[1] The Rabbit Hole

January 3rd, 2010 - 

‘…the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion’ - Donna Haraway

Digital Essay. January 3rd 2010.

Assessment Criteria.

Part 1 – The Rabbit Hole

A lifestream-based learning presence is a rabbit-hole to a wonderland, the can-opener to a madhouse. It encourages fun, playfulness – the harvesting of content and resources from previously ‘un-academic’ areas and the exploration of surprising avenues of cyberspace – a playful learning experience.  But just how mad is the madhouse? And do we care?

Tweedle-Dee

If we are to ask our learners (and indeed ourselves) to willingly embrace a cyborg pedagogy, to jump down the rabbit hole, perhaps we need to think about ways in which we can use the affordances of the new media which can help us provide guidance and help in the new space?  To provide guidance towards Haraways ‘fruitful couplings’ and away from the Tweedle-Dums and Tweedle-Dees of the internet – the voices that will talk nonsense if you stop to listen.

A digitally-mediated, multilocated cyborg pedagogy may encourage new forms of embodiment, new ontological constructions, new textual and and visual tropes by which to make the learning process more playful and immersive, but it also brings with it new challenges: a reconfiguration of ‘authenticity’, troublesome tropes, digital ticks and conspiracy winks and the dangers of a new, hydra-headed ‘grupen-think’ where the web facilitates a condition where meaning-making and authenticity become potentially hostage to a swirling sea of badly-researched, critically unchallenged assertions which masquerade as ‘facts’, repeated over and over until they are heard so often that they assume the status of authentic.

Is there a place for new forms of embodiment in supporting learners in this challenge? Is there a way to provide a digital form of what Williams and Palmer identified as the ability of a good ‘teacher to ‘enact the pleasure and seductiveness of knowing in their posture, stance, utterance, gaze, gesture as well as the written and spoken texts they generate as ‘subject content’?

How can we help the learner distinguish between well-researched, credible work and what attempts to pass as well-researched credible work?

Or is there a bigger question still? Does an application of a cyborg pedagogy render such questions irrelevant?

Conspiracy Learning

As part of the Digital Cultures semester, I undertook a virtual ethnography; a study of an online community of my choice, in an attempt not to decipher the truth of this community’s statements and interests but rather to try to arrive at an understanding of how this community decides on what is authentic ‘truth’ itself. I chose the 9/11 Conspiracy Theories and found myself disappearing down on of the the dystopian rabbit-holes which I had mapped in an earlier project - an entrance to a place I tentatively called ‘Disturbia’.

In this soup of paranoia and conspiracist thinking I found myself wondering about possible connections between the manner in which conspiracists create naratives of authenticity and which ‘learners’ create their own naratives of meaning from digitally-mediated online learning and wondering if there were any lessons to be learned, questions to be asked and new towns to be mapped which might help us better understand a digitally mediated learning experience.

To this end, this digital essay will explore one more conspiracy theory – often called the original conspiracy theory – and in doing so try to explore how such lies, such shoddy research, such outright charlatanry continues to be propogated and consider what this phenonmena might have to tell us about our emerging cyborg pedagogies.

The Mad Hatters

Whilst cyborg pedagogies might offer us new opportunities for learning, it’s worth noting that there are parallels between the construction of meaning from a fractured, aggregated learning stream and the manner in which a conspiracy theory seems to be put together. I would like to suggest that perhaps it’s in our interest to understand how mediated meaning-making for a learner saturated in information can lead to new uncertainties in learning – with the foundations of empirical ‘facts’ or ‘narratives’ shifting, mutating and squirming around the web.

At best this can provide a new ontology of learning – at worst the near total breakdown of critical thinking and the spreading of lies, falsehoods and the fostering of the worst kind of group-think.

A study of conspiracy theories, with their accretion-based construction, endless repetition, inherent virality and disaggregated centres can provide us with cautionary tales about the construction of learning and meaning-making in a ‘cyborg pedagogy’ – perhaps most crucially showing us the value of learner embodiment in such a pedagogy. Through the embodiment offered by a tool such as a Lifestream, learners are faced with issues around the authenticity of ’sources’, the veracity of ‘facts’ found online and the need for a heightened sensitivity around any collation of these ’sources’ and ‘facts’ into a narrative.

