The metaphor of procedurality

Early in 2015, in his compelling piece in the Atlantic entitled “The Cathedral of Computation,”  Ian Bogost argues against the popular rhetoric that we are living in an age of algorithms. His point is that a belief in the power and importance of computation in our culture has become almost a religion. “Our  supposedly  algorithmic  culture,” he writes, “is  not  a  material  phenomenon  so  much  as  a  devotional  one,  a  supplication  made  to  the  computers  people  have  allowed  to  replace  gods  in  their  minds.”   The pervasiveness of algorithms in our society and economy is an illusion. Human labor is still needed for most products, even in the high tech industries. Humans are in fact still behind a great deal of the sorting, searching and classifying that are supposed to be the hallmarks of algorithmic culture. He points out that “The  algorithmic  metaphor  is  just  a  special  version  of  the  machine  metaphor,  one  specifying  a  particular  kind  of  machine  (the  computer)  and  a  particular  way  of  operating  it  (via  a  step-by-step  procedure  for  calculation).”

The point is well taken. It is certainly important to remember that billions of people live under material conditions that are still only marginally affected (and perhaps not improved) by digital technology). But I cannot agree that the algorithmic metaphor is unimportant because it is a metaphor. Ian is quite right that the algorithmic metaphor is a contemporary version of the older metaphor of the machine. It is the contemporary version of a series of mechanical metaphors that have been influential at least since the seventeenth century. The mechanical clock, the steam engine, the dynamo—all these and other machines have provided metaphors for thinking about human nature or human society, just as digital technologies and procedurality do today. Ian is also right that any such metaphor is at best only a selective account of culture at any given time.    But the power of metaphors is that they are selective: they isolate some feature or quality from the complex fabric of experience.

These cultural metaphors function tautologically: they become true precisely because people find them compelling. A fascination with procedure leads people not only to accept but actively to pursue the proceduralization of their daily lives—to organize their music in playlists, to digitize their banking and health records, to play videogames, to track the number of steps they walk, and to share almost everything on social media.

The willingness to enter into endless procedural loops with digital technology is a very popular way of life in the developed societies of Europe, North America, and Asia.   Historically the interesting question (at least I think it’s interesting) is how the algorithmic metaphor differs from earlier versions of the machine metaphor.

Games and art

In 2014 on the website Polygon (polygon.org), Eric Zimmerman wrote an opinion piece on videogames and art. He argued that the question of whether videogames can be art ‘is simply the wrong question.”  You can read this thoughtful piece here:  http://www.polygon.com/2014/9/10/6101639/games-art.

There are two sides in the debate, but most in the games community are on one side: namely, that videogames can attain the heights of art, perhaps already have. Those outside the games community—famously the film critic Roger Ebert, but many others— are usually the ones who want to deny games this elevated status. Zimmerman is addressing the games community and shows (quite convincingly, I think) that the argument for games as art depends on misconceptions about the nature and status of art today.

It is a misconception to think that art today can be an absolute category. Rather, as Zimmerman says, “art becomes art when it participates in the practices of art.”  In other words, the art community decides what is art and who is an artist. As I have argued, our media culture consists of a large number of diverse communities of practice—communities whose memberships may grow, shrink, and intersect constantly. By this standard the art community is still relatively well-defined today. It includes some artists who make videogames or game-like art, but the vast majority of videogame designers and makers are not part of the art community.  The terms “art” and “artist,” on the other hand, are applied very broadly today, far beyond the borders of the art community. The reason for that is the breakdown of the categories of “high”and “popular” culture in the second half of the twentieth century, and the rise of popular modernism, which I have discussed in earlier posts.

