“Program or To Be Programmed”

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In a wired world, many of the big Internet service providers like America Online (AOL) have encouraged people to embark on a voracious desire to get connected, but for the most part, to exchange business. These providers have extolled the commercial energy of the Internet and unquestionably impacted not only the economy but increasingly shaped our world and how it works.

In the meantime, entire libraries and other archival materials were digitized and made available to all researchers across disciplines; Wikipedia and other web-based encyclopedia of collective knowledge; blog posts, videos, music, etc., are shared online and people seemingly have a lot to say to each other through social media and other interfaces. But, “if living in the digital age teaches us anything,” as Douglas Rushkoff concludes, “it is that we are all in this together. Perhaps more so than ever” (144).

While we think of the digital age as a defining feature of human progress and civilization, internet users tend to tailor their efforts of understanding the essence of these technologies and how they function. In the words of the French sociologist, Edgar Morin “On donne des connaissances sans enseigner ce qu’est la connaissance” (We disseminate knowledge without teaching what is knowledge).

A society that looks at the internet as a way to increase communication without learning the biases of technologies we are using, “is instead finding itself disconnected, denied deep thinking, and drained of enduring values”, as Rushkoff asserted (10). In other words, if we are trained with basic skills on how to consume popular spreadsheet, word processing, and browsing a particular software, do we still need to acquire knowledge of programing in order to become “conscious participants” in the digital life?

It seems that consumers don’t care about the “mechanics” of digital technologies and how they function until they unpredictably encounter an error or the system stops responding to orders and intentions. “We spend much more time and energy trying to figure out how to use them to program one another instead.” (17) It becomes challenging and starts questioning the limits of the human body: “Where does my body end and the tool begin? The digital age challenges us to rethink the limits of the human mind: What are the boundaries of my cognition?” (16)

 

These questions press the pause button to grasp what all this means and how these devices work. Here Morin’s “connaissance” kicks in and starts deciphering the work of programmers of digital technologies—software, computers, networks, etc.

Digital technology does not operate on a plane entirely divorced from individual experience. It is rather embedded in a system monitored and coded by the instructions of the so-called “techno-elites”. The latter monopolize intentions and purposes and as such in order to access to the real power of any media age, consumers need to understand the new medium and its implications on the future of human lives and species.  In this vein, Rushkoff states: “if humanity is going to make this leap along with our networked machines, must be a wholesale reorganization of the way we operate our work, our schools, our lives, and ultimately our nervous systems in this new environment” (11).

Because if we embrace the new literacies of this digital age without learning how they work, we’ll continue to abide by the rules of the “rabbis” of technologies and “remain one full dimensional leap of awareness and capability behind the few who manage to monopolize access to the real power of any media age” (14).

At the end, while understanding the biases of the new media opens up new lines of creativity and differentiates between our intentions and the machines’ purposes, one still wonders whether digital humanities can transcend the “servant” role of yesterday’s news and reestablish communication between the humanities and the public.

 

Cited Work:

Douglas Rushkoff, To Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands For a Digital Age.

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Spatial History and Digital Work

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In the age of print-based scholarship, students are required to type their assignments on a word document, finish their projects and may be render them visible to anyone with an Internet connection. Nevertheless other students might be bored to tears in humanities disciplines and wishing they had a creative teacher, who presents the subject with cutting-edge ideas or teaching techniques that make you stay tuned in throughout the class.

It might be similar feelings for instructors who have been repeating the same curriculum over and over again. Yet, as a young historian, I think teachers of history have the ability to create a vivid picture of their own historical expertise, using a sophisticated and appealing techné—interactive and purposive learning. In this vein, historians not only present a possible interpretation of what might have happened, but also they can produce and catalyze a historical event into vibrant digital reality.

I had the chance to attend a presentation titled “A Virtual Reconstruction of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Professor Robert R. Cargill from the University of Iowa, in which he brilliantly presented a 3-D, virtual reality reconstruction of the archaeological remains of Qumran, near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The software he used was very impressive in bringing and making humanities and digital media synergized, using visualization tools to discover new patterns and open up new streams of inquiry on the relics of Qumran. In other words, the acceptance of digital media in bringing a visual picture of the past is truly significant.

This marriage between hermeneutics of history (readings of the Dead Sea Scrolls)  and the way it renders them compelling through digital work (the 3-D reconstruction) might be a novelty, but Katherine Hayles, advocates that “contemporary technogenesis”—the belief that humans and technics are coevolving—needs to be understood under new realms and within the perceptions it creates.

In exploring the concomitant relation between human and technology, Hayles wrestles with the equation of how humans transform and are being transformed by media per se. In the case of the remains of Qumran, I am guessing the audience was very impressed but at the same time created a perception of that particular reality. This digital form of reading history, according to Hayles, creates neurological transformations that have implications for the possibilities of research.

