R-Shief invites critical code experts to join in creating new ways of thinking about research practice and methodology. Critical Code Studies (CCS) is an emerging field overlapping multimedia literacy, software studies, media forensics, and platform studies as a new approach for socio-historical analysis. CCS asserts that lines of code are not neutral. Rather, their physical architecture creates a "filter" through which information is funneled, adding an additional layer of complexity and interpretation. R-Shief’s goal is to build this community.
Critical Code Studies encompasses a relatively new field of study. Its approach applies the theory and practice of interpretation to computer code, program architecture, and digital documentation within a socio-historical context. CCS follows the work of Critical Legal Studies, in that its practitioners apply theory to a functional document (in this case a computer program) to explicate the meanings embedded and implicated in the document beyond the aspect of function or affordability. The goal of CCS is to unearth the many implicit and explicit meanings undergirding a work of computer or digital code.
Meaning is typically assessed through the application of a human (language-based) filter. However, in the last few years, a paradigm shift has focused attention on the effects of a technically-mediated filter. For example, we might now ask “how does the structure of the database impact the meaning that is available through data-mining practices?” This is a different kind of question than “what are the frequencies of the appearance of certain words within the database?” This shift sets the stage for a careful consideration of the importance of procedural literacy among those who use and create knowledge in the interactions between humans and technological network structures.
An example of this cultural shift is that, despite media evidence to the contrary, there is a popular current misconception that Osama Bin Laden was not actually killed by U.S. forces, and that the current U.S. Administration is spreading rumors of his death to gain momentum for the upcoming presidential election. In addition, the “Birther Movement” has created doubt regarding the birthplace of U.S. President Obama, even though copies of his birth certificate proving that he was born in Hawaii have been published in “credible” media outlets like Newsweek. Increased transparency and the democratization of media outlets have resulted in multiple contradictory and equally publicized stories. The lack of perceived checks and balances of information available on the Internet have reduced the public’s confidence that what they are hearing and seeing as “news” is in fact accurate and trustworthy.
This shift sets the stage for a careful consideration of the importance of procedural literacy among those who use and create knowledge in the interactions between humans and technological network structures. Technological structures are complicated and have many layers of coding and recoding to be properly understood. Another way of understanding code is as mental processes. In this work, R-Shief opens up an entire window to what counts as knowledge and cultural production on the contemporary Middle East.
In addition to connecting an on-line community, R-Shief archives and aggregates online videos, Twitter, Facebook, satellite TV, online journals, and data visualizations. During the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, media makers became “co-designers” of the transformative, speedy, historic event(s) in the region posts on Twitter, to the roles of Facebook, YouTube, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now, to White House and Egyptian State Television broadcasting.
The Arab Spring was brought on not only by large numbers of Egyptians were flooding the streets of Egyptian cities throughout the country, but by the impact of an additional filter of pedabytes of data mediated through various networks. This layer of media created a paradigm shift whose. The speed and impact of information and ideas would not have been achieved through human movement or transformation alone.
Since August 2010, R-Shief has been data mining (pulling from Twitter and storing onto its own server every 15 minutes) tweets by selected hashtags. (A hashtag is Twitter nomenclature for 'subject heading'). After storing the tweets by hashtag, the data is sorted by language field because language is able to offer culturally specific indicators of the Middle East beyond its current geopolitical place in the world. R-Shief started by adding #Tunisia, then #Jan25 to the existing Twitter Analytics on January 25, 2011. Despite what some scholars and journalists might have said before, Twitter (and other social networking sites) had undoubtedly been causal in recent events in the Middle East. Effectively, R-Shief continues to make accessible all tweets following hashtags: #Wikileaks, #Tunisia, #Jan25, #KhaledSaid, #Abdulemam, #Gaza, and #Flotilla going as far back as September 2010. This simple, craigslist-like interface is meant to encourage users to filter searches through these hashtags by language and/or range of dates, while providing interesting word clouds and parsing out top contributors and hyperlinks within tweets.
