Thursday, November 19, 2009

My (late) Bruckner-Cohen Post

*** this was an email that I sent to Pooja that I also intended to be a general blog post.***

//edited from the original

Okay, so first of all, my question does not directly address Terranova but has been something that has been on my mind for a long time - let's call this hobby network sociology or the ways files associate - and has been especially pertinent since that lecture by Bruckner-Cohen.

His video demonstrations on his network-art projects showed the ubiquity of signals that permeate our world and how different outputs and inputs create an enmeshed matrix of competing communications across a broad-sensory experience - ubiquity approaches mass communicability by enabling a fairly "plugged-in" society to associate information and their physical presence through network devices. By tying in different modes of networked communication into physical media, he was, perhaps, trying to illustrate the extent to which our lives have become associations through invisible ties whether consciously or unconsciously. There is however, I feel, an underlying assumption that information is spontaneously generated and implicitly available to be tapped into at all times, that within a network culture, information is becoming increasingly available for consumption, production, and distribution. His bluetooth and wifi jamming experiments illustrate this. He has also depicted such information sharing, quite correctly, as being zero-sum under the right/wrong circumstances.

Given that we are flesh and bone, access to such information streams, though apparently ubiquitous and reaching universality, still requires interpretation by machines that operate on their own (constructed) language. Bluetooth, for instance, requires a bluetooth device to send and receive - ad-hoc and public but with a certain barrier to entry. The same goes for, in a more explicit fashion, wifi. The internet, if we can generalize its experience (though of course, different cultures react differently to internet practices), presents a seemingly universal or rapidly universalizing field. Yet, there are important distinctions that still need to be addressed.

Aside from the browser and OS wars, there is the subtle question about file specific formats. To send text (or hypertext) on email, we may either a) write it in the body, or b) send it as an attachment. (a) is about as universally accessible a format as it gets - provided that one has sight, and one can read the language (it will, however, still be written in the latin alphabet unless of course one chooses a different script). (b) gets tricky however. There's .txt, .doc, .docx, .rtf, .pdf and whatnot. And even if one can open all of them, there are inherent assumptions about each format. Even if they deliver the exact same information in the exact same font, there is a hierarchy, I feel of information transmission given the carrier file format it takes.

.txt and .rtf seem to me the most primitive of forms; although seen as the easiest, it may actually be more difficult for the user given that some may be written in software since superseded and that saving into these formats is usually not the default choice of contemporary word processors. .doc seems to be the generic standard - functional and getting to universality. .docx is seen, i believe, as the pretentious choice - it offers a little in the way of extra formatting with reductions in file size (but when everyone has a disk drive in the gigabytes and a high speed internet connection, a few more kbs can't hurt). .pdf remains the gold standard - and it has a certain official air to it. It can't be edited (easily), is generally used for downloadable academic documents or books, and makes any file seem, by association, more real or at least coming form someone with standards. by way of empirical proof, all the companies i've sent my CV and portfolio to in .pdf formats have offered me interviews (not a real sociological survey but not bad for me).

like bluetooth and wifi networks, there is an implicit password within the file formats that is reaching custom and expectation. we believe the internet and the network to be free of restraint but we bring our own personal assumptions into network culture. bluetooth seems more dodgy and less important - look at how many people on tuesday's experiment left their bluetooth devices retain their default names - versus the relatively more visible security measures wifi has.

so i guess my question is.... even if all information is transmittable, even if labor has worked its way to produce, at face, human, interactive, and physical value, exactly the same types of information, how important is the carrier? how important is the act of designating files with format types as opposed to names or use value? has this been explored? does prestige in information now come in many new ways (authorship, publication, date, accessibility, editability, transmission medium, and format) that have previously never been quantified? how democratic can this be if file formats and media continuously create standards that seek to diversify - VHS triumphed over betamax, DVDs over laserdiscs, CDs over minidiscs, because they were formats that needed compatible hardware; software works differently and is much easier to process on a (near-)universal and pre-existing platform - rather than unite?

- aaron wee

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