A Call for Advice

•January 9, 2012 • 3 Comments

The folowing is ultimately a plea for assistance, guidance and a ‘how to proceed’ if you will. I graduated from the MA Interactive Media in Goldsmiths with a cursory competency of software languages and a hazy understanding of art practice, and I think 2012 is my time to level up a notch or 2 (my existing work is available to peruse here http://www.thereisnowetware.com)

Area in need of Remedy # 1

I am a pidgin programmer who mostly uses Perl and I understand how that works for

  • regular expressions, if/else constructs, automating system calls
  • how to interface to a DBI and Arduino

but not much else. Pidgin programming and glueing together the bountiful resources on the internet (to which I am eternally grateful and indebted) have seen me through thus far (a glance at the chimera code that is Data Mining Divination ought to illustrate this to anyone morbidly curious enough to glance)

I think I would benefit from learning code from scratch* to the level where, when I have an idea I can sit down, write the pseudo code and be possessed of enough competency that I can work through each step, or at least now which sort of code structure I should be enlisting (i.e. not have to look up how to reference one subroutine to another). Is perl the best language to persist with learning or should I look elsewhere to languages like Ruby or Python.

*In some ways I can see that learning code this way is problematic: myself and Alexandra Jönsson discussed this last year, how we enjoyed learning Perl while in the process of problematizing an area (i.e. through a practice – driven investigation of a research area) rather than learning code as we imagined one might through a computer science lens: i.e. a solution or ends driven application of code.
…However I am determined to get past struggling with the medium this year

Area in need of Remedy # 2

I am someone who is possessed of a long term interest in how technology is altering our consciousness (yes, that hoary old chestnut) and also more recently interested in the anti-anthropocentric position of understanding how technology, as an assemblage or otherwise shapes us at a level beyond (or below) our conscious recognition.

Where does one need to start to actually understand and appreciate data mining rather than occupying the exoticised perspective I feel I have from considering the process from a distance. How solid a grounding in statistics is required?

If you can help, or suggest routes to pursue I would be most grateful.

Prophecy and Computation

•January 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Rachel Baker has tuned me into an interesting vein of thought with one of her points made during her “Prophecy Workshop” (which prefaced the ‘Three Keys’ game in Furtherfield), one which I will attempt to unpick here.

The Omen movement of ‘Moving Forest’ and indeed the Macbeth play presents fertile ground for speculation. Rachel’s take, as she has ventured to me thus far is that the Witches were engaged in advanced social engineering, and that they leveraging the informal knowledge networks that circulated within the castle to ‘game’ Macbeth’s personality flaws. This is an interesting take if one leaves aside the accuracy of their predictions, which I’m content to do given my recent conclusions that prophetic directions delivered face to face are likely to be as potent as hypnotic suggestion.

Rachel and I met at AND Festival 2011, which had belief as it’s overarching theme, and we both had something to offer when considering how belief worked among the stock traders of the Market. There’s a great, in depth, article written on affect (understood as powerful intensities inhering between bodies and evincing effects on an a-conscious level) by Couze Venn which includes an exposition on the efficacy of brokers understood on an affectual scale: they speak of a feel for the market, something more akin to gut instinct and intuition, a skill which is bootstrapped onto the algo-trading algorithms which are the tools of the trade. This meeting is a potent, and dangerous, mix.

So it piqued my interest to see the fruit of Rachel (and her collaborator Kayle Brandon)’s work on Prophecy and Omen, manifest in the Three Keys game work over the weekend, and to see that among the domains by which one could stage a siege of their personal castle was the ‘feral’ realm.

Feral is defined within “Three Keys” as “children, escaped, reverted, regression, revolt, descended, detach, semi-wild, pest, stray, return, instinct, non-status, waste-land, ruin, deserter”

Feral stood apart from the two related domains of ‘domestic’ and ‘wild’, carrying with it the suggestion of something domesticated returning to nature, red in tooth and claw. Feral as a buzzword acquired a great deal of currency this year, being used to describe the rioters who tore London asunder in August and also used as a moniker for the risk-taking bankers (and those in power who shield them). Similarly this year we saw Kevin Slavin pronounce that algorithms are nature, and thankfully James Bridle highlighted the concept beyond a zippy way of concluding a TED Talk via reference to a Next Nature article.

