If you bought a home computer in the 1980s, chances are you learnt a little bit of BASIC programming. The command line interface meant that the difference between starting to play a game and writing a short program was not as big as today, and most of the Commodore 64 User’s Manual was dedicated to explaining how to program your own game or program in BASIC. So for the last few years, our first year Computing Technology: History, Theory and Practice students have had a two hour workshop where they learn to program in BASIC. Here are my notes from the first time I taught this workshop, and the post you’re reading right now gives you some updated ideas. Continue Reading →
I dag har Universitetet i Bergen invitert alle avgangselever i videregående skole til en åpen dag på universitetet. Fagmiljøene har laget smakebit-forelesninger og aktiviteter, og det har vi selvfølgelig gjort her på Digital kultur også. Continue Reading →
I’m in Berlin at the digital arts festival Transmediale for the first time, and of course I’m excited about the topic: CAPTURE ALL. An entire digital arts festival about the datafication of the world, which invited artists to “outsmart and outplay the logic of CAPTURE ALL and that organise more intimate modes of post-digital life, work and play.” Chapters 4 and 5 in my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (published open access by Palgrave, or buy in print or download for free from online bookstores) are all about the automated collection and curation of personal data and the quantified self, so of course I had to come and see the art and hear the discussions here.
Thursday night was the opening ceremony and I sat in a huge packed auditorium with hundreds of others.
Artistic director of the festival, Kristoffer Gansing, gave a talk about the conference theme, Capture All, which given all the marxist and other critical analyses of the datafied world recently sounded very familiar, and very dystopic. A couple of my tweets:
I did enjoy the way that the opening wove together brief performances with more theoretical talks. Erica Scourti elegantly performed a piece of autocorrect poetry, letting her iPhone suggest words for her and reading them, faster and faster. I only captured a second of video of this, but maybe it’s enough to get the idea.
I had a bit of a Facebook discussion with Ben Grosser (who made the Facebook Demetricator, an excellent intervention into the capture all logics of current social media, but who sadly isn’t here) about how Scourti’s performance worked. Obviously the autocorrect learns from the user – my autocorrect now regularly suggests words like “fakultetsstyremøte” and “ELMCIP”, which I am guessing most of you don’t get. So assuming Scourti used her own iPhone, the autocorrect poem would be customized to her. One of the phrases that popped up was something like “for more info about my work, see my website”, which is certainly the sort of text an artist is more likely to have typed in than many other users. Ben suggested she might have primed her iPhone by pasting in certain words again and again to make a certain theme more likely to appear. I did notice that “love” seemed to pop up a lot, but perhaps she simply tends to write “love, Erica” at the end of emails or something. The final sentence was certainly scripted (she must have pasted it in?) and sometimes, particularly towards the end, she didn’t read exactly what the autocorrect wrote. It was a fascinating performance.
Erica Scourti also has a rather fascinating video work in the conference exhibition, Body Scan, a sort of distracted narrative told by a computer using Google that I might have to write more about later.
The star of the night was Peter Sunde, recently out of prison after he was sentenced for the Pirate Bay. He did not present an optimistic view of our world. I met him in Bergen before his time in prison and remember him as forceful and still very much willing to fight. Last night he said he had given up.
His talk was riveting, full of tweetable one-liners (and I tweeted several) but with no hope. A sample:
We’re on our way to a broadcast democracy where we have little say anymore.
Fighting the system from within is like trying to fight capitalism by trying to capture all the money.
We don’t need robots, we are robots.
We tried, but it’s over. Capitalism won. We’re happy with our espresso machines.
He finished by saying that like in Wargames, the only way to win the game is to not play. I loved Wargames, but if ‘re going to talk about Wargames, let’s do it properly. The movie is about a kid who unwittingly starts playing a game with a computer he dials up on his modem, but realizes that the game is not a game but very real: he and the computer are starting a nuclear war. Finally the kid convinces the computer to play tic-tac-toe against itself and after hundreds of runs through the game the computer Ai realizes that the only possible outcome is a tie. Thus it is convinced that nuclear war, likewise, is a game where “the only winning move is not to play.”
But we can’t not play technology today, at least not as a society. Individuals can extract themselves, refuse to be on Facebook, resign from the Wikipedia in disgust at the ways in which editors team up and use entries as weapons, but ultimately if we refuse to participate in technology and social media we can’t participate in contemporary public debate, democracy, employment, commerce etc. An absolute digital detox is all but impossible today. We need to build alternatives. Bruce Sterling describes us as not living in digital captalism, as Transmediale’s artistic director said in his introductory talk and as many recent marxist analyses have argued, but in digital feudalism, where we live in spaces owned by our feudal lords (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc) and are both completely dependent on them and actually feel fealty to them. I think Sterling is right in that these technologies have become part of the air we breathe.
