15 September 2016

Tactical Infrastructures

Infrastructures are currently the subject of much scholarly and activist critique (Hu 2015; Parks and Starosielski 2015; Plantin et al 2016; Starosielski 2015). Perhaps not so much in terms of their critically dissected effects and influences as a form of ideology critique, but more in terms of a new recognition of their importance as conditions of possibility for forms of knowing and acting together with the creation of epistemic stability and modes of knowledge that can be instrumentalised in particular ways (for a discussion, see Berry 2014).[1] In contrast, rather than describe existing infrastructure I would like to think through the way in which counter-infrastructures can be thought about as tactical infrastructures. That is, how through the creation of specific formations, temporary or otherwise, new modes of knowing and thinking, assembling and acting can be made possible by bringing scale technologies together. By tactical infrastructures I am, of course, gesturing towards the rich theoretical work on tactical media which has been extremely important for media activism and theory (see Garcia and Lovink 1997; Raley 2009).[2] I also think it is useful to point towards the work of Liu (2016) and his recent conceptualisation of critical infrastructure studies. I am also drawing on the work of Feenberg who has argued that a critical theory of technology requires “counter-acting the tendencies towards domination in the technological a priori” through the “materialization of values” (Feenberg 2013: 613). This Feenberg argues can be found at specific intervention points within the materialisation of this a priori, such as in design processes. Feenberg argues that “design is the mediation through which the potential for domination contained in scientific-technical rationality enters the social world as a civilisational project” (Feenberg 2013: 613).

Infrastructure is commonly understood as the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. It is also sometimes understood as the social and economic infrastructure of a country. Indeed, Parks argues, the word infrastructure “emerged in the early twentieth century as a collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation”, that is, as what “engineers refer to as ‘stuff you can kick’” (Parks 2015: 355). Infrastructure can be thought of as pre-socialised technologies, not in the sense that the material elements of infrastructure are non-social, but that although they themselves are sociotechnical materialities, they have reached what we might call their quasi-teleological condition. They are latent technologies that are made to be already ready for use, to be configured and reconfigured, and built into particular constellations that form the underlying structures for institutions. Heidegger would say that they are made to stand by. Infrastructure talk also gestures toward a kind of gigantism, the sheer massiveness of fundamental technologies and resources – their size usefully contrasting with the minuteness or ephemerality of the kinds of personal devices that are increasingly merely interfaces or gateways to underlying infrastructural systems.[3] 

Apple highlighting the M9 section of its A9 processor
Today, we talk a lot about data infrastructures, computational materiality for the highly digital sociality we live in today, especially the questions raised in the relations between the social and social media (see also Lovink 2012). But also in terms of the anxiety currently exhibited by a public that has begun to note the datafication of everyday life and the wider effects of a financialized economy. It is also notable that talk of infrastructure seems to allow us to get a grip on the ephemerality of data and computation, its seemingly concreteness as a notion, contrasts with that of clouds, streams, files and flows. So we hear about cables and wires, satellites and receivers, chips and boards, and the sheer thingness of these physical objects, stands in symbolically for the difficulty of visualising the computational objects. I use symbolically deliberately because merely discursively asserting a materiality does not make it material. Indeed, most people have never seen an “actual” satellite or an undersea data cable, nor indeed a computer chip or circuit board. They rely on mediations provided by visual representations such as photography, or videos, that show the thingness of the cables or chips by photographing it. One is reminded of Apple’s turn towards a postdigital aesthetic of chip representation, gloriously shown in glossy marketing videos and component diagrams, displayed in keynote presentations that whilst iterating the chip speeds, transistor numbers and cycles, dives and swoops over the visualised architecture of the device, selecting and showing black squares in light borders on the CPUs of their phones and computers (see Berry and Dieter 2015). The showing of the chip materiality, seeing it in place, within the device, translates the threatening opaqueness of computation into a design motif.  

In terms of infrastructures we might consider the ways in which particular practices of Silicon Valley have become prevalent and tend to shape thinking across the fields effected by computation. For example, the recent turn towards what has come to be called “platformisation”, that is the construction of a single digital system that acts as a technical monopoly within a particular sector (for a discussion, see Gillespie 2010; Plantin et al 2016). The obvious example here is Facebook in social media. Equally, with discussion over digital research infrastructures there is an understandable tendency towards centralisation and the development of unitary and standardised platforms for the digitalisation, archiving, researching and transformation of such data. Whilst most of these attempts have so far ended in failure, it remains the case that the desire and temptation to develop such a system is very strong as it creates a transitional path towards institutionalisation of infrastuctures and the alignment of technologies towards an institutional goal or end. 

