Joho the Blog

October 23, 2015

Does the networking of meaning destroy meaning?

Donatella Della Ratta, at Copenhangen University and a Berkman fellow, has posted a remarkable essay and linked to another.

The link is to a Wired article by Andy Greenberg about the New Palmyra Project, an effort to reconstruct the ancient monuments ISIS is destroying, and a plea for action to free the project’s creator, Bassel Khartabil, from a Syrian prison.

The second is Donatella’s article in CyberOrient that considers efforts that, like the New Palmyra Project, reconstruct sites destroyed by war, but not with that project’s historical purpose. In the article she brings to light some of the profound and disturbing ways the Net is changing how meaning works.

Her focus is on what she calls “expanded places,” physical places that have been physically destroyed, but that “have been re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks.” As she says in the article’s abstract:

Thriving on the techno-human infrastructure of the networks, and relying on the endless proliferation of images resulting from the loss of control of image-makers over their own production, expanded places are aggregators of new communities that add novel layers of signification to the empirical world, and create their own multiple realities and histories.

Her primary example is Damescene Village, a theme park on the outskirts of Damascus where she conducted ethnographic research in 2010. The brief story of the role that theme park played in Syrian“the multiple layers of unreality that it attracted itself is mind-blowing” popular media, and the multiple layers of unreality that it attracted itself is mind-blowing: “a physical replica of the historic 1920s rebel stronghold conceived as a TV set for a reenactment drama of that very struggle; which, historically speaking, took place exactly in the location where the fictional copy had been rebuilt for the sake of media consumption.” To complete the media hall of mirrors, in the recent conflict each side shot “video accounts narrating the seizure of the theme park using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from the TV series.”

Eventually the Damascene Village was destroyed; yet, the self-shot videos, once uploaded onto YouTube, continued to fuel the spread of clashing narratives and contradictory understandings of national resistance, which turned a physical site hosting a staged representation of a conflict into a conflict zone itself, endlessly reproduced through social networking sites.

The complexity of this place as real, symbolic, organic, and manipulated is mirrored in the nature of the platform. She argues that the Internet’s “circulation, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship” lead to a type of violence against meaning: “…the endless circulation of messages that are shared, manipulated, and repeated over and over again in a loop where any possible meaning is lost.” Citing Jodi Dean, Donatella says: “…the uncontrollable speed and spread of contributions over the networks help prevent the formation of any sort of signification,” generating not “a plurality of visions” but “…a feeling of ‘constituent anxiety.'” This process is, she says “inherent to the networks.”

A novel space has been created by the entanglement of warfare and technology, where lines are blurred between the physical, lived experiences of war and their media representations, which have gained a new existence by virtue of the endless circulation of the layering of times, spaces, and people enabled by the networks.

This new environment, defined around what I call “expanded places,” re-establishes the relationship between violence and visibility, and broadens the very idea of conflict. Here, mediated and symbolic languages are employed to perform and legitimize the violence perpetrated in physical spaces. At the same time, the large scale production and reproduction of this very violence through networked forms and formats serves to actualize and rationalize it, its viral circulation being endlessly nurtured and boosted by the techno-human structure of the networks.

But is Damescene Village is too good an example? It came onto the Net with so many layers of contested meta-meta-meaning that perhaps its online life is atypical. Donatella confronts this question, “ the Net not only continues the alienation of images of violence … but adds a participatory level”arguing that the Net not only continues the alienation of images of violence from their actuality and from ethical responses, as noted by Susan Sontag in the 1970s, but adds a participatory level to this: the images of violence are hyperlinked and recirculated by the viewers themselves. This borderless remixing and recirculation “have all contributed to the expansion of the place formerly known as the Damascene Village.”

But what to make of this expansion? Here again I worry that Donatella’s example is too good:

As shown by the story of the Damascene Village, the same symbolic and visual reference (Bab al hara) can be employed simultaneously by opposing factions (the Syrian army and the armed rebels) to produce contrasting narratives of resistance, and clashing ideas of nationhood. It can both serve to evoke a seemingly inclusive multiculturalism promoted under al Asad’s leadership; and, at the same time, to remind us that an entire nation is being besieged, not by occupying foreign forces but by the Syrian regime.

She takes this as a type of fictionality, as described by Jacques Rancière: a rearrangement of something real into new political and aesthetic formats without regard to the truth of that something, blurring “the logic of facts and the logic of fiction” in multiple layers of meaning. She invokes Baudrillard, saying that “The story of the Damascene Village proves that it does not really matter” whether the various factions’ fantasies correspond to historical truth. Rather:

what it is important to reflect upon is that this very fantasy has been used to generate and reproduce violence from opposite armed factions, both of which have employed mediated and networked languages to claim legitimacy over their own idea of homeland and national resistance.

