Sunday, 21 January 2007 - 11:43pm

Two Difficult Books Read Last Year

Most people write their 2006 wrap-up shortly after 2006 has ended, where “shortly” refers to a span of a couple days, a week at most.

But I seem to have a different definition of the word “shortly”.

Last year was a timespan for reading much that I hadn’t read before, exposing my brain to academic ideas that tickled it into different directions, said directions leading to applications for science, technology, and society PhD programs. Yet at the same time I was reading more and more experimental fiction, seeing on the page new ways to define old words. Both strands are difficult to follow as the brain has to “work hard” (read: get more glucose) to understand the neoteric when it is constantly surrounded by the conventional.

So, two difficult books read last year that belong to both strands.

We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

This was one of those books where you read it and say, “Wow! That’s exactly how I’ve always felt but unable to put into words!” What Latour does is show that the traditional split in the social sciences between nature and society is non-existent in reality. Sure, we try to effect that divide, to go on acts of “purification” to ensure that there is no mixing of the two realms, but we’re never completely able to do so. And in fact, it’s the artifacts of modernity that show the purposelessness of the divide: things like global warming, new biotechnological drugs, and the so on have as their actors examples from both nature and society.

The title is in reference to the modernist belief in purity, in the assigning of each part of the world to either nature or society. Thus Latour says that in fact we have never been modern, and that we are actually pre-modern.

From my reading of this book by Latour I got into actor-network theory and a new way for me to think about technological artifacts and objects with agency. I can’t overestimate the influence of this book on my current thinking and direction.

The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

I’m a native English speaker, but I had an incredibly difficult time reading this short book by Ben Marcus. Not that the vocabulary used was beyond my own. No, Marcus instead reuses familiar words but in completely unexpected ways. Weather becomes something you eat: humans become observation machines. The diction and syntax are entirely familiar, yet the semantics are entirely novel. Basically it’s a mindfuck, but the best kind. Like when I first read ee cummings in high school and realized that you could write poetry in that way. With Marcus’ collection I realized you could write fiction in that way. Eye-opening in an obfuscating and revelatory way.

Over Christmas break I read his most recent novel, Notable American Women, that is strangely related to the stories in his first collection. For some reason what works on the level of the short story lost some strength over the course of a novel, so I recommend you start with The Age of Wire and String.

What of 2007?

Here’s to more difficult books, more strange ideas, and more crazy ways to think about the world.

Saturday, 13 January 2007 - 9:47pm website updated

If you visit right now you won’t see the Courier-shaped boxes of pixels that existed there for way too many years. Prompted by applications to certain PhD programs I needed to update my web-based portfolio, which had languished in the un-spun quarters of a disused hard drive for far too long. Hence the update and recent hair-pulling experiences of trying to decide on a design, a layout, an image. What’s at right now is not only my portfolio, but also the beginnings of a real personal website. Imagine that.

Behind the scenes, just like with this blog, is WordPress.

Friday, 17 November 2006 - 9:06pm

The Table Childhood

A project I just became aware of today called The Table Childhood

Watch the video to see it in action; it reminds me a lot of the movements of syngvaa. Things to consider: size of an object and its motion towards the viewer, participant. When does this become frightening? Interesting? Relationship of the movement and expectations related to the object’s form? Questions of agency and control?

Wednesday, 18 October 2006 - 3:41pm


A short video documenting the early stages of my latest project, syngvaa.

Hi-res version

More information to come later.

Tuesday, 3 October 2006 - 6:12am

Terminal Air

Tonight I attended a talk at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies entitled Terminal Air, given by Tad, Hirsh, Trevor Paglen, and Andrew Woods. The topic was the extraordinary rendition by the CIA of “terrorist” subjects. Given the recent admission by Bush of the CIA program, the issue has been brought into the wider public’s consciousness. I have followed news stories of the rendition program as much as possible, but the combination of Trevor’s incredibly detailed accounts of fake companies, public (but secret) CIA airports, and civilian-gathered flight path information, combined with Andrew’s first-hand account of working the El Masri v. Tenet case, made for a dual compelling-frightening evening.

Questions and discussion was also quite interesting. Trevor brought up a thought-provoking point about democracy: one of the tenets of democracy is that when the similar reasonable people are given the same evidence, they will come to similar conclusions. His worry is that that is not the case today, and that in fact personal desire for certain facts or conclusions (from across the political spectrum) prevents that tenet from holding anymore. I’m not entirely sure if I agree with him that that is one of the main truths of democracy; but I can see where he is coming from, and the problem that he is referrering to. And if we hold that as a tenet, then indeed we have cause for alarm.

