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The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 April, 2011 - 23:33

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Narrative Research Group Symposium on 'Nonhuman Narratives', at Bournemouth Unversity. It was a day filled with very interesting papers ranging through the posthuman and nonhuman, the monstrous and inhuman, and the nonhuman animal. The text of my paper is copied below, but I wanted to make a few remarks about the paper and the symposium first.

As usual, I found it incredibly difficult to compress the things I wanted to discuss into a 20 minute talk. I'd have liked to have talked more about the practice-led side of the ideas that provoked the paper, discussed a wider range of 'flat ontologists' (e.g. Jane Bennet, as Anat Pick suggested in the Q&A following my talk), and I'd have liked to have gone on to explore both playful and serious consequences of machine agency, from Ted Nelson's Computer Lib / Dream Machines to Kevin Kelly's arguments for The Technium.

The huge depth of subjects from the day make it impossible to sum up or do justice to the ideas, but I want to pick out a couple of insights from the day that really got me thinking.

David Herman talked about understanding (and writing, in graphic form) animal narratives, which was derived from a post-Cartesian approach to mind influenced by Uexküll's idea of an animal's 'Umwelt'. This hinged on a conception of mind as distributed in the environment, rather than sealed inside a thinking being (reminding me, incidentally, of the work of my colleague Dr Paul Stevens), thus permitting questions such as 'what's it like' to be a dog, mollusc, even doorknob. In particular I was intrigued by a remark in the Q&A following David's talk in which he suggested that because mind is a phenomenon distributed through body, environment and institution, we therefore do have access to it. Access to mind! - literally mind-blowing.

Anat Pick's talk, which examined Robert Bresson's portrayal of the donkey Balthazar, offered a way of thinking about determinism and agency that I'm not familiar with, but that I found really intriguing. The tension here is less determinism 'vs' agency, and more determinism 'and' grace; grace in the face of the necessity of the world which involves a form of assent, but is neither mere acceptance, nor does it preclude the resistance of persecution. In the Q&A she cited a Spinozan approach to understanding the necessities inherent in a deterministic universe, which then enables an agent to act within those necessities. I will have to learn Spinoza...

Finally an interesting phenomenon on the day was the frequent dismantling of binary oppositions. In the summary, it was noted that many tensions were explored in the day - human and nonhuman, humane and inhuman, normal and other, known and unknown - but that the categories kept breaking down. In the case of my talk for example, taking a relatively uncontroversial interpretation of nonhuman and following the logical paths such notions suggested, ended in dissolving the distinctions entirely. Human and nonhuman writers are indistinguishable; human and nonhuman texts are too...

I think of this as the inevitable consequence of any dialectic: the definition of a category depends on the splitting off of that category from it's other; it is as though we halve an apple, and are then surprised that the one half is very much the same as the other half... To define good, we create the not-good in the image of the good. Arbitrary categories are susceptible to and dissolve under systematic analysis. The difficulty (even impossibility) is in finding non-arbitrary distinctions. Humans are animals, humans make machines in their own image, monstrous killers are humans; the challenge thrown up by the dissolution of firm distinctions are all ethical: why might eating animals be morally different to cannibalism? what happens when you recognise nonhumans as 'persons'? does dehumanising serial killers absolve the social realms in which they occur from any blame? There may well be a boundary between human and nonhuman, but it is not necessarily where we conventionally think it is.

So I'm grateful to Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round for organising the day, Einar Thorsen for live-blogging it, and to the other speakers and participants for their ideas and openness. I am however, sad that no-one seemed to recognise the opening slide I used. While I was preparing the presentation, I woke in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, going over and over in my mind the ideas I had for the contents of this paper; my mind had been possessed by a parasite, and as its host I was powerless to resist it. I lay there and remembered an album cover from 1981: The Police, 'Ghost in the machine'. I was barely 10 when I acquired the vinyl LP, and it fascinated me - the songs' lyrics about spirits in the material world, the ethereal synthesisers, the images of circuit boards on the inner sleeve. So I got up at 5 in the morning and went downstairs and pulled out my 30-year-old record, amazingly still unscratched, and played it, and felt a strange mixture of sadness and pleasure that none of my machine collaborators were scrobbling it to last.fm...

