Archive for June, 2007

I dream of MMORPGs

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Tonight, in bed, my daughter said: “I have a ‘feeling ache’. I need some good energy, and some rest.”

And I’m all: I feel ya, sister. Then she passed out and I lay staring at the ceiling.

Why are kids so brilliant, and intuitive, and brilliantly intuitive?

Last night, I tossed and turned, all night it felt like. And as I roamed the bed, looking for space where a small foot or other body part was not draped across me or jabbing into me, I dreamt of MMORPGs. (Sara would be proud.) Oh? You don’t know what these are, you say? Well, why not come to my lecture on Friday about games? I didn’t know the first thing about why anybody would care about video or online games but guess what? I can give an entire 2nd year lecture on them. Now I dream about Massively Multiple Online Role Playing Games. In my dream, I’m in the game, looking for somewhere to sleep. How’s that for fucked up?

Maybe, one of these nights, I’ll get a restful sleep. I told KA I was plagued, in consciousness and unconsciousness. She said, by what? And really, it’s just life in general (as Depeche Mode would say).

Philosophical duels in dreamland

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Early this morning I awoke to the rain – a heavy, steady downpour that I most associate with Vancouver. I lay in bed, windows open, deep under my covers with only my face exposed to the chill, listening to its soothing rhythm, and felt at home. Not in a geographical sense, of course, but in that way when things just feel right. And you are at ease with yourself and everything around you, if only for a moment.

In that peaceful moment I recalled a dream; in fact, I’d been woken out of it. Feenberg and Bijker were sitting at a table somewhere, talking. And Bijker, in his affable, gentle way, challenged Feenberg to a duel (that’s what he called it). Of course, this was to be a philosophical duel, a battle of the brains, a theoretical tangle. Feenberg, naturally, accepted, and the two men sat quietly, pondering this turn of events, while my dream scene changed.

This is funny because these men are in no way philosophical opponents. I suspect they might even be friends. And both seem to be mild mannered – not the least bit predisposed to dueling of any sort. In fact, when Bijker visited our lab last year, he acknowledged the debt he (and really SCOT) owed Feenberg for introducing a critical approach to the study of technology.

The thing about preparing for your comps is, you never escape it, not even in sleep. Bijker has been on my mind because I just reread his Bakelite essay, and am reading Winner, who of course, has no patience for social constructivism whatever. So I guess I’ve got SCOT on the brain, and in my dreams…

Habermas’ strange birthday gift

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

When Marcuse turned 70, his old Frankfurt School pal, Habermas, gave him an unusual present: an essay reworking the former’s notion of technology and science as “ideology”. I’m sure it was just what Marcuse always wanted.

Anyway. The article, creatively titled “Technology and science as ‘ideology’” unfolds after Habermas’ painfully dense fashion (what is with these German theoreticians!?). But after pecking away at it for awhile, I finally got into its groove. What he wants to say – and does so repeatedly – is that the so-called rationalization of society is intimately connected to the institutionalization of scientific and technical development. And this has dire implications for human liberation (or our continuing unfreedom). You’re thinking, yeah, whatever, what’s the newsflash? I’ll tell you:

Rationalization, following Weber, is the “disenchantment” of the world, the secularization of traditional worldviews. Sounds good so far. But the formal concept of rationality derives from purposive-rational action – that of the capitalist entrepreneur, the industrial wage earner, the modern bureaucrat. As such, it is not really “rationality” but a masked or unacknowledged political domination (says Marcuse). The structure of this rationality is oriented to technical control through subjugation of man and nature; the “rationalization” of the conditions of life is therefore equated to the institutionalization of a type of domination whose political nature is unrecognizable. Rationality is technical reason.

This kind of reason – oriented to control and domination and leading to unfreedom – is accepted by the masses, made palatable, due to the bourgeois ideologies of reciprocity and equality in the arena of economic exchange. In this bourgeois dream society, all are emancipated from domination and power is neutralized. But Marx’s labour theory of value destroyed the illusion of freedom and the root ideology of just exchange. It revealed that, in fact, the free labour contract obscured the relations of social force that underpinned the wage-labour relationship.

Habermas sets out to reformulate Weber’s concept of rationalization in order to discuss Marcuse’s critique of Weber, as well as his notion of the “double function” of scientific-technical progress – as both productive force and as ideology. What Weber tried to do with his concept of rationalization was understand how subsystems of purposive-rational action (the economy, the state) extended into societal institutions, and with what effect. Habermas proposes a new categorical framework to comprehend this phenomenon: the fundamental distinction b/w work (purposive-rational action) and interaction (communicative action). Purposive-rational action comprises both instrumental action (based on technical rules) and rational choice (governed by strategies based on analytic knowledge). Communicative action is symbolic interaction, and it’s governed by binding consensual norms.

We can distinguish social systems based on the type of action (or reason) that predominates. “The institutional framework of a society consists of norms that guide symbolic interaction. But there are subsystems… in which primarily sets of purposive-rational action are institutionalized” (93). In other (Habermasian) words, the lifeworld and the system confront one another in an ongoing struggle for supremacy. The passage from traditional society to modernity is marked by the continuous development of the productive forces, which causes the permanent encroachment of subsystems into the lifeworld of communicative action and interaction. The institutional framework of society thus adapts to the developing systems of purposive-rational action

The depoliticization of the masses must be achieved in order to legitimate this new society (where state intervention now compensates for the dysfunctions of the market). Marcuse says this will occur by having science and technology take on the role of an ideology; that is, by institutionalizing scientific-technical progress, causing people to lose consciousness of the dualism of work and interaction. Insidiously, it becomes a background ideology, penetrating into the consciousness of the depoliticized masses. “it is a singular achievement of this ideology to detach society’s self-understanding from the frame of reference of communicative action and from the concepts of symbolic interaction and replace it with a scientific model (105).

