Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 28, 2008


Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 10:14 am
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spacefighter banner

Last week I concluded my presentation on Narrative and Databases with SpaceFighter, the latest software tool devised by MVRDV, expected to be released and publicly accessible online in the coming months. In this post, I would like to elaborate some more on this topic, namely by framing the theory, and attempt a better articulation with the topics that we have discussed over the past few weeks.

In its opening statement, Winy Maas, the director of MVRDV involved in this project, sustains the “inevitable and total surrender” towards a process oriented approach, which he hopes will lead to a city which can reformulate itself, a city that is conscious of its gained knowledge (a concept which had already been identified in previous publications from this office, namely KM3 – Excursions on Capacity).

I would argue that this software has at its very core the notion of the necessity to readjust the way we see urban planning and the city, to a new model which reflects the changes in our contemporary society as well as in the complex urban synergies which planners and architects have only now started have a more detailed grasp on. This assertion seems to correspond with the fundamental idea in the Schivelbusch piece (which we read a few weeks back), where he argued that the change of technology, in his case transportation systems, from coach to railroad, should be accompanied by an adaptation of our “traditional perception apparatus” to this new condition. Thus, SpaceFighter, aims at understanding “the size and complexity of the urban reality”, by trying to develop new methods beyond the exhausted models of scenario creation (which have dominated urban analysis for quite some time now), more precisely original projective methods. In practical terms, it would mean a shift from the common and exclusive tools of mapping and diagramming to the innovative and inclusive tools of gaming. This is argued to be more suited, since contrasting to the limited variation in scenarios; the interactive model can generate outcomes previously unimaginable, as it absorbs new knowledge by agents playing the game, but also by the constant update of the several databanks to which is connected.

In this regard, SpaceFighter expects to gain new insights into the complexity of urban systems by the combination of different datasets, stimulating the planning aspects of all (possible) databanks, “encouraging them to move from static to progressive data”, and therefore producing more data (quantitatively as a result of new technologies), but also better data (since it becomes available and accessible to a larger audience). I would argue this specific process of data-crossing to be more productive and less scary than the one described by professor Hayles when explaining the future ubiquity of RFID chips and possible uses in personal data-mining. I also believe that we have somehow addressed issues relevant to this point in our discussion of Google Earth (after Tim’s presentation) as a tool which can be used by a small group professionally, but also by a larger audience as an entertainment device, but also in the comments of professor Hayles regarding the close reading of Fuller, where he writes about how the systems of work and fun have become intermeshed and are no longer restricted to their original use.

I would like to point out to something that seem to be implicit, and undisputed, in the whole SpaceFighter project, namely that in current society, the pervasiveness of digital technology implies that everything (or at least complex urban systems) are in some way or another captured in databases, which is why I thought this endeavor to be relevant in the context of last week’s discussion of databases and narratives.

Finally, and since the theoretical implications of Spacefighter are not exhausted in the (limited) approach I used in this post, and so that you could have a broader idea of what this project is based upon, other recurrent concepts in the theory of SpaceFighter, and which I have not addressed but believe to be worth noting would be:

Entropy, or how regions are comparable to surviving systems where energy losses, accumulations and uses are observable

Evolution, in the Darwinian sense, as a parallel is drawn from regional survival and the development of species, namely the (inherent) perfecting ratios-based calculations which have been incorporated into living entities by evolution

Complexity, specifically that contemporary life is based in complexity, which can be approached by a simplification and understanding of elements which compose it on different levels

Game Theory, or how games can be used to gain insight in complex systems. In SpaceFighter concepts such as player, strategy, payoff, complexity and predictability are applied to architecture and urban planning

Multiple Scenarios, which allows planners and decision makers to realize that there is no one absolute truth, but several different possibilities or scenarios


PS: If you are interested in SpaceFighter, you can download a more comprehensive presentation I prepared about SpaceFighter (based on the publication) in PDF slides

SpaceFighter Presentation Long

February 27, 2008

ants! ants! ants!

