Sunday, June 08, 2008

Objectivity and the Future of Knowing (anything) with Certainty.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference at U of T titled: “Reclaiming the World: The Future of Objectivity” (St. George Campus, The Bahen Centre for Information Studies, May 23-24 2008).

Now the first thing that I have to get off of my chest is the fact that it was run really poorly. Admittedly, my opinion may be negatively skewed, as I showed up on the Friday afternoon to find no record of my registration. I HAD registered about a week before-hand, but this did not seem to matter to the folks who were organizing it: they were content to have my money. My main peeve about the registration was that despite being a paying client, I was treated like some bozo who just “wandered in.” I was left wondering why I had even bothered paying. I had verified that it would not be a problem if I missed the morning lectures (as I had a conflicting appointment), but obviously this was not quite the case.

That said, I was very impressed by the speakers and discussion at the conference, and I found the variety of topics fascinating. Certain papers were particularly interesting: Karen Barad’s examination of “objectivity and the ontology and ethics of knowing” through the example of the brittle star (starfish); Mike Pettit’s history of the use of deception in early psychological studies; and Natasha Myers' discussion of embodiment in protein crystallography.

I really want to committ some of my notes to digital form, but I also do not want to write a fifteen-page blog post. In the future I will try to discuss those papers individually, so that they can get some attention on the web.

Speaking of getting attention on the web, the keynote address for the conference was also very interesting. Delivered by Bruno Latour, it was a rather convoluted lecture about using new virtual tools to encourage an epistemological shift in techniques of representation. Dissent and argument that stems from the implicit political nature of “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” can be overcome by new tools that enable a witness to enter into any stage of a controversy, as well as trace the facts and opinions therein.

Does that make any sense? I’ve read that paragraph a couple of times now, and I am really not too sure what I mean by it. Basically, Latour was making a case for a new methodology used in science studies, namely co-author and co-citation mapping. Of course, the applications that create these maps can be used for much more than co-citation: that is merely the extent of my experience.

The underlying message of the lecture really seemed to rely on a kind of pseudo-positivism. In order for the datascapes of a controversy to be as accessible (and accurate) as Latour says they CAN be, the digital archive has to catch-up and parrallel the natural world. In a lot of ways, I think that this can be possible: after all, surgeons can perform laproscopic operations through devices that are located in operating rooms in different parts of the world. It is merely another step to make the operating theatre just as remote, and at the same time just as intimate, because the witnesses COULD share the surgeon’s “perspective”: or, “representation.”

In other words, the problems and politics of objectivity can be overcome by relying on a “second-degree” objectivity that enables the tracing and representation of all matters of fact and matters of concern at any intermediary step.

Obviously, the lecture was incredibly interesting and (believe it or not) very useful. I believe that Latour is correct when praising the potential of the usefulness of the digital archive, but I disagree about accessibility that (he argues) it offers. On a personal note, I am quite interested in the study of objectivity in so far as it relates to standards and protocols. When I consider how procedures are written one of my main concerns is the amount of information that can be learned.

Whether it is a text-based manual, or an interactive tutorial, there are implicit goals and assumptions framing how a process is created. If all of the parties involved in a procedure, (broadly speaking) the producers and the users, can use the digital archive to demonstrate and interact on individual levels, then a standard (objective), becomes inaccessible. For instance: person A says it should be one way, and writes it as a textual process; person B says it should be another, and records the process in flash (.swf) format; while person C says the process should be articulated in a completely different manner, and draws a schematic. All three persons may be talking about how to logon to Windows, but they describe the (simple) process very differently.

There are a variety of tools available to map this controversy over starting Windows, but if I look at it this way (where every party can articulate a procedure differently, and present their version differently) I still fail to see how the digital archive can overcome the problem of whether or not there is a standard (objective) protocol that can be agreed upon.

I am going to wrap-up this post before it gets terribly long. However, I will probably revisit the topic in later posts.

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