Archive for February, 2011

The Singularity is Near

sin-gu-lar-i-ty: n: The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of humanity.

The cover of the February 21st issue of Time Magazine asks the singular question that all of the theory of our class is in someway concerned with;  what are the boundaries between humanity and technology? Lev Grossman’s article is primarily about Raymond Kurzweil and a movement of technologists called the “singularians”.  Kurzweil has spawned this particular movement with his 2005 book entitled The Singularity is Near in which he argues that the speed of technological advancement is exponential and by investigating technology since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago that we can track human advancement and see that it has followed a very smooth exponential curve. Kurzweil believes that this accelerating curve will lead us to a type of hybrid humanity where humans and computers are no longer distinguishable sometime around the year 2040. One of the main thoughts that ground the singularian movement is their belief that death is avoidable, that immortality is a very real technological problem that can be solved.  One of the most interesting sections of the articles is about the degeneration of telomeres in human DNA. “[I]t’s well known that one cause of the physical degeneration associated with aging involves telomeres, which are segments of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, and once a cell runs out of telomeres, it can’t reproduce anymore and it dies” (47).  In November 2010, a group Harvard Medical School researchers published in Nature that they “administered telomerase”, an enzyme that reverses telomere degeneration, “to a group of mice suffering from age-related degeneration. The damage went away. The mice didn’t just get better, they got younger” (47). This is a huge step ahead for the idea of immortality and one in which the singularians have grasped onto as the first real step towards a life that never ends. They believe that the pace at which technology is advancing will lead us to the point where our bodies are no longer necessary, where the processes that make up our perceived “essence” will be downloadable, that we will escape the “meat” that is our bodies and live forever. To read the whole article go to,8599,2048138,00.html . In terms of posthumanism, Kurzweil believes that this is not something reserved for theory, that the actual moment where humanity as we know it ceases to exist is decades away, not centuries, and that we must prepare now for what will come; we must be ready for the singularity. Believe what you will, but Kurzweil makes a pretty convincing argument for what is to come. I have read Kurzweil’s book (all 1000 pages) and I am left a little skeptical of the way he arranges his data to show such smooth curves, but this objection aside, technology is expanding  in incredible ways and if what used to take decades now takes years, then the singularity may in fact be near.

Interfaciality and Other Food For Thought

Having delivered my seminar presentation on Anna Munster’s Materializing New Media:  Embodiment in Information Aesthetics, I want to point to some particularly relevant concepts to our cabinet project that Munster’s work contains.  Rather significant to our project in particular is most of the information contained within Chapter 4:  Interfaciality.  The term itself can essentially be described as the interchangeability of various “faces” over a number of similar objects, people, or surfaces.  Munster explains that  “to [Camilla] Griggers, faces are everywhere: surfaces, monitors watching the subject or watching the subject being watched, the interchangeable faces of porn stars, supermodels and so on…Here we are, balancing precariously between the before and after face, the human and the technologically reconstituted face.  We are caught between faces:  interfaciality” (130).  Important  from this passage (at least for our purposes) is the notion that “faces are everywhere:  surfaces, monitors watching the subject or watching the subject being watched”.  As our cabinet will essentially be composed of  surfaces (Plexiglas and monitor) as well as house a literal “face”, our project engages with this notion of interfaciality quite closely.

Moving into the chapter itself, other important concepts including “Faciality”, “Interface”,  “Human-Computer interaction (HCI)”, and “Facialization” stood out with strong relation to our project.  As Munster describes, “Faciality is a social aesthetic and technical machine that organizes corporeal engagement and representation into a relation of subordination to the face.  The face, according to Deleuze and Guattari, has become a frozen structure in Western history and culture, perpetuating a cult of ‘personality’ and setting up exclusionary zones between surface ‘features’ and the depth of ‘mind’ that lies behind these” (21).  This concept is directly applicable to our cabinet face “Nobody”, who will undoubtedly perpetuate a cult of personality and establish exclusionary zones between surface ‘features’ and the depth of ‘mind’ that lies behind these.  While appearing to have the “depth of mind”, Nobody as an entity possessing a face will simply present surfaces features that would suggest something more that lies behind it.

Munster continues with important concepts, outlining that “the interface appears as a figure to rejoin what has already been separated out from and hardened against the flux of material existence.  The machine is conceived as something that we confront across the void of the world and that we can only ever connect with through a ‘face to screen’ confrontation or communication”  (47).  I was particularly interested in the rhetoric employed in this definition and wondered:  Is the ‘face to screen’ confrontation or communication the ONLY way we can ever connect to the machine?  What is meant by “void of the world” that Munster uses to describe the apparent gap that we deal with in our interactions with machines?  Perhaps the answers to these questions can be found in my peers or perhaps they will reveal themselves to me as our adventure in this course continues.  Nevertheless, our cabinet will employ the above mentioned interface, but the face to screen confrontation will be complicated to include a face and controls that users will confront and/or communicate with.

