Tag Archive for culture

New Material on Algorithmic Culture

A quick announcement about two new pieces from me, both of which relate to my ongoing research on the subject of algorithmic culture.

The first is an interview with Giuseppe Granieri, posted on his Futurists’ Views site over on Medium.  The tagline is: “Culture now has two audiences: people and machines.”  It’s a free-ranging conversation, apparently readable in six minutes, about algorithms, AI, the culture industry, and the etymology of the word, culture.

About that wordover on Culture Digitally you’ll find a draft essay of mine, examining culture’s shifting definition in relationship to digital technology.  The piece is available for open comment and reflection.  It’s the first in a series from Ben Peters’ “Digital Keywords” project, of which I’m delighted to be a part.  Thanks in advance for your feedback—and of course with all of the provisos that accompany draft material.

 

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Lawrence Grossberg Memorializes Stuart Hall

As you know, my last post was dedicated to Stuart Hall, likely the most significant international figure in the field of cultural studies, who died last week at the age of 82.

Lawrence (Larry) Grossberg, my doctoral advisor, has penned a moving tribute to Hall, his mentor, with whom he worked at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1968-1969.  Here is an excerpt from the piece, which appeared this past Saturday on Truthout:

When I think of Stuart, I think of an expanding rich tapestry of relations, not of followers and acolytes, but of friends, students, colleagues, interlocutors, participants in various conversations, and anyone willing to listen, talk and engage. Stuart Hall was more than an intellectual, a public advocate for ideas, a champion of equality and justice, and an activist. He was also a teacher and a mentor to many people, in many different ways, at many different distances from his immediate presence. He talked with anyone and everyone, and treated them as if they had as much to teach him as he had to teach them.

Hall’s work was as much about the interpersonal—his kindness, charisma, and generosity—in other words, as it was about the many influential writings and lectures he produced over the course of his career.

I wish I’d had the chance to get to know Hall better.  I had the privilege of sharing a meal with him once, in 1996, during my second year of graduate school. He was extraordinarily gracious and, indeed, patient, as I barraged him with what must have been dilettantish questions.  Afterwards we shopped for books at a nearby used bookstore.  I still have the copy of Erving Goffman’s Asylums that I happened to pick up that day; even now I  associate the book more with Hall than with its author.

I also got to know Hall indirectly, through a study of the Birmingham Centre annual reports, which I conducted with my friend and colleague Mark Hayward.  Hall’s imprint is all over those documents, and not only because he authored the bulk of them.  In their inventory of daily life at the Centre one can plainly see Hall’s emphasis on the interpersonal—in the way the Centre’s working groups were organized; in the spirit of sharing that so defined its (as well as his own) intellectual modus operandi, and that had more than a little to do with cultural studies’ success; in the way Hall empowered students to collaborate in the production of a serious academic journal; and certainly more.

Larry’s tribute to Hall is also a call, too: for the American mainstream media to pay heed to such an influential figure, one whose passing has not received the attention it deserves; and for the American Left to embrace Hall’s legacy, a legacy defined not only by his towering intellect but, equally important, by his luminescent being-in-the-world.

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Stuart Hall, 1932-2014

Stuart Hall, a founder of the field of cultural studies and one of my intellectual heroes, has died.  Two of his former students, David Morley and Bill Schwartz, have penned an obituary, published today in The Guardian.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Here is my favorite passage from Hall, from his 1992 article “Race, Culture, and Communications: Looking Backward and Forward at Cultural Studies”:

The work that cultural studies has to do is to mobilize everything that it can find in terms of intellectual resources in order to understand what keeps making the lives we live, and the societies we live in, profoundly and deeply antihumane in their capacity to live with difference. Cultural studies’ message is a message for academics and intellectuals but, fortunately, for many other people as well. In that sense, I have tried to hold together in my own intellectual life, on one hand, the conviction and passion and the devotion to objective interpretation, to analysis, to rigorous analysis and understanding, to the passion to find out, and to the production of knowledge that we did not know before. But, on the other hand, I am convinced that no intellectual worth his or her salt, and no university that wants to hold up its head in the face of the 21st century, can afford to turn dispassionate eyes away from the problems…that beset our world.

