Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 20, 2008

Database and Recommendation

Filed under: Discussion,General — mkontopoulos @ 8:40 am
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This doesn’t have much to do with aesthetics, but last night, I started playing around with Pandora, which is an website used for creating custom radio stations based on personal taste. Since I’ve been really into Curtis Mayfield lately, I started by typing in his name. Pandora pulled up a song by Curtis, and then proceeded to select songs that were similar to the first, based on a series of several hundred predetermined criteria. By rating several songs in a row, Pandora was able to fairly quickly and accurately, configure a radio station based on my impulsive desire to listen to soul music.
If you read a bit deeper into the Pandora website, you’ll find that their archive is based on what is called the “Music Genome Project”. Launched in 2000 by Will Glaser, Jon Kraft, and Tim Westergren, the intent was to “capture the essence of music at the fundamental level”. Ultimately, these three music aficionados developed over 400 attributes with witch to algorithmically analyze a database of songs. I am aware that the algorithmic prediction of taste is not new, as seen by Amazon’s or Netflix’s recommendation resources. What is striking about Pandora, however, is how it bases its selection criteria not only on user encouragement, but also largely on analysis of the song itself for things like “bebop qualities”,  “heavy use of funk samples”, or something as specific as “Subtle use of Harmonica”. I find it’s success in pleasing my musical needs to be equal parts advantageous and creepy.
The obvious connection point here is to the Human Genome Project. In considering human DNA as a database, as Vesna points to early in her text, we open up a whole new way of thinking about our bodies, especially in learning that we are 99.9% genetically similar. I’m similarly drawn to the Music Genome Project, for the way it makes a database out of a form of expression as ancient and primal as music, breaking down the differences between styles into such a (relatively) small amount of criteria; not to mention the questions this raises about disembodiment and removal of subjectivity in the age of algorithms predicting our  desires…
Christian Paul writes: “What distinguishes digital database from their analog predecessors is their inherent possibility for the retrieval and filtering of data in multiple ways.” (96). With, what Zach so eloquently described as “utopian flare”, Paul seems to praise the digital databases “limitless possibilities”. To parrot Zach’s discussion of exclusion, I’d like to suggest that the exclusion of certain songs in Pandora versus the positive rating of others does, in fact, construct a narrative of personal taste, based on an enormous range of choices that is algorithmically limited over time, per station. Here, I identify Pandora very strongly with Lindsay’s discussion of Machinima and the range of gaming options as being a sort of database, while individual play represents a type of narrative.
What is excluded from many of these texts, however, is consideration of issues raised by narrative/database and the politics of algorithmic recommendation/prediction. I find it disturbing, the extent to which software now attempt to finish my thoughts and predict my desires. In some cases, this can be useful, like with Pandora, but in most others it takes on a more political agenda, like Gmail attempting to push sponsored links based on text in my personal email, or Amazon attempting to sell me products based on my casual searches. To what extent do we forfeit agency when we leave more control to the predictions of algorithms?


February 19, 2008

Read / Write / Access / Error: Query on human/machine memory

Filed under: Discussion — P.J. @ 7:23 pm
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The debate that arises as early as Plato’s argument between Theuth and Thamus – which Renee brought up in an earlier post – has long fascinated me for its definition of memory as that which must instantiate in a consciousness located within the human body. Because I tend toward a model of memory that includes the extended “unconscious” information humans store in other media for retrieval, it is difficult for me to parse that clear defining line between biological and technical information resources, a position not unlike Andy Clark’s in Natural Born Cyborgs. Alternately, the proliferation of our externalized information resources (read that “databases”) demands new interrogations, not just because of the implications for New Media work we’re discussing this week, but because of the profound political implications that inhere in a system that can’t seem to get away from the “communication-and-control” of cybernetics; here Zach’s discussion on the status of abjected information in shadow databases comes into play.

In short, I am interested in exploration of some very fundamental issues: What is memory? What is its relationship to database – mutually exclusive, related, equivalent? I wonder especially about recent cybernetic/computational models of memory that, while they obviate the mystique attending models from 200 years ago, threatens to substitute it with a cybernetic mystique that fits into its own neat black box.

