Presented without comment #22

‘Persona_Ebooks’ And Game Community In The Web 2.0 Era‘ by Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra.

What is “Horse_ebooks?” If you’re a high-volume Twitter user, or you participate in some of the more cultish avenues of internet culture, you’re familiar with this feed — it’s just a bot designed to sell ebooks about horses, apparently.

It seems to populate itself automatically, primarily with snippets from the books themselves. Combine that with other inscrutable fan algorithms and the Tweets are surreal and funny enough that “Horse_ebooks” has attained memehood.

Examples of fan-favorite Horse_ebooks Tweets include: “I hope for your sake you are ready for a life WITHOUT back or neck”; “Famous Crab”, and “How to Teach a Horse to Sit, Give a Kiss and Give a Hug,” as well as lines that look more like erectile dysfunction spam than anything one would find in an ebook about horses.

Rethinking learning and assessment and the dmlbadges competition‘ by Alex Reid at Alex Reid dot net.

 What do we want to say about real, authentic learning? It marks you. As Frank O’Hara writes in a different context, “If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'” If you learn, you are transformed. Your medals won’t help you run faster or farther, but the hours of running will. As an undergrad, I realized I could take a course, purchase none of the books, show up for half the lectures, and still get a B. Personally, I never cared about the grades or the diplomas that resulted. I just went about learning what I wanted to. If I spent long hours practicing music and learning studio recording by trial and error, which I did, the proof was in the music I produced. If I studied creative writing for my MA, the proof was in the poetry I wrote and the readings I gave. Today, I am still marked by learning and that mark is visible in the writing I publish, the courses I teach, the program I administrate, and so on. As we all know by now, you just do it.

This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.” by Jay Rosen at his Public Notebook.

Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.

Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.

Facebook is a monopoly, so why shouldn’t it be nationalized?” by David Mitchell at The Guardian.

I’m sure Facebook would claim it’s not a monopoly – strictly speaking it isn’t – but it clearly wants to be and, if there are whole sections of society who feel obliged to sign up in order to be able to communicate with one another, then its dreams are coming true. Next there’ll be electric sheep. Facebook isn’t aspiring to be Cable & Wireless or AT&T, major players within a medium; it wants to be the whole telephone network.

In some ways, this works well for everyone. It’s more convenient if we’re all joined up by the same social network, just as Google is more useful as a search engine because almost everyone uses it. It would be different if, like phone providers, different social media sites communicated with one another – if you could send someone a message from your Facebook account that popped up on their LinkedIn or Netlog page (I looked up those names on Yahoo). But you can’t and, while it’s providing its services for free, there’s no pressure on Facebook to rein in its monopolistic urge.

Presented without comment #21

Your Customer won’t take a bullet for you‘ by Kathy Sierra

“Customer Loyalty” is a figment. Business “Loyalty Programs” are nothing more than rewards-based marketing. And by rewards (aka “incentives”), I mean bribes. That we so easily refer to a customer with a bagel punch card or virtual badge as more “loyal” is an example of just how far we’ve allowed corporations to abuse the language around human relationships.

I’m willing to comment, favorite, star, plus, and potentially even share your content, but if I do it purely for the points/status/rewards, that is not loyalty. In fact, when you “incent” me to “engage” with your site, deep in my heart I understand now that I have sold out. By giving me bribes/incentives, no matter how much you call them “rewards”, you have communicated to some part of me that if I had to be incented to buy/act/engage/whatever, it must have lacked value on its own.

The key to understanding (and ultimately benefitting from) true “customer loyalty” is to recognize and respect that customers–as people– are deeply loyal to themselves and those they love, but not to products and brands. They are loyal to their own values and the (relatively few) people and causes they truly believe in. What looks and feels like loyalty to a product, brand, company, etc. is driven by what that product, service, brand says about who we are and what we value.

The Power of Blogs in Forming New International Fields of Study‘ by Nigel Thrift at WorldWise.

…this chapter in intellectual history shows how a new variant of communication can have formative effects, and in fascinating ways. As a result of it and similar episodes in other fields, I am now quite sure that archiving the Internet is a worthwhile activity for intellectual historians of the future because, when the problem is reasonably well-specified, blogs can show communities worrying away at the issues in all but real time.

Tape Delay‘ by Zach Hiwiller at Zach

Damn do I feel bad for “Past Zack”. His tweets really do feel like they are coming from a different person. The Twitshift application is a lot different than just reading your old blog or diary. Since it happens in realtime alongside the tweets of real people, it really does feel like you are watching an external real person. Except you have this burden because you know how his story will go before he does. I want to message him and tell him to hang in there, that everything gets better really soon. But I can’t and it breaks my heart.

Orwell on miners; the working-class; and unemployment in the 30s

I’m reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, as a re-tweet from my diligent twitter friend Sam_Crisp alerted me to the fact that the University of Adelaide is periodically releasing out-of-copyright e-books (and Orwell, having been dead 50 years  is now out of copyright in Australia. I think he’d be pleased with that, actually).