Guiding Questions

The ultimate purpose of this digital essay will be to arrive not at a set of recommendations for learners and designers engaging with a cyborg pedagogy, but rather to furnish them with a set of critical questions which they may apply to any narrative they encounter whilst studying or researching online.

Go to Part 2

[7] Antipodal Narratives

December 25th, 2009 - 

tag_ cloud

Antipodality is the experience of (dis) location – of being neither here nor there but both here and there – created by vectors of transnational and globalised communication – Usher and Edwards.

In the same way that the antipodal nature of the elements that made up the Protocols of the Elders of Zion allowed it to flourish, the same trick allowed the Pyramid of Learning to replicate and replicate. A lifestream could be similarly misunderstood – it’s aggregation of disparate elements seeming to give credence to a flawed narrative.

So how do we sift through the lifestream? How do we tag and categorise the data? We require a means, a technology or a filter through which to ensure that we engage with content external to the walls of the learning institution in a critical way.

Again from Usher and Edwards:

… universities are less able to control access to knowledge when it increasingly takes the form of information circulating through networks outside the control of eduational institutions. With these developments comes a need to think anew about what constitutes research and it’s relationship with pedagogy and learning.

So what are the tell-tale signs? What digital winks can enable us to spot when a narrative constructed from a cyborg pedagogy is in danger of being driven by what we might call ‘conspiracist thinking’?

If this is the nature of a cyborg pedagogy, then what questions should a learner within a pedagogy of multi-located, digitally mediated narratives be encouraged to ask?

Go to Part 8

Final Assignment: Assessment Criteria

December 23rd, 2009 - 

Course Criteria

Knowledge and understanding of concepts

Does the assignment show a critical engagement with the content of the course? Does it demonstrate breadth of understanding of the concepts and theories covered?

Knowledge and use of the literature

Have the relevant key references been used? Have other relevant sources been drawn on and coherently integrated into the analysis? Is a critical and creative stance taken toward the new kinds of literatures which exist on the web?

Constructing academic discourse

Is the assignment produced with careful attention to the quality of the writing and the skilful expression of ideas? Does it use digital modes in an effective and appropriate way? Is it scholarly in its approach to topic and form?

Personal Criteria

Does the work draw attention to some of the potential problems, pitfalls and challenges presented by use of a cyborg pedagogy?

Does the study and analysis of conspiracy theory raise any questions about how learners and tutors must be supported within an online environment?

Does the work help us understand how learners establish meaning and authenticity in a post-foundational, technologically mediated, ‘postmodern’ context?

Lifestream Summary: What Has Been Seen Cannot Be Unseen

December 13th, 2009 - 

Technologies

Where to start? I’ve just spent the last 40 minutes or so editing the lifestream and have been amazed at the amount of stuff that got lumped in there. There was stuff in there that I’d forgotten I’d added, which brings up perhaps my first point; that although the lifestream may be a viable way of evaluating a learner’s engagement with course content, it may have some way to go to improving as an aide to a learner – a semantic, tag-based arrangement of all lifestream entries might sort that. But that doesn’t solve the problem of how you’d tag them at the source.

Truth be told though, my main aid in gathering up resources was not the lifestream itself, but the Tumblr feed which I set up to post into it. Tumblr is a fantastic tool for a course like this – especially when utitlised on an iPhone. Half of the stuff in my lifestream was added via my iPhone Tumblr app – a fantastic on-the-go learning tool for someone like me who has to do a fair bit of study ‘on the run’ from one place to another.

Experience

But what of the experience of using the lifestream? For me, this lifestreaming was both reassuringly familiar yet novel enough to surprise me. Familiar in that I am an avid Delicious user and have been accustomed a while now to ’storing’ large parts of myself online – this through my own blog. Through here I have a twitter feed, a Delicious tag cloud, university and work posts, Last.fm playlists and at one point my Flickr feed. In a sense I’ve kind of been wanting a ‘lifestream’ for a while and used Blogger as the conduit.

As to being novel, I enjoyed seeing the connections crop up as I posted, ‘liked’ and favourited my way around Google Reader (the other crucially useful tool for me), Youtube, Twitter and the university blogs. I enjoyed the sense of  ‘the pieces falling together’ when you viewed the lifestream page: conversations, blogs, feeds, pictures and videos all sloshing around in a great big soup of links. In a very simple and powerful way, my Tumblr feed became more than my ‘online scrapbook’; instead it was the central artery of my lifestream and course learning.

