[-empyre-] Week 4 - Design (Mat Wall-Smith-FCJ)

mat at slashstarhash.com mat at slashstarhash.com
Tue Jun 29 15:43:29 EST 2010

Dear All..

My apologies for not finding time to respond sooner.  I have been following the discussion with keen interest - and with the two tasks that currently consume my long waking hours- in mind. Firstly, the discussion has taken place as I am finalising a thesis working on the relationship between affect and technology in our ecology of thought and the implications this relationship has for the ‘life of the mind’. Secondly, I have for the past many months, working as the Fibreculture Journal Manager, on moving the Journal across to a highly (and increasingly) customised version of Wordpress (multiuser > multisite).

Me and the Fibreculture Journal.

I am constantly working between the two spaces I mention above - knee deep in two very different forms of code (theory and program). Negotiating the translation between these two spaces is what I am most interested in and what motivates me; How do we design and employ both technical and theoretical architectures in the service of a vital ecology (of thought/mind/action)?  

My exploration of this question extends well beyond FCJ and has been central to my work in the design and implementation of open, flat and distributed information architectures for education, in my ongoing creative practice in sound and interactive media, and (of course) to my thesis.

I suppose relative to Andrew’s declared status as ‘wannabe geek’ -I am much more likely to be found actively hacking both program and theoretical code - and I see that facility (or determination) as a critical part of my practice and my exploration of questions above. I approach FCJ from that perspective and with the express intent of affording an architecture that will allow the FCJ community to (eventually) reconfigure and actively explore the potential for new forms of academic knowledge production.

Improvisation and Labour

 As with Andrew - Music - (from both and ‘industrial’ and ‘creative’ perspective) has been, and continues to be, an important vehicle for my thinking through the relationship between affect and technology. Music is the ‘frame’ with which I approach the question of  (the future for) publishing academic text;  What would a more ‘improvisational’ mode of academic publishing look like? 

This question is not divorced from that of of a sustainable publishing industry - as Andrew has indicated the current vitality of the music ecology stands in stark contrast to the anxious ‘pacings’ of established industrial stakeholders. This tendency is undeniably reflected across all ‘content’ industries - not least the traditional knowledge industries - the university will be the slowest to realise this - but it will/is happening. It was great to see A.AAAARG and The Public School represented here as they are, for me, important (though imperfect) indicators for the future of knowledge production and exchange. I’ve also drawn a lot of inspiration from the work of Jim Groom (bavatuesdays.com) at the University of Mary Washington whose work effectively realises a surreptitiously ‘open’ university. As Michael has argued with regard to P2P’s forging of new fields for industrial capitalisation - Industry (or ‘industriousness’, ‘vitality’) begets industrialisation. To that end I’m most concerned with how we might design information architectures that extend this vitality or industry while at the same time ensuring an ‘openness’ that stubbornly refuses  capture, control, and delimiting of that vitality. 

As is the case across media production and publishing today my position as journal ‘manager’ is a little euphemistic.  All my work on FCJ is voluntary and there is presently only as small community of time-poor free labourers (our ‘tireless’ founding editor Andrew Murphie - and previously Lisa Gye as outgoing manager ) to which I can reliably delegate work  (although developing that community will be central to Journal’s ongoing sustainability). I install, code, design, upload, edit and plot minor/incremental revolutions for the way a ‘Journalesque’ academic discourse might be extended or refigured for the contemporary network ecology. 

As an indication I would estimate that I have spent in excess of 60 hours on the Journal over the last two weeks as I try and ensure the journal is ‘fit’ for everyday use (not the usual of course). There is an important question here about the form of labour involved in, and the sustainability, or economy, of this style of open publishing. I’m not sure how to correctly/most productively frame that question - but I’d begin with an analysis of the ‘instrumentalities’ that the traditional Journal architecture affords/inscribes - and then ask how we might modulate that ‘instrumental ‘capital’ to build a more sustainable communal practice of knowledge production for an network ecology. For me this is an architectural and organisational challenge based along the lines of what Michael Dieter beautifully described as  a willingness;

 ‘to ask how.. art and cultural works might exist in network
societies outside of patronage, care-giving or charity, AND residual systems of property.’

Of course the labour involved/required in maintaining FCJ means that the initial iteration of FCJ’s new site is very much a ‘first step’ - or rather a ‘next step’ - it is built with a need and a desire to look very much like a traditional ‘print’ journal while providing an information architecture that will afford the potential for realising new undetermined ways of working with, applying and extending the Journal’s unique dataset - for realising multiple and emergent ‘instrumentalities’ beyond those of simply ‘publishing’ (as outcome).

