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Transparent: Believing is Seeing that Believing is Seeing

“We've almost made ourselves transparent in reaction to the fact that we know we're being watched.”

Annie Clark, St. Vincent

You are what you eat. You are what you wear. You are the music you listen to, the audio and video you consume. You are the investments you make, the work you do, the space you live in. You are the furniture that decorates your living space, especially the knick knacks on your mantle. You are the photos you share, the snarky comments you make on social networks, the political commentators you choose to listen to. You are the software you chose, the operating system, the device, the cloud that holds your stuff. You are the car you drive, the public transportation you take, the footwear you select for any particular walk. You are the cocktails you order, the craft beer you quaff and the espresso you sip.

You are the bill that was left unpaid this month. You are the parking ticket for parking in a handicapped spot. You are the bad report from a dentist. You're the person who doesn't floss enough. You're the person who raised his voice in anger. You are the phone call you forgot to make. You are the person living beyond her means. You are the person working two jobs and collecting food stamps. You are the person whose marriage didn't work out. You're the person who's too tired to read and too tired to sleep. Staring at the ceiling, waiting for the alarm to ring signaling the start of another day. You're the person obsessively checking email, even though there's only ever spam. You're the person who can't afford to eat lunch today. You are the person who forgot the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

You're the person whose essence is never completely captured by a sentence, or even a paragraph. You're the person who is represented by thousands of entries in hundreds of corporate and government databases. But the pieces never seem to add up to a solid picture. You're the person whose potential isn't represented by your test scores. You're the person who can't be summed up analyzing your web search history. You're the person whose taste can't be modeled with an algorithm.

You're the person who's become transparent. You're the person who is watched but unseen. You're the person who is present, but unrecorded. You're the person who leaves a trace that is never fully comprehended. You're the person with wholly unexpected depth. You're the person filled with unknown unknowns.

 

The Undead and the Trailing Edge

Steampunk-laptop_2

The “meta” formation of the old saw of technology journalism is to say that “calling technology ‘X’ dead, is dead.” In its most entertaining usages, the “is dead” formulation refers to a disruptive change in the infrastructure of computer technology. It’s a way to tell the story of changing fortunes in the feudal kingdoms that have come to dominate our technology landscape. There’s a fierce battle for the tip of the spear. These kingdoms have variously been called platforms or technology ecosystems. And rather than the use of force, we see our personal stories rewritten such that it’s impossible to imagine living without the devices and services delivered, like clockwork, each day to the leading edge.

moocimage

Technologist and hands-on thinker, Jon Udell recently wrote about MOOCs on his blog. MOOCs attempt to impose a digital industrial model of production onto university education. An infinite number of uneducated young adults are dumped into a chute, a crank is turned, and some smaller, but still significant number, of educated adults are spewed into society through the other end. It’s a model where technology is used on students — Udell prefers his thinking to be hands on, he wants to see technology used by students. In support of this effort he’s made a key strategic decision, he’s retreated from the fierce battle for the leading edge. Here’s Udell on the value of the trailing edge:

And while I was often seen as an innovator, the truth is that much of my work happened on the trailing edge, not the leading edge. The Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) was already ancient when I was experimenting with ways to adapt it for intranet collaboration. Videos of software in action had been possible long before I demonstrated the power of what we now call screencasting. And iCalendar, the venerable standard at the heart of my current effort to bootstrap a calendar web, has been around forever too.

There’s a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel calls such things “user innovation toolkits” — products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.

No one is fighting for dominance of trailing edge technology. Yet the landscape is strewn with valuable technologies left behind by the big technology silos battling each other for monopoly position at the top of the hill. Modern digital computer technology moves so quickly that it’s often forgotten how slowly societies comprehend and incorporate new technologies. The telephone and the television have not been fully understood and digested by society. The VCR became obsolete well before the average person could program it to record a television show at an appointed time.

vcr

RSS is famously, dead. It’s been shouted from the mountaintops of every snarky technology blog around the valley. Clearly the RSS syndication format is no longer a potent weapon in the battle for the leading edge. But along with some of the other technologies Udell mentions, RSS has joined the undead. This makes it an excellent candidate for a “user innovation toolkit.” Undead technologies continue to function and roam the landscape despite being casualties of the war for technological dominance. The trailing edge of the undead is the most fertile ground for finding and creating non-violent technological solutions to the problems faced by ordinary people in their daily lives. More importantly, they are the means by which ordinary people can fashion their own solutions.

