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May 15, 2017

[liveblog][AI] Perspectives on community and AI

Chelsea Barabas is moderating a set of lightning talks at the AI Advance, aat Berkman Klein and MIT Media Lab.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Lionel Brossi recounts growing up in Argentina and the assumption that all boys care about football. He moved to Chile which is split between people who do and do not watch football. “Humans are inherently biased.” So, our AI systems are likely to be biased. Cognitive science has shown that the participants in their studies tend to be WEIRD: western, educated, industrialized, rich and developed. Also straight and white. He references Kate Crawford‘s “AI’s White Guy Problem.” We need not only diverse teams of developers, but also to think about how data can be more representative. We also need to think about the users. One approach is work on goal centered design.

If we ever get to unbiased AI, Borges‘ statement, “The original is unfaithful to the translation” may apply.

Chelsea: What is an inclusive way to think of cross-border countries?

Lionel: We need to co-design with more people.

Madeline Elish is at Data and Society and an anthropology of technology grad student at Columbia. She’s met designers who thought it might be a good to make a phone run faster if you yell at it. But this would train children to yell at things. What’s the context in which such designers work? She and Tim Hwang set about to build bridges between academics and businesses. They asked what designers see as their responsibility for the social implications of their work. They found four core challenges:

1. Assuring users perceive good intentions
2. Protecting privacy
3. Long term adoption
4. Accuracy and reliability

She and Tim wrote An AI Pattern Language [pdf] about the frameworks that guide design. She notes that none of them were thinking about social justice. The book argues that there’s a way to translate between the social justice framework and, for example, the accuracy framework.

Ethan Zuckerman: How much of the language you’re seeing feels familiar from other hype cycles?

Madeline: Tim and I looked at the history of autopilot litigation to see what might happen with autonomous cars. We should be looking at Big Data as the prior hype cycle.

Yarden Katz is at the BKC and at the Dept. of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. He talks about the history of AI, starting with 1958 claim about translation machine. 1966: Minsky Then there was an AI funding winter, but now it’s big again. “Until recently, AI was a dirty word.”

Today we use it schizophrenically: for Deep Learning or in a totally diluted sense as something done by a computer. “AI” now seems to be a branding strategy used by Silicon Valley.

“AI’s history is diverse, messy, and philosophical.” If complexit is embraced, “AI” might not be a useful caregory for policy. So we should go basvk to the politics of technology:

1. who controls the code/frameworks/data
2. Is the system inspectable/open?
3. Who sets the metrics? Who benefits from them?

The media are not going to be the watchdogs because they’re caught up in the hype. So who will be?

Q: There’s a qualitative difference in the sort of tasks now being turned over to computers. We’re entrusting machines with tasks we used to only trust to humans with good judgment.

Yarden: We already do that with systems that are not labeled AI, like “risk assessment” programs used by insurance companies.

Madeline: Before AI got popular again, there were expert systems. We are reconfiguring our understanding, moving it from a cognition frame to a behavioral one.

Chelsea: I’ve been involved in co-design projects that have backfired. These projects have sometimes been somewhat extractive: going in, getting lots of data, etc. How do we do co-design that are not extractive but that also aren’t prohibitively expensive?

Nathan: To what degree does AI change the dimensions of questions about explanation, inspectability, etc.

Yarden: The promoters of the Deep Learning narrative want us to believe you just need to feed in lots and lots of data. DL is less inspectable than other methods. DL is not learning from nothing. There are open questions about their inductive power.

Amy Zhang and Ryan Budish give a pre-alpha demo of the AI Compass being built at BKC. It’s designed to help people find resources exploring topics related to the ethics and governance of AI.

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March 18, 2017

How a thirteen-year-old interprets what's been given

“Of course what I’ve just said may not be right,” concluded the thirteen year old girl, “but what’s important is to engage in the interpretation and to participate in the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years.”

So said the bas mitzvah girl at an orthodox Jewish synagogue this afternoon. She is the daughter of friends, so I went. And because it is an orthodox synagogue, I didn’t violate the Sabbath by taking notes. Thus that quote isn’t even close enough to count as a paraphrase. But that is the thought that she ended her D’var Torah with. (I’m sure as heck violating the Sabbath now by writing this, but I am not an observant Jew.)

