Dorothy Santos – “The Distant Gaze and Contemporary Notions of Perception: Re-examining the New Aesthetic Movement through an Analysis of Satellite Technologies in New Media and Digital Arts”

Panel: You Are What You Post

Within our ocular centric culture, the immediacy of photography gratifies our sense of connection yet the distant gaze of satellite photography catapults us into the foreign and surreal. For this reason, satellite photography and conceptually driven works from artists such as Trevor Paglen and Rachele Riley include an inherent discussion of the social and political implications of orbiting satellites on our vision and perception. Within new media and digital arts, the New Aesthetic movement’s agenda seems to include a harkening back to technologies combining the idea of two-dimensional and organic works through the pixelation and distortion of the image.

Mediation of images through satellite technology and photography can either increase, decrease, obscure, or make visible what exists before our eyes but it is ultimately up to the individual designated to see through the eyes of the machine. In Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual, Lisa Parks speculates the following, “Perhaps we could imagine the satellite as generating a kind of “orbital pull,” a metaphorical dislocation, a figurative removal from the zones of security and comfort in the world, forcing us to recognize the partiality of vision and knowledge and to embrace the unknown.” The underlying premise of the New Aesthetic suggests artworks within the movement show the world through digital eyes. Yet the multitude of works negates the provocative visual commentary on how machines mediate what we are able to see, unable to see, and the complex dynamics in seeing (i.e., power, control over what is seen and unseen, and the privilege of seeing). The works of Trevor Paglen and Rachele Riley entail reflections on the complexities behind the role and function of the machine eye in contemporary art and culture. The visual and cognitive dissonance from satellite photographic works speak to what may be happening culturally, socially, and psychologically. The New Aesthetic movement does not necessarily include these complicated relationships within their current agenda.

This research aims to suggest further exploration into the realms of photographic and internet based works be addressed much more fervently in the realm of the New Aesthetic movement through taking into account the processing of visual and sense perceptions. If the focus of the New Aesthetic movement requires us to see through the machine’s eye, then the works of Paglen and Riley certainly address the fundamental objectives of the New Aesthetic. However, the overall movement requires a solid foundation in which to define new media and digital artworks addressing concepts and ideas beyond the purely visual and taking into account the body and experience. The New Aesthetic ideology seems to negate human perception as the core mechanism creating the perception of the digital device. Understanding the relationship between machine and human vision will enable us to further the scope of vision and perception that has yet to be discussed in the overall dialogue within the New Aesthetic discourse.

Dorothy Santos (@deedottiedot) holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies from the California College of the Arts. Her research emphasis is on programming, coding, and open source culture and their effects on contemporary art.

Gina Neff and Brittany Fiore-Silfvast – “Pictures of health: Does the future of wellness need us?”

Panel: Bodies and Bits

As part of our project on health hacking—technological disruption and the meaning and metrics of care—one of us (Gina) attended The MIT Future of Health and Wellness conference. The conference, organized by MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program, was part of an on-going series to connect MIT faculty and industry, and it brought together policy, science, social media, medicine, economics and wellness. In other words, it perfectly captured the current buzz about technology-driven health and wellness, or “Health 2.0,” that is happening at conferences like TedMed, mHealth Summit, and Stanford’s Medicine X. Underlying these conversations is the hope that new forms of data can transform clinical care and motivate people to be healthier.

Several people, and even more start-ups, are betting that ubiquitous and pervasive sensing from consumer mobile devices can translate into better health and wellness outcomes. The Nike Fuelband, Striiv, Fitbit and other similar devices track physical activity. Mobile apps like MyFitnessPal, The Eatery, and Lose It! play on people having their phones handy to track food. Many people are now asking how such data might transform clinical care. For example, the Mayo Clinic recently launched an app called MyCare that integrates a personalized “Plan of Stay” in the hospital with a roadmap for recovery at home and integrates Fitbit data and other remote monitoring devices. HealthTap, backed by Google’s Eric Schmidt, is another example of a mobile platform promising to connect patients/consumers directly to expert care and information without the “waiting room,” while developers will get high-quality health content and data. The FDA recently approved AliveCor’s iPhone-based ECG heart monitor, another example of the how rapidly consumer, mobile, and medical realms are reshaping each other.

From this perspective, the MIT conference squarely fit with rhetoric about data’s power to transform health and wellness that is happening both within lab settings and in startups. The promise of always-on data about our behavior offers a tantalizing possibility of making accidental connections or discoveries about ourselves, our bodies, our biology.  Fascinating presentations by MIT faculty Ros Picard who is working on ubiquitous sensors and Damon Centola who is running experiments on the structure of online networks to support healthy behaviors highlight these promises. This is part of the promise of the Quantified Self movement: that through tracking, one can discover knowledge impossible to gain without the aid of self-tracking. As Sandy Pentland from MIT’s Media Lab and an advisor to big data health startup, said at the conference, said “data means you no longer need to see a patient” to know what is going on with their health. There is enormous potential for population-level data from mobile devices to describe and potentially predict our health outcomes, and’s platform is designed to connect a consumer-slash-patient with health care expertise through a data-at-a-distance model. “Big data, better health,” in their words.

