Monday, February 02, 2009

The Empirical Turn

Geert Lovink began a three-day series of lectures today as part of the Critical Theory Emphasis graduate program at UC Irvine with a lecture on "Understanding Global Internet Culture" that argued that "theory has lost grip on its object." Lovink discussed how such cultural formations present challenges for media theory and promised to provide perspective from his experiences with online activism, focusing on a ten-to-fifteen year period that could be explicated by using a history of web design. Lovink argued that not just studying but also theorizing networks requires the development of research methodology, and he pointed to the work done by his own Institute of Network Cultures on Internet pornography, urban screens, the "creative industries" personified by the likes of Richard Florida, blogging, and the online video megasite YouTube. He encouraged members of the audience to contact his institute for free copies of the group's publications, since he operates a “state of postal communism” with his center.

His opening visual used a much blogged about image, "Map of Online Communities," from xkcd, the webcomic of "romance, sarcasm, math, and language." (Click to enlarge.) As Lovink points out, this is "not global picture," but it does reflect the balkanization of all kinds of virtual and physical spaces with the advent of distributed computing. For example, Lovink points to how in Holland the city of Utrecht is focusing on computer games, while other cities have other specializations. (Last year, I visited Delft, which seemed to be a capital of crisis management and risk communication applicaitons of software.) Lovink argues that this creates a situation in which "things are related, but they are not" in an "expanding archipelago."

He also offered more visualizations of "Internet users in the world" to support the numerical dimension of what he called the "critical humanities": Asia 578.5 million, Europe 384.5 million, North America 248.2 million, and Latin America/Caribbean 139.0 million.

In looking at these numbers he spoke about what he called "the empirical turn" in net criticism now that the "wave of French postmodernism has died down" that was epitomized by the work of someone like George Landow. Instead, what Lovink presents is a "mass of practices and stories and diverse cultures of use." To understand some of the "transformations that the field is going through," he pointed to a particular date: August 2008, when China surpassed the U.S. in Internet use. As he asserted, "new media culture will be Asian culture," even though the continent now only tallies 15.3% usage statistics. As the world average of Internet users approaches 21.9% of the occupants of the globe, Lovink noticed that some digital divides were persisting in Europe, particularly along old East/West divides, and that penetration continues to be slow in Africa.

Given the exponential growth of usage, Lovink insists that "research can’t deal with its object any more" with 1.3 billion e-mail users worldwide, 53.8 trillion spam e-mails sent in 2008 alone, a visual culture burgeoning with 10 billion images on Facebook, 3 billion on Flickr, and 6.2 billion on Photobucket, and the growth of the production base of online video, which -- at an average of 3.1 minutes -- are being generated at a rate 34% higher in 2008 than 2007.

What was predicted a decade ago has adopted a very different morphology. Belief in the indymedia model of "grassroots reporting" with political crowds participating in news filtering, fact checking, commentary, and analysis has finally begun to wane in critical circles. Lovink compared "how bloggers thought they would relate to traditional news media in 2003 or 2004" and critiques the paradigm of "circling around old media" in a relationship that was "not parasitic but attached to main body" of "feeding into the larger system from outside." However, blogs are now "integrated into larger social network practice" so that "blogging is something you do." Lovink also pointed to the "integration of blogging into search engines" and its activities of "ratings and ranking" and patterns of "investment and revenue" in a blogosphere in which "over half of blogs have advertising." He also noted the pyramid of participation in which most serve as consumers rather than commentators or producers with the familiar 100% - 10% - 1% distributions as his metric.

As the patterns of production and consumption become less predictable, even the corporate giants who benefit from the system are beginning to give up on being able to offer a macroperspective on the web. He described Technorati as "about ready to give up" since 2006 when 37% posts were in Japanese and only barely edging out the 38% that were in English. The rise of interest in the possibile profitability of locative media in which you "walk past restaurant you review" explains some of the apathy for keeping up with the big picture. He also pointed to the "erratic movements in spats" and "movements of media panics" as a check on any attempts at scientific predictionism. With microblogging this has only accelerated with the rise of the “haiku to the world” approach that inspired him to ask his students to examine Twitter alongside Nietzsche’s aphorisms and consider "how two cultural artifacts can relate."

All this, Lovink insisted was being missed by the "business management literature" that is only capable of expressing confidence that "the global business class will eventually include middle classes" and thus will continue to serve as the exemplar for Internet practices. Among the ideologies held dear is the one that continues to bolster an unwavering faith in the durability of English monolingualism as the paradigm despite evidence to the contrary from charts like "Top 10 languages in the Internet" and what he characterized as a "Polyglot Internet." To see the trends at work, Lovink recommended looking at Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon's Global Voices, although he cautioned that they may overemphasize what he called the "Berkman Center line of anti-censorship movements that focuses on anti-circumvention software" and thus fail to grapple with the latent libertarianism and neoliberalism of that particular brand of Internet politics. As Lovink argued, efforts to empower national Internet cultures could also prove to be counterproductive to global dialogues

Lovink warned that we were currently entering an era of the growth of "national webs" that were "culturally and technologically isolated" in ways that could transform the Internet into a kind of "echo chamber." He argued that "one of these isolated cultures is the English-speaking world," which represents about 26% of the Internet now but is likely to level out at 15-20%. He also looked at the secession of French speakers represented by a site like Skyrock, which has 10 million profiles and software that immediately traces one's IP address, so in Lovink's case the software decided that he was "trying to date a French girl."