R-Shief’s role as a purely academic aggregator was put to use as an artistic incubator when Laila Shereen Sakr–-using her moniker, VJ Um Amel--crafted a VJ remix in support of her fellow Egyptians incorporating media data from the R-Shief site. Her video "#Jan25, Oum Kalthoum, Sadat, Latuff, #Video Remix" (“Jan 25 Remix”) was published on both Vimeo and YouTube on Monday, Jan 31, 2011, one week into the protest in Egypt.
Through VJ Um Amel’s research developing R-Shief Twitter Analytics, over 800,000 tweets on the hashtag #Jan25 alone have been accumulated since Jan 25, 2011, including several days at the height of the conflict in Egypt, when 21 million inhabitants in Egypt were cut from their Internet lines and almost half the population (82-85 million) were deprived of their mobile phone services. Still the world tweeted. How did that happen? How were millions of tweets generated over protests in Egypt while the entire nation was offline? She wrote about her experience managing this Twitter aggregation in a recently published article in critical code journal, ThoughtMesh: "social media operates based on principles of uncertainty, where there are no groups, only formations of groups, and where non-linear time and space still create narratives and meaning vis-à-vis the database, and where objects (such as Twitter) have agency in a social network." (ThoughtMesh.net, February 5, 2011).
The purpose of these data visualizations is to capture that special eruption that suggests Twitter (and other social media sites) own special possibilities that are potentially subversive and feared by government to the extent they shut down the Internet to an entire nation during mass protest. This next information visualization below, also published Feb 12, 2011, was designed to have a more poetic (and less narrative) meaning to express, poet in this context refers to . This is a running hashtag of all the tweets on #Egypt that were posted to Twitter the day Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt. Whereas the previous semantic content info vid is more like content analysis or data visualization, the hashmap presented here offers a sentiment analysis and is intended to be evocative.
The ecology in the field of database narrative making and visualizing is undoubtedly a rich, undiscovered territory to explore. In parallel, her itch to create innovative VJ mixes continues. They are a version of blog posts, a type of serialized commentary. Common among the creative fields--the arts, science, technology and design--is a commitment to the production of new knowledge based on original research.
In conclusion, there was a fundamental societal shift in Egypt during the Arab Spring protests, when media became actively dependent on the social fabric in Egypt, rather than institutional sources of information and analysis. VJ Um Amel asserts that there is a need to consider various methodological approaches to social media analysis for both the expert and the student. Social media in the Arab world is unique--both in terms of how the society is using it, and in terms of media's history in the Arab world. Where U.S. media, in principle, acts to ensure the power of the government remains under checks and balances, in the Arab world it functions generally as an apparatus of the state rather than a form of societal self-expression. Social media and its surprising political usages have created interplay between the application of structure and resistance that have been transformative in Arab countries during the Arab Spring Protests. VJ Um Amel researching extended notions of how innovative methods might be applied in a Media studies or Middle East studies context.
To amass an archive is a leap of faith, not in the function of preserving data, but in the belief that there will be someone to use it, that the accumulation of these histories will continue to live, that they will have listeners. Perhaps that is why, in the contemporary art world, as art historian and critical theorist Hal Foster describes, there is an “archival impulse at work” among contemporary artists who share a notion of artistic practice as an idiosyncratic probing into particular texts, objects, and events in the field of knowledge production. In “The Archival Impulse,” Foster lists a series of art practitioners whose work, he argues, is archival in nature. He writes, “Archives…are material, fragmentary rather than substitutable, and as such they call out for human interpretation, not mechanical reprocessing.” The archive represents something even more palpable for the artist—an opportunity to provide a counter-collection, standing against the monumental history of the state. As Foster articulates: “created as much by state organizations and institutions as by individuals and groups, the archive, as distinct from a library or collection, constitutes a repository or ordered system of documents and records, both verbal and visual, that is the foundation from which history is written.”
