Lessons, Connections and Directions

The summer now underway, it’s a good time to take stock of gains, setbacks, and lessons learned from the semester. This post simply reviews the three sets of work undertaken over the past few months, and then try to detail the priorities and next steps necessary to continue progress towards the dissertation. Between materials, structures, and approaches, more incommensurability than contiguity prevails – yet weak ties persist in imagination and in theory. Broadly speaking, both epistemological and methodological considerations justify holding all three in concert, as parts of the long-term and focused project. And yet this can only hint at a strategy, it seems, and my largest outstanding challenge will be to find the coherent framework that unifies or at least governs the relationship between each of these schools of thought.

From reading more Foucault in one stretch this semester than I ever have before, I learned, first, that his patience outstrips my own. I also delved into theoretical discussions that I had not tried to grasp yet. For example, following his argument in the lectures on governmentality, that American-style neoliberalism consumes political differentiation under the totalizing rubric of economic logic, it becomes necessary to think of the degree to which that consumption extends to or from other parts of the world. While Foucault never quite assesses the impact of colonial structures, which will be extraordinarily important to this dissertation, his nuanced grasp of the elements of power as manifested in subtle ways continues to resonate in the design and implementation of my research. As the upcoming field statement presses through renderings of theoretical and methodological frameworks such as governmentality, power/knowledge, and the challenge of describing one’s own episteme, the specific lines of thought that I inherit from and push back against in this library will become clearer. One risk of adopting these approaches – shorthanded as a certain orthodox Foucauldianism – would find my research design becoming impossibly Eurocentric, and thereby unable to competently describe – let alone analyze – the machinations of situations in Africa. However, it can be mitigated by excising the limitations of linear positivism from my theoretical paradigm, a practice that would rest on a recognition of those limits in archaeology’s and genealogy’s tendencies to concentrate on mediated, archival data. Following such a recognition, and adopting other techniques for constituting and parsing available information in whatever medium, a responsible deployment of arguments on the relationships between people, processes, and technologies can concentrate more clearly on the powers at stake.

Drawing links out from a study of the contemporary, global internet seems at once anachronistic and misguided, because of the fundamental epistemological structure of the internet as such, in which links rarely terminate but instead find further nodes through a second order in their system. This continual expansion, supported by surprisingly rigid hierarchies of protocols and programs, teaches me that the material components of the internet have undergone far more radical, and often less apparent, shifts than have its users at whatever end. As background work to the dissertation, this study serves an abiding interest in the nuanced and detailed description of a technological situation. It has opened up important elements of a central question, as in, why the internet in West Africa seems to be developing in an opposite pattern to its history in the global North. I have gleaned a wealth of new forms of expression for theoretical and empirical research this semester, and I hope to give them each a place in an overarching methodological schema during the composition of this field statement in the next few months. Most crucially, I have learned that the study of the internet remains the study an emergent phenomenon even while it incorporates fastidiously historical requirements, and the dangers of a banality reiterated by so many cultural thinkers who have approached internet lives. So I will continue to draw links between the internet and these other fields of study, because each of them contributes to the core constitution of my abiding research project.

Turning to my painful introduction to very recent developments in computational social science, in the class Working with Large Data Sets, I must reflect through an anecdote. At a gathering of old friends recently, one, a financial whiz, asked me what exactly “Big Data” meant, aside from the technology industry’s buzz on the topic. I had to explain, perhaps for the first time so succinctly for myself, that data becomes big data when it makes more sense to move one’s computation to that data rather than trying to move the data between computers – somewhere on the order of gigabyte-sized files, rather than kilobyte- or megabyte-sized; somewhere on the order of petabytes and yotabytes of raw, unstructured data to be processed, rather than the gigabytes or terabytes in total. This helped clarify why I had become interested in the techniques of this new branch of applied computer science: the types of questions that one can ask about one’s subject multiply exponentially – on part with the rate at which data multiplies (compared to linearly for computational power and logarithmically for bandwidth, in relation to one another) – which strikes a deep chord with this adherent of theories of complexity, chaos, and other such forlorn undertakings. Moreover, big data is less about the specific frameworks, systems, tools, or languages involved in its analysis, and more about the acceptance and management of contemporary situations of uncertainty, inequity, and change, by staunchly scientific minds. The value of such acceptance to my own undertaking cannot be understated.

Whatever algorithmic, critical, or simply descriptive patterns my research develops, each of these areas will serve me well. The deep structure and flux running through them becomes apparent in a consideration of the specific people, processes, and technologies involved in the development of the internet in West Africa. There is no reasonable reduction to some imagined essence of Africanity here, nor is there a fundamental truth about social life, nor a universal definition of the internet. What does emerge is a sketch of the patterns of what actions a conscientious researcher can take next. Simply put, these are:

  1. Talking to people – in the region and in diaspora – about their experience with, access to, and use of the internet in relation to that region.
  2. Gathering quantitative, linguistic, and architectural data for a more in-depth period of discovery and planning, and for refinement of my central research question.
  3. Describing in as much detail as possible the historical, geographical, and political-economic situation on the ground in the region.

Whatever outcomes arise from the overall study here, and in the face of a great deal of labor and suffering to come, I remain convinced that a combination of ontological, epistemological, and methodological lessons such as those I have learned this semester will keep me moving towards the production of a coherent piece of knowledge to further our understanding of our relationships to and through technology. Wish me luck.

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