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Tag: complexity

The power of networks: distributed journalism, meme warfare, and collective intelligence

These are the slides for what was perhaps my favorite lecture so far in BCM112. The lecture has three distinct parts, presented by myself and my PhD students Doug Simkin and Travis Wall. I opened by building on the previous lecture which focused on the dynamics of networked participation, and expanded on the shift from passive consumption to produsage. The modalities of this shift are elegantly illustrated by the event-frame-story structure I developed to formalize the process of news production [it applies to any content production]. The event stage is where the original footage appears – it often is user generated, raw, messy, and with indeterminate context. The frame stage provides the filter for interpreting the raw data. The story stage is what is produced after the frame has done its work. In the legacy media paradigm the event and frame stages are closed to everyone except the authority figures responsible for story production – governments, institutions, journalists, academics, intellectuals, corporate content producers. This generates an environment where authority is dominant, and authenticity is whatever authority decides – the audience is passive and in a state of pure consumption. In the distributed media paradigm the entire process is open and can be entered by anyone at any point – event, frame, or story. This generates an environment where multiple event versions, frames, and stories compete for produser attention on an equal footing.

These dynamics have profound effects on information as a tool for persuasion and frame shifting, or in other words – propaganda. In legacy media propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm: high cost of entry, high cost of failure, minimum experimentation, inherent quality filter, limited competition, cartelization with limited variation, and an inevitable stagnation.

In distributed media propaganda is memes. Here too propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm, but those are characterized by collective intelligence as the default form of participation in distributed networks. In this configuration users act as a self-coordinating swarm towards an emergent aggregate goal. The swarm has an orders of magnitude faster production time than the legacy media. This results in orders of magnitude faster feedback loops and information dissemination.

The next part of the lecture, delivered by Doug Simkin, focused on a case study of the /SG/ threads on 4chan’s /pol/ board as an illustration of an emergent distributed swarm in action. This is an excellent case study as it focuses on real-world change produced with astonishing speed in a fully distributed manner.

The final part of the lecture, delivered by Travis Wall, focused on a case study of the #draftourdaughters memetic warfare campaign, which occurred on 4chan’s /pol/ board in the days preceding the 2016 US presidential election. This case study is a potent illustration of the ability of networked swarms to leverage fast feedback loops, rapid prototyping, error discovery, and distributed coordination in highly scalable content production.

Trajectories of convergence I: user empowerment, information access, and networked participation

These are slides from a lecture I delivered in the fifth week of BCM112, building on open-process arguments conceptualized in a lecture on the logic and aesthetics of digital production. My particular focus in this lecture was on examining the main dynamics of the audience trajectory in the process of convergence. I develop the conceptual frame around Richard Sennet’s notion of dialogic media as ontologically distinct from monologic media, where the latter render a passive audience as listeners and consumers, while the former render conversational participants. I then build on this with Axel Bruns’ ideas on produsage [a better term than prosumer], and specifically his identification of thew new modalities of media in this configuration: a distributed generation of content, fluid movement of produsers between roles, digital artefacts remaining open and in a state of indeterminacy, and permissive ownership regimes enabling continuous collaboration. The key conceptual element here is that the entire chain of the process of production, aggregation, and curation of content is open to modification, and can be entered at any point.

Comparative hierophany at three object scales

This is an extended chapter abstract I wrote for an edited collection titled Atmospheres of Scale and Wonder: Creative Practice and Material Ecologies in the Anthropocene, due by the end of this year. I am first laying the groundwork in actor network theory, then developing the concept of hierophany borrowed from Eliade, and finally [where the fun begins], discussing the Amazon Echo, the icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, and the asteroid 2010 TK7 residing in Earth Lagrangian point 4. An object from the internet of things, a holy icon, and an asteroid. To my best knowledge none of these objects have been discussed in this way before, either individually or together, and I am very excited to write this chapter.

Comparative hierophany at three object scales

What if we imagined atmosphere as a framing device for stabilizing material settings and sensibilities? What you call a fetishized idol, is in my atmosphere a holy icon. What your atmosphere sees as an untapped oil field, I see as the land where my ancestral spirits freely roam. Your timber resource is someone else’s sacred forest. This grotesque, and tragic, misalignment of agencies is born out of an erasure, a silencing, which then proceeds to repeat this act of forced purification across all possible atmospheres. This chapter unfolds within the conceptual space defined by this erasure of humility towards the material world. Mirroring its objects of discussion, the chapter is constructed as a hybrid.

First, it is grounded in three fundamental concepts from actor network theory known as the irreduction, relationality, and resistance-relation axioms. They construct an atmosphere where things respectively: can never be completely translated and therefore substituted by a stand-in; don’t need human speakers to act in their stead, but settings in which their speech can be recognized; resist relations while also being available for them. When combined, these axioms allow humans to develop a sensibility for the resistant availability of objects. Here, objects speak incessantly, relentlessly if allowed to, if their past is flaunted rather than concealed.

Building on that frame, the chapter adopts, with modifications, the notion of a hierophany, as developed by Mircea Eliade, as a conceptual frame for encountering the resistant availability of material artefacts. In its original meaning a hierophany stands for the material manifestation of a wholly other, sacred, order of being. Hierophanies are discontinuities, self-enclosed spheres of meaning. Arguably though, hierophanies emerging from the appearance of a sacred order in an otherwise profane material setting can be viewed as stabilizing techniques. They stabilise an atmospheric time, where for example sacred time is cyclical, while profane time is linear; and they stabilise an atmospheric space, where sacred space is imbued with presence by ritual and a plenist sensibility, while profane space is Euclidean, oriented around Cartesian coordinates and purified from sacred ritual.

Finally, building on these arguments, the chapter explores the variations of intensity of encounters with hierophanic presences at three scales, anchored by three objects. Three objects, three scales, three intensities of encounter. The first encounter is with the Amazon Echo, a mundane technical object gendered by its makers as Alexa. An artefact of the internet of things, Alexa is a speaker for a transcendental plane of big data and artificial intelligence algorithms, and therefore her knowledge and skills are ever expanding. The second encounter is with the icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland, a holy relic and a religious object. The icon is a speaker for a transcendental plane of a whole different order than Alexa, but crucially, I argue the difference to be not ontological but that of hierophanic intensities. The third encounter is with TK7, an asteroid resident in Earth Lagrangian Point 4, and discovered only in 2010. TK7 speaks for a transcendental plane of a wholly non-human order, because it is quite literally not of this world. All three objects have resistant availability at various intensities, all three have a hierophanic pull on their surroundings, also at various intensities. Alexa listens, and relentlessly answers with a lag less than 1 second. The Black Madonna icon listens, and may answer to the prayers of pilgrims. TK7 is literally not of this world, a migratory alien object residing, for now, as a stable neighbor of ours.

Teaching digital media in a systemic way, while accounting for non-linearity

Recently I have been trying to formulate my digital media teaching and learning philosophy as a systemic framework. This is a posteriori work because philosophies can be non-systemic, but systems are always based on a philosophy. I also don’t think a teaching/learning system can ever be complete, because entropy and change are the only givens [even in academy]. It has to be understood as dynamic, and therefore more along the lines of rules-of-thumb as opposed to prescriptive dogma.

None of the specific elements of the framework I use are critical to its success, and the only axiom is that the elements have to form a coherent system. By coherence, I understand a dynamic setting where 1] the elements of the system are integrated both horizontally and vertically [more on that below], and 2] the system is bigger than the sum of its parts. The second point needs further elaboration, as I have often found even highly educated people really struggle with non-linear systems. Briefly, linear progression is utterly predictable [x + 1 + 1…= x + n] and comfortable to build models in – i.e. if you increase x by 1, the new state of the system will be x +1. Nonlinear progression by contrast is utterly unpredictable and exhibits rapid deviations from whatever the fashionable mean is at the moment – i.e. x+1= y. Needless to say, one cannot model nonlinear systems over long periods of time, as the systems will inevitably deviate from the limited variables given in the model.

Axiom: all complex systems are nonlinear when exposed to time [even in academy].

The age of the moderns has configured us to think exceedingly in linear terms, while reality is and has always been regretfully non-linear [Nassim Taleb built a career pointing this out for fun and profit]. Unfortunately this mass delusion extends to education, where linear thinking rules across all disciplines. Every time you hear the “take these five exams and you will receive a certificate that you know stuff” mantra you are encountering a manifestation of magical linear thinking. Fortunately, learning does not follow a linear progression, and is in fact one of the most non-linear processes we are ever likely to encounter as a species.

Most importantly, learning has to be understood as paradigmatically opposed to knowing facts, because the former is non-linear and relies on dynamic encounters with reality, while the latter is linear and relies on static encounters with models of reality.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the framework I have developed so far. There are two fundamental philosophical pillars framing the assessment structure in the digital media and communication [DIGC] subjects I have been teaching at the University of Wollongong [UOW], both informed by constructivist pedagogic approaches to knowledge creation [the subjects I coordinate are BCM112, DIGC202, and DIGC302].

1] The first of those pillars is the notion of content creation for a publicly available portfolio, expressed through the content formats students are asked to produce in the DIGC major.

Rule of thumb: all content creation without exception has to be non-prescriptive, where students are given starting points and asked to develop learning trajectories on their own – i.e. ‘write a 500 word blog post on surveillance using the following problems as starting points, and make a meme illustrating your argument’.

Rule of thumb: all content has to be publicly available, in order to expose students to nonlinear feedback loops – i.e. ‘my video has 20 000 views in three days – why is this happening?’ [first year student, true story].

Rule of thumb: all content has to be produced in aggregate in order to leverage nonlinear time effects on learning – i.e. ‘I suddenly discovered I taught myself Adobe Premiere while editing my videos for this subject’ [second year student, true story].

The formats students produce include, but are not limited to, short WordPress essays and comments, annotated Twitter links, YouTube videos, SoundCloud podcasts, single image semantically-rich memetic messages on Imgur, dynamic semantically-rich memetic messages on Giphy, and large-scale free-form media-rich digital artefacts [more on those below].

Rule of thumb: design for simultaneous, dynamic content production of varying intensity, in order to multiply interface points with topic problematic – i.e. ‘this week you should write a blog post on distributed network topologies, make a video illustrating the argument, tweet three examples of distributed networks in the real world, and comment on three other student posts’.

 2] The second pillar is expressed through the notion of horizontal and vertical integration of knowledge creation practices. This stands for a model of media production where the same assessments and platforms are used extensively across different subject areas at the same level and program of study [horizontal integration], as well as across levels and programs [vertical integration].

Rule of thumb: the higher the horizontal/vertical integration, the more content serendipity students are likely to encounter, and the more pronounced the effects of non-linearity on learning.

Crucially, and this point has to be strongly emphasized, the integration of assessments and content platforms both horizontally and vertically allows students to leverage content aggregates and scale up in terms of their output [non-linearity, hello again]. In practice, this means that a student taking BCM112 [a core subject in the DIGC major] will use the same media platforms also in BCM110 [a core subject for all communication and media studies students], but also in JOUR102 [a core subject in the journalism degree] and MEDA101 [a core subject in media arts]. This horizontal integration across 100 level subjects allows students to rapidly build up sophisticated content portfolios and leverage content serendipity.

Rule of thumb: always try to design for content serendipity, where content of topical variety coexists on the same platform – i.e. a multitude of subjects with blogging assessments allowing the student to use the same WordPress blog. When serendipity is actively encouraged it transforms content platforms into so many idea colliders with potentially nonlinear learning results.

Adding the vertical integration allows students to reuse the same platforms in their 200 and 300 level subjects across the same major, and/or other majors and programs. Naturally, this results in highly scalable content outputs, the aggregation of extensively documented portfolios of media production, and most importantly, the rapid nonlinear accumulation of knowledge production techniques and practices.

On digital artefacts

A significant challenge across academy as a whole, and media studies as a discipline, is giving students the opportunity to work on projects with real-world implications and relevance, that is, projects with nonlinear outcomes aimed at real stakeholders, users, and audiences. The digital artefact [DA] assessment framework I developed along the lines of the model discussed above is a direct response to this challenge. The only limiting requirements for a DA are that 1] artefacts should be developed in public on the open internet, therefore leveraging non-linearity, collective intelligence and fast feedback loops, and 2] artefacts should have a clearly defined social utility for stakeholders and audiences outside the subject and program.

Rule of thumb: media project assessments should always be non-prescriptive in order to leverage non-linearity – i.e. ‘I thought I am fooling around with a drone, and now I have a start-up and have to learn how to talk to investors’ [second year student, true story].

Implementing the above rule of thumb means that you absolutely cannot structure and/or limit: 1] group numbers – in my subjects students can work with whoever they want, in whatever numbers and configurations, with people in and/or out of the subject, degree, university; 2] the project topic – my students are expected to define the DA topic on their own, the only limitations provided by the criteria for public availability, social utility, and the broad confines of the subject area – i.e. digital media; 3] the project duration – I expect my students to approach the DA as a project that can be completed within the subject, but that can also be extended throughout the duration of the degree and beyond.

Digital artefact development rule of thumb 1: Fail Early, Fail Often [FEFO]

#fefo is a developmental strategy originating in the open source community, and first formalized by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar. FEFO looks simple, but is the embodiment of a fundamental insight about complex systems. If a complex system has to last in time while interfacing with nonlinear environments, its best bet is to distribute and normalize risk taking [a better word for decision making] across its network, while also accounting for the systemic effects of failure within the system [see Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile for an elaboration]. In the context of teaching and learning, FEFO asks creators to push towards the limits of their idea, experiment at those limits and inevitably fail, and then to immediately iterate through this very process again, and again. At the individual level the result of FEFO in practice is rapid error discovery and elimination, while at the systemic level it leads to a culture of rapid prototyping, experimentation, and ideation.

Digital artefact development rule of thumb 2: Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny [FIST]

#fist is a developmental strategy developed by Lt. Col. Dan Ward, Chief of Acquisition Innovation at USAF. It provides a rule-of-thumb framework for evaluating the potential and scope of projects, allowing creators to chart ideation trajectories within parameters geared for simplicity. In my subjects FIST projects have to be: 1] time-bound [fast], even if part of an ongoing process; 2] reusing existing easily accessible techniques [inexpensive], as opposed to relying on complex new developments; 3] constantly aiming away from fragility [simple], and towards structural simplicity; 4] small-scale with the potential to grow [tiny], as opposed to large-scale with the potential to crumble.

In the context of my teaching, starting with their first foray into the DIGC major in BCM112 students are asked to ideate, rapidly prototype, develop, produce, and iterate a DA along the criteria outlined above. Crucially, students are allowed and encouraged to have complete conceptual freedom in developing their DAs. Students can work alone or in a group, which can include students from different classes or outside stakeholders. Students can also leverage multiple subjects across levels of study to work on the same digital artefact [therefore scaling up horizontally and/or vertically]. For example, they can work on the same project while enrolled in DIGC202 and DIGC302, or while enrolled in DIGC202 and DIGC335. Most importantly, students are encouraged to continue working on their projects even after a subject has been completed, which potentially leads to projects lasting for the entirety of their degree, spanning 3 years and a multitude of subjects.

In an effort to further ground the digital artefact framework in real-world practices in digital media and communication, DA creators from BCM112, DIGC202, and DIGC302 have been encouraged to collaborate with and initiate various UOW media campaigns aimed at students and outside stakeholders. Such successful campaigns as Faces of UOW, UOW Student Life, and UOW Goes Global all started as digital artefacts in DIGC202 and DIGC302. In this way, student-created digital media content is leveraged by the University and by the students for their digital artefacts and media portfolios. To date, DIGC students have developed digital artefacts for UOW Marketing, URAC, UOW College, Wollongong City Council, and a range of businesses. A number of DAs have also evolved into viable businesses.

In line with the opening paragraph I will stop here, even though [precisely because] this is an incomplete snapshot of the framework I am working on.

The horror, the horror

Haven’t been able to post for a while due to plenty of boring work – the worst combination. The flaneur spirit crumbles when faced with repetitive and intellectually unchallenging tasks. However, meanwhile in the real world the Greece fiasco turned into farce, and The Economist captured that just brilliantly in their May 1 issue, with Angela Merkel appearing as a natural in the Colonel Kurtz role on the cover below.

While the Greeks were burning banks, and keeping in line with the Apocalyptic theme, the Euro almost collapsed with the beginning of this week:

May the 6th was an interesting day in that context, because while the euro was heading for the Acropolis gold broke above 1200:

And, what a curious coincidence, something even stranger happened on that same day:


The financial markets had a 20 minute period of complete collapse, which the media immediately explained as a human error (haha). Other, less imbecile explanations are to be found here and here. I find it fascinating how in a highly leveraged complex system a relatively small event (sorry Greece) can cause tremendous and unpredictable repercussions which apart from forming a somewhat black swan, cause system-wide readjustments. This again comes to show that [1] in a complex networked environment the notion of periphery is meaningless, [2] connectivity acts as a magnifying glass for network events, [3] the longer structural instabilities are ignored/covered up, the bigger the eventual ripple-effects of the collapse.

Interesting weeks ahead.

Dealing with entropic complexity

John Robb over at Global Guerrillas has an interesting post on the root problem in dealing with entropic complexity (entropic because of the inevitability of collapse) – influenced by the work of Quigley and Tainter. As he narrates it, the key issue is the uniqueness of each system at the level of its smallest nodes – the entities/actors enacting the system. In other words, whether it is the international wheat market, the English Premier League, or the Australian banking system, while there are certain structural similarities once the systems reach a certain level of complexity (network power laws, etc) at the most local level each system is absolutely unique, and differs even from ‘similar’ systems next door. Furthermore, the local level is the fastest changing part of a system, in that it is the closest to the inputs (of course all levels are local as actor network theory argues, but that is all too often not understood), and consequently when viewed over time there grows a chasm between the fluidity of the local and the structural integrity of the wider system. As Robb words it:

The need for evolutionary advances at the local level will always outstrip the pace of evolutionary change at the center.  When the mismatch grows too large, the entire system collapses.

Of course, Robb forgets that every system is always local at every layer of its network, the center and the periphery are equally situated in a local setting, and the problem he describes is not one of miscommunication between local and global, but of breakdown of translation between equally local layers. The solution Robb proposes is one of resilient local communities existing in some sort of semi-autonomy from a wider system. This of course has been an old political dream of both the far left and the far right. Interestingly though, the Austrian economic school and Murray Rothbard in particular have long argued for the independent city-state as the optimal politico-economic entity on a global scale – I don’t think Robb is aware of that though.

The collapse of complex systems

There is a lot to be said for the inevitability of a complex system’s collapse, starting from the second law of thermodynamics, going through the costs of rising complexity usually purchased at the expense of system stability, and ending with the crucial point where a system’s capacity to adapt to a changing environment fizzles out precisely because of the need for stability.  This inevitability seems to hold true for all kinds of complex systems, from bio-ecologies, to organizational models and societies. Couple of fascinating posts on this:

In his  The Collapse of Complex Business Models, Clay Shirky makes an interesting argument on the future of the current business model of media production. Basing on Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, and using as an example TV companies, Shirky argues that the active participants of complex systems are at the end simply unable to integrate a new rule-set into the complex structure of the system, therefore causing the at first paradoxical situation where ‘the most powerful/connected/etc’ are the least capable of innovating to survive. As a media company how do you compete with content such as  Charlie bit my finger when your content production costs are astronomical by comparison, and you cannot afford to lower them if you want to remain in existence as an organisation? The answer is – you can’t. Which comes a long way in explaining Murdoch’s desperate attempts to shore up the defenses and patch up the walls of his crumbling empire.

John Robb’s The Simplification of Complex Societies takes that argument to the complexity of the present global society, and unsurprisingly concludes that collapse is imminent, albeit with the caveat that there is a way out, as pointed by China’s successful transition from Maoist barbarity by allowing totally unregulated innovation at its societal periphery (arguably the largest and most successful peasant revolution in human history).  While predicting the imminent  collapse of capitalism is a hobby century-and-a-half old, there is a lot to be said about the growing layers of complexity involved in international governance, financial and otherwise. Plenty to ponder.