Can you be copied anew?

One day Fall of 2017 in Magerko’s Expressive Computing seminar, he lept to his feet after reading a news snippet that appeared on his laptop. If my memory serves me correctly, I think he called Elon Musk a moron after some comment he made about AI. Unfortunately as in Bogost’s article Musk is surrounded by good company. Although I think Gates isn’t worried about a Sci-Fi dystopia, but more of the economic implications of AI implementations. I think he has in mind the growing social wealth disparities that will grow exponentially as new technologies displace human labor on scales not seen since the industrial revolution. This is a less sexy claim to make. Hollywood can’t make a good movie about social inequity. But Bogost is right AI as a catch-all term is pointless. The article written by Jerry Kaplan that Bogost mentions is very blunt. “Machines are not people, and there’s no persuasive evidence that they are on a path toward sentience.” I’ve never seen it stated this clearly and it doesn’t make for a good news or marketing.

Kate Crawford’s talk spells out the more near-sighted stakes in public policy surrounding AI. Shall we rely on Europe to get it right? Especially when the stakes around diversity are different from “ours” or globally. Do we need specialized data sets? Is the geopolitics of AI, between the US and China, potentially another form of colonialism?

Here’s a couple of things we can try out in class. Has anyone is tried https://thispersondoesnotexist.com
This website, created by Philip Wang, presents a random computer generated photo of a fictional person. Every time you refresh there’s a new face. You can infer how these pictures skew, heavily white, few black with a smattering of Asian. Also, https://havetheyfaked.me/ takes the same data set and searches for a match using your selfie. It should promote discussion. According to the second website, my face was very close to being faked.

Ages are never dark, look at Bridle’s cover art

The New Dark Age covers significant developments occurring in the age of computing and the ecological problems with technology, a polarizing electorate, and rampant capitalist consumption. The book chapters are unnecessarily alliterated and the title is questionable although he justifies his choices through literary metaphor. I enjoyed the style of his writing, but a few themes can be and are being addressed by different fields of computing. For example, HCI researchers know about the bias in training data for machine learning applications. Increased testing, outside certification, or more cautious use of opaque application logic would reduce the prejudice he has problems with and is an alternative to the computational thinking at the heart of this book. I also expected a more damaging portrayal of neoliberalism, just as he attacks conservatives in his book. Especially for a publication from Verso, one not conversant in the geopolitical stakes would question the trustworthiness of his scientific critique, if he only lays blame on one side of the political spectrum. It’s not about a lesser of two evils rhetoric with these very crucial stakes at hand. This is especially apparent in his critique of science. How can your average tech-illiterate believe climate change after slamming science in this way? It is very well-researched and comprehensive. The connections he makes are necessary and has helped me rethink the readings we have had to this point in the semester. Though I think we need a book that speaks to the literacy required to help most understand all the arguments he makes at a very high level.

Kapital instead of Image/Labor

While I enjoyed the various summaries of the effect of market economies entering the digital age, they don’t change very much in the insight on the how the structures of capitalism work to solidify capital. The Navajo piece is an early crucial unique example of the beginnings of techno-colonialism not abroad, but in an American context. Though the author rightly points out that a reservation from a legal standpoint is already a country within a country. The Buzzfeed article is most helpful in that it describes various attempts to document the controlled ethereality of data, in an activist mode. It details ways archival interventions are valuable to help keep alive public memory of contested uprisings in the Middle East. Jonathan Beller’s piece is theoretically impressive, yet provides no alternatives, but the promise of post-statest blockchain sensorium. I need more pragmatic examples like the ones initiated by the Arab Spring demonstrators and those trying to document war crimes in Syria. There’s also a bit missing in the economic underpinning that Beller ignores in this techno-examination of image/labor. I’ve been reading Thomas Piketty currently and not as penance for not taking economics as undergraduate. His central thesis in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that wealth inequality (his main focus), close to Beller’s stance on capitalisms undemocratic principles, is a historical trend that started before the beginning of the industrial revolution way into the 18th century. The origins help one understand how capital, not labor, solidifies these market realities. The haves and have-nots are not an accident, but rather an integral feature of capitalism. In Piketty’s opinion this status quo, getting worse in the 21st century, can be reversed only through state intervention or in my opinion through revolutionizing what we consider as state actors. Beller’s solutions are more pessimistic, but just as iffy. Piketty is a little more confident in the powers of democracy to institute a reversal on the accumulation of capital. But he does offer a very pragmatic solution, an intra-global tax on wealth. Beller intends to describe how the stakes have fundamentally changed yet are amorphous and nebulous. I believe the digital wave might not have changed labor all that much. I think with every example of techno-determinism, some interventions can remedy or “detourn” the primacy of the image. It depends if anyone is listening or can listen. It would be helpful for Beller to examine capital instead of labor. That’s what Marx would have done.

