This is a conversation on the Internet of Things I recorded with my colleague Chris Moore as part of his podcasted lecture series on cyberculture. As interviews go this is quite organic, without a set script of questions and answers, hence the rambling style and side-stories. Among others, I discuss: the Amazon Echo [Alexa], enchanted objects, Mark Weiser and ubiquitous computing, smart clothes, surveillance, AI, technology-induced shifts in perception, speculative futurism, and paradigm shifts.
I am working with a team researching the networking of carbon-nanotube [CNT] woven garments, and recently we published a position paper on the concepts of smart fabrics and networked clothing. We are interested in developing a coherent conceptual framework for what is, arguably, a paradigmatic shift in networking technologies, physically bringing human bodies online.
As I posted earlier, I am participating in a panel on data natures at the International Symposium on Electronic Art [ISEA] in Hong Kong. My paper is titled Object Hierophanies and the Mode of Anticipation, and discusses the transition of bid data-driven IoT objects such as the Amazon Echo to a mode of operation where they appear as a hierophany – after Mircea Eliade – of a higher modality of being, and render the loci in which they exist into a mode of anticipation.
I start with a brief section on the logistics of the IoT, focusing on the fact that it involves physical objects monitoring their immediate environments through a variety of sensors, transmitting the acquired data to remote networks, and initiating actions based on embedded algorithms and feedback loops. The context data produced in the process is by definition transmitted to and indexed in a remote database, from the perspective of which the contextual data is the object.
The Amazon Echo continuously listens to all sounds in its surroundings, and reacts to the wake word Alexa. It interacts with its interlocutors through a female sounding interface called the Alexa Voice Service [AVS], which Amazon made available to third-party hardware makers. What is more, the core algorithms of AVS, known as the Alexa Skills Kit [ASK] are opened to developers too, making it easy for anyone to teach Alexa a new ‘skill’. The key dynamic in my talk is the fact that human and non-human agencies, translated by the Amazon Echo as data, are transported to the transcendental realm of the Amazon Web Services [AWS] where it is modulated, stored for future reference, and returned as an answering Echo. In effect, the nature of an IoT enabled object appears as the receptacle of an exterior force that differentiates it from its milieu and gives it meaning and value in unpredictable ways.
Objects such as the Echo acquire their value, and in so doing become real for their interlocutors, only insofar as they participate in one way or another in remote data realities transcending the locale of the object. Insofar as the data gleaned by such devices has predictive potential when viewed in aggregate, the enactment of this potential in a local setting is always already a singular act of manifestation of a transcendental data nature with an overriding level of agency.
In his work on non-modern notions of sacred space philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade conceptualized this act of manifestation of another modality of being into a local setting as a hierophany. Hierophanies are not continuous, but wholly singular acts of presence by a different modality. By manifesting that modality, which Eliade termed as the sacred, an object becomes the receptacle for a transcendental presence, yet simultaneously continues to remain inextricably entangled in its surrounding milieu. I argue that there is a strange similarity between non-modern imaginaries of hierophany as a gateway to the sacred, and IoT enabled objects transducing loci into liminal and opaque data taxonomies looping back as a black-boxed echo. The Echo, through the voice of Alexa, is in effect the hierophanic articulator of a wholly non-human modality of being.
Recently, Sally Applin and Michael Fischer have argued that when aggregated within a particular material setting sociable objects form what is in effect an anticipatory materiality acting as a host to human interlocutors. The material setting becomes anticipatory because of the implied sociability of its component objects, allowing them to not only exchange data about their human interlocutor, but also draw on remote data resources, and then actuate based on the parameters of that aggregate social memory.
In effect, humans and non-humans alike are rendered within a flat ontology of anticipation, waiting for the Echo.
Here is the video of my presentation:
And here are the prezi slides:
I am participating in this year’s International Symposium on Electronic Art [ISEA] in Hong Kong in a panel with colleagues from design, creative arts and digital media – Jo Sterling, Su Ballard, and Jo Law. We are discussing the various natures and aesthetics of data as a vector of prediction and control in four different case studies. Below is the panel paper we are building from.
A couple of years after Snowden there is already a noticeable stratification into three distinct groups in terms of access to real anonymity online:
1] Most people access the net through a layer of zero anonymity or pseudo anonymity at best, and their destination online is either not anonymous or actively trying to pry away private data from them;
2] A small percentage access the net through a layer of high anonymity [i.e. VPN, TOR] and their destination may be somewhat anonymous [i.e. members only forums, or TOR sites];
3] An even smaller percentage access a completely different and highly anonymous network [i.e. I2P] through an anonymous layer, and their destination is equally highly anonymized.
Groups 2 and 3 are mostly not going to be affected by any government efforts to regulate or remove anonymity, but ironically it is only those two groups who have the will and know-how to defend anonymity.
To understand the effects, affordances, and contextual implications of cars one has to imagine not a single car, but the mindbogglingly dull commute in a suburban traffic jam. Similarly, to understand the affordances of drones and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles – a terrible term] one has to imagine the sky-air permeated by networked machines; from micro-drones suitable as toys and message relay, to massive permanent-hover drones suitable for advertising, surveillance, and – inevitably – policing. Enter The Drone Aviary – an R&D project from The Superflux Lab.
The Drone Aviary reveals fleeting glimpses of the city from the perspective of drones. It explores a world where the ‘network’ begins to gain physical autonomy. Drones become protagonists, moving through the city, making decisions about the world and influencing our lives in often opaque yet profound ways.
Brilliant piece by Eben Moglen in today’s Guardian on Snowden, the state of online privacy, and the near future.
We must remember that privacy is about our social environment, not about isolated transactions we individually make with others. When we decide to give away our personal information, we are also undermining the privacy of other people. Privacy is therefore always a relation among many people, rather than a transaction between two.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the underlying dynamics of big data, and how most discussions around online privacy and surveillance are functions of absent or simplistic taxonomies for social data. This is a lecture I gave last week to a 100-level convergent media class, where I tried to synthesize these ideas in a more or less coherent package illustrating the dynamics. I start with a list of Pompeii graffiti, which look surprisingly similar to tweets, illustrating two features of social data: we generate a lot of it on the go, and it tends to outlast the context for which it was generated. I then move through artifacts such as Raytheon’s RIOT software, the numbers on big data and and the way they bring forward the notion of flow management, the FinFisher spy software, and the Camover anti-surveillance game. I end with Bruce Schneier’s proposal for a working social data taxonomy.
SIGHT is a fantastic project by four students from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. It depicts a dystopian near-future of completely ambient, ubiquitous, and wearable computing, eerily similar to Google’s recently announced Project Glass and the standard narrative of an internet of things environment. Great work.