Mar 082017
 

This aphorism by Nassim Taleb condenses everything one needs to know about the dynamics of inertia, complexity, and thinking in linear trajectories.

Inertia, also known as path dependency, stands for a dynamic in which a network has so much invested in its perpetuation along a set of linear parameters that any deviation from those parameters [the path] will increase its operational costs to catastrophic proportions. The network – usually a vertically integrated complex such as a large bureaucratic organization – views path deviation as a direct challenge to its performativity, and aims to preempt deviations by continuously generating a wall of reinforcement noise RN [RN = organizational culture]. RN increases complexity along the entire structure of the network by adding an additional layer of agency to be performed along with the rest of its functions. Over time, as inertia is dynamically reinforced, such networks start resonating with RN to a threshold after which a process of dynamic self-selection starts eliminating network nodes not resonating at RN frequencies. From the perspective of RN [and senior management] the elimination of these nodes is intended to increase coherence and structural integrity. Paradoxically however, this process increases complexity even further, as it prunes any nodes capable of performing non-linearly and pulling the network away from inertia.

The RN driven self-selection process is an emergent quality of networks stuck in inertia. Crucially, while such networks generate RN as a defensive mechanism, it is also their biggest weakness, as all it takes to completely disrupt the network is to hack/jam/modify the RN, or for reality to intervene in its usual nonlinear way. The aphorism above captures this scenario.

Inertia rule of thumb: the moment an external observer can detect identical RN signals emanating unprompted from at least three structurally distinct nodes of a network [i.e. front-side, admin, senior management], one can deduce the network has flatlined into path dependency.

At that moment, when viewed from the inside, the network appears stable and full of robust momentum [‘we are all on the same page’]. However, RN driven inertia is a death sentence to any network as it leaves it completely exposed to, and at the mercy of, other networks capable of attenuating its RN and/or using the predictability of its path dependency to their advantage. Most importantly, even if no such outside networks exist [maybe they all are stuck in path dependencies], the costs of performativity of inertia rise exponentially with changes to the environment in which the network operates. While the network’s path is by necessity linear, the changes outside of it are always nonlinear. This divergence generates entropy and inevitably leads to collapse.

Feb 202017
 

I am developing a paper on swarm networks and meme warfare together with Travis Wall who is a PhD student of mine. The topic is very interesting in light of the astonishing mobilization of collective intelligence across various internet forums [4chan, and Reddit in particular] during the 2016 US presidential campaign. We are focusing on a single case study – the #draftourdaughters campaign – developing in the final pre-election week on 4chan’s /pol/ forum. Ironically, some of the material we are discussing is quite contentious and therefore picking a journal to publish our piece requires some strategizing.

Swarm networks and the design process of a distributed meme warfare campaign

The 2016 US presidential elections were surrounded by a vast social media campaign, involving the phenomenon of distributed memetic warfare on a scale unseen before. #draftourdaughters was a viral memetic campaign organised and produced by anonymous members of the internet board 4chan, and then deployed to wider audiences on platforms such as Reddit, Twitter and Facebook. Memetic warfare in social media has recently been documented in case studies of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (Rodley 2016) and the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict (Wiggins 2016). These studies present and analyse the content generated by users, with a central focus on continual content remixing, and generation of semiotic messaging. In contrast, this paper aims to develop a systemic perspective of the mechanics of generation of targeted memes, by analysing the swarm like topology of 4chan’s /pol/ forum (Hine et al. 2016), and the logistics of the swarm’s rapid prototyping, coordination, production, and dissemination of content.

The paper uses as it’s case study the #draftourdaughters campaign, which is documented in its entirety from inception to completion. The anonymous conversations conceptualising the campaign, as well as the rapid prototyping and ideation process informed by the swarm’s quick feedback loop, are analysed with a conceptual apparatus informed by actor network theory, and then mapped to design process research. Concepts native to the open source movement make the foundation of the framework analysing the collaborative dynamics and production of content (Raymond 2001, Robb 2007), further developing open source remix as a fundamental mechanic to content production. Further analysis is performed using concepts from systems theory (Baran 1962), swarming in conflict scenarios (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 2000), and approaches to fourth generation warfare (Lind and Thiele 2015). The behaviour of the swarm in response to an identified goal is mapped to concepts central to design process methodology (Dubberly 2008).

