Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Software Studies

Everyone I hope has read the classic and much-loved children՚s book The Phantom Tollbooth. But you may not remember that the plot revolves around a longstanding fraternal feud between the kings of two separate intellectual domains: Aziz, The King of Dictionopolis, ruler of the land of words, and the Mathemagician, whose domain is numbers. Until their conflict is reconciled, no peace can be found in the world of the mind. Like most wars, it seems almost senseless from the outside. What are these two kings fighting about? They each have their land and have no real use for the other՚s, so no material interest drives them. No, it must be some abstract war of pride and place, an eternal struggle for dominance between equal opponents. Certainly Milo, the protagonist (admittedly a bit dull) can՚t see the point of it.

Tollbooth-3.JPG
This storybook war is quite obviously based on the real-world cultural disconnect between the humanities and the sciences. While this divide has been around forever and isn՚t going away anytime soon, fortunately there have always been plenty of people willing to be double agents and smugglers, engaging in valuable commerce between two realms that like to pretend that they have nothing to do with one another. I like to think that the computation is a major route for such intellectual vagabonds of uncertain loyalty, and certainly I՚ve always been drawn to those who expressly aim at transgressing the boundaries.

Computation was birthed by the sciences, and is in universities normally a branch of engineering or math departments, and computer people have always been mostly of that ilk. But there have always been other kinds of people involved: call them digital humanists, those who had deep roots in something more human than dry mathematics. Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson come to mind. The MIT Media Lab was initially created in the school՚s architecture department precisely to avoid being the narrow nerdish viewpoint of straight engineering. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, who co-founded the Artificial Intelligence lab in earlier decades were key early players there as well. Both of the latter were accomplished mathematicians but were not satisfied to work within the strictures of that field, and sought to find deep connections between mathematics, mind, and culture.

Perhaps its the influence of the Phantom Tollbooth that drew me to them; I՚ve tried to follow these luminaries in various ways and done my own bit to tunnel underneath the borders, although I wasn՚t always thinking of it in that way. At the the Media Lab, I was part of a cabal that was trying to be even more interdisciplinary than the official line, and so we explored connections between largely technical areas like AI and some of the more rarefied products of the humanities. This was in early 90s, more or less, so just before computers started the process of taking over all of human culture. Since then there has been a small and refined explosion of work in what is apparently now called “digital humanities”.

Phantom-p17.jpg
So I have been (out of the blue, and somewhat unaccountably) been invited to an academic workshop at UC Santa Cruz in this area (whose goal is producing a book for this series). This is a field which I have only a tenuous and out-of-date connection to, but I can՚t turn down a chance to live the life of the mind, if only for a day. But I don't really know what the hell is going on in this field. This post represents a few days of light cramming; I may have a post-workshop followup.

So what is digital humanities? Well, people in the traditional humanities (literature, arts, philosophy, and of course “critical theory”) are not stupid and can see just like everyone else that the world is getting eaten up by software and digital technology. This includes both the everyday human world that is their subject, and the professional academic world of teaching and publishing. Naturally they want to get a foothold in the eating side of this revolution, lest they among the eaten.

That is the crass way to think about it though. There is actually interesting stuff going on!

Some branches of digital humanities (not counting people who are more like new media artists here, to limit myself to the scholarly):
  • applying computational techniques to traditional questions in the humanities (eg, doing large-scale textual analysis to learn how language and idioms change over time)
  • media theory: taking the approach of an art historian / social theorist to the new forms of human communication such as the web and Facebook (hero: Marshall McLuhan)
  • software studies: treating computational artifacts themselves as texts to be analyzed; thinking about the role of human values in their creation.
The latter is the most apt to induce spluttering from a mainstream technologist (and hence is the most interesting -- the other aspects seem like worthwhile academic pursuits but don't seem like they are likely to rock my world). While Moby Dick and the source code of the Emacs editor I am using right now are both “texts” in some very abstract sense, they are pretty different kinds of things and it is not immediately clear that they cast any useful light on each other.

