A social science reflection on the built environments of the Chamber Made Opera: From physical place to code

This essay begins a sociological conversation about how to imagine the connection between digital and physical spaces giving rise to the socio-technical chamber of Chamber Made Opera. We start the song line of this essay with a creation story on how this chapter came to be; a request for me to expand upon a proposition I presented at the first MicroLab associated with this research. My proposition at the MicroLab was simple, and simultaneously complex, that our everyday lives span the experience of interaction from physical space to code ‘space’. I was also asked to think about the ways that this may reframe or reconfigure how we can think about the audience, collaborating and performance spaces, digital artefacts and environment of Chamber Made Opera. Essentially, this question goes to asking how a small to medium arts organisation can locate itself and engage its diverse publics. I can’t promise that you’ll find a miracle cure-all for expanding audience reach, performance mediums, funding models and business conduct in the online environment through this essay. However perhaps you’ll find yourself pondering this question through an updated operating system and playing with an augmented vocabulary on how to mobilise and establish value(s) in this emergent environment. To support this, I will give you a birds-eye view of how sociologists and technologists imagine our relationship with the internet and how our networked digital technologies are thought to constitute social space. In doing so, I am anticipating that you will likely have a/some/extended practice that has harnessed networked digital technologies and are likely to have engaged in conversations/readings/and encounters about its operations already. I anticipate therefore that it is not what I am going to say that will be new for you, but that it is the connections I make along the way that might spark up your light bulb. In short, I anticipate that the main contribution of this essay to the arts sector will be in how I model and navigate the language, concepts and operation of the ‘sociological imagination’ within a digital terrain.

Through this perambulation in the country-side of my digital conceptual vocabulary, I will begin to weave in a conversation with Gregory More, Senior Lecturer at RMIT and data visualisation specialist, that became the inspiration for this essay. You’ll also notice other people entering the conversation from time to time, with each dialogic encounter refining the direction of the song line that sings this essay. Lawrence Harvey, Associate Professor and Director of the RMIT Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) Sound Studios, and Margaret Trail, Agile Opera Research Associate, RMIT, enter in to help me think through the tension between creative practice that needs to deal with arts administration and the free-wheeling creative environment through which we reflect on and encounter ourselves and each other online. This discussion raised a consideration of how operating a business model and administrative practice that performs in a predictable environment, where action A leads to response B, contrasts substantially to how we perform as social actors across the predictive environment of the Internet. In this code- generated environment, action A resonates out to ‘pull in’ response option range-B-though-F, making the cause and effect relationship between action and reaction difficult to anticipate, often despite its algorithmic mediation. From this conversation I step further out into the code-based generation of social space, wandering into the virtual realms of real- time 3D to consider alternative conceptualisations for the performative and built environment of Chamber Made Opera with Adam Nash, Lecturer in Computer Games at RMIT and a digital media and audiovisual virtual environment artist. Here you’ll encounter Adam’s ideas, and my response to these, on the algorithmic generation of 3D virtual reality, which he refers to as real-time 3D. This conversation quickly moves us beyond the well-traversed discussion of Second Life, and virtual reality more generally, as a digital platform for co-located social connection that simulates physical reality. So, we’ve got to get started straight away because who knows where we’ll end up.

The song line of this essay will explore voice and resonance through considering how we engage, interact and communicate with each other through our devices. Within this socio- technical environment, space is as much a metaphor as it is the location through which we engage with each other. In talking with Gregory More about the particular ‘space’ of the Chamber Made Opera, he saw it as characterised by chamber spaces, intimacy, voice and resonance. The chamber spaces of the internet we will be introduced to through a discussion of echo chambers, leading to a consideration of how the habitual confines of our online spaces are reconfiguring our intimate mundane moments. From me, Greg asked, ‘what does this mean for how we imagine the spatiality, audiences and very structure of the Chamber Made Opera company itself?’. Yes, I agreed, there was room to play with this idea and this chapter begins my attempt to do so by employing the conceptual, technical and narrative power of the sociological imagination to this question. In talking more, we narrowed down exactly what we hoped the contribution of this discussion could be. In short, the development of ideas that could mobilise the space and social construction of opera into new domains.

