Hello, and thank you for inviting me here today. I’ve been looking forward to this, to talking with all of you, among you friends on Facebook, some people I met at Computers & Writing, folks who have managed to tackle my last book. All of you have my sincere appreciation for having me come.

And I share with you today my current attentions and some on-going projects, hoping they perform tangles we will want to attend to, want perhaps even to knot ourselves into, around, among. Nowadays I find myself entangled in …systems of media as ecologies of complexity. These media systems are not an area of study only, but the very air we breathe. They are diverse, active materialities of global ecologies. 


Even the term media is itself properly one of tangled referents and agencies. During the last four decades, the time period of my own intense interests, participations, and research into and with media, even designations for just what media attentions encompass continually transform, overlap, merge. Media as some general designation keeps shifting scale and reshaping, while new media in action is always reorganizing actors and objects. All this erupts in new words, new things, reimaginations of worldly action. My work now is to nurture attention to just how it is that humans, systems, things adapt together, in and as something we might well want to call media. My arguments are drawn from my on-going research in media cultural histories, media infrastructures of embodied learning, and media entanglements as ecological processes. 


My “ah-ha” moment for realizing just what lies at the heart of my long-researched media projects occurred in summer 2012 at Asilomar, California. There, at the “Ecology of Ideas” conference, cognitive linguist Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson demonstrated just how fluctuation, entrainment, and blocked synchrony pressure a range of “biological coordinations” among complex systems. He did this by using stop-action multimedia of the British rock group Queen at Live Aid Wembley (UK) 1985. Seeing and hearing lead singer Freddie Mercury initiate interactions with 72,000 people pointed up vividly just how this visual and acoustic guided coordination went through phases. (See TAB Vid+) The etymology of “audience,” as those in hearing distance, rearranged in meaning for me when coordinations moved from Mercury’s hands into new system dynamics, simultaneously combined and multiple. Because Mercury and Queen were colorful figures in my second book then just published, Networked Reenactments (Duke 2011), I was already familiar with Queen’s Live Aid activism. Although my book analyzed innovative communication formats emerging in the 1990s, it was nevertheless a revelation to attend so carefully to the very scale of these media pulses of movement and sound, in shapes by and with so many bodies.


Rex Weyler, cofounder of Greenpeace, had opened this joint conference of the American Society for Cybernetics and the Bateson Idea Group, backed by a breathtaking projection of marine life around a coral reef, dramatizing how all this beauty is now in ecological danger. But that gorgeous image and his exhortations did not activate my own “click” of recognition enlisting care. (Although it may have for others.) My trigger instead was Vatikiotis-Bateson’s demonstration of complex actions pertinent to what is happening now globally, even though to some it could seem in comparison abstract and not politically purposeful enough. But of course the Queen media clip was not more abstract in the sense of less conceptually concrete. Its own effects, and the effects it depicted, were very material and real. It was also more extensive in its ability to include possible contexts of application, and to do so with greater detail. This is because it operated as a multi-sensory communication experience that could work both with and without words. This very ability to demonstrate “us” as bits in systems of complexity and change was, for me, affectively more powerful, actually triggering somatic reactions with motivating implications. Learning, it turns out, happens during the moments of shifting from focused and intensive attention to diffuse extensive multi-sensory experience and investigation. It's during the shift that something happens that we call learning. I realized then that my work is all about such communication, about the complexity of humans, processes, and objects, among and as media systems. I realized then too that I wanted to put all of this explicitly at the service of feminist concerns about climate change. 


Vatikiotis-Bateson’s talk undoubtedly would not have struck the cord it did, if I had not just gotten back from partnering with Margaret Wertheim in “Knotting in Common,” “a discussion about knowledge making, collective practice and working with fibres,” where we were invited to give paired keynotes at Goldsmith’s University, London. There Wertheim, a science writer specializing in physics and mathematics, described the Hyperbolic Coral Reef project she and her twin, Christine Wertheim, a performance artist and teacher at CalArts, began creating and curating in 2005. These sisters built upon the 1997 discovery of Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina that physical modeling of hyperbolic mathematical forms, previously believed impossible, could be done crochet. The experience of making and modeling the hyperbolic forms of coral reefs and their creatures is the key element of the Wertheims’ transnational communities activist art project. More than 5000 people have crafted coral reef models while at least three million more have viewed exhibitions of this work all over the world. This crowdsourcing worldly sensitization to global warming and its effects on coral reefs is also a multi-sensory communication, also able to demonstrate and offer an experience of “us” as bits in complex systems. (See TAB Vid+) And my contributions to the “Knotting in Common” event also included the multimedia website I created to accompany my in-person keynote address. Along with my own technology and fiber practices, I offered description and discussion of the khipu, an Andean data device of knots and tactile sensations for planning action among complex social and environmental systems. The khipu, and knowledges about the khipu, work as key points of reference in my current book project. The khipu offers itself as an experience of entanglements – simultaneously physical, cognitive, social, and environmental – and thus for the sympoiesis of media I work now to share and analyze. (More at talksite DesignAffections TAB; also see TAB Vid+) This with hopes for imaginations of systems justice. 


