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Monday, 25 July 2011 15:35

Betty Martins: Quarantine the past

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Betty Martins. Photo by courtesy of Betty Martins

This "In conversation with..." is a little different; it's with one person, and goes in-depth into a specific project. Betty Martins' Expindigital project is based on virtual ethnography, based on the processes and practices of human memory - remembering and forgetting, in the context of virtual space.

Please introduce your work from your own perspective.

Expindigital started as a research project in practice, and can be articulated in many areas. The website works as a documentation of the processes of the research. The main idea of is to create a space for interaction where we could exercise, through memory practices, the technologies responsible for mediating personal experiences inside the Internet. The objective is to give a critical look towards the Internet's features that are almost invisibly acting in our everyday lives.

Much attention needs to be given to the operations of  structures responsible for our access of information, as they are potential mediators, and as such can be responsible for determining cultural memory.

 

"The conflicts around the future of the World Wide Web involve not only technical questions of programming and software, but also more fundamental political issues." (Caygill).

 

I wanted to research how people act and organise their memories while using the Internet and its corporations/systems, so I could reflect on their potential impacts. I began to think that perhaps we were developing a type of obsession for memory and started to question: "What prompts us to upload, why do we do it, and how does this affect us?" The overall understanding of how memory is exercised in the field of the Internet was very interesting to me, as I had some concerns towards surveillance and the manipulation of memory.

My main intention is to try to trace what and where the mediators of memory are in the network relations of the Internet, and to ascertain how they operate to create meaningful relationships. In this work, I was focusing on technologies as potential mediators of memories, and how they can operate collectively.

I started to work with volunteers; each of them had their own web platform - we were firstly using the now-inactive drop.io. When we develop social research, we need to be careful with the methodologies we apply, and these methods are also reflected by the technologies we approach. I immersed myself into a reflective research on methodologies, and I found it coherent to work in an ethnometodological approach.

 

"It focuses on exploring how the lifeworld emerges as a result of microprocesses in the form of social interactions, which generate the common-sense knowledge of the participants..." (Alvesson & Skoldberg).

 

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I then asked questions to the participants and they would respond in the platform, adding diverse forms of data: photo, text, and video. I used that data for my analyses and for the conclusion of my research. However, I started to understand that the most interesting aspect of the project was inside the network we were creating. This observation was a result of my studies on ethnomethodology, as well as Actor-Network Theory. Although the participants were working on different narratives for each platform, there was a discourse circulating between them all. So, I started to correspond to the network just as the participants were.

The answers were in the network that we were creating. Looking for technologies as being mediators, would help me to analyse them as transformative agents. If I could spot those technologies that were transformative agents, then I would find those with the potential of mediation.

 

Image by courtesy of Betty Martins

 

How is the Internet changing our perception of value in memory – what is worth remembering and what isn't?

We are in recording, saving and sharing mode: statuses, photos, check-ins. I believe that this is a result of a stipulated behaviour: "What are you doing?" "What are you thinking?"; "Share with your friends", combined with the latest advance in technology: mobile phones with an Internet connection, photos/video recording, and sharing applications. I see Facebook as a corporation, and our data becomes commodities; as far as I am aware they don't directly sell our data, but it is the product that maintains the corporation.

From my experience, I could observe that the data is what makes us emotionally attached and the object in the network creates the discourse, therefore giving meaning to the relations that were being built. The features inside the network are also important; those are the ones responsible in giving continuity, acting as externalised functions of memory. So, if you forgot about a friend for a while, 'something' can pop up to remind you (people you may know, subscribe, join this, like this, et al).

Those technologies "mediate" our memory. They mediate because they can transform initial meanings, as they act through different forms of operations in different contexts. Because the data and its circulation provoke an emotional attachment to the network, it ultimately affects our behaviour. That is because "we" become (or at least our representation of "we" in a certain network) the result of the operation of those technologies.