These are fascinating and promising ways to think about what we know and don’t know about bodies, and the power of data-intensive technologies to collect information in surprising ways. But at the heart of these attempts at data-driven health and wellness is a seductive—and perhaps flawed—model of the relationship of data to knowledge, sense-making and action. That’s what we’ll be talking about at Theorizing the Web. These conversations about data-intensive health and wellness posit data as black boxed solutions versus how people actually use, stretch, and adjudicate their data in their practices with it. The stories we tell ourselves about what our numbers might mean for us may or may not fit these models that new tools are being built around.

Our paper explores the gap between the discourses of data and the practices of, with, around and through these data. This gap is particularly stark across the communities of technology designers, “e-health” providers and advocates, and so-called users of health and wellness data. In the discourses of health care technology designers and advocates, data comes to represent a notion of actionability, the potential of data to be used for social and material performances. In these discourses, possessing data serves as a catalyst for behavioral change: as one advocate put it, “data leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to change.” This seemingly innocuous data-behavior model forms the core logic behind technology development in health and wellness applications and digital health sites. For technologists, this framework means they try to solve the seemingly inextricable problems of healthcare within the United States with so-called well-designed, usable, personalized, and beautifully visualized interfaces for this data. The self becomes a platform and thus programmable.

Is this a data-behavior model that fits what people actually do with their data? This model of data leaves no room for storytelling, fudging, and personal adjustments. Susannah Fox and Maeve Duggan, the co-authors of a recent report on self-tracking for health from the Pew Internet and American Life project, found that of the 69% of U.S. adults who report keeping track of their health, half of them did so “in their heads.” Fox likens this to “skinny jeans” tracking—just as women may not own a scale, they know when they can fit into the skinny jeans they keep in their closet. In other words, health tracking for many people does not mean data, but means memories, stories, and perceptions.

Nor does this data-behavior model fit with current understandings of behavioral change. As one psychologist responded at Stanford’s Medicine X conference, if data indeed led to change, we’d have no need for the entire field of psychology. The experiences with data and conversations in which data is being employed suggest that people are tapping into a wide range of aspects, cadences, and valences of health data, allowing data to perform in different ways in different communities and for different purposes.

There are two contradictory ways people talk about data. First, data are presented as if data equal single, clear, unambiguous, and stable answers. This concept of data flies in face of how data get cleaned, massaged, interpreted and interpolated and goes against what we know about how people make sense of and tell stories about their data. The second way people talk about data is in highly contextualized and personal ways. The hopes for the data transformation of health lie in the intersection between this idea of “ultimate transparency” and one of “ultimate personalization.” As Kevin Kelly, a founder of the Quantified Self movement, noted in the closing plenary of the 2012 QS Conference, “Data wants to be linked and used.” Otherwise, it is “naked data,” not yet related to anything else, not yet valuable, and certainly not monetized.

When we look at the practices people have around health and wellness data we find instead that data are perspectival, fluid, and relational. But, people in online health communities talk about data as a stable material object, rather than as discursively enacted in multiple emergent ways that resist such stability. These conversations complicate our understanding of the production and consumption of data-intensive technologies by bringing back into the picture the practices, communities, and networks of data that are generated—sometimes as byproducts—in the socio-technical assemblages we study.  Second, health and wellness data help us to frame notions of user and use differently, as relationships with data are inscribed, enacted, and discursively labeled as problematic or appropriate. Third, the notion data stability is questioned as the context for data generation, storage, and interpretation is evoked to make sense of data within these communities. Finally, our work is looking at how and when people use data as a starting point for conversation, especially when the entities that are they cast as “talking” are nutrients, proteins, genes, and bodies.  This future scenario of health no longer needs people to talk for their bodies.  Our research on how people relate to their health and wellness data makes us skeptical that such a future will ever fully arrive.

Gina Neff (@ginasue) is an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington and author of “Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries.” Her website can be found here.

Brittany Fiore-Silfvast (@brittafiore) is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of Washington. Her PhD research, funded by an NSF dissertation improvement grant, looks at the design and implementation of new health information technologies in healthcare settings in the U.S. and in India. Her website can be found here.

Leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for more!

