Sunday, June 23, 2013

Figures and Grounds of the 'Conditions of Mediation. Phenomenological Approaches to Media, Technology and Communication'.

FCCInfo layer on Google Earth, radio broadcast antenna in Los Angeles.

Conditions of Mediation. Phenomenological Approaches to Media, Technology and Communicationa conference held at Birkbeck Institute in London on 17 June 2013, was a special assembly of people bringing together a multitude of at the moment disparate threads of research in and around the experience of the digital. The conference was divided into a plenary morning session composed of six keynote talks, and three parallel streams of afternoon paper sessions. Owing to the limits of mechanical physics (partially overcome by the twitter activity of the attendees), and since the lines of thought delineated in the talks moved along many vectors, I am able to recount only a very limited portion of the whole.

Graham Harman starts off from the tension between depth and surface, as Kant first sketched it. Harman reconnected it with the problem of the background (medium or ground) and foreground (content or figure) in Marshall McLuhan's theorisation of medium. Contrary to what is current thought, McLuhan is, according to Harman, a thinker of the background, not surface. Something is always withdrawn from the medium, in a way not dissimilar to the casual perception of any object in Heideggerian phenomenology. But there are at least two ways of moving background to the foreground, even if temporarily. The first one individuated by McLuhan is 'retrieval', operation of bringing to the forefront a layer of the medium which has been concealed previously. This, in Harman's view, is something that artists working with media try to accomplish, they attempt to raise the spectator's awareness of the mediation as it takes act. Another figure/ground inter-change is 'reversal', which takes place when the medium overheats and then reverses its function or content. Harman makes an example of the highway, which, when saturated with cars, instead of a frictionless travelling surface turns into chaos. At this point, the medium is revealed, similarly to the Heidegger's famous hammer.

Not highways, but another type of infrastructure is the matter of concern of Lisa Parks. Her analysis approaches the U.S. Broadcasting system from the map of the network of radio and TV antennas. That highly technical knowledge is now a click away today, available as a mapping layer called FCCInfo on Google Earth. The layer is dazzlingly rich, it not only maps the locations of transmitters, but astoundingly the microwave connections between them as well. But, even at this extremely high resolution of detail, it remains a cartographic knowledge, something unmoving and flat. Thus, Parks proposes a more complex methodology of infrastructural reading, which she calls 'creative mediation'. It starts with the map, then extends into landscape, with excursions onto the actual sites of transmission. On field Parks encounters fences, barriers, warning signs, and limits to access. The antennas carrying medial access are not as accessible on foot. One of the paradoxes of the mediation. Although the infrastructural knowledge might seem distant from the mediation in itself, it is important because of the politics of knowledge, as Parks clarified in the Q&A session that followed.

Paddy Scannell looks at the everyday world as it is interwoven with media, and how this contributes to the experience of everyday life. This lifeworld, or 'everyday world' is a “working world that works all-day continually, yesterday, today, and tomorrow”. It is made of structures and operations of “unfathomable complexity”, which seamlessly work together, and this gives us “the trustworthiness in the everyday world and its things”. Thus, we take it at its face value, for granted, without ever noticing it, and we only worry about it “when something goes wrong”. What makes this everyday world 'workable' and 'working' for us are the “care structures”, “the relational totality of the hidden layer around everyday useful usable things”. Looking at media, and here Scannell refers specifically to television, we again observe the previously mentioned background/foreground double movement. The care structures that produce the television are withdrawn beneath the surface of the apparatus and the medium during the process of production. This applies both to the TV as a technological artefact (which lies in our living rooms) and its content, transmitted programme. As Harman, following McLuhan, points out, mediation works in the deep background but at the same time also allows communication.

The figure / ground reciprocation explicates itself in the today very present feeling of puzzlement caused by the 'tool reversibility' of the medium, something which Nick Couldry treated in his talk. Namely, as Couldry explains, it is not only us who simply use the medium, but, at the same time, the medium uses us for others' (mediated) interests. This bewilderment is experienced daily by phenomena as common as 'information overload', as Couldry vividly exemplified with a phenomenon as diffused as the all-too-full e-mail inbox. More in general, an unease in front of the digital tools derives from the fact that they operate through distant and inscrutable processes. Since they cannot be perceived at all, this induces the sensation that they cannot cannot be challenged.

