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Neal Thomas - Postmetaphysical Informatics

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Neal Thomas - What is Social Computing? - Précis of Chapter One.

Networking protocols like TCP/IP and the DNS have contributed to a new status quo for managing global information flows. One important effect has been for their principles of operation to intellectually ‘ripple out' into a number of computing-related disciplines, having significant repercussions in particular upon related technical processes at the content level, through networked database and metadata standards development. The software engineering strategies which made the internet function technologically in a decentralized way, at the hardware level, are coming to be applied in a semantic register of use, with a variety of consequences. Initial pragmatic necessity to physically interconnect computers through the network form has given way to a second-order intellectual reorientation of data structures, where even desktop operating systems are changing so that they come to operate according to networked principles at far deeper levels. Marking these developments in protocol standards, along with the contemporary commitment to social context and situated activity laid out in the HCI and CMC literature, at a basic level this is what social computing is about: a more fluid capacity to share information and intellectual domain infrastructures publicly on the network, and a greater desire to do so among actors in this context. My first chapter, produced with the help of the M@M Graduate Research Fellowship, laid out a set of fairly abstract questions and concerns, which get at some of the consequences and latent potentials of these important developments.

Like the rhetoric of artificial intelligence in the past, the more high-flown accounts of these approaches promise a utopian relationship with our machines just over the horizon, where a transparent relationship between users, institutions, services, firms and machines might be seamlessly achieved through inter-connected informational flows. This is Tim Berners-Lee's vision of the Semantic Web, suggestive of a coming evolution and revolution in society, where pervasive computers will combine intelligent information processing with communicational network effects, so as to computationally infer and facilitate social action. In this vision, a kind of frictionless, automated relationality is heavily foregrounded, rhetorically and epistemically.

In the wake of a proliferation of practices stimulated by this account, it is important to ask critically after larger questions of ontological ground, which often hang unasked in the background. What kinds of relationships to the world are to be had with the coming Semantic Web, and its various hardware and software configurations? How are the software protocols that constitute it entangled with theoretical and historical accounts of language, reason and rationality? How are social action, self-understanding and the production of knowledge construed in the way that they work? In short, how do networked ICTs, through their various protocols and inscriptional strategies, act as medium, model and interface for discourse and significance?

The tendency in the HCI and CMC literature is to critique individual received designs or interfaces, and/or the emergent social practices that such designs allow for the ‘user', conceived as a kind of quasi-universal, instrumental-functional subject. But I argue that a significant step further needs to be taken in the critique of social computing practices: deeper insights need to be unearthed in the metaphysical soil of their designs, by bringing constitutive forms of metaphysical difference to light among different textual and data modeling practices online, while also clearly re-articulating some of the common aspects that have always been a condition of their materiality and functionality. Adopting this perspective means asking questions like those above, connecting them with theories of communication, democratic norms, social reason and the labour of objectified knowledge, or what Paolo Virno has called the general intellect. They need to be posed against an account of the web as a socio-technical space, where various symbolic formalizations are materially enacted in many aspects of everyday life, with political consequence. This is how I will proceed, having now produced this introductory chapter.

The material in this chapter will be presented in Vancouver at the Social Informatics pre-conference of ASIST.