Digital Disruption Talk

We are excited to invite you to Part IV of the Digital Disruption series, a collaboration between Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech and Accenture that explores trends in today’s ever-changing digital arena. The series examines ways successful organizations and managers embrace technological advances and leverage opportunities to accelerate innovation, create value, and build the workforce of the future.

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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
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, 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.

Playing with dirt while staying clean.

In ‘Code + Clay … Data + Dirt’ Shannon Mattern puts forth the argument that cities have always been smart in that they have been shaped by the media they helped to create.  Mattern puts forth a ‘high level’ (10000 feet from my perspective) reverse chronology of four different mediums and their impact on the structure and form of urban development.  Mattern’s approach is unique in its integration of media archaeology and traditional archaeology. Mattern loosely connects radio, phone, and telegraph (ether) with the radial structure of cities and tall tower like antennas mounted on the tallest buildings.  She does a better job connecting the visual iconography of radio’s propaganda with the architectural structuralism of buildings designed with broadcast media in mind. Still this chapter was indicative of the ethereal quality of Mattern’s main argument, namely that there is materiality in media and media’s impact on our environment.  Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the argument wholeheartedly, but something about Mattern’s approach left me wanting more. That said, I truly enjoyed the chapter on print and the city as it closely mirrors my research and interests in the dissemination of ‘secret’ knowledge from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and its impact on modern media.  Mattern’s reverse chronology strikes me as the right approach to long extended timelines across multiple mediums, but some of her examples felt like reaching and detracted from the potential connections of other examples. Jumping from culture to culture as in the case of colonial Peru, China, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome in her chapter on writing felt rushed and only vaguely connected.  I think all of the media she covers works to further her argument, but her argument for each media as its own chapter leaves the overall case watered down. In the end the book felt like four separate essays loosely connected by a theme, which is fine, but her obvious effort to connect them in reverse chronology and multiple epistemologies requires more ‘solidity’ to justify the ‘messiness’.

My reaction to the book struck me as odd because I’m keenly interested in most of the subject matter she’s discussing.  I’ve worked in historical heritage, I’ve worked on projects like the Hudson Yards Project at the beginning of the book. I’ve considered the implications of recreating sounds in ancient environments.  This book could have been a bible to me, but it felt like a tour guide. I enjoyed a lot of what it had to say, I just wanted more to connect it all together. I’m left with several questions. Which chapters accomplish the most in defense of her arguments?  What could make it all work better together? (less jumping around?) How does her argument fit with the field of Media Archaeology? I felt like it was playing in the dirt, but I left feeling clean with more questions about the method than the subject.

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.