Authenticity in Distributed Networks: a #MLA15 Proposal

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“Authenticity in Distributed Networks” is a deep dive into how humans and machines collaborate to make or adjudicate authenticity. Machines “authenticate” information, but without consciousness. Humans derive authenticity from cognitive and embodied processes; consciousness is a gatekeeper, confirming or disconfirming information. Although machines lack consciousness, their collaboration with humans in rendering authenticity is not simply instrumental. It’s co-constitutive. Katherine Hayles names this co-evolutionary process “technogenesis.” Hayles’ How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis historicizes the co-evolution and argues persuasively that techne and cognition interoperate on mutual terms. Technogenesis decenters the ontological priority of humans. Hayles illustrates: “The process of writing down was an integral part of [Richard Feynman’s] thinking,” she observes of the physicist. “[T]he paper and pencil were as much a part of his cognitive system as the neurons firing in his brain” (93).

Will Luers' "Fingerband" at the exhibit Les littératures numérique d'hier à demain at the BNF in Paris, September 2013.

Will Luers’ “Fingerband” at the exhibit Les littératures numérique d’hier à demain at the BNF in Paris, September 2013.

The five scholars on this panel hail from engineering, media studies, music performance, literature, and game design. We share a conviction that literary performance in computational environments requires a broad range of expertise to surmise authenticity, and that authenticity is a complex node.

We trace how information circulates between readers, computational environments, texts, and authors. The logics of such circulation recalls Reader Response Theory, where mechanistic explanations of the how texts operate aimed — and failed — to universalize experience. Consider this panel one “Site of Memory” that “Negotiates” our discipline’s past “with a difference.” Our approach to new medial environments understands they are perforce racial, gendered, and colonialized. There is no such thing as “purely formal” mechanisms. Among the “sites of memory” this panel excavates is the history of twentieth-century literary formalism and critical identity theory.

Drs. Luigi Benedicenti and Sheila Petty — an electrical engineer and a media lab director — explore the challenges of measuring “authenticity” in digital cultural objects, and in particular, in screen-based interfaces. They offer their experience using découpage analytique, a term derived from cinema that involves shot by shot analysis of visual composition, editing, narrative and sound in a holistic approach in a pilot study on screen-based interfaces. They selected a series of media fragments that include poetic, visual, and language texts, as well as those that combine these features, and presented them on a variety of screens: a computer monitor, 2 tablet computers, and a touch-screen phone. They examined the cognitive and aesthetic features of how a particular genre (an essay, a sonnet, a net art project) is experienced on each platform and whether the essence of its content is altered or influenced. Benedicenti and Petty ask whether it is possible, or even desirable, to achieve “authenticity” and what it would mean for the text, reader, author when we must create adapted versions of the texts for different digital devices. Additional factors in the cognitive process such as culture, race, gender and sexual orientation (among others) of the reader could impact “authenticity.”

OccupyMLA excited a contentious reception on the #MLA13 hashtag and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where people debated whether the “hoax” violated the implied gift economy that is the MLA Twitter community. Of the hundreds of OMLA participants, only the two designers Marino and Wittig knew it to be a “fiction”; the vast majority of co-authors contributed “not-fiction” to this “fictional” work. Several prominent female participants pointed out that the “hoax” quality of OMLA reinforced female vulnerability. Kathi Inman Berens reconstructs how the OMLA archive memorializes the live installation. A platform of immediacy and partial attention, Twitter-as-story site is susceptible to human errors of attention and memory that the network “remembers” and propagates indiscriminately. The #OMLA medial spread circulated far beyond OMLA and the authors’ control: so widely, in fact, that the shattershot of its medial impression is functionally unrecoverable. The OMLA archive, juxtaposed against frail but distributed human recollection of its live installation, reveals the ways in which an archive is also a repository of lost or unfindable stories.

Can browser-based activist art reframe how people understand the “authenticity” of information? A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz‘s Mark Ditto Mark, a Chrome browser extension co-authored with Lucas Miller, transforms the Internet into a conceptual novel by replacing the proper nouns on a webpage with either “Mark” or “Ditto.” The effect is arresting: information we seek gets co-opted by “Mark Ditto,” who “replicates” himself where ever you go. People commonly refer to an active browser as a “window,” as if it provides them a fixed view of an exterior world—behind glass, one they cannot touch—instead of actively offering an interpretation of data. This talk reframes the browser window as a space of critical and artistic intervention. By automatically injecting JavaScript into each webpage, browser extensions can rewrite the narrative of the entire Internet while still preserving its underlying information, giving readers a critical purchase on the “authenticity” of the self constructed by and through the browser.