They do, of course, meet at one point: the human reader and writer. That is to say, the same person may at different time interacting, creating, interpreting both kinds of texts, along with many others. And it՚s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the mental machinery used for both kinds of texts is the same: both require parsing into small chunks with formal relationships to each other, for instance. Both require creativity in their creation, although of fairly different sorts. Literature requires creativity in its reception as well; does software? Arguably yes, especially in the common case where one programmer is trying to understand another՚s code (for purposes of fixing or extending it).

But the real thing that the humanities brings to the software table is the idea of critique, or in other words, the idea that it is a perfectly proper and useful thing to do to take a cultural product (aka text) and dissect the ways in which it works, how it relates to its subject matter and its audience, what it tries to say about the society that produced it and what it actually says, what effects it has on that society, what values it embodies, and what values we should be applying when we sit in judgement. And techniques for doing so.

This is something that is almost entirely missing from the engineering culture that most software people are trained in, and it's pretty clearly desperately needed. Software is eating the world, very smart people and corporations are busily figuring out how to eat faster and more effectively, and there needs to be better ways to think about this process, to critique it and possibly even resist or redirect it. I՚m not sure these obscure academic fields will do it, but they are better than nothing.

And I՚m looking forward to the day when software critics become major cultural players, passionate minds on the order of Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs who can teach us new ways to read the latest releases on Github.

24 comments:

Hal Morris said...

I would reconsider the possible "rocking your world" possibilities of the following:
* applying computational techniques to traditional questions in the humanities (eg, doing large-scale textual analysis ...)
* media theory: -- though I think the field is full of premature theorizing.

Crawfordmuir's latest screed illustrates dangerous processes going on in our culture that might be addressed by some form of "digital humanities".

If you were as familiar as I am with right wing discourse, you'd recognize a narrative which has been used to demonize everyone to the left of Von Mises. The Frankfurt school was a conspiracy to disguise and propagate Marxism. They created "cultural Marxism", and it is a common slogan among the more pseudointellectual members of the right that "PC is Cultural Marxism". Conveniently Marcuse comes out of the Frankfurt Group and comes to US to become "father of the new left" -- that's the narrative. In a more reality based narrative, we'd say he was a guy who very trendily tried to reconcile Marx and Freud; who told us consumerism, sexual repression assuage by fantasies from hypnotic ads were the main tools of oppression of the day, so we can become Revolutionaries by living simply, smoking pot, and having free sex.
Now all of this cultural Marxism/PC is coming to a head as demonstrated by all the sex, homo, hetero, and other, on HBO, etc.
Marx/Engles criticized marriage as a crass financial transaction, which was true enough in their day - you only have to read the literature of the time. Their comments are then trotted out as the original marching orders that are coming to fruition today with the de-sacralization of marriage.
This is part of a jaw-droppingly idiotic mythology of what drives liberals, that is accepted as common sense by a huge segment of the population, and it is all but invisible to those not immersed in right wing discourse.

What's this got to do with "digital humanities"? We are apt to miss huge currents in the climate of opinion until it is too late. The Germans in the 1930s who could not imagine Nazis taking power certainly did to take a maybe over-extreme example.

It seems to me AI based analysis, applied to the millions of blogs out there in plain view might help us to get a handle on it.

mtraven said...

I would reconsider the possible "rocking your world" possibilities of the following:

Oh, no doubt those areas are worthwhile and interesting, they just don՚t seem to require any deep conceptual changes.

If you were as familiar as I am with right wing discourse

Oh I՚m quite familiar with it, thanks.

It seems to me AI based analysis, applied to the millions of blogs out there in plain view might help us to get a handle on it.

My former colleague who is organizing the workshop that insipred this post, Warren Sack, did some work in analyzing web conversations for ideology: here and here eg.

Crawfurdmuir said...

"But the real thing that the humanities brings [sic] to the software table is the idea of critique, or in other words, the idea that it is a perfectly proper and useful thing to do to take a cultural product (aka text) and dissect the ways in which it works..."

