I’m really excited about the course I’m teaching this semester. DIKULT303: Digital Media Aesthetics is a graduate seminar with a topic that changes from year to year, and this year it will be about machine vision, my current obsession, and a topic I think is going to be immensely important over the next decades. The key question is: What happens to our understanding of the world when we no longer primarily rely on human perception but use machines and algorithms to sense our surroundings? We’ll be reading theory, learning about the history of visual technologies, and exploring digital art, literature, apps and games that engage with the question of machine vision.
UiB is switching to a self-hosted Canvas installation as an LMS, and I’ve been enjoying figuring out good ways to use it to craft a course design where learning activities, learning outcomes and assessment are well integrated. So if you’re curious, you can look at the syllabus or the modules to see how the course is structured. This lets you see the individual assignments, readings and lecture topics.
DIKULT303 is an MA level course primarily for students of Digital Culture at UiB, but also welcoming exchange students and MA- or PhD-level students from other programs at UiB. If you are interested in taking the course, sign up at Studentweb if you are a Digital Culture MA program, or email email@example.com if you are in a different program.
But you may be wondering what I even mean by machine vision? Here is a short introduction to the course topic.
We will begin the semester by learning about the history of visual technologies. We will visit the Maritime Museum to learn how vikings navigated by the stars and the sun even when they couldn’t see them, and how to use a sextant. We will learn about perspective in painting, camera obscuras, kaleidoscopes and early photography. We will discuss Rodin’s objection to the speed of the camera, and learn about the development of both photography and computers were to a great extent driven by a desire to identify each member of the population. We will discuss whether Google Street View or satellite images of the world change the way we see our surroundings. We’ll try out VR using Google Cardboard, and will discuss the theories of the New Aesthetic, reading work by Virilio, Uricchio, and others.
This is an example of a video showing us something that we cannot see without technology. It’s actually not a recording, but an animation based on scientific studies of the brain, first published at Art of the Cell, a medical animation company, but since reposted many places and often with the following text: “This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness.”
Part of the reason this image appeals to us is the anthropomorphic strut of that myosin – and the words that go with this image. “This is what happiness really looks like.” What do we mean by that? What it really looks like?
Consider the first photographs of an unborn child, popularised in the 1960s by Lennart Nilsson’s still popular book, A Child is Born. The photo below is a slightly updated version of one published in Life Magazine in April 1965 (This issue was digitized by Google Books so you can look at the cover here, and scroll through to page 54 for the whole story). To me, the child looks like a traveler in space, the specks like stars against the black of space. I immediate thought of the photos of the Earth, thinking they were taken about the same time, but of course, the iconic Blue Marble photo of Earth wasn’t taken until 1972.
Is this what an unborn child, or the Earth, really look like?
Leafing (well, scrolling digitally) through the issue of Life where Lennart Nilsson’s photos were published, I notice the spherical shape is repeated. First, on the page immediately after the section on the in-utero photographs, there is an ad for a car, where a fisheye view of what can be seen from the back seat of the car is shown, bright blue on a black background.
Then on page 83, which is a full page ad for Hughes and Comsat, showing a new satellite that will enable live trans-Atlantic telecasts and phonecalls. A globe is shown in the ad. Not a photograph of the Earth itself, because no photograph of the whole Earth yet existed. There seems to be a desire, though, for photographs of spheres floating in space.
The spherical image in the Ford ad was clearly taken with a fisheye lens (Links to an external site.). Fisheye lenses weren’t mass-produced for photography until the early 1960s – so just before this issue of Life was published. Nilsson used fisheye and wide-angle lenses both for his photography inside the body and for other photographs. And he even presented images actually taken outside of the body – like that of a foetus taken from the womb of a woman who was killed in a traffic accident – as though they were taken with wide-angle lenses.
Read more about this:
Jülich, Solveig. 2015. Lennart Nilsson’s Fish-Eyes: A Photographic and Cultural History of Views from Below, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History (Links to an external site.), 84:2, 75-92, DOI: 10.1080/00233609.2015.1031695
(You will have to either be on the UiB network or use a VPN to access the article.)
