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I’ve just had an article published as part of the spring/summer edition of Necsus, the European Journal of Media Studies. Necsus is an open access journal, so you can find the full text HERE.  My text is a look at how notions of scale and entanglement can productively add to media ecologies as an emergent way of exploring media systems. If looks at case studies of Phone Story and Open Source Ecology, and examines how in both cases a multiscalar approach which looks across content, software and hardware can be productively applied.

The journal also features an interview with Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell, the authors of Greening the Media, a book released last year which is one of the first full-length pieces to look at issues pertaining to the ecological costs of media technologies (both old and new), and a series on interesting essays which look at the intersection of media/film studies and ecology from diverse perspectives. Outside of the Green material, there are essays by Sean Cubitt (who was my PhD external examiner a few months back) and Jonathan Beller which are well worth a read.

 

iDocs 2012

Last year’s iDocs conference at the Watershed in Bristol was a lively and engaging event which looked at a range of critical, conceptual and practical issues around the emerging field of interactive documentary. It focused on several key themes surrounding the genre: participation and authorship, activism, pervasive/locative media and HTML 5 authoring tools.

The conference featured a number of practitioners involved in fantastic projects, such as Jigar Metha’s 18 Days in Egypt, Brett Gaylor, who made the excellent RIP: a remix manifesto and is now at Mozilla working on their popcorn maker, an HTML 5 based javascript library for making interactive web documentaries,  and Kat Cizek (via Skype) whose Highrise project is well worth a look. There were also more theoretically inflected contributions from the likes of Brian Winston, Mandy Rose, Jon Dovey and Sandra Gaudenzi (among many others) which made for a really stimulating couple of days.

The Digital Cultures Research Centre at UWE asked me to document the event and produce a short video summary, and the video above is the outcome of that.

Changes

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The last few months have been a whirlwind of exciting changes.

Firstly, I’ve now completed my PhD. I had my viva on March 25th with Sean Cubitt from Goldsmiths as my external examiner and Mark Jackson from the Geography department as my internal. I’m glad to say that we had a lively an interesting discussion, and at the end of it they let me know that I had passed with the minor end of minor corrections (basically a bunch of typos and a couple of references missed out of the bibliography). Since then I’ve completed those corrections and submitted the final version of the thesis to the library, so I’m now Dr Taffel!

In other exciting news, about a week after the viva I was flown out to New Zealand for an interview at Massey university in Palmerston North. I had a wonderful time out in NZ, catching up with some old friends who left the UK for Nelson a while ago, and then seeing a few bits of the stunning New Zealand scenery (pics on Flickr). I’m very pleased to say that Massey have offered me a job, so I’m currently in the process of sorting out a visa and relocation logistics, and as of July I’ll be a lecturer in Media Studies (Media Practice) at Massey.

It’s hugely exciting to be moving to a new country, a new job and a new lifestyle. I’m also slightly blown away by how quickly this has all happened, I know a lot of hugely talented people who’ve spent a fair amount of time with PhD corrections and then trying to find that elusive first full time academic post. For it to have all come together in a couple of months is amazing, and so I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who’s helped me get to where I am now, especially after being in a really low place a few years back after the bike accident and prolonged period of brokenness.

This is a brief write-up of a talk I gave at the Cube Microplex last night as part of a night co-organised by Permanent Culture Now, Bristol Indymedia and Bristol Radical Film Festival. The night itself was an interesting mix, with the film This Land is Our Land kicking things off, followed by my inchoate ramblings, and Mike from PCN reading a text about commons, sustainability and land.

Whilst This Land is Our Land presents a really useful introduction to the notion of the commons, demarcating a range of types of commons ranging from communally managed land, through to ‘natural resources’ such as air and water, to public services and the Internet – I think that it’s worth taking a step back and considering whether or not classifying these phenomena as the same thing is really all that useful. Whilst they all are not forms of private property, they do exhibit some differing characteristics that are worth further explication.

The first mode of commons I’d like to discuss is the model of common land – what we could think of as a pre-industrial mode of commons, albeit one which still exists today through our shared ownership and access to things like air. Land which was accessible for commoners to graze cattle or sheep, or to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Anyone had access to this communal resource and there was no formal hierarchical management of the common land – no manager or boss who ensured that no one took too much wood or had too many sheep grazing on the land (although there did exist arable commons where lots were allocated on an annual basis). So access and ownership of this communal resource was distributed, management was horizontal rather than hierarchical, but access effectively depended upon geographical proximity to the site in question.