Wigan Pier, which was written in and around a number of mining towns and heavy industrial cities in Northern England, has got a number of fantastic passages and I thought I’d just highlight a few of them. The opening chapter describes his time lodging with a couple who ran a boarding house/store type establishment and it is a pure and unmitigated horror. Bugs, horrible food, cold and smelly, five men to a room coming and going at different times; it’s a kind of unimaginably Dickensian existence that you wouldn’t believe unless it were described to you by someone who actually lived it, as Orwell did. He was something of an investigative novelist, a slower counterpart of the investigative journalist and it allowed him to get a real sense of (what Latour would call) the whole State of Affairs. There something in his perfect descriptions that is very much an ancestor of Latour’s own methodological approach. There is no ‘expanation’ lacking after one has read an Orwellian description; everything is entirely laid bare.

In chapter 2 he outlines in captivating prose just how tough it is being a miner – how much your whole body is moulded into the task of mining, no doubt coming to define your very existence:

Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal  a few yards away. I had not realized that before he even gets to work he may have had to creep along passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal; But as the seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal face, that it probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to distance above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be, there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even there, where a man can stand upright… what I want to emphasize is this. Here is this frightful business of crawling to and fro, which to any normal person is a hard days work in itself; and it is not part of the miner’s work at all, it is merely an extra, like the City man’s daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage work. I have never travelled much more than a mile to the coal face; but often it is three miles, in which case I and most people other than coal-miners would never get there at all. This is the kind of point that one is always liable to miss. When you think of the coal-mine you think of depth, heat, darkness, blackened figures hacking at walls of coal; you don’t think necessarily of those miles of creeping to and fro. There is the question of time, also. A miner’s working shift of seven and a half hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least an hour a day for ‘travelling’, more often two hours and sometimes three. Of course, the ‘travelling’ is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference. It is easy to say that miners don’t mind all this. Certainly, it is not the same for them as it would be for you or me. They have done it since childhood, they have the right muscles hardened, and they can move to and fro underground with a startling and rather horrible agility… But it is quite a mistake to think they enjoy it. I have talked about this to scores of miners and they all admit that the ‘travelling’ is hard work; in any case when you hear them discussing a pit among themselves the ‘travelling’ is always one of the things they discuss. It is said that a shift always returns faster than it goes; nevertheless the miners all say that it is the coming away after a hard day’s work, that is especially irksome. It is part of their work and they are equal to it, but certainly it is an effort. It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work.

And yet such tiring work often leaves them barely above the poverty line, to say nothing of the precarity of the nature of miners work. They were quite often at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of work and supply/demand (in other words, at the mercy of capital) and what did they get for it? Mostly, poverty. More than that though, as members of the working-class they were kept perpetually down. If they were injured or out of work, to collect their allowance, they had to spend interminable hours waiting around at the mercy of the disburser. Orwell describes the effects of this treatment in the closing of Chapter 3:

This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man don into a passive role. he does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of the mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that ‘they’ will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.

The last passage I wanted to reporoduce here has to do with unemployment, as a great number of people in the 30’s (and today) were out of work or did not get enough work to support themselves fully. Having spent all of one year in a state of chronic underemployment, living off my parents essentially, I totally and completely empathise with the out-of-work and the underemployed. Here’s Orwell describing the effects of it, and countering the myth that unemployment is a time for productive self-directed work or leisure. Keep in mind this is pre-WWII:

But there is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single, and upon men more than upon women. The best intellects will not stand up against it. Once or twice it has happened to me to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability; there are others whom I haven’t met but whose work I occasionally see in the magazines. Now and again, at long intervals, these men will produce an article or a short story which is quite obviously better than most of the stuff that gets whooped up by the blurb-reviewers. Why, then, do they make so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why don’t they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude — and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home — you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.

A magnificent summary.

Facebook, lolcats, and matters-of-concern

So an unexpected thing happened recently: my Facebook-ing practice rather drastically changed. Primarily I used to use Facebook as a place to post interesting links to things worth reading – new research and reports on social trends for good or ill; or a particularly insightful piece of political analysis; or something about a new bit of technology that has interesting implications for living. Whatever it was, the implicit understanding was that I wanted my friends to read it and see what I saw of value in the story.

But for some reason I’ve almost entirely stopped doing that now. Why?

The thing I spend most of my time doing on Facebook now is, perhaps unsurprisingly, arguing. The number of “serious” conversations I’ve gotten into on FB over the past few months is a bit embarrassing. Almost always they’re about religion, or religious attitudes and behaviours towards women, gays, minorities, etcetera and occasionally they are with strangers, but usually they’re with ‘friends’ or at least acquaintances. Why this sudden change? I’m begging to think that perhaps it’s because, for all my linking and leaving the ‘evidence’ out there for people to find, many people just haven’t been noticing or have not taken it on board. My ‘links’ don’t seem to be having the desired effect.

