I registered for this course because I am very interested to learn about how digital media had changed, how they are changing, and in what other ways they will continue to change and structure our daily lives and our society. I was curious to know how they affect our behavior, practices, and culture as we use them. On the first day of class, we were asked to make a list of when and how we use digital media. My list included the use of digital media for communication and social purposes (email, Facebook, Instagram, Skype), information (news, research), entertainment (music, Netflix, Youtube), and online shopping. Back then, I was not aware of what happens after my every click. All I was thinking was how great it is to have access to digital media that allows me to search for information, buy something online, watch movies or listen to music, and keep in touch with my family who is thousands of miles away from me whenever I want to. And that it’s free. (Or so I thought.)
After reading the chapters and listening to classroom discussions, I am aware, and I have a better understanding of how digital media really works. It is great and very helpful to learn about digital media’s history, its evolution, and the people behind it. One of the most important things that I will take away from this class is learning how the access and use of digital media is not really “free.” The users’ every click means access and selling of user data, which results to profits for the giant companies and advertisers.
It was interesting to learn about digital media and labor. I understand more about the blurring of line between work and leisure when it comes to using digital media. Another topic that I was interested in was the issue on digital media’s ownership/copyright issues. I really enjoyed reading the Astra Taylor’s “For the Love or Money” and “Unequal Uptake, where she discussed the topics I mentioned above. I also found Andrew Ross’s “In Search of the Lost Paycheck” and Abigail De Kosnik’s “Fandom as Free Labor” very informative and helpful in discussing more about the issue of free labor. I found Terranova’s chapter challenging to read.
I learned so much in this course that helped me understand better how digital media started, how it works, how it affects us and our society, and how the giant companies behind it make profits through users’ clicks, likes, and data,
According to Fred Turner, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant founded one of the most powerful computer networks up to the present time, the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link or WELL. Members of WELL consisted of groups of computer technologists, counterculturalists, hackers, and journalists who worked together and built a community where they could exchange information and build social networks for future employment. According to Kevin Kelly, one of the seven design goals of the WELL team was that it would be self-governing. Additionally, Turner said that, “As he set subscription rates, Brand was helping to lay down boundary conditions for a self-governing system. Like a communard of the late 1960s, he was working to establish a forum in which individuals could express themselves and form an alternative community of kindred souls” (Turner, p. 146).
One of the ways that Turner described WELL as a self-governing system was through its early managers’ way of governing it: against hierarchy and for the “power of tools.” This was evident in the way power was given to WELL members to participate in different conference topics available, join or leave conferences as they pleased, and even to create their own conferences if they would like to. Conference hosts and systems owners were also authorized to remove members from WELL (which only happened three times in the first six years, and the removed members were allowed to return). In this way, WELL’s early managers did not exercise their authority to control the system and interaction directly. Members were given the “power of self-rule through information technology.” They could use this power by deleting postings of other members that they did not like from their own screens and also removing their own postings that they wanted to erase.
Another way that the WELL operated as a self-governing system was explained through the managers’ roles in setting the conditions for the environment or the system and then taking a step back and observing how WELL’s users interact, exchange information, make connections, and build new communities, and contribute to how the system evolves. According to Turner, “The WELL as described by Kelly, McClure, Figallo, and Coate was a little, self-contained world, and its managers, like scientists, were ‘as gods’ – designing that world, channeling its embodied ‘energies’ through talk, creating settings in which individuals could simultaneously build their new community and transform themselves by using a new set of digital ‘tools’ to which the WELL had given them access” (Turner, p. 148).
One way that Turner described Fuller’s vision of the world as having resources that were unequally distributed. Fuller related this to his daughter’s death from infantile paralysis, which he viewed as directly caused by the disease but “indirectly from a failure to distribute the world’s resources appropriately” (p. 56). According to Turner, Fuller believed that the humankind needed the comprehensive designer that would be able to gather and analyze data about what the world needs now and in the future and coordinate and distribute resources and new technologies properly to meet those needs. Fuller described the comprehensive designer as an individual who “would be aware of the system’s need for balance and current deployment of its resources” (p. 56). Unlike the bureaucrats, the comprehensive designer “would wield his power systematically” (p. 57) Fuller supports a vision of the world that is not a bureaucratic or hierarchical organization, rather a place where humankind benefits from the equal distribution of resources and technology.
I think this vision was so appealing to Stewart Brand because as Turner had described him, Brand was against hierarchical government and industrial bureaucracies. He also shared Fuller’s belief in the use of information and technology to benefit society. According to Turner, Brand looked for worlds that were similar to the world experienced at the happenings: “a world where hierarchies had dissolved…” (p. 48). Brand acted as a comprehensive designer at the Trips Festival by building a world, an environment without hierarchy or bureaucracy system, rather “a world in which he and the dancers on the floor were part of a single, leveled social system” (p. 67).
