[iDC] Public Sphere Polka

tt tterra at fastwebnet.it
Mon Jul 10 11:40:38 EDT 2006

dear Trebor and all,

I will take a bit more time from the list to continue our conversation, 
even as some might prefer to move on to some thick descriptions!

What I would like to make clear, is that I understand people's concerns 
about another dry 'ascent to theory' - with all the authoritarian 
consequences which often derives from that and universal boredom.  But I 
think sometimes a bit of philosophy seems necessary and that thick, 
specific, historical descriptions of specific events are never only 
about contextualizing and specifying. They always raise interesting 
philosophical questions.
I am a thinking of a recent book by Peter Galison /Empire of Time, 
/which is a really good example. It is a very detailed, well crafted and 
well documented study of the context in which Poincarè invented topology 
and Einstein  relativity theory - plus the story about the multiplicity 
of local times, decided without coordination by cities and regions, was 
tamed into the time zones we know today by mapping the meridians. 
Galison is very good at showing how it was the very technical and 
mundane work these scientists did, as state mining inspector in France 
(poincarè), and as a patent clerk in Switzerland (Einstein) that 
provided the conditions for the formulations of the questions that led 
to topology and relativity. He shows how these inventions presumed a 
whole network of institutions and events - from states to commercial 
enterprises to local politics, to weather etc. After you read this book, 
your perspective on scientific invention will have changed as that of 
space and time. These are great studies - although in Galison's case, it 
is an historical study, while what many of us do is not to study past 
events, but present events, in the making, when also not experimenting 
ourselves with networked communication. I think this makes it difficult, 
but challenging, which gives this work the feeling that it can actually 
find some relays in culture or society which will respond to it positively.
For me the question is not to much to explain everything through a 
theory, as to mobilize philosophy so as to make justice to the material 
one is working with.

What I should have maybe mentioned first, in my first posting to the 
list, before bombarding everyone with questions and statements, is that 
two years ago I have received a research grant to produce a study on the 
reporting and representations of the Iraq war on the Internet. As you 
understand, it is obviously not a project that can be carried out by any 
one individual, but it gives enough resources to concentrate on small 
sections of the Internet - such as the web-logs from within Iraq (which 
are often the main, most reliable source of information about Iraq). 
This is really a tiny, tiny part of the Internet, not to talk about it 
in relation to the large amounts of communications exchanged on a global 
scale on a daily basis (TV, newspapers, newssites, etc). The authors of 
the blogs are or have been (appearing and disappearing all the time) 
confirmed as 'authentic' by shifting but reliable networks of 
verification (what Stalder and Hirsh have called an open source 
intelligence). Internet points multiplied in Iraq after the war, also 
thanks to the help of voluntary  engineering groups which, according to 
some accounts, entered Iraq immediately after the invasion. There's also 
accounts of Ubuntu's free and open source software being delivered to 
Iraq.  I can give you details about numbers if you want them in another 
posting - but numbers are shifting as ever with the Internet. Every blog 
provides a really subjective, infinitesimally small account of the war 
compared to the vast amount of information/noise churned out by 
mainstream media on Iraq. Their audiences are substantial, but far from 
constituting even a minority of users. The first philosophical question 
I ask myself now, then, is:

what or whom are these blogs there for? Do they constitute a tiny 
portion of the networked public sphere, which they contribute to, by 
doing their small, but important part? Is the tiny trickle of 
devastating information coming out from within Iraq having any effects 
on the networked public sphere? What about the people, who are still the 
majority, globally, who do not get access to the networked public 
sphere? Will it be enough to have them all online for that tiny trickle 
of information to have any effects at a mass level? So that these blogs 
can be said to cause any clearcut, necessary, fair changes on the ground?
I have to say that I do not even think that this is /my/ question, but 
the questions which are now being posed by this section of the 
blogosphere, if we want to call it so. Anybody who has been reading 
blogs coming in from Iraq, especially those of Iraqi citizens, can 
really tell you about the loss of spirit that these writers are 
experiencing. And although never stated, one can just feel that blogging 
is becoming more difficult for them, because some kind of belief, 
however unstated, in the power of blogging to really help to change 
things for the better in Iraq, has got lost.