Archaeologists dirty secrets

Shannon Mattern‘s work is provocatively unique, but I feel hard to sustain for most as a mode of historiography. Her field of expertise is vast and would be daunting to most. Her summary of the field of media archaeology, therefore, will serve me well going forward in my diss. Her writing on radio as mapping topographies of urban space has helped me over the weekend rethink the use of broadcast media during the Spanish Civil War. According to the historians I’ve thus far consulted, the war in between both of the World Wars was the first to be profoundly effected by the new medium. Although, most the radio was not an urban phenomenon. Besides Madrid and Barcelona, the radio was underground and produced by a myriad of different factions and political parties. And unlike England or Germany, without a national station. So how does one talk about radio as creating a historical consensus beyond the city, when it’s production in rural and devoted to revolution? Are natural topographies, not just human-made structures, affected by the invisibility and connectedness of the medium? These are questions that I am happy to ask going forward sparked by the reading this week.
I was also especially struck by her critique of archaeology at large, the fetishization of the new, and the human tragedy of the Palmira project. This critique fully reflects my educational development. I began with intentions to be an archaeologist, but eventually felt that the people in my anthropology classes were uninteresting. I turned to Art History to study precolumbian art and the same issues returned in graduate school. During my first archaeological fieldwork in Guatemala I was struck first by the political ether in the environment, utterly oblivious to the team I was a part. The poverty of our workers was unproblematic, almost doing them a favor. And precolumbian studies itself is incestuous. Archeologist train locals in the trade. They leave during the rainy season, while locals loot for subsistence. These artifacts end up in the collections of wealthy donors to university endowments and the circle starts again. I decided I couldn’t work in this system, even though ancient art like Mattern is a passion. It’s promising that I may yet use some of this knowledge as a new mode of media comparisons, as presented in this book. The difference is that media archaeology’s critique may yet help people today, instead of making the past the only important motivation.

Fascist media paranoia

The YouTube link I’m sharing is to “Don’t be a Sucker” from 1947. It directly relates to this week’s reading. It’s a US military produced film after World War II with some of the same themes covered by Fred Turner in the first half of the book. I wish I had shared it earlier. Do watch this if you have time. The Democratic Surround will definitely be added to my qualifying exam list. I had read parts of his first book and preferred this one. We haven’t talked much about style in class. Maybe it’s not relevant, but I find my favorite historians are also good storytellers. I think Fred Turner is the media history version of Michael Pollan. He’s very clear and concise while weaving the historical narrative through various threads. I’m especially excited about his work on the perceived threat of fascism in the US and the government reactions to understand this phenomenon. I was surprised how much of the social science research, supported by the government, was based on Freudian psychology. The one thing that might have added nuance to his argument would have to downplay the actual effect of mass media in the German case and not just the US reaction. I just finished the book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray. His argument of the growth of fascism in Germany revolved around the infighting between socialist parliamentarians and communist parties during the interwar period. They all underestimated Hitler’s organizing power and “the left” never united to stop him until it was too late. The lack of knowledge by the US public of the fragmented opposition to the Nazis only intensifies the paranoia. From the US perspective, Hitler seemed to come out of nowhere. The same Antifa organizing was happening in the US against the Amerikadeutcher Volksbund, with more positive results. The argument Turner builds through the rest book relies on the pluralism that cements the American identity. The video I posted is further evidence of the anxiety that Turner writes about, both academic, artistic and governmental.
Also here’s a picture I recently found that relates to my Ph.D. research in the Spanish Civil War. The same sort of adjacent insights during Europe’s fight against fascism. This conflict is the first to use radio as an organizing tool. The poster says:
“The radio receiver is the mouthpiece of culture in the home of the worker! Respect its property! Propagate its acquisition!”

Play the game or be played?

