Apple’s Fight with the FBI: A Follow Up

Cracked iPhone. Camron Flanders via Flickr.

Cracked iPhone. Camron Flanders via Flickr.

In the end, the Apple-FBI dispute was solved when the FBI cracked Apple’s security—without assistance. This is great for the FBI, but terrible for Apple, which now has, as the New York Times reports, an image problem. “Apple is a business, and it has to earn the trust of its customers,” says one security company executive in the Times. “It needs to be perceived as having something that can fix this vulnerability as soon as possible.”

In taking on the FBI in the San Bernardino case, Apple, it seems, had hoped to create the perception of an absolute commitment to security. Creating an iPhone that not even the state could crack was important to Apple’s image in a post-Snowden era. No doubt Apple must have marketing data that suggests as much.

But now, everybody knows Apple’s “security” can be breached, with or without the help of Apple’s engineers. If the FBI had deliberately picked a public fight with Apple (which nothing suggests they did), it could hardly have orchestrated a better response to Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the San Bernardino investigation: The FBI got what it wanted while undermining the very claim on which Apple staked its case in the court of public opinion, leaving Apple frantically trying to figure out how they did it.

Of course, as the security executive says, Apple is a business. Still, in an age of complaints about  corporate profits taking precedence over the needs of civic life, I continue to be mystified by Apple’s stance, which—whatever the company’s claims—makes sense only as a strategy to maintain or further maximize its profits. In this case, Apple has shown little regard for that which the relative security of a society actually depends: legitimate forensic work, due process, and the state’s (yes, the state’s, which, unlike corporations or private security firms, is publicly accountable) capacity to gauge future threats and reasonably intervene within the confines of the law. Yet “security” is to Apple a marketing problem, not a civic problem.

As I stated in my earlier, longer, and admittedly more thoughtful post about this matter, I think that Apple could have cooperated in this particular case, as they had done in past cases, with relatively little harm to the company’s reputation and with real forensic good being done. Of course, cooperation would have meant that the only wall between your iPhone and the FBI would have been the law itself, but isn’t that the whole point of liberal societies? Lex Rex—law over all, including the FBI, and including Apple’s image.

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The Public, the Private, and Apple’s Fight with the FBI

Apple CEO Tim Cook (2012). Mike Deerkoski via Flickr.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (2012). Mike Deerkoski via Flickr.

Apple is resisting the FBI’s request that the company write software to help unlock the IPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the perpetrator, with Tashfeen Malik, of the massacres in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015. Apple is said to worry that if it lets the FBI into Farook’s phone, it will open a global can of worms, and set a precedent for doing the same thing for less “friendly” governments. And a “back door” to individual phone data will compromise overall security, leaving phones vulnerable, in Tim Cook’s words, to “hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission.”

Since the appearance of the Snowden documents, it’s hard for many of us, at least on the level of sentiment, to root for the US government wanting access to phone data. Though the case is complex (and Apple has unlocked phones for the FBI before), the surveillance state is a remarkably frightening prospect, and even the very targeted, essentially forensic, aims of the FBI in the San Bernardino case understandably evoke worries.

But Apple’s battle with the FBI brings to mind Bob Dylan’s quip that “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We face something like the classic high-school English class choice between Orwell’s “Big Brother” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” If the FBI concerns us, Apple should, perhaps, concern us even more.

As Hannah Arendt makes clear in The Human Condition, privacy never stands alone: It always has its co-dependents—especially, the public, the political, and the social. Changes in the meaning of “privacy” mean changes in the meaning of the “public,” and the other way around. The private and the public are interlocking political concerns.

In other words, whenever you are faced with a debate about privacy, also ask what the implications of the debate’s potential outcomes are for public life. Continue reading

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Media are Elemental: The Life Aboard

The Whale Fishery ("Laying On"), Nathaniel Currier. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Whale Fishery (“Laying On”), Nathaniel Currier. Via Wikimedia Commons.

