The Quirks of Digital Culture

It's been quite a while since my last newsletter went out. I had take some time out this summer and the newsletter needed to go on the back burner. The comeback has been triggered by the publication of my new book.

The Quirks of Digital Culture is published today in paperback and ebook by Emerald. I mention in the acknowledgments that I had the idea for the book whilst listening to a Jesus and Mary Chain B sides collection. I was thinking about how the more interesting, unusual and imaginative ideas can sometimes end up on the reverse side of the record. The book is totally different to my previous books. It's a bit of an experiment in style, writing and analysis. The new book seems to have been influenced by reading Simmel's wide ranging essays and think-pieces for my previous book project Georg Simmel's Concluding Thoughts. The Quirks of Digital Culture tries to focus in on small and unusual features to try to open-up the bigger developments, trends and underlying properties of platform based culture. Of course, the book doesn't manage to achieve that, but that was the objective. The aim was to try find mangable little things that revealed something about the disorientating mediated cultures in which we live. From TV game shows to Snapchat memories, from the end of the Yellow Pages to the acceleration of the pop charts, from the use of our social media data to the feelings we get if we break our smartphones, from the apparent comeback of cassette tapes to the end of Vine, from the tyranny of smartness to the fear that our devices are listening to us. It covers these and lots of other topics. In each case it uses these instances to think about what they tell us about the ordering, connections amd divisions we find in these transforming cultures defined by social media, mobile devices, on-demand consumption and data-led capitalism.

Here is the blurb:

The culture we consume is increasingly delivered to us via various digital on-demand platforms. The last decade has seen platforms like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Google and the like become massive players in shaping cultural consumption. But how can we understand culture once it moves on to big tech platforms? How can we make sense of the changes this brings to our lives? These platforms have the power to shape our cultural landscape and to use data, algorithms and other technological means to shape our experiences, from what we remember through to what we know and even the speed and accessibility of culture. 

This book asks how can we understand the chaos and messiness of on-demand culture? Beer suggests that we focus on the quirks and use these as openings to see inside patterns and dynamics of these new cultural formations. By exploring the strange quirks that typify our new on-demand culture, this book seeks to answer these questions. The Quirks of Digital Culture is a guide to understanding the complex and unsettling cultural present, whilst also casting an eye on how our consumption and cultural experiences may unfold in what seems like an unpredictable future.

If you want to read more about it, there is a piece describing the approach taken in the book here.

I've also created a Spotfiy music playlist to accompany the book. You can listen to that here.

If you think you might be interested in buying the book, it's available from the usual places. The cheapest place I've found it (as I write this) is Hive. The publisher's page for the book is here.

Until next time…

davidbeer.net

Access all areas, in your dreams...

I'm just reading today that Apple is going to be closing down iTunes. The services provided by iTunes will be split onto different digital services, with music being available through their music app and their streaming service.

It was originally launched in 2001 providing one of those early options for legally downloading music. I don't know the exact figures, but I suspect that far more music is streamed than purchased today. Further suggestion that Jeremy Rifkin was on to something when he argued that we are moving from an age of ownership to an age of access.

When I started my PhD on the digitalisation of music cultures in 2002 iTunes was new. I was trying to work out the implications of the shifts it was part of. It was a moving picture. I was trying to work out what was happening, but taking a snapshot was difficult. I finished in the summer of 2006 when things were still in the air. Things are only just settling after the initial disruptions I tried to track back then, but music revenues are still nowhere near the levels they achieved in the 1990s. It was iTunes and some others that tried to calm the waters, but immaterial culture (if you can think of it as immaterial) is much less conducive to exchange value. That's why merchandise and live gigs are the focus for lots of acts - they can still provide some revenue.

I can't help thinking there are more changes to come. I wonder of musicians will continue to accept the relatively slim pickings that come from streaming. Audiences might be accessed through streaming setvices, but only those with huge audiences get any decent returns. I wonder if some rebellion might follow. Rebel rebel? Accessing an audience of streamers might turn into gig crowds, but there could be a moment when musicians decide that is not enough. What might happen then? Will there be more disruptions to come? Imagine a startup that offers to do print-on-demand flexidisks or CDs. Bands and singers could sign up and log their music, when someone purchases a track they get a flexidisk in an envelope. It won't happen, of course. Yet it doesn't feel like we've landed on something that quite works. The last disruption was driven by the consumers, which the industry found a way to just about manage. The next disruption might come from the artists themselves.

