Monday, August 15, 2016

Tales From the Remix Anthropologist

For anthropology, remix always sounded better than it looked in practice.  After all, even though it is hard to argue with Jenkins's writings on "Remix culture," it always seemed to mean more for music, art, literature and--primarily--for popular culture.  In anthropology, what does "remix" mean?  Does it mean self-plagiarism?  Does it mean taking images or media and re-using them in other contexts? Colonialism and cultural appropriation under another name?  As my colleague Matthew Durington and I write in our book, Networked Anthropology (70):
For anthropology, the problem of remix isn't that it's so new, but that it's so old.  What seems progressive and egalitarian when it comes to creating parodies of repressive legislation or "culture jamming" corporate hegemony looks decidedly less so when we apply the ethic to what gets defined as culturally or socially "other."  
Given the past of Western anthropology, it is not especially surprising that remix hasn't taken off in anthropological circles--it looks too much like what we've been doing since the 18th century.  The "freedom" to take content out of one context and place it into another looks more like oppression when it's practiced on ethnographic data gathered about people who are routinely denied the means for their own self-representation.

When we started our Anthropology By the Wire project--an NSF-funded effort to build a large corpus of collaborative media about neighborhoods in Baltimore--we naturally gravitated to a Creative Commons license--but we couldn't go the final step towards the "gold standard,"  one that "lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work."  Given the power inequalities and rampant racism of contemporary life in the U.S., it seemed too dangerous--and even unethical--to subject our work with communities in Baltimore to this kind of remix.

Needless to say, like us, other anthropologists have not been especially eager to enjoin remix in their own work, although they've certainly had their own work remixed by others, as when footage from Adam Fish got remixed for pro-Palestinian hip-hop.  Sometimes anthropologists have invited  remix, as Chris Kelty did after the open source/ creative commons Two Bits was published.  In good, open-source fashion, the book was "ported" by readers onto different platforms, but that seems to have been the limits to the monograph's "remix"--beyond that of traditional scholarly remix whereby influential texts shape the scholarship that comes after them.

Despite these somewhat tepid engagements with remix, and the ethical responsibilities we owe the communities with whom we work, we believe that remix can offer anthropologists some important possibilities, but not in the ways, perhaps, that Lessig and Jenkins originally envisioned.  Instead, we decided to remix ethnographic data about the community with members of the community.  To create, in other words, derivative works about our work with our community collaborators in order to better disseminate anthropological media to audiences on a different platform.

From 2013 until now, we've been experimenting with different app platforms, including ARIS and MIT App Inventor.   These both support geo-located apps, and we've produced some apps about Baltimore.  But the big impetus for our app remix has come in the form of a structured, plug-and-play platform for tour apps called "izi.travel".  It's readily available on Android or iOS platforms and is free (although not open source).  While it lacks the programmable interface of MIT App Inventor, it makes up for it in the capacity to upload multimedia onto the app, including text, video, photograph and audio, all accessible through a geolocated map.  With izi.travel, we move from a miscellany of media about a South Baltimore neighborhood to a remixed, multimodal experience that engages app users on multiple cognitive and sensorial levels.



There are several things to keep in mind when making your anthropological media into an app: 1) your media is going to be experienced by people walking around with a smartphone, so it needs to be short and simple: brief interviews, short clips, terse historical notes.  2) Smartphones allow you to use audio as well as visual media--take advantage of this by including some interview material with interlocutors and by turning some of your narrative into an audio tour.  3) Include notes on directions!  Even though our app comes with a Google map embedded in the smartphone interface, it's reassuring to have someone tell you to "turn right at the corner"--especially when you're encountering a neighborhood for the first time! 