Intentionality separates culture from nature. A dog is intentional, a fox is not; a park is intentional, a forest is not. Since trash, ruined buildings, and automated computer programs are unintentional, they are also a type of nature

It’s always notable when language spirals around topics, sticking to certain concepts and not others. What are we to make of ‘Feral Bankers’ and algorithms as force of nature? At the very least our entanglement with them is causing effects that noone can ignore.

It’s here that one of the well worn tropes by which Macbeth is understood is quite useful, a trope noted by Kayle. One can consider the conclusion of Macbeth, where a forest moves against an usurper as indicative of the natural order reversing itself to rid itself of an abberation. I’m going to avoid treading too far down that path as it lends itself to a problematic idea of self regulating systems righting themselves. Let’s instead look to Macbeth’s perspective. He placed his belief in a system (prophecy) that seemed utterly watertight: within the limits of what he could comprehend there was NO WAI a forest could move, much less a ‘man not of woman born’ could slay him. (He wasn’t to know how much prophecy loved irony). But the important point is that Macbeth acted in the same way as all humans do when faced with a system, which when understood in terms of it’s output seems clear cut and transparent in terms of what it will afford them.

Which brings me close to a theory which I gather is prevalent but also unpopular: that globalization (and the attendant increase in complexity) and the increased reliance on automated trading in the aforementioned deregulated market meant that no one set of actors was really to blame in the 2008 Credit Crunch. That ultimately it was human arrogance, or more kindly blind spots, in the face of significant non-human agencies that was our undoing. And what’s even better is that the answer to this is most certainly not less entanglement with non-human agencies, see this forecast on the four imminent grand challenges of computation:

The complexity of many human endeavors, – including medical diagnoses, financial advice, formulating business strategy or setting government policies, – has outgrown our ability to make good decisions on our own. (Cognitive Computing) represents a natural next step in the history of human progress: the development of better and better tools to help us deal with the increasingly complex world around us.

A Number Station in a Moving Forest

•January 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This is a quick post to sketch where I’m hoping to push my ‘Moving Forest’ centred explorations towards.

Several stories around social media this year piqued my attention, each one of them was concerned with how the US military was taking an active role in seeking to assert influence over the realm of social sharing. First we had news of military commissioned ‘sock puppet’ software: wherein each military staff could operate 10 authentic online pseudo-identities.Then later in the year word that the CIA actively monitors twitter sentiment and DARPA are prepared to shell out $42 million to acquire a memetracker of considerably more sophistication than existing sentiment analysis programs

All this reporting on social listening being in vogue with ‘the Man’ set my paranormal senses twitching and my insatiable need to juxtapose arose in me.

You see I have recently downloaded this wonderful collection of Number Station recordings care of the Conet Project. A quick summary on number stations.

Numbers stations generally broadcast artificially generated voices reading streams of numbers, words, letters (sometimes using a spelling alphabet), tunes or Morse code. They are in a wide variety of languages and the voices are usually female, although sometimes men’s or children’s voices are used
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_station

The accepted conspiratorial interpretation of these short wave radio broadcasts is that they were used to relay information to government spies. No one truly knows and they stand proud as an excellent acoustic space for apopheniacs to run amok.

I see number stations as an echo of a previously dominant way by which governements asserted power, accessed information and fomented insurrection: that is espionage. I don’t doubt for one moment that espionage is still in rude health today but there are different channels by which those three aims can be explored. Back in the era of cold war, short wave radio enthusiasts could happen across these recordings and project their own ideas on to them for above all else they remained inscrutable by dint of their enigmatic encoding.