The D’var Torah is a talk on that week’s portion of the Torah. Presenting one before the congregation is a mark of one’s coming of age. The bas mitzvah girl (or bar mitzvah boy) labors for months on the talk, which at least in the orthodox world is a work of scholarship that shows command of the Hebrew sources, that interprets the words of the Torah to find some relevant meaning and frequently some surprising insight, and that follows the carefully worked out rules that guide this interpretation as a fundamental practice of the religion.

While the Torah’s words themselves are taken as sacred and as given by G-d, they are understood to have been given to us human beings to be interpreted and applied. Further, that interpretation requires one to consult the most revered teachers (rabbis) in the tradition. An interpretation that does not present the interpretations of revered rabbis who disagree about the topic is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that writes off prior interpretations with which one disagrees is not listening carefully enough and is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that declares that it is unequivocally the correct interpretation is wrong in that certainty and is likely to be flawed in its stance.

It seems to me — and of course I’m biased — that these principles could be very helpful regardless of one’s religion or discipline. Jewish interpretation takes the Word as the given. Secular fields take facts as the given. The given is not given unless it is taken, and taking is an act of interpretation. Always.

If that taking is assumed to be subjective and without boundaries, then we end up living in fantasy worlds, shouting at those bastards who believe different fantasies. But if there are established principles that guide the interpretations, then we can talk and learn from one another.

If we interpret without consulting prior interpretations, then we’re missing the chance to reflect on the history that has shaped our ideas. This is not just arrogance but stupidity.

If we fail to consult interpretations that disagree with one another, we not only will likely miss the truth, but we will emerge from the darkness certain that we are right.

If we consult prior interpretations that disagree but insist that we must declare one right and the other wrong, we are being so arrogant that we think we can stand in unequivocal judgment of the greatest minds in our history.

If we come out of the interpretation certain that we are right, then we are far more foolish than the thirteen year old I heard speak this morning.


March 1, 2017

[liveblog] Five global challenges and the role of the university

Juan Carlos De Martin is giving a lunchtime talk called “Five global challenges and the role of the university,” with Charles Nesson. These are two of my favorite people. Juan Carlos is here to talk about his new book (in Italian), Università Futura – Tra Democrazia e Bit.

Charlie introduces Juan Carlos by describing his first meeting with him at a conference in Torino at which the idea of the Nexa Center of Internet and Society
, which is now a reality.

Juan Carlos begins by tracing the book’s traIn the book and here he will talk about five global challenges. Why five? Because that’s how we he sees it, but it’s subjective.

  1. Democracy. It’s in crisis.

  2. Environment. For example, you may have heard about this global warming thing. It’s hard for us to think about such large systems.

  3. Technology. E.g., bio tech, AI, nanotech, neuro-cognition. The benefits of these are important, but the problems they raise are very difficult.

  4. Economy. Growth is slowing. Trade is slowing. How do we ensure a decent livelihood to all?

  5. Geopolitics. The world order seems to be undergoing constant change. How do we preserve the peace?

We are in uncharted waters, he says: high risk and high unpredictability. ““I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers”I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers.”
Juan Carlos makes three observations:

First, we are going to need lots of knowledge, more than ever before.

Second, we’ll need people capable of interpreting, using, and producing such knowledge, more than ever before.

Third, in democracies we need the knowledge to get to as many people as possible, and as many people as possible have to become better critical thinkers. “There’s a clear rejection of experts which we, as people in universities, need to take seriously…What did we do wrong to lose the trust of people?”

These three observations lead to the idea that universities should play an important role. So, what is the current state of the university?

First, for the past forty years, universities have pursued knowledge useful to the economy.

Second, there has been an emphasis on training workers, which makes sense, but has meant less emphasis on educating people as full humans and citizens.

Third, the university has been a normative organization (like non-profits and churches) that has been pushed to become more of a utilitarian organization (like businesses). This shows itself in, for example, the excessive use of quantitative metrics for promotion, an insane emphasis on publishing for its own sake, and a hyper-disciplinarity because it’s easier to publish within a smaller slice.

