Archive for the 'digital' Category

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Courbet | Godard: Essence and the Data of Stop Motion


It’s with the digital that we imagine we’ve made the bits small enough to get to the bottom of things. Nothing is smaller, more atomic, more essential, than those ones and zeros that make up the digital. With high-definition 3-D digital motion pictures we appear to capture things perfectly, to get to their essence, their reality. In some cases, the digital simply replaces a thing. What was encoded on vinyl records is now bits in a file on a hard disk or flash memory. An image once printed to photographic paper is now just flashed on a screen as part of an ongoing slide show.


This notion of capturing the essence of something surfaced recently while reading an essay by Ulrich Pfarr on the painter Gustave Courbet in the book “Courbet: A Dream of Modern Art.” The essay looks at how the quality of “introspection” is conveyed in the portraits painted by Courbet. Of course, a portrait is also meant to capture something of the essence of a person. It’s not a snapshot, or a documentary representation of how a person looked at one particular tick of the clock. We understand that the portrait captures a general way of being of a person. Here’s Pfarr on Courbet and portraits:

Conspicuous eyebrow movements are also a feature of the Rembrantesque chiaroscuro in the portrait of art dealer H. J. Van Wisselingh. As a consequence of the hard incidental light, the drawn, furrowed eyebrows cast the eyes into shadow, so the nerves are not tense and therefore the eyes are not narrowed. In this way, the expressive touch of anger in the eye area is toned down into a sign of inner concentration that, combined with the slight tilt of the head, is condensed into the image of an energetic personality. Of course, this may reflect not Van Wisselingh’s inner constitution so much as his professional mask. To that extent, Courbet, who complained that Baudelaire looked different every day, seems to have only a limited interest in the dubious ability of the physiognomy to offer indications of psychological traits in fixed physical features. Although these pictures confirm Courbet’s endeavors to filter permanent features from transitory visual phenomena, the deeply etched traces of facial movements are in turn adjusted in favor of the subjective impression you only get from a living sitter, which art theory traditionally calls an “air.”

Following phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, we might imagine that the essence of a thing could be definitively determined by statistically analyzing every possible profile a thing presents to us. We might easily conclude that the essence of a thing is, what it mostly is. There’s a kind of democratic quality to this approach; as though inside each thing an election could be held with its essence determined by a majority vote. Normativity rules. In this kind of big data scenario, the concept of “essence” is hedged through the use of words like “propensity” and “probability.” Our actions with regard to a thing tend to line up with the majority — we act as though we perceive an essence. We’d be fools to buck the odds.

Going back to Courbet’s portraits, there’s a kind of compression of observation that produces an essence. The resulting essential painted image may very well be outside the actual collection of observed data. Here the expression of essence might be different than any one thing perceived or recorded about a thing. But a thing’s essence is more than just an average or composite of the majority, it’s the unique minor elements that create all the specificity. In fact, the expression of essence in a portrait is fully contained in the small differences.

When we look at a thing, we see it at a certain tempo. You can think of this as “beats per minute.” A tune can be played within a whole range of beats per minute. Returning to a charged memory at a later time, we can play it back at a slower speed. We become the director and editor of our memory, shaping it to fit its purpose. William Wordsworth wrote about this process in his preface to the “Lyrical Ballads.”

 I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.

We can see new aspects of a thing by changing the tempo. Jean Luc Godard’s 1980 film “Slow Motion” (also called “Sauve Qui Peut” or “Every Man for Himself”) gives us some memorable examples of this phenomena. There’s a scene that has stuck with me since I first saw the film; it’s sequence where Nathalie Baye rides a bicycle through a country landscape. Occasionally the film slows down and stops on a frame for a moment. Out of this fluid bike ride, these very poignant sculptural moments are carved out. Suddenly we see the outward signs of the inner world, the quality of introspection becomes visible. A simple bike ride is revealed to contain an infinity of interior space. Nothing about the real-time video recording contains those moments.

If we were to look at the world through the eyes of the objects around us, we’d see at varying tempos. The rock has a slower tempo than the honey bee, the electron has a faster tempo than a pumpkin. As humans, we tend to think of the music of the spheres all moving at the same tempo. A single beat holding down the discotheque of the universe — a human beat. Viewing a stop motion film of a flower growing and blooming, we can clearly see that plants dance to a different beat. Sunlight, soil and the plant all relate at the plant’s tempo. Humans require the technology of stop-motion photography to speed plant tempo up to human tempo so that it becomes visible to us.

