Talk: Contribution to a Political Economy of Self-Archiving

*talk given at the “Compromised Data?” Conference, 28-29 Oct, Toronto
I want to talk about the self-archiving project that I have initiated this year, I would like to give a theoretical explanation of its motivations. This project comes out of years of working on audio-visual archives for some institutes, and I found quite puzzled that even though there are so many works on crowd sourcing, participation studies to open up institutional archives, not only in the industry but also in the humanities, there has been little attention paid to personal archives. Indeed we do talk about personal data, but when we come to this subject, it concerns always about privacy, privacy and privacy, especially after the PRISM project and other national surveillance projects were disclosed. I would like to move to another direction, that is of self-archiving or personal archive. First of all, lets look at three simple questions: 1) how many times have you downloaded the same file because it is easier to download it again than to look it up in your computer? 2) do you have idea what exactly are there on the clouds that you are using? 3) do you know what is happening on the cloud beyond the objects you put there? They don’t have much to do with privacy, but rather about how we access and archive our own belongings. We can see two problems here: firstly we own more and more digital objects, but we are losing our ability to manage them and locate them; secondly we tend to have more and more space to store these objects, but we don’t archive them. Here we must distinguish storing and archiving, since storing at its best sense means putting things in order through indexation and categorisation; archiving is not much about indexing, but rather about creating contexts, about taking care of things in order to take care of the self. The word context deserves our attention, and I will come back to it again.

Because of the limit of time, I propose you to look at a short text called Archivist Manifesto, that was published on Mute website, though you are going to find quite a few grammatical mistakes. In which it outlines a more detailed explanation why I think everyone should become archivist. Here I think I will have to cut at least half what I want to say in the abstract, I am going to concentrate on the question of the milieu and archive. I want to deal with this theoretical question that I didn’t address in the archivist manifesto, which is the question of the digital milieu and the preservation of life.This is based on the reading of George Canguilhem’s historical studies of milieu in his article The Living and its milieu, and his student Gilbert Simondon’s further exploration on the relation between technologies and milieu. According to Canguilhem, it was Newton who brought the question of milieu from mechanics to biology, since for Newton the milieu consists of ether, that is the medium of transmission: “Ether helped him not only resolve the problem of illumination, but also explain the physiological phenomenon of vision and even explain the physio- logical effects of luminous sensation, in other words, explain muscular reactions.” It is quite evident that today we are dealing with a digital milieu that didn’t exist before; we can probably say data or information has replaced ether, and constitute a milieu which is more and more pervasive, interactive, intelligent and also dangerous. The danger comes no only from that fact that the digital environment is dominated by several giant industrial players, but also what offered by these companies are understood as tools or services rather than the milieu.

In the 19th century we can see many debates and theories around the question of the milieu, for example Auguste Comte, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt. In these debates we can find that the relation between the living and its milieu becomes more and more intimate, at the same time, the explanation of milieu becomes a scientific tool which combines anthropology, biology, statistics, laboratory experiments and philosophy, in order to understand evolution and human behaviours. We can probably say that the first understanding of milieu is atmosphere and circumstance which englobe the living being, for Lamarck milieu means specifically fluid such as light, water, air. At centre of Lamarck’s theory of the milieu is adaptation, meaning when the milieu changes, we adapt ourselves in order not to let it go, as if it hasn’t changed at all. The adaptation of the living to its milieu is admirable, but also problematic, since when we stick to a digital milieu constituted by Goolge, Twitter, Facebook, we adapt ourselves to their policies, their change of interface, their modification of APIs, their abuse of our personal data. The theme of our colloquium compromised data has some resonances here, though the question is whether we compromise data or we are compromised by data.

It was Darwin who criticized these naturalists in his introduction to the Origin of Species, he says “Naturalists are always referring to external conditions like climate and food as the only possible cause of variations; they are only right in a very narrow sense.” Darwin offered two other understandings of milieu, one is a social milieu of competition or struggle for survival; the other is the geographical milieu of natural selection. Darwin broadened the relation of the living and its milieu from external environment to social aspects, that is to say the relation between organisms themselves. I think Canguilhem hasn’t further developed this aspect of Darwin in his research on the milieu, I think it was Kurt Lewin and the Gestaltpsychologists, and Simondon who finally went into this question of the social milieu. Nonetheless Canguilhem has more or less touched it in his reading of the work of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll.

In the early 20th century, Uexküll published several books on the question of the Umwelt, notably first volume of Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere in 1909, and the second volume in 1921, which inspired Heidegger’s take on the concept of the world and his articulation of the Umgang. In the well known example given by Uexkull, a tick, an insect without eyes, is resting on a branch, and detecting signals in order to fall itself to the body of an animal passing by. Now, lets imagine a cow passing by, it creates a setting defined by different parameters especially the odor of rancid butter that emanates from the animal’s cutaneous glands, which triggers the tick to “fall”, if the tick is lucky it can stick itself to the skin of the animal, and suck its blood. Otherwise, it will have to slowly go back to the tree and wait for another passing-by animal.

