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This was originally posted at my blog Cyborgology – click here to view the original post and to read/write comments.


In the 36 hours since the Occupy Wall Street raid removed protest infrastructure from Zuccotti Park, much of the conflict strikes me as the tension between the informational (the symbolic; media; ideas) and the material (physical; geographic). It runs through how New York City carried its actions out (at night, blocking journalists), the ensuing legal fight (does occupying physical space count as speech?) as well as the new strategic challenges facing an Occupy movement where camping is decreasingly an option.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that much of my work lies at the intersection of (1) information, media, technology, the online and (2) materiality, bodies and offline physical space. At this intersection, our reality is an “augmented” one. Part of the success of Occupy (and other recent protest movements) has been the awareness of just this point: by uniting media and information with the importance of flesh-and-blood bodies existing in physical space, our global atmosphere of dissent is increasingly one of an augmented revolution. Indeed, these are not protests centered online, as Jeff Jarvis tweeted this morning, or Zuccotti park, but in the augmented reality where the two intersect.

And this intersection of the power of the image and the power of the material dramatically came to a head about 36 hours ago as I write. In the early morning of November 15th, the two-month long occupation of Zuccotti Park was eliminated by the City of New York. Read More »


This was originally posted at my blog Cyborgology – click here to view the original post and to read/write comments.

I spoke at the wonderful “Digital Ethnography Weekend” conference last month in Italy. There, I furthered my argument about what I call “digital dualism,” the fallacy that views the on and offline as separate spheres as opposed to my support of an “augmented reality” paradigm that views these spheres as always enmeshed and dialectically co-determining.

Because this was a “digital ethnography” conference, I applied the augmented reality framework to this methodology and argued that, instead, we should be doing “augmented ethnography”, an ethnography that takes as its unit of analysis a reality comprised of atoms as well as bits, always dialectically co-determining. Colleague Alessandro Caliandro and I debated these ideas in the question-and-answer portion of my talk (with much-appreciated thoughts from Adam Arvidsson, as well). Caliandro has posted his summary of my talk as well as his criticism here. I welcome this criticism and want to respond to it below.

First, Caliandro’s development of my argument is charitable. I also very much appreciate the thoughtfulness of the critique. However, I do need to make a correction to the way he summarized augmented reality, and this correction will be important for my response to the criticism. I do not think that the differences between the physical and digital are “irrelevant”; indeed, they are quite important and I’ve written about them before (e.g., here and here). Atoms and bits have very different properties (for instance, atoms tend to be scarce and bits more abundant). It is my contention that these very different spheres come together to form our augmented reality. In fact, as I argue here, it is only under the assumption of augmented reality that we can fully explicate the relevant differences between the physical and digital. With this correction in mind, let’s move forward. Read More »

David Carr recently wrote a piece in the New York Times where he states,

Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude.

Has it?

The article is about how people are increasingly gazing into little glowing screens when in physical space. Carr views this as a “mass thumb-wrestling competition” where we are “desperately” staring at devices instead of making “actual” connections. And it is his usage of “actual” here that tips us off on why he has such a negative view of people looking at screens: he, like so many others, suffers from digital dualism. I’ve critiqued Amber Case, Jeff Jarvis and others on this blog for failing to make the conceptual leap that the digital sphere is not this separate space like The Matrix but instead that reality is augmented. I’ve been through the argument enough times on this blog that I’ll just refer you to the links and move ahead.

Carr’s digital dualism begins in his description of people looking at phones while at South By Southwest this past spring, something he then uses as evidence for the larger problem of increasing disconnectedness. He argues, Read More »

Zygmunt Bauman (pictured above) provides a famous liquidity metaphor that I find infinitely useful for thinking about the Internet. My previous post on Wikileaks and our Liquid Modernity outlins how the Internet and digitality are making information more fluid, nimble and difficult to contain. Using the liquidity metaphor, I argue that WikiLeaks is an example of increasingly liquid and leak-able information.

I further argue that “heavy” structures need to become more porous; that is, allow for some amount of liquidity in order to withstand the torrent of contemporary fluidity. Julian Assange argued that his WikiLeaks project will cause governments to become more secretive, or, using Bauman’s metaphor, those structures become more solid and thus become washed away by seeming out of date to current, more liquid, realities. I believe we saw a scenario just like this play out in Egypt. Read More »

Twitter users, likely from outside of China itself, are calling for people to “stroll” in Chinese public areas. The strolling protestors are not to carry signs or yell slogans, but instead to blend in with regular foot traffic. Chinese officials will not be able to identify protestors who themselves can safely blend in anonymity. [Edit for clarity: the idea is that foot traffic will increase in the announced area, but officials won’t know which are the protesters.]

This tactic is reminiscent of those French Situationist strategies of May ’68 to create chaos and disorder (note that strolling is akin to, but not exactly the same as, DeBord’s practice of “the derive“). The calls to “stroll” have had impact in China with the government shutting down public spaces and popular hangouts. Even a busy McDonald’s was closed. These gatherings announced over Twitter have been highly attended by many officials, police and media, but, importantly, not by many protestors themselves.

This is slacktivism at its best. If this slacker activism is often defined by Read More »

Protesters charge their mobile phones in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

In my previous post on “Digital Dualism Versus Augmented Reality,” I lay out two competing views for conceptualizing digital and material realities. Some view the physical and digital as (1) separate, akin to the film The Matrix, or (2) as an augmented reality where atoms and bits are increasingly imploding into each other.

