via Flickr http://flic.kr/p/zydiLU
via Flickr http://flic.kr/p/uN4Prr
After looking through a few LiDAR and Landsat image databases, it became clear that what I really wanted wa the compexity of a contour map, so I’ve decamped to a PC lab to work on QGIS today. It’s really good and actually quite simple to use – maps can be exported to PDF format and then wrangled into shape using Illustrator. (Life would be considerably simpler if the combination of QGIS, Illustrator, After Effects, and Mac Pro could all be found in the same location.)
Alongside this, I’ve been watching the tweets roll by from the Data Power conference up the road at Cutler’s Hall. There have been a lot of interesting sources linked and I’ve been sifting through them while things have been rendering and saving. As a result, I now have a lot of Sage journal RSS feeds in my inbox which can only be good.
Had a good meeting with Piotr in which I learned a lot about microscopes. There are a few options that might be useful to gather the images I need. The optical microscope looks like it might be the better option, despite having the lowest zoom capacity. It’ll take an object and the angle of the thing can be carefully managed and altered. There is a possibility of getting depth of field, and it uses visible light wavelengths. There are other options including the SEM, TEM, and atomic force microscope that offer much higher levels of detail and zoom. These can produce topographies of a surface in 3D, at atomic levels. Wow.
We’ll need to get a small piece of screen to zoom into but I’m much more keen on getting an actual broken phone. The images need to be identifiable as that particular object so I am not so keen on breaking it up into bits… but I still need to have a think about what this type of imaging might be able to offer me. I can see possibilities, mainly to do with the upcoming book project rather than the Park Hill piece that I had initially intended it for. Gathering images is always a good thing and if it only takes an hour then that will be an hour well spent.
I’ve spent the week working on the piece for the Park Hill show. I’ve been in the labs working on After Effects, and I’ve found it to be a good experience getting out of the studio and into the labs. There’s less distraction. I’ve tracked the pinch-to-zoom gesture by hand from 2mins of footage, and am now trying to figure out what the background image could be. It could be map, or it could be microscope, or it could be satellite image, or it could be illustration. For satellite image, I’m looking through LiDAR and Landsat images that are freely available from USGS. For microscope, I’m meeting the Controller of Microscopes tomorrow. I did a test with a vector grid drawn in Illustrator, and it wasn’t so successful – this might need more work. I’m also looking at 3D modelling approaches, using points gathered from multiple photographs, and from other ways of generating landscape-style vector tesselations.
It’s curious that at the first opportunity, my instinct is to move toward maps, cartography, landscape, GIS, etc. It was there in the Epicentres book and it’s there in a lot of the work from Norway. Landscape coming back to haunt me, this time as data.
Session 1 – Invisible Design
Deyan Sudjic introduces. He mentions a number of names for the thing being discussed: invisible design, or anonymous design. Anonymous because it is multiply authored, and because it doesn’t carry the ego of the designer. Invisible because it’s ubiquitous, familiar, and disappears into the background. Eg, qwerty keyboard. Mention of Kerouac’s working with a single, long sheet of manuscript when writing On The Road on the road; I read this as working outside of the typewriter’s affordances.
Working for A2 type, has collaborated with Margaret Calvert on three projects, under discussion today.
First, the New Railway typeface that extends the face already in use in BR, NHS and other gov contexts and makes it digitally usable. The end result takes up a bit less space on the page than Helvetica Neue.
Second, New Transport (similar to GDS Transport). Designed because of Gov.uk. Beautiful reinvention of the original Transport typeface, with lovely attention to detail: “ink traps at small junctions” =
Moscow Metro, typeface and pictograms. Unconcerned by ethical worries, worked on the faces for a UK based design contractor.
Ben Terrett, GDS
Spoke engagingly about gov.uk. Closed 1700 websites, and amalgamated the remaining 300 into one site. The design process takes into account the history of government communications: WW2 was the first time that governments needed to speak to a lot of people at once, and the simplicity of the design decisions was taken on board. Later, government communications became more branded, more “campaign shaped”, more about persuasion than information. The traffic metaphor (web traffic/road traffic) led to a confluence with the Transport typeface. Also, building on Margaret & Jock’s thorough usability testing: the research had already been done that proved this was a rock-solid typeface for information delivery in a clear fashion.