Filed under: Discussion — reneehudson @ 8:45 am
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I read this article yesterday and it definitely resonates with Kate’s comments about the database escaping the box and systems including other systems. 14,000 known species of ants?!

RFID for Fun and Profit (Part 1): Election-year legislation

Filed under: Discussion — P.J. @ 1:06 am

This piggybacks off the RFID discussion from earlier today; note specifically the criminalizing of “skimming” with the intent to commit fraud. But also notice that retailers using RFID for marketing are subject to a civil penalty under this bill. It needs to pass the Senate and receive the President’s signature to enact into law.

News & Media Center > Washington House Approves RFID Skimming Bill | NACS Online

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February 26, 2008

The Secret Life of Cinema….

Filed under: Discussion — dfratini @ 10:59 pm
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It’s very likely that my understanding of the implications of Fuller’s definition of the concept of “media ecology” is horribly flawed. I am but a humble cinema scholar, I admit. If I am understanding him, I believe our field has been struggling mightily toward a cinema ecology approach for a few decades now, but that approach is both empowering and daunting.

Fuller’s examples of pirate radio, Cctv, the Switch, etc. are all subversion and relatively localized or contained, albeit dynamic, materializations. How does one use this approach toward commercial cinema? Is this an approach that can look only to the subversions in order to glean the “norms” or “medial will to power” that is being subverted? Because when it comes to cinema, the “thickness” is so monumentally thick, it’s hard to even conceive.

For example, you have film stock, camera, lens (these are variable, so they should be separate) — but what about the lights? All the specialized practices of each position of each crew member? A shift in the production ecology — if I may call it that, and perhaps I can’t, I’m not sure — a shift such as that from silent to sound production could be deemed an instance of a medial will to power, clearly. Yet what about the shift from old-fashioned wooden clapboards to digital ones? Is this tool part of the ecology? I would say “yes” because it is part of the process, but that is where I’m unsure how to apply Fuller.

Wouldn’t we include in this ecology the myriad documents: memos, contract, blue-prints, scripts, permits, schedules, receipts, storyboards, schematics? I haven’t even touched distribution yet — again contracts, rating correspondence, legal documents, posters, ads, commercials, prints, cans, trucks, planes. Then there is the viewing, the ancillary markets — cable, dvd — merchandising….

Or do we just talk about the ecology of Juno? Many critics worried that the teen pregnancy meme would be contagious. Can we think of Fellini’s 8 1/2 as “A Movie-Director Recording Its Own Condition”? There is the ecology of Chinese bootlegged dvds. Currently I’m working on what my professor has deemed an archaeology of a cinematic technology: the sodium travelling matte system — whose ecology includes, if I understand Fuller correctly, the American cold war military technology — which technology precisely, I’m not sure because it’s classified — and Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Make of that what you will.

Media Process

Filed under: Discussion — jjpulizzi @ 8:06 pm
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I found the Fuller reading useful in its process oriented ontology, as opposed to a subject and object oriented one. Just to take the shipping container in Chapter 3 as an example, the material components that comprise the container do not entirely define it in the sense that the container’s dimensions and other attributes were decided by an international standards commission. That commission in turn only bothered to set standards to increase trade volume, which required more efficient means of storing, loading, shipping, and unloading goods. As a guide for those standards, the commission had to take into account existing technology, including the dimensions of ships and ports, as well as the average weights and sizes of shipped goods. Improved trade demands more containers, and eventually refinements to the existing ones. So the system feeds back into itself while also changing itself.

That Fuller draws on Deleuze and Whitehead, among others, to sketch this version of process philosophy for media systems means he is abandoning a definition of Pirate Radio, for example, as a stable, definable thing. Instead something like Pirate Radio is the result of and part of an ongoing set of interactions between government, law enforcement, mass media corporations, and citizens. What Pirate Radio is, where it is, and how it works are constantly changing in reaction to moves by other parts of the system.