R-Shief joins a history of archival art works that urgently seek to critique historical information on the contemporary Middle East—information currently under siege, in real time and place, as cultures are destroyed or lost in conflict. For example, Walid Ra’ad’s The Atlas Group is an intervention in the archive, where documenting and archiving processes dominate the screen and the archived data is fictitious. Akram Zaatari’s Arab Image Foundation project, also situated in the Middle East, archives twentieth century photographs and portraits of everyday Arab families. Indeed, the R-Shief Initiative is inspired by a number of high quality, cultural, artistic, and intellectual endeavors including Bidoun, a print magazine “on art and culture is conceptualized for a transnational audience at home in Cairo or New York, London or Beirut.” Bidoun magazine reaches English-speaking audiences on issues related to the Middle East, and showcases cultural production from the Arab world, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and at times South Asia. However similar, R-Shief is a website that is concerned with archiving and indexing, rather than showcasing, on issues including but not limited to art and culture. Whereas Bidoun is a print-magazine that covers material on the Arab world and Iran (similar, though linguistically different cultures), R-Shief organizes its information based on language—in the prototype, for example, it is English and Arabic. Arab Society & Media is another example of an online academic journal that is a primary resource for information about the role of media in shaping Arab society. Arab Society & Media is an English-only site of predominantly text-based features. R-Shief curates a platform that brings all these alternative publications together in one landscape.
Integrating digital arts into the field of Middle East studies would allow both interdisciplinary fields to enrich their terrain of knowledge production. Implicit in the conceptual design of R-Shief is the premise that the medium itself becomes inseparable from the object—hence the digital form contributes to the manifestation of meaning in a significantly transformative manner. Since the otherness of the Arabic script and language has traditionally rendered its content (scholarship, popular culture, etc) inaccessible, it has remained outside the interaction of discrete bits of information that form knowledge production. The conceptual design of R-Shief, through its digital composition—its unique form—allows the integration of this body of output into conversation through which the various discrete parts enter into the universalized discourse.
Unfortunately, however, the digital art world is often kept out of most of exchanges of Middle East Studies scholarship and is left for a smaller subset of art historians to discuss. For example, while Walid Raad’s conceptual art piece, The Atlas Group, a fictitious online archive, is quoted several times in art journals, it remains only recognized within the boundaries of contemporary art discipline and the methodologies of art practices. Positioning research on media as reporting vehicles (rather than a combination of art, media, and technology as agents of knowledge/meaning) has focused the investigations on truth-seeking missions—assuming there is a truth out there to be mediated and broadcasted.
The interdisciplinary roots of digital arts and new media require critics to consider the role of art practice as well as technology, in addition to the matter being represented in these media. As it is deployed in our contemporary context, digital knowledge production can be transformative, and not only a vehicle. In this investigation, I will demonstrate the theoretical construction of this digital art practice by mapping out the conception and development of R-Shief—a web-based intervention in producing knowledge on the Middle East and its Diaspora. And I will do so by explaining the practice and methodology behind the development of the R-Shief Initiative. With an articulated art practice and technologies, R-Shief hopes to provide missing links in this post-national global order of shifting powers of domination.
How has digital media facilitated in mobilizing and carrying out the social revolution?
Egyptian protestors used digital media as a facilitating tool, which served as the catalytic force that brought down the Mubarak regime. Did Twitter start this revolution – or did Facebook? How has digital (social) media in the public sphere been used, interpreted, and moderated during the Arab Spring Revolutions, particularly in Egypt? These questions will be explored in this research paper. For the sake of brevity, attention will focus primarily on big and small media’s contribution to Egypt’s revolution while exploring the influence the Tunisian Revolution had on it.hg
We are a community-driven platform of critical code experts and researchers working on the Middle East. The goal is to promote procedural and digital literacy by providing a research & development platform for innovative knowledge production on the Middle East. We believe that procedural literacy provides a key to 21st century democratic practices.