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Athabasca University

Presenter's Essays

Ian Angus
Professor of Humanities
Simon Fraser University

“Digitization as Knowledge and as Being”

My essay will investigate digitalization as a form of knowledge and as a manifestation of Being. It will begin from the idea of a medium of communication containing a message with knowledge about the world (representation) and also as a formation of the world in the image of this form of knowledge (ontology). Digitalization, as the word suggests, is an action upon a previously existing form. It works by translating the plurality of existing forms to a meta-form that can be re-embedded back into specific forms. The emergence of this generic level of communication is the condition for a general theory of communication as such. To this extent, general translatability and re-embedding, as well as "information" as a content-less claim to knowledge, characterize the specificity of our time.

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Maria Bakardjieva
Professor of Communication
University of Calgary

“Navigating the ‘Mediapolis’: Digital Media and Emerging Practices of Democratic Participation”

The contemporary media environment is in the process of significant reconfiguration. One of its key elements is the massive uptake of new media in all areas of political, social and personal life. Notably, citizens acting as individuals and groups, creatively invent ways of employing new communication tools for the purpose of putting their concerns to the attention of the larger public, to the policy-makers of their respective countries as well as the international community. What Roger Silverstone (2007) has called “the mediapolis”, or the mediated space of appearance in which the public world is constituted, nowadays encompasses a remarkable variety of technological and organizational forms and practices. In this complex environment, the old, traditional, or ‘legacy’ media continue to play the role of key nodes. Hence, the intertwining and interaction between the new, flexible, personal, and informal communication tools and practices on the one hand, and established media institutions on the other is important to understand. Moving between these different sets of tools and communication repertoires has become a necessary skill for citizens and civic groups who want to make their voices heard and their causes attended to. This paper will examine cases of effective civic initiatives with a view to the strategies and competencies necessary for successful navigation of the digital mediapolis. Recent theoretical debates concerning the relationship between digital media and democratic participation will be revisited and re-interpreted on that basis.

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Daryl Campbell
Senior Systems Administrator, Computing Services
Athabasca University

“ Badiou's Subject: The Case of Open Source Software Development”

On the surface Alain Badiou's theory of the subject, caught as it is in it's formal construction, appears to leave minimal room for any analysis of an individual's active identity formation. Can Badiou's thought on human animal's individual agency, in the form of a decision, resist any reduction to robotic subjective incorporation? The analysis carried out in this paper examines the conjunction of Badiou's thought of the subject stripped to component elements of identity and agency and the role of software developers in the Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement. As a pioneering movement in the success of the Internet, this movement's evental nature supports a thinking of how software creators, of a significant base of code that the digital world operates on, break with any binding subjection to the norms of corporate software development and technological determinism. Do these do-it-yourself creators of the digital cultural landscape offer support for an alternative social order that still preserves their individual self-identity?

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Sharone Daniel
Student, MA Program in Integrated Studies
Athabasca University

“The Influence of Social Networks, Relationship-ties, and Identity on Participation in Internetworked Social Movements”

Digital activism has become, if not an effective, most certainly a widely participated in activity for citizens concerned with everything from corruption to the protection of the earth's few remaining rainforests. During last year's Arab Spring, a study done by the Dubai School of Government stated that in March of 2011 nearly 9 out of 10 Egyptians and Tunisians surveyed stated that they were using “Facebook to organise protests or spread awareness about them”(Huang, 2011, para 1). Given the widespread practice, and potential power, of digital activism, I believe understanding its complexities is a vital task.

Numerous studies have shown that the networks that persons are embedded in, and the way they self identify, are critical factors in determining whether or not, and how much, they participate in social movements (Passy, 2003, p. 23-24, McAdam and Paulsen, 1993, p. 656). My research thus seeks to understand how the social networks of digital activists affect their participation, what role identity plays in the process, and whether or not digital activists' networks are similar to those of offline activists. My research methodology involves interviews with fifteen members of an online Brazilian group engaged in the movement to protect the Amazon Forest.