Karen Levy – “The Automation of Compliance: Techno-Legal Regulation in the U.S. Trucking Industry”

Panel: The New Technologies of Surveillance Society

Rules of all types are increasingly enforced by technological tools — from code-based restrictions on sharing digital files, to red-light cameras at intersections, to software programs that monitor activity online — that control behavior more uniformly than humans do. As legal “gap studies” theoretical work has established, technological rule enforcement regimes appear to close the gap between rule and practice by minimizing the human element and compelling compliance with a rule. I explore how such enforcement regimes, while appearing to curtail human discretion, may in fact relocate and reshape gaps between “on the books” rules and “on the ground” practices – by creating new sites of social contestation, bringing new parties into negotiation with one another, and resituating stakeholders’ interests.

Truck leasing companies have made major advancements in advertising using promo codes that are displayed in websites like There are more areas to improve and improve efficiency in output and management. In this talk, I explore these dynamics in the context of U.S. truck drivers’ work time. For decades, truckers have kept track of their work hours – which are limited by federal regulations to prevent fatigue-related accidents – using paper logbooks, which are easily falsified by drivers eager to maximize their driving time (and thus pay). New regulations would mandate that drivers’ time be automatically monitored by electronic devices that integrate into trucks themselves and send information back to centralized online portals in real time, thus attempting to compel drivers’ compliance with the timekeeping rules. I consider how these legal rules and the technological capacities of the devices themselves, are co-evolving to shape enforcement practices, as well as the ways in which social relationships among employees, employers, and law enforcement officers are reconfigured when such systems are used. Drawing together concepts from legal studies, organizational sociology, and the sociology of technology, the project aims to reframe our understanding of regulation and discretion for the age of ubiquitous computing, and to contribute to broad social debates about the role of technological surveillance in legal rulemaking and in social life.

image by Rachel Pasch

The way fiction deals with technology – the kinds of technology it tackles and how, and whether it actually should, directly – seems to still be a pretty thorny issue for a lot of folks. Or at least for some folks. Usually in conjunction with this is some variety of handwringing over what technology has Done To Reading, or Done To The Novel, often with the implication that no one reads anymore because ebooks don’t count as reading and also everyone is too stupid and/or distracted to read anyway.

This summary isn’t actually all that hyperbolic. Hang around a bunch of writers for long enough and you’ll probably hear some version of it.

A less hyperbolic – though more biting – and more in-depth summary can be found in Sam Byers’s excellent essay series on technology and fiction in, as some perceive it, a crisis state (I really recommend it, it’s both brilliant and infuriating). Novelists, it seems, aren’t entirely sure what the hell to do with technology. What to make of it and what it means for literature, what it means for how their work is consumed, and most of all, how to incorporate it into the stories they tell. These are all reasonable questions to ask, potentially even questions that might lead to productive conversations, but rather than have these conversations, writers – at least the writers Byers is writing about – seem content to kick their feet on the floor and insist that it’s just too hard and who would want to write about texting and email anyway because it’s so boring.

No, seriously. Just listen to Toby Litt:

I don’t think I am alone in already being weary of characters who make their great discoveries whilst sitting in front of a computer screen. If for example a character, by diligent online research and persistent emailing, finds out one day – after a ping in their inbox – who their father really is, isn’t that a story hardly worth telling? Watching someone at a computer is dull. Watching someone play even the most exciting computer game is dull. You, reading this now, are not something any writer would want to write about for more than a sentence.

Just a side note? As a writer to my fellow writers? If you can’t write something interesting about an “average” person doing “average” things in an “average” day, you are bad at your job.

Byers effectively skewers this claim by providing some great examples in which technology might not only accent but drive the action in a plot in some pretty compelling ways. As both he and Am Sonntag note, this kind of thinking is also classic digital-dualist thinking: if technology is separate from “real” lived experience, why should one assume there was much to be gotten out of writing about it?

But then Byers goes on to ask a central question: Why do many of the creators of fiction seem so frightened by technology? Why is it always The End Of The Novel when something new comes along that has to be incorporated into daily lived experience? For, as he points out, this isn’t even the first time this kind of panic has happened:

Novelists are very worried about the novel. The novel, you see, keeps dying. No one thought much of it when it arrived; it had a brief reign as a fancy-pants new medium of entertainment; and then it just started dying all over the place. It became too popular. It became too cheap. It got a bit up itself and was no longer popular enough. It became elitist; then populist again. Cinema did for it. Television did for cinema and so double-did for the novel. Then the web came along and did for everything.

I’d like to offer an explanation, actually, one that I think Byers is by and large neglecting. There’s something that he does – or rather doesn’t do – through the series, that I’ve also purposefully done so far in this piece in order to emphasize it.

He doesn’t talk about science fiction. Neither do any of the writers he quotes. It’s just not on their radar. For them, “novel” does not appear to include “novel about robots”.