Content

As to content – well, it’s a weird bag. This is a reflection of the stranger junctures of the web which I’ve been choosing to hang about in these last 12 weeks. There’s 9/11 conspiracy theories material, analyses of UFO abductee accounts, summaries of anthropological process and theory, studies of seemingly feral discussion forum teenagers, videos of rock-star cyborgs and web-star ethnographers, quotes from university professors and random twitterers, pictures of books I’ve tried to dip in to, clips from sci-fi movies which the readings made me think of, examples of game-based learning that sprang to mind when the literature turned to ‘cyborg pedagogies’ and probably a few ill-tempered remarks about my struggles to play the PC version of Modern Warfare 2.

Cyborgs and Ghosts

Looking back at it all now, I find myself giggling a bit – amused at the twists and turns of web-mediated learning, how a quote from one writer can lead to a video from another, to a podcast about conspiracy theories, to an angry conversation about online movies resulting in giving a talk at the Dublin Paranormal Conference and the excruciating experience of seeing yourself on Youtube. I can honestly say that when I started this semseter I didn’t see that coming.

How wonderfully odd that a course which makes such explicit references to ‘hauntology’ and ‘ghost-like’ online presences should see me wind up speaking in a Dublin hotel full of UFO-hunting, ghost-busting, poltergeist-whispering, Yeti-chasing, paranormal activity fans, in a scene akin to something from a recession-busted Hunter S.Thompson novel.

As to ‘cyborg pedagogies’, looking back over the lifestream now it seems a suitable example of the re-aggregation, re-assembling and re-modelling of information and meaning-making suggested by the cyborg pedagogy literature. What initially looks like a car-crash of data, upon slightlly closer examination shows patterns of thoughts and concern, avenues of investigations, fruitless rummages down dead-ends of online madness and overall the seemingly random, manic linking between one subject area and another – the connections between disparate writers, disciplines and mediums all merging back in to one big story.

It’s a great big mess, but I love it and will be continuing to use my Tumblr as I work my way to the final assignment. Put simply I can’t work without it now.

I’ve immensely, immensely enjoyed this 12 weeks and find myself sad to start winding it all up. And wondering how I can ever go back to a ‘mainstream’ learning model again.

‘What has been seen cannot be unseen’.

Week 11 Summary

December 7th, 2009 - 

References:

French, C. C., & Wilson, K. (2007) Cognitive factors underlying paranormal beliefs and experiences. In S. Della Sala (ed.). Tall Tales About the Mind and Brain: Separating Fact From Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 1, pp. 3-22.

Moving on to start thinking about my final assignment, I still find myself mired down in conspiracy theories and have been trying to find ways to relate the most recent set of readings (on emerging cyborg pedagogies) to this several weeks past of work. My lifestream is reflective of this shift as I try to find materials and resources which might help me bridge the gap.

I found a very helpful site of materials from Goldsmith’s University, London where Professor Chris French runs a course on anomalistic psychology. I took a chance and mailed Prof. French (explaining about my 9/11 work) and asking if I could rummage through his course materials. Luckily, several readings are open-access. Whilst Prof. French’s course doesn’t deal with specific issues arising from conspiracy theories (focusing rather on beliefs in ghosts, UFOs and alien abductions) many of the issues identified in these course readings seem to be as readily applicable to the field of conspiracy theories as they are to vistors from other planets or dimensions.

A number of key cognitive processes are identified which may have a bearing on dealing with an ‘informant’ (to stick with Hine’s term) and their account of an event or phenomena. These are:

  • Probablistic reasoning
  • Syllogistic reasoning
  • Biased concepts of randomness and meaningfulness

Further to that, a reading of a 1992 study by Goetzel yielded the following:

‘A survey of 348 residents of southwestern New Jersey showed that most believed that several of a list of ten conspiracy theories were at least probably true. People who believed in one conspiracy were more likely to also believe in others. Belief in conspiracies was correlated with anomie, lack of interpersonal trust, and insecurity about employment.’

But if those are the processes which are (allegedly) at work, what does all of this have to do with a cyborg pedagogy?