When Zimmerman claims that art is “no longer the highest classification by which all culture should be valued,” he is  pointing out something that should be obvious today. There is no single classification or hierarchy to which our media culture subscribes today. The formerly elite arts and popular entertainments are all now special interests, each with a community of practitioners and audience. Each art and entertainment may have many subcommunities, and any and all of these can overlap, sharing audience and practitioners. But, the point is that if elite arts are special interests, they are no more special than any others. No one form of expression has an importance that unarguably transcends its community. This is what the plenitude means for art and indeed other forms of culture today. Each community is still free to define its art as central, and many do, but they cannot compel general cultural assent, as the elites of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries were able to do.

Art in the now classic modernist sense does not preserve or elevate culture as a whole, because there is no whole, no unified culture to preserve.  This is something that creators of popular media forms such as videogames should be happy about. Videogames do not have to compete with traditional art for cultural status. There is no universally agreed upon scale in which painting or poetry or for that matter film is more important, more central than videogames. But of course the reverse is true as well—videogames are not more important that painting, poetry or film. Those kinds of judgments of relative value can only be made from within particular communities. Unfortunately many in the videogame community are heirs to the tradition of popular modernism. And popular modernists want to break into the club of elite culture rather than break down its walls. They want their favorite media form (videogames, rock music, hip-hop) to be acknowledged as part of art as a special cultural category.

That’s why Zimmerman’s article is so refreshing. He is encouraging videogame makers to enjoy and celebrate the particular qualities of their media form, rather than trying to insert it in the category of elite art, a category that I would argue simply belongs to another community.

Knowledge inequality

There has been much discussion in the last few years of increasing income equality in the United States. The top 1% (or .01%) is garnering more and more of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% or more is losing ground. There is another gap that is growing—one related to income inequality but not identical with it. I mean the knowledge gap between those who are highly educated and the rest of the populace. America’s top academic and research institutions continue to be among the very best in the world. America’s primary and secondary schools continue to produce mediocre results at best: grade school and high school students are consistently well down in the international rankings. The result is that we have a relatively small elite of specialists (scientists, social scientists, humanists) with deep understanding and competence in their own fields, while the ignorance of the American people as whole on subjects ranging from climate change to geography to history has become the subject of late night comedy. The knowledge gap cannot be wholly explained by the income gap. Many wealthy religious fundamentalists and their congressional representatives proudly assert their rejection of climate science or evolution. For example, multimillionaire Senator James Inhofe, the poster child for climate change denial, is now chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. American political culture finds this acceptable, because a large minority of the American electorate shares his ignorance.

There is a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American life, but our current culture moment feels different. The breakdown of cultural hierarchy in the second half of the twentieth century applied not only to the arts, but also to the humanities and the sciences. As a result each intellectual community is now on its own, as it were. When challenged, it has to assert its legitimacy over and over. Evolutionary biologists cannot depend on our society’s acceptance of the legitimacy of the physical sciences (or higher learning) in general; they are expected to make the case for evolution again and again before an ill-informed court of public opinion. The same is true of climate science and will now be true of any scientific or academic community whose work is seen as threatening by any substantial American community of belief. Such questioning of authority would be healthy in a well-educated society. The problem is that, beyond the 1%, America is not well-educated. What we have is a highly elite system of education in a society that no longer believes in elites.

Browsing culture

One of the criticisms one hears over and over about the digitization of the library is that it will eliminate the element of serendipity. We happen upon a book in the stacks when we are looking for another, and a new world opens up to us.. This supposedly can’t happen when we search and read electronically. Yet one wonders whether these critics have ever gone online to look for anything. Platforms for accessing the web are called browsers for good reason. We browse all the time, and every time we use Google, we are presented with dozens, hundreds, thousands of sites by bear only a verbal resemblance to what we are looking for. Millions of visitors to YouTube may go for a specific video, but end up following the links provided to watch ten more. The same applies specifically to digital libraries and databases, such as the ACM and IEEE for computer science. If you search for one topic or author, you get many hits that may not be author or topic you expected. And if you are looking to buy a book on Amazon, you will be offered other books that other customers (with possibly very different purposes) have also looked at in connection with this book.

