Relationally Structuring Community In-Formation
This essay is an investigation into the social construction of agents and agency, linked directly to a cross-cultural predilection toward accumulation, categorization and data distribution in the interest, whether latent or manifest, of community formation. It is presented as a meditation on mediation, emerging out of ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration oriented around creative design of multiple interfaces into distributed information spaces, accessed through utilization of an agent technology called the "Information Personae." As such it is tenuously positioned at the nexus of art, computer science, engineering and cultural studies, sitting comfortably at home in none.
A Problem of ContextAs traditionally applied in computer science, the term "database" has been used to refer to any organized store of data for computer processing, and "data" as items upon which operations may be performed within a computing environment and which can be stored and transmit in the form of electrical signals. However, data, as an essential building block for meaning, becomes information when socially constructed, disseminated and consumed in culturally patterned and predictable ways.
Take for example a digital map of some portion of the earth's surface sent via satellite and accessed through a HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) by a single user, as one of several thousand results returned from a Web-based search engine. In this instance, the map exists as a piece of relatively discrete data with quite limited context. If however, that map is archived and indexed as part of a digital library dealing with geospatial information and gets retrieved through an interface that frames it within a larger, potentially collaborative, context, it starts to function quite differently. The same would hold true if the map were located and discussed as part of an Earth Science seminar incorporating examples of new query methodologies for accessing distributed data relevant to remote education, or as part of a lecture demonstrating how new methods of mapping might be utilized for increased forms of surveillance and control.
In any case, the map, as a piece of data, becomes more meaningful when it circulates as part of a social process that facilitates the shared understanding required for mutually beneficial interaction. The greater the amount of context provided, the richer the potential exchange. Without such additional context social agents run the risk of less reliable or situated reading, navigation and orientation to each other as well as the space they occupy. In many ways the current state of digitally networked information, particularly when accessed and exchanged via the World-Wide-Web (which provides a significant though not exclusive backdrop to much of what follows), reflects and reproduces this paucity of context.
Proximally dispensed as a topographic feature of the Net (though this relation is becoming increasingly blurred), the Web is something of an epiphenomenon, a metonymic device; it is an algorithmic method of access to storehouses of data, potentially presentable for post-processing. However, the Web exists at a much deeper level than that which is indexed and exposed solely through the browser -- that recently reconstituted linguistic device for referencing both the agent connecting to remote information, as well as the application affording the connection. Increasingly the Web's function is shifting from being simply a graphical interface to variably encoded file structures to a mechanism for rendering agency by proxy.
As an ambiguous network of internalized and externalized subject and object relations, the Web, now being used synonymously with the Net, moves far beyond the procedural in a technologically functional sense. It is an extension, hosted not simply as prosthesis (by way of McLuhan, circa 1964) but as more fully integrated circuit (after the manner of Haraway, circa 1991). In relation to establishing new methods of data and context production, dissemination and consumption, the research and development questions have become increasingly intertwined with what could be viewed as classic concerns of population studies: how to model patterns of migration, assessing how social networks function in relation to space and time, analyzing how perturbations influence patterns and styles of agency, and how to evolve mechanisms of population control that responsibly allow for expansion and adaptation.
Ingest and Ideological Form
The foundation and extent to which a communal database gets populated, through the ingest procedures of the agents and institutions that evolve in connection to it, can readily be seen to promote sets of social relations that operate within culturally and historically specific domains. Though often masked or unacknowledged, the same holds true for any organizational schema, typification, or ordering hierarchy. Thus the database, as an often hidden or invisibly structured store of items with recognized, or re-cognized, relations between them, is by definition an inherently ideological construct. To function most effectively it must tend toward standardization, unification and universality, a process that is both highly rationalized and all too easily presumed to be naturalized. The ideological field of the database readily becomes manifest in how one constructs it to represent, to make visible, or to bring to awareness objects and objectives of common character, identity and interest.
What one chooses to count as data, how that data is organized, standardized, referenced and retrieved are all value-laden decisions embedded with implicit and explicit preferences, each of which operates to the exclusion of many others. Initiating processes that attempt to bring these preferences to the surface, to make manifest the codes and conventions utilized in the basic ordering of data while allowing manipulation and modification of those codes and conventions, allows for a fundamentally different relationship to the process of ingest and access, and an enhanced opportunity for thinking about the database as a foundational architectural and aesthetic form.
