Paul, C. (2011). Contextual Networks: Data, Identity, and Collective Production. In _Context Providers_, M. Lovejoy, C. Paul, and V. Vesna, eds. Bristol and Chicago: intellect.

Digital technologies offer new ways to network and contextualize locations and social connections, and so create frameworks for examining culture. “Context” itself is a “complex construct” (103), subsuming the physical, social, organizational, and economic. When we speak in global terms, we refer to locational contexts. And when we speak locally, we evaluate agency and access to/within particular locations. Malcolm McCullough (2004) parses, distinguishing between “‘setting’ as objective, a priori space and ‘context’ as both the engagement with the setting and the bias this space creates for the interactions occurring within it” (104).

“Context awareness and the ability to improvise in contexts are a necessity for functioning in an information society that finds its extension in pervasive computing and social media” (104).

Contexts are formed through: (1) data spaces, (2) networked identities, and (3) new models for collaboration and cultural production.

Data spaces comprise the virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life, World of Warcraft, Minecraft), pervasive computing, and the rise of social media. Wireless networks and “nomadic devices” blur our conception of site-based works. Locative media works investigate any variety of contexts, be they “geographic, personal, social, cultural” (108). Digital/network/creative commons reassert public agency in the digital era. The digital commons and “Public Domain 2.0” stress the importance of protecting public space on the Internet, as much as in the “real” world. Next, Lev Manovich (2002) defines mapping as converting one depiction into another, and places data visualization within it, specifying it visualizes data sets. And finally, tagging introduces a whole new mode of classifying.

Networked identity making is the construction of self in virtual space–it is the both/and-ing of embodiment and disembodiment. On the one hand, people assume the apparent Cartesian separation, mind as distinct from body. On the other, we understand (feel?) engaging with hardware is a necessarily physical act, and thus embodying. This is not merely a personal change. A long time ago Castells (1989, 1996) note that the abstractions of the information age have critically transformative spatial and cultural implications.

The “network society” term alone conveys the cultural production implications. Artists have formed collectives, the “prosumer” has blurred the distinction between the producer and consumer, and of course we see a mirroring of the established, mundane power networks in cyberspace. Grassroots, collective action assisted in the 2008 Obama election, the Arab Spring, and provide platforms for such projects as Citizen Science, Participatory Urbanism, and The Living Environments Lab. The Net’s immaterial labor cues major economic reverberations and inspires questions about the sustainability of cultural production. Users, in their creative endeavors, provide untold amounts of free labor to the Net. The software art project “User Labor,” following Tiziana Terranova’s (2003) “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy” article, cheekily proposes a special ULML (“user labor markup language,” akin to HTML) so users can track their contributions’ distribution/proliferation through the Web.

“Whatever form the process of mapping the data spaces of digital networks takes–from visualization of a data set to new models for collaboration and cultural production–it ultimately consists in the hypermediated distributions of context” (119).

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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Media Arts, Minor Field, Research Fields


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