Monday, 25 January 2010

Operational Media: Functional Design Trends Online -guest talk

February ArcDigital talk by J. Nathan Matias

Operational Media: Functional Design Trends Online

Tuesday, February 16, 17.00-18.30, Helmore 252 at Anglia Ruskin, East Road, Cambridge

Two prominent visions have guided the development of Internet technology from its beginning: the never-ending information space of creativity and information; and the networked tool for action. Now that markets for media production and search are saturated and stalling, second generation web tech has shifted focus to media that helps people make decisions and get things done. This lecture provides an introduction to key issues in the information design and software engineering of operational media.

Bio: J. Nathan Matias is a software engineer and humanities academic based in Cambridge, UK. His work focuses on enhancing human capabilities and understanding with digital media. Recent work has included digital history exhibits, work in online documentary, research on visual collaboration, and a visual knowledge startup. He currently spends half of his time as a software engineer on SMS information services for the Knowledge Generation Bureau, and half on digital media projects.

All welcome!

Thursday, 21 January 2010

War, scarcity and other playful things of life

Fun Inc. by Tom Chatfield was not as interesting as I hoped it is going to be. For most parts, it was telling what I already knew; that games are not played only by teenaged boys in their cellars, alone, with a blood-craving look in their eyes. No, instead they are social, reach various social layers, teach us a variety of skills from emotional to intellectual, and that also the army and the education institutions are interested in them. Fair enough, perhaps we still need such books to spread out the fact that games are not just games, but constitute a key feature of contemporary digital culture. Its not only "games" as objects or products but a whole set of patterns of behavior, gestures, affects and emotions that constitute a wider field of "gamelike" elements of which digital culture consists of. Hence, such seeming oxymorons as serious games (games used for learning or other "serious" activities like politics) are taking over. Or then casual games, used to fill in that 3 minutes you have of your personal time. I am still yet to see that perfect post-fordist analysis of the management of time and a care for the self in the context of casual gaming.

To be fair, Chatfield included some nice sections. His chapter on Second Lives pointed out the weird patterns of labour of social media platforms -- from goldfarming to such original interventions as Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothenberg's Invisible Thread's project that staged a virtual sweatshop on Second Life.

Thinking about gaming cultures, I was reminded of (quasi-)Zizekian ideas concerning how people want their own slavery and such social media and game platforms are good examples of such. They are both able to articulate the real world cultures of scarcity, but at time same time showing how it seems impossible to even think/desire outside such modes of capitalist scarcity. Chatfield mentions one early virtual world The Palace (1995) that was supposed to introduce a world without real life limitations. As Chatfield writes, people were not however ready for such radical ideas, "People, it turned out, were extremely attached to scarcity. They liked it so much, in fact, that not only did they prefer virtual worlds in which there were strict limits on available resources over ones in which you would simply have anything you wanted; they were actually prepared to pay money to spend time in these scarce worlds." (173) In Zizekian terms, even if such a world without limitations was somehow possible there, people did not find the needed cognitive and affective attitudes of how to cope with that. What to do with that lack of scarcity? In terms of how it articulates the artificial scarcity continuously maintained by neoliberalism, such virtual worlds become really interesting.

Finally, again from one of the better chapters, this one on the one on war, Chatfield seems to write suddenly like Friedrich Kittler. Hence, I could not resist quoting him in length (Chatfield that is):

"In this respect, it's clear that being well prepared for modern warfare shares many elements with good preparation for modern life: you need to be able to live and breathe certain kinds of software and hardware. Most of your actions are mediated by complex machines, while your sphere of power and information extends well beyond the personal space you occupy. You are a networked individual, using multiple tools, often deluged with information and options." (192-193)

Having just yesterday finally seen Gamer, something that Steven Shaviro has been going on about (and for a good reason), this description seems apt and accurate idea of some of the techno-affective links between gaming cultures and war; what Shaviro brings in his wonderful analysis of Gamer is of course neoliberalism. I cannot but warmly recommend his text on the topic.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Richard Grusin on affect, premediation and security -- Anglia Ruskin ArcDigital talk

Talking of anticipation -- It's always wonderful to meet in person people whose texts you have read for years -- and admired. Richard Grusin's visit at Anglia Ruskin finally took place, and was as every bit interesting as I was expecting it to be. His and Jay David Bolter's Remediation-book and thesis had a huge impact in combining my new media interests with my background and training in history, and now his new stuff on premediation promises to combine such theoretisations of temporality with the very current debates concerning affect, security and media culture.

