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  • Mark 10:22 am on October 31, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , disruptive innovation, , techno-nationalism   

    Provincialising disruption 

    The robots are coming! The robots are coming! After watching More Human Than Human, I’ve woken up preoccupied by the rise of the robots narrative and how inadequate it is for making sense of the cultural politics and political economy of automation. The film is an engaging exploration of artificial intelligence and its social significance. While its analysis is often superficial, it foregrounds the agency of the roboticists and thinkers who are shaping emerging technologies and this feels important to me. Nonetheless it sits uneasily with the film’s tendency to frame technological change as inexorable, able to be steered for good or evil but nonetheless impossible to constraint. This is a tension at the heart of disruption rhetoric, celebrating innovation as a form of creativity while holding it to be unavoidable. But this is just one way in which the film so starkly embodies a broader trend.

    One reason it is important to see the figures shaping these developments is that it makes clear how white, male and Anglo-American they are. As Jana Bacevic observed, the film manifestly fails the Bechdel test. There are three women with speaking roles in the film, only of whom talks about her own work but does so in a way framed through the lens of the man whose memory powers it. As far as I can recall, every single person in the film is white, mostly American with a few northern Europeans thrown in for good measure. The only exception is a Russian-born women in the film who now works as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. This is problematic for many reasons, not least of all that much cutting edge work in artificial intelligence is taking place in China. By ignoring these developments, not only does the film undermine its own investigative mission but it further evacuates the political questions it raises by robbing them of their geopolitical dimension. Disruptive innovation is bound up in techno-nationalism, as machine learning becomes an arms race with epochal significance at a time when American power seemingly enters a state of terminal decline after years of domination without hegemony.

    The film ends in a contemplative mode, reiterating familiar rumination about our future. Every sentence in the closing scene repeatedly invokes ‘we’ and ‘our’. Who are we? How does the white American author in his early 30s who provides the intellectual narration for the film come to articulate the agenda of this we? How does the older white American director who provides its substantive narration, with the film framed around his own personal project in disruptive innovation, come to articulate the agenda of this we? The ‘we’ here is devoid of politics. It is a we without a they as Chantal Mouffe would put it. At a time when the liberal order is in chaos, we ought to be suspicious to the point of paranoia about the emergence of a powerful narrative of civilisational renewal in which we can save ourselves or we can doom ourselves. It is Anglo-American capitalism mystifying its own bleeding age, making a religion out of its own products and celebrating them as world-making or fearing them as world-breaking. None of this is to deny hugely significant technological advances are occurring. But the rise of the robots narrative actively frustrates our understanding of it, systematically shutting down the intellectual space in which it becomes possible to think through the cultural politics and political economy of automation. Provincialising disruption is unavoidable if we want to understand the reality of putatively disruptive technologies.

     
  • Mark 6:40 pm on October 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    The meaning of Jair Bolsonaro 

    This is a insightful reflection from Glenn Greenwald on the meaning of Jair Bolsonaro. He takes issue with the notion that Bolsonaro is Brazil’s Trump for three reasons: he explicitly advocates military dictatorship, he is subject to weak constitutional constraints and he is from an older far right rather than the contemporary alt-right movement. A huge portion of his vote in a country which until recently was dominated by the centre-left comes from a broader coalition than is being assumed, driven by a widespread contempt for Brazil’s ruling elites and Bolsonaro’s effectiveness in casting himself as their enemy. What is particularly striking is how readily international elites are willing to embrace Bolsonaro in spite of this and it remains to be seen what happens if and when he fails to live up to his promise of national renewal.

     
  • Mark 3:06 pm on October 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , binging, , , , ,   

    Mining resonance to the point of exhaustion, or, why does this sound so shit to me now? 

    On Friday night I was travelling home after a few days in Zurich. Waiting for my plane in Zurich airport, Bats by Uncluded came up on the random playlist I was listening to. I hadn’t realised Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson had collaborated. I was immediately gripped as what had been background listening suddenly grabbed my full attention, immersing me in the music in a way that was involuntary. I couldn’t help but listen to it a few times in quick succession, with the lines below gripping me in a way that is hard to get into words. As I often do, I looked up the lyrics and reading them alongside the music only added to the power of the song.

    In times of death and disorder
    You look for shooting stars
    In the reflection of the water

    And you open the gifts that you didn’t expect
    On the birthdays of the dead friends that are stuck in your head
    Like love, and hugs and songs and rage
    And the keys that you needed to unlock your heart’s cage
    The ability to put the pen back to the page
    The heat beneath your feet to propel you on stage
    The beat that completes your shit these days
    Yeah the beat that completes your shit these days
    (The beat that completes your shit these days)

    I wasn’t able to download the track before getting on the plane so I was delighted to resume immersion once I arrived at Heathrow, listening to it multiple times on my journey home before my headphones ran out of battery. I couldn’t get the phrase “love, and hugs and songs and rage” out of my head and fleetingly wondered if this might be the second tattoo I’d been thinking about for a while. I continued listening the next day but the effect was subtly diminished, the song felt flatter and my attention was more deliberate and less voluntary.

    Another 48 hours later and I realised when listening to it that these lines were no longer standing out to me, manifesting in little more than an awareness that I had missed something. But if I listened closely, I still missed it because ‘something’ was a response these lines provoked in me rather than the lines itself. It was what I’d call the resonance opened up within me by the music, the interplay of associations and responses that emerged from my immediate relationship with it. The music gripped me and moved me and changed me. But now it was gone. After 48 hours.

    This isn’t an unusual experience. I’ve had many conversations with people about obsessively listening to the same track until it becomes flat. I suggest this is mining resonance to the point of exhaustion i.e. taking advantage of our immediate control over the resonant item to repeat the experience, with the cost of diminishing effect as the resonance evaporates in the fact of its instrumentalisation. It changes our relationship to what resonates and involves exercising subjective control over what is otherwise outside us, eviscerating resonance by turning an external relation to a piece of art into an internal relation to an experience we are choosing. If we have to wait until something is on the radio or on TV then we can’t exercise this control. If the resonance is generated through live music, it remains something with a transcendent dimension to which we have to open ourselves up. If it is something we can repeat on demand, we risk emptying out the experience and destroying precisely what brought us to it in the first place.