Over the last year or so I’ve moved from reading mainstream news articles about media addiction to reading science fiction: I want to see how we imagine our relationship to technology. One of the biggest surprises, for me, was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the classic about a society where books are illegal and television keeps people docile. Of course I had read it before, but a long time ago, well before I really knew about the internet. Rereading it today left me feeling very differently about the book than I had thought I would. Bradbury doesn’t want a world full of writers and creators and independent thinkers. He wants a world of readers.
Beware, there are spoilers in this post. But then, you probably read the book already, didn’t you? A long time ago?
The story, you’ll remember, is about Guy Montag, a fireman in a future where houses are fireproof and the only fires are lit by firemen in order to burn books. But what really interests me, as I reread the book, is the ways in which books and television are portrayed.
Television has evolved into a 3D immersive experience, where the viewer is given a role to play in the story. Mildred, Montag’s wife, has screens covering three of the four walls of their living room, and wants a fourth screen: “why, it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms.” The way Bradbury describes this immersive VR does not leave Mildred a lot of agency, as a player in the holodeck would have. It’s more like the Flicksync tests in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the player has to mimic a character’s lines perfectly in order to pass the test. Mildred’s lines are not very complex, though:
“What’s on this afternoon?” he asked tiredly.
She didn’t look up from her script again. “Well, this is a play comes on the wall-to-wall circuit in ten minutes. They mailed me my part this morning. I sent in some box-tops. They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The home-maker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, ‘What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?’ and he looks at me sitting here, centre stage, see? And I say, I say–” She paused and ran her finger under a line in the script. “‘I think that’s fine!’ And then they go on with the play until he says, ‘Do you agree to that, Helen?’ and I say, ‘I sure do!’ Isn’t that fun, Guy?” (pages 27-28)
Mildred loves her shows, and listens to them even at night. This scene very strongly emphasises the way Montag sees her as a corpse when she is immersed in her media. In this scene, he comes home late at night and imagines how he will see his wife in bed, listening to her stories.
He opened the bedroom door.It was like coming into the cold marbled room of a mausoleum after the moon had set. Complete darkness, not a hint of the silver world outside, the windows tightly shut, the chamber a tomb-world where no sound from the great city could penetrate. The room was not empty.(..)Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.The room was cold but nonetheless he felt he could not breathe. He did not wish to open the curtains and open the french windows, for he did not want the moon to come into the room. (pages 19-20)
He has still not turned the light on, thought. This is all his imagination. When he finally lights his lighter (not wanting outside light from the windows) he realises she is barely breathing and has taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills. The next morning she remembers nothing of the suicide attempt.
In this world, people stopped reading books before they were banned. Bradbury, in the voice of the chief fireman Beatty, blames it on the invention of photography and then radio and television and a world that wanted everything faster: “Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.” (61) In a lengthy lecture to Montag, while Montag lies in bed, attempting to hide contraband books under his pillow, Beatty describes Buzzfeed and clickbait:
He follows up with condemning minorities:
The problem isn’t really the loss of books. It’s the trivialization of the world. Faber, the retired English professor Montag befriends, tells him:
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books. The same things could be in the “parlour families” today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.” (page 90)
One of the reasons that books are good for us, Faber the English professor explains, is that they are not immersive. At least not in the same way as television or VR are:
You can shut them [books], say “Hold on a moment.” You play God to it. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlour? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is truth. Books can be beaten down with reason. (92)
And yet at the end of Fahrenheit 451, when Montag has escaped his relentless pursuers who chase him on live television, making every viewer his would-be-attacker, he finds a band of men who live outside the city, in nature, and who have made it their task to memorise every book. They are not shown discussing books. They are certainly not shown writing books, or creating stories. No, they simply memorise books. And once a book is memorised, these men burn it:
“We’re book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Micro-filming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it.” (159)
The books they memorized are old classics: Plato’s Republic, the Book of Ecclesiastes, Byron, Machiavelli, Aristophanes, Gulliver’s Travels, the Magna Carta. These readers have no more agency than Mildred reciting her script to the parlour walls:
The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves was that we were not important, we mustn’t be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. (160)
Mildred and her television-loving friends aren’t portrayed as feeling superior. On the contrary, they are social beings – although they do seem less interested in the specifics of the plots they watch than in the close relationship they have with the characters on their screens. When Mildred tells Montag she went to Helen’s last night, he answers uncomprehendingly:
“Couldn’t you get the shows in your own parlour?”