My own very modest versions of such entanglements, such makings, things, stories, sometimes begin with the websites I create for talks nowadays. The web is now my sandbox for play, trial and error, permutation and mistakes. Thoroughly altered myself by technological infrastructures, processes, and cognitive reassembly, when I share my work, I tend to do so as a kind of transmedia story, and I care about this, even as I also notice that transmedia’s origins are commercial and suspect, and as I notice that social critique and social panic are only too often entangled among our webbing worlds. These are among the very conditions of making knowledge today for sure. (King 2011) Both you and I, knowingly or without reflection, gather and pin together such stories across media, platforms, sensory channels, and forms of sharing. Transdisciplinary work is extensive across knowledge worlds, while at the same time intensively savoring each one’s negotiating details.

You can find my talk online at the website pictured here, which also works on a smart phone. There you can follow along with the slides if you want, and find the handout, video, and other resources for later use. Tabs on this website lead you to other talksites and a pinterest board of these, everything a bit too cute perhaps, none of it innocent or exemplary. I share with you my workshop.


And working as a transdisciplinary scholar is also tricky. One can take neither authors nor audiences, nor especially citation pools for granted. And no proper question is actually answered by saying you should have read what I have read. In that spirit I share what I am actively learning myself as new attachments form. I assume here that we all have differential and on-going knowledges, that they each take up their own range of details, and that we hope to companion well. Not assuming we all already know each other, I sometimes characterize personal names briefly, just sharing my feel for possible transdisciplinary positionings.

One of the talksite tabs offers one sort of bibliography for materials mentioned in the talk, used on the handout, or otherwise informing my analyses.

As I prepare to come here to talk, share, gather with you, I seek out some clues for your and my contexts that will shape how we will take what each other says, but there is never enough information or maybe time to know that really. I’m doing a lot of guessing to be somewhat attuned to these, but also have to be willing to just not know, to feel a bit vulnerable. Actually, talking about this explicitly is not preliminary to my talk, but is the talk itself: these knowledge making practices are enfolded with and among demonstrations of the lab you might say, because ways of sharing are makings too, while attending in real time to what is happening when it happens is a methodology of companioning with things, all of us bits together in emergent processes.

And I also know that audiences of all kinds today are in the middle of actively diverging: in practices as well as being unpredictable in their circulations and ranges. These now are also complex systems, sometimes technically “chaotic” ones. Indeed, “author-ness” and its responsibilities to authorship and authority are dispersed, distributed, mixing up many collectives, many knowledge worlds, playing among and as boundary objects whether they know it or not. Audience is always something yet to be performed: What can be taken for granted? What would best be explained? Which contexts need to be fleshed out? How many worlds do we all gather here simultaneously? What do we assume are the most urgent issues and things to care about and with? Who and what facilitates movement among worlds? (Anzaldúa 2002)

These are some of the complex systems I care about. Attempts at systems justice.


Anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, the teacher from whom I get the term “transcontextual tangles,” famously said, in “the pronoun we, I of course included the starfish and the redwood forest, the segmenting egg, and the Senate of the United States.” (Bateson 1979:4) This is my referent for the “we” and “us” as dynamically rescaling bits in systems of complexity and change. (More at talksite AsilomarTranscontextual TAB)

The “transcontextual tangles” I presented on at the 2012 Asilomar conference are a feature of analysis at the edge of standardization. The phrase speaks to a kind of communication experience in which, paradoxically, too much clarity or single-mindedness can actually be unhelpful. For example, the term media itself is used by different constituencies for different purposes. There are many technical, or maybe better, local ways of using the term, some defined and not, some presumed to be held “in common,” until that commonality breaks down.

For example, academics might examine media through continental philosophy in media departments in Australia or the Netherlands, or by making mobile apps for locative games as digital humanities in an English or computer science department in the US or Canada. And cognitive scientists, technologists, consultants, designers, research scientists, journalists, artists, engineers, and others in industry, policy, communications – all these actors practice media: understood as both objects and, we might consider, processes of coordination. New materialisms and a variety of theories of “things” have emerged from all these locations, sometimes gathering them together, sometimes pushing them apart.

