Friday, October 16, 2009

Beyond Good and Evil and the Humanities: Nowcasting II

In a talk that I gave at this year's Digital Humanities conference on "Hacktivism and the Humanities," I argued that political action and human rights advocacy should be a critical part of the digital humanities, even though it might seem contradictory to the hermeticism of its recent history of devotion to text-encoding initiatives. Among the hacktivist humanists that I talked about, Trevor Paglen seemed an obvious model.

Today at the Nowcasting conference, Paglen, who is perhaps best known for mapping extraordinary rendition flights and then publicizing the trajectories of these aircraft on billboards, presented a talk called "The Other Night Sky: Secret Satellites and 'Geographies' of Orbit" that began with a description of a drifting DSP F23 orbital and led to an extended analysis of the ideologies of space conquest. He explained now satellite trackers who could "decode telemetry from passing spacecraft" with the skills to be able to pull images from Soviet weather satellites found themselves decoding a mystery with uncomfortable policy implications.

It was a talk that I couldn't help but love. Readers might remember that I took my longest hiatus from blogging while on a solar eclipse astronomy cruise in the Mediterranean where I met a satellite optics specialist who now makes camera obscuras, that I named one of my children after a famous astronomer, and that I regularly plug the cosmology tutorials of Virtualpolitik pal Ned Wright.

One of the unlikely heroes of Paglen's story was Greg Roberts, who found himself visited by South Africa's intelligence service because he had been reporting on classified satellites in online listservs. Paglen showed a cosmic image that included two points of light drifting closer and explained why that celestial image was frightening, since it also spoke in a "language about geopolitics and verticality." Although some "think of space as an inhospitable void," Paglen argued that, like the Pullman transfer points, there could be "military chokepoints" in the Geostationary orbit that functioned as "strategic high ground."

He asserted that like the terrestrial spaces being analyzed by contemporary geographers, "the space of outer space is produced." This interest in ideology points to a key feature in contemporary geography that has been encouraging a number of digital humanities agencies and programs to include geographers in the mix. Our session of the NEH-supported "Broadening the Digital Humanities" included a number of people working on mapping projects, Alexander Tarr's New Deal geography project, and Nicole Starosielski's work on the cultural geography of undersea data cables.

Paglen noted that "spacecraft structure our everyday lives in many ways" that include supermarkets connected to warehouses, television programming, weather forecasting, phone connectivity, and bank transactions. He reminded the audience that satellite telephone conversations date back to a discussion between John F. Kennedy and the Nigerian prime minister at the time. He also noted that these information relays also include transactions involving the military, such as communication with drone aircraft, and that the military has both its own dedicated information structures and a customer relationship with a number of commercial contractors. Another character in Paglen's satellite story, John Locker, had previously captured unencrypted live streaming military data from the terrain in Macedonia.. Furthermore, 80% of the communications from the war in Iraq are handled by commercial satellites, according to Paglen.

Paglen's narrative about communication, media, and military infrastructure focuses on the highest vertical position from which to exert power without risking entry into a "graveyard orbit" or losing a prime place in a GSO that is "getting crowded." As he talked about SimCom 2 in drift, he explained that there was a lot of accumulated debris in the GSO, where there were 1,120 objects larger than 60 cm but only 300 of them operational. Paglen unfolded a project about "territorialization and military operation" in a "stealthy and deniable occupation of the heavens that involved the MiTEx program for small and highly mobile satellite destroyers from a suspect DARPA initiative that was supposedly doing old-school space science. Paglen claimed that the presence of these satellite-killers was a "physical manifestation of radical shift in space policy" for internal sovereignty over the GSO, which Donald Rumsfeld had called "space security management."

Paglen also talked about one of my favorite federal agencies for digital rhetoric, the National Reconnaissance Office, which has produced strange online videos and weird children's pages, along with the deception and denial in the "5 D's" that Paglen described. He argued that this was "unlike other kinds of occupation" in that it was "invisible," even as it represents the "closing of a frontier," because it is unlikely that humans will go beyond this ring, since it is the "infrastructural limit of earth’s geography" and inscribes the "conditions of own confinement."

