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]

 

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ENG 730: Atari, Design Constraints, and Ecology

Thinking through Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, I was reminded a bit of some of the conversations we had last class regarding design and the material constraints that technology imposes.

I think the role of hardware struck me particularly with questions of porting. As they write regarding Pac-Man‘s port to the Atari, “Porting a graphical video game from one computer platform (the arcade board) to another (the Atari VCS) does not demand a change in fundamental or representational of functional mode.  Both versions are games, rule-based representations of an abstract challenge of hunter and hunted. Where the two versions diverge is in their technical foundations–in their platforms” (67).

This is a key observation, as it hits at the material implications of replicating player experience or game cohesion across platforms. The invention process of remaking a game for a different system requires ample creativity when the systems are different enough–particularly in graphic affordances and machine communication.  In this way, the designer is not making new content or rules, but they are making a new means to express the content or rules, a new way to interface with the machine to attain a similar end. With this situation in mind, I think about parallels with translation or transcription, but I wonder how far those alphabetic, or at least textual, metaphors can apply in this case. In both cases, one is working in different systems, but the technology of a semiotic system differs from the technology of a video game hardware.

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CCR 633: Anderson, Publics, and Simultaneity

One of the main things that struck me about this reading was the importance of simultaneity. Anderson discusses this through literature, then newspapers, and even connects it to the practice of naming places like “New Orleans” after places from the old world. Essentially this connects to the “empty time” of a situation and the sense of community, that other people–people in a community or country, in Anderson’s example–are going about their daily lives as I do.

Coupled with this, one has the printing press and newspapers. For newspapers, Anderson notes how it represents “the secular, historically clocked community” (35), and creates a daily or half-daily ritual, which again is connected to simultaneity, the paper acting as a technology of synchronizing.

For printing, Anderson stresses a few elements. “First,” he writes, “they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernacular” (44).  Similar to what Thorton says about print v. handwriting, printing creates a public connotation, and though it’s been a while since I’ve read Habermas, I imagine a link with his public sphere as well. Along with these “unified fields of exchange,” print technology, argues Anderson, creates fixity, much as Eisenstein notes. And third, it created “languages of power” (45), privileging some forms of language over the other.

I was thinking about how digital technologies connect to these similar qualities, i.e. how internet publics connect to their own technology.

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CCR: Fixity, Preservation, and Circulation

Although a lot of the elements in the Eisenstein reading were interesting, for whatever reason, the opening sections on textual drift and preservation through multiplication–quantity of copies over quality–struck me, especially in regards to circulation.

As Eisenstein writes, “No manuscript, however useful as a reference guide, could be preserved for long without undergoing corruption by copyists, and even this sort of ‘preservation’ rested on the shifting demands of local élites and a fluctuating incidence of trained scribal labor” (113-14). Later on, she terms this corruption through copying “textual drift” and notes how “preservation could be achieved by using abundant supplies of paper rather than scarce and costly skin” (114). Here, then, the fixity of this preservation is not just its material longevity, which is achieved through multiple copies, but the precision of its copies. Each copy is more fixed and less idiosyncratic once the type gets set, reducing the “textual drift” of multiple hand copies.

I want to look at these ideas of drift and fixity.

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IST 700: Sentiment, Affect, and Twitter

This week’s readings brought me back to my time teaching in Egypt, during the election of Morsi and the coup the following summer that put him out of power. Though my Internet access was limited both summers–largely relegated to communal computers and one dodgy PC in the prep room–I often tried to check in with Twitter.

My second summer, the day of the military takeover, a few tweets entered the stream about tanks in Cairo and the Presidential Palace. I saw journalists and activists positing frantically, while others were trying to get confirmation. No one knew what was happening. For a few days, protestors for Tamarod had taken to the streets against Morsi. Meetings both with and without Morsi went on amid these protests. For my part, the seminary where I was teaching was on lock down, preventing anyone from coming or going without approval. So beyond the nightly sounds of protestors gathering for nearby hot spots, Twitter was my only window–or “stream”–on the action.

I felt surreal during the take sightings. Seeing the news pour in on “real time.” None of the networks had anything, but across Twitter, people were mobilized and locked in.

