new technologies of metal making so that typefaces could be easily made (metallurgy and craft skills)
  • the rise of more general literacy (so that there were people able to read books)
  • so the development of more generalised education (social changes)
  • the invention of cheap paper (as prior to paper manuscripts where handwritten and painted on very expensive leather known as vellum)
  • a new ink suitable for printing had to be invented
  • the emergence of nascent forms of mercantile capitalism as the original printers generally operated as what today we’d describe as start ups, a printer would arrive in a small town or city, set up a press, and start printing and selling, with mixed success
  • the desacralisation of knowledge and stories so that the church was no longer the centre of knowledge production, dissemination and distribution (this was cause and effect)
  • with the rise of literacy people didn’t need things read to them, and so the new phenomenon of ‘silent’ reading where those outside of the educated religious elite could now read, and did
  • and with the spread of silent reading, of reading by yourself (instead of in church where the bible was read to you since you couldn’t read) the concept of an interior voice arose
  • and so novels became stories about the insides of people (what today we’d describe as their thoughts and motivations)

Printing is fundamental here, since paper is flat and small compared to vellum (which is thick and the manuscripts often enormous), and now we have a small, intimate writing intended for an audience of one. And as people wondered what to do with it, they experimented, and we eventually arrive at the modern form of literature we call the novel. Personal, interiorised characters (we wonder and are told about their thoughts and feelings), small enough to be in the home, and linear enough to be read across several sittings, short enough and in the vernacular and so not presuming to require a life times study (aka the bible, classical literature).

Therefore the novel is a confluence of lots of different things. Technologies, cultural changes, individuals, trade routes, emerging capitalism, etc.

Now, one of the founding novels in the west is Don Quioxite, published in two volumes (1605 and 1615). That makes it near enough to 400 years old. We have had writing since 3200BC in the middle east and 1200BC in China. If we take China as our case, then we have had writing for 2800 years before the novel came along. Now, while the novel will still be around when I am in my dotage, and I suspect yours, it seems to be an extraordinary intellectual chauvinism to think that something that has been around for about 12% of the time we’ve had writing (and stories) is the final, privileged forever, definitive and going to stay just where it is thank you very much, narrative form. There is, in the history of narrative and its associated technologies, nothing that supports this view.

Stories on the other hand are a constant, while their media and technical form (oral, prose, song, dance, painting, essay, letter, film, game, serial, novel, lyric, song, word, voice, image, sound, air, light, magnetic tape, digital 0’s and 1’s, chemical reactions – photos, film ) seems to me to be anything but constant. To think that the book, as the vanguard and privileged narrative form, smacks of the same sort of imperialism that assumed, a century ago, that the world wanted to be white, colonised, industrialised and ‘modernised’. A view that made perfectly good common sense now, but which gets no recognition as legitimate today. Print here is our master, and thinking that this is the end or final form or the highest form of narrative, our privileged form, is to be its servants.

We have electronic literature and poetry, so that is already one way in which the literary happily leaves behind the page, ink, and paper. It is minor in relation to all the other literary production that is going on, it might fizzle out, but we have had literature prior to the book, which shows that literature does not have to equal the book, though when it does, the novel is the privileged form. Hence, in these conversations, when we say book most people mean literature, but even then what they actually mean, is the novel. Will the novel continue as our preeminent literary form? I don’t know, but history to date says it is unlikely. This is not the same as saying it will disappear, just that its place will shift.

What has this to do with network media? Well the digital is the place where this is being tested, as we witness the rise of ebooks and in many cases see ebook sales outstripping physical sales. This shouldn’t be surprising, it happened with music several years ago where vinyl is, as the novel might become, one for an informed elite rather than its mass, popular form. But its deeper relevance for network media is simply as a case study to realise it is not a linear series of causes and effects but something like a network where different elements have agency – mechanics, metallurgy, religion, education, secularisation, capitalism, guilds and craft practices, market trading routes (which is how print and printing spread), and so on. It is, a bit (don’t force it too much) like an ecology where if we look at a forest the forest is the product of complex interactions of all its parts, there is no simple cause and effect but instead systems of feedback that include geography, geology, meteorology, soil, species, animals, plants which all have their own time scales, their own speeds, their own histories. Recognising this density is what we need to be able to do, rather than thinking there is an answer, or a specific way of approaching what it might mean, that will make guaranteed sense of it. A forest doesn’t mean anything, it just is. I can make it mean timber for houses, or a habitat for a rare species, or a beautiful view, or a site for a hotel, or an example of indigenous significance, or a place for families, but none of these help you to understand what a forest is. In relation to network media, what we’re doing this semester is beginning to think what the network is, rather than trying to provide ways to try to work out what it means.