Nothing sums up the project of cultural studies better for me and, indeed, the type of work I aspire to do.

Thank you, Stuart Hall, for your bravery, intellectual leadership, and resolve. The world is a better place for your having been a part of it.  You will be missed. Sorely.

 

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Books as Christmas Gifts

Did you know that books were among the very first commercial Christmas presents? That’s right—printed books were integral in helping to invent the modern, consumer-oriented Christmas holiday. Before then it was customary to give food or, if you were wealthy, a monetary “tip” to those who were less well off financially. (The latter might come to a rich person’s door and demand the “tip,” in fact.)  The gift of a printed book changed all that, helping to defuse the class antagonism that typically rose to the surface around the winter holidays.

You can read more about the details of this fascinating history in my post from a few years ago on “How the Books Saved Christmas.”  And if you’re interested in a broader history of the role books played in the invention of contemporary consumer culture, then you should check out The Late Age of Print.  At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it makes a great gift.

 

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Call for Papers – EJCS on Data Mining & Analytics

 Call for Papers: The European Journal of Cultural Studies
Special issue on Data Mining/Analytics

Editors: Mark Andrejevic (University of Queensland, Australia); Alison Hearn (University of Western Ontario, Canada); Helen Kennedy (University of Leeds, UK)

The widespread use of social media has given rise to new forms of monitoring, mining and aggregation strategies designed to monetize the huge volumes of data such usage produces. Social media monitoring and analysis industries, experts and consultancies have emerged offering a broad range of social media intelligence and reputation management services. Such services typically involve a range of analytical methods (sentiment analysis, opinion mining, social network analysis, machine learning, natural language processing), often offered in black-boxed proprietary form, in order to gain insights into public opinion, mood, networks and relationships and identify potential word-of-mouth influencers. Ostensibly, these various forms of data mining, analytics and machine learning also are paving the way for the development of a more intelligent or ‘semantic’ Web 3.0, offering a more ‘productive and intuitive’ user experience. As commercial and non-commercial organisations alike seek to monitor, influence, manage and direct social media conversations, and as global usage of social media expands, questions surface that challenge celebratory accounts of the democratizing, participatory possibilities of social media. Remembering that Web 2.0 was always intended as a business manifesto – O’Reilly’s early maxims included, after all, ‘data is the next Intel inside’, ‘users add value’ and ‘collaboration as data collection’ – we need to interrogate social media not only as communication tools, but also as techno-economic constructs with important implications for the management of populations and the formation of subjects. Data mining and analytics are about much more than targeted advertising: they envision new strategies for forecasting, targeting, and decision making in a growing range of social realms (employment, education, health care, policing, urban planning, epidemiology, etc.) with the potential to usher in new, unaccountable, and opaque forms of discrimination, sorting, inclusion and exclusion. As Web 3.0 and the ‘big data’ it generates moves inexorably toward predictive analytics and the overt technocratic management of human sociality, urgent questions arise about how such data are gathered, constructed and sold, to what ends they are deployed, who gets access to them, and how their analysis is regulated (boyd and Crawford 2012).

This special issue aims to bring together scholars who interrogate social media intelligence work undertaken in the name of big data, big business and big government. It aims to draw together empirically-grounded and theoretically-informed analyses of the key issues in contemporary forms of data mining and analytics from across disparate fields and methodologies. . Contributions are invited that address a range of related issues. Areas for consideration could include, but are not limited to:

  • Political economy of social media platforms
  • Algorithmic culture
  • User perspectives on data mining
  • The politics of data visualisation
  • Big data and the cultural industries
  • Data journalism
  • The social life of big data methods
  • Inequalities and exclusions in data mining
  • Affective prediction and control
  • Data mining and new subjectivities
  • Ethics, regulation and data mining
  • Conceptualising big/data/mining
  • Social media intelligence at work
  • Social media and surveillance
  • Critical histories of data mining, sorting, and surveillance