A second mode of commons is that of the public service, which we could conceptualise as an industrial model of commonwealth. For example consider the example of the National Health Service in the UK: unlike common land, this was a public service designed to operate on a national scale, for the common good of the approximately 50 million inhabitants of the UK. In order to manage such a large scale, industrial operation, logic dictated that a strict chain of managerial hierarchy be established to run and maintain the health service – simply leaving the British population to self-organise the health service would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

This appear to be a case which supports the logic later espoused by Garret Hardin in his famed 1968 essay the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby Hardin, an American ecologist forcefully argued that the model of the commons could only be successful in relatively small-scale endeavours, and that within industrial society this would inevitably lead to ruin, as individuals sought to maximise their own benefit, whilst overburdening the communal resource. Interestingly, Hardin’s central concern was actually overpopulation, and he argued in the essay that ‘The only way we can preserver and nurture other, more precious freedoms, is by relinquishing the freedom to breed.’ Years later he would suggest that it morally wrong to give aid to famine victims in Ethopia as this simply encouraged overpopulation.

More recent developments, however, have shown quite conclusively that Hardin was wrong: the model of the commons is not doomed to failure in large-scale projects. In part this is due to the fact that Hardin’s model of the commons was predicated on a complete absence of rules – it was not a communally managed asset, but a free-for-all, and partially this can be understood as a result of the evolution of information processing technologies which have revolutionised the ways in which distributed access, project management and self-organisation can occur. This contemporary mode of the commons, described by Yochai Benler and others as commons-led peer production, or by other proponents simply as peer-to-peer(P2P) resembles aspects of the distributed and horizontal access characteristic of pre-modern commons, but allows access to these projects on a nonlocal scale.

Emblematic of P2P process has been the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons movement. FOSS projects often include thousands of workers who cooperate on making a piece of software which is then made readily available as a form of digital commons, unlike proprietary software which seeks to reduce access to a good whose cost of reproduction is effectively zero. In addition to the software itself, the source code of the program is made available, crucially meaning that other can examine, explore, alter and improve upon existing versions of FOSS. Popular examples of FOSS include WordPress – which is now used to create most new websites as it allows users with little technical coding ability to create complex and stylish participatory websites – the web browsers Firefox and Chrome, and the combination of Apache (web server software) and Linux (operating system) which together form the back end for most of the servers which host World Wide Web content.

What is really interesting, is that in each of these cases, a commons-led approach has been able to economically outcompete proprietary alternatives – which in each case have had huge sums of money invested into them. The prevailing economic logic throughout industrial culture – that hierarchically organised private companies were most effective and efficient at generating reliable and functional goods was shown to be wrong. A further example which highlights this is Wikipedia, the online open-access encyclopaedia which according to research is not only the largest repository of encyclopaedic knowledge, but for scientific and mathematical subjects is the most detailed and accurate. Had you said 15 years ago that a disparate group of individuals who freely cooperated in their free time over the Internet and evolved community guidelines for moderating content which anyone could alter, would be able to create a more accurate and detailed informational resource than a well-funded established professional company (say Encyclopaedia Brittanica) most economists would have laughed. But again, the ability of people to self-organise over the Internet based on their own understanding of their interests and competencies has been shown to be a tremendously powerful way of organising.

Of course there are various attempts to integrate this type of crowd-sourced P2P model into new forms of capitalism – it would be foolish to think that powerful economic actors would simply ignore the hyper-productive aspects of P2P. But for people interested in commons and alternative ways of organising, a lot can be taken from the successes of FOSS and creative commons.

Now where some this gets really interesting, is in the current moves towards Open Source Hardware (OSH), what is sometimes referred to as maker culture, where we move from simply talking about software, or digital content which can be entirely shared over telecommunications networks. OSH is where the design information for various kinds of device are shared. Key amongst these are 3D printers, things like RepRap, an OSH project to design a machine allowing individuals to print their own 3D objects. Users simply download 3D Computer-Assisted-Design (CAD) files, which they can then customise if they wish, before hitting a print button – just as would print a word document, but the information is sent to a 3D rather than 2D printer. Rather than relying on a complex globalised network whereby manufacturing largely occurs in China, this empowers people to start making a great deal of things themselves. It reduces reliance on big companies to provide the products that people require in day-to-day life and so presents a glimpse of a nascent future in which most things are made locally, using a freely available design commons. Rather than relying on economies of scale, this postulates a system of self-production which could offer a functional alternative which would have notable positive social and ecological ramifications.

