Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 11, 2008

Phones, Bubbles, Go

I found this weeks readings particularly interesting because of the way they resonated with my current areas of research; particularly, Greenfield and Shepard’s text of urban ubiquitous computing stood out to me. There are so many great moments in that text that tie together a lot of what I’ve been studying on my own (the Situationist “derive”, personal space metaphors, games, urban screens), as well as what we’ve been discussing in class (getting lost, pervasive gaming, reactive architecture, among other things). I’m going to draw a lot of abstract connections and personal anecdotes now, like how Bruce Sterling’s discussion of “ARPHIDS” and coding relates really strongly with a recent lecture in our department from artist Beatriz Da Costa. Her work critically examines a lot of these ideas of privacy, consumerism and mediation in urban contexts. She is even referenced in Greenfield and Shepard’s text.
The Michael Bull text (also referenced in “Urban Computing and its Discontents”), delves heavily into how we mentally construct private space in public settings. The “personal bubble” metaphor referenced here, introduces the concept of alienation, which Bull expands upon in his examination of the “dialectic relationship” between mediating communication technologies and the non-spaces of urban culture. In his discussion of mediated proximity and intimacy, he relies heavily on mobile phones, automobiles and personal music players to construct his argument. Throughout the text, I kept returning to the thought of social networking websites as an equally perfect metaphor for alienation. Bull doesn’t even introduce this idea, because his approach to the problem is explicitly from the perspective of aural perception. But I think his thesis works just as well for the social networking paradigm. Our need for intimacy and connection drives our curiosity and willingness to engage in social networks, but ironically causes us to be alienated and alone, in a room at a computer rather that actually doing anything social. To return to mobile phones, I was interested in the idea of privatizing or “colonizing” space that he introduces: “[…] users of mobile phones in the street transform representational space into their own privatized space as they converse with absent others”. I had to laugh out loud at this concept, as it reminded me all too well, of my new favorite game: “Crazy, or Bluetooth?” Playing this game in Los Angeles is more fun that anywhere else i’ve ever lived. I’m sure you can infer the rules of play. This idea of “bubbles” also reminded me of an image from one of my all-time favorite animations, Rene Laloux’s 1973 classic, Le Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet).
The metaphor of personal bubbles is key to Laloux’s story, about a race of humanoid aliens who keep homo-sapiens as pets. The aliens foster a cultural obsession with meditation, which is visualized above. In meditation, their spirits drift off in bubbles to a forbidden planet to gain “vital energy” through metaphysical intimacy with one another. This film is made well before the pervasiveness of cellular phones, but the similarity to this idea of remote intimacy is really interesting.
There’s one other connection I’d like to make, involving Kenichi Fujimoto’s concept of the mobile phone as territory machine: “capable of transforming any space—a subway train seat, a grocery store aisle, a street corner—into one’s own room and personal paradise.” (37). Similar to Bull’s text, Mark Shepard quotes Fujimoto in order to discuss the concept of privatizing urban space. I’ll spare the diversion into Shepard and Greenfield’s criticisms of architectural and media art related attempts to address the potential of pervasive media technologies. That’s a whole other discussion. Instead, I’d just like to focus on this idea of “territory”, because it’s a simple and conceptually beautiful idea that i’ve been exploring in a lot of my own work. I’d like to draw a connection here to the ancient game of Go as a similar metaphor for territorial procurement, personal space and ephemerality. In Go, black and white stones are played intermittently on a grid. Each player attempts to carve out a certain amount of “territory” for him/herself and simultaneously surround and alienate the opponent (occasionally even surrounding opponents’ stones and removing them). Go is often used as a metaphor for conflict, or simply appreciated as the visualization of a contest between two minds. For some reason, reading this text kept reminding me of my personal interest in the game: “the iPod becomes a tool for organizing space, time, and the boundaries around the body in public space” (36).
The connection isn’t terribly strong, I know, but in my mind i’m drawing a lot of loose relationships between Go, cellular automata and complexity science, movement patterns of people in public spaces, and the readings’ discussion of alienating technologies and private space in urban settings. Hopefully we can expand on this more tomorrow.