Paul Ricouer in his work on phenomenology of memories inform us about the work of those structures: "Memory can be ideologised through the resources of the variations offered by the work of narrative configuration... it is more precisely, the selective function of the narrative that opens to manipulation the opportunity and the means of a clever strategy, consisting from the outset in a strategy of forgetting as much as in a strategy of remembering." (Ricoeur). Those structures are the ones in which cultural memory is determined, as are the active links that connects the past and the present and, as such can be thought of as the architects of ideology.

 

Does the ubiquity of data change or affect our value judgments, and if so, how?

All memory mediation structures which are responsible for the representations of our world should affect us culturally. I believe that ubiquity of data is a product of those structures, as a result of the operations of those technologies responsible for mediating memories. They should affect our judgements, because they end up affecting the meaning of the data; this is why I think there is a problem in analysing social data. The agency most influential is not the ubiquity of data, but its networked form.

The data added into my project are related to the practices developed around their memories. Those data are at forms of images, text, audio and video and were fundamental in keeping the discourse inside the network, bringing continuity and building a kind of relationship of intimacy within the entities in this project. If I draw a graphic of the connections between all the objects in this project, it is actually the data (their personal memories) that are the entities in which makes this project's network existence. As an example, drop.io/nervosa [a data store of one of the project's participants] intensively describes her upsetting feelings while she looks at some photos of her past, responding to a request of mine. The representation of a photograph, which was added to drop.io/nervosa...

 

The file 192.JPG has been added to nervosa (http://drop.io/nervosa). You can view it at http://drop.io/nervosa/asset/192.jpg.

 

...evolved in a short text where she describes her feelings. In my personal email account I receive a communication directly from the platform that drop.io/nervosa had added that data:

 

The note a última fotografia has been added to nervosa (http://drop.io/nervosa). You can view it at http://drop.io/nervosa/asset/a-ltima-f-otografia.

 

Through accessing the link added in the email I was directed to drop.io/nervosa, where her entry is private. I entered the password to get connected to the site, where I saw the image and I read the text. By being transported by the platform's agencies through its notifications, this was making the relationship and the network possible.

It was playing the part of those organised structures we have known in the studies in phenomenology of memories. They are the responsible entities for making something to be remembered: purely through its connective quality. However it was the direct contact with the personal data, which constructed and brought continuity to a relationship of subjective intimacy; hence it is the entity responsible for mediating with another important agency of this project: the intention. Everything is and gets linked with the photographs, the texts, videos and audios. It is where the network, in terms of its most abstract objects of existence, is creating the different routes playing different roles inside the project's network, and its outside connections.

The data are actors' kinds of entities. They are transported from the personal archive where they have a forgotten status, back to existence through the project's mediating agencies. So, the project can be understood to be constructing an art of memory, as to be the responsible body in organising memory through technologies. The platform gave these data multiple meanings by existing along in their networked forms of remembrance. When added in the platform, the data becomes subjective to so many structures that the meaning becomes plural, offering through the data different forms of experiences through the complex act of remembrance.

The act of remembering is powerful and plays with important elements inside one's identity and its relationship with what is real. To remember, when is not an unconscious activity, is a result of memory being exercised (Ricoeur). This is where it lays those concerns upon ideology, through the products of historical operations. "It is discourse that produces the self, a discourse hypostatized as an autonomous historical agent ... The text is substituted for the world, rendered into an object in its own rights, and severed from a reality which it no longer describes but constructs." (Cubitt). This therefore confirms what we have seen before with the function of narratives and the technologies of memories regarding archiving and selecting what to remember and what to forget. "...then we have to ask whether the data-image is not at all a reduction of the full, a "real" self to "mere" writing, but the constitution of a new, statistical and distributed self, a deconstructed, fully textual, rewritable file. Is this rewrite then a facility a door to freedom, or one which, in the malleable form of electronic records, makes us more manipulable and so more predictable?" (Cubitt).

 

Image by courtesy of Betty Martins

 

Dropio/nervosa was remembering events that were painful to her, and this was due to the networked meaning that the project was creating, inducing her to a "strategic remembering" (Landsberg). A complex process originated between myself and the intention, her data from a personal archive, but most importantly the mediating agencies, the technology. They were motivating her by giving the support, domain, and forms of communication to do so, creating a networked form of memory, to which existence is then triggered.

