Communing with nature

July 11th, 2007

Tonight I saw the sunset.

The temperature was much warmer today and I went outside seeking relief from the heavy heat inside. This time I had no blanket, but was not cold. The wind was flirtatious, at times coming on strong, massaging my whole body, then withdrawing to nothing but a light tickle about the face and neck.

The sun was a low, ill-defined orange ball. It was the same sun I’ve seen set many times over various bodies of water – Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Superior, the Detroit River (you can tell I’m from Ontario…) But I haven’t seen it go down over the Georgia Straight, while sitting on a bench, caressed by the wind, reading Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 (Ch. 15). It was nice.

An aside: last night I dreamed I was blogging. Let me clarify: I wasn’t dreaming about blogging; I experienced my dream as if I were writing a blog post. I dreamed through the device or act of blogging. So far, I’ve dreamed “in game” – again, unconscious experience mediated through metaphor of gaming. Also I have dreamed I’ve been instant messaging someone – communication twice removed (first through IM, second through the dream, or vice versa). Now it is the blog that is enframing my unconscious self. Goddess help me.

Parksville or bust

July 11th, 2007

I am sitting on a log, on the beach, looking upon the ocean. Well, the Georgia Straight. Same diff. It is sunset. I came out just to catch it, because the house I’m staying at in Parksville overlooks this vista, and it seems like something I should do. Also, my kid was out here last night, and I wanted to see what he saw, if that makes any sense.

When I first came out, in my jams, with my tea (Twinings Earl Grey) and an afghan wrapped around my body, I immediately went back inside. I was looking for the camera because I figured, if I was going to see this ocean sunset, and it was going to be as beautiful as everyone would have imagined, I should take a picture of it. You know, preserve the moment etc. etc.

But I couldn’t find it. So I grabbed the next best time-freezing technology, my iBook. And here I am, now sitting on a log, casting the occasional glance out to sea and the setting sun. On the horizon, mountains meet ocean; some clearly snow-capped. Oceanside sounds surround me: the white noise of the ever-moving mass of water before me; the raspy shifting of sand grasses; the occasional distant honk from a flock of geese; the worried cheeping of the Sandpiper who has a nest around here somewhere (saw the babies on the beach when the tide was out yesterday).

We spent most of the day on the beach. The kids had a blast – we barely moved 50 feet from the backyard. What with the tide pools (too many crabs to count), fresh water stream complete w/tadpoles, all those geese (I counted 96), a blue heron, terns, the aforementioned sandpiper and brood plus sand, all manner of rocks, driftwood logs, shells — well, the kids are in heaven. Their needs are so simple, really. A picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and juice and we were set.

It smells good out here; reminds me of northern Ontario, when my dad would take us kids camping to Lake Simcoe. OK, not so north, but out of the city, cottage country anyhow. For this city girl, it might as well have been Temagami (never mind Fort Severn!). I vaguely associate this outdoors smell with bug repellent, though it’s clear to me now that referent was misplaced.

So it was a good day, in all. The worst is trying to keep the children from destroying this nice house we’re staying in. It’s full of all these nicnacks and artwork from Indonesia or some such place. Already the daughter’s (non-exotic) fairy statue has been dropped and chipped. Not sure what to do about that one…

As I look out at the mountainscape, it appears that I missed the sunset. It’s just a diminishing line of dull orange, sinking deeper and deeper behind the mountains, and also into the sea. Gawd. I need to commune with Nature more.

An aside: I haven’t had wireless access. This was a rude shock, and has taken some adjustment. Have I become spoiled? As my friendly acquaintance Derek said the other day, what did I use my computer for before the Internet? Crazy (shaking my head). Obviously, there is a bit of a time lag with this post…

Learning to love Latour

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.

Looking for geeks at Wired Woman

July 3rd, 2007

I forgot to write about Wired Woman. This is a social networking group for women working in various aspects of technology; there are two chapters – one in Toronto and one here in Van. They had their “summer splash” event at Subeez last week and I signed up. So far, my research into free software/open source development, as well as tech activism, has found a largely male dominated arena. Although this has been explicitly identified as problematic within Indymedia (the techs have all the power b/c they have the code, Sherri Herndon, co-founder of Seattle IMC, once told me), no formal critique has been forwarded (that I’ve seen, anyhow). I thought a look at the local scene might be a helpful, and interesting, counterpart to my feminist readings on technology (for example, today’s reading, Judy Wajcman’s Feminism Confronts Technology)

I wasn’t certain what to expect – I’m not a professional and I’m not used to hobnobbing, eating canapés and passing about my business card (possibly because I don’t have one). On the Facebook group, a number of men well known in the local tech scene had rsvp’d so I wasn’t sure how woman-focused this would be. A friend told me about a similar event in Montreal, and about half of the people who showed up were dudes; apparently it was a topic of discussion at the event itself.

But there were hardly any guys – except this totally cheesy politician, BC’s Minister of Small Business and Revenue, who was all red in the face and smarmy. He presented Wired Woman w/one of those oversized cheques – for 10K. Not too shabby. I was at the back of the group during the speechifying with another friend, who wondered aloud if we were allowed to heckle. While the politician was blathering on about how he and Premier Campbell were such supporters of women in technology, how important this was, we were snickering, wondering if their “support” extended into the realm of daycare and mental health care access for women. A bit more fundamental to women’s day-to-day existence, I’d venture.

Anyway, while I did appreciate the spread (including wine bar), I didn’t meet too many women actually working in the tech sector. There was a life coach, a real estate developer and some sort of recruiter. But very few (of those I met) were programmers or IT peeps or what-have-you. But I bought a membership and I’ll check out their next event. It was fun, and I am, typically, a glass-half-full kind of person. Hope springs eternal etc. etc. And of course, there were the usual antics concerning Air, KA and a parking metre.

I dream of MMORPGs

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

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

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…)

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

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.