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Distributed

Joshua Trees

June 19th, 2018 4:41 min read 1289 words

In April 2018, David Blamey (Open Editions) and Joshua Trees (Books From The Future) organised Distributed, a publishing symposium about the act of distribution across the spectrum of cultural production, hosted by Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art.

In this context, Joshua Trees, Jack Clarke and Ayşe Köklü took turns playing the role of ‘Counterpoint’, each giving a short talk in response to the book Distributed (Open Editions, 2018) and the editors’ stated motivations (“Why publish?”) and shortcomings (“What’s missing?”), alongside chapter readings by David Blamey, Adrian Shaughnessy, Rathna Ramanathan, Neil Cummings, Brad Haylock and Billie Muraben.

In June 2018, the Counterpoints reunited.

JT
In ‘The Social Life of Documents’, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid talk about “documents as the means to make and maintain social groups, not just the means to deliver information”. I think that’s such an important observation that it bears repeating. Is there anything that either of you missed the chance to say?

AK
I wish I had talked about English as a global language.

JT
Why?

AK
Lately I’ve been thinking about the internet and the American influence on postcolonial countries. In Turkey I grew up with American pop songs and that says something about economics and power play.

JT
Are you talking about the ‘mistribution’ of English? To use the term you coined.

AK
When mistribution happens, other variables are at play such as power dynamics.

JT
What do you mean by mistribution? Where did that word come from?

AK
A bit of a chance encounter. I was listening to Oliver Sacks talking about mishearings at the end of his life. He gradually lost his hearing and as it became more and more difficult for him to understand things, he used that as an opportunity to create meaning. And so I was like, mishearing… distribution… mistribution!

JC
Your talk had a psychoanalytic register. I know you’re quite well versed in that area, but you never really elaborated upon that aspect.

AK
When I showed the Rorschach Test I was trying to illustrate cognitive dissonance and how we struggle to handle contradictory realities. Mistribution can be seen as a test of our psychological boundaries, offering clues to our unconscious biases and inbuilt ways of processing information.

JC
It’s interesting what you say about English becoming a global language. People talk about a Freudian slip as being an accidental way of revealing a hidden truth. It’s almost like you’re talking about mistribution as a way of uncovering hidden truths within distribution itself.

AK
There’s this psycholinguist who, as a child, misheard the lyric “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you” as “take a piece of meat with you,” because he was too young to process what ‘a piece of me’ is.

Phonological triggers like these reveal so much about our potential to create new meaning. But maybe we need to become more aware of the invisible things influencing how we process information.

JT
Ayşe, your talk recognised humans as a publishing ‘technology’ whereas Jack’s talk recognised the ‘human’ in nonhuman publishers, or software robots. Both are guilty of mistribution but I’m curious how ‘bots’ deal with that?

JC
How do bots deal with making mistakes?

JT
Yes, you showed us some fascinating bot-on-bot editing wars.

AK
Yes, but in Jack’s examples the bots were fighting over right and wrong. With humans, there isn’t necessarily a clear right or wrong. It could be both ‘take a piece of me’ and ‘take a piece of meat’.

JC
Actually the way bots fight is less black-and-white than we might think. In a way, through that constant oscillation – yes, no, yes, no, yes, no – they collectively create a liminal space despite the fact that each bot believes it has a clear picture of what’s going on. Collectively this murky territory is, I suppose, more familiar to the human experience.

JT
So by being pedantic, bots end up producing grey areas?

JC
Yes, even though the bots are making absolute decisions about certain problems within the framework, the overall effect is one of indecision. Or a space of indeterminacy.

AK
It’s funny, we speak of these bots as if they’re making decisions, but they were programmed by humans. But then again they do take on a life of their own…

JC
This is true. Something that I wanted to talk about in Distributed but didn’t manage to is this idea of ‘zombie bots’. Which is essentially to say that there’s no oversight of them anymore. The developer who created the bot has severed their connection, but the bot is still live on the platform. There’s no way for the developer to affect the bot if anything goes wrong. The only thing one could do would be to kill it, to turn it off. I think this raises interesting questions of agency and distribution. There’s always the caveat that ultimately a bot was made by a human, but it becomes less clear with zombie bots because there’s not a direct line of oversight or a ‘line manager’ as it were.

