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William Uricchio and the object/subject in participatory media

I’m at the Applied Brilliance conference this morning, a gathering of architects and designers in Bolton Landing, NY, a gorgeous corner of Adirondack State Park. I wasn’t actually scheduled to speak here – my friend Omar Wasow had to pull out of the event so he could be on Oprah’s show today. Since I’m just down the road, I’m pinch hitting. (I guess that the fact that Omar’s known for his work on social networking in the African American community and since I study social networking in Africa, I can talk in his stead…)

William Uricchio of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department leads off a morning session on “invention” with a discussion about participatory culture. He notes that there’s a separation between the US and Europe on these topics. Americans tend to be more optimistic about technologies like Wikipedia, while Europeans are more skeptical. He notes that there’s also a generational fault line between people who think that these technologies are benevolent versus those who think they’re dangerous.

Uricchio shows a picture of the earth seen from the moon. He notes that this image shows us the pinnacle of a certain scientific regime that made the photo possible via space travel. He suggests that the image shows us object/subject relationships, three point perspective and other aspects that are part of modern culture. He invokes Heidegger, suggesting that the idea of a world concieved as a picture would have been inconcievable in the Middle Ages. The ability to grasp, pin down and picture reality is characteristic of modernity.

His talk starts with a section titled “Modernity and the algorismic vision” – algorism is a word we don’t see much these days. It’s a real word – it’s a way of doing arithmetic by following simple rules – but while it dominated discourse from the 1500s through the 1900s, the word “algorithm” – more complex procedures or processes. Algorism was the underpinning of the three point perspective – you could reproduce reality with a high degree of accuracy by following simple rules. “Follow the rules and you can’t go wrong.”

We’re now living in a different age, an era of participatory culture. Participation is an old phenomenon, something that’s been around forever. But it was overwritten by the culture industries at the start of the 20th century. We’re moving away from this commercial, centralized production of culture, being shaped in part by technologies like fiber, capable of delivering information at 32 terabits per second, which would allow us to transmit the Library of Congress in a few seconds. This raises questions of whether we become a culture of storage, or of circulation.

Uricchio quickly namechecks some participatory phenomena:
– the creation of thousands of applications for the iPhone
– SETI@Home, an application of grid computing
– open source and commons production that makes Wikipedia possible
– crowdsourcing, which he characterizes as “group production privatized, for profit” through systems like Threadless.

Common to these all is the notion of the algorithm. He shows us Photosynth, the remarkable application that’s capable of creating rich 3D spaces from photos found on the web. Rather than building a space by building a model, the model emerges from the production of thousands of amateur photographers. “From Descartes to the moon shot, it’s been about specifying who’s the subject and who’s the object.” But that’s extremely unclear in the age of Photosynth. Who’s the agent making the picture? Whose perspective are we seeing? In a participatory age, we’re moving from an I to we. Our experience is experiential, not just spatial, and we need to reconsider how we look and see.

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  1. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Show and tell at Center for Future Civic Media

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