Posts Tagged ‘PJ Rey’


At the weekend I attended remotely the Theorizing The Web 2013 conference. Before telling you how brilliant it was I’m going to question my own terms.

First, in describing my participation as happening ‘remotely’, by watching the livestream of talks online and by taking part in the #ttw13 twitter hashtag discussion, I misrepresent things. For, unlike probably all other conferences I have taken part in online, there was nothing remote about my experience of Theorizing The Web 2013. The organisers, Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey, practise what they preach. They have designed a happening that embeds the IRL talks and discussions in a university, into the digital contexts that form the subject of those discussions. Or is it the other way round? That’s my point. Whilst I was asking questions to panelists (via twitter), talking to delegates and watching and listening to the speakers, I felt the opposite of remote from proceedings. This photo by  Aaron Thompson is a brilliant evocation of the ‘embedded’ nature of #ttw13. All those people sat in the room listening to the speakers and putting their hands up to ask questions, are also online on their laptops and ipads, following the #ttw13 discussion on twitter, looking at the speakers’ presentation slides online and chatting to other participants via the web. Do I wish I’d gone to NYC and been there in person? Yes. Do I think I missed out on anything (apart from what looked like a rocking after party) by doing it online? No. In some ways I may have even seen more and talked to more people through ‘remote’ participation than I had I been at CUNY trying to fit everything in and talk to everyone face to face.

The other term I used that  I am not entirely happy with is ‘conference’. #ttw13 may follow the format of an academic conference, with a keynote speaker and seminar talks and Q and As, but again, it is not like any conference I have been to before. The conference structure tends to be quite static. You have to listen and be quiet during sessions then get to talk to people, often accompanied by far too much alcohol, in the evenings. But the embeddedness of #ttw13 meant that many of us were chatting whilst watching talks, and even watching more than one talk at once, going online, googling names, papers, images, being ‘active’ in a way the traditional conference doesn’t allow. I found ‘networking’ online at #ttw13 richer and more meaningful than those awkward conversations I have had with academics in conference venues, realising I have little in common with them inspite of our shared ‘research interests’.

oh. I think I might have conveyed some of my enthusiasm for #ttw13 in trying to challenge its/my terminology. Perhaps these videos of the live streamed talks will also put across what a lively, deep-thinking and fun occasion it was. I will write some more observations in due course. But mainly I am very happy I stumbled across Jurgenson and PJRey on – yes – twitter, and that I am a part of the theorizing the web project.

Photo: Aaron Thompson


I’m excited to remind you that this year’s Theorising The Web event is almost upon us. Taking place at the CUNY Graduate Centre in NYC  on March 2nd, #ttw13 will include a mix of presentations, panel discussions and, of course, twitter contributions on the subject of our society’s immersion in digital technologies. Last year I enjoyed taking part online. Though I wish I could go to New York to be there in person this time, I know that the organisers Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey encourage and value remote participation as much as the input from IRL delegates. Because, these young and groundbreaking academics are all about challenging our misguided separation of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ , aka what Jurgenson has termed  ‘digital dualism‘.

As someone who finds it impossible to distinguish between my online and offline ‘self’, I am fascinated and enthused by their ideas. And I will be taking a front row seat, in the real world, sat at my computer at home on Saturday, whilst I happen to watch papers live streamed rather than in a seminar room, and as I make my points on the #ttw13 hashtag instead of by putting my hand up. I hope some of you can join us on the day. The world is changing faster than we can theorise it, but I am glad someone is giving the social media age a run for its money.

Nathan Jurgenson has a great piece in the Atlantic, about what we might call representations of digital phenomena in the physical world.  The article has made me think hard about our perceptions of reality in the ‘internet age’. I hope to write something on it soon.

Jurgenson and his colleague PJ Rey are doing very exciting work on ‘social media theory’, making sense of the new ways in which we communicate and produce our identities. Their website Cyborgology is well worth a read. Here is Nathan’s Atlantic article in full:

‘Sometimes the Internet seems to jump from the screen: When that avatar you only knew on Twitter materializes in physical space in front of you; when you see graffiti on a wall with a Twitter hashtag; a mouse-pointer-arrow charm necklace; a QR code protest sign; when you get dizzy trying to come to terms with these physical instantiations of what began as digital

How do we understand these objects? What do we call them? Why do they exist? What do these objects say about the complex relationship between information and material, digitality and physicality, atoms and bits?