Nomad Monads and the Boombox Kid

Filed under: Discussion — jeremy @ 4:03 am

It might be useful to expand some of Bull’s concepts like mobility and portability to talk about data storage. I’m particularly curious if there’s any connection to be made between bundling huge amounts of media entertainment into small, juicy, portable packages (I’ve got 28,607 songs on my iPod at the moment = I’m awesome) and the collage techniques born of the Futurists, stolen by the Moderns, and loved by the Postmoderns.

Is there a way in which collage texts might mirror the desire prevalent in our collector culture to have everything with us all the time? This ideal sampling of everything is frighteningly seductive whether it’s envisioned as existing in our networks, our libraries, our castles, our bedrooms, our backpacks, our laptops, or our back pockets. The Waste Land (1922), for instance, occasionally strikes me as a contact print or contact sheet for all of human culture. Or, rather, it embodies the unhealthy desire to carry such a contact print around in your pocket:

[France (Baudelaire) + Germany (Wagner)] * [England (Chaucer, Spenser, Elizabeth) + America (Eliot)] * [East (Upanishads) + West (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare)] = one shiny pill, your lifetime dose of culture

With the photographic analogy I’m back to the realm of the visual, but we could call it the dream of the Total Remix, too. The Waste Land as high-class Girl Talk. Of course, TWL seeks if doesn’t achieve synthesis whereas Girl Talk “[lacks] much compounding of groove–the effects are too sequential.” In any case, Imtalkinbouta portable universe. Imtalkinbouta nomad monad. Any way you want it you can have it, and Imtalkinbouta way to have it all, all of it, where you want it and when you want it in a single blinding moment of bliss. Singularity baby.

The question might be: Does it matter that it (the pill, the iPod, The Waste Land, the contact print, the mashup) is highly portable? Or: What do we gain or lose with this desire to have as much as possible crammed into as few square inches as possible?

Also: The Boombox Kid! He totally gives us a way to talk about expanding our bubbles. Has anyone else seen him? He’s a young Asian guy with a backpack and a boombox who walks around campus blasting ’80s-style hip-hop tracks (mostly instrumental) and dancing in circles. He’s got some serious chutzpah. And because UCLA is so quiet—all iPods and dull cellphone chatter—you can hear him from way across campus. Everyone pretty much ignores him, but he’s sheer awesome and points to a fundamental question raised by bubble expansion. When is such expansion a delight and when is it a nuisance or self-glamorization?

Finally: The classic Volkswagen “Synchronicity” commercial (1999). The music from a tape playing inside the car “interesting[ly]” matches the movements of the surrounding vibrant multi-everything urban environment.

–Jeremy Schmidt

sterling, format death.

Filed under: Discussion — lindsaybrandon @ 2:38 am
Tags: , , ,

after jacob’s presentation in last week’s class–and michael’s post about wendy chun– i was thinking about format obsolescence . . . and i ran into a speech bruce sterling gave at a computer game development conference in San Jose in 1991:

"As a digitized information-rich culture nowadays, we have
to artificially invent ways to forget stuff. I think this is the
real explanation for the triumph of compact disks.

Compact disks aren't really all that much better than vinyl
records. What they make up in fidelity they lose in groovy cover
art. What they gain in playability they lose in presentation.
The real advantage of CDs is that they allow you to forget all
your vinyl records. You think you love this record collection
that you've amassed over the years. But really the sheer choice,
the volume, the load of memory there is secretly weighing you
down. You're never going to play those Alice Cooper albums
again, but you can't just throw them away, because you're a
culture nut.

But if you buy a CD player you can bundle up all those records
and put them in attic boxes without so much guilt. You can
pretend that you've stepped up a level, that now you're even
more intensely into music than you ever were; but on a practical
level what you're really doing is weeding this junk out of your
life. By dumping the platform you dump everything attached to
the platform and my god what a blessed secret relief. What a
relief not to remember it, not to think about it, not to have it
take up disk-space in your head." 

Performance artist Nao Bustamante was on campus a while ago, and talked about a new project she’s involved with, one that archives recordings of her work–supposedly in perpetuity:

“Earth People 2507 is a video project that is part Public Service
Announcement and part time capsule. It is a message in a bottle to W [NB: i don’t know what that means] in 500 years. I am a cosmovideographer shot into space and time.

