Socio-technical systems and the asymmetrical determination of ‘know-how’

I’m about two thirds of the way through restructuring and rewriting an article on ‘know-how’. This is the first proper publication to come out of my PhD dissertation that I finished in 2007. My goal is to lay the theoretical groundwork to eventually carry out a ‘media archaeology’ of ‘know-how’. It is largely based on Deleuze’s reworking of Kantian metaphysics, but I am using such philosophical concepts in a very applied way.

I define ‘know-how’ as experience-based practical knowledge. ‘Know-how’ is developed in the body through some kind of practice. ‘Developed’ has two meanings here. Firstly, like a polaroid photograph, ‘know-how’ develops as a consequence of exposure to the conditions of experience. Secondly, the differential repetition of experience develops ‘know-how’. Experience does not accummulate, so for example, it would be incorrect to describe someone as ‘more experienced’. Rather, experience is differentiated as the synthesis of memory is founded on the synthesis of habit. Someone only ever has a experience that through its differential repetition becomes ‘keener’ (or ‘duller’). 

The episodic character of differentially repeated experience through which ‘know-how’ is developed I am calling a ‘challenge’. I define three characteristics of ‘challenges’. First, its problematic contiguity, which I won’t go into in this post. Secondly, there is a material ‘kicking-a-rock’ dimension of challenges and, thirdly, there is also an incorporeal or virtual dimension to them. ‘Challenges’ are similar to problems (in the non-Deleuzian sense) because they beg some kind of resolution or solution. But unlike problems, a ‘challenge’ also demands some kind of mobilisation to ‘rise to the challenge’. Hence, the affective disposition of the subject of ‘know-how’ is of crucial importance.

In terms of affect, there are three ways to respond to a ‘challenge’, depending on its character. To be ‘beat’ by the challenge means to be over-awed (or under-awed) and assume a diminutive relation of the ‘passive affections’ of the ‘challenge’. One’s capacity to act is diminished. On the other hand, to ‘rise to the challenge’ and mobilise to engage with an increased capacity to act determined by the active affections of the challenge. In between is a complex relation of active affections in all dimensions of the mobilisation bar one, and that is the capacity to delineate or intuit the ‘challenge’ itself. By inheriting the ‘challenges’ of others, one’s co-assembly of active affects — what I am calling ‘enthusiasm’ — becomes harnessed by whatever agency is positing and valorising these inherited ‘challenges’ as worthy of mobilisation. For example, this is how ‘enthusiasm’ belonging to subcultures becomes harnessed as a resource by the creative industries.

In this article I am primarily concerned with the way ‘know-how’ can be transmitted. The core problem is that experience itself cannot be communicated. My solution to this problem is to engage with the ways the condition of experience (i.e. ‘challenges’) can be transmitted. When a subject of ‘know-how’ begins to develop ‘know-how’ he or she is exposed to what I am calling the ‘visibilities’ (following Deleuze’s reading of Foucault) and ‘tactilities’. ‘Tactilities’ captures a sense of the qualitative capacity to and practice of getting one’s ‘hands dirty’. This is a non-cognitive tactile appreciation of the material qualities of the ‘challenge’, where habits of practise are synthesised in the body as ‘tacit knowledge’.

The best example of the the transmission of ‘know-how’ is the much neglected ‘how to’ article. The ‘how to’ article walks a subject of ‘know-how’ through a ‘challenge’. The subject develops new ways of ‘seeing’ the elements of the ‘challenge’, new ways of manipulating and engaging with the material elements (‘tactilities’), and mobilises through a co-assembly of active affects (i.e. implicit ‘encouragement’). Because of my unique work background I have countless informal examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed, but rather than extensive (and probably boring) examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed (in my dissertation most of a 12k word chapter was spent going through the example of how I fixed a broken fan belt on my car!) I use the actor-network theory concept of ‘black-boxing’ as a way to think through the way subjects of ‘know-how’ engage with socio-technical systems.

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.

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:

Heuristic of Passion: Michael Polanyi and Enthusiasm

I’ve been reading Michael Polanyi‘s book Personal Knowledge (1958). Some aspects of Polanyi’s work have been popular in organisational studies primarily due to his conceptualisation of ‘tacit knowledge’. I have been reading Polanyi’s work for the purposes of the article I am currently writing on an ‘economy of know-how’. Maybe I’ll write another post engaging with how organisational studies have used Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowledge’, at the moment I need to finish this article I am writing.