Further, what is it to re-member, or to re-mind, as we engage in this exercise in re-cognition? What members have we dispersed that demand reattachment, and does the act of remembering – whether it involves human recollection, paratextual referencing, or machinic recall of distributed data points – sufficiently fulfill this seeming desire of the members to rejoin? Does the re-rendered/re-membered/re-called figure function as a reasonable facsimile, or do we always create monsters anew, akin to the roughly-stitched Patchwork Girl of Shelley Jackson?

Seaman’s model of recombinant poetics, which he details in Vesna (124), seems to offer a model that anticipates this more emergent conception. Surprisingly, it is far more aligned with my understanding of oral composition, informed by Albert Lord’s study of the bardic tradition in the early 20th-century Balkans in The Singer of Tales. The bards who, as Sharon Daniel notes, “[perform] for the community narratives belonging to the community” (144), learn their craft not from the rote memorization of scripts, but from years of intense devotion to understanding the story elements and the verbal formulae in a way that enables masters to tell stories with any number of elements changed or modified according to the circumstances of the performance and audience feedback. (This is nothing like the spurious “substitutions” Steve Dietz offers from Ong’s interpretation of Homer in Vesna 117). Yet Lord notes (I can find that quote for you!) that the bards eschew any model of memory as exact reproduction by insisting that each instance of a given story is a reproduction of the same story, and moreover, is a truthful account of the same story.

So, immersed in computational models galore, how do we reconcile this understanding of human memory to our definitions of textual authenticity and data integrity? What function does forgetting serve? And, momentarily setting aside Daniel’s optimism regarding the intervention of dialogism, what are the political and aesthetic stakes in a system that falls short of ubiquitous capture and categorization? Even with an idealized ubiquity of storage and retrieval, what firewalls can we establish that prevent the human being – noted in several essays as analagous to a database – from being reduced to a datum?

I haven’t even started on the database/narrative dynamics in the Bible and the huge apparatus of scholarship that attends it. 🙂 But that would be fun to discuss too.

architecture’s datascapes

Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 7:04 am
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It seems that in this week’s reading regarding database and narrative, there are two main schools of thought. Namely those who believe that these are inherently distinct and opposed (such as Manovich) and those who believe that both complement each other, and in their unity new opportunities emerge (such as Paul).

I think that it could be interesting to discuss this particular topic in the sphere of architecture, since architecture has always been envisioned on the intersection and overlap between programmatic information (databases) and ideas (narratives). Recently this discussion has taken a visible built form, physically exposing the “back end” of data container and its structure in the aesthetic exercise of the cultural implications perceived in the “front end” (Christiane Paul, 97). A clear example of this contemporary practice is the Seattle Public Library (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, 2004), where the flexibility of the continuous spiral ramp contained in a four story slab (where the stacks are located) is prepared to adjust to the changes in inventory, at almost the same pace as the digital database.

flexibility diagramflexibility diagram

In my presentation on this topic I have selected to present the work of another Dutch architecture office, MVRDV (where I used to work before moving to Los Angeles). The work of this Rotterdam based architectural practice, is recognized as being paradigmatic of the current data driven design. Despite being an architecture office, the engagement with databases and narratives has been explored in several different mediums such as architectural projects, video installations or even experimental software platforms, as I will explain during the presentation. In this presentation I will show some projects, which I believe address this week’s discussion from different perspectives.

Exemplary of their interest in what they have coined “Datascapes”, is their video installation (exhibited at the Stroom Center for the Visual Arts in The Hague, the Netherlands, between 1998 and 1999), which later became a publication, where the contemporary city is analyzed as pure information. “A city that knows no given topography, no prescribed ideology, no representation, no context. Only huge, pure data: Metacity/Datatown”. This project lays on the edge between data visualization and urban planning, and attempts to provoke new architecture and urbanism thought, through the manipulation of data in a spatial manner.

data town

Explorations of data and derived radical practices are also visible in their proposed buildings. An interesting example is the 2001 innovative design pig city. Analyzing the economical activity of pig farming in the Netherlands, it become evident that old spatial formulas had become obsolete, and new solutions were necessary. By using data to inform the design, MVRDV proposed a drastic new spatial organization for pig farming.

