CODE Media, Games & Art Conference draft abstract

The very ‘drafty’ abstract starts after the paragraph below. First paragraph locates this draft abstract in a much larger research project. Comments, critique, feedback, etc welcome.

The research paper I am currently working on is titled ‘Towards an archaeology of know how’. Derived in part from my PhD research, I am shifting the focus from enthusiasm to the forms of tacit experience-based knowledge produced by enthusiasts and how this ‘know how’ circulates. The ‘Towards…’ paper is for publication in a special issue of the Cultural Studies Review due out next year. It will serve as a draft version of the first chapter in a book on ‘An Archaeology of Know How’. I am currently carrying out research in three or four other ‘chapter oriented’ areas of research interest. One is researching the early colonial era of Australian history to produce an account of colonial economies of knowledge. This is an experiment in rethinking questions of national identity organised around the creative capacity to produce knowledge and has so far proved very interesting. At least two or three other chapters shall explore know how, popular culture and enthusiast media from the early 20th century until the advent of ‘social media’. One will focus on the massification in the circulation of ‘know how’ in the early 20th century, another the emergence of popular cultures of enthusiast-based economies of ‘know how’ in the mid-20th, and lastly the transition from print-based media forms — largely magazines — to web-based mechanisms for the distribution of ‘know how’. I am thinking this last area would serve as a good topic for the upcoming CODE conference at Swinburne. Below is the beginning of a draft abstract:

I lived through this transition in the car scene of Australia from magazines to email lists to discussion forums to blogs/websites/entire specialist social media platforms. A genealogy of ‘know how’ requires a process of teasing out the multiple layers of socio-technical systems that have complex and overlapping durations. This is a baroque architecture of experiences that are contracted into habit and system design. The creation of ‘know how’ means that design becomes a condition of actual — rather than possible — experience. ‘Know how’ is concerned with the ad hoc performative knowledges that are born of experience and which gain teleological currency as part of a material aesthetics and semiotics of functionality.

De Certeau famously suggested that ‘know how’ was a form of knowledge that could not be represented in discourse. To the extent the knowledge itself cannot be represented, De Certeau is correct. ‘Know how’ can be distributed through media, however, by implicating potential subjects of ‘know how’ in the events of experience through which they will develop the embodied dimensions of the knowledge. The media representation is of the conditions of actual experience (most commonly systems that belong to mass-produced commodities) that can serve as the necessarily elements to catalyse such experiences that result in the development of ‘know how’. ‘Development’ in the sense a photo print is developed.

The classic example of this is the ‘How to’ article that leads potential subjects of ‘know how’ through the processual steps of engaging with a socio-technical system. The ‘How to’ article has a weird temporality as it is captures future experiences by providing the conditions of past experience(s) that are nevertheless repeated in different ways. What is represented is ‘this’ practice of engaging with ‘that’ technical system, but what circulates is the ‘how’ of the knowledge developed through the experience of doing ‘this’ to ‘that’.

The print-based magazine has been the dominant mode of distributing know for that last 70 years. Examples. The online web-based mechanisms for the distribution of ‘know how’ have largely replaced the print-based enthusiast magazine. Examples. How to think about this transition? Print-based magazine as abstract machine with different functions. The abstract machine of the enthusiast magazine has been separated and distributed across multiple platforms in different ways. Examples, something.

There has been an explosion in the ways media-based designers think about their task as producing ‘experiences’ rather than negotiating through different design-based modes of representation and correlative concepts such as ideology, identity, and so on. A semiotics of functionality is required to grasp the conditions of experience. Examples, something. The question of agency is paramount here as it seems most popular acounts of experience-based design (‘UX’) are actually oriented around obfuscating the teleology of experience, so the ‘know how’ is of a functionality that the subject does not necessarily want, but what the designer has been paid to produce. Something.

Economies of Competence

I was forwarded the below email. I am posting it here with comment below for anyone who was also sent the email and who finds it as abhorrent as I do. I make a simple argument below to indicate its fallacies:

An economics teacher at a local school made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Gillard/Brown socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.
The teacher then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on the Gillard/Brown plan”. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A…. (substituting grades for dollars – something closer to home and more readily understood by all).
After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little.
The second test average was a D! No one was happy.
When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.
As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.
To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the teacher told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. It could not be any simpler than that. (Please pass this on)
Remember, there IS a test coming up. The next election.
These are possibly the 5 best sentences you’ll ever read and all applicable to this experiment:
1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.
2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.
3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.
4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!
5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

