Secret agent! Is generalised symmetry overstretched?

I don’t think I understand actor-network-theory (ANT).

The whole theory rests on the idea of generalised symmetry, where human and non-human actants are considered to have equal agency in the actor-network. However ‘agency’ seems to me to necessarily include intentionality at some point. How can humans and non-humans possibly have the same level of agency?

In an effort to understand, I had a look at Latour’s ‘clarifications’ (1996). Part of his response to this question of agency is that:

BLOG 4 2091

Image: Bruno Latour.

(1996, p.6)

How can any ‘element’ become ‘strategic’ through any process, unless there is an intention behind the strategy? Describing the theory Bardini says that in the process of translation “delegates…co-opt each other in pursuit of individual and collective objectives”. However Latour (1996) says “an ‘actor’ in AT is a semiotic definition – an actant – that is, something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor humans in general” (p.7).

So, what drives or motivates the objectives, strategies, co-opting?

Latour (and others) make repeated reference to the ‘granting’ of action. On the basis of my understanding, the only person in a position to grant that status is the person applying ANT. Surely this defeats the purpose of the principle of generalised symmetry; humans assigning the status of mediator, as opposed to intermediatory.

Bardini (2013) says that “the crucial difference is that only actors are able to put the actants in circulation in the system” – if the researcher decides who/what is an ‘actor’, then humans are implicitly given more agency.

More broadly, humans just are subject to relatively hierarchical structures of power – which is something ANT seems to reject. Latour suggests the network is not “bigger”, but “longer” (1996, p.5) – this seems semantic; the point is that there exist relatively stable networks which have greater coercive power.

ANT claims that it only “describes” the network, not “how” or “why” it is the way it is (Wikipedia, 2014). Without consideration of power structures though, this seems to me to be akin to itemising all the discreet components of a car, and how they interlock to make a ‘car’, but ignoring the fact there needs to be a driver for the car to be relevant. So, I think ANT is in a way useful, but as Latour says (perhaps with slightly different intentions) “In order to obtain the effects of distance, proximity, hierachies, connectedness, outsiderness and surfaces, an enormous supplementary work has to be done” (1996, p.6).

I am a big fan of the ‘network’ idea. Manuel Castells’ related work on “the network society” which suggests there’s a multitude of interconnected networks forming part of a larger network makes much more sense to me because although “a network has no centre, just nodes” (2005, p.3), it still accepts that networks, albeit transient/fluid, have some form of power structure. Castells’ theory holds that “the ability of networks to introduce new actors and new contents in the process of social organisation, with relative independence of the power centres, increased over time with technological change” (2005, p.4).  Castells acknowledges that non-human elements can have agency in the network – finding a position between technological determinism and social determinism – but without the seemingly mutually exclusive ideas of generalised symmetry and the source of agency that I just can’t pin down.

Sources

Latour, B (1996), ‘On actor-network theory: A few clarifications plus more than a few complications’, Soziale Welt, vol. 47, pp. 369-381 < http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-67%20ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf>, accessed 20 August 2014.

Ryder, Martin (n.d.) ’What is Actor-Network Theory?’, <http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/itc/ant_dff.html>, accessed 19 August 2014.

 ‘Actor Network Theory’, Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor-network_theory> accessed 19 August 2014

Castells, M (2005). Excerpts from ‘Informationalism, networks, and the network society: A theoretical blueprint’  From The Network Society: A cross cultural perspective. Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar, pp. 3-7 & 36-45.

Blog post week three: I want pay, not paywalls!

“Erect a paywall and you immediately cut yourself off from much of the web community. You disable the vast majority of people from recommending, commenting, linking, quoting and discussing” (Moore, 2010). You “suffocate” networked journalism, and this limits the chance of individual journalists to build their own ‘brand’. It ties them, in a way, to a specific publication.

As a journalism student, this seems like a pretty poor deal for me. Sure, as the many of the readings emphasised, The New York Times has managed to find a way to eke out some money from paywalls, but the outlook overall remains pretty bleak, especially when you consider that Murdoch’s 2010 introduction of a paywall system at The Times and The Sunday Times resulted in a 90% collapse of traffic. I’d rather take my chances, thanks, than be tied to the success or failure of one publication.