We study the sailor, the man of his hands, man of all work; all eye, all finger, muscle, skill and endurance; a tailor, carpenter, cooper, stevedore, and clerk and astronomer besides. He is a great saver, and a great quiddle by the necessity of his situation.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an 1833 journal entry titled “At Sea”

The integral connection between media and human life is an assumed condition of John Durham Peters’s theory of elemental media in The Marvelous Clouds. We don’t often think of our relationship with the natural world as mediated. But when we are tossed by the waves, we need tools to intercede between nature and ourselves. Media become a matter of life and death. In these moments when the balance between humans and nature is disrupted, our need for mediation becomes all too apparent.

Peters sees these tools of intersession, these “means by which,” as he calls them, as always a matter of life and death. In fact, they are the components and substances of which all human experience is designed. To illustrate this, Peters spends some time studying cetaceans, a species of water mammal that includes dolphins, narwhals, and some small whales.

Cetaceans have near-human levels of cognition and communication, but they split from early homo sapiens by returning to the sea and adapting to that environment. Peters argues that the sea is an elemental media that shapes every part of cetacean existence, just as “fire, language, or celestial bodies” does for human beings. Because their experiences are mediated through the sea, cetaceans have techniques (such as communication and memory), but not technologies (such as documentation and material construction). Continue reading

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Media Are Elemental: Protection from the Elements

Etching from La clef de la science, explication des phénomènes de tous les jours par Brewer et Moigno (1889). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Etching from La clef de la science, explication des phénomènes de tous les jours par Brewer et Moigno (1889). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Media are elemental. And like the elements, they’re essential to our everyday practices, so much so that we often take them for granted. But sometimes, like when there’s a drought or a flood, the elements take on a charge and something makes us sit up and take notice of them. When there’s a dangerous lack of an element or an overabundance, we’re forced to take stock of the element’s essential qualities, its importance to our own lives, and the resources needed to cope with changing conditions.

We seem to be in the midst of a flood of media meant to foster intimacy and social connection. Social networking sites and free text messaging services are providing more ways to meet, “poke,” stalk, and stay in touch with people from all the different stages of our lives. These practices are even embedded in the ways many of us find love. In a recent Pew study, more than half of American teenagers reported “digitally flirting” with someone to communicate their romantic intentions. The widespread adoption of these technologies by teenagers have led some scholars, such as Sherry Turkle, to worry that “superficial” forms of intimacy will degrade their capacities for empathy and understanding. In the midst of this flood, critics such as Turkle are raising concerns about the quality of the water.

Peters provides an explanation of why teenagers might be drawn to this kind of interaction in the first place:

People prefer being telepresent via Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging not because the software provides the ‘feeling’ of ‘sitting the face to face,’ but rather because it doesn’t provide it at all. Text-only communication lightens social anxieties.

In a stage of life when it often seems that their own bodies are working against us, telepresence is an attractive solution for some teenagers. The bodily (dis)functions that often undermined our best efforts at confident and cool comportment are eliminated in text-only communication. But teenagers’ use of these technologies can’t only be explained by their individual strategies to reduce the anxieties of teenager-hood. As Peters suggests, digital media invite us to consider the roles they play in our “habitats,” meaning the wider contexts in which we struggle and form relationships.

Over the past several decades, the habitats of American teenagers have been characterized, as psychologist Cindi Katz and media scholar danah boyd have noted, by the individualization of risks surrounding their failures or successes in increasingly competitive markets for higher education and jobs, and shrinking amounts of time and space for them to interact with one another outside of adult supervision. As their anxieties about their futures mount, teenagers have decreasing amounts of private spaces to sort through those issues with their friends.

Of course, some teenagers have the resources to withstand the floodwaters. Their lives are like well-appointed gardens, studded with carefully selected plants, and drainage systems that allow them to be resilient in the face of changing conditions. Meanwhile, low-income teens on the economic margins of society, who often face intensified levels of surveillance by both state institutions and police, as well as their parents and teachers, scramble to stem the damage caused by the run-off, without the resources or support to survive the storm.

Understanding the elemental nature of media forces us to consider not only the quality of the “water” that we swim in, but the resources available to deal with its negative consequences. Some teenagers will be prepared to absorb the risks of swimming. Others will be left to sink or swim.