As a performance/video artist ideas of ephemerality come with the
territory, until recently. This year, 2006, I signed a contract with
the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics (Tisch School of
the Arts New York University) to preserve and maintain the video
documents of my performance and video works using successor technology
in perpetuity. In the Institutes words, “performances function as vital
acts of transfer transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of
identity through reiterated behavior. “ My original videos will be made
available to the Libraries for conversion and encoding. A preservation
master copy will be produced from the original videos to be retained in
off-site storage, Iron Mountain. Iron Mountain is a high security,
underground, and climate controlled facility protecting against natural
disasters and human threats for its customers, which include “all of
the top entertainment companies.”

i’m still wondering about issues of ephemerality, and vaguely excited about the idea that there’s benefit in disappearance as well as in archivization. in Nao’s case, maybe the proposition is slightly different, given that what’s being archived isn’t always her work itself, but a recording of it (although her video work, unlike her live performance already exists in a semi-durable state). maybe what sterling is getting at in a micro way–the blessed freedom of allowing yourself to relegate your record collection to the attic–has a macro presentation as well; for all of us, there’s a certain relief at being able/being forced to stop carrying the past and its old formats around, or at least at the illusion of being able to set them down.

someone brought up to me recently that Performance Studies isn’t full of scholars doing historical projects; in a discipline that values the performative–that wants so bad to look closely at the doing itself–the removed and partial texts history leaes don’t always seem very . . . sexy. which sort of lead me to thinking about format death as not only a corollary to the evanescent nature of performance, but a material manifestation of the truism that you can never see what the past or other viewer saw in/of any given performance; the lenses through which various consumers received or interpreted it are never securely knowable. our scurry to translate recordings–synthetic memories–of performance from format to format in order to preserve them is certainly about preserving the privilege of future viewers to create idiosyncratic readings of a recorded performance, but the drive also reads, in some lights, like a frantic attempt to standardize, to renounce evanescence and multiplicity in favor of something like “universal” access. which maybe isn’t so removed from a desire to settle, finally, on a definitive version–something not unlike a singular, authorized reading–and to put the rest of them up in the attic to keep company with our Abbey Road LPs.


As this will be the last class, I thought a presentation on hypermediated cemeteries would be appropriate.

Deep in the heart of one of the most intensively media-centric landscapes in the world lies a large, unorganized collection of dead bodies, spread out in lackadaisical rows.  From here, the Hollywood Forever cemetery, one has a beautiful view of Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Sign, the back of the Paramount Lot, and at least one doubledecker tour bus an hour.  This is perhaps not a good place to R.I.P., but I am doubtful whether any bodies mind.  Those who wish to be buried here are keenly aware of their mediated surroundings, as when one buys a plot of earth, they are also hiring a staff of biographers who categorize your life in photo montages and record any messages your dead self might like to extend to the living.  Some of these tapes feature touching (if eery) music and others include a narration by an assumed family member or friend who is able to explain what is going on in the footage.  While watching these, one may get the feeling that they are in the wrong and should not be viewing these people’s private moments and lives that were necessarily recorded at the solemn moment of one’s passing.  However, the question remains concerning why they would post this on the internet if they didn’t want people like me to dig through it.

This online collection of searchable lives is often referred to as “an archive,” a space which guarantees a permanent (if obscure) future and a certain academic gravitas.  While these stories constitute an archive, the slogan for the cemetery as a whole is “library of lives,” which suggests a radical rethinking of what the purpose of a cemetery is and what it should be.  This recontextualization of the cemetery is only possible because of the various levels of media that the space employs.  In   Urban Computing and Its Discontents, Mark Shepard asks “to what extent have mobile and pervasive computing actually begun to supplant the autonomy of traditional architectural practice as the technology of space-making” (33).  The implicit answer is “a lot.”  Fittingly, it would be impossible to locate a burial lot without the various videomaps attached to the lifestory kiosks.  Without this medial guide to order the landscape, it becomes difficult to understand this space as anything other than a schizogeography.

While I do not mean to argue that this space is a model for the use of situational technologies, one can see here a certain strong desire and readiness for this architectural change to take place.  Presently, there are only 3 to 4 working lifestory video kiosks available for “viewings” at any one time, but it is clear that this is a movement toward HD tombstones with sensurround sound.