These are just a couple of (emblematic) projects which show MVRDV’s continuous interest in data and narratives, but several others could be mentioned, such as Farmax, 3D City or Spacefighter. For MVRDV, information, numbers and data are not just the raw material of their designs, but also the source for critical and radical rethinking of architecture and society, creating an alternative “cultural algorithm” reality->data->datascape.


more! machinima! (it’s quick, i promise.)

Filed under: Discussion — lindsaybrandon @ 3:17 am
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I realized today that I’d posted something pretty lengthy on Sunday without drawing in any of the readings for this week.  So I should do that.

As someone who lives for narrative, I’m always happy to see a great argument for the relatively peaceful co-existence—symbiosis, even—of narrative and database.  I’m particularly reassured by Kate’s argument that if narrative needs database (I’m visualizing them as two distinct entities, sort of like Bert and Ernie–Bert is obviously “database”) for the securing of information and authority in an increasingly “computationally intensive culture,” meaning-making remains the province of narrative, and isn’t co-opted, disabled or supplanted by the database (although I can imagine, in some contexts, its function being displaced).

In the debates I alluded to earlier about whether or not games can be profitably explored as narrative, the main arguments as I’ve understood them aren’t that games align more closely to database than they do to narrative, but that the act of play can’t be reduced to whatever story might result.  It might help, though, to think of the possibilities inherent in gaming—the sum of what’s provided for by the game’s engine and development–as something like a database, and the individual play experience as something like a narrative:  a particular combo-plate  that’s been called out of storage.  Although the words are new to me and that makes me a little timid, this is how I read Kate’s citation of Manovich asserting that “the database of choices from which narrative is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit, while the actual narrative (the syntagm) is explicit” (Manovich 49).

Help, that is, to understand game play not posited as a form of narrative but rather as an exercise that may well involve—perhaps can’t help but produce—various narrative outputs, which themselves are not unrelated to the act of play.  We could look at machinima as such a product—with, I suppose, the understanding that there’s no requirement that machinima follow a narrative, though lots of them do.

I don’t know if the Robert Nideffer chapter in the Vesna book was one of the suggested selections, but I love this section:

“We might think of the game engine as a database interface, a mechamism through which a predetermined, relatively constrained collection of procedures and protocols are used to render a world and make it navigable in context.  If we wish to look at the game engine as a cultural artifact . . . then we must extend the boundaries of what strictly constitutes the game engine and posit the game player as not only a functional requirement of the engine, but also as its key constitutive element. . . .  We need to ask, and this is critical, what constitutes the database of the player” (219-220).

We take for granted that games give access to experiences and pleasures other than competitive play; just as some people’s favored World of Warcraft experience on any given day may have more to do with social activity than level advancement, maybe the way some people “play” WoW is to make movies out of it.

With that in mind—or some cocktail of this an my previous post—I’d like to look generally at Roosterteeth’s Red vs Blue series (try here or here).  Really, what I’m interested in is the genre rather than any given piece, and I’ll probably refer briefly to other pieces tomorrow, but a few RvB episodes should give you something to think about.  I’ll download one for play tomorrow, too, if we have time.

Presentation for 2/19: Embodiment – Pipolotti Rist’s ‘blood-fueled cameras’

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — dfratini @ 12:02 am

The video installation work of artist Pipilotti Rist foregrounds not only representations of the human (female) body but also the viewer’s experience of her art (and by extension any art, or any communication, or life itself) as an essentially, emphatically embodied experience. In her art the boundary between subject and object is fluid. Bodies are seen on the screen (frequently the artist’s own), the screen itself is acknowledge as a body, and the body of the viewer(s) is an integral part of the work.

