This page contains links to a series of recordings and resources we use in my course Media Platforms at the University of Queensland.
How did media learn to experiment with reality?
Let's start with some historical observations that reach back through the 19th and 20th century, a period where media technologies developed that could store, transmit, process and eventually, experiment with, reality.
In the first part of the 21st century at least one of our tasks is to think about media platforms’ experiments with reality, lived experience and living bodies.
What do media technologies and platforms do? They have symbolic and calculative functions. They create symbols like images, sounds, and narratives that convey the meanings out of which shared ways of life are constructed. And, they calculate by collecting, storing, and processing information.
Think of the present moment. Our bodies permanently tethered to, and integrated with, digital devices like smartphones. These devices convert human experience into data. They store, they calculate, they predict as much as they represent. Our imagination is entangled with the data-driven, algorithmic, flows of images, sounds and texts streaming via their screens. This genealogy of this kind of human experience can be traced back, at least, to the mid-nineteenth century.
Cybernetics comes from the Greek word 'cyber', which means to steer. Inspired by the development of technologies that could sense, record, process information and execute decisions during World War II, a range of engineers, scientists and thinkers began to imagine machines that could 'think'.
Here is Schmitt in 1918, looking at the typewriter. He sees in the typewriter the beginning of a civilisation where everyday life is extensively recorded. In 1918, Schmitt sees not just the smartphone, the wearable, the social media platform but also the kind of personhood and society that would go along with it.
Next up, let's define platforms.
Surface. Stage. Something upon which other things happen: performances, software, rocket launches. A plan. A scheme. A set of ideas. A machine. Infrastructure. Platforms facilitate and enable. They shape and intervene.
Data. Metadata. Algorithm. Protocol. Interface. Default. Jose van Dijck's definition of media platforms: 'providers of software, (sometimes) hardware, and services that help code social activities into a computational architecture; they process (meta)data through algorithms and formatted protocols before presenting their interpreted logic in the form of user-friendly interfaces with default settings that reflect the platform owner’s strategic choices'.
The development and training of an algorithmic media infrastructure depends on continuous experimentation with users. Public communication on social media routinely doubles as participation in experiments with our feelings, bodies, and public culture.
Platforms depend on sensors. Sensors convert lived experience into digital data. Everyday objects - watches, televisions, cars, fridges, kettles, air conditioners, home stereos, pets - are getting connected to the internet. They sense information about, respond to and shape our living environments.
Through here, we will examine some of the key processes that animate media platforms.
Surveillance is the purposeful observation, collection and analysis of information.Simulation is the process of using data to model, augment, profile, predict or clone. Simulations require data and that data is produced via technologies of surveillance.
A representation depicts or denotes an object or event existing in the material world. A simulation can be experienced as if it is real, even when there is no corresponding thing the sign refers to in the ‘real world’ or outside of the simulation itself.
Simulation. Infoglut. Hyperreality. The capacity of digital media to collect and process data dramatically deepens the cultural logic of simulation Simulation is a cultural condition in which we set about making reality conform with our predictions.
What is an algorithm? What is algorithmic culture? What is machine learning? What is deep learning? To understand algorithmic culture we need to develop an account of the differences and relations between human and machine judgment.
Augmented reality – as envisioned by Facebook, Google and Snapchat – is the engineering effort to take the forms of algorithmic culture currently confined to the feeds of our smartphones and transpose them into the real world
Drones are diffused throughout our society: collecting information and generating forms of classification, prediction, discrimination and intervention in populations. Drones extend the reach of the senses, automate sense-making and enact the fantasy of automatic control from afar.
Our bodies increasingly host devices that translate life into data. This process is at the heart of technocultural capitalism. If we look carefully we can discern in many Silicon Valley investments the effort to engineer away the friction between living bodies and the capacity of platforms to translate life into data.
The figure of the cyborg serves as a tool for imagining and critiquing the integration of life into digital processors. To invoke the cyborg is to critically consider the dreams and nightmares of a world where the human body cannot be disentangled from the machines it has created.
Branding has always been the strategic effort to use media to organise the open-ended nature of lived experience. Over the past several decades brands have been the primary investors in the engineering of new media technologies. Marketers are not just producers of symbolic persuasion: they are engineers of lived experience.
The questions that now press upon us are now ‘are digital media platforms democratic?’ but rather ‘how should we make these platforms democratic?’ and ‘how might we move democracy beyond the platform architecture?’
We live in techno-cultural habitats. Tethered via smartphones to digital networks, databases and their algorithmic power. Our lives, bodies and expressions becoming increasingly sensible to machines. Platforms like Google and Facebook are increasingly a kind of infrastructural underlay for private life and public culture.