This week’s readings nicely surveyed three gendered perspectives on gaming historiography. The journalist, pragmatic and jovial, wanted to serve as media archaeologist for the sexual activities of proto-personal computer hobbyists. The piece served less as a critique of misogyny, but a celebration of the communities of conflict that grew up around the controversies that arose during the games commercial distribution. As a short publishable piece in the Atlantic, it serves its purpose. What was missing was a more significant analysis of the game itself and how it’s masculine tropes might have been replicated in code. The next article, written by a video artist and media historian, shifts the narrative of games to the politics inherent in participation. It suggests that today we are living in a game that we can’t shut off and we today are the real pawns of corporate game masters. While her real-world examples were cogent and provocative, I did not fully understand (or doubt that I get) the repercussions of political solutions and strategies that can be created to intervene in gamification or fight the artistic crapstraction imposed and popularized by market forces. I hope that we may discuss this tomorrow, as my project for this class serves as such an intervention to warfare and historical determinism. The third piece, written by a historian, broadens community participatory historical research and demands that to fully disavowal previous knowledge toward the subject in question will allow a fair representation of the said topic. I do not agree with his totalizing call to come from a place of ignorance to inform the colonization of issues. It seems this pledge of innocence should be reserved to those that come from a white heteronormative background. The best histories are written through collaboration and should include the voice of the subject if it’s not already the agest ethnic-racial sexual orientation perspective of the researcher in question.

Audience and Perception questions on Peripheral Vision

Our reactions, as academics in specialist fields, toward these early experiments in computer animation that Patterson explores is a mixture of speculation and aura. Much like Patterson’s train of art historical formalism, we fully appreciate the aesthetic goals of the computer artists in question. I was interested in getting beyond our critical response of the text and artwork, so I screened VanDerBeck’s Poemfield No. 1 and gave a brief introduction to the mechanics of the S-C 4020, but not the computer, to my art history students at Perimeter College. Hopefully, this short commentary will add a bit of critical perspective that doesn’t engage with the book’s argument. One that I believe stretches the role of perception and doesn’t put in perspective entirely the scientific output of these machines.
One student called it the “longest four minutes of my life.” This consensus starkly contrasts with Patterson’s attempt to link intention to reception. Another student felt the poem was scary and angry, primarily because of the color red. She thought that the imagery resembled a death threat. Another student described the graphics as loud.

Interestingly the General Dynamics advertisements about the S-C 4020 were much better received by my students. They liked the progressive historical teleology of the animation (Patterson’s narrative doesn’t do it justice). It seemed that the historical evidence gave the machine a purpose, even though this advertisement was an afterthought. I also provided them with pictures of the “printer.” They, in turn, stressed an appreciation for the time and work involved in creating concise work. One student fascinated about creating computer animation without a screen believes that our over saturation of screens in society today has led to a cultural shift. “Back then people took their jobs seriously.” Implying today the mediation of screens takes us away from the materiality of labor, a very Marxist concept. They connected the primitive animated poetry to the early simplicity of Twitter and the subtle minimalist message. Overall the responses were varied and not necessarily positive. This might be something our class could explore, especially when we consider the audience and the practicality of early computer art.

Modernity’s Dark Primitive Secrets

Elcott’s argues that the darkness present in 18th, 19th and early 20th-century “work” spaces, theaters, and studios are a mediated apparatus independent of the new emerging technologies of spectacle. His modern media archaeology is based on the margins, demanding we enter the dark where this history happened and the techniques to create the diapositif. The pitch-dark spaces, velvet curtains, and bodysuits are especially evocative to the construction of otherness during this period. The book is very well researched and crammed with a strength of pragmatic illustrative examples. Yet, I felt very uneasy about how he pushes aside the cultural role darkness played in creating contested sites of distance and otherness between participants and actors that are not related to gender. This is a history in the shadows that ignores the racialized enablers and subjects present in darkness. The story of modernism is very white. This might have been an opportunity to explore primitivism as it relates to darkness His Schlemmer examples are constructive, and he does mention a problematic use of theatrical blackface that ended up as parody. I know his topic is darkness, but I find it very problematic not spending more than a gloss on blackness. It’s more than a symbolic metaphor and is just as problematic as his analysis on the contested site of female bodies, especially at the beginning of motion pictures and influenced by theatrical vaudeville. He does I agree resurface these issues when alluding to more contemporary artists using darkness, but I still think it’s important enough to explore how darkness affected blackness and alterity in his earlier modernist critique. I’m not asking for an extra chapter, by the way. I’ll be bringing two books to share that might promote discussion in this vein tomorrow. And all of you that are interested in these issues should watch the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, if not at least the ending montage.