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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Beyond the Reveal: Living with Black Boxes


Part One: Histories

Amidst growing attention and calls to action on the role of algorithms in our everyday lives, one idea recurs: “opening the black box.” In such analyses, the “black box” describes a process that happens in secret, for which we only know the inputs and outputs, but not the steps that takes place between. How might this metaphor be structuring our approach to thinking about algorithms and their place in our lives, long before we get to the work of accounting for the social and political work of algorithmic systems?

In this first of four posts, I’ll begin an answer to this question by looking at the history of the “black box” as a way of modeling cognitive or computational processes. In the second post, I’ll offer some cautionary words about reliance on this metaphor in the important work of ensuring just systems. Finally, in the last two posts I’ll look to some alternatives to black-box-opening in our relationships to opaque technological processes.

The black box metaphor began to acquire its shape during changes in labor that took place after World War II. Whereas managers before the war had largely treated work as a series of learned behaviors, the designers of work and work environments after the war began to think less about suiting the laborer to the work, and more about suiting the work to the laborer.

More than a mere Taylorist repeater of actions, the new ideal worker of post-war Human Factors research not only acts but perceives, acting according to learned evaluative routines that correlate sensation to action. The ideal post-war laborer is not a person of a particular physical build, conditioned to perform particular motions, but rather a universalized collection of possible movements, curated and selected according to mathematical principles. Human Factors research turned the human laborer into a control for a system, a proper medium for the transfer and transformation of input.

Key to this new approach was the influence of information theory on approaches to both computing and psychology. In computing, the understanding of signals as information paved the way for a mathematics of binary code, in which the course of electrons through physical gates and switches could translate into algorithms and mathematical functions. In psychology, those who had grown weary of behaviorism’s stimulus-response approaches to explaining and modifying human action saw in Claude Shannon’s approach echoes of the structure of the human brain. These early cognitive scientists saw in thought a kind of algorithm performing consistent functions on ever-changing sense data, zipping through the brain’s neural pathways the way electrons travel through the copper of a computer’s circuits.

And so a new understanding of the operator’s actions emerged alongside a new understanding of a computer’s routines. The first software emerged at the same time that psychologists began to analyze human thought and memory as a collection of mathematical functions performed on sense data. In other words, the black box as we know it emerged as a pair of metaphors: one to describe the computational machine, and one to describe the human mind.

Before these developments, systems of manufacture and control were designed to include the human body as a “control” in the operational sense. The control in any function is a limiter, providing brackets to the acceptable inputs and possible outputs. If a laborer slows done his or her work, the entire process slows. In the new post-Taylorist work flow, in contrast, the control is performed by a computational process, rather than a human embodied one. The new computers allowed for the programming of internal black boxes within the machine itself. Information from multiple sensors, as it coursed through these machines, would be analyzed and checked for deviation. The result produced from such analyses would set certain mechanical processes in motion in order to produce a desired end.

Although the worker has been replaced by an algorithm as the system control, she or he is not missing from the scene entirely. Rather, the human operator now performs the function of a control for the control. The machine affords indications to the human operator of the proper functioning of the software-based controller. Deviations from designated functions trigger new action from the human operator, according to more advanced algorithms than required of previous industrial operators. This new human operator must synthesize multiple forms of data—visual, aural, even symbolic data—and then decide on a proper course of action, of input to the machine, according to a trained set of decision-making criteria and standards.

Though operating from more of a distance in relation to the phenomena of mechanical system function, this new, error-detecting human operator plays no less critical a role. His or her mental routines must be just as carefully scripted and trained as the Taylorist laborer’s physical actions, and often via emerging understanding of the brain as a computer.

The new operator is thus less of the system even though he or she is made more in the image of that system. Formerly one organ within a mechanical body, he now is modeled as a discrete body himself, tethered to another, mechanical body, and modeled after that body, for the purposes of safe and consistent system flow. The machine and the operator mirror one another, with the interface as their crucial site of division, the glass of reflection and action.