I am interested here in how infrastructures become institutions, and more particularly how tactical infrastructures can be positioned to change or replace institutions. As Tocqueville observed, “what we call necessary institutions are often no more than institutions to which we have grown accustomed.” This is to take forward Merton’s notion that only appropriate institutional change can breakthrough problematic or tragic institutional effects (Merton 1948). I also want to move our attention beyond infrastructures and point their tactical use towards making institutions in order to think about institutions as knowing-spaces, and how they force us to consider the political economic issues of making institutions, combined with a focus on creating specific epistemic communities within them. Here I am thinking of Fleck's notion of a "thought collective" as a "nexus of knowledge which manifests itself in a social constraint upon thought" (Fleck 1979:64). For example, Benkler (2006: 23) has called for a “core common infrastructure”, or a space of non-owned cultural production, making links between the particular values embedded in free-software infrastructures and the kinds of institutions and communities made possible. As he writes, particularly in relation to the internet, “if all network components are owned… then for any communication there must be a willing sender, a willing recipient, and a willing infrastructure owner. In a pure property regime, infrastructure owners have a say over whether, and the conditions under which, others in their society will communicate with each other. It is precisely the power to prevent others from communicating that makes infrastructure ownership a valuable enterprise” (Benkler 2006: 155).

We can think about how institutions generate alternate instantiations of space and time, which thus create the conditions of possibility for new forms of intentionality, thought and action. This also connects to the regulatory aspects of the forms of governance made possible in and through the structures of organization of an institution, and how through combining tactical infrastructures with activism they might be subverted or jammed. In Fleck's terms this would be to think about the relation between the "thought style", "thought collective" and the problem of infrastructures. He writes, the thought style "is characterized by common features in the problems of interest to a thought collective, by the judgment which the thought collective considers evident, and by the methods which it applies as a means of cognition" (Fleck 1979: 99). By connecting the affective and cognitive styles and performances made possible within an institution, structured by the particular constellations of infrastructures deployed, we might begin to create the grounds for intervention through the kinds of tactical infrastructure for institutional change that I am exploring here. 

By institution I am gesturing to specific organizations founded for a religious, educational, professional, or social purpose, such as a university. An institution is a material constellation of bodies, affects, histories, technologies, infrastructures and cultures which is organized. By organization I mean a specifically ordered, assembled, and structured group of people for a particular purpose, for example a business or government department or a political organization.[4] Understanding the relationship between infrastructure to organization and then to the form of the institution is crucial to constructing progressive institutions and providing the possibility of contestation of institutional form, not just their actions.[5] Hence, to turn to the question of infrastructure critique is to also turn towards ideology critique, and the subsequent possibility for unbuilding and, if necessary, creating counter-infrastructures or tactical infrastructures.[6] To do this it seems to me we have to avoid the dangers of a form of infrastructural fetishism that seeks to show the multiplicity of infrastructures through a project of aestheticisation of infrastructure, whether through photography, data visualisations, or any other media form. What is important is identifying how humans act within institutions and in doing so how they create and recreate fundamental elements of social interaction – i.e. how do thought-collectives and thought-styles adapt? – but also if we change the fundamental structures of infrastructures supporting institutions and their organization, can we strengthen the agencies of actors and the institution to work progressively. 


Notes

[1] There is a need for more ideology critique in relation to infrastructures, making use of the work of STS, software studies, sociology of technology, etc. With the ongoing critical turn in relation to algorithms, data, software and code we should hope to see more work done in infrastructure critique. 
[2] Garcia and Lovink write that "Tactical Media are what happens when the cheap 'do it yourself' media, made possible by the revolution in consumer electronics and expanded forms of distribution (from public access cable to the internet) are exploited by groups and individuals who feel aggrieved by or excluded from the wider culture. Tactical media do not just report events, as they are never impartial they always participate and it is this that more than anything separates them from mainstream media... above all [it is] mobility that most characterizes the tactical practitioner. The desire and capability to combine or jump from one media to another creating a continuous supply of mutants and hybrids. To cross boarders, connecting and re-wiring a variety of disciplines and always taking full advantage of the free spaces in the media that are continually appearing because of the pace of technological change and regulatory uncertainty" (Garcia and Lovink 1997).
[3] Here there are normative questions here in regard to scale and methodology, particularly in relation to disciplinary biases towards certain scales and approaches. More so considering the way in which the digital creates multi-scalar potentials for research methods – it is interesting to consider the way in which scales still performs a "truth" directing role nonetheless.
[4] There are strong connections here to Lovink and Rossiter’s (2013) notion of Orgnets. 
[5] This is to radicalise the notion of research infrastructures in the digital humanities, for example, where debates over the proper form of research infrastructures tend towards instrumental concerns over technical construction and deployment rather than normative or political issues. For example, many universities select their technical support infrastructures from large proprietary software companies, so in the case of email, Microsoft or IBM might be chosen to allow "integration" with their Office suite, but without considering the wider issues of data sharing, transatlantic movement of student data and work, data mining and so forth. Alan Liu is currently working very interestingly on some of these problematics under the notion of critical infrastructure studies, see Liu (2016). 
[6] This article has been inspired by much fruitful discussion with Michael Dieter, who I have been working with on the notion of critical infrastructures, particularly dark infrastructures, alter-infrastructures and vernacular infrastructures represented by Aaaaarg, Monoskop, Sci-Hub and related infrastructure projects. But we might also think about hacking "toolkits", crypto parties, hack-labs, copy-parties, data activism and maker spaces as further examples of new structural environments for new forms of knowledge creation, dissemination and storage. Mapping the underlying infrastructures is an important task for thinking about how tactical infrastructures might be deployed. 