The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

While I was preparing this paper, the 11-year-old I live with asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was preparing a presentation about how great machines are at telling stories. "How can machines tell stories?" he asked incredulously. I realised that should have been my title! I originally chose to reference E. M Forster's short story, 'The Machine Stops' in my title because I think it is necessary to invoke at once the dystopian vision that the idea of storytelling machines conjures. The idea of sentient machines - which surely they must be to compose tales - is popularly horrific, alienating, and dangerous. Intelligent machines always turn out to be evil. Often popular adaptations of this trope present clear lines between human and nonhuman 'intelligences', thereby permitting a war between them in which the happy outcome is the one in which the unfeeling machines are vanquished.

Forster's story is dystopian and has the contours of such an ethical boundary, but is more subtle, exploring the way in which the humans who inhabit the machine world are shaped by its demands and imperatives. A transgressing wanderer reaches close to the surface of the subterranean world of the machines, and later reports:

"There was a ladder, made of some primӕval metal. The light from the railway fell upon its lowest rungs, and I saw that it led straight upwards out of the rubble at the bottom of the shaft. Perhaps our ancestors ran up and down it a dozen times daily, in their building. As I climbed, the rough edges cut through my gloves so that my hands bled. The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power. Then I thought: "This silence means that I am doing wrong." But I heard voices in the silence, and again they strengthened me." He laughed. "I had need of them. The next moment I cracked my head against something."
 
The Machine Stops, (Forster, 1909)

I love the idea that the all-pervasive rumble of the machine is so constitutive of life that it withdraws from consciousness even as it guides our thoughts, and I'm going to return to the idea that how we think is shaped by the machines we live with. First though, I'm going to quickly talk about some work I've been doing with the digital writer, Tim Wright. In a project called 'Hauntology', we've been exploring how we can create interactive and participatory narratives using a combination of poetry, software, antique objects and digital sensors and circuits - and increasingly now - walking. In one piece, a chest of drawers was 'haunted' by the spirits of its previous owners. A user could access snippets of their lives by interacting with the chest of drawers and objects on and in it, as well as eventually 'haunting' it themselves with the sounds they left behind for the next users to hear.

We're currently exploring how we can use an old wooden box, wired up with an audio device and some sensors, to act as the focal device for a walking, talking, poetic experience based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the geography of the outskirts of Dorchester. In this we are trying to compose a narrative experience which is absorbing, authentic, haunting and provocative - out of antique bric-a-brac, digital sensors and media, physical space, sounds, smells, scenes, embodied and interpersonal interactions, and both reading and writing poetry. To this end I've been experimenting with wiring electronic devices into old wooden boxes.

One of the things I've noticed about the process is the feeling that the electronic systems and circuits, and the antique wooden boxes and drawers, are all exerting their own influence on the proceedings. They only allow certain sorts of behaviours and affordances to get the go-ahead. At first I thought this is an artefact of my own imprecision and inexperience. The further I get, though, the more I'm sure that the objects I work with have intentions of their own. Just as a sculptor seeks to find the form already within the matter at hand, as if discovering the spirit in the material, so I am collaborating with the devices I coerce and adapt to perform as they want to, as though I am obeying a ghost in their machine.

I'm now afraid that I'm sounding crazy, so I want to run through a quick and very partial history of writers collaborating with devices, to see if I'm alone in my craziness. I'm thinking here about the production of textual artefacts through the action of some sort of device - something I'm therefore going to call a device-oriented narrative - produced by some sort of rule or algorithm or heuristic process. I think this is a fairly good, low-level definition of a 'writing machine' - an apparatus or assemblage which performs some sort of function on the raw materials of textual production.

Here's an example of an electronically produced poem:

"Sentences begins.
money must
Sentences
Parsing
Sentences
Sentences
Sentences for love forsaken."
 
Sentences, (Hartman and Kenner, 1995)

Nick Montfort explains the provenance of this piece of text, taken from a book by Hartman and Kenner, "Sentences":

"To write Sentences, Hartman and Kenner took 457 19th-century "Sentences for Analysis and Parsing, Thayer Street Grammar School" and providentially generated an intermediate text, using Claude Shannon's Markov chain technique as implemented in TRAVESTY by Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke. The resulting text was corrected and used as input to Hartman's program DIASTEXT, which carried out diastic selection as developed by Jackson Mac Low."
 
