My notes on Yuill, S. (2005) Programming as Practice in J. Gibbons and K. Winwood, eds., Hothaus Papers: perspectives and paradigms in media arts, Birmingham: ARTicle Press.

What does it mean to program? In this intriguing paper Simon Yuill takes issue with responses to this question which reduce programming to a technical practice, reduced to its relationship to computer technology. He observes that the term derives from the Greek programma: ‘pro’ (coming in advance) and ‘Gramma’ (mark or line) meaning “a set of marks that ‘comes in advance’, anticipates and provides for something”. It’s a “form of mark-making that encodes and guides processes of production” sharing a common form with “architectural plans, music notation and textile patterns” (pg 87). In doing so, they also express aesthetics and new notional systems have been developed in order to facilitate aesthetic innovations. In this sense, if I understand him correctly, there’s an unavoidable relationship between the ‘programmatic practice’ and the cultural activity of which it is part. The notation itself can indicate technical possibilities which feed back into practice, as makers seek to realise a potential indicated by a notation system.

Programmatic practices record and communicative the assembly process of a cultural item, enabling that process to be “shared and communicated to others” (pg 88). As he puts it, “Where once craftsmen and architects would design directly into the artefacts they were creating, the introduction of programmatic practices enables designs to be produced in one location to be sent elsewhere and realised by other people”. For instance “Ibn Muqlah’s scripts were originally designed to facilitate the creation and use of written documents within the large bureaucratic system of the Abbasid empire” with their modular composition (I didn’t quite understand this: “the forms of letters were encoded according to a modular proportion based on a single dot”) “designed to increase reliability and ease of reproduction” so as to facilitate “transference of designs across distance and their continuation in use over time”. He uses the lovely expression, “the abstraction of design and plan from its realisation in any given medium” to conceptualise the possibilities opened up by this system of notation, including moving designs between media (pg 90).

The distance this affords and the reflection it encourages enables increasing complexity, though the artefact remains marked by the programmatic system on which it depends. He makes the fascinating observation that this underwrites structural distinctions, as occupational relations within organisations are determined by differing relationships to the programmatic systems e.g. “an architect and a builder, a composer and a performer, a designer and a weaver” (pg 88). This enables practices to spread, facilitating innovations to be communicated and standardised. As a corollary of this certain modes of encoding can come to be marked as legitimate, identifying a practitioner as an insider rather than an outsider or as belonging to a movement with a particular set of commitments. It is a deeply social process, by definition orientated towards others, not least of all because “encoding a process in an externalised exchangeable form” makes it possible for “that process to be inspected, analysed and critically reviewed” (pg 89). It also facilitates a movement “from poesis to praxis, from the immediate task of making to a more critically aware, self-reflexive interrogation of that task” (pg 89)

I found this article enormously thought-provoking, with its underlying argument being that “programming is not unique to computing” (pg 93) and that we miss the continuities which computer programming share with other forms of art practice if we fail to recognise this. New media facilitate an intensification and acceleration of programming practice, rather than marking a break with pre-existing forms (pg 94). Furthermore, the distinction between creators and users is breaking down due to the immense reactivity of the medium itself: the endless possibility for modification is not new but the ease and speed of modification is. This leaves us, Yuill argues, confronting programming as a site of ongoing production rather than the production of discrete artefacts. He ends by considering the new understandings of creativity and forms of creative practice these affordances might open up, liable to be missed if we remain fixated on the ‘technical’ character of programming. Much as other forms of programmatic practice are embedded in social structures, what is computer programming making possible and which of these possibilities are being realised?

