Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson and the networked frontier

This piece of mine came out in a collection of essays on California science fiction:

I've always found him good to think with--his recent stuff, especially, which has this thoughtful open-endedness that I find particularly inviting.  An odd parallel: Le Guin's work is similarly trending towards ambiguity. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Friending the Man of the Crowd

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Man of the Crowd" by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), first printed in 1923 (from Wikimedia Commons)

Edgar Allan Poe’s story fragment, “The Man of the Crowd” (published in 1840 when Poe was living between Baltimore, Richmond and Philadelphia), begins with the narrator peering out onto a London street from a café, making observations about passersby: typologies of urban dwellers (“the tribe of clerks,” the “race of swell pick-pockets”), divisions of the population into age, gender, race and ethnicity.  Finally, though, his gaze alights on an enigmatic character that eludes easy classification: “decrepit” and “feeble,” yet “he rushed with an activity I could not have dreamed of seeing in one so aged”; “without apparent aim,” yet characterized by “blood thirstiness” and armed with a “dagger”.  Seduced by these paradoxical attributes, Poe’s narrator follows the man until sunrise, without, though, gaining any insight into the man’s history, nor of his ultimate aims. 
            Within this brief fragment, we can see multiple approaches to the urban collide: the first, the assignation of types.  The second, an ethnographic approach premised on direct observation of a single individual walking the streets.  One attempts to make sense of the whole—to say something, in this case, about London’s (or Baltimore’s or Philadelphia’s) urban population and the growth of a heterosocial, public space in the mid-19th century (Walkowitz 1992).  The second, the specificity of the individual in a particular place: what one could call the “daily round” of the individual.  But both approaches prove inadequate to understanding the enigmatic man of the crowd. 
            But what if Poe’s narrator had tried a network approach?  What if one could show that the man of the crowd’s apparently aimless wanderings were, instead, the outlines of a networked city connecting multitudes of nodes consisting of places and people?  What if one could analyze those connections?  As many have shown, the city is, literally, the sum of its networks, assemblages of place and connection that are simultaneously larger and smaller than the geo-political boundaries of the urban (Pflieger and Rozenblat 2010).  Within this concatenation, people and place can be connected in myriad ways: the “strong” and “weak” ties that form the basis of much of social network analysis, but also in the form of a variety of “latencies” that, as Haythornthwaite (2002: 389) suggests, multiply in the age information and communication technologies and add new potentials to the elaboration of the urban networks around us.  In a networked world, Poe’s narrator might be able to exploit these connections in order to connect to his man in the crowd and make sense of his world. 
            And, indeed, this is what happens all of the time in urban life.  Armed with various ICT’s (information and communication technologies), people trace complicated networks that include physical structures, transportation, socialites, technologies, economies and symbolic communications.  But by tweeting (or using me2day or yozm), posting to blogs, utilizing geolocational apps and uploading photos and videos, people multiply possibilities for place- and sense-making, mobilizing virtual connections that might open up new possibilities for physical or spatial connections, that might make the strange into the famiilar.   
           This is an important difference from Poe's time.  Poe's "man of the crowd" and Baudelaire's "flaneur" depend upon a uniquely urban condition: spending one's life surrounded by complete strangers.  On the other hand, in our ICT-inflected lives, nobody can be a "complete" stranger.  Rather, in the fuzzy logic of social media, people on the street present different quanta of latency--different potentialities of connection that we may or may not be able to exploit.  When we attend a rally and marvel at the disparate groups that (momentarily) cohere in a place, we're witnessing the activation of some of those latent ties, and, most probably, their rapid dissolution.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

MOOCs, Matrix, Bridge

At the moment I write this, a creeping group think has saturated both higher education (The Chronicle of Higher Education), and popular media (New York Times, Huffington Post, etc.).  It's that moment when public debate constricts to a terrifying one-dimensionality--when all manner of unwarranted assumptions attain hegemony and become the scaffolding for etiolated prognostications.  And, in this case, where we enter a time-warp and return to the 1980s.   