So now we have to talk about Genre Wars.

It’s probably a misnomer to call it a “war”, but I enjoy the term. What it amounts to is a kind of aggressive gatekeeping, a long-standing defense of literary borders. Literary fiction – for best effect, tilt your nose slightly into the air and sniff when you say literary – plumbs the depths of the human soul, lays bare the hard beauty of human experience, because it’s about humans. Not aliens, not robots, not spaceships. It’s not escapist and childish. It’s real, more real than SF could ever be. Sniff.

This is irritating, and has a lot of troubling cultural effects, but one of the ways in which I’d argue it hurts literary fiction (I’m sorry, I have a very hard time even taking that label seriously anymore) is that literary fiction has felt free to entirely ignore SF and what it does for most of SF’s existence, with the exception of a few incursions like Margaret Atwood and – more recently – William Gibson. And when those writers and their work are accepted – even reluctantly – they’re not SFnal anymore.

But the thing about telling stories with technology is that SF has always done it. We’re not threatened by it. We know how to do it, and do it well. We have the tools that literary fiction needs, the tools without which they’re panicked and grumpy. But they don’t really see us, most of them. Or refuse to take us seriously. Protecting borders is still more important than facilitating mutually beneficial trade of skills.

I should note that SF is also entirely guilty of this kind of genre protectionism, in fact sometimes with worse overtones; when this year’s Nebula nominees were announced on SF Signal, there were some comments to the effect of what are all these women doing here and oh my God some of them aren’t white and Jesus Christ we’re being colonized by Romance. So.

Yes, fiction in general now has to figure out how to incorporate technology, and for some of us that’s new ground, and new ground is sometimes frightening. But as Byers points out, once non-SFnal writers actually suck it up and try to make it work, fiction as a whole can really only benefit. Fiction is meant to reflect lived experience and everything vital and visceral and true about life; at its best it forces us to see things in new ways, to move outside our comfort zones, to come to richer understandings of each other. Yes, even via texting. Even Snapchat has something meaningful to say about the human condition.

Finally recognizing that SF has valuable lessons to teach in this respect would be a good first step.

Long story short: Novels about robots are still novels. Get over it.

Leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for more!

Mohammad Kazeroun – “Social Media and reproduction of prosumer identity: Re-considering advertising strategies in the age of ubiquitous social media”

Panel: The Facebook Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

‘Decentralised’ structure of the Internet does not seem to have resulted in ‘democratisation’, at least in a universal and straightforward format. Commercialisation of the Internet as well as state control and surveillance revealed a darker side of the new media technologies, which is less explored in the academic literature. The rise of collaborative and interactive Web technologies and the emergence of Web 2.0 in the past decade have made the matter more complex. Although the new technologies seem to have ‘empowered’ individuals and allowed them to challenge the traditional information gatekeepers, the increasing tendency to share different aspects of ‘private’ and everyday life in the, so called, ‘social media’ seems to have some serious negative consequences on individual’s freedom and privacy. The dominant culture of ‘confessional society’ (Bauman 2007) forces individuals to provide bits of information that ultimately result in domination of a new form of capitalism.

This ‘culture of sharing’ is rapidly becoming the main theme in the digital era, and commercial corporations cannot afford to miss some invaluable opportunities that it could bring for them. They were, in fact, amongst the pioneers of the Web 2.0, and invested a lot in developing commercially-driven online communities and social web platforms, as well as monitoring information and communications in the third party Web 2.0 environments such as social networking websites. Advertising and PR agencies also did, and they are still doing, all efforts to exploit different aspects of social interaction online, and they have implemented different methods and techniques to ‘monetise’ the new Web environments. They systematically monitor, ‘data-mine’ and ‘harvest’ user-generated information online, in order to target the most relevant customers according to their individual desires and interests. The ‘big data’ in the social Web, therefore, is a new potential source of power, by which commercial companies (as well as states and other traditionally empowered institutions) try to monitor and ‘control’ individual’s behaviours. The new strategies of control, however, require software ‘sinking’ into everyday lives and ‘sorting’ bits of personal information, which will results in a ‘softer’ and more intelligent power structure (Beer 2009).

This notion of control, however, is in contrast with the notion of ‘democratisation’ and ‘empowerment’ that was considered before, and demonstrates that even ‘decentralised’ media are not inherently liberating, and they are limiting our freedom in a more complex and intelligent way. Although consumers, in the age of collaborative and interactive Web, are ‘smarter’ and better considered as ‘prosumers’, capitalism is reconstructing itself by adapting with the new conditions. The same old-fashion logics of ‘exploitation’, ‘commodification’ and ‘hegemony’ still rule the market, but new forms of power are emerging. This ‘post-hegemonic power’ (Lash 2007) is more complex, more insistent, and less visible, and rules from inside.