The subtitle of the book Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy indicates Polanyi’s general program of locating affirmation as a central element of the discovery and development of scientific knowledge. Indeed, instead of a heuristic of doubt or a suspension of belief, Polanyi argues for a heuristic of passion premised on belief. Although deployed in any number of occasions in his argument the character of passion is a given and is nearly always described in terms of its function. In those occasions where Polanyi does discuss the character of this passion it is largely through analogy with what he calls the inarticulate intellect of animals and also in the context of instinctual drives. Silvan Tomkins’s work on the ‘analog’ ontology of affect as compared to the ‘digital’ ontology of drives enables contemporary readers of Polanyi’s to explicate what Tomkins calls a “co-assembly of affects” as characterizing the motivational drive of the ‘passion’ he describes.

For Polayni, ‘intellectual passion’ is an integral element in the process of scientific discovery and development of scientific knowledge. He argues that “into every act of knowing there enters into a tacit and passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and that this coefficient is no mere imperfection, but a necessary component of all knowledge” (329). The passion coefficient of knowledge is necessary for the process of discovery. In his discussion of explorers , Polanyi describes commitment to belief as an integral element of intellectual passion that is satisfied by discovery. The explorer enjoys a “daring anticipation of reality” (327). He isolates this as the creative dimension of scientific progress, and this creative dimension relies on ‘heuristic passion’:

“We have to cross the logical gap between a problem and its solution by relying on the unspecifiable impulse of our heuristic passion, and must undergo as we do so a change of our intellectual personality. Like all ventures in which we comprehensively dispose of ourselves, such an intentional change of our personality requires a passionate motive to accomplish it. Originality must be passionate.” (151)

Polanyi argues that the gratification of instinctual appetites (hunger, sex and fear) is a manner of verification. There is a parallel to intellectual passions in that “all passions animating and shaping discovery imply a belief in the possibility of a knowledge of which these passions declare the value” (183). That is, Polanyi suggests, a (not infallible) ‘competence’ of intellectual passions is to recognise truth. The satisfaction of intellectual passions is a kind of verification of discovery, as discovery “terminates the problem from which it started” and “leaves behind knowledge” (183). The knowledge is expressed as part of the ongoing development of an “articulate framework” (183).

He argues that the interpretative framework built upon previous discoveries is changed by future discoveries; hence it is “logically impossible to arrive [at future discoveries] by the continued application of our previous interpretative framework” (151). This insight is troubled, however, by his use of ‘recognition’ in the process by which problems are identified:

“To see a problem is a definite addition to knowledge, as much as it is to see a tree, or to see a mathematical proof—or a joke. It is a surmise which can be true or false, depending on whether the hidden possibilities of which it assumes the existence do actually exist or not. To recognize a problem which can be solved and is worth solving is in fact a discovery in its own right.” (127)

There is a contradiction of discovery based on ‘recognition’. This is not a question of mere semantics, but relates to the functioning of ‘intellectual passion’ itself. Useful here is Deleuze’s development of a post-Kantian philosophy of the Idea as essentially ‘problematic’ instead of ‘regulatory’. That is, without regulatory universality ideas become problematic, and ‘recognition’ in the way Polanyi discusses it here is no longer straightforward. Polanyi himself argues that radical manifestations of this process of breaking with conceptual frameworks dissolves a “screen” between us and things and in doing so dissolves the subjective into experience itself as a form of radical contemplation distinct to our normative experience of experience: “as observers or manipulators of experience we are guided by experience and pass through experience without experiencing it in itself” (209). Perception itself is co-assembled though experience…

Polanyi is primarily concerned with the freedom of intellectual passion necessary for scientific discovery. There is an “essential restlessness” of the human mind expressed through the scientist in terms of pondering new problems and discovering solutions to them (209), but it is not only the scientist that enjoys that satisfaction of discovery. The scientist, in Polanyi’s analysis, is concerned with the “natural order,” while another, for example, the technician or technologist, although working within a similar framework of discovery, has a far more focused heuristic passion.

