Saturday, May 08, 2010

An Afternoon in Informatics

Yesterday I was honored to speak at the Friday seminar hosted by the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine. I had been invited to give a presentation about the Virtualpolitik book by Bonnie Nardi, an expert in computer-mediated communication, who did some of the early ground-breaking work on blogging and the "zero comments" phenomenon.

I have given a number of overview talks about the book since its publication, but this was a unique opportunity to talk about methodology in a setting in which graduate students trying to figure out where they saw themselves fitting in disciplinarily asked many of the most difficult questions to answer.

I explained the basic thesis of the book, that institutions have an inherent conflict between content-creation and regulation when it comes to digital media, because files can travel to unintended audiences and be used for unanticipated purposes. As in the case of the photoshopped images that I write about, these files can also be altered to create new forms of political commentary. Too often these forms of digital alteration are misunderstood by government officials, and in the book I describe several stories of profound media illiteracy in which legislators saw potential terrorist intent in the work of creators of fan films or web generators or equally civil and nonviolent forms of expression.

In talking about the idea of "media archeology," which includes examining the role of the platforms that store, display, and edit digital files and carry digital signals, I made the case for reconstructive and interpretive disciplines, some of which might be closer to the humanities than the kinds of disciplines traditionally associated with informatics, at least as it is described in convent. I explained that my work has no methods section, since my method is to gather as many texts -- of all kinds -- as possible and then do the close reading, rhetorical analysis, historical guesswork, and explication that is by its very nature hard to quantify.

After all, how does one measure ideology, my main object of study in considering new forms of digital rhetoric? Of course, there are many who might look at games, simulations, and other kinds of messages composed with computational media and construct elaborate matrices about user types, message types, types of emotion and cognition, types of narrative and play, etc., and then carefully sort all their observations about computer-mediated communication into countable boxes. This kind of abstraction might serve others well who do other things disciplinarily. I can only speak about my own practices and the ways I see research questions. But this kind of archetypical thinking went out of fashion in literature many years ago for good reason as a method of reading.

Ironically, many from my established disciplinary home on the other side of campus from Informatics might see my readings of the government's digital rhetoric as less "pure" in the literary sense, because I interview participants like digital artists, electronic archivists, and software developers and actually go to sites of collaboration and creation and explore why one digital text was created and not another. And unlike "electronic literature" or "literary nonfiction," "digital nonfiction" is still regarded with s0me skepticism, when it comes to the genres that people in English departments study and teach.

Slides from the talk are here.

Thanks to John Unsworth for the video link.

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