Unpicking One Tuesday

In last week’s symposium I mentioned, in passing, Bruno Latour and actor-network theory. These are complex areas, but in that long messy (they’re always messy if you actually want to deal with what is rather than imaginary ‘forces’) conversation I’m going to try to join some dots.

Latour writes, “To be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage.” Fancy words. This is in many ways similar to Shield’s “plots are for dead people”. What I take Latour to mean is that we aren’t really ‘whole’ (and neither really is anything else). For instance as I sat in the symposium I was simultaneously a (1) teacher, (2) pontificate, (3) employee, (4) sort of employer (I asked Betty, Elliot and Jason to teach the subject), (5) supervisor (I am Jason’s PhD supervisor), (5) colleague, I’ve also (6) taught Elliot in media and in honours, (7) friend (my child has played with Betty’s children). I have not chosen any of these things deliberately, and some of them precede me. For instance simply because I’m in a lecture room and at the front of the room there is, by virtue of history, institutional processes, and your own experience as students, a role and authority conferred on me automatically just by being the one who gets to stand at the front.

That’s me, and just a description of my social relations as I sit for 50 minutes in one room on one afternoon. For Latour (and Shields) there’s an interest in thinking about the world as like this, as wondering what happens when we realise that things are what they are not because they sort of lie there by themselves being what they are but they are always in these relations that really matter (my example of something as banal as a hammer – and I’d argue on what basis do we even grant ourselves the privilege to say that a hammer is a banal, simple thing anyway?). So plots, and the way we narrate and present knowledge (the Ted Nelson and Vannevar Bush readings are making exactly the same arguments) are, according to these people, at odds, a mismatch, with how the world really is.

Now, network media, where does this fit here? Well, in digital network media we can develop, and are very slowly beginning to develop, ways of making and telling stories (fiction and nonfiction) that can begin to acknowledge, make with, and think with and about, the world as, well, these sorts of inter-related complicated things. So we can write and argue not with generalisations but with specific things. We can include that bit of that film we are writing about, or link to that essay, and not make some general comment about that doesn’t really have to be right because, well, who’s going to go read the original anyway? But when I can link or include that in my work, so now it is near, right there, what I say, how I say it, can change.

For example, in a hypertext it is very trivial for me to write a sentence like “As I sat in the lecture I noticed I was surrounded by social relations” and then literally make seven different links to seven different places/bits of content that then begins to discuss each of these seven social relations (and by now you should notice the relations create the roles, not the other way round, stand in front of a classroom you are a teacher). I can do this without having to make a list, without having to make it be sequential which is simply has to be if it is on paper, or even in most cases even HTML. This is a small step, but it does dramatically change how we can make academic arguments and how we think what they are.

Now, step acros so stories, and similar things can happen. We can make stories that are collections of pieces that keep changing. They are still stories. The think we keep coming back to is how, and what sort of are. We are literally still learning this, and one of the things getting in the way of this learning is to keep thinking a story equals what is has been for the last 400 hundred years. It doesn’t (I’m reminded of the line in WellesThe Magnificent Ambersons where Joseph Cotton sneers at the motor car as “a useless nuisance”).

Academically and personally, particular with the rise of informal documentary media (Instagram, Vine, even FaceBook) I’m interested in what’s next, and how we tell nonfiction stories in this space. Nonfiction stories that engage with the world as it is and let us understand it more intimately, and deeply. I think these tools begin to do this, but they are still deeply constrained by old forms. On the other hand something creative like We Feel Fine, Cowbird, and even Wilderness Downtown are all provocative in relation to story and the network in their own ways….

Symposium Week 9

No questions from classes this week. All classes have had a go, so for this week we are trying something different: each staff member is nominating a passage or idea from each of the readings to share and we’ll talk about them. Here they are.

From the Duncan Watts:

Fortunately, as capricious, confusing, and unpredictable as individual humans typically are, when many of them get together, it is sometimes the case that we can understand the basic organizing principles while ignoring many of the complicated details. This is the flip side of complex systems. While knowing the rules that govern the behavior of individuals does not necessarily help us to predict the behavior of the mob, we may be able to predict the very same mob behavior without knowing very much at all about the unique personalities and characteristics of the individuals that make it up. (p. 26.)

In oscillator terms, the pack represents a synchronised state, and whether or not the system synchronizes depends both on the distribution of intrinsic frequencies(their individual lap times) and on the coupling strength (how much attention they pay to one another ). If they all have the same ability and they start together, they will remain synchronized regardless of their coupling. If their distribution of abilities is great, such as in the final sprint of a ten-thousand-meter race, then no matter how much they want to stay together, the pack will disintegrate and synchrony will be lost. As simple a model as this is, it turns out to be a nice representation of many interesting systems in biology, ranging from pacemaker cells to fireflies flashing to crickets chirping. Strogatz also studied the mathematics of physical systems, like arrays of super-conducting Josephson junctions extremely fast switches that might one day form the basis of a new generation of computers. (pp. 32-33.)