In addition, there are several things are worth pointing out.  First, our app is free and the content we've loaded up is under a creative commons license.  Second, we produced the app with the same people we've worked with during Anthropology By the Wire--i.e., the derivative remix is also a collaborative work.  Third, we agree, as part of our ethical commitment to our interlocutors, to monitor how this multimedia data is utilized.  As we say in the our letter of consent (vetted by our institution's IRB):
If you do choose to allow us to place text, audio, photographs and/or film online, then we promise to monitor this content using different tools in order to find out how the material is being received, and how it's being used.  Similarly, if you discover that media we've made together is being used in a way you find inappropriate, please contact us immediately.   (from Networked Anthropology, p. 128)
The final product is the "Sharp Leadenhall Walking Tour".  What we hope we've produced is something that is anthropologically dense and critical, but that still gives people an opportunity to discover a beautiful neighborhood!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Steve Toutonghi's Join and Notes on a Networked Anthropology of the Future

There are many interesting formations that might be called networked phenomena.  Homophily and the tendency towards triad closure.  Scott Feld's Rule (I'm more likely to make friends with someone who has more friends than me).   Cascading behaviors (i.e., virality).  Small world phenomena (those 6 degrees of separation).  In all, a series of social forms that complicate typical binarisms like individual v. group.


Instead, these behaviors are simply networked--explicable through linked nodes.  In other words, not an 'individual'; but not an amorphous, superstructural group.  These have all kinds of implications for social action, cognition, identity and feeling.  As Sampson (2012) writes,

Decision are not, as such, embedded in people, or in the voluntary exchanges with others, but in the very networks to which they connect.  It is, like this, the network relation that leads the way. (168)

But what happens when more and more of our personal and social lives are organized as networks?  This is, of course, exactly what is happening.  Yes, online social networks themselves have become more popular, but, more than that, highly localized social networks have become more popular--SNS platforms that support networks characterized by high density and centrality.  These are social networks for cliques (or complete graphs) where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone talks to everyone else.

In Korea, users engage multiple social media in their daily lives, and platforms like Facebook and Instagram have been extremely popular.  However, there has also been a concomitant growth in proprietary platforms that support social media sharing among a close circle of intimates: KaKaoTalk is one of those--with nearly 100 percent adoption in South Korea, it is the app of choice for online discussion and media sharing.  BAND is another.

Both of these suggest what Ichiyo Habuchi has called "tele-cocooning"--a term that describes a small group of friends that spend a large portion of each day in intimate, digital communication.  Or, as Ito et al define it in their Living and Learning with New Media:

    The practice of maintaining frequent and sometimes constant (if passive) contact with       close friends and/or romantic partners.

And people in South Korea are hardly alone in these proclivities.  In my ethnographic work, and in classroom assignments with my students, I have found that most social media communication takes place between small groups of confidants.  The idea of "virality" that is coveted (and occasionally feared) in YouTube videos or Twitter content is the tiny exception to a towering corpus of online media shared with a very small group of compatriots.  We tend to think of social media in expansive forms, mostly because a combination of hope and fear.  The hope (for some) is that their content will reach millions.  The fear, of course, is exactly the same.  And yet most of us interact almost wholly within a small circle--well below Robin Dunbar's number!

However: with its connotations of passivity and introspection, "tele-cocooning" may not be the best way to describe this process.  "Tele-cocconing" connotes insular lives, summoning up images of teens camped out on the sofa texting for hours, or, in Korea, a rash of phone zombie injuries where oblivious people absorbed in their phones fall down holes or get hit by cars.  But the circle of intimates that "cocoons" is simultaneously encountering and engaging the world.  For almost 2 decades, social scientists have written convincingly on the ways social media enables various forms of collective action.  What about groups of connected friends?  What kinds of social action do these groups undertake?  What do they do, and how is that different than people who lack those intimate, everyday social networks?

In a slightly different context, Steve Toutonghi take on these questions in his 2016 novel, Join, a near future where people "join" with each other, taking on a new, collective identity that is an amalgam of all of the individuals (the "drives") who have been incorporated.  The main characters, "Chance" and "Leap," are further subdivided into the men and women who make up the join: Leap One, Leap Two, Leap Three.


Joins are different from ordinary humans ("solos" or, more pejoratively, "ferals") in at least 2 respects.  First, joins are never alone.