Prospective contributors should email an abstract of 500-700 words to the issue editors by 9th December 2013 (to h.kennedy@leeds.ac.uk). Full articles should be submitted to Helen Kennedy (h.kennedy@leeds.ac.uk) by 12th May 2014. Manuscripts must be no longer than 7,000 words. Articles should meet with The European Journal of Cultural Studies’ aim to promote empirically based, theoretically informed cultural studies; essayist discussion papers are not normally accepted by this journal. All articles will be refereed: invitation to submit a paper to the special issue in no way guarantees that the paper will be published; this is dependent on the review process.

Details:
Abstract deadline: 9th December 2013 (to h.kennedy@leeds.ac.uk);
Decisions on abstracts communicated by 13th January 2014;
Article submission deadline: 12th May 2014 (to h.kennedy@leeds.ac.uk);
Final submission/review process complete: 13th October 2014;
For publication in 2015.

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Out from Under the Embargo

I’m delighted to report that my essay, “Performing Scholarly Communication,” is once again freely available on the open web.  The piece appeared in the January 2012 issue of the journal Text and Performance Quarterly but hasn’t much seen the light of day since then, subject to the publisher’s 18-month post-publication embargo.  You can now read and respond to the complete piece on my other website, The Differences & Repetitions Wiki, where I host a variety of open source writing projects.

By the way, if you’re interested in scholarly communication, the history of cultural studies, or both, then you might want to check out another piece appearing on D&RW: “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature,” which I coauthored with Mark Hayward.  It’s set to appear in the next issue of the journal New Formations.  A version of the piece has existed on D&RW since March 2012, and in fact you can trace its development all the way through to today, when I posted the nicely-formatted, final version that Mark and I submitted for typesetting.  Always, comments are welcome and appreciated.  If you’d rather cut right to the chase, then you can download the uncorrected page proofs for the “WPCS” piece by clicking here.

Take some time to poke around D&RW, by the way.   There are a bunch of other papers and projects  there, some, but not all, having to do with the history and politics of scholarly communication.

Lastly, a note of thanks to all of you who tweeted, Facebooked, or otherwise spread the word about the final days of the free Late Age of Print download.  I truly appreciate all of your support.

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East Coast Code

There’s lots to like about Lawrence Lessig’s book, Code 2.0—particularly, I find, the distinction he draws between “East Coast Code” (i.e., the law) and “West Coast Code” (i.e., computer hardware and software). He sees both as modes of bringing order to complex systems, albeit through different means. Lessig is also interested in the ways in which West Coast Code has come to be used in ways that strongly resemble, and sometimes even supersede, its East Coast counterpart, as in the case of digital rights management technology. “Code is law,” as he so aptly puts it.

I’ve been playing with something like Lessig’s East Coast-West Coast Code distinction in my ongoing research on algorithmic culture. As I’ve said many times now, “algorithmic culture” refers to the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects, and ideas, as well as to the habits of thought, conduct, and expression that flow from those processes. Essentially we’re talking about the management of a complex system—culture—by way of server farms and procedural decision-making software. Think Google or Facebook; this is West Coast Code at its finest.

Perhaps better than anyone, Fred Turner has chronicled the conditions out of which West Coast Code emerged. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, he shows how, in the 1960s, Stewart Brand and his circle of countercultural compadres humanized computers, which were then widely perceived to be instruments of the military-industrial complex. Through the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, Brand and company suggested that computers were, like shovels, axes, and hoes, tools with which to craft civilization—or rather to craft new-styled, autonomous civilizations that would no longer depend on the state (i.e., East Coast Code) to manage human affairs.