Grusin's talk was very much contextualised in his soon forthcoming book Premediation: Affect and Mediation after 9/11 (Palgrave). The book promises to be a mapping of the non-representational and non-cognitive forces of the securetized social media culture where affects (in the sense of also positive "good vibes" as well) and security are complementary states or atmospheres of bodies in relation. This includes not also human bodies ("having feelings") but relations between humans, nonhumans and in general heterogeneous assemblages. This is the regime of affective flows between such objects/subjects.

The talk had four parts, or sections, that mapped out the various contexts of such flows:
1) premediation and security
2) anticipatory gestures
3) media theoria
4) premediation and politics

The richness of the talk is hard to convey through any summaries so my notes remain fragmented. The easiest would be to say: read the book!

For me, certain key points stood out. The point about our media culture based on the atmospheric affect of "anticipation" instead of e.g. distraction (Benjamin and Kracauer) is certainly one such; and applies in Grusin's reading both to bodies in social media culture of expected, anticipated, potential social interaction through software-mediated platforms as well as to the inbuilt modes of anticipation in software. This "mediaphilia of anticipation" is a nice way to frame the software promoted anticipatory gestures that often are approached through medicalised conditions (ADD etc), but are in fact generalised modes of subjectification.

Grusin's critique of Agamben and notions of "state of exception" were important as well, and resonate with recent Hardt and Negri points in Commonwealth. Instead of approaching contemporary constellations of power through such notions that hint of transcendent powers and sovereignty (state of exception and being able to rule such), immanent ways of how power operates take into account the much more "business-as-usual" type of handling events, establishing patterns, managing repetitions, actions and relations in everyday life. That's software culture.

Affect is a way for Grusin (as for many others) a way to approach the non-cognitive and non-representational ways how media do not (just) signify but do things to us and with us. I think Grusin could have elaborated a bit more on this more virtual and somatic sphere of the affect when talking about gesturality in media culture --- and how it is as I have used the word more "atmospheric" preparadness as a potentiality of the body as a tension, attention, than just actual gestures (which are important and through which the atmosphere of virtuality of such anticipation gets articulated). In any case, his critique of some nostalgic accounts of online activities that lie on politics of authenticity were to me spot on) as was Grusin's discussion of the necessary preformatted modes of living; the patterns of repetition that are necessary for everyday realities. Any kind of resistance has to work immanently within such formations, not neglecting the reality of for example us needing habits. This opens a completely different political horizon.

In terms of how this position relies on rethinking some of the temporal ties -- and temporality as a crucial feature of the affect-embedded security regimes -- premediation-thesis comes close to for example Greg Elmer's and Andy Opel's notions concerning pre-emptive measures of control. Security measures happen pre-emptively, shooting before asking questions, making sure that the state of things is always such that any potential events that are undesirable do not take place. No wonder that Minority Report is here the key film for such social theory. I know that discussing such positions in relation to for example Erin Manning's "preacceleration" would be fruitful as well (thanks to Andrew Murphie for flagging this potential connection), but I have to admit I have not anything that special to say (and that Manning's book is at the office shelf at the moment). Her way of discussing movement and dance and bodies-in-movement through preacceleration refers to the primacy of the forthcoming-transformation that the body attunes to continuously. For Manning, bodies are not present but moving, prehending and in this sense ahead of their time a bit paradoxically -- a realisation that comes through clearest in dance. Bodies catch wind, and move as part of such attractors that dance is filled with (whether "stable" objects, or dance partners). The anticipatory nature of such preaccelerated bodies is something that ties in with Grusin's points that I would have to read more about as the mechanisms of anticipation as a way of orienting towards certain intensities and attractors (e.g. again social media culture features as banal as the commenting function and its potentiality to attract comments) is one way of thinking "bodies in speed" (Mackenzie).

Its clear that an increasing amount of accounts that want to articulate a material politics of software culture have to deal with temporality. This is a curious phenomenon and attempts for "solution" come from different directions, sharing a lot with each other. Of course, I could add that to my "things to write" list, but one has to be realistic...

