Daily Archives: October 5, 2009

Week 2: And Now for Something Completely Different…

This week on the official course bit of the Digital Cultures blog Jen and Sian had a natter about the Lifestreams which made me have a proper think about what I am collecting and how.

I tend to take the view that my Lifestream tracks me but this is a convenient way of saying I am rather intimidated by the volume of personal metadata I create in the average day. I signed up to Google’s Web History opt-in service a few years ago and this week I took a look at it to see what kind of personal metadata I’m clocking up there. I have made, apparently, some 8907 searches so far since 2007. That seems like a lot and, digging around, reveals a lot of information that really gets into the heart of what I’m thinking, doing, looking at on any given day. My shopping searches map to all my major purchases in the last few years, image searches are more random. Web searches are about everything but Blog searches are about work. There are some sites I have no recollection of in my history. It’s fascinating, and I can also see when and where I made those searches:

Google Web History Trends

Apparently I am a really big lunchtime searcher. Having seen my Google search stats I also had a look at my Twitter Trends:

My Recent Twitter Posting StatsThere are things I can learn from these stats that I don’t otherwise know about myself. I know that at the weekend I search and Tweet less as I am often away from my computer. I didn’t realise that Monday and Thursday were both peak days for me. Knowing this I can see it in how I conduct my day to day work but if you had asked me I am not sure I would have picked the same days. Although coincidentally Monday and Thursday tend, for various reasons, to be the day I spend most hours at work in the week so perhaps that explains the increased activity on those days.

There are some other stats I could look at that show an activity/reward cycle, such as my stats from Flickr:

Recent Flickr StatsAlthough Flickr does not email me about my stats or show them to directly on the login screen I do look at them from time to time and I have been able to identify my own pattern: when I upload a lot of images I get added to  the public timeline; I get new viewers to my images; my stats zap up. Mostly I am not too bothered about my stats but from time to time I’ll be a bit more strategic about how and when I upload to see if I can boost my numbers a little. And that’s part of the reason I’m talking about my stats here: when I know what it is that I am doing it changes how I feel about that activity to an extent. I am used to measuring my work, to an extent, in my workplace and I am used to presenting material for assessment around this MSc (and study more widely), but I am less accustomed to taking a proper review of my personal activity online and seeing how that compares to what I want to achieve, how I want to be seen, etc. And although not quite all of my activity make it into the lifestream it is a pretty representative percentage.

I do have one major frustration with the Lifestream plugin though – non of my tags, text notes etc. about LifeStream items are collated – I would love to be able to bundle things by day, type, tag etc. across mediums as I already can in some discreet social spaces. I am particularly disappointed as I have been self-conciously adding notes to Delicious and only the link seems to come through to the LifeStream.

This Week

So looking at this week’s activities in my LifeStream here is what occurs:

  • I actually spent a lot of time reading printed copies of the last of this fortnight’s articles. And stuff for work. And the latest issue of Wired. I measured none of this in my LifeStream as I can think of no more efficient way than tweeting as I read which seems neither practical nor fair on my non-student followers/friends who see all my updates. Bring on smart electronic paper!
  • I spent a lot of the week watching and sharing bad Microsoft ads after Charlie Brookers article on Mac Monks hit viral levels at work and home.
  • I listened to a lot of music and, oddly, very perky music at that. This is unusual as I tend to listen to podcasts but this week was heavy on writing and exhaustion for me so the music kept me peppy after long social/homework evenings.
  • Tweets this week were text heavy. I apparently often Tweet my full 14o characters and, for the Twittorials in particular, I find even this close to impossible as I used to review films (and still do on occasion) and therefore see so many different ways in which I wish to approach my views on a film, even a short one.
  • I met a lot of people I have known online but never met before. I found it curious with just about everyone seeming the same offline as they do online only taller/shorter/fatter/thinner than their pictures to varying degrees. I did find it odd how jealous I felt of those people I hadn’t met before who had met, or had whole social lives, with each other. It played into my childish insecurities about being left out of the loop. This is something that any number of communications methods can cause though: today I had a text to announce, specifically to me, the birth of a baby I didn’t even know had been conceived!
  • I spent some of the week looking at online publishing platforms for a friend and trying to work out how I could explain that the full text was the only way to be searchable and visible when I know she spent years compiling a book she wishes to distribute in a tightly controlled printed format (but wants to promote online). I was impressed at some of the new sites for online publishing and once again wondered how much work it would take to regularly produce an online zine. The web is such a powerful publishing platform, and so cheap, that it can be very inspiring even though a good paper zine has a smell and feel all of it’s own.
  • I registered for several online or short in-person conferences, all of them free. I wondered how I was supposed to find out about the authoritative conferences in an emergent area like my own. It is a difficulty since the boundaries, metaphors and variable experience levels of attendees can make an event either valuable and exciting or repetitious and depressing. There are a huge number of free events in social media but I think has less to do with inherant qualities of the online spaces, instead I think it is because of technological fashions (something raised interestingly in Upgrade Me on BBC4 tonight) and the sponsership allowed by the inclusion of for-profit speakers keen to jump onboard the tech du jour.
  • I made several (unsuccessful) attempts to Wave at people with my new shiny Google Wave preview account, it was rather a shame as everyone was very excited but failing to connect with anyone else!
  • I found out about an extremely cool phone app for participating in educational life. It is called campusM and will be launching soon. The app looks like such a sensible idea that I flip flopped from thinking that the netbook might be THE convergence device of the future, to thinking that the mobile web is the future, desktop machines are the past. On a related communications evolution note I very much enjoyed What Technology Owes to the Literary Enlightment (a Radio 4 Choice item from a few weeks back).
  • I Tweeted a lot about the film festival, but evidently I did that when everyone else was offline so I did a little shouting into space. I also followed, in real time, a friend on his journey home from a night out as he gradually worked out that there might be an issue with his debit card and then as he had his card eaten by the machine, at which point I replied to check he was ok. This epitomizes the personal serendipidous web to me.
  • I finally posted a lot of pictures of flowers (not shown here) that I had taken with a new camera which I am still getting used to. Having been inadvertantly lectured about how digital photograhs simply never look as good as hand developed film images I decided it was a good idea to remind myself how beautiful the digital images actually can be.
  • I had a bit of feminist week attending a Girl Geek Dinner, listening to peculiar episodes of InBiz and wondering all week how to get a mention of inspirational women & technology artist Cornelia Sollfrank into my homework… Oh I just did!