There’s a wonderful Irish expression, frequently used in the political domain: ‘An Irish Solution to an Irish Problem’. To my considerable amusement, the Wikipedia definition is as follows:

In Irish political discourse, “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” is any official response to a controversial issue which is timid, half-baked, or expedient, which is an unsatisfactory compromise, or sidesteps the fundamental issue’

If conpiracy theories (ancient or digitally-mediated) are to be explained or understood, then perhaps what we need is a ‘cyborg solution to a cyborg problem’ – where the fractured, disaggregated nature of a conspiracy theories constituent parts explains the remarkable difficulty that any ‘debunker’ (or would-be online anthropologist) has in taking the narrative on. They’re located in so many places, their memes so ambiguous and shifting, their foundations so transitory that perhaps the only way to conduct a meaningful study of them is to embrace the fact that they cannot possibly be nailed down in the same way that a standard historical narrative can be.

Perhaps a ‘cyborg pedagogy’ can help us to make sense of conspiracy theories?

Week 10 Summary

November 28th, 2009 - 

Week 10 saw me finally get the guts up to try to blog about Haraway, but also to spend a little bit more time looking at what Hayles had been saying – and my lifestream has been a little more reflectve of this. I was specifically struck by this talk, which I spent a fair bit of time mulling over:

YouTube Preview Image

This talk, in combination with the core reading, opened a few new doors up for me. Specifically Hayles’ focus on issues of embodiment. This has a personal resonance for me as I’ve had  several conversations with people about this issue. Also, I was struck by Hayles’ suggestion that certain futurists see humans as data-sets ‘trapped’ inside bodies – as though we are no more than RSS feeds awaiting liberation from a ‘walled garden’. I found myself nodding along with great chunks of what she says.

Moving on (or catching up) I started immersing myself in Cyborg pedagogies and thinking about how this shaped my participation on this course, the impact it may have had on my own professional work and what connections there may have been to the work I’d been doing on conspiracy theories – notably 9/11.

An uncanny digital pedagogy concerned with ghostliness of place would take a confident stance toward its own ‘otherness’, using the multiple, dissagregated and public nodes of the read- write web as place to conduct its business.

I like this notion – not least because (and I think I said this before) the fractured nature of my own online presence has been occasionally disquieting. Is it really wise to be leaving chunks of myself littered across the web like I do? A half-finished Bebo page here, a un-finished blog over there and a thousand micro-blogging posts in between. Is this ‘healthy’? Is this behaviour that may come back to haunt me? Should I be worried at all?

A ‘Cyborg Pedagogy’ resolves many of these questions, shifting the argument away from concerns about fractured presence towards a condition where I revel in the broken, disaggregated nature of my own online presence. It is worth noting though, that the lifestream tool is crucial here – in that it helps me ‘re-aggregate myself’ – enabling revision of materials and the construction of something approaching a ‘narrative’ of what I’ve been doing.

Fembots, Latex, Haraway and Hayles

November 25th, 2009 - 

terminator_poster1

References:

Haraway, D. (2000). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. in D Bell and A Kennedy, The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge.

Hayles, N.K. (1999). Toward embodied virtuality, chapter 1 of How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. pp1-25

I’ve been rather quiet of late – this last two weeks – partially because Modern Warfare 2 arrived (disrupting nearly everything in my life) but largely because (and I have to be honest here) I found the Harway and Hayles readings quite alienating. As I’ve said before on this course, I struggle badly with certain types of language used by academics in this field and have wondered if that language and those accompanying narrative structures wouldn’t be worthy of a mini-ethnography itself.

Going back to Hine’s assertion that the job of the virtual ethnographer is to discover how our informants decide on the ‘authenticity’ of something, I can’t help but (somewhat snidely) think  that for many in this field ‘authenticity’ seems to be facilitated by use of an elitist, hyper-real vocabulary. Whilst such pointedly playful language is perhaps part of the point which Haraway and Hayles are trying to make, there were moments when (with Haraway in particular) some of the writing seemed like an exercise in linguistic masturabtion. Although, I’m aware that that probably says more about me than it does about Professor Haraway.

All of that said, I appreciate that such things shouldn’t discourage me from course participation, but rather spur me on to try to form a greater understanding. To that end, I’ll try to work my way through the five discussion questions which Sian and Jen posed to help us work through these readings.

