The Medium is Not the Message

“I don’t believe there are books I’ve never ‘read’ because I have only heard them, or poems I’ve not experienced because I’ve only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can’t), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.”— Neil Gaiman

In English there are many things we agree we can read:

The room filled with well-dressed strangers

The mouthing of lips from across the table

The strokes of paint fanned over the canvas

Yet when it comes to digital books, for some reason the agreement seems to end.

Is reading an ebook still reading?

Do books on tape count as reading?

Our ability to read exists in many forms, from interpreting shapes, to gaging situations and listening to sounds. Regardless of format, be it a physical book, an audiobook, or an ebook, the messages they carry remains the same—making them different paths that lead to the same end. To think that there is a hierarchy within the forms (or claiming one is more “pure”)  is to negate the historic ways people have learned information, the different ways people receive information (see the social model of disability), and the quality of the information they get through these different forms.  

For most of human history, writing has not been the dominant mode of human communication. The written word has existed for less than 6,000 years, and it is suggested that we have yet to develop the mental processes specialized for reading the written text, and instead rely on our older cognitive tools that have developed to understand oral language. As  Neuroscientist VS Ramamchandran argues:

“Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with hearing, probably 150,000 years ago and to some extent is ‘hard wired’; whereas writing is 5,000 to 7,000 years old – partially going piggyback on the same circuits, but partially involving new brain structures like the left angular gyrus .”  

As oral storytelling and the written word are intrinsically linked within our physical states, we should think of them as two sides of the same coin—to read is to listen. Indeed, most readers do something called ‘subvocalization’, which is the habit of ‘saying’ the words on the page in your mind as if they were an external voice. In fact, those of us who subvocalize when we read will find it incredibly difficult to even imagine any other form of reading.

Writers of great historical importance in ‘western’ literature, from Homer to various contributors to the Bible over multiple centuries were never in-fact writers but oral storytellers. And in the case of the latter, literacy became a powerful tool of social control through the delegitimization of religious stories not contained in sacred texts.

But does this make their work any less valuable? Any less literate? Of course not.

So why would we assume that listening to audiobooks is somehow inferior to reading them?

Listening to oral stories and reading texts both disseminate the same set of ideas, feelings, and messages. The mediums may vary, but the message remains the same. Text used to be the only means of relaying information across space and time, but modern technology allows for the spoken word to be stored and shipped in the same way, and it can even be used to convey information that text is often lacking, like a specific intonation, or a musical score.

 

When the question of “what is reading” was posited I could not help but think of the Examined Life episode with Judith Butler where she explores the meaning behind “what is walking” and how we as a society have a narrow notion of how bodies are used. To limit the idea of reading as being something we only do with our eyes, or within the contained structure of printed books, is to fail to value to the experiences of those who exist outside our default norm. Digital formats like ebook and are essential for those with visual impairments (who can change the size of  the text on an e-reader), those with dyslexia (who can apply Open Dyslexic font), those who simply aren’t able to physically turn the pages of a book, or those in remote communities who don’t have access to physical books. Audiobooks work in much the same way. Originally created as wax cylinders as part of the initiative of the American Institute for the Blind, they are now used by those with visual impairments, by children who struggle with reading, people who learn auditorily, and people who are non-native speakers (and plenty more!). These “non-traditional” ways of reading do not negate any of the information conveyed by the authors. Much like Butler’s claim that the use of a wheelchair is still ‘taking a walk’, listening to an audiobook or reading a digital copy is still reading, as the relationship between the producer and the consumer of the text is the same.

Some have argued that the information provided through these forms is somehow less valuable, or less tangible. Yet research has argued that information is equally comprehended in these different forms. Furthermore, others have argued that listening to audiobooks actually helps people read. Audiobooks are not a substitute for literacy, but they are also not something that should come with any of the stigma attached to illiteracy.

 

 

 

Reflections on Pub 802, Spring 2019


Upon looking at the lineup of classes this semester, I must admit I was a little apprehensive to be taking what looked like a tech-heavy course load.  Despite being someone whose work is heavily based on digital technologies, I consider myself to be a bit of a Luddite. However, my original fears that Pub 802 was going to be “techy”, dry, and beyond my comprehension were quickly proven wrong. Instead, I found the reading material and subsequent class discussions to be generally exciting as they didn’t focus so much on the digital technologies per se but the social, political, and economic implications these technologies have. Overall, I feel like I have learned a lot from this class as well as met, and in some cases exceeded, the learning objectives set forth in September. Continue reading “Reflections on Pub 802, Spring 2019”

Working Towards Big Data Ethics

The use of big data has skyrocketed within recent years opening up new opportunities for traditional industries such as publishing. Through the use of data collection and the ever-evolving way it is gathered, publishers can now gain insights into which sections of digital books are popular with readers, how long it takes the reader to finish a book, and whether or not they do indeed finish it. These insights help publishers make strategic decisions on everything from the emotional content arc of a story, to finding the next blockbuster, and how to capture reader engagement. But like all things great, with big data comes big responsibility. Regardless of what information publishers find beneficial, I believe there should be strong governmental regulations which set the moral responsibility of publishers and create an ethical code to govern how data is collected and used. This extends beyond current personal data laws and requires policymakers to keep up to date with the latest data mining approaches.