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Media Are Elemental: Gerunding

Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heidegger, made by Herbert Wetterauer, after a photo by Fritz Eschen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heidegger, made by Herbert Wetterauer, after a photo by Fritz Eschen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I would prefer the gerund searching to the naked verb [search], but the battle appears to be lost.
—John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, p. 325

Elemental media would seem to have something to do with the elements—whether we conceive of them as “earth, sea, sky, and fire,” “stone, salt, and sludge,” or “carbon, copper, radon, and bohrium.” Directing media studies back to the elements is an explicit aim of John Peters’s The Marvelous Clouds. The elements, he reminds us, lay at the heart of (not-so-)old notions of media: “Medium has always meant an element, environment, or vehicle in the middle of things.” Sea, fire, and sky, he argues, “are media for certain species in certain ways with certain techniques.” Media are not necessarily “natural,” but they are “ensembles of nature and culture, physis and technê,” such that ignoring nature altogether in discussions of media would be a gross neglect of the embeddedness of media within a world of elements.

The question of the relationship of physis (“nature”) to technê (“art,” “techniques,” “technology”) is a basic one in ancient Greek philosophy. It is also central to the works of one of Peters’s primary philosophical influences, Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger grants a lofty, if ambiguous, place to technê: “Technê belongs to bringing-forth, to poiêsis; it is something poietic,” he writes in his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” Ancient technê, in Heidegger’s estimation, entails “bringing” and “revealing,” and modern manifestations of technê expand to include the “[u]nlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching” of nature.

What to make of all these Heideggerian infinitives and participle forms used as gerunds? And what do they have to do with elemental media, with nature and culture, and with Peters’s stated preference for the gerund over the “naked verb” when discussing techniques like “searching”? Lots could be said here. Clearly, Heidegger is interested both in thinking the general and particular together and in giving time a critical position in his philosophy. “-Ings” offer a means by which to accomplish both.

But even apart from any explicit concern with Heidegger, I have been thinking about gerunds with respect to media studies for a while. I have been researching the work of Harold Edgerton, the MIT engineer who became famous for stroboscopic photography and who, as Kevin Hamilton and I have documented, transformed his stroboscopic techniques into timing and firing mechanisms for atomic bombs. Edgerton was an engineer not of “fire” but of “firing.” His interest was not so much in “time” but in “timing.” If we think more broadly about the work of engineering (itself a gerund) in our world, we discover that engineering turns on processes more than essences, activities more than things. It concerns itself not just with timing and firing, but with Heidegger’s unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching—as well as securing, channeling, ordering, circulating, and a host of other verb-things.

Media studies has recently been preoccupied with “materiality.” Things, artifacts, infrastructures, and objects have helped to organize a wide range of rich inquiry. However, I wonder if the object-oriented ontology (I use the phrase a bit tongue-in-cheek) of media studies has kept from view the gerunding of media, even elemental media. To put it more provocatively: “Firing” always comes before the “fire,” “timing” before “time,” “storing” before “storage,” “switching” before the “switch,” and “searching” before the “search.” For how could there be fire without firing, time without timing, and so on?

What would it mean give priority to kinds of energeia—“being-at-work,” in Joe Sachs’s translation of the Aristotelian term—over the artifactual works themselves?

I have taken (with Wellmon and Hamilton) to calling these gerunds, or rather the processes and activities which they represent, “deep media” (which has nothing directly to do with immersive media). I am not sure it’s the best term, but it gets to the way in which verb-things or processes underlie, metaphorically speaking, media things, artifacts, infrastructures, and objects.

One benefit of turning attention to “deep media” is that it explicates, more clearly than most media studies approaches, the way in which “engineering” approaches the world. And engineering is very much orders our world.

A second benefit of turning our attention to “deep media” is that it allows media students, scholars, and thinkers to probe the “ensembles of nature and culture” of which Peters writes. The sun is always firing. So are, for the time being, innumerable power plants across the globe. Firing is both a human practice and a natural phenomenon which share basically the same form—something that can get lost if one attends only to “fire” as a thing.

