Category Archives: Semiotics

Hegemony and hypertext

Hegemony is designed into objects

  • The object is discursive.
  • Designers must engage semiosis.
  •  Ideologies hide in tech writing.
  • *The UX* is *the sales pitch*.
  • Hypertext is no escape.

Englebart Display SystemConsider how a device or program carries or even enforces a hegemony or ideology. The object is discursive. It makes an argument, it makes a claim, it is grounded in particular warrants. The ideology is encoded in the object, which makes the values designed into the object invisible but decipherable. Feenberg calls this the technical code – cultural hegemony design into the object.

We can see how these values get encoded if we take a design perspective. Your design brief is to Devise a new application to, say, navigate through an airport. The brief itself encodes the values implied in the design: a traveller, in a new space, who needs or wants independent assistance in moving through it. Why does one need this? To move safely? Quickly? Unthinkingly? through. The user has a smartphone, carries it, uses it. Is this an appeal to convenience? That’s telling. An appeal to efficiency? Telling again.

Now consider an alternative brief: an app to navigate through Tehran. Or one to help explore the Notting Hill-Maida Vale-Paddington districts of London. Or rather than an app, consider that the design brief calls for a 16 page booklet – with local advertising designed into “appropriate” pages. The appeals to convenience and efficiency are now more openly at the call of commerce.

With each shift, the values change, the ideology shifts. The object makes a different claim, grounded in different warrants.

One manner with which to approach such questions is through Andrew Feenberg’s concept of “technical code” that he describes as the “background of unexamined cultural assumptions literally designed into the technology itself.” This background of assumptions is a crucial mix of values, ideas, concepts and cultural norms that are essentially part of the technology itself both in terms of material form and application. A given piece of technology, such as a Palm Pilot, for instance, is thus more than a handy new tool but rather a discursive and ideological object that speaks to the cultural, economic and political voices that went into its creation. What does the Palm Pilot “say”? For one it is a testimony to the changing nature and experience of space and time in the twenty-first century where the boundaries between work and leisure time have blurred into one constantly connected present. Second, it speaks also of the dominant values of our postmodern, post-industrial information society where mobility, access, media convergence, information and time management are paramount for a socially and economically successful life. Accordingly, the Palm Pilot and a host of other technologies effectively confirm the values and mind-sets of the dominant social order, which in the case of most Western societies can be represented by global capitalism. For Feenberg, this means that the technical code can be linked to what is known as the hegemonic forces within a society, which is another way of describing these dominant values that determine, often “invisibly,” how we live out our day-to-day lives.

The UX is never neutral. It rarely (never?) places the agency of the user’s needs and desires at the center of attention. The UX defines the user’s needs in its own terms: the command to consume.

Capitalist social and technical requirements are thus condensed in a “technological rationality” or a “regime of truth” which brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalist hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code.

technical code and hegemony

To some, Feenberg may seem to be overstating his case, especially through the use of such loaded terms as “conformity” and “domination.” Most of us, I think, would balk at the notion that we are controlled by our technologies or that we are all just pawns in a world ruled by evil capitalists. However, it is important to consider how Feenberg is using such terms and also how concepts such as “power” and “capitalism” are being framed within his argument. Similar to another philosopher, Michael Foucault, concepts such as power, capitalism, conformity and domination are not necessarily being employed as negative terms but rather as descriptive indicators of how the world works. Consider, for example, the concept of “power”as used to describe human relationships. To a large degree the manner in which we define and understand our relationships with one another is based on a balance of power: a mother has power over her child in a manner that she can control the child’s circumstances in order to make sure that the child avoids injury, learns important skills and so forth. One could describe teacher-student or doctor-patient relationships on a similar basis. Even a simple friendship is structured by power relationships in which one friend may take on certain “roles” that grant him a measure of “authority” over activities and exchanges. In terms of technology, similar mechanisms are at work insomuch that “social purposes are ’embodied’ in the technology” and are, thus, more than just the practical results of a neutral tool:

The embodiment of specific purposes is achieved through the “fit” of the technology and its social environment. The technical ideas combined in the technology are neutral, but the study of any specific technology can trace in it the impress of a mesh of social determinations which preconstruct a whole domain of social activity aimed at definite social goals.

and hypertext

Hypertext doesn’t (can’t) escape encoding. That’s clear to see (from today’s distance) in The Englebart Demo of NLS (youtube). A commercial hegemony is encoded into the NLS from the beginning.

What then are the technical codes of hypertext and more specifically what does the history of hypertext tell us about the meaning and potential direction of such codes? Think back to the topics covered in this chapter’s brief historical overview:

  1. The oral/literate distinction and the manner in which hypertext is often linked to certain characteristics of the oral tradition as well as compared to the revolutionary impact of the first printing press.
  2. The tendency to situate the creative use of hypertext within the experimental traditions of modem and postmodem literature.
  3. Vannevar Bush and the memex.
  4. The visions of pioneers such as Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Andries van Dam.
  5. Equally pioneering applications such as Intermedia, Storyspace, HyperCard and Mosaic.
  6. The use of hypertext by publishers, educators and creative writers and how such individuals describe and characterize such use.

In the first case hypertext as a technology is often linked to a particular historical trajectory that for the most part is progressive in nature. In other words, hypertext represents an important evolutionary development that is not only more appropriate for current conditions but also represents a marked improvement over previous technologies and practices….

Hypertext cannot be the revolutionary mode we want to cast it as. The augmentation of human intellect is still focused on a hegemony of commerce that defeats itself. It’s a bootstrap.

Kitzmann, Hypertext Handbook, p 26-28.  Also in Slate.

McLuhan on the Headline

Head Line: a primitive shout of rage and fear

  • Wares and rumors of wares in a time of Trump.
  • The story content becomes the merchandise.

[T]he headline is a feature which began with the Napoleonic Wars. The headline is a primitive shout of rage, triumph, fear, or warning, and newspapers have thrived on wars ever since. And the newspaper, with two or three decks of headlines, has also become a major weapon. …

Any kind of excitement or emotion contributes to the possibility of dangerous explosions when the feelings of huge populations are kept inflamed even in peacetime for the sake of the advancement of commerce. Headlines mean street sales. It takes emotion to move merchandise. And wars and rumors of wars are the merchandise and also the emotion of the popular press.

From The Mechanical Bride

Update 11 Dec 2017: Any kind of excitement.  In a post-simulacrum world, the quote itself is verification enough.

“Think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”  

Trump, as reported, in the NYT

 

 

Remediation in Benjamin Calls for 21st Century Arcades Project

Arcades

Arcades flickr photo by lutmans shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Bolter and Grusin (Remediation) see new media remediating old until the new media becomes established as a media and media-specific affordances become available. Benjamin sees remediation in new materials. When iron, for instance, was introduced in sculpture it took on forms from wood. Benjamin sees this as a failure to see the new in the old and evidence that these introductions of the new aren’t part of the emancipation from capitalism.

This way of understanding is going two ways: 1) towards a sense that what are declared as new and emancipatory (iron and glass, the automobile, Twitter, blogging … ) are not new; they are too much informed by the capitalist superstructure that still controls false consciousness; and 2), in the other direction, that these new media could be seen as emancipatory if that false consciousness is thrown off.

In contemporary terms, innovation is not going to disrupt the capitalist imaginary which forces an understanding of innovation within its limited and limiting framework. Disruption as it appears at TedTalks, in incubators, in administrative talk is not disruptive of the status quo. Disruption becomes one of the myths we use to imagine what might become but cannot become until the capitalist imaginary itself is disrupted.

Here’s Buck-Morss on Benjamin:

[T]he restorative impulse [is] more evident … in the forms taken by the new technologies themselves, which imitated precisely the old forms they were destined to overcome ….

Under the archaic masks of classical myth … and tradi­tional nature …, the inherent potential of the “new nature”—machines, iron shaped by new processes, technologies and industrial materials of every sort— remained unrecognized, unconscious. At the same time, these masks express the desire to “return” to a mythic time when human beings were reconciled with the natural world.

… According to Benjamin, if the “not-yet” of the new nature is expressed in archaic symbols rather than in new forms commensurate with it, then this condition of modem con­sciousness has its parallel in the inadequacies of development in the economic base. He is most explicit in a passage from the Passagen-Werk exposé. It begins with a quotation from Jules Michelet: “Every’ epoch dreams the one that follows it.” Benjamin comments:

> To the form of the new means of production which in the beginning is still dominated by the old one (Marx), there correspond in the collective con­sciousness images in which the new is intermingled with the old. These images are wish images, and in them the collective attempts to transcend as well as to illumine the in completed ness of the social order of produc­tion. There also emerges in these wish images a positive striving to set themselves off from the outdated— that means, however, the most recent past. These tendencies turn the image fantasy, that maintains its impulse from the new, back to the ur-past. In the dream in which every epoch sees in images the epoch that follows, the latter appears wedded to elements of ur-history, that is, of a classless society. Its experiences, which have their storage place in the unconscious of the collective, produce, in their inter­penetration with the new, the utopia that has left its trace behind in a thousand configurations of life from permanent buildings to ephemeral fashions.27

The real possibility of a classless society in the “epoch to follow” the present one, revitalizes past images as expressions of the ancient wish for social utopia in dream form. But a dream image is not yet a dialectical image, and desire is not yet knowledge…. Benjamin was reluctant to rest revolutionary hope directly on imagination’s capacity to anticipate the not-yet-existing. Even as wish image, utopian imagination needed to be interpreted through the material objects in which it found expression, for (as Bloch knew) it was upon the transforming mediation of matter that the hope of utopia ultimately depended: technology’s capacity to create the not-yet-known.