Sentences in 1k, Grand Text Auto, (Montfort, 2008)

I don't want to dwell on the detail of the particular processes that were used to produce these texts - just to note that Montfort's description illustrates very clearly the notion that a non-trivial operation has been performed to produce the work: the raw input is worked on in some way to produce a text at the end. In this case at least two sets of iterative actions were performed on the input to produce strangely evocative words. This therefore is a machine text.

I want to draw a distinction here from what Espen Aarseth has refered to as a 'cybertext' - a text which requires work on the part of the reader to traverse it. I want to think of texts which require some act of delegation by the writer to a machine to produce them. We could get horribly metaphysical about what constitutes mechanism, machinism and what does not. Is a pen a machine? A typewriter? While it is tempting to say that in the term 'machine' I exclude devices which merely reproduce mechanical extensions of the writer's actions, this may become a moot point as we proceed. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman in 1999, deals with the difference, for example, between a typewriter and a computer by noting the non-linear disruption that occurs when dematerialisation is introduced into the machinic action. I want to avoid this distinction, as there are perfectly good examples of writerly delegation that can occur within entirely material parameters.

I'm going to go with Richard Sennet's understanding of the machine in 'The Craftsman' of 2008, which I read as an intermediary device between the hand of the craftsman and the work itself, which effects some non-trivial transformation. This allows me to include devices such as horoscopes and Tarot cards, runes and tea-leaves, dice and difference engines, as well as electronic circuits, random algorithms, neural networks and artificial intelligences.

As the inclusion of Tarot hints, divination or possession by a deus ex machina seems to have a provenance in machine thinking. The 'I-Ching' was not only a repository of confucian wisdom, but a device for answering questions. Aarseth describes it thus:

"The I Ching is made up of sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken ("changing") lines [...] A hexagram [...] contains a main text and six small ones, one for each line. By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts. This contains the answer to a question the user has written down in advance (e.g., "How much rice should I plant this year?")."
 
Cybertext, (Aarseth, 1997)

From a European, humanist point of view, there is no particularly significant difference between a blind algorithm and the pronouncements of oracles and fortune-tellers - both are equally meaningless, and in the post-Enlightenment mind it is difficult to think otherwise. Educated people are supposed to scorn horoscopes and prophecies. Yet this adoption of a rational, materialistic ontology doesn't extend to our celebration of the transcendence of human agency and intelligence, with which we persevere in cherishing against the blind heuristic principle of automatons.

The automative principle of composition is evident in the work of Raymond Roussel, such as in Locus Solus from 1914. Although after his death he inspired the OuLiPo writers and the nouveau roman, during his lifetime, after some initial popularity amongst the surrealists, he was largely ridiculed and certainly critically panned. His works are very unusual, as can be gleaned from this account of his composition technique from John Ashbery:

"Sometimes he would take a phrase containing two words, each of which had a double meaning, and use the least likely ones as the nucleus of a story. Thus the phrase 'maison á espagnolettes' ("house with window latches") served as the basis for an episode in Impressions of Africa about a house (a royal family or house) descended from a pair of Spanish twin girls. [...]
 
"Just as the mechanical task of finding a rhyme sometimes inspires a poet to write a great line, [...] "rhymes for events" helped him to utilise his unconscious mind. "
 
'Introduction' to Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, (Ashbery, 1995 [1962])

The French surrealist writer Michel Leiris suggested that Roussel is tapping into an ancient tradition of eliciting myths from words, seeking out the 'disease of language', which is the source of mythology or collective unconscious." (ibid) Here, though Leiris is still perhaps seeking to legitimise the text for its inner human truth, its interpretation of the human unconscious. The text may be unconventionally produced, but its defender still seeks to recuperate it into the realm of human desires, motives and meanings, against the criticism that the work is a joke of no obvious inherent merit.

Similar recuperations might be made of other device-oriented narratives. In the 1920s the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, cited by Burroughs and Gysin later as an inspiration for their employment of the composition algorithm called 'the cut-up', apparently started a riot by pulling a poem out of a hat. In his dada manifesto, his wrote:

"TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
 
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
 
dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, (Tristan Tzara, 1920)

It is difficult not to see the dada movement and Burroughs' later adoption of the cut-up as much a political gesture as one of literary exploration - though this was certainly an ingredient in Burroughs' extensive use of it throughout novels like The Soft Machine, Cities of the Red Night and others. Burroughs describes it in 1961:

"The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and , still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passersby and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident [...]
 
Take any poet or writer you fancy. Here, say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like."
 