Film Festival Week 2: Humans and Virtual Worlds

I found both ends of this week’s film festival to be tremendously bleak in the portrayal of the future and spent much of the week trying to find more positive exemplars of the future of humans and the portrayal of “virtual” spaces. Sian tweeted earlier this week there perhaps this was because actually “we revel in Dystopia as we fear it” and this is something that I find difficult to disagree with but also something tough to accept since we seemingly revel in a Utopian idea in our fables and pop culture – happy endings persist in the past and present but only unhappy endings await us in the future? Perhaps this is part of the ongoing discomfort people feel around the knowledge of certain but unknowable death? However I would like to think there are happier stories to tell about the future and about Digital Culture.

I was surprised at the negative backlash to World Builder in the Twittorials as I did not find it particularly sinister at all. This is either because I have read/watched and listened to too many science fiction stories around comas, virtual reality and the inescapable nature of past experiences which have already occurred that I saw what I thought to be a familiar story. If I’m honest I also saw it as a showcase for animation on a budget, and an excellent visual showcase at that. I didn’t think it was particularly brilliantly scripted/storied but the visual elements were impressive and the story coherent enough.  To see the strong backlash about voyeurism was interesting as I think I usually have quite a pessimistic view of the quality and motive of ambiguous male characters in fiction but, in this case, I did not see the sinister element past the first few minutes. Although there was an initial sense that the builder was creating a trap for the girl, it became apparent, to me, that he was, in fact, building a simulation to allow a memory to take place.

The reaction to AI also intrigued me. Having seen the film at the cinema on release (when I was impressed by the visual effects, pleased with the acting, but deeply angered by the emotional pornography of the closing scenes given the release date’s proximity to the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre) I found the idea of David, the emotional child robot who does not know he isn’t a boy, both compelling and unlikely. It is a futuristic parable on the dangers of meddling with technology and quite explicitly takes inspiration from both the Pinocchio and the Wizard of Oz. I do however find it a less interesting concept when the robot is an emotionally engaging young boy who stars at the camera with enormous innocent eyes, than in Bladerunner where Deckard is far less emotionally compelling leaving much more space for personal interpretation (depending on which cut of the film you are watching of course!).

I was going to look at remixing Elephants Dream when I heard that it was an open source movie – an admirable thing indeed – but found myself unable to as, quite apart from having limited time to do it justice, I just found the mismatch between the impressively realized animation and the dreadful voice track – with it’s strained and unrealistic accents and voices – too painful to rewatch the number of times it would have taken to do a proper remix.

Otherwise I think my comments on this week’s films are best summarised by my texts through the week. It was a fun experiment to view and tweet. I think if a more synchronous version (limited to a day or evening) had taken place it might have been even better but I did enjoy the back and forth when I was online at the same time as others.

Reflections on the Readings – Weeks 1 & 2

Over the last two weeks I have been reading my way through the various primary and secondary course readings as well as Sian’s suggestion of Baudrillard (6) and trying to understand how these academic interpretations of Digital Culture fit with my own ideas of what that term means. One of the things that happens to me at the beginning of each module I take on this course is this period of wondering what subject I’m actually looking at. In some modules that has been quite straight forward: I understood the scope of IDEL even though I didn’t know about some of the tools we would cover for instance. But the phrase “Digital Culture” is enormously broad and difficult to define but I think before I talk about the readings it would be useful to say what I see it as from more or less the outset of this course:

I see Digital Culture as the behaviors, art, creativity and interactions in and around digital, technological and online spaces. I think it is about digitally enabled societies or those that are built around technology and digital subcultures. I think Digital Culture, in the sense of a technology-obsessed culture, long predates the modern use of the word “digital” and in some ways I think a world of ubiquitous technology (which we are either in or close approaching in much of the world) pushes Digital Culture, in the sense digitally enabled creativity and social interaction, into the mainstream concept of Culture. In these ways I think that the Industrial Revolution represents a type of Digital Culture whilst plenty of interactive online art works, tools like Facebook, and similar digitally enabled experiences are simply part of modern mainstream Culture.

