Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

BarCamp again: Roland’s session

Friday, August 31st, 2007

I forgot to mention Roland Tanglao’s BarCamp session. The night before, at the party, I walked into a conversation Roland was having with someone, telling them even he couldn’t pronounce his last name. I suggested he could be like Madonna, and just go by his first name.

Anyhoo. Air and I attended Social Media for Parents. It was interesting: there was a range of tolerance regarding privacy on the net, from way open (anything goes – personal details, kids names etc.) to as closed as possible while still maintaining a presence in cyberspace. I was somewhere in the middle. I don’t mind giving up the odd bit about myself, but steer clear of talking about my family, except in fairly vague terms. The problem of handling photos, especially when family members are dispersed across the continent, is something. I’ve used good old fashioned email thus far, and that works ok but isn’t that efficient. It does become a bit of an issue, though, if you’re like Roland, the family digital archivist, with 8000 digital photos to organize and dispense…

I don’t even have a camera anymore (old one jes died) and need to get a new one (any suggestions?) so right now, it’s not a big deal. Roland (see, like Madonna) wrote a bit more on the subject here.

Learning to love Latour

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Bruno Latour is a funny guy. At least in his very cheeky essay, “Where are the missing masses”. Now he may be (along with Michel Callon and John Law) the innovator of Actor Network Theory and a very famous French sociologist of science. But this is also a dude who insults his own colleagues and profession, not to mention myriad others – engineers, technologists, feminists, believers, novelists, the French. He lies, berates, misleads, tricks and teases throughout, yet still comes off as someone you’d like to have a beer with.

Calling himself a “mere philosopher”, Latour reserves most of his feigned disdain for sociologists, who have too long ignored the role of “non-human” actors in social life. When I first read Latour, I thought he was crazy. But a few years later, and a more considered reading (including Science in Action) of him has me reconsidering. I think, in fact, he might have gone crazy, but I haven’t touched his later works. At any rate, Latour insists that to “balance our accounts of society” we must pay some attention to non-humans, the “hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality.” I love it.

As quirky and irreverent as this sounds, Latour is really saying something rather simple. The social world has a material foundation with which humans necessarily interact. It is sensible, then, to consider how these material artifacts, techniques, devices interact with their human users, non? We must consider the fonction (Latour has no qualms about leaving French words untranslated in his English writings) of these non-human artifacts beyond the performance of their obvious, immediate task.

One of the major concepts in this essay is translation. In his case study of the automatic door-closer or “groom”, he defines translation as the transformation of a major effort into a minor one. It is this reversal of forces (the type of David and Goliath tale of which the moralists, er, sociologists are enamoured) that the sociologists should examine to understand the social construction of artifacts, “and not a hypothetical social context they are not equipped to grasp” (ouch!).

Other classic ANT concepts discussed here are delegation and prescription. Humans (engineers, mechanics) delegate to non-humans certain tasks that translate a major (human) effort into a minor (technical) exertion. In many instances, an unskilled non-human (door w/powerful spring mechanism) presupposes a skilled human user (knows how to get through the door w/out receiving a bloody nose). This, says Latour, is an example of prescription – the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms. We have been able to delegate to non-humans not only force (closing the door) but values, duties, ethics.

Latour anticipates the cries and charges of anthropomorphism by admitting it and throwing the question back at his accusers: “Are they not our brethren?” he says of non-human actors? He gives 3 reasons why the groom is, indeed, anthropomorphic: 1. It is human-made (constructed); 2. It substitutes for actions of people (it is a delegate that permanently replaces humans; 3. It shapes human action by prescribing certain actions (e.g. what sort of people should pass through the door … the hydraulic door closer discriminates against the weak: children, the elderly etc.)

Instead of differentiating b/w humans and inhumans (as the sociologists say), Latour sees only actors – some human, some non-human, some skilled, some not – that exchange their properties. The divide b/w human/non-human actors is “untenable”, he says, with what I imagine to be a flourish.

