Lost in Controversy

This summer, Bruno Latour was our tour guide – leading the way, not out of The Cave, but beyond the entire Cave System. Along the journey I also learned about a very interesting pedagogical technique intended to take engineering students on a similar journey.

Students at Sciences-Politique and Ecole des Mines in Paris, as well as at MIT in Boston are learning to map techno-scientific controversies according to a method which embodies Actor-Network-Theory (without all of the heavy theoretical jargon).  Past projects can be found at the Mapping Controversies web site, and Bruno Latour himself explains the project and its aspirations in this video.

Many of the possibilities explored in these new media projects are related to a broader question I have been interested lately concerning the impact that technology is having on epistemology itself. How is technology and new media changing what is knowable and how we go about knowing?  I wrote an essay last Spring, The Bionic Social Scientist: Human Sciences and Emerging Ways of Knowing, which begins to explore these questions, and it is wonderful to see more examples of these ideas materializing around us.

The Mapping Controversies pedagogy involves teams of students taking on the role of statistician, investigative journalist, scientist, and webmaster, working to research and represent a controversy. They discover (and depict) that concepts themselves vary depending upon who is speaking about them, and attempt to map these relations and progressions over time.

I can imagine this technique displacing the traditional 5 ‘W’s of journalism – The venerable Who, What, When, Where, & Why needs to b upgraded to a multi-dimensional, post-modern, reality. What varies and depends upon who, where, and when, and without the kinds of research and representations that the Mapping Controversies project is pioneering, we will never adequately capture the multiplicities of whys. I don’t know if these kinds of representations are intermediate forms of research, or if one day they will be part of the final production delivered as news to readers, but it is an important question to begin to grapple with.

Right now, the Mapping Controversies sites are somewhat anti-social – they are fixed, one-way communications, but from the introductory video, they hope to change this soon. At the moment, each map is also a unique work of art.  While it is premature to confine anyone yet to the paradigmatic blinders of conformity, I also think it is imperative for us to begin to imagine and develop a visual vocabulary that we can re/use when representing these kinds of relations.

In the field of information visualization, researchers are beginning to catalog Information Design Patterns that maps like this could build upon. Of course, riffs and variations from these patterns are welcome, where significant and meaningful, but a common starting point will improve the communicativity of these maps. As these patterns solidify, the corresponding implementation patterns can grow along with these efforts, as tools like Ben Fry’s Processing Framework (recently ported from java to javascript, which is much more web friendly, and used extensively in the MOMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit), will begin to institutionalize the knowledge learned in constructing these maps.

And, of course, all of the code and content used to create these projects should be free and open, so the world can learn and improve on their foundations.

Bruno vs. The Cavemen

This summer I was part of an amazing reading group where we slowed to a crawl and closely read Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature. When I say we read the book, I mean we literally went around the table and read the book out loud, stopping to discuss difficult passages until we were confident we understood them.

I haven’t taken to the time to read a book this closely in ages, and the experience reinforced the age old addage about finding the universe in a grain of sand. Reading a book that deals with such deep eternal themes, written by a brilliant theoretician who has himself synthesized and integrated an incredible amount of history, philosophy, and literature, was like glimpsing the entire cannon through Latour’s eyes, and well worth the effort.

In this work, Latour performs a root canal on a form of conceptual dualism that has haunted Western thought for millennium. The book revolves around a perplexing circumstance in world we have constructed for ourselves – How did we end up in a world where one set of propositions (usually known as facts) are authoritative, unassailable, and incontrovertible and another set of propositions (usually known as values) are the kinds things we are allowed to argue about?

Apart from the challenge of figuring out which of these flawed categories a particular proposition belongs to, the artificial separation between the tasks of constructing the common world and constructing the common good shuts down all possibility of discourse – before we even get a chance to try to arrive at consensus! The institutionalization of facts and values are so inextricably intertwined that it is folly to erect barriers between these two enterprises.

Latour illustrates his perspective with examples from controversies in the sciences (especially Environmentalism and Political Ecology), but it is trivial to transpose his argument to the great debates between objectivity and subjectivity in Journalism, and the ways that certain kinds of propositions (‘data’ in many conversations about technology, and ‘revelation’ in conversations about religion) are invoked as trump cards to shut down all debate. Medical “science”, especially psychiatry and brain science are horrendous perpetrators of these offenses right now, and the consequences are anything but theoretical. The Onion provides my favorite example illustrating the confusion between facts and values.

Latour’s proposed strategy for re-imagining the mexican standoff between nature/culture, science/democracy, facts/values, objectivity/subjectivity, necessity/freedom, etc is to re-tie a metaphysical Gordian knot as an epistemological one. He would like us to consider an dynamically expanding collective of players/concepts, composed of humans and non-humans (the non-humans have spokespeople, whose assertions are speech acts – qualified by the same kinds of language we use to indicate our confidence in any speech act).

Revisiting and reinterpreting Plato’s metaphor of Cave, Latour traces the West’s tendency to cleanly divide smooth facts from messy values to the flawed idea of aspiring to leave the Cave to grasp/glimpse/experience the Truth. Even if this were attainable, the sojourners would still need to return back into the cave, to mediate and relate their experience to those still trapped within. Instead of aspiring to leave the cave, we need to transcend the entire Cave system.

It isn’t completely fair to criticize a book for what it’s missing (no single book can be all things), but it would be great to expand this line of analysis in the future and elaborate on the role of mediation in the current and imagined collective. It seems pretty clear to me that for Latour, the ‘Sciences’ encompass the entire enterprise of Science, including the scientists, the funders, the corporations, the educators, and the scientific journalists. But, there is little in the book that unpacks these relations.