But hasn’t that statement been true of every intra-cultural conflict? The truth of historians has never much mattered to factions trying to rouse support for their side. Donatella uses Rancière’s thought to find the difference between how this worked “the Net is in important ways moving us back to a simpler relation between image and reality through the posting of cellphone videos of police attacks, ”before and after the Net. I have not read him (I know, I know) but am not fully convinced by the ideas she cites. In the modern era, “technology is not understood as a mere technique of reproduction and transmission.” Yes, but that’s hardly new to the Internet. Not only has it been well understood at least since the 1960s, but one could argue that the Net is in important ways moving us back to a simpler relation between image and reality through the posting of cellphone videos of police attacks, the proliferation of video surveillance, and the new insistence that the police wear video cameras. Also: Russian dash cams.

She cites Rancière further to make the case that the anonymity of Net postings and the ability to record just about everything “has given rise a new understanding of history as a continuous process of assigning meanings to material realities, of connecting signs and symbols in unprecedented ways. In this sense we can define history as a ‘new form of fiction’…”

I have a complex reaction to this. (This is one of the reasons I so like Donatella’s writing.)

1. Yes, this is exactly what’s happening.

2. It is what happens when we all have access to the materials of history, and the decisions about what counts as history are not made by handfuls of people who control the media, which includes highly qualified historians, the editorial staffs of (sometimes scurrilous) newspapers, and self-interested political leaders.

3. If we substitute “current events” for “history,” the situation seems somewhat less novel. The word “history” carries with it a weight that “current events” does not. (a) We do not yet know what history (as practiced by that discipline) will say about current events. It may become far more settled than the fracturing of interpretations of current events now suggests, which depends to a large degree on how education and authority evolves over the years. (b) History of course always is fractured along the lines that divide people; one side in the United States Civil War still sometimes insists slavery was not the issue the war was fought over.

I am not disagreeing with the dangerousness of the fragmenting of interpretations engendered by the Net. I find illuminating and helpful Donatella’s brilliant exposition of the way in which these are not shards so much as multiply reflecting mirrors in which meanings cannot be separated from the act of meaning, and that act “meanings cannot be separated from the act of meaning, and that act of meaning is a performance that gets reflected, reappropriated, and reenacted without end ”of meaning is a performance that gets reflected, reappropriated, and reenacted without end and without the ability to see its source either in the actual world or in its initial expression — “the rise of the anonymous subject and decentralized authorship nurtured by virtue of the circularity and reflexivity of the networks.” Rancière says this creates “‘uncertain communities'” politically questioning “‘the distribution of roles, territories, and languages’.” That’s an important point, although these images also sometimes create powerful political communities, as was the case with images from Ferguson.

Donatella is admirably focused on what this means when the stakes are high:

…in expanded places that have been destroyed by violence and warfare, then have been re-born through a networked after-life, this process goes much further. Here, challenging the distribution of the sensible [Rancière’s term] is not only a matter of contentious politics, but of generating and regenerating violence and destruction through the endless circulation of formats of violence boosted by the inner techno-human structure of the networks.

Her presentation of the ways in which the Net leads to not just a fracturing of meaning but of an impossibly self-reflective entanglement of meaning is brilliant. Her drawing our attention to the direness of this when it comes to the most dire of human situations is crucial. Her concept of “expanded spaces” seems to me to be worth holding on to and exploring. In fact, it’s powerful enough that I don’t think it should be confined to places that have been destroyed, much less destroyed by war. It applies more broadly than that. Her discussion of places destroyed by violence seems to me to point to a case where the stakes are higher, but where the game is essentially the same.



I recognize I have not resolved the question posed in my title. You can thank Donatella for that :)


October 20, 2015

How the Berkman Fellows program works

The Ford Foundation was wondering what it could learn from the success of the Berkman fellows program, and Berkman asked me to write it. It’s titled “Fifteen Lessons from the Berkman Fellows Program,” and it’s just been posted [pdf].

And, yes, as someone on the Berkman mailing list pointed out, we should have done this in listicle form, adding “And #6 will change your life!”

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October 19, 2015

Seven questions for Chock Full o’ Nuts

  1. Who buys this?

  2. Why did I buy it?

  3. Why would any major store give it shelf space?

  4. Can someone please get its lying jingle out of my head? (“Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy.”)

  5. Can someone please get its bitter tastelessness out of my mouth?

  6. In ten years when I am about to give it another try, would someone please send me a link to this post?


Photo linked to a 404 page at WNYC by Sheri at who posted it with a CC license, saying that WNYC published it “with permission,” which doesn’t mean that it can be republished without permission, but who knows at this point? So if this is your goddamn “intellectual property” I am sooooo sorry for depriving you of all the money you were going to make from this glorious piece of work. Also, thank you.


