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.

March 7, 2008

did the router go out again?

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

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.

January 29, 2008

carrier: becoming symborg

Filed under: Discussion,New media art,Readings — Dr. Dave @ 3:25 am

My presentation tomorrow will focus on Melinda Rackham and and Damien Everett’s carrier: becoming symborg. Inspired by Rackham’s experience with Hepatitis C, this site generalizes the idea of code to include viruses and DNA, while exploring some of the same issues we have been talking about. I want to explore how the work plays into the following debates about code:

Surface and Depth: Is code a deep structure whose effects are only felt through the system rather than exposed by it? The work’s references to DNA suggests that in the case of the human body, we do not know what does our thinking, by which I mean the code of the human body are not directly visible to what it manifests (us). At the same time, on the message board, infection causes technical medical language to enter their conversation; the virus is felt by its effects, both in the body and in conversation.

On the technical side, while the work’s code is concealed, being written mostly in Java, Shockwave, and VRML, the proliferation of various languages brings them all to the forefront. On the original site, though, there is a “diagnosis” page, which helps users configure their browsers appropriately. The work begs us to look deep into its code. I’ve included the source code of some of the Java I find interesting here: infect.jar,, and

Execution vs. Surface, Cayley vs. Mez: Does the work’s use of the structures of the program’s execution as signifiers complicate our knowledge of code depth? Upon visiting the site, the browser downloads infect.jar. This simulation of the process of infection uses the system’s operation as a metaphor to make parallels between the computer and the body. This is a supposedly-hidden execution that the reader is meant to see, which complicates Cayley’s divide between machine and reader audiences. This is something seen in the structure of a language, not the actual code. Where does this fall on the Mez-Cayley spectrum?

The definition of code work: In addition to using the execution as a signifying structure, the work uses code-inflected English in a simplified Mezangelled aesthetic. Does this demonstrate how code begins to permeate language in a more subtle way? I’m thinking in particular of the lines “sHe extends [you]” and the punctuation on the Intimate screen, which allude to Java, but use the signs in different ways, showing how perhaps the presence of programming code frees us to use punctuation in novel ways, not necessarily those ways that are meaningful in the language.

The quote “sHe extends [name]” (a line in CarrierLingo) in Java, means “sHe is a type of object that builds on the functionality of the [name] object.” This line is targeted at the user rather than the system, asking us to imagine that sHe somehow takes a part of us and extends its own functionality that way. Interestingly, there is no sHe object in the source code. sHe is the (Infectious)agent that drives the program, but is the sum total effect of several other classes (see below), yet is experienced by us as a unified thing because we experience it as such. This questions the idea of there being a central signified driving the development of language and code.

Code as execution rather than artefact: Carrier suggests that life is defined by the activity of code copying rather than by an essential material, or meaning. The guiding agent, sHe, is made of Java classes that only contain parts of its behaviors; there are CarrierLingo, InfectiousAgent, and CarrierSite classes (in infect.jar), but no sHe class. A living creature (or an artificial one) is portrayed as the sum total of its actions rather than as an object. In the LifePoet nodes (fear and love), intent and order are contested by the placement of random text over Conway’s life (a process we can see is random in; activity takes the place of meaning.

January 27, 2008

Week 4: more juicy syllabus goodness

Filed under: Admin,Readings — P.J. @ 12:51 am
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For those of you wondering which “excerpts” from Cramer’s Word Made Flesh document we are expected to read, I got this message from Kate Hayles:

“As you will note, the text is quite long. Please treat is as a ‘browse’ selection and choose the section(s) that interest you the most.”

Be sure to get a clean plate before returning to the buffet line.

January 26, 2008

Lost but not for long: The Art of Me[ez]

Filed under: Admin,Readings — P.J. @ 10:50 pm
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The original link to the above listed in the syllabus directs to an expired site, but for reference I found what might be where the material has migrated.