I am advocating ways of thinking with and about media in transdisciplinary attentions and practices. These interconnect multiple actors, among them “ourselves,” extensively inspecting knowledge approaches across time, fields, disciplines, methods, perhaps economic sectors, or ecologies. We can do this while at the same time also savoring and participating in the intensive workings (always only some) of these too, in communities of practice, and among objects that may yet tie these together.

That the term media is so multiple in uses, meanings, and referents, and all this differently among its venues, is actually useful. It allows various forms of collaboration to happen even when consensus does not exist. Unconsciously we use such “boundary objects” all the time: when does the term biology, for example, refer to a field of study, to a set of methods, or to a stream of living entities? We move easily among these meanings without noticing, until communication is disturbed. Such transdisciplinary travel is functional in its uneven coherences. (Law 2013)


When a set of feminist educators wanted to come up with an alternative to privatizing MOOC platforms they companioned with the web, partner and workshop, making FemTechNet, a Distributed Open Collaborative Course or DOCC, and they inhabited their DOCC with what they called caringly “boundary objects that learn.” They wanted to enable companionships in which such an object “participates in the creation of meanings: of identity, or usefulness, of function, of possibilities.” They reminded us that sociologist Susan Leigh Star (and her various collaborators) came up with the concept of a boundary object “to assert that objects (material, digital, discursive, conceptual) participate in the co-production of reality. At base, the notion asserts that objects perform important communication ‘work’ among people: they are defined enough to enable people to form common understandings, but weakly determined so that participants can modify them to express emergent thinking.” Boundary objects that learn are always up for redesign, up for speculative feminisms. (Juhasz & Balsamo 2012; also see TAB Vid+)

A curiosity about what, in a last essay,  Star called “growing boundary objects” becomes part of creating just enough trust to share and to recognize each other, necessary for understanding our travels among knowledge worlds, feminist workarounds in the midst of global (academic) restructuring. (Star, 2010:602) Boundary objects are workaround things, concepts, processes, even routines that permit coordination, sometimes collaboration, without consensus (non-conscious and conscious). This is a new kind of “attachment politics” in which we work for contextually sensitive forms of trust and affiliation among proper practices of dissensus.

Star talks about “understanding local tailoring as a form of work that is invisible to the whole group and how a shared representation may be quite vague and at the same time quite useful.” (Star, 2010:607) To participate in what Star called good and just standards for those who have suffered their absence (Clarke, 2010:591), we struggle to recognize comrades, even as we prescribe methods and ethics that may well in their turn be revealed as partial and accompanied by unanticipated consequences.


How do we keep systems justice full of context-sensitive on-the-ground practices and cares while ...insisting really, on many dynamics of "focus" – sharpened without being narrowed. This involves not just scope and scale, which matter too, but also tender sensitivities to "triggers," that is to say, involuntary responses to repeated double binds, without being managed and controlled and punished by these in turn. How do we make kindness as important a priority in sharpened focus as fixing things?

To illustrate how transdisciplinary attention to media systems and ecologies, both extensive and intensive, works, consider together three deeply but not obviously interlocking media systems, only one of which at first blush seems to be a natural member of the category "media": climate change, dopamine signaling in neural circuits, and social media learning. The forms urgencies take in media journalisms concerning climate change are critically enmeshed with our ability to gather resources for scientific investigation and necessary policy change. Dopamine signaling, perhaps counter-intuitively, plays a pivotal communication role here, as hormonal and neurological circuits within human bodies extend action beyond them along horizons of danger or pleasure, and even shape cognition. Behavioral analytics take account of anxiety and reward systems activated by dopamine, predicting and altering the economics of entertainment and research, playing roles in what we can understand now as distributed being. Even what we might call social media learning takes place across whole technological infrastructures not just in human heads. Working out and among these and additional complex systems engages with what is charged about something we might need now to call media. (More at talksite (media)things TAB)


I am trying to imagine my next book now, how to talk about media ecologies with attention to systems justice, to why thinking with systems matter for all kinds of work for justice today, among them work to address climate change. For me this involves ways of thinking about things, about the shifts in media cultural histories as contextually sensitive to things, and about the reworkings of what media are and what they do. I take as a narrative companion in demonstrations and experience this Andean data device that speculatively suggests alternative ecologies of media to augment our realities.

