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Category: academic

Smart fabrics and networked clothing

I am working with a team researching the networking of carbon-nanotube [CNT] woven garments, and recently we published a position paper on the concepts of smart fabrics  and networked clothing. We are interested in developing a coherent conceptual framework for what is, arguably, a paradigmatic shift in networking technologies, physically bringing human bodies online.

Object Hierophanies and the Mode of Anticipation

As I posted earlier, I am participating in a panel on data natures at the International Symposium on Electronic Art [ISEA] in Hong Kong. My paper is titled Object Hierophanies and the Mode of Anticipation, and discusses the transition of bid data-driven IoT objects such as the Amazon Echo to a mode of operation where they appear as a hierophany – after Mircea Eliade – of a higher modality of being, and render the loci in which they exist into a mode of anticipation.

I start with a brief section on the logistics of the IoT, focusing on the fact that it involves physical objects monitoring their immediate environments through a variety of sensors, transmitting the acquired data to remote networks, and initiating actions based on embedded algorithms and feedback loops. The context data produced in the process is by definition transmitted to and indexed in a remote database, from the perspective of which the contextual data is the object.

The Amazon Echo continuously listens to all sounds in its surroundings, and reacts to the wake word Alexa. It interacts with its interlocutors through a female sounding interface called the Alexa Voice Service [AVS], which Amazon made available to third-party hardware makers. What is more, the core algorithms of AVS, known as the Alexa Skills Kit [ASK] are opened to developers too, making it easy for anyone to teach Alexa a new ‘skill’. The key dynamic in my talk is the fact that human and non-human agencies, translated by the Amazon Echo as data, are transported to the transcendental realm of the Amazon Web Services [AWS] where it is modulated, stored for future reference, and returned as an answering Echo. In effect, the nature of an IoT enabled object appears as the receptacle of an exterior force that differentiates it from its milieu and gives it meaning and value in unpredictable ways.

Objects such as the Echo acquire their value, and in so doing become real for their interlocutors, only insofar as they participate in one way or another in remote data realities transcending the locale of the object. Insofar as the data gleaned by such devices has predictive potential when viewed in aggregate, the enactment of this potential in a local setting is always already a singular act of manifestation of a transcendental data nature with an overriding level of agency.

In his work on non-modern notions of sacred space philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade conceptualized this act of manifestation of another modality of being into a local setting as a hierophany. Hierophanies are not continuous, but wholly singular acts of presence by a different modality. By manifesting that modality, which Eliade termed as the sacred, an object becomes the receptacle for a transcendental presence, yet simultaneously continues to remain inextricably entangled in its surrounding milieu. I argue that there is a strange similarity between non-modern imaginaries of hierophany as a gateway to the sacred, and IoT enabled objects transducing loci into liminal and opaque data taxonomies looping back as a black-boxed echo. The Echo, through the voice of Alexa, is in effect the hierophanic articulator of a wholly non-human modality of being.

Recently, Sally Applin and Michael Fischer have argued that when aggregated within a particular material setting sociable objects form what is in effect an anticipatory materiality acting as a host to human interlocutors. The material setting becomes anticipatory because of the implied sociability of its component objects, allowing them to not only exchange data about their human interlocutor, but also draw on remote data resources, and then actuate based on the parameters of that aggregate social memory.

In effect, humans and non-humans alike are rendered within a flat ontology of anticipation, waiting for the Echo.

Here is the video of my presentation:

And here are the prezi slides:

On craft, digital making, glitch, and hyper kawaii

This is a lecture I thoroughly enjoyed preparing, and had great fun delivering to my first year digital media class of 200 students. The prezi slides are below. My intention was to provoke students into thinking in interesting and weird ways about remediation across media platforms, about object animation through digital means, and about the new aesthetics of the glitch and hyper kawaii. I ended up being more successful than I expected, in that the lecture provoked extreme reactions oscillating from strong rejection of the very premises to enthusiastic exploration of the implications and pathways opened by them. I start with a quick overview of the changing meaning of craft in a time of digital mediation, then move on to the aesthetics of remediation between analog and digital forms, and object animation and its effect on experiences of the material.

Julie Watai -
Julie Watai

I constructed the main argument around the transition from industrial culture in which production is determined by the logic of the assembly line, to a post-industrial culture in which production is determined by the logic of mass customization. Arguably, the latter is characterized by rapid prototyping, experimentation, iterative error discovery, and modifications leading to unexpected outcomes. I illustrate this with a beautiful quote by David Pye, from his The Nature and Art of Workmanship, where he argues that while industrial manufacturing is characterized by the production of certainty, craftsmanship is always the production of risk because the quality of the result is an unknown during the process of making.

xMinks at work
xMinks at work

My favorite part of the lecture is where I managed to integrate into a single narrative phenomena such as glitch aesthetics and hyper kawaii, exemplified by Julie Watai and xMinks, with a cameo by Microsoft’s ill-fated Tay AI bot.