The question of orientation was put to the fore in Shaun Moores' talk in which he analysed how our fingers are central to the experience of lifeworld, even in a digitally mediated environment. Following Tim Ingold's description of the operation of sawing a wooden plank, and David Sudnow's description of learning how to play jazz on piano, Moores extends these processes of cognitive orientation onto the use of computer keyboard, and, now, touch-screens. Thus, in his view, these surfaces of mediation with the digital constitute ways in which we inhabit the environment. Importantly, the surfaces of keyboards or screens are not inert backgrounds, but grounds of quotidian performance and in this way they become embodied relations and skills. Through this interaction, in Moores' view, we closely replicate the dwelling in Ingold's conceptualisation, thus the knowing “as we go” through the environment.

The imperceptibility of the medium is thus only relative, and the operations of 'retrieval' of the medium are possible even starting from the medium's surfaces. Scannell proposes the analysis of everyday things and care structures, Lisa Parks looks at the 'failures' of the infrastructure, and Couldry suggests a reflexive approach to 'social analytics'. Mediation operates in such way to create a “seamless workability of everyday world”, but it also fails all the time. In these moments of everyday failure, the medium comes into the foreground, it ceases to be the ground or the infrastructure. In my view, even Moores' approach, in appearance with difficulty compatible with the analysis of the digital mediation, may have interesting implications in the study of interface as process or performance, and thus by extension even algorithms, but we will come back to it later.

Infrastructure is a continuum of visibility and invisibility, meshing together architecture of the network and its computational operativity, as Lisa Parks notes, but what performs the passages between the two realms is the code or the algorithm. Phenomenologically speaking, what is the computational or 'computal' operativity made of? David Berry in his talk explained that the contemporary computal paradigm renders the world in form of streams. They are transformed either into coded objects, or into abstract stream data types. Streams contain the whole spectrum of temporality at once, the past is stored in the archive (memory), the present works inside the short-term or working memory, and the future is calculated as a “probabilistic spectrum of incoming data”. Therefore, in Berry's reading, the intentionality of digital data streams is oriented towards the future, which they aim to process.

This architectural ontology of the 'computal' has in the later years become one of the dominant forms in which users experience the internet. Today, the streams are the interface paradigm for many platforms, ranging from news sites to social media. As Sam Kinsley analysed in his talk, streams or timelines through social media platforms influence the experience of time in everyday life. The ordering in streams “does not precede, but does predetermine the nature of events according to their recordability, the interface of the platform, [..]”. The way in which these platforms are programmed and operate actually changes the nature of what is considered an event in the quotidian life. As Kinsley argues, drawing from Bernard Stiegler's critique of Husserl, social media today engage with the “industrialisation of memory” through a sorting and scheduling of life. Thus, this algorithmic timelining reaches way further than the plain web interface, and overspills into the ways we engage with the lifeworld.

Daniel Knapp and Sebastian Kubitschko explore “the limits of agency in algorithmic infrastructure” by looking at the limits of the interface. Even thinking about the algorithms is fuzzy, since, according to Knapp and Kubitschko, algorithms do not possess a formal definition, only a series of characterisations. This conceptual difficulty bears upon the practices of data visualisation or 'tracings' of data streams. These representations cannot be but partial because of the performative nature of the algorithms. Although they are made of lines of code, the algorithms are always in the way of becoming, they even make the becoming, as seen in Berry's talk. As Knapp and Kubitschko emphasise, “algorithms are made to disappear”, in a similar way as conventional infrastructures, but on another scale and layer of withdrawal. This poses challenges to the sight as a preferential way of inquiry, and thus questions the limits of the interface level, which is grounded in visuality, and through which we prevalently engage with the media today.