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A guest talk by professor Richard Grusin, the co-author of Remediation, and the author of Premediation

Thursday 14 January, at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge (East Road)
Organized by ArcDigital and sponsored by CoDE -- the Cultures of the Digital Economy-institute
4 pm, room: Hel 251

Premediation, Affect and the Anticipation of Security

In this talk professor Grusin will explore how in our current biopolitical regime of securitization, socially networked media transactions are fostered and encouraged by mobilizing or intensifying pleasurable affects in the production of multiple, overlapping feedback loops among people (individually and collectively) and their media. Grusin outlines how, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, social media, like cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, or YouTube, encourage different historical formations of mediated affect. This distribution of affectivity across heterogeneous social networks or assemblages is coupled to the framework of securitization, which helps to explain why these particular socially networked media formations have emerged at this particular historical moment. The talk concludes with a discussion of the political implications of this security regime—what it means for the explosive growth of socially networked media after 9/11 to have as one of its many consequences the proliferation of media transactions or interactions, which help to “vitalize” the political formation of securitization. If mediality today employs the strategies of premediation to mobilize individual and collective affect in a society of security and control, then we need to look at the ways in which premediation deploys an affectivity of anticipation that functions to vitalize the regime of securitization that has replaced surveillance as the predominant disciplinary formation of our control society. Our everyday transactions of mediation, transportation, and communication are encouraged for security purposes not only by making them easy and readily available but also by making them affectively pleasurable—or at least not unpleasurable, by maintaining low levels of affective intensity that provide a kind of buffer or safe space, a form of security, in relation to an increasingly threatening global media environment.

Richard Grusin is Professor of English at Wayne State University. His more recent work concerns historical, cultural, and aesthetic aspects of technologies of visual representation. With Jay David Bolter he is the author of Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, 1999), which sketches out a genealogy of new media, beginning with the contradictory visual logics underlying contemporary digital media. Grusin’s Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks (Cambridge, 2004), focuses on the problematics of visual representation involved in the founding of America's national parks. He has just completed his new book Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11. (forthcoming 2010)

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Nondescript Animals: CoDE - The Cultures of the Digital Economy

Digital culture is one of “nondescript animals”, or if one wants to be a bit less poetic, “nondescript objects.” Originally, “nondescripts” were such animals that fell outside the analytical labeling system in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Later, as Michelle Henning points out in her Museums, Media and Cultural Theory, such anomalies were “apt rather to appeal to casual curiosity-seekers”.

As a category of anomality, such nondescripts are what puzzle and do not fit in. They are in tension between cognitive and affective categories, borrowing elements from what seems too many directions. They are not neat, nice and they do not make sense. We have headaches because of them, and I am not just talking about academics or businessmen trying to figure out best ways to extract value of such weird objects of for example p-2-p-culture.

This is why such objects of digital culture are often seen as “hybrids” or for example mixings of cultural and computational (Manovich). Nondescripts are more than just objects, as they are processual foldings of so many scales and layers that their ontological status remains puzzling. This applies to their status as objects as much as to the workflows and routines in settings where digital objects are created and passed on; design studios, game companies, service operators, etc.

The emergence of the new research institute CoDE – the Cultures of the Digital Economy is for me a vehicle to reach such nondescripts of which our contemporary culture is constituted. I was appointed as its Director starting January 1st, 2010, and in that role I see myself as a cartographer of nondescripts.

The nondescripts are everywhere. Value creation and business models are filled with such weird objects that copyright law and such are trying to pin down often with archaic models. Cultural interaction turns puzzling with communities, communication, and even modes of emotional engagement from friendship (think of Facebook) to sex being mediated through software platforms. Cultural memory does not escape nondescripts either, with materiality of the objects being embedded in new forms of social media, distributed archives and heterogeneous access methodologies. Its no wonder we see a continuous emergence of neologisms that try to grab the complexity of such trends; media ecologies, media archaeologies, and such, all trying to flag the multiplicity of ties both horizontally and temporally.

In terms of CoDE’s remit, there are various directions we could go. In addition to several essential ones, the institute is a good way to take into account:

- - transdisciplinarity. To excavate such research themes but also knowledge transfer contacts that fall outside the disciplinary boundaries. Not just between disciplines, but in-between as a space of nondescripts. The UK has a great history of art and science collaboration (think of for example the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the London ICA curated by Jasia Reichardt and in general the history of British cybernetics).