    Reflecting on this has left me wondering about binge watching. It can be an experience in which we are gripped by what we are watching, immersed so completely in the narratives of an alternative universe that to leave it feels fleetingly impossible. It can also be something hollow and compulsive, repeated with a grim but unspoken awareness that we are being nudged into continued engagement by the architecture of Netflix. What makes the difference? I would suggest it is resonance and that what we call binge watching or immersion isn’t just about consuming a cultural production, it’s how we relate to that cultural consumption. The ontology of this relation is subtle and streaming platforms simultaneously treat us as sovereign decision makers and hollow selves to be moulded. The phenomenology of cultural bingeing is much more complex than either characterisation can grasp.

     
  • Mark 9:58 am on October 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    Capitalism, Social Science and the Platform University 

    December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

    In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.

    While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of the ‘platform university’ as a provocation to stimulate discussion concerning platforms, the commercial and academic science they depend upon and contribute to reshaping, as well as their implications for the future of the university. We see the university as a case study for inquiry into platforms, but also as a horizon of change within which the social sciences seek to address these processes.

    Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/capitalism-social-science-and-the-platform-university-tickets-51955542426

    There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.

    Full schedule of speakers and talks:

    • Aliandra Lazzari Barlete and Mário de Azevedo – Higher education, platforms and the academic profession in Latin America: a case for platform academic capitalism
    • Abdullah Ciftci – What is the role of YouTube for teaching profession?
    • Armen Aramyan – Datafication as a Synonym for Efficiency: Neoliberal Policymaking in Russian Academia
    • Eleanor Dare – Ontological platforms: deconstructing Moodle and the ideology of personalised learning
    • Carly Foster and Peter Francis – Critical Reflections on Educational Analytics and the Platform Universit
    • Morten Hansen – Black boxing the university
    • Eva Hartmann – Degrees of deceptions: Faking of and in the credential society
    • Martin Henry and Alba Henry – Quality teacher and digital student in the age of platform capitalism
    • Marc Jacquinet – What we can learn about platform capitalism from past speculative bubbles
    • Janja Komljenovic – Varieties of European universities’ engagement with social media  platforms
    • Anna Kosmützky – “There will be only 10 Universities left in the world in 50 years” – Market Dynamics of Massive Open Online Course Providers
    • Chris Muellerleile – Wasting the University:  The Costs of Competition
    • Seppo Poutanen & Anne Kovalainen – Gig Science and the Platform University – the Future of Knowledge 2.0
    • Annika Bergviken Rensfeldt – More than a blank Canvas – Platformization of Nordic universities
    • Susan Robertson – The Production of Scientific Knowledge and Value in an Era of Platform Capitalism
    • Richard Terry – ‘MOOCs are really a platform.’  Prefiguring platform capitalism in the case of online learning platforms
    • Nikola Wachter – Platform capitalism and open educational resources
    • Steve Watson – What we can learn about platform capitalism from past speculative bubbles
     
  • Mark 8:43 am on October 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: affluence, , , Rachel sherman,   

    The cultural sociology of defensive elites 

    Why do expressions of wealth through social media attract such attention? How does something like rich kids of instagram provoke such morbid fascination in so many? In Uneasy Street: Anxieties of Affluence Rachel Sherman offers a penetrating account of the moral universe which wealthy New Yorkers have constructed for themselves, unpicking the ambivalence they feel concerning their own privilege. While materially embracing their privilege, they nonetheless feel a profound need to subjectively distance themselves from it, particularly in relation to their children.

    Doing this involves distinguishing themselves from the unthinking, unappreciative, uncaring embrace of wealth and instilling the related dispositions in their children. As she writes on pg 232, “They want to be in the middle, not in a distributional sense but rather in the affective sense of having the habits and desires of the middle class”. This relies on distancing themselves from “images of ‘bad’ rich people”. These images thus serve to legitimate inequalities by helping construct ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to be affluent, something which was particularly pronounced among those in Sherman’s sample who had inherited their wealth. As she notes on pg 230, positive representations circulate of figures who are praised for how they acquired their wealth and how they subsequently relate to wider society:

    In November 2016, James B. Stewart wrote a New York Times column in which he tried to pin down the net worth of British writer J. K. Rowling, author of the fantastically successful Harry Potter series. 1 In the piece he attributes his interest in her assets to the fact that she is “that all-too-rare commodity in the ranks of the ultrawealthy—a role model.” He continues, “Not only has she made her fortune largely through her own wits and imagination, but she also pays taxes and gives generously to charity. At a time of bitter disputes over rising income inequality, no one seems to resent Ms. Rowling’s runaway success.” What struck me about this piece, first, is that Stewart invokes two of the characteristics of the good wealthy person that I have described: Rowling is hard-working, as indicated by her upward mobility, and she gives back liberally. 2 He doesn’t mention her lifestyle, but a 2006 Daily Mail article describes her relatively moderate consumption as “a valuable and uplifting counterpoint to the circus of pointless and continuous spending” of other celebrities, and it seems unlikely that Stewart would think she was such a role model if she were perceived as an ostentatious consumer. 3

    There was an excellent Vox piece recently which explored the myth of the frugal bllionaire. As Gaby De Valle summarises these representations, drawing on an interview with Sherman:

    You may have heard that Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway whose net worth is somewhere around $87 billion, lives in a modest house he bought in 1958 for just $31,500. Or that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drives a stick-shift Volkswagen GTI. Maybe you’ve seen those articles floating around about how Bill Gates, who was once the wealthiest man in the world, wears a $10 watch. Or how Amazon head Jeff Bezos, who is currently the wealthiest man in the world, drove a Honda Accord for years after becoming a billionaire.

    Most recently, the UK Sun reported that Michael O’Leary, the embattled CEO of budget airline Ryanair (which has been forced to cancel scores of flights amid strikes by pilots who say they’re underpaid and overworked), is as frugal in his everyday life as he is with his airline. Matt Cooper, the author of a forthcoming autobiography of O’Leary, told the paper that the airline CEO is “utterly ruthless and pathological about how much he hates spending money.”

    https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/27/17907312/warren-buffett-mark-zuckerberg-mark-cuban-frugal-billionaires

    These representations of admirable extremes co-exist with a broader tendency towards the normalisation of wealth. As Sherman describes it on pg 232, “lifestyles that would actually be quite expensive (including spacious homes, domestic employees, family vacations, and fashionable clothing) appear in ostensibly “middle-class” settings on television and in the movies”. I found myself reflecting on this recently in relation to the sitcom Modern Family. The family is portrayed as typical yet the grandfather is a multi-millionaire business owner while the families of his two children live a comfortable lifestyle for extended periods of time in LA on a single income.