Throughout history it has been through processes of identifying, codifying, collecting, categorizing, organizing and archiving that we have been able to collectively construct patterned and meaningfully mediated social relations. It continues to be, as it has always been, a problem of interpellation (in the Althusserian sense of "recruiting" and "hailing" subjects into proper position as information-bearing objects) as well as interpolation (insertion and interjection into), of designing correspondent systems that personify presence, and the institutional matrices through which those personifications can be consequentially displayed as taxonomic device.
The Information Personae (IPersonae, IP) is a decentralized and decentralizing processor with distributed intelligence. It is a meaningfully traced representation of the material it carries, a dis- and re-located data body, strategically centered and accessible, temporarily accepting the risk of a fixed location, though always (as Spivak makes clear, 1987, 1990) conditionally. It is, in a post-structuralist fashion, schizoid and heterotropic, appearing non-linear and fragmented, perpetually between varied forms of organization, and manifold states of uncertainty. It mimetically spawns itself, getting rendered in multiple modes, through multiple devices, and with multiple subjectivities, hence its named plurality (persona*e*), even in its referenced singularity (*a* personae).
The IP is an extended variation on a long-playing theme, an assorted theater upon which to dramaturgically stage (as Goffman revealed it in 1959) subject/object relations, an alternative way to be "mirrored" in and out of site/sight. Not role play in the singular, so much as a concurrent plurality of role plays, the outcome, interpretation and significance of which is intentionally never quite clear. For Information Personae, the challenge becomes how to address, conditionally codify, name and conventionalize the multiplicity of mediated forms available, and the varying modes of that mediated connectivity and communication. In such state, the IP unavoidably deals with issues of restricted access, difficult translation, rudimentary spatialization, inadequate visualization, poor usability, static presentation and depersonalized data.
As information agents we are continually developing and refining methods and procedures for displaying what we know, and for allowing others to interface with the knowledge we carry. These problems of transmission, reception and dependency, traditional topics of inquiry for information theorists like Shannon (1963), Bateson (1972) and Krippendorf (1989), can be thought of as the "information" part of an Information Personae. This part of our IP is based on the data ingested and made available, the specified interests in particular topics, and the access of and interaction with that data provided by other IP. As with any community in-formation, this accumulation of data, interests and interaction are given weightings that fluctuate in relation to activity, no matter what their mediated form. This weighting is then made available to other IP who use it for helping to determine potential interaction, whereupon it also may influence appearance and mobility.
Another main component of the IP is the "profile." As with any mediated role play, profiles get generated using a wide range of methods and procedures. Currently, a common one involves different forms of self-assessment and/or assignment, provided in response to questionnaires and questioners assessing various psychological attributes. Based on these self-assessments (and analogous to the information component of the IP) relative weightings are given to certain behavioral characteristics and patterns of exchange. The definition of these psychological attributes remain flexible, even when not perceived as such, and their weightings as well as their cultural consequence change over time. These attributes and weightings are then used to provide additional information regarding what type of agents are available for interaction, and function similarly to the weighting of knowledge areas in terms of how they influence such parameters as IP orientation, representation and movement.
Personification also provides a useful mechanism for attributing behavioral characteristics and motivations to non-human or quasi-human entities and activities. As metaphoric (perceived stand-ins), metonymic (parts utilized to reference a larger "whole") and rhetorical devices (hypertextually constituted destabilizers), Information Personae are unable to be comprehended, rendered, or represented independent of their interactive and participatory experience.
Like any social agents possessed of prescribed yet never fully scriptable intelligence, autonomy and mobility, IP emerge always already in relation to and as constitutive of their attendant environments. Pragmatically appropriating the philosophical tradition of such theorists as Dewey (1917) and Mead (1962), IP become realized through interactive process and change, not sequestered stasis and fixity. Of central concern is how language can be used as both interface to, and methodology for, institutional critique, and how the randomness, chaos, unpredictability and playfulness so characteristic of earlier arts movements like dada, fluxus, performance and conceptualism might be adapted to transform traditional hierarchies of access and privilege.