1. What is the difference between being a cyborg and being posthuman?

The short answer: I really don’t know. But some ideas did slosh around in my head whilst reading these pieces: perhaps Haraway’s cyborg is a celebration of the fusion of man and machine, a position which revels in the ambiguity caused by the union of organic and artificial. By contrast, Hayles’ identification of the narrative of ‘the posthuman’ seems to be something else – where the materiality of the human condition seems to be considered a design flaw of evolution; something which we may soon be in a position to rectify with unspecified, unknown technologies which allow human consciousness (now reduced to a mere mathematical equation for the storage of information) to be ‘downloaded’ and ‘uploaded’ into another physical host.

My first thoughts ran to Warren Ellis‘ Spider Jerusalem stories (the Transmetropolitan series), in which one of the stories showcases a future technology where humans download themselves into a cloud of particles – unshackling themselves from the limits of their bodies. Naturally, I also found myself thinking of James Cameron’s forthcoming ‘Avatar‘ – in which a wheelchair-bound war veteran is offered the chance to download into the engineered body of an alien (an eight-foot smurf by the looks of it) in order to… oh, who cares why? The whole thing seems an excuse to showcase some nifty new 3D technology, but the same notion of humans as ‘downloadable content’ seems to pervade here – as though corporeal existence is simply an irrelevance and we are destined to be reduced to nothing more than a DNA driven RSS feed.

2. Is our thinking about – and beyond – cyberculture still too structured by the kinds of binaries Haraway critiques (promise/threat, for example, or utopia/dystopia)? How does Haraway’s cyborg myth disrupt these?

Again, I just don’t know. I do certainly see some of the binaries which the questions suggests in operation every day: debates around ‘real’ friends and ‘online friends’, virtual and real, actual and imaginary, corporeal and data-based information and the endless online firestorm over authentication of information as ‘real’ or ‘false’ (see Wikipedias’ ever-present problems).

But, speaking with friends, family and colleagues I think that the ‘utopian/dystopian’ binary of the web is rather reductive. People who have serious grievances with social networks like Facebook (over issues of authenticity of interaction, stalking, bullying and privacy) are still using it – no matter how much they may profess they dislike it. If their view of such technologies and the resulting interactions were that dystopian, I don’t believe they would engage as they do.

I’m not all that sure that Haraways’ Cyborg does actually disrupt these binaries all that much. I know that it’s hardly scientific, but I find myself looking (again) at the narratives, stereotypes and presentations of cyborgs within contemporary science-fiction and feel that not all that much has changed. Star Trek: Voyager’s latex-clad, baloon-breasted ‘Seven of Nine’ character seemed like nothing more than a fairly routine geek-boy fantasy – all curves, doe-eyed, kittenish misunderstandings about sexuality, arched eyebrows and the ever-present threat of repressed sexual desire exploding out of its spandex jumpsuit to consume the nearest unsuspecting male crew member. Although not a cyborg per-se, the next Star Trek show (Enterprise) replicated the formula with the charecter T’Pol – a similarly Lara Croft-shaped Vulcan crew-member, whose detached, unemotional behaviour made her seem like nothing more than ‘Seven of Nine 2.0′.

A more recent example might be Summer Glau’s portrayal of a female Terminator in ‘The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ (pictured above) – a behaviourally submissive, lethally dangerous killerbot sent through time to protect the male hero, whose duties seem to involve brutally murdering people whilst looking sexually suggestive and wanton. It’s not the first time Glau has done this either – her portrayal of River Tam in the fan-favourite ‘Firefly’ was remarkably similar in places:  a precociously talented young woman, fiddled with by nefarious government  scientists whose intention was to use technology to turn her into a lethal killing machine – placing a murdering automata in the body of a hot teenage girl. And let’s not stop there – Joss Whedon’s latest offering, The Dollhouse, sees an array of interchangeable models posing as empty-headed government assasins – their minds a series of blank slates awaiting downloading of new orders to murder assorted bods whilst looking like they’re posing for the cover of Vanity Fair.

If Haraways’ cyborg was an attempt to break-down standard male-authored sexual fantasies, gender narratives and older, more rigid binary constructions of sexuality, it has been, in the field of mainstream sci-fi anyway, a manifest failure.

3. Is Cartesian mind/body dualism, as Hayles argues of posthuman embodiment (p5), the ultimate opposition that structures all of our debates about subjectivity and online identity?