This design is not invisible, but it is boring. But the emphasis here is on moving from a mode of communication that is less about persuasion and more about usability: people stay with usable communications longer.
Working for the family business, David Mellor design. The emphasis of the company was on “changing people’s lives through good design”, for example producing “cutlery for the masses”. Showed some fab examples of post-war street furniture designed by the company: modular bus shelters, “street signalling system” (traffic lights), “lighting columns” (lampposts). He kept mentioning the idea of service: “public service through good design”. The ideological underpinning of this everyday mundane design work is utopian, and somehow noble. It feels, though, like this is at odds with Toffler’s demassification and is inherently modernist in its thinking.
In my view, the invisible design here is about making the ideology embodied in the design invisible.
Henrik described the need to seek out invisible design during quiet moments.
Deyan describes the characteristics of invisibility: frictionless, where you don’t notice the seams, and ‘less is more’ modernism. Efficiency as an underlying ideological framework for all of this went unquestioned, to the extent that Deyan described a Kalashnikov as “good” design. Good does not mean morally uplifting in his view – does this mean that he condones morally reprehensible yet efficient design? Dark patterns? Manipulation? I personally had a hard time getting to grips with how uncritical this whole discussion became.
Session 2 – New Maker Economy
A survey of maker spaces in the UK. The headlines are that they are hard to pin down, keep popping up and disappearing again, and this is because they operate on very thin margins. The most popular reason for people’s participation is to socialise. Direct digital manufacturing will be the big scale-up for this but will not create a ton of jobs.
Paul Beech – Pimoroni
Great outline of how the business could grow really quickly because of new technological advances.
Jessi Baker – Provenance
The first female speaker, half-way through the day, hooray! Very interesting ideas about how decentralisation can and will affect the supply chain of material products.
1. Distributed manufacturing and design.
Where things are made matters to customers. Village industries weren’t viable during the ‘mass production’ era but soon will be again.
2. Sharing economy to circular economy
Every material is grown or mined. The linear model of grow/mine, make, use, dispose of is flawed and not sustainable. We share stuff as well as data: people time-share dresses, or other things: no one customer owns the product. Is this a way forward? Time-share everything?
3. Powerful decentralised computing.
This is where it gets interesting. The front end of the internet is decentralised, but the back end is very centralised, in google/facebook/twitter’s servers. This centralisation creates vulnerability: single point of control, single point of failure, bottleneck. Bitcoin allows the transfer of units of value between people, with no central bank or intermediary that stores that transaction. Blockchain can be used for the secure transfer of value that isn’t just monetary value.
Provenance.org uses blockchain to show product info, as a way of guaranteeing authenticity securely. The stories behind the products become a selling point, a store of value. They use NFC chips.
Andy Altman, Why Not?
A good run down of the comedy carpet project, which was entertaining to watch.
Danny Antrobus – Better with Data
A good outline of what work has been done with the better with data project in regard to air quality in Sheffield. There are some shortcomings he outlined in the strategy but the main points were that they are working on it.
Some artists were commissioned to use the data, and seeing data as culture is a bg way of starting to get a design audience to think about data.
Kingsley Ash did a sonification of the data; Kasia (?) did a piece that measured exhaled breath for pollutants alongside the actual readings for the city, and Stefanie Povasec did a piece with etched glasses that obscured vision in line with pollutant levels.
Some useful data sources:
British Council Residency Presentations
Most interesting here was Jane Hall from Assemble. Her research project into Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi spawned a whole new body of work and has led to her current PhD study. A welcome reminder that architecture is a social practice, and is that first and foremost. I also took a lot from the visual quality of her presentation: it was the best designed set of slides of the day, and the film she produced in Brazil is a great way of making research visible. I should learn from this.
Made You Look
A screening of this new film about analogue design processes in digital times. It was enjoyable, but the key takeaway for me was this: the personal characteristics that an auratic object becomes imbued with are indicative of a private relationship with the maker. One of the talking heads in the film from the London Print Club spoke about how a particular designer’s £800 prints had muck from the designer’s cakey fingers on the back. This is real value, because it offers real proximity. That’s what people are buying when they buy a hand-made artwork: a tactile, permanent object that offers an aesthetic experience for sure, but also a sense of proximity, of private interaction, with the producer. There is definitely something in the private nature of that interaction that I think is important.