Reading Factories for Learning by Christy Kulz, I was fascinated to learn of the new right’s cultural war on the educational establishment in the 1980s which I had only been dimly aware of. I knew the central place of the local authorities in this but I hadn’t realised how central education was to these attacks. From loc 376:

These changes intersected with the widely publicised ridicule of some local councils as bastions of ‘loony-left’ policies by New Right Conservative politicians and the popular press. The New Right used numerous fictitious tales targeting white anxiety to attack anti-racist education, presenting it as the cause of British cultural decline (see Gordon, 1990). Concerns over local anti-racist movements were crafted ‘into popular “chains of meaning”’, providing an ‘ideological smokescreen and hence popular support for the Thatcherite onslaught on town hall democracy’ (Butcher et al., 1990: 116). Outlandish tales of political correctness gone awry blurred the lines of causality, with New Right organisations tying left-wing extremists and slumping educational standards to the development of anti-racist education (Tomlinson, 1993: 25–6). Many local authorities adopted less robust approaches to race equality towards the late 1980s owing to negative publicity, while the Labour Party avoided directly identifying with radical urban left authorities. Sally Tomlinson (2008) describes how there was far more commentary on anti-racist, multicultural education than action within schools. Yet the political climate of the late 1980s veered towards framing anti-racists, rather than racist attitudes, as the problem (Ball and Solomos, 1990: 12).

A quick note on the Wacquant workshop. We’ve turned to habitus and he’s offered the unproblematic claim that we always encounter the physical world through the prism of symbols. Social relations generate symbolic relations which are deposited in the body, shaping action in ways which serve to reproduce or transform social relations. It would be impossible to dispute this. However there’s a relative autonomy to symbolic mediation which is too easily overlooked. There are time lags, contradictions and path dependent biographical effects. There’s also a voluntaristic aspect, as we’re inclined towards searching for new ideas in ways which challenge, contextualise and complicate the existing symbolic resources we’ve accumulated that shape our world view. I’ll do a proper post on this at a later date but the point of disagreement between the approaches taken to the person by the idiosyncratic strand of CR I follow and Bourdieusians has never seemed clearer to me.

I just came across a lovely point in Harmut Rosa’s book about the relationship between social change and musical innovation. Certain forms of music come to be seen as emblematic of the age but, as that age changes so too does the sensibility which is brought to bear upon that music:

today certain forms of jazz music that, at the time of their emergence in the first half of the twentieth century, were experienced as breathless, hectic, exceedingly fast, machine-like, and stupefyingly chaotic – and thus as fitting reflections of their era – are touted as “music for tranquil hours” or “jazz for peaceful afternoon.”

Harmut Rosa, Social Acceleration, p. 82

If I’m in the right mood, I love music that is “stupefyingly chaotic”. I wonder if digital hardcore, gabba and breakcore will come to see quaintly relaxing in future years? Or are there inherent limits upon musical innovation which entail an upper limit on elaboration of this very particular sort?

I’ve always tended to write in a fragmented way. This post is incredibly rare in that I’ve started writing it at what seems, at least for now, to be the beginning. I’ll usually jump in with an idea, elaborate it until I get stuck and then move onto another. If I know what I’m trying to say but am struggling to say it, I’ll usually leave a note in the text e.g. “[explain why this is a bad idea]”. Eventually an order starts to emerge between the fragments. The endless notes to self, always in square brackets and always highlighted in yellow, gradually become more connective. Substantive purposes become structural and stylistic e.g. “[finish off this paragraph and link neatly to the next]”. I’ve often thought this is a strange way to write and occasionally worried that it represented some difficulty with producing novelty. Perhaps I just regurgitate other people’s ideas, stitching them together in new forms, rather than producing any of my own? The recognition of my tendency (being the sort of person who always writes in this way) has been a focal point for anxiety. Anxiety I pretty much immediately dismiss (“that’s impostor syndrome!”) which largely dissipates upon command but recurrent anxiety nonetheless.