Returning to our starting point, we ask whether the digital as a medium has any particular advantages in capturing the essence of a thing? Certainly it has reduced the cost of certain kinds of reproduction. Video, still image and sound recording have been made much simpler. With our big data systems we’re able to create very large haystacks where previously invisible patterns suddenly emerge. Is there a simple method that combines raw digital capture and algorithmic computation on big data sets that results in a picture of the essence of a thing? Or as it would be said in the lingo, a “high probability” of the essence of a thing? Could it understand the introspection of a thing operating at a radically different tempo? Do androids dream of electric sheep?


Imagine if this kind of encoding were done using oil paint. Again, here’s Pfarr on Courbet:

Courbet has a whole repertory of techniques to suggest the gradations between half-sleep, falling asleep, waking up, and daydreaming, ranging from wide-open eyes to the features of deep sleep. Figures with eyes half or completely closed feature sitting upright, smoking a pipe, or holding a cup, like “The Lady on a Terrace” — in all these cases, the facial expression does not function as an empirical physical symptom but indicates various gradations of mental introspection.

Escape from the Factory of Life


It’s as though we just looked up and noticed that someone is watching us. It’s that creepy feeling. You know that someone or something sees you, but you can’t see them. The Internet seemed like a place where no one knew whether you were a dog or not. Identity didn’t matter and that’s what created a level playing field, a kind of equality. But then it turned out that you could be identified, that you identified yourself on social networks for fun and profit, that your identity information and preferences could be aggregated and sold without your knowledge. Rather than a casual conversation, the Internet turned into an indexed and searchable permanent record. It’s the equivalent of having everything you type into your network-connected keyboard published to the front page of USA Today in real time. And that’s a very strange context in which to speak.


Doc Searls recently weighed in on the issue of Privacy in the age of connected digital networks. It’s an issue that he’s been deeply involved with for many years. Much of our current dilemma could be seen coming from a mile away. But here’s why Doc sees this as a pivotal moment:

I see two reasons why privacy is now under extreme threat in the digital world — and the physical one too, as surveillance cameras bloom like flowers in public spaces, and as marketers and spooks together look toward the “Internet of Things” for ways to harvest an infinitude of personal data.

There’s a joke that Marc Maron tells: “Big Brother is watching us. That’s what we pay him for.” Maron gets to the conflict at the heart of our complaint about surveillance. In a sense, this is what we’ve asked for. We want maximum safety and so we authorize and pay for unlimited surveillance in the hopes of preventing catastrophic events. Now that we see how our wishes are being carried out, we’re troubled — isn’t total information awareness just for the bad guys? Be careful of what you wish for…


Marshal McLuhan called advertising our cave art. It expresses our most basic desires. Some would say that it creates them, but the truth is that the desire needs to be there to start with. Advertising calls that deep desire to the surface. There’s a television ad that’s running now that says a great deal about who and what we’re thinking right now. It’s for a car called the Infiniti Q50.

We see a “Factory of Life”. Men and women, young white professionals are being assembled and outfitted in a factory. A disembodied voice narrates the stages of the process. Industrial robots apply lipstick to the women’s lips. The men’s suit coats and ties are fitted with precision. All the personal style is very high end — but it’s all identical. Industrial capitalism has raised the standard of living to a level of luxury. There are no workers in the factory, there are only the people on the assembly line getting a commodified wealthy lifestyle. Either the people of color are being hidden behind the walls of the factory or the factory has remanufactured their ethnicity to conform to a pre-established standard.

As our hero moves down the assembly line, it becomes clear that this isn’t a socialist utopia where everyone can enjoy the benefits of wealth. It’s a surveillance state where conformity is strictly enforced. Everyone accepts what’s happening to them with a blank stare. There are no emotions — merely impeccably-dressed cogs in the machine. No one loves the artifacts of their wealth, no one enjoys the luxury.

