Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Amateur and Expert Practice - Cognitive Humanities

I recently spoke at a Cognitive Humanities conference in Oxford, always my favourite conference of the year because of the fascinating talks, challenges to my thinking, and excellent dancing! Below is the paper that I gave this year, about Object-Oriented Ontology and amateur and expert perception. It's certainly something I want to think through more, and hopefully in an article this Summer, but this and the work on similar in my book (out in May...) is at least the start of my thinking about how philosophy and cognitive science can describe the different experiences of experts and amateurs with the same object. I've included some Andy Goldsworthy images for reasons that will hopefully become apparent. The last image is by a photographer called Martin Hill and has really stuck in my head, performing some of what I was thinking about two sides of the same thing.

Oxford Cognitive Humanities 2015
Amateur and Expert Practice: What Encounters with Technologies Reveal
About Our Access to the World.

  • I keep getting tricked by things. Every time I think I know how to do something I get surprised by some unforeseen aspect of this or that object which reminds me how much I still have to learn.
  • I don’t think that this is an unusual experience. I think that it’s part of why we marvel at experts – how did the craftsman manage to make the whole statue, the dancer get through the whole piece, the driver the whole race, the guitarist the whole song, without making a mistake?
  • They must know both themselves, and the things that they work with perfectly.
  • But the philosophy that I’ve become interested in has profound problems with this idea of knowing things perfectly, and in fact with our ability to encounter real things at all.
  • I’m committed to finitude, to the inability of our encountering objects on their own terms, of our always having to distort and to reduce them, and thereby never being able to know them completely.
  • But then... how to account for all these experts who seem to draw so close to the things that they’ve practiced with, who seem to make them a part of themselves.
  • How do I preserve my faith in our not encountering the real with a group of people who seem to encounter an increasing amount of it?
  • And it’s that increase that’s the key – if you’re getting better you must surely be getting closer.
  • So that’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the different experiences of amateur and expert users of the same object, this or that guitar, or car, or chisel, to see how their encounters with the same artefacts must necessarily cause us to reflect on our reaching any aspect of the world.
  • I want to briefly set out two philosophical approaches to what is occurring here, one from classical phenomenology and one from the contemporary field of Object-Oriented Ontology.
  • I’ll start with two terms from Edmund Husserl, the originator of modern phenomenology.
  • The first is “adumbration.”
  • For Husserl, an adumbration is the reduced way that an object manifests itself in the perception of a viewer with a specific vantage, that is, an object must always appear as an adumbration of the whole.
  • Quite simply, because of the way our bodies work we cannot see all sides of an object at once, or, as Husserl puts it, “[o]f necessity a physical thing can be given only ‘one-sidedly’” (Husserl, Ideas 82). 
  • We know, however, that any object that we encounter has a fixity, a reality, independent of its various different adumbrations; for example we know that a television viewed from the side is the same television when viewed from the front even though its appearance is completely different.
  • But this ability to distinguish between the aspects of a thing is born from our prior experience. As we explore the world, as we move around an object, and open it up, and look inside, and view it from different angles, we encounter more and more of its profiles, fleshing it out.
  • There is a change in richness as an object is explored, what Husserl describes as a move toward an “intuitional fullness.”
  • As we move around an object that we’re familiar with we know what to expect, we know what is likely to appear before our eyes; it is a more complete thing than that which we encounter naively, than an object that we encounter for the first time.
  • In this regard we can borrow a second idea from Husserl: “horizon.”
  • An object’s intentional horizon is what gives our perception of an object its fixity and fullness; just beyond what we cannot currently perceive there are features that we “anticipate.” 
“the perception has horizons made up of other possibilities of perception, as perceptions that we could have, if we actively directed the course of perception otherwise: if, for example, we...were to step forward or to one side, and so forth” (Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, 44). 
  • If I were to walk around my television then I know that it would have a back and sides; if I were to open it up then I know that it has circuit boards and screws and wiring. In this way, perception, and its substantial component of anticipating what isn’t immediately there, is always an embodied experience.
  • If I move my body in this or that way then I know what the effect will be, and those “missing” aspects that I know would be revealed by my movement are a part of my perception for Husserl; they are “co-present,” just waiting to be brought to light. 
  • Our understanding of any object as what-it-is is dependent on this fact. As the philosopher Dan Zahavi puts it: 
“[Husserl] is not merely arguing that every perception of an object must necessarily include more than that which is intuitively present; in order to see something as [e.g.,] a tree, we will have to transcend the profile that is intuitively given and unthematically co-intend the absent profiles of the tree” (Dan Zahavi, Husserl, 96). 
  • All objects appear, therefore, against this interplay between perceived presence and anticipated absence, and such anticipations must be conditioned by our prior experience. 
  • So, for Husserl, this building up of fullness, of encountering of a thing’s various adumbrations or profiles so that we might know what exists beyond the horizon of perception, this is a gradual progression towards knowing the object as-it-is.
  • It’s a getting closer, a drawing nearer to the real thing despite the inbuilt limitations of immediate perception from a fixed perspective. 
  • But a relatively new branch of philosophy, Object-Oriented Ontology, radically challenges Husserl’s claim for our approaching access to the real through perception.
  • Predominantly developed internationally and online, Object-Oriented Ontology, or (oh-oh-oh) OOO, seeks to remedy an anthropocentric turn in Western Philosophy after Kant that sees real objects reduced to their correlation with perception by human observers.
  • OOO therefore asks how can we do justice to the rich existence of the real lives of the things themselves whilst also fully recognising that the ways in which they appear to us are not those things – how do we not reduce objects to the ways that they appear to us? 
  • As Zahavi argues, phenomena for Husserl are 
“understood as the manifestation of the thing itself, and classical phenomenology is therefore a philosophical reflection on the way in which objects show themselves” (Dan Zahavi, Husserl, 55). 
  • In an object-oriented approach this is anything but the case – the ways in which objects appear to us may be related to real things in the world, but they should never be mistaken for them as the way that things present themselves have their own distinct effects and are, in substantial part, the product of the affordances of the observer. 
  • So, the ideas from Object-Oriented Ontology that I principally want to work with are:
    • Objects can never be wholly known.
    • The objects that we encounter are not the real objects in the world.
    • And objects can never be reduced to the sum of their qualities or components. 