Under the current economic situation though, people who contribute to these communities alongside other forms of commons are often not rewarded for the work they put into things, and so have to sell their labour power elsewhere in order to make ends meet financially. Indeed, this isn’t new, capitalism has always been especially bad at remunerating people who do various kinds of work which is absolutely crucial the the functioning of a society – with domestic work and raising children being the prime example. So the question is, how could this be changed so as to reward people for contributing to cultural, digital and other forms of commons?

One possible answer which has attracted a lot of commentary is the notion of a universal basic income. Here the idea is that as all citizens are understood to actively contribute to society via their participation in the commons, everyone should receive sufficient income to subsist – to pay rent, bills, feed themselves and their dependants, alongside having access to education, health care and some form of information technology. This basic income could be supplemented through additional work – and it is likely that most people would choose to do this (not many people enjoy scraping by with the bare minimum) – however, if individuals wanted to focus on assisting sick relatives, contributing to FOSS projects or helping out at a local food growing cooperative they would be empowered to do so without the fear of financial ruin. As an idea it’s something that has attracted interest and support from a spectrum including post-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri through to liberals such as British Green Party. It certainly seems an idea worth considering, albeit one which is miles away from the Tory rhetoric of Strivers and Skivers.

For more details on P2P check out the Peer to Peer Foundation which hosts a broad array of excellent articles on the subject.

During my several months of failing to blog I’ve had a paper published in a special edition of the journal Culture Machine, which is an open access journal, meaning that unlike much of academia it isn’t up behind a paywall.

The article is called Escaping Attention: Digital Media Hardware, Materiality and Ecological Cost, and it looks at ways that discourses around the attention economy and immateriality tend to obscure various material ecological impacts of digital technologies. It’s part of a special edition on the attention economy which was co-edited by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley from the the Digital Cultures Research Centre at UWE. Material for the journal was drawn from the 2010 European Science Foundation funded conference entitled ‘Paying Attention: Digital Media Cultures and Generational Responsibility,’ which was convened by the Digital Cultures Research Centre.

Alongside my contribution, the special edition features a substantial introduction by the editors, which presents a critical examination of the workings of the ‘attention economy’ in the context of today’s rapidly emerging realtime, ubiquitous, online digital technoculture. It re-focusses work on this theme of attention in light of the current and emerging digital technocultural media sphere of smart devices, the pervasive mediation of experience, and the massive financial speculation in the attention capturing potential of social networking media. The special issue includes an interview by Kinsley with peer2peer co-founder, Michel Bauwens, essays by key theorists of attention Jonathan Beller, Bernard Stiegler, Tiziana Terranova, and several papers on topics from Facebook and Free and Open Software, to the problematic role of digital social networking in Istanbul’s recent (2010) European Capital of Culture project. Its really great to be published alongside such thought provoking and insightful pieces.

http://payingattention.org/2012/07/24/paying-attention-special-issue-of-culture-machine/

A short video I made documenting the launch of the Pervasive Media Cookbook is now on Vimeo…

The Pervasive Media Cookbook is a Hackspace meets Jamie Oliver mash-up where art and engineering mix to inspire entry level producers to get involved with the new world of location based media experiences. It promotes the emerging field of Pervasive Media by showing how 12 innovative experiments were made.

The Cookbook launch is the culmination of a two-year AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer Fellowship led by Professor Jon Dovey as a partnership with the Watershed Arts Trust. The project worked with Creative Economy partners to define the language of Pervasive Media and support the development of its market. Over two years the team ran user tests, workshops, conferences and seminars reaching over 400 people and working closely with SW digital businesses.

The video features excerpts from talks given at the launch event by Professor Jon Dovey of the DCRC and Clare Reddington, director of iShed and the Pervasive Media Studio, alongside interviews with a number of participants whose work is featured in the Pervasive Media Cookbook


2005 MIT Press

Sterling is best known for his work as an author of fictional works within the cyberpunk sci-fi genre, but Shaping Things is a book which largely examines technology, design and sustainability. Sterling is interested in interrogating the types of technological futures we are likely to encounter (a theme which of is of course also central to his fictional works), allied with considering how technological evolution, and the design practices which evolve alongside technologies can provide a future for a civilisation which

‘Can’t go on in their present form. The status quo uses energy and materials which are finite and toxic. They wreck the climate, poison the population and resource wars. They have no future.’ P7
Sterling contends that these problematic technologies can be replaced and their deleterious impacts overcome through the implementation of a technoculture based on SPIMES:

‘Manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly rich and extensive that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES begin and end as data… SPIMES are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of the future.’ P11

Sterling argues that dominant technocultures do not abolish previous technical ensembles, but compost them – perhaps composite may have been a more obvious descriptor, but Sterling’s authorial style is full of entertaining linguistic obscurantisms. Consequently a SPIME based technoculture will not replace the artifacts, machines, products and gizmos that we have today, but will alter the forms or flavours these devices take. As an example, Sterling explores a bottle of wine, and the way in which its barcode and link to a website denote that this bottle of wine is from the gizmo era: it’s still a bottle of wine, but one which contains particular informational affordances based on the dominant technoculture from which it emanates.