I realize it’s ridiculous to talk about “the embodied experience of her art” and ask you to look at low-grade surreptitious video of the installations, but as I cannot afford to take us all Zurich, it will have to do.

Here are two earlier works emphasizing representation of the body:

Her most recent works de-emphasize or exclude representations of bodies, emphasizing the installation space, and thus bodies of the viewers/spectators.

In trying to articulate how I believe Rist exemplifies many of the concepts in the Hansen reading, in a most intriguing way, I turned to Amanda Jones’s recent Self / Image: Technology, Representation and the Contemporary Subject (Routledge 2006). Some key excerpts:

  • [Rist] has identified human eyes with “blood-fueled cameras.” …. if the eye is a blood-fueled camera then… vision can no longer be instrumentalized — understood as mechanically securing the viewer in his position of knowing, per Renaissance perspectival models (such as Alberti’s) and apparatuses.
  • Rist’s works are profoundly interdependent….he binary logic of the ‘gaze’ itself has dissolved.
  • While masculine scientific understanding and techno-discourses have celebrated joining of the human body to the machine (as epitomized by the robotic pieces by Stelarc, the rationalizing force of which is exacerbated by his verbal claims for transcending the body through such technological extensions), or alternatively as lamented this joining as a threat to the humanist subject…. [Rist] simply narrates — in verbal as well as visual form — the fluid remaking of the human body as itself a visualizing ‘tool,’ but one that is profounding irrational and incapable of being fully instrumentalized — one that is itself immersed in (as) the image.

In my presentation, I will explain further what Jones is getting at and how I equate this with the Hansen reading. I also want to discuss the experience of the embodied viewer / spectator (which Jones merely glosses), in light of the chapter from Kate’s work (“Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers”).

February 18, 2008

Pattern Extrapolation

Filed under: Discussion — jjpulizzi @ 11:58 pm
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Many of the readings we’ll be looking at tomorrow respond to Manovich’s association of database and narrative (whether affirmatively or negatively), though we may also wish to think about the role that databases, particularly the interfaces, play in aiding the human brain at pattern recognition.

Manovich’s pronouncement that “database and narrative are natural enemies” (44) suggests that two are vying for control over how human beings imagine relationships—whether spatially (database) or temporally (narrative). Professor Hayles instead suggests that despite their differences, database and narrative, like human and computer, exist symbiotically as necessary extensions of one another in a society flooded with information needing organization. We should also remember that brain’s ability to separate relevant and irrelevant information (pattern and noise) quickly is a necessary component of narrative and also an ability that is refined by narrative. If we have a “story” or context for a given situation, then we’ll be better able to mark pattern from noise.

This perspective also allows us to understand visual and auditory interpretations of databases as instances of the same tendency to search for patterns that appears in narrative. We can take as an example the failure of databases and their attendant algorithms to catalog common sense. Much common sense knowledge or know-how is extremely dependent on context (i.e. what came just before and what might come next), which leads to a bewildering proliferation of exceptions and special cases (if anyone is interested I can give references to works that make this argument). Even if these indefinitely proliferating exceptions and cases could be cataloged, the problem of how to efficiently search the records remains.

How then could the human brain possibly learn with ease what cannot be represented explicitly? Terrence W. Deacon in The Symbolic Species attributes the human ability to learn and use a complex natural language, whose grammar and syntactical variations could never be entirely cataloged or put in a database, to the brain’s facility at first discerning high-level patterns and then gradually refining that structure with relevant details, which prevents one from being overwhelmed by obscure exceptions or noise. The fuzzy picture must precede the sharp focus—so children with immature brains, which are easily distracted, learn languages with much greater facility than adults do. Refining the fuzzy picture also requires actually living in and experiencing the language and the society in which it is used.

Computers permit one to explore various data for patterns whether it be with a narrative method of by visualization. Again it is a case of the human and computer collaborating to draw upon the strengths of the other. Excellent pattern recognition and sorting on the one hand, and rapid calculation and manipulation on the other.