I also see some aspects of Digital Culture through the prism of my own experiences of being a very frequent internet user from 1997 and feel that from 1997 to 2002 was by far the most different experience of being online, for me, compared to day to day life. I find 2009 to be about everyone being online and finding it hard to see that as distinct from normal social interactions, although I am aware that there are many who see the world differently (though I note few of these lack email address, internet connection or experience of online shopping & product reviews). I am also aware that my own experiences of technology and the internet are as an enthusiast, someone raised on Tomorrows World and Star Trek, someone who has studied physics and engineering in a way that makes the world seems like an ever-evolving series of theories, ideas, innovations and manufacturing advances, someone without a religious viewpoint and no sense of a single truth or true theory (though a belief in science) and someone whose life, work and friends have been, for around a decade, primarily administered and often mediated by the internet and computers.

So with that, a statement that I think reveals my personal bias towards a positive, but perhaps historical, view of what constitutes Digital Culture I come to the readings. I also wanted to add that one of the terms used in the readings has a particular meaning for me which I found it difficult to entirely detach myself from: Digitization has a specific information sciences meaning referring to the scanning or photographing of books, images and archive materials to make them available as images on disc or on the web (used by libraries and initiatives like Google Books Beta). Sometimes digitization includes an element of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) which allows text to be searched, copied etc. although it is an imperfect tool. Often Digitization includes the creation of metadata describing an artifact, it’s contents, it’s appearance, etc. and these tends to relate to the offline artifact not the digital artifact. Metadata about the digital artifact tends to relate to file size, format etc. I mention this specific meaning of the word as I feel that Digitizing, as understood by the library and information sciences world, is generally a blunt and regressive way of making material available remotely and/or online. It is about taking a fairly manual ingest process to create a digital simulation of the original text (which connects to some of Baudrillard’s (6) thoughts on Digital Culture as the culture of simulation) and it is a series of processes with roots in archiving practices which began long before the internet as a way to give access to fragile physical items. It is about recreating the tangible not about the best way to present, explore or understand the contents and meaning of the original artifact. There are some significant parallels about the ways in which Hand (1) etc. use this term but I think they also mean it to apply more widely as a term relating to the form in which information is stored and transmitted (1’s and 0’s rather than human speech or text, radio waves or paint, etc.) rather than just the simulation of the real in a virtual space. Although the OED’s definition (below) does hint at this latter, mostly technical, interpretation dominating expected usage:

The OED Definition of Digitization (which is limited to examples).

The OED Definition of Digitization (which is limited to examples).

Reading Hand (1) was a challenging experience for two reasons: firstly Hand covers an awful lot of theory and material in the 20 ish pages of this chapter and it is a lot to take in, process and understand; secondly I had my own clash with technology by printing it 4 pages to an A4 sheet resulting in insurance leaflet sized small print equivalent to about a 4pt font. I mention the latter to point something out about myself and technology – I am not yet able to read at length from a screen and I do therefore print my articles. This is one of those odd quirks of what it means to be a day-long computer user,  I can barely write legibly on paper but I find it hard to read from screens. I wonder how reflective this is of the fact that I learned to read pre-regular computer usage and came to computers as I was an established experienced reader but as I was only just starting to properly creatively express myself and after having done so textually only in poorly spelled, inconsistently penned school essays and exams. Keyboards for me are freeing, screens are not necessarily so. I have also made art and crafted for many years and I therefore value the tangible qualities of light, texture, viewing angle, touch, smell, etc. in a way that rather fetishizes the physical as a format for consuming. This is a somewhat unpredictable combination but highlights the inconsistencies of humans reacting to technologies and how those reactions do not necessarily match the expectations of designers or those that write on the future of technology. And I think that’s a valid thing to have in mind when looking at both Utopian and Dystopian views of Digital and Cyber Culture.