The remembrance is then subjected by external forms of connections and if "they need to be safe from memory: they need to forget and need others to forget, too" (Allen). There is great interest towards this switch of authority and control in terms of one's identities and memory construction, perhaps a more concerned view on the organisation of the narratives of the structures of memories. "Networks make more salient the possibility of changing the meaning of an element by changing its relations" (Philoweb). We are not only who we are, as in our human body and mind, but we are part of this "operation" of belonging inside a specific network.

But, we cannot oversee that by being a part of this 'operation'; we are also mediating agencies, and this is represented through the data - the personal memory codified - that was being added inside the project's experiences. What is important to understand about the Internet, is that in that space, the organisations responsible for these mediations are diverse, and can be easily corrupted. I think this works as a strategy for decentralising any type of authoritarian discourse over data. It is hard to judge data once it becomes relational; that is why I think that digital traces are fragile.

 

If we effectively cannot stop producing data (photos, status updates, checkins), then what is the effect in terms of the capitalist system and the production of capital?

From my perspective, I could observe that data is the product of a relationship of affection, of feeling emotionally attached to a technique, a system. We add data because we like to, because it feels good, we find there is a meaning to it. If we cannot stop producing data then it means that the network is working, that there is a strong attachment to it, and therefore making the network more valuable in terms of consumerism – it's more trustworthy. This can be complicated as well if we start to discuss around issues of manipulation of memory, which is an issue that I was most concerned about when starting my research.

The data that we circulate in the Internet are representations of ourselves. Thus, the data, meaning individual's personal memories, are playing an important role inside the network. It is basically what connects all the objects in this analysis, as well as the one who influences directly each of those objects, or at least acts more visibly. It is the element that motivates our behaviour, by making us emotionally attached to the transporting agencies, initiating and maintaining the discursive processes within the participants' experiences and throughout the overall events.

Facebook, as an example, would not be a success if it weren't for the personal profiles, the photo albums which get the attention of people by its publicising and sharing qualities. The simple act of posting a photo and writing about it requires the activation and connection of so many agencies of memory, that the data becomes intrinsically valuable for the personal, for the one who posted as well as for the one who sees it:

 

"They become memories that are not built on first-hand experiences but still have powerful emotional effects" (Garde-Hansen 2009:11).

 

How do we put in more than we give back?

In my opinion, sharing is the greatest strategy of the network; it is the strategy against surveillance and data control. Once we share data, we make it become relational that we have to accept its fragility, in terms of its interpretation. The problem is to judge data without taking into account how subjective it becomes inside the network: time, context, different narratives.

For example, inside a certain platform I might act a certain way, and people will receive me in a certain manner. It all depends in the narrative that the data is subjected to, the way the data is organised, and if you share that data then you are subjecting what you owned to others to own it too in a certain way.

I used Paul Ricoeur's approach to ethics in order to find a negotiation between the problems of losing control over personal information, with the social act of sharing. He realises the power of the narrative towards how things are represented. The ethical approach of oneself while 'acting and suffering' is a realisation that one is constructed through the relations of the other, and as such the knowledge of that other is only obtained through those forms of relationships. "...one does not speak here of 'character' but of actant, in order to subordinate the anthropomorphic representation of the agent to the position of the operator of actions along the narrative course." (Ricoeur). It is at the level of trust and intimacy that one is able to act and suffer in sympathy of the other, and by it all represents, hence the relationship of giving and receiving, which is that of sharing; a so-called quality of the Internet, and yet the one sociologists seem to be concerned with.

At first, I was suspicious and was concerned about how much personal information we can lose control of, and how this can be dangerous. I understood that the more open we act towards data, in the acting and suffering manner, the more data circulates in the network and more subjective it becomes: like trying to get something that doesn't stay still. Perhaps this is more empowering than socially dangerous.