After a lot of writing, Habermas tells us that two concepts of rationalization must be distinguished. Rationalization at the level of subsystems of purposive-rational action, where scientific-technical progress can only be a liberatory force if it doesn’t replace rationalization at the level of the institutional framework. This kind of rationalization can occur only via symbolic interaction, by removing restrictions on communication. It must be public, unrestricted discussion, free from domination etc. etc. (You are thinking, correctly, of the public sphere and the theory of communicative action, two major Habermasian themes).

“The question is not whether we completely utilize an available or creatable potential, but whether we choose what we want for the purpose of the pacification and gratification of existence” (119).


My first computer dream (or you know you’re a nerd when…)

Monday, June 11th, 2007

Last night I had my first computer dream.

We’d had the neighbours over for some general relaxation and jovial imbibing. This while the children ran amok and tore the house apart. It was good times. Around 2 a.m. I awoke in some distress, with the sense of having been tossing and turning, as they say. My dream quickly returned to me:

I was (in my dream) documenting the night’s festivities on a wiki, complete with a table of contents, WikiWords and everything. The cause of my distress was that (in my dream) I was having trouble attaching some video taken during the night of the children and their antics (never really happened). I was having technical difficulties which, for any of you who know me, would be about par for the course (and yes, I’m aware of the irony).

Now, the day prior, I had just given my lecture on Networks, into which I’d miraculously managed to work wikis (thanks Rococo). And I’d been editing and uploading to our own class wiki that very day. So go figure. Dreams are not that subtle, Freud and his hangers-on notwithstanding.

I had to laugh at this dream – my life, my very thought process being mediated by the machine, being funneled and organized by a particular digital interface. This is funny and amazing to me. I’m thinking here (but only halfheartedly and vaguely) of Donna Haraway’s cyborg.

The dream itself I would categorize as a “stress” dream. You’ve had them. For example, a student’s stress dream is missing the exam, or waking up one day to find out you’re enrolled in a required course that you haven’t attended in two months. And it’s grade 13 French and you’re screwed. That’s one kind. Another kind is the “waitressing” dream. I’ve had so many of these in my decade or so of waiting tables. You’re “in the weeds”, having lost control of your section without even realizing it, and every customer wants to kill you. These are bad dreams, and they very nearly approximate real scenarios.

And now I’ve had my first computer dream. It’s not nearly as bad as the other types – not yet, anyhow. But not much is resting on my accumulation of geeky knowledge (who knows, maybe just my career?) Anyhow, Richard Smith would be proud. This is a man who, early on in our frienship said: “We’ll make a geek out of you yet.” To which I scoffed and guffawed. But secretly, I’m pleased…

Fashion vs. Ed Grimley: Academic smackdown

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Today it is raining – torential downpour-type rain. It began last night in a short, violent burst evocative of a monsoon. It cut the heat, sending a blissful wave of cool rolling across everything. Right now, it is raining hard and I love how people are walking around without umbrellas (myself included) – as if to say, no, we don’t really live in Vancouver; as if their denial of this moment will sustain the stretch of dry, mostly warm weather we’ve been relishing of late.

A thing on my mind lately is fashion (or lack thereof) in the academy. I know this is fairly unimportant, superficial, even. But when you’re surrounded by total fashion victims on a daily basis, it becomes a strangely pressing issue. I’m not kidding: I saw this guy the other day dressed like Ed Grimley.

Now I love Ed Grimley. He was my all time favourite on SCTV which I used to watch regularly with my friend KA, back when were 10 in her house on Wineva in the Beach. Those were the days of pay4view TV (KA’s dad had SuperChannel) and listening to Richard Pryor and the McKenzie Brothers (other SCTV alum) on record. The early 80s were good times – innocent times – no matter what anyone says.

But I don’t think anyone in real life should dress like Ed Grimley. Not only is it aesthetically disturbing, it also looks to be uncomfortable. And so to my mind, wrong. Often, on my way to the School of Communication I take the less travelled path – through a lower level of the Schrum Building. It is one long corridor that streches on and on, eventually ending at our school. This corridor passes through possibly the nerdiest departments at SFU: physics, biology, chemistry. At the beginning of this tunnel of fashion devastation, is the office of one prof who is, in fact, stylish. Not just stylish, but almost couture. I first saw this physics prof in line at the coffee shop. I commented on her shoes – some very funky pumps that I’m sure had never set foot in a university before this woman brought them there. After I’d gotten my coffee, I made my way, via this less travelled path, to the Grad Lounge. And I was behind this woman all the way. That’s how I know where her office is. I’ve seen her since, here and there on campus. And you know, she kicks it every time, with the most unlikely but totally awesome ensembles. Now every time I pass through Physics, I keep my eye out for her, just to see what she’s wearing that day.

I’m not saying academics need to go to this length (although I certainly appreciate it). But there should be an aesthetic standard; or if not standard, at least not acquiesence to the stereotype of befuddled, carelessly attired professor. Why? Simply because it’s unnecessary. And it can be depressing. I have to say that our school is fairly fresh (if not fashion forward). There are a number of young profs who are mildly to moderately aware of or concerned with what they wear. And of course, their is our fearless fashion leader, the school’s director, Martin Laba. He carries the torch for our school and I, for one, am grateful.

That’s all I’m saying.