  • Graham Harman, OOO’s originator and leading proponent, describes an inner essence for objects which will always retreat – anything encountered, for Harman, is necessarily not the thing itself, no object is ever encounterable as what-it-is.
  • That which we do encounter, by action or perception, the phenomena that Husserl saw as emanations of a fundamental reality, are, instead, something else entirely. 
  • Harman posits a radical division between real objects, and sensual objects.
  • A real object is the thing out there in the world that we can never meet as what-it-is. A sensual object is the phenomenon that we encounter, a separate object with its own distinct effects that is at least partly the product of the real, but offers us no direct access.
  • Where Husserl saw the phenomenon in our perception as giving us a way to increasingly access the real object, Harman instead sees two entangled objects where we would normally think of one. 
  • Cognitive Science certainly supports the idea that our perceptions have a troubled relationship with reality.
  • We’ll hear throughout this conference the influence of experience and embodiment on perception, how the language that we use and the postures that we take and the things that we encounter impact on the ways in which we meet the world.
  • From the prioritisation of space near the hands to interviewers taking candidates more seriously if their CVs are presented on heavier clipboards, from the influence of the tools that we use to car buyers accepting worse offers in more comfortable chairs, the ways that we perceive are, at best, distortions or misrepresentations of reality – never a pure access.
  • Even in the ways in we touch and smell and taste things, we are conditioned and our bodies offer a mediating, translating layer. Our bodies are the enablers, structurers, and limiters of our experience of, and access to, the world, and this deeply affects our perceptual experience. 
  • Such findings support OOO’s position which sees the unstable phenomenon as consistently being mistaken for an inconceivable and ever-escaping essence.
  • Whilst it is only ever a sensual object that we encounter, they are not, however, simply “made up”. As Harman puts it: 
“The various qualities of a hammer do not emanate only from the sensual hammer that I have in view. They also emanate from the real hammer that withdraws into subterranean depths beyond all access. Sensual qualities serve two masters, like moons orbiting two planets at the same time: one visible and the other invisible” (Harman, Quadruple, 77). 
  • The sensual object, and its distinct qualities, are a product of both the essential object and the phenomenal experience, of both the reality of a thing and the distorting effects of any and every perception.
  • What’s important here, though, is that the phenomenon is its own sensual object, not simply a misperception of the real thing. 
  • The sensual object has its own effects, independent of the real object, because of those qualities that I perceive.
  • If I look at something and see that it is broken, or sharp, or dirty then I don’t pick it up, or I avoid it, or I don’t attempt to use it – the real object the phenomenon originates from may be working, soft, or clean, but I act, instead, on the basis of the sensual object that I encounter. 
  • It must be the case that we always encounter things, not as they are, through some kind of simple direct perception or completing of intuitional fullness, but instead as something like reduced, translated, or misperceived approximations, because we can always be surprised, and we can always alter our perceptions to include, typically more and more subtle information about a thing that we can base any future actions upon.
  • So here’s where we get into the importance of expertise.
  • The violin sensual object that I encounter is not the same as that met by the concert violinist; my computer sensual object isn’t the same as that of the computer scientist; seeing a Formula One car sensual object I don’t perceive what the professional driver climbs into.
  • That these are, in some real way, still the same real objects is clear from inter-subjective report of the same events: the violinist says “draw the bow across the strings and they will vibrate to make a sound” and she’s always right and right for everyone who tries to do so – there’s absolutely a real thing out there with its own qualities.
  • But that I encounter these objects differently from the experts is equally true, revealed by the real effects of what I encounter in comparison to the real effects of what they encounter, what we can relatively conceive of performing, and our particular anticipations.
  • I don’t drive, and I have no idea what the underside of a Formula One car looks like; what is co-present to me looks much like the underside of a Ford Fiesta that I saw up on blocks in my teens, and this necessarily structures my actions, intentions, and prehensions – my sensual object has different real effects in the world than the sensual object of the expert mechanic. 
  • So we’re left with these two strange objects orbiting one another – a real object that we never meet and the changeable, phenomenal sensual object that we produce with its own distinct effects. 
  • I want to emphasise how clear Harman is on the matter of never being able to access the real object, and his position rests upon objects always being more than the sum of their qualities: 
“Why exaggerate and say that things cannot touch at all? Does it not seem instead that things [at least] partly make contact with each other?...The problem is that objects cannot be touched ‘in part,’ because there is a sense in which objects have no parts. It is not as if things were made of seventy or eighty qualities and there were a mere practical limit ensuring that five or six of these qualities would always be withheld from the organs of sense” (The Quadruple Object, 74–75). 
  • For Harman, because objects are always more than the sum of their qualities, simply revealing more qualities of an object cannot draw you any closer to it.
  • Simply describing every little bit of an apple, its colour, weight, texture, etc. etc., even infinitely, never takes you toward what the apple is in itself.
  • I want to argue, however, against the strong form of this claim whilst maintaining its core.
  • A weaker form of Harman’s claim would be that we can approach a real thing through a build up of qualities its, but never fully realise it.
  • Why do I want to say this? Why can’t I accept that we can never get closer to things as they are? Because of the expertise that I started with. 
  • Although I accept that we can never satisfy an object, can never encounter it completely, expertise, the increasing of our ability to reliably and successfully interact with a real thing in the world, must mean that something changes, within ourselves, that draws us closer to that thing – I really can’t get past this.
  • Put bluntly again – an expert mechanic must come closer to the reality of a car than does someone opening the bonnet for the first time.
  • In order to support this claim, to say that I can have a faith in Harman’s assertions about the nature of real and sensual objects whilst also maintaining a faith in expertise as a getting closer to things in the world, I need to say more than that we can keep experiencing additional qualities of an object.
  • Harman is very clear that this doesn’t bring us closer to a thing so long as we acknowledge that objects are always more than the sum of the qualities that they possess. 
  • The only way that I can see such an approaching of essence being possible, therefore, is by our altering the sensual object that we do encounter in such a way that it better relates to the real object that it is always-already partly indebted to. 
  • In this way, we wouldn’t somehow reveal and combine more and more qualities of the real object until it was somehow fully discovered, but instead the sensual object that we encounter would become more closely aligned with the ever-escaping real, a moving into phase. 
  • I want to argue that successful, expert action with an artefact is based upon a real alliance with something beyond mere sensual, phenomenal qualities - prior experience with and knowledge of an object prepares us for interactions with that object in such a way that we brush up closer to its realness.
  • The very notion of expertise necessarily relies upon exactly this approach – expertise is about the minimisation of surprise following experience – but my argument is certainly not that we can solve the issue of access and encounter things directly. 
  • In Tool-Being, Harman, for his part, again explicitly argues against some of what I want to say: 
“There must be some sort of complicated way in which being announces itself in appearances; otherwise, even approximate forms of knowledge would be utterly impossible...But in negative terms, it cannot possibly be through an...adequate...mirror[ing of] the things themselves, or even...a closer and closer but merely asymptotic approach to the things. The gap between the two dimensions remains absolute” (Tool-Being, 160). 
  • Because of the absolute distinction that he sets up between the real essence of a thing and the phenomenal object produced during interaction, Harman sees no way for us to access any aspect of that essence through appearances, directly counter to Husserl.
  • And I agree; we cannot get closer and closer to a real object as a real object – our perceptions, in the myriad ways that they can be affected and mediated, are always too distorting for one.
  • But I also believe that there is a way to embrace a variety of asymptotic approach, i.e. an approach which gets closer and closer while never finally meeting the thing, whilst maintaining an absolute distinction between the real and the sensual, and expert use of technologies gives us the perfect example. 