A Speculative Documentary

By way of example of how design fiction might work. Peter Watkin’s 1965 documentary The War Game. This is what I would also call a design fiction, or speculative making. It was not shown on BBC television until 1985, as it was thought too horrifying for broadcast, even though all it does is play out the possible consequences of a nuclear strike upon Britain. It does so in the way that design fiction advocates. It isn’t fiction (the film is a documentary), but by using argument, reason, and rationality. All it does it think with the consequences and the implications of these as a very reasonable and logical ‘what if’ and ‘therefore’. It is, genuinely, horrifying without being scary. And yes, it is now on YouTube – The War Game (1965 – dir. Peter Watkins).

The Shirky Principle

Why does double loop learning matter? Why did we have to read it in a subject I thought was about computers? Double loop learning is about recognising the assumptions we bring to our learning and being able to look at these. Not because they are wrong – they might be ideal – but because these are, in Arygris’ terms – ‘constraining variables’. They provide constraint, and they can change. We always need constraints, but the wrong ones get in the way.

The internet is causing immense disruption to media industries. The ‘constraining variables’ these industries use to address how to evolve to survive in an online, distributed, deeply networked age is why they are struggling. Let’s use journalism and newspapers as an example. Step one: ignore the internet, since we are ‘real’ news, with professionals and so on, not just amateur opinion. Step two: oh, that didn’t work, so we need a big web presence, and maybe even a blog or two (which won’t be a real blog, the best journalism blogs are by journalists blogging outside of newspapers). Step three, still loosing market share and audience, we’ll berate and yell that all that other stuff isn’t really journalism, yes some of it is being written by the same people that, as journalists, we’d interview for the story, but that’s different (followed by self serving list of why it is different, where different = not as good). Step four, redesign web site for mobile and tablet, but still don’t have easy/automatic interconnection between stories, or let readers drill down into more detail and complexity – even leave the site for that sort of content – since, you know, it’s actually about page views for advertisers. Step five, still in decline, revert to old media model of a paying for content because, you know people will. (Except if I have to pay for online news will I subscribe to The Age or, perhaps, The Guardian, or The New York Times? Oh, perhaps you think I’ll go for The Age for local sport, but if I’m an AFL, soccer or cycling nut then in each case the newspaper’s coverage is a small sliver of what I’m actually interested in, and able to get, online, so really, it is only a generalist news service in an age of specialised media. And now of course the once maligned public broadcaster finds themselves in the box seat since their charter is to provide the service for their citizens, as a state funded right, which means once I charge for my content my readers move sideways to the ABC, or even the free news services from the BBC.)

Model I single loop learning all the way along. At no point has ‘what is journalism’ or ‘what is news’ been reconsidered. That remains the constraining variable (how it is produced, by who, and its forms and then mode of presentation). To make this visible to you, imagine news media didn’t exist (this is speculative design), but the internet did. If you were inventing journalism and news media today, from scratch, with mobile media and the internet as it technological beginning (and not the printing press), what would it be, what forms would it take? Answer that well, and you have a future business, and why most traditional media companies are slowly dying.

As internet theorist Clay Shirky rather astutely observed “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution” (this is the Shirky principle). For journalism, the problem is going away (discussing and presenting what is happening in the world) because we all sort of know what is happening, but rather than respond to that, journalism/the press will simply become more shrill about its own validity as ‘truth’ mistaking that as its purpose and future.

Chris Argyris Reading

Action, double loop learning. Some of the things I take away from this. Key things. This connects to the reading from Mason on noticing as a key aspect of double loop learning is the specific attention you need to be able to apply to your own assumptions and practices (how you do things) If you don’t notice, then none of the double loop things are even possible. (On a related note, as Mason points out, excellence in professional work requires a heightened form of noticing, or to turn it the other way around, those who turn out to be very good at what they do ‘notice’ things and in ways that others who aren’t so good can’t do.)

We all have habits of how we go about solving problems, and going about doing things. These habits are ‘mental maps’. This is how we actually do things. Espoused theory is the story we tell ourselves and others about what we think we do, but usually is not what we actually do.