This describes what the humanities are as now practiced - a platform for "deconstruction," "structuralism," "critical theory" or some other faddish term for trying to shoehorn the work of some man of letters or artist into the "analysis" of the Marxist-derivative academics that now dominate liberal arts faculties at most American universities. Additional points are granted if the interpretation is couched in impenetrable jargon.

However, what is described above is a very far cry from what the humanities - the study of "literae humaniores" - meant when scholars first began to take an interest in the literature and art of classical antiquity. How can one compare the "humanists" of the present day to the poet Petrarch, the bibliophile and writer of facetiae Poggio Bracciolini, or the diplomat and churchman Aeneas Piccolomini, who became pope as Pius II? Where on American university faculties or in our cultural life are the equivalents of the Platonic academy of Florence in the time of Cosimo and Lorenzo dei Medici - Politian, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola? Where is modernity's Desiderius Erasmus? What publisher today is the counterpart to Aldus Manutius or Christopher Plantin?

These were men who, having rediscovered the literary and artistic legacy of antiquity, were humbled when they compared what they found in it to the condition of their own time. They understood that the passage of time did not necessarily yield improvement, but could equally well lead to collapse. From the example of antiquity, they created what we now call the Renaissance - literally, the re-birth and re-creation of what had been long lost.

Some of it was really an innovation, but it was unconsciously so. For example, opera (as conceived by Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi) was supposed to be a re-creation of Greek choral drama, with all the magical emotional effects attributed to the latter by Aristotle in his Poetics. To be sure, whatever Greek choral drama was like in its original performance probably bore little resemblance to 17th-century opera; but what is important was the intention of those who conceived of it as a revival.

I have several very early editions of the Latin classics; in my hand now is the Aldine edition of Juvenal and Persius, together with the plays of Terence, printed in 1501. The striking characteristic of it - apart from its beauty as a piece of graphic art - is that it contains only the text. There is no prefatory material apart from Aldus's ten-line dedication; there are no footnotes, and no apparatus criticus of any kind. The same is true of the three-volume Aldine Cicero of 1517 on my nearby bookshelf. One understands on looking at these books that they were meant to be read for their content, for the edification and enjoyment that it might give.

Later, less elevated minds ceased to study these texts for their content and devoted themselves to the minutiae of grammar and of establishing authentic texts via textual criticism. Such scholarship had its point, and continues today - but gerund-grinding cannot teach us anything of as much value as can the texts themselves.

Why should we read the classics? Not in order to engage in philological hair-splitting, and not in order to presume to find in them by using convoluted arguments some alleged corroboration for a neo-Marxist theory. Rather we read them because human nature has not changed at the pace of technology, and ancient societies confronted the same philosophical, political, and economic issues that the modern world does. It is instructive to know how they did - that we might emulate their successes and avoid their mistakes.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Hal Morris wrote: "it is a common slogan among the more pseudointellectual members of the right that "PC is Cultural Marxism".

I have never heard any real right-winger (and I have been attending Philadelphia Society and Mont Pelerin Society meetings since the late '70s) ever use such a "common slogan."

What we do recognize is that political correctness is a sort of dumbed-down or vulgar Kulturbolschewismus, derived from Marcuse's concept of "repressive tolerance." According to Marcuse's essay of that title, tolerating the expression of certain ideas is "repressive" because it facilitates the continuance of a social order based on patriarchy, private property, class distinctions, and all the other things that horripilate the left.

In short, it is therefore "true tolerance" to exert intolerance of movements from the right and toleration of movements from the left. This is as "Orwellian" a concept as "war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength." And of course what political correctness amounts to in practice is intolerance of movements from the right, and for ideas with which more or less every person of education and breeding agreed until the recent inversion of morality and aesthetics.

And as to "pseudointellectual" - you are attempting by use of a derisive term to dismiss an entire school of thought without having rebutted any of its actual arguments. It is mere raillery and does not even rise to the level of argumentum ad hominem. Surely you can do better.