In responding to questions, Paglen argued that the U.S. was exercising a "politics of imperial extraterritoriality" and that China was only indulging in "spectacle" and "monument"-building in its space program. Much as many not the possibility of wars fought over the Internet in both senses, Paglen contemplated "wars fought in space not just from space." He also, not surprisingly, informed his audience that "nothing is changing under the new administration" and that he was only finding support for his "thesis that these things don’t change from administration to administration." Audience member Paul Dourish observed that Paglen might be able to make an analogy with Antarctica, which is also a site of militarization and interference by scientific amateurism, and made comparisons with which Paglen agreed based on the fact that outer space treaties are often modeled on international agreements governing Antarctica.

At Nowcasting, there were also a number of talks about how the design past informs the design present. Jeffrey Schnapp looked at a history that includes "Futurism and Futurology" by questioning if yesterday was today and citing 1970 as a golden year that has been "reanimated during the web era." Like Lunenfeld, Schnapp looks to the publication of The Medium is the Massage as a key event in design cultural history. (Fans of the book can listen to this amazing audio at UbuWeb.) His talk focused on "backstage players" such as Jerome Agel to ask "how much do the new modes of making make a difference?" in exploring the history of the paperback original and its links to radical therapy, psychedelia, happenings, alternative publications like Books, xerography, copyright policy, literary gossip and commentary on pop culture, cut-and-paste essays, and "decide for yourself" campaigns. Agel embraced the role of the "producer" rather than "author" in publishing and thought of successful projects as "hits" rather than "bestsellers." Often he teamed up with Quentin Fiore, who also did design for University of Michigan Press and the alphabet on a standard Bell telephone after training in Europe under the tutelage of Grosz, Hoffman, and Nagy. (Fiore's oeuvre also included a disquisition on manual paper-making.) Although the digital humanities might seem to be on the periphery of Schnapp's talk rather than at its center, he argued that this "vision of design thinking" that stretched "from the Burroughs corporation to William Burroughs" touched at questions at the center of "historical scholarship and science" and invited reflection about how to "honor the strengths of linearity" in the digital age. There were also some nice geek visuals that included Ted Nelson's sketch of "ordinary teaching" and "computer instruction" and an image that developed fishnet stockings as a metaphor for informational friction "when information is brushed against information." Schnapp wasn't the only one looking back to the past in the day's sessions: Jan-Christopher Horak gave a beautiful presentation on Saul Bass and his influence on contemporary motion graphics which pointed to analogous images from the Bauhaus.

But much of the conversation of this day was about Johanna Drucker and her talk "From Data to Capta: Diagramming Interpretation." Her recent book SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing was also part of the surrounding commentary. She opened by making comparisons between her talk and Paglen's, since she announced, "I am going to talk about weather -- weather, visualization, space, speculative activities" and by doing so engage in "situating humanities activities." She emphasized how "the need to create humanities tools in humanities environments" often became a "capitulation to techno-computational sensibility" that denied the "rhetorical form of encounter between humanities and computing" and to always "make explicit what had been implicit" while denying the "manner of doing work as interpretation." She advocated questioning why humanists must "submit to the disciplinary exigencies of computational specificity," even if it generated a species of "intellectual excitement" that she compared to "S&M," since this form of "computational discipline" also turns the humanist into the colonized. She also contested the notion that these pressures were only recent ones, since the humanities "comes out of the Renaissance" but soon must respond to the historical pressures created by the "notion of rationalism and empiricism" that it had spawned. "The humanities can never be grounded in certainty," Drucker asserted, because it is about the "partial, contingent condition" of human experience that engages with "conditions and situations not objects and spaces."

