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.)

Work in the Media | Deuze | Media Industries

Mark Deuze is a key academic in the area of media and labour. I haven’t read this yet but suspect it is a good pointer of the sort of precarious labour that creative professionals very much find themselves within in contemporary media industries. (This is also one of the reasons why many of our graduates end up as reasonably high level managers in production houses, government agencies and so on – there’s a guaranteed salary each week.)

Work in the Media | Deuze | Media Industries.

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’?

Reading 09

A continuing foray into the shapes of networks, particularly the sorts of shapes relevant to the internet. This is about power law distributions and small world networks. Which is a) why the internet has a different relation to size than the ordinary physical world, and b) why when you say something about someone else it is pretty simple for them to know about it.

“The 80/30 Rule”. Barabási, Albert-László. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge (MA): Perseus, 2002. Print. (extract, PDF)

Anderson, Chris. “The Long Tail.” Wired. N.p., Oct. 2004. Web. 23 Aug. 2013. (PDF, and Web)

Reading 08

Now we move to thinking about what sort of network the Web and Internet might be.

Watts, Duncan J. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. London: Vintage, 2003. Print. (Extract – PDF)

Barabási, Albert-László. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge (MA): Perseus, 2002. Print. (Extract, PDF)

Trust Networks

Quick dirty one. In reply to a recent email about ‘trust networks’:

where they discuss trust in a specific way in that section

complicated but a table in there is useful

discusses trust

the readings are able to move into network stuff so some of the above material will begin to make more sense *after* we move into the next readings….

Reading 07

Apologies, I had thought these readings were online before I went to London for a conference. (Ah, they were but there was a tag problem so looks like they didn’t appear under the reading heading. So you might have found them, you might not have. Treat the Shields addition below as very useful and important….)

But they weren’t, so here they are. The first two, which are from the same book, are a poor quality PDF scan, apologies for that. The third, from Shields, is not about digital media (it’s from a book that is about what we would call ‘creative nonfiction’) but what he writes about collage and nonfiction and story is very useful in relation to the broader conversations that have been happening around story, linearity and so on. The Shield’s book has been very influential, and note that it is an essay, but not as we usually think of an essay, and is also a demonstration of how you can write critically (making an evidence based argument) outside of the very conservative form of the ‘traditional’ essay – a form that is poor for thought, and good for proving what you already know (which I would have thought is the opposite of research, and learning).

Key Readings

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

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Vintage, 2011. Print. “Collage” extract, (PDF)

Secondary Reading

Murphie, Andrew, and John Potts. Culture and Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print. ‘Introduction’ extract (PDF)