It's a bittersweet symphony this music business…

While we are on the topic of music, I see that the Rolling Stones have returned the writing credit for Bittersweet Symphony to Richard Ashcroft (no mention of the 22 years of royalties though). The story of the song is covered in the article, its a famous case of a sample being contested. It seems questions of ownership still have some relevance in music.

Facebook is in the money…

You might have seen that Facebook are aiming to launch their own currency in the next couple of years. I wrote a piece about it for the OurEconomy section of OpenDemocracy. I looked at how this development might be a precursor to expanding social commerce and to expanding Facebook's reach.

I got the power…

Carl Miller has a short post for Waterstones on five people who have power in the digital revolution. It's interesting to reflect on where power goes with different types of tech taking hold. I agree with Carl that we need to think carefully about how power works when social structures change and who then comes to wield it.

Read all about it…

There is an article about the decline of local papers and its consequences by Jim Waterson in the Guardian. It is a shame to see local papers crumbling. I once worked in advertising at a local paper. I enjoyed the rare visits to the editorial floor. It was pretty lively, especially the sports desk. There must have been about 40 journalists, reporters and photographers working to put out the paper. I also liked seeing the cavernous printing press building at the back. It had those conveyor belts carrying papers around the room and dropping down for distribution around the city. It had its faults, but there was something happening in that building. It has since been demolished to be replaced by a luxury student accommodation. Just a small part of the building survives - which now hosts what is left of the staff. The printed paper itself is a bit like that remaining bit of the building, hanging in there but only a small fraction of what it was.

If you believe that dreams come true, then sleep is all you'll ever do…

(If you know where the above lyric is from then Tweet me the answer - can you get it without searching for it?)

Hettie O'Brien has an interesting piece about sleeptracking. The article explores how it's another step in making us ever more productive.

AI behaviour…

Here is a piece by Tabitha Gauldstaub on the responsible use of AI.

Dinner dinner dinner dinner…

In my last newsletter I mentioned Mark D. White's new book on Batman and Ethics. He discusses the book in this New Books Network podcast.

Mirror mirror mirror mirror…

A piece by Elini Versini in Berfrois on ‘the shared self’. Versini reflects:

‘At that point I realised that if I wished to regain some personal integrity, there was only one thing to do. Quit the social media.’

That seems like a good place to end.

Dave Beer

davidbeer.net

Punk and conveniences

I had to take a slightly longer gap between newsletters this time. Alongside my usual commitments I've been working toward the conclusion of a project. I can't say anything about it yet, but hopefully there will be something soon that I can share. So, more news on that to follow in the summer.

Punk Soc in paperback…

On the publishing front, my book Punk Sociology is now out in paperback. It was originally published in early 2014. The paperback marks five years since the publication of the hardback and ebook. The book attempts to use a punk ethos to invigorate the sociological imagination. It's really about how we can draw inspiration from different places to help us to understand, create and communicate ideas about the social world.

Looking back I'm reminded of the fun I had writing it. I tried to keep it as short and punchy as possible, so that it might feel a bit like the music.

Uber price…

In the last letter I mentioned the Uber flotation and valuation. I ended up writing a piece about it for The Social Review. The article looks at how tech companies imagine the future to generate value in the present. I argue that these future visions are loaded with values and ideals that we might want to contest. In short, the future is too important to be left to the tech industry to dictate.

Where to go…

This piece on toilets by Owen Hatherley in the London Review of Books is excellent. Owen discusses his experiences with Crohn's disease and then links this to the closure of toilets and the transformation of the relations between the public and the private. It’s a great piece. The same issue of the LRB also has a review of the recent collection of Mark Fisher's writing.

Platforming…

There is a special issue of Discover Society on ‘The Platform University’. It includes a dozen or so articles on how tech platforms are changing learning, teaching, knowledge and the organisation of universities. I'd especially suggest looking at the articles by Ben Williamson and Mark Carrigan that frame a number of these issues.

Whose an expert?

Will Davies, who always has an interesting and fresh perspective on the state of things, continues his series of articles and podcasts on the status of experts and expertise. In this detailed podcast he discusses some of the ideas from his book Nervous States and reflects on the undermining of expert knowledge.

More surveillance capitalism…

There is a detailed review of Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Katie Fitzpatrick in The Nation.

What did you call me?

Lots of metaphors and historical comparators have been used to describe data - being the new oil is one of the most common. In this article ‘Data is the New What?’ Luke Stark and Anna Lauren Hoffmann explore some of the ways that data are approached in terms of them being a new stage in social change. They focus on examining some of the popular metaphors used to describe data.