Programmatically, Information Personae are best described as interfaces for the dynamic construction, distribution, querying, rendering and manipulation of "embodied" information. IP are embodied through their specific reconnection to patterns of reproduction and representation, attached behaviors, and methods of collaborative construction. IP bypass traditional notions of client and servers by containing the capabilities of both, allowing for decentralization of computing resources via mobile or transportable agents. Interaction with IP occur through a variety of modes and devices.
For example, the most basic mode is via an ASCII protocol. Through a text-based interface one may begin by submitting a request to create a new IP, attaching a listing of all media resources (web sites, static and dynamic documents, sounds, videos, imagery, etc.) that are to be incorporated into the IP as content. The IP responds as needed, prompting for more input about configuration parameters and preferences, on issues ranging from rendering styles to access constraints. Once the basic IP is in place, "search engine" style requests can be submitted, notification about all access patterns in relation to content get logged, and additional data can be added as necessary.
When an agent is sent out to gather information or data on a specific topic, the results become available for catalogue into the IP as referenced pointers to the items, as opposed to the actual information or data itself. This makes the IP extremely lightweight and efficient, and provides the capacity for transfer of the referenced information to devices with very limited storage and display capabilities. It also promotes the idea that the IP functions most capably as an accumulation of references to external objects, internalized to a degree, but only as aliased pointers, able to be meaningfully manifest when viewed in connection to extrinsic associations.
A deeper level of interaction with an IP happens via an HTML interface. For instance, an IP constructed via ASCII-only protocols may also be accessed and manipulated by any Web-browser. This allows for more complex interaction, and opens up the possibility for application of richer data rendering techniques. As in the ASCII interface, participants can change and add metadata about content, continually refining context and making their IP a better source for querying, navigating and manipulating. By beginning to explore the dynamic sites created by querying their own and other's IP, participants can discover listings of IP that have recently accessed similar data. Connections may then be established between the two IP in order to exchange public content via mobile agents. Finally, the same content constructed via ASCII and HTML interfaces can also be displayed as a navigable multidimensional terrain of spatialized information via 2D and 3D Java interfaces.
The content management component of the Information Personae provides two primary services. The first service accommodates the filtering, storage and overall management of IP data, be it local or remote. Content can range from static items such as documents and imagery, to references to dynamic real-time sources such as multimedia streams or broadcasts. The exact means of content storage and querying is flexible, allowing the IP to scale depending on the needs of the database population (i.e., the user, the community of users, or the raw data objects).
The degree to which data objects and users can be extended based upon principles of property inheritance, in order to benefit from the functionality and utility of already existing objects within a particular domain, remains equally flexible. To access this content a second service is offered which exposes a set of interfaces that handle a range of query languages. These interfaces return results formatted and defined as "public space." This public space can then be rendered based upon the current participant's mode of interaction with the IP. Additionally, all access to content stored within an IP gets logged and tagged with information about the source of the query in light of their represented relations.
Presenting Interfaces to Interaction
Public space is by necessity a proximal relation, a relation by proxy. Strategic navigation of the varying information base that constitutes the substrate upon which experience is comprised depends upon the social; a social that is never immaterial and always consequential, whether on or offline, local or remote (if such distinctions make sense any longer). Public space is a process zone, a technically afforded and utilitarian space, through which agents of socialization circulate or get circulated, taking on varying degrees of influence and meaning as they become activated and articulated across time and place.
Only upon reflection can logic be mapped. Even then, no matter how procedurally located, such logical mappings are always partial and conditional, though consistently not framed as such. These mappings represent a reaffirmation of our place, though ironically and paradoxically a place only able to be occupied through the dissociation revealed in reflection. The inability to fix in place, to master, has traditionally been perceived as a shortcoming, an empirical failing, something demanding, and worthy of, defeat. For the Information Personae instability is a blessing, a catalyst for change, inspiration and unorthodoxy, providing welcome, even if worrisome, possibilities for unintended affect and effect and for producing ruptures helping to expose that which has too long remained concealed.