Review in brief:
A nice day out, but more diversity among the panellists next time please!
I spent today working out how to get data from the Twitter and Instagram APIs into Processing. It wasn’t easy, but it’s done and I have a nice thing that has been grabbing Instagrams tagged #selfie and combining them with tweets that contain #myself, example shown above.
It’s been such a slog that it’s actually hard to write up. The twitter bit was done beginning with Jer Thorp’s code example here, and making some changes to the twitter4j import. At the bottom of that blog post there are a few important tips, and you should change the following in that code:
In her report from the QS conference in 2012, Whitney Erin Boesel talks about how different types of knowledge become privileged through QS-style self-monitoring. Larry Smarr (also mentioned in Luke Dormehl’s chapter on QS, p7) measured himself and discovered from the data that he was unwell when he actually felt fine.
“Doctors should be asking, ‘What are your numbers?’ not ‘How do you feel?’” Smarr said. “The idea that you can feel what is going on with you is so epistemologically incorrect.”
However, there is also a sense that QS data gathering leads to a greater awareness – or even mindfulness. Some examples are mentioned in the article, but the key quote is from a fellow conference attendee who claims that the major benefits of QS came from the awareness rather than poring over the data in and of itself. (I’m reminded of pplkpr.com again here.)
Another panel mentioned how self-tracking had actually improved a particular respondent’s intuition/awareness of her ovulation, but that the technology used to measure this (predictor sticks) often contradicted her. Later ultra-sounds proved her to be correct.
Her problem then was not that technology (the stick) had weakened her intuition, but that technology “interfered with [her] ability to communicate with the clinic.” Put simply, the stick spoke more loudly than she could—and as a result, the quantified self-knowledge she produced by using the stick disempowered rather than empowered her in her relationship with the clinicians.
The conclusion here is that qualitative or observational data is seen as less trustworthy or valuable than quantitative or machine-acquired data. If, as Andrejevic suggests, we consider that the truth is out there in the data because representations are unreliable, then does this mean we are unwilling to trust our own intuition/awareness/mindfulness for the same reasons?
I’m wondering whether this is to do with a kind of instability inherent in a conception of self that’s constructed around disciplinary models set up by the state or by corporations. If we construct our subjectivities through consumerism, or through the acquisition and broadcasting of cultural capital, then these subjectivities are built around sets of representations in a symbolic system that Andrejevic, following Zizek, suggests is under threat from a demise of the efficiency of those symbols. We construct our selves from representations we know to be contestable, flawed, untrue; perhaps this is why we prefer to believe machinic data gathering systems rather than ourselves.
Boesel discusses some of the mechanics behind parts of this in her piece on Spotification. Her crankiness about not being able to share her listening history is really cleverly analysed here. Labelling this as “documentary frustration”, she describes it as:
like Jurgenson’s “documentary vision” plus Jenny Davis’s“fear of being missed” [or FoBM] all rolled up into one, combined (of course) with a little tongue-in-cheek metavexation over the fact that I care in the first place. But it’s true: somehow, at some point over those first four months of Spotification, I became the kind of person who’s bothered more by the idea of not being able to broadcast my listening habits (when I want to do so) than by the idea of my listening habits being broadcast (when I don’t want them to be). It’s still true now, and that still strikes me as somewhat strange.
She goes on to discuss her shift toward new kinds of visibility that come with developing a research profile – something I identify with fully and find a particularly difficult part of the PhD academic training experience.
Slowly but surely, I’m acclimating not only to the process of becoming more visible generally, but also to new kinds of visibility; I’ve also learned to see potential social- and cultural capital in a lot more places, and to see my failures to engage with those potentials as “losses.” Academic Twitter, for instance, started out as a lifeline; now I recognize it as something I should be making time for even though I have other sources of intellectual and social support, because it’s an important part not just of my job as a public sociologist, but also of my professional development. This is not, of course, to say that I’ve jumped on the ‘Look At Me’ paradigm of Mandatory Visibility for All bandwagon, because nothing could be further from the truth; it’s important to note that I’ve chosen the contexts in which I’ve become more visible, that I’ve done so more-or-less on my own terms, and that while some of my choices have undoubtedly been influenced by the affordances of the apps that I use, I have not been unaware of those influences.
