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Structures of Participation in Digital Culture: Chapters 2 & 10

November 1, 2010

In Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, Joe Karaganis uses a series of essays in an effort to portray the networks being formed between traditional and social media. In particular, he attempts to explore the role technology (of all sorts) plays in the relationship between social structures and culture, and how this affects both individuals and collective societies.

Chapter 2, “The Past and the Internet”, by Geoffrey Bowker, is part of the opening section of the book which explores the way in which we perceive the world and its history. Instead of looking at the past factually, this section discusses how history is experienced and constructed in a new way via the evolution of technology.

Before the Web, there were two significant revolutions in the way humans recorded the past: written record keeping and the printing press. With the invention of each such change, information about the past (and who has access to such information) changed dramatically. Today, we are making a shift from memory practices marked by oral & written communication to those marked by electronic and oral communication. Network technologies have changed the ecology of recordkeeping and storytelling, where the technological and social are deeply intertwined.

With the invention of the Internet, a whole new way of recording the past has emerged, presenting many new claims regarding how the present is different and how the future will be reconfigured. However, before this can be looked at further, Bowker explores the relationship with the past changes incorporating such new technology in a process that he calls “databasing the world”.  He argues that “only through understanding our ways of configuring the past with new technologies can we develop new models of participation in the construction of knowledge and power.” (22) He breaks down this dilemma into two fundamental questions:

  1. What traces do we leave?
  2. Why does it make a difference?

For example, Bowker uses his experiences on the Web to describe the way that history is not necessarily recorded as what occurred in reality. That is, many of us are not our ‘real selves’ when online; we censor ourselves.

“What we leave traces of is not the way we were, but rather a tacit negotiation between ourselves and our imagined auditors (whether in a sense of listeners, readers, or moral or economic watchdogs); and yet we also need at some level an understanding of what actually happened in order to forge our futures.” (24)

Likewise, when we tell stories of our pasts to friends and coworkers, there are many things we skip over or ‘choose not to mention’. Over and over Bowker brings up the rarity of committing a story to paper with a view to telling it “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (as it actually happened). However, despite this central fact about record keeping, there is still a need to keep good records! We are getting very good at reconfiguring the past as a tool for exploring & supporting the present; we tell the past as it should have been.

“If we want a future other than how it seems to be turning out, we must create a past that is other than how it seems to have turned out. Only an open past can unlock the present and free the future.” (34)

*Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

One interesting point brought up by Bowker discusses the effects of our cultural circumstances as a reason for the amount of traces left (of not left) behind. “My potential memory is so great partly because I am white, bourgeois, male, academic and American- my set of traces is much more likely to have been covered …than those of a Cameroonian avocado farmer.” We often forget how culturally and politically weighted the Internet is. Likewise, “our environment now is intelligent for those with the technological hardware and competence to listen to it closely.” Social scientists, Bowker argues, need to draw attention to and seek to understand how our relationship with the past is “quietly being reconfigured, and with a revolutionary effect.” (26-28)

* What differences do the “traces” we leave online have for people without the technological hardware to access it? Does it affect them?


Chapter 10 is part of the second section of the book, which focuses on case studies regarding social technology.  It was much harder for me to get into this chapter, as such my focus for discussion will be on Chapter 2.

Social technology isn’t just digital; physical networks play a big role as well. The way our real world-relationships are conducted influence the ways we carry over these interpersonal relationships to the Internet. The individual then, can be seen as an active producer of digital culture. Warren Sack’s main point in Chapter 10, “Picturing the Public”, revolves around the power of “networks” as a way of thinking about association (notably, electronically mediated association). In particular, he tries to “reinsert networks into a longer history of the linked metaphors and technologies that shape our understanding of the “public” and our agency within it.” (165)

Sack dives into the different theories behind “public opinion”, including what it means, how it affects relationships and how it is measured. Likewise, he provides an account of a vast number of metaphorical descriptions of the public, representing different scientific perspectives. Our idea, Sack believes, “is shaped by different configurations of these metaphors.” (168)

Lastly, Sack discusses the network, and its ability to introduce people to those outside of their immediate social circle. In what I thought was a great quote from Thoreau, he says:

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” (169)

Just because networks exist does not make them compelling objects of personal identification or (inter)national cohesion. However, the more one connection is used, the more the parties involved have to say to one another, until constant contact between the two forges a new bond between them. Networks, then, supported by modern technology, have fostered the exchange of ideas, which separate or group people into different publics.

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