Blog Post

Re-reading "Situated Advocacy"

Having just spent a great deal of time enjoying the dialog surrounding the "democratizing knowledge" forum, it occurs to me that a little reading-response paper I turned in yesterday is more in tune with some of the interests here than I might otherwise have thought. Re-posted from my personal blog... This is far from a polished piece of writing; my hope is more that it helps me find folks to continue the conversation with.

As the continuation of an online dialog in 2006, the Architectural League of New York published a series of pamphlets that explore the ramifications of pervasive computing on advocacy, activism and socialities. #3 in the series, titled “Suspicious Images, Latent Interfaces,” is a conversation between Benjamin Bratton and Natalie Jermijenko. Find the whole series of pamphlets as pdfs at .

In discussing the emergence of ‘data visualization’ as the dominant mode of ‘pervasive computing’ (in 2006), Bratton claims that, “In fact, parameters of facticity are further mystified by the visualization. Part of the progressive narrative for pervasive computation and ecological governance is of a world in which every square inch is in some way constantly outpouring infinitely communicable information about itself, and that this would overwhelm inherited layers of expert systems—certain people in certain circumstances that collect data from certain instrumental means—enabling the world to declare itself as a functionally open “data continent.” From this new basic infrastructure a new kind of political institutionality could emerge.” (12)

Jermijenko’s response is centered around her sense that the intent of these types of visualization strategies take as their unspoken aim the representation of the unrepresentable, or, in her words, “sensors (0n experimental trees) mak(e) explicit some of the environmental variables to which they are exposed, we would therefore somehow be able to make better sense of those trees” (12). Both scholars are on point here, but in focusing on the role of data visualization per se they may be missing their most damning critique. It is true, as Bratton and Jermijenko go on to say, that the tree really doesn’t need sensors and graphic renderings of data to tell it’s story, in order that trees might participate in the political economy: trees are “active dynamical systems, and they do have these very visible growth responses” (14). Yet the notion of providing a voice for the voiceless goes much further into the problematic ideology of “advocacy” than it’s current incarnation through glossy data visualizations: indeed, the very notion of an “advocate” is that there is a subject who is permitted to speak (to power) on behalf of a non-subject (either an object–as in an object of the court, or an objective fact of science–or a subject that has lost his/her right to self-representation. Interestingly, it is questions of representation and the shifting terrain of power dynamics that are at the center of this debate about the prevalence of certain kinds of representational strategies. The question can usefully be widened: who is allowed to speak for whom? Is representation an adequate response to a data-intensive world? Mightn’t data visualization be but the death throes of the rotting system of representationalism that stifles our endeavors from the political realm to the scientific to the arts and back again? Who is a “documentary film maker” in the era of youtube? Who isn’t an electronic engineer with a $50 arduino? Do we need animal rights activists to tell us that slaughtering whales is a bad idea? No. We need a completely different set of power relations: one without power.

Jermijenko and Bratton rightly question the ethical viability of artists and designers acting as advocates for ecosystems: the very notion effaces the ecosystem’s inherent agency. This suggests to me that if the tools of pervasive computing are to be useful in constructing a world worth living in, it will not be in their facility to tell the story of an (constructed) object to an (imagined) public: rather, it must be in their capacity to shift the ground of activity amongst specific publics.



This is a very good follow-on from Theo's comments and interview on M'Ubuntu, a project based in South Africa where resources are scarce.  (Incidentally, I posted earlier and my post didn't stick--we are having a serious spam attack this week and we have filters set sky high and I think I was blocked as a possible spammer.  So I'll keep this short in case I'm still blocked.)   Briefly, I am torn between chagrin when projects cost millions and yield few participants and an awareness that one cannot really predict which projects will or won't make a difference.   Here are some examples from my own experience at Duke:  the advertising collection in our rare book room was digitized over many years.   Before, you had to live here or be rich enough to travel here to use this archive.  It is now used by hundreds of thousands the world over who use it to add to a sense of history that, until now, might have been dominated by the text-based media.  Similarly, when we became one of the six Apple Digital Campuses in 2003, we decided to go with a technology students loved not one that faculty wanted--the new iPod not tricked-out laptops.  And we didn't set rules.  We simply asked students to be creative and find new uses for the iPods.  We got a lot of flack for that (you can anticipate:  those rich Duke students getting still more toys!) but a year later Duke students (35% of whom are on financial aid, I hasten to add, and not rich) put on the first-ever academic conference featuring something weird called "podcasting."  This was a year or two before YouTube launched and invited the public to "Broadcast Yourself."  The idea that you could tape and upload and anyone anywhere with an iPod could download the content was unimaginable . . . and then, voila, it was imagined.


I lay awake at night sometimes worrying, though, about the costs of such developments in an economy where many people have nothing and many are starving.   On the other hand, to use your wonderful bicycle example, no one need lay awake worrying about democratizing knowledge for projects where the cost of entry is so low.  That's one reason why, to date, we haven't charged to have people be part of the HASTAC network.  We want as many people  as possible to be involved in "thinking the future together."    But how to find that balance?  it's a philosophical question that is epic, and your comment reminds us that we need to ask it on many levels all at once, all the time.


Privatizing public education is part of it.  So is today's plan to federalize state-funded public education.  All of the systems, right now, are merging as we witness the modification if not the collapse of rational choice and neo-liberal models of economics even by some of the strongest proponents of rational choice economics (i.e. Greenspan himself!)   Urgent issues for us all, and for no one more than our California network members.  But it is naive to think California is last or only.  It is merely the first of many states that must think through these issues together about the role of knowledge and the role and purpose and pragmatism of its democratization.


Well said, a  really interesting post and response to the Democratizing Knowledge forum. Data visualization will be both wielded and wrought depending on who wants to persuade, and that is certainly not a new form of (mis)representation. Most of the news articles and political polls  that quote statistical analysis do so without providing any insight to research design and number crunching, which makes all the difference. Or government agencies that cut funding (Headstart comes to mind) because they interpet study results carelessl (or purposefully, for political reasons).

Your post reminded me that we must embrace technology, particularly the stories that technology can tell. At the very least, we need to famliarize ourselves with what the tools can do. Cathy wrote a blog in 2008 on the HASS Grid, which makes available formerly confidential information about redlining in California. Because the data grid allows viewers to see the changes over time, we can visually witness discrimination in a snapshot. (Cathy's post on T-RACES: Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California?s Exclusionary Spaces is here on HASTAC:

You wrote that "if the tools of pervasive computing are to be useful in constructing a world worth living in, it will not be in their facility to tell the story of an (constructed) object to an (imagined) public: rather, it must be in their capacity to shift the ground of activity amongst specific publics."

That is precisely why information literacy, digital literacy, K-12 education, and global partnerships are so vital right now. And why we need to pay attention to digital divide/digital inequality issues. More than ever, we need educators to see technology as a vital way to think, explore, demonstrate, analyze and (re)act. Your post made me think about Mobile Voices, a project that uses mobile phones as a vehicle for citizen journalism, giving Spanish-speaking day laborers a channel to communicate their world to an audience that knows so little about them. Or Black Cloud, a project that uses air sensors and data visualization to give people information about the air they breathe and the cycles of pollution that influence their daily lives -- Manual Arts High School students in L.A. discovered that their classrooms had record amounts of CO2, enough to cause headaches, sleepiness, and nausea. They advocated to have the windows unsealed (they had been painted shut), bring plants into the space to help the air quality, and keep the doors open during class time./

Those are only a few examples of groups using pervasive computing tools to *see* their world, and to use that information to not only advocate, but to shift activity.