“Official culture still strives to force the new media to do the work of the old media. But the horseless carriage did not do the work of the horse; it abolished the horse and did what the horse could never do. Horses are fine. So are books.” – Marshall McLuhan
The other day I picked up a book and tried to look through it. I didn’t flip through the pages or turn the book over, I simply held it in my hands and brought it closer to my face to see if anything became clearer is the distance between my eyes and the thing in my hand diminished. Much to my dismay, rather than anything contained within the book becoming clearer, I found all I was doing was make the world around me darker. The contained universe of the book is fascinating because it is something we are, for the most part culturally literate in. It contains its own beginning and end and the mind of its creator. It can fit in the palm of our hands. Because most of us have had experiences where we had to write something but couldn’t find the words to fill in the space, we understand the labor that goes into the task of its creation. Because we can hold in our hands and take time to look through it, because even when it is not in our hands it doesn’t change, the book becomes its own standard. And it is the standard we have for where knowledge worth knowing is contained. The book is the prism we use to understand knowledge. The book seems to be the model we’re building from to determine what knowledge online should look like. Me writing this is no exception. There is a slight difference I’d like to call attention to though by asking a question:
What color is the sky?
I recently asked this question during my session at DML, with a different image of a blue sky, text in blue. There was no response. I had to ask twice, and everyone said blue. It was the only answer that was logical given the givens of the image and the cultural understanding we have of the color of the sky. I have to confess I spent a good portion of my life thinking the sky was blue as well, until I listened to an episode of the podcast radiolab called “Colors”.
It is an fantastic episode. I highly suggest anyone who has time listen to the whole thing. There is a section in the podcast titled “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” that brought me to using the question about the sky to understand the digital as a space of knowledge production and what I like to call knowledge-play that. The piece explains that the sky has not always been blue because across cultures, blue is the last color humans learn to recognize. The sky, without the cultural knowledge of blue then is something without color. But, because we have blue, the sky is blue.
What I think is fascinating about this is even with blue, the sky we experience is capable of being so many more colors within the limited range of colors we can see (another topic explored in the podcast). It is many colors we can’t see as well. But cultural we know for certain that the sky is, in fact, blue.
I googled “the definition of saturation” so you don’t have to. It makes one of those wonderful little google boxes pop up that contains a bunch of information including the definition of saturation that is important to my thinking here:
(esp. in photography) the intensity of a color, expressed as the degree to which it differs from white.
My chapter in Field Note’s for the 21st Century is titled “The Medium is Light”. It is freely available on the HASTAC website and Rap Genius You can see the condensed video version created as part of an assignment give to me and my co-authors from Omar Daouk
a video exploring aspects of digital media through McLuhan’s the Medium is the Massage and the Medium is the Message.
Since writing the book, and I more thoughts on the important for understanding light and why McLuhan’s statement that “light is pure information” is so important in this moment as we still try to figure out how the digital can be used to create a classroom without walls. I’ve already pointed to the problem of using the book as the prism for knowledge in the digital age, and provided some other things from McLuhan that show that this conversation is not a new one. What is new though is how light based electronic media have become as discussed in the chapter and video linked to above. I am a bit obsessed with backlit screens and fibre optic cables because they are our primary information sources now:
The information me we see is reflections of information that is projected and I think that is a theoretical explosion (and I sort of love thought explosions because they lead to the creation of new worlds).
If we go back to the episode of radiolab, it starts with a story of Newton trying to figure out if the color was in the prism or if it was in the light. You should listen to the podcast to hear the cultural beliefs and how he eventually figured out the prism (It worth the time!). We cultural know how prisms work. And we can use it as a metaphor, as I did when I started. The book is the prism we have for knowledge. Our devices, computers, smart phones, tablets, phablets, etc. are the prisms we use to filter and render digital data and information. Prism has a specific cultural relevance with regards to digital information given the revelations from the summer. I don’t think that is a coincidence. What my message is with all of this, especially with regards to understanding knowledge in our current information age is that, we have to think of how playful light can be. There is something from the book that I think translates very well to light. A book is like a shadow, it blocks out a lot of stuff so you get a silhouette of relevant information. Right now, when we think of the light of the internet it is like the light of the sun, blinding if you look directly into it, but helpful and necessary to live in a world where data and information are currency.