His parents used metaphors--it's like being more attuned to all of who you are, all your different desires and fears; it's like clearly remembering who you were ten years ago, before events changed you.  They said the awareness of being more than one person included a comforting sense of companionship. (9)

Second, they are theoretically immortal.  With each drive possessing the memories of its joined alters, memories and identity might continue indefinitely.

If Chance Five dies, then Chance--and therefore Javier Quispe--will live on through other drives in the join.  That can continue forever.  In a perfect join, human beings lose both their existential sense of isolation and their mortality. (10)

This constant connectivity and simultaneity presents some challenges for Toutonghi.  How to narrate action?  The usual strategy in narrative omniscience is to switch from perspective to perspective--much harder to do here when the perspectives are both the same and different.  For the most part, Toutonghi limits the confusion through simply separating his drives by geography.


But the reasons why the narrative is challenging (and why it occasionally falters) is the reason why this is an interesting novel.  How do we conceive of distributed cognition and connected action on an everyday level?  How do we understand and narrate the decisions we make when liberal assumptions about individuality must be dismissed?


In an anthropological spirit (and his undergraduate major was in anthropology), Toutonghi explores joins as a total social fact--as a different modality of thinking and socializing, as a different politics generative of different inequalities.  The plot revolves around a malady unique to joins, a "flip" that involves one of the joins rejecting the union, precipitating a cascade effect that ends in dysfunction and death.


And it also includes a social critique.  The proliferation of joins among elites leads to a "narcissistic" introspection that supplants other, more linear, concerns.  Entranced by their own transcendence of time, other, resolutely temporal problems like social inequality and environmental degradation seem insignificant.

There has been a slow and continual erosion in the size of the refuge that the Earth can offer.  Chance has watched for years as its edges have crept inward and its center has weakened.  Death is impatient, and suffering multiplies, but not yet for joins.  They just don't notice it, as each successive catastrophe is quickly buried beneath the limitless weight of individual days and years.  For now, Chance's fellow joins are comfortable, which seems to be enough for them to continue minutely examining the mysteries of life. (332)

With de facto immortality, joins train their attention on the longue duree, to the detriment of timely concerns in the present.  And after all of this Bruno Latour-esque evocation of networked action, Toutonghi channels a bit of Sheri Turkle and Robert Putnam in the insistence on face-to-face engagement in real communities.


But, ultimately, what draws me to this novel is the quotidian life of the join.  While networked decision making has long been a topic in HCI, and more recent scholarship from people like Larissa Hjorth has investigated the affective dimensions of networked lives, the questions of everyday speech and interaction have not really been addressed.  To be sure, networked behavior is not a new phenomena, but the ubiquity of online social networking means that we have more and more opportunities to behave as chains of linked confidants.  In this context, as in other cases of networked action, interactions with place and with each other may be less explicable with theories that rest on the either/or dichotomy of individual self and social structure.  But how would that look?  How do we talk when the "I" is always chained in a network of relations?  Sometimes phrases seem familiar: "We did the homework."  "We decided to meet downtown."  But what about: "We bought a shirt" or "We ordered the cannelloni"?  Do these still make sense when we're talking about the behaviors and actions of a single(?) person?  


References



Ichiyo Habuchi, “Accelerating Reflexivity,” in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, ed. Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).



