For those interested in critical approaches to media and communication studies, I have started a blog for our school’s reading group on this topic. See more here.
This article points to the problem of stability in cellular networks, when various institutions begin to rely on them beyond the simple mechanisms of cellular communication. In this case, the article points out that the British Prison service utilizes the O2 network in the UK in order to monitor those criminals on parole who have electronic-tagged ankle bracelets. The statistics are not particularly worrying – at least to me, in Australia – 200 monitored criminals had intermittent coverage over the O2 network outage, out of 13.5k monitored individuals. That’s a little less than 2 percent. I imagine that there will be other issues at play that mean that a network of such a size probably has errors roughly in that range on a daily basis.
What is interesting to me are the following reminders: a) state institutions utilizing private cellular networks for juridical purposes, and b) the technology used for tracking parolees is exactly the same as the standard used by most cellphones: the SIM card. Which is to say, it’s very very easy to track an individual utilizing a SIM card technology, if you’re a state or corporate power, or have control of the network via other means. That isn’t to say that it’s a general current condition, or that we live in a police state, but it’s perhaps a suggestion to think about the device in your pocket as being dangerous beyond its simple cancer risk. To quote something Christopher Soghoian said on Twitter some time ago, “Remember, a cellphone is a tracking device that can also make calls.”
In 1988, William Gibson wrote a poem called Agrippa, A Book of the Dead. While the link I have provided can be read as many times as you’d like, the original piece was published in the form of a executable file on a 3 1/2″ floppy disc that could be read and viewed only once per copy. After being opened the executable would, while the poem was being read by a user, re-write its own assembly code into an encrypted format leaving it, for all effective purposes, unobtainable.
There is a description of the original publication here, which, to my mind, conjures a similarity to the book, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Esotericism is something that I enjoy enough to pardon it even when it is as wilfully inscrutiable as it appears in these two pieces, and I certainly like the appearance of Agrippa as shown in Gibson’s piece.
I think there is, perhaps, something to be said here about hyper-texts. There’s enough of a link to the spy-thrillers of James Bond and Mission Impossible in the self-destructive text, especially so when it comes about through a stenographic device. The merging of steampunk aesthetics of burnt book covers and computer data storage along with the morbidity of the shroud and the record of the transcription of the DNA of some hapless fruitfly speaks to a variety of posthumanism that I’m fond of. Too bad the 3 1/2″ floppy drive has essentially disappeared.
I have a book review coming out in the next issue of Time and Society. “Michael Flaherty, Textures of Time: Agency and Temporal Experience” in Time and Society, July 2012, 21(2) 274-277. Hopefully someone will read it!
I recently presented at a conference, Confessional Cultures, held at Monash University. Confession is an interesting idea, but I don’t particularly find it all that useful as a critical term for my studies. Following from Foucault, confession – or the ‘avowal’ as I like to think of it – is mainly a rhetorical device for situating a subject in relation to others. With that, I should note some observations on how I see the ‘confession’ to function outside of a strictly religious mode.
By confession something about themselves, a subject aligns themselves in a non-normative comparison to some group. This group can be of roughly any sort: religious, legal, social, and so on; and the response from the group roughly relies on the institutionalization of that group. For instance, a non-normative confession in a legal context will usually result in punitive legal measures; non-normative confession in social settings will lead to the community performing self-work as to what individuals should do in future, or the degree to which individuals need to be ostracized. Behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned as valid or invalid will result in the production of commonsense in various frameworks. In a legal context this will lead to the categorization of certain behaviour as legal or illegal, in a social context this is could be the determination as to whether something needs an apology or not. This leads to the observation that there are two categories of confession of non-normative behaviour: categorically defined behaviour, and non-categorical behaviour.
Categorically defined non-normative behaviour would be something that sits comfortably within a range of confessions that a society is pre-equipped to deal with, with regard to a general case. These are confessions for which the particular society sees some sort of non-standard behaviour, but, amusingly, the non-standard behaviour comes in an expected format. These are usually behaviours for which the given society has methods of recourse, or ‘solutions’ for resolving, and is maybe well prepared for. For instance, an alcoholic acknowledging their problem to a priest. These confessions are ones which society offers some sort of idea of a general response for the individuals hearing the confession, whether that be getting an alcoholic to start AA, or staging an intervention. These are general behaviours for which various institutions and social groups have prescribed practices prepared.
Non-categorical non-normative behaviour is behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned against, but nor is it precisely accepted as normal and ‘correct’ within a particular society. I see two methods for dealing with these problems arising from this process: firstly, the concatenation within existing frames; secondly, the production of new frames when existing ones are insufficient. These cases avoid generalities, or else, attempt to avoid them. For instance, a catholic confession – in the sense of a confession to a priest within a confessional – is essentially a bit of close-work on trying to fit a particular bit of behaviour to an appropriate category of spiritual compensation. While ‘standard’ confessions will have their own appropriate number of associated ‘hail Marys’ every non-standard confession would have to have the priest perform the requisite work to determine what an appropriate penalty would be. This will always be in relation to a generality, or an ethos, or behavioural categories. It is difficult to think of an example, because I have defined these cases to sit outside standardization, but hopefully the category makes sense. I think of them as categories that can be fought over, where some contingency in the event that is being confessed causes it to not be a standard confession of some sort.
