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Materiality, Community Space, and Produsage

I'm the last presenter in this post-lunch session on the second day of PerthDAC - so I'll blog the first two papers and will try to record mine; the full paper is also available here, and the Powerpoint here. We start, though, with a paper by Kenneth Knoespel and Jichen Zhu which Jichen will present. She posits this paper as a critique of the Cartesian dualism; the overly simplified mind/body split really isn't sufficient any more to discuss materiality and the relationship between natural language, computer code, and the material world. Computer codes are often given a role that transcends the material world - cyberspace is placed as an opportunity for escape from the material world, and this conforms with the Cartesian mind/body dualism. This is visible for example in William Gibson's work, or in The Matrix, but is also at the root of the field of artificial intelligence, Saussurean linguistics, informatics, and other areas. The same is true also often for the aesthetics of computer art, which are rooted in a romantic notion of immateriality where the concept is more important than the physical artefact.

At the same time, the situation is sometimes more complex, and many artists also examine situations where the Cartesian dualism falls apart. Taken to its extreme, the entire universe is seen as a huge Turing machine in which materiality no longer matters; digital materiality can transcend the boundary between hardware and software. AI terms themselves are often simultaneously vague and formal, and depend on AI researchers' understanding of their terms. AI machines consist of both the code machine and the rhetoric machine. Similarly, literary theory recognises that the physical materiality of a text also affects meaning-making, and consists of an interaction of physical reality and human intention. On a much more mundane level, our everyday reality is similarly governed by a range of layers of code, which enable us to decode materiality and develop a more in-depth understanding. Diagrams also act as agents in this process of negotiation; they are an important mark in the genealogy of sign systems, a vehicle registering a process of becoming. This, then, also points to the existence of a hierarchy of codes, but that hierarchy is not necessarily fixed and rigid - patterns of structure exist in codes but can be reconfigured. Diagrams can be studied to examine the relationship between codes and materiality; diagrams and codes are both rule-bound and rule-breaking - they follow existing rules while at the same time exploring new opportunities. Overall, then, well beyond the realm of digital media, there is a sense of continuous materiality which spans across these layers of code and physical materiality - how may this be further explored through digital media?

Mark McGuire is next, with a paper on virtual communities and podcasting. He notes the tension between commercial and social worlds in the online context, here especially in relation to podcasting; the first decade of CMC-based social interaction up to about 1995 was a very optimistic time exploring the possibilities of the emergence of Netizens through BBSes and other networked textual environments which soon evolved into virtual communities. The WELL is the iconic example for this kind of view, but was increasingly conflicted by a tension between commercial and social goals, especially after the purchase of the WELL by Amsterdam's Digital City (DDS) was a similar example of a grassroots project, but due to persistent difficulties in attracting consistent funding it eventually moved to a commercial model which transformed into a commercial Internet provider, thereby undermining its ability to remain a social force. Further examples are New York's Echo space, Blacksburg's Electronic Village, and various others.

Such projects link to Habermas's concept of the public sphere with its origins in salons and coffeehouses as a place of public conversation, which gradually transformed into commercially operated spaces and thereby lost their real public functions in all but appearance. The Internet, on the other hand, does retain the possibility of active public participation, and retains the ability to support a kind of distributed public sphere - a public of publics - but this is also under threat from transnational institutions, and persistent commercial exploitation of online environments. From a corporate perspective, the question is often who will own the customer and their data trails as they move through the network, and many new spaces are actively exploring such questions within explicitly commercial frameworks. (Amazon is an obvious example here.) Such spaces often limit any feeling of belonging to a shared community, however. eBay also embodies such approaches, and in its advertising explicitly highlights its community aspects.

Much of this is also addressed in the Web 2.0 idea, which at least in part is also importantly a business strategy aimed at developing new commercial models building on collective intelligence. Such sites leverage the intelligence and activities of large numbers of users, and invent new ways of exploiting such communities. Podcasting provides a recent example for such tendencies: a blog-style phenomenon of user-generated content which exists at least in part in a networked format which sees podcasts respond to and interact with one another, but which has now also been gradually taken over or drowned out by commercial operators and a raft of existing broadcasters now offering pod- and vodcasts. As this region of the podosphere extended, it soon began to resemble conventional media spaces, and such commercial podcasts were also much better able to attract large numbers of listeners than their grassroots counterparts. There are now a number of commercial podcast services which have emerged to support such phenomena, and advertising models are also increasingly feasible in podcasting. Further, Apple's iTunes began including a podcast subscription and download feature and thereby further mainstreamed podcasting, but it also began to further commercialise podcasting by highlighting corporate offerings. The lack of public ownership and public institutions may here once again undermine the independence of the podcast-based public sphere, and leave it open to cooption by private interests.

And then it was my turn, and I think the presentation went pretty well. Here are the paper and the Powerpoint, and I hope to have the audio from the presentation online soon, too...

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