Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Reading Notes: Class Meeting 3/18/14

Perception and Reality:
"We create the world that we perceive...because we select and edit the reality we see to conform to our beliefs about what sort of world we live in" (Engel qtd. in Bateson vii).
Mark Engel wrote the quote above in the introduction to Bateson's book and identified this as the "central theme" of the text. This question of perception is seemingly central to all of the readings this week about affordances and manifests in several ways: understanding differences (Bateson), understanding usefulness (Norman), and understanding behavior (Gibson).

First though, I want to make a connection to something I have been using in the classroom this semester. My first year composition students are working with the theme of identity, and we are exploring ways in which identity is formed and influenced. One component of our class is the interaction between media and identity. Each week I post some digital content to add to our class discussions; the TED Talk below is something we have used. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and developer of the web aggregate Upworthy, speaks here about the restricted connections we make online despite the vast array of possible connections. He argues that even though the web would theoretically allow us to interact with people from across the globe, we tend to only build connections to those we are already geographically close to and to those with whom we share common interests or characteristics. Basically, we interact with people we already know and who are a lot like us. Our networks exist inherently in a bubble and we actively filter out the unknown or dissimilar; we "edit the reality we see to conform to our beliefs." The quote above and the way the different authors speak about perception reminds me of Pariser's observation. Our reality, our connections, is individually determined and is based on how we perceive and see the world. For networks, this suggests that our connections are highly mediated by our choices, and we have far greater control over our relationships than previously assumed.

Bateson argues in his chapter "Form, Substance, and Difference" that perception is necessary to understand how one thing is fundamentally different from another. He explains that difference exists in the "fancy piece of computing machinery" in his head (459). There can be physical differences between wood and paper, he argues, but we can only understand these physical differences through perception. Difference is an "abstract matter" (459). The concept requires the application of mental processes in order to be given the meaning of different, not the same as the other. This idea seems especially relevant to my understanding of network theory as being the studying of objects situated in a space with various connections among them. Again, like Pariser, this highlights the role of the observer in studying a particular network. The differences between nodes and the different types of connections is reliant upon the observer's perception and his or her ability to conceptualize things as different. Rather than the meaning of a network being inherently a part of the object, the meaning is in the processes of our minds. This shift in the location of meaning seems important.

Gibson also broaches the topic of perception with similar results. He writes, "The behavior of observers depends on their perception of the environment" (128). Here, rather than constructing a sense of difference, Gibson argues that perception influences behavior. Between the two, perception is a key element in both thoughts and deed, theory and praxis. We behave according to how we understand the environment. If we perceive our environment to have scarce resources, we conserve them and vice-versa. It is interesting because as I continue to engage with critical making in the digital humanities, I find myself driven by the perception that the ability to create digital content will become an increasingly more important area of our discipline. I perceive there to be a dearth of scholarship on alternative media publications, so I am driven to preserve and propagate examples from it. Does a network also grow or shrink based on perceptions? Are network action driven by the perceived environment? Whose perceptions shape a network? (These questions could be interesting to explore in a future case study...)

Lastly, Norman also manages to arrive at a conclusion about perception. He explores the idea that there are both "real" and "perceived" affordances. This is the idea that an object will have certain affordances - actions it allows to be performed based on its characteristics - but that the user may or not perceive them to be meaningful. He uses the example of the touch screen. He points out that all screens have the affordance of touch; we can physically touch a screen surface. However, we only perceive screen touching to be meaningful if that touch produces an action like opening an app or typing a message. Although coming at perception through the lens of usability, Norman also arrives at this conclusion - perhaps only implied - that meaning requires perception. If we do not perceive something it contains no validity or purpose. I think this notion that the theory of affordances continually requires perception in order to have meaning, action, or usefulness makes a critical assumption that all knowledge is user-constructed. The effects of this are that knowledge then is highly mutable from person to person (like Reader-Response) and is highly relative. Objects themselves have no force; they are only as significant as we perceive them to be. A network is only as meaningful, actionable, or useful as we understand it to be.