Bibliography

Benkler, Y (2006) The Wealth of Networks. London: Yale University Press. Bergson, H. (1998) Creative Evolution. New York: Dover Publications.

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury

Berry, D. M. and Dieter, M. (2015) Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, Basingstoke: Palgave. 

Feenberg, A. (2013) Marcuse’s Phenomenology: Reading Chapter Six of One-Dimensional Man, Constellations, Volume 20, Number 4, pp. 604-614.

Fleck, L. (1979) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Garcia, D. and Lovink, G. (1997) The ABC of Tactical Media, Nettime, accessed 15/09/16, http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html

Gillespie T (2010) The politics of “platforms”, New Media & Society 12(3): 347–364.

Hu T.-H. (2015) A Prehistory of the Cloud. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Liu, A. (2016) Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies, Youtube, accessed 15/09/16, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHnJCc2Sc4Y

Lovink, G. (2012) What is Social in Social Media?, e-flux journal, #40, December 2012. 

Lovink, G. and Rossiter, N (2013) Organised Networks: Weak Ties to Strong Links, Occupy Times, accessed 04/04/2014, http://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=12358

Merton, R. K. (1948) The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, The Antioch Review, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer, 1948), pp. 193-210 

Parks, L. (2015) “Stuff you can kick”: Towards a theory of Media Infrastructures. In Between the humanities and the digital, (Eds, Svensson, P. & Goldberg, D.T.) MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 355-373.

Parks, L. and Starosielski, N. (2015) Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Plantin, J. C., Lagoze, C.,  Edwards, P. N., and Sandvig, C. (2016) Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook, New Media & Society August 4, 2016, accessed 16/09/16, http://nms.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/08/02/1461444816661553.abstract

Riley, R. (2009) Tactical Media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Starosielski N. (2015) The Undersea Network. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

14 April 2016

The Digital Humanities Stack

Thinking about the structure of the digital humanities, it is always helpful if we can visualise it to provide some sort of map or overview. Here, I am exploring a way of representing the digital humanities through the common computer science technique of a software "stack". This is the idea that a set of software components provides the infrastructure for a given computer system or platform. In a similar way, here I illustrate the discipline of digital humanities with a pictorial representation of the layers of abstraction in the image given below. This gives the reader an idea of what I am calling the digital humanities stack.

The Digital Humanities Stack, illustration by Marcus Leis Allion  (Berry 2016)
This type of diagram is common in computation and computer science to show how technologies are “stacked” on top of each other in growing levels of abstraction. Here, I use the method in a more illustrative and creative sense of showing the range of activities, practices, skills, technologies, and structures that could be said to make up the digital humanities as an ideal type. This is clearly a simplification, and is not meant to be prescriptive, rather it is aimed to be helpful for the newcomer to the digital humanities as it helps to understand how the varied elements that make up the digital humanities fit together. Whilst I can foresee criticisms about the make-up and ordering of this stack that I present here, nonetheless, I think it, more or less, provides a useful visual guide to how we can think about the various components of a digital humanities and contributes towards further understanding digital humanities. I deliberately decided to leave out the "content" elements in terms of the specificity, for example, of the different kinds of digital archive that we see across the digital humanities. I think that this is acceptable as the term digital archive does, I think, capture a wide range of digital databases and archival forms, although perhaps does not strongly enough signify the related material elements, for example in a "postdigital archive" that includes both digital and non-digital element. Relatedly, this diagram does not capture sufficiently, perhaps, something like the inclusion of a media archaeological collection in its materiality.

So this diagram can be read as the bottom levels indicating some of the fundamental elements of the digital humanities stack, such as computational thinking and knowledge representation, and then other elements that later build on these. Of course, diagrams simplify and even though I would have preferred for the critical and cultural critique to run through more of the layers, in the end it made for a more easily digestible visual representation if I didn’t over-complicate the diagram. The illustration here stretches the concept of a stack, in a strict computer science manner, as it includes institutional layers and non-computational elements, but as a heuristic for thinking about the digital humanities in its specificity, I think it can be helpful. As a version 1.0 of the digital humanities stack I look forward to reworkings of it and complication and re-articulations in the comments.


