requiem for certainty

Emerging Digital Practices

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Another angle I have been looking at in recent work is a sort of half applied-philosophy half theoretical-ethnography project concerning contemporary digital/internet practices. I am only just now kicking this work off. And I certainly have many more questions than answers. I’m in need of collaborators of all sorts in this so please post comments or email me your thoughts. The basic idea of the research project is an inquiry into the new forms of public and private space that are emerging around and within contemporary digital practices. This is currently shaping up as…

… an inquiry informed by both genealogy and pragmatism (though I don’t think it helps just now to say which part informs what).

A general analytic model I am musing is a work-in-progress by Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett entitled A Diagnostic of Equipmental Platforms (find it at the ARC here). I won’t go into too much detail other than to say that they are extending Foucault’s thought from a historical to an anthropological mode in order to develop a form of inquiry adequate to emerging practices. Their work is focused on synthetic biology, genetics, etc., but it is supposed to be broadly applicable to other emerging practices such as certain forms of digital and internet practice. The basic form of their analytic model is an inquiry into four constitutive elements of the new emergent moment that is now beginning to proliferate all around us: its epistemology, its ethics, its ontology, and its object. I find the general model very helpful. I find their claim that these emerging practices employ an ontology of emergent assemblages quite suitable as is their claim that they employ an epistemology of reconstruction (they follow Dewey here). Their claim that the ethics involved in these practices is best captured by the term flourishing seems to me less than helpful, so I prefer to describe the practices I am looking at in terms of an ethics of melioration or what more colloquially might be called an ethics of improvement.

In addition to this divergence in terms of ethics (which may after all merely reflect a preference for which theoretical tradition with which we wish to align ourselves), I also diverge from Rabinow and Bennett in terms their characterization of object. Their focus is on properly synthetic biology and so their object is on relations between forms and pathways. My focus is on emerging digital practices. It seems trivial that the object would be different in both cases since the focus of inquiry is different; the consequences of this shift in focus are, however, far from trivial.

I am currently characterizing my object is the relation between publics and users (i.e., publics-users), or what might be more precisely called ‘networked publics’ and ‘their users’. I’m not entirely comfortable with this at present, partly because ‘public’ is such a sticky word. Part of the aim of my project, of course, is to specify what new forms of publics are evolving in the context of emerging practices: my working hunch at present is that the new publics are both more pluralistic and less prone to privacy than the old forms of publics at work in previous technological-historical periods.

This pluralistic and pervasive (i.e., non-private) form of publicity is interesting in the context of my own work (for those that already know this) in that it seems to offer the beginnings of an alternative to the old liberal cultural model of public versus private spheres. We may be beginning to witness the solid and heavy emergence of a new liberal cultural model of public pluralism. This is the working hunch.

Presently I am just now beginning to lurk around these new public spaces in an ethnographically more rigorous way (I’ve been lurking here rather informally practically all my adult years of course). I am posing all sorts of questions for my work which I do not expect that I will be able to answer. The answer will come from my friends involved in the emerging practices as well as from the many millions forming these practices who I do not know. Important questions which it may be useful for me to focus on include: What emerging digital spaces seem paradigmatic for the notion of public pluralism I am describing? Which practices do not fit (cf. as fitting well with as not fitting well)? What distinguishes these practices? Is there really a viable distinction to be made in terms of increasing pluralization and decreasing (or radically transformed) privacy? What are the (technological, social, material, legal etc.) elements constituting the new publics and their users? What sorts of equipment (see Rabinow and Bennett) compose these new publics and their users? What sorts of political forms enable and disable these new publics and their users? What sorts of new political forms are enabled and disabled by these publics and their users? Above all I am in need of collecting lots and lots of examples, paradigm cases, counterexamples, and interesting things to think about.


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  1. A useful distinction to make might be to separate the resource/user relation (in which the website is a resource or instrument the user exploits) and the public/constituent relation (in which the public is a dynamic field or potential zone that the constituent modifies by representing himself through speech, art, or counter-speech and resistance).

    It might be interesting to consider how owner discretion over (and responsibility for) the resource requires, confers, demands, or defies, complicates, or frustrates administrator duties and privileges in the public.

    Also, I think it’s too easy to consider the site as a mini-republic unto itself (and the problems this way of thinking about it leads to in terms of rights-claims and duty-demands in the public site are interesting in their own right), but the reality is much more complicated. What might be said about the relationship, often mutually conditioning (either compromising or harmonizing), between real-world interests and on-line interests?

    Also, what about love and sexuality through secondary tools of a public site? Or, generally, what is the role of secret communication, gossip, private relationships, etc., in the daily life of a public site?

    All of this is some of the stuff I have experience with, anyway.


    October 2, 2007 at 3:40 am

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