The cut-up method of Brion Gysin, (Burroughs, 1961)

The casual abundance of poetry produced this way directly challenges the idea that a specially gifted and inspired writer is the essential ingredient in the writing - all that is necessary is a heuristic device and some raw materials on which to act. The results are often extremely powerful, as any reading from Burroughs' work will attest:

"Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries - Wind through dusty offices and archives - Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth - Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure - The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions - Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down - Biologic film went up.. . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens. . .just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic."
 
The Soft Machine, (Burroughs, 1961)

The production of literary texts through machinic devices seems to proliferate in the middle of the 20th century. Writers like Barthelme, Beckett, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Robbe-Grillet, Perec and Calvino all produce texts which can be said to have been written with the aid of a heuristic device in the tradition of Roussel and Tzara. Often they are consciously political - David Porush in his work on cybernetic texts named after Burrough's novel, The Soft Machine, argues that such fiction:

"...far from being representative of a class of fiction in its decadence, is the most meaningful and hopeful sort of fiction. It cannot as a body be understood without constant reference to its source in a highly technologised society. For that very reason, however, it has the power to invent a new way of seeing, it offers a new language, and along the way it tells a fine, often amusing, often grim story about how far along we are."
 
The Soft Machine, (David Porush, 1985)

This odd combination of decadence and Brechtian self-reference and estrangement is also reminiscent of the flâneur and the psychogeographic movement: Benjamin's flâneur walked, either to revel in decadence, or to ambiguate the scopic regimes of the city's imperative to consume. No doubt, as in the situationist dérive and later psychogeographic texts and actions, there is an important emancipatory element: situationists walked to resist a 'world moving away in to representation'. The algorithmic obedience of tracing out a route that is arbitrarily pre/pro-scribed, but through the elective and playful devices of our own choosing, is actually, (ironically), a way to reassert the agency of the human and the individual against a machinic world of capital and convention.

However I'd like to go much further than Porush goes. He argues that one of the tropes of cybernetic fiction is that of self-dismantling. This is a deconstructive move, and resonates with the late 20th century concerns of continental philosophy, which seeks to dislodge the layers of meaning that stratify human existence in order to bring to notice the complex shifting network of linguistic and textual currents which inform our lives and institutions. However, I'd like to go further than seeing cybernetic texts and device-oriented narratives as merely deconstructive.

Consider that, even though we accept the premise of the intentional fallacy, we still privilege human intentionality as both qualitatively different from and somehow better than the nonhuman world of relations. So, even though we accept the notion that a text might be a device which can surrender novel meanings and effects which the author didn't intentionally encode there, we still find it hard to accept that an algorithmically generated text could offer anything of equal value: note that we still conventionally attribute the richness of a text, and its capacity for renewed interpretation, to the skill of its author - to have written something that 'transcends' the finitude of its human creator.

As I've suggested, we have tended to think of automatically produced texts as somehow lesser than those originated by acts of human imagination alone. It is with this tendency that we also consider the possibility of artificial intelligence as a watershed: the achievement of machine consciousness will be equivalent to lifting those machines up to some lofty, hard-to-reach transcendental threshold which makes them finally equal to humans. I'd prefer to see the problem from the other side, and wonder what it is we think is so different about human agency that separates us from the rest of the universe. This is not to reduce humans to mindlessness; Zizek puts it:

"It is here that the "reductionist" project goes wrong: the problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal "material" processes [...] but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only through being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not "How, if at all, could machines IMITATE the human mind?," but, "How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?"
 
Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze, (Zizek, 2008)

This is not just deconstruction (in which a philosophy of consciousness gives way to a philosophy of linguistics and signification), but a shift towards "placing humans and nonhumans on an equal footing". To go further then, we have to re-equate humans with the menagerie of other things in the world, the nonhuman - what object-oriented ontologists have called a flat ontology.

Levi Bryant has outlined a book-project called The Domestication of Humans in which he considers the way that plants and microbes have transformed human beings:

"The whole point of such a project, of course, is to develop enhanced techniques for thinking in terms of flat ontology. When posing questions in the humanities our tendency is to think in terms of unilateral determination. We talk about humans structuring reality through their perceptions, concepts, and signs, treating the process of structuration as proceeding from the human towards a sort of gooey chaos that then gets structured by the human. Flat ontology calls for bilateral determination, where determination doesn't simply run from human to world, but where all sorts of other entities structure humans and societies as well."
 