So again, and this was my question, I have to ask myself  about the 
mass. But I agree with you that maybe that was a wrong question, and 
even biomass maybe it's not a happy word for it. Maybe it is something 
more mundane, it is more like a majority, something precarious that 
holds things together in a certain direction, rather than another and 
that sometimes shifts, something that is about opinion and even polls.  
In this sense, yes, the biomass that PR, publicists, advertising and 
marketing manipulate must be the same as the mass activists work with. 
Otherwise they are only activating the already activated (which is not 
necessarity a bad thing, see Michael Moore Farheneit 9/11 etc).

One good thing I would like to say about the mass, is that, outside its 
really horrible historical connotations and the images that come with 
it, is that I always valued the fact that it is passive. The point about 
women I wanted to make was not just about their numerical representation 
(sorry Trebor). But it also about the fact that unfortunately it is 
almost only women who read feminist philosophy and history, these days, 
especially in technological circles and it shows (apart from haraway 
maybe).  Which is really a great shame. But my point is that there are 
some philosophies (the usual culprits Spinoza, Leibniz) which have 
understood the moment of being captured by something, of letting oneself 
be captured by something as a productive, ethical moment. Apart from the 
acts of htting digits and clicking links, I am completely passive when I 
read these blogs. Things slightly change with people who are active 
posters and who establish personal relations with the bloggers, but they 
constitute a tiny minority of the tiny minority of bloggers' readers. I 
think as long as we exist within a world of communications for the most 
part we sit passively reclined, we take a lot more in than we actualy 
actively produce. I don't see how it is possible to get around that in 
discussions about the public sphere. What kind of public sphere is it 
where the majority of people sits most of the time mostly taking in 
passively informations, images, sensations....

Again, it is really really easy to go from a statement like this (we are 
mostly passive in relation to communication) and make it into something 
else (we cannot do nothing, the majority can only take what is given to 
them). I don't think that passage is necessary. One way out of this has 
been to draw on an alternative term, and say that this passive mass (at 
least in the world of media consumption) is also always at the same time 
a multitude in the world of production! It seems too good to be true. 
Nobody is really passive, or passivity, in their Spinozian sense, is the 
beginning of activity, of the process of becoming active. So we are 
bound to be passive and homogenized in the majority of cases in relation 
to the media, but active and differentiated in the world of 
communication.  This is I think what Charlie Gere was referring to in 
his point about the mysticism of Deluzian/autonomist thought which 
reminds the mystical spiritualism of Teillhard de Chardin. As Charlie 
has appropriately pointed out, there is an almost mystical tone to much 
writing of this kind. I think you are right, about that, I actually 
think it's quite interesting, more than from Chardin I would really make 
it derive to seventeenth century - the heretical movements against the 
Catholic church (century of Spinoza and of the Counter-Reformation). 
There is definitely a hint of that,
I think that the power of these blogs from Iraq, on the tiny public 
whose attention they have captured, even passively and for whatever 
reasons, is deeply affective. It has singularized me - as it s tiny 
public - in relation to the perception of the Iraq war, I am definitely 
not in the majority. I am a bit more isolated too, I need to make more 
of an effort to communicate about Iraq, because I can always rely on 
most of my listeners to have different opinions, but mostly an utterly 
distorted perception of the situation - regardless of politics and ideology.

 I do not think that we can know what these tiny effects multiplied 
across a number of sites on the web might be, but we should take it 
seriously because the questions of Iraq blogs is also the more general 
question of the effects of networked communication on the larger 'public 
sphere'. Iraqi blogs are instances of communication networks mostly 
connecting tiny publics and projects (and that should not mean only 
fragmentation). Actually the most interesting thing I find about power 
laws is not so much that they show a tendency to produce enormous spikes 
of concentration, but that they also tend to fall down and off into a 
long long line of tiny publics, spreading to infinity. Remember the Bell 
curve (which is the mathematical figure for a mass, if I am not 
mistaken) mostly crowds in the middle (around the average). But a power 
law mass converges on some points only to mostly disperse itself into a 
multiplicity of nodes. Is this only fragmentation or is it also 
something else?



