[iDC] sentiment geeks and the social graph

Mark Edward Cote markcote at trentu.ca
Tue Oct 13 17:16:40 UTC 2009


thanks for that article. for me, it gets to the centre of an issue i've
been meaning to raise for a while amidst the recent flurry of really
thought-provoking posts.

you, along with a number of others, have previously emphasized what one
might call the technico-juridical apparatuses of capture which underline
the internet in general, and social networks in particular. i fully
agree that a rigorous understanding of the code, laws, techniques of
data surveillance, collation and redeployment is critical for any kind
of critical analysis.

others have focused on the conundrum of the enjoyment of work as play,
the pleasure of network agency wherein those tools for conviviality
facilitate both myriad forms of intensified sociality and profitable new
markets. i also believe that such questions are invaluable, especially
given the profound structural ambivalence of ICTs which are as conducive
to innovative and radical political mobilization as to emerging
paradigms of capital.

what i find so useful about your post and the article is that it brings
a focus to what patricia clough so felicitously phrases as “sociality as
affective background”. in other words, might there not be tremendous
potential in considering the affective realm (neuroscientifically and
otherwise) as a means to link the technico-juridical and the everyday
experiences of work and play online?

this might help expose the real limitations of of all forms of analysis
predicated on rational calculation, be it from the perspective of
capital (i.e. there is lots of money to be made if we can just develop
more sophisticated metrics of emotion--jodange, scout labs, et. al.) or
from points of creative resistance (i.e. if people would only recognize
the truly predatory nature of the networks in which they play, they
would flee to more truly autonomous alternatives).

for me, the very existence of a conference focusing on the contradictory
and often-vexatious intersections of work and play signal both this wall
and different possiblities for getting around, over, or under it.

surely that capital is already pursuing multiple avenues for the parsing
of the neuroscientific parameters of affect should be of no surprise nor
a reason to dismiss it as a promising area for critical analysis.

at the conference, i hope to broadly engage this area, albeit from a
very different trajectory. beginning from the premise that the human was
always constitutive with technology, might not we not learn as much by a
focus on the pre-rational and pre-discursive? in other words, what might
affect tell us about the persistent conflation of play and work in
current technological manifestations of sociality. more to the point,
why is it that the experience of such work-play leaves it largely
impervious to rational critique?

i look forward to the thoughts of others on this or related issues.

Mark Coté, Ph.D
Cultural Studies Program
Trent University
markcote at trentu.ca
>>> Brian Holmes <brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr> 10/13/09 11:19 AM >>>
Just to follow Marc's post, a little clipping on the neuroscience buzz 
from today's NYT. One of the more interesting lines in here is this one:

"Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as 
ultrarational creatures because they can’t define and systematize the 
emotions." That's the big conclusion economists are drawing from the 
derivatives meltdown, and in fact, the sentence itself is more or less 
clipped out of Justin Fox's book on The Myth of the Rational Market, 
which ends by staging a transition between the old, calculating model of

homo economicus to the new behavioral economics, attentive to systematic

over-valuations of asset prices due to first impressions, big scares, 
etc. The gates are now open for  a research stampede in social cognitive

neuroscience to get closer to what makes Jane investor and Joe consumer 
really tick. The idea that all this would have benign uses, would help 
us to become a kinder, gentler, more sensitive anquaint. Of course many of the researchers will try their best, but since

their basic paradigm of social interaction rests on neobehaviorist 
reflex-arcs originating in the autonomous nervous system, it will be 
difficult. Like any social science developed under capitalism, this one 
will mainly be deployed to manipulate people for the usual purposes of 
naked greed and subliminal control. -- BH

October 13, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist
The Young and the Neuro

When you go to an academic conference you expect to see some geeks, 
gravitas and graying professors giving lectures. But the people who 
showed up at the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference 
in Lower Manhattan last weekend were so damned young, hip and 
attractive. The leading figures at this conference were in their 30s, 
and most of the work was done by people in their 20s. When you spoke 
with them, you felt yourself near the beginning of something long and 

In 2001, an Internet search of the phrase “social cognitive 
neuroscience” yielded 53 hits. Now you get more than a million on 
Google. Young scholars have been drawn to this field from psychology, 
economics, political science and beyond in the hopes that by looking 
into the brain they can help settle some old arguments about how people 

These people study the way biology, in the form of genes, influences 
behavior. But they’re also trying to understand the complementary 
process of how social behavior changes biology. Matthew Lieberman of 
U.C.L.A. is doing research into what happens in the brain when people 
are persuaded by an argument.

Keely Muscatell, one of his doctoral students, and others presented a 
study in which they showed people from various social strata some images

of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited 
more activation in the amygdala (the busy little part of the brain 
involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families.

Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and 
Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. 
The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher 
levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain 
suffered by members of a group other than their own.

Mina Cikara of Princeton and others scanned the brains of Yankee and Red

Sox fans as they watched baseball highlights. Neither reacted much to an

Orioles-Blue Jays game, but when they saw their own team doing well, 
brain regions called the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens were 
activated. This is a look at how tribal dominance struggles get 
processed inside.

Jonathan B. Freeman of Tufts and others peered into the reward centers 
of the brain such as the caudate nucleus. They found that among 
Americans, that region was likely to be activated by dominant behavior, 
whereas among Japanese, it was more likely to be activated by 
subordinate behavior — the same region rewarding different patterns of 
behavior depending on culture.

All of these studies are baby steps in a long conversation, and young 
academics are properly circumspect about drawing broad conclusions. But 
eventually their work could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by

fuzzy words like ‘culture.’ It could also fill a hole in our 
understanding of ourselves. Economists, political scientists and policy 
makers treat humans as ultrarational creatures because they can’t define

and systematize the emotions. This work is getting us closer to that.

The work demonstrates that we are awash in social signals, and any 
social science that treats individuals as discrete decision-making 
creatures is nonsense. But it also suggests that even though most of our

reactions are fast and automatic, we still have free will and control.

Many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by

in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 millisecanterior cingulate cortices in American and Chinese brains activate when

people see members of their own group endure pain, but they do so at 
much lower levels when they see members of another group enduring it. 
These effects may form the basis of prejudice.

But a study by Saaid A. Mendoza and David M. Amodio of New York 
University showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding 
them to be racially fair, it is possible to counteract those 
perceptions. People feel disgust toward dehumanized groups, but a study 
by Claire Hoogendoorn, Elizabeth Phelps and others at N.Y.U. suggests it

is possible to lower disgust and the accompanying insula activity 
through cognitive behavioral therapy.

In other words, consciousness is too slow to see what happens inside, 
but it is possible to change the lenses through which we unconsciously 
construe the world.

Since I’m not an academic, I’m free to speculate that this work will 
someday give us new categories, which will replace misleading categories

like ‘emotion’ and ‘reason.’ I suspect that the work will take us beyond

the obsession with I.Q. and other conscious capacities and give us a 
firmer understanding of motivation, equilibrium, sensitivity and other 
unconscious capacities.

The hard sciences are interpenetrating the social sciences. This isn’t 
dehumanizing. It shines attention on the things poets have traditionally

cared about: the power of human attachments. It may even help policy 
wonks someday see people as they really are.
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