The Domestication of Humans, (Bryant, 2010)

Bryant derives this notion of a flat ontology alongside Graham Harman, who in turn cites Latour's Irreductions as a breakthrough in terms of escaping the realm of the human. Adrift on a sea of other agents and irreducible entities, Harman argues that we should start to rethink the bustling nature of the world of objects, amongst whom the human object is a mere one among many:

"Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of "access" to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
 
"All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further, as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology."
 
Object Oriented Philosophy, (Harman, 1999)

Andrew Pickering considers the consequences of putting human and nonhuman agency on the same footing. His work The Mangle of Practice from 1995 looks at the way that scientific work proceeds in practice, and argues that far from being the logical, deductive unfolding of evidential knowledge, this picture is a retrospective portrait imposed on a messy sequence of stumbling events in which human goals have strived and struggled with the material agency of machinic experimentation. Work of this kind (and I argue that there is a direct parallel here to the way that writers write and texts are produced) is the product of a mangling of ideas and forces, machines and hunches, objects and products. This is a dance of agency between the human and nonhuman, in which such apparently crucial phenomena as human intentionality emerge from the interplay of possibilities and events, "brought to heel by the cultures in which they are situated":

"Scientists do not simply fix their goals once and for all and stick to them, come what may. In the struggles with material agency that I call tuning, plans and goals are at stake and liable to revision. And thus the intentional character of human agency has a further aspect of temporal emergence, being reconfigured itself in the real time of practice, as well as a further aspect of intertwining with material agency, being reciprocally redefined with the contours of material agency in tuning."
 
The Mangle of Practice, (Pickering, 1995)

So I want to conclude by suggesting that I was right to feel that my machines are trying to have their own way. Me and my machines are, to use Pickering's terms, tuning each other to our own 'agenda'. We are both devices which perform machinic captures of input material and transform them into artefacts which, in Tzara's phrase, resemble ourselves. So the computers, circuits, dice, algorithms, typewriters, pens - and even the words themselves - are cybernetic machines with which we are forced into collaboration and partnership, rather than mastery.

Italo Calvino confirms this from his own experience of writing:

"Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion - that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. [...] The "I" of the author is dissolved in the writing. [...] Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. [...] And so the author vanishes - that spoiled child of ignorance - to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works."
 
Cybernetics and Ghosts, (Calvino, 1967)

Bibliography

Forster, E. M., 1909, The Machine Stops [Online: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html]

Hartman, C. O. & Kenner, H., Sentences, Sun and Moon Press, New American Poetry Series: 18, 1995

Montfort, N., 2008, 'Sentences in 1k', Grand Text Auto [Online: http://grandtextauto.org/2008/12/31/sentences-in-1k/]

Aarseth, E., 1997, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: JHUP

Hayles, N. K., 1999. How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: UCP

Sennett, R., 2008, The Craftsman, London: Allen Lane

Roussel, R., 1914, Locus Solus, [Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19149/19149-h/19149-h.htm]

Ashbery, J., 1995 [1962], 'Introduction' in Roussel, R., 1995, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change

Leiris, M., 1987, Roussel l'ingénue, Paris: Fata Morgana

Tzara, T., 1920, dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, [Online: http://www.391.org/manifestos/19201212tristantzara_dmonflabl.htm]

Burroughs, W. S., 1961, 'The cut-up method of Brion Gysin' in The Third Mind, New York: The Viking Press

Burroughs, W. S., 1966 [1961], The Soft Machine, Paris: Olympia Press

Porush, D., 1985, The Soft Machine, New York: Methuen

Zizek, S., 2008, Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze [Online: http://www.lacan.com/zizsalsation.html]

Bryant, L., 2010, 'The Domestication of Humans', Larval Subjects [Online: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/the-domestication-of-humans/]

Harman, G., 2010, 'Object-Oriented Philosophy' in Towards Speculative Realism, Ropley: Zero Books

Pickering, A., 1995, The Mangle of Practice, London: Duke

Calvino, I., 1997 [1967], 'Cybernetics & Ghosts', in The Literature Machine, London: Vintage

Tim Wright, digital writer / cross-platform produce [Online: http://timwright.typepad.com

Categories: machine, writing, digital, text, paper, academic, cybertext, device-oriented, narrative, research, Forster, Hartman, Kenner, Montfort, Aarseth, Hayles, Roussel, Ashbery, Leiris, Tzara, Burroughs, Porush, Zizek, Bryant, Harman, Pickering, Calvino,
Comments: 2

The Internet as a public arena for research: how do we balance the pursuit of knowledge with care for those we want to know?