  • When we can use a hammer again and again and again, reliably, predictably, successfully, we must be encountering not just a sensual phenomenon, but also at least some relative of its real essence which allows for the work to be done.
  • This must be the case because the real object doesn’t change even as our potentials with it do.
  • In short, expertise changes the nature of the sensual objects that we can produce.
  • The computer encountered by the expert is not the computer encountered by the amateur; when you’re a child with no knowledge of biology you do not encounter the same human body as when you grow up and become a surgeon.
  • What happens during the more informed perception, I’m claiming, is that the sensual object we encounter has become more coordinated or coherent with the real object without ever requiring an increase in our direct access to the thing itself. 
  • In this view, perfect expertise, perfect knowledge, would be the complete coordination of sensual and real objects, i.e. they would have the exact same qualities in our experience of them, and I agree with Harman that this is impossible. 
  • But the potential for a higher concordance must be true in order to explain the potential for an increase in expertise with the concomitant change in the nature of the sensual object encountered.
  • So, against Harman, I’m arguing that the way that things appear to us, and the ways in which we encounter them more broadly, can allow a potentially asymptotic approach to the essence of things, but without requiring an increase in direct access.
  • We still only ever meet sensual rather than real objects, but, following the effects of training, these sensual objects increasingly match with the world, during expert use, at action-facilitating points. 
  • The asymptotic approach to knowledge, to inadvertently knowing the real, that I have described is about increasing the coherence of how something appears with what it real-ly is, but it is a progression with no end and an infinite array of false paths.
  • We change something inside us as we become experts, combinations of memory, muscle memory, sensitivity, expectation, intuition, that each enable the production of more reliable, more coherent sensual objects.
  • If the sensual objects had too little in common with the real objects that they are mistaken for, then action could not take place.
  • An amateur, who is constantly surprised by how the hammer and wood and nail and her body react, produces and acts on sensual objects that cohere far less with reality – this is what characterises amateur experience.
  • And this demonstrates that the objects that we first encounter as amateurs are not the things themselves, and also shows the ways in which our perceptions are shaped by all sorts of external influences.
  • But expertise is not dependent on full or perfect knowledge, just better, just closer. 
  • Andy Goldsworthy, a sculptor who works almost exclusively with materials found in the landscape in which he works, offers sympathetic descriptions, in this regard, of the development of his expertise with, and knowledge of his sources.
  • Firstly, he acknowledges the parity between his art practice and craft expertise more generally: “I understand snow and leaves and feathers and mud and sticks and stones a little bit like the way a carpenter will understand wood, because he’s worked with it” (Hand to Earth, 166).
  • He also recognises that his interactions lead him toward a greater knowledge of a thing, but that this knowledge is always hard won and insufficient: 
“All my work concentrates on a particular aspect of material or place. The grass stalk is hard, brittle, hollow and fractures at angles; the seed-head is supple, thin, strong, whippy.  It takes many works to come to some understanding of ‘stalk,’ let alone ‘grass’; it will take many more” (Hand to Earth, 162). 
  • Finally, there is some recognition that he is revealing something real through practice, something that transmutes initial perception: 
“The most rewarding thing ever said to me was by a Dutch woman of a shape I had carved in sand. She said ‘Thank you for showing me that was there.’ That is what my work does for me myself, the discovering ‘what was there.’ If it does for others, then so much the richer” (Hand to Earth, 163). 
  • I don’t believe that Goldsworthy ever thinks that he has solved the mystery of any thing, but what is good and important about his practice for him, and for those who spend time with his work, is that sense of getting somewhere closer to reality without a solution in sight.
  • In the terms that I have set out here, his increasingly expert understanding of the materials is tied to an increase in the coherence of the sensual objects that he is able to produce. He gets somewhere.