Hal Morris said...

RE: "My former colleague who is organizing the workshop that insipred this post, Warren Sack, did some work in analyzing web conversations for ideology: here and here eg."

Thanks -- always looking for connection between solitary thoughts and any actual MLSC (Moderately Large Scale Conversation) -- to the point of crashing a Social Epistemology (grad student) workshop and a later conference by Alvin Goldman, and trying to have a conversation with him in which I'm afraid I came off sounding a bit mad.

Haven't had time to take a look at either, but will do the first shortly. As I live on Planet Linux, do you know any open software that won't make a dog's breakfast of the second (.DOC) e.g. would a recent version of LibreOffice work? My 2-3 year old one seems not to.

It would be nice simply to have a search engine allowing one to search for e.g. examples in recent "liberal-progressive" sources, or hopefully tuned more finely than that which comment approvingly on 'Marcuse's concept of "repressive tolerance."'. If you google { Marcuse "repressive tolerance" <> } where <> is pure wishful thinking on my part -- a sort of meta-tag which I hope is self-explanatory, I'm not sure what you'd find but my expectation would be very little.

If you substituted <>, I think you'd find quite a lot of painting all liberals with this brush, no doubt giving as examples the recent treatment of Condaleeza Rice et al as if those events had deep roots in Marcuse's writing.

NOTE TO Crawfordmuir: This sort of confusion of toleration and repression wasn't invented by Marcuse, nor by Brandeis, nor by the Bolsheviks. For a couple of centuries you had the more "hot" protestants interpreting anything conducive to tolerance of Catholics as a plot to suppress Protestantism

Hal Morris said...


Oh hell. "<<>>" not what I meant -- I failed to anticipate parser-mangling.

RETRY: It would be nice simply to have a search engine allowing one to search for e.g. examples in recent "liberal-progressive" sources, or hopefully tuned more finely than that which comment approvingly on 'Marcuse's concept of "repressive tolerance."'. If you google { Marcuse "repressive tolerance" [[recent liberal punditry]] } where [[recent liberal punditry]] is pure wishful thinking on my part -- a sort of meta-tag which I hope is self-explanatory, I'm not sure what you'd find but my expectation would be very little.

If you substituted [[recent right-wing punditry]], I think you'd find quite a lot of painting all liberals with this brush, no doubt giving as examples the recent treatment of Condaleeza Rice et al as if those events had deep roots in Marcuse's writing.

Hal Morris said...

Another very good metatag for a browser would be [[stuff to buy]] which I'd typically negate unless I wanted to buy something. But I wouldn't expect google to provide it given their incentives.

Hal Morris said...

NEVER MIND THE QUERY ABOUT READING THAT .DOC FILE - I FOUND UPDATED LIBREOFFICE. THANKS.

Hal Morris said...

Some responses to Crawfurdmuir:
"Surely you can do better."
How kind of you to say so.
"does not even rise to the level of argumentum ad hominem."
It most certainly does rise to the level of argumentum ad hominem -- which has its uses, after all though it must be ruled out in debates.
"It is mere raillery"
which you apparently find "amusing" when it comes from your point of view.
'And as to "pseudointellectual" - you are attempting by use of a derisive term to dismiss an entire school of thought'
You seem to equate a reference "pseudointellectual members of the right" to the statement that all members of the right are pseudointellectuals. Not at all. Some, like Hayek, deserve to be called intellectuals. Others are clearly anti-intellectual, and yet others are intellectual charlatans, e.g. Ayn Rand, who would have us believe that her "objective" set of morals can be derived from "Existence exists" (which is kind of like allowing sets to include themselves, which Russell showed to be a bad idea). Von Mises epistemology seems hardly better though it it certainly more verbose.

Crawfurdmuir said...

I was personally acquainted with Prof.v. Hayek, Erik v. Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leopold Tyrmand, Russell Kirk, and Mel Bradford; Kirk and Bradford well enough to call my friends.