In the week two lecture Andrew was discussed (with reference to Socrates’ concerns about the rise of literacy) how writing is less interpersonal than oral communication, which can result in a disconnection from the work with the author.  He went on to say how in the digital age texts can change, answer back, and take on immediacy through functionality such as reader comments, retweets, and collaborative publishing like Wikipedia. So, while there is the possibility that a journalist can be disconnected from their work through the new digital dissemination processes at play on the (open) web, there is also, as Moore (2010) points out, the possibility of gathering news from readers, discovering what they are interested in, and building a relationship that is impossible in the context of relative anonymity to be found in a corporate news-room. This relative anonymity of journalists to their readers is maintained by a paywall system, but can be opened up and made available to more than just a few popular columnists through social media and the web. For example, I am accessing a public as a freelance journalist with a niche interest in coal seam gas; this would not be possible without Twitter.

Despite this, I don’t want to be a citizen-journalist, and part of the brand that I want to build is one of credibility and rigorous fact-checking. That’s why I am really interested in Moore’s idea of attaching metadata to news articles.

I recently listened to the ABC’s Media Report’s discussion of how copyright law around news photography is under threat from small publications which apparently pinch pictures off Fairfax and News Corp, thereby undermining the viability of professional news photographers. It was suggested that the best way to deal with the issue was to introduce a streamlined licencing system which involved a watermark or something, which would disappear if the licence was paid for. As someone who’s going to be facing similar challenges to this, I’m wondering how technology such as Hnews could be extended in a similar way.

I don’t know the answer, because I don’t want to stop people sharing, liking, discussing, (etc). However, I do think that to begin to devise a way of funding professional journalism that’s compatible with a networked environment necessarily involves some sort of understanding and tracking of where that work goes and, who, and how, it is accessed. I’d also prefer if I had access to that sort of data, not just a publication I work for, so that I can make the most of the opportunities presented by a networked web.

Sources:

Moore, Martin (2010) How metadata can eliminate the need for pay walls, PBS, August 18,  <http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/how-metadata-can-eliminate-the-need-for-pay-walls230/> accessed 13 August 2014.

Ingram, Mathew (2010) It’s official: News Corp.’s paywalls are a bust, Gigaom, November 2, <http://gigaom.com/2010/11/02/news-corp-paywall/> accessed 13 August 2014.

Aedy, Richard (2014) Copying and publishing photos in Australia without permission, ABC Radio National < http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/mediareport/ripping-off-photos-in-australia—is-it-really-22fair-use223f/5654736> accessed 7 August 2014.

Blog post week three: I want pay, not paywalls!

“Erect a paywall and you immediately cut yourself off from much of the web community. You disable the vast majority of people from recommending, commenting, linking, quoting and discussing” (Moore, 2010). You “suffocate” networked journalism, and this limits the chance of individual journalists to build their own ‘brand’. It ties them, in a way, to a specific publication.

As a journalism student, this seems like a pretty poor deal for me. Sure, as the many of the readings emphasised, The New York Times has managed to find a way to eke out some money from paywalls, but the outlook overall remains pretty bleak, especially when you consider that Murdoch’s 2010 introduction of a paywall system at The Times and The Sunday Times resulted in a 90% collapse of traffic. I’d rather take my chances, thanks, than be tied to the success or failure of one publication.

In the week two lecture Andrew was discussed (with reference to Socrates’ concerns about the rise of literacy) how writing is less interpersonal than oral communication, which can result in a disconnection from the work with the author.  He went on to say how in the digital age texts can change, answer back, and take on immediacy through functionality such as reader comments, retweets, and collaborative publishing like Wikipedia. So, while there is the possibility that a journalist can be disconnected from their work through the new digital dissemination processes at play on the (open) web, there is also, as Moore (2010) points out, the possibility of gathering news from readers, discovering what they are interested in, and building a relationship that is impossible in the context of relative anonymity to be found in a corporate news-room. This relative anonymity of journalists to their readers is maintained by a paywall system, but can be opened up and made available to more than just a few popular columnists through social media and the web. For example, I am accessing a public as a freelance journalist with a niche interest in coal seam gas; this would not be possible without Twitter.

Despite this, I don’t want to be a citizen-journalist, and part of the brand that I want to build is one of credibility and rigorous fact-checking. That’s why I am really interested in Moore’s idea of attaching metadata to news articles.