October 18, 2015

The Martian

My wife and I just saw The Martian. Loved it. It was as good a movie as could possibly be made out of a book that’s about sciencing the shit out of problems.

The book was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. So I was ready to be disappointed by the movie. Nope.

Compared to say, Gravity? Gravity‘s choreography was awesome, and the very ending of it worked for me. (No spoilers here!) But, it had irksome moment and themes, especially Sandra Bullock’s backstory. (No spoilers!)

The Martian was much less pretentious, IMO. It’s about science as problem-solving. Eng Fi, if you will. But the theme that emerges from this is:

Also, Let’s go the fuck to Mars!

(I still think Interstellar is a better movie, although it’s nowhere near as much fun. But I’m not entirely reasonable about Interstellar.)

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October 16, 2015

A victory for fair use

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld the decision that permits Google Books to scan and index books to make them searchable and for data mining. The court agreed that this is fair use. It also generalized the prior court’s finding so now libraries can also scan their own collection, so long as they provide access as limited as Google Books does. Woohoo!

Here’s the surprisingly readable decision [pdf].

The Authors Guild has now vowed it’s going to appeal to the Supreme Court. But I don’t get it.

Not that this necessarily matters to the legal case, but has the Authors Guild been able to attribute any actual damage to Google Books? Their site today says:

America owes its thriving literary culture to copyright protection. It is because of that success that today we take copyright incentives for granted, and that courts as respected as the Second Circuit are unable to see the damaging effect that uses such as Google’s will have on authors’ potential income.

If Google Books hasn’t produced any visible damage so far, shouldn’t that count as evidence that “uses such as Google’s” are unlikely to damage the interests of AG’s constituency?

In a longer piece on its site, the AG says:

Google Books will indeed harm the market for books,


Further, if Google’s doing so is fair use, then it sets a precedent allowing anyone to digitize books for similar purposes, which inevitably will lead to widespread, free, and unrestricted availability of books online.

But at this point, eleven years after the beginning of the suit, shouldn’t they be able to demonstrate some of that inevitable harm? Did the prior ruling lead to any increase in the unrestricted availability of free books online?

Haven’t we tested The Authors Guild’s hypothesis?

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October 15, 2015

Samuel Butler's early technodeterminism

“If all machines were to be annihilated at one moment, so that not a knife nor lever nor rag of clothing nor anything whatsoever were left to man but his bare body alone that he was born with, and if all knowledge of mechanical laws were taken from him so that he could make no more machines, and all machine-made food destroyed so that the race of man should be left as it were naked upon a desert island, we should become extinct in six weeks. A few miserable individuals might linger, but even these in a year or two would become worse than monkeys. Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine quâ non for his, as his for theirs.”

Samuel Butler, Erewhon, Chapter XXIV, 1872.

This is less rhapsodic than it may seem, for it continues:

“This fact precludes us from proposing the complete annihilation of machinery, but surely it indicates that we should destroy as many of them as we can possibly dispense with, lest they should tyrannise over us even more completely.”

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October 14, 2015

October 13, 2015

Games as art

Naomi Alderman makes a compelling case in The Guardian for looking at video games to find the first examples of digital literature.

Authors of articles don’t get to write their own headlines, and the Guardian’s headline goes too far: Naomi doesn’t claim that games yet have turned out “great works of digital literature.” Her own claim is more modest:

…are there video games experimenting with more interesting storytelling than any “digital literature” project I’ve seen? Yes, certainly. And if you want to think of yourself as well read, or well cultured, you need to engage with them.

I agree. There are many video games I enjoyed but am embarrassed about; these are what we mean by “guilty pleasures.” But the best of them deserve to be taken seriously. “Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.”Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.

I don’t know that we have examples of digital “high art” yet. Perhaps we do and I don’t know about them or don’t appreciate them. Perhaps it’s a silly concept. Or perhaps we won’t think we’re playing a game when we experience it. But it’s likely at least to come out of the rhetorical forms games have already created:

  • It will be a space in which the user dwells, not simply an object or experience unfolding in front of the user.

  • It will be interactive.

  • It will require the user to make choices that affect it in significant ways.

  • It won’t be the same for everyone.

It is a sign of the originality and importance of games that it’s not always clear what to compare them with.