Continue reading “Working Towards Big Data Ethics”

Facebook’s World Domination Over Our Data

In 1999, Scott McNealy, then-CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously declared, “You have zero privacy now anyway. Get over it.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt warned that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s sixth richest man, decided that privacy was no longer a social norm, “and so we just went for it,” while Alexander Nix, of the data firm Cambridge Analytica — famously employed by both the Brexit and Trump campaigns — brags that his company “profiled the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” —Samuel Earl, 2017

Continue reading “Facebook’s World Domination Over Our Data”

CBS and Paramount Pictures versus Axanar Productions

….or The Rule of Acquisition #74: Knowledge Equals Profit

In 2014 Axanar Productions posted a 20-minute Star Trek fanfiction movie to on YouTube. It was a short teaser for a 90-minute yet to be released fan film called Axanar. For decades Star Trek fans have been making fanfiction without issue but studio concerns were raised once professional actors, detailed props, and authentic looking costumes were introduced. The year after the short was release the studios filed a copyright infringement lawsuit claiming that it exceeded fair use standards by appropriating works such as the show’s original mise-en-scène, characters (and their relationships), themes, as well as alien species (Mele, 2017).

Continue reading “CBS and Paramount Pictures versus Axanar Productions”

Platform Coöperatives and Online Publishing, Together at Last

Within the service sector of the economy, the emerging  system of ‘platform capitalism’ relies on “self-employed” workers using a platform (be it hardware or software) that is owned by a third party entity to facilitate their service delivery . This results in a situation wherein labour is sold directly to the consumer rather than an employer, using the platform as a proxy  to establish the guise of self-employment. The result is that there is no real change to the fundamental relationship between labour and capital, yet many of the standard operating costs are shifted to the employee, who also forgoes the benefits and protections that centuries of class struggle has carved out for the traditional wage labourer. Continue reading “Platform Coöperatives and Online Publishing, Together at Last”

The Web as Space

 

This week we examined the web through various metaphors. For me, the metaphor that was most interesting and agreeable was Chimero’s The Good Room, (2018) where he suggested that the web has transitioned from being merely a place we visit to a space in which we now live. In the following I will first explain why and how I agree with Chimero. I will then expand upon Chimero’s idea of the web as a space in which we live, and suggest that it is specifically a heterotopic space. Lastly, I will explore how this space shapes us, and how we can potentially reshape this space.

Part 1 Defining Space

To begin, I agree with Chimero’s suggestion that the web has transitioned from just a place we visit to a place where we now live, even if some of us don’t even realize it. It is much like a koan from David Foster Wallace of the fish who asks of another “how is the water?” to which the other fish replies “what’s water?” We are so surrounded by the web that it’s near impossible to see without first getting outside of it. Think of the terminology we use to describe things on the web–from “homepage” to “forum” to “chat room”, these terms reflect and imply a physical space where people meet and congregate. They are talked about as real spaces enclosed by four walls, discrete rooms with interconnected pathways between them, which we must navigate.

Growing up I always imagined the web as looking something akin to the Super Nintendo version of SimCity—a series of roads that connect buildings or spaces, both public and private. An ever growing network. It’s a simplistic simulacrum, but one that I have always found effective at understanding the web as a space (or a realm) where we roam. In his article, Chimero states (like my Sim analogy) that the internet is made up of spaces we choose to visit like a person popping into stores up and down the high street, but this not the only version of “space” that the web contains. Since the web is a ‘space’ is also must function in time and distance. In both cases, the web compresses and warps time and distance, or at times rendering them obsolete.

Part 2 The web as Heterotopic

To borrow an idea from Foucault, I would expand upon Chimero’s idea to say the web is not just a space but a heterotopic space. While I am not well versed in postmodern philosophy, I will try to break this concept down as simply as possible. According to Foucault heterotopic spaces are:

  • Spaces where norms of behaviour our suspended–while he obviously used the example of a asylum or jail, I think we can all come up with examples of this online. (Just look at what anonymity does to the typical forum member or youtube commenter)
  • Spaces that are reflective of the society which they exist—I will expand on this idea more, as I would argue that the current configuration of the web is a direct product of our economic structure
  • Spaces that juxtapose real spaces simultaneously—he uses the example of a garden, showing that different plants from different regions can coexist simultaneously. Space in regards to distance is defied, much like space on the web connects people and ideas from all over the world.
  • Spaces that are linked to slices of time – a place where time can either accumulate (like a museum ) or be transitory (like a traveling fair). The nonlinear nature of the internet fits in with this concept perfectly.
  • Spaces which are not freely accessible – they must be entered with a gesture or some sort of ritual—for the internet this can simply be the very fact one needs a device to enter, and a lot of online communities have their own gate-keepers.
  • Spaces that function in relation to other spaces that exist- either spaces of illusion or compensation (Jones, 2010)

In other words, the internet is not just a space where we visit sites, but it is a world within a world–one of warped space where time, distance, and social norms can be suspended.