I’m still working on that one, but I’m hopeful I’ll get there.
I didn’t make many notes during Ashkan’s performance lecture, but this is the session that has stayed with me. He opened by showing three music videos, which I’ll need to wait for the documentation to properly cite. The first was a house music track that used a huge amount of 1990s iconography, but mixed these with post internet tropes (pot plant, MPEG glitches). The second was a more minimal electronic composition with fast scrolling digital text which appeared to be slogans from, perhaps, NASDAQ companies. The language of these was all about achievement, winning, and so on – the language of neoliberalised individualised success.
The third video was an extremely fast-cut edit that vacillated between the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders lip-syncing Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and servicemen doing the same identical poses in their military compound in Kandahar. This created a stroboscopic effect that made the two images mix in the eye of the viewer. Texts were overlaid on this imagery, such as “against solitude”, “body discipline”. The piece is the strongest visual memory I have of the conference. (My notes say simply: “super-interesting video, look it up”).
His reading was accompanied by a slideshow of images of good-looking, predominately white couples sourced from what looked like a tropical resort’s wedding catalogue, and US soldiers in their desert headquarters, some sourced from the video. The reading was very poetic and moved through a sci-fi scenario into a future of non-corporeal, corporatized sex, and ended with a showing of Latour’s “People are still having sex” video.
This overran so questions were deferred in favour of moving straight on to a screening of Harun Farocki’s Serious Games.
In her introduction, Erika Balsom invoked Baudrillard’s claims that the (first) Gulf War did not happen and used this as a tool with which to understand Farocki’s work. Baudrilard’s claim comes from his experience of the war as totally mediatised, existing only in image form and that the images themselves were heavily controlled and edited, stripped of their violence. The actual war is both absent and hyper-visible in Farocki’s work.
Made in 2009-10, six years into the second gulf war, the piece was shot in US military training centres in California. VR and CGI are used in both training and in rehab, and the work stages and explores the relationship between war, technology and image. Baudrillard’s privileged position of a French intellectual watching TV might account for his distance from the violence of the war; it’s a spectacle for him, but not for everyone. In Farocki’s piece however, the absence of violence is a structuring device and may be an ethical position.
The spaces depicted in the training and rehab VR spaces are highly choreographed. The training scenarios are totally plannable and controllable, schematic and sanitised. They enact a fantasy of mastery over the actual circumstance of war through technology. In reality, it’s impossible to remove all contingency as these simulations do.
The work uses the phrase “asymmetrical images” in relation to “asymmetrical wars”, as both a way of talking about power, and of unbalanced subject/object relations. “The world grasped as a picture offers both more and less than the real: more control, and less contingency”.
The panel at the end of day two seemed like a hard one to run, as the presentations seemed quite difficult to draw together into a single set of themes. Editing arose as a potential entry point, with Hito Steyerl discussing “the whatever cut”, of just throwing anything into an edit in order to generate the desired affect. She also tried to posit the idea of a game-oriented social prototype that might replace actual conflict.
Eleanor Saitta mentioned “dark patterns”, design strategies that are produced in order to manipulate the user in ways that aren’t in their interests. (I’ve read about these before, to do with adding things to shopping baskets by default and other slightly dodgy practices in interface design).
A more interesting idea emerged with the discussion of “animation”. Arising from Harocki’s piece, it was discussed in terms of its meaning as “bringing to life”. This ties into the things mentioned in that Ilana Gershon article in Social Media & Society. There was later a mention of the idea of “animation verité”: animation with a truth claim. This was prompted by a question about how oculus rift models and primitives are increasingly drawn from photographs – expanded into 3D from multiple images. How does this differ from the real, if it’s entirely sourced from the real?
There was also a mention of Lazzarato’s Signs & Machines, which I think I need to add to my reading list.
This was one of the more awkward sessions of the conference, in which Tony Prescott from Sheffield Robotics presented on his work and research. Coming from psychology as a disciplinary source point, he produces robots in order to explore psychological questions, in order to analyse and mimic human behaviour.