For example, most digital games lend themselves to comparisons with movies. After all, they are composed of sound, flat visuals, and movement. That’s the apt comparison for Portal 2. (Naomi cites Portal, but I think the sequel is a better example.) Portal 2 is loads of fun to play. But it is more than that. The story that unfolds is as clever and well worked out as any movie’s. The characters are broad, yet reveal subtleties. We care about them. Most famously, we care about a particular inanimate cube. The “set design” is stunning. The voice acting is world class, and in fact includes JK Simmons who went on to went a Best Actor Oscar. “…the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo.”Perhaps most remarkable is the extent to which the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo plaintively. (You can see them rehearsing in this Easter egg.)

Naomi doesn’t mention Bioshock, but I’d count it as a hybrid movie and novella. The premise is original and political. The setting is beautifully done. The science fiction is well-imagined. And the plot contains some meta moments that reflect on its form as a video game. (Those who have played the game will recognize how non-spoilery I’m being :) The third and last in the series, Bioshock Infinite, has a premise, characters, plot, and setting that could make a successful movie, but the movie is unlikely to be as good as the game. For one thing, we get to play the game.

Other games work as reflections on the medium itself, a sign of the forming of an artistic sensibility. Naomi mentions The Stanley Parable and Gone Home. I’d add Spec Ops: The Line and even the Saints Row series. These are all successful, well-known games. All, except the last, can be taken seriously as statements inspired by artistic intentions. (Saints Row is self-aware, bad-taste burlesque.) The ferment in the indie game field is quite spectacular.

If movies can be an art form, then why not digital games? And all this is before virtual reality headsets are common. I have no doubt that digital games as immersive worlds in which users have agency will blow past movies as the locus of popular art. And from this will emerge what we will call serious art as well. We’re already well on our way.

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October 10, 2015

My morning paranoia: Bernie’s scream moment

My fear is that Bernie Sanders is going to have a bad moment during the upcoming debate, and the media will seize on it to make him look unfit for the presidency.

I fear this because I’ve seen it happen before. Remember the 2004 Dean Scream?

CNN has the nerve to title its posting of this video “2004: The scream that doomed Howard Dean.” But ’twasn’t the scream that killed Howard Dean’s campaign. It was the news media running it over and over and over:

…the cable and broadcast news networks aired Dean’s Iowa exclamation 633 times and that doesn’t include local news or talk shows in the four days after it was made, according to the Hotline, a Washington-based newsletter. [source

I believe I heard at the time that CNN played it almost 200 times in that first weekend.

The pattern has become familiar: the media seize on something irrelevant, play it over and over, trying to fathom why the nation is so obsessed with it. This is “…the media’s equivalent of a bully’s “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” routine.”the media’s equivalent of a bully’s “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” routine. (Not to mention that the clip under-mic’ed the cheering of the crowd that Dean was yelling over. Here’s what it sounded like from the audience’s point of view.)

Bernie Sanders’s position in the Democratic Party is much like Howard Dean’s was. The Party doesn’t know what to make of him and his success. It worries that he can’t win. And, not insignificantly, both Bernie and Dean have greatly loosened the grip of the Party’s purse strings. That makes them “wildcards” and “uncontrollable.”

So, I am waiting in fear for the media to seize on something small or on nothing at all, and loop it under titles that tell us over and over that we think he’s unfit for office.

Why don’t we stop hitting ourselves? Why don’t we stop hitting ourselves? Why don’t we stop hitting ourselves?

So here’s a grim game: What will the title be under the moment the media manufacture to bring Bernie down?

  • Is Bernie too erratic?

  • Bernie Sanders’ temper tantrm

  • Bernie’s fake laugh: too serious for public life?

  • Does Bernie love Denmark more than America?

  • Why can’t Bernie connect?

  • Bernie’s Creepy Uncle moment

What do you think?

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October 9, 2015

My morning D’oh slap

The Mac’s character palette has been driving me crazy. I poke around it vainly looking for the accented character or superscripted punctuation mark that I need at the moment, but it’s all symbols, no labels, which might strike Apple as appropriate but strikes me as maddening since as time goes on I understand fewer and fewer of the new symbols. Amirite, emoji1, Yellow Face Puking Up a Heart It Just Ate ?

Well, it turns out that there’s been a bug in my palette so that it has displayed itself like this:

It turns out that if I scroll all the way to the tippy-top, a magic icon comes into view:

icon appears

And if I click on that, I get this:

full display

I say this is a bug because I cannot now get the window to go back to the state in which it has been since an OS X upgrade or two ago. So perhaps I and the cause of this anomaly should be D’oh-slapping each other.

Amirite, emoji2, Needs a Butt Flap?

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