I recently went to a Ken Wissoker talk at Duke University. He was speaking about the (academic) book. He said it is no longer the place to create new information because the information is already on the internet. The more interesting books will come up with new ways of interpreting or putting the information together. So what is the role of the digital then? I think it is to make shadow puppets. When we use it as a flashlight, like I’ve tried to do with this post, where we highlight, play with, bring together, and make move information that’s relevant to the thing we are trying to understand, if we learn to apply filters, and change the data we are rendering with our electronic devices into meaningful bits of media that resemble media from the past, we might just figure out the color(s) of the digital information age. I hope that it doesn’t end up being like the sky, stuck in a single hue, but instead it is a dynamic ever-shifting gradient that pushes the limits of our perceptions and understanding.
So…. This past weekend I had what is known as a sleep fail, and decided to work on stuff I’d been putting off doing because … that’s what we do. In the midst of it all, twitter, through Kate Crawford, brought a story that appeared on the register about Googles computer becoming smart on their own, and I thought it as perfect. The title was “
One of the things I’ve been trying to think through over the past three months? is how the social exists, intertwines, or matters in big data. Here are some draft thoughts… still working through it.
Begin Draft Thoughts
The biggest myth I’ve identified to date in trying to understand how we can move from Big Data to individuals is that there is no social in big data. There are things that happen in Big Data that have strong effects on the spaces we conceive of as being social (the area of most interest for me being the ethical/legal space), but big data inherently reduces the actions that my ethnomethodological heart would call individuals to neutral points on a graph or system that is interlinked with other points that might be individuals, objects, or things, as organized by some algorithmic system that was original programmed based on programs of other people to output information that can be read by whatever needs to read it to begin another action. The reason I say “read by a whatever” is because the reader might or might not end up being a human. A good portion of the reading that is done is done by other machines and algorithms, and endless loop of finding meaning and actions in the patterns or behaviour of programmed points. This becomes even more interesting because the most successful instance to date of a machine learning reading big data came from Google. The model they used for that machine was the human brain, and of course, one of the first things their neural network learned to do was recognize cats.
Only, it didn’t actually learn to recognize “cats”. I learned that there was a connection between this phenomenon of grouping pixels together in a specific way that became a pattern of unknown name for the human machine that was only recognized as “cat” when a human reader took the information the machine had compiled, looked at the pattern image the machine had created and recognized it as “cat”. Up until that moment, the machine had simply algorithmically found a pattern in the noise of the data. “The Social” we find in big data is like the Google cat, only even more imaginary, inasmuch as there is no algorithm that can output “the social” as “the social” is something we define in our scholarly pursuits to understand the phenomena that occur in patterned sets amongst individual actors linked together by contingent circumstances defined for the purpose of our scholarly projects.
With Big Data, researchers try to show through the occurrence of patterns that emerge in conditions that have been set on multiple levels show that there is some hidden universal truth through which we can “make economic, social, technical, and legal claims”. Even more than the links within the structured data environments being false, the idea that anything that can be gotten from these new sources of big data, especially those favored by social scientists, as the name of the genre reads as though it was created for them, social media is an imagined social. When we begin to look at use statistics and demographic information from Social Media Sites (SMS) such as twitter and Facebook, we can clearly see how, even though the data they have is big, and the algorithms they have are massive, the percentage of global populations than use these sites regularly is relatively small, and relatively homogenous when it comes to things such as age, or education level, geographic hotspots etc. leaving the individual data plots as relatively uninteresting shapes that move in ebbs and flows. The ebbs and flows end up being the interesting part of the pseudo-social interactions of big data. And even these are colored and shaped by programming written by an individual who expected to see certain types of movement within the big data as it was put through an algorithm that turned it into understandable information, individuals who are increasingly being pushed to create outputs that are more visually pleasing in lieu of conducting a deeper analysis of the data and its implications.
I have a dilemma. The part of me that was trained as a social scientist is intrigued by big data while the part of me that is trained as a critical humanist is screaming “where are the humans!?” There is this whole beautiful book The Human Faces of Big Data that says it tackles the subject, but it is… weird. It is all weird right now. So I thought I might share a few more thoughts on the limits I’m seeing with big data as a concept. I suppose I should be up front and acknowledge that I never could quite catch the post-human bandwagon. I have no burning desire to merge with the machine anymore than I already have. In fact, I am quite happy with my life as a cyborg. That being said, we are being compiled as unique data sets in this new world of big data… Only I’m not sure how new it is.