I recently reread Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. I’m sure I read this early in my PhD (I’ve definitely owned it for years) and it didn’t make much of an impact on me. I suspect I was too early in the PhD process. Whereas this time I was struck by what a wonderful book it is. One particular thing stood out for me though: he writes in the same way that I do. He advocates it as an approach to writing which works to dispel anxieties, overcoming the common tendency to get ‘stuck’ on difficult bits by simply moving on to the next one. Whereas for me it was a behavioural tendency which provoked anxiety, given it didn’t feel like the ‘proper’ way to write. Suddenly, his view led to a transformation in my own – what’s going on here? What’s going on when I introspectively label something as ‘impostor syndrome’ and this works to dispel anxiety? What’s going on when someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction encounters the idea of asexuality for the first time and realizes “oh, I’m not so weird after all, there are other people just like me”?

These are all examples of the causal power of ideas. Take my mildly self-pathologizing interpretation of my approach to writing. I have a recurrent behaviour, self-recognition of its recurrence and an evaluation in light of this. When encountering Becker’s advocacy of this approach, I recognize my own behaviour in his description and re-evaluate it in light of this. This isn’t a volitional process: I don’t think “oh that’s interesting, should I reconsider my view on my own writing”, deliberate about it and then change my opinion. There’s an immediacy to the process which such a voluntaristic and cognitive reading fails to capture. I don’t choose to re-evaluate X in light of this alternative way of looking at X (though clearly this does happen in many other circumstances) but rather am changed by this encounter with the idea itself.

This is what I’d like to understand more than I do. The notion of ‘idea’ I’m using here is problematically fuzzy but I’m not sure what to replace it with. I guess my claim is fundamentally one about propositional content. I have a reflexive relation to my own behaviour which I can represent syllogistically:

  1. I recurrently find myself writing in a fragmented way
  2. Recurrently writing in a fragmented way suggests numerous personal characteristics (e.g. over reliance on other sources, inability to apply structure etc)
  3. Those personal characteristics are undesirable (e.g. I believe it is important to develop my own ideas etc)
  4. Therefore writing in a fragmented way is undesirable

The approach to writing found in Becker’s book can also be represented syllogistically. My point is not to suggest that I reason syllogistically when encountering the advocacy of fragmented writing found in Becker’s book – in fact this is exactly the opposite of the argument I’m making. But I do think cashing out the propositional content of what I’ve been haphazardly referring to as ‘ideas’ can help make the underlying process at work here much clearer than it otherwise is. For instance consider the intra-personal speech act of saying “that’s imposter syndrome” to myself if, as has sometimes happened, I start dwelling on this tendency I’ve identified in my writing. If considered in terms of the syllogism above, this speech act relates to (2) – rather than recognising undesirable personal traits on the basis of how I’m tending to write, I instead recognise my own act of recognition as an instance of a broader socio-cultural tendency (higher education provokes ‘imposter syndrome’ in people).

One instance of this process has been a particular fascination of mine for years. I’ve argued at length that the process of coming to identify as asexual involves substituting a normalising evaluation in relation to one’s own lack of sexual attraction (“there are other people just like me! there’s nothing wrong with being this way”) for a pathologizing evaluative self-relation (“everyone else is interested in sex. why am I different? there must be something wrong with me”). I would contend that the causal power at work here is fundamentally ideational, resting on an encounter with a proposition (asexuals are people who do not experience sexual attraction) with an implicit normative valance (it’s ok to be this way) that has a profound effect on how people who have tended to self-pathologise subsequently evaluate themselves.

This is one of those frustrating instances where I’ve not only failed to answer my question, I’m still not exactly sure what the question is. I guess my intuition is that those processes relating to identity and identification (with asexuality being an exemplar of a kind of process which I think is more widespread) are a particular instance of a broader modality through which social causation operates. Or in other words: something happens here which often gets overlooked. But I’m back at the question I started with: what is an ‘idea’ and how can it exercise causal power?

