Book of the Week: Insect Media, the anti-McLuhan book

Insect Media is an anti-McLuhan genealogy of media: how can we understand media not as extensions of the (hu)man, but as extensions of nature and animals?

* Book: Insect Media. An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Jussi Parikka. University of Minnesota Press,2010

The publisher’s page states that

Through close engagement with the pioneering work of insect ethologists, including Jakob von Uexküll and Karl von Frisch, posthumanist philosophers, media theorists, and contemporary filmmakers and artists, Parikka develops an insect theory of media, one that conceptualizes modern media as more than the products of individual human actors, social interests, or technological determinants. They are, rather, profoundly nonhuman phenomena that both draw on and mimic the alien lifeworlds of insects.

Author Jussi Parikka explains is motivation:

“Through Insect Media I wanted to investigate non-human media theory – and how we have for a longer time understood high-tech media through nature; through metaphors adapted from nature and more concretely, through the interfacing of natural and life sciences with digital culture. We have lived in the age of insects now for years – and by that, I mean the enthusiasm for swarms, distributed networks, and various other ideas that are “borrowed” from insect worlds and more widely animal research. The way we understand the processes and cultural phenomena surrounding network and digital media is often referred through concepts that are based in the non-human.

But I wanted to push this non-human theme a bit further in time, and investigate the birth of modern media culture through the animal forces in which it seems to be embedded. In a way, this idea follows something I started in my previous book Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) already. It was not only a book about digital accidents, but how we can understand digital culture from a slightly alternative perspective: forces contagious, non-conscious, affective, sticky.

In a way, one could sum up a lot about my book in its opening words:

“First, a practical exercise. Pick up an entomology book; something such as Thomas Eisner’s For the Love of Insects from a couple of years back will do fine, or an older book from the nineteenth century, like John Lubbock’s On the Senses, Instincts, and Intelligence of Animals with Special Reference to Insects (1888) suits the purpose as well. However, do not read the book as a description of the biology of those tiny insects or solely as an excavation of the microcosmic worlds of entomology. Instead, if you approach it as media theory, it reveals a whole new world of sensations, perceptions, movements, stratagems, and patterns of organization that work much beyond the confines of the human world.” (xi)

Such ideas can be found in popular culture discourses since the 19th century Victorian times, early avant-garde, and later digital media art, in communication studies discourses of post World War II era, as well as the emerging software cultures since the 1980s.

In terms of social media culture, the notions of swarms, hive minds and collective intelligence in distributed networks have been harnessed as part of the business discourse of the 21st century. Even if originating as part of the 1990s cyberenthusiasm for the Internet, they gained another peak of interest during the recent years of Web 2.0 when the amateur spirit at the core of the Internet project was discovered as a possible revenue stream. As analyzed by many network theorists including Tiziana Terranova, the harnessing of free labour as part of the Web 2.0 logic was part and parcel of this neobiologism of networks. Web 2.0 rediscovered (animal) sociability; the chattering, relating, friend-seeking, affective and non-rational but emotional human being who shared, talked, commented and contributed. The earlier feared idea of mindless drones that are based on automated mechanics that we recognize from early 20th century reluctance concerning the masses and the birth of mass society, and post World War II communist-references for example in popular culture seems suddenly be at the core of the processes of value creation of network culture!

If I would have written one more chapter, it definitely would have been about “the political economy of the insect in social media” – a further contribution to the debates how such ideas feed into a creation of a capitalist system of sharing, a new form of commu-capitalism, or new socialism (I am here thinking about the recent-ish Kevin Kelly Wired-text on the “new socialism”)

The processes of crowdsourcing, exemplified for example in the mentioned Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, are exemplary of such cognitive capitalism which really does not translate intuitively as “intelligent” work, but more based on lower cognitive level processing and perceptional capacities. The old intelligence-instinct division so crucial to the insect debate of late 19th and early 20th century (including for Bergson) is to an extent one way to make sense of the variety of cognitive capacities. In the midst of discussions concerning cognitive capitalism in social media culture, we need more low-level understanding of cognition that in most cases is more or less automated, affective, and, well, less intelligent than we like to think it is. The Worker (capitalised in the Mechanical Turk discourse like part of a gigantic global human ant nest) engages in Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) but at the same time, these are such tasks at the fringes of human capacities and technological automation. Easy for us humans, difficult for the machines: evaluating search results, selecting product categories, etc. Hence, at the core of the mathematical, technologically polished and scientifically grounded cultures of network communication lies something very stupid and seemingly primitive. The insect is a good figure to think technological cultures through “affect” and the milieu-bound nature of our cognitive and perceptual capacities. We are not insects, but a lot of the stuff we do is mindless, or at least automated. Network culture and its politics is not always a politics of reflection and decision-making, but of relating, automating, affective labour, and much lower level modes of sociability, relating and being in the world

Insect Media is an anti-McLuhan genealogy of media: how can we understand media not as extensions of the (hu)man, but as extensions of nature and animals? Furthermore, the insect and the animal are perfect conceptual figures that I use as conceptual vectors to move between a variety of fields of knowledge of modernity: art, science, media, and technology.”

2 Comments Book of the Week: Insect Media, the anti-McLuhan book

  1. Pingback: Insect Media interview and more « Machinology

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