Archive for January, 2008

Out of Control

So it’s been awhile, had a bit of a reprieve there, but I’m back and really need to write about stuff that I read over a week ago–eek!

In Out of Control, Kevin Kelly tells a lot of really cool stories about technology, so many so that it’s going to be easy for me to get side tracked and not talk about the thesis of the book at all–so naturally I should do that first. Despite being written in 1994, Kelly’s work holds up to current technology a lot better than other things published at the same time (being the editor of Wired does something for you, I assume). But this is also because his idea–that machines and biology have a lot in common, that the power of many small things drives large systems well, and that distributed networks are very important in the evolution of man and machine–is applicable not just to the technology of the early 90s but to technology in general. And it is especially applicable to at least one technology “happening” that I’d like to talk about here.

The power of many–that more is different–is recognized by at least some groups online. One in particular has been using this power to shut down voices that come to their attention as being annoying to them in some way. It’s difficult for me to discern their reasoning beyond that as to their targets. Some members seem to say that the targets are arbitrary (taking the Internet “too seriously” to discuss serious topics or worrying about what others think about you online seems to be a heinous offense) while others suggest there is more to it: the hive mind isn’t perfect. But they know their numbers are powerful and have been involved in dropping feminist blogs, getting a pedophile in Canada caught, and exposing a dominatrix working in a grade school.

They call themselves “Anonymous,” they hail from an IRC channel called 4chan, and their current target is the Church of Scientology: http://www.encyclopediadramatica.com/PROJECT_CHANOLOGY

In their rules (when you can get their official page to load) the group outright admits that they know that together as hackers and harassers that they can get far more done than alone. That’s hardly a new idea, but seeing the “Hive Mind” that Kelly describes as being so powerful indeed being so powerful is, at the very least, an interesting thing to watch: “anonymous is a legion together we are strong together we are anonymous. Anon has put -blam!-s in prison and other great things.” Although Encyclopedia Dramatica also notes some internal dissent within the group, they’re generally able to pull together and attack (through harassment, DoS attacks, and hacking tools available on their main site) whomever has been targeted as worthy of attack.

Of course, I don’t think this is what Kelly had in mind–probably not at all. Instead his examples of complicated systems with distributed knowledge and capability are more along the lines of thousands of robots doing bits of a job well than one large one doing it poorly, or the Biosphere project, or growing a prairie–but they essentially follow the same rules.

I’m into reading Hegel now–Universal Mind? Hrm….

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The Faces of New Media….

I think I’ll start discussion of Mark Hansen’s New Philosophy for New Media with the Digital Face Interface (DFI) because I find it fascinating and frustrating, and because it ties directly in with some of the other things I’ve been watching and reading when I’m not busy being a student–and it’s cool whenever that happens, obviously.

 The DFI (a human-ish face to talk to instead of the usual “Windows-ish” Human computer interface) is an interesting idea. I call it frustrating above because the thought of having to ask a face for something is a time consuming process, not to mention comparitively loud. I wouldn’t want my computer to have a face on it that I have to talk to when I decide to open a Word document after midnight and my husband is sleeping–thanks, but the icon will do. However, I understand the impulse to move the interface to something more bodily accessible–because the only thing we all (as in, all people, all over the world) remotely culturally share is the body and the face–we mostly all have those. And if an interface could be as simple to use as talking to someone else, which again, most everyone can do, then from a technical communication standpoint would be ideal: no directions needed. I’m not so sure, however, that Windows or Leopard or Ubuntu are as alienating and body dis-affecting as Hansen proposes–they just aren’t as innately humanizing as talking to another human.

This said, the interactions I’ve had with DFI’s have all been positive, entertaining, and fascinating experiences. Despite my reluctance to want this on my home system, I’m not adverse to the thought of DFI’s at all.

First, let’s look at Turtle Talk with Crush. This is the first of many planned Disney exhibits where a well known cartoon character on a screen communicates with the audience in real time. They call it a ” a voice-activated real-time animation system” that not only has cameras to analyze the audience and communicate directly with them, pointing out audience members, asking them questions, what have you. Audience members often report back to sites like JimHillMedia.com that this attraction was their favorite in the whole park even though it’s seemingly “simple” compared to the rides. Kids are fascinated that they are talking to real live cartoon character, while adults are no doubt more fascinated that they are talking to a computer. After all, if you’ve had to deal with the voice recognition in your Ford Sync program, you’d probably be absolutely floored at how well voice recognition can actually work.