Hand (1) begins by looking at the “Planetary Information Culture” and this is a troubling concept for me since access and language of information culture is most certainly not global or planetary in nature and information cultures variant forms are not of equal relavance. However Hand starts out with a framing phrase (which I have emphasized in bold) that astonished me :

It has become commonplace to describe the current era in terms of a global or even planetary information culture, made possible by the development of information networks such as the Internet (for example Lash 2002; Poster 2006)

I find it hard to conceive the Internet as a “such as” concept. There are several global cultural transmission methods – the plumbing of communications if you will – but they are not really comparable with the internet (nor really with each other) because of the variance of active/passive roles of consumers; the costs of consuming; the entry level education required to consume, etc. The Internet is a curious case as it is not universally available, is rarely free to use, requires active usage in comparison to, say, television (or radio where additionally the transmission radius is usually so discreet that relevance to any audience capable of receiving a signal is almost ensured) and therefore also requires a reasonably high basic literacy – and digital literacy – level (in a language sufficiently present on the Internet). Language defines experience and availability of content on the web because search, URLs, communications, and help information are accessed and interpreted primarily, or solely, through reading and writing (except where accessibility tools like screen-readers are available). This places the entry level knowledge far beyond that required for experiences such as: cinema, with it’s strong visual impact and passive expectation of the spectator; literature, where entry to a text does not require you to define what you want, what you need or what you already know, and where navigation is defined allowing partial understanding to be achieved even if advanced understanding requires higher levels of literacy (whether with text in general or a specific subject or concept); or art, where personal subjective response is paramount so no entry barriers need to be overcome and textual descriptions offer a (perhaps authoritative) space for additional information but do not in themselves define the art object or the ability to see, hear, touch, experience it.

These pre-conditions of the uniqueness of the Internet does not take away from it’s technical role as, essentially, a form of modern plumbing. For me the content is potentially subject to the socio-economic and political views that Hand goes on to talk about but I am less convinced that the technical structure of the Internet itself follows this model. It is, in fact, incredibly difficult to separate the infrastructure, the hardware, software and content of the Internet in terms of control, access and culture. I think Hand refers to the politics and cultures of the content and/or software barriers to that access but it is possible that it is a more holistic view. Lash (2002) is quoted in Hand as seeing the Internet as “…grafted onto a global capitalist system…” but this could refer either to the control, creation, intellectual property rights, etc. of the web or to the architecture itself. The latter though is a more complex picture: the Internet is not one single web of connections but rather a huge number of connected networks each operating under its own socio-economic conditions with very patchy global coverage (see also Bell (2)).

The military and academia both have their own distinct and self-sufficient networks that interlink with the web which run under enormously different concepts of free speech, sharing, public vs private data etc. Corporations have intranets and local networks  that are entirely subject to capatalist motives and constraints but link to a more open web. Telecoms providers mediate most domestic connections – and “hyperreal estate” (Luke quoted in Bell (2)) – but they do so under variable restrictions of political environment (corrupt or non-corrupt? democratic or dictatorship? etc.) which will influence competition regulations, profitability (of particular services/facilities and of being present/absent from a given market), public sector and/or mixed private sector ownership of hardware, price, access to public highways for maintenance/expansion/control of connections. China controls the Internet through political pressure on Internet companies to restrict access to certain areas of the web mediated through IP address recognition as well as through software run to filter the internet much as many smaller networks detect and block access to inappropriate content or spam messages. This is a content driven control mechanism. In many African countries the continued lack of telephony infrastructure – due to conflict, corruption, spending priorities of governments etc. – leads to a more physical sense of disconnectness which may be as much by accident/history as by design or political motive. It is not so much the content of the web that is blocked but more the local expense of creating complex infrastructures of cabling and wires. Wireless internet in these spaces effectively limits access to those with the knowledge of the Internet and the knowledge of how to connect to it, as well as the financial advantage of being able to do so.

Effectively my feeling here is that Lash’s stance feels both true and false to me: the internet is grafted onto capitalism but the way in which capitalism is reflected on/by the web and those that access it is less simplistic with, for instance, academic independence on the Internet massively outweighing academia’s ability to influence the decisions in a capitalist society. However, Matthew Hindman of the Political Science Department, Arizona State University, speaking at the Oxford Social Media Convention 2009, defines the entry barrier to the web to be extremely high, namely the ownership of your own network infrastructure. One could extend this to the control of one’s own political and regulatory environment but these are both perhaps overtly negative views of the strictness with which owners of network architectures apply their beliefs, values and restrictions to the content that flows on those networks. Inequalities are surely neither necessarily extended/preserved not overcome/destroyed by the existence of the Internet. I tend to agree with Castells (1996 quoted in Hand (1)) that it is not so much the potential of the technology as the potential of the information transmitted through the Web that holds potential for change.

This map shows the world weighted by the number of Internet users in 2002.

This map shows the world weighted by the number of Internet users in 2002.

