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.
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:
I am participating in this year’s International Symposium on Electronic Art [ISEA] in Hong Kong in a panel with colleagues from design, creative arts and digital media – Jo Sterling, Su Ballard, and Jo Law. We are discussing the various natures and aesthetics of data as a vector of prediction and control in four different case studies. Below is the panel paper we are building from.
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.
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.
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.