Technical developments in advertising industry were crucial to sustain capitalism in the age of new media. New marketing, advertising and PR strategies are being implemented to maintain the established structure of power in the Web 2.0-mediated communications. The ‘social ads’ should be consistent with the culture of social media, in order to remain ‘persuasive’ and effective. To grab attentions in the over-crowded and noisy environment of social networking websites, for instance, brands and ad agencies need to use new creative and intelligent techniques. They use the social Web to build a ‘personalised’ relationship with individuals and also to gather as much information about their habits and interests as possible in order to improve their ‘algorithmic control’. This will allow them to predict individuals’ behaviours and chose the best path of marketing and advertising, based on the mathematical calculations. They also tend to exploit prosumer culture of the Web by creating participatory ad campaigns and highly developed methods of crowdsourcing.

These strategic improvements, in my view, indicate a shift from traditional advertising to ‘commercialised communication’, which is aimed to be more persuasive and entertaining (or ‘cool’). The ultimate consequence of this shift, however, is to maintain power by generating and regenerating ‘prosumer identities’, which have absorbed the ‘post-hegemonic’ power structure, and are ‘controlled’ from inside. This softer version of domination rules over individuals who have internalised the new structure of power, and is reproduced in their everyday interaction within the Web 2.0 environments. That is how the ‘prosumer capitalism’ (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010) builds itself.

In the age of Web 2.0, the ‘hidden persuaders’ (Packard 1970) are even more ‘hidden’.


Cited works:

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2007. Consuming Life. Wiley.

Beer, David. 2009. “Power Through the Algorithm? Participatory Web Cultures and the Technological Unconscious.” New Media & Society 11 (6) (September 1): 985–1002. doi:10.1177/1461444809336551.

Lash, Scott. 2007. “Power After Hegemony Cultural Studies in Mutation?” Theory, Culture & Society 24 (3) (May 1): 55–78. doi:10.1177/0263276407075956.

Packard, Vance. 1970. The Hidden Persuaders. Pocket Books.

Ritzer, George, and Nathan Jurgenson. 2010. “Production, Consumption, Prosumption The Nature of Capitalism in the Age of the Digital ‘prosumer’.” Journal of Consumer Culture 10 (1) (March 1): 13–36. doi:10.1177/1469540509354673.

Leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for more!

Stéphane Vial – “There is no difference between the “real” and the “virtual” : a brief phenomenology of digital revolution”

Panel: IRL in the URL: Digital Dualism of the “Real” & “Virtual”

What is the digital revolution the revolution of ? What is turned upside down and disturbed, reformed and transformed, in the so-called ‘digital revolution’ ? To answer this, digital revolution is approached here from the point of view of a phenomenology of technology which assumes that our being-in-the-world is fundamentally conditioned by technique and always has been. The main hypothesis is that a technical revolution is always ‘ontophanic’, that is to say a shaking of the structures of perception and of the process through which the being (ontos) appears (phaino) to us — and, consequently, a change of the very idea that we have of reality. I rely here on the notion of “Phenomenotechnique” borrowed from French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard. It leads me to defend a phenomenological constructivism according to which any new technique, in every age, can be considered as an ‘ontophanic matrix’ that shapes our possible experience-in-the-world.

For instance, looking at the sky in the living silence of the mechanisms of wood and water during the Renaissance or looking at the sky in the age of the steam engine and of the metal, it is not the same qualitative experience of the sky than at the time of digital interfaces, where we almost never look up to the sky since we are immersed in our screens (on which the sky can still re-appear as a wallpaper). It means that the quality of our being-in-the world is ‘technology sensitive’. That’s why, in all ages, it is so hard for people to accept new technologies : new technologies always shake us by shaking our phenomenological habits. The phone did it. The computer did it. The Web is doing it. Each time, this shaking is what I call an ‘ontophany shift’. ‘Ontophany’ means a new phenomenological configuration (depending on historical and cultural factors) between techniques and perception.

Then, as all previous ones, Digital Revolution is just a new revolution (i.e. replacement) of our perceptive structures. But such a change is huge. Because it requires us to change the idea we learnt of what is ‘reality’. That’s why, in the 1990’s, French scholars (but most probably not only French ones) used to consider digital technologies as ‘virtual worlds’, in a sense that ‘virtual worlds’ would be different from the ‘real world’ (or the ‘real life’, IRL). Today, we know that this was a metaphysical mistake based on a Platonic illusion that cyberspace would be a ‘separate reality’. As American psychologist Sherry Turkle said very early (1995), “in the culture of simulation, if it works for you, it has all the realiy it needs” because “We have learned to take things at interface value”. Yes, we have learned. We have learned to live within the cyberspace, the Web and the social networks. We have learned new phenomenological habits and we have acquired new perceptive structures. We have learned to live into the ‘digital ontophany’ era. And we are still learning.