Now, if Crush were a “fake person,” a human face, I’m not so sure it’d appeal to me. Computer animation still just isn’t good enough to make “real” faces just yet, at least not in my perception. I was endlessly squicked out by The Polar Express, for example. I do realize that some people don’t have those high standards though. Plenty of people have told me how great Express was, discussing it in the same kind of reverence that Hansen has for Shaw.

I think I’d like to see Hansen’s opinion of these computer systems that aren’t meant for art but instead for entertainment. If there’s any place that Hansen’s argument breaks down seriously for me it’s in his examples. He’s defining new media technology and the image in digital art in a way such that we begin to understand that these images aren’t purely visual. Digital images are processed by the body, not just eyes vs. image, and that it is this perceptional process that creates the image itself. This is one way, including the body in the perception process, that he tries to reintroduce the human in the technological since it is only too often that we assume that technology will erase the human altogether.

However, I don’t think that his thesis is only appliable to things that he would consider digital art. He seems to privelege things that are touchable, manipulable, in a way that a lot of digital art really isn’t. His examples remind me of articles I read in past classes about early experimental cinema experiments more than the articles I usually read about new media–which isn’t particularly problematic but is interesting.

I’m not sure where the line between art/not art is, as well. For example, I’m interested in buying one of these:


This is Pleo, he’s a robotic dinosaur that obeys voice commands, has “emotions,” develops based upon your interaction, moves around on his own, and reacts to his environment. Ugobe (You Go Believe), the company that created Pleo, describes him as the place where art and science meet.

It was particularly this meeting of art and science, their intersection, that I was reminded of when I was reading Hansen. His theories seem to work best at that place where art and science begin to blend. Pleo’s creators have very different goals than Shaw and the other artists profiled by Hansen, but in the end they are all looking at some of the same things.

Pleo’s creators (and Shaw et al) want people to interact with their creation and let it change the way people interact with technology. Ugobe is following in Sony’s Aibo’s footsteps in that way. I have a Aibo 210 and it certainly doesn’t feel like a toy or a computer to interact with, nor is it a robot in the same way the Hero Jr. was in the 80s or the way our Roomba Gary is. Like Shaw’s art, the Aibo and Pleo don’t really serve any direct purpose (they don’t serve me drinks or vaccuum my rug) but instead all these things are meant to argue for a certain kind of human/digital relationship. Shaw calls parts of that relationship into question, while Pleo might make us more comfortable with it, but in reality all these things are pulling bodily affect into a conversation with the digital.

Also… they’re pretty cool.

I’d like to see Hansen write about Aibo or Pleo (or Turtle Talk) not only because I have some degree of personal experience with them, but because they are more accessible to ordinary people than the obscure digital artwork he discusses within the text. Do his theories still apply? Are these not “art” even though their creators have defined them as such? Can art also be toys? And how does all this relate to the new media that I interact with every day online?

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Cabinet of Wonders

Grusin and Bolter derive a similarity between digital media and antique Wunderkammer—Cabinets of Wonder. This struck me as a particular apt thought in that so many digital media are used as holders of other things, as at this time so many are also built upon database (which I have actually described to basic computer users as file cabinets with many, many drawers). The database method of building a website through XML and CSS all but guarantees that all files contained within can be anything at all—sometimes even other databases (but rarely).

            Add to this the fact that one of my favorite blogs actually is about and is a cabinet of wonders itself (http://cabinet-of-wonders.blogspot.com/) and you can imagine how I might be drawn further to this line of thought. In general, the blog in question is about anything the writer finds fantastic, and because she’s an interesting person I too find the things she collects to be interesting. But even more than that, the existence of her blog has lead me down the path of thinking as blogs as a sort of multimedia Wunderkammer—people write about things they find interesting in blogs, shove random pictures and videos in, and we get the sense that what’s here (in any blog) is rather important to the owner. In many ways, many blogs are cabinets of wonder.

            I don’t think that “cabinet of wondering” (didn’t think I could make that a verb… hrm…) isn’t really a conscious process most of the time. Children and young adults particularly seem to have this sort of collecting absolutely 100% down: their myspace pages are proof of it. “Look at all this stuff I think is cool!” While adults and authority figures sneer on that myspace doesn’t have very good graphic design principles behind it, say it’s messy, say it’s going to destroy these kids’ lives, I think the students and younger people on the system have the right idea: it’s all about collecting and sharing. Livejournal before it is all about the same thing, and there’s nothing saying that blogs on Blogger and WordPress aren’t either.