4th International Conference

Cultural Difference and
Social Solidarity Network

Differences, Solidarities and Digital Technologies

Hosted by
Middle East Technical University
Northern Cyprus Campus

Tuesday, 1 July through Friday, 4 July, 2014

The 4th International Conference of the Cultural Difference and Social Solidarity Network aims to examine the influence of the spread and growth of digital technology on constructions, concepts, and perceptions of difference and solidarity. By “digital technology” we mean any combination of electronic devices and digital communication including the devices themselves (from smart phones to servers), software and applications, and communication networks. Approximately two thirds of the world’s population (according to the World Bank) has limited access to digital technologies, yet the remaining one third of the population who use these technologies are arguably reshaping concepts of difference and solidarity that have broad implications for all people, their social and cultural institutions, the environment, economic systems, etc. As an example of an area of contested solidarity and difference within that one third of global users, are the broad claims from academia, the market, and digital technology proponents regarding the use of digital technology and devices to promote solidarities, virtual and real, and create an easing of difference through democratizing constructs such as increased access to the internet and communication devices. Contrary arguments assert that solidarities in a virtual world are not possible; that the democratizing effect of the internet, or even wireless service, is an illusion constructed by large corporations that control many of the on-ramps and consumer interfaces of the web in neoliberal societies; and that the growth of use of digital technologies creates new differences and increasingly solidifies existing ones.

This conference seeks to provide a space for scholars to take stock of the present global context and share knowledge – specific or general, empirical or theoretical, with a view to develop and explore the possible ways of understanding the impact of digital technologies on differences and solidarities. The conference is intended to be interdisciplinary and welcomes papers from scholars whose research crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries. Papers and panels are sought for presentation at parallel sessions where each paper will have a strict maximum of 20 minutes presentation time on panels of 2 papers with 25 minutes per paper discussion time.

Initial starting points for paper topics on the 2014 conference theme are listed below. We will also consider papers on themes from previous conferences and/or previous participants who have on-going research on broader areas of difference and solidarity. All papers/presentations should in some way connect to, or address, Cultural Difference and Social Solidarity:

Social media:
Identity
Economy
Politics
Law
War
Governments
Revolutions
Displacement
Sex
Bullying
Religion
Technology and hegemonies
Academia and technology:
New disciplines e.g. Digital humanities
Academic freedom
Discrimination
Discourse
Exploitation
Inclusive/exclusive methodologies
Electronics production:
mining, manufacture, distribution, retail
E-waste
Passive and active digital media
Ethics and digital technology
Art and Culture
Digital geography
Digital nativism
New media subjectivity
Gaming
Digital literacy
Epistemology
Experience

These themes are not exhaustive and the organizers will consider other papers relevant to the conference subject of Digital Technologies and Cultural Difference and Social Solidarity. We expect to publish a post-conference edited book, derived from the papers presented and organized around themes that reveal themselves during the conference.

There will be two keynote plenary sessions with speakers to be announced. Reflecting the conference theme in the context of the conference venue, one of these sessions will focus on aspects of these themes in Cyprus.

Abstracts may be submitted anytime until March 31, 2014
Notification of abstract acceptances and rejections is on a rolling basis (within 3 weeks of submission)
Online conference registration open from March 17, 2014 to May 30, 2014
Conference Fees to be paid by May 30, 2014

The conference language is English and all papers and presentations should be in English.

The conference fee is 395 Euros (295 Euros for post-grad students and non-participants).
This fee includes:
Registration
Transfers  to and from Ercan Airport in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to METU-NCC Campus
4 nights at Campus Guest House with breakfast
4 lunches
2 Sunset Dinners (all drinks included)
1 Dinner Banquet (non-alcoholic drinks included)
Guided Historic/Cultural Excursion
Abstracts of no more than 350 words may be submitted online only – http://www.differenceandsolidarity.org/

For any questions or concerns please see our website, including the FAQ page, or contact the conference organizers at the email address below.
Conference Organisers:
Scott H. Boyd
Middle East Technical University – Northern Cyprus Campus
Paul Reynolds
Edge Hill University

info@differenceandsolidarity.org

I was intrigued by this paper analysing the evolution of human culture in terms of ‘tipping points’ in our capacity to store and transmit information. It has a different focus but it’s nonetheless entirely consistent with Margaret Archer’s work on culture and could be used to historicise her account. Her approach to culture focuses on the interface between what she terms the cultural system (the logical relations between propositions) and socio-cultural interaction (the casual relations between people). Her central claim is that relations between ideas condition interactions between people and that this socio-cultural interaction leads, in turn, to the elaboration of the cultural system. This account rests on Popper’s notion of World 3:

The objectivity or “autonomy” of such World 3 objects as theories and arguments is especially evident in Popper’s view from the fact that they have logical relations – and in particular, unforeseen implications and unnoticed inconsistencies – that may not be noticed until well after we first consider them, but which were evidently there all the time waiting to be discovered. Naturally, he takes mathematics to illustrate the point vividly, but it is in his view no less evident from empirical scientific theories. The clearest mark of the reality of all three worlds is in Popper’s judgment the fact that World 3 has a causal influence on World 1, and does so only via World 2. For example, the scientific theories which entailed the possibility of nuclear weapons have had an obvious impact on the material world – they have resulted in various nuclear tests, in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so forth – but only because scientists carried out the mental activity of working out the implications of the theories and applying them.

Popper’s World 3 is often compared to Plato’s realm of the Forms, and Popper himself acknowledges that there are similarities. But he also emphasizes the significant differences between his view and Plato’s, not the least of which is that he takes World 3, despite its objectivity or autonomy, to be something “man-made,” its objects in the strict sense being what the human mind “abstracts” from their World 1 embodiment. Though Popper does not take note of the fact or develop the theme in much detail, this is clearly reminiscent of an Aristotelian or “moderate realist” approach to the traditional problem of universals, as distinct from the “extreme realism” of Platonism. (See here and here for a useful short account of the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic approach to the issue and its significance.)

On my reading this is fundamentally about information storage. So for instance a book retains the capacity to be understood regardless of whether anyone happens to read it. The information is latently present in the book such that, while it requires a reader to be understood, this reader is making use of a power of the book itself. Human beings objectify thought in our cultural products. What I enjoyed so much about this paper was how much more broadly it made me consider the historical context within which these practices of objectifying thought evolved and how, furthermore, Archer’s account could be elaborated on by considering changes in the structure of information storage, diffusion and retrieval which surely constrain and enable possible patterns of both socio-cultural interaction and cultural system elaboration.

About 45,000 years ago much of western Europe witnessed a proliferation of cave art, personal adornment, and rituals—what archaeologists refer to as the “Upper Paleolithic Revolution” (Bar-Yosef, 2002; Mellars, 2005). The roots of this proliferation appear to lie in migrations of anatomically and cognitively modern humans out of sub-Saharan Africa (Ambrose, 1998; Lahr and Foley, 1998; Ray et al., 2005), where there is intermittent evidence of symbols and personal adornment (e.g., shell beads and engraved chunks of ochre and ostrich egg shells) that in some cases dates several tens of thousands of years earlier (McBrearty and Brooks, 2000; Henshilwood et al., 2002, 2011; Mackay and Welz, 2008). Regardless, there is no denying the explosion in creative expression that occurred in western Europe around 45,000 B.C., coupled with the appearance of such features as long-distance exchange, grinding implements (Wright, 1992), and storage facilities, especially in northern latitudes where underground freezing kept food edible (Soffer, 1989). What caused the explosion? The answer may not be what was in humans’ heads but in how the heads, and how many heads, were interconnected. (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 23)

A larger local population meant that more people were around to invent new ideas, build on earlier ideas (the cumulative aspect of culture), and, crucially, pass on those ideas before they were lost. This population aggregation provided the critical “ratchet” (Tomasello, 1999) to push culture to a tipping point  (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 24)

Writing, which began in Mesopotamia roughly during the fourth millennium B.C. (Fischer, 2004), was used mainly as a form of bookkeeping. Later, more-expressive writing then became a specialist endeavor, meaning it was limited to a few, from the priests of Mesopotamia to the scribes entrusted with the Code of Hammurabi (Van de Mieroop, 2004). As writing became a means of creative expression—from the Greek tragedies, to the tales of Chaucer and the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, and finally to the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—writing became a means for the few to communicate with many, either through performance or later through readings by literary societies (Bradway-Hesse, 1998). In doing so, this “library” gradually became the hub of culture itself rather than just a means of expressing it. The intricately connected web of broadcast media that we see today is just the extreme of this trend.