I recently listened to the ABC’s Media Report’s discussion of how copyright law around news photography is under threat from small publications which apparently pinch pictures off Fairfax and News Corp, thereby undermining the viability of professional news photographers. It was suggested that the best way to deal with the issue was to introduce a streamlined licencing system which involved a watermark or something, which would disappear if the licence was paid for. As someone who’s going to be facing similar challenges to this, I’m wondering how technology such as Hnews could be extended in a similar way.

I don’t know the answer, because I don’t want to stop people sharing, liking, discussing, (etc). However, I do think that to begin to devise a way of funding professional journalism that’s compatible with a networked environment necessarily involves some sort of understanding and tracking of where that work goes and, who, and how, it is accessed. I’d also prefer if I had access to that sort of data, not just a publication I work for, so that I can make the most of the opportunities presented by a networked web.

Sources:

Moore, Martin (2010) How metadata can eliminate the need for pay walls, PBS, August 18,  <http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/how-metadata-can-eliminate-the-need-for-pay-walls230/> accessed 13 August 2014.

Ingram, Mathew (2010) It’s official: News Corp.’s paywalls are a bust, Gigaom, November 2, <http://gigaom.com/2010/11/02/news-corp-paywall/> accessed 13 August 2014.

Aedy, Richard (2014) Copying and publishing photos in Australia without permission, ABC Radio National < http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/mediareport/ripping-off-photos-in-australia—is-it-really-22fair-use223f/5654736> accessed 7 August 2014.

Week two blog post: Fragmented publics and the “public sphere”.

Eisenstein says that the printing press provided “an impersonal link between people who were unknown to each other” through “the wide distribution of identical bits of information” (1979, p 132). That phenomenon brought into being a public. I believe that this public – who were able to read about ideas, affairs of state, and so on – was a necessary precursor to a Habermasian-style ‘public sphere’. Coexisting with this new public, though, is a trend towards individualism; away from centralised social structures where news was disseminated at sermons and so on. “To read a printed report encourages individuals to draw apart,” (1979,p 132) Eisenstein says.

I read this reading more or less first, and the tension I have just outlined seemed to recur across various technological shifts. The weeks readings left me wondering, though, what the implications would be of the drawing apart caused by the internet would be for the public sphere.

As people increasingly look online for news, the data-streams they’re accessing become increasingly tailored to themselves (through choice of publication, what appears in social media newsfeeds, etc). There has been a massive increase in the amount of choices for “news” and entertainment (indeed, many young people hardly read/watch/listen to the news at all). The “identical bits of information” (Eisenstein, 1979, p.132) that are accessed increasingly focus on identity, idiosyncratic tastes, sub-cultures or demographics and the publics who share in them may be spread across the globe, or hidden in their mum’s basement.  

This fragmentation of the public-agenda seems to suggest that people are increasingly “drawing apart” (Eisenstein, 1979, p 132) as the published material accessed becomes more and more specific to them. Surely, though, in a democracy, a healthy public sphere is essential to informed voting and political participation.

As I continued reading Brannon identified this possibility of “isolated perceptions of the universe” (2007, p 362). Brennan hypothesises that the digital revolution “might instead force a model of networked, nonlinear learning that improves on traditional ways of thinking” (2007, p362). Brennan is talking about research, though, and I don’t think the same logic can be applied to the health of the public sphere, because the commonality of the policy agenda and shared concerns and values are essential to its functioning in a practical way within our legal and policy frameworks. That is, the essentially centralised mechanisms which we deploy to run our democratic society are less compatible with the fragmented, dispersed, and decentralised publics which are being created by the web.

 

I think that the McCormick (2013) reading  provides an interesting talking point for how we might package up data (as “multigraphs”) in new ways to inform a “public sphere”. Could short parcels of information (“nanographs”) such as tweets be packaged in a way that promotes a shared news culture to inform public debate?

I have also come across this in a different course, and I think some of the statistics the Pew Research Centre has come up with offer an interesting counter-point to my worries.  

 

Sources:

Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1979) ‘Exerpts’ from ‘Defining the initial shift: some features of print cultur’ in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change Vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 43-163.

Brannon, Barbara A. (2007) ‘The Laser Printer as an Agent of Change’ in Baron, Sabrina et al., (eds.) Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L Eisenstein Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press: 353-364

McCormick, Tim (2013) ‘From monograph to multigraph: The distributed book’,  http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/01/17/from-monograph-to-multigraph-the-distributed-book/, accessed August 6 2014.