 For me the critical question is what effect (and affect) a particular mode of publishing enables/realises? What instrumentalities does it realise? How can we publish in modes that better allow for a proliferation of instrumentalities? This is very much in line with  Femke’s assertion (in response to David Ottina) that ‘doing matters..’ - but for me (at least) this extends to a question of the form that publishing takes and the way particular architectures and modes of publishing afford, delimit,  and/or inscribe the potential for particular (and potentially multiple) modes of instrumentality.

To that end the focus of my first/next step with the design of the journal has not been to build a new ‘system’ but in some sense to simply begin by decoupling the dataset from its inscribed instrumentalities (this is my excuse for not concentrating too much on visual design at the moment). The trick is to ensure that this decoupling and ‘virtualisation’ of the dataset occurs at the same time that the (institutional and communal) instrumentality upon which the journal is founded can continue to operate. 

Both the need to begin somewhere, incrementally, and the need to maintain the journal’s established institutional and communal instrumentalities (in spite of my desire/impulse to simply tear them down) imposes a real discipline on the project. We cannot afford to predict the potential futures of the journal or of publishing and so must  do our utmost to ensure the dataset is open to those futures, and potentially capable of actively realising those emergent-cies - those potential continuities.

Open, Flat, Distributed.

To that end every step of the work we have committed to the new architecture of FCJ (like many of my other projects) is not only based on the form of openness to which we refer when we speak of open software, open licensing, open publishing - but an openness to ‘indeterminant instrumentality’ or industry. To this end I repeat three mantra’s (or a three part mantra?) - ‘open, flat, and distributed’. The open part is some respects the easiest - the struggle to assert a ‘closed’ digital media is a real concern and continues unabated - but it is, I think, a losing battle for an unsustainable, essentially undermined, economy (brute force alone keeps it in play). In any case I’m not particularly interested in critiquing the political vagaries of existing architectures beyond the point where it can inform, and forewarn the development of alternative economies and instrumentalities. It is those alternatives that will realise a productive difference. 

The ‘flat’ part of the mantra is considerably harder to achieve- it begins with a separation of form and content - but extends far beyond that to the point that the distinction (between form and content) no longer makes sense and we aim to approach a completely  ‘molecularised’ dataset. It is here that the question of, and an active theoretical engagement with, for examples, metadata standards becomes important (despite the academic humanities looking at this work as too ‘technical’). We need to ask critically what practices, relationalities, instrumentalities, are inscribed in particular metadata standards and how we might ensure systems and architectures of ‘archive’ and (more importantly) exchange that are persistently or stubbornly open by design - this also means moving beyond the ‘architectural’ predeterminations and inscriptions of ‘residual systems of property’ with which academic work is often authored and ‘stamped’ as ‘open’. Openess without ‘flatness’ - without access to the codebase - is not open at all. 

The ’Distributed’ part of the mantra is the other real challenge. We are seeing how essential this is in the social media space - and it now seems clear that a vector for more essentially distributed architectures will thankfully emerge to counter the centralised service architectures that gave rise to the ’web2.0’ (Recently looking at Mark Pesce’s Plexus demo (http://blog.futurestreetconsulting.com/?p=381)- although this will also will be a site of intense architectural contest. In some cases flatness in combination with openness realises the industry and sustainability of a distributed ‘system’ or ecology - but in other cases the very aim to maintain a system that is guardedly open and flat (defensive openness) encourages a counterproductive architecture of open and flat ‘control’ (with its attendant lack of agility/vitality). 

In some sense this harks back to the point about Labour - A sustainable culture/industry of knowledge/cultural production will depend on the decentralisation and  effective distribution (by design) of both labour and the affective capital in the service of realising an sustainable economy beyond (once again) ‘the patronage, care-giving, charity and residual systems of property’ with which current architectures (including FCJ) are (barely) sustained. So the final part of the FCJ install is trying to think through how we ensure the work we publish becomes instrumental beyond the confines of the journal itself, and in the process how the journal can become increasingly instrumental within a wider ecology of open, flat and distributed culture of knowledge ‘improvisation’. 

That’ll have to do for now....

Mat Wall-Smith.
Media & Technology Theorist/Experimentalist.

The secret is that only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.  —C.G. Jung

Eventually everything connects. - Charles Eames

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