Blog Post 10 Kirtz: Just Say Yes


When trying to develop a topic for this week and articulate it properly, I had trouble finding a way to distill my thoughts but ultimately it all comes down to one word: yes. Yes, is the appropriate response for several reasons, and not just because I agree with the majority of the authors but because the implementation of new approaches to thinking through media is so vital to continuing (or rather re-starting) the critical thinking process in the academy. As Ernst states (when brilliantly interviewed by Dr. Emerson), any questions of “teaching of media can not be reduced to lectures and texts only. However complicated the definition of “media” might be, as technological media (the focus of the “Berlin school”) they really exist(ed) and need to be experienced in performative ways” (Archives, Materiality and the “Agency of the Machine”). Media is an object, an experience, a thing (das thing in the Heideggerian sense), that both exists and does not exist for us to interact with. So to this call of sensory interaction I answer: yes.

Further interaction and experience can be conducted in a variety of ways from building or making, to archiving and reading, to assembling and observing old media. Which way is the correct way? Yes. All of these approaches have their merits as witnessed through this week’s readings and throughout the terms. Ernst provides an example through the MAF of the latter experience whereby in laboratory “it required an assembly of past media objects which teachers and students are allowed to operate with and to touch upon – a limit for curators and visitors in most museums of technology” (Archives, Materiality and the “Agency of the Machine”). The value of this approach is in the concept of media archaeology, as “the bias of MAF based teaching is to train students to resist the nostalgic or even melancholic impulse which is normally associated with so-called “dead media”, and to discover the retro-futuristic element instead” (Archives, Materiality and the “Agency of the Machine”). Ersnt argues that this is witnessed through a non-linear relationship between “past and present media technologies” whereby one technology does not simply derive from another but rather there is developmental, recursive tension between them. This circular or networked structure is similar to one we’ve heard all semester, as illustrated through Pickering’s concept of the mangle of practice where the constant tensions of the machine and the human develop each other continually and through Latour and Woolgar’s argument that the social and science drive forward the progress of technology. This productive dichotomy which ultimately creates an altered future reality is perhaps at the essential of media archaeology, which examines the paths that technology could have taken and the future and potentials it holds. In order to understand the potentials, the user must first understand the machine and its implications thus learning about not only its technological design but also its social, political and economic effects. 

The slightly different philosophy of the MAF is that it does not claim to offer unique artefactual collections but rather wants to train and enforce media research (historical and theoretical) which is not reduced to texts but tested against the material evidence,” therefore offering a different approach than centers that focus solely on archival purposes. One center that offers a hybrid of these two approaches in the Digital Humanities Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédéralé de Lausanne which studies projects ranging from “from reconstruction ancient cities to studying how algorithms transforms the way we write” (Digital Humanities Laboratory DHLAB). They list the

The chic researchers at EPFL

following as areas of study/groups: Massive Digitization and Long Term Data Preservation, Automatic Transcription and Data Analysis, Knowledge Systems, Historical Geographical Information Systems, Text Mining and Linguistic Computing, Network Analytics, Geometrical Pattern Discovery, Reading and Writing Technologies, Interface and Data Design. Pickering discusses the multiplicity of scientific culture; Ersnt discusses the need for interactivity; Sayers reiterates the requirement of re-framing technology as central component of development rather than the tool. I think that the groups aforementioned exemplify this multiplicity as they not only exhibit the material agency and analysis but the reflection on the instrumentation, and the cultural and social phenomenon around which these projects developed in relation to other DH fields. Some of the groups such as Text Mining and Linguistic Computing offer a more traditional approach, but other groups such as interface and data design and writing technologies support projects that support technology as the object being studied. This is important as Matt Ratto illustrates the problems with materiality and understanding as “our lack of sensitivity to issues of digital rights may be due to our ignorance of our own legal rights and thus our ignorance of how these rights are being technically constrained. However true this might be, our sense is that this issue is related to a deeper disconnect between conceptual understandings of technological objects and our material experiences with them” (253). Again the answer here is yes.

One of the Digital Humanities Lab’s projects and recent publications examined the technology that Google uses to parse linguistic expressions. “This article argues that linguistic capitalism implies not an economy of attention but an economy of expression” (Reading and Writing Technologies). This type of scholarship that examines the technology critically is important, especially since the authors do so not only by observation but through experimentation. Other projects that this group is currently working on includes a “simulation-humaine” or human simulation algorithm that explores narrative building through predictive models (Reading and Writing Technologies). This type of analysis, not purely big data, not purely making, is a hybrid that embodies Ratto’s concepts he proposes with his flwr experiment whereby “instead, through the sharing of results and an ongoing critical analysis of materials, designs, constraints, and outcomes, participants in critical making exercises together perform a practice-based engagement with pragmatic and theoretical issues” (253). As Latour states (quoted by Ratto) “when things are taken has having been well or badly designed then they no longer appear as matters of fact. So as their appearance as matters of fact weakens, their place among the many matters of concern that are at issue is strengthened” (259); therefore ideas and facts around linguistic patterns, computer design, AI, writing technologies, human-computer interaction and linguistic prediction are addressed in this project.