 

Image by courtesy of Betty Martins

 

How much of your work in network analysis is about attention - gaining attention through interesting and stimulating content?

It is not, but I can sense that the mediating technologies are very important. Data is important but you need to be able to circulate and to keep the discourse strong. If you want to maintain a network receiving people's attention, I believe that you need to work in the level of intimacy, creating data content and providing technologies to bring continuity to it, and that is accepting its networked forms.

In terms of understanding attention in this digital and networked era, I suggest having a look at Katherine Hayles' work on hyper-attention.

I could sense that people I have not even met suddenly starting to trust me. One of the participants even gave me the password of his personal email account, but I believe that this happened because I responded to their narrative. I let myself be mediated as well, and that meant technically that the platform was open to other platforms. So if you want to work with the network (getting attention), you need to work within the network. Openness creates intimacy.

 

Are we seeing a period where the utility value of information is now greater than its emotional value?

From my experience, I believe that the emotional value of information is what is likely to circulate within the network.

 

Does the production of so much information make cultural memory more subjective and less based on shared experiences?

I like Latour's theory on the Principle of Irreduction: nothing is reduced to anything else. "This is what I dubbed the 'principle of irreduction' and such is the philosophical meaning of Actor-Network Theory: a concatenation of mediators does not trace the same connections and does not require the same type of explanations as a retinue of intermediaries transporting a cause." (Latour). So again, it is not the quantity of information that makes it subjective, but its networked form.

I believe that this decentralises any concept or representation of a certain object/data making it less objective (losing control of information is to deconstruct perhaps authoritarian discourses). Perhaps this agency which connects us to information/data also affects our behaviour, the way in which we look at those objects, demystifying the objects - making us to act more globally rather than centralised.

Therefore, I believe that cultural memory is more subjective, but still based on shared experiences. An online event may have the same effects of an offline event. We feel online, we construct identities, narratives, worlds, and we have real experiences. That is why I think Actor-Network Theory is such an appropriate approach, as it helps to build an understanding about something from its basic relations, as we go along to deconstruct old methods and concepts: "Leave hermeneutics aside and go back to the object or rather, the thing" (Latour). Because we do not share physical contact online, it does not mean that what we experience is not real. In fact, I believe that we are sharing more experiences but in a different manner. We are able to act more networked. Sharing and acting collectively is not time-consuming any more; it all depends on a click. And, because there are still relationships being built on a level of intimacy when online, they become real experiences with real effects in the everyday lives of individuals.

 

Bibliography

Alvesson, Mats and Skoldberg, Kaj Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research
Boelstorff, Tom Coming of Age in Second Life
Bowker, Geoffrey C Memory Practices in the Sciences
Cubitt, Sean Digital Aesthetics
Dijck, Jose Van Mediated Memories in the Digital Age
Garde-Hansen, Joanne, Andrew Hoskins and Anna Reading (edited by) Save As: Digital Memories
Garfinkel, Harold Studies in Ethnometodology
Hine, Christine Virtual Ethnograph
Latour, Bruno Science in Action
Lury, Celia Prosthetic Culture: Photography, memory and identity
Papacharissi, Zizi A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites
Ricoeur, Paul Memory, History, Forgetting
Ricoeur, Paul Oneself as Another
Caygill, Howard Meno and the Internet: between memory and the archive

 

Website references

Allen, Anita L. Dredging-up the Past: Lifelogging, Memory and Surveillance University of Pennsylvania Law School
Dodge, Martin and Kitchin, Rob The ethics of Forgetting in an Age of Pervasive Computing Casa working Paper Series
Latour, Bruno Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist Bruno Latour 19/02/10
Manovich, Lev Trending: The Promises and the Challenges of Big Social Data Lev Manovich 23/04/11
Monnin, Alexander Web and Philosophy Philoweb
O'Hara, Kieron; Mischa M. Tuffield & Nigel Schadbolt Lifelogging: Privacy and empowerment with Memories for Life Identity in the Information Society 1, no. 2

 

Betty Martins' website provides further information on her projects; she is @bettymartins on Twitter.

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