The deeper I delve into my own research, the more I discover just how complicated—and indeed, how East Coast—is the story of algorithmic culture. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of the work that’s been done about the West Coast, by any means. But just as people had to perform creative work to make computers seem personal, even human, so, too, did people need to perform similar work on the word culture to make it make sense within the realm of computation. And this happened mostly back East, in Cambridge, MA.

“Of course,” you’re probably thinking, “at MIT.” It turns out that MIT wasn’t the primary hub of this semantic and conceptual work, although it would be foolish to deny the influence of famed cybernetician Norbert Wiener here. Where the work took place was at that other rinky-dink school in Cambridge, MA: Harvard. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

A good portion of my research now is focused on Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, an experimental unit combining Sociology, Psychology, and Cultural Anthropology. It had a relatively short existence, lasting only from 1946-1970, but in that time it graduated people who went on to become the titans of postwar social theory. Clifford Geertz, Stanley Milgram, and Harold Garfinkel are among the most notable PhDs, although myriad other important figures passed through the program as well. One of the more intriguing people I turned up was Dick Price, who went on to found the Esalen Institute (back to the West Coast) after becoming disillusioned by the Clinical Psychology track in SocRel and later suffering a psychotic episode. Dr. Timothy Leary also taught there, from 1961-1963, though he was eventually fired because of his controversial research on the psychological effects of LSD.

I’ve just completed some work focusing on Clifford Geertz and the relationship he shared with Talcott Parsons, his dissertation director and chair of SocRel from 1946-1956. It’s here more than anywhere that I’m discovering how the word culture got inflected by the semantics of computation. Though Geertz would later move away from the strongly cybernetic conceptualization of culture he’d inherited from Parsons, it nonetheless underpins arguably his most important work, especially the material he published in the 1960s and early 70s. This includes his famous “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” which is included in the volume The Interpretation of Cultures.

My next stop is Stanley Milgram, where I’ll be looking first at his work on crowd behavior and later at his material on the “small world” phenomenon. The former complicates the conclusions of his famous “obedience to authority” experiments in fascinating ways, and, I’d argue, sets the stage for the notion of “crowd wisdom” so prevalent today. Apropos of the latter, I’m intrigued by how Milgram helped to shrink the social on down to size, as it were, just as worries about the scope and anonymizing power of mass society reached a fever pitch. He did for society essentially what Geertz and Parsons did for culture, I believe, particularly in helping to establish conceptual conditions necessary for the algorithmic management of social relations. Oh—and did I mention that Milgram’s Obedience book, published in 1974, is also laden with cybernetic theory?

To be clear, the point of all this East Coast-West Coast business isn’t to create some silly rivalry—among scholars of computation, or among their favorite historical subjects. (Heaven knows, it would never be Biggie and Tupac!) The point, rather, is to draw attention to the semantic and social-theoretical conditions underpinning a host of computational activities that are prevalent today—conditions whose genesis occurred significantly back East. The story of algorithmic culture isn’t only about hippies, hackers, and Silicon Valley. It’s equally a story about squares who taught and studied at maybe the most elite institution of higher education on America’s East Coast.

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Algorithms Are Decision Systems

My latest interview on the topic of algorithmic culture is now available on the 40kBooks blog.  It’s an Italian website, although you can find the interview in both the original English and in Italian translation.

The interview provides something like a summary of my latest thinking on algorithmic culture, a good deal of which was born out of the new research that I blogged about here last time.  Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Culture has long been about argument and reconciliation: argument in the sense that groups of people have ongoing debates, whether explicit or implicit, about their norms of thought, conduct, and expression; and reconciliation in the sense that virtually all societies have some type of mechanism in place – always political – by which to decide whose arguments ultimately will hold sway. You might think of culture as an ongoing conversation that a society has about how its members ought to comport themselves.