I would like to take in a couple pf points being made on the list by 
Grant and Kester, which I thought were really good points, actually.

One question is: what is the difference between a biomass (I am not sure 
I like this term either) which is manipulated by advertising, publicity, 
PR, spin, marketing etc and one that is manipulated by artists and well 
meaning activists?
The second question was: why do Italian autonomist writers always end up 
sounding so mystical and making it as if brain cells, computer networks, 
and human societies were the same thing?

Well my answer to the first question would be. Yes you are right, they 
have to be the same thing. But by all means this

Grant Kester wrote:

>Dear Trebor and all,
>I want to second Trebor's call for "actual examples." One of the drawbacks
>of the rise to dominance of "theory" as a venerated subject position in the
>media arts (and the arts in general) has been an emulation effect: we all
>yearn for the comforting mastery of the theoretical voice (I'm as guilty as
>anyone else, I'm sure). The result is an impressive breadth of writing and
>reflection taken from the middle distance, but relatively few of the kinds
>of close, situational readings that give real complexity to a field of
>inquiry (and help us move past unproductive generalities). I would be happy
>to forgo further invocations of the grand recits of Deleuze, the Italian
>autonomists, etc. for a little plumpes denken or vulgar empiricism, some
>"thick" descriptions of specific activist new media projects (not myspace,
>youtube, or cell phone use), in all their complexity, success and
>compromise. Speaking as an "outsider" to new media discourse, that's really
>what I hoped to find here. Do any of our list colleagues have some extended
>descriptions of this nature that they would be willing to share?
>Best wishes,
>Grant Kester
>On 7/7/06 8:01 PM, "Trebor Scholz" <trebor at thing.net> wrote:
>>The liberatory nature of sociable media with regard to politics had not
>>been sufficiently mapped in terms of pros and cons before Benkler¹s ³The
>>Wealth of Networks.² He delineates the constantly resurfacing
>>"ready-made answers" that Tiziana refers to and responds in depth.
>>Tiziana offers a succinct bird¹s eye view, a blueprint of this polka of
>>arguments that could play on ³shuffle.² She writes:
>>"The answers can only be: yes (it has been demonstrated, it is
>>constantly been demonstrated in thousands of ways as trebor has
>>remarked); no (it cannot constitute a pure opposition because its
>>implication in oppressive modes of governmental and economic domination
>>is also clearly observable, whether it is about surveillance or
>>marketing); and yes and no at the same time (it is both, so the question
>>is how to amplify the liberating potential in ways that sidestep its
>>oppressive one)."
>>While I agree that this dynamic jumps into place, I think that an
>>analysis that looks for more specificity and actual examples of
>>technologies will make it more difficult for our subject positions to
>>simply "fall into place" in a Pavlovian manner.
>>It is important to see that we are not talking about an imaginary future
>>here. Speculating about the future is different from noticing what is
>>going on around us. Future talk easily becomes mixed up with
>>techno-utopianism or its scared counterpart. And let me also be
>>absolutely clear that I think that networked and embodied experience
>>increasingly converges.
>>Tiziana-- "The mass today: a field of dispersion. Yes, ok, one can
>>produce all this information about the war which is not there in the
>>mainstream media [...], but this has no impact overall because the mass
>>disperses the potential active effect."
>>It depends on what you mean by ³active effect.²
>>"Fragmentation of attention and discourse... the ubiquity of information
>>and the absence of the mass media [are] condensation points [that] will
>>impoverish public discourse by fragmenting it. There will be no public
>>sphere. Individuals will view the world through millions of personally
>>customized windows that will offer no common ground for political
>>discourse or action, except among groups of highly similar individuals
>>who customize their windows to see similar things." (Benkler, p.234)
>>The large scale, chaotic, Fordist, and uninformed masses that you refer
>>to are socialized into systemic submission, I agree sadly though that
>>leaves little or no room for hope. If revolution is what you really mean
>>by ³active effect,² then, yes, I am doubtful about the extent to which