Also, in response to a question about cooperation between the ACLU and other organizations in El Masri v. Tenet, Andrew raised the point that coordination across organization boundaries is still quite difficult. So many groups, so many topics, so many wrongs to right. The problem is evident whenever one attends a protest: no blood for oil is next to stop torture is next to end racism. Indeed, each is an important cause in and of itself, but the centralized coordination of the Administration is, frankly, kicking our ass in this situation. We need to figure out a way to come together, to share resources, to combine our dollars. Indeed, as Andrew mentioned, donating to a non-profit these days is exactly like some sort of progressive market: we give to our pet cause, when the dollars could perhaps be used to better ends if we pooled them with others. Definitely something to think about.

Finally, Tad and Trevor have been working on an interactive project that will allow people to investigate and explore these flights on their own. The project, which looked quite amazing when they showed it tonight, should be made public soon.

Update: See also the new book co-written by Trevor entitled Torture Taxi. I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s anything like the talk he gave, it ought to be quite good.

Monday, 18 September 2006 - 6:17pm

The Demise of Baghdad's Intellectual Street

More pain from Iraq:

Perched on a red chair outside a closet-sized bookshop, the only one open, Naim al-Shatri is nearly in tears. Short, with thin gray hair and dark, brooding eyes, his voice is grim. This is normally his busiest day, but he hasn’t had a single sale. A curfew is approaching.

Soon, his sobs break the stillness. “Is this Iraq?” he asked no one in particular, pointing at the gritty, trash-covered street as the scent of rotting paper and sewage mingled in the air.

It is a question many of the booksellers on Mutanabi Street are asking. Here, in the intellectual ground zero of Baghdad, they are the guardians of a literary tradition that has survived empire and colonialism, monarchy and dictatorship. In the heady days after the U.S.-led invasion, Mutanabi Street pulsed with the promise of freedom.

Now, in the fourth year of war, it is a shadow of its revered past. Many of the original booksellers have been forced to shut down. Others have been arrested, kidnapped or killed, or have fled Iraq. “We are walking with our coffins in our hands,” said Mohammad al-Hayawi, the owner of the Renaissance book store, one of the street’s oldest shops. “Nothing in Iraq is guaranteed anymore.”

Wednesday, 13 September 2006 - 11:51pm

Dunne and Raby: Placebo Project

The work of Dunne and Raby (warning: javascript resize) was some of the first that I came across as I navigated away from straight cognitive science. Shortly after I arrived as a research assistant in the Kanwisher Lab, I attended a lecture by the two of them in the architecture department at MIT. My only experience with academic talks were those of the scientific variety, so to attend a design and art presentation, so shortly after finishing my undergraduate studies, and even though I was extremely interested in this area, was a challenging experience. I had to turn off the internal censor shouting words that were appropriate, but the meaning of which I didn’t yet understand in this new domain: evidence, hypothesis, experiment. Where were they? There were no graphs to guide me; I didn’t know which signposts in their discourse to use as markings of appropriateness. I had yet to engage with these words outside of the “scientific method” and had no way of really evaluating what I had seen and heard. The methods were foreign to one trained entirely in the oft-believed, and appropriately criticized, hypothesis-experiment-results-repeat series of steps.

I left slightly miffed, realizing that I had seen something quite provocative, but still unable to recognize or realize what it was that made it so interesting.

Fast-forward to spring 2005. I’m taking a course at the Media Lab when I return to the work of Dunne and Raby yet again, this time for my ætherspace project and an exploration of “Hertzian Space”. I realized then, as I do now, the importance of our psychological perceptions of the electromagnetic world. Just as it’s relatively immaterial whether or not we are really affected by EM radiation from our objects, if we have the perception that we are, that will radically effect how we interact with these new intruders into our environment. While scientific studies attempt to determine causes and effects, we still must deal how we conceptualize the consequences of regular interactions with objects whose mechanisms most are at a loss to understand.

Fall 2006, and I’m back. Back to the project that brought me to ætherspace, their Placebo Project (link to the de-framed page). This time my concern is agency: what are our conceptions of agency when faced with new computational objects? Here is not the right place to go into the history of this question, but I’ve returned to this work to understand how people understood the mechanisms of the objects in the Placebo Project. Unfortunately, the excellent book that was a result, Design Noir, is currently checked-out at our architecture library, so I cannot quote extensively.