These mean that the historically multi-dimensional mission of the university has been flattened, and the spirit has gone from normative to utilitarian. “All of this represents a problem if we want the university to help society face … 21st century problems.” (Juan Carlos says that he wrote the book in Italian [his English is perfect] because when he began in 2008, Italian universities were beginning a seven year contraction of 20%.)

We need all kinds of knowledge — not just what looks useful right now — because we don’t know what will be useful. We need interdisciplinarity because so many societal challenges — including all the ones he began the talk with — are interdisciplinary. But the incentives are not currently in that direction. And we need “effective interaction with the general public.” This is not just about communicating or transferring knowledge; it has to be genuinely interactive.

We need, he says, the university to speak the truth.

His proposal is that we “rediscover the roots of the university” and update them to present times. There is a solution in those roots, he says.

At the root, education is a personal relationship among human beings. ““Education is not mere information transfer”Education is not mere information transfer.” This means educating human beings and citizens, not just workers.

Everyone agrees we need critical thinking, but we need to work on how to teach it and what it means. We need critical thinkers because we need people who can handle unexpected situations.

We need universities to be institutions that can take the long view, can go slowly, value silence, that enable concentration. These were characteristics of universities for a thousand years.
What universities can do:

1. To achieve inter-disciplinarity, we cannot abolish disciplines; they play an important role. But we need to avoid walls between them. “Maybe a little short fence” that people can easily cross.

2. We need to strongly encourage heterodox thinking. Some disciplines need this urgently; Juan Carlos calls out economics as an example.

3. The university should itself be a “trustee of the unborn,” i.e., of the generation to come. “The university has always had the role of bridging the dead and the unborn.” In Europe this has been a role of the state, but they’re doing it less and less.

A side effect is that the university should be the conscience and critic of society. He quotes Pres. Drew Faust on whether universities are doing this enough.

4. Universities need to engage with the public, listening to their concerns. That doesn’t mean pandering to them. Only dialogue will help people learn.

5. Universities need to actively employ the Internet to achieve its objectives. Juan Carlos’ research on this topic began with the Internet, but it flipped, focusing first on the university.

Overall, he says, “we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character”we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character. By that last he means moral commitment. Universities can move in that direction by rediscovering their roots, and updating them.

Charlie now leads a session in which we begin by posting questions to . I cannot keep up with the conversation. The session is being webcast and the recording will be posted. (Charlie is a celebrated teacher with a special skill in engaging groups like this.)

I agree with everything Juan Carlos says, and especially am heartened by the idea that the university as an institution can help to re-moor us. But I then find myself thinking that it took enormous forces to knock universities off their 1,000 year mission. Those same forces are implacable. Can universities deny the fusion of powers that put them in this position in the first place?

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September 18, 2016

Lewis Carroll on where knowledge lives

On books and knowledge, from Sylvie and Bruno by Lewis Carroll, 1889:

“Which contain the greatest amount of Science, do you think, the books, or the minds?”

“Rather a profound question for a lady!” I said to myself, holding, with the conceit so natural to Man, that Woman’s intellect is essentially shallow. And I considered a minute before replying. “If you mean living minds, I don’t think it’s possible to decide. There is so much written Science that no living person has ever read: and there is so much thought-out Science that hasn’t yet been written. But, if you mean the whole human race, then I think the minds have it: everything, recorded in books, must have once been in some mind, you know.”

“Isn’t that rather like one of the Rules in Algebra?” my Lady enquired. (“Algebra too!” I thought with increasing wonder.) “I mean, if we consider thoughts as factors, may we not say that the Least Common Multiple of all the minds contains that of all the books; but not the other way?”

“Certainly we may!” I replied, delighted with the illustration. “And what a grand thing it would be,” I went on dreamily, thinking aloud rather than talking, “if we could only apply that Rule to books! You know, in finding the Least Common Multiple, we strike out a quantity wherever it occurs, except in the term where it is raised to its highest power. So we should have to erase every recorded thought, except in the sentence where it is expressed with the greatest intensity.”

My Lady laughed merrily. “Some books would be reduced to blank paper, I’m afraid!” she said.

“They would. Most libraries would be terribly diminished in bulk. But just think what they would gain in quality!”