For the next couple of weeks, leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for more!

Cameron Paul – “Mediating Beyond the Page: Objectivity, Materiality, and Environmental Approaches to Digital Poetics”

Panel: Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

This presentation addresses the topic of digital poetics and emphasizes the ramifications of Rita Raley’s suggestion that “all languages, all symbolic information systems, contain the potential for deconstruction and play” (403). It explores digital poetics, its relationship to concrete poetry, and the role of materiality in environmental processes of mediation. Drawing on the critical works of Marshall McLuhan, Rita Raley, N. Katherine Hayles, and others, this presentation aims to acknowledge ways digital poetics reflects and impacts the heterogeneous, interactive environments that both structure and reveal mediation as an ongoing process. It offers up several questions: How has digital poetics revolutionized the way we conceptualize the idea of literature in light of what Rita Raley has dubbed “ the ‘literary’” (403) or “mobile media poetics” (401)? How has this allowed for a material renegotiation of semiotic modes of interpretation? How might the motifs of digital poetics be seen as engaging with mid-century concrete poetry? This critical conversation aims to illuminate ways digital poetics has revolutionized our preconceptions of both mediated subjectivity and the role of materiality in problematic discussions of literature as ‘artistic object’. Ultimately, I hope to address Rita Raley’s own belief in “ the ‘literary’ as a way of thinking about language structured by incongruity, disruption, incommensurability, unpredictability, and complexity. Such a conception of the literary means that we need not assume, or even require, a particular technological substrate” (403).

Digital poetic’s environmental processes rejects an objective ‘self’, but, by doing so, similarly rejects and remediates contained objects of art into heterogeneously interactive, mediatic environments. Rather than a circuitous relationship between objective self and an artist object, digital poetics reveals both to be environmentally subsumed concepts and acknowledges the primacy of mediation and remediation as ongoing, interactive processes of negotiation within “a broader media ecology” (Raley 406). By acknowledging the environmental, mediatic interaction that occurs amongst communicative mediums, this presentation explores ways that digital poetics has reignited artistic emphases on processorial, fragmented conceptualizations of literature. Reflecting on the implications of mid-century concrete poetry’s own emphasis on “[n]on-linearity, hypertextuality, multimediality, and post-alphabetic writing” (Olsson 285), this presentation explores ways that digital poetics has extended this critical conversation since the advent of digital mediums.

Works Cited
Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event.” New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Eds. Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2006. 181-209. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964. Print.

Olsson, Jesper. “Kneaded Language: Concrete Poetry and New Media in the Swedish 1960s.” Modernism/modernity 18.2 (2011): 273-288. ProjectMUSE. Web. 14 Mar 2012. <>.

Raley, Rita. “Mobile Media Poetics.” DAC 09 : after media, embodiment and context : Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, 2009. University of California, Irvine, 12 Dec 2009 – 15 Dec 2009. Ed. Simon Penny. Berkely [sic], California: University of California Press, 2010. 401-406. Print.


image by H. Kopp-Delaney

A number of good pieces on Snapchat have already been written, on this blog and others, and I think there’s a lot yet to talk about. I’m jumping on the bandwagon today because I think I see a conceptual area that’s already been touched on that offers additional room for expansion.

Much has been made of Snapchat’s inherent ephemerality, of the fact that its images are destroyed potentially seconds after they’re captured, that nothing is saved or made even semi-permanent. Jeremy Antley has noted that this introduces the possibility for different varieties of expression through technology, for changes to how we use social media for truth-telling. Nathan Jurgenson takes the ephemerality of Snapchat a step further and argues that just as photographs have traditionally been understood to capture a piece of the present and transport it into the future, the kinds of temporary photography that we see in Snapchat do pretty much the opposite, and that, moreover, we can understand this as a kind of reaction to the sort of documentation that social media has historically encouraged:

[A]s we have seen, there is meaning in witnessing ephemerality itself, an appreciation of impermanence for its own sake. By carving a space away from the growing necessity to record and collect life into database museums, temporary photography encourages an appreciation of the importance of experiencing the present for its own sake

In other words, temporary photography is doing something very interesting with time, and with our experience of the same. If we’ve traditionally understood photographs to be a fragment of the present experienced in the future, temporary photos are fragments of the present experienced as the present. The whole project of documentation is potentially thrown up for grabs.

To turn back to how photos have traditionally worked, I think this element of temporal transport is important to bear in mind before I go further. Photographs – indeed, I think all forms of documentation – are the technological means by which we capture elements of our present experience and remove them from what we experience as the linear timestream. This means that, as I’ve written before, photographs are fundamentally both time-laden and atemporal. 