>>sociable media can aid this process.
>>Jurgen Habermas always stressed that "the importance of a vital and
>>functioning Öffentlichkeit, a sphere of critical publicity distinct from
>>the state and the economy, consisting of a broad range of organizations
>>that represent public opinion and interest groups, to counter these
>>developments and to ensure a pluralist democratic debate in an open
>>society that is not entirely dominated by the mass media." (Boeder)
>>But in March 06 Habermas stated that:
>>"Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of
>>communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on
>>intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the
>>less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens
>>the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an
>>anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information,
>>allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues
>>and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the
>>growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized
>>access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by
>>intellectuals lose their power to create a focus." (Jürgen Habermas
>>03/09/06: acceptance speech for Bruno Kreisky Prize)
>>To what extent does it matter if February 15, 2003 did not stop the war?
>>Anti-war activists like Lucy Lippard told me many stories about their
>>fight against the war in Vietnam. May Stevens, another artist and
>>activist was not shy about her contribution: ³We stopped the war in
>>Vietnam!² I took them ten years.
>>And 02/15/03 witnessed a perhaps more broad-based movement than the
>>unfolding of the anti-war efforts against Nixon.
>>³MySpace² is not the battleship ³Potemkin.² People will not protest in
>>the streets and then take over the factories and offices, and finally
>>throw the Zar and his kin out of the Hermitage (in Argentina or
>>Venezuela-- yes, but not in Switzerland and the United States any time
>>Blogger is not a sleeper cell. Not at all. But something is happening
>>that adds novel aspects to the networked public sphere.
>>The sheer mass of people who take to the Web to speak about their lives,
>>their concerns, their anger, their frustrations creates a new level of
>>online sociality that has to be reckoned with. People do connect.
>>Obviously that is no new news but the massification of online sociality
>>is political due to its participatory nature. This surely changes a
>>culture that is otherwise deeply rooted in lonestar individuals who want
>>to make it on their own, and give a damn about the group.
>>The next argument that many would raise is that of fragmentation and
>>information overload. Both are not significant problems because people
>>found ways to filter. They aggregate blogs, on their handhelds or a
>>desktop computer; they join small concentrated groups.
>>"This body of literature on network topology suggests a model for how
>>order has emerged on the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the
>>blogosphere. The networked public sphere allows hundreds of millions of
>>people to publish whatever and whenever they please without
>>disintegrating in to an unusable cacophony, as the first-generation
>>critics argued, and it filters and focuses attention without re-creating
>>the highly concentrated model of the mass media that concerned the
>>second-generation critique." (Benkler, p.253)
>>Charlie counters that "it seems ... that blogs and other such means need
>>to be a lot more than merely a corrective to conventional mass media, if
>>they are going to produce a substantially different kind of public
>>sphere. Otherwise they risk both merely shoring up the status quo and
>>becoming an excuse for tolerating the increasingly craven mass media,
>>'it doesn't matter that Fox/The New York Times/the BBC don't report
>>[fill in atrocity/scandal here] because some blog will deal with it'.
>>What Charlie demands is already in place. It's not the vague future,
>>it¹s not imagined; it¹s not barely emerging; it¹s not a fad but a fact.
>>Sociable media don't function as quasi-cathartic substitute but instead
>>they force commercial mass media to deal with destabilizing truths.
>>Trent Lott is just one, small example.
>>The blogosphere actualizes what Indymedia set out to do but never (or
>>rarely) managed: to influence the commercial mass media, to get news
>>items into the commercial mass media. This happens, and I can at least
>>confidently speak for the US, ...all the time.
>>Sociable web media already dominate a novel kind of (not necessarily
