Conversation Map - Warren SackConversation Map - Warren Sack

As the third episode of Tactical Networks and Simulations, I would like to introduce an online interview I’ve done with Warren Sack through e-mail around his project titled Conversation Map.

Sack is a software designer and media theorist whose work explores theories and designs for online public space and public discussion. He is Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His courses focus on new media art & design and critical studies of new media.

Conversation Map is a graphical browser for very large-scale conversations (VLSCs) that is designed to make it easier for participants to understand and reflect on a wider network of social semantic relations by analyzing several thousands messages at a time belonging to large mailing-lists or busy Usenet newsgroups.

VLSCs are large volumes of public interchanges between the members of a community, taking place across international borders, often on a daily or hourly basis. As Sack points out in “What Does A Very Large-Scale Conversation Look Like?“, “at no other point in history have we had a medium that supports many-to-many communications between hundreds or thousands of people”. VLSCs are important because they take part in the production of new public spaces that may offer the means to reinvigorate public discourse.

The interface of Conversation Map visualizes the activity of a VLSC in four different sections:

  • A set of social networks that illustrates who is corresponding to whom.
  • A menu of themes of discussion that are important to the conversation embodied in the message.
  • A semantic network that articulates some of the emergent synonyms or metaphors of the discussion.
  • A graphical representation of all the messages exchanged in the conversation organized into threads over a given period of time.

The latest public version of Conversation Map shows the activity of soc.culture.palestine (a Usenet group devoted to Palestinian people, culture and politics) during the Israel-Gaza Conflict.


Tolga Taluy
While talking about SimSocrates in your previous interview with Joseph Dumit titled “Artificial Participation”, you were expressing your interest in “designing computer programs that know nothing, have no social position, and yet, simultaneously, might be technologies of the self insofar as they serve as critical mirrors for self reflection”. Can we consider Conversation Map as being a part of this project? If so, isn’t it a risk to not to have a social position for these kinds of works?

Warren Sack
I designed and built the Conversation Map for my Ph.D. work at the MIT Media Lab. Originally, the Conversation Map was going to be the “back end” of a bigger system that I had provisionally named SimSocrates. SimSocrates was designed to “listen” to a public discussion, surmise interesting currents, and then intervene by posting Socratic questions in a copular form: e.g., “Are Palestinians Israelis?” To effectively do this I had to build the Conversation Map that can find the main themes of discussion and then determine which words are “spoken about” like which other words. The two techniques I employed to do this in the Conversation Map are techniques from the field of computational linguistics: lexical cohesion analysis (applied to the discussion threads to determine the themes of discussion) and automatic thesaurus discovery (applied the the parsed text of the messages). I was having a hard time debugging the code and so I built a graphical interface to the “back end.” This graphical interface is what one can now see as the Conversation Map. In the end, I did in fact write one version of the system that generated Socratic-like questions from the semantic network and discussion themes output by the computational linguistics modules, but, ultimately, the only description of that is the abstract discussion contained in my interview with Joe Dumit.
As I mention in that interview, I was interested in the subject position that has been named sophistic and Socratic in philosophy, the “subject who is supposed to know” in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and just a “nobody” in many other discourses. Despite the multiple names implying that such a position is no subject position at all, I think it is a very specific position; indeed a very risky position. This is the position of the wanderer, the immigrant, the person without connections. Computer scientists have frequently tried to create programs positioned in very powerful positions: the “expert” in expert systems, the “tutor” in intelligent tutoring systems, the “manager” in memory management software, “recommender,” in recommendation systems, etc. In contrast, I was (and still am) interested in the idea of working on ideas from the perspective of people and things which are “not suppose to know” (in the sense that this position has been articulated by theorists of feminist epistemology).

What is your relation with conflict zones such as Albania and Palestine? Why are you interested in using Conversation Map in Usenet groups which is related to conflict zones?

I don’t have any direct, personal relationships at stake in these conflict zones. Anyone who watches television or reads a daily newspapers, nevertheless, has a relationship to these places and people that is mediated through the mainstream media. My interest in looking at these discussions arose from an attempt to find another relation with the conflict zone. The Internet promises a way around the main stream media. I am increasingly skeptical of this promise in its general form. But, if one looks more specifically — at specific websites, specific online discussions, etc. — rather than at the Internet as a whole, then the promise seems more tangible. But, what we are seeing through the lens of the Conversation Map — Usenet newsgroups — is not, I think, a space independent of the main stream media.