This historical project has “moved from relational databases, in which data elements are coordinated through shared keys (i.e., common data elements), to object-oriented databases, in which classes possess inheritable traits and aggressive potentials” (15).

It is a theoretically rigorous exploration of the relationship between human cognition interact with those of intelligent machine. Grasping the complex ways optimizes the impact of digital work on print traditions, without obscuring the difference between the two.

But still, the remains of Qumran and the 3-D visualization are, in Henri Lefebvre’s view, create a “logico-mathematical” space of the Cartesian grid and constantly interacts with social space. As he states “Each of these two kinds of space involves, underpins and presupposes the other” (Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, 14).

Moreover, the spatial representations compared to linear temporality are crucial in opening up the cartographic imagination to multifocal, multicausal, and nonnarrative modes of historical representation” (33).

In addition, projects in digital humanities, like the one discussed above, offer new flexibility of democratizing new databases—providing different interfaces and perspectives for divergent scholars in different communities.

In this vein, the field of digital humanities is changing academic scholarship, research, teaching, and publication. Digital media is not new to education for it goes back to the 1940s, as Hayles claims, and although the hard sciences have made the transition a significant portion of the humanities has not.

 

 

 

 

What can Graphs, Maps and Trees Do that Cannot Be Done with Words?

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 “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected,” as Reif Larson wrote. But does that mean maps explain everything or do they “add anything to our knowledge of literature?, as Franco Moretti questioned (35).

In fact, while maps are useful to concretize provinces and “bridges between here and there”, they are still opaque when it comes to explaining reading habits of a particular setting or place. In this frame, Moretti examines the influence of literature on different places through social scientific tools and methodologies such as maps, graphs and trees. In other words, he offers a geography of reading, of representation of country-by-country reading habits rather than an analysis of geography per se.

Through these discursive methods, he decentralizes the old narrative of novels, being a story-delivery tool or a piece of opinion. In doing so, his stories-collections examine a changing world, a world of power and hegemony, a world of abstraction. So, “to make sense of quantitative data,” he said “I had to abandon the quantitative universe, and turn to morphology: evoke form, in order to explain figures” (24).

But these figures, in fact, miscarry the significance of literary history in that the quantity outweighs and transcends the quantitative realm, which in turn falsifies literary explanations and reduces different nature to limited characterizations. While these representations reproduce certain features of the material environment, they remain oblique and often elusive proportions (63).

In Moretti’s words, “I had found a problem for which I had absolutely no solution” (26). However, by using these discursive tools beyond literary disciplines, he brings new questions, new challenges and thus merges one of “the most backwards disciplines in the academy” into a new scientific spirit.

He explains the chronological dominance of literary genres through “artificial constructs … in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction.” This abstraction, however, is “not an obstacle but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection” (p. 1).

Moretti claims that evolutionary trees constitute morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form. It is a new way of reading history, but not necessarily history itself. On the other hand, he uses maps to transcend the old tradition and offer “a model of the narrative universe which rearranges its components in a non-trivial way” (53-54). But it seems that Moretti prefers trees over graphs and sometimes maps, as they “are not really models, they are not simplified, intuitive versions of a theoretical structure in the way maps and especially evolutionary trees” (8). While “graphs abolish all qualitative difference among their data, trees try to articulate that difference” (77), he even wonders whether his use of maps is more geometrical than genuinely geographical.

Moretti’s abstraction and representations of literature through these three realities concretely change the way literary historians work, in that “they replace the old with new temporal, spatial, and morphological distinctions” (91).

These three models—graphs, maps, and trees—or the “materialist conception of form”, as Moretti describes them, share a clear explanation of general structures over the interpretation of individual texts (91-92).

While Moretti’s “materialist concept” sets the goal of shifting focus from narrative to simultaneity, from literary to abstraction and from story to setting, his new mode of expression of literary studies is not necessarily expression itself, but a genre among others. Perhaps, more in-depth study might move us beyond such anecdotes towards firmer generalizations.

The “Softwarization” of Media

 

 

When I book a flight, do online shopping, share posts and pictures on Facebook, request an interlibrary loan, search through billions of data online, compose a blog post in WordPress like this one, I use a software.

Few years ago, when I was working at a Petroleum company we had to use a specific software to keep affiliates updated on the company’s progress. Other systems in hospital like a scanner, school data, a military base, or labs, etc., run on a software as well. Different software perform different functions in different cultural contexts.

In this sense, software has changed people’s work, communication and ultimately our perception of the world. It “has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination—a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs.” (2) In other words, this “universal language” has “softwarized” people’s perception of the twenty-first century world.