A robot arm puts our protagonist’s necktie into place and he experiences a sudden spark of consciousness. He turns and sees his reflection in some glass. He smiles, thinks “I look pretty good.” As he looks around, suddenly he’s able to see the Matrix. He moves farther down the assembly line to where car keys are being distributed. The keys are to identical C-class cars by Mercedes Benz. Each figure takes a key without complaint. We can see that our hero has begun to question what’s going on. A woman’s face appears on a small screen that only he can see. She’s a human like him and she’s hacked into the Matrix to help get him out. She tells him to check his pants pocket for a set of keys. These are the keys to the Q50 and escape from commodification and conformity. He takes the keys and makes a run for it.

The surveillance system detects his his break from the assembly line and dispatches robots to capture or possibly kill him. He’s not pursued by humans, it’s only technology that enforces its own mechanistic repetition. Making a different choice is clearly a dangerous act. The mechanical forces of commodity chase him as he makes his way to the Q50. He gets in, starts it up and drives out of the factory. The robots engage in the chase, but are left in the dust. The Q50′s acceleration is fantastic and quickly the factory recedes in the distance. The road opens in front of him as he drives out of the darkness and into the light. Freedom.

We easily forget that a commodity with special sauce provides our hero with the means to escape the boring commodities that everyone else accepts. A commodity provides the escape from commodity. It’s an open question how he will make a living outside the machine. No doubt he will live by his wits. The “Factory of Life” that opens the commercial is a good representation of what we’re asking of technology. It’s an expression of our wishes and desires. The machine will supply us with the good life as long as we accept the conformity and don’t get out of line. “Assimilation is beauty.” Individual desires can’t be tolerated. There’s great wealth for everyone in the envelope of a surveillance state. Not unlike the way we trade our personal data for a wealth of free online services.

And predictably, we want to view ourselves as the individual who breaks out of the mold. We’re not part of the machine, we have free will and a need to express our individuality. We wake from a dream anchored to one set of commodities and a mechanized life into another dream level where a revolutionary set of commodities anchor a new and improved fantasy with 30% more freedom. You and I wake up to see that we’re in a surveillance state of cloud computing and the NSA. We see our reflection in the glass and enter Lacan’s mirror stage. We perceive the image of our body and form a mental image of our individual identity. We make a run for it. We’ll live by our wits.

The idea of the “mirror stage” is an important early component in Lacan’s critical reinterpretation of the work of Freud. Drawing on work in physiology and animal psychology, Lacan proposes that human infants pass through a stage in which an external image of the body (reflected in a mirror, or represented to the infant through the mother or primary caregiver) produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of an “I”. The infant identifies with the image, which serves as a gestalt of the infant’s emerging perceptions of selfhood, but because the image of a unified body does not correspond with the underdeveloped infant’s physical vulnerability and weakness, this imago is established as an Ideal-I toward which the subject will perpetually strive throughout his or her life.

There’s a common political move that allows the complainant to achieve a state of blameless innocence. “Since I completely disagree with what the government is doing; I therefore bear no responsibility for its actions. It’s those people, not me who are doing this terrible surveillance. I am innocent; they are guilty. Me good, world bad. My purity remains as pure as it ever was.”

When things are going well, we’re quite proud of the idea of government by the people, for the people and of the people. In the experiment called the United States, the actions of the government are the actions of the people. The President is President of all of the people, not just those who voted for him or her. Instead of declaring our absolute innocence with regard to the bad acts committed by our government, what if we took personal responsibility for them. Those are our dreams and desires manifesting in the real world. Yes, those bad acts were committed in my name. And that defines my morality and the morality of my fellow citizens. We do that. We asked for, and paid for, a surveillance state. It’s only by owning it that it can be changed.

Discovering a Company of Thieves


In the age of the connected digital Network, they call it “discovery”. It’s not what you like right now, or what you’ve liked in the past — it might be described as what you’ll like in the future. Mostly it doesn’t work, but on occasion something delightful it discovered. The algorithm usually goes like this: if you like tea, you’d probably also like this weak tea. When a discovery occurs, it usually has nothing to do with tea.

The problem is “discovery” actually works through leaps, gaps and other forms of discontinuities. Algorithms can provide options along a path of logical extension. The further the extension moves from the source, the weaker the connection. The strange thing is that when the connection becomes so weak it’s non-existent, that’s when discovery might happen. Machines that attempt to replicate serendipity have trouble with this last piece. That zone of strangeness feels a bit like chaos to them — there’s no reason at all to take the next step in any particular direction. If you’ve been down this road, you know this point in a process of discovery is different from randomness. The accumulated context makes a difference.