  • Human knowledge, in this conception, is at best good enough in a moment, an asymptotic edging-towards that is reflected by the success and repeatability of an activity, but it’s mostly a gliding through a sea of objects that we don’t even recognise as infinitely alien.
  • For our expertly produced, increasingly coherent sensual objects though, what something is-to-us begins to match some aspects of the real thing in the world, but it should never be mistaken for that thing; we can always be surprised.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Macbeth Theatre Book Project

Another big gap between posts, but I promise I've been busy! The book which caused me to start writing on here in the first place is being published next May. It's called Challenging the Phenomena of Technology and looks at what technology is: how it appears in popular conversation; how it's historically been defined; how we might want to define it; how we become entangled with it; and how it evolves to be an embodiment of knowledge and information. I'll post more about this in the new year and I'll probably be starting a new blog that incorporates everything I get up to online a little better so that updates are more frequent. I also started a new job at Birmingham as a lecturer in post-1945 literature which has been amazing so far. And, with the book out, a new project starts on January 1st - more details to come!

I've also been working with the RSC and two artists, Davy and Kristin McGuire on a digital pop-up book project that builds on the McGuire's previous work on The Ice Book. We gave a presentation at the REACT knowledge exchange hub in Bristol last week and here's my brief talk from there explaining why the project means so much to me and my work.

REACT Lunchtime Talk

My relationship to the Macbeth Theatre Book project is a little on the nose: it’s just so perfect for the things that I’m interested in. I mostly write about three things: technology, embodiment, and reading practices, so watching an artwork come to life that unites these things is mesmerising and demonstrates to me, once again, that doing things is just as productive for the process of theorising as thinking about them.
There’s an incredible English course in the States where a group of students read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a classic story of getting away from everything, a man escaping from the drudgery of daily life, a life in 19th century America where technology, already, was becoming just too much. Thoreau felt he was being kept away from the natural world by the expectations of society and so he moved to Walden Pond, built himself a cabin, and lived and wrote out there for two years. And the students studying this book, studying Walden, over the 12 weeks of their course, they build their own cabin, and in the act of making they learn something more than they ever could by just pondering the text. There is something to making, and to considering newly made things, that makes us think differently. I’m not capable of building what the McGuires are building, but I get a huge amount out of seeing what they’ve built, what they want to build, and the discussions that these built things provoke in me and in others – and not just the object, but the process.
Thoreau thought that humans had become “tools of their tools,” that they had become subordinate to the technologies that they increasingly used in their lives. But part of what I write about is that humans are always the tools of their tools, always affected by, shaped by, and working in entanglement with their devices. There has never been a human for which this wasn’t true. There is no such thing as a natural human without technological supports. Without the technologies of fire and tools and shelter none of us would last very long, and the larger the band of humans the more tools we need in order to drag a subsistence out of the land for our needy bodies.
The archaeologist Timothy Taylor (in The Artificial Ape) presents convincing evidence that the use of animal hide slings by pre-human hominids called australopithecines is what let to possibility of the development of the modern human mind at all. My argument is that Thoreau wasn’t wrong; he just didn’t know how long he’d been right for.
But if humans are in constant thrall to their technologies it’s also because we train them to produce the things that we consider to be the most beautiful. Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) noted that there is nothing natural about playing a violin sonata, as evidenced by the hours of practice that it takes to get to concert standard, to merge your body with the violin and bow, and yet the result is profoundly human. Expertise and our commune with our tools, or the practicing to get there, are some of the richest moments of our lives, whether that’s driving, drawing, playing tennis, playing an instrument, painting or sculpting, writing a poem, or reading. And, for me, this book, this new kind of book that the McGuires have made, sits right in the middle of all of this. This is what draws me in. At a time when we’re worrying again, like Thoreau, about becoming tools of our tools, about giving-in to our technologies, the McGuires remind us that we can make any technology beautiful if we look at and act with it in the right way. Not quite digital, but not quite material either.
The whole point about comparing printed books and e-books is that print is meant to be pleasantly fixed and e-reading is meant to be ethereal, always in danger of changing or of not being pleasing to our hands. And yet here paper comes alive and the digital is made physical – we get the best of both and we’re reminded that paper has always been tricky to pin down, that the digital has always had real world effects. This project troubles our expectations.