[Laughter]

JT
To be honest, I’m finding it hard to tell the difference anymore. Think of how often you interact with humans who robotically follow orders – algorithms – written by someone else. The obvious example being the customer service rep. You know they’re reading a script, and they know that you know that they’re reading a script…

JC
It’s very performative at that point. I have been trying to start thinking more in terms of agency than of human or nonhuman. But it’s very difficult because it’s so enmeshed in our language. That’s why many of the examples used in my talk were to do with finance because that’s how we exhibit a lot of our agency as humans. You can only have agency if you have a certain amount of wealth.

AK
Like a ‘vector’. 1

JC
Exactly, but what happens when the vectors become agents in themselves? When the flows between things start getting an agency in their own right? For example, money travelling to and from places. What happens when the money starts making decisions?

[Laughter]

JC
Sort of like the institutional algorithms you were talking about, Josh. In Neil Cumming’s talk [and corresponding chapter in Distributed] he talks about the anthropocene, which is exactly the moment when we decentre the anthropods. I think we have a tendency to try to recentre the human, and that’s not necessarily necessary.

JT
Your comments about money having the potential for agency makes me think about the book’s potential for agency.

AK
They’re both currencies, in a way.

JT
Yes and maybe a positive side effect of having a common currency is that mass mistribution becomes possible.

AK
Are you referring to your blog?1

In your talk you showed several examples of books that have inspired collective action.

JT
That’s interesting because many of the books featured on my blog aren’t necessarily ’books’ in the sense of being printed objects. Many might even be an edition of one. But the culture of reblogging gives them almost as much impact as if they had been long runs. So what’s the difference? One-off, self-published and even fake books represent books that should exist but can’t in any significant capacity because of cultural, political or economical limits. Lobregat Balaguer has a brilliant definition of self-publishing as an act of decolonisation. Her view is particularly important in an era when the image of the book can have a wider circulation than the actual book.

JC
It’s nice that you’ve taken a slightly oblique look by asking What really are the effects? And maybe some people would say an edition of one is problematic, or indicates problematic features. But you look beyond that to say, They do circulate. Just in a different way. I think that logic is what I was trying to communicate earlier with the nonhuman stuff, in the sense of What is the ultimate effect of these bots? Especially in financial sectors, what’s the difference, at the end of the day, between a bot buying a stock and human buying a stock? I feel as though there’s a similar logic in what you’re saying about alternative forms of circulation online.

AK
Though something about the way we consume books seems slightly different to the way we consume money? There also seems to be a difference in the associative meaning produced by a book which is printed and bound for a certain purpose, compared with that of its meme counterpart.

JT
For some reason, I keep thinking of the runway. In fashion, the runway is this conceptual memetic zone for projecting possibilities that don’t necessarily represent the actual market but do represent levels of abstraction and aspiration necessary for fashion to distribute itself. A parallel…

AK
By-product, or ‘by-theory’.

JC
The runway is a really nice metaphor. It’s neither outside of the market, nor is it necessarily a marketplace of ideas. It’s materially embodied. There’re actual people walking the runway but it only exists for photographs to be taken of it. The publisher at Zero Books, Douglas Lain, often says that we no longer have a fixed value system. There’s no consensus on what’s valuable and not. Qualitative criteria have replaced quantitative criteria. Something’s only as successful as how many shares it gets. Which maybe relates back to the runway? An item of clothing is only as successful as the number of times it gets recirculated. Maybe it’s pointless to produce a book that can only get seen twenty times, or that doesn’t have a feedback loop built into its mechanism of distribution. For a small run, if you don’t post images of a book online there’s no way of getting that instantaneous feedback. While the twenty people who bought the book might have a qualitative system of values that they uphold collectively, and which would have made them buy into that certain book, this doesn’t conform to the societal quantitative value system which is measured in stats of thousands and millions.

AK
My hope would be for people to come up with more individualised and personalised ways of valuing things rather than assuming what makes something valuable. We’re all aware of bots interfering or algorithms presenting us with what other people have seen. Spotify, for example. Before Spotify people had their niche of bands they listened to and formed groups with other people who listened to those bands, but nowadays we listen to music on Spotify and everyone’s accessing and listening to almost the same things. I’m interested in knowing what moves us individually and collectively.