A broader criticism sets an argument that John Durham Peter’s advanced in Speaking into the Air, against Latour’s conception of the Collective. Peter’s argues that we often view communication as salvation, when in fact alot of discourse never leads to consensus, and there are perspectives that are mutually incommensurate and irreconcilable. I may be naive to think the Collective that Latour dreams of is a realistic aspiration, though I sure would love to live to participate in it.

I also want to explore the connections between this work and the Death of Environmentalism essay I encountered last year. I think Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ argument is a vivid and direct application of the theory Latour argues in The Politics of Nature.

Ulises Mejias’ work on Networked Proximity is another work which might be fascinating to juxtapose with the dynamically expanding collective (which, can be thought about as a network).  Ulises’ notions of the para-nodal might be crucial to consider when the collective invokes the power to take things into account.

Location, location, location (and timing)


A few weeks back I attended a symposium (The Focus on Locus) at the Columbia Business school on the coming tusnami of location based services. For some reason I mistakenly believed the day might include discussions and demonstrations of visualizations and mapping UIs, but it was actually more about the other end of the equation – how every device on the planet will soon be aware of its own location, and the sorts of privacy, policy, and commercial implications of this emerging reality.

Henning Schulzrinne, the chair of the CS dept kicked of the day from 1000m up by pointing out that, nowadays,  just about every device on the planet knows what time it is (non-trivial when you consider the standards, protocols, and apis that needed to be resolved for this to happen so smoothly everywhere), and reminded us that less than 10 years ago you still needed to set the time on your cell phone. Knowing the time has become completely transparent on many electronic and networked devices, and has become part of the fabric of the digital age. We search for emails, pictures, documents and more based on timestamps – they are so common it is even hard to imagine computing without them.

Extrapolate a few years out, and the dimensional quartet of space-time will be reunited once more. Everything will know where it is, and not just geo coordinates – devices will know the street block they are on, the room they occupy in relation to floor plans, etc etc. Henning is even working on the standards and protocols to facilitate this ubiquity. Once you say this out load it becomes obvious – many of the systems that we use to figure out where we are rely on knowing when you are to do so. This dates back to the solution to the Royal Academy’s Longitude X-Prize, all the way up to the triangulation used by modern GPS.

Location based services have also finally creeped out the 99% of the people who don’t seem to grok the privacy issues posed by the tracks our digital footprints leave behind. Perhaps its more visceral, immediate, and concrete, but people are buggin. In a very surreal moment, I realized that many of the privacy concerns raised at the Columbia Business School symposium were very similar to the privacy conversations happening at the hacker conference (the Last HOPE) I attended the week afterwards. (yeah yeah – the groups are both stereotypically libertarian, but would you have predicted the similarity?)

Refreshingly, some of the models and thought experiments I have been developing in relation to my End of Forgetting work held up really well throughout both conferences. The information flux model remains relatively unique, and continues to suggest alternate ways of retying the gordian knot of that is strapping us to the petabyte age.

It’s always fun attending a meeting like this and trying to maintian a critical perspective – paying attention to the omissions, the assumptions, and even the construction of the instruments (like the standards which might be used to indicate the privacy levels of data). Speak now or forever hold your place.

Passing Virtual Cars

I’ve got a wonderful summer backlog of posts piling up, but I really want to try to keep these posts short(er) and sweet, so I’ll try to compose staccato.

My explorations into virtual worlds have taken a turn for the surreal lately, as I have made a few new close friends who have been graciously teaching me how they play. I feel like I might be coming ridiculously late to the conversation (I don’t often play video games), but my experiences have given me new pause about the raging debate over the potential influence of sex and violence in games/media on people (not just youth).

I have learned first-hand how Second Life encourages people to articulate their fantasies in intricate detail – trying on new fashions, tattoos, piercings, behaviours, and lifestyles. From a few conversations, I am also pretty sure that much of this identity-play sometimes sticks, and often crosses back over into real life.

The whole process is spookily reminiscent of the “manifesting principle,” described in magickal/mystical systems like Chaos Magick (e.g. Carol’s Liber Kaos) and even Kabballah (The Three Abrahamic Covenants and The Car Passing Trick):

  1. Know what you want. Clearly and precisely understand what you want by doing the intellectual work needed to really know what you want and how much it costs (or how impossible it is.)
  2. Sacrifice your(ego)self to the task. Put your heart and soul into your endeavour. Do real work in the physical world towards your goal. Care deeply about the work you are doing. Work (and pray) well beyond your normal point of giving up. Do the work and show your caring anyway, even if it seems that [God] is not listening.
  3. Return your personal will to [God]. Give up, be infinitely patient, and pay attention.

The manifesting principle only works when a person has made a real sacrifice and has continued to work even while they have let go of their expectations of the outcome they desire. When a person short-circuits the full process, nothing happens. When there has been no sacrifice, there is nothing for [God] to respond to. (Stan Tenen, The Purpose of Prayer).

So, while Halo or even Grand Theft Auto might not cross some yet unknown threshold, I am mildly concerned about the World of Warcraft players. Sure, many of them are just playing, but some might be inflicting real emotional harm on other real people. Something to ponder.

I haven’t really worked this out in detail yet, but I also wonder if Geertz’s notion of “deep play” (introduced in Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cock Fight) might be useful and relevant here. The deep play he describes shares many characteristics with these mystical formulas and the magical substrate that Second Life has clearly become for some people. Something the Stanford lab is trying to systematically measure and observe, though I don’t think they have floating this particular hypothesis yet 😉

In many ways my conversations and immersion in the wonderful Play as Being project and community have helped me think about these relationships (especially ‘letting go’, the final step in manifesting), but I will save some of the direct connections for a future post.

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