How does individual behavior aggregate to collective behavior? (p. 24.)

How is it that assembling a large collection of components into a system results in something altogether different from just a disassociated collection of components? (p. 24.)

And from the Albert-László Barabási:

These hubs are the strongest argument against the utopian vision of an egalitarian cyberspace. Yes, we all have the right to put anything we wish on the Web. But will anybody notice? If the Web were a random network, we would all have the same chance to be seen and heard. In a collective manner, we somehow create hubs, Websites to which everyone links. They are very easy to find, no matter where you are the Web. Compared to these hubs, the rest of the Web is invisible. (p.58.)

Why do we play the Kevin Bacon game then? Bacon’s prominence is a historical fluke, rooted in the publicity offered by the Stewart show, Every actor is three links from most actors. Bacon is by no means special. Not only is he far from the center of the universe, he’s far indeed from the center of Hollywood. (p. 62.)

Prior to digital networks, society was ‘structured into highly connected clusters, or close-knit circles of friends, in which everybody knows everybody else. A few external links connecting these clusters keep them from being isolated from the rest of the world. If Granovetter’s description is correct, then the network describing our society has a rather peculiar structure. It is a collection of complete graphs, tiny clusters in which each node is connected to all other nodes within the cluster. These complete graphs are linked to each other by a few weak ties between acquaintances belonging to different circles of friends. (p. 42.)

Connectors — node with an anomalously large number of links — are present in very diverse complex systems, ranging from the economy to the cell. They are a fundamental property of most networks…(p. 56.)

Symposium Questions for Week 8

  • Murphie and Potts identify some technologies as ‘neutral’ (as in reference to the gun violence debate). How does this apply to networked media and technologies?
  • Can technologies be neutral if they are developed for specific purposes?
  • If Shields is correct in saying ‘plots are for dead people’, then how do we tell stories and utilise the network/new media resources available to us today? Alternatively, how might we tell stories that are ‘alive’?

Clumsy Closure

The symposium ended in a clatter and rather inelegantly. To the person who’s very good question I was answering, I apologise. It deserved more time and craft, particularly around the idea of intent, than it received. Intent as an idea might turn up again, it might not, Intent is the idea that I mean to say something by saying (writing) something, and that this intent matters. It does, that’s why we try and say things, but intent is fragile and in capable of being attached to what we say, write, or do in any way to ensure its (our intent’s) preservation. Which is why things are always misunderstood. 


We didn’t get to the privacy question, but take it as a given that the distinctions between public and private are being dramatically changed. Internet combined with mobile telephony is the push there. 

In relation to privacy we have these two gems from Betty:

Symposium Responses

Isabelle sees that people who are good at things explore and push their medium, not just the content, and so understanding some things about hypertext matters as it gives us some ways to think about the deeper parts of the medium of the Web. Gemma picks up some of the edu conversations and has a great example from being taught dance. Karlee notices just how much she uses the internet and wonders if her defending books is now compromised. I’d add that there is also the things you don’t see that rely on the internet. Banking, student records at RMIT, results being entered and managed, the information that the library gets from other places. Laura wonders about education and that kids writing HTML is probably unnecessary. I think it is absolutely necessary and as basic as any other sort of learning how to write in primary school. Being in control of what you write and how is the essence of being literate. If you can’t write a platform (eg WordPress), then simple HTML is that control. And kids should know it (and many do). Kelsey finds a brief video from the inestimable Sir Ken Robinson on the same things mentioned in the symposium. Rebecca wonders just how much HTML is changing us.

Symposium Mentions

In passing, these were mentioned in the symposium:

  1. Arduino which is an open source electronics platform (popular in schools)
  2. Didn’t mention, but Raspberry Pi is a computer that you program (popular in schools and universities)
  3. Stephen Heppell is a British educator who has a very old school web site, he is in Australia regularly to talk to education departments and so on

Schools and Factories

I mentioned today that schools are modelled on industrial era and factories. Probably didn’t make a lot of sense. So here’s a simple way to understand this. You’re in Year 7. The Year 7 says the maths curriculum is x, English y, and so on. But most students are variable in their abilities and where they are up to. That 13 year old actually gets on better with 11 year olds. That 13 year old finds English easy (and so is bored), but the maths very hard, and so struggles and feels, well, incompetent. Ideally, this student isn’t a ‘Year 7’ student. They should be doing an english student with people at level whatever (higher than Year 7) and maths with people at level x, which is probably lower than the Year 7 average. But school’s can’t do this. At the end of they year you will find yourself in Year 8, with a new English and maths curriculum. You might still find English unchallenging, and end up even further behind in maths. The structure of the system just can’t accommodate how we actually learn, it’s designed around 4 classes of Year 7, 8, 9, etc, most progressing through, with no ability to let those doing really well in Maths do more, or even teach those struggling, and same for English and other subjects. It is, basically, a single speed system. Yet we all know that we learn different things at different speeds. Some schools can do this, they’re quite radical in their educational approach, but it is perfectly doable.