Hand argues that the Internet is “the engines of promise and threat in a global information culture” whichever view of control and promise you take. I think the UK government certainly sees the Internet this way given the recommendations of the Digital Britain report and the recently confirmed initiative to tax broadband to improve infrastructure. This is a viewpoint that says access equals understanding but it would be hard to say that the existence of, say, public libraries automatically improves literacy or that access to sporting facilities automatically makes everyone fit and healthy. Barriers to access particular technologies or services can have significant negative effects (education and health systems being the most obvious areas where this applies) but it is fair to say that many of the aspects that give advantage in a non-digital environment – literacy, family or social support structures for learning, spare time, sufficient income and financial access routes to take advantage of better purchasing deals – are all influential online as well. The Internet is another route to interacting with the world and whilst it may offer collective opportunities for improving lives or changing expectations it does not automatically change all individuals who happen to use it. Indeed danah boyd has done some interesting work (see, for instance, Boyd 2009, MySpace Vs. Facebook: A Digital Enactment of Class-Based Social Categories Amongst American Teenagers or chapter 5 in Boyd 2008, Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics) on how class and existing social connections define the use of online social spaces far more than capitalist notions of competition and global mobility. I do however disagree that Dyson’s view of the internet as a space for the formation of geographically independent communities (2008 quoted in Hand (1)) is a “triumphalist” narrative of the web. Just as publishing allowed for collaboration and communication between writers, scientists, artists, etc. otherwise unable to access each others’ work, so the internet is a way for subcultural groups to share information on an even broader scale. And this is sometimes an empowering act with real world impact. One of the examples I like (and this is a little light relief here) is that of the global craft community.

etsy

To explain let me take a personal example of an “atomized interest”. As a keen beader in late 1990s Cardiff there were 2 shops within the city that sold some limited supplies, there was a major shop in London that could be visited or mail ordered from (and which also offered wholesale discounts), and there was, briefly, a shop in Worcester that sold expensive but much sought after unusual beads. There were also wholesale suppliers of findings, semi-precious stones and more professional level supplies. You had to know that all of the above existed in order to find them. The shops were visible and listed in the phone book, the London shop supplied one of the Cardiff shops. The Worcester shop was discovered when it’s catalogue, branded as a magazine, became available for purchase in WHSmiths. The professional suppliers were only known either through branding on items sold in one of the shops OR through making contacts at occasional craft fairs. The community was disparate, virtually invisible and demand for beading items significantly outstripped the variety available through the small number of suppliers.

Today Edinburgh (which in 1999 had 2 beading supply shops) has at least 5 beading shops, one almost the size of the UK’s main bead retailer in London back in the late ’90’s. Hundreds of shops here and back in Cardiff now also sell beads and the community is visible and well supplied. LakeLand, John Lewis and House of Fraser all sell stock of a comparable quality to that offered by specialists 10 years ago, whilst specialists offer infinitely more choice in type, quality and price of bead. Online there are hundreds of thousands of individuals selling handmade beaded items on Etsy and eBay and magazines flourish in the UK, though most are imported from the US.

The difference, in that very short period of time, is that numerous individuals have been alerted to the fact that they are one of many with a shared interest. The same changes are reflected in the significantly more extreme stock of Ann Summers, the mainstreaming of queer culture and the power of old age voters – niche communities gain confidence and the ability to demonstrate their financial and, where appropriate, political power merely by becoming aware that they are not isolated. The history of queer and gay politics and visibility is, for instance, peppered with testimonials of those that attempt to blend into hetero-normative relationships only to “come out” when they realize they are not alone in the world. The Internet allows a similar narrative to build around all manner of interest groups, medical conditions, immigration statuses, opinions etc. In a way this is the Geekification of the mainstream, and the fetishization of tangible goods (created by digitally connected communities) with loud and proud exponents of niche interests building cult followers on the web and often seeping out to print media and television: Leslie Hall, who was recently featured in Bitch magazine as part of their feminist art & craft coverage, is one such figure with her Craft Talk an instant classic on YouTube:

YouTube Preview Image

I think this has some interesting implications for digitally mediated civil interactions. Special interest groups can mobilize social action through petitions and online campaigns (most effectively through specialist sites like 38 Degrees, or through No 10 Petitions) and make their voice powerfully heard with demonstrable effect – for instance a recent online campaign for the UK Government to apologize for the treatment of Alan Turing leading to an apology by the Prime Minister. But I find Hand’s summation that democracy is being reshaped by the introduction of digital citizenship rather overlooks how citizenship at large has been a passive process for most citizens for a long time for an evolving set of reasons. Even voting, the most mainstream of democratic activities, barely represents the opinion of the majority of people in the UK and the US due to low turn out. Digital citizenship certainly has some implications for changing the relationship between voters and government but the longer term trend is likely to remain the interested minority having a louder voice than the passive majority. Indeed I think Hand makes an error, when discussing democracy and Castells, when he talks of the potential “once more to directly draft the laws by which they will be governed” as it is already the case that pressure and lobby groups significantly contribute to lawmaking, citizens are consulted in the process of drafting policy, and most particularly, in the US citizens may directly vote on propositions which they have directly drafted (though inclusions on ballot papers requires a sufficient level of support for said proposition can be shown). This latter direct democracy method leads to many complex voting forms and difficult decisions for elected officials who must fund both expected activities and those niche propositions (often over Stop signs, library funding etc.) which are approved by their community.