“He follows the intimations, not of a natural order, but of a possibility for making things work in a new way for an acceptable purpose, and cheaply enough to show a profit. In feeling his way towards new problems, in collecting clues and pondering perspectives, the technologist must keep in mind a whole panorama of advantages and disadvantages which the scientist ignores. He must be keenly susceptible to people’s wants and able to assess the price at which they would be prepared to satisfy them. A passionate interest in such momentary constellations is foreign to the scientist, whose eye is fixed on the inner law of nature.” (188)

The constellation of interests organized around the focused heuristic passion of the technician is in part determined by the set of material advantages afforded by a technology; what Polanyi calls a technology’s “operational principle”: the rules by which a technology “teaches us actions undertaken for material advantages” if we “imputed [in the technologist] the purpose of achieving the consequence of this action” (186). My interest is in ‘know how’ which describes a form of knowledge that engages with such ‘operational principles’ and their material instantiation in a particular technological state of affairs. Unlike the knowledge of qualified technicians however, ‘know-how’ is the accumulation of partial understandings, but full appreciations of such “operational principles”. I call ‘enthusiasm’ the heuristic passion that is in-acted as a constituent element of the experience of discovering the operative principles of technology. training camp

Over the weekend I led a session as part of a workshop camp training youth media advocates for is an advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness about issues relating to youth mental health and suicide, and is part of I was very happy to donate my Saturday morning and the couple of days it took to put together my session. Like most people, I’ve had some personal experience with a loved one struggling to overcome the ‘black dog’. It has been good to see depression and mental health issues receive proper media attention over the last few years as struggles with mental health issues transcend social and cultural boundaries.

In my session I introduced the youth advocates to the concept of a ‘complex media environment’. It builds on well established concepts within media studies from key figures such as Marshall “The medium is the message” McLuhan (see this video of McLuhan in Australia from ABC Open) and Neil “Media Ecology” Postman. The key outcome from my session was to get the advocates to realise that as media advocates they are no longer simply ‘consumers’ of media content, but nor are they properly ‘producers’ within the media industry. Instead, they are somewhere in between, what I described as being ‘operators’.’s own media advocacy kit for the workshop was put together (EDIT: 13/12/11) under the direction of co-manager Nathalie Swainston by Phoebe Netto and it is a brilliant practical guide for working with journalists and other content producers within the media industry. For example, it presents the well known values of news worthiness (timeliness, proximity, impact, etc) in an inverted form so media advocates know how to position their message so as to be useful for journalists working on producing a story.

I built on the media advocacy kit by reaching out to the youth media advocates’ existing mode of engagement with the media — as mostly ‘crticial consumers’ — to point out ways this could be extended and intensified so as to spot and plan for ‘opportunities’ for their message. I focused on two methods for doing this. The first involves working within the constraints of the journalistic ‘news cycle’ and also tracking the rhythm of the media activities of other social institutions, such as governmental authorities or the NGO sector publishing relevant reports.

The second involves appreciating the strucutral dimensions of the media industry. The commercial media industry basically operates as an ‘apparatus of capture’: it produces content so as to ‘capturre’ an audience, and then sell this audience to advertisers (or others). The questions the media advocates need to work through are, what sort of audience can I help produce and who would want the traffic/metrics/listeners/viewers/readership that my message can help deliver? The session after mine was delivered by the lovely and talented Pheobe Netto (who also took the phone camera snap above during my presentation!) and it was about the practical skills of crafting one’s media message. The ‘complex’ bit of the ‘complex media environment’ comes from the structural changes that the Australian media industry has undergone over the last decade or so. There are increased opportunities for engagement for those with the necessary skills to turn out good copy for many media outlets.

One of the qualities of this complex media enviroment that I discussed in my session was the way media stories can cascade across multiple channels and platforms. Most people are familiar with the concept of an ‘echo chamber’, but a more general example of a similar phenomenon is the way various media outlets will pay attention to what other media outlets are reporting on. This doesn’t only happen amongst competitors (or ‘co-opetitors’) but also sub-jacently related channels, such as local radio stories picked up by larger ‘talkback’ radio, picked up by print journalist, picked up by TV journalists, etc.

I think it was a very good day and the feedback I’ve received from participants is that they found my session to be very productive.