The only problem with this approach, perhaps as my post demonstrates, is writing about it in a coherent way; especially considering that nouns are popular parts of speech. Fuller tries to get around this by giving examples, that is by showing (a process) rather than explaining or defining. We might ask to what extent he actually succeeds in that project?

When memes appeared in chapter 4, I began to wonder whether Fuller had not taken a step away from his process oriented philosophy—showing rather than telling. If one were truly committed to a process oriented philosophy, what good would be gained by personifying the medium of the process as a meme? I would think much of what Fuller discusses could be just as easily addressed without recourse to memes or a similar concept. Indeed, that personification makes the process seem even more abstract and allows one to forget about the physical bodies through which and on which said processes function.

Google Earth or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the View of My Neighbor’s Pool

Filed under: Discussion — tjdanner @ 4:11 pm
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Considering the Cctv World Wide Watch and certain moments in the Fuller reading, I have been thinking about the unparalleled panoptic possibilities that have developed over the past decade.  The Cctv project, as Fuller points out, is more a suggestion of surveillance than a functional representation of Foucauldean panopticism: “the feeds wear the crappiness of their imaging as a part of their seaminess” (141).  The attenuated functionality doesn’t entirely negate the potential for, shall we say, “autopoliceis” (it’s late) of Bunting’s site–crime prevention is certainly possible.  Thus, if we are looking toward the internet as a reconceptualization of the Panopticon, we might say that the central column has room on every virtual floor for pairs of observing eyes.  But even if a group of global neighborhood watchdogs, taking turns, were to keep watch over Cctv‘s feeds in a continuous cycle, innumerable crimes would go unreported, and even reported ones would go unsolved: none of Minority Report’s pre-cogs here.  In Fuller’s terms, as he paraphrases Mirzoeff, “there is no all-seeing specter implied by the physical architecture” (146) of Cctv.  There are only nodes; perceived contiguity of observation is a prerequisite for preventive psychology.

That said, the controlling cultural paranoia–or Fuller’s “generalized chilling” (“the effect of knowing that surveillance is going on” (146))–endemic of a post-9/11 America in which government transparency seems to be diminishing has recently surfaced in several innovations by Google: Maps, Earth, and Street View, for example.  I’m sure most of you have both played around with the visualization mechanisms of these programs–googling images of one’s house, for example–and read about the controversies they have sparked.  Given Google’s increasing ubiquity and round-the-clock development of more comprehensive (/invasive, some say) satellite and digital image-based technologies, its programs have far eclipsed a site like Cctv as a potential surveillance machine.  I will try to relate some of these technologies–and some of the user-created hacks that augment their capabilities–to some of the theories about media ecologies that Fuller describes.  Considering the apparatus-as-plaything model that Flusser proposes, it’s easy to perceive the non-panoptic, more ludic, functions that Google Earth encompasses in addition to its well-documented potential for privacy invasion.  If you would like to play around with some of the functions I’ll be discussing in class, you can download Earth (most of you probably have, but here’s the link anyway:; and here are some links to user-created downloads, or hacks, that you may find entertaining:  In a nod to Bunting’s project, I’ll also look at a couple webcam sites such as EarthCam ( ).  If you navigate these links, you may want to think about a few of the issues I intend to explore:  Which “types of surveillance” that Fuller discusses in Chapter 4 do they represent?  What are the relationships between paranoia-inducing (or -resulting) surveillance functionality and entertainment/diversion-based plaything functionality?  As a concept, “media ecology” seems to carry with it, like “will to power,” a sense of non-exclusionary comprehensiveness, that the interaction of any two media constitutes a media ecology; what are the specific medial-ecological dynamics of Google Earth, webcam sites, etc.?

The 3-D Alphabet and The Bubble Project

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing two projects by Ji Lee in relation to media ecologies and participatory art. Both these works—Univers Revolved and The Bubble Project—explore the relationship between text and image, and both are situated at the disintegrating border between commercial design and fine art. If you get a chance, explore the two sites via this link.