With social listening on steroids the same process seems destined to play out but in an inverted fashion. Now a sphere by which insurrection can be hindered or manipulated is easily accessed but truly understanding what is happening may demand perceiving patterns in a glut of information. The most astute algorithm in play is not the one which deals best in cryptography but the one which determines how indicative patterns played out in cyberspace are to the social unrest IRL.

I want to use this as a departure point only: I have of late grown tired of my own knee-jerk urge to juxtapose when attempting to do something creative so I am determined this shall not be the end endeavour. Hopefully this speculation (once completed) will lead me to more interesting directions.

One Facebook Data Shadow Please! That will be 40 days sir..

•December 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I’m interested in exploring how social media has found itself in the crosshairs of militaries and governments around the world interested in stymieing insurrection. I don’t go along with the hyperbole around the Arab Spring being Facebook driven and in truth I haven’t read a terribly great deal into the arguments for or against. It’s the interest of governments in developing algorithmic means of surveillance which intrigues me.

Nevertheless, the amount of data Facebook keeps on any individual has to be cause for concern for anyone hoping to mobilise under (or indeed, against) a repressive regime. To that end the efforts of Max Schrems have done us all a great service. In the past year Max has utilised European privacy legislation to gain access to ALL the data which Facebook keeps on record about him (and correlatively, everyone). Facebook, to the outside person, exist in a perpetual mode of privacy ‘crisis’, though the scarequotes are entirely justified as ultimately the ball remains in their court.

The means by which Schrebs could attain his data appeared in an extremely easy-to-use format on the EU vs Facebook page, and I eagerly await gaining access to the full spectrum of what Facebook keeps on record about me. Personally I’m most interested to see the full 70+ categories by which my data shadow is defined on one of the biggest players in the data harvesting game. But as TAZ.de notes

It would be nice to know much more about Max Schrems’ data – for example which biometric data facebook stores. But facebook says that they don’t want to reveal any more. It’s a confidential business matter.

The likelihood of Facebook rolling over and presenting ALL data to whichever Government came asking firmly enough is fairly high, so it’s good that the Germans and dedicated organisations like Europe vs Facebook are doggedly pursuing Facebook over these matters.

Are Weavrs early warning signals of MeMeplexes?

•December 28, 2011 • 2 Comments

As I’ve noted, but not trumpeted, I’ve been fortunate to be working with Philter Phactory on Weavrs.

I was reading an interview with their current head of research Dan O’Hara where he discusses skeumorphs and suggests that Facebook, frictionless sharing and Twitter may be signs of a shift in consciousness.

Q. Perhaps the telepathic illusions fostered by technologies like Facebook/ Twitter… You think you know what people are thinking from their updates…

Dan O’Hara. That’s right; to some extent we’re using technology (and it is using us) to move towards the eradication of individual identity; the ‘disappearance’ of privacy debate is perhaps a sign of the awareness of this shift.

This piqued my interest as this has been a long standing interest of mine since a parallel reading of Daniel Dennett, Pierre Levy and Grant Morrison’s Invisibles convinced me that encroaching technological advancements were on the cusp of effecting a profound change in our consciousness. I have, upon consideration that only now can we (just about) step back and assess how writing refigured our consciousness, peddled back somewhat from my enthusiasm for this subject in recent years.

Dan’s remark is especially tasty given a recent experiment done with our Weavrs. Using one of the Weavr prosthetics which transmutes the infomorphic essence of someone (through the informatic presence contained in Wikipedia) into a Weavr. The individual in question was none other than Jon Ronson, and the exchange between Research Director Luke Robert Mason and himself regarding the weavr (which he derogatorily names a bot) is quite amusing.

I can’t tell if his outrage is tongue in cheek or genuine. It’s certainly more interesting if it’s the latter. This informorphic infection of identity is certainly an interesting way of considering Weavrs. A similar project which explored informorphs was the replicants project, and the way Kyle Cameron Studstill explains that is useful here

“It’s actually a bit of fun trying to keep your personality in control, in that playfully embarrassing way one looks back at facebook and twitter posts after a night of too many drinks.”