Take, for example, an April 30 article from the front page of the New York Times, "Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden". Here, the President of San Jose State University, Mohammad Qayoumi, discusses his enthusiastic adoption of MOOC modules from MIT:
"Traditional teaching will be disappearing in five to seven years, he predicts, as more professors come to realize that lectures are not the best route to student engagement, and cash-strapped universities continue to seek cheaper instruction" (A1).
The pilots in STEM have some early adopters suggesting that the idea of making one's own curriculum is misguided.
"Our ego always runs ahead of us, making us think that we can do it better than anyone else in the world," Dr. Ghadiri said, "But why should we invent the wheel 10,000 times?  This is M.I.T., No. 1 school in the nation--why would we not want to use their material?" (A3)
In the dull, predictable style of many writings on information technologies, MOOCs have attained that air of inevitability, the point at which public discourse is reduced to legitimating the idea in one way or another (should we just do away with colleges?  or just professors?).  Of course that's their attraction--economies of scale lead to large scale de-skilling of the professoriate a la Harry Braverman, money can be expropriated from the public sector to the private, enormous salaries can be collected by upper-management by cutting out middle-strata of professors.  Wait--isn't this what happened to IBM?  Automobile manufacturing?  The 1980s indeed.

But there's anther sense that current hysterics over MOOCs revive 1980s anachronisms: the way that MOOCs revive (zombie-like) the distorted dreams of the past, now projected into a dull future, where, pace William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), the sky is "the color of television, turned to a dead channel" (3).  There are several reasons to be critical here, quite apart from my desire to preserve my own job or my belief that students at our regional state university would be the likely losers in a MOOC world.  My biggest protest: it could all be so much better, and, here we are, stuck in another era's dream (or nightmare) of the future.

William Gibson is credited for the invention of "cyberspace," that "consensual hallucination" that makes its first appearance in "Burning Chrome" (1982) and its more robust exposition in Neuromancer (1984).  It's "the matrix" that Gibson's protagonist lusts over that secured Gibson's position vis-a-vis cyberpunk and science fiction, "'a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.  Unthinkable complexity.  Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.  Like city lights, receding . . .'" (51).  The evocations of this "paraspace" and the complex of desires Gibson invests in it made cyberspace a peculiarly fecund metaphor in the 1980s.  "Cyberspace" telescoped 1980s dreams of white middle-class transcendence and segregation; the digital equivalence of gated communities, it was a way of imagining oneself at the center of the world while still maintaining one's separation from it. 

And as a creative trope, it was quickly exhausted.  At some point between Neuromancer's Chandler-esquae cyberspace (1984) and Neal Stephenson's Pynchon-esque (and Python-esque) Snow Crash (1992), "cyberspace" (and the cyberpunk genre that mass media invented around it), lost much of its potency.  Stephenson's "Metaverse" is already a parody.   But policy makers clung to Gibson's image, and it passed into countless, inane reports on the "information superhighway," some of which I explore in my 2009 book, Library of Walls.  To say that Gibson's narrative "caught on," is to grossly underestimate the power it wielded in the formulation of policy.  As viral meme, "cyberspace" was especially good at infecting education.  As Al Gore articulated in the 1990s, the goal of the Clinton administration was "to give every child in America access to high quality educational technology by the dawn of the new century."  This was certainly a promising start,but it did not mean addressing entrenched racism and class inequalities; nor did it mean addressing the re-segregation of American schools.  But this was the beauty of evoking cyberspace--invest in a metaphoric space that can divert attention away from increasingly unequal, physical spaces, a shell game that continues to this day. 

However: "cyberpunk" writers (and Williams Gibson) had already moved on.  Gibson's 1990s Bridge trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties) developed other interstitial spaces that complicated the easy abstraction of cyberspace (Farnell 1998).  Other writers associated (however fallaciously) with cyberpunk moved to ecology, to steampunk, to contemporary fictions.  This shouldn't be shocking.  When I re-read Neuromancer, I'm struck by the narrative inadequacies of cyberspace.  In the opening pages, Case is an addict impotently yearning for a cyberspace utopia he's been turned away from: "his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there" (5).  When he is re-united with his virtuality, that cyberspace--however richly imagined--is never enough; 85% of the novel takes place in the "real" work, not the virtual.  If Case is an addict, he is one addicted to the real, not the virtual, and he needs to return to its pleasures and dangers at regular intervals.  Fittingly, Gibson narrates around cyberspace: it's Japan, London, New York.  These are cyberpunk's enduring images, with leaps into cyberspace supported by globetrotting evocations of the urban-noir.  On the other hand, the "real" is never really enough, either; cyberspace fits together disconnected narratives, joining them across geographic distance; it lends "real" space a media-saturated edginess.  "Cyberspace," then, fills in as Gernsback-ian deus ex machina for the inadequacies of one, and the gritty spaces of the post-industrial metropolis for the inadequacies of the other.