Hand describes four key features, from Castells, of the potential to increase democratic power and the second of these, the notion of a virtual commons, has particular resonance although it seems to me, from my former role within academic libraries, that technology has barely been used to deliver a credible alternative to traditional publishing mechanisms, such is the complex power balance between academia and scholarly publishers, and between academia and academic reward and recognition systems that value major traditional publishing routes over alternative forms of engagement. There is an additional factor of preservation that actually links these old models of publishing to Poster (2006 quoted in Hand (1)) and his ideas of replication and related views that, as Hand puts it:

Does digitized information transcend all that was previously solid?

To me the obvious answer here is no, but I also wonder what constitutes “solid” in this context? The location of digitised information, within or without, traditional structures overlooks the fact that there is both fragility and solidity in both digital and traditional forms. Books are physical, solid, and can be very long lived indeed, but they are also vulnerable to water, fire, fading etc. Digital objects are fragile, corruptible, prone to obsolescence but their very light format and copy-ability also leads to them being infinitely copied, stored, and shared so that a copy – perfect or otherwise – is quite probably always going to be out there so long as servers, caches and the network are functioning (network outages being a temporary but serious barrier to access).  The skills to understand knowledge may change though and that involves new sets of concerns. YouTube is now the second largest search engine in the world, as soon as search and discovery moves beyond the textual there is a serious threat that video and interactivity may replace textual communications and that has long term literacy implications in the same way that the decline in teaching Latin or Greek reduces those able to understand ancient texts. Body language and physical communication may become more important in this emerging idea of communication at a distance without text. Photos are compelling, often far more so than text, so visual materials may form their own place in digital communications in the coming years leading to different types of inclusion/exclusion issues and accessibility challenges. Indeed I find it interesting how much of the literature about digital culture draws on visual cultures and film and television representations of the digital rather than textual and musical and physical experiential art around digital experiences and culture thus it appears that understanding of digital culture is still only barely emerging from the shadows of media studies and the idea of the visual at it’s heart when, perhaps, it is connectivity – or something else – that should be at the core (as discussed by Sterne (3)).

As computing has become pervasive, so the skills required to use these technologies have reduced. Good interface designs are to be admired but also help contribute to paranoia about what can be seen, stolen, or accidentally shared online. Kumaraguru et al (Trust modelling for online transactions: a phishing scenario, Proceedings of the 2006 International Conference on Privacy, Security and Trust: Bridge the Gap Between PST Technologies and Business Services 2006) found that a group of Internet users looking at a mocked-up phishing website really didn’t know where to look for indications of secure connections, how to read the page for signs of safety or compromise and that they lacked the literacy to determine security adequately. This sort of finding is doubtless the reason why continued scare stories about children or teens and pornography, terrorism and extremist groups dominating the internet persist, and why legislation such as the Patriot Act (in the US) is barely contested despite significantly altering the landscape of free speech and liability for action. Going back to the analogy of Internet as plumbing it is like blaming a water company for allowing the water it supplies to be used to mix a toxic substance, or blaming the electricity company for allowing a video recorder to capture a moment of violence. We don’t expect power and water to be cut off for those we do not approve of in society – offenders, potential terrorists, social outsiders – but we do expect that any manner of materials should be excluded from our online space for, apparently, our safety or, perhaps more accurately, for our own rather naive reassurance. There is a criminalizing of intent (as discussed in Bell (3)) rather than just of actions. And there is a strong moral note to the management of the Internet and, whilst that was one an idealistic notion of free speech, we seem to have moved to considering the Internet to be a space where children and education occurs and that that should preclude challenging, untrue, sexual or violent imagery despite all of the above forming part of daily experience of the world.

On a related de-stabilizing note I found Robins and Websters (1999 quoted in Hand (1)) comments regarding human civilization being wrapped, for the first time, entirely around economic principles somewhat intriguing in the current financial environment where much is genuinely being reassessed, and where the ubiquity of the Internet means it’s role is greater than that of a global trading floor. Perhaps this adjusting space in the development of the connected World is where Hands closing question of technology may be answered more fully:

What exactly is the role of technology in relation to culture here [in broader cultural shifts], and is there anything new about digital technology in this sense?

I feel I have spent a great deal of time talking about Hand here and I will try to address the other articles at more speed. Hand was fascinating as it presented so many arguments from so many perspectives that, inevitably, it set my mind thinking in many different directions hence my length of post. Meanwhile I found Bell (2) much more focused and very rewarding as I very much warmed to Bell’s argument for the importance and impact of the ways in which stories of the Internet, Cyber Culture and Digital Culture are told. As Bell talks about the changing format – linked, online – for storytelling around technology so I was reminded of the change that the Semantic Web may bring about to the navigation and understanding of digital artifacts.

The Semantic Web is defined by Wikipedia thus:

The Semantic Web is an evolving development of the World Wide Web in which the meaning (semantics) of information and services on the web is defined, making it possible for the web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content. It derives from World Wide Web Consortium director Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web as a universal medium for data, information, and knowledge exchange.