Technology is a kind of thinking with your hands. It’s something each of us does everyday. And despite what we read on our screens, most of it isn’t digital.

A Permanent Sense of Asymmetry: Watching the Non-Human Enter

Sitting in the audience at the California College of Arts, listening to Tim Morton’s talk “Enter the Non-Human,” I couldn’t help but think of a comment by Brian Eno. Eno had just finished producing the Talking Heads album “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” and he noted that the new album contained “more ideas per minute” than the first record. It’s my sense that the density of ideas in Morton’s talks is increasing as he pushes towards the “final” formulation of his book on Hyperobjects. As has been noted elsewhere, the ideas were streaming off the stage, washing over the audience. I experienced them like a Proustian sentence, holding an object out for our minds and then sketching it this way, then that way, then another, through a tumbling outpour of sub-clauses.

In the age of the Network, we often want things to be instantly consumable. If I don’t get it right off the bat, my attention moves to the next thing. The real-time stream and rest of the internet is just a click away. Morton traffics in philosophy, aesthetics and ecology; conversations on these topics aren’t easily digested. We have to chew on them a while. Sometimes we need to leave them and come back. Because of their difficulty, outside of the curriculum of an academic program, they tend to have limited circulation. This kind of learning is not achieved in a single transaction. The Book of Common Prayer suggests that as one encounters scripture, one must “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Poetry and philosophy require a similar process. Watching Morton give this talk in person, my understanding rested on having heard recordings of other versions of the Hyperobjects talk and read his papers and books. But even with this foundation, I felt compelled to come back to the talk as a recording.

Enter The Non-Human: A New Phase in Aesthetics
Timothy Morton
Enter The Non-Human

Several days later as the recording unfurled through my earbuds, I noticed some interesting differences between the microphone’s experience of the talk and my own. Morton’s voice was much more dynamic and intimate on the recording, in the room it was compelling, but much softer. Perhaps this is due to the earbuds and the recorded audio seeming to manifest inside my head, rather than coming from an outside source. The microphone, sitting in Morton’s shirt pocket, interacted with the fabric containing it while he moved about the stage. In the moment, only the microphone was aware of these subtle sounds of textiles. During the Q&A session after the talk, strange mechanical sounds emanating from the space above the auditorium intruded into the conversation space providing an appropriately non-human perspective. The microphone recorded barely a trace of these intrusions. The recording is there on my iPhone, waiting for me to give it a play and allow these thoughts a chance to sink in further.

A Series of Hyperobjects
Timothy Morton

Hyperobjects 1.0
Hyperobjects 1.0

Hyperobjects 2.0
Hyperobjects 2.0

Hyperobjects 3.0
Hyperobjects 3.0

Hyperobjects 4.0
Hyperobjects 4.0

Something about this experience feels like a new form of pedagogy. Certainly it’s spilled over the walls of the Academy and on to the the Network, but it’s form is the biggest difference. The playing field has fundamentally changed when one can to listen to multiple versions of a lecture, can loop back through the recorded lecture and focus on particular parts, and read versions of the idea as downloadable papers. Certainly nothing like that ever occurred in my years in the academy. Like a hyperobject, the lecture on hyperobjects is massively distributed in time and space.

One of the laugh lines in Morton’s talk is “anything you can do I can do meta.” The idea behind this quip is to characterize the move to “undermine,” or in Graham Harman’s phrase, to “overmine” an opponent’s position. Either some atom is the basic building block to which all things can be reduced; or some system is the foundation from which all things extend. Generally what is taught in the Academy are the particulars around these atoms and systems. In his talk, Morton reviews the historical progression of these “particulars” in an effort to get to the present ecological moment. The strange thing about Morton’s talk is that he’s not trying to lay out a new complex conceptual framework that wraps up everything that precedes it. Instead he brings up a series of examples of the rift between appearance and essence—the remainder that each of these conceptual transactions always generates as it tries to snugly fit around the contours of the real. For students trained in memorizing and recapitulating particulars, the process of discarding conceptual frameworks to see more clearly must seem counter intuitive. In a line of thought that operates in a space without a center or edges, sometimes it’s difficult to know when it’s arrived at it’s topic. And further, once there, what is the listener meant to take away? What kind of transaction is this?

