Crowds vs publics, Ukraine vs Russia, the Gaza crisis, the contagion theory and netica – a dialogue with Tony D. Sampson

#exclusive Crowds vs publics, Ukraine vs Russia, the Gaza crisis, the contagions and the anomalous objects in cyberspace, netica/ (n)ethics or a kind of ethics of information and the viral phenomena. All these are provocative themes for discussion. #hibridmedia magazine gives you all these in one fantastic dialogue with Tony D. Sampson

 
Rareș Iordache: After EuroMaidan to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. This event increased his covering and it transformed into a genuine war. When I think at EuroMaidan I make a comparison with Indignados, the protests in Spain. There are several distinctions, but the contagions and their spreading caught my attention. Tell me, what do you think that were the contagious objects in this case? Another interesting thing is epidemiography, a term used by John Postill. This one is also in connection with viral phenomena and the contagious objects.Tony D. Sampson: What is the difference between Spain and Ukraine? What tips the contagiousness of one protest into revolution and civil war while the other fizzles out? Although there have been analogous patterns emerging in recent years – beautifully portrayed in John Beieler’s big data application (despite its obvious weaknesses) – I’m not sure there’s one concrete object or set of viral objects determining what goes viral.

In Virality I asked what we might learn from Gabriel Tarde. In terms of revolution we need to look beneath the spreading of mere belief systems (ideologies) to how desires are given release or inhibited by invention. The object of desire is always belief; meaning that the biological and social mingle at the point where desires are appropriated by social inventions. We perhaps need to think through the interwoven relations established here between the desire for change and inventions of old hierarchies, revolutionary crowds, mobs, mass protests alongside mediated publics and electronic networks.

Tarde’s proto-media theory also provides us with a familiar distinction between publics and crowds. Crowds have been progressively usurped by mediated publics. On one hand, crowds have something of the animal about them. They are not easily led. If you want to win a revolution you probably need an animal on your side. On the other hand, the new publics are appear to be better informed by the new media, but are in fact more easily controlled; mainly as a result of the distances the increasingly mediated flows of information open up between connected subjects. There is, I suppose, less need to join a crowd as a source of information. This marks the beginning of press baron power and manufactured mass audiences.

Old crowd theories suggested that the violent irrationality of crowd power was just about enough to prevail over old aristocratic hierarchies. Prevailing revolutionary movements have historically relied on some level of violence – the muscle of the mob; usually spilling out of the poorer neighbourhoods and storming the palaces.

So what difference can a network make? Take Beieler’s protest map again. A tipping point may well correspond with the wide-scale uptake of the Internet. Indeed, there are echoes of crowd theory evident in some of the popular ideas about network contagions today. The BBC broadcast a documentary a couple of year’s back fundamentally claiming that Facebook caused the Arab Spring. Governments take these claims seriously too. They see social media as a threat.

But is a network like a crowd? Things are complex. There are networks in crowds and crowds in networks, but a network only seems to have revolutionary potential if it can tap into the violence of an actual crowd; a crowd prepared to put its life on the line for the cause. Indeed, I am growing a little sceptical about the threat posed by social media. The problem for protesters in most western European countries is that they are still countered by a docile public led by corporate media and bourgeois politicians. When the students got out of hand during the fees protests in the UK most of the public seemed to turn against them, welcoming their suppression. Others remained blissfully distracted by their diet of celebrity gossip, football transfers, and TV talent shows.

Social media provides an alternative; it acts as a vent for protest, of course. It has an influence on discursive formations and interacts with the actions of crowds. But it’s a distraction too. The extreme police violence played a role in the demise of the student movement, but they didn’t close down their accounts. The stuff that generally trends on these networks does not appropriate the desire for political change, but rather indulgences a craving for joyful encounters – entertainment, sex, love, scandal, and fun, or as Olga Goriunova argues, utter idiocy. Perhaps there’s revolutionary potential in this stuff, but how that works I’m not sure. For every FB posting encouraging action on the streets there seems to be thousands of stupid cat pictures.

