machine ecology

A few ideas percolating this morning.

One from an AoIR email thread weighing the intentionality, activism, and idealism of the #pdftribute response to the tragic passing of Aaron Swartz, has me thinking about open access of information not only to human users, but to the machines that in actuality do the vast bulk of information parsing, organization, aggregation, and dissemination. Why not then engage a “machine public” (in the words of danah boyd) as a constituency, to which information should be openly accessible? Such thinking among academics necessitates a different order of thinking than interpersonal file sharing and social network-based link exchange.

Another, in reading around for a nascent book project, I’ve been struck by the clarity of Tim Morton’s premise, which begins his book Ecological Thought“At what point do we stop, if at all, drawing the line between environment and non-environment. . . ?”

Morton succinctly points to the danger of becoming so enamored of place that we may become separate from the ecosystem in which every place is situated. How can we understand our own place well if we cannot see it in a broader context or networks in which we actually live?

Morton goes on: “Ecological art . . . isn’t just about something . . . . Ecological art is something . . . insofar as it is made from materials and exists in the world.” Applying these ideas about ecological art to ecologies of information–to our digitally-inflected networked knowledge economy–only underscores that the network which enables and physically powers our digital interconnectivity is anything but virtual—what with real wires drawn across or buried beneath actual places and really integrated with the physical world in which the virtual is embedded. Kazys Varnelis and the late Anne Friedberg point out similarly, “place itself does not disappear in favor of the ‘city of bits.’ On the contrary, place is as important as ever, playing a key role in the network itself” (Place: The Networking of Public Spaces).

The place is the network infrastructure, and without understanding the nuances and complexities of that network, we are at risk of platial myopia. Indeed, I think that the term virtual world is itself a misnomer, in that ubiquity of digital places and their ability to augment our physical experience changes our corporeal experience of place in very real ways.

In a sense, it is the machines that constitute a tangible network ecology; it is our presence on the network that is virtual.