So, in the age of “softwarization”, to use Lev Manovich’s word, has media taken a back seat or has it merged into a metamedium? What role do software play in media production? How the study of a software like Facebook or any other social media helps interpret the social content behind it? While it took generations to introduce brilliant techniques to refashion media and culture, one still wonders why software was invented in the first place. What was the thinking behind these inventions? Also, why would humanists care about the intellectual history of a software?

But, what is a software?

Lev Manovich defines it as a program that is “used to create and interact with media objects and environments.” (26) It re-adjusts and reshapes everything it is applied to.

Manovich examines the genealogy of a media software—from the inside, its anatomy—the actual processes that make digital media programmable, and its pragmatics—the effects on the world. He wrestles with the essence of this medium and its cultural context. This leads to the idea that just like hardware, software is not simply a “technology”, but rather a new medium through which one can think and imagine the world. Software has become the interface not only to a virtual world, but to our daily things. In other words, understanding software makes the machine culturally visible.

At the same time, none of the software apps and websites function in isolation, they are interconnected with other mediums such as web technologies, search engines, etc. Without this “ecology”, as Manovich put it, “most web services and mobile apps would not be possible.” (334) Algorithms and techniques are used to buttress these new inventions into a media format that together make up “software epistemology”—data visualization, data fusion, information retrieval, etc.    

This mashup between design, data, coding and computing puts forward a different representational model and a unique aesthetic experience in that it makes the media designer acts as “a DJ who creates by mixing what already exists” and the consumer as navigator to a world of representations à la Google Earth.  

So, aside from knowing how software systems work and how they amplify human intelligence, they are still unable to replace human judgment—ethics—or create human knowledge.     

The Euphoria of Reel-to-Reel Tape

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Like almost everyone in my generation who grew up in the eighties, I can say that reel-to-reel tapes charmed my life. Music, in particular, impacted much of my linguistic skills. Albums ranged from French titles, such as “La Foule” d’Edith Piaf, or “La Mamma” de Charles Aznavour to Arabic music of the Lebanese voice of hope, Fairouz to the Egyptian Diva, Om Kalthoum.  Their beautiful lyrics trained my brain to hear the sounds and enjoy the pleasing combinations of notes. Others might have found the notes dissonant or unpleasant. But, that’s up to the ear to determine what combinations of musical notes it finds appealing in the 80s.

Regardless, almost everyone enjoyed the medium of reel-to-reel tape. But, the moments weren’t all peace and love as I had trouble fixing those reels and questioning the storage ontology. How a fairly simple device with two rollers and two halves of a plastic outer shell could store 90-minute audio? How does it record and play back my voice? How did the transmission and the computation work? Was there a way to measure the vocal bits on those reels?

As the spools got stuck into the head of the drive, I had to crop the worn part of it and glue them back with a manicure. Sometimes, the sound might not be what I was expecting, but at least it made me enjoy the task of doing-it-myself. In those days, one could hear music from different sources, the radio, TV broadcasts, as well as other tape recorders.

Those reels were the dominant tape format in the audio industry as there was no such thing as digital recording for the general consumer. It was a long way off. Today one can easily record music onto a CD, a DVD or a hard drive, but everything back then was audio and analog based. That being said and in spite of the new technology and the advent of new formats of sound, reel to reel tape recorders were and continue to be one way that brings moments of pleasure and memories to many.

But, understanding the essence of its storage reality was a little opaque. While I was able to identify and retrieve its components, I could not fathom how the human vocal waves could be stored in reels. I thought knowing its “formal materiality” would suffice to control and understand that medium. The case of a computer could obviously be a little complicated. But, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Mechanisms” tries to remove the machine “opacity” that bewildered so much of my generation. He and Kenneth Thibodeau would argue that our perception of a computer, in this case, would be a virtual representation, which needs to be merged with two more aspects—logical and conceptual—in order to understand the ontology of digital phenomena and its relationship with various forms of representation.

A detailed descriptions of many elements of the “material matrix governing writing and inscription” at work in electronic textuality, could boil down the cleavage between the technical and the social. Kirschenbaum here focuses primarily on how the computer and its components function, such as the creation of RAM, inside a particular set of social circumstances. He tries to capture something out of the procedural friction or perceived difference and counteract popular ideas of the computer as a virtual machine.

So, what appears to be a homogeneous digital object at the physical level may in fact be a compound object at its logical and conceptual levels if they are interconnected. In this frame, Kirschenbaum’s “forensic materiality”, or the stuff that makes up the machine, would not only focus on storage, but also encourages to perceive the machine in terms of specific versions, platforms, systems, and devices. This in turn would reconcile the computer mysterious elements with the mythmaking apparatus of its creation.

Yet, as time passes and people who either owned or grew up with a reel to reel tape recorder, these machines remain an integral part of not only our technological history, but also who we are, and thus deserve recognition.