Big Data and the Book
One of the earlier modes of downloading large amounts of data, that also captured spirits of the human behind its creation (basically the beta release of post humanism) is the book. Books record of complex thoughts into a physicality corpus that was smaller than its creator yet captured thoughts in a transferable way, copy able way, reproduceable way… And had many of the same ownership problems we are seeing now with digital media, but also personal data… Here is why I can’t buy in to post humanism as it is being imagined in my little world of media & technology studies, would you ever look at a book and think “that’s a human”? As in books, it seems there are no humans in big data. I’ve been searching for a bit and the human hasn’t revealed itself. It seems the human is only the start place and the end place for the machines to communicate, create machine readable knowledge, make decisions, and then predict the next action of the unique data set (individual actor, item or thing).
Big Data is Predictive Future Time
I think the scale of big data (omfg Zettabytes!) and the relationship to time are the biggest change. While books are always already a recording of past thoughts, big data is mobilized toward the future. While books are designed to influence current thought and possibly shape the future, the focus seems to be more on the past informing the now. Big Data with its focus on pattern recognition, prediction, and visualization of this information in artistic and abstract yet understandable terms seems to exist in what I am thinking is a concept of time that is always already grounded in the future. Big Data has limited value to the past, in as much as yes it helps us understand the past but isn’t mobilizable in a meaningful way unless we can some how use it to say something about the to come…
This is the central problem to me I think. When we don’t allow the “now” to exist… and I feel like big data moves so quickly, and there is so much of it that there is never a “now”, we don’t allow a space for human experience. And while I love patterns, and I am fine with them existing, the space of experience is where humans create meaning out of this finite thing we call life. When we move towards understanding everything as a bit of data in a large data stream that can tell us something about the future, we erase the human, inherently. And because we erase the human, the ethical components of big data are hard to place, because there are no bodies in data. We see the result of this when we look at the current actions that have come to light of the US Government, recent ebbs and flows of various exchanges that are now run by computers, my favorite big data story ever of Target contacting the pregnant teenager before she had the chance to tell her family, etc.
I know that there is work being done on biases in big data, which is awesome. I think in addition to that, we need to start asking where the human in big data is too. The concept of big data makes it easy to sort of lose the human in the stream… but we have countless examples to show that when it moves to places of power (government, target, financial markets, MOOCs!, etc), it is mobilized to discern the difference in individuals and individual items against the aggregate… and when this happens there are real world effects that happen to actual human bodies.
So yes. Actual humans and big data… where’s the conversation?
As an aside on the future of the book
Since I’ve been speaking with people over the years on the future of the book in the digital world, I’m beginning to wonder if the problem is that we are “out of time” when we try to translate the form. While books are always the past, digital data is always about the future at this point, because we are sort of big data now. As such, I feel like perhaps to get a digital “book” project would need to be incomplete, to be completed/expanded at a later time by multiple anonymous people outside of the original creator.
Department Colloquium is over. I had some nice questions on why I chose to do a letter and some good feedback on some areas to expand/move forward. The act of putting the first first draft online was good. I thought it might be nice to share how it evolved since people were kind enough to read the first iteration and send me feedback.
For the past few years anytime I’ve read McLuhan it has been while I am in the process of reading Fanon. As a result, their words swirl together in my head as though they are in conversation. While the most common link take McLuhan and Fanon together because McLuhan samples A Dying Colonialism in War and Peace in the Global Village, I am making another connection today. Arun Saldanha briefly touched on this connection in the 2010 article “Skin, affect, aggregation: Guattarian variations on Fanon”, but I am pushing it further as I move towards developing a way to understand the intersection of race, media, and technology, especially as we trace the evolution of this intersection to its present moment of the Digital.
The piece I am sharing with you today is a thought experiment. It is influenced by D. Soyini Madison’s Performing theory/embodied writing. It’s playing with McLuhan’s method of writing as though making a collage, and it’s answering Fanon’s call in The Wretched of the Earth, to use imagination to create a new now. My new now speaks with the both McLuhan and Fanon through the “Playboy Interview” and the introduction of Black Skins, White Masks.
My hope with this piece, tentatively titled “A Letter to Frantz and Marshall”, is that it can eventually move into a larger project that might or might not be a dissertation chapter examining the role of fibre optic cables, light as pure information, and the “net of colonization” to examine how the digital creates a reparative space where we as a society can create explosions that allow us to imagine the body and the human in a new light.
Please note, for the purposes of this piece I will be speaking with both men on a first name basis. Frantz is Frantz Fanon and Marshall is Marshall McLuhan.