    It seems each of their houses would be worth well over a million, with the grandfather’s house being worth eight million. In the most recent season, they hire a yacht for a family vacation. These are not typical lifestyles yet they are represented in a way imbued with middleness even if they may be out of reach of most. Sherman’s crucial observation is how middle-classness in this sense is moral, defined by earned consumption within reasonable boundaries by people who are hard working. This matters for many reasons but not least of all because the defensiveness of the affluent goes hand-in-hand with this moralisation of lifestyle. Sherman writes on pg 235:

    As we have seen, the people I talked with sometimes responded quite negatively to these critiques, interpreting them as personal judgments, as when high earners reacted defensively after President Obama advocated repealing high-wage tax cuts. But this tendency to feel personally affronted by public criticism of inequality also has to do with exactly the same process of attaching entitlement to individual merit. That is to say, to believe that J. K. Rowling should not have a billion dollars when other people have nothing is not to suggest she is a bad person for having the billion dollars. The distribution of the assets is the problem, not the individual behavior, disposition, or feelings—or any other characteristic—of the person holding the assets.

    This feeling of being affronted fascinates me. I’m convinced it’s a subtle factor which a political sociology of elites must take seriously, though it’s difficult to pin down without using the lens of cultural sociology. I’ve been most interested in its expression by billionaires but Sherman’s superb book has led me to see that these extreme cases reflect a broader cultural sociology of defensive elites, driven by a social celebration of wealth accumulation coupled with an ambivalence about the wealthy.

     
  • Mark 9:16 am on October 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: cyberdistopianism, cyberutopianism, Détournement, , , , participatory,   

    Détournement and social media 

    I was struck when reading this description of Donna Haraway’s work in Razmig Keucheyan’s Left Hemisphere of how useful the notion of détournement could be in navigating the contemporary politics of social media. As he writes on loc 4454:

    Like a number of contemporary critical thinkers, Haraway subscribes to the strategic paradigm of détournement. Its origins go back to the artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century, especially situationism. It consists in diverting an object or discourse from its original function in order to subvert its content and endow it with a politically or artistically new connotation. Thus, although cyborgs initially went hand in glove with capital, it cannot be excluded that they will make it possible to transcend certain aporiae in which advocates of a radical ecology and socialism are currently trapped.

    What was once a position of untrammelled utopianism, in which the founding ideology of social media was uncritically reproduced in a fit of enthusiasm, increasingly heads towards its opposite. As the media sociologist John Thompson cautioned at an excellent event in Cambridge last week, it is dangerous to read back the characteristics of media by looking at their effects. If I understood his point correctly, the risk is that we end up ascribing causality to the media themselves which overlooks the many social and cultural factors operative beyond the platforms and the firms running then. Bad things are happening which involve social media therefore those bad things must originate with social media.

    To be overly attentive to the media system in and of itself inadvertently reproduces precisely the utopian assumptions which we seek to overturn. I wonder if détournement in the sense of unweaving the participatory promise of social media (what I call the founding ideology above) from its embedding in a particular account of platforms could be a useful strategy for getting beyond this impasse? Rather than see domination as built into the structure of the platform itself, could the platform’s own ideology be usefully leverage in critique of the promised outcomes which its business model suppresses? Does the mood of cultural pessimism inadvertently exclude conversations about democratic governance and collective action orientated towards reform? Can these platforms be diverted from their original function?

     
  • Mark 7:58 pm on October 27, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: All the President's Men, , , , The Waldheim Waltz, Watergate   

    The weaponisation of epistemology: strategy and tactics 

    I spent this afternoon at the Cambridge film festival, watching two films which couldn’t seem more different yet spoke to our current moment in oddly similar ways. All the President’s Men was released in 1976, telling the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal. The Waldheim Waltz was released this year yet deals with events from not long after the other film was made, specifically former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s run for Austrian President in 1986 and the scandal which erupted when his service as an intelligence officer for the Nazi SA was made public.

    Both films featured elements familiar from our current political scene. Accusations of fake news, manufactured scandals and disingenuous accusations figured heavily. Consensual politics had broken down, replaced with claim and counter-claim as previously trusted adjudicators found their motivations questioned. Dark forces bubble to the surface and discursive order is revealed to be a precarious achievement. Seen in this light, both films embody continuities with our present moment and provide an engaging riposte to shrill invocations of the ‘post-truth’ crisis. The weaponisation of epistemology long predates Donald Trump and his ilk.

    However there was a difference which I’ve found myself dwelling upon. In both films, the powerful weaponised epistemology in a reactive way. They sought to dig themselves out of holes, shore up their defences and turn the tide of public opinion in their favour. It was all tactics and no strategy. This might be a function of the format, as the strategising I’m talking about would not translate easily into either narrative, even assuming there is a historical record which confirms its existence. It’s nonetheless intriguing to consider the prospect that the strategic weaponisation of epistemology has expanded recently, even if its tactical weaponisation is long standing.

    What I found particularly striking was the lack of preparation. Kurt Waldheim had engaged in impression management through his autobiography yet his war record sat in national archives, waiting for someone to bother to look. The Watergate conspirators left a trail which they only began to obfuscate once investigative reporters from a national newspaper were on the case. If this is the whole story, something which I’m not sure is true, it raises the interesting question of when preemptive spin and crisis communications began to transform the political landscape of epistemology. I suspect that once the expectation of weaponisation takes hold, in the sense of it being prudent to assume something will be used against you, it becomes a self-fulling prophecy as strategic thought becomes synonyms with prudent planning.

     
  • Mark 12:41 pm on October 25, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    An introduction to social media for academics 

    I’m currently in Zurich preparing for a panel on social media, organised by the CareerElixier group. I was sent some questions in advance and I’m writing up responses in order to gather my thoughts. 

    Why is social media a subject for academics?

    Social media is a subject for academics because it is a subject for everyone. How we all communicate is undergoing a profound change and this is something academics need to be aware of, if for no other reason than the students, administrators, funders, stakeholders and research participants are likely to be part of this change to varying degrees. At the very least, it is something academics need to have an awareness of and there are specific benefits which can be accrued if they wish to go further by using it in a professional capacity.

    Why should they participate and use the channels?

    There are lots of ways in which social media can be beneficial for academics. It can help increase your visibility within your field, encourage people to read your publications, keep up to date with developments, build wider professional networks and collaborate with groups outside the academy. But it also makes a more open, collaborative and interdisciplinary form of scholarship possible by empowering scholarly networks and leaving them less dependent on the traditional gatekeepers of academic life. Therefore I think we need to strike a balance between focusing on how individual academics might benefit from using these channels and how it might enhance scholarly culture as a whole.