06 January 2016

New Book: Digital Humanities


New book, Digital Humanities, authored by David M. Berry and Anders Fagerjord, on Polity under production and available later in 2016.


25 June 2015

Continuous Interfaces

Apple's Continuity technology across devices
Under the contemporary condition of computation the question of the interface requires us to attend to that which in everyday practice we attend to continuously.[1] In this short article I want to think about the way in which the interface as a thin membrane over computational devices is increasingly being stretched across computational devices, objects, practices and processes to create what I am calling continuous interfaces. This has political economic, material and phenomenological dimensions. Here, I focus on the relationship between a computational imaginary related to ubiquitous computing and its important links between design, interface patterns and material technologies rather than its political economic drivers, for example in terms of lock-in, ecological ideas of digital media, and platform hegemony (see Maeda 2015 for discussion of the importance of design as a driver of industry growth and competitiveness), however the materiality of technical devices remains crucial to understanding current technology imaginaries.[2]

The notion of continuous interfaces I am drawing from the concept of continuous computing which has been deployed to talk about the increasing way in which ubiquitous computing is being embedded in devices which are in tension with their environment – for example in Apple's new continuity technology (Apple 2015). It is also relevant to the notion of continuous partial attention and the work of Linda Stone who explains that continuous partial attention,
describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from simple multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. One or both of the activities we’re doing is automatic or routine, and requires very little cognitive processing... To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — continuously. It is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected (Stone 2010, emphasis removed). 
In the notion of continuous interfaces, the term continuity refers to the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over time but also gestures towards a media notion of continuity of broadcast, in the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a film or broadcast. Thomson, for example argues that to enable a new area of continuous computing depends on three factors (adapted from Thomson 2015),
  • Physical design
  • Interaction models
  • The ability of the technical device to interact with its environment  
The experience of the surface of computation has intensified in recent years, both in terms of its growth as a mediating technology for social and cultural life, but also in terms of conceptual means for transcending institutional and technical boundaries between different spheres. Current manifestations of continuous interfaces have tended towards individual computing, the passing of a theoretical user interface intentionality across different computational surfaces, for example. But one could imagine a public continuity as a social imaginary which contributes to public culture and an imagined community although there appears to be little work in this area (see Anderson 2006 for a discussion of imagined community).

So continuity as a concept has links between hyper-individualised experiences of computation and closing the gap between different personal devices, and individualised goal-oriented behaviours, that is, instrumental rationality (Berry 2014). This also includes the micro-level of the individualised technologies across which various personal technologies that stretch computation across lives, life histories and sociality. This is a problematic I have argued elsewhere (Berry 2011, 2014) and concerns questions of interoperability, of inter or intra-computation and object-oriented paradigms of intercommunication between technical devices which now appears to have begun to be augmented through design, as a horizon of understanding provided by flat interfaces (Berry 2015).[3]

The requirement for a shared constellation of representations, axiomatic concepts and grammars of interaction requires a complex assemblage of technologies, articulated through code and design, that has characteristics of responsive design combined with a tight coupling between the materiality of the technical device and the articulation of the principles of the design language. The recent turn towards flat design has been manifested in the use of a double articulation of the geometric fundamentals of the primitives of the interface combined with a neo-materialist abstraction of fictional materials from which the interface is imagined to be constructed. The obduracy of the interface is guaranteed through technical restrictions built into the interface toolbox, both in terms of API functionality but also the sophisticated deployment of integrated development environments (IDEs). But there is also a mythic reinforcement through the allegory of a material form that guarantees the conceptual and practical instantiation of interface design, so in the case of Google it is paper, and for Apple it is glass. 

In Berry (2014) I talked about an analytical method of both separating the interface from the underlying code in a depth model of analysis that used the concepts of commodity and mechanism to point to the structural form of computational systems. These were defined as,
  • Commodity: accessible via the interface/surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends. The commodity is usually articulated at the level of the interactional layer, usually visually, although this may be through other sensory interfaces level.
  • Mechanism: accessible via textual source code, which contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software (means). This can be thought of as the substructure for the overlay of commodities and consumption. The mechanisms are usually delegated within the codal layer, and thus hidden from the interactional.
This is nonetheless a simplification of the architectural structure of the computer allowing the fundamental dimensions of the the relationship between the interface (commodity) and the code (mechanism) to be brought forward. In relation to an approach to thinking about the interface qua interface, particularly in relation to a method or approach that contributes to interface criticism it might be helpful to zoom in on the interface not only as a thin layer or surface upon computational machinery, but also as a discrete computational form in and of itself. Here I am thinking about the possibility of thinking of the interface as a machine in its own right, in terms of what we might call thin computation that tends to be optimised towards breadth rather than depth in terms of its relationship to the functional properties of the computer, but also in a spatial and temporal dimension.[4]  There is also an important question around the scaler function of continuous interfaces for transcending and scaling down planetary-scale computation to a local and individual scale (see Bratton 2014)