“Sure, but it’s nice visiting.” (57)
Mildred and Montag try reading together, but they struggle to understand the words. They were unlucky enough to get Gulliver’s Travels, and as Montag reads about the war over which end of the egg is the end one should break, Mildred complains, “What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything!” She is very consistently given the role of the uneducated person.
Mildred kicked at a book. “Books aren’t people. You read and I look around, but there isn’t anybody.”
“Now,” said Mildred. “my ‘family’ is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colours!” (80)
Although Mildred is portrayed as believing in her fake relationships with the characters on the screens of her parlour (her “family”), she is also the only person in the book who appears to have genuine friendships. Montag is not shown as having a single friend, although he meets educational characters and forms brief, intense relationships with them through the course of the book. Mildred and her girlfriends get together regularly, it seems, and usually to watch shows together. I don’t think Bradbury really liked women. The only women in Fahrenheit 451 are ridiculed and pitied.
He was eating a light supper at nine in the evening when the front door cried out in the hall and Mildred ran from the parlour like a native feeling an eruption of Vesuvius. Mrs Phelps and Mrs Bowles came through the front door and vanished into the volcano’s mouth with martinis in their hands. Montag stopped eating. They were like a monstrous crystal chandelier tinkling in a thousand chimes, he saw their Cheshire Cat smiles burning through the walls of the house, and now they were screaming at each other above the din.
These women are both ridiculous and, in a negative manner, connected to nature. They are noisy, they run, they feel, they burn, they scream. Towards the end of the book nature is seen as positive and Mildred and the city are seen in opposition to it, but here, nature is emotional, trivial, uneducated.
Montag asks where the women’s husbands are. One is at war: “the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home.” (102) Montag proceeds to ask about their children. One is astounded that anyone would have children, the other says it’s easy enough with Caesarians and school:
“I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the ‘parlour’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes; stuff laundry in and slam the lid.” Mrs Bowles tittered. “They’d just as soon kick as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!”
The women showed their tongues, laughing. (104)
It’s an ugly world, devoid of marital or parental love or care. Montag himself can’t even remember when he met his wife Mildred, not until the end, after the city is destroyed. But these women are friends. They seem to care for each other. I don’t think Bradbury really intended that, but the women’s friendship is pretty clear. No care for husbands or children, but they care for each other.
Montag flees the city after killing his own boss, and escapes to the forest outside, where he finds a group of men, sitting round a campfire, each man able to recite a book that he has memorized. Here again we see a single-sex group of friends strangely dissociated from any family. There are no parents, spouses or children here. (I suppose the aunts and uncles and the “family” on the screens are supposed to supplant real families – but how does that fit with these family-less men who despise screens? For them, books seem to have the same purpose.)
A bomb explodes, obliterating the entire city, but Montag is safe outside it. He imagines Mildred’s last seconds before her death. (So often she is seen through his thoughts rather than speaking herself.) He sees in his mind the moment when the screens around her go blank and she sees her own face in them, her own face that she has presumably been avoiding all these years:
Montag, falling flat, going down, saw or felt, or imagined he saw or felt the walls go dark in Millie’s face, heard her screaming, because in the millionth part of time left, she saw her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starved and eating of itself, that at last she recognized it as her own and looked quickly up at the ceiling as it and the entire structure of the hotel blasted down upon her (..) (167)
We don’t see ourselves, this book argues. We use our screens to avoid love and to avoid looking at our own faces to understand ourselves.
“Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror-factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them,” one of the men in the forest tells Montag (171). Bradbury did not foresee selfies.
Rereading Fahrenheit 451 makes me skeptical of books. Don’t get me wrong, I love books. But the way that books are portrayed in Fahrenheit 451 is not alluring. They are massive works of incomprehensible nonsense that must be memorized and treated with great respect. They are not something to be argued with, to be written, to be dogeared and torn and scribbled in.
Old books memorized by old men in the woods won’t save the world described in Fahrenheit 451. What would save that world is people talking together, reading, watching, playing, but most importantly, creating. Sharing. Being.
When I saw that almost a third of researchers at my university were on ResearchGate and I’d barely heard of it I decided to create a profile. I’m not sure that was a good idea.