However, what the lab does not have is making in the sense that Sayers imagine it. “Papert emphasizes the use of transitional objects—gears, computers, other physical objects—as a way of connecting the sensorimotor “body knowledge” of a learner to more abstract understandings. Here, he emphasizes that these objects do not just serve to “illustrate” concepts but act as means for projecting oneself into an abstraction” (Ratto 254). Sayers describes the Makers Lab at the University of Victoria in very physical, simplistic terms, wherein students create objects out of kits and circuits that integrate fabric and electronic for example. But is “making” that different from the work at École Polytechnique Fédéralé de Lausanne? “Making electronic music by hand frequently advocates working backwards (or reverse engineering), documenting what works and what doesn’t, and bending electronics toward new expressions. In materials, you also find many self-aware (and often humorous) tutorials, which suggest that technical education need not be bland or decontextualized in its didacticism. It can self-reflexively represent the culture from which it emerges, avoiding both technological instrumentalism and determinism in the process” (Sayers “Make, Not Brand”). Does the human simulation project not fulfill these perimeters? Perhaps it is in the conceptualization of the project and approach rather than the actual act of doing itself that determines whether this shift in understanding occurs. For Sayers and I would argue many of the theorists we’ve read this term, “the key, then, is framing a technology as something that’s central to making art and culture, rather than subordinating it tool-like to a means of mechanical or digital reproduction.” (“Make, Not Brand”)

2 thoughts on “Blog Post 10 Kirtz: Just Say Yes

  1. Cody Walker says:

    Thanks for this post!

    I really like the way you’ve framed thinking through media with conceptual understandings of technical objects and our material experiences with them, particularly as a means to “understand the potentials” of a technology by learning from its “social, political, and economic effects”.

    Personally, I’m interested in how (as academics) we rely on a host of tools that are imbricated in these effects. For example, I’m reading your blog post with Chromium (google’s open source web browser ). Chromium is both a reading and writing technology for me, and even though it’s open source, for me, it’s functionally a black box. I never peak into the internals, and I only update it when something breaks.
    Do you think there’s an obligation (or at least a reflexive impulse) to investigate technologies like the browser that are so embroiled in academic infrastructure?

    I mean, it’s more than a trivial exercise to find out how the software in your workflow is licensed. Still, it could be important point of entry, as it opens the investigation to the contentious history of web standards.

    Moreover, do you think there’s something prescriptive in these readings in relation to writing and reading tools? Should we be avoiding proprietary black-box technologies?

    I was really intrigued by this idea of performative explorations of media as a pedagogical method. I wonder if the investigations you propose could engage with the “Lack of sensitivity to issues of digital rights” and their technical constraints.
    What would a performative exploration of a technology look like?
    Could it be framed as a critical making project (Ratto)?

    (I’m posting from the HUMA 888 course with Darren Wershler at Concordia.)


  2. Robin Graham says:

    Hi Jaime,

    Thanks for this. For me, your affirmative response to Ernst (et al.) frames the central question as how we interact with media, rather than what media “is.” This calls to mind how the thing- or objecthood of media can be taken as an ontological given apart from disciplines that seek to explore that ontology (new materialism, etc.—not that these disciplines are unnecessary, just perhaps less relevant to media), and toward something embodied, affective, responsive, contextual, and interactive.

    Your reference to Heidegger is particularly interesting to me because his work has been a site of contention on this issue. Speculative realists like Graham Harman typically want to explore das ding on its own terms, objects apart from our thinking of them. While this line of thought may be interesting for metaphysicians, it seems to me a question that stands apart from notions of how me mediate and are mediated. There are whole other layers to Heidegger that are conveniently overlooked by some metaphysical approaches to the materiality of media, which, to put it reductively, have less to do with the in-itself and more to do with being-toward. I think the techniques of building, making, archiving, reading, and assembling you list fit in nicely here.

    The funny thing about your “yes” is that it is actually a refusal. Upon acknowledging the networks of relations between the mangle of practise and the social construction of science, one cannot respond in a straightforward way to how we interact with technology. It is not only that there are many questions about media to which “yes” can be delivered as an answer, the very act of identifying a problem, “understanding the potentials,” has built-in assumptions about how it can be answered.

    The example of Google and linguistic capitalism is perfect, because it shows how an interactive technology—searching the internet with keywords—is monetized. Language is in a feedback loop with search results and keywords, conditioning not only how we speak and write but how we click and query (and generating many billions in revenue in the process). From this view, it becomes less easy to think of this technology as a mere tool but, following your agreement with Sayers, “something that’s central to making art and culture.”


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