I hope to see far more interventions in the datafied world we live in at the rest of Transmediale. Too much of the program so far has been one-sided criticism of datafication and social media that is so simplistic that it makes things worse. Chanting a list of all the things we track is cool. But once that’s done, is it really helpful to basically just do that again and again?
You can’t not play this game. We need to hack the game, to find other ways of playing the game, to make our own game. Maybe you need to make the computer play against itself.
I’m traveling home from a wonderful two day workshop in Aarhus, organized by surveillance scholar and philosopher Anders Albrechtslund. It was wonderful: a smallish group of scholars all researching what self-tracking means spending hours each day just talking about it. We had three hour sessions allotted to just two presentations, so a very heavy focus on discussion and sharing ideas. Add to that wonderful food, a beautiful setting at the brand new Moesgaard Museum and a tour of the stunning AROS art museum after dinner and you have a very happy group of academics. Self-tracking is the focus of chapter five in my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology and this quantified self-representation is one of the things I really want to continue working on, so I was thrilled to be invited to this workshop. This somewhat long blog post includes some notes and examples from the workshop about activity trackers, family tracking and more.
Anders Albrechtslund convened the workshop and has written several key papers in surveillance studies, as well as co-editing the anthology Internet and Surveillance, for which they received over a hundred proposals!! This is certainly a growing field. In his presentation, he made a convincing argument for the need to see intimate self-tracking as surveillance, because this will allow us to better understand the power relationships involved. Anders is also interested in ethics and privacy and in the enactment of selfhood through self-tracking. He proposed the concept of the oligopticon, which rather the god-like view of the panopticon gives us very specific, grounded views of that which we track. Someone (probably Chris Till, who was the first discussant) brought up Deleuze’s idea of the dividual at this point (as someone usually does these days at discussions like this). The dividual or the divided individual is the basic unit of society in this view. Corporations don’t really care who you really are as an individual, they just want to know about certain aspects, certain data sets: they want to know you as a dividual.
Anders talked about the transition from a surveillance society to a surveillance culture, which is not so much about something that is forced upon us from above (although that also happens) but just as much about our everyday practices. We actively participate in this surveillance culture, for instance by willingly sharing our data in social media or by using GPS tracking on our kids. Intimate surveillance is about control but also about care. We want to look after our kids and keep our families safe. How then does this inform our ways of thinking about norms?
One blog I’ll be following is Chris Till’s This is not a sociology blog. In addition to his many insightful comments throughout the workshop, Chris gave a really interesting presentation laying out an in-progress marxist analysis of corporations’ use of fitness trackers for their employees. Chris argued that employers aren’t simply wanting their employees to get fitter, and thereby able to create more value in a traditional sense (work harder and be more productive), employees self-tracking creates direct value for employers – and the corporations providing the activity trackers to the employers through the data that is produced. Because trackers standardize the activity done by runners in a way not previously possible, that activity can be compared to other activity, and thus is can be exchanged and produces value. So our workouts become labour in a marxist sense.
Tamar Sharon is another scholar to watch. She is in the STS group (STS=science, technology and society studies) at Maastricht University and has a grant to explore the quantified self movement and other self-tracking. In discussing Chris’s presentation, she pointed out that it’s not really the employers (like BP giving health insurance discounts to employees who get enough steps) that exploit the workout labour of the employees, it’s the corporations another level up that actually get and use the data. So it’s a case of Fitbit or Google exploiting the smaller corporations.
Of course, once you bring Marx into play you start discussing capitalism, and I remembered Bruce Sterling’s wonderful rant about the internet of things. He argues that it’s not capitalism, it’s feudalism.
Politically speaking, the relationship of the reader to the Internet of Things is not democratic. It’s not even capitalistic. It’s a new thing. It’s digital-feudalism. People in the Internet of Things are like the woolly livestock of a feudal demesne, grazing under the watchful eye of barons in their hilltop Cloud Castles. (location 58)
We are completely dependent on our feudal lords (the biggest in the US are Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple) and like serfs of old we actually respect and admire them. We feel fealty to them. And if we don’t serve them, we cannot exist (or can only exist with great difficulty) in today’s society. As Chris cited a tweet by Angela Wilson Ursery, perhaps it’s Quantified Serf, not Quantified Self.