When I wrote that, I was also writing about ruined space, about the very contemplation of ruin. At this point it’s also important to note that ruin, at least for my purposes here, needn’t and shouldn’t be understood as confined to physical space. Documentation itself is always in a potential state of ruin, even as we imbue it with a – often illusory – element of permanence, or at least with the idea of significant future age. But different kinds of documentation have different relationships with ruin, and sometimes the ruin is the point, and sometimes it isn’t. Buddhist sand mandalas are created specifically to be destroyed, coupling a long and painstaking process of creation with a deep sense of the transience of all life. The process of making them is in itself a memento mori, a meditation on death. To return to photography, Susan Sontag put it beautifully when she argued that all photography was, in one way or another, about creating mementos mori:

To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
On Photography (1973)

But the process of making these time-slices atemporal is just that: a process. And the result exists for a stretch of time, enough time that it can be meditated upon. They don’t simulate the experience of time flashing by us, or of us traveling forward through time at breathless speeds. They slow everything down, inviting us to pause and consider. Even ruin/decay art is about process, often slow process.

Snapchat has no process. At least not in that sense. The image’s destruction is instantaneous. There’s nothing to pause over. It’s there and then gone. Blink.

In short, what I’m arguing here is that temporary photography in general – and Snapchat in particular – is not only a reaction to traditional forms of social media self-presentation, not only a twist on where and how we place our trust, not only a twist on the abundance of documentation, but is a rethinking of what photography itself is and does, and, by extension, a rethinking of how we locate documentation within our experience of linear and alinear time. Photos have been atemporal; temporary photos are, by virtue of their emphemerality, deeply temporal. They’re not removed from time; instead they’re solidly located within it. They’re the present remaining the present.

It would be easy, then, to think that this kind of photography is incapable of serving as a memento mori. As I said above, Mementos mori  have historically been artifacts with a long shelf life – architecture, photos, paintings, even clocks. They stick around. But I think temporary photography actually has the potential to serve as a new form of memento mori.  Clocks that say tempus fugit on their faces aren’t in themselves reminders of the fleeting nature of time. The passing seconds do that. There and then gone again, temporary and instantly destroyed photos – because they are so temporal – may provide an even clearer sense of just how fast the present slips away.

It’s interesting to look at something like DRM from both sides – or rather, from one of the two sides, the third being the assholes who put the DRM in place to begin with, yeah I’m tipping my hand here, deal with it – both that of the content-creator and the consumer. It’s not that I think people who occupy that conceptual and experiential space are rare; far from it. But when DRM gets talked about, I honestly feel like the actual creators of the content, who often have very little if anything to do with the DRM-application side of things, frequently get neglected. I had a novel come out this week (yeah, so I have this problem where I can’t seem to keep from mentioning it in whatever I say now), and then I saw this post by author Seanan McGuire on pirating ebooks, and it highlighted to me that I’m in this position now. Different kinds of digital actions are of course, not confined to digital aspects of reality; they spread and ripple and subtly change everything. If someone pirates my ebook who would have otherwise paid for it – which doesn’t characterize nearly all of the “illegal” downloading that goes on – then I get paid less. I have less quantifiable money. Which has very physical consequences.

But what I think is really interesting here is what DRM has the potential to do to the value of the thing I’ve worked to create, and what that has the potential to do to how we construct value in the entirety of our experienced reality. How we relate, on a fundamental level, to our things.

Precisely because the idea of “our” is up for grabs.

Gabe Newell of Valve had something pretty strong to say about DRM back in 2011:


We’re a broken record on this. This belief that you increase your monetization by making your game worth less through aggressive digital rights management is totally backwards . It’s a service issue, not a technology issue.

The second sentence is what’s most important here: the idea that DRM actually decreases the worth of your product. It damages its value. This is obviously incredibly problematic from the consumer’s standpoint if you’re charging the same amount for a product that’s worth less, but what I think is most worth attention is why that product is worth less. And I think it comes down to how we understand property and property rights.

What I want to argue is that when DRM makes products less valuable, it also makes them less real.

How do we understand reality, at the most basic level? Real is what we can see. It’s also what we can touch, which means that it’s what we can manipulate in some way. This ability to manipulate, in our culture, isn’t just about practical ability but the ability given to us when something unarguably belongs to us, when we have the legal power to decide what to do with it. Now obviously this legal power is subject to a variety of constraints – you can’t simply do literally whatever you want even to stuff that you own – but I think the simplest understanding of this idea is useful here, given that I’m talking about meaning that’s created more at the visceral, instinctive level than the rational, logical level. So real is about perception, and it’s also about power. About what we can do.

