Something virtual, something actual

I recently attended a conference, mainly out of convenience over anything else. It happened to be here, so why not? The title, ADDA 2, short for Approaches to Digital Discourse Analysis 2, should tell you what you need to know when it comes to what the various presentations dealt with. Okay, it was not simply out of convenience as I’ve dabbled a bit with digital discourse analysis in the past. It’s also what many of the students do and/or are interested in doing, so there’s that angle to taking part in this as well. Sure, there’s also the networking aspect, but that comes with all conferences and meetings.

Just like in the past, this short essay will not cover everything that went on during the conference, namely because one person cannot be in all places at once. So, if it seems like I’m leaving out something here, it’s because I am, because I have to. I’ll also discuss certain presentations or themes more than others. Some things just interest me more than other things or I don’t have much to add to these presentations. Sometimes I’m left speechless. As I wasn’t there to give a presentation, I tried to ask questions. I thought that’d be only fair. If you happen to read this and I did ask a question or just commented on something, it probably means that I was interested in the presentation. That said, of course there’s the possibility that I had nothing to say, nothing to add because the presentation already answered any questions that I would have otherwise asked. To keep this short, I’ll focus only on the plenary speakers in this essay. I may write another one, focusing on the regular sessions, but we’ll see.

The plenary speakers were all great. Carey Jewitt focused on an area that’s, strictly speaking, let’s say on the fringes of discourse analysis. Those to whom discourse is just about language (which it is, yes, but, at least for me, it’s not only about language), may have found the presentation being not on the fringes but on the outside. Anyway, Jewitt discussed haptics, how touch, both as actively touching (grasping) and as being touched, coming to contact with something physically, is something that has been hardly explored in connection to all things digital. That’s largely because, well, there is a lack of research in this field, although I guess it’s rather a lack of funding than a lack of interest among researchers.

Jewitt also noted how there’s a lack of apt vocabulary, not only to be used in research but also in general. For example, it’s hard to explain, to put into words, what heaviness or certain texture is like, without connecting it to some prior experience of having grasped a heavy object or touched a certain surface made out of certain material(s). Like you can say that something has a rubberized feel, that it gives in a bit but also helps you with the grip, making it less arduous to hold on to it. But you need to have handled items that have that kind of feel to them to know what I’m saying. Or, I could say that some surface feels like I’m running my fingers on a piece of sand paper. Again, you need to have done that, to get what I’m after.

Then there’s also the matter of proximity, to touch or to not to touch, or to touch with an object and what that entails. Credit for bringing this up goes to Peter Wikström in the audience. This made me think how, for example, handling a puck with a wooden hockey stick feels different than it does with a composite hockey stick. There’s just that something how different materials affect the touch, how a puck feels, even though, technically, you are not touching it with your body. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve tried that yourself, which I believe is the point Jewitt was making. Anyway, there was also talk about how digital technology is getting there, but it’s, let’s say, still in its infancy.

The talk about haptics also connects to the virtual reality (VR) technology presentation that took place on the last day of the conference. I know I’m straying here from the plenary talks, so, long story short, in case you want to jump ahead to the next relevant paragraph, to the next plenary session, I was somewhat surprised how well the team, Nico Reski, Aris Alissandrakis and Jukka Tyrkkö (I’m not sure who’s responsible for what), managed to make hand gestures work in their VR software. Okay, fair enough, I had no prior experience being in a VR environment, of any kind, so I can’t really comment on how it is in general when it comes to VR. I was expecting to have to use controllers, you know, those things that look like door handles, but I got to just move my hands and fingers to make things happen. I can’t remember what the gadget that makes this possible is called, but, yeah, I believe it’s the thing that was placed in front on the headset. It looks a bit like a USB dongle.

So, as there was nothing that I was gripping or touching with my hands, it means that there was no haptics, in the sense that I wouldn’t be able to feel anything, to have any direct feedback. I thought it was cool nonetheless. Just to be able to use one’s hands, without actually gripping on to something or wearing something, to make things happen felt impressive. Sure, it wasn’t perfect but I think I have to give them credit for that.