In “The Shifting Politics of the Computational Metaphor” chapter, Fred Turner explained how the New Left and the New Communalists are two different social movements but have some common characteristics. According to Turner, the New Left was primarily formed as a political movement “out of the struggles for civil rights in the Deep South and the Free Speech Movement” (p. 31). Members form political parties and protested against the Vietnam War, “industrial activities, and bureaucratic organization of the universities” (p. 34).
Similar to the New Left movement, the New Communalists also sought to challenge the bureaucracy and the cold war social order. However, unlike the New Left, they did not see politics as the solution to this. The mind was their alternative to politics. They turned away from politics as a solution for social change.
Turner also added that:
“For the New Left, movement politics offered a way to tear down that bureaucracy and simultaneously to experience the intimacy of shared commitment and the possibility of an emotionally committed adulthood. For the New Communalists, in contrast, and for much of the broader counter-culture, cybernetics and systems theory offered an ideological alternative. Like Norbert Wiener two decades earlier, many in the counterculture saw in cybernetics a vision of a world built not around vertical hierarchies and top-down flows of power, but around looping circuits of energy and information. These circuits presented the possibility of a stable social order based not on the psychologically distressing chains of command that characterized military and corporate life, but on the ebb and flow of communication” (p. 38).
My understanding of this is that the New Left wanted to get rid of the bureaucracy and hierarchy of power, and the way the saw this was possible was through political activism. The New Communalists, on the other hand, believed not only in the mind and the transformation of consciousness as sources of the social order reform, but also in cybernetics.
In Jodi Dean’s essay “Whatever Blogging”, she discusses the term “whatever being” and how it points to a form that “acknowledges communicativity through the deflection of the communicative effort.” One example that she used to explain this is how the word “whatever” is similar to Herman Melville’s Bartleby’s response “I would prefer not to” when he was given a task or instruction to do. He recognized that a sender delivered a message to communicate, but when he said he would prefer not to, he brought the power back to himself and “asserted himself as what matters.” When someone says “whatever”, it sends that message that the receiver of the message was aware of communicative being. It serves as an utterance that neither affirms nor rejects.
Another example that she used is the word cloud. According to Dean, “Word clouds aren’t revolutionary. They are elements of communicative capitalism, elements that reinforce the collapse and meaning and argument and thus hinder argument and opposition.” Word clouds are similar to “whatever” in a way that when it is used as a response, it sends a message that the receiver of the message acknowledges that the word exists and that it has appeared. Just like “whatever”, word clouds do not take positions: meaning they do not accept nor reject. It is like the representation is there, but the meaning/understanding is lost.
Another way that “whatever being” is explained in this essay is through our “networked interactions of communicative capitalism” as we follow different trends (such as fashion, advices, etc), join groups in social media networks, create blogs, sign petitions, post our comments or opinions, etc. We then become the “whatever beings” as we take on and collect different identities without forming symbolic identities.
In “Return of the Crowds,” Ahyan Aytes explains how the name/brand of Amazon.com’s micro-payment-based crowd sourcing platform, Mechanical Turk, was borrowed from one of the 18th century Automaton Chess Player’s name. Amazon established its Mechanical Turk in 2005 after it faced the problem of identifying and finding duplicate product pages on its retail websites, which its artificial intelligence program was supposed to do but failed to do so. This led Amazon.com to hire humans for the completion of this task (which is very easy for humans to do but difficult for machines/computers).
Ahyan Aytes’s connection between Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and the automaton chess player can be explained through the way the Kempelen’s chess player assistant hid under the cabinet as he manipulated the Turk mannequin, giving the impression that the Turk mannequin was actually the one playing chess and beating other players like Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. This is similar to how Amazon’s Mechanical Turk works. Employers/requesters post human intelligence tasks (HITs) that machines/computers cannot perform. The workers or “turkers” then can choose from the tasks posted, complete the tasks (which do not require a lot of time to do), and get paid (from free to several US dollars) when their work is accepted. Just like in the automaton chess player, it may appear like the computer or application is performing the tasks for the employers, when in fact, it’s humans behind their computer screens (who employers cannot see) actually completing the tasks.