The high school economics teacher who carried out this little experiment should go on some kind of sabbatical to give the teacher time to head back to university and learn some basic political economy. What is wrong with the logic of the email? It equates marks received during education with money. Such an obvious error leads me to believe an actual teacher would never actually carry out such an experiment.
Money is a quantitative measure. The difference between $74 and $75 is only a difference of $1. The difference between a mark of 74 and a mark of 75 is also a difference of one mark, but it is also the difference (at my university, at least) between a distinction grade and a high distinction. Marks are a quantitative measure of a qualitative difference.
Why is this an important distinction to make? You do not take part in education to get marks. You take part in education to get an education. When employed, you work to exchange whatever work you carry out for money; money then allows you to go do things. You do not exchange anything while being educated; the point of education is to be transformed at a basic level from someone without skills or knowledge to someone who has achieved a certain level of competence. Competence is qualitative. There are good and bad students just as there are good and bad teachers.
The worst possible conclusion to draw from the email’s example is that students take part in education so as to ‘accumulate’ marks and not for the explicit purpose of becoming competent. This is actually a common phenomena. Students will try to minimise the amount of effort and work required to learn and expect to achieve the same marks. They follow the exceptionally poor advice and embody the ideology contained in the email. They try to ‘game’ the marking criteria and assessment details so as to ‘accumulate’ marks rather than acquiring competencies. If you have children or friends who are studying at whatever level encourage them to study so as to learn.
People who embody the faulty logic of the email may find it hard to adapt or even imagine some other way of ‘working’ that is not premised on a market model (you work to accumulate some ‘number’ of something, be it marks, money or whatever). Clearly, they have not thought too hard about the various other non-market based economies that operate in most developed countries. Here are a few:
1. Children. How do you measure the ‘success’ of your offspring? In terms of how many you have? Maybe that is good in non-industrial or non-developed agrarian or nomadic societies. In developed countries we invest a huge amount of resources into our children. What sort of return do we get? We hope children will have a high quality of life. One’s quality of life can be represented in quantitative ways, but like educational assessments, the number represents a quality.
2. Education. I don’t mean for students, I mean for the teachers. People don’t become teachers because of some quantitative measure of success. They believe that they can make a difference in the lives of their students, help their students (and others) live better lives. If the local high school teacher did believe what was contained in the above email, then why are they working as a teacher? Surely they would work where they would maximise the economic return for their work?
This leads me to my overall point. Most of our activity as human beings is not carried out to get a quantitative reward. The love of parents or the care and consideration of teachers is more important to the future of Australia. That is why I find the email so offensive. It was written by someone with an axe to grind, but has clearly never thought about the purpose of education.
I won’t even bother engaging with the explicit political point of the email regarding the redistribution of ‘marks’ as if they were a form of money. The abject stupidity of the analogy makes me sad.

Is it Manning Clark’s History of Australia?

I’m doing some preliminary work for a media archaeology project involving a geneaology of economies of knowledge and ‘know how’. I came across the below.

From Manning Clark‘s History of Australia:

From on of the first settler accounts A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793) available through the University of Sydney’s Australian Digital Collections First Fleet and Early Settlement collection:

The USyd project has been developed since 1997 and from my understanding of the situation prior to that the only way to access these first settler archives was via the State Library of NSW.

I don’t care about whether or not Clark used appropriate referencing techniques for a historian or how much he used from these early accounts. His book is ‘biblical’ narrative of Australia and is largely irrelevant for my project. Maybe Clark is working from within some other scholarly tradition of the ‘popular historian’ and never envisaged that his sources documents would be accessible to the public? It is rather disappointing when students may come across such discrepancies when part of the academic literacies skill set we teach first year undergraduates is the importance of appropriate referencing techniques.

Visualising Innovation, Research and Actor-Networks

In this week’s first year lecture on research methods I am discussing the importance of ‘writing up’ one’s research as part of the process of doing research. Part of what I am discussing is the shift in thinking from scholarship as a linear process (for example, question and then an answer) to a process involving differentiating feedback (for example, multiple questions and answers and answers that help you ask better questions).

The classic error of first year students is to write up essays as they are doing the research and then hand in what is essentially a very early draft of their work. When this is represented in graphical form it looks like this:

You begin on the left and end up on the right. Each increment represents a moment where the student reads or thinks something new and writes it in their (draft) essay. This can be identified when assessing work as what is normally regarded as the ‘thesis statement’ is buried about three-quarters of the way into the essay. I’ve found it to be a common error for students who have not thought about the essay writing process as involving structure and I’ve found it in every university (7) at which I’ve taught or marked.

As I have discussed before on this blog, a better way to think about this process is a spiral with spokes instead of a ‘flat line’ time series. The spiral & spoke is a far better way to represent the way one’s ideas develop:

You begin in the middle of the spiral and gradually work your way to the outer point. Each of the ‘spokes’ represents an action of reading or thinking something. Each time the spoke cuts across the spiral it is at a different time (T1, T2, T3, …Tn). The point is that each spoke is not the ‘same’ thing each time it cuts across the spiral. Ideas develop as you read and think different things in between. So the series becomes something like Idea 1.0, Idea 1.1, Idea 1.2, …Idea 1.n and you get an appreciation of the way what you read or thought in the beginning develops over time. When writing up the research you write up the spokes.