And a third benefit of attention to “deep media” is that media studies, by definition, concerns what goes on in “the middle of things” more than the things themselves. The more verby vocabulary of deep media might better attune us to these goings-on.

Regardless, a philosophy of elemental media will need to take up the cause of the gerund—even if for the time being, as Peters laments, the cause of the gerund is “lost.”

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Media Are Elemental: Marvelous Clouds

Unknown“The time is ripe for a philosophy of media. And a philosophy of media needs a philosophy of nature.” So begins John Durham Peters in his new book, The Marvelous Clouds, subtitled “Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.” His larger claim is that media are elemental.

This fall—after a summer’s repose that lingered, we confess, too long into autumn—the Infernal Machine will be considering Peters’ larger, more ambitious project. For if media are elemental, if the philosophy of media needs a philosophy of nature (or even, as Peters claims, a philosophical anthropology), then media inquiry concerns not just the latest social media product or the history of print. Media inquiry concerns the very relationship between humans and nature—the ways that humans, in their frailty and finitude, struggle with all available techniques and technologies to make their way in the world. For Peters, media inquiry is an ethical project.

But first, let‘s discuss the claim “media are elemental.

This fall, one of us spent a day touring three of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC: the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the Air and Space Museum. Only the last seemed to make “sense.” That is, only the Air and Space Museum offered a relatively coherent narrative. Moving from room to room, the museum’s story was fairly straight forward. From early-modern seafaring, to the Wright brothers, to World War II aerial combat, to nuclear deterrence, to the age of unmanned aerial vehicles, the world has been caught up in an age of ineffable aeronautical adventures. And the United States is the late-modern vanguard. Emblazoned on the tails of fighter jets and the bellies of missiles was the national story of technological flight.

Walking through the National Museum of American History, on the other hand, made no such sense. There was no coherent overall narrative. It was strictly an episodic experience, like watching the History Channel for a day. (No surprise: The History Channel is a prominent museum sponsor.) The National Museum of Natural History—dedicated to the cultural keeping of “nature”—was even more fragmented. Offering no history, no narrative, it simply assembled a pastiche of stuffed mammals, winged butterflies, arctic photographs, and tropical fish around an acquisitive centerpiece, the Hope Diamond.

After leaving the Mall and its museums, this tourist left with a clear message: Technological innovation is the only shared story that makes sense anymore. Neither the “imagined community” of the nation-state nor the Earth, which for aeons has grounded humans narratively and otherwise, has the symbolic power to make history cohere, at least in the United States. Even natural scientists, as the Museum of Natural History made clear, are engineers taking flights into the statistical improbabilities of human evolution and considerably warmer futures. “History” is technological innovation, a story told best through the marvels hanging from the ceilings of the Air and Space Museum.

To claim, as Peters does (though, in fact, he never says it quite this way), “media are elemental” is undoubtedly to take up the cause of landing media inquiry (of which “technology” is a crucial sub-concept) back on Earth—to make a return flight, so to speak, to the mundane, even if by way of the marvelous. If technology is less a means of flight than grounding, what does this mean for our shared stories, identities, quests, and concerns? If technology is the means by which humans struggle to modify themselves and their environment to make their world inhabitable, then what does this mean for our theories of technology and media?

So, as we kick back into gear after a too-long summer hiatus, among other things on the Infernal Machine we’ll be inviting a variety of colleagues from a variety of disciplines to consider Peters’ Marvelous Clouds and, moreover, to explore the claim, and the case, that media are elemental. Stay tuned! Posts will start rolling later this week.

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79 Theses on Technology:
Of Techniques and “Technology”

Anatomy of a Blogger, after Diderot’s Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers by Mike Licht via flickr

Editor’s Note: Earlier in the spring, Alan Jacobs drew up his 79 Theses on Technology, a provocative document that has drawn much commentary from our readers. John Durham Peters joins the fray here, commenting on Theses 64 through 70.

64. Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.

65. Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to revisit and refresh certain synaptic connections between mind and body.

66. To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.

67. It’s fine to say “use the simplest technology that will do the job,” but in fact you’ll use the one you most enjoy using.