Increasingly today, computational technologies are tasked with the work of reconciliation, and algorithms are a principal means to that end. Algorithms are essentially decision systems—sets of procedures that specify how someone or something ought to proceed given a particular set of circumstances. Their job is to consider, or weigh, the significance of all of the arguments or information floating around online (and even offline) and then to determine which among those arguments is the most important or worthy. Another way of putting this would be to say that algorithms aggregate a conversation about culture that, thanks to technologies like the internet, has become ever more diffuse and disaggregated.

Something I did not address at any length in the interview is the historical backdrop against which I’ve set the new research: the Second World War, particularly the atrocities that precipitated, occurred during, and concluded it.  My hypothesis is that the desire to offload cultural decision-making onto computer algorithms stems significantly, although not exclusively, from a crisis of faith that emerged in and around World War II.  No longer, it seems, could we human beings be trusted to govern ourselves ethically and responsibly, and so some other means needed to be sought to do the job we’re seemingly incapable of doing.

A bunch of readers have asked me if I’ve published any of my work on algorithmic culture in academic journals.  The answer, as yet, is no, mostly because I’m working on developing and refining the ideas here, in dialogue with all of you, before formalizing my position.  (THANK YOU for the ongoing feedback, by the way!)  Having said that, I’m polishing the piece I blogged about last time, “‘An Infernal Culture Machine’: Intellectual Foundations of Algorithmic Culture,” and plan on submitting it to a scholarly journal fairly soon.  You’re welcome to email me directly if you’d like a copy of the working draft.


P.S. If you haven’t already, check out Tarleton Gillespie’s latest post over on Culture Digitally, about his new essay on “The Relevance of Algorithms.”

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Culturomics

I learned last month from Wired that something along the lines of what I’ve been calling “algorithmic culture” already has a name — culturomics.

According to Jonathan Keats, author of the magazine’s monthly “Jargon Watch” section, culturomics refers to “the study of memes and cultural trends using high-throughput quantitative analysis of books.”  The term was first noted in another Wired article, published last December, which reported on a study using Google books to track historical, or “evolutionary,” trends in language.  Interestingly, the study wasn’t published in a humanities journal.  It appeared in Science.

The researchers behind culturomics have also launched a website allowing you to search the Google book database for keywords and phrases, to “see how [their] usage frequency has been changing throughout the past few centuries.”  They follow up by calling the service “addictive.”

Culturomics weds “culture” to the suffix “-nomos,” the anchor for words like economics, genomics, astronomy, physiognomy, and so forth.  “-Nomos” can refer either to “the distribution of things” or, more specifically, to a “worldview.”  In this sense culturomics refers to the distribution of language resources (words) in the extant published literature of some period and the types of frameworks for understanding those resources embody.

I must confess to being intrigued by culturomics, however much I find the term to be clunky. My initial work on algorithmic culture tracks language changes in and around three keywords — information, crowd, and algorithm, in the spirit of Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society – and has given me a new appreciation for both the sociality of language and its capacity for transformation.  Methodologically culturomics seems, well, right, and I’ll be intrigued to see what a search for my keywords on the website might yield.

Having said that, I still want to hold onto the idea of algorithmic culture.  I prefer the term because it places the algorithm center-stage rather than allowing it to recede into the background, as does culturomicsAlgorithmic culture encourages us to see computational process not as a window onto the world but as an instrument of order and authoritative decision making.  The point of algorithmic culture, both terminologically and methodologically, is to help us understand the politics of algorithms and thus to approach them and the work they do more circumspectly, even critically.

I should mention, by the way, that this is increasingly how I’ve come to understand the so-called “digital humanities.”  The digital humanities aren’t just about doing traditional humanities work on digital objects, nor are they only about making the shift in humanities publishing from analog to digital platforms.  Instead the digital humanities, if there is such a thing, should focus on the ways in which the work of culture is increasingly delegated to computational process and, more importantly, the political consequences that follow from our doing so.

And this is the major difference, I suppose, between an interest in the distribution of language resources — culturomics – and a concern for the politics of the systems we use to understand those distributions — algorithmic culture.

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