James Ash analyses how digital objects are experienced phenomenologically via the interface. Drawing on Alexander Galloway's recent Interface Effect, Ash moves away from the idea of interface as a threshold between the digital and the real. Interface is not a thing, but a “process of translation”. Through interface, and specifically, the resolution, digital objects “encourage us to approach them”. To work out this point, Ash employs Harman's conceptualisation of resolution from Guerilla Metaphysics, and asserts that digital objects tend towards an “optimum resolution”, which would be a pre-condition for fluent interaction with users. But, the resolution is never a constant, it is more or less discreet because of the coding of the interface, thus the objects “phase in and out” of the resolution. On the users' side, this demands continual shifts in perception and interaction. Importantly, the equation is far from linear, Ash stresses, as a higher resolution does not necessarily imply a better user experience. Sometimes even the contrary. “The higher the resolution of an object in the interface, the higher its autonomy as the object”, thus, in terms of OOO, the higher digital object's own agency is, it might induce a higher level of confusion or dissatisfaction in the interface users. Ash exemplifies this in the case of a first-person shooter video game, where the gamers felt disoriented and frustrated by the inconstant behaviour of the weapon they were supposed to control. This is clearly another example of the tool revealing itself, this time at the level of digital interface, which nevertheless causes certain discomfort in the people's experience.

Daniel Sutko takes intellectual property (IP) as a means for understanding the inherent potency of the medium. Although the IP might seem as an external social structure grafted onto the medium, it actually conditions and tries to govern the medial “will to power”. The problem, according to Sutko, is that the regulations “never fully capture the radical autonomy of technological culture: there are always secretions, escapes, and surprises”. In this perspective, more liminal practices of manipulation of media, such as piracy, provide good analytical paths to scrutinise the materiality of the medium. Sutko quoted an example of Bureau of Inverse Technology's BitRadio, a pirate radio station programmed to interfere at determinate time intervals with radio channels within its range by broadcasting the noise of gunfire. In his reading, this intervention is paradigmatic because it operated across several dimensions of mediation: perceptual (the listening of the radio), political economy of the media, and the technological by actively interrupting the normal broadcast. In general, oppositional practices of piracy closely align Deleuze's call to “become imperceptible” with Assange's claim for the right and need to encryption, because data today can be considered part of our expanded subjectivity. But, these strategies do not intend to withdraw the medium into greater background, as it may seem at a first glance. On the contrary, according to Sutko, they aim to recognise and bring to critical attention the “medial will to power”. In doing this, these practices underscore that it is not humans who simply do something by using technology, instead humans and technology work together. Later in the Q&A session, Sutko recognised that it would be a true challenge to think up a regulation of IP taking into consideration medium's inherent autonomy and agency.

The present entanglement of digital media with the urban space is a fertile field for phenomenological inquiry, bringing it back into spatial experience of the environment combined with digital mediation. Joel McKim traces the history of the architecture's concern with the creation of habitus, an all-encompassing experience of place which tries to move away from the modernism's primacy conferred to the visual. Drawing on, among other authors, Jorge Otero-Pailos's Architecture's Historical Turn, McKim sketches a trajectory parallel to that of high modernism, a line of architectural thinking that looked at ways of placemaking which would reproduce or create topologies either of history or of nature within the urban environment. This is clearly an opposite stance from that of modernism, which treated (urban) space as a tabula rasa to be inscribed upon. As McKim notes, referring to Kenneth Frampton's 'architectural regionalism', these lines of thought were inclined towards the tradition and were dismissive of technological advancements. Overall, these quests for the “sense of place” or Norbert-Schulz's “genius loci” resonate closely with Heidegger and Arendt's concept of “bounded dwelling”, and thus propose a re-orientation towards tactile and kinaesthetic experience of the built environment. McKim singled out the activity of Jean Labatut as someone who in practice bridged the disconnect between this placemaking sensibility and more technologically imbued ambient architecture. Labatut started his career as a camouflage artist, drawing patterns for military ships, to move towards architecture later on. His major project for the New York World Exhibition in 1939, the Lagoon of the Nations, was a multi-sensory experience powered by the latest technologies of the moment, creating a “symphony of light and water”. As McKim observes, Labatut's approach is not dissimilar to the present situation of public space installations which employ new media. Very often contemporary designers and artists using new media end up competing in spectacularity with other visual attractions, such as shining LED ads, which often use the very same new media, too. Ideas for an ambiental convergence of new media with architecture to jointly create a new 'sense of place' are thus still being explored.