Imagine you’re reading something that is difficult to understand. Your ‘espoused theory’, what you think you do, is, perhaps something like:

  • pause and keep rereading that sentence till you ‘get’ it (and if that doesn’t work, stop reading)
  • skip a bit and come back to it later
  • try to get a rough idea of what it might be about, and continue reading with it sort of in the back of your mind, in case something later helps you understand what it means
  • keep reading, and just not worry about what didn’t make sense

However, for many the mental map is often different to what we say we do. So when we read something difficult we might think that, yes, we read it, and understood it, even though there was plenty in there we didn’t. And even that we read it, and didn’t understand it, but that isn’t because I needed to think differently about it, but that it was written in a way where it’s the writings fault that I couldn’t understand it, so if I can’t understand it reading it once, then, well, that’s sort of that really.

Now, even outside of the example of reading something, Argyris’ point (and I will ignore the mention of management of organisational learning, as what he says is as relevant to making media, and learning, as it is to organisations) is that if you can make your mental model explicit to yourself, you can then see what your assumptions are, and that often it is these that can be changed to understand a situation or problem differently. This is what he means by ‘governing variables’.

Why governing? Because they decide everything else. Why variable? Because they change, can be changed, and shift. For example, to paraphrase American literary critic Lionel Trilling, in relation to reading ‘difficult’ novels he said something along the lines of:

[They] have been involved with me for a long time – I invert the natural order not out of lack of modesty but taking the cue of W. H. Auden’s remark that a real book reads us. I have been read by Eliot’s poems and by Ulysses and by Remembrance of Things Past and by The Castle for a good many years now, since early youth. Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate.

Note the shift in the ‘governing variables’. The novels aren’t there for him to read. They read him. This is a dramatic change, it inverts our expected understanding. So if he doesn’t ‘get’ it it is his problem, not the book’s or author’s. He is not ready yet, too young, they grew bored with him and sent him away. In other words the things he reads ask questions of him, and if he can’t answer those questions, the problem – in the first instance – is on his side. This is, for theoretical readings, my ‘governing variable’, that the work has something to say and that my role, in the first instance, is to be able to hear this. Then I can judge. But if I can’t first hear it, then I can’t judge it.

So, back to Argyris. Single loop learning we don’t question or recognise the ‘governing variables’ and as a result the goals, assumptions and so on are taken for granted. (I only do things in class that have marks attached, I write essays because they are academically relevant to me, a video is a linear, sequential matched bit of image and sound, a book is something linear and sequential, I learn by being told what the ideas are, I could make a better film if I had a better camera, and so on.) When these are questioned, or challenged, we become defensive. We also want things defined and this becomes how and why we do something (“what is a good blog post”, “how many do I have to do?”, “what will count as good?”). So, as he outlines, these are risk minimisation strategies, get it right by confirming it all first, meaning there is no wasted effort or mistakes made, that my environment, as a student and media user, needs to be known and controlled (by me, by the subject, by the teacher), and so on. Along side this are assumptions that all of this is normal, correct, and as it should be. In this model I there is little ability to test assumptions. We might argue about whether a good blog post is 100 or 200 words, and has 3 or 5 links out, but not what ‘good’ even means and why it might even matter.

Hence in model II control is shared (perhaps ‘good’ is then discussed and arrived at as a result of experience, context, and open conversation amongst those who are doing it?), there is a commitment to do it (in other words because it is worth doing, not because you get an explicit return for it), and it allows for common (that is a variety) of goals. Mine, the other staff, yours. This makes double loop learning more likely, simply because if there is an open discussion about, for example, ‘what a good blog post is’ then assumptions are then being recognised, and negotiated. It is the difference between being told that good equals this, versus developing a shared (and so mutually recognised) understanding of what matters. (At this point some will say that my job is to tell you want counts – model I, and I’ll say none of you will want to work in an organisation that does that to you, so let’s learn how this works now.)

To conclude. Traditional media is stuck in model I learning and systems. The internet is very much model II (just think about social media’s relationship model for ‘customers’ and companies and how it is ‘inverted’ the assumptions of corporate communication. Ten years ago I told my customers what our company did, what the products were and so on, through press releases and advertising. Now I have to spend as much time responding to what they tell me and each other, publicly, about my company and its products, and if I don’t listen, if I think my old model of saturation advertising (yelling louder), or doing nothing (letting it blow away because the media will move on to something else) will work, then I’m in trouble, because now we are the media).