These changes also effect sociality through the creation of a new entity to include all agents. This new entity—the organization—invites design at a complex level that accounts for multiple machinic and human actors. Where each machine used to come with an operator as controller, the two treated as a single entity, the post war machine comes with an operator as agent, who is necessary to the proper functioning of the machine. But the human operator is separate from the machine. For large-scale projects, this doubling results in increased complexity, which the organization approaches as yet another information processing problem.

The organization, this plurality of entities, is coincident with the emergence of the interface. Machines and operators without true interfaces—as in Taylorist scenarios—are not collective in that they are not social. They are merely aggregate. Thus some of the biggest moves in computing research toward the latter half of the twentieth century were those that simultaneously addressed the interface between one operator and her machine, and the structure of all machine-human pairs, organized together into one system—one black box process.

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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79 Theses on Technology:
Our Detachment From Technology

insect blue_FLAT

When reading Alan Jacobs’s 79 theses, three jumped out at me:

55. This epidemic of forgetting where algorithms come from is the newest version of “I for one welcome our new insect overlords.”

56. It seems not enough for some people to attribute consciousness to algorithms; they must also grant them dominion.

58. Any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.—Alex Tabarrok

These theses suggest a single issue: We have become increasingly detached from our software, both in how it works and how it is built.

The algorithms involved in much of our software are each designed to do something. When an algorithm was a single snippet of code or a tiny computer program, it could be read, understood, debugged, and even improved. Similarly, computing once involved regular interactions at the level of the command line. There was little distance between the code and the user.

Since the early era of command lines and prompts, software has become increasingly complex. It has also become increasingly shielded from the user. These are not necessarily bad changes. More sophisticated technology is more powerful and has greater functionality; giving it a simpler face prevents it from being overwhelming to use. We don’t need to enter huge numbers of commands or parameters to get something to work. We can just swipe our fingers and our intentions are intuited.

Thanks to these changes, however, each of us has become more distant from the inner workings of our machines. I’ve written elsewhere about how we must strive to become closer to our machines and bridge the gap between expert and user. This is difficult in our era of iPads and graphical interfaces, and often it doesn’t even seem that important. However, since these technologies affect so many parts of our lives, I think we need the possibility of closeness: We need gateways to understanding our machines better. In the absence of this proactive decision, our responses to our machines will tend to be driven by fear, veneration, and disdain.

As we have become detached from how algorithms and software operate, this detachment has caused a gross misunderstanding of how technology works. We find it to be far more inscrutable than it really is, forgetting all technology was designed by fallible people. We respond to this inscrutable power by imputing a beauty and sophistication that is not there. (For more on this, see Ian Bogost and his observation that many people use the word “algorithm” in an almost religious manner.)

Veneration of the algorithm as something inordinately impressive is detrimental to our ability to engage with technology. Software is often incredibly kludgy and chaotic, far from worthy of worship. This response is not so far from fearing technology just because we can’t understand it. Both fear and veneration are closely related, as both make algorithms out to be more than they are. (This is the subject of Jacobs’s Theses 55 and 56, though stated in a bit more extreme forms than I might be willing to do.)

But what about disdain? How does this work? When a device suggests the wrong word or phrase in a text or sends delivery trucks on seemingly counterintuitive routes, we disdain the device and its algorithms. Together, their outputs seem so self-evidently wrong that we are often filled with a sense of superiority, mocking these algorithms’ shortcomings, or feeling that they are superfluous.

Sometimes, our expertise does fall short and complex logic can seem like stupidity. But David Auerbach, writing in Nautilus, offered this wonderful story that shows that something else might be going on:

Deep Blue programmer Feng-Hsiung Hsu writes in his book Behind Deep Blue that during the match, outside analysts were divided over a mysterious move made by the program, thinking it either weak or obliquely strategic. Eventually, the programmers discovered that the move was simply the result of a bug that had caused the computer not to choose what it had actually calculated to be the best move—something that could have appeared as random play.

In this case, ignorance prevented observers from understanding what was going on.

Is complex logic indistinguishable from stupidity? I don’t think so. Our response to a process we don’t understand may be closer to the nervous laughter of ignorance than a feeling of superiority. We call these algorithms stupid not because we recognize some authentic algorithmic inadequacy in them. We call them stupid because to admit a certain humility in the face of their increasing complexity would be a display of weakness.