It’s also important to note that contagions are not inherently radical. Contagions can be very conservative. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, the only English ‘revolution’ was founded on the spreading of a Calvinist belief system that opposed the kind of festivities and carnivals that we might usually associate with the animality of radical protests. As Beieler’s map problematically illustrates the contagion could be an Occupy or Tea Party protest…

Perhaps networks are a hybrid crowd-public or ersatz crowds that lack the animality of actual crowds. We cannot storm the Bastille with tweets alone! The crowd needs to become the brutal muscle that intertwines with network sloganing.
So yes, any attempt to produce epidemiographs of protest movements studying the interaction between network and crowd is very welcome.

 

R.I.: I try to establish a triad between media – archaeology, cyber-intelligence and philosophy of information. We can start this discussion from the particular case of network archaeology. At this moment, beside the impact of flow information and of his transgression, I can talk about a kind of ethics of information. In fact, how we use the information in cyberspace. This issue will give his quality. We are able to set up a balance between the quantity and the quality of information via Luciano Floridi. I define this ethics as (n)ethics because all is about his functionality. In reality, Netica is a software program developed by Norsys Software Corporation. Its purpose is to make a network more intelligible to us. Everything relies on a set of algorithms. So, what are your first thoughts about this triad and his rethinking based on (n)ethics?

T.D.S.: Media archaeology is very appealing; not least because it helps us to think up ways by which we can rummage through the archives of media invention without placing the constraints of a discipline on the researcher. As Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka put it, media archaeology needs to go against the grain of almost everything. It’s a nomad. So I think any attempt to triangulate it needs to keep this in mind. If it’s to work well then the archaeology needs to perhaps loosen up the ethics. 

This is what Parikka’s mapping of noise and Genosko’s fairly recent book on communication theory do. Most technical histories of Shannon and Weaver regard them as having brought noise under control, but there is of course an archive of accidents captured in, for example, collections of computer viruses and glitch music. So perhaps one ethical stance would be, in this case, a treatment of noise not simply grasped as the enemy of information, but something that has communicative potential beyond fixed ethical positions.

Netica looks like a fascinating example for media archaeology. Thanks for pointing it out. It would be really interesting to know how Bayesian networks integrate noise in logical circuits of a belief diagrams. For my part I’d also be interested in the extent to which these predominantly cognitive decision-making diagrams cope with the emotions, feelings and affects involved in reasoning? Is there a line of flight between Netica type programs and the concerted effort to integrate emotions into machine learning? I assume there is.

 

R.I.: The conflicts between Israel and Gaza. Any discussion about this event is a viral phenomenon, it is clear, and it is a form of manipulation. An informational one. Where are the affections, where are the contagious or viral objects?

T.D.S.: What kind of viral phenomenon is this? There is a swelling of the protest movement resulting from emotional engagement with this horror. There is a crowd forming. The death of innocent people, many of who are children, will act as a powerful emotional contagion. We can barely dare to watch this cruelty unfold. But what influence are these protests having on governments? There were a million stop the war protesters before the invasion of Iraq. I can only think that the hitherto failure of the government here to halt arms sales or more strongly condemn Israel’s asymmetric slaughter of innocents exhibits a kind of political autism at the heart of the establishment here. To prioritize arms sales and support the blockade of Gaza in favour of this slaughter is obscene.

The most effective contagion will most likely be the spreading of revenge in the Middle East for the death of so many innocents. The actions of the IDF and their arms suppliers in the west are producing an epidemic of avengers. This will be a crowd that will be willing to put its life on the line. It will be networked too.

 

R.I.: You wrote Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, a book which transposes the virality in the social field. You rethink Tarde’s ideas mixing this spectrum with deleuzo-guattarian structures. It’s more than a Tardean recovering. Besides these influences, which is your theoretical support for your research?

