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flaneur musings by teodor mitew Posts

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.

Seveneves: a review, with spoilers

I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves over the weekend, all 867 pages of it. After the first 100 pages the only thing that kept me going was the ever-receding hope that it can and will only get better. A vain hope, as it turned out. Midway through I stopped hoping for improvement and simply decided to persevere since I’d gotten so far. The final third simply fell off from whatever standard the novel was trying to uphold until then and so I went through it with perverse fascination, savoring, as it were, its descent into uncharted territory.

The short version of this review would go something like this: this is the worst of Neal Stephenson’s books, by a very large margin. Huge plot holes, no character development whatsoever, multiple poorly developed points of view leading to superficial protagonists, illogical premises, inconsistent story-world. If you are a die-hard Neal Stephenson fan, as I am, this will be on your bookshelf anyway, but wait for the bargain bin copy. If you are into space exploration and/or hard sci-fi spare yourself the time and effort and read Andy Weir’s The Martian. If you are into post-apocalypse and TEOTWAWKI scenarios read everything by Hugh Howey, starting with his Silo Saga [Wool, Shift, Dust].

Now for the longer version [again, SPOILERS]. I can safely be described as a life-long fan of Neal Stephenson’s work, and have read and own all of his books. I re-read Anathem regularly, simply because it is an almost perfect science fiction novel. Such is my dedication. I feel I must say that as a preface to what comes next. Seveneves is by far the worst book written by Neal Stephenson, and that includes the meandering narrative of the Baroque Cycle, and his collaborative Mongoliad effort. Usually fiction of the magnitude of Seveneves, running close to a thousand pages, suffers from some weak points by the sheer nature of its size and complexity as a story. That being the case, it doesn’t mean that the whole book will suffer from these weaknesses, because if the fundamental structural elements of the story are sound then the whole will stand on its own. Unfortunately, Seveneves is a disaster in every respect.

The moon is blown up by a never explained Agent and humanity has 2 years to find a way to survive as a species before the earth is bombarded by a meteorite shower lasting several thousand years and obliterating everything on the surface of the planet. So far so good, but the humans of Seveneves decide that the best solution from this predicament is to focus all their resources into an escape into low earth orbit around the International Space Station [ISS]. If you are technically inclined you will immediately observe that this is by far the most energy inefficient option, as opposed to building deep underground or underwater bases [more on that below]. In effect, the majority of the plot is centered around the desperate efforts of a tiny remnant of humanity to deal with the totally predictable effects of the absurd premise, namely, the fact that their survival plan positioned them right in the middle of a millenia-long meteorite shower and constant solar radiation. Speaking of solar radiation, its plot role is to magically deal with characters Stephenson doesn’t know what to do with. It also turns out that solar radiation, when compounded over millenia,  has zero adverse effects on the human organism. Who could have imagined?

Facing this world-ending event, all world governments, including the Chinese and the Russians, magically delegate all their authorities and resources to the US President [I kid you not] and a totally US-dominated team of scientists and military led by [I kid you not] Neil deGrasse Tyson. The character of Doc Dubois is such an obvious and lazy reference to Tyson that after the first 100 pages I started doubting whether the book was written by Stephenson at all. The plot, while dead serious about pretty much everything, asks us to believe that a TV science presenter is a deus ex machina capable of solving impossible problems on the go, and that real scientists not only take him seriously but always delegate final decision making to him. Eventually this dynamic becomes comical. But wait, there is more! On his journey to Superman-hood and species-saving exploits Neil deGrasse Tyson is accompanied by the internet mogul turned asteroid mining entrepreneur Sean Whatshisname, modeled on the love-child of Jeff Bezos [Amazon] and Elon Musk [PayPal]. Yes.

Absurdly long stretches of the narrative are focused on detailed technical descriptions of contraptions which will never be encountered again in the story, while major moments in the plot such as losing ones family and children are dedicated a paragraph or less. Apparently scientists do not emote much. Characters constantly appear to value trivial technical problems quite more than the ability to speak to their loved ones condemned to die on earth. It takes Neil deGrasse Tyson all of 5 seconds to decide to abandon his children for the benefit of being on the ISS, and this is not presented as a moral issue at all. Why bother building characters and developing a story when you could spend the next twenty pages describing an airlock? Why indeed.

Speaking of the ISS. If you know anything about the ISS you probably know that the only way to get to it right now is on a Russian Soyuz module. The commander of the Soyuz is always a Russian, and, while ISS mission commanders can be from other nations, the commander of the Russian Orbital Segment [ROS] of the ISS is always a Russian too. Now, the ROS is important, because it and only it controls the navigation and guidance systems of the ISS. In other words, the control room of the ISS is and always has been controlled by Russians, who pretty much wrote the book on space station building and maintenance. It would take you less than one hour to learn all of these things from the open internet. Apart from the Russians, the Chinese are the only other nation to currently put people into space independently, with an active space station program of their own, modeled on the Mir and Soyuz programs. Obviously, if you were to write a book whose plot is entirely centered around a quasi-realistic sci-fi scenario involving the ISS, with a target audience of people interested in these sorts of things, this might be an important fact to consider and weave in your plot. Not so with Seveneves, which magically deals with uncomfortable facts by ignoring them altogether. And so, the Russians play a plot role oscillating between space-plumbers and thugs, while the Chinese have no plot role at all. A rag-tag team of US scientists led by Neil deGrasse Tyson is all it takes.