In Search of Lost Data

Filed under: Discussion — reneehudson @ 6:39 am

Reading the Vesna caused me to speculate further on the relationship between media and memory, particularly since we’ve come across different methods of using media to augment our memories (the Memex, the Chronofile, etc).

While thinking about memory, I couldn’t help but recall the association between writing and forgetting that Plato articulates in Phaedrus. He tells the story of a conversation between the gods Thamus and Theuth (a discussion Derrida later takes up) in which Theuth tries to persuade Thamus that writing is a tool for memory. Thamus replies, “In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. you have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality . . .” (79-80).

As I reflected on the quote from Phaedrus in relation to the Vesna article, I realized that what I was actually doing was speculating on the anxiety media induces in all of its forms precisely because of its tendency to take everything down, to attempt to remember / remind everything / everyone. Jane Newman, in “The World Made Print: Luther’s 1522 New Testament in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” questions Luther’s motives for establishing the authenticity of certain editions of “his” Bible: “Had the man whose message it had been to allow everyone access to the Word come to resent the very proliferation of Scripture he recommended, because it took the ‘truth’ out of his hands?” (98). Elsewhere Newman speaks of widespread, “uncontrollable dissemination in print” (101-102), describes how the massive reproduction of Scripture was viewed as a spark growing into a fire (104), notes the continued proliferation of pirated editions (104), etc.

Vesna’s description of the Chronofile exhibits a similar proliferation: “In addition to the Chronofile, which is considered to be the heart of his archives, he left behind the Dymaxion Index, blueprints, photos, patents, manuscripts, and a large amount of random elements. He saved all his correspondences, sketches, doodles made during his meetings, backs of envelopes, and newspaper-edged notes – everything possible that was a record of his thought” (24). Like Luther, Fuller is also unable to deal with the massive multiplication of materials – he ends up hiring other people to help him work on the Chronofile. Interestingly, the Chronofile comes to represent not only his life, but also the world as he knew it.

Yet while Fuller’s challenge was to continue to amass data relevant to his life and the world, Vesna also points to the dangers of obtaining data and maintaining it in our collective memory. She describes her project in which people sign legal documents and provide personal information without hesitation, she says of RFID tags that “Such tracking may be usefule in other arenas that are perhaps not so innocent and could be embedded in objects without our knowledge or awareness” (27) and briefly notes the dangers of what information “secret military missions around the world” (31) are obtaining.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at (if anything) in this very long post is 1) do we see print / media as static the way it is described in Phaedrus (81) or as the ability “to be brought back to life” (25) as in Vesna? 2) Are we constructing memory machines like the Chronofile because we acknowledge that writing, etc. is not a tool for remembering but for reminding? 3) What do we make of the fear that the media are proliferating beyond our control? Are we trying to remember or to forget? What’s at stake in our remembrances?

video games, performance, machinima.

At the risk of sounding like the sort of disciplinary colonizer that Markku Eskelinen so despises, there are some tantalizing clear resonances between video games and theatre–or at least I find the pairing compelling. Both take place within a sort of virtual reality that’s designated as other-than-real despite the fact that it requires the operation by actual bodies. Too, there’s an interesting relationship between avatars and gamers that, at least in some ways, mirrors an actor-character relationship (at least a conventional Western one): both can be seen as a sort of hybrid, provisional unit, a liminal figure composed of a corporeal self briefly lending her or his subjectivity to a shell, a subject temporarily inhabiting an object.

Of course, there are some clear differences, too. In gameworlds, the usual distinction between audience and actor is less clear; the gamer is both observer and actor, and any position involves spectatorship and participation. And though I believe that to be true of theatre, too–even in the most conventional performances, theatre audiences are more justly figured as participants than entirely passive spectators–the game model provides a particularly interesting and complex site to investigate action, agency and spectatorship, and the effects of either/both on narrative and drama.