I’m not that convinced that the Cartesian duality referred to in the question is the ultimate opposition, but it is one which I see debated and enacted almost every day. The seeming paranoia which sat at the heart of James Harkins’ ‘Cyburbia’ seemed to stem from the linking of human beings to a ‘feedback loop’ – in which virtual comunication becomes an exercise as addictive as the most powerful drug, leading to the illusion of ‘friendship’, authenticity and meaningful interaction. Social networking’s detractors, it seems, suggest that there is an inherent artificiality about such interactions – that the lack of embodied discourse renders the interactions trivial, meaningless and devoid of substance. ‘Friends’ in Facebook, this narrative suggests, are not real friends at all. But why? Because data sent down a optic cable cannot carry the same meaning, the same nuance and same ‘authenticity’ as an exchage of data between two people in the same room.

4. What other connections might there be between cyborg theory and the pragmatics of online pedagogy and course design?

Placeholder answer: I don’t know. Sorry! I appreciate that this is probably the most crucial of the five questions, and a short answer declaring my ignorance is less than ideal, but I’m being as honest as I can. I’ve just failed to see the obvious connection between these readings and the design of e-learning materials. And I’d very much like to know what they are.

5. Do cyborgs really resist the structure of sex/gender, as Haraway claims?

In short, no. I don’t think that they do. I shan’t repeat my earlier assertions about female cyborgs in current sci-fi shows except to say that it seems as though many are merely play-things for male writers – blank slates upon which rating-gathering, hyper-sexualised, yet emotionally dead female archtypes are projected. Rather than resisting, usurping or inverting structures of gender, it would seem that cyborgs perpetuate certain archetypal fantasies, and may, in fact, lead to even more stereotyped depictions of gender and sexuality – a body without a brain, a set of curves to be observed without guilt or conscience because, after all, she’s ‘only a machine’.

Week 9 Summary

November 21st, 2009 - 

I started week 9 reasonably well (adding more Haraway related videos from Youtube) but found myself petering out again as I struggled to come to terms with the Cyborg Manifesto. Perhaps, feeling like I was lost in words, I found myself turning back to the visual and rummaging around in visual representations of the cyborg. As a seasoned – and recovering-  Star Trek fan (one who remembers the bad old days before J.J. Abrams) I naturally found myself thinking of the Borg, Seven of Nine and the myriad other cybernetic fantasies which the Hollywood types churn out for us and found myself asking if these depictions told us anything.

Were they reflective (in any way – even in opposition) of Haraway’s work?  My short answer was no, but with further thought it did seem to me that depictions of cyborgs were quite frequently highly sexualised – to the point where I was struck by how at variance they were to Harway’s agenda.

Sci-fi aside, the most compelling depiction of a female cyborg I found was this:

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Week 8 Summary

November 15th, 2009 - 

Week 8 has seen me recovering from the virtual ethnography of last week – and mopping up the mess. My lifestream has reflected this, which a continuing stream of 9/11 conspiracy theory related links and videos. I didn’t have time to embed all of the resources into the prezi that I used for the ethnography, so I spent some time getting it in place for future folks to spend time clicking about in.

Moving onwards, I’ve started to try to engage with the shift to Haraway and Hayles’ work – struggling rather a lot with Haraway in particular. As is usual in these circumstances I turn to Youtube (and others) to see what video materials I can find for (I hope) student-created work which might help help me overcome the feeling that I’m drowning in Harway’s language. I found a few useful videos to help me, but also a few quite pointedly satirising her work.

Blather, Rinse, Repeat: An Ethnography of Conspiracy Theory

November 9th, 2009 - 

conference

I did a talk this weekend just gone at the Dublin Paranormal Conference, where I talked through my virtual ethnography, using prezi.com. Press play.

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=361306D76B332F53

And this is the link to the presentation for you to explore.

I’ll try to summarise two or three specific things which relate back to the themes and readings we’ve been looking at these last few weeks.

Inhabitance

My field site, as discussed in previous posts, was the 9/11 conspiracy theory movies, seeing them as the hub at the centre of the whole 9/11 truth movement, a sort of totem where the community draws energy and direction from.  From these movies (listed in the prezi) comes (I assert) a number of behaviours which I wanted to observe. A guiding principle in this was the following quote from Hine:

‘Ethnography in this strategy becomes as much a process of following connections as it is period of inhabitance. In similar vein Marcus suggests that ethnography could (should?) be adapted to ‘examine the circulation of cultutal meanings, objects and identities in diffuse time-space’. He suggests a range of strategies for ethnographers to construct fields in the absence of bounded sites, including the following of people, things, metaphors, narratives, biographies and conflicts‘ [emphasis added]

From this notion, I was attempting to identify a number of these metaphors, narratives and conflicts. This was in order to try to identify how this community arrived at an understanding or creation of authenticity. Again from Hine:

The point for the ethnographer is not to bring some external criterion for judging whether it is safe to believe what informants say, but rather to come to understand how it is that informants judge authenticity.

