Extensions as Interventions

Visualizations are a common and compelling form, but they are not the only form of computational information design. Other forms and practices of computational information design rely less heavily on the image in the

Figure 2.5

Josh On, Exxon Secrets, shown as embedded in the Greenpeace USA Web site (2011), http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/ exxon-secrets

familiar sense that visualizations do and thus demonstrate other ways information design might be directed toward revealing hegemony. One example is the design of extensions for Web browser software. Extensions are supplemental software applications that can be installed to run in conjunction with another core application program, augmenting that application with whatever functionality is made possible by the extension. For example, there are extensions that block online advertisements, that add artistic flourishes to the software's visual appearance, and that streamline productivity by assisting in online information management.15 Most of the time, extensions are used for simple things, such as adding more rows to a Web browser bookmarks bar, but there are also inventive uses of extensions for decidedly political expressions.

Extensions are similar to mashups in that they leverage the capacity for transcoding: they access data from one application or service and pass it to another to produce a new functionality. The primary difference between mashups and extensions is that the mashup constitutes a new application and the extension is embedded in another application. This embeddedness presents an opportunity for design and a variation on the tactic of revealing hegemony. Whereas visualizations are fundamentally about depicting in a graphical manner, extensions can be used agonistically as interventions that both expose and contextualize hegemony. With extensions operating as interventions inside existing applications, the tactic of revealing hegemony is extended and amplified by the ability to reveal in place, connecting the exposure of hegemony together with the conditions through which hegemony occurs.

Designed and implemented by Nicholas A. Knouf (2009), the MAICgre- gator16 is an intervention by way of computational information design (figure 2.6). Short for Military Academic Industrial Complex Aggregator, MAICgregator is a Firefox Web browser extension that exposes and contextualizes the relationships between academic research and military funding "to counter the hegemony of the present-day University" (Knouf 2009). The added functionality of the MAICgregator that is provided by the extension is not a productivity enhancement or ornament. The MAICgregator

Figure 2.6

Nicholas A. Knouf, MAICgregator (2009), http://maicgregator.org showing the Department of Defense funding for the University of Southern California in 2009

intervenes in the Web pages of universities located in the United States and provides information about military funding that they receive, with links to external files on the Internet that document that funding and the associations between academic research and defense initiatives. The MAIC- gregator goes beyond depicting the networks of hegemonic forces and provides a reflexive investigation of hegemony. It reveals the ways that military funding, research, public relations, and news media mix together in the contemporary university and contextualizes this revealing within the Web site of the institution under examination. In contrast to visualizations such as Exxon Secrets, which provide a view of hegemony from the outside looking at an issue, the MAIGgregator provides a view of hegemony from the inside.

After installing and activating the MAICgregator extension, a user can visit a university's Web page, and if the school receives military funding, then headlines, short text descriptions, and links to details regarding that funding are inserted into the page. Depending on the settings of the extension, this information may surreptitiously replace the underlying, original content. For example, the news section on a university's home page might be replaced with a new headline "Current Alternative News," which shows links to public relations announcements for military research associated with that institution. By adjusting the settings for the extension, the user can allow images of university trustees to be inserted into the layout of the page, replacing the existing images. In some cases, the replacement of text and image is nearly seamless, with the military funding data and images of trustees being integrated into the existing structure of the Web page to appear as if it was the original and intended content of the page. In other cases, the integration of the auxiliary data is not smooth, resulting in layouts that range from the slightly awkward to the chaotic. In either case, the experience of navigating and consuming the Web with the MAIC- gregator can be disconcerting, as images are replaced with new images that do not quite fit either in scale or style, and links are inserted into pages that unexpectedly lead users off the site to press releases for often obscure research projects.

The MAICgregator is yet another example of the procedural rendering of data in computational information design. Here, again, the activity of design is not the authoring of a specific and predetermined representation but rather the authoring of software, composed of rules that, when executed, produce a representation. In the case of MAICgregator, the representation attempts to be relatively unexceptional. It is designed to be integrated into a given form—the existing format of an academic Web site. This is not a trivial design task. To achieve this culling and integration of data requires an understanding of the location and structure of data across the Internet. Knouf and his collaborators detail this process in their project documentation.17 In brief, the MAICgregator searches the Internet for sources of information concerning military funding of academic research and focuses on United States Department of Defense funding. Sources of data include the USAspending.gov database for grants and contracts; the DOD Small Business Technology Transfer program database; the PR News- wire database; the Foundation Center 990 Finder database to locate trustee names; a Google News search for relevant news stories; and a Google image search to locate images of trustees. The design challenge goes beyond locating and retrieving data, however, because the data also must be parsed and correlated. That is, for the data to be transformed into information, they must be identified by type and associated with specific academic institutions. Finally, the design of a given page of an academic institution must be deconstructed so that the appropriate information can be integrated back into that page in the correct places. Integrating all of these processes together makes for the functionality and experience of the MAICgregator.