=== A Letter to Fanon and McLuhan===
Dear Frantz & Marshall,
I know the two of you never officially met, except for that brief instance where Frantz’s words become yours in War and Peace in the Global Village Marshall. You are meeting now though, in my head, and I am attempting to move that meeting to an external data storage device as words on a virtual page, that will eventually move to ink on paper.
Marshall, you said something along the lines of technology is the extension of the human body in the Medium is the Massage. The entirety of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man also explores this relationship. When I think of this idea in relation to your reflections in “the Playboy Interview”, reflections that lead you to saying black bodies are left outside of technology, I can’t help but smile a little as I remember Fanon’s point in Black Skin, White Masks. The Black man is not fully human. It seems that what you are speaking towards when you speak of the issues of the Black man (and the Indian to a lesser extent) Marshall, are the societal effects of the technologically extension of a Human body that is assumed to be less than Human. This seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a bit of a circle because the black man/person being less than human is directly linked to their inability to be seen as fully connected to and through technology.
Frantz, you said something that I am finding myself seeing true about the Human experience, what and who is human is determined by the negation of the black man. If media technologies are all just an extension of the human body, and that which in fact makes us fully human and connected, returning us to the global village without margins or centers, then it stands to reason that to understand the Human we must also understand the relationship between the black man and technology. It is the relationship defined by a technological lack that will show us the blind spots in our Utopian vision.
If we look at technology as the extension of man, it seems we must begin to see slaves as the foundational technology of not just the United States, but the West as a whole as connected through the Atlantic slave trade. If we understand that these bodies were seen as a lack due to their distance from the technologies of the West we can see that they are not human bodies but are rather a media technology like any other media technology. It becomes easier for Black bodies to be subsumed into a system of commerce. As media technology they served as an extension of the body of their owners, increasing the size, scale and pace of agriculture in a plantation economy as machines in the garden. Their bodies, not their humanity, made them central to the process of taming the frontier and cultivating the new world towards a European vision. Their bodies allowed for time and capital to grow at a new pace, across more space in ways not seen before the Atlantic slave trade became a well-oiled machine, delivering raw technology for hundreds of years. If we extend this beyond the Atlantic slave trade to include the colonization of Africa in the 1800s, Jim Crow in the United States, and Apartheid in South Africa, the timeline is even longer. When we look at the issues of Neo-colonialism, the continued territory, protectorate, or militarily occupied status of many formerly colonized African states, as well as the penal labor system that is currently growing in the United States, we might even say that the black body as part of the industrial machine never ended. It is important to note though that black bodies are no longer the only bodies that make up this labor technoloy. That is, however, a separate conversation.
Both of you think an over extension of the body through technology leads to psychosis. The psychosis is predicated on a loss of self in relation to the body. Technology is to be built upon, extended, evolved and, subsumed. For the black man the extension is based on an over association with the White Man. If we are thinking through this with the parameters Marshall laid out coupled with the history of Black slaves as technology, the extension you are illustrating Frantz shows a moment of technology becoming sentient, believing itself to be too Human.
The difference seems to be, if I understand you both correctly, that the causes and results of the manifestation of the psychosis differs from the White man to the black man. The black man’s psychosis is in the realization that he can never be as human as the white man in his quest for more and more technology even as the white man tells the black man to try and catch up. The rhetoric we continue to hear today around digital divide constructs the black man this way. The white man though, in a need to assert his own humanity and recreate centuries of social structuring is compelled to increase the distance between him and those bodies he imagines as closer to raw technology. The White man overextends himself in this quest, losing sight of his body, becoming post-human. In his post-humanity he removes the capability of seeing the Black man as human, even as he, the white man, longs to go back to an imagined before time, a time where he too was Human. The psychoses of the white man comes from the Black mans closeness to his body. His inability to be extended keeps him closer to the human than the flight away that is occurring in the White post-humanism movement. A second layer of psychosis for the white man comes from watching the Black man work through his own psychosis, a psychosis characterized by a compulsion to emulate the White Man in an attempt to be recognized as Human, without access to the technological tools required to do so. No matter how hard a black man tries to reach the world of the white man, his almost human hands can never touch it.