68. A modern school of psychoanalysis should be created that focuses on interpreting personality on the basis of the tools that one finds enjoyable to use.

69. Thinking of a technology as a means of pleasure may be ethically limited, but it’s much healthier than turning it into an idol.

70. The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.

No doubt, writing is an intensely physical bio-mechanical activity. The back hurts, the neck cranes, the eyes sting, the head aches, the view out the window is consulted for the thousandth time. The inscription of words exacts a tax of muscular and nervous exertion. And no doubt, the most minute choices in writing technique make worlds of difference. Nietzsche thought writing while seated a sin against the Holy Ghost: only in strolling did words have for him truth.

But let us not confuse technology and technique. Technology once meant the study of the productive arts and sciences (as in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology); now, the term has been inflated not only into material devices of all kinds but also into a gas-bag for intellectuals to punch. Techniques are humble acts we do with hands, voices, eyes, feet, spine, and other embodied parts that bring forth mind into the world. We humans never do anything without technique, so we shouldn’t pretend there is any ontological difference between writing by hand, keyboarding, and speaking, or that one of them is more original or pure than the other. We are technical all the way down in body and mind. 

The age of ubiquitous computing has yielded, among other things, a florid genre of opt-out narratives, and I hope I do not espy in these theses another such tendency. Only by the orchestration of technologies can you catch a glimpse of a technology-free world. The more intensely made our environment is, the more actively its designers supply us with shock absorbers. The default images for the background of my desktop computer are all resolutely pastoral—not a sign of infrastructure, globalization, coltan, carbon, or human labor among them. I find tulips, a rising moon, cloudscapes, seascapes, and windblown desert sands, but no data, email, calendars, and bills, and certainly no human presence. Just how did this blue flower happen to sprout amid all the silicon? With heartfelt pleas that I “just have to watch,” my students send me YouTube videos that explain why we need to unplug, go outside, and seek real human contact. If you listen to the machine telling you how to get out of it, you only get sucked into it more, like a con artist who lulls you into a sense of trust by telling you that he is conning you. The promised liberation from technology is usually just another technology that you don’t recognize as such. This is one reason why a fuller appreciation of our diverse techniques is so vital.

Tools are all we have, but each one sets us in a very different horizon. Technology only risks being an idol because we don’t appreciate our techniques well enough. Writing with two hands on a keyboard, dictating to a person or a machine, writing with chalk, quill, pencil, or pen—each embody mind in different ways. Blessed be the back pain, as it reminds us that we are not immaterial beings flying through cyberspace.

I don’t understand the term “simplest” applied to a tool. Tools interact with mind and body. Compass and square could build gothic cathedrals. Piano and notepaper could yield symphonies. The more basic the tool, the harder it is to master. Who among us has yet learned how to speak, or walk, or think? The real challenges lie in the most basic acts. Some day, I’d like to write a really good sentence. Some day, I’d like to play a beautiful scale in C major. Some day, I’d like to say the right word to another person. The more basic the task, the more fundamental the challenge and difficult the tool.

John Durham Peters is the A. Craig Baird Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. His most recent book The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media has just been released by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Beyond the Reveal: Opacity in Personal Chrono-tech


From Apple II watch instructions on URL:]

From Apple II watch instructions on URL:

Part Four: Opacity in Personal Chrono-tech

As a conclusion to this series on the limits of black box metaphors in critiques of obscured technological systems, I want to offer a brief example of an alternative approach. Earlier this year, I presented this material as a lecture. Since then, a new black box has entered the marketplace—Apple’s Watch. I have not yet interacted with Apple’s “most personal device,” but I expect (largely merited) critiques about how the Watch embeds Apple’s system ever deeper in the daily routines of users. With both fewer buttons and less screen real estate with which to interact, the inputs and outputs for this system will probably be more passive and less obtrusive, even as the background software and hardware processes grow more complex. What new routines and rhythms of attention will the Watch afford, and on what algorithmic processes of surveillance, marketing, or communication will this attention depend?