Ayn Rand was scarred by her encounter with Bolshevism - and lucky to have survived the experience. If she lacked depth, it was understandable. She attempted to oppose her family's persecutors by creating a sort of perverse mirror image of their false system, which was equally false, though it has never had the chance to do so much harm.

My late father, out of his great kindness, gave jobs to several refugees from communism - I grew up hearing their life stories.You who would bring about a similar condition to the one they escaped in this country do not know what you are wishing for.

Crawfurdmuir said...

"NOTE TO Crawfordmuir: This sort of confusion of toleration and repression wasn't invented by Marcuse, nor by Brandeis, nor by the Bolsheviks. For a couple of centuries you had the more "hot" protestants interpreting anything conducive to tolerance of Catholics as a plot to suppress Protestantism"

Of course Cromwell and his fanatics were intellectual predecessors of the Bolshies. See Voegelin's "New Science of Politics." As Santayana once said, the New England liberals of his day were merely Puritans bereft of their Christianity, so that only the fanaticism and smugness remained.

Mel Bradford described political correctness as secular Puritanism. This seems perfectly true to me, as a Laudian Anglican and a descendant of Virginia cavaliers.

Hal Morris said...

"You who would bring about a similar condition to the one they escaped in this country do not know what you are wishing for."

There you have no idea what you're talking about. You simply have almost no basis for knowing what I think politically other than I dislike your goading and indiscriminate rhetoric.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Mr. Morris, you and Mtraven both appear to me to be "progressives" of the Henry Wallace type, apologists for collectivism and coercive egalitarianism. If you are other than that I have seen nothing to indicate it in your comments here.

mtraven said...

"the Henry Wallace type"? How old are you, anyway?

And do you really have nothing better to do than redirect every discussion here into the same tedious obsessions? This post was about a new thing that is changing the world and people trying to respond to it, and all you can talk about is a politician who hasn't been relevant for more than 65 years?

Crawfurdmuir said...

Henry Wallace may not be personally "relevant" any more - it is hard to do that when you're dead - but his ideas live on. The Democratic party has been taken over by them. There are no more Truman Democrats. The takeover began in 1972 with the presidential nomination of George McGovern, who had supported not Truman but Wallace in 1948. The subsequent abandonment of "liberal" and the adoption of "progressive" as a self-description by those on the left is quite revealing, and, conscious or not, seems to be a subtle homage to Wallace, who ran (with the effective endorsement of the Communist party) on the Progressive ticket.

But since you don't want to talk about that, let's go back to the question of the humanities and who might be considered an exemplary humanist of (say) the past century. Mtraven wrote of his hope for "the day when software critics become major cultural players, passionate minds on the order of Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs who can teach us new ways to read the latest releases on Github." Is this also your view?

If Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs are his idea of what recent modernity can offer as counterparts to Petrarch or Erasmus, I can only contemplate the poverty of his cultural vision.

Just as an experiment, let me suggest two men of the past century that might really be able to hold their own in a Walter Savage Landor-style "imaginary conversation" with members of the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent or the friends of Cardinal Bembo.

The first one that immediately comes to mind was born the son of a British schoolmaster. Brought up in what was at best a middle-class family, he went to a grammar school (not a public school), and later to Cambridge, where he took a double-starred first in classics. Having been given as his final examination a passage of English to translate into Greek, and three hours in which to do it, he finished it in half the time - with two translations, one in the style of Plato and the other in the style of Thucydides.

Appointed a university professor in Australia at the age of 25, he returned to Britain at the beginning of World War II, to enlist in the army as a private soldier. Promoted to lance-corporal, he attracted the attention of a general who was inspecting the field kitchen where he worked, by responding to one of that officer's questions with a Greek proverb. Selected after that incident for training as an officer, he was commissioned a subaltern. He finished his service as a brigadier.

After the war he entered politics and was elected to Parliament. He rose to cabinet rank, and at the peak of his career gave a speech on immigration in which he quoted a phrase from the Aeneid. While the popular reaction was quite positive, his party's establishment was furious, and his career as a leader was at an end. He at last broke with his party, and was eventually elected to another seat, having stood as a minor party candidate.