    How should they use these channels?

    I don’t think there’s a single answer to this question. In fact the idea there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use social media can often get in the way of people coming to an approach that is right for them. There are certainly things its best to avoid doing, such as berating your colleagues online. But beyond that it depends on what you want to achieve. Are you trying to build better connections with people within your field? Are you trying to make public groups more aware of your research in order to collaborate with them? Are you trying to draw out the political implications of your research in a public forum? What matters to me is helping people find a way to use these channels which is satisfying and sustainable for them.

    Do you use social media for professional reasons?

    The short answer to this question would be ‘yes’. The long answer would be that it depends on what you mean by ‘professional’. For instance I’ve used a blog for almost 15 years as a place to write on what I’ve been reading and thinking about. As I undertook a PhD, the contents of that blog became much more academic and I setup a new blog with a specific research focus around 8 years ago to reflect this. But even now I often use it for things which don’t relate directly to my work and yet would be recognised by many people as academic. I use social media to find, share and discus things I’m interested in. Many of those things relate to my work but others don’t. Increasingly, I try to sustain a common professional identity across the different social media platforms I use but there’s still lots of things which aren’t obviously ‘professional’ on there. Orthodox notions of what constitutes ‘professional’ are likely to be unsettled by social media so they are of limited use in guiding how we take up these platforms in our working lives.

    Why do you use social media for these reasons?

    Two reasons stand out in my use of social media. Firstly, the endless opportunities for thinking out loud in a way liable to generate debate. Blogging has been incredibly valuable to me as a means of finding my academic voice, developing my intellectual outlook and practicing my writing. Particularly with the extended character limit Twitter has been a valuable outlet for testing out ideas in public and working up  hunches and intuitions into a form I can use elsewhere. My use of social media has helped provide intellectual coherence to what might otherwise have been a fragmented career, working on a range of what might seem to others to be unconnected topics (critical realist theory, asexuality, social media, big data, higher education) undertaken in a range of different roles. Secondly, its enormously powerful as a means of promoting events, helping reduce the time and energy involved in getting word out about events I’m running. I enjoy organising events and I’ve tried hard to build a network of people likely to be interested in and possibly attend what I’m working on.

    A slightly more unusual reason is that I use social media as an academic in order to better understand how academics use social media. As a point of methodology, if we want to understand these platforms then it is important we have experience of using them, particularly when our research relates to a particular professional sector. For instance I began using Instagram and Pinterest largely because I felt it was important for me to understand how these platforms operated from the perspective of a user. In this sense, I have an auto-ethnographic orientation towards my own use of social media, though it often lags behind my own practice and involves making sense of the habits and routines I’ve fallen into.

    What general benefits does the use of social media provide for academics?

    As above: There are lots of ways in which social media can be beneficial for academics. It can help increase your visibility within your field, encourage people to read your publications, keep up to date with developments, build wider professional networks and collaborate with groups outside the academy. But it also makes a more open, collaborative and interdisciplinary form of scholarship possible by empowering scholarly networks and leaving them less dependent on the traditional gatekeepers of academic life. Therefore I think we need to strike a balance between focusing on how individual academics might benefit from using these channels and how it might enhance scholarly culture as a whole.

    What kind of social media are useful in the academic context and for what purpose?

    One of the defining characteristics of scholarly work is how much information we work with. Digital technology makes the problem worse, by contributing to an objective increase in what is available by lowering costs of publication and subjectively leaving us more aware of what we haven’t read or engaged with. Social media can help us filter this abundance by letting us follow people who provide recommendations about what is worth engaging with. Curation tools like Pinterest, Scoop.It, Padlet and Wakelet further help us organise what we find in a way which is useful to others. We need to adapt our information management practices to take account of the abundance of material available to us, otherwise we’re likely to be overwhelmed by social media.

    Social networks like ResearchGate and Academia.Edu are becoming more popular and they clearly serve a purpose, in so far as people are using them to share pre-publication papers and navigate the scholarly literature. However I’m somewhat suspicious of them because we don’t know what their long term commercial strategy will be but we can be certain it will involve trying to make money from the work that academics have freely offered to these platforms. Furthermore, it risk detracting from non-commercial repositories which are surely a better avenue for sharing in the longer term. Mass market social networks might be a better bet, with Twitter being the obvious example but professional uses that can be made of Facebook and LinkedIn. These can provide low maintenance tools for keeping track of people whose work we find interesting & for allowing them to keep track of ours, including sharing links to our own pre-publication work where appropriate. Non-commercial alternatives like Mastodon or Humanities Commons are exciting projects but face the challenge of network effects, as the value of a platform is dependent upon the network of its users. By framing it in this way, I’m compounding the problem by imbuing it with an aura of inevitability but nonetheless it cannot simply be wished away.

    While project management software like Slack, Basecamp or Trello aren’t usually categorised as ‘social media’, they have enormous potential to enrich how academics work together. My experience has been that it’s hard to get people to use these packages because they rely on all members of a team developing new habits at the same time. But there’s a potential to radically reshape how academics work together, in ways liable to save time and increase creative engagement between people working at a distance. Trello in particular is one I’ve become hugely enthusiastic about, depending as it does on defining a workflow within a team. I’ve found it surprising how much academic collaboration happens without an explicitly agreed workflow and suspect this would seem extremely strange to people in most other sectors. Taking advantage of project management software involves coming to terms with these challenges and I think this is a good thing, even if it can make it tricky to get started.

    Which social media do you recommend using as an academic in particular?

    I suspect most academics in the humanities and social sciences would benefit from having a research blog. Regularly writing about what you’re reading, struggling with or reflecting on can be enormously enriching for anyone who spends time working alone with ideas. It can also function as a personal website, providing you with an independent professional identity above and beyond your university affiliation. Use of a social network is going to be increasingly important, as a means of being visible to one’s peers and keeping track of developments but it depends on which social networks are most prominent amongst your academic community. Beyond that, I think it’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve. I feel unhelpful saying that but I worry a lot of bad advice proliferates due to people over-generalising about their own academic community and institutional context.

    What kind of ‘strategies’ do exist with dealing with social media? E.g. non-users, skeptical/passive users, enthusiastic users.

