Author Archives: Guest Blogger

Navalny’s Gamble

Alexei Navalny via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexei Navalny via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, Russia’s uncommonly chilly early summer and volatile political atmosphere gave rise to a joke. Putin goes to a fortune teller and asks: “How long do I have left?” The fortune teller responds, “You have one summer.” “All right,” Putin says, “No more summers!”

The delayed summer weather finally arrived, but Putin’s government is still pretending that the protests that have been occurring since late March are isolated eruptions fomented by provocateurs, in particular by the opposition blogger Alexei Navalny. To maintain this pretense the authorities have deployed overt repression, covert intimidation, and ideological indoctrination to stifle public displays of dissent. Yet the recent wave of protests on June 12, Russia’s Independence Day, demonstrated that these tactics have only inflamed the spirit of disobedience.

Many young Russians are eager to proclaim their independence from the corrupt and unjust regime, and the March 26 protests, dubbed “the children’s crusade,” announced that a new generation has joined politics. High schoolers and college students who have grown up under Putin have paradoxically turned out to be more free and idealistic than their parents who had a taste of Gorbachev’s glasnost and Yeltsin’s reforms. Their youthful enthusiasm in denouncing corruption and naive assertion of their constitutional right to free assembly caught everyone, including the government and its obedient media, by surprise.

Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInShare

In Defense of Dirty Meat: Ecology, Techno-Utopianism, and the Cultured Meat Movement

Shutterstock

Shutterstock

Over the past year, we’ve been inundated with stories proclaiming the imminent arrival of “clean” or “cultured” meat. “Lab-grown meat is in your future,” asserts the Washington Post, while Business Insider announces that affordable cultured meat is projected to hit the shelves by next year. Whether this news generates feelings of relief or revulsion, there seems to be near-unanimous agreement that this development is significant. Like many other Silicon Valley wonders, a comforting, techno-utopian aura pervades the whole idea. The homepage of one such cultured meat venture, the Good Food Institute invites us to “imagine a food system where the most affordable and delicious products are also good for our bodies and the planet.” In other words, we are encouraged choose “clean meat”—midwifed by scientists in white coats—rather than “dirty meat” with all its attendant blood, pain, and negative environmental effects.

But is the difference between conventional and cultured meat a difference that makes a difference? The folks at the Good Food Institute would say yes, claiming there is no difference in taste and nutrition, but every difference in the ethical and environmental consequences of meat consumption. Who wouldn’t want to eat a cruelty-free, environmentally sustainable, and (allegedly) delicious alternative to farmed animal protein? Who—other than the millions of people working in the animal food processing industry and a handful of recalcitrant foodies—could possibly object to such an effortless solution to all the ethical and environmental problems posed by conventional farming? Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

We Need a (Historian) Hero

Wallpaper Cave

Wallpaper Cave

When Indiana Jones emerged on the cultural landscape in 1981, he was both a very new and a very old kind of hero. The models George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took for Jones came from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, from movies like Stagecoach (1939), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The Secret of the Incas (1954). As he searched for the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, Jones also showed himself to be a latter-day Knight of the Round Table, exotic locales in North Africa, Asia, and South America standing in for the court of King Arthur. Clad in sweat-soiled khaki and battered fedora, Indy broke into the neon 1980s as a relic as mythical as the artifacts he sought. A historian-warrior, he defeated the Nazis, among other villains, championing truth, justice, and the American way. A figure from the past, he protected his own time against anti-democratic forces and used ancient magics to prevail, ensuring a glorious future at a time when the future really did seem glorious. By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall would fall and Francis Fukuyama would claim that history had come to an end. Ronald Reagan had declared “morning in America,” and capitalism and democracy were ascendant.

In a certain sense, the history of the modern world has been a history of the end of history. Before Fukuyama, Hegel declared that history had realized its final purpose in the enlightened Prussian state, a notion that conveniently supported his own philosophy. From Hegel followed Feuerbach and Marx and a host of other theorists, politicians, generals, and economists who claimed to descry the final stage of human development. But what happens to the past, the Indiana Jones films seem to ask, if history has ended? Where does that leave characters such as Indy? The answer is clear: Once obsolete, history becomes a site of fantasy, a space of mythological possibility far removed from the rational, progressive present. Heroic figures generally embody much of what a society values and reveal much of what it fears. But when historians become heroes, this signification is intensified. Such historians don’t merely represent a society’s fears and values; they also reflect how those values are formed.

This new version of the historian as hero, I wish to argue, arises at a different end of history, in a methodological sense first suggested by Lytton Strachey. The Bloomsbury author and critic famously claimed that as the production of documents proliferated, it would become impossible to imagine that any historian could ever know the Victorian period the way one might know the Renaissance, for example. There was simply too much to read. Knowledge of history, from the Victorian era forward, must be partial, fragmented, and beset with anxiety. The contemporary pop-culture historian looks forward as well as back, and seeks more to protect history from the present than to protect us from incursions of history.

