Paying attention: when a (kind of) hacker meets sociologists

Attention is precious and scarce like gold in this age of continuous interruptions, tweets limited to 140 characters and people for which something simply doesn’t exist if it doesn’t pop out in the first page of Google Search results. In september 2010 I have participated to a conference devoted to this theme, that is

Paying Attention: Digital Media Cultures and Generational Responsibility. It has been an interesting experience and one that has confirmed to me, as I’ll explain in a moment, the need for “hackers” and all the other people, including (especially?) people in academia, to pay as soon as possible much more attention to each other.

I am not a real software hacker (a term whose real meaning is not “computer criminal”, thank you very much!). Sure, I only use Free Software like Gnu/Linux or OpenOffice, I write and teach as much as I can about it and I can proudly apply patches to source code and compile it all by myself if I really have to. However, almost always I stop at that much simpler, wonderful way to automate computer usage called scripting. Still, I was probably one of the closest things to a real hacker you could have found in that particular conference.

I am happy I could participate and give what, as I hope and understood from some feedback, a useful contribution to the discourse (more on this in a moment). Besides being very interesting it was also refreshing, for somebody who mostly attends software-focused conferences. After the first 2/3 talks, for example, I started feeling weird anytime a speaker quoted somebody.. Eventually I realized that the “weirdness” was simply in how they were quoting their sources:“chapt. X, page Y” instead of http://www.something? Wait a second, you mean you guys are quoting actual books instead of, you know, plain old websites? It was indeed a wonderful moment and much needed reminder of the real world, after so many technical conferences about very digital, very new online-only stuff, that culture and life exist before and outside a browser window.

Jokes (or not?) aside, the conference has been very interesting, as I said. The official bloggers of the conference have made a wonderful job of putting online very detailed reports of each talk almost in real time, so here’s just a very quick summary of the best food for thought I’ve found at this event.

Tiziana Terranova talked about plasticity of the brain and of how it learns by imitation, reacting to, and mirroring, external environment and stimuli. What’s this got to do with software? Well, just the fact that new tools, media and software-induced habits from multi-tasking to casual browsing can rewire the neurological pathways of the brain. From the point of view of a “Free-as-in-freedom” software advocate, you could hardly find better justifications that software interfaces must be as diverse and flexible (as in “modifiable by everybody”) as possible. If there were only one operating system and user interface around, all brains would be stimulated by them in one and only one way, which can’t possibly be a good thing.

Imren Borsuk gave an interesting summary of the influence of the Internet on political discourse in Turkey. Bernard Stiegler said lots of complicated but interesting things, but the most directly relevant for me was:

“metadata first appeared in Mesopotamia and the production of metadata has been the principal activity of those in power from the time of the proto-historical empires right up to today”

Due to my line of work, my own point of view and definition of metadata isn’t the same as Stiegler’s, but the one above remains a provoking and very useful remark even in my context. If controlling the production and management of metadata is a monopoly of “those in power”, whoever succeeds to make others use his proprietary computer protocols and file formats in an age in which all metadata are digital is the one who decides who’s in power; that is, whoever controls protocols and file formats is the one who really has the greatest power on society.

Gunnar Liestol presented “sitsims”, that is situated simulations: point your iPhone at some place (e.g. the Colosseum) and immediately see on screen data, pictures, explanations, virtual reality simulations and what not thanks to the fact that using its GPS and motion sensors the phone understands where you are and what you’re looking at.

Paying attention: when a (kind of) hacker meets sociologists /img/paying-attention.jpg

Gunnar’s sitsims are great, but potentially also a proof of what I said in my own talk: are we paying attention to the future and allowing future generations to pay attention to our digital legacy? We put everything we’re doing inside files whose formats are often totally or partially secrets, so everything we do digital is at high risk of disappearing very, very soon. Will Gunnar’s sitsims still be usable when (not “if”, “when”) Apple and the iPhone won’t be around anymore? The solution? Only use really open file formats, of course, starting inside Universities.

I could give many more examples, but the notes above should be enough to prove my initial point: “the need for “hackers” and all the other people, including (especially?) people in academia, to pay as soon as possible much more attention to each other”. Digital technology is legislation, that is something that impacts all humans and their interactions. Therefore, in this age it is essential that all people involved in social studies acquire a good, solid understanding of the non-technical bases of software and digital technologies. For the same reason, many “technologists” should think much more often to the social impacts of their work. It’s necessary to build many bridges soon between the two worlds, and use them often.