The first thing showed was documentation of a robot that senses using whiskers, in the same way a rat would, and set the stage for a discussion of bio-mimetic robots. There was then a frankly rather weird “play” which was designed to make us think about whether we would mourn a robot pet; a robot seal was ceremonially clubbed offstage to comedy soundtrack, and a robot which unconvincingly pulled emotive facial expressions delivered a eulogy.
The meat in the presentation emerged with a discussion of the theories of self that Prescott works with as steerage to his inquiry. Starting with Descartes, he tracked a history of theories of self, through Hume, Locke, Buddhism, and on to his own view that considers self as a process. Why are we not aware of our own “self-process”?
He showed some documentation of the “rubber hand experiment”, which shows how tools can be considered as part of the body and an extension of the body. I stopped making notes at this time, because I felt that his approach to things was hugely reductive of the potential for humanness. He seemed to be precisely the sort of scientist that Judy Wajcman was railing against in her talk the day before.
In the Q&A, one person asked about the potential for irrationality (and this made me think of Damasio’s discovery about irrationality in decision making) and Prescott claimed that it would be easy to make a robot behave irrationally. This seems wrong to me: I don’t think he was making an adequate distinction between randomness and irrationality. It’s easy to make a robot behave in ways that might appear to be irrational, but in my book, irrationality suggests that unconscious or pre-conscious processes need to be present. I was left waiting for a more comprehensive take-down from a sociological perspective – which never came.
Saitta’s presentation, The Aesthetic as a Proper Superset of Evaluatory Modes, was super-dense and I found a lot of the ideas in it to be quite hard to make sense of. I strongly suspect I have misunderstood her, so this is written with a degree of caution.
Her approach seemed to reduce everything in the world to a mode of either systems, stories, or bodies, or mixes of these. She called on Keller Easterling’s idea of disposition to make sense of these. Disposition is not a concept I am familiar with, and her description of it as a modality of a system’s behaviour over time made sense but somehow felt incomplete.
She spoke briefly about disposition of systems, then about disposition of narratives. Her main point seemed to be: “if it looks right, it flies right”. By absorbing oneself in the details of a system, a certain sense of what a good example of that system might be can be arrived at: a good ethical solution is likely to be beautiful, as is a good coding solution. A lot of digital art is pretty on the surface but not at a systems level.
She then showed some paintings that seemed to be an attempt to visualise these aesthetic approaches, and some interactive “anti/social lights” that made me cringe in how she described them: “it’s interesting watching how people interact with this”. The lights had been programmed with behaviours that made them light up differently depending on their proximity to other lights; some liked company, some liked distance. She described as “interesting” the process of watching the audience figure out these systemic relationships – which just reminded me of all that terrible interactive art in the 1990s where you needed signs saying “PRESS HERE” and so on in order to get an audience to engage with it. Surely by her own admission, the best interactive system is the most beautiful, and the most beautiful in the gallery context is arguably the most frictionless and accessible to an audience. She did frame this in terms of the epistemological value of play, which raised the question of subjective tacit knowing vs quantitative objective knowing. Her examples seemed to be on the wrong side of this divide to support her argument: making an audience move toward the latter rather than acknowledging their prior acquisition of the former.
This promised to be a very useful session about the problem of time and the internet. I bought her book, so can go through her thesis in much more detail, but she outlined the main thrust of it in her talk.
Her book is about the growing body of literature about the sense that life is speeding up and that we are becoming overwhelmed by technology’s demands on our time. From accelerationism and onwards, there is a lot of theory suggesting that we are entering a new temporality. Industrial time was linear, and was measured by the clock; contemporary time is simultaneous, instantaneous. Speed is the condition of these times. Much of this body of theory is technologically determinist.
There are a few paradoxes in this theory of time: if technology saves time, why do we feel so busy and stressed out? We blame technology, and then turn to it to solve the problem for us. Or, we decide to go off-grid to reclaim our IRL life. She used the example of the New Forest Tech Creche, a place you can lock your phone into so you aren’t disturbed in a national park. This is obviously a duff solution: the problem is a cultural one not a technical one. In sociology, and in science & tech studies, technology is seen as crystallised social relations.