Author: joe

Wednesday, 12 January, 2011 - 14:13

Today I presented a brief paper to Bournemouth University's Postgraduate Research Conference. Not trusting myself to say off-the-cuff what I wanted to say inside the 12 minute allocation, I read this pre-written piece. I have obfuscated the sources I critique, for reasons which will become clear.

My presentation is about the ethics of Internet research, especially with regard to vulnerable people, and the problems that arise from the models we use to conceptualise the environment in which we carry out our work.

It seems easy to grant that aside from some edge considerations, there is a sort of equivalence between face-to-face and online interactions, between physical and virtual spaces - particularly in academia, where our textual outputs are intended to be sufficient for the advancement of our work. The trade-offs seem to be marginal: some loss of informal face-to-face contact is off-set by the advantages of efficiency, speed, cost-saving, and maybe even innovation.

Indeed, the fact that we successfully import metaphors from the real world into the online world is what enables many different walks of life to achieve in digital environments what they would also normally manage in the real world. These are metaphors that aren't necessary properties of the web, but that we use to make it manageable: models from the material world such as pages and buttons, activities like surfing and networking, and concepts like sites and spaces. We call it cyberspace, and it can feel very like the other spaces we inhabit with our bodies.

I want to suggest that the easy equivalence we make between online and offline, and physical and virtual space, is much more problematic. This issue has arisen for me through considering some of the ethical problems that arise from using the ever-expanding wealth of raw material on the web as evidence in research.

I'm interested in how people use the online world when they are bereaved. As time goes by, more of us are exposed to death on the web - what to do with the Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles of loved ones who have died, online commemorative websites, and so on. How do people who are mourning loved ones use online spaces to express their grief, or seek out support from others? Photo-sharing sites have groups dedicated to expressing grief through images; fashion sites find themselves hosting users who repurpose the site tools to discuss their loss; and forums dedicated to supporting bereavement through both informal support and professionalised services proliferate.

These phenomena raise questions about how seeking out online support might be helpful, perhaps through the chance to memorialise loved ones, or perhaps because sometimes the ambiguity of anonymous strangers on the web makes disclosure easier. Mourning is often a difficult subject to deal with in day-to-day life - we expect the grief-stricken to absent themselves from the office or social occasions until they are competent to cope with them. Unwelcome expressions of grief can be embarrassing or even seen as pathological. Do these questions of etiquette and emotion prevail online much as they do offline? Do online spaces provide therapeutic opportunities which might be more scarce in the fleshy world? Does the availability and peculiar permanence of online talk make mourning problematic - perhaps by extending the grieving period, or by exposing people to the trolls?

My research therefore is partly an investigation into the differences and similarities between virtual and real spaces. There are many comparable studies which ask this question through the lens of some specific issue, and there are guidelines as to how to deal with the ethics of this kind of research. After some reflection on some of those other studies, I have taken a somewhat hardline approach, and placed rather more burdensome ethical constraints on my research project than I might otherwise have done.

To explain these constraints, I'm going to mention a study from 2009 of an online space which is dedicated to the subject of gynecomastia - or the 'moob-job'. Men who are considering the procedure, undergoing it, or who are post-operative, regularly contribute to the site, which was studied by a group of psychologists in 2007, using interpretive phenomenological analysis to understand the experiences of these men. I wish to show that the ethical approaches and arguments they used, quite legitimately, are flawed in ways that force me to rethink the priorities at work in this sort of academic exercise. Perhaps even more than the bereaved, men with concerns about body image are a group who should not lightly be objectified by an academic project.

The authors cite the guidelines drawn up by the British Psychological Society for conducting research online. One might summarise them by saying that participants in Internet Mediated Research (IMR)

"can be identifiable or anonymous; they can explicitly consent to participate, or they can be invisibly observed without their knowledge."

The guidelines go on to state that strong justifications should be provided for covert non-participant observation - what we might in this context call "lurking" - and that consent should be sought unless the environment is such that "people would 'reasonably expect to be observed by strangers'."