Walking through the cemetery, one can see a plethora of medial objects that figure the dead body through various lenses and guises.  There are rare 3-D sculptures, statues, and busts that express the dead person in a classical mode, suggesting that they are now important and part of a pantheon.  Far more common are photographic images that are either permanently attached to the tombstone, or precariously sit on top.  Many of the graves used a framed picture as the headstone, though it was unclear whether these were considered permanent fixtures or not.  Regardless, their presence made me consider the classical headstone and its utter inability to represent a person.  Other stones appeared to be very hi-tech and featured photographic images that had been laser engraved into the stone in the same way that one might get their name on an iPod.  Others were super low-tech and had an arts and crafts look, with painted on messages, names and pictures.

The question often arose as to how one would choose the photo that could represented their entire lives.  While most of the photos were obviously taken of people close to the end of their lives, others featured the more vibrant figure of a 20 or 30 year old even as the person may have lived to 80 or 90.  These photos quickly became a way of ordering and making sense of the absent person, whose body was present but hidden.  Because of these photos, I rarely thought about the buried bodies at all and instead thought of the photo as the evidence that the person had existed.  The body became meaningless, or at least lost its supposedly inherent importance.  This made me consider Sterling’s piece and his point that “sometimes I really want an object, the thing qua thing, the literal entity itself, physically there at hand.   At many other times, may crucial times of serious decision, I’m much better served with a representation of that object” (95).  Does one ever want a dead body?  Is the photo montage and last words really what we are wanting when we go to a graveyard?  These images are not a spime in any normal (if there is a normal sense) of the term, but I would argue they act in the same way as a “weightless, conceptual, interactive model” of the living being, which is arguably a better representation than any physical object.

For more:
Sorry for no images here, had to save something for tomorrow.

March 10, 2008

Presentation on Shepard’s TSG Toolkit

Tomorrow I’ll be presenting on Mark Shepard’s Tactical Sound Garden (TSG) Toolkit.  The website can be found in the Browse section of this week’s readings, so I won’t spend too much time describing the project, and hopefully I’ll be keeping my discussion relatively short, it being the last class and all, and this being a fairly long-winded introductory blog-post.

Obviously there are lot of connections between TSG and the readings, Urban Computing and its Discontents being co-authored by Shepard himself, and he directly references Michael Bull’s work therein.  Therefore I’ll be focusing on framing our discussion through those articles.  The Sterling piece, as interesting as it is, I found less directly applicable to my own thinking about the TSG Toolkit, but I’d welcome any insights any of you might offer.

I do, however, want to chime in with one or two bits about Bo Walther’s “Pervasive Gaming: Formats, Rules, and Space.”  There seems to be much at stake in all these works regarding the dichotomy (perceived or actual) between physical and virtual realities.  Walther describes, to some extent, what Shepard’s work enacts: the blurring of this dichotomy or the disclosure that we might take it less as a dichotomy and more as a gradient.  Of interest to me is the fact that pervasive gaming and urban computing or ambient informatics seem to be approaching the dichotomy from opposites sides of the spectrum.  That is, games like Human Pac-Man or WoW seem to make virtual reality more physical or “real,” and Shepard’s work takes real, physical urban space, and makes it more virtual – when Michael Bull discusses “technologized space” (288), it is interesting to note that the space itself is primary to the technologizing, even if in the end this distinction is ultimately blurred.

I also want to focus on how the TSG Toolkit negotiates notions of privacy in public space via a series of Michael Bull’s assertions:

(1) “Personal stereo use reorganizes users’ relation to space and place. Sound colonies the listener, but it is also used to actively re-create and reconfigure the spaces of experience. Through the power of sound the world becomes intimate, known, and possessed” (283).

(2) “The users’ sense of space is one in which the distinction between private mood or orientation and their surroundings is abolished” (285).

(3) “Thus users are able to transcend geometrical space through the use of these mobile sound technologies. The nature of this technologized space is often experienced as all-engulfing, enabling the space of habitation to be infused with its own sense of heightened experiential aura. Users habitually exist within forms of accompanied solitude constructed through a manufactured auditory environment, either through mediated music or the voice of the ‘other’” (288).

