Wednesday, June 3, 2015

rhizoANT: Following the Actors & Parasites in Hyperobjects

I want to start with a little movie that I made using a Google Chrome extension called Draftback. The movie is a playback of a group of Rhizo14 people writing The Untext last October, 2014. Unfortunately, Draftback does not capture formatting, images, or marginalia, but it does provide a point of view on the emergence of The Untext that I have not been able to generate any other way.

I left the video artifacts at the beginning of the movie because they kind of capture something I want to address: parasites in hyperobjects. How I created the movie is instructive, I think.

I've been using Firefox web browser lately, but I had to switch to Chrome to use Draftback, a Chrome extension. With Draftback open, I then fired up Screencastify, another Google extension, to record the playback. Draftback and Screencastify did not play well together, but I was able to get useful footage, which Screencastify saved to my desktop as a .webm file. I loaded Screencastify's .webm file into VLC to convert it to an .m4v file which then loaded almost nicely into iMovie, though as you can see in the movie, some video artifacts remain from the translation (an important term) from the initial Draftback stream through Screencastify's .webm, to VLC's .m4v, to iMovie's .mov. After editing, cropping, and adding a soundtrack in iMovie, I uploaded to Youtube, which mostly uses the .mp4 format, so another translation into another file format. Finally, I embedded the movie in this post for your convenience.

So from Draftback to you in way too many, not so easy steps. If I ever do this again, I will no doubt do it better. Still, the process helps me make a point: conversation is never a clear transmission or exchange of information between agents; rather, it is always a translation through other agents which impinge in unpredictable, unknowable ways upon the information (itself an agent) and the communicating agents. No communication is clean. As information flows across the synapses between actors, it is stained by each of those agents, as well as by me, the agent that edited and shepherded the information along to this post. (Of course, I am stained as well.) How and when this post and its video gets to you on your computer, tablet, or phone will further stain the information. And you.

Serres writes an entire book about the effects of parasites on human relations, including communications. In some ways, parasite is an unpleasant term, but I think it captures the spirit of the information flow, which is always accompanied by the noise and static—the stains—added by the attending agents, or parasites. Serres says that when we are two we are already three or four. He's including the parasites. When we talk, as you and I are talking now, we are always accompanied by other agents—the first of which is language. English is so well stained with past usage and future potential. Like a fine piece of carving wood, English always has something to say about whatever I say, about however I try to shape it. It drains meaning from my words, or it adds meaning. It says more than I intend, and less. I think good communicators have always suspected the language they use is not a passive medium that can be assumed and taken for granted. Language has its own agency. It is a live and potent snake, and we should be mindful of the pointed end.

And of course, in The Untext English was definitely not the only agent—we also had to work alongside Google Docs, which like English seems to have a mind of its own. A mind of its own may not be a trite cliché here. Both English and Google Docs functioned as positively as did the humans to create a swarm mind, a mind that enveloped all of us while writing The Untext. Most people would not attribute mind to a single neuron or even to two or three neurons, but swarm a few billion neurons, and all of a sudden, mind emerges. There is some magic here that I cannot explain, but I have no reason to believe that the magic is exclusive to human brains. I'm comfortable with the idea that wherever and whenever agents swarm, they create a mind, and that mind includes the human and non-human actors. (Yes, I'm using agent and actor interchangeably in this post.)

But that is speculation on my part, and I'm not offering any supporting proof or argument here. Rather, I want to argue that something different happened in The Untext and that I cannot explain what it is without including Google Docs, English, computers, and networks as actors alongside the human writers. All of these actors have a parasitic relationship to all the other actors, and we cannot "follow these actors" if we are not conscious of the parasites. The parasitic relationship implies that all actors feed from each other, and that feeding changes all actors, including their communications, which emerge as actors in their own rights. All actors, then, are parasites and hosts, often simultaneously: feeding on and being fed upon. I see the truth of this in the movie above, but I want to start my explanation with a simpler Draftback movie.

In his blog post How I Reverse Engineered Google Docs to Play Back any Document's Keystrokes, Draftback's creator James Somers says that he wrote Draftback so that he could explore "the 'archaeology' of writing: how something like John McPhee’s profile of Bill Bradley (A Sense of Where You Are), or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, comes to be." Somers has the hope that people could become better writers "if they had vivid evidence that a good writer actually spends most of his time fighting himself." To understand why he thinks good writers fight with themselves, watch Somers play back an article about The Art of Underlining. You need only watch a minute or two.