When I took an artificial intelligence course in college and learned the algorithms for programs such as playing board games or constructing plans, I didn’t feel superior—I felt a kind of sadness. I had seen behind the screen and found these processes sophisticated, but fairly mundane. Most complex technology is this way. But when each of us encounters a surprising and apparently stupid output, if we don’t understand its origins, it is a lot easier to mock the system than to feel humbled, or even disappointed, at discovering its true structure.

These responses to technology are not the everyday user’s fault. Many of the creators of these technologies want the user to attribute a certain power to these algorithms and so have protected them behind layers of complexity. Ultimately, I think the most appropriate response is intellectual humility in the face of technology from which we have become increasingly detached. Only then can we engage with algorithms and try to see, even if only a moment, what they are actually doing.

Samuel Arbesman is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado and a Visiting Scholar in Philosophy at the University of Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @arbesman.

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79 Theses on Technology:
The Spectrum of Attention

“We should evaluate our investments of attention,” Jacobs urges in Thesis #7, “at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.” But we will be in a better position to undertake such an evaluation when we understand exactly what we are talking about when we talk about attention, which is a word that—despite its importance—is never defined by Jacobs in the 79 Theses.

It’s easy to assume that “attention” is experienced in the same way by everyone. But as Matthew Crawford’s recent work has argued, attention has been imagined, and thus experienced, differently over time. Attention names various states or activities that we might do well to distinguish.

We can define attention first as “intently focusing on one object or task.” Reading a long, demanding text is a one example of this kind of attention. This sort of attention is the subject of Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” Carr notes, but now “my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.”

I suspect many of us share Carr’s experience. Not unlike the Apostle Paul, we lament, “What I want to pay attention to, I cannot. What I do not want to pay attention to, to that I do.” This failure to direct our attention presents itself as a failure of the will, and it assumes at some level that I am, as an autonomous subject, responsible for this failure (for more on this point, I suggest Chad Wellmon’s exchange with Jacobs).

But sometimes we talk about attention in a slightly different way; we speak of it as openness to the world, without any particular focal point. Sometimes the language of presence is used to articulate this kind of attention: Are we living in the moment? It is also the sort of attention that is advocated by proponents of “mindfulness,” to which Jacobs devoted two theses:

11. “Mindfulness” seems to many a valid response to the perils of incessant connectivity because it confines its recommendation to the cultivation of a mental stance without objects.

13. The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.

On the surface, the two ways of talking about attention that I’ve outlined attention contradict each other. Directed attention is inconceivable without an object (mental or material) to sustain it, but no object would appear apart from an already existing form of attention.

Much depends on what exactly is meant by “mindfulness,” but I think we might be able to preserve a valuable distinction while still heeding Jacobs’s critique. If “mindfulness” functions, for instance, as a clearing of mental space in order to make directed attention possible, then the telos of mindfulness would be directed attention itself.

Attention as Dance

We can think of attention as a dance whereby we both lead and are led. This image suggests that receptivity and directedness do indeed work together. The proficient dancer knows when to lead and when to be led, and she also knows that such knowledge emerges out of the dance itself. This analogy reminds us, as well, that attention is the unity of body and mind making its way in a world that can be solicitous of its attention. The analogy also raises a critical question: How ought we conceive of attention given that we are  embodied creatures?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty can help us here. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty discusses the shortcomings of both empiricist and intellectualist (rationalist) approaches to attention and makes the following observation: “Empiricism does not see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not go looking for it; intellectualism does not see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or, again, we would not go looking for it.”

This simultaneous knowing and not-knowing seems to me another way of talking about attention as both openness to the world and as a directed work of the mind. It is a work of both receptivity, of perceiving the world as a gift, and care, of willfully and lovingly attending to particular aspects of the world. And, as Merleau-Ponty goes on to argue, attention is also a form of embodied perception that construes the world as much as it registers it. In this sense, our attention is never merely picking out items in the world (see Crawford on this idea); rather, attention is always interpreting the world in keeping with the desires and demands of an embodied being at a particular moment.