“When will it be done?” she eagerly asked. “If there’s any chance of it in my time, I think I’ll leave off reading, and wait for it!”

“Well, perhaps in another thousand years or so—”

“Then there’s no use waiting!”, said my Lady. “Let’s sit down. Uggug, my pet, come and sit by me!”

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May 9, 2016

Reddit on my LARB review

There’s a small but interesting discussion at the philosophy subreddit of my review of Michael Lynch’s The Internet of Us.

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April 6, 2016

In defense of personalization

Mills Baker defends personalization on the right grounds. In a brilliant and brilliantly written post, he maintains that the personalization provided by sites does at scale what we do in the real world to enable conversations: through multiple and often subtle signals, we let an interlocutor know where our interests and beliefs are similar enough that we are able to safely express our differences.

Digression: This is at the heart of our cultural fear of echo chambers, in my opinion. Conversation consists of iteration on small differences based on an iceberg of agreement. Every conversation inadvertently reinforces the beliefs that enable it to go forward. Likewise, understanding is contextual, assimilating the novel to the familiar, thus reinforcing that context by making it richer and more coherent. But our tradition has taught us that Reason requires us to be open to all ideas, ready to undo the entire structure of our beliefs. Reason, if applied purely, would thus make conversation, understanding, and knowledge impossible. In fearing echo chambers, we are running from the fact that understanding and conversation share the basic elements of echo chambers. I’ll return to this point in a later post sometime…

I love everything about Mills’ post except his under-valuing of concerns about the power personalization has over us on-line. Yes, personalization is a requirement in a scaled environment. Yes, the right comparison is between our new info flows and our old info trickles. But…

…Miles does not fully confront the main complaint: our interests and the interests of the commercial entities that are doing the personalizing do not fully coincide. Facebook has an economic motivation to get us to click more and to exit Facebook sessions eager to return for more. Facebook thus has an economic interest in showing us personalized clickbait, and to filter our feeds toward happiness rather than hey-my-cat-died-yesterday posts.

In one sense, this is entirely Mills’ point. He wants designers to understand the positive role personalization has always played, so they can reinstate that role in software that works for us. He thinks that getting this right is the responsibility of the software for “Most users do not want the ‘control’ of RSS and Twitter lists and blocking, muting, and unfollowing their fellows.” Thus the software needs to learn from the clues left inadvertently by users. (I’d argue that there’s also room for better designed control systems. I bet Mills agrees, because how could anyone argue against better designed anything?)

But in my view he too casually dismisses the responsibility and culpability of some of the most important sites when he writes:

The idea that personalization is about corporate or political control is an emotionally satisfying but inaccurate one.

If we take “personalization” in the insightful and useful way he has defined it, then sure. But when people rail against personalization they are thinking about the algorithmic function performed by commercial entities. And those entities have a massive incentive—exercised by companies like Facebook—to personalize the flow of information toward users as consumers rather than as persons.

I think.



Thanks to Dave Birk for pointing me to Mills’ post.


March 8, 2016

Making library miscellaneousness awesome

Sitterwerk Art Library in St. Gallen, Switzerland, has 25,000 items on its shelves in no particular order. This video explains why that is a brilliant approach. And then the story just gets better and better.

Werkbank from Astrom / Zimmer on Vimeo.

That the shelves have no persistent order doesn’t mean they have no order. Rather, works are reshelved by users in the clusters the users have created for their research. All the items have RFID tags in them, and the shelves are automatically scanned so that the library can always tell users where items are located.

As a result, if you look up a particular item, you will see it surrounded by works that some other user thought were related to it in some way. This creates a richer browsing experience because it is shaped and reshaped by how its community of users sees the items’ inter-relationships.

The library has now installed Werkbank, which is a plain old table where you can spread out a pile of books and do your research. But, unlike truly plain old tables, this one combines RFID sensors and cameras with recognition software so it knows which works you’ve put on the table and how you’ve organized them. Werkbench notes those associations, and stores them, creating a rich network of related works.

It also lets the individual save a research set, and even compile a booklet documenting those items, with notes. It can be printed on the spot and taken home … or put into the shelves as a user-generated lib guide.

This is awesome.

