DMI Summer School Salon


During the Morning Salon we will discuss three texts from the DMI Summer School reader and an additional text (see e-mail).

Please post one or more brief statements or questions you would like to explore during the discussion. Feel free to add your reading notes to the wiki or to add additional suggested literature or to add to the pre-discussion on this wiki in any other way.


Berry, David (2011). Philosophy of Software. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Streams excerpt.
Caplan, Paul (2011). “Software Tunnels Through the Rags 'n Refuse: Object OrientedSoftware Studies and Platform Politics”. Presented at Platform Politics conference inCambridge, 13 May 2011.
Latour, Bruno (2009). “Tarde’s idea of quantification.” The Social After Gabriel Tarde: Debatesand Assessments. Ed. Mattei Candea. Routledge, London, pp. 145-162.

Statements and questions

Statement: Latour's Tarde/ Berry's Lyotard

by Marc Tuters

In what follows, I want to open a discussion around Latour in relation to the so-called digital humanities. To that end I would like to place Latour’s recent work on Tarde and digital methods, in tension with the Berry’s piece. There is something strange about staging this discussion, as though comparing likes across categories. Indeed, the perceived controversy may indeed be a “category mistake”, in which case I might indeed be the outlier. The DMI reader, however seems to suggest a terrain for (dare I say “ideological”) debate.

A salon... named after the (forgotten) tradition of mannerly discourse, upon which is founded the late Frankfurt School’s ideal of communicative reason. The DMI’s work of composing representations of controversies online evokes Latour’s notion of the Parliament of Things, in which an “irreductionist object oriented reading”... allows us to say: “yes technology determines” (Caplan 2011).

I think that the proper ground against which to locate this debate is what in media studies, is known as the “effects” tradition, the most famed proponent of which of course was Mcluhan. While this approach to theory is derided, if not often dismissed within the media studies as being both both overly literary as well as technologically deterministic, it has, nevertheless, been embraced by powerful figures in spheres of business and policy (Barbrook 2007). Mcluhanism, as Barbrook calls it, has been promoted in service of a libertarian ideology, emerging from Silicon Valley, a discourse referred to as cyberutopianism (Turner 2006, Morozov 2011).

While the humanities has long defined itself in opposition to the natural sciences, as a university “faculty” it is subject to the same kinds of crises --humanities scholars in the cultural studies tradition tend to refer to these shifts in terms of epistemes (Foucault ‘66) while those on STS refer to paradigms (Kuhn ‘62). Whatever their critical lineage, scholars in the digital humanities take consumer technology as their site of analysis. Digital humanities scholars, together with marketers and planners, are fascinated by the bleeding edge of innovation. In the context, however, of a more general climate of methodological “conservatism”, digital humanities scholars often find themselves on the scene making sense of the present, long before any of the professionals of other fields.

As he has done for some years now, Latour sets the stakes of the debate in rather binary terms with the theorists of the social on the one side (following Durkheim) and the ANT critics on the other (following Tarde). Simply put Tarde posited a social theory based on imitation which according to Latour today’s technologies of traceability make it possible to study. As in the sciences we can, as humanities scholars, make claims grounded on this empirical data. By contrast traditional sociologists for Latour have no such solid ground upon which to base their theories and their theories are often ideologically charged --looking at the role of critique after 911, in a famed article Latour draws disturbing comparisons between the tone of Baudrillard’s critique and that of conspiracy theorists. In theory’s post-911 period, we are asked to reject all the old methods of the humanities which tended to rush too quickly to the barricades. The project of ANT, currently ascendant in the humanities, is a slow but total revaluation of all values underpinning the academy, which radically rejects all the disciplinary silos by which, for instance, psychology and sociology are kept apart separate. So long as we have access to the experimental apparatus, by which to trace their connections, social theory can extend across any number of scales.

With a praxis supplied by the issue crawler and related tools, and a metaphysics supplied by Latour’s Tarde, ANT is presented as a new paradigm for media studies, with genuinely new methods by which , the big claim is, that we can study the Internet as society itself and not a representation thereof (Rogers, forthcoming). The potential impact of this claim makes digital methods controversial when considered alongside more hermeneutical approaches of media and culture studies --which as a rule do not have quantitative data out of which to ground their theories. At the same time, as Nick Couldry states, “for all its intellectual radicalism, ANT comes charged with a heavy load of political conservatism that is, I would argue, directly linked to its professed disinterest in human agency.” (Couldry, ACTOR NETWORK THEORY AND MEDIA: DO THEY CONNECT AND ON WHAT TERMS? 2004)

In staging this debate with Bruno Latour’s Tarde, we have chosen David Berry’s Lyotard. Unlike Latour who seems no more interested in humans than in any other form of organization, Berry proposes we look specifically at the effects of technology on human subjectivity in terms of what, following Lyotard, he calls the “real-time stream” --into which we are immersed as consumers and producers of data focusing in particular on the locative apparatus. He posits the decline of a “destination web” and the related metaphor of browsing towards search and syndication. Berry considers the question of being in real-time time in Heideggerian terms according whose conception “authentic” time only occurs in relation to mortality, he states: “[t]he notion of subjectivity that is embedded in the socio-technical networks of computational systems points towards a deathless existence” (146). With Berry we find ourselves once again on the familiar ground of post-modern “control society” critique, targeted here against what he calls the “financialization” of subjective experience.