If you compare the results of soc.culture.albania with soc.culture.palestine almost ten years later, are there any parallels that can be drawn? Are there any recurrent observations which might be context-related?

My current work in this area frequently pays attention to more abstract details of the online exchanges; one might say, I am looking at their “textures”. What is the “shape” of soc.culture.palestine? How does it compare to the “shapes” of other discussions. My colleagues, students and I have found, for example, that political discussions have longer, more complicated threads than technical forums devoted to answering straightforward questions (for obvious reasons). We have also noted that peer-to-peer architectures (like the one underlying the “old” fora of Usenet aka Google Groups, specifically NNTP) provide spaces where people of differing political opinions exchange comments while client-server architectures employed in many contemporary fora (e.g., the architecture of blogs is client-server because they rest on web servers) seem to foster echo chambers of polemics where everyone is simply “speaking” to the converted.
On a more basic level, comparing soc.culture.albania of ten years ago to soc.culture.palestine of today seems to, depressingly, lead one to the conclusion that racism and hate are mainstays of many political exchanges now and then.

Why can’t the viewer easily compare the chronological evolution of the same VLSC through Conversation Map?

For this project, I was interested in a synchronic view of the discussions. One of my former Ph.D. students, Nicolas Ducheneaut, extended the Conversation Map to work on Open Source Software design projects (including discussions and code archives) and produced a version that allows one to see a diachronic view of the social networks. Nicolas has that up online here:

In “Discipline and Punishement”, Michel Foucault uses Bentham’s panopticon as a metaphor for the rise of a society in which all institutions are disciplinary. Control over people can be achieved merely by observing them. I don’t want to be paranoid, but don’t you think Conversation Map can contribute - maybe without meaning it - to a certain panopticism “by having people police themselves because they believe they are being surveyed” (”The Ambiguous Panopticon: Foucault and the Codes of Cyberspace“, Mark Winokur) within a community of interest?

I think we want technologies like the Conversation Map for the same reason that we want to see how many other people voted for our candidate when there is an election; and, for the same reason we want to see other people out on the street when we are protesting. How else can one understand oneself as part of a larger “body politic”? Nevertheless, yes, any system that registers the opinion of the body politic might also, potentially, be turned against it as a surveillance technique. In Foucault’s terms, any :”technology of the self” can be turned into a “technology of power” if it falls in the wrong hands. For example, keeping a diary of one’s diet, exercise and health is a good thing to do for one self. But, one would never want such a diary to fall into the hands of an insurance company that might deny one coverage based on, for example, the frequency of one’s consumption of red meat. In Foucault’s terms, this is an issue of “governmentality”: the instruments we need to govern ourselves, democratically, are akin to some of the instruments that a non-democratic form of government might deploy to gain power over our everyday lives. Does this mean we should stop registering to vote or stop protesting on the street? I think not. The best that an artist or designer or engineer can do when they develop one of these instruments is to not work with the people who might abuse it and do work with the people who want to use it for democratic purposes.

In the introduction of “What does a very large-scale conversation looks like?” you were mentioning that “the Internet is engendering the production of new public spaces that may offer the means to reinvigorate public discourse.” Five years later, do you still believe VLSCs have a certain power to stimulate the public discourse or provide spaces where social movements can emerge?

Wikipedia is an example of a public discussion that has yielded something of great value. One might see also the online collaborations of Open Source Software this way too: as public exchanges that have both invigorated public discourse and create new public, common “spaces.” On the other hand, the blogosphere, in general, remains quite polarized politically, at least in the United States: the left neither reads nor links to the blogs of the right and vice versa.

You are also teaching a class titled “New forms of democratic participation”. Do you believe these forms provide tangible alternatives to existing systems or do they remain theoretical and utopian?

Here is a system put together by two of my former MFA students, Michael Dale and Aphid Stern: metavid. I argue that this is an alternative to C-SPAN, the television broadcast that covers U.S. House and Senate floor proceedings. At this level of detail — when one compares a specific website with a specific television channel, for example — tangible alternatives can be found, or if not found, then designed and built. My students have been successful at this than I have. Most of my software is theoretical, despite my ambitions.

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