T.D.S.: The project began with an interest in the potential of computer viruses – how these anomalous codes might provide an open alternative to the type of closed information spaces we find within proprietary software systems. In many ways that remained part of the focus, but it expanded outwards to look at virality in relation to social theory and the history of crowd theory in particular – moving through Tarde, Le Bon, Freud, Milgram, Deleuze and Guattari and ending up with network science, affective contagions and marketing. The open system of the viral electronic network was in some ways transposed to the openness of the contagious self-other relation of a more generalized social network. Instead of finding a new age of contagion, I found that contagion had always been there.

If I am to look back at it now and summarize I would say that the project’s main philosophical point was to collapse technological, social and biological distinctions. It tries desperately not to side with deterministic thinking. It focuses on the insensible degrees between conscious and nonconscious states, affective and representational states, volition and mechanical habit… I’m not sure how successful that effort was though?

 

R.I.: You are in connexion with Romanian project Bureau of Melodramatic Research? What do you think about Romanians researchers and projects? 

T.D.S.: My visit to Bucharest was a fantastic experience – one of the best invites since publishing Virality. The discussions I had there with various people provided me with lots of new ideas about my next project on neuroculture. I still follow BMR’s work and was luckily enough to meet up with Alina and Florin in London last year. Indeed, one of the most valued books in my collection is their little pamphlet called End Pit. It’s a great read. Knowing that the project coincided with the protests in Turkey at the time makes it all the more fascinating. Protest art as interference or accident; a mixture of performance, affective art and politics.

 

R.I.: The cyberspace is filled with anomalies, contagious objects, viruses and viral phenomena/ objects. So, in this context, are media ecologies the most important things for our cyberspace? At the same time, what do you think about an ecology based on semantic web?

T.D.S.: Well, yes, it’s these objects, processes and inventions, as Matt Fuller argues, that make up the world, synthesize it, block it, and make new worlds available. To discount the anomaly from this world is senseless, as we argued in The Spam Book. There might be many attempts to introduce intruder detections and immunological nets, to weed out the weeds, but the potential of the anomaly to spill out and infect is always there.

I’m not sure about the semantic model of the web. I wonder how much of the anomalous will figure in automated machines reading of data? What threat does it pose to anonymity too? I suppose going back to what I have said already, it is the anomaly that might help actualize the network into a crowd; its becoming animal. The tendency is, it seems, to always drift toward a conservative stability founded on the fear of the other (human and nonhuman). What we need is nomadic novelty to take hold and deterritorialize these territories of prejudice.

 

R.I.: Tell me a few words about your current and future interests, research or writings.

T.D.S.: I’m on sabbatical at the moment working on a few projects. I’m writing a book on neuroculture. This will explore the rise of the neurosciences and the impact it has on nomadic thought through various essays on the brain in relation to control, work and art.

I’m also collaborating with various people. Along with the performance artist, Dean Todd, I’m developing on what I’m calling dystopian media theory. I’m also working with Jairo Lugo from University of Sheffield on a project that revisits Tardean media theory. We are interested in the extent to which the contagions of social media affect editorial decisions and content.

 

Dr Tony D. Sampson is a Reader in Digital Culture and Communications within the School of Arts and Digital Industries (ADI). Tony works with PhD, MA and UG students from across ADI on related projects, including the digital media design degrees, visual cultures and the fine arts doctorate programme. His teaching focuses on developing student research projects. Tony’s latest book on contagion theory uses the ideas of Gabriel Tarde, Gilles Deleuze and others to develop a contemporary alternative to the meme, encompassing digital, affective, financial, political and cultural contagions.

His current teaching and research interests explore aspects (and critiques) of human computer interaction (HCI) and subsequent trends toward a third paradigm (or post-Taylorist mode) of HCI, including user experience design, ubiquitous computing, and a focus on emotions, feelings and affect.

He is currently writing a new book (Neuroculture) in which he explores the “interferences” between brain function (as understood in the neurosciences), and philosophy, politics and culture. More

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