Drucker complained that how this subjectivity was "mapped, charted, or understood" was often perverted by attempts to reduce its complexities to information graphics. For her, subjectivity was defined both as 1) position (in relation to whatever we perceive, know, experience, etc.) and 2) individual inflection (notion of affect). She then went on to discuss "time, space, text, data, archive, network, and stochastic systems" with "some of the most ugly graphs that you will ever see."

There was an explicit critique of information graphics guru Edward Tufte in her talk, but there was also criticism of how digital humanists weren't much better than those who presented a "representation of data that they have mined" that was dictated by "desktop tools." Tufte's "idea of representing" in which "form follows data" spurred Drucker to ask, "What is this data?" She explained that "data comes from the word 'given'" and generally follows a "construct of empirical methods that can be taken by various metric means." However, she argued that in practice, in answering a question like how temperature should be measured, researchers were confronted with "instances of capta" that provide a set of thermal phenomena without a single master measure possible. She denied that she was a relativist at this point, since "phenomena exist," but she insisted that they are also "captured, taken" "according to an agenda." Too often, she claimed, humanities diagrammers assumed "that there are user-independent phenomena." She also argued that these diagrams are too often unreadable, as in the case of a time table of the Population of History of England 1450-1750 provided by John Hatcher, which she compared to Camillo’s Memory Theater.

Her own research has grappled with representing affective states that are more complicated than the "mood maps" of Liz Miller. In particular, she has strived to represent "how do we reconceptualize time" so that it is not simply "unidirectional, continuous, and homogenous," as it appears in an infograph about human civilization that goes from fishing and hunting small game to hunting large game and herding reindeer without any attention to the "affective metrics of parameterization" and how those populations might have experienced time from their own subjectivities. To make her point humorously, she displayed a USA Today graphic about "how people spend their vacations" from which you could infer that they "get smaller when coming back." One of her students created a kind of word cloud in which she weighted activities in the day by color (to indicate if these were relaxing or stressful activities), by size (to indicate duration), and by bolding (to indicate perceived significance), since "not all days are the same. Thinking about what she called her "temporal modeling project," she gave the example of the "2 seconds before a paper is due" and "2 seconds of brushing teeth."

Then she announced: "Now I would like to destroy space." More properly, she stated that she wanted to "replace space with spatiality," which would be like "replacing time with temporalilty." Too often, she argued people produce "something that looks like air traffic," even though "no distance is the same" and different "inches on map" might be "very different to move through," since "maps make us believe that the world is structured a certain way" without recognizing how water and mountains might impact mobility. She called on "cognitive mapping and children’s drawing" as a way to understand affect and also cited the Situationists and their ideas about psycho-geography as relevant to her research.

As part of her assault on Tufte, she questioned how much the famous Snow chart of victims of the cholera epidemic tell us about how these deaths functioned in relation to other things in their lives, beyond the water pumps that were Snow's fixation, since these dots can't represent the complex social networks impacted by each death. (Perhaps something more like Phil Ethington's Ghost Metropolis or this Dutch digital monument to Jews killed in the Holocaust would be closer to answering this need.) Drucker also wanted to indicate the differences between "perceived time and actual time" in her work with students that incorporated "blue clouds of anxiety" and questioned the norms established by "conducting business in a bureaucratic administrative culture."

Her talk also grappled with questions of scale and reading and how enormous corpus projects go from the space of a page to a file to folder to a collection to entire archives. She asked why we "believe that we need structure," when we "forget what it is that we do by reading," since we "produce an event, and "reading is a performance" and "transformative," much as in a movie everyone in the audience performs a different version of the film. She argued that much had been done in the print environment to facilitate techniques of navigation, as in the case of the Talmud and its four lines of interpretation around the text, and also credited experiments like the film of "Jenny's bookmak" that Anne Burdick had shown earlier in the day, since reading was about how we "selectively recreate, and "a book is not an entity but a probabilistic" construct. She then -- in a lighter moment -- showed a chart of the "activity of a humpbacked whale" and asked how we might envision the "deep space of reading." Like Gerard Genette, she argued that we don't always read linearly and pointed to her group's previous work with the online game of the novel Ivanhoe. After showing an image of 100,00 cancer literature abstracts, she said that she was "not such a big fan of the giant rolodex in the sky" and said that we should "continue to relocate ourselves in humanistic activity of reading." She said that we should think about the notion of weather not as a modeling of thermodynamics but as the starting point for complexity theory, since humanistic inquiry is "highly specific and always changing" and thus better understood with a stochastic model that grants it is "not even a stable system."