Fish heads and tales…

The excellent Politics Theory Other podcast has an interview with Owen Hatherley about the music of Scott Walker.

On the future…

Paul Mason’s new book Clear Bright Future was published last week. I’m not sure exactly what the book covers but it seems to pick up some of the threads concerning technologies and the future that he began to develop in his previous book Postcapitalism, which was published in 2015 (I wrote this piece about Mason's earlier book for OpenDemocracyUK).

Super ethics…

Mark D. White writes some fantastic books. His new book Batman and Ethics has just been published by Wiley.

Dave Beer

davidbeer.net

Clichés, valuations and ownership

Revenues are what?

There are lots of awful clichès that float about on entrepreneurial TV shows like The Apprentice and Dragon's Den. One of those clichés, “revenues are vanity, profit is sanity”, came to mind with the news that Uber was seeking a valuation of $91.5bn in its flotation. This vacation arrives despite Uber never having reported an annual profit.

When the old clichés no longer quite ring true, it potentially underlines some of the changes that are occurring. In this case, these tech based forms of capitalism aren’t as anchored to solid things like profit as their predecessors. Like a number of other big tech companies, Uber seems centrally to provide only a brand, some tech infrastructure for users to populate, market share management and some marketing. What really matters is the future. These tech companies are very good at building an impression of profits that are yet to come - in fact, this seems to be where they are at their most powerful. A significant part of what they do is imagine and attempt to engineer particular futures. The data to be utilised and the impression of the capability to handle the future market are central to the price achieved in the present. The question then, as more tech companies join the floatations - with Slack and Pinterest amongst others coming soon - is what happens if all those imagined futures never materialise. There seems to be a heightened fragility in these markets with a lot of uncertainty built in.

Here is a report on the Uber valuation.

That's valuation, but what about ownership?

Valuations are one thing, but is it the question of ownership that are being revitalised. Matthew Lawrence has launched an interesting new initiative that will look at the future of ownership. The project looks well beyond simple notions of the ownership of the means of production. Indeed, the new Common Wealth think tank is dealing with a number of ways in which ownership needs to be challenged and reshaped. The project is already moving rapidly with some pieces published already and an excellent new website with short films and a clear manifesto for the work they will be doing. Common Wealth is already looking like it will provide some thoughtful and provocative interventions (building on Matthew’s previous work at the IPPR).

In this piece for Tribune magazine, Matthew argues that some radical changes in property relations are needed. There is no point, he argues, in seeking change with a ‘smallness of ambition’. The shift toward a different political economy seems likely to need significant and telling action, and this piece makes that case. The way that ownership can be used to facilitate democracy and sustainability is centre stage in the first set of materials published by the think tank.

There is also a long-read piece on the Common Wealth website on the future of ownership, that piece lays out the agenda and challenges in some detail. It also makes the case for a radical expansion of ownership rights. This piece raises some interesting points about the digital commons and data ownership - I hope to be able to write something responding to that particular part of the agenda being set out by Common Wealth at some point.

Keep it moderate…

The Digital Sociology podcast is always worth following. I’ve posted links to it before on here. The new episode is a fascinating discussion about content moderators and other bits of media theory with Elinor Carmi - who is doing some cutting edge work in these areas.

Improvisation…

This piece about the comedian and actor Tony Slattery is very good. It reminds me of watching Whose Line is it Anyway? on Friday evenings. I was always pleased when Slattery was on.

More on AI ethics…

The discussion around the ethics of artificial intelligence continue to rumble on. Here is a piece from Daniel Susser that continues the debate. These seem like issues that are going to be worth following as the AI race continues.

Ethics washing…

On the topic of tech ethics, Rob Kitchin has an interesting piece in RTE looking at the ethics of the smart city. The piece focuses in particular on the ‘ethics washing’ that goes on around these tech. As Rob explains in his article:

‘With ethics-washing, a performative ethics is being practised designed to give the impression that an issue is being taken seriously and meaningful action is occurring, when the real ambition is to avoid formal regulation and legal mechanisms.’

So the focus on ethics can sometimes be used to launder the techniques being used and to circumvent ethical action. An important observation with significant connotations for how ethics are discussed and practiced in the tech sector and in the implementation of various types of thinking, smart or learning technologies.

Anti-fans

Penny Andrews has been engaged recently in writing a series of lively and insightful pieces for a range of different outlets. Her most recent piece, published in the LARB, is an examination of ‘anti-fans’ in politics. The piece exams the way political discourse plays out in social media, with some big observations about what this means for political possibilities and futures.