The trend seems to have begun with the television series Falling Skies (2011). Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) is a former professor of history who takes a leading role in repelling an alien invasion. Mason’s life as a professor is far behind him by the time the series begins, and his historical knowledge is introduced only in the form of affirmation. History provides hope, and Mason, always resisting insurmountable odds, relies on examples of successful guerrilla warfare to justify his intervention in history itself. But as Carl Abbott, a professor of urban history at Portland State University, has pointed out, this reliance on the historical anecdote, as opposed to historical research, cheapens the show’s relationship to history: “History professors onscreen function as purveyors of information. Despite their years of study honing sharp interpretive interventions, their contributions are usually textbook-level facts.”  Abbot is correct that Mason rarely reveals any actual scholarly insight or academic rigor. Still, these characters are very much engaged in the process of making history: As our complacent narratives of the inevitable spread of neoliberalism have been shattered, we find ourselves, collectively, grasping for stability and for structure, looking for some hero or heuristic capable of telling us how we got here, and where we are going.

Indiana Jones protected the present from ancient darkness. Tom Mason uses history to reestablish a world nearly destroyed by a futuristic threat. Other recent shows have also built on the premise of protagonists seeking to protect the past from attacks perpetrated in the present. In both Timeless (NBC, 2016–) and DC’S Legends of Tomorrow (The CW, 2016–), time-traveling villains are set on remaking the present to their own liking by changing a relatively unstable past. The heroes of each show travel to a different historical period each week in order to interrupt the bad guys from wreaking havoc with history.

The setup is also familiar from movies such as The Terminator (1984) and Timecop (1994). In both of those films, however, it is soldiers, rather than historians, who travel through time. Indeed, in the long history of pop-cultural fascination with time travel, everyone from teenage girls to astrophysicists has been sent into some distant past. Everyone, that is, except historians. Timeless, in contrast, takes a historian as its protagonist: When we first meet Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), she is lecturing on pivotal role of LBJ’s penis, nicknamed “Jumbo,” in the Vietnam War. But she is quickly recruited to serve the Department of Homeland Security. The time travelers here serve as ambassadors of progressive neoliberalism: The diverse crew faces its own temptations to rewrite history in order to remove past injustices, but they always come back to maintaining the integrity of the past—even if it means allowing events such as the assassination of Lincoln to take place.

Timeless depicts the historian as both protector and explorer. The characters in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, on the other hand, both discover and create an increasingly complex universe as they move through time and space. Death is almost meaningless, as characters can be resurrected, travel to and from alternate universes, or even be brought from the past into the present. Every defeat that the Legends suffer, like all of their victories, is tentative.

These malleable realities are common in shows adapted from comic books where the idea of multiple realities was first introduced in the 1980s. As comic book fans have aged, sales have declined and comics publishers found themselves with a stable of characters in sore need of modernization. Loath to alienate loyal readers and viewers, DC came up with the idea of multiple universes as a way to attract new readers while keeping the interest of older fans. This narrative innovation provided, well, the best of both worlds. For example, The Flash, a product of the 1950s atomic age, could also be easily at home in the glitz and glam of the 1980s. At the same time, the decision to introduce multiple universes led to the emergence of a kind of radical postmodernity in comic books. Artists and writers could essentially reimagine characters and surroundings without regard to traditional laws of storytelling or even physics. DC’s world eventually became so complex that its characters experienced their own version of the Big Bang, a comic book cataclysm that resulted in two universes, one with positive matter and one with antimatter.

DC’s decision to protect its intellectual property by changing the rules of physics gives the lie to Fukuyama’s theory of history: Capitalism may seem, for a moment, to be triumphant. The enthusiasm that greets the arrival of the latest smartphone allows us to believe, for a minute at least, that this new device is the apex, the best technology has to offer. But an economic system that remains vital through constant growth also generates the risk of constant crises. Capitalism often relegates these crises to the realm of fashion, which, as Georg Simmel once remarked, is distinguished from history in that it is driven by changes that are fundamentally meaningless. Whether we prefer our denim raw or acid-washed now has no impact on what we will prefer next, except that it be something different. The preconditions for a capitalist end of history are different from those of the Marxist or Hegelian variations. Both of the latter imagine humankind at rest, satisfied with what it has and content to remain where it is. A capitalist end to history, in contrast, can only be sustained by emptying history of meaning.

It is this process of emptying history of meaning that has produced pop-cultural historians who aim to protect history from the present, rather than the present from history. As fantastic as these historians and their fictional realms are, there is something familiar about the problems they address. Our own personal histories are now documented and distributed with a thoroughness and rapidity that we would never have thought possible. Facts (alternative and not) reach us with startling speed and regularity. But whether all of this data ever amounts to anything more than fashion, meaningless shifts in affect and style, seems still to be an open question. If we define information, with Gregory Bateson, as a “difference that makes a difference,” it would seem that the information age is anything but—we live in the age of democratized fashion reporting, not information.