    This is a really interesting question and we need to be really careful about how we answer it. For instance what’s seen as passive use might in fact be immensely active e.g. using it in a focused way as a tool for following conversations and developments. Characterising this as passivity might put people off using social media in a way which can be enormously beneficial for them. Lurking is a very scholarly thing to do, I think, even though it tends to lead to invisibility on platforms which hierarchise users in terms of the prominence of their speech. Likewise enthusiastic users might be characterised as unfocused users, drawn into the behavioural nudges through which platforms seek to continually increase user engagement to the detriment of their own work. How we characterise these strategies can often contain unacknowledged value judgements and encode understandings of what platforms are supposed to be used for. Nonetheless, I am concerned that what Zhu and Purdam call academic ‘super-users’ dominate discussions about how these platforms should be used by academics. Their experiences or motivations are not typical of most academics yet they are most heard in discussions about how academics should use social media, partly due to being cast in the role of advocates for social media and partly due to the attention economy of the platforms themselves.

    Is the distribution of these strategies connected with social attributes?

    This is a really good question and to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a clear empirical answer to this in the developing research literature. It might be possible to piece one together if one did a literature review with this specific question in mind. There is clear evidence of enthusiastic use amongst the extremely junior and very senior, with the strategies of the ‘middle’ being something which needs further research. I’m particularly interested in academics who join social media and then leave, as people whose experiences tend to be obscured by how empirical investigations inevitably focus on users or non-users.

    If one decides to use social media professionally: is there a best-practice strategy?

    I honestly don’t think there is a best-practice strategy because optimal outcomes depend so much on who you are what you want to achieve. Therefore the only best-practice strategy I could suggest would be to be clear about why you are using social media. What do you hope to achieve? The more clearly you can answer that question, the easier it will be to decide on what social media to use and how to use them. Beyond this, it’s just a matter of offering tips or guidelines: sharing things you care about, having a bias towards connecting with others, tell a story about yourself through your profile. Modelling other people’s behaviour can also help. If someone’s behaviour on social media  irritates you, can you articulate precisely why it irritates you? If you like someone’s behaviour, can you be clear about what appeals to you? These can be really useful questions to ask when trying to work out a mode of use which is right for you.

    What do academics need to know to communicate effectively via social media?

    Feeling comfortable with these platforms is a crucial precondition for communicate effectively and it often tends to get overlooked. One reason I’m so preoccupied with dispelling the idea there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to use social media is my concern it gets in the way of people finding their own voice. How do you find a way to communicate which is comfortable for you, consistent with your professional ambitions, leaves you feeling able to post without agonising over each sentencers while not leaving you so informal as to be taking unnecessary risks? It’s a tricky process and I think few people achieve it, with hasty generalisations about effective communications producing all manner of stumbling blocks. Therefore I think we should restrict ourselves to tips and guidelines, such as being sensitive to the norms of the platform you are using (e.g. avoid posting animated GIFs on LinkedIn, avoid posting your CV on Twitter) and taking the time to explore what it will let you do and what it won’t let you do (e.g. Instagram only provides extremely limited ways of pointing people beyond the platform).

    How do you handle multiple audiences? E.g. future employers, academics, multiple publics

    This is a really tricky one. We’re used to deal with these different groups in specific contexts yet on social media they all come together in a way that can be really challenging. A message meant for one group, assuming certain background information, can be read by all the others who might not share those assumptions. Furthermore, we can’t know how far a message might percolate outwards, completely leaving behind its original context. The key thing is understand these risks and finding ways to manage them, because the only way to avoid them completely is to either avoid social media all together or cultivate a sufficiently anodyne style that we never say anything that could possibly be misinterpreted by anyone. Thus we would stand little chance of ever saying anything at all. Therefore we need to map out who are audiences are and try to understand what conflicts, if any, exist between them. For instance people often skip over stuff that is irrelevant to them, as long as it doesn’t constitute the bulk of what they see. I’ve always like Paul Krugman’s strategy of simply labelling certain posts as for other economists and policy professionals, as opposed to his usual readership which has a broader interest in politics.

    Using social media can take a lot of time. How do you see the discrepancy between using time for social media presence versus time for your research?

    One of the risks is that social media becomes a black hole for your time. From the perspective of the firms running these platforms, the more time you spend on them the better because they’re reliant on your time, energy and data to make money. Therefore it’s important to avoid falling into these traps, for instance getting too preoccupied with pursuing followers at all cost. In my experience, the people who use social media most effectively, in the sense that they get a lot out of it both personally and professionally, have made it part of their workflow. It’s part of their normal working routines (e.g. they do the initial preparation for a panel for a blog post, crowd source information via Twitter or share a draft slide deck through Slideshare to get comments) as opposed to be something outside their usual work. If you start putting ‘write blog post’, ‘send tweets’ on a to do list then you’re unlikely to be enjoying what you’re doing or get much out of it. Other things will inevitably intrude in this case. Using scheduling software can also be an important strategy here, though that’s a big topic in its own right and it feels a bit weird to do it for personal accounts in my experience.

    How do you handle the fact that content normally connote be deleted and leaves long-term traceable information about one’s person?

    There are things you can use to address this problem, such as using a service like TweetDelete to automatically all tweets past a certain date or archiving old blogs and taking them offline. But these can’t ensure the content has been deleted. For instance others might have saved it or might be available through a web archiving project. One crass response to this is to say that you shouldn’t share anything you wouldn’t stand by later. But the problem is that we don’t know we will change or how society will change in the future, making it hard to identify those things which prove problematic at a later day. To follow through in a truly cautious way would risk leaving us unable to say anything online. Therefore it becomes a matter of managing risk: occasionally auditing your profiles with a critical eye to see if there might be things which you would later regret, recognising the public character of what you share even if it feels like you are sharing it with a close group or having a statement of purpose which illuminates the context of what you are sharing e.g. noting that a blog ism or sharing work in progress.

    However these are fairly unsatisfying when you really begin to think through the problem. Academics have always been made statements which they are held to, the problem is that social media personalise those statements (contrary to centuries of scholarly norm), archive them by default and do so in a way which is potentially searchable. After an argument with staff at a right-think tank on Twitter I once found a prominent journalist looking back through years of tweets and retweeting examples of Marxist academia. It’s unnerving when this happens and I’m aware my status as a white middle-class man who mostly talks to other academics makes it unlikely I’ll ever be a major target of it. There’s a huge change underway where which we need to grapple with in the academy and beyond, relating to how we conceive of responsibility and ownership. It’s a matter for political theory as much as it is for social media.

    Is social media use becoming an obligation for academics? If yes, how can academics evade it?