The main focus of the argument is in developing a coherent and systemic perspective on the logistics of distributed memetic production in online spaces potentiating swarm-like behaviour in their user-base. The authors examine this process in its entirety, from the logistics of swarm formation to the rapid prototyping of ideas leveraging short feedback loops, and the collaborative creation of semantically targeted media. Anonymous online spaces such as 4chan are identified as environments fostering a powerful feedback loop of distributed ideation, content production and dissemination. Through examining these phenomena, the paper also provides perspective on the manifestation of collaborative design practice in online participatory media spaces.

———

Arquilla, J and Ronfeldt, D 2000, Swarming and the Future of Conflict, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, viewed 9 February 2017, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/documented_briefings/2005/RAND_DB311.pdf

Baran, P 1962, ‘On Distributed Communications Networks’, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, viewed 9 February 2017, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/papers/2005/P2626.pdf

Dubberly, H 2008, How Do You Design? A Compendium of Models, Dubberly Design Office, viewed 9 February 2017, http://www.dubberly.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/ddo_designprocess.pdf

Hine, G, Onaolapo J, De Cristofaro E, Kourtellis N, Leontiadis I, Samaras R, Stringhini G, Blackburn J 2016, ‘A Longitudinal Measurement Study of 4chan’s Politically Incorrect Forum and its Effect on the Web’, viewed 9 February 2017, https://arxiv.org/pdf/1610.03452.pdf

Lind, W and Thiele, G 2015, 4th Generation Warfare, Castalia House

Raymond, E 2001, The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, O’Reilly, Beijing.

Rodley, C 2016, ‘When Memes Go to War: Viral Propaganda in the 2014 Gaza-Israel Conflict’, Fibreculture Journal, Issue 27, viewed 9 February 2017, http://twentyseven.fibreculturejournal.org/2016/03/18/fcj-200-when-memes-go-to-war-viral-propaganda-in-the-2014-gaza-israel-conflict/

Robb, J 2008, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, Wiley, Hoboken

Wiggins B 2016, ‘Crimea River: Directionality in Memes from the Russia-Ukraine Conflict’, International Journal of Communication, vol 10, pp-451-485, viewed 9 February 2017, http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/4103

Feb 202017
 

This is a conversation on the Internet of Things I recorded with my colleague Chris Moore as part of his podcasted lecture series on cyberculture. As interviews go this is quite organic, without a set script of questions and answers, hence the rambling style and side-stories. Among others, I discuss: the Amazon Echo [Alexa], enchanted objects, Mark Weiser and ubiquitous computing, smart clothes, surveillance, AI, technology-induced shifts in perception, speculative futurism, and paradigm shifts.

Feb 202017
 

This is an extended chapter abstract I wrote for an edited collection titled Atmospheres of Scale and Wonder: Creative Practice and Material Ecologies in the Anthropocene, due by the end of this year. I am first laying the groundwork in actor network theory, then developing the concept of hierophany borrowed from Eliade, and finally [where the fun begins], discussing the Amazon Echo, the icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, and the asteroid 2010 TK7 residing in Earth Lagrangian point 4. An object from the internet of things, a holy icon, and an asteroid. To my best knowledge none of these objects have been discussed in this way before, either individually or together, and I am very excited to write this chapter.

Comparative hierophany at three object scales

What if we imagined atmosphere as a framing device for stabilizing material settings and sensibilities? What you call a fetishized idol, is in my atmosphere a holy icon. What your atmosphere sees as an untapped oil field, I see as the land where my ancestral spirits freely roam. Your timber resource is someone else’s sacred forest. This grotesque, and tragic, misalignment of agencies is born out of an erasure, a silencing, which then proceeds to repeat this act of forced purification across all possible atmospheres. This chapter unfolds within the conceptual space defined by this erasure of humility towards the material world. Mirroring its objects of discussion, the chapter is constructed as a hybrid.