Things get a bit tricky when Latour describes the attribution of the roles and actions of human and non-human as a choice. So far, I have not understood this idea. He talks about how builders and users are inscribed in a mechanism; how a mechanism prescribes certain behaviours and qualities. In other words, technologies both prepare their users for a certain interaction, and at the same time anticipate this interaction. Think of a traffic light. The red signal prepares the driver (or walker) to stop, but it also expects that she will, indeed, stop. However, there is nothing to stop her from not stopping. Chances are, not wanting to get into an accident, she will stop. “There might,” Latour concedes, “be an enormous gap b/w the prescribed user and the user-in-the-flesh…”

Latour goes on to explain the problem here: sociologists (damn them!) confuse the human-nonhuman divide with the differentiation b/w figurative and non-figurative actors. In a text, the choice of granting actors figurativity is up to the author; a character is more or less personal, depending on how framed. It is the same for techniques, where engineers are the authors. The label “inhuman” applied to techniques overlooks translation mechanisms (e.g. door-closer to groom) and the many choices that exist for figuring/defiguring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors.
It follows that the “enunciator” (the author of a text/engineer of a mechanism) is free to place (or not) a representation of herself in the script (texts/machines)

At the end of his mirthful narrative, where he recounts self-deprecating stories (I like the one about him screaming to his toddler who, unrestrained, would not stay seated in the back of the car: “If I brake too hard you’re dead.”) and heaps scorn upon all who’ve come in contact (however peripherally) with his topic, he concludes.

Technical translation, delegation, shifting out is the claiming of a once-human competence. In this way (says Latour) what we define as our social relations is silently prescribed back to us by non-humans. “Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability, is not a property of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations w/out non-humans is impossible.”

And there you have it: Latour in a half a nutshell. Corrections and comments are most welcome.

Puffery and the politics of complaint (or the fetishization of textual revolt)

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

I’m re-reading David Harvey’s timeless article, “The practical contradictions of Marxism”. This is what he has to say about the sorry state of post-60s wannabe radical intellectuals:

“But all is not well among the new academic enterepreneurs. Sealed off from the regulative dialectics of the proleterain public sphere and hence, deprived of a corrective dialogue with the producing classes, they are now turning in on themselves. Safely sequestered in the universities but still playing at resistance, their “discourse radicalism” has led them into a dead end dalliance that fetishizes language. When not promoting the ‘politics of complaint’ (Hughes, 1993), these masters of theory-in-and-for-itself engage in the hollow puffery of introspection, creating occupationally safe crusades, and demanding bad faith reforms that deftly side-step the enduring conundrums of class struggle” (29-30).

Colourful. And scathing. There’s a lot more where that came from. You should read it.

Something good

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

Something good happened today. I saw a copy of my latest article in Tailoring Biotechnologies. I say “saw” because I haven’t yet received my copy, although Feenberg has (there’s a review of his book on Heidegger and Marcuse). I will put the link up when they update their site…

Also I’m going to Montreal. In May. I’ve written about this before, but now it hovers on the horizon of my immediate existence like some sort of redemption. I’ll be staying at a friend’s pad (here’s a link to her recent ZNet article), who will be in Windsor, Ontario for the Propaganda Model conference. That will rock – Chomsky, Herman, McChesney, Goodman – all those types will be there. Plus it’s our old stomping ground – always fun to go back. But it’s not too hard to go to Montreal. I just have to book the ticket.

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Who the hell is Cory Doctorow?

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

The ACT Lab workshop this Friday is FULL – all 60 spots spoken for. It’s sort of cool that people are interested. I was afraid we’d be bribing our friends just to fill a few seats…

There’s another cool event to pencil in your datebook (or type into ical – I’ve just started using it; gawd I’m behind the times). On Thursday March 8, Cory Doctorow will deliver the 2007 SFU Applied Sciences Leonardo Lecture. Even the name is cool: “The Totalitarian Urge: Total Information Awareness and the Cosmic Billiards.”

If you do not know of Doctorow, let me authoritatively state (right from the press release) that he is an iconoclast of the blogosphere. I can say with all honesty and no jealousy that to have the number one blog on the planet (BoingBoing – don’t feel bad, I didn’t know either) is nothing short of damn amazing. Apparently two million peeps read his blog every day.

