Ken Rufo on “Pataphysics,” Digital Collectives and Truth Protocols

MCDM Faculty iconoclast Ken Rufo has been up to some interesting things lately.  Always on the hunt for enlightening challenges to assumptions regarding technology and digital communications, Rufo agreed to answer some questions about a new initiative he has undertaken with the help of some MCDM students.

The initiative has the provocative (if sightly opaque) title of “The Collective for Digital Pataphysics.”

Check out this video from the Collective for Digital Pataphysics about their “Trust Protocol” project:

FTM: What is pataphysics?  What specifically is “digital pataphysics?”

Ken Rufo: Pataphysics, which is often written ‘pataphysics, is a term coined by the French absurdist Alfred Jarry to describe a science of imaginary solutions.  It’s obviously a play on “metaphysics,” which it was supposed to supplement.  Pataphysics is a kind of absurdist, experimental way of thinking about the abstract as if it was concrete, or thinking about the exceptions that might otherwise prove a rule.  It’s comic, but never merely sarcastic or mocking.  The idea of digital pataphysics is really just my attempt to apply the same experimental, theatrical sensibility to ways of learning about digital and social media.

FTM: Who is Alfred Jarry?

Ken Rufo: Jarry was a Frenchman writing at the close of the 19th Century.  He’s probably most known for his play Ubu Roi and the book Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll.

FTM:  How did the CDP get started?

Ken Rufo: I teach an Ethics of Digital Media class here at MCDM, and the idea really came about as the result of some of our in-class discussions.  There had been interest in exploring certain aspects of social media that seemed to require a less straight-forward research methodology, and the conversations convinced me that an approach like the CD’P would be both interesting for students (and others) and productive.

FTM:  What kinds of projects will the CDP do?

Ken Rufo: Well the goal of the Collective is to engage in experimental theatre of a sort, kind of like a social media art installation.  I’m reluctant to be too specific about the various projects, because the first two planned projects work best if they’re largely clandestine.  Suffice it to say that the first one, which is codenamed “The Trust Protocol” is an exploration of the formation of trust and authority online, while the second, which will likely be codenamed “A Story of Digits”, will experiment with new story-telling potential made possible by the variety of new media platforms now available.  There are some others being considered, and I think we’re all happy taking, making, and discussing new project ideas.

FTM:  Why is pataphysics important to a student in the MCDM, or is it important?

Ken Rufo: Honestly, it depends on the student.  These sort of inquiries might not matter to a lot of folks more interested in the business analytics side of things.  But for those interested in exploring new possibilities for interactive story-telling, for those interested in larger protocols that govern online behavior, and those who worry that there is far too much speculative positivity bounding around the twitter streams, activity streams, and RSS aggregators, and that this positivity is not sustainable, the sort of work we want to play at should be right up their alley.  And best of all, assuming all goes well, it should be a load of fun.  In addition, these projects work because they’re distributed over time and space, so it’s not a huge time commitment, just a creative one.

As for spectating, rather than participating, some of the projects will be more useful than others.  Here at the MCDM we work very hard to translate skills and knowledge into expertise.  But it can be difficult sometimes to separate expertise from sophistry, and hopefully that’s something we’ll be able to parse more fully as a result of our Trust Protocol project.  We’ll see how it goes.

FTM:  How does the CDP relate to other work you do?

Ken Rufo:  It relates to my teaching and research on the use of social media.  Look, pataphysics has a somewhat frivolous reputation, which is unfortunate.  But I see the CD’P as a way of conducting research on digital media without certain methodological constraints.  I imagine there are a whole host of people who would find that beneficial and relevant to what they do.

FTM:  How can someone get involved with the CDP?

Ken Rufo: Email me at kenrufo@uw.edu or at collective@digitalpataphysics.org.

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