Monday, June 20, 2016

Summer Reading: "Superman Now" (초인은 지금) from 김이환

I've been following Kim's work for some time now, and, at some point, will post up my impressions of his novel, "Neighborhood War" (동네 전쟁).  But, until then, some short notes on his short story, "Superman Now" (초인은 지금) in the collection "The Superhero Next Door" (2015).  What draws me to Kim's work is his use of Seoul as the staging for his stories, and it is not difficult to see why.  Besides being a huge, Dickensian metropolis full of dramatic encounters and chance meetings, it is city of sometimes profoundly alienating spaces: row upon row of apartments, faceless office buildings.  Accordingly, Kim's Seoul is a place for disturbingly non-human encounters.  Seoul citizens are harried by a black-hole like sphere in 절망의 구 (2009), and by monstrous, multi-species aliens in 동네전쟁 (2011).  Confronted with the completely enigmatic, Kim's characters circulate rumors and wild theories, but their attempts to understand the city always fall short.  In Kim's contribution to this short story collection, the "superman" is likewise enigmatic: seemingly human, but unused to human contact and human physiology.  For some reason, the superman only saves people within the boundaries of Seoul--never the suburbs.  And he has never talked to anyone--well, perhaps just one person.  But he could also be anyone, an everyman with an ordinary appearance.  People who have been saved by the superman collect data and post it on an internet "superman cafe," and dubious theories abound.  Two of these people--one saved from a subway fire, the other from a terrorist attack--stroll around the plaza around Seoul City Hall while they wait for the results on a popular referendum a "superman law" that will place the superman under the administrative control of the Gangnam police force.  But it's doubtful that the superman will obey--if he even understands the politics of Park Geun-hye's Korea in the first place!   For Kim, the enigmatic story is another entry in his chronicle of Seoul, where the familiar and the uncanny continuously swap places, and where "superman" means both man and non-man.  

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Zombie in the Armchair: Anthropologists as Connective Agents




One of the community groups we work with has a book out.  Another has just won a major victory for environmental justice.  A third is looking for new staff.  Another has posted an incredible collection of photos from the Baltimore Uprising.  My responses?  Depending on the social media platform, “Like”; “Retweet”; “Share”; “Follow”.  Perhaps those aren’t even “responses”.  I haven’t done anything—I haven’t even moved from my chair!  Even J.G Frazer had to get up to pick up another tome of hermetic folklore.  But I would be remiss not to engage in this slacktivism.  Not only remiss, I would be endangering our relationship to our Baltimore interlocutors.  Public anthropology takes many forms—including advocate, gadfly and cultural critic.  What about zombie?

The digital, networked world in which we live has enabled unparalleled access to the tools of content creation.  All of us can make a movie, write a novel, publish photographs; after all, “Web 2.0” is supposed to blur the distinction between producer and consumer.  But for every would-be filmmaker who uploads their work on YouTube, there needs to be agents that propagate media through a network.  This is the moral dilemma of slacktivism: despite the particularly tepid support a “like” or a “share” represents, political action undertaken through digital networks require agents to “route” messages through their own networks, and to do so while limiting their own commentary or added content.  In other words, digital creators need armies of people to pass along messages to all of their friends.  Conversely, they don’t need other people to appropriate and remix their message—they just need us to do what we’re told.  To go back to my examples above, it would seem inappropriate and disingenuous to piggy-back on my informants’ successes with my own self-aggrandizing thoughts: “Nice photos.  See my recent article on de-industrialization in Baltimore for more context.”  Shouldn’t I just pass these social media along?  Without subjecting them to my own hermeneutic violence?  In other words, the Internet needs mindless zombies.

I’ve been reading Tony Sampson’s Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks and find much there for anthropologists to consider in terms of their own work.  Nineteenth century social theorists were keenly interested in this process of creation and contagion; in an era of social unrest and popular rebellion, it was a symptom of their fear of “the crowd.”  In Gabriel Tarde’s formulation, the crowd could be explained with reference to an “imitative ray” that “comprises of affecting (and affected) noncognitive associations, interferences and collisions that spread outward, contaminating feelings and moods before influencing thoughts, beliefs, and actions” (Sampson 2012: 19).  Tarde’s subjects “sleepwalk through everyday life” (ibid., 13), the unwitting host to a parasitical message that will leap from them to other sleep-walking subjects along a networked chain of imitation.  In their urge-to-imitate and reproduce, subjects leave their free will behind.  In Sampson’s terms, “Social man is a somnambulist” (13).