Here are the stats for our university’s use of social media specifically for researchers, gathered by Susanne Mikki in her analysis of publication in 2014:
Sorry about the acronyms. The network sites are down along the left: Academia.edu, Google Scholar, ORCID, ResearchGate and Researcher ID. The faculties at UiB are along the top: HUM=humanities, JUR=law, MN=sciences, MO=medicine, PS=psychology, SV=social sciences.
As you can see, Academia.edu is popular in the humanities and somewhat popular in the social sciences but not so popular among other faculties. Social scientists are fairly likely to have a Google Scholar profile. And everyone except the lawyers is quite likely to have a Research Gate profile. Well, if you’re the sort of person who bothers with that kind of profile at all.
I quite like Academia.edu. Last time I logged on, it told me that 46 of the people I followed had all bookmarked a paper and would I like to see that paper? Sure, I clicked through and found a handbook chapter on autoethnography that I spent a happy half-hour reading. See, that’s useful. The interface is relatively simple and you can add lots of different kinds of information about your publications. Today it suggests another paper that’s popular among people I follow:
Really that’s the most useful aspect of Academia.edu for me. Oh, and the fact that lots of people seem to not have worked out how to post copies of their papers to their own websites or to their institutional repository, but are perfectly happy to upload it to Academia.edu. Strange, but certainly there are quite a few publications you can find there but not easily in other ways.
I’m on Google Scholar, of course. I love getting email alerts when somebody cites one of my publications. Quite often I find interesting research in that way. But mostly I use Google Scholar to find other peoples’ research by searching for it. You don’t need a scholar profile to do that.
I’ve not tried Researcher ID (do I really need an ID number?) or ORCID (another “persistent digital identifier that distinguishes you from every other researcher” – I’ve never actually felt the need for that) but I did sign up for ResearchGate this week. Why on earth did they choose that name, I wonder. I thought people only added -gate to a word to indicate a political scandal was going on.
On the face of it ResearchGate seems very similar to Academia.edu – you create a profile, follow others and it encourages you to upload full texts of your publications. It seems more focused on very traditional publications, though. It wants a PDF, not a URL, so for publications that are in open access web journals you have to upload a PDF of the webpage instead of simply providing a link, as I’ve done for my paper in ebr about visualising networks of electronic literature based on citations of creative works of electronic literature in dissertations in the field. Ridiculous. It automatically extracts citations and references but imperfectly, and with no way to correct the errors, for instance if you noticed that it thinks a review of Espen Aarseth’s book Cybertext actually is the book. It couldn’t figure out the references in my visualising paper. And it only counts citations from articles that are in its database. It asks you to upload datasets, and I did upload my gephi files for the visualising e-lit paper, but can’t see how you would get to the dataset from the paper. What annoys me most is the lack of URLs – ResearchGate really seems to want to be a closed garden, locking all the research in the world into its system and not providing links elsewhere.
The statistics it provides support this closed atmosphere. You get a ResearchGate score based not on your research in general, but on how other people on ResearchGate interact with your research. And this is “A new way to measure scientific reputation.” Sure, when I see there’s a score I kind of want to win the points, you know, but this is a very specific score. It really doesn’t tell you much about a researcher’s actual impact on their field, I think it mostly tells you whether they’re active on ResearchGate. I don’t actually have a score yet since I’m a newbie. Are you on any of these networks? Are they worth it? How are they useful to you?
We’re hosting ELO2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature here at the University of Bergen this week, and we are so excited to see everyone beginning to arrive! We’ve got a fabulous academic program lined up, as well as a series of open arts events (five exhibitions, two performance nights!) that will be open to the general public as well as to the conference goers. The full program is online, of course, and if you’re not in Bergen, some sessions will be streamed and archived. There’s also lots of discussions already on Twitter and Facebook.
Too many academic conferences fail at including diverse voices. The recent Digital Humanities conference didn’t have a single woman on stage for the first day, which was of course a topic of debate.
Fortunately, the Electronic Literature Organization’s conferences have never been parades of patriarchs. I can say that with confidence, because one of our excellent students, Daniela Ørvik, chose to research gender balance in the ELO conferences in her project for our Digital Humanities in Practice course last year, using data from the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base. I’ll share some of Daniela’s findings later on in this blog post, but first, let’s look at another kind of diversity: where do people attending ELO2015 come from?