The others didn’t agree with (my rendition of) Sterling about digital feudalism, and I’m not enough of a scholar of capitalism or feudalism to really know, but it’s an interesting comparison. I’m not sure what it does to the marxist interpretations.
Tamar Sharon is in the early phases of a study of the quantified self movement and self-tracking, and has set up a fabulous table showing what she sees as three key values in self-tracking and how each value has a positive side but also a fear attached to it.
“The problem with Marxist approaches,” she said as we were discussing Chris’s presentation, “is that it’s always about false consciousness and exploitation, which can stop you from seeing agency and from moving on to questions of ethos and ethics.” I have to admit I love the marxist approaches that are popping up all over the place in discussions of digital labour. I think we need to think about who benefits and how our leisure and online activities are converted to value for others, but I also think Tamar is right in that this is not the only way we need to think about digital activities like self-tracking. In a way this is the old cultural studies debate about television viewers not being completely controlled by television but having agency, for instance creating fan fiction.
I’ve gone from loving self-tracking to being more and more skeptical of it, but I do still see the pleasures of self-tracking. And you know, we were in a room full of surveillance scholars who are apt to be a bit suspicious of tracking, so I particularly appreciated Tamar’s work to figure out the pleasures that self-tracking can bring, and what it is that the quantified selfers she has interviewed and observed like about self-tracking. Here she is explaining some of the non-reductionist things data can do:
Although Tamar is in the early phases of her research and has only recently started her interviews and observations, she has a really solid theoretical framework worked out and I look forwards to hearing more of her results.
Stine Liv Johansen spoke about tracking children. Her research is about children’s use of media for play, and so she was thinking about possible ways of thinking about self-tracking in this respect. Tracking babies and children is something I wrote about in chapter five of my book, as well as on the blog, and I was very happy to get even more examples of kid-tracking apps. For instance Kuddle.com, an imagesharing site for kids where parents are notified and have to approve each image a child wants to share, or Tableaux, a system used in a lot of Danish preschools and after school care centers where parents have a smart phone app connected to the school’s systems so parents always know exactly where their kids are (in the gym, on an excursion, at lunch) and when they slept if they still nap at school. Stine emphasized that some of these devices actually give kids greater freedom. For instance, in a Danish city where all school kids got iPads, kids would FaceTime their mum themselves to ask whether they could go home with another kid, and wouldn’t have to ask the teachers and get permission to use the landline phone.
Following a few links I found even more devices on our horizon. I already knew about the Tinitell video, which shows how tracking children can be (presented as or actually?) a way to give kids more freedom.
I found the Paxie bands via a link from the menstrual tracker @clue after seeing a tweet to @clue from another workshop participant, Marie Louise Juul, who is about to start a PhD on intimate self-tracking of things like menstruation and sex. The Paxie bands have a similar argument, but go even further. They not only track the location of your child, but constantly measure their temperature and heart rate. My kids get fevers once or twice a year, and I suppose at those moments it’d be quite useful to have the temperature measurements, but wow, having it constant is quite extreme. Apparently the child can’t remove the band herself, as it takes two adult hands to get it off.
Anders Albrechtslund showed us the ad for the new Withings Home, which has exactly the same emphasis on parents who are away from their kids but connected through surveillance technology:
There were other excellent presentations too, for instance by Federica Lucivera, who spoke about heath tracking, and Tjerk Timan, who spoke about the internet of things and how we should study the code behind trackers and not just the people using them, and there were lots of discussions throughout I can’t possibly do justice too. I’m left with lots of ideas, scribbled notes and a pile of links, and a strong motivation to do more work in this area! Thank you to Anders, Kasper and everyone else for a wonderful few days.
The visual turn on the internet has been evident for a few years now. Our cameras are computers, always in our pockets, always connected to the internet. We share photos in conversation, in seduction, for a laugh, to make a political point, to show the world who we are, where we are, what we like or to share information. Facebook and other networks prioritise images in our news feeds, blog posts now (unlike a decade ago) look strange without an image near the top, and we create visualisations of our research or arguments so that people will share them. The shareable image is the soundbite of bygone media days.
It makes perfect sense, then, that a digital poet like Jhave (pronouced jah-vey) would choose to write as though he were photographing.