Novels used to be viewed with the same suspicion many of us now look at Kindles and iPads – novels would corrupt the women, the children, the servants. We were idiots when we thought like that, and we’re no doubt being idiots about some things again. Maybe not about printed books though, maybe those are really great, maybe iPads and Kindles are abominations for bringing about the death of the perfect reading vehicle. But maybe not. Maybe our children will love their screens as richly and vitally as we love the smell of an old hardback or the fresh precision of an unopened Penguin Modern Classic with all of its promise of escape. The McGuire’s work, at the very least, gives us permission to explore all options.
This humanisation of technology is vital I think – it makes us more nuanced, less liable to be reactionary; it demands that we pay attention to the details. To mimic the huddle under the covers with a torch, all the magic and intimacy of escaping sleep with a detour into another bookish world is profoundly moving, profoundly humanising. And maybe it’s more so at this time for parents who remember that experience so well and mourn its loss, and for children for whom torch and book have always been one and the same thing, and for those in the middle who lived across the transition, swapping torch for Gameboy for tablet.
Some of you might also be interested in the question of whether this is a Digital Humanities project – it’s certainly made me reflect on what the Digital Humanities are and what they should include. There’s no database here, no new way of reading texts with computers, and yet it seems to me to be something that we should absolutely consider as being an example of Digital Humanities research, even though not one of us is maybe doing it in isolation. There is something genuinely distinctive about digitisation and its effects that requires a new way of working and speaking, a new set of sensitivities, and it’s here in this raising of awareness that I tend to think of the Digital Humanities. Actually, maybe the concerns aren’t so new, but rather a reconfiguration with the net cast a little wider. But the McGuire’s aren’t doing Digital Humanities. They’re making art and, by devising the mechanisms by which their art functions, they’re engaging in design, prototyping, and fabrication - these can be elements of Digital Humanities work, but they are not its sum or sole components. And the Royal Shakespeare Company aren’t doing Digital Humanities here; they’re providing vital support for the project, acting as producers and putting the other participants in contact with Shakespeare and his plays and coding and production experts. And I’m not doing Digital Humanities; I’m just writing a series of short essays to accompany the project, like extended variations on the gallery blurb beside a painting, ideally to help an audience, the RSC, maybe even the McGuire’s themselves to articulate what’s going on, why and how the object and the experience feels so rich, so overdetermined, to try and find some language for why it means so much. The project, however, seems to be absolutely a Digital Humanities project – there’s something in its sum.
The question of “is this Digital Humanities?” remains uneasy if it’s neatly reduced to practices or outcomes, but this project combines. It breaks the Digital Humanities dictum of “more hack, less yack,” build more, theorise less, by showing how building is theorising - and talking about built things, placing them in context, gives them a greater solidity, a greater potency, and particularly in a time in which it can be situated amongst fraught debates of what it means to be human, how we should raise our children, how we should act in the world. The conversations that the McGuire’s work prompts - about the continuing importance of stories on paper in a digital age, about the potential inherent in drawing on old myths and new technology, those pure and devastating drives of memory and hope – the conversations and the device itself require what any sensitive reading of a text has always required: paying attention to the conditions of their production and reception.
Collaborations like this give each member new ways of considering the objects under discussion, but despite the importance of building things for the Digital Humanities, as both a source and a provocation, it also requires, a significant critical component so that it doesn’t have politics evacuated from its concerns. To defend theorising for a second, I think that understanding any technology, particularly at the moment, demands that researchers have at least a basic knowledge of and interest in the popular means of content access, the practices of using devices, and the kinds of cultural concerns that surround them, what we might call a cyberculture or digital culture. To try and read this work and to not be attentive to these wider concerns around digital technologies would be like studying Victorian novels without considering Empire, industry, or urban sprawl; it would be like studying Shakespeare’s manuscripts without thinking of where the plays were performed and how they were received.
So, that’s what I’m up to. While they do the smart bit of thinking with their hands and their heads, I’m doing the bit that too often gets mistaken for the “real” smarts, just using my head to try and work out why I find this project as beautiful and as provocative as I do. But I’ll write some of it down and ask you to read it and, I hope, that after this Theatre Book has blown you away, you’ll also then have some words to-hand to try and work through the effect that it’s had on you which, I guarantee, will be as personal as your fingerprint, on the back of a book, under a cover, lit by a torch, years ago.

Further reading:
Davy and Kristin McGuire, “The Ice Book.”
Matt Hayler, “Making IT Beautiful.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
Timothy Taylor, The Artificial Ape.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Punk Rock and Fighting

Patrick Stickles, frontman of Titus Andronicus, did a great podcasted interview in January with the comedian Marc Maron (whose WTF podcast is well worth listening to in general, I'm currently catching up). They cover a lot about music over an hour or so, about rock and roll as a dying art form and how that might be good if it wants to remain any kind of music of protest. And there's a moment around 47 minutes in that just jumped out, where Stickles talks about becoming a punk, being 9 years old and his sister bringing home Green Day's album Dookie (the first record I ever bought too) and within 2 days she's got green hair and she's started this war with her parents that Stickles just wished he was fighting himself. And it wasn't a war she could win, she was fighting against the very state of the world, of all that was expected; "she might as well have been waging a war with God as far as I was concerned." And then this beautiful line: "your parents' authority is absolute, but my sister found this CD which somehow gave her the strength to take them on."

