Etymology is Everything

From Wikipedia:

culture: the capacity to classify and encode human experiences symbolically, and to communicate symbolically encoded experiences socially

This traditional definition of “culture” – not the only currently operative one, but one still prevalent in much discourse on practices in everyday life – is obviously problematic where the inclusion of nonhuman subjects (and human subjects incapable of sending messages or indicating their understanding of them) is presumed, or even merely contemplated. If one cannot signify, one might argue, one therefore cannot be included in culture. For some this seems to merit exclusion from human moral consideration as well (given that ethical systems cannot exist without culture existing first). This is can be dismissed easily as an unsustainable position on simple pragmatic grounds, because many human cultures recognize the intrinsic value of non-signifying human subjects (people who are in various stages of conscious awareness, for instance), and thus to exclude nonhuman subjects for this reason is nothing more than speciesism.

But the definition still captivates many, due to its symbolicocentric mystique. I think I found a way out of this constraining, inconsistent, and morally unsatisfying definition of culture, and it involves thinking about culture and communication as being necessarily bound up with dense, cohabitational spaces – communes, farms, and cities. To get there (as if by magic!), it helps to examine the etymology of the word “culture”. Culture, as students of communication, anthropology, and cultural studies know well, has many competing definitions in both everyday and academic discourse. These have a history – from Matthew Arnold, to Franz Boas, to Raymond Williams, to Clifford Geertz and beyond. Consider, from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

culture (n.) mid-15c., “the tilling of land,” from Middle French culture and directly from Latin cultura “a cultivating, agriculture,” figuratively “care, culture, an honoring,” from past participle stem of colere “tend, guard, cultivate, till” (see colony). The figurative sense of “cultivation through education” is first attested c.1500. Meaning “the intellectual side of civilization” is from 1805; that of “collective customs and achievements of a people” is from 1867.

Here’s how I interpret this complex term: with agri-culture comes sedentarism and a being-together-in-the-world and cooperation with strangers – the genesis of city life. A “cultivated” mind is essentially urban (or at least agricultural); modeling itself on the “care” of the land required to ensure survival, we came to understand how to care for our fellow urban residents – both human and nonhuman – whether or not we had a window into their inner mental lives. Contemporary urban life enables access to intellectual life, “worldliness”, and an ethic of care.

There are already tremendous discourses on the inclusion of Artificially Intelligent subjects in our moral community, and some of these are premised on the problem that we cannot know when robots are really sentient or autonomous. With nonhuman animals, however, we are already there in terms of knowing about their sentience.

Culture also includes these unwitting (some, like crows, are perhaps a bit more “witting” than unwitting) nonhuman participants (companion animals, animals used as resources, and urban wildlife, possibly conceived of as NPCs, or “non-player characters”, in RPG parlance – not that this is ideal). Urban systems are full of nonhuman participants. Any moral system we develop in this proximal, settled, grain-eating milieu must include them (animals).

To my mind, the challenge this presents for cultural studies, communication, and anthropology is this: how do we revise our working definition of “culture” so that non-signifying participants (otherwise sentient) are afforded ethical consideration and inclusion? I propose that if we revisit the history of the word “culture”, we might see a clear way forward. That is to say: culture=cultivation/(plant)agriculture/dense urban cohabitation/ethic of care.

Also, consider this: Cadmus decided where to build Thebes by following a cow until it lay down in exhaustion. Cadmus also (mythically, of course) was credited with introducing the portable alphabet to Greece. So cities, writing, and nonhuman animals share a place in very old thinking about language, communication, and settlement. It is the animal who writes the city, asks us to settle down, and implores us to find a way to keep consistent records.

Is this making sense yet?

Updates on Method

I’ve been following the work of Jason Farman for a while, and am now enjoying his book Mobile Interface Theory (excerpt here). It’s really good, but in the process of being good also points out many gaps in our contemporary thinking about mobile (it’s not just phones) and phenomenology (it’s not mutually exclusive of poststructuralism; it’s not outmoded). Needless to say, this is yet another new work among many that relates well to my dissertation in process.

It feels a little uneasy bringing (as Farman does) the concept of embodiment (via Katherine Hayles) to a constructivist interpretation of technology, but in some ways, it makes sense and feels right. Why the uneasiness? Well, I recall trying to do so in my comprehensive exams and getting cautioned not to do so by one of my supervisors. I cannot recall the precise reason why I was so cautioned (though it seemed like a good reason at the time, and under the pressure of the oral exam, I chose to backpedal away from my more adventurous ideas rather than fight for them), but it had something to with this:

I was trying to make the point that Hayles’ notion of embodiment as a process involving mutual constitution of biology and mind (Farman brilliantly extends this to bodies and space) is resonant with Latourian concepts of hybridity. That is, acknowledging the mutual constitution of biology and mind is identical to acknowledging the hybrid of politics and science. Somehow the literary dimensions of Hayles’ work didn’t sit well with Latour for that member of my committee.

Am I nuts? Naive? Reading vandalized books? Hep me, I want to resolve this.