We will need new audits. We will need to know, as with the iPhone, what information this new device is storing and sharing, and with whom. The Watch’s role in collecting medical data should give us particular pause in this regard. But when considering constraints on agency and freedom, we shouldn’t limit our analysis to revealing the processes at work “inside” this device. The processes by which we live with such devices deserve as much attention as the routines at work in the operating system. And we can learn a great deal about this device’s role in our lives without ever peering inside the system.

As a prompt in this direction, I’ll offer a brief tour of objects that, like the Watch, “want” to be a part of our everyday rhythms of attention, yet make “seamful” rather than seamless opacity a foregrounded aspect of our interaction with them.


Vague Clock by Sejoon Kim URL:

Vague Clock by Sejoon Kim URL:

Take, for example, Sejoon Kim’s Vague Clock. In contrast to Apple’s Watch, it offers the time not “on demand” (with the raise of an arm), but “on exploration” (with the caress of a hand). The clock’s almost opaque fabric makes the reading of time at a glance almost impossible. Instead, the laborer at her desk must get up and not only tap the clock face, but explore it, changing a two-dimensional plane into a three-dimensional form.


Risk Watch by Fiona Dunne and Anthony Raby URL:

Risk Watch by Fiona Dunne and Anthony Raby URL:

The speculative designs of Fiona Dunne and Anthony Raby are also instructive here. Their 2007/08 series of objects entitled DO YOU WANT TO REPLACE THE EXISTING NORMAL? includes The Risk Watch, a watch whose opaque face carries a small nipple in place of any visible marks of temporal passage. When placed to an ear, the nipple activates a small device which speaks a number that “corresponds to the political stability of the country you are in at that time.” Dunne and Raby state about this body of work that “if our desires remain unimaginative and practical, then that is what design will be.” The Risk Watch gives us what we want—a sort of single-app Apple Watch—in a way that invites us to examine both the desires we bring to personal tech, and the processes we trust to grant them.

The NoPhone URL:

The NoPhone URL:

Dunne and Raby’s approach to opacity might also call to mind the NoPhone, a project launched last year via Kickstarter that reached some unexpected, if modest, financial success. The NoPhone, billed as “a technology-free alternative to constant hand-to-phone contact,” is simply a brick of black plastic molded in the size and shape of an iPhone. In use as a replacement for one’s phone, the device aspires to deliver a different sort of “reveal,” catching the user in the act of relentless phone-checking. Like Ben Grosser’s Facebook Demetricator, the NoPhone calls to mind counter-addiction regimes, but does so with some humor, and a desire to cast human habits into the spotlight.

The Durr watch, by Skrekkøgle URL:

The Durr watch, by Skrekkøgle URL:

Another provocative neighbor to Apple’s Watch is the Durr, a product of the Norwegian studio Skrekkøgle. As with the NoPhone, the Durr’s designers create personal technologies that utilize opacity in order to reveal something about the user’s daily activities. In this case, however, the object also introduces a modest new machinic process into the picture. Like the NoPhone or the Vague Clock, the Durr presents a wholly opaque face where a screen or dial might normally reside. Inside the object, however, resides a small vibrating motor that operates at five minute intervals.

For a few months now, I’ve been replacing my usual watch with a Durr for a day or two each week, with enlivening effects. The Durr reveals not only my habits of watch-checking, but the relative speed at which time passes in relation to the intensity and direction of my attention. Checking email, I can’t believe how fast the Durr is going. Traveling across town on foot, the durations seem broad and wide. Five minutes is just long enough to forget the thing in many cases, just too long to be counted by the human attention clock. Its opacity depends in part on me as much as on the device itself. As such, wearing the Durr casts my other machinic attention regimes into new light and invites me to reorient my body accordingly.

I could go on to mention a dozen different life-management and attention-management tools, simple things like, or “productivity” apps such as Freedom, which disables a device’s internet for set periods of time. Where such efforts serve behavior-modification regimes, they should surely be set in the historical context of disciplinary, labor, or even religious regimes.