There are some extremely pertinent and interesting things to note. Consider the GPS Table, an item that displays its exact latitude and longitude when it can reach the GPS satellites, and “lost” when it cannot. In the words of one of the people who lived with the table for some time, “I’m not quite sure why I was shocked. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, the poor thing’s lost.’” His choice of words is extremely revealing: calling the table by the pitiful phrase “poor thing” suggests a type of deep connection with the object, for reasons that he is “not quite sure”. So what’s going on here? All we have is a table with a two-line LCD screen, and a human is making an identification with it and using language that might be, in other situations, directed at a living thing (such as an animal). Is it simply that we do not have the language to describe non-animate objects dispassionately? Are we merely grafting onto our discourse means and terms that we would not use if we had another way to describe things? Or is there a consideration of the human by the human but from the point of view of the object? Take our concept of “lost”. For this to have any effect on the person here, he must understand the predicament of the thing “lost”, and to do so, he would have to place himself in the metaphorical “position” of the thing lost. Doing so, he would understand that the response to such a situation is often a desire to help the thing (but usually, a human) that is lost. Here the remedy is simple: place the table in a location that has a line-of-sight to the GPS satellites (simple to say in words, but not so simple to do without a knowledge of wireless communications and propagation paths). But to return to our question: in order for these reasoning steps to occur, the human must already be considering that the table can experience being “lost”, which would require a conception that the table has at least some particularities of “agency” that enables it (the table) to “want” a change in the situation of “lost”.

So even in this situation, with a rather simple electronic object, the human interacting with the object does not objectify it; rather, he identifies with the object’s agency. Yet this agency is not actually “there” in the table itself; there is nothing in the circuitry of the table to give it this ability. No, the “agency” is still only in the mind of the human, but that is no matter; it is this agency which influences the behaviour of the human in this (and other) situations. And since our language is our language, we cannot speculate as to what would have “really” happened if we had other, separate, ways to describe non-animate objects. And we were able to unpack this all from two sentences by the participant!

My goal now is to figure out what about this table made it so wonderful at drawing this sort of response from the participant in the project. I have some ideas, but those will have to wait for another post, I believe.

Thoughts about these ideas and criticisms of my reasoning are greatly appreciated.

Monday, 11 September 2006 - 4:53pm

Art and <em>parrhesia</em>

This fall I plan on taking Interrogative Design, a workshop taught by Krzysztof Wodiczko who is well-known for his artworks that challenge perceptions of space, politics, and society. While only tangentially related to what I’m planning my thesis work to be, it’s directly related to regular concerns of mine.

First class meets tonight; the readings were selections from Michel Foucault’s Fearless Speech as well as Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox.

Foucault’s piece explores the situations where parrhesia, or truth-telling, can take place. Here is not the place to get into the details of his nuanced argument, but suffice it to say that parrhesia occurs a) between two people in a discussion; b) when there is some risk to the truth-teller; and c) when the truth-teller (parrhesiastes) is at a “lower” rank or position than the one receiving the truth. Mouffe, on the other hand, investigates the current nature of liberal democracy, questioning the current desire for agreement and consensus in a plural society, suggesting that instead of such a situation being desirable, it instead reflects the dangers that liberal democracy is supposed to lead us away from. Her contention is that by focusing on agreement rather than reasonable disagreement we silence the plurality of voices that most liberals would accept as necessary to the healthy functioning of society.

My responses this week focused more on the Foucault reading rather than the Mouffe (although her piece provided much to think about). What are the conditions that allow for parrhesia in art? Below you can see the (albeit small!) bit that I wrote about this issue, suggesting that we need a different way to think about truth-telling in art given the fundamental difference between the agents/non-agents in the discourse.

Given the pains that Foucault goes to to define what parrhesia is and what it is not, I question whether the term can be applied to what we consider art. As a word referring to particular type of interaction, it would seem to be limited to speaking processes, actions to which art oftentimes sets itself in opposition. The process involves one human speaking to another; while their discussion might concern objects, the interaction is between embodied agents and not between an agent and an object. Yet art is about both process and object, and whether we consider the stationary thing or moveable process, I find it difficult to shoehorn this into the parrhesiatic definition. Even if we consider parrhesia as a concept and extend it to experiences with non-animate objects, I still challenge whether that is parrhesia. Foucault writes that parrhesia is “a technique which deals with individual cases, specific situations, and the choice of the kairos or decisive moment.” [p. 111] Since our experience of art is that of a person observing/interacting with/considering an object (excluding performance art for the moment), it seems to lack the specificity of the kairos, given that the object cannot know about the desires or personality of the person observing it.

Where this becomes interesting is when the artist is with the object, or when the artist is the object. In those cases the chance for parrhesia is present, as the artist can deal with the “individual cases” and “specific situations” that are natural in face-to-face experience.

(The technologist in me suggests that perhaps we will be able to develop objects that can deal with certain cases and provide individual truth-telling situations, but even so, it likelly will not be to the level of complexity that Foucault explores.)