First of all, do we buy this argument that Sound can have this sort of extreme affect, and doesn’t “abolishing” the distinction between private mood and surroundings constitute a sort of solipsism?  And how does this play out in Shepard’s Toolkit?  How effectively does the TSG alter or augment our experience of public space?

Lastly, I want to address the discourse of hallucination and “augmentation of reality” in these works.  Are ambient informatics hallucinatory?  Is the Tactical Sound Garden?  I think hallucination can be an effective metaphor for thinking about Shepard’s work.  For example, most hallucinogens (and for those of you with a richer knowledge of bio-chemistry than I, and there are assuredly many of you, please chime in here) work not only by affecting the brain’s processing of received sensory information, but also by intervening at the neuro-chemical level (changing incoming patterns of fired synapses) to alter the perception of sensory input.

That is, it’s not only the perceptions themselves that are being altered, but at the most fundamental level our perceptive modes themselves are altered.  I think this is an important distinction because the latter, by destabilizing conventional notions of perception, reveals a more fluid image of our relation to our physical environment.

If that wasn’t clear (and admittedly I’m not confident that it was) then consider this (inappropriately long) passage from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a novel concerned very much with the intersection of LSD, new media technologies, subjectivity, and popular music:

She drove into San Narciso on a Sunday, in a rented Impala. Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken. She suspected that much. She thought of Mucho, her husband, trying to believe in his job. Was it something like this he felt, looking through the soundproof glass at one of his colleagues with a headset clamped on and cueing the next record with movements stylized as the handling of chrism, censer, chalice might be for a holy man, yet really tuned in to the voice, voices, the music, its message, surrounded by it, digging it, as were all the faithful it went out to; did Mucho stand outside Studio A looking in, knowing that even if he could hear it he couldn’t believe in it? (24-25)

Rather than spending too much time close-reading this passage (which desperately calls out for close-reading), I’ll leave it at this: Pynchon seems to be making, even as early as 1966, some sort of connection between subjectivity, hallucination and technological innovations in sound.  In a strange way, I see this passage as an unlikely precursor to The Tactical Sound Garden.

Other points I’d like to quickly make in case I forget them or don’t get to them are:

(1) The project’s reliance on Google imagery: the TSG takes for granted a dependency on the bird’s eye visualization of standard Google-mapping, so that the user is always located both in the physical garden and mapped into a digital representation of that garden.

(2) Shepard makes an interesting aesthetic statement in his visualization of sound as digital orbs of light hovering in real space and the appropriation of iPod marketing imagery.  What can we make of the project’s aesthetics?

(3) In many ways, the TSG Toolkit is an excellent example of a “Media Ecology.”  Shepard asserts on the site that “The TSG Toolkit is a parasitic technology,” which parallels my favorite line in the Fuller: “A media ecology is a cascade of parasites” ().  The TSG Toolkit mingles multiple media technologies and engages them with each other in complex ways.  Examples include: playlist sharing, Google mapping, mobile audio devices, 3D sound engine from gaming environments, pervasiveness of wi-fi, etc.

(4) I’m not sure what to make of the temporal element of the piece – that the digital representation is mapped in terms of hours, days, and weeks, so that the evolution of the garden, in its Google-mapped representation, is relatively slow.

Well, that was probably far too much, so, apologies.  At least I didn’t bother getting into how I came to decide to present on TSG based on my interest in encountering new media experiences in every day life which radically alter and/or hybridize our perception of reality after my own personal experience with MRI technology, which fostered an entire speculative post and presentation on MRI Art (or the lack thereof), and which, thankfully, I scrapped.



Filed under: Discussion — sergiomf @ 12:20 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

The conversation we had last week in class, namely the contemporary the mixture of physical and virtual spaces, the Universal Product Code and the readings for this week (in a plain continuity of these topics) made me think of the work of a specific architect – Rem Koolhaas – and some of his works and writings, such as his design of the EU flag and the Wired special issue that he guest edited.