For the Information Personae public space becomes a means for sharing and exploring heterogeneous information throughout contextualized communities dispensed as collectivities of agents. Structurally, public space is made up of three types of context providing components: items, actions and paths. These three components respectively encompass the notion of data, manipulation and navigation, in other words, objects, agency and movement. Public space is encoded in an structured format, allowing data to be easily transmitted between a variety of platforms, and rendering behaviors or styles to be applied in such a way as to allow manipulation of the setting for purposes of creative expression and experimentation.
Like all socially constituted processes, agents accumulate information and make the results of their investigations available for ingest into the cumulative body of data, though again as referenced pointers to items, actions and paths, as opposed to the actual data, manipulation, or navigation itself. And as is the case with any parent-child relationship, through a fairly complex process of revealing that which, in a Freudian way, is often repressed, the larger context within which that data gets re-presented is ultimately retrievable, or at the very least made available for interpretation and translation as part of an hermeneutic operation that, from a Derridean perspective (1976, 1985), never fully reaches closure.
Infrastructurally, items -- as defined pieces or classes of data placed within a space -- have metadata schemas containing user-IDs, access information, object location and descriptions of various other attributes ranging from the vague to the precise, all of which get used to render items in a variety of contexts. Actions within a data space are defined as methods or functions applied to items. Actions allow both the manipulation and modification of items within a space, as well as changes to the structure of the space itself. An action will typically contain a trigger, an agent, a target and a result. The trigger is how the action is used, the agent is who or what is performing the action, the target is the item upon which this action is performed, and the result is all possible outcomes of the application of this action.
A final component of public space are the paths within, through and around a database of objects. There are many types of paths -- some may be static, while others are dynamic traces created by navigation of other users. Paths can also simply be viewpoints at key locations within a space, or entrances to and exits from other spaces. The positioning of these paths is similar to that of items, in that they may be either relative or exact, remaining systematic and conditional, even if and when not intended as such.
Issues of Access, Audience and Design
By providing multiple interfaces into shared information spaces, the problem of having to design to a common denominator that would limit access and capability can be systematically addressed. However, a fundamental issue remains with regard to issues of database access and aesthetic: how to accommodate agents with varying connection speeds into a shared heterogeneous community. The goal is to enable those with higher bandwidth connections to take full advantage of project capabilities while still providing service to those with slower speed access.
Within any institutional matrix, for maximal agency, a high degree of platform independence and modal flexibility is paramount. Information resources need to be made accessible via a variety of devices, with varying processing speeds and memory configurations, and rendered via multiple interface protocols. For Information Personae, a primary role is to provide dynamic rendering of content to multiple users, engaged via multiple modes of interaction, a social process that can be referred to as "dynamic view generation."
At the simplest level, community participation, as part and parcel of an increasingly mediated social milieu, requires familiarity with basic modes of information access and exchange. To participate at more complex levels, one needs to become a media producer of some kind. Participation at the most complex level requires some lower-level programming facility, whereupon it becomes possible to modify an IP's API (Application Programming Interface) in order to fundamentally rework procedures of ingestion, interaction, visualization and contextual rendering of public space.
A major consideration when designing online public space is determining the scope and scalability of participation, and how varying modes of interaction can be supported as scope scale expand. Success depends upon implementation happening in relation to communal content throughout the developmental cycle, as opposed to engineering architecture independent of the data and interests that will eventually give it form and function. This dialectic plays an important role in facilitating projections of more robust social environments, particularly as what constitutes "legitimate" creative production shifts (as Vesna describes in the introduction to this issue) to include the construction of "containers" -- the increasingly fluid information architectures, participatory exhibition spaces that accommodate and warehouse what is traditionally perceived as the art piece/product.
Attention must also be given (as has historically been done in the discipline of design, though rarely if ever with application to the digital domain) to fundamental issues in creation of networked information topologies. For example with regard to design of distributed data objects: What is the appropriateness of terrain to perceived purpose of the space, or how might purpose and terrain be placed in tension? What, if any, as Krippendorf (1989) and others (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Krampen, 1989; and Papanek, 1988) have asked when "making sense of things," are the orientation, dimension, character, location, state and motivations for usage? How does one supply, though without overdetermining, the sociolinguistic context for objects, their representation and their potential for collaborative exploration? Can or should objects reveal or conceal what to do with them, disambiguating potential functionality, provided such purpose exits?