Not that the concept of truth-telling through art is impossible; in fact, I would consider it to be an incredibly important guiding principle. Yet it seems to desire a different name. While this might appear as a simple semantic concern, the fact that parrhesia demands the interaction between two people, while art often is between people and object, suggests to me a fundamental conceptual difference. I would be quite interested in exploring the possibilities of truth-telling when one part of the dyad is an inanimate thing.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006 - 7:39pm

Where our techno-future is taking us

From the New York Times: There’s Money in Dirt, for Those Who Find Bits of Silicon

Sifting black earth inside her hole, 14-year-old Nurzada Meerim admits to breathing problems. “But here is money,” she said, holding up a crinkled silver flake.

Across a vast landfill just outside this tiny farming town in eastern Kyrgyzstan, the heads of girls continually pop up from narrowly constructed 10-foot shafts. Mothers and other female relatives wait on the rim, hands outstretched to take the flakes and gnarled pebbles of silicon that the girls have retrieved from the soil. There are some men, too, and they bark threats to outsiders who walk past their holes.

The landfill covers the garbage cast off from a shuttered factory that produced mostly trinkets and souvenirs from silicon-bearing rock, as well as waste sent from a nearby Soviet-era uranium mine. Flattened plastic bottles carpet the area.

It is China’s rapidly expanding computer chip industry that is fueling the rush for Orlovka silicon, which is sold by middlemen in the bazaars to Chinese traders in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

I’m not entirely sure why, but I find this article (and the accompanying photograph) profoundly depressing. Our production and consumption habits, exported to the rest of the world, are partly responsible for these sorts of practices. It makes me want to stop working with technology that involves computer chips (unfortunately we cannot turn back time), or, on the other hand, work to reduce the amount that we rely on things with chips in them (extremely difficult in our cultural and business environment), or move to a different field of study that doesn’t contribute to this “need” (which is simply running away).

There are no good options.

Friday, 11 August 2006 - 6:36pm

More from Serres and Latour---The Inevitability of our Power

M. Serres. Conversations on science, culture, and time / Michel Serres with Bruno Latour. University of Michigan Press, 1995.

From now on we are sterring things that, in the past, we didn’t steer. In dominating the planet, we become accountable for it. In manipulating death, life, reproduction, the normal and the pathological, we become responsible for them. We are going to have to decide about every thing, and even about Everything—about the physical and thermodynamic future, about Darwinian evolution, about life, about the Earth and about time, about filtering possibilities—candidates to be evaluated for becoming realities—a process Leibniz described as characterizing the work of God the creator, in the secret of his infinite understanding.

Thus, we are going to need a prodigious knowledge, sharpened in every detail, harmonious in its broad workings, and a sovereign wisdom—clear-sighted regarding the present and prudent regarding the future. Is this divinity?

For the world suddenly seems to place itself under the workings or the competence of our collective laws. We used to have a hard time conceiving of the existence of objective laws, independent of our human and political laws. Today these objective laws return and are part of the rules of the city. Will the Earth depend upon the city?—with the physical world depend upon the political world?

The lives and actions of our children soon will be conditioned, in fact, by an Earth that we will have programmed, decided upon, produced, and modeled. Thus, we find the consequences of our conquests weighing on our shoulders, as conditions of our future decisions. A new kind of feedback—no doubt the result of our global powers—turns practical action inside-out, like the finger of a glove. In the future, we will live only under the conditions that we will have produced in this era. (p. 173, emphasis in original)

I’ve been convinced of this for some time now, but unable to put it in as eloquent terms as Serres above. We are beginning to witness (where “beginning” exists on a time frame of decades) our ability to control our destiny as humans, from the time of the atomic bomb (the starting point for Serres) to our present digital and biological abilities. The section from which this quote comes is an extended discourse on wisdom and morality—how our ability to control “Everything” requires us to define and create a new morality. No longer can we hearken back to religion to placate ourselves when things go wrong. We must recognize our power of control, which requires us to create reigns on what we do. With power comes the need to temper that power.

This is represented in some ways in work at the lab, where we make things because we have the ability to do so. It’s perhaps done more insidiously in other departments at MIT, and elsewhere, where people create technologies whose main purpose is destruction, just because it can be done. We can’t do that anymore. We have to recognize our power, limited as it is in relation to omnipotence, powerful as it is in relation to our scientific and technological abilities of just a few decades ago.

Elsewhere Serres speaks of the new “troubadour of knowledge”, the person who realizes that “there is as much rigor in a myth or a work of literature as in a theorem or an experiment and, inversely, as much myth in these as in literature.” (p. 183) I agree with him that we all must cross unnecessary boundaries, live in the hinterlands, realize the overlapping reality of disciplines, if we are to understand the most pressing issues of the day and prevent future calamities.

I’ve always been someone interested in many things, with the hopeful desire of achieving some synthesis amongst them, and in Serres’ discussion with Latour I’ve now read an enabling motivation for why this is necessary.