Univers Revolved is a virtual 3-D alphabet that Lee created by rotating the leftmost point of each letter in the Univers font (a sibling of Helvetica) around the Y-axis. Conceptualized rather naively by the artist as a means of helping users think “beyond the conventions of their familiar reading method,” this font nevertheless provides a unique way of activating the latent “materialist energies” of the letter. “For Rudolf Arnheim,” Matthew Fuller tells us, “the announcer’s voice should behave like polite typography” (32). Univers Revolved might then be understood as the impolite typographical corollary to the digitized and mechanized voices of the pirate broadcasts Fuller discusses. The impoliteness is UR’s insistence on the materiality of the letter and the suggestion of alternate typographical universes. UR expands radically on the “literal art” or lettrist mode of new media poetics outlined by Morris in her introduction to the topic (“New Media Poetics,” 20). But UR does so not in time as The Dreamlife of Letters does, but in space.

It also maximizes rather than minimizes the role of the user. In addition to navigating the site in various manners, the user can download the font and put it directly to use. He or she can build with it. My example below is a UR version of the final stanza of William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say”: “Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.” Somehow the pair of e’s in “sweet” takes on a new feel when spatialized; the word seems even sweeter, more sugary, because the letters look like stacks of candy. Go here to download, install, and play with the font on your own computer (it’s super easy).


Univers Revolved is then at least as much a tool for prying open the gaps and fissures Fuller discusses as it is a conclusive “result” of media-ecological tinkering. It was born through the integration of visual and typographical design models and the application of 3-D imaging software to typically “flat” materials. But more significant is the way the font-in-use forces the Microsoft Word user to rethink the pre-loaded fonts and the roles of typography and graphemes in general. Or am I back to the language of Lee’s blunt mission statement? Anyway, I’m curious to hear other’s reactions, especially to writing in this font. Does this alphabet constitute a medium different from its source fonts (Univers, Folio, Helvetica, and Akzidenz-Grotesk)? If so, after writing/building with it for a bit, do you begin to consider other text forms differently? More generally, is Lee’s cute, streamlined aesthetic problematic or appropriate? Might we critique it along the lines that we did Dreamlife? Recalling that though the font is free the book and posters cost hefty sums, how does the “look” of the font and Lee’s site relate to the commercial side of the endeavor?


If there’s time I’ll also discuss The Bubble Project, an empty speech-bubble template that the user can print and attach to public advertisements. The original run was 30,000 sticker copies, which were adhered by the author and pals to ads throughout NYC. Folks were then free to write whatever they wanted in these bubbles, and the altered ads were later photographed. I won’t say much about this work, except to point out that here a project planned for the streets of New York (the “street bubbles”) reemerged on the internet as “online bubbles.” Most interesting in this respect is that the online manifestation of the project seems to have reached a “critical point” (to borrow De Landa’s term) not attained in the original. The online version allows the user to add quotes to a speech bubble grafted onto a celebrity image. After the first few months, though, the bubbles were infected by viral comments, and the user comments began appearing less frequently. The appropriateness of Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise hocking Viagra, penis enlargements, and diet pills is uncanny. Lee’s simple intervention produced a wholly unexpected result: user participation is obviated as media learns to make fun of itself. Um… yay?

–Jeremy Schmidt


the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel

In the third chapter of Media Ecologies, Mathew Fuller discusses “How This Becomes That,” specifically through “direct action in the world” (88).  I prefer Fuller’s writing when it veers away from the dream of reaching all 1000 purposefully random rhizomatic plateaus toward longer specifics and/or anecdotes.  The image of the streetlamp switch and telegraph circle are somewhat delightful.  He goes out of his way to point out how these “standard objects” (mass-produced objects), which can be seen as ahistorical often take time in order to become standard.  The gramophone was a telephone answering machine, the television was a visual-telephone, the streetlamp was…a streetlamp.  This point, that objects have to become standard is at the heart of Fuller’s argument and the question of how this is done can only be answered by “carrying it out”(98).  That is, the process of standardization is always influenced by a plethora of media, systems, and pragmatics which as a whole is far too complicated to be calculated.  As such, we can only look to a very lower-case history and even then happenstance is generally needed.