Here’s a bit more about it:

…the new table sports a grid of 12 an­ten­nas. It also has two cam­eras at­tached: one for scan­ning the tab­letop and through cus­tom image re­cog­ni­tion soft­ware de­term­ine the exact po­s­i­tion and ro­ta­tion of books; one for mak­ing high-res­ol­u­tion scans of pages, notes or ob­jects not yet in the Sit­ter­werk cata­logue. Just like be­fore, the new server and its in­ter­face provides a real-time di­gital ren­der­ing of the table and its con­tents, but in two di­men­sions in­stead of one. It also lets you at­tach scans, pho­tos and texts to in­di­vidual ob­jects, and to the vir­tual table it­self. Once you save your col­lec­tion, it merges with a grow­ing net­work of other col­lec­tions, books, ma­ter­i­als, thoughts and people

Anthon Astrom tells me that the project currently runs against an internal API, and they are planning to create a public API at some point. That way, the world can benefit from what Sitterwerk’s users are teaching it.



At the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, we wanted to do something that touches on some elements of this. With 73 libraries and 13 million items in Harvard Library it never even crossed our minds to install continuous RFID scanners in the stacks. So, our StackLife project and the LibraryCloud platform underneath it wanted simply to record which books were checked out with others, on the grounds that those clusters often have meaning. But, Harvard cyber-security researchers warned that this could be used to identify who took the books out. We thought about ways of smudging the data, and about making it opt-in, but it was not a fight we could win at that point. Werkbank might have the same issues when recording clusters but because it’s an art library, there may be less concern about the government demanding to know who was researching The Scream, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and Guernica because that person is clearly up to no good.

In any case the Sitterwerk library and Werkbank have far exceeded our imagination. More than that: it’s real. Awesomely real.


January 13, 2016

Perfect Eavesdropping

Suppose a laptop were found at the apartment of one of the perpetrators of last year’s Paris attacks. It’s searched by the authorities pursuant to a warrant, and they find a file on the laptop that’s a set of instructions for carrying out the attacks.

Thus begins Jonathan Zittrain‘s consideration of an all-too-plausible hypothetical. Should Google respond to a request to search everyone’s gmail inboxes to find everyone to whom the to-do list was sent ? As JZ says, you can’t get a warrant to search an entire city, much less hundreds of millions of inboxes.

But, while this is a search that sweeps a good portion of the globe, it doesn’t “listen in” on any mail except for that which contains a precise string of words in a precise order. What happens next would depend upon the discretion of the investigators.

JZ points out that Google already does something akin to this when it searches for inboxes that contain known child pornography images.

JZ’s treatment is even handed and clear. (He’s a renown law professor. He knows how to do these things.) He discusses the reasons pro and con. He comes to his own personal conclusion. It’s a model of clarity of exposition and reasoning.

I like this article a lot on its own, but I find it especially fascinating because of its implications for the confused feeling of violation many of us have when it’s a computer doing the looking. If a computer scans your emails looking for a terrorist to-do list, has it violated your sense of privacy? If a robot looks at you naked, should you be embarrassed? Our sense of violation is separable from our legal and moral right to privacy question, but the two meanings often get mixed up in such discussions. Not in JZ’s, but often enough.

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November 6, 2015

More cracks in the enormous dam in the river of scholarship [#blockThatMetaphor]

Here’s the TL;DR (also known as a well-written lead paragraph, by Scott Jaschik):

All six editors and all 31 editorial board members of Lingua, one of the top journals in linguistics, last week resigned to protest Elsevier’s policies on pricing and its refusal to convert the journal to an open-access publication that would be free online. As soon as January, when the departing editors’ noncompete contracts expire, they plan to start a new open-access journal to be called Glossa.

The article tries to explain how much it costs for a library to subscribe, but that’s not fully possible because Elsevier’s pricing structure pretty much requires libraries to buy inconsistently-priced “bundles.”

Elsevier has responded in a way that is likely to make no one happy, not even Elsevier.

Imagine a world in which the works of scholars are available to anyone who is interested. What a concept! A hearty thank you to the board of Lingua.


The tireless Peter Suber has a list of similar “Declarations of Independence” by journals.

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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 :)


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