Ode to the 21st Century

In the 21st century…
What is making the news is now news,
You can make money just by moving money,
Politics is now about anything but politics,
You now have to be taught how to teach,
Having an education does not make you educated,
The police need policing,
Being creative requires no creativity,
Networking requires having no networks,
Diversity is not diverse any more,
Children are encouraged to grow up,
yet adults are encouraged to be more like children,
Being an expert requires no expertise,
only the expertise in how to be an exemplary expert,
Words are not enough to articulate language,
To not conform is to conform,
Individuality is no longer confined to the individual,
In trying to be helpful, you’re not helping,
Our societies are not social,
Common sense is not that common,
…a paradox is no longer paradoxical.

I hate EveryOne

When you read stuff like this, it really does make you realise the folly of structuralist thinking, or more accurately, the curse of the ‘ism’. I remember reading something by Marcus Doel once when the opening line was “I hate everyone” (I forget in which one of the myriad of his marvellous essays it was in and Google is no help). Of course, by that he was not expressing his hatred for the entirety of the population on Planet Earth, but rather everyone. The idea of a singular notion to describe complexity is a disturbing notion. So, when you read Mr. Cameron denouncing ‘State Multiculturalism’, you have to think what was going through the script writers mind. By extolling multiculturalism as a singular concept to be treated like a commodity is a forehead-slappingly simplistic rhetoric of linearity. There is much reticence in reducing multiplicities to a single form anyway, but to do with something as complex as the cultural rhizome of the UK by shoving an ‘ism’ on the end seems reckless. Culture is not a noun it is a verb. It is a constant juxtapositioning of ideas, things, people, beliefs, practices, communities and so on. It is performed on a daily basis by the constant to-ing and fro-ing of people’s interactions with each other and their surroundings.

Using such language then is a mistake and when it becomes to inform policy it becomes dangerous. Labelling and pigeon-holing is an exercise which is often frowned upon, given that it can reduce richness and diversity to a single descriptor. So by using language which is insensitive to the nuance of UK culture risks reactions that are not helpful, in that they are reactions against an incorrect use of language more than anything else.

In attempting to attack extremism, Cameron has, by using poor language, attacked particular people. Mutliculturalism is not something to attack precisely because it is not a thing at all.

“Just a band?” – A conversation about language

A: “The Beatles, just a band”. Too true, the Beatles were ‘just a band’, as were Led Zepplin, the Beach Boys….”

B: “How can you say that? The Beatles defined a generation of cultural trends! They had massive influences beyond the realm of just music! They created peace movements, wrote songs that have lasted forever! They, they, well, they were simply amazing!”

A: So?

B: So!?? So!????

Yeah. So?

What do you mean ‘So’?

I mean, so what? I don’t disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean that they are anything more than just a band. A group of 4 guys who got together and played music. They weren’t even the best musicians.

It doesn’t matter that they wern’t good musicians, their songs were beautiful in their simplicity and they spoke to a world of music-lovers with their inspired lyrics. They caused mass-hysteria and changed the lives of millions of people around the world!

Yeah but that’s the actions of others, not the Beatles themselves.


I mean, what you’re describing is people’s reactions to them. Not them – if you see what I mean.

No. No I do not.

What I’m trying to get at is that John, Paul, Ringo and George are the Beatles. They are a BAND. Just a band. You can preach all you want about the way in which they changed the world, but you’re conflating their influence with their ‘band-ness’.

Now your just being facetious.

Well maybe, but isn’t that necessary?

Only for a pedantic troglodyte like you.

Why thank you – but it is. If you start drawing in the practices and performances of the Beatles into their ontology then you’re creating something which is more than a band. In other words, your labeling the nodes and the networks by just the nodes.

I’m sorry, you’ve lost me.

What I mean is that if you want to a label to describe the way in which the Beatles influenced the world and all those millions of people, then why use a term that is linguistically designed to signify just a band? The term ‘the Beatles’ refers to the four members as a collective and not anything else. Think about the Beatles as a node in a network. Why would you label the entire network after one node? There is a multiplicity of actors in play which went into the ‘network’ of the Beatles and their global influence. What about them (and it’s not just people)? What about their instruments? What about the television? Ed Sullivan?? The reason anything gains popularity of influence is through the heterogeneous power of networks which are created by people’s actions and performances. Therefore, the Beatles were just a band, what they achieved is a result of action.