Set next to the growing number of algorithm auditing efforts, however, such attention-modification works serve a different function. They show how, in the quest to understand the influence of machinic processes on human agency, there is much to be learned without ever “unboxing” the technologies at hand. As we move forward with the vital work of monitoring and interpreting the multitude of new processes at work behind our technologies of attention, we should take great care not to stop our efforts at the algorithmic reveal. We should insist on the co-presence of at least two other bodies of work in the growing intellectual spaces devoted to critique of algorithms—that of critical race, gender, and labor studies, which reveals the differently-structured life on which the new algorithms depend, and of design, art, and play that casts human action and desire toward interface in new light.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Beyond the Reveal: Toward Other Hermeneutics


Part III: Toward other Hermeneutics

I want to make clear here that I believe we need to keep pushing for new research—new policies and practices that help ensure just algorithmic processes at work inside our infrastructures. (See posts one and two of “Beyond the Reveal.”) If our search engines, pricing structures, law enforcement or trade practices depend on or enact unlawful, unethical, or unjust algorithmic processes, we need to have ways of stopping them. We need accountability for these processes, and in some cases that will also mean we need transparency.

But, as urban studies scholar Dietmar Offenhuber points out in Accountability Technologies, accountability isn’t inextricably linked to transparency. In fact, some forms of revelation about opaque processes may do more harm than good to the public. If we make information access a priority over “answerability and enforcement” when it comes to just algorithmic infrastructures, Offenhuber warns, we may not achieve our goals.

So there may be times when “opening the box” might not be the best path to dealing with the possibility of unjust systems. And it is almost certainly the case that our black box metaphors aren’t helping us much in research or advocacy when it comes to charting alternatives.

In my own collaborative work on a Facebook user study, my co-authors and I focused primarily on a question directed to users: “Did you know there’s a black box here, and what do you think it’s doing?” The results of this study have set us on a path to at least learning more about how people make sense of these experiences. But in some ways, our work stands to get stuck on the “reveal,” the first encounter with the existence of a black box. Such reveals are appealing for scholars, artists, and activists—we sometimes like nothing better than to pull back a curtain. But  because of our collective habit of establishing new systems to extricate ourselves from old ones, that reveal can set us on a path away from deliberative and deliberate shared social spaces that support our fullest goals for human flourishing.

I confess that at this point, I bring more cautions about black box hermeneutics than I bring alternatives. I’ll conclude this post by at least pointing to a path forward and demonstrating one possible angle of approach.

My critique of black box metaphors so far leads me to the following questions about our work with technologies:

  1. How else might we deal with the unknown, the obscured or opaque besides “revealing” it?
  2. Do we have to think of ourselves as outside a system in order to find agency in relation to that system?
  3. Can interface serve to facilitate an experience that is more than cognitive, and a consciousness not ordered by the computational?

As Beth Novwiskie pointed out in a response to this post in lecture form, we already have at least one rich set of practices for addressing these questions: that of interpretive archival research. Are not the processes by which a corpus of documents come to exist in an archive as opaque as any internet search ranking algorithm? Isn’t part of the scholar’s job to account for that process as she interprets the texts, establishing the meaning of such texts in light of their corporeal life? And aren’t multiple sensoria at work in such a process, only some of which are anticipated by the systems of storage and retrieval at hand? Understood as “paper machines” and technologies in their own right, certainly the histories of how scholars and readers built their lives around epistles, chapbooks, encyclopedias, and libraries have much to offer our struggles to live with unknown algorithms.

We might also, however, look to the realms of art, design, and play for some productive alternatives. Take for example, the latest black box to take techno-consumption by storm—Apple’s iWatch. This object’s use is almost certainly headed in the direction of integration into users’ lives as a facilitator of new daily routines and systems, especially by the quantified self set. Other writers on this blog have already helpfully set the new box in the context of its precedent in meditative practices or contemporary tech labor. But as we work to understand how the new systems involve us in new, opaque processes, a glance at some more intentionally opaque neighbors might be of help. In my next post, I’ll set a few recent objects and experiences next to the iWatch for comparison for how they invite distinct incorporation into the rhythms of daily attention, thought and action.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Beyond the Reveal: A Metaphor’s Effect


In my last post, I described how the black box emerges historically with the extrication of (at least some) laborers from the machines of industrial labor. The cost of this move is that the laborer, now outside the machine as an operator, must herself operate as black box. The interface between the laborer and machine becomes central to this new relationship, especially as managers and technologists focus on how constantly to reconfigure the interactions between and among human-machine pairs.