Investigating these developments requires the triangulation of critical approaches to technologies, systems, interfaces, media and culture, but also supplemented with new methods for reading (and perhaps writing) continuity. Some tactics which might be deployed in a continuous interface criticism might include,
  • Disrupting the bluetooth and WiFi antennas that enable the continuity experience. 
  • Connecting and disconnecting new devices into the fabric of continuity technologies. 
  • Connecting devices across platforms, e.g. across material and flat design paradigms. 
  • Overloading the data or computational power to cause glitches to be surfaced in terms of the continuous interface. 
  • Hijacking the public continuity functionality of users' personal technology either to invert the public/private continuity relationship, or to open the black box of such an "invisible" technology.[5] 
  • Hacking the real-time experience of continuous interfaces by slowing down (increasing the latency) of computational translation between material objects.[6]
Continuous interfaces offers not only a conceptual means of thinking about a possible new phase in interface design, but also invites us to think about the way in which one can deploy interface criticism under continuous computing. This helps to disrupt not just the traditional surfaces of computation, but also a growing tapestry of computational moments, objects, glances, notifications and complications that are weaved across the life-world and which we attend to continuously.



Notes

[1] This article was prompted by attending the Interfaces: Method and Critique for Designed Cultures conference at the University of Warwick, 24-25 June 2015. See http://cim-interfaces.net
[2] Maeda (2015) argues "I predict large tech companies will place greater attention on design. This is not dissimilar to the automobile industry as it began to mature — the famous point when Henry Ford refused to sell variations in the only color that mattered, compared with GM, which diversified its designs to appeal to larger populations across multiple brands like Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac with differing emotional appeal. We see it already with Google’s efforts around Android’s enhanced “Material” visual language led by Matias Duarte, eBay’s design leadership efforts led by John Donahoe and IBM’s resurgence in the design space with its new Austin center led by Phil Gilbert"
[3] Design as a theoretical limit for the reconciliation of a highly fragmented computation experience, but also life in postmodern capitalism is interestingly reflected on by Latour (2008), where he argues "today everyone with an iPhone knows that it would be absurd to distinguish what has been designed from what has been planned, calculated, arrayed, arranged, packed, packaged, defined, projected, tinkered, written down in code, disposed of and so on. From now on, 'to design' could mean equally any or all of those verbs. Secondly, it has grown in extension – design is applicable to ever larger assemblages of production. The range of things that can be designed is far wider now than a limited list of ordinary or even luxury goods".
[4] The production of a series of subjectivities constantly overloaded and reinforced through the interface as a temporal object which mediates experience can be captured in the idea of a subjectivity specific to a condition on contextual computing, continuous interfaces and flat design, what we might term flat dasein. That is a minimal subjectivity augmented through environmental and non-conscious cognition from machinic faculties produced via the programming industries and particularly the cognitive-software-design complex of Silicon Valley. 
[5] For an example of a hack of Apple's instantiation of continuous computing is the Continuity Activation Tool, see https://github.com/dokterdok/Continuity-Activation-Tool/
[6] Treating continuity transfers as a logistics network, and selectively slowing down and speeding up the continuity computational objects would be an interesting example of playfully demonstrating the continuity system. 


Bibliography

Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso Books.

Apple (2015) Connect your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac using Continuity, accessed 25/06/15,  https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT204681

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy Of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury

Berry, D. M. (2015) Flat Theory, Boundary 2, accessed 25/06/2015, http://boundary2.org/2015/01/27/flat-theory/

Bratton, B. (2014) The Black Stack, e-flux, accessed 25/06/2015, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-black-stack/

Latour, B. (2008) A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), accessed 25/06/2015, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/112-DESIGN-CORNWALL-GB.pdf

Maeda, J. (2015) Weekend Read: Why Design Matters More than Moore, The Wall Street Journal, accessed 25/06/2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/accelerators/2015/05/22/weekend-read-why-design-matters-more-than-moore/

Stone, L. (2010) Continuous Partial Attention, accessed 25/06/2015, http://lindastone.net/qa/

Thomson, B. (2015) Apple Watch and Continuous Computing, Stratechery, accessed 25/06/2015, https://stratechery.com/2015/apple-watch-and-continuous-computing/

