October 31, 2007

Notes on Digital Detroit

Filed under: detroit,McLuhan,networks,notes,writing — jrice @ 8:53 am

Enjoy them on your own time.

For Chapter Five: 8 Mile.

1957. Herbert Simon. Models of Man.

Some key principles from Simon on decision making:

The principle of bounded rationality (198).

“Organizations are the least ‘natural,’ most rationally contrived units of human association” (199).

Bounded rationality is a social concern. It is based on humans’ limitations in the “ability to agree on goals, to communicate, and to cooperate that organizing becomes for them a ‘problem’” (199). Bounded rationality highlights “the limits of humans as mechanisms for computation and choice” (200).

“They key to the simplification of the choice process in both cases is the replacement of the goal of maximizing with the goal of satisficing, of finding a course of action that is ‘good enough’” (205).

McLuhan’s 1957 “Speed and Change” hints at the question of choice in the age of digital communication. Like Virilio long after him, McLuhan’s concerns are with the speed of information. Unlike Virilio, McLuhan does not frame speed and decision making in terms of a crisis. The age of speed is the age of the “do it yourself” information society, McLuhan claims. The Web 2.0-ishness of this late ’50s claim is hard to ignore. In 1957, McLuhan’s thoughts are with satellites (the basis of the global village) and various new media entertainment systems: TV, film, radio. Among them, the drive-in, one would think (though it is never mentioned in Understanding Media), would play a significant role. The drive-in is part of a larger 1950s network of information organization. For the so-called Web 2.0 moment we currently experience in the 21st century, this sense of media networks extends to the decision making “do it yourself” culture requires. Rather than park in front of the screen (the drive-in), the user is the screen (as McLuhan once wrote about TV).

Still, Bel-Air, located on Detroit’s 8 Mile road, would have been an attractive space for McLuhan. More than just a drive-in, it was a complex of interactive activity centered around children: a kiddie playground, a merry go round, a railroad for kids. The metaphoric screen, then, is the space where a number of activities occur at once, and users play with “rational” decisions regarding which to engage with, in what order, and what moment. Even in the space of the drive-in, there is some semblance of do-it-yourself. The one movie never shown at the Bel-Air is 8 Mile. What makes 8 Mile interesting to the study of space and the network is that it ends on the question of decision making. What does Rabbit do now that he won the rap-off? Pursue a career in rap? Go back to the factory? Enjoy his victory? Shrug his shoulders and return to the city?

This is where Simon’s work on bounded rationality seems relevant. What is the course of action that is “good enough” here? What role is the viewer expected to play here, to “do-it-herself” in understanding Rabbit’s gesture?

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