This is great for a process involving small sets of starting information with only ‘interference’ or ‘reinforcing’ effects between the original set of information creating change. This is not how scholarship actually happens, however. Scholarship is essentially a process of innovation involving ‘interference’, ‘reinforcement’ and also ‘cascade’ and ‘originary’ effects. A ‘cascade’ effect being that joyous moment where the ‘red thread’ of one’s work is apparent. An ‘originary’ effect being that moment where the differential repetition of ideas (what Gabriel Tarde called ‘imitation’) leads to development of a new idea (or what Tarde called ‘innovation’).

Another way of representing this differentiating feedback that retains a similar mode of the spiral time series is by using a three dimensional conical spiral as the time series and then locating the various moments of thinking or reading (or experimenting, etc) so that the non-linear relationships between these various moments can also be represented with innovation trees.

The key to the above diagrammatic representation of the processes of research and differentiating feedback.

1. The original way of thinking about the process as a linear timeline. Start at the left and end on the right.

2. A three-dimensional version of the spiral. The researcher still begins in the middle and each reading, thought (or whatever) happens along the spiral, but now the relations of innovation can be appropriately mapped. When ‘new’ elements emerge from previous elements, a new colour is used. More complex versions of these relations would create new spirals emerging from specific element as new directions are taken. I imagine multiple galaxies of spirals.

3. The ‘micro’ time series of each specific point or ‘outcome’ (for a topic sentence in an essay for example), these were the ‘spokes’ in the original two dimensional representation.

Why is this important?

Humanities and social science scholars have traditionally been poorly equipped to think about the relations between the various elements or ‘actors’ in the composition of power relations that makes up a research project, cluster or ‘network’. When I think of ‘actor-networks’ (as in ‘actor-network theory’) I think of a version of this diagram and all the ‘trees’ that actually constitute the relations between the various elements. My childish MS Paint drawings above indicate one way I think it would be possible to graphically represent the non-linear network of relations between various actors as part of a temporal series.

On its own it is kind of cool, but imagine if you could map not only strictly research-based or intellectual endeavours and could include on the same conical spiral time line other factors, such as funding grants, social events, or even maybe (if anyone thinks it is, you know, at all relevant) teaching load and other administrative responsibilities. Rather than mapping the conditions of possible action, this would be a trace of the actual conditions of action in the relations between elements. It would be a very useful way to map the impact of non-output activities in terms of various clusters of ‘elements’ and the number of relations between them. For example, a relative barrier would occur while waiting for ethics protocol approval and so on.

The Drop as Transversal Element (or data-driven music journalism?)

I’ve been looking for a fun example to push the boundaries of what is possible when doing data-driven journalism in our Online News unit this semester. I used Skrillex in a lecture last year to discuss affect and popular music (Lawrence Grossberg’s work is good on the way affect can be analysed in terms of ‘mattering maps’, but also check out this journal article for a different kind of engagement). Earlier this year someone posted this capture of comments on Skrillex’s Facebook account regarding the quality (or absence) of ‘the drop’:
Mark Richardson at Pitchfork (music site, the bastion of indie music etc) had this to say about Skrillex, his fans and these Facebook comments:

The responses were edited down from hundreds of comments, many of which had Skrillex fans mirroring his praise of the tune. But the reason why it’s funny, and why it’s been passed around so much, is clear: These bass fiends have no ear for electronic music genius. They just want that drop.

So what is ‘the drop’?


Typically, the percussion will pause, often reducing the track to silence, and then resume with more intensity, accompanied by a dominant subbass (often passing portamento through an entire octave or more, as in the audio example). It is very common for the bass to drop at or very close to 55 seconds into the song, due to the fact that 55 seconds is just over 32 measures at the common tempo of 140 bpm.

Or urban dictionary:

The part of a dubstep tune where it gets so incomprehensibly filthy that one cannot fathom – therefore, ones mind explodes.
Person 1: “Yo dude, check out the drop in this banger”
Person 2: “Holy shit dude”

The drop is the when the beat kicks after a duration of anticipatory build up (‘intro’). The relative value of the drop or the intro is often debated (sometimes it is the ‘bounce’ that wins out). Dubstep is also known for the ‘wub’, check out this application of the below-mentioned Echo Nest API, the Wub Machine. The results can be truly horrific:

I downloaded the free iPhone app and created a wub machine dubstep version of the They Might Be Giants’ track “The Bells Are Ringing”. I laughed so hard I almost did rofl.