    I think it is in the UK but there are quite specific reasons for this, relating to the pressure to demonstrate research impact and the fact there’s still relatively little understand of how to install this at an institutional level. I’d love to find out more about the situation in Switzerland, as I’m aware most of what I understand relates to the American, UK and to a lesser extent Australian contexts.

    How to handle (public) critique and trolls effectively?

    This is a really good question and distinguishing between them at the outset is important. Even if many academics spend a lot of their time talking to each other on social media, sudden encounters with the public are always possible and they’re often unpredictable. It can be jarring to realise external groups might not only be uninterested in our research but in fact be actively hostile to it. I’ve seen countless incidents where academics have responded to what might be deemed critique by others and labelled it as trolling. The ‘troll’ is an ambiguous category and in some ways its an unhelpful term, having changing from the deliberate trickster of internet culture to a. catch-all term for someone whose online behaviour we object to.

    Nonetheless, the risk in suggesting academics might sometimes not take critique well is that we understate the problem of harassment which is huge and growing. As the educational technologist Audrey Watters has argued, online harassment reflects offline harassment but it also reflects design features of platforms which have incentivised and amplified this behaviour. If you haven’t encountered these toxic cultures, type ‘social justice warrior’ into YouTube and look through some videos and comments threads. This is a huge problem and I’m conscious when discussing it that I’m never going to be on the receiving end of it, simply because it is massively targeted at women and people of colour rather than beardy white middle class theory bros. In the context of this, my making practical suggestions such as looking for red flags in someone’s behaviour (for instance are they tweeting similar comments to many others? does their behaviour suggest a genuine interest in debate?) and blocking proactively seem like trite responses to a societal problem. We need to make this issue prominent though, not least of all because mainstreaming social media within university creates an economy of reward in which white men will be doubly privileged because they can be ‘engaged academics’ without having to deal with the vast amounts of emotional labour and psychic assault which others endure.

    What are the main legal issues and issues regarding data protection?

    At least in the UK context, there’s still a naiveté concerning publishing online. Many people seem to see it as something informal or pre-legal when it really isn’t. Increasing contestation of academic speech might drive awareness of these issues as people begin to recognise the potential consequences to online action. The thankfully declining sense of ‘online’ as a virtual space distinct from ‘offline’ will help in this regards. In terms of data protection, I think GDPR principles are likely to filter down and they provide excellent common sense ways of making sense of data protection even beyond their sphere of application. But my understanding would be there aren’t specific data protection concerns applying to social media under GPDR, unless you’re scraping profile data to be stored in a database, as the firm itself is the responsible entity.

    Would you use social media in an activist sense – what are the pros and cons?

    A colleague I interviewed for my book, Gurminder Bhambra, said something about this which really stuck with me: what’s the point of having a political opinion which is private? I think she’s right and social media provides an enticing forum for this, providing a platform for academics to talk in a way orientated towards audience outside the academy.  Nonetheless, we have to be clear about what we mean when we talk about using it it an ‘activist sense’. What is it we’re trying to achieve exactly? There’s a risk that social media becomes an echo chamber, in which our opinions are reflected back to us. It can be a powerful tool for building solidarity and sharing information but its activist value comes as part of a strategy which extends beyond it.

    Is it academics’ responsibility to communicate via social media with the public?

    There’s a softer version of this claim which often gets overlooked. Rather than it being a responsibility to communicate via social media with the public, it is a responsibility to make work open in a way that members of the public can find it if they’re interested. This shift towards openness is less of an undertaking than a claim of responsibility for active communication and it’s more easily supported by institutional provision. I’d subscribe to this but I’m not sure how I feel about basing that claim in terms of government funding which is often how it’s made in the UK. I’d much rather frame it in terms of rendering public goods (potentially) accessible, a radical extension of what teaching has always done. If we present it as a quid pro quo for government spending then we’ve already conceded a great deal of political ground.

     

     
  • Mark 6:25 am on October 24, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , public records, , Sociological Futures,   

    Trump administration seeking permission to destroy massive amounts of existing and future records 

    There’s a full explanation of this on Russ Kick’s blog. If I understand correctly, there a formal process in which federal agencies coordinate with the national archive to determine the status of public records. These requests are usually green lit by the National Archives & Records Administration, though they theoretically have the power to refuse them. This is how Russ Kick describes what is happening: 

    The Department of the Interior has sent NARA a massive Request for Records Disposition Authority.

    Interior’s request involves documents about oil and gas leases, mining, dams, wells, timber sales, marine conservation, fishing, endangered species, non-endangered species, critical habitats, land acquisition, and lots more.

    The request covers these categories of documents from every agency within the Interior Department, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others.

    The request covers already-existing documents going back more than 50 years. Thousands of cubic feet of paper documents. Gigabytes of digital documents. Besides existing documents, as usual the proposed schedule will also apply to all future documents created in these categories (whether on paper or born digital).

    It’s hard not to wonder if this might be the start of requests by other agencies. For all the centrism running through the latest book by Michael Lewis, I still found it a powerful account of the institutional vandalism currently underway. People who don’t understand the federal agencies they have been appointed to are nonetheless committed to eviscerating them from the inside, undertaken with varying degrees of direct self-interest. In the context of these appointments, it would be naive to assume anything other than the worst in response to this request.

     
  • Mark 8:47 am on October 23, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    The challenge of being ready to think 

    In a wonderful London Review of Books piece, the composer Nico Muhly reflects on the challenge of being ready to think. If our work is embedded in a particular environment, scaffolded by the equipment we have within an office, it can be difficult to think when on the move. But even if we can take our equipment with us, it doesn’t mean we are ready to think. There is always refocusing required and this can take time and effort:

    When I plan out a year’s work, I can see in advance that I’ll need to be writing certain pieces across several trips, and I seek out ways to keep my focus on work rather than the constantly changing environment. If the work were only saved on a computer, it would take me hours to refocus after a long trip, whereas if I bring a slim folder, the minute I see it on the desk or at the foot of the bed, I’m immediately ready to think about it again.

    The folders accompany me everywhere; even if a piece is an unfertilised egg of an idea (‘Corpse Road’ is the title of an empty folder in my satchel right now), it is with me in my bag every day. At home, I save vegetable scraps and post-spatchcocking chicken necks and backs in a container in the freezer: a physical reminder that something can always be done with them. The folders, too, are a reminder of the endless possibility of what they might become.

    https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n20/nico-muhly/diary

    How do we realise this promise of being immediately ready to think? I’ve been thinking about this since reading Andrew Abbott’s advice in Digital Paper about the necessity of tagging and categorising research materials because time and energy spent searching for an item is time and energy not spend working on it. He stresses the importance of this work because it constitutes the analytic categories of your research project, as opposed to being clerical labour standing outside the lofty world of ideas which scholars are inclined to see themselves as embedded within.

