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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
This John Klossner cartoon is a great illustration of an internet of things scenario populated by sociable objects. Sociability is expressed through the ability of objects to interact with each other and humans, as well as through their ability to refuse such an interaction.
Amazon’s warehouse robots in a machinic routine. I can watch this all day.