This is just the second iteration of the annual ELO conference series to be held in Europe, and so I was interested to look at how this broadening of the ELO’s sphere might have affected where the attendees come from.
What with all the conference preparations I’m afraid haven’t had time to go through the data from previous conferences (we do actually have speaker info for many of the conferences in the ELMCIP Knowledge Base so could do that later) so I can’t compare to previous years, but I took a look at where this year’s attendees come from.
There are 110 Europeans (the big countries being Norway (33), the UK (11) and Denmark, France and Spain with 10 attendees each and Poland with 9), 80 North Americans (64 from the USA and 16 Canadians) and 12 Australians. That’s probably a pretty typical combination of English-speaking nations and Europeans as academic conferences go, although with a much broader spread of Europeans from a lot of different countries than the conferences have usually had (Portugal, Germany, Finland, Italy, Malta, Austria, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands are all represented). There are also attendees from Russia, Singapore, India, Japan, Israel, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Mexico, Peru and Argentina, which is wonderful. 27 countries are represented in all.
One of our goals for the conferences has been to broaden our knowledge of global electronic literature. One of the five ELO2015 exhibitions, Decentering, specifically showcases works that come from outside the mainstream US/European electronic literature, and we also have several academic presentations focused on electronic literature from countries that have not been as visible to US/American scholars. For instance, Claudia Kozak is presenting on “Latin American Electronic Literature and its Own Ends” and Eman Younis will speak about “Interaction between art and literature in the Arab digital poetry and the issue of criticism” in a panel on Thursday August 6 at 9 am. That’s one of the panels we’ll be streaming, by the way. In another panel, Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang will talk about “Sankofa, or Looking Back while Moving Forward: An African Case for E-Lit” in a panel with Stuart Moulthrop and Rob Wittig about participatory culture and the literary. (I am sorry those panels are at the same time. Scheduling conferences is unbelievably difficult. We’ll see if we can stream the participatory culture panel too though I can’t promise it as we have limited resources…Maybe someone will Bambuser it on their phone?)
Of course we would have liked even more diversity. It’s hard to figure out how to get the word out to the people you don’t already know about. One thing we tried doing was applying for arts travel grants for some of the artists who submitted works, which did help somewhat, but we weren’t as successful as we would have hoped with this. I do think that having a specific call for an exhibition of global electronic literature helped diversify the conference.
So what about our gender distribution? Thanks to Daniela Ørvik, we have good data on gender at the ELO conferences form 2002 to 2014. In total, 758 unique people presented academic or artistic work at these conferences, and 296 (39%) of them were women. As you can see, the number of women presenting is pretty stable from year to year, but the number of men presenting varies a lot. I have no idea why this would be the case – does anyone have any ideas?
So every iteration of the ELO conference has had more men than women presenting, but compared to many conferences, 39% women isn’t too bad, really. We’re close to that this year too: 75 of 186 of our speakers and artists (just over 40%) are women.
Daniela takes her analysis one step further, by splitting it into the presenters of creative work and critical work. That’s a bit more worrying. As you can see, the gender imbalance is greater for creative work than for academic work. Obviously I should go through and count what that looks like this year but I simply don’t have time right now. If you’re in the mood for it you can skim through the presenters yourself – please let me know what the numbers are if you do and I’ll update this post!
There are many other ways of measuring diversity, too of course, and like most academic conferences run by Western organizations and universities we’re not as diverse as we would like to be. We need to do better. But we’re working on it.
I’m really looking forwards to greeting all our visitors on Tuesday. I’m glad that we won’t be seeing “a parade of patriarchs,” and I look forwards to even more diverse conferences in the future, as we learn to become more open to the world and to differences.
I’m contributing to an online course Jon Hoem is coordinating on media-rich ebooks, and I’m making video presentations and mini analyses of some examples of electronic literature. My first try was Blast Theory’s fictional life coaching app Karen (2013), mostly because I had just discovered how easy it is now to get a video screen capture from an iPhone. Here’s the result, with my narrative in Norwegian because the online course is in Norwegian.
I’m thinking making a video presentation of a work of electronic literature might be a good student assignment for the course I’m teaching this autumn, DIKULT203: Electronic Literature.