First, it is grounded in three fundamental concepts from actor network theory known as the irreduction, relationality, and resistance-relation axioms. They construct an atmosphere where things respectively: can never be completely translated and therefore substituted by a stand-in; don’t need human speakers to act in their stead, but settings in which their speech can be recognized; resist relations while also being available for them. When combined, these axioms allow humans to develop a sensibility for the resistant availability of objects. Here, objects speak incessantly, relentlessly if allowed to, if their past is flaunted rather than concealed.

Building on that frame, the chapter adopts, with modifications, the notion of a hierophany, as developed by Mircea Eliade, as a conceptual frame for encountering the resistant availability of material artefacts. In its original meaning a hierophany stands for the material manifestation of a wholly other, sacred, order of being. Hierophanies are discontinuities, self-enclosed spheres of meaning. Arguably though, hierophanies emerging from the appearance of a sacred order in an otherwise profane material setting can be viewed as stabilizing techniques. They stabilise an atmospheric time, where for example sacred time is cyclical, while profane time is linear; and they stabilise an atmospheric space, where sacred space is imbued with presence by ritual and a plenist sensibility, while profane space is Euclidean, oriented around Cartesian coordinates and purified from sacred ritual.

Finally, building on these arguments, the chapter explores the variations of intensity of encounters with hierophanic presences at three scales, anchored by three objects. Three objects, three scales, three intensities of encounter. The first encounter is with the Amazon Echo, a mundane technical object gendered by its makers as Alexa. An artefact of the internet of things, Alexa is a speaker for a transcendental plane of big data and artificial intelligence algorithms, and therefore her knowledge and skills are ever expanding. The second encounter is with the icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland, a holy relic and a religious object. The icon is a speaker for a transcendental plane of a whole different order than Alexa, but crucially, I argue the difference to be not ontological but that of hierophanic intensities. The third encounter is with TK7, an asteroid resident in Earth Lagrangian Point 4, and discovered only in 2010. TK7 speaks for a transcendental plane of a wholly non-human order, because it is quite literally not of this world. All three objects have resistant availability at various intensities, all three have a hierophanic pull on their surroundings, also at various intensities. Alexa listens, and relentlessly answers with a lag less than 1 second. The Black Madonna icon listens, and may answer to the prayers of pilgrims. TK7 is literally not of this world, a migratory alien object residing, for now, as a stable neighbor of ours.

May 212016
 

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:

May 192016
 

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.

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.

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.

May 192016
 

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.

Nov 042014
 

This is a prezi from the research paper I gave at an Institute for Social Transformation Research (ISTR) seminar last week. I played with ideas going into several papers I am working on at the moment, but mainly my focus was on anticipatory materiality and the notion of liquid objects. Here is the abstract for the talk:

As internet-connected objects become more and more sociable – smart fridge, smart car, etc. – they become less and less ‘stable’ (think of rocks, coffee mugs, etc. as examples of material stability), and more and more like a twitter feed. 3D printing only compounds this process as the material is literally liquefied and injected based on computer code – in effect the code is primary, and tangible materiality is secondary in this process. The resulting materiality is literally ‘on demand’ – in that it exists as relational data first and foremost and as material artefact only when demanded; and anticipatory – in that the main characteristic of connected objects is their capacity to initiate action based on predictive algorithms. My argument is structured as a provocation examining the notion of anticipatory materiality in the context of the internet of things and 3D printing.

Oct 012014
 

This is a text I’ve been working on, or rather keeping in the back of my mind, for quite a while, and now it’s finished and sent to Fiberculture Journal. The early beta was presented at a conference in Istanbul in 2011, and my thinking on sociable objects has evolved quite a bit since then. The key shift in my thinking was facilitated by a series of chance encounters – discovering object oriented ontology through Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, finding the notion of affective resonance in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and rediscovering the heteroclite in Lorraine Daston’s awesome Things That Talk.