And I know that seems like a trivial fight by trivial means, but that first fight, that acknowledgement that things could be other than they are and that you could resist, and that art, not that it could bring about change, but that it could make you able to take on the fight, or a fight, that realisation I remember so profoundly, but I don't think I've ever quite heard it articulated. It's a cool moment.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

What Was It I Was Writing About Again...?

While we're on the subject of book writing, I've been trying to put together some (ugh...) "mission statements," paragraphs for me to try and conceptualise what it is that I'm attempting to do with the work, central theses, and paragraphs that might, in some form, make their way into the introduction or conclusion. It's a kind of eidetic reduction: when I strip everything down what is this book trying to accomplish, what is its essence?

It's something that I try and do with conference papers and articles too, but it's been essential for longer work where I can't keep every facet of the argument in mind all at once. When I'm drowning in notes and ideas and diversions I can come back to these two or three paragraphs and think "does what I'm getting sidetracked by right now actually help with what I'm trying to do?"

I have no idea if it's of use to anyone (maybe you don't need such crutches, maybe you can remember your damn argument!), but I thought I'd offer up a couple that have been on my mind this morning. I'm trying to explain to myself why I'm focussing on individual technologies and individual users rather than exploring the webs of "technical systems."

1. Those objects which represent catastrophic global risk (e.g. (and arguably) nuclear reactors, nano- and biotechnology), that are unpredictable, that no human can feel a sense of mastery with and through, are a new type of thing that have nothing to do with the history of technology and its impact on human experience. They need to be theorised and understood, of course, urgently. But when we put mobile phones and e-readers in the same bracket, when it's all just “complex modern technologies,” we make a profound error. We neglect the continued lineage of expertise with mundane and impactful devices simply because what’s inside the box is more complicated than it has been before – the outside of the technology that we actually encounter and use is not more challenging than a bicycle or a spear or a butcher’s knife or a violin. It's a strange hubris to suggest that when you microwave a meal you are engaged in something more complex than a concert performance 25 years or more of training in the making; that when you struggle to set the clock on your DVD player you rightly wish for the simplicity of older or more “primitive” societies where you simply had to craft and deploy the tools of the hunt and the butchery of its outcome.

2. We need a name for the objects encountered in the uniquely intimate and powerful fashion we need to ascribe to our expert use, and a name which describes those objects outside of the complex systems which bring them into being and in which they sit. I.e. when we say "technological system" we shouldn't then lose the term "technology" to describe the thing we encounter. Phenomenologically, I encounter an object as a special thing outside of its systems even as, philosophically, I realise the importance of those myriad networks. The history and philosophy of technology has us covered in terms of technical systems – my project is to talk about the individual things themselves, how they affect us, how we affect them, how the ways in which we intermingle with one another need to be analysed at the individual event of use as well as the society-wide deployment. By better understanding individual use I believe that we set a better stage for understanding an object’s political implications and the considerations we may need to make when looking at the boundaries of technical systems. In some ways I’m discomfited by this seemingly rampant individualism, but I hope that it can make me, and hopefully the reader, more sensitive to the origins of vital collective and intersubjective political concerns. That it’s not my project to analyse them here should not be read as my refutation of the significance and importance of networks.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Hyperlinks as Punctuation and Possibility

I’m finishing up the book I have to deliver to Palgrave in September (I’ll post a more thorough breakdown soon, but it’s about what technology is in the popular imagination; by definition; in phenomenological experience; and as an embodiment of knowledge. It uses e-reading, and people’s resistance to e-reading devices, as a case study for the discussion of how we skilfully use equipment as cognisers who spread our cognition over brain, body, tools, and environment). The book is based, in part, on my thesis (LINK) which explored the resistance to the then-new e-readers (mostly the early Kindle and iPad models). I found the following in my notes and it probably won’t make it into the final draft, but I still like the general idea: hyperlinks are a kind of punctuation and they do things to the way that we conceive of words on the page.

If it's always going to be a part of e-reading from the start let's return to hyperlinking, and to what it might mean. A hyperlink, most typically represented as an underlined blue word, when clicked takes the reader from the page that they are on to somewhere else, known or unknown. The author of the document sets the hyperlink marker, which word or image is clickable, and they set the destination; the reader chooses whether or not they are going to click the link. This doesn't mean, however, that an unclicked link has no meaning. Steven Johnson describes hyperlinks as an entirely new linguistic element, “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries” (Everything Bad Is Good For You 111), and this is an apt description; hyperlinked words do not change the words themselves, at the level of letters, but instead augment and alter their meaning and capacity to mean. In early writing systems pictographic script represented spoken words; the spoken “bird,” in the simplest pictogram, would have a representational or symbolic parallel with the image of a bird. A text was accurate if the interpretations of each image matched some value of what the author intended. A chirographic or typographic written word is different: it is more precise, and part of its ability to better capture specific meaning comes from its representing, or coming to represent, a spoken word inscribed many times with its own history and context. For instance,

[l]inguists classify English as a morphophonemic writing system because it represents both morphemes (units of meaning) and phonemes (units of sound) in its spelling...[T]he linguists Noam Chomsky and Carol Chomsky use words like ‘muscle’ to teach the way our words carry an entire history within them …For example, the silent ‘c’ in ‘muscle’ may seem unnecessary, but in fact it visibly connects the word to its origin, the Latin root musculus, from which we have such kindred words as ‘muscular’ and ‘musculature.’ In the latter words the ‘c’ is pronounced and represents the phonemic aspect of our alphabet. The silent ‘c’ of ‘muscle,’ therefore, visually conveys the morpheme aspect of English. In essence, English represents a 'trade-off' between depicting the individual sounds of the oral language and showing the roots of its words (Maryann Wolf, Proust and the Squid 42-43).