EU barcode 15

The EU Barcode Flag was the result of a reflection by AMO/Koolhaas on Europe’s representation, its symbols, its visual language and media presence, it was specifically a response to what had been identified as “Europe’s iconographic deficit”. The barcode combines the flags of the EU member countries into one single colorful symbol, and to which more ountries can be added. It represented the essence of the European project, showing Europe as the “common effort of different nation states, with each state remaining its own cultural identity while sharing the advantages of acting together”. In 2004, when ten new countries joined the European Union, the first official update of the barcode occurred.

It is interesting to consider the EU barcode flag in the context of Sterling’s text, particularly when he writes about the identity coding regime derived from ubiquitous barcoding of objects, and how this relates to the notion of identity to be conveyed by this specific barcode.

Another aspect worth mentioning, which for me derives from our conversation last week about the power of code and the whole idea of re-coding products, is how the elements of this barcode are easily identifiable by anyone simply by a reading of its colors in stark contrast to the Universal Product Coding, where only optical readers can decode the message within the multiple adjacent vertical lines. Thus, you can easily read the flags of the European union countries from West to East, depicted from left to right on the barcode flag. Another relevant and distinct element between the UPC and the EU barcode flag is the easy adaptation of the EU barcode to new bars, reflecting the addition of new countries to the European organization, when compared to the rigidity of its object barcode counterpart, on which a whole system relies on the stability of its design.

EU barcode 25

The other readings for this week, discuss the new perception of spaces, both by their combination and creation, mostly generated by the current pervasiveness of technologies, which seems to be in line with the issue addressed by Koolhaas in a special issue of Wired magazine (June 2003). In the capacity of guest editor, Koolhas reflects on the shifts on existing spaces and on the emergence of new ones, and how the “words and ideas of architecture, once the official language of space, no longer seem capable of describing this proliferation of new conditions” (even though he recognizes, how the vocabulary of architecture is still employed in the understanding of new unfamiliar domains like “chat rooms, web sites and firewalls”, something we have also mentioned before in one of our classes). Therefore, writers, critics, researchers and artists were invited to contribute to an atlas of the new world, where 30 spaces were identified for the 21th century, such as Ad Space, Blog Space, Border Space, Crowd Space, Euro Space, Nano Space, Public Space, Tight Space or Waning Space (among others).

In this plethora of spaces, I found interesting (and worth mentioning) some ideas about crowd space, and how it relates to Michael Bull’s reading and to the discussion in urban computing with Greenfield and Shepard. I would argue that the preoccupation with crowd space derives directly from some of the issues raised (in the different texts) by Bull and Greenfield, on how the introduction of personal technologies is shaping the way we use physical spaces, and how that is affecting the way we relate to others in public space. This has been nicely worded by Greenfield in his observation that “personal information technology deployed in the urban context inevitably and invariably enriches the personal environment at the expense of the shared public and civic realms”.

In this short sample of Koolhaas work (beyond his architectural designs), we perceive how he sees and analyzes the changing of spaces, and what he believes the role of the architect could be under these new conditions, but mainly how he addresses some of the topics we have been discussing. He has greatly influenced architectural practice and theory, but to those who did not know his work, his revolutionary practice and ideas were easily revealed in the cover of Wired magazine where he is labeled as “architect, iconoclast”.


you can read the whole Wired magazine edition online here


March 8, 2008


Filed under: Discussion — moorekc @ 8:04 pm

As someone who was moderately obsessed with Jorge Luis Borges as an undergraduate, I am inevitably going to make a bigger deal out of this than I should. Out of my admiration for the cleverness of the rest of the week’s Sterling selection, and for Sterling’s writing generally, I’ll resist the temptation to make a full post about it. But did anyone notice the subtle mistake in Shaping Things in which Sterling refers to the “prescient parable Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” when he clearly means the excessively famous, very short, and very hard-to-find story “On the Exactitude [or “On the Rigor”] of Science” made famous by Baudrillard and others? I suppose you could make the case that “Tlon,” with its fictional encyclopedias and secret societies devoted to imagining an alternate world complete with its own language and philosophy, is also a story about the relationship between “the map” and “the territory” (97). But it’s not really a parable, and I am certain Sterling means the other. 