This deliberate muddling of our infomorphic reflection was striking when I reflected on I, Bacteria. Therein I wished to force a link between the bacteria in our body and twitter, primarily to explore the oddness of us having a perpetuated single self, I, or identity.

It now occurs to me that Weavrs could be digital probiotics, helpful identity organisms that can eke out an existence in the digital space in which so much of our cognition (and correlatively, our identity) is extended {extended cognition, read Michael Wheeler’s latest for a great primer}. They can coexist or aggressively override the extended space which our self now roams. Just as microrganisms (viruses, fungi, bacteria) within our body are capable of doing, an arena which we also preside over with a bounded “I”.

The memeplex seems to be an excellent concept to invoke, and credit to Grant Morrison;he did it over 15 years ago in the masterful conclusion to the Invisibles. Jack Frost (the series’ protagonist) and his latest protege Reynard exchange the following dialogue as they scale the Technoccult Building

R: “Uhh… My MeMe is cycling: Five minutes of post-ironic drizzle. I’m self-blind: I’m oscillating between weird loner and terrified daughter of dracula…”
Jack: “We didn’t have MeMe’s when I was little. “Personalities”, we called them

The double capitalisation (MeMe) is a deliberate move by Morrison by the way. Memeplexes as sketched by Dawkins referred to a collection of related ideas that coalesce and gather into a complimentary unit due to mutual survival benefit (bearing in mind that the whole ‘meme’ exercise was originally just a thought experiment to prove how universal Darwinism might be). He applies it to (surprise, surprise) institutionalised religion. But more interesting is the concept of how a body of ideas could have agency and legacy exterior to the cosnciousness in which they originate. Hurrah for decentring anthropocentrism.

Morrisson pushes the ideas of memeplexes towards the congruency that we feel our self(s) to provide to us. As a subscriber to all manner of esoteric practice I’m sure he’d be okay with the notion of the ‘self as fallacy’. This refers to the position that so many ideas move in and out and upon our mind during the course of our life, and so many varying impressions are left upon the psyche that to believe in a unity that persists and is constant has to be a sleight of hand of some sort (I may be ascribing too much of my own thoughts on the matter here). With socially extended cognition and the primordial soup of social networking we can consider Weavrs and other autonomous algorithmic agents as equivalent MeMeplexes to our own enfleshed personality/identity/self. As just as once upon a time our cells enlisted other microscopic allies within it’s perimeter to align them with their ends we could see the same happen in the digital arena. And will the dog wag the tail, or the tail wag the dog?

Filed under ‘Doing it Wrong’

•December 19, 2011 • 1 Comment

(disclaimer: the author of this blog freelances with Philterphactory)

I actually quite liked this Jon Ronson chap when I heard him on NPR podcast on bots recently. Perhaps it’s the wonderful radio voice he sports, but he also expressed just the right amount of balance in reporting on Bina Bot.

So it was to my dismay that I saw him in this Gaurdian featurette. He’s reporting on something which caught my eye recently, the Social Bot project. However both Jon and the Project come away diminished after viewing this. It features as part of ESC & CTRL, a series of featurettes (disclaimer: none of the rest of which have I watched) exploring the dominion of technology over us, something which has become more zeitgeisty (and, perhaps inevitably, less tightly defined) since AWOBMLG.

The video spends an awful lot showing one or two bots, without explaining what the bots were doing and showing an info-viz which purports to show how the social graph has been distorted (I cannot write social graph without smirking ever since Maciej Ceglowski adminstered a wonderful tear down of the whole concept). Tim Hwang offers little in the way of explaining how he figured the bots were actually evincing any kind of effect and so his research looks impoverished as a consequence. And Jon looks amateurish for putting out 5 minutes of footage which feels uninformative at best.