Real time GPS tracking on the Nokia N95

I exercise 5 days a week, and much of this is running. While I can be found in local gyms on occasion, I try to do as much of this running as possible for free. For in using a treadmill, with its diligent, brainless constancy, I subjugate my running activity to the Gestell of its designers and the networks of people and things that maintain that thing as a predictable machine, and me as its consumer. I become some totally useless, galloping form of what Heidegger calls Bestand in the process.

Enter GPS and Google Maps, which together offer tangible, and ludicrous alternatives to the regimentation of gym apparati. With these marvels of our age I can, in theory, monitor and regulate my own running, and in doing so keep costs down, like the careful consumer I am. And what the hey, biofeedback loops are funnest when they involve sending data approximately 20,000 kilometres into space and back again, then across 2000 kilometres of Internet and back again to my Macbook Pro so I can enjoy a bunch of flashing lights and icons. In short, could I use my phone to log my jog?

Well, work colludes with life this week as Scott and I explore various GPS trackers for the Nokia N95. We are looking specifically for something we can deploy for a rally between a smart car and a bicycle as part of Mobile Muse‘s platform demonstration at Car Free Vancouver Day this year (Sunday June 15th).

I’m sorry to report that I’ve tried out two of them, and both failed.

Nokia Sportstracker beta didn’t work for me at all. It’s basically a heavyweight stopwatch. A stopwatch that works just fine, but that doesn’t do anything else.

MapMyTracks has an excellent website, where one can replay one’s movement on a detailed map with ease. But unfortunately, the phone app seems to go haywire at unpredictable intervals. The stop watch and distance meter ran fine until 2.56 km on my run today, then all the numbers froze. Plus, it was constantly looking for a new wi-fi hookup, which was most irritating. I came home and checked out my My Tracks page and found that the site only recorded two truncated runs : one that crashes the java applet that shows you the movie of your run, and a second one that is only 0.5 kilometres long (my daily run is about 7K).

Back to the drawing board…

MUSE3 BCNET presentation

I had the opportunity last week to present my ongoing research into user-centered technology design (which is what is evolving out of my ethnographic research in the lives of mobile handset users) as part of a panel all about Mobile Muse (where I’m the Program Manager, for those who aren’t aware of this).

A webcast of the proceedings is available here. Here are slides for the full presentation, and here (more for my own concept archiving sanity than for anything else, really) are my slides extracted from that set.

Some of the same ideas from prior talks I’ve given about the mobile divide are revisited here, but in the context of a more proactive problem orientation. Here I’m asking: how is technology developed in ways that are directly informed and influenced by the communities of users most affected by them, and how is this tech disseminated in ways that are socially beneficial?.

MUSE3 is an excellent opportunity, I’m finding, for looking at the processes of intermediation that go on in the building of new things. At the intersection of network engineers, open source and other sorts of coders, mobile handset companies, government agencies, artist-run centres and a cavalcade of people and organizations with an interest in the potential of mobile technology, many complex interactions are going on that contribute, bit by bit, to whatever technological assemblage is going to emerge. Fascinating stuff, really. Here’s hoping my notes are as meticulous as they need to be…

The PhD – the comprehensive exams

So I’m diving straight into my comprehensives now. I’m building lists and checking them twice (and more). While building these reading lists is in many ways a very personal journey, I’ve decided to blog about the process so that I might get feedback from unexpected locales, harnessing the “wisdom of crowds” (while simultaneously, in both comp areas, critiquing how such “wisdom” is in fact problematic). I also hope that documenting the process can help others through it. I won’t be posting my full notes (who’d read them?), but I will share my definitional essays, my questions and answers, and an account of process along the way. I’ve written up preliminary préces of my two exam areas below.

Area 1. Science and Technology Studies. This will involve SCOT, ANT and other critical theories, but it will also dovetail through Philosophy of Technology (I’m thinking Heidegger through Marcuse and Feenberg, and also including Ellul and others, perhaps a few off the beaten track – we’ll see). I want to ask questions through this literature about the relationship of technology, power and social organization/social change. There are also some intriguing connections with Area 2 (below) via Hennion/Latour (their work on culture industries), and, according to one of my advisors, Habermas’ Public Sphere as well as Lazarsfeld.

Area 2. Culture Industries/Sociology of (The) Art(s). Starting with Hesmondhalgh’s (2002) synthesis of political economy of media studies with cultural studies and other approaches to the sociology of art, I plan to broaden this area out to include American and Continental approaches to the study of cultural/creative industries. This will likely include a range of approaches, including Bourdieu (various), Becker (various), and DeNora’s more recent work, but this area is still under development. There are important connections to literature on occupations (Balfe, Latouche) organizational studies (Throsby, Sacco, Menger), and of course The Frankfurts. Essentially, as I told one of my advisors this morning, I want to survey the body of work that theorizes culture industries, without limiting myself to a particular tradition (as approaches vary broadly). Keep in mind that I wish to keep this area current, as well, and as such I will need to make room for Eglash’s (and others’) work on appropriation, as well as Jenkins’ (and others’) work on fan culture. Sprawling enough? It makes sense to me.

My advisors, colleagues and friends (as well as the “social web” hoi polloi) can feel free to jump in any time. Like you have any time.