Ontology (what exists?) and phenomenology (how does existence appear to us?) are hard. The digital seems very different than the physical: Shopping at the mall is different than, talking face-to-face is different than texting, cyberwar or cybersex certainly seem different than their offline predecessors. But all these terms are trouble. PJ Rey provides a terrific investigationinto how these differences came to be known in spatial terms built around a collective fiction that digital information could be segregated into some new “cyber” space; the Net, the Web, The Matrix, a fictional Other Place conveniently at once separate but always accessible. This fiction was never tenable, and much of my work has centered on the vanishing point of this­­–what I have coined as “digital dualism.”

Something as simple as a mouse-pointer-necklace or an online friend encountered offline make obvious the bigger point that the workings of information transcend barriers like atoms and bits and blood and circuits. However, we run out of language when it comes to talking about a physical instantiation of something previously known primarily as digital. Just typing that last sentence hurt. So I asked on Twitter for some language, new or old, to get at this trend. I am surprised how few existing terms we have for this, and certainly nothing anyone agrees upon. Some of the most interesting replies I received:

  • This all can be thrown under the larger umbrella of “The New Aesthetic,” which deals with the collision of the on and offline. But for these objects we’re looking less at aesthetics (what is beautiful?) and more ontology (what exists?). Also, The New Aesthetic, arguably, is too general for our purposes here, capturing all of the dialogue between the digital and physical.
  • Bruce Sterling has used the line ” an eruption of the digital into the physical” when discussing The New Aesthetic, which does get at this more specific trend. Perhaps simply “digital eruption” could work?
  • Next Nature has discussed this trend as Boomeranged Metaphors, where something projected onto the Web is spit back out into the physical world.
  • “Ectoplasm” is an interesting suggestion, often used to describe spiritual energy manifesting in the physical world, which might be repurposed to describe the Web.
  • Robin Sloan’s “Flip Flop“: “the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again–maybe more than once.” Perhaps we could abstract this phrase beyond art/craft?
  • “Eversion” and “meatspacing” are terms used by William Gibson.
  • Tangiblasts
  • “What if cyberspace is oozing through the walls that once held it back, seeping out of the very fabric of reality?” - Gene Becker
  • What else?

Reading the last example from Gene Becker, I am at once excited that we are discussing information and materiality as interrelated, but also worried that all of this is reinforcing the problematic “digital dualism” I critique above. Cyberspace is not oozing out into reality, that which we encounter on some glowing screen was always reality, never locked away in a separate, mythical, cyber space. Terms like “ectoplasm” reinforces a dualistic view of separate digital and physical realities: “ecto” means “outside,” describing that which crosses between words.

These are not digital objects becoming real; these objects were always in our reality. What we are experiencing is not a Matrix-like teleportation trick, but a rearrangement, a different flavor of information. We need new terminology that makes reference to the enmeshed, imploded, overlapping, interpenetrating nature of the physical and digital. I dig some of the suggestions above, but I think we need to chew on this more. What are some other terms we might use? Who has written about this before (be it academic, popular or fiction)?’

Nathan Jurgenson’s earlier essay on digital dualism is here.

Theorising The Web 2012 is a conference run by young academics PJ Rey and Nathan Jurgenson in America, about internet technologies. They say:

‘The second annual Theorizing the Web conference aims to expand the range and depth of theory used to help us make sense of how the Internet, digitality, and technology have changed the ways humans live. We will bring together researchers from a range of disciplines, including sociology, communications, anthropology, philosophy, economics, English, history, political science, information science, the arts and many more.’

On April 14th 2012 I was able to participate in the conference from thousands of miles away via its website, which included live streams of seminars and lectures. On twitter, the #ttw12 hashtag meant people could tweet contributions in the discussions that were seen by people at the conference. At one point PJ Rey (@Pjrey ) tweeted that even in the conference rooms themselves, delegates were tweeting questions to the speakers rather than raising their hands!

Rey and Jurgenson (@Nathanjurgenson) also write for cyborgology, a brilliant website that theorises the web all year round. In this wired up 21st century world, it really is worth wondering what has become of ‘humans’ as we understand them to be. Identity, communication, ideas, have all transformed in recent years, and Cyborgology and #ttw are keeping track of how things are changing.

The keynote speaker was Andy Carvin (@acarvin ) who I’d not heard of before. He is a strategist and a journalist, who does a lot of work in bringing voices and people together, across the globe, particularly in social change movements. After the conference was over I looked at his twitter stream and it was immediately full of tweets and retweets marked #Egypt , #Suez, #Israel.

Here are some tweets from the conference to give a flavour of proceedings

Whether we love or hate the contemporary age, it is vital we ‘theorise’ it in my view. And here, some imaginative people are doing just that. I wish all conferences could be so accessible and so interactive.

View of the conference from the UK #ttw12 courtesy of @theJaymo