I’m being vicious as I feel it’s a shame that nothing more substantial is offered in this vignette. At the end of this year I expect we can will find out where DARPA has spent it’s commissions in enrolling a company to provide them with software to do exactly just what Hwang has done with his competition’s bots, but on a larger and more efficient scale, with the deliberate intent of managing insurrection (discrediting authentic sources) and ensuring the effective dissemination of counter-propaganda through the social web.

DARPA has apparently shelled out a sizeable amount for these commissions, spending $42 million of their meme tracker (although I can’t help but ponder how effective CAN it be, and that was before I read Mat Morrison’s myth busting of sentiment analysis). And all this in a week where Moscow created THOUSANDS of bots to influence trending topics on twitter in advance of Putin’s TV question and answers session. I can easily see a spook social media ponzi scheme developing where bots influence bots and it all trickles down to some vague social media report in the Pentagon. Twiter doesn’t have enough capacity to Blade Runner all those bots, surely that will have to be part of DARPA’s strategy…

How can a Forest Move

•December 13, 2011 • 1 Comment

This Saturday saw another workshop which builds even more conceptual foundations for the Moving Forest 2012. Rachel Baker and Kayle Brandon provided some incredibly stimulating background on how they had devised their ’3 keys’ game which they intended to use to let us explore the experience of Moving Forest.

The game took several cues from classic situationist tactics of making an area unfamiliar but was threaded through with thematics and elements of what constitutes the Moving Forest. The omen and prophetic phase of the 5 act Moving Forest performance was instantiated by participants drawing cards from three decks: a tree deck, a realm deck, and an instruction deck and this triumvirate of runes guided your drift through the park.

Your tree provided inspiration for what to seek out while making your way towards the castle, or alternatively provided you with attributes to role play. You situated your 60 minute siege in the domain which you had drawn. I had drawn Ash, a fascinating tree with plenty of unique attributes to seek out. (I’m embarrassed to say that I completely neglected one of these attributes while out walking: the ash has healing properties – it was believed that if you split an ash and passed an unwell infant through the split and then bound the tree back together that the tree and human’s health were somehow entangled (and the ash invariably healed due to it’s hardiness in this regard).
My realm was domestic and the instruction provided an activity to undertake, though mine was a tricky one to do and instead functioned more as a suggestive algorithm looping at the back of my mind (my task was ‘perform a credit risk assessment of a stranger’).

You had the option of choosing one of the 500 slogans and an Olympic slogan as further semiotic signposts to your subconscious stroll. My (randomly) chosen slogan “You are of a species that is almost extinct outside of captivity” somewhat resonated with the domestic realm. You were to walk towards a ‘Castle’ of your choosing, and the definition of Castle proffered by Kayle and Rachel will stay with me as a reference point for the remainder of Moving Forest

The Castle can be any social, spatial or political system, place,
person, or law which you regard as in a state of corruption,
grotesque, inhumane, mutated by fear, polluted, degraded etc

The castle can be set to any scale. It could be a personal issue or
megalithic system.
For instance; one might want to overthrow an overgrown personality
trait or a bureaucratic infestation.

It was another attribute of the Ash tree which took root (sorry) with my task and guided my walk: in Irish folklore it was asserted that crops would die if planted in the shadow of an ash tree. The ash tree’s shadow had agency, and this prompted me to think of Murakami’s shadow selves in ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland. This fictional concept was something I had previously associated with our data shadow/data double and the agency we might consider it to have. Data shadows steer how we navigate through the web and are also the means by which algorithms regard us, and a lens by which to feel how algorithms affect us in our lived reality. Why would I perform a credit risk assessment of a stranger? That is a task to which the cold stare of an algorithm is best suited, truth be told I would barely know where to start on such a risk assessment.