In either case, I do not find myself being able to say much useful stuff about the confession in terms of the work I generally do. While I did see some interesting uses of the confessional format in textual analysis at the conference, I did not really conceive of any ways to use it in my own work. As I mentioned at the conference, when used to talk about individuals online, practically every utterance is a form of avowal of the subject, of the self. Then we’re in the somewhat useless condition of claiming that all utterances are a form of confession, and, with any overly general case, not a particularly useful means of addressing behaviour over networks.
This is the second of the ideas I’ve borrowed from martial arts: “you must invest in loss”. What does this mean? It means that any rejections and failures should be understood as opportunities to improve. A failure doesn’t mean you’ve failed absolutely, cataclysmically, and for all time, and that you should give up now, it means that you have an identifiable weakness that you can improve upon so that your next attempt is better. In terms of education, this means that, if you have done poorly in a particular assessment, take the opportunity to work out what it is, exactly, that you’ve done wrong. This may mean reading over depressing assessment notes from tutors or academics, but the notes are there to help you improve. It’s difficult to give bad feedback to a student – it genuinely makes me feel bad – but I’d do student a disservice if I gave them marks that they hadn’t earnt. If they were to make repeat mistakes, it’s in their best interest for me to identify them. The worst possible response from a student is to receive their assignment back, get depressed or angry because of a result that’s less than what they wanted or what they expected, and then never read the feedback! I, or whoever, wrote that material to help you improve! It’s not there because I really wanted to make you feel bad.
Investing in loss also means directly placing yourself out of your comfort zone. This is something I’ve had to learn for public speaking. I’m getting better at it because I challenge myself when I do it. For me this means knowing that, to some extent, I’m going to suck at a particular presentation, but I do it in the knowledge that I’ll be better at it over time. I’ve already improved remarkably in the last 12 months, and am far better than I used to be two years ago. Put yourself at risk, accept defeat, but learn from the experience.
The so-called ‘orthodox’ reading of a text is something of a minefield. I feel the word ‘orthodox’ has a degree of a prejudicial attack contained within it, but it’s a necessary concept to understand in academic discourse. To be orthodox in reading a particular thinker or philosophy is, in my mind, to be committed to a singular reading of a particular text, at the expense of all other readings. The idea of an orthodox reading of a singular text, whether that be philosophical, political, textual or otherwise, is nothing short of a limitation of the critical, emotional, or conceptual power of a work.
While I could present my own pseudo-theory of the orthodox reading (see last paragraph), I think that it is worth pointing out what I mean by way of example. Gualtiero Piccinini, in “Turing’s Rules for the Imitation Game” (Minds and machines, 2000, 10(4), pp.573) helpfully separates out several types of ‘readings’ of Alan Turing’s famous 1950 essay, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. These categories are the literal and the standard readings. The literal readings are ones that Piccinini sees as focusing on the first section of Turing’s article, specifically in terms of how it addresses gender. The standard readings are ones that focus on the later sections of Turing’s piece on machines imitating humans, which has since evolved into the famous Turing Test. I see no problem with these categories, and I see no problem with Piccinini criticizing the adherents of the literal reading for being obstinate in their dedication to issues of gender. My problem is specifically the way in which he then suggests that the literal reading should be discarded in favour of the standard reading.
This is the orthodoxy that I referred to earlier. By suggesting that there is only a single, standard reading, and that all others are a revisionist line misses the fact that Turing’s piece provides a number of potential readings that can be utilized at different times. Pinccini may be right – there may be a revisionist camp that I am unaware of – but that would still point to the problems of orthodoxy that I am mainly concerned with: a revisionist line would attempt to supplant the standard reading with another, singular and orthodox reading. The literal reading of Turing’s work provides a useful thought experiment in anonymity that is increasingly important in my work – in that, we can’t be certain of the gender, let alone other important aspects of an individual, at the other end of our computerized, networked, conversation. Even more important for social and critical theory, rather than a theories of AI, is the importance of such a conceptually simple example of the performativity of gender that Judith Butler has so helpfully granted us.
(Obligatory pseudo-theory of orthodox readings: Obviously not conceptually or philosophically complete, but any condition as to why one reasonable reading should be favoured as the intended and orthodox reading over all the rest would necessarily be extra-textual. The way in which we read particular texts depends on our own semiotic conditioning. Perhaps a good conceptual basis for understanding this could be found in the various interpretations of religious texts within a particular religion. Each denomination places emphasis on different portions, rendering some aspects as literal and others as metaphor. The basis for these readings are extra-textual, and even the most adherent fundamentalist would have to interpret some portions of their texts as subjective metaphor.)