The Bridge trilogy, then, can be seen as exploring the asymptotes of both physical and virtual space, with the "bridge" itself (modeled after the Bay Bridge) bringing together virtual and physical into a chaotic bircolage of popular culture, technology, nostalgia and globalization.

"He tried to imagine this place the way it had been before, when it was a regular bridge.  Millions of cars had gone through here, this same space where he walked now.  It had all been open then, just girders and railing and deck; now it was this tunnel, everything patched together out of junk, used lumber, plastic, whatever people could find, all of it lashed up however anybody could get it to stay, it looked like, and somehow it did stay, in spite of the winds he knew must come through here  He'd been back in a bayou once, in Louisiana, and something about the the way it looked here reminded him of that: there was stuff hanging everywhere, tubing and cables and things whose function he couldn't identify, and it was like Spanish moss in a way, everything softened at the outline.  And the light now was dim and sort of underwater-looking, just as these banks of scavenged flourescents slung every twenty feet or so, some of them dead and other flickering" (185). 

The bridge is built from the dross of half-abandoned modernities, and its imaginative power comes precisely from this juxtaposition--a collage of castaway imaginings stitched together with networked hypermedia. 

So what does this trip down sf-memory lane have to do with MOOCs?  For those who look to MOOCs as the future of public education, the premises, and the oppositions they construct, are the same: on the one hand, online, vertiginous living, free from constraint, transcending all manner of (embodied) inequalities--race, ethnicity, social class, nationality.  And on the other, the brick-and-mortar university, here understood as an inertial drag on progress: sucking away at government money, while sinking families deep into insurmountable debt.  But MOOCs, like cyberspace, are already bankrupt metaphors the moment they're deployed.  If nearly ~40 years of  leaden writing on "virtual" life has taught us something, it's that "virtuality" itself can never stand alone.  The reason?  You can't live in a metaphor, and nor can you learn in one.  Scholars working in distance education have developed a much more robust experience for students, but MOOC designers have largely ignored these innovations, largely because (one imagines) they are labor (and teaching) intensive.  But there's some deliberate ignorance at work, too.  President Qayoumi seems to believe that the MIT professors are "teaching" the students--this is a bit of magical thinking that is only possible in the prison house of 1980s metaphor. 

But what is most galling to me--and takes me back again to Gibson's peregrinations--is the anachronistic imagination at work.  ICTs (information and communication technologies) have not developed in this direction--i.e., creating hermetically sealed online environments that will allow us to jettison the "meat" of material life.  In fact, just the opposite.  As Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman point out in Networked, "Internet use does not pull people away from public places, but rather is associated with frequent visits to places such as parks, cafes, and restaurants--the kinds of locales where people are likely to encounter a wider array people and diverse points of view" (Rainie and Wellman 2012: 119).  Rainie's careful research on networked life for Pew suggests that people utilize ICTs for making connections with people and places, not for transcending them: "ICTs are about society as well as relationships.  They support participation in traditional settings such as neighborhoods, voluntary groups, churches, and public spaces" (128).  In other words, ICTs unfold across urban fabrics--they form a kind of connective tissue linking together a variety of heterogeneous, "third spaces" that make up the daily round.  Through developing "present absence" and "absent presence," ICTs anticipate face-to-face meetings; they proliferate among urban inter-spaces, filling gaps between meetings, commutes, leisure.  People spend time online, not to escape from their offline lives, but to enable them. It is not by accident that social networking apps have exploded over the last 15 years, or that geosocial apps have become popular; people embrace new ICTs because they facilitate meeting in social and physical space.

But this is not what MOOCs have done, for reasons that have everything to do with economies of scale.   Like McDonald's, they're about "serving" billions and billions--replicating that statistics class over and over again--the Ivy League reduced to a Big Mac.  On the other hand, online education could mean more face-to-face communication with faculty, more integration with place and community, more interaction with peers on a variety of context-dependent levels.  Communicating with students through a networked media platforms, meeting them in different (physical) places, extending and distributing learning in a bewildering variety of spaces, continuing learning (and presence) before and after formal teaching begins and ends: these are the potentials.  Yes--leaving the classroom behind, not by transcending it, but by extending it into new, fantastic topologies.  Or, alternately, the creation of "interstitial" spaces linking the university to place and identity is multiple ways.  If technological developments are moving us towards "the bridge" rather than "the matrix," then why not embrace that complex swirl of materialities, socialities and virtualities as they unfold in heterogeneous, unpredictable ways?  Why try to create homogeneous experiences?   Of course, resources, resources, resources.  But also a colossal failure of imagination: being content to inhabit the dreams of earlier generations.   