Part 3 Reimagining Space

Like Chimero, I believe that our thoughts and experiences are shaped by our spaces, digital or otherwise. I also agree with him that we can reshape and redefine our spaces and the meanings we bring to them. Through creating alternative spaces on the web we can change our relationship with it and impose more culture into the commerce driven domain. But it isn’t quite this cut and dry. There’s often incentives to turn more cultural items into consumer products, to monetize your content, be it through changing the content itself, or through advertising. As Alan Kay said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it” (Gopnik, 2015). Although Chimero is slightly idealist in his view of the original web being a commonwealth built on strong social bonds and communalism, I agree that we can create more subversive spaces for creativity and reciprocity to shine.

Since we have the ability for expansive growth on the web, just imagine all the possible ways we could choose what physical web sites (or high street stores) we pop into, or what international communities we belong to, and what control we could have over our relationship with time.

Because digital space reflects the physical space in many ways it is fundamentally shaped by the broader socio-economic system. I believe this is why much of the web is a market place, built for subjects who have been socialized first and foremost as consumers. In turn, the web also influences the economic system – particularly in the way that it makes transactions instantaneous and creates new methods of distribution (such as amazon warehouses and a digital storefront replacing our old fashioned retail stores). It is hard to imagine a different web space without a different economic system. This is good evidence to support the thesis that we live in the web space rather than just visit it from time to time. The web is a structuring force in our lives, and it is so embedded in our society that it is hard to see the web change significantly without concomitant change in society more broadly.

If we agree that there is a strong structuring relationship between the web and the broader socio-economic system, then we can argue that changes made to the web (both cultural and economic) can have broader changes in the rest of the world.

Although here we would run into the same problem that Marxists have always argued about, which is if there needs to be a shift in the economic base in order to change the ideological ‘superstructure’ (culture and institutions) or if there needs to be a cultural shift before we can bring about change in the material base (capitalism / more of production). The web is just a space in which what Gramsci called the “war of position and the war of maneuver” takes place.

 

Chimero, Frank. 2018. The Good Room. Frank Chimero.

Gopnik, Alison. 2015. How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis. The Atlantic.

Jones, Victoria. 2010. An Outline of Foucault’s Six Principles of Heterotopia. Youtube.

The “Collectively-Taking-Control-of-our-Destinyers” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Placing people into categories has long been a device to position ourselves with and simultaneously against others. From race to gender, we often think of characteristics (socially constructed or otherwise) as confined to neat little self-contained boxes as opposed to existing fluidly on a spectrum. In his 2011 New Yorker article “The Information”, Adam Gopnik continues this tradition by describing three frames that we can use to understand humans relationships to technologies. Gopnik’s categories, which in my view are problematically reductionist, break down people into belonging to the “never-better”, the “better-nevers”, and the “ever-wasers”. In other words

1) those who believe in an upward progress where life is perpetually being improved upon because advances in technology

2) the nostalgic or neo-Luddite type who see changes in technology as de-evolution

3) and the more ambivalent group that that see the modern age as defined by changing technology that will please some and displease others.

Although Gopnik has you believe these groups are distinct and mutually exclusive, it would be hard to argue that any one person or society’s relationship to technology could neatly be reduced and packeded up into such opposing ideologies. Instead, I propose that we all contain these attitudes simultaneously—holding different attitudes about different technologies, or even holding different attitudes about the same technology. As someone who grew up in an age before the internet was widespread, I both hold the belief that the internet has improved my life drastically, while simultaneously longing for the days before it was co-opted as a tool for capitalist gains through advertising and other forms of commodification.

Socially we are not nearly as dogmatic or reducionary as these frames provided. Opinions on technologies are deeply situation to time, place, capital, powder, and how specific technologies are used—including by and for whom.

Furthermore, our attitudes about technologies cannot be understood apart from the specific social context and unequal distribution of capital and power from which they originate. There is a tendency to ascribe an innate teleology to technological development, and to ignore the social processes through which advancements in technology are made. This might explain why Gopnik divides people into the categories of “never-betters” and “better-nevers”, with the only third option being pure ambivalence. I would suggest that in opposition to all of these categories, there are those of us who believe that technology is a tool that can be used towards better or worse ends. In order to do this, however we need to ditch the laisse-faire attitude towards technological development, and realize that we do not only interpret advancements in technology, but we create, shape, and determine the direction they take. The three categories proposed position society as passive interpreters to technological advances where instead we should position ourselves as an active part in their creation. Since these category don’t work, perhaps we should fall into the “collectively-taking-control-of-our-destinyers”. Maybe we should view technology as Marx viewed philosophy in his eleventh Theses on Feurback—“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”(Marx, 1845).