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Andrew Feenberg
Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology
Simon Fraser University

“Dialectics of the Digital World”

There seem to be three main approaches to understanding the impact of digital technologies on the future of modern societies. Some speculate that digitalization will have an impact comparable to the invention of agriculture or the industrial revolution, flattening social hierarchies and unleashing mass creativity. Others argue that digital communication will destroy higher culture and contribute to the stupefaction of the population initiated by the mass media. Finally, there are skeptics who demonstrate that nothing much has changed by tracking the reproduction of familiar patterns of power and wealth in the organization, control and impact of supposedly revolutionary technologies such as the Internet. All three of these approaches cannot be right but there may be some truth in each of them. This paper proposes a partial synthesis, arguing that there are indeed epochal effects associated with digitalization, but not of the sort or the scope characterized by major changes in production technologies. These more modest changes may have implications for culture, but it is still too early to tell whether they will confirm the trend set by television or counter it with new forms of cultural activity and participation. The claim that new communication technologies have simply confirmed the old inequalities is only partially true. It would be astonishing if corporations and governments found no use for technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones, but that does not mean that nothing has changed and that the technologies have had no significant democratic impacts. This paper will develop the argument through a discussion of some key examples.

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Carolyn Guertin
Assistant Professor of Digital Media
University of North Texas at Dallas

“Hacktivist (Pre) Occupations: Self-Surveillance, Participation and Public Space”

Under consumer culture, self-surveillance—the act of submitting your own data to corporate interests like Amazon, TiVo or Facebook—becomes a revolutionary gesture of participation (Andrejevic 15) …or so corporate interests would have us believe. With the advent of social media, we now log our own data in the service of multinationals. A number of digital media artists and groups, however, have turned the camera on themselves, using self-surveillance as a means of creating a way of writing their own digital narratives outside of the prescribed parameters of social media’s control. Exploring the ubiquitous potential of surveillance technologies as a medium of self-expression, I will discuss several guerrilla methods by artists that use these tactics to repossess all-seeing cameras for aesthetic ends. (Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Surveillance Camera Players, Manu Luksch, and Elahi Hasan) Secondly, I want to examine how lifestreamers, webcammers and social activists use the potentialities of self-surveillance to reveal and to disguise, to as a way of both communicating and avoiding detection.

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David Gunkel
Presidential Teaching Professor of Communication Studies
Northern Illinois University

“Response-Able Machines: The Opportunities and Challenges of Artificial Autonomous Agents”

We currently occupy the world science fiction writers and filmmakers have been predicting for decades—a world populated by and increasingly reliant on intelligent or semi-intelligent machines. Robots, or more generally artificial autonomous agents, are everywhere. We chat with them online, we play with them in digital games, we collaborate with them at work, and we rely on their capabilities to help us manage all aspects of our increasingly data-rich, digital lives. This paper investigates the opportunities and challenges of these Response-Able Machines—machines that are designed for and are able to respond to human users as if another intelligent agent and in doing so have both legal and moral responsibilities to the human beings with whom they communicate and interact. In particular the paper will 1) trace the development and recent proliferation of artificial autonomous agents in both online, virtual environments and physical reality; 2) investigate the effect these machine have on conceptualizations of identity and agency; and 3) explicate the consequences of this development for the way we understand and operationalize concepts of legal rights and moral responsibility. The paper, therefore, addresses and evaluates fundamental changes in identity and agency in the age of intelligent machines.

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Bob Hanke
Contingent Faculty in Communication Studies and Humanities
York University

“The Network University in Transition”

Drawing upon Castells, Liu, Kittler, Negri and Weber among others, my broader project examines how the network university has emerged out of the “university in ruins” (Readings 1996). Readings described how University of Excellence displaced the University of Culture’s cultivation of citizen-subjects within the liberal nation-state. He recognized the cash nexus of the post-historical, capitalist bureaucratic university was coming to the fore and that computerization was altering the technological context of writing, publication, and reading. Today, the acquisition of knowledge cannot be disassociated from the digital nexus.

To trace how digital media and their networks “mediate the conditions of mediation” (Hansen 2010:81) is to attend to the materiality of “discourse networks” that allows culture to “select, store and process relevant data” (Kittler 1990). Developments in the storage and retrieval of information have led to new practices of scholarly communication (Borgman 2007) and facilitated the growth of administrative networks for “information and image control, surveillance, and unidirectional communication, edicts and coercive demands on actors lower down (McCarthy, Patton, Kim & Monje 2009: 48). Policy experts have declared the entire Ontario public university sector unsustainable (Clark, Moran, Skolnik & Trick 2009) while corporatization, credentialism and edu-technologies have been lowering higher education across Canada (Côte & Allahar 2011). One way the chronically underfunded, research-intensive university ‘breaks even’ is by “delivering labour in the mode of information” (Bousquet 2008: 60).