Note the many false starts and restarts that emerge after Somers copies in the long quote from Salinger. You can almost hear Somers arguing with himself about what to say, trying something out, reading it, erasing it, trying something else. This may be somewhat consistent with your own writing process, and if you think of writing as the unfolding behavior of a single actor working alone, then this is a reasonable understanding.

But this is not how ANT frames the issue. Somers's analysis includes the actor, but it leaves out the network. To my mind, this is a serious oversight. You cannot understand writing if you frame it solely as the behavior of a single actor. This is the romantic genius view of writing. It's a nice fiction if you imagine yourself Lord Byron or Jane Austen, but it doesn't work for the rest of us. A single person writing alone will not explain Somers' Art of Underlining which was authored by one person, and it certainly won't explain The Untext which was authored by many. We need a framework that includes many actors interacting in complex, multi-scale networks. ANT provides that frame. The rhizome, swarm, and noise provide that frame. In these expanded frames, a writer "fighting himself" doesn't explain much about writing.

View or re-view the first movie at the top which shows a group of Rhizo14ers writing The Untext. The movie begins with Maha Bali and me writing around each other, and it looks very similar to Somers' movie: lots of starts, stops, deletions, restarts. You may have to watch the movie a couple of times, but I think you will begin to see Maha and me not only interacting with our own thoughts but interacting with each other's thoughts as we change something we've written to resonate with something the other has written, or we write something completely new in response to the other.

Because at first there isn't much text, we write very close to each other, almost in a dance, and we had to be careful about not over-writing each other, bumping into each other.

And suddenly, we are in new territory.

As Lenandlar Singh suggests in his blog post Actor-Network Theory and Google Docs, a word processor was originally conceived as a stand-alone tool meant to be used by a single writer at a time. In other words, the creators of word processing originally framed writing as "a single person writing alone". Now, however, Google Docs allows for multiple people writing together even when in different times and spaces. The old fiction no longer works. Actually, I don't think the old fiction about a single writer writing alone ever really explained writing very well, but the appearance of multiple writers, swarm writing, makes the restrictions of the old frame painfully obvious. We know we can no longer explain things as the solitary actions of an extraordinary human—Steve Jobs notwithstanding. The American gunslinger is dead. Sorry, Clint, but it's about time.

To understand and start explaining The Untext, we must allow for multiple actors interacting at multiple scales. Of course, we must include Maha, Sarah, Kevin, Simon, and the other Untext writers, but we must also include Google Docs, the text, the Internet, English, Rhizo14, computers, tablets, Youtube, and the various graphics tools used to produce images. And we must include the shifting, iterative, complex relationships that emerge among these actors. Now it begins to make sense. (Now working with prepositions begins to make sense [sorry, inside joke].)

So we see the text emerging like bacteria in a petri dish. In the old frame, writing was thought of as a linear process and a linear product following from a single author, but the writing in this movie is linear like the growth of bacteria is linear: only if you are counting. Swarm writing, rhizo-writing, is more like spiders spinning out strands of silk to see what catches where to form the structure for a new web. There are some lines in the web, but the web is hardly explained as a linear process or linear product. There is too much else going on.

Note toward the end of the Untext video that 3 or 4 people are writing simultaneously. The text is gathering critical mass and expanding rapidly at many points. Unfortunately, the movie does not capture the emergence of images, videos, and marginalia at this same time, and it only shows a limited section of the quickly expanding, very active text document. The text is getting too big to see at once. Much more is going on, but the movie is like any other frame: it captures some stuff rather clearly, but it leaves out plenty of other stuff that is damned important if you want to understand what's happening. Frames help us focus on one thing at the expense of obscuring something else. This appears to be the nature of knowledge.

The document is exploding like a summer thundercloud, like the one that I watched last week boiling up from the cane fields west of my home:

So ANT may be a bigger frame that helps us to see more, and it is definitely much more useful when dealing with objects such as swarm writing and Rhizo14/15, but ANT frames, and that means it omits important stuff.

Next I want to talk about the kind of objects I think ANT is forced to deal with, hyperobjects, because hyperobjects make the inadequacy of our other frames way too obvious.