Abstracts – Paper Session 3: technics, interface, infrastructure

Techno-phenomenology, medium as interface, and the metaphysics of change
Shane Denson, Leibniz Universität Hannover

Walter Benjamin famously argued that the emergence of modern media of technical reproducibility (photography, film) corresponded to sweeping changes in the organization of what he calls the “medium” of sense perception. To a skeptic like film scholar David Bordwell, Benjamin’s “modernity thesis” (along with Tom Gunning’s related arguments about the “culture of shock”) is pure hyperbole, for cognitive structures are subject to the slow processes of biological evolution while impervious to rapid technological change. The debate has tended to reach impasses over questions of the causal agencies and effects of media change—e.g. whether they concern the broad cultural domain of discourse and signification or the “hard-wiring” of the brain itself. In this presentation, I argue that a “techno-phenomenological” approach—which (following cues from Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Don Ihde, among others) focuses on the embodied interfaces in which human intentionalities are variously mediated by technologies—enables us to see media change as involving experiential transformations that are at once robustly material, and hence not restricted to cultural or psycho-semiotic domains, while still compatible with the long durations of biological evolution. An “anthropotechnical interface,” based in proprioceptive and visceral sensibilities, will be shown to constitute the primary site of media change.

Resolutions of sense: interfaces, mediation and phenomenology
James Ash, Northumbria University

Drawing upon work from Object Orientated Ontology (OOO) and phenomenology, this paper develops the concept of resolution to think through the relationship between interfaces and bodies. Here, resolution refers to an objects particular mode of appearance. Rather than lumps of matter, the concept of resolution opens up ways to consider interfaces as shifting between various states as they encounter and are manipulated by other entities. The paper theorises these shifts in resolution through the concept of density and points to how different densities of resolution affect, enable and encourage particular practices of use. Unpacking examples from smart phone interfaces and videogames, the paper argues that the concept of resolution provides an expanded vocabulary for understanding how media shape and alter human capacities for sense.

Interface and intervention: The limits of agency in algorithmic infrastructure
Daniel Knapp and Sebastian Kubitschko, Goldsmiths, University of London

A paradox of perception is inherent in everyday mediated experience. In contemporary societies, media-related practices are omnipresent. These are mostly sensory practices, occurring on the level of the user interface. Although they entail novel and multifarious ways of communication, they allude to the longstanding dominance of the historico-cultural artefact of sight as the preferential mode of engaging with the world. At the same time, algorithms have emerged as the predominant infrastructure on which the possibility of those practices depends. As sets of generative rules that sort, categorise, evaluate and anticipate human practices, they are far from neutral. Instead of merely mediating reality, they are instrumental in its construction. Yet, residing in computer code, algorithmic infrastructures are categorically removed from human perception. Consequently, everyday practices are contingent on imperceptible, but performative foundations. Unlike conventional infrastructures – roads, pipes, cables or tubes – which form part of the taken-for-granted everyday unconscious, individual actors are unable to reify them at will and intervene in their rules and processes. Phenomenology as the structuring of perception offers a critical prism to explore a new arena for political struggle along the faultlines of visual practice and algorithmic infrastructure.

Piracy, medial wills to power, and intellectual property’s (im)possibilities
Daniel Sutko, North Carolina State University

Intellectual property (IP) reifies distinctions between technology, biology, and culture to enroll “humans” as conditioners or governors of mediation. For example, with a “swipe to unlock” patent, Apple governs both an idea and one haptic possibility for media, and invention becomes control. It is recognized that technologies exceed design and we cannot imagine all possible affordances. These excessive connections both qualitatively exceed constraints (are a multiplicity; connecting with unexpected bio-techno-cultural formations) and are quantitatively excessive (multiple). Using historical and contemporary examples, I show how piracy—from boats to broadcast to broadband to bits—materially manifests media’s excessive conditions of possibility and the conditions for governing media-technologies. Drawing on media theory, poststructuralist technology studies, and the material turn in communication studies, I argue that IP and digital rights management organize and limit medial wills but never fully capture the radical autonomy of technological culture: there are always secretions, escapes, and surprises. This paper offers IP as an important site of intervention for critical media scholars and contends that the stakes of IP far exceed unequal property relations and freedom of speech.

Memory programmes: the retention of mediated life
Sam Kinsley, University of Exeter

Through the work of Bernard Stiegler, this paper argues that, in software, we have created semi-autonomous systems of memory that influence how we think about and experience life as such. This paper addresses the role of mediated memory in collective life as a (post)phenomenological concern through the lens of ‘programmes’. Programming can mean ordering, and thus making discrete; and scheduling, making actions routine. This paper addresses how programming mediates the experience of memory via networked technologies. Materially recording knowledge, as Stiegler argues (critically engaging with Husserl), even as electronic data, renders thought mentally and spatially discrete and demands systems to order it. Recorded knowledge also enables the ordering of temporal experience both as forms of history, thus the sharing of culture, and as the means of planning for futures. We increasingly retain information about ourselves and others using digital media. We volunteer further information recorded by electronic service providers, search engines and social media. Many aspects of our lives are gathered and retained in databases, constituting a growing system of memory of parts of life otherwise forgotten or unthought. The software programmes that drive social media thus have significant agency in the various ways that we collectively communicate and remember.

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