>>progressive) public sphere. If the mind of ³the people,² the ³masses² is
>>represented by what we find on MySpace... we can kiss ourselves
>>goodnight. People are motivated to participate by hormones, challenge,
>>the desire for knowledge, competition, altruism, community
>>identification and much much more.
>>But it's hard to ignore the 7.7 million college students for whom
>>Facebook is a verb now and they do it daily. Just a few more numbers:
>>social networking sites attracted 45% of active Internet users in North
>>America in April 2006 alone (MySpace: 38.4 million unique users,
>>Blogger: 18.5 million unique users, YouTube: 12.5 million unique users).
>>YouTube has 60.000 uploads a day now. There are thousands and thousands
>>of new blogs every day. Some leftist superstar weblogs receive more
>>daily visitors than a TV station called Fox News (you may have heard of
>>That's not exactly peanuts. The digital divide arguments by critics that
>>would surely follow here can be at least in part be addressed by the
>>explosive use of cell phones in the developing world. In Uganda,  where
>>electricity is indeed a problem, people simply pay on a stand in the
>>market-- it costs a few cents to get their cell phone charged.
>>"Greetings from the 3.1 billion people of China"
>>"Future Mobile: Africa"
>>In North America youth drifts away from TV screens. They get their news
>>online, they watch movies on the computer and of course they play games,
>>and listen to music online. We preserve our memories online now (from
>>high school year books to photos of romance). A few examples of sociable
>>http://english.ohmynews.com/, http://boingboing.net/,
>>http://archive.org/, http://digg.com/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/,
>>http://slashdot.org, http://www.blogtopsites.com/,
>>http://www.current.tv/, http://www.flickr.com/, http://www.gather.com/,
>>http://www.last.fm/, http://www.myspace.com/, http://www.newsvine.com/,
>>http://www.ourmedia.org/, http://www.technorati.com/,
>>All this speaks to quantity. What about quality? Andreas¹ post and also
>>the recent weird "Digital Maoism" essay by Jaron Lanier addressed that
>>"The qualitative change is represented in the experience of being a
>>potential speaker, as opposed to simply a listener and voter. It relates
>>to the self-perception of individuals in society and the culture of
>>participation they can adopt. The easy possibility of communicating
>>effectively into the public sphere allows individuals to reorient
>>themselves from passive readers and listeners to potential speakers and
>>participants in a conversation. The way we listen to what we hear
>>changes because of this; as does, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we
>>observe and process daily events in our lives. We no longer need to take
>>these as merely private observations, but as potential subjects for
>>public communication. This change affects the relative power of the
>>media. It affects the structure of intake of observations and views. It
>>affects the presentation of issues and observations for discourse. It
>>affects the way issues are filtered, for whom and by whom." (Benkler,
>>The many people who become media authors are the quality;
>>the fact that so many people are activated constitutes a qualitative
>>Technologies are indeed not inherently charged up with liberatory
>>spirit. From the telegraph, to the telephone and the radio, technologies
>>are never inherently good or evil. It depends how we use our own devices
>>in line with or contra to the intentions of their inventors. The
>>printing press was never solely a tool for social change (Rupert Murdoch
>>could attest to that) and yet it supported revolutions.
>>If mobile devices have a special role to play in all this, I¹m not sure.
>>Be doubtful about it, but acknowledge that very concrete changes were
>>made already in the Phillipines, where SMS was instrumental.
>>How does all this change the way we navigate the city? How does it
>>relate to architecture? Perhaps some locative scholars, architects,
>>activists, and artists have to join this round of conversations now?
>>iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity
>>iDC at bbs.thing.net
>>List Archive:
>Grant H. Kester
>Associate Professor, Art History
>Visual Arts Department, 0084
>University of California, San Diego
>9500 Gilman Drive
>La Jolla, California 92093-0084
>(858) 822-4860
>gkester at ucsd.edu
>iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (distributedcreativity.org)
>iDC at bbs.thing.net
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