Overall, at first, VR felt like looking through binoculars and looking around wasn’t smooth, not like laggy or blurry but like edgy (fps and/or anti-aliasing related?), but after, say 20 seconds, I was there, not really thinking that I was in a room, standing in the middle of it, surrounded by a handful of people. The hands blended in well and I didn’t think of myself as just standing in a room, grasping air in front of me. Movement was a bit tricky, because the demo wasn’t about moving. Then again, I reckon that this is an outstanding issue with VR in general when it comes to walking in the virtual world. You’ll quickly find yourself outside the area you are supposed to stay in and eventually hit a wall. I haven’t tried such by sitting down but I’ve been told that moving about in the virtual world, as if walking, while actually remaining stationary can be nauseating (plus there’s, also, apparently, a whole host of other effects related to sensory mismatches between virtual reality and reality). I reckon it’s different with simulating driving or flying a plane though, but that’s probably because you feel like you are supposed to be sitting still. Apparently there are 360° treadmills that fix this issue but, unlike VR headsets, they are prohibitively expensive for customers. Then there’s also the issue with the headsets being wired, having those cords run from the back of your head. There are wireless adapters available which apparently work great, for just that, being wireless, but the thing is that you are then running on a battery, so you’ll run into the same issue as do with your smartphones, running out of battery. Also, it doesn’t make the set any cheaper.

I’ve been interested in VR technology, for entertainment purposes, because, at times I play games. I just haven’t had the opportunity test the technology, so that presentation was something I really wanted to try. I also realized that it might be useful in research, for visualizing certain real world phenomena in the virtual world. For example, my research pertains to indoor environments, so I’d be cool to be able to have an actual room rendered, then have the objects that I study having set qualities, such as language or mode, which you could then switch on/off to see how visually salient those phenomena are. That’d be amazing.

Like the demo guys pointed out, the issue with VR is that people don’t really understand it. That’s partially because it’s a fairly new thing. It’s not something that people who make funding decisions are familiar with. It has great potential for research, especially for presenting certain phenomena to people who are not academics. The presenters were using it as a research tool, to help crawling through big sets of data, but it’s not only for that.

Anyway, I’d love to get a headset as I’m sure it would have its uses. I remember pointing this out in some funding application. The application had this part where they asked what’s something that one should look into in the future. Of course, knowing my lack of, well, anything that would translate into getting a position that would pay me properly (I mean, I’m currently hilariously cheap, and thus very, very efficient in terms of the output), so that I could justify dishing out that kind of money, I’m not exactly expecting this to happen anytime soon though. Okay, the sets are not too expensive for my wallet and the prices are bound to go down as the companies push out the next generation of headsets. For me, it’s rather that, unlike many of my colleagues who could invest in such and get into it, right now, I have to save money just to make sure that if, sorry, when, I’m out of job, once a fixed-term contract runs out, my life is less of hassle. Whatever I buy, I need to justify the cost, to make money from that investment.

The next plenary speech was given by Rodney Jones. In summary, he gave an excellent talk on a very Foucauldian topic, how we are not only been kept an eye on through surveillance (I’ve discussed this in my previous essays), but also how we are pushed to participate in making ourselves visible so that it is easy to keep an eye on us. This he called genres of disclosure, how we, voluntarily, not really coerced or forced to do so, provide details of ourselves, including but not limited to our interests, our desires, our routines, our beliefs, to the world in various ways, ranging from government forms (this is, of course, a predigital thing as well) and talking to health care experts such as doctors, therapists and counselors (also a predigital thing as well, what Deleuze and Guattari certainly would call priests!) to various social media platforms. As already indicated, this is not a new thing, as such, as this is what Foucault addressed in his work. If I remember this correctly, he studied how church confessions had this purpose, to make people talk, which, in turn, created new ways to discipline and control people.

Jones also pointed out how not only do we end up sharing information about ourselves, that could end up used against us, mind you, but we also have to do that in particular set ways. The thing with data is that it can be pretty messy. It’s too noisy. That’s why you are asked to render your information into what seems to be the closest match, this or that category. Humans are crazy complex. I acknowledge that, even though in my own research I tend to emphasize homogeneity (people learning/copying/imitating things from other people) rather than heterogeneity. This is why we are asked to select, this or that, yes or no, up or down, male or female, tall or short, rich or poor (feel free to think more of these), instead of writing an essay length disclosure on who we think we are, hedging on various issues, addressing the issue from multiple perspectives, pondering, perhaps never really getting anywhere.

A priest (an actual priest, a doctor, a therapist or a counselor) might be able to simplify such narratives to a set of categories or, preferably, binaries, but that’s costly. Such interpretation takes time and money. In other words, priests are inefficient and thus no longer needed, inasmuch as they can be made redundant that is. In terms of efficiency, it’s way better to make you do all the work. So, instead of giving you the option to rant about your life, you must now choose, this and/or that. This way it’s you who analyses you! The patient is the doctor!

Another related issue to this is that we come to express ourselves this way. I’m this and/or that. We come to think of ourselves in these categories, which not only causes a plenty of headache and distress if we fail to meet our self-diagnosed conditions, but also makes us an easy target. This is something that Foucault pointed out decades ago.