In the “Computers Are Not to Blame chapter”, Andrew Ross stated that, “There is no doubt that new media, which has the technical capacity to shrink the price of distribution to almost zero, is hosting the most fast-moving industrial efforts to harness the unpaid effort of participants” (Ross, p. 32). One of the examples that Ross used to show the cheapened and discounted form of labor associated with the rise of digital media was the rise of self-service. Before, when people needed to make phone calls, they have to connect with a telephone operator first. But now, we dial by ourselves. When we call customer service, we often listen and respond to automated voice messages and “robo-voices” instead of an actual customer service representative. It is still possible to speak with an actual representative, but still, it’s a robo-voice who answers the call first. Actual customer service representatives are also outsourced in other countries for lower wages which allows companies to save on costs and reap bigger profits. Another example that Ross used was the reality TV show contestants. They are not considered actors, so they do not receive the same benefits the professional actors do. Even other members of the team working on the reality TV programming such as production assistants, drivers, technical crew, and others are not paid equally as those team members working on scripted movies or shows. They work long hours without meal breaks for the price of half of what the employees on scripted shows are paid without any health or other benefits.
Ross Definitions: Distributed Labor
According to Andrew Ross, “distributed labor has been suggested as a way of describing the use of the Internet to mobilize the spare processing power of a widely dispersed crowd of discrete individuals” (Ross, p. 29).This term was previously used to describe the way businesses corresponded with employees working from different places at different times and also mobile office. These days, distributed labor is used to describe users who provide their input or content but do not view their contributions as a form of labor. The new kind of distributed labor also includes workers taking on different small tasks requiring minimal concentration only. Unlike the old distributed labor that relied on relocation and cheap labor markets to save costs, the new type of distributed labor that is being used by businesses today save money through remotely hiring employees who are comparatively talented as the employees here in the US at lower costs. “Microtasks” or the jobs that require only little amount of time and/or concentration also allow businesses to save on costs. This type of tasks, however, requires that the task or the job be broken down into small pieces like puzzles and bits. Ross also added that, “Taskers are effectively deskilled, dispersed, and deprived of any knowledge about the nature of the product to which their labor contributes” (Ross, p. 29) Because of this, the person doing the task does not know exactly what the purpose of his job is.
Because of the power of advertising dollars, particularly those spent on targeted advertising, the Internet’s cultural landscape is not as diverse as many hoped it to be. The types of content we see on the Internet are based on our online activities, basically on our every click. Advertisers buy our information from the websites and search engines we visit, the social media network we participate in, the products we buy and/or review, the movies and videos we watch, the music we listen to, and the books, articles, stories, and news that we read and share. Advertisers invest their money on websites that are visited by a large number of audience, making sure that their messages will be read, watched, and/or heard, and eventually resulting to the audience buying their products or services. This is why it is very important for websites to produce content that are most likely to catch the audiences’ attention and clicks.
One type of online advertising is called “native advertising” in which advertisements are designed and created in a similar format, style, and tone as that of the articles on the website they are being featured on. Even the titles of the ads do not seem like they are advertisements. They actually blend in with the articles on the website, making it more likely for the users to click on them.
As we click on the content, our personal data/information is collected, shared, and sold. Additionally, we are labeled and profiled based on the information they have gathered, as well as their analysis of our online activities and interactions such as our likes on social media sites, our comments on articles or forums, the keywords we search, just to name a few. And it does not stop there. We are not only labeled and profiled, but we are also, as Taylor stated, “being sorted into ‘reputation silos’ that can be surprisingly difficult to get out of” (p. 190). This does not just affect the content and the advertisements that we see (and how they differ from our friends and other audience based on the profiles they generated for us) but in other aspects of our lives such as economically/financially (e.g. for loans or mortgage application) as well.
Digital media complicates our relationship to copyright through the ease in downloading, uploading, copying, and sharing of files such as movies, books, and music. An example of this is Taylor’s documentary Examined Life. A fully copy of the film and clips of it as well were posted online where it can be watched for free. Although Taylor felt grateful for the uploaders’ support of the film, she wrote to the uploaders with the hope that they would remove the film online because she would like viewers to pay for it when they watch it as a way for her to recover the amount of money she spent on the film production.
Copyright would grant Taylor control as the owner of her product as to who can access, use, or duplicate her work. However, there is also the concept of cultural ownership. According to Taylor, “The minute a film is released or an essay is published, it begins to race around the Internet, passed through peer-to-peer networks, posted on personal Websites, quoted in social media streams. In one sense, therefore, any ownership claim is fanciful, since, in practice, people’s creations circulate in ways they cannot control” (p. 145).
Because everything spreads easily online, including movies, e-books, and music, it becomes accessible for everyone. And when it gets easily accessible, it usually becomes free of charge to use. There’s a group of people who believe that creative work, art, and culture should be available for everyone to use for free, and there’s also another group of people who believe that they should be paid for. It would just be fair for the creators of the work to be compensated for their hard work and the financial expenses involved in the production of their work. They create their product for everyone to enjoy, but they also need to make a living.