To a hiker on a long walk, for example, a stone is a thing to step around and is registered as such without conscious mental effort. It is attended to by the body in motion more than by the cogitating mind. To a geologist on a walk, on the other hand, a stone may become an object of urgent intellectual inquiry.

Both of these instances of perceiving-as result from subjective prior experience. The expert hiker moves along at a steady pace making countless adjustments and course corrections as a matter of bodily habit. The geologist, likewise, has trained his perception through hours of intellectual labor. In either situation, a novice might fail to hike as adroitly or notice the geologically interesting stone. Merleau-Ponty calls this repertoire of possible perceptions the “intentional arc,” which subtends “the life of consciousness—cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life.”

This example suggests two poles of attention, bodily and mental. But these are not mutually exclusive binaries. Rather, they constitute a spectrum of possibilities from the dominance of conscious mental activity on one end to the other end where non-conscious bodily activity is paramount. Consider the person lost deep in thought or a daydream. This person is deeply attentive, but not to his surroundings or to sensory information. Such a person would have to be called back to an awareness of their body and their surroundings.

By contrast, we may imagine the athlete, musician, or dancer who is, to borrow Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s formulation, “in the flow.” Like the thinker or daydreamer, they, too, are in a state of deep attention, but in a different mode. Conscious thought would, in fact, disrupt their state of attention. We may complicate this picture even further by observing how the hiker “in the flow” might be lost in thought and remain an expert navigator of the terrain.

Attention Mediated Through Technology

But where does technology fit into our model? That is, after all, where we began and where Jacobs directs our attention. Perhaps there’s another spectrum intersecting with the one running from the bodily to the mental: one that runs from mediated to unmediated forms of attention.

Consider our hiker one more time. Imagine that she is now equipped with a walking stick. Aspects of her attending to the world through which she makes her way are now mediated by the walking stick. Of course, the walking stick is an adept tool for this particular context and extends the hiker’s perceptions in useful ways. (It would be very different, for instance, if the hiker were walking about with a garden hose.)

Imagine, however, giving the hiker a different tool: a smartphone. The smartphone mediates perception as well. In the act of taking a picture, for example, the landscape is seen through the lens. But a subtler act of mediation is at work even when the smartphone’s camera is not in use. Smartphone in hand, the hiker might now perceive the world as field of possible images. This may, for example, direct attention up from the path toward the horizon, causing even our experienced hiker to stumble.

We may be tempted to say that the hiker is no longer paying attention, that the device has distracted her. But this is, at best, only partly true. The hiker is still paying attention. But her attention is of a very different sort than the “in the flow” attention of a hiker on the move. Without the smartphone in hand, the hiker might not stumble—but she might not notice a particularly striking vista either.

So along one axis, we range from bodily to mental forms of attention. Along the other, we range from mediated to unmediated forms of attention. (Granted that our attention is never, strictly speaking, absolutely unmediated.) This yields a range of possibilities among the following categories: “bodily mediated,” “bodily unmediated,” “mental mediated,” and “mental unmediated.” (Consider the following as ideal types in each case: the musician, the dancer, the scientist, and the philosopher.)

sacasas graph

How does conceiving of attention in this way help us?

This schema yields a series of questions we may ask as we seek to evaluate our investments of attention. What kind of attention is required in this context? To what aspects of the world does a device invite me to pay attention? Does a device or tool encourage mental forms of attention when the context is better suited to bodily forms of attention? Is a device or tool encouraging me to direct my attention, when attentive openness would be more useful? What device or tool would best help me deploy the kind of attention required by the task before me?

The result of this exploration has been to break up the opposition of device to attention. An opposition, I should say, I don’t think Jacobs himself advocates. Instead, my hope is to expand our conceptual tool kit so that we might make better judgments regarding our devices and our attention to the world.

L.M. Sacasas is a doctoral candidate in the Texts and Technology program at the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter @frailestthing.

Photo: Heinrich Vogeler, Sehnsucht (Träumerei), c.1900, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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