The Platonic Upper Cut

Watching some of the tweets rolling out of South By South West (SXSW) I was reminded (again) of the continuing relevance of cyberfeminist theory for Human Factors, HCI and UX researchers. In particular, Katherine Hayles work “How we became post-human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics” (1999) springs to mind, in terms keeping an eye to the messy complexity of users, in balance with the ‘perfect’ world of code. I think this has particular relevance for those creating scenarios and personas or otherwise seeking to ‘abstract’, summarise or theorise a user group.

At the risk of alienating all but the most committed readers – here’s a snipped from my thesis where I discuss Hayles’ work. Here, I highlight problems with collecting onscreen information without consulting a user about the purpose, meaning and motivation behind their activities.  Please excuse the appallingly academic language, I have added some links to expand on particular terms that may have different meanings for different readers.  Comments are welcome.

The following excerpt is taken from p 125-127 from:

The sections quoted are from:

  • HAYLES, N. K. (1999) How we became posthuman : virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago, Ill. London, University of Chicago Press.

Onscreen Data:

…In analysis, the results of screen capture have been used primarily for illustrative purposes, for reference and data triangulation (Merriam, 1999). This has been for several reasons. Firstly, from an ontological position, I have felt it important to recognise that shifting the focus of research from the individual to their onscreen representations would fail to report authentic understandings of this content. Privileging my own view on student screen phenomena arguably instigates a research hierarchy that privileges the researcher’s observation over the student construction of meaning that those artefacts realise.

There is also a further ontological issue at stake here, available to us through arguments posited by Hayles (1999). Hayles actively seeks to complicate the abstract dichotomies present in dominant technology discourse. In a statement of intent, she problematises the leap from embodied reality to abstract information, with important implications for research straddling these spaces:

Abstraction is of course an essential component in all theorising, for no real theory can account for the infinite multiplicity of our interactions with the real. But when we make moves that erase the world’s multiplicity, we risk losing sight of the variegated leaves, fractal branchings, and particular bark textures that make up the forest. (Hayles, 1999: 12)

Hayles continues to identify two moves that she deems central to the construction of an information/materialist hierarchy that distorts understandings of the real world and its online equivalents. She terms these the ‘Platonic backhand and forehand’:

The Platonic backhand works by inferring from the world’s noisy multiplicity a simplified abstraction. So far so good: this is what theorising should do. The problem comes when the move circles around to constitute the abstraction as the originary form from which the world’s multiplicity derives. Then complexity appears as a ‘fuzzing up’ of an essential reality rather than as a manifestation of the world’s holistic nature. (Hayles, 1999: 12)

This back-to-front semblance of the real world in theory is important, but not complete. When considering the interface between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ realms, the ‘platonic forehand’ comes into play:

Whereas the Platonic backhand has a history dating back to the Greeks, the Platonic forehand is more recent. To reach fully developed form, it required the assistance of powerful computers. This move starts from simplified abstractions and, using simulation techniques such as genetic algorithms, evolves a multiplicity sufficiently complex that it can be seen as a world of its own. The two moves thus make their play in opposite directions. The backhand goes from noisy multiplicity to reductive simplicity, whereas the forehand swings from simplicity to multiplicity. They share a common ideology – privileging the abstract as the Real and downplaying the importance of material instantiation. When they work together, they lay the groundwork for a new variation on an ancient game, in which disembodied information becomes the ultimate Platonic Form. (Hayles, 1999:12-13)

When conceptualising online spaces, it is thus desirable to recognise any instinct towards the abstraction of the Real, and, arguably, over-estimation of the complexity of online representations. For this reason, my interviews privileged students and the meanings that they ascribed to online phenomena and activity, rather than the ‘authentic’ onscreen phenomena itself. Where dissonance between onscreen phenomena and student talk occurred, this was raised within the interview. In this way, the interviews could be characterised as ambulant; moving through online spaces, charting them with respect to the guidance offered by participants.


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