Scott Rodgers reads the media city from the point of view of journalism, understood as a practice of making the city. The starting question is: “why has locality emerged as a central format for contemporary media?” In Rodgers' view, the contemporary entanglement of urban space with mediated information can be analysed through Bourdieu's concept of 'field'. In this conceptualisation, fields are: a) competitive arenas, a “game worth playing”; b) autonomous, relatively irreducible to each other; c) social spaces: predisposed/presupposed conditions of possibility. In Judith Butler's interpretation, fields are produced through “performative interpolations”, through involvement with others in the field. Further, Rodgers argues, this perspective is consonant with Heidegger's notion of “lived space”, which encompasses three dimensions: a) experiential (space made through practical action), b) equipmental (tools and objects made present through practice), and c) temporal (threefold dimensionality of past, present and future). In Rodgers' view, these conceptualisations of urban space provide a good prism for the understanding of opportunities and limitations of “hyperlocal media”, the current impetus of journalism to provide ever more location-specific information.

Location-based services are mobilised to enhance Stranger Sociality Online through apps such as Grindr, which was the topic of Bryce J. Renninger's presentation. He critically approaches this web platform which was developed to facilitate homosexual encounters among men by geo-locating possible “dates” in the surroundings. Renninger scrutinised what he calls the “myth” of “0 feet away” which Grindr promotes, the promise of a smooth erasure of physical (and social) distance. However, in this translation from online interface to face-to-face encounter, Renninger identifies a series of difficulties, among which: the imprecisions in the actual localisation via GPS, since in dense urban environments trilateralisation is not very precise; the structure of the interface which orders potential 'dates' in a hierarchised list; relevancy of the dates etc. Thus, the idea of encounter at every log-on “that comes without worry” is very far from reality, and the mediation is as present as ever and needs to be taken into account. Renninger's unpacking of the digital-actual transition in this case study indicates still emerging ways of negotiation of this experiential gap.

To briefly draw some conclusions or propositions, several rich threads seem to emerge from this variety of perspectives. First is the concern with the perceptibility of the medium itself, that is the interplay between visibility and invisibility of the digital, the characteristic which might indicate its political, economical and social transparencies and opacities. There is not an entirely transparent or entirely opaque process of mediation, at each and every passage between mediators a perceptual reconfiguration takes place. Sometimes these passages are materialised in physical points of access and non-access, and sometimes they move deep in the code layer. Seams or fault lines of mediation run across the surfaces of technological objects situated in our everyday environment, crystallised in gadgets, but also in infrastructures that enable their functioning. At first glance, the performativity of the algorithms seems to operate through the very bowels of the digital and to be very distant from surface. Their mode of agency asks for different tools of analysis, tools that are connate or even identical to the objects of their analysis, thus algorithmic, such as in case of Couldry's proposal to use 'social analytics' in a reflective manner. Where the algorithms can be captured is another seam line, that of the interface, as emerged from Ash's and Knapp & Kubitschko's talks. I would argue that both infrastructural and the software-oriented phenomenology can accomplish McLuhan's reversals and retrievals, pushing the medium into the states in which it reveals more than it usually does. Moreover, maybe a synthesis of these methodologies can be thought up, starting from fingers or feet and extending into digital and back. In my view, there is a deep affinity which transpires between what interface in its purely digital sense means on one side and the infrastructure in its architectural sense. This is best observed in the materialisations of the medium in urban space, with its “resolutions”, but also in the everyday use of gadgets. Extending this concept from the realm of the screen, “resolution” might never be fully resolved, medium is never fully withdrawn, but phases in and out between the figure and the ground, in similar fashion on the level of the user interface or within the public space. The tracing of these phasings can be a phenomenological question.

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