Other design issues have to do with what might be identified as acclimation and adaptation to the environment. Important things to consider here include whether to provide references to familiar metaphors for navigation and interaction, or unfamiliar ones that may be used to encourage alternative subject/object relations. Relatedly, assessing the manual input requirements for interaction and modification, and ultimately, the cost/benefit ratio of data access, manipulation and utilization deserves serious scrutiny.
Brokering Agents and Agency
Community is made manifest through archives and databases that get reproduced as knowledge is collectively accumulated, deposited, rendered and procedurally and performatively enacted. Culture, indexed and indexically communicated through institutionally inscribed parameters, is the database providing the form, the foundation and the framework for interaction. As agents we function as cultural conduits, "serving" quite literally as the metaphorical embodiments of the data we carry. We serve as (subject to and provider of) objectified bit containers for code, both genetic and algorithmic; code that creates much of our context, and that we reproduce and get reproduced by. As semi-autonomous intelligent agents we are pre-scripted yet never fully scriptable, periodically linking out of established orders and orderings, interrupting though never completely dislocating, operating as extended hypertexts of and for referencing.
Agency is an interactive display, accomplished through contingent deployment of ideas put into action, patterned and articulated across time and space through language. Agency can be "read" as an indicator, a sign or model of multiply-mediated cultural codes and conventions, a pointer to publicly valued and validated information emerging through the institutionalized organization, disorganization and reorganization of action personified in networked social space. Exhibition of agency is an aesthetic practice, a spatialized form, visibly and invisibly in and out of synch, linear and non-linear, logical and illogical in its procedural expression.
As an embodied archival practice, agency can service to illustrate the continual challenge of finding alternative strategies for searching, gathering, labeling, manipulating and representing digested information. It is composed of a connective thread of agent behaviors, mobilized by common interest, operating on and with each other in relation to a collective environment. It promotes predetermined yet indeterminate interaction between multiple systems influencing and responding to another, providing a path for creatively generating intended and unintended affect and effect. Agency produces an interface, a set of procedures for connecting systems that can be operated jointly or placed in and out of communicative proximity with each other.
Agency affords place as a process of continual reconstruction, where reality is accomplished through reconstituted meaning emerging out of collective action and reaction. It provides the power to frame, to subversively transform relations of power constitutive of its field of operation. A major goal is to consciously facilitate methods and procedures that remain unstable, in Deleuzian states of transition and flux as new participants are added, contributions of various kinds are made, and information gets modified, exchanged and recontextualized. When healthy these methods and procedures function as mutative and cancerous clusters, viral sites of rapid and uncontrollable growth that carry the potential to radically destabilize their hosts.
Agent Execution and Manipulation
As agents we function most effectively by proxy, in relation to patterned modes of behavior that lead to shared and mutually understandable, or at least interpretable, interactional outcomes. Predictability and variability prove key, as does intelligibility. The aim should be to see agency as provisionary and conditional, a considered process of linguistic play, of mimetic reproduction with a potentially transgressive twist.
As managed mobile agents our Information Personae get passed through different hosts, run on different operating systems, and made to log data about each site visited. Our IP serve as distributed data storage and retrieval mechanisms, providing a content independent way of referencing information, an open basis upon which to build communication and synchronization methods, and a decoupled distribution site for other agents that no longer require a 1:1-correspondence with their physically located nodes. By brokering our agency we enable the creation of multiple hosts free to move about various social networks as they autonomously and asynchronously do task completion, exploring the notion that ongoing interaction does not necessarily require or even benefit from ongoing communication.
As with any databasing activity, tracking and archiving access patterns, motion, manipulation and time spent interacting in the environment is meaningful for continued modification. While such strategies of surveillance can be invasive, the ability to log and display activity remains a key mechanism for orientation, navigation and contextualizing of public space. However, whereas most administrative forms are deemed unnecessary for public consumption and removed from view, with agency by proxy such data become meaningfully traced and publicly exposed. Supplying the ability to access data regarding who, what, where, when and how (i.e., participant, OS hardware and software configuration, login location, connection time speed, access patterns and navigational paths) provides relevant information for administration, monitoring and system design, whether it be live or automated.