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IST 700: Ecologies, Spheres, and Messy Research

“We conceptualize a web sphere as not simply a collection of web sites, but as a site of dynamically defined digital resources spanning multiple web sites deemed relevant or related to a central event event, concept or theme, and often connected by hyperlinks.” -Steven M. Schneider and Kirsten A. Foot

“That the web arrived as infrastructure awaiting content, as opposed to content awaiting infrastructure, is often not appreciated.” -Richard Rogers

I was feeling a lot of synthesis with this week’s readings. Not just among texts but also with past reading–especially the readings on bounding–and readings from my other classes, like this piece by Jody Shipka on lower-case “a” archiving. These notions of archive and “websphere” also connect to my larger interests in networks, authorship, ambience, and intertextuality.

Rogers’ distinction between “infrastructure” and “content” captures one of the elements of Internet research that fascinates me: the role in the the ever-changing infrastructures in this ever-changing content. For example, Rogers as well as Schneider and Foot point out the role that linking has or advertisements in composing a website, and archiving a page as pure content–basic texts, images, sounds, etc.–does not capture this infrastructure.

Early on in my interest in composition and rhetorical studies, the “ecological” thinking of Marylin Cooper, Sidney Dobrin, Thomas Rickert, Nathaniel Rivers, Jody Shipka, Jenny Rice, etc., proved particularly illuminating. Especially Rice’s piece on rhetorical ecologies. The way texts circulate, get re-purposed, get buried or dug up, acted on by different authors in different genres with different exingencies and audiences–all of this ecological richness spoke to my outlook on the complex ontologies of textuality, digital or otherwise.

More concretely, I think that fanfiction has a dynamic websphere surrounding a given fandom, ranging from site-archived pieces, fanwiki pages, author pages and social media outlets, the texts themselves, the comment section. Both context (text, artwork, and Podcasts) and infrastructure (links, searches, folksonomies) inform practice and community, which is likely why many studies take an ethnographic approach. One can study texts and artifacts (through content, rhetorical, or discourse analysis), but these are entwined with fan practice. The artifacts have hand prints and metadata, and the users with these hands and metadata are part of this ecology, along with the nonhuman structures.

These fascinating linkages and the social practices they bolster and bound, like the 9/11 Memorializing, challenge the potential boundary between users, content, artifacts, offline, online, time, space, etc. I think this is why a clear question–and a well-steered method–are worth thinking over as much as the potential results. Phrased another way, the hows, the whats, the whos, and the whys of research need to be in close communion.

This complexity, as Jason might say, is messy.

CCR 611: Multimodality, Tinkering, and the Craft/Comp Border

When I was younger, I built things. Rolling out an industrial-sized roll of thick, white paper onto the cold floor of my parent’s glassed-in back porch, I drew grassy fields, rivers, mountains, and beaches that gave way to scribbled-on seas. But that was just the first step. Soon I took out slender wooden train tracks and blocks, building a set of towns and rail networks across my paper countryside.

In the summer, my neighbor and I made paper planes, folding for hours on my grandfathers weather-grayed table in the backyard. We also drew designs in notebooks: go carts, forts, a zip line to deliver notes between houses. My basement table was covered with LEGO models, K’Nex, Tinker-Tots–whatever sets I could find.

As we got older, we built robots, using a kit to construct and program them.  Inspired by the show Robot Wars, we mostly had them fight, filming them on my parent’s VHS camera. But they had other uses, like taking care of my rabbit or trying to go up and down a particularly difficult hill.

These days, I don’t build much. Except with my nephews. But even they often prefer videogames, kickball, and playing with their instruments.

So, considering multimodal composition–through both digital architecture and tactile 3-D printing–brought back a spirit of play and tinkering. The pieces also brought some helpful elements to draw from for concrete teaching moments and larger teaching philosophies.

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IST 700: Locating and Drawing the Boundaries of Research

A few things struck me from the reading, in particular the messy boundaries (and lack thereof) between online and offline and the difficulty of mapping and bounding digital projects. These pose significant implications for conducting online research. For now, I was mainly thinking about how some of these readings are impacting how I look at my own research project.

A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.
A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.

Continue reading “IST 700: Locating and Drawing the Boundaries of Research”