31 May 2015

Curatorialism as New Left Politics

It is often argued that the left is left increasingly unable to speak a convincing narrative in the digital age. Caught between the neoliberal language of contemporary capitalism and its political articulations linked to economic freedom and choice, and a welfare statism that appears counter-intuitively unappealing to modern political voters and supporters, there is often claimed to be a lacunae in the political imaginary of the left. Here, I want to explore a possible new articulation for a left politics that moves beyond the seeming technophilic and technological determinisms of left accelerationisms and the related contradictions of "fully automated luxury communism". Broadly speaking, these positions tend to argue for a post-work, post-scarcity economy within a post-capitalist society based on automation, technology and cognitive labour. Accepting these are simplifications of the arguments of the proponents of these two positions the aim is to move beyond the assertion that the embracing of technology itself solves the problem of a political articulation that has to be accepted and embraced by a broader constituency within the population. Technophilic politics is not, of itself, going to be enough to convince an electorate, nor a population, to move towards leftist conceptualisations of possible restructuring or post-capitalist economics. However, it seems to me that the abolition of work is not a desirable political programme for the majority of the population, nor does a seemingly utopian notion of post-scarcity economics make much sense under conditions of neoliberal economics. Thus these programmes are simultaneously too radical and not radical enough. I also want to move beyond the staid and unproductive arguments often articulated in the UK between a left-Blairism and a more statist orientation associated with a return to traditional left concerns personified in Ed Miliband.

Instead, I want to consider what a politics of the singularity might be, that is, to follow Fredrick James's conceptualisation of the singularity as "is a pure present without a past or a future" such that,
today we no longer speak of monopolies but of transnational corporations, and our robber barons have mutated into the great financiers and bankers, themselves de-individualized by the massive institutions they manage. This is why, as our system becomes ever more abstract, it is appropriate to substitute a more abstract diagnosis, namely the displacement of time by space as a systemic dominant, and the effacement of traditional temporality by those multiple forms of spatiality we call globalization. This is the framework in which we can now review the fortunes of singularity as a cultural and psychological experience (Jameson 2015: 128). 
That is the removal of temporality of a specific site of politics as such, or the successful ideological deployment of a new framework of understand of oneself within temporality, whether through the activities of the media industries, or through the mediation of digital technologies and computational media. This has the effect of the transformation of temporal experience into new spatial experiences, whether through translating media, or through the intensification of a now that constantly presses upon us and pushes away both historical time, but also the possibility for political articulations of new forms of futurity. Thus the politics of singularity point to spatiality as the key site of political deployment within neoliberalism, and by this process undercutting the left's arguments which draw simultaneously on a shared historical memory of hard-won rights and benefits, but also the notion of political action to fight for a better future. Indeed, one might ask if green critique of the anthropocene, with its often misanthropic articulations, in some senses draws on some notion of a singularity produced by humanity which has undercut the time of geological or planetary scale change. The only option remaining then is to seek to radically circumscribe, if not outline a radical social imaginary that does not include humans in its conception, and hence to return the planet to the stability of a geological time structure no longer undermined by human activity. Similarly, neoliberal arguments over political imaginaries highlight the intensity and simultaneity of the present mode of capitalist competition and the individualised (often debt-funded) means of engagement with economic life.

What then might be a politics of the singularity which moved beyond politics that drew on forms of temporality for their legitimation. In other words, how could a politics of spatiality be articulated and deployed which re-enabled the kind of historical project towards a better future for all that was traditionally associated with leftist thought?

To do this I want to think through the notion of the "curator" that Jameson disparagingly thinks is an outcome of the singularity in terms of artistic practice and experience. He argues, that today we are faced with the "emblematic figure of the curator, who now becomes the demiurge of those floating and dissolving constellations of strange objects we still call art." Further,
there is a nastier side of the curator yet to be mentioned, which can be easily grasped if we look at installations, and indeed entire exhibits in the newer postmodern museums, as having their distant and more primitive ancestors in the happenings of the 1960s—artistic phenomena equally spatial, equally ephemeral. The difference lies not only in the absence of humans from the installation and, save for the curator, from the newer museums as such. It lies in the very presence of the institution itself: everything is subsumed under it, indeed the curator may be said to be something like its embodiment, its allegorical personification. In postmodernity, we no longer exist in a world of human scale: institutions certainly have in some sense become autonomous, but in another they transcend the dimensions of any individual, whether master or servant; something that can also be grasped by reminding ourselves of the dimension of globalization in which institutions today exist, the museum very much included (Jameson 2015: 110-111).
However, Jameson himself makes an important link between spatiality as the site of a contestation and the making-possible of new spaces, something curatorial practice, with its emphasis on the construction, deployment and design of new forms of space points towards. Indeed, Jameson argues in relation to theoretical constructions, "perhaps a kind of curatorial practice, selecting named bits from our various theoretical or philosophical sources and putting them all together in a kind of conceptual installation, in which we marvel at the new intellectual space thereby momentarily produced" (Jameson 2015: 110).