Forbes magazine describes Doctorow as “a triple threat”: 1. He’s a prominent activist for digital rights; 2. He currently holds the Canada-US Fulbright chair at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy; and 3. He’s an award-winning science fiction writer who gives away all his books via download from his website,

Goddamn, is all I can say. But if you wanna hear what he has to say, this Tdot-born, 35-year-old over-achiever, check out his talk:

Thursday, March 8, 6:00pm
SFU Harbour Centre
(Fletcher Challenge Theatre)

Reservations are required: 604-291-5100 (there are only about 50 seats left). I bet this will be standing room only; I’m getting there early and I might fight you for a seat.

(Re)Inventing the Internet

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Les Actants are writing a book! Well, it’s mostly written, I think. My chapter’s in, anyhow; it’s been edited and re-edited, and is awaiting more revisions. Feenberg is editing the book (along w/Norm Friesen), and is in the process of securing a publisher. In the meantime, we’re going to workshop our chapters at a one-day forum, (Re)Inventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies. The event takes place at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business (I’ve never been) on Friday,February 23 from 10am-4pm. Click here for more details. Reservations are required, and it’s about half full… should be fun!

Rob Brezsny I take it back

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

I’ve always thought that Rob Brezsny had something against me. Well, not me, personally, but Leos. And you know how Leos are – offend one and you’ve offended the entire pride. I used to read his column religiously in the Metro Times, in the old days, when I lived across from Detroit. And damned if he didn’t despise Leos. I mean, every other horoscope was witty, a piece of literary mastery, with all the other signs clearly admitted to the inner circle, and in on the joke to boot. For Leo, he could hardly be bothered to conceal his contempt with a few (scrawled, I’m sure) barren lines worthy of the trashier rags. I couldn’t help but be personally affronted. And I would say to My Friend, who is a Capricorn, what the fuck (or wtf, as the kids say online – txt me k?) Why does Capricorn get all the good ink? And it’s true. I mean, Brezsny’s insights and predictions for Capricorn were down right freaky they were so spot on, at least as far as My Friend’s soap opera life went.

Well. For some reason, I was bored and aimless, feeling I’d nowhere to roam on the web, and thought, what the heck, I’ll check out my horoscope on Free Will Astrology. And, you know, it spoke to me. In a way that Brezsny hasn’t in, well, ever. Then I went back a couple weeks and they, too, were brilliant. So, Rob Brezsny, though you couldn’t care less, I take it back. Here’s his latest prediction pour moi:

Leo Horoscope for week of December 14, 2006

“Your face alternately contorts with strain and breaks into beatific grins. Your body language careens from garbled jargon to melodic poetry. Your clothes make a fool of you one day and show off your inner beauty the next. Are you becoming bi-polar? Probably not. The more likely explanation is that you’re being convulsed by growing pains that are killing off bad old habits as fast as they’re creating interesting new ones. This is one of those times when you should be proud to wear a badge that says ‘hurts so good.'”

I feel heartened.

Communist Manifestoon

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

This came across our grad list today: Very funny stuff. Good old YouTube. Good old Karl Marx. Good old Disney. Who knew they were all so compatible?

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Infocommons and the capitalist connex

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Yesterday, Patricia Aufderheide came to SFU School of Communication to yak with the grad students. She was in town from Washington, where she teaches at American University, to deliver our School’s annual Spry Lecture (I’ll put the link up to her talk “Vlogs, ipods and beyond: Public media’s terrifying opporutnities” when it’s posted).

Aufderheide is a cool lady with big ideas that escape the confines of traditional academe. I liked her immediately. The focal point of her discussion with us yesterday was twofold: to defend and justify the right to politicize one’s research in the academy, and to bring the very unique skills of academics to the “real world”, and apply them in a meaningful way. In short, to make a difference.

Aufderheide has made a difference in a couple of really big ways. First, she founded the Center for Social Media in the School of Communication at American University. The objective of the centre is to “showcase and anlayze media for social justice, democracy and civil society.” It engages in reasearch that highlights issues of public media and pursues practical solutions. A case in point is the drafting of Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices, which Aufderheide spearheaded. Although it may sound rather dull, this document has been, in fact, groundbreaking. Evolving out of the hostile and litigious copyright climate in North America, and centred on the notion that cultural creativity is a communal and ongoing project, it has changed practice on copyright clearance and expanded creativity and expression in documentary film.