Ok – so it is just about semantics. Well done, you’ve proved a point that people have known about for ages. It’s just an expression. Chill out. People understand that words used can often mean more than what is actually said.

Yes but at the expense of the performativity of the networks. What you’ve just said is that words mean more than what they mean? Don’t you see how silly that sounds?

No. But then perhaps you should have asked: ‘don’t you understand the paradoxical rhetoric that you just articulated?’


Post inspired by Scroobious – Thou shalt always kill

Video lectures worth taking the time to watch….

Trawling the internet for videos worth watching is definitely a time-consuming exercise, yet I’ve found that over the course a year or so, I’ve manged to accumulate a host of bookmarked pages of videos that I felt I would want to watch again (for differing reasons I hasten to add). So if you have some spare time (which of course in these modern, complex and chaotic days we all have loads of), then take some of it to watch these.

Bruno Latour at the Tate Modern. ‘Nature, Space, Society‘. Recorded on the 19th April, 2005. Length: 2h33m.

Steven Pinker at the RSA. ‘The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature‘. Recorded June, 2008. Length: 1h10m – (inspired my previous blog post about ‘The futility of Words’)

Richard Florida at University of Califronia. ‘The Rise of the Creative Class‘. Recorded 2003 (sometime). Length 59m

David Harvey at Lund University. ‘The Rights to the City’ Part 1. Part 2. Recorded May 28th 2008. Length 1h01m

Hans Rosling. ‘Debunking Third World Myths‘. Recorded February 2006. Length 20m. (This one is worth watching for the statistical usage)

And finally…

Clay Shirky at the RSA ‘Here Comes Everybody: the power of organising without organistions‘. Recorded Feburary 2008. Length (22m – although you’ve probably all seen this one already).

If you have any that you want to share then please do, although no more from Florida please, he tends to repeat himself alot….

What now for Actor-Network Theory with the advent of Web 2.0?

Actor-Network Theory (or simply, ANT) has been my staple diet of social theory, methodology and research direction for the last 6 years now, with my PhD thesis revolving around the tenant of ANT and Bruno Latour‘s writings. Adding a temporal dimension, one could say that it was in the late 90s to early 2000s that ANT had its main usage in the social science, with geographers among them; the late great Jonathan Murdoch was a major factor in this usage. The nuances of ANT, if you are not familiar, are fascinating and if you are interested, read Latour’s fantastic book, Reassembling the Social, or take a tour around this excellent resource, ANTHEM.

Other authors (Michelle Callon and John Law to name but 2) have contributed, but Bruno Latour can be considered the ‘godfather’ of ANT and at a recent talk he gave at the LSE, he offered much of the theoretical background to ANT through the lens of the recent technological advances in computer software. Since completing my thesis, I have been content with ANT’s place in my theoretical/methodological armoury, knowing it’s place and it’s limitations. At the time of the talk, I was interested in ANT’s properties for social innovation, but now with my foray into the topologies of Web 2.0, ANT has reared it’s linguistical head once more.

The associative ontology offered by ANT is one which speaks to the networked nature of Web 2.0 connectivity, for a number of different reasons. But primarily, ANT’s focus on practice and action as the formulating power of the network aligns with the performative aspects of Web 2.o. If we take the example of Twitter, the networks formed by people following each other only surface when those people actually contribute, i.e. write something! There are lots spam followers and people who set up an account just to see what it’s all about, but then soon lose interest and stop contributing. These ‘dead links’ create a ‘hinternet’ of defunct (or dormant) connections which are not acted upon and hence cannot be considered part of the networks (from a performativity point of view). This can be applied to a whole host of digital graveyards – webpages not updated since 2002, blogs going untouched, Facebook groups which are now defunct – they all exist (in terms of wasted memory on some dusty server somewhere) but are not doing anything, and therefore do not ‘effect’ the constitution of the network.

Also, ANT talks of translation, which is the power of actors to influence the network connectivity properties. This is particularly noticeable with web 2.0 with the ease at which people can get across their point of view. My previous blog entry focused on how information is readily available and how this has the possibility to shape public opinion, and it is this ‘power’ which is effected through the generation of heterogeneous (or Web 2.0) connections.