Human-Computer interactions (HCI) are “computational design features [such] as the desktop, the Windows, Icons, Mice and Pointers interface design style and the development of early immersive virtual environments” (121).  Munster expands her definition stressing that “the premises of HCI filter into and arrange our everyday engagements with digital technologies such as…sitting in front of a computer monitor and interacting with an interface intimates a certain form of bodily posture and gesture that is clearly demarcated.  The ‘user’ greets or confronts a screen and thereby interacts with the ‘face’ of the computer; we are as much placed and used by this ergonomics as we are users in it” (122).  Indeed users of our cabinet will no doubt be included within this system of interaction.  What is important especially about this passage is the language the Munster uses that so exceptionally relates to our cabinet project.

The last concept that is particularly useful from this chapter in relation to our project is the notion of Facialization:  “[it] is a system of codifying bodies according to the centralized conception of subjectivity or agency in which the face, literally or metaphorically, is the conduit for signifying, expressing and organizing the entire body.   Because the computer also comes to figure as a ‘subject’ in HCI, it too takes on facialized attributes and qualities” (122-3).  This concept is particularly important for us to consider as we have chosen literally a “face” to represent our cabinet.  As the computer is figured as a ‘subject’ in HCI, with the addition of our “faced” Nobody, we may have taken the concept of faciality one step further.  As our project approaches its completion, we will have a greater understanding about what these concepts mean for our cabinet.  In the mean time, stay tuned and sit tight.

Also, please feel free to consider what I have noted as “Food for Thought”.  Essentially, these were some questions or points of contention I came across when reading MNM:

“If one is using theory to catch up to the chameleon that is everyday life in relation to new media technologies, inevitably a sense of lag sets in” (23)

-What are we to make of the “chameleon” relationship between new media technologies and everyday life?  Is lag in this sense “inevitable”?  Why might Munster situate theory as having to “catch up”?

“‘CyberLife is concerned with the re-vivification of technology.  Through CyberLive we are putting the soul back into lifeless machines-not the souls of slaves, but willing spirits, who actually enjoy the tasks they are set and reward themselves for being successful’” (125)

-As this quote is not directly from Munster and therefore we cannot critique her per se, what are we to make of this idea of “the re-vivification of technology”?  Does soul here coincide with “algorithm” perhaps?  Is this ‘goal’ or ‘mission’ that CyberLife puts forth logical or even reasonable?

“Roy Ascott, for example, has been at the forefront of this position on digital art, arguing that the computer is not simply a tool but an entirely new medium ushering in a novel visual language and producing new conditions  for making and receiving the digitally produced artwork” (154)

-This may sound familiar to anyone who was in ENGL 793, but the question I have here is: Is the computer and entirely “new” medium?  I know what I think, but I’m interested to see what others think of Ascotts assertion (and Munster’s apparent support for it as she does not challenge this notion).

An Homage to Stelarc

In the section “The Will to Evolve” by Jane Goodall from Stelarc’s Monograph, she outlines Stelarc’s newest concept project at the time of this text’s inception.  She describes it as:

“a gallery installation, and the planning focuses on the moment when visitors walk in off the street to experience a first encounter with the avatar.  The head will turn, perhaps making a remark based on visual information that it has picked up from the person’s behaviour or appearance.  Visitors approach a keyboard to begin dialogue with it, but a sensor cues a comment before they actually touch the keys.  The head gets the first word and appears ‘seductively intelligent.’  The conversation has begun.  Its development will depend on two things.  One is the artificial intelligence program built into the head, which will be designed on evolutionary principles so that it learns from interaction-selecting, picking up, and imitating patterns of dialogue that are effectively in generating responses.  The other is the assumption and inferences programmed into the human participant, who will automatically read intelligence into certain kinds of facial expression or comments.  Thus a minimal set of programmed actions may generate a continually diversifying range of interactive possibilities” (27)

While our cabinet lacks the time, know how, and backing capital to invest into something as complex as what Stelarc has proposed, our project utilizes a similar presentation scheme.  The obvious difference that our projects displays compared to Stelarc’s are as follows:

- Our project is presented in an arcade MAME cabinet resembling an actual classic arcade machine.

- Regardless of whether or not the participant engaging with the cabinet says the first word, Nobody will not listen.  Nobody only speaks when the participant successfully locates the button that correctly produces the word or part of the complete sentence.  Even then, users will not know entirely what the meaning is behind the part of the sentence is until the entire message is uncovered.

- Nobody will react to users, but not by recognition of facial expressions or communication.  Instead, Nobody will move as the user decides how it should move (or so they think).

- Nobody will move, display facial expressions, and other interesting happenings, but not on its own, essentially not appearing ‘seductively intelligent’

The effect we hope to achieve with the way our cabinet is presented is for the user to recognize the ‘self’ inside of the cabinet, as well as recognize that the ‘head’ of Nobody has been fashioned into a prosthetic of sorts.  Nobody’s head and speech functions will become completely subservient to the user’s actions.   We have essentially prostheticized a biological organism.  What does this mean exactly?  Well that’s what we want our participants to think about while engaging with our cabinets.

The Odyssey

This is The Odyssey, a video concept to introduce our digital kunstkabinett project. The images in this video foreshadow the types of experiences possible with the finished project, housed in a video game cabinet.

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