It is safe to say that this is not how most anthropologists would like to be described.  We are, after all, the ones who are supposed to be doing the interpreting.  Our informants may produce anthropologically intended media, they may interview each other, and they may post insightful commentary; but these are data that wait for us to collect, collate, analyze, interpret and publish.  Even if we do so for all of the right, public anthropology reasons, we very much mean to have the last word; this will-to-subjectivity is readily evident in the texts and media we create.  Critical of rational choice theory and Western, 19th century models of subjectivity, anthropologists rest on their authority to create, to measure, to rationate.  Moreover, the qualities of the zombie—passivity, submission, thoughtlessness—are also associated with the terrifying domination of the person under advanced capitalism.  We live in a world where increasing numbers of people have had their own wills ripped away away from them as they are forced into prisons, migrant camps, homelessness.  And at the same time, Tarde’s “imitative rays” have been harnessed by corporate capital in order to denude all of us of our capacity to judge for ourselves.

But there is another side to Tarde’s model, one where imitation is still premised on a mutual relationship.  Sampson continues:
Tarde’s notion of hypnotic obedience reveals a complex reciprocal relationship in which subjects are not simply controlled by deep-seated fears and phobias but also tend to copy (on the surface) those whom they love or at least empathize with. (170)
Obviously, this can (and certainly is) manipulated by corporations and governments, but the relationship need not only be one-sided.  Our own, social media lives suggest a more egalitarian relationship.  Our friends post something—we duly send it along.  We post something, and we expect that they will do the same.  We are all full of pithy, political insights, hilarious jokes, mad photo-shopping skills: we deserve to be copied, shared, re-posted.  In the age of social media, to be friends means to be ready to take the role of the zombie.

For anthropologists, this means that sometimes we may be the imitated, and sometimes the imitator.  After all, our informants may not always need our sagacity—but they will always need our support.  And that support will take many forms, some more active and agential than others.  But following our informants is an important role, indispensable to a networked world.  Sometimes, in other words . . . BRAINS . . . .


Friday, March 18, 2016

Twitter's New Anti-Timeline

Twitter's new, non-chronological timeline ranks tweets by their (algorithmically) perceived importance to your network.  As they say in their documentation,
"Tweets you are likely to care about most will show up first in your timeline. We choose them based on accounts you interact with most, Tweets you engage with, and much more."
There's a lot not to like with these changes, and, of course, the whole thing has more than just a whiff of desperation about it.  But my unease is more than just with the Facebook-ization of Twitter.  In subordinating chronology to 'importance' (however defined), Twitter undermines its temporality--and in doing so inhibits the ways we might manipulate that temporality as part of our practice of Twitter.

That is to say, if time is replaced by a proprietary algorithm, than chronology is no longer a significant dimension in our understanding of Twitter events, and the interesting (and rather quantum) perambulations of Twitter-time disappear into an abyssal, synchronic plane.  Temporally unfolding events (festivals, elections, disasters) collapse into a kind of reified blogspace defined by closeness and, perhaps, pushing Twitter towards a world of highly striated meaning where the accidental and the objet trouve on one's Twitter feed are subtended beneath a hierarchical ranking of people and things you already know and believe in.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Twitter's Time Effects: Why Twitter Needs to Become a Time Lord Social Media

As Twitter continues to flounder as a business, many have tendered their advice for the struggling company.  On the other hand, people at Twitter have responded by introducing what appear (to some) to be "innovations" that are already shared by multiple, social media.  All this has prompted me to think about my own fascination with the platform.  Even though I've blogged here many times about Twitter's relationship to physical and social space, I find myself most often thinking about Twitter's time effects. 

Like other social media, part of the allure of Twitter is the way it allows users to manipulate space--i.e., using social media to "be there" even when you're very far away.  But time is also a resource that people manipulate through their social media.  While some social media emphasize the present (or the "expanded present"),  other platforms allow for other, sometimes subtle, temporalities.  This powerful combination of space and time effects is nowhere more evident than the current popularity of dating apps for the 18-34 set.  As a recent Pew study suggests, by allowing people to connect to each other through non-contiguous space across asynchronous time, online dating apps utilize space and time effects to maximize opportunities for meetings.  In other words, the attraction of social media is more than just a condition of "speed"; it's the combination of sychrony and asynchrony that makes social media so compelling. 