He not only showed brilliance in each of these three distinct careers, but was also a prolific author, on a
variety of subjects, his last book being published when he was in his eighties. He was a public intellectual and statesman, a prescient and ultimately tragic figure. Can you guess who he was?

Crawfurdmuir said...

The second twentieth-century "Renaissance humanist" I have in mind had an even more successful career in public life than did the first, but it is not for it that he is remembered today.

Born the son of a minister, he went to local schools as a child, then to a Scottish university, and finally to Oxford, where he took a first in "Greats" (Literae Humaniores), won a prize for an essay, a poetry prize, was elected president of the Oxford Union, and had six of his books published before completing his degree.

He entered upon a relatively brief career as a lawyer, then worked for an equally brief time on the staff of a colonial governor. He then became a director of a publishing company, and published the first of many popular novels. He held a staff appointment during World War I and in 1917 became director of information. After the war he joined the management of an international news wire service, and served as a member of the House of Commons from 1927 - 1935.

During this period, in addition to his continuing output of novels, he wrote a number of histories and biographies, and commentary on public affairs. He was raised to the peerage in 1935 and continued in public life at the highest levels until his death. His final novel was published posthumously. The greater number of his works are still in print. Do you know who he was?

Kael and Bangs seem pretty unimpressive both for knowledge of humane letters and general accomplishment compared to my nominees. What say you?

mtraven said...

If you want to find a modern-day Erasmus or Petrarch who comments intelligently on software, please feel free to mention him here. Otherwise, I'll ask you again to stop filling these pages with irrelevant drivel.

I've done my share of trolling on blogs where I fundamentally disagree with the poster, but I think I've always managed to stay on topic and not veer off into my own obsessions. This is common conversational courtesy.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Of course those interested in the humanities (humane letters) will use software, just as 500 years ago humanists took advantage of the printing press. But it does not seem to me that it will ever be more than a tool to facilitate the objectives of the humanist, in the same way that the printing press was and is.

My point that the original aim of the study of the humanities was not "critique" in the sense you intended, and that indeed the publications of the first humanists were devoid of it, was quite relevant to your post.

There is a minor place for knowledge of printing in the study of humane letters - see for example Ronald McKerrow's excellent "An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students" (Oxford, 1928: Clarendon Press). If humanists eventually find it helpful to study computing and software in like fashion, it would not be surprising to me.

However, if you see the potential for more than that, you have not really made a case for it; and Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs are rather flaccid excuses for humanists, as far as I can see.

If you are going to chide someone for "filling these pages with irrelevant drivel," perhaps you might start with Hal Morris, who lead off this comment section with a attack, which was very tenuously connected to the subject of your post, on remarks I made in another thread, to which they happened to be germane. You can't blame me for responding to him.

Hal Morris said...

When I wrote the comment that started this, saying

'Crawfordmuir's latest screed illustrates dangerous processes going on in our culture that might be addressed by some form of "digital humanities".

If you were as familiar as I am with right wing discourse, you'd recognize a narrative which has been used to demonize everyone to the left of Von Mises. The Frankfurt school was a conspiracy to disguise and propagate Marxism. They created "cultural Marxism", and it is a common slogan among the more pseudointellectual members of the right that "PC is Cultural Marxism".

and suggested an avenue of investigation which was perfectly to the point.

It wasn't an attack -- your dreary foolishness just happened to prompt me to my point.

However, I regret it and in the future will try to act as if you don't exist, in hopes that you will eventually get bored. I'm sorry to Mike for my part in drawing this thing out.

mtraven said...

But it does not seem to me that [software] will ever be more than a tool to facilitate the objectives of the humanist, in the same way that the printing press was and is.

Thank you for a reasonably relevant comment.

The point of this meeting was that software can be an object of study for the humanist, as well as a tool.

