Complexity management and the information omnivores-versus-univores dilemma

hudson-river-plane-800cropped

I recently had the opportunity to see the film Sully (2016), which recounts the 2009 emergency landing of a jetliner on New York’s Hudson River. Despite some critical flaws, the film is not only a thrill to watch but also provides much food for thought to those studying infrastructure. Even the flaws are instructive. One of them – certainly the most discussed – regards the portrayal of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that, as per protocol, investigated the accident. Whether due to Hollywood convention or directorial choice, the NTSB team are neatly cast as the villains, out to get the story’s hero by discrediting his decision-making process.

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Post 1 of 3: The Architecture and Infrastructure of Memory (MAI)

Leviathan Monument

Hobbes’ Leviathan frontispiece revisited: Dingpolitik and object-oriented governance.

 

What is the connection between the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the National Holocaust Monument currently being built in Ottawa, Canada? (Chalmers:105) Though this question seems rather peculiar at first, the answer is far less obscure when considered within the context of memory architecture and infrastructure (MAI). This is because MAI is intricately bound up in both remembrance and sovereignty.

The connection between memory and the authority or power to govern is nothing new: the correspondence between the two was established in early Greek mythology. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the ability to rule over others was granted to certain favoured individuals by the Muses through their unique bond with their mother Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and guardian over what should be remembered. As history would have it, memory would be stolen from Mnemosyne along with Hephaistos’ fire (thanks to our friend Prometheus) and humanity (led by the privileged few) became able to record their own past via material culture and technology. Mnemonic technologies (texts, film, photographs, commemorations, digital memory, the internet, etc.) have become increasingly complex, varied, and augmented as those responsible for filling the void left by Mnemosyne go about constructing our past(s).

However, though the figuration of memory has changed over time, the relationship has remained very similar: those who possess the ability to shape what is remembered and how it is re-collected are in an auspicious position to exercise sovereign rule, and inversely, those who wish to maintain such authority take a special interest in doing so. This is in part why memory studies scholars have written so extensively on both the more recent proliferation of commemorations (memorials, monuments, etc.) and their role as part of modern state attempts to reconstruct the past. The salience of state-sponsored memorials and monuments is particularly distinguishable in national capitals, where commemorative landscapes are often extremely composite and interconnected.

As a specific example of mnemonic technology, memorials and monuments are durable structures that have become delegates or heads of populations that are the punctualized result of previously formed assemblages composed of a multiplicity of actors (politicians, special interest groups, community organizations, artists, architects, city planners, academics, government organizations/departments, etc.). To say that these sites and their structures are delegates is to say that they ‘speak’ on behalf of the array of different actors who had gathered to establish them (and have since become ‘silent’ – an effect of punctualization), but it is also to say that they represent histories, specific events, ideologies and ideals, among other knowledges. Additionally, they participate in a discussion with a host of other such memorial delegates that exist within local, national, and international commemorative networks: with other delegates representing punctualized networks that then come together to form even larger commemorative networks.

It is these networks that form what is referred to here as memory infrastructure, or the organization of various punctualized assemblages that have been made durable (and to an extent more stable) through practices of art, design, and architecture.

Why is it important that we recognize MAI? Just like roads, sidewalks, trails, electricity, the internet, power plants, etc… MAI facilitates (and limits) possibilities and creates complex connections between these possibilities for both individuals and governments. This is how Canadian economic or foreign policy can be connected to a mass genocide in Europe during the 1940s (as well as a myriad of other seemingly unrelated issues). Memory infrastructure and architecture establish thoroughfares that align a variety of translated interests in order to guarantee (as much as possible) a certain range of agencies: in this case, the governments ability to successfully deploy policy decisions.

Squirrels, Sharks, and Eagles, oh my!

While teaching STS, I was recently talking to my students about what constitutes an “internet attack.” The students arrived with clear examples in mind (and in hand, which was part of the assignment). The answers were primarily in the form of human-based hacking projects, and, as most of you know, they are abound. Giving the timing of the assignment, most of the cases had something to do with hacks against the US, hacks against power production facilities, and financial institutions.

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However, one student brought this: Sharks, replete with jokes about Sharknado as evidence of the prowess of the shark. Seeing as how a previous lesson was about ANT, with an emphasis on non-human agents as not-to-be-ignored agents in understanding social order, broadly speaking, this was a sign that at least one student “really got it.”

Another student brought in this: an eagle hitting a drone, hard.

Not a few days pass, and the blog’s oldest friend, dmf, sends me to a great website, half-serious, half-satire, CyberSquirrel1. The site is a terrific description of how our critical infrastructure is seemingly the most danger from other nation-states; however, the empirical materials do not seem to suss-out such an explanation; in fact, squirrels and other non-humans are responsible for more “attacks” than anyone else.