Exactly what criteria qualify public spaces as those in which people would reasonably expect to be observed is not specified in the BPS guidelines, but left to be established in the body of work which grows around the discipline.

The authors of the gynecomastia support group study note that it is the contributors' expectation of their messages being visible to other anonymous users of the web which brings their content into the public domain. Content accessible without registration or password barriers effectively passes into public ownership. They also cite an earlier paper reporting about a website supporting anorexia nervosa which argued that study of content in the public domain is akin to "naturalistic observation in a public space" and that the openness of the web therefore "does not raise concerns of invading privacy."

The gynecomastia study also notes the possible disruption that disclosing the investigators' presence might cause to the integrity of the environment that they are studying. It is evident that they are trying to ensure that their work is ethically sound and demonstrates a care towards their subjects, and I don't wish to imply otherwise. But I do want to suggest that this implementation of research guidelines is flawed because it wants to accept certain equivalences between the open internet and public space (such as a supposed ability to undertake naturalistic observation without disturbing the phenomenon being observed), but ignore non-equivalences (such as the fact that covert observation of such intimate communications is ordinarily impossible in public spaces, not least because open discussion of sensitive topics is very rare).

The study in question makes further trouble for itself where it creditably seeks to anonymise sources. Obfuscating quotes is generally thought to be a sound tactic in protecting the individuals who may have made their own efforts to conceal their 'real-world' identity in their online profiles, but may have done so inexpertly. They may, for example, have chosen an obscure 'handle' or login-name, but have nevertheless signed off posts with their actual forenames. To avoid these individuals being found via search engines, the authors state that they performed identifiability testing by searching for direct quotes from individual posts were in Google, which did not retrieve the site in question or the messages that had been appropriated.

This test sadly demonstrates a poor understanding of the operation of Google's index: that it does not find sources at any given moment does not preclude the index being updated to include them at a subsequent date. Indeed when I searched Google for the quotations presented in the article, direct links to the original sources were listed. Again, this error does not show unethical behaviour: merely that an ethical guideline has been followed in letter but not necessarily understood in practice.

These critiques of the ethical approach take just some of the more obvious problems with abstract guidelines as they are implemented; and doesn't even start to address other problems with lurking and appropriation, such as the hit counts, visible to site-admins, that researchers contribute to sites; or the eye-balls they bring which may in some cases contribute to advertising revenue; or the general tacit deceptions they must engage in simply to carry out observation.

I want to suggest that importing the metaphor of "public space" into an intimate online discussion is problematic because it buys the researcher the ethical justification they require, but largely ignores the epistemological and ethical non-equivalences. I'd argue that people simply don't go online and talk to each other as though their words are being recorded and broadcast, and the permanent visibility of online discourse is a side-effect, rather than a primary concern, when it comes to a user's motivation to participate in online discussions or contribute their creative work to a community. I'd prefer to argue that the actual space that the user occupies when contributing to an online forum plays a much more crucial role in determining the level of disclosure they are willing to engage in, not to mention the level of trust and intimacy that the visible community creates. This may often actually be the workplace, or bedroom, rather than a public space.

Even where forum users are in public spaces, there may be a huge mismatch between what they will willingly write in the context of a post from a mobile phone, and what they will say to the person sitting next to them. To discard these sorts of considerations is, I would argue, to make epistemological errors, as well as ethical mistakes, and ultimately is a consequence of prioritising the academic generation of knowledge over the well-being of subjects.

The consequence of these concerns for me is to adopt an alternative approach, which does not solve the problems raised, but swaps one set of challenges which I find ethically unjustifiable for another set which I am more willing to defend. So I will be making full disclosure in any online spaces I enter before I undertake any observation; I will not be using material without the full informed consent of the original contributor; and in the event that any community feels my presence as a researcher to be intrusive enough to ask me to leave, I will promise to do so. This strategy at least offers the hope that the research process will be a consensual collaboration with participants, rather than a deceptive objectification of them: when dealing with communities of people we might class as vulnerable, this must surely be the preferable option.

So the project is now such that it makes no claim to be objective in a positivist sense, but rather is a fully-blown form of participative and ethnographic phenomenology. This brings another set of epistemological challenges and ethical quandaries, but I'd also suggest that Internet research which does choose to use covert observation may need to find alternative justifications.


Categories: research, paper, grief, bereavement, academia, knowledge, epistemology, ethics, online, internet,
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