What I find interesting about the moment is the fact that it perfectly represents a point made by V.S. Naipaul about Borges in an essay on Argentina and its literary culture: “The Return of Eva Peron.” Naipaul explains that, in the context of his native literature, Borges is a highly ironic writer and an intellectual gamer, and not a prophet or a mystic. Borges’s American reputation as a literary seer (a la Blake, Yeats, etc.)  is not just a misappropriation of his work, but, as Naipaul implies, the result of a Western desire to move too quickly through textual reality to theoretical abstraction, and a quasi-imperialist literary critical situation. Anyhow. I find it endlessly fascinating that one great, imaginative writer who is not a prophet (but can seem like one) would misquote another great, imaginative writer who is not a prophet (but can seem like one) in an essay that, well, attempts to predict the future. I believe there is some embedded point here that could be made about the status of close reading in media theory, and what happens to the literary imagination when it attempts to theorize technology and media. But, like I said, I feel it would be ungenerous to the Sterling reading to take that possible argument too seriously.

Then again, perhaps my reluctance embodies the problem itself.

March 7, 2008

did the router go out again?

Filed under: Discussion,Readings — johnbcarpenter @ 12:14 am
Tags: , , ,

the discussion in class on tuesday (in particular, on getting lost and the technological unconscious + the galloway and thacker paper on networks) made me think of two recent stories in the news about countries being involuntarily “unplugged” from the web…

WW1.0 (web war I)
there’s an interesting article by joshua davis in WIRED MAGAZINE: ISSUE 15.09 about how hackers took down estonia’s web/technology based commerce, media, and government in the end of april 2007 by launching a coordinated attack on the country’s electronic infrastructure. a teaser from the article…

“Väärsi tried to pull up his competitors’ Web sites. They were down as well. He knew he had only one choice: to sever the international connection. He keyed in a few lines of code and pressed Enter — and all international requests to the paper were suddenly blocked. In the eyes of the world, the Postimees Web site disappeared.

Instantaneously, the bandwidth meter turned green. The site became accessible again within Estonia, but at a cost. Estonia’s leading news outlet could not tell the world what was going on in its own country. Though this was a 21st-century attack, Väärsi used the same defense Estonia had used against Russian invasions four centuries earlier: He had closed the gates, pulled up the ramparts, and settled in for a siege.”

the article has an in depth discussion of how the attack was coordinated, but in short it consisted of script kiddies — “troublemakers” who copied scripts from hacker sites that launched floods of ping queries to specific web targets, botnets – individual “zombie” PCs that were compromised by malicious code (i.e. a virus) and were under the control of hackers-> used to send large amounts of data to specific internet addresses with the goal of overwhelming the site (a “distributed denial of service” (DDoS)), and hackers who attacked specific targets to alter their content (i.e. to change the home page of a website to a desired political message).

IT specialists countered the botnet attacks by disconnecting infected computers (by sending requests to ISPs to suspend service), but according to the article, they were unsuccessful in identifying the coordinators of the attacks (though recent political events pointed to a suspect). the botnet attack stopped after two weeks.

anchors away
n the end of january, 2 undersea web/telecommunication cables were cut in the mediterranean knocking out a good portion of the area’s connectivity. as discussed by the the economist, countries were able to reroute traffic to a certain degree, but

“Egypt lost 70% of its internet connectivity immediately. More than half of western India’s outbound capacity crashed, messing up the country’s outsourcing industry. Over the next few days, as cable operators sought new routes, 75m people from Algeria to Bangladesh saw internet links disrupted or cut off.”


i think both events demonstrate potential vulnerabilities of the web as a networked system… in one case, knocking out an edge in the mediterranean disrupted service for 75 million users, and in another, a coordinated/infected group of nodes (hundreds of thousands of infected computers) + hackers were able to disrupt ~1.3 million estonian’s web/telecommunication with the outside world. to return to rita’s question about whether or not it’s still possible to get lost in modern society (that’s how i remember the question two days later in any case) i think that if users have their identity/location based in/on the system, then knocking out the system would probably result in some people getting lost.

March 5, 2008

Ethos of the Unknown

Filed under: Discussion — dfratini @ 1:00 am
Tags: , ,

I was very taken with the Liu piece and would have wanted to really consider his question: “what ethical foundation enables identities to live in an un-networked and counter-informational fantasy within the spirit of informationalism?” (p. 71, P 2) Because that is really the question that kept coming to my mind as I read the second half of the piece.