When you’re young and for the first time discovering a lot of new music, there’s always some older figure who turns you on to the music from your future. There are new worlds in front of you — outside your realm of experience. A stack of records can give you a preview into the soundtrack of these alien worlds. This is how young minds are blown. It’s also the kind of peak experience that can stay with you for a lifetime. To some extent, all music going forward will be compared to those transformational sounds.

Once you’ve grown up, figured out what you like and filled up your library with your favorites; discovery becomes a much more difficult process. That transformational process isn’t likely to happen again. You “are” that older figure, and now you’re annoyed that young people today don’t appreciate the music that first turned you on.

If you’re storing your music in the cloud, your music provider probably knows your library better than you do. Every “play” is logged and plotted to determine what you currently like and what you’ll like and purchase next. This is where you’ll find complex genomes of music underlying auto-generated playlists mixing with the quantified self.

I recently discovered a band called “Company of Thieves“. I wasn’t looking for them, or anything like them. I was actually more interested in learning about what Daryl Hall was doing these days. I’d had an interest in him since his first solo album produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp — the long delayed “Sacred Songs“. (Check out his vocals on the song “North Star“). I’d seen a few moments of “Live from Daryl’s House” on television and traced it back to the web. YouTube provided a nice selection of the greatest hits from the show. The clips of “Company of Thieves” kept drawing me back. There was something about them. There isn’t an obvious link between Daryl Hall’s music and what Company of Thieves does. There’s no recommendation engine that spit would out “if you like Daryl Hall, you’ll probably like Company of Thieves”.


Chicago-based Company of Thieves (Genevieve Schatz and Marc Walloch) has released two albums on Wind-Up Records, but despite their best efforts hadn’t broken through on any of the media that I follow. The band’s appearance on “Live from Daryl’s House” was in January of 2009. It’s with these four-year old videos that I started following their story. There’s not much in the mainstream music press. It was really through YouTube that I was able to piece together an idea of the range of the band’s sound.

While I loved The Beatles when I was younger, these days I find it hard to listen to them. I’ve heard the songs too many times. It’s the Beatles Anthology recordings that still have some interest for me. I like hearing the songs in their rough form, it’s there that I can see through to the bones of the song to see if it still works. Company of Thieves has done something similar. Their finished recordings have very complex and compelling arrangements; the band gets a very big sound. But they’ve also released videos of acoustic performances of their songs — and not in an ideal studio environment. Instead, they perform out in the world, without a net. Not only can they actually perform the songs from their recordings, they can put them across in the ordinary world — on a beach, riding in a car, on a moving train, at an amusement park and walking down the street in the rain. To me, that makes a connection that a lot of computer-based music has lost.

When I think about the criteria used in my process of discovery, it doesn’t seem like something that could be wrapped up into an algorithm, scaled up and served out to the masses. I want something that I’ve never heard before. It might even be something that I don’t initially like; something that takes a while to grow on me. It might even take a couple of weeks before I decide that I need to buy this music and support the artists. This kind of discovery is pretty rare, and that’s part of what’s good about it. If I could push button and receive a new discovery every day that was custom-built based on the artifacts of my listening behavior, it would soon grow boring. And what could be worse than a cloud-based networked computer program that effectively caused me to become bored with my own taste.

I understand that Company of Thieves is working on some new music. That makes me smile.

Podcasting is Broken


There was a moment in podcasting, before iTunes became its index, that a whole bunch of people saw the promise of the medium and set out to make it work for the masses. Odeo, the company that failed at podcasting, but succeeded at creating Twitter, was one of the many that entered the field. When iTunes added podcasting to its index, it killed a whole crop of new companies. Something about podcasting had been solved.


Since that time, podcasting remains broken for mass audiences. It turns out that Apple’s index did nothing to fix the fundamental brokenness. Most people don’t know how to subscribe to a podcast and sync it to a mobile device. They don’t know how to get the next episode. On the podcast production side the reverse has happened. Practically everyone now knows how to create a podcast. The number of podcasts available through iTunes is staggering.