Because of writing, the vast amount of specialized knowledge in the world is perhaps a billion times the technological variation contained in a prehistoric hunter– gatherer community (Beinhocker, 2006). This specialization has intensified incredibly, such that only a tiny fraction of people in the developed world knows how to produce food, and modern urbanites can often specialize in quite arcane knowledge that would have virtually no value for survival on one’s own or in the small groups of our ancient ancestors. Culture has, to this point, provided the means for even semi-isolated individuals to maintain a subsistence while simultaneously engaging in other pursuits.

Today, many of those pursuits revolve around the Internet, which in a way represents a return to the past, before mass media, by making local craft traditions and self-expression possible again through uploading personal videos, blogs, pictures, and social-network homepages. Cultural change has accelerated not because of the larger network but because Web 2.0 motivates many more people to create new ideas. The interconnectedness of online endeavors—through blogs and social-network sites as well as search tools such as Google and Bing—has not homogenized culture, as some feared. Rather, it has fractionated it, as like minds find each other to create cultural “niches” that branch off from one another. Interconnectedness, paradoxically, allows groups to differentiate by copying each other, which homogenizes the group but further distinguishes it from all other groups. Instead of family and political ties organizing people in geographic space, it is now ideas and common interests that organize people online. This change in tempo necessarily brings about a change in mode of evolution because modern technology is no longer a set of knowledge that people can teach to the younger generation in the way craftspeople apprenticed their children or teachers taught pupils for millennia. (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 26-27)

Humans have now created so much knowledge and skill outside their own bodies, in computers and information networks, that that knowledge may soon feed back on its own into this process. Anderson and Abrahams (2009) argue that progress in science requires true outliers—those creative geniuses that fit Thomas Edison’s inspirational one percent. Part of the debate is the mystery over the origin and timing of genius. Gladwell (2008) suggested that some geniuses, such as Cézanne, needed thousands of hours of practice before achieving the height of their skill, whereas others, such as Picasso and Einstein, made (arguably) their most profound achievements at a young age, with very little practice. Similarly, Galenson (2005) divided artists into two groups based on an assessment of when they made their greatest contributions—conceptualists, who are innovative at an early age, and experimentalists, whose innovations come much later, after considerable experimentation and refinement. Regardless, every so often an innovation comes along that is rare enough to begin a new paradigm in the true Kuhnian sense of the term (Kuhn, 1962). As soon as a good new idea is demonstrated, many clamber to copy it and modify it slightly. This alteration may underlie a continual budding-off process as new, more-specialized niches are created and then developed (O’Brien and Shennan, 2010) (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 31)

First, the pace of cultural evolution has accelerated over time, much of it tied to the ways in which humans have been able to harness and manage information. Second, although it is easy to be persuaded that there was some inevitability or direction to this harnessing and management, it is true only in a retrodictive sense. In other words, we see nothing in the archaeological record that would have allowed us at any point in the past to predict what the future might entail in terms of information management. Third, of the three tipping points we discuss, perhaps the most significant was the ability to store, and tap, information outside one’s own brain, whether that information resides in the heads of others or on a cave wall. Fourth, the emergence of this ability was tied directly to local population size, meaning that more people increased the odds both of new ideas ratcheting up old ones and of passing those ideas on before they were lost. Fifth, tempo and mode are both important components of the myriad ways in which humans have stored and manipulated information, but it is clear that changes in tempo can bring about changes in mode of evolution. (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 35)