We can often appreciate a sort of inverse proportionality between stable narrative and unrehearsed or randomized participation/interactivity. As Henry Lowood writes, quoting media artist Randall Packer, “computer games occupy a salient position in accepting the role of the player as co-producer of content:

‘While theater begins with the notion of the suspension of disbelief, interactive art picks up where theater (and film) leave off with branching, user-driven non-linear narrative. The letting go of authorial control has been the big dilemma of interactive works as an art and/or entertainment medium, games being the exception.’” (High-Performance Play: The Making of Machinima)

Although it may be dramatic or involve a kind of narrative-like trajectory, a random sample from World of Warcraft play probably doesn’t make a particularly good story or coherent drama.

Still, though, it seems impossible to divorce drama and narrative from games altogether. Lowood traces an genealogy of machinima, animated “movies” created with “footage” captured in-game, that begins with players’ desires to reference past achievements or analyze recorded play. Much of today’s machinima is a far cry from the replays, demos and cut scenes that presaged the genre: recent works include full length movies and recurring, TV-like episodics.

I’ll be talking about machinima tomorrow, both in my small presentation and about the project Jonathan and I are doing for the course. I haven’t yet settled on a work to focus on for Tuesday, but the sorts of ideas that interest me in this context involve games as complex sites of authoring and spectating, and a certain type of explicitly creative consumption. More to come.

February 17, 2008

databases and the shadow archive

Filed under: Discussion — zachblas @ 1:25 am
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A statement of Victoria Vesna’s at the beginning of Database Aesthetics troubled the rest of my reading throughout the week: “…our amazing abilities to take huge data sets of information and reduce them to the essential truth in the blink of an eye.” (35) It seems here that Vesna has just laid out her understanding of the ways in which we use databases and how they function. To reduce the many to an essential truth. This point became even more problematic for me when Manovich stated databases are “collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.” (39)

The database, to me, seems inherently built upon a notion of exclusion and, therefore, becomes an entity of varying value. Contrary to Vesna, one does not see the entire world in a grain of sand but the world of the grain of sand. Perhaps a body’s world and the world of the grain of sand overlap, but to reduce the complexity of a body and a grain of sand to a common database seems an act of extreme reduction. The database of the grain of sand excludes us, and yet, we build ourselves into the database of the grain of sand based on how we choose to organize its information.

This idea of the database as always exclusionary and always of value led me to question Manovich’s suggestion that databases and narratives are enemies. Do databases tell a narrative of what is not there? This question immediately caused me to return to Akira Lippit’s work on the shadow archive in Atomic Light. Lippit asks, “Is the archive of the uninscribable, unwritable, and unrepresentable possible only as the destruction of the archive?” Continuing, “The other archive, the shadow or anarchive, represents an impossible task of the archive: to protect the secret, its heterogeneity, and divide the archive from itself.” The database appears as anything but a shadow archive. Thus, how could one imagine a shadow database? To anarchive, to database otherwise.

In a statement bolded with utopian flare, Christiane Paul praises the 1990s as a moment of uniting knowledge for the world with the digitization of collections of works from museums and libraries. This “database aesthetics” strongly alludes to acts of exclusion – everything does not get digitized. Based on personal experience when I was an archivist at the Video Data Bank, material did not get transferred from analog video to digital formats unless it was popular. Are database aesthetics an aesthetics of the popular? Who is deciding what is popular? What narrative does this reveal? What happens to the unpopular? When forgotten, lost, excluded—how do items form their shadow database(s)?

To end with the database of a body, thinking about the body as a database not only cuts it up and constructs it in a particular way but also orients it to the socio-political context of the database. Importantly, what is that context or contexts? Manovich and Paul discuss databases as meta-narratives, but what would be the political impetus to think of a body as a defined by the meta-narrative of database? Are databases really meta-narratives or is this once again a humanistic act of excluding the material specificity of a thing to extract seemingly “de-politicized” concepts. If exclusion, value, and the popular are narrativized in the body as database, where does this leave the shadow body?

February 16, 2008

Second Life Continued

Filed under: Discussion — reneehudson @ 1:00 am

I might write more about this during a time when my nephew isn’t about to kick me off the computer, but I thought I’d mention that there’s an I am Legend Second Life, which led me to look at the site briefly and notice this.

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