Ostensibly, Twitter (like other social media) displays content along a linear timeline, with the most recent tweets at the top of your reader.  You can think of this (as, perhaps, people less familiar with social media might) as similar to print-based content like newspapers and magazine articles.  But this isn't quite right.  On my desk, for example, is the excellent 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary, a "curated" collection of tweets from young people during the 2015 Baltimore Uprising.  As a book, it's taken all of the linear, temporal tweets and bound them up into a single, syntagmatic diorama.  As a temporal event, the book of the tweets collapses the Uprising into a single plane of discourse, and reading the book is a very different experience than live-tweeting the event.

However, this obvious difference discounts the structure of the social media platform as, ultimately, a heterogeneous chronotype.  Twitter looks like our experience of Newtonian time; to the casual observer, our experiential "now" is the "now" of Twitter.  Scrolling down the timeline takes us into a past that looks like our past.  But Twitter time operates according to very different rules than our ordinary, everyday understanding of temporality.

For one thing, there are many practices that can disrupt Twitter's apparent linearity.  First, you can re-tweet, summoning up content from earlier in the Twitter timeline and magically depositing it in the present.  Events that transpired in the past suddenly become the "now"--not as memory or echo, but as coeval with unfolding Twitter time.  The only indication of the asynchrony is the time-stamp.



Threading your tweets is another common form of time manipulation.  While most users seem to use this "self-reply" function to articulate longer, more complex thoughts, there are also numerous time effects.  For example:

The differences between 4 and 37 minutes are collapsed through the 3 tweet thread.  Moreover, the linear flow of Twitter is reversed, since the oldest tweet appears first.  The above example is certainly less dramatic than a days or weeks-long gap between tweets in a single thread, but the power of this function (or what Fast Company calls a "hack") is to collapse temporally discontinuous discourse into a coeval frame.

You can also manipulate time-lines with hashtags.  By utilizing a hashtag, a user affiliates their content with other tweets that use the same, even if those tweets are temporally distance.  The effect of a search query, then, folds time into tweet content.


Or, rather, hashtagging sets up another timelines--this one relativistically yanking events out of their original timespace and setting up a chronological alternative.

In addition, Twitter (and third-party sites) offer a variety of tools to help users manipulate time. 
There's "TweetDeck," which allows a combination of specialized timelines and scheduled tweets across multiple accounts--a kind of time dashboard where users can work within multiple threads across time zones.  And there are others as well--"tweet4.me"--that are more user-friendly apps that allow users to do the same.  While the intent of these tools is to enable users to always be "on," they really constitute a form of time travel, with the content I post now existing only in a shadowy future.  Discursively, the Twitter user can follow the same path as Robert Heinlein's protagonist in "All You Zombies" and go back in time to give birth to himself.  

Finally, there are a variety of tools to freeze time altogether.  Your own archive of tweets is one example of this effect, as are third party apps like Storify, that let users create social media narratives with custom (and fungible) timelines that additionally allow you to mix multiple social media platforms, and then arrest the linearity of social media through "publishing" your story.  Here's part of one I did a few months ago on a small neighborhood in Seoul:


 With all of this time traveling, and the all of the chronological disjunctures this implies, it's not surprising that recent features ("Moments" and "Home Timelines") are also temporal features, but I can't help but think that Twitter could do much, much more.  For example, time zones can be manipulated by a user through scheduled tweets, but not by your timeline--a difficulty not only for those of us interested in Twitter traffic in, say, Korea, but also for the general health of public discourse.  Another possibility would be to develop a more Bergsonian app for Twitter.  When you read someone's tweet, re-tweet or reply, you're reading it out of their, individual Twitter-time.  What were they writing or commenting upon before and after this tweet?  Yes--you could find out (just as you could simply run searches to read tweets from other time zones), but why couldn't Twitter make these into new features?  

Twitter needs to consider it's relationship to time--to become a Time Lord, and to share their power with users taking control over their own temporalities.