To look at a pictogram of a muscle, it would always mean the concept of “muscle”; whatever the culture dictated that concept to be, the image would always suggest to the reader their current interpretation of that conventional concept. But if we look at the word “muscle”, with its silent “c,” then we get the full morphophoneticism of English coming to the fore: the Latin root, with its pronounced “c,” hides within, a conceptual trace, a history more or less known, and more or less affective to the reader. But now paint that word blue and underline it, put it on a screen and it becomes imbued with possibility. This contraption now means the interpreted cultural concept of the spoken or inscribed “muscle,” like the pictogram; it contains “musculus” and a history of use, like the inscribed word; but it also reminds us, without our even clicking it, in fact without, now, it even being a hyperlink, of everywhere it might take us: anatomical diagrams, bodybuilding, bodyguards, seafood even, or somewhere we have yet to learn. Hyperlinks represent a personal aspect to every underlined word, of choices made to access (or not) a unique link or combination. They are hypermorphophonemic: conceptual, historical, possible.

But if every e-reading space is tied to hyperlink-inflected reading then suddenly any particular word need not even be a visible link, instead every word carries this new weight. Hyperlinks exist to remind us that we can head out into other texts, out into the world, that where we are is not the final say, and that the boundary lines we have revered in print are blurred at best, and potentially inconsequential. In the webs of text online, hyperlinks chart an authored path, whilst simultaneously reminding us that with Google only ever a few clicks away we can always break out from the document we’re reading to wash ourselves in information whose connections are of a much more arbitrary and idiosyncratic variety. That promise of hyperlinks now exists in all digital texts, whether they appear online or not, and this weaves a gentle magic, existing as a fundamental, conscious or unconscious breakdown of the privileging of the boundaries set by the author or typesetter, and the immutability of bound paper text.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Making IT Beautiful - TEDxExeter Video and Transcript

I haven't blogged here in way too long. This has been the busiest six months of my life I think and something had to give, unfortunately it was posting here (normal service will resume I think, I've got some ideas for how I can put things up more regularly here again). The good news though is that the hiatus should be paying off: as it stands I have three book chapters coming out in edited collections over the next few months, I'm editing a couple of collections myself, and my first monograph is moving into the final stages of drafting. I also managed to keep on doing my teaching job (which sadly comes to a close in September) and I'm pursuing the next stage of my career (hopefully a little more research focussed while keeping up plenty of the teaching that I love). It's been an exciting time.

In amongst this I managed to do a TEDx talk in Exeter which was a terrifying and wonderful experience. I've never had to memorise anything before, and I may never attempt it again to be honest, I like having notes! But it was great to get a taste of delivering a performance. Below is the video and a transcript. The experience of seeing myself from multiple angles giving a talk that I can now barely remember (adrenaline is a weird thing) is profoundly strange, but it does look like a TED talk, a genre all of its own. That might be what's strangest of all, like suddenly finding myself in a soap opera or on the pages of a novel.

A Kind of Progress: How Boring Technologies Change Our Minds

So I’m sitting near the front of a bus. It’s pretty packed, and every seat is taken. We get to the next stop, and another big group get on, and I give my seat to a youngish mum and a baby. So now I’m standing up in a scrum of people, and the baby, it looks only a couple months old, but it already knew how to be angry, it was an angry angry baby, deep down, and it looks up at me, and it decides that I’ve somehow wronged it in some really fundamental way because it starts to just bawl while looking me right in the eye. And the mother, she looks down at her infant child, and I’m guessing she really loves this kid, and she follows its eyeline, and she tracks up and she looks at me, who’d just given up his seat, and she glares and looks away, out the window, like her child’s...integral fury was somehow my fault. So this bus journey has just gone from kind of uncomfortable to just awful, for everyone on board. And that’s when this group of teenagers in a huddle next to me start to play music on their phones.

There’s 5 of them, they’re probably about 14 years old, old enough to have stopped caring what adults think, but not old enough to have decent taste in music, and you can actually hear the passengers on this bus collectively sigh, because it’s not a long journey, and no one’s going to cause enough of a fuss to push through the crowd and tell them to stop. But, in this crappy public transport moment, while the older couple behind me start to grumble about how rude teenagers are today, I’m no longer frustrated, no longer feeling guilty for trying to stare down an overly aggressive baby, because one of these teenagers and her friend start doing this mundane thing, they start putting on their makeup. But it seems weird because I think that one of them has this big mirror that she’s pulled out of her bag, and then I realise that it’s an oldish iPad, with the front camera turned on, and it’s being used just like a mirror.

Its case was covered in stickers and the tip-exed names of various bands, but what was so striking was just how normal this advanced plastic and glass thing had become. It was a trivial moment, but it was also one of those oddly vertiginous moments of modern life where you realise that experience has changed in some small but significant way. A 15-minute journey and I saw this thing used as a mirror; a stereo; to send an email; to look something up; to play a game. Every time I glanced over it was being put to some new use; it had been built, for this girl, into the practice of being a teenager. In the same way that that baby was angry, right at its core, this girl was switched on.