In the context of this symposium on Identity, Agency and the Digital Nexus, I contend that the digital nexus – the relation between digital technology and techniques – have been instrumental to the transmutation of the university. I begin by laying out the idea of networks and the duality of network processes. I proceed by suggesting that university can be conceptualized as a network enterprise that shapes the “internal outside” that is the “unassimilated background” of academic professions (Moten & Harney 2004). I go on to argue that information technology (IT) strategy can be understand as a mode of development that fuses technological and organizational change. The mid-1990s switch from main frames to client-server networks created an IT infrastructure that was decentralized but too heterogeneous to fit the mold of a “comprehensive university. ” Another technics of organization would be tried. In the late 1990s, the boundary between “administrative” and “academic” computing was broached. By the mid-1990s, a “utilities-oriented” infrastructure was combined with “service-oriented” applications. By the late 1990s, “The discussion around IT is becoming increasingly about managing the University, not just managing IT” (2009 York IT Strategy). During this period, IT professionals acted as technological intermediaries between IT industry vendors and their “clients” – administrators, faculty, staff and students. The development of centralized distributed networks affords both networked faculty performativity and hierarchal operativity.

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Andrew Herman Cancelled
Associate Professor and Chair of Communications
Wilfrid Laurier University

“Hiding the Hiding: Network(ed) Capital and the Performativities of Digital Labour”

The Communitech Hub is unique facility dedicated to the growth and commercialization of Ontario’s digital media industry. [It] brings entrepreneurs, multinational companies and academic institutions together under a 30,000 ft state-of-the-art roof. Its mission is to build global digital media companies — and it pursues that goal by mentoring tenant startups, splicing innovation into enterprise partners, sowing the seeds of strategic partnerships and helping big digital media ideas secure funding. The Hub is an enormous digital sandbox that turns big ideas into big companies” (http://www.communitechhub.ca/?page_id=164).

This paper reports on an on-going, multi-modal ethnography of the performativities of affective labour and quotidian identity in what I felicitously term “Blackberry TM capitalism”. The site of this particular phase of ethnography is a digital media business “accelerator” in Kitchener, Ontario called “the Communitech Hub”. Prior to its transformation into a “node in the national network” of Canadian informational capital, the building that houses the Hub was home to the Lang Tannery which, in its heyday, was the largest tannery operation in the British Empire. Where animal skins were once turned into materials for worker’s clothing, work is now transmogrified into play as “big ideas are turned into big companies” within the friendly confines of the Hub’s metaphorical sandbox. To argue that the Hub is a site for the valorization of informational capital based upon the appropriation of immaterial and affective labour is the starting point of my analysis and a rather banal one at that. My contribution to the evolving analysis of immaterial and affective labour is to examine its performativities within quotidian flows of networked capital in situ through the epistemological prism of radical empiricism. One of the key analytical contributions of this paper is to critically interrogate the hegemonic concept of the “network”, dominates theories of informational or communicative capitalism.

Following the lead of MacKenize (2010), Terranova (2005), and Galloway and Thacker (2007), I examine ‘edges’ of network and the “conjunctural” folds where they are articulated and stitched together in everyday discourse and practice. As an ethnographic pursuit concerned with the power/knowledge that suffuses “experience”, radical empiricism of networked sociality examines the striation of the flows of capital in the form of “intermediate levels” of business alliances, subcultural groups and identities, supply chains, professional groups, spatial maps and start up plans, Twitter feeds, and so on. As MacKenzie argues, a radical empiricism of network culture focuses on the field of connections or conjunctures where the network is an event---rather than a structure--that is always-already in formation with the distinct possibility of failure. What happens when the “playbor” of “sowing the seeds” and “splicing innovation” yields nothing but the echoes of hidings past?

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Leslie Lindballe
Student, MA Program in Integrated Studies
Athabasca University

Critical Discourse Analysis and the Question of a Digital Bubble

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) seeks to examine the ways in which exploitative power structures are (re)produced at the basic level of language within a particular utterance or text. Historically this analysis has been limited by the propensity for avenues of publication to be controlled by the very power structures CDA seeks to analyze. In the digital age, in particular thanks to the world of Web 2.0, it is now possible to access a surfeit of content from the every-person. While the breadth of material helps CDA answer criticisms of agenda-driven selection of data, the detailed analysis of even the smallest bit of text has made engagement with the digital world a daunting task. Further, the borderless nature of hypertext pushes researchers to freeze dynamic digital content in order to fix meaning for the sake of analysis. In this way, the CDA text demonstrates how language selection itself (re)produces structures of authority. Finally, CDA shines a light on the ways in which search engines, news providers, and social media sites use data frames common to CDA researchers to customize results to almost any query. Largely invisible digital systems regulate our access to information, begging the question: “Who is tailoring my access to the largest repository of human knowledge in history?”