“New forms of technology-based performance can bring attention to significant qualities of human experience that we only notice when technology disrupts them,” observes Jeff Morris, Studio Director in the Performance Technology program at Texas A&M. “In such a performance, elements inherent in traditional performance do not appear without deliberate design. Bringing attention to the previously unappreciated elements of live performance allows us to see any musical performance as more than a sequence of sounds, but an intermedial experience involving visuals and movement, and playing upon pre-conditioned expectations. As such, “music” becomes literary, where literary reading tools disclose new dimensions of digital music performance. Weblogmusic compels performers and audiences to notice and question how they feel about (human) presence and authenticity in “turn-based” communications formats: its “born digital” events only really exist in the viewer’s web browser, in that moment. Network glitches and shuffling mean that each performance will be unique, that the appearance of causality is suspect, and that there can be no master copy. These properties allow us to reflect on how we value the substance of a work and where we look for it.

Hayles, N.Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2012.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford and Josh Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press. 2013.

Luigi Benedicenti is a professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Regina. Benedicenti received his Laurea in Electrical Engineering and Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Genoa, Italy. He is a Professional Engineer licensed in Saskatchewan and a licensed Italian Engineer. His collaborative network extends beyond Saskatchewan with TRLabs and IEEE, and Canada through collaborative work with colleagues in Europe, South East Asia, and North America. Benedicenti’s current research is in three areas: Software Agents, Software Metrics, and New Media Technology. He envisions the unification of platform, tools, and optimizations for the provision of persistent distributed digital services, regardless of people’s location and delivery device.

Sheila Petty is professor of media studies at the University of Regina (Canada). She has written extensively on issues of cultural representation, identity and nation in African and African diasporic screen media, and has curated film, television and digital media exhibitions for galleries across Canada. She is author of Contact Zones: Memory, Origin and Discourses in Black Diasporic Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2008). She is co-editor (with Blandine Stefanson) of the forthcoming World Directory of Cinema: Africa (Intellect Books). Her current research focuses on transvergent African cinemas and interpretive strategies for analyzing digital creative cultural practices. She is leader of an interdisciplinary research group and New Media Studio Laboratory spanning Computer Science, Engineering and Fine Arts.

Kathi Inman Berens lectures at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and teaches 21st-century communication practices. In 2014-15, she’ll be a Fulbright Scholar at the Digital Culture Research Group at the University of Bergen in Norway. An IBM Faculty Award Winner in 2012, Kathi is a USC Annenberg Innovation Lab Research Council member. She curates electronic literature at venues including the Library of Congress. She has articles forthcoming this year from LLC: Literary and Linguistic Computing (Oxford UP) and Hyperrhiz, and a chapter in Steve Tomasula: The Art and Science of New Media Fiction (Bloomsbury). In January she published a short piece Double Flip: 3 Insights From Flipping the Humanities Seminar in Hybrid Pedagogy.

Adam Liszkiewicz is a media artist and activist from Buffalo, NY. He designs experimental and socially conscious games with RUST LTD., coordinates development of the Tenants in Action mobile app with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), and is an assistant editor at the online journal Anti-. He is the author and editor of several chapbooks, including LL (Scharmel Iris, 2013), ALPHABET MAN (Slack Buddha, 2010) and COUNT AS ONE (New River, 2009), as well as a forthcoming full-length collection, AFEELD. Adam received an M.F.A. in Media Arts Production from SUNY Buffalo, and is currently a Provost’s Fellow in the Media Arts and Practice PhD program at the University of Southern California.

Jeff Morris is a composer and Studio Director in the Performance Technology (PerfTech) program in Texas A&M University’s Department of Performance Studies. His work centers on the impact of technological mediation on the human experience, such as expression, authenticity, and presence. It approaches the question, “In a time when human activities are increasingly replaced by machines and when machines are mediating human interactions: what does it mean to be human?—in what ways do we sense and make sense of each other’s presence?” His work includes live performances and computer software created for these environments for performance-based inquiry in venues including the International Computer Music Conference, International Society for Improvised Music conference, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, and the Triennale di Milano museum. He was a featured artist in concerts in Manhattan, Austin, and Sweden.

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