Skrillex is actually fed up with people talking about ‘the drop’:

Transversal blocks of musicality

What I find fascinating about the discourse of music enthusiasts and fans around ‘the drop’ is that it is largely congruent with popular music discourses at different points in history referring to the ‘swing’, the ‘riff’, the ‘beat’ (as in ‘house’ or ‘break’) and so on. Each of these elements describes a particular block of musicality that is repeated in different ways within specific genres of popular music and within specific scenes (here I am using Will Straw’s influential definition of a scene).

I don’t know what to call these blocks of musicality in general; I am sure that musicologists have a term for it or someone will invent a term. I am thinking about them following Foucault’s concept of the ‘statement’. A ‘statement’ is a kind of singularity in discourse: the distribution of statements in an archive characterises the field of (onto-epistemological) positivity for articulating ‘truth’ in scientific discourses. Although music scholars have pointed out that discursive repetition is different to ‘musematic repetition’ within an individual song, I am describing something else.

The distribution of these blocks of musicality characterises a field of (onto-affective) positivity as a condition of popular musical appreciation. I am not talking about whether or not a track is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but that these blocks of musicality will serve as the affective condition (in the philosophical sense of causality) of musical appreciation. Within genre studies, we’d call the drop a trope of the genre dubstep. I am trying to push it a bit further however, because genre studies is largely concerned with complexities of cultural typologies. What I am interested in is the affective dimensions of these blocks of musicality and how they come to organise listening practices.

The different blocks of musicality have different affective qualities. The drop combines anticipation and a pitch of intensity. Anticipation can have negative affective qualities (dread) and positive (‘excitement’), with popular music associated with the latter. The distribution of the drop as a differentially repeated block of musicality is also a distribution of these affective qualities through the communities of practice (online, clubs, etc.). If this seems like an overly convoluted way of saying that beats are dropped in clubs, you’d be right, but I am not (only) saying that. I am suggesting that ‘the drop’ cuts across music, the bodies of listeners and the discourses of music reception (Pitchfork, or any number of other music appreciation sites).

There is a transversality to these blocks of musicality that transcends a purely musical interpretation of them. What if ‘the drop’ became popular not because of the sonorous dimension of its musicality, but because of the shared (ie social) distribution of anticipation and pitch of intensity felt that moves across a community of listeners? You not only ‘hear’ the drop, to paraphrase Adorno, you ‘hear’ the everyone-else-hearing-it. There is a social dimension of the block of musicality present in every ‘drop’. I could imagine a ‘media archeaology’ of such blocks of musicality, as a way to examine the composition of power relations characterising popular music scenes (as well as Straw’s categories such as nostalgia, etc.). The social dimension of ‘the drop’ is accidently captured in the above quoted Urban Dictionary definition. So beyond academic research, what if you could analyse the character of ‘the drop’ not in strictly musical terms, but in terms of its musical capacity for sociality as a predictor of popularity?

The possibility of data-driven music journalism?

There is UPlaya that carries out an algorithmic analysis of music submitted to compare it to previous ‘hits’ to assess whether or not it fits with its predictions of success based on previous popular music. The big player in parsing music and a great deal of associated material is The Echo Nest API. The Echo Nest is described as a ‘music intelligence platform’ and boasts 5 billion datapoints with 30 million songs and 1.5 million artists. Here is a Slideshare presentation where one of the creators of Echo Nest walks through its creation and the “pitfalls and promise of music data”. One of the more amusing uses of the Echo Nest API is this project called The Pitchfork Effect. The project in itself is very cool. I find it amusing that data analysis tools are being used to analyse the qualitative process of judging music and sound aesthetics (as well as whole range of other issues to do with political economy of music, i.e. ‘indie’ used to mean something beyond an aesthetic/marketing category). But I am thinking of something else.

Say, for example, I wanted to analyse Skrillex’s music and reception through the concept of ‘the drop’. Is an algorithmic analysis of his music tracks possible, in terms of when each track ‘drops’ and the quality of the ‘drop’? Certainly. It would be a question of exploring the relation between the anticipatory build up (‘intro’) and then ‘drop’ when the beat kicks. I’m interested in not only an analysis of the music itself but locate the music in patterns of reception. The question here would be, how does ‘the drop’ ‘drop’ (in communities of music listening practice)? Similar to Skrillex’s computational music producing ‘drops’, this would be a computational music journalism analysing meta-drops. (::diabolical cackle::)

Data could be gathered a number of ways including by way of doing a basic sentiment analysis of online commentary about the quality of the drop or number of ‘plays’ of a given track through online sites such as Last.FM. Combining both sets of data we could look for patterns/correlation between the qualitative reception of the socio-musicological ‘drop’ and the algorithmic analysis of the ‘drop’ as a block of musicality. The thesis could be tested against historical examples of ‘riffs’ and so on using different algorithmic measures for a media archaeology of such transversal ‘blocks of musicality’.

As a start here is the ‘fantracker’ data vis of all activity tracked by Musicmetric: