Category Archives: Theory

Notes from the Underground, 1: ‘Telecomputer Man’

I like the concept of reach and engagement as part of Gartner’s Nexus of Forces. Reach is technological (techne – how easily to get ensnared into a discussion on Heidegger here.)

Against, or perhaps with Reach, we have Engagement – more properly the sphere of the human, of the interface between man and machine. And I can’t stop thinking about philosophy this morning, of Baudrillard’s delightfully named ‘Telecomputer Man’ -‘Xerox and Infinity

There is no choice here, no final decision. All decisions concerning networks, screens, information or communication are serial in character, partial, fragmentary, fractal. A mere succession of partial decisions, a microscopic series of partial sequences and objectives, constitute as much the photographer’s way of proceeding as that of Telecomputer Man in general, or even that called for by our own most trivial television viewing. All such behaviour is structured in quantum fashion, composed of haphazard sequences of discrete decisions. The fascination derives from the pull of the black box, the appeal of an uncertainty which puts paid to our freedom.


For Baudrillard the network was Minitel – was this too early? For Baudrillard we are integrated into the network, into the machine. He was writing in the late 1980s. 25 years on we have the nexus – cloud, mobile, social & information. All seemingly directed independently and yet all synchronised around this same orbit of what he sees as post-alienation:

The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me.

Towards deconstructing the Signal / Noise Theory

Signal / Noise Theory
A while back I remarked on Twitter that we needed to embrace Critical Theory into our theory and practice of communications. The stimulus to this was a remark about Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) theory. Lee Bryant picked me up on this and I expanded a little more on the topic on Twitter.

Firstly, what do I mean by Critical Theory? The term originated in the pre-war  Frankfurt School, specifically in Max Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), and has evolved in to an uneasy tension between its original radical ethos and a motley school of cultural theory, sometimes just abbreviated to Theory. It was the latter I uncounted at the University of Nottingham in the early 1990s when I took their MA in Critical Theory.

The MA was tremendously educative and covered a wide array of theoretical schools ranging from the ‘Hermeneutics of Suspicion’ – Freud, Marx and Saussure, through to contemporary Feminist and American critiques and Postmodern / Poststructuralist thinkers. All of which were viewed as complete heresy by the traditional philosophy department.

Now if there was a common thread in all that we looked at, it was a shared distrust of any sense of a ‘natural essence’ or primordial authentic base on which to build from.  Indeed it was almost taken for granted that theories of Signal Noise Ratio (SNR)  had no real place in these philosophies – at least to the extent that some primers had a section on SNR as a means of counterpoising how communications theory had moved on from its reductive past. It was also a concept that 1st year arts students would be taught was too simplistic and reductive to have merit in what they were about to study (at that point the pain would be almost audible as they were introduced to Roland Barthes and many wished they’d signed up to study computing or some other clearly more useful area).

So what’s so wrong with Signal Noise Ratio then?

It’s a theory originally developed in the study of radio:  where “signal-to-noise ratio is defined as the power ratio between a signal (meaningful information) and the background noise‘:

Which seems very plausible for internal comms or marketing comms theory until we point out that:

  1. It becomes a metaphor when moved from radio signal science to social comms theory (and yes there’s buckets of leaky metaphors here too and I could do with lots of “”).
  2. Human comms are not radio signals, society or other people or voices are not noise
  3. The signal is never pure meaning that is corrupted by surrounding noise – who, where, what defines the signal as having meaning and the noise as pollution corrupting that noise? Think of this in the 2.0 world (and many do so thus) and the broadcast message becomes the signal and the socialness surrounding it is what, noise?
  4. It implies a purity of meaning divorced from any social setting – power, discourse, ideology, narratives, that somehow becomes noised up by signals that shouldn’t be there – who says so?
  5. Signal theory embraces a unity of signifier and signified that Semiotics blew out the water almost a century ago
  6. What if there are two competing signals (of course this never happens in the corporation0 who says which is signal and which is noise?
  7. If noise can become signal and vice versa by decree, or a redefinition of usefulness (as often happens with for example mashups or mixes), where is the primal meaning of the signal

And there is more, but I’ll finish at this point as I think I’ve made my point…and without Derrida either 😉

See also Stowe Boyd & David Armano on this area The Human Feed: How Humans Filter Signal From Noise and The False Question Of Attention Economics, though David makes a slightly different use of the metaphor, I’m with Stowe on this one…

Interested to hear what others think on this – I may need to dig out some old notes here…

Why we don't click banner ads

OrangutanMore entertaining research on the human brain, this time from University of California at San Diego. According to Roland Piquepaille writing in Emerging Tech Sexy objects stimulate our brain ones brain’s visual areas respond more to ‘valuable objects’. This starts to raise all sorts of intriguing questions as to ‘what is value’. But before we go there, let’s have a little closer reading of the experiment…

What the experimenters actually did was present the equivalent of an online game or banner – clicky the right one and earn 10 cents, click the wrong and zero. Our brains quickly learn which have more value. This learned action (which is retained even when the subject has forgotten it), can be measured with scans.

Top boffin on the project one John Serences expands:

Though it is too early to say how this relates to perception, it raises the intriguing possibility that we see things we value more clearly – much like the way the brain responds to a bright object versus a dimly lit one. It’s as if the visual system is telling you how valuable something has been to you in the past… (source)

So then, at best previous exchange value, at lowest previous reward value, will imprint on the brain. It still starts to raise is whether there’s a notional value retained in the brain, even if what Marx dubs ‘commodity fetishism’ crudely put as the tendency for ‘things’ to aggregate values and meanings purloined from their human creators/exchangers.

And then we have all those gift-exchange theories, if the gift given is a pain if it’s too valuable, does the brain work in reverse when the giver gives too valuable a gift? ‘Oh on the rotten so and so has arrived with too valuable a gift, how will we ever be able to pay back?’ see for e.g. Marcel Mauss (The Gift) and Georges Bataille (The Accursed Share). One must not forget Jean Baudrillard either, hyperreality is maybe hard-wired reality, the crazy exchange of simulacra is just our brains over-heating at so much symbolic exchange, a hyper potlatch maybe.

Let us return from such cyber heights to the mundane. Not only do humans have the abilty to fire off neurons at perceived value so do apes too, well so do orangutans. See for example the BBC’s “Orangutans learn to trade favours” where a certain “calculated reciprocity” can be seen in orangutans:

Researchers from the University of St Andrews found orangutans could learn the value of tokens and trade them, helping each other win bananas.

What’s more the reciprocity meant that if one of the apes didn’t play game then the was a clear expectation that it should – this was a clear win-win game as St Andrews’ Valerie Dufour explains:

So we have a calculation behind the giving. If you don’t give me enough, then I don’t give you either; but if you give me enough, OK, then I buy your co-operation, and I secure it by giving too.

And so to banner ads. For us here working with the internet there has to be a pay-back for an action – we click a link or banner with a perceived value / reward for that action. And as we know from experience after experience that clicking on a banner ad is a waste of time and effort, we don’t click on them. The neurons stop firing, the visual parts of our brain don’t get that turn-on.

This extends beyond banners though. It casts into question SEO itself. If a site is engineered for SEO but with no actual value then SEO starts to have no value. No matter how clever a site is engineered for value by SEO, unless it has value our brains will not get excited. Dupe us a few times and though we might forget, our brains won’t.

Micah at the Learn to Duck site spells this out: SEO is Dead. It’s dead because the cash-cow has been milked dry by spurious value. But what’s more Micah reckons, the same is happening to social media. Social media has become perceived at least, as the next great cash-cow after the demise of SEO. Micah explains that social media had value, but this value is being underminded by its own success:

The content generated by users of social media began to rank highly in search engines, because it was RELEVANT. Because it had VALUE. Because it was TIMELY. Because it was REAL. Suddenly, all the SEO experts also became Social Media Experts, as social media marketing became the hot new thing.

Once the SEO experts moved to social media, the value says Micah collapse, creating:

social networks and user generated content that is full of useless, noisy, crap.

The solution to this is simple – don’t try and trick via clever SEO tricks, or falsely leveraging social media and offering no real value. It may last for a while, but our neurons know better. Content as ever is king. Even a clever monkey orangutan knows that.

UpdateSeth Godin reckons there should be “an unlimited budget for ads that work”. Just a case of defining what works means…

Base and Superstructure, 2.0

Resisting all puns and correlations between cargo cults and our own somewhat moribund British attitude to production I was struck by Oliver Marks’ piece on Enterprise 2.0 and those fetishistic religions: Strategic Thinking before Operational Actions: The Enterprise 2.0 Tool Cargo Cult Problem. Oliver makes an interesting remark that, “Enterprise 2.0 is essentially the superstructure, to use a sailing ship analogy.” And he continues,

The superstructure is the part of a ship above the main deck, where sailors climb up and down the rigging and do the busy work of propelling the ship along. The people directing the destination of the ship at the wheel had better have mapped out their route or there will have been a lot of hoisting the mainsail and tying of nautical knots for nought.

This reminded me of my days studying Critical Theory and the once cherished theoretical chestnut of a little understood German philosopher called Karl Marx. The old boy once remarked that:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.

Presuming he’s right, whither would one put 2.0 in this dialectic? As a starter, here’s Zizek on this topic of base and superstructure and in usual fine form!

What is Cultural Capital?

Every now and again I like to wonder about social search and the semantic web. I have a secret question, which I shall share, my own personal Turing Test to see if the machine is paying attention. I ask it this – “What is Cultural Capital?” The results vary as the algorithms shift, sometimes the results are reasonably close to the actual meaning, other-times far off, way out.

In my most recent foray into this remarkably unscientific experiment, Google did OK, bringing in a Wikipedia result which, correctly as I understand it explains that the concept originated with Bourdieu:

For Bourdieu, capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation (cited in Harker, 1990:13) and cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers power AND status. (my emphasis – source)

Down the list in Google I get a similar, worthy list of definitions. I then shift the question by asking this – “What is your cultural capital?” Google of course can”t answer this – nothing equates to an answer, no one has made a cultural capital calculator which might get thrown up in such a search. I also it should be noted get all sorts of stuff I don’t want, such as Barnsley is the cultural capital of the North and such.

As a comparison, I then asked Twitter search the question:


I like these answers, of course they’re generated by people, but a machine found them for me. But to answer the question, in any other form than a list (to which Google is currently limited) there has to be cultural capital. I like the concept of cultural capital as bricolage. That enriches my own cultural capital. We are all bricoleurs in the knowledge economy.

Can a machine have cultural capital?

This makes me wonder if when I get to ask Wolfram Alpha the same question next month, whether I’ll get closer to a real answer. Will Wolfram Alpha have cultural capital?

A web tool that “could be as important as Google”, according to some experts, has been shown off to the public. Wolfram Alpha is the brainchild of British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram. (BBC)

Next blog or so (I may do one next on Pocket God) I’m going to look at Social Capital. This was inspired by the forthcoming Somesso conference where they’re flagging it as about: “Benefiting from Social Capital and the Relationship Economy as the recession bites”. As cultural capital is to the bricoleur, so I’ll argue social capital is to the flaneur. One assembles meaning via accumulating disparate knowledge, the latter creates meanings via the network of associations and wandering.

The big question though is this – can we measure social capital in a non-reductive way?

The Monument Project – Spatiality of the City of London

There’s something that draws out the thought of the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in the excellent Monument Project.  A whole series of time lapse cameras generate a 360 degree image from London’s Monument in the City, London:



With the advent of modernity time has vanished from social space. It is recorded solely on measuring-instruments, on clocks, that are isolated and functionally specialized as this time itself. Lived time loses its form and its social interest — with the exception, that is, of time spent working. Economic space subordinates time to itself; political space expels it as threatening and dangerous (to power). The primacy of the economic and above all of the political implies the supremacy of space over time.

Lefebvre The Production of Space

All lost perhaps, by both the G20 and its protesters…?

Critical Media – freewill and the web

One element of social media that intrigues me is the apparent lack of engagement between Theory minded people and industrial (for want of a better word) social media. I suspect, in fact I strongly suspect that I’m missing a lot of what’s going on here, but when I search on say Baudrillard and Web 2.0 I don’t get the level of response I’d expect. OK, there’s a level of engagement here, but there’s not the richness I’d expect. Maybe it’s a case of those looking at social media through critical theory eyes not knowing how to optimise their pages for Google and the like.

Jamboree of Contemporary Thought

looking for power

A lack of SEO savvy is not something one would expect to see amongst the evidently technical able of the world of blogs and Twitter and so I believe that any absence of using continental philosophers to understand social media and web 2.0 is literally that, an absence. My interest in all this is academic, literally. I took the Critical Theory MA at Nottingham University in the early 1990s, a course which took in Structuralist and Post-Structuralist, Marxist, Feminist, Lacanian, Deconstructionist and classical Critical theorists in a roller-coaster jamboree of contemporary thought.

Postmodern economies

When I moved to tech and the multinational environment it was familiar. Writers such as Jameson, Lash and Urry had described what the latter called “The End of Organized Capital” and it was great to be in this white hot heat of a genuine technological revolution. Mid recession there may be a case for wondering if our postmodern, post-industrial society is a post mortem for a wealth creating, growth based economy but I’ll leave that for another post.

Discovery vs Creation

So back to Theory and what sparked off this post. Over at CenterNetworks, Adrian Chan has written a piece called “A Short Post on Discovery vs. Creation, Relating to Social Media“. This is a remarkable little essay and one that has gotten me thinking a great deal about the relationship between Theory and social media.

Foucault and the Subject

What Adrian posits is the relationship between Michel Foucault’s concept of self(s) and the way we find and act in social media. By self, we’re talking about the ‘Subject’ i.e. that philosophic bête noire of the self and the birth of individual identity. Adrian sees Foucault as having the Self as either revealed, as in religious revelation, or as created as act of will:

the Self that is discovered and known through some kind of religious quest and search. And the Self that is created, invented, through free will, action, choice (and so on). 

If I recall rightly, I’m not so sure Foucault has a sense of self-created in this way. I think he would say that it’s constructed, made from discourse and is highly transient. In a sense, Foucault is trying to unstructure identity from the Structuralist ideas of his peers – we’re part of a changing matrix of discourses, not an order of structures. 

Tagging things and connections

But says Adrian, it’s in terms of such structures that we see social media, or it sees us. It’s like that because the way many approach the web is one based on the notion of a structure of sameness and relationship. This is the model of the dating site and of tagging – this attribute is shared, this connection is made, the structure of things defines our relationship. But as Adrian points out, such a model is profoundly anti-human:

But in each case, we have only a system of things and attributes.

Human relationships aren’t build on similarity or identity of attributes. They’re a result of interaction, of understanding, of the things we do that move us and by which we move one another.

Agency and dialogues

To counter this, Adrian puts forward a model of ‘agency’. We as concious humans act, interact, create stories and converse. We create the dialogue, it does not create us. Or at least in Theory. What I think this leads us to is a chance at change. To act on and to change structures and dialogues of the web, rather than us being defined by them. Or as Adrian defines in superlative form:

Social media may be a means of production. But we are still the production of means.

This whole question of the Subject and its apparent death, is one that excites a lot of contemporary thought. For many this death is pretty pessimistic stuff. If we’re entrapped in a web of meanings, where can human agency and action be? For an answer, James Heartfield‘s book “Postmodernism and the ‘Death of the Subject’” is a pretty good counter and a tasty excerpt can be found here. Wikipedia on the Subject