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.