Podcasting started as an outsider medium, but quickly podcasting networks were created. These were generally pushed by former mainstream media figures hoping to create their own empires outside of the established media empires. It felt a little like the wild west. And then public radio, the BBC, television news and subscription cable channels discovered podcasting as delayed distribution window for their programming. Podcasting now included video and its value as a second-order distribution window increased again. Suddenly the lists of top podcasts didn’t contain names like Dawn and Drew, but were filled with shows from NPR and HBO. Stand-up comics were the next to discover the medium and now almost every comic either has a podcast or is a regular guest on a podcast.

The original podcasts focused on technology, initially on the technology of podcasting itself. There are still a number of programs that focus on technology, but the speed of blog-based tech reporting has undercut much of their value. They’re now a small niche in the podcasting universe. Apple recently reported that since the summer of 2005 they’ve processed one billion podcast subscriptions. Even with all those subscriptions, podcasting is still broken.


An individual podcast has a freshness date; after a certain amount of time passes its value decreases dramatically. Unlike a music file, once you’ve listened to a podcast you don’t need it any more — just as you wouldn’t generally watch a news broadcast more than once. I subscribe to about 20 podcasts, but only listen to 5 or 6 regularly. With the rest, I pick my spots. In my daily routine the podcast has taken the place of broadcast radio. I listen in the car, and play the shows I want to hear in the only window I have to listen to that kind of programming. My car radio receives a signal from my mobile device (iPhone) and plays over the car’s speakers. Generally the file resides on the memory of the device, occasionally the file is streamed over a cellular network.


The brokenness of podcasting at first seems like a big opportunity. Apple’s iTunes still has the biggest index of programming, but that doesn’t make anything seem less broken. Take a look at the reviews for podcatchers, the apps used to listen to podcasts to get a sense of how broken most people think things are. One ongoing issue with podcasting has been the lack of hyperlinking in audio files. Reciting URLs with offer codes just isn’t the same as saying “click here”. Podcasts must have an accompanying show page to post links mentioned in the podcast. It’s possible that may be about to change. Apple once again steps in. They’ve filed a patent application for Audio Hyperlinking in Podcasts, Television and more. Here are the details as reported by Patently Apple:

By encoding audio hyperlinks into audio streams, audio streams can take advantage of the ability to link between resources currently available in web browsers and other text-based systems. A system employing audio hyperlinks can allow users to jump between the audio stream and other resources.

As with hypertext systems, an audio hyperlinking system employs hyperlink information encoded into the audio stream that can be used by an electronic device to identify, access, and perform linked resources.

In one embodiment, a button, such as a button on a headset normally used for accepting a call, may be double-clicked to indicate that a hyperlink should be traversed, and triple-clicked (or single clicked) to indicate a return to the original audio stream.

In another embodiment, activation of the call accept button may be combined with activation of the volume increase button to cause the hyperlink to be traversed, and activation of the call accept button combined with activation of the volume decrease button to cause the traversal to be halted and to resume the playback of the original audio stream.

In some embodiments, the hyperlink indicator may be an audio tone or sequence of tones that are audible to a listener of the audio stream. In other embodiments, the hyperlink indicator may be an audio tone or sequence of tones that is inaudible to a human listener, such as a tone at a frequency that is outside of the normal hearing range of 20 Hz-20 KHz, but which may be detected and recognized by the electronic device playing the audio stream, causing an effect in a user interface.

The audio hyperlink may change the economics of the podcasting business. In particular, the “inaudible” audio link has some interesting possibilities. But it won’t solve the index and subscription issues. Podcast listening could definitely be easier for the audience. Sync-ing could be removed from picture if there were lower cellular data costs and an all streaming model. However the primary issue remains that there are a million channels on the podcast station selector and most people can’t even find it.


The more I thought about the brokenness of podcasting, the more I realized that I hoped it remained broken. The more podcasting starts to look and work like mainstream broadcasting, the less interesting it will become. It’s in the shards of a broken process that interesting new voices emerge. Outsiders still have a chance to be heard. When podcasting is “fixed” it’ll be by one of the Stacks and then they’ll own and define it. It’ll be expected to turn a profit.

Podcasting is broken in an exquisite sort of way. It’s broken in a way that we’ll miss when it’s gone — the way some morn the old days of the web. In an era of solutionism, we lack the capacity to see something that’s broken in a good way.

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