“This project is anchored around the notion of freedom of speech and pushing back against censorship,” Aufderheide says. Fair use, which permits limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders, under certain conditions, is a doctrine that documentarists have avoided embracing in fear of law suits. This, Aufderheide says, empowers rights holders as private censors. She discussed the cultural enclosure movement, which has been aided by this fear, and which brands and privatizes cultural and creative material. Opposed to this is the Infocommons, which is also another way to think of the public domain, which gathers work that no longer has copyright protection (she also mentioned Creative Commons, as another example of how to challenge the current copyright regime).

What Aufderheide didn’t mention, and I found this almost as interesting, was the obvious link between capitalism and the branding and privatization of creativity. Even the metaphor of “the commons” which she invokes has an historical connection to nascent capitalism, when commonly held land in England was enclosed for private use. Now maybe she simply doesn’t find this useful in finding practical solutions – it’s not like capitalism is going anywhere anytime soon. But if we’re attempting a critical analysis, I don’t think avoiding the raison d’etre of the matter is helpful. Rights holders don’t want anyone using their work without receiving large sums of money – why should this be wrong in a capitalist society? Why shouldn’t people get paid large for their hard work? Until we alter the framework upon which our society operates, this will be a legitimate question, which no amount of pleading or moralizing or guilt-tripping will change.

And that’s a whole nother kettle of fish.

Brunch with Bijker

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

OK, it wasn’t quite brunch. It was timbits, and we brought our own coffee. But Wiebe Bijker was definitely at the ACT Lab for what was billed as an “informal chat” with students. He was excellent.

Now this guy, this Wiebe Bijker, is a Dutch dude, and the founder of what is variously referred to as a method, a theory and a school – the social construction of technology, or simply SCOT. I suppose he is properly considered the co-founder of SCOT, because the seminal article written on this innovative new approach to technology studies was co-authored with Trevor Pinch.

Two things struck me about him. First, his age. He was a youthful guy – not young, but with the essence of youth. I imagined him to be a well-fed, frumpy old fuddydud. Talk about stereotyping. But anyhow. He was not “cool” in the way kids today might conceive it, but was fit and snappily dressed, with a humble, kind way about him.

The second thing was also surprising but perhaps should not have been. His politics. He has some. And not just any; he is an activist academic who seems to envision his work as necessarily political. Now this was (actually) shocking to me because one of the initial critiques of SCOT was that it did not include evaluative criteria. Langdon Winner (1993), in particular, was hot and bothered about this. He produced a scathing critique which suggested that any advances made through this line of inquiry “take place at a significant cost: a willingness to disregard important questions about technology and human experience…” (p. 4). According to Winner, SCOT’s most offensive flaw is its “almost total disregard for the social consequences of technical choice” (ibid). One can fairly hear his voice dripping with disgust. Winner regards Pinch and Bijker’s notion of interpretive flexibility as a handmaiden of relativism for its failure to attribute any meaning to a technology or its uses. Because technology is considered neutral in the quest to understand technical development, interpretive flexibility devolves into moral and political indifference (p. 7). Winner also charges that SCOT’s “ways of modeling the relationship between social interests and technological innovation will conceal as much as they reveal” (p. 5).

Feenberg, too, has pointed out some of these things. Perhaps this is why his first question to Bijker was about second thoughts. Does he have any, based on how Science and Technology Studies has evolved since SCOT’s birth in 1984?

Bijker replied: “I only have had second thoughts rarely. [They] are about the evolutionary model [of SCOT] with its explicit stages of variation and selection. I think it worked well then. It came from my tech studies side not Trevor [Pinch]’s sociology of knowledge side. I needed it to open up the implicit linear models of technology. The evolutionary model helped to argue that there were alternative models to technical determinism.”

But Bijker noted that there are also very mechanical interpretations – mechanical models of evolution that problematize the 1984 SCOT model, which is based on a biological interpretation of evolution.