For example, firstly, labeling yourself this or that, let’s say homosexual (because it’s only apt in reference to Foucault, but feel free to replace that with something else, it should work equally well), results in us having to define a standard of what counts as homosexuality, what is properly gay and what isn’t, which results in judging some people (no, not heterosexuals, the other standard) as deviants, as not proper homosexuals. In other words, creating a standard of this or that, in this case homosexuality, formerly a deviation from the standard (and, yes, I know, this change hasn’t happened everywhere), results only in moving the goalposts. Sure, it may seem to be more inclusive (and, in a way, it is), but, despite the good intentions, what you end up doing is just excluding some other group of people, who do not conform to the new standard and thus end up being labeled as deviants, just like the homosexuals who were considered deviants against the standard of heterosexuality. This is why I like to think it’s better to rethink what being an individual is, to consider being as a mere passing moment in becoming, to no longer think yourself as this and/or that but as always becoming something, yet never reaching anything, as such.

Secondly, and perhaps more alarmingly (as these are intertwined), the categorization into this and/or that makes people an easy target (as mentioned already). The more information you disclose about yourself, especially in neatly packaged preset categories, as this and/or that, the easier it is to target you. These days this targeting is largely commercial, used to influence your desires in order for you to buy this and/or that, typically some … you don’t need (albeit they’ll tell you otherwise!). This also applies to political views, as Jones pointed out during his speech in reference to Cambridge Analytica. This could, however, be used against you more directly as well. It becomes way easier to persecute people for this and/or that, including but not limited to sexual orientation, religion or political views, if people pack themselves into neat packages and willingly disclose this information to corporations. Now you might object to this by stating that social media companies are not out to get you and, I reckon, you are right, they are not out to get you. They are all about the money. They couldn’t care less about such, inasmuch as it doesn’t affect their business that is. However, to add something that I think that Jones didn’t mention, at least not explicitly (I think), the creepy thing is that the state institutions, those entities big on surveillance (who you might fear, not necessarily now but in the future), don’t need to directly keep an eye on you because corporations hold that data on you, that you disclosed to them, and the states can just strong arm the corporations into handing over that data (or else!) or require having convenient backdoors into the corporate systems. If that doesn’t work, there’s also the option to just directly plug into the cables, operating as men-in-the middle, because they can. I’m sure this is actually how it works in some countries; the data cables run through the intelligence agency.

Tuija Virtanen was third in line to give a plenary speech. She focused on the use of self-referential third-person constructions, using *…* to designate this. This is related to multimodality, in the sense that you’ll see this being used in many memes. Sure it happens on its own as well, but memes are where you’ve probably encountered this phenomenon. I don’t have much to say about this because it’s a very specific topic, what she called a form digital microtextuality. She had plenty of examples to illustrate this, but I don’t think I need to further explain this. Browse social media for a while and you’ll probably run into. You’ll see how it functions.

The fourth plenary speech was given by Pilar Garcés-Conejos Blitvich. She focused on morality, social regulation and online shaming that takes place in social media. The core concept was smart mob, which, I reckon, is to be taken as mob mentality that takes place online, typically through portable digital devices, also known as smart phones. This allows people gather and pile on people rapidly, without even having to be in the same place as the acts take place online.

Blitvich examined both sides of the issue, noting that, on one hand, it is good that people take action as opposed to letting things slide, but, on the other hand, it can quickly get out of hand, resulting in digilantism (digital vigilantism) and lynchings that can have far reaching consequences to the people who are targeted by the mob. Someone in the audience considered it problematic to refer to these groupings as smart mobs because mob sounds negative (which it does, like in an angry mob of people). Blitvich acknowledged this but responded to this argument with a level-headed counter-argument, noting that the moniker is apt in the sense that it typically is unruly behavior of a large crowd of people whose actions tend to have little consideration for the consequences. This was apparent from the examples she provided. This was, of course, in no way in defense of the people whose actions the smart mobs oppose online. It was rather that the response to those actions tend to be disproportionate, irreversibly rendering the person who is being piled on into an outcast, a pariah, a persona non grata. Simply put, the point was that one slip, on a bad day, maybe involving lack of sleep (or the like), and you not only get confronted by others for what you did and/or said, in order to correct you, fine, but also get branded for doing so. This means that the person is, in effect, made into a scapegoat (in the Biblical sense), to be removed from the society in order to purge the society from tainted, morally questionable behavior. So, yeah, I reckon Blitvich was in the right when she stood her ground on using the moniker smart mob. I’ve sort of covered this in my previous essays, those dealing with judgment and ressentiment, so I won’t go deeper into this. Anyway, it was interesting to see a presentation on this with emphasis on the online environment.

In summary, I quite enjoyed the plenary talks. Did they contain something new to me? Well, no, not really, but I still liked them and the way the topics were presented. They certainly didn’t seem as long as they were, so I reckon they were pretty captivating performances.