Makes for a great lesson if you want to find a fresh new way to bring infrastructure and the agentic role of nonhumans into the classroom in a way that is, to my mind, far better to the early discussions that Latour made about stop signs or door hinges.

Latour on Paris Attacks

Latour

Latour on Paris Attacks: 

What is so discouraging about the terrorist acts is that our discussion of what motivated the operations is as insane as the acts themselves. With each attack of this nature, we restage the grand war drama, the nation in peril and the protector-state purporting to rise up against barbarity. This is what states do, we say: we should have a basic expectation of security, and the state should have the means to provide it. End of story.

But what makes the current situation so much more dismaying is that the crimes committed on 13 November have occurred within a few days of another event about to take place that involves tragedies of a different kind, ones that will require that we come up with very different answers to wholly different threats that have nothing to do with ISIS/Daech. I am referring, of course, to the World Climate Change Conference in Paris, the COP21, which we are now liable to deem less serious, less urgent than the police response to the bloody escapades of those machinegun-toting lunatics.

See the rest here and here.

Presentation: 4S, 2015

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4S 2015 Denver is our (Jan-H and I’s) presentation from, unsurprisingly, 4S 2015 (Denver), wherein we reflect on the trends and recurrent themes in our five years of organizing panels around STS, governance, and the state, which we are now calling simply “Social Studies of Politics.” We have a chapter summarizing a bit of this in “Knowing Governance,” but the paywall is steep, steep!

The Future Multiple

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New paper out that tackles a few issues about the ontological character of the future as it is enacted in practices of planning for it. Co-authored with Matthew Spaniol (see him here and here), an Industrial Ph.D. Fellow at Danish Maritime, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark. The paper is “The Future Multiple.”

*http://cdn.playbuzz.com/cdn/e4acc771-e904-4efd-b626-16eee9b95e19/6c3a5e4c-4e63-481f-8389-30ccc16a2ad9.jpg

New Zealand Grants River Personhood

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Great ANT case for teaching: “New Zealand Grants River Personhood

Want to take it to the next level in the classroom? challenge students to understand how a person-like “state” (in this case, New Zealand) is apparently accorded the ability to do this!

Ask them, which is weirder, a river being a person or a state granting the personhood?

3:1 — Post-Method — 3 of 3

junk-mess

The problem with 99% of the more general discussion about post-method is that it is not about post-method. What’s wrong with 99% of post-method discussion, in general? His name is Jon Law and he titled a book After Method. Much of what we know about post-method is, naturally, influenced by that which is deemed “after method.” It is here that I stop because the subtitle of the book is especially significant. The subtitle “Mess in Social Science Research” is the real title of this book; this is because the book was about finding some way to engage — rather than paste-over and wipe-away — data anomalies or faint “traces” in our findings. There was probably some bogus publisher pressure to use a provocative title, so perhaps this is forgivable, but because the operative discussion about post-method is really about “dealing with mess” so is this post.

After reading that book, I was not post-method. I had a new attitude toward inquiry, but I was not post-method. I avoided seeing method as a privileged avenue with which truth sprang forth, but I was not post-method. I stopped conceptualizing methods as a way to “clear away the junk” and practice “good mental hygiene,” but I was not post-method. Still, we can refer to this general shift in attitude toward and conceptualization of method (perhaps, quite wrongly, as it implicates pre-method, now-method, and so on) as the operative post-method thing most scholars talk about.

What I learned was how to do research a little differently from that book of Law’s. I would not have conceived of writing a research paper about the development of a research paper as a means to tease-out how reflexivity is practically produced in actor-network accounts. Perhaps one of Law’s great contributions, and he is not the only one who gets at “the mess” this way, of course, was to take theoretical questions and make them practical and vice-versa. Just because something is compatible in theory does not mean that we should expect to see this compatibility in the field; in fact, viscous moments like these, Lynch once said, are often the most interesting. Likewise, problems that should not in theory be a problem are a problem in the field. I think of Law’s work on “foot and mouth” some years ago, “Context and Culling.” It did not occur to me that messy findings were findings at all, or that messy findings could help us understand when it was time to improve models of our subject matter based messy findings. In Law and Moser’s paper, they find that — this summary is glossy to a fault, by the way — a government program (designed to cull (i.e., the selective slaughter of, in this case,) herd animals) appeared to be a “success” on the government’s side of things, but upon closer examination, it was revealed that many herders did not kill a single animal in these areas where foot and mouth disease was now under control. The outcome, in Law and Moser’s accounting, was: now that we know this, we need to build better epidemiological models for how such diseases will be handled because a one-size fits all model, which appears to have worked, in fact, only was a success for reasons unrelated to the epidemiological modeling. 