I prefer the latter, and want to apply this augmented paradigm to the revolutions occurring in the Arab world that have been taking place this winter as well as the subsequent debate over the causes. I, like many others, am equally frustrated by those who give either all or none of the credit for these uprisings to social media tools and argue instead that what is occuring is an augmented revolution.

On one side there are those that promoted the phrase “Twitter revolution” during Read More »

The power of social media to burrow dramatically into our everyday lives as well as the near ubiquity of new technologies such as mobile phones has forced us all to conceptualize the digital and the physical; the on- and off-line.

And some have a bias to see the digital and the physical as separate; what I am calling digital dualism. Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.

In a 2009 post titled “Towards Theorizing An Augmented Reality,” I discussed geo-tagging (think Foursquare or Facebook Places), street view, face recognition, the Wii controller and the fact that sites like Facebook both impact and are impacted by the physical world to argue that “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.” This is opposed to the outdated notion that the Internet is like the Matrix, where there is a “real” (Zion) that you leave when you enter the virtual space (the Matrix).

I have used this perspective of augmentation to critque dualism when I see it. For instance, Read More »

I am a big fan of Marshall McLuhan and think he is due for a well-timed comeback in this the year of his centennial. I posted this great Playboy interview a while back and am now fixated with a new website called McLuhan Speaks. This site archives short video clips of our media prophet in action.

Click the images below to watch some of my favorite short clips from the site.

Here, and ever ahead of his time, McLuhan describes how we will become obsessed with surveilling each other, something that social media often exemplifies.

Read More »

The rant that anything digital is inherently shallow, most famously put forth in popular books such as “The Shallows” and “Cult of the Amateur,” becomes quite predictable. Even the underlying theme of The Social Network movie was that technology trades the depth of reality for the shallowness of virtuality. I have asserted that claims about what is more “deep” and “real” are claims to truth and thus claims to power. This was true when this New York Times panel discussion on digital books made constant reference to the death of depth and is still true in the face of new claims regarding the rise of texting, chatting and messaging using social media.

Just as others lamented about the loss in depth when moving from the physical to the digital word, others are now claiming the loss of depth when moving from email to more instant forms of communication. E-etiquette writer Judith Kallos claims that because the norms surrounding new instant forms of communication do not adhere as strictly to grammatical rules, the writing is inherently “less deep.” She states that

We’re going down a road where we’re losing our skills to communicate with the written word

and elsewhere in the article another concludes that

the art of language, the beauty of language, is being lost.

There is much to critique here. Equating “depth” to grammatical rules privileges those with more formal education with the satisfaction of also being “deeper.” Depth is not lost in abbreviations just as it is not contained in spelling or punctuation. Instant streams of communication pinging back and forth have the potential to be rich with deep, meaningful content. Read More »

The New York Times recently ran a story about how “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It describes a digital age in which our careless mass exhibitionism creates digital documents that will live on forever. The article is chock full of scary stories about how ill-advised status updates can ruin your future life.

These sorts of scare-tactic stories serve a purpose: they provide caution and give pause regarding how we craft our digital personas. Those most vulnerable should be especially careful (e.g., a closeted teen with bigoted parents; a woman with an abusive ex-husband). But after that pause, let’s get more realistic by critiquing the sensationalism on the part of the Times article by acknowledging that, with some common sense, the risks for most of us are actually quite small.

1-Digital Content Lives Forever in Obscurity

The premise of the article is that what is posted online can potentially live on forever. True, but the reality is that the vast majority of digital content we create will be seen by virtually no one. Sometimes I think these worries stem from a vain fantasy that everything we type will reach the eyes of the whole world for all time. Sorry, but your YouTube video probably isn’t going viral and few people will likely read this post.

What interests me about digital content is that it is on the one hand potentially immortal and on the other exceedingly ephemeral. In fact, it is precisely digital content’s immortality that guarantees the very flood of data that makes any one bit exceedingly ephemeral, washed away in the deluge of user-generated banality. Jean Baudrillard taught us that too much knowledge is actually no knowledge at all because the information becomes unusable in its abundance. This is what millions of people tweeting away is: an inundation of data, most of which will never be read by many and will probably be of little consequence [edit for clarification: I like Twitter].

If anything, one problem with social networking applications like Facebook or Twitter is that they do a poor job of archiving and making searchable specific past content. A quick glace on Facebook reveals that I cannot search my friend’s history of status updates. Looking at my Twitter stream, I cannot even find my oldest tweets. My digital content may live forever, but it does so in relative obscurity.

2-Flaws are Forgivable, Perfection is Not

The article draws from a quote about how the immortality of digital content…

“…will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them” […] “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

I disagree. As we increasingly live our lives online, always index-able, it should be expected that many of us will have some digital dirt on our hands. Instead of this idea that we won’t be able to forgive each other for not being perfect, new realities will change our expectations. I suspect being an imperfect human being will be just as forgivable as it always has.

In fact, it very well might be the too-perfect profile that is unforgivable. As any politician knows, you cannot look too clean and sterile; else you come off as phony. A too-polished and perfect profile is increasingly a sign that you are not living with technology and making it part of your life -and thus seem a bit technologically illiterate. The overly-manicured profile screams that you are not out there using social media tools to their full potential.

In conclusion, use scare-tactic articles like the one being commented on here to remind you that what you say indeed might come back to haunt you. But do not go overboard worrying and cleaning your digital presence. Yes, riding your bike or eating chicken might get you killed (potholes and salmonella scare me more than Googling my name), but we are willing to take these risks because they are exceedingly small. Be smart, don’t post about your boss, but, in any case, the vast majority of people posting status updates about their job today will not get fired tomorrow. ~nathan