Remember the absurd premise of trying to survive in low earth orbit for 5 thousand years in the middle of a meteorite shower? Apparently someone pointed that out in early draft edits, because there is a secondary plot latched superficially to the main plot, involving throwaway characters who somehow manage to successfully survive 5 thousand years in a mine and on the ocean floor of planet earth. Yes. How did they do that without the major nation-state resources necessary to accomplish it? We are never told. Instead, these characters are superficially tied to the main protagonists through family bonds which conveniently melt into air the moment the meteor shower starts, only to reappear as cherished relics 5 thousand years later [I kid you not]. In Neal Stephenson’s version of historical development, 5 thousand years is basically like 50 years – some people die, some people change a bit, some people get a little bit weird, but basically everyone still speaks the same language [naturally – English], and everyone understands each other’s jokes. After 5 thousand years of solitary development all it takes to immediately reestablish connection between 3 cultures is taking out the family heirlooms from 5 millenia ago, which includes pictures. Let that sink in. This is not even high-school level of absurd, so I don’t really know what to say about it. Even 50 years in a shared cultural space generates more variety than what Stephenson wants us to believe was generated over 5000 years in communities completely cut off from each other. Imagine bumping into a Sumerian and immediately starting to discuss life, politics and economics, in English. This is the major plot moment of Seveneves. It repeats twice, in case you did not get the message the first time.

Characters make randomly absurd decisions with infuriating consistency. Protagonists who are clearly dangerous for the survival of the species [cannibals] are not only allowed to live, but others regularly sacrifice themselves on their behalf. A protagonist who continuously endangers the lives of everyone is allowed to continue to do so, in a situation where what is at stake is the survival of the species – something which, we are told, is constantly on everyone’s mind. Characters do not undergo any dramatic development, they just appear, are given a two page treatment reading like a Wired advertorial for a tech stock, and then go on their business to die for other characters without an explanation why. The final part of the book introduces a new main protagonist who, and I have to admit this is an achievement of sorts, has no personality whatsoever. Points of view between protagonists shift so often that the reader cannot begin to empathize with the poorly written characters because there is no time.

Coming to think of it, the only redeeming element of the book are the space propulsion ideas. If Stephenson had written a short story collection playing with each idea in turn, it would have been honest, and great. Instead, we have this monolith of bad writing and worse characterization, which, in solidarity with its plot, should be shot into low earth orbit and kept there indefinitely.

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.

On Nightmares

In a lecture on Nightmares, delivered in Buenos Aires in the summer of 1977, by which time he was completely blind and therefore speaking entirely from memory, Jorge Luis Borges narrates the following story from the fifth book of Wordsworth’s Prelude, one that was later to be praised by De Quincey.

Wordsworth tells us that he was in a rocky cave by the sea. It was noon, and he was reading Don Quixote, one of his favorite books, ‘the famous history of the errant knight recorded by Cervantes.’ He put down the book and began to think about the end of science and art, and then the hour came. The powerful hour of noon, a hot summer noon. ‘Sleep seized me’, he recalls, ‘and I passed into a dream.’ He falls asleep in the cave, facing the sea, amid the golden sands of the beach. In his dream he is also surrounded by sand, a Sahara of black sand. There is no water, there is no sea. He is in the middle of a desert – in the desert one is always in the middle – and he is horrified at the thought of trying to escape. Suddenly he sees there is someone next to him. It is, oddly enough, an Arab of the Bedouin tribes, mounted on a camel and with a lance in his right hand. Under his left arm he has a stone, and in his hand he holds a shell. He brings the shell to the poet’s ear; the shell is of an extraordinary beauty. Wordsworth tells us he hears a prophecy ‘in an unknown tongue which yet I understood’: a sort of tender ode, prophesying that the earth was on the verge of being destroyed by a flood sent by the wrath of God.  The Arab tells him that it is true, the flood is coming, but that he has a mission: to save the arts and sciences. He shows him the stone. And the stone is, curiously, Euclid’s Elements, while remaining a stone. Then he brings the shell closer, and the shell too is a book; it is what had spoken those terrible things. The shell is, moreover, all the poetry of the world, including – why not? – the poem by Wordsworth. The Bedouin tells him that he must save these two things, the stone and the shell, both of them books. He turns around, and there is a moment in which Wordsworth sees that the face of the Bedouin has changed, that it is full of horror. He too turns around, and he sees a great light, a light that has now flooded the middle of the desert. It is the waters of the flood that will destroy the earth. The Bedouin goes off, and Wordsworth sees that the Bedouin is also Don Quixote and that the camel is also Rosinante and that, in the same way that the stone was a book and the shell a book, so the Bedouin is Don Quixote and is neither of the two and is both at once. This duality corresponds to the horror of the dream. Wordsworth, at that moment, wakes with a cry of terror, for the waters have engulfed him.

I think that this nightmare is one of the most beautiful in literature.