And for me this raises the prospect of something enormously exciting in the development of the web, but also something mature that is inadvertently destructive to the weird origins of the web. Ensuring that the specific meaning of a word or phrase is understood it will be much much easier to filter, navigate and structure information on the web (though through URIs rather than traditional information hierarchies), but it will also remove, or severely limit, the element of serendipitous discovery of concepts and the surreal fun that can come from searching for an ambiguous word like plate:

A Google Image Search for Plate returns a diverse set of results ranging from tectonic, to number, to image plates.

A Google Image Search for "plate" and the results.

Now perhaps I am not going to decide to click an unintended result but maybe it will spark a creative thought or remind me of something else I want to look at. In the early days of the internet such searching and random jumping off points defined the experience of the Web, now serendipitous discovery tends to be much more limited – browsing around a film on IMDB, searching around scholarly articles etc. How one captures that experience of wonderful but incorrect search results for posterity is hard to imagine. And how desirable getting exactly what you want might be, compared to getting to things you had no idea you perhaps wanted to know about seems, to me, as wide as the gap between using the index of a single book vs. browsing a whole library of potential material. Ultimately the contextual item may be what you still end up using but as a cultural experience far more fun and creativity can be had by browsing unexpected findings.

Bell would have us record the stories of technology through society and culture and not only through a narrative of technical advancement and I would tend to agree. I mentioned earlier that I was raised on Tomorrow’s World, as a result of many years viewing I can now recall distinctly exciting development that, in fact, never came to fruition at all for economic, social and practical reasons too numerous to list. Much of science fiction writing, film and music fail to see the difference between the possible and desirable. And there is no accounting for unexpected circumstance. Browsing the Life issues on Google Books yesterday I found an article from 1971 entitled “Will there be a Concorde in our future” to which, even ten years ago, the answer would have been “yes” but today is a clear “no”. Supersonic flight is a classic example of a practical, advantageous technology that failed to mainstream because of cost, limitations due to noise complaints, and the pragmatic decisions of those comparing ticket prices and comfort of shorter and longer flights. The best technological solution did not win the competition for transatlantic flight, the most human friendly solution did. The Concorde crash may have been the incident that grounded the remaining planes but the concept of supersonic flight had already lost it’s shine which is why it was not worth starting again and retiring the aircraft, much as various space exploration programmes have been before, was the best decision. Often technology moves at our speed of comfort not at our speed of technological sophistication and therefore understanding human, social, cultural stories is essential to understanding digital/cyber/technological intersections with life.

As Bell discusses the weight of symbolism in cyberfiction I found it odd that, alongside authors like William Gibson, Bell did not mention Douglas Coupland as I think he has an interesting role in technological writing. Bell summons writers of science fiction and futuristic novels but Coupland’s fiction is set firmly in the technological present or near future and taps brilliantly into the mundane day to day interactions with technology (good and bad) as well as it’s potential for doing more than is currently asked of it. Coupland also writes people in these novels as just people, weird, quirky, normal, a full range is present and, if their day jobs are outside the norm (perhaps) their behaviours are not particularly exception. In Microserfs in particular Coupland captures, better than most, the underbelly of the dotcom (Terranova and Ross 2000 quoted in Bell (2)) and, most interestingly, why working for free on projects without clear goals might appeal to a modern citizen. These are characters who cannot fit into Bell’s paradoxically restrictively imaginative systems of symbolism and instead stand for an unrecorded modern symbol of technology: that it is the everyday. If tales of the future are as much about the present (Cavallaro 2000 quoted in Bell (2)), then perhaps tales of the present are, conversely, good indicators of possible stories of our societal future (perhaps as per Barlovian Cyberspace, as mentioned in Bell (2)). I really felt that, in the film festival this week, it was this notion of what actually happens rather than what could happen that took away from several Human themed films since many of these revolved around robots who had been assigned societal roles that I think to be unlikely in our future purely because there are useful boundaries that humans have opted to keep between man and machine as the technology evolves.

I found Sterne (3) to be less a less exciting read but it did inspire me to set about finding a way to include some musical content in my lifestream and here. I attempted to make a Spotify playlist to embody my own feeling about Digital Culture at this point in the course, namely that technology is part of an evolving cycle of idea, creativity with technology as the subject, creativity with technology as an obvious visible presence and finally creativity in which technology is undetectably embedded. I set out to find early electronic music (I was hoping for some Delia Derbyshire material or other early BBC Radiophonic Workshop recordings), then some experimental 1970s electronica or technologically enabled concept work (I was hoping for Pink Floyd), then some self-consciously futuristic 80s pop, and finally some self-consciously techie/retro modern music alongside some extremely mainstream recordings only made possible by sequencing, track layering, correction etc. However I hit a problem in that little of what I wanted to collect was available. My short and patchy playlist can be found here but the the issue of rights management, availability and the culture of “oh well if that one isn’t on the web, I guess I’ll substitute that one in” all raise interesting issues of authenticity, lost items and short cultural memories (most of the tracks on Spotify, for instance, are from the 80s 90s or 2000s with very few before then) and the viability of copyright and legal frameworks operating on a local basis in a much more widely connected World.