Leslie Lindballe is an emerging scholar examining the multiple points of intersection between the digital and analogue worlds. Founded on her own transformative experience on a small, Liberal Arts campus, Ms. Lindballe seeks to determine the ways in which meaningful educational relationships develop in the open Web. This research will illuminate opportunities for digital scholarship within small, community-based institutions, especially those found in the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC).

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Mark McCutcheon
Athabasca University

“Theoretical and Institutional Contexts of the Dubject, the Doubled and Spaced Self”

“We have leased our central nervous systems to various corporations.” - Marshall McLuhan

This paper develops the idea of the dubject as a model of remediated subjectivity, which I have begun to formulate elsewhere (2011, 2012) as "a self committed to its own recording; a subject translated from the site of the individual body to the mediated spaces of representation; a self dubbed and doubled - a doppelgänger self whose 'live,' corporeal presence becomes radically supplemented (in the deconstructive sense of the term) by its different and distributed embodiments in recordings and representations."

The paper explores theoretical and institutional dimensions of the dubject, trying to think digital identity and agency in the context of postcoloniality as a complement to the prevailing approach in terms of postmodernity. I relate the dubject to the theoretical context of the “subject in technics” tradition (particularly the contemporary quarrel of augmented reality theorists with “digital dualism”); and I elaborate how the dubject occupies the position not only of the colonized in the context of media imperialism but also that of the colonizer, in the broader political economy of the digital as a neoliberal, private-public sphere that reproduces dominant forms of subjectivity: those of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 2000). These reproductions become clear according to how digital identity and agency have been theorized, and how digital services and platforms interpellate users under the regime of neoliberal globalization.

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Marcel O'Gorman
Associate Professor of English
University of Waterloo

"Dust, Data, and Roaches: On Digital Humanities, Digital Art, and the Horror of Things"

This essay examines posthumanist philosophy through the lens of two high-definition videos: Rioji Ikeda’s Datamatics v2.0 and Herman Kolgen’s, Dust. Ikeda’s computer-generated video presents a vast cosmos that is completely free of human agency, a digital world in which the “post” of posthumanism denotes temporality, the after-human. Herman Kolgen’s Dust, on the other hand, presents a world of inorganic micro-agents, rendering visible and agential a tiny cosmos that is otherwise absent to human consciousness. As I will argue, both of these videos—one telescopic and the other microscopic—achieve a horizontalizing effect that unseats and unsettles anthropocentric notions of being. In so doing, they embody several posthumanist concepts, from Stiegler’s notion of epiphylogenesis to Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. This essay will demonstrate how these videos both reify and challenge posthumanist concepts not only in their content, but also in their production technics, which rely on highly advanced prosthetic devices to achieve visualizations that push the boundaries of the human sensorium. Finally, I will discuss the role of artistic practice more generally as a form of philosophical investigation, and following my previous work, I will argue that humanities scholars, who are still bound to print publication, should follow the lead of digital artists as they attempt to position their research in an increasingly digital culture.

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Roman Onufrijchuk
Lecturer in Communications
Simon Fraser University

“Of “Data Wakes” and ‘Paramortals’”

This paper is concerned with the relationship between new media and the age-old human fear and inspiration – death. For over 300,000 years, humans have wondered at, feared, and tried to overcome death and loss as facts of human being. Now, for digital natives, death and the loss of loved ones it precipitates, may become a thing of the past through new media. In digital and networked daily life – especially due to growing numbers of digital transactions, growth of data storage capacity, increasing natural language comprehension and synthesis – we leave behind ourselves “wakes” of records, images and communication transactions – in short – the fullest personal life archives available to individuals in human history. It should then come as neither empty conjecturing, nor science fiction, fantasy or wishful thinking to suggest that in the not too distant future technology will allow us to reconstitute dead personalities based on these “wakes” of archived data, render them interactive, thereby “killing” death as we interact with our “paramortals’ or, in that form, interacting with our descendants.

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Josipa Petrunic
SSHRCC Postdoctoral research Fellow
Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
University of Toronto

“The Digital Democratic Deficit: an analysis of efforts and outcomes related to digitised elections and campaigning”

In so far as “digital technology” includes all computer-based tools, it is possible to talk about “digital elections” and “digital campaigning”. “Digital elections” refers to voting that requires computer-based tools to be completed. Such tools include computer-based databases, which are used to count and store analogue votes (i. e. paper ballots), computer-based voting websites, digital ballots that are scanned and “counted” by computer hardware and software, and telephone voting programs that use a combination of analogue (push button) voting with digitized recording programs that count the telephone votes.