That being said, Fuller also makes vague allusions to the similarity between standard objects and a semi-Saussurean understanding of language:  “Language is possibly the first system that incorporates a drive to standardize within it, and out of which all others are made manifest” (96).  Language, and the standards it perpetuates are arbitrary, and while this is arguably less true for actual objects, it is important if obvious to keep in mind how tied the meaning and operations of things are tied to mediation and language.  It is interesting that he focuses primarily on “meta-objects” as his prime example of standard objects.  These objects, like freight containers and telegraph wires, primarily carry other objects and/or information.  They act as ciphers and by becoming standardized, the processes of the system change as well. 


And like language, these standards are invariably distorted.  Edison may have desired the world to be cluttered with telephonic paraphernalia, but alas, it was not to be.  Film may appear to be the perfectly reproducible art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but it has more often than not been edited at each specific site of spectatorship.  And Fuller’s favorite example would seem to come from radio, a heavily regulated field, which (like any good hegemony) has developed quite a pirate cultural economy.  While less successful at going mainstream, pirate-television maybe equally intriguing.  For his 2004 Hugo Boss prize exhibition at the New York Guggenheim, Rirkrit Tirivanija displayed Untitled (the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel).  Tirivanija is more famous for cooking meals at galleries, leaving the trash as the art piece, and selling the leftovers as limited editions and is widely considered one of the most important relational artists working today.  Untitled, however, consisted of a large white room with a plywood shack at one end, and a small chain link fence on the other.  In between were a DVD player and a transmitter inside a large, imposing metal frame.  Wires from the transmitter ran along the ground to the fence and then were carried by air to a bicycle wheel-antenna on top of the plywood hut, which then sent the signal to a television located within.  The white walls of the outer room were completely covered in charts, graphs, quotes and other miscellany that explained both how to make your own transmitter along with the possible (and probable) horrifying legal dilemmas you will face if you try it and get caught by the FCC.  To ensure that this does not happen to you, it is suggested that you hook up your transmitter to a public access power supply and use a fence as the broadcast antennae.  All of this information was also available in the form of blueprints that were stacked on the floor for the viewer to take home.  I have very little memory of the content of the transmission, except that it seemed to look like a western.  The signal was too weak and full of noise to figure out much more than that.  This noise is a far more likely outcome of all wireless pirate activities and it seems odd that Fuller only chooses to discuss “successful” forms of mediation, even when they are based on principles of disruption.


While his earlier exhibitions were conscious efforts to make the present museumgoers interact to create unforeseeable circumstances, this work seemed to not be particularly interested in such things.  There was no obvious space for people to gather in, and the individual rooms were too small and cramped for anyone to want to stay in for more than a few minutes.  Instead, the conversation that usually happened between people was being invisibly broadcast across the room as a literalized metatext.  The movement of people did play a role in this piece, as the televised signal seemed to grow stronger if people stood in various positions, but this never lasted for long and everyone grew bored by the exercise rather quickly.  The information on the wall, however, tended to impress, empower, and disgust most of the people in the room. 


I, for one, had never heard of pirate television, and this experience of both what it was and what it could be was exhilarating.  This sensual knowledge is something I could not know or anticipate if I had not been there to experience and become part of the art myself and it is this type of experiential knowledge that Tiravanija promotes.  While my experience of the wall text could be considered to be contemplative, it did not include the feelings of separation from the art that this term negatively connotes.  Instead, I felt as though I wanted desperately to take up Tiravanija’s call for action and immediately create my own pirate television signal with an emotional intensity I am very seldom able to muster.  Logically, I can come up with many reasons why this reaction in me should not have been so violent and perhaps should not have happened at all.  The museum space is often thought of as being incapable of creating such a reaction and many theorists would even consider this connection with the art to be negative.  Nevertheless, it still achieved in me the goal of much avant-garde art, which is to enlarge the boundaries of what the audience considers possible, and also try to spread the word of this newly envisioned world, thus making it a more prominent part of reality.


for more info: 

February 25, 2008

Technological Cleansing?