JT
If we agree that capitalism is either dying or evolving towards other ways of valuing things, can we see any signs of this happening within publishing?

AK
The International Institute of Not Doing Much.

[Laughter]

AK
Seriously, check it out. It brightens my day!

JT
Speaking of institutes, as tutors we regularly encounter work made by students which is quite sophisticated both aesthetically and culturally yet is somehow out of synch with the University’s marking criteria.

JC
I suppose what you’re talking about is a certain amount of excess? Maybe one of the signs that capitalism is failing or in its later stages is that more and more things feel excessive. Or that they are in excess of a framework that’s already in place. And maybe that’s nice. Maybe we need to be more excessive. That sounds very anthropocentric in a way. It’s quite difficult to imagine what a technological excess would be because it builds the infrastructure which you then exceed.

AK
What do you mean by excess?

JC
Nonrecuperability. Something that you can’t cash in on. Something that you can’t assess against the marking matrix.

JT
Noncommodifiable.

AK
I agree that there’s something revolutionary going on. But as a young person living in London, I feel like I rarely have the luxury to even think about excess because of the daily pressure to survive. I don’t know. Maybe in a postcapitalistic utopia we will be more complex beings.

[Laughter]

JT
Even this conversation seems excessive. We have chosen to meet in spite of the daily grind preventing such. Why aren’t we doing this more often? When will we find a model of living and working that enables people to be more…

AK
Generative.

JC
What do you mean by generative?

AK
We spend most of our time doing administrative and bureaucratic work, right? So anything generative, such as the joy of discussion and debate, seems harder and harder to establish. I believe in intellect as a generative force. But if you feel trapped and time-poor, that can easily produce the opposite effect.

JC
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi talks about ‘futurability’ as being this kind of invisibilisation of the future. If we agree that power is a generative force and that visions of the future can be a motivating factor for the present, Berardi asks us to reconsider power as the exclusion of certain futures. Power as a process of negation rather than generation. The power to make certain potentials invisible.

JT
We tend to use the term ’underrepresentation’ to refer to things that have been overlooked but maybe ‘invisibilation’ is more accurate. It’s not a matter of being ignored, it’s a matter of being prevented from being seen or heard.

AK
Jack, where does your interest in the future come from?

JC
For a long time I was interested in speculative design – Dunne & Raby, Black Mirror – but I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m interested in the future.

AK

Sorry I must have ‘misheard’ you.

[Laughter]

JC

People get lost in the future. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels write a passage called the ‘Critical Utopian Socialists’ which I think maybe every designer should read. They write that “to realise all these castles in the air, they [the utopian socialists] are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois” and only create these fantasmatic images of the future which have no material effect. For me that is the perfect indictment of Dunne & Raby’s work and others that uphold the speculative banner. They do interesting thought experiments that try to make us think differently, to invoke conversations around what the future will look like. Post-fossil fuels, etcetera. But what is the actual effect of that beyond conversations that are probably already happening elsewhere in less nicely designed contexts? That’s the future captured and constrained in a very capitalistic way. I don’t know. It’s very difficult to talk about the future and the present when we’re discussing things that are on the cutting edge of the present. What I find really frustrating is when people cast an idea out into the future and make potentially interesting work ineffective. Recently, a bot trading on a currency platform saw the headline “If Theresa May wants a hard Brexit she’ll get one”. The bot missed the nuance of that, started selling loads of sterling and tanked the price by six percent. That does have an effect on us. That happened a year ago. If we’re always in this context of technological breakthroughs looking to the future, and thinking about disasters that could happen in the future, we miss out on the ones that are already happening right now.

AK
I don’t know. Maybe these aren’t disasters. Maybe we were naive. In the current moment we’re judging the present as disaster but maybe in a near future this is just… life.

JT
In hindsight, we will look at the this period as normal?

AK
Or we will have a different framework with different adjectives for describing this experience.

JC
And maybe that framework is a temporal mode. We’ve talked a lot about the present and future but I also think a speculative form of hindsight is (or could be) a temporal mode to make work through. It would be interesting to see more work made through hindsight, to see people engaging with that properly and critically in the same way they do the future…

[Laughter]


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