[-empyre-] Virtual rights in a digital era

Reggie Woolery reginald.woolery at ucr.edu
Wed Dec 9 09:22:23 EST 2009

Apologies if these notes are too late, too long and too off topic...

On 12/8/09 3:20 AM, "Gerry Coulter" <gcoulter at ubishops.ca> wrote:

> What is interesting about the networks today is not how they might become more
> fair or just, but how they serve an historically unfair and unjust creature
> who is now seeking transparency. Online culture is indeed intolerable but we
> can be sure of a few things. One of these is that we get the networks we
> deserve.

³The American public appeared to have a penchant for views of disasters,
natural, or man-made, and stereographers fed that morbid curiosity. They
covered the Chicago fire of 1871, the most destructive in American history;
the disastrous fire in Boston the next year the Johnston flood of 1889.
Aster 1900, it was possible to get to scenes of destruction quickly, and
American stereographers flocked to sites that had just seen volcanic
eruptions and earthquakes. Stereography owed much of its immense commercial
success to a society predisposed to what it offered.²
³The World As It Was ­ A Photographic Portrait 1865 ­ 1921² Margaret Loke,
Summit Books, 1980 
As this thread acknowledges, there can be an amnesia surrounding the
unharnessed mechanical-digital object within exhibition networks -- is it
possible to be ethical or responsible when the author isn¹t the end user?
How does one become predisposed to a form of social interaction that can be
deemed at once progressive and regressive?
As an education curator, a current project of mine takes place here at the
UC Riverside California Museum of Photography.  Our Keystone-Mast Collection
of stereographic images is one of the largest in the world.  It contains a
visual encyclopedia of natural disasters, thwarted uprisings, depictions of
foreign lands, and colonized peoples.  While, much has been written about
the ethics of exotic images, of Westerners photographing others, the recent
post suggests that somehow embedded within the act of digitizing or taking
pictures we set the ground for viewing, voyeurism, and surveillance. This is
a relevant as museums worldwide archive their collections to digital
networks to compete for cultural tourists and scholars.
Benjamin suggested mechanical reproduction depresses the aura and highlights
the exhibition value ­ moving the focus from artist rendering to spectator
end-user byway of dissemination networks. For him, photography was not
painting. Those who thought of photographs as precious one-of-a-kind objects
were cultish, re-inscribing an insular ritual value. In the US and Europe
the exhibition value of the circulating image, and the pseudo science of
social Darwinism collided in the 19th century ­ to generate an audience, an
appetite, and a cult of artists for the new technology of virtual
environment (3D) stereography.  We know that images taken during the Paris
Communes documented the historic moment, but also were used to track down
and execute participants.  We recall those chilling images of naked dead
bodies in caskets laid in a row.  Was the camera a pen or a gun?
Racial inscription on a continental scale were accelerated through the
stereo-typing of civilized and uncivilized peoples by well-meaning photo
artist-entrepreneurs seeking out fortunes as well as humanistic
understanding.  The audience for these images were an emerging American and
British middle class. They had leisure. They had conspicuous consumption.
They had safety. They had well-fed families. They were not the factory
workers, nor today¹s migrant workers. How much is different today if we need
our citizens to spend unceasingly, to consume feverishly for the economy to
stand?  I have no answers to the great questions Patty and Sam ask and they
provide great local-global examples of self-determination.  How to build
corrections into a network that is primarily built for volume, expansion,
and that can absorb every byte of commercial, political, and personal
sharing? Can this only be done in academic retrospect, when we are less sure
of our standing, safety, and wealth?
Lowe, ³Using Darwin¹s theory of the survival of the fittest, English
philosopher Herbert Spencer promulgated the notion that ³artificial
preservation of those least able to take care of themselves² was contrary to
the principle of natural selection. To which American sociologist Lester
Ward countered in 1893 that, ³if nature progresses through the destruction
of the weak, man progresses through the projection of the weak.² Gradually,
Ward¹s view on poor relief replaced that of the social Darwinists. Recurrent
depressions convinced many that poverty might be the result of adverse
economic and social systems and not the result of laziness or an inferior
mind. Newspapers and books reported the abysmal conditions in factories and
tenements to increasing numbers of readers.  There was fear, too, that
without relief the poor might join the socialists, Communists and anarchists
in fomenting revolutions.²
Alan Watts of MIT said to me a few years ago ²the brain is the first virtual
network² ­ where all hybrid mash-ups of experience and speculation begin. To
that I add, change is slow and every digital-virtual transmission is a

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