Some national webs are becoming defiant about their separateness and using technological means to endorse their distinctive character. Athough China is often singled out as an example of organizing Internet culture in this way, Lovink claimed that this is "where the Internet itself is going" and observed that a country like Australia, where he regularly resides, is trying to "control in and outgoing gates." Turkey, he explained, is also going in this direction; with 100 million people they are even attempting to get "control over use of YouTube." Lovink highlighted the cynical involvement of "Western consultants" in this lockdown, which has been "fully supported by Silicon Valley." Wryly he noted that Russia was an "ideal country for the national web," given its problem of increased media control and the fact that it was still a bit player in the global Internet at 2%.

On a global scale he raised some of the issues about political reaction to digital culture that I do in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book on a national scale, since he said the concerns of nation-states were "more about the administration of all this than purely raw growth" and the realization of the "dream of many politicians of carving up cyberspace."

Yet Lovink asserted that scholarly literature had a tendency to get "stuck on issue of censorship" and miss the degree to which this fragmentation was emerging as a response to vernacular patterns of use. As to what humanists should be doing in a field in which social scientists were likely to claim greater expertise, Lovink offered several possibilities for future work. He suggested that young scholars could pursue "comparative study with the techniques of comparative literature" and used the model of "French and German blogosphere" and their "historic clash of cultures" as an example of the kind of research that could be compelling. He noted that in his own homeland there is a Dutch version that epitomizes the national net,, with 7 million users of a national population of 17 million in the Netherlands, so that around 40% of Dutch citizens have a profile on the site, so that "MySpace or Facebook don’t have a chance" in the face of the site's marketing power for metasites. He also analyzed the German site Studiverzeichnis, which has garned 12 million profiles of 80 million Germans, despite the fact that it is "not visual" and appeals to German skeptism of social network sites and the latent fears of participating in discourse in a channel installed by a police state, almost as if a hyperbolic paranoia that the CIA was behind Facebook could be supportable. To illustrate this point, he showed a map of French blogosphere, which was handmade and representative of a "human response to machine data," which was titled "Cartographie Diablement Subjective et Approximative de la Blogarchie Francophone."

During the question-and-answer session it was clear that some hackles had been raised during his ninety minute talk.

Although David Theo Goldberg concurred that China presented fundamental challenges to Internet researchers, even for someone as well regarded Mimi Ito, and that the phenomenon of "linguistic nationalism" that Lovink had expounded upon was real, some resented Lovink's characterization of China as a "black continent" for Internet research and implicitly seemed to be questioning whether he was overly Eurocentric in his outlook. In response, Lovink cited his own involvement in the translation of free software tools into Hindi to better serve the needs of the 450 million people who speak the language as proof of his commitment to global engagement. He also acknowledged that it was a problem that "New Media Studies and Postcolonial Studies" had become "parallel universes" that have grown independently with little dialogue. He suggested that it was "time to open a lot of channels" and resist the "ridiculous rivalry between the different disciplines" and the "competition over scarce resources" in contemporary universities in which the "tremendous transition" of film studies and the movement of television studies "into the mainstream" indicated that disciplinary borders, centers, and peripheries were fungible. Finally, he defended the image as being appropriate for drawing attention to the limitations of the "anthropological and empirical turn" that was taking place in the field of Internet studies, which was "not so interesting from a theory perspective." (I've certainly seen this trend developing in the Association of Internet Researchers myself, as work from the humanities is excluded, and would tend to second Lovink's opinion.) On the other hand, he defended the value of going "back to anthropological tools" and the usefulness of case studies, such as a project that describes Internet access in a particular high school in Zambia. Of course, some argued that his general call for theory may be premature if the prime needs are descriptive not conceptual, given the failure of description Lovink was describing.

Others didn't like the structure of his presentation around the information graphics of marketing share and argued that his emphasis on the latest and greatest and looming future predictions betrayed a latent corporatism in his discourse. He defended himself against this charge by arguing that there was also "a place for genealogy" and historical studies of computers and computer networks, particularly cybernetics. Nonetheless, he expressed reservations about assuming the position that we "can’t deal with the present so let’s focus on the past" and dissastifaction with studies that only see the Internet through the lens of the Cold War and the deeper influence of military technology, which leaves out the global perspective and practices adopted without centralization that are now being organized by national webs. He explained that "we are kind of stuck in a way" because such genealogies would be unlikely to "give us the critical apparatus to study the future" In describing the "state of panic" associated with "trying to keep up," Lovink admitted that he had "left out statistics related to the mobile phone," which is revolutionizing "access to electronic communication."

Mark Poster
questioned the ramifications of pointing out that "we can no longer be Kant writing for all humanity," given the crisis of theory that Lovink described, even though theory is called for in a time in which the nature of subject formation has changed so radically. Lovink responded that the fact that theory no longer guides practice (with the exception of tactical media) should be of concern. Although this "notion of the object as constantly disappearing" might discourage some from attempting serious critical inquiry, he expressed his concern that too often a "technolibertarian agenda" oriented around a few pet issues, such as open access, free software, creative commons licenses, was filling the vacuum at a time when critical concepts that could shape the field were needed, and that a "public domain agenda" in which the Internet merely served as a kind of public space were far too easy to deconstruct. Lovink identified himself as a product of the "Kittler school of German media theory" who was interested in "media materialist approaches" that addressed "infrastructural underpinning" and "historical trends going back to modes of writing." In closing his talk he emphasized that "important media theorists" such as Richard Rogers of, "have that humanities background" and that the objects of study only seemed to "disappear because they are more present and bigger."

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