Farnell, Ross (1998).  "Posthuman Topologies."  Science Fiction Studies 25(3).

Gibson, William (1984).  Neuromancer.  NY: Ace Books.

--(1999).  All Tomorrow's Parties.  NY: Ace Books.

Lewin, Tamar (2013).  "Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden."  NYT (4/30/13): A1+.

Rainie, Lee and Barry Wellman (2012).  Networked.  Cambridge: The MIT Press.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Urban Durations, U-cities, HomePlus

Tesco's HomePlus virtual shopping in Seoul

Along the walls of Seonreung Subway Station (선릉역) in Seoul, Tesco HomePlus (a popular shopping chain with corporate headquarters in the United Kingdom) has put up photographs of 500 commonly ordered products in a style similar to their display on the shelves of a physical HomePlus.  Subway passengers can scan accompanying QR codes with their smart phones; the products will be delivered to their homes that evening.

Yes, yes--this is certainly convenient and suggests the degree to which Seoul is well on its way to becoming a ubiquitous computing city (or u-city)--and well ahead of cities in the United States.  But this also offers a more complex view of the occasionally simplistic logic behind the u-city. 

When we look at cities and their built environments, we can identify what John Urry calls different "mobilities" that bring together people and objects in different spatio-temporal configurations: riding the subway versus driving an automobile versus walking down a wide boulevard versus sitting at a cafe (Urry 2007).  Each divulges a different temporal rhythm.  This is partly because of the temporal regimes that have been built into these systems--subway schedules, speed limits, the timing of traffic lights, etc,  And this is also partly due to the ways people have engaged these spaces through their own temporal practices (Lefebvre 2004).  Through these manifold technologies, we share temporalities with others--waking in the morning, the daily commute, breaking for lunch.  Commuting into Seoul from Ansan in Gyeonggi-do, you really get the sense of people marching lock-step in both time and space.  But the variations in those temporalities are the most noticeable. 

In fact, it is at those precise places where different temporalities collide that have been the most interesting for urban dwellers: the entrance to a Seoul subway station where people wait for each other or sell gimbap.  A pojangmach'a (포장마차) (harder to find these days!) set up in alleys where people move by according to different temporal practices--walking from work, socializing, touring, going to class at a nearby language institute.  Vast urban markets like Namdaemun (남대문시장) where people alternately sit, scurry, stroll.  Isn't at least part of the charm of these urban oases the confluence of difference?  And not only difference in the way that we usually think of it in anthropology, as differences in identity or social class, but differences in temporality--the difference between people caught in the rhythm of work versus those pursuing a variety of modern pleasures.

Of course, these same temporal differences can lead to all sorts of frustrations--when you climb into a car or taxi and find yourself jammed in on Jamsil Bridge (잠실대교), too annoyed to take in the view of Seoul's skyline.  Or when waiting exceeds the 30-minute mark and turns to frustration.  

Image from the Urban and Regional Innovation Group (

But what happens when we are in constant, real-time syncopation with the built environment around us?  As Seoul moves to ubiquitous computing, the frisson that comes from the confluence of different temporalities would seem to be threatened.  After all, the whole point of ubiquitous computing is the adoption of integrative, networked technologies that span these spatial and temporal differences, creating a vast syntagmatic exchange of information.  The dream, then, would be seamless networks that stitch together city services, transit, consumption, together with our home- and work-lives.  

And yet, that may not be how ubiquitous computing develops into urban contexts at all.  When we look at the HomePlus installation at Seonreung Station, its success depends not on the homogenization of different temporalities, but on their exploitation.  It's precisely because there are different mobilities in subway transit--descending into the tube, walking to the platform, waiting for the train, standing in the subway car--that there's a temporal residue for HomePlus to exploit.  In other words, it's the between-ness of the subway station that makes QR-code shopping at HomePlus an attractive option.

In the future, I would expect these temporal disjunctures to be fertile grounds for ubiquitous computing; and, perhaps, these may result in the concomitant multiplication of these temporal differences rather than their transcendence.  That is, the temporal dissonance between different formations suggests durational spaces for networked action.  With them, perhaps, an awareness of heterogeneous temporalities that may lead to new possibilities for human interaction in the interstices of the temporal formations we inhabit.


Lefebvre, Henri (2004).  Rhythmanalysis.  NY: Continuum.

Urry, John (2007).  Mobilities.  Malden, MA: Polity.