The Art of Me[ez]

January 22, 2008

Unwritten Confession

Filed under: Discussion,Readings — moorekc @ 5:18 pm

I suspect this post will reveal more about my own critical inclinations than it will about those of Friedrich Kittler. But I feel it is necessary to confess that—probably because I am coming from a literary critical background—I allowed him to provoke me a bit. More than a bit, actually, and unexpectedly. This reached its peak in my experience reading the essay “There is No Software.” Kittler begins that essay by highlighting the importance of the dramatically increasing distance between the computer user who imagines him or herself to be writing and those who actually write the elementary functions of BIOS onto the physical silicon chip, a distance which, when we take into account of the size of the letters that appear on our word processing screen compared to the size of “a computer memory’s transistor cells,” may constitute “six orders of decimal magnitude” (147). He explains, “The bulk of written texts—including the paper I am actually reading to you—no longer exist in perceivable time and space, but in a computer memory’s transistor cells” (147). A fascinating scenario, and one that, if it posits in a new way the concealed practices of writing, does so at first without pushing terribly hard on the critical sense that might have crystallized in two or three introductory literary theory seminars. The issue seems, at the core, one of sort the postmodern literary critic is used to dealing with: coming down off structuralists such as Freud, Saussure, Lacan, Barthes and perhaps even the arguably poststructuralist Foucault, the idea that there is an dimension of the written text beyond the writer’s control is by no means alien. Kittler goes on, “This state of affairs does not only make a difference to history…It also seems to hide the very act of writing” (147). For the literature major still enamored with the romance of the codex, not to mention the autonomous creator-god, this is the limited heartbreak of “The Death of the Author” or “What is an Author?” all over again. If the fall seems a bit more bottomless, perhaps that is simply the vertiginous Of Grammatology spin Kittler adds to the matter (no doubt implied by the title, which seems an updated version of Derrida’s most famous one-liner). A momentary freefall, for sure, but ultimately a harmless one: Kittler will, for a moment, have his way with us, and at the end of day we will in return pick up an exceedingly useful term like “logical depth” and move on.


But as I continued to read, Kittler’s escalating rhetoric on the matter left me increasingly disconcerted. At the beginning of paragraph two, he writes—or does not write? It is hard to know how to put it—“As one knows without saying, we do not write anymore” (147). Here, the idea that “we do not write anymore” again pushes like the structuralists and poststructuralists upon the literary critical sensibility. But how do we account for that first part of the sentence: “As one knows without saying”? Kittler not only argues that the writer is dead. To use one of his favorite phrases, he suggests that we should always already know that. But if the point means something more than that here, might that be simply because it is deliberately provocative? Kittler seems to be cheating at the game of theory, to be throwing his assuredly destabilizing idea at us with more force than it naturally contains.


            In the middle of the essay, just as Kittler begins to deploy Luhmannian language—“In principle, this kind of descent from software to hardware, from higher to lower levels of observation, could be continued over more and more orders of magnitude” (150)—my hair stood on end. Kittler writes or does not write, “All code operations, despite such metaphoric faculties as call or return, come down to absolutely local string manipulations, that is, I am afraid, to signifiers of voltage differences” (150, italics original). Once more, the idea is a pill the literary critic can swallow: very well, writing does not occur, and even the “code operations” that give the illusion that it does still occur are reducible to (and again, these are Kittler’s italics) “signifiers of voltage differences.” But where I get hung up is on Kittler’s condescending “I am afraid.” The rhetoric is chilling, and not because it forces us to pause on the point about computing and writing but because it reminds us that we are nevertheless experiencing the point as part of the rhetoric of a scholarly essay. It is as if, in this world of new media in which writing does not take place and “There is No Software,” scholarly argument, with all its imperial demands, can take on a radical new anonymity.


            As I mentioned before, I am certain all this reveals more about me than it does about Kittler. Nevertheless, recall Kittler’s second line in “There is No Software,” which I quoted above. He writes or does not write, “The bulk of written texts—including the paper I am actually reading to you—no longer exist in perceivable time and space, but in a computer memory’s transistor cells” (147, italics mine). However parenthetically, we are clearly told from the beginning that this paper is also implicated in the new media writing problematic it seems to describe. Kittler in this way indicates that whether or not “we do not write anymore,” this is nevertheless a “paper,” and one with a readable conception of itself as such. Perhaps my anxiety, then, is the same rhetorical anxiety that has plagued critics since the beginning, or at least since Plato concealed his thoughts about writing in the famous written dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates. The new combination seems more than worth dwelling on: new media, but the same old, powerful rhetoric. So do the attendant questions of genre that seem to inevitably rise from the possibility that literary forms, which no longer exist as physical writing, can still generate the same old effects. What does a literary critic’s tongue-in-cheek confession become, for example, when we become aware it was written in a word processor, and for a blog post? What does it lose? What does it gain?

–Kevin Moore

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