While the book demonstrates and analyzes many media things and many sorts of speaking with things, the shape of the analytic narrative will keep returning to the so-called talking knots of the Andean khipu. (The word khipu means knot in Quechua, a language of the Central Andes of South America.) Khipu are knotted data devices made of strings spun from llama or alpaca hair. When folded and stored, khipu look like the head of a mop. For museum visual display they are usually spread out to look like elegant circular radiating maps. These Inka (and some colonial) museum versions are the ones best known today. A few ethnographic khipu have been recently located, insistently tactile, sometimes spread out to touch in a curtain of knotted strings, perhaps with objects woven into them, while others may be literally worn around the body in civic performances. It appears that khipu were media that managed complex information, and sometimes did so with an unusual sensitivity to environments in the midst of continual change. (Salomon 2001, 2004; Brokaw 2010a; Urton 2003; Urton & Brezine 2003-; Boone & Mignolo 1994) Today knowledges of the khipu are created, shared, and used in many technologies of communication, what we could call “writing technologies,” directly and indirectly coordinating social systems and transnational environments: not only monographs, books, conference talks, but also websites, databases, images, exhibitions, reenactments, television documentaries, tourist and heritage tours, sites and festivals, as well as village and kinship ritual work processes. Gender and nationality, ethnicity and race, indigenous politics and university restructuring, all play roles in such entangled media systems.

Shaping the analysis around the khipu, returning to it as a point of reference throughout the book, will allow me as author, together with my readers, to trace ourselves among systems and histories of media, following along as khipu model in the narrative how media do their work less as devices of representation than as artifacts of coordination among non-linear systems. These media systems are at once social, ecological, and cognitive and, in the spirit of new materialisms, continually reworking. And this is why the book is not, strictly speaking, about the khipu, but rather companions with the khipu. It is actually about these ways of thinking about things, about such shifts in media cultural histories as contextually sensitive worldly actions, and why the continual reworkings of what media are and what they do matters today. Speculation is fundamental to khipu studies now and is a valuable and pivotal practice here, allowing the book to explore just how it is that we both think about and with media. The role of khipu in the book is to help us place ourselves among the relative positionings of media things, not to shape a new adjudication or chronologically linear history of media from a god’s eye view.


Media entangled experiences help us think with as well as about complex systems, biological, social, informational; climate change among them and contextualizing them too. Such a synthesis, we might call it a “making with,” a sympoiesis, matters today for learning how to work among entangled systems, media systems, simultaneously altered by and adapting with humans, at scales from planetary change and its politics, to gut microbiome communications, to quantum memory.

Words are alive. “If you think you invented it, just look around and notice how many other people are inventing the term at the same time,” says feminist technoscience theorist Donna Haraway about the term sympoiesis, which she coined for her own uses and then discovered was already alive and well among knowledge worlds, being used both similarly and differently. (Haraway 2014 Cerisy; Dempster 2000 Toronto. See also Piatelli-Palmarini & Uriagereka 2004 on "The Evolution of the Language Virus.")

Dispersed, diffracted in time and being, people too can FEEL as boundary objects, focusing and defocusing. Our triggers for care and concern are differential and deeply meaningful. For example, I FEEL that whispering from my left as I sit in the audience of a conference panel. “The word system feels so cold to me,” offers the person sitting next to me in rumination. Sibilant /es/ in my ear instead triggers a sudden involuntary counter-sensation of WARMTH for /es/system. Insistent memories of Batesons, of peopling cybernetics among stories and experiences with plants and animals, at the ocean’s edge, all pile on.

Systems justice sensitive to multiple contexts, what Chela Sandoval called “differential consciousness,” calls out to various politics of attachment. (Sandoval 2000, Anzaldúa 2002, ASCA forthcoming 2015) Belief and disbelief, really perhaps memberships and belongings, triggered and assembled, stagger between climate change publics, amid money behind global restructurings, and even, say, together with feminist juggling acts and territories, amid objects, new materialisms, and communities of justice and practice. Register such intensities and traumas: when do they become ends in themselves? All too crowded with affiliations, loyalties, essential truths? Eschatology, the study of end-times, companions a paradoxically long history in human attention. And humans are often precariously enduring on the planet, and have threatened its existence before. (I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis myself, and we might well have ended then. This fear motivated much of Bateson’s work for example. See Childs 2012; Bateson 1979:98, 174) Yet Bateson was very vocal and concerned too about unanticipated movements the complexities of systems take on when urgencies become too predictive. Then our urgencies result in less sensitivity to the unanticipated, result in too narrow a focus, as all too human desires for control or for moral prescriptions are inadvertently escalated. Systems justice requires something much more complicated. It means, for example, we have to work with our dopamine extended being as well as find out new things about it.

To go with and beyond human intention and systems of control we need many ways to gather now to minimize damage and maximize flourishing. What do we need to gather? “Us” gathers sympoietically too all these boundary objects storing details and affects. Our “we” and “us” register too with Bateson’s living patterns, from the starfish’s invertebrate radial symmetry to redwood cloning timelines to recursive epigenesis, mechanism and structure in a segmenting egg to those human affiliations of power and state and love that we could wish for in the Senate of the United States. Sometimes people say if it’s about everything it is about nothing. Not today. Dive into the paradox: systems justice means sharpening focus without narrowing it.