“Digital campaigning” refers to any effort by a candidate or political party to contact, communicate with, and convince voters by using computer-based tools. Those tools include computer-based databases used by call centres and campaign teams to generate and track voter identification, Internet-based tools such as conventional websites, social media networks, online advertising, email-based surveys, and e-blasts. I will argue that, in so far as we can speak about “digital elections” and “digital campaigning”, we can also talk about a “digital democratic deficit”. A “digital democratic deficit” refers to the inability of digital technologies to accurately reflect the intention of voters; it also refers to the ability of digital technologies to mislead or manipulate the voter.

While some political pundits are quick to appeal to “digital” technologies as a solution for falling voter numbers and rising voter apathy, this paper will present a series of outstanding concerns over the capacity of “digital elections” to identify (or obscure) voter intentions and the ability of “digital campaigning” to enable (or disable) voter agency. I will explore digital technologies associated with “digital elections” and “digital campaigning” in Alberta and in Canada more broadly. I will identify areas of possible uncertainly, insecurity, and manipulation that create space for a “democratic deficit”.

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George Siemens
Associate Director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute
Athabasca University

“Identity Formation in Distributed Networks and Social Spaces”

The formation of identity is now heavily influenced by technology. The events that comprise identity no longer exist in physical spaces. Through social media and mobile technologies, individuals participate in conversations and profile development in numerous settings. As a result, identity - what it is and how it is formed and shaped - is a far more complex concept than what existed only a few short decades ago. In physical settings, identify formation and projection is based on environment and context. In online settings, various social networks and groups interact without established boundaries. As a consequence, social and personal networks interact with professional ones. In these porous settings, individuals are confronted with challenges around how to manage and project the various "sides of themselves". This paper explores how digital media, particularly social networks, impact traditional conceptions of identity as well as processes of developing, concealing, and adjusting representations of selves.

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Jay Smith
Professor of Political Science
Athabasca University

“The Internet and Democratic Citizenship – the Dark Shadow”

In the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, the Indignados and Occupy movements, there has been an almost celebratory tone about the emancipatory and democratic potential of the Internet. This paper adds a word of caution to the above arguing that we may be entering a new era of state and international governance of the Internet, an era that may see Net freedoms increasingly limited. Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information stated in February 2010 “’leaving the Internet alone’ has been the nation’s Internet policy” but “that was then and this is now. ”

More rules restricting Internet usage are coming and the United States is not alone in this regard. This new emphasis is not on democracy but on risks and threats, for example, to commerce (intellectual property), to children (pornography), to unwanted intruders (hackers, ie, “crackers”). Drawing on Foucault I discuss how risks and threats are socially produced and subject to surveillance, discipline and control through mechanisms of the state and international governance. Yet, as Foucault also argues, “where there is power, there is resistance”, a resistance that is networked, based in civil society, transnational in character, and, increasingly, effective.

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Lorna Stefanick
Associate Professor of Political Science
Athabasca University

“Democracy and Identity in the Digital Age”

In less than a decade, information management has emerged as a critical challenge of the new millennium. New technologies that collect, store and transmit information at the click of a mouse are allowing public and private sector bodies to amass a stunning array of information. At issue is the ability of individuals to control information about themselves in light of competing demands for it by others; this speaks to the ability of individuals to pursue their self-interest free from external control. Of equal importance, however, is the ability to access information that is crucial for both the organizational functionality and accountability that are necessary for efficiency and good governance in both the private and public sectors (Stefanick 2011).

This chapter will explore the balance between privacy protection and access to information through contextualizing it in the age-old debate over the optimum balance between the rights of the individual (defined as personal autonomy) and the rights of the larger community (broadly defined as the collective good). As Amitai Etzioni has argued: “Good societies carefully balance individual rights and social responsibilities, autonomy and the common good, privacy concerns for public safety and public health, rather than allow one value or principle to dominate. Once we accept the concept of balance, the question arises as to how we are to determine whether our polity is off balance and in what direction it needs to move, and to what extent, to restore balance. ” (1999)

The balance that Etzioni envisioned, however, may be increasingly difficult to achieve in the digital age, since an individual’s agency is constrained by both ignorance and apathy of the insidious power of digital technologies. These technologies can erase space and place, allowing new communities of interest to emerge, populated by digitized individuals (Stefanick and LeSage 2005). In turn, the data derived by corporations from these digitized individuals provide important fuel for corporate marketing machines. This chapter argues that democratic citizenship in a balanced polity will increasingly depend on the ability and willingness of both individuals and communities to exercise control over digital identities, while at the same time demanding organizational transparency through free flowing information.

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Updated October 08 2014 by Student & Academic Services

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