It’s simple to say that we live in a moment of profound and rapid technological progress. This has become a truism, a less than interesting fact about our world. We're told that we don't have a choice about progress, that we can be either for it or against it, and TED speakers, and attendees, for the most part, are meant to be for the advancement of our material culture, of the things, the objects that we surround ourselves with. “Progress” is a hard thing to define though.  What does it mean to say that things are getting better? The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 1860s
“Tis too plain that with the material power the moral progress has not kept pace. It appears that we have not made a judicious investment.”
I think that I agree; I have little faith in an idea of progress that doesn't include us getting better too, as a species, and as an increasingly globally coherent group, but that's another, much longer discussion. The science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, however, makes the simpler, but related point in a talk called “On Getting Big Stuff Done,” where he notes that:
In the first 70 years of the 20th century, we went from not believing that heavier than air flight was possible to walking on the moon.
Stephenson argues that if you took an American from 1900 and put them in a time machine and sent them to 1968, then when he or she went home again they wouldn't really even have the vocabulary to say what they had seen. But if we took someone from 1968 and sent them to now then their articulation of the change would be far easier. Stephenson says that in that case he or she would likely think that the internet was cool, and typewriters had become computers, but what had happened to supersonic air travel, what had happened to the national investment in space exploration? And he also has this fictional time traveller say things on their return which are haunting:
“Diseases that we [in 1968] can easily treat with antibiotics have become intractable and are making a comeback. And even diseases that can easily be snuffed out by vaccines are coming back, simply because parents aren't getting their kids vaccinated because they don't believe in science anymore.”
I guess my point is simply that "things are getting better faster" is a more complicated idea than we often give it credit for, and dramatically so if we consider the state of the entire world.
But there is a way that rapid change does occur through technology, and most often for the better I think. And that’s when a technology becomes boring. Cars will probably always be too exciting; we get drawn to them, we can’t really talk about them, everyone wants one regardless of how much they mess things up. We’re just not going back to horses, and, in the UK at least, we’re doing a really sterling job of trying to give up on trains too. But tablets and e-readers and smartphones are maybe starting to become just the right kind of dull.

When you’ve used them for a while you can make them do a few things really well and reliably, and you can lower the cost, and you can start to make sure that everyone has one; and only then do we start to find out their potential. Radio was like this, and TV, and telephones, and books, and photography. It was when each of them became kind of boring that they became really really powerful, and we never stopped being able to have conversations about them, about what they are and what they can be. They are not aspirational totems; they take on the same reliability and rhythms as sunrises and tap water.

What tablets and ereaders and smartphones do, what they are doing, like the great boring technologies before them, is starting conversations about how we work; how we relax; how we learn; and how we view the world, and the worst possible thing to do would be to shut down these conversations and to not see where they go. Which is why every time I see articles about the death of reading, and videogames destroying our kids’ minds, and why can’t we all just curl up with War and Peace rather than investigate the potentials of virtual reality, then I want to scream a little, because…give it a chance. We’re still all learning what TV can be, and ubiquitous high quality photography; we have no idea, for instance, what carrying a small powerful computer around with us at all times might yet do.

We should be exploring great new devices and responsibly seeing what they can offer, not damning innovation based on the strength of our old mythologies. By “old mythologies” I mean the ways in which we develop a way of looking at things that ends up making them seem to have always been true, so that when they get changed, even slightly, we experience this profound sense of wrongness. But this shows how much we care.

We place a lot of weight upon our objects and endow them with a life of their own. It's obvious that anyone who truly loves books, for instance, knows that they are much more than words on a bundle of pages. But they're not of course, the bundle is exactly what they are; we just bring something else, something better, do our best to attach it, and, with practice, do. We make things special. Physical books allow us to play with paper and bring it to life: half turning pages so that they pass by quicker; running a nail under an important line; dog-earring corners; doodling and making notes; mourning and then relishing the bangs and bumps and creases of the cover as they accumulate. It's hard to pinpoint the psychological effects of all these little things beyond a broad notion of adding importance, but that people mourn their loss suggests the pleasures, and maybe the necessity of physical interactions in daily life. But if this is the case then the outlook for things like e-readers and tablets is actually very hopeful: rather than being these mass produced lumps of plastic and glass that are so homogenous and so featureless that we cannot possibly fall in love with them, users will, instead, always work to adapt new human practices. This is part of our relationship with mundane objects: that in our bid to find the boundaries of the things that we use every day we also give something of ourselves back to them.

I think that some commentators doubt that the users of new technologies will find a way to place importance onto their digital things in the same way that they have with older and seemingly more sensuous technologies like print. But, to my mind, that’s what being human is all about: making things special, making things more than just things. We should continue, and, in some instances start long overdue conversations about vital issues such as conflict minerals and the types of social, political, and environmental impact that occur whenever a technology becomes essential. But we’re also allowed to marvel at how adaptable we are as a species, at what power we can wield when we become experts with the very items that the last generation said would threaten to destroy us.

Every stickered laptop; every annotated electronic text; every emoticon-ed instant message; every nailvarnished mobile; every comedy home movie; every tagged photo; every lovingly curated blog is testament to the fact that people have, once again, worked with these things until they are beautiful. We are building the history for our digital devices that on a long enough timescale will imbue screens with the same richness as paper pages. They traverse the same path: we make the objects, or cause them to be made; we use them; we establish what makes them work; and they get made again; and we become one with them; and we make them sing.

There is a profound bravery to letting the next generation try something new. We will always find ourselves in a state of consternation because one thing that’s always true of young people is that they will insist on the experiment, but the question always then becomes: Do we have the guts to allow them to explore what scares us, let alone to support them, let alone to follow them?