My own thinking on the creep of social life from place-based interactions into digital co- presence has been informed by a rich and diverse scholarly engagement on the social impacts of the internet. As a digital sociologist and research consultant I draw on research into digital frontiers, both at a technical and conceptual level, to explore how innovations in digital networked technologies walk hand-in-hand with adaptations in social connection and patterns of social organisation. I am often asked to ponder how we ‘locate’ ourselves in this changing environment, avoiding the dualism of online and offline conceptualisations, and what the possible social consequences are as we occupy new digital frontiers. For me, the key here is a discussion of social environments in which clusters or densities of social engagement across physical and digital infrastructures leave an environmental imprint; this approach towards characterising emergent social form is how I locate the digital communities I study. As with most things, nothing is made new, and I happily stand on the shoulders of giants, from the avant-garde of Chicago School thinkers in the 1920s, to the media scholars of the 1960s. Currently I am twirling my toes in the waters of an upwelling of critical scholarly thinking that has emerged over the last 20 years on the social impacts of the internet. From about the mid to late ‘90s thinkers and social commentators have been actively reflecting on how we are living in a ‘post-human’ age where the internet and our digitisation through computers and supplementation by robots has sent us spiralling through iterations of augmented reality, post-industrial productivity and attempts to create artificial intelligence. Where I start, however, is much more mundane and embedded in the lived experiences of our everyday lives, yet traces how the exchange of value emerges and is metricised through our digital footprints.

Right now I am thinking about place and how our social landscape has been shaped by the built environment of physical buildings and public infrastructure. In this section, I will use this as a prompt to consider how this has also occurred for us digitally. Thinking topographically, as if we are looking at a map of ourselves, where buildings are we tend to find densities of people, where thriving cities are we find a density of transportation and communication networks. These material and spatial artefacts that house us, create spaces of leisure and provide our workplaces direct the flow of people, information and objects. In contrast, in the online environment the flows of people and information are somewhat hidden, yet shaped by a combination of visible hardware, such as the cable networks, routers and personal devices constituting the internet, and invisible or code- based software that generates the environments of our digital activities. Whilst these environments are not spatial in the sense of the physical environment, our social activities online can be thought of as occurring through points of interaction. Consequently it is these points of interaction that provide the coordinates of social engagement, in a cartesian sense and are how we locate ourselves in ‘space’ online.

These mutable and dynamic spaces occur over the decentralised and user-driven architecture of the internet. In addition to this framing of digital space as a construct of interaction and engagement, it is also formed through the digital traces that we leave as historical and predictive pathways. These pathways and trails become tangible in how they shape our access and social connection. Consequently, we are agential in the creation of digital space through interaction and content production, which we simultaneously construct and consume as a ‘prosumer’. This kind of precarious labour through prosumption can be seen in how we produce our identities through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, by microblogging and digitising our social networks. More generally, in the online environment we shop, collaborate, hang-out, procrastinate with cat videos on youtube, do life administration such as banking, and create digital documents that often reflect much of our work output. We are cyborgs and using technological innovation to be creative, innovative, habitual and connected with each other. We operate across a user- produced environment constructed by coded spaces that are algorithmically, rather than materially, derived. In essence this produces a ‘non-space’ through which context is generated rather than pre-existing interaction. Consequently, we can think of ourselves collectively as emergent forms constructed though code, and the associated environments that house us as correspondingly emergent, dynamic and mobile.

Within this responsive and dynamic environment through which we construct ourselves, we extend our digital footprint with algorithms that guide and develop interaction within devices, between devices and between ourselves. From these acts a digitised mirror of ourselves is also produced that continues to act in the environment even when we ourselves are not ‘logged in’. We are beyond early imaginations of cyborgs, with our wearable technologies, self-tracking practices, technological implants and (occasionally) reflexive conscious connectivity. The passive and ongoing ‘mirror presence’ that we produce continues to resonate out into digital space. In receiving the waves of data and social signals we emit, the environment responds. We engage digitally both passively and actively in what technologists have come to call the sentient web (web 3.0). The sentient web is an environment that not only observes our digital traces, it also makes predictions of our future activities. In essence, our online environment ‘sees’, monitors and responds to us.

One consequence of operating within a sentient environment is that these practices often create new forms of social stratification that are shaped by our capacity to access to technology, our levels of digital literacy and the differentiations of products and services curated by governments and corporations according to our digital footprint. This footprint includes the agglomeration of our credit histories with other public and privately curated data that we have emitted in our habitual daily practices. The sentient web is also connected through an ‘Internet of Things’, in which more of our mundane objects (such as our fridges and our televisions) are connected to the Internet than people. Our lives and our material objects are augmented by digital networked technologies that, through our engagement with them and each other, generate an aware and responsive environment that recognises, recommends, rates and suggests associations for us. Having our actions reflected back to us, through our devices, in a predictive feedback loop is argued to foster ‘echo chambers’ of our own opinions and attracts us to people who either think like us or against whom we polarise. From this, we can understand that our environment is at once responsive and aware, and yet simultaneously constraining our sociality through the projected imprints of our own preferences and desires to be ‘amongst’ people like ourselves. But do not think that the we are locked into our echo chambers permanently, except by choice, comfort and habit. There are still ways to disrupt these spaces through lateral connections that hack the walls of our digital cocoons, so do not despair that we are fully known and owned. Whilst digital utopia does not exist, neither does its opposite. I would argue that we are somewhere in middle of an emergent and living socio-technical system with two parts in the light, publicly visible activities on the clear web, and two parts in the black through private encrypted spaces and the walled gardens of the deep and dark web. Neither of which is purely good or bad.