Digital culture is a browsing culture; for better or worse, serendipity is a fundamental feature.

Middlebrow?

A. O. Scott has produced an intriguing but confusing piece in the New York Times: “The Squeeze on the Middlebrow: A Resurgence in Inequality and Its Effects on Culture.“ His argument seems to be there is a parallel between what is happening economically and what is happening culturally. Just as rising inequality is threatening the middle class, so “middle-brow” culture is being squeezed out of existence. The middle of the 20th century were the “Golden Age of Middlebrow,” he suggests. And that is passing. But it is hard to discern what Scott means by “middlebrow.” He seems at one point to be referring to “serious” Hollywood drama and “serious” fiction of the kind that gets reviewed in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books. Yet we are experiencing right now the “Second Golden Age” of serious television drama, which would seem to be the essence of “middlebrow.”

The period Scott is referring to is the period when hierarchies of art and culture were breaking down: the 1950s through the 1970s. That breakdown quickly brought us to the point where high-, middle- and lowbrow became hard to distinguish. What we had (and have) are communities of producers and consumers (of film, painting, rock music, performance art, television, dinner theater, and on and on). Some of these communities still claimed an elite (and culturally central) status for their media forms. But that claim was (and is now) accepted only within their own community. And one of the major effects of the breakdown of elite or high modernism in precisely this period was the advent of what I have called popular modernism. Both “middlebrow” and “lowbrow” producers and consumers were often influenced by the fragments of the modernist paradigm.

Prior to the 1950s, to be educated and wealthy implied certain cultural preferences. If you were rich and had gone to good schools, you were supposed at least to acknowledge the value of classic music and high art. Today, we are not at all surprised if a billionaire prefers blues or rap to classical music. For example, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Rolling Stone reported that Mitt Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever to be a major candidate, likes the Beach Boys and country music.

Social media and 1960

One quality of social media that would surprise our time traveler from 1960 is one that digital media writers have noted with such enthusiasm: that so much of the content that flows across the screens of these “ordinary” users are texts, images, and videos generated by other “ordinary” users. In 1960, when the production of media was still centralized, only a relative elite was empowered to produce materials for the large class of consumers. Hierarchies were beginning to break down, and rock musicians, television personalities, and other popular producers were receiving new attention. And television and the rock music world did suggest a new kind of performer, who was not as remote or different from the audience as the classical musician or even the film star of the past. While the rock figures of the 1950s and 1960s were certainly not ordinary, their popularity was often based on the fact that the teenage audience could see only slightly idealized versions of themselves—teenagers or young adults who shared their origins and therefore their life stores. But at the same time television and rock music expanded the audience of passive consumers, and the gulf between the producing elite and the consuming masses remained. Today the relative ease with which a YouTube celebrity or blog writer can emerge to command a large audience has diminished the difference between producing and consuming. And so much of what people read and view on their screen is social media that was created by their friends and peers. This gigantic wealth of user-generated materials (tweets, blog posts, status reports, images, six second videos) is needed to maintain the flow experience for the tens of millions of users monitoring each other. Our time traveler, still used to thinking that media broadcasts are something special, would be surprised both that people are so willing to publish such intimate and trivial material online, and that others would be so willing to read it.

Time machine

If we could somehow transport an American through time from 1960 to 2014, she would have little trouble adapting to everyday life and surprisingly little reason to be surprised—-except in the areas of media and communications. As she walked along the streets, she would be puzzled to see many of the passers-by holding miniature walky-talkies to their ears or listening to music through headphones attached to tiny transistor radios. If she visited a home, she would find impossibly small computers everywhere—in a father’s or mother’s home office, in the children’s bedrooms, perhaps even in the kitchen. Occasionally she might find the family watching television together, but it could now be an enormous flat-screen of astonishing clarity with hundreds of channels.

But nothing in our media culture today would mystify a visitor from 1960 more than social media such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook.