Starting this chapter, as he did, with subject work and New Criticism, indicates that the humanities contributed their share to this Teamwork-corporate ideology — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they are not completely outside the digital-information era zeitgeist themselves. Of course I do have faith in the humanities and arts, or I wouldn’t be here, but to say we are “informed by history” seems a bit too easy, if history, like culture is potentially just more grist for the mill, more programming content, more bits. I’m sure Liu explores this in the rest of his book, which I intend to add to my reading list for the future.

I had some more thoughts on this, which I was going to bring up in class, but I’m sick. Sorry to have missed this discussion.

March 4, 2008

Network vs. System: an ongoing discussion

Filed under: Discussion — tjdanner @ 10:14 pm


This week’s reading, particularly the Galloway/Thacker chapter, reverberates with a debate/discussion from yesterday’s Winter Athanaeum, regarding the equation of or differentiation between “system” and “network.”  Mark McGurl offered a simple yet productive distinction: systems are closed, networks are open.  In other words, we can employ a standard Luhmannian conception of system as an animate or inanimate organism operating independently within its surroundings, and proceed under the compatible conception of network as a web of interconnected nodes.  And while network and system can be synonymous in a general sense, pursuing these differences could be a useful component of today’s discussion.  If we read “network” one way–focusing on graph theory–then we can, without stretching the limits of conceptual creativity, imagine systems as interconnected nodes within a networked graph (e.g,, human, economic, electronic and communications systems comprising the rubric of “cellular network”; or numerous operating systems connecting to a network of computers).  In this case, network encompasses system.  Galloway and Thacker support this idea by defining “protocol” as “not a single thing but a set of tendencies grounded in the physical tendencies of networked systems” (28; emphasis added).  However, in the next sentence they immediately indicate an inversion of this relationship by defining “networks” as “any system of interrelationality,” etc. (I don’t want to even gloss the rest of the sentence here because I can’t quite parse it, but maybe someone will bring this forward as their focus passage in class).  This definition either posits “network” within the demesne of “system,” or equates/conflates the two; either way, this reading complicates the understanding of networks as open set of points or nodes connected by lines or pathways (to adapt Galloway/Thacker’s explanation of graph theory), and systems as independent, autopoetic entities functioning within but not necessarily connected to an exterior environment.  Making a distinction between the two concepts seems essential, yet even within two lines of a chapter devoted to network theory, there is some slippage.  Can we arrive at a more definite, even if still fluid, connection/differentiation?  

My other point is something of a related whim that arose when I read one set of Galloway and Thacker’s interstitial questions:

“But are networks always exclusively ‘human’?  Are networks misanthropic?  Is there a ‘nonhuman’ or an ‘unhuman’ understanding of networks that would challenge us to rethink the theory and practice of networks?” (27)

A commercial slogan popped into my head: “Cisco: The Human Network.”  Maybe it’s a random connection worth unpacking a bit.  If networks are “always exclusively ‘human,’” then “the Human Network” is a non-exclusionary category; however, the question of whether networks are misanthropic suggests that they may be inherently unhuman, which seems to be Cisco’s understanding.  From a marketing perspective, the slogan is understandably humanizing, inviting consumers to view Cisco’s products as relatable tools rather than disarming machines.  This also gives us an avenue back into the networks/systems conversation.  Systems can certainly be human (respiratory, nervous, etc.), and advertising “The Human System” would be more evocative of diagrams from high school biology textbooks than conference calls and routers.  The word choice emphasizes some of the conceptual differences I have brought up, painting networks’ lines as electronic/technological and nodes as technologized humans (calling to mind Fuller’s description from last week).  This image runs counter, however, to another primary connotation Cisco’s slogan aims to generate, one of sympathetic congeniality–akin to “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”  Even the company’s name–Cisco Systems–is a complicating factor: a system (or systems) is a network (the human one).  Bringing Liu’s use of management theory into the fray, as well, would open up ground to discuss this topic’s corporate dynamic, but I’ll table that for now; I wonder how this and further analysis of the Cisco idea might exacerbate the network/system debate.

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