Warren Sack took on Drucker head-on as a video from his talk on "Discourse Architecture" played in the background. He argued that her book The Visible Word, which lamented that textual scholars don’t pay attention to issues in visual communication design "was already persuasive 15 years ago," and that it had the courage to have named names, as she did by taking on Derrida and his disengagement with the materiality of the concept of writing as trace. He alledged that he current book avoided the "unpleasant business of naming names of Humanities scholars."

He opened his talk by addressing the "well-formed business" of depicting a "clash of value systems," such as CP Snow’s "two cultures" essay that opposes literary scholarship and scientific research. In attempting to "put humanists in dialogue with technology design," he gave a number of examples of computer scientists engaging in fundamental humanities questions, beginning with Seymour Pappert. Although Plato wrote over his door "Let only geometers enter," Sack noted that the classical trivium and quadrivium brought together "rhetoric and mathematics" and "logic and music." For Sack, computers were not just "literary machines" (as Ted Nelson would have it) or instruments for logic or mathematics (as Herbert Simon described them). He commented that consummate computer science textbook writers Sussman and Abelson pointed out that not only was computer science not a science, but also that the computers themselves were not required. For Sussman and Abelson it was about a "revolution in what we think" as a form of "procedural epistemology" that mattered and an "imperative not declarative point of view" in which "computation constitutes a new way of thinking."

Sack also cited Edward Dijkstra, who was known for his conception of "radical novelty" in computer science teaching, to understand how this computing tool and might have an influence on thinking, which might include reshaping children's educations by teaching programming very early. He also mentioned Knuth's ideas about "literate programming" and seeing "programming as essayistic," so that "computing is a new form of writing." To demonstrate his point, Sack showed a version of LOGO in javascript to explain why some might find "graphical thinking more amenable" and to present how this "search for a more perfect language," which dates back to Aristotle continues to be important today. In contrast, he reminded the audience of Adorno’s insistence on the priority of the object and the fact that for this Frankfurt school thinker there was no function of identity, since Adorno asserted the singularity of material and historical conditions. He analyzed Drucker's work in how it handled the dichotomy between ASCII characters and the specificity of fonts, color, paper, and typesetting and seemed to find her level of theorizing lacking.

At this point Sack shifted to situating his talk in the Sophistic movement and its implication sfor Socratic technique, since Socrates himself appears to be a Sophist who uses anti-logic techniques, inconsistent answers, and dialogues that close with participants in a state of aporia. To understand the conceptual difficulty that he was presenting, he pointed to the figure of elenchis and how a given statement can produce two statements that are contradictory. At this point he showed a slide of the famous rabbit-duck (see above) before explaining his project that was the supposed subject of his talk: interactive social mapping. As the video in the background showed, Sack explained why he was interested in "design for very large conversations." His chief product, the Conversation Map, which was part of a recent show at The Art of Participation 1950 to Now in SF MoMA (and had also been on display at the Beall) was certainly different from the diagrams that Drucker presented in her own work with students, but he argued that his research had led him to believe that "the social graph is a chimera" that is "never truly a duck or a rabbit," because as Sherry Turkle had noted "our identities aren’t stable." And even though Facebook users try to "squeeze out fakesters" the "logical fiction and marketing dream" of LinkedIn and Facebook ignores the readity of "who is speaking with whom." In working with e-mail and listserv postings, he displayed the example of associations with Israel and Palestine and Israelis and Palestinians to see where they are treated as synonyms and where they are not. Bolter had been cited earlier in the day, so he reminded the audience about Bolter and myth of transparency discussed in his work with Diane Gromala on discourses at SIGGRAPH that was included in Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency. In closing, Sack insisted that the "thing we call computer science is a longstanding project in the humanities"