David Jhave Johnston is a well established writer of electronic literature known for his beautifully multimodal works. He combines images, sounds, movements and words into literary works that are more than literature. Originally from Canada, he lives in Hong Kong and his Tumblr, jhaveHK, was full of photographs of his surroundings before he made a vow to abstain from photographs a few days ago:
It’s interesting, don’t you think, that this manifesto, this statement disavowing images, is itself shared as an image? So many of our images on the internet today contain text. This statement requires the image format only to preserve the layout (strict, formal, simple, with a neutral font and no use of bold or italics) and to include a signature, the mark of the human hand contrasting the typed words.
Perhaps the statement is already imagined hanging on the wall of an exhibition in a year’s time, as other artists’ statements have hung on gallery walls.
“Every time I feel like taking a photo, I shall describe the photo in writing as if I had taken it”, Jhave writes. The dominance of the photograph already has us thinking in photographs, framing the world around us in our imagination even when we don’t take the photo with our cameras, noticing symmetries and contrasts in our visual surroundings that we might not have seen without the knowledge of the camera deep in our culture. Susan Sontag put it thus on the first page of On Photography in 1973:
In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.
I find it easy to see Jahve’s written photographs in my mind, as street photos, photos of the everyday, art photos.
Jhave’s written photographs are timestamped and geocoded in the manner of a digital photograph, though not mechanically: Jhave writes in the location of each: “5F stairwell CMC, HK” and Tumblr adds the time stamp when Jhave posts the text.
Hans Kristian Rustad is currently working on the influence of the camera on literature, including digital literature, and I have heard others speak about the ways in which the technology of the camera affects our ways of thinking about and representing the world, visually of course, but also in other modalities. One of Hans Kristian’s recent articles is about the Norwegian poet Hanne Bramness’s 2010 book Uten film i kameraet (translated to English in 2013 with the title Without Film in the Camera) where photographs, some by famous photographers, some by amateurs, are described in words.
I love that Jhave’s #1YearNoCam is not just about how we see the world as photographs but also about a sort of asceticism in refraining from taking photographs. The title clearly follows on from last week’s #1WkNoTech project (a netprov led by Mark Marino and Rob Wittig where participants pretended to abstain from technology for a week while tweeting about it to support each other) and can similarly be read as a sort of critique of the idea of digital detox. I’ll be following the project over the next year – and I’ll probably find myself writing these little snapshots of my world in my mind, as well. Maybe I’ll imagine some written photographs I haven’t actually seen, as well.
I was excited to receive my Narrative Clip this spring. It’s the first consumer lifelogging camera: you clip it to your clothes and it silently takes a photo every 30 seconds. Then you connect it to your computer. It uploads photos to the Narrative server, processes them, and a while later I can view the photos in my Narrative iPhone app.
“Remember every moment,” the website urges. This device, the website promises, will become your memory. It will capture the moments that are really important to you:
Capture the moment as it happens, without interference. Complement your staged photos of majestic scenery with the intensity of the small moments that matter the most.
The assumption that technology can do a better job at capturing human experience than humans can (“without interference”) is a classic example of the dataism I wrote about in my book, and that I talk about in my TEDxBergen talk, “What Can’t We Measure in a Quantified World?” Still, the idea of capturing everyday moments we might not have thought to photograph is intriguing. I was interested to see what my days looked like seen from the perspective of this little camera.
Unfortunately, the Narrative Clip fails utterly at capturing the small moments that matter the most. It doesn’t actually document my life at all. Like all technology, it sees what it sees, not what I see.
Here’s a timelapse video of the 77 photos taken on a Tuesday in Chicago this spring between 15:47 and 17:29. 166 photos were taken in total: these are the photos that the Narrative software thought were the most interesting. The time-lapse video is pretty close to the way you can scan through the still images in the app on your phone.
As the camera was snapping these photos, I was walking with my six-year-old daughter from her school to her ballet class. She was hungry and there were no parks or benches on the way, so we sat down on a low fence that happened to face a wall covered with advertisements. You’ll notice that these are the only faces in the camera, and the algorithms have decided that they must therefore be the most important photographs, using the ads as the cover image for the sequence. Jessie decided she would like to wear the camera during her ballet class, and we thought perhaps the images would be more exciting – all those mirrors and beautiful dancers, you know? But as you see, the camera really didn’t capture anything very memorable about the ballet class either.
It turns out to be really hard to get the Narrative Clip to capture any images of my children, because the clip is worn at chest height and my children only reach up to my waist. So I tried fastening the clip to my jeans pocket instead. Not much better.
According to the website, the software selects the most significant photos using a “momentification” algorithm.