In contrast, the question for me is the radical possibilities suggested by this event-like construction of new spaces, and how they can be used to reverse or destabilise the time-axis manipulation of the singularity. The question then becomes: could we tentatively think in terms of a curatorial political practice, which we might call curatorialism? Indeed, could we fill out the ways in which this practice could aim to articulate, assemble and more importantly provide a site for a renewal and (re)articulation of left politics? How could this politics be mobilised into the nitty-gritty of actual political practice, policy, activist politics, and engender the affective relation that inspires passion around a political programme and suggests itself to the kinds of singularities that inhabit contemporary society? To borrow the language of the singularity itself, how could one articulate a new disruptive left politics?

At this early stage of thinking, it seems to me that in the first case we might think about how curatorialism points towards the need to move away from concern with internal consistency in the development of a political programme. Curatorialism gathers its strength from the way in which it provides a political pluralism, an assembling of multiple moments into a political constellation that takes into account and articulates its constituent moments. This is the first step in the mapping of the space of a disruptive left politics. This is the development of a spatial politics in as much as, crucially, the programme calls for a weaving together of multiplicity into this constellational form. Secondly, we might think about the way in which this spatial diagram can then be  translated into a temporal project, that is the transformation of a mapping program into a political programme linked to social change. This requires the capture and illumination of the multiple movements of each moment and re-articulation through a process of reframing the condition of possibility in each constellational movement in terms of a political economy that draws from the historical possibilities that the left has made possible previously, but also the need for new concepts and ideas to link the political of necessity to the huge capacity of a left project towards mitigating/and or replacement of a neoliberal capitalist economic system. Lastly, it seems to me that to be a truly curatorial politics means to link to the singularity itself as a force of strength for left politics, such that the development of a mode of the articulation of individual political needs, is made possible through the curatorial mode, and through the development of disruptive left frameworks that links individual need, social justice, institutional support, and left politics that reconnects the passions of interests to the passion for justice and equality with the singularity's concern with intensification. [1] This can, perhaps, be thought of as the replacement of a left project of ideological purity with a return to the Gramscian notions of strategy and tactics through the deployment of what he called a passive revolution, mobilised partially in the new forms of civil society created through collectivities of singularities within social media, computational devices and the new infrastructures of digital capitalism but also within the through older forms of social institutions, political contestations and education.[2] 


Notes

[1] This remains a tentative articulation that is inspired by the power of knowledge-based economies both to create the conditions of singularity through the action of time-axis manipulation (media technologies), but also their (arguably) countervailing power to provide the tools, spaces and practices for the contestation of the singularity connected only with a neoliberal political moment. That is, how can these new concept and ideas, together with the frameworks that are suggested in their mobilisation, provide new means of contestation, sociality and broader connections of commonality and political praxis. 
[2] I leave to a later paper the detailed discussion of the possible subjectivities both in and for themselves within a framework of a curatorial politics. But here I am gesturing towards political parties as the curators of programmes of political goals and ends, able then to use the state as a curatorial enabler of such a political programme. This includes the active development of the individuation of political singularities within such a curatorial framework.  


Bibliography

Jameson F. (2015) The Aesthetics of Singularity, New Left Review, No. 92.

08 May 2015

Signal Lab


As part of the Sussex Humanities Lab, at the University of Sussex, we are developing a research group clustered around information theoretic themes of signal/noise, signal transmission, sound theorisation, musicisation, simulation/emulation, materiality, game studies theoretic work, behavioural ideologies and interface criticism. The cluster is grouped under the label Signal Lab and we aim to explore the specific manifestations of the mode of existence of technical objects. This is explicitly a critical and political economic confrontation with computation and computational rationalities.

Signal Lab will focus on techno-epistemological questions around the assembly and re-assembley of past media objects, postdigital media and computational sites. This involves both attending to the impressions of the physical hardware (as a form of techne) and the logical and mathematical intelligence resulting from software (as a form of logos). Hence we aim to undertake an exploration of the technological conditions of the sayable and thinkable in culture and how the inversion of reason as rationality calls for the excavation of how techniques, technologies and computational medias direct human and non-human utterances without reducing techniques to mere apparatuses.

This involves the tracing of the contingent emergence of ideas and knowledge in systems in space and time, to understand distinctions between noise and speech, signal and absence, message and meaning. This includes an examination of the use of technical media to create the exclusion of noise as both a technical and political function and the relative importance of chaos and irregularity within the mathematization of chaos itself. It is also a questioning of the removal of the central position of human subjectivity and the development of a new machine-subject in information and data rich societies of control and their attendant political economies.