- - Software objects and studies. As part of the possible future(s) of media studies, software studies is in a crucial relay position to tie together a variety of ways of tackling with the ontology of where we are now. Software, automated cultural processes, new ways of creation of visual and sonic content, programmability, articulation of politics in and through software embedded contexts, etc. is the stuff of “cultural” studies – or should we say “not-just-cultural-studies.” Just like good media theory is always “not-just-media-theory”, any engagement with contemporary culture realizes the extent to which it is articulated through software.

- - Old/new/dead media. We should not let the newness of digital culture fool us. It is new as a temporal phenomena, whereas too often the newness of new media has been non-temporal, almost like a void. Old media is going nowhere, and new media is the one that takes care of that – paradoxically. The short term innovations are embedded in the longue durée of history of uses and ideas – what media archaeologists have referred to as the history of recurring topoi (Huhtamo) and deep time history (Zielinski.) This is where digital culture and economy are not only about the digital; but about media culture as a beehive of innovation of ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and where “old media” is a continuous archive for such ideas.

- - Creative practice and theory intertwinings. CoDE needs to extend research from pure theory/written research into a variety of other modalities in terms of optical, sonic and other media modes of creation. Research-creation. Here again the reaching out to what the 1990s called “creative industries” and what is rebranded as part of “digital economy” (even if also the government seems to be really uncertain what this means) is an essential component of academic collaboration. The Cambridge area of technology and related industries that are strong e.g. in entertainment (thinking of games here) is still a buzzing arena for collaboration.

This is where I see “nondescripts” also as passages and vehicles that transport research outside the academia as well. They are transversal in the sense Félix Guattari talked about transversal relations that are able to cut across normalized hierarchical organizational relations. Institutions and institutes do not necessarily have to solidify, but can be based on principles of circulation, mobility and a sense of vitality that does not lack in criticality either.

To conclude, a short insert on the emerging research streams of CoDE:

The Cultures of Digital Economy (CoDE) Institute embeds research streams in artistic and cultural approaches to digital technologies. It emphasises cultures in the plural, and uses creative practice as the motor for value creation in digital environments. Its research projects, business and community engagement and learning collaborations emphasise this innovative, critical, and creative approach to the digital economy. The research is by nature transdisciplinary –between and across disciplinary boundaries – and probes new opportunities to cultivate innovative approaches to new information, media, and communication content, platforms, and networks.

CoDE has four key Research Streams:

1. Social media and Network Politics

The ubiquity of networking, social media and web 2.0 in everyday life means new positives and pitfalls in building social relationships, value creation, and knowledge production, and in highlighting politics and activism. CoDE is dedicated to analysing emerging forms of peer-to-peer activity, social collaboration, and remix culture through a combination of established and experimental research methods.

2. Digital Performance and Production

With the establishment of Anglia Ruskin’s Digital Performance Lab and a strong cluster of research productive staff, CoDE will develop and grow innovative research in music and embodied performance in digital environments. From creative practice research to the development of new interfaces and applications for music production this stream thrives on rapid changes to sonic economies and creative communities fostered by digital interfaces, immersive environments, and wearable technologies.

3. Digital Humanities – Archives, Interfaces, Tools

Rethinking humanities in the age of new media is a crucial and unavoidable challenge for academics worldwide. From new theoretical approaches to innovative modes of distribution, archiving, and accessing of material, CoDE research projects tackle complex questions posed by efforts to digitize forms of cultural heritage, intellectual archives, and humanities-based forms of critical and creative work.

4. Play and Serious Gaming

Digital culture is by its nature playful. Gaming does not only represent a mode of entertainment and a new form of interactivity that gives rise to new practical and theoretical tools, but also a way of rethinking learning and education. Including everything from visual effects to serious gaming, this research stream brings together SMEs, informal programming communities, interface developers and designers. It will create new opportunities for Cambridge’s existing and emerging strengths in the gaming industry to collaborate and will explore the future that these technologies hold.

Code is Directed by Dr Jussi Parikka, Reader in Media Theory & History at Anglia Ruskin,

Co-Director: Dr Samantha Rayner

Research Fellow: Dr Greg Elmer

CoDE has over 50 affiliated staff members from across a range of disciplines: from computing to media theory, creative music technologies to creative visual practices and much more.