            But I don’t think every blog or myspace page is a Wunderkammer anymore than I think that every time somebody shoves a bunch of stuff in a box that it magically becomes a Wunderkammer as well. While the collection of materials online to form one might be an unconscious process (the maker doesn’t know what a Cabinet of Wonders is, for example), I think there is a conscious process of putting together things in such a way that they say “these are important to me, this is who I am, these are my memories.” This can be held in contrast to the news blog, for example, that isn’t quite the same thing (or heck, the blog for a class like this one). That could, in our extended metaphor, be very similar to the difference between a Wunderkammer and a museum or library….

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Steampunk—Nothing Transparent About It

“What designers often say they want is an ‘interfaceless’ interface, in which there will be no recognizable electronic tools—no buttons, windows, scroll bars, or even icons as such. Instead the user will move through the space interacting with the objects ‘naturally,’ as she does in the physical world. Virtual reality, three-dimensional graphics, and graphic interface design are all seeking to make digital technology ‘transparent”” (23).

 steampunk watch

Designers might wish for an “interfaceless” interface, and I suppose there are many good reasons to do so. If there’s no interface, people could learn it without realizing that they are learning at all. I’d never have to tell another student that saving and printing are now hidden under the Office Button on Office 2007, there would be no settings to adjust as such, and the “interface” could be intuitive based upon real world cultural experience or even overlaid on the real world itself. Everything would be immediate by being transparent. The only idiot-proof system is one that isn’t a system at all.

            But if that’s true for some, it’s certainly not true for everyone. Technology of this sort doesn’t have an aesthetic of its own—at least, not what I’d imagine. Even today, there’s a backlash against the cleanliness of postmodern technology. Steampunk is a movement defined by a love of “steam” technology, of its dirt, its opaqueness, its moving parts. The pulleys, levels, chains, and geegaws of steam technology appeal to people that love the movement—but they also love the metal embellishments such technology often sported. Despite this movement growing out of sci-fi/fantasy and despite it being partially a love of “steam” technology, most of the steampunk gear created by aficionados really just hides digital stuff underneath other moving parts and things meant to simulate a time when you could *tell* how an engine worked just by looking at it.

            This wish for technology to be upfront about itself, to be beautiful in its complexity, may or may not go against everything that Grusin and Bolter write about here. Is this just another stage of remediation and hypermediacy?

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Remediation reads like a narrative of new media—a retelling of the way things are (or might be) in order to understand that what’s “new” about new media might not be so “new” or frightening (as it is to some) at all. Grusin and Bolter write from the standpoint that our society wants to both have a lot of media (they call it “multiplying”) and erase all trace of media all at once, using “the wire” from Strange Days as a perfect example of such a thing—everybody ties in and the technology is everywhere, yet it’s invisible (or supposed to be) all at once. Media that is either ubiquitous or invisible or both, they say, grows out of other media—redoing what it’s done. They seem to build most of their argument from film theory, as new media remediates film, but of course also look at how new media remediates photography, text, etc.

            I like thinking about this theory (and others like it) as a narrative, and if there’s one thing I can say that I locked into while reading this book that I didn’t back during my MS when I was reading a lot of new media texts, is that all theories of new media seem to read like stories. There’s no definitive answer to what new media is, or what it can do, or how we interact with it, but we can tell stories to temporarily and temporally bring it into being, make it make sense, and show you one valuable way to use it. Then Donna Haraway leaps off the shelf and tells you it’s all about the cyborgs, or N. Katherine Hayles starts talking flickering signifiers, and we’re off again.

            I was drawn to technology studies five years ago because I’m a geek. I grew up in a house where my dad built our doorbell (and it could play any tune you wanted) and I got a robot for my fifth birthday. I feel like I’ve lived in the narratives these books inscribe and yet I’m not always quite sure that the books live in the world they describe (this is not a particular problem of Remediation, but a more general observation). In a later blog post I’d like to talk about new media book’s use of virtual reality for just that reason—without strapping yourself in to a virtual reality system I’m not sure you can really understand what it is.

            I’m drawn to technology studies now for a different reason. You can’t redefine what film is, nor can you really change what Shakespeare wrote (although you know, I’m sure people try). But right now, at this time, you need to define “new media” when you say it in a paper. You need to talk about how you think technology works, and if you’re going to use it in your classroom your pedagogy should reflect how you think it works. Furthermore, there’s no obvious end to this since technology should continue to change and develop and the things that can be theorized about it should develop as well. I’m drawn to telling stories about it.

            So the rest of this response (because this will be a response blog for awhile) are the stories that I wanted to tell when I read Remediation, taken from my scribbled notes on a long hot flight to Las Vegas.

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