The advent of Web 2.0 and the advancements in the semantic web mean that we will be become increasingly connected. While this is a cliché, its truth holds precisely because of the fact that this technology is allowing for more communication and therefore action to these connections. Whereas a link between you and me can be said to exist, unless that connection is acted upon (by talking to each other – which Web 2.0 facilitates) then it remains simply a metaphysical link without any real tangible meaning. Technological change and the link with ANT is now the subject of a specialized journal, and so it is not just me and my ramblings which puport to the fact that ANT has a place in the increasingly connected virtual world.

As I constantly remind people (and myself), ANT works best as a language for describing the world in which we live (well, also as a methodological tool – but that is for the social scientists out there) and it seems tailor-made for Web 2.0. Latour gives frequent talks around the world and if anybody can make it to them, I strongly recommend them, as he gives a very compelling (and always witty) account of technology which is infused with his ANT-inspired lexicon. Web 2.0, more accurately, the multiplicity of apps that seem to be related to it, increase our embroilment with each other, and therefore, as our actor-networks increase, we would do well to increase our understanding of how to best describe and articulate it – and we have a ready made blueprint with ANT.

Interlude 1: The futility of words

Words are peculiar things. They are the building blocks of verbal language, yet are woefully inadequate at their role of communicating what we are thinking. The classic book by Albert Mehrabian in 1971, ‘Silent Messages’ says that only 7-10 percent of our communication is through verbal language so the spoken word is evidently a distinct minority when it comes to communication techniques. Trying to effectively construct a sentence based on thought patterns, that are created through multiple firing of cranial synapses, could be a little bit like trying to herd cats – the multiplicities of our thought patterns do not transpose easily to the uni-directional nature of verbal language. Once a sentence is started, unless it is finished concisely and coherently, then we appear muddled and confused, and can be often derided for being so. The ‘structure’ of language therefore can be constrictive to what we are really thinking/feeling/trying to communicate.

A recent book by Steven Pinker, ‘The Language Instinct’ gives us a fascinating insight into the way in which language is used to denote the complexities of social interactions and meanings, and a recent talk he gave at the RSA is worth watching, if only for the fantastic narrative on swearing and the meanings therein. Evolution has apparently ‘hard-wired’ our brains to language, as Pinker argues, yet on a more superficial level, do we not see that words (rather than language) are changing all the time? Too quick to be associated with evolution, we see how ‘to Google’ has become part of the modern lexicon, while words like ‘chav’ have entered UK language recently, yet has become a very loaded term with some even suggesting it has become offensive and should be banned (or restricted like many other 4-letter words in the English language). Words, therefore, in themselves can appear, disappear or even change over short time periods. This is related to our cultural makeup and different people will use words differently depending on their cultural construction, but in terms of the words in themselves, they are just as susceptible to change as we are.

Words therefore can be seen as crystallised forms of lucid thoughts, a collection of a different combination of 26 letters (in English anyway) that have meaning beyond their initial glance. If you’ll allow me to philosophise about these things, words are like what Alian Badiou notes as the ‘multiple of multiples’, in that they are a rich tapestry of different meanings, cultures and even people that are subjectified by their users in multiple ways. Like numbers, words are a ‘snapshot’ on a continuum of matter, a peak in the ‘plasma of thought’ that our brains latch onto. Words, like numbers can be broken down, examined for meaning and truths (positive and negative) and often, under close scrutiny, collapse and require more words and further explanation to build up the concept again.

Negotiating our way through this complex and messy world requires us to socialise, communicate and exchange information at an alarmingly increasing rate – a rate with which words struggle to keep up. Putting those words in a coherent and constructed stratum (such as sentences or language) negates the possibilities that underlie the initial construction. How often do we find ourselves half way through a sentence and soon realising that what we are saying is not what we meant in the first instance? Life is multifarious so why shouldn’t language be? Words, as we have seen, can be manipulated, and are inherently malleable. The plasticity of our vocabulary is perhaps the best weapon we have to negotiate our complex 21st century planet, and so experimentation and wordplay can open up avenues of rhetoric that would otherwise travel along a well trodden path, and therefore force the listener (or indeed, reader) to double-take; force them to think about what is being said. As I said, words are peculiar things, but peculiar in a good way…