It’s worth remembering that people said the same kind of things about older technologies, such as the railways, telegraph etc. What’s different about now? Remember too that newer technologies are embedded in older technologies: phones, electricity etc.
People FEEL more rushed, more hectic, but there is data that suggests that the demands on our time are no more insidious than they were during the twentieth century. Leisure time is mostly consistent over the last 50 years. Therefore the feeling of being rushed is about the character of time – it’s subjective. The narrative of acceleration is too one sided and too technologically determinist: daily life is about multiple temporalities. For example, “quality time”: parents are actually spending more quality time with their kids than ever before (no data offered on this, hope it’s in the book!).
Why are smartphones so ubiquitous? They fit into a deroutinised society. In post-Fordist work patterns, we need to synchronise our own meetings etc; scheduling is the problem, as this takes time. Taking the example of email as a touchstone of the feeling of being overwhelmed: email is asynchronous, and the pile-up of items while we’re doing other things makes it feel overwhelming even if the workload is comparatively small. Business policies, like ‘out of office = deletion” messages have been used, aren’t that good a solution.
We need to be more discriminating about what technologies we have. We need to actively engage in processes of innovation and technological change. (No ideas on how though.) We need to question the cultural association that connects speed and value. Fast currently means good: should speed be the rationale for innovation? Algorithms reflect the values and assumptions of the culture creating them.
Innovation should mean the challenging of prevailing discourses. This is an issue with big data at the moment: we gather the data, then figure out what we can use it for. This is a political act. We should do it the other way round.
Social media companies are engineering companies, and have limited diversity in their workforces. They reproduce assumptions of that particular cultural group (a theme picked up in a later discussion about the feminised labour carried out by Siri/Cortana). These companies have very conservative views of the future. They are not progressive and usually solidify and confirm the status quo. Judy concluded by broadly advocating progressive politics by private tech companies.
The Q&A opened up some further points for discussion. The rhythms of daily life were mentioned in the discussion, as well as their gendering. The overall impression was that wider sociology seems to have quite a 20th C perspective on things.
Olia Lialina in conversation with Karen Archey
Karen had pulled together a PPT that allowed Olia to talk through some of the major themes in her work. Olia’s work in the 1990s was about mixing cyber-ideologies and net.language. Net.art was in part about revealing material infrastructure, something that I feel persists in a lot of contemporary work. This was quite an informally structured session, and some of the bullet point themes emerging from it are to do with speed and slowness. Lialina chokes the bandwidth on her server so that works from 1996 are downloaded at 1996-like speeds. She also spoke of how screenshots of the work seem “more alive” to her now than the works themselves.
Her more recent projects have been about the preservation of digital folklore, specifically the user culture of Geocities. These websites were built “before the internet became a mass medium”, although I take issue with this in relation to Toffler’s idea of “demassification”.
One of the more interesting slides of hers described a paradigm of user interface design from the 1990s that was designed to make the computer invisible. In UX design terms,
Computer => Technology Interface => Experience Users => People
By not using the word “users”, social media companies began a process of creating frictionless experiences that obscure the infrastructure of the internet. When computers become invisible, the political paradigms that they are constructed around become embedded, non-contestable, invisible too.
Hito Steyerl chaired this session, and framed the discussion firstly around the history that ran parallel to the developments under discussion: the fragmentation of the USSR and Yugoslavia, the Gulf war, 9/11, the second Gulf War, Snowden. She also prompted the panel to discuss the issue of latency.
In Bitnik’s work, latency is in the latent potential of the black box, in the Assange piece. In Lialina’s, it’s in the websites that were never completed.
Wajcman described latency as to do with the speed that data moves at. She used the example of high-speed financial trading, where data moves faster than humans can perceive, and therefore algorithms are now doing the trading.
There was a discussion then about labour conditions, a theme that kept returning throughout the conference. HS described being an artist as a specific example of labour, one that is mostly freelanced and where units of work are parcelled out in identifiable bunches. She also began to talk about territorialisation: where objects are sited is one of their most problematic properties. This is of interest to Bitnik. Are immaterial artworks deterritorialised? What’s the legal ownership status of digital resources?
There was then a question about what FOMO meant to each of the panel. After some charming confusion they all gave their answer. Karen Archey’s answer was most compelling: fear of not having your voice heard.