Month: January 2010

“Digital Maoism” for Digital Rhetoricians?

I’m reading Jaron Lanier’s 2006 cautionary anti-crowdsourcing manifesto “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” and it’s interesting to look at the way he understands writing. On the one hand, in looking at “most of the technical or scientific information” on Wikipedia (I think I’d qualify that to say “much” rather than “most,” unless he’s got access to statistics he’s not citing), he notes that “specific texts get cloned from original sites at universities or labs onto wiki pages,” and such information thereby “loses part of its value” when taken out of its context of production and out of relation to its author. Fair enough: yes, I’ll certainly go with that; the notion that all writing is inherently rhetorical, and that context matters, although he seems to be performing the current-traditionalist move of privileging the primary or original (I’m resisting the urge to put that word in scare quotes) context over any subsequent context or recontextualization. (The New Critics said, implicitly, “Always dehistoricize,” to which Jameson rightly retorted, “Always historize,” to which in turn digital rhetoricians, remix artists, and others aquiver in the ecstasies of influence might respond, “Always rehistoricize.”) Of course, the critique he’s making could be leveled against the decontextualized knowledge found in any encyclopedia, and in fact it often is, implicitly, in the way that composition teachers forbid students from using encyclopedias (wiki or otherwise) as sources for research papers. It’s an interesting take on the value of writing, though; the suggestion that something is somehow worth less when it’s copied into a new context: does this work with or against the ideologies associated with the social turn in writing instruction? Against, I think: it’s a romantic ideal masquerading as a rhetorical ideal. This sense of the nature of his argument is strengthened for me when Lanier asserts that on the Web (and, implicitly, in writing), “value would flow from people” and that “value always came from connecting with real humans.” (Note the familiar romantic privileging of authenticity in the use of the word “real.”) Ultimately, in fact, writing itself becomes for Lanier an asocial act: “What I think of as real writing. . . involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.” For networked writing, that’s a pretty striking concept.

Freedom and Property

At Computers and Writing last year, I briefly chatted with John Logie about some of the smart things I’d recently had the good fortune to hear him say about intellectual property. He made the case in our conversation (as well as in some of his recent presentations) that advocates of openness in intellectual property would do well to reframe the debate away from the term “property” because of the ways the term itself — “property” — is both inaccurate (owning an idea is not the same as owning a car) and tends to make people feel instinctively possessive. I get that, and I’m kind of with him on it.

The problem I see, though, is that notions of property and ownership are so deeply woven into all aspects of our culture that it’s really, really hard not to say “mine.” Especially when it comes to stuff that is somehow connected to you. In fact, I’m kind of wondering: for some belief systems, doesn’t all morality and ethical individual conduct essentially come from the concept of ownership, and from the concept of self-ownership in particular? I’m thinking here especially of John Locke and Chapter V of the Second Treatise on Government (and, to a lesser degree, some of the ideas in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding): in other words, the concept away from which Logie wants to shift the debate is one that’s deeply foundational, and in some ways part of the bedrock of Western democracies.

Are there possible alternatives? Other ways to think about ideas in ways that don’t rely on conceptions of individual ownership as foundational and necessary to freedom? What are some positive opposing terms for “ownership”?

I don’t know. Rousseau’s notion of the freedom of the self and the way — in my limited understanding — that he seems to conceive of individual liberty and a sort of positive self-determination might be a possible alternative. But if Logie’s talking about reframing the debate, Western audiences tend to go for Locke a lot more than they go for Rousseau.

Chasing Down the Problematics of the LTV

I keep finding myself running into the problem of the labor theory of value (LTV) when trying to think about composition as an economic act, to the point where I’m wondering if its being a problem should serve as an indicator of the possible richness of the questions it raises. So on the one hand, I’m chasing down recent work in economics on that angle, from comparisons between Sraffa on commodities versus Marx on labor-times to thoughts from the Austrians on the economics of time (with reservations about both); but on the other hand, I’m seeing the aggregation problem — how do we disentangle measures of writing as economic activity from the pitfalls of the labor theory of value; how does the value of writing accumulate, in Sraffa’s sense — as the direction to follow, enthusiastically. If we understand pieces of writing as moments in the cyclic process of production-ownership-use-reproduction that embody addings-up of the labor of their authors and the authors upon whose work they draw as well as of the other contributing factors of production (including, e.g., computers; machines that stand themselves as aggregations of capital, and as substitutions of capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes), then thinking of the value of those pieces of writing becomes easier to do even algebraically, even though the algebra of the labor theory of value itself doesn’t quite work. There’s a way that the aggregation problem can make the economics of time as applied to writing actually work, I think, with implications from the way we value peer-reviewed articles to the counting behaviors associated with the Stanford study of writing to credit hours to time-use studies. (This is also a return for me to the Bourdieu chapter in my dissertation, where I looked at the limitations of Bourdieu’s X and Y axes of cultural and economic capital in tracing the relative values of cultural objects as being partly overcome by adding a Z axis for time and thereby tracing a trajectory of valuation as a three-dimensional shape, further complicated by producers’ and consumers’ disparate positions on those X and Y axes making those three-dimensional shapes slightly different depending on which angle you look from: thick-skinned balloon animals of valuation, maybe.) But looking at writing’s accumulated value through the LTV could help writing studies to respond to the “service course” critique (and likely find a lot of use for the Downs-Wardle approach), and also makes enormous amounts of sense for the citation-heavy, association-heavy new media-based compositions that seem more appropriate or at least more common in the context of the information economy: such compositions wear their factors of production on their collective sleeve and move away from the economic obfuscation of the romantic-author model (which, of course and interestingly in this context, was itself partly a response to the upheavals of the previous technological-economic revolution).