Present Absence and Absent Presence
One of the biggest tasks, particularly when oriented around the database aesthetics of community in-formation, has to do with designing environments that social agents actually want to spend time in. Equally important is creating a space where agents can have access to resources and functionality without having to spend time they don't really have to acquire them. As indicated (and often paradoxically misperceived as anti-social), these challenges can be addressed by allowing ongoing interaction to occur without co-present forms of real-time communication, freeing participants from the constraint of having to engage in direct social interaction, though such forms still unavoidably require the discernible presence of imagined others.
As Information Personae, when we acquire media resources it is often neither necessary nor productive to be synchronously interacting, though such interaction is usually possible, and on occasion perhaps even desirable. All that is really needed are mechanisms for agents to autonomously request, broker, retrieve and store data for potential ingest, manipulation and display. Human agents no longer need be co-present with other human or software agents. The combinatorial possibilities of such agent interaction -- human to human, human to software, software to software -- and the technically afforded possibility of intentionally or unintentionally occupying multiply mediated subject positions simultaneously, raise a host of interesting issues regarding what an agent is, and how agency functions in such a context.
Creative communities are always mediated, collectively experienced by proxy, realized and contextualized within hermeneutic webs of meaning and association, and made accessible synchronously and asynchronously as shared public space via multiple interfaces and with multiple application. As Information Personae, we represent the implicit and explicit embodiment of our agents and agency, built out of a metaphoric play, and exposed as a question of translation.
Since its inception, the Internet has been about establishing and extending connections between people and machines in the interest of communicating information. As the number of nodes have increased over time and space, so have the modes and methods of interaction, and their intended and unintended outcomes. Communication and representation of information in context is key to collectively building meaningful public relations in continually reconstituted online public spaces. As such, a critical issue for those working with networked data delivery is developing experimental and interdisciplinary strategies for collaboratively generating, sharing, rendering and manipulating information in the interest of knowledge discovery and creative practice.
The intrigue and complicity is in letting the latent become manifest, all the while keeping the seemingly obvious and mundane anthropologically strange -- an estrangement not as objective and objectified other, but as subjective self, consciously objectified as other, a migratory move that affords a critical distance. What is unique about this particular moment in the technical and conceptual development of networked social spaces, are the processes by which split subjectivity can be metaphorically literalized, and made to reflexively enter into a dialectic of critical theory and practice, a dialectic about agents and agency, action and interaction, self- and other-as-process, creatively realized in a continual movement and passing of communal in-formation.
1. The title of this research initiative is Online Public Spaces: Multidisciplinary Explorations in Multiuser Environments (OPS:MEME). It has been generously funded through UC Santa Barbara's Office of Research. Led by Victoria Vesna and Robert Nideffer, OPS:MEME is composed of an interdisciplinary group of faculty and researchers from such diverse fields as computer science and engineering, art studio, history of art and architecture and sociology, who began working together in the Fall of 1997 to design a foundation for the creation of online communities engineered around content.
2. Technically, the notion of public space was the brainchild of Nathan Freitas, who did early prototyping for the Online Public Spaces project. The technical component descriptions were reworked from his initial writings on the topic.
3. Description of the Mobile Agent Management (MAM) system was reworked from a technical whitepaper written by Christian Lang, lead programmer for the Online Public Spaces project.
Special thanks go to Victoria Vesna (A Principal Investigator and initiator of OPS:MEME, who coined the term "Information Personae"). None of this would be possible without her continued partnership, support and selfishly motivated (in the best sense of the word) collaboration and critique.
The Information Personae (IP) is emerging as part of a larger collaboration spread across several UC campuses, involving an interdisciplinary group of faculty and researchers from such diverse fields as computer science and engineering, art studio, history of art and architecture and sociology. The group began working together in the Fall of 1997 to design a foundation for the creation of online communities engineered around content. The title of this larger research initiative is Online Public Spaces: Multidisciplinary Explorations in Multiuser Environments (OPS:MEME).
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