Affordances and Boundaries:

Gibson addresses how thinking in terms of affordances frees us into seeing objects in a multitude of ways, which reminds me of Popham in Genre Theory with her discussion of boundary objects. Gibson explains that thinking in terms of an object's affordances allows for greater fluidity in understanding it. Rather than thinking of something rigidly in terms of a classification system, we can understand how an object is used or could possibly be used. He notes that classification systems ( like giving Latin names to biological objects) often make no reference to what the objects can do or how they can be used; the names are arbitrary (134). Then these labels force us into thinking about that object as only belonging to that one place in the system. However, if we think in terms of affordances, the object can belong to many different categories of thought. For example, as I sit here in my living room, I see a small stool. It has the affordance of being something to stand on to reach a height, to be sat on, or to be used as a place to set a bowl of smashed avocados for a six month old baby girl. I use it for all these things regularly; it has the same affordances as a ladder, chair, and table respectively. This seems to be something akin to boundary objects. It is the idea that there are objects that can exist in more than one sphere and be used in more than one way.

Affordances allow objects to cross rigid boundaries based on how they can be used.
Stool image posted by Pixabay
Step ladder image posted by Wikipedia CommonsTable image posted by Wikipedia Commons

Networks and Ethics:

This section of the reading notes has been weighing heavily on my mind since finishing the readings. It begins with Bateson's explorations of what he terms "immanence," or the idea that everything is interconnected and intertwined. There is no separation between objects; we are all one (467). Now, for me, from a perspective of having studied the counterculture movement, these realizations of universal oneness are not unfamiliar. Written in 1971, Bateson admits that these sentiments occurred to him while "under LSD", not an uncommon practice among academics in this time (467). It is also not uncommon that there are strong similarities between these ideas and Eastern philosophy, with many thinkers and artists finding spiritual guidance from Buddhist gurus as a result of their experiences. The similarities between Bateson and Buddhist philosophy are evident whether he studied the religion or not. It can be argued that among academics involved with experimentation, these ideas were part of the zeitgeist and would have been familiar.

Cover of Be Here Now, a book of illustrations and philosophy written by Ram Dass. Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert, and he was a professor at Harvard in the 1960s where he experiemented with hallucigenics along with Timoty Leary. He embarked on a spiritual journey to India and found his mentor Neem Karoli Baba. This book was written in 1971 and has come to symbolize the segment of the counterculture movement that discovered and practiced Eastern spiritualism.
From his belief in immanence, he is humbled and rejects the ego - a basic tenet of Buddhist thinking. Bateson argues that we must "reduce the scope of the conscious self" (467). It is not about us as individuals, but what is important is the collective to which we belong. A reduction of the conscious self, the individual, is necessary to living with a utilitarianist ethical view. He writes, "A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part - if you will - of God" (467-8). It is this being a part of something bigger that seems to inspire his sense of being responsible for the environment and people to whom we are linked.

What has me thinking though is that Bateson is arguing for an ethical perspective: take care on the Earth and one another because we are all one. We survive or die together. I do not think that prior to this I had thought about the ethical ramifications of a network. We have talked about action and activism, but this is the idea that there is a moral imperative to care for the nodes to which we are linked in this great field of dispersion.

What ethical questions are inherent in networks? I am thinking of the digital divide, net neutrality, and privacy immediately. I think it would be a place where my scholarly interests would be most piqued. It a systems of connections, what responsibility do objects have to one another? How closely linked must nodes be before the demise of one would mean the demise of the other? For a network to become sustainable, do its participants have to reduce their individualistic goals for the greater good?