Data Gazing…

My book The Data Gaze has been reviewed for Information, Communication & Society.

A couple of things on the future of this newsletter…

Substack, which is the platform I use for this newsletter, have recently added a podcast feature. So I might experiment with adding some audio in future. I've tested the sample version and it is very easy for readers to click and listen. I'll see if I can find a way to make it work and also try to think of something I might say.

One other thing. I'm hoping to start a new writing project soon. The plan is to spend about 2-3 years working on it. I'll explain a bit more about that project once I get started. I'm expecting to include occasional progress updates as I work on it, plus the themes I'll be working on will crop up quite a bit in future newsletters.

Dave Beer

davidbeer.net

The Data Gaze is availabe in paperback and ebook. Georg Simmel's Concluding Thoughts has just been published in harback.

Some thoughts on editing...

This is my weekly newsletter on technology, media & culture. With a combination of marking and the holiday, instead of the usual email format I’ve made this a different sort of letter - I want to vary the form a bit from time to time. This issue focuses on editing. I'll be returning to the usual format next week.

Editing, editing, editing…

There is a satisfying relentlessness to editing a periodical. The work is never really complete. Issues and volumes reach an endpoint and go to press, but these are only fleeting moments, a brief pause in the cycle. When an issue is completed the next one is already well underway. Pieces are simmering away at various stages of development, ready to be packaged together in a future issue. Yet each issue still feels like a milestone. Editing is a task that is never over, the momentary reward that issues bring punctuates the unending roll. Editing has a rhythm; it's collaboration to a drumbeat.

I’ve held some sort of editorial role for about 8 or so. I did a couple of years as book reviews editor at Information, Communication & Society before moving to be the website editor at Theory, Culture and Society. About three years ago I moved from the TCS website to co-editing the journal. The three editorial roles have all been quite different. The reviews editor role was mainly about commissioning. Finding the right books and matching them with reviewers is the main activiy in that role. Very few reviews arive without being commissioned. A reviews section requires ongoing activity and the pursuit of content. Then, of course, you have to read and edit the incoming reviews. Only about a quarter of invitations turned into actual reviews, so it required quite a bit of energy to keep the section moving. Lots of commissions are needed to get in a decent stock of reviews. The good thing with this is that a reviews editor has lots of scope to be able shape the coverage and direction of the section. I’ve always thought that book reviews are important to dialogue and debate - there is a defence of book reviews I wrote a little while ago here - so it was worth the effort.

At the same time I was editing the ICS reviews section I had set up my own blog that covered issues around culture and media. This led the editors at TCS to invite me to edit their website. It was a great opportunity to do something with a wider remit. So I left my reviews editor role and I also closed down my own blog to focus on the TCS site. We spent some time reimagining the existing site — one of the things people perhaps don’t know about editing is that it can be about shaping the infrastructure as well as the content. We created an outline of types of content and thought about how to develop the site as a supplement to the journal. Then, again, it was about commisioning. This time trying to find different styles and topics of writing, emerging ideas and interesting developments. The editorial task there was about trying to imagine what content and formats people might want to read about, and then trying to secure it. Commisioning can be overlooked, but it is probably the most direct way that an editor can shape a field and a publication.

Over time I moved, about three years ago, to working on the journal. Editing the TCS journal is a slightly different mix of activities. We still commission pieces, which helps us shape the direction of the journal, but it is also about managing the flow of articles we recieve as submissions. We get quite a lot of material. So, it is about handling the stream of very different types of content whilst also trying to work out the gaps or exciting developments for commissioning. The decision about what to leave out of the journal are often quite hard, but peer-review is a limited resource and we also want to keep a sense of the direction and coverage of the journal. Editing is often about trying to imagine how things will turn out in the future, a sensitivity to where things are going, as much as it is about holding things together in the present.

In academia editing is often sidelined. It's viewed as being something editors should fit in around everything else. The research assessment measures largely ignore it, except it can be included as part of the narrative about environment. Editing works if our eagerness for involvement in producing something interesting outweighs the costs. It always has for me, and I’m hoping to keep an editorial role if I can. I like that ongoing rhythm.

More often than not writing is a lonely craft with only books and ideas for company, wheras editing is always about collaboration and being part of something. It’s about building and connecting as well as crafting. There is also something rewarding about seeing the finished product of the work you have done to facilitate and give a platform to other people’s writing and ideas.

David Beer

davidbeer.net

The Data Gaze was published in December and is available in paperback and ebook. Georg Simmel's Concluding Thoughts: Worlds, Lives, Fragments is now out.

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