I think this, incidentally, is one of the reasons why we tend to privilege the physical over the digital, which is simple enough to be obvious but still worth pointing out.

Something that’s fully ours, that we can control and manipulate and hold in our hands and lend and give away and break if we want to – this is real to us, and it’s also valuable. We value something we own much more highly than something we merely rent or lease, because its value belongs only to us. We know that value is reliable. It will (so we like to think, anyway) be there when we wake up. We can do something with it today, or we can decide to wait until tomorrow.

DRM damages this so severely that many consumers regard products with severe DRM to be essentially worthless, if not outright dangerous to the consumer.

We’re still working through how we attribute value to things that have more digital than physical reality; a lot of this, as I’ve written before, comes out in how we deal with ebooks. We’re still struggling with the question of whether ebooks are more or less “real” than print, and the answer to this question is often not one based in purely rational thinking. And a lot of it comes down to the fact that we can’t hold ebooks, or store them, watch them age, smell the dust and the subtle degradation of the pages when we pull them off the shelf years later. They are nebulous and ephemeral in nature, unsettlingly timeless.

Now imagine what happens to this feeling when the company that sold you the product has the power to severely constrain what you can do with it, where you can use it and how, whether you can give it away. The ephemerality increases; if we have it today, there’s the subtle sense that we may not have it tomorrow – made startlingly real when one Amazon customer discovered that Amazon had apparently erased all of the books from her Kindle. I own no games that require an always-on internet connection, not only because the prospect is profoundly irritating, but because I feel like the game would be almost worthless to me if I couldn’t play it within a digital context that I control. My digital “space” is more real to me, because – whether or not this is actually true, and boy could that be debated – it’s mine. It would be like buying something and not being allowed to take it home.

What this suggest to me is that, if we define a great deal of our experienced reality by our relationship with our things, once something begins to change that relationship our entire understanding of one aspect of that experienced reality is changing as well. Our doesn’t mean what it used to. Ownership as a concept is being altered, if not actually degraded. Owners are increasingly becoming users, people who pay for the privilege of making use of something that they have almost no real control over. And again, this isn’t only about use but about how we understand digital aspects of reality and value-creation in the context of that reality.

One of the scarier things I found when I was wandering around the intertubes looking for more stuff on this is a short essay by Ed Felter on something he calls “Property Rights Management”, a version of DRM that would extend its concepts more fully into physical space:

Printer manufacturers want to sell printers at a low price and compensate by charging more for toner cartridges. To do this, they want to stop consumers from buying cheap third-party toner cartridges. So some printer makers have their printers do a cryptographic handshake with a chip in their cartridges, and they lock out third-party cartridges by programming the printers not to operate with cartridges that can’t do the secret handshake.

This is just one example, and of course the degree to which this might or might not happen remains to be seen, but I think it does highlight a final point, and really the entire point of this piece: altered understandings, meanings, and definitions – the very things by which we make sense of our reality – don’t stay confined to digital or to physical space. If digital and physical really do constitute the same reality, DRM really can change everything.

And if you’re a content-creator, at least one like me, the prospect isn’t a happy one.


For the next few weeks, leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for lots more!

Andrea Marshall – “Star Trek and Subjectivity: Fan Videos as Sexual Textual Critiques”

Panel: Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The Star Trek franchise has produced several successful television series and film adaptations, including the most recent one of 2009. Female fans of Star Trek have for decades actively involved themselves in the participatory cultural practice of fan fiction authorship first in ‘zine’ forms and then within online communities with the advent of the internet and online fan communities. Many of these fan communities provide autonomous voices for female fans that directly confront the sexist norms that appear to prevail in all versions of the Star Trek franchise, through the production of these fan produced artifacts. These fan-generated narratives act as reader responses that in turn produce oppositional discourses that simultaneously reimagine the Star Trek multiverses in new and innovative ways for female characters, and make visible the presence of active women participants within Star Trek fan cultures.  These female fan discourses are collaboratively generated close readings and textual critiques of the Star Trek master narratives; Coppa (2008) has discussed the potential for female authored videos to disrupt the traditional gendered tropes of women characters within Star Trek. Furthermore, Turk (2010) observers that the creation of fan videos provides a space in which female creators collectively, as peer collaborators and united communities, might disrupt and confront the male gaze (Mulvey 1975) that is a common vantage point within the Star Trek series. The rise of open source sites such as YouTube and the advent of social media allows female fan communities to flourish and for future female Star Trek fans to read, watch, and respond to visual texts that continue to evolve from ‘fan vids’ to active and engaged feminist critiques that continue to problematize and reimagine the position of women as characters and as fans in Star Trek.

Andrea is a PhD student and researcher at the Drexel iSchool.