It's also a pretty well accepted truth that media exerts a very powerful force on what can be thought and communicated, and thus on all other cultural institutions. There are well-known humanists who have studied this: Ong (orality -> literacy) Eisenstein (-> print) and McLuhan (-> electronic media). Computers and the Internet constitute a similarly epochal transformation and deserves to be studied as such (whether the methods of the humanities are well suited to it is another issue, but at least they are raising the issue.

mtraven said...

But it does not seem to me that [software] will ever be more than a tool to facilitate the objectives of the humanist, in the same way that the printing press was and is.

Thank you for a reasonably relevant comment.

The point of this meeting was that software can be an object of study for the humanist, as well as a tool.

It's also a pretty well accepted truth that media exerts a very powerful force on what can be thought and communicated, and thus on all other cultural institutions. There are well-known humanists who have studied this: Ong (orality -> literacy) Eisenstein (-> print) and McLuhan (-> electronic media). Computers and the Internet constitute a similarly epochal transformation and deserves to be studied as such (whether the methods of the humanities are well suited to it is another issue, but at least they are raising the issue.

Crawfurdmuir said...

To call someone's writing a "screed" and to say that it illustrates "dangerous processes going on in our culture" amounts to an attack, whatever words you use to deny it.

The two articles linked below seem to me to be perhaps a better example of dangerous processes going on, and relates to the cultural influence of software:

http://dailycaller.com/2014/07/01/facebook-updated-user-agreement-with-research-months-after-emotion-experiment/

http://dailycaller.com/2014/07/02/facebooks-emotion-manipulation-linked-to-dod-research-on-civil-unrest/

The first article describes how "Adam Kramer, a data scientist for Facebook, ran the 'emotion manipulation' study on 689,003 Facebook users to test whether or not emotions were contagious on the social media platform over the course of a week in January 2012."

The second article indicates that "The recently published study detailing the experiment explains how Kramer and two other researchers from the University of California and Cornell were able to successfully alter users’ moods positively or negatively by curating the content in their News Feeds to highlight uplifting or depressing content."

I would not call this an exercise in humane letters, but rather in mass psychology. However, I had earlier mentioned the efforts of Renaissance humanists to manipulate the emotions through what at least they imagined was a re-creation of ancient Greek musical practice, with all the magical effects attributed to it by Plato, Aristotle, and Iamblichus.

So - in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, learned men consciously sought to alter an audience's emotional state through subtle and artfully composed music; their counterparts in the present seek with equally serious intent to alter it through the subtle and artful use of a digital medium. I am not sure this constitutes an improvement.

mtraven said...

Yes, there are plenty of people studying the internet from using methods of quantitative sociology (network analysis, etc). Including Facebook. Interesting stuff, but this workshop was on a slightly different tack – more like “humane letters”. I don՚t know or much care if this is “an improvement” over renaissance scholarship; that is your obsession. We live in the world we live in.

Crawfurdmuir said...

Yes, we live in the world we do - one that seems to have passed from barbarism to decadence with few to mourn the fleeting passage of civilization.

Here's another interesting piece of information about the effects of software on society:

http://www.breitbart.com/Breitbart-California/2014/07/02/STD-Infection-Rates-Surge-in-California-Due-to-Social-Media

Excerpts:

'Social media expert Thomas Dodson, who spoke with KCRA, told a reporter that he held several focus groups in which he noted the rise of sexual activity spawned by social media itself.
 
'Dodson cited contributing factors such as "constant connectivity" (apps such as Tinder and Grindr come to mind), "the pictures that they are sharing" (sexting has recently been on the rise, even in the popular app Instagram), and "access to the worldwide web that they [people] have."

'Gonorrhea and syphilis rates have shot up by 13% and 18%, respectively, between 2012-2013, according to a report by the California Department of Health.... 

'KCRA 3 reports that a recent study by the LGBT center said, "Men who use smart apps such as Grindr are 25% more likely to be affected with gonorrhea and 37% with chlamydia."'

Our popular culture is fast becoming a culture only in the sense of what can be found in a Petri dish.