Affordances and Patterns:

Bateson and Gibson suggest the importance of patterns rather than individual objects. Bateson argues that we need "inquiry into pattern rather inquiry into substance" (455). Gibson discusses the "niche", or how something lives and uniquely occupies space, as a "set of affordances" (128). It suggests that the individual object is not as important as how it fits into a pattern of use or behavior. This reminds me of Bazerman and his systems of activity. The emphasis is on a collection of social facts, utterances, genres, genre sets, and so on. Foucault also argues that we should examine the rules of formation, the structures that govern how an object is brought into being, its restrictions and common traits. All together, the network discussion is continually brought upward toward a macroscopic view of how objects are situated in the field and how they relate to other objects.

Studying any individual design, like the bird or heart in the above curtain fabric, would not reveal its full significance as a part of the overall pattern. Examining the object is less important than examining the pattern.
Image by Karl-Ludwig G. Poggemann posted on Flickr

Privacy and Connection:

The other day while driving, we passed a car with the words "Obama Lies, Snowden is a Hero" painted on its windshield. My seven year old son knows Obama is the President, but asked me who Snowden is. I did my best to explain the situation to him in a way he would understand and wound up saying that some people thought that the secrets he knew should not be told and other people thought he should have told them. Johnnie asked me what I thought, and I had a very hard time answering.

All of this is to say that issues of privacy are now and will continue to be significant in our ever-more connected world. Gibson alludes to the difficulty of maintaining privacy and anonymity in a network with his discussion of "ambient optic array", which is the idea that an observer is revealed at some points and concealed in others. It suggests that in a network, participants can only ever be partially hidden. There is no place from which we are completely hidden; there will always be some vantage point that reveals our presence. To be connected is to be at least partially exposed. The current data and privacy concerns represented by the Snowden case are impossible to eradicate according to Gibson. If we want to walk through the forest of digital connectivity, somebody, somewhere will be able to see us.

Survival and Change:

Bateson argues that heterogeneity is necessary for survival, and that "potentiality and readiness for change is already built into the survival unit" (457). He continues, "The artificially homogenized populations...are scarcely fit for survival" (457). In other words, in a world where everything is the same, survival is unlikely. Diversity is necessary for life. We must welcome change if we wish to maintain our continuance. Aside from everything about that being wonderfully in tune with my general Kumbaya approach to the world, it also seems to have significance to our understanding of networks.

Networks tend to grow in new directions when a change is made, when some new functionality is needed or a group adapts the technology for a different purpose than originally intended.

In a way it reminds me of Foucault. He writes about how linear and chronological studies of history provide "privileged shelter" for the mind, but that in this view "revolutions are never more than moments of consciousness" (12). And he does not advocate this mindset that restricts a revolutionary change a a mere moment. Rather, we should be looking exactly toward these irruptions as opening new and exciting directions and connections for exploration. Bateson's argument here about diversity necessary for ecological survival is just as relevant for any network. Foucault encourages us to seek the revolutionary moments and not ignore them as temporary anomalies. Survival and moments of the new are inextricable and crucial to networks.

Norman and Resistance to Change:

Given my conclusion above, I found it interesting that Norman seemed to suggest otherwise. He argues that we strongly attach affordances to design elements based on conventions; therefore, if we want a design to have ease of use, we need to follow these conventions (like a scroll bar on the right hand side of the screen). His discussion of the design principles would suggest that change is not necessary for survival, but actually the opposite. If a design is so new and unfamiliar, users will not respond to it and the site will die from lack of use.

So which is it? Do we need change and revolution to open our minds to new and exciting possibilities for growth? Or does change create confusion that leads to disuse and irrelevancy? Can it be both?

Perhaps, as with all things, it is a question of balance. We need change to move us toward new and better technologies, but if it is too sudden, we risk collapse.

Ironically, the Buddha taught the wisdom of the middle way, which brings us back to Bateson's philosophy lesson and perhaps a lovely place to close these notes.

Works Cited:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987. Print.

Gibson, James. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.

Norman, Donald A.. "Affordances and Design."  Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. I'm always impressed by the questions you ask, points you develop, and most importantly, the connections you make to your work and other experiences. Keep up the GREAT and HARD work!