Our activities online have not only augmented and shaped the spatiality of social engagement, they have also influenced our sense and experience of time and agency. For example, conventionally, our demographic data is collected through a national census by the government every five years (a half-decade!), as a population survey. In digital time, usually thought of as real-time, broad bandwidth synchronous and asynchronous transactions, this lag between data collection and changing population dynamics is considered too historic to represent the present moment. However this is not the only way that we provide demographic and social information to external sources such as governments, corporations and law enforcement. Our online clicks, hits and connections become our real-time value metrics that are tracked through software inherent to the webpages and social media sites we use. The archival nature of these traces facilitate corporate and government surveillance, social surveillance by each other, self-surveillance and passive surveillance by bots. Through this process our social behaviours and information seeking practices are metricised, archived, agglomerated and packaged by the corporations and organisations. Within this process, our lived experience of time constituted by our past, present and future is remediated and re-packaged. In addition to the ‘real-time’ nature of digital time, the imprint of media upon communication is that we maintain our social networks by synchronous and asynchronous interactions that might be by text message, in a text format, and by voice or video through software such as Skype. These are often, but not always, real-time interactions that may occur through a multi- media format sound as text, sound and visual images. Through these forms of mediated sociability, we share virtual time in each others households, as much or more so than we may do in person. We can be co-present (or absent) with people who are in a different country, place or timezone from us. Consequently, the volume, velocity and synchronicity of interaction in digital space has not only augmented the nature of ‘when’ and ‘where’ for social engagement but also influenced its subjective quality.

Alongside the elasticity and synchronicity of time, intimacy has been seen as more ‘liquid’; this is particularly the case for the kinds of intimacy that harness the easy connected and disconnect affordances of engaging online. For example, we can ‘swipe right’ on each other in our dating apps and ‘wolf’ at or hook up with people we may not know, initially, who meet our sexual preferences and are geotagged as active in our local area. These are intimate digital spaces of sexuality and emotionality, but they are also spaces of domesticity and creativity. I argue that a focus on the possibilities for easy connect and disconnect in this environment distracts us from the reality that our digital connections become meaningful for us, particularly as we mature through our exposure to and engagement with each other online. Most of the time, mutual spaces of digital co-presence are mundane intimate spaces that we barely notice. In these ‘small’, domesticated and familiar spaces online, we collaborate with each other to create and curate shared environments that exist only in code as coordinates of social interaction. Through these personalised networks, we are transmitting ideas and digital artefacts that accumulate and shed value as they are indexed, dispersed and materialised. In many ways in our daily lives, our engagement with each other is mediated by technology and this shapes how we interact with each other, often with unintended consequences. I refer to these digital pathways of social exchange and manifestation as submerged networks, they’re the white noise and ephemeral channels of our world that work at a constant low buzz, with episodic emergence surrounding events and the upwelling of activism. Through these pathways of mundane co-presence and intimacy, we adopt and appropriate new digital environments to enact our collective voice and power.

This capacity to enact our collective power and resistance through the digital environment sits in uncomfortable contradiction with the aware and predictive capacities that engender forms of control and ‘order’. This suggests there is somewhat of a culture clash that occurs between user autonomy and the encroaching control of online spaces by corporations and governments. In my conversation with Lawrence Harvey and Margaret Trail, we talked of the culture clash between how the creative spirit engages with the digital world in performance and how the administrative self processes and organises the world around through its predictability in business. Immediately, I sought to find two contrasting metaphors to characterise the difference between our controlled engagement with organisations and how collaboration occurs over the decentralised and somewhat anarchic user-produced structures of the internet. What came to mind initially was William Whyte’s characterisation of the Organisation Man (1956), a man who performed his tasks according to the goals of the organisation and was rewarded for his adherence through employment for life. In today’s reconfiguration of the workplace through digital networked technologies, many workers no longer gather together in one office, often working remotely. With entire service sectors being relocated off-shore, such as call centres, the organisation itself has become distributed through its relationship with digital networked technologies. With some tasks crowdsourced, the idea of an employee could almost be replaced by a distributed cloud or perhaps swarm. The contemporary workforce operating within these organisations is far more fragmented, precarious and distributed. There remains however, strong centralised practices within operational expectations, power distribution and wealth. These traits have not mapped over the thinning and decentralisation of organisational structures, creating somewhat of a contradiction that perhaps produces today’s janus faced experience of organisations as controlling yet not in control.