Filed under: Discussion — reneehudson @ 10:51 am

I have a longer post which I will put up later, but for now I thought I would leave you with this since it doesn’t fit in with my other post.

In Media Ecologies, Fuller writes: “The MP3 file format, which has achieved such mass usage as a means of circulating tracks via the Internet, is designed simply to match the included middle of the audio spectrum audible to the human ear. Thus, it obliterates the range of musics designed to be heard with the remainder of the body via bass. This is not simply a white technological cleansing of black music but the configuration of organs, a call to order for the gut, the arse, to stop vibrating and leave the serious work of signal processing to the head” (40-41).

This immediately made me think of Jay-Z’s song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” which begins: “You’re now tuned into the m—-f—- greatest / Turn the music up in the headphones.” This is clearly not an instance of “white technological cleansing of black music,” but an acknowledgment by artists that the method of listening to their music has changed. The music hasn’t been cleansed, it’s evolved in order to become a part of the insular world created by MP3 players. Nevermind the fact that some DJ’s (and many a dorm room party) use their computers to play MP3s, which once again allows listeners to use senses other than hearing to experience the music played. The music itself signals a life outside the MP3 player – think of Fifty Cent’s “In Da Club,” which presents a double articulation: he describes his experience in the club while knowing that the song will also be played in clubs . . . perhaps in MP3 format.

February 24, 2008

seeing the future in mouse spinal cords

Filed under: Discussion,Readings — johnbcarpenter @ 2:19 am
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reading folsom and professor hayles’ comments on overwhelming quantities of information in database systems (“the tempestuous relationship of narrative and data”), i immediately thought of scott fraser’s (a professor at caltech and director of their brain and the biological imaging centers) regular comment that “scientists today collect more data than humans can perceive.”

while technological developments are making it possible to generate and store large datasets of information, researchers are also looking for new ways to interpret them so that they can be understood on human terms. an inspiring example for such a narrative is the painting-motivated diffusion tensor representation technique developed in professor fraser’s lab in 1998.

i briefly mentioned this in class a couple of weeks ago, but i thought i’d post a link to the full paper visualizing diffusion tensor images of the mouse spinal cord (laidlaw et al.). as outlined in the paper, the nine dimensional mri diffusion tensor data is typically shown like this…

but using the laidlaw technique developed in collaboration with the caltech conceptual artist, davidkremers, the group created visualization that looked like this…

“Our second method applies concepts from oil painting to display diffusion tensor images. We used multiple layers of brush strokes to represent the tensor image and the associated anatomical scalar image. The brush strokes reflect the geometric nature of values derived from the tensors and of the relationships among the values. Also, the use of underpainting and saturated complementary colors evokes a sense of depth. Together, these painting concepts help create a visual representation for the data that encodes all of the data in a manner that allows us to explore the data for a more holistic understanding.”

diffusion data = visualization
anatomical image = underpainting lightness
voxel size = checkerboard spacing
ratio of largest to smallest eigenvalue = stroke length/width ratio and transparency
principal direction (1) = stroke direction
principal direction (2) = stroke red saturation
magnitude of diffusion rate = stroke texture frequency

this visualization presents the information in an intuitive way that doesn’t require years of training to understand some of the basic information of the dataset. for instance, deterioration of the spinal cord on the right (patchiness) is obvious as compared to the healthy organism on the left.

the brilliance (in my opinion) of this work is that it combines a nine-dimensional data set into a single 2D image, and in doing so allows the viewer to intuitively “look into the future”… the organism on the right has no physical symptoms of the disease, but based off the visualization, it’s possible to predict where and when it will develop spinal cord damage.

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