In the previous sentence, I used the word setting instead of milieu since Uexküll uses three words Umwelt, Umgebung and Welt to describe three different orders of external environment and stimulations. Canguilhem hence says “Uexkiill distinguishes between them with great care. Umwelt designates the behavioral milieu that is proper to a given organism; Umgebung is the simple geographical environment; and Welt is the scientific universe. For the living, the specific behavioral milieu (Umwelt) is a set of stimuli that have the value and significance of signals.” We can see in fact the Umwelt is no longer a milieu as we understood before, it was Canguilhem’s own willing to integrate into his theory of milieu, but rather Uexkuell’s notion of the Umwelt is more in the direction of context. A context is a selection of significations of the subject. I said at the beginning that I want to pick up the word context again, because I want to show how do we arrive at the context from the investigation of the milieu. Context gives us another order of granularity in the analysis of milieu. This corresponds to the third question I raised before, now within the digital milieu, the robots the intelligent agents from Google and Amazon for example are able to collect our contextual information and create new contexts for us. This is probably quite evident with their recommendation systems.

Through re-reading the relation between the living and its milieu in our contemporary technological condition, I propose that we should all become archivists, and to develop practices and independent tools that allow us to take care of our objects. Indeed, we have been archivists from the moment we start owning things, toys, books, postcards, letters, we have our own way of organizing them, cataloging them. But it is only by now that we are confronting a situation, that we are not able to archive them, either possess them or index them by ourselves. There are different levels of inabilities here: web services become more and more distributed, while data portability is still a problem; cloud computing is moving things from your hard-disk to someone else’s server; indexation tools and personal libraries softwares are still underdeveloped, etc. It is exactly this inability of archiving, created by the technological condition, opens up a new struggle between the being and its milieu.

I want to continue by discussing about Simondon, not only because Simondon proposed to take care of technical objects (that would be digital objects in our case), but also Simondon gives a more political sense to the notion of the milieu. Moreover Simondon envisaged a technological culture as a possible solution to the question of alienation in specific and the opposition between culture and technology at large.In his book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Simondon developed a concept called the associated milieu. What is an associated milieu? Let me give a simple example: Simondon often mentioned the Guimbal turbine (a generator named after the engineer who invented it), which, to solve the problem of loss of energy and overheating, uses oil to lubricate the engine and at the same time isolate it from water; it can then also integrate a river as the cooling agent of the turbine.This adoption of the external milieu as part of its function, instead of adaptation as we have seen before, is the creation of the associated milieu. I have to say that the distinction between adoption and adaptation comes from Bernard Stiegler, we have discussed a lot on this question together.

Simondon also developed another concept called technical individual. A technical individual is an ensemble of objects that can create a recurrent causality among its technical component in order to stabilise it in case of external stimuli, that is also to say it creates an associated milieu. Simondon says that at the time of craftsmanship, human beings were bearers of tools, they are the associated milieu of tools, since they enable tools to function. That is to say human beings are technical individuals. But after the industrial revolution, machines have become technical individuals, human beings working in factories were reduced to operators. According to his analysis, because of the deprivation of their associated milieu due to industrialisation, “human individuality finds itself more and more disengaged from the technical function by the construction of technical individual – but it creates actually a malaise, because human, who always searches to be technical individual no longer has a stable place next to the machine: he becomes servant of machine or organiser of the technical ensemble1”. Today cloud computing, social networks today work more or less on the principle of crowd sourcing, users don’t know what they are contributing for, while they are virtually working through searching, typing status updates.

The question is no longer one about the sabotage of machines and factories, but to invent a new conception of technical knowledge that reconstitutes the culture of machine that is driven by capital and marketing. Now to construct personal archives is for me to construct an associated milieu for ourselves, to take care of digital objects with which we live and orient. This is what Simondon calls a technological humanism, which “aims at the most serious aspect of alienation that a civilisation behaves or produces”, so “each epoch should discover its humanism, and orienting it towards the principle danger of alienation”. Under this consideration, I proposed a self-archiving project, on one hand it proposes the cultivation of a self-archiving practice; on the other hand it calls for contributions to the building of different archival tool. Here is the example that we are trying to develop in the Hybrid Publishing Lab, due to lack of time, I summarize it in two main ideas about the tool:
1) with which we can annotate the objects we collected by adding different type of metadata into it, e.g.
a) firstly metadata of the object itself;
b) secondly a maximum of 5 tags;
c) thirdly, associate this objects to other objects.
2) with which we can experiment different sharing methods, e.g.:
a) we share metadata but not objects, and based on metadata we can exchange objects;
b) create local libraries with routers but not connected to the internet.

I leave the rest of the time for questions and discussions that can probably clarify some of the points above.

1 comment for “Talk: Contribution to a Political Economy of Self-Archiving

  1. January 14, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    I appreciate your final passage concerning types of metadata for self-archiving, esp. 2(a) “we share metadata but not objects, and based on metadata we can exchange objects.” If a community were to commit to self-archiving and generate a robust exchange of objects, the quality of the metadata would evolve rapidly to become a powerful semiotic engine.
    As for 2(b), may I suggest ‘Li-fi’ via LED light bulb?

    This article on recording info in 5D suggests the richness that may be conveyed when a just a few constrained variables are allowed to play out over a huge number of end points (or end users)! (“5D ‘Superman memory crystal’ heralds unlimited lifetime data storage” at )

    Thank you again for your insights!

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