Throughout my walk I rolled the shadow concept around in my head as the sun inched it’s way towards the horizon, obligingly casting long shadows for me to meditate on. Most apt was the National Grid Heading tank and the shadow it cast (for where would digital culture be without electricity culture, itself barely a century old)

I was a little aimless in my walk (and not in the purposeful purposelessness way unfortunately). To play with the above idea of data shadow I decided to use the augmented reality app ‘Layar’ to take photos of my walk, exploring two services where the digital world can be overlaid with our sensorial reality. One is Foursquare, which was the closest fit I could find for domestic (defined as “convert, tame, save, civilised, cultivated, selective breeding, commodity, ornamental, pet, self-tame, normalise, trained, captive, socialised, with culture, modified, broken-in, aesthetics, comfort, security ). I have personally found it baffling and disconcerting how readily people ‘check in’ to places and leave behind an immensely useful data trail for Foursquare.The service is really banal care of it’s meteoric ascension to the quotidian, but the behaviour it encourages is troubling when considered objectively. The foursquare app lets you visualise the spaces (GPS coordinates networked into a social UI) one can check into in your immediate proximity

The second service is that provided by Weavrs, a project I have followed since May of this year and which of late I have been fortunate enough to do some actual work for (disclaimer:under a freelance contract for Philter Phactory). Weavrs are bots for the social web, possessed of a place of work and residence and a set of interests, tastes and passions. In truth they are infomorphs, a body of information who siphon the residue of the social web into raw material to create a a narrative. From their blogging and tweeting a coherence emerges and from there you can see the topics of personality blurring due to proximity to this non-human agency.

Weavrs are fascinating for many a reason but they were most interesting for my derivé as they can also be pinpointed in “virtual space” through the Layar app: you can see where a given Weavr is on their journeys (the Maschmischine project utilises this to wonderful effect)
I took screengrabs of the Layar application alongside photos of the landscape as I walked it, the latter consisting of a photo journal of the signs that grew up around the railway path I chose to follow. I tended towards this exploration as interested in the signs that gather around a thoroughfare of communication – the railway. With the screengrabs I hoped to get a voyeurs view of the virtual space in which people move and excrete data at a prolific rate.

inducing apophenia

However when I reviewed the screengrabs the background photos of the Weavrs and 4square had not been captured. Initially I was disheartened but then realised that this was actually for the best: the juxtaposition was a shallow one and in no way illuminating as regards the actual ways in which these digital bodies overlap the physical terrain in which are bodies move (and are captured). It was an itch I had to scratch and I’m glad the technology delivered the most fitting rebuffing of the idea possible – and that’s to say nothing about the reticular bias of Augmented Reality.

The strength of having so many points of inspiration/departure was that it was very easy to let them cross fertilise one another, but that came with the attendant risk of ‘anything fitting’ and losing some of the creativity productivity that comes from directing apophenia into a narrow corridor of associations
I found the game somewhat overwhelming in terms of everything that needed to be borne in mind, but the elements which they brought to the table functioned magnificently well as modes to trigger apopheniac creativity. Kayle’s wealth of knowledge on everything a tree has or could symbolise was for me the best way of charting a different way through the environment, and to be honest, I’d most like to do the exercise again in a more intensely urban locale, where there was no native foilage to distract. Moreover the biggest feeling I was left with was of missed opportunity, in terms of the traits I wished I’d maximised more and the paths I wished I’d taken (case in point was how Antony had followed an abandoned railway line, which would have fitted better with the ‘extinct species –> old media conduits path I had followed).

Some very useful concepts have already been stirred in my mind (more forthcoming) and there are tree attributes I’d like to extrapolate further. But I’d quite like to do the walk again, either with a completely open mind or with a more tightly delimted idea of what area I wish to explore

Plenty to take away from the workshop for budding Moving Forest actors, which I will surmise below:

Signs are tethered to their context
Slogans can become banal when they are saturated in one spot
Empty signification of signs lends them their power. – baudrillardArtifice
Moving Forest is an abstract assault
Moving Forrest has an affinity with occupy but they diverge in terms of method
Moving forest and black bloc
Theatrical props foment solidarity in a protest – see the Book Bloc
Assemble people under a sign or prop
What are the symbols that people gather under during a public protest
Moving Forest is a sonic assault

 
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