Mother Technology: A Solace against “Alzheimer”

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Certain canonical texts, like the Quran, claim that we are living in an artificial world, where senses and instinct can barely allow us to see, feel, and touch what the “real” world is all about. In chapter 29: verse 64, the Quran says: “What is the life of this world but amusement and play? But verily the Home in the Hereafter that is life indeed if they but knew.” Perhaps if there is one single hermeneutic to this verse it could be that Man’s deepest experience with this life is no longer with nature, but rather with “things” and technology. This hermeneutic represents a dialogical reality, of authenticity and travesty. In other words, at the center of this technical milieu, human conscious has become “thingified” or chosifié.

With the advent of modern technology, this dualism has been reinforced and rarely anyone has escaped this free relationship to a virtual world. But, has mankind become the new creator of a different and artificial life from the one meant in the canonical texts? If by creation we mean reconstruction of a substance or a being then the answer is yes, because technology makes us pretend to be and have a different veracity. Facebook and video games remain glaring examples here. Millions of Internet or “MUDs” users interact in a virtual interface, using a pseudo-identity in which you can play a role as close or as far away from your “real self” as you choose. Things one has never had in “real” life from medieval fantasy to playing in Real Madrid soccer team, technology constructs whatever captures one’s imagination, both by playing a role and by participating in building a world.

In the same line of thought, social networking captures this essence of withdrawal to a world that reduces nature to a set of manipulable powers. It presents an attempt to make the human image appears more elastic than what physical presence suggests. It simply leaves behind what you are and makes all things new. In other words, it allows you to imagine yourself anywhere in the world at any time, doing anything or just about anything. So, there is an unparalleled opportunity to play with one’s identity and to “try out” new ones in that the latter becomes not so much an alternative but a parallel life.

This life, emptied of old meaning and enlivened with a new one—any psychotherapeutical meaning you can find—to witness the death of events, of memory, of unresolved personal issues and more generally, of the nature of self. The same dialogical emptiness and representation of reality could be projected on the painter and cameraman. While the former maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the latter “penetrates deeply into its web”. Yet, there is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. (Benjamin, 14)   

While the essence of “amusement” and “play”, as illustrated above, could be reproduced in video games, social media, painting, etc. The very notion of an inner, “true self” is called into question.

The Narcotic Effects of Media

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I grew up in one of the most active suburbs of downtown Tunis. My Sunday soccer match with my buddies would bail out the hectic and often monotonous week. Nothing would steal the joy of winning, except bruises across my lower body. It was fun and much needed to keep a healthy and socially engaged brain. Like other possible mediums, a ball or something like a ball wouldn’t perhaps exist if there was no human need to challenge a psychic and social stasis. So, the impact goes both ways. The activity, however, doesn’t stop with kicking a ball as it needs certain skills like dribbling or knowing how to curve a ball around a wall and into the goal. Perhaps, Roberto Carlos’ freaking score on Fabien Barthez in 1997 is the most dramatic goal ever seen in history. No wonder, bending a ball remains common practice among higher caliber players today and a goal can still bring positive waves not only to the player but also across the stairs.

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That being said, the dynamics of soccer could be projected on McLuhan’s Understanding Media. As an extension of our foot, soccer affects the whole psychic complex. It makes people happy when they win and drives them nuts and fall into a psychological disorder when the opposite occurs. It has become a talismanic magic that controls the emotions of its users (followers). In the same premise, McLuhan argues that “all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed”. (McLuhan, 90) His interpretation of Media appears to be an extension of our existential function. For example, the car extends our necessity to travel fast, the phone extends our voice, television extends our eyes and ears, the computer extends our brain, and electronic media, in general, extend our central nervous system.

Yet, perhaps social media, in particular, has elevated the technological extension to a new level of existence. While it has made the process of sharing emotional moments with others effortless, it has turned many people an “open book” online. Yes, like it or not, the online world has forced millions to join the new extension of the real world. We use the Internet to order things, to reach out to friends and family, to watch videos online, to burnish a Facebook page or simply to have an active digital social life. Unlike soccer, this new technology reframes our senses and nerves at a global scale. This is not to classify the online world as integrally “good” or “bad,” but rather to fathom the implications of our technological extensions.

McLuhan, in this premise, construed the experience or effect of using a particular medium, or media in general, as an attempt to fathom its dynamics. He writes toward the end of Understanding Media:

Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effects upon him. (318)

Like the experience of dribbling and curving a ball around a wall, media and technology have become the nature of the society into which the medium is introduced. Like the effects of soccer on Africa or Latin America, the new technology effects can vary depending on the society’s stage of technological development, and those effects can change over time as that society changes how it uses that medium.