Procedurality and the American Right

Theda Skocpol makes an interesting observation about the Tea Party:

“Opinionated, educated liberals often have no idea what happens in state legislatures, local government boards, or political party committees. Grassroots Tea Partiers, by contrast, know the rules and procedures for passing bills and advancing regulations in detail—for local, state, and national government. But at the same time, they hold wildly inaccurate views of what is in, or not in, public policies or legislative proposals. They know process, but flub content—the exact opposite of the academic liberals.” Skocpol, Theda; Vanessa Williamson (2011-12-02). The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (p. 198). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

This commitment to procedure combined with an ideologically motivated ignorance of substantive issues (e.g. climate change, evolution, basic macroeconomics) seems to be true not only of the so-called “grass roots” Tea Partiers but also of the educated elites of the American Right. A current example is the latest court challenge to the Affordable Care Act based on the wording of one clause regarding health-care subsidies. The legal minds for the Right have made a case grounded entirely on procedure not substance, since it is idiotic to think that the Democrats (who passed this law) intended to exclude the federal health exchange. This commitment to procedure and process is something that we see in a variety of moves by the Right: for example, in the creative, constantly morphing proposals to restrict abortion, in Boehner’s move to sue the President, in the endless votes to repeal Obamacare in the House, etc.

The Republicans have become the party of procedurality.

Does Poetry Matter?

A series of short pieces on the Opinion Page of the Times today address the question: Does Poetry Matter? Not surprisingly, the writers, all of them published poets, think that it does. Their defenses of poetry generally take one of two lines. The first is the poetry performs some vital function for our culture and for us individually. David Biepiel explains that “poetry has ritualized human life. It has dramatized and informed us with metaphors and figures of feeling and thought, mysteries and politics, birth and death, and all the occasions we experience between womb and tomb.” William Logan writes: ” People can live without poetry, just as they can live without bread, or water, or air — at least for a time.” The other defense is the poetry can speak to ordinary people. It is not a dying art of the elite. Patrick Rosal writes: “If I say last week I saw 90 high school students, who were mostly strangers to one another, howl and weep and laugh and stomp their feet to — yes — poetry… If I told you, there are children, young adults, and grownups who love poetry like this, would you believe me? No, probably not.” But why would we not believe him? There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans who could and do enjoy some forms of poetry, particularly slam and other forms of popular poetic performance. If we include hip-hop. the number rises to tens of millions.

Poetry matters to… those to whom it matters. That is, in the plenitude of our media culture, there is a community that reads or listens to poetry. Indeed, there are a number of overlapping communities who enjoy various forms of what we call poetry today. This is probably not enough for the seven poets writing in the Times, however. Implicitly or explicitly, they want to assign to poetry a universal importance: a role in our culture as a whole. For they still operate under the 19th and 20th century assumption that art, in this case poetry, must be central, even salvational, to us individually and collectively. But there simply is no universally agreed center to our contemporary media culture; there are only overlapping communities of interest. There are people for whom poetry matters, and those for whom it does not. The same can be said about prose fiction, painting, rock music, videogames, association football, and thousands of other cultural practices that were formerly labelled elite or popular. Each of these is central to one community, and for members of that community it may indeed organize and subordinate all the other cultural practices.

In our media culture today, there are centers, but no center.

Elite and popular

To defend the printed book, the literary community seems increasingly willing to isolate itself. Its emphasis on the salvational power of close reading and coherent argumentation cannot help but suggest a distinction between serious and superficial (and that most digital writing is superficial). And for all the ways in which the literary community and the humanities have opened up to new kinds of writing and new groups of authors, the dichotomy between elite and popular remains, rising easily to the surface in judgements about which authors are worthy of careful reading and which are not. In this, the literary world is like the contemporary art world. Although we live in a culture in which anyone can make art with almost any materials and almost any educational background, the art world insists that there remains an inside and outside: that certain works are serious art and the rest are not (see Van Laar and Diepeveen, Artworld Prestige: Arguing Culture Value, 2013).