Drucker herself noted how rhetoric functions as a kind of return of the repressed in Sack's talk and that Wittgenstein, after the publication of the Tractatus, was banned from teaching logic and only allows to teach rhetoric. To Drucker's defense of rhetoric and poesis and "what it has to offer," Sack initially made a surprisingly lame equation of serious games with noted critic of them Ian Bogost. But soon he recovered himself by discussing Turing and imitation game and how Plato's ethical criticism revolves around a rejection of mimesis. Turing presents a "way of replacing a problem with a game," the Wittgenstenian problem of what is thinking, which was largely dropped by AI but still plays a major role in movies of an uncanny aesthetics where identity is in question, as in the case of films about replicants that could be seen in the tradition of a Sophistic imitation game.

Lev Manovich gave the last presentation in the day, but earlier he had asked Drucker if analyzing and visualizing subjective cultural experience were really mutually exclusive, particularly since the "cultural industry and knowledge production" presented "new ways to combine the two rather than oppose them." Given the "statistical ability to capture on a massive scale," he suggested that we might be "moving toward a synthesis," although Drucker said she was "a lot less willing to compromise," since she asked if it would "have enough rhetorical tools" and characterized herself as resistant to being "colonized."

Manovich's own talk began with Google Analytics, which showed how results for "humanities computing" were in decline and how "digital humanities" was on the rise. He also noted that according to Google's results "LA is where it is all happening," and "we are at the epicenter." He then showed excerpts from his "annual report" on his Cultural Analytics project. as annual report. Manovich argued that suppliers of cultural data, such as humanities scholars could prepare the data for processing relatively easily with methods his team "can teach you how to do in ten minutes." In trying to catalog the "diversity and variability of culture," Manovich described a number of discrete stages: 1) description, which may be manual (annotation, tagging) or automatic (the focus of his group), 2) data analysis (statistics), which he described as an "optional step," 3) data visualization (reduction, summarization) and data mapping (expansion, outlining, layering), and interpretation.

Several of his examples had to do with one of my favorite films to teach, Vertov's classic Man with a Movie Camera. They ranged from simple spreadsheets with shots and components to more complicated scatterplots and bar charts created by Mondrian software to catalogs of components from colleagues in Vienna ("washing," "wheat," "woman") to new Flash/Flex/Flare database suites to NERSC visualizations. As Manovich explained with this example, existing software was "good at representing data" but didn't accommodate a "need to represent data in its original form," so that users were "unable to see images, sounds, videos, or other cultural objects." He also showed as visualization with TIME magazine covers where the x-axis is time and the y-axis is hue, saturation, and brightness, as well as a data set of Mondrian paintings 1905-1907, along with an assortment of Google logos. (When I suggested later that the TIME magazine covers might be more interesting organized according to the cost of securing rights of reproduction as an actual index of value, he explained that many of their data sets simply came from Google releases, such as the LIFE photo archive, since even working with ARTstor could be difficult. Because the original data could be seen, he described these as projects of "anti-visualization" that was focused on "augmentation and expansion" rather than "reduction, summarization, and abstraction." He also tossed out examples handled with media imaging software from SIGGRAPH 2009, the text of Anna Karenina with automatic outlining to indicate the speaker, song scenes from fifty years of Bollywood cinema, cartoons, ten million manga images, and Bush and Obama ads. (He said that Republican commercials are much more visually aggressive.) He also that he argued that this software could be useful to scholars who "need to work with interactive media." He pointed out that his group analyzed thirty different videogames, so that a "particular instance of someone playing a game" could show "how people play the software system" that captures a range of experiences that include kinetic interactions and waiting. To possible objections Manovich said that "quantitative analysis of culture" had always been important in film criticism, if only implicitly. Of images, such as the one above, Manovich asked, "How did we ever talk about media without it?"