Like in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, we claim victories or suffer defeats, only to learn that attention has shifted elsewhere, and that the multiple universe narratives purveyed by social media are too complex and too profit-driven ever to be stable. It’s hard to celebrate progressive victories when we are beset by the sinking feeling that the sphere of our meaningful activity is limited to the realm of commerce with its ever-present atmosphere of risk and crisis. Once, we dreamed, as with shows like Timeless and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, of a future of advanced technology and global peace. Now our hope is in the past, which, under the strange logics of late capitalism, suddenly seems more malleable than the future. No wonder the historian has become a hero.

Peter Kuras lives in Berlin.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

The Crisis in the Climate Change Crisis

Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr.

Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr.

On Earth Day, tens of thousands of protestors gathered in Washington DC and elsewhere to draw attention not only to the crisis of climate change and other forms of environmental emergency but also to defend scientific reasoning in public policy. That this was but one of numerous large protest gatherings this year about a variety of issues, ranging from immigration to gender equity to health care, might leave supporters and skeptics asking, is climate change really “a crisis”? Everywhere we look there are crises today, leading to proliferating calls to mobilize specific domains as existential dangers. Why focus on this one now?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious: The Trump administration has made it matter of principle to oppose or otherwise undermine efforts to address climate change and undercut both environmental science and regulatory agencies. Stopping the administration’s agenda is politically urgent.

Yet, the bigger issue here predates Trump. Climate change is a particular kind of crisis, and one that has come to the fore in a cultural context where “crises” are ubiquitous. The predicament points to what might be thought of as the crisis of “crisis. “Crisis” itself is in crisis, such that both the structure and urgency of the crisis of climate change could elude us. Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

The New Russian Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches on Tverskaya street. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches on Tverskaya street. Via Wikimedia Commons.

March 26 was the seventeenth anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s election to the Presidency of Russia. The day did not turn out as Putin had probably hoped. In over ninety cities across Russia, tens of thousands of people protested against the corruption of top government officials. They had been galvanized by a YouTube video depicting Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s prime minister and the head of the United Russia party, as a corrupt apparatchik enjoying a lavish lifestyle of a billionaire while the rest of the country continued to slide into poverty.

Produced and narrated by Alexei Navalny, an iconic opposition figure who has made a career of researching and publicizing the pervasive corruption of Putin’s regime, the film is a masterful exposé. It combines expert sleuthing, striking visuals, and a good dose of humor to present Medvedev as both a criminal who hides his enormous assets in a network of fake non-profits and a hypocrite who tells impoverished old people, “There is no money. Hang in there.”

Corruption is hardly news in Russia, where offering a bribe to a traffic cop or a low-level bureaucrat is a daily occurrence. So why did Navalny’s video and his call for Russian citizens to take to the streets resonate so much? Moreover, why were so many of the protesters young? And, finally, how much can this protest mean as a political spectacle, given its (non)-coverage by Russian mainstream media? Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

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

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

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.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

79 Theses on Technology:
Of Techniques and “Technology”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/3397858623/in/photolist-6bfUZn-tzpptt-7hAbc2-fMVuXi-n2q2x2-6pxM9s-9tNJ27-79kkxr-8hdbbZ-aSiUAi-8nZUXY-8Jnx9G-ayq3Z2-9tKPn4-7wUAgt-6AfoHc-5Bo6N9-bZ4tP5-nWHt6S-nEkQHq-nWQkDM-tx4Kd1-eaXF9R-dgC8yj-as5shL-9MJPrV-oW8Tyr-nwWtC-87FrMA-Q6Bx9-87FrTw-aM6o1D-aM6nPn-aM6nAM-dhMP8o-dhMNBZ-dhMNAK-dhMP4y-dhMNyx-dgC8xw-dgC6qx-9evU3V-9eyZ5G-fvYkR-ddCpVp-ddCrgW-ddCrf5-9xCC3F-9xFALG-9xCBZr/

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. 

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

Beyond the Reveal: Opacity in Personal Chrono-tech

 

From Apple II watch instructions on Instructables.com URL: http://www.instructables.com/id/Apple-II-Watch/]

From Apple II watch instructions on Instructables.com URL: http://www.instructables.com/id/Apple-II-Watch

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: http://sejoonkim.com/design/vagueclock.html

Vague Clock by Sejoon Kim URL: http://sejoonkim.com/design/vagueclock.html

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: http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/projects/75/0

Risk Watch by Fiona Dunne and Anthony Raby URL: http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/projects/75/0

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: http://nophone.myshopify.com/

The NoPhone URL: http://nophone.myshopify.com/

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: http://skreksto.re/products/durr

The Durr watch, by Skrekkøgle URL: http://skreksto.re/products/durr

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 www.donothingfor2minutes.com, 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.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

Beyond the Reveal: Toward Other Hermeneutics

fitness

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.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.