The Teleology of Capitalism

Does capitalism have a particular teleology? If those who believe strongly in the virtues of unfettered free-market capitalism were to think teleologically, what ideal end-state would they imagine, and for whom?

Popular critiques of vulgar or orthodox Marxism understand its ideal goal to consist of class struggle leading to socialist revolution followed by a worker’s utopia wherein “after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Critique of the Gotha Program). Critiques of various forms of Marxism that admit a more sophisticated understanding still often find a solid target in teleologies that imagine some remedy to the appropriation of unpaid labor and a loosening of the bourgeoisie’s private ownership of the means of production: so, yes, Marxisms by definition often imagine some future circumstance toward which they work.

Do the advocates of free-market competition similarly imagine some ideal future circumstance — and if so, what does it look like?

Paying Attention as an Aggregation Problem

Last semester, our FYC students read an article by William Deresiewicz that indicted the dangers posed to the focused and individually attentive reflective mind by today’s digital technologies of multitasking. I’ve been thinking about that article more lately, both in the way that it intersects with my concerns of the economic valuation of writing as a form of immaterial labor and in the way it intersects with other articles I’ve been reading about the our evolving understanding of the function of attention. N. Katherine Hayles usefully outlines (behind a paywall, but partially available here) the binary of “Deep Versus Hyper Attention” (to be taken with all the usual necessary Derridean caveats about binaries), Eric Gordon and David Bogen investigate how we might rethink configuring the parameters of situations requiring (forms of) attention (and in so doing lead me to other interesting things to read on the topic), and Christine Rosen offers a perhaps more balanced critique than she usually does but one that engages in much of the sloppiness (track her use of the word “this”) typical to arguments over technologies of attention. (When Deresiewicz came to talk to our FYC students, he wound up hyper-qualifying so much of his argument as to essentially offer nothing beyond the blandest platitudes.) Attention is such a protean thing that it skates away like mercury, as Gordon and Bogen do an excellent job of showing. One good point, though, that Rosen starts to get at and that Hayles try to set up some limits for is the definition of “multi-” in our use of the attention-related term “multi-tasking.” What exactly counts as “multi-tasking,” anyway?

For some of the participants in the debate (Rosen and Deresiewicz in particular), the digital technologies that serve today as the most obvious tools for multitasking — the ones we most readily notice — become metonyms for the activity: if you’re doing more than one thing at once with a technology that didn’t exist ten years ago, you’re multitasking. On the other hand, if you’re reading a bedtime story for a child who’s sitting in your lap — in other words, engaging in the data-processing activities of taking in words and pictures, understanding the relations between them, performing them for an audience, monitoring that audience’s affective response to your performance, assessing your interpersonal interaction with that audience, while at the same time engaging in the kinesthesia of making that audience comfortable and relaxed while sitting in your lap, turning the pages, and keeping the book at an appropriate eye level — well, no, that’s not multitasking; that’s reading a bedtime story.

What happens, I think, is the same thing that folks who do work with digital technologies have known for a long time: the digital tools make relations and activities formerly taken for granted newly visible. To borrow from C. Paul Olson again, digital technologies replace labor-intensive processes with capital-intensive processes. As a form of immaterial labor, paying attention is work, but as anyone who uses Google Reader (or any RSS aggregator knows), paying attention is itself something that can be streamlined and compressed via technology into what feels like firehose force. Richard Lanham offered at least a good start in The Economics of Attention: information is (in many contexts today) hardly a scarce commodity. The problem Lanham ran into was an excessive focus on those two areas of neoclassical economic interest: scarcity and commodities. His proposed solution was to examine how we redistribute attention as a scarce commodity, which I think goes in the wrong direction: attention is not a commodity. It’s a form of work; of labor.

As such, attention requires examination and conceptualization as a factor of economic production. While I’m not in any way suggesting here that I adhere to a labor theory of value, I do think that understanding the work of attention as a form of immaterial labor and thereby as a form (at least in some cases) of production results in the phenomenon of multitasking showing itself as a sort of Sraffian aggregation problem.

(As I work through the ideas above, I’m realizing even more that my dissertation work gave me a glimpse of only the tiniest corner of the types of questions that I want to investigate. What I’m increasingly asking myself as I do so is: why? What do I hope to learn? What types of questions — yes, hello, stasis — do I want to pursue? Am I interested in how the work described above happens? No, that’s a problem of production, of techné.

Shankar via Lunsford: Spriting Talkuments

On pages 9-10 of Writing Matters, Andrea Lunsford cites a number of terms Tara Shankar invents in her 2005 dissertation, including

the key term spriting. By ‘sprite,’ a portmanteau combining speaking and writing, Shankar means speaking that “yields two technologically supported representations: the speech in audible form, and the speech in visual form. Spriting, therefore, equally encompasses digital speech recorders, speech editing tools, and any speech dictation recognition tools that would use speech in addition to text as an output mode” (15). The product of spriting she identifies as a spoken document, or talkument. . . Finding that students produce talkuments collaboratively with the greatest of ease, Shankar concludes that “spriting seems to admit even closer, more integral collaborations than does writing, perhaps because spriting can more easily incorporate conversation as both planning and composition material” (236).

I find this particularly interesting as I begin the Spring semester and ask my students to engage in some brief, regular low-stakes writing; in keeping a daybook. Last semester when I did this, the daybook took a variety of forms from blog to paper journal to daily text file, and as I’m increasingly syncing my composing media (phone to laptop to index cards to notebook to work and home computers), I’m realizing that I’ll be composing via the spoken word as well as the written word, and that I should give my students the same latitude.