The image I used as canvas for the prezi is a remediation of the Amen Break 6-second loop into a 3-d printed sound wave, crafted by a student of mine last year.

On mapping: from actual facts to factual acts

Some time ago I was invited to give a lecture on mapping to a crowd of mostly first year digital media students working on locative media projects. Below are the prezi slides. Considering the audience, I made a light theory introduction focusing on the notions or representation and the factual, and then moved to discussing various examples of maps as interfaces to movement and agency. My talk was mostly a simplified version of my paper on mapping theory, with a focus on the dynamics of translation and transportation of immutable mobiles – a fundamental concept in actor network theory. In essence, the lecture is built around a dichotomy between two concepts of mapping: 1] mapping as a representation of a static frame of reference – an actual fact, and 2] mapping as a translation of and an interface to agency and movement – a factual act. The tension between actual facts and factual acts is a nerdy reference to Latour’s from matters of fact to matters of concern, and is intended to illustrate the affordances of digital media in opening and mapping black-boxed settings. Apparently, the lecture was a success, with the Sand Andreas Streaming Deer Cam being a crowd favorite.

Stop dehumanizing robots

Here is a video of what, if there were only humans involved, would be considered a case of serious abuse and be met with counselling for all parties involved. The video is of a robot trying to evade a group of children abusing it. It is part of two projects titled “Escaping from Children’s Abuse of Social Robots,” by Dražen Brščić, Hiroyuki Kidokoro, Yoshitaka Suehiro, and Takayuki Kanda from ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories and Osaka University, and “Why Do Children Abuse Robots?”, by Tatsuya Nomura, Takayuki Uratani, Kazutaka Matsumoto, Takayuki Kanda, Hiroyoshi Kidokoro, Yoshitaka Suehiro, and Sachie Yamada from Ryukoku University, ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, and Tokai University, presented at the 2015 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

Contrary to the moral panic surrounding intelligent robots and violence, symbolized by the Terminator trope, the challenge is not how to avoid an apocalypse spearheaded by AI killer-robots, but how to protect robots from being brutalized by humans, and particularly by children. This is such an obvious issue once you start thinking about it. You have a confluence of ludism [rage against the machines] in all its technophobia varieties – from economic [robots are taking our jobs], to quasi-religious [robots are inhuman and alien], with the conviction that ‘this is just a machine’ and therefore violence against it is not immoral. The thing about robots, and all machines, is that they are tropic – instead of intent they could be said to have tropisms, which is to say purpose-driven sets of reactions to stimuli. AI infused robots would naturally eclipse the tropic limitation by virtue of being able to produce seemingly random reactions to stimuli, which is a quality particular to conscious organisms.

The moral panic is produced by this transgresison of the machinic into the human. Metaphorically, it can be illustrated by the horror of discovering that a machine has human organs, or human feelings, which is the premise of the Ghost in Shell films. So far so good, but the problem is that the other side of this vector goes full steam ahead as the human transgresses into the machinic. As humans become more and more enmeshed and entangled in close-body digital augmentation-nets [think FitBit], they naturally start reifying their humanity with the language of machines [think the quantified self movement]. If that is the case, then why not do the same for the other side, and start reifying machines with the language of humans – i.e. anthropomorphise and animate them?

Authenticity for internety things

I think that the Internet of Things [IoT] for the masses will first manifest itself, paradoxically, through branded and high-end objects, because that is the usual vector for popularizing a new technical affordance. The entire nascent industry of trackers, from the Nest line of ambient ‘see everything’s’, and the FitBit ecology of wearable trackers, to the SenSe Mother household tracking hubs, the trajectory is to appeal to the aspiring [and lately shrinking] middle class and above. Enter Remy Martin IoT bottles for the Chinese market, positioned around the notion of authenticity. How do you get authenticity in this age of fakes? You connect to the internet of course, and personally register your bottle for that extra bit of authentic stamp of approval that someone somewhere has recognized your conspicuous consumption.

I think the two big trajectories along which we will be experiencing the IoT are nicely illustrated by this ad. The lumpen-proletariat gets the surveillance end, the middle class and everyone above gets the authenticity and personalization.

Drone Aviary

To understand the effects, affordances, and contextual implications of cars one has to imagine not a single car, but the mindbogglingly dull commute in a suburban traffic jam. Similarly, to understand the affordances of drones and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles – a terrible term] one has to imagine the sky-air permeated by networked machines; from micro-drones suitable as toys and message relay, to massive permanent-hover drones suitable for advertising, surveillance, and – inevitably – policing. Enter The Drone Aviary – an R&D project from The Superflux Lab.

The Drone Aviary reveals fleeting glimpses of the city from the perspective of drones. It explores a world where the ‘network’ begins to gain physical autonomy. Drones become protagonists, moving through the city, making decisions about the world and influencing our lives in often opaque yet profound ways.