What’s wrong with all that? 

1. Do we remake Borges’ map, but messier, if that is even possible? (good point, Michael; if we embrace the mess only to reproduce models of the mess that are life-sized equivalents, then nothing has been gained, beyond satisfying cartophilic tendencies)

2. Or, do we imply that messiness is a new one-way ticket — or detour — to scientific credibility now? (an argument Jan and I warned against strongly in our reflexivity paper) 

3. Or, do we probe and challenge the mess?  (and you can use, as Michael notes, new forms of visual or experimental methods, but, as Jan follows-up in the commentary on Michael’s post, you can also make attempts to wrangle the mess with traditional methods used with a “post-method” attitude)

*Image from: http://www.nccivitas.org/civitasreview/files/2013/09/junk-mess.jpg

3:1 — Post-Method — 2 of 3

Jan has given an excellent start to think about STS and methods. According to Jan, we are in a world of “messiness” “If we look at the conceptual apparatus”, but not so much “if we look at the standard set of methods (especially of qualitative research) still in use.” I wholeheartedly agree with this analysis, and I think it points to what is wrong with the idea of mess, and how mess relates to the world and methods in the first place.

The thinking assumes that in “classical social science” sociologists believed that it is the role of the social researcher to create methods and theories that show the hidden order of the world. First of all, I think that a lot of social science never believed in this logic (most vehemently, Harold Garfinkel, but also Georges Devereux), a long time before ANT and STS came along. Second, – here is my reflexivity boomerang – even a paper like John Law’s cleans up the mess, by following precisely the logic of ordered articles: introduction, thesis, discussion, conclusion. The “need” for order, is not only one of theories of order.  It comes from how writing as practice unfolds (one word after another, quite unlike the world) and how scientific writing is standardized. This at least in part has good reasons, as John Law’s lucid article shows. But even if the diagnosis were right, and we disregard the reflexivity boomerang, the treatment is too timid.

From “the world is a mess” does not follow that our methods and descriptions should be a mess. This would simply leave us with a descriptivist duplication of the world, akin to Borges’ famous map that is a copy of the territory. The underlying problem here is that the treatment is a post-structuralist reconceptualization of methods. This is fine with me, as far as this implies to stop using methods as hammers in search of nails, or as identity (as in: I am an ethnographer, I do biographical interviews etc.). But the treatment stops with theoretical thinking about methods, leaving the practice of methods intact. John Law, in sync with most of STS, still does some form of ethnography. Post methods then, is before methods. Or, as I put it in a forthcoming article: Post-method is still based on a very particular kind of doing methods, namely textual loose translations. These are methods, such as ethnography that do one large jump from the world to a text. I prefer widening our set of methods with more and other methods instead: non-textual tight and loose translations.

I would like to suggest to explore such new methods that re-order and probe and challenge the mess. These are methods that do not translate the world into a text, but rather create new worlds. It is very much like what natural scientists do: to translate the world into something different, which then becomes an actant in itself with unforeseen repercussions for the world and the social researcher themselves. This is something very different from both (post-methods and post-structural) descriptivism and doing critical research. It is different from descriptivism because it accepts that social science needs a strong take on methods. It needs to create methods, as forms of intervention and analysis that slice the world in ways that the scientists, and not the world, decide on. It accepts all the things that ethnographers and large parts of STS abhor: creating actual laboratories, doing experiments, tinker with machines, using automated recording procedures, standardizing protocols, using and even designing all kinds of media and materials and even using force to make research participants do things they would otherwise not do, make subjects object to these procedures.

But it is also different from “critical research” in the sense that such methods do not aim towards an outcome that the researchers pre-determine. Such a world is neither a world of mess, nor a world of “post-method”. Together with my colleagues of shared inc., we call it incubations. You can call it what you like, but I suggest that you at least try it.

If Latour were a craft-beer-brewer, his name’d be …

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… Steve Wright. Check out this innovative ANT account of craft beer tasting, now on-line, free of charge. Investigation into the flavor profiling of craft beers as well as auto-ethnographic blind beer tasting and tasting exams, this paper — and by paper, I am referring to a 277 page thesis — is replete with outstanding detail.

Also, upon even modest reflection, the teaching potential of this document is striking.

My favorite part is the explanation of language-sensory experience:

The historical construction of the contemporary language of sensory assessment supports the construction of the style guides. Once assembled into an information infrastructure the style guide is extended to act in multiple different ways: its propositions are translated into testable facts with multiple choices, it functions as a technology of material ordering and coordination, as a regulatory technology placing limits on how taste judgements can and cannot be expressed or recorded, and as a re-enactment and materialisation of individual cognitivist models of assessment.