From my perspective, Morton’s set of examples melded with, and transformed threads from my other reading, in particular with David Graeber’s book “Debt.” One of Graeber’s profound observations is on the origin of the exact transaction from which both parties can walk away from free and clear. While it’s the dominant model now, from a historical and anthropological point of view, the desire for “exactness” comes from events in which some harm has occurred and fair reparations must be calculated. The more normal transaction would be to always have some remainder on one side or the other, an ongoing debt–the idea is that there would always be a continuation of the relationship. The desire to walk away from a transaction free and clear with no debts on either side is born from anger.

When trying to imagine a just society, it’s hard not to evoke images of balance and symmetry, of elegant geometries where everything balances out.

David Graeber
From his book “Debt

As Morton points out, in the age of ecology there is no clean transaction you can walk away from. The fact that everything is connected isn’t something you can turn off when it’s inconvenient. There’s always something still owed, a remaining debt. Morton describes this as the viscous quality of the hyperobject, the more you know about it the more it sticks to you. And as Graeber shows, capital fails to capture the full extent of a transaction because it doesn’t fully represent the object. In the social context of the transaction, there’s always a remainder, the market never fully clears. At the level of capital and pricing, the numbers always add up, but the object of the transaction is broadcasting on multiple frequencies. And if you hold the concept of capital in abeyance for just a moment, you’ll find there were many more parties to the transaction than you had assumed, and if you listen closely, you can hear that the non-human has continued its relationship with you.

Postscript

After the talk I was standing on a street corner in the darkness of the early evening discussing object-oriented ontology and Shelley with Morton. He said he thought the Romantic poets were very modern, that their poetry could have been written today. While I understood what he was saying on a basic level, I could see there was much more to it that was invisible to me. I had the sense of Shelley as a large tree that had grown up inside of Morton over many seasons. While no stranger to poetry, I’d only come to Shelley and his compatriots recently. Within myself, Shelley was no more than a small sapling.

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
By Percy Bysshe Shelley

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
      Floats though unseen among us; visiting
      This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
      It visits with inconstant glance
      Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
      Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
      Like memory of music fled,
      Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
      With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
      Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
      Ask why the sunlight not for ever
      Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
      Why fear and dream and death and birth
      Cast on the daylight of this earth
      Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
      To sage or poet these responses given:
      Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
      From all we hear and all we see,
      Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
      Or music by the night-wind sent
      Through strings of some still instrument,
      Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.

Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
      And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
      Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
      Thou messenger of sympathies,
      That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
      Like darkness to a dying flame!
      Depart not as thy shadow came,
      Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
      Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
      And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
      I was not heard; I saw them not;
      When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
      All vital things that wake to bring
      News of birds and blossoming,
      Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!

I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
      To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
      With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
      Of studious zeal or love’s delight
      Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
      Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
      This world from its dark slavery,
      That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.

The day becomes more solemn and serene
      When noon is past; there is a harmony
      In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
      Thus let thy power, which like the truth
      Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
      Its calm, to one who worships thee,
      And every form containing thee,
      Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.

Unknown And No Longer Optional

In his first address to Congress, our new President said that a college education was no longer optional. Education is a high priority and an important driver for the recovery of our economy. When we talk about a “college education,” we seem to know exactly what we’re talking about. We know about the Ivy League schools, the great technical schools, the football schools, the party schools, the medical schools, the law schools and the business schools. We need to learn to learn, and that’s what a college education seems to be good for. If adaptive behavior is the key to survival in a changing environment, then learning how to adapt would be a requirement for prospering in uncertain times.

Just we all seem to agree that everyone must have one– that it’s no longer optional, Mark C. Taylor throws the whole thing into question. I’m sure he doesn’t question that we all must have one, he simply questions what a college education is– or rather what it should be in this emerging network culture. He outlines his ideas in a piece for the NY Times. In brief, here are his six points:

  1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with the graduate program and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structures like a web or complex adaptive network.
  2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years, each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. Possible topics might include: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
  3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting.
  4. Transform the traditional dissertation. Do not write traditional traditional papers or graduate theses, rather develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games.
  5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained.
  6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Tenure should be replaced with seven year contracts, which like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed.

Is our emerging network culture really still emerging? Oprah is on Twitter. The Web is already primarily social and is moving fast. The public relations and marketing industries are scrambling to transform themselves to be operational in a two-way many-to-many network grid. Our students are already networked. Imagine if our universities were not only institutions of learning, but also learning institutions– adaptive in the mode we intend our students to be.

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