Berry’s analysis of subjectivity starts from what Kittler calls a technical a priori (or Thrift calls a technological unconscious) that shapes the possibility of thought and action, and which brings him into currents debate around affect (Hayles, Massummi, etc). He positions these changes in subjectivity in relation to Hart and Negri’s famed radical analysis of political economy (“changes in the internal structure of the human mind and body to facilitate that productivity that previously took place in the factory” (148), as well as the Invisible Committee for whom “[w]]hether one is working or not, it’s a question of generating contacts, abilities, networking, in short “human capital” (The Invisible Committee 2009: 50–1). He to link the calculative rationality of “real-time streams” to what he calls an “affective distributed rationality” noting the growing importance of data visualization in particular, stating: “life itself becomes understood as a ‘life-stream’ through the application of memory systems designed to support a highly infor- matised and visualised computational economy.” (155)

While Bell draws on concepts from phenomenology, Caplan, for his part, takes us in a different direction following the so-called speculative realists, in rejects the doctrine of “correlationism”, which tends to see everything in terms of human relations. His text develops their discussions around object-oriented ontology, in which Latour figures prominently, to a metaphysical contemplation of the political status of the Facebook objects...

Collaborative reading notes

Nadia: he's going back to basics and knocks down the barriers between disciplines and the models they rely on.

Other helpful theories: Sloterdijk, when thinking Web diagnostics as the 'immune system' of the web.

Kevin Kelly: cosmologic approach.

Richard: When reading his text one may wonder why Latour is so often misunderstood?

His favorite targets of criticism: American social theory: diffusion and the level (even has a special notation for it, showing his humorousness 1-LS and 2-LS). He continuously tries to get away from convenient categories. Latour is dismantling their 'truisms and lazy thoughts'.

Another helpful way to compare the texts is looking at the way the authors take the Internet as a 'thing to think with'

The ways in which Berry and Latour think with the Internet. Latour thinks of the Web as something that one surfs (and paths). But as you move through the text, the web is an analysts' space. Where you (in the ethnographic approach, which is very dear to Latour), where the analyst accumulates traces, without shifting levels. Now, with less clicking than with scientometrics.

Berry has a more imaginative model of the Web, it is not based on much experience (which can be productive). It looks at (realtime) streams (a term he borrows from broadcast media). And these models can be historicized.

Carolin: the productivity of data elements (most explicitly mentioned in Caplan, where he refers to the multiplication of user data) is perhaps helpful. Berry and Caplan are both very interested in the production and performative capacity of data (metadata or patterning algorithms that multiply data).

Sabine: from the angle of controversy mapping, Venturini (and Latour) deal with this multiplicity of data (and traces) by tracing and mapping it all. They embrace redundancy of data (and also a redundancy of maps). The overlap strengthens your findings (Richard: this is actually triangulation. Create many maps rather than one very complex tell-all visualization. See also under further reading.

Astrid: ANT is not a-political, it is studying power by associations between actors, not starting from power relations and then studying the relations between them.

Marc: the mode of social sciences seen with ANT seems similar to Barbrook's cold war left, computational approach to power. Daniel Bell et al.

Richard: yes, but Bell and others did not experience postmodernism. Not big data, but the time of the big model.

Perhaps we have to work at Google for a day in order to finish our projects.

The Adam Curtis documentary mentioned by Marc: .

Anne, what about the feedback mechanisms that the streams text talks about. But streams are constantly interrupted or changed by feedback loops.

Richard: Anne, what is your take on the Berry's theorizing of the notion of life stream?

Anne: he takes the metaphor of "market portfolio", this sounds like an idea from the 60s. Anne: the lifestream is the output of the system, the input is what the user creates. Nowadays: the lifestream is no longer configured just by you.

Is this the evacuation of the human (as Marc points at Latour). Lifestream analysis maintains the difference between the individual and aggregate or society.

Marc: well, let's look at the selfquantifiers!

Anne: yes but it the quantified self is about self-improvement through metrics. Comparing yourself to the aggregate.

Carolin: in Berry's article he collapses users and forms of data, every bit of data is part of the user. The stream is becoming almost subconscious, this is quite disturbing.

"I shall know thee from thou data"

Rogers: those last sentences are teachable moments! Someone told me once: "At the end of the book or article, you don't have to reach for the sky and pull out lightning bolts. You can just end."

On that note: the end.

Suggested further reading

Tomasso Venturini (2010), "Building on faults: how to represent controversies with digital methods", Public Understanding of Science, Published online before print, doi: 10.1177/0963662510387558.

This topic: Dmi > DmiSummer2011Salon
Topic revision: 08 Jul 2011, SabineNiederer
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