At the same time as this, I’ve shifted away from using actual pictures of myself as profile pictures to alternatively using baby photos, memes and photos of famous individuals – Fidel Castro, in particular. I’ve also changed my display name to ‘Comrade Ben Abraham’, a thing that started as a joke but which seems to fit within this same pattern.

So am I a Facebook activist? Not quite. Rather than activism I’d like to connect my practice with a different (and newer) tradition addressing Bruno Latour’s matters-of-concern. A practical demonstration is in order. The comments thread at the bottom of the piece I wrote for Gamasutra responding to the ongoing conditions of inequality in game development (and criticism) is a fantastic example of where the new battles are being fought.

Presented with incontrovertible evidence that sexism is produced through unequal wages (just one powerful example, and one with much ‘hard evidence’ – or so I thought!) many commenters decided not to accept my matters-of-fact that ‘sexism exists’ and that ‘it’s a really big deal’ and instead attempted to debunk my position. Reading through these comments I began to deeply empathise with and understand Latour when he expressed his doubt and fears in his excellent paper, ‘Why has critique run out of steam?’, saying:

Remember the good old days when revisionism arrived very late, after the facts had been thoroughly established, decades after bodies of evidence had accumulated? Now we have the benefit of what I call instant revisionism. The smoke of the event has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories begin revising the official account, adding even more ruins to the ruins, adding even more smoke to the smoke.

To see that in action, one needs only glance over the comments. The very first commenter, one Robert Ferris, says:

Alison Croggon’s claim that “It’s just a fact…you can just take it as read that if there’s a woman’s name attached to something it will attract less notice” makes no sense. You can’t simply take judicial notice in a societal discussion. You must back it up with something, because (as with the wage study above) you will either gain a weapon to bludgeon people into action, or (and, yes, this is a real possibility) you will learn that your premise is wrong.

Oh dear. Apparently Croggon’s ‘facts’ aren’t really facts at all – they need revising. Curiously enough, he goes on later to state some of his own facts, but we’ll ignore that. After all, the point of all this analysis is to come to the realisation that it’s never about the facts themselves as it’s all rhetorical anyway. It’s about winning the argument and (in the process) feeling okay about the way women, or gays and lesbians and transgendered persons are treated. Because the facts are on my side and blow the rest of it.

Latour again, expresses the frustration with this new form of strategic critique, saying:

What has become of critique when my neighbour in the little Bournabbais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naïve because I believe the United States had been attacked by terrorists? Remember the good old days when University professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naïvely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naively believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible….

He goes on to connect the same action with the long and storied history of paranoia that is conspiracy theories, and says that the same explanatory action is at work behind the debunking:

…after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly.

After my ‘naïve’ believe in sexism is exposed, the explanation is offered: I am out to destroy the very foundation of western democracy!  Mr Cheng Ling explains it all:

This article is incredibly flawed, but more than that, it’s hilarious. The arms-behind-the-head coolness of Mr. Sensitive Pony Tail Man, telling us all how horrible we are and how we can all be great like him. All we have to do is everything he says. Ben, thank you for epitomizing everything wrong with Western society.

What a stunningly powerful critique, even if it is utterly inaccurate (I haven’t worn a pony-tail by choice since I was 16!) but the point is that my sinister motivation is all the explanation this commenter needs for why I am so ruthlessly attacking his privilege. So he turns my own tools – critique! – back upon me.

So what’s our next move in this arms race of critical weaponry? We can hardly move back to naïve facts, indeed as Latour says, “The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them” by showing how constructed so-called-facts really are. A lot of effort has gone into the production of even something as simple and plainly matter-of-fact as 1+1=2. Think of the great history of mathematical proof, of mathematical teaching institutionalising this most basic piece of knowledge and disseminating it around the world to children and adults alike…

So how do we win this argument for the side of good? Latour again:

Critique has not been critical enough in spite of all its sore-scratching. Reality is not defined by matters of fact. Matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs.

And how do we reach these matters-of-concern? How do we uncover (if that’s the appropriate term, as it has about it the whiff of the sceptical debunker) states of affairs? Perhaps we shouldn’t talk in terms of ‘uncoverings’ at all, and instead in terms of aesthetics, or commitments, or of imperatives, or even ethics? Latour recognises this:

My question is thus: can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care, as Donna Harraway would put it? Is it really possible to transform the critical urge in the ethos of someone who adds reality to matters of fact and not subtract reality?

To return to my Facebook practice as an example – I think this is something that I am trying to do with my new habits. My use of memes and pictures of Castro and all my strenuous efforts at arguing (politically, tactically and rhetorically!) with friends is some attempt at getting to a place where I can deal in matters of concern (or states of affairs). Christian McCrea has been doing this since at least 2009, when he was banned for Faceholing. What does it mean to find abandoned groups with no admins left, and rename them counter to their original purposes? It’s dealing with matters of concern. It’s more aesthetic than it is science; more ‘play’ than it is ‘fun’; it’s serious but at the same time… it’s hard for people to take you at your most polemical when your display picture is a cat.