In recounting this history of a metaphor, I aim toward a critique of how black box metaphors are used today to describe opaque technological processes. And I don’t mean to suggest that any use of a black box metaphor inadvertently invokes a whole history of labor and interface. But I do think we can surmise from this history a dominant narrative that draws heavily from the black box metaphor:

  1. As an “infrastructural inversion,” the black box metaphor creates the possibility, for some, of imagining themselves as outside a system that formerly may not have been visible at all.
  2. Where and when this happens, interfaces emerge and gain prominence as a point of mediation with the formerly invisible system.
  3. Design for interaction between the user and the “black boxed” process tends to imagine the human mind as another form of black box, emphasizing cognitive over manual processes.
  4. The new system comprised by this user and her machine then starts the process anew—the user/worker has been incorporated into a new system that she may not actually see unless naming a new “black box.”
  5. This narrative will also depend on the exclusion of some who need to “stay behind” and keep the system going within the “old” forms of labor.

To describe a process as a black box thus potentially sets in motion a whole series of implications for sensation, knowledge, labor, and social organization.

Let’s look at this, for example, in light of new attention brought to the role of algorithms in Facebook use (an effort in which I have been involved as a scholar). How does describing the Facebook algorithm as a black box set us on a particular narrative of analysis and research?

Let’s imagine a Facebook user who is not yet aware of the algorithm at work in her social media platform. The process by which her content appears in others’ feeds, or by which others’ material appears in her own, is opaque to her. Approaching that process as a black box, might well situate our naive user as akin to the Taylorist laborer of the pre-computer, pre-war era. Prior to awareness, she blindly accepts input and provides output in the manufacture of Facebook’s product. Upon learning of the algorithm, she experiences the platform’s process as newly mediated. Like the post-war user, she now imagines herself outside the system, or strives to be so. She tweaks settings, probes to see what she has missed, alters activity to test effectiveness. She grasps at a newly-found potential to stand outside this system, to command it. We have a tendency to declare this a discovery of agency—a revelation even.

But maybe this grasp toward agency is also the beginning of a new system. The black box metaphor suggests that such providers will also need to design for the user who tweaks. (It may even be that designing for the tweaker may be more profitable than designing a “perfect feed.”) As in previous ergonomic problems, this process will begin to imagine and construct a particular kind of mind, a particular kind of body, a particular kind of user. Tweaking to account for black-boxed algorithmic processes could become a new form of labor, one that might then inevitably find description by some as its own black box, and one to escape.

Maybe, by structuring our engagement with the experience of Facebook’s opaque processes through the black box metaphor, we’ve set ourselves up to construct a new black box, and ignored the ways in which our relations to others, within and without the present system, have been changed by our newfound awareness.

I’m struck here, for example, by how well the narrative of the black box I’ve described here fits a number of stories we’ve lived and heard regarding privacy and networked media. Whether it’s the Snowden revelations or Facebook’s unauthorized emotion study, the story often plays out the same way for many of us. We realize or remember anew just how much work we’re providing some entity within a current system, and then proceed to either alter our use patterns or abstain altogether from that system in order to remain outside that work. Debates ensue over who is complicit and who is not, and with the exception of those working in a more organized fashion to enact prosecution or new laws, most of us are stuck in an “opt-in or opt-out” scenario that never goes anywhere.

It’s likely only a matter of time before the market for more subtle responses than “opt-in or opt-out” is met with a new set of black box systems. One can imagine, for example, a range of services: free email if you submit to full surveillance and data-trolling, modestly-priced email if you submit your data for use via an anonymizer, or premium email at high costs that removes you from all data-harvesting.

Perhaps, even as we remain justifiably critical of the unseen and unknown software processes that govern and regulate a growing number of shared spaces and subjectivities, we might search for another way to live with these processes than hitting the escape button and entering a higher-level routine. More on that in my next posts.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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