A neutral, bias-free search for methods of authenticity-creation seemed crucial to me for several reasons. Firstly, the 9/11 conspiracy theories are hugely emotive. Those wandering into the field who seem to have a debunking agenda (as I have had in the past) can be met with hostility.  Secondly, such a search would help me (I hoped) to identify the ‘digital winks’ which I was looking for.

Digital winks

I was struck by Clifford Geertz’s notion of ‘thick descriptions’ with the specific example of the wink. A thin description would catalogue the existence of the wink only, whereas a thick description would explain the context of that wink.

So what does  a 9/11 conspiracy theory ‘wink’ look like? I tentatively identified three: the use of the terms, ‘the truth’, ‘they’ and ‘them’. Taking a specific example from Zeitgeist: the movie, I was struck by the number of times the movie’s narrator makes references to ‘the truth’. The second was the use of the interchangable terms ‘they’ and ‘them’ in reference to the shady forces at work behind the scenes of the 9/11 conspiracy theories – with little specific reference or explanation of who ‘they’ or ‘them’ were. This is a ‘wink’ which is replicated numerous times across the 9/11 truth movement – and indeed not just by the conspiracy theorists, but also the debunkers of the 9/11 theories – in documentaries such as the BBC ‘Conspiracy Files’ shows, where a narrator routinely refer to the conspiracy theorists as ‘they’ or ‘them’ without clearly specifying who they are referring to.

At first glance this may seem a less than perfect research methodology, but perhaps also this is indication of an inherent feature of collectively constructed online materials.

Conflicts

During the course of my ethnography, I began to notice a process which I came (cynicaly, I must admit) to label ‘Blather, Rinse, Repeat’. This is where the conspiracy theorist gives an assertion about an eyewitness or commenter connected to the events of 9/11, the person at the centre of the quote then rebuffs that assertion and which is followed by the conpiracy theorist simply rejecting the clarification of the comments and referring back to the original quotes. Such a process seems to enable the conspiracy theorist to authenticate his position. The following is an example taken from the BBC ‘Conspiracy Files’ 2007 documentary:

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So we have the original assertion from Dylan Avery (maker of ‘Loose Change’), the clarification from the man he was quoting (Barry Jennings) and Avery’s subsequent rejection of the clarification in preference for repeating the original ‘misquote’ and assertion. Within this process, there seems to be no scope for an informant to clarify their original statement or any attempt to contact the informant to ask if they would like to comment. Authenticity, it would seem,  is not created from the gathering of testimony or ‘facts’ but rather from the creation of a selective narrative and the rejection of anything which would compromise that narrative.

A second example is the  series of  quotes  attributed to Wally Miller – the coroner from Somerset County who was at the site of the crashed Flight 93 shortly after the incident.  In searching for clips about this, I came across the following video on Youtube which I believe illustrates the ‘Blather, Rinse, Repeat’ process. What we have here is a clip taken from the same BBC documentary as above, but which has been top and tailed by the Youtube account holder with his own interpretation. Watch how Miller is confronted with the assertion of what he said, how he rebuts it with a a clarification of what he said and then how the conspiracy theorist simply rejects the clarification and returns to quote what Miller is alleged to have said in the first place – despite the fact that Miller has just categorically stated that he did not say that:

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In a sense the argument shifts entirely – from a debate around the truth of the conspiracy theorists original assertion to a debate about the authenticity of the source. The digital, unbounded nature of the content seems to provide a path from arguing about the issue to arguing about validity of sources – shifting responsibility for the original work to a network of sources. 

If a cyborg pedagogy explains (and celebrates) the fractured nature of information and postmodern ‘meaning-making’, outlining the emerging shape of online learning then perhaps a cyborg conspiracy theory is what is required to explain the narratives at the heart of the 9/11 conspiracy theory movies – where a fractured, multi-located narrative is sculpted from an online collective which does not speak with one voice and frequently listens with only one ear.