    This relationship between the ideas we we are working and the tools we use to work on them is one which fascinates me, not least of all because digital tools and digital platforms makes it more complex than it has ever been. Firstly, the relationship becomes imperceptible (though not immaterial)  because it is mediated by devices, giving a new valence to handwriting in the process and sparking resurgent handwriting cultures. Secondly, the ease of working with digital files means attentiveness has to be cultivated rather than being something which (mostly) flows organically from the physical process of undertaking the work. Thirdly, the vast array of tools and platforms with which we can work, as well as the changing ways of relating platforms which are themselves in flux, means a higher level of reflection is required, often subsumed under a notion like workflow.

    The ideas we are working with are materials in the same sense as the tools we use but their realisation is dependent on those tools. There’s something important here about our ideational materials being at hand and the subtle alignments necessary in order for this to be true of the tools we use to access them. Adjusting our devices, habits and habitats in order to get our workflow right can feel like a distraction but in actual fact it is a crucial part of creative work. So much of what matters about creative work rests on what Nico Muhly describes as being “immediately ready to think about it again”. Unless we choreograph our digital routines, distractions multiply and we work in spite of rather than because of the tools we are using.

     
    • whitestudiolo 7:56 pm on October 23, 2018 Permalink

      I really like this piece! I’m glad that you have shined a clarifying light on creative workflow and managing a digital-analog hybrid in academic practice. Thanks!

      Karen R. White whitestudiolo.com

      >

  • Mark 7:43 am on October 20, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags:   

    The everyday life of platform capitalism’s elites 

    I’m currently reading Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman. It’s a fascinating investigation of how wealthy New Yorkers (with household incomes greater than $250,000, placing them in the top 5% of the city) experience their own privilege. Sherman’s focus is on parents in their thirties and forties engaged in home renovation, exploring how this undertaking leaves them making sense of their financial means and its appropriate use to shape the conditions in which they conduct their lives. It counteracts a tendency to evacuate the everyday life of contemporary elites, analysing their agency in terms of structural reproduction to the exclusion of other considerations. As she writes on pg 11:

    Although images of the wealthy proliferate in the media, we know very little about what it is like to be wealthy in the current historical moment. Contemporary scholarly accounts of elite experience are in short supply, due largely to the difficulty of gaining access to wealthy people. The few studies of elite consumption that do exist focus on its explicitly or implicitly competitive dimensions, whether they embody Veblenian conspicuous consumption or other forms of social distinction. Other research on elite lifestyles looks at how privileged people maintain and reproduce their privilege through social closure in elite clubs and elsewhere.

    This consideration of what it is like to be wealthy at the current moment strikes me as enormously important. The Life in the Alpha Territories project had a similar concern, albeit with a more methodological and urban geographic focus and a slightly narrower remit about how elites were classified. In many ways, Sherman’s sampling strategy assumes the spatialisation of class which Burrows et al sought to investigate and the two studies can be read side-by-side in a productive way. Beyond a vague impulse to better understand a few people I’ve known in my life who’ve fallen into this category, my interest in these studies is quite specific. I’m preoccupied by  the political activities of defensive elites, as well as how these might intensify with time.

    Platform capitalism is producing new categories of elites, as well as accelerating the occupational polarisation which predates it. How will elites orientate themselves to the political conjuncture we see emerging? How will emerging technologies like genetic editing be used as a consumer product accessible to elites? How will elites respond to the political turmoil which will ensue from mass unemployment produced by automation, at least if present day political culture extends into the future? Understanding the everyday life of platform capitalism’s elites has an important role to play in grounding our speculation about these coming issues.

     
  • Mark 10:17 am on October 18, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , grievance, me too, political correctness, , , ,   

    The rightward drift of Slavoj Žižek 

    I’ve picked up a Slavoj Žižek book for the first time in a while and found the characteristics which led me to take a break from his writing have only grown over time. He links Me Too to victimhood early in Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity. From pg 6:

    As in every revolutionary upheaval, there will be numerous ‘injustices’, ironies, and so on. (For example, I doubt that the American comedian Louis CK’s acts, deplorable and lewd as they are, could be put on the same level as direct sexual violence.) But, again, none of this should distract us; rather, we should focus on the problems that lie ahead. Although some countries are already experiencing a new post-patriarchal sexual culture (look at Iceland, where two thirds of children are born out of a wedlock, and where women occupy more posts in public institutions than men), one of the most urgent tasks is to explore what we are gaining and losing in the upheaval of traditional courtship procedures. New rules will have to be established in order to avoid a sterile culture of fear and uncertainty –plus, of course, we must make sure that this awakening does not turn into just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject’s victimhood status.

    He reads victimhood in terms of the “weird combination of the free subject who experiences himself as being ultimately responsible for his fate, and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status as a victim of circumstances beyond his control” (pg 6). It reflects an “extreme narcissistic perspective in which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite of, but rather the inherent supplement to, the liberal free subject” (pg 7). I don’t think there’s anything inherently rightward about exploring this thesis, though it being offered as the truth of any social movement or cultural moment is self-evidently absurd.

    If we read him charitably though it is clear this is not what he is doing, rather his point is one of collective agency. How do we ensure a “post-patriarchal sexual culture’ can be built? Will trading narratives of victimisation contribute to this project or make it more difficult? But even this most charitable reading seems spectacularly tone deaf, as does his need to qualify the status of Louis CK’s acts. It’s difficult not to perceive a slide here, as a contrarian objection to ‘political correctness’ (something which he clearly misreads to begin with, failing to recognise the profoundly agentive character of it: far from being a diffuse culture of self-censorship, it begins with people making demands) leads to something darker. It’s a more thought provoking read than I expected but there a distinctly alt-light (not alt-right) themes prominent amongst the familiar features of a Žižek text. It remains to be seen where he is going in the longer term.

     
    • landzek 4:05 pm on October 18, 2018 Permalink

      I feel like Z it’s actually pretty neutral on his assessment of things. But that it is the wave and motions And that particular moment manifestations of political identity that Z as moving.

      Kind of like a calculus of view: from what stationary point are we gaging movements and how are we describing that movement for prediction of trajectory?