Like the MAICgregator, the Oil Standard (Mandiberg 2006)18 is a Firefox extension that integrates auxiliary information into Web pages to document associations and effects within hegemonic social conditions. As with the MAICgregator, the issue of concern is grounded in economics, but here there is a shift of focus and content. Created in 2006 by Michael Mandi- berg, the Oil Standard extension replaces or augments the monetary amounts in any given Web page with their equivalent cost in barrels of crude oil. The extension 's name is a play on terms that refers to the gold standard, which grounded the value of money in gold as an objective reference point. This project makes clear that the standard is no longer gold but oil and that the standard is not as objective or at least not as fixed as gold was.

Rather than simply provide the daily cost of oil, a number that is readily available elsewhere, Oil Standard transforms the data so that they are more understandable, grounded, and meaningful. Depending on the preferences set by users, either the standard price in U.S. dollars is replaced entirely, or the price in oil is placed next to the standard price in U.S. dollars on all Web pages. This includes the cost of items for purchase on commerce sites and any monetary amount listed on a page. So when the line "$260 billion" appears in the text of a news story regarding national debt, next to it in parentheses appears the conversion of that amount into numbers of barrels of crude oil. Likewise, when a user purchases a book or mp3 player, the cost of the item is translated into numbers of barrels of crude oil.

Oil Standard engages in another variation on the tactic of revealing hegemony, which extends the act of documenting and can be characterized as an endeavor of translation, which is concerned with the invention and expression of equivalencies between constitutive elements of hegemony. With Oil Standard, this process of translation begins with the construction of equivalencies between two constitutive elements—oil and money. To this is added a third—objects of consumption (such as the items on Web pages with oil prices associated with them) (figure 2.7). These objects of consumption ground and express the relation between oil and money in a way that enables understanding. In Oil Standard, the objects of consumption—whether a paperback book or an mp3 player—operate as the translating elements as they are transformed into equivalencies with oil. Compared to the cost of oil, the perceived value of everyday objects remains relatively more constant over the short term. We have a general idea of how expensive and valuable an mp3 player and a paperback book

Figure 2.7

Michael Mandiberg, Oil Standard (2006), http://www.turbulence.org/Works/ oilstandard are. By the conversion of money into oil and then consequently the conversion of the cost of objects into oil, users are provided with a grounding of the value of oil that is experientially accessible and understandable and reinforces the hegemony of oil, into which all things of value can be and are converted.

As examples of agonistic information design, the MAICgregator and Oil Standard extensions weave together technical capacities and use. On a technical register, they operate by interceding in and augmenting software, adding new functionality and purpose. This intervention occurs at the level of data and code and thus draws attention to the possibilities of a technical, specifically computational, form of expression with political intent and affect. Although extensions are not inherently political, this particular form of political expression would not be possible outside of computational media. It depends wholly on the combined qualities of procedurality, transcoding, and the network as a medium of storage, access, and exchange.

These extensions as interventions are a form of computational information design that is particularly appropriate to expressing hegemony, and they demonstrate the ways in which the qualities of computation can be leveraged to evoke the political. As Laclau and Mouffe redefine hegemony (2001), it is a dynamic and contingent combination of histories, ideas, and intentions from a diversity of perspectives: hegemony is as a constantly changing arrangement of forces and effects. Because of the technical capacities of the extension to aggregate and integrate data in near real-time, it is uniquely capable of documenting and expressing these dynamic and contingent conditions. For example, the effects of MAICgreator vary according to research, funding, and news cycles. As university projects develop, receive funding, get promoted through institutional and governmental public relations departments, and are picked up by the news media, the content of the information integrated into a given university's Web page changes. Through the procedural lens of the MAICgregator, a given university Web page in September 2010 might appear markedly different than the page would have appeared in September 2009, due to the changing status of funding associations. A similar situation is present with the Oil Standard. As the price of crude oil fluctuates, the translated cost of an iPod, a copy of Pride and Prejudice, or any other item that appears with a price in dollars on a Web page will also vary. Even though the cost in dollar amounts has not usually changed for these items from one day to the next, their value in crude oil has. In both cases, the technical capacities of the extension produce expressions that reflect the variable constitution of forces and effects that characterize a contemporary understanding of hegemony. In both cases, computational information design is used to express the persistent interleaving of influence throughout our everyday activities and familiar social institutions.

Extensions as interventions also operate along a register of use. Like other forms of interactive computational media, such as video games, extensions are experienced only when they are run,19 in this case within the host software of a Web browser. One cannot simply launch an extension and have it return data or information without using the software that it extends. Put another way, with extensions, actual use is required to evoke the political. This is significant because in these cases, the activity of revealing hegemony reflects user actions and the contexts in which users find or place themselves—for example, browsing academic Web sites or shopping online. Because the effects of these extensions are shaped by one's own interests, choices, and actions, the process of revealing hegemony becomes personalized, contextualized to one' s self as a consumer of information and goods. Through notions of revealing in place and translation, which are made possible by weaving together technical capacities and use, the idea of hegemony shifts from a generic notion of external forces —a vague specter—to an experience of hegemony in which users themselves are present as actors. The notion of use adds another dimension of note to agonistic computational information design, and it provides another manner of distinguishing these works—by comparing expressions that represent and those that perform.

 
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