The second or counterbalancing image that I thought might resonate was one to capture the types of social organisation and collective action occurring through internet-specific communities, perhaps best resembled by the mask of Anonymous. The faceless legion referred to as Anonymous originated as a loose collection of hackers and internet denizens who gathered on 4Chan and organised shenanigans online just for the lulz. That was until the Church of Scientology caught their loosely strung together attention and mobilised them as a collective force. Over time, Anonymous has realised its power to mobilise and, whilst remaining in the spirit of the lulz, transitioned into an activist network of internet users who deploy digital tools to disrupt pre-digital organisations or even states whom they see as acting against the interests of the people. Digital cultures are user-driven and decentralised, often based upon a culture of anonymity and a passion for collaborating on digital tools. These cultures were early adopters of digital social space as a way to engage with each other. The open source software movement is one of these cultures and is also embedded with the early values that were designed into the Internet, that information wants to be free. Through this ethos and the collaboration amongst the cryptographic community, we have decentralised virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, and peer-to-peer (P2P) information sharing networks, with Pirate Bay being an example of user-produced anarchy responding to information control through copyright laws. Such communities, operating anonymously across multiple channels that facilitate many-to-many group communication, constitute the resistance spaces of the internet, where hierarchical notions of social order and control are disrupted through P2P alternative sharing economies.

I would argue that the performance space and organisational structure of Chamber Made Opera may be adept at navigating anarchy given that it flourishes in intimate spaces. In the dark web, where I have conducted research into cryptomarket communities, intimate and creative spaces occur within encoded walls. These spaces are defined by nodal governance and open up as Temporary Autonomous Zones where personal sovereignty reigns and voices resonate and draw others in through overlapping values and a limited sense of external regulation or control. When one wonders, which I do, what these Temporary Autonomous Zones could be like in real-time 3D, I turn to my conversation with Adam Nash on creating music through real-time 3D and mixed-reality technology. Adam described that the objects in 3D space are a mathematical function that are not inherently spatially real objects. Instead, he saw them as concepts notated for transmission. In furthering this discussion Adam identified that there are two kinds of algorithms, broadly speaking, in the world today to do with digital space, real-time 3D and representation. One he saw as an attempt to mimic or simulate phenomena that we experience in the world. Reverse engineering perceivable phenomenon in the world in order to recreate them in digital space. The other he described as free play algorithms in mathematical space, whose purpose is not to imitate anything. It is simply to see what happens. Listening to Adam, I thought of these algorithms as the kinds of speculative algorithms that were likely to foster the opening up of new domains within virtual reality that were beyond our current conceptions and perceptions. Perhaps these speculative algorithms are a pathway to new domains where shared or overlapping values may create autonomous collaborative platforms that exist both within and beyond our current socio-technical contexts. Who knows. After all, even anarchy has an algorithm.

In conclusion, I would like to reflect on my modest attempt to update your operating system and augment your vocabulary through exploring the sociological imagination of digital chamber spaces, voice, intimacy and resonance. How did I go? In this essay I have sought to describe the relation of digital self to network to collective, and acknowledge the opposing possibilities the internet releases towards emancipation and domination. In line with my understanding of the true nature of the digital environment, I have offered a kind of open analysis that has left, even provoked, you as reader to appropriate and disrupt the ideas and connections that have bubbled away through the song line of this essay. We have met ourselves as a prosumer operating in the sentient web and hiding in our own echo chambers. From the mundane spaces of digital intimacy we have co-constructed an emergent and living socio-technical system. Within this system, submerged networks of mediated interaction have been argued to form the bedrock through which collective voice and power filters to the surface of our societies. Beyond these often heavily controlled and surveilled spaces, I have lifted the digital veil to suggest that there exists anarchy and nodal governance at our digital fringes that open new zones of personal sovereignty. Levering from a discussion of real-time 3D, I suggest that such speculative and evolving spaces have the capacity to encompass micro-opera within a Temporary Autonomous Zone, rich with potential for experiment and disruption.


A place to code ESSAY Edited Feb 2018 (pdf 78.17 KB)


Photo credit: Pier Carthew

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