Attempting to understand this psychosis is why I am writing both of you. I think both of you are hinting towards a level of consciousness that is innate to humanity that the black man has better access to perhaps because he hasn’t extended his body outward through technology as much as the white man (his extension, while outward facing, is more internal). Despite the internal nature of this extension, the message received through technological mediation outside of the body causes misunderstanding that blinds and alienates the Black Man from this other level of consciousness because for the black man to have the realization that he can access it on a total scale would be an annihilation of the current social order. Marshall, you said,
“The cultural aggression of white America against Negroes and Indians is not based on skin color and belief in racial superiority, whatever ideological clothing may be used to rationalize it, but on the white man’s inchoate awareness that the Negro and Indian — as men with deep roots in the resonating echo chamber of the discontinuous, interrelated tribal world — are actually psychically and socially superior to the fragmented, alienated and dissociated man of Western civilization,”
Are you not speaking directly to Frantz and his beliefs that that it is the mistake of the black man to not already realize he is the defining instance of humanness and humanity, for it is he who has access to the zone of non-being. I think, Frantz, you can clarify this for me. You said,
Running the risk of angering my black brothers, I shall say that the Black is not a man.
There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinary sterile and arid region, and incline stripped bare of every essential from which a genuine new departure can emerge. In most cases the black man cannot take advantage of this descent into a veritable hell.
Man is not only the potential for self-consciousness or negation. If it be true that consciousness is transcendental, we must also realize that this transcendence is obsessed with the issue of love and understanding. Man is a “yes” resonating from cosmic harmonies. Uprooted, dispersed, dazed, and doomed to watch as the truths he has elaborated vanish one by one, he must stop projecting his antinomy into the world” (xii).
While you started with the transcendental consciousness, Marshall, it is where you ended your interview:
“I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form.”
Both of you see this movement towards the transcendental starting with the tribal, or black man. And both of you see the inevitable violence the path of technology leads us on if we continue to see certain Humans as wretched and others as technologically superior. As long as superiority is understood by the ability of a group of Humans to master, contain and control the messages of the mediums, and make them obsolete we will never break society of our racially based psychoses. (As an aside, if we see the black slave as pure technology, and technologies as building on top of each other making previous versions obsolete, the black and Indian man never had a chance.) When I read these lines,
“The one inexorable consequence of any identity quest generated by environmental upheaval is tremendous violence. This violence has traditionally been directed at the tribal man who challenged visual-mechanical culture, as with the genocide against the Indian and the institutionalized dehumanization of the Negro”.
I am not sure who I am reading until I remind myself that Marshall, you were more interested in the Indian. Had it been you Frantz, I think you would have said Arab. Marshall, You spoke of the real possibility of the negro being exterminated through, something that I think can be softly confirmed if we look at statistics showing various ways people are moved from society, through imprisonment, literacy, or lack of access to the tools and technologies needed to be fully Human. As though you saw this on the horizon as well, Frantz, you had already written a response, a call, and a reminder:
I ask that I be taken into consideration on the basis of my desire. I am not only here-now, locked in thinghood. I desire somewhere else and something else. I demand that an account be taken of my contradictory activity insofar as I pursue something other than life, insofar as I am fighting for the birth of a human world, in other words, a world of reciprocal recognitions. He who is reluctant to recognize me is against me. In a fierce struggle I am willing to feel the shudder of death, the irreversible extinction, but also the possibility of impossibility (193).
Where do we go from here though?
I am thinking the three of us can push this a little bit further. If we acknowledge that the black body represents pure technology, and technology is simply a way that we extend our own human bodies, and the medium that we use for this extension has its own message, then I think we can say the medium that represents humanity is the black man. Just as the light is pure information, to understand how we have come to define the human, especially as we try to understand the human through media technology, we must first understand the relation of humanity and humanness to the black body, the body that I think became a cyborg long ago.
The next step for me is to expand this conversation and explore it through the role of black women, looking specifically at society’s current cause of psychosis and division, Digital Media.
Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove press, 1994.
Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth. Grove Press, 2005.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Madison, D. Soyini. “Performing theory/embodied writing.” Text and Performance Quarterly 19, no. 2 (1999): 107-124.
Marx, Leo. The machine in the garden: Technology and the pastoral ideal in America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore. The medium is the massage. New York: Bantam Books, 1967.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding media: The extensions of man. MIT press, 1994.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. War and peace in the global village. McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Nakamura, Lisa, and Peter Chow-White, eds. Race after the Internet. Routledge, 2012.
Norden, Eric. “The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan.” Playboy Magazine(1969).
Saldanha, Arun. “Skin, affect, aggregation: Guattarian variations on Fanon.”Environment and planning. A 42, no. 10 (2010): 2410.