“Momentification” is the process where all your photos are uploaded to the company’s cloud servers, analyzed, sorted and sent back to you with the system’s best guess as to what the most important photos are. Based on my experiences, human faces, even on billboards or on stranger’s faces at the table next to you at a café, are given high priority, which makes sense. Photos that are similar to each other tend to be left out of the time-lapse views of your “moments” so that you get more variety instead of a hundred photos of the same wall.
In my case, the momentification highlighted things that were not important to me, like the advertisement on the wall. Just as importantly, the camera itself did not capture the things that are important to me, like my children. The camera’s fixed position on my chest or jeans pocket gives it a very limited view. Perhaps Google Glass would do a better job, as its camera would move with your head. But even if a camera could perfectly capture what my eyes see, would that really capture my experience satisfactorily?
I wrote more about the Narrative Clip in chapter four of my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Blogs, Selfies and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves, comparing it to other forms of life logging. You can buy the book in print or download it for free.
And if you’ve used the Narrative Clip, I’d love to hear how you experienced it.
I’m at Le sujet digital in Paris and just heard Tim Barker give a fascinating talk about time and the digital, which also happens to be the title of his book which I’m looking forwards to reading. He talked about how technology is changing the way we experience time, from a linear idea of time, suited to narrative and the written word, to today’s time where the present is stored and then processed or rendered or represented almost-instantly but not quite instantly – leading us to think of the present as already the past. He started and ended his talk by showing this video from 1974 of a woman experiencing the echo in her voice that used to come with long-distance telephone conversations.
Electronic circuits delay and briefly archive the present in order to process it, or at least, to process the data captured that represents the present. Thus, Tim Barker argued, today we experience the present as past, as already-archived. He relates this to Boris Groys who sees history as a “series of processional presences” as well as to art historian Terry Smith‘s ideas of “living in a condition of contemporaneity”, with pasts that keep returning, as well as to media archeology’s work on analyzing the material basis for our experiences with technology.
Another example of an artwork that plays with this is Mark Hansen and Ben Grusin’s Moveable Type, an installation in the lobby of the New York Times building, which rummages through the archives of the newspaper (history) as well as search terms and comments entered on the newspaper’s website in real time by readers (the present). The present becomes history, is mixed into history.
In Tim Barker’s words: “The present is continually delayed, given the same material existence as the past so it can become signal for the computer that is indistinguishable from the signal the computer receives from the archived data.”
There were lots of references to theorists and philosophers in the talk (Flusser and Kittler were key but there were many others), and I’m guessing Tim Barker’s book contains a wealth of material for anyone interested in time and the digital.
I found the idea of the present as already past quite fascinating, but wonder about how this might affect our experiences of the future, if we see the present as already history. Is the future also compressed into a sense of history?
Predicting the future through data about the past and the present is increasingly common and apparently desirable. I’ve previously wondered whether we really want to predict election results as Nate Silver did using data, and I’ve been fascinated by Barabasí’s startlingly accurate predictions of where people will go next based on their earlier movements as tracked through mobile phone data. The baby trackers I wrote about in Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, and briefly in a blog post, also claim to be able to predict when your baby will wake up or be ready for a nap or be hungry, all based on historical and real time data. Indeed, the main point of the Quantified Self movement is to improve yourself, to control your future by understanding your past and present through data.
I’m not entirely sure that the experience of the present as already past is only a digital phenomenon. Surely diary-writing would have the same effect? Or writing a letter, knowing that the present you are writing in would be the past by the time the recipient received it, or even as you yourself reread it a moment later? How different is that to the echoes and delays of the present in the 1974 video of an echoed voice?
Data’s promise that we can use the past and the present to predict the future can also be read as a linear, teleological experience of time. The future becomes visible through “objective”, data-driven predictions.
A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at TEDxBergen about wearables, the Quantified Self movement, dataism and all the things we cannot and might not want to measure. The talk is a shorter version of chapter 5 in my new book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (which you can buy in print or download for free) and tells a story about my own questions about what we can and cannot measure, using some of my own logs as well as looking at examples of apps like Spreadsheets and thinking about the relationship between quantified personal data and reality. Here’s the talk!
I really enjoyed the other talks at the event as well. Linn Søvig spoke about her passion for games, and her work translating between game developers and a general audience. Brad Berens spoke about Shakespeare’s business strategies as a model for contemporary businesses. Nico Rose spoke about luck and how to create it. Pellegrino Ricardi spoke about cross-cultural communication, and Sergey Medvedev told us about the many, many walls that have been built between countries since the fall of the Berlin wall.