Aside from the snappy title I found Poster (4) to be difficult. Poster questions whether ethics are put into question when “the virtual complicates the real” which, for me, pokes at a term I have great discomfort with. “Virtual” suggests that something is not real or not quite real but I think increasingly most people would see a strong connection between their “virtual” and “real” selves. Law enforcement no longer makes a significant decision and the idea of cheating on a partner with a non-present other on the internet seems to be established if, perhaps, seen as less severe than a physical encounter. I find that there is no difference between the emotional and social bonds I hold online from those I hold offline, indeed one often reflects, extends or jeopardizes the other as much as if the online interactions were taking place in the physical world. Thus I do not think that the virtual can complicate the real as I think ultimately I do not, at this point, really consider the “virtual” to be a properly valid term in terms of behaviours impacted by ethics. Whilst Poster and Dery (1993 quoted in Poster (4)) talk of the problems of spamming or flaming what is not adequately recognized is that these behaviours are merely extreme or highly efficient methods of expressing oneself unpleasantly – something humans do in all spheres of life no matter how public or private.

I was pleased to see Poster identify the issue of intermedia rivalry in mainstream meadia’s portrayal of the Internet. It is easy to assume mainstream media just doesn’t get digital culture but it is perhaps more fair to say that the mainstream has trouble molding digital culture to fit existing expectations of narrative storytelling, the role and knowledge of the audience or the limitations of the 2D conventional screen. However Poster seems to accept cliches around responsibility on the Net that do not fit with Poster’s other stances. For instance the idea that logging into a chat room and doing something outrageous is any different to walking into a pub and doing something outrageous seems to show a lack of awareness about the culture of chat rooms (often very supportive proactive spaces) and a lack of understanding about the core issue of personal ethical framework than underlines any individual’s actions. There is a single difference and this is purely around the types and severity of harm that can be caused since, however disturbing, an online experience will not leave any physical scars.

This week I was looking at the preview of Google Wave and I had this in mind as I read about the role in metaphor in storytelling and understanding (Lakoff and Johnson (1980) quoted in Johnston (5)) since I have been finding Wave to almost entirely impossible to create any metaphor for and, therefore, extremely hard to explain to others. However I found Johnston’s classification of metaphor to be rather odd since it seemed highly subjective based on the examples given in the text. However there seemed to be some validity to the Internet as Destruction and Internet as Salvation strands given the volume of material on utopia and dystopia that emerged out of Week 1 of the film festival.

Finally I looked at Baudrillard (6) and found it interesting but troublesomely dated. Having been written in 1988 it is perhaps predictable that Baudrillard sees simulation in digital culture and sees this as less than the value of that which is simulated since, at that time, typing, photocopying and faxing of data were the mainstream forms of digitization. All of those methods are high tech but low returns methods to quickly reproduce materials. This seems a million miles from computer and online spaces where materials can be created quickly and creativily from scratch. Garageband, digital cameras, podcasts, video cameras in laptops, etc. all allow instant creativity and unique work. Some will be derivative, some will be an out and out copy, but much will be original in tone or creatively simulated for parodic or fan practice purposes. There is simulation in online social spaces – social collaboration and interaction online also being outside of Baudrillard’s experience in 1988 – but there is also additional qualities to online interactions that is unique to that space and which strongly recognizes the value of in-person meet ups and experiences (something inherent in the opportunity to subdivide and privilege some friends over others and to share and tag images of collective events).

I actually found Baudrillard’s opening fable of the map that exceeds the original area of land provided an opportunity for a more up to date technological metaphor: a map many thousands of times the size of the original piece of land but which sees the land from infinite points of view, with infinite options to mark and tag and interact with the map, with the ability to update the map to reflect real or proposed changes to the area, etc. It does not lose validity by being a failed simulation, instead it has enormous value because it describes the land far more accurately than any single experience of that land could provide. That says everything that I love about the Internet really: that it is a space where any perspective and voice may be compared with any other and linked infinitely to related interesting objects. That simulates nothing I know of in the offline World.

  1. Hand, M (2008) Hardware to everywhere: narratives of promise and threat, chapter 1 of Making digital cultures: access, interactivity and authenticity. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp 15-42.
  2. Bell, D (2001) Storying cyberspace 1: material and symbolic stories, chapter 2 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp6-29. [e-book] [PDF]
  3. Sterne, J (2006) The historiography of cyberculture, chapter 1 of Critical cyberculture studies. New York University Press. pp.17-28.
  4. Poster, M (2006) The good, the bad and the virtual, chapter 7 of Information please: culture and politics in the age of digital machines. Duke University Press. pp.139-160.
  5. Johnston, R (2009) Salvation or destruction: metaphors of the internet. First Monday, 14(4). [web site]
  6. Baudrillard, J (1988) Simulacra and Simulations, in  Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (ed. Mark Poster). Stanford. Stanford University Press. pp.166-184.