This leads onto a discussion of what I would consider to be issues around economies of attention, which Sterling describes as cognitive load in a gizmo society. His conclusions around the slogan ‘everyone can’t be a designer’ and the notion of representative design as an analogue of representative government (and frankly, that means not very representative anything) are politically naïve and really not thoroughly though through.

‘We interact differently in a world with representative design. In particular, with enough informational power, the “invisible hand of the market” becomes visible. The hand of the market was called “invisible” because Adam Smith had very few ways to measure it. Adam Smith lacked Metrics.’ P23

Such a perspective on the market and the information society would have drawn critique as a neoliberal fantasy in 2005 when Shaping Things was published. Coming after the global economic crash in 2008 and the current stagnation/double dip recession/Eurozone crisis the notion that information technology has given financial services industries the ability to predict and control the future is simply farcical, and demonstrates the ideology of neoliberal cyberutopianism which permeates Stirling’s text.

Where Sterling is somewhat more interesting is his thoughts around sustainability and temporality. Arguing that there is no way back to a (utopian) pre-industrial era in which humans lived in harmony with nature, Sterling contends that only through intelligent design practices can a pathway to a sustainable society be found. He contends that rapid prototyping will play a big role in this, casting the process as ‘the exhaustion of the phase space of the problem – it isn’t reasoned, thrifty or rational but it has the brutal efficiency of a chess-playing computer.’ (P48) By exploring different possible solutions, and retaining the data which allows other designers to note which avenues provide dead-ends, Stirling argues that rapid prototyping will allow a kind of distributed, swarm-like intelligence to permeate design practices, creating a synchronic society in which innovation occurs increasingly rapidly. This feeds into a general theme exploring relations between technology and temporality, with Sterling arguing that:

Genuinely radical changes in the human perception of time are not caused by philosophy, but instrumentation. The most radical changes in our temporal outlook come from technological devices, tools of temporal perception: clocks, telescopes, radio-carbon daters, spectrometers. P51

This leads Sterling to reflect that:

We’re in trouble as a culture because we lack firm ideas of where we are in time an what we might do to ensure ourselves a future. We’re also in trouble for technical and practical reasons: because we design build and use dysfunctional hardware… To understand hardware, we need to understand hardware’s engagement with TIME. P54/55

When explicating what he envisions as the origins of SPLIME’s in contemporary culture, Sterling points to RFID tags and the potential to create and Internet of Things based on this type of technology, or more likely future iterations of device which evolve from things like RFID tags or the other sensor/actuator relationships which have become far more common in the half dozen years since the book was released with the explosion of smartphones, tablets and other portable, always-on technologies which come with a range of built in sensors. Sterling also explores some of the potential for 3D printers to revolutionise fabrication processes. These subjects aren’t covered in much depth, but credit must go to Sterling to picking these technologies out as potential game changers very early on in their development.

While peer production, commons and open-source to get a mention, it is only that: a fleeting mention in between other ideas, and one which fails to explore the potentials for redistributing wealth throughout societies based upon these models, but then social equity, and the effects of technological ensembles upon equality is a black hole in Sterling’s book, one which can largely be attributed to the neoliberal economic ideology it propounds. He does argue that:

‘It’s no use starting from the top by ideologically re-educating the Consumer to become some kind of rigid hairshirt Green. This means returning to the benighted status of farmers with artifacts.’ P131

As someone involved in education, I find Sterling’s claims that the process of trying to get people to think about the social and ecological implications of their actions leads to ignorance to be misguided at best. When combined with his notion of representative design and the magical powers of markets when combined with information technology I would consider them to be politically dangerous, suggesting that we forgo education and serious thought and instead simply sit back and allow an enlightened design elite and the market to simply lead us to a sustainable future.

Sterling’s insight into the potentials of emerging technologies is worthy of high praise, and some of his thoughts around time, technology and society is intriguing if somewhat underexplored, and these currently within his work are why he’s become a popular figure talking about discourses of futurity and postdigitality. The limitations of his cyberutopian neoliberalism however are clearly evidenced in Shaping Things. While his rhetoric around sustainability is interesting, his arguments about heritage and our descendants are undermined by his lack of concern for social justice – either now or in the speculative futures he presents.