      I see him as always reflecting a neutral point: It is psychoanalytical, Analysis of things from a very open standpoint. But because people often are rather limited in their ability to view things openly, which is to say that if someone expresses a view that is too open they are often viewed as having a sort of psychopathology, of being ‘un-human’ so to speak.

      I think he does a really good job considering how neutral he could really put things. I think he knows that he will be judged as to his sanity and a questioning what is relevant to being a political human being, so he walks the line.

      Because one of the biggest theological problems is when a person argues themselves as an exception. That is offensive to most people and they don’t consider any of that argument as valid to their own humanity.

      Psychoanalysis rides that line to still remain relevant while challenging the human as to its real being.

    • JCG 5:41 pm on October 20, 2018 Permalink

      An important addition (and the reason I strongly disagree with the above poster that Zizek is “neutral” here) is to interrogate of whom exactly Zizek is speaking when he says “we”. When he writes, “…one of the most urgent tasks is to explore what we are gaining and losing in the upheaval of traditional courtship procedures.” Who is “we”?

      And who is he to judge whether Louis CK’s actions count as “sexual violence”? He is thinking from HIS perspective rather than that of the women who experienced Louis CK’s assaults. This is fairly hilarious in the context of a discussion about encountering the “Other”.

      Look Zizek, it’s not hard, imagine being locked in a room with a really big guy who it is obvious can physically overpower you, and who is masturbating in front of you, and who you fear may escalate to raping you, then come back and discuss the encounter as lacking “sexual violence”.

      Zizek is talking about heterosexual relations (and as a Lacanian he already believes they are “impossible” lol) and clearly a gendered analysis is essential. An uninterrogated “we” just sounds like an unacknowledged masculine viewpoint, particularly given all the populist alt-light screeching about how men are now “scared” to date women in case they are accused of rape (uh, again, how hard can it be – don’t be rapey!), the rise and rise of Jordan Peterson etc.

      If heterosexual relations are fundamentally broken (and let’s note that straight women are less orgasmic in sexual encounters than any other group – lesbians and gay men and straight men all have a better time) then Zizek is definitely not going to be the one to fix them.

    • Mark 11:41 am on October 21, 2018 Permalink

      Agree very much with what you’re saying. His experienced need to add that qualification, on behalf of ‘we’ as you say, should itself be psychoanalysed but Zizek so rarely turns his gaze towards himself.

  • Mark 10:02 am on October 18, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , post-structuralism, , ,   

    Against poststructuralism 

    I thought these reflections by Mariano Zukerfeld on pg 4 of his Knowledge in the Age of Digital Capitalism were absolutely spot on. It would unfair to present this as a characteristic of poststructuralism as such, but there can be a dogmatism to poststructuralist thinkers which is all the more frustrating for their own obliviousness to it:

    On the one hand, much of its indisputable publishing success has been based on concepts that, even though they seem attractive initially, are ultimately beautiful but of little use. On the other hand, many of these critical philosophical initiatives, when they engage with discussions about the capitalist economy, adopt concepts from orthodox economics in a completely naturalised and acritical way. Thus, they ascend to their concepts upon the scaffolding provided by the dominant ideology. More generally, I do not share these approaches’ rejection of the categories of totality, contradiction, negativity, and I believe that much of their blithe positivity makes them functional to the dominant ideology of informational capitalism. Finally, this tradition brandishes the banners of difference, otherness, multiplicity. However, in practice it is no more adept at dialogue with difference (in other words with those viewpoints that do not echo its mantras) than any other dogmatism. This intolerance in the face of plurality, debate, and constitutive contradictions, that for Marxism, scientism, or any religion can be explained (disagreeably but with coherence) by the belief that there is one truth, which they are in possession of, is completely unsustainable when observed in these ‘philosophies of difference’ .

     
  • Mark 9:01 am on October 17, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: abbreviation, , , , , , eviscaration, , ,   

    The vulnerability of human experience to abbreviation 

    This expression used by Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life (pg 42) stood out to me. He uses it in relation to the morning news, reflecting on how reporting inevitably strips away from the reality of what is reported on. This is an example of a broader tendency for human experience to “be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance”. To use the language of Andrew Sayer, factual reporting strips away what matters to people about what is being reported on. The distillation involved in reporting on the facts of a case unavoidably subtract how those state of affairs move people and motivate them, leaving us with an arid picture susceptible to wide circulation when so many other accounts compete for our attention. The abbreviation of human experience is a practical necessity which detracts from our understanding of others and the world around us, even as it contributes to our knowledge of those conditions.

    It might be argued that social media highlights human experience in a new way, though I would suggest it is demotic in the sense of reality television rather than democratic in the sense of participatory. It foregrounds human experience through templates and incentivised interaction, increasing the flow of human experience in public consciousness but at the cost of its integrity. Abbreviation is intensified rather than attenuated, with so many shards of experience flying around that radically truncating our attention is the only way to cope. What gets through is what is spectacular, jarring or enraging. It is not a return to human experience but its last gasp, with meaning and mattering mangled by the machinery of abbreviation. Under these conditions, what de Botton calls the finger placing ability becomes important:

    The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated on our own.  (pg 28)

    I’ve always been fascinated by these depths. The struggle within us to articulate something and the relief that comes when we find a way to say it. Often though we change in the process of saying it, as we suddenly recognise a state of affairs within us by virtue of being able to express it. The opposite of what de Botton calls abbreviation is what Charles Taylor calls articulation. Resources we can draw on in articulation are invaluable in an age of radical abbreviation, helping us become “newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” such that we are “drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about” (pg 29). Articulacy we develop expands outwards, sensitising us to the abbreviation we encounter around us and leaving us more adept at recovering the reality subsumed by its thin expression. This is not a call for slowness, as much as for elaboration. There’s a value in being long winded, even if it’s unlikely to get you read.

     
    • Patrick Ainley 5:34 pm on October 17, 2018 Permalink

      ‘DIMINISHED DIGITS PROVE TOO TITILLATING FOR FRISKY FRUMPS.’ James Joyce ‘Ulysses’ – in fact this whole book exemplifies your last point! (Nice view from Greenwich to Isle of Dogs! A fine beard too, if I may say so!

    • Patrick Ainley 5:35 pm on October 17, 2018 Permalink

      Close bracket at end of comment above!

    • Mark 10:21 am on October 18, 2018 Permalink

      thanks! one of my favourite spots in London!

      I’ve always meant to read it but have been a bit put off by the size of the undertaking….

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