Within the context of information theoretic questions, we revisit the old chaos, and the return of the fear of, if not aesthetic captivation toward, a purported contemporary gaping meaninglessness. Often associated with a style of nihilism, a lived cynicism and jaded glamour of emptiness or misanthropy. Particularly in relation to a political aesthetic that desires the liquidation of the subject which in the terms of our theoretic approach, creates not only a regression of consciousness but also the regression to real barbarism. That is, data, signal, mathematical noise, information and computationalism conjure the return of fate and the complicity of myth with nature and a concomitant total immaturity of society and a return to a society in which self-relfection can no longer open its eyes, and in which the subject not only does not exist but instead becomes understood as a cloud of data points, a dividual and a undifferentiated data stream.

Signal Lab will therefore pay attention both to the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of computational totality, taking the concrete meaningful whole and essential elements of computational life and culture. This involves the explanation of the emergence of the present given social forces in terms of some past structures and general tendencies of social change. That is, that within a given totality, there is a process of growing conflict among opposite tendencies and forces which constitutes the internal dynamism of a given system and can partly be examined at the level of behaviour and partly at the level of subjective motivation. This is to examine the critical potentiality of signal in relation to the possibility of social forces and their practices and articulations within a given situation and how they can play their part in contemporary history. This potentially opens the door to new social imaginaries and political possibility for emancipatory politics in a digital age.

24 December 2014

Signal

One of the key moments in the composition of the conditions of possibility for a digital abstraction, within which certain logical operations might be combined, performed and arranged to carry out algorithmic computation took place in 1961 when James Buie who was employed by Pacific Semiconductor patented the Transistor Transistor Logic (TTL). This was an all transistor logic for analogue circuitry that crucially standardised the voltage configuration for digital circuitry (0v-5v). This represented a development from the earlier Diode–transistor logic (DTL) which used a diode network and an amplifying function performed by a transistor, and the even earlier Resistor–transistor logic (RTL) based on resistors which handled the input network and bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) as the switching devices. The key to these logic circuits was the creation of a representation of logic functions through the arrangement of the circuitry such that key boolean logic operations could be performed. TTL offered an immediate speed increase as the transition over a diode input is slower than using a transistor. With the creation of the TTL circuitry the logical operations of NAND and NOR allowed the modular construction of a number of boolean operations that themselves served as the components of microprocessor modules, such as the Adder.

I want to explore the importance of signal in relation to the interface between the underlying analogue carrier of the digital circuitry and the logical abstraction of digital computation – that is the maximisation of signal over noise in the creation of a digital signal carrier. It is exactly at this point that the emergence of digital computation is made possible, but also a suggestive link between signal/noise that points to the use of abstraction to minimise noise throughout the design of the digital computer, and which creates a logical universe within which computational thinking, that is signal without noise, or without noise as previously understood as thermal noise, is a constituent of programming practice. This is useful for developing an understanding between notions of materiality in theorising the digital, but also in making explicit the connection between digital "signal" and voltage "signal" or between the possibility of communication of information in a digital system.

At its most basic level standard TTL circuits require a 5-volt power supply which provides the framework within which a binary dichotomy is constructed to represent the true (1) and the false (0). The TTL signal is considered "low", that is "false" or "0", when the voltage is between the values of 0V and 0.8V (with respect to ground) and "high", that is "true" or "1" when the voltage lies between 2.2V and 5V (called VCC to indicate that the top voltage is provided by the power supply, known as the positive supply voltage). Voltage which lies between 0.8V and 2.0V is considered "uncertain" or "illegitimate" and may resolve to either side of the binary division depending on the prior state of the circuitry or be filtered out by the use of additional circuitry. The range of voltages allows for manufacturing tolerances and instabilities of the material carrier, such that noise, uncertainty and glitches can be tolerated. This tripartite division creates the following diagram:

Tripartite division of voltage in TTL digital circuitry

This standardisation of the grammatisation of voltage creates the first and significant "cut" of the analogue world and one which was hugely important historically. By standardising the division of the binary elements of digital computation, in effect, the interoperability of off-the-shelf digital circuits becomes possible, and thus instead of thinking in terms of electrical compatibility, voltage and so forth, the materiality of the binary circuit is abstracted away. This makes possible the design and construction of a number of key circuits which can be combined in innovative ways. It is crucial to recognise that from this point, the actual voltage of the circuits themselves vanishes into the background of computer design as the key issue becomes the creation of combination of logical circuits and the issues of propagation, cross-talk and noise emerge at the different level. In effect, the signal/noise problematic is raised to a new and different level.






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