Erkki Huhtamo's presentation probably inspired the most hunger, although I found it most interesting from his intended perspective of encouraging reflection about the nature of contemporary forms of automation and interactivity.

Wearing an actual yukata, Huhtamo argued that sushi could be understood "as a system of consumption and (im)mobility" and that the rotating sushi bar was intimately tied to particular notions about technoculture involving mechanization, (full) automation, and interactivity. He defined mechanization as constituted by a 1) hierarchy of standardized parts, 2) a continuous assembly line, and 3) a Taylorized workforce. Ironically, he noted, these procedures actually began with the "disassembly line" of the nineteenth-century slaughterhouse. He also talked about Taylorism as a scientific theory of work and The Principles of Scientific Management, which dates from 1911. Of course, he observed that Taylorism was admired but also ridiculed, as it was in Chaplin's Modern Times in 1936. Automation, he claimed, was best described by the Bell preface The Age of Automation and in Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society. In visual culture this could include images of the daguerreotype photographer able to nap, as well as those laboring at a frenetic pace. As for interactivity, he referred his audience to Stewart Brand's The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at M.I.T..

As one noted for his work on "media archeology," Huhtamo also questioned the basic assumptions of a "Culture of Interactivity," since not only were its origins debatable but it also was often taken as "identical with a 'self-service' society" in which the ATM functions as displacement of office work, and "freedom of choice," "customized consumption," "pay per view," "individual users," and "citizen initiatives" mask fundamental relations of "power and consumerism." He also pointed out that this pressure fofr streamlined production went all the way back to 1939 and an edict forced the closure of street stalls, which prompted the institution of the "sushi bar." Since then, efforts to industrialize and streamline the production of sushi have progressed to Kaiten-zushi establishment with RFID tag that Huhtamo argued mimicked the cultural logic of trains, escalators, moving walkways, and exercise motion cycles.

To demostrate the functioning of fast-rotating sushi and "Shinkansen sushi," Huhtamo showed a number of YouTube videos, although none were as impressive as the clips of sushi robots on which he lingered. Given the difficulty of automating cutting fish, automation might be hampered, but expectations of low social interaction set by pachinko parlors encourage computerized ordering schemes for hamazushi in which the chef is no longer visible and even zura-zushi slot machine games with plates as tokens. Here, Huhtamo made -- via the Giga Rensya game that could be "reintegrated in interactive play" -- a connection to online computer games about assembly madness, and industrialized food production, such as Stand O’ Food and many others.

In his "(Non)conclusion," he raised the history of the human/machine relationship, the question of culture specificity, and the issue of the eventual preference for the "human touch," the "robot touch," or the "robo-human touch." Audience member Paul Dourish pointed out the importance of the work of Gary Alan Fine and how this kind of constrained interactivity might also function in the "occupational rhetorics" of haute cuisine and the managed and regulated emotional performance of waitstaff. As ex-Google employee Lilly Irani rightly observed, automation isn’t just a thing that machines do. (One of the later chapters of the Virtualpolitik book deals with labor, interactivity, and book digitization.) Irani reminded Huhtamo that Wendy Chun had looked at the man-machine coupling of Enniac in which the woman and the machine were collapsed. Finally Manovich inserted a mention of the relationship between automation and creativity represented by the extension of the paradigm of the search engine and its history in practices from World War Two involving reacting to situations. For Manovich, interactivity was a way to reintroduce the human, even if Huhtamo argued that such actors were positioned by an invisible framework.

Huhtamo looked at some of the literature about Taylorism that I have been thinking about in connection with my new book project about universities as digital media makers, since "scientific management" was the actual subject matter of the lecture in which the "baked professor" had his famous online video distance learning breakdown.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Greg J. Smith said...

This is an epic summary. Thank you.

10:50 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home