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Researcher explores why we don’t need to ’Like’ technology as it is

2017-09-05

With the arrival of networked and computational technologies into existing media environments, media practices have undergone rapid and important changes. Such changes affect many areas of living and play a role in shaping such things as social experiences and power relations.

Eric Snodgrass will discuss this influence of technology on media practices when defending his doctoral thesis, Executions: power and expression in networked and computational media, on September 8.

Eric SnodgrassThe dissertation looks at a range of contemporary complex mediated environments, such as the development of Facebook’s Like button.  Snodgrass tracks its simple but far ranging impact within social media and asks questions as how did this — now very familiar button —come about? How did it become such a successful and popular mode of expression? And what are its effects outside of Facebook itself?

 The dissertation sees these as important question of what can and cannot be done with existing computational technologies, and the political question of how these technologies make certain practices and possibilities more or less likely than others.

 ”Facebook’s Like button is a very clever computational unit for expression. But there are also things we might want to ask about a platform like Facebook, and I have tried to address these questions by treating seriously how these networked and computational forms of media actually work.”

 Snodgrass takes the term of ’execution’ from computer programing, as in to ’execute a computer program’. He uses it as a means of looking into the way in which any computational process involves ongoing negotiations of various relations and affordances, such as those of the technical, the cultural, the material and the political.

Historical contexts and technological development

 ”There are always affordances. Things that can or cannot be done in a certain instance with computers; not just technically, but also due to available materials or because of social or political norms relating to the context in question.”

 While the examples he looks at are taken from contemporary media practices, the dissertation looks at how these perceived possibilities of computation and media develop over time.

 As Snodgrass shows, the computer’s history can be traced back to early capitalist models for manufacturing and calls for many different forms of efficiency, just as the urgent crises of events like war and codebreaking helped to further bring it into being. The dissertation looks at a broad range of examples, ranging from unusual media art practices to very familiar and highly politicised issues, such as fake news and the EU’s use of various technologies in the policing of the Mediterranean migration situation.

 More than just a Like

Along with the Like button, Snodgrass looks at Facebook features such as social plugins and Facebook Live. He draws the conclusion that it is no coincidence that Facebook’s Like button was developed and took the form that it did. The interface, with its two settings of on and off, is able to quickly and efficiently capture and share user sentiment and response to content and in this way create meaning both for users and algorithms.

Since its launch in 2009, it has developed into one of the most recognisable forms of expression, opening up the way for many millions of user clicks. Through this simple click, Facebook’s algorithms are able to collect and store a great deal of data, and in doing so, to structure and use various forms of data analysis and statistics to assign a certain kind of weight and meaning to each of these interactions.

Snodgrass emphasises the Like button is a strong example of the ”sociotechnical” way in which engineers and software programmers, together with other actors like advertisers and Facebook users themselves, are able to bring about both computationally efficient but also socially effective modes of interaction.

We don't have to accept things as they are

However, Facebook cannot predict how its own decisions will have further effects in the world, and Snodgrass looks further at examples such as fake news and live video streams of police shootings, emphasising the way in which these networked and computational media play important roles in power relations and politics of the present.

 At the same time, the dissertation emphasises that questions of what is possible with such technologies and their present forms of ”executability” are never fully given. The outcomes and practices of these technologies can never be predicted in advance nor do they have to be treated as the only possible way of using such technologies.

 ”We don’t have to accept the existing power relations and technologies as they are,” he said.

Text: Adrian Grist

Last updated by Adrian Grist