That darn Foucault

Stuart Elden has resurfaced a wonderful 1981 TIME article on the “exasperating and elusive” Michel Foucault.

There are plenty of barbs here from contemporaries such as Clifford Geertz, Richard Rorty, and Edward Said. And Foucault offers a gem, summing up the continental tradition this way:

“Among the reasons it is truly difficult to have a dialogue with the Americans and English is that for them the critical question for the philosopher is, ‘Is it true?’ whereas the German-French tradition consists basically of posing the question, ‘Why do we think as we do? What effect does it have?’ I consider the problems that I pose to be those of modern man.”


‘Subjectivation’ and social media

A great post on Foucault’s panopticon, subjectivation and social media via Tim Rayner.

There is a self-reflexive structure to sharing content on Facebook or Twitter. Just as actors on stage know that they are being watched by the audience and tailor their behaviour to find the best effect, effective use of social media implies selecting and framing content with a view to pleasing and/or impressing a certain crowd. We may not intend to do this but it is essential to doing it well.

This process of ‘subjectivation’ – a self-reflexive subject-building not at all dissimilar to Goffman’s “dramaturgical approach” – sheds light on a host of social media quandaries. For starters, it complicates the notion of information sharing as something pure or distinct from affect.

I got to thinking about this after reading some back-and-forths over the common Twitter disclaimer of “Retweets do not equal endorsements.” This disclaimer has been called into question by legal experts. But beyond questions of law, there’s that little voice in the back of our heads before we push the “tweet” button – “Am I going to look stupid for tweeting/retweeting this?” There’s more to this self-editing than concerns for truth and fact. It also points to the suspension of subjectivation as a problematic in information ecosystems.

We implicitly recognize that we are inextricably linked in myriad ways to the links we share.

Chicago Sun-Times lays off all of its photographers

Flat, like pancakes (via Wikimedia Commons)

Flat, like pancakes (via Wikimedia Commons)

First, a link to the story.

The Sun-Times is pushing video and pushing iPhones on its reporters to snap quick pics from the scene. On one level this is a case of a craft pressured by the hyperimmediacy of the Internet.

But it’s also another example of how the low-resolution world of digital media tends to flatten out content, yoking it to metrics, and ultimately to business models that closely monetize what the audience consumes. In the digital realm, content often is made to mirror and reflect – rather than inform – as sites where reconstituted audiences are neither here nor there, to evoke Foucault’s account of what lies between utopia and heterotopia. Speed, efficiency, hyperimmediacy at the expense of craft.

Open interviews: Why not?

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

This Mathew Ingram piece teases out an interesting aspect of journalism’s representational agenda. It concerns the refusal of some journalists to conduct “open interviews” that involve the observation and potential participation of the public.

Is this protectionism or does journalism have a legitimate claim here? It’s the tension itself that’s compelling, because it gets at the heart of what it is to do journalism, at least the way it’s been done for the past century or so. The practice of journalism has an almost sacred relationship to the world of fact, one that’s reflected in the field’s professional code and the law. The open interview appears to undermine this relationship.

At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about interview subjects “playing to the crowd” – or even salting the crowd with supporters. Open interviews also may turn into debates that are about emotion and individual points of view, rather than the surfacing of relevant fact for what may be an important story.

The digital era tugs at journalism’s relationship to the world of fact in many ways, resulting in debates such as this. There’s more to come.

Decoding the ‘Curator’s Code’

OK, the idea of codifying the act of sharing on the Internet seems a bit overwrought. But then there’s this rant from Gizmodo’s Matt Langer about the utter bullshittery of the entire enterprise.

It would be easy to dismiss this as an anti-intellectual screed, but there are good points here. No one’s “curating” anything. We’re sharing links. It’s an act so utterly baked into the Internet that devising a “code” to guide our curatorial acts seems a bit like inventing rules for walking.

But there are rules for walking. Like you can’t jaywalk. Of course, everybody does jaywalk, but imagine the chaos that would ensue if crosswalks and lights were completely ignored. I guess what I’m getting at is exactly what Langer brings up in his Gizmodo item. He points out that in the olden days we’d chat via email about a cute kitten photo in a magazine, and then we’d Xerox the thing and snail mail it. This was how we shared stuff. (No we didn’t, but that’s beside the point.)

But what happens on the Internet is something entirely different. It’s a new form of interaction that arises when sharing becomes so seamless and easy. The point is, it’s a new form of sharing. Much like how the acceleration of the still photo gave birth to cinema, the Internet’s galaxy of hyperlinks gives birth to new forms of social interaction. What would a Xerox-based Facebook look like? It’s almost impossible to imagine, though you could point to things like high school yearbooks as some sort of faint historical analogue.

Aggregation and sharing should be the object of debate, particularly when copy-and-paste culture is the norm. It’s the very naturalness of the act that behooves us to think in terms of etiquette and ethics. Call it curation or sharing or whatever. That’s just semantics. What’s important is ensuring that sources are never submerged in a sea of ambiguity. No one over the age of 8 wants to use the game of “Telephone” as the model for information sharing.