Buck-Morss continues

Technology, not yet “emanci­pated,” is held back by conventional imagination that sees the new only as a continuation of the old which has just now become obsolete. 115-6

In The Arcades Project, from Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, p 111-115.

The implications for social media and new media: We’re not there yet. Social media is still remediating the ideologies of mass communication; they are still informing and forming the rhetoric of the new, and are insidious in the techniques of persuasion.

But it can be turned. The phenomena of the digital – the internet, the web, social media, digital phones – can be used as dialectic images of critique in the way Benjamin uses the arcades, flaneurs, prositutes and gambling, iron and steel construction, and fashion to investigate early 20th century Europe. An Arcades Project of the 21st century is being written. Our arcade is the internet, populated trolls, a place for gambling and fashion, architected by packet switching, UX, housing texting, selfies, sur- and suivellance … Our themes are the same as Benjamin’s: false consciousness, repetition, delay, porn …  and a few new ones: simulacra, psychogeography, networks, image, mobility, identity, quantification …

Trump’s discourse unmasks the spectacle at home

From Society of the Spectacle
Debord

Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.

The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. …

The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.

Trump’s clandestine business discourse is out of place on the social stage of politics. The result is that it unmasks both discourses as spectacle. It calls attention to the construction of the spectacular. Trump’s attempts to create change are shown everyday to be attempts to control message. In the spectacle, changing message is changing reality. It’s all that’s needed for a win.

The spectacle trickles down. Trump’s daily unmasking of the national administrative political spectacle also unmasks the discourse of other administrative contexts and calls them into his crisis of credibility. So that, locally, university administrators lose their agency as Trump reveals that their actions are attempts to shape the message rather than administrate real change. Declare a win, and you’ve won, but only because “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”

sounds familiar

Hodge asks us to look to semiosis to understand and act in the politically over-charged moment. 

McCarthyism was constituted in texts and in explosive discursive, semiosic processes that carried the effects very far, very quickly…. Semiosic contexts inflect meanings and are themselves meanings. McCarthy’s strategy included waving a list in the Senate which he claimed contained 205 names of proven commu- nists in public office, which he would not reveal. Waving the list was a multimodal signifier supporting his spoken words. This semiosic situation contains multiple splits. McCarthy’s speech is a surface text split from its real meaning, supposedly known to the speaker but not the audience. The speaker demands absolute trust from his hearers at the same time as he excludes them. We do not need a theory of schizophrenia to see this as a way to provoke paranoia.

Hodge, Social Semiotics for a Complex World. 91.

digital image as interface for viewer production of the real

Or Image for semiosis.


As interface or instrument, the image does not comprise a representation of a pre-existent and independent reality, but rather a means for the new media user to intervene in the production of the “real,” now understood as a rendering of data. “New media,” Manovich concludes “change our concept of what an image is – because they turn a viewer into an active user. As a result, an illusionistic image is no longer something a subject simply looks at, comparing it with memories of represented reality to judge its reality effect. The new media image is something the user actively goes into, zooming in or clicking on individual parts with the assumption that they contain hyperlinks….”

[W]e must fundamentally reconfigure the image. Specifically; we must accept that the image, rather than finding instantiation in a privileged technical form (including the computer interface), now demarcates the very process through which the body, in conjunction with the various apparatuses for rendering information perceptible, gives form to or in-forms information. In sum, the image can no longer be restricted to the level of surface appearance, but must be extended to encompass the entire process by which information is made perceivable through embodied experience. This is what I propose to call the digital image.

Hansen, New Philosophy, 10.

Hansen’s conception becomes a basis for aesthetics as epistemic AND a basis for a rhetoric of experience. The viewer becomes a creator influenced by material context of the perception. This conception does not neutralize rhetorical aims and moves but disperses or distributes them between context, object, perceiver and makes them cognitive or material operators or procedures that shape the making of perception. “Enframe something (digital information) that was originally formless” 11.

This is “a fundamental shift in aesthetic experience from a model dominated by the perception of a self-sufficient object to one focused on the intensities of embodied affectivity. ” 12-13.

This is social semiotics from another angle. The artifact primes the viewer and provides the resources for creating semiosis. v Kress