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Re: <nettime> We Have Never Been Modular
John Hopkins on Tue, 29 Nov 2005 23:01:59 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> We Have Never Been Modular

Some comments ...

>We Have Never Been Modular

but we have agreed on standards via political hegemony, pressure of dominant
ideas, and participating in the easy consumption of 'whatever works'.  And since
standards underlie the concept of modularity, I'm afraid that I disagree unless
you are talking about another collective "we" that is represented by the
demographic you are addressing and are member of.

>Thanks to everybody who commented on my text "Remix and 
>Remixability" (November
>16, 2005).  It was provoked by reading about web 2.0 and all the exitement and
>hype (as always) around it, so indeed I am "following the mainstream view" in
>certain ways. But I would like to make it clear that ultimately we are talking
>about something which does not just apply to RSS, social bookmarking, or Web
>Services.  We are talking about the logic of modularity which 
>extends beoynd the
>Web and digital culture.

And it is worth mentioning that none of those ideas are remotely sourced in
digital technologies -- they are constructed on the entire precursor
socio-technical infrastructure of engineering in general.  digital technologies
are a 'final' product of a long and continuous development process of
standardization that started when Empire was born.

>Modularity has been the key principle of modern mass production. 
>Mass production
>is possible because of the standarisation of parts and how they fit with each
>other - i.e. modularity. Although there are historical precedents for mass

>From an engineering point of view, modularity is a subsequent process result
following on the necessary precursor: the development of standards.

As a simple anecdote, I recall traveling across Europe in the early 80's.  When
crossing a border, say, between Italy and Germany, or France and Germany, aside
from the ritual rubber-stamping of the passport (and occasional body searches, but
that's another story), one was aware that suddenly, when before the streets were
full of Renaults, Citroens, and Peugeots, they were now filled with VWs, Mercedes,
and BMWs.  To such a degree that if you saw a Citroen DeuxCheveaux puttering
around in Bavaria -- a car I occasionally had in those days -- you would
invariably honk and wave (at the 'hippies').  The currency changed, the language
changed (obviously), the places for money exchange shifted, the electric plugs
morphed, the telephone rings, cables, and plugs changed.  Distance didn't unless
one crossed the Channel where temperature, length, weight, currency divisions, and
volume changed to absurdly baffling non-decimal fractions.  The socio-political
history of the EU (and globalization as well) is mapped over the development of
international standards that (have) effectively wiped out those prior social

The history underlying any and all movements towards a pervasive technology
(regardless of the geographic extent) is the history of standards development. 
This precedes any (modular) engineering deployments.  (A wonderful USD350 million
glitch on a NASA Mars project -- when an engineer (collaborating with ESA) forgot
to convert between metric and US measurements).  Of course, economic (military)
hegemony is absolutely connected to this process of standards development.  You
join in a military alliance and if you are the minor partner, you have to re-bore
your cannons to take his calibre of projectile, lest, in the heat of battle, you
run out of useable ammunition.

I think a discussion of standardization supersedes the discussion of modularity as
most (all!?) characteristics that arise in a description of modularity and its
impacts are derived from the 'textures' of the socio-technical landscape that are
determined by standardization.  In a way, collective knowledge as a very broad and
general social product is a result of standardization, especially if you are
considering, for example, knowledge that spans disparate physical locations.  Even
with the existence of the basic technology of the Internet, no collective
knowledge may be derived without a standardization that transcends the physical
restraints on the digital system -- a primary one being calibration of time
scales, but there are many other calibrations that must take place as well.  In
the Paul Edwards article quoted below, he points out that there are heavy
consequences for detecting global warming because the propagation of measurement
standard differences between national and international organizations.  An example
of the fragility of knowledge building and the importance of standards in
collective action.

Strip Latin from biological nomenclature, and international collaboration in the
entire discipline is immediately snuffed.

It would seem that the larger the social span of an institution, the greater the
built-in desire to establish and propagate standards among its constituents. 
Maybe remix is the ultimate surrender of the individual to the collective. 
Standardised idiosyncracy.  Lovely end result.

And at the other extreme, some of the more powerful expressions of artistic
creativity take place in a landscape where there is some freedom to deliberately
ignore standards (and modularity) and filter lived experience through the
idiosyncratic filter of self -- re-presenting that lived experience rather than an
obsession with filtering someone else's signal...

I think your mention of musicians sampling published music points to something
perhaps more tiresome -- related to the instance when rock stars sing about life
as a rock star.  A simulation of a simulation.  TeeVee shows about teevee
producers.  Escher's lizard consuming itself.  Maybe remix culture will turn out
to be so efficient that it will come to that -- annihilation by self-consumption
of its own mediated world-view...

"Maintaining consistency in this huge, constantly changing network is the work of
standards. Standards are socially constructed tools: They embody the outcomes of
negotiations that are simultaneously technical, social, and political in
character. Like algorithms, they serve to specify exactly how something will be
done. Ideally, standardized processes and devices always work in the same way, no
matter where, what, or who applies them. Consequently, some elements of standards
can be embedded in machines or systems. When they work, standards lubricate the
construction of technological systems and make possible widely shared knowledge."

from "A Vast Machine:Standards as Social Technology," Paul N.  Edwards, Science,
07.05.2004 vol 304

Measurement is a comparison process in which the value of a quantity is expressed
as the product of a value and a unit; that is, Quantity = {a numerical value} x
{unit} where the unit is an agreed-upon value of a quantity of the same type. The
concept of a quantity such as length is independent of the associated unit; the
length is the same whether it is measured in feet or meters. A standard is a
physical realization of the definition, with an agreed-upon value to be used as a

from "The Route to Atomic and Quantum Standards", Jeff Flowers, Science 19.11.2004
vol 306


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