Feenberg suggested that Simondon’s concept about the evolution of technology might be useful. Simondon’s concept of the progressive “concretization” of technological development explains how a technical artefact constitutes a series of objects, a lineage or a line. “It refers to the condensation of various functions in a single technical structure oriented toward efficiency” (From Essentialism to Constructivism). Gradually, fewer technical structures serve more functions; one example is the air cooled engine, where the engine casing both contains and cools the engine. Feenberg generalizes Simondon’s notion of concretization to describe the way in which social actors layer interests into technology: the same structures get layered with new functions as new actors get involved.

Bijker said he’d also had second thoughts about the label “social” in SCOT. “We wanted to argue against technological determinism and we did so by saying there is no linear logic, that artifacts are socially constructed. We ‘won’ – yes, things could have been otherwise. Then there we were in a world where everything was socially constructed; there was no way to talk about impacts. That’s a very silly world – to come up with a conceptual apparatus that doesn’t allow you to talk about effects on society.”

Bijker continued: “To get that back you need also to be able to talk about the technical shaping of society. The artifact was a unit of analysis and its social shaping had been conceptualized. Now, society had to be a unit of analysis and you want technology’s impact on it. Then Callon, Latour and Feenberg talked about socio-technical networks…”

For Bijker, the idea of the network is too specific; instead he talks about technical ensembles. “We were all groping for a way of labeling that unit of analysis that wouldn’t implicitly choose for either technical or social; are we happy with just ‘why’ questions and don’t want to answer ‘how’ questions?”

Roy Bendor, of les ACTants, asked what Bijker considered to be the aims of STS, its social commentary. This is where the talk turned political, much to my surprise.

“I’m not ashamed to take an explicit, personal, normative stance but I also think when you’re studying a certain practice its heuristically productive to keep normative judgment at the back of your mind and trace empirically how norms and values are constructed.”


Bijker used an “automotive” metaphor to describe the development of STS, which he conceptualizes largely as an academic detour. “It started with a political agenda that was successful within academia but not very successful in society. It didn’t succeed to stop nuclear power in the Netherlands (the Russians had to help with Chernobyl). The idea was, let’s achieve more fundamental sociological understanding then return to political issues; this describes the past 15 years…

“About five years ago, we started to raise the question, was this really detour and can we return to the main political question or are we stuck there? According to my roadmap, it’s still an academic highway; [the feeling is] ‘don’t bother us with this political stuff.’ There is also a policy street; some people are really able to sell this work. I’m pleading for a democratic (or politicization in Dutch) boulevard which combines the political agenda, but in less of a short term, instrumental way as the policy street, with academic research.”

On the topic of the politicization of technology, Feenberg admitted his doubts about the application of the principle of symmetry to technology. “The enormous differences in power and wealth in society at large make it absurd to talk about symmetry [e.g. Big Tobacco]. It’s hard to end a controversy when your adversary has 1000 times the amount of money you have and are cynical. This raises serious methodological problems and forces you back into more traditional sociological methods like ideology, class.”

Nodding amenably, Bijker agreed that it doesn’t make sense to use symmetry ontologically, as do Latour or Callon. Nonetheless, he maintained that it could be a useful heuristic device. He gave the example of his study of the flourescent lamp, and a battle between the all powerful General Electric and the utility companies, who were at some point able to force GE to do something it didn’t really want.

“My argument then would be, not that there are not huge power differences in the world, but explaining a development by using a concept like power is begging the question, why is one actor or institution more powerful than another?”

For Bijker, a symmetrical analysis means that “you don’t import implicitly, uncritically your preconceptions of the world but try to find out how these extreme differences in power, wealth, class are reproduced in the particular case you are studying. Hueristic advice: you will see more, that will help you understand what’s going on. The problem is, this works on micro level, but of course there’s more going on. I am one of the old STS guys who loves to use Marx, so I’m not denouncing Marxist theory. How to connect macro structure to microanalysis difficult.”

There was more to the conversation, but it jumped around a bit, and was less cohesive. Plus I think I’ve gone on quite long enough.